Ray Alder — What The Water Wants
Fates Warning and ex-Redemption vocalist Ray Alder found himself with too much time on his hands after Fates wrapped up touring for their excellent 2016 release, Theories Of Flight. Alder took advantage of the break to make his first solo album, What The Water Wants. Although Alder released two albums under the name Engine in 1999 and 2002, this is the first one to bear his name on the cover, along with striking cover art created by his wife, graphic designer Cecilia Garrido Stratta.
Ray Alder has an instantly-recognisable, controlled, dynamic, and powerful voice that remains one of the strongest in prog metal. Alder has been a member of Fates Warning for over 30 years, so it's not surprising that the songs on What the Water Wants have many similarities to that band, with alternating soft, moody passages and heavy choruses. Slight influences of other styles from funk, to pop, to trance are also evident. Lyrically, the album has a connected, thematic feel due to many songs containing references to water, rain, and the ocean.
Alder worked with two co-writers/guitarists for this album. Each sent musical ideas to him and played both guitar and bass for their songs, while drums were recorded by Craig Anderson of the California hardcore band Ignite. Alder produced the album, wrote melodies and lyrics, and assembled the tracks sent by the other musicians, who notably were never together in the same room at any point during the recording process.
Fates Warning's touring guitarist Mike Abdow provided material for seven of the ten songs. His guitar style is modern and restrained, often just single note lines that float above the rhythm section. Abdow's guitar finally steps to the forefront on the last track, The Killing Floor. This intense and expansive song builds to a technically-impressive, but still melodic guitar solo. After the solo, the song winds down with the lyrical reflection: "This ebb and flow of life is strange, no matter how much we have changed," and then slowly fades out, leaving a delicious feeling of unresolved tension.
Abdow's bass playing also really grabbed my ear due to its fat, edgy tone and creative note choices. A funky slap/pop bass line is the foundation of Crown Of Thorns. Alder is at his best on this track, coyly hanging behind the beat in the verse, and then exploding into the powerful chorus.
Tony Hernando, from power metal band Lords of Black, worked on three tracks. Hernando has a more traditional metal sound, with chugging rhythm guitar and a penchant for squealing and virtuoso guitar solos. His composition Wait is a highlight on the album, due to the contrast between the powerful riff-driven verse and a melodic, pop-influenced half-time chorus that hints of Muse.
Fans of Alder's work in Fates Warning and Redemption, and of prog metal in general, will surely enjoy this album. The contrasting writing and playing styles of the two guitarists, make for interesting comparisons between tracks. The songs are all fairly short by prog standards (around 4-6 minutes in length), and the album itself clocks in at just over 46 minutes. But the range of songs and moods explored in What the Water Wants makes the album feel concise and completely satisfying, without being exhausting.
What The Water Wants shows that Alder's overall musical vision as a solo artist turns out to be just like his singing: controlled, dynamic, and powerful.
Barock Project — Seven Seas
For many years, Barock Project was a name I've often seen associated with quality music and glowing reviews, suggesting here was a band I should invest some time listening to. Well, time passes far to quickly, so when the opportunity to listen and review their latest opus, Seven Seas, presented itself I took the chance without any hesitation. And add this to one of my better choices of 2019.
When planning a review, there are basic things to include, one being covering the band's background. Well, I'm sure most of you reading this review will be in the envious position of having already had the pleasure of having discovered this amazing Italian band, so I will try and focus on this release, rather than covering, what I imagine is, old ground for many readers.
After studying the resume of these five, young and extremely talented musicians, you might expect a musical tour de force, with each member trying to outshine the other with their technical proficiency. Fortunately for the listener, the band's energy is directed into creating lavish musical creations, whose main focus is upon melody and feeling.
The primary element within Barock Project's compositions is the incorporation of classical or historical elements into the songs. This can be the structure of a piano passage such as on the album closer, The Ones, whose opening could easily have been a piano instrumental. However the addition of the vocals turns it into a John Lennon type song, before suddenly taking an unexpected turn, where vocals for guest Durga McBroom will no doubt remind you of The Great Gig In The Sky. Then you get a song like A Mirror Trick, which has a flavour of a medieval minstrel song; so you get Barock Project playing Baroque.
The band also incorporate elements that pay homage to the classic progressive bands, such as the previously mentioned Pink Floyd reference, that we will all be familiar with. I Call You Name features multi-tracked vocals that immediately reminded me of 90215 era Yes. It does not copy, but uses it as a reference point, and provides what should be a modern classic. I think this is probably one of my favourite songs of the year.
Luca Zabbini is the main musical creator, using his immense classical music talent to claim writing credit for 10 of the 11 compositions offered here. He is helped with the lyrics for eight of these songs by various collaborators. For Cold Fog, Camel, Red Bazaar and Tiger Moth Tales mainstay Peter Jones provides the lyrics. The remaining track, Moving On, allows fellow band members Alex Mari, Eric Ombelli and Marco Mazzuoccolo to display their song writing talent. Unfortunately this track feels out of place, having an almost 80s pop rock feel. Only bass player Francesco Caliendo misses out on a song writing credit.
I am certainly glad I have at last had the time to get to spend some time listening to Barock Project, and I can see why they have received such high praise for their previous releases. I will now have a mission to discover the previous output from Luca and his band.
If you are already a fan, then I assume you will know what to expect. Well if you do, what are you waiting for, grab a copy as soon as you can. If you have never heard Barock Project, then for anyone who is a regular reader of DPRP, I can't imagine anyone not finding something to titillate your aural receptors. A stunning end to a great musical year.
District 97 — Screens
In the almost ten years since Chicago-based District 97 released their debut album, they've earned a devout fan-base and impressed several prog luminaries. Along with their collaborative work with the late John Wetton, the band has consistently received praise from artists such as Bill Bruford and Mike Portnoy. The compliments are understandable, as they are one of the most technically strong bands in the current prog scene. However, their most significant appeal has come from their ability to counter the complexity of their playing, with a distinct melodic sensibility.
The band continues this tradition on Screens, which blends elements of classic prog bands like U.K. and King Crimson with more modern prog metal, pop, rock and fusion leanings. Since the band's inception, much has been made of vocalist Leslie Hunt's time on the TV show, American Idol. However, that popular music showcase doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the range that she brings to District 97. Be it the straightforward rock of Sea I Provide, the blues-infused Bread & Yarn or the jazz leanings of Blueprint, she brings authority to every musical style demanded of her.
The band have established a sound and style, but the drive to explore different musical avenues is evident on this, their fourth studio album. This is the first release featuring new keyboadist Andrew Lawrence and bassist Tim Seisser, which likely played a hand in some of the new directions taken. Whatever the reason, the album sounds fresh and exciting and contains some of the best material of their career. Though there are certainly highlights, like the aforementioned Bread & Yarn (a superb duet featuring Hunt and guitarist Jim Tashjian), Sheep and album closer Ghost Girl, this is a consistently entertaining listen from start to finish. Also, its concise 50 minute length helps to ensure no filler tracks.
Like many of the tenured prog heroes who praise them, District 97 has that unique ability to impress the listener from both a technical performance and songwriting perspective. Screens showcases a band that continues to evolve, and who are driven to stand out in a very crowded prog scene. Also, their adept ability to blend multiple styles into their own sound, makes them a great candidate for crossover appeal.
Though their prog pegigree is without dispute, this is an album that would also appeal to metal, pop, rock and jazz fusion aficionados. Regardless of your genre of choice, this latest release from District 97 offers much to enjoy.
Editor's note: please note that this album is available from the band's Bandcamp site in both CD quality (16/44.1) as well as high quality (24/48).
Octavarium — Origin
Having released five albums in two years, Octavarium, a solo studio project by Mattias Ohlsson, has taken considerably more time to release the latest album Origin. After the competent forth album, Out Of Time (August 2018), Dystopia (November 2018) impressed, firmly making me anxious to hear further developments. The involvement of Eric Gillette (Neal Morse Band) on mixing and mastering proved to be a brilliant choice and delivered some exquisite touches (see my review of both albums here). Both albums proved to be solid efforts, but it was the heavy, melodic, symphonic prog metal of Dystopia that made me look forward to the next instalment.
For Origin, Ohlsson went back to basics by doing everything himself, apart from a few guest vocals by Celeste 11 on Nightmares and Dreams. In other words: all the instrumentation (drums, keys, bass, pedals, guitar and vocals) as well as the recording, mixing and mastering. Effectively this puts it in the same light as Out Of Time, although with a remarkable difference. For the sound quality and overall production has been greatly upgraded towards Dystopia standards. It seems that Ohlsson has mastered the tricks of the mixing and mastering trade from Gillette.
With opener Evermore my comfy green chair instantly re-appears, and while I nestle myself into it, the melancholic opening slowly builds up to heavy riffs, harmonious supportive keys and bombastic passages. Comfortable fragments of Porcupine Tree and inspired prog metal flow by, naturally enhanced by a professional, clean and warm production, which is a direct continuation of Dystopia's sound, instantly filling me with appreciation from within. Halfway through, a playful bass changes the scene, leading up to a complex middle section containing a restrained guitar solo, while the ending gives way to sparks of Magellan. An excellent musical start, although the vocals leave an uncertain impression.
These vocals cause a little downfall in Fly, by sounding rather thin and simplistic. The slowly-intensifying ballad furthermore lacks punch and sounds composed on auto-pilot. Although nicely executed, it feels safe and slightly out of place. A thought confirmed by the adventurous and powerful instrumental, Hellraiser, that is an uptempo tour de force of prog metal. With warning sirens, surrounded by fierce riffs heightening the excitement, a divine prog metal track unfolds with pounding beats, engaging key-solos and sublime rhythmic changes, flirting with Rush and Porcupine Tree.
The short and quiet atmospheric Nightmares precedes Dreams, which ignites visions of Dream Theater pulling me under a blanket of keys. Build upon heavy tapestries of keyboards this bombastic track flows by with ever-changing rhythms, showing the strength of Ohlsson in composing a concise symphonic metal track. The fluently-implemented violin passage accentuates this even further, yet the vocals compromise the overall result.
The lengthy, atmospheric intro to The Last Goodbye slowly turns into bombastic symphonies, fuelled by cleverly constructed melodies and delicately hidden guitar parts. The convincing execution, gradual build up and overwhelming sonics are elegantly addressed, though it would work better in a more concise form, for like his former epic compositions on previous albums, it is too long.
The same can be stated for the epic Origin, which is divided into five parts. Here Impossible is the most memorable suite, where the gorgeous breaks, heavy riffs and exciting key-solos are a delight. The other parts, each with their own character, are convincingly put together with various mood changes, uptempo rhythms, progressive symphonies and ambient passages. Each brings lots of dramatic feelings and re-occurring themes, but as a whole, it is too long-winded.
Overall, Origin doesn't blow me away like Dystopia did last year. The absence of Gillette is an obvious accountable reason, for he is sorely missed in supplying exquisite moments, but the songs are less memorable as well. And while compensation mainly through a superior production has resulted in occasional exciting moments, several tracks make this fall into the Out Of Time category: an entertaining experience, with room for improvement by stronger vocals and more concise compositions.
The greatest achievement with Origin is the singular fact that Ohlsson/Octavarium stylistically has found his own identifiable unique sound; something he can build upon for years to come. I'll happily add his next endeavours to my Christmas list for 2020 and see what happens, for I have a hunch Origin brings him closer to that silky smooth, luscious, fresh, vibrant, comfy, and completely fulfilling prog-metal masterpiece. Too bad Christmas only comes once a year.
PreHistoric Animals — Consider It A Work of Art
There is a fair chance that few would have noticed this album, had the band not be one of the clever additions to this year's ProgPower Europe festival. The Swedes' impressive hour on stage won a lot of admirers.
This album was released in the closing weeks of 2018 in digital-only. I gave it a plug right at the start of this year on our SFTW new releases blog. The CD came out later in 2019.
I was not going to do a specific review, but after grabbing a copy of the CD at ProgPower, I have been unable to stop playing the darn thing. It has easily made my Top 5 albums of the year shortlist thus it would be a shame not to give as many people as possible the chance to give this brilliant collection of songs a try.
This debut album was created as a two-man prog/alternative rock project by seasoned local musicians Samuel Granath (drums and keys) and Stefan Altzar (guitar, bass and vocals). Since its release, PreHistoric Animals has become a full band. The pair stated that this set of ten compositions is "about good people, ignorant dictators and stupid people who after all just keep on being stupid". I would add that it is also about great compositions, memorable melodies and superb performances.
The only fault I can find is that many songs have a little too much going on. It can get a little too crowded in that mid-range of the sound spectrum. The production struggles to differentiate the various parts, leaving a mix that an be a bit muddy. It was the same in the live show. Perhaps just strip away one or two layers next time. This sort of music needs to be crisp and sharp.
Of the ten tracks, all consist of multiple themes, rhythms and hooks. Run Stranger Run is a superb opener with a riff to die for. Burn The Ground hits the same jackpot. Before The End shows a different aspect of the band's sound. Slower, more of an art-rock style with a superb guitar solo towards the end. By the time Would You Crack The Sky rolls out another great riff and another great hook, you know this is going to be something special.
With its Arabian motifs, vocals that drift from reflective to soaring, a crazy keyboard solo and a brooding riff, A Ghost Came One Day somehow manages to take the bar even higher. The title track is just perfection.
And there is still room for the absolute highlight. Never Thought I was A Monster (click for the video) is my favourite Song Of The Year. If one brilliant riff and then a stupendously melodic verse and chorus is not enough for one song, the band then gives you a second hook in the chorus, and then an even better third one. The track that keeps on giving. Utter brilliance!
Indeed the core of each and every song is a melodic rock-based orgy of hooks and riffs. But around these, each track offers a range of moods and complexities that reminds me of bands such as Toto, A.C.T. and Queen. This is a work of art to treasure!
Somehow Jo — Tusk
There's always one. Every year. Just as I complete and publish my 'best albums of the year' list, along it comes. Out of the blue. Usually a band I've never heard of before. As I press 'play' my expectations are low. Then boom!
This year that dishonour of inconvenience comes from Finnish alt-prog metallers Somehow Jo. Tusk is their second album and it's the best fun I've had with my clothes on since ... a very long time ago.
Tusk is not a complex album. It combines progressive and alternative metal influences, infused with catchy choruses and galvanic twists and turns. It's not a difficult album. However so few bands seem able to make fun AND interesting music like this, I can only surmise that it can not be easy music to create.
The nine bursts of musical entropy all began life in a small bunker next to a shady titty bar in Tampere (otherwise known as the band's rehearsal room). Tusk has that down-on-yer-luck, on the street vibe to it. An appetite for destruction.
There is something of the Jolly in Somehow Jo's free-form compositions, but this is way more recklessly left-field. Think Saigon Kick meets Fair to Midland in a day care facility run by Freak Kitchen. It's that sort of thing anyway. The vocals are mainly clean and melodious. Oh so melodious. Some scream and screeches add clever contrast (two singers are credited but it's unclear who does what). The rhythm section is sharper than the sharpest tool in the shed. The sound and production is even sharper than that! There's no such thing as a solo.
The opening and closing tracks are just stuck in my head. The hooks that burst out from 10 000 are just insane. Elsewhere it's a pick and mix of highlight moments. The vocal at the opening of And The Oscar Goes to is just sooo worthy of one of those statues. Fear is the best song that Von Hertzen Brothers never wrote. The organ which opens Under The Setting Sun is a great touch. The riff that follows is yummy. The skippy vocal follows, just as it should. Creatively perfect. Every song has a proper ending. This is the sort of band that would rather go ice swimming in Oulu, than fade out one of their songs. I'd give wall-space to the album cover too.
The whole album is just so lovable, so fresh, so huggable. I am in love with Tusk! The best album that did not make my best of list for 2019.
Frank Wyatt & Friends — Zeitgeist
Keyboard player and composer Frank Wyatt called on members of his (and their) previous bands Happy The Man, Oblivion Sun, and the Pedal Giant Animals Project to help him make what he thought would be his final release.
As Frank says: "I had been diagnosed with the big 'C' and told I was short on time. I had no idea the project would take so long! I'm five years out of warranty now and still kicking. Perhaps the project has been what's kept me going. I've been too stubborn to give up on completing it. I plan more work already. Music is great medicine." And what great music he has produced in response to such misfortune.
This is an album full of energy and ambition. Zeitgeist is mainly instrumental and is heavily keyboard orientated. There is a wide variety of keyboard sounds employed, along with guitar, bass and drums that makes these symphonic prog-meets-fusion-meets-classical pieces explode from the speakers.
The title track is a song with long instrumental passages, and reminds me of Todd Rundgren's Utopia, and could have come one from one of their first couple of albums. Glorious keyboards dominate; piano, layered synths and Stan Whitaker's guitar all blaze away on a great melody expressed through an intricate arrangement that takes a few listens to fully appreciate. An ear-thrilling start, that puts to rest the idea that this might be a gloomy listen, given the impetus behind its creation.
The first six tacks on Zeitgeist offer melodic greatness, with the keys to the fore, all with a singular vision behind them. But a couple of tracks deserve a special mention. The shorter Twelve Jumps turns the jazz-fusion energy up more than a notch, with David Hughes' bass and Bill Brasso's fantastic drums powering it along. Another standout is The Approach, which even the sitar can't spoil (I really dislike the sitar). Its synth-heavy drive and the wordless vocal harmonies are joyous.
But there is a sublime ending to Zeitgeist, where Frank Wyatt puts his classical-symphonic prog cloak on and produces a 25-minute, four-movement concerto for piano and prog keyboards as the Perelandra concerto. He doesn't call it a concerto, but it looks like one and sounds like one, so I'll call it one. It is more than good enough to deserve that title.
The four movements put Frank Wyatt's piano skills front and centre. The rest of the instrumentation; strings, woodwind and brass are created by his other keyboards, and what a job he has done. Across four movements you get symphonic prog and a classical sensibility taking each other for a dance. Melodies evolve and dip in and out of a richly orchestrated whole.
One DPRP.net writer (hi, Guille) has this in his top 10 for the year, and if I had heard it sooner it would have bumped another album off my list too. It is a stunning work that is by turns lush, openhearted and celebratory and a true-middle finger raised to the health issues Frank Wyatt has had to combat. Zeitgeist is a fabulous mix of classical, jazz-fusion and symphonic prog, all tied up in a melodic bow that is by turns delicate, dramatic and punchy. Go listen.
Yes — From A Page
CD 2 (In The Present - Live From Lyon, Part 1): Siberian Khatru (10:40), I've Seen All Good People (7:17), Tempus Fugit (6:06), Onward (4:39), Astral Traveller (8:49), Yours Is No Disgrace (13:23), And You And I (11:27), Corkscrew (acoustic Solo) (3:49), Second Initial (guitar Solo) (3:19)
CD 3 (In The Present - Live From Lyon, Part 2): Owner Of A Lonely Heart (6:06), South Side Of The Sky (10:44), Machine Messiah (11:42), Heart Of The Sunrise (11:43), Roundabout (9:35), Starship Trooper (13:08)
In the current musical scene, it is commonplace for an artist to announce a new album months in advance. That makes the impromptu release of this "new" mini-box set from Yes a definite surprise. The package includes the previously released In The Present - Live from Lyon, which is a great live representation of the 2008 - 2011 line-up of the band. However, if you already own the album, the new inclusion of Steve Howe's solo, Second Initial, (previously a Japanese only bonus track) won't likely entice you to purchase it again.
The true distinction of this collection is the EP-length studio album of previously unreleased recordings by the same era of the band (Steve Howe, Oliver Wakeman, Chris Squire, Benoit David and Alan White). This material predates the Fly From Here album in 2011, that saw Wakeman replaced by Geoff Downes. Recently, with the support and approval of Howe and White, Oliver Wakeman worked with producer Karl Groom to complete and mix these recordings. Make no mistake, these are not polished demos. They are fully produced songs that sound fantastic.
Most importantly, the majority of these four tracks are essential Yes, and amongst the best material that the band has released in the last two decades. It would have been a shame for these songs to remain sitting on a shelf somewhere. Not only are they exceptional, they stand as a tribute to the late Chris Squire, whose musical imprint is all over them. The most recent Yes studio album, Heaven And Earth (2014), was not well received, but until now it stood as Squire's swan song. Though the tracks that make up From A Page were recorded a few years earlier, they are far superior.
To The Moment is a great example of the band's ability to be musically accessible, while still feeling wholly progressive. From the first note, the signature sounds are there and Squire's bass work is unmistakable. It also reminded me of the talent that Benoit David brought to the band. Words On A Page is comparable to Turn Of A Century from the Going For The One album, and like that song, is a great showcase for Steve Howe. These first two tracks were composed by Wakeman, but are very much band efforts. On the other hand, From The Turn Of A Card is essentially a Wakeman/David solo piece. Regardless, it doesn't feel out of place and is a strong track.
The Gift Of Love is a full band composition that is majestic and inspirational in a way that is unmistakably Yes. It is a fantastic song that can stand next to some of the great long-form YES classics of the past. The memorable chorus, sung in part by Chris Squire, is bittersweet to hear, but also a reminder of his brilliance.
Similar positive sentiment can be made about From A Page in general. It is somewhat odd that this fresh, vibrant material is almost ten years old, but it stands as a reminder of how good this band can be. It also makes one wonder if there aren't other treasures in the Yes vaults that just need a little bit of modern mixing. This surprise release is a must have for fans and a welcomed example of why Yes is one of the all time greats.