The Aaron Clift Experiment — The Age Of Misinformation
This is the fourth album by this alternative progressive rock band from Austin, Texas, led by and named after keyboard player and singer Aaron Clift, but for the rest an almost ever-changing line-up.
The music is a blend of several styles, and as I am struggling to find references to other bands, I have to conclude it's a fresh blend.
Some sections, like the verse/chorus in L.I.A.R. touch classic rock, while the opening title track has a little heavier prog in a Jolly vein.
In several places I am fondly reminded of Timothy Pure. Aaron Clift is singer / keyboard player and his voice is not unlike, maybe a bit rougher, than Matt Still's, who has the same role in Timothy Pure. The Aaron Clift Experiment is definitely heavier, but it's in the melodies and intensity in the songwriting of some pieces.
Bet On Zero has a progressive jazzy start that made me think of 6:33 and sometimes even Dixie Dregs. The middle section start off jazzy with a horn section, turning to fusion when the guitar joins in, and is rounded of with, wait for it, a drum and then bass solo. That jazzy influence is present on several other pieces, but mostly as an undertone.
Part of the album sounding fresh, even after many turns, is that the atmosphere is changing several times. The darker Dark Secrets makes Rise almost happy, with a ballad in The Color Of Flight following. And when you've reached this point, the electronic beats in Málaga can not come as a surprise. Unexpected, but no surprise.
The relatively slow but intense closing track makes you realise you've been listening to an album that has no tracks that are alike and still mostly sound like a unified album. I do think it will be too ambiguous to some people — not heavy enough here or too jazzy there. It's clearly the songwriting this band has the biggest focus on, perfectly produced. There is not one style. That's a charm making a diverse album but could be harder to value if you're a listener that puts on an album based on mood.
Alta Forma — Spatium & Tempus
Every now and again I'd like to go out of my musical comfort zone, to varying degrees of success. This is the story of a highly successful and rather surprising one, for Alta Forma's Spatium & Tempus is a massively impressive and frankly stunning album.
Behind Alta Forma one finds founder Antoine Fafard (guitars, bass, synth programming), whose legacy, next to a short bass-playing role in Mystery, mainly includes a musical pathway focussed on instrumental progressive jazz-rock fusion. A musical realm I don't frequently visit for I prefer my music to feature vocals, with a few exceptions. Therefore, I feel obliged to say that none of his albums that made it onto DPRP's pages are known to me while each did receive high critical acclaim. Admittedly, this ignorance of Fafard's musical past on my part will undoubtedly lead to several unexpected references here. Once I find the time and space to address those albums I'll probably be able to add some of them within this review. This could take quite a while for at the moment I can't get enough of Spatium & Tempus.
So why step into Alta Forma's world of fusion I hear you ask? This boils down to four reasons. The first (minor) one is purely based on the fact that the album's lovely CD artwork visually attracted me through its slight resemblance to covers issued by melodic rock/AOR project Seventh Key. The second and more interesting reason is the fact that opposite to Fafard's previous instrumental outings, this album feature vocals by JK Harrison, also participating on keys. The third and most important reason is the presence of Todd Sucherman (Styx) on drums and percussion. His exceptional achievements on The Legacy Pilot's recent The Penrose Triangle left an indelible impression on me, and seeing his name involved indefinitely triggered my interest.
The fourth reason, which has everything to do with the brilliantly crafted concise compositions, is the fact that from the first moment on, I'm perfectly adrift in Fafard's zone. For the album oozes an irresistible style of prog / fusion crossover that ticks boxes aplenty through elements reminiscent to aforementioned The Legacy Pilots and those connected to bands like The Cyberiam, Enchant, and Toto.
The latter, for instance, clearly surfaces in the intricately structured Invisible Time. A captivating jazzy composition written by Harrison, that weaves lush piano and touching acoustic refinement with superb harmonies and tops this with ravishing bass play, excellent vocals and a delightful groovy AOR vibrancy. This all-embracing composition would fall into perfect place as the seventh song included on the album, but it is fifth and it is equally in the ideal place for the gripping flow of the album.
At the same time, this composition is a marvellous example of Sucherman's rhythmic flexibility. Like a fine wine he gets better and better with age. Next to his immaculate sense of melody and dynamics, fills and astonishing jazz-inspired openness and subtlety in play, it is especially his divine accentuating gift on cymbals that brings pure magic. The same goes for his ability to make unconventional time-signatures feel perfectly natural as shown in Never After, which alternates 9/8 verses with 9/4th verses. Tingling with vibes of Sting and excellent use of balance and spatiality in sound, the song's groovy deliciousness furthermore adds flavours of aforementioned The Cyberiam and mild impressions of Outside In, thanks to Harrison's strong and melodically expressive vocal expressions. Once again a most pleasing experience.
"Delightful Infectiously Groovy" might as well be the album's subtitle. Every song pulsates with a swing that attracts massively. Underneath the transparent production, a most ingenious flow of chord progressions, funk eruptions, and Fafard's electrifying guitar work reveal inventive complex designs, which is something I 'DIG' at heart.
Within these structures, Fafard's talent proves to be just as impressive on six strings as on four, and without exception, every song is a true testament to this. Receiving images of extravaganza in the spirit of Ian Crichton (Saga) in the otherwise restrained Impossible Hero, followed by mild impressions of Steve Morse in Climbing To Infinity, his enticing play foremost brings to mind Corrado Rustici, whose virtuosity shines bright with Allan Holdsworth styles.
Another brilliant feat is the fact that seamless transitions and an abundance of musical arrangements meticulously stay far away from the remotest chance of repetition. Although I wouldn't mind a repeat if it were to be along the lines of the amazing Hear Now that follows after the gelling Time To Dive. Headphone manufacturers would do best to include this song, in one way or another, to their demonstration manual for the layered richness in performance.
The emotionally sung and richly versified His Mind's Universe ups the prog ante, much to the enjoyment of Enchant and The Cyberiam fans. It ends in a heavenly pinnacle of satisfaction through the magnificent and fiercely energetic Apocalyptus. With a lyrical message on global disasters and survival, formulated by an enthralling hostile world of intense battling, alternating melodies reminiscent of The Police and Enchant, it's near impossible not to press play again button when this mightily rousing track has ended. Red Hot Chili Pepper's Flea is outclassed many times over by Fafard's masterly spiced funky bass raptures here.
This is Fafard's first album to feature a vocalist. I can only hope my obvious enthusiasm for more of anything in line with this phenomenal album is felt in equal measures amongst Fafard, Harrison, and Sucherman. A recent video-statement by Harrison hints as much, so fingers crossed.
Next to a regular CD release, Spatium & Tempus has been released as a limited vinyl pressing with different, even more appealing artwork. Whichever way your physical, or streaming room lies, be sure to do yourself a favour and take some time out to discover this jaw-dropping album. If any of the bands mentioned above strike a chord within, you won't regret it!
Avandra — Prodigal
War. Sadly, despite all the peacemaking efforts it is still a harsh reality that thousands of people across the world suffer from. Avandra, a band from Puerto Rico, puts the tragedies of war into focus on the new album Prodigal, and makes a comprehensive sonic study of causes and aftermaths of conflicts.
While reviewing Avandra's third release Skylightning, Andy Read lamented that the band left a lot of what was achieved earlier in favour of the new, dirtier and bleaker sound. I can only confirm that the quartet continues treading the path taken in 2020. The musical roots of Avandra's recent sound lie in grunge scene and at times they really remind me of Soundgarden with synths and Ozzy on guest vocals. Indeed, the voice of Christian Ayala Cruz sounds strikingly like a cross between the Prince of Darkness and Chris Cornell, while the rest of the band takes a lot of influences from the alternative rock and metal scene.
Past reviews compared Avandra with Tool, Porcupine Tree and Klone, and while such comparisons are not completely unjustified, I would draw parallels with the Seattle sound and dark prog bands (Wolverine, Votum, and American Hollow for instance). Presence of Vikram Shankar's (live keyboardist for Pain Of Salvation and lately from Redemption) only emphasizes these quazi-Scandinavian sound leanings. The opener Codename: Pharaoh is a perfect example of this approach, combining samples, heavy alternative riffs and Christian's roar of anguish and anger.
A Trace Of Home reaches as far as ripe progressive death metal territory (see Watershed-period Opeth) mixed with symphonic arrangements and beautiful instrumental work from both Vikram and the band's axeman Luis Javier Rivera, ending with a clean arpeggio.
After a sorrowful, keyboard-focused In Traumen (I am thinking of Pain Of Salvation's Be), In Memoriam features speedy, almost punkish, but still technical riffing, and that's what I like in Avandra's approach – despite the bleakness of the sound, dynamically it is quite varied and the band seamlessly combines slow groove with headbanging parts and melancholic arpeggios. One thing that may leave listeners unimpressed is the relatively narrow melodical palette in the vocal lines. Though Christian is a very competent vocalist, it is easy to notice that he sings in the same manner using the same hooks.
The latter half of the record, starting from Facing An Armored Dreadnought is basically a recombination of the same stylistic patterns, albeit graced by a couple of beautiful, soaring guitar solos.
Unless you are an ultimate fan of all things bleak and somber, you won't be instantly impressed with Prodigal. The record really takes time to get into, and only after three to four listens I started embracing the concept. I am still somewhat dubious if this “urbanistic” sound, which most listeners identify with personal dramas, is well-suited to describe the horrors of war, but ultimately this is only a private opinion. This is the 6.5-star effort for me personally, but I am happy to increase my rating, because of the ultimate importance of Prodigal's message. Unfortunately, those who unleash wars have neither a mindset nor empathy to appreciate these warnings.
Carmine Capasso — Assenza Di Gravità
Over the last few years Carmine Capasso has become a household name within the progressive rock world through his involvement as guitarist of The Trip and frequent contributions to albums by, for instance, The Samurai Of Prog (TSoP) and Inner Prospekt. Next to this he fills his time as a session musician for many Italian artists and in the meantime managed to release a series of singles and EP's over a the last ten years, most recently with 2018's Pausa Caffé. Through Assenza Di Gravità (Absence Of Gravity) Capasso now presents his debut album.
On Assenza Di Gravità many of the musicians he collaborates with have returned the favour, which amongst several long-time collaborators and a delegation of Italian musicians includes TSoP's usual suspects in form of Marco Grieco, Marco Bernard, Kimmo Pörsti and Alessandro Di Benedetti. They are complemented by a variety of other prog-related musicians such as Luca Sparagna (Le Orme), Adrian Shaw (Hawkwind), Jenny Puertas (Agusa) and Oscar Fuentes (Days Between Stations) to name just a few.
Based on these names one would/could expect the makings of a progressive rock oriented album, which to some extent is true, yet Capasso's path is drawn towards a more pop/rock inspired trajectory, with the progressive aspects mostly to be found in the arrangements of the richly designed melodic songs. This does not make the album less interesting for the progressive minded, for Capasso has successfully composed a deeply varied album with flavourings that have the song at heart. They are individually laced with emotion and melody, to which prog-arrangements and wonderful all-round performances make all the difference.
Starting out on a concept around a dream, Carmine's dream, in which he tries to navigate a vast and complex world, after which his desire leads him to fly into gravity-free reality, only to find himself in a place where a sense of lightness is the framework, the album opens with the delightful dreamy Sogno Pt. 1. This song's subdued atmospheric serene beginning, echoing with Pink Floyd and well-crafted gently rippling melodies mindful to Leo Carnicella, thrives from Capasso's bluesy guitar approach and Bernard and Pörsti's intricate rhythmic accompaniment that brings a great talkative diversity when the song slides into darker shaded menacing endplay.
This captivating beauty is surpassed many times over in the unparalleled Sogno Pt. 2, which glides ever so smoothly past with beautiful atmospheric layers shaped by dreamy Moog and synth passages, while piano refinement embraces the melodies. Once again under perfect guidance from Bernard and Pörsti a short interlude on flute mindful to Quidam follows, whereafter the music bursts awake into a whirlwind of melodies highlighted by energetic dynamic play and swirling synths, finalised by a majestic solo by Capasso.
In between these two progressive dream states, title track Assenza Di Gravità shows a delightful pop and new wave elegance which is slowly building into enticing rock, driven onwards by exemplary bass. Capasso's strong expressive vocals brings a passionate warmth to this. An enticing synth passage by Grieco provides another lovely prog moment. Together with Capasso's smashing solo in the song's coda, this more rock than prog orientated song is a wonderful and very pleasant introduction to Capasso's compositional strength. This is highlighted by Hammond organ and rhythmic tightness in light psychedelics enhancements.
This pleasantness manifests itself more over as the album progresses. For instance, In Un Posto Che Non C'è is adding a nice subdued note, where harmony vocals and beautiful piano play stand out in particular. It's the contributions of saxophone and strings that give a beautiful refined richness to it all. The song's main attraction though is its well-constructed nature and Capasso's gorgeously moving melodic guitar phrasings.
Neve Nera, which somewhat reminds me of Reale Accademia Di Musica's effort Angeli Mutanti, is another fine demonstration of Capasso's compositional and six-string strength. It is captured in a fresh contemporary sound with a spaciously designed middle part, and it slowly intensifies as the song breaths a delightful seventies feel, thanks to the shimmering psychedelics embedded within. Supported by Mellotron (Alessandro Di Benedetti) and smooth bass lines (Marco Bernard), the songs satisfaction lies in its immaculately construed climax and a majestically impressive touch on guitar by Capasso.
This excellent album highlight is preceded by Italian pop surroundings on Immobile. It focuses on melody and pays attention to the whole, with balance and harmony intertwining with Grieco's orchestral embellishments. Iit's another marvellously designed song that ends in beautifully emotive grandeur. The same balance and harmony, with exquisite attention to instrumental detail and melodic finesse, can be felt in the two remaining songs Una Valigia Di Perché and Milano Già Lo Sa.
Both of these tracks keep the flow of the album going, The former adds a feel of cheerful happiness that contrasts superbly with the darker sense of the songs preceding it. The latter brings enchanting beauty through sophisticated piano by Francesco Di Pietro. When the album subsequently ends with the aforementioned monumental Sogno Pt. 2 the short conclusion is that Capasso has delivered a beautiful progressive, psychedelic and pop-laced album which has only one very, very minor drawback namely its relative short duration.
All in all the beautifully crafted atmospheric Assenza Di Gravità is a highly recommendable effort. I'll happily prolong my coffee break to visit the album on a regular basis, and hopefully it will see a follow-up in the not to distant future, for its palatable results have certainly whetted my appetite for more.
Max Enix — Far From Home
CD 2, part 2: Childhood Emotions (3:21), The Broken Face (13:15), Beyond My Blood (11:40), Mirrors Of Time (11:16), Angels Of The Apocalyptic Storm (13:34), Far From Home (26:38)
CD 3, Orchestral version, part 1: The End Of An Era (4:20), Tears Of Earth (8:10), City Of Mortals (10:30), Prayer Of The Gods (10:52), In This Forgotten Paradise (14:04)
CD 4, Orchestral version, part 2: An Illusional Kiss (9:46), The Dark And Bright Tunnel (11:41), The Forsaken Ocean (12:47), Childhood Emotions (3:39), The Broken Face (13:16), Beyond My Blood (11:48), Mirrors Of Time (11:34)
CD 5, Orchestral version, part 3: Angels Of The Apocalyptic Storm (13:40), Far From Home (27:14)
Max Enix, the name you know! Well, probably not, but if epic conceptual symphonic prog/power-metal from the likes of Ayreon, Rhapsody, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Nightwish and Avantasia rank amongst your favourites then Max Enix is surely a name you'll need to remember from now on.
Those already acquainted with Enix (compositions, vocals, artistic director, lyrics) through his masked incarnation Constellia from a few years back, might be well surprised with this new and highly ambitious project. It shows a completely different face to the one presented on Secret Garden. And a lengthy difference at that! For Far From Home amounts to over 2.5 hours of breathtakingly diverse and sublimely orchestrated, brilliantly executed prog-metal, that will appeal to fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica, Devin Townsend, Dragonforce and many of the names that follow.
As first impressions go, the gorgeous artwork that accompanies the impressive package is, in one word, sublime. Next to beautiful narrative-enhancing drawings by Thomas Ewerhard, this includes all the song lyrics with corresponding performers mentioned. Elaborations on the storyline between these lyrics outline Enix's story. Even with only the digital version at hand, it is very attractive. I reckon that upon release in its various physical forms (which will be the 9th of June this year), this will be breathtaking.
From a musical point of view, the second impression if you will, this exquisiteness continues. Enix has surrounded himself with the cream of the symphonic prog-metal crop. Next to a basic formation that comprises drummer Leo Margarit (Pain Of Salvation), Elise Wachbar (vocals), Jean-Jacques Moréac (bass), Xavier Boscher (guitars) and Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Avandra) on piano and keyboards, this features a list of guest musicians so gigantic it's impossible to list them all here.
Narrowing them down to a memorable short-list this would yield Derek Sherinian (Sons Of Apollo) accompanied by vocalists Andy Kuntz (Vanden Plas), Fabio Lione (Angra), Tom Englund (Evergrey), Marcela Bovio (Ayreon, Stream Of Passion), Damian Wilson (Headspace, Arena) and Heather Findley (Mostly Autumn), completed by a trinity of stellar guitarists that includes Michael Romeo (Symphony X), Timo Somers (ex-Delain, Ayreon) and Mattias Ekhlund (Freak Kitchen).
Aided by various orchestrated layers and arrangements by conductor Thomas Kubler, these amazingly talented and technically amazing musicians undeniably make Far From Home an interesting, overwhelming, and at times ravishingly astounding album with plenty of musical highlights. And surprises! For next to the mix of bombastic prog-metal, interspersed with quiet, more symphonic passages, it also features opera, ambient, exploding musical extravaganza and many creative movements filled with endless melodies. Bear in mind that all this, including rap-vocals takes place in the daringly complex opening duo of The End Of An Era and Tears Of Earth. And to think a gargantuan buffet fit for kings is still to come!
Amidst all the various successful mood/tempo changes, odd time signature, different alternating atmospheres, instrumental prowess and elegantly laced symphonic melodies, most of them flowing seamlessly, it's especially Boscher's guitar that shines with excellent solo eruptions, closely followed by Shankar on keys and piano, who is definitely having a field day or two. The same can be stated for the tight drum deliveries by Margarit, who next to his subtlety and finesse regularly shows his muscular dexterity.
This, however, is one of my main concerns. The abundance of fanatically played, repetitive bass-drum-fills makes it hard and tiring to fully enjoy and engage the concept in one go. Plastering his way into the Guinness Book of Records with his beats-per-minute effort, Margarit effectively annihilates every single breath of precious air left within the music, which isn't much to begin with, as most of the explosive "fasten your seatbelt" prog-metal demonstrates. The BPM disruptions during the already demanding set, the biblical proportions of the lyrics, and the way in which they are carried across by some vocal performances — this repeatedly feeds my reservations towards the album's overall outcome.
With each guest vocalist adding their own distinctive sound, there's plenty to admire. As to be expected, various memorable moments pass by, for example when Kuntz, Tom Englund, Devon Graves, and Bovio take centre stage. The latter ignites visions of The Gathering on The Broken Face, due to her vocal resemblance to Anneke van Griersbergen.
The outcome of the fiercely raging Angels Of The Apocalyptic Storm is equally brilliant, with Niklas Kvarforth exorcising an orgasm of grunts, growls and pure vile evilness that perfectly reflects impending infernal doom, although I personally find this vocal contribution unattractive as hell itself. This fiendish moment is surpassed by its phenomenally expressive heavenly counterpart when Damian Wilson's unique emotional vocals harmonise with Heather Findlay's angelic embrace in Mirrors Of Time.
But... this vocal highlight at the same time exposes and illustrates best where the rest of the album generally falls short for me, namely the lack of sufficient variation in vocal-lines and its associated lyrical and melodic deliveries. This is followed by missed aspects in diction, punctuation, cadence and emphasis. As a result, vocals tend to become one dimensional and predictable in nature, to the point of monotonously nagging. The general monotonous approach of Enix, who seems to possess only one voicing position that expresses prophetic drama with an over-the-top operatic touch similar to Eric Clayton (Saviour Machine), makes it challenging.
Which is a shame, for his fine, powerful, and expressive voice and strong melodic deliveries in In This Forgotten Paradise prove he can do otherwise. Yet for the majority he chooses to wear a theatrical phantom mask. Together with several out-of-tune-phrased lyrics, strong noticeable accents that unintentionally yet confusingly alter meaning of the lyrics on occasion, and the aforementioned world record in beats per minute, makes the whole experience of Far From Home a long-winded affair to me.
Its synchronously offered orchestral version, available separately or as a package deal with the release described above, adds a whole new view and complementary experience. It was recorded with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and contains a completely instrumental, immaculate performance of the total concept, with exclusive sound effects and choirs that narrate the story. Recognisable through recurring melodies and themes, it offers unique transformed sounds and atmospheres. The serene breeze of Angels Of The Apocalyptic Storm is a striking example, which will delight those in favour of film scoring composers likes John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Philip Glass. Two and a half hours of enchanting classical inspired cinematic music is however well beyond my concentration limits and after time I do feel my attention indeed wanders off.
Overall, Enix clearly shows an upward trend in compositional strength with Far From Home compared to Constellia's efforts. Vocally, I'm not overly convinced yet, but I do applaud the time, care and effort that's gone into this monumental project so far. With announcements made of upcoming vinyl versions, live stage productions for a future DVD/Bluray releases, and an array of epic video clips to further deepen Enix's message about beauty of life and various weaknesses buried within our humanity, his efforts look far from over. All for the better, for altogether he has crafted an unforgettable monumental effort that is fully worth discovering!
Nothing Is Real — The End Is Near
Nothing Is Real have grown out from the beginning as Nicholas Turner's solo project, with the first release in 2019 (Give Me Your Energy). What followed has been an intense number of years constantly at work (one EP and three further full length albums releases in 2019, three in 2020, and another four in 2021). However, this latest release has brought in 2 drummers to help bolster what has been labelled as a “monstrous level of sound”.
Despite having 11 tracks, they are split into four sides forming the title The End Is Near. So I'll look at this in terms of each side.
We begin with a few minutes of discordant noise, with spoken voice-overs describing the ways which humanity may well fall and end up going “the way of the T. rex”. Following this, the music kicks in. And it is well described as monstrous. Heavy and crossing the line between black, stoner and hints of psychedelic, it creates a sound that is both familiar and unique. The double drumming brings a sense of chaotic, yet controlled, energy while helping to really thicken up the rhythms. The more melodic and proggy bridges help to break up the madness before another short interlude layering the evolution of the world and humanity over the course of a week. And finally, we are treated to full on blackened doom and psychedelia rolled into one to close off side 1.
Section End begins by explaining how quickly growth has occurred and paints a bleak picture of the future (thankfully some agreements were put in place and natural resources weren't depleted at 'quite' a rate as talked about, but let's be honest – we are still consuming too much and too fast).
What comes next is slow, unrelenting and visceral in its heavy, discordant tones. Sounding very much like a bleak view of the coming apocalypse, the End builds and continues conjuring an atmosphere of foreboding until the last of it fades away.
The shortest side presents itself next, with a backdrop of the production of goods is outstripping humanity, reminding us how if all the resources are used – people will die (side note – so will animals, birds, insects, fish, plants, trees, mountains, rivers etc). And then more rumbling and crushing doom comes to the fore. Slow palm mutes and chugs swing back and forth. This track, however, delves into a bit more melody towards the end, bringing in a bit more harmony to cut through the cacophony.
And now the final side, the final piece of warnings about how we are destroying the planet and bringing about our doom and destruction. A mix of chugs and jarring, but fitting, riffs come next, fully launching the twisting of stoner and blackened metal at you. Near (Pt.2) throws even more at you. Adding in elements of grind and death into the mix as well. The mix of so many related, but very different styles together should not work, but in this intense 7 minutes, it does. Chaotic, unpredictable and crazy – but complimentary and compatible. I like it.
I can't think of specific bands to compare Nothing is Real to, but I would suggest them if you're a fan of the likes of Ahab, Solefad, early Solstafir or maybe C.R.O.W.N..