Ciccada — Harvest
Ciccada is a band I have been meaning to catch up with for a while, having heard them on an internet radio station. So I was pleased to be able to review the band's new release Harvest.
After another lengthy gap, this is Ciccada's third album. The previous releases were five years apart, A Child In The Mirror (2010) and then The Finest Of Miracles (2015), the latter being recommended here at DPRP.net.
Ciccada are an ensemble that write modern, eclectic folk melodies. They arrange them in an organic, warm-sounding way that makes use of wind instruments (flute, a range of saxophones, clarinet), acoustic and electric guitar, and keys of all stripes underpinned with bass, fretless bass and drums. Add to this mix two female and one male vocalist and, for me, you have a winning combination.
There is a feeling of dirt under the fingernails and hard-won charm to the tunes on Harvest. Ciccada open up with acoustic guitar, flute and multi-layered, chanting vocals. They chant the first word of Eniania (Keepers Of The Midnight Harvest) as a kind of Pagan work-song. It gets swallowed up by sax, clarinet and electric guitar as the instrumental fun begins. They move into darker, contemporary classical and jazz modes in the final third without losing any of the melodicism. Imagine a sun-drenched Anglagard, and this is just the opener.
The tone changes subtly between songs with different vocalists taking the lead, and all the players having solos of un-showy exquisiteness, each given equal weight as they play-off and balance each other superbly.
Ciccada mix up tempos and dynamics throughout the album. A minstrel-style melody lifts Open Wings; a song that moves into heavier territory that you might expect. They expertly shift the melody of The Old Man And The Butterfly across multiple instruments with the clarinet and electric piano standing out, as it dips into a Middle-Eastern vibe. The spirit of Pink Floyd is lightly present on the opening passages of No Man's Land, topped by a super synth solo that pushes it towards symphonic prog territory. The longer Queen Of Wishes echoes the loveliness of Renaissance but with the darker tones of baritone sax. Its quiet-loud-quiet switches are deliciously-skilled.
There are challenges on Harvest, for instance on the restless Gentle Giant energy of Who's To Decide? where in-amongst the overlapping vocal lines, sax and flute there is a discordant, discomforting section which I warmed-to on further listens.
Ciccada's Harvest is an album from a group whose brand of eclectic folk-prog rock is joyous and earthy. As the super cover art alludes to, rather than being cloistered away in the gallery entertaining the aristocracy, these musicians are busy out in the vineyards and fields, soaking up the sun and bringing hope to the harvest.
Holy Monitor — Southern Lights
Riders on a storm of Hammond organ and fuzzed-up guitar licks, Athens-based psyche-prog rockers Holy Mountain channel the spirit of The Doors with the hard rocking of Steppenwolf, laced with the cosmic spaciness of Can.
Holy Monitor are a five-piece band (two guitars, keys, bass, drums) whose new album Southern Lights is their third full-length release since forming in 2015. Southern Lights is a thoroughly entertaining mash-up of psychedelic rock, kosmische space-rock and ambient music. Recorded live in the studio, the album has a detailed mix that retains the live punch with a warm acoustic.
The sonic attack starts with the wild guitar and Hammond interplay of River, and when the rather good vocals come in, it turns into a proggy blues rock with a mix of tempos and dynamics. The energy grows with Naked In The Rain as it chugs and fizzes from the speakers; all dirty wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass and a cracking Hammond solo.
Holy Monitor do have their subtle side too. The pulsing ambience of Hourglass is a pause for the ear. A pop-psyche melodic element and delightful vocal harmonies float above the bass drive of Blue Whale. The closer, Under The Sea, brings an early R.E.M. jangle and a melody that doesn't quit.
The title track and the longer The Sky Is Falling Down mixes the psyche with garage rock and brings an avant-psyche edge, showing that Holy Mountain are not just a one-trick-band. They bring a progressive advantage over the more staid, more predictable sounds of psyche-rock bands such as The Black Angels and Wooden Shjips.
Holy Monitor's Southern Lights is an album of melodic, interesting psyche-prog rock that punches well above its weight. As they power through its two-sides of vinyl running time, it is less tie-die and joss sticks, and more leather trousers, greasy denim and speed. A hugely enjoyable find.
Egor Lappo — Trancevoicer
The last time I heard Egor Lappo, was just over a year-and-a-half ago when he released his previous full-length album, Azimuth. The album was a consistent affair with a few real stand-out moments, and ultimately I had Egor firmly in the back of my mind as one of those artists to keep and eye, and indeed an ear on. As with many independent musicians, Lappo has been incredibly busy during the Covid 19 pandemic, and this new concept album is a follow up to the EP, Make The Sun Shine More, released in the summer of 2020.
Trancevoicer is, on the surface at least, a very simple record. The songs are relatively short, easy listening, progressive metal. There is a big focus on melody and atmosphere, wrapped in a lush production which swirls with dreamy soundscapes and retro-style keyboards, backed up by layered guitars. Egor himself takes care of all the instruments and vocals. The Saint Petersburg native also handles the record's production, mixing and mastering. A truly talented individual. I had already commented on his incredible guitar playing in the past, and this album is without a doubt, a complete solo effort.
A concept album about two warring worlds, far off in the depths of space. Trancevoicer tells the story of a futuristic renegade who betrays his own people to save another planet from obliteration. Along his journey, he gradually gathers support for his actions, but both worlds end up on the brink of disaster. This reads like a draft from an Ayreon album, and Lappo indeed seems to be a huge fan of Mr Lucassen's massive, genre-spanning space opera. He also seems to be a fan of Devin Townsend, especially his hand-held alter ego Ziltoid The Omniscient. You will find multiple sections throughout this record that pay homage to both; in a way that is obvious, but not over the top.
One of my complaints about Lappo's previous work was his vocals. I found them to be simply not to my taste. There is nothing wrong with Egor's voice, but I found they sat on top of his music, rather than complimenting it. This complaint is completely gone this time around. The way this record is mixed is superb. Lappo has clearly taken time and effort to improve both his vocal skills and his audio engineering skills. The vocals are laced with delay and reverb and often harmonised multiple times, creating a huge space for them to sit within the music. The music itself sounds massive. It's a lush, dreamy meadow of crashing guitars, huge drums and beautiful synths; a true joy to listen to.
The selection of songs this time around is more impressive than any of Lappo's past releases. Azimuth showed a promise of something more to come, and Trancevoicer is the result. There is not a weak track on this record, yet many, many highlights. While the songs themselves may be simple in structure, there is more than enough going on to keep any prog rock concept album enthusiast compelled.
Take the opener, Renegade, this is how you open an album. The guitar riff at the beginning was the first piece of music I've heard in a long time that actually gave me goosebumps. The song is a powerhouse of sci-fi progressive rock and sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the album.
Dreamworld and Turncoat Allies both bounce along at a fair pace, and feature equally great choruses. Contention starts to slow things down slightly. This track is a little more laid back and features some fantastic piano playing from Lappo. The heavier parts remind me of Danish riff masters, Vola.
The first song that really gave me the Ayreon vibes is The Mask Of Kindness. This is a great little track that builds up quickly into a huge chorus. The song is upbeat, catchy and has a beautifully short guitar solo followed by an old school synth solo, very much in the Into The Electric Castle style.
Ship 1426 is also a very upbeat number, and another very catchy tune. This song in particular shows how far Lappo has come with his song writing. The track ebbs and flows wonderfully. The keyboards perfectly compliment the guitars. The song never lets up, as it moves effortlessly from the chorus into another brilliant guitar solo, then into an eighties-style section of cheesy guitar riffs and futuristic synths.
One of the things I noticed was how well the album flows and carries the story, despite being relatively short for a concept album. I often feel disappointed when an artist,who I know is capable of writing long, progressive pieces, releases an album of shorter tracks, as there is often less going on. But here, the songs seem to perfectly suit their length, and while there were times where I felt the songs ended a little abruptly, I never felt like I needed more from any particular piece.
The final three tracks on the album are just as strong as everything that came before. On Such a Sad Note is a slower-paced track and features some of the darker melodies to be found here. It flows perfectly into closer, With You, which is one of the best songs on the whole album. The chorus is mind-blowingly impressive, and the song remained in my head for days after I first heard it. It's a fitting way to close such a beautifully simple, yet utterly listenable album.
If Arjen Lucassen is known for writing complex, multi-layered space operas that remind one of a huge, sprawling science fiction novel, then Egor Lappo has created the colourful, comic book equivalent. The songs here are short and straight to the point. The album is easy to get into, yet I still find myself going back to it often. This is the least complicated progressive concept album I think I've ever heard, yet it does exactly what it needs to do, to tell its story and keep the listener entertained.
If you like your progressive metal on the lighter side, without complexities and with just a hint of eighties pop sensibility, all presented in a modern production that rivals any of the major releases that you're likely to hear this year, then Trancevoicer might be right for you. Egor Lappo has stripped his sound of everything that was holding him back, and with this album, he has the potential to become a major player in the progressive metal scene.
Oceana — The Pattern
Oceana (not to be confused with the American band Polyenso who used to be called Oceana) have come forth from Italy with this, their first full-length offering in their 27-year career. In their own words, they describe it as a mix of "progressive metal elements with European-style death doom”, with influences as diverse as Duran Duran, Dream Theater and Paradise Lost. Considering frontman Massimiliano is a member of the fantastic Novembre, and that two of the other members are from Stormlord (the one from Rome, not Certaldo), this bland should not be too difficult for them.
The album has a nice melodic sound, mixing the prog elements with the sounds of death-doom. I would say though that it is not as “doom” as I was expecting. It still maintains some of the melancholic that the European death/doom scene has become famous for, but there is a lot more of a “rocky” feel to it. For example, Carousel could fit easily in with some of Insomnium's or Amorphis' faster tracks.
Keyboards are used often to keep a background atmosphere of melody going, with the superb skills of Alessandro on the drums keeping the pace fast and alive. There is a huge focus on the melodic side of metal, with the guitar leads always managing to be heard, but never overbearing, in a way that perfectly compliments the rest of the music.
A Lament brings in the second half (which is filled with melancholic sounds of gothic doom) with a slow and steady intro. The vocals are lamenting (fitting for the song isn't it?), complete with an emotionally-driven solo before Spoiled continues the trend with another catchy tune with some fantastic hooks and a face-melting solo at the end.
The epic of Atlantidea Suite Pt1 introduces some poppy elements, with more harmonisation in the lyrics, along with an almost Ghost-like vibe to the music.
All in all, this is an extremely enjoyable album by an experienced band and one I will definitely be spinning a lot more. If you're a fan of bands like Swallow The Sun, Green Carnation, Amorphis or any of the others mentioned in this review, then give them a listen. I expect great things from the next album.
Telergy — Black Swallow
Five years after Hypatia this project, led by the American multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer Robert McClung, returns with Black Swallow. In alignment with previous efforts, the album's concept tells an adventurous tale, brought to life by a long list of guest musicians ranging from members/collaborators of Styx, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Marillion, Shadow Gallery, Vanden Plas, Foreigner, Symphony X and Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) to name but a very few.
The concept of Black Swallow tells the true-life story of one Eugene Bullard, the first African-American fighter pilot in WWI, earning the nickname 'The Black Swallow Of Death' through his heroic deeds. An inspiring story of bravery, racism, equality and freedom that starts when Georgia-born youngster Bullard narrowly escapes a lynching and, at the age of eleven, flees as a stowaway to France, (although the merchant ship only takes him as far as Scotland). After many wanderings he makes it onto France to join the infantry of the French Foreign Legion. A forced career change into the air corps then follows, after which the highly-decorated hero settles down as a nightclub owner in Paris.
Here he becomes a spy during WWII for the French resistance, rejoins the infantry and in the end flees to Spain arranging passage back to the USA in order to finally settle as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center, New York City. There he stayed up to his death in 1961 from stomach cancer. A captivating story chronologically told on Black Swallow; one that will delight prog metal fans and especially those of the aforementioned TSO.
Each of the instrumental compositions, apart from the opening track, is preceded by a narrative/story outline which sets the scene for Bullard's life-chapters, showing resemblance to TSO's yearly Christmas tours (or as a friend of mine once stated after witnessing their European tour: "Savatage - The Musical".) The participation of many TSO members and comparable conceptual elaborations feed this feeling, especially when Brian Hicks enters as the father of Bullard in Scene 1.
Prior to that, Georgia makes you feel right at home-on-the-range, slowly awakening to the sounds of running water and birds chattering away on a spirited country and blues harmonica. The steamy, foot-stomping Western atmosphere then intensifies into bombastic rock decorated by symphonies, changing into wondrous TSO-like prog-metal, with trumpets substituting guitars. A sublime keyboard solo cranks the eclectic composition into full gear, after which heavily-shredding guitars and dynamically-pulsating rhythms take full control, igniting sparks of Kansas and Savatage. The song then slows down in tasty organ sounds reminiscent to Deep Purple and projected images of Head East's Jefftown Creek. The country vibes then return through meticulously played harmonica, while melodies slowly gain strength as gospel enters, surrounded by excellent harmonies and soulful, emotive female lead vocals.
The musical translations accomplished in light of Bullard's eventful life, encompassing many surprising twists, is outstanding. Spurred on by classical symphonies, the picture of Bullard running for his life in Chased Pt. 1 is unmistakable, while the marching beats of Infantry (representing the French Foreign Legion) are a marvellous touch.
The lift-off in Take To The Sky reveals luscious instrumental battles surrounded by violin parts and divine orchestrations, giving a firm impression of the excitement to soar through the skies. Hovering high above the earth on the sounds of a gorgeous victorious violin solo (David Ragsdale, Kansas) and ethereal vocals, the composition takes a final attacking dive in which unified allies and rivalling enemies are challenged to an exciting instrumental duel, ending in a symphonic apotheosis of metal.
At this stage the story and music take a surprising turn as Bullard gets swept of his feet by romance, captured beautifully on piano in the romantic Marcelle, slowly turning into a dance of enchanting piano-led swing-jazz. The French atmosphere and big band surroundings of Le Grand Duc feels wonderfully logical to this, although it might feel a little bit odd in light of the general progressive metal atmosphere encountered thus far. The excellent R&B and jazz fusion does however bring alluring visions of Buddy Miles and Neil Peart's (Rush) delectable drum solos, making this song feel perfectly in place amongst the rest of the album.
This short intermission aside, it's back to normal with Spy, incorporating a tasty Pink Floyd-inspired sax solo. The darkened mood becomes even more intense in All Blood Runs Red representing Bullard's heavy burden through choral vocals and gloomy atmospheres brooding with Savatage likeness. Emphasized by a short powerful explosion into screeching vocals and overpowering symphonies it glides into Solaris transience with the added comfort of flute, to erupt into a final, theatrical TSO overdrive.
Slowly the story comes to an end with the smashing dynamic pursuit in Chased Pt. 2. It brings flashes of Henri Mancini's Peter Gunn enhanced by some striking keyboard flourishes signalling E.L.P.. And after a restful acoustic bridge, the exciting melodies turn into a final bombastic blast announcing Honor's touching song of praise in which trumpets flash military traditions in a most befitting way. An appropriate conclusion for a historical hero and a convincing end to a brilliantly executed concept album.
To me the detailed interruptions providing the narrative don't stand in the way of enjoying this album, although I can imagine some might want to skip these (and a few tracks) to keep the thrilling pace of the music going. I do however hope that in future McClung incorporates more lead vocal parts, for the contributions in Georgia and All Blood Runs Red turn out to be great diversions in between his deliciously powerful instrumental manifestations. Although if he decides to stick to his guns, I would be equally pleased for the music alone speaks convincingly for itself. Overall a fine effort which makes me look forward to future Telergy projects.