Athak — Daturapyramides
Self-confessed Magma fan Scarset Vincent (guitar, bass, piano, keyboards, violin, percussion, vocals, drums, composing and production) brings his long tenure in Hong Kong to an end with his 14th release, Daturapyramides. He is basically a one-man band but there are a couple of guest musicians along the way. He sees his latest album as the culmination of his time in Hong Kong ahead of his return to France.
The music on Daturapyramides has the spirit of Magma infusing it. But I feel it leans towards the later, jazzier end of the French maverick's output. As Scarset Vincent acknowledges, other influences include John Zorn, Steve Reich and Soft Machine. The album features lead-electric and acoustic piano in equal measures, often on the same track. This gives the album coherence, even in its most avant-garde moments which, to be fair, are not a major feature of the album.
As the colours that imbue these seven tracks will show, Scarset Vincent is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. The drumming occasionally tends towards the pedestrian, but not everyone can drum like Christian Vander.
I'll just look at a couple of the tracks to give you a flavour of what Athak are about. The eleven minutes of Hierarchical Rotating Schizophrenia is basically a minimalist, experimental, jazz-rock trio. Acoustic piano, bass and drums with the odd interjection from the violin. Its insistent, repetitive motifs slowly evolve and intertwine. It builds to a quieter, stuttering coda. It also has his best drum performance. Well worth a listen if that's your bag.
Also worth your time are Voyager's synths, electric piano and wordless vocals. It contains the album's best melody. I also enjoy Apparitions' electric piano-led jazz-fusion and chanted vocals. The album sound is clear and rich and I really like the cover.
So, Athaks' Daturapyramides would appeal to modern eclectic jazz fans and those who like their zuehl sporadically less-intense.
Berlin Heart — The Low Summit
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Vincent Blanot, based in Paris, records under the band name Berlin Heart. The Low Summit is the follow up to 2020's Mute In The Sea. His new album features guests from various prog and prog-adjacent bands including Aurélien Ouzoulias on drums (Morglbl, The Prize), Aurelien Goude on lapsteel guitar (Esthesis), Quentin Thomas on the alto saxophone (NCY Milky Band), Prosper Sibertin-Blanc on the cello (Horama), and his media composer colleague Mathieu Vilbert on the violin.
Berlin Heart describes themselves as "post-progressif", and that comes over as a broad mix of art-rock and neo-prog with doses of ambience and folk. The latter appears in short but prominent instrumentals that initially gave a feeling of disjointedness. The folk instrumentals feature acoustic guitar and mandolin, wordless vocals and some ambient-style keys.
The album opens with the scratchy Appalachian backwoods folk of The Poringland Oak. Others are scattered throughout the album. The Innocents has cello and piano to enliven the folk. The best is the instrumental-heavy folk of Apical Bud, whose gentle strumming gains pace and some intensity.
There is one folky troubadour ballad, Dead Leaves, that connects better with the prog songs on the album, but it comes a bit late in the running order. In proximity to the folk elements, there are some great prog tunes.
The fine neo-prog with an art-pop sensibility of Still Life has a nice use of a horns section. Floaty, ambient keys, piano and strings support the delicate Steve Wilson-like vocals of Vincent Blanot on She Dreamed Of A Pale Light. This track has a strange presence, considering there is less here than on some other tracks. Its clever use of melody and atmospherics is a winning recipe.
There is an increase in the progressive rock content on Crystal Morning. Layered keys, piano and a full-band, support overlapping vocal lines, out of which a violin emerges along with a smashing electric guitar solo. Dynamic energy abounds, as an alto sax also makes itself known. It packs a prog-feast in less than six minutes.
Blanot's use of a deeper Kevin Ayres vocal-register makes the ballad Lost House stand out from the power ballad pack with its art-pop sensibility, the use of lapsteel guitar and an alto sax added to its take on Steven Wilson's solo work.
On the first few listens, the long-form title track feels stitched together, but later listens reveal it to be more like a series of discreet chapters that share complimentary themes. In some sections this has the heaviest guitar sound on the album to terrific effect. Overall, it is a great accomplishment.
The last song, Solar, starts in the folk-acoustic mode but grows into denser guitar-driven prog. It uses the build-and-release style of post-rock well. It all ends with Mousehold Heath's acoustic strumming and gentle keyboard ambience.
Berlin Heart seem to be playing in the same ball-pit as Norwegian art-proggers Gazpacho, which is no bad thing. I struggled with selecting a rating for this album; flip-flopping between a 7 and an 8. I found the juxtaposition of the purer folk tracks with the great electric prog problematic. But it began to work for me as time went on, so a recommended release, I think. Stick with it, there is much to enjoy here.
Dune Sea — Orbital Distortion
If you are looking for a quiet, Sunday morning listen to ease any excessive partying the night before, then this is most definitely not the recording for that. Norwegian psychedelic/hard rock trio Dune Sea's new album, Orbital Distortion, is the sound of that excessive partying; if your idea of partying is taking a weird psychedelic trip in a foundry where the steam hammers are drowned-out by the sound of a hard-rocking guitar trio.
Dune Sea's three sympatico musicians are Ole Nogva (vocals, guitars, and synthesizers), Petter Solvik Dahle (bass, vocals, synths, and guitars) and Viktor Olsen Kristensen (drums and percussion). They make some melodic racket.
Most of the tracks on Orbital Distortion are short, punchy, and melodic. After listening to this you feel punch-drunk, coming around wondering where you heard that tune that you can't quite get out of your head.
The songs are lyrically akin to Hawkwind's journeys into outer space. The music also nods to Hawkwind but runs it through the hard-rock meat grinder of Motorhead. Opener Astro Chimp starts on the psychedelic space rock boot camp but ends with slashing hard-rock guitar riffs, while also retaining a commercial pop-punk edge to the melody.
There's a rolling groove to Hubro with some added violin colour from Oliver Dyb. The punk ethos bleeds into Euphorialis' psyche-rock. Its introduction reminds me of Northern Ireland's finest The Undertones. Classic duelling guitar riffs, leavened by synths, push the fierce Gargantua forward.
The best tracks, such as Trinity, have a change of emphasis to a less-intense, funky drum and bass, with a melody floating in an open aural space. Anesthesia and Hevn display better use of dynamics and different guitar sounds. Their invention alleviates the headlong rush of the shorter tracks but retain that essential energy.
Dune Sea's Orbital Distortion mixes a punk feel with hard rock and psyche, making them Motorpyscho's upstart and disruptive cousins.
Haken — Fauna
Haken's Fauna is the eighth studio album by the British progressive metal band and was release on Friday 3rd March. The album features a mix of progressive metal, progressive rock and fusion elements, showcasing Haken's musical versatility and technical proficiency. With a mix of heavy riffs, delicate acoustic moments, and complex soundscapes, fans will discover that Haken are a band that can keep re-inventing themselves at will.
The underlying concept of the album is to recognise the importance of the animals in our world, whether we have encountered them on a personal level or simply been aware of their plight due to the arrogance and ambivalence of mankind. Two prime examples of this are found with the track, Eyes of Ebony which pays respect to the last male rhinoceros which died in captivity in March 2018. Elsewhere, Taurus looks at the migration of the wildebeest while they journey across the Serengeti.
The band let you know that they mean business with the menacing start to Taurus, but it quickly gives way to a more melodic style of song with pleasant vocals from Ross and the typical complex manoeuvres one comes to expect from Haken.
Nightingale begins with soft piano but is quickly overtaken by some power chords, heavy drumming and vocal gyrations with clever harmonies. These must be layered, as no-one else has been credited with having contributed to the singing role.
With the song Beneath The White Rainbow, at about the 4:33 minute mark, it seems someone is in dire agony as the vocals let rip with a pseudo type of shriek that I found somewhat unsettling, despite the rest of the song being better than average.
Elephants Never Forget is a great track and pays total homage to Gentle Giant as the arrangements, singing-style, complexity of the music and overall subtlety sound exactly as the Shulman brothers would want you to enjoy. The staccato riffage and propulsive drumming, along with the thunderous bass lines, all make for a standout track despite the outro dragging on for two excessive minutes.
The remaining five songs are all incredibly well written with elaborate arrangements and jaw-dropping techniques especially with the keyboards. It is also good to see that Peter Jones (no, not that Pete Jones from Tiger Moth Tales fame) has rejoined the band after a 14-year hiatus. His synth skills are superb and play a major role throughout the entirety of the album.
Despite seriously good contributions from all members of the band, I am still in awe at the power and supreme quality of Ross Jennings' voice; he simply shines on every song. This is despite his recent statement which accompanied the promo material for his previous solo album, wherein he states that he does not consider himself to be a metal vocalist. Yeah, right!
The complexity of the songwriting on this alluring album reinforces the notion that a single listen will not do the album justice, so a minimum of four or five plays should have you singing along (in time, in harmony and total unison with the rest of the band) to ensure your enjoyment is guaranteed.
Even if you thought you had heard everything musically possible that Haken could produce, this new album proves once again how their innovative, resourceful and exceptional songwriting talents have been used to create another superb release. All fans and those new to the band, are sure to be overwhelmed by the stunning and elaborate smorgasbord ahead.
Fauna is a progressive metal offering that showcases the band's musical virtuosity and genre-defying approach to music. The album features complex arrangements, lush soundscapes, and intricate interplay between the various instruments, making it an immersive and engaging listen. Excellent work guys.
Kuhn Fu — Kuhn Fu 7 - Jazz Is Expensive
Another day, another Monday. Here comes the schedule again. Titles of pressing music are strewn across the floor. As I stare at the ceiling listening to Jazz is Expensive, a memory forms; melody has always lifted me out of the maze.
The content of this release has been published in several formats. The copy I received was a 2CD digipack which incorporates two albums: Jazz Is Expensive and Live in Saalfelden. A duo release vinyl version is also available. Each album can also be purchased separately in download form.
When I reviewed Kuhn Fu's Chain The Snake release in 2019, I wrote: "The multinational Kuhn Fu band describes themselves as a prog-punk jazz group. Certainly, there is a snarling humour and spitting rawness running through many of the album's tunes. Their mix of rock and jazz frequently crosses barriers and smashes pre-defined assumptions about genres."
After listening to Jazz Is Expensive and Live in Saalelden, I still feel that this description of the band's art goes some way to describe the approach and mixture of styles that can be heard on these albums.
However, Jazz Is Expensive and Live in Saalfelden are arguably much more challenging than their predecessor. Unlike Chain the Snake, these releases contain numerous complex and discordant sections. They also possess many examples of free-structured virtuoso soloing and several avant-garde intervals. Consequently, I found that listening to this music was frequently a demanding and difficult experience. This adverse reaction can be placed in the context that I listen to left-field progressive fusion music regularly and am not easily-deterred by the desire of a musician, or a band to innovate and experiment.
The line-up of Kuhn Fu in Jazz Is Expensive is Christian Kühn (guitar, voice, composition), John Dikeman (tenor saxophone), Tobias Delius (tenor saxophone), Ziv Taubenfeld (bass clarinet), Sofia Salvo (baritone saxophone), Esat Ekincioglu (bass, voice) and George Hadow on drums.
Jazz Is Expensive has good sonic qualities and every instrument can be clearly heard. The digipack is informative and its content is well presented.
The album centres around Christian Kühn's surreal modification of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm entitled 'The Fisherman and his Wife' The album relies heavily upon narration and musical effects to get the message of its adaptation across. The tale loosely deals with greed, dissatisfaction and expectations.
After a few plays, Kühn's heavily and probably intentionally-accented voice began to grate and irritate. The impenetrable nature of much of the album had me recalling my initial negative reaction on hearing Zappa's Thing Fish. Something about Kuhn's dramatic and sometimes menacing delivery had me thinking of other Zappa narrations such as the role of the central scrutiniser in the excellent Joe's Garage.
Both Jazz is Expensive and Thing Fish possess an edgy and surreal air, but unlike Thing Fish, which had some memorable sections, I could recall little of Jazz is Expensive once it had ended.
However, amongst the cacophony and bulbous blowing which characterise many of the tracks on this album, a few melodic passages rise triumphantly from the overpowering dissonance and discordance.
The opening piece illuminates what the band could achieve if they chose to tread a more conventional and structured path. The bass scrapes the senses and rubs the bones, to create an intriguing introductory passage. Kuhn's choice of guitar tones in this tune serves it well and the deep resonance of the reed player is both unusual and effective. Overall, it is an interesting piece. It has an identifiable structure, and it is delivered with great aplomb.
Fight has an infectious beat. It felt that it would not sound out of place if utilised as the basis for a theme tune for a dystopian action movie. The swinging sax-led melody was fascinating and sounded like it was something that Glenn Miller could have created if he wanted to spice his style up with lashings of strident, experimental attitude. Later, a conflict between harmony and dissonance occurs, but cacophony wins the short melee. Nevertheless, the piece has some muscle-flexing guitar tones and the hint of a brief call-and-response emerges, prior to it fragmenting into an unresolved exploration of several paths.
Mantje Mantje is a curious sing-a-long ditty. It features a vocal style that is often associated with Zappa's Mothers era. It also has a fascinating rhythmic undercurrent and is dressed with a slap-thigh, drink-deep intoxicated chorus line. Ilsebill Blues is a finely constructed, twisted take on the blues. It sounded magnificent when compared to some spoken word and effects tracks which preceded it.
The best piece on the album is undoubtedly Timpe Te Shuffle. The explosive guitar solo which dominates the second half of the tune is one of the album's stand-out points. Timpe Te Shuffle put a smile back on my face, and the featured video shows how entertaining this surreal track is. The piece contains several interesting variations, where shifts in volume and intensity all have a part to play.
The final composition is aptly entitled The End! It is characterised by a heavy riff and by some raucous ensemble playing. It's a splendidly ugly piece that somehow manages to convey chaos and order, and beauty and repulsion in its relatively short length.
However, the overall feeling after listening to Jazz Is Expensive is dissatisfaction and disappointment. Despite some highlights described above, many tunes simply flounder, by trying too hard to be humorous, like the cringe inducing Marcel de Champignon & Ilsebill.com. Other tunes such as Fisherman Noise lack any credibility by being too abstract. Whilst other pieces such as Bruno the Architect are marred by absurd narration.
No doubt Jazz is Expensive will find its own niche and market. I wish Kuhn Fu every success with their latest project.
Kuhn Fu — Kuhn Fu 6 - Live In Saalfelden
Sometimes live albums fall flat and are a pale substitute for seeing a band perform on the stage. Inexplicably some live albums can capture a strong feeling of the mystery, excitement and undefined essence that makes live music so appealing.
Thankfully, Live In Saalfelden is awash with the bold colours and fascinating hues that must have made an evening spent in the band's company thoroughly memorable; if not entirely enjoyable.
The band's line up in this concert is Christian Kühn (guitar, voice, composition), Tobias Delius (tenor saxophone, clarinet), John Dikeman (tenor saxophone), Ziv Taubenfeld (bass clarinet), Esat Ekincioglu (bass, voice), and George Hadow on drums.
The opening number NO1 is a pot-boiling affair that shows that the band are comfortable improvisers. The piece is difficult to pigeon-hole. One thing for certain though is that this is not an example of swinging jazz dominated by a pulsating groove. Kuhn Fu's music is much freer and gives lots of room to explore a road seldom travelled, where experimentation and innovation are as important as form or structure.
NO1 smoulders, and as the intensity increases and the embers ignite, it spits and simmers to eventually splash the stage in bursts of free-formed aggression. The ferocious resonance of the reed instruments dominate, whilst Kuhn's guitar shapes rhythmic patterns which spur the other players into a further bout of unrestrained fury. It's a piece that would fail any Old Grey Whistle Test!
Nosferatu has a more recognisable direction and structure than N01, but the frequent howling and yowling of the powerful saxophones take the piece towards disturbing experimentation, and sets a course steered by the choppy and unpredictable currents associated with avant territory.
However, the importance of using melody as a palatable contrast to the sour after-taste of discordance is not totally abandoned or disregarded. Consequently, there are brief sections which either suggest that there is a basis for a whistle-friendly tune to be discovered, or offer a fleeting glimpse and a hint of what melodic delights could be achieved. But for the most part, the opening 15 minutes of this concert is a hands-gripped to the ear experience.
I didn't find the spoken tale of Harry the Hamster particularly entertaining. The descriptive imagery of a masturbating rodent did absolutely nothing for me and I doubt that it will find many other admirers.
The free blowing that dominates much of the album neither swings nor rocks, and it was not long before I was looking for a distinctive melody, or something enchanting to hang on to, or for a structured tune to hold my attention.
Dimitri turned up just before frustration overwhelmed me to hit the 'stop' button. It is undoubtedly the best tune on the album. Its strident punk-jazz approach just oozed excitement and its safety pin aggression and spiked hair attitude had me growling for more. The cheek-puffing, eye-popping, full-throated sax squeals at the end of the piece draw things to a timely, breathless conclusion.
I also enjoyed the Return of Hans Schmitz and Slacker's Fanfare. Both tunes are performed with great panache (Kühn's solo in Slacker's Fanfare is excellent) and show a band that are skilled at delivering psychedelic free-jazz, smouldering jazz-rock and intricate improvisations.
It's not often that I struggle through a release and fail to get almost anything from it, but Jazz is Expensive and Live in Saalfelden managed to consistently evoke feelings of negativity and dissatisfaction. Despite some fine moments, the band's composition and free-form style of playing across both albums did not appeal to me.
I hope that readers can check out this release. Hopefully, they will gain some things from it, that I was unable to discover.
Another day, another Monday, as I stare at the ceiling and Pet Sounds plays, I realise that melody will always lift me out of the maze.
Yesterdays — Saint-Exupéry álma
It's not often that I receive a package from Transylvania, one of the largest regions of Romania and home to various members of the Hungarian band Yesterdays. The last time was many full moons ago when my family and I received a "Thank You" note from a Romanian couple we had befriended in 1975 during our holiday stay in the intriguingly-named city of Saturn. This is a place located a stone's-throw away from other extra-terrestrial cities like Venus and Jupiter, all of which are beach-places close to the edge of the Black Sea.
This time it is my turn to issue an appreciative "Thank You" note, for Saint-Exupéry álma is a marvellous discovery which deeply entertains through its contemporary progressive freshness and eclectic, vintage-styled symphonic prog. And surprisingly, parts of this album's concept and its early seventies-inspired music has managed to retrieve memories of a past that I had thought were lost.
A past in which I, aged 6, for the first time experienced the joy of flight and witnessed the magical attraction of music first-hand when our newly-befriended couple kindly asked my parents to purchase for them a radio/cassette player in (one of) Saturn's state stores. Accepting their precious Bani and Lei currency, my dad happily obliged. Shortly after he triumphantly returned with the stereo of choice. Keeping the actual exchange firmly under wraps, as you had to in those days, we completed the deal when we finally got to hand it over in the safety of their hotel room. With a full cash-refund, for the price paid proved to be fairly inexpensive by our tourist standards.
Looking back at these alienating circumstances, I can almost imagine this reality to be one of the exciting stories The Little Prince (an alien) shares to the crashed pilot (Saint-Exupéry) in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella Le Petit Prince, upon which the concept of this album is based. Knowing that the narrative follows a young prince's visitations to various planets in space, whilst addressing themes like friendship, love, loss and loneliness strengthens this view.
Admittedly the precise plot of The Little Prince, the second most-translated book in the world after the bible, is unknown to me as I haven't read it. The natively-sung Hungarian lyrics offer no help either. However, this shouldn't hold anyone back, because the explanatory English introductions accompanying each song in the booklet act as a perfect compass for the storyline. The extremely attractive music, that captures the different stages of adventure and the moods that go with it, takes care of the rest.
The album's main attractiveness lies in its first magisterial hour. This starts out most enticingly with Rajzolj át. In this eclectic composition the excellent flute passages (Kecskeméti Gábor) regularly remind me of Solaris, to which tuneful vocals and harmonies between Stéphanie Semeniuc and Tarsoly Csenge add enchanting expressions of early Polish Quidam.
With jazz and playful melodies creating a beautiful final chord, band leader Bogáti-Bokor Ákos' preference for Yes stands out the most in this opening track. Not only through his guitar work which strongly reminds me of Steve Howe, but also through his brilliantly incisive Rickenbacker bass-magic that in my mind would meet the full approval of Chris Squire. On top of this, Ákos (guitar, bass, keys, percussion, drums, vocals) has been able to sprinkle an oasis of memorable melodies from Yes' past into the band's music which is the icing on the cake for anyone who adores iconic albums like Fragile, Close To The Edge and Relayer.
Featuring Francesco Faiulo on bass, Úgy várj majd rám follows with shiny, symphonic Starcastle freshness and richly arranged instrumentation from the flute, the percussion (Kósa Dávid), the plentiful Moog/synth-escapades and an exquisite use of guitar. Wearing their influences with pride, the songs' melodies relentlessly keep on giving.
In addition to beautiful modesty, the adventurous Estekék shows the same fantastic interplay with elements of prog, jazz and folk flowing into each other. This unique sound, ideally captured in a wonderful production, is a joy in itself. And this gets even better when Ma Minden Érdekel's earworm choruses, uplifting Jethro Tull-inspired melodies and cheerful Beatles-que frivolities add a sublime sensation of happiness.
In terms of personal felicity it is the epic spectacle of Esőtánc that satisfies the most through its kaleidoscope of inventive musicality that offers additional Mellotron deliciousness and enchanting (polyphonic) vocal enchantment. With revisited themes and generously shared mirror images of Yes and Anima Mundi plus some progressive elements ensured to delight fans of The Samurai Of Prog, this composition just about encompasses everything a progressive rock fan can possibly ask for.
Following the reflective atmospheres of Panoptikum, A méreg (The Venom) then suddenly morphs the symphonic landscapes rather unexpectedly into alienating New Wave-like improvised melodies with an extravagant guitar bite. Complemented by estranging drums (Zsigó László) and synths from the recently passed-away Enyedi Zsolt (who in 2006 proposed the idea towards the album's concept), this fairly "odd-one-out" song quickly flies back to familiar progressive grounds in Engedj el and Rajzolj újra át.
In these final compositions the parallels between the directional words of the booklet (leaving, letting go and the idea of coming back) and the narrating musical interpretations comes to full fruition, providing a mesmerising coda to this fantastic album.
This is a record that effortlessly captivates with memorable compositions that stand out in their generosity of musical diversity, atmospheric variety, melodic richness and impressive musicianship. I still discover something new every time, and in light of all the above it should be no real surprise that Saint-Exupéry álma ended up high in my best-of-year list for 2022.
All in all, Yesterdays have delivered a highly recommendable album for any prog rock enthusiast out there. And especially for those modern symphonic/progressive rock fans who like their music to shine brightly with elements of yore at its core. Count me in for what lies in store, for this astounding album sure makes me thirsty for more. Noroc!