Between The Jars — What's To Come
Paradoxically (or, perhaps, logically) prog's return to fashion also means that fashion has started returning to prog and sort of pushing new bands to use trendy things within the genre. That's what Between the Jars are offering to a listener; a very hip type of prog, the kind of music that goes well with craft beer, custom-made clothes and large collections of vinyl. So if you rate every new band depending on how similar it is to KC, VDGG or Yes, you probably won't be impressed by BtJ, as they clearly owe more to 90s-00s alternative bands, than to the mighty dinosaurs of the 70s.
If you are still interested, take the most psychedelic moments of Anubis or Hats Off Gentlemen, stuff them with a pulsating rhythm section (think Amplifier or Hypnos 69 or even the mighty Kingston Wall), add some Spiritualized-like atmospheres, and you may get the picture. Not the Hawkwind-type space-rock, and not the Ozric-type rave psychedelia. Which is a much-welcomed distraction from a throng of bearded owners of Orange amplifiers.
Oh, yes, the quality of sound is superb. The end result is crystal clear, with a good dynamic range and not over-produced. While I like the sound and the performance, my taste for the songs themselves varies from one track to another.
The Swarm was the piece that I loved upon the first listen, but then frankly grew colder to it. There is a heavy grunge influence detected here, which is not bad, but something is missing. Untethered, on the contrary is a dreamy, fluffy and psychedelic composition. In spite of what I am writing below, I absolutely like the vocals here. A really fine track; probably the best one on the record to test your audio system.
Passing Through is a ready hit, only getting better with further replays. Listen to this while driving through a night city.
All In Me is a decent track, but it is split into two parts filling 1/3 of the record, and I cannot give any motives on why to extend it to 12 minutes other than ... well ... it is still space rock, and one is presumed to have a jamming track with a loose structure.
As for the let-downs, I am usually quite tolerant to vocals, but the delivery here does not always suit the music well, especially in the heavy riffage parts. The vocals dwell in mid-register for most of the time, but the alt-influenced, last-stop-before-Cedric-Bixler-Zavala approach of hitting high notes is just not my cup of tea.
What's To Come is not a universally recommended record, but do not hesitate to put Between The Jars in your check-list if you like space rock and are not against a softer, alt-influenced sound. I do not have a crystal ball to gaze in, but my intuition tells me that BTJ are on a threshold of something bigger and this record is sort of a warm-up. The band's next effort has every chance of hitting the scene and attracting larger audiences to their music.
Tyler Kamen — The Cassowary Manifesto
Shortly after reviewing his previous album Mr. Loon And His Spectacular Machine, Tyler Kamen comes with a follow-up, a sequel to that story. Maybe it was written and recorded at the same time? Or maybe Kamen was in such a flurry of creative inspiration that it came all flowing out? I don't know, but the results are rather spectacular.
The Chapter tracks and the other very short tracks still remind me of the intermezzo's on Saga's Generation 13 but now also gave me a feeling of Grobschnitt at the time of Rockpommel's Land. I find it a little distracting because I prefer psychedelic music to take me on a trip, while spoken words tend to bring me back down to earth. But I understand that when telling a story you need things like this.
The music contains even a few more influences than before. There's some more moments of Max Webster proggy madness (Exotic Birds, Mr. Loon's Artifact Shop, Seeds), and grooves like Blue Öyster Cult (Trials Of Thoth). Some tracks are like a modern version of early Pink Floyd, or The Doors mixed with The Beach Boys (Hibiscus Bloom) in trippy-ness and good, catchy songwriting. An abundance of those lovely layered melodies of two or more instruments, intertwined, harmonising, then battling.
The total sum makes your head spin; exactly what music like this is supposed to do. Just overwhelming, banning out that disturbance called life, touching epic prog at times. And it seems there are more moments (Trials Of Thoth) where Kamen lets the guitar take the lead, but still accompanied by multiple layers of keyboard and other guitar melodies (Snafu's Animal Sanitarium). These sections really take you to other places. Another thingthat music like this should do to make me like it.
Such a short while after the predecessor of this album, Kamen manages to take a step and make an album I like even more. Hence the higher score.
Tony Kaye — End of Innocence
For as long as Tony Kaye has been a prominent figure in the rock music scene, it is difficult to believe that End Of Innocence is his first solo album. Well, technically, it perhaps isn't. In 1987, the solo debut from the Yes keyboardist was announced by the 'Cinema' label, which was an offshoot of Capital Records. Regrettably, 'Cinema' ceased operations before that happened and the recording has likely been languishing in a vault for the last 34 years. That circumstance, made the news of this release all the more intriguing. Finally, we would get to hear a Tony Kaye solo album.
End Of Innocence tells the story of 9/11 and plays like a keyboard-infused soundtrack to the events back in 2001. Tony created this 70-minute suite in honour of those who died, as well as the many who were affected by the terrible circumstances of that day. The story is structured chronologically, and upon initial listens it is easy to get distracted by remembrances of the time. Kaye doesn't shy away from that possibility and even includes soundbites from the period.
The mix of chaotic and heartfelt moments provides a showcase for Tony's exceptional talent and range. It is a keyboard album in the classic sense and features some of the finest performances of his career. Much like former band-mate Trevor Rabin, Kaye could be an accomplished scorer of films. There is a sweeping, orchestral quality to much of the suite and the compositions are inspired.
I don't want to create the idea though that End Of Innocence plays like a traditional film score. It is a work that is full of musical variety, including some well-placed jazz and rock moments. Sweetest Dreams (sung by Kaye's wife, Daniela Torchia), serves as an interlude from the mayhem and is a strong reflection of the emotion of that day.
End Of Innocence is a dramatic, and at times devastating listen. Kaye began work on the album on 9/12/2001 and it is clear that he was moved to create something cathartic and hopeful out of a terrible situation. It is a brave and ambitious accomplishment.
Time flies, and with the current chaos of our times, 9/11 seems long ago. Tony's exceptional suite of music serves as a reminder of the heartbreak, compassion and heroism that was displayed at a time of tragedy. It should be mentioned that 10% of all profits from End Of Innocence are being donated to the charity that supports veterans, defenders and first responders in times of hardship.
Rain — Singularity
With a line-up incorporating two highly-esteemed prog musicians who played in one of the scene's finest bands, this new band Rain sets the anticipation bar quite high.
The band was formed as a rock project by Rob Groucutt (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Mirron Webb (vocals, guitars), Andy Edwards (drums, ex-IQ) and John Jowitt (bass, also ex-IQ). They recorded this debut Singularity during the recent lockdown period.
The album comes in a very attractive gatefold carton with a brightly coloured painting by Matthew Bourne on the cover. The artwork in the booklet is half colourful and half black background with white lettering which works quite well. That tasteful artistry makes the choice of the spread photo in the centre of the booklet even more incomprehensible: that photo is grainy, not in focus and Mr. Jowitt looks as if he has just been condemned to a lifetime jail sentence. Where's an art director when you need one?
What I really like is that the band took the effort to provide some background to the title of this album. It may not be completely comprehensible, the effort is highly valued and the text serves as a good introduction to the not-so-optimistic lyrics of the songs. And that is a good thing too.
The album consists of five songs ranging in length from seven minutes to almost thirteen. As fond as I may be on epic tracks, this album is regrettably another example of how size doesn't always matter. For having listened to the songs several times, I can't help but feeling very disappointed with the music on offer here. Maybe it is that the music is more jazz-rock or experimental-orientated than the prog rock I expected. Maybe the songs are a bit below par. The fact remains that I simply couldn't relate to the songs.
It starts immediately with opener Devils Will Reign. The song doesn't have an intro, it suddenly plunges in and that doesn't work for me at all. Fortunately the vocal melody is harmonious during the first three minutes and singer Mirron Webb has a pleasant, somewhat hoarse voice that fits the melody perfectly. The harmony vocals with Groucutt in the chorus work well too. So it is a promising start.
But then, after some three minutes, the mood changes, the tone of voice lowers more than an octave and the music starts to become sinister. Worse, is that the lyrics become very repetitive which is saved just in time with a very fine acoustic guitar solo. It forms the intro for the last part of the song that is more up-tempo and optimistic in tone, again featuring those fine harmonies. The big changes in moods made me think slightly of UK on their debut which is not a bad thing at all. The end of the song is as sudden as the start was; it just ends, in nowhere.
Next song, Dandelion, is an up-tempo, rocky affair with a fine, pumping bass and drum rhythm supporting restrained guitar riffs, an appealing vocal melody and fine, pulsating synth sounds. It's uplifting, almost danceable and made me think strongly of Spandau Ballet. Around the four-minute mark Groucutt starts a fast guitar solo that ends far too soon in a strange, jazzy interplay between guitar and keys. From there on the song loses structure and the music becomes experimental and slightly disharmonious. Fortunately the band recuperates in time with a fine guitar-driven outro to save the song as a whole. A bit of a strange song that really needs time.
The first and the longest epic, Walk Away, is by far the most accessible song of the album and therefore the highlight for me. It starts in a fine, mellow mood with vocals that are reminiscent of Camel in their early years: soft, not upfront in the mix, well done, not very special but fitting well in the music.
After three-and-a-half minute Groucutts' guitar takes the lead for a fine solo, supported by wordless vocals and developing into an acoustic guitar interlude. A bit of Fairport Convention meets Porcupine Tree and it works well. The vocals rise in prominence and become really powerful, to give way to some wordless singing again, with the guitar in the background. That part forms the start of a jazzy last part of the song in which the same lyric lines are sung over and over again, while it is not even a chorus. Then the band starts their jazz-rock thing again with a powerful guitar riff, a strange rhythm and a vocal melody that seems to do its own thing without giving any attention to the rest of the music. It all ends in a mellow coda with the opening lyric lines repeated endlessly. Although this end section could have been stronger, this is quite a fine song and a good indication of what this band is capable of.
Unfortunately the worst is yet to come. The next epic, The Magician, starts in the same mellow vein as the previous song but the big difference is that the vocal melody is not half as strong. Soon it turns out that the musical mood is totally different, with weird synth sounds, similar weird bass and drum rhythms and distorted vocals that sing irritating lyrics with much repetition in the words. This is a sort of experimental musical territory that remains totally alien to me: no harmony, no flowing melody, no rocking energy. It goes nowhere during its more than 11 minutes. The lyrics suck and it is all very irritating. A total failure.
Alas the title track isn't much better. It starts with subtle piano, which soon becomes distorted and disharmonious. There are snippets of those extremely irritating vocal lines from the former song, as well as other vocal parts of previous songs, replacing ordinary, decent lyrics. The booklet doesn't even present the lyrics, which says it all. The music on which these lyrical snippets are uttered is primarily a soundscape without any build-up, let alone a climax, a real melody nor a high point. It is an amalgamation of the four previous songs but worse, and with its almost nine-and-half minute it lasts far too long; half that time would have been too long.
Maybe the IQ connection of this new band stood in my way of judging this debut in its own right. Fact is that I suspected something in that vein but it most certainly isn't that at all. If there is a connection then it may be with Mike Holmes' soundtrack of Subterranea or Regeneration by The Lens, also dominated by Holmes. The five songs on this album are primarily hinting at experimental jazz or not-too-complex jazz-rock, without coming near to the many fine examples of strong songs in that vein. Without harmonious melodies, appealing hooks or attractive musical ideas, this album turns out to be a big disappointment. The chances are minimal that I will ever return to it.
Mickey Simmonds — Mickey Simmonds 3
Mickey Simmonds' name may not instantly ring a bell, but his resumé in progressive rock is certainly impressive. He has lent his keyboard talents to artists such as Mike Oldfield, Renaissance and Camel. Perhaps best known though is his collaboration with Fish, where he co-wrote and performed on many of the former Marillion vocalist's early solo material.
As the title would suggest, this is Mickey's third solo work and serves as a heartfelt tribute to Keith Emerson. The vast amount of respect that he has for the legendary keyboardist is very apparent. Though most of these songs are titled as 'Ideas', this is not a collection of improvisations or demos. Instead, each composition is meticulously crafted and expertly performed.
There is not a single cover version of an Emerson-related song, yet the album still plays like a retrospective of his career. This is accomplished by way of Simmonds' note-perfect interpretations of Keith's musical mannerisms and style. There is a range of genres covered, including symphonic, jazz, blues, ragtime, rock and prog. Quite appropriately, there are even some affectionate modernisations of classical pieces.
Ultimately, the key to the success of this album is how well the material stands up on its own. Simmonds is an outstanding keyboardist/composer and these eleven tracks are a testament to that fact. This is an old school keyboard recording of the highest order and the performances are often stunning. He modestly refers to this release as a "small homage", but it actually stands head and shoulders above many of the Emerson tributes that preceded it.
The decision to create an original work, inspired by his musical hero, feels more profound and sincere than if he had taken the typical path of recording cover versions. By presenting his own vision, Simmonds not only respects the maestro who inspired it, but also showcases his own significant and truly underrated talent.