Daniel Crommie & Leslie Gray — Two Of A Kind
Based in Portland, Oregon, keyboard and woodwind player Daniel Crommie has had nine albums reviewed on these pages, with and without collaborators. On top of this, he has had reviewed another seven with his band DC Collective.
On this new one he collaborates, not for the first time, with violist and violinist Leslie Gray. Two Of A Kind has eight tracks of cool, ambient electronics, synth pulses and flute contrasted with Gray's warm (when not being treated electronically in some way) viola and violin timbres.
Most of the tracks follow a similar template, with Crommie setting a repetitive, short melodic line and rhythm with the synth and sequencers, and adding some melodic development on flute with Gray joining to follow this pattern. Some arrangements and melodies are better than others but for me they generally fall into the dully-ambient. Flitting between the pleasant and the irritatingly bland, the melodies whisper along, and the developments are so minimal as to almost disappear.
There are three tracks that buck this trend. A Month Of Sundays has Gray exploring a celtic, folky melody, as soothing, sequenced notes bubble up from the keyboards. Templum (A Place For Observation) has a nice classical piano and viola interplay with added flute trills. An Autumn Vignette has the best melody, led by the viola, and develops an interesting atmosphere.
There are touches here and there on the other tracks like the middle-Eastern feel to Twice Upon A Time but mainly my initial reaction never changed to Two Of A Kind. It's all a bit dull and I can't really see me returning to this at all.
Envy Of None — Envy Of None
Envy Of None have a guitarist called Alex Lifeson. Now that name rings a bell! As a founder member of a certain Canadian prog-rock trio (the true template for prog-power trios in my book), he has been a favourite of prog rockers world-wide for many a year. But proggers be warned, this new venture that Lifeson has joined is far from the sound-world of Rush. I, for one, applaud that and admire his change of direction.
With Envy Of None Lifeson's presence has made them into a quartet, and on the evidence of the music here, he is very much part of a band set-up. It does not sound nor feel like he is a high-profile guest, rather he is a band member working towards the collective goals of this self-titled debut album.
Envy Of None is Alf Annibalini (guitar, keyboards, programming), Andy Curran, of Canadian hard-rockers Coney Hatch (bass guitar, synthesized bass, programming, guitar, background vocals, stylophone) and Maiah Wynne on lead and background vocals and keyboards. Alex Lifeson contributes guitar, mandola, banjo and programming.
The music of Envy Of None has its roots deep within alternative rock, goth rock and electronic rock with smatterings of grunge and the tiniest bit of left-field progressive rock. Singer Maiah Wynne brings the sonic textures of dream-pop into the mix.
On a first listen, what stands out is that the focus is on songs in this set, mixing commercial melodies with darker musical elements. Right from Never Said I Love You's bass-driven opening and Wynne's floating but characterful vocal, you find yourself eaves-dropping on a jam between All About Eve and Garbage. This is the sound that Envy Of None mainly explore on their album.
There are pulsing synths with a reggae-like rhythm on Shadow, before an ear-worm chorus comes to the fore. They channel their inner goths on the lead single Liar. Guitars come front and centre on Spy House that also features a subtle, blues-tinged guitar solo. Dog's Life and Dumb play with engaging dark-wave synths in a kind of Nine Inch Nails-way but without the industrial head-pounding.
A couple of tracks vary from their template. First with the weird scenes inside the goldmine of The Doors on the desert-psyche of Kabul Blues and then the floating, lap-steel of the alt-country ballad Old Strings, both of which work well.
The album closes with what feels like a bonus track. A completely different sort of track written by Alex Lifeson in tribute to his late Rush band-mate Neil Peart. A poignant farewell of acoustic instruments. One can imagine it as the soundtrack to the sticks-man, on his Harley, riding off into the Western Sunset. A moving instrumental miniature.
The problem that I have with Envy Of None's Envy Of None is this. On the first three or so listens I enjoyed this, even though it is low on the prog invention. It felt interesting. However, on subsequent plays I have found my enthusiasm waning. I have ended up with the same feelings I have about All About Eve and Garbage, and that is, it lacks the depth for repeat plays. If it came on the radio or popped up on shuffle I wouldn't skip over any of these tracks, but neither would I choose to play it as an album. It's not bad, it just doesn't engage me. Have a listen and see what you think.
PS: My other half, who likes All About Eve and Garbage, thinks it's great. I foresee arguments over what gets played on the car stereo on future journeys.
Bjørn Riis — Everything To Everyone
Everything To Everyone is the fourth solo album from Norwegian guitarist and singer Bjørn Riis who came to prominence via his excellent band Airbag. He is accompanied on the album by Airbag's drummer Henrik Bergan Fossum, Kristian Hultgren, the bassist from fellow Norwegians Wobbler (and is also part of the live Airbag set up), Simen Valldal Johannessen the keyboardist from Oak (both of whose albums featured Riis as a guest performer), Ole Michael Bjørndal guitarist from Caligonaut and Norwegian singer/songwriter/actress Mimmi Tamba on additional vocals.
This is exactly the same line-up that recorded Riis's stunning last solo album A Storm Is Coming back in 2019.
This new album is loosely inspired by Dante's Inferno, which Riis admits to being slightly pretentious, but was the origin of the idea to present, musically, a journey searching for some kind of peace or redemption, during which feelings of both hope and anxiety are prominent. Heavens above, sounds like a concept album!
Fear-not those who are horrified by the thought of anyone trying to summarise such a magnificently complex piece of literature in a mere 50 minutes. The album does no such thing, and although the six tracks do adhere to a form of journey, the album is essentially a stylish collection of top-notch songs.
As expected, the album is littered with progressive elements, the long songs, the variations in tone and tempo, string synths and even the sweet sound of Mellotron. There are sections, such as during Every Second Every Hour, that one can imagine being lushly-enhanced with sweeping string sections, not that the assembled musicians do not do a fine job on the instruments that they have to hand. I say it, to give an impression of the grandiose (no negative connotations please) nature of the writing.
With the underlying acoustic guitar, I am reminded of Animals-era Pink Floyd, although without Water's invective lyrics. For those who are still mourning the retirement, permanent or otherwise, of Anathema, you can rejoice over the album's title track which does much to alleviate any such feelings of loss. Tamba and Riis combine gloriously on this most excellent of songs; she is a remarkably fine vocalist and the pair give an emotionally-laden performance.
The album as a whole is a class work that has a pristine sound, particularly on the clear and precise guitar solos that appear throughout the album. The opening instrumental Run has an energetically-heavy and frantic start. Periods of heavy riffing are interspersed with more fluid acoustic lamentations.
The reflective Lay Me Down is almost soulful in places, and again features tremendous support from Tamba. The Siren is more pared-back. The piano and acoustic guitar form the basis of the track, with minimal drumming beating out time. A languid electric guitar solo provides a fine interlude between verses, and from about four minutes onward the listener is treated to an instrumental performance of such restraint and simplicity that is just delightful.
From that point things just get better, the highlights of the album being the aforementioned Every Second Every Hour and Everything To Everyone, separated by Descending. This is the shortest track on the album. After a somewhat 'worrying' start of an electronic drum beat, it turns out to be an instrumental linking piece separating the two songs. Not a piece that really stands on its own, despite the aggressive nature of the break in the middle, but as an album track it works well. I dislike the abrupt ending. I feel it would have been better to have faded into the final number.
This is yet another fine album by Riis who manages to maintain the quality of his work with both Airbag and as a solo artist at the highest level. A great addition to any prog collection and not just those who have followed Airbag over the years.
Robert Schroeder — Spaces Of A Dream
Spaces Of A Dream sees Robert Schroeder deliver his 43rd album in nearly the same amount of artistically active years. For the past few years his release rate has been as regular as clockwork and his previous effort Pyroclast, my first exposure to his work, therefore still lies fresh in mind.
A collection of electronic music with a warm Berliner Schule atmosphere and a sparkling energetic appeal, it proved to be a great exhibition of Schroeder's seasoned creativity and inventiveness in ambient-orientated soundscapes. Spaces Of A Dream, although different in feel and atmosphere, brings a very confident and soothingly relaxing continuation.
The musical genres mentioned on Pyroclast's artwork (Berliner Schule, Ambient, Chill Out, Finest Electronic Music) fully apply to Shades Of A Dream as well. But where the former is a cohesive collection of individual, interchangeable, energising compositions, the latter represents an at times mysterious and continuous journey into the deepest corners of the mind. A relaxing exploration into, well ... the spaces of a dream.
Embellished by mild tribal themes and spatial echoing sound effects Dream Theatre's earthly recreational melodies massage one slowly into a state of mild awareness and brings multi-layered structures and sequenced electronics cautiously drifting off into ethereal environments and Alan Parsons-styled synths that glide into outstretched, whaling sounds. A fine entrance to the voyage, it seamlessly submerges into an ocean of futuristic electronics that pulsates with twinkling synths as hypnotic tension transports one into a deeper state of relaxation before REM Phases brings on the next phase of tranquil, ambient refinement.
The constant change of musical scenes continues with the adventurous and dreamily-fluxing Daydreamer. The beating heart of the composition feels grand and sheds embracing warmth, creates an imaginary score which together with the percussively enhanced spacious A Spiritual Journey brings serene 'Bladerunner 2049' and choral Vangelis impressions. These compositions provide a lovely cinematic experience before the rhythmic, meditative cosmic waves of Delighted Experience enters a new dreamy consciousness with recurring themes and Berliner Schule elegance mindful to Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze.
The craftsmanship on display in Schroeder's compositions comes beautifully into its own when experienced with headphones on, and in Mind Recorder enters darker realms of the mind as psychedelic elements and haunting atmospheres are empowered by a variety of nightmarish, shrieking sound effects. With percussion providing a reassuring pulsation, this intriguing Pink Floyd-reminiscent soundscape finally fades into the detached Neuron Transmitter which is gently disconnected from the overall stream of restful captivating music.
Slowly awakening, this illuminating composition comes fully alive through sequencing refreshment, vibrant percussion and enchanting melodies. It takes the voyage home and rounds off Spaces Of A Dream superbly.
Overall Spaces Of A Dream is a pleasant and solid consolidation of Schroeder's previous effort, Pyroclast, and in a variety of entertaining ways it showcases a broad musical appeal and shares a delightful imaginary expressiveness. Fans of Schroeder and electronic music in general, especially those with a preference towards the genre's pioneering days, will find much to be enjoyed here.
Silv — Dernière lumière avant la nuit
Silv is Silvain Goillot, a French multi-instrumentalist. Between the ending of his previous band Maldoror and the birth of his next band Apairys, where he was and is the drummer, he recorded this, his first solo album.
And a solo album it is. Goillot wrote, arranged, played, recorded, mixed, and mastered everything himself. Well, except for the lyrics on Le mal and Le paradoxe des jumeaux, which are poems by Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Langevin respectively.
Musically, this album does not sit straight between the two aforementioned bands, but does have overlaps with both. Where Maldoror had a larger emphasis on a classic prog approach, Silv solo has more contemporary influences. There is classic prog, but it is more neo-prog sounding. Apairys is heavier, in a Rush direction, but also more modern, which is the overlap with the album under review here. A bit of the songwriting, or even storytelling, gives me an Ange feel, but ported to today's sounds. People who like Nemo and JPL should also take note.
All songs are in French. I have no problem listening to languages I don't understand, it depends on the vocalist. And I like his voice a lot. A bit lower than the average prog voice, with a rough edge that I'll call "life".
The last couple of years it has felt to me that the number of solo albums (where most or everything is done by one person) has increased considerably. In many cases, the music has been lacking something. Sometimes it is clear that the drums have been programmed as they sound a bit lifeless. Sometimes arrangements have been just too much alike.
The fact that there was not a single moment on this album that made me realise that this is all done by one person, is a major compliment to Goillot. The arrangements are full, and heavy where needed. There are mysterious sections driven by Goillot's dark voice. Goillot is clearly a master of many instruments, or at least mastering everything he needed to make this album. The mix is clear and varied. The sound effects add layers, but nothing is depending on trickery.
It offers a modern approach, but with the knowledge of classic prog. Refreshing and surprising while still feeling familiar. A major achievement.
But there is another side. After several listening sessions, it felt like something was missing. It took a while before I realised what it was, or how to put it to words. It's hard to put my finger on it, but I guess it is about some compositions or how they are worked out. In a couple of cases, I found that the song seemed to be building up to something that never came. As if it was unfinished. Maybe it was intentional, having more songs limited to a smaller number of ideas than typical prog songs, but it resulted in a little too many anti-climaxes.
So I am a bit ambivalent on this one. The playing and arrangements are great, with interesting and modern ideas. But maybe the limitations of a one-man band are now showing in the songwriting department?
Overall, this is still a good and interesting offering and the point of critique does not apply to all the songs. I don't know if Silv is going to keep releasing under this name, or whether the focus is shifting towards Apairys. I will keep an eye on him as a musician and singer, and I am interested in how a solo follow-up will sound.
Us — Stars In Broad Daylight
Once I had a subscription to the Dutch SI Music magazine, like so many Dutch prog aficionados in those days. It was complete and informative and enabled you to get acquainted with artists you'd never come across otherwise. But it also made me believe that I knew the Dutch prog scene rather well. How wrong I was! For Dutch prog band US was already active during those days, releasing their debut album To Whom It Concerns in 1979 when they were called Saga. Since 2002 they have again been regularly releasing albums but it is not until their thirteenth (!) release that I learnt about them.
US comprises nowadays of Marijke Wernars (lead vocals), Paul van Velzen (drums and percussion, vocals), Peter-Jan Kleevens (keyboards, synthesizers), and of course founding member Jos Wernars (all other instruments, vocals). They have done the album production themselves and released this through their own label. That's courageous and always challenging, as it may imply important setbacks in terms of distribution and marketing of the album. Reading the band's history, those disadvantages are simply taken for granted as the making of prog epics is for Jos Wernars primarily a very meaningful way of living his life. Is a more convincing reason possible?
At DPRP we have reviewed six of their albums in the past. It is remarkable that the grades have been dwindling over time, from their debut A Sorrow In Our Hearts in 2002, to DPRP-colleague Basil Francis being very harsh on the 2012 release The Road Less Travelled. The 2017 Lindisfarne and the 2020 One Thing Is The Thought, Another Is The Deed (great title!) were not reviewed here. All US albums are completely unfamiliar to me, so I can make my judgement without any foreknowledge. And I guess that has been an advantage.
As with most of their former releases, US primarily records epics, sometimes well over 40 minutes. That is a good starting point, for I really like long epics. Epic song lengths were once a very important criteria for me to try out new bands; the longer, the better, although that certainly wasn't always the case.
This new album features three tracks clocking-in between 10 and 20 minutes. The title track starts rather ugly, to my ears, with a sort of cacophonous organ work-out of about half-a-minute, after which the chaos diminishes and the music really starts. Thankfully that cacophony doesn't return, so why it was chosen as the album intro remains a complete mystery to me.
The music sounds rather simple and therefore very accessible, with long organ chords and a straight-forward, slow tempo during the first five minutes. The song has a fine verse melody and a rather simple but attractive and recurrent chorus. It immediately struck me that the vocals sound rather 'thin', which is a combination of the soft but pleasant voices of Wernars and his wife, and of the low volume of the vocals in the mix.
At around the 4:30 mark the electric guitar comes in and the music slowly becomes more complex. Organ, synths and guitar take over the lead in an attractive and dynamic instrumental part of the song that ends around the 9:30 minute mark when the verses and chorus return. The song remains very dynamic with fierce drumming (although Van Velzen's use of the cymbals is maybe a tad too enthusiastic), and a very fine, driving bass behind the organ sounds. That energy is kept high until the end of the song that is formed by busy organ-drum-bass interplay. The overall mood made me think of the symphonic Uriah Heep-epics from the 70s combined with a touch of Procol Harum and Jon Lord with vocals by the Dutch one-man project Like Wendy. This song definitely grows on you the more you listen to it.
The first chords of Carousel take the listener immediately to pure prog heaven with grandiose Mellotron chords very reminiscent of Genesis' Watcher Of The Skies from the Foxtrot album. After this very fine opening, the song develops as a mid-paced rocker with again a prominent role for the organ and vocals that should have been mixed more upfront in the mix. Halfway there is a fine organ and synth solo that introduces the second part of the song with more restrained playing.
There the vocal melody shows its weakness; especially the chorus is too simple to keep one's attention, in spite of the wide variation in the musical background. That is really too bad, for the rest of the music remains highly enjoyable, especially the lovely quiet part with subtle piano, Mellotron and acoustic guitar that leads to a beautiful guitar solo. The song softly fades out and that makes perfect sense here.
In the last and longest track, Song For Koen, Marijke Wernars does most of the lead vocals. Her high singing in combination with a rather inadequate mix make it almost impossible to discern what the lyrics are about during the first five minutes. But when the band falls still and the musical accompaniment becomes just soft guitar and soft drums, it becomes clear that the lyrics of the song deal with a very personal tragedy of loosing a lifetime companion.
It is a slow song with hardly any development in the music, the arrangement or the tempo during its first 15 minutes. Unfortunately it therefore feels as if the song drags on until after that first quarter of an hour. Then suddenly a fine guitar solo emerges backed by another tempo, a fine bass loop and supporting wide synth chords, making the song at last come alive. Fortunately that dynamic remains until the end, but that can't prevent the idea that this song should have been considerably shorter.
After having listened to this album several times, a certain sadness overcomes me. There are many nice ideas in the music that just don't succeed completely, and it is without doubt that the band has worked hard to realise this album. Yet I must conclude that it could have been better in several aspects. The most obvious improvement lies in the production. The vocals are mixed far too low. Also, during the two longest songs the development in the music is too little to justify their epic lengths and the intro doesn't make sense at all.
This band is pretty good but their talents deserve a keen producer who dares to say 'No' when necessary, who supports them in their strengths and keeps them away from the stuff they are less good at. Both the musical quality and the production could thus grow considerably.
Being part of the highly competitive music scene, they'll know that they will be judged to common standards. In that respect not all is well. Taking into account the main reason for them making music and releasing albums it feels quite unfair to solely use standard criteria to judge this album. Doing everything on their own is highly admirable and may also be highly fulfilling for them personally. It probably won't bring them the appreciation they seek. Significant improvements must be applied to meet those common standards but I can't judge if those necessary improvements are within (financial) reach for this band.
Because of this dilemma, I found it hard to rate this album. An important criteria I always use is whether I'll ever come back to an album or not. I know for sure I will put this one in the CD player once in a while. That, and the love for making music that resonates throughout this album, makes it impossible for me to rate it too low. Judge for yourself and try this one!