Craft — First Signs
If you are a fan of The Enid, particularly their classic multi-keyboard-player period around the time of the classic albums Six Pieces and Touch Me, and you have not heard of Craft, then you are in for a treat.
Featuring a trio of musicians who have passed through the ranks of Robert John Godfrey's extensive list of musical companions, the album was originally a vinyl-only release on the short-lived Shanghai label, subsequently reissued on CD in the US on the Kinetic (later Kinesis) label with two bonus tracks. Neither version was particularly easy to find at the time they were released.
The group featured keyboard players William Gilmour and Martin Russell (who also played bass guitar), and drummer Grant McKay Gilmour. Now those who know anything about The Enid, particularly during their early years, will immediately notice that the line-up doesn't include a guitarist, while The Enid sound was suffused with the twin guitars of Stephen Stewart and Francis Lickerish. However, that doesn't mean that First Signs is limited to just keyboards, as there are plenty of very effective guitar lines that were produced by Russell playing his bass through a custom pedal board.
Enid influences abound throughout the album. One can easily consider this a lost Enid album, as the sounds and textures are exactly as one would expect from the 'parent' band of this era. Indeed, if anyone is under the impression that the aforementioned Robert John Godfrey was the musical source of classic Enid, then one listen to Virgo will dispel such delusions. It is a fine piece of music that one would perhaps have automatically credited to RJG.
The initial six tracks here, comprised the original vinyl release and were all co-composed by William Gilmour and Martin Russell. These are the most Enid-sounding. The four bonus tracks (i.e. the other tracks that are not remixes!) are all by Russell and are largely solo keyboard pieces and therefore may not feature the whole band. The exception is Dmitri's Lament, which is more in keeping with the original album, with two distinct keyboards and some fine drumming.
Having been fortunate enough to pick up an original album at the time its release, and subsequently the initial CD version, I have long enjoyed this album and was somewhat disappointed that the group disbanded shortly after the LP was released. I am pretty certain they never played live. The album certainly stands proudly against the two Enid albums mentioned at the start of this review, even if it is not as expansive in its instrumentation, and somewhat lacks the production values offered by the albums released on a major label.
The original tracks have all been remastered from the original tapes, which has resulted in a much cleaner sound, particularly in the bass keyboard notes which are crisp and clearer in the mix. The faux guitar sounds also have more bite and attack. The four remixes all come from 1989, coincidentally the date that the initial two bonus tracks, Despina and Dmitri's Lament were recorded. These are not dramatically different from the original versions, perhaps possessing a bit more of an ethereal quality. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, as one certainly doesn't get the impression that one is simply hearing a duplicated track.
As a fan of this album I can't fail to recommend it, particularly if the instrumental styling of The Enid is your bag. Following the disbandment of the group, Russell went on to be one of the forces behind Afro Celt Sound System. Grant McKay Gilmour joined the short-lived new-romantic group Pride Of Passion (which also featured Marillion's first bass player Diz Minnit), while William Gilmour seemed to have abandoned music altogether until he made a somewhat surprise appearance on To Wake The King by Francis Lickerish's Secret Green band. First Signs is a great "lost album", now thankfully available once more.
Fairy Tale — That Is The Question
Slovakia is not the first country that you think of when looking for prog bands, so it is great to review one of those scarce albums originating from that country. Fairy Tale has been around since 1994 when Peter Kravec, at that time still in college, came up with the name to use for his musical ideas. It was not until 2005 that he managed to record their first EP, Sound Mirrors, on which he was assisted by vocalist Barbora Koláriková, drummer Lubomir Pavelka and keyboardist Marek Skvarenina. The first two still form the core of the band together with Kravec, while Skvarenina guests on four tracks on this their fourth album, That Is The Question, released last October some ten years after its predecessor Loveland. Another guest musician is Adam Lukác who plays keyboards on three tracks.
The album comes in a very decent digipack with brownish-grey artwork by Hugh Syme containing a lushly designed booklet with all the information on the band and the lyrics. The artwork and the attention to the package make a very good first impression and bear the high quality production mark of Simon Heyworth (producer for Marillion and King Crimson, among others).
On the album there are ten tracks, ranging in length from 0:22 to 11:17. This variation in length can also be found in the musical styles of the tracks. I'm very puzzled why the band strives for such a wide variety and why they have chosen to elaborate these varied ideas not further.
All four of the short tracks are nothing more than snippets of musical ideas, lacking coherence with each other (in spite of the fact that three of them are supposed to be parts of the same song). Opener Wasting The Sounds 1 is just some noises with some soft piano and guitar and wordless vocals, ending far too abruptly. The closer Dot is an extremely short piece in vaudeville style, being totally out of place. The other two parts of Wasting The Sounds are uninteresting musical snippets with drone-like sounds, incoherent keyboard sounds and occasional guitar and vocals. These are not songs in their own right, nor do they connect the songs preceding or following.
Incoherence is maybe the main issue I have with the songs on this album. It is best illustrated in the epic Sophie that starts really nice with fine, quiet guitar playing and a rocky rhythm section over which a totally superfluous remark “Part One” is spoken. Just as you expect the song to develop, there is a sudden stop, a new completely out-of-place remark “Part three”(?) after which the music takes a different direction into pop-rock territory. After almost five minutes, there are some distant sounds and the introduction of the last part, after which the song picks up the main melody again. It is the same kind of trick Pink Floyd used in Welcome To The Machine but performed badly, which doesn't do the song any good. The vocal melody is quite attractive and well performed but the multiple sudden breaks and the rather simple instrumental parts don't justify the 11-minute length. It could easily have been abbreviated to just over 10 minutes as the last minute is only silence!
The remaining four songs are more pop than prog. In the title song Koláriková sounds remarkably like Gwen Stefani of No Doubt-fame. The instrumental break after 2.5 minutes doesn't relate at all to the vocal part preceding it; another example of the incoherence in the music.
Time Heals Nothing is a nice, straight-forward rocky song supported by nice guitar playing and clear keyboard and organ sounds. The music is quite subtle and melodious and contains hints to bands like Roxette and Cock Robin. For me this is the highlight of the album.
Wake Up is a song with a nice quiet verse and a rather ridiculous chorus with a completely different mood from the verses. Koláriková talks more than she sings, which doesn't fit the song at all, at least not for me. The punk style also emerges in the verses of Girl In The Opera, while the waltz-like chorus is quite melodious. The short parts of opera-like singing are appropriate but not very convincing. The instrumentation is again a bit simple. Wise Men Keep Silent opens as a fine guitar-driven rock instrumental and thankfully it stays that way. The wordless vocals, the fine bass playing and the subtle keyboard sounds melt nicely in this melodious track.
Unfortunately this example of Slovakian prog hasn't impressed me at all. It is too much of a mixed bag and it is far too poppy and too fragmented to keep one's attention. The music on this album reminds me a bit of the more experimental side of 10CC as well as of Twelfth Night, but much less attractive. There are nice parts and Koláriková is a nice vocalist but the music in total doesn't do it for me.
Lighthouse Sparrows — Aerials
One of the nice elements of the prog-rock scene is the creativity of musicians in naming their bands or projects. I very much enjoy names like Pattern Seeking Animals, Van der Graaf Generator or Kaprekar's Constant, to name just a few, irrespective of their music. That, and because I'm a professional ornithologist, made me immediately attracted to this new release under the moniker Lighthouse Sparrows. The name alone calls for many, different images and inspirations, but what's on offer here?
The project originated with Finnish musicians Olli Huhtanen (vocals, keyboards) and Sami Sarhamaa (vocals, bass, guitar) who called in the help of Miri Miettinen (drums) and Ella Eriksson (backing vocals) to be able to create their musical ideas. The Covid pandemic brought about much time to record and produce this album that features 11 mostly mid-length songs. Instrumental opener Bates is the shortest track, with two epics clocking-in at well over eight minutes.
They describe their music as “traditional prog, 80s deep pop, cinematic soundscapes and modern production” which is so vague and wide that it doesn't help much to pinpoint the style. And that is too bad because it is quite interesting what they present to the listener.
The album opens with a ragtime-type piano intro, after which the full band comes in for an instrumental overture. A very fine guitar-line, over a wide keys tapestry leads to a chord sequence played by guitar and keys simultaneously that fades out slowly. It would have been perfect if this fade-out would have flowed into the next track, but unfortunately it doesn't; a missed opportunity.
A couple of fine and slow tracks follow, with many hints towards bands like Anathema, Gazpacho and Airbag. The playing is tight, the keys sounds wide with loads of strings, the tempo is low, the bass and drums restrained-but-effective, and the vocals good but not very outspoken. Both Huhtanen and Sarhama have pleasant, rather light voices which are not very expressive or powerful but perfectly fit this style of quiet and stately music. They more-or-less alternate the lead vocals, which turns out to be a good idea as it brings more variation in the music.
The emphasis in these songs lies on the vocal melodies with the instrumentation mostly serving as a backdrop, especially in Moodswings in which Huhtanen's keys and Sarhamaa's guitar create a very nice dreamy mood throughout the song. The music in Kibitzer is more cheerful than in the two preceding tracks and features a fierce guitar solo which for my tastes could have been considerably longer.
In the first epic, No Still Moment, the guitar chords play a prominent role again, leading the music towards the break-point, almost halfway through the song. Then the music becomes more threatening with a pulsating bass and dark keys sounds quite reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Welcome To The Machine. The background choir made me think of Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn. The long and slow fade-out with some heavy guitar riffs followed by dreamy keys is surprisingly appropriate here. It illustrates the varied music in this fine song.
A subtle piano intro opens up Elephant, upon which a nice guitar theme is played. It is another slow song with a fine vocal melody, a very quiet middle section with just vocals and keys, and a more heavy outro, firstly dominated by guitar and then by synthesizer.
In Like Blood the musicians enter rock territory and unfortunately the music becomes slightly mediocre. The intro is a muscular guitar riff, the vocals are rather quiet in the verses, while in the not so appealing chorus some distorted guitar can be heard which doesn't do the song much justice. In the second half there are some spoken vocals, some more distorted guitars and wide-sounding keys that lead to a very sudden end. Musically and vocally I found this the weakest song on the album.
Fortunately the soundscape character of the music returns in Itinerant, offering another slow, dreamy vocal melody backed by the keys. The guitar offers a subtle accompaniment in the vocal break, after which the fine bass, drums and keys lead the music to the softly-fading guitar solo.
Percolator is another instrumental soundscape. A slow guitar and keys work-out with a very fine role for bass and drums. The sometimes bluesy, sometimes jazzy mood of the track made me think of The Flower Kings in their Flower Power-period.
Safe And Sound features Eriksson prominently on vocals. She has a pleasant voice that harmonises well with the male voices. It is a rather straightforward, poppy song with a fine string keys solo at the end.
The inclusion of some of Greta Thunberg's words in Youth is of course a real asset, yet that doesn't fully save the song. For my ears it is the least coherent song on the album, with many musical ideas that fail to flow naturally, making this a rather disjointed soundscape. It is more atmosphere than music; more separate and different sounds than a song. The slightly distorted vocals don't help here.
With Aerials the Lighthouse Sparrows have simply delivered a good album. They prove to be accomplished musicians with a fine ear for melody, harmony and variation. The music may not be very complex, yet the different moods between dark, heavy, melancholic and rocky make it far from simple. Although the momentum is a bit lost towards the end of the album with the disappointing closing epic, it is a coherent collection of songs. It is very well produced, with all instruments as well as the pleasant vocals clearly audible in the mix.
It is of course a pity for me that the album doesn't give a clue where the inspiration for their exciting band name came from. On the other hand, that may be an excellent reason to continue this project. I sincerely hope they'll do that!
Poor Genetic Material — Red Bird Of The South
The various members of Poor Genetic Material (PGM) are nothing short of an inspiration. Next to their own regular releases, the band's spin-off project Coarbegh is well into its third offering, and now the band has started an ongoing series of 'alternative recordings' or 'standalone singles' under the title Elsewhere.
This ever-expanding collection of songs involves different line-ups of the band. So far, alongside Red Bird Of The South, two other older songs dating back to 2020 (The Star and Stargazing) have been added to the Elsewhere 'album'.
Red Bird Of The South was originally recorded a couple of years ago, with rearranged parts of it, making their way onto songs of PGM's 2016 album Absence. But for the 2022 version, the band returned to the roots of the song, added new parts and reconstructed it in the process. The resulting epic piece of music now encompasses what was intended all along.
The song narrates an imaginary journey of a mythical bird whose five-coloured plumage is eternally covered in flames. It opens with an electronic oriental feel surrounded by twittering birds as a spoken poem by Philip Griffiths embraces an experimental, ambient Hawkwind sound.
Levitating onwards past chilling Coarbegh-like soundscapes into ethereal skies of beauty, courtesy to Pia Darmstaedter's serene voice, it hovers momentarily in peaceful spaciousness before it tensionally shrieks into a colourful passage that floats on alluring synths from Philipp Jaehne. This lovely segment is elegantly guided by probing bass and refined melodies on acoustic guitars from Stefan Plombe.
Perfectly portraying the image of a bird's-eye-view as it soars high above in the air, the musical scenery then descends into valleys of light, percussive earthiness as delicious melancholic guitars caress, and bird sounds announce a lush twinkling of Pink Floyd atmospheres that set the composition aflame. Suspended in heart-warming Mellotron atmospheres, surrounded by glittering melodies sprinkled with starry fireworks, the enchanting composition finally drifts off into breathtaking horizons of excellent guitars gracefully flying with melodic musical richness.
This radiant ending is a most satisfying finish to this wonderful, transporting composition and overall this is 'Perfectly Good Material' which makes me look into the future with anticipation.
T — Pareidoliving
It was not the easiest of introductions, considering the album's complexity, its lyrical concept, and its diversity in emotionally-straining and challenging musical landscapes. Even today it remains something of an anomaly, although over time two concerts (Essen and Alphen aan den Rijn) and a recent album revisit have shifted the puzzling pieces into more comfortable shapes.
This "process" is similar to one of the conceptual aspects embedded in the "word" Pareidoliving, namely pareidolia: the psychedelic illusion of seeing/recognising something familiar in randomly unclear perceptions.
A visual illustration of this phenomenon, is depicting elephants or other animal forms in clouds (to which I'm living proof of having tried this in my younger years), or seeing faces in inanimate objects such as rocks and the moon. Audio examples are found in (backwards) hidden messages or indistinguishable 'misheard lyrics' within music.
T's own statement that Pareidoliving is a lot simpler than his last album, did catch my interest, and its emotionally-vibrant musical nature is indeed more approachable when compared to the tangible, breathing sorrow as captured on Solipsystemology. From an artistic and conceptual point of view, I however sincerely question this statement. The sheer magnitude of Pareidoliving is of another level all together. Not that I expected anything else.
One aspect that strengthens this view is the album's profound lyrics. They philosophise about relationships and personal insecurity/growth in the broadest sense. Occasionally T refers to older work using words such as "Curtain Call" (a song from Voices) and introduces The Relevant Lovesong, which may well be a sister-song to his beautiful composition The Irrelevant Lovesong from Psychoanorexia. Implementation of cryptic words leaves me desperately in need of a dictionary and enhances its mystery, bringing an enigmatic character to the concept.
In terms of production this album is especially noteworthy. Surrounded by a high-fidelity sound it provides crystalline clarity to all the intense passages and fragile moments, providing a warm embrace or intimate glow respectively, and throughout it affectionately inserts a wonderful beating heart to T's emotional declaration.
It also benefits the overwhelmingly complex passages where every instrument is clearly identifiable, while at the same time it adds tangible layers of tensional darkness to psychedelic movements (of which there are several) and brings lightness to the more reflective passages. Add to this, a magnificent spherical spatiality, a delightful experience under headphones that brings out the many layers of vocals splendidly, and the end result is one seamlessly-flowing ribbon of enchanting music which over the course of the album grows into one unique and infinitely complex entity.
Highlighting a single composition is thus a near impossibility, especially taking into account the excess of instrumentation, intricate arrangements and fullness of emotion that T has embodied here. The emotional alternations are boundless, and within this realm T's highly melancholic voice resembling Steve Hogarth fully stages pain, sorrow, torment, fear, tenderness, excitement, anger, happiness, astonishment, hurt, affection and every other known (male?) emotion into the songs.
On Solipsystemology this drew me slightly away, with the music focussing too much towards the oppressive side, yet here the opposite effect takes place, and songs like The Light At The End Of The Light and Tell The Neighbours We're Fine embrace and draw me in completely. The euphoric feel of the latter is simply amazing and a highly rewarding affair.
Besides, this great vocal performance T has boosted his rhythmic fundamentals with sensitive bass expressions that emit a U2-like similarity at times, while his dexterous organic drum approach almost made me check towards the presence of Thomas Nußbaum, T's live drummer. Although knowing full-well that every single note played and recorded is performed by T himself, this notion of guest appearances is also reawakened when T's electrifying guitar glides towards the sound of Marillion's Steve Rothery. In addition the fantastic transitions in songs like The Light At The End Of Light and The Scars Of The Sky give goosebumps reminiscent to those magical moments appearing on that band's masterpieces Season's End and Brave.
The difference to those memorable albums is that Pareidoliving offers an array of these Easter egg surprises through a sublime 30-minute, three-song climax starting with the gorgeously poignant and haunting Behind This Pale Face. Revealing beauty in piano and majestic melodies, it gracefully streams into the heavenly harmonies and passionate melodies of A Relevant Lovesong, sub-consciously shimmering with unsettling touches.
T's multi-verse finally receives loving warmth in the penultimate composition Tell The Neighbours We're Fine, where touching melodies cautiously build into euphoric greatness as it intricately fades into a coda of divine smallness. This phase marks a phenomenal ending to an amazingly impressive album, which this time leaves me comfortably numb and highly charged for another exploration.
With the ambitious Pareidoliving, T has not only surpassed his own perfection, but also exceeded my wildest expectations. The album wholesales in enticing melodies and beautiful arrangements that buoyantly bounce through the emotions, creating an incredible amount of beauty and monumental depth in its wake. The progressive enthusiast / daredevil, especially Marillion "freaks" with a love for the era referenced, will receive a lot of pleasure from this.
One final note is the fact that, like most of T's works of art, it takes a considerable amount of time for Pareidoliving to (partially) reveal its secrets (one of the reasons why there's a slight delay towards the publishing of this review). Once these treats are fully received, the reward is most excellent and as such progressive go-getters should definitely have a go at this.
Stephan Thelen — Fractal Guitar 2 Remixes
Stephan Thelen's album Fractal Guitar was in my Top 5 albums of last year. Read Owen Davies' glowing review with whose assessment I completely agree. Its guitar and keyboard interplay is superb. On Fractal Guitar 2 (Remixes) Stephan Thelen has invited a number of respected musicians to remix and tease out different elements of the original, densely-layered aural soundscapes.
Along with remixing two of the tracks himself, he has his Sonar bandmate and guitarist David Torn, bassist Bill Laswell, dub-master Jah Wobble (Public Image Ltd), and guitarist and author Barry Cleveland all giving various tracks a workout. Yet there remains all the things both Owen and I loved about the original album such as the Kosmische grooves and the mesmerising guitar parts that twist and entwine as they explore the melodies.
There are three different mixes of Point Of Inflection. On his own remix, Thelen adds in hand percussion from Andi Pupato that he felt didn't fit on the original mix. Along with Thelen's slinking, funky bass playing it has a Middle-eastern sheen with a hint of desert blues.
David Torn's take, gives prominence to Andy Brugger's skittering, urgent drums that give an EDM feel to the first half. He finds an intensity missing from Thelen's remix.
The longest of the three versions is Bill Laswell's, described as a mix translation (!), it becomes an electronica-drenched journey through the cosmos.
On Ladder To The Stars Jah Wobble provides a growing urgency to the bass-heavy but not overly-dubby mix, that finds acres of space between the instruments as they flit in and out, in pulsating, hypnotic lines.
Stephan Thelen's remix of Celestial Navigation is different and shorter than the original, and shows that second thoughts can be as successful as the first ones. The best remix for my money is Barry Cleveland's Mercury Transit. Centred around the superb bass of Micael Manring, the guitars swoop and dive, even throwing in fusion licks I didn't notice on the original.
So, on Fractal Guitar 2 (Remixes) Stephan Thelen and his cohort have reworked these pieces in varied and engaging ways. I feel they are best listened to as individual pieces rather than as an album as a whole but that does not detract from the achievements on the individual tracks. If, like me, you loved the original, this makes a great companion piece, as well as standing as a work on its own.