Bram Stoker - Cold Reading
Climbing the Gyroscope (4:47), Cold Reading (4:24), Fast Decay (4:34), Calling me Home (5:36), Chasing Red (7:22), Joust (4:46), New Adventure (5:05), Like Autumn Now (5:39), Fingal's Cave (6:39), Light at the End of the Tunnel (5:57)
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that the creative forces of the original trio, keyboardist Tony Bronsdon and guitarist/bassist Tony Lowe, had reunited, being joined by new drummer, vocalist and lyricist Will Hicks. What is more, the original bassist, Jon Bavin contributed to the writing of two of the new songs. Lowe's name may be familiar to those who regularly devour credits on albums, as since the first incarnation of the band he has worked as a musician with the likes of Julian Lennon, Roger Daltrey, The Pet Shop Boys and Phil Ramone as well as a producer for artists such as Flying Colours, Toyah and original Ultravox singer John Foxx. He has also just completed producing the forthcoming David Cross & Robert Fripp Starless Starlight, an instrumental work based on the theme from Crimson's epic Starless.
Cold Reading provides almost an hour of classic-period prog with Bronsdon's classically-inspired Hammond playing to the fore. The album is almost evenly split between songs and instrumentals. Thus it encapsulates the different aspects of progressive rock, intelligently-themed lyrics backed by sympathetic supporting music (something that was not always the case on the band's first album), with self-contained musical passages. These passages give the musicians a greater degree of space.
Two of the instrumentals are new interpretations of tracks that appeared on Heavy Rock Spectacular and both are greatly improved, largely as a result of better production. The music itself remains largely unchanged, although Fast Decay has gained about a minute in running time, commensurate with the time that Fingal's Cave has been shortened. Of the other instrumentals, opening number Climbing the Gyroscope is a great scene-setter, introducing the dominant Hammond with a heavy undertow that drives proceedings along. It is nice to hear some new keyboard sounds introduced throughout, and the keyboard/guitar interplay adds a certain Atomic Rooster vibe.
Joust starts with a medieval fanfare, developing into a sprightly number which blends musical motifs from different eras (including a nice harpsichord sound) into a cleverly arranged piece. The album is closed by the final instrumental Light at the End of the Tunnel which, initially, is rather more modern sounding and runs the risk of developing into a rather bland number, before being overtaken by the swirling sound of the Hammond and a mean bass line. The programmed drums are somewhat of a distraction and one would question the sequencing, as to my mind it is not the strongest piece on the album and doesn't leave the listener with a big-ending impact.
On to the songs, starting with the two pieces written by three members of the original band, with assistance from new boy Hack. The title track is a gentler number, with Hack's assured voice suiting the music very well, and Lowe firing off a couple of splendid solos. In the best prog rock traditions, the song takes several turns with some Emerson-like keyboards taking the song into a heavier section. New Adventure is a poppier number and the better for it, as it contains a lovely melody. The chorus is of a very unusual structure, providing a nice contrast to the rest of the song and the rest of the album.
Calling Me Home is another very strong number. The musicians combine well and the middle eight is altogether a bit freakier, with some very interesting playing. Chasing Red is the longest track on the album and is a musical battle between the darker verses and the brighter instrumental, linking passages. The instrumental sections are positively brimming with style, not too overblown, never clichéd and always interesting. Finally we have Like Autumn Now, on which Bronsdon shows his fleet fingers and Lowe peels off guitar solos two-a-penny. Very impressive stuff.
Forty-two years is quite a while to leave between releases. The world hasn't exactly been crying out for a new album by Bram Stoker, probably as the original album did not sell all that well (it was released, believe it or not on the Windmill imprint, a budget-priced label owned I believe by the now defunct Woolworth store chain). I bet original copies fetch a decent price now though.
Cold Reading is a very decent effort, mixing classic 70s-style prog with a more contemporary twist in places. It is worth a listen particularly if you are a fan of keyboard-led music, especially with plenty of infused organ.
Mark Hughes: 7 out of 10
Cross - Da Capo
Fire (13:53), Dream Reality (9:02), Changing (1:36), Visions (7:07), Courage (14:21)
On the last album, Hansi Cross wore his Genesis influences firmly on his sleeve, whereas here the tone is more on the heavier side of neo-prog. The opening Fire features Cross' muscular guitar to the fore, with superb soloing supported by lush keyboards and the razor sharp rhythm partnership of Hjort and Christensen. The latter has certainly integrated well into the band, with some very fluid bass lines. Although the vocals are sparse, the chorus is suitably memorable, even though Cross is a capable, rather than a strong singer. Occasionally straining to reach the higher notes, he puts me in mind of Bryan Josh, of Mostly Autumn. On Dream Reality the keyboards create a symphonic wall of sound that tonally harks back to the iconic synth riff on the 80s hit The Final Countdown by Europe. Again, amongst all the bombast there is a very fine song which reveals itself around the halfway mark.
The short instrumental Changing really should have opened the album, with its Keith Emerson-style synth fanfare similar to the introduction to the Cross song Waking Up on their last album. Visions on the other hand is a fast-paced but tuneful song, which again allows plenty of space for some tasteful instrumental work, particular the fiery synth solo which I believe is Bender's.
Taking its time to develop, the keyboard heavy Courage has an air of mystery and menace that would not sound out of place as the soundtrack to a contemporary horror film. Roughly halfway in, it hits its upbeat stride with a soaring guitar break, before a suitably majestic finale.
This is a fairly strong collection of songs from Hansi Cross, so it's perhaps not surprising that he decided to give them a fresh lease of life. Why he should focus on the second and third albums is difficult to say, perhaps he felt they did not receive the attention they deserved first time around or he was dissatisfied with the original recordings. If that is the case, then here they benefit from Cross' first rate production. It has more weight than it did on the band's last album, giving all instruments ample space and presence. As for the retro synth sound, the jury is still out for me on that one.
Geoff Feakes: 7 out of 10
Elabaural - A Journey of Intrigue
Genesis (5:36), Precipice (4:47), Population. Montgomery (4:20), BlackJack (20:33), Trial by Torrent (10:15), Adrift (2:09), Suspended in a Painting (6:58), Mind Cry (2:17), Vorcha (3:07), The Raid (11:27)
Some bands with minimalistic line-ups manage to get a deep, rich sound that seems as if there are more people playing than there really is (feel free to come up with your own examples). Elabaural is not one of those. There's drums, bass, guitar, and that's it. To boot, the production, while clear enough, is rough and rather dry; a far cry from the professionalism that an epic concept album requires. What you hear is what you get. The lack of a keyboardist is keenly felt (and I'm a little disappointed that there aren't any bagpipes). There's never a sense of anything else than two people playing in a room, and I'm certainly not imagining any exciting space adventures.
Opener Genesis takes a decently fetching theme and plays around with it for five minutes. Like most of the album it is pleasant, but unrefined and too long. The metal register is opened in the second song, Precipice. At that point, things get iffy. It's rough going, and not in a good way. The unpolished sound seriously hampers the enjoyability in the heavy passages. The mellow bits are better, if only for that reason, as on Population.Montgomery and on the slap-bass led Suspended in a Painting. They play well, that's for sure. Arran's guitar playing is the main attraction here. This album showcases his talents as a dexterous and creative guitarist who comes up with interesting themes and tunes within the confinements of 4/4 time.
The problem is that it doesn't really offer much more than that. The songs themselves just meander by anonymously with nothing more than a couple of nice guitar moments to keep the listener interested. Short songs, long songs, they all sound alike. The lack of vocals absolutely does not help, and while Arran is a skilled guitarist, his drumming is merely passable. When that is all there is, 70 minutes is a lot of time!
And that is the main problem here. I very much doubt the wisdom of the decision that this band's very first step into the world of recorded material should immediately be a 70-minute concept album with one 20-minute and two other ten-minute tracks on it. That's a gutsy move, but they've really bitten off more than they can chew at the moment.
Diving in right at the deep end might be commendably ambitious but can also backfire spectacularly. Making this sort of album isn't easy and should probably be reserved for experienced bands that have taken the time to hone their skills. Elabaural, for all their musical talent, have a lot to learn in terms of really putting an album together, crafting songs, getting proper depth to the sound, getting it to "flow" and maintaining interest and tension.
If this album had been half its length and presented as a demo, I would probably have given it a higher score and praised it as a showcase of two talented musicians who are gonna go places. However, I should review this for what it is, rather than for what it isn't. Make no mistake: as a full blown space-themed concept record in its own right, A Journey of Intrigue absolutely does not work. If I want an epic concept album, I expect much, much more.
Alister has since left the "band", now leaving his brother Arran on his own and looking for musical companions. If you happen to be in Scotland and looking for a talented guitarist, check him out. I am certain that Arran will one day be involved in the creation of a prog rock masterpiece. This isn't it.
Niels Hazeborg: 5 out of 10
Fuzzy Nautilus - Antenna
Nocturne (4.44), I Lost My Keys Somewhere Along The Milky Way (6.35), What's Going On (9.31)
The south east London five-piece is an offshoot of Bad Elephant Music's The Gift, featuring Samuele Matteucci on vocals and keyboards and drummer/vocalist Scott James. They are joined by Tom Cundell and Martin Pozo on guitars and John Keates on bass, who also supplied the EP's artwork. Apparently, the two guitarists were recruited via gumtree ads.
Their first major show was at the Resonance Festival in Balham, south London last July and since then, their live appearances have been very scarce. However, based on this EP, they have the makings of being potentially a very exciting and compelling live festival band.
EPs are great calling cards, and with this their debut release, few bands have set out their stalls quite so comprehensively and enjoyably as this.
The band cite The Beatles, King Crimson, Camel, Focus, Yes, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Uriah Heep as their inspirations, and certainly several of these influences emerge throughout this 20-plus minute showcase which is comprised of three contrasting songs.
They smash straight into Nocturne, with huge Crimson overtones and Samuele's vocals evoking shades of Neal Morse/Spocks Beard over a strong foundation of instrumentation, where no single instrument dominates. They maintain this clever balance through the three numbers. Guitars reverberate and resonate, vocal harmonies delight, and there is a big synth ending for good measure.
Fuzzy guitars begin I Lost My Keys Somewhere Along The Milky Way, the title of which they manage to fit in vocally soon afterwards, which is very impressive. There's an awful lot going on within this space continuum, including a solid, driving rhythm, effective vocals and a very engaging, spacey-trippy instrumental section. Throughout, they remain tightly in synch and create a distinctive sonic atmosphere before the track builds into a final crescendo.
They raise their game yet again on What's Going On with a multi-tracked vocal harmony intro, in which they manage to channel The Beatles, but in a contemporary groove. These harmonics translate beautifully into a stunning instrumental section which manages to sound discordant and melodic at the same time.
This band's strongest suit is being able to subtly change the musical direction, which ensures your interest is held throughout. Here, they mix it up with a softer passage followed by big chords, clever time signatures punctuated by a chunky bass, and some interesting keyboards that give an air of organised chaos. It all finishes with another close vocal harmonic passage.
If they can achieve this in 20 minutes, the possibilities are endless, if they are able to sustain this level of excellence by another two-thirds. If they have the time and the inclination, their next could be one of the most anticipated prog albums of 2015.
Alison Henderson: 8.5 out of 10
HeKz - Caerus
Progress and Failure (7.45), Liberation (5.20), Disconnect the World (3.46), From Obscurity To Eternity (5.35), The Black Hand (12.40), Kingdom (7.42), The Left Hand Of God (5.09), Homo Ex Machina (11.53), Journey's End (17.31)
They are UK-based HeKz, current holders of the Classic Rock Society's Best Newcomer Award, of whom DPRP said of their first album: "As young bands go, HeKz have made a fine statement with their debut album Tabula Rasa. As an album, it hits all the main points one would expect, and then some ..."
The good news is that on their always tricky second album the band's star remains well and truly in the ascendant. Now a five piece, the album released on their own BMH imprint of Cherry Red, is a bold and brilliant statement of intent, bursting full of pyrotechnics, energy and drama. That confident, sometimes bombastic style is there in spades, but they have continued to grow as songwriters and composers, tackling some pretty weighty themes in their bid for glory.
It's all compelling and beautifully thought out, with the content and balance of the songs providing little set pieces for each player. Pin-up singer and bassist Matt Young is blessed with a spectacular set of baritone pipes which swoop and soar, hitting some ridiculously impossible notes yet also smouldering with a theatrical edge.
Young, plus the distinct twin guitars of Al Beveridge and Tom Smith and drummer Kirk Brandham, are now joined by James Messenger, whose heady synths and pounding Hammond give even more clout to their sound.
Their influences may be Dream Theater and Iron Maiden, but you can hear some of the other classic bands mixed in the songs. None more so than on the full-on, calling-card opener Progress & Failure, an epic checks-and-balances review of the state of the world, brimming full of prog metal motifs and also some superb Uriah Heep harmonies.
Big themes of good and evil keep cropping up, along with a few supernatural flourishes across the sweep of the nine tracks.
Liberation is a nerve shredder, with those twin guitars cranking out some huge riffs, and Messenger pumping out some intricate keyboard lines. Meanwhile Young sounds heroic in-extremis, hitting one of those aforementioned impossible notes on exit.
Some choppy bass kicks off Disconnect The World and there are some sleek harmonies in there. You are momentarily reminded of Deep Purple, especially by the accompanying Hammond in the mix, and with Young channelling Ian Gillan with a single, silver-throated screech.
From Obscurity to Eternity grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the outset, and gallops along at a rate of knots. Young and cohorts belt out a very catchy chorus line, while well-measured guitars and spacey synths add texture and colour.
Heaviest duty of all is The Black Hand which grinds and burns, but has plenty of melody and an abundance of twists to sustain it over 12 minutes. Young stokes up the fires with lyrics that follow the overarching theme of light and darkness.
Kingdom lightens the mood with sparse guitars weaving in and out of Young's delicate vocals, and a string section featuring too, before it all explodes into life with a violin high in the mix, giving it a slightly Middle Eastern feel. There's a little "Genesis" section, during which Young's voice is distorted, before it ignites once again.
A hymn-like Hammond begins The Left Hand of God, before Young launches his staccato verbal attack with machine gun-like precision. It even gets jazzy during one of the chorus breaks.
Homo Ex Machina is another bleak epic, with Young totally owning the space over the crunching guitars and driving rhythm. A futuristic, baroque keyboard break and more voice distortions give an alien dimension which all builds to a huge crescendo. It drops away to plaintive piano, after which it rebuilds itself along fast and furious lines.
Closer Journey's End is the longest track on the album and provides the ideal denouement. Starting with an urgent piano and understated symphonic undercurrents, as it gathers pace, Young turns master storyteller, with the band adding lush harmonies to the strong melody line. It conjures up Uriah Heep yet again, and that is no bad thing.
At 77 minutes long, Caerus is a mighty achievement and again the band has produced it themselves, with John Mitchell taking care of the mixing and mastering.
Though prog metal is not really my oeuvre, the detail and energy the band injects into the music is simply a joy to experience. I cannot recommend this album highly enough.
Alison Henderson: 8.5 out of 10
Keyframe - Keyframe
Esoteric (3:55), All in Time (3:43), Breaking the Fourth Wall (4:10), The Protaganist (3:53), Sonder (2:20), Galivanting (2:53), Cupola Purism (3:22), Schematics (3:04), Dismal Swamp (2:38), The Middle Man (4:29)
The seven tracks which follow are not even remotely satisfying. The vocal performance throughout Keyframe is sincere, heart-felt and angst ridden. The prevalent folk-like inflections give the music a woody appeal. For the most part, the overwhelming impression is that the album is vocally monotonous and flat. The vocal inconsistencies of pitch and tone apparent in songs such as The Protagonist were extremely unappealing.
Despite its adventurous Middle Eastern references, The Protagonist must rate as one of the least satisfying tracks on the album. The guitar and vocal parts take it in turns to tunelessly and tunefully compete. At its conclusion, a basic, electrified riff emerges. No doubt this part was included in the vain hope of awarding the listener a consolation prize for enduring the piece. In this respect, all attempts to transform this woeful tune, fail miserably.
I rarely have had to cajole myself when reviewing an album, but the performance frailties apparent in Keyframe, when combined with the inherently unadventurous song structures, made it difficult to retain any objective interest.
In a number of tracks such as Cupola Purism, Schematics and Dismal Swamp the low-tension strings and open-tuned acoustic guitar style of Bugi Weaver were in some ways reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's altered tunings in Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Mitchell's work was highly adept and satisfying. Her approach worked perfectly within the context of her outstanding song writing. Unfortunately, the guitar set-up prevalent in much of Keyframe often had a jarring effect and did little to lift the compositions.
Nevertheless, Schematics includes a pleasant instrumental guitar part that raised its head out of the gloom. It was probably the most satisfying solo on the album. Gallivanting has a jaunty uplifting feel. Its rhythm and structure reminded me of the work of fellow Australian band Men at Work. Hidden within the questionable harmony vocals and a littering of strangely out-of-place guitar parts, there is an underlying and appealing composition longing to emerge and be rescued.
What the release lacks in performance finesse and compositional quality, is tempered by the trio's undoubted enthusiasm for their music. I have become more tolerant of its weaknesses with repeated exposure. I have even become quite fond of some of the album's idiosyncrasies. Overall though, Keyframe is a somewhat disappointing debut. It is not an album I will play frequently. Much of what is on offer was unfortunately not to my taste.
I hope that readers check Keyframe's music out. It is possible that they may find something to enjoy.
Owen Davies: 4 out of 10
Maze of Sound - Sunray
Rain Charmer (6:04), Reflection (5:34), Man In The Balloon (5:54), Animal (5:04), Trick Of The Witch (5:54), Mad Hatter (7:09), Forest (4:36), Last Sunray (7:54), Memory (4:01)
MoS was created in 2012, and recorded its Man In The Balloon EP in January 2013 before releasing Sunray in November 2014. It's an album consisting of nine tracks, full of melodic progressive rock. Their music and lyrics lead us through a world where fantasy and reality alternate. There is a song called Rain Charmer, and another entitled Mad Hatter (from Alice in Wonderland) but also more realistic sounding song titles like Last Sunray and Memory.
The musicians of MoS find inspiration from Peter Gabriel, Genesis and Marillion, but definitely are no copycats and show their own style. The opening track reminded me a bit of RPWL, especially the keyboards having a Yogi Lang-ish feel. The vocals of Kuba Olejnik are quite pleasant and his pronunciation of the English language is also very acceptable and doesn't disturb me. This opener is very catchy tune and a fine example of the quality of music we can expect throughout the rest of the album.
Reflection has some moments I thought of Alan Parsons Project and has some brilliant solos on guitar. Nearly all the music has been written by keyboardist Piotr Majewski and he has managed to make some well balanced songs, where guitar and keyboard have enough space to stand out. The rhythm section is also in very capable hands, so there's not really much negative to say about this album.
Trick Of The Witch is an instrumental track with nice piano and great guitar sounds. Mad Hatter is, as the title might suggest, a bit of a weird track with some funny noises, freaky laughing and Olejnik singing in a manner suggesting he is the Mad Hatter. The longest track of the album, Last Sunray starts with a Steve Rothery-like guitar and has a fantastic section when the organ kicks in, supported by brilliant drumming. Great music and again a very catchy tune.
I'm glad I got the opportunity to review this album because this is probably a band to watch, and hopefully they will appear on many stages across Europe and the rest of the world. On You Tube there's a 45 minute concert by MoS at Busko Rock and they really sound awesome on stage as well. Listen to the samples or watch them on You Tube because they are really worth it.
Peter Swanson: 8.5 out of 10
The David Rhodes Band - Rhodes
If I Could Empty My Head (3:18), Grinding Wheel (4:51), Ship Of Fools (5:35), You Are The North Wind (2:47), Monkey On My Back (3:35), Wiggle Dance (4:31), Time (3:31), Three Is Everything (4:11), My Blue Balloon (4:51), Be Mine (5:14)
The diversity of the artists included in the above list is an indication of the versatility of Rhodes' playing, a versatility that is matched by drummer Ged Lynch, whose credits are equally impressive (The Charlatans, David Sylvian, Electronic, Joseph Arthur, Tom Jones, Yusuf Islam, David Gilmour, Peter Gabriel and Goldfrapp). The trio on this album is completed by bassist Charlie Jones, Robert Plant's bassist of choice, who has also performed with Siouxsie Sioux, Goldfrapp, Page and Plant and has also released a challenging, genre-defying instrumental solo album Love Form.
As one might expect, there is a great degree of variety on Rhodes, unified by marvelously idiosyncratic songs, always interesting guitar playing and downright enjoyable music. The driving If I Could Empty My Head kicks things off with some playing that is characteristic of the Rhodes sound, but diversifies on Grinding Wheel, where the subliminal bass is the driver, leaving plenty of room for the excellent vocal arrangement. There is an absolutely sublime chorus, all rounded-off with an acerbically biting solo.
An acoustic guitar is utilised on the questioning Ship Of Fools. The full band kicks in at the two-minute mark with electric guitar to the fore, yet maintaining the melodic and harmonic integrity. The short You Are The North Wind takes the tempo down, and layers a mass of vocal harmonies in an almost-ballad. The first half of the album is concluded with the superb Monkey On My Back, an angular song with post-punk attitude, a driving beat and a fuzzed-out guitar of great delight. I deny anyone to stop their foot from tapping along to this number.
The second half kicks off with Waggle Dance, named after the manner in which bees communicate the location of sources of pollen to other members of the hive. There is certainly a certain amount of waggle to the music and although there are some clever moments, the song does not resonate as well as the others.
We are back to acoustic for the intro to Time, whose relative musical simplicity lets the attention fall on the vocals, with its warning message: "Time's not on our side, we best act now before now becomes our past". Three Is Everything takes a gentler approach, in a rather sweet love song whose sedate atmosphere continues into My Blue Balloon. Here Jones' bass carries the initial instrumental burden, with Rhodes' guitar clattering sweetly towards the end. There are lovely dynamics and great balance throughout this piece.
Finally we have Be Mine which, as with the majority of the second half of the album, takes a more laid back approach. But lest you are tempted to forget that Rhodes is first and foremost a guitarist, he rounds-off the last couple of minutes of the album with some very nice guitar work, where all three musicians put in a fine performance.
Being a massive Random Hold fan, more so than Peter Gabriel if truth be told, I was very much looking forward to hearing this album, mainly to hear Rhodes' song writing again. I knew how much of an innovative guitarist he is, but was pleasantly surprised at how good a singer he is too. This album is a great mix of quirkiness and balladry, with the former tending to find more favour with my tastes. However, that said, each number offers a lot, and the overall result is an album that just grows with each listen. I can comfortably recommend this album, as Rhodes is not only a fine guitarist and fine singer, but also a first rate composer.
Mark Hughes: 8 out of 10
Theo - The Game of Ouroboros - Duo Review
The Game of Ouroboros (9:42), The Blood that Floats My Throne (8:19), Creatures of Our Comfort (6:51), These Are the Simple Days (8:06), Idle Worship (13:29), Exile (11:14)
Raimond Fischbach's Review"Jim Alfredson is best known for his work with acclaimed jazz trio Organissimo and is considered among the best Hammond organists working today."
With this sentence and a lot more like it in the official press release, I searched the web to find some of said acclaim. But all I've found was one and the same text that I held in my hands already (you can read the entire release in the dprp news blog...) and various copies of Alfredson's bio, taken from his website. Checking Youtube for some music videos of the trio, I found nothing other than a couple of elevator jazz pieces. That all made me wonder a bit, but then I know that I'm not good at researching. So I remained curious when I inserted the blu ray.
It didn't take long until I was flabbergasted, yet speechless. Together with his mates Gary Davenport on bass and Chapman stick, Kevin DePree on drums, and Jake Reichbart on guitar, Alfredson has created an almost iconic 70s prog album with the best production and sound quality available with modern gear. The resemblances to the old school proggers are many and diverse. The influences are blended into each other perfectly, but at no moment does the band fail to sound unique. This album gravitates around organs and keyboards, but every instrument plays a very important role, just like it was back-then in the golden times of prog. With his mildly-rough vocals in a soulish style, Alfredson brings a new spice to the mix. The album is a resemblance of old, but unique at the same time.
The concept is rather light and tells of six individuals who plug their neuronal chips to the governmental call-centre and express their personal reaction to social power. This makes six tracks of different moods.
The title track The Game of Ouroboros opens with synth textures in the vein of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, only to lead into a heavy, groovy section that connects Peter Gabriel's bass lines with the funky mood of The Alan Parsons Project. Some piano chords in the style of Chick Corea and Manfred Mann are dropped in here and there, to create some wonderful tension.
The Blood that Floats My Throne starts with a sequencer in Tangerine Dream style, and builds up in a manner of IQ and Galahad. In the middle, it comes to a halt to make room for a distorted Hammond solo in the vein of a classical John Lord. It spirals into a stunningly clear-sounding pipe organ play, of J. S. Bach chord progressions, up to an orgiastic ending.
Creatures of Our Comfort is based on a repetitive keyboard sequence a la Steve Reich, but gets a reggae housing to it, and in that way reminds me much of King Crimson with a distinctive Levin-esque stick groove. The circle closes with a chorus and a break in the early 80s style of Peter Gabriel.
These Are The Simple Days comes in an unexpected manner. It's one of those piano-based, acoustic rock tunes that were established by Bruce Hornsby in 1986. It gives lots of space for Alfredson's unagitated, soul-ish vocals and makes you fly through your own memories during the keyboard solo. It is a wonderful, quiet, positively melancholic tune.
Idle Worship starts off as if it came out of the feather of ELP, but with a young Steve Lukather sneaking in. It then turns out to become a post-Beatles pop song with a little of a reminiscence of Ambrosia. A break opens up for a soul-ish fusion part, that is lead by some great Rhodes soloing. The ELP-ish intro sneaks back in, and gets forced into a finale of the quality of Kaipa in their Decca years.
Exile, the finale, consists of a firework show of references to early 70s Genesis, woven together in a quite unpredictable way.
The album is tied together very beautifully and it has a little arc, in the way that the songs on the first half of the disc are more of a groovy type, due to the rather funky style on the Chapman stick, as Tony Levin would do it. The second half of the album is played mainly with a fretless bass, and creates more of an emotional mood.
The musicianship is really great here. The whole album is perfectly composed and performed. The recording, mixing and mastering is incredible. I can't rate the 5.1 mix because I have a stereo system only, but the 24bit/96kHz stereo stream leaves no wishes open. I'm sure, if he ever gets to hear this production quality, even Steven Wilson will raise an eyebrow.
As we're speaking of a debut, I have two ideas about the future of this project and how something as strong as this could be bettered. One idea is to create more elaborate concepts that tell at least a mini story, like the good old golden prog albums did. So the songs are forced to come out of being mood-only pieces, and taken into the world of story telling. The other way would be to blend this old school prog with more jazz elements. The jazz is there in a lot of facets. I can hear it in the solos, and it wouldn't hurt at all to unleash them. The ideal would be of course going both ways at the same time. That could become a killer album.
John Wenlock-Smith's ReviewBy odd coincidence I recently finished George Orwell's 1984. Then along comes this CD from Theo, a project put together by noted Hammond organ virtuoso Jim Alfredson, that follows in part a similar theme, although updating it somewhat to reflect today's technological advances challenges and issues.
Jim says that the over-arching theme is how we react to power and how we respond as individuals. That said, this is not a call to armed rebellion, rather it is intended to evoke awareness and interest in what is happening around us. This concept is aligned to some very fine music, and across its six tracks lie a vast array of sounds and timbres to enchant and delight the listener.
We opening with an eerie telephone answering machine offering some chilling options set against a wash of keyboards, before a chugging guitar, drums and bass add to the mix with a gentle piano laying down a great groove over the top.
Jim's vocals are perfect for the music, and the lyrics are very 1984-like, as he sings of the corporation running your life.
There is a fine rhythmic guitar solo in this piece too and then enters a brief interlude of piano and synth, before a warned vocal is added. This piece reminds me of Roger Waters. The second track, The Blood That Floats My Throne starts with bubbling keyboards and synths, sounding not unlike Tangerine Dream before the vocal begins. Then comes more chugging guitar and brooding keyboards alongside the chorus of "My crown of privilege is the cross you bear." Theo has done a grand job of making this music sound menacing and unsettling, but also memorable.
Jim's keyboards are all over this disc and it sounds magnificent. I would imagine the 5.1 mix is astonishing, as this song has a deep bass part thanks to what sounds like a church organ. Guitarist Jake Reichardt is spectacular on this song too.
Creatures of our Comfort has a great chorus of "bring out the drums" and an atonal guitar solo, which is repeated before more twirly keyboards and the phone voice returns again. The phone messages add a sinister tone to the proceedings.
The rest of the album moves away from that theme to more conventional song writing. These Are The Simple Days is a delicate, almost Bruce Hornsby song with a lovely melody and some great lyrics. This is simply a great song.
The last two songs are more epic and show off Jim's keyboard skills to great measure. Idle Worship talks about the fanaticism of supporting a sports team. How their success and failures alter our wellbeing, and how they can be a distraction from bigger issues. It's a jaunty number, interspersed with staccato keyboard bursts and swells. It's a very well written song and most will be able to relate to its themes.
The final piece, Exile is another longer song, with a story of a man who is exiled from his people and their ways, and how in his exile he finds both his freedom, peace and solitude. It is a very interesting song musically, as it passes through several stages and movements. It is rather a sombre and intense piece, dark in tone and with a good use of dynamics to support the narrative of the lyrics. Again its heavy organ sounds are offset by gentler piano motifs, to good effect.
In fact throughout the whole disc, Jim plays with both delicacy and fury and he is always adding grand textures and voicings to make these pieces resonate musically. It makes for a great listening experience. This is definitely one for fans of more keyboard-orientated prog of the likes of Gabriel-era Genesis, early-Marillion or even ELP. I thoroughly enjoyed this disc and it is definitely one I shall return to again.
Sonically it sounds wonderful, especially when played loud, and it is probably something else in its 5.1 version. My colleague's review should say more about that but this is definitely a grower, so give it a blast. I think you may well be impressed.
J.S. Tolar - The Continuum
Drift Away (4:35), The Waking (2:21), Realization (6:51), Shattered Sky (4:26), Surrounding Darkness (3:43), Uninvited Prey (5:02), Hunted (5:47), Shining Light (6:04), Breaking Sleep (4:31), The Continuum (10:40)
To be blunt, some of these 'albums' should never have been let out of the bedroom or basement studio. However many are of a very listenable quality. This debut offering from American musician J.S. Tolar is one of the better ones.
Tolar has been seriously playing music since he was at college in the late 90s. There he produced a couple of low-key albums to be sold at gigs. He was inspired by artists such as Dream Theater, The Tea Party, Tool, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Porcupine Tree. Music then simmered in the background for eight years, while he pursued a career in graphic design.
In 2009, he built a home studio and recorded a solo album Crystal Shore, but did not have the funds to promote it. A year later he recorded this album as part of Record Production Month. It remained unmixed and unmastered for three years until Tolar returned to re-record the songs and fine-tune the mixes.
Although technically his fourth album, he sees The Continuum as his real debut, and with some funds to back it, he is now starting to raise his profile outside of the States.
Tolar plays all of the instruments and sings all the songs on the album, but does concede that: 'About half of the drums were programmed and the other half were done by a midi set.' He has also put his graphic talents to full use in the album design. So this really is a one-man band.
Musically, The Continuum is partly a guitar rock album and partly a cinematic ambience. At its heaviest, it reminds me of mid-period Savatage. The more ambient passages have a keen touch of electronics, and are a cross between early Green Carnation and Scott Mosher. Vocally Tolar has delivered a listenable 50-plus minutes of music despite having a limited mid-range and an inability to vary the vocal style and delivery. It is one-dimensional, but well executed.
There is some sort of sci-fi concept, but lyrically and musically the storyline doesn't happen for me. In a similar way as the cover artwork is recycled, by using close-up crops of the same picture in the booklet, the lyrics seem to be a repeat of the same filmic scene. Australian Mark Healy does this thing much better with his Hibernal project.
My favourite song is Realization for its variety and memorable guitar and piano lines. Shining Light is another highlight. However with the first six minutes being little more than atmospheric scene-setting, with Surrounding Darkness being a one-dimensional instrumental, and with the closing title track double the length it should be, there is a lack of depth here to hold one's attention. Too many of the songs stay at the same pace to be labeled as 'progressive', and the over-use of faded endings is a big failure.
Having lived with this disc for some time, I really feel Tolar's strength is on the guitar. There is some fluid playing and soloing across this album. My overall conclusion is that he would fare much better within a band environment where his song writing and playing would benefit from the wider setting that the talents and influences of other musicians would bring.
The Continuum has provided some enjoyable listening but is musically too one-dimensional for my tastes. Such is often the case with one-man projects.
Andy Read: 6.5 out of 10