It's Prog-Tober! 31+ albums and reviews in 31 days!
Head Spin — Escape Velocity
"Head Spin is the instrumental psychedelic project of UK musician Andy Scoffin. Trippy grooves, soaring guitar solos and spacey soundscapes, combine with elements of funk, prog, electronica and other genres."
When reading that I was a little intrigued. I love psychedelic rock and I know the (sub) genre is broad, but mentioning funk is the part that intrigued me. That style usually keeps me from getting into an album, but I forgot about the term and was never reminded of it when listening, so that was good!
What the music did remind me of was a lot of Steve Hillage, Ozric Tentacles and Ed Wynne. Andy Scoffin knows how to handle the guitar for this type of music. The ambient sections with the synth swirls and sounds and noises are almost stereotypical. But there are many sections that are breaking out of the soundscapes through synth melodies and solos or guitar soloing.
The latter is much preferred by my ears and musical taste, which has a problem at maintaining focus on the longer Ozrics compositions or albums. It means that this album as a whole will appeal to people who love to listen to more ambient psych, as well as people who prefer a bit more rock.
The compositions are diverse. Most tracks have some recurring melodies, so you can actually recognise them, which is not always the case on a fully-instrumental album. To these ears that are used to listening to the heavy side of psych-rock, this is on the more ambient and mellower side. But with every guitar solo, I do get more excited again.
I do feel the downside of a one-man-band is showing here, and in this case it is the lack of more lively drums. The percussion is a bit too static and in a limited sound range. But the multi-layered aural exploration offers a lot of distraction from that, which gives another opportunity to mention the guitar solos that come in a large variety of sounds and effects. The production is clear and very well done, especially in a style where a lot of albums turn out having a bit of a muddy mix.
Imagine starting an evening with album of intense, happy, trippy psychedelic pop/rock like Tyler Kamen to start the evening, followed by Nektar's first album to get serious, and The Doors to get really sucked into it. Heavy psychedelic post-metal like Yuri Gagarin is to get the evening going and the energy flowing, with a Hillage or Gong album for a good trip. And when you plan to take an Ozrics to cool down at the end, this is the album you listen to before Ozrics.
Mike Ian — The Learning Tree
As a reviewer, sometimes you find yourself in front of an album where you know how it is gonna sound. Maybe that's because you already have some previous ones from that artist or because the band is well known. Sometimes you haven't listened to any music from that artist and you discover great albums (and sometimes not). With Mike Ian's latest opus, I knew nothing about this prolific multi-instrumentalist from New Jersey/Philadelphia, but after hearing the first seconds of A Pirates Dream, I knew I was going to like this concept album.
This project has been developed for many years but Mike didn't find the right lyrics that would match the music. So it didn't see the light of day until Mike found lyricist Troy Raleigh. Troy added poetic and explorative lyrics that "take the listener on a spiritual journey of reflection, inspiration, exploration, salvation and love". I can confirm the lyrics are great, as is the overall CD package. It includes very beautiful artwork designed by Mike's daughter, Ivy. I must say it fits perfectly with the music and the overall ambience of this album.
Let's now focus on the music because Mike is doing everything here. I have to say he has done a really great job because all the instruments are perfectly played. No surprises, since he's a multi-instrumentalist that began playing drums, and graduated with a Bachelor's in Music. He also produces and records his own music. After listening to this album, you will agree with me in saying that he's very good at those tasks.
From the very first notes of the very first song you will hear all these good things. A Pirate's Dream is the perfect introduction to the album, having an acoustic feeling with great orchestration and very nice vocals. These elements appear again in the second song Happily Ever After and are a constant throughout the album.
Saved and Next Stop Anywhere are hard-rocking tunes. Letter to Home is more balladic. Something More, Nothing Less works in more of a mainstream rock format, whilst Cast In Stone features some nice classic prog elements. Overall, a quality collection of modern melodic prog that leans towards hard rock and AOR.
I love that combination but precisely because of that I do have a few complaints. All the songs sound a bit too similar. Don't get me wrong, I really like the songs but I'd prefer having more variety, as in Letter To Home, in which Mike's vocals go a bit higher. Mike has a great clean voice, very melodic, but I'd like to see some variation in range; not so linear.
Mike, if you read this just add these two wishes and I will add two more points to my score because this could be a perfect album. Let's see what you are cooking for the next one!
Janel Leppin — Ensemble Volcanic Ash
How do you feel about jazz? I've come to like quite a lot of it over the past couple of years, moving from my long-time-liking for jazz fusion, into the 1950s, early 1960s jazz sounds. So, it was with some interest that I decided to have a listen to Janel Leppin's Ensemble Volcanic Ash. Now I will admit to being a bit of a jazz lightweight, so some the pieces on this album left me baffled, while others delighted me.
Janel Leppin is a cellist and composer whose works encompass jazz and contemporary classical music with a dose of Rock In Opposition style challenge. She writes for a group that includes harp, saxophones and guitar, with the sound being mainly led by her cello.
The album opens with the short but cinematic contemporary classical piece, Children Of The Water, that could be from the pen of Max Richter. Things then get jazzier on Woven Forest. Leppin's soulful cello sets up a loping groove picked up by Luke Stewart's bass and Larry Ferguson's drums. Adding in Sarah Hughes' alto sax gives the harmonies a Thelonius Monk feel. Then halfway it changes into abrasive jazz fusion that makes it seem like two different songs.
These two tracks sort of set the tone for the remainder of the album, although there are a couple of outliers. In the classical sphere you get the gentle guitar and cello duet of Her Hand Is His Score and the Michael Nyman-like minimalism of Silvia's Path, and the wonderful build-and-release of I Pose.
On the jazz side there is the terrific three-part Volcano Song, bookended by two gentle sections of saxes and harp, with the central and longest section all smoky, and slowly-developing its own A Night In Tunsia vibe. Here Brian Settles' tenor takes the lead.
Kim Sator's harp plays a tribute to Alice Coltrane, in concert with Leppin's cello, on the spiritual A Palace For Alice. Brushed drums support bass, cello and alto on the quite lovely Leaving The Woods, which also has a controlled-but-brilliant cello solo. This is great stuff.
My bafflement arises with the skronky free-jazz that for me spoils the potentially great Clarity. Avant-noise really isn't my thing. I have the same problem with She Had Synesthesia, where the opening cello riff gets blasted away by squealing guitar on the edge of uncontrolled feedback, and a disregard for melody.
There are things well worth listening to on Janel Leppin's Ensemble Volcanic Ash. The classical and jazz pieces I will return to for further listens. Give it a go, if jazz and contemporary classical interest you.
Roger Universe — Earth Express
Roger Universe is the alias of Ulrich Mühl, a German artist who grew up with electronic music in the early 80s. In those years he programmed and composed his first compositions on home computers like the Commodore 64 (C64) and Amiga (remember those?). Initially he started a career as a journalist/editor within the world of computer games, before he ultimately began his own studio, specialising in voice recordings for games. That occupied him right up to the mid 2010s when he picked up where he left off long ago and focussed on compositions, now equipped with the most recent technologies available.
Gradually shaping and perfecting his debut album, a dramatic turn of events in November 2021 spiralled matters into warp-speed when Mühl was diagnosed with a severe brain tumour. Before his untimely death in January 2022, he contacted his long-time friend Gerald Arend (Klangwelt) with the request to help finalise his recordings, which he generously agreed to do, helping to mix and co-produce the album.
With mastering done by Udo Weisner (Bonsche) Earth Express was posthumously released in August 2022 on Lambert Ringlage's Spheric Music label, home to EM composers like Robert Schroeder and Bertrand Loreau. Their combined efforts, together with Mühl's musical aspirations, has yielded an excellent album that's full of energetic life and sounds as fresh as a daisy. It has all been enhanced by warm and crystalline production values.
This divine, colourful clarity conveys the various sceneries and atmospheres within the seamlessly intertwining compositions, and ultimately creates one continuous hour-long cosmic journey to rival the nebula phenomena recently captured by the Webb-telescope. Under full headphone immersion this becomes an even greater joy as further multitudes of melodies are revealed, embedded within the inner dimensions of the compositions.
The droning, animated entrance of Arrival travelling through spatial atmospheres into the breezy futuristic electronics of Awakening is an excellent start to Mühl's captivating narrative. The latter pulsates with a delightful elegance reminiscent to Jean-Michel Jarre's pioneering work, a presence draped lovingly like a ribbon of musical affection over the music.
This enticing atmosphere creates a multi-verse of memorable movements. In Electrogravity it lifts off into melody-laden synth-pop environments mindful to Didier Marouani flying over sequencing waves of Jan Hammer. This energetic song is a wonderful example of the richly decorated layers found twinkling underneath every song's surface, a facet masterly explored in the magical Far Away. Here ethereal choirs elevate the melodies, whereafter feelings of tranquillity and peacefulness, surrounded by a fauna of bird song, cosmic flares and a galactic whirlpool of fireworks, brings cinematic scope.
Carried by cosmic winds and twinkling symphonies, Marina Trench brings fountains of dreamy beauty. Mindful to the album's splendid artwork, its elegant nature finalises in a slight dusk and stormy atmosphere, after which these dark clouds fade into Under Ground Over Unity's bristling nightlife. The continuously captivating and lusciously decorated Sacrifice adds slightly menacing and darker shades, which together with the impending bombast in the first half of the song is a fine showcase towards Mühl's partiality to games.
This gamely feasibility is on a constant breakout in the opening segment of Infinite Potential with bouncy pings oscillating flamboyantly in a kaleidoscopic musical spectrum. A platform of colourful positronics, various uptempo beats and refined piano-play finally creates a sparkling current of ravishing beauty. Infinite Potential is a shining highlight on the album.
Similar vision, without the gaming resonance, is maintained in the album's penultimate station Memoirs Of Future Past, which delightfully revisits the Jarre-realm and travels gracefully past oceans of galactic calmness and reflective, twittering serenity. The epic Epilogue: Far In then finally escapes gravitational pull and drifts off into the vast unknown, as projections of Earth's gracious sphere slowly disappear out of view.
Unfortunately Mühl's sole musical legacy, this is a beautifully-crafted and genuinely-inspirational musical adventure that is amongst the finest of electronic albums I've ever had the pleasure of encountering. Or in other words: if you're a fan of electronic music and count Jarre, Vangelis, Kitaro, Marouani, and Eternity amongst your favourites, then hop aboard Ulrich's Earth Express. You won't regret it.