Xavier Boscher — Firescapes
Xavier Boscher is a prolific guitar player from France, and his albums are frequent guests on DPRP pages, so there is little need to introduce him (apart from the fact that I never knew that his guitar is present on the 2000 disk by famous prog-death collective Misanthrope). Presently Xavier's solo career leaves no hints of that particular sound, since he has shifted to less extreme pastures, now playing somewhere in between shred, prog-metal and neo-prog. This is a fairly uncharted territory for me. The one musical project that I could remember listening to that is very close to what Xavier does is The Inner Road / Coalition from the UK, albeit with less keyboard influence on the sound.
Firescapes is the third instalment of the “-Scapes” quartet of albums, with Waterscapes and Earthscapes released in 2020 and 2021 respectively. I should say that I missed the first two parts, but Firescapes does provide pleasant moments for newcomers either way and the guitar parts themselves are indeed very fiery and bright most of the time, adequately reflecting the album's name.
As previously, Xavier handles all the instrumental and recording work, with a heavy accent on guitar parts that carry the bulk of the musical content. Usually guitar players making solo records, invite guests to play other instruments, but Firescapes surprisingly employs three more axe-men to support Xavier's on three different tracks with extra parts.
My complaint is with the start of the album. Pyrotechnic is a fine number, but only if cut under 10 minutes. It rapidly becomes a tiresome experience of listening to changes between shred and melodic phrases for 15 minutes. There's no build-up or climax, it is just a mix of musical sentences; nice ones, but generally going nowhere. The shorter tracks are better, more concise and handling the musical ideas well. Check the Buckethead-ish Lightning, or the more graceful, melodic Thermic Vision which invokes memories of Tony Macalpine circa late 80s and early 90s.
Guitar acolytes should keep an eye on Xavier's solo career, as there is a lot of professionalism in what he is doing and one can learn from him, especially in phrasing and intonations (not in notes per second). Progsters may find the record less interesting, because of some instrumental scarcity.
Kornmo — Fimbulvinter
In 2019 I wrote a review on Kornmo's first two albums, Svartisen (2017) and Vandring (2019). Continuing their inter-album timespan of two years, the band recently released their third album, Fimbulvinter.
The band still comprises Odd-Roar Bakken on guitars and keyboards, Nils Larsen on bass, and Nils's son Anton J.R. Larsen on percussion. Initial compositions are all by Nils, arrangements by the three of them.
Fimbulvinter is, like its predecessors, an instrumental concept album. No lyrics to tell a story, but a group of people working on an album with a concept in mind will give you a cohesive album; an experience more than a collection of easily recognisable tunes.
Musically, I am starting to call this Nordic-noir symphonic folk prog. The Nordic-noir describes the overall feel and atmosphere, as we're touring through a timeless, rough, cold, beautiful, fjord-ridden landscape. Sometimes it stretches to the horizon, sometimes it's rough and unpredictable. Some parts are like a soundtrack, other parts feel like they came into existence by jamming.
The folk part is a denominator to tell something about the style, but think more Agusa than Mostly Autumn, when it comes to the overall feel of the music. And I don't have to explain the prog part, more than merely mentioning symphonic prog. Genesis is an obvious reference, but it feels nice to be able to mention a band like Neuschwanstein as well.
The melodies are multi-, multi-layered. Many, different sounds, mostly by keyboards. The use of vintage keyboards and organs give it a classic-rock feel at times. Early Camel must have been an influence to the musicians. The swirling Hammond sounds and Moog solos really do it for me. Some folk-style melodies join in as well, but there's also neo-prog influences clearly present. The more symphonic parts remind me of how The Enid build up their longer compositions.
Besides contributing a great amount of keyboard layers, Bakken also handles the guitar very well, adding even more melodies. Sometimes supporting riffs, often adding more melodies and more solos.
Nils Larsen is a melodic bass player. Being the one coming up with the basic compositions, I suppose he has to be. More often than not, he has his own melody lines rather than filling the more common role of playing supportive bass lines. Anton is creative, letting the composition take charge. He's making himself present and heard, but I wouldn't mind if he would be a bit more outspoken, or higher in the mix, to add even more to the compositions.
I said it last time, and I'll say it again: Kornmo is a project and it's unlikely they will play live. I think that's a pity as the music oozes an atmosphere that could work very well in some settings. They would need at least two extra musicians to pull that off, but that would not be the first time bands/projects have done that.
It took a while before I started to recognise the compositions by title, or where they started and ended. With this type of music it doesn't really matter. Although the opening track is a tad slow, without gaining pace, it does provide an intro to the whole concept, the whole trip. I'll definitely be listening to this when my plans for a trip on the Atlantic Highway take shape, but it's perfect listening in many situations.
Clive Mitten — Tales From A Misspent Youth Volume 1
After recomposing a selection of Twelfth Night's early instrumental music on Suite Cryptique, the erstwhile bassist of Reading's finest band since Mike Oldfield was in short trousers, releases a collection of his formative musical influences, arranged for virtual orchestras (and a mini-Moog).
I don't suppose many will be all that surprised by his selection of material from greats such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the aforementioned Mike Oldfield, Supertramp and Jethro Tull, although I confess I would never have taken Mr. Mitten to be a great Rush fan. Whatever, Mitten should be applauded for having the bravery to take on such a selection of iconic songs, as there will inevitably be a collection of naysayers who automatically denigrate any attempts to mess with the original versions, even before they have heard them.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond is undoubtedly a prime candidate for an orchestral make-over and in this case it has been transformed into a minor cello concerto with a clarinet replicating the original keyboard solo. I like the sparse drum beats added at the beginning of the track, although I think a more rousing conclusion would have benefited this re-imagining.
Unlike on Suite Cryptique, Mitten has pulled-back from recomposing the pieces. As such the pieces remain pretty true to how they were originally composed. The trick is in the arrangement, such as the tuned percussion used to great effect on Jeux Sans Frontieres.
Tubular Bells in its original form, was quite orchestral in itself and even more so when an orchestral version by Mike Oldfield and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was released in 1975. Mitten's version ranges from sections that sound very similar to that release, to a rather chaotic and unique variation of the main theme at about the seven-minute mark. I can never hear the ending of the first side, without expecting to hear the late, lamented Vivian Stanshall introducing various instruments, even if those instruments don't actually appear!
Supertramp's Rudy is the least immediately-identifiable piece on this double-album and also to some extent the most enjoyable. A rousing string section adds new layers and dimensions to the original piece. Crime Of The Century was obviously a favourite as two further tracks from that album also get a makeover here. School sounds great played on harpsichord in a more chamber orchestra setting, and a very rhythmic portrayal of the closing section adds a bit of spice to proceedings. I might have preferred it if the piano had been substituted by another instrument, as it sounds very close to the original (that is no bad thing but might have completed the chamber feel in a more apposite manner). Piano also dominates Bloody Well Right and takes on a jazzier feel, which is a nice contrast to the harps that feature extensively throughout.
The biggest number on the album, both in terms of length and arrangement is Supper's Ready; a Genesis track that would seemingly be an impossibly-daring thing to tackle. Fortune favours the brave, as the saying goes, and I have to say that this rendition works very well. I particularly enjoyed the opening section which sets a whole different tone to the piece. The song provides plenty of opportunities for excess, but thankfully the opportunity to do so has been avoided. The use of organ and female choirs add variety, and the couple of rewritten sections do nothing to harm the integrity of the original.
The second CD opens with another Pink Floyd epic, Echoes. Again, Mitten's re-imagining works very well, with a plaintive solo violin taking on the major role, with a couple of humpback whales making a guest appearance midway through. Solsbury Hill, the second Peter Gabriel track is, like School, transformed into a harpsichord-driven piece with prominent drums akin to what Gabriel himself would explore on later solo albums. A jaunty oboe flitters above the main melody.
Countdown, the first of three Rush tracks, is not one I am familiar with, but it is quite excitingly-played on piano backed by lush strings, an approach that continues into La Villa Strangiato, which I feel is rather cumbersome, convoluted and lengthy. Xanadu does have its moments, but I think there is an excess of left-hand piano and the cello could be more dominant. The ending is really nice, but it lacks a defining finale. As with Jeux Sans Frontieres, tuned percussion is used on Living In The Past and bounces around all over the place giving a sense of light-hearted jollity to this every popular Tull song.
As with both CDs opening with a classic Floyd number, both end with a lengthy Genesis medley as featured on the Three Sides Live album with Afterglow added to the end (on the original album this song immediately follows the medley, so it is not such a wayward addition). There is some of the most frantic playing on the album included in this piece, particularly on the In The Cage section. The second snippet of Cinema Show with organ and choir is lovely, as is the extravagant woodwind ensemble on Colony Of Slippermen. And you can't go wrong with concluding with Afterglow.
On the whole this is a largely very successful re-interpretation of songs that will be largely familiar to most prog fans. That in itself may be detrimental to sales, but the wary should not be put off from sampling these re-imaginings, as they have a lot to offer. I would have liked to have heard more crescendos throughout the album, although it should be remembered that these are not symphonic interpretations!
An added bonus is that whilst listening to the album, one can try and determine from which songs the cover images are derived from!
Playgrounded — The Death Of Death
Having since shared stages with the likes of Anathema and Riverside, Playgrounded are no strangers to the outer fringes of the contemporary merging of rock and electronica.
In the band's own words: "The Death Of Death is, in essence, dialectical; a study of unity in opposition. A disclosure of contradictory aspects of reality, an expression of their mutual relationship. From these contradictions we aim to construct a brooding world of dark magnificence."
If that's all a bit too high-brow for you, then the broody album opener The Swan will give you a gentle(ish) introduction to this band's sound-world. It is the first single/video and is as close as Playgrounded gets to a traditional song structure. Here the keys merely add an extra layer behind the guitar and vocal lines. There is a definite post-rock/djent influence to the pounding rhythm.
The pulse is taken right down for Rituals. The guitars and electronica throb. The drums churn. The vocals are almost whispered. The impression is of Karnivool and The Butterfly Effect. Instead of building up, the mid-section takes the pace to even more languid valleys. It's dark down there. Finally, some The Ocean-like guitars are let loose. Think The Hound of the Baskervilles giving chase over the doomily-dank Dartmoor marshes, before slowly sinking, slinking into silence.
Staccato guitar-bursts again punctuate the title track. It's like the march of death. 'Bleak' is the word to match this sonic landscape; swirling with ghostly electronica. We are veering towards Joy Division territory here. Recent Katatonia would be another memory. But this is darker, the guitar and drums taking the lower, post-rock road. This is not really a song; more like a musical statement.
Tomorrow's Rainbow hints that there maybe a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. The vocals are brighter, the guitars and drums more optimistic. The sparkling keys hint at a beat that Dad could dance to. It is a song. A very good one too. My favourite track.
We shift again with the industrial setting of A Road Out Of The Flood. The rhythmic opening, pictures an industrial production line. It's cold in there; the surroundings bleak. "Where is my hope? Where is my joy?" The road seems to be leading into the flood, not out of its stank waters. Deeper. Deeper. Deeper. The waters swirl above our sinking bodies as the last bubbles of air float to the surface.
The closing track seeks to meld all the elements that have been mined in the preceding five tracks. It's largely effective, although I find the thudding, ramming, stamping guitar/drum rhythm is over-done here. My least favourite track.
And that's it. Too concise? I feel that another ten minutes of song-time would have served better, to develop some themes, and construct a few others. At 39 minutes this is on the short side for an album (even in the old vinyl currency).
That said, the music of Playgrounded has a spark, a verve and a streak of inventive risk-taking that I admire. Musically this is far darker, less groove-orientated, heavier, and more film-score-esque than In Time With Gravity. The keyboards and programming of Orestis Zafeiriou and the rhythmically-obsessed drumming dominate the Playgrounded sound. This is a natural continuation of the sound from their last effort, into darker spheres.
In a similar way to its predecessor, The Death Of Death is a more rewarding feast if you devour it as a complete work. It is an enthralling creation of modern progressive music that will appeal to anyone who likes the idea of electronica, mixed with intense post-rock, in a soundtrack setting.
Thankfully, Playgrounded has just been (re)confirmed for this year's ProgPower Europe Festival in the Netherlands in early October. I shall be interested to see how this music translates into a live setting.
The Death of Death will have been released by the time you read this (18th of March to be precise). The digital version is available from the artist's Bandcamp page (see above) with CDs and vinyl direct from Pelagic Records and other vendors.
Alberto Rigoni — Songs For Souls
Alberto Rigoni is a bass player and composer from Italy, who acts as solo artist, as a member of various bands and projects, and as session musician. Amongst others, he is or was active with the metal bands BAD As, and Natural Born Machine, the pop/funk project Lady and THE BASS, and the (no longer existing) prog-metal band Twinspirits. He is also the co-producer of the Vivaldi Metal Project. Besides producing numerous releases with his various bands, he has recorded 10 albums as a solo artist since 2008 prior to releasing Songs For Souls.
His excellent reputation has enabled him to gather an illustrious group of musicians to perform on this release, namely Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater for keyboards on track 2, Jennifer Batten, who played with Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck, on guitar on track 3, and Mark Zonder, formerly with Fates Warning, playing drums on every track. Furthermore, Fabrizio Leo and Marco Sfogli play guitars on the title track, Edoardo Taddei on track 8, and Tommaso Ermoli on tracks 6, 7, and 8. Alessandro Bertoni is responsible for keyboards on tracks 4, 5, and 10.
This release owes its making to a tragic incident in Alberto Rigoni's family. According to Alberto: "Considering the hard times, I was going to give up music but suddenly my father ... passed away on October 15, 2021 ... So, I decided to make an album in his memory."
I think that it is important to know Alberto's motive, as this might influence the listeners' approach to his music, and the personal interpretation, reflections, images and allusions which it evokes. It did exert an influence on me, and I found myself drawing parallels to my own relationship with my father and to his passing away some 20 years ago.
It also induces the listeners to make their own ideas about the meaning of each individual song title and the order of how these songs have been placed on the album. For me, it appeared like a story being told in chronological order of a father/son relationship and how this was distinguished and influenced by the progression of a fatal disease. About its sudden discovery, insurgency and fighting, a temporary victory, maybe stopping the disease, but leaving behind silence, another onset, more fights, surrender and the inevitable acceptance, leaving a tragedy in its wake, with hope nonetheless growing from it. Of course, this is my subjective interpretation, and of course alternative ones are imaginable and welcome. In any case, it is a thought-provoking story, the subtlety of which is perfectly reflected and implemented in the music.
The ten instrumental tracks on this record cover a musical spectrum ranging from progressive metal, prog, hard rock, fusion, ambient to experimental. The music is mature-sounding, played with a high degree of musical skills. The bass is distinct but does not outplay the other instruments. It is a bassist's release, but Alberto's playing is perfectly embedded in the overall instrumentation.
The music remains accessible throughout, although it shows a wide spectrum of characteristics. It is diverse, sometimes rough, sometimes delicate, meditative, minimalistic, but also rich and complex (not complicated), bewitching, contemplative, desolate, and melancholic, but also sanguine, and atmospheric.
Can all these attributes, that sometimes seem mutually exclusive, form something consistent? Yes they can, if there is an underlying story, a leitmotiv which acts as a thread throughout, and a close coherence of song titles and related music. What I found striking about this release is the power of emotions that it is able to evoke, especially as it does this "simply" by presenting that strong coherence of titles and music. Of course, that is subject to a listener being willing to draw their own conclusions. The only release so far where I realised something similar is Naryan's album The Withering, but that comes with lyrics. Interestingly, it is also about the loss of a beloved one.
Having made up an underlying story for myself, the music allowed me to relate to the emotions inherent in each of the tracks. For instance, the volatility of Youth, is evidenced by Jennifer Batten's slightly jazzy-sounding guitar playing and the various twists and turns this song is taking.
The demons harassing the son in the prog-sounding Talking With My Demons and the father's soothing encouragement in its second part. The intensive bass playing in the track Suddenly symbolising the lurking of harm, troubling the peacefulness of life. Soft, melodic, and melancholic keyboards giving the impression in the first instance that the battle in the eponymous track is hard to win. The atmospherically dense track Silence with its very scarce, almost atonal sounding bass and floating keyboard soundscapes, interpreting the silence, the despair, the void after the battle in a truly awesome and realistic way.
A final, fierce rearing-up interpreted by the Yngwie Malmsteen-like guitar playing in Keep On Fighting, before airy and haunting piano tunes, arpeggios and acoustic guitar announce the inevitable Peaceful Acceptance of the disease. The album closes with the strong, dynamic, upbeat prog/hard rock title track, which sends out signals of hope, instead of melancholy, as one might have expected following such as loss. A worthy ending of a strong dedication to a beloved one!
This album impressed me not only because of its sheer musical quality, but especially because of its expressiveness. I found it to be very emotional and touching, and I was in a position to fully understand and to empathise with the feelings that Alberto Rigoni wants to express. Highly recommended. In order to experience emotional moments, it requires a certain level of imagination and the listeners' willingness to let their feelings flow. If that does not work, then just let the music affect you, it is convincing anyway.
John van der Kiste — 1970, A Year In Rock
Sonicbond recently started a new series, combining a year and a genre. In this case, 1970 and rock. I was born in 1970 and a lot of my music collection is from around that time, so I was interested to read what the purpose of this new series was and what a writer could tell me.
Van der Kiste is a British author and has published historical biographies and books on local history, true crime, rock music, fiction, and drama. He has published books on Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, Steve Winwood, and several others.
I knew about 1970 being an important year for music, as a lot was happening and changing. But this book made me realise that a lot of particular changes happened in a shorter time than I imagined; and the importance and effects of the events were bigger too. In that respect, this book managed to open my eyes a little wider.
It was the year that The Beatles disbanded and Jimi Hendrix died. It was the year that many bands had their first album or first important album released. The way that albums had become important, how they were marketed, and how radio started to pay attention to albums, all evolved. More genres were created than ever before. The hippie era ended. So many things changed in (or very close to) 1970. This book is a good overview of many things that happened relating to the musical world.
Van der Kiste starts with a long chapter on describing the musical world in 1970. A lot of different artists are mentioned, not all of whom I would share under the "rock" banner. The focus is almost exclusively on the UK and the USA. Many would argue the most important music was coming from those two countries at the time, but it does feel a bit limiting.
For the second part of the book, Van der Kiste describes 25 albums in a way we're used to in other Sonicbond series. The introductions of the albums contain more references as to why that album is important in the musical world at the time, rather than where it stands in the discography of the artists. The song-by-song descriptions follow the On Track formula, and there the link with the overall purpose of the book in describing the time, the genre, and the place the respective album has in these, gets a bit lost.
It felt a bit strange in the beginning, to read about albums from different artists in this format we've come to learn so well. But as soon as I noticed it was really giving me some new information or insights, it just made sense. Van der Kiste explains that the 25 albums are not meant to be a definitive list, which is impossible anyway, and even just 25 is very hard. So he has tried to find a list of 25 albums representative of 1970 and taken from different genres. Still, I would not call Lindisfarne, Cat Stevens, or Simon & Garfunkel "rock", even though I like listening to all of them. However, that's just a small thing, and it didn't distract from an enjoyable read.
The writing style is usually easy, but at times it feels like he's trying to put a lot of information in a few lines - not helped by the limited number of pages in the books in these series. It makes it feel a bit cramped, or like he's jumping from one artist or album to the next to make a point. I would love to see him write the same book but without describing the 25 albums in full. Leaving out all the song-by-song descriptions, would give us more space for picturing the year 1970 in rock music.