Nick Holmes — Porcupine Tree - On Track... Every Album, Every Song
After various volumes on other genres (see the previous review on Eric Clapton), Nick Holmes' Porcupine Tree - Every Album, Every Song steps firmly afoot again in our much beloved genre. In light of Porcupine Tree's success (and related solo careers) it was probably more a question of when an On Track book would be published, as opposed to whether an adaptation would eventually be considered. And rightly so, for in their relatively short time-span (so far) the band has left a massive impact on the progressive rock scene.
A testimony to this is the extensive list of reviews featured on our site which covers most of their albums, EP's and other miscellaneous items. A legacy that comes pretty close to what's described in Holmes' compulsive read, but nowhere near the amount of releases gathered in the recently released Porcupine Tree bible by Tkach and Sieker.
A fine first achievement is the fact that Holmes' story can easily coexist with the latter book, as it "simplifies" Porcupine Tree's discography into nicely detailed and comprehensive textures. At set moments it becomes an equally fine complementary read as a result of Holmes' personal insights and respectful opinions. Another advantage: while I shortly put on my old-fashioned prog hat, is the printed physical format which beats any modern e-book version by a long mile for me. Not looking at a screen can be very liberating at times. Witnessing gigs has the same effect for me, but that's a whole different subject.
Although, while we're on the subject; one of the great achievements of the On Track series is unlocking precious memories, as the books engagingly progress, and Holmes' narrative is another excellent example. Porcupine Tree have always had a very firm ground on Dutch soil, and I've witnessed several performances, starting as early as 1994 when they first appeared on the Planet Pul Festival in Uden. At a capacity of approximately 4,000 (give or take a few) they probably didn't know what hit them, apart from heavy rain as I recall, but it gave them one of their first off-shore concerts and many more would follow.
The reasons of which become perfectly clear within Holmes' satisfying tale. Their shows initially included small venues with 200 fans (if lucky), slowly growing into shows in mid-sized rock temples (Paradiso, Amsterdam) and ending with a quickly sold out show at Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam (5,000 attendees) following the release of The Incident. The next level in their rising popularity would probably have seen them at stadiums and arenas, but that future was bitten short when the band took a leave of absence and Steven Wilson launched his solo career, parts of which are analytically woven intricately within the individual song descriptions.
Although the history of Porcupine Tree dates back to the (late) 80s, Holmes starts his descriptive quest with 1992's On The Sunday Of Life. A good decision, for this way the story doesn't drown in vague demos and other illustrious Steven Wilson solo affairs that are cloudy, even to Wilson himself. Holmes mentions these efforts from time to time, when musical references are needed, and in the Compilation Albums, EPs, Bonus Tracks And Singles chapter he appoints his knowledge to them successfully. This chapter is actually an inspired move, for it keeps the narrative of the book clear and fluent, while it provides a great overview of all the non-album tracks available surrounding the regular releases, with the bonus of having every song appraised and tied into the story.
Gradually going through the years, Holmes showcases his extensive research, a probing analysis of Steven Wilson's inspirations and influences, and using various quotes, referencing parts of a DPRP feature occasionally in the process. Holmes paints a clear and engaging picture of the band, tightly operating with members Colin Edwin, Richard Barbieri and Chris Maitland early on in their career. From 2002's In Absentia onwards I do get the impression that his excellent writing gets a bit more passionate and elaborate, which makes full sense, as this is a pinnacle moment in which the band receive their proverbial wings and really lift off.
Switching drummers to Gavin Harrison, signing to an important record company and starting their collaboration with artist and film-maker Lasse Hoile, prove to be important factors and combined with the stylistic change of incorporating prog-metal influences into their melodic music, makes all the difference. This is excellently displayed in the brilliant Arriving Somewhere But Not Here (see video).
As Holmes dives deeper into the lyrics, concepts and intended visions of the successive Deadwing, Fear Of A Blank Planet and The Incident, the book gains depth and manages to gather a high level of page-turning appeal. The understandable focus on Wilson as the main character does underexpose the other members slightly, but overall this doesn't affect the book's satisfying outcome.
The band officially never split up and fans have been praying for a return ever since their final performance in 2010. A recent turn of events has seen these prayers finally answered in the most positive way imaginable. It makes Holmes' premonition of writing the book slightly short, pay-off instantly, leaving room for Porcupine Tree's continued story of a new album (Closure/Continuation) and a successive world tour in 2022.
Overall Holmes' book is a thoroughly entertaining and informative read for anyone with a lively interest in progressive rock, and an essential purchase for fans of the band, who probably don't need to define their favourite moments. Mine? The opening set of their gig at Paradiso, Amsterdam 27 September 2006 when they played the not-yet-released Fear Of A Blank Planet from beginning to end. Here's hoping such a magical moment will arrive again in 2022.
Odd Brew — Kummapaahtoa
Aficionados of jazz-rock and fusion may well nod approvingly when they hear House Of Brew's energetic opening saxophone salvo. Later in that piece, even sceptical admirers will probably applaud the way in which the electric piano creates a subtle transition from energy to elegance. This is all done by utilising a style and a tone that recalls the delicate aural colours of Gilgamesh's second release.
As the composition continues to purposefully uncoil, a listener's satisfaction is likely to increase when the mood and direction changes yet again. The change from keyboard delicacy, to fretted fury is impressive. The warming effect of the electric piano is replaced by the fire-pit glow of the guitar. The heated fervour of the ensuing solo suggests that windows should be flung open and the wearing of any insulated items of clothing should be quickly discarded.
When the piece concludes, the effect upon the listener might involve a silent hoorah and a pump-fist motion. Moreover, the way in which all these satisfying elements combine, create an inventive statement of intent, which will probably result in a curl of the lips, in a sign of appreciation and as an observable expression of delight.
Kummapaahtoa is Odd Brew's first full-length album. The Finnish band join an impressive roster of artists associated with the Eclipse label. The band are made up of Santeri Kaipiainen (piano, keyboards, trumpet), Vili Kallonen on drums, Aapo Nieminen playing guitar, Aki Saira on saxophones, and Hanna Turunen playing acoustic and electric bass.
There is something comforting about the familiar style of music that they create. For anybody, who was around in the late seventies, this band's brand of jazz-rock, frequently played with a funky panache, will be very accessible. There are many recognisable influences which range from the hip-shaking swing of bands like Passport or the Brecker Brothers, to the suspense and fluidity of bands such as Return To Forever and many identifiable points in between. The compositions are quite upbeat; pace and rhythm are used to good effect. This creates an engaging, foot-tapping experience that is easy on the ear and hard work for the toes.
Whilst the album is quite derivative and arguably not particularly inventive, the quality of the compositions ensures that it is never less than satisfying. There is little to distract the attention in the form of abstract time signatures or off-piste avant moments. Whilst for some, this approach might be one of the most attractive aspects of the release, it is arguably a trait that might ensure that Kummapaahtoa has a shorter shelf life, compared to some other contemporary fusion releases such as Dans Dans' Zink or Krokofants' Fifth.
In this respect, I must admit that despite some inventive playing on tunes like Yläkaupungin jytä, the accessible nature of its recurring main theme, in conjunction with a tendency to extract every nuance from it during a long fade, had me feeling a tad restless. Nevertheless, the fine talents of the musicians involved in this album made the whole experience of listening to Kummapaahtoa a rewarding one.
Kaipiainen's talents shine in a number of pieces. His evocative playing is essential to the album's overall appeal. He binds the ensemble together and frequently acts as catalyst on the occasions when the mood alters or when one section of the music concludes and another begins.
His wonderful solo dominates proceedings in Laulu synnyinseudulle. Its imposing nature and jaunty character creates a memorable impression. This tune, although firmly rooted in jazz, is one of the standout pieces on the album. It contains an outstanding solo section, is tethered by unusual rhythms and revels in an appealing melody.
The guitar playing of Nieminen is also worthy of a special mention. His skill and ability to project his instrument in an expressive way is very impressive. He frequently elevates the tunes to a different level. This is exemplified by his magnificent input in pieces like the Return to Forever-styled solo in Askel eteen, kaksi taa. His skill is especially apparent during his spotlight spot during the stunning arrangement of Cyclus. This fine passage is full of high frequency notes and exhibits breath-taking fluidity. These two examples are indicative of Nieminen's prowess and are undeniably some highlights of the album.
His shining contribution provides the music with some prog appeal. When the need arises, his wide palette of tones has a rocky, cutting edge. This works perfectly as a foil and contrast to the jazz-inspired compositions and accompaniments of band leader Kaipiainen.
Whilst Nieminen is at ease providing flamboyant spotlight moments, much of his playing embellishes and sits within the overall sound of the ensemble to add a rasping ripple or a subtle swirl when needed. The delicately-paced Fake Arm is a clear example of Nieminen's proficiency in a supportive role.
In this piece, the ensemble flies their primary jazz colours proudly. The terms 'excellent', 'enchanting' and 'engaging' aptly sum up its timeless attributes. The arrangement exudes quality. Every player has so much space. Every instrument and note (or series of notes) has something important to say and a story to tell. Every subtle twist and turn creates a melodic sub-plot within a chapter of connected ideas. The end result is so satisfying that it is difficult not to be affected by the emotive pull of its melody and by the tone of its delightful acoustic bass.
I will be interested to see how Odd Brew develops their art in the years to come. On the basis of Kummapaahtoa they are a band which has great potential. I hope that their future work is a little less derivative and that they are able to create their own voice and to fully acquire an idiosyncratic style.
Whilst Kummapaahtoa may not have had me consistently nodding with raptures of delight, it occasionally raised my goosebumps.
Overall, there are many things to celebrate and applaud during this very enjoyable and satisfying debut release.
Andrew Ostler — Crossing The Line
From Edinburgh, Andrew Ostler is one half of the duo Darkroom with Michael Bearpark (Michael is also guitarist for No-Man, Tim Bowness, Henry Fool, and Pedaltone, among others). Crossing The Line is Andrew Ostler's first solo release and features his work with modular synthesizers and bass clarinet. It is a release where "each sound is patched, played, recorded, and torn down ready for the next one. Many layers are then painstakingly edited up into a coherent whole", making it a personal labour of love that has a terrific sound.
The two parts of Crossing The Line are quite different when given a close listen. Part 1 features more avant-electronica beeps, squeaks and short slabs of electronic noise that resemble scrolling the dial across the frequencies of an A.M radio late at night. Out of this comes dark waves of sequenced Berlin School synths, along with treated and looped bass clarinet that moves the music away from any notion of Tangerine Dream worship. This breaks down after the halfway mark, back into avant-electronica and waves of disconnected synths that, for me, drift along distractedly. It is an interesting listen on good quality headphones.
Andrew Ostler moves back to the Berlin School meets stately cosmic synths on Part 2. A build-up of sequencer-style synths are joined by buzzing oscillations of sound that develops a hypnotic spell in the way the best of this style of music does. It grows into a powerful beast in the process.
For me, Crossing The Line has much to admire, especially in the more direct and organised Part 2, whereas Part 1's avant-garde sections leave me nonplussed; although the bass clarinet sections are great. Literally, this is a release of two-halves.
The Sun Or The Moon — Cosmic
Psychedelic warriors The Sun Or The Moon have released their debut album Cosmic. Fronted on bass, guitar, electric sitar, baritone guitar, modular synthesizer, vocals and song writing by the splendidly-named Frank Incense, this German quartet cite Can, Kraftwerk, early Pink Floyd and Radiohead as their inspirations but I think their sound is more of a slow-core, song-based Ozric Tentacles jamming with Neu!.
Herr Incense's band-mates, Susanne Baum (keyboards), George Nowak (guitar, Theremin) and Niclas Ciriacy (drums and percussion) flesh-out his vision of mainly mid-paced psychedelic prog with hard-won ease. The music stretches itself from one end of Cosmic to the other, with only a couple of mis-steps along the way.
The Sun Or The Moon open their account with the title track's fade-in on an electronic beat that slowly builds to a full band workout. A scampering, bass-driven rhythm over which guitar and Doors-like electric piano (think Riders On The Storm) gently spar, without breaking up the flow. The melody has a North African slant to its harmonies, and Incense's vocals are decent, if unspectacular. It makes for a great opener.
The following song, Twisted Kamasutra, has a looping rhythm but the instrumental arrangement manages to give an elusive, not-quite-sure-how-they-managed-that, loud/quiet dynamic during the long (but always interesting) instrumental passages.
One of Cosmic's best tracks is next. Eldorado has weirdness and organisation mixed all the way through it. The opening pulsing synths and a flexible bass-line build tension, which is released with piano and guitar by Markus Weber, before building again to riffing chords that eventually fade to a piano line and treated vocals. It all works brilliantly.
They move more up-tempo with Trippin' On Mars' psychedelic, spacey prog and it is here they are at their most Ozric.
The Sun Or The Moon flex their musical muscles on the other best track, the lengthy Quicksand. A heartbeat of pulsing bass and percussion is joined by a Morricone-style baritone guitar, as the song's melody is established. This is then explored with additional instrumentation. Especially noteworthy is the saxophone contribution of guest Leon Binder. A five-minute song with a superb 13 minutes of spacious, lysergic instrumental prowess. Just super.
However, there are two tracks that do nothing for me. The first is the cover of a Pink Floyd b-side, Julia Dream that was collected on to their odds and ends release Relics. The Sun Or The Moon stretch a two-minute forty-second ditty out to nearly eight minutes. Almost three times the length for not much reward. They should have cut this short after the first synth solo. The other problematic track is Space Travel Agent. Here the music, like its protagonist is "floating and drifting". He claims he is "lost in space" but it feels to me more like someone on a boating lake, who has lost an oar and so is just going around and round in circles awaiting rescue. Come in track six, your time is up.
But having said all that, the skip button is a wonderful thing, and the rest of Cosmic comprises sometimes-stately but always-intense slices of psyche-prog and borderline space rock. They have that quality that my daughter calls 'nodding head music', where a song gets going and men, invariably men of a certain age, nod their heads along. And with The Sun Or The Moon's Cosmic this head has been nodding a good deal. Now, where did I put that kaftan coat and my patchouli oil?