Fearful Symmetry — The Difficult Second
As the name suggests, The Difficult Second is the sophomore album from London-based band Fearful Symmetry. Not really a band per se, more like a solo album by Suzi James who has written the material and contributes guitars, basses, keyboards, mandolin, violin, oud and darbuka. In fact the only thing she doesn't do is play drums or sing, tasks handed over to Sharon Petrover and Yael Shotts, respectively, both of whom also played on the band's debut album 2019's Louder Than Words. Although the debut album featured lyrics by James' cousin Jeremy Shotts, this time round his only contribution was to pen some words to the closing epic Warlords.
James has stated that Yes are included in her early prog influences and that can clearly be heard on opening track Mood Swings And Roundabouts which does contain some elements that can be identified with the more famous band, although cleverly it is a mixture of the band's different eras. Although ostensibly a prog record, the album's title track leans a bit more in to fusion territory and is a rather nifty instrumental ditty that despite James' claim to be primarily a guitarist displays her mastery of numerous instruments, the bass playing in particular being pretty strong.
The instrumentals Shifting Sands and Shukraan Jazilaan display Middle Eastern influences that stem from the writer's heritage, with the latter of the two compositions displaying some delightful guitar playing. In fact for me it is the instrumental sections of the album that provide the standout selections from the album. Not that the vocal contributions of Yael Shotts are anything to really complain about, they are perfectly in tune, and she uses her somewhat limited range to good effect. However, in places they do sound rather artificial and are a bit light on dynamism and passion.
Having said that, the songs do contain memorable melodies and both Hope and Eastern Eyes are strong tunes that mingle a pop sensibility with more progressive aspects. Sandworm, however, is the standout song on the album as it has a more menacing sound making good use of different keyboards and a more rousing chorus.
So what of the 15-minute Warlords? The opening guitar-keyboard harmonising sets out the stall as a progressive composition and there are numerous twists and turns bringing in different musical styles. Third part (Warlords) is the main vocal section and contains some decent lyrics ("with their false piety, forgotten notoriety" is an excellent couplet) and is followed by the heavier Battlestorms which I think could have been beefed up a bit more. This would provide extra contrast with the concluding Aftermath could have been started out rather quieter and build to a big climax before the restrained and quite delightful finish.
All-in-all, The Difficult Second is a decent enough album with Suzi James proving to be an inventive writer who knows her way around the fretboards and keyboards of a variety of instruments. As with many studio projects it can sound rather sterile at times but that is possibly just my own perception. Certainly worth checking out and keeping the name in mind for future releases.
Kerry Livgren — Q.A.R.
A year after releasing his long-awaited cantata, Kansas' founding guitarist Kerry Livgren has returned with a more rock-oriented solo album reflecting his wide range of musical influences. Livgren handles most of the instruments, including keyboards, guitars, and drums, but there are some guest performances, most notably by Steve Morse on the opening track and Robby Steinhardt's violin on Song Du'Jour. Vocalists include former Kansas singer John Elefante, Warren Ham, Kerry's nephew Jake Livgren, Lynn Meredith (founding member of the band that would become Kansas), Susan Shewbridge, and Greg X. Volz.
Elefante's vocals are excellent throughout. His voice seems as good today as it was 30 years ago. If I were Kerry, I would have asked Elefante to sing on every track, although perhaps that would not have worked as well for the blues tracks Fire In The Boiler and Block And Tackle Blues. He certainly should have sung on Everyone's Home, which is a revisit of Kansas classic Nobody's Home. The lyrics show Livgren has found the answers to the questions he was asking in the late 70s. As Livgren's conversion to Christianity is well-known (much like Neal Morse), the lyrics should come as no surprise. This song takes a more symphonic approach compared to the original, but it's a nice change. I think the vocals from Susan Shewbridge are too choppy. Elefante's voice would have been the perfect choice. Shewbridge's interpretation takes me out of the song, while Elefante's would have made me feel at home in Kansas.
Above This Night features Jake Livgren on vocals, and musically this song sounds the freshest. The combination of simple percussion with Kerry's guitar licks and swirling background synths make this song sound distinctly different from the Kansas and blues influences. Kerry sings backing vocals, and there are some nice vocal harmonies on the song that remind me of Gentle Giant.
Elefante's and Jake's vocals are different enough that the jump from Jake on Above This Night to Elefante on Song Du'Jour on is a bit jarring, but once the song gets going that is quickly forgotten. Musically the song takes on some interesting acoustic guitar elements reminiscent of Spain or Italy. Lyrically Livgren talks about the struggles of the journey of a Christian - striving to move forward and become more like Jesus while still failing at times: "I keep slipping even as I'm climbing / I keep falling even as I rise / Reaching upward am I moving downward / All my wisdom makes me so unwise." The line "Out there it's somewhere" is classic Kansas material. It makes me wonder what the current lineup of Kansas could sound like with Kerry back behind the lyrics, as well as behind guitar.
Having read both of Kerry's books, I'm well aware of the influence blues and rock n' roll had on Livgren's musical background. That sometimes popped up in Kansas, especially on their early albums, but Steve Walsh's high tenor voice helped distance the overall sound from those influences. On Fire In The Boiler and Block And Tackle Blues the vocalists are more traditionally bluesy. The songs by themselves are fairly fun and certainly catchy, but they feel a bit out of place. As it is, the album is split between these two tracks and the others being more AOR in style. Maybe two distinct albums would have been a better choice.
The final song, When You Walk works really well as an album closer. Greg X.Volz's voice reminds me a bit of an older Steve Walsh with less of the vocal constraints. The song also reminds me of some older Christian worship ballads, minus some corniness. (I'm a Christian myself, and some of those Contemporary Christian Music lyrics really make me cringe.) The song builds slowly and gradually to a satisfying end. Livgren also has a nice guitar solo towards the end.
My overall rating for this album reflects how I feel about the record as a whole. Individually there are some good moments, but it feels very disjointed with the varying styles. It doesn't come together well as an album. I also think some of the vocal work, apart from Elefante, Jake Livgren, and Volz left me wanting more. None of the individual songs are bad, but I think they could have benefited from an outside producer, much like the way the late Robby Steinhardt employed one on his final solo album Not In Kansas Anymore - A Prog Opera released last year.
I'm happy to hear more rock-oriented music from Livgren, and I'm definitely glad he's recovered so well from his stroke in 2009. I won't say no to more music from Livgren, but perhaps an outsider could help produce his songs into more cohesive albums that will really stand out in the crowded progressive rock scene.
Nemo — Les Nouveaux Mondes
I got interested in Nemo back in 2006 when they released the album Si, Partie 1 followed by Si, Partie II - L'Homme Idéal a year later. Since then, they released some fine albums. After the extremely well received album Coma the band took a break of indefinite duration.
This new recording of their debut album is not a comeback, but a way to thank the fans and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of debut album Les Nouveaux Mondes. It is re-recorded by the best-known line-up, which started with Si, Partie 1 in 2006. Also on the debut album were Jean Pierre Louveton (guitar/lead vocals) and Guillaume Fontaine (keyboards/vocals). This new version of Les Nouveaux Mondes features Lionel B. Guichard (bass) and Jean Baptiste Itier (drums). In 2018, they released a re-recording of their second album Présages, probably to celebrate it's 15th anniversary.
The sound of Nemo can best be described as eclectic progressive rock with French lyrics. Nemo uses many styles of progressive rock, a lot of jazzy influences, neo prog but also progressive metal. I was not familiar with Nemo's original debut album Les Nouveaux Mondes when starting with this review. On Bandcamp the original recording is available, so I could compare that one with this new recording. The songs are almost completely the same, save some very small nuances. When I listened to the original, I wondered why this album has not appeared on my radar before.
The 2022 recording sounds more mature and warmer. It still grabs the joy and youth of the original recording, but it sounds more polished.
Opener Abysses is over 10 minutes long and without a dull moment. If you listen to this song then you are hooked for the remainder of the album. Some parts with nice melodies and some parts with heavy progressive metal elements, this song holds it all.
The first part of Au Dessus Des Troits is slow but the centre part is very fast. And then Danse Du Diable is a more freaky instrumental piece. Nemo alternates between a lot of styles and influences but still manages to keep it a pleasant listening experience. There is a lot going on in the songs and there is also room for lengthy parts with a lot of melody.
Longer songs like Tempête and Dans La Lune Encore again have a variety of influences and still grasps your attention for the full duration. The tunes in Au Dessus des Pyramides are my favourite on the album. Majestic orchestral piece with eastern influences, this song sounds really grande.
The last four songs combined are a piece called Philéas. Starting with a powerful rock song and then transitioning to the mellow Les Fleuves Sacrés with a lot of oriental influences. This four song piece is a gentle journey through the music of Nemo.
The physical releases (CD and 2LP) have two bonus tracks that are not included on the digital download. Africa is the original 1997 demo from which Luna was taken, rearranged and re-recorded. Battleship is an unreleased track recorded during Nemo's first concert in 2002.The information states it contains musical parts reused later, I have not yet discovered on which song on which album. But I could be finding it out because this rerecording sure brought Nemo back to my attention.
This re-recording of Les Nouveaux Mondes is a celebration of the album's 20th anniversary. Hopefully this will bring Nemo back on the radar and give them a bunch of new fans. Les Nouveaux Mondes is a very good record. It has the fresh feeling of a debut album and the quality of an experienced band.
If you like what you are hearing then you can also check the solo albums by guitar player Jean Pierre Louveton (recording as JPL).
Do you need this album if you already have the original release? Yes, it has the same songs as the original but once you hear this edition then you will never play the old one again.
Bjørn Riis — A Fleeting Glimpse
A Fleeting Glimpse is an EP by Norwegian guitar player Bjørn Riis. Bjørn is mostly known for being the guitar player for Norwegian band Airbag. It is his second release this year, with Everything To Everyone being the other.
It is no secret that Bjørn has Pink Floyd as a big influence. On Everything To Everyone a couple of songs really had that Animals vibe and on A Fleeting Glimpse that is completely what is going on. The music sounds like it is completely inspired by Pink Floyd album Animals with a small hint of Dark Side Of The Moon.
Bjørn does most of the music himself and he is joined by Arild Brøter and Øyvind Brøter from the band Pymlico. Also present on A Fleeting Glimpse are Per Øydir and for the female vocals Durga McBroom and Mimmi Tamba. Just like on many progressive rock albums the opening and closing song are a Part 1 and Part 2. On A Fleeting Glimpse these are the songs with vocals and in between are two instrumental songs.
The opener Dark Shadows (part 1) features Pink Floyd background vocalist Durga McBroom. When listening to Dark Shadows (part 1) it is certainly noticeable that she used to sing The Great Gig In The Sky. All the Pink Floyd elements are present in this song. The choice of chords, the slow gentle pace, lengthy guitar solos and short guitar fillings in the style of David Gilmour. When listening to this song, but probably the entire album, many different Pink Floyd songs pop up.
A Voyage To The Sun has more psychedelic influences. Obviously the song Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun comes boiling to the surface. A few minutes into the song it sounds like One Of These Days. Also some noticeable influences from bands like Porcupine Tree or Anathema. Summer Meadows is an instrumental song with a lot of acoustic guitar. A very gentle mellow song with at the centre a heavier part with electric guitar solos but mostly the acoustic melodies linger on in a gentle fashion.
On Dark Shadows (part 2) the Floyd resemblance continues. The start of the song has some lyrics but the main part of the song is instrumental. At the end of the song some chanting vocals are woven into the guitar solo. Nicely done but very subtle, you need a good ear to notice them.
With A Fleeting Glimpse Bjørn Riis has made an interesting release. On previous releases there were already a lot of Pink Floyd influences but A Fleeting Glimpse is like a small journey through the catalogue of Pink Floyd. Bjørn Riis captured the sound and feeling of this legendary progressive rock band. When listening to A Fleeting Glimpse you will return to your old Pink Floyd collection and afterwards you may return to this Bjørn Riis album and some may stick to the originals.
A Fleeting Glimpse is a good album though mainly for fans of Pink Floyd.
Bjørn Riis, mainman behind Norwegian proggers Airbag is obviously missing Pink Floyd, so much so that he has decided to write and record his own tribute album. The title itself is culled from Comfortably Numb, the guitar tones perfectly mimic those of Mr. Gilmour and soulful backing vocals are provided by none other that Durga McBroom who, of course, first came to prominence singing with Floyd. If that wasn't sufficient, the inspirations behind the four tracks on this EP are evident for those familiar with the catalogue of Pink Floyd.
Dark Shadows (part 1) borrows freely from elements of Dark Side Of The Moon, A Voyage To The Sun interprets Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun mixed in with Obscured By Clouds. Summer Meadows starts as an acoustic number that, despite the title, bears no relation to Grantchester Meadows and, for the most part, stays pretty clear of Fat Old Sun as well. Although it is impossible to hear it without thinking there is more than enough Gilmour in it to believe it is a poorly remembered Floyd original. And Dark Shadows (part 2) celebrates the recent and long-awaited remix of Animals with careful adaptation of elements of Sheep and other parts of that great masterpiece.
So what to make of it all? Well I would have preferred if Riis had been brutally honest and stated clearly up front that the songs on the EP were a little more than inspired by Pink Floyd originals. I am not accusing Riis of plagiarism as the whole thing is obviously a heart-felt tribute, and a bloody good one at that, but it is so blatant that I think the originators deserve some form of acknowledgement. Of course, there might be something of this nature on the physical release, but as I am working from a digital version of the EP which came without a press release I can only go on what was presented to me.
There is no doubt that Riis is a fine songwriter, and I admire these adaptations and the attention to detail that he has achieved. There are not that many guitarists that can so effectively capture the feel and tone of Gilmour. As a big Floyd fan I do find this EP rather enthralling and engaging but I somehow feel a bit awkward in doing so. My liking of the music would not have been increased if the EP had been entitled 'Bjørn Riis: Songs Inspired By The Sound Of Pink Floyd' but it would have felt a more honest appreciation of what has been achieved.
Having said that, if you love Pink Floyd, there is a very good chance you'll also love A Fleeting Glimpse.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — Tubular Bells – 50th Anniversary Celebration
1973 was a vintage year for progressive rock which saw the release of a wealth of classic albums including The Dark Side Of The Moon, Selling England By The Pound, Brain Salad Surgery, Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Tales From Topographic Oceans and Tubular Bells. The latter is reputedly the best-selling instrumental album of all time and clearly there's a market for yet another version as this new orchestral adaptation testifies. The release of Tubular Bells – 50th Anniversary Celebration may seem a little premature, but it was in November 1972 when Mike Oldfield began the painstaking process of recording his debut masterwork. To tie in with the release of the album, there's a DVD/Blu-ray available recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall and a UK tour running through to the end of March 2023.
The original album was followed in 1975 by The Orchestral Tubular Bells featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra arranged and conducted by David Bedford. Although this new recording features the same ensemble, it differs from Bedford's adaptation in several respects. In addition to the orchestra and a choir, arranger and conductor Simon Dobson has enlisted a session band and as a result, all the original guitar parts are present and correct. The finale of part one - surely one of the musical high points of the 1970s - also remains faithful to Oldfield's original. Sadly, Vivian Stanshall passed away in 1995 and he's replaced by actor Brian Blessed as the master of ceremonies who bellows out the introductions in his usual gregarious manner. He returns in part two as the Piltdown Man - credited here as the 'Caveman' - bringing to mind his comical vocal performance as the Gungan leader in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
CD one concludes with the Sailor's Hornpipe where the playful strings turn it into something akin to a speeded up waltz from the Regency period. The second CD opens with part one of Ommadawn, another landmark in Oldfield's career. The choir really comes into their own here and the lead guitarist excels. It's a pity part two wasn't also included which boasts, at the 11 minute mark, one of the most majestic sequences in Oldfield's canon. With less than 38 minutes of music on CD two, clearly a good deal more could have been incorporated. The excerpt from Hergest Ridge is welcome, surely one of Oldfield's most underrated albums. The original also features strings courtesy of David Bedford but here the orchestra and choir really brings it to life, accentuating the melodies. To conclude, an extended version of one of Oldfield's best known tunes 'Moonlight Shadow' is beautifully sung by Ella Shaw.
50 years on, Oldfield's music remains fresh and original even though to my ears, the twangy guitar break at 13:30 in part one still sounds remarkably similar to the tune to Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho. With its layering of guitars, keyboards, tuned percussion and other assorted instruments, Tubular Bells always had an orchestral feel but Simon Dobson's arrangements give the music an added dimension. The end result is more than a rehash of the original with strings attached (if you excuse the pun). Curiously, Mike Oldfield's name doesn't appear on the CD cover. Clearly, he no longer needs the publicity.
Versa — A Voyage / A Destination
Versa is one of those bands formed some time ago (fifteen years ago, in this case) that have broken up and reformed, having released an album and two EPs before their breakup. Reformed, the band has released an intriguing and enjoyable new album, A Voyage / A Destination. I like it, and it's my job and my pleasure to tell you why, and also to tell you why I recommend the album.
I'm going to begin with the assumption that anyone reading this review is accustomed to, and perhaps really likes, long, long songs. The kind that would take up a whole side of an LP (you know, Supper's Ready by Genesis or Rush's 2112). Good. This album contains only four songs. One is fifteen and a half minutes long; the next two are five or six minutes long; and the cracking ender is, get this, almost twenty-seven minutes long. Of course, when songs are so long, one must ask "Do they hang together" or even "Are they worth the listening and the patience?". I'm happy to say that, in all four cases, the answer is "yes." The band has clearly put a lot of work into each song, and that work includes making sure that each song is individually coherent and that the album in its entirety is also pleasingly coherent.
It's sort of impossible to avoid a track-by-track review when there are only four songs, but I will at least be unconventional to the extent of not talking about the tracks from first to last. I'll start with my favourite, the second song, Sea Of Vapours. This is an instrumental track with the participating instruments being acoustic guitar, flute, and violin. Like the piece that follows, Lantern Season, it's simply a beautiful, artfully arranged, nearly meditative work. The two instrumentals, well-placed between the "epic" songs, nicely glue the album together.
But what of the first and last songs, the long one and the really long one? Not surprisingly, the band's promo materials list numerous classic progressive-rock bands (Genesis, Jethro Tull, and their ilk) but also bands that, frankly, I'd never heard of who apparently belong to a genre called "rock-in-opposition". You learn something every day. To my ears, Versa are torn, but in a good way, between being a good old-fashioned progressive-rock band and being a post-rock band. (And indeed, when the band formed in 2007, it was, as the promo materials tell us, "as an entirely instrumental post-rock band".)
This tension is what makes the two long songs interesting. Each one, deploying both traditional rock instruments and flute and violin, it alternates between quiet and louder passages. Voyage especially builds to exciting climaxes (more than one, and one of which is attended by group vocals that sound more than a little like Gregorian chant).
I shouldn't forget to mention that, among the guest musicians who make appearances on the album, Nick D'Virgilio is credited with drums and chromatic percussion on the long final track, Voyage; I should also mention that the long songs are the only ones with vocals. Eric Gillette sings on Pool Of The Naiads, and Marjana Semkina sings (beautifully) on Voyage. Backing vocals are supplied by most members of the band. Another thing I ought to say is that the production is very good indeed, allowing one to enjoy the virtuosity of each musician but without sacrificing the unity of each song.
So, yes, I am happy to suggest that you listen to a sample or two to confirm that you agree with me and then get a copy of this compelling, slightly mysterious album. It's been a while since I've heard an album that struck me on first hearing the way this one did, and your experience may well be the same, and you may be led, as I have been, to listen again and again to it.