Dark Horse White Horse — Dark Horse White Horse
From out of the wilderness of the Coronavirus pandemic, comes this amazing slab of progressive metal. If a specific metal were assigned to albums indicating the heaviness of the music, Dark Horse White Horse would be as close to Osmium as you could get.
When I first listened to this album, I was blown away by the intensity packed into the four minutes or so of each track. I honestly felt physically tired after listening to the album, but in a very good way. That feeling of happy physical excretion you feel after completing a challenging walk or run. Listening to this album is like a challenge. You need to prepare, take a few dummy runs, and then throw yourself into it. Only if you don't hold anything back, will you achieve the desired result.
Of the albums I have recently reviewed, it is this particular one that I have listened to the most. The music on offer has so many levels to discover that you need to immerse yourself fully. After many listens, I still feel I am scratching the surface of the complexities that lie within the five songs presented here.
So, the music is heavy. But what makes this so special and takes it to that next level is the vocal performance from the wonderful Marcela Bovio. I first heard Marcela when Arjen Anthony Lucassen introduced her to the world as The Wife on his The Human Equation album. After this, Stream Of Passion were formed, and her star began to shine. To be honest I lost track of Marcela's progress after this, but I have very recently caught up with her solo output along with her involvement with Mayan. I have been totally captivated by how her voice has grown.
Check out the interview Stefan Hennig conducted with Marcela Bovio!
I have not heard such a stunning vocal performance anywhere that can challenge Marcela's performance on Dark Horse White Horse. One minute she is singing like an angel, then she manages to manifest so much hate and venom in her voice that you feel shocked that someone can create such a juxtaposition. When she sings Get Out for the first time on the song of the same title, it is delivered with such ferocity, that you almost feel compelled to follow the instruction.
Marcela's performance would be meaningless if the music were not of equal quality, and boy, is it! The guitar of skills of Jord Otto and the keyboard dexterity of Ruben Wijga provide the sumptuous cake to which Marcella is the luxurious icing.
The way Jord and Ruben play off each other is comparable to that of John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess. The power, speed and compelling tonality is at times breathtaking. These musical passages have so much crammed into such a short space, that the listener is drawn back to listen over and over again to be dazzled by what is presented.
Each song has its own unique identity, and this is due to not only Jord and Ruben's obvious talent, but also their amazing compositional skill. They manage to bring the classic and modern together in a way that already provides Dark Horse White Horse with their own unique sound. At times, the guitar titters on the edge of djent, but never fully commits, and the keyboards add industrial stabs to fill out the few quieter passages. This is part of the lavish soundscape created here.
Providing the indulgent cherries to this decadent cake, are the production skills of Joost van den Broek. The layering of the vocal tracks, mixed with the abundant mixing of the instruments is like listening to pure luxury. This is probably the best produced album I have heard in many years. When you look at Joost's immense portfolio of previous works, to have bettered some of those, will provide an example of what he has achieved here. This is what adds to the repeat value to this release.
If this does not get my vote for Album of the Year, it will provide my Song of the Year with the opening track Judgement Day. This particular song is just incredible, with Marcela's apocalyptic lyric, and chorus you will find hard to remove from your memory once heard. It's an example of a masterpiece in four minutes.
Even the design of the CD package oozes quality, with its stylish design of a horse's head. I can't come up with any reason why you should not immerse yourself into Dark Horse White Horse. If you don't, then you will have no idea what you are missing.
Elephant 9 — Arrival Of The New Elders
I guess there is no substitute for being able to play an instrument with a dash of panache.
Genres and styles may come and go, but a captured moment of inspiration has a longevity all of its own. Even now, I can listen to something laid down almost half a century ago and still get a tingle in my toes.
For example, Jimmy Hastings' fluid playing in Caravan's Nine Feet Underground never fails to shiver the spine and Allan Holdsworth's thrilling contribution to Soft Machine's Bundles always takes my breath away. Those, uplifting, goose bump moments define many an album. Their timeless allure and ability to quiver the extremities, ensures that they do not languish for long on a dusty shelf, or in the shadowy corners of the mind.
The Arrival Of The New Elders is one of those albums that also demands to be played frequently. Its mix of memorable motifs and striking performances, guarantees that it is unlikely to be consigned to an inaccessible vault in the brain containing memories of long-forgotten albums.
The Arrival Of The New Elders includes elements of many aspects that I find attractive in music. I am confident, that once my initial enthusiastic ravings about it have subsided, its wonderful playing and carefully crafted arrangements will warrant that I will continue to listen to it regularly.
Even after numerous plays, the whole album remains satisfyingly fresh and easy upon the ear. The arrangements provide an opportunity for the entire trio to showcase their proficiency. The majority of the album contains languid and reflective pieces that are characterised by clearly structured and impressive arrangements.
The three musicians who make up Elephant 9 are highly accomplished players. Bassist Nikolai Hængsle handles the lower registers with aplomb. Ståle Storløkken's sparkling contribution on a variety of keys is essential to the trio's overall sound. Drummer Torstein Lofthus' input is similarly impressive; he strokes and strikes the kit to maximum effect.
The spacious and highly structured nature of much of the music enables the listener to appreciate the subtlety, and sensitivity that lies at the heart of the release. In this respect, the beautifully constructed Tales Of The Secrets is undoubtedly one of the highlights.
In this elegant piece, and indeed throughout the album, Ståle Storløkken utilises the electric piano much more frequently than in the trio's previous releases. However, there are still examples of blistering organ flurries, most notably in Rites Of Ascension, Chemical Boogie and during Chasing The Hidden. However, the prominent use of the Rhodes gives much of the release a different set of tonal colours and qualities.
It is this tightly-spun, structured approach that sets Arrival Of The New Elders apart from previous Elephant 9 releases, where improvisation, frenzy and bluster have been integral to the trio's sharp-edged instrumental performances. Knuckle-breaking rhythms, ferocious playing and asphalt-melting virtuosity were at the core of the band's preceding albums and particularly their last two releases.
However, the Arrival Of The New Elders is not all about reflection and an easily followed structure. Each tune contains an abundance of surprising elements. There are many occasions when discordance and harmony are set against each other, or a tasteful array of shifting cadences occur to tease, jolt and surprise. These keep things interesting and deepen the impression that listening to the album is a beguiling experience.
Chemical Boogie is quite astounding. Just when you think the atmosphere and style of the piece has been determined, it flutters off in another direction to change the mood and dynamics of the piece. However, what really makes this track both so fascinating and so memorable is its unusual and slightly disconcerting main theme that penetrates the senses like a twisted piece of thorny twine.
Rites Of Ascension ruffles the speakers and reminds listeners that the trio is capable of igniting the after-burners. This piece is a white knuckle experience; its bustling dynamism adds some zest, fizz and vigour to the album. It is an upbeat tune that is cleverly knotted with tightly-coiled complexity. Its calculated frenzy, flays the air in a cyclone of penetrating tones. Its exciting get-up-and-go approach is similar to the style that Elephant 9 are justifiably renowned for.
There is something reassuringly satisfying, about the way in which the tuneful dominant melody of Throughout The Worlds creates a lasting impression. Its comfortable air tastefully nuzzles the ear, but colours and kneads the imagination.
Whilst the album cannot be described in any way as a form of easy listening, some of the tunes such as Throughout The Worlds are so distinctive that they lodge themselves in the memory and can be recalled with little effort or difficulty.
The majority of the tunes are tuneful and melodic. They are decorated with intricate and subtle nuances which include frequent changes of direction, and in pitch, and in shifts in volume. Chasin The Hidden manages to successfully combine bombast and elegance in its progressive mix of styles. It has enchanting and disturbing sections where each note or series of notes are given an opportunity to create a lasting impression. It is probably my favourite track on the album.
The album concludes with the convincing Solar Song. In a way it epitomises all that is outstanding about this release. This piece has a mysterious and alluring melody. It entices the listener to stay for a while. It caresses the senses. Eventually its persuasive qualities are likely to be able to shackle and snare even those who might not be moved by its initial appeal. The rhythm section supports the sensitive embellishments of Storløkken, by gently providing a buoyant undercurrent of low register sounds and rhythmic flurries. All in all, it's a fantastic piece.
I highly recommend the Arrival Of The New Elders and it will no doubt feature in any 'best of' list that I compile for 2021. It's full of first-rate tunes and is expertly crafted with intriguing arrangements. If that was not enough, the whole thing is performed with emotion, sensitivity, and a sense of élan. I found the whole experience riveting, inspiring and deeply engaging.
The Arrival Of The New Elders' creativity and panache certainly massaged my goosebumps, and the album had more than enough stirring qualities to tingle my toes!
I hope it does the same for you!
Michael C. Sharp — Synth Vehicles For Guitar
I'll bet Michael Sharp hates it when people cite Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells when talking about his album, as I'm assuming everybody who hears Synth Vehicles For Guitar does. Sorry, Michael. On the other hand, if the album cover (you can actually buy this album as a cassette on Bandcamp!) isn't a clear allusion to Oldfield's album (a shiny metal pipe, just bent, though, not twisted like the one on Oldfield's cover) then I don't know what is.
In any case, a reference to Tubular Bells is definitely the way to begin talking about Synth Vehicles For Guitar, because this album, too, consists of a series of electronic pieces that run together and, in their own way (which is not quite Oldfield's way), build in complexity and intensity. It also features, like Oldfield's album, repetition as its basis for adding that complexity and intensity.
In favour of this album (not that it's a competition!) is the absence of that eventually-mind-numbing single tune that runs through most of Tubular Bells. Sharp has a good ear for melody, and changes things up nicely.
What does it sound like, then? Let me quote from the promotional materials: "The palpable kinetic energy of Synth Vehicles For Guitar is in constant flux, transforming as it moves perpetually forward and embracing the inertia as it goes." Okay, did everybody catch that?
Let me be a little plainer. Synth Vehicles For Guitar is an inventive, enjoyable instrumental album. It is more ear-catching than strict ambient music, but never veering towards rock and roll. Eliminator does have electronic percussion (Sharp, incidentally, is originally a percussionist) and do I hear a pick slide on an electric guitar? There are also drums here and there on other tracks, notably Motor City Pt. 1 - Vibrations.
I'm trying to figure out to what degree I can call the album "progressive rock," since there's virtually no rock. Let me resort to more comparisons. Do you like Tangerine Dream? How about the less soulful instrumentals by Moby? You'll enjoy this album if you answered "yes" to those questions.
It's difficult to single-out tracks for discussion, and it seems that that's Sharp's intention, as although there are eight tracks listed, each one runs into the next. That's another thing that makes Eliminator noteworthy. Although it flows straight from the previous track, An Exquisite Aberration, in fact it's Eliminator that's the aberration. The electronic percussion begins immediately, then that pick squeal introduces a slightly distorted guitar. This piece, oddly enough, is the only one on the album that I find monotonous. Despite its sort-of peppiness, it's pretty much devoid of melody.
As for the rest, well, I like it, and I'll invoke the names I mentioned earlier. If you like Tubular Bells, Tangerine Dream, and the less-sleepy ambient pieces of which Moby has produced so many, you will like this album. And hey, why not dust off your old Pioneer tape deck and get the cassette?
Silent Temple — Marvelers Of Creation
Although Portland-based Silent Temple has been around for almost 10 years, this fourth album is the first to be reviewed on this site. The band was started by multi-instrumentalist Amos Hart (piano, organ, keyboards, 12-string acoustic guitar, alto recorder, vocals) who was into folk-metal by that time. Three albums further, he developed the idea of this 2cd set entitled Marvelers Of Creation when encountering classic rocker Rossi and her band Ten Spiders, as well as psychedelic folk star Natty Isabell and her band Flying Caravan in the Portland area. The two female singers were brought in to assist Hart in his new idea, which offered the possibility to share the vocal duties. Hart recruited Mike Ewers on 5-string fretless bass, Harrison Games on drums and Owen Kelley on electric guitar to complete the band.
The double album opens fine with the appropriately named Sunset Scene in which recorder, guitar and synths play a joyful, folky melody, to be followed by a nice bass line and piano, before the electric guitar takes over to play the coda with the synths. When the organ emerges, the second song has already begun, changing the scene from a sunset to the more bluesy feeling of having to look back at a great evening that ended bitterly. Hart does the lead vocals, which are okay, while in the choruses Natty Isabell and Rossi support him. To my ears that isn't doing the vocal side of the song any good, as their voices are mediocre but most of all too loud and vibrating. And that problem with the vocal side of the music, will remain during the rest of the album which is a real pity.
This is a long album of 14 tracks, ranging in length from just under two minutes, to two epics clocking at more than 14 minutes. It has offered Hart ample opportunities to explore different musical territories and he takes that opportunity well. From the bluesy feeling in Mountains, we go to Captive To The Moon which has extensive synth solos over very nice bass playing, but without really touching an emotion. Towards the end, the tempo of the singing is much increased which I didn't like.
The next song Nobody Watches The Sunrise is a very slow ballad with piano and electric guitar supporting the nice vocals. It floats fluently into the more rocking Color Queen with a nice instrumental centrepiece in which bass player Mike Ewers excels with a really fine solo.
Unfortunately the vocals in the next two songs are very mediocre and without any emotion, but just loud. It especially spoils Eyes Of A Child which has a good melody. The short instrumental Round The Bend is a welcome resting point, and although not very special, it is a good listen.
This alternation of rather good musical parts with mediocre ones is exactly how this album develops. Most of the time we have competent music, now and then a highlight during a solo, and many different musical styles on offer without really shining in any of these. Sometimes a choice doesn't turn out for the best, such as the wordless vocals in Zeta or the acceleration of the vocals in Sacred Woodlands, but these moments are always followed by more attractive passages, such as the recorder-led coda in the latter, or the fine piano opening of Go Away.
In the description of the band Jethro Tull is mentioned as a reference but I don't hear that at all, as the folky side of their music is almost absent. Instead I hear hints of such diverse bands as Frequency Drift, Styx, Echolyn and Glass Hammer with some spicy snippets of Jon Lord in-between which pretty much sums up the wide range of styles you'll encounter on this album. Fortunately there are few low points, although the vocal part of Ain't No Hell For Sinners comes very close to being almost unbearable. Closer Listen To Your Heart is as close as a band can sound like Rick Davies' Supertramp.
I couldn't help feeling that I was listening to the recording of a well-elaborated musical when going through this set of songs. Most of the songs contain extensive vocal passages with loads of text (which were not sent with the files, alas). Individual songs have individual moods. Although they go smoothly from one to the other, there is no central musical theme. The songs are nice but not great. Mostly there are no stand-out vocal parts or attractive instrumental solos. It is all well done. It is all varied, and it is an excellent example of what this group of musicians is capable of, but it didn't ignite a spark in me. And with a total playing time of more than one-and-a-half hours, this set is quite a long listen.
Not a bad album at all, simply an album that doesn't appeal to me much. But for fans of the bands mentioned, this may be a true discovery!
Subterranean Masquerade — Mountain Fever
I first stumbled across this Isreal-based band with their wonderfully-exploratory debut album The Great Bazaar back in 2015. Initially a studio project headed by it has since evolved into a fully-fledged band that has played and toured extensively, building quite a reputation for their colourful blend of multi-ethnic and musical stylings.
Mountain Fever is the band's fourth full-length offering. Most reviews I have read of this so far have become a collection of gushing adjectives. I'm afraid I have to differ.
Some songs work for me. The folksy closer Mångata has a gentle arrival with acoustic guitar, some great keyboard details, a soaring guitar solo and almost whispered vocals. It builds up its intensity nicely but retains its dreamy atmosphere. Ascend has a great groove, some delicate instrumental details and a pleasing melody.
Opener Snake Charmer has a pop-rock bent with a memorable guitar line and strong vocals. It's four minutes always zip-by. It blends seamlessly into Diaspora, My Love, which offers a dreamy prog-rock composition before it takes a weird path to an ending with semi-death, semi-shouted vocals.
This is always where I loose my confidence and feel for this album.
The title track changes things up again with a lovely, dance-y groove that will be a blast in a live setting. The vocals start off in a melodious pop-rock vein, before being mixed with an exaggerated squealing backing vocals and death growls. The sudden shift to Balkan brass and African drums halfway through is odd.
Inwards mixes Arab, Balkan and rock and metal instrumental motifs with a sweet and female-sounding male vocal. It sounds messy to me; like a kid in a Lego shop matching random pieces together to make something bright and colourful but rather pointless. A few more death growls, a proggy synth solo, and some theatrical spoken words are thrown in for no apparent reason. Oh and there's a sax' solo at the end too!
And so it pretty much continues, in a mish-mash of multi-cultural rock-metal tropes. I can appreciate the ambition, but it leaves me annoyed and confused. For the Leader, with Strings Music is a slab of Zappa-meets-ethno-death-metal that I only need to have listened to once in my life.
On Somewhere I Sadly Belong, we have vein-bursting, screamy lead vocals, over some soulful backing vocals from a West-End musical, followed by death growls. By this point, I have sadly concluded that I belong elsewhere.