Cydonia — Stations
The foundations of Cydonia date back to 2007 when they started out as Hills Of Cydonia, named after a region on Mars well-known for its mysterious Martian face which metaphorically symbolised the musical pathway the band wanted to explore and express. Shortening it to Cydonia and continuously developing their material it is in 2013 the band accomplishes a stable line-up that consists out of Rainer Dück (guitars), Dirk Fenchel (drums), Oliver Gerike (bass, acoustic guitar, bass-pedals, backing vocals) and Daniel Perrey (keyboards, backing vocals). Complementing them during this time is vocalist Inga Roser, also responsible for lyrics of the first two compositions Way To Cydonia and Where Is The Silence.
This collaboration ceases to exist in 2015 after which the band mainly concentrates on composing instrumental music until finally vocalist Michael Bernauer joins the band in December 2019. In this ideal formation the band starts working on their debut album which results in the positively surprising Stations. Designed with expressive artwork of an abandoned station illuminated by distant moons in a landscape of dusty red mountains, which neatly encompasses several aspects found within their music.
One of the positive surprises is Way To Cydonia, which opens energetically with tasty organ play and uptempo melodies, followed by refined bass and intricate instrumentation that makes the music glide into bluesy seventies atmospheres that resonate with a mellow type of Wishbone Ash. Calmly rippling along with subdued play and engaging vocals to which atmospheric synth work provides beautiful brightness and guitar adds melancholic greatness, this song also features an excellent layered vocal passage and intensifying melodies that pick up speed for a final blow of guitar excellence and upbeat rhythmic bombast.
The beautiful piano-led Where Is The Silence? slows this right down with fine harmonies and a hint of expressed sadness in Bernauer's emotional voice, while gentle guitar melodies and the song's delicately orchestrated atmosphere on more than one occasion whispers memories of Anyone's Daughter. These images resurface as well in the five-part epic Union Of Souls, a song originating as far back as 2014 according to YouTube videos of the band.
This lengthy composition opens acoustically and slides slowly into dusky atmospheres that echo with Pink Floyd as guitars and an eerie vocal arrangement unfold. Taking off into a spacious ambient passage that shimmers with solar music. Gerike's bass delightfully picks up pace and drives the melodies past oceans shaped by Eloy, to which psychedelic organ opens doors to a gateway of excellent guitar melodies. Passing fluctuating melodic intensities in which visions of Eloy and those of RPWL, Crystal Palace and Fuchs materialize, this splendid entertaining suite finally accelerates into a lovely symphonic neo-prog inspired coda which perfectly illustrates that every member knows his instruments by heart.
"Mother of all surprises" Caravan Of Slaves provides additional proof of this in spades. This smoking live performance from their 2017 show at Slow Club Freiburg stood out on first encounter, still does, and it hears the band initially take a U-turn into enticing Eastern influenced rock, enriched by an oasis of unrivalled intertwining performances all around. Following this passage they then halt on the Lake Geneva shoreline platform in Montreux and burn the place down with ravishing guitar play and steamy keyboard extravagance in the finest Jon Lord tradition, which makes this vigorously played dynamic composition a divine treat for the true Deep Purple and Focus aficionado.
Finally, Cydonia arrive at Already There, the second recording from their 2017 show in Freiburg. Next to a great design of refined subdued interplay and a captivating vocal performance from Bernauer, who added his vocals in the studio sometime in 2022, it twinkles with Eloy like highlights and after a driving performance by Gerike pulls in at Platform 9¾ when the songs divine symphonic coda transcends into Egdon Heath magic. Not only from a musical point of view, but also certainly because of Bernauer's vocal resemblance to those of Maurits Kalsbeek. This delightful combination evokes precious memories of their Nebula album, and gives Cydonia's exemplary efforts a heavenly final chord.
Stylistically it is difficult to pinpoint a certain direction, but I do love the way the band is heading with their music. Stations shows promise and great potential, and if the band is able to maintain the progression as chronologically presented, then prog enthusiasts in search of excellently played and well-written compositions should get their tickets now and hop aboard to join Cydonia's adventurous journey.
Meanwhile the band has released a 'new' hypnotic space-rock composition I Will Always Shine Part II (Live). Add to this the knowledge that their current program amounts to 2.5 hours of original material and my guess is a successor to Stations will soon be underway. I, for one, will keep track of this from now on, and if the descriptions above meet your approval then make sure you do the same. Overall a highly recommendable effort well worth checking out.
Isobar — III
It was really a no-brainer to jump on the third instalment by Isobar as I have really enjoyed their previous albums Isobar and Isobar II immensely. Isobar is a band who sadly never really made any real impact with their previous outfit called Metaphor as the three principle members of this chapter also served time with Metaphor. They were quite active between 2000 and 2019, releasing four albums of reasonable quality with their debut, Starfooted probably being the highest rated. They did however, manage to be included amongst the contributors to the 3CD album set known as Kalevala: A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic which was a Colossus Project operated by the Musea label from France. If you are not familiar with that label, they have released some stunning material from a slew of excellent bands and is an iconic name that I follow closely.
With this latest offering from the band, I am hearing a large degree of quite melodic material which consists mostly of excellent keyboards which are confidently supplemented with equally inventive guitar and bass with long time associate, Mattias Olsson handling the drums. The band are playing with plenty of spirit and an inventiveness which keeps them ahead of the pack. Thankfully, the band have retained their line-up for third album as Jim Anderson still manages to pull out some sublime bass work right throughout the album and is well-supported by Malcom Smith whose guitar contributions are what makes the album whole. Marc Spooner is probably my favourite musician from this group as he utilises his arsenal of keyboards to such brilliant effort. This is so well demonstrated on the excellent track called Shadow Green with its brooding mellotron sounds that close the song. Similarly, 4th Leg also benefits from some creativeness that is often lacking with other bands' music.
With most tracks in the 5 to 7 minute duration, the band are able to get on with the job and not get bogged down with any needless noodling or drivel. Each note has been meticulously utilised in a way that captures the exact essence that the band has become known for since their debut. This is a no fuss operation and played by some very dexterous and talented musicians. A smattering of violin, sax and trumpet also help to embellish the sound to a degree that gives the music a slightly jazzier fusion vibe that I really enjoy for the most part. Similarities with other bands are a little tricky as Isobar have really evolved and developed a strong sound of their own. I could probably reference some styles and musical direction to one of my all-time favourite bands from America called Happy The Man.
Isobar have managed to produce a trilogy of excellent albums without the need for any vocal input and while your mileage might vary, I am more than happy with that arrangement. Although well written vocals can certainly add some impetus to an album's overall appeal, well written music, for my enjoyment at least, stands supreme. Having said that however, there can be no denying a great, well written song with identically well written lyrics and sung by someone with a half decent voice can make or break an album's allure. Thankfully, Isobar don't fall into that trap and continue to deliver some thoroughly enjoyable proggish jazz fusion and fusion lite music that just goes down so well with an obligatory glass or three of Shiraz. To enhance your listening experience even further, the captivating sounds from their latest album are even further enjoyed under a decent set of headphones.
Knowing this band's previous music pretty well, I was hoping for a pleasant surprise and while I feel Isobar III is a little tamer than much of their earlier work, I am still a strong supporter of what they are doing and where they are heading. It's too bad that more bands don't adopt a winning formula like Isobar have created as they just seem to keeping hitting everything out of the park. Nice work guys. Keep it up.
Nomadic Narwhal — Fathoms (Parts I - IV)
Making waves out in Ohio is Nomadic Narwhal who are, in their own words, “a cinematic-style metal reminder of the power and mystique of our world's oceans.” Fathoms is their first full release, and it is a four-part (four EPs) concept exploring the oceans and the many mysteries that lie beneath. Each "part" consists of three tracks. Each "part" was released separately over four months at the end of 2022. Each "part" has the same "album" cover.
Part 1 opens with the Devin Townsend-esque Atlas. Driving and mystifying you as it pushes you through chugging guitars and oceanic bubbles of light. Both heavy and light at the same time, it sets the scene for our journey. With Maverick, we have loaded the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), and just like piloting one of them, the guitar work here is filled with twists and turns, from complex passages to atmospheric bridges. It is the sort of track to accompany an epic and (as they said) cinematic seaward journey. The closure of Part 1, Whale Fall has a suitable title. Both heavy and majestic and ethereal. It sounds like the call of a whale, mixed with the almighty splash as a humpback breaches, the splash sending you diving into ...
... Part 2, where we begin with the enchanting and enticing, yet darker overall tone as we head out of the epipelagic and head deeper through the mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones. As the water darkens, so too does the music. Moulin builds the pressure with edgier guitar work, while still letting some atmospheric shafts of light through before it is darkened by scores of passing monkfish and goosefish, bringing a bite to the guitars. Fathoms then leaps in with a sound akin to Solstafir. A solid wall of sound reverberates through the water, before the calming and flowing into the Odyssey and drawing you in like the light of the gulper eels that live in this region. The currents and weight keep building though and push you down past the creatures and sends you to ...
... Part 3, the Abyssal zone. Seamount thuds with a tense and threatening banging before the force of 400 atmospheres of pressure bears down on you. Musically, there is no light any more. Guitars now slash, rather than chug. Biting and tearing like the freezing temperature at this level. Abyssal maintains the standing of a wall of cinematic metal, but with slightly more magic to it, reminding you that despite the harshness of life here, there is still wonder to the ocean. Hadal takes us into the ocean trenches, with an introductory lick as jagged as the many teeth and rocky outcrops made by erosion of thousands of years. Like the glaciers and water that carved these, the drums and guitars roll over you, pushing deeper and harder down until the ending at ...
... Part 4, the bottom. Trieste begins with an apocalyptic choir drums. Reminding you that this is the end, the bottom and the deepest. Darkness covers the music here, which is fitting since most of the fish have no eyes. The force of the guitars grow in size like the bathynomus giganteus grew compared to their cousins – the woodlice. Challenger recounts the deepest part humanity has ventured – The Challenger Deep, some near 36,000 foot beneath the surface. Like that point, the track is heavy and brooding, but also has a sense of discovery to the chord progressions. Finally, it is time to rise with Ascent. The sound of bubbling and pressure accompanies the organ as we close out the journey. The controlled chaos of battering drums and weaving chords describes the passage through the water and back to surface where we emerge once more.
I enjoyed this album. The idea of splitting it into four parts definitely helped further the enjoyment, as did the evolution of the sound throughout. And, looking back, the decision to be fully instrumental suited it perfectly. Although, I wouldn't say no to hearing a collaboration with David Attenborough!
I'd recommend for fans of Devin Townsend, Gojira, Nordic Giants, Jo Quail and Riverside.
The One — Sunrise
The One is the band/project of Dutch multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer Timothy van der Holst. So far, Timothy has made his mark primarily in the field of jazz and soul, having played as drummer on more than 20 albums of the bands Jazzinvaders, Soul Snatchers and Laura Vane & The Vipertones (some pretty good YouTube-videos of these musicians out there, especially the one with Dr. Lonnie Smith on the Hammond B3 with the Jazzinvaders). However, as he states, having grown up in the 80's listening to the music of Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, he felt that as enough a motivation to venture into musical territory new to him and produce his first release of prog rock. On Sunrise, besides having written the music, Timothy is in charge of playing drums & percussion, bass, and keyboards. In realising this album, he resorted to the excellent musical abilities both of the "core-band members" Frank "Fish" Ayres (vocals, spoken words, slide guitar), Edwin in 't Veld (guitar), and Max Gilkes (vocals), and of the guest musicians Peter Broekhuizen (flute), Fernando Perdomo (guitar), Lucio Giordano (guitar), and Maarten Teekens (vocals).
The album title allegedly arose from the fact that Frank Ayres, responsible for the lyrics, wrote every song text early in the morning. With respect to the lyrics, I had to rely on a fellow reviewer's statement that Sunrise is a concept album telling "the story of a scientist, who deals with so-called string theories and therefore almost drowns in the world of quantum physics because he suddenly realizes that he can fall in love and that love can disappear even faster than the speed of light." Musical implementation of that concept does not seem easy to me. I must admit that I was not able to retrieve that story in The One's music, but this may be due to me not being very good at hearing the interrelations between music and underlying story, unless they are totally evident such as in classical program music à la Pictures At An Exhibition.
In the press clipping from the record label that came with the release of Sunrise, The One's music is characterized as "Atmospheric prog in the mind of the great bands of the 70's with good melodic and rhythmic sensitivity". That statement, although needing interpretation, was appetite-whetting enough for me to pick that album from the pipeline list to find out by myself how this description translates into the band's music (insofar, actually not a bad marketing-move by the label). And, to anticipate things, I was positively surprised.
Timothy van der Holst mentions the "Big Three" of the 70s prog as his main source of inspiration, hence, one might expect that influence to become manifest in The One's music. To me, they are audible occasionally, but the poly-rhythmic complexity and multi-harmony of King Crimson, Genesis and Yes are administered in homeopathic doses to the listener (and yes, the band's logo is a bit Roger Dean-ish). Instead, whilst having a certain retro prog "background emission", The One's music also uses elements of 80's neo prog, combined with (hard) rock, and even flirts with pop here and there.
There is a good balance between guitars, and keyboards, with no instruments outweighing the others. This is self-evident, given that Timothy wrote the entire music and plays most of the instruments himself. He managed to make this release very much sound like a band effort. The music is varied, also with respect to the singing style, whilst still showing an underlying musical red thread. No song really sounds alike, each revealing its own musical focus and characteristics. From Yes-like harmonies in the instrumental opener The Thoughts Of Light, Pink Floyd music meeting Yes' singing style on Remember, to the keyboard-driven sounds of German 70's bands Ramses, and Eloy on Let's Laugh. That one is my favourite, together with The Past Haunts Again, which, especially due to the sharp and metallic-sounding voice like the one of Mark Trueack, strongly reminds me of Australian proggers Unitopia. The dreamy flute and the gentle melodic vocals give The Time Stands Still a bit of an Alan Parsons Project touch.
Unlike some other reviews where it can happen that I struggle a bit more for words, these found their way onto my computer keyboard rather smoothly here. I think this fact is a reflection of The One's music, which I find straightforward (without being simplistic), accessible, direct, compact, and dense - just honest, no-frills progressive rock, enjoyable to listen to. It shows a healthy degree of originality and is low-key to the (positive) extent that in brings across Timothy's affection and respect for his prog rock role-models, without giving the impression that he merely wants to copy, not to mention to outrank them. Instead, it becomes evident that he likes what he is doing (and playing). No, this is no reinvention of the prog rock wheel, and, personally, I missed a bit the goosebumps-producing "wow-effect", and I would have nothing against a little more musical complexity overall. That assumes, though, that Timothy's excursion into the prog world was not a flash in the pan and that we can hope for a sequel. Given this very promising debut, I look forward to the continuation and further development of his band-project.
The Prog Collective — Seeking Peace
Let me toss out a few names: Jordan Rudess, Chester Thompson, James LaBrie, Steve Morse, Geoff Downes, Steve Hillage, Patrick Moraz. Now imagine them (along with other rock and progressive-rock notables) contributing to a single album. You'd think the album would be good, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be right. Not only is Seeking Peace, the fifth album by progressive-rock supergroup The Prog Collective, good, but it's also just plain fun.
Here's a comparison. Just yesterday, I listened to U.K.'s 1979 album Danger Money again. "Again" is perhaps not quite the right word: Danger Money is one of my all-time favourite albums, and I have listened to it quite literally innumerable times (five hundred? seven hundred? a thousand? I've no idea). This is an instructive comparison, becuse U.K., like The Prog Collective, was a progressive-rock supergroup (and, before his death, John Wetton played on earlier Prog Collective albums). Danger Money is, to me, one of the foundational documents of early-middle progressive rock; it seems to me flawless. But as I listened to The Prog Collective, I realized that maybe Danger Money does have a single flaw: it's great, but it's deadly serious. It's not fun. Seeking Peace really is.
Composer Billy Sherwood has written seven utterly delightful songs - melodic, satisfyingly complex without being show-offy - and the performers have done the songs proud. (There are nine tracks on the album, but the last two are just extended versions of two of the other songs). We are told that Sherwood "channels spiritual serenity and mystical forces on these epic new compositions." Well, okay, but to me, this is just a cracking good bunch of well-conceived and finely executed modern progressive-rock songs.
Part of the fun, of course, is figuring out who is playing on what song without reading the credits. I tried to do exactly that the first time I listened to the album, but I cracked when I got to track 6, Take The Path, because I was sure that the singer was Graham Bonnett, one of heavy-metal's all-time greats, but I couldn't quite believe he'd be on this album (and fit in so well). Yep, that's Graham Bonnett, all right. (Another surprise: Billy Idol's long-time guitarist, Steve Stevens, doing a superb job on the third track, In An Instant.) Bonnett and Stevens are not names that come to mind when I think of progressive rock, but they were inspired choices to perform guest roles on this album.
What, in general, do the songs sound like, you might want to know? I have an easy answer. As everybody knows, Billy Sherwood has done several stints with Yes and has played with Asia. Am I suggesting that these songs "sound like" Yes or Asia songs? You'll have to listen and find out for yourself. But I won't be coy: if you're a fan of either or both of those groups, you'll find a lot to like here. Standout tracks? I'm delighted to say there isn't a dud on the album (my least favourite is probably Finally Over, it's not in any way bad, but I think it meanders a bit), but there also isn't one single track that outshines the others, a wholly good thing, in my book. (I might put in a word for Take The Path, but I'm such a Graham Bonnett fan that I probably shouldn't be trusted.)
This is a good, satisfying, and, yes, fun album. I can't imagine that any fan of progressive rock wouldn't enjoy it. Is it groundbreaking, breathtakingly original, a work for the ages? Nope. It's just a very good progressive-rock album played by some of the best players you could ask for.
Ten Jinn — Ardis
Ardis is the fifth album of original material from Pennsylvania's Ten Jinn who have also released a tribute album to David Bowie. The band has had a rather fractured history since their initial formation in 1991 having taken a sabbatical between 2004 and 2016 while main composer and keyboard player John Strauss studied for a Masters of Music degree and then spent several years homesteading, living a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. The band returned in 2017 with their fourth album Sisyphus which was based on a composition Strauss had produced for his degree.
After years of preparation the group, which also features Mike Matier on guitars, Mark Wickliffe on drums and Matt Brown on keyboards, was all set to make a return to the stage when the Covid pandemic struck. Not to be deterred, focus was switched to writing and recording new material the first fruits of which were released as digital downloads from August 2021. With band members split between Philadelphia and Los Angeles it has taken a while for the completed album to light, although the first drafts of the next album have already been completed.
The new album is inspired by The Iron Heel, the 1908 novel by Jack London which is set in the 27th century. Seven hundred years earlier at the start of the 20th century, so the story goes, America was on the verge of electing a President whose socialist party looked like winning the majority in both the House of Representatives and Congress. The right-wingers are alarmed by the thought of America becoming a socialist state so seize power and create a vicious totalitarian state which lasted for three centuries. On the collapse of this oppressive and autocratic state, a new era of enlightenment began so starting the Brotherhood Of Man (B.O.M.) by which years were now named. The narrator of the novel is Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 419 B.O.M. in his native city of Ardis who has unearthed a manuscript written during the early years of the oligarchy, or Iron Heel, by the socialist Ernest Everhard which asserts that the new state is primarily based on the exploitation of the labour force. Not everyone agrees with these assertions, principally Avis Cunningham, the daughter of an eminent and wealthy scientist, and the clergyman Bishop Morehouse. However, after carrying out their own investigations and on discovering under what terrible conditions the workers are living under change their minds and accept Everhard's conclusions. The fates of these two characters is vastly different, Avis ends up marrying Everhard and Morehouse is placed in an asylum by the state in order to silence his radical preaching.
It is quite an epic tale to try and portray in 48 minutes but Ten Jinn manage it very well, providing a dramatic and engaging soundtrack that doesn't require foreknowledge of the book, indeed it is possible an advantage given the album's first song, Brotherhood Of Man is really the conclusion depicting the formation of the revolutionary group that eventually overthrow the oligarchy. A stunningly good song that is not only melodic but also has real proggy elements and is infused with great solos on the organ by Matt Brown and guitar by Michael Matier, all of which is backed up by a great vocal arrangement. Say Aye/Bishop's Vision (point of pedantry here, it should really be The Bishop's Vision!) are two dramatically different songs merged together. Say Aye is an upbeat number with a powerful and, aggressive guitar solo from Happy The Man guitarist Stan Whittaker and a memorable chorus, while Bishop's Vision is of a slower tempo with acoustic guitar parts and forceful layered vocals and another guest guitar soloist, Kenneth Francis. Despite this the two work well alongside each other. Elegy II, like the album opener Elegy I is an instrumental piece and features some great synths by Brown, some nice retro sounds that actually don't sound dated. These blend well with Strauss' piano work.
Not surprisingly, Adumbrations was released as a single, not that there was ever much chance of it making an impact on the national 'hit parade' of course! It truly is a great song that imparts a jolly air with, as is the case for most of the album, the vocals very up front in the mix, the album will be an absolute bugger for Strauss to sing live! Great key change on the line 'Beginning Of The End' as well, goes where one doesn't expect it to but again works well. Undoubted highlight of the album for prog fans will be The Red Virgin with its Belew-era King Crimson guitar parts, flipping of time signatures, massive harmonies and great performances from all the musicians involved which also include Matt Overholser rejoining the band on bass and Kenneth Francis, who co-wrote the song with Strauss, again on guitars, keyboards, lead, and backing vocals. The highs continue on Nightmare a heavy instrumental with Overholser again on bass providing a solid and inventive foundation for lots of guitar widdling, power chords and drama. Love it!
The album closes with Elegy III, which unlike the first two parts has vocals. There are musical similarities between the three parts, as one would expect but when played back-to-back constitute a rather fine trilogy. This is definitely a concluding piece; it does a great job of summing up all that has gone before and bringing the album to a positive conclusion. The last couple of minutes are particularly fine incorporating a variety of keyboards that hint at multiple styles that have been incorporated by great prog bands of the past and even a brief guitar section that is a nod to the Brian May signature sound.
I had sort of lost touch with Ten Jinn since positively reviewing their third album Alone way back in 2004, but am very happy to reconnect with them and rediscover their albums.