Higher Circles — The Overview Effect
The discovery of new, exciting music in the days before the internet differs completely from today. As information was limited, it often depended on word of mouth advertising, handovers from friends or like-minded music enthusiasts, small scale magazines or going out on a limb in buying a record that on first impression seemed interesting. In my case, the latter meant strolling through tons of vinyl covers at one of my favourite, now sadly defunct, record stores: Boudisque in Amsterdam.
Here, in the special "heavy" department, I would assemble a modest stack of albums, which from top to bottom ranged from "sure-buys" down to "contenders" and "maybes". Based upon factors like the album cover, band members and their instrumentation, length of the songs (the longer, the better) and price, I would then listen to the contenders first on specially-arranged turntables. Most of the time these were however occupied by the lucky few who entered prior to my visit, so I regularly had to wait in line. Comparing my "I'd like to listen to this please" pile to some of the other customers bulks probably would have meant shopping time was over when my turn arrived, so wasting no time I would often end up choosing albums on a first impression. The results varied obviously, but many chosen albums gathered through these hunches have supplied many hours of musical enjoyment and still manage to do so today.
With the loss of so many good record stores, these shopping experiences have undeniably changed. Thankfully today's information overdose on Bandcamp, Facebook and YouTube successfully manages to fill most gaps in the investigative tasks, as well as supplying an unoccupied, free to use, turntable. In Higher Circles' particular case, this reversed first impression of discovering the artwork and its underlying elements afterwards, has the exact same sensation of a satisfying outcome.
It's fair to say that Higher Circles tend to take considerable time to release their albums. From their founding it took them 18 years to release their debut album, Ritual One in 2001, and its successor The Overview Effect has once again taken another 18 years. The line-up of the band has remained fairly consistent throughout, consisting of Steve Moore (electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass and vocals), Ken Geer (drums and percussion) and Norman Windrose on electric and acoustic guitars, bass and lead vocals.
My interest was immediately sparked upon their statement of playing heavy melodic progressive rock, reinforced by the accompanying YouTube video of the closing track, Forever And A Day. The atmospheric, dark Pink Floyd-inspired opening and the "We choose to go to the moon" lyric, literally spiraled me beyond the moon, straight into the outer stretches of a galaxy filled with delicious late seventies Rush influences. With a majestic guitar sound, reminiscent to their Xanadu days, and layers of mood-enhancing, captivating keys and bombastic eruptions, it then slowly glides into uptempo neo-progressive rock with shades of Pendragon, emphasised by the Barrett-like vocals from Windrose. Impressions of Peter Nicholls (IQ) also pop up frequently. Flowing in a stream of constantly-changing movements, confident instrumentation and a gorgeous The Jewel (Pendragon) inspired guitar/keyboard finish, it proves to be a very tasty first impression.
Their preference for heavy-fuelled rock is clear throughout, and the engaging opener Fallout is no exception. The tight riffs, mindful to Rush during their 2112 period, work fluently with the dynamic, rhythmic grooves and catchy chorus, while the bass gives the composition further drive. A powerful instrumental passage, demonstrates mid-seventies playful twin guitars à la Thin Lizzy, then glides into a subdued bridge supported by keyboards. Ultimately it converges into a forceful end section that features a tantalising guitar solo, one of Higher Circles' massive strengths.
The equally confident Black Heart is filled with drama and melancholy, where the delicious transition of guitars soaring into luscious keys is divine, although the raw, passionate vocals of Windrose take away some of its inner beauty. On the other hand the acoustic atmospheric ending flows brilliantly into the immaculate Borne Again. This divine epic track elevates the album to exceptional heights, soaring through many delightful Rush insertions.
After an embracing La Villa Strangiato inspired overture, it glides into dynamic versatile rock filled with a comfortable Hemispheres feel, while the exquisite use of keyboards gives a strong sense of Trilogy (an Eighties UK neo-progressive rock band who regrettably never made it past the Fire In Harmony compilation album). The overwhelming bombastic bridge then flows into an atmospheric Jacob's Ladder like passage, exuding in a superb melancholic guitar solo. Imprints of the British Omega emerge as the melodies pick up pace, ultimately settling and conversing with playfully-executed keys into a spine-chilling finale.
The aftermath of Borne Again's Rush-warp sees the subtle, semi-acoustical One Always Lies radiate traces of a combined Broon's Bane/The Trees through its exquisite use of acoustic guitar and the gentle interaction of the rhythm section with its subtle drumming. Upon multiple revisits this beautifully constructed instrumental composition further unfolds immaculate moving pictures of Grobschnitt's Silent Movie, where the gentle arrangements, in combination with the elegant, soft touches of keyboards, intricately show Higher Circles' sophisticated approach.
This elegantly restrained angle is ever so lightly continued in Solitaire, containing tasty early Pendragon inspired neo-prog influences. Here the large variety of rock alternations and a jazzy interlude all lead up to a wonderful ending, with once again an excellent guitar solo in the vein of Genesis/Nightwinds and a caressing coda filled with touching keys. The captivating Alone In A World, sung by Moore, completes the adventurous album and showcases a rockier approach. Initially it flows in Rush fashion with catchy melodies and quiet passages, and then tumbles into heavy bombastic rock where the instrumental interaction is exceptionally fine, adding further texture to the track.
The band plan to re-release their first effort, Ritual One, in the near future in a remixed/remastered form. Very kindly they supplied an advanced CDr-copy alongside The Overview Effect which, once it is officially released, will be given a full new review. A short evaluation shows that the band has evolved and matured confidently, showing growth in executional and compositional skills. Aided by the open and warm production, attention to details and refinement in arrangements, they have produced a wonderful album.
Based upon the combination of epic tracks, a preliminary vision of dual twin-neck bass/electric guitars and the foresight of Canadian-elated delicacies, The Overview Effect would initially have been categorised as a solid "contender" in my nowadays imaginary pile. I can only conclude that the joyous, long-lasting impressions, furthermore bringing to mind Tiles and The Tirith, have ensured it has landed securely on top of my pile. Hopefully the band don't wait another 18 years to follow up this highly recommendable effort.
Joviac — Here And Now
Here And Now is the second release from Joviac, a prog rock trio from Finland. The group was formed in 2016 by vocalist, guitarist, and keyboardist Viljami Jupiter Wenttola, with Antti Varjanne on bass on their first album. Joviac became a trio with the addition of Rudy Fabritius on drums, and this second album is the first to feature all three musicians.
I typically really enjoy rock power trios. The stripped-down format of just drums, bass and guitar challenges each player to make the most of their sonic space. And in particular, a power trio often allows a bassist more room to stretch out, and we can hear that here with Joviac.
Bassist Varjanne plays a 5-string with a rich sound that, in combination with new drummer Fabritius, creates a powerful rhythm section. My only disappointment with the drums and bass is that it sounds like they had to record their tracks early in the process of the album, so they don't get to react at all to the guitar, keyboard or vocal tracks. As a result, Here And Now sounds more like a studio recording showcasing Wenttola's vocals and guitar, more than the exciting rock band that Joviac probably is when playing live, with a second guitarist also helping to fill out the sound.
The album opens with an instrumental track, appropriately-enough named Intro, which builds gradually from a slow pulse, into two-handed tapping guitar, and eventually into a majestic overture. It's an exciting and wonderfully proggy way to start the album, with numerous dynamic loud-to-soft-to-loud changes and strong melodies.
Intro segues into the first vocal track, Straws, and Wenttola's vocals are melodic, with occasional touches of rasp. Straws has a very commercial chorus that reminds me (pleasantly) of Asia or Kino. There's a lot of complexity hidden on this track, with a sound that is more AOR (album-oriented rock) than metal, and undeniably radio friendly.
After the really strong start of the first two tracks, the album seems to start fighting with itself over direction. Black Mirror begins with bass and drums creating a driving rhythm section in the verse, with a Dokken grittiness. But then the track abruptly shifts into a sugary pop vocal chorus, which is completely at odds with the harder sound of the rhythm section. The elements eventually reach a bit of a compromise as the track develops, though the tug-of-war between pop and hard rock continues to get more evident as the album proceeds.
The title track, Here And Now, has strong commercial leanings, and reminds me (in both good and bad ways) of Europe's The Final Countdown. Yes, it is a big musical statement. But the song development is predictable, from the Big Guitar Solo, to more two-handed guitar tapping, which on this track just feels gratuitous. I appreciate the technique, but it seems perhaps more about showing off rather than contributing to the song.
As the album proceeds, Decay gets Muse-y with chorus keyboard arpeggios and more layered vocals, but runs out of gas after a couple of minutes. Crossfire is an uninspired and frankly immediately forgettable pop track. The final track, Fade Into The Light is, for its first half, extremely muddy in production, as if the bass and drums were sent off to a distant warehouse. The drastic change in production sounds deliberate, but I just don't understand the intention, and found the change distracting. The sound cleans up half-way through, but the track fades-out after a rather clichéd long tom drum roll, which ends the album in a lackluster fashion.
At just 42 minutes in length, Here And Now has strong playing and good production (other than on the last track), and shows a lot of potential in the first two songs. But the lack of consistency in song delivery leaves me unlikely to want to revisit the entire album any time soon.
Ricochet — Pieces Of The Ricochet
Here's another prog band with a very similar name to another well known prog band. I was expecting the Ricocher who supported Arena in the early 2000s and I think were voted best new band by the English based, and recently sadly defunct, Classic Rock Society. But instead I have a German band with different letter at the end of its name, who to be fair, have been in existence much longer than their Dutch namesakes.
(Editors note: to clear up any other possible confusion: this is also not the same Ricochet (same spelling, also from Germany and also playing a heavy prog) whose second album, Zarah: A Teartown Story was reviewed by DPRP back in 2006 nor one of two heavy metal bands, nor the NWOBHM band, nor the much better-known US country band with again exactly the same name!)
This Ricochet have been in existence since 1991, starting out as a covers band. The idea to release a CD of self composed music began in 2007, and now, some thirteen years later, their efforts have at last seen the light of day.
Looking at their Facebook page, which appears to be the only available information on the band, the recording has actually taken this long, with sporadic recording sessions spread over many years. The result is six songs, which are on the rock side of progressive.
Production of the album is very good, with clear definition to all instruments, and the vocal harmonies sound very strong. The guitar is the prominent instrument, with a very '90s metal sound most of the time. On the first song, Fear, there is a solo section which sounds very much like Iron Maiden, with dual guitars riffing in harmony. The song ends with an AOR-like finalé, similar to a heavier Saga sound.
Singer, Claus Martin, has a strong voice when he really pushes it, but when he holds back, he does have an accent which diminishes the delivery. He certainly is at his best on the rockier tracks.
Credo begins life as a ballad, similar to the ones that bands such as Poison delivered in the '80s, ramping up towards the end with soaring guitar solo's that you don't seem to hear any more. All it lacks is a catchy chorus to sing along to.
With The Other Side we have the first of two tracks which extend to well over ten minutes. The middle section of the song is probably the weakest part of the album for me. The song takes so many twists and turns, some which do not feel natural, or aurally comfortable. I was gratful when the band return to what is their obvious strength, which is writing catchy melodies.
Again has a prog-pop feel, with big keyboard chords, reminiscent of fellow countrymen Karibow. This shows that Ricochet have the ability to write strong, catchy tunes.
My choice for the best song on the albumis Death Incarnate. It has the best-written lyric, which enables the band to give a dramatic performance, reminiscent of the best neo prog bands, with a metal edge and soaring guitar. One of the best individual songs I have heard this year. A very well constructed song indeed.
The album closes with the longest track, Transition, which is split into three sections. The first has a medieval sound, and a disturbing, but cleverly written lyric about racism. The second phase is a real rocking section, very prog metal with a strong guitar driving the song along. The final part reveals the song to be a love song, lamenting the loss of a loved one through tragic circumstances.
Ricochet's strength really is within their ability to compose songs which are dramatic and catchy at the same time, with a slight nostalgic feel of the 90's. For myself, coming from that particular era, there is much to appreciate. The sad thing is the length of time it has taken to complete the record. Fingers crossed this will not be their last release, and hopefully we will not have to wait another thirteen years.
Various Artists — A Tribute to Keith Emerson and Greg Lake
This tribute to Keith Emerson and Greg Lake is another in the line of Billy Sherwood's homages to famous musicians and notable albums. Sherwood is a pro and knows how to put together a respectful collection of music using other famous musicians. With these types of releases though, the question for me is always the same. With the existence of the originals, are these cover versions worth listening to more than once? For the most part, my answer is yes.
Most of the musicians involved have become Sherwood tribute regulars and they are an impressive group. This line up includes prog rock stewards such as Geoff Downes, Larry Fast, Patrick Moraz, Brian Auger, Thijs Van Leer, Martin Turner, and Jordan Rudess. 21st Century Schizoid Man featuring Auger and the vocals of Todd Rundgren, opens the album effectively and captures some of the original's flair. The choice to include The Nice's version of America in the arrangement is a nice touch.
Also of note is the impressive rendition of A Time And Place, with Leslie Hunt and Derek Sherinian, the Sherwood-sung version of The Sheriff and Moraz's admirable take on Hoedown. Most intriguing though is Fanfare For The Common Man, which features performances by Emerson's son, Aaron and his grandson, Ethan. I am sure that Keith would have been proud of this entertaining interpretation and it provides proof that he passed down some of his talents.
I have been underwhelmed by some of Sherwood's other tributes. The intent is always honorable but the results have, at times, been ordinary. That said, there is an extra level of zest to much of this collection. That is likely reflective of the admiration that the musicians involved have for the original material. Not every rendition is a home run and the "Greatest Hits" style track-listing is a bit obvious. Overall though, I found this tribute to Emerson and Lake to be a very enjoyable and deferential listen. The original versions reign supreme, but this is nonetheless a worthwhile salute to two of progressive rock's greatest legends.
David Watkinson — Jon Anderson & The Warriors: The Road To Yes [Book]
I once read that Yes had had more books published about them than any other band. Whether that is true or not I am not sure, I certainly have one or two kicking around. Yes seem to generate an interest that transcends just the music they create, to the point that they have a mystic around them, that leaves anyone with an interest in the band, or music in general, wanting to delve deeper into the legend they have built.
This new book by David Watkinson has one downside. It disproves once and for all the theory that the members of Yes arrived on Earth, delivered by some greater being, to demonstrate how music can transcend beyond the norm. David's book proves that the early members of Yes grew up the same way as everybody else.
Jon Anderson & The Warriors: The Road To Yes, covers what could be split into four sections, on Anderson's early life, his period as a member of The Warriors and their history, Jon's musical activity between the Warriors and Yes, and finally the formation of Yes. I certainly had no idea that Jon Anderson had such a productive musical career prior to Yes. The book takes us from Jon's early days in and around Accrington and Bolton in the north west of England. Once Jon had discovered music, he was destined to follow his passion and become a musician.
The catalyst for the book is Jon, but the real heart of the book is the history of the band The Warriors who Jon joined in 1963. The group were already established at this point, and Jon joined after seeing the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and deciding he wanted to be like the Beatles. The book contains many interesting and humorous anecdotes of the band's time, but one of the biggest interests for the reader are the amount of photos and mementos displayed throughout the book. Nearly all come from the author's own collection of Warriors memorabilia. I cannot imagine any other book coming anywhere near to providing such a concise history of a band from that period, other than a book on The Beatles. If you read this book and want to further discover the music that The Warriors produced, then this has it all. The band's time line, a complete discography, extracts from band members dairies, set lists; the list appears endless.
David then details how after leaving The Warriors, Jon Anderson decided upon a solo career, going by the name of Hans Christian. He would eventually meet Chris Squire, join his band who, at the time were called Mabel Greer's Toyshop, who then changed their name to Yes, and as they say, the rest is history. But this history is explored in some depth, up until the release of their debut album. Included are some rare photos of Yes on stage at their earliest concerts.
For anyone with a passing interest in the formation of Yes, Jon Anderson's early career, or the Lancashire band The Warriors, I cannot imagine you will come across a more complete, concise and interesting book than what David Watkinson has presented here. It really is a work of passion, and evidence that if you have a passion for a band, then this is the result of what your passion can deliver.