Alpha Mountain — Alpha Mountain
Alpha Mountain is a newly formed French "supergroup", founded by Steph Honde (vocals, guitars, keyboards). His credentials include playing amongst others with Vinnie Appice (Black Sabbath, Dio), Don Airey (Deep Purple, Colloseum II), Neil Murray (Whitesnake) in the international group Hollywood Stars. He has also opened for Deep Purple, performed on stage with Paul DiAnno (Iron Maiden) and acted as a session musician for Frederíc Slama's A.O.R.. The press statement from Valli Luppi Productions, home to Enneade and Grandval doesn't end there, but suffice it to say that for those about to rock its best to read on 🤘!
Honde has enlisted the talents of Butcho Vukovic (vocals), Eric Lebailly (drums), Pascal Baron (bass) and Fred Schneider (bass on four songs). Combined these veterans of rock waste no time to boldly go where Rainbow and Ronnie James Dio tread before with the blasting opener Serenity. Brought to life by elementary hard rock riffs, strong harmonies, a tightly operating dynamic rhythm section, tasty Hammond organ expressions and a vocalist blessed with tonsils of Jorn gold this song will surely live up to expectations of those growing up with 80's inspired hard rock.
This grand opening statement furthermore ticks boxes through excellent guitar fireworks from Honde and a mildly expressed feel of melodious Moxy deliciousness. A few songs later, the mighty It's Up To You rivals this wonderful opening track with sublime grooviness and colourful instrumentation amidst proggy arrangements. It expresses an epic Dio/Black Sabbath feel and atmosphere. It's a compelling musical declaration that fits the band like a glove, and I reckon to be met by many "thrown horns" in a live setting.
Although, truth be told, the groovy melodic Glenn Hughes style bursting out of All In Vain, with equally compelling melodies and catchy choruses is an excellent alternative direction for the band if they choose to. Up to them really. It thrives on vicious guitar and interspersed with an extremely worthwhile solo from Honde to boot.
The fact that Honde has serious chops and is highly capable in writing strong, concisely structured songs, is soon clear, once the unadulterated rocker It's Tough leads into the extremely fine A Deep And Real Sad Song. This album highlight releases several Queensryche influences. Harmonic duelling vocals of Honde and Vukovic provide a Hughes/Turner-Project touch. The nicer difference being that Honde's intonation lies closer to that of James LaBrie (Dream Theater) than Joe Lynn Turner, a contrast that works out splendidly. Together with the song's beautiful grandeur build-up with piano and excelling guitar work, it also creates pleasant and satisfying memories of Course Of Fate.
The subdued and emotional resting point In Memory Trace is equally soothing. A ballad that comfortably glides onwards on a grand melody and lovingly restrained guitars. Admittedly, each of these tracks described above won't make the band win prizes for originality, but given the devoted energetic execution in which the songs rush by - who cares? I don't, and if the band had been able to maintain this high level of song-smithery and musical prowess for the rest of the album¸ it could have counted on a solid rating of 8 as far as I'm concerned. The musical path taken from Bad Days onwards, however, prevents this from happening just yet.
Which is a bit strange actually, for the song's melodic rock vibe brings out classic AOR influences reminiscent of the rough and rockier road taken by Journey and Revolution Saints, which on any given day would be a good companion to me. Almost the same can be said for the relative straightforward melodic approach of Chasing The Wind, which gets knocked out of the ballpark by a stellar solo from Honde, and the fluent uptempo rock of Don't Go Astray, where refinement in harmonies adds depth while throbbing bass keeps excellent pace.
Essentially there's nothing substantially "wrong" with these songs, far from it, but to my ears they somehow don't gel and please as convincingly as the compositions presented before. Much of this is down to the (interactive) vocal styles of Vucovic and Honde, that slowly drifts away from being a perfect match to the music. This is illustrated in the semi-ballad The Thin Red Line. Here, their harmony singing is fine in itself, but it's delivered with too much passion and emotion, which in the end makes them too overpowering and distracting for an optimal appreciation of the music. The sweet delicateness of What's Going Wrong fruitfully rights these minor shortcomings and closes the album in a most rewarding way, with delicate piano, low passionate vocals and delicious bluesy guitar work.
Concluding, for those about to prog Alpha Mountain's effort might be a too steep hill to climb, with prog-influences being fairly defeated by heavy melodic rock. However, if you fancy slaying epic melodies from the likes of Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Dio, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and Glen Hughes, that glance upon prog arrangements from time to time, this varied heavy melodic rock offering is highly recommendable and might be just the gem for you. Worth checking out and playing loud!
Nick Fletcher — The Cloud Of Unknowing
Nick Fletcher has been a professional guitarist for 41 years although for most of that time he has been immersed in the classical world with over 100 compositions and arrangements to his name. He has released over a dozen albums including a trio of releases with flautist John Hackett, brother of Steve Hackett who is fulsome with his praise for Fletcher's playing. After all but abandoning the electric guitar for 25 years Fletcher joined the John Hackett band in 2015, but it was not until 2020 that he released his first solo rock album Cycles Of Behaviour. Two years later comes the follow-up to that work, The Cloud Of Unknowing.
The album, written and arranged for a full band which features, along side Fletcher, Caroline Bonnett on keyboards, sequencers and backing vocals, Russ Wilson on drums and Bill Bruford's Earthworks Tim Harries on bass. Dave Bainbridge (Iona, The Strawbs and many others!) adds keyboards on three tracks and Stuart Barbour provides vocals on the two non-instrumental tracks. From the opening of Out Of The Maelstrom the tone is set for the album, superlative fusion along the lines of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, although with less focus on overt jazz musings and a more progressive edge to proceedings. There is no questioning the abilities of Fletcher as a superlative guitarist, he has the chops, speed and dexterity of a virtuoso (think more Alan Holdsworth and Al Di Meola than John Petucci or Steve Vai) as well as compositional skills that can create such wonders as the delightful The Eyes Of Persephone which also features a wonderfully balanced piano interlude from Bainbridge.
The Scenes From The Subconscious Mind Suite really kicks off with Pandemonium as We Need To Leave This Place..Right Now! is simply a scene setter. Pandemonium is a relentless assault on the senses with guitar lines flying all over the place and an insistent riff that just won't be silenced, I think you'd need about half a dozen guitarists to replicate all the intricacies of this piece on stage, if Fletcher was every bold enough to try it.
The three part The Cloud Of Unknowing starts with a tolling bell followed by ominous keyboards, stray guitar chords, tinkly percussion, bass bombs and an almost subliminal intonation of the opening verse of the 6th/7th century Gregorian Chant Da Pacem Domine (Give Us Peace, Lord) that for some reason has omitted the second line Quia non est alius ('For there is none other'). The second part of the track features the first appearance of vocalist Barbour who is well mixed into the track and doesn't dominate proceedings.
Although not a performance that grabs attention it is entirely in keeping with the tone and style of the track, and indeed the album, making the guitar solo that breaks up the two vocal passages shine even more brightly. The third and final part quiets things down, reducing the tempo and introducing a more mysterious air leading to a gentle conclusion.
Awakening The Hydra is, initially, a soundscape to change the tone and leads into an acoustic guitar section that once again sets a somewhat ominous tone before a deft switch to electric guitar signifies Awakening The Hydra. This piece initially eschews any fusion references and is a straight forward display of rock guitar at its finest, the only distraction coming from a drum/sequencer section that breaks up the action and sounds rather awkward to my ears, even superfluous to the piece as I think it interrupts the flow.
Breaking away from the 23-minute suite we have Arcadia, a lovely acoustic guitar number subtly enhanced by background synthesisers. Final track The Paradox kicks off with the second vocal performance from Barbour, something I did rather struggle with as it is not the most dynamic performance, sounding rather flat at times. In contrast, Bonnett's more ethereal backing vocals are a delight and Bainbridge makes his presence felt with a snappy synth solo midway through the first part. Fletcher reclaims the piece for himself with some lovely guitar which really locks into place with Harries' bass. The second part of the track, and finale to the album, returns to acoustic guitar and brings things to a restive, more sedate close that is in complete contrast to the frantic opening of Out Of The Maelstrom.
Listening to The Cloud Of Unknowing one really feels as having been taken on a journey. Fletcher's playing throughout is wonderful, it is no wonder that Steve Hackett himself considers Fletcher to be "the best jazz rock guitarist in the country". Listen to this album, and I dare you to disagree.
Quicksilver Night — Asymptote
Prog-sprinkled, guitar-driven instrumental rock lovers that are still convinced thirteen is an unlucky number have probably not bathed in Quicksilver Night's Asymptote's luxury freshness, as this record washes this assumption away completely. To be on the safe side, expanding my and everyone else's luck with four bonus tracks from Quicksilver Night's previous Mr. Wizard and No Contest EPs, it totals seventeen very enjoyable, broadly varied and masterly executed compositions.
Mastermind behind Quicksilver Night is composer/guitarist Warren "Chip" Russell. Residing in Yorktown, Virginia he mentions his influences to include Eddie van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen and others. This is a fair indication as to what to expect in terms of phenomenal guitar extravaganza on this album. This is an obvious assumption, but I reckon this is where Russel got his nickname come from as he's a chip of the old block in light of these influences.
The excellent flowing melodies in dynamic opener The Chase shows this instantly, fusing tight well-sequenced open structures and a lot of notes, chords, energetic melodies and excellent shredding techniques into a song that amongst others instigates images of Xavier Boscher, Joe Satriano and Michael Héroux. It answers whether Chip can play and compose rather brilliantly.
The individual songs all feature a different guesting/collaborating role, many of which leave their distinct mark behind in the compositions. In order not to drown in name-dropping here I'll gladly refer to Quicksilver Night's Bandcamp page to see who joins him on which song. These joint ventures result in a fine array of different moods, musical variety and splendid instrumental conversations. On the pacey Dream Sequence Gunmen's it creates a solid basis for Chip to battle it out with Nazim Chambi in a Steve Morse reminiscent melodic way, while the more synth accessorized heavy metallic approach of Emelya Durák adds a contemplative 80's feel to the plate.
Feet off the throttle on Stare Con Te adds delightful restrained jazzy atmospheres and alternates carefully designed reflective passages with sparkling firework soloing. The brief classical interlude in form of Black Liszt brings a moment of relieve from all this instrumental spectacle after which the slightly darker daunting atmosphere of Continuity returns the strong melodies and raptures of Van Halen. Followed by the solid machinery of the equally tasty and colourful Hephaestus The Cuckold Chip has no shortness of ideas and inspiration, and keeps the album firmly driven onward with ease, diversification and the bringing of symphonic elements.
Right at the very moment my attention span is about to drift off, Chip Russell reels me right back in when the album reaches its proggy peak with the breezy folk brushes of Interlude that slip into the majestic erected symphonies of Drachenlied. Embellished with shards of Brian May and high soaring speedy impressions of Malmsteen, changing pace and speed over and over, this is another highlight that emphasizes Chip's compositional strength and talent as a guitarist.
The subsequent emotional delivery that glows with melancholy and blues in Trompe L'Coeur marks another triumph. Especially in the way its smooth melodies supply calm serenity in its bridge and subtle embraces of flute and piano that gently caress the warm melodies. The melodic journey of The Galactic Edge, which contains spoken parts of the Book of Genesis as read by astronaut Bill Anders on his moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, finally brings a confident soothing closure to the album.
Russell's multi-skilled talent as composer and guitarist is underlined once more by the diversity shown in the included bonus tracks. Where Mr. Wizard has a lighter approach with beautiful stylish play and grooviness of funk, Power Curve throws a tasty slice of Texas sleaze with ZZ Top vapours, and Lark finally settles the score with a winner of jazzy elegance that thrives on swift guitars, sultry saxophone seductions and a delicious sophisticated Solution-like smoothness.
This last song offers a fine ending to a continuously entertaining and diverse album, although admittedly I'd like to have had some sort of vocal contributions to keep me focussed for the full duration of the album. If, however, you're a fan of instrumental guitar driven (progressive) rock/metal that includes great flowing melodies, exceptional performances and influences from the various string masters mentioned within this review this shouldn't pose a problem and your rating might go through the roof. Frankly, for those fans Asymptote is a straight forward recommendation that will supply many hours of luxurious guitar enjoyment.
Marko Smiljanić — Things People Say
First impressions are, of course, not always correct and do not always fully reveal whether something is going to appeal. I experienced several reactions whilst listening to Things People Say. These ranged from its ok, I like some of it, to indifference as I initially struggled to connect with the music. However, after playing it regularly, I found myself appreciating a few things about it.
In hindsight, the recurring use of spoken word and news soundbites during Things People Say were a real barrier to my connection to and overall enjoyment of it.
The sleeve notes that accompany the album indicate that spoken voices are an important part of the concept of Things People Say. They state "The voices of world-renowned musicians, philosophers and thinkers resonate throughout the album, giving it an additional dimension that accompanies the music".
Sadly, I was not able to discern or appreciate the "additional dimension" and repeated plays only emphasised how quickly, these sorts of spoken effects can become a tedious experience and frustrating distraction for a listener. Nevertheless, I persevered and steeled myself to focus on what lay beyond the recited words. Once I shut the soundbites out, my relationship with the album vastly improved.
I discovered that Things People Say contains many beautiful passages. It possesses an accessible charm that is warm and welcoming. On occasions though, that warmth is cooled and diminished by a feeling that it is all a tad too predictable. Acoustic instruments are used to good effect, consequently the album often has a mellow and organic feel.
This is largely due to the finely crafted tones of Marko Smiljanić classical nylon stringed guitar. This instrument has traditionally been utilised in a solo setting, so its use as an integral component within this ensemble creates an interesting and sometimes mesmerising effect. The clearly defined resonance of the nylon strings frequently provides a range of plucked sounds, that flickers brightly and tightly with understated intensity in the ensemble's overall palette of sounds.
A quick glance through the credit list of the album indicates that the ensemble is made up of Marko Smiljanić- guitar, Mitja Jersić - accordion, rhodes and synths, Jean Markić - hammond, and rhodes, Janez Moder- bass, llj Pusnik - bass and double bass, Tilen Zakrajsek- drums, Damen Gracej- Trumpet and Rok Koritnak -Bansuri.
Janez Moder might be familiar to readers as one of the principal players in Moonlight Sky whose satisfying The Four release was reviewed by DPRP in 2016. Throughout Things People Say, the low-end tones of Moder have a significant role to play. His bass offers a firm foundation, it drizzles deeply in tunes such as, For The Love Of God and Tell Us About The Lobster.
Things People Say contains an enticing cocktail of cafe rhythms, cinematic sequences, proggy interludes and enticingly mellow aspects of fusion. The prominent use of an accordion in several compositions emphasises the album's Balkan roots and affable qualities.
The album is characterised by some excellent interplay. The upbeat Me, Myself And I is a good example of this and despite the distraction of a spoken element it simply flows by. The other tunes are also played with great collective skill, enthusiasm, and panache. They contain accessible elements, but there is usually space for the players to express themselves, against the backdrop of a close-knit and vibrant rhythm section. Technically exceptional playing is combined within structured arrangements that occasionally enable interesting embellishments to take place.
Unfortunately, Are We There Yet is laced with announcements taken from a space mission control. Thankfully, the rest of the tune is able to lift off, although some DPRP readers might find its reassuringly familiar, albeit somewhat bland fusion elements a little too predictable and easy on the ear. Overall, I found tunes such as Is That All There Is rather too ordinary for my own tastes.
Goodbye Cruel World on the other hand, was much more interesting. It contains a wider variety of moods. The guitar and accordion are set against inventive rhythms and the whole piece is skilfully executed.
My favourite piece is probably I Don`t Like Jazz. As it begins, it is drenched in imaginative guitar embellishments that offer a nylon induced vision of a moonlight lakes and the gentle fluttering fall of autumn leaves. After an obligatory spoken word section, the piece transforms and exhibits a hint of power and a tint of malevolence. These contrast well with the earlier elements of the tune.
The album is very well produced. All instruments are clearly defined and the music sounds warm and inviting.
Overall, Things People Say contains some pleasing melodic instrumental music that is thoroughly well played and produced. This is an enjoyable album and would be a welcome addition for anybody, who wishes to be washed and splashed in the gentle waves and squally showers of a classical nylon guitar, or longs to be serenaded by the earthy sound of an accordion.
Watch out for the soundbites though!