The Cyberiam — Live In The Cyberiam [Blu-ray]
The Chicago-based progressive metal band going by the name of The Cyberiam became one of my best discoveries of 2018 with their self-titled debut album and its endearing blend of world class vocals, amazing musicianship, complex-yet-accessibly-memorable song writing, and a polished diamond of a production and mastering job.
It has been a constant companion on my playlist ever since and I'd give it warm recommendation to all fans of classic rock (Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin), mainstream rock (Nickelback), alt rock (Tool, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden), progressive metal (Rush, Odd Logic) and heavy progressive rock (Riverside, Porcupine Tree, Sieges Even).
In an unusual step for a band with only a (relatively obscure) debut album to their name, The Cyberiam has now put out a live album (Bluray, CD and digital) with all nine tracks from the album captured onstage at The Copley Theater in November 2018, plus their two promo videos as extras.
The show is presented more as a series of song-by-song performances, usually with a video or graphics inserted to introduce each number. There is an audience, but after each song the applause is faded-out. There is no in-between-song footage at all. Some of the videos add extra interest to the show. The four cameras capture every angle possible. The digital effects are overused.
Funnily enough, my favourite songs on the studio album, are exactly the same in a live setting. After Juxtaposer gets the show off to a flying start, with Semple's voice immediately impressing, the first five (my favourite) album tracks are nicely spread-out across the set. The trio of The Historian, Nostalgia and My Occupation rely more on their depth and atmospheres. Whilst enjoyable enough, they lack the hooks to really shine on stage and are unlikely to feature once a second album offers the band a wider song selection choice.
The thing to note, is that considering this is a new band with limited live experience as a unit, the performances are outstanding. It is probably wrong to select one person, but seeing them play the album live, I am blown away by the complexly-inventive drumming of Tommy Murray; who must have consumed a hyper-market's worth of energy drinks before the show!! The duel vocal harmonies between singer/guitarist Keith Semple and bassist Brian Kovacs are also top class. Frank Lucas catches the eye and ear behind his swirling decks of rotating keyboards.
Visually, the decision to place Semple on a mini-platform towards the back of the stage (where the backing singers would usually be placed) is a strange one.
Firstly he is further away from the cameras, meaning that with the stage lighting, the quality of image is reduced and angles limited.
Secondly, having the frontman at the back, means it is all very static. There is very little movement onstage at all, meaning a big gap remains at the front of the stage where the frontman should be. It is an approach the band has used in other live footage I have seen but here Semple seems to only use that location when singing, the rest of time he interacts at the front, as one would expect. In this live recording he only leaves his mini-platform a couple of times, leaving little room for visual variety and interaction.
That aside, this is a great showcase for this very talented and promising band whose songs really excel in a live setting. Their second album is due to emerge sometime in 2020. As a stop-gap they have also just released a single. Well I say a single, but clocking in at over 21 minutes it is never going to fit on a 7inch piece of vinyl!
One heavily-instrumental song, split into five segments, it is an ambitious piece that shows another side to the band's songwriting repertoire. More metallic than much of their debut album, it does however still straddle that line between prog-metal and prog-rock. The organ and keyboards give a very Deep Purple vibe to several sections. The constant shifts and changes in the instrumental workouts languish between Rush and Dream Theater, while sounding like neither. Well worth a listen.
(During the Covid-19 lockdown, the band has decided to stream this full concert for free from their YouTube channel. So now you have no excuse for missing out on this great band.)
Luo — Unspoken
Luo's Unspoken is a bewildering listen at first, with keyboards seemingly disconnected from frenetic drumming, drumming that is placed forward in the mix. I was left wondering how I was going to make any sense of the music made by this instrumental duo, as it erupted from my speakers.
On further listens, more prepared and familiar with what was blasting from the hi-fi, I began to discern how these relatively short, but densely packed pieces work; as well as how far from classic prog this album moves. However it still has a connection, through the sheer inventiveness of the playing, arrangements, production, melodies and percussive drive.
This second full-length album by Luo has a sculptural feel, one that has carved by hard-won talent from blocks of aural marble, into shapes that can be examined from many angles. The sonic sculptors responsible for Unspoken are Josh Trinnaman on keyboards, electronics, and guitar, and Barney Sage on drums and electronics.
They take inspiration from genres such as IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), under whose umbrella you get acts such as Aphex Twin, The Orb and The Future Sound of London. They also have some common ground with Drum 'n' Bass acts such as Modestep, Pendulum and Squarepusher. Into this they also chip in a hefty dose of prog rock, post rock, math rock, ambient, jazz and even a bit of folk.
This is all chiselled into a heady brew that took a while to click with me. Then I realised that the drums were being used as a solo instrument, and the focus as to what was going on, was in the left hand of Josh Trinnaman's keyboards. That the music was anchored, not by the usual rhythmic elements of the drum patterns but in the low-end keys. Appreciating how the music revolved and whirled like a dervish on speed around the bass line, opened this compelling album to me.
The album opens with Testament's deceptively gentle keys, before a sudden acceleration throws in a head-bangingly fierce drum whirl that illuminates rather than underpins the layered keyboard melody, synth lead and glitchy electronica. It is a breathless way to start the album.
Luo let more air and space in on Eldritch Rhythm. Carved out around guest Adam Znaidi's lithe bass playing, there are drum fills, while the keys bloom into the spaces. They create a spooky, atmospheric glow that leaves you waiting for a jump-scare that never arrives.
Luo change things around quite often on the album. Its detailing adds to its repeat-listening charm. They drop in heavy-ish guitar on Problem Ball, where it drives the dynamic changes. On Septa there is a relentless synth bass pulse with jazzy piano breaks. The jazzy piano returns on the coda to The Gapper but its main body, of slowly-welling keys, counterpoints frenetic percussive leads. The two parts of Pangolins has an unexpected 60s psychedelic feel to its melody. The guitar adds new textures as it moves into the beautiful ambience of Part 2.
Luo end the album with the longest track, Threnody. Starting and finishing with reverb-laden electric piano it has a lovely, arched structure that grows to some intensity, before winding down with electronics to the fore. A great ending to a surprisingly engaging release.
The music here is something akin to the math-rock experimentalists Battles, the noisier Three Trapped Tigers or even to a more neon-lit Nine Inch Nails (minus the angst). Luo, I feel, have a more complex syncopation between the keyboards and the drumming going on than these comparisons allow. There will be occasions where this intense music will not suit a listener's mood as it does require an ongoing adventurous commitment.
However, Luo's Unspoken repays close and repeated listens, these allow you to appreciate and admire the thought and craft that has gone into this intricate music. A great find, in an area with which I am unfamiliar.
Christine Ott — Chimères (Pour Ondes Martenot)
If you are a fan of Radiohead's Kid A, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, 20th century French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen's monumental Turangalila-Symphonie or are familiar with the soundtracks of films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia, Ghostbusters, Amélie and There Will Be Blood, then you will, knowingly or not, have heard the ethereal keening of the Ondes Martenot.
The Ondes Martenot is an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s by the French cellist Maurice Martenot. It is less well known than another 1920s electronic instrument, the Theremin. The Ondes Martenot can be viewed as one of the first 'monophonic and experimental synthesisers ... offering its very rare players an infinite range of timbres, textures and sounds'. Christine Ott is one of those rare players.
She teaches this instrument and has performed in many cine-concerts providing live accompaniment to showings of classic silent films. She has also composed many film soundtracks. Chimères (Pour Ondes Martenot) is her third solo album and the first time the Ondes has been used solo on a whole album. She has entrusted the production and live sound manipulation (effects boxes, loops and modulators), external to the instrument itself, to the duo of electronic composer Paul Régimbeau (Mondkopf) and Frédéric D. Oberland (of the free rock collective Oiseaux-Tempête). Between them they have made an album that is half-composed, half-improvised and fully intriguing.
How intriguing, will depend on how you like the sounds produced by this instrument. Over eight tracks Christine Ott explores what is probably not even close to the full range of the Ondes pallet.
The music on Chimères moves between the hypnotically-ethereal, to the scarily avant-garde with seeming ease. It takes a while for the ear to adjust to the broad range of sounds, colours and sometimes sheer noise that Ondes can produce. It is not all Theremin-style, high-pitched warbles and screeches. These pieces are not hummable pop melodies, as they take modern classical music as their starting point, but it is worth the effort to listen closely. The melodies reward the effort.
Take for instance Todeslied. Here whirling bass notes, like helicopter rotor blades beating the air in the distance, underpin sliding cello-like structures on which Ott builds a pulsing layer of notes. These evolve and slowly move up the register, then they almost dissolve, failing to find a resolution in an uncomfortable Wagnerian way.
Then on Sirius the bass notes sound like they have been fed through a Leslie Cabinet that has layers of washes and pulses over it, reminding me of Tangerine Dream in one of their early avant-garde moods. Ott is not afraid to use space in the sound world she creates, nor to just go for a head-crunching approach when the music dictates.
On initial listens, Christine Ott's Chimères (Pour Ondes Martenot) seems to suffer from a deal of similarity between the tracks, but repeat listens open new musical vistas with the discovery of the versatility of the Ondes and what, under the hands of a masterful player like Christine Ott, it can produce. I don't think for a minute that this album is for everyone, but for those with a sense of musical adventure it is a work worth investigating.
Ptolemea — Maze
In many respects, 2020 has so far been a pretty crap year. In musical terms mine has been a disaster. My Top 10 for the year currently features zero, zilch, sod-all, sweet FA, nowt, rien ... you get the idea! Time, I thought, to delve into some other musical styles in search of musical solace for those rainy days of confinement in the eerily-still French countryside.
The answer has been found 'up north', just across the French border, in the shape of a female-fronted alt-rock band by the name of Ptolemea.
Don't let the words "alternative rock" put you off. Ptolemea's sound encompasses a mix of blues, rock, alternative and soul, with stunning vocals and an inventive use of the electric violin that should be of interest to anyone who seeks some depth to, and creation in, their music.
Maze is their second release. After a couple of spins, I was so impressed that I also got hold of their debut release from two years ago, Tome I. Each is a six-track EP (or mini album). However with a combined playing time of just under an hour, and a clear consistency in styles and quality, if you combine them, they actually make one compelling entity (in other words "an album"). Whatever your preference, I shall review it, as I now tend to play it; as a single album.
The bedrock of Ptolemea's sound is the deftly-dynamic rhythm section of Martin Schommer on drums and Yves Oek on E-bass. One of two captivating features of this band is the electric violin played by Christophe Reitz (I'll deal with the other one later). Last but not least, Remo Cavallini enhances it all with his varied guitar playing.
Although its roots have been soaked in blues and rock, there is nothing formulaic about this band's sound. The quintet offers an adept hand at shifting in and out of moods and intensity. Along with the quality of the performances and the strength of its melodies, it is this sonic variety that holds one's attention and will strengthen the appeal of this band to an audience outside of a specific genre.
Twisted Mind is planted in the soil where alt-rock meets blues. A deep, rumbling guitar riff is enlivened by the violin adding siren-like colours. The wonderful, soaring bridge offers a touch of soul, and the violin solo evolves the brooding moods further. Trying To Forgive is in a more up-tempo rock vein. This time a slowed-down bridge shows compositional craft, with the violin and guitar taking turns to deliver the solo.
With Let It All Go we have a blues-soaked pop ballad (think a half-paced Black Velvet) where the vocals take centre-stage. Fellow countryman and blues guitarist Remo Cavallini offers a memorable solo, with the violin being given only a bit-part. Falling hits a similar spot. This time the bass takes the solo spotlight.
Run is the potential radio (Spotify) single. Another balladic-paced track with a bluesy vibe, it is again the inventive use of the violin that avoids any clichés. Another great interchange of off-flow guitar and violin, maintains the listener's interest until the end.
However after a few songs it becomes very clear that band founder and singer Priscila Da Costa is the magic ingredient in this mix; that takes all these songs to another level. What a voice!
With an ability to grab and hold a listener's attention from the very first note, she possesses a subtle variety of tone and dynamic to use as each song demands.
I am reminded of a gritty Amy Winehouse attitude when she uses her lower ranges. A more gutsy Alannah Myles springs to mind in the more soaring, bluesy pop-rock moments. The violin and voice combination used on the stripped-down singer-songwriter format of I Wish I Could is stunningly vulnerable. The way that the acoustic guitar runs off-kilter with the vocals to avoid predictability is clever. The street-savvy nuance and strutty confidence on Would Just Someone Understand is rather fabby too.
Her vocals on Maze (the song) possess a bolshy swagger and a gutsy, bluesy attitude that's rolling for a fight amidst standard rock motifs and occasional squalls of guitar. Play this loud!
If I was arranging these 12 songs into a track list for an album, then the forgettably-short Isolated would be lost in the middle of the album, whilst Time Has Come would be the bonus track. Perhaps it works well in a live environment, but its Devil Went Down To Georgia playing of the violin and a stupidly-consistent skiffle beat, puts its simplicity at uncomfortable odds with the skill and sophistication shown elsewhere. A washboard solo may have given it a saving-dose of self-depreciating humour?
Maze is available digitally and as both a CD and on vinyl. It was due to be officially launched with a live show in March; just as Europe went into pandemic lock-down. The concert will hopefully be rescheduled in safer times, as I'm sure that all these songs take on an extra dimension in a live setting.
So the advice is simple; for anyone who enjoys blues-inspired alternative rock with heavy helpings of creativity, a strong but non-traditional role for the violin, plus superb musicianship and a singer from the top of the class, then get hold of both of these EPs and arrange your own track-listing.