Coldbones — The Cataclysm
Coldbones are a UK post-rock trio of guitarist Jordan Gilbert, bassist Nick Suchak, and drummer Max Parr, although all three play guitar, bass, and keyboards which helps share the load. The Cataclysm is their second album, a follow-up to 2018's Where It All Began, although they did put out a rather groovy (almost) instrumental interpretation of Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill last year which translated very well into the band's métier (check it out, it is a free download from their bandcamp page).
Given that over the years, post-rock bands have been utilised in writing film scores, it should be no surprise that The Cataclysm is a concept album focusing on two hypothetical catastrophes: The Flooding Of The World and The Burning Of The Earth. Although not based on any specific real events, it is not hard to see where inspiration might have come from, given the environmental disasters that have occurred around the world in recent years.
The album is therefore best considered as two distinct halves, with each half comprised of five sections that tells the tale of each catastrophe.
The Flooding Of The World starts quite gently and almost serenely, then builds as the forceful waves grow in the ocean and loom closer to the shore. The visceral energy of Collapse provides a backdrop to the futility of trying to hide from the destructive rampage of the flood water as it flattens everything in its path, leaving nothing standing for miles around. As the initial energy is dissipated, a period of relative calm occurs before the action of the moon causes a high Tide that causes further death and destruction. As the waters gradually subside, there is a degree of cleansing, as represented by the cymbals of the drum kit that can easily be imagined as currents of water rolling around as if in some giant washing machine. In the end all that the survivors can do is retreat from the flooded low lands and Ascend to higher ground where they can view the results of the cataclysm and ponder their future; all soundtracked by a delightful acoustic guitar piece that brings the first half to an end.
The Burning Of The Earth is a rather bleaker cataclysm for the planet, as the solar energy heats up the planet causing Ruin-ous outbreaks of localised fires which spread and unite into an almighty conflagration that Consume-s everything in its path. The life forms that manage to escape from the immediate risk of immolation are forced further back into the Hinterland where all they can do is watch the distant fires scorch the earth and wait for their own death and Extinct-ion.
I have no idea if these happy tales of bed-time reading for little ones are exactly what was envisioned by the band but they are the images they conjured up in my mind, as I listened to the two component parts of the album. Okay, with no lyrical guidance (apart from the very dramatic spoken word section by David Whiting at the end of Extinct which really brings the album to a fine conclusion) one is basing these imaginations on the one word titles of the sections. They could just as easily have a radically different, indeed opposite, interpretation if a different word was used for the title. But that is not really the point. Like any piece of art, visual, sonic or tactile, each individual will have their own unique interpretation, which is one of the reasons I am so fond of instrumental music; it can be all things to all men and women.
Coldbones are an exciting band, in many ways still finding their way and style. But they make a glorious noise for a trio, and have quite a few ideas that differ from many in their genre, which can only be a good thing. Long may it be so.
As I was on the point of submitting this review, it was announced that in the light of the murder of George Floyd the band were releasing a special charity vinyl edition of the album featuring a black album sleeve with no text, logos or branding. All proceeds from this unique release will go to adding books to the library of the primary school where Jordan Gilbert teaches; books written by black authors, books about black history and other materials that will aid the British youth in becoming better educated and aware of the fight against racism.
Force Of Progress — A Secret Place
Force Of Progress is the project of four experienced and long-standing prog rock musicians from Germany, namely Hanspeter Hess (keyboards, Seaboard Rise - a MIDI controller, programming), Chris Grundmann (keyboards, guitar, bass, programming), Dominik Wimmer (drums, guitar, keyboards), and Markus Roth (keyboards, guitar, bass, programming).
Looking at this instrumentation, it is not an outstanding intellectual effort to assume there will be a certain keyboard-orientation to their music. Guitars are not forgotten though, because on top of three of those four musicians playing guitar, we have four guest musicians (Achim Wierschem, Sebastian Schleicher, Claus Flittiger, and Sebastian Mikolai) for additional guitar duties on some of the tracks.
The four full-time band members also act as coordinators of the official German Spocks Beard communitiy called "The Bearded", as well as perform as solo artists and cooperate amongst themselves and with their guest musicians on various other projects and bands over the last decade. Amongst them are The Healing Road whose albums have been reviewed here and here , Horizontal Ascension, and Marquette, all of them enjoying some degree of popularity in the German progressive rock scene.
A Secret Place is the second album with this line-up after Calculated Risk released in 2017. Thus, we are by no means dealing with musical beginners here, and this quickly becomes apparent.
The album kickstarts right from the very beginning. With merely 45 seconds into the opening track The Hand Sculpted Heart, I had the impression of already having listened to more notes than some doom metal bands play during an entire album.
All jokes aside, things are slowing down a bit subsequently, but overall, only a few opportunities are provided for sitting back, taking a deep breath and relaxing while listening. This is no "by the way" music, as continuous attention is required.
Force Of Progress' music can be pigeonholed as instrumental prog-metal (with the exception of some sampled voices) with some fusion elements. It is a bit comparable to Dream Theater without James LaBrie, Liquid Tension Experiment, and some of the solo works of Jordan Rudess, and Devin Townsend. I also heard some reminiscences to the fantastic Norwegian Band Los Exploradores' album Inventure and to The Magician Chronicles - Part I by Swedish proggers Brighteye Brison, especially concerning the tracks Circus Maximus and The Three Steps To The Precipice. The Mike Oldfield influences that are typical of Hanspeter Hess' solo projects with The Healing Road do not appear here.
As inherent in the instrumentation listed for each musician, the keyboards play a major role (organ, synthesizer, Seaboard Rise, piano), being used both for producing walls of sound, and for extensive soloing, including sampled solos of flute and trumpet. Guitars are not totally outplayed by keyboards, but interact in a perfect manner and provide for a solid base and background with speedy riffing for the keyboards to elaborate their melodies. There is a Camelesque solo towards the end of Circus Maximus, and a John Petrucci one in Äggressor, but overall, guitar soloing takes a backseat, whilst keyboard solos are abundant - sometimes a touch too much.
Given the fact that nearly all the musicians of Force Of Progress play the same instruments on this release, it is not possible to assign who is performing which specific part of the tracks. When listening to music, I prefer to be able to associate a clearly definable musician with a specific musical performance, but that's just my personal preference.
Singling out a favourite, I am inclined to pick Circus Maximus, which has beautiful melodic organ work and jazz-tingled piano soloing in the first part, and bluesy piano and guitar in the second. But also, this track, just like some of the others, suffers a bit from a lack of coherence. Occasionally, I had some difficulties recognising a clear song structure and a musically-recurrent theme, as the various parts of the music appear slightly to be strung together.
I have had mixed feelings concerning this album insofar as I was torn between my objective impression and my subjective emotions.
Looked at from an objective point of view, this is quite an awesome release, owing to the impressive musical abilities of these musicians, their compositional skills, the virtuosity of their playing, and the variedness and the complexity of their music. All these factors essentially appealed to my intellect.
Subjectively, the music, with a few exceptions (the first part of Circus Maximus and the track The Three Steps To The Precipice) has not produced something permanent with me. By and large it did not touch my emotions that much, but rather left an impression of coldness and technicality, with a dim feeling of l'art pour l'art. Hence, I believe that A Secret Place is something for the lover of instrumental, keyboard-driven, complex progressive rock/metal with fusion elements, who is guided by logic and mind and who is not afraid of virtuosity. There is not much you can do wrong with this album, if you feel concerned. If not - why not use this release as an opportunity to venture out to new musical territories prog rock-wise?
Lazuli — Le Fantastique Envol de Dieter Böhm
Occasionally there is a moment when a band that have been together as a cohesive and prolific unit for sometime, produce a piece of work where the sparks fly and something magical happens. How or why this occurs is one of life's mysteries. If it could be bottled, every band would want some.
There is no beating about the bush. Lazuli's ninth studio release, Le Fantastique Envol de Dieter Böhm, is perhaps one of those events where the stars align and the result is something shimmeringly powerful and exciting. Effortlessly combining ethnic and world music textures with industrial clunk into their own melodic mode of progressive rock, with this latest venture Lazuli have refined their unique styling to a new level.
The opening Sol, with the aforementioned industrial backbone, provides a quick reward from the off, which gives way to one of the jewels of the album, Les Chansons Sont Des Bouteilles à La Mer. A tender pulse builds towards a wonderful chorus hook, topped-off by the last half of the track dominated by a yearning, memorising guitar passage from Claude Leonetti which leaves the listener breathless.
There is however little time to draw breath before the rousing Mers Lacrymales elegantly disarms, before booming out perfectly with an anthemic sonic force followed by yet more bruising guitar, which dishes out some guaranteed goosebumps.
Dieter Böhm, the protagonist of this conceptual piece successfully brings a Peter Gabriel palette reminiscent of his 80s output to the proceedings. Few could claim to take this recognisable element and make it so distinctive and achingly cool, as it is presented here.
There's palpable emotion throughout and the vocal performance from Dominique Leonetti on Baume, pulls at the senses with its beguiling, silky fragility. It is so utterly sweet and soothing. The relentless power of the songs never let up, even in the softer moments. If you were to pencil them in alongside their peers, Leonetti would be listed alongside Gazpacho's, Jan-Henrik Ohme.
There are other slight influences such as the Beatles-flavoured Un Visage Lunaire, however it is such a subtle seasoning that it feels perfectly in-sync. Lazuli are now masters of their art and weave what they need into their sound so exquisitely.
Overall there is a must-listen-again appeal to this album throughout its 43 minutes, finishing with the dying clean guitar noodles at the end of the epilogue piece, Dans Les Mains De Dieter, which spurs you on to begin the journey again.
If momentous, layered songwriting with soaring guitar solos are your thing, then you have just found your album of 2020. It certainly stands out as Lazuli's artistic crowning moment, often defying any real attempts to sum it up in words.
Marillion — With Friends From The Orchestra
In their 40-year career, Marillion have often taken new paths to develop themselves in many ways as an independent band. They were one of the first to use crowd-funding to obtain budget for producing a new record and made that a successful approach that was mimicked by many. They started their own record company, as well as their own up-to-standard recording studio. They did exclusive weekends for fans, playing for several nights in a row. They communicated directly to their extensive fan-base by different kinds of media, and they used innovative ways to promote the core of their existence; their music.
Many times these initiatives have been a success, sometimes even a huge success, but there was the occasional failure too. What connects all these initiatives, is the professional attitude towards their music, their not-to-be-doubted integrity as artists, their care for the fan-base, their full independence from people who solely want to see money made from music, and, of course, their devotion to the music itself. That the line-up of the band has been stable for decades has certainly helped.
In November 2017 they celebrated their first ever gig in the stately Royal Albert Hall, a one-off night that had to be something special. The band brought along a string quartet, a French horn and a flute to play with them during the second part of that memorable show, recorded on the All One Tonight – Live at the Royal Albert Hall live album and dvd. That night was indeed very special in many respects and also musically so inspiring that it deserved a decent follow-up.
And so the band initiated a couple of recording sessions with the same classical musicians, now friends, in their own Racket Club Studio, as well as in the equally famous Real World Studio to record a not-so-obvious compilation of songs from their back catalogue, but with a classical musical arrangement. And so the In Praise Of Folly String Quartet, being Nicole Miller, Margaret Hermant, Annemie Osborne and Maia Frankowski, French horn player Sam Morris and flautist Emma Hainan were invited to come and play these arrangements, written by Michael Hunter, their long-time producer. The result of this collaboration is this new cd. And what a splendid job they have all done!
Re-arranging existing songs with the use of classical elements can of course be done in many ways. The band clearly choose to do new classical arrangements that could lie quite far from the original, yet without dominating the original music. And it was allowed to sound even better than the original if that was possible. That is the case with the A Collection, a small song from the 1991 Holidays In Eden sessions that gets a fantastic modest string, cello, flute, horn, acoustic guitar and vocal arrangement that surpasses the original in every respect. It is only one of the many gems on this album.
The choice of songs alone makes this album already a very special release. Instead of picking some apparent favourites or re-doing the songs they performed at the RAH gig, the band mostly selected not-so-well known songs from six different studio albums. The most surprising choice is of course A Collection as it was never released as part of an original album. But also the choice for Beyond You (from Seasons End) and Hollow Man (from Brave) are unexpected but work out very well.
The album opens very moodily with cello, strings, horn and flute playing a beautiful intro to Estonia, the emotional waltz from the 1997 album This Strange Engine. This new intro is vaguely reminiscent of the original acoustic guitar intro and sets the mood for this album.
Beyond You is slowly sung against a background of cello and strings with subtle keyboard notes by Mark Kelly before around the two minute mark the full band comes in to complete this ballad with full power. Hogarth really sings his heart out in this one.
The version of The Sky Above The Rain (from 2012's Sounds That Can Be Made) is loaded with cello and piano and gets an end-section with just classical piano, which makes this spooky song even more moody than the original. Epic songs like This Strange Engine (from the 1997 album of the same name) and Ocean Cloud (from 2004's Marbles) stick closer to the originals with numerous replacements of keyboard sections with strings and cello.
Some signifying solos on guitar and keys are still there though, for instance the iconic solo by Rothery in the now strings-dominated Fantastic Place (also from Marbles), as is the sax solo in This Strange Engine, played by Phil Todd. The subtle string arrangement of Seasons End (title song from the 1989 album) and the cello- and flute-dominated version of Hollow Man (from 1994's Brave) also illustrate the creative outbursts in the studios while recording these songs. The photos in the booklet underline that assumption, as all musicians seem to have had a great time while recording in these inspiring environments. Have a look at the above mentioned video and you'll see what I mean.
This album is fully (almost 80 minutes) packed with the most wonderful symphonic music you can imagine. In spite of the 23-year time span that this choice of songs covers, this album is a very coherent collection. The tour that was undertaken in 2019 to support this release ranks among the best line of concerts Marillion have ever given. And knowing that there are many more songs in their back catalogue that would be more than suitable for a classical arrangement, one can only hope that this album will not be an unique event. I also hope that they give arranger Michael Hunter all the credit he deserves; apart from production and mixing he is not credited for which feels incomplete. I guess they have just overlooked it.
I've never given the maximum score in a review before. But this is such a gem that it deserves nothing less than a 10. Absolutely awesome.
Néfele — Cristal
Néfele's debut EP, Cristal, displays a unique blend of ambient guitar, interspersed with metal moments. The Spanish duo is made up of Salva Ferrando and Andoni Ros, and the project dates back to 2017 with this EP released in 2019. Although brief, at just over 25 minutes, it displays a lot of promise for things to come. Ferrando provides the vocals, and Ros plays guitars, synths and programming for the drums.
The EP opens with gentle, ambient electric guitar. The feeling is atmospheric and spacey. The second track opens similarly but quickly builds, adding a metal crunch but retaining atmospheric textures. Overall the EP retains the ambient overtones, reminding me at times of Oak or ... no I'm not going to make the all too easy comparison for atmospheric progressive rock. It even has some moments that remind me of Devin Townsend, although with a much sparser and thinner production sound than Devin. The ending guitar solo by Eric Baulenas on the final track is brief but brilliant. The song would've been well served by a much longer solo.
Ferrando's vocals pair well with the music. I wish I understood Spanish, so that I could know what's going on with the lyrics. Despite that barrier I enjoy the interplay between the music and the words.
In addition to playing all the instruments, Ros also produced and mixed the EP, keeping the entire project in-house. The result is rather stunning. The album sounds very clear; a hallmark of atmospheric prog. Even though the drums are programmed, they sound remarkably natural. They still have a bit of an electronic edge to them, which fits well with the overall sound. I'm not normally a fan of programmed drums, but they work well here.
Overall, Cristal is a great debut for this Spanish project. I look forward to hearing more from them in the future. Any fans of ambient metal and atmospheric prog will enjoy this short EP. Production is crisp, and the technicality of the music makes it an enjoyable listen.