Album Reviews

Issue 2020-120: New Year's Eve Special

Communic — Hiding From The World

Communic - Hiding From The World
Plunder Of Thoughts (8:03), Hiding From The World (9:26), My Temple Of Pride (6:56), Face In The Crowd (7:41), Born Without A Heart (10:00), Scavengers Await (7:20), Soon To Be (1:18), Forgotten (9:58)
Calum Gibson

Ah Norway, forever a haven for metal, ushered Communic into the world with their first album Conspiracy In Mind landing to critical acclaim in 2005. Since then, the band have gone from strength to strength releasing five other albums, the latest being Hiding From The World. The band have always been at the fringes of my musical radar, having always been aware of them but only ever having heard one or two tracks. So, without further ado, let's see what they are like.

Plunder of Thoughts starts things off with a heavy, chugging riff before Oddleif Stendland's soaring and epic vocals come in. Musically it is heavy, bassy and unstoppable. The title track leads off with a different feel however, with an emotional and melodic solo over melancholic vocals. The riffs then come in with fast paced drumming. Elements of bands like Nevermore or Symphony X are present throughout the album, with the powerful vocals, the twists and turns, and the melodic and emotional passages seamlessly transforming into heavy, chugging forceful sections.

Face In The Crowd brings some doomy elements to the album, with a bit of a Candlemass vibe to it, showcasing the diversity of the band's talents. This is followed by the epic, powerful, 10-minute-long ballad Born Without A Heart.

The album sounds, production wise, perfect. Every note from every instrument (including vocals) can be heard and is crisp and clear. Musically it certainly doesn't break into any new territory, but the tracks are supremely well crafted. No sections go on for too long or finish too early. The heavy sections and softer parts meld easily and complement each other well. The vocals soar and dive exactly where needed. There are catchy hooks left, right and centre, drums and riffs to satisfy anyone, epic choruses and plenty of leads for air guitaring to.

All in all, I am impressed. Time to go check their back catalogue. If you are a fan of power-rog like Nevermore, Jag Panzer, Symphony X or the “epic doom” stylings of Candlemass or Sorcerer (the Swedish one), then give Communic a shot.

Kevin Cummings — On Track... Kansas: Every Album, Every Song

Kevin Cummings - On Track... Kansas: Every Album, Every Song
Jan Buddenberg

I confess to being a diehard Kansas fan, so therefore choosing this book on Kansas in the On Track... series was kind of a no-brainer. Although in all honesty I would have chosen it anyway, for the books that I have read so far in this popular series have all been delightful, where the passion and dedication of the writers has pushed me towards a point of no return, free falling into the legacy of the band. The details, anecdotes and stories contained within the passionate deliveries of the authors have so far filled my knowledge with lovely insights and obscure facts I was not aware of. Some of the authors' devotions have rubbed off, for in the meantime I have bought and revisited iconic albums, and listened again to those precious cherished albums I've collected over the years.

Kansas, the band, have brought me mountains of joy ever since I discovered them in approximately 1981. And although this means I missed out on their pinnacle years, contrary to the author of the book under review, a universe opened up afterwards including many associated acts and solo projects. Bands that the general public in The Netherlands hardly knows, but such can actually be stated for Kansas as well. For although Dust In The Wind is known all over the world, this is frankly the only song that ignites some form of recognition. An exception that nowadays might get some form of attention is Carry On Wayward Son, featured in a recent Playstation game Guitar Hero.

In the years up to 1989 the chances of meeting a fellow "Wheathead" at random, (a nickname for a diehard Kansas fan), were slim. Yet a miracle out of nowhere happened as during a conversation with my friends in an elevator, we declared our love for Kansas, triggering an innocent bystander into a lifelong friendship. For as it turned out we had met a fellow Wheathead. We bonded instantly, realising we had attended the same concert prior to our encounter, in Düsseldorf (Germany) on the 5th of April 1989. A memorable night, for after T.O. Witcher, performed by Morse and Williams (which is wrongly credited in the book by the way), Morse stunned the audience during the successive Dust In The Wind with a totally unexpected tantalising violin solo.

In the following years, we mutually fed our insatiable addiction, buying every single (related) item along the way and I even convinced my girlfriend of Kansas' musical class, ending up in at the Epcot Theme Park in Orlando, Florida on our honeymoon, where Kansas were "coincidentally" scheduled. The memory floodgates that have been opened upon reading each of the On Track... books is simply beautiful every time.

The introduction of the book contains an anecdote from Cummings in a similar vein and his page-turning story unfolds many delightful insights up to around 1984, making elegant reading throughout. As such it makes the perfect gift and introduction for a newer Kansas fan, as it most accurately describes many of the characteristics and historic heights of the band.

From the beautiful harmonies and shared lead vocals by their two original vocalists, Steve Walsh and Robby Steinhardt, to the spine-chilling violin parts of the latter. It also emphasises the meticulously composed symphonic epics, surrounded by delightfully playfully musical structures which harbour both finesse and power. Inclusion of their 2020 release The Absence Of Presence puts my completist heart at rest, for all their studio albums have been accounted for.

As a musician and writer Cummings holds a masters degree in music theory and a bachelors degree in music education. His expertise in these fields can be found via the accurate descriptions of the individual tracks, where on occasion he dives into a full rundown of song. This deconstructive division into time-scaled refrains/chorus/solo's and movements of the composition takes away some of the Kansas magic for me, yet the accurate way in which it is done, explains the enchanting complexities of Kansas' music for the general public brilliantly.

As per usual the book has been divided into separate chapters, addressing the individual albums and their songs chronologically. Previous On Track... editions focussed mainly on the studio outings and added a live-album chapter at the end of the book (aside from a few exceptions), yet Cummings elevates every official live recording to it's own chapter, interlacing them as interludes. A great gesture is the addition of Native Sons, a side project involving many members of Kansas, although at the time this was strictly marketed as not being a Kansas album.

What struck me as odd though, is the fact that for the albums, it looks like only the non-remastered American albums are chosen, apart from the live album Two For The Show. Effectively this means that many bonus tracks are absent in the book, although two are mentioned. In Live At The Whisky's case, readers are now denied the existence of Journey From Mariabronn which for me favours the European version over the American. Obviously I have both. Maybe not of importance to the casual reader, but certainly something is missing for those wanting to 'track' down the best editions available.

Regardless of this, the book provides delightful insights into the band and their legacy, describing in detail the personnel changes and natural progression of the band, where the effects of Kerry Livgren's search towards Christianity and its translation into the lyrics gets the right amount of focus. Steve Walsh's exceptional vocal-range and keyboard technique gets high praise, and his vocal decline, going through the motions from 1982 onwards, gets a fair share of criticism as well. Many other members receive their own appraisal, albeit in shorter form and sometimes on surprising moments.

Cummings' love-declaration gradually changes halfway, where it feels like the author has lost his connection to Kansas. This loosened embrace doesn't affect the actual song descriptions, yet the essential information that's left out makes the story less colourful and for me at times confused. His suggestion to search the internet for the pre-Kansas White Clover demos and KBFH non-album tracks is great, yet this advice raises several questions that in light of my collecting habit slowly turns into a superbug.

For I can only presume Cummings has done the same kind of exploration and extensive research, but I wonder which browser he used. For example the "Solo Album" appendix omits at least eight albums of which Robby Steinhardt's collaboration with Rick Moon, dating back to 1995 and resulting in Steinhardt - Moon and Moonshot, is totally uncredited. Another striking absence is the officially released VHS Kansas - Live video, recorded on the Vinyl Confessions tour and partially released on CD as Paradox. Curiously the photo inlays show a small still of the video.

Similarly Steve Walsh's many collaborative involvements from 1995 onwards are unmentioned, making the omission of the Sounds Like Christmas album by The December People peculiar, as this Christmas album not only features his vocal talents, but also harbours a divine Kansas treat in form of the original song The Light (see video below). In all fairness to Cummings, the Wheathead TV period dating back to 2002/2003 is difficult to retrace on the internet.

These absences and the narrow research is my reason to be slightly reserved in my rating, for in my mind a bit more effort would have yielded a better and more consistent book. Through his delicately shared opinions and personal preferences/dislikes, Cummings' engaging story will surely delight newbies and those who like to gain insights into the music of Kansas. As such this is an admirable effort that promotes Kansas, so what more can a total devotee like me ask for?

If all goes ahead as planned, we should see a new chapter very soon, for Kansas will re-embark on their world-tour in 2021, sailing gracefully to their 50th anniversary. A special moment in time which surely will see more memorable festivities worthy of inclusion in such a book. For Kansas is still a band, and I so long to hear those energetic words again in Amsterdam: "Good Evening and welcome to KANSAS!"

Deathcraeft — On Human Devolution

Deathcraeft - On Human Devolution
The Ritual (6:55), Beginning Of The End (5:36), Spreading Lies (6:17), Welcome To Oblivion (4:56), Survival (6:04), Daydreaming In The Abyss (6:32), Paving The Way (4:01), Free Into The Void (7:41)
Calum Gibson

Having formed back in 2017, Deathcraeft have only just released their first album On Human Devloution. With a range of influences, the band describes themselves as a thrash/death group, with inspiration from H.P Lovecraft for this concept album.

The album kicks off with The Ritual which brings in a modern-day Slayer vibe mixed in with the black and thrash elements. This and the following track have a mid-tempo pace and set up the general sound of thrashy and death metal. It is mid-tempo, thrashy, and relentless.

The following track Spreading Lies speeds things up a bit with some fast tremolos and heavy breaks to get the blood flowing. Further influences come into play with Welcome To Oblivion that brings in some almost black metal-styled passages.

As far as progressive elements sit, this album is firmly placed among the prog thrash/tech death side of things. Fast, machine-gun drumming, riffs left, right and centre and harsh guttural vocals. The musicianship is incredibly tight and coordinated. All through the album a sense of the impending apocalypse grips you and conjures up images of Cthulhu rising, to bring about the world's end. After what 2020 has been like, it seems a fitting set of images.

If you're a fan of Slayer songs such as Seasons In The Abyss and World Painted Blood, or bands such as Vektor or Sepultura, give these guys a listen; I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Grumblewood — Stories of Strangers

New Zealand
Grumblewood - Stories of Strangers
My Fair Lady (7:30), Picturesque Postcard (4:42), Castaways (5:17), Fives And Nines (4:35), The Sheriff Rides (6:02), Ex Memoriam (3:07), The Minstrel (8:00), Stories Of Strangers (5:27)
Patrick McAfee

Grumblewood are a band from New Zealand and Stories Of Strangers is their debut album. Per their marketing, they are unabashedly influenced by the “electric folk and progressive rock movements of the early 70s".

Although there is definitely a retro quality to their sound, I didn't find it distracting or negatively regressive. The strength of the material and the performances stand on their own.

There is a raw, almost live-sounding quality to the production, which works quite well. Excess polish would have diminished the raucous elements of the music and the lyrics. With the heavy use of acoustic, string and wind instruments, the folk stylings are significant, but at its core, this is a rock album. Whereas most of the songs begin in a folksy manner, ultimately they develop a more electric edge. Many of them also include impressive, proggy instrumental sections.

Fans of Jethro Tull and Horslips should find much to enjoy about this album. There is a similiarity to some of the material, but the band provides the exact folk/rock/prog that their marketing promises. Also, at a brisk running time of 45 minutes, the album never wears out its welcome.

I have to admit that folk rock really isn't my thing, but I was thoroughly entertained by Stories of Strangers. Its effective mix of upbeat instrumentation and lyrical storytelling makes for a fun listen. In 2020, who can complain about an album that delivers that?

Steve Hackett — Under A Mediterranean Sky

Steve Hackett - Under A Mediterranean Sky
Mdina (The Walled City) (8:45), Adriatic Blue (4:51), Sirocco (5:13), Joie de Vivre (3:42), The Memory Of Myth (3:29), Scarlatti Sonata (3:40), Casa del Fauno (3:51), The Dervish And The Djin (4:57), Lorato (2:29), Andalusian Heart (5:34), The Call Of The Sea (4:44)
Geoff Feakes

Back in June 2020 during one of his many online “track-chat” videos, Steve Hackett announced that he was working on a new acoustic/orchestral album and played a tantalising, short extract. In January 2021, Under A Mediterranean Sky will be unveiled in its entirety, his first studio release since At The Edge Of Light two years earlier. It's also his first all-instrumental offering since Tribute in 2008, although musically it's closer to the more expansive Metamorpheus released in 2005.

A musician that loves to travel, a good deal of Hackett's music in recent years has been inspired by the various places he's visited and the sights he's seen. Under A Mediterranean Sky is no exception and as the title alludes, it's a musical cruise around the Med, with portraits and impressions of the picturesque lands and waters enclosed by Southern Europe, North Africa and South-West Asia. Musically, the album is a showcase for Hackett's clean and fluid acoustic guitar playing, supported by longtime collaborator Roger King's symphonic soundscapes.

The first port of call is the island of Malta and Mdina (The Walled City) (also known as the Silent City). It opens with a roll of timpani (à la Rick Wakeman's The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table) followed by King's dramatic keyboard orchestrations that bring the The Enid to mind. Hackett's Spanish guitar enters the spirit with cascading note clusters, the first of many impressive solos on the album.

Elsewhere, the album alternates between lush, orchestrated tracks and solo guitar exercises. Probably my favourite in the latter category is Joie de Vivre, a suitably exuberant and intricate classical guitar workout that recalls Mason Williams' Classical Gas. The meditative Scarlatti Sonata is based on a keyboard sonata by Italian baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, while the lilting Lorato is a piece that originally featured on the 2016 album Harmony For Elephants. A charity release, it also features (amongst others) that other ex-Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips.

King's keyboards and programming add the requisite grandeur to tracks like Sirocco and The Dervish And The Djin (a misspelling of Djinn if I'm not mistaken). The album is not just a duo effort however, as the latter develops into a strident war-like march. Rob Townsend adds expressive soprano sax soling preceded by Malik Mansurov's sitar-like tar and the haunting sound of Arsen Petrosyan's duduk.

And it's not all pomp! King embellishes Andalusian Heart and Casa del Fauno with romantic, shimmering strings while John Hackett is responsible for the evocative flute playing. Christine Townsend for her part opens The Memory Of Myth with a sweet violin solo which also has a lovely mandolin-like section towards the end. Steve returns to Spanish guitar for The Call Of The Sea, bringing the album to a serene conclusion.

Anyone partial to classical music, including Baroque composers like Vivaldi and Bach and romantic maestros like Sibelius and Mahler (or indeed symphonic film soundtracks) will find much to enjoy here. You will also marvel at Hackett's acoustic guitar dexterity which remains undiminished as the years roll-by, despite celebrating his 70th birthday in 2020.

Peter Matuchniak — Sessions

Peter Matuchniak - Sessions
Big Heart [HT] (3:40), She Knows [SG] (3:21), Carly [SG] (3:12), Fear [SB] (3:30), Land Of Blue Echoes [MR] (3:22), The Wandering Caravan (I) [MR] (6:22), The Wandering Caravan (II) [MR] (3:54), The Wandering Caravan (III) [MR] (7:27), Gentle Bird [SS] (3:10), Deep Night [MR] (2:22), Stargazer II Sessions [SB] (2:49), Nucleus II [MR] (4:02), A Voice In The Dark [MR] (3:23), The Wind Blows [MR] (4:53), Flashlight [MR] (3:14), Fifty Years [MR] (2:22), Abstract Dreams [MR] (2:56), Back Home Again [MR] (3:02), Golden Cage [MR] (4:20), Exploding In The Air [MR] (2:41), Lions & Pitchfork Martyrs [HT] (3:50)
Songs originally released by: Marco Ragni [MR], Hamlet Tinae [HT], Shawn Gordon [SG], Steve Bonino [SB] and Simon Strevens [SS]
Mark Hughes

Guitarist Peter Matuchniak is not only a solo artist and past or present member of numerous bands but also an in-demand session guitarist. In a clever concept, Matuchniak has, with the permission of the artists, compiled a CD of the best of these sessions, featuring his contributions to the music of five other artists. The resulting 79-minute CD not only covers a vast amount of material but covers a fairly broad spectrum of music. However, this is not merely a compilation of material extracted from other people's CDs, but new interpretations of the songs highlighting Matuchniak's guitar contributions and in some cases reverting back to earlier versions of the songs, before the artist had completed the final arrangement.

Of the five artists featured, Marco Ragni [MR] will probably be most familiar to regular DPRP readers as we have reviewed three of his previous albums. The title track of Land Of Blue Echoes is the first Ragni track we hear. A largely acoustic song that could be broadly described as psychedelic baroque, it is certainly an interesting piece of music with a quirkiness that is very appealing.

The three parts of The Wandering Caravan are much more proggy, with Matuchniak's electric and acoustic guitars blended with flute and a healthy dose of Hammond organ, the inclusion of which will always get my attention (the fate of having grown up listening to a lot of Jon Lord!). This is a fine trio of instrumental pieces, and it is unfortunate that the album from which these pieces take their name was not one that DPRP covered. I am sure it would have gained approval. One criticism is that perhaps the guitar is a bit too upfront in places, as the tone can be rather overpowering. Deep Night and Nucleus II are both from the aforementioned Land Of Blue Echoes with both featuring some nice backing vocals from Druga McBroom and the latter being an excerpt from a longer piece that works well as a standalone track with a mixture of playing styles from the guitarist.

Flashlight and A Voice In The Dark were both featured on Ragni's most recent solo album From Oceans of Thought. Flashlight is a spiffingly good instrumental number and the rare, at least for this CD, appearance of vocals on the appropriately named A Voice In The Dark is a nice contrast.

The six other tracks credited to Ragni are, one presumes, some of the early versions referred to above, as they do not appear under the names given on the original albums. Fifty Years, Abstract Dreams, Exploding In The Air and Golden Cage are possibly from Land Of Blue Echoes, given the similar guitar tone, although the structure and style of the last of those three pieces is certainly more adventurous, with some fusionesque piano riffs and soothing electric piano at the end being a nice touch of variation.

Given how well The Wind Blows fits between the two From Oceans of Thought titles, it is possibly also derived from the earlier sessions of that album. It is also another interesting and worthy instrumental. Back Home Again's acoustic introduction borrows heavily from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. Ragni's vocals do no great service to the song but they do make the guitar solo stand out as the highlight!

Stargazer II Sessions is, as the name implies, a selection of guitar parts recorded during the making of Steve Bonino's Stargazer II album [SB] that also features the track Fear. The mixture of sessions tracks are blended together well and Fear, with a running time well under half of that on the original album, is inspiring enough to encourage me to check out that album in its entirety.

Shawn Gordon [SG], the founder of ProgRock Records, released an album under the name Psychic For Radio back in 2012. She Knows is taken from that album and is quite the lovely instrumental number, with a rather mellow vibe and featuring Martin Orford playing flute throughout.

In contrast, Carly released as a single, is a slab of AOR that doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album. It is in a totally different vein musically and although singer Dennis Atlas can certainly sing, his style is not very much to my liking. The guitar work is the obvious reason why it was included.

Gentle Bird from the album Still3 by UK band Still, features Simon Strevens [SS] the co-founder of Matuchniak's first band Janysium on vocals. In fact, the song was originally written and performed by Janysium back in the 1980s. Matuchniak doesn't actually appear on the Still album but has taken the track, replaced the original acoustic guitar with electric, and added some sublime backing vocals by Cecilia Le Poer Power to give the listener a completely new experience of this very pleasant song.

Finally we have an artist that I am completely unaware of. Hamlet Tinae [HT] released the album Therianthrope under the name of Transport Aerian, although neither Big Heart or Lions & Pitchfork Martyrs appear to be from that release. Regardless of that, the two tracks bookend the album perfectly, with drama and panache.

All-in-all, this is a diverse and interesting release that not only showcases Matuchniak's guitar playing but also introduces a range of artists that may have easily slipped under the radar. Of course, it is also a great advertisement for anyone needing to hire a guitarist!

As a whole, the album does flow well which is quite an achievement given the number of different artists featured and the extended playing time of the CD. Well worth a listen, with the added bonus that despite the tracks having previously been released, these are new versions, or as the CD liner notes would have it, new interpretations.

McStine & Minnemann — II

McStine & Minnemann - II
Love Before Algorithms (0:24), I Don't Need It (3:05), I Don't Feel (4:35), Girls At The Gig (3:14), Big Wave (2:59), Tired (4:58), REM (1:11), Love After Algorithms (0:16), The Flame (1:47), Old Sparky (1:16), Quarantine Sex Slave (5:19), Hello Dear Miss Swan Song (1:21), dumbdumb (0:57), Distant Bodies (4:01), Running In Place (3:06), The Horse Is Dead (5:01)
Bryan Morey

A mere five months after their debut album, Randy McStine and Marco Minnemann are back with their second go-around under the moniker McStine & Minnemann. While I missed their first album, it received a very favorable review here at DPRP from Patrick McAfee. Patrick's commentary on their self-titled debut album fits well with their second album, and I similarly found myself pleasantly surprised by Randy McStine's talents. I was already very familiar with Minnemann's incredible skills, but McStine's work was new to me. I knew the name, but I had never really listened to him before.

At the risk of being overly enthusiastic, I'll admit I loved this album. It reminds me a lot of the Winery Dogs, except this is way better. McStine and Minnemann are the only players here, apart from some guest-work from the one, the only, Alex Lifeson on the final track, The Horse Is Dead.

The songs are all very short, with only a couple over five minutes, and several at around one minute. The brevity of the songs makes it all the more astounding that the music is totally prog. The musicianship is just so good. Heavily bass and drum-driven, the guitars and various other instruments played by McStine and Minnemann round-out the album's sound nicely. Both artists provide guitars and keyboards, in addition to their main instruments: bass and drums. McStine's vocals are fantastic, especially in the moments where he creates vocal harmonies.

Tired is one of the best tracks on the album. Written by Minnemann, it features everything that makes this such a great record. The bass line is funky and playful, in an almost Haken-like way. McStine harmonises his voice at a couple of points, adding a wonderful depth to the overall sound. Even though it's a five-minute song, it feels longer because of the changes that the track undergoes. Clean electric and acoustic guitar give way to a heavy musical chorus (they never return to the same lyrics, but they do return to the same heavy section later in the song).

Another aspect of the music is the jazz influence. Most classic prog has a jazz influence, and this album is no exception. Quarantine Sex Slave has a jazz feel, particularly with the lighter touch on the drums. It's remarkable how Minnemann's drumming can be both simultaneously light and pounding. The lightness matches the lyrics, which deal with the struggles of love and relationships. Minnemann provides vocals along with McStine; the only song on the album where he sings.

Lyrically the music is down-to-earth, but not in a drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll way. The lyrics are relatable and honest. They deal with some of the aspects of life on the road as a musician, but they also address the sorts of things we all struggle with. Tired is a good example of that. Girls At The Gig is a funny one: "she said there won't be any girls at the gig / just a sea of men". Talk about knowing your audience. Ha! Maybe prog shows are different in Europe, but here in the US the audiences are usually a sea of men.

Besides the aforementioned influences, there's also a bit of a Ted Leonard-era Spock's Beard vibe to some of the songs. That's most prominent on Distant Bodies and Running In Place. Even though Distant Bodies is short, they play it as if it were a longer, epic prog track. It has all the musical changes and progressions of a longer song, but it goes through it all very quickly. For some bands this would feel rushed, but these guys manage to make it work perfectly. McStine's voice sounds a bit like Ted Leonard's on these songs too.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the last track, The Horse Is Dead. It sounds like a musical tribute to Ennio Morricone, who passed away in July 2020. It has a spaghetti western feel, and Alex Lifeson's "howling ambient guitar" certainly adds to that. This song highlights the diverse musical textures featured on II. Nothing else on the album sounds like it.

If there were any justice in the world, McStine & Minnemann would be blowing up FM radio with this album. They have a popular accessibility, yet they remain complex. The album is equal-parts heavy rock and classic prog, with a modern production sound. If you like the Winery Dogs, you'll easily see why II reminds me of them. But McStine & Minnemann far-surpass the Winery Dogs through their cleverness, diversity of sounds and instruments, and cleaner production. In a year full of unpleasant surprises, McStine & Minnemann are a very welcome pleasant surprise.

Joe O’Donnell — Gael’s Vision

Joe O’Donnell - Gael’s Vision
CD: The Vision (5:13), The Exodus (3:37), Caravan (2:28), Sea Crossing And Storm (2:52), The Battle And Retreat Underground (4:58), Tara (3:41), The Feish (3:28), The Provincial Kings (4:49), The House Of Hostages (3:17), For Trades And Hospitality (2:00), House Of Warriors (2:41), The Great Banqueting Hall (2:58), Poets And Storytellers (6:18), Lament For Coire Sainnte (6:01), Tribes (4:55)
DVD: The Vision (7:44), The Exodus (9:28), Caravan (6:50), Sea Crossing And Storm (3:47), The Battle And Retreat Underground (6:53), Tara (4:10), The Feish (3:37), The House Of Hostages (5:46), For Trades And Hospitality (2:44), House Of Warriors (2:53), The Great Banqueting Hall (3:48), Poets (5:19), Storytellers (5:45), Lament For Coire Sainnte (6:43), Tribes (6:03), Swaggering/Dever The Dancer (4:06)
Theo Verstrael

Being offered to review the CD and DVD set Gael's Vision by Joe O'Donnell for this website immediately posed some questions.

The first was of course who is Joe O'Donnell? I had never heard of the man before. That must be attributed to my ignorance as he has been playing for decades now, and with some famous musicians too.

Second was the question as to why a 2017 album popped-up for a review now? The honest answer is that I don't have a clue, albeit that an album that was originally recorded in 1977 and was re-recorded 40 years later, should definitely be paid attention to.

And thirdly I was puzzled as to what the title of the album referred to. You may expect a front cover of an album to carry the correct title but checking out Joe's website, I found out that the actual title of the album should be 'Gaodhal's Vision” performed by Joe O'Donnell's Shkayla! Confusion all over the place but I'll stick to the English title. And these questions appeared before I had heard one note of the music!

Joe O'Donnell hails from Limerick in Ireland where he was born in 1948. From the age of seven he started to learn different instruments, amongst which were guitar and mandolin, and eventually dedicated himself to playing the (electric) violin. Since 1971 he has lived in England and performs in many countries on numerous occasions.

In 1998 he gathered some musicians to form Shkayla and has played under this moniker ever since, albeit in different line-ups. His style of music is a fusion of folk, jazz and Indian music with Celtic rock which brought him into contact with many different artists including, among others, French harp player Alan Stivell, blues and rock legend Gary Moore and Clive Bunker of Jethro Tull-fame. Apart from these renowned musicians Joe also was warmly befriended by blues legend Rory Gallagher, resulting in Rory's appearance on Gael's Vision, both on electric and on acoustic guitar. The latter is a very, very rare occasion and it contributed considerably to the decision to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the album by releasing a special edition.

This edition features 18 minutes of new music, amongst which is the previously unheard contribution by Rory Gallagher on acoustic guitar. All the music has been remixed and re-arranged, transforming the analogue output into a crystal-clear, top-notch production. Add to this the colourful and informative package in which this set comes, with old and recent photos and plenty of information on the musicians and the story behind the music, and you would be expecting something perfect.

Yet it isn't, unfortunately.

Back in 1977 this instrumental album was received with wide acclaim and made a lasting impression. I can fully understand why. The music blends Celtic melodies with lush orchestrations, and combines rock feels fluently with Indian musical influences without sounding fragmented. That alone is a major achievement.

Apart from Joe and Rory, who appears on two tracks, a nice amalgamation of experienced musicians play on the album, such as Steve Bolton (Atomic Rooster, The Who, guitar), David Lennox (Ginger Baker, The Equals, keyboards), Jon Field (Jade Warrior, woodwinds), Theodor Thunder (Alan Price Band, drums) and Bill Smith (Long John Baldry, Leo Sayer, bass). This blend contributes to the many different moods the music presents.

There are real folky tunes such as House Of Warriors, a very energetic track, while the beautiful, slow and melancholic Lament For Coire Sainnte has a fine acoustic guitar solo by Mr. Gallagher. There are some jazzy outbursts (The Exodus), and some rockier affairs (The Battle and Retreat Underground, The House Of Hostages and Poets And Storytellers with a very fine guitar solo by that Mr. Gallagher). We have classical music in Sea Crossing And Storm, haunting woodwinds and harp on Tara, and The Feish is a simply fabulous orchestral piece that makes the purchase worthwhile in its own right. World music pieces include Caravan and Tribes.

Therefore this album may again attract a large audience as there is much to be found for a wide array of tastes. I sincerely hope it will turn out that way, for the production of the CD version has been done with a lot of dedication and love for the music.

Alas that can't be said of the accompanying DVD. I would have loved to say that the concert film of the live rendition of the music is a real treat, but so many incomprehensible choices have been made in the making and the editing, that it sadly turns out to be quite an annoying affair.

It is of course a treat to see Joe perform live, playing his violin sometimes delicately, sometimes fiercely but always magnificently. He plays very concentrated, maybe even stressed (because of the cameramen?), giving the impression that he is a very serious musician on stage. Towards the end of the gig the relaxation appears on him through a big smile on his face when he introduces his fellow musicians that form Shkayla. The inclusion of some old, grainy photos of Rory Gallagher is sympathetic and appropriate. That they play that particular track using his contribution on electric guitar by way of a click-track is announced by Joe but is nevertheless a big musical achievement.

But many things can be mentioned that are not good on this DVD. First of all they have faded out nearly all audible responses from the audience, which takes away the live feeling almost altogether. That is especially awkward, as each track is introduced by Joe himself who tells the story behind the music (that primarily accounts for the longer duration of the DVD over the CD). After this the music starts but there are no cheers or claps to be heard. It gives the stories a bit of a sterile feeling and the musical performance feels as if nobody appreciated what they had been doing on stage. Suddenly, at the end of the gig, the audience is visible and audible after two tracks but then vanishes again mysteriously. The film as such appears to the viewer as a collection of clips, instead of the recording of a real live event.

Another big flaw is the incorporation of several orchestral tracks that are suggested to be played by the live band but turn out to not having been played live at all. Watching the DVD you are treated to stills of photos of landscapes and Celtic monuments, some of which don't play any role in the story (as far as I can see Stonehenge is not mentioned in the story but its picture is shown several times). Yet there is no indication whatsoever that these tracks are not live but studio renditions, thus suggesting that the listener could be deceived that easily. Well, they can't!

Furthermore the producers seem to have chosen to use as much video techniques as possible. Grainy, unsharp images, alternate with stills for no obvious reason and many different split-screen modes are used randomly. On the other hand, big differences in sharpness and lighting are not corrected at all. One image is slightly over-exposed, the next one slightly under (which is far better!) while the next one is again over-exposed which makes the white lead guitar unbearable to look at.

There has been no critical selection of images to be shown or to be left out, resulting in a continuous stream of scenes that have very different qualities in lighting, sharpness and colour. It makes it a very tiring affair and a very big disillusion. Neither Joe nor his very competent band Shkayla deserve such an amateurish production.

I feel privileged for having been able to review this set. The music is elegant, attractive, varied and very well played and would have certainly passed me by if I hadn't been offered the set for review. The original excitement that the set also contains a DVD with a live version of the whole album has ended in disappointment, as that part of the set didn't fulfil the expectations at all. But let that not distract you from listening to this great album (again) and enjoying it fully!

Sanguine Hum — A Trace Of Memory

Sanguine Hum - A Trace Of Memory
New Light (3:04), The Yellow Ship (13:08), Pyramids (4:50), Thin Air (4:45), Unstable Ground (4:10), Still As The Sea (3:22), Automaton (8:49)
Ignacio Bernaola

Sanguine Hum is not a newcomer to the progressive rock world but to be honest I didn't know the band. I like picking bands to review that I haven't heard of, because I have discovered some real gems these last few years. Well, this is not the case.

With such "new" bands I do always follow the same process. I listen to the album in full once, then I try it again in full in two days or so, and after that I go song-by-song discovering different elements, trying to understand the whole piece. After that I listen to the album in full again. I don't know if this is a good way but it's my way. I also check previous albums if they exist but I avoid reading reviews of the music before I write mine. With this album I have made an exception on this latter 'rule', and, to my surprise, the album A Trace Of Memory is being much appreciated by other progressive rock reviewers.

As I said Sanguine Hum has some previous albums that has won them a good reputation, and having checked-out some of these releases, I have to say that I have found them more interesting.

A Trace Of A Memory was written in 2018 but due to several circumstances it was postponed to this year, when they recorded it in "various homes" between March and July. No problem with this, since the overall sound, instrumentation and production is very good. Where is the problem then?

The problem is that the music is not clicking with me and it's a shame because there are good ideas and sections. Take the first song for example, called New Light. It works like an introduction to the album and I like the keyboards, the guitars and the intriguing atmosphere. Then the epic The Yellow Ship continues with that idea but suddenly it turns into an endless jamming that never gets back to the initial good sounds.

Pyramids keeps the same style, even when it seems that it can be a Steven Wilson type of song when it starts. Repeating sounds makes the song an endless loop again.

Things start to improve with Thin Air because of its promising intro sounds and different instrumentation. I'd like to hear more like this but in Unstable Ground we have again those piano structures that make no good addition to the songs. Still As The Sea is another example of everything I've explained but I do find the last track, Automaton, very promising with plenty of guitars. I like it and it makes me think that Sanguine Hum can produce a much better album for my tastes in the future.

Going back to my question, where is the problem then? I guess the problem could be me but I recommend you to check this album because you may find things I've missed. There are a bunch of reviewers that have found them, so the best you can do is listen to A Trace Of Memory and decide for yourself.

Twan Van Gerven — How U Gonna Stroke Yer Solo

Twan Van Gerven - How U Gonna Stroke Yer Solo
0er soup (12:14), Milmoldol (9:27), Drunkey Punch (9:21), Gutbucket(2:25), The Secret Code Variations (13:56), Chakra Zulu (4:03), A Whatever (20:13)
Owen Davies

The aptly titled How U Gonna Stroke Yer Solo extends a clasping hand to guide the listener through seven satisfying compositions, where the spotlight is not exclusively, but is never far away from Van Gerven's padded finger skills, which display a splendid fretted check-box of fusion styles.

This is an album that will appeal to anybody who enjoys fleet-fingered fusion that is confidently delivered with ample amounts of energy, skill and flair. Indeed, How U Gonna Stroke Yer Solo is a fitting choice of title; as it is a release that is significantly enhanced throughout, by some excellent ensemble playing where flamboyance and empathy have an important part to play.

Van Gerven's solos are stroked and stirred by a fine supporting cast. The players bring out the best in the compositions, perfectly complementing the guitarist's emotive tones and undoubted dexterity.

The interplay between the sax and keyboards in 0er soup is particularly enjoyable. In this piece, the punchy bottom-end and crisp percussion also meld in a colourful manner to provide a frothing, fizzy framework for the sax and keys' lyrical playing and for Van Gerven's ember-tinged interjections, which massage neck hairs and shiver the spine.

The album features Roel Hazendonk (keys), Remko Smid (tenor sax), Maarten Poirters (drums), Marre de Graaff (bass guitar), and Stormbird (analog synths and piano). This group of musicians have previously been associated with Van Gerwen and have featured as a part of Gerven's Dutch X-Ing band.

Much of the album is able to furnish the listener with impressions from another time, when jazz-rock and fusion in general were briefly in vogue. It lights a multi-coloured candle in artistic homage of that style and it brightly emits its stylish rays until it finally flickers and recedes to ashen grey after some 70 minutes.

The highlight of the album is undoubtedly the 20-minute closing piece. In, A Whatever the swagger and tranquility of the arrangement, is able to carry the listener through spacious gullies, rock-pools, frothed jazz wave crests and many points in between, as it navigates melodiously towards the silence that announces the album's end.

It is an enjoyable piece and whilst it was unable to consistently hold my attention, it contained a number of impressive sections where the interaction between the musicians was both thrilling and invigorating. The extensive guitar solo which dominates the beginning of the tune is quite wonderful and was reminiscent, in its exuberant tone and fluidity of style, of Frank Zappa in his prime.

However, whilst the playing throughout the release is always accomplished and never mundane, and whilst the compositions are equally proficient, there were a number of periods over the course of the album's long running time, when I felt that the overall style and undeniably adept musicianship could be more distinctive and less derivative of any number of fusion albums of the past.

On occasions, the fine soloing that is a consistent feature of the album, and the accompanying arrangements which adorn the release, seemed to meander. There were moments, when the music had a looseness that might be associated with an unrestrained or untethered jam. That in itself is probably no bad thing, but I found myself having to be in the right sort of mood to concentrate fully upon the music and stay the course.

Many of the tunes begin in a promising manner, or contain enlivening sections, but overall, I felt that what is promised, suggested, or hinted at, was not consistently accomplished in a manner that I found fully satisfying.

Perhaps a greater degree of compositional precision and the influx of something that could be considered truly progressive, or maybe cunningly innovative, or more overtly, or distinctively unique, might have made the overall experience of this largely satisfying album even more enjoyable? The free avant section which concludes the fine opening piece is an exception to the band's somewhat derivative fusion style.

However, there is much to enjoy and much more to admire throughout the album. Each player performs with panache, either as a soloist, or as a group member.

The earthy riffing and bombast of Milmoldel which stridently juggles the ear lobes with violent, bombastic intent is certain to shake the dew from any unfortunate vegetation that lies nearby. Similarly, fans of Weather Report will enjoy the hip-swelling rhythmic flourishes, the boisterously-belching saxophone bursts and the twisting, trilling and expressive throated keyboards of Drunkey Punch. This is one of the best ensemble pieces on the album, and in its concluding section, the intensity of the band is quite superb.

The most exciting section of music on offer is undoubtedly the beginning of The Secret Code Variations. The fluidity and the glowing, hot-cindered intensity of the opening guitar-led section is magnificent and the spacious squawks and squeal of the synth which languidly fills the piece's middle section is also beautifully and tastefully arranged. It is a well-constructed piece, that should appeal to anybody who enjoys the easy-eared, knuckle-tapping appeal of bands such as Passport and the hard-edged guitar of Zappa's Hot Rat's era.

Over time and with repeated plays, How U Gonna Stroke Yer Solo has gone up in my estimation. Whilst it arguably offers nothing that is truly surprising, it is nevertheless an enjoyable release that succeeds on many levels and one which I will no doubt listen to on a number of occasions.

Album Reviews