Cast — Vigesimus
Ay caramba! I got a Mexican fever and the only prescription is not more cowbell, but more Cast!
Before one starts to think I've lost all my marbles, please bear with me as I try to contain my enthusiasm for Vigesimus, which has propelled it's way onto my desert island, going far beyond all my previous champagne-moments (see for instance Nemo and Mystery). The reasons as to why, shall become clear during this review. But first-off a little (personal) history.
I once witnessed the 15th incarnation of Cast during an edition of the Planet Pul Festival in Uden (Holland) on the 6th of June 1998, where they shared the stage with Musea-labelled colleagues Gerard and several other progressive rock acts. It was a performance which at the time gave me the impression of a Genesis-influenced neo-progressive rock band. A fine performance from what I can recall, although after all these years only the incredible loudness of Gerard's performance remains a fixed memory. In all the 23 years that have passed, I never invested my time to follow the band from an artistic point of view.
Fast forward to 2021 and Vigesimus arrived. Out of curiosity I decided to listen to Cast's 20th studio album, in order to hear what, in their 43rd (!) year of existence, had become of their music and sound. With no expectancy whatsoever I got into the spirit of things and slipped the CD in the car-player. It's never been out since!
Images and words to describe all that happened within the next few moments will all fall short, but like a miracle out of nowhere it's as if I've gone to (neo)-prog metal heaven. A place where big Mandalaband symphonies dance eternally with galloping theatrical orchestrations, while a yellow brick road graciously opens up and reveals impeccable performances that burst with Symphony X energy and dynamic Dream Theater virtuosity that radiates emotion, warmth and passion. Music so wonderful and filled with a deeply alluring Kansas touch (one of my all time favourite bands), that I want to keep listening to it over and over, so I'll try to keep it brief.
In the instrumental Ortni, founder, composer and keyboardist Alfonso Vidales immediately shoots his bright musical arrow straight into my Achilles-heel, making me unable to resist the dynamic opening, beautiful orchestrations and melodic guitars that converse with delicate violin parts from Roberto Izzo. With Mexican flair and temperament, an acoustic serenade follows, followed by Kansas-influenced symphonic melodies that gently caress. Surely they can't keep up this level of emotionally-touching brilliance for the remaining 70 minutes right? Wrong!
The vibrant melodies continue in the excellent Black Ashes And Black Bowes where Bobby Vidales (lead vocals) makes a great entrance with great expressive strength, which combined with the powerful melodies in The Unknown Wise Advise leaves a distinctive Arena mark. In the final three minutes the blistering duels between violin, keys and formidable guitars (Claudio Cordero) are individually victorious, while in unison they are exponentially unbeatable and touch deep within.
Another Light's melodic resting point (one of few) sees great harmonies between Bobby Vidales and secondary (background) vocalist Lupita Acuña. This is followed by a brilliant instrumental, Manley, surrounded by haunting rhythms and excellent percussion (Antonio Bringas), spurred-on by exquisite bass (Carlos Humarán). It is a composition that initially has Trans Siberian Orchestra written all over it, surrounded by ever-changing structures, intoxicating instrumentation and a lively Kansas vibe.
Location And Destination's opening is literally a point of no return, thriving on emotionally touching melodies and a gorgeous Musicatto-styled coda, much like the exquisite Crossing which brings exceptionally warm feelings of Lamplight Symphony (Kansas), TSO and Shadow Gallery. The latter's influence also shows in the phenomenal two-part instrumental Contacto, which will have every right-minded Kansas fan fall in love instantly.
It's preceded by The March, another mild resting point that shows Vidales' gift towards composing. Surrounded by beautiful orchestrations and arrangements that result in genuine goosebumps, its vocal interactions are divine, matched by the superb musical build up from classical symphonies that slowly gain depth and strength.
Throughout the album an appealing theatrical charm is present, and the final composition, Dredging To The Higher Plane, is no exception, powering the energy levels through the roof with a final breathtaking musical display. An excellent ending to a phenomenal album, whose energy keeps me fully ablaze and excited for hours -on-end.
To mention that this album will make it into my top 10 list of 2021 is quite unnecessary. For at the moment I'm having a huge dilemma, as DPRP doesn't rate higher than a ten, and this one goes to eleven. Music as the backdrop of my life is all about emotion, feelings, passion, melancholy and memories (and much more), and Cast's Vigesimus is a magical 'few in a lifetime'-moment where each and every factor aligns and amplifies each other. It's simply one of the best albums I've heard in years, and seeing that it's their 20th, makes it all the more impressive.
A totally unexpected gem which sets my heart to renew my wedding vows and once again go on a honeymoon cruise, this time taking an short "coincidental" detour to Baja Prog to witness a Cast performance. Firstly, a significant dip into their recent past, for my insatiable addiction needs additional refreshment. Ay caramba!
Hawkestrel — SpaceXmas
Just when Christmas 2020 seems like a distant memory, two CD releases celebrating the festive season belatedly arrive at DPRP.net; Hawkestrel's SpaceXmas and Rick Wakeman's Christmas Variations (see later in this issue).
SpaceXmas is one of three recent releases from psychedelic space rockers Hawkestrel, the other two being Pioneers Of Space and Hawkestrel Presents Pre-Med. (The latter is not a Pre-Med and not a Hawkestrel release, but related.) The driving force behind the band is former Hawkwind bassist Alan Davey who plays the majority of the electric guitars and some keyboards and drums. He's joined by two other Hawkwind alumni Huw Lloyd-Langton and Nik Turner with contributions from Glenn Hughes, Rick Wakeman and Robbie Krieger.
Given that Lloyd-Langton passed away in December 2012, some of these recordings must go back a long way. For example, Seasons and Für Kirsty were both written by Lloyd-Langton and the latter originally appeared on his 1985 album Night Air. And there lies the main problem with this album. Davey has clearly raided the vaults to construct several of the tracks and despite the seasonal concept, it's a patchwork of traditional carols and original songs that in some cases have tenuous links with Christmas.
Things get off to an inauspicious start with Oh Holy Night, one of five songs on the album, the other seven being instrumentals. Although Davey's lush Mellotron strings create a suitably reverential mood, Glenn Hughes' hammy crooning is more pub singer than legendary rock vocalist. With its trebly guitar and metronomic drumming, We Three Kings is just plain ponderous. On a more positive note, It's A Wonderful (Funny Old) Life and Für Kirsty are fine instrumentals featuring Lloyd-Langton's acoustic folk guitar picking augmented by spacey synth effects. Silent Night is anything but with a shuffle rhythm and a thundering guitar bridge doing it no favours. Lloyd-Langton's Seasons is the album's first really decent song with an engaging psychedelic rock vibe and Jurgen Engler's Mellotron flute and string washes.
Ein Weihnachliches Lustobjekt (which translates into English as 'A Christmas Pleasure Object') sounds like a Kraftwerk pastiche with limp, programmed drums and synth-pop effects. The traditional tune God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is incorporated to justify the Christmas connection. O Come All Ye Faithful borrows Rick Wakeman's piano and keyboard orchestrations from his Christmas Variations album with guitar and rhythm overdubs. The piano is too low in the mix but Davey compensates with sublime lead bass playing.
Almost unrecognisable, Jingle Bells works much better than you might expect thanks to Davey's stately lead guitar theme and punchy rhythm. One of the album's most successful offerings and at a little over two and a half minutes, it certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. Hallelujah is a fair stab at Leonard Cohen's classic with discrete backing, Nik Turner's flute embellishments and a suitably fragile vocal from Nigel Potter. The final song Twelve Daze Of Drinxmas is a tongue-in-cheek punk rock parody and the less said the better.
Despite some good tracks and performances, this album fails to overcome its inherent limitations. It's too disjointed to convince as a Christmas album and many prog and space rock fans I'm sure will be put off by the concept and choice of covers. Full marks however to the label Cleopatra Records for sending out a physical CD for review purposes even though the timing could have been better.
Paul Sadler — Soon to be Absorbed
Paul Sadler is best known as the guitarist/singer/songwriter of the fantastic prog metal group Spires. (You can check my reviews of The Whisperer (2014) and their 2018 album A Parting Gift.) The group took a break back in 2019. Paul has continued writing, and decided to release as a solo album the songs that don't fit into the Spires feel. Being a big fan of Spires, I was keen to dig into this.
The album showcases the less heavy side of Sadler's talents, with dark melodies and soaring vocals, on top of acoustics and more melodic, almost Riverside-sounding tones. The Fear even reminds me a bit of the likes of Paranoid Android by Radiohead
From the intricate acoustics, to face-melting solos, the guitar work is fantastic on this album. Backed by some very accomplished musicians in the rhythm section, the group manages to create a constantly-evolving and always interesting album that offers a lovely mix of folk stylings and progressive rock, with touches of metal sprinkled throughout.
The influence again of Opeth is apparent, with a lot of the acoustic passages having that technical and very melodic feel and sound that Åkerfeldt manages so well. Paul is at least his equal with regards to the skill here. The Familiar is a particular example of this.
From, Grey To Black brings in cellos, courtesy of Raphael Weinroth-Browne (Leprous) for a melancholic and atmospheric ballad, which really adds to the overall sound of the album.
Altogether, it is a wonderfully crafted, dark and melodic prog album combining various styles to great effect. While different from his work in Spires, it none-the-less bears Paul's trademark writing and allows for a good exploration of his talents. I'd highly recommend this to any fans of Opeth or Riverside and those who enjoy Radiohead's OK Computer-era work.
Rick Wakeman — Christmas Variations
If you believe that only sentimentalists and artists whose glory years are behind them release Christmas albums then you may have a point. True, original songs like I Believe In Father Christmas, Ring Out, Solstice Bell, and Run With The Fox are worth their annual revival but as much as I admire Jon Anderson's 3 Ships and Annie Haslam's It Snows In Heaven Too, I'm more likely to listen to something non-seasonal over the holiday period.
Rick Wakeman has released more records than most of us - and probably even he - can remember and Christmas Variations is one of his many cover albums that can be traced back to Piano Vibrations in 1971. Christmas Variations was originally recorded and released in 2000 and again in 2003 and has been dusted down once more with new artwork and two bonus tracks. As you would expect from Rick being a born again Christian, the tunes are treated with a good deal of respect and performed with his customary panache.
The opening track Silent Night is typical of the album, displaying its strengths and its weaknesses. Rick's principal keyboard is a Kurzweil K2500X which creates a very respectable grand piano simulation. Although the backing harmonies are pleasant, especially the woodwind effect, the piano melody is doubled by a cheesy synth sound.
Hark The Herald Angels Sing, While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night - with an almost unrecognisable arrangement - and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear benefit from the florid piano technique Rick pioneered back in 1971 for Cat Stevens' version of Morning Has Broken. Other tracks however like O Little Town Of Bethlehem, Once In Royal David's City and O Come All Ye Faithful sound a tad dated with uninspired orchestrations and a tinny synth playing the vocal melody.
Of the two bonus tracks, Silent Prayer is an original Wakeman composition recorded in 1993. Here, the piano has a noticeably more synthetic timbre which suits the ambient, new age ambiance. Amazing Grace is a traditional hymn popularised by Judy Collins and was a feature of Chris Squire's bass solo on stage with Yes. This solo piano version was recorded live at Lincoln Cathedral in March 2018 and although I'm not taken by Wakeman's arrangement, the right hand melody and left hand rhythm are in perfect harmony.
I've always had a penchant for Rick's piano playing and on that score, this album certainly has its merits. Several tracks however are perhaps longer than they need to be and a little too repetitive to justify their length, especially Christians Awake Salute The Happy Morn and O Little Town Of Bethlehem. I'm also conscious that this reissue is unlikely to attract any new fans to Wakeman's cause and the two bonus tracks will be of little inducement to anyone that owns the original CD. Still a pleasant, if unchallenging listen.
Wingfield Chapman Adewale — Zoji
Maybe it was Zoji's ability to hold me, maybe it was Zoji's ability to surprise, and maybe it was Zoji's ability to strike-up contrasts of tone, pitch and colour. Whatever the cause, Zoji's embrace cleared the fogs of time.
I often feel astonished and humbled by the way in which an album can pick the lock of long forgotten memories. Some aspects of Zoji remind me of my feelings during a visit to one of England's grand cathedrals some years ago. Something about this album reawakened the awe I had felt.
The beauty of the architecture was timeless. Skyward-swept arches, deceptively curved and curvaceous, were serenaded by burly buttresses, sturdy in appearance and seductively strong. In precisely-planned twists, they unfurl, greet and meet. Locked in a symbiotic embrace, they offer each a substantial gift, like stone-strength forearms, clasped together for solid support.
The contrast to the art which adorned the wall could not have been greater. The canvas exhibited was progressive in its scope and unashamedly modern in its conception and execution. Its purpose was clear. Eyes fix, linger, dart and smart. Its intent achieved; uneasy gazes glower and glare, at the palette of unusual colours and tones.
Just as that rather curious dichotomy of styles sat uneasily, yet successfully, in that minster all those years ago, the same can be said for much of Zoji's rarely-heard blend of instruments.
Guitarist Mark Wingfield, harpsichord player Jane Chapman and percussionist Adriano Adewale create a unique sonic canvas that is for the most part easy on the ear. It possesses a candle-lit, contemplative air, but on occasions guitar-stringed howls, yowls and growls uneasily flicker the wick, to cast a disconcerting twilight shadow.
Wingfield has a distinctive style. He has been responsible for a series of albums, which have an ability to create a mood, touch the emotions and craft pictures within the mind. A number of his albums (both solo and in different coalitions) have been reviewed positively by DPRP including Tor And Vale with Gary Husband, Tales From The Dreaming City, the Wingfield Reuter Sirkis album Lighthouse, and Wingfield, Reuter, Stavi, Sirkis's The Stone House.
Jane Chapman is a renowned harpsicord player and exponent of her chosen instrument. Her knowledge and expertise has been well documented and include a three-CD set of 17th century music from the Bauyn Manuscript (one of the most important sources for French harpsichord music of the 17th century). This was described by The Times as 'stylish and eloquent', and selected as a Critics' Choice by Gramophone Magazine. Zoji is her second collaboration with Mark Wingfield. A contemporary work for harpsichord and electric guitar entitled Three Windows was released in 2008. It also featured jazz saxophonist Iain Ballamy.
The union of the harpsichord (an instrument usually associated with beautiful baroque melodies) and Wingfield's easily identifiable and imaginative range of fretted textures and tones is unusual to say the least. Adewale's free-form and imaginative percussive style adds further zest. His wistful whispers and wholesome whoops are yet another surprising addition to the trio's idiosyncratic cauldron of ingredients.
Before hearing Zoji, I would have doubted that I could have been captivated by a blend of guitar, percussion and a harpsichord. With musicians of this calibre however, it is not surprising that they are able to create something that works so well on many different levels. By the end of the album, I felt captured, trussed and bewitched.
The sound quality of the release is excellent and Sid Smith's informative and extensive sleeve notes add a colourful insight into the creative process involved in the writing and recording of the album.
The route chosen and paths explored by the players should resonate with anybody who wishes to experience music that does not fit into easily-prescribed categories; where progressive intent and a willingness to be boldly different and inventive are boldly highlighted.
It is not only the choice of instrumentation that makes this album so interesting and rewarding. It is also the manner in which the languid soundscapes are able to create an intricate framework of varied tones and textures. These frequently craft a meditative air that lingers, to almost suspend time.
The opening piece, City Story, highlights and illustrates some of the curious but welcome contrasts that are prominent in the album. Wingfield's distorted guitar lines wail expressively; full of texture and possessing a primeval pull. His interjections are countered by a buoyant harpsicord underswell, that soothes the senses, to emit a feeling of gentle purity, and unruffled fragility.
This piece and the album as a whole has the atmosphere that is created at its heart, rather than the need to supply anything that approaches a classic song-based approach to structure or melody. An evocative sense of hand-rapping mystery is created by a series of percussive fills, reminiscent of something Collin Walcott might have crafted.
The mid-section of the piece prominently features the harpsichord. It ripples and washes against the senses in a flowing and agreeable manner. The archival atmosphere that it is able to create is particularly beautiful.
One of my favourite pieces is Seven Faces of Silence. Every ingredient fits so well together. Shrill, plaintive guitar lines threaten to break free. They shimmer like raindrops on a window, whilst they drip purposefully in a cascading flurry of notes. The beauty of the harpsichord just about holds the falling and rising beast in-check. The percussive vocal sighs of Adewale moan in submission and acknowledgement of the palpable tension that is created.
Adewale's shifting, guttural, Shaman-like vocals are a feature during Persian Snow, and help to emphasise the high-pitched guitar lines that threaten to pop the cork. From somewhere deep from the baroque instrument's past, coy musical glances are exchanged. They wink and blink from a shifting aural canvas of harpsichord and guitar, that by turns, is quite beautiful and mildly disconcerting.
As the album progresses, the soundscapes offered create a vast array of moods to explore. Over time, I have found that I prefer to listen to the album in small doses. For once, the old adage 'little and often' seems to have some truth. However, I often seek out Prélude Sinueux. Its droning ending catches my attention every time, and as such, is just a magnificent contrast to the flowing harpsichord interval that precedes it.
Some listeners might initially feel that that the soundscapes offered might not be distinctive enough to warrant repeated plays. However, over time the individual nuances of the tunes stridently emerge from any perceived haze created by the trio's well-defined stylistic approach, to become more distinctive, and ultimately more noticeable. This over time simply adds to the album's overall appeal, and should ensure that a range of not-immediately-identifiable traits and subtleties will become apparent with greater familiarity.
I have enjoyed this album.
Maybe it was Zoji's ability to hold me. Maybe it was Zoji's ability to surprise, and maybe it was Zoji's ability to strike unexpectedly, with contrasts of tone, pitch and colour.
In the final analysis, maybe it was just because Zoji was refreshingly different and in many ways is quite unlike anything else that might be currently on offer!
I will no doubt listen to it whenever I feel like hearing something that has its own unique voice. It skilfully manages to harmonise the sound of the amplified 21st century, with an instrument that is usually associated with natural amplification and the uplifting baroque melodies of the 17th century.
Zoji breaks new ground, is progressive in many respects and beckons the listener to stay for a while in its unique aural world.