Amanda Lehmann — Innocence and Illusion
For anyone who has listened to a Steve Hackett album released in the last decade, Amanda Lehmann is likely a familiar name. She has been an impressive element of both his studio and live output. In the marketing for this release, Steve states that she "is the new British talent with a range of expression, rarely heard on a debut album."
Not faint praise from a legend, but a cynic could argue that his comments represent appeasement for a sister-in-law that he spends holidays with. Thankfully though, any such accusation would be erroneous, because his accolades are legitimate. Innocence And Illusion is a splendid album, loaded with a vast amount of musical depth and variety.
Who Are The Heroes is an adventurous opening track that reflects not only the influence of her years performing with Hackett, but also the grace of Kate Bush. That comparison also applies to Tinkerbell, which displays a whimsy that is characteristic of some of Bush's earlier material.
As an example of the musical variety contained on the album, Only Happy When It Rains is a jazz/blues number that sounds completely genuine. At times, when musical artists veer out of their comfort zone into other genres, the results are not convincing. That isn't the case here. Be it the straight forward rock of The Watcher and Forever Days, the balladic Memory Lane or the anthemic We Are One, there is an authenticity to whatever style Lehmann attempts. That variety, along with the cinematic quality of the song-writing and performances, will absolutely appeal to progressive rock fans.
The success of this release is aided by the involvement of some talented friends from Hackett's band as well as Steve himself. Also, the instrumentation and production work of Nick Magnus is a key strength. Ultimately though, this is absolutely Lehmann's achievement. Her compositions, guitar work and distinctive vocals are superb. To echo Steve Hackett's praise, Innocence And Illusion is a formidable debut from an accomplished artist. There is a confidence, flow and significant quality to the album that is absolutely worthy of attention.
Little King — Amuse De Q
Two years ago Little King released a 'bloody tasty rock cocktail' in the form of Occam's Foil. Cast in a combustible amalgamation of powerful alt-rock, indie and prog, the EP contains a thrilling collection that left me thirsty for more. I need a larger glass once again, for Amuse De Q has replenished me!
Recorded during the pandemic, reflected in the illustrative artwork and lyrics addressing amongst other topics quarantine, mental health and domestic violence, Amuse De Q sees band leader Ryan Rosoff (guitars, vocals) team up again with Manny Tejada (bass, backing vocals) and Eddy Garcia (drums). And right from the off, they mean serious business.
Vigorous opener Bombs Away marks an instant return to their energetic roots, rocking like it's 1976 and blazing with catchy riffs amongst vibrant Rush influences. It's the perfect opener thriving on dynamically tight interplay in which 'slappin' of the bass', tasty licks and melodic leads from Rosoff, is surrounded by rolling melodies whilst a punk-like attitude brings welcomed edginess.
Keyboard Soldier packs an aggressive punch with an equally exciting punk vibe, which personally reminds me of Green Day, although I could be proven wrong as my contemporary Punk knowledge is relatively limited. The formidable twist provided by His Eclectic Highness makes all the difference though. Upfront, the energy level is intense. Rosoff's compelling vocal sees Jack Blades (Damn Yankees) expressiveness, while infectious grooves and riffs spur the song on enticingly. Halfway through it suddenly unwinds in a psychedelic Cream-inspired bridge, which brings a lighter atmosphere.
The band then takes a softer approach with How Could You, where a surprise lead vocal from Jessica Flores alters Little King's sound momentarily to one of catchy, alternative rock with a brooding Patty Smith / The Brain Surgeons feel. At times an eastern vibe comes to the fore to which vivid violin parts (Christina Hernandez) and touching cello administrations from David Hamilton add a lush, folk-like atmosphere.
The upgraded and slightly polished production, in comparison to the bold and greasy sounds of Occam's Foil, manages to bring out more subtleties. Set It Down sets a good example. A song filled with bright ideas, it temporarily tones down the intensity of the album, featuring some lovely percussive touches by Bryan Bowles. It is pushed onwards in a subdued mode, by a wonderful moving bass foundation that's embraced by graciously harmonising vocals of Rosoff and guest vocalist Becca Gonzalez. The beautiful melody-laced composition finally settles down with timely touches of sparkling keys by Asher Syrinx, Rosoff's son.
Melpomene showcases Little King's intricate refinement, supported by emotive cello from Hamilton, and lines up the two final entertaining tracks, both harbouring a distinct, yet different, Rush feel.
Amuse de Q glides through engaging guitar melodies that display a lovely Alex Lifeson sound before becoming a Garden of Eden in the tasty, up-tempo bridge that splashes with overwhelming waves of early eighties Rush. With moving violins and cello sensitivities, this heavenly song is a fine example of the band in their finest hour. Well, five minutes of the hour anyway, going to eleven if one includes Omega Son's burning sensation.
Unleashing brutal aggressiveness, surrounded by mighty melodies and raging vocals, it soars in a delicious headlong flight with galloping drums announcing an impending apocalyptic doom. The groovy melodies ride stridently onwards into a furious assault from a frantically soloing Rosoff. With music and lyrics in perfect unison, the melodies shift through various moods to descend in reassuring, mildly-uplifting atmospheres before Little King's three horsemen assume control one final time with a superb coda which ignites visions of a flaming red star. A grand finale to this mini-album/EP.
Overall Amuse De Q shares the same delightful musical excitement as I received from Occam's Foil. It's slightly less eclectic in nature but this pays off by showcasing great consistency which sees some superb compositions. This is especially the case when Little King touch upon Rush territories and let their chemistry fly free in a musical formation that resonates 'The Holy Trio' in every aspect, with a crowning glory to be found in the title track and Omega Son.
Revisiting Occam's Foil in the process, I find that I really enjoy the heavier side of Little King's eclectic spectrum. It is here that the band excels and displays outstanding musicality met by tantalising 'roughness' and an immaculate drive. I hope for their next effort, which is currently being written, that they continue to explore this Rockland some more. For simply stated: Amuse De Q Rawks!
Resistor — The 5th Season
Resistor's sixth studio album, The 5th Season was released back in May and, with apologies to the band, we here at DPRP have been somewhat tardy in reviewing a band that has consistently provided top-notch prog throughout their 13-year history. Can it really have been 13 years since their epic self-titled album was released?
With an unchanged line-up of Barry Farrands (drums, vocals), Fran Turner (guitars, backing vocals), Steve Unruh (guitars, vocals, flute, violin) and Rob Winslow (bass) the quartet have become established on the US prog festival circuit, releasing live albums of their performances at 2012's ROSFest and 2017's Progstock. The music continues to be written collaboratively, making each album a genuine group effort and ensuring the band keeps their own identity. Given Unruh's involvement in numerous other musical endeavours, as well as a fine solo career, this is an important defining factor.
The twin guitar assault of Turner (left channel) and Unruh (right channel) is another differentiator and gives the group flexibility when playing live, to maintain a guitar presence while Unruh adds flourishes to the songs on flute and violin.
One can always guarantee an epic number on a Resistor album, and not because that is the 'done thing' in prog, but purely because that is what the music dictates. On The 5th Season, the opening track, Winter, is said epic.
Starting with a chill, icy wind blowing through the speakers, Farrands sets up a military-style beat to which the other band members soon take up. There is no rush into a headlong assault, Resistor are confident enough to build things gradually, working their way up to a more measured assault. As I have no doubt said before, dedicating one channel of the stereo spectrum to each of the guitarists works brilliantly, particularly in this number, as the guitarists have unique roles within the song, best enjoyed via headphones. Superbly structured, reaching several crescendos and a marvellously unexpected slower ending, Winter is an excellent start to proceedings.
Saint Iris has a folkier feeling to it, with violin taking a prominent role, both bowed and pizzicato. There is a single verse of lyrics, which is repeated twice, although the piece would have been just as strong as an instrumental. I can seriously imagine Fairport Convention having fun covering this song.
In contrast, Seraphim is more lyrically intense with the vocal lines largely dictating the wonderful melody, which is beautifully replicated by the twinning of Turner's guitar and Unruh's violin. A lovely song.
The shortest piece on the album is a duet for three instruments entitled Cricket Season. It is a duet, as it only features Turner and Unruh, with the latter doubling on flute and violin and the former contributing acoustic guitar. I have no idea if the cricket referred to in the title refers to the game or the insect; as an Englishman, I naturally prefer to think that it is the game, particularly as the indolent, bucolic nature of the piece lends itself to a slow Sunday afternoon sitting on the village green, drinking ale, accompanied by the sound of leather on willow!
Things are taken away from the weekend bliss with Till Spirits Rise, a rather more mysterious number with some excellent violin playing and a nice bit of wordplay on the word 'till'. The last minute of the song ramps up the volume and activity, but suffers slightly from a rather predictable ending. I would have preferred it to jump straight into the fast and furious riffing that opens Aurora, a song that leans more towards the heavier side of the band. Again, the split channel guitars are revelatory.
Midway-through there is a reprieve from the heaviness, as Unruh switches to flute and then resumes vocal duties, but the relative peace lasts for mere two minutes before it is back to the heaviness. With a fine instrumental performance from all four members of the band, the piece bounds onto a climatic finish. If The 5th Season was a vinyl album then that would have been a great place to conclude proceedings, the two strongest songs topping and tailing a respectable 39-minute album.
In that respect, the final piece, Falling Snow, can be regarded as a bonus track. Not that its inclusion on the CD is not warranted, it is a fine piece of improvisational music that has been edited for brevity and spruced-up with violin and vocal overdubs. It just doesn't seem to enhance to the overall flow of the album, even concluding with a reprise of the icy winds, doesn't really tie it in to the rest of the CD.
But that is a very minor quibble, as overall Resistor have once again delivered to their potential, making this album a highlight of the 2021 prog releases.
Timelock — Stay Awake
Like a bolt from the blue comes a familiar name from the classic era of Dutch neo-progressive rock. Timelock had two albums released on the legendary SI Music label between 1992 and 1994. After the label's sad demise, a further two albums were released between 2002 and 2008. Since the band's last release, Buildings, very little, if anything had been heard from the Timelock camp.
Then in June, a press release announced the release of a new EP containing four tracks, which would act as a palate-whetter for a full album later this year. Along with new music, came a band with not just new members, but many more than in its previous incarnations. We now have the addition of a second keyboard player, Arjen van den Bosch, who adds what is described as orchestral keyboards, plus two additional singers in the shape of Laura Eradus and Coby van Oorschot. The press release states this adds a Nightwish feel to the new music, but I found little comparison with the aforementioned band on the four songs offered here. This is not to say that what is presented is bad, far from it. The listener is offered four songs which have a modern post-rock feel, neatly melded with lavish slabs of classic neo-progressive rock giving a slightly nostalgic feel to the tracks.
The opening title track is listed as a 'single edit', which alludes to the hope that there is a longer version waiting in the wings to be included on the forthcoming album. Stay Awake is a good reintroduction to the band, and cleverly displays the band's improved sound. The harmony vocals opening the track have an almost festive feel, before the introduction of the main riff, which has an 80s pop feel, similar to A-Ha. Big keyboard sounds add the neo-progressive element, reinforced by the brief guitar solo giving a Marillion feel. The track reminds me of when Twelfth Night were forced by Virgin to release an edited version of Take A Look, in that there feels to be much more to this track, and the editing has taken out some of the better bits.
Next up is Chasing Shadows, a vast improvement from the previous track. Much more up-tempo and rockier, with a catchy hook and some great keyboard fills, à la Martin Orford-era IQ. This track certainly promises some good things to come.
Crazy Life is slow song, full of atmosphere which slowly builds, but unfortunately comes to an end just as I was expecting a soaring guitar solo to take place. So sadly this track falls a bit flat for me.
Last up is Forgotten Words, which is the most different track on the album. Beginning with a jaunty keyboard passage before heavy guitar takes over, it creates the most proggy sound on the album, with a clever instrumental passage, where at last we are treated to a wonderful guitar solo, with the rest of the band creating a terrific backdrop.
The EP serves as a great reintroduction to Timelock, and leaves me with a very optimistic outlook for the forthcoming new album. Hopefully, the full version of Stay Awake will pay off in being a great song, and if it offers more music like Chasing Shadows and Forgotten Words, then it will be a welcome return for Timelock. On the evidence of this EP, I will certainly keep a look-out for the full album release.