Roland Bühlmann — Dubnos
The Swiss composer Roland Bühlmann (guitar, bass, synths, percussion) describes his music as linear, consisting of melodic, individual voices in a non-functional harmonic way. In alignment with his "gift" of Asperger syndrome (a form of autism) it follows strict, yet partially unconscious rules, while compulsive guidelines bind his soundscapes to unique regulations.
Every composition is therefore shaped in different keys and tempos, while every album sees alphabetical order with a randomly-changed number of tracks, preferably titled by a single word: self invented or from ancient origin. In this instance only the biblical Hebrew term Galgallim, referring to wheels as seen in Ezekiel's vision of the chariot, seems to fit the latter.
As with his previous effort, Crucial, Bühlmann uses many unconventional instruments including branches, an oil tank, stones, vases, and wrenches. In the atmospheric, slightly neurotic Omnalén, mindful to Frédéric L'Épée in light of the experimental touches, these percussive sounds elevate the natural feel of the soundscape, meanwhile glowing with glimpses of Grobschnitt's Solar Music courtesy of Bühlmann's guitar.
In fact Bühlmann's exemplary guitar-work is a liquorice all sorts throughout. In Mighla he brings impressions of a shinier version of Lucas Lee, maintaining a light-layered musical density. The spacious sound furthermore ignites visions of Kalaban through it's grand melodies and jazzy notes, after which the composition converges into a mysterious, haunting atmosphere, transcending through layers of bass and improvisations.
Both Dubnos and Aaschutz see the contribution of Yukiko Matsuyama on koto, a Japanese string instrument, which gives these compositions a lovely oriental vibe.
The former slowly builds tension and shows lots of variations in which fluctuations of Yes structures miraculously spring to mind. Flowing nicely on lovely bass foundations, the guitar improvisations and rhythmic drums (Terl Bryant from Iona) bring ample dynamics, thereby boosting the spicy segments that alternate graciously with ambient, quiet passages.
Partly by the involvement of David Cross (David Cross Band, King Crimson) on violin, Aaschutz releases enchanting Jerry Goodman vibes. The magnetic jazz-fusion air, in combination with Bühlmann spreading some gorgeous Pat Metheny-like free-jazz impressions, gives this song further appeal. Ubiquitous incorporates the same lovely jazz-rock-fusion feel with nice melodies and gracious bass lines. It also marks a more song-structured approach, incorporating a soundscape intermezzo moving through delightful melodies on keyboard and synth.
The progressive fusion soundscape-journey incorporating ambient, new age and fusion, sees a highlight in the album closer Galgallim. The spacious opening slowly builds tension to gain mysterious momentum and intensity, before it elevates into an otherworldly movement mindful to Methexis. The subsequent heavy rock passage, alongside luscious keyboard sounds, successively brings to mind a favourable techno whirlwind impression of KONG.
Necessary perseverance will slowly reveal delicate details and finesse within each composition, giving way to refreshing insights upon every revisit. An effort worth investigating.
Gavin Harrison and Antoine Fafard — Chemical Reactions
Canadian born, UK based fusion bassist Antoine Fafard is no stranger to the pages of DPRP. There are six reviews of previous albums, all worth investigation (check out the search function). The new release is the culmination of a long-cherished project for Antoine and it has been four years in the making. His dream was to write and record with an orchestra. On Chemical Reactions, the last two tracks are with the full orchestra. But before those, are six tracks utilising a string quartet.
Accompanying Fafard on the journey is The Pineapple Thief's drummer Gavin Harrison who as well as providing percussion also plays the marimba on a number of the tracks. This adds another layer of colour and complexity to those provided by the string quartet including Maria Grigg (violins, viola) and Jonathon Garner (cello).
If you think this sounds a bit wishy-washy, then you would be wrong. The expert arrangements, and superb mix, give the strings depth and power making the melodies sparkle. Grounded by Fafard's elastic bass playing, supported by Harrison's subtle fills, this music gives room to all the players. Though there are bass solos from Fafard, this is not what this album is about, rather it's about exploring the melodies away from the usual fusion instrumental palette. The musicians, as an ensemble, produce music that goes from the understated, to the powerhouse. It feels like these guys have been playing together forever.
Dramatic sweeps of violin, cello and electric bass, topped with marimba and drums provides the sound palette for the first five tracks. Transmutation Circle melds the strings with Fafard's fusion bass. Each subsequent track shifts the template around, so the music is always fascinating. Atonic Water has a darker and more strident sound with a King Crimson edge to it. Fafard's bass solo on Vision Of A Lost Orbit has an intangible magnificence. Proto Mundi lets the musicians flex their musical muscles in its expansive development. It has an optimistic joy to its melody.
On Singular Quartz there is a change of personnel. Mahavishnu Orchestra's Jerry Goodman brings electric and acoustic violin. There is also a vibraphone joining the marimba. The track has more emphasis on the tuned percussion as it opens, and then it grows into the most fusion piece here.
To close the album Fafard has written two pieces for orchestra that includes his bass and Harrison's drumming. Holding Back the Clock and the title track feature the 65-member Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Ostrava in the Czech Republic. What a blast these two tracks are, easily matching the force of a rock band with bludgeoning string section riffs, brass section stabs, and floating woodwind. It all feels so organic, and not that the bass and drums have been shoe-horned in. It is a seamless and exciting hybrid, with hats off to the orchestral arranger Mark J. Saliba. This is terrific music, alternating the lithe with the fierce. There are new things to be discovered on every listen.
If you liked Chasing The Polygraph or the big-band jazz arrangements of Porcupine Tree songs that Gavin Harrison released a few years ago, then the orchestral works here will put you in mind of that album.
Antoine Fafard's dream to compose for a full orchestra has been achieved with remarkable success, yet the pieces with the smaller forces are similarly enthralling. Gavin Harrison and Antoine Fafard's Chemical Reactions is a triumph of virtuosic interaction.
IT — Live At Progdreams VIII
The Progdreams Festival held in the famous Dutch venue of De Boerderij in Zoetermeer sounds like something from long-forgotten times. I was once present watching a fantastic bunch of bands presenting themselves to an enthusiastic crowd in this great venue. I'm afraid it will not be before 2022 that we can experience such an event again.
Fortunately there is the occasional live recording to bring back memories of past festival editions, or to get to know new bands. Both of these things are true in the case of UK-proggers IT, who were invited to play at the eighth edition of Progdreams in 2019 and of course didn't hesitate to do so. This cd and dvd set contains all 10 songs they played then. Because of the introduction, and the extensive credits at the end, the dvd has a longer running time.
There are many things I really like about this set and I have only a few minor remarks. First of all, the content of the dvd is rather minimalistic but because it is all well-thought over and excellently executed, that is no disadvantage at all. The film starts with a really nice short introductory black-and-white video showing the band travelling from their home in London to the ferry at Harwich and further to the venue in Zoetermeer. It also shows the 'sound-check' which turns out to primarily be emptying the very well-filled fridge in the dressing room. This introduction flows naturally to the start of the gig.
At the end there is a credits part with extensive attention to all those who helped to make this a very successful festival to play at or to attend. Not only the organisers and the personnel at the venue are thanked but also all other people that do so many tasks vital to a gig and the subsequent release of a dvd but who are seldom mentioned. The same warm attention to these people can be found in the booklet that comes with the attractive cardboard set. It is a very simple but often overlooked element in a band's existence and IT surely knows how to express their gratitude.
But what really matters is the music and the way it is filmed. Both are top notch here.
Being completely unfamiliar with this band, I was curious what they would have on offer. IT plays a kind of dynamic, highly energetic, powerful neo-prog with a heavy emphasis on the vocals and the guitar riffs, with occasional keys parts (during the gig all from tape, perfectly interwoven in the music). It seems that this band started with the use of multimedia during their gigs but none of that is present here, except for a small video at the start of their longest piece The Path Of Least Resistance.
With those kind of songs these characteristics have to be good and they truly are: both lead and harmony vocals are excellent throughout the gig. Band leader and guitarist Nick Jackson has a very pleasant, middle-range voice and the songs fit his reach well. The harmonies with bass player Mark Gatland and lead guitarist Andy Rowberry sound excellent. The band plays very tight, with the dynamic rhythm section of Tom Ashcroft on drums and a swinging Gatland laying the carpet over-which lead guitarist Andy Rowberry and Jackson play their instruments with full attention. It is a pity that they do so without much movement, making this band rather static to look at. Maybe that is also because they usually play with the use of multi-media which was apparently not possible here. And maybe that also accounts for the little interaction with the (far too little!) audience who nonetheless enjoyed themselves well.
The set list is equally split over their two studio recordings, 2017's highly recommended We're All In This Together and 2009's entertaining Departure. Both albums are represented here with five songs, but they are completely mingled.
After the dull opener Born Into Debt, which for me is the only let-down of this album because nothing happens, we get a couple of rather straight forward neo-prog songs with Killing Me and Power. The strong middle part of the set starts with the quieter The Working Man, with a very strong vocal melody and a really good guitar solo, followed by the metal-ish Gamble The Dream and the melodious Standback divided in two parts. The 11-minute The Path … closes this part of the set, after which the rocky side of the band re-appears in Revolution and the anti-religious pamphlet God Is Dead. In closer Departure the subtle melody returns in some beautiful guitar playing, backed by intricate keys.
IT's music has the occasional guitar solo but most of the time it is the full band playing tightly that characterises their songs, reminding me of It Bites and Dave Kerzner, with hints of Porcupine Tree and even The Babys. Most songs have the traditional verse-chorus-verse format but as these parts are strong in melody and variety, that is fine. For an hour they managed to keep my attention well.
The images on the dvd are of very high quality, filmed by the renowned John Vis and his team. The sharpness is spot-on, the players are shown at the right moment, the lighting is fine and the alternation between colour and grained black-and-white works remarkably well. No tricks or ingenious image-splitting, it is rather straight forward and that is good.
As said the dvd is quite basic with the only other option in the menu being a photo gallery. Often that is not a very interesting part of a dvd but this time it contains really good pictures of the gig and of the travel. I rather prefer such a basic but very well maintained product, over a dvd with many different options that are low in quality.
This is a coherent, sympathetic and well performed live set by a fine band enjoying the audience and themselves with a good set of well performed songs that are warmly and professionally captured. This was a very nice acquaintance with a band that I certainly hope to see live one day.
Nova Incepta — Visions of Arcadia
2021 is another year of challenges. Promoters and show venues are struggling to stay in musical business. Musicians are struggling to be heard or not forgotten. Musical journalists are struggling harder than all of the above, enthusiastically lying on their couches, earphones on and inventing new words for describing new music. This is exactly what I was doing, listening to Nova Incepta's album, actually managing to generate a new term “Berkeley Prog” (aka “eco-djent”), which I am planning to copyright to earn a living.
Ironic mode off, I honestly think that this metaphor describes Nova Incepta's music pretty well (also knowing that these guys actually graduated from Berkeley). Djenty guitar riffs, dreamy Lydian-scale solos, a dry, almost granular drum sound, and a truckload of breakdowns with swirling atmospheric keys. You surely know this sound, because today every third new band with some musical education incorporates such elements.
Think Plini, Intervals, or I Built the Sky with fewer bluesy notes, no vocals and a more bombastic, cinematic approach. Comparisons to Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation and Symphony X, mentioned in the Nova's press release, have less ground, because the mighty prog-metal titans use a different approach in sound-building. Comparisons to Yes or Genesis have no ground at all (but, come on, do we really need more bands influenced by Yes and Genesis, when we already have had so many of them?).
What is unique about Nova Incepta is the presence of a composer / producer as a full-time member. Daniel Grais however shares the composer's duties with the other band members, so don't expect that this is a new Jim-Steinman-style project or anything.
I am not entirely without musical education, but the task to count time signatures and upstrokes on this album, requires the upper heights of my IQ scale. So, during the 36 minutes of playback, more than once I felt myself the proverbial swine with pearls being thrown at it. I surely admire the precision and technical abilities, but the compositional quality escapes me, even after several listens. This is always my problem with the new-millenium complex music; it's not easy to tell one composition from another. There's so many things happening and so many harmonic flows interweaving, that the record's “skeletal” structure seems to dissolve.
Other than that, I had a smooth listening experience with Nova Incepta's material. This is a solid record from capable musicians, who have already reached an impressive level of technical maturity. Any track from the record can serve as an example of the band's style, but since we are talking prog here, I would recommend the longest one, Anonymous Orical.
Joseph Williams — Denizen Tenant
For those, like me, who are always unable to remember the names of musicians in well-known bands; Joseph Williams fronted Toto from 1986 to 1988, and was featured on the albums Fahrenheit (1986) and The Seventh One (1988). In 2010 he returned to the band, a tenancy he still retains. He has also released ten solo albums, and is an Emmy Award-nominated film composer.
The oddly-titled Denizen Tenant features ten new songs and two cover versions with weighty contributions by guitarists Steve Lukather and Mike Landau alongside percussionist Lenny Castro and a host of other collaborators.
"Smooth" was the word that jumped to the tip of my tongue when I first listened to this. It is about as far from a live-sounding album as you can get, with Williams clearly aiming for a meticulously produced and assembled recording. Williams' signature sound is achieved by his multi-layered background vocals. The 12 tracks generally roll, more than they rock. This album is more for those who enjoy the pop side of the Toto discography.
In Williams' own words, the first single, Never Saw You Coming is a good indication of the sound and style he was aiming for. "I thought it was time we had a cool, sexy song about death," he opines!
It is an eclectic collection of songs, possessing a clever blending of genre-hopping grooves, some wonderful solos, a delicate use of strings and, of course, top quality vocal performances. The better moments come in the first half of the record. The second half is over-heavy on the ballads, the soft-rock and the two cover versions. Of these, Williams' version of The Beatles' If I Fell stays pretty true to the original feel. The vocals are shared with band pal Steve Lukather, showcasing how well they are paired vocally.
More interesting is the version of Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up. Kate Bush's lines are handled solidly by Williams' daughter, Hanna Ruicka. While it tries to bring something new to the arrangement, it's not as memorable as the original.
Those seeking an album that rocks, or songs that at least gently nudge a couple of musical boundaries, should look elsewhere. Those not averse to occasionally spinning some sophisticated pop/rock-lite will find this a very enjoyable listen.