Album Reviews

Issue 2022-002

Eric Benac — Cardiacs - On Track... Every Album, Every Song

Eric Benac - Cardiacs - On Track... Every Album, Every Song
Martin Burns

As I write this review I have Cardiacs' 1988 album A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window playing. It is the album where they produced something approximating prog. It is named after its opening and closing tracks. Cardiacs main-man Tim Smith denied the band were prog, preferring psychedelic or just pop as a description; albeit a pop band with an aggressive and occasionally impenetrable wall of sound, coupled with unconventional melodies.

But on a Venn diagram of various music genres there is one tiny section where they all overlap. The only group you will find there is Cardiacs. Really a genre all of their own. (Please note there is no definite article with Cardiacs' name, an error I have made many times until reading Eric Benac's book.)

This is author Eric Benac's second book in Sonicbond's On Track series. His first was 2019's on Frank Zappa that looked at his work from 1966 to 1979. It was well received here on

For such a quintessentially English band, I find it strange that a Holt, Michigan based author likes this band so much. Then again, Cardiacs are a mightily strange band and there are similarities with his previous book's topic, in that Cardiacs have a complexity akin to Zappa's.

Eric Benac's On Track on Cardiacs follows the template established by the Sonicbond Publishing house. After a brief introduction, Eric gets down to the hard work of describing and analysing in chronological order over sixteen or so releases, what makes Cardiacs tick, including solo recordings and off-shoot projects. Starting with the low-fi cassette-only early efforts, through to the end of a recording career, cut short by the tragic aftermath of a mugging.

The introduction to the book is a masterpiece of concision, moving from what makes something a cult before putting Cardiacs into the musical and social whirl in which the band found itself. To quote Eric: "Sometimes a cult forms around a band, simply because they're too strange to exist within the mainstream. Perhaps no band quite personifies this concept, like Cardiacs".

He continues that this is not an example of "so bad, it's good" knowing irony but rather that "their music is unique, the musicianship level is high". Producing imaginative, intense arrangements to support lyrics that create the "bizarre and personal world" that Tim Smith always refused to discuss. Sorry to have quoted so much, but I didn't know how to put it better.

Eric approaches Cardiacs output in a slightly different way from his Zappa volume by focussing on Tim Smith's often poetic but always eccentric lyrics, as much as on the music. For me this is a great call as Cardiacs require this (for want of a better word) 'holistic' focus. The interpretation of the words is entirely Eric's, but he does point out connections and themes between songs and albums from different points in Cardiacs output. These show that Tim Smith had a singular, oddball intelligence. Similarly, with his analysis he points out the frantic complexities and sheer craft that supports this music and how various incarnations of the band achieved different sounds. Throughout the book Eric points to the inspirations behind the challenging songs they create.

He has done a brilliant job of trying to make sense of Cardiacs' multi-faceted eccentricities. Fans will, no doubt, argue along with his analyses. That is the joy of these Sonicbond publications. This brilliance extends to possibly converting some fence sitters, like myself, who have never been quite convinced but are, with this book's well written arguments, coming around to Cardiacs' world. For those new to Cardiacs' mix of unusual chord progressions, catchy tunes and rocking intensity, all I can say is start where I did with A Little Man And A House, but give it time. It demands patience and repeat listens to get the rewards.

Cardiacs should have a home in the prog world because that world, in the main, is more open to embracing maverick talents. And as Eric Benac points out in this book, there is none more maverick than Tim Smith and his work with Cardiacs.

Ghost Rhythms — Spectral Music

Ghost Rhythms - Spectral Music
Parapente / Paraglider (3:39), Thoughtography (6:12), Odradek (6:40), Le Mont Marsal / Mount Marsal (9:52), A`distance / A Distance (1:36), Spectral Music, 1 (10:38), Vie de Wyatt Hopper / The Life of Wyatt Hopper (1:39), Spectral Music, 2 (7:55), L'autre versant / The Other Side (9:25), Uchimizu (7:56), Tumulte Opaque / Opaque Uproar (8:24)
Martin Burns

The new album, their sixth, by the Gallic eclectic jazz fusionists Ghost Rhythms is dedicated "to Wyatt Hopper (1953–2021), founder of the Research Institute for the Telepathic Hypothesis in Music (RITHM)." I thought of searching for Wyatt Hopper online until, light bulb goes on over my head, I realised that this was a sly tribute to two of the founding fathers of the jazzier end of the Canterbury sound, Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper. Ghost Rhythms' main writers for this album, drummer Xavier Gélard and keyboardist Camille Petit, are fans of The Soft Machine. Also note the acronym of the Research Institute.

Some readers will already have an inkling as to the direction that Ghost Rhythms' Spectral Music will be taking, but they do have a more diverse musical agenda, one that adds in tropes from neo-classical minimalism, chamber prog and post-rock to make a rich, complex, heady brew.

According to the band, Spectral Music's theme is one of telepathy and its place as a solution to the problem of remoteness that has been endemic in recent times. However I think they have a tongue-in-cheek attitude to this idea and to what they see as the 'fake telepathy' of the internet. This exploration takes place over 70 minutes of mainly instrumental eclectic fusion using complex, textured harmonies and arrangements. With the core of the band (guitar, bass, drums and keyboards) joined by flute, saxophones, cello, violin, bouzouki, oud and accordion, Ghost Rhythms have eleven members on this recoding plus three guests on various tracks. They produce music that is focussed, sophisticated and not plagued by improvisational drift.

The opening two tracks display Ghost Rhythms' breadth of ambition. The first, Parapente / Paraglider, has an urgent minimalism driven by insistent electric piano pulses and whispered voices from the ether, to which bass, tuned percussion, guitar, accordion and drums soon join. It gives the feel of Steve Reich or Philip Glass in a less predictable, more unsettled way. Then on Thoughtography trumpet pushes through a standard fusion set-up to join the saxes, flute, accordion and electric piano that pile into a Frank Zappa circa The Grand Wazoo-type tune. Though the Ghost Rhythms' band isn't quite as big as Zappa's, their ambition is.

Ghost Rhythms, promo photo

The big band sound continues with Le Mont Marsal / Mount Marsal and its Latin dance beat. It moves from hand percussion to a full jazz work-out and heavy-ish guitar that duels it out with the sax.

An interlude of accordion, piano and violin a chamber classical piece separates this from part one of the title track. This is where Ghost Rhythms really hit their stride. Jazz fusion bass licks, stabbing piano chords and strings, barrel along and morph into King Crimson-style, guitar-led prog-rock. They throw a sudden curveball into a short baroque pause, before heading for the end with Wayne Shorter like sax.

An Astor Piazolla channelling accordion, piano and cello interlude intrudes, before Spectral Music, 2 returns us to flexible, funky fusion supporting massed saxes, flute and a disruptive guitar solo. These guys like to keep you on your toes but never at the expense of the melodies.

Ghost Rhythms return to another exploration of Reichian minimalism on L'autre versant / The Other Side where they introduce each instrument individually as it powers up, taking the melody through a complex arrangement. After this, Uchimizu feels more lightweight but has a sparkling flute solo.

Also less-engaging for me is the closing track that has a lot of spoken word samples, and Odradek which shifts into North African tones and rhythms that unfortunately bleeds into avant-jazz and back again. It is interesting but I find it hard to love.

Ghost Rhythms' Spectral Music takes the Canterbury notion of complex harmonies, challenging arrangements, jazz and rock but stays away from the psychedelia and the whimsical. The music here is intricate and has many yet-to-be-discovered corners to explore. It is experimental without the improvisational drift that often plagues jazz fusion. Ghost Rhythms' use of the 'false telepathy' of the internet in the recording process, has avoided that problem.

I have been trying to think of a suitable comparison for the terrific music that Ghost Rhythms' Spectral Music contains. I think the best comparison is with the Maria Schneider Orchestra whose big band jazz also features an accordion. However, Ghost Rhythms' music has a more up-front mix of prog-fusion, and it rocks rather than swings. Spectral Music has been a great end to the 2021 reviewing year.

Leslie Hunt — Descend

Leslie Hunt - Descend
Don't Make Me Come Back There (2:55), Again And Again (3:25), Quiet Mind (3:45), Big White Flag (3:13), These Days (2:55), So Many Times (2:55), Complex Heart (2:26)
Mark Hughes

Leslie Hunt's second EP of the year, Descend is the companion release to Ascend that hit the (virtual) streets earlier this year. Combined, the two releases constitute a complete album with a running time in excess of 46 minutes.

As with Ascend, this EP displays the poppier side of Hunt, far removed from the prog-with-jazz-inflections complexity of District 97. The less cluttered (musically speaking) style of these solo releases allows the focus to concentrate on Hunt's vocals and allows her to show a wider range of her singing ability. Mostly accompanied by acoustic guitar and piano, the songs are more low key, and although a couple have a sparse arrangement, the band, who will have to remain anonymous as I can't find who else contributes to this release, make a very positive impact when they appear.

Of course, it could be that Hunt plays everything herself, although the electric guitar and the, admittedly limited, male backing vocals on the strong opener Don't Make Me Come Back There would suggest otherwise. The drums are programmed, but cast aside thoughts of a primitive drum machine as they sound pretty authentic if a little too precise and clinical, lacking the swing a human can create.

Of all the tracks on the combined Ascend/Descend EPs, Again And Again is the furthest away from progressive rock being of a more contemporary nature with a Chic-like guitar and a more dance-orientated rhythm. I have to say it does absolutely nothing for me and I have to say it is my least favourite song I have heard from Hunt to date.

In contrast, when things are kept simple as on Quiet Mind and These Days, the main attraction is the singing, which is luscious, particularly on the latter song which is of a more acoustic nature and is particularly beautiful. Big White Flag is almost totally electronic in nature which adds dissimilitude to the album. The variation between the scant verses and the more comprehensively filled chorus provides interesting juxtaposition.

A more reflective So Many Times is a more questioning and mature song; there is a real sense of gravitas to this one. With plenty of backing vocals and a single verse sung by an anonymous male, this is almost an exceptional song. lmost, because it lacks a resolution; the equivocal ending being somewhat unsatisfactory for me. Things are summed up with the lovely Complex Heart which despite being under 150 seconds long is perfect in its structure and purposefulness. The faux cellos, acoustic guitar and simple piano lines are in defiant opposition to the complexity of the heart that is referred to in the lyric. A very simple song that is a consummate piece of song-writing.

The two EPs display another side to Hunt that are closer to her musical beginnings than the sound that the prog-world has come to admire her for. But although these songs might lack the sophistication associated with District 97, I have a feeling that had she not experienced the progressive band life, Ascend and Descend would have been totally different and almost certainly not as accomplished. Sometimes one needs a break from full in-your-face polyrhythms, lengthy solos and arcane concepts. Leslie Hunt may be the perfect answer.

Irrwisch — Live At The Kufa Lyss

Irrwisch - Live At The Kufa Lyss
Medley (15:27), Princess On Your Cloud (7:11), Turn Round The Way (4:34), Far Away (6:29), Another Morning (6:49), Where Is Your Love (6:52), Living In A Fool's Paradise (5:58), Wanna Share My Tenderness (8:44), Queen Of Fire (5:52), Dance To The Rhythm (5:20), Lonesome Nights Of Rock 'N' Roll (4:32)
Jerry van Kooten

In the first half of the 1980s, I ran into the albums In Search Of and Living In A Fool's Paradise by Swiss band Irrwisch. I learnt they also had a single Metronome released before the first album but I would hear that only years later. The band were no longer active at the time that I heard these albums, but they made quite an impression. Since my focus was symphonic prog back then, the first one became quite a favourite.

The band reformed a couple of times to make a few more albums, with several years in between. The line-up changed and therefore the musical style changed, but there was always a certain amount of symphonic prog. Die-hard prog fans would probably be underwhelmed by those albums from the late 1980s and 1990s, as the music was more pop / stadium rock. A live album from 1990 only had one song from the second album.

But with Time Will Tell (2002) and the following Wizard For A Day (2007), it was like the band were writing more symphonic music again. Both albums contain one long symphonic piece. And in 2016, Stone And A Rose was released; a symphonic double concept album.

Only recently I learnt that the band had been doing several Christmas concerts, two of which were released on CD. At these shows, the band played several songs from the first albums again, as if they were being rediscovered. On the other hand, they might have been playing those songs forever, but I've never seen any set lists or live recordings, so I can't tell.

And now there is this album, Live At The Kufa Lyss. (KuFa is short for Kulturbafrik, located in the town of Lyss, Switzerland.) As recent as September 2021 the band performed a concert focusing on those first two albums, celebrating their (roughly) 40th anniversaries, plus the 45th anniversary of the band itself.

The album opens with a medley consisting of a couple of songs from the era that's being celebrated here, starting with Escape Now from the second album.

Long-time singer Sabine Hasler was not able to perform due to personal reasons. Especially in the vocal department this brings the songs closer to the original versions. But the band have not made things easy for themselves, as most songs have some different arrangements.

The band have had a permanent saxophone player in the line-up for many years, so a large role for him was to be expected. And I have to admit it works, as part of the new arrangements.

Several of the vocal melodies have changed somewhat. The songs don't seem to be transposed to accommodate an ageing voice, but rather some melodies have been rewritten, and in some cases Bürgi really surprised me by reaching the original highs. An experienced voice is always a bit rougher than a clear sound of youth, and I like that.

Goosebumps when the beautiful melodies of Princess On Your Cloud come in. The long instrumental passages have slightly different arrangements but remain very much the same. Is it the nostalgia factor? No, I still like the original song, and I like this version too. Things are slowing down with Turn Round The Way but the heavy minor chords and melodies of Far Away bring back the things that I like so much about this band.

I love what they did with Where Is Your Love, making it slightly slower and more bluesy, while keeping the original atmosphere and proggy breaks and melodies. It's brooding at times, darker. Wanna Share My Tenderness has undergone the biggest rearrangement. It has a long, slow, almost post-rock build-up, and the verses have completely different melodies. The band really made an effort when bringing these songs to the stage again.

Queen Of Fire is from the 1989 album and Dance To The Rhythm from 1996. Typical for 1990s Irrwisch and perhaps I was hoping too much for more early stuff like the title track of the first album, or Dark Veiling Town? The closing track makes up for that. A slightly different arrangement again, but I realise that it's more like listening to a version of the second album that is not suffering from a clean 1980s EMI production.

The new arrangements fit the new Irrwisch very well, as if they brought the songs into the new century. There's a lot to enjoy here for both lovers of those first two albums, as well as later Irrwisch. Although recorded live, the audience is faded between the songs (or at least on my review CDR). Recorded in September 2021, the audience no doubt had to obey Covid rules, not filling up the venue. Recording a live atmosphere must be difficult under these circumstances. For me this sounds more like a re-arranged, or re-imagined collection of songs. And I am quite happy with that.

Symbolon Obscura — Media Machines

Symbolon Obscura - Media Machines
Resist (4:47), Media Machines (4:27), The Call (4:55), Far Away (4:42), Mobile Haze (4:27), Digital Lane (4:29), Alchemy (5:01), Grey (3:48), Transhuman (5:32), War of the Roses (4:32), Thoughts (5:30), Flame of Liberty (4:22), Silent Soldier (3:50)
Sergey Nikulichev

There's little argument that one-man projects are both a blessing and a plague on today's music. Opportunities provided by modern software spread infinitely, and it is entirely up to the musicians to use them wisely. Symbolon Obscura is a one-man project coming from Mechanicsburg, PA. On Media Machines the man behind the project, Michael de Michele, sings, plays guitars and bass, presses the keys and hits the drum set. Michael is also single-handedly responsible for compositions and shares production / arrangement responsibilities with his vocal coach. Simon Jamis (also from Object Permanence) guests on the drum chair on four tracks.

After hitting the play button and listening for four or five tracks I grew sure that Media Machines is a debutant's effort. To my surprise, Symbolon Obscura are no newcomers, already releasing two albums Symbolon Obscura and Esoterica. Thus no condescension can be expected from a reviewer, as after two records musicians usually already learn a thing or two.

Problem number one. There's not enough diversity in dynamics. Most of the songs share the same, rather droning tempo, the melodies and vocal delivery dwell mostly within one simple pattern, and the singing is rather weak (not out of key, but in a very low range). Even the guitars stay in the same tonality more often than not, serving as an accompaniment with some “gain” on the amplifier most of the time.

The second problem is that Media Machines are not really that prog, as one could expected from a prog-head. This CD bears more similarities to grunge and alt-rock, with some pentatonic solos and occasional keys thrown-in. Because of all this, a one-hour journey quickly becomes a tiresome listen. A 20-minute demo would be fine; there is just not enough worthy ideas for a longer record here. Ahead there lies a whole world of song-writing knowledge, arrangements experience and instrumental prowess yet undiscovered.

Not complex enough for prog, not groovy enough for alt-rock, and too relying on patterns for an indie record, Media Machines is not a strong effort. What is the reason for doing everything by oneself on a low-quality level evades me. Why not concentrate on one or two skills and/or instruments and play them well instead?

Syrek — Story

Syrek - Story
Magic Lantern (Into The Woods) (1:39), I Think It's A Monster (8:37), Balloon Ride Over A Jigsaw Map (9:30), I Got A Lightning Bug (6:55), What The Owl Said (7:45), Starcrowned (9:27), The Perilous Flight From Castle Abathria (5:02), Strange Machine (9:45), Dandelion Sword (3:51), Gnomus Maleficus (Tea With The Angry Gnome) (7:30), Promenade Into The End (0:49), The End? (5:44), Home (Out Of The Woods) (0:30)
Greg Cummins

Forget about a standard seat-belt for this ride, as you'll certainly need a full racing harness to prevent injury while listening to this veritable attack on your senses. What we have with this latest offering from Syrek is an amazing collection of maniacal and adrenaline-charged guitar and keyboard tracks that will amaze many, but may leave some a little dazed and confused. And no, we're not talking about Led Zeppelin either.

Syrek is Terry Syrek (guitars), Marco Minnemann (drums), Bryan Beller (bass), Mohini Dey (bass), Lalle Larsson (keyboards), and Florian Cristea (violin). This is a fully-instrumental album and has been created to allow each member to fully contribute their incendiary skills to the absolute maximum. There was no room for beginners in the recording studio, as quickly evidenced once the second track gets under way.

The basic synopsis of this project revolves around two mythical creatures that find their way around some imaginary landscapes. The album contains some narration by Keith Szarabajka but in all honesty, I can find little reason to have any narration at all. There are no vocals with which one can follow the underlying story. The listener is required to rely on one's musical senses to interpret the underlying message that the narrator is saying and to see how well it all fits with the music that follows. Being devoid of vocals, also requires the music to not only be played really well but to be composed without flaw. Thankfully, it is all of that, and much, much more. Additionally, this is not the sort of music that would appeal to kids who listen to fairy tales or similar. So, again, what's the point of the narration?

Being a progressive metal band, you can obviously expect some serious mayhem between Terry and Lalle as they trade licks at lightning speed, to the point where you ask, "How did they do that?".

The land-speed record was broken several times while this was being recorded and no doubt the musicians were all issued with various traffic violations for using excessive speed. Terry Syrek is without doubt one of the fastest guitarists around. I confess to never having heard Lalle Larsson play so incredibly fast, despite having four of his solo albums.

Technical / progressive metal music often finds itself in a quandary, if there is nothing to cling to. Some fans prefer outrageous speed, some appreciate the complexity, others favour the melodies while I can appreciate all those crucial aspects if it is played well. There is certainly no doubt about the musical virtuosity from all involved in this project. The assembled players are at the top of their game, while also being required to perform some impossible feats. Even drummer extraordinaire, Marco Minnemann mentioned some of this music was pretty hard going. For someone with so much talent, you can easily appreciate how much physical effort was required to complete the project with such a perfect result. One also wonders how long the rehearsals took to master, as the complexity of this music is like nothing many will have heard before.

There are some brief guitar passages where I hear some tasteful Allan Holdsworth motifs, while Terry also gives John Petrucci a serious run for his money. If you also thought that Jordan Rudess was incredibly quick on the keyboards, then Lalle Larsson must come a very close second. Naturally there could only be a handful of drummers who could possibly keep things under control so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see Marco keeping time so incredibly well.

There is a ridiculous amount of complexity with this offering to the point that it often overwhelms the senses. Do not expect to absorb this album with only one spin. I have played this almost 10 times and am still finding new sections that I failed to notice previously.

For the most part, this has been an album that reveals itself slowly and needs a full degree of serious concentration to absorb all the intricacies and nuances. While the initial assault on the senses might invoke a bout of vertigo, further listening allows you to appreciate the various time changes and the morphing into more melodic passages, of which there are many.

Guitarists such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are often labelled as playing with a masturbatory style and I guess, you could argue there may be some of that evident here. This is an outrageous and blatant shred-fest par excellence. To be fair though, Terry has the uncanny knack of mixing things up pretty well and in a way that doesn't allow the music to get bogged down for too long.

Obviously, there will be well justified comparisons to bands such as Dream Theater with the occasional nod to Pain of Salvation in parts. While I'm not the biggest fan of James LaBrie, I appreciate his ability to add some depth to the songs that the other band members have written. Considering the previous album by Syrek, Machine Elves contained vocals, this begs the question why Terry didn't continue with them for this album.

While vocals don't necessarily form a prerequisite for my listening pleasure, in some instances they can certainly help to mix things around a bit. Considering so much of this album is played at mach 7, I wonder if some appropriate vocal sections might not have allowed for some diversity within the song-writing. After all, the gas pedal is depressed all the way to the floor for about 80% of this album. Some respite from this constraint, might suit some listeners better.

Listening to this album is not an easy or comfortable experience until you have become familiar with the basic structure of the songs. As they are inherently complex, this may take some time before it all gels together. Using headphones also helped to achieve this, but keep the volume down as the ears will take a battering otherwise.

Once you have passed this initial obstacle, the rewards unfold and will leave you with an incredible album full of complex ideas that just keep giving. I understand from the info supplied, this project took many years to complete. This just reinforces how well this has been produced, as it sounds really slick, all the way through. This is quite a remarkable album and one that many progsters will enjoy. Being well over 75 minutes in length, you will certainly get plenty of bang for the buck.

If shredding is your thing, this album will be a must-have. Total talent by all involved!

Album Reviews