Vasko Atanasovski Adrabesa Quartet — Phoenix
Phoenix has a bright and luminous nature. Its tunes scorch, sear and glimmer like a blazing flame. Its spring-sprung melodies are able to uncoil tight emotions and cast away cooling thoughts.
The majority of the compositions are simply outstanding. Time passes quickly in their company. Composer Vasko Atanasovski successfully manages to merge rhythms and melodies associated with eastern European folk music with a sense of space and a jazz-party hat fun. The arrangements are carefully tied together with numerous expressions of skilful virtuosity.
As a consequence, the music often swings sweetly and rattles along with fiery intent. It is often friendly to the ear. It beckons the listener to stay for a while, to enjoy its welcoming camaraderie and experience its joyful, kaleidoscopic rainbow approach to world music.
It is almost impossible to feel indifference to the album's joyous, tap-knee rhythms, head-nodding interludes and wiggle-toe twists. It is certainly impossible to ignore the sunny glow it provides. Phoenix is an album which scorches the senses, and after it ends, continues to lightly toast the feelings. Its fading embers lift the spirit and offer an earnest embrace.
The quartet is made up of musicians from Slovenia, Italy, France and Poland. This cultural mix is no doubt one of the reasons why the music sounds so fresh. This blend of personnel, also suggests that although many of the album's melodies are steeped in the folk-based idioms of Slovenia, their ethnic diversity provides an extra dimension.
With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that this album is able to conjure up images of Parisian street cafés, of Munich bar knee-slaps or of sleepy cattle nonchalantly munching against the backdrop of a verdant mountain.
Vasko Atanasovski provides alto and soprano saxophone and flute. Simone Zanchini embellishes proceedings with lashings of accordion. Michel Godard handles the bass notes using the tuba and serpent. Drummer and tabla Bodek Janke rattles the skins with relish and his tabla stoking and palming creates an earthy air. The son of the ensemble's leader, cellist Ariel Vel Atanasovski is a special guest. His expressive bow work has a mysterious, yet bright resonance and its woody tones make their mark in the opening moments of the jaunty Meeting. On occasions, the cello parts are more sombre, and at these times, such as in the elegant meandering of Green Nymph, this sophisticated instrument offers a classical poignancy.
The majority of the tunes are underpinned by the tuneful burping of the tuba. The arrangements are often wonderfully enhanced by the bellowing sweeps and flourishes of Zanchini's accordion.
The wonderful middle section of Green Nymph sees the two instruments frivolously duel. Tuba and accordion touch gloves and in a delicate 'pas des deux', where they exchange glances. Their enchanting dialogue simply melts my heart. If that was not enough, their prominent role and twisting chatter in The Partisan Song bounces along with such verve that it is sure to quicken the hips of anybody that steps onto the living room dance floor.
The juxtaposition of the happy-faced, measured squeeze of the accordion, and the gut-wobbling vibration of the trembling tuba is absolutely magnificent throughout. This unusual combination of instruments is seldom utilised in prog. As part of the quartet's progressive vision, the role of both instruments is essential and works extremely well.
The use of the tuba, rather than a bass, gives the low-end of the band an unusual range and innovative sound. Interestingly though, the tuba also manages to break free from its rhythmic duties to deliver a melody or two. However, for the most part, it belches loudly and expels a barrage of flatulent bottom-end notes. These boom, gurgle, bulge and waft.
The blown notes are forthright in their execution and steadfast in their purpose. They act as a series of stepping stones, from which the other instruments can mischievously dance, leap and soar. In this respect the album contains lots of impressive alto and soprano sax interjections and some truly enchanting flute flurries.
However, special mention must be given to the role that Zanchini's accordion plays in creating the unique atmosphere that pervades the album. Whilst his playing is somewhat different from such renowned players as João Barradas, whose progressive work with the accordion is highlighted in his Portrait release, the manner in which Zanchini uses the squeezed instrument to highlight a mood, or create a vision in sound, is similar.
For anybody who might feel uneasy about experiencing the swirling ethnic rhythms and involuntary finger-rapping that are a major component of the album, fear not. Avant squeaks howls and growls are explored and exposed during the seven minutes of Concerto Epico.
Its loosely-structured middle section will find free-jazz aficionados spinning with delight. Conversely, klezmer dancers may well find themselves cooing with joy, as the concerto struts towards its winking, tilted-hat conclusion in an epic fashion. However, I must confess that this somewhat strange tune seemed somewhat out of place in an album that is so accessible. Nevertheless, it's an example of how, even in such an affable album, the quartet prefers to shake and stir the pot in imaginative and surprising ways.
This penchant for inventiveness is further emphasised in the impressive Thornica. It includes a range of influences, and aspects of the style of Trillian Green were on occasions brought to mind. The arrangement begins with a distinctive tabla introduction. After this, the flute takes centre stage. Spiralling trills flutter and float through the air. The silver tube frills, drape the listener in a drift of finely picked notes that contrast equally impressively with occasional bouts of breathy over-blowing, reminiscent of Ian Anderson. Later, extra bite and a spicy after-taste are provided by a satisfying Konnakol section.
Despite the superb Konnakol interlude, something about this imaginative piece reminded me of Ian Anderson's Boris Dancing. Perhaps it was the clever rhythms, bold dynamics or the imaginative phrasing, or maybe it was simply because of the flowing flute. Whatever the reason, Thornica is undeniably one of the album's highlights.
There are many other stand-out compositions in this release. Liberation is the longest piece on the album. As might be expected, this enables the players to enlarge and broaden their palette of sounds and explore a variety of musical paths. The composition is never less than interesting and its extended structure and snaking rhythms, which provide an opportunity for a number of soloists to excel, is nothing short than inspired.
Liberation begins with an ecclesiastical cascade of notes that mimic a grand church organ. This initial gust reaches for comparisons with the renaissance-influenced classical work of Thijs van Leer. The cloaked, beginning is powerful and striking. Memories and thoughts of the imposing introduction soon fade to grey, as an upbeat melody emerges and a memorable wrist-rap tune is forged. The manner in which the quartet is able to change course and transform the direction of travel, is a major ingredient of this piece's unquestionable success.
I am particularly smitten by Balet. It is short and memorable, but its brisk, twitching pace and its array of unusual time signatures is hard to resist. Incredibly, it also manages to slow things down for a while, to highlight Goddard's deep-seated puff-cheek murmurings. Expressive tones bounce, bubble and break in a ferocious flurry of low notes that rudely ruffle the cones of my bass sub-woofers.
Another of my favourite pieces is undoubtedly the poignant Outro. Its sparse beauty and gently flowing notes spaciously wind things down. It is a fitting and evocative conclusion to a fantastic album that is neither cold nor unappealing. On the contrary, it is warm and inviting.
I certainly enjoyed Phoenix's radiant embrace and soothing after-glow. I hope you do too!
Big J — Above
Big J is vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Johannes Neu. A producer and musician for many years. A man who throws the influences of progressive rock, psychedelia and electronic music together. What is produced is something fresh and beautiful. Yes it holds on to its influences, but Neu is not afraid to add in his own character, and twists and turns. What is produced here is a great album that is worth tracking down and adding to your collection.
Opening track, Retreat of the World, welcomes you in musically with a big sound. This is definitely for fans of Steven Wilson or Airbag. There are nice rises and falls within this ten minute track. Mainly piano and gentle swathes, until the guitar kicks in. But then at the seven-minute mark, it surprises with a burst of electronica that picks up pace at the eight-minute mark and reminds me of Pure Reason Revolution. This is a great start to the album.
Gotten Into is a beautiful, laid-back track. Spoken vocals, nice guitar solo and some Pink Floyd touches, but again the band that comes to mind is Airbag. Big J has a voice that reminds me of indie pop singer Erlend Oye of Kings of Convenience, which to me is no bad thing.
The next track, The Thirst Is Us, has a nice mix between guitar and keys making an almost pan pipe sound. There is a jazzy feel to this track, as a glockenspiel sound enters into the fray. It is not until the four minute mark that it finally rocks out, but not for long as it quickly drops to the piano. This track has an almost dark, indie feel to it, almost like The Editors. But it is still well within the realms of progressive music.
Each track has enough variety to keep you on the edge of your seat. The Whistle Blows comes next. Gentle swathes of guitar over a nice, shuffling, steady rhythm. Then an explosion at the two-minute mark with a big guitar sound that reminds me of Godsticks. The drums pound like a Bonham sound and the keys gently ripple over the top. The multiple signature changes here are a prog fans heaven. The whole track leads to a big ending. Such a great track. How does one man produce so many sounds and textures?
The shortest track on the album is Insecure. This has more of an alt-pop sound and it reminded me of Bowie. Piano and drums just amble along, but it is perfect for what is in effect an interlude for the finalé, which is the epic Story of a Man Who Turns Back Time.
Described as a mini rock opera, this 24 minute track never gets boring. It does not feel over-stretched, it takes us on an incredible musical journey. E-bow and piano begin, but there are many shifts and turns. There are total rock-outs and blissful, gentle parts. There is even one section that reminds me of Sweet Billy Pilgrim. This track is worth the price of the download alone. It is prog, but it is modern and progressive. This album would not be out of place on the K-scope label.
So Big J brings us an album that I would say is recommended for all modern prog fans. The journey is worth taking. For K-scope, Steven Wilson, Airbag or Gazpacho fans, dig in and you will find much to bring listening pleasure. I will be playing this again, and including tracks on my prog radio show. I look forward to the journey ahead for this artist.
Mark Murdock — The Phoenix Has Risen
Mark Murdock is a drummer/songwriter from the USA. Apart from his solo work he is known for leading the band/project Cymbalic Encounters for which he works with John Goodsall and Percy Jones from the band Brand X. In the late seventies Mark played on the album Mark III by Empire, a band with Peter Banks (former guitar player for Yes). A newly revived Empire released a tribute to Peter Banks in 2020 with the album The New Empire: Second Lifetime with Mark on drums.
Mark also plays synthesizer, piano and does backing vocals; a multi-instrumentalist. The album The Phoenix Has Risen has a remarkable guest in Ron Howden of Nektar who drums on two songs (a drummer who invites a drummer to play on his album).
I think The Phoenix Has Risen is Mark's fourth album if you count Cymbalic Encounters as a Mark Murdock release. It is hard to find out what counts as a band or solo album. I even found an album from the band Mark Murdock & The Phoenix Horns released by Cymbalic Records. Must be the same guy?
The sound on The Phoenix Has Risen is jazz/rock fusion and I hear a lot of Genesis influences. Over an hour of nicely crafted songs with many progressive elements, sounding a lot like eighties neoprog in a very dark atmosphere. The drums and keyboards provide a nice layer for some melodic solos, with some interesting bass playing especially on Compromised.
The vocals are not very dynamic, and with the dark, atmospheric sound on this album, this is not an album for the easy listener. Vocalist Tim Pepper also sings for the band Mark Murdock & The Phoenix Horns, which I think is a happier variation on this album with trumpets and horns. On both albums the vocals are not that dynamic, and on The Phoenix Has Risen, at times they tend to sound uninspiring.
The atmosphere throughout the whole album makes it hard to complete the total playing time of over an hour in one spin. I did listen to some of the older albums by Mark, especially Cymbalic Encounters, and that music has a lot more sparkle and they proved to be enjoyable listens. Compared to those earlier releases The Phoenix Has Risen is too monotone; even after many spins a lot of the songs sound alike and no melody or song really sticks in my mind.
The best thing with this album is that it has introduced me to some nice previous works by Mark, but the album itself did not really convince me.
Samurai Of Prog — Beyond The Wardrobe
The Samurai Of Prog continue their modus operandi of using a variety of keyboard players to contribute to their growing and constantly impressive catalogue of releases. Five of the composers who appeared on TSOP's 2019 album Tori No Kaze, Oliviero Lacagnina, Alessandro Di Benedetti, Octavio Stampalia, Yuko Tomiyama, and Elisa Montaldo have also contributed to the current album which, considering the quality of that release, bodes well.
They are joined by Canadian Christian Bideau, who contributed to the bonus track Anatta on the expanded Imperial Hotel album included in the retrospective TSOP boxset Omnibus - The Early years and two new collaborators, Brazilian Ronaldo Rodrigues, a member of two progressive rock bands Caravela Escarlate and Arcpelago, and Dutchman Tom Scherpenzeel who should need no introduction after his years in Kayak and contributions to Camel.
Four of the tracks on the album are instrumental and we will start with those.
The two contributions from Oliviero Lacagnina, as might be gathered from the titles, Dear Amadeus and Brandenburg Gate are heavily influenced by classical music, containing excerpts of works from Mozart and Bach, respectively. The first of the two tracks is a brilliantly arranged piece of music dominated by the excellent electric and acoustic contributions of guitarist Rafael Pacha and the massed violins of Steve Unruh. The VST symphonic choir contributions from Octavia Stampalia are another highlight, sounding totally authentic and adding drama to proceedings.
Brandenburg Gate is more keyboard-based with Lacagnina accompanied by the three TSOP members Marco Bernard (who has switched his bass allegiance from Rickenbacker to Stucker for this album) drummer Kimmo Pörsti and Steve Unruh, who adds acoustic violin and flute. The baroque style familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Bach is the main point of reference, but a jazzy piano break is cleverly incorporated mid-way through and the various duet sections (keyboards and violin, piano and synth, harpsichord and flute) add a nice variety to the themes.
Stampalia's Jester's Dance also traces a classical route, at least initially, although the electric guitar of Pablo Robotti adds a more contemporary touch. With excellent drumming from Pörsti, delightful violin and flute from Unruh and some spectacular piano flourishes from Stampalia, who also incorporates a gentle jazz interlude in the piece, there is a lot to admire in this adventurous piece.
Scherpenzeel's all-too-brief Marigold is the last of the instrumentals and fits in well with the other non-vocal tracks, once again just utilising the talents of the three TSOP members as additional musicians. One feels this piece could have continued a bit further, as the end is rather abrupt. Although having said that, if it had been a lengthier track there would have to have been a greater degree of development of the music to maintain interest.
Steve Unruh adds his compositional skills to two of the songs on the album, the first being the opening track Another Time. Co-written with Rodrigues, more than anything this is a showcase to Unruh's immense talent as he provides vocals, electric guitar, classical guitar and flute, with all of the instruments playing significant parts in making this a very strong opening for the album. The ending is simply sublime with Unruh's classical guitar and Marek Arnold's saxophone creating a lovely atmosphere.
Unruh's other co-write is with Christian Bideau on Forest Rondo, a song that utilises all the musicians to their strengths. One can hear why Bernard has switched basses, as the low-end on this track is persuasive to say the least. The arrangement is also great, with so much packed into just under six minutes that one can easily get completely immersed in the instrumentation. As on Tori No Kaze, Alessandro Di Benedetti utilises Daniel Fäldt as vocalist on King Of Spades and the pairing once again is a great success. There is a vulnerability to Fäldt's singing that I really enjoy, and this high-class ballad offers breathing space after the classical excesses of Dear Amadeus.
Over to the ladies for the final two songs. Yuko Tomiyama's Kabane is a delight from start to finish, with the trumpet and French horn of Marc Papeghin providing a different dimension to the album. Tomiyama's sweet vocals are so melodious that the fact that most of the words are in Japanese is neither here nor there. With tasty classical guitar from Unruh, the solo is magnificent, and additional keyboards from Stampalia, Kabane is an unexpected highlight of the album.
Washing The Clouds by Elisa Montalso provides a relaxing end to the album, having an atmosphere and sound that bears some resemblance to Clannad at their prime. A class end to a class album.
The Samurai Of Prog have succeeded once again in delivering an album that is replete in highlights.
Sons Of Birches — Wooden Head And Several More Scenarios
The COVID pandemic has added some rocket fuel to the trend for multi-instrumentalists to go out on their own and making full use of garage-band and the like. And kudos to that, for it facilitates the liberation of some pockets of creativity that otherwise might not have seen the light of day. And so here we have a Canadian called Allister Thompson who clearly has an offbeat, surreal and often comic view of the world.
"From the depths of the boreal forest to the stinking halls of capitalist power, from stargazing on a clear night to eating in a sleazy diner, this album takes you on an eclectic magic carpet ride covering several classic atmospheric genres like psychedelia, Krautrock, prog-rock, and post-punk, influenced by, like, tons of cool stuff, some German."
So says the Bandcamp blurb. Maybe taking it a bit too far, but I'd say on the right lines. There is a lot of psychedelic humour here, and one peek at the attached video of the title triple-track pretty much sums it up.
Elsewhere we have tongue-in-cheek Valley Of The Skids which reminds us to be cautious when selecting a restaurant, and some indirect and fully-direct hat-tips to some other well-known tunes (Parks And Recreation theme, and Hawkwind's Lost Johnny respectively). I'll be careful not to find too many negatives, as Song Of The Tastemaker recounts the tale of an impossible-to-please music critic!
However, roping in some friendly session musicians I feel would have enhanced the obvious creativity and make the whole effort just that more pleasant on the ears. In many ways this is where Orange Clocks went right, in what is a very similar genre. Take the ending with Chime On, You Crazy Dronehards, where a gorgeous underlying idea could have been ramped-up with some more accomplished musicianship.
Interestingly, Thompson has a couple of alter egos. The Gateless Gate with an apparently significant catalogue of ambient experimental, and the more Hawkwind-leaning Khan Tengri. In fact, the more I look, the more I like this guy from Ontario. Worth checking out for those not tethered to the run-of-the-mill.
Sonus Umbra — A Sky Full Of Ghosts
Sonus Umbra were founded by a group of math/science students at the beginning of the 90s in Mexico City and started its activities under the name Radio Silence. A few years later, some of the core members moved to the USA, changed the band's name to Sonus Umbra (Shadows Made Of Sound - my Latin teacher would have had something to complain about this wording), and recorded three albums. All have been reviewed on this site: Snapshots From Limbo (2000), Spiritual Vertigo (2003), and Digging For Zeros (2005).
Thereafter, the band broke up for a few years, before being reincarnated by the only remaining original founding member Luis Nasser (bass guitar) and releasing Winter Soulstice in 2013, followed by Beyond The Panopticum in 2016. This concept album formed part one of a journey through time and space, and is concluded with this current release, telling a story of missing, misconceived and finally rediscovered identities. Fairly complicated stuff for my non-native English-speaking nature.
Now based in Chicago, besides Luis Nasser, Sonus Umbra now consists of Roey Ben-Yoseph (lead vocals, percussion), Tim McCaskey (guitar, vocals), David Keller (cello, guitar), Andy Tillotson (drums, guitar, vocals), Rich Poston (guitar, keyboards, vocals), and Steve Royce (flute, keyboards, vocals, holophonics). The fact that all of these are very experienced musicians active in several other bands and projects, many of them multi-instrumentalists, provides for a wide range of (progressive) musical spheres to be addressed and suggests that we may expect an ambitious, elaborate, and diverse type of progressive rock. And indeed, it is that way.
Right from the very first bars of the opener Antidentity, Sonus Umbra unveil their entire spectrum of a complex, intellectual, thoroughly-composed, perfectly arranged and played musical performance, where nothing is left to chance.
Distinctive is the intensive use of the acoustic guitar and the meticulous blend with its electric counterpart, used for the heavier, riffing parts. As a matter of fact, all tracks but Losing My Insanity, start with arpeggios on the acoustic guitar, which also takes care of almost all soloing activities. This characteristic, plus the role of the flute as the main soloing instrument, instinctively draws comparisons with Jethro Tull of the Thick As A Brick/ A Passion Play period, especially on the first two tracks.
Despite the predominant role of acoustic guitar and flute, I never get the impression that these instruments outplay the rest of the band. Keyboards (mostly organ and grand piano) are used very efficiently, exactly where they fit best, with solos being scarce, but effective (The Last Menagerie, Time Is Running Out, maybe the band's only air-play suited track).
The rhythm section led by Luis Nasser adds liveliness, dynamics and variety to the sound. Overall, it becomes apparent that the character of the music requires a balanced contribution from every band member, making this release a real band effort, rather than a simultaneous demonstration of individual musical abilities. Noteworthy too is the excellent production, sound quality and mixing.
The album is made up of a good mix of longer and shorter tracks, which give the listener some time to breathe and to relax. This is quite a useful feature since the instrumental The Waves Will Devour The Sea and especially the epic Hidden In The Light require complete attention from the first to the last note. Given the former's polyrhythmic character and the latter's winding and twisting progress, its breaks and changes in tempo, its symphonic keyboard elements combined with sonic extravaganzas in the middle section, this is quite a demanding and challenging exercise.
Given the overall retro-sounding style of Sonus Umbra's release, besides Jethro Tull, I found reminiscences of some of the 70s and 80s US prog bands such as Lift, Cathedral, Mirthrandir, Yezda Urfa, and Easter Island, but also hints at Glass Hammer, IZZ, Little Atlas, and Discipline.
Procrastination was the name of the game with respect to me dealing with this review. I really had a hard time finding an way into Sonus Umbra's music, and consequently I was beating around the bush before embarking upon getting this review written. First listenings left a somewhat indifferent impression with me. Too technical, too structured, too scientific, too fragmented, not catchy and melodic enough. Something for the intellect, rather than for the heart.
I needed to invest patience, persistence, and the willingness to delve into the music in order to familiarise myself with this musical style, which per se is not my preferred one. The return for this investment was the realisation that, at least with respect to music, and as opposed to common belief, there seems to be a second (and even a third or a fourth) chance to make a first impression. Mine changed during that process, and I would like to encourage you bold prog rock lovers (unless you like Sonus Umbra's music right from the beginning) to make the same investment as I did.