Album Reviews

Issue 2022-090

It's Prog-Tober! 31+ albums and reviews in 31 days!

Atte Aho — Atte Aho

Atte Aho - Atte Aho
Labyrinth (4:59), Ulan Bator (5:56), Wave (7:08), Atomic Man (7:19), Guidance (7:35), Elastic Energy (5:53), Bangkok Nights (4:49), Firecracker (6:23)
Owen Davies

If guitar led jazz rock or fusion quickens your pulse and fires your spirit, then you will find lots to enjoy in the debut self-titled album by Atte Aho.

It is a release that stokes the fire with a succession of slowly evolving and carefully constructed solos. These are contrasted with faster paced tunes that contain a plethora of quick fingered solos that threaten to ignite the fret board. However, the soloing is not excessive and indulgent for its own sake. When the guitar burns brightly and it frequently does, it is as part of a carefully thought-out structure within a composition.

Whilst several tunes are slow paced, allowing different moods and tempos to be explored, as in the beautiful piano led meanderings of Wave and Guidance, the emphasis created by the stylistic traits of the frequent guitar soloing is most definitely on the rockier side of fusion.

This release does not always fully utilise the shifts of rhythm, improvised sections and unusual shifts of pace that might be associated with fusion that draws more heavily upon jazz. When it does though, in tunes such as Ulan Bator, Guidance, Firecracker and Wave as the piano meanders to paint an alternative set of colours, the results are excellent.

The band comprises Atte Aho - guitar, compositions, Johannes Pakkala - drums, Kasperi Kallio - keyboards, Mikko Kuorikoski - bass.

The groups sound is augmented in various tracks by several guests. Aho has a fluid style. Bursts of fiery fret work detonate with propulsive energy and no small degree of skill. His playing is not just technically impressive, he also plays with lots of feeling and this facet is particularly demonstrated in slower tunes such as Bangkok Nights.

Although, Aho has a distinctive style, the playing of Allan Holdsworth was suggested on more than one occasion. Maybe it was something about the clear tones chosen and Aho's frequent use of legato. As a contrast, during some of the rockier moments there was something about Aho's chunky chosen tone that reminded me of Martin Barre. There were also occasions, such as during the finely picked tones of Guidance, when I recalled Jeff Beck's excellent sense of timing and feel that he displayed in his seminal Wired and Blow by Blow albums. However, despite some funky rhythmic moments in tunes like Elastic Energy, there is arguably nothing as soulful, evocative, or emotive contained on this album to compare with the material on those two classic guitar centred albums.

As the album progressed, I must admit I found my attention waning a tad. Although everything about the album sounded great; the playing is exquisite and the overall sound quality of the release is excellent, I began to yearn that it would step outside its stylistic box for a moment.

The band support Aho's skills in an excellent manner. There are several flowing keyboard embellishments and the synth solo in Elastic Energy exhibits the kind of fluidity and gurgling impact that was the hallmark of many jazz-rock bands of the seventies.

Nevertheless, much of Atte Aho is highly satisfying. I will certainly play it again. Overall it is a very impressive album, the guitar solos for example in Guidance and especially Firecracker are genuinely thrilling and superbly executed.

The Aristocrats — The Aristocrats With Primuz Chamber Orchestra

The Aristocrats - The Aristocrats With Primuz Chamber Orchestra
Culture Clash (7:00), Stupid 7 (3:52), The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde (9:35), Dance Of The Aristocrats (6:39), Through The Flower (11:26), All Said And Done (5:26), Jack's Back (7:43), Ohhhh Noooo (6:48), Last Orders (10:26)
Chris Haggstrom

Unusual albums often have unusual stories behind them. Such is the case with The Aristocrats and their collaboration with the Primuz Chamber Orchestra. The Aristocrats, for the uninitiated, are the rock fusion trio formed by guitarist Guthrie Govan, drummer Marco Minnemann, and bassist Bryan Beller. These three stellar musicians first joined together in 2011, and are well-known individually for playing with some of the most technical rock and prog groups performing today, including Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett, Asia, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Dethklok.

The story of this album began when the Aristocrats stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Primuz Chamber Orchestra, from Poland, performing The Aristocrats' tune Culture Clash, with guitar, bass, and a string orchestra arranged by Primuz's composer/arranger Wojtek Lemanski. The trio liked the inventiveness and flawless execution of the orchestral version so much that they contacted the orchestra to work together on a second track. When that experiment went well, they decided to collaborate on a full album consisting of nine tracks from their four studio albums, allowing three compositions from each member.

The recording of the album was of course made more challenging by the pandemic. The Aristocrats sent multitrack recordings and MIDI files to Primuz arranger Wojtek Lemanski, who decomposed, reimagined, added, transformed, twisted, bent, and eventually reassembled the nine studio tracks around his orchestra arrangements, with remote input from the Aristocrats. The orchestra recorded together in a single room in Poland, and the resulting combination of Aristocrats studio tracks and orchestra were then mixed by Forrester Savell, thus completing this unusual album.

All that background is intended to help explain why this album doesn't sound like any other "group with backing orchestra" project. The starting point, the Aristocrat's studio recordings, are multi-styled, light and heavy, eclectic, unpredictable, and full of improvisation and extra space. The Primuz Chamber Orchestra confidently navigates complex scores with fiery, youthful exuberance. Primuz composer/arranger Wojtek Lemanski took these raw ingredients and created pieces that are often strikingly different from the originals, adding intros and endings, composing around improvisational elements, and filling the spaces in the studio tracks so convincingly it is hard to imagine the strings not being planned in the original compositions. It's difficult to pick favorites from the album, because the songs are so varied in style and treatment, from the Albert Lee-influenced country twang of All Said And Done to the funky and modern Dance Of The Aristocrats. The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde, though, emerges as a kind of theme song for the album, with the new orchestral introduction and lush strings giving it a cinematic quality.

On the less melodic and more frantic side of the spectrum, Stupid 7 feels like a breathless Frank Zappa-inspired adventure played onboard a runaway train. Finally, the ten and a half minute Last Orders closes the album on a very high note, with a soaring oboe melody, and string pizzicatos that blend so seamlessly with Guthrie's staccato guitar picking that one can lose track of which is which.

It's unusual that an album cover makes a strong impression, but this cover does a charming twist on the classic RCA Victor logo based on the painting "His Master's Voice", with a dog tilting its head to better hear a wind-up gramophone. This being The Aristocrats, though, the familiar terrier is replaced with a pig with an enigmatic smile. It's a little bit classic and a little bit irreverent, perfectly summing up the spirit of the album.

The Aristocrats with Primuz Chamber Orchestra makes a great introduction to the rock fusion trio, which after 10+ years and four studio recordings, was due for a "greatest hits" type of collection. This album should also be mandatory study for any string arranger, since it constantly pushes the boundaries on what is typically thought to be the role of strings. Most of all, though, it's an unpredictable and exhilarating musical ride full of details that will require many re-listens to fully appreciate. The Aristocrats with Primus Chamber Orchestra will easily be on my short-list for top albums of the year.

Datadyr — Wooolgathering

Datadyr - Wooolgathering
Tier (3:15), Krystalldans (4:49), Woolgathering (3:49), Daybreaking (5:53), FastUp (4:25), Datadyr (6:35), Low Hanging Moon (3:58)
Owen Davies

I just like the way this album sounds. Woolgathering was recorded in Solslottet Studio at Bergen Kjøtt. Iver Sandøy was the engineer and producer. The recording is bright and because of its fine sonic qualities the music just comes alive.

The band is made up of Øystein Høynes – bass, Amund Nordstrøm – drums and Odd Erlend Mikkelsen – guitars. Guests Ketil Møster – saxophone and Mathias Marstrander – guitar, augment the trio.

Many of the tunes possess a grab you by the shirt quality, where the skillful performance of the musicians holds the attention. Whilst the tunes are not particularly accessible, they are not unduly challenging.

Although the music appears to be tightly composed, there are still enough spontaneous elements to appreciate. The organic and empathetic nature of much of the band's performance is one of the standout features of this release.

Listeners who enjoy instrumental guitar driven music with a colourful hint of progressive jazz will find more than enough to hold their attention. However, there are more than enough other influences that seep through, that will appeal to perhaps a larger prog audience. For example the beautifully formed guitar parts that dominate the beautiful concluding track, show an affinity with the sonic colourings and flavours of the blues.

I thoroughly enjoyed the title track which has subtle changes of tempo and is driven by a delightful yet wistful guitar led melody. Altogether it is a beautiful reflective piece of music. It satisfyingly also includes some delightful interaction between the bass and guitar.

Mikkelsen's performance is undoubtedly one of the album's strongest features with his varied and excellent choice of style and tone throughout. His sensitive ability to use a variety of styles and effects provide many of the pieces a unique identity.

Daybreaking offers a raucous contrast where free blowing wind instruments battle eagerly for ascendancy with throbbing guitars and a boisterous rhythm section. The piece develops unexpectedly to reveal some lovely bass tones that swing along to good effect. It's an impressive piece and the eye bulging cheek popping saxophone interlude that drives the piece to a climatic conclusion simply adds to that positive impression.

Fast up might be a little too free and improvised for most aficionados of prog rock to probably appreciate. However, the playing is sublime and the guitar tones featured are never less than invigorating.

Datadyr is full of menacing atmosphere and its swinging combination of bass, guitar and sax had me nodding my head, elbows, and toes in a contorted jig of delight. For some strange and probably totally erroneous reason the sound created had me reaching for comparisons with some instrumental sections that German band Out Of Focus strove to achieve many years ago.

This impressive Norwegian band, have created an excellent debut album. Woolgathering is an album that simply flies by. It is very impressive and perhaps more importantly, it is also hugely enjoyable. What's more its warm sonic quality is a bonus which ensures that every aspect of it just sounds great.

Stick Men — Tentacles

Stick Men - Tentacles
Tentacles (6:39), Ringtone (5:57), Company Of Ghosts (6:50), Danger In The Workplace (5:32), Satieday Night (4:57)
Owen Davies

Although this release has a relatively short running time, it is nevertheless a highly satisfying powerful and frequently thrilling experience. The music makes an emphatic statement where the powerful sound that the trio produce has a muscular pull that ripples the chest and quickens the pulse.

The Stick Men are Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter. Tentacles is the band's latest offering and their first since Owari was released in 2020.

The compositions are reminiscent of King Crimson and this perhaps is not surprising given that both Levin and Mastelotto are members of Robert Fripp's band and Reuter has been cited on numerous occasions that Fripp is a major influence.

Consequently, multi-layered riffs and chest thumping sections abound. These drive the music in an uncompromising manner. Danger In The Workplace is particularly dark and menacing. Discordance, power, shifting rhythmic patterns and floating melodies all have apart to play in this quite excellent piece.

The bottom end of the music has an important part to play throughout the release. Many of the tunes are supported by an insistent rhythmic framework where the propulsive drumming of Mastelotto excels. Superb detail, a range of tones, layers and timbres and a wide dynamic range; provide an intriguing mesh of woven sounds. Shifting riffs give the music great depth and the tasteful embellishments of Reuter never cease to reach out in a rewarding and often melodical manner.

Nevertheless, there were times, whilst the band's music was rattling the window frames when I wished that the power would recede a tad or that the gripping pace would slacken its clasp somewhat. Although when the band are in the throes of creating a complex captivating storm of evolving patterns within a composition, I guess that subtlety is not really what the trio's pulsating music and frequently highly charged performance is all about.

However, over the course of the release there are numerous occasions and opportunities where a change of direction occurs. For example, the last section of the title track includes a dreamy ambient section that concludes the piece in a reflective fashion. Similarly, Company Of Ghosts changes direction in its mid-section to create an ambient spacious soundscape full of ethereal qualities.

The concluding piece Satieday Night has a slower tempo and is built around Reuters haunting touch guitar tones. Consequently, it is fair to say that Tentacles has a good mix of light and shade where brashness and subtlety coexist in harmony and is not all about energy or fiery gusto.

Although Danger In The Workplace is probably the albums outstanding piece, Ringtone is also a highlight. Its mix of melody and rhythm creates a palpable feeling of tension. As it resolves and evolves it offers knuckle rapping experience and a tuneful aftertaste. In this respect there are some lovely high register touch guitar passages created by Reuter who effortlessly emulates some sustained flowing tones Robert Fripp is renowned for.

Overall, Tentacles is a very impressive release and should appeal to listeners who enjoy the complexities of progressive music and bands such as King Crimson.

Album Reviews