Caveat — Alchemy
Here are two things I usually don't like: (1) a band's publicity material recommending that band "for fans of" bands X, Y, and Z; and (2) the words "full disclosure," except in, I suppose, a legal context.
Okay, I understand: the band's publicist will want to attract listeners who are likely to enjoy the band's music; and sometimes there might be a perceived conflict of interest if a reviewer doesn't disclose some connection to the band. In the case of Caveat, though, I withdraw my first objection, and I actually have something to disclose (though it's hardly a conflict of interest).
Caveat's Alchemy is "recommended for fans of Meshuggah, Opeth, and Cynic. Why don't I object in this case? Well, that list makes my job here a lot easier, though I'd narrow the most obvious similarities to Opeth and Cynic. If you like those bands, you will indeed like Caveat.
And I will disclose a slight predisposition to like the band not just because they're Canadian - as I am - and I rarely get the chance to review a Canadian band, but also because they're from Calgary, Alberta, and I grew up less than 400 kilometres north of Calgary. We were practically neighbours! But that predisposition doesn't colour my judgement.
Caveat has been around for twenty years now, and this is their fourth full-length album and the first with new vocalist Amanda Marie Bourdon, who also plays keyboards. While her voice is good, it sounds to me as though she hasn't fully settled into the band, or perhaps the mix doesn't do justice to her. However, founding member Greg Musgrave, who plays guitar and sings as well (he's responsible for the growling parts) and the combination is a good one. It also helps showcase the dynamics of the songs.
And there I've hit upon one of the many strengths of this band and the way in which it is most like Opeth. I like the band's description of the album as having "an almost soundtrack vibe to it." I think what they mean is that not only do the songs vary from each other but also that, within songs, there are many twists and turns, many dynamic shifts.
I should say something about the musicianship. Frankly, it's first-rate. I'll start with bassist Matt Petti, who plays a major part in the band's sound. If you want an excellent example of his virtuosity, listen to the first fifteen seconds or so of Black Mirror (yes, the song is based on an episode of that TV show). His fluidity and, in this case, almost funky tone proves him to be a bassist of the first rank.
Then there are guitarists Greg Musgrave and Joe Sikorski. Versatile is the word to start with when describing their work. Check out closing song Zero Hour to hear the pleasing (to my ears, at least!) combination of crunch and melody that these two achieve. Silver, on the other hand, will blow you away with the virtuosic near-blast-beat playing of drummer Casey Rogers.
Finally, Until Dawn is probably the best place to find the most effective blending of the two vocalists' voices. I believe that Bourdon will become a truly essential part of the band if more use is made of her voice to complement that of Musgrave. On songs like this one, while one can hear, yes, Opeth and Cynic somewhere in the background, Caveat really comes into its own.
This is a well-written, well-produced, engaging, and promising album. And I say promising even though the band's been around for two decades. Having made an album this good, I'm sure they can make one that's even better.
Steve Anderson's Journeyman's Progress — Journeyman's Progress Part One
One can often take on the task of reviewing a totally unknown album by an unknown artist and have absolutely no idea how good, bad or otherwise the contents will be. That can often be one of the most satisfying aspects of being a reviewer. Conversely, it can also have the exact opposite effect if the contents are well below what is deemed to be reasonably acceptable in this modern day of musical and technical wonderment. Considering the amazing plethora of digital equipment available to anyone with a few square metres of free space in their lounge room, is it any wonder we have so many trying their hand at becoming the next big thing.
I also take my hat off to solo musicians who embark on the challenging and time-consuming task of creating, recording and producing their own body of work with only a minimal amount of assistance from fellow musicians who might lend a hand with the drumming or vocals, perhaps.
The album under review falls into this category in that the percussion duties have been done by others with all songs being written by Steve while the mixing and mastering was done by none other than The Tangent's Andy Tillison. The name, Steve Anderson, rang a faint bell and a check on his history revealed he served time with The Room, Grey Lady Down and Sphere3.
We have eleven instrumental tracks that cover a decent amount of territory although there is nothing here that would really change the world. The songs at the beginning of the album show definite promise but all too soon the party is over as the album is infused with a lot of incessant noodling which I find a little annoying. Perhaps this is because some tracks, being so short, really don't get enough time to fully develop.
From Steve's own promotional material it is suggested: "The eleven instrumental tracks featured are drawn from a variety of compositional origins and include a diverse and exciting range of textures; delicate acoustic melodies, layers of quirky percussion and brooding cinematic soundscapes combined with soaring lead lines and driving rhythms. Eclectic, playful and unpredictable."
I guess that definition comes reasonably close to defining what the listener might get to hear. I'm finding that some sections have definite quality while during other passages, it seems Steve is still searching for new ideas to add to the project as those parts suggest some additional tweaking is needed.
The track, Journeyman, however, is a cracker and is filled with plenty of meaty guitar, keyboards and adequate but solid drumming that should have, and could have, been used as the backbone for the rest of the album. I am pretty confident other listeners would come to a similar conclusion. Similarly, the beginning of the second track, Coda is an excellent example of how to create an interesting yet unique song as there is nothing like it on the rest of the album. Mr Mekano gives us our first real clue that there is something really progressive going on under the table. It has a quirky, jazz / fusion vibe to it that would not be out of place on a more recent offering by Gentle Giant
The album is reasonably well composed, well recorded and features just the right amount of songs to make an impact. The softer tracks have a pleasant, delicate flavour that helps add some dimension to the album but they are only of average quality. The replayability of the songs however, is just slightly off the mark and makes me feel an album like this will struggle against those which possess much greater strength in the song-writing department. To score this album any higher than a 6 would not do justice to those that were much better.
JPL — Sapiens, chapitre 3/3: Actum
For those not familiar with the name, Jean Pierre Louveton, he was the prolific song-writer with French outfit, Nemo, who have released many excellent albums since their debut in 2002. I was sent their third album many years ago for review and based upon what I enjoyed with that release, fell victim and just added all their following albums when they hit the market. I understand the band is no more although Jean Pierre, who now operates as JPL and is just as prolific as Nemo were.
You are definitely in the tender care of a consummate and extremely talented musician who knows how to construct a great series of songs. This is the third episode of the Sapiens series and is probably the best of the trio. Despite Jean Pierre's natural skills the whole package is definitely well enhanced by the other members of this ensemble, some of whom were also members of Nemo.
The album also seems a lot stronger, grittier, grungier and somewhat heavier, although they also infuse their music with multiple sections that elicit a more melodic and harmonious sound. The use of the hurdy gurdy accompanied by a strong recurring rhythm during Dansez Maintenant brings a pleasant Gaelic effect and is somewhat reminiscent of fellow French minstrel, Dan Ar Braz. He performed the totally brilliant Heritage Of The Celts live concert in 1995.
One obvious feature that any drummer should pick up on is the excellent playing throughout the album. This guy just throws so many brilliant double triplets whenever he can, and it works to great effect as it just showcases how good the teamwork is. Even as a retired drummer myself, I'm still jealous.
One aspect that I'm not so keen on is the whispered vocals that you will hear throughout some tracks. That is not a complaint about this album on its own. I simply don't enjoy whispered vocals or long sections of spoken dialogue, no matter who is holding the microphone. French is also not my favourite language, despite owning a number of essential Gallic progressive rock albums from some of the better proponents of the genre. I don't deduct any points for that aspect however, as it's more of a personal perspective of the accent rather than any musical failings.
This really is a very cohesive effort, with repeated spins paying obvious rewards. It also shows how much evolution has occurred since the first platter was released as this third instalment sounds so totally different to their debut. Has the sound improved? Definitely but in a slightly different direction, so you won't hear any complaints from me. A pretty convincing effort all round, so kudos to the team for yet another great slab of French prog.
Retreat From Moscow — The World As We Knew It
Good things come to those who wait! I think this could be an appropriate header describing the making of this release. Retreat From Moscow, originally based in Cardiff, formed back in the seventies and gigged extensively between 1979 - 1981. However, for inexplicable reasons, the band disbanded shortly thereafter without releasing any material but just one single recorded in 1980. The four founding members each stayed connected to the music world, though, they subsequently embarked upon career paths as producers, session musicians, sound engineers, and tutors. A few decades later in 2016, again for reasons unknown, the band reformed and started recording old and new material. A serious matter quickly developed from what originally might have been considered as a crazy idea, especially after the band realised during the initial rehearsals how tight they still acted as a unit and that everyone still remembered playing the old songs.
The "new", such as the "old" Retreat From Moscow consists of Andrew Raymond (keyboards, guitars, backing vocals), John Harris (vocals, guitars, flute, keyboards), Greg Haver (drums, percussion, synths, backing vocals), and Tony Lewis (basses, Moog Taurus pedals, backing vocals). The album was released on the Gravity Dream label of Robin Armstrong, the multi-instrumentalist behind the project Cosmograf. I got the impression that a certain musical congeniality between that project and Retreat From Moscow has been taken for granted.
Now, how does their music, listeners having been kept back from for almost forty years, sounds like? In an attempt to approach that question didactically, let us first determine a starting basis. Since Retreat From Moscow have their roots in the late seventies/early eighties, the band's original musical activities fell into a period when "primary-phase" prog was on the decline and neo-prog was not yet fully on the rise. Hence, it is not far-fetched to pigeonhole their music into the neo-prog category, influenced by "initial period prog"- bands such as post-Wind And Wuthering Genesis, early Saga, and late seventies Camel. Not surprisingly, there are musical similarities to the usual suspects of that period, such as Marilion, Fish, IQ, Pendragon, Jadis, and Twelfth Night, all of which belong to the originators of that genre.
As a result, on this release you will also find the typical characteristics of that musical style: strong emphasis on melody and accessibility, earworm-like hooks and riffs, floating synth layers, balanced interplay of guitar and keyboards (with the prominent position of the latter), dramatic sounding vocals, and symphonic elements.
This being said, what are the originality and the discreteness of Retreat From Moscow's music expressed in, which ensures that they do not sound like a mere clone of their musical peers? I think it is in the subtle deviations from these overall characteristics mentioned above, which occur on various occasions. Not only layers of synth soundscapes, but also a presence of a Uriah Heep and Deep Purple-sounding Hammond, thus providing for a stronger retro-character. Alternation of dreamy passages with harder rocking ones. Considerable emphasis on the rhythm section, especially the bass guitar is a distinct element. Comprehensive and actual sounding lyrics. Melodic and accomplished synth solos. Strong musicianship and skilful arrangements. Don't get me wrong: all of these features are part of most of the typical neo-prog bands' music as well, but concerning Retreat From Moscow, they particularly caught my ears.
When I listen to a classic neo-prog album, it usually appeals to me right after the first spin, however, quite often a certain wear and tear effect sets in the more often I listen to it. With this release, it was the other way round. The album grew on me, and I discovered little subtleties and new elements over time. Clearly, Retreat From Moscow neither reinvent the neo-prog wheel, not break musical boundaries. Instead, they walk down well-worn musical paths, but do this with dedication, joy, passion, and skill - and that is what counts!
If the music we hear on this release is the one Retreat From Moscow used to play in the late seventies, the recording deserves a clear "better late than never". It would have been a pity had this music not been brought to the attention of a wider audience. Recommended to prog rock fans looking for not overly complex but varied music with symphonic elements, strong melodies and accessibility. Easy to listen to without becoming boring. I wonder whether producing this record has whetted the band's appetite for more, at least it has whetted mine. Ironically, it took Retreat From Moscow forty years to release their first album, only to have the proposed launch delayed by a worldwide pandemic. Instead, and that is another irony of fate, it came out at a period when an "attack from Moscow" changed "the world as we knew it".
Road Trip — Merry Go Round
I wonder if it has something to do with the constraints imposed by the pandemic? I seem to be reviewing more "bands" than usual that consist of only one person, occasionally one person with a guest musician or two. Here's another one: Merry Go Round is entirely the work of Dave Hulatt, recording under the name Road Trip with no assistance from anybody. I begin with this fact because I've found that I can too easily be over-impressed just knowing that an album was made entirely by one person (did someone mention Tubular Bells? But even Mike Oldfield had a little help on that one).
I'd not heard of Dave Hulatt before, but apparently he has performed with members of Hawkwind and has had a long career as a producer, engineer, and session guitarist. Certainly the most impressive instrument on this album is the guitar. He is nothing if not ambitious in his sonic reach: he lists artists from John Martyn to Ozric Tentacles, from Led Zeppelin to Rush as among his influences.
So how do those influences manifest themselves on this album? I should say first that there's nothing here that "sounds like" Rush or John Martyn or those other artists on the list; I should also say that, although Hulatt sings along with playing all the instruments, this strikes me as an instrumental album with vocals rather than a collection of songs. That's all to the good, because Hulatt's voice isn't particularly strong, but his guitar playing certainly is.
I will add that, while he is a more-than-competent bassist and drummer, those instruments aren't what you'll be listening to the album for. No, the highlight is Hulatt's range of guitar styles and sounds. He can shred when it's appropriate, but it's his sometimes piercing, sometimes almost jazzy guitar tone in the many, many solos that is the main attraction here. I might single out The Rabbit Hole Of Time (with its pleasing shifts of mood and tempo), Station In The Sky, and the album's title track as the best examples here of Hulatt's talents. The last of those, the album's final song, is my favourite on the album mainly because of the way it builds through five minutes to an abrupt but satisfying ending.
This is a very good album, but that's not to say that there aren't some missteps. I'll mention only Welcome To The Dark in that context. It's part spoken word, part intoned word, part sung, and, frankly, it sounds mainly portentous. I think I can hear what Hulatt's aiming at, but I don't think he succeeds. (Perhaps a good reason to have a whole band to help refine song ideas? Just a thought.)
So what's the conclusion? Honestly, I like this album a lot, and with the qualifications I've introduced, I think Dave Hulatt has more or less succeeded in his stated ambition for the project: "Road Trip is a psychedelic journey through your mind. It's about our journey of life without artificial boundaries, an escape from the mundane to the other and back again." Okay, that might be a bit overambitious, considering that, let's face it, it's a progressive-rock album, not a work of philosophy. But I'm all for ambition in music, and I admire Hulatt's attempt.
Threads Of Fate — The Cold Embrace Of The Light
Despite being such a large country, I don't often come across symphonic metal from the United States such as Threads Of Fate. Having banded together back in 2017 and releasing an EP shortly after, they have returned with The Cold Embrace Of Light now. Described as “Cinematic metal with emotional, personal lyrical themes”, it sounds like it should be a good discovery.
The album starts strongly, with a short intro that lives up to the cinematic description with a powerful and epic sound. Moonrise follows up and brings even more bombast into the mix with a sound akin to the likes of Amorphis. Aggressive riffs and epic orchestrations abound throughout. A Ghostly Portrait then looms out from the speakers with a slower and more “melodic doom” sound, almost akin to some of Swallow The Sun's work on When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light, but injected with a bit more energy. Still emotional, but not quite as gloomy.
John Pyres really shows of his vocal talents with deep and aggressive growls and soaring cleans throughout the epic and evil sounding The Horrors Within. Vikram Shankar as well does a sterling job of creating a sense of foreboding and impending horror through his keywork here. I feel though that Against The Shores Of Le Monde however is where Jack Kosto comes to the fore with some fantastically catchy and dynamic riffs and leads. The Cold Embrace Of Light brings melancholy in full force with a slow, heavy and sorrowful vibe that suits Pyres' voice perfectly. Penultimate track Love Held Hands With Hatred really brings out the melody and aggressiveness. Fast riffs and face melting solos are everywhere. It could easily take its place alongside some of Insomnium's works. And finally, Ashes comes in to close the album, with a sombre and mournful tone to gently close out the album in a show of orchestration.
The band work together seamlessly, crafting a stirring and melodic album that pulls in all the right directions and promises great things for the future.
In trying to choose a favourite song, I have to go with The Horrors Within. It just has everything I want – doom, melody, harsh growls and majestic cleans and an overall grandiose sound. But then again, Against The Shores ... also stands out as an exceptional track, alongside A Ghostly Portrait. In fact, I don't think I can choose a favourite. It is a spectacular debut album.
I'd suggest if you are a fan of Amorphis, Kamelot, Evergrey, Swallow The Sun or Moonspell then you should keep an eye on these guys. I suspect they could go far.