Julien Delaye — Ancient Monster
Julien Delaye is a singer-songwriter from Marseilles and the former frontman of the metal band Caedes, the rock band The Coyotes Dessert and then Canis Majoris. This five song EP, Ancient Monster, has him returning to his acoustic roots, but as he worked on these songs they darkened and filled out as he added other instrumentation. Julien Delaye plays all the instruments as well as writing, producing, recording and mixing this one-man project.
The EP opens with the title track. Its acoustic strum is soon joined by electric guitar, bass and drums. He has an interesting voice that reminds me of the blues singer and guitarist, John P. Hammond especially on Hammond's Tom Waits covers album Wicked Grin. A whisky-soaked gruffness makes the opening song a blues-inflected, classic-rock-channelling tune. And good it is to.
There is a synth-wave-like, dark, pulsing synth rhythm, joined by organ and picked guitar on My Dictionary's weird, art-pop hybrid. The Meeting Place is an atmospheric ballad with a brief, fuzzed-up guitar solo and what sounds like trumpet, which works well. A Mermaid sees Delaye use his deepest singing voice over piano and guitar soundscapes as the song evolves. All the original material on this EP is of a fine standard, nicely arranged and performed.
In addition, there is a cover of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms using acoustic guitar, organ and drums that manages to make the familiar, feel different with an atmospheric makeover. This is an interesting EP with its bluesy artiness. Not overly progressive but well worth a listen.
eMolecule — The Architect
Sound of Contact may be a name beginning to fade for many prog fans. It's hard to believe the band's debut and only album, Dimensionaut, came out a decade ago, back around the time I was really getting into the new prog scene. I was drawn to that record early on in my prog journey, and I was always sort of disappointed that the band wasn't able to keep going.
At the same time, I found it odd how some of the mainstream prog news media would frequently reference Sound of Contact whenever mentioning any of the members of the former band, as if they had truly put in the time and effort to gel as a band through touring and multiple albums. As it stands, it seems more like that was a project, rather than a band.
Perhaps that will be the fate of eMolecule as well, a new band comprising Simon Collins and Kelly Nordstrom, both of whom played in Sound Of Contact. Their new record, The Architect, is very reminiscent of Dimensionaut, as well as Simon Collins' 2020 solo album Becoming Human, his first solo album since 2008.
Collins sings lead vocals and plays drums. Nordstrom plays guitars and bass, as well as providing lead vocals on the final track. Both musicians play keys and both worked on the sound design for the record. The resulting sound is more full and complex than you might expect from a duo. There's certainly a lot of talent on tap here. They wrote the album at Collins' studio in Ireland, but it was recorded and produced both there and remotely following that.
The Architect starts strongly with the first few tracks. The first opens with an 80s video game soundtrack synth sound. This initially made me think that much of the record would be 80s retro, something I'm not particularly fond of because I think the 80s are the most overrated decade of the 20th century. But that sound doesn't linger. The record is definitely on the modern side of things, with a few nods to Rush and Porcupine Tree sprinkled throughout.
The album also ends strongly, with Moment Of Truth featuring both the quiet and heaviest parts of the band's sound. The song ends rather abruptly on a heavy note. The heavier side is great, but the abrupt ending is a shame because it was drawing me back in after the record lost me a bit in the middle.
The long, spacey, instrumental passage in The Turn was an unexpected break, and it is followed by a heavier metal section. The distorted, more-yelled-than-sung, lyrics in that section also mix things up, making this song a nice deviation from the rest of the record.
My biggest complaint with the record is that so much of it sounds rather generic and uninspired, like it's trying to be both mainstream rock and prog at the same time. The problem is that in those moments, it doesn't succeed at either. The songs focus on the vocals in a way that tends to push the music to the background, even when the vocals don't perfectly match the music itself. This seems to have led to a rather gritty guitar sound that rarely breaks out into something musically exceptional. Collins has a great voice (good genetics), but his voice is relatively limited to a mid-range on this album.
Dosed has a solid bassline, but it's too low in the mix. The song has a repetitive sound to it that makes me feel like I'm rocking up and down in a boat in choppy water. It isn't bad, but it's a little poppy. Awaken is a quiet track that I wouldn't count as a ballad. It's musically pretty sparse, and the vocal lines feel disjointed from the music. Part of the vocals sound like they have some sort of filter, which I didn't like at all. By the end, the song begins to come together a little bit more, but Yes' Awaken this isn't.
The Universal similarly has a disjointed feel to it. The chorus is stronger, with a catchier riff and vocal line, but even that gets repetitive and stale. The verses sound a bit forced into the music.
The keys, which are attributed to both Nordstrom and Collins, are a high point throughout the record. Collins is a great drummer too, which shows throughout, but the mix on the drums sounds a little subdued. His style of playing is also more hard-rock than prog, at least on this album.
If you like ballads (if they're well done and not too corny, I have no problem with them), you might enjoy My You. Despite the title of the song, it isn't particularly sappy. Collins clearly inherited some of his father's writing abilities in this arena. Dimensionaut similarly had Closer to You, which leaned on the sappy side. My You even has an actual guitar solo towards the end, something this album could have used more of.
I generally liked The Architect, but the album suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. It is at its best, when it leans into progressive metal, and even the ballad side of things doesn't disappoint. It's the spot in the middle where it falls flat. The sound ends up being rather generic and even poorly executed at points, yet the production overall is strong enough to elevate the record past its shortcomings. Still, I'm not sure if it will be in regular rotation for me.
The Enigma Division — The Enigma Division
The Enigma Division are a trio from Dublin whose roots are in prog-metal. Their guitarist, Conor McGouran, was a member of Xerath, who ceased activity in 2017 after having released three albums, of which the first was reviewed here at DPRP.net. Spoiler alert: the review was generally favourable.
This debut album, The Enigma Division, continues to play with the tropes of prog-metal but once or twice moving into more prog territory, albeit keeping the metal edge. Now I sometimes struggle with prog-metal ("wimp" I hear you say!), but I'm trying to give it more of a go this year. This album is successful in keeping my interest with its mixing of riffing guitar lines, fine solos and a hefty use of keyboards (also played by Conor McGouran).
The album opens with the instrumental 1977, all spooky atmospheres that act a welcoming overture. The Escapist balances pulsing synths with heavy riffs, pushed along by bassist/keyboardist Ronan Burns (no relation!) and the drums of Ben Wanders, who also provides the vocals. His voice is strong and carries the melodies well. They are 99% clean with only small nods to the growling style.
They make good use of loud and quite passages, along with the occasional build-and-release structure. Derik Sherinan adds an uplifting keyboard solo to Echoes In The Deep along with the band's chugging riffs. Another guest is Richard Thompson (no not the folk guitar-hero but the vocalist of Xerath) who sings on the excellent Afterglow.
On The Age Of Discovery there is a case of groovus-interruptus as the band move from a engaging rhythmic metal into something more thrashy, which doesn't work so well for me. Things soon get back on track with the overlapping synths and fierce-but-controlled riffs of Kaleidoscope. Then to show it's not all bluster and bludgeon (a firm of lawyers near my home by the way), they produce a sublime, piano-based ballad with Clarity.
The Enigma Division close their self-titled debut with their most proggy track, the 20-minute instrumental 1977 - Ad Infinitum. It is a five-part epic loaded with smart guitar riffs, great keyboard melodies and four guitar solos, each one having a different feel, without taking you out of the piece. They are played by Conor McGouran and three guests, the best of which is Sam Bell's bluesy solo in the slower section. Good use is also made of samples from Carl Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot' speech. A track that has more light and shade, and so it is the album's top track by far.
So The Enigma Division is easily recommendable to those with a liking for prog-metal, and even for semi-sceptics like me there is much to enjoy, with its mix of synth-wave and metallic riffing.
Redemption — I Am The Storm
Redemption should be a familiar name for progressive metal fans. Founded in 2001 and still helmed by their guitarist/founder Nicolas van Dyk. On I Am The Storm van Dyk is the only guitar player and all the keyboard parts are now played by Vikram Shankar who was already present on 2018 album Long Night's Journey into Day. The biggest change on that album was of course the introduction of Tom S. Englund (Evergrey) as their new vocalist. Still present on the drums since 2004 is Chris Quirarte.
Powerful opener I Am The Storm immediately shows what Redemption is about with the familiar vocals of Englund, and in-between the vocal parts some fast solos by guitar and keyboard. The vocals of Englund have not turned Redemption into an Evergrey copycat. Redemption still has their own sound. I Am The Storm is a typical progressive metal album opener and executed perfectly.
At the start of Seven Minutes From Sunset that pace and energy level continues. After some nice, fast solos the pace slows down just a bit and more alternations are added. On this album Redemption have chosen to immediately grab the audience with their heavy progressive metal approach.
On the third song, Redemption shows another side. Remember The Dawn is still a heavy song but there is a more technical approach. There is more time reserved for extending their music ideas. Again a lot of solos by guitar, keyboard and both of them together. Keyboard player Vikram Shankar is fully present on this new album, and he has certainly grabbed the opportunity. There are many great solos on I Am The Storm and they do not sound repetitive.
The Emotional Depiction Of Light is the ballad on the album. The beginning is mellow, but it is a Redemption-style ballad; somehow they still manage to put in heavy guitars to keep the metal going. And then after the ballad it is time for another compact heavy progressive metal song. And for me, it is the best song on the album. Resilience is the song that will stick in your head. It holds a lot of power and sounds just awesome, with so much energy.
The first part of the album consists of somewhat shorter songs. The album is sort of closed by two lengthier songs. Action At A Distance almost reaches 15 minutes, while All This Time (And Not Enough) is over 12 minutes. During these two songs many elements of progressive metal are presented. Many fast and fierce guitar solos again by both guitar and keyboard. These lengthy songs also hold some more bombastic parts and stretched instrumental sceneries. Together this is almost half an hour of great progressive metal music during which Redemption show they are amongst the best of the scene.
In between these two lengthy songs is a cover of the Genesis song Turn It On Again. All I want to say is better skip this one.
At the end of the album there is a remix of the song The Emotional Depiction Of Light. It is two seconds longer than the original, but I could not find where these two seconds come from. It sounds like exactly the same song.
The album is closed by a cover of the Peter Gabriel song Red Rain. Compared to other covers played by Redemption, the Genesis song on this album and the U2 cover on their previous album, this one is bearable. But still, close but no cigar. The presence of two covers and a remix in the final part of the album leaves me a bit with a bad taste in my mouth. My advice, skip these songs and there is still almost an hour of great progressive metal to be enjoyed.
With I Am The Storm Redemption show that they are solidly at the top of the progressive metal league. The first part of the album has some great, short powerful songs that really grab your attention. The second part of the album has some two lengthy songs with a lot of great stuff going on. Everything you need in progressive metal is there, with a lot of solos by both guitar and keyboard.
Forget the covers and the remix and there is still more than enough on I Am The Storm to highly recommend this very good album. This one is a must-listen for progressive metal fans.
Mike Starrs — Electric Garden
Michael Starrs hails from Edinburgh and first came to prominence in the prog-world when he appeared on Strange New Flesh, the first album by Colosseum II alongside Don Airey, Neil Murray, John Hiseman and Gary Moore. The album was not a success and the band was dropped by their record label, Bronze Records. A new deal was struck with MCA Records but apparently the wife of the label's president objected to Starrs' flamboyant stage performance and he was fired from the band.
Moving to Germany, he replaced John Lawton in Lucifer's Friend recording a couple of albums with them in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s he joined German synth pop band Tone Band, again releasing a couple of albums with them. He returned to a rockier outlook when he was a member of the reformed Lake under the leadership of original guitarist Alex Conti in 2002, remaining with them for eight years, during which time they released a single album. More recently he has teamed up with German producer Richard Rossbach, releasing an album of original music in 2018 and a collection of Leonard Cohen covers in 2022.
However, this release is from before all of that; a solo album that was recorded at Marquee Studios in 1973. Starrs had come to the attention of freelance producer Tony Atkins who paired him up with song-writer Gerry Morris. He had been in the prog group Lodestone whose sole album Atkins had produced and who had recently released a solo album again produced by Atkins. The core band on Electric Garden was Morris on bass and backing vocals, John Richardson (most famous as a member of The Rubettes) on drums and Geoff Whitehorn (If, Crawler, Procol Harum, Roger Chapman amongst literally hundreds of others) on guitar.
In a rather strange move, the album is not presented in its original running order and has five bonus tracks, taken from B-sides and a non-album single, spread throughout the running order. The material is pretty diverse and of a consistently high quality, although it tends to be more of a pop-rock nature than anything proggy.
It is surprising that Feel So Good was not released as a single, as it has a memorable chorus with lush orchestrations. Instead, the first single to be listed from the album was 'Love Song', a cover of the 1970 Lesley Duncan hit produced by Elton John, which is a lot more downbeat and rather dirgy. Unbelievably, it was re-released a year later with the non-album b-side Lost Without You which stood a much better chance of reaching the charts than the a-side. The ballad When It Comes To Love was also released as a single, possibly only in the Netherlands, and is a very strong song with great vocals by Starrs. This single was backed by another non-album track, Blue And White, which relies more on a primitive synthesised backing which sounds rather dated these days.
There are two other cover versions on the album, a piano-driven version of Phil Spector's Da-Doo-Ron-Ron which has some great guitar fills by Whitehorn which tend to be overpowered by the over-loud backing vocals. Then we have I'll Take Good Care Of You, written by Hit Factory founder Jordon Ragovoy (responsible for classics like Time On My Side and Piece Of My Heart) and Bert Burns (whose extensive credits include Twist And Shout and Hang On Sloopy).
Starrs' version of I'll Take Good Care Of You, released as a single in South Africa in 1975, is rather non-descript and somewhat safe single choice. The b-side, another non-album track called Loving You, is a much more worthwhile effort with a rather forlorn character, and again brilliantly sung.
Good Life, the German single that was released simultaneously with the album, is a jolly enough number that has elements of glam rock within its grooves. That single's b-side was the album's title track. The only other single released from the album was The Will, written by John Hollis who was also a member of Lodestone. It is certainly an odd choice for a single as it is basically the reading of the last will and testament of a deceased man put to music! Despite the somewhat morbid subject, it is actually a terrific song that is totally engaging.
The b-side of this single, and last of the bonus tracks, Witches Brew, is the heaviest of the songs on the album with Whitehorn showing-off his prowess on guitar. Some nice brass work by Jeff Daly (saxophone), Geoff Wright (trombone) and Mike Bailey (trumpet) add to the pizazz. It is far too good to be relegated to a b-side, although what a great single that release was.
Of the remaining album tracks, Looking For Love is another horn-infused number that has elements of old time rock 'n' roll and is a lively number that gets one's feet tapping. It's A Beautiful Day has a more gentle summer-ish acoustic vibe. To Everyone Concerned is another outstanding song with proggy changes throughout, great vocals, orchestral backing and an epic feel. Love Song shies away from being a bland ballad, having a more robust backing, and Hold On is a rockier number with a great sound, largely down to the use of an organ that gives a low growl underneath the piano work. Another classy song.
I was pleasantly surprised by this album that has been largely ignored over the last 50 years. There is a great variety in the tracks, and despite a couple of clunkers it is overall a very decent album. Undoubtedly not for everyone but for those interested in the early years of, what has to be said, was a great singer, there is a lot to be admired on this release.
Void of Light — Enshroud
Void of Light are a band that comes from a place close to my heart; that being Glasgow. The UK metal scene has always been a hive of activity, and Scotland is no exception to this. Over the years there has been bands such as Barshasketh and Falloch who have been around since the early 2010s, to later groups such as Dal Riata, Codespeaker and Aphotic who have been making massive waves in the last few years. Thus, there are some big, if underground, boots for the band to fill. And with this being their second release since forming, let's see if they manage.
Side one of the EP builds slowly into Deign Torrent with a simultaneously relaxed, yet tense atmosphere. Some dark, almost Tool-like rhythm work comes next, building up behind the brooding and darkly sung intro. Not long after, we have the post/doom riff-work coming in with harsh whispers/screams delivering a chained edge. This comes to a halt as we reach back to an echo of the softer intro, before a final outro of post-metal guitar-work soars down to lead us to the fade-out.
Gild hits out instantly with blast beats and driving rhythm, backed by a wall of sawing vocals. The music works to create an ever-present wall that doesn't become over-bearing, and allows the harshness of the vocals to really cut through. A cross between post, doom and black metal forms the core of this track, and it is an exceedingly well-crafted core. A gloomy and cheerless bridge follows, driving home the musical of aura of the EP as we are once more lead to the end, in a crashing of drums and post-metal guitar work.
Despite being a new group, the EP is delivered with songwriting and structure that suggest eras of experience. It's a pity I won't make it to their tour this April with Codespeaker. It is sure to be a fantastic set of gigs. This would absolutely suit fans of groups such as The Ocean or Psychonaut, as well as others like Odetosun or Perihelion Ship.