Lee Abraham - Colours
Colours (4:39), Broken Dreams (6:28), Always Yours (6:17), Find Another Way (7:07), Warning Sign (5:03), Survive (6:29), The Mirror Falls (14:13)
Although Lee has recently rejoined Galahad as guitarist, he was formerly the band's bassist, but here he leaves that role to Alistair Begg, whilst Gerald Mulligan handles the drums. Rob Arnold provides piano and organ on several tracks whilst guitarist Chris Harrison is limited to backing vocals on this occasion. Lee himself is responsible for all guitars, keyboards and backing vocals.
As is the case with previous albums, each song is fronted by a familiar prog singer, namely Declan Burke (ex. Frost), Marc Atkinson (Riversea), Steve Overland (FM), Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf), Simon Godfrey (ex. Tinyfish) and Gary Chandler (Jadis).
The ridiculously catchy title song, Colours, harks back to the mid 80s when new wave and arena-rock collided. Add a scorching guitar solo and a barn-storming performance from Dec Burke and you have the most compelling opener I've heard all year.
Broken Dreams is equally memorable, although in a more AOR-prog crossover vein, with a melodic Steve Rothery-flavoured guitar. Always Yours takes a diversion into power ballad territory but don't be put off by that. As well as evoking John Waite's Missing You, Steve Overland's soulful phrasing brings Paul Carrack to mind.
The slow burning Find Another Way builds from bittersweet beginnings, with haunting Mellotron-like 'strings' and a soaring guitar break, into a rousing, triumphant finale. Warning Sign on the other hand hits the ground running with a solid riff, Geoff Downes-style orchestral keys and an anthemic choral hook. It's pure Asia and could almost be a tribute to the late John Wetton.
Survive is the only song that for me doesn't entirely convince, despite an emotive lead vocal from Simon Godfrey. The chorus, in particular "When love turns its back on you, all you can do is survive" is straight out of the Bon Jovi songbook of rock clichés.
It's a minor glitch however and Lee is back on track with the near 15-minute closer The Mirror Falls. In true prog style it goes through several changes, including Rob Arnold's beautiful Bruce Hornsby style piano intro, an infectious instrumental section combining synth and guitar and the memorable main song featuring Gary Chandler in top form. The heavy rock mid-section pits guitar against organ, and just when you think it's all over, an atmospheric Floyd-ian guitar solo provides a satisfying finale.
With its sure-footed blend of melodic mainstream rock and prog, there is nothing overtly complex or understated about this album, but every song lingers long in the memory. Instruments and vocals have a strong and powerful presence throughout thanks to the excellent production and mastering skills of Abraham and Karl Groom respectively. In short, this is possibly the best album Asia never made.
Geoff Feakes: 9 out of 10
Hällas - Hällas EP
Autumn In Space (4:42), Insomnia (5:34), Tale of a Tyrant (6:18), Hällas (7:26)
Hällas - Excerpts From A Future Past
The Astral Seer (6:45), Repentance (5:15), Nebulon's Tower (2:19), The Golden City of Semyra (6:42), Star Rider (6:02), Shadow of the Templar (7:53), Illusion Sky (7:52)
It was nicely done, if your tastes have never evolved from the founding twin-guitar nights of the NWOBHM (or if you were not around back then and are newly discovering that sound). However the lack of any progressive elements, nor a whiff of a keyboard, is unlikely to warrant a visit to the Hâllas Bandcamp page for too many readers of this site.
However the latest offering from this Swedish quintet offers much more.
Their debut, Excerpts From A Future Past, is a concept album containing "seven storytelling tracks about seers, a knight on a quest for answers and the fall of a once great city". Normally that description alone would be enough for me to pass onto the next album.
It's not that I don't enjoy retro rock. I grew up with the sounds of early Magnum, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash and Deep Purple. Furthermore, Dio taught me that I could even enjoy songs about dragons, if the music was good enough.
It's just that I have grown up (mostly) and music has moved far forward in the four decades since. Very few artists are now able to write retro songs of the same quality that those big names of the past were able to. Most retro rock sounds dated. It only passes as a pale imitation. If I want to listen to something that sounds like early-period Magnum, then I will simply pull out Chase The Dragon.
There are many bands who take on inspiration from bands of the 60s and 70s, but add a distinct modern twist. That is progression. There are also a handful of retro rockers, such as Siena Root, Lion Shepherd and Horisont that just write such great songs, that they will sit easily on my Top 20 albums of this year. Whilst not there yet, Hällas clearly have the potential to join them.
The game changer from their debut EP is the decision to make organs and synthesisers a big part of the Hâllas sound. Sure, the foundation is still that of heavy rock, with twin guitars and powerful bass and drums to the fore. However, whereas the debut EP rarely strayed from its one-size-fits-all metal cloak, the songs here utilise a wide range of dynamics and extended instrumental passages that keep the palette of sounds varied and interesting.
The interchanges between guitarists Alexander Moraitis and Marcus Petersson, and keyboardist Nicklas Malmqvist are a powerful and standout element of the Hâllas sound. All the songs are strong and memorable, apart from Star Rider, which I find too limp-wristed. It is an all-too-obvious attempt to write a single.
The weakest link for me is the voice of Tommy Alexandersson (who also plays bass). Described by the band as "wistful", his voice is by no means bad. It is just that I prefer more power and a bluesy edge to singers for this style of music.
But I enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and for anyone seeking something inspired by 70s Deep Purple, then this is an album worth listening to.
Conclusions Andy Read:
Hällas EP: 5 out of 10
Excerpts From A Future Past: 7.5 out of 10
Footnote. My New Year resolution for 2017 was to review one album a month form a genre that I would not usually listen to. For the sake of having everything in one place here are the other 11 reviews that I have done.
I began on a promising note in January with a journey into the electronic pop rock of Italian band Metadrive (Over Reality review here), whilst February brought a whole style of music than I am not sure anyone has ever tried before, from German harpist and Mellotron player Nerissa Schwarz and her Playgrounds Lost (review here).
The expansive vaudeville meets dark, indie, gothic avant-pop of Brighton's Birdeatsbaby was my pleasant surprise for March (Tanta Furia review here), followed by some April indigestion brought about by the classic Prog Italiano of Presence and their Masters and Following opus (review here).
For May came another release that comfortably confronted any attempt to categorise the music contained within. Mike Keneally's Scambot 2 received positive acclaim (review here).
I then visited the world of ambient/new age via Deep Imagination's Carefully Kept Secrets (review here), followed by an album of pleasing, electronic-led instrumentals from Italy's Habelard2 (Maybe reviewed here).
August saw the arrival of another album that refused to settle into a genre. You can read my review of DC Sound Collective's Following The Noise (here), whilst September saw a mini review of some synthwave electronic music in the shape of Saint-Samuel's Švankmajer (review here).
Process was my 10th album and the title of G Vaughan & Si Hayden's album of improvised, avant garde, experimental jazz (review here), whilst my penultimate trip out of my comfort zone was a very rewarding one. Greek band Playgrounded gained a DPRP recommended score with their impressive take on post-rock with their second album In Time With Gavity (review here).
On the whole: more hits than misses. The boundaries of my comfort zone have certainly been amended by this experience!
Kinky Wizzards - Quirky Musings
Caffeine Overdose (5:04), Done With This Place (4:22), Chocolat Teapot (4:18), Kinky Joe from Mexico's Burritos (3:06), Door Dancing Penny Collector (5:09), The Snake (4:47), A Poltergeist in Glenmore (6:01), Stompfoot Syndrome (4:33), Free Spirit (6:06)
Seldom I have seen a band name be more appropriate as The Kinky Wizzards. Combined with an album entitled Quirky Musings, it certainly draws the attention of music lovers. It drew mine. My first thoughts were: "What a cool combination. How will this sound? What will the music be like? I was interested to hear this album. Especially with no lyrics, I wondered what exactly they would be musing about. A glance at the song titles maybe says enough? If the music is as entertaining as the amusing titles, then this will be great fun.
I will not say that all the tracks are brilliant but the album is entertaining from start to finish. Here and there it could use a little more energy, but on the other side, this album is not full with shredding all the way through. There is something for everyone, with a good mix between shredding, melodic rocking and jazzy guitar.
Everything is present. The rhythm section plays a big part in the completeness of this album. There is groove, funk, jazz and rocking parts, making every track different. It is not a normal bass line, but one offering quiet, interesting parts, then changing lead roles with the guitar.
Those who enjoy guitar and bass oriented instrumental music should check these musings out immediately.
Gert Hulshof: 7 out of 10
Nordic Giants - Amplify Human Vibration
Taxonomy Of Illusions (6:35), First Light Of Dawn (6:55), Spirit (6:35), Dystopia (5:30), Reawake (feat. Freyja) (5:01), Immortal Elements (6:15), Autonomous (6:12)
As an instrumental band, vocals and lyrics are obviously lacking. However, on the first track Taxonomy Of Illusions a speech given by Terence McKenna at UC Berkeley is featured amongst the tension and atmosphere-building music. An atmospheric, light sounding, intriguing post-rock alongside a speech about the illusions of life? Sounds good to me.
Other speeches are used through the album as well, such as the "Beyond Vietnam" speech by Martin Luther King.
Layers build in each and every song, to create what I can only describe as a positive vibe. The music sounds good and makes you feel good. The speeches meld well with the music, helping to add to this air of positivity and atmospheric epicness. I'm normally put off by instrumental albums, but this sounds like music you could sit and chill to, on a hot summer's day with a nice cool cider and enjoy life. Some of the tracks are more on the "chill out" side, being minimalistic, others have more too them, but all bring you to the same conclusion: This is a good album for good feelings.
With its atmospheric and melodic sound that grabs and holds the attention, this album sounds like it would accompany some Nordic Noir TV shows such as Wallander or The Bridge. Going by reports I have read, their live shows are special and both them and the music accompany each other in spectacular form. I am severely gutted to have had to miss them at Damnation.
If you like Anathema, Alcest, The Pineapple Thief, God Is An Astronaut, Lunatic Soul or other such melodic, post rock offerings, then I would strongly advise you give Nordic Giants a good listen.
Calum Gibson: 9 out of 10
Ultranova - Orion
Órbita (9:51), Abismo Azul (3:42), Aquântica (5:43), Salinas (5:35), Chronos (4:43), Orion (13:26)
The logical next step for keyboardist Thiago Albuquerque, guitarist Daniel Leite, bass player Príamo Brandão and drummer Henrique Penna was to record a self-produced debut album. That album is now in the shops, packed in a futuristically-coloured cardbox sleeve with too sparse information on the band. The album is globally distributed by Musea.
Ultranova's instrumental music is largely based upon Albuquerque's synths. He sets the tone, pace and melody on which the songs are built. There are many nice ideas to enjoy here and there is much to guess where the influences of the bands mentioned before will emerge. But I also got somewhat annoyed by the lack of development within the longer tracks, by the cold sound of the synths and by the inclusion of really ugly, dissonant pieces of music in three songs.
For instance, opener Órbita starts off with some atonal noises before developing nicely into the central, pumping synth theme that has a good pace and a flowing melody. Around the four-minute mark the pace slows down and the music becomes an even more enjoyable tune with hints of old Focus because of the nice, slow guitar soloing and fine piano playing. However, halfway through the song, some very ugly atonal synth tones emerge that destroy much of the song's attractiveness. And to make things worse, the central theme returns and goes on for another three minutes without any noticeable variation. If this song had lasted some five minutes and the ugly interlude was left out, it would have made a very nice opener.
Judging from the relaxed atmosphere in Abismo azul the band has also listened extensively to artists like Gandalf and Kitaro. It is a very calm, very entertaining piece of music, in great contrast to the more experimental opener.
In Aquântica the mood of the opening song returns with an up-tempo repetitive intro by percussion, electric guitar and keys. The melody played in the first minute stays with the listener throughout this repetitive song. And as the synth sound is again quite cold and the guitar riffs played in the background are far from adventurous, this song is not very appealing. Add to this a very ugly end and the conclusion is inevitable: that this is a very weak song.
Soft keys, a jazzy guitar, some subtle electric piano playing and a nice bass are the main ingredients of Salinas. The melody is again quite simple, yet the arrangements around that melody are richer and pleasing. The band tends towards muzak here but because of the upfront bass in the second half of the song, and some fine electric piano and bluesy guitar towards the end, they keep sufficient distance from anonymous mall music.
Chronos builds upon the former song in the sense that the overall mood is again quite relaxed and jazzy but the pace is significantly higher from the start, and gains more speed towards the end. In the second half, Leite plays a very nice solo which makes this a very strong track.
The album closer is the epic title track Orion, a song that cannot hold one's attention for the full length. At first Leite's guitar plays a nice, almost laid back melody over a piano background, reminding me of the Allman Brothers Band. At the four-minute mark Albuquerque's synths come in and the mood of the song changes completely. Cold synth sounds, combined with ugly experimental loops refer to their King Crimson inspiration, but they break the song, and that is a pity. After another break, piano and a prominent bass take up the main theme and the music starts to flow nicely again. The addition of wordless female vocals and hornlike synths make the end of this song quite tasteful.
All in all this album has some fine musical moments where Ultranova show their skills. Especially the quieter songs are very pleasant to listen to. So the decision to record an album of their own proves to be a good one. Unfortunately the fine moments are interspersed by annoying dissonant sounds and breaks, that took away my pleasure in listening to the album. I think that it will be hard for the band to gain a loyal following by playing both this melodious, jazzy stuff as well as the more experimental avant-garde music. Technically they can do both, as this album shows. My choice will be obvious from this review, but fortunately it is up to the band to make a choice ... if any.
Theo Verstrael: 6 out of 10