Celeste — Il Principe del Regno Perduto
Italian prog band Celeste has a remarkable history. Founded in San Remo in 1972 by multi-instrumentalist Ciro Perrino they recorded one album that is widely regarded as a classic example of Italian prog. It took him 42 years to release another album under the Celeste moniker, the 2019 Il Risveglio del Principe that got a fairly critical review by DPRP-colleague Thomas Otten.
Two years later and we see another album entitled Il Principe del Regno Perduto on which Perrino is playing Mellotron, synths, Hammond organ, piano, small percussion and doing voсals. He is assisted by Francesco Bertone (bass), Enzo Cioffi (drums), Sergio Caputo (violin), Marco Moro (flutes, beak flutes, tenor and baritone saxophones) and Mauro Vero (acoustic and electric guitars). Extra flavours are added by Anna Marra on vocals, Edmondo Romano on soprano saxophone, clarinet, chalumeau, duduk and low whistle, Paolo Maffi on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, Alessandro Serri on electric guitar and Marco Canepa on piano.
For me Celeste was completely new. Sometimes you immediately know from which country an unknown band hails from, most of the time there is no way to tell. With Celeste it is extremely easy; for from the first notes it is clear that this is an Italian band.
Opera-like, a cappella, wordless vocals open the first track, Baie Distanti. I have to confess that opera is one of those musical styles I really can't stand, let alone listen to. Gregorian chanting is another one (my Catholic youth?). But the band comes in after some 90 seconds to deliver a really soothing, mellow and melodious piece of music, built around a beautiful melody played on the synths and backed by piano, violin and saxophone. At first you think that this is a new record by English prog-folkies Gryphon, then the recorder takes you to Les Penning-territory. When the singing starts, there are immediate memories of Angelo Branduardi. It grabbed me immediately and set the bar quite high. This might be something really interesting.
It certainly is an interesting and attractive album but not all is good.
For the opening lines are not the only opera you'll be encountering on the album. Halfway through the long epic L'Ultimo Viaggio del Principe, the band falls silent and Anna Marra starts her opera-like singing again, this time assisted by Alessandro Serri. They both can sing very well, but both the melody and the type of singing are reminiscent to those horrible Gregorian chants in catholic churches in long forgotten days. Absolutely awful and to make it worse, this singing is to my ears also completely out of place. The rest of the song is great with a fine, recurrent musical theme on acoustic guitar, lush Mellotron carpets, a nice romantic atmosphere because of much flute playing, gentle electric guitar melodies and tenor saxes. The song has it all in a very natural, flowing manner. During its more than 24 minutes it offers the listener more than enough musical variation to stay attracted. So I think that the opera and Gregorian thing could have been skipped altogether, together with the very unsatisfying fade-out that starts at the 22-minute mark. It would leave about 21 minutes of great music, which would be quite good. But maybe the lyrics explain why such singing was included?
The remaining five songs are all considerably shorter but share the overall mood. It is all quite mellow and quiet, well played, quite romantic, much too varied to be classified as 'muzak', but not varied enough to take the listener to extreme moods.
The instrumental (Il) Ceruleo Sogno sounds like a rather sad song but somehow the Mellotron, in combination with the fine bass melody, succeed in making it no too depressive. As in the former song, the bass playing is very attractive and upfront, which was a very good choice.
The acoustic guitar intro of Viola, Arancio e Topazio sounds as if Deep Purple's Soldier Of Fortune was the biggest inspiration, but the song develops into a jazzy-lounge instrumental with a very nice, laid-back feeling.
The shortest song, Il Passagio Di Un Gigante Gentile, is an up-tempo instrumental based upon a fine sax theme that lasts just long enough. Quiet piano and sax backed by Mellotron open Torerai Tramonto which slowly develops into a slow ballad with sax and electric guitar. Relaxed and mellow and suddenly there are very fine vocals that thankfully are not opera-like at all.
The spoken words at the end of the song, recited by Perrino's son (I guess) Ciro Carlo Antonio are a nice addition, I guess heavily inspired by the Yes' song Angkor Wat from the Union album. Actually those recited words would have made a great end to this album, but there is another album closer, the piano and violin-driven Nora. That song would have fitted easily on an older Angelo Branduardi album because of the flowing vocal melody, the flute and the folky mood, but it is nice in its own right here too. But with its too-short piano coda, the album ends too uninspired, which is a pity.
With its bright blue colouring, the booklet attracts one's attention. The artwork, with white lettering on a black background and blue paintings, is effective.
All-in-all this is a highly enjoyable and satisfying record with some low moments that are more-than-compensated for by the total duration of more than an hour and many nice musical moments. I was tempted to give a high score but those awkward and out-of-place opera moments in the album's main epic, made me decide to judge a bit more strictly. For those who like the softer side of Mike Oldfield, or Camel during their Rain Dances period or bands like Rousseau, Eris Pluvia or Ragnarok, this might be the one you're looking for!
Rob Koral — Wild Hearts
Rob Koral is a self-taught guitarist who has played on over 30 albums. He first came to prominence in the early 1980s as a member of the jazz band Sketch, with whom he released five albums in ten years. One of these featured the first-ever recorded performance of drummer Jeremy Stacey, who went on to become a prominent session/band musician most recently filling the middle drum stool in King Crimson.
Koral then recorded four successful jazz albums with Sketch vocalist Sue Hawker, releasing his first solo album, Grace Notes in 2008. He is also a regular collaborator with vocalist and wife, Zoë Schwarz with whom he has recorded 16 albums as duo or trio projects, or with the band that the pair founded in 2011, Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion.
As the Covid pandemic has prevented musicians from going out and making a living playing gigs, a lot of them have poured their enforced free time into the creation of new music. Rob Koral was one such musician, and in a single six-hour session in December 2020 he recorded the album Wild Hearts, mostly live in the studio. Accompanying Koral was fellow Blue Commotion member Pete Whittaker on Hammond organ, and old friend Jeremy Stacey on drums. Whittaker's name may be familiar to some as he was a regular touring musician with both The Wonderstuff and Catherine Wheel, as well as playing on the 2007 Theo Travis album Double Talk.
The instrumental trio have produced an album that is almost timeless in its effortless grooves and its almost-improvisational nature. Although Koral is credited as the composer on seven of the tracks, and co-composer (along with Zoë Schwarz) on the eighth, full credit should be given to Whittaker and Stacey whose contributions were all their own. As Koral has stated: “I definitely didn't tell Pete and Jeremy what or how to play. In that sense, the music is a genuine collaboration, and as a result, consistently surprised even us!”
As such, there is a jazziness to the recordings, without really tipping too far into jazz territory. Solos pop up all over the place and the talent of the musicians is such that they give each other space and opportunity to go where they please. This is mostly a very successful approach, although I felt that Summer does almost lose its way at one point. Two of the pieces, Take Me Back and Hold Tight are re-workings of Blue Commotion tracks (although the latter piece's original title is Hold On) but the rearrangements make them blend in seamlessly with the rest of the album.
With Hammond and guitar being the principal instruments, there are certain similarities with Focus, no more so than on the superb Saving Grace, a highlight of the album. The Showdown is the most up-tempo number of the album, where Stacey keeps up a driving rhythm under Koral's soloing guitar, and Whittaker's organ stabs and bass groove. This fills a role similar to Hugh Banton in Van der Graaf Generator, although the musical styles are not in the slightest bit similar. Whittaker also adds a great solo to this track as well as to the funky opener Show Me The Way, during which Koral slips effortlessly into the role of a classy fusion guitarist.
There is much to admire on Wild Hearts with a surprisingly diverse collection of instrumentals given the three instruments used throughout. A classy album well worth a listen. The cover is great too!
Liquid Tension Experiment — Liquid Tension Experiment 3
There have been few reunions more hoped-for in the prog/metal world than Liquid Tension Experiment. However, with Mike Portnoy's less-than-harmonious departure from Dream Theater in 2010, the chances seemed unlikely. In recent years, a mending of ways began to occur, which culminated in Portnoy playing the drums on Petrucci's 2020 solo album, Terminal Velocity. That was followed by the news last December that indeed, LTE 3 would be released in 2021. Recorded during the pandemic by the quarantined and Covid-tested band, Rudess, Levin, Petrucci and Portnoy gathered in DT's studio to create their first album in 22 years.
So was it worth the wait? Well, it is an expertly-performed, compositionally complex series of instrumentals. If you like their first two albums, you should find much to enjoy here. I've read unfair criticisms, stating that LTE 3 is nothing more than these musicians proving how fast they can play. Not only does that ignore the strong melodies throughout, there is nothing surprising about the occasional flexing of musical muscles on display. The magic of LTE has always been their ability to dazzle from a technical perspective, while still delivering music of substance.
That hasn't changed, and songs such as the breakneck Hypersonic, the old school rocking Beating The Odds and the fusion-like Liquid Evolution, are fantastic.
The Passage Of Time was a good choice to reintroduce the band, as it definitively captures the classic LTE sound. Shades Of Hope, a change of pace, is an effectively-mellow spotlight for Petrucci and Rudess. Alternately, Chris & Kevin's Amazing Odyssey continues the series of collaborations between Levin and Portnoy. The proggy album-closing epic, Keys To The Imagination also delivers the goods.
The highlight though is their excellent rendition of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. If there was ever a classical piece of music screaming for the prog treatment, it is this legendary composition. Initially performed on the band's 2008 tour, the studio version included here is masterful.
LTE 3 may not provide many musical surprises, but its existence alone is unexpected and worthy of celebration. The fact that the band remains true to their established formula doesn't make the results any less entertaining. The album is definitely recommended, and another in the growing list of great 2021 releases.
Marcelo Paganini — Idenity Crisis
Marcelo Paganini is French / Brazilian guitar player with a solid background in jazz and blues. Identity Crisis is Marcelo's third solo album, and I am not sure how many guest inputs he is responsible for, but it is very clear that he is a very experienced player.
There are a couple of things I should say as a reviewer.
Firstly, we are a little late for the party, as this album was released in December last year, and we are ... (suspiciously gazing at the calendar) ... damn, already halfway through 2021.
Secondly, the party is a short one, since the album has 38 minutes of music only. I nearly abandoned all hope that I'd ever see again a prog album lasting less than 45 minutes!
Thirdly, the party has a whole lot of fascinating guests, who behave the way polite guests do; not stealing the show, but adding their talents to have fun and a good time. The most notable guests are Billy Sherwood (ex-Yes, Circa etc.) who does the vocals on all songs, Adam Holzman (Steven Wilson band) and Rachel Flowers (Keith Emerson Orchestra) on keys plus a plethora of other great musicians from Focus, Zappa plays Zappa, Return to Forever and more.
The guest list should give an extra hint on what the music sounds like. This is a fusion-rock record, with an accent on actual songs instead of seven-plus minutes of improvisations, heavily relying on the legacy of Allan Holdsworth, Frank Zappa and to some extent Adrian Belew. Other parallels that came to my mind are Gavin Harrison's solo efforts and O.R.K., both of which have deservedly had their heap of praise from DPRP reviewers.
Last but not least, fans of Discipline might also like this record for its somewhat absurd theatrics and at times ironic lyrics. Not to say that Marcelo is a poet as refined as Matthew Parmenter, but I immediately loved the line: “There's a car parked outside Paradise”. Also, only on this record I noted that I actually like Billy Sherwood's vocals (and that they are very close in timbre to Sean Filkins).
Anyway, the record's advantages rather lie on the instrumental side and the untraditional (even for prog) interplay between musicians. There are very few lengthy solos, but a lot of alternate-tuning patterns and tricks. Most of the time the guests and the host himself sound like a solid team, searching for new approaches, rather than repeating clichés from both fusion and prog worlds. My only complaint is the coarseness of the first track Bacteria, which may scare off the most impatient prog fans. The sound gets smoother and more ear-friendly with the second song, and keeps it on the same level until the end of the record.
If you are looking for some fresh-sounding material, bordering on jazz fusion, but also touching the 80s King Crimson legacy, here's your choice. If you are an indie musician, here's a good example of how a solo record should sound, even if you can't afford spending thousands of dollars for mixing and mastering. Maybe Marcelo Paganini is not yet in the same league with prog giants, but he plays in a very interesting niche, which shall definitely find fans from the more adventurous audience.
I shall look forward to listen to more of Marcelo's music.
Laura Shenton — Decades: Curved Air In The 1970s
Sonicbond publishing have already covered the major league acts of the 1970s in their On Track and Decades series of books, so inevitably the more recent publications turn their attention to second division (but equally deserving) bands like Curved Air. They had their share of success in the early 70s. The first three albums breached the UK top 20, and the 1971 single Back Street Luv was a top 5 hit. Author Laura Shenton claims that this is the first book written about the band and apart from the 38-page Curved Air: Complete Recordings Illustrated published in 2019, I'm not aware of any other publication. As such, an appraisal of their work was long overdue.
Despite having a masters degree in music, Laura's writing is easy-going and refreshingly free of music theory jargon. Although the songs on each album are discussed, there isn't a track-by-track analysis commonly found in the Sonicbond books. As a result, it's a fairly slim volume at 124 pages, plus a 16-page colour section. A chapter is dedicated to each year from 1970 to 1976 and includes the six studio and one live album released during this period. As the band folded in 76, the years 1977 to 1979 document the key member's post-Curved Air activities.
Like several of the recent Sonicbond publications, the book includes numerous extracts from previously published interviews and reviews. Singer Sonja Kristina was clearly the band's spokesperson and her comments are always lucid and enlightening. More insight from the other key players Darryl Way and Francis Monkman would have been welcome, particularly as they were responsible for writing the music. On the flipside, as much as I admire Tony Reeves as a musician, I could have happily have lived without his lengthy description of his bass amp, which occupies nearly two pages.
Arguably, Curved Air's career peaked too early, but despite their relatively short life span, they boasted some serious musicians including Eddie Jobson who joined the band at the tender age of seventeen. Kristina clearly had a strong desire for the band to survive against ever-mounting obstacles but couldn't halt the slow decline. On the plus side, Curved Air was a springboard for several band members who enjoyed later success in bands as diverse as Sky, The Police and U.K.
Kristina remained particularly active, with a solo career in music and drama, and she fronts a reformed Curved Air to this day.
Despite my minor quibbles, this is another worthwhile and easily digestible book from Sonicbond and does justice to a band who, like many others, never received the plaudits or longevity they deserved. It goes without saying that Curved Air In The 1970s is an essential read for fans of the band and anyone with more than a passing interest in 1970s progressive rock.