Chain Reaktor — Homesick
Being involved in Silhouette, one of the better acts in the Dutch progscene nowadays, seems to enhance much other musical creativity, leading to several side projects that saw the light of day since the release of their fifth album The World Is Flat And Other Alternative Facts in 2017. Keyboardist and composer Erik Laan collaborated with fellow Dutch prog musicians Han Uil and Aldo Aldema (of Egdon Heath fame) in the 2018 Tumbletown project Never Too Late while singer and guitarist Brian De Graeve made a fine album in 2020 with his wife Marjolein under the Realisea moniker. Meanwhile drummer Rob van Nieuwenhuijzen and lead guitarist Daniel van der Weijde are involved in the new Incidense album that has yet to be released while the latter also seems to be working on a solo album. And according to their website Silhouette is also recording new music.
Yet the aforementioned Erik Laan found the time and the inspiration to record another album entitled Homesick, this time with his talented sons Bart (guitar, flute, vocals) and Arjan (drums & percussion). To emphasize the fact that they form two generations of musicians they choose the name Chain Reaktor, a chain reaction of musical talents that is passed on. Both sons also play in Dutch band Skylake who released their debut album In Orbit in 2019: there's quite some creative activity in the Laan family!
This new album has seven tracks written and performed by the Laan family while Bart also took care of the production. Aldo Adema did the beautiful artwork. They asked their friend Mark Op Ten Berg to add the bass parts to the album. I guess that having their own recording studio at hand will have been extremely convenient to find the time and the patience to work on this product. And they have every reason to be proud on the end result.
Stylistically, the music is slightly heavier than Silhouette's music, yet the distinctive harmony vocals and the extensive instrumental passages that are landmarks in the music of that band are present throughout this album also. The musical similarity with Silhouette is the most obvious in opener The Day That Never Came. After the beautiful opening with the fabulous sound of a singing male blackbird (yes, definitely one of the most beautiful bird songs to be found) the bongos come in after which Erik and Bart together with guest vocalist Suzan van den Engel (also of Skylake) sing some wordless vocals, soon to be followed by the full band. What follows is an intricate and varied epic full of wide synth chords, fine guitar outbursts and a good vocal melody sung. Around the 7-minute mark there's just guitar, percussion and soft synths that introduce the slightly heavier end section of this very attractive song that ends with the bongo theme and the wordless vocals of the intro.
This fine coda smoothly develops into the melancholic intro of Lonely City with piano, flute and majestic electric guitar, reminding me of Steve Hackett's debut Voyage Of The Acolyte. Some 1.5 minutes into the song the pace is speeded up to become a fine up-tempo rock song with good riffing, excellent drumming and a vocal performance that almost reaches beyond the limits of Erik Laan's voice. Towards the end there a very nice short guitar solo accompanied by those same wordless vocals that were also prominent in the opening song; cleverly done.
Shortest song Enjoy Your Life is built upon a nice piano theme that is picked up by the guitar. Halfway there is an outburst on guitar that gives the song a fine aggressive edge. That part is far too short, though. The tempo slows down again and it becomes more ballad-like once more and albeit that it sounds beautiful, that aggressiveness was a real asset and should have lasted longer.
Again the transition to next song The Lying King is very smoothly done and passes by almost unnoticed. Here there is some fine heavy riffing that forms the core of the verses while the very appealing chorus is organ dominated with some beautiful violin in the background. This song is primarily vocals with instrumentation that is remarkably sparse yet very aptly performed.
The title track starts mellow with just Erik Laan on electric piano and vocals, backed by beautiful violin played by guest musician Sophie van Zaaijer who also contributed to the latest Silhouette album. The song develops into a midtempo ballad and has a melancholic and mournful saxophone solo around the three minute mark, played by Martin Streckfuss. Halfway the vocals stop, the bass and drums start to play more up-tempo and then give way to a powerful, extensive and melodic guitar solo with wide synth chords in the background. Bart Laan shows his talent on his instrument here fully; if somebody would say that this solo is played by Andrew Latimer (Camel) or Nick Barrett (Pendragon) he would easily convince anyone! The solo lifts the already strong song even more up to become a real highlight of the album. Maybe therefore the album was named after this song, maybe it was, as rumours go, primarily a song that is inspired by a few lockdowns too many. The coda of the song is a furious interplay with fine guitar riffs, complex drumming, fierce synth notes, good singing by Erik Laan and Suzan van den Engel.
Next song Stop Yelling proved to be the most difficult to adapt to for me. On first listens the time signature isn't just weird, it doesn't seem to match with the vocals (or the other way around). Slowly the melody builds up to culminate in a recognizable chorus after some three minutes after which the apparent mismatch continues. But of course it isn't a mismatch at all, it is a syncopated rhythm one has to get adjusted to. And that turns out well but only after quite some spins. The song also features some weird synth sounds, metal-like riffing and that quite peculiar time signature. But at the 6:30 mark a flute part starts a transition towards a totally different mood with a more straightforward rhythm and a directly appealing chorus line. It leads to a fierce guitar work out that ends this song.
In spite of the big change in mood the musical structure of the song works quite well; it is more experimental though than the rest of the music on the album and that creates quite a challenge for the listener. Nothing wrong with that unless you start with this song and get the impression that their music is all like this. It isn't, which is nicely illustrated by the album closer A Thousand Diamonds, a slow ballad with again a fine vocal melody that would easily fit into the style of, let's say, Pendragon or The Alan Parsons Project. Nothing experimental here, just tight playing with very fine bass and drum lines.
If some small criticism has to be given than it has to be the vocals. These are well performed throughout the album but also sound a bit flat. The voices of Erik and Bart Laan are very much alike, a bit high pitched and powerful enough but lack distinctive expression. That makes it difficult to carry the full weight of an album. Adding somewhat more emotion or rawness in the singing or maybe adding another voice with a really different sound may help to vary more in the vocal department which will be beneficial to the music.
Having listened to this album many times I can only conclude that this is another very nice, melodic, well played and highly enjoyable record from musicians that are in some way connected to Silhouette. This album will certainly appeal those who like neoprog in the vein of Mangrove, Egdon Heath and Flamborough Head to name a few Dutch prog bands, as well as to fans of IQ and IO Earth. I needed numerous spins to get acquainted to the many gems this album offers but it proved more than worthwhile in the end. And isn't that one of the characteristics of a really good album? So, without hesitation, this is highly recommended but take your time to discover the music as it is not an easy album to get into.
Wojciech Ciuraj — Kwiaty na Hałdzie
A quick recap: Wojciech Ciuraj is best known as the guitarist and vocalist in Walfad, a modern Polish prog band that has released four albums so far. Wojciech is also a solo artist, taking an opportunity to explore musical styles and lyrical themes outside the Walfad template. His debut solo offering was Ballady bez Romansów. However, several years ago, he announced plans for an ambitious trilogy of albums covering the Silesian Uprisings.
The Silesian Uprisings were a series of three uprisings from August 1919 to July 1921 in Upper Silesia, which was part of the Weimar Republic at the time. With each album, Wojciech Ciuraj aims to mark the 100th anniversary of each of the three uprisings. The first two albums (Iskry w Popiele and Dwa Żywioły) duly covered events in 1919 and 1920 and were reviewed by myself in a special edition earlier this year. You can read it for more about the historical context for this trilogy. Kwiaty na Hałdzie (Flowers On The Slag Heap) is the closing episode.
The third Silesian Uprising was the last, largest and longest of the three wars, and included the Battle of Annaberg (dealt with in the eighth song on this album).
For Wojciech, this trilogy serves not only to tell the stories of these conflicts that shaped the future of this region of Europe, but to also offer a glimpse into the wider culture and history of his region, especially its rich musical heritage.
On this final chapter, Wojciech contributes guitar, mandolin, keyboards and vocals, supported by local guest musicians on bass and drums, extra keyboards and solo guitar and vocals. A hurdy-gurdy and saxophone are used to bring fresh textures, in the way that the harmonica and trumpet were utilised previously.
The thing I have enjoyed about this project is the way that Wojciech has clearly grown and learnt lessons at each step, and used them to make the following instalment even better. On Kwiaty na Hałdzie the compositions, the production, the vocals and musicianship, and the story-telling in the booklet, show the benefits of this process. Again it is all sung in Polish, but there are English translations of all the lyrics, along with some great imagery and photography, which allows one to follow the story.
Musically this album veers more towards a varied showcase of different art-rock styles; largely leaving the more traditional Polish neo-prog behind. Whilst obviously best-appreciated as part of the trilogy, this is an excellent stand-alone album for anyone who enjoys varied and progressive art-rock.
Czas wyboru is a lively, up-tempo heavy prog opener with the Hammond organ and piano adding some great textures. Kontury is more balladic, channelling Floyd with a hurdy-gurdy. Z kamienia i nocy offers mid-paced art rock built around a solid military beat, before a wonderful sax' and Hammond section.
On Znikąd (w zasięgu kościelnych dzwonów) some atmospheric vocals glide along on a lovely, lilting guitar line. Bitwa o Górę św. Anny features captivating traditional rhythms over a clever use of the mandolin. Then with a section featuring the sax it gets more angry.
Dom stoi tam gdzie stał is a more reflective piece featuring the hurdy-gurdy again to create some textured, autumnal colourings. It is one of those albums that one needs to listen to as a whole, to enjoy the wonderful musical picture that has been painted.
Wojciech Ciuraj should feel proud to have completed this trilogy to the high standard that he has. His passion for both the subject and the music shines throughout. If, like me, you enjoy a combination of historical story-telling across a rich and varied musical landscape, then this is a project well worth exploring.
Different Strings — The Sands Of Time
Different Strings are a progressive rock project from the mind of Malta based musician, Chris Mallia, and this is his fourth release under the name. Although it seems the band have made little ground outside of their home country, Chris has also carved a career in teaching music in all aspects from theory and instrumentation, to recording and composition.
The Sands Of Time is a concept album, and all the usual concept album hallmarks are present. We have overtures, interludes and reprises, songs that flow into one another to create seemingly longer pieces, and a small collective of guest musicians and vocalists. Chris lists his influences to include; Pink Floyd, Genesis, Dream Theater and Rush. All bands who have produced some of the greatest concept albums ever to grace the world of prog.
Yet, The Sands Of Time doesn't feel much like a concept album, but rather a collection of sometimes impressive, and sometimes rather disappointing songs that have had a story forced upon them to create something that works very well in parts, and falls apart in others. The album starts and ends brilliantly, but the middle section contains some simply poor songwriting choices that just ruin the flow of the whole record.
The opening actually reminded me of one of my favourite albums of all time, Salem Hill's 2003 release, Be. The gentle, acoustic guitars and soft, melodic vocals are a fine introduction to the record, and set the scene nicely. We then have a Neal Morse style overture, that contains some incredibly perplexing time signatures, but is otherwise a joy to listen to. Poverty And Agony is also very impressive, there are some wonderful vocal harmonies from Andrea Casali, who's main band are multinational progressive metallers IceFish. While I feel Andrea does a decent job throughout this album, he is honestly far better suited to the more technical, prog metal of his day job.
One of the albums stronger points comes in the form of the title track. This is a monster of a song and shows clear evidence that Different Strings could one day become the prog rock powerhouse they clearly think they are. Everything falls into place here, the song goes through two main phases, the Floydian opening and middle section, and a more metal, almost Vanden Plas style ending section. The song itself is superbly written, the use of acoustic gutars and 70's string pads at the beginning are absolutely beautiful. The song then builds slowly into a powerful instrumental section, gradually getting heavier with keyboards, guitars and mellotrons all battling together in a way that reminds me of Spock's Beard, as well as UK prog rockers The Reasoning. The excellent guitar solo here is courtesy of Kurt Aquilina.
However, this is where the flow of the album is spoilt for me. Ten Dollar Love is an abomination of a song, what were they thinking when they wrote this? This was even released as a single to promote the whole album. Vocalist Annemarie Spiteri is not suited to this at all, her performance comes across as something you would hear in an amateur theater production, it completely ruins the track and brings the momentum of the album to a complete halt. Had this track alone been left off, it would have made a huge improvement to the ebb and flow of the album.
The record struggles to recover its momentum until the very end. Both The Plan and Castles In The Sand are average at best, and compared to some of the more inventive material earlier, they come across as a little lazy. Although the closing section of Castles, does contain some rather nice backing vocal harmonies. Fortunately the closing duo, both reprises of the two opening tracks, mean the album does finish, as it began, on a much higher note.
While there are moments throughout The Sands Of Time that are really impressive, ultimately they are few and far between. There is no single section that really stands out, except the one that stands head and shoulders as the single worst part of the album. Perhaps many prog fans will find something they enjoy here, but still I can't find anything that elevates this material into anything above average. I found the bands 2015 effort, The Sounds Of Silence Pt II, to be a much more interesting and varied album overall, and would recommend that as an introduction to the music of Different Strings, should you choose to delve further in.
Napier's Bones — The Fields
Three years after the enjoyable Monuments, with a free compilation album Five Years In The Woods wedged in for good measure, Napier's Bones have returned to the playing field with The Fields. As all of their previous efforts it involves a concept, this time focussing on the years that followed after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century. A time when fast growth of industrialisation, inflation, starvation, political agitation and governmental zero tolerance was the order of the day. On the 16th of August 1819 on St. Peters Fields, Manchester this led to a peaceful campaign of reformers fighting for the right of assembly, extension of voting rights and freedom of press. Confronted by a cavalry of Hussars and Yeomanry this tragic event became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
With The Fields Nathan Jon Tillett (vocals), creator of the superb talkative artwork, and Gordon Midgley (musical octopus, lyrics, backing vocals) have once again crafted a wonderful album which is slightly darker in comparison to Monuments and drenched with exuberant prog influences ranging from the 70s and 80s and takes some highly appreciated unexpected turns.
One of the outstanding qualities of their previous album Monument is Tillett's strong minstrel resemblance, a distinguishing feature now somewhat departed as it doesn't entirely fit The Fields' concept. Tillett's versatile vocals, incorporating a wide range of emotions and feelings, prove to be just as sufficient at least and creates the perfect expressive narrative to the story. An impressive accomplishment which is paralleled by Midgley's compositional overhaul which reveals some great hard rocking songs to go along next to the beautifully eclectic and progressive orientated songs. Mixed together it makes the dire aggressive circumstances of the album's gruesome tale come fully alive.
From The Fields acoustic opening with a folk atmosphere, touching mellotron and lush keyboards stages the sceneries adequately with Tillett's vocals adding drama and melancholy. Mindful to Haze and a tasty synth movement it shapeshifts through various moods where darker oppressive atmospheres and delicious guitar melodies compel, deepened by thorough multi-layered instrumentation which adds psychedelic darkness. A fresh wave of synths, converging with majestic melodies also manages to bring out Mach One memories.
Thriving on great lead guitars Something Changed brings strong Pink Floyd vibes, surrounded by machined electronic atmospheres and fine melodies reminiscent to Airbridge and shimmering with Tamarisk resourcefulness. Tillett's performance in the mysterious and historically futuristic One More Lost ignites lamented Geoff Mann impressions amongst a church of Hawkwind synths. The desperation felt through Tillet's performance as well as the superb intensity build up makes it one of the album's highlights. The way in which the uplifting folk melodies and depth of vocal harmonies of the subsequent A Better Way's bond towards a a strong camaraderie feeling is also nicely done, which applies to the Genesis style appeal as well.
Up to this point the sound of Napier's Bones building their own challenging progressive compositions based upon classic prog sounds is spot on with many Eighties references to be found. The brilliant Restoring Order changes this completely as it involves hard rocking riffs with a doom feel that brings immediate Black Sabbath associations. To my delight the swirling synths and Tillett's powerful expressions in combination with the darkness surrounding the song magically enters the realm of American hard-rock obscurity Sorcery, known from the illustrious Stuntrock movie featuring Dutch actress Monique van der Ven. A most satisfying surprise and one I'd wish they'd explore some on future albums.
The acoustic and atmospheric surroundings of August Afternoon, portraying the gathering on this tragic day, broadens the scope of the story and works well within the concept, but one has to listen to the album from start to finish in order to appreciate it, for on it's own it doesn't work. What certainly does work is the great passion expressed in the vocals and melodies of Break Out, where the one man band (aka Midgley) plays on with rhythmic interaction and excellent bass play over dynamically raw hard rock influences. A lovely bridge with duelling twin guitars and a freely flying majestic rupturing end solo brings this story conveying song to a satisfying finish.
The excellence of Napier's Bones captivating storytelling on both lyrical and musical fronts is most apparent in the final two tracks. Aftermath, relating to Something Changed and One More Loss in more than one way, floats on similar recurring electronic atmospheres with refined psychological elements in which one can taste humanitarian loss through Tillett's melancholic performance weeping with tangible sadness and fragile sorrow. The marvellous Genesis inspired synth solo guided by suitably restrained instrumentation is a great way to end the song. Back To The Fields epic opening, viciously circling in delightful musical resemblance to album opener From The Fields, reprises repatriating ominous Black Sabbath battlefield riffs followed by tasty synths flashes and a passionate ending guitar, rounds off a well conceived concept album whose topic still resonates today.
The Fields once again shows that Napier's Bones have a masterly beautiful sense in constructing an intriguing concept album. The successful stylistic change from epic story telling compositions into a generously flowing cohesive gathering of compacted well-crafted songs share the same expressive strength, and sees some delightful heavily surprising elements which to my taste works out great.
Sounding ever so slightly more polished The Fields is as before still formalized in pristine organic roughness which works wonders in combination with Tillett's charismatic and passionate deliveries. Because of this and the lusciously sprinkled prog influences found on the album I'm more than once reminded of the authentic early days of the 'New Wave Of British Prog Rock' (NWOBPR) era. Fans of this particular period and those in favour of neo-prog will find much to their liking here.
Stonekind — Spirit Of The Void
Stonekind are a relatively new band from North-Carolina, USA. A duo of Jeff Ayers on drums and vocals, and Davis Templeton on bass and guitars. A few guests here and there, including the bass player who played on their debut EP, which was released two years ago. Said EP offered a good introduction, but this full-length album is clearly a next step.
Heavy blues-based psychedelic stuff - metal, psychedelic rock, and post-metal influences you hear in Russian Circles, Pelican, or Yuri Gagarin.
A great deal of breaks and changes and generally progressive song-writing is making it interesting for more DPRP readers than just those interested in psychedelic rock. Some songs are slower or taking a longer time to evolve, that's the doom intake. But take 2 minutes to listen to the short Ashes (Part 2) and you'll get the idea.
With more time to spare, take album closer Nomadic and pay attention to the build-up, or the levels of detail in production when two melodies in both channels tickle the aural part of your mind. Where psychedelic music can take you on a trip into space, this take you to the middle of a desert. But a trip nonetheless.
So whether you see it as a psych/doom approach to prog or the other way around makes no difference. It's both relaxing in places and sonically overwhelming in others, which is exactly what I like in music. The warm and deep voice of Jeff Ayers fits all this really well. All this results in a lovely debut album - however wrong the adjective "lovely" may sound for music like this!
If you buy the album on Bandcamp you get the nine tracks plus a gapless version of the whole album, making a gapless trip, which is particularly useful for an album like this.