Intelligent Music Project IV — Sorcery Inside
Intelligent Music Project V — Life Motion
Intelligent Music Project is the brainchild of Bulgarian-based composer and producer Milen Vrabevski MD, who next to his work as a medical doctor runs his own "Intelligent Music" production company. His objective is to promote the Bulgarian heritage and its culture through contemporary "unique" music. To do so, he has surrounded himself with a team of Bulgarian's finest musicians, who together with highly-acclaimed international names have cultivated into the Intelligent Music Project. Recently, two albums, Sorcery Inside and Life Motion, have been released under the successive numerals 'Project IV' and 'Project V'.
The music is written solely by Vrabevski and sees Simon Philips (Toto) alongside as a co-producer and drummer, signalling the musical style elegantly, which on Sorcery Inside becomes even clearer through the partition of Joseph Williams (Toto) on lead vocals as well as the vocal talents of John Payne (ex-Asia) and Carl Sentance (Nazareth), which together with some very talented Bulgarian (session)-musicians sees them effortlessly turn their hands at melodic rock with a fresh dose of AOR containing delicate arrangements and minute prog twists. Music that will have anyone acquainted with Mecca or Vertigo (both released on the Italian Frontiers record label) jump from their chairs. Progressive rock fans might inquisitively adjust their seat.
Their most recent release Life Motion, recorded with the same core of studio musicians, sees a slight shift in sound, moving from a smooth, polished sound, into rougher-rocking territories. This time the vocals are shared between John Payne, Ronnie Romero (Rainbow, Vandenberg) and Richard Grisman (River Hounds). From a marketing point of view, including Payne's name on the front cover is a sly choice, but on Life In Motion this is maybe not the best of advertising moves. It creates an expectancy which isn't fulfilled, for the other vocalists leave a distinct mark on the heavier, less refined tracks.
The biggest surprise of both albums is guitarist Bisar Ivanov. A "Who you gonna call?" talent who's not only a master on his instrument, but manages to successfully replicate the sounds of many illustrious greats on the highly entertaining and lusciously-AOR-inspired Sorcery Inside. Moving from a supernatural Santana feel in Viva, he easily slips into rocking Steve Lukather mode on Light, while Love brings out his inner Neal Schon (Journey). He expresses a Steve Morse/Mike Slamer (The Streets) feel in Life Lingers, one of the proggier tracks of the album featuring lovely Hammond organ touches, catchy refrains and a Kansas-inspired bridge.
The highly-identifiable, tantalising vocals of Joseph Williams gives great Toto-magic to a track like Yesterdays That Mattered, especially when it intertwines with secondary vocalist Sentance. In Looking For The Feeling and Light the collective even manages to turn back the clock to relive some precious Turn Back/ Hydra moments, mixed with fierce Isolation glimpses. In the infectious, vibrant Viva Williams equally excels, soaring through Brazilian samba on a salsa of Santana eruptions, guided by swinging trumpets. The summery hit-single potential of this seductive track, in combination with the lively bass rumblings from Ivaylo Zvezdomirov, heightens the diversified festivities of the album.
Almost the same summer breeze is found on Night's Calling, as it glides from soft-rock with light country smoothness into a cheery, uplifting REO Speedwagon-influenced composition that sees some playful piano and delicate jazzy notes. Granted's holiday-like atmosphere follows suit as it acoustically floats by, thereby oozing a French version of Styx's Boat On The River through its enchanting use of accordion (Ivo Stefanov).
The casting of John Payne is perfect for Every Morning and Slipping Away, delivering some comforting Asia chills. The fullness of melodies and catchy refrains of the latter is surpassed by the playful crossover-prog textures of the first, while sublime harmonies finish both songs convincingly. Similarly No One Falls Behind, sung by Sentance, excites with competent AOR that sees a surprise element through violins that gives the song a lovely feel of Kansas, enforced by the superb powerful ending.
The clever running order yields a marvellous flow to the album that's completed with two extremely smooth ballads in the form of As If and Love. The comforting seventies soft rock and jazzy bar-room piano frivolities on As If are nicely done, yet the choir chants and claps are stretching it beyond my liking. The orchestral richness, Philip's subdued drumming and intricate melodies embedded in Love are performed just as convincingly as the other tracks, though here, for the first time, I start to question some of the vocalist choices. The voice of Williams would be so much more befitting.
This aspect reflects in my appreciation for Life Motion, where the vocals are slightly more detached and less engaging. The same goes for the compositions which have lost some of their vivacity, intricate flavourings and detailed vibrant arrangements. Aspects that the solid instrumentation, well composed tracks and confident efforts from all those involved can't take away; although the infectious rock compensates a lot. For from a musical point of view there's still much to enjoy, although most of the Toto/Asia similarities are now sadly gone.
A Kind Of Real Life and Don't Let Them Win are still assuredly reminiscent to Toto/Mecca, yet the less-polished production, mixed with the raw, expressive vocals of Romero, Grisman and Tony Crumpton makes them slightly less attractive. The fine harmonies and rock-orientated tracks do show promise (Don't Let Them Win has a some nice symphonic touches) but ultimately feel rather predictable and hurried in comparison to the ones gathered on Sorcery Inside.
An mild example of this can be found in the safely-executed, Queen-inspired rock of Letting Me In. Next to the fact that the interaction of both lead vocals isn't as smooth, the end ad-libs do more harm than good. Sadly the sensitivity of By The Side Of The Minute also loses some of it's strength and depth because of these ad-libs, while the beauty of the ballad Where I Belong is seriously hampered through it. Guided on by delicious strings, orchestral sprinklings and a solid guitar solo the ad-libs overshadow the emotional content and I wonder what level this marvellous song would achieve when sung by for instance Damian Wilson.
For the AOR-minded there's plenty to relish, starting with We Keep On Running which is a straightforward rocker in best John Schlitt/Petra tradition, where the duet vocals of Grisman and Romero, each of them blessed with a raw, rocking edge, are mindful to Robin McAuley (Michael Schenker Fest) and the aforementioned John Schlitt (Petra). This lovely feature sees an album highlight in Run Away, a naturally flowing composition featuring a delicious bridge, gliding into pristine seventies AOR, where the heavenly organ spikes further images of Grand Prix.
Both Reflecting and Rising begin with a nice solo-spot from Philips. The latter track keeps the rock atmosphere going as it touches upon McAuley Schenker Group, whereas the former's directness ignites Touch's smoothness and feelings of The Sign, which sees a brief continuance in The Things In Your Mind. Here the emotional vocals of Grisman and Romero, meet classical surroundings halfway, while the delicious melancholic guitar solo provides further depth, as does the Neal Schon-inspired coda.
Finally the The Final Act has a light Asia feel attached to it, not only through the obvious Payne connection, but also from it's musical structure, that at the same time feels somehow comfortingly Magnum-ish. A lingering thought, cemented by the gorgeous ballad Every Time through its melodies, strings and fine acoustic guitars. At long last the penny towards the abundant use of ad-libs finally drops, as it ignites flashes of Bob Catley's live performances. An enthusiastic aspect Catley pulls off with ease, contrary to the ones uttered on Life Motion.
A last remark is warranted towards the philosophical subtitles of both albums, which sees further personal statements from Vrabevski inside the digi-packs. In light of the absence of the album's lyrics, it might be a wise decision to include them into the package next time, instead of only publishing them online. Simply because without them the albums' underlying message and deeper meaning, one of the main intentions of the project, is slightly lost.
One thing I've enjoyed from these two releases are Vrabeski's competent composition and production skills, and the solid executions and performances by his gifted team of participants, although any level of uniqueness is debatable. The different vocal approaches give diversity, though I personally hope Williams will return on album number VI. That is obviously a matter of taste, although the recently issued online concert strengthens my belief. Those in favour of melodic rock/AOR can safely, with the emphasis on safe, add both these efforts to their collections. The sensible thing for prog fans is to check it out first.
Bastian Per — Epic Journey
There can't be too many amateur musicians who can boast of making metal in both their day and hobby occupations. But that is one of the unique selling points for Sebastian Prosperi, the mastermind behind this new Argentinian heavy prog quintet.
As a graduate in industrial engineering, his day job is making steel. As the main creator and guitarist for Bastian Per, his metal-making owes a heavy debt to Dream Theater but with a softer sheen, thanks to a generous mining of some AOR and classic rock seams.
The soft rock chorus', steady pace, and sweet harmonies of tracks such as Whispers In The Silence and Dream Paralyis bring back fond memories of the 80s heyday of AOR. However there is a carefully-crafted dynamic to such songs that, with an edge to the guitar riffage, gives the songs a clear, modern (and progressive) edge.
The sole instrumental, Beginners Luck starts off in the vein of Deep Purple's version of classic rock, with some keyboard flourishes that would not be out of place on a Flower Kings or Flying Colors album. The track then speeds off in a heavier Dream Theater and Rush direction towards its conclusion.
Elsewhere Second Chance has a great melody, Anxiety Break provides contrast with a darker, reflective mood. Mystic Island is the heaviest track and a personal favourite, alongside the impressive title track that brings the album to an extended close.
Mariano Barreiro is a talented vocalist with a great sense of melody and Propsperi's guitar work delivers some great riffs, solos and background detailing.
My only regret is that more of the songs are not developed in the way that the title track is. I don't demand a whole album full of epics, but tracks such as The Blunder are concluded around the five minute mark when I feel that with this band's musical potential, the songs would benefit from further exploration.
I came to this album with no expectations at all. How many AOR-tinged heavy prog bands have ever come out of Argentina? But this has been a real pleasure. Talented performances, great melodies and a nice genre-straddling soundscape, with some memorable melodies. What more can you ask for?
Bastian Per — Epic Journey (Live At Sony Theater)
As a band recruited to record an album, Bastian Per had never played live together until after the album's release. With a live drummer added to their ranks, their very first show to present Epic Journey took place at the Sony Theater in Buenos Aires on November 15, 2019. It was filmed and recorded to support the release and now forms a separate live album.
The set includes seven of the ten album tracks in the same running order, with the still-impressive Epic Journey bringing things to a strong finish. I really enjoyed the extra power/energy from this live set especially they way it lifted songs like Whispers In The Silence away from the slighty-too-smooth AOR stylings of the album.
It seems that the show also included two excellent cover versions, that both display the band's influences and their abilities. For some reason the versions of Deep Purple's Burn and Dream Theater's Wait for Sleep do not appear on the digital version of the album that is available on Bandcamp but both are available to view on the band's YouTube channel (follow the two links). There may be some copyright issues I guess, but if at all possible I would add these to the Bandcamp offer, as both enhance the offer.
Six of the seven tracks on the Bandcamp live album are also available in a YouTube version of the show (see below).
Away from the music, there is very little sense of the "live show", with no in-between song banter and all the songs keeping pretty strict to the running times on the album. Maybe once or twice it would have been nice to have stretched out a few of the solos or endings to add something different to the live versions.
Mariano Barreiro's vocals are again excellent. If anything I prefer his performance to the studio ones on all the tracks. He is probably just growing in confidence, thus giving him a freedom to add a wider sense of dynamics and expression. Indeed it is this that means I am more likely to play the live version in future.
The band is currently completing album number two, which is scheduled for a release in the middle of next year (2021). In the meantime, if a new band inspired by classic progressive metal, hard rock and AOR, sounds like your sorta thing, then head over to Bandcamp with my hearty recommendation.