Azure — Of Brine And Angel's Beaks
Azure is a band founded in Brighton (UK) by singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer/lyricist Chris(topher) Sampson and guitarist Galen Stapley. Their first recordings date back to 2015. They consider Of Brine And Angel's Beaks (OBAAB) their second album.
The album counts a dozen compositions, providing over an hour of heavy prog, characterised by excellent craftsmanship and extraordinary vocal performances by Chris. Whether you like his voice or not is a matter of personal taste. Lyrics are mostly fantasy-themed, but also inspired by events in their own lives.
The opening track is more like a short and delicate, almost ambient, overture in which Stapley's guitar is solely accompanied by a range of keyboards. Following this nice symphonic opening, is a fast prog-metal track with rattling double bass drums played by Sam Calder, fine bass playing by Bella Lee and astonishing guitar playing by Stapley, much comparable to John Petrucci's.
This song is up-tempo and highly-energetic, with many fragments of fast sequences of notes played by both guitar and keyboards. Vocally it is an interesting track because Sampson sings both with a darker timbre as well as reaching some extremely highly-pitched notes. Some of the music reminds me of the band Incura.
The third track is the first 'epic' on the record, starting with a more mellow first section in which Sampson proves he can sing more mellow (and I might say quite beautifully too). He reaches for the higher notes again in the more heavy second section, although at first the tempo remains unchanged. Halfway through, the tempo does change from mid-tempo to up-tempo and back several times until the end of the track.
In The Jester Who Cheated Death, one of the shorter, more rock-oriented songs on the album, we hear music comparable to a cross between Dream Theater and Queensrÿche. This song seems to end quite suddenly and is followed by more gentle and subtle music in the shape of Lustre: Siphon Of Umbra. Stylistically the first section reminds me of Entangled by Genesis. A nice chorus with multiple layered vocals and the deliberate changes of tempo, emphasise the progressive musical style, alongside the beautiful 'twin guitar' playing by Stapley as well as a nice duel between synth and guitar.
Outrun God is a more aggressive song, with Sampson singing with an octave difference, creating more depth in the vocal performance. Machine-gun-like playing by drums, bass and guitar run alongside another very melodic chorus.
The song Mercy begins as a ballad but nearly halfway through it turns heavier, again a bit like Dream Theater, but some of the instrumental parts remind of UK. The title track begins with Stapley playing the acoustic guitar and Sampson singing in his low range, with a mellow voice. While one would expect a more up-tempo track after this oasis of tranquillity, the first section is still quite laid-back, but after a minute or so, things change and we hear of more aggressive singing by Sampson and the music is in the vein of the prog-metal giants.
The most melodic and 'poppy' track on this album is most definitely Cup Of Poison with its ever-so-catchy sing-along part.
The Jellyfish is an 80s synth-pop oriented song with nice hooks and choruses. The only difference with the source of inspiration is the addition of the guitar, blending extremely well.
The closing track is Ameotoko II - Cloudburst. It is a rather complex track with all the characteristics of high quality prog-metal. There are a lot of things happening in this track, as the up-tempo pieces are alternated by mid-tempo interludes, changes in style and some superb guitar solos.
Azure offers a more modern approach to heavy prog or prog-metal, although fans of bands like Dream Theater, Incura, Pain Of Salvation or Voyager should listen to what these guys have to offer. With the addition of the very talented keyboard player Shaz Dudhia in their live line-up, there will be more to come from these guys from Brighton! A very intriguing and interesting modern prog (metal) album.
Megalith Levitation — Void Psalms
Out of Russia emerges Megalith Levitation, with their second album Void Psalms. A continuation of their brand of doom/sludge metal, the trio have landed with four tracks totalling 53 minutes. Promises of draconian heaviness with monotonous grit abound, so I guess I should delve in.
Phantasmagoric Journey leads us into the album with a slow, plodding and pounding set of chords. Down-tuned and heavy, the fuzz of the guitars sets the tone. Droning vocals instil a sense of psychedelic occults, as the song takes on an almost trance-like state with the repetition.
Following this, Datura Revelations / Lysergic Phantoms comes in with a similar vibe, focusing on minimalism and repetition. You almost don't notice the 13 minutes of the song, as it draws you into the feeling of ritual and hypnosis.
Nearing the end of the album, Temple of Silence / Pillars of Creation comes shuffling in with a continuation of the slow and heavy chugs. Curiously, at the 7–8-minute mark, the riffs change up. The same time-point as on the previous tracks. Unfortunately for my tastes, not much else changes.
And finally, we have Last Vision. This track picks up the pace slightly, but still keeps with the tradition of chugging chords that is present throughout the rest of the album. There are some interesting and tension-building fuzzy solos occasionally, which help to round off the album with a final blast of psychedelic vibes.
All in all, the album as a whole isn't for me. I enjoy this style of doom, sometimes, but I prefer it in shorter segments. So while there is nothing inherently bad about the album, the production is reasonable, it gets across the atmosphere well, it achieves that “heavy, pounding occultist doom” sound, I found it difficult to enjoy in this instance.
I feel bands like this have a niche market. If you like stoner doom such as Electric Wizard, Jumbo's Killcrane or Heavydeath (now known as Den Tunga Döden), then I wager these guys will suit your style. I'll unfortunately pass.
The Ocean — Phanerozoic Live
The Ocean were a chance find for me. Spotify showed me one of their songs listed as “Katatonia/The Ocean”, and being a huge Katatonia fan, I fired it up and fell in love. With Devonian : Nascent being my first taste, I bought the album that the track was from immediately, and soon after, I was intending to see them live. Unfortunately the events of 2020 put a stop to that, so this album is the next best thing. (Fun fact, the group have a fossil brittle star named after them: Ophiancantha oceani!)
Playing the albums Phanerozoic I and II together live on this 2CD set, is pure joy for fans such as myself. Being a new fan, these are the two albums I know. Initially played live to an empty music hall as a live stream, it was the closest we could all get to a live gig at that point. The main man, Robin Staps, described it as (paraphrased) “The same rush of adrenalin, maybe a little extra anxiety added because they could see you, but you can't see them”.
The sound from the album is superb. The work of the sound techs on a live show can make or break it, and here it all sounds perfect. No sound pushes any others out of place, and none recedes into the back to not be heard. Every area is crisp, full of sound, impeccably delivered.
The band are tight, heavy, and atmospheric. Climbing and travelling through soft to heavy, intricate to simplistic and straddling the line between post-rock, extreme and prog-metal. Think Borknagar but if they were actually Katatonia mixed with Enslaved.
I was curious what would happen with the two tracks that feature Jonas Renkse from Katatonia, Davonian: Nascent and Jurassic / Cretaceous. Being such a fan of his vocals, I was anxious that Loic Rossetti wouldn't reach the bar that was set. However, it turns out that I shouldn't have worried. Sure, he doesn't quite have the same impact that Renkse does, but that is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. Rossetti however does a superb job and still manages to convey the same atmosphere and feeling through his delivery.
All in all, the band showcase exactly why they are a force to be reckoned with, in that odd area of prog-metal that stands perfectly between extreme and accessible. Heavy, tense, and with a sense of a changing, violent and turbulent time. Those are the main points, and very fitting considering that the albums are about the development of the prehistoric world. And it is all done with such a fascinating and intricate weaving of riffs, leads, melodies and atmosphere. A perfect balance of intense and tightly-controlled chaos alongside well developed passages. That's what makes these albums special.
Fans of Borkanagar, Opeth, Katatonia, Riverside, and similar should have a listen and take note of these folks.
Proud Peasant — Peasant Songs
Proud Peasant started as the brainchild of guitarist/composer Xander Rapstine (acoustic and electric guitars, melodica, snare drum, keyboards, vocals), whose debut album, Flight, was released in 2014. For the next three years, the band played several shows, including two performances at the VoyagerFest progressive music festival in Austin, Texas. Over this period, work was started on a sophomore album, Communion. However, the group went through four keyboard players, three drummers and two bassists, and several personal challenges faced by Rapstine, that resulted in the band being put on hiatus. The band was reactivated in early 2021 and work was recommenced on Communion which is set for release shortly. While that album is being completed, Peasantsongs wraps up the band's story to date by combining songs only available in limited or exclusive formats, alongside a couple of previously unreleased tracks.
Those of you who enjoyed the three long-form songs that featured on Flight and were hoping for more of the same, may be slightly disappointed, as four of the tracks on this extended play are cover versions. Fear not though, they are not only covers of good prog songs but are excellently played as well.
Saturn, Lord Of The Ring / Mercury, The Winged Messenger by Manfred Mann's Earth Band and Daybreak by Eloy formed the two sides of the band's second single, Cosmic Sound released in 2016. The Earthband track has been simplified somewhat, with a greater focus on guitar and some rather ethereal moments. The violin of Millicent Hughes totally transforms the song and Proud Peasant have made it their own. Likewise, Daybreak is quite a contrast to the sound that most would expect from Eloy, but the upbeat and slightly punky version is a pleasant surprise.
The year before this single was released, the band's set at VoyagerFest 2015 included a fine version of King Crimson's Red, which is more in keeping with the original. Mark Poitras plays a malletkat (a form of electronic xylophone/vibraphone) that adds a rather novel element, although overall it lacks a bit of the bite and menace of Crimson; a valiant effort though.
The final cover is more unusual in that the original was recorded by Touch and released on their eponymous 1969 album. Down At Circe's Place, released on the limited edition compilation album A Band For All Seasons: Songs from the Seasons of Love 1966 - 1969, loses a lot of the psychedelic touches of the original and is extended by an extra minute, largely by repetition of the opening section. Certainly a bold and original choice but the band manage to bring out the underlying progginess of the number.
Of the original material on the album, anyone who has the debut album will recognise The Avatar which is the first two sections of the song Awakenings that were extracted and released as a debut single. Some nice parts, although to my mind the periods of frantic drumming don't really sit that well.
The two B-sides of The Avatar single and couldn't be more different from each other. The lovely Cencibel is chamber music for the 21st century, while Turbulence is a brief slice of what is probably best described as prog-metal, although somewhat better than most prog-metal acts I have heard, probably due to its short running time! Enjoyable nonetheless. Finally, for this review, although it is the first track on the album, The Prelude is a rather interesting combination of the styles found on the B-sides, with modern chamber music overlaid with heavy guitars. I can feel a new genre being born.
A nice, if not essential, gathering of material, bringing together odds and ends from the band's outer edges that will no doubt stimulate interest in the forthcoming album. Bar some subliminal vocals on Down At Circe's Place, the album is all instrumental, although one never really notices the lack of singing. And hopefully the cover image is tongue-in-cheek, the rather clichéd wizard being tempered by the addition of a couple of corgis!