Reviews in this issue:
- The National Orchestra of the United Kingdom of Goats - Vaaya and the Sea
- Roy Harper - Man & Myth
- Derek Trotson - Threads
- Cyril - Gone Through Years
- Richard Pinhas - Desolation Row
- Symbolon Obscura - Symbolon Obscura
The National Orchestra of the United Kingdom of Goats - Vaaya and the Sea
I don't often use the phrase "sonic landscape" when describing music, but when it comes to the unwieldily titled The National Orchestra of the United Kingdom of Goats, known as UKoG by fans, there is no other description that I can safely write, as the group are truly painters of epic sonic landscapes. Describing themselves as a "symphonic pop extravaganza", Vaaya and the Sea is the first full-length studio album by the band after their twin 2011 EPs The Chronicles of Sillyphus and The Three Walls of Kolepta.
According to the band's press release - which is probably the most deluxe press package I've ever received, including glossy photos and an album leaflet alongside the obligatory press letter all inside an official UKoG file - the group have created for themselves a Magma-style legacy, whereby each album tells a story from the fictional Kolepta. Without this hint, and without the luxury of being able to read the lyrics themselves, it is nevertheless quite clear that this is a full-on concept album. The biggest giveaway is probably the seamless segues between songs, making the album a 43-minute cohesive whole.
Often, the band soar to great heights using beautiful yet powerful chords, played at a deafening volume. It is difficult not to marvel at their boldness in creating such unashamedly non-twee music. Indeed, for these loud and beautiful moments, I'm often reminded of Anathema, except that UKoG actually do mix it up a bit sometimes and just occasionally put some proggy riffs in there to keep the listeners on their toes.
Anathema were simply too predictable: songs started off quiet and ended up loud. Without gaps between tracks, it's difficult to know on which plane UKoG will be playing. Will the next track be dark and ominous or loud and clear? Will it be both? The album's most self-contained track has to be its title track which is, not coincidentally, also the longest. At nearly a quarter of the album's full length, this song represents a brilliant cross-section, a microcosm if you will, of the full album itself. If it doesn't stick in your head long after you've heard it, I don't know what will! Directly afterwards, the final track demonstrates a quieter, but still resonant side of the band that shows their vision in concocting beautiful music. Needless to say, the band can manage their dynamics to a T.
It's really quite puzzling that this symphonic band haven't broken the big time yet. Their style of music is so unique and yet natural that it seems to play itself. The word 'epic' is thrown about far too much these days, but to take a glimpse at its original and true meaning, you only need to snap up this album and see for yourself. The band are giving away free downloads and streaming the full album on YouTube via the video in the Samples link above, so you really have no excuse. It's an exhilarating yet mesmerising ride!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous UKoG CD Reviews:-
|The Chronicles of Sylliphus [EP]|
|"The songs combine accessibility, heaviness and depth with strong musicianship and good vocal delivery."|
(Leo Koperdraat, 7/10)
|The Three Walls of Kolepta [EP]|
|"If you are a fan of modern progressive rock with some prog metal influences you should definitely check out these EP’s."|
(Leo Koperdraat, 7/10)
Roy Harper - Man & Myth
'Legend' is a word that is bandied around far too often these days but it can surely be used to describe Roy Harper, an artist who has stayed true to himself and ploughed his own furrow, largely under the radar of the listening public at large, for half a century while enthralling his audiences as well as big names in the music industry. Remember, Led Zeppelin saluted him in Hats Off to (Roy) Harper from Led Zeppelin III and he has shared both stage and album with Jimmy Page, he sang Have A Cigar on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and can summon up album guests such as Kate Bush, Dave Gilmour and, on this one, Pete Townsend. This is a man whose reputation and revered status far outweighs his sales although rather than theatres and the college circuit he now plays larger halls on his infrequent live forays. At 72 Roy has seen a lot of life and this comes through in his songs which possess an unrivalled integrity. It was always thus even in his younger days.
The Enemy is a classic Harper relationship song, discussing the perils, problems and mundanities of it all. A great opener with full band that sounds much more upbeat than its lyrics imply. The chorus is soaring and the backing throughout superb, the piano giving the song that easy country folk feel reminiscent of Bob Dylan and The Band. The voice, however, is unmistakably Harper and in fine fettle.
The majority of the songs on Man & Myth take their inspiration from ageing and the passing of the years but this is no bleak vista, more a beautiful and thoughtful treatise on the condition of growing older. Time Is Temporary starts as a more typical folk number, picked guitar and Roy's warm voice intoning lyrics that muse on the vagaries of passing time. As the song progresses strings are introduced to gorgeous effect and swirl around the guitar, building the sound while retaining the organic feel. Jonathan Wilson's banjo makes its presence felt in another nice addition that adds to the country-ish vibe. It seems that a string section will be accompanying Roy on his imminent short run of shows which should add a new perspective to the older songs as well as embellishing the new.
[No videos appear to be available yet for songs from the new album so here's Roy performing the title track from his last one, The Green Man:-]
January Man again takes the theme of life passing by viewed from the differing perspectives of the younger man compared with that of the old. This one again starts with just Roy and his guitar before the string arrangement swells. Roy is in superb voice throughout this album, the melancholy, almost world-weariness of the verses on this one morphing into effortless falsetto heights when required, and despite it being some 13 years since his last recording it is as if this were a direct follow-up; to appropriate a lyric from January Man, "Time fell away...".
The Stranger starts darkly, becoming a strident song with a rich backing of percussion, additional guitar and strings. Roy's voice soars to the heights, his resonant guitar chords cutting through as they always did. As with many of Roy's songs, they may start from a folk place but that is not where they usually end up. I don't regard any of his albums as being folk per se and despite there being so many songs featuring one man and his guitar, he always brings something else to the table which is why he fits so nicely into this proggers listening habits.
Harper has a typically venomous dig at witless TV talent shows and the world of the minor man-made celebrity, bankers and multi-nationals on Cloud Cuckooland. The full band is back with drums, bass, piano and electric guitar rocking things along with the addition of saxophone. There's some fine lead from Pete Townsend too giving the track the necessary edge. Throughout the album a seeming cast of thousands is deployed but it doesn't feel overproduced or dense in the slightest and each individual performance is included on merit. It is the space surrounding Roy's wonderful songs that really make them work.
If you want a prog song then Heaven Is Here is the one on this album. Taking its inspiration from the Greek mythologies of Jason, Orpheus and Euridice, it starts with sparse guitar and voice before moving through a number of changes of instrumentation and mood over its 16 minutes. After a sparkling instrumental mid-section Roy returns to consider the world as it stands and look back at how it got here, mindfully aware of the pitfalls of doing so. Tony Franklin's effortless fretless bass makes a beautiful appearance and Roy proves that he can still play an acoustic guitar in his own special way; maybe not as viciously as he once did but he still has a fantastic touch. In scale Heaven Is Here could have been lifted from Harper's most revered album, the 1971 classic, Stormcock, but this piece has a different, more elegiac feel, his anger mellowing to some extent with the years. There are some quite beautiful sections to this track that is classic Harper through and through.
And so to The Exile to close out what has been a marvellous listen, every ringing guitar note and rich vocal a testament to a career that has spanned decades and enthralled (hopefully!) millions. It rolls in with an electric guitar that has a Bill Frisell quality about it and deep bass, a song that floats along as if on a swelling ocean with real power behind it, Harper's echoing vocal declaring "Life is eternal". The track fades out but, fittingly, Roy and his guitar return for a brief coda. Just wonderful.
I was introduced to Roy Harper in the mid-'80s whilst at university. He played the student's union a number of times, perched on a stool, just the man and his guitar with his audience sat on the floor at his feet listening to the sounds, songs and stories of this very charismatic man (and occasionally offering him a gratefully accepted jazz fag!). I was immediately hooked and have seen him many times over the years, most of the gigs being very memorable in one way or another. He does seem to attract a certain kind of individual - I've never seen anyone arrested during the interval of a theatre gig before - but Roy generally manages to rise above it all. A true artist and passionate about his work he reacts to his environment and can have a difficult relationship with his audience. He has been known to stop playing in order to berate people talking in the bar during a song, but I've also experienced some of the most transcendental moments I've ever had whilst listening to music, completely swept away by the magic of his unique songs, and for this reason I will always have a warm regard for Roy and his music which I return to often.
Co-produced by Harper with Jonathan Wilson and John Fitzgerald, Man & Myth has depth and warmth, every element of the sound clear and pristine, making for a wonderful listening experience. If you are a Harper fan already this album can't be recommended highly enough. If you are new to him then it also serves as a worthy introduction although some of the other albums in his catalogue may be more immediate or appeal more to prog fans (1975's HQ being a good example of the latter, featuring an electric band including Bill Bruford, Chris Spedding and guest appearances from Dave Gilmour and John Paul Jones).
Oh go on then, one more video, just because it's worth seeing...
Hopefully, now that activity is renewed, there will be more to come from Roy Harper as he certainly sounds full of vigour and with plenty to say. His talents are undimmed by the passing years and should there never be another album from him then Man & Myth is a fitting testament to a remarkable talent.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Derek Trotson - Threads
Who is Derek Trotson? Is it play on words or a misremembering of David Jason's character in Only Fools And Horses or something much more sinister? Due to the deliberate misinformation that is rife on their website we may never know, suffice to say it's a bizarre name that will probably be a bit of a hinderance to what is a great three-piece band from London comprising Nikolai Linnik (guitars, voice), Marek Bero (bass, voice), Daniel Pucher (drums, percussion, piano, voice). Note: no Dereks were involved in this recording.
The music is exhilarating and moves at quite a pace; this is a tight band who have clearly worked hard to hone their collective skills. If their live shows are as good as the record then they're really onto something.
The tongue-in-cheek description of their style on the website as "Progressive Rapecore-Dirge" will probably not help much either. What we have here is a three-piece in the classic Rush or King's X mode but with a more experimental nature and chops to spare. Elements of the former come through in the guitar and bass interplay at times while the latter is referenced in the positivity and strident musicianship. The shadow of another, more demonic, 'King' also hoves into view now and then in the intricacies of the arrangements.
Having not heard of the band previously I slipped the disc into the player with no expectations and was immediately blown away by the energy and skill on display. Over repeated plays the music grew and ultimately this has become a favourite amongst the albums I've heard recently. It isn't an easy listen but the variety they pack in makes for an entertaining and interesting ride and shows how wide ranging are the band's abilities.
Mainly instrumental, the album blasts out of the traps with the statement of intent that is Chicargo, a fearsome beast with an anarchic edge, the twists and turns of tempo and rhythm handled with aplomb. The energy doesn't dim on 7 Part One which smacks of King's X to me when the stadium sized riff erupts. This is a band who have one eye on the stars whilst making music for people who appreciate dexterity that is probably impossible to dance to. The widescreen riffery continues into False Flag with a jittery guitar line, Linnik taking the mic for the first vocal track on the album, his voice suiting the music and working very well. Amtrack is a thunderous thing with, appropriately, all the momentum of a freight train. The lead guitar is well executed and the rhythms imaginative, the instruments interlocking in Krimson fashion late on.
To show that they aren't just one trick ponies there is plenty of variety on this quite wonderful album. The unwieldily titled Electro-Transgressive Culmination Etc starts as a delicate guitar and bass piece but builds as the percussion enters. Bero's bass ups the ante, fascinating and funky with plenty of room to roam, whipped along by sparkling drums. Not only can these guys play but they can put together instrumentals that are far more entertaining than most. Having masked their history somewhat it is hard to tell what they have done previously but Derek Trotson appear to have emerged fully formed.
A change of direction with Frequency, another vocal number that proves that they can do melodic too on a hum-along song that picks things up for a fine, yet still very melodic, instrumental section with piano. World Destruction Protocol is another thumping instrumental which switches and swerves its way through some well realised changes, Pucher steering the ship nicely. There is an entertaining anarchy to the songs but it is controlled with some good ears at work to ensure that taste prevails. Hats off to them.
Homesick is another delicate piece, bass driven with hesitant guitar, all too brief but it works very well, before 7 Part Two ramps up the power and tension again, the end section reminding me of something a youthful Rush might have come up with. Funky bass fingers a la Mark King introduce Anti-Semantic, another unusual vocal piece with some lovely tempo shifts. Spacenata is next, confounding the listener with piano and slide guitar that makes for a beautiful comedown after the fury that preceded it while Roots tops things off like a punk King's X playing Gentle Giant. There's jazz, hard rock, metal and psychedlia all thrown in and it works a treat.
Threads sensibly keeps its focus and doesn't outstay its welcome, remembering the oft forgotten truth that 40 to 50 minutes is probably just about right. I'm a sucker for a tasty power trio and DT tick all of the boxes, the band bringing lots of new ideas and plenty of energy to the party. I suspect that they'd be a hoot live and one day I'd like to find out.
Keep at it guys, this is great!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Cyril - Gone Through Years
Debut albums are always a privilege and a pleasure to review especially when they are as good as Gone Through Years by German band Cyril who rose out of the ashes of mainstream rockers Gabria in late 2010. The four instrumentalists from Gabria - Denis Strassburg (bass, programming), Marek Arnold (keyboards, sax, clarinet), Ralf Dietsch (guitars, mandolin) and Clemens Litschko (drums, percussion) - recruited Toxic Smile singer Larry Brodel and Cyril were born.
The concept of Gone Through Years (of course there has to be a concept) is loosely based on the influential H.G. Wells story The Time Machine first published in 1895. I say "loosely based" because Wells' principle characters the Time Traveller, the Eloi, the Morlocks, etc., are absent from Cyril's lyrics. Musically this is a collection of tuneful, mid-tempo rock songs with proggy overtones and, other than a reference to The Time Machine in the opening song, the only obvious connection with Wells' work is the linking of each track by machine like electronic effects (a la Ayreon).
In Search Of Wonders provides a surprisingly reflective introduction with lilting Bruce Hornsby flavoured piano, acoustic guitar, symphonic keys and melodic lead guitar. A warm, slightly husky vocal from Larry B. rounds off a very encouraging start to proceedings. Belying its title, Sweet Alice features spikey acoustic guitar and a dense wall of guitars to close whilst Through Time And Space is driven by heavy staccato chords and fuzzed Hammond taking time out for a strident guitar solo and some fine saxophone. With its atmospheric Floyd-ian and walking bass line intro, the title track Gone Through Years is appropriately one of the most memorable although the vocal melody does bear more than a passing resemblance to Mike And The Mechanics' Silent Running.
It's apparent that whilst there is nothing startlingly original in what Cyril do (lush keyboards intersected by biting guitar riffs, soaring solos and commanding vocals) they do it with style and they've always got one or two surprises up their sleeves. Take Days To Come for example which alternates between melodious classical guitar and heavier lead guitar for the most part before an unexpected but glorious pipe organ and jazz clarinet interlude. Mental Scars on the other hand contrasts a loud, anthemic chorus with reflective verses and metallic guitar volleys with a beautiful acoustic guitar and piano section showcasing guest singer Amelie Hofmann.
Cyril's versatility continues with Gate Of Reflection featuring a particularly catchy chorus underpinned by crunching guitar riffs whilst the aptly titled Heading For Disaster is dark and heavyweight for the most part although this doesn't distract from a memorable and uplifting chorus. The double-tracked lead guitar at the midway point is especially effective. Opening and closing with inspirational sax playing, the penultimate World Is Lost is one of the more inventive songs with a Jean Michel Jarre style skipping rhythm and a recurrent fast and tricky guitar riff. The relaxed but engaging lead vocal from guest Manuel Schmid contrasts effectively with Larry B's more strident rasp. A stirring organ break at the halfway mark rounds off an excellent track.
The album plays out in style with Final Ending. An ambient intro with Gilmour-esque guitar effects makes way for a lyrical clarinet theme. Following a deceptively laidback jazzy section, the song launches into a strident but melodic extended coda with some great vocal/guitar interplay to bring the story to a satisfyingly uplifting conclusion.
This is undoubtedly a strong, assured album without a single weak moment and although I realise I've given little mention to the rhythm section, the playing by all concerned is excellent. Although the songs are undeniably tuneful, there's a prevailing sense of tension and melancholia that haunts the album, appropriate given the subject matter. In this respect Larry B's edgy delivery is perfectly at home and is one of the most compelling vocal performances I've heard this year.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Richard Pinhas - Desolation Row
My granddad was one for the homilies, "procrastination is the thief of time" being the most prescient in my case. That has absolutely nothing to do with this album, but "patience is often rewarded" certainly is. I have had to listen to the ever rising cacophony of North quite a number of times before I have even begun to get a handle on it. As it slowly builds in intensity it drills into your head like a fixated dentist, and almost seems to be a challenge to the listener. Get past this little monster if you can, and the rest of the album will pay you back with some very left field but highly listenable avant-ambience from French guitarist and experimental musician Richard Pinhas, a name well known within the rarefied circles of esoteric electronic music.
With his band Heldon and under his own name and in collaborations, Pinhas' discography is vast, stretching way back to the start of 1970's. He has always struck his own path regardless of commercial requirements, and is one of those artists to whom the oft used phrase, or phrase similar to "I make the music I want to make. If anyone else likes it, all the better" can be genuinely applied.
Pinhas is known for his radical politics, especially under the Heldon banner, and this instrumental album, is, according to the press release "...a 21st century sonic response to global unrest that is as politically charged, musically radical, and artistically potent as those he created in a prior era of social upheaval, with Heldon". The music burns with an intellectual intensity that one would expect from a philosophy PhD such as our hero, who states that "Desolation Row is an image of what we can Feel and See coming during this neo-liberalist era...neoliberalism transforming ultimately into TEKNOFASCISM...the real Big Brother".
I would not normally quote so much of the press release, but in the case of an instrumental album such as this it is useful to know the thought processes and contexts that gave rise to the work in question.
Joining Richard in his quest for places only semi-known are seven other musicians, including Richard's son Duncan Nilsson, who along with Lasse Marhaug contributes "ElectroniX and NoiZ". Etienne Jaumet adds some organic sounds in the form of analogue synths and saxophone, while Noel Akchoté extracts swathes of sound from "Stereo guitarZ". There are real drums on this record too, courtesy of Eric Boreleva and Oren Ambarchi, the latter also adding "Guitar and ElectroniX", doubling up on Richard's contributions with the very same instrumentation.
As you might expect with a line up like that, the sounds produced are dense, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, but never complacent. After the nerve-shredding opening track North, a musical parallel to the ever restless and striving lives of us Northern hemisphere dwellers, the shifting sonic quicksand takes us down to an alternate universe where a negative image JJ Cale lays bluesy licks over a languid motorik rhythm, cruising at low revs. Square was co-written with guitarist Noel Akchoté, and is just the ticket after the breathless attack of the first quarter hour or so of this album.
If one ever has to argue that abstract music can also be passionate, then this album would be a good reference point. South builds on layer upon layer of densely packed sonics; washes of dissonance joined by flurries of distorted notes folding back on themselves and looped into eternity serve to disconnect the listener from a fixed point. Close your eyes and you could be...anywhere you want to be. Hurried bass drum pedal and crashing cymbals join in softly the guitar now in commune with the stars. Lovely, and now the listener's patience has been rewarded, and then some.
Moog, the longest piece here, comes from a place where Fripp & Eno play tag with Manuel Göttsching, the sounds ebbing and flowing to the beat of a sequencer fading in out of the mix, forming an electronic avant rock symphony that will take no prisoners. To borrow a song title from Fripp's canon, this is cadence and cascade writ large, akin to a wall of sparks descending from a welder's work, high up on the side of a huge ocean liner in dry dock. Eventually, the analogue synth sounds are joined in tandem by heavily treated looped guitar and strung out saxophone, the latter adding a plaintive emotional layer to the piece. Deeply cinematic, or panoramic, some low end grumbling synth meanders its stately way across the sound spectrum, as the song becomes a slice of space rock extravaganza. "Teknofascism" is indeed a bad thing, but at least the soundtrack is fun!
Circle begins with a lightness of touch, jangly guitars reverberating around over a laid back drum pattern. There are stirrings in the undercurrents, and soon the skipping guitar is carried along and then drowned in an ice storm of electronica and nasty treated guitars, icicles of sound slicing through the brief calm.
The album ends with Drone 1 which uses an angry and unrelenting looped leitmotif to hellish effect. There is more going on here than the song title would have you believe, but this is not a place to visit often, there are dark things afoot.
Anyone familiar with Richard Pinhas' work will know what to expect, and the uninitiated, if you're still reading, should proceed with caution. This is a highly individual and wilful talent, and will definitely not be to the liking of those of you who like a good tune to the exclusion of all else. On the other hand, if you like the experimental end of the spectrum and a bit of a challenge, this should tick all the right boxes.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Richard Pinhas CD Reviews:-
|"This mammoth double disc set, containing a daunting 2 hours 10 minutes worth of material nevertheless comes highly recommended to fans of Ambient Electronica and all adventurous listeners."|
(Dave Sissons, 8/10)
Symbolon Obscura - Symbolon Obscura
This album, apparently 4 years in the making, is the brainchild of Michael DeMichele, a doctor by profession, who made it as a labour of love in his spare time with help from drumming friend Simon Janis. There is often a problem with one-man-band home productions in that the creator cannot adequately cover all of the necessary areas himself and this is certainly the case here. Obviously noting to himself that he wasn't a drummer he enlisted the help of Janis to good effect but he could have also done with some help in the vocal and keyboard departments, as is immediately clear from opening track Reality Frame. That said, DeMichele is a competent guitarist and plays with a degree of skill, successfully multi-tracking his parts to good effect.
Another issue for the solo recording can be getting so close to the music that you cannot effectively tell whether it is actually any good or not. Look at the running times. Most, if not all, of the tracks on Symbolon Obscura are waaaaaay too long and it becomes a bit of an ordeal to get through the album in one go as the tracks tend to lumber rather than fly. Add to the fact that the vocals are woefully poor, almost to the point of rendering the album unlistenable.
Clearly influenced by Rush, DeMichele makes the opening of Clear Vision resemble a poor relative of Jacob's Ladder. The vintage synth sounds are not engaging and the vocal is again sub-standard as DeMichele has neither the range nor the power to make it fit his vision. The results are not good.
Cast Out starts in a muscular way with powerful guitar but is clunky, the keys don't fit and the vocals are still an issue. Unleashed plods without any guile although there are some good moments instrumentally. The guitar on Symbolon is too shrill although it benefits from an acoustic section, the whole having a definite Rush feel. The solo guitar sections aren't bad but the vocals? Don't go there.... No, really, don't.
Control goes down the old-school metal route with some nice guitar. It reminds me a bit of Ozzy Osbourne's early solo stuff although it lacks the energy, drive and evil. The synth solos are again basic and maybe DeMichele should try textures rather than lead lines. RFID follows a similar template but doesn't hold the interest.
Pilgrim attempts a more atmospheric setting than that which has preceded it and succeeds to some degree. There is a psychedelic edge and keys add washes of colour - although the solo lines still sound weedy - but at 11 minutes long it doesn't do enough to warrant the trip. The vocals are still very poor but maybe not as painful on material of this style.
As he states in the notes, DeMichele produced this album for himself and more power to him for that, it's more than I've ever done, but outside his immediate circle this is never going to be an album that gets many repeat plays. The songs jerk clumsily from one section to the next and fail to achieve the heights that they were clearly intended to.
On the plus side, there's nothing wrong with Janis' drums which do the job as required throughout and the recording isn't bad if a little basic. The acoustic sections are nice and there is some good guitar playing as this is clearly DeMichele's strength, but it is hard to recommend the album and for the most part the vocals detract from the positives.
I suspect that DeMichele may get better results from being part of a band set up as he can clearly play the guitar, although no doubt his busy professional life would preclude this which is why he has taken the solo route. I hope he sticks at it as this debut isn't totally bad but for the next one he certainly needs to find a singer at the very least.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10