Issue 2019-100: New Year's Eve Special
Alice's Mirror — Through The Mirror
Alice's Mirror's existence is the result of a coincidental meeting of Walter Antonio Lanotte (guitars, bouzouki) with Michele di Modugno (drums, pad) in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy, back in 2016. The two discovered a common enthusiasm for progressive rock, decided to join forces and to transform their passion into a concrete band project. They recruited fellow band members Fulvio Bucci (bass, lead vocals), and Eduardo Bucci (keyboards, backing vocals). The band's name was chosen with a view to "reflecting our everything and our nothing through the mirror".
Although the album is inspired by Lewis Carroll's well-known children's book Through The Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There (the successor to Alice's Adventures In Wonderland), the lyrics are not meant to be a mere re-narration. Instead, the content is to be regarded as a symbol for true stories which sometimes may, can and should sound weird (hope I got that right from the band's Italian Facebook presence - I am at the very beginning of my Italian language learning curve, to say the least).
Actually, the band had intended to release an EP in 2017, for the purpose of which they wrote the songs Ronin and Arabian Carpet. However, the recording sessions turned out to be so fruitful that the band opted for a fully-fledged album instead, including the two songs mentioned above plus additional material recorded in the meantime.
I am a big fan of Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI) and I also liked this release, although I do not tend to regard it as being completely representative of that musical genre. From what I heard, it does not have as many symphonic elements as the ones of some of Alice's Mirror's peers such as La Maschera Di Cera, Il Tempio Delle Clessidre, and Mangala Vallis, except maybe for the track Bachtown. Neither does it have this "clone character" such as it is the case with the music of The Watch. As Alice's Mirror does not seem to come from a singer-songwriter background, the music only shows occasional elements of melancholy, lyricism, and poetry. Instead, it comes across with more rough edges, twists and turns, breaks and changes of tempo and mood.
Reminiscences can be found with the works of PFM, Le Orme, Calliope, Panther & C., Conqueror, Alphataurus, and Wicked Minds, to name just a few. What I liked is the balanced use of guitars and keyboards, mainly the organ, which interact in a perfect way without upstaging each other, despite the music being keyboard-oriented. Most of the soloing is done by the guitar, though, with the keyboards always providing for a suitable basis for the guitar to develop its melodies. Despite the music having its breaks and rhythm changes, its complexity remains at an appropriate level in order not to harm its accessibility.
My impression is that there is a bit of upward potential with respect to the vocals. The band switches back and forth from English to Italian throughout the release. I would prefer them to stick to one language. I am somewhat indifferent as to which one this should be, but the English one would also suit its music well. Additionally, according to my gusto, they could do without the narrative parts at the end of Fake Communication, Ronin, and Alice's Dance, but I leave that up to each listener's personal assessment.
I find that all the tracks basically are of the same quality, with Fake Cummunication maybe falling off a bit, whilst the most complex and prog-sounding Ronin and Arabian Carpet, the latter one with its oriental influences and excellent soloing by Walter Antonio Lanotte, being the ones I liked the most.
It appears to me that for the time being, Alice's Mirror still are a bit in search of their definite musical style. On this release, they are trying and blending different ones: hard rock, prog metal, jazz rock, neo prog, funk, retro prog. No song is similar and comparable to the other, and sometimes, the change in style occurs within the same track. That makes their music eclectic and varied.
Here and there, though, this is at the expense of coherence and a consistent musical thread, which is not always clearly recognisable, and which sometimes makes the songs sounding just like if various independent parts had been aligned. All this makes their music difficult to pigeonhole and to compare with the one of similar bands (the list mentioned above surely not being exhaustive). It's up to the listener how to value this statement and whether to adhere to it or not. What I hope to be undisputed is the considerable potential that Alice's Mirror is having.
I believe that they have delivered a decent and promising debut. I am curious how they will have developed on their successor.
Maria Chiara Argirò — Hidden Seas
From the moment the synthesizer gurgled dreamily from the depths during Beneath the Surface, I had an inkling that I was going to experience an album that was going to present superb musicianship and an array of diverse contemporary influences. By the time that the last notes of Ocean, receded softly like a gentle tide, I was not disappointed! I eagerly pressed play again!
Hidden Seas is Maria Chiara Argirò's second album. It is an impressive release in many respects. This striking album shows how she has refined and developed her art since the release of her debut, The Fall Dance. Her first album was a rewarding example of contemporary progressive jazz. It drew upon a wide variety of influences including folk. However, in my opinion, Hidden Seas is even more fulfilling.
Argirò is a first-rate keyboard player. Her subtle piano work and emotive use of synthesisers is one of the albums many standout features. Argirò is also a member of Kinkajous and their debut album Hidden Lines displays Argirò's exceptional talents to great effect. Hidden Lines features in my list of the 10 best of albums of 2019 for DPRP and Hidden Seas was also a strong contender to be included.
Argirò wrote all of the compositions on Hidden Seas, but there is ample space in the arrangements for the other players to shine. The music draws upon a wide range of influences including Bjork, and Nick Drake.
In this respect, Argirò is yet another example of a contemporary Jazz musician who is not afraid to spice her music with the flavour of other genres. Arguably, this phenomenon is one of the principle factors in what makes the progressive Jazz scene in the UK so exciting now. Bands and artists such as Mike De Souza, Kinkajous, Pyjaen, and Cykada are not afraid to tint their music with colourful influences as diverse as, folk, electronica, post rock, prog and all points somewhere in between.
In Argirò's case, she toured with These New Puritans and this experience undoubtedly helped to develop her own idiosyncratic style of progressive Jazz, which uses a plethora of different contemporary influences.
Hidden Seas is a vividly emotive and atmospheric album where wordless vocals play an important part. It manages to convey a range of moods and emotions over the course of the albums ten tunes. The album is themed around the subject of water. Although each piece is distinctive hints of themes and motifs reoccur throughout.
There is a real primeval unnerving pull about some of the scat vocal phrasing of Leïla Martial. Her performance is outstanding. Her broad range, idiosyncratic phrasing and the gently warm frailty of her voice had me reaching for comparisons with vocalists as diverse as Dagmar Krause, Norma Winstone, St Vincent, and Ikarus' Anna Hirsch.
The structures of the tunes that underpin and create a platform for Martials to excel are often unusual; frequently surprising and never less than interesting. Some compositions like Ocean are very melodic and lodge themselves easily in the memory. Others like Nautilus are far more difficult to assimilate even after a number of plays.
The albums songs and tunes are intricate and complex, although on occasions, they superficially present an air of accessibility. Consequently, even though you might think that you are familiar with what any particular tune has to offer, there is frequently something new to discover.
The players assembled to deliver Argirò's art are superb. As well as Martial, they include Sam Rapley (Tenor sax and Clarinet), Tal Janes (Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar), Andrea Di Biase (Double Bass) and Gaspar Sena (Drums, Percussion)
The double bass of Biase has a particularly rich tone. It acts as a great counterpoint to Martials voice in tunes like From One To Another
There are many standout tracks, but Nautilus must rank as one of the most satisfying of the album. The compositions bright, tuneful arrangement has the knack of being able to convey a revolving aquarium of images as its sound-waves break, unwind and explore the imagination. However, despite its relative accessibility, this tune would undoubtedly fail any Old Grey Whistle Test. Its myriad parts glued loosely by Martial's tuneful and avant warbling, are stuck together to present a musical collage reminiscent of modern art.
Sea Song is a beautiful piece and its sensitive lyrics are gently conveyed in a heartfelt manner. In this piece, the frailty and fragility of Martial's voice, and its overall unusual twisted take on pop reminded me of something that St Vincent might have composed.
The piano parts in conjunction with Martial's avant improvised trilling are delightful. The addition of the sax, which floats lightly like flotsam, as it dips and bobs, as the tune crests towards its calming conclusion, is equally gratifying and provides the piece with a buoyant texture.
The introduction of From One To Another was slightly reminiscent of something that Azimuth might have created, but this comparison soon becomes erroneous once Argirò's sweeping synth breaks upon the scene, in a series of attractive embellishments.
However, the most beautiful track on offer is undoubtedly To The Sea. For some reason, this largely acoustic piece had me drawing comparisons with some of Joni Mitchell's early works.
Maybe it was the vocal delivery. Maybe it was the sheer emotion of the piece. Maybe it was the bright acoustic guitar ?. On reflection, perhaps, it was just because it is such a lovely ear friendly tune, that its gentle currents moved me to think about the genius of Joni.
To say that I have thoroughly enjoyed Hidden Seas is an understatement. If you want to hear an exquisitely produced and skilfully composed album, which draws upon a variety of influences and places the human voice as an instrument in its own right, then I recommend that you conduct a search for Hidden Seas.
When you discover it, I do not think you will be disappointed!
Franck Carducci — The Answer
Franck Carducci's Diary
July 2018 Just finished another gig out on tour of the UK. Quite unexpectedly I have found a portal around the back of the 'The Vic' in Swindon that takes me back to LA in 1972. Naturally I told the guys and they all joined me. I've always thought of myself as a child out of time, but not anymore.
April 1972 Shortly after getting here we decided to hawk our 'demo' of our new album The Answer to a few record companies and within a month we've signed to Warner Bros! Our new A&R guy digs our sound and loves the twin guitar solo on Slave To Rock 'n' Roll which will be our first single. He reckons it will work great when we open for Alice Cooper at the Hollywood Bowl in a couple of months. It does have a great classic rock appeal and would work perfectly in a big stadium.
May 1972 On the back of lots of airplay on the US radio stations we have managed to get to number 1 with Slave. The album is in the bag and almost ready to release. Elton John who was working in the studio next to ours popped in and he likes the piano on 'The Game Of Life'. The jazzy 40s noir sound reminds him of Mickey Spillane detective novels, and the self reflective nature of the lyrics fits that. Elton's offered to play on our next record which is so cool..
We've also just put the finishing touches to our "epic" called Superstar. Paradoxically it features a story of my rock and roll alter ego, Arion, yet here I am in midst of the hedonistic rock and roll 1970's Hollywood just like Arion.
July 1972 The Answer is number one in the Billboard charts. The LA Times describes it as the album of the year and thinks that 'the proggy centrepiece, Superstar is a classical tale within our time, with the excesses of Arion's life catching up with him.
We're all in a circus of craziness right now. We spent last night with Andy Warhol. Mary was invited to go to Hugh Hefner's place. I won't translate her answer but I don't think he understood her which is probably lucky for him.
The gig at the Hollywood bowl with Alice was incredible. Asylum had the fans going nuts during the wild drum and guitar solos. He reckons we should work with Bob Ezrin for the next album, can you imagine that? He told me he has played our album a lot and the 12 string, mystical opener (Love is) The Answer is his favourite. He likes the way the keys weave in and out of the bass groove and parts of the song remind him of Yes and Chris Squire's playing.
September 1972 Our crazy year continues with the album going platinum. Rolling Stone magazine featured us on the cover with the headline 'The French Connection' which was awesome (the film only came out last year). The Washington Post came to do a feature on us as well. The guy interviewing us asked me about The After Effect which has similarities to David Bowie's alien from outer space persona in its theme. He liked the heavy, yet rich and complex song design, especially the sublime organ and mellotron passages and the way piano dances over the pulsing bass.
August 1973 The next album is underway, the record company are expecting great things and the intensity of the road and recording is something I was not expecting. It really is a different time and a different world. We've sold millions of records.
I've been given my own star on 7092 Hollywood Boulevard. Even though it's my name on the pavement I owe so much to the talented guys who play with me, Mary Reynard's gorgeous voice, Christophe Obadiah, and Steve Marsala who rip it up on guitars and Olivier Castan who is a wizard on the Hammond, and so many others. The crowds are all shouting my name, "Franck, Franck, Franck..."
July 2018 Mary is calling me. "Franck... Franck!" Seems I fell asleep in the bar after the show. To be expected I guess when you work this hard. Time to pack up and get ready for the next show.
DPRP final note: In a different time, The Answer would be as huge seller for sure. In 2019 it stands out as one of the best albums of the year. Get it and you'll be transported back to another time.
Crayon Phase — Two Hundred Pages
Six years after their debut album Within My Recollection, Crayon Phase return with the conceptual Two Hundred Pages, telling the story of a man suffering from anterograde amnesia. A state in which you don't remember what happened the day before. Trying to comprehend his situation by reading his diary, he gradually realises that he has been abused and involved in cruel syndicated crimes and activities. Slowly awakening he finds a way to escape out of this dreadful situation.
A gruesome and dark lyrical tale, somewhat sparking images of "The Pretender", besides the twisted unsuspected radical solution. In comparison to their first effort it adds an even better twist, for with their second release Crayon Phase propel themselves from basic elementary colouring towards a higher degree of multilayered sophisticated progressive painting. Furthermore the interpretation of the concept into rich imagery packed melodic heavy (neo)-progressive rock with a metal edge, has been done remarkably well.
First off I have to mention the fact that I tend to listen to an album a few times in my car stereo during this busy working period on my way to work. Apart from keeping me focused, the music makes my daily return trip relaxed and enjoyable as well. Along the way I get glimpses of references and thoughts readily to be used for a review, of which I'll make mental notes off in my head. Most of the time these stick in my mind, to never let go. It proved not to be the smartest way in this instance, for each and every time I returned home I drew a complete blank.
Therefore I opted to return to a memorable phase from my own past, a state I'll expand upon in another appropriate review very soon, and listened as my alter ego to the album multiple times in a row. During this session many pieces of the puzzle finally clicked, at the same time confirming my appreciation for this album and why it ticks so many boxes.
First one of many are the strong, varied and expressive vocals by the newly recruited Raphael Gazal from Brazil, meticulously capable of carrying the emotive lyrics across. His intonation and delivery ignite flashes of Maurits Kalsbeek from Egdon Heath, in a slightly rougher rockier style. Thanks to the exquisite generous presence of keyboards by Frank Wendel this Egdon Heath link is established even deeper, with Paralyzed, The Music Box, and Retrospective as prime examples.
On the album seven epic tracks pass by, between the playful opener Prologue, dynamically driven forward by a delicious rhythm section provoking immediate thoughts of Arena and IQ and the thematic relieving closure of 201. Title track Two Hundred Pages, after a delicate opening equally impresses with melancholic guitars by Wolfgang Bähr, reminiscent to Peter Nicholls (IQ) while prominent bass lines by Peter Damm create a firm foundation. Aggressive riffs and constant changes of pace guided by the versatile drum skills of Arne Gröschel add further playfulness to a stream that keeps on flowing with ideas and heavy melodies straying towards prog metal. The surprisingly inventive morphing towards The Flower Kings while gently Genesis embraces with soft insertions of Nektar is a cheer delight.
The intro to Turn Of Fortune, with flashes of Rush, swirls into tasty neo-progressive rock with divine guitar / keyboard interaction. Here sparkling keyboards create images of cheerful Saga sounds while powerful brushes of A.C.T.-driven metal injections are marvellously surrounded by an IQ-atmosphere. Dashes of Marathon, especially the guitar parts, end this highly addictive track.
This gorgeous atmosphere continues in Procession / Empty Grave, which after an intricate orchestral intro slowly builds up in intensity, changes to an uptempo Comedy Of Errors, and then gradually kindles towards Arena, blessed with musicality and bombastic heavy transformations throughout. With ambient passages soothingly inserted, it's the accentuation of the sound effects that add depth and a deeper meaning to the music and it's gripping story.
Paralyzed is a constant natural flowing stream of classic re-interpretations to neo-progressive rock encompassed by heavy passages which are exceptionally tasteful. The divine dynamical IQ-oppression is blessed by melodic guitars thrills, many pompous keys (Quasar, Pallas) while strong symphonic Egdon Heath touches move. A perfect precursor to The Music Box which contains a superb sense of melody, counter rhythms and solid prog strides in vain of Marillion and Aldenfield. The marvellous change to the ambient ending of the track via a snippet of Rush is divine.
The acoustical intro with flute (Neuschwanstein) of Retrospective which is, apart from some ambient parts, one of the few minor resting points of the album, slowly converges into uplifting prog (Chandelier) and light Marillion frivolities. Meanwhile the dynamics and recurring themes push on, changing towards a dreamy Egdon Heath atmosphere (Nebula), culminating in a divine keyboard infused symphonic passage and equally melancholic conclusion.
The bombastic opening of Salvation oozing The Wake by IQ, flows into The Sentinel by Pallas whereupon it glides intricately into Porcupine Tree mode. It's intimate nature transforms when Geddy Lee (Rush) bass-whips start a final salute with heavenly keyboards and equally attractive melancholic guitars, while the end section of the composition fulfils in grandeur style. The short conclusive 201 rounds of the magnificent concept in a restful fashion.
It turns out to be a truly remarkable journey through cohesively resourceful and technically superb compositions. The symphonic dark progressive layers in combination with the delicious heavy approach and overall outstanding performances create a captivating experience, whereas to me the convincing familiar melodies give rise to admiration and joy.
Therefore I can highly recommend it to anyone with a love for 80's styled neo-progressive rock with a modern feel. Or to everyone with a preference to any of the bands referred to in this review and likes Galahad, Nightwinds, and Twelfth Night. For these last three I probably forgot to mention somewhere, yet I clearly remember them from a homecoming session. I so need to start writing this stuff down...
Desert'Smoke — Karakum
From Lisbon, Portugal, comes this quartet playing instrumental, psychedelic heavy rock, and this is their first full-length album after an EP from 2018.
The first track after the short intro is portraying the heaviest the band has to offer. Think of Earthless, a melodic type of stoner rock. Desert'Smoke make use of having two guitarists in the ranks.
But also important in Desert'Smoke's sound is that the rhythm section is quite diverse. The drummer and bass player are really present, filling a lot of open spaces, fitting for this type of music. The guitarists offer their layers in slightly different tones so you clearly hear both at the same time, sometimes complementing by providing different layers, sometimes battling, making your head spin like this type of music is supposed to.
Definitely a plus according to my taste is that there is more melody than, for example, near-genre-mates Brunt.
After the aural assault of Darvaz things are tuned down a bit, while getting more mysterious and psychedelic, taking time to build a picture. Flashes of early Steve Hillage emerge.
I think Mystic Lunar Ship is the most diverse in composition and sounds. Going even into post-metal areas reminding me of the latest Toundra album, with progressive breaks and riffs, but always with that psychedelic guitar playing on top. And sometimes nicely over the top, too - I can't get enough of what's going on around two third into this track.
"Karakum" apparently means "black sand" and is the name of the Turkmenistan desert (where the Darvaz crater is). The almost title track brings back some of the stoner from Darvaz, getting a little more aggressive, and has some very nice dual-guitar sections. It brings this album to a close in a fine way. No soundscapes, slightly brutal (is that possible?), but just how it should be done in psychedelic rock.
Lovely album, guys!
The Gardening Club — Boy On A Bike
The Gardening Club's new release Boy On A Bike completes a long running trilogy of albums. The first, The Gardening Club was originally released in 1983 and re-released in 2017, the second part The Riddle in 2018 (review here) has remained a favourite of mine. So, it was with some anticipation on my part and worry that it might let me down that I started listen to Boy on a Bike. And it turns out there was no need to worry and that my anticipation was justified.
The new album carries on with the sound world of the previous album with the delicate, shimmering slide guitar, fretless bass, sax and the song-based focus. The music refers to the same touchstones but again they are lightly used. Touchstones such as Genesis, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres, Caravan, Camel and Barclay James Harvest. The album features the same main line up with Martin Springett (vocals, acoustic, electric and baritone guitars), Norm MacPherson (electric and slide guitars, pedal steel, keyboards, bassoon), James MacPherson (drums and keyboards), Wayne Kozak (soprano sax) and Sean Drabitt (fretless bass) as well as a few guests. The main difference this time around is that Martin Springett has provided most of the lyrics, this time setting the words of their friend and poet Cyril McGolgan on two songs (For a Moment and Stitching).
There is a loose concept holding the songs and instrumental interludes together across Boy On A Bike. It revolves around the possibilities and opportunities for the future that might be found through a number of gates. As Martin Spingett has put on the colourful and individual artwork, he has given the CD 'a song is a gateway to another dimension'. This concept is open and optimistic, like much of the music here and makes a great change from albums set in some horrid dystopia.
The music on Boy On A Bike is much in the vein of The Riddle but I think the songs and the arrangements are marginally better than the terrific previous album. In using the same core musicians to flesh out their vision Martin Springett and Norm MacPherson have produced an album full of atmosphere, with an open and powerful sound and an electric folk feel to the melodies.
The differences between this and the previous album is that the fretless bass is in the foreground more; its slinkiness counterpointing the beautiful slide guitar and gives the drumming space to be subtle. There is more of a mix of tempos on Boy On A Bike and the keyboards, especially the piano, carry more melodic weight. These changes, minor though they are, have a superb overall impact.
The opening track's funky fretless bass and electric guitar chords make you think some heaviness will be on offer but they sidestep that with slide and a lovely piano melody. Wind And Wuthering era Genesis is compressed with a sawing violin riff (courtesy of Sari Alesh) that echoes Led Zeppelin's Kashmir on the short Ravensgate. Its not often I wish for a track to longer but using such a fabulous mixture for one and a half minutes! So much like Oliver Twist 'more please sir'.
The faster paced Circling has a refrain that made me smile, when Martin Springett sings "flying by the seat of our ears". It is a recognition that music of such seeming ease is often hard won, and the title track is a cracking pop-prog ballad.
But the icing on the cake is spread across two tracks. For A Moment has a snaking sax melody that is just wonderful and Martin Springett's slight, characterful voice is joined by Denise Withnell's mellifluous singing. It is a joy and brilliant in its restraint. The other track to mention is the instrumental Wolfgate. Here The Gardening Club do something new by adding in jazz touches on the fretless bass and on the falling piano melody, overlain with slide guitar and less is more drumming. It's terrific.
All the instrumentals on the album are used to link the songs together melodically as well as being great pieces in their own right. If you ski them the album feels diminished their short running time belies their importance. As Boy On A Bike reaches its conclusion melodic fragments from earlier songs reappear making the album a clear artistic statement.
If The Riddle was an autumnal work, full of vibrant colours of that season but wary of the winter to come, then Boy On A Bike is powered by the hope of spring, a swathe of fresh green, the budding of new life and the sense of opportunities to be grasped.
The Gardening Club's ¬Boy On A Bike is a work of quiet beauty that feels no need to shout its musical values from the rooftops. If you want an original take on the Canterbury and classic prog vibe then come on in.
As they sing on Cycling Tour - "a world awaits beyond the shifting gates".
Thieves' Kitchen — Genius Loci
Having been disappointed with both The Flower Kings', and particularly The Tangent's output over the last few years, a release such as this Genius Loci is, in some ways, the kind of album I wish those bands (Andy Tillison's in particular) were making. Obviously, the main difference is that Thieves' Kitchen is a female fronted outfit, but they share many influences and aesthetics with those two aforementioned modern prog heavyweights, namely the vintage Yes / Genesis sound, a healthy helping of Canterbury quirk and a nice balance between the gentle and the adventurous. Add to the recipe an unmistakable, beautiful pastoral Englishness and you can get an idea of how this band sounds.
Genius Loci consists of 3 extended tracks around the 10 minute mark, a 20-minute epic where they even manage to squeeze in some lyrics in Latin, and a short 3-minute palate cleansing interlude. That's pretty much the perfect formula for a perfect prog album, isn't it? Well, I wouldn't say this is a perfect, flawless recording, but it is definitely very good and worth the attention of any self-respecting proghead.
If what you're seeking is thrills and extravagance it might be too gentle at times for your liking, and indeed it does occasionally get a bit repetitive for its own good; at 9 minutes long, Eilmer makes for a good opener, but it goes on for a couple minutes too long. The piece that follows, Uffington, is in fact longer and quite similar in structure and sound, but it manages to be more interesting thanks to some wonderful instrumental interplay; this is in my opinion the most significant feature of the album, which is no other than the absolutely exquisite and tasteful musicianship on display. It all sounds exciting and powerful or delicate and ethereal if need be, and all musicians involved perform with verve or finesse with equal aplomb.
Long-standing member Phil Mercy on guitar and Thomas Johnson on keyboards alternate intricate parts and intimate passage with ease, and the rhythm section is just perfect (Paul Mallyon's drumming is spot on); if anything, Amy Darby's vocals, as beautiful and technically accomplished as they are, can get a bit monotonous because of their lack of variety, but in the context of the album I'd say this is just a minor quibble.
Now, I know this is a prog cliché, but the highlight of the album is the 20 minute The Voice Of The Lar, and in my book it is just the perfect epic; the first 8 odd minutes are pure instrumental prog heaven, followed by a gorgeous vocal section (partially) sung in Latin, which in turn gives way to more vintage keyboards and robust Chris Squire-style bass runs (courtesy of Änglagard's Johan Brand). It is definitely one of the best long-form pieces I've had the pleasure to listen to in recent years. Mirie It Is rounds it all off with its 8 minutes of Mellotron melancholy, and even if it has lyrics (Old English this time) it somehow feels more than an extended soundscape than a proper structured song; I don't mean this as a bad thing, it is just to give you and idea of how dreamlike the album gets sometimes.
All in all, a very good release with something to like for (almost) everyone; also, please check out previous releases The Clockwork Universe (2015) and One For Sorrow, Two For Joy (2013), both very good and well worth your time.
Vanden Plas — The Ghost Xperiment - Awakening
Germany's Vanden Plas put out their first studio album back in 1994, yet amazingly have been around since 1986, when I was three years old. The five piece have been a consistent presence in the progressive metal scene since their inception, and while they've never quite made it to the front lines, they've never slowed down in their output or drastically changed their sound over the many years they've been together. This consistency has brought them a dedicated following of fans over the years, as has their members involvement in various musicals and other projects over the years.
The Ghost Xperiment - Awakening, is part one of a double album and the bands ninth studio release. Now, although I've kept up with the band over the years, checking out each release as it's become available, I've never really connected with anything Vanden Plas have done since 2002's Beyond Daylight album. There was just something about that record that really gelled with me at the time. Maybe it was the huge melodic choruses, the slick, virtuoso guitar solo's, the magnificent layers of keyboards behind Andy Kuntz' harmonised vocals, who knows? But Vanden Plas do all of these things on every album, I just felt that on Beyond Daylight, they did it better than anything else they've put out before or since.
Jumping into Cold December Night, everything at first seems quite familiar. Stephan Lill's guitars growl with an old school metallic riff, the drums and keyboards kick in with all the power you've come to expect from the band. What is massively improved this time around is the way Andy Kuntz' vocals sound within the context of the rest of the band. Andy has one of those voices that is instantly recognisable and there are always a lot of harmonies and layers, especially during the choruses. The way these vocals are mixed on this album sound absolutely dreamy, they are perfectly set into the music in a way that Vanden Plas have never quite managed until now, bringing the entire band into a new dimension sonically and giving the whole album an absolutely glorious sound.
Three Ghosts is a particular highlight for me here. This nine minute epic has all the trademarks of a classic Vanden Plas song. It's got some beautiful melodies that play against the guitars and keys and keeps the listener guessing. The bands experience with theatre and musicals has always been a trademark of their sound and is incredibly prevalent here. This continues into Devil's Poetry, this is a darker piece that takes time to show its true colours and open up to the listener. Both of these songs showcase the band at their best and serve as the center-piece of the album, and it's absolute highlight.
Some of this album, unfortunately, is pretty much run of the mill, predictable prog metal. The Phantoms Of Prends-Toi-Garde fails to hold anything memorable, even after multiple listens, and Fall from the Skies, despite having a great chorus and a fantastic guitar solo, falls dangerously close to Dream Theater's As I Am during its main riff, and doesn't make full use of its nine and a half minute run time, feeling like somewhat of a wasted opportunity.
The closing title track redeems the album somewhat. This is more of a straightforward, no nonsense metal anthem. It has a great groove during the verses, something Vanden Plas have rarely experimented with, and it's a welcome addition to the structure of this song. The chorus is huge, epic and melodic, absolutely classic Vanden Plas. This track also features another brilliant guitar solo and plays out the first part of this double album on a high.
The closing track on this album gives me hope that Vanden Plas are going to explore some new directions on the second part of this release when it surfaces in 2020. While some parts of this album showcase the band at almost their very best, other parts seem like they may be stretching for ideas and are simply trying to rely on a tried and tested formula to please their fan-base. That being said, the production of this album is wonderful, and we have yet to experience it as a whole piece of work. The performances of each of the band members are as spectacular as you might imagine for a band with such a long history, and while the song writing is not always up to par, this is a solid addition to their catalogue and I'm looking forward to The Ghost Xperiment - Illumination, coming in 2020.
Luiz Zamith — Introspecção
There are many things to enjoy in guitarist Luiz Zamith's Introspecção album. It features an excellent mixture of flute, guitar and keyboards.
This predominantly instrumental album, should appeal to any readers who enjoy melodic instrumental prog. If you enjoy the music of bands such as, Camel, then much of Introspecção should appeal.
Six of the tracks were recorded during live performances, over a number of dates at the Botafogo Solar Theatre in Brazil. The remaining three tracks were recorded in the studio. The sound quality of both the live and studio tracks is excellent. The flute work of Paulo Teres is a standout highlight of the album. His thrilling interjections and fluttering embellishments provide the album with a rich melodic quality. The release also features some impressive keyboard parts, delivered with much skill and aplomb by Ronaldo Rodrigues.
Zamith's pleasant and richly melodic guitar tones are a consistent feature of the release. In this respect, his playing, and extended soloing in tunes such as, Alguém Ainda Se Lembra Das Antas? is delightful. Alguém Ainda Se Lembra Das Antas? is a very impressive track; the guitar, keys and flute interplay is fantastic. Some, aspects of the piece, and in particular the combination of flute and synthesisers were somewhat reminiscent of the style of Solaris.
On many occasions, the album exhibits its Brazilian roots. The frequent easy on the ear textures and fluid mixture of keys and flute regularly provides the album with a multi-hued atmosphere that evokes images of verdant forests, sand washed beaches and cascading skies. The albums Brazilian heritage is particularly apparent in the lilting, flamboyant, shifting rhythms and memorable melodies of Outro Dia. It is a gorgeous track, which fuses and melds a number of influences. Aficionados of flute led prog will almost certainly enjoy every moment of it.
The pieces are tightly constructed and composed, but there are many occasions for the players to stretch out, improvise and shine. For example, the bass solo and electric piano interlude, that occurs during Outro Dia are delightful. Both instrumentalists present a masterclass of how to embellish and dress the piece inventively without losing sight of its overall mood and structure.
There were times when the albums compositions move delightfully towards fusion and the jazzy inflections of Cantiga had me swaying happily in my chair. However, the flute consistently takes the music contained in the album to another level. Its soaring lighter than air melodic beauty adorns much of the music to give it a regal air. It is serene and peaceful, but also on occasions in tunes like Vice Versa delivers a more spiteful, spitting, biting quality. Vice Versa wears its Brazilian influences proudly on its sleeve and in addition to its wonderful flute interludes, its features some retro toned synthesizer parts and an impressive guitar passage.
However, some of Zamith's most emotive and moving playing arguably occur in the beautifully evolving shape shifting slow-paced melodies of Balada. This piece is outstanding in every respect.
Introspecção is a consistent and highly gratifying album, and I will play it regularly for years to come.