Clint Bahr — Puzzlebox
What if I were to begin this review of Clint Bahr's new project/album, Puzzlebox, by telling you that among the luminaries Bahr has assembled to play on the album is Peter Banks? Right, THAT Peter Banks, Yes's first guitarist, who died in 2013. It took me some searching to discover that the estate of Peter Banks has made various recordings available for just such "guest appearances". The Puzzlebox track Kicking The Wasp's Nest features a Banks solo. Mystery solved. My question is, why did Bahr feature Banks? Is it a tribute? Or just a neat trick?
But that's only one question I have about this by turns brave and frustrating album. I've listened and listened to it, and I've come up with an analogy. One of my all-time favourite musicians is Robert Wyatt. When I'm in the mood, I can play his albums over and over for a full week or so. But that "when I'm in the mood" is a strong qualification. When I'm not in the mood for Wyatt, I can't listen even to one of his innocuous pop covers like I'm A Believer or Shipbuilding. I think Puzzlebox is that kind of album. Its oddity and wild variety are its strengths and its weaknesses. Unfortunately, I can't imagine a time when I would feel like listening to it over and over, or even one more time.
By way of one example, let me refer you to the third track, Plate. This may seem like a strange, even an unfair, comparison, but please bear with me. Remember the scene late in the great "mockumentary" film This Is Spinal Tap in which the band, their lead guitarist (the wonderful, confused Nigel Tufnel, aka Christopher Guest) having quit, is facing a festival audience with almost no tunes it can play? The bassist proposes that the band play one of their very early songs, Jazz Odyssey, a free-form jazz piece heavy on inventive but meandering bass. We're meant to laugh at that scene. Are we meant similarly to laugh at Bahr's Plate? Because the two pieces are uncomfortably similar in effect. Yet the very next song, Shelter, has a nice heavy bass hook and gentle, melodic vocals. Not a trace of jazz in sight.
I ought to back up and say a bit about the musicians (other than Peter Banks). To my embarrassment, I had not known of Clint Bahr till I received this album, but he has solid credentials, having played with Eartha Kitt and being adept on any number of instruments (including, I was delighted to see, the Chapman Stick). Joining him on this album are such veterans as David Cross on violin, Billy Ficca (from Television) on drums, and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator on woodwinds. To my ears, the playing is excellent, even when the songs aren't.
And I'm sorry to say that, again, to my ears, the songs usually aren't excellent. Bahr is attempting to revisit the heady early days of progressive rock, experimentation, and improvisation; unfortunately, King Crimson this ain't, though one can hear echoes. I'll go further, though it pains me to do so: some pieces are just bad. I made it through Fall From Grace, for example, twice, but I won't be playing it again. In its attempt (and the same could be said about other songs on this album) to be varied, experimental, and innovative, it succeeds only in sounding pretentious.
I'm a teacher by profession, and I am utterly sincere when I tell each new class that nothing would make me happier than to give each assignment an A. Alas, it is in the nature of things that not all students will earn grades of A. Similarly, I'm happy every time I can assign an 8 to an album I've reviewed; but sometimes I just can't. I've given this album a 6 because I truly admire the ambition behind the project; however, I can't in good conscience recommend it with any enthusiasm.
Crystal Palace — Still There
Time does fly fast. German band Crystal Palace can now be considered real prog veterans. The name appeared on the prog scene in 1995 with their debut On The Edge Of The World, had a number of ups and downs since then, but eventually endured, grew stronger and, while not reaching popularity of RPWL or Sylvan, reserved a solid place on the German modern scene. Not mentioning the fact, that Crystal Palace is more prolific and steady on their release schedule, than any of the above.
Arguably, the band reached their creative peak with The System Of Events and Dawn Of Eternity, which I have recently reacquainted myself with and still consider them to be the most integral and well-thought records. The 2018 Scattered Shards was also a fine effort, but the distorted crunch of guitar sound might have scared some lovers of mellower neo-genre.
Well, no need to be afraid anymore, you, tender souls. The gloomy cover is the darkest element here, and the amounts of angst are, well, digestible. On Still There the band returns the softer tunes and quite successfully combines melodic lines with groove sections and epic solos. To some extent, the record sums up Crystal Palace's career of the second decade of this century, deriving influences from every past release since Reset
Still There is a marathon-size compilation of twelve tracks, most of which clock over 6 minutes. Contrary to an undeniably aggressive Scattered Shards, this effort brings a rather detached feel to both epics and shorter numbers, so, while not a concept album, it maintains certain mood and integrity. Usual neo-prog references include names like IQ, Marillion and Pendragon, but Crystal Palace is unlike any of the above (maybe closer to IQ, than to the rest). Connoiseurs of the neo genre would draw parallels to more melancholic names, like Swiss Metamorphosis, Jadis and Airbag. Still There also conveys a dramatic story of isolation and depression, with a young girl, a Berlin relocant, as a protagonist, evoking concepts of Hand.Cannot.Erase and Brave.
The vocals are somewhat a weak point here. Jens Uwe Strutz does a competent job on bass, but his vocal range is limited, and this has an impact on the emotional expressiveness of the album (which, as all neo-heads know, is absolutely crucial for the sub-genre). The darker half-spoken parts in the vein of IQ are well performed (see Planned Obsolescence for instance), but wherever the vocals are supposed to spread wings and soar, they trail behind the rest of instrumentation. It would however be unfair not to mention that the vocal performance on the closing Still There is really heartfelt in the best Nick-Barrett way. This track and the last-but-one The Unquiet Window are the emotional pinnacle of the release and probably the most accomplished compositions.
All things considered, 74 minutes of solid neo-prog is something you cannot really complain about. With all the watercolor mood Still There holds a lot of nuances to make a listener like myself wanting to revisit it even despite some flaws.
Nathan — Uomini di Sabbia
25 years into their career, six years after their first album filled with original material (Nebulosa), and four years after their second release Era, Nathan return to the scene with their third offering, Uomini di Sabbia (Sand-made men). Hailing from Savona (Italy) and led by Piergiorgio Abba (keyboards, acoustic Guitar) and Bruno Lugaro (vocals) the band is staying perfectly true to their roots of Italian prog, although there have been a few recent changes in their line up.
Joining the composing duo of Abba and Lugaro, one now finds Giulio Smeraglivolo (guitars) and Luca Grosso (drums, except on Delerio Oniroco). Bass parts are now shared almost evenly between guests Fabio Zunino and Dino Cerruti. With Fabio Sanfilippo (drums) and Mauro Brunzu (bass) returning on the aforementioned Delerio Oniroco, this new album's line up is complete.
The loosely bound theme on Uomini di Sabbia involves "the human being, his weaknesses and inability to contrast abuses", with the longest suite on the album being specifically themed upon Big Brother and Utopian freedom. All this is metaphorically captured in sand and adjacent sculptured faces on the album's artwork. How this works out in the lyrical department I have no clue as the Italian language is not my forte, but, as so often the case, this doesn't affect the enjoyment towards the music one bit.
The album gets off to a good start with heavy orientated prog in the dynamically driven Fatti non foste. It reveals fine interplay, tightness and a lush mixture of synths and contemporary keys, reminiscent to Nuova Era, with excellent guitar melodies. It shows a mild Deep Purple attractiveness, which instantly grabs me. Amidst these organically vintage carpets, Lugaro's powerful vocal expressions impress, as does the overall harmony in performances. The balanced sound of the album highlights every instrument superbly in the mix. The tastily progressing feel of the song is impeccable. Although this alters over the course of the album, revealing some magical neo-prog moments, it's always shimmering in the background.
Maybe it's the song's title, but it's impossible to resist a vision of RanestRane during Monoliti, also in light of its solid bass partitions, vocal resemblances, and the magnificent atmospheric build-up. The bridge towards the composition's stately bombastic melodies, driven onwards with excitingly menacing pace, adds a lush early 1980s IQ feel to this, followed by pompous elements of Genesis, one of the bands inspirations.
The excellent Delirio Onirico ups the ante on neo-prog value and cashes in on beautiful piano play and flashy synths surrounded by catchy melodies and formidable performances. It creates a circling world of Marillion meets IQ underneath candlelight brightness of Chandelier. This thoroughly enjoyable and frequently pace-changing song finally wades into a well of symphonic rock, where ripping guitar work and prolific keyboard eruptions give birth to an oasis of joy.
The undulating melodies after the quietly opening of Il Pianto del Cielo will please many a Genesis fan, also in light of Smeraglivolo's intricately gushing wind of Hackett-like playing. Together with sparkling synth work and beautiful interplay, this vibrantly short song continues to impress and adds lovely passages, reminiscent to the Swiss band Deyss.
Rich in variety, with a pristine sense of interpretation and execution, Madre dei Sortilegi then brings theatrical epic melodies, carried by rousing tempos and emotional deliveries following the calm opening. Surrounded by strong guitar and keyboard-driven dexterity, the song's short bridge adds a nice reflective diversion, after which Smeraglivolo effortlessly picks up the melody again and returns the song to its compelling attractiveness. Here the song seems to end but that's just a fata morgana for it continues in sublime fashion with delightful interplay and finally fades on peaceful sounds of bass.
Through slightly ominous piano and bass, aided by Lugaro's vocal contributions and passionate harmonies, Nel Giardino di Maria brings more theatrics alongside heavy rock. Laced with keyboard parts interspersed with fresh synths, the song's dynamics and melodies ensure one is constantly entertained. It tops it off with elements of E.L.P and a lively dose of classic Italian prog. The beautifully constructed L'Acrobata showcases the same artistic depth with sensitive vocals and a wealth of dreamily floating alternating melodies, ending in refined keyboard excitement.
Concluding the album is the long suite Egos. Subdivided in seven parts, it essentially brings a wonderful overview of all the multi-faced musical ideas captured within the previous 45 minutes. Blending symphonic prog complexities with whispers of Gentle Giant, ELP, IQ-like Mellotron and a variety of classic Italian prog influences, voiced by a tangible performance of Lugaro, this composition brings a memorable final chord to an overall enjoyable album.
Overall, Nathan have done an excellent job in bridging the past of Italian prog into the present. Sounding fresh and retro-organic at the same time, it's especially the delightful touches of nostalgic 1980s inspired neo-prog that gives this album its charm for me. Through wonderful performances and well-written compositions, it brings pleasure from start to finish and, probably needless to say, fans of the band can buy this album in a heartbeat. To those in favour of keyboard driven progressive rock, and the one's who share a warm heart for classic Italian prog, this is a highly recommendable must-buy/listen. I feel a Bandcamp Friday exercise coming up again...
Philosophobia — Philosophobia
Philosophobia is a progressive metal band from Germany that I had not heard before although some of the members can claim a lineage that includes affiliations with no less than Kamelot, Pain Of Salvation, Wastefall, Mekong Delta, and Kayak.
Comprising 5 songs of an average duration of between 6 minutes to 9 minutes plus 3 shorter tracks, the band waste little time getting down to business with the opening track of the album. Thorn In Your Pride begins slowly with some plaintive vocals for the first minute, but is pumped back up into overdrive with plenty of crushing guitar riffs and agro singing, although thankfully, the growl vocals are kept to an absolute minimum.
The ironical difference between what you might have expected from an outfit like this is that the softer chorus sections of this opening track is a dead ringer for an Australian celtic folk rock band known as Gavin O'Loghhlen and Cotter's Bequest. As this is a pretty obscure band and one that is probably all but unknown outside the Antipodes, it is more than likely that someone thought up a chorus that was very close but without being aware of the similarities. I'm certainly not suggesting any plagiarism here but simply put it down to coincidence. Mind you, the segue from a rather peaceful chorus to more adrenaline filled mayhem with the verses and guitar / keyboards, will make you wonder: who's the inspirational song smith here?
As Light Ceased To Exist will remind some Dream Theater style as the keyboards play havoc with the guitars, but the complexity of the arrangements is not quite what you might expect from the American maestros.
The remaining songs, while quite good are not that different to many you might have heard before from other similar bands doing the rounds these days. Let's face it, this sub-genre of music has had a pretty successful ride for many years, but it has been quite a while since I heard something really inspiring and different. Sure, the crunch factor is high with some heavy riffage, acres of pummelling drums and some volcanic bass playing, all underpinned by slabs of somewhat aggressive singing. The songs for the most part are played at break-neck speed, although some quieter moments can be found when the band adopt a less frenetic approach, such as can be found on the final track, Within My Open Eyes.
There can be no denying the level of musicianship is extremely high as each member pulls out all stops to deliver the best parts of their individual talents. But I'm a little hard-pressed to find a song I really liked enough to add to my Spotify playlist. Your mileage may vary so a preliminary listen or three before committing your hard-earned pennies might be the best suggestion here. It is however, good to see Kristoffer Gildenlow returning to the prog metal scene after he left Pain Of Salvation in 2006.