Brimstone - Mannsverk
A Norwegian Requiem (6:27), Rubber-legged Man (5:43), Voodoo (6:20), Flapping Lips at Ankle Height (6:13), The Fixed Wheel (3:09), The Giant Fire (4:27), Sjo & Land (12:18), This Is the Universe (9:53)
Mannsverk is the fourth album from Norwegian group Brimstone, previously known as The Brimstone Solar Radiation Band. The latest release from brothers Thomas and Oyvind Gronner and guitarist and singer Rolf Edvardsen with bassist Truls 'Biff' Eriksen comes with a stripped back name, the more readily accessible Brimstone and with the change they have altered their sound to match.
Still retaining the excellent musicianship and diverse nature they showed on their previous 2009 release Smorgasbord they have taken a seemingly natural forward step into more progressive waters and the results are perhaps their most successful to date.
Unlike their earlier work, this new offering has a more determined and raw edge to it albeit wrapped in a warm and fuzzy vintage production, which has a great deal of authenticity about it. It's their focus on sound production that defines the albums spirit and locates in further back in time, to the period that pre-dates the emergence of full blown 1970s prog rock, more precisely in the era where its appearance was still hard to recognise in the dazzle of psychedelia.
Opening with intent through a bounding jazz bass and frenetic percussive patter, A Norwegian Requiem sets the stall for the rest of the album. It's trippy and spacey and has a full on sound that feels familiar without being obvious. Full of character, the track skips through a range of textures and has a varied sonic quality to it that most bands of the modern era would be envious to have in their canon.
In contrast to the opener, the playful strutting guitar and xylophone sounding keys that start Rubberlegged Man almost hint at a Zappa-like quality, from the early days of Mothers of Invention. The influences may be identifiable throughout the album but ultimately Brimstone do a sterling job of surpassing them to create something clever, moving and sophisticated. Rubberlegged Man is also a prime example of how quirky the band can go musically. The latter half of the song moves from a lovely Floyd-tinged whistle (clearly there is not enough whistling in prog) to a rousing, catchy chorus which peters out into a tolling bell and something that would not be out of place from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - see Next for the point in question. At times on the album the rich, slightly raspy tones of Harvey can be heard in the voice of Edvardsen but this is also matched with a greater degree of softness and harmony as well.
With the start of 'Voodoo', the band keep the momentum going with a bouncy funk inspired number. Cleverly the sound melds the most unlikely paring of a funk-keys/bass segment with a Parisian style accordion whilst still maintaining a catchy, memorable chorus. The scope of sound demonstrates superbly a band that ooze confidence and are adventurous in their ideas. Even when the band are seemingly loose and improvisational there is a tightness in the sound. Midway through Voodoo the energy flows from a brilliant paring between Eriksen and a Bruford-inspired Gronner which gives the guitar real time to shine.
There are few places in the current, predominantly hard rock version of prog where this kind of retro expressiveness are captured so well, perhaps only found in the work of Rikard Sjoblom's Gungfly and Beardfish.
The positive energy continues with the brilliantly titled Flapping Lips at Ankle Height, an upbeat tune which chugs with a similar pace and feel to Emerson Lake and Palmer's Fanfare for the Common Man largely thanks to some amazing rhythmic bass which provides a powerful backdrop for a psychedelic wall of sound. The complex laying of sound underlines the bands ability to construct rich and atmospheric songs that reward the listener with repeated plays.
Mannsverk charges at you relentlessly from the opening track and The Fixed Wheel is no exception. Opening with an intense burst of drumming the song settles into a speedy toe tapper, full of period vibe and life evoking the mid to late sixties sound of The Byrds, Cream and The Grateful Dead and of course the Stones. The only slight niggle here though must be in the clarity of vocals in both the delivery and production which leave the listener mystified as to what is actually being said.
It's only with the start of the chilled out The Giant Fire that the driving pace of the album finally gives way and pauses for breath. Combining acoustic guitar with an understated hand drum percussion the sound feels delicate and minimal for a brief time whilst still retaining the essence of the era the band are channelling. Delivering a slice of beach flavoured '67, the tune feels free love but with a melancholic sadness in Edvardsen vocals.
No prog album of either the sixties of seventies would be complete without the lengthy centre piece track. Sjo & Land is a twelve minute slow burner of a track that builds to a satisfying payoff before falling away to a gentle conclusion. Like a wave it rises and falls beautifully. It has the hallmarks of early Floyd at their most laidback and soulful.
Closing with yet more grand, but beautiful weirdness This Is the Universe, the band completes the album with the same dazzling trippiness it started with. Dripping in mellotron and some of the strongest guitar work on the album, the song plays between subtle jazz piano to hard edged pure prog. The changing character throughout makes ten minutes feels more like three.
With Mannsverk, Brimstone have come of age with a truly exceptional album of inventive, well-crafted songs and impressive musicianship. Their latest release brings to life a diverse musical style with flair and originality which has confidently embraced its progressive intention.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Appearance of Nothing - A New Beginning
Chains of History (5:55), Without a Reason (10:26), The Seer (4:55), A New Beginning (14:10), Forsaken (7:22), Echoes (8:42), When the Glass Breaks (6:11)
The album has something to offer fans of most styles of metal. While it principally comes across as an adherent to the Dream Theater long-scale, symphonic school of metal, it features a buffet of various metal styles, including moments of thrash metal, industrial metal, melodic Maiden-style metal, anthemic metal, Ayreon-styled operatic metal, and Queensryche-style theatrical metal. It deviates a greet deal from the Dream Theater blueprint in that it is almost entirely void of any significant soloing and seems much more concerned with melody and song development than with impressing listeners with a barrage of notes and long-form noodling.
That's not to say that there are no instrumental take-offs, nor is it to say that the music is simple or scaled-down. The sonic signature is lush and full, with plenty of activity and variation from moment to moment that keeps the music fresh while still remaining approachable. A variety of singing styles is employed throughout, often matching style of singing with the mood of the music at any given moment, like Opeth. I have never been a fan of 'cookie monster', growl-based vocals, but that singing style is applied sparingly here, and rather less annoyingly than is sometimes the case with extreme metal bands. The majority of the vocals capably mix operatic-metal and hard rock styles, and occasionally very pleasant vocal harmonies are employed to fine effect. I am not entirely sold on all the choruses. Some of them come across as slightly odd fits within the rest of the musical fabric (such as on Without a Reason), suggesting the songwriting part of the formula may not yet be fully developed. And it can perhaps be argued that because they don't stick to a single sub-genre, they do not ever fully develop any of the individual threads of their musical tapestry.
That having been said, there is plenty here for me to like. Because it is a stew of known metal sub-genres, it does not come across to my ears as very unique or ground-breaking. But neither does it sound overly-derivative. The playing is skilled yet not showy and the music emphasizes melody and song; so I find enough here to identify a specific identity for the band. The dichotomy of complex and accessible, heavy and melodic, and virtuosity and tasteful playing leaves me entertained throughout.
I would recommend A New Beginning to fans of the theatrical side of Dream Theater (but perhaps not the showy, virtuosic side), fans of melodic metal, and fans of symphonic metal (and symphonic prog in general). Listeners more interested in ripping solos, dark and angry sonorities, intense sections of odd meter changes, and/or completely original music may find more to like elsewhere.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Tuval Cain - Forging the Future
Nomad (4:32), Wandering I (4:39), Spiral Down (5:52), Power (4:11), A Distant Well (5:58), Looking Glass Love (Predatory Games) (3:40), No More Need (3:57), Don't Try to Change Me (4:00), There Will Be Time (4:29), Jonah's Doubt (1:59), Jonah (5:10), The World Is My Dominion (5:26), Retrobate (4:29)
David Lawrence Kuhn came from the USA to Israel and started this musical project there. Surrounding himself with renowned leading musicians Avi Singolda on guitar, Adam Ben Ezra on bass, Ido Maimon on drums and percussion, Udi Perlman on flute, Guy Wittenberg on sax and violin, Shaul Barkan on sax, and Noam Hartmann on shofar, he himself was responsible for all compositions and lyrics and plays the keyboards as well. The vocals are delivered with passion and emotion by Dor Nagar. His voice stands out on this album as he always sings very fittingly to the music, enhancing the atmosphere of the songs, never going over the top. He just as easily produces an Ian Gillan/Paul Rodgers/David Byronlike vocal, which can be heard in most of the songs, whereas he also gets to sound quite like David Bowie in Looking Glass Love (Predatory Games), a song that also has quite a Bowie feel to it.
The album as a whole makes you feel like a walk, while taken by the hand by Dor and his musical companions. Nomad, for that matter, is the ideal introduction with its musicallike approach and it takes us all the way back to the days of yore, where Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar once reigned. Lyrics might not be the strongest part of the album, since the rhyming sometimes prevails above all. Not necessarily too much of a bad thing, as the flow of the music and Dor's vocals will grab your attention.
Wandering I kicks off in full Tull mode, jazz tinged and Dor in outstanding form again. The flute, in the way it is used here, also reminding of that other Purple spin off, Gillan. Spiral Down has more of that Gillan meets Tull flavour. In Power we get a Purple meets Roxy Music feel. Not something you might ever just think of, yet it works out very well in this song. A Distant Well will have your attention right away with its keyboard opening as it then soon goes into full 1970s musical mood again.
Ready to enjoy a trip through nostalgia where you get to meet your heroes of yesteryear in a fancy free and inviting setting? Then this is something for you. What David Kuhn and his skilled musicians have forged together is a record that has its mould clearly made way back when and, at the same time, holds more than enough promise for the future.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Le Reveil des Tropiques - Le Reveil des Tropiques
CD 1: Jérusalem (14:52), Tenochtitlan (2:52), Homs (3:47), Antibes (14:12), Tunguska (6:54)
CD 2: Sigirîya (7:49), Kinshasa (10:52), Yonaguni (17:11), Anthemusa (4:48)
CD 2: Sigirîya (7:49), Kinshasa (10:52), Yonaguni (17:11), Anthemusa (4:48)
A bit of a search round the interweb came up with some further information in that the group members all play in a variety of other groups, none of whom I have ever heard of, and had only been playing together for a few months prior to recording the album. Influences cited include Can, Mogwai, Pink Floyd and, in their more extreme, noise drenched moments (such as Tenochtitlan, and Tunguska), Sonic Youth. To my ears the most representative of these citations is Mogwai and very much rooted in the post-rock idiom. It is the longer tracks that offer up the most to the casual listener as shorter pieces like Homs, the aforementioned Tenochtitlan and Anthemusa and generally quite uninspiring and rather dull.
Even on the longer tracks, there is no real structure or development of ideas with the result that the dynamics, highs, lows and emotional turmoil of the great post-rock bands don't even come close to being reproduced. Sigirîya for example, is a complete shambles, although the lengthy Yonaguni does have elements of the early, more experimental Pink Floyd sound but could have done with being edited to make the piece more succinct. Best of the bunch is found on the first disc with the Mogwai-ish Jérusalem and the really rather enjoyable Antibes which is rather more open expressing a greater sonic palette and more diverse instrumentation than other pieces.
I do rather enjoy decent post-rock, particularly when the proponents weave atmospheric soundscapes that ebb and flow, repeatedly engulfing and releasing the listener often within the space of a few bars. However, on this evidence, Le Réveil Des Tropiques are far from reaching such peaks and although there are snatches of promise throughout the album, with only a couple of tracks really bearing repeated listening there is not really a lot to be said for this album. Perhaps next time they might want to use the improvisations as a starting point from which they develop the music so it has a greater impact.
Conclusion: 3 out of 10
Dream the Electric Sleep - Heretics
Heretics (4:50), Elizabeth (8:22), Utopic (6:38), To love is to leave (8:01), The name you fear (6:10), It must taste good (8:32), I know what you are 6:42 , Fist to face (4:15), Lost our faith (2:06), How long we wait (9:29), Ashes Fall (8:08)
First track Heretics opens with an epic wall of sound of guitar bass and drums playing a very Rush type riff before an acoustic guitar introduces the strangled vocals of Matt Page, then the cello of Seth Mayers appears giving a depth to proceedings and a return to the heavy opening riff it's a perfect introduction to the sound of this disc. It's also very much like Muse at times, having a similar dense three-piece sound although without Matt Bellamy's vocal histrionics.
Second track Elizabeth is a cornerstone of the album in many ways as the story underlying is about her journey seeking a better life for her family and herself by joining the suffragette movement to gain the right to vote. There is an excellent guide to the album here, that adds context to the music. Whilst not essential to enjoy the album, I do feel that understanding of the subject at hand will ultimately make the listening experience more rewarding, this is a less brash track and has much grace and subtlety about it with its mix of softer and harder passages.
Utopic follows next and is again less bold but has a fine use of dynamics and builds nicely. I do like the way in which this disc develops and tells its story so eloquently. There is a heavier mid passage in this piece which adds to the epic scope of the song. There is also the use of a great riff throughout and it has a great refrain followed by a fine solo at the 5:10 minute mark. To Love Is to Leave opens with a gentle strum of an acoustic guitar and Matt Page's impassioned vocals, before the rest of the band come crashing in to great effect. This song shimmers in its contrast of heavy and lighter passages and is a outstanding song in an album of great music. Another well-constructed solo from Matt at the 3:15 mark.
The Name You Fear is an evenly paced piece but with a great chorus (much like Muse in its approach). It's a fairly dense sounding track, with the bass to the forefront and some solid riffs in place. Dream the Electric Sleep are certainly a very capable band of creating an atmosphere around their music and this song forms a bridge between To Love Is to Leave and It Must Taste Good.
That track opens with guitar and a strident riff and groove. It sounds like a cross between indie and stadium arena rock but with a another great vocal from Matt Page. Not an outstanding track on its own, but in the overall context it's fine, giving a heavier edge than some of what preceeds it. A lengthy track at 8:32, but it never loses its way or overstays it's welcome either.
We are taken back to an acoustic opening with some sustained guitar in I Know What You Are before the DTES wall of sound crashes in for the opening salvo and the an episode of tranquility emerges with a high strummed guitar and Matt's voice, sounding not unlike Jeff Buckley in his delivery here. In fact that's a good reference point for Matt's voice as he twists and contorts his voice in a similar manner but without the high vocal histronics. Underpinning this is the rest of the band with a rock solid beat and groove. For me this song espouses all that is good about this disc, their use of dynamics, the attention to sonic details and good music and interesting lyrics
These guys are intelligent and articulate both in their approach and concept and also musically and it's a great sounding album to these ears and if this is just their second CD then bright days beckon if they can continue to make music of such calibre and imagination.
Fist to Face and Lost Our faith are both shorter pieces. The former being a more standard rock piece, the latter being an acoustic based song initially, before taking a heavier tack.
How Long We Wait gallops along in a very strident manner for the first few minutes. A guitar break slows the pace somewhat, before paring back to a bass and drum groove over which Matt Page plays some restrained but very atmospheric guitar licks. A plucked interlude follows and the mournful refrain, against which a more intense backing is contrasted. It's stirring stuff indeed and sounds fantastic. The French horn sounds majestic and almost triumphant.
Final song and album closer Ashes Fall is another heavier piece opening with power chords and then settling into a heavy groove. The song speaks of the endless onward march and how small steps take one to a destination. It sums up the journey that Elizabeth is making throughout the disc. It's a more than adequate finale to an album that is a tad different in its subject matter and approach. It shows a band with a huge talent and significant promise to take progressive rock forward. I for one would be very interested to see where Dream the Electric Sleep head next, but on the basis of this disc I suspect that they will have a lot more challenging music within them to emerge over the next few years.
I heartily recommend this album and as always I do feel repeated listens will show the treasures within these grooves. But for me at least I'm convinced these guys have a lot to offer most listeners. So do check them out for yourself, follow the links, read the background and enjoy a great release from this fine and currently not that well known band. However, I don't think it will stay like that for long on the strength of this fine release.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Fungus - The Face of Evil
The Face of Evil (7:31), Gentle Season (5:06), The Great Deceit (Black) (3:10), Rain (6:52), The Key of the Garden (4:05), Share Your Suicide Part III (4:43), Better Than Jesus (4:04), Requiem (4:43), The Sun (7:05), Bkk (0:58)
Gentle Season quiets things down. Folksy and doomy all together it draws you into the music. Guitar playing and keyboards have a great interplay. Unfortunately the song fades out as an inspired guitar solo is still going on. The Great Deceit (Black) shows us Fungus at its most Cave-like over progressive textures. A nice combination, but whether Dorian Deminstrel's voice will appeal to everyone? Cave and Jim Morrisson might be used as references, emotion expressed may get confused with what one might find to be nothing short of being out of tune. To my ears, Dorian puts a lot of expression in his singing.
Rain is a more elaborate work out than the previous songs and Fungus here place themselves in a retro 1970's feel. Alejandro J. Blisset (guitars and theremin), Zerothehero (guitars and flute), Claudio Ferreri (keyboards), Carlo Barreca (bass), and Stefano Zirpano know how to write their songs. This is their third album since their start back in 2002. The Key of the Garden is a nice folky and predominantly acoustic song that lets Dorian sound a bit like Eddie Vedder. It's Alejandro J. Blisset that draws attention to his guitar playing towards the end of the song.
Share Your Suicide Part III is another part in a series of songs that have featured on the debut Careful, together with Better Than Jesus as well. Psychedelic in places, it reminds of young Pink Floyd.
Angel With No Pain takes a bit more of the psychedelic trip and shows yet another side of Fungus. Again, great guitar playing. Fungus hold that feel in Better Than Jesus whereas Requiem has a heavy Uriah Heep and Deep Purple feel alongside the psychedelic parts. The Sun with its instrumental middle part and great flute playing adds even more to the general feel of the album.
An album not all too easy to get into and demanding you take the time to get into the typical Fungus approach of combining folk, psychedelic and hardrocking influences to a background of 1970s prog, but very much worthwhile doing so if you do not want your music to be too predictable.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
John Wesley - Disconnect
Disconnect (05:20), Any Old Saint (07:43), Once A Warrior (06:51), Window (03:32), Gets You Everytime (03:33), Mary Will (05:12), Take What You Need (05:20), How Goes The War (03:34), New Life Old Sweat (05:03), Satellite (05:32)
Disconnect has not so much a concept behind it, rather it has a theme that runs through and across the songs. There are songs about the disconnection a man feels at the breaking up of the relationships in his life, isolating him from family and friends. Whilst discovering the faults within himself, that left him in this position. It reminds me, lyric wise, of Peter Hammill's relationship-focused solo work.
All of this is expressed through meaty riffs and intricate, gorgeous solos. These hold faith with the emotional power that can be embodied, in the right hands, through the classic rock line-up of two guitars, bass and drums. This is coupled with a positive music making energy and a level of technical skill, that never overwhelms the songs and the emotional points they are making. Also, not having heard any of Wesley's other solo work, I was pleasantly surprised by how emotional and engaging a vocal style he has, with a blues tinged, slightly ragged edge to it, that suits the classic rock feel of these tunes.
So, to the title track, which was worrying for a few seconds, as I thought it was going to turn into a Bo-Diddley riff-fest. But thankfully it moved on to become a song that would happily sit on Porcupine Tree's Deadwing album. It is a melodic and structural statement of intent for the album as a whole. Wesley's guitarist Dean Tidey takes the first solo, and with it, raises the bar for Wesley, whose solo easily matches it in its harmonic invention. The tone is set lyrically as well with with Wesley singing in a world-weary way about being disconnected 'from this life'.
Any Old Saint, a song of loss and a cry for redemption, ("We find and give away"), kicks off with a straight forwardly heavy, but non-bludgeoning riffing of guitars and two solos, Tidey leading followed by Wesley. Both are inventive and emotion filled guitar solos that push the song on to its conclusion.
Next, is a song featuring one of the guests, I alluded to earlier. Alex Lifeson (of Rush, of course) adds, as one would expect, guitar to Once a Warrior. This begins with a jangle, circular guitar pattern, punctuated by bold, bass chords. It moves into a heavy riff-laden song, about how a man who failed in his relationships and that the fall out from it meant that "in the end both of us were broken". Wesley is not overawed by Lifeson on this track and I urge guitar aficionados to listen to the stratospheric solo about four minutes into this track. The fourth track, Window, is mixed by Steven Wilson, Wesley's band mate in Porcupine Tree, who brings his sympathetic brand of sonic fairy dust, to this classic rock influenced song. Where every note serves the song and nothing is extraneous. This mid-paced melange of stop-start dynamics and chiming guitars offers up a deceptive simplicity, and an emotional honesty, as Wesley's voice cracks just a little on "I'm not as well, not how I used to be" U2 could learn something from this.
Dark feedback introduces the full-on classic rock stylings of Gets You Every Time which has a touch of Porcupine Tree's Open Car about it, and there's nothing wrong with that in my book.
Mary Will is a beauty of a song about the aftermath of a break-up. It is a ballad that builds in intensity as it progresses. Lyrically, it is a plea for support and forgiveness for the protagonist and his problems, and may be one of the only song lyrics ever to feature a sun-bleached garden statue of the Virgin Mary. It has, as its concludes, the most emotionally wrought solo; expressing the sadness that the sought for forgiveness was not forthcoming. In the wrong hands this could have degenerated into a lumpen blues ballad but Wesley, and his team of like-minded players, makes it soar.
After the ballad, chiming guitars and whip-smart snare work introduce Take What You Need. Wesley gives his finest vocal performance on the album on this song. The two part structure of the song adds interest and its heavier drums and siren like guitar adds even more overall variety to the album.
The very best of the shorter songs is How Goes the War, which blasts into life on a wave of manic drumming, before wrong footing the listener by suddenly slowing. It then builds back up to the chorus underpinned by martial sounding percussion. Wesley gives another great vocal performance here, stretching long phrases comfortably over the dense layers of guitar and bass. It stops as suddenly as it starts, leaving you slightly breathless and wanting more.
New Life Old Sweat seems to be a song about overcoming addiction moves from "baby steps" to "twelve steps". Effortlessly fluent guitars lead to a reflective vocal passage, before the insistent chorus returns and another terrific solo takes the song to the finish. As on many songs on this album, the music showcases harmonic invention, rather than relying on guitar riffs alone.
The album closes with the drum free ballad Satellite. This opens with acoustic guitar and Wesley singing about "the lies that make us whole again, the ones that help us carry on and just pretend", in his heartbroken, hesitant, bruised tone. However, he cleverly manages to infuse the song with genuine hope. The song closes with a perfect non-showboating solo that is the epitome of beautiful modesty.
All in all, a very, very fine album. One that, I feel, I will be playing often. If you have a hankering for the classic rock line-up of two guitars, base and drums, filtered through the sensibility of a supremely talented progressive guitarist then, this really is a recording I highly recommend.
However, my rating for the album reflects that it is sometimes more classic rock, even or alt-rock orientated music, rather than obviously progressive music. Hence, I am giving this the highest score I can without giving in a DPRP recommends rating. This is an excellent album, that I feel will reveal more delights with repeated plays, with much for all to enjoy.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Salander - A Crash Course for Dessert
Reminiscence (8:54, Ground Proximity Warning (3:39), Out Of The Wreckage (4:51), Desert Sands (5:19, All The Money In The World (6:43), Make Me Dance (4:47), Take Me Away (13:51), Anyway But Here (1:35), Princess (10:55)
Crash Course For Dessert is the "pun totally intended" title of these two chums' output taking their obvious liking of a certain genre and making a version of their own, and for that they are to be commended. Working through Bandcamp and never deserting the ranks, this is no pyramid scheme (catching, isn't it...). An extra point might just be awarded for the humour in thanking "Harry the cat" and "single malt whisky" in the credits and also dedicating the work to the one person in the world who might like it as much as them. Well, for Starters I think there will be more than one fan, especially when they tuck into the Main course.
Based on a little story where a pilot crashes his plane in the desert, realises he has survived the ordeal, remembers he has a cargo of a metal box with half a million dollars in it, and then considers the situation. Along the way he meets some top totty who, keen to escape the clutches of her captor, begs our hero to take her away. I interpreted this as an allegory for relationships, subsequent baggage and the means of escape. I am a divorcee mind... ahem, moving on then.
Played by the two of them on guitars and bass, the rest is taken care of by programming and keyboards. Dave S does most of the singing and on All the Money in the World (the track itself, too) sounds very much like Barclay James Harvest and is helped by the vocal reverb being turned off. This track also contains a wee homage to Stairway to Heaven in one verse, but that's as Zeppelin as it gets.
A sampled clay drum rhythm works well on opener Reminiscence but, on average, the "drums" are a little disappointing and too low in the mix. The one track I think really works, is the, ironically, instrumental Make Me Dance which with it's dance floor pulse, house style electric piano, and great sampled brass, really puts the camp in Bandcamp. Great fun! Longest track at 13:52 Take Me Away is by far my favourite, in which a Spanish guitar gets a good strummage and a pleasing keyboard solo and lead six string blow up a pleasing dust storm. Closing number Princess has a familiar prog feel to it, and concludes the tale, where I think our man gets some tail.
This download is a good effort and has elements of solo Steve Hillage and maybe bits of later Camel. The album is available as an immediate download in high quality FLAC or what ever format you want. Contributions will get mobile access. As mentioned, the drum sound and the slight lack of low frequency are only occasional sand in the pudding, but next time (and keep it up lads) get another mate on board, Dave D... D for drummer.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Spirogyra - St. Radigunds / Old Boot Wine / Bells, Boots and Shambles
The Future Won't Be Long (4:20), Island (3:43), Magical Mary (6:20), Captain's Log (2:09), At Home in the World (3:07), Cogwheels, Crutches and Cyanide (5:56), Time Will Tell (5:38), We Were a Happy Crew (5:32), Love Is a Funny Thing (2:11), The Duke of Beaufoot (8:06)
Dangerous Dave (4:18), Van Allen's Belt (2:51), Runaway (4:59), Grandad (3:27), Wings of Thunder (3:14), World's Eyes (7:37), Don't Let It Get You (4:30), Disraeli's Problem (4:21), A Canterbury Tale (4:13)
Bonus tracks: Counting the Cars (3:07), Window (2:11), Turn Again Lane (7:36), Melody Maker Man (2:39)
Bonus tracks: Counting the Cars (3:07), Window (2:11), Turn Again Lane (7:36), Melody Maker Man (2:39)
The Furthest Point (8:17), Old Boot Wine (4:18), Parallel Lines Never Separate (5:05), Spiggly (1:13), An Everyday Consumption Song (4:29), The Sergeant Says (3:41), In the Western World (12:59)
Bonus track: I Hear You're Going Somewhere (Joe Really) (2:26)
Bonus track: I Hear You're Going Somewhere (Joe Really) (2:26)
Now, since the inner workings of DPRP are private to the public, there should be no real reason to share this sort of information with you, right? Perhaps you think that I'm just being an honest bloke and admitting to an error of judgement. You're wrong.
The big reveal is that I wish to impress on you how thoroughly "not my cup of larks vomit" these albums are. That's not to say that I outright hate them; anybody who's seen my output knows that I'm not averse to giving a brutally honest opinion. These albums simply... weren't what I was expecting.
Perhaps it's the name Spirogyra. Such a wacky, funky name suggested a jazz fusion outfit to me. Coincidentally - and perhaps not so surprisingly - such a jazz fusion outfit named Spyro Gyra was formed by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein the very same year that Spirogyra split up. The music of the former Spirogyra however falls under that revolting moniker "prog folk".
Not that the music itself is sickening, or at least, not entirely. Scattered across the three disks are moments of serene beauty, quaking emotion and even proggish complexity. However, they are, for the most part, drenched in irritatingly acoustic instrumentation, preposterously pretentious lyrics and that self-congratulatory smugness that seems to come only in folk music.
If I am to give any sort of review, it will only be a high-level one, as I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to these albums closely enough to give them an in-depth review. St. Radigunds, released in 1971, shows the band getting off to a tentative, yet highly individual and idiosyncratic start. The songs rely heavily on the nasal whinings of songwriter Martin Cockerham and, to a lesser extent, the shockingly lovely voice of Barbara Gaskin, later to appear as one of the Northettes in the immortal Hatfield and the North. Drums are mainly non-existent, although they do appear on the weirdly complex and disjointed Magical Mary.
Old Boot Wine was released the year after, and has the best artwork of the three, don't you think? The music is more adventurous and, importantly, there's more DRUMS! Sonically speaking, this album is a vast improvement, and certainly doesn't grate like the creaking-violin-infused St. Radigunds. By album number three, Spirogyra had been stripped down to the two you can just about see if you squint at the cover of Bells, Boots and Shambles, those two being Cockerham and Gaskin. That said, a lot of the musicians seem to remain as guest musicians, so the change must have been purely political. On this album, they finally seem to understand that Gaskin is their greatest asset, and she shines like a star here. The band's last hurrah would take the form of their only true epic, a four piece suite entitled In the Western World. At thirteen minutes in length, this is the only song in the collection that actually made me want to listen again, and I have done so many times. It ain't brilliant, but it's certainly got something. Barbara's singing is absolutely spot on in the opening segment, and the ending reprise is very well executed.
Sticklers for artwork will be pleased to hear that the original back cover sleeves for all three albums are replicated in miniature on these Esoteric releases. Indeed, the only noticeable change to the artwork is on the cover for Bells, Boots and Shambles, where the title of the album has been re-centred and enlarged, which really ain't a big deal if you ask me. The liner notes are written by King Crimson and Whitley Bay fanatic Sid Smith, who has a lot more patience for the band than I do. In the liner notes to St. Radigunds, he pens a good introduction to the band for prog fans by linking the band to the Canterbury scene, despite recognising that the band's music wouldn't really fall under that category.
I am very happy to leave Spirogyra there. Since the turn of the millennium, former members Martin Cockerham and Mark Francis (the latter of whom shares his name with my uncle) have reunited and released more Spirogyra material in 2009's Children's Earth and 2011's 5. Without even the pulling factor of Gaskin, I have absolutely no desire to check either of these albums out. As for the first three, if you like folk, I'd say go for it!
St. Radigunds: 3 out of 10
Old Boot Wine: 4 out of 10
Bells, Boots and Shambles: 5 out of 10
St. Radigunds: 3 out of 10
Old Boot Wine: 4 out of 10
Bells, Boots and Shambles: 5 out of 10
Mind Portal - 1/2: Thought and Matter
Thought and Matter (13.17), The Lost Totem (7.44), Composition Time (8.22), Information War (9.10), Intermedia (0.50), Apotheosis (5.42)
Mind Portal are a relatively young band from Voronezh, approximately 500 kilometres south-west of Moscow. It is the largest city in this area, it also happens to be situated perilously close to the border with the Ukraine, currently the focus of much of the world's media due to a potentially explosive stand-off between Russia and the West. The band features Grigory Kurnosov on guitar, Vyacheslav Bessonov on keyboards, Vitaly Zotov, bassist and Roman Gorodnyansky thumping the tubs. Can't tell you much more than that because links to their website don't go anywhere and their record label MALS are not any more forthcoming. Pity. What I can tell you for sure, though, is that these young musicians are highly talented and potential prog stars in the making.
So what do they – and this particular album, 1/2: Thought and Matter – sound like? You will see them labelled everywhere – erroneously, in my view – as progressive metal. On the evidence of this particular album, and of their earlier debut 1.1, released on MALS in 2010, I would perhaps more accurately describe their music as modern hard rock, tinged with progressive and melodic metal elements. I won't bore you even more by going through a tedious track-by-track analysis, since I've already alluded to the important fact that this album is entirely instrumental, and there are no tiresome 'concepts', storylines or lyrics which need to be described to you in mind-numbing detail. Suffice it to say that most of the music presented here is mid-tempo but positively upbeat and enervating.
Comparisons are often useful so who, then, can I recommend in search of sonic similarities? Well, since I've already suggested that I consider Mind Portal to be more rock than prog-oriented, that immediately rules out some of my own favourite instrumental prog bands such as 7for4 and 4Front. I also have to make a confession here and admit that I'm an absolute sucker for instrumental guitar albums. I mention this because, whilst listening to the excellent guitarwork of Grigory Kurnosov which is a constant highlight throughout this entire album, I was immediately reminded of music I'd heard recently by solo guitarists such as Robert Rodrigo, Jose De Castro and Milan Polak. These highly-skilled, passionate and emotive axemeisters are perhaps not as well-known – and certainly not as successful – as the more obvious 'usual suspects', Messrs Vai, Satriani, and Petrucci, amongst others – but I can wholeheartedly recommend their output for lovers of God's Own Instrument! If I can also point you in the direction of Tim Morse's Transformation (2005) or the more recent Afterthought (2013) by Neal Morse's live touring guitarist Eric Gillette, these also will give you an insight into the Rock-leaning yet Progressive elements of this impressive second album from Mind Portal. Whilst yes, it's true that parts of this album – bits of track 4 Information War, for example – do wander in the general vicinity of Dream Theater (I know, I know, but if I don't mention THAT band, someone else will, so let's get it out of the way now) we are talking DT Lite here, certainly nothing to frighten the horses. Metallically, they are closer to some of Derek Sherinian's solo output. There are those of you who may find this album unoriginal and derivative (shame on you!). My response is that I absolutely love custard doughnuts, so, would I be extremely disappointed if my next doughnut tasted remarkably similar to my last doughnut? Take a guess!
Finally, if I may, I'd like to address those big 'buts' that I referred to at the beginning of this review. I've stated that I find instrumental albums more of a delight than a problem – but strictly non-vocal music, such as that performed by the aforementioned 7for4 and 4Front needs to meet certain criteria if it is to work satisfactorily. Amongst other things, the musicianship must be of a very high standard throughout the band, as must be the production values of the recording itself. The material must demand and hold our attention to the point where we simply do not notice or even care if there are no vocals. Apart from the genre of music itself this, then, is the crux of the problem I find when trying to compare Mind Portal to the likes of 4Front. When you listen to any album by 4Front, what you hear is a supremely confident and capable group of musicians who are comfortable with who they are and the material they are playing – an instrumental progressive rock/fusion band playing instrumental music.
On the other hand, all the way through this otherwise satisfying release by Mind Portal, I found myself wondering if perhaps the mixing engineer had accidentally left the faders down on the vocal tracks. In short, MP (I feel I know them well enough by now to call them MP!) are not an instrumental band. What they most definitely are is a potentially wonderful modern cross-over progressive rock/metal band who are crying out for a halfway-decent singer to make them complete. I suspect they already know this. I also suspect they know that they may have to relocate to the West not only to find him/her but, more importantly, to fulfil their ultimate destiny – or else remain a relatively big fish in a very small Russian progressive rock pond. I personally believe they have the talent to take the risks involved – it only remains for the boys in the band to decide whether they have enough belief in themselves. Highly recommended as a work-in-progress.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Cosmograf - Capacitor
The Spirit Capture (7.37), The Fear Created (7.29), The Reaper's Song (5.54), The Drover (6.37), White Car (9.35), The Ghost Gets Made (8.27), Stuck in the Wood (6.27)
Fifteen months later and Armstrong is back, tackling another huge philosophical theme based on his own personal thoughts and experiences "inspired by many hours of walking alone in silence". Here's the premise: what if you could capture the human spirit using technology, in this case, an electrical capacitor? So Capacitor is billed as "An Evening of Scientific and Spiritual Enlightenment" and what an event it turns out to be.
With a supporting cast comprising Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), Steve Dunn (Also Eden and Colorflow) and Nick Beggs (Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson) on bass, Nick D'Virgilio (Big Big Train) on drums, Matt Stevens (The Fierce and the Dead) on guitar and Andy Tillison (The Tangent) on organ, synths and keys, Armstrong has surrounded himself with some of the most happening musicians in prog for the journey.
It's an album very much driven by the storyline, which unfolds on so many levels, questioning the existence of ghosts, how they manifest in our everyday lives and pondering how our spirit could now be made immortal now through rapid technological developments.
The Spirit Capture opens with some suitably eerie effects and voice to draw you in at the start of this spooky journey that then shifts into a simple rhythm and subtle keyboards passage with Armstrong setting out his stall vocally with what is about to occur, quoting Einstein but also channelling Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells in content. Big riffs kick in as D'Virgilio ups the drum ante and there are some funky keys and simmering guitars in there too.
Killer riffs and an enormous beat get The Fear Created off to a thundering start as Armstrong takes his vocals into sinister mode, tapping into the psyche of a ghost with some incisive lyrics including "He reads our thoughts, our mind and deed, And waits to take our human lead". An element of intangible menace is wrapped up in here with so many other nuances including a church bell and swelling organ, hinting at the more religious overtones of the afterlife.
Adding to the malevolence is the creepy The Reaper's Song, a nasty statement of intent, that has a very strong Beatles' groove, especially towards the end when it veers into I Am The Walrus territory, Steve Dunn adding some tasty bass lines throughout.
The spirit of Armstrong's hero Steven Wilson looms large in The Drover's Song which is very reminiscent of the brilliant The Watchmaker from The Raven That Refused To Sing. Both are gentle lilting acoustically led songs but both have the overriding whiff of death and loss about them.
Armstrong's eponymous character is an old man who took his own life but whose spirit is still alive through the smell of the smoke from his pipe. It's an extraordinarily moving song in no small part through the sensitive, lyrically understated keys of Andy Tillison and Armstrong's jazzy scat singing.
For something completely different, there is no more compelling song than the pivotal track White Car, a séance set to music, Katharine Thompson taking the part of the medium. Suitably sombre, it offers the possibility of a spirit being able to warn those still on earth about an impending tragedy which could be avoided. Then controlled chaos ensues with some chunky riffs and some Queen-like harmonising before it changes pace again with doomy keys and a very restrained but gorgeous swelling guitar.
Now we arrive at the clever bit. What if technology now allows us to capture the spirit, perhaps even through a smartphone This possibility is explored in the most graphically eerie and heavy duty terms through The Spirit Captured. Lyrics include: "Life in several dimensions, trapped in your plastic toy". The whole song almost sounds like a cry for help with its "voices" from cyberspace and Armstrong's plaintive voice over huge swathes of sound, interspersed with acoustic sections.
To end, Armstrong offers a note of peace with Stuck in the Wood to see what he can sense from the souls of the past who walked the paths through the trees, joined on this one by Matt Stevens' sensitive, Floydian guitar and Nick Beggs' pulsating bassline.
Unlike The Man Left In Space, which had an immediate impact, Capacitor takes some time to fully comprehend because of the enormity of the subjects he tackles within it both musically and lyrically. The fact there is only just over a year between the release dates of the two albums is quite staggering in terms of the innate creativity and original thinking he demonstrates on both. That he has written, performed and produced it all – with a little help from his musical friends and sound engineer Rob Aubrey - is bordering on the miraculous.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10