Alcàntara — Solitaire
The young Sicilian prog band Alcàntara released their debut album, Solitaire, last year but only now they have joined Progressive Gears have come on DPRP's radar. They are a five-piece band who play a Pink Floyd-infused mix of psychedelic space-rock and neo-prog ballads. They , in May of this year. Sung in English by vocalist Sergio Manfredi who has a voice that reminds me of Jan-Henrik Ohme from Norway's Gazpacho, if he was fronting RPWL. Solitaire is a concept album that explores notions of resistance in the political, social and environmental spheres.
The music Alcàntara produce has more than its fair share of moments. The balance of keyboards and guitar have that Wright/Gilmour feeling. On tracks such as Faith, sustained guitar lines burst into a heavy solo, and on After The Flood a Steve Hackett-picked guitar segues into a lovely synth solo. Then they channel the Hammond organ of Deep Purple on Logan's bluesy neo-prog.
Individual tracks pull you in with interesting melodies and textured arrangements. But as a whole Solitaire suffers by being a collection of eight ballads that never get above a medium pace. The lack of contrast in tempos makes the album has a whole an arduous listen on repeat plays, and makes you wish for a few prog rock-out moments. More variation would improve this a great deal and maybe an external producer would help with the follow-up. But as a debut release, Alcàntara's Solitaire does, even with these problems, show some promise.
Caleb Dolister — Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering
A confusing-looking set of track titles is the first thing you notice about Caleb Dolister's new release, Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering. Then from reading the album sleevenotes, you glean that the sets of numbers are the dates that these collaborative instrumentals commenced.
Drummer, composer and producer Caleb Dolister started recording this unwieldly-titled release ten years ago, travelling around the USA by car and plane to record his musician friends playing the music he had written especially for them. This meant sleeping on friend's couches, floors and sometimes in is car. It also involved surviving a car crash that wrote off his S.U.V. You can only admire his dedication in achieving his vision.
In total this involved recording 23 different musicians, then assembling and mixing all the files involved. Having so many musicians, makes these recordings sound like anything from small group, to a big band sound, to a small orchestra depending on which instruments dominate. The music on The Wandering is melancholic in its melodic sense and moves through widescreen soundscapes to post-rock and string-laden prog. The tracks segue into one another and some instrumental and stylistic similarities made me see this as akin to an orchestral work with three movements.
The opening track, unusually the bonus track, 081013 (the hum), is placed at the beginning of the album and for me is the weakest track by far, with its (you guessed it) humming, ambient electronica for half its running time that is not really rescued by its noisier second half.
For me the album and first 'movement' begins with track 2 and runs to track 4. Across the three tracks you get guitar, flute, bass and harp on 080620 (the second place) that builds in a post-rock way with the percussion. It ends quietly, ready for 090921 (the one that went away)'s stately jazz rhythms, with middle-Eastern tonalities on the soaring strings. The 'movement' finishes with a 1950s film noir soundtrack, 090210 (the eavesdropper), upping the tempo with athletic bass-playing, skittering drums and a terrific trumpet melody.
The second 'movement', tracks 5-7, bring keyboards more to the fore. Solo piano introduces 080721 (the machinist) then heavy guitar riffs, synth and electric piano vie for attention. In the middle there is a nod to big band jazz on 081227 (the formalist)'s mix of strings and brass. Closing the 'movement' is one of the few drum-driven tracks, 070501 (the acrobat) which builds on the drums with accordion and strings but unfortunately finishes before it really gets going.
The final 'movement' is by far the best. It's four tracks with more expansive running times lets all the musicians involved flex their musical muscles and Caleb Dolister's melodies get thoroughly explored. 080904 (the strategist) has a Weather Report big band feel to its evolving melody and percussive drive, and it brings a pleasing heaviness, as the orchestration becomes denser, structured around a nimble baseline. It is a belter.
There are ominous cellos and sustained guitar lines to introduce the looping groove of 090510 (the drifter) with the trumpet taking the melody forward. Fierce post-rock guitars chug into view on 081205 (the one that lost their way) and it turns into a bit of a beast. Closing the 'movement' is 081214 (the finalist)'s fantastic electric piano. A cracking four-track ending to the album.
Caleb Dolister's Daily Thumbprint Collection 3, The Wandering is an expertly put-together album. Sometimes densely layered, his hard-won mixing skills mean you never lose track of what is going on at any point. I can recommend this to anyone who is curious as to where post-rock and orchestral-prog instrumentals could go. It is an album that grows in stature as you listen to it.
I must just point out, and probably apologise to Caleb Dolister for having misjudged his intentions here, by imposing the 'movement' structure. I want to make it plain that it was my way into this album and it is entirely of my own invention.
Fren — Where Do You Want Ghosts To Reside
The world of instrumental progressive rock can be a curious place. While I'm not exactly an aficionado of the overall scene, it seems that it is often dominated by albums from solo artists, or by side projects from members of more well known bands. Obviously there are whole bands dedicated to progressive instrumental music, but they don't get the same exposure that more traditional progressive bands do in the prog world.
But that doesn't slow down Fren, a Polish instrumental progressive rock quartet. On their debut album, Where Do You Want Ghosts To Reside, they display a high level of musicianship. The band features Oskar Cenkier on pianos, organs, synthesizers, and mellotron, Michał Chalota on guitars, Andrew Shamanov on bass guitars and synthesizers, and Oleksii Fedoriv on drums.
At times reminiscent of Pink Floyd and at others of Jethro Tull, the overall sound is certainly steeped in the "classic" era of progressive rock. However without the memorable lyrics and a compelling vocalist, the music, while very good, isn't always memorable. There are a few passages that are overly simplistic and repetitive, and these spots don't hold up well compared to the band's fuller moments. The variety of instrumentation and the skill of the musicians ultimately keeps the music sounding fresh overall. On Gorąca Linia for instance, the piano is featured prominently throughout, but it is complemented nicely by electric guitar. While a short song, it make a nice turning point in the album.
I found myself genuinely surprised about two minutes into the fourth track, Pleonasm, when the music reduced to just piano and drums. I was instantly reminded of Big Big Train at their most contemplative. On an album that leans heavy on the guitar, it was a really nice moment to step back a bit and focus on the basics. And even though the music became relatively sparse, it remained interesting by not being repetitive.
Inconsistency ultimately hinders this album. The final minute of Heavy Matter is absolutely brilliant. The drums build, the bass sounds fuller, the synths and organ fill in some of the dead space that appeared a few moments earlier in the song, and the guitar solo is absolutely fantastic.
However some of the middle sections of the track are a little too repetitive and a bit empty in spots, which is disappointing considering how well the song opens and closes.
One of the things that made Pink Floyd's long instrumental passages so good was Richard Wright's ever-present organs and synthesizers. At the band's best, those elements were always swirling in the background. For Fren, I think there could be a more consistent application of those sorts of sounds. Cenkier is a really good keyboardist. His skill is on display throughout the album. On the final track of Where Do You Want Ghosts To Reside, we see that to excellent effect. Time To Take Stones picks up the same lush soundscape that the previous track sets up in its final minute. If all of the songs on the album had the kind of cohesion that this final track has, the album could be perfect.
With all that said, Fren's debut album is certainly worth a listen. There are some really good moments here that make you sit up and take notice. That last minute of Heavy Matter is absolutely phenomenal. Most of the final track is about as good. Instrumental prog fans will certainly want to check this out. I believe this album bodes well for future output from the band. There's room to grow, but what they've produced so far demonstrates the talent on hand. Every band member is highly skilled, and at its finest moments, the album really shines. It just needs a little polishing to bring everything else up to that level.
Kristoffer Gildenlöw — Homebound
The best singer songwriters can capture so much with so little. A simple guitar melody, working hand in hand with emotive lyrics, with some moody textures sitting at the back, and this is precisely what you get with Kristoffer Gildenlöw.
In the context of his latest release, Homebound, these are heartfelt, acoustically-led songs that seem to fit the times we are living through, insofar as reflecting on the cycles of our lives. It's not specifically conceptual, instead it looks-on wistfully and soulfully in a classic singer/songwriter setting. It's both timeless and fresh, instilled with the sort of songs which succeed in evoking contemplation and observation.
Like Father, Like Son is a clear example of this theme and gracefully nods at Cat Stevens with an emotive, generational narrative on the parent/child relationship. It grows in zest and has a gift for standout melody. Perfectly formed, it's gloriously crafted and defines the nature of this work. Full of soul-baring charm and packed with gravitas.
Diversely there's a more misty, spiritual feel at the start. Both Eternal and Holy Ground are sparse and intelligent moments which have Celtic, folk-like atmospherics via a wonderful, ghostly violin from Anne Bakker on the opening track. The crisp acoustic guitar from Gildenlöw ties into the ethereal layers behind it with a sharp, compelling brilliance.
The enthralling, Infected rhythmically pulses with an almost Western/gunslinger vibe, and subtle Mexican brassy tones. A joy in its filmic qualities, it conjures a Sergio Leone barren landscape which masterfully compliments the discourse of inner demons that can infect us all.
The arrangements on this album standout above past works and Gildenlöw seems to have stepped up in production, which feels both unfettered and tightly bound at the same time. The looping notes from Snow underline this, their delicate simplicity paints a vision of heavy flakes falling silently on crisp, deep snow.
Clearly an influence, the passing of Leonard Cohen has left Gildenlöw with the need to bring in one of his songs to the package, which nestles-in rather perfectly. Cohen's work pops up everywhere these days with increasing regularity, yet an artist's ability to do justice to the poetic skill and nuances within the songs is another matter.
Here, a rich, breathy vocal from Gildenlöw provides the intimate reverence needed for the quintessential, Chelsea Hotel #2. The dark and somewhat dry, self-deprecating viewpoint of Cohen is all there and Gildenlöw is not found wanting in transposing it. Elsewhere, with Our Home the elements from Cohen are also noticeable with sublime results.
Whilst short in length, there is an end-to-end delight across the nine songs on Homebound, and with another release, Empty touted for the autumn it will be a good year for Kristoffer Gildenlöw. This accomplished release is quietly unassuming, yet persuasively commanding when it needs to be. There is a sense of magic in what is arguably his best work to date, and without doubt it deserves your investigation.
Hovercraft — Fall
Bartosz Gromotka from Katowice is a multi-instrumentalist with ambition, and that's good. Too bad it's hard to find information on him under his own name or that of Hovercraft, the band name he uses. On his Bandcamp page he states that: “Hovercraft is a one-man music project, connected to conceptual music with rock foundations. Inspired by classic as well as modern music heritage, but mostly seeking its own style and sound. I always try to get out of the box and don't classify, but someone will always try to put it in some genre”. That sounds ambitious indeed, maybe even pretentious, but I value that an artist wants to present himself to the world.
Of course it also means that the work you deliver has to live up to these expectations. Unfortunately Gromotka fails to do so, at least to my prog ears. Take for instance the opening track, Leaves Fall. It is a very, very slow track with very, very simple single notes on guitar, bass and drums. In its five-minute duration hardly anything happens. I've seldom heard a more boring song to open an album.
Fortunately things improve considerably with the title track that picks up the central riff of the opening tune and develops it much further. A nice vocal melody, good harmonies, synths background, some acoustic guitar and a really nice guitar solo around the 5-minute mark makes you wonder why on earth he chose that horrible track to open this album.
Around the 8:30 minute mark it all seems to fall apart with a really ugly bridge but thankfully the song is quickly picked up again to end in a slow, soft synth coda. A really nice song with an ugly moment, it could have been worse. Gromotka proves here that he knows how to write a fine piece of music, be it prog or not.
The shortest track, In The Silent Room, is a straightforward rock song with an energy that is a welcome distinction from all the slow songs the album features. I had to get used to the vocals but they fit the hard rock character of the track well.
Rain is another medium-long track that starts to become boring because of the lack of musical development. The vocal melody isn't very interesting and his rather unexpressive voice doesn't make it any better. Musically it is all quite simple and predictable, with long notes, simple chords and almost no interesting breaks or bridges.
Antiphoenix starts more up-tempo with fine metal-like guitar riffing but alas there is a quite uninteresting vocal melody again. After some three minutes the pace slows down and a very nice, yet slow guitar-driven piece follows. For me the song would have been fine if it had stopped after some five minutes but Gromotka chooses to stretch it to more than twelve. He adds more vocal parts, some guitar shredding, some tempo changes but it all goes nowhere; it lacks coherence.
The long last track Silverange develops as a kind of reworking of the opening track. Again we have a slow instrumental, based on long, simple and single notes that drags on forever. The second part sounds like a guitar lesson exercise with its repetitive chords with very little musical development. It sounds a bit like Black Sabbath, it sounds a bit like post rock with hints of Downriver Dead Men Go but far less interesting. And it simply lasts too long. It all ends with some beats on the hi-hat and that's it. Quite disappointing.
As a one-person musical project I admire Gromotka's ambition. I also understand why he doesn't want to be classified; there are hints of Anathema and Porcupine Tree but also of some industrial, post-rock and metal acts. The album illustrates sometimes what he is capable of, especially in the fine title track that is also the most proggy track. But as a whole I find it uninteresting, and at times boring. Too bad, for it will have taken him a lot of effort to produce it. Maybe an experienced producer or a clearer choice for a clear style would be a good idea when recording the next album. He definitely has talents as a musician and a composer but it doesn't show enough on this record, at least not for prog heads.
LogoS — Sadako E Le Mille Gru Di Carta
I must admit that my expectations were high when I realised that after six years of absence, Italian prog band LogoS had come up with a new release called Sadako E Le Mille Gru Di Carta (Sadako And The Thousand Paper Cranes).
Not only had the predecessor, L'Enigma Della Vita from 2014 received a top-notch rating from my fellow reviewer Martin Burns, it had also been acclaimed throughout the prog rock community. Personally, I consider it as one of the best Italian progressive rock albums ever. Have my expectations been fulfilled? Let me try to answer that question by starting with a bit of history.
LogoS were formed in Verona in 1996 by Luca Zerman (keyboards, lead vocals), Alessandro Perbellini (drums), and Fabio Gaspari (guitar, bass) and started as a cover band of Le Orme. A couple of years later they were joined by Massimo Maoli (lead guitar), and recorded two self-produced albums, Logos in 1999 and Asrava in 2001.
Thereafter, the band underwent a few changes in line-up. Notably, Massimo Maioli left in 2010, but this departure did not prevent him from reappearing on LogoS' third release, L'Enigma Della Vita. Its realisation took place without founding member Alessandro Perbellini, the role of drummer having been assumed by bass player Fabio Gaspari, and with a second keyboarder, Claudio Antolini.
Another six years later, Sadako E Le Mille Gru Di Carta sees the light of day with the return of Perbellini, but without Massimo Maioli, who appears on guitar a guest musician on the title track only, and Fabio Gaspari switching back to bass. To cut a long story short, LogoS, on this release, consists of two keyboard players, but does not have a fully-fledged guitarist (the additional role of which is taken over by bassist Fabio Gaspari). With this line-up, there is no necessity for speculation with respect to what LogoS' music might sound like.
Sadako E Le Mille Gru Di Carta is a concept album centering around the fate that the Japanese city of Hiroshima suffered with the dropping of the atomic bomb (coincidentally, I started writing this review on August 6, which marked its 75th anniversary). The title track is based on the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who survived the disaster being two years old. At the age of 12, she was diagnosed with leukaemia, a disease lots of survivors were affected by. In hospital she was told a legend, according to which anyone being able to fold a thousand origami paper cranes, would have one wish fulfilled. Sadako died a few months later after having folded 644 cranes, the remaining ones are said to have been completed by relatives and friends. Sadako's heroic battle against her disease was the subject of many narratives, making her Japan's best known Hibakusha (survivor of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic disasters) and establishing origami paper cranes as a symbol of the international peace movement and the resistance against nuclear war.
It is at touching story, musically translated in a perfect way, as are the additional topics throughout the release.
Defining LotoS' musical style is a fairly straightforward task, as it is characterised by two factors. It is pure, unadulterated RPI, and it is keyboard-driven. The song structures and harmonies are symphonic and bear many elements of classical music. I would not go as far as stating that they are as classical musically-oriented as Ekseption and Trace, but influences from classical music are obvious on many occasions.
Besides Le Orme, LogoS mention Banco, PFM, Genesis, ELP, and King Crimson as their main sources of inspiration. Given the sometimes melancholic harmonies and the lyrical melodies, I tend to supplement this list with some of the keyboard-led Scandinavian bands such as Brighteye Brison and Magic Pie.
Speaking about keyboards; hardly have I ever come across a release where keyboards play such a prominent role, being responsible for both lead and background instrumentation. It reminds of what ex-GDR band Stern Combo Meissen did with three (!) keyboard players in their early work, and also of the keyboard-oriented music of Little Tragedies, Triumvirat and La Torre Dell' Alchimista.
Despite guitars almost not being present, especially not as soloing instruments, one does not feel overwhelmed by the keyboards. The lively and accurate rhythmic background provided by Fabio Gaspari and Alessandro Perbellini, as well as the perfect musical complementarity of the two keyboarders Luca Zerman and Claudio Antolini, provide for something that is very much a band effort rather than a solo project of/by a keyboard player. I did not regret that guitars were that under-represented, but here and there got the feeling that the band had unnecessarily deprived themselves of using the full musical spectrum, compared to what heard on their last release. However, being a keyboard aficionado, this did not trouble my overall excellent impression.
The album is full of vintage keyboard sounds (obviously) and solos, catchy melodies, hooks and choruses, breaks and tempo changes, lyrical and poetic vocals. Luca Zerman's warm voice is in Italian which is perfectly suited to convey an impression of melancholy, poetry, and solemnity. It's difficult for me to single out any of the tracks, but Zaini Di Elio is my "primus inter pares" due to its musical virtuosity, its variety, the catchy synthesizer melodies and the classical music-oriented harmonies.
Highly recommended for the fans of RPI and of keyboard-led, symphonic, melodic, accessible, perfectly played, arranged and produced music on a release that came out amidst the corona pandemic, a fact that has my full appreciation and respect.
We are barely eight months into the (prog music) year 2020 and I am prepared to commit myself: unless something totally unforeseen happens prog music-wise (or unless I change my taste, but that's unlikely to occur), I think that I have just reviewed the number one on my "most favourite albums of the year-list". I hope that this answers my question raised above.