Akku Quintet — Live
In my review of Depart by the Akku Quintet, I observed that they had "set out their stall as minimalist and eclectic jazz-proggers to great success. Showing themselves to be a group with exquisitely controlled chops. But just once or twice I wish they would just let fly. Hopefully that's what they do in the live arena."
So when the opportunity arose to review the Akku Quintet's Live, I jumped at it. On Live the group state that there are 'no edits, loops or overdubs on this record' as they revisit some of their back catalogue.
In front of, what sounds like, a small but appreciative crowd, Akku Quintet launch into the hypnotic 28 minutes of Waves. Starting with drummer and songwriter Manuel Pasquinelli's subtle, lightly percussive drum pattern, he is slowly joined by other members of the Quintet. Tip-toeing in is Andi Schnellmann's lithe bass who adds a minimalist melody to the percussion then, almost imperceptibly at first, the grand piano of Maja Nydegger adds another layer. The dynamic interplay between them rises and falls superbly.
After 12 minutes or so the piano drops out as quietly as it entered, replaced by Markus Escher's picked guitar lines. He is then joined by the tenor sax of Michael Gilsenan. The pace doesn't change but the volume increases as the piano returns, with the Quintet reaching a fierce level of commitment. Then as the peak is reached, the volume drops and the guitar and tenor are left carrying the melody.
But this turns out to be a temporary hiatus as Pasquinelli's drums return, being properly whacked this time as they go for a heavy-fire finale. Here Escher's guitar playing really shines, and the band do what I had hoped; they really take off. The hypnotic, minimalistic 20-minute journey gets kicked into an unsuspected gear that just raises all the hairs on the back of your neck. Its coda is solo piano in a nocturnal mood, rounding off brilliantly this work. Waves is magnificent.
Grand piano leads you into the second piece, Polar. Joined quickly by the rest of the band, it starts in a minimalist way but sheds that skin into a post-rock style instrumental, but then slips sideways into an avant-garde section of atmospheric guitar noises over Nydegger's insistent grand.
There is a chilly film noir mystery to Deep Sleep I's electric piano, distorted guitar and electronic sound effects opening. The bass pushes through, taking it through a Sonar-like area into a more familiar jazz fusion place occupied by the likes of Alan Holdsworth and Return To Forever.
The ghost of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio haunts the opening minutes of Schneemann, then the mood changes, when the marvellously on fire guitar kicks in. But the Akku Quintet's always-restless musical muscles twitch again, interrupting the flow with a stop-start rhythm, writhing tenor sax and impressionistic guitar noises anchored by swirling organ.
Bleeding-in from the previous track, Deep Sleep II continues with sax, organ, bass and hard-hitting drum punctuation. Escher again solos with aplomb but as the guitar fades, this closing track spotlights the tenor sax playing of Michael Gilsenan. He gives his lungs a proper work-out but never sacrifices the melody in any way. A terrific end to a terrific album.
Akku Quintet's Live was recorded at various locations between 2016 and 2020 and contains songs from different stages of the group's history, but nonetheless it holds together as a single entity. On stage the band perform in front of visuals by sound and vision artist Jonas Fehr, whose work provides the cover art.
With this release Akku Quintet show that than can let themselves fly in the live sphere, as well as producing mesmerising extended grooves. Unfailingly melodic, controlled, but with enough fire to make this essential, this is the best live album I've heard in years.
Karcius — Grey White Silver Yellow And Gold
Well I didn't expect this!
I can't say that I have ever come across a band that has transformed itself from mildly-engaging instrumental jazz-fusion, to heavy-prog perfection in the space of six albums and 21 years. But in a nutshell that is the story of Montreal-based quartet, Karcius.
DPRP has followed their story across three decades. Formed in 2001, we slowly warmed to their take on instrumental jazz-prog fusion across their first three albums: Sphere, Kaleidoscope, and Episodes.
Then in 2012, The First Day saw the introduction of vocals and a sudden change of style into heavier prog-territory, which was developed six years later with The Fold and a live album recorded on tour in France.
Whilst a lot of their output has been of a high quality, especially in terms of the musicianship, none of it suggested that this was a band capable of producing such a stunningly perfect album as I have discovered in Grey White Silver Yellow And Gold.
I do not readily dish out perfect scores. In my near-20 years of reviewing for DPRP, I average just over one a year. However, I can safely conclude that Grey White Silver Yellow And Gold is an album that meets the demands of a perfect score in every respect.
The first perfection is that this album sounds superb. Tony Lindgren has done a faultless job in the mastering. These six extended songs sprint out of my speakers with a dynamic freshness and clarity that I adore. You will not hear a better independent release than this.
The second perfection is in the musicianship. For me the singer will always be the vote-clincher in whether I enjoy and album. Sylvain Auclair has a voice that sits for the most-part in the low to mid-range with a gritty edge to his voice that on an initial listen gravitates towards the rock/metal. However, there is a wonderful depth to his performance, with some lovely inflections and variations that elevate each song, each melody to another level. He is also the bassist!
Sébastien Cloutier swivels between piano, Wurlitzer, synths and Mellotron to give a whirlwind of textures to every part of every track. The drumming of Thomas Brodeur is spot-on throughout. The same for the guitars of Simon L'Espérance.
If you still need convincing about their musical pedigree, then checkout this clip from their live album and join me in hoping that they return to the stage in Europe soon.
The third perfection is in the songwriting, in the compositional depth and variety and in the melodic accessibility of these six songs. The quality is consistently impeccable. All share the spot as my favourite. I really can not separate them.
Opener, Parasite is a thrusting, throbbing, modern slab of prog-metal with the heart of latter-day Fates Warning. Supernova's lighter piano and acoustic guitar-led opening presents a lush contrast before it also rocks-out. Auclair delivers a vocal tour-de-force here, and the blasting guitar solo at the end is one of many highlights.
The Ladder is the first of the two epics. It is lighter and defies its running time as it shoots-by every time. A perfect delivery of heavy-prog.
The lighter Distance Kills provides the dynamic balance to the intensity of Cosmic Rage. Its opening reminds me of Peter Gabriel from his early solo days, especially during the dynamic opening section and the song's vocal phrasing.
A Needle Tree is the prog epic where Floyd and Genesis are brought up to date. Listen out for some terrific solo spots from Simon L'Espérance and probably the best earworm hook from Auclair.
Grey White Silver Yellow & Gold is being pushed as a "progressive metal" album. I feel that does it a dis-service. Sure, there are some metallic elements. It is heavy in parts. But there is equally as much of a prog-rock influence and a frequent wink back to Karcius' jazz roots (checkout the opening of A Needle Tree). A description of "heavy-prog" would open this record to its true audience.
This is a captivating listen that utilises an abundance of colours, emotions and images to deliver a truly magnificent showcase of modern progressive rock. An album of the year contender for sure. Fécilitations! I didn't expect this!
Gabriel Keller — Clair Obscur
Clair Obscur is the debut album by a young French musician Gabriel Keller. The juxtaposition of darkness and light may seem a trifle banal, tried many times by different artists, including Queen (on Queen II, in case you don't know), Pink Floyd and many others. But here it is indeed a concept behind the album. The first part provides lighter and milder material, while the second strikes harder, featuring heavier guitars and more aggressive rhythm work.
Apart from this implicit split into two parts, Clair Obscur features a surprisingly broad array of invited mademoiselles, rendering their vocal talents across the record. Emi B, Charlotte Gagnor, Maite Merlin and Marine Poirier; all of them deliver a very good job and bring the much-welcome diversity to the record.
Although on paper the concept of light-part versus dark-part is nice, it does not really work for me when in earphones. I would prefer a mixture of tracks that provides a “route with more curves”, so to say. The lighter part gets a bit dull by the end, and the heavier part has equally tiresome parts with a repeated and forced, standardised chugging quazi-Porcupine Tree sound.
Objectively the best (i.e. well-written) songs are gathered in the first part of the album. Time, Train to Resolution and Open Arms are competent, tender compositions with interesting twists, and it is here that Gabriel and the team sound most natural.
Sonate Au Clair Obscur is the watershed between light and dark, starting with tasty piano-cello phrases, eventually breaking through to an evil, sympho-hard sound. Another highlight of the second part is a great Honey with Marine Poirier, doing a fabulous “evil witch” job, spitting dark cabaret poison with every sung line.
However, other tracks for me lack the necessary groove, and it feels like Gabriel is a good classically-trained musician, making his first steps to call upon his inner rock star. Moderate-tempo, palm-muted breakdowns are nice, but equally non-essential, and I would love to hear faster themes, at least from time to time. Out of My Life is the longest track, almost seven minutes long, but to me, it dissolves under conflicting intentions to deliver different moods; never reaching integrity.
The mastermind cites the aforementioned Porcupine Tree and Opeth, together with Ange, The Beatles and Pink Floyd as his inspirations, however the result is rather close to bands like Panic Room, Epica and Kingfisher Sky. I don't really share the love that Epica and Kingfisher Sky received from the prog crowd in the days of yore, and so would recommend Clair Obscur to those who are in search of something in the same mood.
Laughing Stock — Zero, Acts 3 & 4
Hailing from Tønsberg, this trio of Norwegian musicians have released their fourth album Zero, Acts 3 & 4. Which is the second half of an intended double album Zero, A Play In Four Acts. Zero, Acts 1 & 2 was released in 2021. Laughing Stock say that this double album is inspired by Tommy by The Who, The Wall by Pink Floyd, The Hurting by Tears For Fears and Crime of the Century by Supertramp.
The story is of a boy growing up with his traumatised mother, without the love and care he needs. It follows him from childhood, to adulthood where he becomes socially isolated and ends up the Zero of the title.
Laughing Stock's members are all multi-instrumentalists and vocalists. We have Jan Mikael Sørensen (vocals, bass, guitars, drums, keyboards and production), Håvard Enge (vocals, keyboards, flute and banjo), and Jan Erik Kirkevold Nilsen (vocals, guitars, harmonica, keyboards and artwork). The music they have written for this release channels their acknowledged influences into prog-rock with a Floydian feel. It also has a psychedelic edge, especially with the gorgeous harmony vocals throughout.
Zero, Acts 3 & 4 opens with Wingless' strummed guitar, great synth and slide guitar. A mid-paced start but one that grabs the ear with a dynamic section and its mix of the melodic sense of Porcupine Tree and PFM. The harmony vocals come to the fore on Lifeboat's slice of progressive-pop. However it takes an unexpected left-turn with floaty keyboards into an engaging, ambient section.
Nad Sylvan adds his expressive vocals to The Call's harmonies. It is driven by a prominent bass line and features great organ work and a bluesy Gilmore-esque guitar solo. There is a superb, open and uplifting quality, fleshed out by strings, to Free's Supertramp like melody.
More guests turn up to help. On the ballad Running Faster Andy Glass of Solstice adds some distinctive guitar playing in a call-and-response way with the other guitarists. Samantha Preis reprises her role as Zero's mother, where her touching vocals reply to Zero's heart-breaking situation on Familiar Eyes. This is underpinned by Kerstin Willgren's plaintive violin.
Laughing Stock heavy things up on the ten-minute Mother. Dual lead guitars are underpinned by more organ and crunchy, grinding riffs adding contrast as they move into the almost heavy prog rock territory that I associate with Motorpsycho.
Laughing Stock's Zero, Acts 3 & 4 has commercial, hummable but always re-listenable melodies. This is due I think to the interesting and detailed arrangements. They display the same ability with a tune that Supertramp and Tears For Fears do. On the first few listens I thought it suffered from a preponderance of ballad styles, but the devil is in the detail, and it is the details that make this music shine. And because of that, this album gets better with every listen. Now I must go and track down Zero, Acts 1 & 2.
SomeWhereOut — More Tales From The Old Forest
SomeWhereOut are a project from Spain, with the primary musician and main composer being the classically trained teacher Raul Lupainez. He is guitarist and handles the keys, alongside Francisco Garoz handling the drums. A wide array of guests contribute other instruments, from bass to violin. This EP, More Tales From The Old Forest follows on where the second album Deep In The Old Forest left.
Lady Bird starts off unexpectedly (for me). Based on the cover and title of the EP, I was expecting it to launch straight into haunting melodies and Agalloch-style riffs. Instead, it is a soft almost Pink Floyd-esque intro. It is short-lived however as some heavy guitars come to jolt me back out of my surprise. The clean, almost acoustic, work then returns, building up with soft melodies layered over each other, bringing in Porcupine Tree vibes before returning to the heavy, prog-rock-laden riffs.
Next up, we have the instrumental track The Dragon. This one treads the line between the heavy side of prog-rock and a bit of the deep, bassy riffs of some metal. I'm reminded a lot of some of Soen's work through this one, with its patterns and evolutions. It is an interesting one to demonstrate just how effectively various styles can be led together, with strings and synths merging with the keys and bass-heavy chugs. Nothing is overbearing, nor is anything a particular “driving force”, it is more a unified front to create one of the best instrumental tracks I've heard.
Finally, there is The Loneliness. Bringing back the acoustics and gentle keys beneath Serrano's melodic and calming vocals, the song drifts in softly, filled with harmonious music. Everything combines to the sound, with nothing standing far out in front, but every instrument and texture supporting the next. In the end, it wasn't the atmospheric black metal I expected, but it was an equally fantastic piece of melodic prog rock. Sometimes heavy, sometimes soft, always exceptional.
I'd see this fitting in nicely in a collection next to Pink Floyd, Yes and Steven Wilson's projects, just as easily as next to Opeth and Dream Theater or Novembre.
TEE — Total Edge Effect
After a break of six years TEE have returned with a new album. I thoroughly enjoyed their last album and Total Edge Effect is every bit as satisfying. The album is enriched and delicately garnished with some sparkling, soaring flute work.
In their latest release the band continue with their trademark style of flute-prog-rock, but have expanded their sound somewhat, to make it a tad more adventurous than before. In the past, some prog reviewers have compared TEE to Solaris. Whilst the instrumentation is similar and both bands make good use of stop-start riffs, shifts in volume and tempo; each group clearly has their own identifiable sound.
In general terms TEE's music is more expansive, and the free-flowing, melodic style of their compositions can sometimes be compared to Camel. Solaris, arguably have a harder edge. Their more frequent use of overblown flute parts, embellished by sweeping synth runs and abrasive guitar riffs, makes their idiosyncratic sound perhaps more easily recognisable. However, both bands have long been favourites of mine and both create highly-gratifying prog-rock where the cascading trill of the silver tube is much to the fore.
The line-up of TEE has been stable for many years. All the players are fine performers and over the course of Total Edge Effect they excel as an ensemble and as individual players. The band is made up of Kenji Imai (flute, piccolo), Ryuji Yonekura (piano, synthesizers), Takayuki Asada (drums, percussion), Yukio Iigahama (bass, fretless bass) and Katsumi Yoneda (guitars).
Whilst the flute is the prominent instrument and is responsible for delivering many of the themes and melodies, the contribution of the other members of the band cannot be overlooked. The excellent playing of Yoneda offers several marvellous, searing, fretted moments that contrast raucously with the delicate tones of the flute.
Keyboards are used skilfully to deepen the ensemble's sound and many of the tunes begin with delightful piano parts. However, when the pace quickens and when a different set of aural colours are required, sweeping synthesiser runs and an array of engaging keyboard sounds push the music into other territories.
The rhythm section is excellent and much of the album is punctuated by the deep resonance and pulsating sound of Iigahama's bass which vibrates the atmosphere in structured patterns much like a pond skater, zig-zagging across the surface of a pond.
The featured YouTube clip (below) shows how each of the players complement each other. The live performance from November 3rd 2019 has early work-in-progress versions of three tunes that appear on Total Edge Effect; namely Orbiter Mission, Melting Pop and Floating Planet.
Orbiter Mission is perhaps one of the most interesting tunes on the album. It combines slightly dissonant parts and intriguing rhythmic sections, with a swirling and memorable chorus. There are some wonderful changes of mood. It is a piece that has much to commend it and highlights the exceptional skills of Yoneda on guitar.
Yoneda's playing is one of many highlights of the album. Yoneda might also be known to prog fans for his outstanding work with Mike Sary's band, French TV. During Total Edge Effect, he has an opportunity to exhibit his fine repertoire of skills. For example, in Floating Planet his fluid tone and lyrical playing recalls aspects of the style of Andrew Latimer. However, in tunes such as Melting Pop his droning guitar embellishments have a foot-stomping, rhythmic appeal. His slow, evocative solo in this piece is particularly enjoyable. Nevertheless, the most evocative and heated guitar solo occurs during the mysteriously titled NS.
NS is probably my favourite tune on the album and has many stand-out parts. Without doubt, some of the best sections of this tune occur when the flute interacts with an aggressive purpose with the other instruments. There is an exciting, fast-paced call-and-response interlude between the flute and keyboards.
This marks one of the few occasions when Imai uses an overblown flute style. I enjoyed this section of this strident piece. However, I could not help but wish that there were more occasions when Imai would dirty his tone a little bit and play in a more earthy, aggressive manner or make his flute emit sharp-tongued, twisting fills.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that Imai's gorgeous, fluttering style is very impressive. The notes he emits float effortlessly and permeate the hidden corners of the room. His rich, perfect pitch and fluently-soaring style is perfectly suited to the flowing and ear-friendly melodic nature of the band's compositions. He has a deft touch and possesses an enviable pureness of tone.
Whilst Imai plays very quickly in many of the tunes, some of his most delicate playing occurs in the almost baroque introduction to Floating Planet. Much of Imai's expressive contribution explores the higher registers, but in parts of Gathering Call he presents a deeper tone. This works well in the context of the tune and adds something different to the album's predominant sound.
Total Edge Effect is a fine album, several of the tunes are very memorable, or have memorable characteristics. The album is accessible and very melodic, but contains more than enough twists and surprises to maintain interest. For example, the main theme of Floating Planet refuses to budge from my memory, despite trying to rid myself of it by playing numerous other tunes, including a selection of the Beatles most popular hits.
I am enjoying everything that this album offers. It has seldom been off my current playlist and I am sure that I will continue to appreciate it for many months to come. It is highly recommended if you enjoy the music of bands such as Solaris, and is an essential purchase if you like flute-led progressive music.