Alhena — Breaking The Silence ... By Scream
It is quite crowded in the female-fronted gothic band family nowadays. Following on the successes of internationally-acclaimed bands like Nightwish, Within Temptation and The Gathering, a lot of new and ambitious bands try to conquer their place.
Alhena is such a band, hailing from the Polish city of Bydgoszcz and active since 2010. (Ed: We reviewed their self-titled debut EP in 2012. It had a different singer but some of the tracks re-appear on this album.) The band then saw a couple of personnel changes until 2017 when the current line-up established itself firmly with Marta Bejma on vocals, Tomasz Bogulski playing guitar, Piotr Kowalski on synths, Piotr Grugel on drums and Patryk Durko handling the bass. Thus it became time to record their debut, which saw the light of day in the last month of last year entitled Breaking The Silence...By Scream.
The first impression of this album is good. Credit should be given to the band for producing an elaborate and well-designed booklet, albeit that I don't understand why the album's title is not printed on the cover, nor on the cd. The booklet features an artistic cover photo, clearly-printed lyrics of all the songs inside, all the details you'd like to know and a good band photo. Solid work, and an excellent appetiser for the listener who comes across this, until now, unfamiliar band.
But how about the music? To be frank, after my first listen I thought this was just another anonymous female fronted gothic band with hardly, if any, prog influences. The album seemed to drag towards its end. I heard a lot of familiar sounds and tunes but I couldn't discern anything special. And with its duration of more than an hour, it is also quite long.
But now that I have heard the album several times I must conclude that my first impression proved wrong. For this is really a nice one, that has to grow on you over time but then proves to be a very satisfying debut.
Alhena's most striking feature is Bejma's voice. She sounds very much like one of the genre's leading ladies, Anneke van Giersbergen, although her slight accent distinguishes her. That can work against you, as there is a clear danger of being described as just another band trying to copy The Gathering. So there should be something different in the music, and Alhena presents that.
Their music is more openly arranged, giving ample room for soloing on guitar and keys besides the usual heavy riffing, and is therefore more varied. Pace, mood and tone are very much like The Gathering and maybe that is something they should pay attention to in the future.
The album features 11 songs captured between the opening instrumental, Prelude, and the closer Epilogue. Both these short pieces are no real highlights but I always like it when a collection of songs is book-ended in this way.
All the songs are rather slow and of middle-length size. Highlights for me are Breath, with its powerful and beautiful guitar solos, and the varied Alhena. For those who look for prog elements, there are some, like the subtle piano in Every Time, the piano and orchestration in Alhena and in the beautiful ballad Lost. The lyrics deal with different kinds of angry and confusing feelings brought about my others, lovers, and the world as it seems to be. You certainly won't be cheered up hearing these lyrics.
There is only one thing to mention on the downside. For unclear reasons the band decided to include some grunting and growling in the last song Enough. Personally grunting is something I hate, especially when it is done weakly, which is unfortunately the case here. I can't understand why they chose to do so, when they have an vocalist with a good and fitting voice on board. If they want to become part of the female-fronted gothic scene, where the most successful bands have totally abandoned that extreme type of vocals, they should think twice before including grunting on the next album.
Having said that, I sincerely hope that Alhena will rank themselves with this fine debut firmly among bands like Delain, Stream of Passion, After Forever and the likes. There are many good things to enjoy on the album and some that can be improved. The potential is there. Hopefully they will succeed in attracting enough attention to go forward with their dream.
David Cross And Peter Banks — Crossover
This collaborative album between violinist David Cross (ex-King Crimson) and Peter Banks (Yes' original guitarist) is based on improvisations recorded on the afternoon of 10th August 2010. Banks sadly died in 2013 and Cross couldn't bring himself to return to these recordings until 2018/19 when he recruited former members of Yes or King Crimson to flesh out the original recordings "freely and creatively". Some of the musicians who helped out are drummers Jeremy Stacey, Jay Schellen, and Pat Mastelotto, bassists Billy Sherwood and Tony Lowe, and on keys Geoff Downes, Tony Kaye, and Oliver Wakeman.
On Crossover you get eight tracks of unfortunately varying quality. They go from fusion-lite, to ambient soundscapes. The guitar and violin work together well but the quality of the improvisations vary for me.
The tracks that work well are very engaging. Upshift has a stately sci-fi ambience, and the violin and guitar have extended workouts over Hammond organ. Its dissonance enhances, rather than distracts from the slowly-evolving melody. Plasma Drive begins in ambient mode but it changes as the bass, drums, Moog and Rhodes piano push the tune forward in interesting ways. Then Banks' guitar playing really shines on Laughing Strange.
For me, the rest of Crossover gets mired down in sometimes pretty but ultimately bland ambience (The Smile Frequency). The Vangelis-like keyboards on The Work Within vie with violin trills and guitar sounds. It is like a soundtrack to an art film you would probably never watch twice. On Missing Time you can hear Banks and Cross trying to work out where it is going through loops and delays. There is some beauty in its drum-less drift, but it feels like a lost opportunity. The opening track Rock To A Hard Place is a long and winding improvisation, where you admire the musicianship but fail to engage with its melody. A melody stretched out to nine somewhat-predictable minutes.
I found this disappointing after I had so enjoyed Cross's last release with Andrew Booker called Ends Meeting, where the improvisations had stronger identities, unlike here where they tend to bleed into one another. David Cross and Peter Banks' album Crossover would, for me, have made an engaging EP.
Foschia — Dalla Città Al Cielo
I'm no expert on Italian prog, which is why I wanted to review Dalla Citta Al Cielo by Italian band Foschia. The album title translates to "From the City to the Sky", a stunning and imaginative name. The band's name translates to "mist" or "haze", another imaginative name. The style of music they play actually fits well with the name. The six members of the band are rather young, which makes the fact that the music is so well-crafted and mature all the more enjoyable.
Dalla Citta Al Cielo is a progressive rock album in the purest sense of the word. It has jazz elements, such as on Il Delirio (translation: "The Delusion") with the piano and soulful guitar. It has metal elements, such as on Ombre Scure Alla Stazione ("Dark Shadows At The Station") with the heavy breakdown halfway through the song. The synth elements throughout give it a prog overtone. The album pulls from these various influences to be a well-rounded rock album. It is altogether progressive, without falling into any "prog" stereotypes.
Most of the lyrics are sung in Italian, but the album is filled with long instrumental sections which gives it a strong pacing. When there is singing, I find vocalist Giacomo Grande's deep voice rather haunting. Since I have no idea what he's singing, his voice acts as another instrument for me, and it fits very well with the music. His vocal work on Vite Appese Ad Un Filo ("Screw Hanging On A Wire") is particularly moving. The long instrumental passages ensure that the album is very well paced, even though it is almost an hour long. There is no filler here.
The tenth track, Different Ways, has English lyrics. The song talks about two people walking down different roads; they are unable to look beyond their own lanes to see their similarities. They think that they are so different that they couldn't possibly have anything in common, so they avoid each other to avoid conflict. They will spend the rest of their lives walking this way, but in the last verse the band comments: "But after looking in their eyes / In a moment they'd throw / their weapons behind / so they could finally realise / They walk on the same way." This is certainly an apt commentary for our times.
The variety of guitar tones and styles of playing throughout the album, demonstrates that the two guitarists, Riccardo Gallerani and Francesco Reni, are incredibly talented. The gentle acoustic work on Vite Appese Ad Un Filo is beautiful, and the electric solo is simple but moving. It fits the song perfectly. The guitar solo on Il Paroliere is fantastic. It is David Gilmour-esque, which fits the song exceptionally well considering it has a Pink Floyd vibe.
There were a few moments on the album where I thought the guitar work could've been a little more polished, but that was only a couple of times. With time, all of the musicians will get even better at their craft, which makes me excited about future releases from Foschia, since this one is so good.
I'm glad I decided to move outside my reviewing comfort zone a little bit and give Foschia a chance. This album is quite spectacular, and I think these guys could be very successful. There is certainly precedent for Italian progressive rock bands experiencing success outside their country, and I hope Foschia are able to experience the same success.
The album has subtle influences of Pink Floyd, yet it has a sort of Big Big Train calmness to it. It does get heavy at moments, but the band always brings it back down to a contemplative moment. The album has soul. The result is rather stunning, and you'd be doing yourself a favour in checking it out.
Last Knight — Seven Deadly Sins
Last Knight refer to themselves as a 'Progressive Rock Collective', a collection of international musicians who collaborate via the internet, and bring together a fusion of musical ideas. The main collaborators are: producer and multi-instrumentalist Pablo Lato, Gustavo Lato who sings and provides guitar, and Jose Manuel Medina who is the main songwriter and provider of keyboards for the project. Pablo and Jose are the constant members of Last Knight since their first release, Lord Of Time in 2001.
7 Deadly Sins is only the band's fifth release, but their previous effort, Talking To The Moon consisted of 54 tracks (plus 6 bonus tracks), spread over 3 CDs, using over 30 artists and taking six years to complete; you can probably understand why.
The album's title, 7 Deadly Sins, does not disguise in any way the concept behind this project, which is Dante Alighieri's classic 14th century Italian poem, The Divine Comedy. This source material describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, which represents the soul's journey towards God and heaven. It is therefore no surprise that the album consists of seven songs, each of which is dedicated to one of the seven sins. The tracks vary in length. The shortest, Gluttony being four and a half minutes, with the longest, Pride being over 14 minutes. Five of the tracks weigh in at over 10 minutes, with some being split into different movements. The music is varied but is definitely progressive rock, and a very good example at that.
The opening track, Lust, begins with a wonderfully orchestrated opening, similar to some recent examples whose critics have referred to as Disney-like. I have never understood this comparison, as Disney orchestration is either of a classical masterpiece, or written by eminent modern composers. I was suitably impressed by all the orchestrated sections on the 7 Deadly Sins, and that is all that matters to me. The section entitled Descending Into Hell is suitably dark and doom-ridden to make the listener experience the fear of the journey.
The second track, Gluttony, sees the band having their tongue firmly pressed against their cheek. When I first heard the song, it was a complete surprise, and even after numerous listens, it still brings a smile to my face, and the desire to sing along to the comedic lyrics.
Greed sounds at times like a classic that Asia forgot to write, this is helped by Richie Castellano, of Blue Oyster Cult, adding some superb vocals to the song.
The penultimate track, Envy, was originally written with the idea of John Wetton providing the vocals. This was prior to his untimely passing. To fill the void left by John, the band approached regular contributor to John's latter works, John Mitchell, to provide the vocals. John accepted the offer. While Mr Mitchell will never sound like John Wetton, he provides a great performance to a song which is a fitting tribute to John Wetton. The album is also dedicated to the memory of John Wetton, and I am sure he would be happy to have been associated with a work of such quality.
My only criticism with the album is that Sloth sounds far too close to a particular Yes song. I will not comment further, but give it a listen and I am sure you will make the connection.
That taken into account, what Last Knight have produced is a stunning work, grandiose in its presentation, that it does the subject material the greatest of tributes. Highly recommended for those who have a true love of classic progressive rock.
Led Bib — It's Morning
I was lucky enough to witness the debut performance of It's Morning at the Lancaster Jazz Festival in August. I was already familiar with the album and had some inkling of the rewarding cacophony of sounds and range of genres displayed in Led Bib's latest offering and so the experience was made more accessible than it might have been.
The presentation of the album was extended by some cutting edge improvisational interludes where the boundary between melody and cacophony were tested to the limits. The live performance was augmented by a film which raised more questions about the concept of the album than it provided answers.
Recently the band has created a video which tries to put the film and the music of It's Morning into some sort of meaningful context.
All I can say is that the combination of the two medias in the band's live performance created one of the most interesting, challenging and ultimately baffling concert experiences I have witnessed for many years. Did I enjoy it. Yes. Was it a satisfying experience? I am not sure.
There is much about It's Morning that is disturbing, and that pushes the boundaries. The experience created by the album raises questions about whether art should be a hammer or a feather. Whether it should be enjoyable, or challenging.
The album itself has many rewarding features and if a listener perseveres with it, the album's unfathomable moments and inaccessible interludes begin to make some satisfying sense, within the concept as the whole.
The album touches many bases. Simplistic song-based melodies cohabit alongside wickedly complex and challengingly-extended improvised sections that are Avant in nature, and grey in colour. These are frequently discordant, often somewhat unattractive, yet are able to disturb and fascinate in equal measure.
In this respect much of It's Morning is not for the faint-hearted. The sleep-disturbing dawn chorus of Avant contemporary sounds during the introductory section of Fold may well be the point at which many listeners might reach for their care-worn copy of Cliff Richard's greatest hits in a bid to cleanse their ears of the cacophonous menace that is so visibly and proudly on display.
In contrast, the concluding section of Fold enables the dawn colours of discord to fade, to be replaced by the glowing dusk of a delicate melody. The sung ending of this composition has a fragile beauty that is ugly in its simplicity yet is warmly attractive. Whilst this particular interlude's frail, song-based structure is memorable, it is unlikely to win any awards for popular songwriting. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and for some reason the mood and structure of this concluding section, reminds me somewhat of the style and phrasing of William Drake.
However, Cutting Room Floor is more consistent and raises the bar considerably. It is a particularly enjoyable track. Its song-based framework has an eccentric air and offers up a series of engaging parts. The spoken words give it a pompous air and sense of gravitas. However, there is something strangely compelling about its intriguing the mix of a fragile voice and sparse instrumentation. This is a piece that has so many compelling elements that it manages to create something totally unique. However it is also able to embody hints and tints of artists as diverse as William Drake and Henry Cow. It's a thoroughly rewarding composition.
One of the standout characteristics of It's Morning is the contribution of Eliot Galvin on keyboards. His use of a range of electronic sounds, as well as his mastery of a variety of synths and pianos, provides the album with an identifiable sound that melds jazz influences with contemporary electro elements. Galvin is the keyboard player with Dinosaur. He has been influential in their success and has been a key part of their ability to bridge musical boundaries, as witnessed by their 2016 Mercury nomination for their debut album Together As One.
Vocalist Sharron Fortnam is known for her work with North Sea Radio Orchestra and her prominent contribution provides much of this album with its own unique signature sound, which is so different to anything the band has previously created.
Her unique phrasing and choice of tones is used to great effect in the syrup-sweet ballad To Dry in the Rain. This piece is about as conventional and accessible as the album gets. Although it contains some interesting embellishments and some off-piste accompaniments, the piece fails to inspire and sits rather uneasily in an album that has such a unique sound and which at every turn tears up the rules of songwriting to such disturbingly good effect.
By contrast the track which follows, O, is much more interesting and incorporates a raft of unique characteristics, whilst still retaining a vocal element and some vestiges of a song-based structure. Its twisted air of accessibility is pronounced and the gauntlet is symbolically laid down by Led Bib to any late night prog radio station that might be brave enough to risk giving it some air-time.
Led Bib's It's Morning is strange, compelling, frustrating, and rewarding in equal measures. Ultimately, I found much of it incomprehensible, but equally beguiling. However, maybe I was looking in the wrong place, or most likely at the wrong time, it's early in the morning here after all!