The Bardic Depths — The Bardic Depths
When Robin Armstrong announced that he was leaving Big Big Train after their last tour, it came as a surprise for many. Being in a band with the high profile of BBT would appear to be a benefit. But looking at what Robin is currently doing, which is launching a new record label for progressive rock bands, when more bands appear to be taking the route of self publication, must mean that time needs to be dedicated to this project for it to succeed. The new label, Gravity Dreams, launched this year, has become the label which will from now on release Robin's band Cosmograf's new product. The success for the label will be dependent upon signing other artists, and releasing their music. The label appears to have already attracted Lee Abraham, whose Arrival project have released their first CD.
The Bardic Depths are the next to have their project made available. It is difficult to call The Bardic Depths a band, as it is more a musical collaboration who's formation came about thanks to the Big Big Train web group. The Bardic Depths rose out of the collaboration between Brad Brizer and Dave Bandana, who communicated via the internet and released two albums under the name of Bizer Bandana, those being Becoming One and Of Course It Must Be, which were reviewed by DPRP, and both received positive comments.
The album was co-written by Dave Bandana and Brad Birzer and follows a similar pattern to the Bizer Bandana albums as Brad delivers the concept and lyrics and Dave composes the music. The concept for this album is the literary friendship which developed between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis between 1931 and 1949. I did a bit of research on this and for anyone who has an interest in either of these authors it is well worth looking into, as it is a friendship which collaborated in developing some of the modern literary classics. There is far too much back story to go through here as the space needed to describe the relationship would detract far too much from the album. But without having been advised by the publicity notes I would have had no idea about the concept behind the album.
The friendship of the Big Big Train web group enabled Dave and Brad to pull upon many other musicians to help them with their project, most notable being Robin Armstrong who provides help with multiple instruments along the way, and Tiger Moth Tales' Peter Jones, who adds some gorgeous saxophone to a number of tracks as well as vocals to the final track Legacies.
The album opener, The Trenches, begins with swirling keyboards accompanying multiple spoken voices. A catchy guitar and keyboard riff then takes over. We then hear Dave Bandana's voice, heavy with effects. His singing voice will be an acquired taste, sitting somewhere between Jon Anderson and John Lennon. Orchestration over rhythmic military drumming lays the backdrop for the songs finaly which appears to be about the loss and fighting during the First World War.
This pretty much lays down the formula for the rest of the album, lengthy ambient sections of music interspersed with Beatles like psychedelic pop and Floyd type atmospherics. This is most obvious in the albums longest track, Depths Of Time, which has three distinct parts, the beginning and end being both ambient sections, the first movement had obvious references to Gerry Rafferty due to Peter Jones' exceptional saxaphone playing. The middle, more upbeat section has an almost Motown pop beat, which for me appears a bit at odds with the subject material. Then finishing with another ambient section.
While not the type of music I listen to regularly, the one thing that stands out is the talent of all the many musicians involved with this project. I did enjoy having the opportunity to have listened to the work. I am sure there are many who will play and enjoy The Bardic Depths, and I can imagine it may appear on some best album charts this year.
The biggest thing that came from listening to the album was the quality of production by Robin Armstrong, which is excellent. The atmospheric voice overs used in most tracks, help to tell the story, and provide an additional dimension to the project. The Bardic Depths may be the first of many bands to have their music released via Robin's label if a benefit is the quality production that is on display here.
Final Conflict — The Rise Of The Artisan
I can't think of too many bands in progressive rock circles who, if mentioned, are always discussed with the same degree of respect and fondness as Final Conflict. This may be due to the fact the band, who are now in their thirty fifth year, have never compromised their approach to writing and playing music, and providing the reassuring safety of knowing exactly what you can expect to hear. Listeners can be confident that Return Of The Artisan again delivers beautifully crafted songs, with the usual soaring guitars, lavish keyboards, and the dual vocal delivery which has always been the hallmark of every Final Conflict release.
Eight long years waiting for the centre piece of The Artisan music trilogy appears to be a long time. But from the well crated songs delivered here, then those eight years have been spent extremely productively, as the songs are all wonderfully crafted musical masterpieces. Anyone with the slightest interest in the neo-prog revolution of the 1980's and yearns for that period will relish what this album contains. Similarities with the likes of Pallas and Marillion will always be associated with the music of Final Conflict, but for me this is a huge positive. If early Marillion had not lost their way in being able to write songs with wonderful choruses with musical hooks, then this is what they could be producing today. None of the songs contained on The Rise Of The Artisan ever looses its progressive passion, and the lavish musical passages will for me always have that sprinkling of magic that reminds me of Pink Floyd.
I found the actual concept of the trilogy a problem to decipher, but fortunately the bands website provided this, describing it as “the quest for fame and artistic recognition in the dystopian wilderness of the social media age”. I am sure many people reading this can understand how that feels in the current environment. Comprehending the concept opened up the mystery behind the song lyrics. If you take time to study them, you'll discover some exceptional writing, revealing many things, such as the frustration with the current crop of media moguls who currently manipulate the public perspective of what music should be. It also contains some extremely mature lyrics which you will only really understand if you have lived long enough to become sceptical with the propaganda which media outlets expect you to believe. It almost has the feeling of disappointment with society which lead to the punk movement of the late 70s. Which ironically had such a massive impact for the prog bands of that era.
I'm not going to spend too much time further trying to describe the music on The Rise Of The Artisan, because if you are a long time reader of DPRP , then this is the music you should just buy. Final Conflict, for me, typify why I began, and still listen to, the music I have the privilege to write about. There is also an obvious benefit and magic to listening too, and writing, progressive music if the photo of the band is anything to go by. Original band members Andy Lawton and Brian Donkin appear to have hardly aged a day since their first album some 35 years ago. Hopefully, this is an indication there are many years left for plenty more music to be released, and satisfy those of us who still hunger for the exceptional quality of music which Final Conflict are able to produce.
Inner Odyssey — The Void
Sometimes a band just comes out of nowhere and completely floors you. Sometimes you go into an album without any expectations as you know nothing whatsoever about the music. Sometimes, just sometimes, you discover an album so good that it completely changes your whole perspective about music, or in this case, a particular sub-genre of progressive rock.
This is the first review I've written where I went in completely blind, never having heard anything about the band that I have come to absolutely adore during my past few weeks with this record. It's complex, yet easy to listen to, and while there is an overlying concept revolving around video games, there is no real story to follow lyrically.
Inner Odyssey are from Quebec, Canada. They play a varied arrangement of prog rock, modern metal, ambient industrial and straight up anthemic rock. During the albums playtime you may be reminded of bands such as Riverside, Demians, Karnivool or Porcupine Tree, yet the band never overdo one particular style, and have a very unique sound of their own, which I imagine will be a solid foundation to build on. They descibe themselves as playing; "A neo-progressive style that will appeal to fans of complex music as well as music lovers who are looking for accessible and well constructed melodies".
I mentioned earlier that the album has a recurring concept about video games. This is delivered throughout the record both lyrically and musically. Certain passages from earier songs repeat themselves, slightly differently in later tracks. This is something I absolutely love to hear when the music is written as superbly as it is here, and it's something I wish more bands would experiment with. The biggest example of this is the track, Endgame. A sprightly song that sounds a little like something Spocks Beard may have done in their earlier days, but with a modern twist. The song ebbs and flows beautifully, the listener is surprised time after time with the changes in arrangement and tempo. It's a truly brilliant moment on the album and certainly one of the standout tracks.
Honestly, Endgame actually came as a bit of a surprise, as the album begins very differently. The opening four tracks are actually very dark and brooding, pulling the listener in slowly with ever building atmosphere and tension. The Reckoning, for example, hits you hard with its mellotron laden riffing, yet just as you expect to be going through the motions of a straight forward song, it pulls out a quirky little jazz section that is simply stunning. It takes nothing away from the song and was one of many moments that put a huge smile on my face.
The duo of the near title track and Don't Walk Away change things up again. Into The Void has an almost Nine Inch Nails feel to its slightly industrial percussion, yet it builds into a huge rock sound, with layered guitars and keys. Don't Walk Away is another of the albums stand out tracks for me, the chorus is a superb bit of song writing. It will surely become a fan favourite, and certainly has the appeal to reach a much wider audience than just the progressive scene. The ambience and atmosphere are incredible, it sounds like the kind of anthem that could have been written by a much more mainstream group, in the best way possible.
The whole albums also flows really well, it feels as if the band have really thought about the order of the songs and fit them all in perfectly. The Great Collapse, is a suitably epic conclusion, it's a towering and foreboding powerhouse of a song that cements this whole piece of work together. The level of musicianship throughout the album is absolutely top notch too, in particular the guitar and vocals of main man Vincent Leboeuf Gadreau, who is also credited with the majority of the writing. He is definitely one to watch in the progressive music scene, having already released a superbly dark solo album under the moniker ISOS called Loving On Standby back in 2014.
I cannot recommend this album enough. It might take a few listens to get under your skin but I have come to love this release. Even the darkest parts of this album make me smile, there is an inner beauty to Inner Odyssey that everyone deserves to hear. There is far more going on that there initially might seem, little keyboard flourishes, drum fills, little vocal tricks, all reveal themselves over multiple listens and the whole picture of The Void slowly becomes clear. This is a consistently brilliant album that should be in every prog fans collection.
My Arrival — Satur9 & Indigo
Let this be an example of how confusion can on occasion present you with an unexpected surprise. Nothing like getting up late and forgetting to put your trousers on before leaving the house or walking into an interview with your flies down. No. This confusion was by not reading the synopsis of My Arrival's debut release properly. When I read the preview I thought it said “featuring previous members of Sylvan”, a band I had admired from afar for a few years. It actually said “Sylvium”. When I realised this, it was too late to admit my mistake, so I went into listening to the unusually titled Satur9 & Indigo totally unprepared for what lay before me.
The opening track, a mood setter for what was to come, clearly defined I was going to be taken on an intergalactic space trip, which also meant a concept album. So, maybe forgetting my trousers was not such a bad thing after all. The concept is a “melancholic story of a man with a bleeding heart on a dying planet, desperate to find a new home.” I found it to be an inspiring and moving tale built around magnificent and mature song writing and playing.
The mood was set to be a atmospheric musical journey, but with a restrained power that was evident throughout the album. The first full song, Gone, is where you first fully begin to appreciate the wonder contained upon the CD. Richard de Geest has a stunning voice which fits perfectly with his ability to write movingly emotional songs, with which he can showcase his immense talent. The clarity and passion with which he delivers his vocals, just makes you wish the album would never end.
The album would not be such a masterpiece without Fred Boks who not only provides the drums and keyboards but also the mastering and production. I personally have not experienced such magnificent production work on an album for a long time. Listen to it through headphones, you hear the little masterful things Fred has achieved, such as the clarity of the instruments and the little nuances of overdubbed guitar adding an additional dimension. Then listen to it through normal speakers, the mix has another dimension, you feel totally immersed with the sound. Simply stunning.
The thing that struck me listening to My Arrival was their ability to create such emotion and feeling with so few musical notes. Satur9 & Indigo is an album where less, really is more. Every chord, every note, every drum beat seems have been played only after great deliberation on its impact and meaning to the music. This proves that fitting in as many notes to a bar is not necessary in producing a masterpiece. With this album all that matters is the music and the story, nothing else, no ego, just pure passion for delivering the perfect finished product.
The songs themselves initially reminded me of Sound Of Contact whose only album I love. But with multiple listens you will begin to discover more depth. Strange Machine with its sparse, driving bass, enables the guitar and keyboards to paint a musical mural in a way few bands have ever successful managed, the obvious ones being Pink Floyd and RPWL.
There are moments, such as on the title track itself, were you suddenly realise you are hearing a guitar solo, reminiscent in it tuneful delivery of Steve Rothery, but the song writing is so clever, that you don't realise the solo is happening until part way through. The guitar playing of Ben van Gastel appears very laid back, but you have to immerse yourself multiple times in the album to fully absorb and comprehend the skill of Ben's playing. It had me at times thinking of how Rush structured their songs, and how Alex Lifeson's playing was totally at odds with traditional rock song structures. This displays the artistry of My Arrival and their stunning compositions.
There are vague similarities with latter day Fish-era Marillion and early period Steve Hogarth. There is also an obvious commercial feeling to the songs, at times akin to Coldplay, but without the saccharin coating with which they cover their songs. My Arrival, at odds with the albums space concept, feel far more grounded in reality.
If forgetting to put your trousers on always dealt such lavish rewards, I'd do it all the time. Discovering a gem such as Satur9 & Indigo is a much too rare a thing and when you do the feeling is indescribable, but you know when the mood takes, you will benefit from being able to bask in its complete glory.
Silent Call — Windows
Along with this release of their fourth album Silent Call also announced their departure from the music scene. A career that started in 2004 and up to now gave us three consecutive albums from which their second, Greed was met with much praise here at DPRP. A peculiar retreat from music making for Windows turns out to be quite an enjoyable effort of progressive metal.
Apparently the band has been on put on ice some time ago, for the album was already recorded in 2016 with Göran Nyström (ex-Twinspirits) on lead vocals, replacing vocalist Andi Kravljaca (ex-Seventh Wonder) in the year after their third release Truth's Redemption (2014). With founder members Daniel Ekholm (guitars) and Patrik Törnblom on keyboards and long time companions Tobbe Moen and Mikael Kvist on bass and drums respectively, the resulting Windows now finally sees the light of day.
And from Faceless on identity is gradually given through atmospheric bombast, melancholy and tight riffs, sharing a delicious likeness to contemporary bands like Circus Maximus and Seventh Wonder. The highly accessible track flows into soft piano touches before it changes into uptempo prog metal foundations surrounded by standout instrumentation, catchy melodies, rhythmic virtuosity and soft touches of AOR.
Powerful expressive vocals by Nyström add versatility, which in the middle and lower regions sound convincingly strong, though its rougher edge in the higher regions will likely split the enthusiasm of the crowd, like for instance in the otherwise enjoyably pompous Imprisoned In Flesh.
What will please this crowd, considering myself to be one of them, is the exquisite use of keyboards that accentuates marvellously and enforces layers of symphonic deliciousness on top. A morish aspect utilised to great effect and the icing on this scrumptiously multilayered cake. Not only does this element elevate the compositions, it manages to add substantial depth and a splendid, although lesser refined, Darkwater feel.
In Soulshaker further gracious guitar/keyboard interaction ignites sparks of Dream Theater influences, although its execution lingers towards thoughts of Vanden Plas. A feeling repeated in the sweet bridge in Hermetic, and the ramming Damnation where the latter's bombast, fierce riffs and superb power metal takes me on a Symphony X ride. This reaches it peak in the overwhelming Invisible, a standout track opening in a Savatage minor key that comes crashing down into a spine-chilling frenzy of Symphony X. The sublime symphonies ooze a magnificent atmosphere similar to their The Odyssey, and the many tantalising constantly shuffling variations eventually lead up to a divine heavenly inspired key and guitar solo.
Tracks like the catchy Clouded Horizon and The Unknown sparkle with melody that breathes a smooth Queensrÿche feel. Which is equally present in the potential hit Among The Ruins that briskly shows seductive commercial Rage For Order influences. Of special notice here is the emotive ballad Shifting Shape that harnesses this Queensrÿche embodiment even further. Flowing from an intricate piano overture through many divine arrangements towards a gorgeous melancholic guitar solo, while the passionate vocals by Nyström prove to be a perfect fit.
Windows is exempt from fillers, Hermetic and Bleeding Me Dry gracefully flow in much the same manner paving a pathway for Eye Of Destruction to finish the album with a bang. Here initial Deep Purple organ arrangements thunder into heavy, key-based, groovy power metal where halfway through the tantalising keys makes it soar straight into irresistible Symphony X melodies. A near perfect ending to the album, for although its overall sound is aided by a clean and crisp production by Rich Hinks (Annihilator), the ever present overpowering snare drums by now have drained my inner-ear drum filter.
Thankfully today's technology supplies quick chargers, for Silent Call's last effort sees me pressing "start again" rather frequently. Personally I hope they reconsider their retirement, for the album gives a strong and solid overview of their talents and songwriting capabilities. With their Facebook account still active there is a glimmer of hope things might change for the better, for I hate to think I just wrote their eulogy here. Recommended for anyone interested in competently executed, atmospheric progressive metal, with a healthy breeze of symphonic elements.