Issue 2017-019

Syd Arthur - Apricity

Syd Arthur - Apricity
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 42:50
Track List:
Coal Mine (4:29), Plane Crash In Kansas (2:53), No Peace (4:20), Sun Rays (4:17), Into Eternity (5:17), Rebel Lands (4:56), Seraphim (4:59), Portal (3:36), Evolution (4:01), Apricity (4:06)
I am always suspicious whenever my neighbour Addfwyn Cyllell raves about a band's music that he has bought on the recommendation of what he has read in a glossy music mag. This happened during February and he predictably invited me to accompany him on a drive, so that he might share his enthusiasm with me.

Frankly, there is nothing worse or more unnerving, than watching Addfwyn at the wheel during one of our shared musical discovery expeditions. He inevitably takes the same route and the journey always contains consistent elements.

When the music starts, Addfwyn's swaying begins. The odd spectacle of observing Addfwyn's repertoire of manic head movements is strangely at odds with his usual methodical approach to life. Addfwyn's driving style also invariably involves hogging the middle lane of the motorway at 50mph, whilst waxing lyrically about music; music that equally refuses to budge from the centre.

This journey was no exception. His safety-first, tightly-clasped grip on the steering wheel said it all. This was Addfwyn's sort of music; safe and predictable. Nothing would stand in the way of his carefully mapped-out journey, nor of the album's prescribed route.

When each track of the album ended, Addfwyn gleefully pressed pause, so that he could convey his joyous appreciation and signpost why the music of this group of young bloods fulfilled the teenage rebel within him. As usual, a full range of platitudes were used in his incisive critique, including such gems as: "It's an ear worm." "What a bridge!" "I am in retro heaven." "This is what prog's really all about." He even rolled out that old favourite: "This rocks man!"

An hour later I escaped, with Addfwyn's parting words resounding loudly: "Here you are Owen! Now that you have heard it, I bet you want to hear it again?"

With that I bade him farewell, nervously clutching the still warm CD which had been forcefully pressed into my palm.

I hoped that a more considered analysis of the album's content might be as comforting as the album's artwork. At least, its sun-glowed cover was bright enough to warm the slate-grey Manchester sky. I also hoped that my initial adverse feelings about what I had heard, were merely a reaction to, and a consequence of, Addfwyn's wild enthusiasm.

Apricity is Syd Arthur's third album. Their previous albums have contained a range of styles drawing upon both prog and indie influences. Much has been made of the band's association with the city of Canterbury and some commentators have been quick to identify aspects of the classic Canterbury sound in their repertoire. The prog credentials of Syd Arthur have been further enhanced, for some in the music press, by virtue of the fact that keyboard and violin player Raven Bush is related to Kate Bush, which is a bit like saying that somebody should be recognised as an innovative teacher, because their uncle once won a prestigious Teacher of the Year award.

Whilst there is no denying that the band's geographical roots can be found in that pilgrim city, there was little about their last album, Sound Mirror, that might be considered to have been influenced by the classic sound of bands such as Caravan or Soft Machine. Sound Mirror contained neither the whimsical song writing, or a willingness to push the boundaries, associated with the Canterbury sound. Yet for many, the Canterbury genre label remains firmly affixed to Syd Arthur. Any references that Sound Mirror had to a Canterbury sound was limited to the rhythm and instrumentation in the opening parts of Home Town Blues and the radio-friendly Autograph.

Arguably, the real spirit of Canterbury can be found in the bold, experimental and fiendishly-complex work of fellow Canterbury band Lapis Lazuli.

Apricity moves even further away from any notion that Syd Arthur is a Canterbury-influenced band. Although outside the mainstream of pop, and having received positive reviews in Classic Rock, Prog and Mojo magazines, many of the tunes on Apricity exhibit a pop sensibility containing many attractive hooks. In this respect, Apricity falls down. It neither has the all-out accessibility and simplicity of touch associated with successful commercial music, or the inventiveness and ability to surprise, associated with quality progressive music. Too many of the tunes on the album are initially appealing, but in the end, lack development or anything that is significantly different to make them stand out from the crowd and become truly memorable.

The vocals are sung by Liam Magill in a heartfelt manner and there are times when his unique intonation is very appealing. I always think of him as the Dean Martin of prog. If you like Dean's delivery in That's Amore, then you will be sure to enjoy the slightly-slurred emotive style that gives Syd Arthur's vocal parts a distinctive sound. Musically, Apricity has that unmistakable Syd Arthur sound. If you like the idea of being enveloped in a particular style and sound, rather than being impressed by its individual components, then much of Apricity may well appeal.

One of the most disappointing aspects is that there are few opportunities for the band to stretch out. There are hardly any interesting middle-eight sections to the tunes, where the band might have had an opportunity to show their creativity and their progressive credentials.

The band's previous releases were sprinkled with some fine violin and keyboard work, courtesy of Raven Bush, but the emphasis on Apricity seems to be for a more condensed style. To put it bluntly, many of the tunes are uninspiring and dull. Despite repeated attempts to find something to enthuse about, much of Apricity fails to offer anything to get excited about.

Some brief comments about a few of the tracks might help to explain why this album just does not tick any of the right boxes for me. No Peace is one of Apricity's most disappointing pieces. It is blessed with an appealing melody, but its lack of variation and repetitive lyrics makes it ponderous and monotonous. Despite this, I must confess that I must agree with Addfwyn's assessment of it: that it is a real ear worm. If that was the Syd Arthur's prime intention, then they have succeeded in their quest.

Similarly Sun Rays is enveloped by a synthesised sound, which blunts the preciseness of the arrangement and diminishes the role, and eclipses the clarity, of the other instruments. The reliance on a keyboard and synthesised sound also dominates a significant number of the other pieces on offer.

As in other Syd Arthur albums, the sound quality of the recording is at times problematic. It seems as if the album has been recorded with the intention of listening to it on a phone or some other lo-fi device. It sounds compressed and there is often a muddy quality to the mix. This must surely be the band's intended sound, as bass player Joel Magill mixed the album. He also recorded Lapis Lazuli's The Wrong Meeting in 2016 and the sound on that album is superb in every respect.

On Syd Arthur's previous albums the use of a range of acoustic instruments provided contrast, but Sun Rays and much of Apricity lacks the subtlety and changes in timbre that a variety in the instrumentation might bring. There is a sort of monotonous vibe to far too many of the tracks. Ultimately, this ensures that the album is blighted by its overall lack of variation.

It is not often, that my first impressions of an album remain so resolute, after I have become familiar with it. But after repeated plays, little has made me reconsider my opinion. Apricity is not a bad album, but neither is it a particularly good one. Nevertheless, it has garnered a number of positive reviews, and judging by its air-play and general approval on BBC Radio 6, many folks, including Addfwyn, really enjoy it.

The band's choice to move away from progressive territory, towards a more mainstream approach is not necessarily a wrong move. Personally, I would much prefer Syd Arthur to explore their more eclectic side in the future. It takes a different skill-set to write accessible tunes that have a lasting appeal, and I am not sure that this current direction is where the real strength and quality of Syd Arthur is to be found.

The instrumental track, Portal, gives a glimpse of what Syd Arthur are capable of and can achieve when not tied by the shackles of producing something that is instantly accessible or has recognisable popular appeal. Nevertheless, Portal shows a distinct change of emphasis to the band's earlier works. It is fashioned to expose a new and heavily washed synthesiser sound, that has previously not really been a part of the band's signature sound.

The title track is probably the most impressive piece on the album. The megaphone vocal effect gives a different dimension to Magill's usual vocal style, and works really well. The whole piece and its component parts sit together well, and as such it is a fine amalgam of styles and influences. The instrumental outro is absolutely delightful, processing an elegance and subtlety that is sorely missing elsewhere.

If the rest of Apricity had been of a similar quality, then I might have joined Addfwyn in his enthusiasm for the album and united with him in an excited, shouted chorus of: "This is what prog's really all about. This rocks man!"
Owen Davies: 6 out of 10

Knight Area - Heaven and Beyond - Duo Review

Knight Area - Heaven and Beyond
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 62:10
Track List:
Unbroken (7:05), Dreamworld (5:13), The Reaper (7:11), Box Of Toys (3:46), Starlight (4:05), Heaven & Beyond (7:42), Saviors And Sinners (4:07), Eternal Light (3:26), Twins Of Sins (7:16), Tree Of Life (6:25), Memories (5:48)
Raimond Fischbach's Review
Stability is the best word to describe Knight Area's current situation. Because nothing has changed much since the band's last album, on which a line-up change drew the band into slightly heavier spheres. Since then the band has got more used to one another and their overall song writing and arrangement has tightened into a better shape.

Of course the band strictly caters to the neo-prog genre in almost all its aspects, and the songs are just like you'd expect them to be from any other band. However here the arrangements have moved quite away from the standards, and that's what makes the band so unique. They blow the dust off this decades-old genre by applying an up-to-date band sound that has more to do with Dream Theater instead of Genesis or Marillion. And while adding these modernised instrumental tones and production values, and tightening up the song structures, Knight Area has managed to deliver the most intense neo-prog album probably ever heard.

Because of this, it could well be that some of the genre's fans might dislike Heaven And Beyond, but on the other hand, it has a high potential to attract younger audiences who'd probably not pay attention to this genre-for-a-50+-audience otherwise. So if you don't like it, it might be a good idea to play it to your kids.
Andy Read's Review
Of all the progressive sub-genres, I feel that neo-prog is the one that now sounds the most dated and stuck in a rut. In a similar way to melodic hard rock and AOR, there are still able purveyors of the style but the formula and template has now remained largely unchanged for almost three decades. Bands that first helped neo-prog to emerge, such as Arena, Pendragon, Galahad and Marillion have largely evolved towards new sounds, but to be blunt, most albums now released with a "neo-prog" description, send me to sleep.

I caught Knight Area at the ProgPower Europe Festival back in 2009, and whilst clearly talented musicians, the music struggled to get me to tepid. Thankfully the sixth studio album from this enduring Dutch band, Heaven and Beyond, continues the journey away from the traditional neo-prog constraints, as started on their last release, Hyperdrive (2014).

This is very much a melodic heavy rock album (just check out the opening to Starlight, the anthemic Saviour of Sinners or the rock ballad title track), with elements of pop rock (Box of Toys) and progressive metal. Dreamworld sounds like early Circus Maximus. Tree of Life is the best song Survivor never wrote.

The prog or neo-prog is still there, especially though some of the keyboard bursts and some of the stylings, such as the opening and ending to The Reaper. There are constant changes of tempo and dynamics which keep things interesting. The vocals of Mark Smit are strong throughout, whilst guitarist Mark Bogert offers some solid riffing and measured solos. It's an album where I really enjoy around half the tracks, with the rest being either too easily forgotten or just too light and fluffy for my tastes (Memories and Eternal Light).

In short, if you were hoping Knight Area would return to the neo-progressive rock of their first four albums, then this new album is unlikely to have to knocking on heaven's door. However if you enjoy accessible heavy melodic rock with clear progressive rock and metal (light) influences, then this album is well worth investigating. (There is a sample of every track from the band's website via the link above or the whole thing is streaming on Spotify).
Raimond Fischbach: 8 out of 10
Andy Read: 7 out of 10

Mike Oldhill - Dark Matter

Mike Oldhill - Dark Matter
Country of Origin: Germany
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 74:39
Track List:
Dark Matter (7:53), Synapse (7:45), Panta Rhei (4:36), Three Poisons (7:18), Evil Eye (6:01), Black Memories (5:55), Misgivings (6:10), Shadows (6:15), Qi (5:17), Drawing Hope (6:24), Endurance (11:01)
For some reason best known to himself, German multi-instrumentalist Michael Altenberger releases his solo projects under the name Mike Oldhill (a tribute to Mike Oldfield perhaps?). Dark Matter is his second CD and follows 2011's Eleven Explorers. Other than that, I know very little about Altenberger (his website certainly gives nothing away) except that during the nineties he was the keyboardist with the band Backstreet Romeos who released the album Flight To Metaluna in 1997.

He is clearly a deep thinker, as the subjects of each of the 11 instrumentals here include astronomy, psychology, Greek philosophy and exploration. The CD booklet is especially well put together, with each track represented by eye-catching artwork and detailed notes by Altenberger.

He plays all the instruments throughout and incorporates several styles, including melodic prog, jazz-fusion and classical. His influences are plain to hear including Steve Hackett and Robert Fripp (guitars), Rick Wakeman (synths) and Keith Emerson (piano). Whilst the musicianship is impressive in every department, keyboards are undoubtedly his forte.

His piano skills are particularly impressive; something he demonstrates with lengthy solos during Panta Rhei and Black Memories. The classical-flavoured keyboard orchestrations during the latter are also very well done. Elsewhere, tracks like Three Poisons and Drawing Hope have a quirky charm that brings to mind UK instrumental ensemble Karda Estra.

One of Altenberger's favourite devices, which he uses on several pieces is to conclude with sustained Mellotron-like chords à la Genesis. During Misgivings he also borrows the single-note staccato organ riff from Watcher Of The Skies.

The downside for me, is that each piece lacks cohesion and a sense of dynamics. Also the tempo hardly varies, and this, coupled with the lightweight bass and drums, meant that listening to all 75 minutes in one session felt like a long haul indeed. As a result, the title of the final track Endurance seemed very appropriate.

Reservations aside, Michael Altenberger is a musician of the highest calibre, and whilst I'm ensure how he spends his time when he is not making albums like Dark Matter, he deserves to be fronting a band of like-minded musicians.
Geoff Feakes: 6.5 out of 10

Seti - Bold Travels

Seti - Bold Travels
Country of Origin: Chile
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 59:30
Track List:
The Hidden Messenger (8:28), Children (6:52), Cascade Of Changes (5:07), Divine Decision (5:58), The Third Gate (6:24), Them (4:29), Evolution (9:45), The Great Conflict (5:01), Anguish (7:26)
Sometimes prog music doesn't need to overstep boundaries to be enjoyable. Seti, the brainchild of and project by Chilean keyboard player Claudio Momberg is proof of that. With Claudio having played in neo prog band Subterra and having taken on the keyboard parts in Clive Nolan's Caamora project, while citing Genesis, Yes, Tony Banks, Eddie Jobson and UK as influences, it may not come as a surprise that the album finds its feet both in neo prog and ye olde prog.

The album, with its reference to extra-terrestrial life in the project's name (SETI stands for Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence), starts off with very spacey sounds, which really help to build the atmosphere of the album. Whereas the song gets some nice riffing from Gabriel Hidalgo on guitar, the guitar is there more to build the momentum, rather than dominate on the long player. Claudio Momberg with his keyboards is in clear charge of the sound of the album. Whether it is in the keyboard solo parts, in the textures of the songs or in the spacey atmospheres in between tracks, his keyboards give Seti their sound. While one is reminded of Tony Banks' playing in the seventies, you never get the feeling that Claudio is there to copy his influences.
We get several singers on the album. First of all, there is Jaime Scalpello who goes a way back in working with Claudio, both on his own albums and those by Claudio. Jaime's voice is warm and does remind me a bit of John Wetton. Then there is the voice of Paula Vilches who sings beautifully on Cascade Of Changes, which has quite the feel of a younger Genesis. One of the surprises on this album is the voice of Damian Wilson who features on two songs, Divine Decision and The Third Gate. The music suits his voice and again, these are tracks in which his delivery is spot on.

The last three tracks are the standout tracks on the album. This is where Claudio has taken all his creativity to deliver two great instrumentals and a fine closing track. Vintage seventies Genesis again comes to mind, commencing with Evolution, and where once Steve Hackett played the guitar with loads of emotion, here Steve Rothery leads the way, in both subtle playing and in more heroic soloing. The closing track Anguish has another great Rothery moment. Claudio Momberg may be proud of what he has created here as all members have worked together in making this one great album.
Marcel Hartenberg: 7.5 out of 10

Shaman Elephant - Crystals

Shaman Elephant - Crystals
Country of Origin: Norway
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 45:15
Track List:
Crystals (8:15), Shaman In The Woods (4:46), IAB (4:05), Tusco (5:52), The Jazz (9:55), Stoned Conceptions (12:32)
Well, it seems one more band from Northern Europe has emerged to play music that echoes the psychedelic rock from the 1960s and 1970s. This new band is from Norway and is named Shaman Elephant. The band consists of Eirik Sejersted Vognstølen (guitar and vocals), Jard Hole (drums), Ole-Andreas Sæbø Jensen (bass) and Jonas Særsten (keyboards). Their debut record Crystals was released in November of 2016.

Once the first song starts, you know that this is a band that follows the footsteps of psychedelic/stoner-bands like Motorpsycho and Spidergawd. These bands in turn take their influences from even older bands, and some could argue that the whole genre of 'new bands want to sound like old bands' has become a little tedious. Luckily enough, Shaman Elephant's album is not tedious at all, at least if one likes this kind of music.

It goes more into the early prog-direction, and less into the heavy part of the genre. There is a very relaxed atmosphere all over the place and the guys can play their instruments very well. Plus, Eirik has a nice voice that fits the music. Some of the titles fulfil some of the clichés of the genre (Shaman In The Woods or Stoned Conceptions), but that does not influence the music in any way.

The first few tracks are all shorter and more condensed. Tusco has almost some fusion-like moments, which is a nice break out of the usual trademarks of the genre. The last two tracks are of a more improvised nature and are therefore longer. Again, this is music that is best celebrated live.

So, what is the conclusion? For people that like this kind of music, this band and their debut album will be treat. They do not offer anything new or special, but that is not their intention - otherwise they would have chosen a different style of music. Shaman Elephant is another cool band and Crystals is another cool record in the psych-/stoner-universe. A universe that seems to keep on living for a long time. Let us hope that there is more to come from Shaman Elephant!
Philipp Röttgers: 8 out of 10

Steamhammer - Mountains

Steamhammer - Mountains
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 1971/2016
Time: 41:07
Track List:
I Wouldn't Have Thought (5:40), Levinia (3:22), Henry Lane (3:54), Walking Down The Road (3:43), Mountains (5:36), Leader Of The Ring (2:52), Riding On The L&N (live) (10:11), Hold That Train (live)(5:45)
Steamhammer were formed in the late 60s, arising, somewhat late, from the British blues boom. After backing Freddie King on two tours, they released their self-titled debut in 1969. It contained a mixture of covers and originals but showed a level of experimentation that had more than a nod to the early progressive bands. The second album, also released in 1969 was called Mk II, which reflected the fact that the group had undergone several line-up changes, leaving the core band as a quartet of vocalist, second guitarist and harmonica player Kieran White, guitarist Martin Pugh, bassist Steve Day and drummer Mick Bradley.

The original idea was for Mountains to be a live album, as it was considered that that was where the band was in its element. Unfortunately the live recording was beset with problems and only two tracks were salvaged for release on the album; the extended cover of Riding On The L&N and the blues jam Hold That Train. Although neither track is of pristine sonic quality, they do show that the live reputation of the band was justified with a fine groove developing on the first of these two live efforts.

The studio material is more of a mixed bag, with the production not doing the band any favours, being somewhat muddy throughout. This is a shame as buried in the mix are some nice touches, like on the opener I Wouldn't Have Thought (Gopher's Song), a proto-prog piece that has all the nuances knocked out of it by the over dominant treble of the guitar. White's vocals are fairly deep and rather one dimensional, tending to get mixed in with the bass on too many occasions. Levinia is quite a lovely little number with Pugh's bottleneck and acoustic guitar adding variety, as does the five-string banjo, played on Henry Lane by one of the only electric banjo players in the country at that time, Keith Nelson, although again, it can be hard to hear under the lead guitar.

Walking Down The Road is not a lot to write home about, sounding more like a jam than anything written with a purpose, although the percussion section mid-way through is an interesting idea. The remaining two tracks, Mountains and Leader Of The Ring are the best of the studio efforts being quite far removed from the band's blues origins. Moving towards more progressive soundscapes, the latter of these two songs being the highlight of the album.

Soon after it's release, bassist Day was replaced by Louis Cennamo and following a European tour White also jumped ship. The remaining trio of Pugh, Bradley and Cennamo underwent a dramatic transformation, to produce an album of heavy progressive pieces with occasional vocal contributions from Garth Watt Roy. Ironically, given the largely instrumental nature of that album, it was given the title Speech. It is a remarkable album that would certainly find a lot more favour with the core prog audience, consisting as it does of just three tracks with running times of 23-minutes, 12-minutes and 11-minutes! Sadly, soon after its release, drummer Bradley died from leukaemia and hopes of keeping the Steamhammer name going faded when former Yardbird Keith Relf, who had produced the Speech album, invited Pugh and Cennamo to join him in a new project called Armageddon.

The four Steamhammer albums show just how quickly music was developing and expanding as the sixties turned into the seventies. Mountains has its moments and parts of it do stand up today, but generally this album is probably more for completists than anyone looking for archival prog releases.
Mark Hughes: 5 out of 10

Utopianisti - The Third Frontier

Utopianisti - The Third Frontier
Country of Origin: Finland
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 38:24
Track List:
Voodoo Mammoths From Neptune (4:25), Dr. Gravity's Evil Plan (4:02), Universe For Dummies (5:52), White Dwarf (1:24), Life As We Thought We Knew It (4:55), A Hundred Rabbits (5:03), Spanking Season (2:33), 13 Demons In The Disco Dimension (3:12), The Last Reflection (7:00)
Ever since I heard the first notes of the first album by Finnish outfit Utopianisti, I have had a keen interest in the music they make. The musical style of Utopianisti, foremost of the leader and creator of the concept, Markus Pajakkala, cannot be captured within the boundaries of the styles often used in progressive rock corners. You can call it avant-garde, jazz, freestyle, chamber music or really anything you like. The fact is that this music is not always easy to grasp and get into. In fact it is mood-dependant.

The Third Frontier is, as the title eminently explains, Utopianisti's third album. After the making of Utopianisti II, a live band was created. In Markus' own words, the creation of a live band brings a whole new depth into the music of Utopianisti. Of course this is true. When a band plays music together, there is a greater dynamic and interaction, caused by individuals playing music together with passion.

The Third Frontier is what in earlier years would have been called a live studio recording, or an album recorded as a jam session. Now this is not entirely true, there have been dubs and overdubs, but I assume not that many. Listening to this album, you can hear the dynamics of the creation of the music. Each track is packed and stacked, played with such passion and emotion that you would swear to be in the same room as the playing musicians.

When I tell you about a live band creating this fantastic piece of Musical Art, you of course would like to know the guys and gals playing on this incredible musical extravaganza. Let start with band leader and creative mind Markus Pajakkala who contributes saxophones, flutes, clarinets, additional keyboards and percussion. Then we have Olli Helin (aka the Trumpenator) on trumpets, Rolf Pilve on drums, Antero Mentu on guitars, Anssi Solismaa on keyboards, Jaako Luoma who plays the bass and Tuomas Amrttila with mallets and percussion. They are joined by two guest vocalists; Suvi Vayrynen and Pharaoh Pirttikangas.

The Third Frontier consists of nine tracks. In principle the tracks differ in style, but although they are different, the complete album has a coherent feel to it. Whether this is the result of the basic tracks being recorded in one live session, I don't know. I'd like to believe so. The consistency is very good, the musicality is enormous thanks to a highly melodic bunch of different instruments. Such passion in the music is unbelievable. I have absolutely no clue how to categorise Utopianisti's music, other than to say that it is progressive in every way.

Which brings me to a point where I need to suggest who might like listening to this monster of musicality. If you like to be entertained on a musical level, where your imagination may bring you to places you never been before, then this is for you. If you like mainly instrumental music, and like to hear brass or woodwind, then listen to this. While you are at it, the previous Utopianisti music is also worth exploring. Tagging the music, I would say jazz, freestyle with added swing and funk.

All in all I think this is a marvellous record, with an enormous variety in its music. I could do with 40 minutes more of it as I cannot get enough. There will always be room for improvement or better production, but I think The Third Frontier is an absolute masterpiece.
Gert Hulshof: 8.5 out of 10