Album Reviews

Issue 2021-061: Prog Bites

Rick Armstrong — Infinite Corridors

Rick Armstrong - Infinite Corridors
Hypernova (6:25), Infinite Corridors (6:02), Subduction Zone (4:17); The Lost Sea (5:47), Chaos Theory (8:02), Sunstorm (5:50), Timespiral (4:04), Among the Ruins (6:37), Shifting Sands (11:35)
Sergey Nikulichev

Space ambient is an acquired taste for most music fans (not unlike prog). Space itself is yet unexplored by humanity, so there is a broad field for imagination, which space-themed music reflects perfectly. Speaking of cosmic landscapes, musicians can put their high hopes, fears, dreams and frustrations into music alike. No limits in space, fellow earthlings (apart from event horizon, of course)!

On Infinite Corridors Rick Armstrong comes with a rather optimistic take on space themes, or at least free from cosmic angst, which becomes quite popular among heavier artists. This is not surprising, because apart from playing bass for Edison's Children (two songs on the The Disturbance Fields album), Rick is also the eldest son of the legendary space pioneer Neil Armstrong. Why be scared of space, if you know every second NASA hero, after all?

Infinite Corridors are indeed rooted deeply in ambient. There's less than 1% of rock in the album's palette. Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultze and Vangelis are Rick's major influences here. “Abstract” is probably the best word I can find to describe this album as there's no melody and no firm harmony, rather some fitting combination of sounds flowing into each other, with or without dynamic, depending on the overall mood of a track. Listen to the Shifting Sands dilogy, as this track serves a perfect example of Armstrong's style.

Please don't expect any mind-blowing solos from guest stars: John Mitchell, Steve Rothery and Tony Levin. They stay as very polite guests and never try to steal the show from the mastermind; their role is limited to a few sounds here and there.

Like a decrepit Soviet space station to ISS, I personally failed to connect to this record. In my ears, it mostly seemed like an intro to an Ayreon album extended to one hour, and I am not that much of a space geek. However, I am sure there are many of people in prog fandom who would literally jump to the stratosphere upon hearing these sounds. The release is well recorded, and there's plenty of that space frontier romanticism, but from a layman's point of view I fail to find anything “proggy” that makes this record stand out from a multitude of soundtracks for BBC space documentaries.

Estompen — Trend Des Universums

Estompen - Trend Des Universums
Estompe 107A (7:58), Estompe 107B (2:27), Estompe 103 (5:54), Estompe 113 (3:44), Estompe 110 (10:58)
Jan Buddenberg

Trend Des Universums is the third album from Estompen, a.k.a. Matthias Schrön. An instrumental conceptual album addressing how a digital device/algorithm with its own peculiarities, processes and reacts to handmade music. It uniquely respects both inputs and then distributes the different interpretations to output channels or stereo panorama. An album located, according to Schrön, near the boundaries of progressive rock, avant-garde and electronic music. As it turns out that is an understatement of intergalactic properties after hearing the highly experimental drift of the music.

Having tried my hand at experimental albums in the past, some of which I have found strangely rewarding, Estompens' alienating soundscapes totally escape my sound-system. Estompe 107A's ever-increasing, unsettling guitar loop gains some form of melody as drums and Pink Floyd-ian Sorrow-styled guitars bring hypnotic pain and bombastic metal, while Estompe 103's electronic disturbances brings repulsive King Crimson absurdness into play, but that's almost as far as recognition goes for me in this imaginary reality, rivalling the repelling intensity of a root canal treatment.

The anaesthetic, blunt assault of Estompe 113 feels just as disjointed, matched by the teeth-grinding Jimi Hendrix-on-acid impression received from Estompe 110. Unidentifiable sounds at the brink of insanity, require a straitjacket in order to withstand its enduring upset from start to finish. Those with strong nerves and appreciation for the avant garde in extremis might get something out of it, but I only feel the desperate urge to reschedule my forthcoming dental appointment.

InHuman — InHuman

InHuman - InHuman
Intro (2:17), The Chosen Cancer (3:39), Clockwork In The Past (4:27), Unfolded (3:51), The Day I Died (6:23), Unbearably Human (5:16), For The Life Of Me (3:39), No Bullet Required (4:49), Lullaby (Casus Belli) (7:13), Home (3:00)
Calum Gibson

Once known as Anwynn, the band has been around since 2007 but for some reason changed their name in 2020 to InHuman (not to be confused with the any of the more than 10 other bands with the same name!). In this incarnation, they have only released this self-titled album, but before their rebirth there were a few other releases. Here they are continuing their brand of symphonic death metal with a renewed energy.

If you are a fan of the symphonic metal genre, you will likely know what to expect as soon as you hear the intro to the album. It is dark, atmospheric, and orchestral with a growing sense of impending epic sounds with heavy guitars and symphonic backgrounds.

And the album does not do anything against these expectations. However, it generally shies away from the OTT sound that fellow genre-mates like Nightwish and Epica have, instead sounding like a perfect cross between that pair, Battlelore and Septic Flesh. Some areas, such as the lead single A Clockwork in The Past even sound a bit like what I would expect Ayreon to sound like if it went heavier and darker.

The Day I Died is a heavy, gothic number with all the elements you would expect, and it does not let you down. The harmonised clean vocals, woven together with the death growls and superb singing from Eline come together with the dark and foreboding music, to create something beautiful.

The other track that really stands out is For The Life Of Me. This stands apart from being heavier, faster and more emotionally intense, but really showcases the thrashier side of the band.

The epic and flair that come with symphonic metal takes the edge and impact off the death metal areas of the music, while the death metal tones down the over-the-top sound that a lot of symphonic bands have. Combining the two has resulted in a hard and fast, but calm and orchestrated album that brings all the best elements from both styles together. Having sampled many of these bands, I would say InHuman have quite possibly done it the best.

If you are a fan of the more classical side of progressive metal and death metal, or love getting down with operas but want something with more teeth, then look no further.

It Bites — The Tall Ships

It Bites - The Tall Ships
Oh My God (5:47), Ghosts (4:45), Playground (5:32), Memory Of Water (4:49), The Tall Ships (6:17), The Wind That Shakes The Barley (8:11), Great Disasters (4:59), Fahrenheit (5:16), For Safekeeping (5:27), Lights (4:54), This Is England (13:34); bonus tracks: These Words (5:42), When I Fall (4:38)
Geoff Feakes

Back in 2006, three quarters of the original line-up, namely John Beck (keyboards), Bob Dalton (drums), and Dick Nolan (bass), reformed It Bites, minus frontman Francis Dunnery. As a replacement, Beck and Dalton recruited their Kino bandmate, talented singer, guitarist John Mitchell. Following the 2007 live album When The Lights Go Down, a disenchanted Nolan departed and was later replaced by hyperactive session bassist Lee Pomeroy, fresh from Rick Wakeman's New English Rock Ensemble.

Mitchell, Beck and Dalton entered the studio in 2008 and The Tall Ships was the result, only the band's fourth studio album since their debut 22 years earlier. I reviewed The Tall Ships on its initial release and was highly impressed by the quality of the songs, mostly penned by Mitchell and Beck. The album has been remastered by Mitchell and reissued with bonus tracks on CD, LP and digital formats, marking its debut on vinyl.

From the infectious opener Oh My God, the album still sounds as fresh and vital as it did 13 years ago. Hooks and memorable melodies abound, and you will find yourself humming the chorus of The Tall Ships, Great Disasters and Lights after only one or two plays. The vocal harmonies are superb, as is the guitar and keyboard interplay which serve the songs rather than indulging in solos for solos sake. Even so, the multi-part closer This Is England has everything that you would hope to find in a long-form, progressive rock song including an uplifting finale. The Yes-like bonus track These Words is another earworm and at just shy of 80 minutes, this is an album that matches quality with content.

It Bites — Map Of The Past

It Bites - Map Of The Past
Man In The Photograph (3:43), Wallflower (4:50), Map Of The Past (4:36), Clocks (5:43), Flag (4:37), The Big Machine (5:17), Cartoon Graveyard (5:03), Send No Flowers (4:15), Meadow And The Stream (6:42), The Last Escape (6:07), Exit Song (1:42); bonus tracks: Lighthouse (3:27), Come On (5:10)
Geoff Feakes

Along with The Tall Ships, this is the second of two remastered reissues from It Bites. The band's fifth, and to date most recent studio album, Map Of The Past received a positive thumbs-up from the DPRP on its initial release in 2012. It features the line-up of John Mitchell (lead vocals, guitars), John Beck (keyboards, backing vocals), Bob Dalton (drums, backing vocals) and Lee Pomeroy (bass guitar).

Map Of The Past is a concept album inspired by an old family photograph and reflects on events of the past, especially the First World War as reflected by the image of the army officer on the cover. The theme is underlined by the inclusion of vintage-style radio broadcasts and there is also a nod in the lyrics to the 1957 poem Not Waving But Drowning by British poet Stevie Smith.

Although the songs are not as immediate as those on The Tall Ships, there is more light and shade thanks to heavier offerings, like the punchy Wallflower, the anthemic The Big Machine and the bonus track Come On. The Big Machine also brings Spock's Beard to the table, and the soloing is a tad more aggressive with Beck's synth playing having a Wakeman-esque flamboyance. His finest moment however is the grandiose keyboard orchestrations that open Send No Flowers.

The album has its lighter moments including the lilting Clocks, which is a million miles from Steve Hackett's instrumental of the same title. Mitchell's guitar occasionally adopts a Brian May tone, as is evident in the Genesis-like Meadow And The Stream and the sumptuous The Last Escape which, coupled with the acoustic Exit Song, signs the album off in fine style.

Bob Lord — Playland Arcade

Bob Lord - Playland Arcade
Fry Doe (4:02), Hey (0:07), Yo Soy Miguel (2:06), In For The Kill (1:24), Night Sweats (3:15), Lobster Roll (0:35), The Backward Swan (2:32), Air Hockey (1:40), Intermezzo (0:51), Skee Ball (0:12), Wyoming Vice (3:35), Get Yer Drink Up (1:43), Beach Pizza (0:43), Tenderly (3:26), Opening Day (0:21), Fanfare For A Losing Team (2:38), Mighty Forces (4:13), Last Word (1:11), Siege (5:15)
Jan Buddenberg

For as long as he can remember, producer, composer and bass player Bob Lord (Dreadnaught) has visited the sea-coast strip at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire (USA) to play Galaga and Centipede at his favourite place "The Playland Arcade". A place of fun, excitement and marvelling bewilderment, where hearts beat faster from invigorating entertainment while spare coins find their way into addictive consoles. An area where alluring food and beverages are consumed in order to settle the high adrenalin rush of riding bumper cars, winning at the gripping machine and many other sensational experiences. An infinitely cheerful playground captured most extravagantly on the cohesive Playland Arcade.

Over the course of 19 quirky, goofy, cinematic and utmost surprisingly superfluous and meticulously arranged compositions, master of ceremonies Lord takes our hand and shows the different attractions of his thrilling theme park. A breathtaking place, where strangely appealing compositions startle through electronic funky weirdness and rhythmic compelling marimba (Fry Doe), playful demanding rocking melodies (Yo Soy Miguel) and scaring tension (In For The Kill) after the tantalising short welcome in Hey wishes everybody to basically have the most blistering time of their life.

Coldness from Wurlitzer piano fills the air in Air Hockey while drum beats and goofy noises in Get Yer Drink Up remind it's time to grab a drink after having just gone mad at an exhaustingly mouthwatering Whac-a-Mole game. Signalling a wild anxiety ride on a roller coaster (Intermezzo) is then momentarily reeled into a theatre where sceneries of a Country and Western show slowly make their entrance (Wyoming Vice), surpassed in the memorable Apache feel (The Shadows) of The Backward Swan.

With orchestral symphonies flashing cinematic Disney sceneries (Beach Pizza) and stately roll movie end credits (Fanfare For A Losing Team), shortly interrupted by a quick peek into a romantic robotic jazz lounge (Tenderly) and Big Band embraces in Lobster Roll, the exhibition then momentarily perplexes with ravishing prog sounds from Mighty Forces, brightening up the sky with violin fireworks and demanding dynamics. The ultimate take away in the 80s synth pop-funk-prog fusion of Siege, slowly levelling up as it gains victory through delirious organ parts ends this immaculately executed, hugely entertaining and gobsmacking wild tour.

To state that Playland Arcade is different is quite an understatement, yet somehow all these fragments, sounds, projected images and musical anomalies result in a joyous adventure from start to finish. An extraordinary candied musical odd-ball of fun for the open-minded.

Machine Mass Sextet — Intrusion

Machine Mass Sextet - Intrusion
Africa (10:48), Intrusion (14:17), This Is (2:19), Not Another Loud Song (9:01), Intro (2:12), The Roll (9:02), ED (6:16), In a Silent Way (11:14)
Martin Burns

The first rule of jazz club is to worship John Coltrane. The second rule is to know where that is going. I like a lot of jazz from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, as well as fusion from the 70s, but keeping me out of jazz club is how perplexed I get about Coltrane.

This is not the case for Machine Mass Sextet and their new album Intrusion. It opens with a cover of Coltrane's piece Africa from 1961 and the shadow of his spirit falls across this album.

However good the playing, and Machine Mass Sextet have chops in spades, the avant-garde jazz that appears on this album leaves me generally cold and sometimes hostile. The melodies are fractured and are a difficult listen. A couple of tracks are reasonable. ED has some proggy, fusion guitar, and the title track has a contemporary classic opening that meets ECM style Nordic cool along the way. The album ends with a cover of early electric-period Miles Davis but it just burbles along without adding much to the original. If you think Magma are lightweights, then this might suit you.

Sorry Machine Mass Sextet but Intrusion is just not for me. Oh, and the cover is possibly the worst I've seen for ages. Urban blight! Really!

Robert Schroeder — Pyroclast

Robert Schroeder - Pyroclast
Pressure (9:42), Plasma (8:20), Tephra (4:16), Eruption (4:42), Inside Out (6:49), Fertile Soil (7:20), Exothermic Energy (7:47), Pyroclastic Flows (4:39)
Jan Buddenberg

Ever since his discovery by Klaus Schulze, Schroeder has walked the path of electronic music that falls largely under the Berliner Schule-category, well known from artists like Tangerine Dream, aforementioned Schulze and Ashra. Pyroclast denotes Robert Schroeder's 42th album, amounting to the exact same years since releasing his debut album Harmonic Ascendent in 1979. Quite an impressive achievement.

The melodic cosmic universe created on Pyroclast perfectly shows Schroeder's experience, roots and inventive creativity. It brings ambient warmth and gracious feelings of Zen and relaxation in the spherical Plasma, while the light, percussive sounds and hypnotic guitar loops of Pressure create images of far-away shores, in which delicate arrangements, electronic sequences and lovely variations keep one's attention firmly a-grip.

It's relaxing music to dream about far away galaxies where the fragile, cinematic atmosphere of the seductive Tephra projects images of Eternity and Disney's Wall-E/EVE romanticism. The spirited New Age-inspired Fertile Soil features Gregorian chants and soothing melodic synth waves surrounded by rhythmic percussion, igniting memories of Enigma.

Contrasting to its explosive title Eruption glides on elegant melodies, electronic sounds, minute bubbling outbursts and embracive synth waves that slowly gain a momentum in which angelic choirs add a touch of divinity. On Exothermic Energy Schroeder's swirling synths float into light, up-tempo beats releasing danceable melodies in which liquid bubbles sparkle, electronic waves hypnotise and percussive drums energise.

The showcased variety and elaborate depth of the soundscapes, combined with the varying degrees of relaxation, imaginary expressiveness and vibrant cosmic environments have made this voyage through Schroeder's radiant electronic world a pleasant one. Pyroclast's effort bursts with enchanting entertaining landscapes that will delight fans of futuristic electronic music, meeting the likes of Eternity, Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis.

Album Reviews