Album Reviews

Issue 2014-064

Arena - Contagion Max

Arena - Contagion Max
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Verglas
Catalogue #: VGCD035
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 92:00
Info: Arena
Track List:
CD 1: Witch Hunt (4:14), An Angel Falls (1:13),Painted Man (4:39), Vanishing Act (4:11), This Way Madness Lies (3:31), The Hour Glass (5:58), Bitter Harvest (2:51),I Spy (2:33), Never Ending Night (3:23), Spectre At The Feast (5:33), Skin Game (4:42)
CD 2: Salamander (3:55), On The Box (2:38), Tsunami (2:36), On The Edge Of Despair (5:40), The City Of Lanterns (1:21), Riding The Tide (4:26), Contagious (4:07), March Of Time (7:29), Mea Culpa (3:43), Cutting The Cards (4:55), Confrontation (5:05), Ascension (4:31)
It is a well documented fact that when Arena released Contagion back in 2003 it wasn't the full story so to speak. During the sessions they in fact recorded a lot more music but decided that no progster would be interested in digesting 90 minutes of material over two CDs and released a single disc edition of nearly one hour of top quality neo-prog. See DPRP's review of Contagion by Ed Sander and Joakim Jahlmar who quite rightly rated this album very highly. The 'surplus' material was subsequently released as two EPs called Contagious and Contagium also in 2003 (see DPRP favourable reviews).

Ten years after Contagion's release and countless requests by fans to have the whole concept piece realised, the band started a successful pre-order campaign that was to fund the extended version entitled Contagion Max, with the EP tracks inserted in the correct places to complete the concept story. Needless to say the track listing is different from the 2003 Contagion release. So what is the concept?

The new double CD now includes Clive Nolan's apocalyptic short story which is interspersed throughout the lyrics within the CD booklet. In a nut-shell, it tells of a deadly virus, unleashed by the main protagonist Noah Kemp, that is destroying the world and all living things. But Noah is also the world's saviour as he searches for a little girl (Una) who shares the same birthmark, is immune to the blue-flame virus and who has the power to cleanse the world of this deadly plague. Clearly there are biblical undertones here.

Given the previous DPRP reviews it makes sense to consider if this album completes the Contagion jigsaw and now delivers a more resounding whole. Contagion Max is very satisfying and more 'proggie', bit like Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, to have the concept story provided. Clive Nolan certainly has a fertile imagination and I enjoyed reading his short story.

The first 3 tracks are as per the 2003 release. The 4th track is a new instrumental called Vanishing Act where the Painted Man (Noah) saves Una from the baying mob and both vanish deep into the woods. It gives a sense of despair as the pair make their desperate escape. I can see why this was dropped from Contagion as the next instrumental This Way Madness Lies is musically far more satisfying, with amazing bass playing from Ian Salmon – a short track with tingling guitar playing from John Mitchell. A criticism would be that it doesn't quite work with two instrumental tracks back-to-back; better if they segued into one another or better still re-worked.

The Hour glass is another new track and alludes to time running out as Una fights for her life whilst humanity is slowly being wiped out by the blue-flame virus. Great guitar work from John Mitchell, Rob Snowden delivers the lyrics with a soulful pleading interpretation. Great song and fits well into the grand scheme of things.

Bitter Harvest (still a great melody) follows (it was much further down the 2003 track listing) and a new track called I Spy comes next, where Noah senses that Una's "insight and wisdom is beyond her years". This track is not as polished as others but has a nice acoustic lilt with some lovely chorus harmonies. Nolan's use of synth strings sounds as if they are playing out of key in places and don't seem the right choice to me – I would have preferred a synth solo. Maybe this song should have been reworked as it certainly is a weak spot on the album.

The next 3 songs, Never Ending Night, Spectre at the Feast, and Skin Game, appear as per the 2003 release with a small tweak in their playing order to fit the story. This is the end of the 1st CD.

CD 2 starts with 3 songs in the order that they originally appeared on the 2003 version: Salamander, On the Box and Tsunami. The next track, On the Edge of Despair is a new (Bitter Harvest appeared next on the original album) track where Noah "was met by the stench of smouldering funeral pyres ... thousands of senseless deaths" and needs to seek out Una quickly. A good rock ballad that fits really well into the album order. Once again some great singing by Rob Sowden. The closing guitar rift sounds very familiar to the ending of The Lamb's Liliwhite Lilith. Deliberate? Anyway sounds good!

The City of Lanterns and Riding the Tide (can't help thinking Riding the Scree here!) appear as per 2003 and are followed by two new tracks. The first track is an instrumental called Contagious (back-to-back instrumental with Riding the Tide) with great bass & drum playing. Brilliant track. The second new track, March of Time, has an 80's pop feel to it but is not a bad song and features yet again some wonderful guitar and bass work. Must have been hard to leave this off the original 2003 release.

The last 3 songs of Contagion , Mea Culpa, Cutting the Cards and Ascension, appear in the same order on Max except for a new instrumental track sandwiched in between the last two called Confrontation . Reminds me very much of Tangerine Dream in places and is salvaged to some extent by John Mitchell's solo work, otherwise the track would be lacklustre and simply plod along.

I guess one has to assume that with the 2003 release, Nolan & Co. had to pick the best of the bunch and leave out those tracks they considered inferior. However in the context of the bigger picture, these tracks 'sandwich' in well with the 2003 release and give the whole album a sense of fulfilment or closure towards a better understanding of the story's concept. When you take in to account the artwork, the 28-page booklet with Nolan's story and the great music & musicianship, this is pure unadulterated classic neo-prog that hits the old prog g-spot.

So I'm easily compelled to give this my highest score yet for a DPRP review. I score this album a 8.5 on the old neo-progometer. This is (was?) ambitious stuff by Arena and hopefully we will see more of this in the future (would be great if the story was continued as to how Una survived and the woman she would ultimately become – take note Mr Nolan if you read this, and if you want me to write a short story to help out then don't hesitate to get in touch!).

So I think I will now sell my 2003 version as I doubt I will ever return to it again.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10

Atomic Ape - Swarm

Atomic Ape - Swarm
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Mimicry Records
Catalogue #: WOM 044
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 44:03
Info: Atomic Ape
Samples: Atomic Ape website
Track List:
Red Tide (4:23), The Blind Snake Charmer (4:38), Heraklion (4:15), Penumbra (4:13), Cabin of the Cursed (3:59), Lost Hills (0.51), Passenger (4:15), Nerve Agents (3:38), Refraction (3:06), Telesto (3:25), Rhythm Futur (7:18)
Atomic Ape, led by multi-instrumentalist Jason Schimmel, is a new formation of a band called Orange Tulip Conspiracy. The band's record label describes Atomic Ape's music as: "Like a soundtrack to an imaginary spy thriller, Atomic Ape offers a journey to a wild world where prog rock meets exotica, metal, Eastern European motifs, and avant-garde sensibilities. Heavily orchestrated, odd-metered, and highly animated, this melodic mutation splices dexterous musicianship with expert songcraft."

This is of course evocative language, but would you have any idea of what to expect? Me neither. Even after repeated listens, the group's first CD, Swarm, is hard to categorise, but it would be fair to label it as partly experimental, partly derivative big-band jazz. The sound, usually led by guitar or saxophone, is full, busy, and often rambunctious. Most tunes feature ten (or even more) musicians, and in total, approximately two dozen musicians play on this CD. It is no surprise that it was four years in the making.

The songs are certainly varied. Some of them, such as The Blind Snake Charmer, find their roots in Klezmer, but that particular tune also hints at swing and old-world jazz. The less-frenzied and well-done Telesto is melodic, deliberate, and ethereal. The one most likely to appeal to progressive rockers is the fine Cabin of the Cursed: featuring bending and somewhat eerie notes, it's quite atmospheric. The closing track, Rhythm Futur is written by Django Reinhardt and layers edgy, free-form instrumentation onto an energetic, gypsy foundation.

Favorable mention must be made of the CD's intricate and intriguing cover, depicting a futuristic King Kong in a likewise futuristic, industrial city. It's an impressive, albeit offbeat, piece of art. The interior artwork, which is similarly strange but more free-form, is less engaging.

Ambitious and no doubt fun to perform, Swarm is worth hearing. Nevertheless, lacking a clear identity or strong hooks, the CD is unlikely to be a play list regular.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10

Conqueror - Stems

Conqueror - Stems
Country of Origin: Italy
Format: CD/Download
Record Label: ma ra cash records
Catalogue #: MRC 040CD
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 62:12
Info: Conqueror
Samples: Conqueror website
Track List:
Gina (10:58), Di Notte (7:38), False Idee(7:43), Un' altra Realta (6:29), Sole al Bulo (6:44), C'est La Vie (5:44), Sigurta (9:29), Echi di Venta (7:31)
Finally after a hiatus of four years, a new Conqueror album sees the light of day. Since the release of Madame Zelle in 2010, a lot has happened to the band. Changes in personnel see drummer Natale Russo as the only member to be with Conqueror from the start. Simona Rigano (keyboards and vocals) is also a long time member, and now joined by Ture Pagano on guitar and Peppe Papa on bass as the new Conqueror four-piece band.

The downgrade or downsizing of the band has resulted in a slightly different sound to the music. Less symphonic than before, but still Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI) in a more grand format. Simona on keyboards and vocals is still dominating the music. Starting the album with the nearly 11-minute long song Gina, the new Conqueror instantly comes clear, with more complete arrangements, intuitive bass-lines, a steady beat in the back and a superb interaction between the guitar and keyboards.

This new way of arranging the songs for Conqueror exists throughout the entire album. The overall sound is more rocking. In some ways it reminds me of an album I reviewed not to long ago by another RPI band La Machera di cera; rocking yet old-school like PFM and Le Orme. Great songs, all of them melodic, symphonic, rocking and in the Conqueror way, with the vocals of Simona, female-fronted RPI. maybe.

The beginning of Un alta realta reminds me a lot of early Marillion with Fish on vocals. I was expecting to hear Fish, but then jazzier elements come looking around the corner. Sole al Bulo again goes back to the RPI balladry of False Idee, halfway into the song a slight change occurs and it continues in a 70s rocking fashion. The end is as it began, with a nice, easy, tranquil moment.

With C'est La Vie the band continues with the surprises in the music. This particular song is the rockiest, almost pop-rock. It reminds me a lot of the music by Gianna Nannini. Sigurta again has the traditional RPI feel to it, whilst completing the album we have the rocking yet symphonic Echi di Venta.

I believe that Conqueror has successfully superseded their previous album, which I enjoyed very much. Stems is even better; more complete. As with Madam Zelle, it is an album recommended to all RPI fans.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10

The Flower Kings - Tour Kaputt

The Flower Kings - Tour Kaputt
Country of Origin: Sweden
Format: 2CD/DVD
Record Label: Reingold Records
Catalogue #: CD 006 / DVD 001
Year of Release: 2011
Time: CD 1: 1:18.49
CD 2: 1:01.10
DVD: 2:20:00
Info: The Flower Kings
Samples: Flower Kings website
Track List:
Love is the only Answer (27:24), There is more to this World (10:23), Retropolis (13:11), Trading my Soul (6:35), Hudson River Sirens Call (8:39), I am the Sun (12:37), Life in Motion (12:36), Brimstone Flight 999 (5:45), Babylon (3:53), Stardust We Are (4:59), What if God is alone (8:27), Blade of Cain (6:31), The Sum of no Reason (18:59)
The 2CD/DVD Tour Kaput by The Flower Kings is a recording of a concert back in 2007 at de Boerderij in Zoetermeer. The name 'Tour Kaput' says something about the tour and especially the tour bus that the band used in 2007. The anecdote goes that the bus nearly brought an end to the tour and thus they would have been kaput. True or not, it's a nice anecdote to start off with. You can also read about this in the accompanying booklet.

I was there myself way back in 2007 and saw a band with energy, spirit and joy for playing. I remember that it was a long concert. Previously I had seen Roine, Tomas and Jason together with Zoltán Csörsz doing the Brimstone instrumental tour.

The trio was still there but now they had drummer Pat Mastelotto and guitarist/singer Hasse Froberg.

It all became an overwhelming experience, more than once Roine told us they were recording the show. So all of us did expect a live album at least. It took four years to release it as 2CD/DVD consisting of a full two hours and 20 minutes The Flower Kings extravaganza.

The CD's and DVD are actually the same. No spectacular 5.1 sound engineering, just the band playing a superb concert. No enhancements on the DVD. It's a plain live-recording. There has been studio editing and some mixing afterwards to make the album more representative. I cannot hear any overdubbing from the studio, so it is an 'official bootleg' as it states on the cover.

Having a magnificent drummer in Mastelotto paid-off in the duet with Jason Reingold. Not only when listening, but also when seeing this interaction between these two giants in music, is awesome. The band played both old and new material, with short tunes and longer epics, some jazzy and some rocking. It offers a complete picture of the band. Even seven years later I enjoy every single minute of this show over and over again.

If you don't know The Flower Kings, then this package is your chance. If you do, then don't hesitate to add this to your collection as a fine example of a progressive rock concert.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10

Gleemen - Oltre.. Lontano, Lontano

Gleemen - Oltre.. Lontano, Lontano
Country of Origin: Italy
Format: CD
Record Label: Black Widow
Catalogue #: BWRCD 164-2
Year of Release: 2013
Time: 59:24
Info: n/a
Track List:
Anima di Gomma (5:26), La Grande Carovana (4:18), Canzone dei Cuori Semplici (7:26), Skiziod Blues (5:15), Il Venditore di Palloni (5:03), In una Stanza (4:41), Stelle di Vetro (4:56), Nel mio Cortila (4:29), Solo Amore (7:21) , Oltre...Lontano, Lontano/Per un Solo Istante (10:23)
Gleemen is an Italian band from Genoa that for the most part plays southern boogie rock of a kind pioneered by The Allman Brothers 40 or more years ago. As if that wasn't odd enough, this is the band's second album. That statement is not strange in itself, but their first, self-titled LP came out in 1970!

So, a mere 43 years between albums, a gap that even Scott Walker or The Blue Nile would regard as a tad slow. The time has seen Gleemen change from Hendrix-inspired psychedelic rock (so Prog Archives tells me) to the current delta blues-rock they now favour. Admittedly, the original Gleemen changed its name to Garybaldi and released two more albums in the 70s before calling it a day. However we don't want to spoil a good story, do we!

The singer in the band is drummer Maurizio Cassinelli, and he is much better than dedicated vocalist Pino Nastasi, who appears on the second track La Grande Carovana. While Maurizo busies himself with Latin-flavoured percussion, Sig Nastasi strains to find the right note and the result is a bit painful on the ears.

Like the Allmans, two sometimes three guitars feature on each song, with plenty of swelling Hammond driving things along. Anima di Gomma showcases solos from Gianpaolo Casu, who obviously takes his blues style from the Clapton pages, back when Eric had a bit of fire left in his belly.

All the lyrics are in their native language, and no translations are provided, so I am in no position to comment on their content. This leaves me with just the music to concentrate on, which is pleasant enough. As well as the prevalent southern boogie feel, one can pick up on some Santana inflections. When they slow down, Gleemen show they are capable of a decent ballad, the seven minute Canzone dei Cuori Semplici meanders along in laid back and wistful fashion.

Skizoid Blues must hark back to that ancient debut album, if the guitar playing is anything to go by. This instrumental track is recorded by a stripped-down power trio version of the original 1970 band, with only fourth member, keyboard player Leo Marchi, absent. Of course, as Marchi is the only member of the original line-up not to appear on any track, it is entirely possible he is no longer with us.

Sadly, that is now the case for guitarist Bambo Fossati, who passed away earlier this year. Here he gives his best Robin Trower-impersonating-Hendrix impersonation. Without a press release it is impossible to say if this track is an outtake from the original album, in which case delete Robin Trower from the equation!

The line-up throughout the album is fluid, with no-one appearing on all ten tracks. Drummer Cassinelli gets closest with nine out ten. In all there are 14 musicians on this record, used in various combinations. Because of that, my initial impression of an Italian southern boogie band is not entirely accurate. There are other styles on the album, and it seems that the tracks on which guitarist Gianpaolo Casu appears are the closest to the Jacksonville sound. Stelle di Vetro even manages some dual harmony guitar soloing and some nice, if derivative, call and response guitar playing from Casu and Mauro Culotta.

One of the variations from the theme is Il Venditore di Palloni, an acoustic ballad with good harmony vocals between Casu and Cassinelli. This song is given an extra piquancy by Roberto Piga's violin and Alessandro Paolini's bowed double bass. This track segues into the heavy and dark In una Stanza, with more bowed double bass and some menacing, spidery guitar from Fossati. These two songs together are by far the highlights of the album.

The other seven minute opus, Solo Amore ("Only Love" – stop tittering at the back) is more of the laid-back, bluesy rock that mostly typifies the sound of Gleemen, going out on a very Beatles-like climax. The cryptic title track sort of ends the album, as the final two-and-a-half minutes of its 10:23 constitute Per un Solo Istante, another whimsical acoustic ballad.

As far as I can work out, Oltre...Lontano, Lontano translates as "Beyond...far, far away", and it is a seven-minute slow bar room blues. It gets through a fair few shots of JD and a boozy singalong chorus or two on its way to a realisation that we have seen/heard it all before; this song is the sound of a band playing for themselves and having enough fun to make it worth the effort.

Given some of the glaring omissions from Prog Archives, it is surprising that Gleemen made it to those listings, as there is nothing here that is particularly "prog", whatever you may take that much-debated word to mean. Oltre...Lontano, Lontano is pleasant but not particularly memorable, much like Italian beer. Suffice to say, if they make another album, they can't afford to be waiting another 43 years!
Conclusion: 5 out of 10

Heatwave Drum - Following the Traced Line

Heatwave Drum - Following the Traced Line
Country of Origin: Moldova
Format: CD
Record Label: Mellow Records
Catalogue #: MMP 525
Year of Release: 2012
Time: 74:41
Info: Heatwave Drum
Samples: Mellow Records website
Track List:
Preţul Visului Tău (The Price of Your Dream) (5:28), Oglinda Fericirii (Mirror of Happiness) (5:33), May and September (5:17), Velamox (6:09), Toxicity (5:46),The Circle (4:42), Шедевр (Relic) (6:25), Decadance (2:58), Pentru ca nu te-am cunoscut ('cause I've Never Known You) (5:22), Casa Mea (My Home) (7:01), Ritual (The Circle Reprise) (3:36), Libera di Amarti (Free to Love You) (5:09), Genia (4:25), Eclipse (6:50)
Heatwave Drum are a Moldovan three piece band, whose name translates as "Heatwave Road" (drum being Moldovan for road).

Heatwave Drum's members are Liusea Cumpenici (lead & backing vocals, choirs), Massimo Mazzeo (acoustic & electric guitars, bass, lead & backing vocals, harmonica, programming, orchestration) and Mauro Gaspa (keyboards, piano concert, mellotron, maracas, programming, orchestration). They also use guest musicians to provide scintillating elctric guitar work, take a bow, Fabio Rossi, Fabio Saccoccia and Matteo Tacchi. Also they have Silvano Sibona on drums.

The band has a lovely Italian prog sound to them, and they have been involved in tribute albums to various members of the classic Genesis line-up. Heatwave Drum's sound on Following the Traced Line is though most redolent of Steve Hackett's acoustic work on albums such as Voyage of the Acolyte, Please Don't Touch, and Spectral Mornings. Massimo Mazzeo's acoustic guitar work, the lovely synth work of Mauro Gaspa, and Liusea Cumpenici's breathy vocals produce bucolic, lyrical and delicate music that is very listenable but nothing groundbreaking.

The highlights include the quite lovely instrumental May and September. It has a light and uplifting melody played on acoustic guitar and synths that would hapily sit of a Hackett-era Genesis album. Another instrumental with synths and full on guitars, is Toxicity. Massimo Mazzeo moves onto electric guitar for this one, and it has a particularly engaging slide solo, along with a bass and piano interlude in the middle.

The folk-song like melody of Pentru ca nu te-am cunoscut ('Cause I've Never Known You), leaps between strummed acoustic guitar and a strident electric guitar riff, whilst Liusea Cumpenici's vocal floats above it all. Without bass or drums this song a stand out.

As does the male-female dual voiced, Libera di Amarti (Free to Love You). This opens in a ballad like way, all acoustic picking and keyboard washes, before picking up the dynamics and the tempo, as the drums come in. With nice organ fills, and a engaging, if too short, synth solo to round it off, this is a three part-suite in the guise of a five minute song.

The rest of the tracks, from the solo piano instrumental in a classical style (Genia) to the brass-section style synths stabs of Шедевр (Relic). From the Marillion style neo-prog of Casa Mea (My Home) to the harmonica (not an instrument one finds in much of prog) and dark, minor-key, synths on Velamox. Heatwave Drum show a lightness of touch, and have something of interest in all of the tracks on this release.

This is a solid release, but just lacks that overall spark that would push this into a recommended rating. But if you are in the mood for an album that references the acoustic and synth side of classic 1970s British and Italian prog bands, then this may well be for you.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10

Kevin Kastning & Carl Clements - Watercolor Sky

Kevin Kastning & Carl Clements - Watercolor Sky
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Greydisc
Catalogue #: GDR 3519
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 61:10
Info: Kevin Kastning
Samples: Kevin Kastning website
Track List:
A Transparency Through (10:42), The Sharing of Color and Visible (9:08), This Daytime Haunted (7:00), In Spiral Streams (9:03), Complete and Early if Later (4:58), While Still and Moving (10:08), Distant Interior Winds (10:11)
Experimental acoustic guitarist Kevin Kastning and his long-time colleague, saxophone and flute player Carl Clements return with an album seeped in melancholy. Watercolor Sky is the third album by the intrepid acoustic music explorers that I have reviewed on these pages, and they are keeping up a high level of output with at least one album per year.

The opening track A Transparency Through sets the scene. The low chords played by Kevin on his own invention, the 36-string double contra guitar sound like the low notes of a piano to these ears. Here they form the introduction to a slow, reflective piece led by Carl's bansuri, an Indian bamboo flute that illuminates a dark and haunting pastel beauty beyond the light mist.

Although more often than not the lead instrument is played by Carl, the structure of these pieces is down to Kevin. On this album he restricts himself to two instruments; the aforementioned 36-stringer and a 30-string contra-soprano guitar. These creations of Kevin are built for him by Emerald Guitars in Ireland, and are worth an article by themselves. Exquisite examples of undiluted craftsmanship, they are unlike anything I have come across before. Have a look here to get an idea of what Kevin is playing. The guitar players among you may pick yourselves off the floor now!

Carl's use of traditional and ethnic reed instruments adds the washed-out colour to Kevin's more experimental forays into harmonics and occasional dissonance, conveying a deeply contemplative atmosphere. The pace is stately and unhurried throughout, akin to a rusty-coloured leaf swinging and falling oh so slowly from the uppermost branches of an ancient oak in autumn.

Kevin uses dissonance to make the mists shift and shimmy as though interrupted by unsettling but subtle interference to Carl's stately and intermittently-atonal alto flute on The Sharing of Color and Visible. Carl's soprano saxophone makes an appearance on The Daytime Haunted, a piece with an appropriate title, and one that fits into the overall developing theme. Here and for the following three tracks Kevin is playing a mere 30-stringed guitar, and, not being a guitar player, the subtle differences between this and the 36-string monster are lost on me, not that it detracts from the album's mesmerising qualities one little bit.

In various combinations of reeds and impossible guitars we wend our way through the dappled forest, the gentle caresses of alto flute complementing the tinkling of the 30-string guitar on In Spiral Streams. A soulful tenor sax adds depth to the melody continued from the previous track on the mysteriously titled Complete and Early if Later.

We return to the alto flute for the last two tracks; ten minutes apiece. In actual fact the length of these pieces is irrelevant as the whole album forms a suite of intuitive mood songs that gently add layers to a tranquil but sometimes eerie soundtrack to an unwritten fairy tale, as old as the ancient forest itself. The final track Distant Interior Winds sees the return of the 36-string guitar after an introduction of more of the sinuous alto flute from Carl. The deep resonance of Kevin's instrument forges an undercurrent of vague menace, hinting at something unresolved.

One can use this album in two ways; as background music for study or work, or as an intensely personal inner journey. Both work just fine. Watercolor Sky is the work of two musicians who pick up on each other's moods with the ease of the long-acquainted players that they are, and it is unlike anything else you will hear this year.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10

North Atlantic Oscillation - The Third Day

North Atlantic Oscillation - The Third Day
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Format: CD/Download
Record Label: Kscope
Catalogue #: KSCOPE287WM
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 44.36
Info: North Atlantic Oscillation
Samples: North Atlantic Oscillation on Kscope
Track List:
Great Plains II 2.45, Elsewhere 5.38, August 4.38, A Nice Little Place 2.59, Penrose 3.42, Do Something Useful 4.44, Wires, 3.46, Pines of Eden 5.57, Dust 7.28, When to Stop 3.13
The Kscope label is home to some of the most exciting and innovative bands operating in the post-prog sphere at the moment. One of the finest signings to their label is Edinburgh-based ambient rock trio North Atlantic Oscillation. The trio of Sam Healy (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards) Ben Martin (drums, programming) and Chris Howard (bass) formed in 2005, and The Third Day is the trio's fantastic follow up to 2012's critically acclaimed Fog Electric.

These ten tracks of magnificence can also be seen as one track split into ten parts, as the album itself flows seamlessly from one track to the other and you can't see the joins. The sound on here is sparse, elegiac and haunting throughout. It conjures up images of wide, open spaces, and long, lonely nights. If you thought No-Man was master of sonic understatement, you ain't heard nothing yet.

It's not just about the sound with these guys, its also about the spaces in between the sound, as the album pulls you in with its delicate beauty, as it fades up with the beautiful harmonies and off-kilter electronic backdrop that is Great Plains II, which blends seamlessly into the treated piano and pulsating beats of Elsewhere, with its haunting vocal and powerhouse performance,

These guys are a musical tour de force, as they conjure up such sounds of intense beauty and power like the first single August. With its fantastic guitar work, you forget that there are only three of them. Maybe they are a post-power trio, bouncing off each other and firing on all cylinders to create a musical masterpiece.

Considering there's so much musical and emotional depth in these songs, it's quite astonishing that the album is over within the 45 minutes, but intelligent prog has never been about the length of the song, but the content, and there's so many ideas running through these tracks. It would keep lesser bands in albums for years.

Dust, the true long song on here is an amazing piece of work, with some fantastic lyrics and wonderful musical moments. It is the pinnacle of the album, a musical highpoint by anyone's standards.

North Atlantic Oscillation continues its exciting and fascinating musical journey on this extraordinary piece of work, a journey that all of us need to follow.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10

Never Awake - Underground

Never Awake - Underground
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD/Digital
Record Label: independent
Catalogue #:
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 51:25
Info: Never Awake
Samples: Never Awake at Bandcamp
Track List:
Pull The Trigger (5:04); Underground (6;18), Wander (5:06), History's Pages (6:24), Cross The Line (7:57), Habits (5:04), The Will To Live (5:57), Downtown (10:00)
Emerging from Portland in Oregon in 2011, Never Awake has thus far released an EP and supported the likes of Fates Warning, Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker Group.

Singer Taylor Dye, Matt Galligan on guitars and keys and drummer Alex McDonald have formed the backbone of the band since its inception. With the arrival of Jesse Weiss on bass, the final piece of the jigsaw was in place and the band entered the studios to record this, its debut album.

On a first listen I was unconvinced that this was anything more than a decent metal album with a grungy tone to the guitars. However on repeated listens, the eight songs began to unravel their layers and I was hooked. Underground manages to be catchy and accessible, yet complex and aggressive. There is some impressively concise songwriting to be enjoyed here along with a record-label quality sound production which allows enough space to distinguish and appreciate what is going on.

Every song has an addictive melodic hook at its core yet with a myriad of rhythmic layers patterned by short solo bursts. This isn't progressive metal Dream Theater-style with endless, widdly solos. This is modern metal with a progressive intent. I'm really struggling to select a favourite track as they all have something to offer. There is a nice variety to the styles of each song which keeps things interesting. The closing track doesn't have enough idea to warrant it's 10-minute running time but apart from that, I can find little to fault. A album that just gets better with each listen and a band to watch.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10

Seven Impale - City of the Sun

Seven Impale - City of the Sun
Country of Origin: Norway
Format: CD
Record Label: Karisma Records
Catalogue #: KAR 083
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 47:07
Info: Seven Impale
Samples: Seven Impale at Soundcloud
Track List:
Oh, My Gravity! (10:08), Windshears (6:44), Eschaton Horo (8:46), Extraction (6:48), God Left Us for a Black-Dressed Woman (14:41)
Norwegian band Seven Impale have produced an album that should appeal to a variety of prog fans. Those who enjoy the music of such diverse artists such as, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Motorsycho, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Jaga Jazzist should find much within City Of The Sun to appreciate. Seven Impale's debut release consisting of five lengthy pieces is distinctively innovative and appealingly challenging in its overall complexity. They have created a release that is infused with elements of Jazz, heavy prog, metal and symphonic progressive rock. The crisp freshness and originality that is at the heart of City Of The Sun creates a thoroughly rewarding experience. The release contains numerous lengthy instrumental passages complete with surprising stylistic shifts. City Of The Sun does not fit easily into any typically defined prog sub genre and this aspect is clearly one of the albums greatest strengths.

The saxophone is the most prominent instrument throughout and it adds great depth to the bands overall sound. The way in which the instrument is frequently utilised gives the music a tonal aspect that affirms the bands Jazz leanings. Despite this, what arguably lies even deeper within the music, is the bands ability to construct pieces that are extended and built around memorable and tuneful song writing. This central element is hinted at,highlighted and gloriously gift wrapped within the striking instrumental sections. The excellent vocal delivery throughout the release brings attention to ; and emotively expresses the often delightful melodies of the song based parts. Throughout the release all of the musicians contribute fully to the ensemble's overall sound. The opening track Oh, My Gravity! gives a clear indication of the abilities of Seven Impale.It is a very well constructed piece. Within its lengthy duration, the band are able to illustrate skilful subtlety in the plaintive vocal sections and energetic youthful exuberance in the heavier guitar led passages. The piece is densely cloaked in sax, but is also adorned with keyboard swirls and explosive guitar led rhythms that form complex instrumental passages. The adventurous combination of a number of disparate styles creates a unique soundscape where Jazz and metal parts vie and spar for dominance. The contrast between these styling's work well for the most part, within this impressive track. The vocal section which ends the track is enjoyably disimilar to the powerful music that precedes it. Vocalist Økland is able to sing with great feeling and this creates a very satisfying conclusion to this excellent composition.

Windshears is generally a more placid piece. The bright and tuneful saxophone passage that features on the minute mark is outstanding. It is also a piece in which the melodic vocals shine brightly amidst some highly charged jazz versus metal passages. Aspects of the delightful vocal styling in this piece brought to mind Gentle Giant. Windshears also has some beautifully melodic instrumental parts which ooze class and quality. The contrast between Jazz and Metal, power and melody, dark and light is a consistent feature of Seven Impale's composition's and is plainly evident in the clever intricacies of Wind shears. However, at times I found the heavier discordant sections within the piece rather disconcerting and at odds with its harmonious nature. Many though, might find such disparity highly appealing. Certainly, the swirling, chugging, bustling guitars and pounding rhythms fighting for dominance in a Jazz tinged soundscape added a great deal of contrast and some interesting and initially unforeseen moments. Overall though, they arguably did not add any extra value to a piece that contained such strong and impressive tuneful sections.

In this respect, the frequent addition of heavy prog or metal influenced sections within the four sub ten minute compositions of City Of The Sun, might be considered by some an unnecessary, or unwarranted diversion from the melodic core of the music. It seemed at times as though, the heavier passages followed a set formula and were present to highlight that the band had the vision and competence to span a number of prog sub genres within a single track. From a personal perspective I was often in awe of the musicianship and complexity of aspects of City Of The Sun and was able to appreciate its many qualities. However, there were times when despite its obvious quality, I was unable to make a connection with the music. This was particularly the case during the explicitly metal inspired segments within compositions, which were at best an interesting and unexpected distraction, or at worst, might be considered superfluous.

Eschaton Horo has complex time signatures and numerous and often unexpected changes of rhythm and tempo. It begins with a rhythmic and repetitive sax and guitar led riff. This soon gives way to a mellow vocal section. The emotive and angst ridden vocals are particularly excellent in this track. I found the voice of Stian Økland quite alluring and no more so than in this piece. On more than one occasion his vocal style drew favourable comparisons with Robert Plant in his prime. The piece also contains a variety of styles which blend surprisingly well. The middle section at 3.44 was particularly reminiscent of King Crimson and revealed some of the bands influences. The extended heavy saxophone and guitar riff that emerged following a Zappa esque interlude worked perfectly within the overall composition.

Extraction is probably the weakest tune on the album. It begins rousingly with bass and swirling keyboards. It features an angst tinged heavier vocal part and some plaintive instrumental parts. The piece is dominated by many different changes in intensity and decorated by some impressive playing. In comparison though, it is a track that is not as memorable as the other compositions which make up the release.

God Left Us for a Black-Dressed Woman is a highlight of the album and is a fully charged piece of epic proportions. Although the music is tightly coiled, the fourteen minute duration of the composition allows the players ample opportunities to explore different styles and genres. As such, there was sufficient time for contrasting styles to breathe and develop in an organic and unforced manner.In this piece, the juxtaposition of Jazz and metal sections seemed natural, innovative and unforced. The vocal inflection and powerfully emotive style of Økland once again called to mind Robert Plant. The memorable chorus is led by this excellent vocal performance and in its final reprise these are multi layered to excellent effect. I am sure that this track in particular will justifiably gain the band many admirers. It contains numerous elements to be savoured and enjoyed and is an excellent way for Seven Impale to conclude their impressive debut release.

Overall, City Of The Sun is a release which has great resonance. It is also a wonderfully produced album in which, the frequently contrasting shifts between soft and heavy passages are clear and impressive. Producer Iver Sandoy has done an excellent job in helping to reveal the power and subtleties contained within the band's music. It is an album that I confidently recommend readers to hear and explore. I hope that others find listening to City Of The Sun as enjoyable and interesting as I have. I continue to discover many different sonic pathways to explore within its varied landscape. I eagerly await Seven Impale's next release with interest.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Album Reviews