Issue 2020-101: Day 31 — Recommended Debut Albums Special
October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.
A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!
Welcome to Progtober!
In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.
As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.
Throughout our 25-year history, one of the main successes at DPRP.net has been our coverage of new, up-and coming bands and artists from across the prog world. Many times we have been the first website to ever review an album. So it is appropriate we bring our Progtober 2020 series to a close, with four DPRP- recommended debut albums.
Compass — Our Time On Earth
With a paucity of even half-decent traditional prog-metal releases, this year, musically, has been saved by a clutch of top-notch albums from new progressive AOR/melodic rock bands. I've already given a big thumbs up to debut albums by Into The Open and Bastian Per. Now it's time to get to know Compass.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Newman has consistently released albums under his own band name (Newman) since 1998. I recall seeing him perform some years ago at a melodic rock festival (maybe The Gods or maybe Firefest?). Anyway, until now his music has sat devotedly in the soft melodic rock aisle.
Compass fulfills his need to write songs that musically would step outside the barriers imposed by his own band. Steve explains: "This was to be something very different, liberating, both musically and lyrically, from anything I had created before, with the freedom to move across genres and to not be pigeon-holed within any particular musical style."
Newman quotes his influences for this album as an eclectic mix, pulling in influences from Dream Theater, Rush, Saga, It Bites, and Pink Floyd. The end result is very much in the mould of Flying Colors, where melodic rock-style vocal melodies are mixed with a Neal Morse / Spock's Beard sympho-progginess and occasional passages reminiscent of the above bands.
Newman plays a leading role, with most of the tracks relying heavily on some impressive guitar and keyboard sounds. He takes full advantage of the extended track-lengths to develop the core song-structures and melodic themes. Dave Bartlett (bass) and Toni Lakushs on drums provide a solid backdrop. The vocals are handled by the previously-unknown Ben Green, whose smooth, honest melodic style is a pleasure throughout.
The format is clear from the opening pair of Skies Of Fire and Our Time On Earth Pt.I, both of which hold their own with the best of Mind's Eye; a Swedish band that at the start of the century brought a compelling blend of melodic rock melodies and progressive expansion. Caught In A Frame has a more metallic verse with a djenty-bent to the riff. Neon is a crossover proposition, and is where Flying Colors is most-closely matched.
It takes something to make a catchy hook out of the title The Preacher And The Pigeon Feeder but Ben Green is superb on this power ballad, that features a lovely keyboard-led mid-section.
The monster riff that underpins Another Life Suicide would make it an obvious lead single, whilst A Warning From History is the most Neal Morse-like progressive track. It would work even better without the long, ambient mid-section that fails to transition in any way from what precedes it. Our Time On Earth Pt. II is a rather pointless reprise of Pt1.
Overall this has been a lovely surprise and is an essential listen for those who seek a rewarding blend of melodic hard rock vocals above some tasty prog-lite arrangements. It does not have as many hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-yer-neck moments as the Into The Open album but it is more consistent than Bastian Per's. So my final score sits somewhere between the two.
And if, like me, you were wondering if this is just a "one off" release, then Steve has just confirmed that there will be a new Compass album in 2021.
(The UK-based label Escape Music has been running since 1995 (no mean achievement). The bulk of its releases lie firmly in the melodic rock and AOR circles, but every year or so it dips its toes into more prog-metal waters. And someone at the label seems to have an ability to spot talented-but-unknown prog-metal bands. Appearance Of Nothing (Wasted Time and All Gods Are Gone), Silent Call (Greed), Until Rain (Anthem To Creation), Grand Illusion (The Book of How to Make It) and Myon (Slideshow) have been some excellent discoveries. I wish they'd dip their toes in this genre more often.)
Lunar Clock — The Scream Of Nature
Lunar Clock have, with their debut album, produced a prime example of why I love concept albums so much. The music produced is so good that it makes the listener want to explore the concept on which the music is based. Lunar Clock's subject matter in The Scream Of Nature, are the works of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. While most people will know Munch by his best known work, The Scream, Lunar Clock's music has given me the desire to expand my knowledge by exploring Munch's history and looking at his lesser-known paintings.
While the subject matter might not be important to everyone reading this review, the quality of the music will be. The press release for the album listed many influences for Lunar Clock, but for me the album has a very strong neo-prog sound, with a medieval feel at times.
Album opener Frieze, is a clever a cappella track, which gives reference to various vocal sections yet to come. A nice variance on the traditional Overture which some bands use as an introduction to a concept album. It is done in a manner which reminded me of Yes' Leave It. Not a bad start.
The rest of the album is wonderful neo-prog, very much in the vein of the NWOBPR. Sadness Under The Belt Of Venus starts in a manner that reminds me of the early mischievousness that IQ always managed to portray in their music.
A Winter Storm On Spring Blossom, introduces a jazzy edge, with the keyboard dominating procedures, before the bass of Thefar Side takes centre stage taking the track into a far more dramatic direction.
While the subject matter may appear a bit dry, there is the feel throughout the album that the band constantly had a smile on their faces while writing and recording, as the album has an inherent feel of happiness running through it. I found it quite an uplifting piece of music, one that I can see myself revisiting on occasions.
The album is relatively short, clocking in at under 40 minutes, and only the latter two parts of the ending trilogy of songs, going under the title of Metabolism exceed five minutes in length. That being said, Lunar Clock have managed to cram a great deal into a relatively short space. The plus-side for this is that the album is easily absorbed.
The album's production, handled by vocalist, keyboard player and occasional guitarist Robin Boar, is quite stunning, adding sound effects to enhance the music when required, but never to dominate. Each instrument is given its own place in the mix, and the ethereal vocals that float around in the background give that additional magic.
When I tried to compare the song titles, to Munch's paintings, I struggled to make a connection. The band have now begun to explain the song titles on their Facebook page and to reference which paintings influenced each passage of music. This helps again to connect the songs to their subject. For anyone interested, this helps to give the listener more depth in the works of Munch, explaining various connected paintings and periods of his work. I found it interesting that The Scream was one of three paintings done in a similar style, and the scream itself had various drafts.
This is a stunning debut album, and Lunar Clock, on this performance are a band that we will be hearing much more of in the future.
Swappers Eleven — From A Distance
One of the best things about being a musician, whether full time or playing as a hobby, is the opportunity to play with other musicians. This desire is what bought together the members of Swappers Eleven. They all wanted to perform so badly, that they entered the annual Marillion Convention's Swap The Band competition. All three core members of Swappers Eleven were fortunate enough to win the opportunity to perform live with Marillion on stage, playing one of the band's songs. This is were the lead band members of Swappers Eleven met, these being singer Alessandro Carmassi from Italy, Brazilian born keyboard and guitarist Luiz Alvim and UK based player of all things string, Gary Foalle. Along the way the three guys managed to convince various other winners of the Swap The Band competition to join them in making an album of self-penned music.
The fruit of their labours is now available for all to appreciate. From A Distance features eight compositions, ranging from short tracks to a couple of 13-minute epics. With the strong link to Marillion, and the members' obvious love of the band, you would be excused to think that you would be getting an album of wanna-be Marillion songs. Well, you be be far from the mark.
What you do get are eight varying styles of songs, and aside from the odd keyboard section, I could find very little reference to Marillion on the album. These are well-crafted songs, with excellent playing by all involved.
Singer Alessandro has very little in common with his self-confessed musical mentors Phil Collins and Steve Hogarth. Alessandro has an almost unique voice, and for me is a much stronger singer, with a wider range than either of his mentors. The chorus of the album-opener The Collector, quickly gives the listener an idea of what to expect, with rich, layered keyboards, majestic guitar, and musicianship to be enjoyed.
Tomorrow took me totally by surprise. Here we have a classic rock anthem in the vein of Bryan Adams. A real feel-good song which makes you think of happy times, played in a style usually only able to be performed by American bands. Absolutely glorious, even down to the wonderful saxophone.
New Year's Revolution holds a pleasant surprise, with the inclusion of the vocals of American singer Michelle Aragon whose deep, rich tones, mixed with Alessandro's, gives a poppy dimension to proceedings. Michelle also reprises her singing role on the album's shortest track, First Light; a strongly emotional piece with a stunning guitar outro, curtosy of Gary Foalle.
It was only during the longer tracks that I got any real feeling of slight comparisons with other prog bands, and these were to a couple of my favourite Dutch bands, Egdon Heath and Marathon. So for anyone familiar with how good these two bands were, I think that with From A Distance, Swappers Eleven have joined a select number of bands who write without any constraints and will hopefully gain the attention of many fans along the way.
Taskaha — Taskaha
Now Norway maybe known for exporting oil and fish (with a small 'f'!) but it also pumps out many great prog bands, one of them being Taskaha. Their self-titled debut album was released this year, and they don't pull any punches.
A metal/rock orientated band from Oslo with riff-laden songs but with pop sensitivities thrown-in for good measure. For instance the opening track Mind Date has everything in there that sums up this ban; great vocals from Rick Holemen, tasty lead and rythm guitar work by both Simen Hanssen and Stian Dahl, and a strong rhythm section from drummer Ole Martin Svendsen and bassist David van Dort. Five musicians who know their chops.
Uniqueness is a difficult thing to achieve these days for a metal band and it's impossible not to hear influences in their music: Porcupine Tree would be one, others range from Pain of Salvation, Dream Theater (but no keyboard wizardry here) to Rush. But I think their guitar work stands out in many ways from these bands. Clearly we have two exceptional guitarists creating some cracking solos and textures. And Dream Theater only have one guitarist!
The band claim they have special interests in "creating melodic layers and atmospheres" in their songs. I think this is borne out by the second track Distressed wityh its clever guitar work, nice harmonies and lovely instrumental passages. This is a slower track but conveys the feeling of the song's title. There are also some scat vocals at the end of the track that convey a slight hint of a possible interest in jazz fusion.
The remaining tracks offer a delightful sonic table d'hôte. The acoustic guitar intro to Daylight's Fading, some gut-wrenching riffs (in a nice way) and wonderful solo guitar interplay with the two guitarists in Invisible, the unexpected jazzy explorations in Eden, a mixture of the melancholy interspersed in the riff-loaded Nature Girl, and acoustic slumber adorned with strings in the short but wonderful Friday Night.
The last track, The Climb, is a 13-minute progressive rocker. From its opening, Floydian intro that many will savour, then into a catchy staccato guitar accompanied with an underlying riff, before the vocals enter. It has some great drumming and bass work throughout, with nice repeated guitar motifs and confident singing. Like the first track, if you want to get a sense of what this band is about, then check this track out. It is possibly the best.
Thanks to a very confident, excellent production with an overall sound qulaity that is second to none, I thoroughly enjoyed this album and look forward to their next effort with anticipation. An album for connoisseurs of metal/rock but at the same time harbouring for some sentimental pop.