Album Reviews

Issue 2022-045

Albums can be hard to pigeonhole. Often it's easy to determine whether an album should have a review on Sometimes there is this feeling that although the music would definitely not be categorised under "progressive rock" or related genres, you just know it is an interesting album for at least part of our readers. Albums that are on the fringes of what is about. Albums that are, well, close to the edge.

Xavier Boscher — Cosmic Variations

Xavier Boscher - Cosmic Variations
Sea Serpent (6:02), Echo 1 (1:19), Compass On Argonauts Ships (5:05), Echo 2 (1:11), Reticulum (6:24), Echo 3 (1:17), Denebola (7:39), Echo 4 (1:45), Pleione (4:38), Echo 5 (1:30), Astrophel (6:39), Echo 6 (1:59), Stellan (3:24)
Bryan Morey

Xavier Boscher has been a rather prolific artist of late, having released five separate records this year alone, with his previous album Firescapes only reviewed a couple of weeks ago. While Boscher's main instrument is guitar, he plays all the instruments on this album, which to my ear sounds like drums and bass. There are synth-like sounds, but I believe they are all created with electric guitar and various guitar effects.

As you might imagine, the album is guitar-driven. Tones range from clean to the crunchy, with styles of playing ranging from clean to ambient and even metal; sometimes all within the same song.

The album is tied together by six short tracks, entitled Echo one through to five, spaced every other song. Much like the cover art, these tracks act as washes of colour in-between the longer songs. These shorter tracks can best be described as ambient music, with quiet and simple guitar notes played with an echo effect.

The ambient tracks break the album up quite a bit, although they can be seen as a respite from some of the more intense tracks. The juxtaposition of sounds is most obvious between Echo 4 and Pleione, the latter of which starts off with a blistering drum track and distorted guitars. The song eventually settles down into what might be Boscher's comfort zone, with steadier drums and a smoother guitar solo.

With that said, I rather liked the heavy opening. It broke up the monotony into which an instrumental guitar rock album can often fall. The final track, Stellan, has a similar opening, before also settling back into a more familiar guitar line. The most interesting and technical drumming comes in the second half of this song, with some fine work on the cymbals filling some open space behind the guitars.

It must be pointed out that Boscher is a very talented guitarist. He doesn't play 100 notes a minute; choosing style, finesse and groove to get his point across instead. This record will most appeal to guitar fans, particularly players. It isn't really a progressive rock album, although sprinkled throughout there are elements from the genre (if we can even call it that, considering how varied the music we review here often is). Even so, prog fans appreciate fine instrumental displays, and thus Cosmic Variations should be of interest to many of you.

Ricky Capone — Cardiff Gate

Ricky Capone - Cardiff Gate
Alchemy (5:12), Venusian Extremophiles (6:17), Blue Stone (4:40), Cardiff Gate (3:56), Walk (5:05), Spin On This (3:11), The Rule Of Six (4:37), Project Y (3:56), Project Y Not (5:07), Dx3 (4:15), Improv No. 3 (1:38), Improv No. 6 (3:35)
Jan Buddenberg

Ricky Capone is the alias of Welshman Eric Davies (all instruments, vocals, and programming), a musical half of the Edison Junction Band. With Cardiff Gate he presents his first solo album, aided by Ian Shopland (the other EJB half) on production, mixing and mastering. A job well done, for the album sounds fresh and balanced. Compared to their joint effort, Torn Mind shows growth in sound and fidelity.

Out of the 12 tracks, only the princely Walk, bringing funky grooves and a bluesy sense of summer, features vocals. Although Davies' voice is pleasant enough, this is a good choice, for his qualities lie elsewhere, namely creating lovely, melodic, instrumental compositions with a dash of rock, cared-for rhythmic support and excellent guitar work.

A fine example is Alchemy which opens the album with an up-tempo breeze of rock, minor keyboards and a feel of Dire Straits. As the song progresses we hear Capone frequently switch his style and sound, resulting in delightfully changing atmospheres. It ends in expressions reminiscent to Wishbone Ash, a likeness equally found in Project Y which also brings some excellent drumming and satisfying, layered-guitar structures.

He continues to fly in contemporary Long Tall J V-formation in the nicely constructed and relaxed Venusian Extremophiles. Then while adding some blues rock in Dx3, he keeps the summer of 2022 going in the nicely arranged The Rule Of Six. The lively Improv No 6 sees him curve it like Clapton with some fine, bluesy tones and those addicted to this style can indulge themselves shortly in the JJ Cale-inspired Project Y Not which marks one of the album's diverse highlights by adding twists of synth.

Another fine example of Capone's variety is Blue Stone which adds colourful classical elements mindful to ELO next to shades of The Shadows, mild sparkles of prog and twin-guitar rubs. These add depth and some magical 70s flavours.

Looking down upon Spirit in the groovy-jam surroundings of Improv No 3, Capone slowly starts his descent with the entertainingly up-tempo Spin On This before finally touching down at Cardiff Gate with melodic pace, mild psychedelic grooves and superb guitar play mindful to Randy California.

These final three examples perfectly convey the entire 70s atmosphere that delightfully hangs around the record and connects me to a time of ease, relaxation, sun, enjoyment, entertainment and feelings of basic fun. Hopefully actual sunbeams will follow soon, for Capone's fine effort makes me want to dust off the BBQ.

Circle Of Friends — The Garden

Circle Of Friends - The Garden
Little Piece Of Heaven (4:47), Take My Love To Heart (3:21) Never Gonna Make Me Cry (4:15), Bad Blood (4:42), Knowing Me, Knowing You (4:32), Truth Or Dare (3:33), Alone (3:50), Trick Of The Light (3:58), 11:59 (3:18), Time Has Come (3:36), When He's Gone (3:04), Love Is Tough (3:28), Don't Fear The Reaper (5:32)
Edwin Roosjen

This is an album by producer Bruce Mee, founder and editor of the rock magazine Fireworks and co-organiser of the melodic rock festival Firefest. He has gathered befriended musicians to create this album as a tribute to his mother who died of cancer in 2020.

Among this Circle Of Friends are well known names like Doro Pesch (Doro), Robin McAuley (McAuley Schenker Group), Jeff Scott Soto, James Christian (House Of Lords) and Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake). Many acclaimed musicians from the hard rock and AOR scene appear on this album. The Garden is a compilation album with four covers and eight new songs written by Swedish songwriter Mikael Rosengren and his co-writers. Jaime Kyle brought her own song Take My Love To Heart.

The Garden is filled with melodic rock/AOR songs, many melodies and catchy choruses. The majority of the songs have a female vocalist, mostly new names to me.

I know the three male vocalists because I grew up in the 80s with hard rock and metal, with bands like Malmsteen, MSG and House Of Lords. The female vocalist on the opener I do know from the eighties hard rock era. Little Piece Of Heaven features Doro Pesch on vocals. It is a powerful rock sound that perfectly fits Doro, with a good performance by the German vocalist.

Take My Love To The Heart is written and sung by Jaime Kyle. Just like Doro Pesch she is a female rock vocalist who made her name in the 80s. I discovered some nice music when I checked her back catalogue.

Never Gonna Make You Cry is a cover from a relatively unknown band called Fierce Heart, a band also from the 80s and certainly worth checking out. The original recording is from 1984 and this new recording with James Christian on vocals really polishes things up.

The high quality AOR continues on Bad Blood with Jeff Scott Soto on vocals. Just when I am really getting into this familiar-sounding rock music, it is time for the first cover. Knowing Me, Knowing You is an Abba cover sung by Robin Beck. Robin, wife of James Christian, has a nice catalogue of melodic rock solo albums and she has also collaborated with many famous artists, among them David Bowie, Cher and Leo Sayer. This is a nice rendition of this Abba song; a bit more rockier than the original but still very Abba.

Truth Or Dare sounds a lot like the Bon Jovi song You Give Love A Bad Name. It is sung by Karen Fell from a band called Tao. A nice song but once you discover the likeness with the Bon Jovi song, you cannot unhear that.

Alone is powerful rock ballad sung by Robin McAuley. I am not a big fan of ballads and I would have liked him to do a powerful song. Trick Of The Light is also a slower song, it has a nice chorus with a bit more power. Sung by Darby Mills, who used to be the vocalist for the Canadian band Headpins.

With 11:59 you get a Blondie cover sung by Ellinor Asp, a Swedish singer for industrial death metal band The Project Hate MCMXCIX. It sounds a bit like a polished-up punk song. I do not really know what to think of this song. It is the odd one out on this album.

With the last three new songs, it is back to the polished AOR sound. Time Has Come with Cheri Lyn, also a vocalist with solo albums in the 80s and even an appearance on Georgy Porgy by Toto. When He's Gone is with Gabrielle De Val from a band called The Val. Love Is Tough features Tanya Rizkala from a band called Epic. When searching that band name it gives a lot of hits but I will give you a hint, check their 2022 album Starlight.

Last song on the album is a cover of the Blue Oyster Cult song Don't Fear The Reaper. Robin McAuley is one of my favourite singers but sadly on The Garden he does a ballad and a cover of a song I consider an untouchable classic. Maybe a last tip in this review to put Robin in a more positive spotlight. I recently discovered Robin McAuley's latest album Standing On The Edge; an outstanding performance on a great album.

The Garden is a solid compilation album with melodic rock music. A variety of outstanding vocalists that all provide a solid performance. Add to that a group of acclaimed musicians and the result is a good album.

Bruce Mee gathered a Circle Of Friends and created a very fine tribute album for his mother. This album introduced to many new artists and I was reacquainted with some old ones, a lot of music to check out.

John Elefante — The Amazing Grace

John Elefante - The Amazing Grace
City Of Grace (4:13), Stronger Now (4:40), The Amazing Grace (5:19), Time Machine (4:50), Won’t Fade Away (5:15), Not Alone (6:39), Falling In To Place (5:24), We Will Be Fine (4:22), Little Brown Book (5:02), And When I’m Gone (4:20)
Sergey Nikulichev

Allow me to start a review of well-known Christian singer John Elefante, with a blasphemy. Prog blasphemy, of course, not the ecclesiastical one. (Nervous cough) I prefer Elefante's voice over Steve Walsh's. There, I said it. Catch and punch me if you can.

The thing is that we all have our own top class artists, whom (however great their career is) do not really touch us the way they do with everyone else. I have this problem with Steve Walsh. His timbre is something I tolerate, but not really admire. Sure he sang the best Kansas classics, and Elefante stepped in on the downslide period, but I still love John's voice. He has a great sense of melody, good lungs and his solo career with Mastedon and own project had some decent AOR material. Nothing particularly proggy, but not extremely cheesy either. Cheesy? Yes. Extremely cheesy? No. In my opinion. Kerry Livgren had done worse things, and we still love him!

The Amazing Grace is the fifth solo effort by John and a successor to On My Way To The Sun, released nine years ago. It features a very retro-wave cover, which half-suggests an abundance of synths, quasi-retro vocal pre-sets and simple club-dance melodies. Thank heavens this is not the case, and the album dwells in a very familiar and conservative territory of melodic rock / AOR, with the expected religious lyrics.

This is no doubt a love-it-or-hate-it genre, so if your prog collection holds names like Neal Morse Band, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and of course Kansas, then you will probably be more generous to The Amazing Grace. Stay a mile away, if you love Soft Machine, Magma, or Ulver.

Standout tracks? The title track gives a good example of John's vocal capabilities and boasts beautiful melodies in both the verse and chorus parts. Stronger Now is another strong song and could have easily fit any post-Walsh Kansas record. On the downside, any prog fan would surely look for the longest track, find Not Alone and grow somewhat disappointed, because it could have been shorter without losing anything. And Little Black Book is maybe too much 80s-oriented and conservative.

From a prog-lover's perspective, John Elefante somewhat reminds me of Paul Carrack. An excellent vocalist in a borderline genre, that prog-heads might not digest. Prog-wise, this album would be rated between 6 and 7. As a melodic / Christian AOR record, I think it's between a 7 and an 8, as it's a competent and played-by-rules-of-the-genre record. A 7 it is. You'll love it, if you love John's solo career. And if you are unfamiliar with it, I'd rather suggest starting with Mastedon.

Martin Hutchinson — The Kinks - On Track

Martin Hutchinson - The Kinks - On Track
Jan Buddenberg

You say The Kinks and I "sing" La-la-la-la-Lola!
You say 'You Really Got Me' and I say Van Halen!

In a nutshell, this just about sums up my affinity and knowledge towards The Kinks and its founding brothers Ray and Dave Davies, besides the awareness of their brotherly rivalry. Or so I thought, for after reading Martin Hutchinson's CSI-worthy, fact-brimming On Track book I realise there are lots of other memorable songs buried within my own sound system. Tracks that originate back to the mid-60s, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The BeeGees, The Who and other traditional rock bands preceded by "The" ruled the charts and radio waves.

This all happened before I received my kiss of musical consciousness in 1979 at the age of 10. In the midst of this heavy-music-orientated growing up period, I admit I was blown away by Roth & Co's otherworldly version of You Really Got Me, but had yet to gain the wisdom that this was a Kinks original. This happened roughly one year later when The Kinks themselves scored a monster-hit the size of Godzilla with Lola from their 1980 live album One For The Road. Setting off vast amounts of radio-station alarm bells it nestled itself firmly atop Dutch charts, yet curiously this career-defining momentum, certainly when seen from a Dutch observer, isn't mentioned in Hutchinson's book. Despite the many acknowledgements of my native country's appreciation for the band and his often-occurring chart entry notations.

It's probably only one of the few overlooked details within musical journalist Martin Hutchinson's extremely well-researched book, and as such this is an essential purchase for The Kinks collector/fan, covering every album and song released by the band brilliantly. Therein, however, lies some reservation I have with the book. Analytically describing 28 albums within a 156-page fixed-format book, including all the obligatory introductory album-info, pictures, and 20 pages of other miscellaneous recordings, means that each individual album receives Hutchinson's devotion over the limited shortness of four to five pages.

If their albums were to be filled with songs of average prog-length, the outlined situation wouldn't pose a problem, but in The Kinks' case this is far from reality, being neither prog nor long - although for their time they were obviously progressive. Together with Hutchinson's upfront notice that "he will not go into great biographical detail as that's well-documented in other publications", one of the likeable aspects of the On Track.. series, this results in the first few chapters feeling dry and business-like short.

Gradually this changes, as historical value, with educational content, seeps its way into his well-chosen words and Hutchinson starts to create an easy-to-read story. Delving more extensively into their concept albums and depicting for instance the band's continental difference of success, the author slowly reveals his knowledge, passion, and admiration. He works his way successfully towards their final 1994 album release, adding insights into live recordings and assorted tracks shortly after. Meanwhile, prog-purists will be content to see the names of Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord, as well as Argent's rhythm section included in the tale, although that's as far as prog-mentioning goes.

In the end I can't help but feel that on this occasion On Track's concise format is somewhat limiting; a venture in the Decades series would greatly have benefited The Kinks' and Hutchinson's story. As a result, their influence on the music scene and "before their time" progressive musicality remains somewhat underexposed. All things considered though a nice addition to the series and a fine debut by Hutchinson.

Kingfisher Sky — Walk The Plank

Kingfisher Sky - Walk The Plank
Walk The Plank (2:54), Rites Of Passage (3:29), All That Is Left (4:32), Long Gone (2:33), Duetem Bien (5:02)
Greg Cummins

Kingfisher Sky are a Dutch band who began their musical journey in 2001 when ex-Within Temptation drummer Ivar de Graaf joined forces with Judith Rijnveld and others in an attempt to compose short, catchy and noteworthy songs with a progressive touch, but without falling into the trap of making everything too complex for mainstream listeners to absorb and enjoy.

While their five albums released to date have captured that aspiration to a degree, it could hardly be said they have taken the world by storm. Apart from their debut, Hallway Of Dreams, which was rated very highly by DPRP and many other sites, the remainder of their output has not really lived up to expectations.

The band's latest EP features five acoustically styled songs which showcase what the band is capable of. The band's musical genre lies within the symphonic metal arena, although there are suggestions floating about the net that they also have hints of Heart, Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, and Marillion. While I can sense a mild resemblance, with these tracks being a more acoustic offering, the crunch factor is somewhat restrained, so direct comparisons are a little less definite. The singing however, is very pleasant and the arrangements well above average. One is even reminded slightly of Edith Piaf on the final song which also features some tasty Spanish guitar interludes.

Although there is less celtic-inspired music here, I would see this release appealing to those who enjoy bands such as Karnataka, Mostly Autumn, Iona, October Project, and similar. It must be said that I find music from those bands more appealing. Although I have given this release the obligatory six spins before writing my review, I simply can't find enough meat on the bone to really get too excited and change my diet. While there can be no denying that their debut, Hallway Of Dreams was a decent offering, I find the replay-ability factor here not sufficiently strong enough to be bowled over with this latest one. Sorry guys, better luck next time.

PAKT (Percy Jones, Alex Skolnick, Kenny Grohowski, Tim Motzer) — PAKT

49:20, 56:44
PAKT (Percy Jones, Alex Skolnick, Kenny Grohowski, Tim Motzer) - PAKT
Chapter One: The Unsilence Emergence (12:23), Over Strange Lands (7:49), The Mystery (12:46), The Unsilence (6:18), Brothers Of Energy (9:59)
Chapter Two: Perseverance (8:05), The Sacred Ladder (7:25), Drifts & Alignments (11:42), Nigh Crossings (6:12), The Great Spirit (10:24), Departure Sanctuary (7:37), Cosmic Fire (5:15)
Owen Davies

The perils and joys of spontaneity.

Many moons ago I was a secondary school teacher. Some of the most memorable lessons taught, were ones where I ventured off script from my painstakingly planned lesson notes and followed the interests or mood of the class. Several of these improvised lessons reached the pupils in positive ways that I could barely have hoped for and the enthusiastic interaction of the class said it all.

Other intuitive lessons attempted were unmitigated disasters; saved only by an ability by myself and the students to laugh and realise what a failure that activity, or creative attempt to explain a point had been.

I guess any bid to be spontaneous has its pitfalls and rewards, and the same can be said for PAKT's self-titled first release. When it succeeds it works admirably well; it is interesting, inventive, full of excitement and truly creative, at other times it is not nearly as engaging and for anybody who has a cursory listen, it might come across as lacking direction, or form.

Certainly, this is music that rewards a listener's full attention!

PAKT is made up of highly experienced musicians Percy Jones, Alex Skolnick, Kenny Grohowski, Tim Motzer. The rhythm section of Jones and Growhowski are probably best remembered for having been involved in Brand X. Fans of Testament will immediately recognise the name of guitarist Alex Skolnick. Progressive music fans may well recognise the name of guitarist Motzer who has been associated with free improvisation in several bands and projects over the years.

The album was formed from a virtual concert that the ensemble delivered during COVID 19 times at The Shapeshifter Lab in New York. The four players had no charts and the aim of the gig was to deliver music in an improvised spontaneous way. Given the way in which this music was formed it is remarkable that much of the music has a sense of cohesion; themes and motifs can be recognised and followed and whilst it is undeniably a challenging listen, the album is not entirely impenetrable.

As might be expected, the playing and performances are often very impressive. It is difficult to comprehend that such inventive, adventurous and note perfect playing was delivered in an instinctive, impulsive, and unrehearsed way.

The most accessible track is probably The Sacred Ladder. If you are unsure whether this ensemble's off-the cuff art might be for you, I suggest that you, grip tightly and place a tentative toe onto these compositions bottom rung.

If you are feeling more adventurous and wish to experience a bubbling cauldron of simmering sounds, that is somewhat cryptic or throws up way more musical questions than it offers answers, then the puzzling shifts and piercingly dramatic guitar lines of The Mystery may well be a better starting point.

In whatever way, or at what point you choose to experience this release, be prepared to be challenged along the way.

My favourite piece is probably Cosmic Fire. In this exciting up-tempo tune the band play with unrestrained fury and the result is a smouldering progressive fusion masterpiece. However, my favourite sections of the album occur when Percy Jones bass becomes the prominent voice. There are several occasions when his instrument comes to the fore and the bulging tones that ensue are often fantastic.

Overall, PAKT is an enjoyable release. Whilst it does not always succeed in its attempts to lead to a place where a satisfying discovery awaits, the journey that it takes is, for the most part, worthwhile.

PAKT is never tired nor trite, its innovative approach and unpredictability are its biggest assets and perhaps its most significant weakness. Whether PAKT triumphs or in part fails perhaps is not the most important point.

Innovation, and improvisation are lofty goals and when they bear fruit, as they do in tunes like Emergence, the results can be remarkable and memorable.

PAKT's resolve to risk malfunction or failure, to present something unique should probably be lauded. Certainly, I have nothing but admiration for the bold way they have set out to create and deliver their art.

It's arguably that courage to be different and a willingness to explore new ways of expression that defines progressive musicians and sets the music that they create apart.

Album Reviews