Eric Baule — Reflecting Circles
If there is one adjective describing prog music in general, the word is “ambitious”. Prog may be more self-indulgent or less, more diverse or less, more flamboyant or less, but ambition is always there, no matter how much it irritates you. To me Eric Baule's recent releases are a rare example of non-ambitious prog music.
I should confess that I quite liked Eric's previous full-scale release, Revelations Adrift, positively (and justifyingly so) reviewed by Peter Swanson. It offered an abundant heap of quality songs, and showed that having most of the material in 4/4 does not mean that the musicians are playing-it-by-numbers. That was back in 2015, which is already a while ago, and I had lost track of this Catalan band's career until these two albums arrived.
The first one, Treasures From The Deep, is a collection of demos from pre-Revelations times, and Reflecting Light is a compilation of covers, with an extra 30% of the band's own material.
Explaining the word “non-ambitious”; I may be misguided, but it looks like now, in 2021 Eric Baulenas (mastermind and guitarist) just releases whatever he has at the moment at his working desk, not bothering himself about concepts. This spontaneity may scare-off those who prefer well-thought out releases, but it also offers a different perspective of a musician's laboratory.
Baule's own material, on both releases, is quite conservative, consisting mostly of mellow singing and acoustic guitar, with folksy strumming interwoven with floating solos. A couple of numbers offer a more groovy / heavy rock approach but unfortunately the songs seemed to me not as interesting and fresh as those on Revelations Adrift. One could find that Baule is influenced by Pink Floyd (and who isn't?), but a more precise parallel would be with David Gilmour's solo work.
The choice of covers on the other hand, is interesting. On Reflecting Circles we have a medley of King Crimson. If you ever wondered what Red would sound like if performed in mellow post-Floyd-style, here's a perspective. Another excellent medley comes from the legacy of recently-passed maestro Franco Battiato (he was still alive, when Circles was released, though), plus a Kraftwerk cover (why don't prog musicians do Kraftwerk covers more often?) and a more or less obligatory homage to David Bowie.
Being somewhat disappointed, I still do hope that these releases served the purpose of sustaining this talented band through hard times, and I look forward to hear future, more focused material.
Focus — Focus 50 - Live In Rio
This 3CD/Blu-ray collection is not to be confused with the Focus 50 Years Anthology 1970-1976 box set released in 2020. Instead, it's a live performance by the current band recorded in Nitteroi, Rio de Janeiro on 14th September 2017 spread across two CDs, with a video of the same show on Blu-ray. The third CD, titled Completely Focussed was recorded by the same line-up during last year's coronavirus lockdown and features new versions of the instrumentals Focus 1 through to Focus 12.
The band includes two members of the classic 1970s line-up, namely Thijs van Leer (organ, flute, vocals) and Pierre van der Linden (drums). Filling the shoes of Jan Akkerman and Bert Ruiter respectively are guitarist Menno Gootjes (who first performed with Focus in 1997) and bassist Udo Pannekeet, who joined in 2016. The latter is also responsible for the mixing and mastering.
Play disc one of Live In Rio and there's no mistaking this is a live recording, with chatter from members of the audience clearly audible. It's certainly well recorded, although like many live recordings, both the sound and the performances generally improve as the set progresses. Thijs van Leer opens proceedings with a flute solo and his playing is excellent throughout. He's still in reasonable vocal shape, given his age, and his organ playing is not too shabby, although he no longer lugs the mighty Hammond around on tour.
A fast (and slightly ragged) House Of The King is followed by a rather fine Eruption, which unlike the Focus At The Rainbow version, is played in its entirety. Menno Gootjes plays with the same fire and passion as his predecessor, including a stirring Tommy. Thijs even manages to generate a little audience participation, and Pierre van der Linden's drum solo is present and correct.
The next piece is unrecognisable to begin with, being a loose jam featuring sizzling bass from Udo Pannekee, but once Thijs plays the familiar descending organ chords, a rousing Sylvia brings the house down. Song For Eva from the then current The Focus Family Album is very much in the traditional Focus mould, although it does out-stay its welcome a little, while a barnstorming All Hens On Deck from Focus 10 sounds like a supercharged update of Sylvia. It's halfway through the set, and the band are firing on all cylinders.
Following a rather meandering Le Tango that opens disc two, the sprightly P's March is an enjoyable flute-led romp, while Focus 5 is based around a repetitive ascending guitar phrase. A much extended Harem Scarem hits the ground running, with some wonderfully complex guitar and organ exchanges, sharp drum volleys and blistering guitar and bass solos respectively.
An extended Hocus Pocus opens with an improvised flute solo, and it's a full five minutes before Thijs' infamous yodelling makes an appearance. Although he struggles to reach those really high notes these days, in addition to the customary band member introductions, he also gives the production crew a mention. It's a stunning ensemble performance all round, although the seven-minute drum solo will test the endurance of even the most hardened Focus fan.
Following Hocus Pocus, the set closes with the encore Focus 3, although unfortunately this particular track was missing from my review files. Likewise, the video content was not made available for review purposes so again, I'm unable to pass comment.
Virtually every studio album released by Focus features an instrumental named after the band, and numbered accordingly. To record new versions of all of them may seem like a case of lockdown indulgence but it's nice to have them all on one CD, which makes for a mostly-relaxing listening experience. For the most part, the arrangements remain faithful to the originals, and while they don't always have the same stately grandeur, Focus II and Focus III still sound sensational.
Gootjes in particular puts his own stamp of authority on each piece, and his playing on Focus IV is particularly good, quite stunning in fact. It's noticeable that from Focus 7 onwards, the arrangements have more of a jazz flavour, and just occasionally, they border on easy-listening territory. That said, Focus 8 is one of the heaviest pieces here, while the longest track, Focus 11, is one of the more memorable. Given that Focus 11 was the last studio album, I'm assuming that Focus 12 is a new piece. With an absence of bass and drums, it's a delightful, classically-tinged guitar and piano duet.
Although this collection follows hot on the heels of the 50 Years Anthology box set featuring the band in their 1970s glory, it's a valuable release that should appeal to fans, particularly those that have seen them perform in recent years. Although it raises the question as to whether the world needs yet another version of Hocus Pocus (especially a 20-minute one) Focus 50 - Live In Rio is evidence, if need be, that the Dutch masters are still a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century.
Seas, Starry — Anatomy
The Scottish band Seas, Starry hail from Aberdeen. They have released two albums, and now this year unleash new music via this EP. They have been described as 'noisy rockers', as well as ambient, kraut, psychedelic and post-rock. With that many terms flying around, you can see how difficult it is to label the band.
One minute we have My Bloody Valentine feedback, the next beautiful, harmonious indie sounds. Each track is a surprise of content, and where it goes. Maybe not your traditional prog music, but this is truly progressive. And I loved my introduction to this band.
The EP opens with Skull, Tone, Skull. Despite the gothic tone of the song titles, this is not a depressive journey. After a laid-back opening, the guitar comes in, and as the song progresses they begin to ramp up a notch. This is a real slow burner, and all the better for that. It is not in a rush to get anywhere, but wants to take you on a journey of sound and music. It is not until later in the proceedings that female vocals come in, maybe the last minute and a half. This reminds me of Se Delan, the K-scope offshoot band from Crippled Black Phoenix. It has an almost shoe-gaze, ethereal quality to it. This is a fine opening.
Stabbed In The Eyes follows (see what I mean about the song titles?), and we have here the only fully instrumental track on the EP. It reminds me of the band The Fierce and The Dead. There are times when the track rocks-out, and other times when the sound is restrained. This is not rock-out as in heavy metal, but in a communication of moods and ebbs and flows. I would call it 'post-rock with interest'. The last minute and a half is a full-on feedback fest', again taking influence from My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. Crippled Black Phoenix themselves would be proud of this one.
We are only two tracks in, and already you feel so much has been played.
Nun The Wiser is a great rocking track. Almost spoken male and female voices permeate this. This track is very Sonic Youth influenced. In fact it reminded me of the early punk/new wave you would hear at CBGB's. Part Talking Heads, part B-52's, part Velvet Underground, even a bit of the song that reminded me of Public Image Ltd. This track is a real highlight and fits in perfectly with the post-punk revival that is going on at the moment. Total feedback dreamland.
The EP closes with a 12-minute drone track. This is the sort of thing that Spiritualized do so well, and Sea, Starry completely match that. To my ears drone can tend to go on a bit and go nowhere I could even say that it becomes boring. But this track takes you on a journey. There is spoken word/commentary added to the track, like Nordic Giants or Public Service Broadcasting. After six minutes a female voice comes in, not to take over, but to become part of the music. The glockenspiel also features here to reveal variety in the instrumentation. This is a perfect end . It leaves you satisfied and yet wanting to hear more.
An overall amazing listening experience. Not one for traditional prog fans, but for those who like something different and adventurous. If you have a soft spot for shoe-gaze-influenced music or just something more experimental, then give this a listen straight away. I for one will be investigating this band further, and look forward to where they go from here.
Watershape — You Are Not
Hypnotheticall were an Italian prog-metal band that released a series of demos and three albums between 2002 and 2019. I was actually replaying their Dead World album a few months back and wondering what had happened to them ... then this arrived!
Watershape dates back to 2014 and features three members of Hypnotheticall: Francesco Tresca (also drummer in Power Quest and Arthemis), Mirko Marchesini (guitar), and Mattia Cingano (bass). The line-up is completed by keyboardist Enrico Marchiotto and singer Nicolò Cantele.
After two singles and a couple of video covers, Watershape released their first album Perceptions in 2018, followed by live shows during 2018 and 2019 supporting Goblin and Secret Sphere. You Are Not is my first encounter with this band. I like what I hear.
Watershape have composed eight songs that have been influenced by both progressive rock and progressive metal. To refer to other artists is difficult, as this album combines and shifts between so many different styles.
It's definitely more prog-metal, than prog-rock. But there is a healthy smattering of jazz and electronica too. At the other extreme, the vocals can take on a screamo style, and the guitars and drums a similarly aggressive mood. I am most often reminded of fellow Italians Kingcrow or the first few albums of Greek band Wastefall. The diversity of the discography of Pain of Salvation, crammed into one album, would be another reference.
Singer Nicolò Cantele definitely has a unique approach. It won't be for all tastes but he sure has an ear for wonderful phrasing and some memorable melodies. Try the opener, Enough, to hear one of his more varied repertoires. If you like that, then the rest of the album will be to your liking (or at least most of it!).
Enough also displays the wonderful interplay between guitars and keyboards that is a highlight of this album. The drumming is exactly how I like it. The guitar solo is perfectly judged. Both smart, not flashy.
The Mystery Man is probably my favourite song as it showcases all the positives I have just outlined. The sound and production of the whole album is spot-on.
No hold on, In The Garden Of Dreams And Grace is probably my favourite. That chorus is sublime. Although, are either as good as Enough?
Anyway, The Endless Joruney is certainly my least favourite. Its blend of extreme vocals and electronic pop stuff just doesn't go together.
No hold on, maybe Mr K is my least favourite track. The vocals take a theatrical turn for the worst. This time it's mixed with a jazzy vibe. Both songs have their nice moments too.
Anyway, this is just one of those strange albums. Bits I love. Bits I don't love so much. Bits I shall never love.
For those who like their progressive metal to veer towards the more accessible edges of the avant-garde, whilst proffering some delicious hooks and complex musicianship, then Watershape are a band worthy of your attention.
Daniel Weiss — Dive
It certainly helps to plan and prepare, but it often seems that some of the best and most valued things in life can occur spontaneously. Unexpected twists and turns, forged in a moment of time, can sometimes be glorious and undefinable. I can think of many pieces of music or album releases where a union between planning and spontaneity has been at the heart of its success.
As if to emphasise the importance of careful planning, invention, inspiration and improvisation, all of the songs on Daniel Weiss' impressive debut solo album were recorded in one day. There are a few occasions when the album breaks free from its tightly-spun sound and the players are able to flourish in an unrestrained manner. The skilful saxophone bursts that occur during Toothpick and Earth ooze with enthusiasm and exhibit a great amount of unshackled panache.
The polished nature of the arrangements of Dive and their skilful execution are ample evidence of the hard work and preparation that must have gone into the project. On the strength of the quality, it is not hard to imagine the special memories that were formed during the unprompted and unplanned moments that occurred during the recording. It is easy to imagine that the precious moments of that day are locked in the memory and vaulted in the hearts of the players involved. An effortless turn of the key, or a touch of a release button, no doubt replays the event for them all.
A careful examination of the album reveals music that has many different levels. It is undoubtedly tightly-knit and arranged, but it is also brimming with feeling and emotive playing. It is a release that is sure to moisten the eyes and satisfy any reflective thoughts
Daniel Weiss is a Berklee College of Music graduate, and was a finalist in 2016's guitar idol. He is an active participant in prog and jazz fusion in Israel. He was involved in the prog fusion power trio Square to Check.
If you want to sample a taster of their style and strengths, I suggest you listen to The Uno from their Stir Fry album released in 2016. It is well worth checking out! The trio's work is recommended if you enjoy the music of artists such as Gary Boyle, or Allan Holdsworth.
The bassist and drummer of that trio feature on two of Dive's six tracks. Lior Ozeri's bass work provides a rhythmic foundation to the excellent ensemble performance of Earth, whilst Sharon Petrover's intricate patterns and persuasive cymbal caresses gently support the beautifully-cascading guitar and bass-woven melodies of Dan's Mode.
Dan's Mode is an impressive piece, and in this finely staged performance, Weiss' choice of tones and sleek-yet-precise quick-fingered fluidity is in some ways slightly reminiscent, but in reality, is probably not really similar, to Gary Boyle's atmospheric approach to be found on tunes such as Windmills & Waterfalls, Pendle Mist and LP.
There is much to enjoy in this often accessible release. Whilst, it arguably does not cover any new or progressive ground, there is enough quality on display to satisfy listeners who enjoy instrumental music tinted by the colours of jazz, and pebbled by aspects of fusion and prog.
Personally, I would have enjoyed some more avant sections and an edge-of-the-seat progressive edge to keep me guessing about which direction the music might take. Instead, what is on offer is meticulously presented and is draped and cloaked with a wardrobe of luscious melodies. In this respect the gentle beauty of the opening track Land of The Dreamers is particularly soothing.
The wordless vocal section that carries the tune across the line in its final section is warm, and emits a restful aroma. Weiss' subtle guitar embellishments add an extra dimension, as the tune fades to grey. There was much about this piece that reminded me of Rob Luft's approach to the guitar and the use of vocal harmonies to give the piece an emotive appeal. This led me to draw comparisons with Luft's old band Big Bad Wolf.
Comparisons with some of the work of Rob Luft were reinforced by the timeless splendour and magnificent guitar lines of Back Home. This pretty tune has 'class' boldly written all over it. It is one of those pieces where beauty and the space between the notes emphasises just how effective the use of a few instruments can be, when an arrangement is skilfully performed.
As well as Ozeri and Petrover, a number of other notable players make a significant contribution to the album. These include drummer Yogev Gabay and bassist Iggy Jackson, saxophonist Omri Abramov and percussionist Nadav Gaiman. Yaniv Taubenshouse' piano, Rhodes and synthesizer also makes significant contribution to the album's success.
Indeed, five of the six compositions were jointly composed by Taubenshouse and Weiss and his gentle, lilting playing in tunes such as Toothpick, give aspects of the album the sort of joyous feel that Alan Gowen brought to the table in Gilgamesh's debut album and in their evocative Another Fine Tune album.
On more than one occasion, I found myself misguidedly comparing the style of the album to aspects of Gilgamesh. Weiss' soothing choice of tone in Dan's Mode, briefly conjured up memories of Phil Lee's melodious guitar style.
Other stylistic signposts also came to mind over the course of the release. For example, the buoyant blowing of Abramov during Toothpick was redolent of something Barbara Thompson might have created with Paraphernalia.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this album. Even though it is a tightly-spun affair, it portrays a majestic elegance which provides an enchanting appeal. More importantly, it manages to feel fresh at all times. It is arguably Dive's ability to accurately portray what occurred on that day in the studio, which makes the album so appealing on many different levels.
As such, much of the album has a polished sheen, yet retains a spontaneous feel. This works very well, and often makes the listening experience of this lovely album quite memorable and frequently very satisfying.