Album Reviews

Issue 2017-089

Agusa - Agusa - Duo Review

Agusa - Agusa
Country of Origin: Sweden
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 43:45
Track List:
Landet Längesen (10:29), Sorgenfri (5:00), Den förtrollade skogen (8:33), Sagor från Saaris (9:20), Bortom hemom (10:19)
Jerry van Kooten's Review
Sweden has been producing more and more prog and psychedelic bands these last couple of years. This has not gone unnoticed. Whilst the previous albums by this Swedish were released on a small Swedish label (Kommun 2), this third album was picked for a US/European release up by The Laser's Edge, a well-known label within our small world of prog.

Did I say prog? Apparently Agusa is prog enough. Not that I care about labels, I just found it positively remarkable. Some time ago I believed most psychedelic blues albums were too far outside of the range of prog and related genres to be reviewed here on, but I am glad to see more and more are being included, which must mean this sub-genre is interesting for more and more prog fans.

This is the first Agusa album I have on CD, but I have just read that the album is also being released on LP as well. By Kommun 2, too. Originally planned to be entitled Tre (Three), apparently it was renamed to state simply Agusa.

Recently flute player Jenny Puertas joined the line-up and she already has a substantial role in the band's sound. Not just a couple of solos here and there, but an integrated part, providing both soft layers to the overall sound as well as a lead on melodies in several sections, or trading melodies with guitar and keyboards.

Soaring melodies, progressive breaks and changes, and psychedelic structures and sounds feature here. There is an emphasis on the dark and melancholic, rather than the happy hippy sound. The folky sections remind me of UK folk proggers Solstice. Not that I like to drop names people might not know, but I was really thinking of the first Mary Newsletter album, mainly because of the distorted guitar sound. Although Agusa take a less-fixed approach than sticking to typical song structures, I think fans of Mostly Autumn and the likes should take a listen to this.

Several times I am also reminded of the magic sounds of Neuschwanstein, for example in Den förtrollade skogen (The Enchanted Forest), which also has hints of a jazzy vocabulary.

Of special note is Sorgenfri (Free Of Sorrow), which for the first half is growing into this lovely echo from so many influences, blended into a modern-day story, with the second half adding goosebump-inducing organ and guitar solos. I like the whole album a lot, but this song keeps resulting in goosebumps. Or maybe Sagor från Saaris (Stories From Saaris), where things get heavier and heavier in a way that is either complete magic improv' or careful orchestration? Or the album closer Bortom hemom (Beyond Home)? Man, what an awesome album.

Agusa marks a growth. On the previous album Två, comprised of just two long tracks, the band were showing what they can do with a number of ideas and song structures, and taking those into places you couldn't foresee. (Their live album, Katarsis, also has just two tracks, with expanded versions of two shorter songs off their debut album.) The addition of the flute and letting it play a major part is of course a change, a bit in terms of style, but more in terms of depth. It also seems that the band have deliberately limited themselves in their possibilities to take songs into unknown territories when in the studio and recording an album, as if they are saving those trips for live performances, which, in my opinion, seems like a good plan.

I already loved their first two (studio) albums. This is just a next step for Agusa. It touches so many of my musical senses that are usually divided into areas like prog, blues, and psychedelic rock. I hope I will be able to finally experience them live one day, but listening to an album like this will keep my mind occupied and very satisfied!
Owen Davies' Review
I vividly remember the outcry amongst Jazz purists when Miles Davis released albums such as You're Under Arrest and Tutu. Miles was not the sort of artist to rest upon past achievements, or to be constrained by stylistic expectations. He once famously said "It's not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change."

With that in mind, it is interesting to note how bands change and evolve over time.

Agusa's debut album was called Högtid and it was released in 2014. Högtid was awash with kaleidoscopic jams and had an accessible mix of psychedelic prog that placed the band firmly in the top echelon of Swedish bands such as Kebnekajse and Fläsket Brinner. The combination of guitar and keys and particularly the organ, gave the band an easily identifiable style. Infectious rhythms, progressive vocalisations, gutsy guitar parts, subtle changes of tack, timbre and tempo that were occasionally combined with a sweet folk tinged melody, ensured that Högtid was not only easy on the ear, but was also equally appealing to the mind.

Their second album Två contained just two compositions. Over the course of the album, layered melodies were gradually uncoiled. Both pieces were embedded with recurring motifs that swaddled the listener in a gentle embrace. Scandinavian folk melodies were consistently used as a basis for the bands lengthy improvisations. Två's strength lay in its ability to explore recurring themes without becoming unimaginative, or unduly repetitive. As a consequence, it was a distinctive and hypnotic hip quivering and head swaying experience. It was a release that invited the listener to jig. More importantly, it was a fine example of expressive psychedelic music, laced with some of the complexity of progressive rock and sweetly seasoned with an essence of folk.

In 2016 Agusa released Katarsis. It featured a live performance that showcased how two tunes that originally appeared on Högtid could be developed and rearranged. Flute player Jenny Puertas joined the band in 2015 and her substantial contribution on Katarsis made a huge difference to the band's palette of sounds and arguably altered Agusa's principal means of expression.

The band's latest album Agusa maintains the flute led style that came to the fore in Katarsis. As one might expect, the band's music still includes many of the ingredients that made both Högtid and Två appealing. A busy rhythm section underpins everything and provides the solid foundation on which a range of other musical colours can be added. It is therefore not surprising, that Agusa contains numerous opportunities for, dashing guitar flourishes, and spiralling organ solos to come to the fore. These ingredients have an important role in creating a rich sonic canvas on to which, the band can add further layers and embellishments as required.

The release of Agusa sees the honing and consolidation of a style that emerged with Katarsis. The consistent use and addition of the flute as the principal instrument to introduce and often develop the majority of the melodies indicates how Agusa's overall approach and sound has altered since the bands inception.

The group continue to channel the traditional idioms and motifs of Swedish/ Scandinavian folk music as the basis for much of their tunes. In this respect, the main difference between Två and Agusa is that the tunes are more structured and subsequently the bands compositional style has been condensed, so that the pieces are shorter. As a consequence, some of the organic, ever changing and slowly evolving flavours of their lengthy jam like approach of the past have been lost.

Nevertheless, a number of the tunes run for over, or just under 10 mins. This gives numerous opportunities for the band to express them and to successfully explore varied textures of light and shade. It also provides a chance for foot tapping moments to emerge and melodic themes to recur. The mesmerising effect of the frequently recurring motifs that are a common occurrence within each tune, invites the listener to turn down the lights and be transported by a journey of the imagination.

The release contains many mouth-watering flute passages that flutter, flicker and frequently flame. Any snarling aggression however, is more than tempered by the flowing fluidity that is a hall mark of Puertas overall approach. The impressive flute parts are a highlight of the album and are often accompanied by skilful organ fills and chunky guitar parts. The flute, and keyboard interplay contained in Sagor från Saari is particularly appealing and the overall effect is absolutely enchanting.

The retro-styled, free-flowing organ style of keyboard player Jonas Berge is also a key component in the albums success. In many ways, it has an even more important role to play than the flute. The organ flourishes and sympathetic embellishments by the other band members give many of the tunes an easily recognisable signature sound.

The intensity of the keyboard parts in Sagor från Saaris and Sorgenfri have a captivating effect. In these pieces, Berge's pulsating patterns create a swirling musical prism of shifting colours and alternating textures.

Sagor från Saaris is a track that has that rare ability to convey many moods and it is certainly a tune that rewards careful attention. The emotive guitar fills of Mikael Ödesjö are another enjoyable highlight of the piece and his distorted tone and retro filled solo adds an extra bite to proceedings

The excellent Sorgenfri features some of the best flute rock of the album and is probably one of the best examples of this sub- genre that I have heard in recent years. As an added attraction, Sorgenfri is also crowned with a sparkling tiara of organ swirls. Berge's majestic solo, includes hints towards a Canterbury sound and is a great synthesis of a number of styles. It is a satisfying moment and its multihued character adds a flamboyant quality that is reminiscent of the vibrant, loose-fitting, musky allure of a warm kaftan in the 1970's.

The organ interlude has just the right mixture of pace, sensitivity and aggression to appease any listeners who might otherwise be satiated by the extensive flute work in the track. It is a great way to propel the piece energetically towards its conclusion .The raw discordant six string interjections that burst into life to end Sorgenfri provide an added muscular dimension that is sure to delight gurning guitar fans. On its conclusion, this fine piece leaves a penetrating aroma that lingers to fill the listener with an intensely rich aftertaste and a range of long lasting sensory memories.

Bortom hemom has many interesting twists and turns. Along with Sagor från Saaris it is probably one of the most progressive pieces on the album. Bortom hemom begins with a beautifully melodic and accessible motif that forms the basis for much of the development and improvisation that follows. A number of styles including, space rock and folk influences are encountered during the course of the track.

It is a riff filled affair, where a fast paced star filled space rock jam is embellished by some spiteful flute playing. The final moments are particularly endearing as the folk influences become more dominant. As the piece travels towards its finale, there is a short interlude that is reminiscent of the flute and Bodh ran interplay to be found in much of the work of Flook. In the concluding section of Bortom hemom, the pastoral mixture of a green velvet flute accompanied by sparse percussion works really well and offers an excellent contrast to the deep space vastness of the fast paced jam that precedes it and is such a dominant feature of much of the tune.

Agusa is a well recorded album. The production values ensure that individual instruments have good separation and are given the space to breathe within the crystal clear sound.

If you appreciate, listening to subtle variations set within a melodious and recurring theme, then it is probable that you may find much to enjoy in the set of tunes presented in Agusa. The reliance upon repeated motifs and the obvious influence of Swedish folk music means that that a number of the tracks outwardly share similar qualities. Nevertheless, it is an album that rewards repeated listens. Each composition has its own distinctive style and charm and the attractive elements of individual tracks and of the album as a whole far outweigh any minor shortcomings

Although Agusa's principal instrumentation has changed since the release of Högtid and the bands style has been refined to become more tightly arranged; the core of the music remains firmly rooted in the tie and dye colours of jam based psychedelia with a krautrock tint. The frequent use of the melodic qualities of the flute and the way in which the old worldly ambience and structures associated with the traditional music of Scandinavia are often utilised, significantly enhances the band's sound and notably enriches what is on offer.

It certainly is interesting to hear how the sound and style of a band can alter and evolve over time. I think Miles got it right when he said 'If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change'.

I personally, adore the manner in which Agusa have developed their sound. It is evident from their latest album that they have the skill and ability to rise above the many other bands who ply their trade in the silver tubed waters of flute prog rock. They also have more than enough talent to hold their own and carve out their own unique identity and niche in the multifaceted territory associated with psychedelic influenced prog.

I would go as far to say that Agusa is probably the bands most impressive album to date and is most certainly a welcome addition to their discography. I have become enchanted by its melodic charms and at the time of compiling this review, it is one of my favourite releases of the year. I therefore unreservedly recommend it!
Jerry van Kooten: 9 out of 10
Owen Davies: 9 out of 10

Aldenfield - Light Of Day

Aldenfield - Light Of Day
Country of Origin: USA
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 64:21
Track List:
The Arrival (2:13), The Voice Of The People (8:04), Here And Now (11:14), Running Out Of Time (6:53), All Is Lost With Yesterday (9:29), Going Nowhere (9:33), Outside Is Inside (7:41), Judgement Day (9:02)
Some time ago I stumbled upon a website that had a live album (recordings from the 80s) by one of my favourite bands, Canadian prog / pomp band Zon. It was the website of Zon keyboard player Howard Helm. Timing is everything, they say, so it could be no coincidence that I read that Helm was in a new band, Aldenfield, that had just released their debut album, Light Of Day. After listening to some samples, it was clear that this new album deserves its place in our reviews section.

In the 70s, Helm played with Zon and they opened for the likes of The Tubes, Styx, Foreigner, and Alice Cooper, besides having their own headlining shows. The music of Zon moved from progressive to pomp rock, so it was not surprising to see Helm joining Refugee during the mid 1980s. Later Helm joined Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson and shared stages with Brian May, Joe Elliott, Axl Rose, Slash, and many others.

Helm moved from Canada to Florida and has worked with Jim Morris in his studio since the 1990s and has acted as producer, engineer, and session keyboard player for bands like Iced Earth, Kamelot, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage, Jon Oliva's Pain, and Steinhardt/Moon, as well as being a permanent member of Cryptic Vision (reviews on DPRP of their albums Moments Of Clarity, In A World, and Of Infinite Possibilities, the latter two of which include Helm). So after the 80s it was back to prog for Helm.

And now Aldenfield! Prog, naturally, but what type, you may wonder.

The cover reminds me of those wonderful 50s/60s sci-fi magazines. The first track is a guitar-driven intro that fits the sci-fi scene. But the start of the second track brings us right back to the present. Composition-wise this is modern prog, leaning to the heavier side of the spectrum, save some easier middle sections with bluesy/melodic guitar solo.

Some pomp, stadium rock is still there, mostly in the vocal lines of the choruses, but in a heavily updated form with multiple layers. References to days of old can be found in some keyboard sounds, like the Hammond in the excellent Outside Is Inside intro. Oh, my blues-based taste for prog loves this!

The fact that we have a band led by two producers means you get a very well-produced album and a great mix. I think at times this album could use a more fat and dirty sound here and there. I hope this band is going to tour, a live setting gives an excellent opprtunity to add that.

While the first two long tracks are good, they suddenly seem just an intro to Running Out Of Time, with its fast-paced intro of keyboards and guitar riffing. Several breaks and changes shift the mood from dark to ominous and haunting. Now things begin to get very interesting. Even when the song's tempo goes down for the middle section, attention is kept, only to be rewarded by an excellent break speeding up the pace again in Saga style, and a treat with a great keyboard and double guitar solo.

All Is Lost With Yesterday is a mix of 1980s bass and drum combined in a modern, almost danceable, rhythm. The jazzy keyboard solo in Going Nowhere, followed by a more orchestral bit, brings in more unexpected variation, just like all the changes in tempo in the last track and more of that excellent keyboard work. It is slightly reminiscent of Generation 13-style Saga or Galahad.

The vocals have a touch of Bruce Dickinson and sometimes remind me of Kim Mitchell. Sometimes clear, sometimes a bit agressive. Not a typical prog voice and not a typical AOR voice either, which is a pro to my ears.

There's a lot to enjoy here for people who like the progressive sides of bands like Styx, Kansas, Magnum, Saga, Max Webster, Demon or Galahad.
Jerry van Kooten: 7.5 out of 10

Virgil & Steve Howe - Nexus

Virgil & Steve Howe - Nexus
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 39:59
Track List:
Nexus (4:57), Hidden Planet (3:27), Leaving Aurura (3:40), Nick's Star (3:41), Night Hawk (3:35), Moon Rising (3:31), Passing Titan (4:06), Dawn Mission (5:07), Astral Plane (3:37), Infinite Space (2:08), Freefall (2:09)
Although he's best known as the guitarist with Yes and Asia, since 1975 Steve Howe has maintained a productive solo career. Following their debut on the 1993 The Grand Scheme Of Things album, Steve has been joined on several recordings and tours by his sons Dylan and Virgil Howe.

As you may be aware from recent news, Vigil sadly passed away unexpectedly on 11th September 2017, less than 2 weeks before his 42nd birthday. Steve was in America with Yes and eldest son Dylan at the time and as a result the remaining dates of the 'Yestival' tour were cancelled. Virgil himself was about to embark on a 14-date UK tour with his own band Little Barrie before tragedy struck.

Prior to the Yes tour, Vigil and Steve recorded 11 instrumentals for an intended album release in November 2017. In early October, Steve decided that the release should go ahead as a tribute to Vigil's life and legacy. Virgil is responsible for all compositions, keyboards, piano, synths, bass and drums with Steve contributing acoustic, electric and steel guitars.

Although its something I haven't done for awhile, for reasons I can't explain I felt compelled to do a track by track review. Each piece averages around the 3 and half minute mark so prog-rock extravaganzas are not on the menu.

Title track Nexus is an excellent opener with a light jazzy piano and acoustic guitar duet and a soaring electric guitar theme.

Hidden Planet takes a more unexpected turn with its walking piano line, funky rhythms and very un-Howe like discordant lead guitar.

In contrast, the beautiful Leaving Aurura features lush piano, chiming acoustic guitar and a mellow shuffle rhythm that brings to mind Genesis' Carpet Crawlers.

Nick's Star is dedicated to Vigil's best friend who also passed away recently. Its a heavenly track in the vein of Mike Oldfield with delicate piano, discrete keyboard orchestrations and majestic steel guitar.

Night Hawk is an altogether darker and heavier affair with some surprisingly grungy lead guitar over an omnipresent piano rhythm and equally gritty synth lines.

Moon Rising features another memorable piano melody overlaid with discrete electric guitar lines.

Passing Titan is meditative electronica with ambient keys, vibes and sparse but resonant electric sitar. The latter is vaguely reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's Man With A Harmonica theme (as covered by Fields Of The Nephilim).

Dawn Mission boasts another infectious piano melody underpinned with Mellotron-like 'strings', synths and Steve's improvised but always harmonious guitar lines.

Astral Plane is blessed with a simple but haunting melody where keys and guitar blend seamlessly, shot through with Virgil's proggy synth excursions.

Infinite Space features high register piano doubled by harp like guitar arpeggios. Another exquisite melody.

At as little over 2 minutes, the ethereal Freefall is a short but effective closer with immersive guitar harmonics underscored by shimmering, ambient keys.

Whilst essentially these are piano led instrumentals with keys orchestrations overlaid with guitar there are two aspects that are particularly striking. The first is Virgil's melodies which are some of the most haunting I've heard in a very long time. The other is Steve's colourful guitar dynamics bringing a different sound and texture to each track, taking them to another level.

Somehow a DPRP rating did not seem appropriate or indeed even necessary for this release so I've avoided one. Suffice to say this is a fitting testimony to the memory of Virgil Howe and an essential purchase for fans of Steve's eclectic and always inventive guitar playing. Appropriately, the cover drawing is by Virgil's 5-year old daughter Zuni.
Geoff Feakes: Unrated out of 10

Martin Kohlstedt - Strom

Martin Kohlstedt - Strom
Country of Origin: Germany
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 45:00
Track List:
NAO (6:22), KSY (6:12), DOM (5:52), HEA (4:29), TAR (5:27), EJA (4:59), AMS (6:09), CHA (6:00), JIN (3:52)
Martin Kohlstedt is a German composer who hails from Weimar where he trained in jazz piano and studied media arts at the Bauhaus University.

Strom is his third album , his previous two were 2012's Tag and 2014's Nacht, and, unlike his former albums, he incorporates elements of electronic sounds and effects to his sparse, haunting piano playing. Strom is an instrumental album that is both captivating and beguiling.

Occasionally I was reminded of Michael Nyman's piano music that features in Jane Campion's film The Piano starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel. Although not quite the same, Nyman's is more melodically driven, Kohlstedt strikes a darker menace in some of these piano led tracks that gives musical contrast between his songs. There is an underlying uniformity that permeates throughout this album that is both comforting but never boring or predictable.

For example, KSY starts with a marching, pulsating electronic drone that ebbs and flows in intensity while the piano builds up into a crescendo of sound before gently falling away. DOM is a beautiful solo piano piece, stripped bare of other artefacts that you can clearly hear the piano pedals being worked (you can hear this on a number of tracks). Then there is something like CHA (my favourite) that adds a denser layer of electronic sounds behind the piano that you'd be forgiven for thinking this might be Vangelis.

However this isn't Vangelis or even Hans Zimmer, although I'm sure Kohlstedt is quite capable of producing such large electronic cinematic pieces, but music that still possesses an evocative and imaginative distinct edge that currently separates Kohlstedt from such composers. The next logical step for Kohlstedt is to expand his compositions by adding a larger palette of sounds that will keep current and future fans guessing what he might do next.

We always need a break from out-and-out progressive rock music and submerge ourselves in something more sublime that takes you away to a faraway place where we are more contemplative and relaxed. If you like sparse, cinematic sounding landscapes, that delight and beguile, with an underlying tension, then this is definitely worth listening to. I found Martin Kohlstedt just by chance on the internet and it does amaze me the amount of talent out there that are struggling to have a wider listening audience. This is definitely music worth investing time in.
Alan Weston: 8 out of 10

Schnellertollermeier - Rights

Schnellertollermeier - Rights
Country of Origin: Switzerland
Year of Release: 2017
Time: 40:15
Track List:
Rights (13:16), Piccadilly Sources (6:59), Praise/Eleven (8:22), Round (10:38)
Formed in 2006, Schnellertollermeier take their easily searchable, if lengthy, moniker from the surnames of its members. Andi Schnellmann (bass), Manuel Troller (guitar) and David Meier (drums) attempt a radical reworking of the power trio format on these four instrumentals. Rights is their fourth album and follow's 2015's X. This a power trio but not as I know it.

They take influences from all kinds of areas and more than make them their own. They use the repetitive system minimalism of Steve Reich but slam it into math-rock, post-rock, avant-garde jazz and experimental noise terrorism.

The opening track, Rights, spirals a plucked guitar and bass figure as they layer in more short musical phrases. it uses the uses the post-rock slow build template to good effect. This increases the density of the staccato melodic line and they control the dynamics really well keeping one's ear interested throughout it lengthy running time. It is delicate and powerful with the odd scrap of dissonant noise here and there.

This style continues on the next two tracks, both of which I think, are more successful than the title track. Piccadilly Sources uses a similar slow build to it's persistently repeating phrases, but it ends with a pleasingly full-on, crunchy metal wig out. Whilst Praise/Eleven has harmonic picking on the guitar and an engaging rhythmic pattern.

The problem, for me, comes with the final track Round. It is a headache inducing slice of discordant noise. It is like being woken by a faulty car alarm at 3 a.m. when you don't have to get up for work. It is well played and recorded and can't be faulted from that point of view. But I find its wilful artiness to be cold and emotionally unengaging (except in completely negative ways). It is rare for me to hate a track but with Round Schnellertollermeier have succeeded in that regard. Though is does improve a little as it progresses I'm afraid my patience had long since left the building. So, Schnellertollermeier's Rights_ is a three quarters successful stab at moving the power trio format forward, and they should be praised for their adventurousness and single-minded approach. But go have a listen and make up your own mind, just don't start with track four!
Martin Burns: 6 out of 10
Album Reviews