The Arc Light Sessions — Chromatic Overture
Sometimes we at DPRP.net are a bit behind in time when it comes to reviewing a band's latest albums. There are always more albums to be reviewed than our limited capacity can deal with, which inevitably leads to a time-lag. But some artists make it simply impossible to be up to standards in terms of reviewing their latest album. The Arc Light Sessions from Canada are the perfect example of this phenomenon.
This review deals with their 2020 album Chromatic Overture which appears to be the first album they released this year. Since this one, they have already managed to release two more albums with equally intriguing titles: The Unintended Consequence Of Memory and The Discovery Of Light. That is an impressive output by this band that was formed in 2015 by Spanish keyboardist John Alarcon. On this album he is accompanied by Hugo Emard on bass, Steve Valmont on drums, Luc Tremblay on flute and oboe, and Patrick Simpson on guitars; a line-up that would also record the above mentioned follow-ups to Chromatic Overture.
Musically there is enough to enjoy on the album. Their style of music is prog-lite with fine keys and guitar sections, often quite subtle, never over-the-top and with numerous orchestral-like arrangements. It is not very new or adventurous but decent and solid and with much variation. Alarcon has obviously listened to a lot of the seventies and eighties prog bands.
The sounds of The Arc Light Sessions on this album reminded me heavily of David Rohl's Mandalaband. Opener Reality is a fine example of this, with its fine melody, a lush arrangement and fine guitar playing. I liked the piano playing and flute solo in Red Flowers Of Summer as well as the Mellotron solo followed by a nice guitar solo in All In Time. The instrumental Spellbound is a nice but not very special track, while Move Aside sounds like a filler to me; the waltz-like melody and instrumentation are predictable. The flute in Wasn't Born Yesterday, as well as the piano coda in These Winter Blues, are really nice, as is the organ intro of It All Begins …..
But apart from all these fine musical moments there is a real problem with this album and probably with this band. The lead vocals are done by band leader Alarcon and to me he simply isn't a good singer. He has a rather thin voice with a limited range that would be fine if the melodies would fit that voice. But they don't. He has to sing many high notes, something which costs him too much trouble. He does a lot to try to keep his tone but fails repeatedly. It is not completely out of tune but he just isn't right on-tone either. He starts to tremble when he has to sing long, stretched notes which makes his singing really hard to listen to. Listen to Red Flowers Of Summer or These Winter Blues and hear how much trouble he has to keep up, sounding very strained. Since vocals are probably the most important part of this style of music, the album becomes hard to listen to. And that is a real pity.
The Arc Light Sessions may have achieved an impressive quantity of recent releases, this album doesn't have the quality it could have had. A decent producer would have replaced Alarcon's singing immediately and that would have lifted the songs considerably. What remains is an album with numerous nice musical moments, alternated with those vocals, which, sadly, brings down the whole record.
Maybe it would have been worthwhile to scrutinise all their new music, select the really good tracks, introducing new vocals and release just one, somewhat longer album. Instead it looks like a choice for quantity over quality; and that is always the wrong bet.
Chest Rockwell — Ghost Of A Man Still Alive
Named after a porn-star character in the film Boogie Nights, Chest Rockwell is the one-man project of multi-instrumentalist Josh Hines. This new release and Chest Rockwell's fourth, is Ghost Of A Man Still Alive which Josh Hines has written, arranged, performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered.
The music on Ghost Of A Man Still Alive is very much hard-rock guitar-oriented. Mainly short and punchy songs with not much in the way of soloing, it has aggressive riffs and sometimes feels as if you are washing your face with a flannel made of sandpaper. Its uncompromising vision, sometimes makes this a difficult listen and its reliance on short forms makes it feel airtight and unapproachable in its venomous energy.
But it is not all in-your-face music. The opener As You Like has a less-twisty prog-metal meets indie-rock vibe. On Paradox the riffs are alleviated by strings and/or keyboards.
The last three tracks have a bit more about them, without abandoning the hardness. El Anacronópete's bass-led prog-metal has a grinding riff that works rather well. Less reliant on pure riffing, Farewell, Voyager's rhythm has the galloping motion of Muse's Knights of Cydonia and nice harmonic interplay between synths, piano and guitars. The instrumental closer Cradle's middle eastern tones and multi-layered synths take the lead over grinding guitars, letting a little air in.
Also letting in the air are four, one-minute tracks (Present, Future, Past, and Eternal Return) that are interludes of spacey synths, and give relief from the frenzy.
Chest Rockwell's Ghost Of A Man Still Alive is for stronger and more receptive ears than mine. If the idea of hard-rock and indie-rock short-form prog-metal interests you, then this well played set might be for you.
Elder — Omens
Since forming in 2006, Elder have been on quite a journey, evolving over the course of four albums from stoner rock, through doom metal, to a heavy progressive rock on this new release Omens. A similar journey was made by Britain's Anathema, but a little more of them later.
On this journey, the original trio have changed and expanded to a quartet. Joining long-term stalwarts Nicholas DiSalvo (guitars, vocals, keyboards) and Jack Donovan (bass) are touring guitarist, now full member Michael Risberg (guitars, keyboards), new drummer Georg Edert and for this recording, on keyboards, Fabio Cuomo. And what a fantastic sound these guys make.
This five-song, 55-minute release is an expansive collection of heavy prog, with metal touches and a sprinkling of post-rock taking the underlying psychedelia of the melodies to great heights.
The title track that opens the album sets out the template that Elder use and then innovate within. It moves from echoing keys and synths before the full band drive churning riffs through a cycle of build and release. When the vocals enter they feel a little superfluous to the melodic development and overall structure. Though in all the songs here the vocals are in relatively short sections compared to the song lengths. Though Nicholas DiSalvo's vocal are good and fit well with the overall sound, they are placed low in the mix and feel like another instrumental texture.
There are excellent touches throughout the opening track. A Mellotron pops up to underscore the guitar attack, there's a twin lead guitar passage and a fine metal-ish guitar solo as the track builds to an intense conclusion. It is never breathless in its relentless, forward momentum. Everything is controlled but still feels spontaneous. Elder also cleverly switch tempos and have a mastery of quiet/loud dynamics, so that nothing feels wasted or extraneous in the near eleven-minute run time.
The rest of the tracks on Omens follow this template but play with it in subtle ways, so that all the tracks just sweep you up and carry you with them on a tide of melody that has, at its base, a sturdy, hummable psychedelia. On In Procession, after a fierce opening, it settles into a looping guitar and electric piano groove while dropping the heaviest riffs on the album. In its second half there is a delicious synth solo. Something for everyone.
Post-rock informs Halcyon's slow-building groove of pulsing synths, throbbing bass and slinking drums. Over this Elder work through engaging guitar and keyboard textures that seem to have something new in them every time I listen.
The quiet-loud-quiet dynamic is used on a grand scale with Embers. Its fast-paced, staccato opening leads to a concluding guitar festival that is fabulous. Then to end the album, Elder channel Anathema's way of growing an emotion-laden melody by developing harmonic chord structures. However One Light Retreating moves away from Anathema into a blistering central section where guitars clash over synth-lines before rebuilding the original melody and harmonies back to a glorious pinnacle.
As you can probably tell, for me, Elder's Omens is one of the albums of the year. If you like a bit of crunch with your melodies you can't go wrong here.
Jargon — The Fading Thought
It seems that the art of progressive music is in good health at the moment. Lots of releases, across a broad spectrum of styles, and mostly of a good quality. Much of this has been brought about by the modern availability of recording and distribution methods, something that has removed the gate-keeping role that record labels used to play, often meaning that the release of albums was determined by a sole criteria of "what will make us some money".
The art of progressive artists (and increasingly of the labels that remain in business) to market their music is less than convincing. It is now rare to receive an actual CD with all the associated artwork and booklets. A low quality MP3 file (or even worse a stream) is increasingly an artist's choice for the best way to impress someone with the quality of their music. The presence of even a short bio or press release to add a bit of context to the artist/album, is even more rare. Often that means that the reviewer (me) has to pop-off into web-land to find an artist website (also increasingly rare), social media pages or, if desperate, another review website to gather the relevant information.
Sometimes however I prefer to just take an album at face value. For this review, I have a decent quality sound file and a digital version of the booklet, so it is almost as if I had made a blind purchase from the Jargon Bandcamp page.
I am not sure whether Jargon is a band or a solo project. I am not even sure if "Jargon" is someone's real name. I am left to presume that Jargon is the male in the booklet artwork, and judging from the vocals, he is also the main songwriter, singer and pianist. The line-up is completed by a drum, bass and guitar plus two violins, a viola and a cello. He (and maybe they) come from Greece. No other albums are listed on Bandcamp, so I guess this is Jargon's debut.
From the booklet artwork in black and white, with a rather retro, photo album sort of feel, I am thinking there is a theme based around looking back at childhood and lives passed. The lyrics feel autobiographical, although they can be read in many different ways, which is good. The retro feel is enhanced by the CD being split into a "Side A" of five tracks and a "Side B" of four.
Musically The Fading Thought is somewhat of a mixed bag, both in terms of styles and enjoyability.
The highlights are three sublime slices of orchestral and piano-led art-rock. Each will feature highly on my end-of-year playlist.
In Search Of The Invisible Thin Line and the title track are very much in the classical art-rock style of Iamthemorning, especially in the way that both songs are led by Jargon's piano, with some impressive bursts of guitar adding hints of rock and a bit of power.
Time Is Running Out is the highlight of the highlights. The strings still dominate but there is a strong Queen-like bounce and pomp, with a lovely Floydian guitar solo at the end. The vocals from Jargon on all three songs are in a gentle, low range and suit the music perfectly.
The first two of these songs are book-ended and separated on "side A" by three filmscore-style, classical piano pieces; again very much in the way that such instrumental compositions are used to split the vocal ones on iamthemorning's albums. For some reason this technique is only used on "side A", with no such instrumental pieces on "side B". They thus lack any clear intent, but are listenable enough.
The album closes with three tracks that will appeal to those who enjoy the more avant-garde (RIO) embellishments and can draw a blind-ear to some madhouse theatrical leanings represented by screams, shoutings, "lalala's", slightly off-key vocals and even spoken word sections. It's all well performed and delivered but somewhat at odds with the very clean and classical stylings that occupied the first 60 per cent of the album.
Owing to these disparate styles and the way that the tracks are ordered, the flow and cohesiveness of the album as a whole does not work for me.
The Worm Ouroboros — Endless Way From You
Sometimes a CD falls into your lap circumstantially and then proves to be an excellent example of why you should not neglect anything outside your usual playing sound. Such is the case with Endless Way From You by The Worm Ouroboros. Usually the prog sub-genre references like "Canterbury" and "Zeuhl" are miles away from my daily preferences, and the same can be stated for mentioned influences like Hatfield & The North, Magma and Van der Graaf Generator, none of which are exactly my cup of tea. Rather unexpectedly though this album holds an infectious and entertaining grip, that sees me frequently pour coffees alongside it, discovering new and excitingly-familiar elements at each turn.
The Worm Ouroboros, founded in 2006, hail from Minsk (Belarus) and nowadays consist of Vladimir Sobolevsky (keyboards, guitars, voice), Segey Gvozdyukevich (flute, bass) and Mikhail Kinchin (drums). Guesting alongside them are Alexandra Gankova (vibraphone, xylophone, timpani), Aliona Sukliyan (oboe), and Vitaly Appow on bassoon. This new album is filled with mainly instrumental compositions and is the successor to Of Things That Never Were . In blending many styles, the album shifts ever-so-delicately from a happy, joyous feel, towards a darker atmosphere as it progresses.
The opening track Cycles instantly captivated me through its many intricate movements and executions. Initially the acoustic Grobschnitt melodies glide playfully underneath a Camel flute that breathes a fresh, spring beach feel. This changes slowly to a summer, airy atmosphere as it gains pace with subtle rhythm changes and excellent flute frivolities, giving the composition great vivacity and depth. The playful combination of bass and luscious keyboards, intertwining with guitars to hold a firm grip as it gradually gets more complex. Added intensity through Mellotron and virtuous drums glide into a rock style containing cinematic soundscapes, provoking thoughts of Daal and Solaris.
The sublime melodies depict the pleasantries of a joyous bike ride, whilst listening to uplifting music on your Walkman (remember those?), where the wide, open fields slowly make way into breezy bushes, wooded mounts and easy slopes, constantly changing gear as you spin along into forests and steep hills.
This sportive journey through musical landscapes is continued in the eclectic Clouds To Owing Mills and Stone And Lydia, both containing more rock-orientated progressive sounds. The latter is a wonderfully diverse display of subdued instrumentation, gracious melodies and a multitude of alterations containing a lovely surprise in the form of divine keyboard eruptions that give way to Greenslade deliciousness.
Aided by the warmth of the crystal clear, pristine recording, the immaculate seventies feel of the music continues in Quest Of The Fisherking, where exceptional keyboard movements spark thoughts of Ekseption, while the superb interplay and naturally flowing melodies ignite an Argent feel. A similar feel is felt in Ascension, where the exquisite vibraphone adds vibrancy (duh) and the strangeness of vocals ignites a familiar texture which for some reason emphasises Argent to me.
The vibraphone play by Gankova adds a distinctive, earthy dimension to Muralidaran as it quietly flows from a passionate play, mindful to Jethro Tull, into some delightful jazzy movements. The complex, cinematic style of The Reality You Can't Stop Dreaming, as it goes through ever-changing rhythms and melodies à la King Crimson, never tires and gives the ingenious eclectic music a darker, autumn mood which is appetisingly tenacious.
This firm hold is easily followed-through with The Whistler Shrill featuring initial, luscious oboe parts, while bassoon and xylophone converge beautifully with the creative and inventive play of drums, bass and guitars. Halfway through, the musical intensity rises, after which bombastic eruptions force an imaginary downwards spiral that's overtaken through some spine-chilling, licentious end play.
The extensive entertaining ride finally slows down to the soft breezes of Tràigh Bheasdaire, gliding by smoothly on Snowgoose-inspired Camel waves, guided by touching piano and peaceful keyboards. Stepping off the pedal as you wade into sounds of the ocean, here the deeply fulfilling journey ends on a melancholic note, going full circle again as you press play instinctively.
Although the lengthy album is predominantly instrumental, the album doesn't become tiring for one second. On the contrary. The constant change of scenery, musical alterations, playful jazzy interaction and the layered diversity of the compositions, manages to grab attention throughout. The precious seventies feel, caught in a fresh modern production, ensures this even further.
Overall the album is a highly recommendable effort that sees multiple sophisticated arrangements and meticulous details being revealed upon every tantalising excursion. Best to get an imaginary e-bike and start spinning it yourself. No weight-loss I'm afraid, but you do gain a wonderfully enchanting musical journey, which is a satisfying thought. I think my colleague Owen Davies would equally approve.