Dead End Space — Cosmic Comedian
Chicago-born, Swedish-living guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Johnny Engstrom has been working as a musician and playing in bands for over 30 years. Having (re)formed a trio with bassist Niklas Högberg and drummer Galle Johansson in 2008, they released a trio of albums as the Johnny Engstrom Band, before changing their moniker to the more inspiring Dead End Space.
It was the first album under that name by which I first discovered their music. My very positive critique of Distortion Of Senses for DPRP back in 2013 can be read here. Five years later and The Resistance received equal enthusiasm.
Now, I have long-since given up trying to rationalise why some bands are a hit with me and other, seemingly-similar artists are received less favourably. I guess it comes down to a specific combination of sounds and arrangements created by a particular set of people, striking a chord with my inner, musical soul (or whatever!). Dead End Space is one of those bands that just keeps creating a sound and a set of songs that I enjoy. Simples!
As with their last two albums, the music can best be described as heavy-prog. Previously I could stretch to a description of prog-metal-lite for at least some of the music. On this album the riffage has been left behind. The guitar is used for soloing, detail and texture. The keyboards, bass and drums add the rhythmic complexity. The music has clear similarities to the current sound of the older neo-prog bands that are still running. While fans of latter-day Rush will still find much to cherish on this disc (try the song Night Drive), there is equal space for those who enjoy the likes of Frost, The Pineapple Thief and modern-day Yes, Marillion, and Galahad.
Every song is easily accessible, with strong hooks and melodies, yet there is enough depth to the compositions to deserve repeat plays.
The opening pair are among my favourites, as is Circles where the higher tempo is more to my liking than the more atmospheric (subtle) Ghost Rider. All songs sit between six and nine minutes, thus allowing space for the band to expand and explore various phrases. The extensive use of female vocals, especially backing harmonies, is a unique touch that further enhances the sound palette.
If you enjoy the first single, Falling, on the YouTube link below, then this is such a consistent album that it should be an instant purchase. And I'd strongly recommend the CD version. Played on a proper hi-fi this showcases a wonderfully clear production that allows all the component parts to shine through, especially the bass work that gives real bounce and warmth.
Long Tall J — The Spire
After his previous but still recent releases Albatross and 2020 (both released in 2020), Dutch guitarist, aviator and musical producer Long Tall J (aka Jan Lievaart) seeks new heights with his latest release The Spire. Staying true to his style of fusing melodic rock and prog, with an emphasis towards melody and atmospheres, he brings a message of hope and aspiration. This is symbolically captured on the artwork by one of the world's highest buildings, London's iconic The Shard.
As on 2020, LTJ has once again achieved his goal of bringing a refreshing, versified collection of songs. Unfortunately for me, this doesn't involve the much anticipated collaboration with Stan Verbraak. Hopefully next time. Instead, LTJ is this time assisted by Martin Mens, Mel Mercer (also the designer of LTJ's artwork) and a group of Ukrainian musicians going by the names Moiseienko, Megabassman, Dmytro Kazantsev, and Amariia.
On The Spire, LTJ shows to be nothing short of an inspiration and successfully blends blues, jazz, rock and prog, although the latter is in the minority.
There are some elements and songs which don't work out so well and affect the album's consistency. One of those is Inge which is nothing more than a few quiet minutes of elementary guitar chords and citation of a Dutch poem written by LTJ's aunt Inge. Spoken with warmth by voice-actor Mens and surrounded by outdoor sound effects, it's hard to stay awake to this composition, especially when the song ends in nursery mobile trifle. Another example is the morning dip of Sunday Blues which, although beautifully sung by Maria Arkhipova (Amariia) and exhibiting excellent atmospheres of feeling down, it ripples past fairly unnoticed.
This can't be stated for the other two compositions featuring Ameriia. In The Spire she adds a soulful performance as well as superb harmonies, while the alternative-rock song itself is nicely covered in rocking guitars, to which a fine bridge gives way to fine guitar melodies. She also elevates the pop-oriented Falling, which becomes one of the better songs of the album. Aided by a bluesy undertone and gradually building in carefully-crafted intensity, its sensitive ending gliding through beautifully created atmospheres is noteworthy. Detectable prog influences are still very much out of the question though.
The same goes for Seven Of Nine which is a solid-rocking composition adding ominous atmospheres and excellent slide guitars over powerful driving bass from Megabassman. It showcases plenty of variety, staying well within the engaging melodic rock confinements of LTJ's spectrum. The far-too-short and most excellent instrumental bouncer Ten shows the same non-prog attraction.
During this highly energetic moment I do need the accompanying video to visualise the song's subject-matter, which also applies to the instrumental narration of Novaya Zemlya whose story is shared in the corresponding booklet that's only available online. Telling the story of explorer Willem Barents, this successfully sails away on carefully-crafted melodies in which icy coldness is met by lovely jazzy guitars. Transitioning through a wealth of variation that sheds a warmth of guitars, brings frostiness of synths, and that splashes waves of melodies, it is however the disaster, darkness and chaos that befalls on the adventurers that doesn't come across as powerfully and gloomily as probably LTJ envisioned.
In that respect, the mellow and slow-paced Four Seasons has more success, as it passes through the melancholic sorrow of autumn from LTJ's bluesy guitar play, and then slowly shifts into winter as spatial, atmospheric synths add shivering chills. When spring approaches through acoustic refinement and a cited Polish poem by Melcer announces summer, the subsequent subdued melodies, surrounded by calming natural sound effects of joyous lively chatter, create peaceful images of this serene moment in time. On a basic, energetic riff and barely audible floaty synth melodies, this mild prog-ish song ends with a nice cone of swirling synth excitement.
With a clue lying in the title, one would expect to find relatively more prog influences in Wakeman's Tale and indeed this is the case. Yet to me the appealing melodic guitar, combined with Mellotron-like synth work deceivingly manages to ignite feelings of Pink Floyd as opposed to the obvious Yes obligation. Rest-assured the outstanding classical piano play of Moiseienko ending the composition, does reflect the delicate ambient side of Yes' caped crusader.
Except for Wakeman's Tale, these last few compositions pass by with a restrained pace of musical mellowness, which in itself isn't distracting, yet I prefer LTJ's energetic side. Both sides of this coin can be found in Don't Let Them Talk To You That Way, which sounds smooth and elegantly hopeful at first with fine electronics, and gains rhythmic diversity as guitars add a rockier edge. The sudden change into trip-hop/chill-hop environments however doesn't speak to me at all and takes the embracing flow of the music away completely. Crawling onwards in a slightly psychedelic, ambient movement the song finally regains some of its finer momentum when LTJ's guitar enters a passage reminiscent to The Shadows.
This last song probably best illustrates my overall mixed feelings towards the The Spire. Overall, LTJ's ideas and executions are fresh and fruitful and there are several inspired moments to be found. Yet, these highlights are outweighed by songs that show a lack of pace and energy or fail to grab my attention or spike my imagination.
In light of recent disastrous world events involving some musicians collaborating on this album, LTJ has since released an online non-album track Ukraine which is a short instrumental song that voices the suffering cries and resistance of a nation under siege. Simultaneously, he acts as an intermediary for Ameriia, who personally sources aid in a variety of ways in her native country. For support see this page and for more information please visit LTJ's own website.
Pure Reason Revolution — Above Cirrus
In Aril 2020, Pure Reason Revolution released their excellent comeback album, Eupnea. Regrettably, the timing coincided with the start of the covid pandemic. Understandably this muted some enthusiasm around the album's release and forced the cancellation of scheduled concerts to promote it. Now, Above Cirrus arrives at a time that should allow for some attention that was unfairly missed two years ago.
Like they did on Eupnea, the band expands on their established sound by exploring new musical avenues. The opening track, Our Prism displays a more aggressive, guitar-driven style that continues throughout the album. The approach is never hackneyed or overused and the effectiveness of this harder edge is a testament to the strength of the songwriting and arrangements.
Scream Sidways is a perfect example of how the band utilises various musical moods to great effect. A stunning mini epic, the song builds in a diverse fashion to a startling, metallic close. Cruel Deliverance and Dead Butterfly are also examples of where the serenely-melodic, blends effortlessly with busts of grinding guitars. Alternately, the infectious groove that guides Phantoms is a call back to their more electronic period of the late 2000s.
There is a clear distinction to the pristine production, unique instrumentation and sublime vocals of Jon Courtney and Chloe Alper. Also, in his full-time return to the band (since 2005), original guitarist Greg Jong makes a strong impression on many fronts.
All of these attributes are utilised effectively on the standout track, New Kind Of Evil and the excellent closer Lucid. The three-part harmonies on the song help to end the album in a memorable fashion.
There isn't a misstep to be found on Above Cirrus. It is a confidently-complex and highly entertaining album. In fact, since reuniting, Pure Reason Revolution has released two of the strongest and most originally progressive works of their career. Recently completed tour dates will only add to the visibility that this album, and its predecessor, should deservedly receive.
Oliver Wakeman — Collaborations
Like his illustrious father before him, Oliver Wakeman is a former member of both Strawbs and Yes. His most creative work however, along with his solo albums, has been through his various collaborations. In 1999 and 2002, he teamed up with fellow keyboardist Clive Nolan for Jabberwocky and The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Both albums were reissued in 2021 as part of the 3CD box set Tales By Gaslight.
This latest 3CD collection includes The 3 Ages Of Magick from 2001 featuring Steve Howe, and Ravens & Lullabies from 2013. The latter followed Oliver's stint in Yes and was recorded with acoustic guitar maestro Gordon Giltrap. The pair promoted the album with a UK tour in September / October 2012 and again in the autumn and winter of 2013.
The third CD in this new box set is called From A Stage. It is a recently unearthed and previously unreleased live recording from one of the Giltrap / Wakeman concerts. Aided by singer Paul Manzi from Arena, they perform a selection of music from Ravens & Lullabies, as well as material from both Wakeman and Giltrap's back catalogues. The title is clearly a play on words that alludes to the 2019 From a Page CD, a collection of songs Oliver wrote and recorded with Yes.
Giltrap plays acoustic for the most part, and his dexterity and harmonies are quite stunning at times. It's almost like listening to two guitarists playing counterpoint, rather than a soloist. Oliver is clearly a chip of the Wakeman block and his main instrument here (piano) echoes the lush, rhapsodic style pioneered by his dad in the early 1970s. Although Manzi has a commanding voice, he's at his best singing in a ballad style rather than the theatrical histrionics to which he occasionally succumbs.
Giltrap had previously collaborated with Rick Wakeman on the From Brush & Stone album released in 2010 so he was no stranger to the Wakeman dynasty. Unsurprisingly, he and Oliver complement each other superbly, as is evident from the opening instrumental Nature's Way. Their playing dovetails to perfection with a haunting synth theme, chiming acoustic guitar and orchestral keys. For a live recording, the sound quality is immaculate throughout, rendering every note crystal clear.
Elizabethan Pirates is a Giltrap composition but the tricky instrumental interplay would have not sounded out of place on a 1970s album by Wakeman senior. Glimmer of Light is a lovely ballad from the Jabberwocky album and it's the first of seven songs sung by Manzi who was also a member of The Oliver Wakeman Band at the time. The choral hooks are all quite memorable, including Maybe Tomorrow, one of Oliver's favourite songs on Ravens & Lullabies.
By far the longest piece, Dodo's Dream, is a solo showcase for Giltrap. In his introduction, he describes himself as “A one man Pink Floyd” which he demonstrates by overlaying acoustic rhythm with electric bass and an incisive lead guitar solo. Wakeman responds with the elegant Lutey And The Mermaid for solo piano before they combine their talents for Roots from Giltrap's 1978 album Fear of the Dark. The folky, acoustic guitar playing here is inspired by Bert Jansch who passed away in 2011, not long before the concert was recorded.
The set concludes with the joyful Heartsong, Giltrap's signature instrumental that was a UK hit single back in 1977. His frenetic guitar strumming and picking, is as nimble as ever and although Oliver's piano contribution is impressive, I did miss the glorious sound of the Minimoog which graced the original. Its absence is a little surprising given that Oliver cuts loose with a sizzling Minimoog-sounding solo during Roots.
If you already own one or both of The 3 Ages Of Magick and Ravens & Lullabies albums, then this box set may seem like an unnecessary indulgence. The From A Stage CD however is a very tempting addition, particularly if you had the pleasure of seeing Giltrap and Wakeman in concert. The excellent remastering is another incentive, and with more than three-and-a-half hours of music, there's certainly much to enjoy. All in all, a very fine package indeed.
As a long-time fan of electronic keyboards, it stands to reason that any new body of work that included luminaries from within the prog industry, would pique my interest. And that is exactly what prompted me to delve into the latest 3-CD offering from Oliver Wakeman.
The first two albums from The 3 Ages Of Magick set have been previously reviewed by DPRP (links in Geoff's review above), so there seems no sense in going over old territory here. The third disc is new. From A Stage has emerged following the discovery of some live material taken many years ago and which formed the backbone of the most popular material written between Oliver and his long time compadre, Gordon Giltrap.
It should be stressed from the outset that the songs presented here are more pastoral and melancholic than what you might have wished for. The unison between Oliver and Gordon however, is so complete that you would think they were brothers. While much of the guitar music is acoustic, it is often enhanced when Gordon turns up the volume to really demonstrate why he has been held in such high esteem for so many decades. Anyone familiar with his earlier albums such as Fear Of The Dark, Perilous Journey or Visionary will notice a general lack of bass and drums, as those instruments have all but disappeared for this concert.
It is also the first time I have really listened carefully to Paul Manzi, whose vocals embellish the songs on which he appears in a nicely cohesive and emotional way. You may be familiar with Paul's voice as he served time as the vocalist for 70s pop icons, Sweet. What you hear during this concert however, is totally different to the style of songs that made Fox On The Run such a huge hit.
With 15 elegant and beautifully produced songs taken from the concert, it is the pure simplicity and the different style of acoustic music that works its charm. The lack of drums and bass does not really make a huge difference. The smooth-flowing keyboards, underpinned by equally mesmeric guitar accompaniments really make for a complete palette of sounds.
The size of the concert audience appears to be quite small but it thankfully retains the intimacy that could otherwise be lost in larger auditoriums. Quite often, incessant clapping, talking, noise and other undesirable interruptions before a song has finished can really spoil a concert for me but thankfully the audience is very appreciative of the softer nature of the music and show that appreciation, by only clapping when the song has well and truly finished.
One of the very endearing qualities that I enjoy with Gordon Giltrap's music is his insane ability to roll his fingers across the fretboard and deliver a totally different sound to what you might be expecting. It gives him the ability to add more notes to the music than what you might think possible but it certainly works for me. Similarly, with such an illustrious teacher as Rick Wakeman, it is evident that Oliver has certainly done his homework and spent many hours practising his craft. I keep hearing so many wonderful musical motifs that you just don't hear when the volume is cranked up too far.
The selection of songs for this live performance also hits the right buttons. Material is taken from Oliver's earlier works including an excellent song he wrote while collaborating with Clive Nolan for The Hounds of The Baskerville Project. Gordon also gets to shine, as he offers a very compelling version of the song, Dodo's Dream from The Peacock Party album. Here the marriage between soft acoustic guitar and more aggressive riffing really creates a totally new song for my ears. It is also the first time I noticed some background bass work but that may have been added with some sampling magic.
Oliver really gets to prove what a brilliant keyboard player he has become and this becomes evident on Lutey & The Mermaid, where his plaintive piano playing is sublime. This is a truly wonderful piece of music and certainly one of the best from the whole concert.
One of my all-time favourite songs written by Gordon was Roots which appeared as the opening track on his excellent Fear Of The Dark album, so I was very much looking forward to hearing this live version. However, as the original version included much compelling drumming and bass work, sadly their omission here has left me feeling a little disappointed. If you played the two versions side by side through a really good stereo system and cranked up the volume, you'd probably agree that this version lacks bite. What does save it somewhat, is the exceptional additional synth work that Oliver has added, as this is so different to the original.
In conclusion, this is an excellent concert which hits far more high points than it misses. Certainly, the general lack of bass and drums might put some listeners off, but it is what it is, and it provides an excellent night of quality entertainment. Great stuff!
Yang — Designed For Disaster
This new album by the instrumental band Yang sees them adding songs to their sound. On Designed For Disaster, the core line up of Frédéric L'Epée (guitars, synth), Laurent James (guitars), Nico Gomez (bass) and Volodia Brice (drums) are joined on vocals by Ayşe Cansu Tanrikulu. She is a multi-media artist and jazz singer who is based in Berlin; as is the band.
The lyrics to the songs have an impressionistic nature influenced by band founder and sole composer Frédéric L'Epée's interest in ancient Chinese poetry. But don't let that put you off. The songs and instrumentals here have melodies and arrangements to them that put Yang firmly in the jazz-influenced, heavy prog-rock that King Crimson are so adept at producing.
The music on Designed For Disaster relies heavily on the interplay of all three guitarists. I include the bass here, as it's not just a supporting role. The three provide L'Epée's melodies with fire and intention, while the drums explore and push on the tricky time signatures and tempo changes with ease.
The album opens with their first song Descendance. It has a gentle, breathy vocal from Tanrikulu that contrasts in a great way with the Art Bears or Henry Cow Canterbury jazz vibe. It grows in intensity, showing that Yang can successfully transition to making songs as well as instrumentals.
And talking of instrumentals, the two following tracks are instrumental corkers. Collision Course has sequenced synths, joined by a band in melodic-metal-meets-fusion mode. The switches are in dynamics rather than tempos, moving from the delicate to the thunderous and back again. There are horn-like synth stabs on Disentropy channeling Crimson-rock with the instrumental sections of Steven Wilson's Grace For Drowning album.
The song Flower You explores Robert Wyatt-style psyche-jazz, with a great melody and lovely singing. A more classic-era prog sound arrives with the Steve Hackett-like intro to Unisson before it moves into Steve Reich-like short, repeating phrases and a post-rock development.
The centrepiece of the album is the ten-minute Migrations. A song with a rotating melody that supports an increasingly interesting vocal line. It also has intertwining guitar parts of some class, as well as a cracking guitar solo that is quickly followed by twin lead breaks. This is terrific stuff.
The closing song, Despite Origins, has a delicate opening that grows with a marching snare drum and a chanted vocal that consists of single words to create a kaleidoscope of images.
However, earlier on this album Yang had also done this chanted-type song with the much less successful Words. Its brutal intensity and growly shouted words would not be that out of place on a death metal album or an avant-garde jazz release. It's one that isn't for me. Also not for me are the three Interludes. These are just sketches and really don't add much to the overall album.
With these few mis-steps in mind, this is still a recommended listen. Especially if you have a liking for guitar-based instrumental-heavy prog with fusion accents and players all on the top of their game. Full of inventive energy and no indulgent show-boating, it has the added bonus of some great songs for those with an aversion to totally instrumental music.