Fragment Soul — Axiom Of Choice
Fragment Soul emerged from Greece in 2016, with their debut album released this year (2021). Interestingly, they have managed not one, but two spectacular guest appearances on the album with Heike Langhans and Egan O'Rourke from the death/doom titans Draconain and Daylight Dies respectively. This, coupled with the bands citing of Katatonia as an influence sounds like a perfect mix.
The album opens the track A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies, a lengthy number at over 13 minutes long. It gently guides you with a sound reminiscent of the likes of Riverside or (later) early Anathema with influences quite clearly being worn openly. Slow and melodic with a strong sense of melancholy behind it, the track sets the scene well.
A Choice Between Two Evils starts quietly before the band kicks in. Continuing the slow pace, the song carries on with the melodic vibes from before. However, I must admit it doesn't evolve much more than this. It's still enjoyable, with the vocals of Nick and Heike working well together.
Second to last, we have Every Heart Sings a Song, which actually starts of quite similar to the previous track. Gentle and minimalistic while keeping that same “grey and sad” style to it. Again unfortunately, it doesn't grow much further than the last one with some smatterings of heavier moments. Finally, we have Oedipus Complex. An instrumental and minimalist one that leads the album out with some fantastic piano work from Vangelis.
Describing the album as metal may be a bit far, it is on the dark side of rock though and is absolutely melancholic. My main issue with the album is the limited changing and evolution of the songs, and they are maybe a bit too long. If there had been a few minutes trimmed off each, and this presented as a 30-minute EP, I feel it would have worked better. All in all, not bad, but just shy of the mark for me. But as a first album, it does show room for improvement, and I think these guys will manage.
If you're a fan of the dark rock sound of Katatonia, or the melodic and sad sounds of late 90s Anathema, or the melodic rock of Riverside, then you should like these guys. It contains all the elements that make them, just spread over long and slow songs.
Himmellegeme — Variola Vera
Purveyors of darkly-moody neo-prog with a twist, Himmellegeme have released Variola Vera, their follow-up to the well-received debut Myth Of Earth. The title of the album is a name for a milder variant of smallpox and fits in with the theme of the album, on the impact that humans have made on the planet and on the people who live on it.
Himmellegeme have two winning aspects to their sound. The first is the superb singing of Aleksander Vormestrand (also guitar) and the slide guitar and lead playing of Hein Alexander Olson (lead guitar). Not that the other members are slouches. Lauritz Isaksen (keyboards), Erik Alfredsen (bass) and Thord Nordli (drums) have a less-is-more approach to the rhythmic support, and the keys fill out the sound brilliantly. They give focus to the melodic lines sung by Vormestrand and allow room for Olson's non-flashy but prominent guitar playing.
The album opens with a pair of great tracks. Shaping Mirrors Like Smoke is all swelling keyboards and vibrant guitars, with a pin-sharp slide solo. Heart Listening adds in acoustic guitars and layered harmonies with guitars and keys that nod to the ambience of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd.
More acoustic moments fill out the instrumental closing track and also on Brother, a ballad of considerable beauty. Vormestrand's voice echoes Radiohead's Thom Yorke at his least mannered. On Let The Mother Burn they build post-rock style to a drama-filled climax with powerful dynamic changes. The best track, and the only one sung in their native tongue, is Agafia. It opens with tricky electronica and quiet, picked guitar that then glitches into a cracker of a tune with sheets of slide guitar.
Not all the tracks on this two sides of vinyl length release are as strong as these though. Caligula's punchy, stabbing riffs and hard-rock style chorus, complete with backing singers, is just about to tip over into repetitive before it is saved by a scorching guitar solo and a rare synth solo. Blowing Raspberries' take on commercial pop-prog has an 80s A-Ha or Duran Duran feel. It's insistent and finally irritating guitar figure outstays its welcome; This time, the short solo fails to save it for me.
Himmellegeme's Variola Vera would have received a recommended rating if it had a couple of more tracks of the great standard of most of the songs, then the pop and hard-rock influenced tracks wouldn't have stuck out quite so far. But don't let that put you off listening to this fine album, especially if you have, as I do, soft spots for RPWL, Gazpacho or Airbag.
Muddles — Mind Muddling
Alternative French rock band Muddles introduced themselves in 2019 with a three track EP simply entitled Muddles. Their blend of female-fronted gothic rock, post-rock and metal appealed to many which opened the way to record a full-length debut album. Mind Muddling saw the light of day this summer and contains ten songs, two of which also appeared on the aforementioned EP.
The band consists of drummer Fabien Dunoyer, bass player Mario Light, guitarist Jérôme Pelouin, and vocalist Barbara Mogore. Needless to say the latter is the main focal point in the band, both because of her tall, tattooed and handsome appearance but primarily because of her formidable voice. She can whisper soft and ethereal, sing very powerful as well as easily reach the high notes. A good example is opener Collapse in which Mogore shows her full vocal potential singing the fine vocal melody convincingly, meanwhile reaching the really high notes almost effortlessly. Think of a combination of Evanescence, Touchstone and Arch Enemy and you'll be quite close to what she has to offer on vocals.
The musical backing of heavy guitar riffing, heavy bass plucking and heavy drumming is very tight and solid with only limited room for soloing. In that respect they resemble some bands they mention as their inspiration, such as The Gathering and Lacuna Coil. To my taste more guitar solos would have been more than welcome to widen the musical variation even further; the fine but short guitar solos in Untouchable and Human Aptitude tasted more than good.
The song-writing is also tight, with guitar riffs as the principal basis of the music, although Toxic Friend is primarily bass based. The music isn't fully packed, there are numerous more open moments which I found attractive. And although the melodies seemed to be quite similar at first listen, the songs develop and become more distinct when you get to know them better. And isn't that a characteristic of a good album? With an average length of well under five minutes there is also ample room to experiment further if they want to.
Yet listening to this album proved quite hard for me in the beginning, because of two things the band should have avoided altogether: grunting and talkative singing. Mogore's voice, as well as her reach, are wide enough to sing varied vocal melodies which makes grunts and talkative singing completely unnecessary. Listen for instance to Deep with its pumping rhythm, strong vocal lines that tend to screaming (but not really) and good riffs and you hear this band at their strongest. But take for instance We Are Not Alright and Djentleman and you'll hear female and male grunts are all over the place. While in September Day and Human Aptitude Mogore grunts and talks which doesn't make the music any better. Without these elements I may have liked these songs.
Yet I can honestly say that the album grew on me over time. Maybe they should listen again to bands like The Gathering and Within Temptation which both started off as death metal acts with the seemingly indispensable grunts but skipped that after two mediocre albums, thus becoming very successful international acts. With their musicianship and fantastic vocalist Muddles has, everything to follow that path too...
Geoff Proudley — Tales From Strange Travels
Now here's a name I recognise from the days of The Marquee back in the 1980s when Geoff Proudley was the keyboard player in Coltsfoot, alongside Roger Patterson (guitar, bass, vocals) and Stuart Martin (vocals). An earlier version of the band, before Patterson joined their ranks, had released a couple of cassette EPs but the band only really made an impression with the rather spiffing cassette album, Action At A Distance released by the trio in 1987, which included contributions and a co-write with a young Steven Wilson. Having a more pastoral and folkier sound and arriving towards the tail end of the so-called second wave of progressive rock Coltsfoot never really made their mark and were somewhat hampered by Patterson living a distance from the other band members and having an ongoing solo career. Rather belatedly, the A Winter Harvest CD was released in the mid 1990s after which the band just seemed to evaporate. Proudley, however, was able to maintain a musical career by writing music for radio and television, particularly for BBC programmes.
In 2019 he re-entered the commercial music world with the release of a digital EP, Quark that saw him returning to a more progressive style of writing. This was expanded on during recent lockdown resulting in the new instrumental album Tales From Strange Travels, a loosely conceptual album about a fantastical journey. Performed entirely by Proudley using a range of keyboards the music does fall largely into the progressive category although there are some surprising contrasts between and within pieces. For instance, The Grand Entrance shifts from a solo piano to a monstrous metal riff in the blink of an eye.
Proudley is a fine pianist which is displayed on several tracks when the piano is cleverly blended with other keyboard sounds to create some lush and melodic pieces than range from the melancholic (Brittle Star) to the dramatic (Until The Darkness Leaves You) to the lively and more freeform (Tales From Strange Travels). The electronic keyboard based tracks include the proggy One Way In But No Way Out (well at eleven minutes it couldn't be anything but prog!) although the opening does remind me of Vienna by Ultravox; then there are the more jazz rock inflected excursions of Fuse and There's Many A Slip 'Twixt Cup And Lip and the pure electronica of Overclocking.
One can tell that Proudley's career in writing for broadcast media has given him experience in eliciting emotions and moods through subtle touches and inflections as the ostensibly simple Do You Dream Like This? demonstrates. However, the consideration that has gone into selecting the right sounds, such as the lovely bass, pays dividends as the atmosphere generated throughout the piece shifts as each new keyboard sound is introduced.
Overall this is a very accomplished 'soundtrack' album that demonstrates the depth of talent that Proudly possesses, both as a performer and as a songwriter/arranger. The only mildly negative thing about the album is the places were the electronic drums are too prominent (the start of Opening Moves and throughout Return To Skara Brae in particular) but that is no doubt a personal foible of my own dislike.
Overall fans of keyboard prog albums will find much to enjoy in this album which is well worth a listen. As if making up for lost time, Proudley is near completing a second lockdown album based on the life of Katharine of Aragon, that should be released before the end of the year. So that is something to look forward to, if like me, you enjoy Tales From Strange Travels.
(And I didn't mention Rick Wakeman once. D'Oh!)