Ars Pro Vita — Peace
Have you ever wondered how The Final Cut could have sounded if Roger Waters would have taken more time to conquer his enormous frustration that almost spoiled that album totally? I had never even thought about it before. But that probably absurd thought settled in my mind when I started to listen to Peace, the new 2cd set from Brazilian proggers Ars Pro Vita. I just couldn't help to pose that challenging, almost tantalizing question. But don't get me wrong, that thought was tantalizing in the most positive way for this double album is a truly remarkable musical journey, full of unexpected, diverse, original and eclectic ideas. Yes, it does have many reminiscences to classic songs and albums. And yes, not all is good, a few things are even quite bad but as a whole this double album is something that many proggers should listen to.
Porte Alegre based Ars Pro Vita are Luis Venegas on vocals and guitars and his brother Paulo on vocals and keyboards. They are accompanied by numerous musicians of which bass player Jon Camp of Renaissance fame is undoubtedly the most famous. Other musicians are Andressa Behenck and Carla Knijnik on vocals, Eduardo Aguillar (of Vitral) on bass, Kevin Brennan (Van Morrison), Yinhe Chen and Rui Zhang on storytelling, Luiz Zamith on guitar, Mike Mitchell on percussion and the The Blackheart Orchestra on vocals. This ambitious album took them more than two years of research, composing and recording of which they can be very proud of the result. Have a look at their website and dive into the lyrics of each song, almost always based around a quote of a witness of one of the gruesome wars we have seen in the last century and you'll see the sheer devotion and commitment these two guys have invested in this project.
The 23 tracks are much too different to review separately. Some tracks stand out, such as the opening song War Is Peace. This simply awesome track starts with a melancholic gypsy-like violin and evolves into a prog epic with many mood changes, different paces, fine guitar soloing and clever hooks. Somewhere halfway a full orchestra comes in to give the song the grandeur of a symphonic film score, augmented by the opera like singing. The following electric guitar solo with subtle piano playing in the background and the return of the gypsy violin emphasizes that this song is prog heaven with hints of Pendragon and Big Big Train. Too bad it doesn't last somewhat longer for it won't get any better.
Third song On Bibles And Cannons starts off with a military march as heard on an old transistor radio to develop as a full rip-off of Pink Floyd's When The Tigers Broke Free from The Final Cut with a similar vocal melody, style of singing and trumpets in the background. But some First Peoples chanting and a cleverly evolving vocal melody takes the listener away from the Pink Floyd memory to enjoy the fine music.
Exotic influences can be heard in A Handful Of Hope, a folky almost instrumental song with a prominent role for the banjo (?) and bamboo flute accompanying spoken Chinese lyrics. On the website the translation of each song can be found and the lyrics of this one are particularly horrifying. It is a miracle that they succeeded so well to blend these lyrics with the beauty of this combination of instruments.
Another folky song is Likasi with uillean pipes and violin playing a very fine melancholic melody. Too bad the last part of the song is spoken words with marching feet in the background, probably very appropriate but taking away the fine feeling about the music altogether.
The longest piece Block 24, First Floor is a very strange piece and therefore a real slow-burner. It is a strange combination of soundscapes with spoken words in different languages (German, Chinese) and some wordless chanting, all in a very slow pace. Hardly anything happens during the first ten minutes yet somehow the band manages to keep the listeners attention. For every two or three minutes the musical theme changes, the sound changes, the instruments change (mostly keys, some piano) and they do it in such a clever way that I came to the odd conclusion that this is a song I should dislike because of the lack of obvious diversity but instead I very much like. It sounds like an original sound track of a tv-series but then well elaborated.
In Vital Signs the album has a very fine ballad, beautifully sung and played that is a real resting point in this intriguing musical journey.
The March is a fully orchestrated instrumental piece of the central musical theme of the album. It sounds like a film score and should have been a more than worthy closer of the album. But this band does everything slightly different than others; the orchestra is faded away halfway and just the piano remains, playing that beautiful theme subtly towards the end you would think. But the real end is a 1-minute ticking of the clock that works well although I would have preferred to end the music with that fine piano.
As said, not all is good. Second song Shut Up And Shoot!!! for instance starts with Russian lyrics (…?) introducing a rather cacophonic musical piece with hints of jazz and lounge but it is foremost incoherent. Metus is a King Crimson-esque instrumental with odd chord sequences, some guitar riffing over a synth background and absolutely not my cup of tea.
Decay has an excellently sung beautiful vocal melody against a sparse instrumentation of acoustic bass and guitar but the song is completely spoilt by strange cracking noises, spooky synth sounds, incomprehensible Russian spoken words and a horrible end. Next song Curfew has a similar mood with a a sort of radio dialogue and again spooky synth sounds but now the music simply doesn't take off. There is some fine singing, then some distortion followed by a completely different vocal melody that ends in some more unclear sounds and below par singing.
Low point of the album is God Is Not Here – Part 2, a rather annoying piece with distorted spoken words coming from a “strange creature” and a very depressing and far too long summation of the war budgets of different states. Of course it's meant as a firm anti-war statement but for me it fails to do. The music accompanying all these words and amounts of money is simply not very exciting, to say the least. Oh, by the way, the USA spend the most on war.
But be sure that the good songs far outnumber the weak ones.
I value the band for trying to create something really different and adventurous. The different moods, brought about by the use of many different languages, sound clips of historical events and musical styles, the complex concept of war and peace and all the sufferings that go with them and the length of the 2cd set should make one prepared for a quite heavy musical meal to digest. Of course with such an ambition and inspiration some experiments work out well while others fail to do so. For instance, to my taste, less use of spoken words and sound clips would have favoured the expressiveness of the music. Sometimes it sounds more like a radio play than a music album. But to try experiments as an artist because you don't want to stay within the safe boundaries of what people like to hear is courageous.
The overall balance of this set is clearly positive and will appeal to those who liked Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds as well as lovers of more eclectic albums such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. This set may not quite match the quality of those classic albums, but the daring decision to create a 2 cd set with so many different musical ideas makes this album a fine reference for future musical experiments in its own right. Add to this the high artistic quality of the printed lyrics and you can only be truly impressed by the achievement of the Venegas brothers, whether you like the music or not.
Legacy Pilots — Aviation
For an artist, totally unknown to myself, who can call upon a list of guest musicians to help on his album which include Todd Sucherman, Marco Minnemann, Pete Trewavas, John Mitchell, Steve Morse, and Jordan Rudess, really deserves to be given a listen. It happens that the Legacy Pilots is the brain child of German musician Frank Us. If, like myself, Frank is someone you have not heard of before, this may be due to the fact he is a composer of music for advertising. Frank admits his real passion is progressive rock, and he has been able to at last exercise his passion for prog due to the recent and unfortunate passing of many of the icons who provided his love for music.
Aviation is Legacy Pilots second album, the first, Con Brio, was released in 2018, and I admit in advance, I am so impressed with Aviation, I have already ordered a copy of the debut disc. Once received I will try and schedule a review of the debut and also try and get some questions answered by Frank as to where he has been hiding all these years.
Anyway, on with Aviation, the current album. The album opens with a dramatic instrumental entitled The Squad Is Back, and they certainly are. Big and bombastic, analogue keyboards drench the listener with memorable melodies aplenty, keeping you thoroughly entertained for its six plus minutes. This is the first track featuring any prog fans dream rhythm section of Marco Minnemann on drums and Pete Trewavas on bass. Certainly a combination I never expected to hear, but now I have, well, it was worth the wait.
While Frank acknowledges classic prog bands as his influences, his sound is thoroughly modern. The nearest comparison I could come up with, was the terrific albums created by Erik Norlander, both solo, and with the Rocket Scientists. This comparison can also be found in some of the other songs on the disc such as A Different League and Dreamers. Both these tracks have similar hooks and commerciality akin to the Rocket Scientists, but also an AOR feel like Toto and Mike & The Mechanics.
For me, the best track is Wide Wide World. Co written with prog rocks busiest man, Mr John Mitchell, who also provides guitar and vocals, this is a glorious masterclass in songwriting. Surprisingly, Wide Wide World is, at times, the song closest to the original sound of It Bites that John Mitchell has been involved with. Amazing considering his involvement with the band, this really took me aback. The joy and playfulness associated with early It Bites mixed with a pop sound of '80's Nik Kershaw. The video of this track is linked to the review, so do yourself a favour and give it a listen.
The two tracks which make up Fear, demonstrates that Frank also has a good voice. While not the greatest you will hear, he has the ability use his vocal talent to build a growing tension in the first part of the song, before the second, instrumental part, does a similar thing, but without the voice.
Immortal is the albums epic, clocking in at just over 10 minutes, and nestled away within some suspicious vocal melodies, appear to be odd nods to Yes, the most obvious being the bass playing of Pete Trewavas, where he gets in touch with his inner Chris Squire, and it has scintillating harmony vocals.
I need to mention that Frank Us is a supporter of the World Vision charity which helps children less fortunate than his own kids, and I imagine most parents reading this. Some of the profit of purchasing his music will go to helping this cause.
The closing tracks, To The Stars (a ballad type track) and An Adventurous Journey (an instrumental with a slight eastern feel, and featuring a storming guitar solo courtesy of Steve Morse), cement the wonderful musicianship combined with strong songwriting.
Legacy Pilots have, for me, been the discovery of the year so far. I aim to immerse myself in their debut album, and hope to be able to report on another undiscovered gem.
Lighthouse Sparrows — The Deep End EP
Lighthouse Sparrows are a progressive rock band founded by Sami Sarhamaa (guitars, bass, additional keyboards, vocals) and Olli Huhtanen (vocals, keyboards) in July 2019. The pair had worked together for over ten years on numerous sound design projects for features, documentaries, short films and contemporary art projects and had always enjoyed the collaborative process. They discovered that the shared the same tastes in music and so decided to form a band. They captured all their ideas and lyrics and let the songs develop at their own pace, not hurrying or placing any deadlines on themselves. Gradually things started to take shape and soon they had half an hour of material. Recruiting Miri Miettinen to play drums and Trio Tingo (an actual trio of female singers, and not an individual person!) to add some backing vocals they headed into Sarhamaa's studio and created their debut EP.
It is obvious that the two are not new to working together as there is a maturity to the writing and arranging that the newly acquainted rarely possess. The great thing about this EP is the variety of the compositions that all fall towards the lighter end of the prog spectrum, although they are not afraid to let rip with solos every now and then. Gravity is the big prog number with some great soloing first from Huhtanen and his keyboards followed by Sarhamaa and his guitar, before concluding with a more gentile piano.
The four preceding numbers are no slouches either. Replete with melody and some fine singing each of the songs are memorable and of high quality. The big chorus on Gravest Danger is where Trio Tingo make their mark before a great instrumental section segues smoothly into the arresting Scales. This piece has a degree of art rock about it, with a restrained guitar solo that fits perfectly with the tone of the piece. The natural way they handle the transition from guitar to keyboard is testament to the experience that each member brings to the writing, it is just so smooth. This song, as well as the following Shallow End, reminds me somewhat of the brilliant 1980s band Furniture (any else remember the fantastic Brilliant Mind?). The Deep End is the heavier counterpart to, obviously, The Shallow End, and is the only instrumental piece on the EP.
Lighthouse Sparrows have certainly made an impressive start to their recording career as there is not a superfluous moment on the EP. Yes it is only 30 minutes, but it is 30 minutes of pure unadulterated joy. I eagerly await for what comes next.
Phog — This World
Philippe Ogier, who releases music under the name of Phog, is a Frenchman who fell in love with progressive music as a teenager. Having started out playing classical guitar he soon, if you'll excuse the pun, progressed to taking lessons on playing blues guitar which, after playing a Steve Hackett tune during a lesson, turned into lessons on playing transcribed Genesis songs. It is not reported what the other aspirant blues guitarists in the class thought of this change to the lesson plan. After preliminary recording adventures with a four-track tape recorder he moved on to a more versatile home studio set up releasing his first album, Communication in 2018, followed a year later by Evidence. In an impressive display of consistency, his third album, This World was released almost exactly one year later.
Despite having once been a member of a choir, Phog eschews vocals and delivers melodic instrumental music that takes the classic 70s era as a template. A one-man band, Phog utilises analogue keyboards and samples to recreate the ofttimes lush soundscapes of the period. Although the album credits only include Phog as playing electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass and additional percussion, the drum sounds on the album are particularly good; one would be hard pushed not to think there was an actual drummer involved. Indeed, there is a consistency to the album that gives the impression that it is actually a band effort rather than recorded by a single person.
The music is not overtly complex, focusing more on melody than on displays of dexterity, although that is not to say it is simplistic, just more considered and aiming for a certain vibe. There are resemblances to Camel and the more European 70s bands such as Finch, particularly because of the vintage keyboard sounds used throughout the album. Although Phog does lack a convincing Mellotron sample which could have been used to good effect in opening number Awakening. This track also possesses a melody line that would have been perfect for a real flute, as is the case in the opening section of Satellite, which is very Camelesque. As one of the longest tracks on the album it shows that Phog is more than capable of writing longer pieces that flow natural and incorporate changes in mood and tempo, something that is also displayed on the other long piece No Gravity.
Winter Storm has a bit of an Eye Of The Tiger riff running through it, but is saved by a couple of nice sonic switches that gives the piece a greater level of interest. The blues guitar lessons (before they descended into Genesis lessons) obviously had some impact if In The Distance is anything to go by, a piece that has a slight Jan Akkerman feel to it.
Overall, this is a nicely recorded album that, although not offering up anything new, is good enough at what it does. My main criticism is that it does sound rather dated and a bit tired. A greater variety in the style of composition with more moments that move away from the general laid back feel would be of benefit. In the accompanying press release Phog states that he has ambitions of collaborations, something that I think would really enhance the breadth of the music as there is no lack of talent, just perhaps inspiration. Still, for all that, well worth checking out if you are in a more 70s instrumental mood.
Staring Into Nothing — Love
Staring Into Nothing is the combination of forces between Steve Rogers and Kurt Barabas. I had never heard of Rogers before but I remembered the name of Kurt Barabas as one of the members of that shortlived project called Amaran´s Plight. That band released only one great album having Barabas himself along with the big names of Gary Wehrkamp from the mighty Shadow Gallery, DC Cooper from Royal Hunt and there's no need to introduce Nick D´Virgilio. For that reason I was expecting some kind of progressive rock-metal album here too. Nothing is further from reality. Zero metal here, no 20 minutes songs, no instrumental virtuosity shows but a bunch of really good mid-tempo songs that some could define as progressive pop-rock.
Love is the second album by Staring Into Nothing after releasing Power in 2017 and this time Rogers and Barabas have some interesting guests on board too: Mike Keneally (Zappa, Steve Vai, Satriani, ...), Trey Gunn (King Crimson, John Paul Jones), Gregg Bissonette (Ringo Starr, Santana, ...), Victor Bisetti (Los Lobos), and T. Levin (Iggy Pop, Vampire Weekend, ...). Albeit they are masters of their instruments this time they focus on giving the songs the right dose of musicality to build apparently simple compositions that are full of details. As I mentioned before the music here might be not the progressive rock we are used to but somehow the listener could feel the same atmosphere across the whole album, as it was a concept album.
Apparently this album is the second part of their previous one called Power and it seems that the band could release a third part under the name of War. Of course, this one is about love and the multiplicity and evolution of romantic love as the band states. According to Rogers “We were trying to explore the varieties of romantic experience from a mature perspective that recognizes its not all good and not all bad, but it's all we have. In the end, the message is uplifting because over time love endures and transitions into something even more fulfilling when it becomes legacy and a common set of memories and values."
Musically Love is a very pleasant album with a great production by Ronan Chris Murphy (King Crimson, Steve Morse...). The album starts with a four-part combo under the name of the seasons and a clear mid-tempo style in all of them having the soft voice of Steve Rogers as a big surprise because it fits great into this style. I have read that it could remind one of Roger Water' style and it could, when forgetting the angry side of the Mr. Waters. It's great start that will put the listener in a very good mood for the rest of the album. This continues with The Thin Line, starting slow but growing again with a great chorus. Beautiful Delusion is one of the longest songs, almost seven minutes, and this time the band includes more progressive rock touches and structures with the great addition of special percussion, piano and horns.
The albums flows perfectly so far and the nice blend of melody and instrumental execution will remain till the end, having one of the calmest parst in Only Love, with some Lennon and McCartney reminiscences. The good vibes comes again with The Ties That Bind and Find Our Way Back with very nice guitar solo and female backing vocals in the latter. At this point the Scottish pop rock band Cosmic Rough Riders came to my mind and checking them back I found similar mid-tempo songs. Not really related to prog but I could recommend them. The final part of Love starts with the shortest and softest song called To All and it seems like an interlude before the big Ashes and their seven minutes of progressive rock in their own style before Amazing Grace closes the story in a very melancholic way with emotional vocals by Rogers.
Staring Into Nothing is overall a bunch of superb musicians doing very good songs and with Love they have created a very pleasant album that flows smoothly. I have enjoyed it very much and after all that is what is important in music. It will leave the listener in a good mood which is much needed in these times. I hope the third part of the trilogy comes soon but in the meantime I encourage you to discover this beautiful music.