Ambigram — Ambigram
Ambigram have a history reaching back a couple of decades, yet this eponymous album is their debut release. Indeed, the lengthy gestation of the album is evidenced by the fact that opening track A Mediterranean Tale was co-produced by the late and lamented Greg Lake.
The group is based around a quartet of seasoned Italian musicians, namely Francesco Rapaccioli (vocals), Beppe Lombardo (guitars), Gigi Cavalli Cocchi (drums), and Max Marchini (bass). They are accompanied throughout by keyboardist Max Repetti, vocalist Annie Barbazza, and backing vocalist Marco Rancati. Furthermore there are special guest performances from Paola Folli, who adds some delightfully soulful vocals to Sailing Home, Camillo Mozzoni who blows some fine oboe on Cerebus Reise and Patchwork, the latter of which also features a guitar solo from Paolo Tofani, as does L'Absinthe.
I have to say, first time I played this album I really thought that it was a very poor effort considering how long it had been in preparation. As a consequence was somewhat reluctant to play it again. But just to prove how wrong first impressions can be, I have gradually got into the album and now find it utterly absorbing.
It is as if it has a multitude of layers that are only gradually peeled away with each listen. The songs are well written and the performances of all the musicians appearing on the album are well judged and not overblown or in your face. Where present the backing vocals are subtle and add presence and depth to the compositions. And a plus is Francesco Rapaccioli has a decent and emotional voice whose singing, in English, bears very little trace of someone singing in a second language. Though not an album of essential listening, it is one of good quality music that can be enjoyed on many levels.
Considering the lengthy history of the album it is rather surprising that the actual physical release is a very limited edition so don't delay in checking the band out and getting hold of the CD!
Finally, it is one of those ironic things that the word ambigram cannot itself be made into an ambigram.
The Ancestry Program — Mysticeti Ambassadors Part 1
Hailing from Munich, The Ancestry Program (TAP) were founded in 2019 by Ben Knabe (vocals, Lap Steel guitar), Mani Gruber (guitars), Thomas Burlefinger (keys), and Andy Lind (drums). Scoring highly with their 2019 debut album Tomorrow amongst modern prog fans, TAP have recently returned with Mysticeti Ambassadors Part 1. Meanwhile their line-up has been extended by RPWL's touring bassist Frank Thumbach, while special guests are welcomed in form of Wolfgang Zenk (guitars), Axel Khün (sax), Christina Elsner and Veronika Halser, the latter two respectively on cello and violin on Lovely Lies. Together they bring over an hour's worth of exciting melody-rich modern prog.
Provided with beautiful, mysterious, slightly futuristic and unsettling artwork, elegantly spurring one on to explore the music. Opening epic Dark To Overcome instantly brings a strong, diverse and eclectic composition which takes multiple revisits to fathom. Its atmospheric opening, with bombastic passages and comfortable contemporary prog, shows glimpses of Transatlantic. This heightens expectation and this is nicely repaid by shining bass, fresh keys, and driving play. With a delicate Eighties vibe and touches of funk, a moody aggressiveness slowly invades the music with excellent ripping guitars, leading into a lush synth-pop passage with beautiful vocal interaction.
Here, while floating on a bed of Hammond, with Lind exploring the full range of his toms, the epic song gains further scope, as it confidently works its way to a mighty impressive passage that breathes Pain Of Salvation. On the one hand, due to its vocal aspect, it sounds menacingly maniacal and aggressive, while on the other it emphasizes its magnificent musical complexities and odd time signatures. Returning to ravishing melodies bursting with energy, this composition simply keeps on giving. After a final dive through layers of synths, funky play and soothing melodies, it ends most satisfyingly.
The first time I heard this song I was surprised at the seamless ease in which the various ideas, different moods and inventive melodies were integrated and gracefully flowed together in unison. It also made me aware I would need some time to grasp all the compositions on the album. An insight I would have known if I had taken the time to check out the various members beforehand. I would have learnt about Lind's involvement in Schizofrantik, jazz-metal outfit Panzerballett, and his own solo album A Hundred Years - The Justification Of Reality Part 1, actually reviewed by yours truly... In my defence I've never been any good at reading guiding instructions, so I started listening without this knowledge.
The mysterious and restrained Gusty Ghosts is a perfect second track expressing an oppressive atmosphere mindful of Queensryche's Empire. While its splendid build-up reveals excellent playing by all where acoustic guitars, piano and keys add life as one of the album's vocal highlights embraces the song. The fantastic sprinting finale, ignites Symphonic bliss reminiscent of THEO, as lush synth melodies splash on foundations of bass that encircle machine gun drumming. It is breathtaking and thoroughly enjoyable.
The subsequent lengthy Love Lies passes with the same flying colours as it submerges in a Pink Floyd mood and adds delightful symphonic classical elements that envision yellow The Beatles submarines. Creating tension from steamy organ it converges into a fantastical medieval Gentle Giant vocal passage before it drowns in a variety of atmospheres. These enchant with magical symphonic synth waves and a short becalming melody and a lingering revisit to Beatlesque melodies embraced by violins. Finally, this well-written compelling composition ends in wide ambient vastness.
Exhaling a divine Eighties pop sound, caught in modern freshness, Tiny Monsters adds lush keys and driving bombast as it alternates force with subtlety, grabbing attention throughout. With a truly beautiful bridge from which sparks fly as keys and guitar intertwine the song gradually morphs into dark echoes of Floyd courtesy of the touching lap steel guitar. This makes one remember that one of these days the whaling sounds experienced in the composition's fading coda could soon be history.
The highlight of the album, although this might alter as time goes by, seeing that I'm far from finished listening to this great album, is Carry On (The Lyricist). It awakens with tight riffs larded with Hammond organ and choirs on prog-metal melodies similar to Ayreon. Surrounded by beautiful harmonies its crafted melancholic melodies accelerate into a whirlwind of intoxicating vibrant rock. Tasty keys crack the sky open for a rocking punk environment surrounded by vicious vocals and aggressive drums. With piano descending the melodies transform into a short seaside rendezvous mindful of Queen. The compelling composition then travels onwards once around the world again for an exciting guitar/blasting key duel in best It Bites tradition, ending excellently as it revisits its overwhelming opening structures and fades out.
This vibrantly bright, adventurous composition casts a light shadow over the next two songs for me, although this has nothing to do with their quality but is simply down to taste. The opening sweetness of My Enemy, with sensitive clarinet and beautiful piano alternates darker intensities with lighter smoothness. It is a fine resting point on the album, but it's also one of the last. For after these fine minutes this cleverly composed, technically brilliantly performed piece of music brings a demanding, doomy Gentle Giant structure with overwhelming sax and inner Haken complexity. Overall there's a certain lightness in approach in comparison to Lind's other escapades, but it's fully absorbing still.
The same goes for the industrial New Wave style of Diamond Ring that ups the ante with odd time signatures, symphonic embrace and an immaculate oppressive atmosphere, in which lightness interchanges with doomy segments where harsh vocals surround the created upsetting melodies. Slowly drifting off into an ocean of whaling sadness this immaculately executed and quite different composition is a strong but somewhat disturbing finale a beguiling and demanding album.
Like their debut album, Mysticeti Ambassadors Part 1, establishes The Ancestry Program as one of the up and coming new stars in the progressive rock firmament and a force to be reckoned with. The performances and mature compositions, as well as the excellent arrangements and adventurous twists, are all of the highest order. Musically, Mysticeti Ambassadors Part 1 is an impressive, monumental beast. An ensured listen for fans of Haken, Devin Townsend and those in favour of adventurous "unfathomable" prog with neo-progressive appeal and King Crimson-like depths.
As a late arrival to 2021 it landed on my doorstep after those illustrious top ten lists were published, for which it would have qualified as a contender. If the promised second part, due to be released in autumn of 2022, is of the same joyful calibre and arrives in time (!) then don't be surprised to find it in there for this year.
The Black Flash — Remain In Darkness
The Black Flash is a group hailing from the rich musical soil of Portland, Oregon (from The Decemberists and Grails to Agalloch). As the band's history developed, it grew from a one-man project by Jordan Rousseau to a trio on the previous release Object Permanence (2018), and finally into a quartet since last year. Remain In Darkness is their fourth effort, featuring ten tracks - and wrapped in a great-looking cover with a message.
What immediately struck me was that the vocalist (Jordan himself) sounds exactly in the middle between Maynard James Keenan and Ray Weston from Echolyn, adequately providing the same nervous, clenched-teeth vocal delivery. After several listens, it becomes apparent that the band is very much in love with legacy of Tool, Karnivool, and to some extent Caligula's Horse, and simply adores staccato riffs, styled somewhere in the middle between modern indie rock and djent.
I cannot accuse the band of being copycats, as they certainly have their own vision of the alt-prog sound, scattering lighter, optimistic, almost brit-pop motifs through the tracks. And while I cannot deny that the riffs, muted arpeggios and rhythm patterns are indeed intricate and professionally played, I find that musical content outside these riffs is rather scarce. Remain In Darkness suffers from a very common modern prog disease: the compositional approach is so narrow, that you can easily mix parts of different songs the other way round without losing anything, just like LEGO bricks. They consist of the same mood, the same major-tone sequences, the same ragged sort groove. Yes, there are darker moments, like for instance in Victim Of The Century and coda for A Smarter Home, against brighter, more relaxed ones, like Kentucky Christmas. But generally the album feels a bit like an attempt to paint a landscape with different shades of the same color.
Content-wise, the good ideas here can easily fit an EP-format. Hit the button, play the first four tracks if you like what you hear, you won't be disappointed with the rest. If you don't there are no hidden surprises to reward a patient listener.
Andrew Darlington — On Track... The Hollies
Here at the DPRP, we reviewers occasionally indulge ourselves and stray from the progressive rock remit. The Hollies are one such indulgence, one of my favourite groups of the 1960s / early 1970s. It was their 1966 single Bus Stop that hooked me in as an adolescent. They enjoyed a run of hits (27 in total) to rival most of their contemporaries. Formed in 1962 by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, their close harmonies graced many a catchy song, even after the latter defected to the other side of the Atlantic in 1968 and found fame and fortune with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Author Andrew Darlington unravels the ups and downs of The Hollies career and, as you would expect from the On Track series, the emphasis is on the songs rather than biographical detail. Although The Hollies recorded more than their fair share of singles, they released a steady stream of studio albums throughout the 1960s and 1970s so there is ample material for Darlington's writing. His attention to detail is impressive with a bewildering amount of factual detail including release dates, chart placings, catalogue numbers and concert dates. His comments are mostly positive throughout, and he singles out the two 1967 psychedelic albums Evolution and Butterfly in particular for praise.
Particularly effective is the way the author evokes a sense of the period, especially the 1960s, referencing numerous other acts, recording studios, the package tours that were popular at the time, even record and ticket prices. From the 1970s onwards, solo albums are discussed - as is Nash's recordings with CSN - but not in the same detail as those by The Hollies. To round off the book, a chapter is dedicated to the band's numerous compilations.
It goes without saying that this book is a must for Hollies' fans and should also appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in the 1960s British beat boom and the 1970s pop scene. Hollies completists in particular will find it a handy reference guide given the author's meticulous research. No recording, no matter how obscure, is left unturned. As for me, it's time to dust off The Hollies: 20 Golden Greats LP and revisit my misspent youth.
Deaton LeMay Project — The Fifth element
When a band/project mentions their main influences to be ELP, Kansas, Styx, Yes, Rush, and Dream Theater in their accompanying letter, it's essentially a no-brainer for me to explore their album. Obvious guarantees towards the quality of the music, execution thereof, and its enjoyment factor, are then still to be determined, but anticipation is readily awakened and in case of The Fifth Element by Deaton LeMay Project (DLP) wholesomely rewarded. Actually, for this is a magnificent album for symphonic prog / AOR fans who hunger for a good old dash of pomp-rock and neo-progressive excellence.
Behind the project one finds Roby Deaton (keyboards, acoustic guitars) and Craig LeMay (drums, percussion). Both are professional musical instructors, as well as seasoned musicians, and have played together on and off since the early Nineties, some of which as part of the American based CINEMA. During the past twenty years they have continuously been writing and recording music but only recently have been able to fulfil their ambition when they acquired the online aid of available musicians. One of the advantages of living in the digital era is that musicians can swap ideas and complete performances back and forth without having to meet in person.
In 2019 this resulted in their debut album Day After Yesterday, now followed by their "always difficult" sophomore album, The Fifth Element. For this they welcome back Hadi Kiani (vocals) and guitarists Ehsan Imani and Josh Mark Raj. The bass parts are split 70/30 between newcomers John Haddad and Charles Berthoud. Liza Evans (violin on Air) completes the guest list. The first aspect that becomes clear is the overall accomplished band-feel, for every member gets their chance to shine and light up the music with their expressive musicality alongside the evident technically superb presence of Deaton/LeMay. Excellent interaction is superbly catered for which substantially benefits the compositions.
The music on The Fifth Element is based on the four elements of life (fire, water, earth, and air) with the fifth element, music, binding them all together. This is beautifully captured in the artwork and the 27 minute long The Elements Of Life Suite, which is featured after five other brilliantly entertaining songs.
Starting off with The Great Awakening, the mood is instantly high with fresh sparkling keys as big splashes of Yes are generated. Pompous melodies open up a combination of lush symphonies, keys/guitars interplay and rhythmic tightness that firmly imprint a Cairo excitement. Each musician certainly knows their strengths and while still staring in my crystal ball towards finding the right superlatives to capture the magical Styx/Ice Age combination, meanwhile excellent guitars and tantalising synths converge into a great segment that creates images of Saga. It is vocalist Kiani who adds a voice in which to rejoice!
His amazing melodic range is a perfect fit to the music and brings bags of character, depth, power and passion to the compositions. Over the course of the album, his versatility and reach becomes even greater, igniting visions of Jean Pageau (Mystery) in the process. In The Nightmare, this magically turns to Matt Young (HEKZ), when DLP insert their music with a relentless AOR drive and thriving vintage keys in style of Deep Purple. When synths embrace the ravishing rock melodies the no-holds-barred pomp-rock affair brings an appeal of that delicious first album by Prophet.
Opening up in luxurious draperies of Hammond and readily reopening the Paradise Theatre left behind many years ago by Styx, A Different Place In Time brings pristine harmonies and neo-progressive melodies in the style of Mystery. Building momentum through solid guitars and keys, sparkling with AOR sensation, it also touches upon Kansas refinement as another set of keys float to the surface, and more synths and drums glide in atmospheres of Rush to a satisfying coda.
Symphonic in nature, with Deaton adding a fascinating array of sounds and melodies, Exordium adds an instrumental oasis of exemplary keys gliding through comforting melodies with state of the art ELP finesse. Although I still feel inclined to mention Cairo courtesy to the rousing guitars involved. The dexterity within LeMay's playing is equally great and shows great diversity rivalling the other outstanding performances in which further hints of Kerry Livgren's composing skills can be detected.
Showing musical variety, the intricate Dragonfly brings classically inspired, winged elegance on piano. This makes a nice peaceful early resting point. Later on, the sensitive violin of Evans gracefully glides over a flighty folk melody in Air, bringing an equally exceptional reflective moment with satisfyingly created Livgren attraction. This feeling is surpassed in the mighty epic opening of Water, which further raises the bar. Its tantalising six minute timeline brings phenomenal vocals from Khiani, while a waterfall of vintage keys and majestic melodies bring a wonderful AD moment to life.
Splendid songs in themselves, the latter two widen the scope of the Elements Of Life Suite which atmospherically lifts off with Overture. It opens up a sky of ravishing melodies, with bombast and delightful Kansas shuffling in LeMay's part, seamlessly soaring through a variety of exciting diverse dynamic passages, spiced by excellent guitars. The energetic pomp of Fire keeps the energy contained as it sets my world aflame with key-driven Styx and AOR prophecies. Catchy melodies and erupting guitar raptures are carried onwards by an impressively passionate vocal from Kiani.
The all encompassing perfect amalgamation of the various styles so far are encountered in Earth. It is similarly addictive when it enters the heavy prog universe once again, with catchy choruses, pompous synths and solid guitars. Despite some overly energetic, slightly distracting, drum-fills it reminds of Saga in light of melodic synth/guitar interplay, and also of Aldenfield, and a totally unrelated Depeche Mode lyric: I just can't get enough!
The cherry on the cake is the melancholic, symphonic closure of Music, which has the style of Kansas and Mystery (the band) written over it. Adding generous rock, blasting keys and majestic melodies to believe in, it glides through shifting atmospheres under the brilliant guidance of Kiani, whose captivating resemblance to Pageau is simply stunning. When the song builds into its epic grand finale, after the resounding line "music is life", my inner happiness can't agree more and sees me press play again.
Leaning towards symphonic retro-prog. I can assure you that this blueprint of my world in music ticks many of my good old-fashioned musical conservative boxes. As such, it is an immense pleasure to listen to. Admittedly, I have encountered many, if not all, of the elements and musical explorations on The Fifth Element frequently over the past 40 years, so nostalgia is certainly in play. Yet hearing these strong offerings of superb song-smithery and exceptional high-level performances, with an amazing vocalist to top it all off, is simply a joy!
The January 3rd release of the The Fifth Element is a peerless beginning to 2022. A gem of an album that comes highly recommended for fans of symphonic prog, especially when names mentioned within this review tickle your fancy.
Joe Matera — Backstage Pass
Backstage Pass: The Grit and the Glamour is the first book by Australian music journalist Joe Matera. In his career as a journalist, Matera has published more than 600 articles in various music magazines around the world, including Guitar World, Classic Rock, and the Australian edition of Rolling Stone.
But notably, Matera is also himself a guitarist, singer/songwriter, and recording artist, which allows him to write about the music industry with the knowledge and perspective of an insider. In addition to recording several solo albums, Matera has played with Double Vision, Geisha, On The Prowl, Bay City Rollers, Rough Riders, and Steve Harley, and as lead guitarist in orchestras for local productions of Les Miserables and Chess.
Backstage Pass is not an autobiography, but a collection of stories from occasions when Matera interviewed, shared a drink or meal with, and in some cases performed with, touring musicians at various venues, hotels, and, per the title, backstage. Despite one chapter being called Sex, Drugs & Rock 'N' Roll, this is not a sensationalist tell-all, but reads more like a journal. After briefly setting a scene for us, Matera simply relates what was said and done, often with little editorial comment, allowing us to be flies on the wall. Many chapters conclude with the band going out on stage, while Matera himself runs off to play his own gig in a different venue. Turn the page, and it's another night, another band, and another venue.
Matera discusses how most performers, even those with outlandish stage personas, tend to be shy and introverted when not on stage, and thus slow to let their guard down around strangers. It is in this regard that Matera excels, not just by being a fellow musician, but also by being well-prepared with interesting questions, and sometimes knowing when to just listen and observe. It's apparent that guitarists, especially, enjoy having someone with whom they can talk shop, who isn't just waiting their turn to talk to the lead singer.
As a result, many of the details in Backstage Pass are going to be of particular interest to guitarists. In the chapter Legends, Matera interviews Hank Marvin of The Shadows, a big influence on many of the biggest names in rock guitar, but unfortunately not a household name today, who happily extends the interview in order to thoroughly answer all the questions of a fellow guitarist. When Matera sits down with George Martin, the conversation naturally turns to his work with Jeff Beck (Blow By Blow, Wired), and with John Mayer, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. One can imagine that Brian May doesn't get asked very often about his Star Fleet Project with Eddie Van Halen. Perhaps in appreciation, May later offers Matera a chance to play his famous Red guitar, yes THAT guitar, sometimes called "The Fireplace" because he and his father hand-crafted it out of wood from a Victorian-era fireplace.
Through the juxtaposition of Matera's stories, I was struck by how similar the experience of being a touring musician is for bands across all styles of music. Whether it's a pop or an emo band or Lemmy from Motorhead, there's much more to be found in common between the backstage moments than I would have expected. On the other hand, the biggest difference, it seems, is not in the style of music or the size of the venue, but where that band is in their career trajectory. In the first chapter, How You Remind Me, Matera visits with Nickelback when they are really breaking out with that hit, and the backstage is buzzing with excitement. But in later chapters, some artists are struggling with declining audiences or mismatched audience expectations, and the entire mood is somber or volatile. I guess this is where the subtitle The Grit and the Glamour really comes in.
Since this is DPRP, I of course should mention that there is a chapter on Prog-Rock Prophets, where Matera spends time with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, before seeing a Yes concert that unfortunately happens to, as he writes: "slowly deteriorate into a train wreck as it was plagued by non-stop technical problems both on and off-stage." (Fortunately, Wakeman was available to entertain the audience with stories while the techs worked their magic.)
Backstage Pass: The Grit and the Glamour (Foreword by Phil Manzanera) is an enjoyable and often insightful look behind the scenes into the thoughts and lives of touring musicians. Music fans, and guitarists especially, will enjoy learning many new and interesting details that only come to light when hearing one musician candidly open up to another.