Phil Doran — Into The Unknown
Phil Doran, originally from Cumbria but resident in Liverpool for the last decade, is a session guitarist who is also a member of cover/function band Madison, who have had a 10-year residency at the infamous Cavern Club, and tribute band The ELO Show. Into The Unknown is Doran's debut solo album, although Madison did release an album of original material in 2013 which featured six tracks by Doran.
Principally a guitarist and singer, he also plays bass and some percussion on the album with support from keyboard players Mark Batch, Barney Taylor and Chris Howard and drummers Jake Woodward and Jake Burton. Guitarist David Collier also adds a couple of solos to one song.
The album leans towards the lighter side of prog, the poppier aspects probably influenced by the music played by Madison. However one shouldn't assume that the album is at all lightweight, Doran is a fine guitarist who is not afraid to let rip and is a very good singer, layering his vocals, to form stacks of harmonies. He also has a good ear for melody with tracks such as Hit The Sky featuring a great hookline amongst the riffs.
He has learnt a lot from other artists, with the main riff in the title track Into The Unknown bearing a slight resemblance to Michael Jackson's Beat It, and several signature Brian May sounds appearing now and again. But this is, I suspect, more of a tribute to some favourites than anything else. Not short of ideas, Doran packs plenty into the album, particularly on the longest two tracks, the aforementioned Hit The Sky and Vision, both of which are excellent songs that would sit comfortably in any prog collection.
If you are going to turn towards the poppier side of things, then you could do a lot worse than choose the sublime Jellyfish as a role model. The cover of Joining A Fan Club is a faithful rendition of the song, only really deviating from the original with the more explosive guitar solo which possibly elevates the song to a position on a par, or even slightly above the Jellyfish cut.
The Other Side, Watch And Learn and Do You Feel Alive? are the heavier of the remaining songs but all feature aspects that imbue them with a quality that is hard to criticise. The last of these tracks is somewhat of an anomaly, and is noticeably of a different style to the other tracks. It also happens to be the title track of the Madison album, so it may be that Doran felt that the earlier version did not capture what he had envisioned for the song and so wanted to re-record it. Fair dues but it is probably the weakest of the songs on the album.
No such qualms over the ballad With Light which is a lovely song enhanced by some nifty guitar work. It is easy to imagine a stripped-back acoustic version of this song, with the guitar solo maintained, as I think it would work brilliantly in a more acoustic setting. The album ends with another slower number, Too Much Of Me. It would have been great if the lyrics had been printed in the CD booklet as there are a lot of them in this song and they are not always easy to hear, particularly as the vocals have been somewhat over-produced with added effects which is totally unnecessary as Doran is a decent singer. The manipulation of his voice is more of a distraction than an enhancement.
The quibbles are nonetheless minor and Into The Unknown is a promising solo album by a man who certainly knows how to write a good tune. The album artwork, painted by Si Clark, is quite evocative, even if it does bear an uncanny resemblance to Sunset Glow Mugen by Dan Dee. Overall, a slick album that successfully melds prog rock with more commercial attributes. I am sure the album will find favour amongst a broad range of music lovers.
Dyble Longdon — Between A Breath And A Breath
Although, as a founding member, folk singer Judy Dyble recorded just one album with Fairport Convention (the 1968 self-titled debut) she will be forever associated with the band. In more recent years, she has occasionally appeared on stage with the band, as well as recording several albums under her own name. Her most recent recording is this Dyble Longdon collaboration with Big Big Train frontman David Longdon. The multi-talented Longdon joined BBT in 2009 and the subsequent The Underfall Yard album garnered much acclaim, both inside and outside prog circles.
Unsurprisingly, Between A Breath And A Breath has been labelled progressive folk. Undoubtedly melodic rock with proggy and folky elements, would be a fairly apt description. It will certainly hold few surprises for Big Big Train fans, particularly as Dyble previously sang on the track The Ivy Gate on the 2017 Grimspound album. Here, she is responsible for the lyrics and vocals, while Longdon provides the music, additional vocals and much of the instrumentation including guitars, keyboards and percussion. Helping out are various guest musicians including members of BBT. The decision was made to keep the album's playing time vinyl-friendly and even the CD version has a 'Side 1' and a 'Side 2'.
Appropriately, the most immediate song, Astrologers, opens the album and boasts a compelling choral hook that would not sound out of place on daytime BBC Radio Two. Judy's crystal-clear vocals sound as vibrant as ever, even though they were recorded two months after celebrating her 70th birthday. The bridge section, where Longdon sings lead, put me in mind of Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up.
The rhythmic Obedience was inspired by psychedelic folk rockers The Incredible String Band and features lilting violin embellishments from Rachel Hall of BBT. Tidying Away The Pieces is a poignant ballad about coping with the loss of a loved one. The cool-jazz style trumpet is courtesy of Luca Calabrese of Isildurs Bane. The title song is another tranquil offering, with pastoral Mellotron strings, flute and counterpoint harmonies.
Opening 'Side 2', France is a mini-epic in two parts and the closest song on the album to Big Big Train. Virtually all the then current members are involved, with Rikard Sjöblom's accordion, Rachel's violin and Longdon's piano producing an authentic musette waltz, in keeping with the song's subject. Judy's lyrics have a nostalgic charm and when the song hits its majestic stride, Greg Spawton and Nick D'Virgilio are superb on bass and drums respectively.
The majestic Whisper is another song with a haunting melody and chorus. Once again, the joy is in the detail, with Longdon's layered instruments including glockenspiel, vibraphone, flute, piano and Mellotron. He's also responsible for the soaring guitar coda. Heartwashing, which started life as a poem, provides a stately conclusion to the album. Judy recites, rather than sings, the words and Calabrese again provides the moody Miles Davis-style trumpet.
Sadly, Judy Dyble succumbed to lung cancer and passed away on the 12th July 2020, just ten weeks before the album's release. It remains therefore a fitting epitaph to a career spanning six decades. Her singing and words are full of verve, beauty and grace, complemented by Longdon's rich melodies, expansive arrangements and production. I'll let Judy have the last words with the closing lines from Heartwashing: “She looks clearly into the future, with open eyes and a resigned and patient heart, for what will be the next adventure, should there be such a thing”.
Fuchs — One Lively Decade
Fuchs is the project of multi-instrumentalist Hans-Jürgen Fuchs, hailing from Stuttgart (Germany) who in his daily life is a music teacher at Stuttgart's Robert Koch Real Schule. One Lively Decade, consisting of songs from all his previous three albums and one unreleased song performed live at this school, makes me wonder what would have happened to my musical career if I had attended his lessons.
The only musical teacher I ever had was at high school. During the two primary years, Boris Chapchal tried to enhance my musical dexterity, to no avail. My recollections of this are slim, and many years after his lessons my odd-time signature triangle skills are still debatable, much like his knowledge and teachings towards progressive rock, which wasn't in his dictionary or repertoire as far as I'm aware. How different this must be in Fuchs' classes, for the ten-year compositional overview immortalised on One Lively Decade is textbook material when it comes to progressive rock and neo-prog, highlighted by additional symphonic elements.
One Lively Decade was recorded on the 1st of February 2020 and is quite possibly one of the last recorded live recordings before the famous pandemic effectively slayed such things. Joining Fuchs (keyboards, guitars, lap steel and background vocals) on stage that night were his wife Ines Fuchs (keyboards, backing vocals), Baggi Buchmann (lead vocals), Michael Wasilewski (lead vocals), Andy Bartzik (guitar), Mike Köhler (bass, synth bass) and Florian Dittrich on drums. Many of these people also participated on Fuchs' previous albums, making this more of a band, than a solo project.
On the night, they played two sets. The first consisted of the entire album Station Songs, while the second contained songs from Leaving Home and The Unity Of Two. Originally the recordings were only intended for selective internet purposes, yet the quality of sound and excellent performances throughout, captured the night's atmosphere perfectly, and so thankfully warranted a full release.
Fuchs shows a partiality towards Genesis-inspired prog which shines through beautifully in his compositions through refined arrangements and many luscious keyboard parts. Songs that are well written and outlined by a brush, after which they are meticulously painted in by a delightful array of colourings. It yields richly detailed and easy accessible compositions, filled with lovely melodies which bring memories of many neo-progressive acts, mostly in the light-hearted spectrum of prog.
The opening song The Invisible Man immediately sets a high standard where the interplay of the Fuchs-couple on keyboards is extremely tasteful done, something that's delectably featured in a lot of Fuchs' compositions. The solid rhythm section immediately shines by dynamically pushing the song forward where Mellotron sounds ignite warm flashes of IQ, while the playful guitar/synth synchronicity later on is equally rewarding.
Even If The Salary's Low shows similar versatility as well as additional confined drama, and after slowly intensifying, it brings to mind Shadowland and to some extent Arena.
The first of many highlights comes in the form of How Could I Just Ignore Him?. Blissfully mindful to early eighties Saga through its smooth melody lines, it reveals modest piano parts and flows seamlessly into The Night, The Dark And The Pain. Both tracks show the perfectly captured spatial sound of the recordings, where one can almost hear a pin drop amongst the appreciative audience's silence. This is where set one ended originally, and on basis of these offerings one can only hope the other omitted tracks find their way to the internet still.
The best was/is however still to come in set two, where Are You With Me and Back To Where We Belonged keep the flow of the live show going. Each showcases exquisite multi-layered keyboard parts, while the former also contains perfect harmonies and Peter Nicholls (IQ) like vocals. The latter adds light signals of Alan Parsons to this, framed by further Genesis deliciousness. On These Golden Fields Fuchs even introduces a choir consisting of 19 student vocalists that gives the song some Eloy feel, while the combination of Gabriel-like vocals and melodic use of guitars breathes a gorgeous atmosphere mindful to Marillion's Fish era. Not for the first time actually, for feelings of Clutching At Straws comes to mind frequently over the course of the album.
In between these songs is Here In My Void, an unreleased composition performed live for the very first time. A song that combines everything Fuchs-like in a song. It's a wonderful mini-suite. It starts with a long intro featuring intricate piano play to which virtuoso keyboards add atmosphere and depth. Gliding into a fragile minimalistic classical movements it gradually picks up pace through added vocals and while it remains intricate, sensitive and small, solid bass lines and drums slowly add dynamics. Exceedingly meticulous it glides consecutively into a gracious melancholic guitar and tantalising keyboard solo that morphs mutually onwards moments later in perfect unison. After a brief encounter of playful drums and bass, the multi-structured composition returns to it's initial melody, supported by great guitar work, before closing in vocal harmonies.
The audience breathes it all in silently which is captured magnificently on the epic closing track When You Close Your Eyes. Its restrained opening and slow build-up suddenly changes midway, after which it impeccably glides towards a tantalising crescendo. Here the combination of Fuchs' Lapsteel, and Bratzik's guitar solos make sure everyone is sitting comfortably, as they elevate the song with a superior resemblance of Michael Holmes' (IQ) delicious technique. Further interplay of guitar and keys is mesmerising and upon slowly fading it ends a great memorable night of sophisticated, well executed and humbling prog.
I don't know the current status in Fuchs' agenda, for Covid-19's ongoing effects might have resulted in school closures and re-scheduled classes. Yet someone thinking of exploring their inner passion through education of emotive progressive rock, filled with enchanting melodies, richness of melancholy and abundantly detailed neo-prog flavourings please fill in your applications towards following his classes. Everyone else who shares this side of prog should at least check out this great offering which is a most competent overview of Fuchs' accomplishments. The new track, Here In My Void, also shows that Fuchs still has several aces up his sleeve, which makes me look forward to his next endeavour.
Kevin Godley — Muscle Memory
I remember fondly discovering the art rock of 10CC, as my sister's then boyfriend (now husband) was a great fan. It was something new, and added to my early dabbling in music beyond my staple hard rock. This then extended to accompanying my sister and boyfriend to seeing the band live, which was a great treat.
So when the opportunity came to review the long-awaited solo album by Kevin Godley, I jumped at the chance. This has become quickly become my biggest musical disappointment of 2020. The album concept is that other musicians have provided the musical backdrop upon which Godley overlays some of the most depressing lyrics I have ever heard.
Godley appears to be totally at odds with the world. His lyrics never appear to raise beyond that of the manically depressed, and anyone who suffers from mental health issues would be well advised to steer clear of this album, or at least not to scrutinise the lyrics to any degree. His rants range from American gun laws (why this has any real interest to a UK resident is beyond me, especially when we have our own specific gun-related problems), the use of prostitutes and the type of men who pay for their services, and the one I found most amazing was the future of the music industry. During this particular song, entitled One Day, Godley states that “musicians as we know them will cease to exist”. This particular line pretty much sums up my feelings of Muscle Memory, and Godley has managed to bring his prediction to life.
We then get to the music itself, which provides a mostly morbid backdrop for Godley to express his angst. We have attempts at Beatles-type pop (Telescope), Peter Gabriel ethnic loops and rhythms (Expecting A Message), and even a jazzy-edged torch song with Hit The Street.
The album left me feeling very sorry for Kevin, because if this is his view of the world, then he appears to be living in a very dark and uncomfortable place. While we are all aware that the current plight of the world is not pleasant, if you lose touch with what is good and pure, then the effort to continue to exist can become futile. People may argue that music is an art form, by which both good and bad things can be expressed, but the same choice also dictates which type of music we wish to listen to.
I would have the same opinion of this album even if it were not created by Kevin Godley, but for me the disappointment is intensified by the fact that I have such good memories of the music of 10CC, and this is a sad epitaph for a great musician.
Mattias Ohlsson Project — Illumination
M.O.P. is the abbreviation of Mattias Ohlsson Project, an initiative by Mattias Ohlsson (duh...), who previously released his endeavours under the Octavarium banner, through which several albums saw the light of day at an incredible speed. My first encounter was Out Of Time, quickly followed by the exquisite Dystopia.
Since then Ohlsson's release rate has slowed down to a manageable pace, where last year's Origin, saw him successfully continue his quest to improve his production skills, whilst simultaneously maintaining his high standard of musical delivery. Personally I missed conciseness in his compositions, as well as the highly inspiring flavourings contributed by Eric Gillette. Both of which proved to be the winning factors in Dystopia for me.
One aspect that instantly stands out on Illumination is the fact that Ohlsson has now fully mastered the production side, aided this time by mastering courtesy of Adam Bentley. It sounds infectiously crystal clear and ravishingly vibrant, whilst sonically it reflects the same familiar freshness found in his previous attempts. A second plus-point is the delightful return to compact song structures, where even the extensive epic Illumination never outstays it welcome.
But wherein lies the difference from the Octavarium albums? Why the sudden name change? The answer to that is probably two-fold. The first one is likely a practical one. Just try a simple Google search on "Octavarium" and an infinite array of Dream Theater-related hits show up, but hardly anything applicable to Ohlsson's own project. The second one, which makes the most sense from a musician's point of view, lies in the fact that Illuminations' offerings are forcefully different and furiously heavier, pulling it unmistakably out of the Octavarium realm. Not entirely though, for there are still many tantalising similarities detectable.
This conceptual album depicts the story of a man slowly descending into madness, illustrated by twelve exciting movements that follow this pathway towards delusional downfall. And where Ohlsson's previous efforts shuddered and rocked my world, this one is capable of arousing an actual earthquake, for Ohlsson most definitely has upped his game on the heavy department. Previously images of Magellan, Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater and Pink Floyd stepped into the spotlight. Those names are now greatly overshadowed by bright flashes of Haken, Tesseract and Devin Townshend.
The quiet, peaceful and atmospheric opening of The Long Dark Night doesn't offer a stylistic change at first, feeling familiarly appetising. But once the threshold has been reached it's a no-holds-barred progressive metal roller-coaster-ride. An intense journey tumbling into an overwhelming musical adventure that descends into congruent complex realms of insanity. Thundering onwards, Inferno Within dazzles with impeccable bombast, fierce djent-like riffs, amazing tightness of drumming and heavy symphonies, met by a deliciously tasty keyboard solo.
Ohlsson immediately reveals an unexpected surprise through the usage of growling harsh vocals which personally I don't like, although that's obviously a matter of taste. It does however emphasise the disturbing theme of the album. The contrast with Ohlsson's smoother vocals, which I've grown accustomed to over the past years, works really well and shows both growth in strength and versatility on Ohlsson's part. In light of all the mayhem unleashed on the album, the smoothness does however tend to fall ever so short sometimes.
Wasteland follows with aggressive hooks and simulated guitar riffs flying by at high speed. Its middle section shows divine melancholy, albeit short, for ever so quickly it's back to mighty, bashing riffs, multi layered structures and odd time signatures, showcasing Ohlsson's compositional progress brightly.
Introspection and Innocence Lost show ambient refinement, with restrained piano parts slowly progressing towards melodies reminiscent to the aforementioned Magellan. It transgresses into a doom-like state, inhibiting many layers of instrumentation, delicate textures and a delicious guitar solo, leading up to the bombast of the scenic Introversion. Here Ohlsson triumphantly shows his drum chops, while the cinematic approach and huge layers of symphonies give the composition feelings of grandeur.
It sets up beautifully for the epic Unforgiven, which via a seamless transition builds tension and sees relentless, pounding rhythms surrounded by screeching vocals. The variation, through added ambient touches and a Dream Theater / Derek Sherinian inspired key-solo amidst all this musical pompous brutality, is divine. This is followed closely by the quiet embrace and refined percussion of Aversion and the slightly pop structured Glow. It's a lot to take in all at once.
Omniscient lights the fuse, vigorously signalling red alert for a spiralling burst into intense frenzy. Guided by expressively uttered harsh vocals, the composition converges from heavy doom riffs and powerful rhythms into a midsection thriving on playful orchestral melodies. The melancholic guitar solo, surrounded by lovely lightness of drums and cymbal play, gives the highly accomplished song a breath of fresh air, which is beautiful.
The schizophrenic like-state of the slipping, demented man is captured pristinely in the two marvellous closing tracks. Well Of Madness is surrounded by classical opera sounds gliding into screaming, punchy rhythms encased within a cacophony of sounds, bombast and heavy riffs. The epic, conclusive Illumination is just as breathtaking. Initially it takes a step back through an atmospheric opening and piano, but once past this phase there's no letting go in this all-encompassing composition. Simulated bass eruptions guide the track fluently along, as walloping beats interact with layers of keys and blasting drums, each enforcing psychedelics in a very modern, techno way. Further intertwining melodies are aided by synthesized guitars, projecting shimmering light at the end of the tunnel. This is contrasted beautifully by the banging doom-like riffs that return the intoxicating story full circle.
The attention to detail, conceptual depth and projection/execution thereof, in combination with Ohlsson's quest for perfection, has resulted in a most excellent effort. Staying true to his own identifiable sound, the heavier stylistic shift is admirable and triumphant on occasions.
It's an adventurous musical journey filled with inventive, creative and meticulously arranged compositions where even the mimicked bass and guitar insertions almost manage to question authenticity. An impressive album and a most successful departure from his Octavarium legacy.
A very convincing and highly accomplished effort, replacing precious memories of my green-leathered bench-chair with a modern rock-solid granite couch, to which colourful pillows slowly form over time. Call me a madman, I personally still prefer living in Dystopia.
Oscillazione Alchemico Kreative — Nine Witches Under A Walnut Tree
Nine Witches Under A Walnut Tree ends the esoteric prog-rock trilogy from Oscillazione Alchemico Kreative (O.A.K., not to be confused with the Norwegian OAK) that started with Viandanze and continued through Giordano Bruno in 2018.
Behind the band name one finds the Italian multi-instrumentalist Jerry Cuttilo, accountable for almost every single instrument on the album apart from a few guest appearances featuring piano, sax, additional (backing) vocals (Marta Perozzi, Eclisse di Luna) and bass. Especially the latter, played by Jonathan Noyce, is noteworthy and adds significant buoyancy, depth and intricacy to the playful compositions.
The trilogy concept is based upon a legend that tells the grim tale of nine witches befriending each other on the evening of the 14th of November 1572 under the branches of a walnut tree in Benevento, Italy. Sorceresses flew in from every wind direction (Scotland, France, Italy, Egypt and Germany) but after this mystical meeting they suffered a terrible fate ending in torture, pain and ultimately death.
The cruelty of these punishments is perfectly translated into the deeply-varied compositions through the use of several vocal effects, while sounds replicating sword-fights, rain and horses add a supplemental gloomy mystery to the music. Aided by the delightful folk influences within the songs, this results in an explicit middle-ages feel to the music. The music ignites thoughts that something magical must rest within Italian waters, although this can't be assigned to witchcraft as these enchantresses were believed to have survived their apparent drowning.
The finely arranged and carefully crafted compositions each depict an individual character and her tale of wizardry. Here the booklet with an accompanying short summary of each witch's tale aids significantly, for as with Giordino Bruno the lyrics are in Italian, French and German. Foreign languages that to me sound beautiful, but apart from the Germanic variation leave me clueless as to what's hidden in the lyrics. Yet illustrative phrases including words like Alambics, Mystiques, Sabbat and Corpus do get the message across most splendidly, painting pictures of a fireplace where a smouldering cauldron with intoxicating potions is embraced by otherworldly wickedness. This is for instance the case in Dame Harvilles, featuring grand piano (Daniel Fuligni) and tasty keyboard sparkles, where the diverse layers are a perfect demonstration of Cutillo's compositional skills.
This same effect is found in the other entertaining compositions which are surrounded by a specific Italian brew of seventies-inspired progressive rock, as well as containing several contemporary influences.
It starts convincingly with Chlodswinda. Initially filled with medieval-like insertions that set the sombre tale in motion, its atmospheric opening heightens expectancy which is rewarded by intricate play, delicious Mellotron and acoustics, that slowly build to classical symphonies and Jethro Tull incantations. The balance of instrumentation is most admirable, as is Cutillo's alluring woodwinds.
It graciously glides into the uptempo Gioconna, conjuring up Nuova Era-like synth-frolics where merry melodies alternate with mysterious movements. Here Cutillo's expressive voice interacts nicely with the soprano vocals by Tetyana Shyshnyak. The instrumental Janet Boyman reconnects Cutillo with one of his greatest inspirations (Jethro Tull), as it flows gently in alluring Pied Piper mood through intricate melodies, while orchestrations and an acoustic guitar creates visions of Elegy.
The same uplifting nature, contrasting neatly to the darkness of the story, can be found in Rebecca Lemp, which closes the album on an infectious, happy note. Here the German lyrics, written by Gerlinde Roth who provides the spoken part as well, combines well with Cutillo's vocal phrasing to deliver a joyous Grobschnitt feel, with mesmerising earworm melodies and a lovely coda of sparkling synths.
Yet it's the tracks in between these two light-hearted songs that impress and captivate the most, showing the versatility of Cutillo as a composer.
The second instrumental Polissena sees several sound effects, while the build-up slowly releases handsome Anima Mundi synth movements converging to intricate and passionate Tull-inspired passages. The mildly spellbinding witch-dance created this way, is joyously surpassed in Nadira. Here the ambient, spacious opening drifts towards an aethereal state, embraced by synths and floaty vocalisms (Cristiana de Bonis), to culminate in joyous prog festivities mindful to Jethro Tull, backed by tasty percussion.
Donna Prudentia, opening eerie and acoustic, features a guest appearance by David Jackson (VDGG) on saxophone. On the one hand his contribution elevates the composition by adding gorgeous sounds emphasising the voluptuous nature of the woman portrayed, yet on the other hand his disturbing, shrieking eruptions diminish some of the composition's appeal. The expressiveness of the track is unmistakable though, which goes equally for the outstanding Franchetta Borelli.
Here Cutillo delivers refined melodies and excellent guitar work that reflects Genesis during the Steve Hackett years, while the mysterious intro breathes creepiness of Netherworld. This highly accomplished and alternating track moves through restrained and memorable melodies with beautiful intertwining organ and keyboards parts, surrounded by shards of jazz and powerful expressive vocals. For me this is the album's highlight, simply because of its 70s-inspired, darker atmosphere.
Overall Nine Witches Under A Walnut Tree is a most convincing way to round-off Cutillo's trilogy and once again shows his ability to capture a great variety of playful melodies and emotive instrumentation. Like its predecessor, Giordano Bruno, this album contains several delightful Jethro Tull-influences, although this time they are less upfront and reveal themselves after repeated encounters, which is where for me the charm of this album lies. A solid, approachable prog effort that is worth hunting down.
Rafael Pacha — Al Rincón Por Soñar
One might know Rafael Pacha from his collaborations with The Samurai Of Prog, Last Knight or more recently from Kimmo Pörsti's Wayfarer. Here my interest towards Al Rincón por Soñar comes in, especially as I e,joy the eclectic nature portrayed on many albums by these artists. Yet it took a while to choose this album, as the cover-art, in comparison to the illustrative graphic artworks of the aforementioned bands, is somewhat less appealing.
The dexterous musical offerings on the album however quickly confirm that one should never judge a book (CD in this case) by its cover. The artwork shows a remarkable sculpture made by Roberto Ruela entitled “Al Rincón por Soñar” (To The Corner For Dream), which was the inspiration for multi-instrumentalist Pacha for his twelfth (!) solo album. This album is filled with eclectic music like his collaborations, showing great creativity, luscious instrumentation and delicate refinements, although in comparison to Wayfarer there are less style-diversities to be found here.
Pacha's lead instrument is the guitar, both acoustic and electric, which is demonstrated to great effect on this predominantly instrumental album. He plays all sorts of instruments besides this, ranging from bass, synthesizer, mandolin and percussion, all the way down to whistles and drum programming.
Next to his efforts, there are several guests whose contributions add significant depth and versatility to these attractively-construed compositions. Songs that to me don't click in light of the album's artwork, but instantly do from a musical point of view.
For the musical journey is through richly designed songs, flowing through jazzy rhythms, marching beats, sparkling synth passages, symphonic richness, Spanish folk and melancholic melodies, occasionally met by contemporary pop influences. Noteworthy in this is the captivating way in which the songs are ordered and arranged, which gives an appealing nature to the album that never tires.
The atmospheric opening, mindful to Pink Floyd, containing luscious synth waves and delicate guitars is quickly followed by Getting Older, featuring Kimmo Pörsti on drums. Pacha's delivery on bass is ultra-funky here, while the musical structure, in combination with Carlos Espejo's vocals, ignite lingering images of The Flower Kings in a John Wetton way. An excellent entrance, leading towards the first highlight La Línea De La Vida.
This deeply atmospheric composition initially glides through aetheral vocal layers and slowly builds tension as it marches forward with flute insertions, symphonic orchestrations from Jose Manuel Medina (Mandalaband) and a heavenly church organ. The marrying passage of guitars and synth that follows, supported by the playful drumming of Pörsti, breathes Camel and sets up perfectly for the restrained ballad Books On The Schoolyard, showing delicate Steve Howe (Yes) influences in Pacha's guitar escapades.
The folkloristic aspects of Pacha's music is elegantly shown in the uplifting El Juego De Las Diferencias and entertaining Friends. The former gains depth via a percussive tribal feel and seductive saxophone by Javier Márquez, while the latter is elevated by Pacha's divine jazz frivolities on guitar.
The last song to feature vocals is title track Al Rincón Por Soñar. A superb song where sparkling symphonic layers alternate with darker organic-sounding progressive rock and sung expressively by Francisco J. Bocero. It's followed by four individual compositions, which feel like one beautiful composition.
In these tracks Pacha strolls from jazz and velvety-soft acoustic interludes, incorporating folk influences and enchanting synth waves (Zapateado De Su Señoría) towards seventies Genesis-inspired prog that meets Elton John rock on a hot Saturday night (The Way Out). The swirly and modern Spanish folk of La Discusión, with charming flutes and gorgeous jazzy notes from Pacha on guitar, finally glides into the ambient, bluesy surroundings of La Lucha (Marcha De Los Desposeídos II), offering a melody-filled grand finalé.
Those familiar with The Samurai Of Prog and bands/artists closely related to this empire will certainly find much to like here, as will the adventurous prog enthusiast who likes joyous, well-executed, entertaining and genre-binding prog rock. Through Al Rincón por Soñar Pacha demonstrates that he can certainly hold his own, showcasing inventiveness that is blended engagingly with creativity and musicality on many levels. A fine effort worthy of exploration.
For those who try to keep up with today's vast stream of TSoP-related releases, there's a new collaboration on the horizon entitled The Guildmaster, that sees Pacha once again joining forces with Pörsti and Marco Bernard (TSoP). Something to look forward to but in the meantime I shall be savouring this fine album.
David Sancious — Eyes Wide Open
David Sancious was one of the original members of The E Street Band, contributing to the first three Bruce Springsteen albums before forming his own band Tone in 1974. From there, Sancious went on to become a well respected session and touring musician. He joins previous E Street Band members like Little Steven and Nils Lofgren who have risen beyond the label of a supporting musician for The Boss. Looking at his discography reads like a who's-who of music greats including Santana, Eric Clapton, Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Sting and Francis Dunnery. So his musical pedigree is without question.
Eyes Wide Open is David's seventh solo outing and the first since 2006's Live In The Now. It consists of eight tracks, four instrumentals and four with lyrics. David provides all instruments and vocals except for drums. The songs were written over many years and collected so that “there is a story being told”. I have not currently worked out what that story is. The music itself displays all the facets of David's musical ability. The four instrumentals, which are the last four tracks, display his ability to play funk, jazz-rock and blues.
The first four songs include quotes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr and short bursts of familiar musical themes which will come as a surprise for the listener.
While this album has very little to attract the hardcore Prog fan, if you are seeking a diversion from your usual choice of listening, anyone with an appreciation for very well written and well performed music will easily find plenty to enjoy.
Devin Townsend — Order Of Magnitude - Empath Live Volume 1
Devin Townsend has come a long way since his humble beginnings as a struggling extreme metal musician in mid-nineties Vancouver. There are not many artists who have gone through so many changes, both musically and personally, yet have remained instantly recognisable at every turn, while also growing ever more popular, despite changing musical direction so often. From his crazy days with industrial metal band Strapping Young Lad, to his more recent ventures as The Devin Townsend Project, he has remained relevant, and gathered a huge amount of respect from not just fans, but from many other musical figures.
Empath came out in 2019 and was met with a huge amount of critical acclaim, featuring on many metal and progressive music sites' top albums of the year, including DPRP. The idea behind the live tour that followed was two-fold: firstly to promote the new album, but more importantly, to provide a stripped-down version of Devin's live show, leaving out the multiple sample tracks he's used in the past, and just put on a raw show featuring just the live musicians and nothing else. And so, Devin gathered a host of insanely talented vocalists and musicians from various sources, and set about this grand venture.
Now this might not sound like a huge undertaking for a professional musician, yet this was a really massive thing for Devin. Not to take anything away from the man, but his previous tours had all relied on sometimes hundreds of backing tracks, taken from the studio versions of the songs, and played alongside the raw performances of the band members, to mimic the huge wall of sound that Devin is known for on record. He'd rarely ever done anything fully raw before, even his acoustic shows were rife with samples and backing tracks. So it is much to my pleasent surprise, that Order Of Magnitude, has come out sounding absolutely glorious, like there was ever any doubt.
Empath Live Volume 1 was recorded at The Roundhouse, London, in December of 2019. The album features a rather strange set of slightly stripped-down songs, on the spot improvisation, jams and some beautiful renditions of songs from the Empath album. Alongside Townsend are: Morgan Ågren on drums, Nathan Navarro on bass, Mike Keneally with additional guitars and keyboards, Che Aimee Dorval on guitars and vocals, Diego Tejeida, of Haken, on keyboards, Markus Reuter on touch guitar and a trio of backing vocalists performed beautifully by Samantha Preis, Anne Preis and Arabella Packford. Many of these musicians were involved directly with the recording of the Empath studio album, especially Mike Keneally, who Devin has said without, Empath would probably not have been possible.
Now I was a little concerned that taking away the backing tracks would leave Devin's live sound a little lacking. I was very, very wrong. Order Of Magnitude is a phenomenal live album and has almost everything that an album of this sort needs, and most importantly, the songs here are almost all transformed for the better. Opening to an enthusiastic welcome with the brilliant Borderlands, it's clear the band are in full-on party mode and the menu tonight is all about fun. Devin is as ever his hilarious and charismatic self, stopping songs regularly to rant, tell jokes and introduce band members, sometimes with incredibly humorous results. There were a number of laugh-out-loud moments during the set, I fondly remember Devin asking Morgen to: "Hit me in the shitter", as they kick into Lucky Animals. It seems as though despite hurtling towards the ripe age of 50, Dev has lost none of his potty humour.
The stars of the show here though are the songs themselves and the subtle ways in which they have been changed and improvised. War for example, at first feels like it may have lost some of its power in this stripped-down setting, yet the backing vocalists soon add extra melodies and bring the song into the huge-sounding realm it deserves. The songs from the album Ki are particularly impressive in this live setting. I was not initially a big fan of that album, but here the songs, especially Gato, have a new raw power that they lacked on record. Even Lucky Animals, a song I cannot stand, is given a breath of fresh air and fits well into the set. There are also some moments of complete improvisation, the seven minute Gigpig Jam, is something they did at every show, changing it slightly every night. Heavens End contains a wonderful synth solo from Diego Tejeida, followed by an equally impressive guitar solo from Mike Keneally, and then again from bassist Nate Navarro. Morgen Agren is given many times to shine, but really goes ham during Ain't Never Gonna Win, showing off his exeptional jazz fusion style.
The song that made me really skip back and listen again and again though was Deadhead. Some fans have complained in the past that this track is overplayed at live shows and should be retired, for many others it is Devin's best song hands down. I'm kind of on the fence with regards to that, however, this may be the ultimate version of this extremely popular anthem. There have been some new synth strings added to the main opening riff of the song, transforming the melodies into new realms of beauty. Something about this version just feels right, like a perfectly-captured photograph.
I'm very glad this particular performance was caught here. The songs from the Empath album themselves are also given minor changes and just fit right in with the older material. Sprite sounds fresh and much bigger than it did on record. Genesis retains all of its punch and heaviness from the original, and Why? is simply an amazing perfomance from all involved, Devin's vocals especially being very strong. There is also a brilliant acoustic version of Spirits Will Collide, where vocalist Che Dorval shows she is an absolutely stunning lead vocalist.
I would imagine that if you're a Townsend fan in any way, shape or form, you probably already own this. If you don't, go and buy it immediately, and get the Blu-ray too. If you're looking for an introduction to Canada's most polite madman, then you're much better off with either of his previous live releases, Ziltoid Live At The Royal Albert Hall, or, Ocean Machine Live In Plovdiv. This feels more like a thank you to the fans, part live concert, part theatrical comedy show. Devin really pulled out all the stops to make this the best live album it could possibly be. Wonderful stuff and the best live album I've heard this year.
Various Artists — Tributes - Songs for Neil (Volume 1)
In these tricky times, what a nice, positive idea this is. Every year for the past five years, the organisers of RUSHFest Scotland have compiled a weekend of music to celebrate their favourite Canadian rock band. At the same time, they have raised around £50,000 for charity.
This tribute album, containing 14 Rush songs by Rush tribute bands and artists from around the world, is a natural expansion of the festival idea, and a nice commemoration of the life of Rush drummer Neil Peart (it was released on his birthday).
This limited edition album is available on CD, red vinyl and download, with all profits going to Cancer Support Scotland and Glioblastoma Foundation Neil Peart Research Award in North America. The compilation has been produced by Steve Brown for RUSHfest Scotland.
Musically you will pretty much know what to expect, with the majority of contributions sticking pretty close to the originals (that is of course the whole point of most tribute acts).
The end result of each effort is largely down the closeness of their singers to Geddy Lee. Thankfully most seem to have accepted that Lee's iconically-unique vocal style is not easily replicated; instead the singers settle for a tribute that stays safely within their natural vocal ranges.
I love the way that the album selects a mix of lesser and well known tracks from across the Rush discography, and also the blend of versions sticking closely to the originals, and those that change things up a bit. Three live performances add extra variety.
Internet band The Macallan Project (Far Cry), New World Men with the amazing singing drummer (The Trees), Lotus Land (Cinderella Man) and the energy of The Rushians (Vital Signs) are all enjoyable replica versions.
The strong Italian accent of La Villa Strangiato makes their live version of Marathon a little hard going, but the way that Clockwork Angels add some lovely strings to Losing It is great. Even better is the beautifully re-crafted voice, strings and piano balladic version of Afterimage by Moving Pictures.
Further variety is added with the male/female vocals of Far & Near on Time Stand Still (nicely reflecting, but not copying, the mix of Geddy Lee and Aimee Mann on the original). Brazil's Fleesh take a similar approach to The Garden. There is even an instrumental, thanks to guitarist Dave King's play-on-words, Closer To The Dave.
However the price of admission is worth paying alone for the incredible, Rush-approved version of Subdivisions by Canadian singer-songwriter Jacob Moon. If you ever want a masterclass in how to do a cover version of a classic song, then this is it. (See the live version captured in a viral rooftop video below. The album offers a studio version).
A multi-artist tribute album doesn't require a rating (IMHO) but with some great music, performed with such passion, and with all proceeds going to worthy causes, then this will provide you with many hours of great listening, all with a happy conscience.
(NB. The samples link above will take you to a great all-in-one-place video version of the album that the organisers have also compiled, with original videos of each of the artists performing their tracks. Please make a generous donation after viewing!)