Árstíðir - Nivalis
Indulgence time again. Seeing as prog music fans generally have very wide musical tastes, ever now and then we like to throw in something a bit left of mainstream progressive that we consider worthy of wider attention. The Icelandic band Árstíðir (English: Seasons), have been in existence for a decade and have previously released four previous albums, one in collaboration with Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering, The Gentle Storm, Vuur), and two live EPs. They came in worldwide prominence in 2013 when a video of an amazing impromptu a capella performance of Heyr Himna Smiður (English: Hear, Smith Of Heavens), a 13th-century Icelandic hymn, at the Bürger Bahnhof train station in Wuppertal, Germany went viral.
Since that video was recorded the band has slimmed back down to the original trio of Gunnar Már Jakobsson (lead vocals, baritone guitar), Daniel Auðunsson (vocals, guitar) and Ragnar Ólafsson (vocals, piano) but their live line up includes various string players and a drummer. They have been described as a combination of Sigur Rós and Radiohead or rather more all-encompassing as a classically influenced indie-folk rock/chamber pop band! But what really defines their sound is absolutely perfect harmony vocalisations.
Latest album, Nivalis (English: Snow) continues the excellent run of albums with a quite diverse set of compositions that give the album a depth. Although the vocals and the string arrangements are to the fore, there is a variety of rhythmic settings and odd bits of electronic and keyboard parts thrown into the mix that makes the album an interesting listen throughout, no matter how many times one plays it. Each of the tracks has it's own merits. The strident strings on Lover, the sublime melodic lead of Entangled (no, not a cover of the Genesis song!), the harmonics of Þar Sem Enginn Fer, the only on the album sung in their native Icelandic (the other song with an Icelandic title, Órói, is instrumental), the darker Circus which has echoes of Bon Iver, and the sublime singing on Conviction, which is in a class every much the equal of Simon And Garfunkel. Actually, it would be wonderful to hear Garfunkel in his prime harmonising with this lot, add in some veteran David Crosby and I think I would start believing in choirs of angels!
But the best is left for last. Passion, has an opening acoustic guitar part that, believe it or not, reminds me of the acoustic numbers that Black Sabbath used to include on their early albums. Some, dare I say it, passionate vocals add gravitas and depth and when the strings enter half way through it is pure revelation.
Is it prog? Well not as we know it, but the sheer adventure, the blending of strings vocals, beats and rhythms is unlike anything else currently being produced anywhere in the world. Iceland, with a population about the same as Leicester City in the UK, has over the last decade or so produced innovative bands and without a doubt has one of the most varied and consistently good music scenes in the whole of Europe. Árstíðir maintain that tradition with Nivalis, a true breath of fresh air.
Galasphere 347 - Galasphere 347
With an international line-up of Stephen Bennett (vocals, keyboards, guitars, bass pedals), Ketil Vestrum Einarsen (keyboards, programming, flute), Jacob Holm-Lupo (guitar, bass), and Mattias Olsson (drums, keyboards, bass pedals, guitars), and associations with such artists as Änglagård, Tim Bowness, White Willow and Rhys Marsh , Galasphere 347 have quite a pedigree behind them. In theory, the combination of experienced multi-instrumentalists and an album that consists of just three tracks all running in excess of ten minutes should be a prog lover's dream.
However, the theoretical and the empirical are two entirely different entities and in a lot of respects I find myself underwhelmed by this whole album. It seems, to me, that the objective was to write epics rather then actual songs. Each of the three tracks lacks an inherent coherence that could have been achieved with being more succinct.
The shortest track, the somewhat pretentiously titled opener The Voice Of Beauty Drowned sounds like it is straight out of the 1980s and Bennett does not have a strong enough voice to carry off his singing aspirations.
The first five minutes of The Fallen Angel are somewhat bland and thereafter it seems to be a a showcase for a variety of different keyboards, although I have to say the 'brass' section was pretty effective. Half way through there is a complete change to what could be a totally different song and there follows seven more minutes that was difficult to sit through.
Unfortunately Barbarella's Lover does not offer up anything that different and I quickly became bored with what was on offer.
I didn't like the cover either...
Seasons Of Time - Welcome To The Unknown
Seasons Of Time had thus far released two (concept) albums with a relatively long timespan in between. In 1997, their debut-album Behind The Mirror told the story of an emotional world after a mother killed her children, choosing herself a different path as a result. It took them 17 years to follow with Closed Doors To Open Plains, to which I should add that “them” is a bold statement for the band split up in 2010 and only original member Dirk Berger (bass and keyboards) kept the band alive as a studio-project. In his strive he still managed to deliver another concept with the aid of Malte Twarloh (original vocalist), Marco Grühn on drums, and Florian Wenzel on guitar, this time dealing (in their own words) with aspects of asking for more, higher, better. Strongly influenced by seventies progressive rock focusing on Marillion, Pink Floyd and Genesis could the greedy listener have asked for more; apart from the obvious question to which era they were referring to from those heroes of old?
For their third cd Welcome To The Unknown personnel changes stretch it even further for Berger, taking on lead vocals as well, with Julian Hielscher filling in for Grühn on drums. Recorded in spare time at their own little studio in Berger’s attic and with the highest dedication possible, Seasons Of Time chose an equally challenging thematic lyrical approach, this time concentrating on the human aspect of responding to choices imposed by our environment. The loss of a loved one, consumption-terror in cities, deliberate misinformation through the media; all huge parts of modern civilization nowadays in this ever increasing faster-moving society. Through friendship, health and mutual respect, satisfaction should be achieved in the fact that we place ourselves as equals; not impose us superior to each other. A noble cause which one can easily relate to, considering the alternative of having a shallow, empty, unsatisfying life. The cd-artwork depicting empty offices, hospital-halls, desired quietness and a means of transportation to ultimately reach an utopian state, gives ample opportunities for further underlying interpretations of the concept.
Towards The Horizon instantaneously justifies the choice of Berger to keep the band going, elaborating on their previous efforts with proficient neo-progressive rock. In appropriate prog tradition the music opens its complex structure after a few spins with lots to be discovered. Initially converging delicate depictions of Pink Floyd on guitar with synths reminiscent of The Alan Parsons Project, it’s the overall combination of energetic drumming and virtuous playful bass beautifully blending it together. Unfortunately appreciating Berger’s voice might require some effort though for being a bit monotonous with a rather notable accent, accentuated by occasional mispronounced words. Musically however there’s lots on offer and price-worthy to explore, showing some elements of early 80’s Eloy, superb Genesis-styled keyboard-wizardry and an outstanding guitar-solo to top things off.
A slight retrospective insight in the neo-prog world of Seasons Of Time is competently shown in Plans To Make Plans, with ex-member Grühn on drums and introducing Christina Mielke on backing vocals. Less complex, with a relative stronger song based structure reminding me of Chandelier’s Facing Gravity it’s more or less straight forward synth/pop-rock where contrast between Mielke and Berger voices undeniably adds a favorable ambiance. On a similar note Dreams Of A Madman incorporates early 80’s up-tempo synth-pop (Irrwisch) endorsed by sparkling keyboards, guided onwards by a solid rhythm-section and some unctuous guitar playing by Wenzel, ending in an uplifting thrilling progressive metal crescendo.
The heartwarming feeling turns quickly with the sheer depressive piano-chords of Joana; the epic musical highlight of the album. Berger vocally pulling it off by an inch, it’s musically, in one word, astounding; with every instrument telling its own story and the storyline gradually shifting in intensity, glorified by superb melody-lines and grand piano. Foremost it’s the sensitive electrifying guitar which add exemplary emotive solos, with soaring heavenly vocals and harmonies popping up at the heart of the song adding a nice twist. Following a lyrical necessary slightly chaotic middle-section, the melody repeats, with the song ultimately ending on a high note and positive prospect of a probable transformation of mind.
Dealing with hectic city-life and the inability to take control of our own stressful existence is confidently executed in Driven To Drive. Synthesizers, generated computer-sounds and spacey rhythms all exploding into heavy rock, result in a weird progressive, grooving track, generating thoughts of an obscurity like Flame Dream. Being a bit on the repetitive side, in my opinion it’s the weakest track, but on the other hand distorted guitars curiously resembling violins like Canadian band FM during their City Of Fear era result in a wonderful uniqueness.
Based on a relatively simple electronic rhythm reflecting P’Cock and _ Black Noise_ by FM, the largely instrumental The Last Ship appealed to me at first listen; spacious, progressive and ever so slightly psychedelic. With a journey slowly building up with synths and first-class guitar solos adding depth, it culminates into a dreamy progressive hopeful state of trance; leaving one to dwell in thoughts in alignment with the ideal utopian concept of the album once the track fades away.
This third delivery by Seasons Of Time is a rather swell example as to what can be achieved by sheer perseverance, devotion and love for progressive music. Despite the shortcoming of vocals I can recommend it to anyone with a preference to early eighties Marillion, IQ, and Camel, enriched by lovely touches of seventies electronic enhancements.
So Far As I Know - Fragments: Disclosure
The intriguingly named So Far As I Know hail from Novosibirsk in Siberia and specialise in instrumental art-rock of the cinematic, post-rock variety. Their last album Hidden Poetry (2015) was very positively received by the DPRP and this, along with all their other releases, including several singles can be sampled on Bandcamp.
Formed in June 2009, they were originally a four piece comprising Sergei Guselnikov (guitars, programming), Dmitry Ilyasov (guitars), Dmitry Shelomentsev (drums) and Victor Korkin (bass). For Fragments: Disclosure they are joined by Daria Shakhova (violin).
It's the first part of a proposed double album that ambitiously chronicles the history of mankind through its musical culture from ancient to modern times (and all in under 35 minutes!). The second part is in production, hopefully for release next year, and will speculate on the future of mankind and its possible evolution. If the striking cover art by Pavel Goncharenko looks familiar, Michelangelo’s iconic ‘The Creation of Adam’ which adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome provided the inspiration.
Tellingly, my passion for film soundtracks (in addition to prog rock) attracted me to this release. The orchestral samples on the middle-eastern flavoured opener Origin and Pyramidal Sense provide a lush, symphonic soundscape that bring to mind the rhythmic film scores of Hans Zimmer and David Arnold. The latter also benefits from driving acoustic guitar, violin and tribal rhythms.
The Great Ascending is constructed around a variety of guitar textures (electric and acoustic) with a haunting slide guitar melody around the halfway mark that reminded me of Nick Barrett’s cascading solo on Pendragon’s Am I Really Losing You.
In contrast The Conqueror is almost (but not quite) prog-metal in its ferocity, building in typical multi-layered, post-rock style to an epic peak before the final release of swirling electronics. Likewise, Grimwood builds from tranquil beginnings with layered guitars, ‘orchestra’ and violin to a sweeping finale.
The concluding Confluence with its sampled birdsong, acoustic guitar and strings has a pastoral elegance that harks back to Pink Floyd’s Grantchester Meadows (minus Roger Waters’ vocals of course).
Although Fragments: Disclosure clocks in at a modest 35 minutes, it's a mature and multifaceted release that packs in a variety of moods, timbres, dynamics and textures. Here’s hoping that the second part makes an appearance in the not too distant future and is equally as strong.
Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman - Live At The Apollo
I will take most of the mystery away from this review right from the start by stating that this is one of the best ever Yes live releases. Since uniting two years ago, Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman have done an outstanding job of breathing new life into Yes classics. This performance from the Manchester Apollo Theater, available on both audio and video formats, is a testament to that fact. They are one of two Yes configurations currently in play at the moment. The other led by Steve Howe, is certainly a talented group of musicians, but in terms of live performance, ARW is the better of the two. I have seen both and to anyone who is unsure, I would just recommend that you attend shows by both units and compare the quality of the performances. There is a vibrance, energy and fun to the ARW shows that is missing from Howe's band.
The ARW line up, augmented brilliantly by Lee Pomeroy on bass and Lou Molino on drums, are somehow even able to bring new life to Yes classics that were played out years ago. Songs like I've Seen All Good People, Owner Of A Lonely Heart and Roundabout display a new-found energy and freshness that is astounding. What also gives ARW the edge in any such Yes battle is that they perform songs from both the classic Yes and Yes West eras of the band. This really helps to keep the setlists diverse and interesting.
Perhaps the greatest cause for celebration is how well Jon Anderson's voice sounds these days. After recovering from a serious illness a few years ago, Jon's voice was definitely strained. That is not the case any longer and at 73 years young, his vocals on this recording as well as at recent concerts that I attended are wondrous. Jon Anderson is the true voice of Yes and it never gets old hearing him sing these songs. On this release, tracks such as Perpetual Change, Changes, Heart Of The Sunrise and the outstanding Awaken sound as good as they ever have. The band is respectful to the original versions of each song, but have change up the arrangements to keep things fresh and interesting. The inclusion of Wakeman in the Rabin-era songs also adds a completely different and exciting vibe to that material.
I have only one complaint about this release and it is a significant one. Both the video and audio releases of this show display a band that it playing at the top of their game. I just can't figure a good reason why it was felt there was a need to add the sound of obviously fake crowd cheering to the audio. Not after the songs, but throughout each song!! It is painfully manipulated and equally unnecessary. How this mix made it to the release stage is a complete mystery to me. Nobody in production, in the band or at the label thought this was a bad idea? The strength of the performance is luckily enough to render this incredible flaw as not entirely detrimental. What's most amazing is in the video release, you hear the cheering crowds but can clearly see the audience intently listening to the music. It is the type of thing that parodies are made of and this excellent concert deserves so much better.
My score below is all about the music and the performances. From that perspective, this is a fantastic, must have live album for any Yes fan. It is truly outstanding. I do wish though that they would release another version that removes the phony applause and cheering. That is unlikely though so don't let this silly mistake stop you from buying and enjoying this excellent release. Live releases don't get much better. Now, it would be wonderful if Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman would come through with that new music that they have been promising.