Album Reviews

Issue 2022-018

Airbag — A Day In The Studio / Unplugged In Oslo

Airbag - A Day In The Studio / Unplugged In Oslo
Machines And Men (7:06), Into The Unknown (6:32), Sunsets (5:36), Come On In (4:00), Colours (7:51), Sounds That I Hear (6:21)
Mark Hughes

Although Airbag's last studio album A Day At The Beach failed to impress DPRP's reviewer Theo Verstrael, it did strike a cord with the sizeable fan base of the band and was a success for the Norwegian trio of Bjørn Riis, Asle Tostrup and Henrik Bergan Fossum. However, a tour to promote the album was, you guessed it, cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions.

As time went on and it became evident that a resumption of 'normal' life was not going to happen any time soon, the trio booked some time at Subsonic Society Studios in Oslo and performed an acoustic set which was streamed over the internet. This CD features the four tracks that were streamed, as well as two additional numbers recorded at the same time. Purchasers of the CD or vinyl version of the album also receive a DVD of the original stream, although this is freely available to watch on YouTube (see above link) and in all honesty, outside of the live stream is not that exciting to watch, as it is just three chaps sitting on stools!

Unlike my DPRP colleague, I did enjoy A Day At The Beach but the acoustic renderings seems to take the songs from that album (Machines And Men, Into The Unknown and Sunsets) to another level. Each of these songs are rather shorter than on the album and the more succinct renditions have revealed the core heart of each piece. Shorn of any backing, bar two acoustic guitars, the singing of Asle Tostrup is forced into a much more prominent position, and fortunately he is more than up to the task. It is particularly enjoyable to hear the harmonies of Bjørn Riis that, somewhat paradoxically, add greater intimacy to the songs. Occasionally Henrik Bergan Fossum adds his voice to swell a chorus, and although not a new Crosby, Stills and Nash, the three voices do blend well together.

The arrangements for two guitars are excellent, with Fossum laying down the backing and Riis adding counterpoint guitar lines and neatly succinct solos. In addition to the three new tracks, the CD and DVD contains Colours and Sounds That I Hear, both originally on the band's 2010 debut album Identity. Colours is, of course, a natural choice for this format given that the original song was largely acoustic guitar and vocal. The version contained here stays true to the original. Some rearrangement of Sounds That I Hear have taken place, shortening it by over a minute and creating a very mellow piece that is quite delightful.

The big draw for Airbag collectors will be the inclusion of the previously unreleased song Come On In. The shortest piece on the album, it makes the best use of the trio harmonies on the chorus. It is quite difficult to know where this song sits in the history of the band, as it doesn't really sound like a newly composed piece, but neither can I instantly place it as belonging to a specific era of previous releases. Maybe that is why it has remained unreleased until now?

I was impressed with how well these songs translated into an unplugged performance. It just shows that progressive rock is not all about bombast and long solos, but can be rather more gentle when necessary.

Andrew Môn Hughes, Grant Walters, Mark Crohan — Decades: The Bee Gees In The 1960s

Andrew Môn Hughes, Grant Walters, Mark Crohan - Decades: The Bee Gees In The 1960s
Mark Hughes

Has the world gone mad? Have we flipped into an alternative universe without noticing? The Bee Gees featuring on DPRP. What gives?!

You would be quite right in thinking that someone has messed up somewhere along the line, if your only memories of the Brothers Gibb were of their disco-era (or as one comedy sketch put it: "meaningless songs in very high voices"). However, there is much more to the trio than such desultory pap.

The history of the band can be roughly split into five eras. The Australian years (1959-1966) where the recent emigres from the suburbs of Manchester, UK made it big in regional theatres and national television. The hip and at time mildly psychedelic late sixties (1967-1969). The wilderness years (1970-1974). The disco years (1976-1979) and the music industry icons era (1981-2001) where they were highly regarded songwriters and producers, not only of their own material but also for many other major artists.

This first book, in a planned series of four, covers the first two of these eras, undoubtedly the most productive time of the band, or any band. At the formation of the band in 1959, Barry, the eldest brother was a mere 13-years-old and the twins Maurice and Robin had yet to hit their teens, having just reached double figures.

Yes, there was a degree of novelty in three singing children who had a natural talent for harmonising, which saw them as regulars on popular TV shows. However they proved to be an enduring novelty and released their first single in 1963 and first album in 1965. By the time they headed back to the UK in 1967, they had released 12 singles and two albums. As if that was not enough they had numerous songs recorded on at least 16 other Australian albums; a lot of which featured the brothers on backing vocals and most of which were not recorded by the trio.

An impressive haul in just four years.

Ironically, although the bulk of the early material was written by Barry, they did, largely at the behest of their record label, record some cover versions in attempts to score that elusive hit, which is possibly why there was enough spare material to denote to others. And it wasn't long before both Robin and Maurice started writing their own material.

For me the period between 1967 and 1969 was certainly the most interesting, a period in which they released four exceptionally good albums. You may be familiar with songs such as To Love Somebody, Massachusetts and I've Gotta Get A Message To You, hit singles taken from, respectively, the albums Bee Gees' 1st (1967), Horizontal (1968) and Idea (1968) but they are minor blips when compared to album and b-side tracks such as Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You, Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts, Mrs. Gillespie's Refrigerator, Barker Of The U.F.O., Sir Geoffrey Saved The World, Indian Gin And Whisky Dry and I Have Decided To Join The Airforce. The very titles are indicative that these were not normal pop songs.

The fourth and final album of the era, the outstanding Odessa (1969), was a double album and widely perceived as a concept album (although in reality it wasn't, although that may have been the original intention). All four of these albums are classics.

However, this is a review of a book and not of the individual albums, irrespective of their merits or otherwise. Although the book incorporates the SonicBond style of assessment of each song recorded in the period of evaluation, what we are presented with is so much more.

This is largely due to the expert knowledge of the writers who have been responsible for several tomes on the Bee Gees. Meticulously researched and immensely readable, even if you have absolutely no interest in hearing any song bearing the Bee Gees name, it is a cracking good read on how three exceptionally talented individuals rose from very humble beginnings to take on the world. Easily the best book I have seen to emerge from SonicBond publishing and one I can heartily recommend.

It is very unlikely we will cover future books in the Bee Gees history (although the 1970-1974 had some fine moments culminating in the rejected and unreleased album A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants!) but that is by-the-by. This is where it started and covers the best of their vast repertoire (which extends to well over 1,000 songs as a group or as individuals).

Lesoir — Babel

Lesoir - Babel
Babel (20:20)
Martin Burns

This progressive art-rock band have released a 250-copy, limited edition, single-sided, handmade, etched vinyl LP Babel. The single title-track lasts 20 minutes and 20 seconds and is about the state of the world as we knew it in 2020.

The band has stated that: "Babel sketches the experience of the disaster year 2020, in which nature takes back what has been taken from her through pandemics, forest fires and floods." It is the longest track they have produced so far and is a result of (and reaction to) the current global situation.

The music on Babel follows the well-crafted path of one of my top 5 albums of, ironically, 2020 Lesoir's Mosaic. This long track has to my ears five discrete, but mainly similar sections, that work through their song-focussed approach.

Babel opens with a fade-in on piano accompanied by acoustic guitar and floating voices. Soon the full band comes in as the song commences. There are spiralling synths, keyboard arpeggios and with breathy, Focus-like flute. Lesoir move on with a heavier section, an intense guitar solo and a building chugging rhythm.

Still from the video for Babel

This winds down into an acoustic section that morphs into a lovely alt-country-style ballad with Ingo Jetten's Pedal Steel guitar to the fore. But before you can get settled on your horse, some dirty bass chords come and kick you off it. Grinding prog-rock, dual vocals and eastern-influenced flute carry the melody, as the pace increases before smashing riffs carry this section to a quiet, distorted piano.

Lesoir have saved the best melody for the last section (not that there is anything wrong with the melodies up to this point), and it is a bit of an-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finalé. From spoken-word, to a punchy guitar solo, fist in the air riffs, strings and then more pedal steel, as they blaze away to the end.

The transitions on Babel are seamless and don't throw you out of the dramatic moods that Lesoir have seeking to create. Moods that are sometimes indignant, sometimes despairing but ultimately hopeful as the melodies arc across the 20:20 run time.

It's a shame there isn't a second track here. The live version (check it out here) could have gone on side two.

Alex Pilkevych — That Way Lies Madness

Alex Pilkevych - That Way Lies Madness
Madness (1:48), Honesty (5:45), Celery (5:29), Trauma (5:40), Carrier Wave (4:28), Moist Mouth (6:02)
Ignacio Bernaola

I will start this review with a conclusion: If you want to discover a great artist making very interesting things, then go check Alex Pilkevych's music!

Now, if you prefer to first know more about this young musician and the kind of prog that he's producing, the keep reading; although sampling his new EP directly would be even better.

Alex Pilkevych is a young musician from Poland and That Way Lies Madness is his fourth EP, officially containing only four songs, but with two bonus tracks if you buy the CD or vinyl. In only 19 minutes Alex has succeeded in delivering a very promising, modern sound and in developing interesting song structures, and adding an extra layer of emotional vocals that fits great in the overall atmosphere.

Conceptually, this EP is a story about dealing with a break-up. Apparently it has been Alex's form of therapy, so it's a truly sincere thing what we have here. This EP is also his most experimental one but don't misunderstand that word here, because the experimental side does not mean adding weird sounds or impossible structures; it's produced in a smart way that turns the songs into mini-adventures.

We also have some helpers here that contribute to make this small sound so good and big. Katie Thompson from the band Chiasma is adding beautiful vocals, while Arieta Juszczak is playing violin in the song Trauma. However the main guest in my opinion is the great Adam Janzi from Vola on drums and percussion.

This therapeutic EP starts with the brief, acoustic Madness that gives way to the intricate first passages of Honesty. This is a very interesting one with its continuous pulse. The vocal games keep shaping the song until a superb guitar solo starts closing it.

Celery perfectly combines some soft moments with heavy moments including growling vocals. As I said before, experimental music as its best. Trauma truly sounds like a traumatic song. Some Tool influences can be heard, but just when you know how the song is going to be, it keeps evolving until the very end. A nice final track.

As mentioned before, the EP contains two extra tracks and both of them are also great. Carrier Wave is a heavier one that could make you think of Vola again, while Moist Mouth has all the previously mentioned elements in it.

My only complaint? This therapy is too short. I hope Alex Pilkevych is doing great after it, but from a musical perspective this has to be longer. There are many good ideas in this EP to be developed that could be converted into a very good album. I'll make sure to keep an eye on what this young guy does in the future. Highly recommended for those looking for different and emotional prog music.

Robby Steinhardt — Not In Kansas Anymore - A Prog Opera

Robby Steinhardt - Not In Kansas Anymore - A Prog Opera
Tempest (1:41), Truth 2 Power (Only Truth Can Change The World) (3:48), Mother Earth (Is Calling You) (4:42), Rise Of The Phoenix (5:22), The Phoenix (4:06), Prelude (1:54), Dust In The Wind (5:43), Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn) (2:37), Downtown Royalty (6:10), Not In Kansas Anymore (4:40), A Prayer For Peace (Bonus Track) (3:15)
Jan Buddenberg

With a road paved with gold and platinum records as a member of the original Kansas line-up, Robby Steinhardt needs no introduction. His violin wizardry that enriched Kansas' sound on immortal songs like Dust In The Wind still resonates today and will do so for generations to come.

I was introduced to his ground-breaking violin play around 1981/1982, missing the band's highlight days by an inch-year. Thankfully my 'musical mentor' Stanley made sure I gained sufficient knowledge of Kansas by exposing me to their entire legacy. Owning only a limited supply of cassettes (I was 12) meant I had to compile a small song selection for full enjoyment in the confinements of my own room. Choosing just 45 minutes of Kansas brilliance, for on the other side of the tape another exciting discovery was reserved, proved to be a daunting task. At the time a selection included Down The Road, Journey From Mariabronn, Magnum Opus (live) and the whole of the phenomenal Kansas B-side did the trick.

Arguably other and perhaps better befitting examples apply to illustrate the elements that Steinhardt brought to the band, but these are the ones that over the years have stuck-by-me in terms of pristine musicality, beautiful vocal harmonies, the alternating lead-vocal roles and Steinhardt's own vocal prowess, as demonstrated in my all-time favourite Kansas song Death Of Mother Nature Suite. When Steinhardt left the band in 1982 he for sure left behind some big ruby-red slippers to fill.

With Kansas' continued successes under the guidance of Walsh, and with Steinhardt resurfacing a decade later with Steinhardt-Moon (releasing two albums in 1995 and 1999) and a inclusion on the Jethro Tull tribute To Cry You A Song (available on Bandcamp), the magic was momentarily restored in 1997 when Steinhardt again set foot again in Kansas.

He waved his goodbyes to Kansas in 2007, but blood runs thicker than water and after his involvement on Jon Anderson's 1.000 Hands Chapter One he teamed up with its producers Michael and Tim Franklin and started working on his debut album Not In Kansas Anymore - A Prog Opera, posthumously released in October 2021. It's a multi-interpretable title, for on the one hand it refers to the famous Wizard Of Oz phrase and on the other, let's face it, Steinhardt wasn't part of the band anymore in 2021.

In addition to a basic line-up of Tim Franklin (bass), Jim Gentry (guitar), Tommy Calton (guitar), Michael Franklin (keyboards), and Matt Brown (drums), Steinhardt is assisted by a large list of names who have certainly left their mark in the music world. A list that includes Steve Morse (Kansas, Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple), Pat Travers, Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Les Dudek, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and Toto's Bobby Kimball. Together they provide a beautiful and wonderful interpretation of the album's concept, addressing human society, artistic rebirth and care for mother nature.

In light of Steinhardt's signature sound, there are bound to be some Kansas influences to be heard. Besides a variety of Easter eggs sprinkled all over, these indeed show up right away in Tempest, setting off sparks with its inspired opening melodies and Steinhardt's lightning hand, touching comfortably with instantly recognisable play.

These sparkles turn into fireworks with the incredibly catchy and up-tempo rocker Truth To Power (Only Truth Can Change The World) which lays bare a magnificent compositional freshness and contemporary feel, at times mindful to Moron Police. It's a strong opener wherein flashing keyboards, tight arrangements, dynamic melodies and Steinhardt's well-aged vocal strength swings like never before and the rousing passages reveal a delicate Dixie Dregs country style.

The subsequent Mother Earth (Is Calling You) is surrounded by care and attention to detail and illuminates a pathway of enchanting classical symphonies from yesteryear as Steinhardt's alluring violin circles high above the song's embracing string-section. Highlighted by delicate piano refinement from Patrick Moraz, its pristine harmonies and upfront bass add images of Yes, which brings further depth and variation to the song.

The peaceful opening statement of Rise Of The Phoenix (Climb To Grace) is whisked gracefully into slightly ominous atmospheres before a whirlwind of keys and guitars and a gathering of classical symphonic elements make the music tumble into a fairytale scene. With Steinhardt's colourful violin continuously painting in the background, and coming wondrously to the fore alongside Steve Morse's solos in the song's fusion-inducted coda, it transforms smoothly into the adventurous The Phoenix.

It's the perfect set up for Prelude which adds towering rock and orchestral divinities to well-known Dust In The Wind melodies; the same song that shines in a bright orchestral version immediately after. Gathering momentum as the familiar touching movements move by it sees Steinhardt fully committed in his harmony supplying role which contrasts beautifully with the soulful vocals of lead vocalist Lisa Fischer. A daring take on such a classic song, but it pays off brilliantly.

Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn) adds jig-like folkiness with earthy drums and refined bass play, highlighted by delightful violin conversations with Anderson's woody flute and penny whistle. It's a short but ever so sweet playful journey that leads into the elegant opening orchestrations of the socially critical Downtown Royalty. This blues-based composition is sung with sympathy and warmth by Steinhardt and it features a fine Gospel reappearance before it ultimately slides into a symphonic finale.

The closing song, Not In Kansas Anymore, presents Steinhardt's hopes and reborn spirit, while it simultaneously connects him with his past through a variety of lyrical references. Excelling on interplay and harking back to Kansas' prime years, it covers everything a Kansas fan could wish for as the composition soars through relentless prog melodies and comfortingly fades away into peaceful reflections of Judy Garland's Over The Rainbow.

The final testimony as to how amazing and gifted a musician Steinhardt truly was, is A Prayer For Peace. The sensitivity of his touches within this bonus track sends chills down one's spine.

Unfortunately Steinhardt was not allowed to enjoy this very successful album and the subsequent tour he was preparing. So what remains, is, besides the many memories of his time on earth, a magnificent parting gift that would fit perfectly into any progressive collection, and encompasses all that a Kansas fan needs.

Thank You and Rest In Peace
Robby Steinhardt
* 25 May 1950 – † 17 July 2021

XCIII — Void

XCIII - Void
iR (2:31), Red Lights (5:11), Hannah (7:11), At Last One Never Exists (4:18), Re (2:31), Rosemary (4:18), Lunchbox (5:59), Tapeworm (7:26), VS (2:29)
Martin Burns

XCIII was formed by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Guillaume Beringer in 2009, producing black-metal-influenced music. However, their direction soon evolved into an art-rock, crossover prog, and experimental-metal endeavour. XCIII have followed a similar path to Norway's electronica-experimentalists Ulver, with whom they share some musical traits.

XCIII's newest release Void is their fourth full-length album. The sound on this album is far removed from any hint of black metal, taking instead the sound-worlds recently explored by Steven Wilson, Lunatic Soul and The Pineapple Thief. And speaking of The Pineapple Thief, it is their bassist Steve Kitch who has mastered Void.

The music and lyrics on Void explore Guillaume Beringer's love of palindromes; so much so that the last track VS is more or less the opener iR backwards, but without the first's sampled voice. Between these bookends you get songs and instrumentals that have a reliance on piano-driven melodies, looping guitars and percussion, mixed male and female vocals, and a heavy reliance on electronica and synths.

Featuring the delicate vocals of Maélise Vallez, Red Lights has eccentric electronics, droned guitars and some broken jazz, underpinning a spoken word section. Things however really get going with Hannah. Its title and lyrics explore palindromic structures supported by electric piano and guitars. It has a Pineapple Thief-like opening with looping drums and keys, as the language itself loops back to its beginning. The lyrics match the rhythm of the music. The longer running time suits XCIII's ambitions better than the shorter songs.

There is a Lunatic Soul touch to the instrumental At Last One Never Exists. Its distorted guitar and electronic soundscapes weave around multi-layered, wordless vocals. On Rosemary, the skittering percussion and piano flesh out a melody that would not have been out of place on Steven Wilson's last couple of releases. There is a David Byrne joy in the off-the-wall lyrical and musical conceit of Lunchbox's art-pop. A funky bass line and two different choruses split between Maélise Vallez's vocal and Guillaume's own. Enthrallingly oddball.

The longer instrumental Tapeworm moves through three sections of electronic post-rock and psychedelic swirls as it heavies-up to its progressive conclusion. The shifts between the sections are seamless, and it is the best track here.

So XCIII's Void is for me a bit of a mixed bag. The tracks I have highlighted work well but some of the shorter tracks feel sketchy and unfocused. They clash with the fully-formed and generally-successful longer tracks. Void ends up being both satisfying and frustratingly puzzling.

Album Reviews