Hayley Griffiths Band — Live At 't Blok
There are many ways for artists to try to grab the attention of an audience that is not yet familiar with your music. Hayley Griffiths, former lead vocalist of Welsh prog-rock band Karnataka on their well-received 2015 album Secret Of Angels, thought it would be a good idea to introduce her band to the world by releasing a CD/2DVD-set of their gig at the tiny 't Blok venue in the Dutch town of Nieuwerkerk aan den Ijssel during their 2019 debut tour.
I think that such a daring initiative is more than worth checking out. But was it such a good idea?
Hayley Griffiths is a classically-trained singer with quite some experience. She has been active in the classical scene for a large number of years, performing amongst others in Michael Flatley's Lord Of The Dance and Riverdance. She joined Karnataka in 2013 in a line-up that would only last for three years (which seems to be the case with most line-ups of that band). Now she fronts her own band featuring former Karnataka band-mates Jimmy Pallagrosi on drums (who also produced this set) and Cagri Tozluoglu on keyboards, alongside Mathieu Spaeter on lead guitar (formerly part of Franck Carducci's band) and Jordan Brown on bass.
This very competent combination of musicians works their way through the 17-song live set with enthusiasm and tightness. Only three cameras are at work during the set, featuring mainly on Griffiths' singing. That is a good choice as she is undoubtedly the focal point of the band, given her tall appearance and lavishly-red long hair but foremost her good singing. Fortunately there are numerous detailed images of the musicians at play but the overall variation in viewpoints is rather low. That made me a bit distracted towards the end of the 1.5 hour set which was certainly not attributable to the music that is on offer here.
The gig opens with the very fine Intro in which the band presents themselves playing an attractive blend of rock, folk-rock and ballad within just four minutes. Spaeter excels here with some fine and varied soloing, backed by good supporting keys. His playing makes me think strongly of former Karnataka-guitarist Paul Davies. Hayley comes in at the end of this intro with some vocal lines from the Karnataka track Secret Of Angels.
During the set almost all tracks of that album are played except for the title track, but all in shorter versions than on the studio album. These songs are alternated with the two singles she has released so far (Haunted and Aurora) and some songs penned by other composers. The encores are the beautiful, folky The Parting Glass with just Griffiths and Tozluoglu on piano, and the bluesy Feels Like Home seguing into a very convincing version with lovely guitar playing of Karnataka's You're The Reason. A worthy end for the show.
All tracks are medium length and have more of less the same pace. Therefore, it was a very good choice to include a short acoustic part (missing on the CD version) which contains one of the highlights of the set. Black Is The Colour is a slow ballad with just Griffiths and Spaeter playing on acoustic guitar, captivating the audience with a beautiful melody that is fully in her most comfortable range.
Another musical highlight for me is Mechanical Lives because of the extensive and fast guitar solo that lifts this song above the rest of the set. The other songs are pretty good-to-attractive but never excel in any way; just very fine music to listen to, not too complicated, sometimes a bit heavy, always very well played and never extreme.
Griffiths' voice is powerful, both in the lower and the higher regions, but in the latter her voice tends to be a bit shrill, which may not appeal to everyone. Being classically trained her pronunciation is also classical which is something you have to get used to. I found it very helpful to watch the DVD instead of listening to the CD; seeing Griffiths perform with the band is attractive and appealing and makes you forget her sometimes exaggerated, dignified pronunciation.
It is a great pity that the reactions of the audience are hardly audible, let alone visible. Not filming the audience may have been the consequence of the space limitations of this small venue but that's no excuse to fade out the audience reactions as well as the announcements. Especially after the acoustic set, the applause is quickly faded out which is a real shame.
But I would do this set great injustice if that would be a significant criteria for the rating. For this set is lifted above an average DVD-set because of the addition of a full-length bonus dvd containing partial recordings of an electric and an acoustic performance during the French Crescendo prog-rock festival in 2019 as well as an extensive drum solo and some interviews with the band.
The electric gig was filmed with a camera from the audience with fine images of the band performing. The sound quality is sloppy though, with especially the vocals far too low in the mix. What doesn't help is that the band was in worse shape than during their 't Blok gig, illustrated for instance by a remarkably low quality performance of Because Of You. The acoustic VIP gig is sound-wise better but maybe a bit dull to watch, as hardly anything happens on stage. The few people that are in view seem not too interested in the band (so why are they present then?). The acoustic treatment of the songs is interesting, with the cello and the piano as dominant instruments. None of the songs are entirely filmed for unknown reasons, which gives these films a demo-ish feeling. But hey, this is bonus material and you can witness the band perform again in two very different shapes while you also get some inside information during the interviews. So it is very much value for your money.
The Hayley Griffiths Band is a band we'll hopefully hear more of. There's much musical talent concentrated in the band which will hopefully result in some strong songs on a forthcoming studio album. This set gives a fine introduction of the band's potential. Maybe not all is as good as it could have been, but it is simply a good set to watch once in a while. Those who chose to attend the gigs at 't Blok gig or during the Crescendo Festival definitely made a good choice.
Mahogony Frog — In The Electric Universe
In The Electric Universe is Mahogany Frog's latest album. This Canadian instrumental band has gained many plaudits over the years for their adventurous style and contribution to prog rock.
Although associated with the Moonjune label, Mahogany Frog's style is not typical of the fusion bands and progressive jazz artists that make up a large part of that label's roster. Rather, Mahogany Frog's style is an interesting mix of 70s-style prog rock, supported by thickly-cabled strands of electronica, and a mushroom pick and mix of psychedelic influences.
Mahogany Frog creates music that blurs some usual conventions and conceptions about what prog is all about. Their tunes do not follow established song structures and their sound is often characterised by a closely-bound wash of instruments. These elements combined create music that has an abrasive texture and an often pulsating groove.
In The Electric Universe is an album that comes to life when it is played loud. Its closely-knit combination of electronic effects, layered synths and guitars, frequently weave a dense aural blanket. The cacophonous sound often favoured by the group during In The Electric Universe leaves no room for beauty or melody to play a major role. On the basis of this release, subtlety and elegance are not words that might be used to describe the band's approach to their art.
I must admit that I found the style and similarity of the band's sound throughout the release quite wearing.
The album does not appear to contain many unexpected changes in direction, nor changes in tempo. Although the longer pieces sometimes show some inclination to stretch-out, the music often develops slowly. Many of the tracks feature a steady torrent of sounds, where individual instruments and performers are often indistinguishable from each other.
If you enjoy albums where each performer is easily identifiable and given space to express themselves, then unfortunately much of In The Electric Universe will probably fail to impress. The tightly-bound arrangements ensure that there is little space for the music to breathe.
To my ears, the decision to meld much of the sound of the instruments into a rhythmic, pulsating mass, has the effect of placing a restrictive and tightly-sprung musical corset upon proceedings. The band clearly presents an identifiable style and sound throughout the album. They probably felt that any attempt to bulge-out or deviate from a defined path, in a show of flamboyance or virtuosity, was not necessary.
Interestingly, the running order listed in the credits above and on the CD packaging itself differs from the actual CD. My copy played the tracks in this order: Theme From P.D., Cube, (((Sundog))), Psychic Police Force, Floral Flotilla (Sail to Me My Love in Your...), Octavio (Including: The Ascension of the Moonrise Children). I can only surmise that this might be a manufacturing error, as the album arguably has a better flow using the official track listing.
The two longer tracks, Theme From P.D. and (((Sundog))) are not without their merits. Their length allows the band to wring every bit of life from each of the tunes predominant themes. I can imagine that people who enjoy the music of Mahogany Frog may well consider these two pieces as being the most rewarding on the album. The length of these pieces certainly enables the band to create a slowly-evolving, mesmerising groove of throbbing pulses and effects.
Theme From P.D. begins in an atmospheric fashion. It soon gathers energy, instruments collide and jockey for prominence as its thick cloak of heavy riffs and steady beats emerges. The tune is coloured and dressed by lots of whooshing and whizzing effects.
There is no denying that Mahogany Frog try to make their sound different and easily identifiable. Over the course of this tune, the band make a very fine ugly racket indeed. The instruments conjoin and coagulate to create a glutinous and gelatinous conglomeration of sounds. This solid mixture is partially softened by the droning or high-pitched reverberation of a variety of synthesised noises.
One of the few pieces that has some memorable and notable distinctive features is undoubtedly Octavio. It begins by gently utilising a flute-type effect. Later, a synth-led flourish boldly rises from the tune's jaunty, rhythmic background.
This piece also contains a satisfying change of emphasis to light-up proceedings when a clearly-defined, full bass sound emerges from the mix. Later, a twisting, twitching, distorted guitar solo breaks free from the swarming layers and dense keyboard textures to make a welcome appearance. It's probably my favourite moment on the album and ensures that Octavio is one of the highlights of the release.
I wish that I had found this album to be a consistently satisfying experience, but in the end I guess that the appreciation of music is all about personal taste.
Although I can appreciate the skill and attention to detail that the band demonstrates throughout, In the Electric Universe with its unusual mix of keyboard effects, layered textures and closely-bound instrumental sound, sadly did little for me.
Möbius Strip — Time Lag
During 2017, I was able to write about the merits of Möbius Strip's self-titled debut album for DPRP. Four years later, the band has released their second album.
In many ways, Time Lag is even more impressive than their debut. Many of the features that made the first album stand out remain. For example, the compositions are carefully crafted and magnificently arranged and performed. The band continues to incorporate a variety of styles into their music. These include jazz, jazz-fusion, and elements of Canterbury-styled prog. There are even occasions when their progressive attitude to their art includes some elements associated with rock, classical music and a knee-tapping hint of funk.
The line-up of the band has not changed and still consists of Lorenzo Cellupica piano, organ, keyboards and vocals, Nico Fabrizi saxophones and percussion, Eros Capoccitti electric bass and percussion, and Davide Rufo drums and percussion. In their debut album I enjoyed the way in which each of these instrumentalists interacted, to create a joyful and memorable ensemble sound. However, the overall soundscape of Time Lag has greater depth.
It is arguably made even more colourful by the contributions of a number of guest musicians. These include guitarists Simone Marcelli and Massimo Izzizzari. Brass is featured during Iblis's Hybris and Mateka's Speech. Fabio Gellis' contribution on trumpet and Romeo Venditti's swaying trombone lines provide extra vitality and help to give these pieces a bigger-than-life sound when the need arises. Vocalists Caterina Sebastiano, Debora Camilli, Andrea Martini and trumpet player Giacomo Serino all feature on the epic, uplifting concluding track of the album.
Certainly, the guest input works well. They provide an extra dimension and additional textures that enrich and enhance a number of the tracks. For example, Marcelli's distorted solo which emerges during the concluding climax of Möbius Cube veers this smooth-flowing tune towards some unexpected rocky outcrops. Similarly, the interesting tones employed by Izzizzari during A Theme For The End adds another set of textures to a tune that already has many interlocking and interdependent parts.
Nico Fabrizi's dazzling performance drives much of the music. His ability to switch, in a dynamic way, from cheek-bellowing ferocity to softly-blown delicacy is a joy to listen to.
For the most part, the sound quality of the release is excellent. The majority of the recording offers a memorable listening experience; one where there is distinct space and separation between the instruments. This is particularly the case when the sax is the prominent instrument of the ensemble.
During these instances, the sparkling supportive work of Cellupica is very much in evidence. His subtle embellishments and elegant flourishes create an opulent texture which acts as a delicate contrast to the melodic, but often tempestuous, squawking and squealing of the sax.
One of the most distinctive features of Time Lag is unquestionably the way in which the bass has a prominent role in connecting passages of music within a number of compositions. The playing of Capoccitti is outstanding. The rattling, rustling, deeply lush, low-end tones that he employs are often gorgeous.
There are a number of standout bass parts that occur during the album. The swinging, swaying bass rhythms of Mateka's Speech are infectious and very impressive. However, the low-end highlight of the release is probably the beautifully constructed solo that rises coyly after the midpoint of Möbius Cube. It is absolutely enchanting. This flowing and gurgling section is made even more bewitching by the delicate and understated piano accompaniment that supports Capoccitti's melodic and expressive bass part.
Writing credits are shared amongst the band members. Fabrizi is responsible for the opening piece Chand Baori. Given the rhythmic nature of Mateka's Speech, it is not surprising that it was composed by Capoccitti. However, the majority of the compositions were composed by Cellupica.
Cellupica's masterful contribution leaves a prominent mark in all of the six tunes on offer. I have already alluded to the important role that he plays as a supportive member of the ensemble. However, there are many times when his skill and undoubted prowess is highlighted whenever the piano or keyboard is given a prominent voice. The piano interlude during Chand Baori is superb. Similarly at around the three minute mark of Old Tapestry there is a flamboyant and effervescent piano section that simply bubbles along and fizzes with excitement. In this respect, there are times during the course of the album when I am reminded of Chick Corea.
Over the course of the album there are also some delightful organ tones. These brought to mind some of the keyboard sounds that are often associated with Canterbury-styled bands such as Hatfield And The North and National Health.
The most progressive piece on the album, and the one that would most likely appeal to a wider prog audience as well as aficionados of progressive jazz, is undoubtedly Old Tapestry. It features an exciting call-and-response section, where both organ and sax take it in turns to tickle a listener's goosebumps and massage a smile or two.
Drummer Davido Rufo opens and closes proceedings in the concluding track which is aptly titled A Theme For The End. His playing in this piece, and particularly during the opening section of the highly percussive Iblis's Hybris, is very impressive. His contribution throughout the album creates an excellent platform that propels the music and offers subtle variations of pace and attack when the need arises.
A Theme For The End is the only piece that features vocals. For many listeners, it may well be a highlight of the album. In this piece, Cellupica is featured as a vocalist. Certainly the interplay between him, the guest vocalists and the ensemble is complex and uplifting. Some of the harmonies, rhythms and vocal effects reminded me of Gentle Giant and I am sure that many prog fans would enjoy its wide soundscape and complex patterns.
I found the piece intriguing, but to my ageing ears the production/sound quality of this particular track did not have enough space and separation; something that is such a consistent and enjoyable aspect of all of the other pieces on the album.
Nevertheless, the concluding track has grown on me over time and any slightly negative feelings about its production qualities have not diminished my overall assessment of Time Lag. It is an excellent album and should appeal to anybody who enjoys melodic, progressive jazz-fusion that draws from a range of influences and has many varied textures and tempos.
In fact, Time Lag is so enjoyable and is so satisfying that I am now going to give it another spin.
Kimmo Pörsti — Past And Present
Ever since I discovered The Samurai Of Prog (TSoP)'s realm through Kimmo Pörsti's second solo album Wayfarer, I've been in constant catch-up/keep-up mode with their efforts.
Their two recent releases in the form of the 'Grimm Tales' diptych The Lady And The Lion and The White Snake are still very much doing the rounds in my CD player. Yet in between these, Pörsti has managed to release his third solo album Past And Present. A self-explanatory title, as it entails a collection of older songs he wanted to rework, juxtaposed to recently composed songs.
As with TSOP, the list of participants on Past And Present is a long one. It sees regular names such as Ton Scherpenzeel (Kayak), Marco Bernard (TSoP), David Meyers (TSoP), and Marek Arnold, alongside newer one (at least for me) like Sara Traficante (flute on At Lombardy Convent), Thomas Berglund (guitars on Kati), and Jan-Olof Strandberg (bass on Kati). One name that stands out within these talented musicians is Rafael Pacha (guitars, bass, sequencer, keyboards, whistles, recorders) whose presence is felt throughout the album (he doesn't perform on every song). Pörsti even suggested the album to be released as a Pacha/Pörsti collaboration.
On his previous album, Wayfarer, Pörsti (drums, percussion, keyboards, bass, guitars and doumbek) incorporated a vast array of influences that resulted in an eclectic amalgamation of genre-binding style-crossings. Past And Present continues this fashion on a slightly bigger scale and sees him fusing folk, jazz, classical music, Canterbury, rhythm & blues and funk. As before, it's an adventurous record and a wonderful extension of Wayfarer's musical journey.
On the album Pörsti takes us through his past, including selections from Mist Season, Colossus Project and other miscellaneous albums that his songs have been featured on. The present is captured in six new songs. One aspect that comes to the fore, is Pörsti's humble attitude. He regularly puts himself in the service of the song and gives the other musicians their opportunity to shine, which they gratefully do. At set moments, Pörsti does step forward authoritatively and engages with wonderfully dexterous dynamic play or suitably restrained versatility.
A beautiful sample of this is At Lombardy Convent, an early album highlight. Previously, this enchanting Canterbury-styled composition was found on Colossus Project's Decameron III. Then it did not feature drums, but in its current rendition it's hard to imagine it without them. Its shapely opening remains percussion-free, with peaceful flute and light Baroque influences, before it drifts away on classical piano as cello (Cathy Anderson) and violin (Christine Chesebrough) add enchantment. But once tension rises and keyboard-led progressive elements make their entrance, it's the drums that bring propulsion and dynamics to the middle part of the song. It rolls smoothly onwards with Kari Riihimaki adding a delightful, melancholic guitar touch.
Equally soothing is the title track, although this a completely different affair as it touches upon rhythm & blues and jazz, reminiscent to Henri Mancini. Provided with sultry sax (Risto Salmi) the deliciously funky melodies ignite high levels of Larry Graham ecstasy, thanks to formidable bass eruptions by Jan-Olof Strandberg, while Pörsti's structural tightness is accompanied by a rivalling amount of interplay from keys (Kimmo Tapanainen), synths (Otso Pakarinen) and excellent guitar play of Petteri Hirvanen. Sung by Dan Chambers, the poppy approach of Darker Places features elegant funk expressions, to which Arnold and Marc Papeghin (trumpet) add groovy textures. Pacha's lovely guitar leads, in combination with the organ (Scherpenzeel), add just the right amount of spice to keep it compelling.
The only other vocal contribution (by Carlos Espejo) is to be found in the up-tempo Changewinds where catchy melodies are embraced by rhythmic playfulness and exquisite harmonies. Sensitive flute arrangements (Hanna Pörsti) alongside heavenly backing vocals (Paula Pörsti) add further allure. It's followed by Fused, which couldn't be more accurately titled, fusing jazzy freshness, and the lightness of 80s pop and prog, into a vibrant whole. Bags of percussive elements and virtuous synth soloing by composer Jari Riitala keeps the pace of the song upbeat and cheerful. A bridge into darker waters, filled with appealing guitars, creates a nice diversion, after which the song sails home with synth waves splashing shiploads of cheerful melodies.
Another shining jazz demonstration is presented in the fairytale-ish Kati, which glides gracefully onwards on waltzing melodies filled with travelling flute, mindful to Berdien Stenberg (a reference I thought I'd never make in a million years). Delicate drum shuffles and a stunning Pat Metheny-like guitar impression (Thomas Berglund) brings further joy.
For me, however, it is Pacha's contributions that leaves the best impression, especially so in Dance Of The Misstress, a retake from Mist Season's Woodlands. The song takes on a bit more power, but soon cheerful folk-inspired Jethro Tull sophistication announces itself. Both Scherpenzeel and Pacha give their calling card with wonderful melodies and appetising solos, before it converges into ravishing end-play, with Pacha and Pörsti battling it out.
The folk-inspired Sorrow And Recovery features the complete The Guildmaster line-up complemented by Hanna Pörsti on flute. It opens with autumnal atmospheres and glides into equally rewarding and appetising melodies thriving on spine-chilling synth swirls and lovely guitar and flute entanglements, to bring uplifting spring refreshments.
Finally, it's the steamy Nucleo Antirapina, a roaring theme from a thrilling seventies Italian police movie ('Operazione Kappa: Sparate A Vista'), which closes the album in compelling manner. It's the perfect opportunity for Pörsti to explore the full range of his toms and he's in splendid form as he takes the glove. With excitement rising by the minute, while tantalising E.L.P sparks and psychedelics are plugged in by Pakarinen, it forms the perfect climax to the album.
As always the artwork is expertly done by Ed Unitsky and contains many smiling faces of participating musicians. And rightly so, because the compositions are well composed, marvellously arranged, appealingly-adventurous and above all flawlessly executed. A combination which, together with the joyous eclectic nature of the songs, gives a lot of reasons to smile.
Showcasing many similarities with TSoP's material, this will most certainly appeal to their fans, while the diversity shown also makes it suitable to a much wider (prog) audience. Overall a lovely and recommendable album and I'm curious as to what Pörsti's future ventures will bring.