Dave Brons — Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
If the title of this concept album is familiar, then you are almost certainly a Tolkien fan. If you need further prompting, Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost is a line from the poem All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter spoken by Strider in The Fellowship Of The Ring. The man responsible for this album, Dave Brons describes himself as an 'instrumental rock guitarist with a Celtic symphonic twist'. He's based in Bradford, Yorkshire, less than 20 miles from where I sit writing this review. The album follows his 2015 debut Based On A True Story.
This is not the first prog-rock album based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien of course. Bo Hansson's 1972 Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings, Glass Hammer's 1993 Journey Of The Dunadan and Mostly Autumn's 2001 Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings are just three that spring to mind. Middle-earth and its characters have also inspired compositions by Camel, Barclay James Harvest and Rush amongst others. This album ranks alongside the best of those.
I have to confess that it was the name of Dave Bainbridge that drew me to this album. A brilliant guitarist and composer, I've followed his work in Iona and as a solo artist. In addition to co-producing the album with Brons, he provides additional keyboards, guitar and percussion. The core line-up however is Brons (electric guitar, orchestration, arranging), John Biglands (drums), Daniel Day (bass, low whistle) and Mark Swift (piano, organ). They are supported by a host of musicians providing traditional instrumentation, including Uilleann pipes, flutes, trombone, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, violin and violas.
Sally Minnear, as the voice of Lady Galadriel, opens the album and The Song Of Illuvatar. The haunting guitar theme is reminiscent of Scarborough Fair and Catherine Ashcroft's evocative Uilleann pipes soloing is in the fine tradition of Troy Donockley. In contrast, EÄ is the first of several tracks that incorporate heavy guitar riffing, bringing Haken to mind. Given the album's 'Celtic symphonic' aspirations, the metal tendencies came as a surprise, but it works nonetheless. Tracks like The Riders Of Rohan and The Ring Bearers boast soaring instrumental flights, demonstrating Bron's virtuoso guitar playing and inventive soloing.
Perhaps the most effective track is the melancholic A Prayer For The Fallen. Described as 'a lament for Gandalf', it's a haunting piano piece with just a hint of choir. Elsewhere, the 100-piece choir adds an epic grandeur to tracks like Into The Perilous Realm and the concluding White Shores And A Swift Sunrise, echoing Howard Shore's music for the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
The instrumental contributions from everyone involved are superb and I would single out Frank Van Essen's strident violin solo during Under The Same Sun. It lends the track a Kansas vibe, following Daniel Day's classical guitar picking intro. Minas Morgul and the penultimate At The End Of All Things contain the album's most ambitious orchestral arrangements. The former brings a touch of The Enid to the table, while the latter is a showcase for Stephen Bradnum's majestic brass embellishments. I was also reminded of James Horner's Celtic-tinged scores for Braveheart and Titanic.
Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost is an album that works on every level, with stunning musicianship and melodies that I for one will never tire of hearing. Dave Brons set himself a monumental task with this album and has pulled it off in style. If I had to cite comparators, in addition to those already mentioned, I would add Iona, Mike Oldfield, Solstice and, for sheer audacity, Arjen Lucassen. As for Bron's extraordinary guitar talents, he combines flash and fire with fluidity in the style of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, with a hint of Steve Hackett.
Mike De Souza Trio — Slow Burn
Slow Burn is the latest solo project of Mike De Souza. He is also a member of Big Bad Wolf. On the album he is joined by Huw Williams on bass and Jay Davis on drums.
Its delicate mix of progressive jazz and a host of other influences, is an absolute winner. I am just simply bewitched, smitten and full of enthusiastic ardour for Slow Burn. It communicates to me boldly. Its musical flames erupt and etch themselves upon me on every level. This album is able to thaw my inner thoughts and reach parts of me that have been frozen for years.
If you liked Big Bad Wolf's Pond Life, put aside any other musical tinder for a moment, Slow Burn should light your fires.
The album's warming embers and balmy, reflective qualities produce a lasting, heartfelt glow. These soothing elements have the ability to snuggle the frost from a winter-chilled mind and offer an emotional soundscape that is able to drape the heart in its congenial embrace.
On occasions, the music also burns brightly, and De Souza's fiery contribution on guitar, in tunes like Living with Nuns and also in the opening passage and mid-section of the exceptional Nunchucks, ignites freely. In these instances, this release blazes away and incinerates any preconceptions that it is principally designed for reflective periods of life, when the fires stoked by passion or conviction have temporarily ebbed gently away.
There is a fine balance between graceful acoustic and scorching electric elements. There is a finely crafted equilibrium between jazz, rock and prog influences. As a consequence, the range of moods that this album can convey is exceptional.
This sense of balance is in evidence during combustible moments which exhibit sizzling passages of exhilarating fury in tunes like the conclusion of the superb Late for Breakfast, and in the album's slow-burning, languid compositions such as the elegant title track and also the charming Veritas Lux. These standout tunes exhibit a delightful sense of space, and possess a gentle, charring delicacy.
In this respect, the album should appeal to a variety of music aficionados. The leather-clad rocker within will find moments to gurn and groan along to. The party-hat jazz aficionado will find improvisational elements and complex time signatures to venerate, chuckle and ponder over. Wizened lovers of progressive music will feel any cynicism fade, and turn to admiration as Slow Burn purposefully crackles, spits and radiates in diverse directions to explore less-travelled territories in its successful quest to express its own unique voice.
In short, the high quality of the compositions contained in this outstanding release offer something for many prog, jazz and fusion fans and for anybody who appreciates the cutting edge qualities of creative progressive music in general.
The sound quality of the album is impressive and every carefully-picked note is easily distinguishable. This ensures that each measured nuance and change of tone, texture and timbre can be appreciated as the trio no doubt intended.
The album is arguably most successful when it straddles a number of different styles in the space of a single composition. Going Places is a delightful vehicle for the band to express their talents and their wide scope of influences. The enchanting, bowed bass work of Williams sets a gorgeous scene in the opening section which delivers a bouquet of pastoral colours. His elegant contribution helps to paint an aural picture that in turn allows the imagination to create a series of vivid, sun-dried images of newly-shorn, blue-skied meadows set against the pungent smell of stubble, slowly burning in a distant field.
The piece meanders to change direction to include a beautiful jazz guitar interlude that would appeal to fans of Pat Metheny. The kit work of Jay Davis is particularly appealing in this standout section, which is further enhanced by the introduction of a world element in the softly-sung, wordless vocal accompaniment. The concluding section of this wonderful piece dreamily and unhurriedly meanders along to its charming conclusion.
However, my favourite parts of the album occur when the band delivers a tune in an explicitly laid-back style. Morning Mind is a stunning and beautiful piece, and its splendidly attractive melody bears all the right spacious qualities to make it a memorable experience. The graceful style of Morning Mind is reminiscent of some of the best reflective moments in Big Bad Wolf's Pond Life. In many ways, it is even more attractive than the serene and equally beautiful Quiet Coach, which was one of the compositional highlights of that highly recommended album.
The comparison with style of Big Bad Wolf does not simply end there. Just as Pond Life employed the voice as an instrument in its own right, Slow Burn utilises a similar technique. The tasteful use of vocal harmonies to accompany sections of a number of tunes, such as during Going Places, provides the album with a human dimension. This skilful use of vocals ensures that the album has an accessible air, and is able to reach out and connect in an emotional manner.
In this respect, the superb title track ticks all the boxes. The gently-lolling vocals add to the tune's overall excellence and give it an extra layer of sophistication that is easy to admire on many different levels. Just listening to the title track makes my ear lobes tingle in slow-burning approval.
With such a physical response to this trio's music, it is little wonder that the delicate singeing and searing of Slow Burn ensures that it continues to be one of my favourite releases of 2019. This album certainly lights my fires. I hope that it will also burn freely for you.
InVertigo — InMotion
You esteemed readers of DPRP's reviews and progressive rock lovers; have you sometimes asked yourself the "What happened to...?" question during your prog rock listening careers?
Last time I asked myself that question was in December of last year when I coincidentally rediscovered InVertigo's 2012 release Veritas, stored on my old IPod. I recalled that I had very much liked that album, which I bought shortly after its release, but somehow pushed it aside over time due to the constant flow of interesting new prog releases. The fact that InVertigo have failed to come up with any new material since Veritas did not help to refresh my memory about this album. Hence, I was pleased to find out that with InMotion, the band based in Gelsenkirchen has ended their seven-year recording break.
Despite this considerable gap, InVertigo's line-up has been rather stable, consisting of Sebastian Brenner (vocals, piano), Kolja Maletzki (guitars), Michael Kuchenbecker (keyboards), Matthias Hommel (bass, bass pedals), and Carsten Dannert (drums, percussion). Kolja being the only new member to the band, having replaced former guitarist Jaques Moch. Ina Merz and Julia Gorzelanczyk continue to give a guest performance on vocals. Mixing and mastering was taken care of by Martin Schnella, known for his musical activities with Flaming Row, Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella, Seven Steps To The Green Door, and Cyril. Consequently, the sound quality and production are flawless, and represent an advancement compared to the previous releases.
In terms of the lyrics, InVertigo addresses current sensitivities and topics, ranging from the common habit of procrastination, and the difficulties of constant interruption to creative processes, to environmental concerns. The wording is kept unambiguous and easy to understand and refrains from dodgy verbal acrobatics. This approach of straightforwardness is reflected in the music on InMotion as well.
The opener, Interrompu, with its driving bass lines, floating keyboards (synthesisers and piano), staccato-like guitar playing, airy vocals and catchy melodies, could have been taken straight out of an IQ album.
Although the music throughout the entire release is smooth and melodic by nature, some (mild) prog metal parts occasionally flash up (especially in Wasting Time), providing some necessary variety for the listener to always stay engrossed. The music provides for enough breaks and changes of rhythms, keys and tempo, however, the complexity stays at a decent level, compatible with the characteristics of neo-prog. Listen To The Smell Of The Pretty Picture scores with beautiful melodies, excellent guitar/keyboards interplay, and multi-voice vocals, reminiscent of Polish band Satellite, as well as Jadis, RPWL, and Cellar Noise.
The song Severn Speaking draws its peculiarity from the fact that it combines the music with samples of the speech delivered by the 12-year old Severn Suzuki to the UN Climate Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The content and the concerns she addressed almost three decades ago, still are like the ones proclaimed by Greta Thunberg nowadays and evidence of the incapacity of everyone who is responsible for not having acted enough! The ticking rhythm of the song symbolises how tight time now is. Musically, the track sounds a bit like Arena.
My favourite song is the two-part Life, which is fairly symphonic, and keyboard-driven. Part One treats the main topic of the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 by Edvard Grieg (a wonderful piece of classical music, in my opinion), with keyboards and guitar alternating in the roles of piano and orchestra. Consequently, the song evokes what the 70s Dutch bands Trace and Focus, as well as former GDR-band Stern Combo Meissen, did at the time. Part Two reminds me of Alan Parsons Project due to the vocal harmonies, the electric piano/harpsichord used, and its accessibility. The song ends suddenly, before resuming with an acoustic guitar outro after 30 seconds of silence. Why that?
How am I supposed to classify the development that InVertigo has made over the last seven years since Veritas? I tend to consider InMotion as an evolvement rather than an improvement, to the extent that the band's music has become more mature and serene.
On Veritas, the tracks here and there sounded a bit hasty and too playful in an attempt to try (sometimes too) many things at the same time in order to sound as progressive and versatile as possible. Now, the band seems to have embarked upon its style and has all the self-confidence and the musical abilities to clearly commit to it, something which, although I found Veritas slightly more appealing to me, has my full respect. On InMotion, InVertigo play an honest, powerful and accessible neo-prog with catchy and engrossing melodies, harder edges which are occasionally discernible, and a considerable feel-good factor, avoiding gimmickry and frills.
If you are into that kind of progressive rock music and like any of the peers mentioned above, you can't go wrong with this release. Haste makes waste, but please, guys, don't have us wait that long once more until you release your next album.
Nektar — The Other Side
Nektar's The Other Side feels like a nostalgia-filled tribute to fellow founding member guitarist and vocalist Roye Albrighton, who sadly died in 2016. Remaining founder members Derek “Mo” Moore (bass, vocals), Ron Howden (drums, vocals) and Mick Brockett (lyrics, visual conceptions) reunited in late 2018, along with Nektar associates Randy Dembo (bass, 12-string guitar), Ryche Chlanda (guitar, vocals) and Kendall Scott (keyboards) to begin work on this new release.
The material on The Other Side include updates and reworkings of material written in the band's 70s pomp. Also, they have unearthed a live soundboard recording of Roye Albrighton playing guitar on Devil's Door live in 1974. A track played live but never recorded until now.
Nektar open this account with I'm On Fire and you are immediately transported back to an era of high energy, bluesy space rock, that stops on the money before its powerful repetitions become, well, repetitive. SkyWriter re-writes an unreleased track from 1978 called Skypilot with new lyrics. It has a captivating percussive opening and it evolves into an AOR tune that echoes Todd Rundgren or The Beatles, with a sliding guitar solo that thoroughly lifts it into more interesting areas.
The centrepiece of the album is the eighteen minutes of Love Is - The Other Side that moves through multiple phases of melodic prog. Its cracker of an organ solo is the highlight, by a narrow margin. It has a sunny melody that contrasts with the heartfelt melancholia of its lyrical concerns of travelling to the next realm guided by the power of music. An epic, worthy of the name.
They follow this up with Drifting that mixes Meddle-era Pink Floyd with the long-form, bluesy explorations of Robin Trower's Bridge Of Sighs, mixing them with a space rock groove to great effect.
The songs are less inventive and a bit more classic rock after this. I can see why Devil's Door's straight ahead rock didn't make it onto Nektar's exploratory 70s releases, good though it is. The last three shorter tracks move from the keyboard instrumental (The Light Beyond), through a classic rock acoustic guitar and Mellotron ballad (Look Through Me), before closing with Y Can't I B More Like U 2020 which I found a bit lacking after the gems front-loaded on The Other Side.
If you are a fan of Nektar you can fill your boots with The Other Side without worry. If you are new to them, then you can safely start here as this more than signposts the way to their best releases: A Tab In The Ocean and Remember The Future. The Other Side is a fitting work of modern nostalgia.
Twelfth Night — A Night To Remember
Seven years after the event, the Twelfth Night finale at the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican finally gets a release. Was it worth the wait? Of course it was! A spectacular show of the type that Twelfth Night were destined to deliver, this release encapsulates the greatness of the band and displays just how much the prog world missed from the failure of record companies to get behind this most unique of 1980s bands.
With Andy Sears having stepped down as vocalist, it was inevitable that the set list would focus on the earlier years of the band, when it was fronted by Geoff Mann and before that when as an instrumental combo, four musicians (all in white) wowed audiences in Reading and its environs.
With a £1.4 million lighting rig, borrowed from a company in exchange for a couple of tickets for the show (the company's managing director was a long-term fan), a bespoke stage adorned with the cover of the Fact And Fiction album, video screens and a PA from the main Barbican theatre, the setting was just perfect, even before the band hit the stage. Stuart Calder, manager of the theatre and latter day Twelfth Night tour manager had even managed to equip the stage with a grand piano and timpani!
The show started with an intro film compiled by video production editor David Read, that through photographs and videos provided a visual history of the band (available as an extra on the BluRay and DVD). Then the band of Brian Devoil on drums, percussion, Clive Mitten on bass, guitar, keyboards, voice, and Andy Revell with guitars and voice plus Dean Baker (keyboards, piano) and Mark Spencer (vocals, guitar, keyboards), hit the stage with the traditional opening number, The Ceiling Speaks. From that moment the audience is never less than at a fever pitch of excitement as each song is met with joyous recognition.
The set list is perfectly judged, with the entire Fact & Fiction album being performed, although not in sequence. Particularly noticeable was the separation of The Poet Sniffs A Flower from the album's title track, but its appendage to the end of CRAB worked very well. It is great to have the early instrumentals Für Helene and East To West captured on HD film, although Afghan Red would have been my preferred selection from the instrumental repertoire. Of course, no celebration of Twelfth Night would be complete without Sequences and the band went all-out to deliver a version that ranks as one of the best performances of this classic number; Andy Revell displaying once again what a phenomenally good guitarist he is.
Having been accused in the past of taking themselves too seriously (albeit by journalists who had probably never seen the band in concert), it is great to see the band enjoying themselves, with Mitten cracking jokes (also available as bonus content) and the three front-line musicians walking about in the space between the stage and the audience towards the end of the show, smiles beaming from faces. For the middle encore, the band were joined by Roy Keyworth who had the inevitable job of standing in for Revell when the latter stepped back after the initial reunion gigs. The resulting East Of Eden was a million miles away from the overly-synthesised pop song that had originally appeared on the b-side to the Eleanor Rigby single and never played in that way since (apart from on the only TV performance aired with Geoff Mann).
All too soon the opening bars of the closing number Love Song, sounding wonderful at the hands of Baker sitting at the grand piano, signalled that the evening was coming to an end. But what an evening it had been. A celebration of first class prog performed with superlative musicianship, truly A Night To Remember.
This truly was a celebration.