The Breakfast - Phantasmagoria
There is a typical musical journey for the more discerning ear: Top of The Pops > Dire Straits > punk > Floyd > Marillion > then maybe branching into some Hawkwind, alt-rock, even jam-band territory. Then you run out of material, and the old hitters seem to disappoint with damped-down rehashes of former glories. Your mind is curiously seeking something elsewhere, which is where DPRP leaps in to help! Some may even start exploring underground live shows on archive.org and come across something special, which is what happened to me about 10 years ago.
Imagine if Frank Zappa met David Gilmour and they invited Bowie round for tea at Miles Davis's place? If, like me, you like your music funky, complex and virtuous but with scope for endlessly diverse meanders into improv, then please read on.
It may just be that you have never heard of The Breakfast, as they may be the epitome of the “world's most underrated band” moniker. Indeed, the four-piece from New Haven, Connecticut seem to keep going more as a party and musical work-out, while they concentrate on their principal projects which actually pay the bills (the band Kung Fu for three of them in particular).
Starting out as Psychedelic Breakfast, the foursome deals in Phish-style catchy tunage as a launchpad for explorations into often-lengthy improv. Unlike Phish and others in the genre such as Moe., this lot keeps the attention with a combination of extreme musicianship, mixed with genuine on-the-stop groove discovery, not just mindless meandering.
It is fair to say that Tim Palmieri, could be the guitarist of our age, melding often ridiculous technical ability with genuine touch and feel (check out Garcian Fishbowl from their first album for a synopsis of what I am pointing to). This isn't mindless shredding, there is poetry and transcendence which comes from his playing, source-tapping stuff.
However, similar to improv jam bands such as Umphrey's McGee, the studio output is a very different beast, obliging restraint and a sense that the musicians are hamstrung by the limited palette on which to paint. And so Phantasmagoria, for those who have indulged in hundreds of hours of freely recorded shows, is always beset by these limitations. All the tracks laid down are staples of many a live show, and in doing so we know that there are hugely more expansive and ambitious versions, each unique.
In that respect hearing a relatively-muted studio version can seem a little “meh” in comparison. That being said, the basic templates presented here still shine with the talent on show. Each contributor can be delineated clearly and is worth tuning into on their own accord, particularly Palmieri and drummer Adrian Tramantano. It is obvious that the members teach their craft, as well as execute it.
Metropolis kicks off with a steady pace groove, then Rush-style signature changes which evoke the theme of escaping a dystopian city. It is a relatively easy way in.
Shotgun Butterfly reflects the consistently upbeat lyrical style of the band (this isn't the prog of wizards, teenage romanticism, or space odysseys - although check out their version of Space Oddity for the maddest version of Bowie's masterpiece you will ever hear. This is more of a Hendrix hat-tip, and Palmieri is the closest I have heard to a Hendrix-style fret-mastery since the man himself.
Things get really interesting with Rush. Fast-paced evocations of blowing it all in Vegas, lead to a second half of what The Breakfast do best; slowly but surely whipping the listener into a controlled frenzy, to the point of when you think you can't take any more, there it is. And it's not just a pile of notes, although there are lots. There is atmosphere, controlled crescendo and a ratchet-up through the gears. Rush reminds us that a standard sing-a-long song is fine, but I'd have preferred an interlude of Space City Affair which is the epitome of the chillout tent or earbong they often bring-out to bridge the epic tracks live.
Real Time is genuine earworm material that encourages us to make the most of every second and provides bassist Chris DeAngelis a vocal opportunity, which he pulls off well. Episode 3 reminds us that standard formats, a jazz-blues standard, are treasured universally for a reason, and are therefore worth celebrating. No math-rock here.
The disc ends with Hard Luck Harry. A song about a breakdown on a road trip. If you want to know what The Breakfast does live, without actually listening to any live output, then go no further. A description would inevitably apply a sepia veneer to what lies within, so I won't. I'd listen to this, followed by Rufus from Bone Fide, you will know why when you do.
The Breakfast - Live As Is
I'm not entirely sure why Psychedelic Breakfast dropped the “Psychedelic” part of their original name. Maybe Roger Waters sent the heavies (or Alan) around. It certainly sent the band way way down the google rankings, behind cut scenes from the movie The Breakfast Club. Just one of the ways this unit makes life difficult for itself. Perhaps commercial success is actively sacrificed.
Another way is the vocals. Tim Palmieri has an excellent voice, but it seems that in the interests of shunning fame and allowing laryngeal democracy, each of the quartet shares vocal duties during their live shows. Thankfully Palmieri takes on the majority, but as much as Jordan Griangeco is fantastic on keys, he needs to lay off the mic. I think many have been turned off in this regard, wrongly. Check out as an illustration this live track.
Live As Is (released 10 years ago but reviewed here together with the band's recent album) avoids most of this problem, with the chosen tracks being Palmieri staples. The album is a snapshot of a show back in 2009, and is the last of the band's seven releases before its hiatus, providing a contrast to the recent studio splurge reviewed above.
The decade between these two albums had offered only a score or so of live shows in between their other more commercially-successful projects (principally Kung Fu, an extremely good virtuous funk rock offering, albeit lacking the magical brew of The Breakfast).
Thank-the-musical-gods that they kept enough activity to keep the flame burning. Live shows such as this are unparalleled experiences for anyone with a scintilla of musical nouse; if you listen and are not knocked sideways, consider yourself dead inside.
There are catchy manoeuvres and riffs in abundance here; from the almost “easy listening” of opener Cut Me Some Slack, through actual tunes in Tunage, and onto the frenetic jamming of May Fly Disarray at the end. Synergy is the highlight here though, with a middle section after minute 10 of spacey guitar and base effects which at higher volumes through some decent speakers are truly transporting. Sundance has some beautifully difficult chords and time signatures; in a way opposite to most technical prog it is uplifting and celebratory.
This isn't a twiddle-fest for the sake of it. Its four musicians paying no heed to commercial success, playing without limits for the sake of synergy. A band highly deserving of the profile of an Umphrey's McGee or Phish, but I'm not sure they really care.
KDB3 - I Fill My Days With Noise
KDB3 is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Doug Bowers from northern Florida, who has already two albums to his name that were completely unnoticed by this website. His third album however arrived as a real CD although this album can only be purchased via download, for instance through his own bandcamp page where all lyrics can also be found. The CD was accompanied by some release notes stating that this album 'is comprised of longer, more detailed symphonic pieces' than the former ones. And that is quite an accurate description.
Bowers sings and plays all instruments, except for lead guitar. These parts are played by Chuck Tidwell, Billy Holmes, Mark Thompson and Mike Burstein; four rather well-known guitarists in the Christian progressive rock vein. And that is exactly where this album can also be placed, for Bowers' lyrics are overtly Christian, although not as obvious as with like-minded artists such as Neal Morse or Iona. Bowers also does the mixing and the production himself and does a good job there.
The album starts with the mellow Pitfall & Snare, a song that grows each time you listen to it. Nice acoustic guitar interludes, a deceivingly simple yet attractive vocal melody, supportive keys and Mellotron, and cheerful piano-playing in the middle of the song that introduces a nice fierce lead guitar outburst, make this a very varied song and therefore a good appetiser. Bowers' voice is easy to digest (not too soft and not too harsh), reminding me of Roine Stolt, but with more expression.
Time From Time is a totally different affair, with a strong, pulsing opening with percussion, bass and organ, leading into a medium-tempo rock song with riffs, and twists and turns inspired by The Flower Kings in their 90s heyday. The chorus is easy to digest, the verses quite simple, and surprisingly they blend rather well. The end comes far too soon, sounding as if the song has not been developed as well as good it could have been.
The intro of the first epic, Brand New Day, is very promising with a nice piano, keys and Mellotron interplay giving way to an almost orchestral part that is quite a treat to the progressive ear. At the three-minute mark the acoustic guitar suddenly introduces a break, after which the song changes into an up-tempo rock song driven by the bass and organ. The song develops into a somewhat mediocre pop song that is rescued by two nice bluesy guitar solos.
And then things deteriorate fast.
Lear Jet Gospel opens with a pathetic vocal line that can soon be forgotten because the song seems to develop in a cheerful way with up-tempo keys. But Bowers' singing remains poor, apart from the harmonies, and the musical creativity is suddenly below par, with standard guitar riffing and simple keyboard parts. Then at the four-minute mark, the listener is suddenly treated to some right-in-your-face screams with a high Christian content over metallish riffing that sounds completely out-of-place. It is not the content of the text as such, but the out-of-date musical arrangement that makes the whole song collapse. And with this failed song, the entire album gets a different feeling.
Troll is concise, bluesy affair; a big relief compared to the former long one. It builds upon the nice riff, although Bowers again does some spoken words in the middle. Thankfully that doesn't last long.
The intro to Far Away is again promising, with a Black Sabbath-like riff over Yes-like harmonies that blend very well. The verses are sung against a piano and Mellotron background while the choruses made me think of Spocks' Beard. That all sounds interesting, but Bowers doesn't succeed in keeping the listeners' attention. This time it is not due to the musical arrangement, for there are some very different and varied parts within this song. Yet it doesn't glue together. It doesn't flow. It somehow falls apart into separate pieces. And when around the nine-minute mark there is again some spoken word sections that don't add anything to the song, the overall conclusion is that this epic also doesn't satisfy, in spite of the Mellotron-filed outro.
This album is a puzzling affair. Bowers' talent is obvious, his ambitions are high but I guess he has reached a bit too far by doing almost all things himself. I think a critical producer would have made some radically different choices, especially in the two longest pieces. The album would have benefited from such an outsiders' view. I sincerely hope that Bowers will engage with a producer on his next album, to obtain more credit for his hard work than this album merits.
Stuart MacFarlane - Genesis On Track - Every Album, Every Song [Book]
When I'm not listening to and writing about music, one of my passions is reading, especially reference books relating to music and films. That makes me a prime target for the On Track series from Sonicbond Publishing, with a growing catalogue that already includes Queen, Yes, The Beatles and the films of Powell and Pressburger (if you've never seen the classic A Matter Of Life And Death, you're missing out). The latest in the series is dedicated to that most quintessential of English progressive rock bands, Genesis. The author Stuart MacFarlane is a musician and was a writer for the Classic Rock Society, which had been going strong since 1991 but sadly announced its closure earlier this year.
As a fan since 1972, I have several Genesis books in my collection, including the first, The Evolution Of A Rock Band by Armando Gallo published in 1978. Given that the band had already been in existence for over 10 years (and in the opinion of many, past their peak), it's surprising that it took as long as it did for such a book to appear. Yes' first book, The Authorised Biography by Dan Hedges, also did not see the light of day until 1981, so clearly publishers failed to appreciative the popularity of prog-rock in the 1970s. Only in later years did these iconic bands receive the attention they deserved. Genesis' influence is far-reaching and even now, in 2019, I can hear traces of their sound in the albums that I review.
Whilst Gallo's book, and several since, have provided a comprehensive overview of Genesis' career, very few have included a track-by-track appraisal of every song recorded by the band. Former Melody Maker writer and prog supporter Chris Welch made a commendable effort in 1995 with The Complete Guide To The Music Of Genesis, although his notes on each song are relatively brief. He was also a publicist for the band at the time, so his comments, particularly relating to the later songs, are not as objective as they might be.
MacFarlane follows a similar format to other books in the On Track series, by introducing each band member (including guitarist Mick Barnard who was in Genesis for all of three months) followed by a brief history. It's often overlooked that Genesis had three previous drummers before the arrival of Phil Collins in 1970. From 1969 to 1997, they released 15 studio albums, and they all come under close scrutiny with a chapter dedicated to each. They have also racked up six live albums which are discussed in detail. The book is bang up to date, with a reference to Steve Hackett's 2019 Selling England By The Pound tour for example.
A Genesis fan since the 1970s, the author certainly knows his subject and that comes across in his thoughtful and well written account of each album and song. Many of the songs (particularly during the Peter Gabriel era) were influenced by classic literature, which gives MacFarlane ample scope to discuss the subject matter, although occasionally this outweighs his description of the music.
He does a fine job in unravelling the lyrical twists and turns of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (aided by Gabriel's sleeve notes), his favourite prog album and the best part of the book. He can even be forgiven for referring to the album's best known song as The Carpet Crawlers when in fact it's titled Carpet Crawl on the original album.
Even MacFarlane's least favourite albums (you'll have to read the book to find out which ones they are) receive their fair share of page space and he doesn't skimp on detail in his description of the band's later, commercially-biased songs. He concludes the book with a round up of box sets, compilations and videos.
One of the things I like about the On Track books is that you don't have to agree with the author's opinion of each album or song (I didn't) to enjoy reading it. This is an essential read for Genesis fans and recommended to anyone remotely interested in the development of one of the UK's foremost bands.
Tillian - Lotus Graveyard
Arriving fully-formed from Tel Aviv, Lotus Graveyard is the debut release from the progressive rock sextet Tillian. They have two aces to play, that raises their brand of female-fronted heavy prog rock above the average, and it's not just the tinges of prog-metal they use.
The first is front woman, lead vocalist and songwriter Leah Marcu. She has an astonishing range but she never showboats, and she sings with a powerful flexibility. She reminds me of a more powerful Anne-Marie Helder from Panic Room, rather than a singer like Anneke van Giersbergen.
The second ace is Alexandra Marcu (I assume Leah's sister) on cello whose organic sound adds warmth, openness and a special flavour to the bass lines.
The music on Lotus Graveyard is song-focussed, and as soon as the cello comes in you know there is something a little different going on in this area of heavy prog. Overall the music nods in the direction of Pain Of Salvation, Porcupine Tree and the more recent prog releases of Opeth.
Tillian's debut opens strongly with Reborn, and grows from there. It sets out their musical path with its guitar/cello intro, before the widescreen heavy prog piles in with the full band. They add in electronica, whilst a blazing guitar solo from Yadin Moyal punches out of the speakers.
After that thumping opening, Tillian soon show that they are more than a one trick band. On Touched, a piano, acoustic guitar and cello join forces with Leah's vocal, building to a heavy section that breaks down in to a Kate Bush-like, multi-layered vocal part that is clever and a bit weird.
The rest of Lotus Graveyard sort of divides into heavy prog rock tracks, and subtle ballads. On the heavier tracks, such as Frozen Sun, Monster, Black Holes and Love Or Heaven, Leah's vocal has a similar expressive power to Muse's Matt Bellamy, although the songs feel more muscular and less populist than Muse's. The rhythm section of Yoav Weinberg (drums) and Yanai Avnet (bass) nail the song's twisting structures with deft playing. They allow the cello, guitar and keyboards of Lior Goldberg to fly.
Tillian also shine brightly on the ballads, each of which is sufficiently different from each other to avoid repletion. I'm Too Close includes electronica, switching about as it goes on its grandiose way. Middle eastern tonalities bubble up on cello, tabla and accordion in the tango-flavoured Moonlight Dancer. The best of the ballads is the closing track, Earth Walker, which has a folk-tale vibe and an ethereal melody. It is a terrific way to end and album.
For me there is one ambition-led misstep. On Monster Tillian disrupt the flowing heavy prog, to side-step into an acoustic guitar Spanish dance section. Which is surprising on a first listen but wears a bit thin on repeat plays. But full marks for the attempt. Also, there is use of guest growly vocals that add nothing to Love Or Heaven, and rather feels out of place.
The production and mix is meaty and clear, allowing the instruments and voices to shine, So, Tillian's debut release may not be perfect but it remains heartily recommended.
Xilla - Distant Minds
"Approachability of a great song" - check. "Details, texture, and layers" - check. These parts of the target that this five-piece from Birmingham has set for themselves, have been met.
Many of the songs have a structure found in AOR and (hard) rock music. A somewhat American sound; polished and well-produced. The music is mostly riff-based with a lot of solos in the shredding metal style.
The singing fits too. Leigh Oates' voice is truly amazing. However, he is singing in an angry voice a lot, and although he has the pipes, I think there is less variety when someone is singing like that. When he is not screaming, his voice has the beautiful timbre of Ted Leonard (Enchant) and even Eddie Vedder (on Everything At Once), or the bluesy cry of Jan Hoving (MoonKings).
These guys can play; that is evident in all the songs. But a memorable album needs memorable songs. The similarities between many of the songs get a bit tiring. Several times I had to check which song I was actually listening to.
Fortunately there is also Left To Burn. It is the most progressive song on this album, evoking Jolly, whose album I was reviewing at the same time. Iron Maiden riffs, Dream Theater complexity, and a big sound like Whitesnake. I love the powerful ending of Everything At Once too, but the fade-out of the last song was unexpected and a bit of a bummer.
The bar was set too high with "the intention of creating something distinct and utterly memorable". Few can reach that with a debut. The angry voice, several solos, and several song structures; some things need a bit more variety to create a more distinct and more memorable album, but perhaps it's just my taste that doesn't appreciate this to the full extent.
But the quality is high. Aiming at an audience at the overlaps of AOR, hard rock, metal, alternative rock and progressive rock, I think there are a lot of people who will find much listening pleasure in this album. I'm interested to see where they go after this debut.