Eternal Return — Once Only
Eternal Return is such a strange and compelling name for a musical project, that you never know what hides behind it before you hit “play”. It could turn a contemplative Kitaro-Yanni-flavoured new-age music, or a one-man black metal project by an adolescent half-way through his Nietzschean period. This particular Eternal Return is actually very remote from both such polarities and offers mature, pathos-free music, exploring the minimalistic ambient/jazz/prog geometries.
Time to introduce the cast, right? Robert Jürjendal, a graduate from Robert Fripp's Crafty Guitar School, has a long-lasting career as a solo guitarist. Miguel Noya (keys and sound design) and Miguel Tora (drums) originate from Venezuela and are well-known musicians amongst ambient-music fans since the 80s. Paul Goodwin (vocals, producer) is Noya's collaborator on another ambient project – Dogon, which had recorded two interesting albums back in 90-ies. And if you do not know who Colin Edwin is, then please be a good kid and make two steps away from your daddy's notebook, before he gets angry that you scroll his favourite site without asking. These musicians have a long and complicated story of mutual collaboration (mostly under the aegis of NewDOG Records), and Eternal Return is the project assembling the whole team for the first time.
This Once Only album is a short release, but a replete one, managing to bring something new with every new track.
Nomad – a pensive composition with vocals, that make me remember Brian Eno's voice and the overall mood of his non-instrumental tracks. The Void – soloing trumpet, backed by calm percussion and drums, sets the unmistakably “Scandinavian noir” mood. Sounds like one's fate is to solve murder crimes while plunging further into lonesome alcohol self-abuse.
A Medium-Sized Village – mist darkens further, shadows in earphones evoke images of The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. Lightly distorted guitar in the far end of the audio scene wails like a family ghost crying for vengeance. The Triggering Town – soothes a listener with half-whispering vocals and ethereal keys. Less horror, more melancholy
The Bottom of the Pond – Yes! That's how you do crescendos without relying too much on post-rock clichés. Sounds like a slow descent into Lovecraftian catacombs, especially when played loud. In all honesty, I would love this track to last for a couple of minutes longer, just for the sake of holding onto the mood.
The Sky – rays of light shine through darkened firmament. Tender, warm sound akin to late Marillion circa Somewhere Else and onwards to F.E.A.R.
Anyone who loves No-Man and feels baffled with the direction the project took on Love You to Bits should try this record. Unlike on many ambient prog records, the mood here is not featureless or bleak, on the contrary – there is a fragile balance between light and darkness.
Kayak — Out Of This World
It is hard to believe that Kayak, Dutch prog pride, has been around since 1972, so almost 50 years now. I can vividly remember the magical live gig I attended somewhere back in the Seventies in my then hometown of Leiden, the only time I witnessed them live (don't ask why I've never seen them since...). To realise that this Dutch band is still going strong is fabulous. Of course there was a significant hiatus of no less than 17 years after the 1982 disbandment of the band but since 1999 they have continuously recorded albums and performed gigs, albeit in several different line-ups.
Present day Kayak is of course founding member and musical nucleus Ton Scherpenzeel on keyboards and vocals, Bart Schwertmann on lead & backing vocals, Marcel Singor on guitar and vocals, Kristoffer Gildenlöw (of Pain Of Salvation-fame and also releasing albums under his own nam) on bass and vocals and Hans Eijkenaar on drums. There's also a string trio supporting the band in several songs consisting of Maria-Paula Majoor, Daniel Torrico Menacho and Francesco Vulcano. Throughout the album Schwertmann shows that he's a really good singer with a voice that is well suited to sing these kinds of songs. Yet some songs are sung by other members of the band who unfortunately don't rank among good singers.
I've been listening to Kayak from their start and especially cherish their 1973 debut album See See The Sun as well as their 1974 sophomore album simply entitled Kayak. On these albums they achieved a very attractive mix of proggy pop songs alternated with some very good epic tracks. Slowly the poppy side of the music took over, probably because those secured their income best. As a result I began to lose interest, not because I didn't like those AOR-orientated albums (and Ruthless Queen is nothing less than a real classic song) but mostly because they weren't that special anymore. 2003's Merlin – Bard Of The Unseen album was a spectacular return to their prog roots and ranks amongst my favourite Kayak albums, only to be challenged by the 2017's Seventeen album which was very strong and very proggy. So what would this new album Out Of This World, their eighteenth studio album, have on offer?
Looking at the tracklist I began to feel a little wary. There are no less than 15 tracks with only one track coming close to the 10-minute mark. Of course size doesn't say all but as Kayak has chosen a more commercial direction earlier in their career I sincerely hoped that this album would not go into that direction. Starting to listen my wariness proved right, for the poppy side of Kayak is again quite prominent on this one, contrary to its predecessor. But rest assured, this is not a commercial pop album although in some tracks they come quite close.
The start off with the title track is very promising and typical Kayak with wide orchestral keys chords over which the guitar plays a very fine riff that is subsequently taken up by the keys, giving way to the first vocal lines. It develops into one of those trademark prog tracks of this band, with excellent interplay between guitar and keys that both keep coming back to the central theme. Towards the end they even squeeze in a short part of their song Change Of A Lifetime from the 1975 Royal Red Bounder album which is very nicely done.
More good songs follow, such as Waiting with its almost reggae-like rhythm in the verses that suits the song very well. The typically Kayak-like quiet start of Under A Scar with beautiful piano and guitar that subsequently builds towards a strong full-band rock song and Traitor's Gate with very fine guitar riffing and a good guitar solo. The latter is also present in Distance To Your Heart and Red Rag To A Bull while The Way She Said Goodbye features an acoustic guitar solo which lifts this calm, soothing song up to a lovely ballad.
The only real epic song is A Writer's Tale. It is crammed with different ideas but nevertheless flows fluently during its almost 10 minutes; extending this song even more wouldn't have been a bad choice for it is a really good song. The many different parts make it sound more like a mini-opera than one long song but it really works well here. Critical Mass, another rather long song, is good too, driven by excellent vocals over subtle keys. But compared to the epics on their former album neither of these longer tracks match that quality.
There are some dreadful tracks too, like As The Crow Flows with its very uninteresting intro, the slow One By One and the far too simple Cary. They present the listener with lacklustre, slow melodies without much development, but with catchy choruses though rather uninteresting verses and no exciting musical twists at all. They are cheesy songs, not really bad but not very interesting either. To my ears these songs are at best fillers, serving well as B-sides or outtakes but now they unfortunately lower the overall quality of the album. It's best to skip these altogether.
Between the really good songs and the mediocre ones stand fine tracks such as the beautiful instrumental Kaja in which guitarist Singor excels and the rocky Mystery that could easily have been part of their eighties album Starlight Dancer. Last song Ship Of Theseus is also rather nice but it fails to provide this album with a similar appropriate end like To An End did on Seventeen.
There is at least one issue in which this album scores significantly higher than the former one and that's the artwork of the cover. Whereas the Seventeen cover was as dull as possible, with just the band logo on a bright blue background with only some vague bird shadows, this cover again features the colour blue and the band logo but at least there is a nice drawing to draw your attention. How the rest of the artwork looks like I can't tell as these were not sent to us with the audio files.
All in all this album is mixed bag of rather straight-forward AOR songs and some proggy outbursts and therefore slightly disappointing for a prog fan. Maybe this album will bring them a larger listening crowd again because the greater part of music is easily digestible and very well played. But knowing what this band is capable of, demonstrated in the title track and the three other longer tracks, I had hoped for more proggy songs, more Seventeen and Merlin than Periscope Life or Anywhere But Here. Therefore I can't rate this album high which is hard to do for a band with the stature of Kayak.
Minutian — Magical Thinking
The roots of this Helsinki-based band date back to the year 2007, when drummer Antti Ruokola started writing the first songs for what subsequently became Minutian in 2010. The band released its first album Repercussions in 2011 and played various gigs in Finland (amongst others as opener for Riverside in Helsinki) and abroad thereafter.
2012, however, marked the tragic accidental death of their guitarist Jaakko Jernberg. The band carried on with some friends substituting on guitars and eventually asked Pekka Loponen to become a permanent member. The second release Inwards, recorded in 2015 with its melancholic basic mood reflects the band's efforts to come to terms with the aftermath of this fatal incident, characterised by sorrow and grief.
The band was having a "life outside of their activity with Minutian", it took them further 6 years to come up with their third release Magical Thinking, which shows the return to a groovier style.
Whilst not being a classic concept album, the lyrics follow a common thread by describing anxiety and its various manifestations in healthy and unhealthy forms. Alien Reflection, for instance, describes the feelings and physical reactions when having a panic attack, whilst Suspicious Smiles deals with the subject of feeling guilty. Seen that way, the lyrics seem to reflect the overall situation taking place before and upon the release, although the creative process started earlier than the pandemic crisis. Besides Antti, who assumes the main composing duties, and the already mentioned Pekka Loponen (guitars, backing vocals), Minutian consist of the founding members Mikko Heino (vocals), Jesper Johnson (guitars), and Jouni Mikkola (bass guitar). No one is credited with the keyboards, which are limited to a few background samples here and there.
Minutian describe themselves as a modern prog band, and in fact, they do not sound very retro to my ears, having little to no nostalgic elements of the Seventies. I found the music to be difficult to pigeonhole, something that can be regarded as positive, as it is a proof of the music's originality. Obviously, with this sort of line-up, we are dealing with a guitar-oriented release. The band mentions Oceansize, Tool, A Perfect Circle, and King Crimson (The ConstruKction Of Light period) as their main sources of inspiration. I would like to add some elements of the guitar-driven music of Soen and Sieges Even, the rhythmically-complex song writing of Rush, the hard-riffing style of Mastodon, and the sometimes gloomy and slightly dissonant playing of Opeth as reminiscences.
Overall, Minutian's music represents a good combination of rhythmic ideas and emotions with a dose of Finish melancholy and some introspective moments. The playing is varied, and at first listening, the songs, which do not follow the classical verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus scheme, may sound straightforward, groovy, and catchy. However, the music in my ears does not have that many melodic hooks, and upon second and third listening, reveals itself as more complex (but not complicated) than originally evoked. Basically, this is owing to the sometimes multi-layered rhythms and the occasional unusual beats.
Minutian work with two guitar players, but the one and only solo takes place about 45:30 minutes into the album. As a matter of fact, the guitar work is all about riffing and complementarity. Hardly have I ever listened to a guitar-oriented album where the two guitar players do complement another in such a perfect way.
Rhythm is key throughout the entire release. Not only it becomes apparent that the very first ideas and the groundwork of most the songs are penned by the drummer Antti Ruokola, but with respect to complexity and rhythm, Minutian appear like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Intuitively, some of the songs sound catchy and groovy, inducing me to quickly start tapping my feet in a common 4/4 time, only to realise that soon thereafter by doing so I somehow had got out of sync.
Minutian disguise the complexity of their music with straightforward sounding riffs and therefore differ from some of the prog metal bands which hand their technical abilities to the listener on a silver platter. I liked this form of musical understatement, which is a sign of considerable self-confidence, musical skills and a strong band effort but requires the listeners' willingness not to automatically rely on the music's first impression. If one is prepared to do that, this album is challenging fun to listen to. Personally, as a keyboards aficionado, I missed them on this release, but that was not to the detriment of my overall positive sentiment.
Relayer — Broken Branches
Two years ago I ended my review of Relayer's delightful fifth effort V with the hope that it wouldn't take another 11 years for a new album to come to fruition. Under the ongoing worldly challenges it turns out inspiration flowed freely within the band and a new album has recently seen light of day in form of Broken Branches, featuring songs about redemption and hope.
The line-up of Tom Burke (bass), Tim Laroi (guitar, keys), John Sahagain (vocals, keys) and Bill Kiser (drums) is still intact after 25 years, and this shows in their meticulously fine interplay found throughout the album. Musicians that complement each other, focussing firmly on well composed songs, melodies and emotions, which in comparison to V's mild melodic progressive rock-feel moves ever so smoothly towards a bright new array of AOR influenced rock with progressive touches amidst an ever present high embracing mid-seventies playful Queen feel.
Paradigm layered diverseness with elegant Rush vibes and tasty bass lines reminiscent to Chris Squire (Yes) gives the album the right propulsion and shows the melodic sense of the band most convincingly. The restrained performance of Hear Me Out, initially bringing to mind U2 and where lovely incorporated harmonies ignite Queen memories, is equally finely executed with a slow progressive build up that works splendidly. The catchy Turnaround continues these soothing atmospheres with a mild uplifting West Coast AOR groove, elevated by delicious Queen-like harmonies and a lively coda spinning with tantalising Thin Lizzy treats.
The exciting Protectors and poppy surroundings of Something's Changed exhibit the same vibrant sunny appeal whilst illustrating the crafty songwriting capabilities of the band perfectly. Songs flowing with a head and tail that excel in intricate simplicity and excellent interaction between the individual musicians, where each note is played with a purpose. Music which is not about displaying musical power, but one where technically skilled subdued controlled instrumentation results in powerful enchanting music and touching melodies.
These finer achievements see a first highlight in Mouse In The Mill moving through an infinity of melodic varieties where funky bass play is reminiscent of Toto, twin barrel guitars burn with Wishbone Ash deliciousness and memorable organ play reminds of Ray Manzarek's darker efforts in Nite City, emphasized by Sahagain's passionate vocals. At times even a slight New Wave impression occurred envisioning The Fixx, which gives this composition further alluring pop appeal.
Mouse In The Mill marks a wondrous turning point on the album for thereafter many tasty progressive influences make their way into the compositions. It starts with mellotron in the sensitively gooey ballad Ghosts breathing AOR-ish Styx-like structures as it increasingly radiates in an ever growing summary atmosphere mindful to Barclay James Harvest. It is followed by the excellent Halfway Home where initial lovely piano melodies glide into light bombastic surroundings beating with upfront Yes bass-lines that unify with Queen harmonies and exceptionally smooth melodically rich deliveries. Halfway through a moving passage of sublime layers of keys and brilliant guitar work, dynamically driven forward by a reserved rhythm section, leaves to me delicate impressions of Trillion's AOR-classic Child Upon The Earth, making this another of the album's highlights.
The adventurous instrumental Solstice Suite is up next with luscious sensitive prog structured diversities interlaced by touches of alluring piano and slight jazz/fusion, after which Way Too Long brings gracious images of Supertramp through intricate piano and organ, a melancholic guitar solo and an equally beautifully fulfilling ending. Finally the heart warming ballad Twilight rounds off the album in a very pleasant uplifting manner by showing mild AOR touches, beautiful keyboard playing and lovely touches on guitar.
Overall Relayer's Broken Branches continues the enjoyable path taken on V with engaging melodic rock inserted with inviting elements of prog, AOR and mild pop, caught within a pristine clear production that gives the music an alluring modern freshness. A satisfying release which once again sounds familiar, but at the same time manages to surprise as well. When listened through headphones the sophistically intertwined arrangements add even further favourable likeness to this fine effort.
With scheduled plans for live concerts and the band already working on new songs for their next album, Relayer's near future looks promising. I for one hope they can keep this momentum going, for after more than 25 years they've released one of their greatest efforts to date.
3 Dreams Never Dreamt — Another Vivid Detail
Out of Milan has come the band 3 dreAms neVer Dreamt with their second album Another Vivid Detail. Being described as a manifesto of melancholic metal they channel the doomy sounds of groups like Katatonia, with the prog metal stylings of Porcupine Tree and Tool and similar. Needless to say, this sounds like it should be right up my street, so with that in mind let's see where the album takes us.
The album opener Interconnections kicks things off with a doom-laden track that straddles the line between slow chugs and an almost Dream Theater-esque chorus. Hot on the heels comes The Black Dressed Clown which continues the chugging and mid-tempo riffing, but I feel that the vocals stand out more here. This brings a sound of the more “classic prog metal” I'd expect from the likes of Queensrÿche but with a slight gothic twinge to it.
I think unfortunately for the album, a lot of it follows this mid-tempo pace and chugging guitars. The guitar solos are in abundance and are wonderfully played and slot in perfectly, and the vocals create a fantastic atmosphere to help create a very solid sound. But aside from a few wee passages, the album doesn't really speed up or “take off” fully. However, it does show a lot of promise. So, I will chalk this up to being only the second album from a young band, and look forward to some moments of speed in album number three when it comes around.
Aside from that criticism, there is not much wrong with the album. It is a pretty solid chunk of proggy and gothic metal with a dark atmosphere. Musically it is well preformed and very well written and each musician showcases their talent without being over the top. For me, the standout tracks would probably be The Ballad of A., with its melancholic classic prog metal feel, or The Black Dressed Clown when they bring in the heavy guitars and soaring vocals.
I'd recommend it for fans of Queensrÿche, Ayreon, Ghost Brigade and Katatonia's “middle phase”.