Mother Turtle — Three Sides To Every Story
Before reviewing this album, I looked back on my review of Mother Turtle's previous album, Zea Mice.
It started with a conclusion. “A difficult but brilliant album, Zea Mice by Mother Turtle is a hard-to-pinpoint, yet of an indisputably progressive style. One has to invest some time and effort ... as besides a broad range of musical approaches, it also offers an infinite number of instruments and moods. But I can promise you this; if you invest in listening, you will be rewarded with a timeless and priceless musical gem. To be short, this album is easily going to be in my top 20 of 2018.”
Zea Mice was ranked as number 4 on my list. And I soon realised my conclusion back then perfectly fits this new album as well. Proof of that? Three Sides To Every Story was placed even higher in my DPRP top 20 of 2019. It got up to number 3!
Three seems to be a magical number here. The album ranked number three, the album title starts with “Three” and the album holds three very different songs. The first of this trio, Zigu Zigu, is just under seven minutes in length. To me, this opening track is a showcase of what the band is capable of. Directions, instruments, compositions, being a bit weird, being glamorous, being different, being brilliant. And this first track also shows their humour by immediately starting by throwing you into a musical pit, reaching the bottom in seven seconds so you can't leave their musical dance, even if you wanted. They end this song with a bedside story that congratulates you on listening to some weird instrumental music and suggests that you now lie back and listen to the rest of the album.
Having moved through the Zigu Zigu section of this Luna Park by comfortable monorail. The rest of the album consists of only two tracks to enjoy, about a quarter of an hour in length each. Get ready to buckle-up for the first (and unsupervised) rollercoaster called Notwatch. You'll hear the bell at the start for a slow lift-off. Your heartbeat quickly rises, you take a deep breath and feel prepared for frightening heights, curves and drops. But while doing that, you realise you only feel grooves, smooth moves and turns, cool jazziness. You're in a trance with your eyes closed. No demons here, we have climbed up for an instrumentally-heavenly ride, with a heavenly voice! What goes up, must come down. The musical ride does exactly that, in a downwards spiral without fear, ending with the most luscious, rocking riffs.
You don't want to open your eyes, with your brain full of addictive music. However the next ride, called A Christmas Postcard From Kim, wakes you up from the dream. Your first feeling is relief. Phew, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the usual, relentless Christmas songs! You muse on, eyes closed again, and pick up sounds of heavenly choirs, cinematographic bass, vocals and voices. You feel extremely relaxed by these drugs. Will it ever stop? Voices, sounds, soothing voices and keys. What an adventure ride! Or is it life? Or even death? You should be confused, but you can't be because you glide in joy.
This musical Luna Park is run by Kostas Konstantinidis (guitars, guitar synth, keys, voice), George Baltas (drums and voice) and George Filopelou (bass and voice). Also known as The Rocking Angels. Two more similarities with the previous album; it's incredibly brilliant and highly recommended. You needn't be afraid. Join the adventure.
Orion 2.0 — Virtual Human
Orion is able to look back on a very long history in progressive rock terms. The band was founded in France back in 1975 by Patrick Wyrembski and Janusz Tokarz, both being of Polish origin. They released a first album in 1977 called La Nature Vit, L'Homme Lui Critique, with music along the lines of the French progressive rock bands of the era, such as Ange, Mona Lisa, Carpe Diem and Atoll.
The second album, Mémoires Du Temps, did not manage to see the light of day prior to Orion disbanding in 1980. However, in 2011, the founding members collected the original tapes, restored, digitalised and remastered them completely, and the album was released in 2013. Subsequently, Orion recorded two more albums: La Face Visible (2015) and Le Survivant (2017).
Following these releases, Patrick and Janusz decided to withdraw from playing the music they had previously composed, to pave the way for a new generation of musicians; both being involved in the writing and in playing their music themselves. Hence, the band's name got the addendum 2.0 and Virtual Human was released in 2019, following the same two-year releasing time sequence.
Patrick's role is now confined to being co-author of some of the tracks and to managing and promoting the band, whilst Janusz switched to production. The new generation of musicians composing and playing on this record are Jérôme Nigou (vocals), Pierre-Jean Horville (guitars), Paul Cribaillet (keyboards, piano), Eric Halter (bass), and Cédric Affre (drums).
Lyrically, Orion2.0 delivers a sort of personal point of view on aspects of our current world, as Digital Human centres on digital life, robotisation, dehumanisation and artificial intelligence; asking what kind of society we want and whether we are still able to choose our lives in an increasingly virtual world.
The track Run For Life, for instance, is dedicated to an athlete who died at too young an age. Silicon Cirkus and Silicium outline glamour, but also inhumanity and self-denial associated with Silicon Valley-life. The final track Shagreen (a pun on the French word Chagrin, which means sorrow, grief) is based on Honoré de Balzac's 1831 novel La Peau De Chagrin, where a desperate young author makes a pact with the devil.
So let's lend an ear to the music which can be heard on this album. The essential question I asked myself when doing this review was: how firmly should I wear my prog rock hat on my head? I opted for a solid fit, as the basis for my opinion and assessment.
Considering this, I heard a blend of funk, soul, fusion and lounge music, on a strong jazz-rock basis and a mild dose of progressive rock. Without fully knowing the albums of the original band, it seems that the "reloaded version" of Orion has by-and-large abandoned the reliance on both the symphonic progressive rock elements present especially on their first two 70s releases, and on the psychedelic touches of their two more recent releases.
Instead, Virtual Human is characterised by a subtle form of prog, with other musical styles being more predominant, especially the jazz-rock elements. The music displays a considerable degree of relaxation, groove, delicateness (listen to the drumming in the title track, for instance), and variety, with basically no song sounding alike.
Although the whole album is upbeat by nature, some of the tracks come across as melancholic and contemplative. The sophisticated and well-dosed use of keyboards (especially grand and electric piano) as well as their interplay with the guitar, are a positive factor throughout the album. One can not dispute the considerable musical abilities on show here, an excellent sound quality and a perfect production (the lack of both seem to have been lamented to some extent with respect to the preceding release).
For prog rock purists, Virtual Human presumably shows too little a prog-orientation, and too few characteristics of the music of the style-defining names. Being varied and not confined to prog rock alone, reminiscences of different musical directions can be heard instead. I don't want to go through it track by track, but I felt reminded of the music of 3rdegree (Virtual Human), the jazz-rock style of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays (Run For Life, my favourite), the mellow and gentle guitar playing of Philip Catherine and George Benson (Silicium), the Alman Brothers Band's southern rock, and the virtuosity of Stanley Clarke's bass playing (Silicon Cirkus). The aspects that I could do without are the robot voices in Silicon Cirkus and the song Le Nuage, which I consider as being too straightforward and commercial.
As I said before, I decided to review this release with my prog rock hat on. Consequently, my evaluation and assessment must reflect this. Looking at it from a wider perspective, Orion 2.0 have delivered a promising album, in that it represents a solid basis for a diversified musical development; one that will appeal not only to prog rock lovers. I am curious if they manage to evolve along those lines. In addition, they certainly are a band I'd like to see and hear playing live.
Kev Rowland — The Progressive Underground, Vol. 2 [book]
From the moment I finished reading and reviewing The Progressive Underground, Vol. 1, I have been looking forward to this second instalment.
Volume I was a trip through a time when the internet was not yet used to publish reviews. It was a bit like archaeology, which is a lot of fun for an prog-minded archivist like me. I love completeness, thus I love the fact that Kev Rowland has collected all of his reviews that have been published in the Feedback magazine.
I also love the fact that he wrote about a lot of bands that are no longer active and several that many of you have forgotten about or have never heard of.
This second volume contains album reviews by bands from I (Icon) to S (Syzygy). For some reason, there are more bands between I and S who made it big(ger) and who made more albums, than between A and I, so there are a more bands with several reviews in this volume. I mean the likes of IQ, Jadis, Jeremy (who surprisingly is also on the long list of names I didn't know about!), Jump, Landberk, Landmarq, Lana Lane, Legend, Bjørn Lynne, Magellan, Magenta, Geoff Mann, Manning, Marillion, Mastermind, Mentaur, Mr. So & So, Neal Morse, Mostly Autumn, No-Man, Paatos, Pain Of Salvation, Pallas, Pendragon, Porcupine Tree, Saga, Shadowland, Spock's Beard...
It's fun to read another man's view on bands I liked then, and still like now: Landmarq, Legend, Mastermind, Mentaur, Now, Pallas, Ritual.
The true gems are the bands I had forgotten about and now feel a desire to listen to again (Kopecky, Last Turion, the mighty Lemur Voice, Nepenthe, Parallel Or 90 Degrees, Red Jasper, Sinkadus). And the treasure chest keeps on giving with the ones I have not heard about, but want to, now that I've read the reviews (Krell, Last Tribe, Malombra, Space Avenue, etc.).
Sometimes it's funny to read reviews of early works of a band that would later become well-known in our little world. The best example is Moon Safari, but also names like Riverside or RPWL.
There are many reasons to read and like this book. Additionally, some will appreciate the archivist's purpose of having these reviews available again and more publicly available, instead of letting writings like this become a distant memory.
Rowland has a tendency towards a positive conclusion. Having been told the same about DPRP, I can relate. We tend to see the good in what is being released. The goal is to promote music and bands that the reader might not know about, and to give a combination of an objective and subjective description, whilst trying to understand what someone else might enjoy in a certain album. He can also be brief while being very honest, for example when writing about Symphony X.
Even the introduction, by Mark Colton of Credo, is beaming with positivity about the author and his work. What's not to like? You'll be reading this with a smile on your face from familiarity in agreement or understanding in disagreement, or surprise.
With a continuation of the same wonderful stuff to read, I can only conclude with the same rating as with Volume 1; plus the notion that I can't wait to read Volume 3!
SL Theory — Cipher
Press releases can be a very handy tool while listening to the album, as the background information is an obvious positive. A somewhat negative effect though can be found in the fact that it can build high expectations, which are not always lived up to. Therefore the upfront statement comparing SL Theory to well-established bands like Kansas, Styx, Queen and Foreigner might be a bit dangerous. Has their label Rock Of Angels been kindly reserved, or is it just the tip of the iceberg?
SL Theory was created in 2009 by multi-instrumentalist Sotiris Lagonikas, who over the years has released three consecutive albums as a one-man-band. He then gathers together a full member band in 2017 incorporating Mike Karasoulis (lead vocals), Alex Flouros (guitars), Yiannis Nigdelis (guitars / backing vocals), Chris Kollias (bass) and Manos Gavalas on keyboards / backing vocals. With Lagonikas handling drums and backing vocals and the aid of several (female) backgrounds singers, it saw the release of the CD/DVD Progressively Dark - A Concert For Group & String Orchestra in 2018.
On this first "group" effort, the aspiring band revisited a large selection of the three debut studio offerings, showcased with unquestionable musicianship. Playful as such, it did lack a certain cohesiveness and saw a band still in search of their direction. With Cipher, this direction has been fully established. Many refined details are now minutely arranged as pieces of a giant puzzle, and the fully-grown band is in top form.
The delicious opening ten-chapter suite, The Life & Death Of Mr. Ess, is a prog delight, starting with an emotional Kansas feel (Audio Visions era) and Queen harmonies, amongst playful guitars, reminiscent of Brian May. Symphonic AOR with gorgeous organ, and seductive synths then slowly take over, gliding into superb, groovy rhythms and sparkling keyboards. We then swirl to Toto riffs and a tantalising instrumental mid-section filled with delicate Kansas / Flying Colors melodies. The dynamic, mysterious atmosphere thereupon soars into uptempo AOR rock, highlighted by strong harmonies before ultimately slowing down towards Pink Floyd (The Wall) and a piano outro.
Barely recuperated from this beautifully arranged composition, something unsuspected happens when You Never Happened turns SL Theory into an unrivalled AOR attraction. Excellent instrumentation, super catchy choruses, a tight rhythm section, pitch-perfect harmonies, gorgeous keys and tasty fireworks on guitar. It's all there and nailed to perfection in a pristine production.
Now there's no stopping them, with Devil's Suites that continues in similar fashion and is a feast for the heavy AOR-aficionado, ringing Survivor/Foreigner bells and sparks of Leverage.
The band is focused on delivering strong compositions, without endless tinkering. Each instrument and movement hits an AOR home-run, as shown in the uptempo, melodic pop feel of Grave Danger, seductively filled with dynamic riffs, sparkling keys, lovely harmony touches and superb solos which ignite thoughts of John Farnham. The equally captivating A Song About Nothing displays a powerful Deep Purple / Uriah Heep vibe, with seductive organ and spine-chilling solos, with melodic vocals by Karasoulis.
These tuneful vocals are perfectly fitting, and give wings to the music. Karasoulis even has several aces up his sleeve as brilliantly shown in the formidable The Table's Turned. The mysterious opening on keys and bluesy character immediately ignites warm memories of Tom Galley's Phenomena, and the flexible Karasoulis, as a true disciple of Rock, bends his voice in a similar way to Glenn Hughes.
Equally-salivating moments are to be found in the intense, Trans Siberian Orchestra-styled Anyone, Anymore, and If You Saw Me Dead which thrives on blues, bombast and some gorgeous guitar and key interaction (which is probably even surpassed on the alternative bonus track version).
With similar ease SL Theory turn their hand to funky rock in Happy, enriched with trumpet, sax and trombone, or symphonic orchestral minimalism in If It Wasn't For You, passionately sung by band leader Lagonikas. SL Theory even flirt with Headspace in the enchanting, Queen-inspired Silence And Loneliness, managing to broaden the sound of SL Theory even further.
All my reservations to their press sheet have been easily met, and might even be an understatement, but then again I hold the debut album by Phenomena in very high regard. So the musicality, solid execution and consistently-exciting compositions, lusciously wrapped in a heavenly Phenonema aura, are simply the cherries on top.
Cipher turns out to be an excellent masterclass in melodic heavy prog-rock, with a phenomenal AOR vibe, and if the opening suite is anything to go by, then I suspect we can see some further greatness in future. Had it arrived in time, it surely would have made my Top 10 list of 2019.
Sparrow — The Window
In folklore, sparrows are seen as harbingers of fortune both good and bad, depending on which part of the world the folklore originates. For multi-instrumentalist, composer and artist Matthew Anderson his new project Sparrow is one of good fortune.
After recording under his own name (three releases being reviewed on DPRP) and other releases under the names Sixty Ton Angel and Out of Place Architecture, he has released The Window. This is a concept album that explores the meaning of home and family, and how memory changes over time. It is structured around memories, evoked by the image of a window in Matthew's childhood home. He says that the concept is structured around the musical ideas rather than the words. Instead he wants the listener to treat the words and vocals as another instrumental facet in the overall sound of The Window.
Which is interesting, given that the opening track is a short, multi-tracked acapella song that is based around the intriguing refrain 'all my life I've been living in reverse'. It is a startling opening and immediately has your attention, as the track segues into the punchy art-rock of Mouth Touched With A Coal and its switches of tempo and dynamics. Using overlapping layers of guitars and synths to add density, its melody is carried by the vocal line, bolstered by the delicate female backing vocals of Charls Ava and Lauren Renahan.
The shorter tracks on The Window include a Steven Wilson-like acoustic track, Infinite Ends/The Window, that pushes toward avant-prog, with a wordless operatic soprano voice, before switching to ambient synth washes. Minimalist, pulsing strings and piano lift Definite Form's sweet exploration of love. Although this song is not as emotionally engaging as the piano ballad, Ohio, with Matthew's voice on the breaking. Very affecting.
The other songs here take on the mantle of art-rock-pop, where deceptively simple melodies are arranged in ways that keep the ear more-than interested. From the poppy Echo And Narcissus, to the growing pace of I Left Life Behind, there is always something going on in these tunes.
The centrepiece of the album is the longer New Mythology, which opens with gentle piano and voice, then adds reverb to expand the sound pallet in a way I don't think I have heard before. As the tempo increases, Matthew adds in Finnegan Shanahan's shimmering violin and viola, and Charls Ava's voice, both to superb effect as the track looks to be growing into a classic. However, it then takes a left turn in to lo-fi scratchy and glitchy avant-noise, which just left me cold and disappointed. Which is a shame.
The album closes with ambient electronica and Chloe Rowlands' lovely fluegel horn on Dragging The Lake.
On the whole Sparrow's The Window is a great listen, with only the occasional turn to the avant side of music, and I feel this would be a stronger and more focused release without it. But when it works, that is eighty-five per cent of the time, The Window could hold its head up with the likes of Bent Knee, Radiohead and British West Country oddballs Schnauser's less frantic moments.