Cygnus Atratus - The Empyrean Heaven
"Inviting" is my primary thought when The Empyrean Heaven by Cygnus Atratus falls onto my doorstep. The eye-catching artwork immediately appeals, and opening the digipack reveals further lovely graphics. The accompanying booklet delves even deeper, with beautiful pictures and designs. On each page sits a gorgeous drawing depicting and setting the scene to the general theme of its song. Not flawless, for one song is out of its running order, but if this attention to detail is present in the music, this could turn out to be a nice surprise.
Founded as Cygnus in 2015 by guitarist Erik Callaerts and bass-player Benny Vercammen, they released an EP (The First Hour) with drummer Tom Tuypen and vocalist Frank Vermeiren. Apparently it received exclusively positive reviews, though I have to admit I wasn't familiar with the EP, which proves to be more towards the NWOBHM-side with lots of Iron Maiden influences.
Maybe something to look forward to in future, but for now lets focus on their most recent output, for what lies before me is a whole different affair. Drums are now handled by Kjell De Raes, and vocals have switched from male to female through guest vocalist Marieke Bresseleers (Lords Of Acid, Circle Unbroken). With keys supplied by guest musician JP Kerkhofs, also responsible for the recording and mixing, the band felt the time was right for their second step, in the form of a full album.
And notwithstanding the excellent musicianship of the basic threesome, it's these guests that make all the difference. Bresseleers isn't your typical female prog-metal vocalist, having a certain type of raw edginess to her voice, giving variety, strength and expressiveness to the music. This effectively pulls it out of the mainstream female fronted Gothic scene. Sometimes angelic, sometimes rocking and powerful and yet refined, she delivers a full spectrum of her abilities, giving me the feeling she is as much part of the band as the others. Or so she should be, for her voice gives the music great authenticity.
The same goes without saying for keyboards supplied by Kerkhofs, elevating the music to exactly what is required by adding layers of symphonic elements. There are moments on the album where delicate piano and supportive synths add airiness, freshness and lightness to the music, each one more beautiful then the next. But it's the sparkling solos that immediately sprinkle a lively, vibrant feel to many of the tracks present.
This is evident right from the start of the uplifting Ritual, which after a short, monumental opening soars into symphonic prog-metal with a superb eighties AOR-feel (New England), changing slightly to hard-rock. Held together in a basic pop structure, its playful bass and solid drums drive the song forward, with a blistering guitar-solo to top things off. If they can maintain this level, my house is always open.
Solitude continues in much the same fashion opening with diversified drums and rocky riffs slowly exposing a more traditional prog-metal side. But once the keyboards blast in, it's a heavenly blend of pomp and hard rock, gradually edging towards power prog-metal in the instrumental section. The emphasis remains on melodies throughout. With a coda resembling the lighter touches of Dream Theater, it finishes with improvised, cheerful, enchanting piano.
The semi-ballad, Quanying, is one of the highlights of the album, showing a more gothic approach, expressed beautifully through the pure classical vocals from Bresseleers, reminiscent to Charlotte Wessels of Delain. It's the combination of slow blues and delightful, unctuous guitars, next to the eternal vocal harmonies and subdued melancholic melodies, that finish this song in grand style.
Carrying the flame onward is the demanding Oblivion and its opening of luscious symphonic power metal. Keys sparkle, inventive drums and bass add fuel, and some excellent dexterity on guitars drive this complex song forward. It is a less memorable song, with a rather predictable structure.
Showing the compositional strength of Callaerts, who is accountable for all the music, Cyborg manages to flow naturally, filled with a delicious solo and more tantalising keys. No wonder they have now recruited Anke De Raes as their newest member on keyboards, for this song proves yet again that this instrument is an essential part of their sound. Ultimately it makes their music so much more mature, especially compared to the version of Cyborg featured on the EP.
The guitar-orientated interlude Sunrise softly glides by, reminding me of instrumental Bagheera, making room for the Angra/Kamelot-styled symphonic power metal in After All. Starting out with blistering keys, hard hitting riffs follow, amongst shredding guitars and technical wizardry on drums. Held together by a tight bass, the song mellows out into Vanden Plas-influenced prog, before gradually evolving into Dream Theater complexities.
So far the music has me thinking of all the aforementioned artists (and many of their derivatives). But with its initial guitar sound, what Lady Of Stone immediately ignited was neo-prog in an Everon vein. With Rush at the heart of it, majestic shrouds of Magnum erupt all of a sudden. And this last comparison curiously fits best to many of the tracks featured on the album. It could easily be the reason why it feels so homely and familiar.
Quite possibly the oldest track on the album, War, features ex-member Tuypen on drums. Forcefully flying by on a solid foundation of bass and drums, each musician lays down a standard hard-rock groove, bringing to mind Cyrcus Flight. The drums are too turbulent and upfront though, for they tend to fill any hole or space left in the music. Compared to this, De Raes proves to be a more adequate drummer, striving to add more diversity in his play. Ending in a melancholic alternate reality, filled with the gorgeous richness of bluesy guitar, the song ends shortly after. No doubt this will be a concert favourite, where they can keep the lovely keyboard-led flow at the end of the song going some more.
So besides the attractiveness of the artwork, the music on offer engages as well. Bear in mind though that although the threesome have delivered a very appealing album, the success of this album is accomplished with a more than substantial part added by Bresseleers and Kerkhofs. Already having anticipated themselves by adding a keyboard player, the band have now recruited a brand new vocalist in the person of Iris L'Or, making them ready to promote the album.
This is an album which I hereby invite everyone to explore and welcome in their homes, for live promotion might be out of the question for a while, with the recent unexpected departure of drummer De Raes. I sincerely hope it won't be their swansong, for this album turned out to be quite a nice surprise.
Grand Tour - Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk)
Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk) is the second helping from Grand Tour by erstwhile Abel Ganz founder Hew Montgomery. He is once again ably supported by the cream of Comedy Of Errors who also backed him on the first album, Heavy On The Beach, back in 2015.
Coupled with his interest in numbers stations (short-wave radio stations characterised by broadcasts of formatted numbers) and alleged secretive drug experiments (inspired by the film Banshee Chapter) and his own experience working with those with mental health issues, Hew Montgomery has created a concept album that follows a day in the life of someone struggling with a mental illness and delusions about being watched, hearing messages from the radio, seeing strange figures in curtains and wallpaper etc etc.
The opening track Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk) begins with a lengthy, freakish backdrop of eerie sounds, giving a sense of someone suffering a nightmare, before the band then enters the piece, symbolising someone waking up from a very bad dream. A catchy melody with fine singing from Joe Cairney, and some cracking guitar work and solos from Mark Spalding, adds up to a scintillating opener for this album.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that on first hearing, the track Don't Cry Now sounds like Pendragon when Joe Cairney starts to sing. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he often has an uncanny resemblance to Nick Barrett. Here we get fine keyboard work and once again the guitar solos are the icing on the cake.
Back In The Zone starts with a standard type of rock guitar riff that provides the backdrop to the synth solo that follows. Keyboard work, reminiscent of latter-day Genesis, interchanges with the guitar. I can hear some Pink Floyd in there too. A very good track.
One track that breaks the prog surface, and that sticks out as a consequence, is the instrumental The Panic. Euro disco come Tangerine Dream springs to mind with electronic percussion, and a rhythmic bass line supported by a swirling landscape of synths and keyboards. For me this track needed some judicious pruning and a nip-and-tuck here and there, as I felt it did over-stay its welcome in spells. However, it certainly gets your feet tapping.
Shadow Working features wonderful, heart-felt bass work from Chris Radford and also lyrical references back to Grand Tour's debut album. Some of the guitar work here reminds me of Magenta's Chris Fry, which is meant as a complement. I'll mention it here but it applies to the rest of the album, we have assured drumming from Bruce Levick that, along with the confident bass work, gives a healthy rhythmic back-bone that supports the music throughout.
Game Over and Slumber Sweetly serve up yet more engaging, exciting neo-prog that is a delight to listen to. The Game Over guitar work gives images of Camel's Andy Latimer, while the opening of Slumber Sweetly has hints of David Gilmour. Very good tracks indeed.
Putting aside my misgivings about the instrumental track, we have yet another fine album from the stable that has produced great music from Comedy Of Errors as well as Grand Tour. The musicianship is first class and is up there with the best. Hew Montgomery has once again shown his mastery at writing neo-prog based music and his command of his keyboards have ensured that we get songs that resonate and allow the others in the group to breath and express themselves. A joy to listen to.
Michel Héroux - Now
Canadian-based guitarist, composer and educator Michel Héroux didn't want to make another shred record or a fusion album, but rather something different. And to start off with a word of advice: don't let the Hugh Syme-inspired front cover fool you, for the obvious reference it displays; that of a mainly guitar-oriented album. Now exhibits a slightly different palette, for he has partially succeeded by incorporating proggy touches to his songs. But mainly it still has that adorable catchy, fusion feel to it, which is actually quite nice.
With the songs lying in the four minute range, don’t expect him to go all-out on solos or improvisations, although there are some scarce moments where he rips it up. Basically he rather stays within the confinements of a song, telling a story or depicting a scene or mood, via the use of effects or sounds. The intimate, harmonic, organic mixture of drums (Francis Fillion) and bass (Vincet Yelle) interacts with the guitar, always serving the song, and this has resulted in a carefully crafted, detailed variety of lively, intense and playful tracks.
Delicate jazzy interludes, acoustical refinement, light bluesy breezes, quiet moments or full-on rock; everything is minutely intertwined with precision and great care. Altogether it gives a cohesive, yet very diverse and organic atmosphere throughout, adding a distinctly personal stamp. This is most evident on Unravel, a song by Icelandic star Björk, which now in its new environment completely bears the Héroux mark.
Ambient flows (Boats) and acoustical pieces like Epilogue alternate with west coast Dixie Dregs-country, to reveal elegant, dark, Gilmour-esque sounds (Now) or echoes thereof in Rain, a track that ends in a crescendo of melancholic, enthralling rock.
Windy Eskimo frisky coldness (Inukshuk) turns into heart-warming surroundings and campfires, radiating heartfelt, spicy meatiness on Tabasco Jam. This title is also a true statement in being the most energetic and complex track on the album.
Caressing, steely fragments of Rush in Kurt and Trial And Error, pave the way to southern grinding slide guitar on Dirt Road. And where Yama gradually shifts from spacious quietness into multi-layered stratospheres, Berceuse (Revisited) finally mellows out with comforting ultra laid-back "slow-hand" Eric Clapton blues.
This is a recommendable and memorable musical voyage where slowly en route, underlying deep layers at long last reveal themselves, broadening the appeal of the album and thus showing its progressiveness. For guitar purists, there is a lot more on offer within the varied and skilfully played styles exposed on the album. An upfront Steve Morse comes to mind, followed by a lighter, ear-friendly version of Frank Zappa. Maybe a less quirky, uncomplicated version of Lucas Lee also seems to fit, with Héroux keeping it easily accessible and sounding more free, less oppressive and open-structured in comparison.
Maybe the artwork isn’t that misleading after all.
When tempted after reading this review, be sure to contact Héroux personally to get hold of a copy on CD. Otherwise it will be inferior MP3 files from CD Baby or find your way on the soon-to-be-discontinued iTunes. On Bandcamp it is even stranger, where the album is not present as a whole but only has three separate tracks available. His website requires Flash (also outdated) although an HTML version is available. Héroux calls the CD format something nostalgic - that seems a bit ironic now. It's a pity that after making such an effort, he makes it really hard to find info, samples or a place to buy a good quality copy of the album. It deserves better than that.
Isbjörg - Iridescent
After a couple of singles and two EPs, Copenhagen-based sextet Isbjörg have released their full-length debut Iridescent. Formed in 2015, Isbjörg place Mathias Bro Jørgensen’s piano front and centre in their brand of melodic, arty, progressive rock. But don’t be fooled by that description, as the band do rock. The piano provides the structure that allows the twin guitars of Dines Dahl Karlsen and Lasse Gitz Thingholm to interweave some mighty fine riffs, solos and all kinds of heavy goodness.
On Iridescent, melody is the dominant force, with each song having that hummable quality that you get from Moon Safari. Though the vocals are not in Moon Safari’s league (then again name a current band that is vocally). However, Isbjörg’s singer Niklas Jespersen has a strong voice and varies his vocal styles subtlely, and he creates lovely harmonies throughout with the pianist’s voice.
Right from the opening track Supine you realise that Isbjörg are onto something a bit special. It starts in a piano-ballad mode, but as soon as the rhythm section of Mathias Schouv Kjeldsen (bass) and Frederik Ølund Uglebjerg (drums) come in, it quickly evolves, using dynamic contrasts, time changes and polyrhythms to explore the song. Add in powerful guitar chords and a smart guitar duet in the coda and, wow, Isbjörg are off and running.
Some of the tracks on Iridescent appear to have been designed to be listened to in pairs, for instance, the opening two tracks and the gentle While The Sunlight Grace The Mourning and the heavy prog of The Curtains Slowly Rise. Which makes for a thoughtful, as well as instinctual listen.
I will briefly mention a couple of other highlights. There is the impressively intense Needles and the uplifting prog-rock of Stockholm Reversed, with its Muse-esque guitar.
So, to place Isbjörg in some sort of prog context. The music on Iridescent, in its heavier sections, nods in the direction of Riverside or Porcupine Tree, and in its moments of emotional song-based prog, towards recent Anathema and a less dramatic Von Hertzen Brothers. But this is a just a guide to the kind of band they are, as it is truly the case that Isbjörg’s Iridescent has its own identity, as it explores their song-based, piano led, progressive rock.
As Iridescent is Isbjörg’s full length debut, I feel that a masterpiece by Isbjörg may only be two or three more releases away.
Vetrar Draugurinn - Hinterlands
Vetrar Draugurinn is a Dutch gothic/doom metal band, formed by Eric Hazebroek from Stream Of Passion and Daeonia. The name is Icelandic for “The Winter Ghosts”, a name that is entirely suitable. According to its Bandcamp page: “Our goal is to make music from the heart, melancholic and gloomy. Intense and fragile at some places, massive and loud in others."
My initial impression is that this band has achieved this goal perfectly. The music is exactly as wanted, conjuring up images of lonely people singing on top of snowy, dark fjords and glacial planes. Autumn singer Marjan Welman has an astounding voice (which also landed her a spot on Ayreon’s album 01011001 on the final track) which contributes to the melancholic atmospheres.
With soaring choruses that tug at your emotions, and onto heavy, down-tuned riffs, the album is a mix of the best parts of gothic and doom metal. It is a well balanced album that takes you through numerous highs and lows. The dual guitars compliment each other and provide the album with a strong sense of melody.
At an hour long, it isn’t a short album, but it never gets boring. It keeps you rooted to the spot, following the melodies, whilst air-drumming along. It is a powerful album in a genre that already has many greats who set an incredibly high bar. However, this band has managed to reach that bar and I would say surpass it.
If you are a fan of bands like Swallow The Sun or Draconian, or some of the more symphonic bands such as Nightwish, I’d suggest checking these guys out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.