Aura — Underwater
Sometimes as a reviewer you listen to an album, you decide there is nothing much wrong with it, but nothing much to remember it by either. You scribble a few non-committal words, but do make a note to keep an eye on that band; there is something there that deserves a second chance.
Yes, I am an eternal optimist, but in the case of this Italian quintet, such a glass-half-full approach has paid dividends.
Not to be confused with the Swedish prog band of the same name, the Italian Aura have been going for more than a quarter of a century. Having released their debut album, A Different View From The Same Side in 2008, DPRP has reviewed their two other efforts Deliverance (2011) and Noise (2015). It was my review of Noise that came away with the unimpressed-but-hopeful outcome.
The band's perseverance has paid off. It's an over-used phrase, but Underwater is without doubt their best album yet.
In terms of their sound, the band goes for "progressive metal" as a self-description. While there is the occasional crunch to the guitar, there is little else here that warrants an attachment to that genre. It does rock, but Underwater is nowhere near heavy enough to even sneak in as some prog-metal light.
What Aura play is a combination of styles often summarised under the crossover-prog or heavy-prog banners. There are odd time signatures and clever changes in dynamics. The melodies possess an often-dreamy quality, mainly due to the close harmonies utilised.
Singer Giovanni Trotta (who is also the drummer) has a slight accent but that is outweighed with his pleasing, clean tone and a great melodic sense. The colours painted by Giuseppe Bruno's guitars add a lovely variety and flow to the album.
The songwriting is focused, with all the tracks clocking in at around the 4-to-5 minute mark. There are lots of lovely details that reward repeat listens. The prominence given to Francesco Di Verniere's use of keyboards and synthesizers, lends a modern prog-rock feel to several songs.
Favourites? For those who enjoy a modern, heavy prog-rock style, then Lost Over Time is a great opening song. Keep It Safe flows in a crossover-prog style. Here and at many other points on this album I am reminded of those wonderfully under-rated Canadians, Hillward. The guitar break towards the end, is about as heavy as Aura gets. Time To Live is just a great alt-rock number.
And that's why this album has been a winner for me. Underwater is a great collection of heavy/crossover prog with enough rock to keep me happy and plenty of great melodies. An album that I will enjoy for years to come.
Chest Rockwell — Mentis Oculi
This is my second encounter with Josh Hines' (all instruments, music, vocals, mixing, and mastering) recording project Chest Rockwell. The first was with 2020's Ghost of a Man Still Alive of which I wasn't particularly enthusiastic. My colleague Andy Read was more enthusiastic about release 2021's The Existentialist, so I thought I would give the new one a considered listen to see if the improvement had continued.
Mentis Oculi literally means "of an eye" or more usually "a mind's eye", and its lyrics and track titles seem to reflect this mystical bent. The music is, I'm glad to report, improved. Some things have remained the same such as Chest Rockwell's delight in crunching, hard-rock based riffs with bludgeoning bass and drums. The music is still uncompromising but there is more development in terms of the arrangements. With Josh Hines having given himself slightly more time on each track, which has helped his musical vocabulary a little.
So The Syrtis Of His Patrimony has thumping riffs, its fierceness alleviated by some subtle detailing. There's the prog-metal meets stoner rock of Homunculus' rolling drum pattern and guitar solo, and there is plenty of variation to the blocky chords of The Cartesian Theater's guitar onslaught.
Then there is the epic The Old Man Of The Mountain. After a relatively quiet start, it develops a doomy Sabbath-like riff, one that would make Tony Iommi proud. It accelerates as the vocals come in for a lengthy section of Chest Rockwell's signature riffing, before it takes a little left turn into a slower portion that has a guitar melody that resembles an Indian raga. But the track loses its nerve and returns to more guitar chords before the doomy riff returns. I think the track would, for me, have been better reaching a conclusion around the fifteen-minute mark, but I cannot fault the ambition shown.
Chest Rockwell's Mentis Oculi continues the improvement shown on The Existentialist and with this sort of growth the next album really will be worth investigating.
Enma — Apathy Awakened
It's Friday the 28th of October and to my own surprise I find myself heading towards Enma's official album release show at the Little Devil café in Tilburg, Netherlands. No so much surprising, for it's almost impossible to resist a night of prog-metal (including two supporting acts in form of Inhalo and Behind Closed Doors) for the price of a pint! The music ranges from progressive metal riffs to plowing 90s grunge grooves, from introspective melancholia to fierce outbursts. For fans of Tool, Opeth, Alice In Chains, and Katatonia". Truth be told, these four bands are way out my comfort zone. And that is the surprising part. Why am I going?
Well, the reason is actually rather simple, for Enma's mightily impressive debut Apathy Awakened is amongst the best prog-metal albums I've had the pleasure of encountering this past year. It's also the heaviest and thus the perfect illustration of the saying that "variety is the spice of life". It makes my prog metal hunger come fully alive.
In order not to let my enthusiasm get the better of me, I managed to lay the album to rest for a couple of weeks but this proved to be to no avail. The album's powerful songs are once again growing on me and this cool-down period only postponed the inevitable conclusion that Apathy Awakened is a stunner of an album.
With members previously performing in local Tilburg-area based bands like Yama, The New Dominion, and Our Oceans, Enma was founded by guitarist/composer Tom Adams. It further consists of Yoeri van Helvoirt (bass), Wessel Speelman (guitar), and Alex Schenkels on vocals. Completing the line-up is Our Oceans/Behind Closed Doors' drummer Yuma van Eekelen, also known from his former participation in death-metal band Pestilence. These last two names give a good representation towards the high level of interplay, tightness, top-notch musicianship, and unbridled metal power exploding on Apathy Awakened.
The band don't waste any time in unleashing this power, with the excellent opener Enigma. Caught in a balanced, bold production that suits the alternative edge of the music, this aggressive song instantly grabs hold through its fierce metal riffs and combustible rhythm section freshly forged out of reinforced concrete. It displays a multitude of energetic musical alterations, groovy dynamics, mood shifts, and an immaculate proggy sense in arrangements. The song expresses a structure which is complex but at the same time stays catchy, approachable and infectiously melodic.
This aspect applies to every composition, all written by riff-master Adams. A few months into listening to the album, and I still can't make up my mind which song I enjoy the most. It will probably stay that way, as every song has its own attraction.
Apathy Awakened has an aggressive approach whilst displaying a wealth of melody and atmospheric variety which on occasion reminds me of The Stranger and Mindflow. The post-rock-like grungy textures give a warning of old school Queensrÿche. An irresistible combination of influences.
The latter's influences also surface in the marvellous Hemera's Call, a song which shows the beautiful interplay between the various musicians, with Adams and Speelman playing in perfect unison while the rhythm section ploughs through the Metallica-reminiscent melodies. With Adams keeping the riffs going in a grungy James Hetfield-like way during the songs bridge, it's Speelman who impresses with his melodic solo which expresses a refined prog-metal approach similar to Haken.
A beautiful illustration of Van Eekelen's technique, whose style frequently reminds me of Johan Langell/Leo Margarit (Pain Of Salvation), is demonstrated in the ravishing Debita Nostra, a song that keeps the album's intensity going with ease, alternating with reflective passages and walls of guitar that resonate with Klone. Augury keeps this post-rock/metal momentum going as it shows how the band is perfectly capable in adding subtleties to their music.
These creative moments are admittedly in the minority on this ferocious and intense album, but when they do surface, they provide a pristine, albeit short breather. This is shown in The Insatiable, Transient Endeavours, and the beginning of Moira. The way in which this last song treacherously grows into one of the fiercest compositions of the album is extremely rewarding.
The most brutal song is the relentless The Elusive. I could rate this epic song as my favourite, simply for the fact that it's the longest track on the album. Bursting from overwhelming musical rage, it is the perfect vehicle for Schenkels, who also provided the thoughtful lyrics for the album, to demonstrate his raw vocal prowess. Live, he is just as impressive. His charismatic performance includes anger, emotion, passion, sensitivity, fury, and everything imaginable in-between.
As far as debut albums go, they don't get much better than this, and as such shows gigantic potential. Their sold-out album presentation turned out to be brilliantly entertaining and energetically charged. The band also introduced their new drummer Adje Janssens during the show's final song.
Overall Apathy Awakened is a world-class album that expresses a massive appeal towards any prog-metal fan with a heavier disposition. Please do yourself a favour and check this fantastic album out, then add it to your collection in pristine vinyl format or lush, graphically-designed CD format, and ask ProgPower Europe for Enma to be included in next year's line up. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Ace Hansel Jr — Songs From Croix-Noire
This was a difficult album to review. Many things to take in consideration apart from just the music. Songs From Croix-Noire is the album, but alongside it, you also have a graphic novel and a game. I'm not sure everyone will be prepared for the whole experience but if you dare to take this journey, I'm convinced you will be richly rewarded.
For this review, I have listened to the music and read the comic, and I have to say that the album makes more sense after reading the whole story. Since this is a music website, I will try to focus on what you can find here musically speaking.
It is certainly not the most progressive rock album you will hear this year, but if you like great Beatles-style melodies, catchy choruses and a very nice sound, you will find yourself enjoying this album more than you may expect.
This album holds a concept surrounding a deprived neighbourhood in France, and apparently each song speaks about personal experiences lived by one of the main minds in this project, Jean-Charles Capelli. Jean is a songwriter who joins forces with top singer-songwriter/producer Mike Batt. I have to admit that I didn't know Mike Batt, but after doing a bit of homework I've learnt he's a big name in the business. They were joined by Emmy-winning writer and novelist David Quantick, legendary Marvel/DC comic artist Mike Collins (Spiderman, Superman, Dr Who), and executives from leading online games corporation Dubit (Disney, Brit Awards) to create this whole multimedia experience.
With all of this in mind, the music gets more interesting with each listen. The quality begins at the very beginning and the song A Whole New Day. Please tell me I'm not the only one who thinks he is listening to the mighty Fountains Of Wayne here. We have some Beatles in the next song and again some indie pop in the brilliant Bury Me In Tahiti.
I'm not going song-by-song now, but I think you can imagine the type of sounds you will find here. We have some very good vocals by Jean-Charles Capelli, great melodies and beautiful orchestrations. Just listen to Set Me On Fire to confirm my thoughts.
Nearing the end of the review, I cannot finish without a complaint. There always has to be a complaint, and mine is that this album should last much longer. I mean, to have put so much effort into building the whole thing, and then leaving the audience with only 41 minutes? That's a bit mean, if you ask me. With a couple of songs being little more than intros or outros, there is not much time left to fully enjoy the nice music. I can only hope that they release the second part of Songs From Croix-Noire because I have really enjoyed the music and the idea behind it.
Infinitome — Beyond The Beyond
Imagine a blend of Van Der Graaf Generator, a chunk of Jimi Hendrix, some Mike Oldfield, sniffs of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition era) and Camel (Rain Dances period). Add tiny bits of fusion and jazz, and you might arrive in total chaos. But not in the case of the eclectic musical style of Infinitome; a fairly new prog band from the US.
They released their debut, Voyage Home, last year, and DPRP colleague Martin Burns was quite impressed. Slightly more than a year further on, the band's second album Beyond The Beyond sees the light of day. Again, it is quite a release.
Infinitome are twin brothers David (guitars, tenor saxophone) and Richard Horn (keyboards, some guitars), both living in the USA but very distant from each other. They exchange ideas and compose their music by internet and have managed to persuade several fine musicians to help them out. Power-drummer Scott Higham (of Pendragon-fame) does the business behind the kit, which means that the music is spiced with fast and strong drum playing in the right places. Other guests are Sergio Warner (trumpets, horns), Ilia Mazla (Armenian duduk, some woodwind instrument, but it sounds really good), Kyle Pudenz (violins), Lee Abraham (acoustic guitar), Matthew Everett (upright bass), and Joshua David Pivato (vocals on the closing track).
The all-purple album cover, depicting a starry night sky, leaves some strong clues that this is an album dealing with a space subject on this almost entirely instrumental album. The fine booklet tells the story behind the music; a journey to Mars by five astronauts fails to reach its destiny, after which the only surviving team member gets involved in a sort of Matrix-like sci-fi-story, based in part on Holst's Mars, Bringer of War. It's quite a nice story, although I wasn't always able to distinguish the link between the music and the story.
With such a tale you'd almost expect this to be a space-rock album, but it is far from that. Instead, the listener is treated to dynamic, instrumental prog with the above-mentioned influences in a very clever way. The wide array of styles could have resulted in a very inconsistent album but the opposite is true. The 27-minute opening suite, Beyond Mars, is perfect proof of this but the following six tracks present the same level of variety and consistency.
The opening suite is extremely dynamic, ranging from straight-forward hard rock, to subtle and soft keyboard themes and folkish Duduk-playing. Yet it succeeds in sounding quite coherent during its long playing time. The different parts flow nicely into each other, there are sufficient resting points in the music, and there is a plethora of instruments that make the suite very varied and attractive. Sometimes you'll hear Pendragon, sometimes the thick bass of Motorhead, then a snippet of Genesis' Duke. It's quite courageous to start an album with such a long and varied song but it works very well.
The only downside of such a strong opener is that you expect the rest of the album to reach that high level also. The band comes a long way, but the short Fantasia pieces are too anonymous in comparison to the suite. They are all enjoyable but don't stand out. Space is a quiet, rather simple and atmospheric guitar piece without much development musically. Time is a slow ballad played on guitar with soft keys towards the end; quite simple but fine. Fate is also rather quiet and features an extensive tenor sax solo in the middle. Although it is not bad, it is far too long and sounds too much like an accidentally-recorded work-out.
In between there's the keyboard and sax-dominated BaaBaa Goes To Sheep, where I completely lost the connection with the storyline. This goes from loud and busy, to very introverted and dreamy, ending in a sort of march that is fired by Higham's fierce drumming. That may sound awful, but it sounds quite good actually, especially because the song is nicely rounded-off when the central theme re-emerges at the end of the song.
The second epic, Dream Of Life, is another instrumental song, ranging from beautiful and introverted piano playing with only some distant wordless vocals, to a very fast violin and organ solo over racing drums fills, followed by another quiet keyboard part, and ending in a slow and romantic piano and violin coda. What the band achieved in the opening epic in almost half an hour, is done here in 12 minutes. It's as dynamic yet melodious as one can wish for. Very well played and composed.
The last song, Day I Lost You, is the only one with vocals, and those work out very well. The vocal melody is strong, the orchestral arrangement towards the end is heavenly bombastic, and the vocal delivery by Pivato is warm and emotional. This track rounds off the album nicely with its hints of Alan Parsons Project and especially Mike Rutherford's At The End Of The Day from his first solo album.
I have to say that I felt very little after the first few spins. So much was happening that I found it very difficult to grasp all aspects of the music. The energetic drumming appealed immediately but the rest of the album turned out to be a real slow-burner for me. When I started to recognise more parts, the music grew on me, and I began to like most of it.
The highlights are without doubt the opening suite and also the closing song, while in-between you get well-crafted and melodious instrumental prog. Fans of the aforementioned bands, as well as fans of Kaprekar's Constant, Finch, or even Fairport Convention may also like this intriguing album. The accompanying sci-fi story gives an added value, yet the linkage with the music remains quite a challenge to unravel.
Under The Reefs Orchestra — Sakurajima
The second album by Under The Reefs Orchestra, declares its long-awaited arrival with an outstanding series of memorable tunes. And after hearing Sakurajima, you might feel yourself compelled to wear an aural-scented Galapagos-type smile.
Under The Reefs Orchestra are based in Brussels and led by guitarist Clément Nourry. The group also includes saxophonist Marti Melia and drummer Jakob Warmenbol.
Warmenbol is also a member of Don Kapot. This band's style is very different from the ferociously-disconcerting punk-jazz of Dom Kapot, whose Hooligan release compelled me to write "Wow this is bloody ugly beautiful music!" It is energetic, enthusiastic, frantic and relentless.
By way of contrast, Under the Reefs Orchestra have a penchant for ear-clasping melodies and insistent motifs. These are swathed in a stylistic wash that is coloured and textured by elements associated with progressive jazz and identifiable aspects of post-rock.
Sakurajima displays its musical muscle and gentle beauty in contrasting bursts of fist-pumping energy and a delightful series of head-nodding embellishments. Interesting guitar chords, incandescent riffing and lava-fed saxophone aggression all have a role to play. The band's idiosyncratic use of these elements gives the music an undeniably distinctive air.
Nourry's expressive playing is prominent throughout and provides an exciting and sparkling touch of flamboyance. His use of tone, volume and phrasing and his development of attractive motifs is masterful. Nourry excels when his instrument takes centre stage, but the album also contains many subtle guitar embellishments and fine accompanying parts that provide an opportunity for the other members of the trio to express themselves.
The most distinctive elements of the release probably centre around the magnificent interplay between Nourry and Melia. There are many thrilling moments when the bass sax blows in earthy, flatulent bursts of bottom-end gusto, to contrast, or combine with, the cleverly woven patterns of Nourry's striking tones.
The decision to use a bass saxophone as a rhythmic vehicle and as a melodic device is inspired. It ensures that much of the album has an unusual rhythmic and tonal quality. The bass saxophone is an unusual choice. It plays one octave lower than the baritone and is generally used less frequently by musicians in a melodic setting than a baritone sax. In the hands of a skilled operator like Melia it creates a distinctive sound; providing a deep groove and a gruff tone that has a breathy, primeval resonance.
Warmingol's kit work strikes just the right balance. It is busy and unobtrusive but has a crucial responsibility in ensuring that odd metres and changes of pace are delivered effectively. When the need arises, a consistent rhythmic pattern is established.
There is a great connection between the members of the trio. The musical empathy that they show to each other is a standout feature. The opening piece sets the bar high. I pleaded with my player for more and urged it to go into repeat mode!
The tunes which follow do not disappoint either. The title track has many elements that fans of progressive music might enjoy. A concussive riff delivers a series of sensory blows. Avant sections hint at free expression, and explosive guitar tones full of menace and distortion play an aggressive part. To cap it all, the sax bellows energetically and burps and belches expressively in magnificent fashion. It's simply a wonderful tune.
Some guitar parts in the first section of Ants mistakenly reminded me of Robert Fripp's choppy and innovative style, as displayed in the introduction of King Crimson's classic Sailor's Tale. This misconception was soon dispelled, as the mood and atmosphere of the tune change. I was glad, as the year when Islands was released was not a happy time for me with loss and other similar things.
As I held on with raised emotions that scraped upon my bones, Ants's wave of dreamy guitar parts transported me far from the dull, crested oceans of the past to an alternative seascape of hope and glistening beauty.
Whilst many tunes highlight the band's ability to play ferociously, the album has great balance and displays a full range of moods. This sometimes occurs within a track, or in the carefully constructed running order of the album.
Soleil Trompeur is melodic and slower paced. It is full of enchanting interludes and contains several fascinating diversions. Post-rock influences can be discerned in both Soleil Trompeur and Kudzu. However, Under The Reefs Orchestra never linger stylistically for too long. For example, Kudzu surprises and breaks free from its post-rock ambience, as it briefly threatens to introduce an innovative avant flurry of sounds to its captivating mix.
The sound quality of the album is excellent. A fantastic effort has been made to create a vibrant and warm listening experience. This ensures that every aspect of the music has ample space to breathe and be heard.
The performance of the band comes across as inventive, spontaneous, and often inspired. Thus, the fresh and inventive nature of much of the music feels as if it might have been recorded in a few takes. It is difficult to assess how much of the music is arranged, and what is improvised.
Certainly, the band can flawlessly reproduce much of the spirit of the album in a live setting. Their rooftop performance of Ants / Heliodrome shows just how skilled the players are.
There are too many standout moments throughout Sakurajima to describe in detail, but the dirty tone that Nourry utilises in parts of Mendoza is far too memorable not to mention. It is so full of malevolence and beauty in equal measures, that it leaves a bitter/sweet flavour, which has me smitten every time.
This album's colourful combination of masterful playing and stunning tunes creates and forms an impression. After listening to Sakurajima on many occasions I have concluded that this is probably the most enjoyable release I have heard this year.