Armed Cloud — Torque
Torque is Armed Cloud's third offering, following the enjoyable and solid power-prog album Master Device & Slave Machines. So far I had not acquainted my ears with their music, yet three separate reasons had me intrigued; the third of which had me fully convinced to check them out. Let me explain.
Two of those reasons involve the actual music. The first one is related to Armed Cloud's frontman Daan Dekker, whose name rang an instant bell in being the vocalist of Motherbass, a band walking the path of exciting alternative rock. The second is the fact that ever since my visit to ProgPower Europe in 2019 my affection towards prog-metal has been rekindled, to say the least.
The third one, (the unfortunate factor for my DPRP-colleagues) is the tastiest reason of all. For to my surprise the VIP-package that was sent included a limited bottle of Triple Torque beer, brewed in ProgPower's home town of Baarlo (Limburg) by Brewery Pater Ploeper. A precious liquid instantly awakening my inner work-related obsession (read here), which begged for some careful enjoyment.
Slowly opening the bottle, pervasive aromas greeted my receptors with vivid freshness and zingy odours, whilst during pouring, a heady, penetrating foam started to cover a medium-to-full-bodied emulsion in the glass. A succulent draft that slowly settles from a tantalising cloudiness into a clean, crisp, golden and delicious liquid, emitting tingling sensations occasionally lashing out at my taste-buds with punchy rocking flavours, as well as some fierce, spicy notes.
Several additional delicate eruptions of complexity and experimental additives give a tangy refinement that softly melts into a liquorice, zesty, well-balanced beverage surrounded by an embracing warmth. The explosive and monumental ending encapsulated the whole of my palate with its dense earthiness, showcases a unique, heavy embodiment filled with complex harmonic flavourings that mingle and interact divinely, slowly revealing a deliciously lingering and long-lasting finish. A well-rounded finalé smooths all my mouth senses with sweet textures, beckoning for another sip, to comfortably numb them all over again.
On DPRP it's all about the music though, so how does the exquisiteness of the beer match the qualifications of the music? Well, many of the characteristics captured within this succulent brew apply to this very moreish album. Right from the penetrating, industrial, experimental noises fading into quiet guitars, as showcased in Torque, all the way to the triumphant closer Awaiting The Sound Of The Chimes, this album embraces all of the band's technical and musical endeavours brilliantly.
The flow of the album is superb and Heat Of Darkness sets it off to a flying start. Excitingly melodic, the rhythm section of Boris Suvee (bass) and Rico Noijen (drums) supplies a strong backbone to the fierce metal, with flashy guitars and solidified riffs heightening expectations. Guided by Dekker's raw and perfectly fitting expressive vocals, the song tumbles into a virtuoso showcase of progressive metal where Remco van der Veen's keyboard solos are extremely tasty. The energetic, compact track ignites flashes of Andromeda and Pagan's Mind while some sparkles of Bagheera shine through. The latter because of the fluent melody lines supported by luscious keys, as well as Dekker's vocals. His flexibility has a superior range, varying from clean and grunge, to passionate cries and screeches.
The band have recruited Kay Schouten on guitars as a replacement for Wouter van der Veen and he gets to shine frequently on the album. His flashy skills show delightful eruptions of Eddie van Halen, matched by gripping hooks, riffs and a subtle, melancholic deliverance. This is for instance clear in Big Bang Theory where the entertaining, torquing opening, reminiscent to Van Halen, glides into funky and groovy melodies, before leading into a tantalising keyboard solo and an equally impressive guitar solo. The song highlights the tightness of the band.
The instrumental Cloud Overture rehashes this successfully through catchy riffs and engaging melodies, mindful to Dream Theater, while the preceding interlude Torque II once again shows experimental tendencies, feeling somewhat tribal through its drum beats. Under The Horizon continues the exciting prog metal festivities, adding some psychedelic mysteriousness flowing into emotive melodies, setting up for the familiarity of the semi-ballad Wound In My Heart.
This accessible song oozes Magnum through Dekker's vocal delivery, emphasised by the restrained character of van der Veen's contributions on keys. The shortness of the acoustic guitar touches are a nice touch, adding further depth to their sound, much like the funky Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe that surrounds certain passages. It is a restful set-up for the magnificent, all-encompassing epic Awaiting The Sound Of The Chimes; Armed Cloud's longest and most accomplished track to date.
Not only does it show the multitude of layers and finesse lying within their music, it manages to highlight each and every member's strength, pushing the unity encased within the band to great heights. Dekker's theatrical delivery adding drama is superb, much like the many keyboard accents underneath the grandeur that reflects the epic proportions of Iron Maiden's Powerslave and early NWOBHM. With a divine build-up flashing warning signs of Queensryche, resurfacing in the equally delightful bridge later on, the extensive composition incorporates meticulous rhythmic interplay, amid bombastic and overwhelming melodies that shift through lighter and darker atmospheres. The many tempo changes, shifting gear from grandiose to overwhelming, ultimately fade into a delirious, emotional passage highlighted by a spine-chilling solo from Schouten that slowly fades into blissful consonance. I am left speechless beside my empty bottle of Triple Torque.
Armed Cloud have definitely left a captivating impression with Torque, showing their confident progress towards a distinctive sound of their own. With precisely-arranged compositions encasing emotion, heart and foremost passion it is a most soothing combination, devoid of pointless fillers. This is a compact and straight-to-the-point statement that should take the band forward towards genre-crossing recognition.
Torque is an album that matures and softens well after many delightful tastings, where the outstanding compositions, strong executions thereof and highly energetic deliveries certainly make me look forward to their next concoction. Hopefully Pater Ploeper's range incorporates a Quadrupel, for I've become rather thirsty. Cheers!
La Maschera Di Cera — S.E.I.
La Maschera Di Cera were founded in Genova in 2001 by bassist Fabio Zuffanti, who also plays with Höstsonaten, Finisterre, and as a solo artist. S.E.I., an acronym for Separazione.Egolatria.Inganno. (Separation.Self-Worship.Deception) is the band's seventh album. The first four albums were released in the first five years of the band's existence. The penultimate Le Porte Del Domani, a sort of dedication to La Maschera Di Cera's strongly-influencing 70s Italian prog icons Le Orme, dates back to 2013.
Besides Fabio Zuffanti, La Maschera Di Cera consists of Alessandro Corvaglia (vocals, acoustic guitar), and Agostini Macor (keyboards) plus guest musicians Martin Grice (sax, flute, also known for his involvement in Delirium and Goad), and drummer Paolo Tixi (having assumed the same role with peers Il Tempio Delle Clessidre).
Right from the beginning, it has been the band's clear intention to walk on the paths of some of the Italian prog bands from the 70s besides Le Orme, such as Banco, Museo Rosenbach, Alphataurus, Il Balletto Di Bronzo, Osanna, and Metamorfosi. But apart from that, the band managed to develop its own style and originality, especially due to the influence of Martin Grice, who, with his particular sax and flute playing style, enlarged and enriched the band's musical spectrum with influences from Jethro Tull and Van der Graaf Generator.
A distinctive feature of La Maschera Di Cera's music is the absence of electric guitars. However, the variedness of keyboards used (with an emphasis on Hammond and Mellotron), well-dosed inputs from the acoustic guitar, the rhythmic, staccato-like sax playing (reminiscent of VDGG) and especially the fact that Fabio Zuffanti uses his bass as a lead instrument on various occasions, compensate for the missing electric guitars. La Maschera Di Cera's music is keyboard-oriented, without sounding keyboard-dominated.
The music on this release clearly is geared towards the progressive rock of the 70s, especially with respect to the vintage-sounding keyboards. In addition the LP-friendly length is reminiscent of that era.
The album starts with an epic, subdivided into several parts, which took me some time to come to terms with in grasping it in its entirety. It is full of twists and turns, changes of tempo, mood and intensity, and I got the feeling that the band had attempted to incorporate as much as possible into it. Consequently, my first impression was that of a hardly-recognisable common thread. It took me repetitive listenings to find out that the band had skilfully used some of the quieter moments to link the various bits and pieces together, thus forming something at last sounding coherent.
Whilst still passing off as "symphonic", La Maschera Di Cera's music sounds more complex and somewhat a bit less accessible and catchy than bands such as LogoS, Barock Project and Cellar Noise; at least initially. The Hammond-led Il Cerchio Del Comando on the other hand is classical symphonic prog. It has some structures popular in classical music and even some folky elements, and therefore is more catchy to my ears.
Vacuo Senso starts with a melody played by Martin Grice on the flute, that is taken on by the Mellotron. It is absolutely gorgeous. The Mellotron-ladden outro (which lasts for four minutes), fuels my imagination of a movie where the hero rides into the sunset or soars up towards the clouds. This track merges the variety, complexity and accessibility of the two previous songs, and consequently is my "primus inter pares" of three strong songs.
With S.E.I. we once more have a release from one of these "The x of y" bands from the Rock Italiano Progressivo (RIP) scene, the music of which I have heard umpteen times without ever having got tired of it (and likely without becoming so).
I have to admit that I am not entirely objective when it comes to prog rock from Italy. What is it, that makes RIP my favourite form of progressive rock? The symphonic elements of the music? The dramatics, lyricism, expressiveness, and melancholy of the vocals (especially if they are in Italian)? The abundance of the keyboards used? The variety of the song structures? The perfect symbiosis of music and vocals? The catchiness of the melodies?
Most probably a bit of all of that. I like La Maschera Di Cera's latest release so much, because it combines many of these elements in a well-balanced way. It is not an album that blew my mind right from the first listening, as I found it a bit incoherent (especially with respect to the first track) and less accessible than others from its RIP-peers. But that impression vanished, the more often I listened to this album.
This is recommended to all fans of RIP and also to those wishing to test the waters concerning this musical style. (NB: using other representatives such as LogoS, Barock Project, and Cellar Noise for the purposes of testing this genre, might result in the water being less cool than it is with S.E.I.).
The Progressive Souls Collective — Sonic Birth
The Progressive Souls Collective is "not a band but a very exciting adventure dedicated to the love of heavy progressive music!". Wow! This sounds very promising.
Their debut album, Sonic Birth, features drummer Aquiles Prester (Angra, Tony MacAlpine, W.A.S.P. Dragonforce), Derek Sherinian (no introduction needed), percussionist wizard Luis Conte (Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Madonna...), Conner Green (Haken), Kevin Moore (no introduction needed part 2) and Vladimir Lalic on vocals (Organized Chaos). Wow again! This lineup is a winner!
Mastermind of the project, Florian Zepf, has also set the musical bar very high by stating: "The debut album blends the power and strength of progressive metal, with the inquisitive, playful nature of progressive rock to create endlessly fascinating songs. As the album progresses, the listener is taken on an utterly enthralling musical journey, becoming completely immersed in the Sonic Birth experience. You can feel the exuberance in the performances; the joy as the musicians explore the world that Florian has framed within his writings and compositions." OK, I really can't wait to listen to this album.
Sadly it's not that good. The expectations were big but the overall work doesn't click with me, even after many listens. Don't get me wrong, the music is good and it has some good ideas like the programming passages from Kevin Moore and the inclusion of interesting percussion parts, but the compositions are a bit inconsistent and they don't seem to flow naturally.
Of course it's my opinion and I'd like someone to prove me wrong, but the sums of many great parts doesn't guarantee a great result in music. I love the sounds that Derek Sherinian produces here and there, but somehow I felt the same when I checked Sons Of Apollo latest release: great parts, not so great songs.
I always find myself losing attention between parts. The singer is not helping. I see Vladimir Lalic can go high and low but he's not Devin Townsend, even when he tries. As I said, it's a shame because the beginning of the album is promising where it includes metal, acoustic and crescendo movements (and more). But after that, I can only find great small parts, like the percussion introduction on Killing True Beliefs, the initial sounds on Fractional Emotion or the programmed sound on Inner Circle that can remind me of Chroma Key. The epic Destiny Inc has also good soft parts and of course great playing by all members, especially Prester, and Conner Green on bass. But you'll find yourself wanting it to end after more than 15 minutes.
So these are my thoughts. I guess some listeners will disagree with me and they will love it, but this time I haven't been able to connect with this album. Maybe it's my fault for having such high expectations but what can you expect having this line-up? The good thing is that Florian Zepf has some good ideas, so I will agree with him that this is the Sonic Birth of a new, exciting adventure in progressive music and I will be waiting for his next album.
ReFrame — Reaching Revery
Imagine the setting. A group of musicians with a love of all things prog and metal, get together, enjoy playing and writing together, and decide upon planning world domination. How do you begin? They decide to release their debut album. But it is no normal album, it's going to be a double CD. Then to introduce themselves, ReFrame agree to make the opening track a 30-minute epic and call it F.E.A.R. Then they add a three-part epic on the second disc called Fearless. Then to completely isolate themselves from the mainstream audience, the rest of the tracks will average 7 to 8 minutes in length.
To possibly sweeten the product, they pull in Living Colour's Corey Glover to add vocals on one song. Surely, even with this, there hasn't been a bigger recipe for a musical disaster since Dream Theater pitched Images & Words to the record company as a double CD incorporating A Change Of Season's as their epic.
As any fan of Dream Theater will admit, looking back now, what an album that would have made, it would have potentially elevated a classic album of the genre, but it would have been the defining album of the new movement. With Reaching Revery, ReFrame have taken a brave, and possibly suicidal musical decision, and boy, has it paid off.
This is an album that I am sure Dream Theater would be proud of. The songwriting is complex, intense, engaging and at times, quite stunning. Expect to dedicate a large amount of time digesting the technicality here. At times all instruments work in harmony like a metal Yes on speed. There is a clear appreciation of bands like Rush, and not just the early prog stuff, but some of their later work as well. So, what else can the listener expect?
We begin with F.E.A.R., the epic 30 minute debut track. A solo piano welcomes you, giving the feel of a Clive Nolan composition, with the lyrical phrasing cementing the feeling of an Arena track. The vocalist has a very good, clear and powerful voice, which is a huge positive.
At the four-minute mark, the guitars enter. Well, enter is a bit of an understatement. They thunder into life with a fast riff and a tone akin to John Petrucci. A syncopated drum pattern reinforces the Dream Theater similarity. The guitar passages, during this intense section of the song, are quite stunning if the time is taken to listen to it closely. Upon an initial listen you imagine the riffs are similar, but on closer inspection each riff or guitar passage is slightly different, and all credit should go to some imaginative composition, which is never overtly flashy, but heck, it does sound impressive.
Halfway through the song, the piano returns, playing an almost classical passage. Over this, the bass guitar and drums lay down passages which, when listened to in isolation, should never have even been imagined to be added. But surprisingly the marriage works wonderfully.
We then get a stunning guitar solo, which, from the sound and album credits would appear to be performed by Neil Citron, who I know best from his appearances on early Lana Lane albums. At this stage the intensity of F.E.A.R begins to impact on your brain. You begin to become overwhelmed with the ferocity of the delivery. As we enter the final sequence, the tempo drops and we appear to have come full circle, until an uplifting and proggy positive passage brings the listener's journey to a satisfying conclusion with an almost folky ending.
So, after getting your breath back, you will realise that this particular track is a work of art. The Dream Theater similarities are clear, but ReFrame are not a band who copy, they reinvent and add to what has gone before.
The magic does not stop there. The Unbegun treads the boards of what Dream Theater tried during the Falling Into Infinity era, (think Just Let Me Breath and Burning My Soul). In contrast And The Light Shall Shine is a much more straight forward rocker with touches of Rush, especially on the pre-chorus.
All Yours pitches a wonderful curve ball, being a ballad with shared male and female vocals. It is a very pleasant song which builds towards a satisfying climax. Stronger Than Death has a feel of an early U2 rocker at times, with the rhythm section giving a Rush feel again.
If you buy the digital version of the album, then the band also offer four cover songs in addition to the main album. Again the song choices further cements the Dream Theater comparisons.
If any of this makes you inquisitive, follow your instincts. It has been some time since a prog-metal album has wetted my appetite as much as Reaching Recovery has. It is not only a stunning debut, but a potential classic. If you like your musical boundaries being pushed to the maximum, give this a go. I don't think you will be disappointed.
Silent Skies — Satellites
Silent Skies is the new collaboration between Evergrey singer Tom S. Englund and pianist Vikram Shankar who is best known for his work with Lux Terminus and Redemption and more recently the new album from Avandra.
Satellites is predominantly an album of vocals and piano, with an atmospheric background of sounds that could be variously described as "cinematic", "classical" and "melancholic".
Mr Englund (who is now also the singer with Redemption) could sing about sorting through his weekly laundry pile, and I would find it deeply moving. He just has one of those voices that can alternate freely between metallic morosity and acoustic anguish. With Silent Skies it is very much more of the latter, proving why he is undoubtedly one of my favorite singers of all time.
Evergrey, which for all intents and purposes is his band, used to frequently add acoustic songs to their repertoire including several all-acoustic live shows. Several of their albums have acoustic versions of their more metallic songs as "bonus tracks". They are essential listening.
I've often thought that Evergrey have missed a tick in never doing an acoustic-only album, with stripped-down versions of some of their classic songs, in the same way that Threshold did wth their wonderful Wireless (acoustic sessions) album in 2003. In a way this new release fills that gap for me.
The pair first crossed paths when the Swedish singer saw American film score graduate Shankar's piano interpretation of Evergrey's Distance on YouTube. “I heard an instant musicality coming from him,” states Englund who sensed in Shankar a kindred musical spirit who could help him channel new forms of musical expression. A series of email exchanges between the pair gave birth to ideas of a sonic landscape rooted in cinematic score music.
“I think part of the magic of Silent Skies is that we come from fairly different backgrounds, and do not have identical musical personalities” Shankar adds. "However we have certain shared musical, aesthetic, and emotional values that make the art we make together really click. There were countless times while working together where we both know exactly where we needed to go.”
I can't say that this is my usual genre of listening (but that's a positive thing) and this does require numerous listens for the melodies to really sink in (another positive). For readers wanting an comparison, then the piano/vocal compositions by iamthemorning are as close as I can get.
I'm not a big fan of cover versions, unless they add something by radically reworking the song. The Shattered Skies version of the Eurythmics' 1983 worldwide hit Here Comes The Rain Again removes the electronica-driven pop stylings, to focus on the lyrical tensions, to good effect. However if you dislike the original tune, then this may not be different enough.
Personal favourites include the very Evergrey-like melodies of Dreams and the self-questioning Us. Solitude is a stunning composition with a sublime melody and an intimate tension that just hits me where it needs to. The piano playing throughout is delicate and conveys a fragility that supports Tom's performance.
Overall, I'd suggest that anyone with a soul should be able to connect with the songs on this intimate and artful collection.