Argus — The Outsider
Four years ago Argus achieved moderate success with their debut album Tell Me, which landed them a support slot on Saga's 'farewell' gig in Uden (29th of April 2017). A concert I actually attended, yet due to time restraints regrettably arrived too late in order to witness this band's performance. Since then Argus has been busy recording their follow up, The Outsider, now ambitiously available on CD and different vinyl versions.
Joining Wim Wassenberg (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Ton van Extel (rhythm guitar), Ed de Groot (bass), and Frans Nooijen (lead vocals, synths and theremin) is drummer Marijn Schellekens, replacing Sven de Waal who left due to other commitments. The years of playing together has paid off in light of the tightness of the performances and a collection of solid, diverse compositions. Another delightful advantage, at least in my case, is the fact that both the production and the lengthy neo-progressive compositions bring to mind sweet memories of Egdon Heath's early In The City years once in a while.
This is for instance apparent in Distressed, a variegated song gliding through several different moods and atmospheres. While the long-stretched Pink Floyd-ian opening slowly brings lovely dynamics, with Saga-signatures on piano, it's the groovy tempo change of luscious guitars gliding into melancholic melodies that brings imprints of Wishbone Ash (Argus' previous cover-band incarnation). The a cappella fragment adds a nice touch, although it feels slightly forced and detached.
Some Time shows equally enjoyable melodies and ups-the-anti with heavier rock in a mildly complex manner. Here the non-startling, passionate and occasionally raw vocals of Nooijen befit the music, while the rhythm section, with some delicious upfront bass, impresses with its dynamic attraction. Through layered synths, a luscious keyboard solo and a short twin-guitar segment, the song's ending is equally admirable.
Title track The Outsider shows the group's potential in many different ways. The restrained Comedy Of Errors atmosphere of the intro seamlessly converges into a strong melancholic twin-guitar movement, while the lighter Galahad feel and dynamic drum-patterns keep the pace delicately going. It is also the first instance where the theremin is featured to give the song an otherworldly vibe, although it's somewhat lost in the musical mix. The subsequent exquisite guitar solo, embedded with instrumental subtleties, then closes this entertaining track on a serious high note.
The grand, mysterious atmosphere of Visions, comprising lovely sounds of theremin, brings great bass pedals mindful to Rush within loose arrangements. The bridge towards the verse then suddenly loses its layered character and leaves Nooijen's lower vocal lines initially inaudible in the mix. Repressing feelings of Hungarian Omega on his underwhelming vocal performance, it's the consecutive Wishbone Ash-inspired passage and forceful rock of the song that soothingly redeems this.
Up to this point Argus show they are never short of ideas, and the final two submissions are no exceptions. First-off it's the slow-moving Lost Girl that glides through several musical passages. With an intro guided by fine piano-play and some great guitar work it ignites memories of eighties Taurus. And although the melancholic middle part slightly overstays its length, it's the engaging classical symphonic intermezzo and forceful dynamic reprisal that binds the themes together nicely.
These distinctive passage are also found in the instrumental Breaking Chains, which after its alluring opening statement slowly develops soft Camel touches. Excellent upfront and unique theremin touches then rather surprisingly evolves into highly-energetic seventies-inspired pompous rock, thriving on brilliant howling guitars and tasty Hammond organ melodies. Returning to acoustical refinement and a graciously emotive guitar solo, the delicate piano coda rounds off this nourishing, eclectic composition.
With The Outsider Argus show they are slowly climbing the ladder towards broader recognition. The entertaining, well-crafted compositions show many inventive ideas which certainly will delight fans of neo-progressive rock. Personally some transitions come across as slightly artificial to me, and although each passage works splendidly on its own, I also sometimes fail to grasp certain connections.
Nothing too disturbing and something that a slight trimming of ideas and tweaking of arrangements can easily smooth out. Overall a solid effort which will see me clear enough time when the opportunity arises to see them in a live setting. Whenever that may be...
Faulk — Men
Faulk, (pronounced "folk", I'm led to believe), come to us from Ostfold, Norway, and are described as a band "suited for the big scenes". The four-piece consists of Michael Krumins on guitars, Kristian Torp on bass, Lars Erik Asp on drums, and Per-Oivind Johannessen on vocals. Joining the foursome on Hurdy Gurdy is Anders Adin. The band play a straightforward mix of rock with hints of folk.
The album is apparently a concept album, yet plays very much as twelve separate songs with a running lyrical theme. There is no sense of an actual story, despite it saying so in the band's press release. Although I'm sure they intended this to be a touching story about the struggles men can relate to (that we could all relate to), the album's lyrics come across more as a bit of a whine about how hard it is to be a man, and are at times, cringe-worthily silly.
The music found within Men is a mixed affair. The album opens with the up-beat, I Am, a catchy number that reminded me of some of Bryan Beller's recent solo work. The inclusion of a tambourine throughout the song is a very nice touch; a small addition that adds a huge dimension to the overall sound of the percussion. The chorus is somewhat memorable and the song contains some of the album's more mature arrangements.
Second track, Man, gets off to a very good start by opening with a riff reminiscent of Spiritual Beggars. However the chorus here is the first sign of the band's attempt at black humour, and it just doesn't work. This is a hole that you will frequently hear the band fall into throughout the album. You see, I can appreciate the idea they're getting at, but if you're going to write a "relatable" and "humorous" concept album, you need to make it both relatable and humorous. This is neither.
Running is a step in the right direction, (pun absolutely intended). This is more of a Pearl Jam-style, driven rock anthem. The chorus here is one of the better parts of the album and the song is void of any of the alleged humour that a lot of the album suffers from. Mad Dog Almighty however, just never gets going. This isn't a bad song, it just never goes anywhere. The chorus comes and goes before you've had a chance to hear it, and like most of the other tracks here, there just isn't anything else going on to interest the listener.
Next up is Dance and, oh my, this song embodies my biggest problem with this whole record. It is thoroughly depressing. Why anyone would listen to this is beyond me. If I want to be depressed, I have a huge array of black metal and doom albums to listen to. Not only that, the song is just dull. There is nothing that warrants your attention at all.
Wizard has similar problems. Despite being more upbeat, the song is again dull, uninteresting and its attempts at black humour within the lyrics just falls flat. Bobblehead is possibly the worst song on the album. It is definitely the most cringe-inducing. Coming across as an attempt at imitating nu-metalers System Of A Down, yet in a folkish style, this is borderline unlistenable, both musically and lyrically.
Fortunately, Here And Now rescues your ears. This song is great. Opening with the kind of tongue-in-cheek riff you would expect from a Hollywood pirate movie, this track shows not only this band's huge potential, but also shows why the rest of this album is so depressingly disappointing. Faulk get absolutely everything right here; The strings and slide guitar during the bridge are simply magnificent. The only section of the album I would describe as beautiful. The chorus is simple, yet direct and catchy, and the vocal harmonies are used to full effect. My only gripe here is that the song is over far too quickly.
Unfortunately this one song is not enough, and the album soon falls back into uninteresting and boring territory. You Will Burn and The Pyre, both suffer from the same problems that have come before, although, The Pyre does contain some interesting guitar work and the vocals are delivered on a more serious note. Power Of Now is a ballad that never gets going, and again it just isn't interesting enough to look into for any hidden meaning. Unconditional Love is an acoustically-driven ballad that contains some nice melodies, and is the only song on the album that I would say is most definitely not depressing. This plays the album out rather nicely, even bringing a slight smile to my face which was, at this point, much needed.
One thing I should mention, as it is part of the package. The album contains some nice artwork, each song has its own paintingI I guess these somewhat help tell the story, whatever that story may be. If that's your thing, you can view them all, along with the album's lyrics, on the band's website. It's a nice touch.
This album fails at being what it sets out to be. It doesn't work as a concept album because the music and lyrics are not interesting enough to care about. It doesn't work at being humorous because none of it is, in any way, remotely funny. There is nothing here that makes me want to relate to these guys as "Men". I'm sorry for your struggles guys, but maybe focusing on something a little more listenable and a little less depressing next time will do you wonders.
The album has two songs that are definitely worth checking out, both Here And Now and Unconditional Love will maybe even find some fans among our more progressively tinged readers, and would fit well in many a prog/folk rock playlist. Other than that there is very little here of value to me, and certainly nothing much for prog fans.
Eloy Fritsch — Cosmic Light
Shortly after his fourteenth solo effort Moment In Paradise Fritsch follows through with his next endeavour Cosmic Light, touching base with his love for electronic soundscapes again. The album is comprised of futuristic compositions surrounded by a bright serenity of New Age ambience, whilst pulsating with vibrancy and melodic refinement, projecting visions of Eternity, Jean Michel Jarre and Space/Didier Marouani.
Fritsch's production skills are of the highest order and result in a spacious and spatial sound, as witnessed on the uplifting melodies of Gravitational Force that begins this energetic journey. The catchy, futuristic disco of Physical Activity, guided by computerised robotic voices and luscious synth-layers, resembles an imaginary non-exhausting 10 minute endurance workout in space.
Gathering strength in The Time Tunnel through frivolous keys and a flashy synth solo mindful to Rick Wakeman, it glides into the wonderful grandeur of Spacetime, embedded with spacious sound effects that bring to mind Vangelis. The dreamy melodies accomplished by Fritsch shine equally bright in Memories Of A Mysterious Dream, in which the alluring classical symphonies and delightful harp touches bring finesse, while otherworldly strangeness comes from emulated theremin sounds.
Miraculously Artificial Intelligence feels the most earthy, through its world music vibe, showing resemblance to an amalgamation of Jerry Goodman's flight and a Corciolli dance, accomplished through its layered symphonies and uplifting fusion cheerfulness. The adorable feminine nature of Droid moves through minimalistic synth movements to ultimately grow into a soft, beating heart via tantalising keys. A wondrously shaped and enchanting composition, it is followed by tense, ominous atmospheres in Secret Path, tentatively revealing cosmic X-files accents.
The elegant flow reaches its destination in the beautiful three-part spectacle Cosmic Light. The intimate and emotively fragile symphonic movements of part 1 lusciously glide into magnificent Vangelis-inspired melodies. Part two of the composition brings it initially down to futile beginnings, that glow into a breathtaking journey of captivating, delicate Kitaro-inspired melodies and Alan Parson's twinkles. Finally the epic thematic return in part three takes amazing flight, radiating heart-warming rays of warmth and revealing inner beauty through its New Age enchanting melodies.
Although slightly different to Moment In Paradise, Cosmic Light delightfully shows Fritsch's electronic side with plenty of gorgeous movements, where the music transports one to a joyous, alluring state. An engaging album recommended for fans of electronic music and those in search of relaxation on beautiful New Age-inspired melodies.
Helmet Of Gnats — Travelogue
A decade since their last release, the DPRP-recommended High Street, Helmet Of Gnats reappear with their fourth album Travelogue. The quartet of musicians formed by Chris Fox (guitars), Matthew Bocchino (keyboards), Mark Conese (drums) and Wayne Zito (bass), remains unchanged since the last album. Fortunately, so does the high quality of the music on offer.
While sitting firmly in the fusion category, there is a more playfulness to this album, with definite hints to the 70s Canterbury scene bands Hatfield And The North and Matching Mole. The Gnats are masters of their craft and the complex compositions flow seemingly-effortlessly across this meticulous, perfect-sounding album. All the more impressive is that it was largely recorded live, with the four musicians playing without headphones in the gorgeous Ambient Records studio. Of course, it helps that Conese designed and built the studio as well as building and customising a lot of the recording equipment used in the studio, whose list of clients is a virtual A to Z of the best jazz and fusion musicians around.
Don't let the fusion word put you off though, as there is plenty to admire across the album. Scorching guitar runs, melodic and playful keyboards, superlative bass playing, and drumming that is not only inventive but a real pleasure to listen to. Opener Silver Bitches has it all. The interplay between the guitar and keyboards will resonate with prog fans and the energy the quartet generates is amazing. Zito's solo fretless playing at the beginning and throughout the title track, Travelogue, is right up there, and the incorporation of an accordion adds a new dimension. Bocchino chooses his keyboards wisely throughout the album. With lashings of electric piano and the occasional burst of Hammond organ, there are plenty of surprises and juxta-positioning of musical textures.
Although musically the similarities are slight, one can't help but be reminded of King Crimson. Both groups having the ability to create musical journeys which start and finish at the right place but the choice of route deviates, to take in hidden and unexpected vistas. The staccato section in the middle of Cuchifrita's Ballet Lesson echoes the intro to Crimson's Indiscipline but it is only a relatively few bars of coincidental synchronicity. A highlight amongst highlights is the closing number American Wood Pts 1 & 2 with its tricky time signatures, off-beat drumming and changes in styles and tempo. One never quite knows what to expect, with it's lack of linearity making it a track of discovery; allowing the listener to hear it in a different way with each run through.
Not only is there not a dud track on this album, there is not a dud moment. Travelogue is the sound of a band of master musicians, where the sum far exceeds the genuinely impressive parts.
Vajra — Irkalla
Pronounced "vaag-rah", Vajra are a New York-based alt-prog rock quintet. Irkalla is the Sumerian/Akkadian word for underworld, and denotes the lowest level of consciousness, our basest impulses. This EP is the follow up to their 2012 debut album Pleroma.
The EP is the first in a planned trilogy about consciousness, and it mixes "dark ambient experimental interludes with melodic rock songs ... to explore the dark night of our souls". Led by Annamarie Pinna (keyboards, flute, vocals) they explore a visionary mysticism that is informed by her synaesthesia, whereby she experiences sounds as colour and shape. She is joined in her endeavours by Mark Collen (guitar, soundscapes, effects), Al Javier (guitar) and Dave Sussmann (bass) with drummer Blake Fleming (ex-Mars Volta). They all co-write the songs.
The title track opens the EP with a disturbing mix of echoing piano and buzzing noises like flies around a carcass. Not exactly welcoming but Vajra kick into life with the churning, melodic alt-prog rock of Maya with its pulsing gothic bass and great riffs. Prog-metal touches come in at the chorus but the song really comes to life with Annamarie's singing. She sounds like a heavyweight Amy Lee from alt-rockers Evanescence.
They follow this with Crown Or Crucify; another good song that mines the alt-rock prog rock hinterlands, building from a ballad opening of piano and a rotating guitar figure, to a storming middle section. A terrifically well-arranged song. The last song is the middle-Eastern world music-influenced Sever The Tie that is propelled by powerful chords into focussed prog-metal.
As you can probably tell I'm enthusiastic about these well-constructed, played and focussed songs that don't push any radical boundaries but do what they do very well. However, I have an issue with the instrumentals. They achieve what the band say about them (dark ambient experimental) but they feel like filler to me. Filler that uses wind noises, indistinct voices and hand percussion. Filler that is annoyingly underdeveloped.
On Vajra's Irkella the songs are well worth a listen, with a distinctive, emotional voice topping them. Vajra have a knack for melody. Die-hard prog-metal fans will rue the lack of extended solos but I rather enjoyed the songs' directness. I would like to hear more from this aspect of Vajra's output.
Oh, and the cover's use of Sumerian cuneiform script for Irkalla's title is a brilliant touch.