Astrakhan — A Slow Ride Towards Death
As the saying goes, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. On the (hopefully) slow ride towards the former, one does collect a number of other reliable entities along the way. One of these, for me, has become Swedish hard rockers Astrakhan.
They first delivered, with their excellent 2013 debut opus Retrospective, followed three years later by Adrenaline Kiss. Last year they produced an enjoyable live album called Superstar Experience. This was recorded during a short tour with a live-band version of the Jesus Christ Superstar musical.
Hailing from Sweden, the band was formed by musical brothers Per Schelander (bass with House Of Shakira, Pain Of Salvation, and Royal Hunt) and keyboardist Jörgen Schelander.
As evidenced on all three previous albums, the brothers clearly share a passion for challenging-yet-melodic song writing with a firm basis in the 1970s. There is a definite Deep Purple, retro vibe to their sound, with the keyboard sounds adding the "prog" influence from bands such as Genesis and Yes.
For the way that it moves between different styles, studio album number three is probably their most progressive album to date; the sign of a band looking to stamp its own identity on its music.
Lyrically, A Slow Ride Towards Death is an album filled with emotions around the pain of broken relationships and broken dreams, as well as an endless love of and passion for music. As the band states: "Music is the anchor in life and the only relationship we'll never let go of." In current times, I am sure there are many who can relate to those sentiments.
Highlight? The opener Lonesome Cry was the first single and provides a good bridge between the Deep Purple-inspired rock of the previous studio efforts, and this new, wider soundscape. The rhythmic, bluesy swagger holds the track together behind Alexander Lycke's formidable vocal showcase. The Floyd-ian instrumental break, offers great contrast to the slightly grungy riffage.
Take Me With You also opens in a Purple-esque manner, before the band goes off in a creative, progressive metal direction. In terms of the guitar and vocals, Youtopia reminds me of fellow Swedes Andromeda before seeking a more classic-prog, keyboard-led direction. The ending is too drawn out and the choral vocal grates and plods too much for me. The blend of prog and modern rock and metal is not far removed from the style attempted by long-standing Finnish rockers Overhead.
The remaining tracks use the same influences but combined in different ways. Until It Ends is a strong, simpler song. The epic, multi-part M.E 2020 benefits from a brighter, keyboard-led opening before entering almost-doom musical waters, before an ending lifted from Jesus Christ Superstar. The shouty, rough style of the vocals and the somewhat disjointed, thrash-bang arrangement leaves Control as the only track that disappoints.
Former band guitarist Marcus Jidell (ex-Evergrey amongst many others) again handles the producer duties with aplomb.
A Slow Ride Towards Death is a fascinating, powerful, dark, theatrical, ambitious album that treads a varied path across the genres of retro hard rock, prog-metal and progressive rock. Each song has its own personality. The compositions are ambitious but it remains accessible by steering clear of over-indulgent forays. It's an album that will get better with each listen.
A Slow Ride Towards Death is once again proof that Astrakhan is a band deserving of much wider attention.
DarWin — 3 - Unplugged
With only two releases to date, the environmentally conscious debut Origin Of The Species and the excellent A Frozen War, this is a band that has already become synonymous with high quality rock music. With the release of their third album, Unplugged, they are quickly cementing that legacy.
My only gripe with the last release, aside from the limited length, was that the vinyl version contained tracks not available on the CD release. Unplugged resolves this issue, releasing the previously vinyl-only tracks. Anyone who has become enchanted by Darwin's music, and who no longer dabbles in the world of vinyl, now has the opportunity to experience totally different takes on some of the band's already-classic songs.
The title, Unplugged, does not really give justice to what this CD contains. You may expect to get stripped-down versions of the original songs. Well this is far from what is delivered here. Of the eight tracks on offer, two, Slowly Melting and One Horizon, are labelled as unplugged. What you actually get is the wonderful Matt Bissonette singing the songs, while accompanying himself with his stunning bass playing. Slowly Melting was recorded in one take while singing and playing the bass parts at the same time. Both of the original songs are stripped bare, and the emotion that these now radiate produces something simply sublime. A video has been released of Matt performing this song, and it is a must-watch.
Another Year was a song I really liked on A Frozen War. I did not have sleeve notes, so could not credit the lady with the wonderful voice. The same problem has occurred again, as the digital files sent for this review had limited recording information, so, frustratingly, I still cannot credit the owner of the amazing voice who sings an a cappella version of the song.
The remaining tracks are the stripped-back versions of the originals. Removal of the majority of the electric instruments, gives The Chamber Orchestra of London and The Reykjavik Quartet, the time to shine. These tracks really do have a very individual life to the originals. While the essence of the songs remain, the orchestral arrangements have a distinct individuality. For anyone who had not heard the original of any of these five songs, it would be easy to imagine these new takes as the intended version. Immense credit here must go to Simon Philips who remixed and produced these songs. We all know his phenomenal skill as a drummer, but his mastery of the production is simply stunning.
Anyone who has already been enchanted by DarWin's previous efforts should add this to their collection with haste. All songs easily stand on their own merit, so don't think this is simply a cash-in. Just one listen to this collection will demonstrate how much time, effort and love has gone into these eight songs. I just can't wait to see what DarWin do next.
Raven Sad — The Leaf And The Wing
Raven Sad was the name that Italian guitarist Samuele Santanna used for his psychedelic / folk / progressive material which, after signing to Lizard Records, became more of a collaborative effort using different musicians to create Quoth in 2008 and We Are Not Alone in 2009. Playing keyboards on both of these albums was Fabrizio Trinci, and so next the pair decided to form a proper band and break away from being a purely studio entity.
The third album, Layers Of Stratosphere saw the band move in a more progressive direction, but despite encouraging reviews for both the album and live performances, the band split in 2012. Five years later and Santanna and Trinci decided to give it another go and assembled a new line-up featuring Gabriele Marconcini on vocals, Marco Geri on bass and Francesco Carnesecchi on drums. The Leaf And The Wind is the first release by the new line-up.
Santanna is a great guitarist and composer, using his instrument in a variety of different ways to create layers of texture and harmony across these lengthy compositions. Trinci is his foil throughout, adding interesting keyboard shades that range from jazzy-tinged piano solos, to dreamy organ and Mellotron phrases. The powerful rhythm section adds a heady brew of enticing bass-lines and original, dynamic drumming. In fact, Carnesecchi's drumming is perhaps the best I have heard in a while; nothing flash and over the top, just solid groves, unique and dynamic thrills and, more importantly, he knows exactly when and what not to play. Another ace in the pack is singer Marconcini whose voice adds both passion and frailty to the songs.
There is obviously some form of concept based around Apollo 11, although without studying the lyrics, which were not provided, it is difficult to say with any certainty what it is! But that is no obstacle, as all of the songs are discrete entities in their own right and can be listened to and enjoyed in isolation, although, as with all good albums, the flow and construct of the whole is the best listening experience.
Although the band themselves cite familiar prog names as comparators, I think they do themselves an injustice, as they have an original sound of their own. Ride The Tempest, for example, stands out in its own field, and although there may be small segments that could be said to be vaguely similar to other bands, the whole is much greater than the sum of these small parts. Once again I have to credit Carnesecchi for some top playing.
Such is the strength of the band that one fails to notice the absence of vocals on the harder-edged Approaching The Chaos, which possesses some fine riffing and delightful instrumental passages.
To be honest I really love this album! No matter how many times I play it, it retains the ability to remain fresh and to still be surprising. It may be 16 years since Santanna first recorded the first demos under the name Raven Sad, but it has well been worth the wait for an album of such high quality to come to fruition.
Hear it. Buy it. Love it.
Devin Townsend — Devolution Series #1 - Acoustically Inclined, Live In Leeds
Devin Townsend needs no introduction at this point. The charismatic Canadian has been pumping out various musical roller coasters since the mid-nineties and is showing no signs of slowing down.
The Devolution Series is penned by Devin himself as "a grouping of oddities and interesting material that I would like people to hear, but don't necessarily want to present as a 'major release'". Acoustically Inclined is the first of these releases and this wonderful evening was recorded live in Leeds, UK, in front of an enthusiastic audience during April 2019.
This album sees Devin at his most stripped-down. For a musician that is known for huge, layered productions, here we simply have Devin, his guitar and a handful of effects for delay and reverb. Devin has been performing these types of intimate acoustic shows since the late nineties and has got better and better at them. His voice in particular is absolutely perfect throughout this show.
The track-listing contains nothing surprising. Although Devin suggests during the intro that he is pulling songs at random, the songs chosen would suggest to me that the songs were planned, but the order was chosen on the night. The tracks are broken up with Devin's usual style of humour, rants, stories and jokes that are always a joy to hear. Devin is a brilliant entertainer and a sharp-witted comedian.
The songs themselves are pretty much as you'd expect. Most if not all of these tracks have been performed live and acoustically before, and some fair better than others with this stripped-down style. Devin's guitar playing is particularly impressive, his unique style transitions very well to acoustic. The small amount of effects he uses make everything sound as if he's playing in an enormous hall, rather than a small theater. His playing does suggest a certain level of improvisation, which only serves to further benefit the songs and adds a layer of anticipation for the listener.
Once things get going, Let It Roll, from The Devin Townsend Band's second release, Synchestra, opens the show. Devin's voice is in full operatic mode. As the song was mostly acoustic to begin with, it fairs well in this environment and it is a great way to begin. Although you can't really hear it, I imagine the crowd are singing along to every word.
Some of the set's highlights include beautiful renditions of Hyperdive (from Devin's 2007 release, Ziltoid The Omniscient), the fan favourite Deadhead (from 2003's Accelerated Evolution), and the always wonderful Thing Beyond Things, from Townsend's classic Ocean Machine album, a record which happens to be my favourite album of all time.
Not everything works as well in the acoustic setting however. Funeral, one of Devin's best songs, seems a little bland and lost in this setting, the track's powerful lyrics about losing a close friend just don't have the same impact as they do in the original version. The power of the song is completely lost without the vocal aggression of the studio performance. The same goes for Strapping Young Lad's, Love?. This doesn't really work as an acoustic piece and I feel like Devin just plays it to cater to the ridiculous minority of fans who just can't seem to accept that Strapping is over.
Extremely minor complaints aside, this is a fine live release from the once labelled 'Mad Scientist of Metal'. As a series it will be interesting to see where Townsend takes this Devolution idea. Perhaps some demos or rarities next? I certainly hope so. Devin has currently just finished the recording of a mysterious project entitled The Puzzle, and is about to start work on his next studio project, Lightwork, in June. A demo called Dimensions, that is tentatively supposed to be a part of Lightwork, can be found on YouTube, and it sounds great.
This is a fine addition to Townsend's immense back catalogue, a must-buy for fans, and an essential listen for those who prefer Devin at his most intimate.
Witherfall — Curse Of Autumn
So here I am writing about another band that I didn't know; one that I'm going to follow from now on. I didn't know what to expect when I picked the album to review but I saw Mr Marco Minnemann was the drummer, so at least good drumming was assured.
I really enjoyed his albums from 2020 with Randy McStine, but soon I discovered that Witherfall has nothing to do with that project. And to my surprise I'm really enjoying this dark, heavy, power, progressive metal. I have never been a die-hard fan of this kind of music but I do like some songs here and there. In this case I like the whole album and I'm discovering different nuances with each listen.
Witherfall is somehow a super-group, not only having one of the best drummers out there but also Joseph Michael from technical metal band Sanctuary, Jake Dreyer (previously with Iced Earth), Anthony Crawford (bass master and too many collaborations to be mentioned here), and Alex Nasla on live keyboards. Curse Of Autumn is their third full release after Nocturnes And Requiems from 2017 and A Prelude To Sorrow from 2018, which I also recommend.
I'm not going to describe every song in detail because this album is better enjoyed as a whole piece, even when each song works perfectly good by itself. But let me throw out some details to arouse your curiosity.
Don't get confused with the first notes of the intro song, because after a few seconds you will find yourself completely immersed in a world of dynamic rage and speedy drumming, surrounding great vocals and a very contagious chorus. I'm not a power metal fan but I do love Symphony X and I can find some influences here.
Don't expect more musical references in this review because I don't have them.
Anyway the album has two big songs and I mean 'big' because they sound big, with powerful melodies, great structures and a perfect execution by all members. Tempest is not so direct as the songs before it, but it closes the first part of Curse Of Autumn as a small epic with Marco Minnemann being the star of the rhythm section.
After two short songs or semi-interludes The Other Side Of Fear kicks off in a very heavy way. Not a personal favourite but a good one for those looking for the heavier side of Witherfall. If you prefer the softer side of heavy metal, then The River touches all the keys with its soft acoustic intro weaving a route towards an epic finale.
The true epic is ...And They Blew Away. It is also the best song here. More than 15 minutes of acoustic passages, great choruses, master guitar playing and heavy, dark moments are perfectly combined in this very well-crafted song. Witherfall closes this great album with an acoustic cover of Boston's Long Time and the band do such a good work with it that it could have been written for this album on purpose. I must also mention the nice art work on the cover, following the style of their previous albums.
The band says that it wants everything they do to be its own piece of art, giving great importance to the paintings and also merchandising (you can even order the Witherfall bottle of wine from their website).
So, have I become a power heavy metal fan? Nope, but I have discovered a really good band playing a type of music I didn't know well. The truth is that Witherfall touches many genres here in their own way, and after three albums they can be easily recognised. So maybe next time reviewing heavy progressive metal albums I will have to mention them as a main reference. I can only recommend this album that will (and should) be among the best of the year for those exploring the hard side of progressive metal.