Avandra — Skylighting
It was only last year that this previously little-known quartet out of Puerto Rico surprised and impressed many with the release of their second album Descender.
Showing that progressive metal does not have to be brash and technical, Descender brought a highly original sound and atmosphere that easily nestled it into one of my top five albums of the year. I was really looking forward to seeing how they translated their complex sound into a live show, until last month's ProgPower Europe showcase was sadly postponed. I will have to wait (at least) another year to see that, but at least they now have another seven tracks to consider for their live set.
The four core band members are joined this time around by keyboardist Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Silent Skies, Lux Terminus) who provides additional layers to the songs. Partly due to this addition, this third album showcases a more introspective and ambient side to the Avandra sound palette.
Band mastermind, singer and guitarist Christian Ayala explains: "This is the response to our current situation in the world, due to everything that has happened to us. It became a voyage of loss and return through cosmic cycles in which I both searched inward and outward, combining my love for philosophy and current events into songs."
The opening song was the first written for the album and is the closest to the Avandra sound that was exhibited on Descender. It is my favourite on this album, with the band's subtle use of harmonised vocals, gliding over the refined riffage. As before, there is a lot of detail hidden in the background.
There is an immediate change, with Noetic Probes displaying the revised bright and airy songwriting style. If you want some prog-metal to meditate to, then this is it! In reality this could never be called 'prog metal'. Perhaps 'cosmic heavy prog' would be more apt?
Life Is Not A Circle, But A Sphere channels Fates Warning and Shadow Gallery. It is another relatively heavier composition but doesn't quite sit together to my ears. Eternal Return is a slow-grower but much more of interest to me with its moody stride in the vein of Katatonia and Mother Of Millions.
Neither of the next two tracks have really clicked with me, not helped by the death growls at the end of Afferent Realms. The closing instrumental track is really an experiment in cosmic atmospheres, where Christian Ayala takes the centre of the stage on synths. You really could meditate to this one.
Overall this is a much more immersive listen than their previous releases and I can't help but feel a little disappointed in the end result. With Descender they arrived with such an original and enjoyable sound, that I would have thought it worth sticking with that format for at least one more album (refining it slightly, of course). I'm all for bands experimenting and changing their sounds, but this album seems to have left behind a lot of what I enjoyed so much on Descender and replaced it with something that does not appeal.
However when Avandra decides to hit hard, it still leaves an impact, and I do hope that three of these tracks will be included in their live set next October in Baarlo!
Panzerballett — Planet Z
There is something about the fine line between playing musical notes just because they go together in a certain "mode", and playing musical notes because they sound good together, that has always kept me away from jazz music, especially fusion jazz. I just can't get along with it for very long. Despite this, I do hold an appreciation for any type of musical creation that involves talent and hard work, or dares to stray into areas of music that are just so crazy, they must be heard to be believed.
Enter Panzerballett, a rather beautiful contrast of words I might add. Panzerballett are from Munich, Germany, and while they perform live as a quintet, it appears only main composer, guitarist and probable madman, Jan Zehrfeld, is present on this release, from their core line-up anyway.
Zehrfeld is joined however, by an absolutely incredible line-up of guest musicians on this album. Just looking over the drummers present here had my anticipation levels through-the-roof. We have Morgen Agren (Frank Zappa, Opeth, Meshuggah, Devin Townsend), Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson, In Continuum, The Aristocrats, The Mute Gods, Plini and many others), Virgil Donati (Planet X, Southern Sons, Derek Sherinian), Gergo Borlai (A ridiculously talented Hungarian drummer who's appeared on over 300 albums), Hannes Grossmann (Hate Eternal, Obscura, Necrophagist, Blotted Science) and Andy Lind (a longtime collaborator of Zehrfeld's and a multi instrumentalist and composer in his own right). This is already a seriously impressive collective. Yet also appearing are a host of saxophone, baritone sax, trumpet players and other guests throughout the album.
Panzerballett play a very extreme style of jazz-infused metal. This is something that is undeniably present from the opening, to the closing seconds of this record. There are very few quiet moments, very few pauses for breath and very little in the way of calm. Jan Zehrfeld instead treats your ears to just over 50 minutes of some of the most complex music I've ever heard, using his years as a classically trained guitarist to create some truly disturbing soundscapes.
Parts of this album feel like you're tumbling down the rabbit hole in Alice In Wonderland, while others simply make you sit back and wonder how on earth any human being could possibly create what you've just heard using just their hands and a musical instrument. There are moments of complete insanity, moments of beautiful virtuosity, and some parts that simply boil down to, quite frankly, unnecessary noodling.
The points I mention above are both Panzerballett's greatest asset and their biggest constraint. There is no doubt that tracks such as, Who The Jack Is Migger?, have some breathtaking moments, especially during the clean guitar sections. The saxophone is more refined here and is given room to flow over the rhythm section, rather than being constantly at odds with it, and it makes for a very listenable song. Likewise, the more guitar-driven, Urchin vs. Octopus, is possibly the highlight of the album with its mesmerising guitar solos and haunting middle section. These are two examples of where the album does slow things down, just a little, and sounds all the better for it.
Now this may come down to me just not being a huge fan of jazz fusion, or that I simply don't "get" it, but I can't help but think that just because you can play something, it doesn't mean you should. I almost feel like this is an unfair criticism, given the sheer amount of talent on show here, but there are too many moments on this album where it seems like the composer knew exactly how good these guys were, and just decided to show off for the sake of it. I get that this is supposed to be complicated music, but it occasionally just devolves into being borderline unlistenable.
The opener, Prime Time, just sounds awkward to my ears, almost purposefully so in sections. While there are no other full tracks that are guilty of this, the nature of the compositions alone, means that every time there is a great riff, or a section of controlled beauty, such as the end of Coconut, it is soon followed by more endless noodling. While it may be very, very impressive, it does not make it a pleasure to listen to.
While I am not a fan of a lot of the compositions themselves, where this album does shine brightly, is within the individual performances of the players. Jan Zehrfeld is clearly an insanely talented guitarist and is very capable of writing some heavy, harsh, downtuned riffs that litter this album. The buzzsaw feel of Mind Your Head, the crazy speed metal parts of No One Is Flying The Plane, and the brilliant reworking of Richard Wagner's classic, Ride Of The Valkyries, all contain some of the tightest rhythm guitar work you're likely to hear all year.
The saxophonists (Florian Fennes, Sam Greenfield and George Gratzer), all do a fantastic job with their unforgiving, jazz fusion style. While I may not entirely like it, the fact that these guys can play the music put in front of them with such talent and resolve, is just incredible in its own right.
But the real stars of the show are the drummers, each bringing their own unique style, flair and incredible performances to each track. This album is a jazz fusion drum enthusiast's wet dream. Morgen Agren plays with all the relentless improvisation you'd expect, throwing in fills and cymbal flutters like crazy, and generally making the song his own. Marco Minnemann is equally as impressive with his performance, which is as enthusiastic and energetic as we've come to expect. But it's the more-unknown Gergo Borlai who almost steals the whole show, throwing in some Gavin Harrison-style tom rolls and some incredibly intricate cymbal work. If I do ever return to this album, it'll be for these guys.
Overall this is a very technically-impressive piece of work which walks a very fine line between virtuosity and showing off. It's going to appeal to the extreme jazz metal crowd. But for us more-grounded progressive metal fans, I think it's going to be a bit too much, and despite the talent on show here, this record just didn't grow on me, nor did it really reveal much new, after multiple listens. Panzerballett are a hugely talented bunch, if you like their previous work, you're probably going to love this. Just remember it's more of the same.
Profuna Ocean — Continuation
Another successful sampling during sequestration. Formed in 2008, this Dutch quartet produced a warmly-received debut a year later. However they then went quiet for eight years, before releasing another well-received album in 2016.
It's been a much shorter wait for their third effort; an EP (or mini-album) by the self-explanatory name of Continuation. And what a pleasant distraction it has been.
Keyboardist Arjan Visser offers a bit of context: “There is no over-arching theme. These are five separate songs that were ... inspired by things that have transpired in our world and keep us awake at night. For instance, the track NRA is about the shootings in the United States, whereas Cc Song was written after Chris Cornell's passing, a musician we all have come to love and respect over the years.”
“Our music begins with Raoul, who writes the bulk of the material and demos it in his home studio, before we refine this in our rehearsal studio and turn it into a true Profuna Ocean song. For Continuation, we deliberately chose to keep the songs concise and to the point, instead of adding more and more music to the whole.”
And certainy the band's sound and their compositions are tight; probably a benefit of maintaining the same line-up since their formation. All five are strong compositions. No fillers here. I like the vocals and there are some tasty guitar solos and riffage. It sounds great and the packaging looks great too.
I can't say that I recall listening to either Watching The Closing Sky nor Vacuum, so I can't really comment as to what extent this is a departure in sound and style. However having read the two DPRP reviews, the band-comparisons sound similar to the ones that I was thinking of.
The first three tracks sit firmly in the Porcupine Tree and The Pineapple Thief style of alternative/progressive rock. I'm Glad You Survived takes a clear inspiration from the work of Steven Wilson. There is a nice variety and flow to the tracks. NRA takes a slightly different turn, reminding me a lot of latter-day Rush, especially in its rhythms.
However it is the closing track that grabs my attention. Whilst CCSong is about Chris Cornell, True Fear is the track that takes its musical standpoints from Soundgarden. With an opening from the Soen rhythm-book, it's the heaviest and grooviest and most clever of the songs.
This is a must-listen for all fans of modern alternative progressive rock.
Sólstafir — Endless Twilight of Codependent Love
For much of its hour-plus running time, Sólstafir's seventh full-length album treads along the band's subdued, melancholic side with a sound and timbre that often holds a mirror to the cinematic musings of fellow countrymen Sigur Ros.
Tracks like the meditative Til Moldar, the suspenseful Rokkur and the majestic Her Fall From Grace are heavy on atmosphere, with ample space to take a reflective breath. Rokkur is the perfect example of where singing in their native tongue gives this collection of songs a unique identity and manner of phrasing. That feeling is enhanced by it being followed by the only track sung in English. Her Fall From Grace is simply beautiful. The grating guitar riff at the end, provides some shade to counter the light.
But rather than completely giving way to that softness, Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love also sees flashes of the band's heavier tendencies. There is nothing that suggests a return to their Black Metal roots, but the opening of Akkeri and the whole of Dionysus thrive on heavier onslaughts of guitar, that are mashed-in with harsh vocals and lambasting drums.
In this respect you can see similarities to the career paths of Green Carnation and Katatonia (in style more than substance, for sure).
Extra variety is given by the raw Gothic influence on the stomping rock of Alda Syndanna, and by the atmospheric wandering through Icelandic craters on the closing, near-epic Ulfur, which even chills out to some Pink Floyd-like guitar solos in the middle.
Or throws a curveball with its jazz-bar blues-tinged swagger, that builds into a harsh vocal / brash guitar fist-fight. In the context of an album that is free to wander as its soul pleases, this works a treat.
This variety is, as with all Sólstafir albums, unified by the ever-pervading cold bleakness of the band's sound around the ever-vulnerable vocals, which deliver some highly memorable mofifs throughout. Like the days and like the seasons, the music of Sólstafir imbues that ever-shifting balance between light and darkness.
Overall, Sólstafir's brand of Icelandic post metal is at its most accessible and perfectly balanced with Endless Twilight Of Codependent Love. Its preference towards the more restrained side of the band's repertoire leans towards my preference for a heavy melancholy, yet their melodic and heavier aspects are healthily distributed with dynamic fluctuations that keep the listener engaged.
Tiger Moth Tales — Still Alive
With recording of the new Tiger Moth Tales studio album on hiatus due to that pesky virus thing, Peter Jones, on a suggestion from a friend, wrote a song of support for the people of the village where he lives. As lockdown continued, a few more songs sprung-up resulting in this unexpected mini album of new material. Rather than just release it as an EP, it has been paired with a DVD of the full band recorded for The Quiet Room Sessions at Rockfield Studios in 2018, along with a couple of promotional videos.
The title track itself does the job it was set out to do, by providing a positive message of encouragement that doesn't gloss over the hardships or even the fatalities of the pandemic. There is a celtic flavour provided by the penny-whistle and a strong Big Big Train vibe throughout. The reprise at the end of the CD is an acoustic version played on accordion which, although very nice, seems to lack a degree of the pathos contained in the full version.
If The Mighty Fallen is a completely new song, then it bodes well for the new album. A stunning instrumental with some furious guitar playing, presumably by Jones as there are no other credits attributed to the CD. It is the best thing I have heard from Tiger Moth Tales, probably because it is so different to the normal style associated with the band. The instrumental segues nicely into the more familiar style of Golden, a rather lovely piano ballad that really ends after five minutes, with the last minute being a synthesiser and guitar piece that could almost be considered as a linking piece of music if it were not for the fact that it doesn't actually link into the next track! Whatever, it is a different and somewhat unusual way to end the song but works well enough.
Lean Into Madness is another step outside the normal boundaries of typical Tiger Moth Tales territory, being a contorted and twisted, nighmarish piece that suits the title perfectly. With some operatic vocals in the background and a Hackett-like guitar phrase, it is a genuinely creepy track that would be interesting to hear developed into a deeper concept.
I have never been a great fan of the jokey songs that litters the Tiger Moth Tales catalogue and unfortunately Whistle Along is the latest of those, well at least half of it is. The first three and a half minutes are simply annoying with a trite tune, an overloaded electronic drumbeat, bad West Country and Mancunian accents and all sorts of ridiculous things. The novelty wears off rapidly. However, there is a sudden switch to a lot more proggy interlude, with mad guitar (and mad laughing) that is more along the lines of what was delivered in The Mighty Fallen. There is a lesser resumption of the original style, although it is reigned-in more and not so annoying. All-in-all a joke song that I think will be see good employment of the 'skip' button.
The DVD, recorded in front of a small audience is, despite the limitations of the space (it really is a small room!) is well shot, with all four musicians (including drummer Paul Comerie isolated in his drum booth) having a dedicated camera, as well as one showing the whole band. Of course, the band is Red Bazar with Mike Wilson on bass, backing vocals, vocoder and clarinet, Andy Wilson on guitar and Jones on vocals, guitar and keyboards.
With five tracks from Cocoon sandwiching three tracks from The Depths Of Winter, the Storytellers albums are neglected. The sound is excellent and the performance faultless giving an enjoyable concert, even if the attempts to entice the audience into participating with The Merry Vicar are unsuccessful. The promo videos are nice to have but the Still Alive video is wonderful, portraying the lyrics and the results of the pandemic very well but in an overall very positive manner. The inclusion of home videos from fans, neighbours and supporters is a nice touch emphasising the 'we're all in this together' aspect. Even if you are not a fan of Tiger Moth Tales it is worth watching, for the spirit and positivity it engenders.
As an unexpected and one may say unintentional release, Still Alive delivers more than one could reasonably expect in the circumstances. The positive message of the title track and video are sorely needed in these times and, just as importantly, the purchase of the album helps a very talented musician whose sole source of regular income during the lockdown has been taken away from him. Go on buy a copy, you know you want to.
Vultress — Hypnopompia
Let me get the easy bit out of the way first. The cover of this album is uttery beguilling. I love the style, the blend of soft and of precise angles, and the colours chosen are just gorgeous. I could happily stick this on my office wall and look at it forever.
Now for the difficult part; the music.
Vultress is a heavy-prog band from Indiana. The project can be traced back to their High School days. Drummer Paul Uhrina had initiated several different projects under the name Vultress before finalising a line-up featuring Anthony Capuano on vocals and keyboards, Mucho Chucho on bass and guitarist Jordan Gaboian. (Mucho Chucho has since left the band).
A four-track EP entitled Distance saw the Vultress career take flight in 2011. I gave a very positive review to their debut album, also called Distance back in 2014.
From recollection, it was a coherent collection of progressive metal compositions, not a million miles away from Dream Theater. I noted that Capuano had a "unique" voice and that the more off-beat diversions did distract from, rather than build on, the songs. That was something the band had yet to learn to tame, I thought.
Sadly with Hypnopompia they have decided to go in the opposite direction. The word multifarious could have been created with them in mind.
After a short burst of cello for the barely noticeable title track, we are bombarded with Capuano's vocals. He opens promisingly with his clean and rich mid-range, before exploring his near-screeemo high end, before developing an alt-rock format with (very poor) death scowls. And that is just the first 90 seconds! For the rest of the song, he settles for a predominantly alt-rock vein, that is spoilt by a dirgy guitar droning on in the background.
Tether is pretty unlistenable if, like me, you need at last some sense of purpose to a song. It has its moments (the guitar after the two-minute mark is delightful) but more strings, metal guitars, and grungy guitars inhabit at least one new style every 20 seconds. After four minutes a listenable jazz-sax component evolves into avant-jazz with grungy guitars that is horrible. I haven't found it yet, but there probably is a kitchen sink being played in there somewhere!
Then we go fully conventional. Fall Into Then possesses standard guitars and keys and vocals in a consistent alt-rock vein. Think District 97 meets Alien Ant Farm. Then the Vultress brand of ADHD-prog reveals its inner Ed Sheeran, for five minutes of voice/acoustic singer-songwriter self-exploration of one's social conscience.
If your tolerance has lasted this long, then New Sun begins with some nice progressive metal stylings before transforming into weird electronica (the voice part of this is hideous), then a xylophone solo before the final section is a very proggish keyboard solo over a Rush-inspired guitar groove.
On Hypnopompia, Vultress have managed to create one of the most nonsensical collections of progressive music that I have ever encountered. If the descriptions above sound like this may fill your ADHD musical requirements, then please belt yourself in for the ride. The few sections of the few songs that caught my attention, are never going to warrant a return visit to this album. Nice album cover though!
Yargos — The Dancing Mermaid
Here's an interesting album for those who enjoy a slab of female-fronted symphonic power metal, with some progressive tendancies.
It was 15 years ago that Yargos first arrived on the scene with a debut album entitled To Be Or Not To Be. It gained a lot of interest because it featured the vocals of the late Threshold singer Andrew 'Mac' McDermott. It had its moments and sat in a more melodic metal-lite category. I never checked out the follow-up, 2012's Magical Karma, which also featured 'Mac' on vocals. Out of curiosity, I have grabbed a copy of their new, third release.
Band founder Wieland Hofmeister (guitars, bass, keyboards, programming) is the only constant member across the three albums. Now lead vocals are handled by Becky Gaber.
The band's sound has got a lot heavier since the debut, with a firm symphonic power metal foundation. The melodies are still central but again each track has an abundance of different themes and phases. Gaber has a strong and aggressive voice, which includes some raspy and death vocals.
The problem again for me (apart from the death vocals) is that not all the parts seem to fit together, with it often sounding too complicated for its own good. The relentless double-kick power metal drumming is not a sound I enjoy. Those whose preferences lie with such elements, however will find much to enjoy, as it is all very well played and performed.
Zip Tang — Cold Coming
Sixth album from the hardy fellows hailing from Chicago who are currently a trio comprising Fred Faller (drums), newcomer Andrew Bunk (bass) and the writer/arranger/producer Perry Merritt (vocals, guitar, synthesisers), ably assisted by former members Marcus Padgett (saxophone) and Matt Gunsaulus who plays keyboards on a couple of songs. All five previous albums by the band have been recommended releases on DPRP, so expectations are high for this long-awaited new album.
The band's last album, Private Shangri-La, was some five years ago but the group pick-up proceedings as if it was just last year. Cold Coming is the most full-on prog release by the band, even extending to being a concept album telling the tale of the adopted child, Marie, who suffering abuse at the hands of her adoptive father, turns to drug abuse and a life on the streets. The cover of the album cleverly references parts of the tale within its general darkness, which is fitting given the dark subject matter.
One of the defining features of Zip Tang has always been the saxophone that is incorporated into the mix, and it is great to hear that despite Padgett no longer being a member of the band, his presence is heard on this latest release.
The opener, Another Time, is most resemblant of the band's signature sound, with the latest recruit Bunk laying down a heavy bass vibe with Padgett's sax interlocking with Merritt's guitar. As befits a concept album, there are a variety of styles to suit the lyrical subject matter. Sorry, an acoustic number, has a beginning and ending with the vocals manipulated to sound as if they are coming through an old radio. This contrasts with the more lush central section, which faintly resembles Echolyn; more in the singing than the music.
There is a much greater depth to the music on Cold Coming, with some gorgeously melodic slower songs, pitted against heavier rock pieces such as Under The Viaduct and Rains Fall. But even within these heavier pieces there is light and shade. Incidentally, it is these two songs that feature the keyboard work of Gunsaulus and so have a stronger affinity to previous albums than perhaps some of the other songs. Both are well constructed and contain some great electric guitar work from Merritt,
Of the slower songs, Moonwater and Stars Sing in particular beg to be heard, the latter song being a glorious piece of music that concludes the album perfectly,
A couple of more atmospheric and unconventional pieces are also included. The brief Surrender is a dark, haunting and faintly-evil number, while Transmigration, the first part of the title track, has an air of cinemascopic mystery, with previous melodies heard faintly in the background. Cold Coming as a whole piece perfectly transitions between the nightmarish introduction, through a more acoustic section, perfectly succinct guitar solo and harmonies of Mary Jane Lane and into the less tumultuous than one might expect closing of The Storm. The title track may be one of the best new prog songs I have heard all year.
Zip Tang had a very high standard to live up to and I am happy to say they have exceeded all expectations. A band that can consistently deliver the goods and maintain an exceptionally high quality throughout is worthy of more attention. If you are not familiar with the band, then do yourself a favour and head over to the group's Bandcamp page and grab a copy of Cold Coming. You won't be disappointed.