Arabs In Aspic — Madness And Magic
I have been fairly indifferent to the previous albums that I have heard by Norwegian heavy proggers Arabs In Aspic as, for whatever reason, they just did not click with me. However, on first hearing I Vow To Thee My Screen, I was immediately taken back to my younger days when I lapped up anything by Black Sabbath.
However, do not think that implies that the opening track of Madness And Magic is all heavy, crunching riffs, as it is not at all, rather very much a more acoustic, and laid-back number with lots of vintage synth sounds adding contextual layers.
No, it is the vocals that hold the key to the reminiscences, as vocalist (and guitarist) Jostein Smeby, on this song at least, bears a strong resemblance to Ozzy when Sabbath put aside the riffage, and embarked on a more gentle path, which they did fairly frequently and, it has to be said, did very well.
Transitioning seamlessly into the first part of Lullaby For Modern Kids, the tempo is increased slightly with plenty of organ work by Stig Jørgensen, particularly using the Hammond, giving the piece a strong classic rock feel, particularly in the interplay of the organs and guitar. A solid bass backing by Erik Paulsen, that frequently echos and strengthens the organ line, adds depth and power to the instrumental sections, while drummer Eskil Nyhus and percussionist Alessandro Elide add a variety of fills and rhythms that are not necessarily what would be expected but are entirely complementary. The segue into the brief Lullaby For Modern Kids 2 is not as smooth as it might be, but the song itself contains some lovely harmonies which are in contrast to the rather dark lyric.
High Tech Parent doesn't completely work for me. The rather simplistic structure and call-and-response vocals seem rather trite and unnecessary, although when the singing stops and the band start to let loose on the instrumental section, things improve immensely. I would have preferred it if they had skipped the opening vocal section of the song and transitioned directly into the instrumental section and perhaps included the lead vocals at the end of the song.
The title track is rather gorgeous, returning to the style of the opening number with plenty of melody. Even the rather strange gruff vocals towards the middle of the song don't disrupt the track, as they offer a nice contrast between the smooth lead vocals. A neat change in tempo and fuller arrangement provide a nice interlude, before the song repeats the opening passages to bring the piece to a circular conclusion.
The long-form Heaven In Your Eye is a great song and justification alone for getting hold of this album. The song contains a bit of everything-that-is-great about classic rock/prog songs: a memorable hook line, solos, interaction between the players, riffs, weird synth sounds, musical layers, long instrumental sections, light and shade, and so on.
But more than that, it is cleverly put together, so that there is a natural flow to the piece and the different sections ebb and flow into a continual whole. There is an immense amount to take in, and each listen reveals more and more as one sinks deeper into the layers. Paradoxically the piece seems both longer than the almost 17-minute running time, as there is so much packed in and such a great amount of variety. It never becomes tiring. It is indeed rather masterful, if all is said and done.
Based on Madness And Magic, I will have to revisit the earlier albums and see if my initial impressions need to be revised. But in the meantime there is more than enough on this latest release to keep me happily amused.
Colin Bass & Daniel Biro — Still
As progressive music lovers, we tend to seek complexity in music. Odd time signatures, ever-changing song structures, synth sounds from outer space and so on. However, some change always helps to gain a new perspective and find a new meaning in whatever we are usually busy with. I listened to Still right on time, when I needed a pause and to slow myself down. This beautiful album by the duo of Colin Bass and Daniel Biro has a minimalistic musical approach, but it is emotionally quite intense.
In addition to his solo releases, Colin Bass is known as a member of the band Camel. With a broad perspective, from world music to progressive rock, he is a singer and a multi-instrumentalist. Five years after releasing his latest solo work, At Wild End, he has teamed up with Daniel Biro, the London-based keyboard player, composer, sound-designer and producer.
For the instrumentation of Still, Daniel Biro plays keyboard, while Colin Bass plays bass and piano in addition to singing. Though the soundscape is mostly completed with these instruments played by the duo, Joonas Widenius plays acoustic guitar in the songs Old Europe and Hands. The lack of (or very rare) usage of percussive elements in the album makes it more suitable for your 'alone time'.
The album is wound around an instrumental series "Still Life" and it starts with the first instalment of the series, Still Life 1. Unlike the overproduced releases of present-day music, this song has a natural and raw feeling. Slightly asynchronous notes create a space where we are there with the musicians, and it made me feel like listening to the song live. As I continued listening to the album and went through the album booklet, the theme of the album revealed itself. Most of the songs describe and talk about photographs that we can see next to the lyrics in the booklet. As a result, I felt like there is a sense of longing for the old days throughout the album.
Maybe it is just me but I hear Camel's Elke from Rain Dances in Still Life 2. I know Colin Bass was not playing in Camel's Rain Dances album but I guess I long for a new Camel release so much, that my mind tries to build connections. Whether there is a connection or not, Still Life 2 is a beautiful short piece carrying the album theme without lyrics.
With very few exceptions, the album has a consistent musical flow. For instance, although it is still a part of the lyrical theme by means of nostalgia, Old Europe has a different musical vibe through its bossa-nova feel. I also need to mention that my favourite track from the album is The Man Who Never Was by its musical connection to the opening track. There is something special with this track that I cannot easily describe but despite its simplicity, it has a psychedelic rock vibe and I loved it.
In addition to the opening song written as a joint effort, each member wrote five songs for this album. The description in a promotional Youtube video states that this is "a collection of ambient songs and cinematic synth-scapes". I think this is a spot-on description.
Lastly, the cover design and illustration are made by Lenya Bass. We see different images on the booklet, CD and the cover but these images are connected to each other and it fits the general feeling of the album perfectly. Maybe it is a coincidence, but the colour palette of the artwork reminds me of the cover of An Outcast Of The Islands by Colin Bass.
Though Still is not a progressive rock album, I think every progressive music lover should give it a listen when they need something to refresh their minds and souls. In our busy and fast-paced lives, we definitely need more music like this to calm down.
Days Between Stations — Giants
As most prog fans know, the complex progressive rock of the 70s transitioned into the more pop-infused prog of the 80s and 90s. Major bands like Yes and Genesis led the charge on this new sound and spawned acts such as Saga, World Trade, Esquire, Enchant, and others. On this, their third release, Days Without Stations have done an impressive job of blending both of these prog styles. The music on Giants is accessible, but also loaded with expansive, old school prog instrumentation.
Band leaders, Sepand Samzadeh and Oscar Fuentes-Bills have created a work that is impeccably produced and highly entertaining. It is reflective of the music of the past, but still sounds fresh and vibrant. In fact, songs such as the Yes/ELP-influenced, Spark, the title track and The Common Thread are some of the best examples of symphonic prog that I've heard in recent years.
In a guest role, Billy Sherwood (Yes, World Trade) contributes to the songwriting and provides bass, drums and lead vocals to much of the album. Ultimately, it stands as some of the finest work of his career. Other guests include vocalist Durga McBroom (Pink Floyd) who shines on the ethereal Witness the End of the World and Colin Moulding (XTC), whose vocals are perfect for the quirky, art-rock song, Goes By Gravity.
Being that this is 'Days Between Stations' first album in seven years, they are obviously not the most prolific prog artists. Others could take a cue from them though, because the length between releases very clearly affords them the time to craft the best of their material.
Diverse, melodic and artistically polished, Giants is an excellent album. A must for any music fan looking for exemplary progressive / art-rock.
Dim Gray — Flown
Oslo, the home of pop-video pioneers A-ha, the Cocktail Slippers, and of course Gothminister. What a rich heritage to fall upon, and indeed the three band members of Dim Gray gather influences from folk, film music, prog, blues and allegedly black metal (none of that here thank you very much). Falling more firmly into the art-rock category, albeit with brushstrokes of Big Big Train's pastoralism and flourishes of Radiohead, their bio mentions that an "ever-changing palette of sounds and ideas is rooted in the constants of aching vocals and trembling guitars", to which I somewhat, but not entirely, agree.
Flown is a concept album evoking a tale of loneliness and loss. Vocally plaintive and yearning I was frequently reminded of Michael Trew with Autumn Electric. This is particularly apparent on Closer which also ticks the quiet-then-loud crescending noise post-rock cliché to good effect.
On Ráth and elsewhere the dynamic range, together with vocal harmonies, is markedly evocative. Elsewhere there are piano-based balladic touches (Wandering) and ambient soundscapes (Flown). The latter track leads wonderfully into Light Anew, probably the album's highlight and a beautiful thing it is too. I did find myself skipping over Dreamer's Disease which sounded like something Neil Young may have left on the cutting floor.
Much use is made of chambered strings, and perhaps with percussion in particular, the feel is a little too much like being in a large, empty hall. This has its place, and perhaps is consistent with the bleakness of the lyrics and the artwork, but with a little more warmth in production and a proper base section I'd have pushed this to a 9. Overall I foresee great things for this band. Definitely worth a listen.
En Stigma — Reforming The Universe
En-Stigma is the child of bassist Vonifatios and found its beginning back in the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, financial difficulties delayed the recording of the album, and so it was put off until 2018 when Reforming the Universe finally saw the light. The album has now been remastered and released for all to hear.
They are self-described as “Galactic Progressive Metal”, and I can see why. Technical and heavy riffs stand proudly through it all, along with what can only be described as “spacey keys” providing an atmospheric and almost ethereal sound. Album opener Chaotic Intensity Master in particular brought to me the idea of a melodic death metal version of the Star Trek music.
The album flits through a couple of different styles of metal. The Transcendal Force of The Universe features a nice blend of some groove elements, along with some melodic death and some passages reminiscent of modern day Dimmu Borgir.
Other tracks, such as Operation Infinity bring in more thrash and “classic” metal sounds. As well as this, it brings in the fantastic vocals of Elena Tragoudara, which greatly add to the track. This brings it into a sound similar to Ayreon's last two albums. The harsh vocals used frequently through the album take a back seat here and serve brilliantly as backing. Easily the best track on the album.
The album itself is good, with lots to keep you interested and some brilliant harmonies and licks. The main downside being that the production isn't the greatest. However, you can see what they were trying to do, which helps to make up for that.
The album has many influences, but I'd say if you're a fan of early Queensrÿche, Dimmu Borgir or bands like The Breathing Process or Vried, I'd recommend this.
Eternity — Machines
Search The Sky, a science fiction space opera novel by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, is one of the first books given by my late mother that fully captured my imagination at a very young age. Fascinated by the escapism, I have since devoured endless arrays of sci-fi books and fantasy tales, drifting away in thrilling tales of aliens, space-flight, utopian civilisations, universal robotic laws and puzzling time-travel trips. This fascination led to watching numerous epic and astounding movies, many of them slowly invading my system. Back to the future, and to cut a long story short, it's this conceptual Machines that has made all these past experiences come vividly alive again.
With only song titles to accompany the predominantly instrumental music, one might expect challenges to fully understanding the narrative. To me this proves to be no problem at all, for composer Jose Manuel Medina (Last Knight) has marvellously translated the tale into a highly imaginative musical journey. A story inspired by robots and technological progress, where Medina manages to create a bright futuristic city named Eureka, amidst a world where humanity has increasingly become dependent on an army of robots. Seen from the perspective of a female android (Arcadia), a bright reality unfolds, sparking images of foremost Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, and Didier Marouani.
The scenic Vangelis-styled delivery in Rise Of The Machines is superb and sees timeless melodies, electrifying outbursts and industrial sounds that to me project a factory in full production of humanitarian Cybermen. Gliding into Don't Stop Technology they roll off the conveyor belt in slightly mysterious surroundings that features a seductive saxophone to add a lovely diversion. The uplifting marching beat that pushes the composition along, as it alternates with electronic spoken vocals, is equally alluring.
Overall the playful and beautifully crafted compositions stay within a brighter spectrum, with occasional terrestrial sounds, like the gorgeously restrained Born From Science which harbours refined piano-parts over alienating tripod-sounds. Moments later the highly enjoyable 80s synth-pop feel of Evolution prepares for a magic Didier Marouani Space-flight, as we meet the never-ending story of main character in Arcadia. This is an upbeat, beguilingly-shaped rhythmic entity, gracefully striding on grand Vangelis arrangements.
Compared to this, the nightly atmosphere of the somewhat monotonous Night Of The Machines is less effective, something that can't be stated for the raving bonus track Night Life. This is not part of the concept as such, but it flows in the same uplifting fashion, recapturing the bustling nature of the album through upbeat disco, igniting thoughts of a hot summer night on a Spanish boulevard, enjoying exotic cocktails to the refreshing sounds of a local DJ.
Usually with 80 minutes of electronic music, my mind tends to wander off, yet Eternity manages to hold my attention because of the many delicate melodies, beautiful sounds, smooth transitions and touching scenic movements. Their recommendation of using a headphone is something I can affirmatively second, as it enhances the spaciousness of the music, while balancing fluctuations and the futuristic accents that add further dimensions to morph into a lovely, spherical aura.
This richness and roundness in sound elevates the endless love declaration of Romance Between Two Robots, which after the initial morning-dew setting effectively starts to palpitate with heartfelt emotion. With Scape From Eureka and Aluminium Dreams competently continuing the atmospheres, the story comes to a satisfying finale in Metamorphosis, bursting with positronic 3PO/R2D2 life-signs signalling complete artificial transformation.
The tension initially created remains pleasantly present throughout, where the detailed richness in exchanging melodies, themes and textures in combination with a crystal clear sound and crisp production yields a strong album, which will please many electronic music fans. Especially those in favour of the aforementioned Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Tomita and Kraftwerk. A captivating successor to the 2018 release, Vangeliana, making me look forward to see what lies in store on Eternity's soon to be released newest venture Atmospheres.
Lucid Dream — The Great Dance Of The Spirit
The Great Dance Of The Spirit is the fourth album by Lucid Dream, a band led by composer and guitarist Simone Terigi. Apparently it's also the conclusive instalment to a trilogy that started out with The Eleventh Illusion (released in 2013) which was closely followed by Otherworldly in 2016, both still unknown to me and DPRP.
What immediately attracts attention is the accompanying message that the whole album has been tuned in 432 HZ. A slightly different frequency to today's standard, said to bring closer harmony to earth and capable of enhancing feelings of relaxation, meditation and spiritual cleansing. An admirable effort which translates well in combination with the beautiful artwork, depicting "the search of the infinity" and conceptual "voyage to the borders of the universe". Whether it actually induces these calming effects I'll let everyone decide for themselves. It didn't work as such for me.
What does work though is the fact that the artwork effectively conveys the overall feel and musical journey experienced throughout the album, gradually gliding from melodic hard rock and metal, into infinite spiritual surroundings, passing refined symphonic and progressive landscapes along the way.
Opener Wall Of Fire energetically kicks off the concept in a typical hard rock vibe, confident riffs and comfortable melodies. The vocals by Karl Faraci are perfectly acceptable and fit nicely, although they don't leave a distinct mark. Meanwhile the simpler structures of the composition gives way to little sparks of Rush and Trytan, surrounded by effective interplay. Competently Desert Glass shows equal appeal harnessed through the sufficiently added tightness of the rhythm section of Roberto Tiranti (bass, vocals) and Paolo Tixi (drums). Together with Terigi they create a joyous melodic NWOBHM atmosphere where the endless guitar melodies leave impressions of Iron Maiden and Queensryche. A catchy refrain and delicious AOR insertions are furthermore met by a flashy guitar solo, making this a solid, not overtly complex track.
From here on the album transgresses into enchanting symphonic surroundings, amidst adventurous melancholies. The lovely ballad By My Side shows refinement through intricate piano-play, while the mindful Pink Floyd bridge towards the highly melodic and melancholic Moxy-styled solo is inspired. In a soothing way the composition glides forward with a gracious build-up, and furthermore features some scrumptious organ play from keyboard player Luca Scherani. A minor downside is the way it meaninglessly returns to its chorus too many times, an effect equally found in tracks like The Realm Of Beyond and especially Wakan Tanka.
The short acoustical interlude Moving Sands, guided by sensitive cello (Rachele Rebaudengo) and featuring Tiranti on vocals, glides into the memorable A Dress Of Lights. Here a richly layered and bombastic opening spirals into competent prog metal that shows increased melodic complexity, giving the song diversity and versatility and even a surprising touch of sparkling pomp rock at the end. This complexity is continued to great strength in The War Of The Cosmos, revealing some marvellous transitions in an AOR setting, mindful to a band like Revolution Saints.
Placed immediately after are two of the most eclectic compositions of the concept, with the first highlight being The Realm Of Beyond. The quiet opening, featuring delicious violins played by Sara Calabria and Andrea Cardinale, slowly shifts towards mellow bombast, injected with tempting classical influences. While the ambient passage and revisits to original melodies adds further depth, it's the seductive fusion-feel and excellent violin eruptions from Cardinale that project images of a playful Vanessa Mae wearing her rock-outfit.
With the emotive ballad Golden Silence, the conceptual tale drifts towards its finishing stages. The bluesy atmosphere gives it a light Pink Floyd feel, while the soft grandeur of the chorus occasionally breathes The Scorpions. The tantalising violin play is touching and manages to radiate Eddie Jobson rays in the uptempo movement. Its gentle ending extensively repeats the lyrics: 'The spirit is revealed as the sun shines, Infinity is here', to signal an achieved spiritual bliss.
After this fulfilling moment the progressive (metal) pleasantries of the album almost come to a full stop, and we step into a curious garden of ambient enlightenment. Here the acoustic reprise of Wall Of Fire adds nothing to the original, just like the poetry cited in Prayer For The Great Spirit on the sounds of ambient winds, although it emphasises the spiritualism of the concept. Thankfully Invisible Stranger manages to bring a delicate touch by incorporating luscious cello and touching vocals in an ambient spaciousness that adds contemplative serenity. It finally flows seamlessly into the lulling musings of Wakan Tanka, harbouring chanting vocal-harmonies, sensitive bass play and an breezy 'Hawaiian' Zen-peacefulness, albeit severely overstretched.
Overall the major part of the album splendidly shows that Lucid Dream's broadening of sound has paid off nicely, although some added conciseness could have yielded an even better effort. When the orchestral instruments get their right to shine amidst the melodic hardrock/metal textures, the compositions gain a richness in detail and become comfortingly enjoyable and adventurous.
The last part of the album, starting from Wall Of Fire (Acoustic Reprise) will however most likely split the crowd, as it is galaxies away from the initial energetic prog-metal pleasantries found on the album. It most certainly adds variety, but for me this illuminating phase makes the album pretty much go to sleep. I am still awake enough to follow them in their next effort, for Lucid Dream have shown there's ample potential in their music, worthy of exploration.
Saris — Beyond The Rainbow
Ever since their relaunch in 2009 Saris have been on a progressive trajectory that sees them achieve new heights with Beyond The Rainbow. Led by bandleader / composer Derk Akkermann, also accountable for guitars, keyboards and orchestra arrangements, the stable formation has been able to extend Saris's sound, whilst staying true to the melodic and symphonic styles previously explored on an album like Ghosts Of Yesterday. Incorporating a themed approach, with lyrics depicting a variety of that fates that one can meet in life's journey, Beyond The Rainbow sees them deliver their most accomplished effort to date.
Avalon immediately states Saris's intentions full-heartedly, showcasing a delightful level of energy and dynamics. The blazingly-pompous keyboard opening of this track is superb, as is the infectious melody and catchy chorus. The high, soaring vocals by Henrik Wager, the region in which excels, sound convincing and powerful, which works beautifully against the enchanting vocals from secondary lead vocalist Anja Günther, giving her gracious calling card triumphantly. Her operatic voice fits perfectly and gives a warm Within Temptation feel, harnessed by the opulent symphonic elements. Flying straight into a bridge with sparkling and spine-chilling synths, several touches of neo-progressive rock unfold, meeting the freshness of Eurhybia, while tasty guitar parts imprint images of Saga.
The enjoyably-bombastic nature is continued to great effect in the uptempo Time Machine. As the classical-orientated intro glides into mainstream melodic rock, surrounded by delicate AOR touches, the layers of synths, keys and guitars push the composition forward, while the vigorous melodic transitions on guitars and keys are guided by the forceful rhythm section of Lutz Günther (bass, backing vocals) and Jens Beckmann (drums). The flashy guitar solo and Pallas sense is equally appealing, while the composition is also a magnificent example of the crisp production.
These symphonic melodic rock/ AOR pleasantries are confidently continued in the entertaining Oblivion as we reach the album's epic title track Beyond The Rainbow. Normally one would expect this type of bravado closer to the end of the album, yet here it is already. It's a luscious and morish composition that summarises every single element of strength that Saris possesses into one sublime track.
The opening orchestral melodies, incorporating classical movements and many atmospheric changes, is magnificent and breathes a soothing 80s prog feel reminiscent to Ezra (from France!, not to be confused with the English version). Floating on graceful movements, the vocal interaction is pristine, with Günther adding ethereal and emotive backing vocals. Meanwhile the thriving rhythm section drives the song encouragingly forward, as subdued guitars glide through caressing melodies. It seamlessly passes through an endless river of mind-blowing melodies, rhythmic changes, spine-chilling solos and immaculate instrumentation, making this the most fulfilling, epiphany moment on the album; sure to make its way onto my individual top 10 tracks of 2020.
Although impossible to compete with this monumental track, Orphan doesn't let down as it sees some unexpected twists and turns, top notch guitars and lovely drive, while Strange Melody showcases precious enlightenment through spacious ambient atmospheres. The touching ballad ends in a keyboard-lovers' paradise, although personally I think the heavenly female vocals from Günther would have benefited the track, notwithstanding Wager's strong efforts.
A fine illustration of Günther's vocal abilities is captured in the initial interactive surroundings of New World where the spirited sweetness that her voice expresses is a perfect fit to the intricate melodies. The effective interplay, blessed by soothing symphonies and great guitar work, also manages to project pictures of Avantasia, with Wager's contrasting vocals flowing in the same timbre as Tobias Sammet.
The daunting atmosphere of Heaven's Gate sees equal symphonic bliss in line with the albums two opening tracks, readying for the mildly predictable Away From You. A track that crosses AOR boundaries with an ear-friendly catchy feel. The same catchiness harbours in Infinity, which breathes a lovely euphoric feeling and radiates a strong anthem-like Avantasia feel similar to New World.
For a band that's generally seen as the 'love child' of Symphony X and Within Temptation I can easily live by the latter comparison, yet the former is stretching it a bit for me. The symphonic aspect is certainly there, but in regard to the prog-metal aspect, Saris's music is far less metal-orientated and refrains from heavy riffs and shreds. Instead it shows more diversity, melody and theatrics, surrounded by plenty of keys and melancholy. All this makes it very appealing and sees me press the repeat button on a frequent basis, with the music still revealing new insights after numerous encounters.
Personally I would have liked more lead vocals by Anja Günther, for her role in some parts is a little too small in comparison to that of Wager. Something they will hopefully address on future releases as it gives their sound a wider variety and additional depth. Overall the eclectic mix of bombast, exciting melodies, neo-prog and precious AOR-touches, surrounded by a healthy dose of symphonic deliciousness is deeply fulfilling and will surely appeal to many progressive rock fans. If Saris keep progressing in this satisfying trajectory, I have no doubt a pot of pure musical gold awaits.