Lee Abraham — Only Human
Hot on the heels of Harmony/Synchronicity and the CD credited to EchoRain, comes another solo album from Lee Abraham, who must have got bored waiting for Galahad's new album to be completed!
As ever, Lee's 'go to' drummer Gerald Mulligan is present throughout, with lead vocals sung by Marc Atkinson (Only Human and Falling Apart) and Peter Jones (the rest). Rob Arnold contributes piano to Counting Down and Only Human. Mark Spencer adds backing vocals to the title track.
As one might expect, the main inspiration for the album lies behind the covid pandemic and associated lockdowns. So there is a fair degree of introspection in the lyrics but they are more about attitudes to life, living and adapting to the moment, rather than counting down the days until the inevitable end; contrasting 'then' and 'now' and considering what the future will be like.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the last sentence contains the title of the opening number Counting Down, a 30-minute epic split into four sections with Jones handing all the lead and backing vocals, which it has to be said are very well incorporated, particularly on the last section. Rather than being a massive display of complex arrangements and all-out displays of prog virtuosity, the song is based on a series of melodies that are linked together in an excellently fluid manner.
That is not to say there are not several impressive solos along the way, as Abraham unleashes several that display his guitar skills (and why his first album as lead guitarist for Galahad, Seas Of Change, was greatly anticipated and appreciated). The variety of melodies makes the song fly by. It is almost as if the individual parts are separate entities, despite the fact that there is an inter-dependence running throughout. On the whole, this is a very mature piece of writing, offering something rather different from what one might expect from a prog epic, and all the better for it.
Jones sings on two other songs on the album, the first of which, Days Gone By has an almost 80s feel to it, largely due to the drum pattern employed. It could almost have been programmed, however the fills ensure that the listener is fully aware of the presence of a live drummer. A rather abrupt ending suggests that ideas on how to transition out of the chugging riff were somewhat lacking, giving a rather unsatisfactory conclusion to the piece.
Better-by-far is The Hands Of Time, which despite some of the lyrical lines, contains a very positive message of living for the day and not being dragged down by things that one cannot influence; always looking forward and not back. The extended instrumental section is a delight, although perhaps the conclusion with the chorus repetition could have been a tad shorter.
Atkinson, who must have one of the most emotive voices in the prog sphere, does a fine job on the title track with a refrain that sticks in the brain long past the completion of the album. A minor criticism is that the main guitar solo is of a similar style to the one on Counting Down and perhaps could have used a different musical palette to add a degree of variety. Falling Down is another song that benefits from the backing vocals adding contrast to the main vocal line. It is also a rather simple song that could easily be slipped into the repertoire of more AOR/MOR focused bands which should not be taken as a criticism! Nice to hear a bass solo on a song as well.
This ninth (or tenth if you are inclined to include the EchoRain release) solo album by Abraham is a fine addition to his catalogue and contains much to be enjoyed. It is a very satisfying album in that it instils a sense of calmness and well-being. Alternating the vocalists between tracks in the running order is a clever trick to add a degree of differentiation, and the performances from all the participants cannot be faulted. The very many personal, national and international negatives of the pandemic have been at least been partially alleviated by some fine musical releases, of which Only Human can proudly be included.
Alessandro Corvaglia — Out of the Gate
For those who do not fully embrace the fact yet, we live in an imperfect world. There are struggles, bigotry, hypocrisy, pandemics and wars, touching every square of the globe.
In a perfect world, Italian vocalist Alessandro Corvaglia would definitely be a top class rock star, who'd sing in stadiums next to Bruce Dickinson, Dee Snider, and Bob Catley. It's a pity he does not share the same well-deserved fame, but on the other side, we prog-heads, still have him here to grace our ears.
Since the release of La Maschera di Cera's Petali di Fuoco in 2009 I've fallen in love with Alessandro's voice and talent, and looked everywhere for more material with him behind the microphone. Hell, I would have bought a deluxe edition of Alessandro singing Mother Goose rhymes, if there'd be one.
The singer has a superb tone, both raspy and melodic, going easily from soft to aggressive when the song structure requires it; exactly my idea of how a rock vocalist should sound. The amount of passion that Alessandro puts, is comparable to Francesco Di Giacomo from Banco del Mutuo Soccorsso or Pierre-Yves Theurillat from Galaad. Which is a much-welcomed change from the lukewarm, hoodie-wearing and intentionally-languid music from the top of today's charts.
Alessandro's solo album is definitely prog-rock, with classic rock components prevailing or at least equalling the prog element. Fancy some mid-career Mystery with a stronger accent on acoustics, or Fabio Zuffanti paying homage to Magnum instead of baroque music. The music is not excessively complex, but always intricate and multi-dimensional, growing upon you with every new spin.
Preaching On Line and White Ghosts are swinging rockers with phenomenal vocals, bouncy bass, soaring guitars and 80s-style synths. The Night of the Eyes along with And the Lady Came In are beautiful instrumentals not unlike music you'd find on La Maschera di Cera's LPs. The closing title track Out of the Gate is Pendragon / Twelfth Night's worthy kin, full of epic passages and melodies.
Notice that although this is a vocalist-headed record, it still contains three instrumentals, showing the skills and musical class of the other band members. No-one releases a solo record without honourable guests, and musicians from bands like Hostsonaten, Delirium, Ubi Maior, and even Matia Bazar (!!!) do a fine job here! The entire 55-minute disk is perfectly mixed, with songs well-positioned and all the jigsaw pieces are combined in a coherent picture.
I should admit that some of the usual charm is lost, because Alessandro sings in English instead of Italian, the latter always used to bring even extra expression to his delivery (refer to Petali di Fuoco once again). However, please, Alessandro, do not stop building your solo career!
Hanlon's Razor — Paradigm
After many years of playing in Terranian Louis de Roo (guitar, vocals, bass, mandola, keys) and Frank Maarsen (vocals, keys, guitar, bass, double bass) decided to put the project to rest in 2018. With only demos to show for their past efforts, the duo decided during the 2021 covid lockdown to revisit these recordings and develop several songs into their first effort Paradigm. This has been released under the new moniker Hanlon's Razor. Completing the line up is Vincent Frijdal on drums, while bassist Arco van Dam is featured on the album's title track.
The band is inspired by several movements within the progressive rock genre, ranging from Pink Floyd and Genesis, to Porcupine Tree and Anathema. Many of these influences have indeed found a way into their music, captured on top of a firm 70s base.
The opening of Wake for instance flashes The Who, after which light psychedelics and a quiet passage, provided with fine keyboard play, slowly forms a gently-gliding composition that intensifies as it progresses. As the song picks up pace, guitars add a vibrant organic feel and keys enhance the song's atmosphere into Porcupine Tree expressions as classical themes make their way into the composition. The vocals of Maarssen do feel somewhat forced, an aspect also found in the fiercely rocking End Of The Line, where a refreshing jazz intervention on guitars adds a wonderful dimension.
Paradigm follows the same sort of musical approach as Wake, with great melodic guitar work gliding over acoustic refinement and atmospheric keys. Rippling onwards with restrained play, the song passes into a fine movement dominated by beautiful swirling keys in Wish You Were Here style. Shortly after, it dives into rugged terrain with an excellent guitar solo, although the transition to this exciting segment is rather unpolished.
Fringe follows with textural, groovy complexities with jazz and blues seeping through, which in a way reminds me of Wishbone Ash. In subdued style and with care for arrangements the nicely flowing melodies befits Maarssen's voice, something which equally applies to the subsequent Beautiful Fail which shows mellow passages as well as psychedelic 70s-inspired rock.
Finally it's Two Shades that smoothly sails onward on bluesy guitars and soft, reflective melodies that perfectly portray the album's cover. De Roo's voice is slightly more monotonous but compensates with power and warmth, somewhat mindful to Marco de Haan (Morgendust). It's only in the final moments that the song gains momentum and the tempo changes reveal a final guitar solo that takes the song home.
Overall a fine debut filled with nice ideas and several leads for a sequel. A little more attention to arrangements and an improved sound would positively influence the end result. And in the odd chance a vocalist would step up to the plate, they could be well on their way. Worth exploring.
Marillion — With Friends At St David's
In-between their highly acclaimed 2016 studio album F.E.A.R. and the recording of a new one due next year, the Marillion guys took some time to record a couple of their songs with the six classical trained musicians that had supported them earlier during a couple of Marillion weekends and the 2018 Royal Albert Hall gig.
The result was the 2019 album Marillion With Friends Of The Orchestra, a rather lacklustre title for a phenomenal album that I personally rank as one of their best. Of course a tour with those friends followed, taking them to many places in the UK and the European mainland. I saw them in the Vredenburg venue in Utrecht in The Netherlands and was deeply moved by the performance, the musical quality and the overall atmosphere, both on stage and in the audience.
Now we have this DVD of the tour with a similar lacklustre title and (spoiler alert) similar quality. Although it was a long wait because of a minor global problem with some tiny but rapidly mutating organisms, the result was worth the wait.
For Marillion With Friends At St. David's, recorded at St David's Hall in Cardiff on November 16th, 2019 is absolutely fantastic in every respect.
To begin with, the set list is utterly superb, with Gaza as the grandiose opening (sound wise far better in balance than during the Utrecht gig) and two of their real epics, Ocean Cloud and Strange Engine played as encores, divided by one of their most beautiful pieces, Fantastic Place, stretching the encores to more than 40 minutes!
Furthermore, the quality of the sound is exceptional with the violin, viola, cello, flute and French horn clearly audible and the video quality is top-notch, both during the wide views and when focussing on the individual players. This film shows Ian Mosley as he really is, quietly playing his invaluable drum parts, zooms in on Pete Trewavas' bass plucking on just the right time, features details of Mark Kelly playing the keys and captures Steve Rothery at close range during his numerous emotional solos. Of course the camera also focuses on the always expressive Steve Hogarth while never forgetting to highlight all six musicians behind the band, who clearly enjoy their part in this gig. Listen for instance to The Sky Above The Rain or Beyond You and you'll witness a new depth while enjoying these songs.
What makes this DVD really stand out in the already vast range of Marillion DVDs is the awesome quality of the film material. All images are on time, razorblade sharp and with good lights. Take for instance the close-ups of the members of the string quartet In Praise Of Folly while playing. They are concentrated, are really 'into' the music they play, yet keep a keen eye on their fellow musicians while exchanging the occasional smile or wink. These are details you'll never witness when in the audience and in that way they form a real asset that makes it worth purchasing this DVD set.
Another really nice asset are the views from the side of the stage into the audience with the band and their friends playing. St. David's Hall is not a really big venue but it is a really nice round one with different layers of enthusiastic people enjoying themselves enormously. Marillion hadn't played here for a long time: Hogarth admits it was the Brave tour when they last visited this venue, which was indeed a really long time ago! The light show, more restrained than I remembered it from the Utrecht gig, works well, as do the supportive images in the back of the stage; during Zeparated Out it is a very essential element of the enjoyment.
As always many of Hogarth's announcements are entertaining; when he speaks of him joining the band back in 1989 he describes the moment as “adding an impurity to an already shining diamond”. That's pure poetry. In the case of Estonia his announcement is deeply moving and emotional but in a different way than you may anticipate; just watch it yourself! Yet he forgets to introduce the four individual members of the string quartet which is a flaw. Maybe he didn't remember their names as the composition of the quartet changed between gigs, as the nice booklet meticulously states. Most importantly his singing is great throughout the show, in sharp contrast with their previous DVD featuring the friends of the orchestra during the second part of the 2018 Royal Albert Hall gig.
The musical performances on offer here are quite close to the versions they recorded on the studio album. That alone is a huge achievement to do live and illustrates the quality of all musicians on the stage. To add to that this live DVD also offers the thundering rendition of Gaza which is far better than the original studio version. Another asset is the alternative rendition of the 2001 song Zeparated Out in which the four ladies of the string quartet excel while playing the famous riff of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir as the middle part; goose pimples all over the place!
The bonus material features a superb rendition of A Man Of Thousand Faces with the friends of the orchestra as well as a professional choir. Their voices add another layer to the music during the first half of the song, singing some wordless sounds, then after the break they sing along with the lyrics in different ways. Together with the intricate 12-string guitar strumming and the subtle piano, this creates maybe the definitive version of this fine song. It is also great to see the sheer pleasure of the classic musicians when hand clapping with the Band at the start of this song; they simply have a great time which is probably one of the major reasons why this musical combination has turned out to be so attractive. I'd love to witness an interview with them in which they could have shared their experiences during this tour; too bad that isn't included in the extras.
This minor critic hasn't prevented me from giving the highest score to this gem. Go for it, this DVD is absolutely stunning!
Noisy Diners — The Princess Of The Allen Keys (The History Of Manto)
The Princess Of The Allen Keys (The History Of Manto) is part one of an envisaged three-part rock opera by means of which the Italian composer, musician and theatrical author Fabrizio Dossena with his band Noisy Diners wants to express his gratitude to and appreciation for his hometown Mantova in Northern Italy.
As the title in brackets suggests, the story, which is based in parts upon Greek mythology, but also includes mere fantasy elements, deals with the foundation of Mantova, inspired by the legend of Manto, daughter of the blind visionary Teiresias. However, letting this title melt on my tongue, not only did I wonder what the Princess of Allen Keys has to do with the city of Mantova, I also asked myself how the two parts of that title fit together.
Presumably, the character of the Princess relates to a contemporary, existing person: from what I understand of an interview given by Fabrizio Dossena, she is his partner (and in any case, Allen keys have nothing to do with ancient Mantova). I thus assume that the title of the entire rock opera is The Princess Of The Allen Keys and that the text in brackets is not a commentary, but a sort of subtitle to make clear what the first part is about. I guess that parts two and three will shed some light on the mystery of the relation between the princess and the city.
The trilogy starts with the fate of Teiresias and Manto's escape from Thebes to Etruscan Italy following his death. Then the love affair between Manto and the river god Tibrys, which results in the birth of their son Ognus, said to be the founder of Mantova, whilst the lakes surrounding the city are attributed to the tears shed by Manto over her fate.
The rock opera is the way to transform this legend into music, introducing various characters with a view to mixing fantasy and historical tradition. We have Teiresias (sung by Stefano Boccafoglia), Roman poet Virgil (with the voice of Nad Sylvan), Manto (with Donata Luani on vocals on almost every track), Charon (performed by Aran Bertetto), The Princess Of The Allen Keys (sung by Beatrice Cotifava), and the Narrator (by the name of Antonio de Sarno). Interestingly, the traditional founder of Mantova does not appear with a role. Maybe, part one of the opera wants to tell the story of the person of Manto after all, and not the one of the city? To be continued...
Besides the vocalists representing the various roles in the opera, Fabrizio Dossena (12-string acoustic guitar) gathered a team of musicians around him, with the intention to cover as wide a spectrum of musical backgrounds as possible, i.e. prog, psychedelic and punk rock, jazz, folk, and classical music. The musical cast includes Davide Jori (electric guitars), Cristiano Roversi known from his activities with Moongarden, and Submarine Silence (keyboards, Chapman Stick, classic orchestrations, guitars), Erik Montanari (electric and acoustic guitars), Ezio Secomandi (drums), Mirko Tagliasacchi (bass), and Mauro Negri (saxophone). The music was written by Cristiano Roversi, Davide Jori and Fabrizio Dossena, who is also responsible for the lyrics.
Irrespective of whether and how each musician yielded his/her musical influence, the overall outcome clearly is 70is symphonic progressive rock, early Genesis-style. Now that this basic pigeonholing is in place, let us try to adopt a more subtly-nuanced perspective.
The Genesis influences, which are also characteristic of peers such as Unifaun, The Watch, Mangala Vallis and LogoS, become apparent in a Peter Gabriel-like singing style (with Nad Sylvan's voice being the main reason for that impression), the vintage sound of keyboards (Mellotron and organ-arpeggios, synthesiser solos), and the interaction of acoustic (12-string) guitar and mellow keyboards.
However, Noisy Diners' music goes beyond being a mere stereotype or a "me-too" release. This is because being a rock opera, the music displays different formats with respect to the vocals, something I consider as an element of diversity, particularly evident with respect to Donata Luani's voice (and the "duel" of vocals between Virgil and Manto in the eponymous two-part track).
Furthermore, the music combines the retro-sounding 70s style with neo-progressive elements, which are reminiscent of bands such as IQ, Karnataka, Galadriel, Agents Of Mercy, Cosmograf, Flamborough Head, and Citizan Cain (and quite a few others). Seen that way, Noisy Diners certainly do not reinvent the prog rock wheel, but provide for easy-to-digest, accessible, smooth (but not too polished), and catchy melodies and arrangements. Their music neither demands everything from someone, nor does it swamp the listener by confronting him/her with undue complexity. However it is challenging and sophisticated enough to keep the audience's attention focussed throughout.
I particularly liked the soft, slightly melancholic touch of and the emotions inherent in the tracks Duel pt. 1 and 2, the two other "shorter" tracks plus the opener Tiresias, mainly because of their subtle keyboard work. On the other hand, to my ears, the guitar solo at the end of Manto And Tibrys, and the lengthy, jazzy sax solo in The Princess Of The Allen Keys were a bit irritating.
Prog rock aficionados with nostalgic feelings about early Genesis and with an affinity for music created by bands such as the ones mentioned above, can't make many mistakes with this release, which, since being accessible and catchy, also appeals to music lovers wishing to become more familiar with prog rock altogether.
This album has whetted my appetite in two ways. I look forward to a musical continuation of the story, and I will definitely pay the city of Mantova a visit on the occasion of my forthcoming trip to Northern Italy. Insofar, Noisy Diners' The Princess Of The Allen Keys is efficient publicity, both for the prog rock genre and for tourism.
Sam C Roberts — Escapism
Birmingham (UK) resident Sam C. Roberts is the bass player with the prog-power trio Oktopus who had their album Worlds Apart reviewed here at DPRP. As that band seems to be on a long-term hiatus, Mr Roberts has been keeping his hand-in with a couple of solo releases, 2018's Fragile Cities and July 2021's Void Tempest. Following on from the latter, is this new release, the EP-length, Escapism.
This EP delves into different moods and styles of prog-rock and has the feel of tracks that didn't quite fit onto a longer release in terms of style or mood. Although Sam C. Roberts does say that the EP has an overarching theme to it ("about dreaming and distraction through fantasy"), these are mainly science fiction inspired.
With the help throughout, of drummer Nick Hartland Escapism kicks off with two slabs of high energy jazz-fusion. ROBOTRUMBLE (Boss Fight) is a kick up the backside, no fade in, heavy mix of synths and fusion bass, with a boundless tune and an energy that never flags. Things ease up with the Return To Forever stylings of Blue Hydrangeas. Its keyboards and electric guitar, by his Oktopus bandmate Alistair Bell, spar to great effect.
Sam C. then changes pace with the fretless bass-led Dunes Divided. The tempo increases as it goes along and Sam C.'s singing style is somewhat like Steven Wilson's. Tapping percussion and strummed, reverb-laden guitar accompanies the spoken word story-telling of Drifter, and on the introspective Silent Window the ghost of Jaco Pastorius haunts the vibrant bass playing. Then there is a bit of a left-turn into clever art-punk with Take To The Water's punchy chords closing the EP.
Sam C. Roberts Escapism has a restless energy and a sense of exploration in its travelling from fusion to punky prog. Tuneful throughout, it displays all sides of Sam C. Roberts' talents as a player on basses, punky guitars, keyboards and synths, and as a writer and arranger. One to keep an eye on.