Exxasens — Le-Voyage
After a long silence, it's great to see Exxasens back as a band again, after the impressive Back To Earth from 2015. I regarded Revolution (2019) as more of a solo endeavour.
I have no idea what goes on in the studio or during the writing process, and most albums don't show any credits, but this new album feels more like a band album again. All the musicians featured here were also on Back To Earth, except for the second guitarist.
Le-Voyage, the album name appears with a dash everywhere, so let's keep it like that. The three-part suite however is written without a dash.
Exxasens have always been on the overlaps of prog and post-rock/post-metal. The opening of Le Voyage shows that right away. I like a start of an album to have big sounds. It reminds me a bit of the excellent Audrey Fall.
The sound and compositions have grown. It's more diverse and will appeal to more prog fans than before. Soen and Leprous fans should really take note. It's really become more progressive.
No long soundscapes (the short Orbiting Mars is the longest, besides that just a few sections), but there is a space-rock approach to post-rock / post-metal. Just how I like it; being overwhelmed with sound and melody.
This new sound and the compositions have even more variety than before. Even a shorter piece like the third movement of Le Voyage has its own movements with different melodies, tempo, intensity and moods. The dark and tripping elements are known, but I also love the melancholic ending of Black Hole. Even though I usually don't like the sound of brass, the trumpet in L'etoiles fits.
By the way, Black Hole is among my favourites here. An unexpected and very welcome shredding guitar solo is a great addition to the sound, and I hope the band will add more of this. The band use a lot of the typical post-rock way of guitar playing, and a more varied sound is often a good expansion. And I just love a bit of jamming and soloing in my music! Alongside the space-rock theme of many of their tunes, this is actual space-rock!
A special note should go to the drumming that is creative with unexpected twists, and brings a plus to the progressive aspect of the sound.
With Cosmos the album ends as storming as it started. It's been a lovely trip that I will be taking many more times. Excellent come-back, guys!
Juha Kujanpää — Old Ways, New Ways
Sometimes an album just flows along, and time spent in its company simply flies by. Old Ways, New Ways does just that. From start to finish it is a masterclass of how to create an album that is easy on the ear, yet has more than enough skill and complexity on display to make it a satisfying and rewarding experience.
Old Ways, New Ways contains an abundance of elegant compositions that are shaped and formed in a picturesque and tuneful manner. These melodic highlights occur regularly and remain fresh in the memory long after the album ends. Passages flow together to form a coherent impression, recognisable motifs occur, shift and transform. These evolve, develop and subtly reappear throughout the release.
During 2017, I had the pleasure of reviewing his third release Niin Kauas Kuin Siivet Kantaa. I was so impressed by what I heard, that I immediately purchased his other albums.
In many ways Old Ways, New Ways is even more impressive and it is probably his best work so far.
Some of the instrumentation has changed. Consequently, the overall feel of this album is somewhat different to the previous ones. Instead of violins, there are wind and brass instruments and a wordless vocal ensemble.
This human element creates an album full of emotion, rich in feeling and rippling with soothing melodies. However, Kujanpää has still managed to create an album that has many changes in tempo, volume and mood and displays a range of different stylistic traits and influences. Kujanpää's compositions have familiar points of reference, but are ultimately unique.
Folk influences and inventive arrangements abound. These are skilfully flavoured by elements of world music, cinematic music, prog and jazz. The whole mixture is delightfully sweetened by a wonderful sense of melody and the feelings of mystery and beauty that can be invoked by the space between the notes. This thoughtful complexity, tuneful accessibility and wide range of influences is self-evident during the lengthy and very appealing Morning Star.
The piece has slow sections and there are quick passages. There are party-hat interludes, and there are dramatic pauses. There are crescendos, and there are lulls. There are hum along melodies, and there are magnificent solo sections. Suffice to say Morning Star is just damn good!
The accordion has a delicate part to play during In The Country. It accompanies the restful warblings of the vocalists and provides a unique ambience that conjures up images of late-night gatherings warmed by the elderly, yet throbbing hue of a dampening fire.
The musicians who perform on the album are Timo Kämäräinen (guitar), Tero Tuovinen (bass), Jussi Miettola (drums), Verneri Pohjola (trumpet), Joakim Berghäll (saxophone), Henri Haapakoski (flute), Jouni Järvelä (clarinet), Eeppi Ursin (vocals), Jouni Kannisto (vocals) and Susanna Lukkarinen (vocals). There are also some guests on a few of the tunes, Teija Niku (accordion) and Emmi Kujanpää (kantele).
The predominant instruments in the solo sections are trumpet and saxophone. However, it is undoubtedly the wonderful, tuneful delivery of the vocal ensemble that leaves a long-lasting impression. Their wordless vocals act as a distinctive instrument. Their subtle use of tones and textures provides a perfect contrast to the surge of the trumpet and sax, and beautifully complements the fluttering tones of the flute.
The opening piece and title track sets the bar high. The appealing vocals carry things along in a wash of emotive sounds, and the recurring melody carried by both trumpet and human voice is enchanting.
Trekators displays many different elements. World music and exotic rhythms combine with ethnic folk melodies to create a hip-swaying, hand-clapping, head-nodding extravaganza. It's a great track and the exuberant way it is played and the excitement that it can generate is infectious. It's probably my favourite piece on the album.
Sepia, however is somewhat different. It is minimalist by nature and its predominant use of piano and voice portrays a dreamy, ethereal soundscape and offers an enchanting palette of reflective colours. Sepia is gorgeous and uplifting in every way. Its relative simplicity and sparseness provides a wonderful contrast to the detailed textures and complex layers woven by the ensemble in some of the other tunes.
When Gates Of Heavens emerges from the satisfying mood created by Morning Star, it is like the re-acquaintance with an old long-lost friend who you recognise, but whose appearance has significantly changed. It shares some brief reminders of a few of the motifs and melodies that have already been introduced in earlier pieces. However, it is substantially different in almost every other respect and it stands alone as a stunning piece.
This evolving and organic approach continues in Mitrokhin, which also reprises some of the themes presented earlier in the album, but once again in a new and refreshing way.
The last song on the album is particularly beautiful. Glow is a solo piano piece and is a fitting way to draw this inspiringly beautiful album to a somewhat serene and reflective conclusion.
If I had not already submitted my list of the best albums of 2022 to DPRP. Old Ways New Ways would have undoubtedly nudged its way into my top 5 of 2022. It really is that good. I simply adore everything about it.
David Longdon — Door One
This posthumous release from the Big Big Train frontman was almost complete at the time of his untimely passing in November of 2021. The recordings were ultimately finished by co-producer/engineer, Patrick Phillips, which ensured that this impressive work could be shared with the world.
The most creatively-successful solo albums tend to be a reflection of the artist's own musical identity, rather than a mirror of the band that they are known for. With that standard in mind, Door One is an absolute triumph.
There is little about it that is reminiscent of BBT. The material is more straightforward, but nonetheless artful. Adding to the resonance of the album, is the personal, often reflective tone of Longdon's lyrics and performances.
This is especially true of songs such as Forgive (But Not Forget), The Singer And The Song, the beautiful Love Is All and the album highlight, The Letting Go. The latter is also the longest and most progressive of the eight tracks included here. It is an album filled with musical variety and compositional strength from start to finish.
The atmospheric instrumental, Into The Icehouse leads effectively into the old school, guitar-driven, Watch It Burn. Also, Longdon's art-rock influences are highlighted to great effect on two standout tracks, There's No Ghost Like An Old Ghost and Sangfroid.
As would be expected, David's vocals are stunning throughout, and special mention goes out to the core group of musicians involved (Jeremy Stacey, Theo Davis, Steve Vantsis and Gary Bromham). They, along with a few other guest musicians, all offer fantastic performances.
Though it is not included on the album, I would be remiss in not mentioning, The Treachery Of Memory. Though the song was recorded during the Door One sessions, Longdon felt that it didn't fit in with the overall tone of the album. However, he did intend for it to be released as a single (which is available separately) and it is well worth having. The song makes for a great bonus track.
It is impossible to avoid the sense of loss that surrounds this album. What stands out most though, is the incredible talent that David possessed. This confident and highly entertaining work is a definitive testament to his artistry. Door One is a gift that is worth celebrating and easily one of the best releases of 2022.
Retrospective — iNtrovErt
I've been singing the praises of this Polish band for more than a decade now. If you've previously ignored my encouragements, then I am giving you one more opportunity.
I first encountered Retrospective eleven years ago at the fifth Progressive Promotion Festival in Germany, where their hour-long set impressed many. They had already released one album and the two discs that followed won admiring reviews and inclusion in my end-of-year best-of lists. Both Lost In Perception and Re:Search still get regular rotation.
Then with 2019's Latent Avidity, I felt the band tied all their strands together to create a fully coherent and original sound that they could call their own.
Album number five features a largely unchanged line-up, albeit with the re-addition of a second guitarist (the always impressive Maciej Klimek has now been joined by Darek Kazmierczak). The remarkable thing here, is that they have someone managed to further redefine their sound, retaining enough of their unique identity but adding yet more variety and coherence to make iNtrovErt an impressive addition to their already impressive discography.
Up to a point, Retrospective plays that very Polish style of melancholic (neo)progressive rock that will hold interest for fans of fellow countryfolk such as Riverside or Collage.
However there are three key differences in their approach. The principal one is achieved through the dual vocalist approach featuring Jakub Roszak and Beata Łagoda. It is this aspect that has been refined to perfection on this new album.
In their earlier days, Jakub was very much the frontman, with Beta providing backing vocals and harmonies. She has steadily increased her prominence, so that on iNtrovErt the two very much share the limelight. Their voices are different but complimentary. They take it in turns to richen the textures by supporting the main singer. At other times they simply exchange lines, playing off one another in a call and response way. At other times they cover different vocal lines at the same time. At other times they simply sing in perfect harmony. It always sounds perfectly natural. I am struggling to think of a group that has used male and female singers in such an accomplished way.
Their second difference is in the mood. Their music doesn't typically take you through the melancholic depths of despair. The mood is poignant but it sounds brighter and more upbeat than most of their compatriots.
The third difference is that while we have two guitarists, the band's song-writing gives equal prominence to the keys and electronica (Beata again). While the guitar work in particular encapsulates many of the sounds favoured by the likes of Riverside and Collage, there is less of the neo-prog style in the use of keyboards. The preference is for a style of electronica that gives Retrospective much more of an alt-rock vibe.
These three factors set them apart from other Polish bands.
On a first listen iNtrovErt sounds similar to the band's previous releases. But as one's ears become familiar with the central melodies and grooves, the subtle details and multitude of layers become apparent. If you are hesitant about there being only six tracks, then please accept my reassurance that the extended playing times of each, will more than fill your musical appetites for one sitting.
If I had to select one track to best capture the essence of this album, then it would be Intoxicated Generation. I just love the way that everything builds to the intense wall of guitars.
The production is spot-on; somehow managing to maintain a perfect balance between the various instruments and voices. Listening to it is a delight. Once again Retrospective have produced one of my top 10 albums of the year. What better recommendation do you need?
The album is available on Oskar Records; start with this and work your way backwards!
Todd Rundgren — Space Force
Todd Rundgren has been in the music business for over 50 years. This multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter has produced a variety of music styles as a solo artist and as a member of the band Utopia. From a progressive rock point of view, his albums in the 70s were probably the most interesting. Albums like Something / Anything?, A Wizard, A True Star and Hermit Of Mink Hollow are very interesting for progressive rock fans and I still play these albums.
In the Netherlands, Todd is noted for his rendition of the Dutch Christmas song Flappie. In recent years he has collaborated a lot with other musicians through albums such as White Knight (2017). The same is happening on Space Force where Todd approached a number of artists and asked them if they had a song that was not working. Songs that needed the final touch, but somehow the original artist could not find it.
There is a variety of musicians and so the album is a variety of styles, all with a flavour of the magic touch of Todd Rundgren.
First song is Puzzle with Adrian Belew from King Crimson. A dreamy, spacey kind of song. Not really progressive rock but more a bit of a pop song.
Next up is Down With The Ship with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. The song has a lot of ska and reggae influences. I heard this song on the radio and really liked it, later I realised it was from Todd Rundgren. At the start of the Covid19 epidemic I always started my work day at home with this song, a uplifting swinging start of the day.
Artist In Residence is a mellow pop song with Neil Finn from Crowded House. Godiva Girl is a very groovy song with hip-hop band The Roots. I like the song but you need a broad taste in styles to keep up with Todd and his wide interest of musicians.
If Godiva Girl is almost too much, then Your Fandango could be a breaking point. It is an electric pop song with a very cheesy chorus.
Someday is another poppy song with David Lane. With I'm Not Your Dog it is back to the electric pop, synth pop with Thomas Dolby. On Espionage it is back to the hip-hop elements with Narcy.
Some die-hard prog heads may have dropped out a lot earlier but this song is just not within my acceptable fondness of musical liking. Maybe I could hear some Todd Rundgren influences if I could only listen to it longer than ten seconds, but that is impossible for me.
Better skip that one because next is Stfu with Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. It is a heavy rock song that I cannot believe is on the same album with a song like Espionage.
Next is Head In The Ocean with indie pop from Alfie Templeman. It is a nice melodic pop song just like next song I'm Leaving, also with indie pop musicians and in this case it is The Lemon Twigs. The final song is with guitar hero Steve Vai. The song Eco Warrior Goddess sounds like it could have been on the album Sex & Religion. This time with the gentle voice of Todd Rundgren instead of the screams from Devin Townsend.
The idea behind this album is very interesting. Unfinished songs that need some final touches and then finish it together with the original artist. The problem with this album is that the artists are from a very wide variety of music styles. A few indie, a few rock, a few hip hop, a few pop and a guitar hero.
Some songs are easy listening and some are party songs. Never could I enjoy the album completely in one spin because the variety is just too much. It is a nice album to fill some different playlists with some of the songs but as an album it is not very interesting.
Solstice — Light Up
Following their formation in 1980, the recorded output from Solstice has been sporadic to say the least. Between 1984 and 2002 they released just four, mostly excellent albums, with Circles from 1997 being a particular favourite of mine. They returned in 2010 with the well-received Spirit, followed by three further albums including Sia in 2021, which in my view was judged unduly harshly by the DPRP.
Light Up is the band's seventh studio album, and like many of their contemporaries who started out in the early 1980s, their music maintains a melodic prog vibe with violin adding elements of folk-rock. The band's mainstay in an ever-evolving line-up is founding member, guitarist and songwriter Andy Glass. Several superb female lead singers have passed through the Solstice ranks and Jess Holland (who joined in 2020) continues that fine tradition.
This is evident from the aptly-named title song which boasts a sprightly melody and uplifting choral hook. Glass' soaring guitar fills recall the likes of Nick Barrett, Steve Rothery and Dave Bainbridge, while the exemplary drumming of Pete Hemsley keeps the song on an even keel. The curiously titled Wongle No9 benefits from an off-beat rhythm while the vocal melody has an unexpected funk vibe. It takes an excursion into jazz-fusion territory with semi-improvised violin and guitar soloing, although the playing is never overly indulgent.
Led by the exhilarating violin bowing of Jenny Newman, Mount Ephraim has a celtic ambiance, reminiscent of Iona who sadly folded in 2016. The double-tracked vocals are an utter delight.
Despite the title, Run is taken at a leisurely pace with Holland's haunting vocal complemented by discrete instrumentation, thus bringing to mind the ethereal arrangements of Clannad. At the five-and-a-half minute mark, it gets into its majestic stride with a sizzling guitar solo, and when joined by vocals and the keyboards of Steven McDaniel, recalls Mostly Autumn at their finest. The album highlight in my opinion.
With its syncopated rhythm, Home is a lively, upbeat offering, belying the subject with Holland pleading with a loved-one to return. The incessant violin theme gives way to a typically expressive guitar solo from Glass as the track builds to an intense peak. The concluding Bulbul Tarang takes its title from an Asian string instrument which, if I'm not mistaken, is heard during the first part of the track. It's a slow-burner that over the course of ten-plus minutes evolves from mellow beginnings to a blistering finale worthy of another great female-fronted band, Karnataka.
This is another fine collection of songs from Solstice and it's encouraging that despite the line-up changes and the global upheavals of recent years, the band is still going strong. The band's flag bearer, Andy Glass, should be applauded for remaining true to the Solstice musical spirit after more than 40 years. If you venture over to the band's Bandcamp page you won't find this album but you will find an (uncredited) endorsement that I wrote on these very pages back in 2007. It begins with the line: “If one band could lay claim to the label 'prog's best kept secret' then Solstice would surely make the shortlist”. Although that may not hold entirely true today, like so many bands, they still deserve much wider recognition.
Light Up will be released by Giant Electric Pea on January 13th 2023.