Issue 2017-011

Burnt Belief - Emergent

Burnt Belief - Emergent
Country of Origin: UK/USA
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 56:57
Track List:
The Bubble Bursts (6:02), More Snow (6:10), The Confidence Of Ignorance (5:08), Emergent (9:30), Until The Stars Go Out (6:26), Language Of Movement (7:00), Turning Torso (10:08), Ghosts Aquatic (6:31)
If you enjoy instrumental music that features ample amounts of guitar and synth guitar, that is also accompanied and embellished by well-placed percussion, then much of Burnt Belief's third album will appeal.

Emergent continues in much the same vein as their previous albums, Burnt Belief and Etymology, by offering a sumptuous, guitar-led soundscape that is fully complemented by the deep and persuasive atmosphere created by the album's bountiful low end.

The release contains lots of inventive and exceptional bass work, that when combined with the fluidly-melodic and sometimes disturbingly-distorted tones of Jon Durant's guitar work, creates a richly evocative and appealing sound.

The bass player is Colin Edwin. His work with Porcupine Tree and his more recent collaboration with fellow bass master Lorenzo Felicati in the textured and twisted tunes of Twinscapes have shown his undoubted command of his instrument.

Throughout Emergent, the pivotal role of the bass is expressed in a variety of ways. It establishes a buoyant groove in the agile title track and is particularly insistent and deep-seated in Turning Torso. This release has many impressive and standout moments for bass aficionados, but none more so than in the delicious Confidence of Ignorance, where the expansive and full bodied bass tones had me yelping with delight.

Various bass effects are conjured-up to create a unique sound and are used to great effect. These boldly emboss and add texture to the numerous layers, that feature in many of the tunes. The music is characterised by a plethora of guitar effects which are carefully layered, melded and blended by Durant's vast array of carefully chosen tones. At times, the sum of these parts creates a somewhat unnatural, artificial ambience.

However, the ambient atmosphere that runs through the disc is tempered on occasions by expressively-exposed solo guitar parts. These break through the tight mesh of sounds to provide warmth, and offer a measure of emotional comfort, where the ability to tell a sonic story through the use of melody comes into its own. On these occasions, a degree of the necessary warmth is provided, to counteract the impression that Emergent is an album dominated by a tidal wash of effects.

Guitar-led highlights to salivate over include the Robert Fripp-like tones that feature during the satisfying Language of Movement and also during the latter stages of the opening piece, The Bubble Bursts. However, Turning Torso contains my favourite guitar sounds on the album. The effects chosen are suitably mean and full of dark foreboding, and add yet another layer of distorted menace to an already unnerving and unsettling composition.

The album is further enhanced by the impressive performance of drummer Vinny Sabatino. He also featured on Etymology, but his outstanding contribution in Emergent gives this release an altogether more wholesome sound, than was evident in Burnt Belief's previous albums.

There were occasions where I longed for the ear-soothing caress of a vocalist. This was particularly the case in More Snow, where a flute-like effect replicated the range and melodic properties associated with the human voice. This and the use of a sparse piano accompaniment and spacious arrangement, ensured that the piece contained some of the same stylistic properties that vocalist Norma Winstone so successfully achieved in her role with Azimuth. In More Snow's later stages, this unlikely comparison was totally dispelled by the introduction of some fine guitar work, which gave the piece a different identity and offered some bite and edge.

The title track is a cracking piece of fusion with a Middle Eastern vibe. I enjoyed it immensely, and in places it was reminiscent of the style perfected by Consider the Source. The recurring motif that dominates proceedings is particularly memorable, and perfectly captures the sort of atmosphere that was so successfully explored in Jethro Tull's Roots to Branches.

Until The Stars Go Out is a very dark and evocative piece. Its bleak, spacious nature, bulging bass work and the use of a glockenspiel-type effect was redolent of Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle. Just as in the concluding track of Fluid Rustle, Until the Stars Go Out is able to portray a gravel-edged, goose-grey picture through its use of recurring low end tones and slow-building atmospherics.

Emergent will appeal to those who enjoy the music of artists such as Herd of Instinct, Twinscapes and Consider the Source. There were times when I really enjoyed this release, but although it is extremely well played and crafted, I felt that Emergent sometimes lacked the organic appeal and passion associated with music that has a more natural sound at its heart.

Nevertheless, Emergent is a fascinating and rewarding album. After hearing it on a number of occasions, many of the tunes reveal hidden depths which would no doubt reward listeners who wish to discover this album's many subtle nuances over a period of time.

I am sure that I will listen to it on many occasions in the future.
Owen Davies: 8.5 out of 10

Gunhill - One Over The Eight / Nightheat

Gunhill - One Over The Eight / Nightheat
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 1995/1997/2016
Time: 53:57, 62:27
Track List:
One Over The Eight: Walking In the Shadow Of The Blues (4:16), Eleanor Rigby (5:21), Ain't No Sunshine (4:15), Can't Get Enough (4:56), Better By You, Better By Me (4:19), Stone Cold (4:34), Every Little Bit Hurts (4:36), Angel (5:42), Harlem Shuffle (3:49), Soldier of Love (5:59); Bonus Track: River of Dreams (6:06)
Nightheat: Don't Stop Believing (4:53), Ready for Love (4:59), Wall of Silence (5:05), Nobody Loves You the Way I Do (4:58), Far from Home (3:56), Eleanor Rigby (5:47), Don't Look Back (4:35), Waiting for the Headache (4:42), When a Man Loves a Woman (4:43), Any Day Now (3:57), Clearwater Highway (4:14); Bonus Tracks: Sympathy (5:21), Come Back to Me (5:10)
There is no denying the vocal attributes of John Lawton, a man possessed with a fine set of pipes, something he has proved over the years on numerous releases. There is also no denying that the man has prog credentials, having fronted both Lucifer's Friend and Uriah Heep, albeit during their less proggy years.

The 1990s were not the most prominent decade for the singer, who was without a record label and playing in essentially what was a covers band called Gunhill, more for fun than anything serious. More successful in Europe than in the UK, the group had a good live reputation and soon increased their work rate, from the initially-intended single gig every week or so, to playing three nights a week. Formed in January 1994, Lawton was joined by Neil Kavanagh (bass, vocals), Ricky Robyns (guitar, keyboards), Mick Raxworthy (keyboards, vocals) and Lloyd Coates (drums). As the gigging increased, the band decided to record an album they could both sell to fans and use to entice promoters to book them. The resulting One Over The Eight was issued in 1995 on cassette only.

Unfortunately the master tapes have long since been lost, so this reissue is sourced from one of the cassettes, and as a consequence the sound suffers somewhat in the fidelity stakes. Of the ten tracks on the original album, only three were band compositions, the rest being an eclectic mix of radio hits and classics. Whitesnake's Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues kicks things off, and barely deviates from the original. Eleanor Rigby is a bit of a mess and doesn't do justice to The Beatles' original; Better is the bluesy version of Bill Wither's Ain't No Sunshine, a song that is ideally suited to Lawton's voice. Spooky Tooth's Better By You Better Than Me is a halfway-hybrid between the original and the Judas Priest 1978 cover, although it doesn't really equal either, whilst Rainbow's Stone Cold is more turgid than the original. The soulful Every Little Bit Hurts, a 1964 hit for Brenda Holloway, is decent enough, and the final cover, Harlem Shuffle suffers the most from sonic deterioration, although I can't say that is a tragic loss, it being a somewhat pedestrian cover of a very pedestrian song.

The originals, all written by Lawton, Robyns and Coates, don't really add much; in fact they are very mediocre and mainstream, with Can't Get Enough being frankly awful. The bonus track, River Of Dreams is from a later period, and not by Gunhill, but recorded (very badly) with Dave White (guitar, keyboards) and Rich Wagner (bass, percussion, keyboards). The best I can say about it is: nice singing!

A couple of years go by, and Gunhill are still going, although with only Lawton and Kavanagh remaining from the original line up, the rest being replaced by Brian Bennett (guitar, vocals) and Chris Jones (drums). The second album, 1997's Nightheat, continues the 'doing it for fun' covers approach, with only three originals. The sound is much improved over One Over The Eight and is a much more enjoyable listen overall. Lawton's Don't Stop Believing is a good opener, although it is more typical of 80s pop rock with an almost Bon Jovi feel. Two songs by Bad Company are included: Ready For Love from their debut is a fine version, while Clearwater Highway from 1995's Company Of Strangers is, in my opinion, better than the original with some good playing by Bennett. The guitarist also plays some nice lines on Ricky Bonner's Wall Of Silence. A second stab at Eleanor Rigby is somewhat more successful, and Lawton even covers himself, by including a decent version of Lucifer's Friend's Don't Look Back, which had only been released a few year's earlier on the Sumo Grip album. Waiting For The Heartache by Jimmy Barnes is rather ordinary, and the acoustic rendering of When A Man Loves A Woman is somewhat perfunctory but at least the band create their own arrangement. Originals Far From Home and Any Day Now probably explain why the group focused on cover versions.

The bonus tracks are Uriah Heep covers, Sympathy from Firefly and Come Back To Me from Fallen Angel. It is not clear who performs on these versions, as no details are given in the rather meagre booklet, but neither are on a par with the Heep versions.

Given that this CD essentially uses the Nightheat artwork and the only photograph on the sleeve is of the four-piece band, then the release should be viewed as a reissue of the second album with the debut thrown in as a bonus. If you are a John Lawton fan or a Uriah Heep completist then these reissues will be welcomed. I guess these albums served their purpose at the time of initial release but neither seems relevant today.
Mark Hughes: 4 out of 10

Hibernal - The Dark of the City

Hibernal - The Dark of the City
Country of Origin: Australia
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 44:02
Track List:
The Dark of the City (6:08), Night in Carson Bay (5:22), Target 247 (4:58), How it Ended (4:42), Black Blood (2:43), The Pier (4:23), Sand (4:26), Loose Ends (2:14), Monster (4:44), Survival (4:00)
If you enjoy prog, or indeed any music, that goes down the route of story-telling as a primary function, then you may well have already discovered Hibernal. Part-audio book, part-movie soundtrack, this sci-fi post rock project by Brisbane's Mark Healy is already on its fourth chapter. And it appears from the "sold out" signs within a few weeks of the releases of this new CD, that Healy has hit a winning note.

His first effort came out in 2013, with the title The Machine (review here), and was followed by Replacements (review here) and 2015's After The Winter (review here).

Like all good authors/musicians Healy is clearly learning and refining his craft with each project. Again the script and music are all his own work with bass and some editing by long-term collaborator Rowan Salt. The use of professional voice actors is what makes this whole thing work. Faleena Hopkins, featured in the last two stories and again hits on the perfect tone for the main character, Moreno. Scott Gentle, who appeared on Replacements returns as her colleague, Trask.

The story centres around a cop (Moreno) undertaking a relentless search for the creature that killed her partner. It's a short and pared down story but with an unexpected twist. Again the book-excerpt-to-music ratio and the pacing is spot on. The guitars feature more than I recall previously, at the cost of the electronics (not a bad thing). Together with the driving bass, they provide a layered, sweeping atmospheric with spacey nuances to provide a rolling soundtrack. Low-key when behind the storytelling and sound effects, more upfront when filling the gaps. If you recall the more atmospheric musical moments between the full-songs on War Of The Worlds, then you will know what to expect.

I've listened to all three previous Hibernal offerings and enjoyed them all. It's certainly different and I now really look forward to my annual story time on the journey to work (45 minutes is perfect!). As before, once I know the outcome of the storyline, I'm not sure that I'm going to play this more than three or four times. Thus, Hibernal works more as a podcast for me. In that respect, the download is quite enough, and at just 7 Australian dollars (5 euros at today's prices), I think that Healy has again pitched his product just about right. If you enjoyed his previous works, then this is a no-brainer. For those whose interest has been piqued, there is little to loose.

Like a film, one has to immerse oneself in Replacements from start to finish, in one sitting. Thus at the risk of repeating myself, I can only draw the same conclusion as before, by heartily recommending that you set aside an hour of your life for the annual Hibernal experience.
Andy Read: 8 out of 10

Luminous Newts - Luminous Newts

Luminous Newts - Luminous Newts
Country of Origin: USA
Year of Release: 2015
Time: 50:38
Track List:
The Wolf Doesn't Howl So Loud (5:49), Up and Out (4:38), Before I Die (3:45), Cult Of Two (Sailing Over The Moon) (4:12), St. Patrick and the Snakes (3:19), Flying Fish (3:33), Waiting (A Bridge To Nowhere) (4:50), Feel Better Now (3:13), Envy (4:06), Kommie Kitty (4:13), I'm Just Sayin' (5:17), Waiting (3:51)
Luminous Newts is a band based in Berkeley, California defining themselves as an electric pop/rock/prog group. The group was founded in 2012 by singer-songwriters Eric Kampman, whose 20 years of keyboard experience spans multiple prog, rock and pop groups, and Thea Kelley, whose vocal history includes three years in renowned a cappella group Kitka. Beside the tracks Waiting and Feel Better Now, Kampman and Kelley are responsible for the songwriting, so it is no surprise that we are getting keyboard-orientated tracks as a basis for intensive vocals.

The first two tracks define quite clearly what this music is about. At first glance we get mid-tempo rock songs following the ABACAB or ABABAC structure. Listening closer, you will notice a lot of chord-changes, all in a very harmonic manner. Between the verses and refrains are short instrumental bridges, some build as a keyboard intermezzo and some as a call-and-response action with the guitar. Short but fine guitar solos, like in the short, up-tempo song Feel Better Now underline the variety in this music. Some tunes deliver the feeling of singer/songwriter music, but just hearing the next synthie-part gives you a smile. This gives most of the tracks an interesting touch, and together with those very sweet hooklines, the music is quite far away from the nowadays pop-song. Thea Kelley's vocals will let you think of seventies blues rock; her voice is warm, clear and has a soulful timbre. Her singing provides a vivid feeling to the songs.

All in all this is a very enjoyable recording, with an overall positive atmosphere. It is neither loud nor screamy and offers no narcissistic fiddling instruments, but well composed tracks without any great length. The production of this debut is good, with a warm analog sound which fits perfectly to the music.
Peter Funke: 7 out of 10

Napier’s Bones - Hell and High Water

Napier's Bones - Hell and High Water
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 54:08
Track List:
An Air of Mystery (6:57), Broadcasting Live (7:40), No Return? (10:09), Mallerstang Morning (6:41), No Room at the Inn (13:08), Rain Down (7:06), A Wake in Yoredale (2:27)
Napier's Bones, the joint project of singer and creative designer Nathan Jon Tillett and multi-instrumentalist and lyricist Gordon Midgley, is quite a prolific outfit. Following their 2014 debut The Wistman Tales (reviewed here by colleague Mark Hughes), they released another album in 2015, Tregeagles Choices , that amused colleague James Turner a lot before releasing this, their third album called Hell and High Water last year. In-between, Tillett released his solo project Nomad that couldn't impress me much, although it certainly had its moments.

Again this is a concept album, telling a two-part story. Part one, called The Transfiguration, comprises the first three songs and describes the mysticism of a ruined church somewhere in Devon. In part two, Semerwater - The Fall, a sort of minstrel travels around. He is refused spending the night in an inn and forced to stay awake outside during a cold and dark night, but fortunately finds some friendly inhabitants of a nice, rural village, after which he puts a tragic curse on those responsible for his initial refusal. A nice little story, but does the music support it well?

The album starts well with the up-tempo An Air of Mystery which has a nice, driving rhythm based on Midgley's synths, a catchy chorus jointly sung by the two musicians and very nice guitar work. Tillett's somewhat hoarse voice is quite appropriate with this music.

The next track, Broadcasting Live, has a totally different mood, with mystical synths opening for a slow ballad, that is drenched in Mellotron sounds. A nice guitar riff opens No Return?, after which wide keys come in again, over a nice guitar melody, reminding me of Pendragon during the Window of Life period. Then the music slows down, quiet keys and acoustic guitar give way to a choir introducing a short vocal part, after which the song regains pace and tempo again, to become a sort of shout of help from the storyteller. Tillett's vocal lines should represent the man's desperation, and he delivers quite well. The song has many moods that don't flow very fluently into each other, but as a whole it works quite well, especially as the music picks up the central theme again towards the end.

With Mallerstang Morning the mood of the music changes again drastically. Possessing 12-string acoustic guitar, flute-like keys and a vocal melody that makes you think of Strawbs or early Red Jasper, an unmistakably folk-rock mood is introduced, taking the listener back into ancient times. That is continued in No Place at the Inn where familiar inn sounds form the background to a varied song, flowing from minstrel singing in the inn, being thrown out into the pouring rain by the unthankful visitors, a desperate search for a place to sleep, and the warm welcome by the rural villagers. Towards the end, the anger in the minstrel builds up as the music swells towards heavy keys and guitar playing that ends, alas, in fade out. I think a bombastic sudden end would have been more appropriate. The imminent threat, that is now tangible, is continued in Rain Down but nothing substantial is added to the mood that has already been created. Therefore it is a bit superfluous or, to emphasise what is going to happen, it would have been better to have made this a part of the former song. The album is very nicely closed by the acoustic folk theme that was introduced halfway through.

With this album Napier's Bones convincingly present themselves again. It has many things to offer: a nice little story, good clear production, Mellotron all over the place, varied musical themes and well-crafted musicianship. I also found Tillett's vocal much better than on his solo project. The album comes with a colourful booklet designed by Tillett, containing all the lyrics.

This will be a very enjoyable listen for many neo-prog and prog-folk fans who are open to different musical styles on one record. With the year 2017 just beginning, Napier's Bones have already succeeded in releasing their next album called Alpha-Omega Man. Hopefully it is as strong as this album.
Theo Verstrael: 7.5 out of 10