Album Reviews

Issue 2022-066

The Bardic Depths — Promises Of Hope

The Bardic Depths - Promises Of Hope
And She Appeared (7:47), Regal Pride (5:18), Consumed (7:57), The Burning Flame (6:01), Colours And Shapes (7:14), Why Are You Here? (7:51), Returned (4:50), The Essence (4:34), Imagine (9:38)
Martin Burns

In 2020 The Bardic Depths released their eponymous debut album, and now they have released the follow-up Promises Of Hope. With some contributors to the debut becoming full time members, The Bardic Depths has essentially become a new band.

Along with founder member, multi-instrumentalist and main songwriter Dave Bandana, there are Peter Jones (Camel, Tiger Moth Tales, Red Bazar) on keyboards, vocals, penny whistle and saxophone, Gareth Cole (Paul Menel, Fractal Mirror) on guitars, and Tim Gehrt (The Streets, Steve Walsh) behind the drums. There is also support from other guest musicians, the most noteworthy being the band's label (Gravity Dream) owner Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf,) who also co-produces the album and provides additional keyboards, bass and Hammond organ. There are 18 people credited on backing vocals and spoken word contributions, though they don't all perform at once.

As on their debut, the lyrics and concept behind Promises Of Hope is provided by US historian Brad Birzer. The album focusses on the rather dark subject of suicide, but treats it subtly and sensitively through the story of a Queen whose death is rejected by God, and so is returned to life. Inspirations come from the writers Virgil and C.S. Lewis. A potentially dark topic that gets a lighter musical treatment.

The music to accompany this is ambitious keyboard and guitar-led, heavy, melodic, modern prog with a commercial edge that could have the cross-over appeal of Big Big Train, to whose late singer, David Longton, the album is dedicated.

The album comes immediately to life through the layered keyboards and winning synth melody on And She Appeared. It picks up pace with the bass and drums entering. It has a subtle majesty, even when Jones' tin whistle makes an appearance, although this is balanced out with Hammond and slide guitar. A great start to Promises Of Hope.

Things continue with Regal Pride sharing Big Big Train's musical DNA. Jones is on lead vocal duties, as well as producing a vivid sax solo. This has lovely harmony vocals as well. There is a move into Iona-like celtic folk-rock with Consumed with more penny whistle and guests Donny O'Connel's violin and Kevin McCormick's classical guitar; and yet more super vocal harmonies.

Classic prog DNA is in evidence on the Floydian The Burning Flame. A bluesy ballad that has two, pin-sharp guitar solos; the first from Gareth Cole followed by Kevin McCormick on electric this time. The instrumental Colours And Shapes is a neo-prog banger, going from the gentle, via the funky, to the fast-paced finalé. It manages to weave in a terrific violin line too.

The shorter The Essence is full of punchy riffing and pulsing synths, while the expansive closer, Imagine, (thankfully not a Lennon cover) has a series of interconnected sections that brings the story to a close, bookended by a Wakeman-style churk organ from Richard Kreugar.

There are a couple of minor issues for me with Promises Of Hope though. The earworm ballad Why Are You Here? is rather repetitive and would have been improved by being half the length. Also, Dave Bandana's unaccompanied lead vocals feel a little exposed and underpowered, but it isn't often that this occurs. These issues are not that detrimental to this release, they just stick out a bit, as the rest is so good. However they will probably stop this from being in my end of year top 5.

The Bardic Depths' Promises Of Hope has more of a band feel to it than a pure studio project. It is well worth investigating for anyone who has an interest in superbly crafted, modern takes on classic prog, with commercially edged melodies pristinely arranged and recorded. The third album from these guys should be a blast.

Breaths — Isolera

Breaths - Isolera
Movement I (17:19), Movement II (7:43), Movement III (3:38), Movement IV (6:38)
Calum Gibson

Breaths is a one-man project that has swiftly worked its way into my collection. From the first time I heard them on the wordily-titled Though life has turned out nothing like I imagined, it is far better than I could have dream, to their split EP with Dimwind, I have grown to quite enjoy their mix of shoe/blackgaze, doom and ambient music.

So it was with great glee that I decided to have a listen to Isolera, their latest release. Knowing their style, I was interested to see what would come out the speakers with this mix of instrumental soundscapes.

The opening of the album, aptly titled Movement I is an ambient track, with very little other than some ethereal textures building and growing over the first 12 minutes. This seamlessly merges into a far darker tone, with heavily distorted and fuzzy guitars and bass following the same pattern of rises and falls.

Movement II is more of a throbbing drone, overlaid with ambience that conjures images of those scenes in films where the protagonist is floating through space or similar in a peaceful journey of self-discovery. The second half begins with a slightly faster pace, but the same minimalistic waves of synths. A very soothing electronic drum beat has been added in to provide more grip to the track.

And as with everything, this short journey comes to an end on the fourth track, cunningly named Movement IV. It feels like the coming together of the previous three; soft drops of bass mixed with an underlying electronic melancholy sailing over the top.

I enjoyed this collection, perhaps not as much as the others, but a solid 35 minutes of esoteric textures and layers is what we have in this experimental creation. I'd possibly say it could have managed the same effect with a couple of minutes shaved off here and there, but overall a very relaxing a peaceful selection. It would be perfect if combined with a dystopian movie or game.

I'd recommend for fans of their previous work, or those who enjoy Lorn, Sun 0))), Nine Inch Nails and similar.

DC Sound Collective — Creature Machines

DC Sound Collective - Creature Machines
Cobracadaver (7:07), Crowbot (8:35), Lunatic (3:45), The Hierarchy Of Horses (6:44), Slaves 2 Machines (6:05), Dr. Donut (4:24), Halogen (3:23), Blood Orange Wall (5:26), Curiosity Cured The Cat (11:35)
Sergey Nikulichev

It is really a blessing for any musical artist to find a sound of one's own. Once it's done, there is no need to worry about being forgotten / underestimated / accused of being someone else's copycat. Daniel Crommie, being an independent indie folk musician, can serve as a fine example of the above. Being quite prolific as a solo artist and a band member of groups Group du Jour, Saturnalia Trio and the DC Sound Collective, he has shaped an immediately recognisable sound, and continues exploring its capabilities with each new release. If I am not mistaken, Creature Machines is the eighth full-scale release under the DCS moniker (and an umpteenth in the entire discography). As usual it seeks to lay an instrumental tapestry.

As careful readers of DPRP surely know, Daniel Crommie relies on multiple woodwinds set against an electronic or a folk music background, with influences from such names as Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and world music. Despite already using the word “folk” more than once, I also feel that “ethno” would probably serve as a more proper definition.

I was struggling hard with my failing memory on where have I heard a resembling usage of woodwinds, and finally it struck me: Jade Warrior. The half-obscure 70s prog formation from the UK, did some very original music in the days of yore, albeit with a far more complicated approach towards percussion than DC. Also think about an approach to ethnic music akin to what Gong loved doing once in a while, and you may get the idea.

Writing credits on Creature Machines are almost equally shared between Daniel and Eldon Hardenbrook, also responsible for bass, guitar and drums. And whereas Daniel's recent solo career features a more electronic-tinged sound, this release has a richer palette, due to a stronger presence of a live rhythm section and electric guitar. Careful listeners will also notice experiments with atonal music. On the downside, hardcore progsters may be frightened off by rather simplistic, if not primitive, rhythm patterns, mostly performing rough work for strings, keys and flute.

Still, The Hierarchy Of Horses and Curiosity Cured The Cat, as well as the opener Cobracadaver, are both great titles and enjoyable tunes.

While not strictly prog (the fact that many DPRP reviewers pointed out, like here), and surely not rock, DC Sound Collective still has something to offer to prog lovers. I cannot deny that the music has plenty of charm, wit and benign weirdness; the latter is a somewhat lost craft in music since the acid folk movement.

The Gong Farmers — Guano Junction

The Gong Farmers - Guano Junction
As Sunlight Falls 1 (2:24), Drive (6:13), Pip Squeak And Wilfred 1 (3:55), Guano Junction 3 (2:42), Evergreen (4:24), As Sunlight Falls 2 (2:42), Vista De Toledo (3:21), Guano Junction 2 (3:52), Wednesday Afternoon (4:42), Shave! (1:40), Winter Hill (3:32), Dark Skies (4:19), Pip Squeak and Wilfred 2 (3:25)
Theo Verstrael

According to Wikipedia the term "gong farmers" was used in Tudor times “to describe someone who dug out and removed human excrement from privies and cesspits". The word "gong" was used for both a privy and its contents. It's quite an enrichment of one's life, once you get to know that!

It's illustrative that vocalist and guitarist Mark Graham and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Keeling, the nucleus of the musical collective that goes by the name of The Gong Farmers, thought that it would be a good name for the band they wanted to form.

Both lads seem to have a good sense for absurd humour that brings about memories of Monty Python's Flying Circus. That can attract a lot of friends who are also in for a good-humoured project of whatever sort. That shows in the large number of guests that are featured on this album. Apart from Graham and Keeling, no less that nine other musicians play on one or several songs. Among these are Dave Jackson (of Kaprekar's Constant fame) and Alex Che (Modern Eon, Che). It's remarkable that neither Graham nor Keeling play on all songs, indicating that their egos are significantly smaller than their sense of humour.

Late last year the band released their second album, Guano Junction, after their 2019 debut Ship Of Fools. I haven't heard that one, nor was I acquainted with any of the musicians apart from Dave Jackson. I was immediately attracted to the very fine, naive cover artwork. It's a bright, blue and white painting of three gulls (mew gulls?) quarrelling with two crows (jackdaws?). The rather simple booklet contains the lyrics of the songs and some information on the recording. The latter can also be found on the inner side of the booklet, and even inside the sleeves where nobody can read them; another of those remarkable choices by the band.

Looking at the titles of the songs, the only conclusion can be that they don't want to be taken too seriously. Song titles like Pip, Squeak and Wilfred (I guess referring to the front cover?), SHAVE! and Guano Junction 3 (that is the first of two short songs carrying that title) all indicate that there is humour all around. But looking at the very short lyrics of Pip, Squeak And Wilfred, another story emerges as the song deals with the memories of a son, when he finds his father's memorabilia from WWII. While I guess it was great fun to record this album, there was also a more serious under-layer. And did that this result in good music?

Let me start by stating that the album features a large variety of musical styles and moods. There is musical, some jazz, a bit of bossa-nova, a flute-dominated instrumental, a charming orchestral song, a real cacophony, a ballad that would have suited George Michael perfectly, a lament and some poppy tunes. For my taste it is too many musical moods that are not glued together. It is too much to appreciate. I wasn't able to find any connection, neither in the music nor in the (sparse) lyrics and therefore I find the album fragmented and incoherent.

Some of these songs are quite nice though, such as the pulsating Drive with fine sax playing that tingles some jazz boxes. I also enjoy the strings-filled Evergreen, the acoustic Vista De Toledo with its typical Spanish flavour, the lament Winter Hill, and Dark Skies with wordless vocals, very fine classical guitar and a real electric guitar solo as a coda.

The aforementioned Pip, Squeak and Wilfred parts are orchestral and nicely pompous. Together these songs would have made a nice, albeit short, album. Unfortunately quite a few weak songs spoil that party. It starts with opener As Sunlight Falls I that has awkward lyrics and a musical melody that goes nowhere. The second part of that song is instrumental which doesn't make it any better.

The two-part title track is also instrumental, and alas not much better than the other two-parted song. The poppy Wednesday Afternoon starts nicely but the instrumental middle part is so uninteresting that it makes the song very unattractive. The band really lost me with the cacophonous SHAVE!. This simply isn't music but a random sampled noise experiment that is a torture for the ears. Fortunately it's very short.

The apparent pleasure with which this album was compiled made me very receptive to the music. Yet I have to conclude that this album doesn't appeal to me at all. Variation is good, but variation that disconnects should be avoided. The Gong Farmers have been unsuccessful in that respect, which makes it highly unlikely that I will return to this album.

Grobschnitt — Acoustic Album

Grobschnitt - Acoustic Album
Wonderful Music (2:41), Morning Song (5:23), Drummer's Dream (6:50), Traum und Wirklichkeit (5:17), Vater Schmidt´s Wandertag (10:28), Anywhere (4:54), Snowflakes (3:41), Merry-Go-Round (5:30), Silent Movie (4:07), Raintime (4:22), Wir wollen Leben (4:06), Könige der Welt (7:27), Der Weg nach Haus (10:42)
Jan Buddenberg

Fairly out of the blue, Grobschnitt announced their 'Acoustic Party' and corresponding tour in 2018. Upon reading this my heart skipped a beat at the time. When the line-up revealed itself to be Stefan "Willi Wildschwein" Danielak (vocals, acoustic guitar, stomp box) and his son Stefan "Nuki" Danielak (acoustic guitar, percussion effects, vocals) accompanied by Grobschnitt's original lead guitarist Gerd Otto "Lupo" Kühn (acoustic lead guitar), it skipped several more beats.

In the following years this threesome made a marvellous and successful return to the stage and toured various places like Hagen, Bad Bresig, Bonn, Bochum and Neuss, where I witnessed them in action near the end of 2019. This came to a halt obviously when spoilsport Covid arrived, resulting in withdrawn, postponed and reorganised concert dates. Not letting inertia win the day, the band decided to record basic tracks to their anniversary Acoustic Album in February - May 2021, with additional recordings and mixing taking place in July 2021.

The result, issued once again on the infamous Brain label which started their career 50 years ago, is thirteen newly arranged classic Grobschnitt songs set in an acoustic jacket. Songs that shine every bit as bright as their originals. Even surpassing them in the wonderful versions of songs like Snowflakes and Raintime. But let's not run ahead of ourselves.

Released the day after their interrupted tour took off again, with their memorable gig in Rozenhof, Osnabrück, the album, issued on CD and limited vinyl, roughly follows the band's gigging set-list. This means Vater Schmidt's Wandertag is now accounted for in the correct corresponding year (1975) and the album starts out with Wonderful Music from their 1972 debut album. The exception to this rule is the aforementioned Snowflakes which originally appeared after their 1979 effort of Merry-Go-Round (1980's live album Volle Molle), but it was released as a single under the German title Sonnenflug in 1976.

This playing order is not the only aspect mindful to their live performances, for the recordings have taken place in a similar setting, without overdubs. As a result they show the same magnificent, embracing sonic feel as experienced live. Full with enthusiasm, spontaneity, passionate deliveries and wabbadidada's a-plenty, these are masterly-re-arranged, timeless songs.

The brilliant mix, engineered by Michael "Bully" Danielak, places the individual performances and instruments at the exact same spot as during their concerts. This means an excelling Lupo on the left, Nuki on the right with guitar and embellishments, and Willi mid-centre guiding the songs along joyfully with his captivating voice in mint condition. This balance is an actual master-stroke for it genuinely feels as if Grobschnitt have seated themselves comfortably in the confinements of your living room for a personal, intimate performance.

And quite the performance this is as the band has selected audience favourites and a few deep cuts from their individual albums. After the cheerful opening of Wonderful Music this leads to two songs from their Ballerman album. In Drummer's Dream, Lupo shows he hasn't lost any of his magic after all these years and masterly demonstrates his ability towards refined sensitivity and gracious, flexible play.

The three year period of playing together has paid off splendidly and sees the band perform in perfect unison. A fine example of this is Merry-Go-Round where each member switches around in various roles seamlessly, while Nuki also takes care of harmonies. Köninge der Welt is another clear showcase, with excellent interplay between Willi and Lupo, with Nuki adding percussion through instruments like bongo and chimes. Surprisingly this song, alongside Wir wollen Leben, demonstrates that once freed from its original pop-orientated format Grobschnitt's compositions are all essentially carved from the same kind of wood.

This same acoustic timber brings elegant new arrangements to songs that originate as acoustic songs themselves like Silent Movie and Anywhere. The latter, from their iconic Rockpommel's Land album, serves as a beautiful illustration towards the accomplished sound and atmosphere captured on this album. The epic Vater Schmidt's Wandertag, presented in its German Jumbo-version, is obviously in dire need of re-arrangement, and the results are truly remarkable. As an assured fan-favourite, this version, with the obviousness absence of keys, shows exactly what it takes to transform a superb symphonic composition into a radiating acoustic song.

Finally, Der Weg nach Haus, as with their concerts, signals a fitting end to this wonderful trip down memory lane. The progressive rock aficionado would probably have loved to hear other epic compositions which they have touched upon live, but I, for one, can't complain with the cohesive choice of songs included. And who knows, maybe more will follow as the tour is still going strong and perhaps a visual recording will follow?

Until that happens, this excellent acoustic overview of one of the greatest bands ever to originate from Germany will make further rounds in the various players I have. Admittedly a rating of 8 might be more realistic but I simply cannot ignore the heavenly music that reveals itself as a hidden track after Der Weg nach Haus. It's simply one of the most beautiful and elementary pieces of music ever recorded. Grobschnitt fans know enough!

October Thorns — Circle Game

October Thorns - Circle Game
Page One (5:07), Circle Game (6:09), Soul Forge (6:30), No Idle Phrase (4:58), Jihad (4:08), Exhausted Minds (5:31), Leviathan (5:09), Sounds Of Life (4:57), Eyes Of Suicide (Demo) (4:36), Sounds Of Life (Demo) (5:18), Air (Demo) (4:04), Tree (Demo) (9:01)
Andy Read

How many of you, being music fans of a certain age, still have a stack of cassettes and CDs tucked away somewhere bearing the name of a long-lost band and those eternally-hopeful words "demo"?

During the past 20 years or so, the likes of Google, Spotify and Bandcamp have increasingly simplified the task of discovering new bands. But before click-and-collect became an everyday word, one had to follow a tediously-laborious process in order to uncover the next big-name-that-your-best-mate-had-yet-to-discover!

First, subscribe to your fanzine or magazine of musical choice (mine was Metal Forces) and scour the long list of new "demo" releases. If anything sounded like it might be worth a gamble, you would then write down the postal address given for the band and stick a cheque/money order for the requested amount in the post ... and wait.

A lot of my hopeful selections seemed to need a stamp to the States or Scandinavia. The wait was often so long, you had forgotten you had sent it. More often than not the resulting four-track cassette (or later a CD) was clearly never going to lead to a recording contract! Several times the band had already called it quits! However, uncovering the occasional gem, made all that effort worthwhile.

October Thorns were one such band. Formed in Brooklyn in 1999, October Thorns featured drummer Joe Cardillo, twin guitarists Joe Chawki and Dave Pando, Norbert Sator on keyboards, David Z on bass, and vocalist Paul LaPlaca. Festival appearances such as Milwaukee Metalfest, Powermad, and The Big Bang led to October Thorns becoming a fixture at the famous L'Amour rock club opening for acts such as Symphony X, In Flames, and God Forbid.

Their six-song demo was rewarded with coverage in magazines around the world. Sadly, just as it was starting to garner the interest of record labels, the tensions between band members proved too damaged to carry on. David Z went on to play with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra before his untimely death in a road accident while on the way to a gig with Adrenaline Mob in 2017. Joe Cardillo and Paul LaPlaca played with New York power metallers Zandelle amongst others.

Now, that original CD does exactly what it says on the cover. It is a six-track demo. And I guess most of it was recorded in one take with limited post-production. Funnily enough I was running through some of my old demos last year and this was one that stood out. Despite the limitations of its recording, the songs and performances suggested that this was a progressive metal band that could have created something special.

With only 1000 copies ever produced, this demo has become highly sought after by collectors. October Thorns have become one of the most renowned "lost bands" from the prog-metal underground of the late 90s.

It looked certain that this simple six-track demo would be their sole legacy. Then news emerged that Paul LaPlaca had joined with US-based Divebomb Records to finally give the music of October Thorns a proper showcase.

Circle Game is no simple re-packaging of the original demo. It is much more than that.

For starters, the original demo has been completely remixed (not just remastered) by Alex Argento from Italian prog metallers Icefish. The main beneficiary is the vocals that were very raw on the original demo.

The six original demo tracks have been bolstered by two additional fully recorded songs; in effect making the main album a full eight-track affair. There are also four demo songs. None of these six extra tracks have been released before. So what you get now is the full available discography of October Thorns.

The album is available in digital version, but I'd recommend the CD version with its impressive 20-page booklet fully-loaded with photos, memorabilia, full lyrics, and an interview with LaPlaca.

October Thorns, promo photo

Musically speaking, October Thorns sat in the middle of the prog-metal spectrum alongside the likes of early Queensryche, Dream Theater, Power Of Omens, Dali's Dilemma and Sanvoisen. There is a complexity to the compositions and playing, and they were certainly not afraid to insert some out-of-the-box ideas here and there. The mix of keyboards with the twin guitars, and a singer not averse to mixing up various styles, delivered a varied sonic template. Yet for the most part their songs retained a melodic core and a navigable flow.

The inventive Andromeda-like bass, guitar and keys on the opening to Page One always suggested that this is going to be something that I would enjoy. The vocals and arrangement then take on the style of When Dream And Day Unite. The hook is instantly memorable.

The slightly lighter Circle Game is worth the price of this CD alone. It was my favourite song on the original release, but this version has taken it to another level. Again this offers an accessible bend of Andromeda and Dream Theater. The sublime mix of groove and melody makes this one of the best prog-metal songs from the period.

Soul Forge is a very different, truly progressive-metal beast. LaPlaca shifts endlessly between harsh and soft vocals, a more air raid siren vocal and a processed spoken voice. Throwing in a thrash edge to the guitar and some electronica, this is a very experimental song that doesn't fully succeed and perhaps should have been placed later on the album. However, it suggests that this was a band that could really have pushed the genre's boundaries.

No Idle Phase brings yet another vibe and further rich dynamic shifts. Jihad is an aggressive metal anthem. Back in the day it was a live favourite, featuring some incredible guitar/keyboard exchanges.

Exhausted Minds sits with Soul Forge, displaying the more experimental side of the band's repertoire. This was the track that shipwrecked one of the potential record deals after the label demanded that the band replace the rap-like vocals utilised in parts of the sing (it's actually just fast-delivered lyrics). The band refused and the deal was lost. I really like this track as it reminds me of fellow countrymen Jugulator.

Leviathon proffers another inventive guitar-led opening. This song was not finished in time for the original demo, in fact LaPlaca only recently completed the lyrics to bring the song back to life.

Sounds of Life showcases another side to the band's influences with its proggy vibe and close harmonies that reflect Kansas, Asia and Genesis.

The other four tracks are raw demos. They are not of great quality, but it is nice to complete the discography.

Becoming properly acquainted with October Thorns through this lovingly-curated package has been a real pleasure. The remixing and re-recording plus the two additional, fully-recorded songs has turned the raw demo into a full album close to what the band would surely have delivered had they hung around long enough to secure a record deal.

For anyone who is familiar with October Thorns or for those who enjoy seeking out great bands hidden in the more obscure corners of prog-metal history, then this is an essential purchase.

Album Reviews