Align In Time — On A Spiral
Align In Time is the musical alias of multi-intrumentalist John Boles and On A Spiral is a guitar-driven instrumental rock album. I tend to jump into this genre with a bit of caution because I find some of the recordings to be one dimensional and at times, boring. Thankfully, that it not the case with this release. In fact, it is one of the more compelling instrumental albums that I've heard in quite awhile.
Though Boles is a very gifted guitar player, the focus throughout is on mood and melody. It doesn't feel like a "guitar album", in large part because the compositions are strong. There is an adventurous spirit and diversity to the music that is compelling. Also, at a brisk and effective thirty seven minutes, the album doesn't wear out its welcome.
Bands such as Caspian, Tides of Man, and Maybeshewill are noted as musical references in the publicity for On A Spiral. I can't really vouch for the comparisons, because I am not familiar with any of those bands. What I can say is that this album stands up nicely when compared to works by household name guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Boles work may not be as flashy, but tracks like This Is Later, Two Ways, Headlong and Finish It impress nonetheless. I heartily recommend this album to anyone who enjoys guitar based instrumental rock that contains ample prog and jazz fusion overtones.
Chandelier — Live At Loreley
If anyone would have asked me two years ago which band or artist I would like to see live (again), mortal possibility restrictions applied, Chandelier probably wouldn't have popped up in my mind. Simply for the fact that I witnessed them several times in the 90s and I have an extensive bucket-list of as-of-yet severely missed proposals. However, when the announcement was made that Chandelier were to reform for a one-off gig at the prestigious Night Of The Prog Festival at Loreley, St. Goarshausen in 2019, this was a no-brainer and tickets were instantly secured.
This rather unexpected statement followed shortly after the successful re-releases of Pure and Facing Gravity, which showed most accurately the potential the band possessed in their prime. The consecutive re-issue of Timecode, already containing three brand new recordings involving four of the five original members, boosted the sudden returned interest and the band gladly, yet nervously, accepted the invitation of the festival. Filling the keyboard vacancy with Armin Riemer proved to be relatively easy, as Herry Rubarth (drums) knew Riemer from playing together in the band Elleven.
In the weeks before the actual event Chandelier decided to schedule a secret warm-up gig on the 18th of July at Musikkneipe Hamtorkrug, Neuss under the moniker of Armin & Die Armleuchter (translated: Armin & The Candlesticks; see a video here). Here they played a run through of their Loreley set on an extremely small stage of approximately 2.5 square meters, in front of friends, family, and close relatives. Strengthened by the heartwarming reactions of their 100+ "audience", the delightful presence of special guest Toni Moff Mollo in All My Ways (as he squeezed himself onstage) and the ability to perform two extra tracks (Ferengi Lover and Pure) saw them soar through an emotionally charged night.
This self-produced DVD, recorded the next day at that Freilichtbühne at the Loreley, sees them continue this glorious momentum in front of roundabout 2500 people on a slightly bigger stage. Sharing the bill with Dilemma, Special Providence, IQ, and Tangerine Dream, they came on as the third act, underneath bright and shiny weather. And despite minor adjustments such as the omission of the soundcheck (an excerpt from Ferengi Lover) and removal of several in-between conversations from vocalist Martin Eden, the resulting registration is a marvellous bright ray of contagious neo-progressive rock.
Starting off the CD reveals an honest and perfectly audible sound, produced by Riemer, where the harmonisation of the individual musicians and instruments is crystal clear. The actual live sound is less effective though, which is likely due to it being a mixing desk recording. This proves to be of no consequence at all, for the overall experience is a true sparkling representation of the actual concert, although there are subtle differences detectable for those who where there.
One of those differences is the background vocals by Riemer that on the day itself where sometimes lost in the mix due to the open air circumstances, but are now wonderfully present throughout. Biggest example of the live recording not able to capture the crowds atmosphere is during Glimpse Of Home/Jericha. In the already tantalising solo that's woven seamlessly in between these two songs, guitarist Udo Lang excels as he dives into the stellarly attractive solo of Firth Of Fifth (Genesis), that resulted in a huge sigh of excitement rising from the audience. Undetectable on the recording, it effectively made even those lying on the comfortable lawn surroundings several yards away turn their heads with admiration and applause.
I do sometimes question the need to have both a CD and DVD of the same recording, but here the answer is plain and simple. As I obviously can't watch a DVD while driving, I can now thankfully visualise the concert in imaginary thoughts projected in front of me on basis of the immaculate CD. Revisiting the DVD is however far superior as it brings back even more precious memories of the relaxed, friendly and enchanting festival and its great ambience. Something the festival has become renowned for, and after my first ever attendance I can state it has been caught on DVD most convincingly.
Opening with the suitable Start It, the band goes through a great varied mix of songs ranging from all their previous efforts (see Pure, Facing Gravity, and Timecode). It features crowd favourites like Wash & Go and Cuckoo, emotional ballads such as Call For Life and Stay, and the majestic epics Half Empty Half Fool and Glimpse Of Home.
Halfway through the set guest vocalist Toni Moff Mollo is welcomed during All My Ways, which is met with grand applause from the crowd. The uptempo rocker, with a solid performance by Mollo that lifts the party even further, is captured on film showing the joy, enthusiasm and dedicated devotion in which each and every song is beautifully brought and received. For if there's one thing that really stands out on this performance it's the fact that both band and crowd immensely enjoy the prog festivities.
Despite their 20 years absence, Chandelier demonstrate they haven't lost any of their magic and give a brilliant captivating performance, with the odd detectable bum note as they so humbly state themselves. The many cameras capture in lovely detail the band members as they create beautiful transitions, or alternatively focus through close-ups when called for at the right moments. Further regular changing of perspective to a general overview of the band, or the delighted crowd, gives rise to an honest and tranquil representation of the actual event.
What it shows is a very relaxed, uniquely charming, vocalist Martin Eden who sounds exactly like he did 20 years ago, something that can equally be stated for the solid rhythm section forged by the obviously happy Christoph Tiber (bass) and the highly concentrated Rubarth. Meanwhile Riemer, wearing an ear-to-ear smile and standing safe and sound behind his keyboards, manages to make you forget his predecessor by adding his own playful twists. And last but not least guitarist Udo Lang, slowly lifting his restraints, graciously provides refined playing, melancholic melodies and occasionally whips out impressive, delicious and breathtaking solos.
Obviously this DVD plays straight into my sentimental heart in being a perfect keepsake from a wonderful two days, having witnessed the Neuss gig as well. With the first batch almost sold out it also confirms my feelings that Chandelier are still ranked among the best to ever come out of the 90s prog-rock scene in Germany (or Europe for that matter), and even after 20 years have everything in them still. A highly recommendable effort for those not present during this precious moment of prog-history, which will provide many hours of neo-progressive rock pleasure.
Even more pleasurable is the fact that Chandelier's candle has been lit firmly after so many years and they have started writing new music. A premiere of this and the official release of this DVD should have coincided with their joint mini-tour with T, yet some kind of virus got in the way at the very (very!) last minute, postponing these events to a later date in September, hopefully. Until then I'll happily indulge this marvellous set, that at the same time made me aware of two unsettling thoughts. The first one being that where I once thought I was going bald, this DVD lays down irrefutable evidence of it, and secondly I must conclude that I sincerely miss going out to real live experiences at the moment. I can live with the first one, now let's hope the second one will resolve soon.
Virgil Donati — Ruination
Perhaps most notably known in the prog world for his work with Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine for early 2000's band Planet X, Virgil Donati is certainly not your typical rock drummer in either his style of playing or in his career path. He has been involved in many projects and bands over the years, but he has also developed an extensive solo catalog. The Australian drummer, who now works out of Los Angeles, released his latest solo album, Ruination, last summer.
While this album leans more closely to jazz fusion than traditional rock, it retains a strong progressive rock sound, particularly on the second track Back To Me. The album features Donati's most recent touring band members Andre Nieri on guitar, Junior Braguinha on bass, and Chris Clark on keyboards. Several other musicians guest on guitar, keyboards, and bass and Irwin Thomas from one of Donati's previous bands, Southern Sons, provides vocals on a few tracks.
Donati is quite famous, so it probably isn't news to most of you that he is a brilliant drummer. On this album he plays in a fairly distinct jazz style heavy on the hi-hat and snare. Odd time signatures abound, with plenty of shifts to keep things interesting. While Donati plays in a jazz style, the guitars clearly make this album something else entirely. I would be remiss in describing this album as just a drumming album, for the guitar work is excellent. In a way it is a very guitar-driven album, although the songs usually return to drum-led portions.
There are often trade-offs between guitar solos and what could probably be described as drum-riffing. Not many drummers play in a way that can replace a lead guitar, but Donati does. Yet when the guitars take over, whether it is Nieri or one of the guests, it is brilliant. Sweeping, tapping, and plain old shredding with clean tones take the album to the next level. There are crunchier moments with the guitar work as well, giving some songs a heavier edge. Keyboards and bass have their moments in the spotlight as well, although they aren't quite as prominent.
Back To Me, The Last Night That I Lived, and Time Is A Lie are vocally/lyrically driven, which is a nice change from the heavily instrumental parts of the album. Thomas' vocal styling on The Last Night That I Lived takes on a jazzy vibe at times, even though this song is probably one of the less jazzy songs on the album. I think one of the drawbacks to the record is not enough songs have singing. The best stretch of the album is the 13 minutes across the seventh and eighth tracks which both have vocals. Some of the first half of the album feels a little restless and busy, but it settles down with these more traditional songs.
Overall Ruination is a good album, even though it can get a little repetitive in its overt technicality at times. When it steps back from that into more traditional songs with vocals, both the technicality of the musicians and Donati's songwriting skills shine. Nevertheless the musicianship is phenomenal throughout, and I find myself wondering how it is possible for all of them to play as many notes as they do at some points. Fans of jazz, jazz fusion, and the area of progressive rock that draws heavily from those influences will be sure to enjoy this album.
Polis — Weltklang
Polis hail from Plauen in Saxony, Germany. The band was formed in 2010 and has been playing with the same line-up ever since, consisting of Christian Roscher (vocals), Christoph Kästner (guitars, backing vocals), Marius Leicht (keyboards), Andreas Sittig (bass, backing vocals), and Sascha Bormann (drums). Weltklang is the band's third release, following Eins from 2011 and Sein from 2014.
The band used the time span between releases two and three to establish their own studio, amongst other things. This is also called Weltklang, named after the trademark for various people's enterprises in the former GDR, producing horns, trumpets and saxophones. Recording of Weltklang took place there, whilst mixing and mastering were done in Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in England. Moreover, Weltklang studio is the main location for numerous sessions done by Martin Miller Session Band, which keyboarder Marius Leicht also is a member of. I would like to invite you readers to check out some of the session videos produced there, especially the ones with Andy Timmons. But let's come back to Polis' music.
Listening to it, one might be inclined to classify Polis as following the tradition of the prog rock bands being popular in the GDR in the seventies and eighties, namely Stern Combo Meissen, Lift, and Electra. Polis are aware of the fact that they are pigeon-holed in this musical drawer, but only mention a regional context (being based in the former GDR), but no explicit inspiration by those bands. In any case, inspired or not, the music reminds me of those relics from the past, plus many others, such as Uriah Heep, Frumpy, Atomic Rooster, DeWolff, Wicked Minds, Jane, Novalis, Ramses, Anyone's Daughter, Nektar, and even Grobschnitt (with respect to the jamming I heard during the live stream of the album release gig mentioned below). That does not mean that Polis is merely copying the style of these bands, no, they sound so much retro that one feels not just like listening to music from the seventies in the year 2020, but like having travelled back in time.
How to describe Polis' music? To me, it feels as if hard rock was doing a round-table meeting with blues rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic rock, but also flirting with art rock and symphonic rock, in order to merge all these styles and genres to create something original and well-balanced with the labels "retro" and "prog". By the way, the retro style not only applies to the music as such, but also to the LP-friendly length of the release, the lyrics, and the instruments and techniques used (a look at the Weltklang studio on Youtube makes one think of a museum for analogue and vintage amplifiers, equipment and keyboards - Hammond B3, Leslie, Mini Moog, Fender Rhodes and the likes - they all are there).
The music is varied, ranging from atmospheric (Gebet), pulsating and mesmeric (Mantra), and lyric (Abendlied) to heavy (Sehnsucht).
The opening track Tropfen, starts with heavy riffing and Christian Roscher's voice having a metallic undertone, not unlike Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, before the Hammond kicks in. The Hammond's sound throughout the album is simply great and often reminds me of the playing of Jean-Jacques Kravetz from Frumpy. The same holds true for Sehnsucht (my favourite), again dominated by a roaring Hammond sound. I also love the touching and melancholic track Abendlied, written three days prior to the birth of Christian Roscher's first child. Text wise sounding like a lullaby, for whatever reason it gave me comfort and relief during these troubled Corona-times.
A propos lyrics: Polis are one of the very few contemporary German progressive rock bands singing in their mother tongue, the only other ones that I can think of right now being Traumpfad and Traumhaus. For me as German native speaker, Christian Roscher's texts show considerable poetic expressiveness with a slight esoteric and spiritual bias and remind me of the classical poems I was reading (and doing interpretations of) back in school.
The lyrical significance and the poetry of the texts, however, only unfold to those able of speaking and understanding the German language. Although the band considers their lyrics as an anchoring point and as an integral part of their musical concept, I believe that knowledge of the German language is no absolute prerequisite for appreciating the music. Passion and poetry are inherent in the melodies and also become apparent through the enigmatic, energetic and sometimes romantic way of singing, and may enable those without German background (or without the intention of bothering Google translate) to sense what the texts might be about or to develop his/her own associations.
I like this album very much. Not only that it is full of music comparable to what I grew up with, but also because it is so authentic, relaxing, unpretentious, professional and serious, but not stubborn, and intransigently retro. I am aware that what you are reading here may look like a band name-dropping review, but Polis' music brings up many memories and feelings of my past (and still present) musical likings. Because it resurrects the seventies without sounding dowdy, it is not only something for time-travellers and nostalgics, but for all prog rock music lovers who are looking for a strong link of past musical decades with the present age
I wish the band will be able to play live again as soon as possible. The live-stream Polis did instead of the album releasing gig, cancelled because of Corona, already provided a foretaste, but not more than that. As Christian Roscher put it in this regard during the concert: "I hope that never again we will be forced to do something like we did tonight."
Silver Nightmares — The Wandering Angel
Silver Nightmares are a new young band from Palermo in Italy. Formed in 2018, they have an eclectic list of influences including neo prog, prog metal, AOR, classic prog and heavy metal. All of these influences can be found leaking around on their debut disc The Wandering Angel. What is very refreshing having listened to this disc a few times is the temptation of youth to include too many ideas, is kept in check. What the listener is able to absorb very quickly is Silver Nightmares ability to write catchy, coherent and compelling music.
The only real nod to enthusiastic youth, is the fact they have decided to make a concept album. Fortunately, the concept is very loose, being about an angel who falls to Earth and sets out on a journey of discovery. Each song stands on its own, and the concept does not dominate the songs.
There is a pronounced feeling of adventure to the music, along with humour. This is more than evident in the instrumental DD, which is subtitled Dick Dastardly. Yes folks, the legendary animated character from such classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons as Wacky Races and Dastardly & Muttley. The track even begins with a classic sound bite of the nefarious villain. The track thunders along, taking some adventurous twists and turns. It also includes some maniacal flute playing, something I never thought I would hear and enjoy.
Light Years Away at times conjurers up thoughts of early Queensrÿche due to the guitars and vocals, but mixed with some classic keyboard sounds. The Queensrÿche comparison can be heard again in Dame Nature, the albums proper final song. With David The King, the sound changes to a folk feel, with flute accompanying a song which has a distinct Horslips feel. The only issue I have with the song is that the singer used does not fit the song in parts. But that is only a minor criticism.
The disc is fleshed out with a single edit of the title track and album opener. Unfortunately the single edit loses most of the atmospheric introduction, but does retain the harmony vocals which highlight the bands ability to compose memorable and atmospheric songs.
With the obvious strength shown in this release and the ability to compose exciting songs, Silver Nightmares are a band to keep an eye on in the future, and I certainly hope this talent is just the tip of the iceberg.