Dwiki Dharmawan - Rumah Batu
There can be no doubt that genre descriptions, or comparisons with other bands, can entice readers to check out a band, or persuade them to resolve never to hear their music.
With that in mind, I thought I would begin with a short assessment of Rumah Batu.
This album is not an example of classic prog, it is never retro sounding, or reassuringly familiar and has little in common, or any identifiable similarities to the musical style of bands such as, Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd.
Dharmawan’s last release, the impressive Pasar Klewer, was far-reaching in its wide range of styles and skilful use of ever-evolving and subtly-changing structures. Rumah Batu is equally compelling and is an album that sees Dharmawan raise and adjust the bar significantly.
Put simply: It is special, it’s different and it’s great!
The music contained in Rumah Batu is difficult to describe. There are some tunes like Paris Barantai, Samarkland and Janger that have a structure and feel that will delight fans of bands and artists such as Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, and Zeptelar. The fusion of Jazz, rock and Indonesian music is crafted, folded and melded successfully to create an album that sounds quite unlike anything else, but yet at times has a satisfyingly familiar ambiance, that will undoubtedly appeal to anybody who appreciate the work of artists such as Dewa Budjana and SimakDialog.
At its best, in pieces such as, Samarkand, which is full of playful exuberance and brimming with outstanding individual performances, the album showcases some of the finest instrumental music that I have heard in a many years. The creative duelling between the guitar and piano has a vague call and response element and is one of many highlights in a piece that simmers and spits with imaginative purpose.
Although, the album has some off-piste moments, notably during both parts of the title suite, where improvisation and a free compositional style bubble and burst to the fore, the music is never less than fresh and inventive. This is a release that on occasions offers something that is both intriguing, and challenging, but is almost always ultimately rewarding.
Dharmawan is an accomplished composer and arranger. The breadth on styles on offer is consistently captivating. However, time and time again, it is Dharmawan’s agile and versatile ability on the piano which clasps the attention and never fails to impresses. In tunes such as the striking strident opener Rintak Rebana, the pianist’s subtle embellishments add an extra dimension to the ensemble parts to give the release a wonderful spacious feeling where light and shade are given ample opportunity to be explored.
Not surprisingly, Dharmawan is also equally impressive when taking centre stage in a series of outstanding solos in this composition and during Paris Barantai but also several pieces. The sweeping solo that forms an important part of part 2 of the title track and which in parts is reminiscent of some of Keith Tippett’s most inventive work is particularly notable.
The other players involved in the release are equally exciting and each one is able to impose their mark upon the music when the need arises. Guitarist Nguyen Le’s contribution is quite outstanding and his expressive tone and angular style gives a number of tracks a face-gurning injection of raw emotion. No note is wasted in his beautifully measured performance in the latter stages of Paris Barantai. Some of the most expansive guitar playing of the album occurs during Janger, where the piece is grabbed and garlanded with a kaleidoscope of mesmerising legato parts.
However, what really sets this album apart and gives it a unique identity is the contribution of Saat Syah on Suling flute and vocals. His Suling flute delivers wistful tones that are full of fragility and beauty. The sound of this traditional South East Asian flute is frequently employed to give the release an ethnic ambiance and is also used to meld the album with aspects of a more contemporary western sound. The flute riff in the mid part of Janger is fantastic.
Syah also excels in delivering what I assume to be wordless improvised vocals. They complement the mood of the album perfectly and provide many of the tracks with a haunting ethereal quality to create a mysterious unworldly feel. The scat type vocals that feature in the excellent Paris Barantai are particularly enchanting.
The rhythm section featured in the album also has a major and successful part to play in ensuring that Dharmawan’s sonic vision is realised.
The album’s tunes are frequently characterised by bass interludes which emerge to impress, or are used to link different sections within a piece. These are largely provided by electric bassist Carles Benavent and his bubbly bumpy style is thoroughly enjoyable. His trademark sound is an identifiable positive characteristic of the album as a whole. However, the low end aspect of the album is further enhanced by the rhythmic flourishes and sensitive embellishments of Yaron Stavi’s upright bass. The combination of both of these bottom end instruments creates a hugely enjoyable platform for the skills of drummer Asaf Sirkis to be fully utilised.
Sirkis must be one of the most notable and accomplished drummers to have emerged in the thriving progressive jazz fusion scene in recent years His instantly recognisable style and work on Mark Wingfield’s latest album Tales From The Dreaming City is superb and Rumah Batu similarly benefits from his deft touches and powerhouse dexterity. The finesse and skill apparent in the explosive drum break which concludes Samarkand with a rousing flourish arguably rivals anything that either such greats behind the kit, such as, John Marshall, or Jon Hiseman have recorded over the years.
Rumah Batu is a fantastic album and seldom disappoints. To cap it all, it is also blessed with fantastic sound quality. Each instrument is clear and precise and Mark Wingfield’s clearly defined mix gives wonderful separation between the instruments. This creates a spacious and expansive experience, where every instrumental nuance and subtlety can be distinctly heard and where cleverly arranged ensemble passages have room to breathe.
There can be little doubt that genre descriptions, or perhaps even a DPRP recommendation by a particular reviewer, can entice readers to check out a band, or make them resolve, to never hear their music.
If that is the case, and if you haven’t already heard Rumah Batu and want to experience something that might be a bit different; in Rumah Batu’s case, a superb example of modern day progressive, jazz fusion with a flavour of south East Asia added for good measure, I urge you to check out this release. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
The Kentish Spires - The Last Harvest
It’s strange how some things do not quite live up to them, no matter how much you wish them to do so. I remember as a youngster queuing up for hours to see an appearance by Batman at my local toy shop. Imagine my disappointment, as a child growing up in Kent, when I saw the cape crusader’s corseted paunch and distinctive walk. I recognised him immediately; it was the local school caretaker Mr Creasey, no doubt trying to gain some extra hard earned cash.
I had a similar feeling of disappointment after listening to the Kentish Spires debut album The Last Harvest. I had read many rave reviews of it extolling its virtues and had observed how many commentators had emphasised the bands Kentish roots, suggesting that the band were offering something that would sit comfortably in any Canterbury styled and tinged music collection. Indeed, the band’s press releases suggest that they offer Canterbury-inspired progressive rock.
Well, just as Mr Creasey’s paunch and distinctive walk gave the game away, it took only a few moments to discover that this is an album that is rooted firmly in a familiar and, for many I guess, reassuring and highly appealing retro style and classic sound associated with song-based prog.
For anybody expecting, the freshness and inventiveness of approach associated with multifaceted Jazz tinted Canterbury genre bands such as Lapis Lazuli, Matching Mole, Hatfield And The North and National Health, the album will be a huge disappointment. The Last Harvest has neither the whimsy, nor clever succinct song writing associated with Caravan, or the solo works of Richard Sinclair, nor the challenging complexity associated with Soft Machine.
This album is associated with the Canterbury style of music in name and in general terms only, although in fairness, much of the lyrical content of the release is about Kent and Canterbury. Admittedly, there are also some occasional passages, in tunes such as, Spirit Of The Skies, which might remind some listeners, of a tenuous comparison to Caravan.
The enchanting TTWIG is probably the highlight of the album. It has an attractive jazz tinged vibe that is combined with an example of some of the best ensemble playing on the album. These elements are all wrapped up in an attractive and appealing song package that just about manages not to outstay its welcome.
That is not to say that the rest of this release is not without its merits. If considered for what it is, and without the erroneous distraction of thinking that the album as a whole, might deliver anything musically and specifically associated with the Canterbury genre, then this is a release that skilfully delivers a type of prog that many readers may find attractive and might enjoy.
The Last Harvest is an example of contemporary prog steeped in a retro sound and approach associated with the 70s, including nods to bands as diverse as, Pink Floyd, Van Der Graaf Generator, Camel, Jethro Tull and Caravan. Much of the album will no doubt impress those who like music that contains some of the norms associated with song-based prog.
Many of the tracks are long enough for a verse and chorus structure to be extended to epic proportions. This is particularly the case in the lengthy concluding track, The Last Harvest. As might be expected, this also gives an opportunity for extended instrumental sections to occur. Although these are frequently enjoyable and well implemented, they often and somewhat predictably take place at the mid-point of a composition.
My disappointment that the album was not an innovative take on some of the more inventive aspects of a Canterbury sound was matched and at times surpassed by dissatisfaction that many of the tunes were tethered to conventional structures often connected with prog and therefore overall, the whole album was grounded by its unsurprising nature. This might not have been so much of a problem, if I had found that the songs / tunes were unfailingly appealing and that the delivery of them was consistently satisfying.
Although I struggled to appreciate the totality of much of what was on offer, each piece usually contained some aspects that I found alluring. For example, the charming sax based accompaniment and recurring riff in the opening phase of Kingdom Of Kent is interesting and is matched in appeal by some of the flute breaks that occur. Similarly, the instrumental passage that emerges with a crunching guitar volley mixed with emotive human wailing is also quite enjoyable.Later this instrumental section is impressively extended by a development of the tunes familiar sax and flute riff.
The sound quality and production of the album is excellent. Lead instruments are given a prominent place in the mix and the result is an album that is neither cluttered, nor hindered by an indistinct separation of the instruments.
The vocal performance of Lucie V is to the fore, to good effect in the mix and provides the album with a strong identity. She has a distinctive voice and delivers each tune in a clearly identifiable manner. It is so idiosyncratic in tone and delivery that some might find her singing to be an acquired taste.
The contribution of Paul Hornsby on reeds, flute and recorders is one of major highlights of the album and his skill and the excellent use of these instruments arguably gives the album a degree of extra merit and helps to establish its own identity. His performance in the delightful TTWIG is particularly impressive.
Despite the obvious ability of all of the band members, The Last Harvest is not an album that I will play regularly. Although the instrumental breaks were quite inventive and enjoyable on first hearing, on subsequent listens they became less interesting. In the end the album is let-down somewhat, by offering little that is excitingly innovative or truly memorable.
The tunes and melodies did not etch themselves into my sub–consciousness and overtime, any that did, soon faded to nothing, unlike my recollection of Mr Creasey’s, or should I say, Batman’s weary walk and low slung paunch in the land of my grey and pink memory.
Light Freedom Revival - Truthonomy
Light Freedom Revival is the brainchild of Vancouver based singer, songwriter, musician John Vehadija. Although a new name to me, he has previously released a full length CD Eterniverse Deja Vu (2017) and an EP Close Your Eyes And Feel under the LFR moniker. Vehadija originated in Canada's Toronto region where he recorded under the name INYTH and toured acoustically before relocating to the west coast.
Like the last album, Vehadija is ably supported by Marisa Frantz (harmony vocals), Jamie Glaser (acoustic guitars), Billy Sherwood (bass and drums), Oliver Wakeman (piano, keyboards) and Eric Gillette (electric guitar). An impressive line-up I think you’ll agree and its the presence of the latter three in particular that attracted me to this release.
Judging by the artwork (unmistakably the work of Ed Unitsky) and the song titles, Vehadija’s spiritual beliefs provide the concept for the album which is borne out in the lyrics. Surprisingly, given that he is also a poet and novelist and every song is dominated by vocals, the words are not reproduced in the otherwise excellent digipak sleeve (and there is no booklet).
Despite the songs varying in length from 5 to 16 minutes, tempo, timbre and mood remain constant for the most part in a melodic, and dare I say, almost easy listening style. And with little in the way of instrumental dynamics, I have to confess that by prog standards, is pretty undemanding stuff. Stylistically, I was reminded of the solo albums by Jon Anderson even though Vehadija’s voice bears no resemblance to the Yes frontman. Songs like Allah Is Cool have the mellow, trippy ambiance of The Beatles Accross The Universe.
Vehadija’s voice is pleasant although perhaps a tad too lightweight for an album of this length, particularly given the wall to wall singing. He put me in mind a little of REM’s Michael Stipe although he doesn’t have the same raw edge. The songs have an upbeat charm and although they lack any strong hooks, they are all quite tuneful in their own way. Marisa’s dreamy harmonies are undeniably an asset, enriching songs like Emma and I feel the songs would have benefitted from her taking the occasional lead.
Ironically, despite the presence of prog heavy weights Sherwood, Wakeman and Gillette, instrumentally it's Glaser’s tasteful acoustic guitars that stand out, particularly during Caravan and Lady Marian. Wakeman for his part conjures up some engaging orchestrations to close Jesus With A Guitar.
The (almost) epic length title song Truthonomy is especially disappointing. It opens promisingly with Wakeman's symphonic intro (at 1 minute the longest instrumental sequence on the album) but from here on its business as usual despite some neat electric and acoustic guitar interplay around the halfway mark.
This album is not without its qualities, the packaging, production, melodies and performances are all of a high standard. That said, the instruments are in deference to the vocals for the most part with little opportunity for the musicians to flex their instrumental muscles. Vehadija has crammed so many words into each song that the verses and even the chorus have a tendency to run into each other. A little more breathing space within the arrangements would have not gone amiss. Sometimes, as the poet Robert Browning once wrote, "less is more".
Mark Rowen - Radiance
Mark Rowan was the guitarist for the Mostly Autumn offshoot band Breathing Space, playing on their first album, Coming Up For Air. After leaving the band, he spent several years writing and recording this, his first solo recording. For this venture, he is supported by a talented group of musicians that includes his Breathing Space bandmate, Paul Teasdale on bass.
I wouldn't call the album prog in terms of multiple chord changes and such, but there is a sweeping quality to the music that is appealing. The musicianship is top level and singer Lisa Box is a real find. Her work throughout is exceptional. She handles the harder rocking moments in a manner that would make Ann Wilson of Heart proud and is equally adept at meeting the demands of the more adventurous material.
In many ways, Radiance reminds me of those entertaining and artsy pop/prog rock albums from the 80s. Like many artists from that era, Rowen embraces strong melodies and catchy choruses, while still creating substantial music. At times, there is also somewhat of a Karnataka feel to several tracks.
What really sold me on the album though is the quality of the songwriting. I was not previously familiar with Mark and went into this release with zero expectations. Upon first listen, I was immediately sucked in by the strength of both the songs and the performances. In fact, I can easily say that it one of the better albums of its type that I have heard in quite some time. Though at its best when more epic in nature (The Reason Why, Lure of the Siren, Love Is like a Rock), the more accessible tracks (My Shadow Walks Along, Feel Like Letting Go, Trick Of The Light) are also captivating.
Unlike some prog albums, I wouldn't call Radiance a demanding listen. There is a relaxed, straightforward vibe to the material that is refreshing. There is an air of self-importance to some of today's music, which gets a bit old at times. With this release, Mark Rowen has created a work that succeeds on the simple agenda of presenting well written and excellently performed songs. It made for a very pleasant surprise and earns a definite recommendation.
Symbolon Obscura - Esoterica
I believe the "obscura" part in the band name applies to the unavailability of any information online. An online presence is easily made these days, so I guess this is deliberate but I am not sure why. There is one other album released under this band name, in 2013. The album was reviewed on DPRP by my former team member Jez Rowden. In response to one of his complaints, in general the songs have become shorter, but it remains valid: several songs are still a verse and chorus too long.
The love of prog they are talking about is a typical American type of prog, leaning towards AOR (several sections actually sound like AOR), like Styx or the less complex part of Kansas. Most of the musical structures are a little too complex for plain AOR, but not offering enough for prog. The vocals could also be considered an AOR-style, and now I mention the vocals I know what Jez meant with his other main critique.
There's a certain formula to several of the songs. They start with a guitar-only riff (or keyboards in a rare variation) that is the base for the song. Several verses and choruses follow, with some solos in between or at the end. Well, that probably applies to 90% of the modern music in this world, but with a consistent style and rather limited sound range (the guitar sound doesn't change much, making a lot of pieces sound like others), the formulaic approach is too apparent.
The weakest point to me are the arrangements. Having a formula show itself so clearly, means that a band doesn't know how to escape this or doesn't have or take the time. The sound could have been a lot fuller and heavier with a few more layers by any of the instruments. During the solo sections, the keyboards and guitars make things quite interesting (so they do know how to use them), but during several verses I hardly hear any keyboards at all and the sound is a bit bleak and flat.
However, it's obvious that Michael DeMichele (he uses his title MD on the cover, not sure what that has to do with the music) can play the guitar. The solo sections I mentioned are often very interesting. In several songs there are rather predictable changes (AOR, anyone?) from guitar solo to keyboard solo, but the playing is still pretty good. And a few times, there is a real battle between the two solo instruments, resulting in the best parts of the album.
As a second album, this could still be a band finding their style in the musical world and getting experience in writing songs. Taking into account that the musicians have busy day jobs and do this out of love for the music, it's a nice effort. But there are better efforts out there, from people who also have busy lives. I therefore don't think it's the time, but the way they spend it. As for their next step? I hope the band will consider writing shorter songs and putting more time in arranging them, find a better singer, and perhaps let more people in during the writing process.