Birth — Born
Let me start the review of San Diego-based band Birth's first release Born with some remarks on another band from San Diego named Astra, founded in 2006 amongst others by Conor Riley and releasing two albums called The Weirding in 2009 and The Last Chord in 2012, both of which provided for a decent popularity of the band in the prog rock scene back then. The production of a third album fuelled by this popularity had been announced several times, most recently in 2017, but it never saw the light of day so far.
Instead, we have the same Conor Riley (vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitar), together with Brian Ellis (lead guitar, keyboards), another early-days member of Astra, coming up with a new project under the name Birth with their debut Born. Apart from these two musicians, Birth consists of Trevor Mast (bass) and Paul Marrone (drums, replaced by Thomas di Benedetto after the recording, though). Having heard of Astra, but not being very familiar with their music, I refrained from becoming too deeply involved with that band and tried to listen to, judge and evaluate Birth as an independent band, completely detached from Astra.
Everything about this release evokes the spirit of the beginnings of progressive rock back in the early seventies. It starts with the album cover, which includes multiple symbols representative of this era's cover artwork, serving many prog rock clichés (serpents, hourglass, birth, adolescence, old age, mystic creatures, peafowls etc.). An LP-friendly total running time of just over 41 minutes with three tracks per side. The retro-style production. The throwback becomes most evident in the instrumentation: vintage keyboards with an emphasis on (heavy sounding) Hammond, sound carpets of Mellotron, and lengthy guitar soloing.
Quite a few comparisons came to my mind whilst listening to this album. US bands, unfortunately fallen into oblivion such as Lift, and Realm. Also the early releases of Yes, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, The Nice, even King Crimson. The organ-dominated seventies Italian bands such as Le Orme, Osanna, and Aera. The symphonic and slightly gloomy/melancholic music of Viima from Finland, Sinkadus from Sweden, and Ruphus from Norway. The psychedelic elements of peers such as Atomic Rooster, Iron Butterfly, Traffic, Birth Of Joy, and Frumpy. There are quite a few influences that Birth draw their inspiration from in their approach, and they amalgamate various styles and put a "retro" tag on it.
The opening instrumental title track is a representative template of what the listener can expect from this release: heavy organ, intense Mellotron, jamming-type guitar playing, some melancholic moods, alteration of heavier parts with slower, softer, and emotive ones. The release tends to be on the heavier side altogether, though. To my ears, vocals do not seem to be a predominant element of Birth's music, with the retro-sounding production not doing much to refute my impression.
None of the six tracks on this release sound the same. Some show symphonic elements (mainly my favourites For Yesterday and Another Time), some are rather psychedelic (Long Way Down), others bear slight jazz rock influences (especially the instrumental Cosmic Tears). Positively speaking, this means Birth's music is varied, individual and diversified, with the other side of the coin being a lack of coherence and consistency, a missing common thread in Birth's music, and this interpretation comes closer to my point of view. I also struggled a bit with the arrangements here and there. Especially the way some tracks kind of collapsed at their end somehow was unusual to me.
I must admit that this album did not blow my mind without me really knowing what exactly it is that makes it so. Was it the lack of consistency in the musical style, the missing homogenous "common thread" (in my opinion) despite the overall retro-rock nature of the music? The production sounding a bit too retro here and there (like on some of my old seventies LPs)? The sometimes lacking expressiveness and versatility of the vocals? The jamming style in some songs? The not always clearly recognizable song structures and arrangements? None of these features turned out to be severe on a stand-alone basis, it rather was the sum of several small shortcomings causing that impression with me. The musicians no doubt are skilful and experienced, but to me, it seems that they have missed some opportunities by just noodling around with different musical styles.
Nonetheless, I am confident that this release will please prog rock fans looking for a retro-sounding band with an emphasis on vintage instruments, especially keyboards, symphonic and psychedelic influences, extensive jamming elements, and a certain melancholy in the songs. Having a soft spot for prog rock sounding like its from the seventies myself, it is also certain that my impression of this album will not prevent me from checking out a possible successor to Born, the music of which already bears many good beginnings suitable for further elaboration.
Brända Ängar — Brända Ängar
Psychedelic rock bands seem to thrive in Sweden. Here's another new band who sent us their LP. Yes, vinyl! I love it, and for some reason it really fits this type of music.
Brända Ängar are from Göteborg (Gothenburg) in the south-west of Sweden. And they are not the only ones hailing from there. They must be able to organise a multi-day festival of local psychedelic rock bands down there! Sorry, that's just the envy speaking from someone living 7 hours north of there.
In their own words, they are inspired by progressive rock (both Scandinavian and European), folk, and space rock. They are being modest, as the album reaches into a wide array of influences and sub-styles while still being coherent.
Hypnagogen and Signaler are (near) acoustic tracks the way Hawkwind used to add those between the spacey songs. A change of pace, added variation. Svart skörd and especially Bister idyll show a clear love for Black Sabbath as well.
The opener is one of the more progressive ones, with a wonderful psychedelic groove on a bluesy background. The melancholy is enforced by the keyboards. Skrattspeglar adds a heavier space rock attitude towards the riffing, which is very welcome after the slower Bister idyll, and has a very good progressive middle section.
Mot nollpunkten sounds like a tribute to 1970s Omega, their space rock era. But there are more elements, like the chorus in Svart skörd, that are hinting towards this type of space rock. It also applies to Tyrannerna faller, which is the most Hawkwind-styled track.
The mix of psych and prog also reminds me of another relatively new band in this sub-genre, namely Solum.
After the album was recorded, the line-up was extended with the keyboard player from Yuri Gagarin, another psychedelic rock band from the same area.
While it's a solid album, you still hear the influences coming in fromm different directions. It results in a varied album. Considering this is just their first album, I am sure we will be hearing some great music from this band in the future! I hope I will be able to see this band live one day.
Gayle Ellett & The Electromags — Shiny Side Up
Gayle Ellett is best known as one of the founding members of Djam Karet, and although he has been involved in various musical endeavours outside of the group - Fernwood (reviews here and here), Hillmen (reviews here and [here]) and Herd Of Instinct (reviews here and here) to name but three - Shiny Side Up is the first album to be released under his own name. Ellett (guitars, Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes) is joined by The Electromags who are Craig Kahn (drums and percussion) and long-term collaborator Mark Cook (bass).
Djam Karet were initially best known for their guitar interplay between Ellett and co-founder Mike Henderson but latterly Ellett had a greater presence on keyboards. I am sure the guitar enthusiasts out there will be delighted to hear that for this album Ellett has decided to focus primarily on the guitar want to produce an album that, in his own words, "Featured me wailing lots of guitar solos and playing memorable melodies". Taking inspiration from the instrumental guitar albums he listened to as a teenager back in the 1970s when he was first learning his instrument, his aim was to try and capture the style and groove of those formative listening experiences. Somewhat surprisingly to anyone familiar with the Djam Karet catalogue, Ellett considers the album to be his first attempt to write rock songs and can be broadly thought of as a 'Gayle Plays Guitar Solos' album.
Of course, it is much more than a collection of guitar solos. Cook is, as ever, creative and inventive with his bass guitar lines and Kahn a precise drummer who swings but adds aggression when required, he even gets a brief solo in Donuts & Fishtails. This is no better heard than on opener No Deposit, No Return which, to quote super guitarist Mike Keneally, "wantonly changes tempo". With guitar solos aplenty, sometimes double tracked, this is a statement piece that raises expectations for the rest of the album.
Ellett and his companions don't disappoint with each of the remaining ten compositions hitting the sweet spot. Although guitars are prominent throughout, keyboards do make appearances throughout with lovely Rhodes electric piano solos in Highway 27, Rhodes and Hammond being essential components of the succinct Brass Saddles & Steel Trees which really could have been extended by another 30 minutes or so! The heavenly sound of the B-3 is granted an all-too-brief solo on Crash Bar but it provides suitably subtle classic 1970s backing on several other tracks such as The Old Canyon Road, Southern Slide and Three Way Switch, the latter track also featuring some unexpected temp changes and some gorgeous bass playing from Cook.
Beyond The Milky Way provides respite from the trio pieces as it is a more atmospheric work featuring solo guitar and one of the few tunes that features any effects pedals, most of the recordings were made with guitars plugged directly into vintage tube amplifiers turned up loud. Trail Dust is a great closer to the album, starting with the trio in fine form but switching to a more plaintive and genteel vibe after 90 seconds with the Rhodes translucently flowing behind some excellent guitar solos that prove that slow and refined playing beats the pants off the egotistical speed merchants.
It has been a long road since Ellett first picked up a guitar 49 years ago. He has appeared on over 120 albums, scored music for numerous feature films and 60 different television series around the world and currently plays in nine different bands. Music is definitely in his blood. However, despite such an impressive resume, one gets the impression that it has all been mere footsteps leading to Shiny Side Up. Mike Keneally says it best: "Such fun!"
Ghost Of The Machine — Scissorgames
With a blistering synth run straight out of the neo-prog school of infectious and catchy melodies, the band waste no time getting their innings under way. The opening few minutes will have you thinking Pendragon, Marillion, Saga, Jadis, Arena, IQ, Asia, Citizen Cain, High Wheel, Magnum, Galahad, Clepsydra or Comedy Of Errors all rolled into one. Embracing a little of progressive rock, a little of progressive metal and some AOR, the band have been able to capture much of what the record buying public have been wanting for way too long.
The band consists of Charlie Bramald (lead vocals and flute), Graham Garbett (guitars and backing vocals), Mark Hagan (piano, keyboards and Mellotron), Stuart McAuley (bass, pedals and Mellotron), Andy Milner (drums), and Scott Owens (guitars).
This band hit the ground running with their imposing debut album and impresses immediately with its stellar songwriting, excellent singing, thanks to their talented vocalist and cohesive musicianship. Consisting of five former members of the band This Winter Machine it is no wonder their sound seems so well-developed and mature. I'm not sure of the reason why the band parted company with Al Winter, but this latest incarnation certainly does not suffer from any mis-steps or uncertainties as each song is well constructed and demonstrates how well-connected each member is to each other. They all complement each other's styles and abilities so well. Certainly, the endearing quality of the band from here on must surely be based on the inclusion of their new singer, as he has one of the nicest voices in the business. It is strong, clear and emotional when required and suits the band's music perfectly.
The opening song, at over 17 minutes in length, is simply stunning as it allows the band to really develop their ideas. Although not officially stated in any of the promotional material I have, the song is broken into shorter sections where the band explore different paths that weave their way around in multiple directions yet always manage to find their ultimate destination. The vocals are particularly strong and might remind some style and delivery used by Jean Pageau from Mystery who is a very accomplished singer in his own right. I'd wager these two throat warblers are on an even keel.
Second song in, Mountain, is a strong, driving type of affair with its grinding bass lines that even growl and grumble at the conclusion. It brings to mind Magnum and Saga.
Just For Reference begins a little slower and retains a more balladic style but eventually builds with biting guitar breaks and solid drumming before settling back towards its subtle conclusion.
January's Child is a simple but competent type of song that may bring to mind, Downes Braid Association with strong singing and solid playing but possessing slightly less accessibility. Delicate piano throughout also introduces the listener to some more pummeling action when the band changes gear and evokes a more Marillionesque approach.
Mercury Rising briefly features a pseudo style of glissando guitar found on many Steve Hillage albums, but it really breaks loose with stunning synthesizer runs, and is probably the most dynamic song on the album. The remaining songs are both well composed, played superbly and bring the album to a convincing conclusion. At over 60 minutes of great music, you're going to easily get your money's worth of appropriate enjoyment.
Although the band's music is extremely well played, there can be no denying, it all sounds pretty similar to what has come before, from many periods of musical history and from many musical regions of the world, whether that be the U.K., Europe or U.S.A. Despite that however, I have been very impressed with their debut offering and feel it is miles better than anything the band did previously with This Winter Machine. Perhaps the severing of ties with Al Winter has been a blessing in disguise for the band as this new album rates miles ahead of any of This Winter Machine's three previous albums in my opinion. This is an excellent album from a band who I am sure will continue to deliver quality melodic progressive music for many years to come. I can highly recommend giving the band a try and look forward to their next offering.
Reign Of Six — Transient
I would start this review of a newborn project Reign Of Six in the most unexpected way. I shall first list the things I didn't like about the record.
The rhythm patterns are rather primitive.
The production is not really perfect, and the drums more often than not sound flat, needing extra input, possibly involving a live drummer.
Have I gone bonkers? What is the reason for such abrupt in-your-face criticism?
The reason is that everything else is almost perfect on this record, and I have zero doubts that Tom Stillings, the man behind Reign Of Six, made a great debut here. Called Transient it is an EP that brings very fresh, almost innocent (in a good way) material with music that floats and breaths, never losing pace.
Now, praises and criticisms aside, you would probably like to know what Reign Of Six is all about. This is a one-man endeavor, with four tracks plus an intro it is an instrumental EP, clocking at approximately 22 minutes. The worst moment of the EP is the first minutes of the first full-scale track Under An Illusion, where the drums provide a very artificial Fruity Loops pattern, but after the solo guitar kicks in and the composition gathers speed, there's no turning back. You are on a ride for good melodies, tasty interplays between synths and guitar, licks that would stick in your head, and that doesn't stop until the EP is over. Tracks seamlessly flow into one another, and feature gothic piano parts, melodic phrases in the vein of recent Satriani releases, airy stratospheric synths. Comparisons are obligatory, and I shall gladly share my analogies. I am reminded of Pymlico, Gandalf's Fist and Frequency Drift, in a sense that that there is a certain shared elegiac optimism to the music of all these projects.
This is real ear candy for me, despite the objections above. Welcome to the prog scene, Tom. What I heard left me yearning for more.
Starfish64 — Scattered Pieces Of Blue
My discovery of Starfish64's universe is only as recent as their 2020 effort The Crimson Cabinet. This album took a while to adapt to because of its foremost quiet relaxedness. Over time, it evolved into a perfectly enjoyable experience. Carefully crafted artful songs are embedded with an enchanting sense of simmering melancholy and brooding emotion, drenched in a variety of dreamily progressive pop structures. Many of these compositions also harboured feelings of blue, but these are nothing compared to the pool of mosaic blueprints found on the band's newest showpiece Scattered Pieces Of Blue.
Creator of their new contemplative coloured collage is composer Dieter Hoffmann (vocals, keys, guitar and programming) who, randomly divided over the various tracks, is once again accompanied by Henrik Kropp (drums), Martin Pownall (bass, guitars, keys, percussion, vocals) and Dominik Suhl (guitars). Further participations include Jörg Hoffmann (acoustic/electric guitars), Jan Thiede (guitars), Christian Wahl (flugelhorn), Tobias Kassühlke (bass, guitars), Dyko (voice), Eddy SR (Moog). This line-up is completed by Julie Pownall and Didier Mollart aiding on backing vocals.
Hoffmann is actually the only musician featured on every single composition so one might get the impression this is a solo effort. Looking within the Starfish64 realm, however, can be very deceiving, and it's every bit of a band effort. Their best even, for the refined interplay and harmonious deliveries between the musicians is utterly brilliant, as are the album's formidable captivating results.
As before, the treacherously rippling music feels soothingly comfortable and pleasant at first, with dreamy attractive melodies gently carrying the musical tidings forward with uplifting elegance. This first impression remains, but once fully submerged in the beautifully arranged compositions, waves of meticulous play in the melancholic spectrum shape-shifts from the azure and ultramarine into the big blue and back, touching base with every related colour expression in between.
The album is divided into two sections. The first one finds six separate compositions that are then concluded by the overarching The Utopia Suite. Taking up the final four consecutive tracks, this suite narrates an ill-fated doom scenario of an inevitable intergalactic collision with catastrophic results to our beloved blue sphere.
Shaped by beautiful warm bass work and melodies kept small, the first part of this excellent suite (Time's Up Utopia) gravitates through spacious arrangements with bobbing synths. Gaining radiant momentum it converges into a lovely enchanting passage that floats on elegantly transporting synth melodies, followed by minimalistic ethereal atmospheres that subconsciously illuminates an unexplainable Klaatu sense. Emitting a warm embrace of blues kisses from Gilmour-like guitars it levitates brightly onward with exceptional Moog melodies and mild Porcupine Tree leanings that seductively glow with delicious Mellotron.
This attentive movement seamlessly segues into Intersection 8, which shines nostalgically with mid-80s Eloy and Kraftwerk electronics. Number Forty-Five adds delicate freshness to this with catchy energetically charged melodies, restrained dynamics, and a sightl touch of The Cure guitars. Finally, the magnificent Space Junk pours an immaculate, intricate impression over the suite's magical musical canvas with a peerless guitar solo that creates an unrivalled apotheosis.
This grand suite regarding humanity's hopeless views presents a superb finale to the album. The impact is rivalled in the six interconnected compositions preceding it. At least that's my take on these songs, for in my view they paint a beautiful parallel story that shares this desperate human perspective on a smaller individual scale.
Synths add psychedelic depth to opener Blue Piece Of Something In The Air, which instantly brings a chilling atmosphere that is almost palpable. Together with the lyrics and Hoffmann's calm monotonous vocals, it creates a sense of distance and bleakness. As melodies unfold, the song acquires a pleasant sort of warmth. Funky bass and upbeat poppy new-wave conversations add a joyous liveliness, but, shortly after, ending on an ominous note.
The Bird Song is played in a small and intimately melancholic fashion and feels soothingly relaxed and tranquil. Peacefully awakening into a strange kind of uplift, it shows great sensitivity and attention to detail that swim along with finer key and bass embellishments. A wonderful chirp of Gilmour-inspired guitars finally covers the music under a leaflet of bluesy dejection. The contemplative melodies of Sunrise Over The Weathered Roof Of Platania shortly lift this veil to create momentary visions of ultimate bliss and euphoria. Then they walk into an altered state of tension and darkness when Forget Me Not begins and perspectives change. It shares great bass styling underneath new-wave outings. This part gives a surprising twist to the story.
As puzzling pieces slowly melt into place, thanks to the mysteriously chilling observations cited in Blue Piece (Reprise), the treasonous Happiness finally drowns the story in deep waters of sorrow, loss, pain, and sweetness of memory. Through heartfelt vocals, emotive piano and acoustic caresses, flirting with deeply sad mourning trumpet, this dreamy composition waves a sublime tender and peaceful goodbye.
They say space is deep. Well, Starfish64's recent galaxy of thoughtful dreamy pop-progressive rock with a touch of outer space is not far behind. Especially when their work of art is enjoyed under the full immersion of headphones, as this opens up an ocean's worth of subtleties and impeccable subdued layered performances.
Combined with a crystalline transparent production and overall charming splendour of the compositions (and all of the above) this makes Scattered Pieces Of Blue for me their finest and most satisfyingly intriguing effort to date. A highly recommendable and joyously reflective experience that invites for many deep explorations.