Rhy Dongju — Lions'den II: Essence
Rhy Dongju is a Seoul-based musician with a background in traditional Korean music and avant-garde performance art. But don't let that description put you off, as this album has a western feel to it and is miles away from K-Pop. At the age of 15 Rhy started to play the guitar and became influenced by blues and then by the likes of John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Shawn Lane (no? Me neither) and other great players.
Rhy's new album is a follow up to 2017's Lions'den - I: Songbird and it consists of ten tracks that move between blues-influenced prog, jazz-fusion and prog-metal.
On Lions'den II: Essence Rhy Dongju displays his prodigious technical skills and shows he is a master of his instrument, but only occasionally does he slip into technique-for-techniques-sake playing. The enjoyment here is to be found in the melodies, arrangements and the quality of the material. All of which hold to a high standard and generate some emotional punch. Unfortunately I can't find credits for the other musicians on the album but they more than ably support Rhy's playing.
The great opening track, Nectar, mixes funky bass with electric piano and Rhy's clean guitar lines, that remind me of Andy Glass' playing with Solstice. His tone dirties up a bit for the blues-prog of Vita Activa, that has the Joe Bonamassa vibe of India/Mountain Time to it. There is a more languid blues feel to the finely controlled ballad Isegoria, where Rhy seems to be channelling Guthrie Govan's playing with Steven Wilson.
On the more fusion side the park is Citizen with its jazzy piano solo, evening out the guitar. Warmer tones come into play with the cello intro to the slow build of Solarset, before the guitar line grows into something of a shredding monster. Rhy throws in Jeff Beck style soul over the strings on Shard.
All in all, Rhy Dongju's Lions'den II: Essence is a good album of guitar-led instrumental prog that only occasionally slips into blues-led predictability. None of the tracks outstay their welcome and he manages to invest them with some heartfelt emotional resonance. If you are a fan of guitar-led instrumentals this is very much worth a listen.
Los Exploradores — Inventure
Imagine, if you will, an alternate world, were a typical comic book megalomaniac, with delusions of world domination, decides he will achieve his aim by kidnapping four young Norwegian boys with extraordinary musical abilities. He would then try and shape them into his own evil vision. He chose to do this by isolating them from their favoured classical music, and subjected them to large doses of EVIL music. This consisted of a light dusting of challenging progressive music such as Yes and King Crimson, but predominantly, immense amounts of mind altering heavy excess by the likes of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment (and all other side projects which the evil wizard Jordan Rudess had contributed too).
The expected outcome of this plan was to create four angels of death, manipulated by the constant barrage of musical excess, which would bring out the dark characteristics of these four young boys. But the plan backfired. What actually happened was that the constant exposure to the music of Dream Theater triggered the musical creativity of the boys and they developed extraordinary musical abilities. Eirik became a master of the guitar, while Elvind took up the electric bass guitar and developed incredible dexterity on the four string instrument. Ole, the boy most in touch with his emotions, chose the keyboards to express himself. Finally the power house which was Kristoffer, chose the drums so to pound out his monstrous rhythms. The years of isolation saw each boy become incredibly proficient with their chosen instrument. They also began to compose incredibly creative music, paying homage to the music which their enslaver had thought would turn them evil.
The four boys decided they wanted the world to experience the overwhelming goodness of the music they created. So, hatching a plan they escaped the clutches of their evil captor, and toured the world, captivating and exciting people with their adventurous and uplifting music.
The boys escape, leaving their captor enraged and increasing his desire to enslave the world. He began hatching plans of destruction on a global scale. The four boys, now going by the collective name, Los Exploradores, agreed they would do everything within their power to prevent their former captor fulfilling his evil plans. Using their knowledge of the maniac, they set out on a global exploration to save the world.
With Inventure, Los Exploradores have created the musical equivalent to a comic book adventure similar to that of Alan Moore's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Gerard Way's Umbrella Academy. It is a long time since I have heard an album which exudes such excitement and fun. All compositions are instrumental, but feature spoken snippets which add to the feelings of mystery and adventure.
For an album consisting of over 35 minutes of pure instrumental music, the one thing you never get is any feeling of repetition. The music flows in an organic way, leading you through heavy passages, mixed with Vaudeville and Parisian interludes. It always leaves me with a sense of aural wonder and fun that I have not felt in a long time.
The musical journey does not need the addition of lyrics to make you feel you are being taken on a musical adventure. The works are complex, but never overbearing or written in a way where the band is trying to impress. All the time, the flow of the music never loses sight of melody or adventure. These four guys should be extremely proud of what they have delivered with Inventure, and it is hard to believe this is their debut release.
Then to the artwork for the album. The only disappointment is that the album appears to be only available in digital formats. This needs a physical release, so that the listener can better appreciate the glorious artwork of Adam Hinxman, who has supplied a graphic for each track and a wonderful cover.
Inadventure is probably one of the most accomplished début albums I have heard in many years. The four members of Los Exploradores deserve all the plaudits they are given, as they have delivered a musical work of extraordinary proportions.
For anyone who wants to be amazed, taken on a wild musical adventure and help prevent the world being overthrown by an evil ruler, then listen and help Los Exploradores help defend the world. Its your responsibility to help save us.
Les Penning With Robert Reed — Return To Penrhos
The recorder may not be the most common solo instrument in prog, nor in any other musical genre. This tiny instrument has nevertheless a very pleasant tone that blends well with folky, melancholic or medieval musical moods. Les Penning, a multi-instrumentalist who many of us may know from his recorder contribution to Mike Oldfield's legendary Ommadawn album and several of his subsequent singles like In Dulci Jubilo, has always stuck to the recorder. Because the musical possibilities of the instrument are somewhat limited, he has collaborated on many other musical projects, but managed to stay in the background most of the time, staying rather unknown to many music lovers not familiar with Oldfield.
In 2016 that changed a bit with the release of the Belerion album together with Robert Reed, of course famous for his work with Magenta, as well as for numerous other musical projects such as the Sanctuary albums that pay tribute to that same Mike Oldfield. Belerion obtained many positive reviews, amongst which was a very positive one by my dprp-colleague Geoff Feakes.
Apparently both musicians felt that their collaboration should continue and the fruit of that feeling comes now in the form of their second collaborative album, entitled Return to Penrhos. The title refers to a hamlet at the top of the hill, east of Kingston, Herefordshire near the Welsh border, where Penning and Oldfield used to perform together in the seventies. That era is called back into memory in all 13 songs featured on this album, including a very different, slower version of In Dulci Jubilo, and a reworking of Oldfield's first single, Argiers (one of my personal favourites).
Both these familiar songs stand among other familiar traditional tunes like The Cuckoo Song and self-penned songs like the title track. That song is split into three parts, of which part three more or less wraps up the musical themes of the two former ones. All the songs are mostly instrumental but Penning introduces the first part of the title track, as well as Fortune My Foe with some spoken words. To me these spoken words add little to the music, but as Penning's voice is low, warm and quiet, it is also no annoyance at all.
When Penning and Reed get together to play music you can expect something in the Oldfield vein, given the Sanctuary albums which pay tribute to the master himself. That is indeed exactly the case on this new album. It made me wonder what the audience was for these new versions, that are not too different from the originals. But after having listened to the album a couple of times, I started to realise that this music cheers you up, gets you into a positive mood wherever you are, and makes your day. The music is simply joyful, very well played and very uplifting. The combination of well-known tunes, with original new compositions and obscure traditional songs, turns out to be a good choice. The famous ones lift the other songs up. Because the overall mood is somewhat medieval and folky, the album is very coherent.
On the album Penning uses different types of recorder that slightly differ in tone, as well as whistles, crumhorns and a thing called an Owl Ocarina, whatever that may be. The combination with the acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo and keys by Reed works well.
The album comes in a simple carton sleeve, also containing a very pleasant DVD with promo videos of The Cuckoo Song, Argiers, a humorous clip of The Floral Dance (not included on the cd) and of course In Dulci Jubilo. Looking at the clips of these two friendly musicians engaged in making music they overtly love, is nothing but great. A short talk between them about In Dulci Jubilo shows their sympathy towards each other, while sharing their fondness and proudness on their interpretation of that traditional song.
A nice but deliberately clumsy clip of the Dr. Who-theme and some great footage of both musicians playing live, supported by the Magenta-guys in the Acapela Studios and at the Newbury Convention, form the rest of this gem. Among the songs played live are the Ommadawn-recorder-solo as well as Porthmouth, another classic Oldfield song, with Reed on piano (Acapela studio) or guitar (Newbury). These unique events alone are worth the purchase!
And although the musical performance is far from flawless, the sheer joy of Penning playing with these guys live, the embarrassment of his fellow musicians when he shows the audience Oldfield's original hand-written remarks about some of Penning's musical ideas, does make this DVD simply fantastic.
Both the CD and the DVD show again how well Robert Reed can inspire other musicians and how great they feel when performing together. Reed is always the shy performer, the genius who doesn't need to stand in the spotlight, yet constantly working on an impressive catalogue of various musical styles with different people. And this nice album with Les Penning is another fine addition to that catalogue. For all those who like Oldfield's interpretations of the aforementioned folk traditionals, as well as for fans of bands like Gryphon, Rousseau and Eris Pluvia, this album is a must-have.
Yuval Ron — Somewhere In This Universe, Somebody Hits A Drum
When I selected this album, I did not know anything about Yuval Ron, but having Marco Minnemann on drums was nothing but a great excuse to choose it. So, before I started listening to the six songs on the album, I did my research and discovered that Israeli Yuval Ron is not a new guy in this business at all. He has released a couple of albums under the name of his band Yuval Ron & Residents Of The Future and he's also a music instructor, arranger, music producer and software engineer. According to his website, his style transcends the boundaries of any specific musical genre bing a crossover of modern jazz-rock icons and influences from different styles such as progressive rock, fusion, metal and modern music genres.
As always it's the listener who will discover those influences but the real fact is that the music on this album is not easy to define. For this album published under his own name, the band is made up of Matt Paull on keyboards, Roberto Badoglio on bass and the previously mentioned drum virtuoso Marco Minnemann. I don't know if the album title has something to do with the fact that Marco is on board?
This space-themed album is mainly instrumental even though it has some weird vocals. It includes great cinematic structures and of course some superb playing. Marco Minemann does great, nothing new here but I also really love the keyboards. The lovely thing with this album is that Yuval Ron, being a guitar virtuoso, lets his partners show their talents in order to create good compositions that fit very well with his guitar solos. The only bad thing for me are those vocal sounds. Sorry Yuval, I don't understand how they fit into the songs.
Anyway I must confess I wasn't very impressed after my first listen, but this album is growing on me and I'm checking now Yuval Ron's previous releases and looking forward to future albums.
Sons Of Apollo — MMXX
Unlike what many other people seem to think, Falling Into Infinity is one of my favourite Dream Theater albums. I remember listening to Images And Words around the time it was released and being mostly unimpressed by it (I've grown fonder of it since then). I definitely liked Metropolis Pt. 1, but the sterile way the album was produced was a major setback for me. Flash-forward to 1997, and I immediately loved their fourth (fifth if you include the A Change Of Seasons EP) studio release. Yes, there were a few meh tracks for sure (I'm Looking At You, You Not Me and Take Away My Pain), but Lines In The Sand, Hell's Kitchen, New Millennium, and Trial Of Tears are all amazing pieces and Kevin Shirley's fat, crunchy production is the icing of the cake.
Falling Into Infinity would eventually be the sole full studio album to feature the talents of Derek Sherinian on keyboards, but if you ever wondered how a follow-up might have sounded, look no further than Sons Of Apollo's succinctly titled MMXX sophomore effort. If their first outing was a more or less adequate melting pot of the band members' multiple influences, then this time around their music consistently plays out as an updated Rainbow (Resurrection Day is pure Gates Of Babylon, a classic Blackmore/Dio rocker from 1978's Long Live Rock'n'Roll) with some extra testosterone sprinkled over. The best way to summarise it, is as the album Dream Theater never released in 1998.
Sherinian being Sherinian, and Portnoy being good old Portnoy, the main distinctive features in the band's sound are Jeff Scott Soto's powerful, manly vocals and Bumblefoot's impressive guitar pyrotechnics. Oddly, the legendary Billy Sheehan's crazy bass runs aren't very prominent and often buried in the mix.
In any case, there's an overall feeling of "been there, done that" to the proceedings. So if the first track, Goodbye Divinity, feels like New Millennium Part 2, (only a bit louder and less inventive), then Wither To Black and Asphyxiation happen to be slightly lesser Just Let Me Breathe and Burning My Soul counterparts.
Elsewhere, Desolate July is the "obligatory" ballad, but it feels as cliché, as the album's 15-minute tour de force New World Today feels disjointed. Sometimes Planet X + Deep Purple just doesn't work. Well, sometimes it does, as is the case with King Of Delusion, a great combination of flamboyant piano and chugging guitars which is the best nine minutes of the album, together with the slightly more modern-sounding intensity of Fall To Ascend, complete with a Brann Dailor (from Mastodon) style drum intro and some tasty proggy bits thrown in for good measure (it is here where Sheehan gets to shine, even if only for a few bars).
So, the chops are there, the songs are there and the sound is there, and it is all delivered in a rather overwhelming fashion, but the band plays it safe all the way, and more often than not the proggy passages feel shoe-horned. Yes, it is quite a fun listen and there are great passages here and there, but it's also too predictable and there's no progression or innovation whatsoever. It may be the case of an album arriving 20 years too late.