Pierpaolo Bibbò - Via Lattea
Pierpaolo Bibbò is not exactly a prolific artist, having released his first album in 1980 and his second in 2012. He has spent the intervening years producing and in setting up his own studio. His third release Via Lattea (Milky Way in English) was released at the beginning of the year.
Pierpaolo Bibbò’s Via Lattea is a concept album about his home island of Sardinia. This applies to the cover image too. It takes in such topics as the Nuraghe megalithic people, the bombing of Cagliari in World War II, the King of Sardinia (and of a reunified Italy) as well as taking a broader view that includes the village fool. The music is idiosyncratic symphonic prog with a predominance of keyboards. All the vocals, instruments and programming are by Pierpaolo Bibbò with the help of Simone Spano on drums and percussion. The music flows and sparkles across the album with, to my ears, only one misstep.
Via Lattea opens with the album's only instrumental and it is a treat of a track. As with the rest of the album it shows Pierpaolo Bibbò’s controlled arrangements and deft orchestration. Keyboard’s are front and centre and it has growly synth bass as it concludes with some head down prog boogie.
The track that follows is the album’s centrepiece. Over 13 minutes and at least seven sections 17 Febbraio 1943 is so seamlessly put together you really can’t see the joins. It opens with classic rock guitar meeting Italian prog that is something refreshing to my old ears. It continues by adding electronica, jazz-rock syncopation, strings and an acoustic section. It is choc full of melodic invention that is balanced by Pierpaolo Bibbò’s expressive tenor. His diction is so clear that you could learn Italian from these songs.
After this very fine slice of prog comes the album’s only misstep. Nient'altro is a stripped back piano ballad that just seems underpowered and a bit bland in amongst the tracks surrounding it.
Things are soon back to normal though. There are many highlights amongst these symphonic prog songs on the rest of Via Lattea. There is dark electronica and steamy organ on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II (1962). The acoustic Il Matto Del Villaggio has terrific bass playing on its outro. The same is true of the coda to Quando Rinascero', where Simone Spano’s rolling drums underpin the guitar and synth chops of Pierpaolo Bibbò to great effect allround.
The album's closing track Ho Quasi Smesso Di Sognare shows that Pierpaolo Bibbò does know how to do a ballad properly. This is beautifully orchestrated and affecting. It is rounded off with a magnificent synth solo.
Pierpaolo Bibbò’s Via Lattea is, as I said, an album of idiosyncratic Italian symphonic progressive rock. The use of electronica and string samples and, on occasion, rocking guitar make this release more than a rehash of classic prog. Wonderfully melodic, sometimes melancholic, Via Lattea aims high and hits its targets in the main. Well worth investigating.
Fuchs - Station Songs
Fuchs is German composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Hans-Jürgen (Hansi) Fuchs. Although he may not be too familiar a name for progressive rock lovers outside Germany, he has been around in that musical scene for more than 25 years. I was under the impression I had not come across Fuchs before, but I discovered in the context of this review that he produced and featured as a guest musician on the CDs of a band called Ines (Ines is Hansi's wife) back in the nineties, of which I own a few. Ines's albums have been reviewed here on DPRP.
Being a teacher in his main job, Hansi Fuchs is also quite active in writing musicals to be performed by pupils at schools. Station Songs is Fuchs’s third album released under this name after Leaving Home from 2012 ((review here)[http://www.dprp.net/reviews/2012-030#fuchs}) and The Unity Of Two from 2014 ((review here)[http://www.dprp.net/reviews/2014-048#fuchs]). Besides Hansi, who is responsible for electric and acoustic guitar, bass, keyboards, programming and backing vocals, the line-up consists of Ines Fuchs (synth solos, piano), Andy Bartzik (electric and acoustic guitars), Ulbi Ulbricht (bass), Florian Dittrich (drums), Michael Wasilewski (vocals), and Baggi Buchmann (vocals). Most of these musicians not only perform on Fuchs’ previous releases, but also some of them already were bandmates on the Ines albums mentioned above. Thus, in view of this stability, one might be inclined to consider Fuchs as a band rather than a solo project.
The idea for this album was born when Hansi Fuchs recorded railway station noises at Stuttgart Central Station for a theatre project, and in doing so, was looking at the people passing by and reflecting on who they are and where they were going. The nine tracks on Station Songs thus describe six discretionary, anonymous passengers from two different points of view. There's the external one of an equally unknown observer (The Invisible Man) and there internal one of each of these individuals themselves.
Musically, Fuchs is deeply rooted in the symphonic, melodic neo-prog spectrum. In an interview, he describes himself as a big fan of Tony Banks, and consequently, the influences of Genesis mainly in the use of the keyboards (Mellotron and synthesizer in particular) and the 12-string guitar are recognisable throughout the entire album.
Comparing Station Songs to its predecessors, it appears to be more progressive in a sense that arrangements are more complex and sophisticated, with a stronger emphasis on keyboards. It is a well-balanced album with respect to the interplay of keyboards and guitar. The synth solos by Ines Fuchs, particularly the one on Sleepwalking Man are catchy and add variety to the music.
The songs are melodic, dreamy, a bit melancholic, atmospheric, and while being close to neo-prog nonetheless display a decent 1970s feeling. I clearly got caught by the instrumental passages and found the vocals to be somewhat low-key and uniform. That is something that I considered a bit of a pity, given the cute and ambitious lyrical concept.
References and similarities are numerous. Besides Genesis, I hear the main protagonists of neo-prog such as Marillion (the opening bars of Invisible Man remind me of Kayleigh), IQ, Jadis, Sean Filkins, but also bands like Anyone’s Daughter, Choice, Sylvain, Frequency Drift, Big Big Train, and RPWL. The strongest tracks for me clearly are the two “Man", i.e. the invisible and the sleepwalking ones, especially thanks to their complexity, melody, variety, and catchy keyboarding.
I recommend this release to progressive rock lovers who are looking for accessible, melodic, well-balanced, keyboard-driven music without too many surprises and do not want to take the risk of having to get involved too deeply with the music before liking it. If you are a fan of music in the vain of the artists mentioned above, you can’t go wrong with this release. The more adventurous ones of you looking for strong dynamics, hooks, twists and turns may find it a bit too neat, polished, or uneventful.
Leap Day - Timelapse
Released to celebrate their 10th anniversary, this is the fifth studio album from Dutch symphonic rockers Leap Day. Although the previous albums have all been generally well received by the DPRP, given the pedigree of the individual members, I have always felt that they had yet to achieve their full potential.
The original lineup remains intact on Timelapse, namely Jos Harteveld (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Gert van Engelenburg (keyboards, backing vocals), Eddie Mulder (electric guitars, backing vocals), Derk Evert Waalkens (keyboards, backing vocals), Peter Stel (bass guitar) and Koen Roozen (drums). Stel left the band earlier this year following the recording and has since been replaced by Harry Scholing.
Over their 10-year lifespan, the band’s sound has remained fairly constant. Not quite neo-prog but certainly very much on the melodic side of the genre with echoes of the usual 1970s suspects including Genesis, Camel, Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, more recently IQ, Magenta, Big Big Train, and closer to home Flamborough Head and Silhouette. Harteveld’s vocals are very Gabriel-esque at times with a touch of Mark Trueack.
Timelapse contains just three new songs (one of which is an instrumental) plus three earlier songs that have been reworked and re-recorded and a previously unreleased live track that was curiously omitted from the 2016 Live at the Northern Prog Festival album.
The first of the new songs, March Under The Symbol, opens the album and it's one of the best things the band has written. With a stirring orchestral riff it's perhaps more catchy then it deserves to be given the somber subject matter of Naziism and the foreboding chorus “The uniform of hatred has returned / apparently there's nothing we have learnt”. A potent message delivered with the minimum of instrumental dressing.
In contrast, the near 11-minute Mind The Gap is a mixed bag of styles and moods beginning with chiming bells that provide a winter-y seasonal atmosphere. Surprisingly, the song that follows features a Police-style cod reggae riff before morphing into a 4 minute instrumental jam. The smooth jazz section is a little too laid-back for my tastes but Mulder’s slide guitar finale is an absolute joy (one of the most underrated guitarists on the planet, in my opinion).
Taking its title from the band’s 2009 debut album, Awaking The Muse is the third previously unreleased track here and it's a rare instrumental from Leap Day. Its mostly a showcase for Mulder’s melodic guitar talents featuring a strong central theme and would have not sounded out of place on a Steve Hackett album from the 1990s.
Speaking of Awaking The Muse, Little Green Men is an abridged version of the mini-epic that closed that album. Here its a stripped down piano led song with a melancholic vocal, bouncing synth line and eerie Mellotron-like strings. An uncharacteristically haunting song for Leap Day, sounding closer to Sweden's Carptree.
Another abridged version, Half Man, Half Machine is a song with a protracted history. Originally recorded in Dutch and included on the 2011 ProgNL album, it was re-recorded in English and released as a single in 2012. It's perhaps most memorable for its spiky guitar motif, noodly synth break and shimmering sampled strings.
Ancient Times makes its third appearance on CD, sounding quite different from the versions that opened and closed the last two albums From The Days Of Deucalion, Chapter 1 (2013) and FTDOD, Chapter 2 (2015) respectively. A short burst of metallic guitar subsides into gentle acoustic guitar and another uncharacteristically melancholic song. A simple but lyrical synth line is taken up by weeping guitar and surging strings, one of the band’s finest moments.
The final track Deucalion is so impeccably performed and recorded, it's easy to overlook that it’s a live recording with only the audience applause giving the game away. Originally featured on the last studio album, it's another memorable song that doesn’t waste a second of its 11 minutes. Harteveld is in particularly fine vocal form and the instrumental sequence boasts a swing rhythm, tasteful Keith Emerson-like synth and guitar dynamics in Jeff Beck style. The steel guitar coda on the other hand captures Steve Howe in his Relayer prime. A fitting closer to the album.
Leap Day have always been known for memorable instrumental themes and hooks but on Timelapse there is a greater emphasis on songwriting with mostly shorter tracks around the 5 minute mark. The keyboard arrangements are lush without being overdone, the rhythm section rock solid and the guitar playing inspired.
Given that its a modest 47 minutes with only three original songs, it would be very easy to dismiss Timelapse as a mere stopgap to fill the void before the next album. That would be a mistake however, this is one of Leap Day’s strongest collection of songs to date.
Qntal - VIII - Nachtblume
Qntal has been around for quite a while and may celebrate their 25th anniversary this year. Founded in 1993, composer and multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, tar, schalmei among others) Michael Popp and singer Syrah still form the core of Qntal. The other founding member Ernst Horn left in 1999.
Qntal offer a unique mix between medieval music, ambient, electronic and dance music. Most lyrics date from ancient times and both medieval instrumentation as well as a considerable quantity of electronics are used. The soothing voice of Syrah keeps the listener mesmerized using the Latin, English and German languages. Although originally the emphasis was on medieval instruments and folk-music, through the years Qntal’s music has shifted more towards electronic and pop.
So while the albums of the nineties show more characteristics of pure folk music and bands like Blackmore’s Night, the current album is far more pop-oriented with more ‘modern’ characteristics and influences by artists like Dead Can Dance, while there are also influences of ambient music and classical music.
The opening song is the title track and it is a melancholic ballad, sung in German, with an up tempo danceable middle section. Popp gets some help from a drummer and a violinist. Die Finstere Nacht is an up-tempo track full of electronic orchestrations and we also hear Popp singing, in German. It could have been a track by Propaganda. As could expected Music On the Waters is sung by Syrah in English, a soothing slow track, a beautiful ballad with a slightly oriental sounding section incorporated.
In Monteclair, an ancient-sounding language is used. Being a Dutchman I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to hear but is sounds appealing. It's like a melancholic track by Yazoo. Sung in German, Echo is definitely the most poppy song on the album. Although I think Popp uses some of his medieval instruments, the main focus is on the keyboards here.
Parliament Of Fowles has got a nice catchy shuffle as rhythm. Subtle drumming enhances the keyboards in an well succeeded attempt to combine dance music with medieval flutes and melodies. In Chint we hear an up tempo beat: back to the dance hall day and disco. Still the singing is ethereal and the melodies date from medieval times.
Syrah sings O Fortuna in Latin. A little more up-tempo and cheerful style, a frivolous synth-pop tune. Close to fellow countryman Michael Cretu’s project Enigma (although Cretu is half Romanian) is Minnelied, evidently sung in German. Sumervar shows characteristics from both synth-pop and electronic dance music but the spirit of famous artists like Kraftwerk is unmistakably there as well, especially detectable in the last track A Chantar.
Although personally I’m more fond of their former albums, Nachtblume a still an astonishing album especially for those who have never heard of Qntal before. Qntal play music without real comparison because of their use of ancient instruments next to super modern technology, their exquisite choice of lyrics and the fact that they found a way to thrill a wide variety of music lovers ranging from fans of classical music, folk music as well as fans of gothic and rock music.
Sunrise Auranaut - Inserter
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Vitaly Kiselev is quite the busy artist. Besides a normal day job as a full-time designer, he has found time to install a personal studio and release four albums as Sunrise Auranaut in just five years time. Initially crafting his skills and spending most of his time demoing he was contracted by Musea Records, who released Childhood End? and Way Of The King in 2013. Freia Music gave him a bigger platform in 2015 (The First Cosmic) and not soon after Rock Company released his best rated album yet; The Ocean Of Unspoken Words in 2016.
Inspired by prog artists from the seventies like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Eloy and Camel, his first four releases are enthusiastic examples of instrumental progressive rock. Kiselev, handling programming and playing both electric and acoustic guitars, manages to incorporate lots of classical influences from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Grieg and the addition of Alexander Malakhov on synthesizers gave the opportunity to shift his focus musically towards symphonic prog. His newest showcase of inventiveness Inserter evolves this style even slightly further towards crossover prog.
The digi-pack comes with a lovely picture of a hammerhead-shark equipped with an USB-inserter surrounded by oceanic images and creatures, beautifully showing his creativeness as a graphic designer. It raises my expectations of having a fresh, clean and crispy clear production; instantly fulfilled by the opening sounds of The Flight Continues. Sparkling keyboards with a touch of AOR soar into pomp-rock confidently guided by melodic guitars.
Drum sounds are programmed just fine, though personally I prefer a more vibrant approach hearing genuine drums and cymbals. The same goes for bass, which is only a mimic of its sound, no real depth to be heard or felt. The thought of Kerry Livgren’s One Of Several Possible Musiks crossed my mind for a brief moment, which repeatedly happened afterwards on several songs of the album.
The next few songs are more constraint and complex, even slightly psychedelic compared to his earlier work. Church organ and keyboards follow the same musical themes laid down simultaneously by electric guitars, intertwined with dynamic classical piano-parts resembling Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or to be even more accurate, Gerard from Japan. Sadly a minor setback transpires as the drum-computer starts overpowering the music, being too upfront in the mix. This tips off the balance significantly in certain parts of the music whereby it’s sometimes hard to focus on the lead-instruments during the melody lines. Luckily this only happens on a few tracks, weirdly enough the more heavier ones.
Despite these slight glitches Kiselev is still perfectly capable of delivering atmospheric moods to his music. Fog tickles your senses towards serenity, damp and mist; whereas you might imagine walking amongst the trees and breath in the forest air with the Celtic feel of Keeper Of The Forest Castle.
More imaginary landscapes (or should I say space-scapes, for lack of a better word) are created by the poppy space-orientated tracks at the end of the album, played frivolously and airy with lots of interactive spacious classical keyboards and synthesizers. A feeling of summery waves encompasses me reminiscent of French electronic pioneer Didier Marouani of Space and Paris France Transit. A fitting tribute to David Bowie Hello, Star Man!, finally closes the album in fine fashion.
All in all a good effort raising anticipation for his next step(s), at which I applaud Sunrise Auranaut as well for having successfully shifted mildly towards crossover prog. The musical variety showcased on the album, considering it was written and recorded in just under a years time, is a compliment in its own right.
My humble advice for his next project would be to spent more time on production, ironing out any unnecessary imperfections. Considering the addition of a natural rhythm section to achieve more authenticity sound wise would be greatly appreciated as well. Recommended for keyboard orientated symphonic prog lovers.
Mark Wingfield - Tales From The Dreaming City
Mark Wingfield has been responsible for two highly acclaimed largely improvised instrumental albums in the last few years. The Stone House and the more recent Lighthouse both highlighted the excitement that can be generated when a group of musicians are given the freedom to improvise, innovate, explore, and evolve a variety of musical themes. Both albums exhibited an edge of the seat unpredictability and contained fiery passages of outstanding virtuosity.
Wingfield’s latest release Tales From The Dreaming City is in many ways even more satisfying. It contains a number of musicians, who participated in his last two albums but has an altogether different flavour. The compositions are wonderfully sophisticated and have a tightly spun air. It is overall, a much more melodic album. Superficially, the tunes have an easily identifiable structure and this helps to give an impression that this is a much more accessible album than its immediate predecessors are.
Nevertheless, Tales From The Dreaming City thoroughly rewards listeners who are willing to spend some intimate time with it and give it their full attention. Once I was familiar with its use of space, subtle shifts of mood and when frequently played, I found that it had many hidden facets that exhibited a range of delightful qualities and textures. This created an increasingly favourable impression.
The album features Mark Wingfield on guitar and soundscapes, Yaron Stavi on fretless bass guitar, and Asaf Sirkis on drums. Belgium keyboard player Dominique Vantomme guests on synthesiser, on four of the ten pieces on offer.
Wingfield has an instantly recognisable tone and style and his use of a range of a number of unusual, but highly satisfying textures is one of the highlights of the album. His exquisite feel for what is the right effect within a tune is in evident throughout. The release features numerous guitar passages that hum, howl, sigh, and screech in an engaging manner. This provides the album with a surprising emotive pull that magnificently contrasts with the technical brilliance and hair-raising virtuosity that is in evidence.
Although Wingfield’s contribution is stunning in every respect, arguably the contribution of the other players makes the album so enjoyable. I could listen to Wingfield’s wonderful phrasing and uses of legato demonstrated to good effect during The Fifth Window and admire his mastery of a full range of effects for hours.
However, some of the best moments of the album occur, when either a bass solo evolves, a wispy synthesiser passage emerges, or a dextrous drum pattern explodes during a tune, to give it a piece a different mood, or signal a change of direction.
I Wonder How Many Miles I've Fallen, This Place Up Against The Sky, Ten Mile Bank, and The Green-Faced Timekeepers give many opportunities for Stavi to express himself. These pieces contain interludes where the bass is the prominent instrument. Stavi does not disappoint and is able to grab the limelight briefly, with some bulgingly buoyant bass lines garlanded and showcased to impress with a beautifully resonant bottom end tone.
Similarly, Asaf Sirkis provides both the punch and subtlety when required to take the compositions to a different level. Sunlight Café and Looking Back At The Amber Lit House contain some of Sirkis finest moments on the album, but I particularly liked Sirkis's contribution to The Green-Faced Timekeepers a tune that I consider to be the best piece on the album. In this fine composition, that has a memorably haunting guitar motif, Sirkis concludes proceedings with an outstanding drum passage and the album ends unpredictably in an enjoyable manner with Sirkis using a South Indian vocal percussive style. His use of his voice as a percussive instrument in the Konnokol tradition is excellent and adds an extra dimension to an already thoroughly impressive track.
Dominique Vantomme also provides the album with many memorable moments. His contribution to The Green-Faced Timekeepers complements Stavi’s excellent bass part and Wingfield’s fluid soloing and menagerie of unusual effects. Vantomme’s solo during Looking Back At The Amber Lit House is equally impressive.
However, Vantomme’s most engaging contribution occurs during The Way To Hemingford Grey. His enjoyable synth solo is a perfect foil to Wingfield’s strangulated high pitched tones and floats effortlessly to fill the room with squelches and squeals that will appeal to anybody who delights in his chosen instruments fine splurging sound.
Tales From The Dreaming City is an album that contains tunes that are able to create vivid images in the mind. The Green-Faced Timekeepers contains some of the hallmarks that I might normally associate with Jan Garbarek’s work. It has a strong motif, makes use of space to create tension and has a lyrical quality that embeds itself in the memory and offers a canvas for the imagination. It is simply a wonderful piece of music.
Tales From The Dreaming City is an impressive album. Stylistically, it incorporates a number of approaches. Much of the music is languidly expressive rather than being blurringly sleek and fast-paced. Its tuneful core owes more to melody and thoughtful expressionism than to break-neck fusion.The album's wide palette of sounds, melodic nature and plethora of entertaining twists and turns make it a welcome addition to the Moonjune labels impressive roster of albums. I thoroughly enjoyed this album and I am sure that I will continue to do so. I am confident that it will feature in my of list of best albums of 2018.