Anubis — Homeless
On many a prog site, Anubis are described as neo-prog, but on the evidence of their new album Homeless I would say that they are fast leaving that genre behind. They are forging ahead with a mix of Porcupine Tree-like dynamics and punchy, melodic prog songs in the vein of Radiohead. Using shorter-form songs rather than epics, they produce nuanced music that is often hook-laden but arranged in ways that will also hold the interest of a prog fan with ease.
A squeal of guitar feedback opens the longest song, Reflective. Soon joined by ominous bass and guitar, they flesh out a catchy melody while the lyric moves from the creeped-out to the paranoid. A lush arrangement easily holds one's attention. Then things start to change with Entitled. Here electronics and keyboard washes are used in the way Richard Barbieri does for Porcupine Tree. Heavier guitars to the fore, make this a terrific mix of dark Depeche Mode and twin guitar prog.
The album's highlights continue much in same way. Having found a new groove, Anubis explore it thoroughly, using some 80s influences in the keyboards and in the melodies. It is down to the superb rhythm section in Anthony Stewart (bass) and Steve Eaton (drums) whose patterns and melodicism give these tracks their energy and poise. You can hear this especially on the one-two punch of The Tables Have Turned and Sirens.
It isn't all perfect though. I find one track (White Ashes) passes me by, its classic rock-meets-prog melody leaves me unengaged. Also, Anubis have made a strange decision, to my ears, to conclude the album with back-to-back ballads. As good as they are, it ends the album with a decaf coffee, instead of an espresso kick.
Having said that, Anubis's Homeless is still a great album. Obviously if you are looking for epic solos this is not the place for you. But if you have time for fellow Australians Voyager or our own John Mitchell's Lonely Robot project, then Anubis would be for you. I hope Anubis follow this path into song-focused prog, as I have a feeling that a blinder of an album is not far away.
Annie Barbazza — Vive
Annie Barbazza first came to my attention via her collaboration with North Sea Radio Orchestra on Folly Bololey, a tribute to Robert Wyatt that became my favourite album of last year. Originally a drummer in love with progressive rock, she was discovered by Greg Lake who encouraged her talent as a singer and she performed on his final release, the posthumous Live in Piacenza. Lake also produced the album Moonchild, a duo with her and pianist Max Repetti covering many songs Lake had performed with King Crimson and ELP. She has also performed with John Greaves (Henry Cow, National Health) collaborating live with the Welsh musician and on his latest albums (Piacenza and Life Size), as well as many other collaborations and guest spots.
Now Annie Barbazza has released Vive, her debut solo album. Greg Lake's original idea was for her to play all the instruments, but over time it turned into a set of collaborations with high quality musical friends who asked her if they could take part. All the tracks on Vive are Annie Barbazza originals with three exceptions, one being a cover version and the other two being written specifically for her.
Annie Barbazza opens the album with a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois. Ys opens with Lanois' drones that has her silky voice floating in a natural sounding, church-like acoustic. Overlapping vocal lines grow and entwine as Lanois' guitar feedback generates a gentle, drum-less, avant soundscape. It is a seductive opening that continues on June's overlapping vocal lines that spin from speaker to speaker, over strummed guitar.
Written for the album by John Greaves, a setting of the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's From Too Much Love Of Living, allows Annie to display her deeper register over piano and feedback guitar.
John Greaves pops up to sing with Annie on Nebulæ a mix of found sounds, guitar and bass, and then again on the album's cover of a Greaves and Peter Blegved song How Beautiful You Are. This song is an astonishingly strange love song where the lovers watch as their servants are tortured “by the light of an armoured car”, as they celebrate their honeymoon. It is intricately-sung over piano, bass, electronica and an exquisitely-controlled, flowing guitar. It is just about perfect.
Harmonium underpins the heartbreak vocal on Wrote Myself A Letter, written for Anne by Paul Roland the British psyche pop/goth songwriter, musician and writer. That Annie's own songs hold their heads high in this company shows that there is some talent at work here. The perfect example of this is her song Lost At Sea, short and very intense, her voice nearly pushes Fred Frith's guitar into the background. But she is equally at home in the simple beauty of Lotus Flower. She also wrote a couple of short instrumentals, one of which, Time has a falling oboe melody that quotes a short phrase from Fanfare For The Common Man; as a tribute to Greg Lake, I assume.
The album, though terrific, does have a couple of minor issues. There is a reliance on a reverberant acoustic that you only really notice when it disappears on the super Phantoms. Sometimes it can obscure what is being sung but not often. The other issue is that the songs are similarly paced (slow to mid-tempos) over the whole of Vive. But Annie Barbazza's voice, weightier than Kate Bush's and wider-ranging than most singers in this vein, carries them though with ease.
Annie Barbazza's Vive is a quietly beautiful, often profound album that I hope will find a wider appreciation than its niche avant credentials might allow.
Mangala Vallis — Voices
What do you think of when the phrase 'Italian Prog' is mentioned? Here's what goes through my mind (admittedly it's usually a blank space): bands initially influenced by Van Der Graaf Generator and Genesis but then making it their own in quirky and challenging ways (see PFM, Le Orme, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, Area and so on).
But then later came bands who took inspiration from the neo-prog bands of the 1980s and ran with that, in again their own individual way. Mangala Vallis are a band in this mould. They have just released their fourth album Voices, and with it they have mixed in a large dose of classic rock with their neo-prog in an individual way.
There is a concept in Voices and it is those voices we hear from our deepest innerself, voices that say to stop compromising and to be free. The music that Mangala Valis (named after a canyon on Mars, by the way) have used for this concept feels to me like watered down IQ or Saga. Watered down with finely played but ultimately bland AOR/classic rock styles.
The inventiveness seems to have gone into the desire to produce a mix of 80s-like power ballads (Get It While You Can) and stadium, lighters in the air, anthems (An End to An End). This is not helped by the singer reminding me of a less screechy David Coverdale (Whitesnake).
The neo-prog elements are still in place via the keyboards throughout (especially the synth solo on No Reason) and the Spock's Beard feel to the opening The Center of Life. However, as good as the classic rock guitar solos are (Demon), they don't hold my interest as much as they should on repeat plays. If you like AOR/classic rock-infused neo-prog concept albums then Mangala Valis' Voices is probably very much for you.
Modern-Rock Ensemble — Night Dreams And Wishes
The Modern-Rock Ensemble project is led by multi-instrumentalist Vladimir Gorashchenko and includes some of the finest rock and jazz musicians from Ukraine. Night Dreams And Wishes, the follow up to Touch The Mystery from 2016, furthermore features the talents of Brody Green (Southern Empire), Max Velychko (Karfagen, Sunchild) and Sean Timms (Southern Empire, Unitopia, Damanek) assisting Gorashchenko in mixing and sound production. It is a long list of collaborations, destined to deliver a wonderful piece of elongated music.
And they certainly do, for Night Dreams And Wishes, with a total length of 80 minutes (if one takes into account the bonus track) can be seen as one infectious, marvellously-flowing suite that through its many movements and careful recurring thematic elements and luscious melodies, weaves a beautiful tale. Upon first encounter, feelings of recognition and joyous familiarity emerge. This is delicious, as encaged within the music is an infinite array of melancholic progressive influences.
On certain movements the feeling of Deja Vu was fairly strong and genuinely re-traceable to the luscious Topos by Methexis. Similar to that enchanting peace of craftsmanship, Night Dreams And Wishes has exactly the same effect through its gripping musical journey, destined to take you away on a long and wondrous scenario of progressive delights.
It starts convincingly with the spacious, peaceful ambient opening sounds of Intro - Night, Universe and Our Inner Space, igniting excitement through its twirling keyboards.
It flows smoothly into a cinematic scene (Overture) where the fresh, breezy atmosphere slowly transforms into a complex, overwhelming jazzy segment where ferocious guitars and captivating keys ooze a divine Kalaban feel that could last me an eternity, and sparks the first of many memories to Methexis through the explicit appearance of a church organ. Regrettably in the next few pieces of this formidable puzzle, some of this preciously-gained momentum is lost.
For despite the playful, relaxed mood, competent acoustics, swirly keys and the beautiful, intertwining vocals of Vladimir and Anastasiia Gorashchenko, the segment could have been more concise. It takes a while for the fire to be lit again via a short, uptempo coda that includes a delicious jazzy sax solo. The tranquillity of the Barrock interlude, Barocco Scherzo, gradually transitions towards a medieval theme via church organ, flute and brief jazzy undertones. It picks up psychedelic pace with some flashy Emerson Lake and Palmer treats that change to fragile, classical new age minimalism with gorgeous flute in Childhood & School Days.
Mesmerising Genesis flute frivolities transform into the excellent jazz-styled School Daze where virtuous keys are encaged within King Crimson complexities whilst airy brushes of unctuous prog swirl into the freakish experimental / free-jazz Frank Zappa-inspired Insomnia. It is here, through the majestic opening of the epic Dark Kingdom (divided in three parts) that a powerful imaginary castle looms up on the horizon welcomed by folky Jethro Tull vibes.
The mysterious, darker atmosphere, mindful to Orquesta Metafisica, transforms into delicate acoustics as we prepare to make our entrance into the prog arena for some contagiously playful Jethro Tull and spacious Solaris divinity, before finally returning to exquisite flashes of Emerson, Lake And Palmer. Upon meeting the King we tumble down into a dazzling whirlpool of keyboard-driven prog reminiscent to Gerard where the luscious guitar solo sees a short return to Kalaban, as it sets up for sensational Outer Limits / King Crimson violin eruptions.
The bombastic classical reference at the beginning of Dark Kingdom - Part Three signals a furious fight with frightening vocals mindful to a demonic Gene Simmons (Kiss). The beautifully arranged segment that follows, blissfully bursting with keys, then flows into a triumphant Triumvirat (Spartacus) state of happiness that slowly fades into heavenly church sounds with operatic vocals. Travelling under light Grobschnitt touches the music, then sets sail towards Wake Up where the quiet and peaceful acoustic surroundings, enhanced through soothingly calm jazz sounds, slowly takes you away on a love boat, to slowly awaken in the morning sunrise.
Not for long though, as in Final/Outro there's a smashing big finalé with a dashing return to the Spartacus arena that flows elegantly into the melodies that started this immaculate journey. A satisfying conclusion and a marvellous goodbye as the book is closed for the day.
Having travelled through all these highly entertaining magnum opus stages, one last outburst in the form of Want Some More? excitingly leaves you wanting to press replay instantly; for even after the umpteenth time there are infinite stories to be felt, heard and imagined.
With pristine production and equally impressive instrumentation this is a festive banquet for any progressive rock fan who has a healthy prog appetite. There's an unlimited pile of inspired ideas and creative musical diversity to be found on the album. With the knowledge of a new album in two years time going by the name Eclectic Voyage, the expectations for me are rather high, considering the already grand, eclectic embodiment of this great album. Time to poor a new glass of Nemiroff and press repeat. Better yet, leave the bottle, for it's a highly recommendable effort and worth checking out some more.
Orange Clocks — Metamorphic
There's good news and bad news today. The bad is that there is a global, apocalyptic, viral pandemic which threatens our existence as a species. The good news is I have my contender for album of the year, and it's only just turned spring here in the UK.
It transpires that there is a collection of musicians just about 100 miles away from where I type this, whom I predict will join the "cosmic psychedelic space rock" elite with this release. Comparisons? Take a pinch of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, stir in some Hawkwind, and dollop lashings of Gong on top. Before listening, I had been told of some Ozric Tentacles leanings but alas those are few and far between. No matter. What is delivered hits the spot over and over; more-so with every listen.
In the great tradition of the above-mentioned forefathers, Orange Clocks "hail from a shed in the depths of East Northamptonshire and specialise in music of no fixed genre; improvising and jamming for long periods, pausing only to consume lots of tea and biscuits".
Metamorphic is their second release. I must confess I hadn't heard the first one (Tope's Sphere 2) before this, but initial impressions suggest a much greater sophomoric cohesion, and a ditching of the grand concept and narration, for (I hesitate for say) a more normal set of "songs". The band tell me that if anything Metamorphic was a bit of an accident, the sessions for which only spawned from them playing Tope's Sphere 2 at a charity event for a departed friend. Sprung from jams and improv, the project was done and dusted in a mere seven or eight takes, just like all the best music of times gone by.
In fact, opener Space Witch is almost run-of-the-mill prog fare. You would be forgiven for letting it pass your earholes without noticing. Eye Of Psybin, as you might expect from the title, travels the more psychedelic furrow. Bassist Derek Cotter's voice actually has a tinge of Sel Balamir from Amplifier, and there's some echoey backing along with an immortal line: “He's the pith in your satsuma”. Being a seven-piece possé, there's plenty of scope for sound-layering and duel guitars, which throughout have a rather “classic rock” feel to them.
Miles Away lumbers along with slide guitar accompanying the narrative of space exploration. It's soothingly mellow, until halfway when the tempo breaks into a frenetic, thumping space rocker. Someone called “Burn” handles the drums with true blanga relentlessness.
Let Me Breath is one the album's earworms. You could hear this on Radio 2 and not have a heart attack. The vocal harmonies get particularly Gong-like.
Even more earworm-y is Floating Temple, again with a standard song structure (where's the prog exactly?) and a bit of soloing, before another frantic gear-change to the “inside the temple” section. It almost has a Stranglers vibe going on, before the glissando guitar, mantric vocals, and a simple-yet-ridiculously-catchy guitar solo reminds us that this is DPRP, not Q-magazine.
After what seems like a forgivable and thankfully brief splash of filler in Ammonite, we get the highlight, Noggy Pop. Please do not listen to this while driving or operating heavy machinery. Dim the lights, pour your favourite tipple, banish the kids and close your eyes. Other substances are optional. I am told it was done in one take, which adds to the glory. It is hard to describe it, maybe Martian-Desert-rock and experimental Bowie but at the end “something has gone wrong with your noggin” fairly nails it. Lyrically scary, aurally spooky. "You won't need your brain".
It all seems to end just after nine minutes and if it did you may feel a little popped in the noggin, but hang-on! There's the prog-rock cliché of a moment of silence followed by about 19 minutes of neural repair to stop you jumping off the nearest roof. Tibetan chanting, multilayered synths, deep rumblings and wigged-out guitars combine in an electronic meditation that may well adjust you on a cellular level (not guaranteed).
Now you may listen to this and think “meh”. It's not in-your-face instant satisfaction ala Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, Hawkwind's Astounding Sounds Amazing Music, or Gong's Rejoice! I'm Dead. There are no epic guitar solos or mathematically impressive song structures going on. In many ways it's a straight forward prog-rock album. And it is because they don't rely on these slam-dunk crowd-pleasing motifs that I'm giving this apparently part-time bunch of space-cadets a 10.