Issue 2021-053: Prog Bites
Here at DPRP towers, we frequently receive some interesting albums that whilst not strictly "prog", would be of interest to many of our readers. We sometimes receive albums that have been released in previous years. Also, with so many albums submitted, it is not always possible to find a writer with the time to give every release our usual in-depth review.
So how best can we still bring you news of such releases?
This is an edition of Prog Bites. Each still has all the usual album information and links to samples and videos (where available), but the reviews are much shorter, and we do not award any score.
We hope you will find some great music that you think deserves further investigation.
The Abyss Inside Us — What Words Can't Say
The Abyss Inside Us is a one-man project by Nikos Togaridis from Greece. What Words Can't Say is called an EP but at 41 minutes I'd call this an album. His Bandcamp releases are from just under 30 minutes to 40 minutes and are sometimes called EPs as well. But a sixth release since June 2019, That's rather prolific.
The press blurb mentions post-rock stalwarts like This Will Destroy You, Godspeed, You Black Emperor!, and Mono. That's stretching it a bit. But also film composers like Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer are mentioned. Okay, if you combine those, I can see how you get there. But it has to be said you get a lot more music that is worthy of a soundtrack to soothing, fly-over nature shots, than post-rock.
I understand how in a corona-ridden world the concept of a one-man band flies high, but I feel it also has its limitations. Consistency is nice but can also sound a bit same-y and I think working with others, getting feedback from each other, might benefit variety.
There are a few short bursts of release in a rather typical post-rock way, which is where I'd like to add Maybeshewill as a reference, or a toned-down Choir Of Young Believers. Although I like heavy post-metal and often have my music dark and depressive, it doesn't have to be like that. I can enjoy longer, atmospheric passages very much, but I have to admit that I am missing a certain level of post-rock intensity, which can even exist in the quieter sections. In the first, seven-minute track there's exactly 60 seconds of more intense and heavier music.
It takes a rather long time to build, and the release is relatively short, except for the bonus track, and always just once in the song. Hence, my conclusion to accept this more as film music than post-rock. But films need music too. If a lot of post-rock is too heavy for you, please take a listen. And take a look at that beautiful cover.
Aziola Cry — The Ironic Divide
This is the third album by the American trio that goes by the name of Aziola Cry. Instrumental prog rock/metal, heavy from the first beat. The opening track comes crashing through your speakers like a steam train, hard riffing but with progressive precision.
With a nine-minute track demanding a lot from your attention, the following six-minute track is just warming you up (I just wrote "warning", was that a typo or a Freudian slip?) for the 20-minute onslaught-to-the-senses that is the title track.
It's quite demanding and I have to listen to the album in parts. The focus on bass-heavy, rhythmic power perhaps shows a limited range of different sounds; one that my taste for melody prefers over riffs and rhythm.
Still, the progressive rock brain is tickled almost constantly. Hollow Reflections is more melodic in parts than And Cowards, making up for a dent in the heaviness in its second half. The title track brings so many changes it will take many spins to sink in completely.
Although not a big overlap with my taste, I can tell this is an impressive and well-produced album. It will no doubt please fans of Cynic, Tool, or Mastodon.
Edison Junction Band — Torn Mind
Edison Junction Band originated in 2016 when Eric Davies (guitars, bass and keyboards) and Ian Shopland (vocals) met in a Welsh pub. Since then they have released three albums of original music displaying the duo's variety of musical tastes. According to their own statements, Torn Mind, their fourth effort, is a collection of ten of the most melodic progressive rock compositions that people will have heard in a while; songs that reflect the influences of Yes, Genesis and Dream Theater as well as Queensrÿche, Rush, and King Crimson. This proposed reality proves to be fairly fictional.
Admittedly, Walked Out Of Africa rewards expectancy through some earthy percussion, and one can distil some Phil Collins-era Genesis pop influences. At times there are also moments when slight complexity comes in to play (Diminished Returns) and far away Crimson glimpses shine through, yet at this point Davies and Shopland's referencing bar hits a full stop.
Not necessarily a bad thing, for the overall impressions are of easily-approachable, melodic songs that project images of mid-seventies Blue Öyster Cult's Spectres and charming, classic Wishbone Ash melodies, which to some extent is rewarding in itself. Some of the songs actually manage to bring visions of recently dusted-off Albert Bouchard/Brain Surgeons demos. This is emphasised by Shopland's distinctive yet ordinary vocals that resemble those of Bouchard, as well as through the underwhelming, thin and bare production.
What we have are songs that glow with bright ideas and surprising twists (Parallel Lines, What's In A Name?), occasional mild psychedelics, fine guitar play (AI, Torn Mind) and living proof of their good intentions to write engaging songs with a bluesy background (Torn Mind). But also compositions in search of finer arrangements and less-predictable structures, and in desperate need of power, which in a live setting will undoubtedly work just fine. All-in-all a nice effort.
Ekzilo — Ekzilo
From Spain comes a mostly instrumental, self-titled debut from a quartet named Ekzilo. Ekzilo, which means exile, is also a fitting title for these six songs or "themes" as they are described by the band. The themes are loosely-constructed musings which sometimes feel like partially developed improvisations. Musical sections end and new parts begin as though there has been a change of thought or a shift in the breeze. Though there are occasional ear-grabbing melodies or rhythmic elements, the compositions mostly wander through introspective and at times New Age-sounding background music, augmented by recordings of the ocean.
Stylistically, the six themes share a laid-back vibe which draws heavily from minor-key Pink Floyd or Camel-styled landscapes. Most themes incorporate light jazz and Mediterranean flavours, though there is a brief nod to the Alan Parsons Project in the sequenced keyboard section on Salaryman.
The four-piece prominently features guitarist Jose Ruiz, who runs the gamut on guitar, with acoustic and electric sounds in a variety of styles, all consistently tasteful and restrained almost to-a-fault. Influences of David Gilmour, blues and flamenco are apparent, while the sprightly-picked, folksy guitar melody of La Buhonera is reminiscent of Ritchie Blackmore.
Keyboardist Pablo Rodriguez contributes a couple flowing keyboard solos and a delightful jazzy piano intro in Diciembre. Rodriguez also provides the only vocals of the album on the title track, a song which reminds me of Riverside in the way it gradually builds in urgency as the song progresses.
Grey Mouse — A Moment of Weakness
Grey Mouse from Russia have been together for more than 20 years. Amidst several changes in line-up and style, the constant factors have been Alexey Chunikhin and the depressive-psychedelic musical style.
I love the atmosphere. You feel like standing in a desert; the brooding heat dangerous. It's a bluesy approach to psychedelic music with the speed of doom. Omnipresent cello only adds to that image. The deep, dark, rough-but-clear vocals are a perfect fit.
The music never gets heavy, making this album the perfect soundtrack to a whisky-tasting evening. It's like the musical equivalent of a peaty Islay whisky.
The production is very good. Many details are perfectly audible while the dark mood is never compromised by being too clear. Not for the average prog fan. Not your typical psychedelic rock either. But if you cross Nick Drake or Mark Hollis with The Doors, then you'll get the idea.
Isobar — Isobar
Isobar is a new progressive rock band based in San Jose, California and formed by three members of the prog band Metaphor. That band has so far released four albums, all of which have been reviewed on DPRP, with 2019's The Pearl receiving the most love.
Joining Malcolm Smith on guitar, Marc Spooner on keyboards and Jim Anderson on bass, is renowned drummer Mattias Olsson of Anglagard and White Willow fame. A quartet of trumpet and saxophone players adds extra depth and variety to the sound.
The self-titled Isobar debut is comprised of a baker's dozen of all-instrumental, intricately-composed songs, covering a wide range of musical territory.
The pieces generally have said all they need to say by the five-minute mark, which shows a clever restraint in the playing. This is despite an abundance of shifts in moods, and enough complexity to please even the most demanding of listeners. The jazz-meets-discordant-prog-meets-avant-prog of the title track is a good exemplar of the band's style.
For me, the freshly retro flavours of this album have been a pleasant surprise; fully deserving of attention for all fans of complex instrumental progressive rock.
Mark Wingfield & Kevin Kastning — Rubicon I
Silence is a very underrated and powerful musical instrument. It takes a lot of effort, artistic taste and experience to interweave musical sounds, with silence in a captivating way. This is what the duet of two guitarists (Mark Wingfield and Kevin Kastning) aims to achieve. I am not familiar with the larger part of Wingfield's back catalogue, but I must say that I liked his fusion release Tales From The Dreaming City, where Mark shows his less-boundary-challenging side.
Minimalist music kind of implies minimalistic reviews, hence I will give no florid descriptions and verbose impressions this time, if you permit. The duet's music reminded me of the more experimental releases by Discipline Global Music and Terje Rypdal's solo career. The same sharp, chilly sound, that places itself outside the comfort zone for most of the sympho and metal prog lovers. The trick here is that Kevin Kastning plays instruments that you have probably never heard of before, including a 36-string double contra-guitar, 17-string Hybrid classical guitar and 15-string Extended classical guitar. Try to google the pictures of these juggernauts, and be awed. Anyway, here's what a daring listener should expect after pressing the play button.
First: an absence of atmosphere (which is also a special sort of atmosphere, if you agree).
Second: abstract harmonies, taken from the Scandinavian jazz tradition and put into freezer for a couple of weeks for extra effect.
Third: no rhythm section to provide the pulse. The music flows like space debris on outer orbits, eternally surrounded by vacuum.
It's safe to say that the result is not for everyone's ears. On the other hand, it is clear that the musicians were not driven by an idea to make something accepted by wide audiences. While I admire the experimental nature and the musicians' urge to find new means of expression, it is hard for me to rate the work. Hence I leave it unrated and recommend it to those fascinated by ambient, free jazz and sound design. If ambient is elevator music, this is the album to be played in the elevator from Pluto's landing pad, to an alien mothership.
The Mastelottos — Too Much Happiness - A Romantic's Guide To King Crimson
Who to recommend this one to? Tough task. I don't think it quite works as the candlelit romantic backdrop it intends to be. So let's say "King Crimson diehards only", but then again they probably wouldn't know what to make of it either. It is definitely a product of its time, and by this I mean "creative project born out of forced lockdown", which also means "artists with too much time on their hands", "bored artists", "artists in need of revenue" and so on.
I'm not saying this particular release falls into any of those categories, but all things considered this is more of a curio than anything. It offers renditions of Crimson ballads ranging from the intriguing at-best (see Matte Kudasai or Moonchild), to the plain head-scratching at-worst (see Two Hands or Peace as the main offenders).
We have shades of the cute (People), the bland (Elephant Talk, even though it features an interesting "Balinese suling" solo by Grady Cousins in place of Adrian Belew's original guitar fireworks) and the boring (Heartbeat). Elsewhere, a sludgy Sleepless is okay I suppose, and One Time even features a certain Dr. Bruford on Simmons drums (don't you fret though, as it is a performance dating back to 1995). The most accomplished number here is Book Of Saturday, which manages to be respectful of the original 1973 classic while bringing its own delicate touch to the table.
Besides the sometimes definitely odd, even occasionally jarring arrangement choices, maybe it's Deborah Mastelotto's unremarkable vocal that burdens this release. Only in the more intimate pieces, when she somewhat channels Tim Bowness' brand of melancholy, does she manage to breathe some life into this otherwise flat collection of sonic trifles.
A thing for Crimson completists then, although one destined to leave their dust-gathering shelves very rarely.
Melancholic Prosperity — Contents Under Pressure
Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Ryan Hankins has taken the opportunity, during a Covid-19 furlough, to record an album of keyboard-heavy symphonic prog, with the influences from Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and so on, but I also hear nods to Kansas and Styx. It pays to be influenced by the best. He has released Contents Under Pressure under the name Melancholic Prosperity.
The album features multiple keyboards and a couple of guest guitarists, but the thing that makes it stand out musically is his trumpet playing. The trumpet adds colourful, flowing lines to this symphonic prog, giving an originality that helps transcend his influences.
The album works best on the instrumental tracks, such as the multi-part title track. All the musical tracks backing the songs have some great moments. A lovely bass solo on Oh No, Pt. I and a cracking synth solo on Oh No, Pt. III for instance.
However, there are a couple of issues with the album for me: the lyrics and the vocals. Some of the lyrics, about mental health issues, are lazily rhymed (spoon with June) or occasionally somewhat tortuous.
But the main issue is that his singing is a bit variable and he has an accent that resembles a certain green Muppet. He gets over this on the best song Keys Are My Brush where he speaks melodically, rather than sings. This doesn't spoil the mood he has worked so hard creating using Mellotron and organ alongside Landon Hawkins' guitar solo. When he electronically treats the vocals, it also works better as on Calamity. If he could find a singer, that would help, or maybe next time stick to instrumentals. It would also prevent him being known as Kermit the Prog.
Matt Phillips — On Track... Level 42 - Every Album, Every Song
In the past three years Sonicbond Publishing has released 35+ books in the On Track ... series. Matt Phillips' take on the immensely popular jazz/funk/rock-fusion band Level 42 joins these ranks most convincingly.
Yet why review a book on Level 42 at DPRP, I hear you whispering? Well, for one, all of my previous encounters with the series have been an excellent pastime, enthusiastically making me dig out old albums. Secondly there's a few instances where Level 42 show some overlap to our beloved genre, although one has to carefully read the book to find out where.
Phillips, a writer and contributor to various magazines as well as Universal Music's Jazz catalogue manager and founder of several websites, has been a fan of the band since their appearance on 'Top Of The Pops' where they performed The Chinese Way in January 1983. Since then he has followed the band very closely and even joined a Level 42 cover band!
Personally my first exposure precedes his by approximately two years with a performance of their first disco/funkalicious single Love Games on TOPPOP, the well-established Dutch equivalent to Top Of The Pops, hosted by musician and TV personality Ad Visser. Next to writing the SF Space Opera novel Sobriëtas (now on my reading table again) Visser was a close friend to Sietze Dolstra, my High School teacher Dutch. This little side-note shows why reading the On Track... books can be so satisfying and comforting, unlocking many precious memories.
Phillips enjoyable effort is actually a first rate example, unearthing an endless stream of deja-vu moments. For who doesn't remember keyboard player Mike Lindup singing with a friendly, smiling face as he lays down some tasty parts, conversing intricately with Mark King, who at the same time performed some fantastical "slapping of the bass". One distinct memory that's returned is the "Wedden Dat" episode in which King demonstrates his exceptionally phenomenal bass skills to a flabbergasted TV host as part of a challenging bet involving basses. A program watched by millions of Dutch households at the time and quite possibly the reason as to why Level 42 made it big in Holland, scoring huge hits with Hot Water, Lessons In Love, and Running In The Family.
Dropped by their record company when boy bands became the 'next big thing', the band only issued four albums and an EP in the following 30 years. Yet these might be the most interesting ones for prog-enthusiasts as they involve Allan Holdsworth (whose UK link doesn't get mentioned), Jakko M Jakszyk (King Crimson), Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) and Nathan King (It Bites, Frost*).
As to another prog-relation, there's a few phrases where the individual preferences of guitarist Boon Gould and drummer Phil Gould are shared. Yes, Gentle Giant and Genesis to be exact. Besides this information, there's only one pinpointed composition to be found in the book which actually graces the term prog: the 'judge for yourself' delightfully playful and vibrant funky pop song Kansas City Milkman (see video link below).
To me, Level 42 are not the answer to the ultimate questions of life, yet Phillips' engaging narrative certainly makes a strong case for it. It's filled with knowledgeable wisdom, and he speaks his affection for the band brilliantly.
Jez Rowden — On Track... Aimee Mann - Every Album, Every Song
Many prog fans will be aware of the American singer-songwriter Aimee Mann from her appearance on Rush's Time Stands Still from their 1987 album Hold Your Fire. I hope that they followed up on this excellent artist. However, I only became aware of her with 1993's Whatever, and I have followed her recording career ever since. She is, as Jez Rowden insists, rightly included in lists of 'greatest living song writers', and as someone who has a 'well-defined understanding of what makes great pop'. Her often-ironic look at relationships, form the core of her lyrics.
Author Jez Rowden is a familiar name to DPRP.net where he was an editor before setting up The Progressive Aspect website from 2013 onward. This is his second book in the On Track ... series, the first one examined Steely Dan's output.
As the title says, Jez Rowden, over the course of 160 pages, describes and argues his reactions to each of Aimee Mann's albums, from her beginnings with synth-poppers 'Til Tuesday, through a solo career that led to two Grammy awards and an Oscar nomination. His examination of Aimee Mann's dislike of being famous, has opened my eyes to other aspects of her song writing, and his persuasive discussions of the later albums has had me revisiting them more often. I have also ordered an album I had missed, her collaboration with Ted Leo, called The Both.
So, Jez Rowden's second contribution to the series On Track... Aimee Mann does exactly what it says. Covering this often-enigmatic artist in a way that makes you want to listen more to her music. If you are a fan of Aimee Mann or in any way curious about her, get a copy and Jez will guide you, while at the same time give you a friend to argue with over the finer points of her music.