Hillward — Alternate Timelines
My team mate Andy Read has been very favourable about the first three releases by this Canadian band, and knowing his taste, I thought this could be something for me as well.
The music is less heavy and the arrangements are more polished than I expected. Where prog metal was mentioned several times in the past, I would not put this new album into that category. Some heavy outbursts move it towards heavy prog but overall this is melodic prog on the heavy side of the spectrum.
Album closer Tainted Eyes is arguably the heaviest track and has a rawness coming out that really appeals to me. The hard-riffing in Waiting is lovely, especially when the keyboards join in, adding some overwhelming layers. This is happening in several places on this album, fortunately. Maybe the softer sections sound a little too polished to my taste.
Keyboard melodies bring back a lot of neo-prog feelings, which is something I like a lot in their music. Deafen The Void, for example, which also has a heavier chorus, and Amidst The Sun And Stars has power throughout, except for the opening verse, and really excellent melodies throughout.
And I really like the vocals, being not a typical prog voice, not over the top. A sensitive voice with a timbre that breathes life and honesty. The fade-out of Un is a pity, though.
The general atmosphere is on the darker side, which is something I prefer. The slow Broadcast Interruption is a beautiful piano/vocals/cello piece which brings a Gazpacho feeling and overall sadness. To my taste that is a big plus.
Riverside and Porcupine Tree have been mentioned in other reviews, and I would definitely like to add Enchant and Everon to that list. Fans of these bands should really take a listen, plus Dilemma, Mystery, Haken, and maybe even Porcupine Tree. If your taste has an overlap with bands like this, then Hillward's Alternate Timelines is a recommended addition to your collection.
Where several bands are quite lazy in giving extra information, especially with digital releases, I believe a special note is deserved by mentioning the fact that Hillward included the lyrics of the songs in the Bandcamp FLAC files. Good idea, folks. I wish more bands did that.
Jordsjø — Pastoralia
Jordsjø follow-up their sublime Nattfiolen with the equally impressive Pastoralia. Don't expect anything to have changed dramatically in the year-and-a-bit between releases, as multi-instrumentalist and singer Håkon Oftung knows what he is good at, and if it ain't broke, why fix it.
Replete with fantastic melodies, delivered with a folkish twist, the album is a delight from start to finish. The clever and subtle melding of acoustic instruments with Mellotrons, electric guitars and synths gives a wide musical pallet to delve into.
The sound has been expanded by the inclusion of a variety of guests that offer their own unique sounds. Of particular note is the double bass playing of Christian Meaas Svendsen, particularly on Fuglehviskeren which creates a wonderfully evocative sound when merged with the bass clarinet of Mats Lemjan. There is an almost medieval feel to Vettedans, while Prolog is as good as anything you'd find on any Hatfield And The North album, where it would fit right in.
Yet these three pieces, delightful as they are, are just the tip of the iceberg, acting almost as intermezzos between longer pieces, where the other half of the band, drummer Kristian Frøland, plays a more prominent role.
On Skumring i Karesuando, a lovely piece in several distinct sections, the (rather limited) presence of Vilde Mortensen Storesund on backing vocals adds a nice contrast to Oftung's lead. A similar role is played by Åsa Ree (from the brilliant Meer) on Mellom Mjødurt, Marisko og Søstermarihånd. In in addition to her singing, she also adds a dash of violin to Pastoralia.
Beitemark is a more up-tempo number that just gets into a great proggy groove when it is faded out! Could happily have listened to a lot more of this musical style, if the band want to resume where this leaves off!
Saving the best for last, the third instalment of the signature piece Jord III is a worthy addition to the first two parts of this number that can both be found on the 2017 album Jord. The introductory section is vaguely reminiscent of Gryphon and it would certainly be interesting to understand what it is that Ola Mile Bruland is saying in the middle part, although my complete lack of competence with other languages means it shall remain a mystery (to me at least!)
A stunning album from a great and completely unique Norwegian band.
Poor Genetic Material — Spring Tidings
Fifteen years ago Poor Genetic Material released Spring Tidings, widely considered to be amongst their best efforts. The band favours the album as well, but after all these years, the desire to update the album's substandard production grew ever stronger.
This has now resulted in a newly remixed, partially re-recorded and remastered version. To delight fans, the album is simultaneously released as a CD and a differently-sequenced limited vinyl edition. The latter incorporates a CD, due to the fact that the LP playing time limit, means omitting the first two tracks.
Not all of the music preserved on the master tapes proved to be salvageable, so the Camel-like flute parts of Watercolours and all the keyboard parts needed to be recorded again. Something which probably will have had its effect on the fresh, crystal clear sound and overall upgraded production, although in reality I can't compare for several reasons. The easiest one is that I simply don't know/own the previous edition, only having enjoyed their latest effort Here Now.
Another reason involves the curious absence of the original album on their Bandcamp site, so availability is narrowed down to inferior YouTube quality or Spotify, a streaming service I don't use. Maybe just as well, for music shouldn't turn into a 'Spot the 10 differences' routine. Instead I prefer to add a few personally received impressions to my former colleague's review; for our frame of reference shows a tenfold of delightful differences.
In terms of Genesis references, the musicality and excellence in performance, and the delightful Michael Sadler (Saga) appeal of vocalist Phil Griffiths, I mostly concur. It's however not the thought of Genesis that clearly approached me as Three Steps Back's laid back intro soared into the brilliant Blow Up, a composition releasing many musically addictive elements elevating the enjoyment factor of this fine concept album exponentially.
Its happy, cheerful nature, with great flowing guitar-work, versatile rhythms and delicious piano parts instantly pops Saga, which in light of Griffiths' vocal could be expected, yet its warming neo-progressive atmosphere breaths touching feelings of Landmarq, with Griffiths resembling Damian Wilson's tuneful vocal expression and intonations. The adventurous, uplifting atmosphere in this beautiful opening song then quickly ruptures into a different, even brighter dimension when immaculate pop and elegant AOR touches find their way to guide the song enticingly forward into marvellously-crafted Trillion (Clear Approach) atmospheres. Especially when Griffiths becomes the spitting image of their vocalist Thom Griffin, a quality I always associate with Wilson as well. If there is a heaven in which dynamic Saga meets playful Landmarq surrounded by a brilliant Trillion AOR-airiness, then this spirited song is surely amongst angels.
This perfect amalgamation is sprinkled, in various degrees, throughout the album, next to various other musical offerings. For instance the colourful neo-prog and marvellous guitar work in the stylish, bluesy April, reminds me of Fuchs, while initial Quidam images appear in the adventurously-diverse Watercolours. Moving towards lovely jazzy intonations and atmospheric keyboards, the demanding structure of the composition brings visions of Hekz, while moments later Galahad and Marillion influences float to the surface.
Both Tidings and Lotus Eaters release fresh summery (eh, spring-like) Saga colours, instigated by the many gorgeous keyboard passages. Both compositions are embraced by a gracious late seventies/early eighties melodic feel, captured in a warm contemporary sound. The in-between dynamical playful thematic varieties in La Ville Qui N'existait Pas glides equally enchanting on a long passage of formidable instrumentation and luscious keyboard flourishes bordering on gracious pomp rock, which is equally great.
Finally it's ...Or Right Ahead's uplifting closure, inhibiting a delicate pop feel from funky bass lines amongst tasty synth/organ-work and soothingly smooth musical escapades, that joyously rounds off Poor Genetic Material's concept.
Overall the music excels in thematic variations, and showcases many adventurous twists, surrounded by executions and vocals that leave nothing to be desired (apart from the absent lyrics, sadly only included when one takes the vinyl road).
If the album had befallen upon me 15 years ago, set within today's sound quality, this would surely be a year list contender, for Spring Tidings manages to grab attention throughout perfectly. So all in all a highly appreciated re-release that sees me looking pleasurably forward to their future, as well as their past.
Psychic Equalizer — Revealed I + II
Welcome to a truly cosmopolitan band, whose musicians originally come from four different continents and currently live in Denmark, Spain, the US, and the UK. Psychic Equalizer began about 10 years ago as a solo project of Hugo Selles (keyboards) from Spain, and officially started as a band in 2019 with the inclusion of India Hooi (vocals) from Australia, Carlos Barragán (guitars) from Colombia, and Adrian Ubiaga (keyboards) from Spain.
All of them are classically-trained musicians, with different musical backgrounds and influences, ranging from classical music (e.g. Rachmaninow, Debussy, Bartók), prog (e.g. Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Queen) to (prog) metal (e.g. Stratovarius, Savatage, Within Temptation). I do not know who assumed duties of the drummer on Revealed, New York-based session musician James Knoerl playing drums only on Revealed II. No-one is credited with the role of bassist. I assume the bass lines were done by the keyboards.
The pandemic situation appears to have been a major catalyst of the band's releasing approach. Revealed having been issued in April 2020, with the writing and recording the songs most probably having taken place before the crisis, which subsequently provided the band, not being able to tour, with additional time and opportunities to write and record new material. However, it also forced Psychic Equalizer to entirely revert to a remote recording procedure. Consequently the writing, production, mixing, and mastering took place without the band ever having met physically during that period. This makes Revealed II an even more memorable effort.
Initially, just Revealed II was on the review selection list. In my reviewing process, whilst familiarising with this band that I had not heard of before, I obviously came across their preceding release Revealed. Listening to both EPs brought me to the conclusion that it might be sensible to treat them as one release in two parts and to do a combined review. Why that?
In 2019, Psychic Equalizer had released The Sixth Extinction, a mostly instrumental mix of rock, ambient and jazzy elements. Comparing this release with the two following ones, I got the impression that the band had embarked upon a journey of musical re-orientation towards becoming a more progressive rock-oriented entity.
However, this switch has occurred gradually. Revealed, in my ears, does not show a distinctive musical style (yet), with a mixture of pop, folk rock, singer/songwriter parts and a touch of prog. However the progressive elements are recognisable and commanding on Revealed II. Consequently, Revealed appears a bit like a "transitory" work on this journey mentioned above.
This idea of a journey also seems to be revisited in the choice of each album cover. Revealed shows the band walking in a barren landscape, reminding me of the Camino de Santiago in Cantabrica (the "on the way" phase). On Revealed II, the band stands on the (Cantabrican?) shore, looking towards the open sea (the "destination reached, let us look towards what lies ahead" status). I found that musically and visually both releases complement one another perfectly; the second album being a logical continuation and musical evolution of the first.
In terms of the lyrics, both releases, by and large, deal with thought-provoking themes including war and political division, gender equality in science, violations of human rights, adverse climate effects, and mental health during the pandemic. Altogether they display a somewhat sombre mood, which is a bit more striking on Revealed II, especially on the instrumental Lament. The pandemic situation has had its influences.
Both releases individually and as a whole show a good balance of piano-led lyrical ballads and distinct progressive rock pieces, with a considerable dose of prog metal. The bias towards prog rock clearly is on Revealed II, only one track on Revealed (Lost In The Universe) gives a foretaste of what one is likely to encounter on the successor.
I like the wide musical spectrum of the tracks on both releases; all of them being ambitious musically. They range from dreamy, melancholic, mournful, lyrical, tender, emotional, subtle, almost minimalistic (the goosebumps-producing tracks Lonely Souls, Something Hurts, You Won't Have My Faith, Lament), rather straightforward pop songs (Summer Clouds, Unveiled) and singer/songwriter (Away) tunes, to complex progressive rock songs.
Elements of the latter style are particularly evident on the tracks Astronomers, Destination Zero, and The Last Of Humankind. Here, the listener finds all the ingredients that make prog rock so fascinating: complex rhythms, breaks, changes of moods and tempo, lush keyboards, symphonic elements. It must have been a challenge to produce them remotely.
Inherent in all the tracks on both releases is a strong emphasis on melody, the omnipresence of vocals, the purposeful use of guitars, and the versatility of keyboards. The piano playing is definitely a distinctive element of Psychic Equalizer's music. Additionally, India Hooi's crystal clear voice, reminiscent of Kate Bush and Tarja Turunen (formerly with Nightwish) particularly shines in the quieter parts, where she can express all her emotions and feelings, and where the melancholic melodics come across at their best. The combination of her singing style and the progressive rock elements reminds me of bands such as Iamthemorning, Magenta, Melting Clock, and Ciccada.
On these two releases, Psychic Equalizer have "revealed" a musical evolution towards progressive rock, considerable writing and arranging abilities, excellent musicianship, a high production quality, and the willingness and determinedness not to have their musical ambitions restricted by the pandemic circumstances. I suggest considering and listening to Revealed and Revealed II as one release in two parts.
Well done, Psychic Equalizer! I hope that you continue in this direction, maybe with a permanent bass player and drummer. I look forward to your next release and to eventually seeing and hearing your music live, be it in beautiful Santander or elsewhere.
You can buy Revealed and Revealed II separately as digital-only versions via the band's Bandcamp page, which is why there are two links for samples on Bandcamp and Spotify. The band has also made available a limited edition CD version containing both parts which you can order here.