Grandval — Descendu sur Terre
France's beautiful and firmly-traditional central heartland of the Auvergne is rightly famous for its mountainous valleys and ancient volcanos, alongside its skiing, walking, cows and cheese (lots of cheese).
Thanks to a relatively new but equally traditional French prog entity by the name of Grandval, the Auvergne now also offers a guaranteed treat for all those who have a taste for that very specifique style of prog-caractéristique-français.
Grandval began life as a solo project (with guests) by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Henri Vaugrand. It has now fledged into a full band listed on their website as: Olivier Bonneau (keyboards), Christophe Chalancon (guitars) and drummer Ludovic Etienne. Without an info' sheet or booklet for this review, exactly who plays what on the album is a little vague, with other musicians credited on other web pages. However Vaugrand has written most of the music and lyrics whilst Jean Pierre Louveton (Nemo, JPL, Wolfspring) handles mixing and mastering duties and plays guitar on at least one track.
This is third in a loose-conceptual trilogy. The debut Granval offering (À Ciel Ouvert from 2016) concentrated on wars, love and everything in between. From what I can ascertain, Descendu sur Terre deals lyrically with nature and the place of man in the universe.
The Grandval project sits firmly in that musical territory inhibited exclusively by French bands such as Ange, Mona Lisa and especially Nemo. The opening of Fractal et Systémique owes a debt of inspiration to Lazuli.
All sung in French, there is that immediately identifiable blend of art rock, indie, chanson, psyche and avant-garde with elements of pop, guitar-rock and of course prog. Musically it follows a similar path to the debut, but is a more accomplished end-product both in terms of its sound and composition.
With so much going on and with every track constantly ducking and diving, over and around the various styles, a track by track review is somewhat superfluous. If you enjoy this style of progressive music, then jump in with confidence. If French prog has never been your thing, then a quick sample of any of the tracks on the Bandcamp page will suffice, to generate the need to move swiftly onto the next review!
Mantric — False Negative
Norway's Mantric were formed in Oslo in 2007. The three members, John Mjaland on bass, Ole Sveen on guitars and vocals, and Tor Glidje on guitars, vocals and percussion, used to be part of extreme metal band Extol, who were widely praised throughout their long career for releasing genre-spanning, technical metal albums of the absolute highest quality. When Extol ended for the first time in 2007, the three remaining members decided to continue with a project on which they had been working outside of Extol, this is what became the Mantric we know today.
False Negative is the band's third album and shows a move away from the more extreme side of progressive metal, to a more varied sound. Sometimes accessible, sometimes brooding and industrial, sometimes nostalgic, there is a lot going on throughout this album's run-time, a great deal to like, and a fair amount not to, so let's go.
The first thing that usually jumps out at me whenever I listen to any album is the band's influences and how obvious they are. Whether a band uses these influences to better their own sound, or whether they just try to sound like their idols. Mantric seem to do a bit of both. This is definitely a unique sounding album, but it's littered with parts that make you scratch your head and think, now I'm sure I've heard that before. There are hints of everything from modern metal to 90s grunge, late 80s industrial to mid 2000s goth pop, and it's all wrapped up in this tight, compressed, Devin Townsend wall-of-sound style production.
Opener Polyanna, for example, hits you straight out of the gate with its blasting drums, thrashing guitars and insanely-catchy keyboard melody. It's like listening to VOLA on fast-forward, and one of the best opening riffs I've heard all year. Unfortunately the band take all the wind out of their sails almost immediately by slowing the song to a crawl with a dull, generic verse. It's this kind of stop-start that this album suffers from, and while the chorus does redeem the song somewhat, I find that the vocals don't quite fit. They seem to be mixed awkwardly compared to the music and sit on the edge, rather than in the middle of everything. I understand this will come down to individual taste and you might love it, but it all sounds kind of disjointed to my ears.
Queen Fatigue has a more progressive approach to its structure, hints of Mastodon eminate from every pore of this track, and there are some very inventive moments, especially with the guitars and drums. There is a beautiful blast-beat section towards the end, where the vocal melodies hit just right and bring the song to a fantastic climax.
The follow up, Norwegian Dastard, is an entirely different beast. Echoing the 90s sound of bands like Helmet and early Foo Fighters, this is a great little number. The organs and piano throughout the verses are a great touch, the crashing guitars during the chorus remind me of Porcupine Tree, and the whole song has this wonderful grungy, yet progressive feel to it.
Like I said earlier, there is a lot going on here, and the disco rock of Blame The Beggar is exactly what I didn't need to hear after two great tracks. I can see what the band are trying to go for here, (an upbeat, pop rock song with a quirky chorus and a danceable rhythm) but it just doesn't work. It comes off as cheesy, silly and a complete waste of four minutes. The dark, brooding atmosphere of Dawn fares much better. This shows that Mantric really come into their own when they slow things down. The Tool-like approach to this song works really well. There is some really inventive drum work through the middle of the song, and the vocals flow nicely over the guitars and bass.
Having just thought how good Mantric are when they slow things down, I then found myself with my foot firmly in my mouth upon hearing The Towering Mountain for the first time. This track is probably the closest thing on the album to the sound of their older band, Extol. It's a fast, heavy, pounding metal track that never lets up, and it's absolutely brilliant. The riff that kicks-in around the 3:00 mark is one of the best moments on the entire album. I just wish there was more of this quality here.
Yet, despite all this, once again it is the closing track on an album that not only turns out to be (by far) the best track on the album, but it changed my overall opinion, and the score I gave this album. Starmonger is simply an astonishing track. Think Type O Negative at their best, mixed with the best acid trip you've ever had, wrapped up in eight minutes of pure stoner, post progressive bliss. It's just a magical song. Had the whole album been like this, it would have no doubt been my first 10 out of 10. Sadly it wasn't to be, but at at least I have this song to remind me what they could be capable of in the future.
Do I recommend this album then? I would suggest listening to Polyanna, Norwegian Dastard and Starmonger, and make up your own mind. It's overall a good record with some awful moments and a few sprinkles of absolute brilliance. The vocals aren't quite my thing, and the music can sometimes feel like it's stuck in its own production, but some are going to love this. The album is at least worth a listen for Starmonger alone. When Mantric get it right, they are as good as anyone else out there today. Unfortunately, those moments are just too few and far between. Maybe one for the future though, I'll be keeping an eye on them.
The Prodigal Sounds — The Inevitable Obscenity Of Autonomous Weaponry
One of the most pleasant prog surprises in 2014 was the debut album by The Prodigal Sounds, entitled Fruit of The Steel Tree. The eclectic music was very well composed, the musical variation and originality were top-notch and Colin Nicholls, playing all instruments (except for one synth solo) as well as doing all vocals, proved to be a capable singer with a nice voice. The compositions had been written by him and his brother Walter who also played that synth solo, and stemmed from the 80s.
Colin states on their website that there was more music from that period, that in line with their debut album is now reworked and recorded. He added some more new songs on his own, because he stopped working on music with his brother (no reasons given). It all ended up in this second album with the very intriguing title: The Inevitable Obscenity Of Autonomous Weaponry (how long would it have taken him to come up with that one?).
This time the album has taken only seven years to produce. Colin played all of the instruments and did all vocals, while recording it all in his own house in California. Of course he also produced the album; even the cover photo of a Lego-made robot is self-made, I assume it is a brickwork made by his son Johan (or his nephew?). I don't particularly like the grey and out-of-focus cover that much. It looks dull and cold, and that is exactly what the music on the album isn't.
Musically, the variation is again wide. The opening of the album is the short a-capella EULA that reminds me heavily of boys choirs in catholic churches back in the seventies. Don't get me wrong, this is not meant in a negative way, for this small track is very well done. Yet it is also totally different from the rest of the music.
There are numerous small gems on the album, such as the beautiful piano instrumental The Cathedral Of Hosts, absolutely awesome in its simplicity and a very nice introduction to the 26-plus minute The God Program song cycle. That song cycle was originally inspired by the Kon-Tiki operation of Thor Heyerdahl but developed into a totally different direction, focusing on the emergence of Google Earth. The obvious hints towards bands from which Colin has taken his inspiration illustrate that humour was never far away when writing this music: look at the song titles in the God Program cycle and most proggies will know what I mean.
Another gem is the tongue-in-cheek tribute to a Mr. Oldfield (Introspection in G/Tubular DLLs), complete with the well-known spoken announcement of instruments that are added to the music.
The complex, epic Listen has many variations in one piece, from the soft synth introduction, via an up-tempo guitar riff, towards the major vocal melody and accompanying guitar and synth solos. It flows and meanders, the pace changes several times but it never hinders the almost natural progress of the song. Just a very fine song.
Yet I have also some mild criticisms. The second tune Working The Paradigm Shift has many musical similarities with Painting Abstracts, a track from the 2014 album. The central hook in the verse is almost identical and that is too bad (but not bad as such!). Furthermore I can't comprehend why make use of a sort of spoken/hardly-sung words in the The God Program song cycle. Colin's voice is so well suited for the type of music he writes, he sings very well, so why not make more use of that asset? Instead it sounds a bit like a weak compromise between proper vocals and vocals in the vein of Flash and the Pan and that is not meant as a compliment.
I find this new album attractive again but because of the minor flaws, also slightly less appealing than the 2014 debut. But as that is often the case with great artists, let it not distract you from trying this fine album. Especially those that are interested in bands that play varied, cleverly made, well played and sung prog-lite (think of 10CC, Ambrosia, Manning or Phideaux), this might just be your cup of tea. And just ignore that ugly cover!
Qamar — Todo Empieza Aquí
As a reviewer at DPRP, you need some criteria when selecting a release to review from a list of names of which many are often unknown to you. Amongst others, these criteria can be the band's existing discography, and the first impression that you get when listening to some trailers of their music, leading to the conclusion that the band represents a particular musical style that you are fond of or that you find challenging enough to familiarise with.
In the case of the band Qamar, which I had never heard of before and which I had no musical sample of when making the decision, the selection criterion was a very profane one: Qamar hail from Andalucia, the region of Europe that I like the most outside my home country of Germany. Having travelled there a few times, what fascinated me most was the cultural heritage that the Arabs have left, which is still present and alive in the region's architecture, language, cuisine and music.
Qamar is an example of that. Being a typical representative of Rock Andaluz, albeit with additional elements, it becomes audible that they have incorporated some of that heritage in their music.
The band's name also is a reminiscence of past times. Qamar not only is the Arabic word for Moon, but also the name of a slave from Baghdad, known for her songs and poetry. I also tend to assume that the title of the track Guadalete might also be an allusion to the cultural heritage, as it is both the name of a river in Andalucia, and the eponym of a battle marking the beginning of the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs in the year 711 a.d.
Qamar are based in Cadiz (beautiful city) and consist of Mario Bocanegra (drums), Selu Algaba (bass), Alex Álvarez (guitars) and Javi Paz (keyboards). They are supported by a number of guest musicians, in particular Pepe Torres (sax, flute on A Traves Del Camino, As Bruxas, and Qamar), Candela Galán (vocals on As Bruxas), and Miguel Bocanegra (flamenco guitar on Qamar).
Todo Empieza Aquí (Everything Begins Here) is the band's first release, but all the musicians are veterans who have been involved in various other Andalusian bands and projects in recent years.
The individual band members mention a wide spectrum of musical influences, ranging from metal to hard rock and classic prog such as Camel, Arena, and The Flower Kings. As a band, they skilfully combine these backgrounds. Building on musical roots founded by the seventies and eighties Andalusian progressive rock played by bands such as Omni, Bloque, Guadalquivir, Triana, and Iman Califato Independiente, they create instrumental progressive rock with a clear label "Andalusian". Vocals only occur on one track, and, in all fairness, do not belong to the strongest moments on this release for me. I must admit, though, that except for the latter two bands, I have heard of these names for the first time when undertaking this review.
The trademark "Rock Andaluz" provides for an touch of oriental harmonies and melodies being inherent in Qamar's music. That forms the basis, but what's more, the music blends a variety of styles ranging from hard rock (Éxodo, my favourite), funk and latin rock (Guadalete, could also have appeared on an early Santana album), fusion (Faraón), to classic and symphonic prog (A Traves Del Camino, Lydia). The latter, with its gentle piano tunes accompanied by guitar, brought someone like Philip Catherine and Anthony Philips to my mind).
The guitar is the leading instrument, especially for soloing. However, keyboards are not reduced to a mere accompaniment, but are accentuating and distinct. The roaring Hammond sound accompanying the laid-back guitar solos on Éxodo is gorgeous. The rhythm section is fairly lively, especially the bass guitar. I got the impression though, that here and there the relationship between the individual instruments does not seem to be perfectly balanced. Whilst guitar and bass come across as a bit intrusive, drums are lacking punch and vigour (especially on Éxodo). This is an issue that the band might consider tackling within the framework of producing the successor release (which I hope will come).
This was an album which I struggled with in the beginning and which took me some time to come to terms with. Upon the first listening, I found it somewhat uneventful and a bit too simplistic to really satisfy my progressive rock taste. I am glad that I did not let myself be guided by those first impressions. Qamar's music does not seem to stand out for high complexity, sophistry, virtuosity, speed, breaks and multiple changes of moods and tempi, but that impression is relativized, the more one is prepared to get involved with this release. In light of this, it provides for "love at second hearing", something that sometimes is more sustainable and profound, isn't it? Although sounding straightforward, the music gradually reveals its subtleness and individuality upon repetitive listening.
I believe that marketing jargon is normally out of place in a prog rock review, but let me mention anyway that Qamal's music has something comparable to a "unique selling proposition", which is the musical reminiscence stemming from the history of the region the band calls its home.
This musical influence is not imposed upon the listeners on this release, but cautiously dosed and interspersed in Qamal's more traditional progressive rock. I would be glad if the band continued in this vein, cultivated and developed it further. So, if "Todo empieza aquí", dear band Qamal: "Déjalo continuar, por favor".
Tiny Tree — Embolism
Tiny Tree hail from Michigan, USA and are a duo of Addison Eilers on vocals and guitars, and Paul Jensen on drums, samples and keys. The pair describe themselves as: "A two-man army of riffs and thunder". Not only is that quite appropriate, but I rather like that description. The band was formed in 2017 and Embolism is their first full length album.
Embolism is an intense, deep and expressive ride through many different layers of music, emotions and feelings. The album plays like one long song, rather than a collection of separate tracks. It ebbs and flows beautifully throughout its fairly short running time, and never overstays its welcome. The pair seem to draw a range of influences, from older prog bands such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, to more modern noise metal, such as the anguished walls of sound created by bands such as Cult Of Luna, Neurosis, and Today Is The Day.
Musically you could describe this album as a series of build-ups and explosions. The opening trio of The Other, takes its time to creep up on the listener, slowly drawing you in, using some incredible, other-worldly soundscapes that build in intensity. The percussion adds to this, building ever upwards until the main song kicks in. At this point most people won't notice they're already on track 3 of the album; it flows so seamlessly. The vocals also start quietly, so much so that I was taken aback by just how powerful Addison Eilers screams would be. Around the 2-minute mark on The Other II, Eilers opens his vocal chords and starts to scream. Now harsh vocals can be hit or miss, but this guy hits everything. This is the sound of a man who not only has the talent to sound terrifying, but truly believes in what he is doing, and the result is a mesmerizing and emotional outpouring of utter chaos. The sound of a man on the edge, and it sounds utterly incredible.
R1ffer begins without missing a beat from the previous song, and it is probably the most straightforward song on the album, but it is by no means any less powerful. It contains some absolutely blissful duel guitar melodies, a stark contrast to the harshness of the previous track. The entire middle section of this piece is so unbelievably beautiful, it will leave you speechless. The guitars intertwine like waves, sounding not unlike post rock outfit This Will Destroy You, before fading into acoustic guitar, and once again transitioning into the next phase of the album.
Even when there is not much going on, there is a lot going on. Let me explain. At first the opening to Twenty2 may sound minimalistic, but if you really listen you can hear all sorts going on in the background: distant screams, the sound of sirens miles away, a river flowing wildly, but can you really hear these things? Or is it just those atmospheric synths causing my brain to imagine them into the music? That is one of the most powerful parts of the album, it almost lets your mind fill the space with all sorts of interesting things.
These guys have put so much into each little section of this record that it's almost impossible to take it all in, even over a few listens. For such a short album, I'm still discovering new things every time I listen.
Twenty3 once again builds up into a massive wall of post rock sound. There are some hauntingly beautiful melodies throughout this song. The chorus is an absolute classic. If these guys ever tour the UK, I'm going to be first in line to see this live as I imagine it will sound incredible. The latter half of the song contains some Isis-like riffs, huge, towering, monumental guitar riffs that sound like giant waves crashing all around you. The song becomes absolute chaos, for a short while, before moving back into that beautiful chorus, and playing out with one of the heaviest bass lines I've ever heard.
This album has been one of the biggest growers of the year for me. I didn't find it particularly interesting on first listen. I thought it was something that would be okay, then just be forgotten. But give this some time, let this album get under your skin and there is truly something special to be heard here. This is the sound, no, the vision, of two men who are entirely invested in their art. You can tell they have put every ounce of their being into every single moment on this record.
And for the third review in a row, ladies and gentlemen, it is the album's closer that is the strongest track of them all. Drowning takes everything this album has done previously and turns it right up to 11. It is a complete outpouring of helplessness and rage from frontman Addison Eilers, a monumental closing statement on a record that has many. The pounding drums and layered guitars just about mask the screams, as the song powers along like a stampede of buffalo. It just never lets up as it builds and builds into a truly epic conclusion, bringing an end to one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me.
This isn't going to appeal to your average prog rock fan, but the more open-minded among you may find yourselves getting really lost in this soundscape. If you're into any of the bands I mentioned above, post metal, noise rock, or you just want to listen to the screams of a man that will give you nightmares, while also experiencing some rather beautiful, melodic moments, then I'd definitely check this record out. It's crept onto my album of the year list by a hair and I'm going to return to it later in the year to see if it's still as powerful.
Vulkan — Technatura
Sweden, home to many of the finest in extreme bands and a front for the ever-growing and increasingly popular prog metal crowd. From bands like Opeth and Katatonia, to groups like Soen or Pain of Salvation, there is no shortage of incredible music. And now it appears there is another challenger in this fabled hall, Vulkan. Having been around for a few years now, with two releases back in 2011 (Mask of Air) and 2016 (Observants), they have returned to the field with Technatura.
The album kicks off with the epic nine-minute-long This Visual Hex. Fast riffing and proggy leads, wind and flow through the track while Jimmy Lindblad's vocals soar over the top, taking you on an epic prog metal journey before mellowing with a short interlude.
The album takes on this approach throughout, around 10 minutes of fantastic heavy prog before taking a short break to allow you to pick yourself back up.
The disc features many interesting twists and turns, partly due to these wee interludes (such as Klagans Snara which features some background throat singing). But the other interesting points come when they sing in their native Swedish. The stand-out track being Rekviem which brings in some rolling, almost tribal drumming and rhythms, with almost ethereal vocals, and affects from Olle Edberg's keys.
One other particular note on this album is the tightness of the band, especially of Oscar Pettersson and Johan Norback in the rhythm section. The two of them keep the album sounding full and they never break stride, even for a moment, keeping up intricate passages that flow through the background and provide a solid foundation for each moment.
The album as a whole is a fantastic blend of heavy prog, metal-enthused rhythms, power-prog vocals and quality song writing. A good mix and a band definitely worth following if you are into this style of heavy prog. I could easily see them with bands like The Ocean Collective or Haken.
They remind me a bit of Devin Townsend at points, and Perihelion Ship at others, with some occasional notes of Ayreon and Seventh Wonder creeping in.