Geoff Barone — The Darkest Of Summers
Geoff Barone is a multi-instrumentalist, and also a composer for film and television, from Buffalo, New York. From the first track of his 2020 release, The Darkest Of Summers, it is abundantly clear that this is a composer's album.
A sparse piano melody begins the instrumental opener, In The PresentMoment, over various sound effects. The aeolian dominant scale (also known as the mixolydian b6 or b13 scale), shifts to natural minor, then harmonic minor, and finally settles enigmatically on just the root and fifth. The ambiguity created by the shift from the minor to major third is a thread that runs throughout the album, giving it an unsettled, bitter-sweet feeling. It's a sophisticated technique that immediately captured my interest.
This album, The Darkest Of Summers, is a complete change of pace for Barone, whose 2018 album Acquiescence, was a guitar-heavy album with obvious influences of hard rock and progressive metal, augmented by touches of Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, with even some ragtime and zydeco thrown into the mix.
In stark contrast, The Darkest Of Summers is intimate and evocative, built mostly around keyboards and sound effects. Lyrically, it is a reflective album of songs written by Barone during the last 8 years, inspired by the death of several people close to him, and filled with thoughts of his own mortality.
Barone's softly sung vocals remind me of early David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, especially their soundtrack albums, More and Obscured By Clouds. The softer keyboard parts have the lushness of Alan Parsons, while some industrial leanings make me think of Ayreon. The vocoder (remember that 70s-era spoken keyboard effect?) which Barone uses on Thousand Yard Stare over a disco beat, of course screams ELO's Discovery album. But I think the best overall comparison for The Darkest Of Summers would be to Kevin Moore's Chroma Key.
The dark lyrical themes make this album a difficult one to hear, especially in our current times, but it's one of those albums where what you get from it depends on the effort that you put into it.
The Man Who Couldn't Say eventually became my favorite of the album, with Berone showing more confidence on vocals. He's a good singer, and I wish he wouldn't bury his voice under effects as much as he does. The song builds to an unhappy catharsis, and is a authentic and raw outpouring of emotion. The title track is also a highlight: a scream of barely controlled grief.
While The Darkest Of Summers is a keyboard-based work, and different in so many respects, it touches the same mood in me that also wants to hear Opeth. I don't always like to feel great sadness, but I sometimes feel more alive and complete when I do. The album asks the question: should music reflect us as much as please us? Ultimately, I think so, and I commend Barone for being able to release his emotions into this music. After many listens, I found some comfort in feeling and sharing his grief.
Course Of Fate — Mindweaver
Course Of Fate (not to be confused with a Russian metal band of the same name), founded in 2003, have thus far released several demos and an EP in form of Cognizance in 2013. Following this release, main composer Kenneth Henriksen (guitar) set out to write new songs, which the band shortly after felt the need to incorporate into a conceptual story. In short this tale, inspired by a poem of William Hughes Means (Antigonish), involves a man who through visions experiences the end of the world. He rises to become a cult leader and in his striving to prevent the inevitable, he alienates his dearest relatives, and in the end he faces redemption and mercy. But has it all been real or a hallucination?
Cast in a lovely graphical digi-pack the musical inspiration for Mindweaver follows the path of well known conceptual albums like The Wall (Pink Floyd), Operation Mindcrime (Queensrÿche) and Scenes From A Memory (Dream Theater). Next to the high expectations each of these iconic albums impose in their own field, the question then is whether Course Of Fate manages to pull off the many musical and lyrical challenges lying therein. Spoiler alert: they most confidently do.
The album is off to a great start with the ominous opening of There Is Someone Watching, setting an apocalyptic dramatic atmosphere with Pain Of Salvation intensity. As it flows into the comfortable prog metal of The Faceless Men Pt. I the superb interaction between uplifting keys, a dynamic rhythm section and twin guitar-leads slowly awakens flashes of Dream Theater. The carefully equalised balance places the bass (Daniel Nygaard) smoothly and favourably present in the mix, while the equally joyous guitar sound gives a mindful Rage For Order vibe.
The powerful vocals of Eivind Gunnesen have a slight resemblance to Geoff Tate in the lower regions, whilst having his own unique identity in the higher. He has an appreciative mild roughness attached occasionally, that features later on in the second part of the adventurous musical journey. Easily approachable and not overly complex, and without the need to prolong into extensive egotism, the engaging music furthermore shows refinement in arrangements that are filled with emotion and passion, similarly enjoyable to contemporaries Kingcrow.
This Kingcrow momentum is surpassed in Endgame, which soars through playful segments and delicious Dream Theater inspired movements, tastefully pushed onwards by playful versatile drums of Per-Morten Bergseth. The intricate melodic changes build up into melancholic movements converging to an infectious catchy chorus, while the subdued nature of the bridge oozes some further deliciousness of aforementioned Dream Theater and Vanden Plas.
Upping the anti Course of Fate set out on a mission in Utopia. Alongside excellent implementation of atmospheric layers of keyboards and sublime instrumentation it's the twin guitars of Henriksen and Marcus Lorentzen that captivate. Together with the gracious melodies, clean vocals and emotional prog metal they slowly build towards a phenomenal climax capturing the wondrous feel to Queensrÿche's epic heydays meticulously, which is refreshing and exciting at the same time.
The short contemplative The Walls Are Closing In, an acoustical sensitive interlude, is followed by the immaculate Wolves, which is a forceful blend of Queensrÿche meets Pain Of Salvation. It is intense, catchy and complex, while dark atmospheres and progressive melodies flow freely with heart warming transitions, riffs and tantalising keys. Here the translation of the story into music and vice versa is beautifully embedded within the song, as it progresses towards darkness via slowly intensifying divine melancholic melodies. The spine chilling guitar solo and equally sparkling synth-solo, ending in overwhelming apocalyptic bombast adds a further heavenly touch.
Shortly returning to its chorus Wolves then smoothly drifts into the intricate Drifting Away, a beautiful ballad carried initially by the fragility of Gunnesen's vocals. The luscious lonesome symphonic atmosphere wades into melancholic sorrow, breathing a powerful emotive Pink Floyd atmosphere, as well as restrained images of Scenes From A Memory that harbours a delicate combination of playful piano and perfect harmonies. The breathtaking guitar solo, incorporating precious organ, is inspired and initiates majestic Comfortably Numb monumental goosebumps, gradually surrounded by solid harmonies and enchanting melodies that soothingly end this delightful song.
Rounding off the concept album is the epic grandeur The Faceless Men Pt 2. Opening with energetic riffs it glides into a divine alternate Images And Words dimension that nullifies any previous inserted memories of Dream Theater's Scenes From A Memory. With each musician carefully holding back and complimenting each other, the band thrives via compelling grooves, dynamic rhythms and excellent interplay thereby occasionally revisiting some thematic elements. The middle section of this wonderful composition illustrates this unison most perfectly when double bass drum, pounding bass and twin guitars are indulged and a sparkling keyboard solo from Carl Marius Saugstad elevates this passage to exceptional heights. The bridge that follows and peaceful successive quietness of piano that briefly glides into exquisite Take The Time awesomeness emphasizes this even further. A thrilling ending to a great track filled with tasteful rhythmic changes.
Course Of Fate wear their influences with pride, and for a debut album this is as good as they come. The playful concise compositions, regularly visiting the Dream Theater and foremost Queensrÿche realm, is infectiously addictive and without a note overplayed, nor a passage overextended it streams gloriously from start to finish. After numerous encounters each composition keeps on revealing minute details through its delicate arrangements, while the impact of the story told in under 45 minutes is nothing short of sweet.
So far 2020 has seen several outstanding releases and Mindweaver by Course Of Fate fits my short top 10 list perfectly. There's a few small steps to take to fill the minute void between this album and the trinity of inspirational illustrious predecessors, but considering the giant leap they've taken in the past five years, and on basis of Mindweaver, progressive metal-kind should definitely embrace them today. Until their sophomore album arrives, this one will provide many hours of progressive listening joy and as such comes highly recommended to prog-metal fans in general with special notice to fans of Dream Theater, Circus Maximus, Queensrÿche and Evergrey.
Ghost Toast — Shape Without Form
Instrumental albums are a form of art that I've had little luck getting into over the years. Very few artists seem to be able to keep a full length release interesting enough for me to find any enjoyment in them. While there have been some notable fully instrumental progressive artists that have released incredible albums over the last few years, Sithu Aye, Chimp Spanner and Widek, to name three. I often find most bands end up meandering into one of two dead ends, either meaningless noodling or they simple don't create music interesting enough to keep the listener's attention and it becomes something that you have very little interest returning to.
Hungary's Ghost Toast gave me some hope with the opening sections of their fourth full length album Shape Without Form. As the opening piano lines of Frankenstein's echoed through my speakers, my eyes were drawn to the incredibly dark album artwork. An apparition or ghost like figure, arm extended as if it was delivering a horrific speech to the masses, or maybe a sign of defeat to an unseen enemy. It's a really powerful image and it suits the feel of the opening song very well.
After the brief piano intro we are treated to some Mastodon style riffing and drumming rhythms, and some guitar work that is very reminiscent of Tool and fellow instrumental proggers Long Distance Calling. The guitar sound in particular, while not being very original, is very soft, metallic and fits into the music very well indeed, in the same way Riverside managed to get a very "soft" sounding production, despite being quite heavy at the same time.
At just over eight minutes, Eclipse, is the albums longest and heaviest track. It opens with a flurry of drums and blazing riffs, with some very intricate guitar melodies and some inspired bass work. The song encompasses some jazz sections throughout the middle section and a wonderfully stand out, but very short lived organ solo, before returning to the original guitar melody. It's good stuff, but nothing quite makes any particular section stand out, and the song becomes ultimately forgettable as a result.
Ghost Toast mention in their biography that one of their biggest musical influences are film scores, and this can certainly be heard on Y13. This is without a doubt the strongest track on the album and proof that the band can indeed write thoroughly interesting, memorable and varied compositions and keep them that way throughout the entire song. This piece features some great synth work, some moody and atmospheric sections and some absolutely brilliant use of orchestrations to give the song a truly haunting and epic feel. Had the rest of the album been like this, I would no doubt be adding it to my contenders for my top ten albums of the year, unfortunately they just can't maintain this level of brilliance.
The rest of Shape Without Form is, regrettably, entirely uninteresting. Why the band decided to follow up such a great track with a snooze fest like Hunt For Life just baffles me. The song features some spoken word and sampled female vocals, but just ends up sounding like generic background music. Even a reasonably decent guitar solo at the end can't save what is really a completely boring song.
Follow tries to redeem things by being a bit more upbeat, featuring some interesting synth samples and some heavy riffing, yet remains completely skippable. This kind of music often translates very well in a live setting, where the audience have something to look at, where they can feel the bass and drums pulsing through the floor of the venue. But when this is put into a setting where you are just listening through a speaker at home, it simply doesn't work. The music just isn't able to keep your attention and the whole thing just gets lost within itself, and I found myself thinking about which much better instrumental band I'd listen to next.
I don't want to be to hard on these guys, this is no low budget affair and from a musicians point of view, is well put together. The production and mix are both very good indeed, the band sound tight and every instrument, sample and sound is clear to hear. Each of the four band members do their job with a high level of proficiency and skill and it's clear they have been playing together for a long time. The problem I have is from track four onwards, absolutely nothing stood out, caught my attention or made me want to listen to it again, and that's just a huge shame when there is clearly a great deal of talent here.
Only album closer, W.A.N.T, slightly redeems things. Here the band bring back the film score influences and the riffs and guitar work are slightly better, even if the riffs themselves tread very similar ground to the opening track, although that may be intentional. There is some stand-out cello work and some of the best drumming on the album. The wah-covered guitar pattern in the second half of the song reminded me of early Deadsoul Tribe, and the spoken word sections are placed better this time round. The song has a rather epic closing section, another highlight of the album, with horns and strings backing up the layered guitars, creating one of the albums best moments in a melancholic ending.
This isn't a great album by any means. It's a flawed album with a few great moments scattered throughout it. It's worth a listen just for the tracks, Y13, and W.A.N.T, but ultimately these tracks just serve to show what could have been. If Ghost Toast can focus on their great use of orchestrations and soundscapes and make them the focal point of everything they write, then they might just come up with a masterpiece one day. The best parts of this album are easily the bits which have the most going on, unfortunately there is just to much empty space around it all, and I just have no motivation whatsoever to return to this album.
Molesome — Tom & Tiger
During my many years of listening to the many eclectic styles of music tagged as Progressive Rock, I have found the most challenging comes from the Scandinavian countries. To compound this Molesome, from Sweden, have presented an album I approached with a anticipation. Not due to the music, but the reason and emotions behind what was recorded on Tom & Tiger. Composer and studio manager Mattias Olssen, had been beset with a number of emotional traumas which had taken a great toll on him. During this troubled period he felt compelled to use the piano as motivation to carry on living.
All the music contained on the album was recorded in one take, it was not composed in advance, Mattias just let the music flow from him. Knowing the trauma Mattias was going through during this recording make the listening experience feel like you are being invited into an extremely emotional, and cathartic, expelling of grief, anger, frustration and sadness. While the piano is recorded completely live, there are small in studio additions, to enhance the ambient feel of the tracks, but never do they dominate the core instrument, the piano.
I have to admit, it was a difficult listen, not due in any way to the music, which I found quite extraordinary, but feeling the pain behind each press of a piano key. I don't think I have ever listened to anything like this before. I would not recommend listening to this if you yourself were in anyway depressed or emotionally traumatised.
But music is a wonderful entity, in that having listened to this, I will probably not listen too it often due to the emotion contained within, but I do feel that I am a better person for having listened too it. It is a very rare thing to discover so much real emotion in musical passages, but Mattias Olssen has managed this. And thankfully he is in a much better emotional place now. All I can conclude with is thanking Mattias for allowing me to listen to such a personal musical experience.
Rantama — Rantama
As the Rantama Trio the Finnish threesome of Timo Rantama (guitar, keys), bassist Tatu Back and drummer Iiro Laitinen have previously released an instrumental jazz-rock album, Catching The Mystery Train (2016). They have since expanded the line-up with singer Taavi Kiiskinen, and shortened the band name.
After acquiring a profile by releasing four singles in the past year, Rantama is moving up to the next level with the release of their self-titled, full-length debut.
The four friends met each other in the eastern wilderness of Kuopio, a large town surrounded by lakes and rocky glaciated eskers. Their childhood and teens consisted mostly of wild adventures in nature and fearless acts of musical curiosity, fueled by their fathers' record collections.
The band states that: "We have taken nuances from the stadium rock aesthetics of Journey, elements from Weather Report's zany jazz fusion, sensibility from King Crimson's exploding prog-rock imagery and perhaps a couple of brushstrokes from Opeth's and Radiohead's gloomy palettes." The band's bassist and drummer are also a part of the Finnish blues guitarist Erja Lyytinen's touring and recording band.
There is a clear jazz-rock nature to this album that gives the heaviest leaning towards their Weather Report reference. The musical imagery and lyrics clearly draw their inspiration from nature.
This is best displayed on the standout track and St Valentine's Day single Roaring Rapids. It is here that the band strikes the perfect balance between Kiiskinen's vocal melodies and the jazz-inspired musical flourishes and details, which are the foundation of the band's sound. There is also a bit more rock on this track, and a wonderful funky roll to this song, which I love. The music video (see below) is a fitting tribute to the Finnish wilderness, showcasing the scenery from all four seasons. It is a love song to nature.
The other five vocal tracks range from three to ten minutes in length, showing a band not afraid to let a song evolve through different phases or to keep it short-but-sweet as the need arises. I like that.
Bird Nest is a solid, uptempo opener whilst both Dying Star and The Pond Of No Return have a more adventurous spirit. It is only the turgidly one-paced instrumental, Ground Frost Forger, that disappoints. The production is clear and light and makes good use of the surround-sound options enjoyed when the label sends out the full CD package to play on my full hi-fi. The digipack is well presented with lyrics and photos that enhance the music. There is a lot to like here for those who would enjoy a modern-sounding, melody-focused, jazz-rock-inspired hour of listening.
Scarlet Hallow — A Window to October
Scarlet Hallow are a progressive rock band from Ventura, California, USA. Their second album A Window To October is their follow up, after a long hiatus due to health reasons, to their 2012 debut What If Never Was. They've been described as heavy prog but I don't see that in this release. If I were to pigeon-hole them, then it would be crossover prog. As one band member states: "Some of my favourite music has always been from the more melodic and song-oriented progressive bands, for instance, Marillion, Porcupine Tree, and Pink Floyd". Melodious orientated rock might be another way of describing their sound.
Two things that immediately pique listening interest are the vocals and lead guitar work. Allison VonBuelow (vocals, acoustic guitars, synths) has a great voice, instantaneously likeable and delivered with aplomb. She puts me in mind of singers like Heather Findlay and Magenta's Christine Booth. The opening track Adventures in the Kings Garden is as good as any to hear her tonal qualities on display. Although Scarlet Hallow are a better band, they do put me in mind of Mostly Autumn's Iain Jennings' band Breathing Space with Olivia Sparnenn on vocals.
The other interest is the electric guitarist Gregg Olson. His guitar lines and hooks are well proportioned, sympathetic to the overall vibe to each of the songs. Never over indulgent, superb tones, with a stylistic approach that's refreshing and never boring. The instrumental track, Jupiters Calling, is a good example of his style and inventiveness. The song gives the impression that there's a jazz/fusion guitarist wanting to burst forth, but is held back due to the confines of their melodic rock approach. This song also features a nice synth solo.
Throughout there's a solid backbone in the rhythm section courtesy of bass player Jeff Mack and drummer Jay Setar; nothing ostentatious about their delivery and they marry well with the melodic themes throughout the album. Both shine in the very good track I Am Divided.
Pendragons Cove, albeit too short, is a lovely acoustic guitar instrumental with supporting electric guitar solo. I guess it's a sort of prelude to the next track Crimson Lights And Dark Waters (but they're not joined together) which continues in the same vein with full band. Part of the harmonies on this song remind me of Greenslade's Bedside Manners Are Extra.
My biggest criticism of this album, like others that have gone before them, is simply the length. I appreciate 8 years is a long time between albums but why does it have to be shy of 70 minutes. I personally can't listen to an album for that length of time. The band should ask themselves: “If only vinyl existed what would we jettison?” This would have been a much better album if the idiom "less is more" had been considered.
Anyway, overall an enjoyable album, an easy listen, well put-together and produced and solid musicianship. I score the album 6.5 out of 10 (would have been higher if it weren't for the length).