Aurora Clara — Clear Dawn
Low lights, spinning spotlights. A pungent organic aroma mists and cloys the air. The crowd moves as one, heads raised in excited appreciation and arms raised in reverence. The show had begun!
Memories of that fantastic evening in the company of John Mclaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra have all but washed away in the ebbing waves of my tidal past.
However, listening to the opening composition and title track of Aurora Clara's excellent Clear Dawn a crested flurry of recollections from that night came flooding back. For a moment, a vivid technicolour image replaced the damp distant canvas of grey-faded memories.
Aurora Clara wear their influences proudly on their sleeve. Clear Dawn is the Madrid-based band's second album and from the moment the album begins it is apparent that the Mahavishnu Orchestra have an identifiable influence on their style and sound. However, the album contains a healthy dose of other influences to give Aurora Clara their own identifiable voice. Gritty, insistent rock rhythms and bluesy passages coalesce with energetic guitar solos and fast paced fusion. Shifting rhythms and tempos, and jazz-flute interludes add another set of colours.
The band is made up of Raul Mannola (guitars), Juan Carlos Aracil (flute), Denis Bilanin (keyboards), Jorge Barrero (electric bass), Marco Anderson (drums), Boris Momtchilov(drums on Blues For RT and I Know What You Mean) and Zeke Olmo (congas on Slo Fun and I Know What You Mean).
This stylistic connection is enhanced by the inclusion of Jerry Goodman on electric violin on the title track. It is a wonderful statement of intent and it is so close stylistically to the work of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that it could easily be a recently-discovered track from that band(s lost trident sessions. In the rest of the album the type of role that the violin took in Mahavishnu's work is undertaken by the flute.
Throughout the album the flute embellishments and interjections of Aracil are superbly crafted. His tone is clear and precise, owing more to the floating style of Herbie Mann than the inventive, breathless, guttural, overblown style of Jeremy Steig. His light touch and undoubted importance to the band's overall sound is clearly apparent in the impressive and inventive interplay that is such an integral part of the success of Slo Fun. Its undoubtedly one of my favourite tracks on the album and includes a beautifully formed and particularly buoyant bass solo.
Araci's clear tone and often pacey, melodic style is a perfect foil for the flamboyant and often fiery guitar runs of Mannola. The flute and guitar often work in harmony. This is seen to good effect in the ensemble passages of Bicycling To Funkistan. This track channels the type of approach that Return To Forever were associated with in their No Mystery release. Barrero's bass work is outstanding. The flamboyant flute trills guarantee that the music has a magnificently-flowing high-end.
The high-quality, silver tube tooting also ensures that the band is furnished with their own unique voice, albeit one that frequently shows the band's deference to the style of other bands.
Consequently, there is much to admire and appreciate about this release. It has seldom left my player since I first heard it. For example, The Old Ones begins with deep-toned introduction straight out of Weather Report's rule book, before morphing into a recurring guitar-led melody in which the flute and guitar act in perfect harmony. This interaction establishes a great framework for the other performers to inventively create the sort of music I never tire of.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Clear Dawn is the remarkable interaction between all members of the group. It is littered with thrilling interludes where instruments solo, then joust and jostle with each other to generate a bubbling cauldron of energy that spits and fizzes in a frenzied application of unrestrained creativity.
There is a remarkable synth solo in_ I Know What I Mean_ that compliments the chunky bass-line to add a limb-shifting effect to the piece. Call-and-response passages abound. The exciting conversation between the bass and guitar in_ Bicycling to Funkistan_ raises every hair, and draws a crooked smile. Similarly, the thrilling flag waving of the guitar and organ in the superb Seis Cafés induced face-gurns and foot-stomps that inadvertently took control of my senses.
However, special mention must be made to the outstanding contribution that guitarist Mannola makes to Clear Dawn. His explosive guitar sound and wide range of tones and frequencies are nothing short of stunning. He is an expressive player, who possesses both the speed of John Mclaughlin and the emotive pull of Allan Holdsworth. The acoustic introduction with harmonic flavourings in Blues For RT, is genuinely beautiful. Later in the piece, a grumbling guitar tone with a resonance like one that Dusan Jevtovic occasionally employs, fashions the piece with an earthy, primeval appeal.
Overall, Clear Dawn is probably one of the best jazz-rock fusion albums I have heard in years. It is an outstanding example of this style of music, and I simply adore everything about it.
Fractal Sextet — Fractal Sextet
Lockdowns and restrictions put paid to Stephan Thelen's dream of making his on-line Fractal Guitar project a band entity. So he has recruited some of the finest players to flesh out these five new compositions, with all the players contributing to the arrangements. It is unfortunate that this remains a file-sharing venture. The mouth waters at the thought of this music being played in a live context by the six musicians involved.
On his Bandcamp page for the first release in the series, Thelen described fractal guitar as "a rhythmic delay with a very high feedback level that creates cascading delay patterns in odd time signatures such as 3/8, 5/8 or 7/8". I feel on this new release he has made less use of that technique and to my ears he seems to be making more use of the E-bow with his sustained guitar lines.
He is joined on Fractal Sextet by previous collaborators Jon Durant (fretted, fretless and cloud guitars), Andi Pupato (percussion) and Fabio Anile (piano, electric piano, synth and sampled instruments). New to the set-up are Yogev Gabay (drums) and Colin Edwin (bass guitar).
It could be argued by the more casual listener that there is nothing new here, that it is a continuation of the previous releases. Now I acknowledge that there is nothing radically new here, but it builds on the foundations of the trilogy with a different feel, due to the additional musicians used and their input into the arrangements. To put it simply, there is more funk, and this is down to Colin Edwin's bass (this funk is what's missing from the newest Porcupine Tree release in my opinion) and Yogev Gabay (drums).
Other things remain the same, but in a new context. The spellbinding guitar soundscapes are here but they have even more focus and less ambience. The nimble melodicism remains, as does the superlative, detailed layering of the music. There are more variations in timbre this time out. Add to this the flowing, interlocking rhythmic arrangements created by Andi Pupato and Yogev Gabay, and you have a winner.
But wait they aren't finished, there's more. In comparison to the previous releases in the Fractal series this one gives more attention to the keyboards. Especially Fabio Anile's piano work, both electric and acoustic, bringing extra depth overall as well as a range of embellishments. Even though circumstances prevented the musicians getting together, Fractal Sextet sounds like a band in the studio.
This is a triumph. If you are interested in what musicians can do when inspired but resolutely refuse to go down the obvious show-boating path, then have a listen to this.
PS: There's an extra track on the digital release which isn't on the CD that I have reviewed here, so I'm off to have a listen to that now.
The Tirith — Return Of The Lydia
Three years ago, The Tirith released their sophomore effort, A Leap In The Dark. An excellent album that fulfilled various expectations and delivered on several levels, as described in my colleague Stefan Hennig's review. Considering their explorations in bombastic Pallas and guitar-led Rush territories, next to their indulgent neo-prog approach, it didn't take me long to select their third album Return Of The Lydia for a review.
As the album travelled its epic four-week adventurous voyage across the channel (thanks to the less-than-competent arrangements of Brexit), my anticipation started to grow; When it finally reached the safe haven of my stereo, I fear the album's long journey might have raised my hopes too high, for overall The Return Of the Lydia doesn't meet my expectations.
That said I do emphasise that I'm confidently enjoying and pleasantly hovering within the album's musical environment, for it has excellent production values and strong individual and competently-delivered performances. It is especially enjoyable when guitarist Tim Cox performs his outstanding signature solos and creates several highly memorable moments that resonate with impressions of Alex Lifeson (Rush). I also enjoy the melodies, the musical narrations and other ideas that give shape to these new songs. What keeps it from lifting-off is the overall feel of mellowness and inclusion of over-extended compositions.
First let me start by stating that fans of long, drawn-out prog songs can look out to a good to great album, with five out of seven songs clocking in around the 10+ minute mark. A length that usually suits me, for this usually means adventurous twists, a variety of moods and entertaining instrumental passages.
The album opener Return Of The Lydia for example, which expands upon the stories found on their debut, Tales Of The Tower, provides this in spades.
It opens in atmospheres mindful to Pendragon's early years, On permanent waves of beautiful floating guitars, it drives onwards towards a rousing passage filled with an excitement of Rush-inspired melodies. This is superb. It might not have the same gripping impact as A Leap Into The Dark's majestic opening song, but it surely is a very confident start. It gives the impression that the band, of Cox, Paul Williams (drums/percussion), and Richard Cory (vocals, bass, acoustic guitar and keyboards), know how to write an epic song which is a varied and exciting.
Graced with expertly designed symphonic bombast that recalls Pallas during their The Cross And The Crucible era, Dying To Live changes this insight. In the first half, the melodies remain fairly the same, although varying in degrees of intensity, and it takes a long time for the song to gain momentum. When it finally does, this proves to be very effective as it propels the song into exciting guitar work and superb melodies flown in from empires built by Rush and Trilogy. Moments later though it returns to a lengthy repetition of motifs. This begins to form the impression that the band seem to have lost their power to round-off compositions concisely within a certain time-frame.
This vision strengthens in My People which shows a similar build-up principle and glides on in uplifting atmospheres and refined acoustic instrumentation. Revealing elegant textures and engaging melodies for the first half of the song, navigated into a superb momentum again by a lush melancholic solo, it likewise drifts onwards again in previously-encountered melodies. A final offer of attractive bright piano makes for a nice diversion, but these loveable extensions only result in over-stretching the song.
The lengthy Crystalwell, a cautionary folk tale, puts this impression to an endurance test. Its sparkling entrance of gracious guitar and intensifying melodies pick up pace and float into classic rock with a hint of Blue Oyster Cult, but as before it takes considerable time before an actual highlight is formed. The wonderful solo around the eight-minute mark is a highlight and should have ended the song. But, you've guessed it, the band runs dry in ways of ending the song and work their way through revisited passages with a final fade out. All things considered, I reckon this song would gain a lot in shortened form.
What these three songs also have in common, is a certain absence of oomph and pace. The doom-laced, diesel-engined hard-rock style of Go The Drifter firmly captures the vigour, which is great, but as a side effect, the song's slow motion causes Cory's generally-appreciable vocals to fail. The Uncertainty Principle would also fair better from a peppery injection, to accelerate it into a faster gear.
Finally, it's the closing epic The Meeting Of Ways that meets this aspect somewhere halfway with acoustic refinement, an elegance of classic rock and some fine synth work that rolls-by gently in a contented manner. When all is said and done after the magical Yes-inspired Starship Trooper-like ending I can't help but wonder why on earth they decide to return (again!) to melodic embroidering and a fade out. Like in Crystalwell, these elongations add nothing, other than repetition and length.
All things considered this album presents itself as a mixed bag to me. There's a clear chemistry between the members and the musicianship is in fine working order. Unfortunately, the majority of the music falls victim to tameness and reiteration. This issue seriously harms the album's outcome. I do hope the band, like they've shown on previous occasions, will slay this problem short on future releases. Not every shot fired is a winner I'm afraid.
This criticism aside, fans of epic neo-prog storytelling should not hold back from checking the album out, for Return Of The Lydia manages to bring plenty of excellent moments to feast upon.
Various — Secrete Session Dur Et Doux
The reasoning behind Secrete Session Dur Et Doux is to take a bunch of musicians and put them in a studio for three days. For two hours they mingle, to create and record original songs. These musicians from bands such as Piol and Ni as well as others, are associated with the Lyon-based label Dur Et Doux.
Now, after lockdowns, social distancing and enforced home-recording it would, I imagine, be a blessed relief to get together with like-minded musicians to create work under the gun of a limited time-frame. This sounds like it would have been fun to make. Unfortunately, this does not translate to the listening experience. The short recording window leads to most of the songs here being just sketchy improvisations.
The 14 tracks on Secrete Session Dur Et Doux are of variable quality, so let's start with the five good. With a breathing pattern used to set up the rhythm, joined by a squelchy bass-line Tapo turns into a well-structured, melodic song. Pomme is fusion-like instrumental with nice electric piano and bass interplay. Its stuttering percussion keeps it from being too conventional. A cello pulse guides the song Mange Route, and the bassoon and violin give it a Robert Wyatt feel. Then there are two folk tunes: the bluesy Aussi Lourd Que Les Fers that builds into jazz-inflected post-rock, and the folk dance of Le Dromadaire En Chocolat. Both have great melodies, fleshed-out with acoustic guitar and violin. These would have made a decent EP.
The rest of the tracks suffer from the problem that the musicians are too respectful of each other for one or more to take a lead in giving the improvisations any structure. The prime example of this is the thirteen-minute honk-fest of Jull. Instruments play seemingly-random short phrases unconnected with one another, and no one takes an idea and thinks let's run with that. It's a mess and one I'll never listen to again.
Similarly poor is the grinding Harissa Lexomil that descends into unlistenable Rock In Opposition free-jazz. On the other end of the spectrum is the patience-testing Icaria and its whispery keyboard washes. When it discovers some structure towards the end, it improves greatly. A bit of a wasted chance.
The most oddball piece here is the late 1950s, early 1960s rock 'n' roll and soul-channelling medley of Le Pote De Vanessa. Amusing, melodic and knowingly-weird-pop, it's like a very strange B52s as moves through three songs. It has bags of energy and sounds like nothing else on this collection.
All in all, this is not a collection to which I will ever return. I find it difficult to imagine who the audience for this mess would be. Approach with caution.