Album Reviews

Issue 2023-028

Circe Link and Christian Nesmith — Cosmologica

Circe Link and Christian Nesmith - Cosmologica
SubOrbitalPreFlight (3:19), Architecture (6:17), Syzygy (Terra Firma - Sol - Lunaria) (11:13), Assignment In Eternity (8:56), Cosmologica (8:44), Satellite (4:43), God From The Machine (8:26)
Mark Hughes

It is unlikely that many readers will have heard of Circe Link, an American vocalist who has released eleven previous albums and one EP that have crossed many genres but many of which fall into a seemingly self-devised category of cowboy jazz, a mixture of Americana, lounge music and even pop music. Although all of her previous albums have been released under her name alone, the majority of the music on these albums was written, performed and produced by Christian Nesmith, whose name (surname at least) may ring a few bells as he is the son of Michael Nesmith, he of The Monkees.

The best introduction to the album comes from Nesmith himself, from the album's Bandcamp page where he states: "Classifying music in to genres is a funny thing. At its core, that action is anathema to me. Artists who are following their muse tend to dislike being pigeonholed and would rather think that each expression is unique. And I suppose it is. Yet we all know the blues when we hear it. Or country. Or jazz. But what about Progressive Rock? For me, the best description of Prog is 'classical music using rock instruments'. In classical, all rules can be broken. Time signatures, key changes, tempo modulation, and dynamic range are all fair game. And so, too, it is with Prog. And because it is so free, it is the least genre-fied genre, and therefore capable of being the most honest and unique artistic expression."

He continues: "That said, I have zero shame in paying direct tribute in these compositions to the artists that inspired them. You will hear nods to YES, Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, ELP, Rush and more. For instance, the drums on the outro of Assignment In Eternity were specifically composed in homage to the passing of Neil Peart."

The roots of the album go back several years when as a "lark and an exercise" the couple (who are in fact married) tried to write a prog song. The result was the album's title track. They were surprised at how well it turned out, considering it was vastly different from anything else the couple had recorded. When the pandemic struck and lockdown was imposed, the pair decided to go through past ideas and unused material to see if any could be used as a basis for new recordings that could accompany the title track.

Now we all know that writing good prog is not child's play, and playing it successfully can be even harder. So it says a lot about the calibre of Nesmith as a writer and musician that what he has achieved on this album is nothing short of remarkable. Although principally a guitarist, he is no slouch on the bass, and could get a job as a drummer in many a prog band. Keyboards are probably his weakest area, and as such are mainly used to create atmosphere and round-out the sound, rather than as a solo instrument. That is also probably why the only guest on the album is Michael Sherwood who provides the organ solo on God From The Machine.

Having said that, Satellite has a couple of keyboard solos in it, and even though this is the most poppy song on the album, it has more than enough going for it to maintain interest. The longer tracks are carefully planned out and are not just extended for the sake of it. Syzygy is even subdivided into three parts! Thought has also gone into the vocal arrangements with Link doing the majority of the singing, although Nesmith contributes to the backing, even if it is often not easily heard!

For something that started out as a bit of a lark, it is amazing how good this album is. One would not imagine that this is Nesmith's first foray into prog, as he captures the nuances of the genre so well. Is it serious or just pastiche? In all honesty, who cares. It is well worth a listen.

Chas Cronk — Liberty

Chas Cronk - Liberty
Liberty (5:40), Take My Hand (5:27), A Splash Of Blue (4:59), Everybody Knows (4:32), Flying Free (2:23), Into The Light (4:44), Slipping Downstream (4:48), Away (5:25), System Overload (4:21), Reverie (2:18)
Ignacio Bernaola

Sometimes you just press play and the music is so good that you enjoy an album from the very beginning, paying attention to every single chord. Instant love. Although it may end badly if the album has only superficial things.

Sometimes you just press play and then press stop because you don't like anything that is entering your ears. Instant hate. Although it can end well if you're a stubborn listener like me and if the album has something deeper to be discovered.

I'm not going to classify this album in either of these two categories, because it fits in a third one that sits between these, (one that I'm sure every reader has experienced) when you just press play and you don't know what to do.

Chas Cronk is an English rock singer/songwriter and musician, best known as the bassist for the Strawbs in the 70s and these last few years too. He has also recorded and toured with the Steve Hackett band and Rick Wakeman. Liberty is his second solo album after Mystic Mountain Music, from 2002. One that I have to check for sure.

On this effort he has managed to do everything, from vocals, instruments and production, except for two collaborations from Dave Lambert and Dave Brainbridge from the Strawbs, and Major Baldini playing drums in the opener Liberty. Don't expect progressive elements on this album because it's not about that. As I mentioned at the beginning, I didn't know what to do when I pressed play for the first time because the songs didn't catch my attention. But stubborn as I am, I decided not to press the stop button. I even decided to play it again because I suspected something was hidden.

As I listened the album for the third time I began to enjoy it, and it kept growing with each additional listening. My stubbornness had its reward as I have found this to be a very good album with great lyrics, nice choruses and melodies and very well executed. My only complaint is about the programmed drums, since they sound quite similar, having only the opening song with a proper drummer.

As mentioned there are no progressive rock structures or clichés, just a collection of very well-crafted rocky and pop songs. I don't usually compare albums but this one reminds me of, If It's Real, the one that Mark Zonder and Gary Wehrkamp released in 2019. I liked that one too.

Steve Pilkington — Decades: Van Der Graaf Generator In The 1970s

Steve Pilkington - Decades: Van Der Graaf Generator In The 1970s
Mark Hughes

Although the title refers to just Van Der Graaf Generator, the book should more accurately be called Peter Hammill In The 1970s, as it does cover all the solo albums released under Hammill's name in that period. But having said that, the early releases under Hammill's name such as Fool's Mate (1971), Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night (1973) and The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (1974) were essentially VdGG in all but name, and members of the band make frequent appearances on his other albums from the period.

And what a period it was, a total of 16 albums, eight by the band and eight as a solo artist, of some of the most uncompromising music ever committed to vinyl. It makes complete sense to include all 16 albums (well 15, but we'll come to that in a moment), as their release is not easily split in neither chronological nor, as suggested above, in musical terms.

The full list of albums includes several bone fide classics of the prog genre: The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (VdGG 1970), H To He Who Am The Only One (VdGG 1970), Fool's Mate (PH 1971), Pawn Hearts (VdGG 1971), Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night (PH 1973), The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (PH 1974), In Camera (PH 1974), Nadir's Big Chance (PH 1975), Godbluff (VdGG 1975), Still Life (VdGG 1976), World Record (VdGG 1976), The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome (VdGG 1977), Over (PH 1977), Vital (VdGG 1978), The Future Now (PH 1978) and pH7 (PH 1979). That is nearly 13.5 hours of music, and even if you exclude the live album, that is still over half a day of original music in a decade, which is a remarkable achievement by anyone's standards

For some reason, the final album of the decade, pH7, is not covered in any detail in the book and only mentioned in context to the song Not For Keith, which Hammill wrote on the passing of one-time VdGG member Keith Ellis. And although occurring in the 1960s, the book does mention at some length the formation of the band and the events surrounding the recording of the band's debut album, The Aerosol Gray Machine, although refrains from going into too much detail of this rather uncharacteristic release.

Pilkington is an engaging writer and, unlike with the On Track series, there is often much more of a narrative to the books in the Decades series. The author has evidently done his research as I, a fairly ardent follower of Mr. Hammill, came across numerous bits of information that I had not known about. This is helped by the involvement of both Hugh Banton and Guy Evans having agreed to contribute their personal recollections during interviews with the author.

It is unfortunate that SonicBond's usual lack of attention to detail is prevalent throughout. From the contents page which has split the titles of four of the chapters onto separate lines and included one album in the title of the wrong chapter, to mislabelling The Future Now album cover as pH7, which as mentioned is unreasonably excluded from the book, there could certainly be more effort expended on proofreading and quality control.

But that does little to mar the book's real intent, which is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the heydays of one of Britain's (and prog's) most enigmatic bands.

Pryzme — Four Inches

Pryzme - Four Inches
Fusion (7:39), Vision (5:20), After Wichita (8:39), Nothing To Say (6:08), Pretty Princess (8:07), The Ride Of Your Life (7:52), Morning Song (6:53), Four Inches (13:49)
Chris Haggstrom

The origins of the French group Pryzme's debut album, Four Inches, date back to 2014, when two guitarist/singers, Dominique Blanchard and David Chollet, decided to collaborate on music that would combine pop, rock, jazz and fusion. Originally called Lingus, the band later changed its name to Pryzme, in a tip of the hat to the prism on the cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. The duo wrote the music and lyrics, enlisted Maxence Marmieysse on bass and Gabrielle Duplenne on drums, and self-produced this album, which was released in 2021.

Pryzme describe their music as airy and accessible progressive rock, with influences including Yes, Sting, Steven Wilson, Pat Metheny and Toto. What I hear is a modern-sounding, well-produced, guitar-forward album with great playing by the two guitarists. The guitar parts are bright and clear, with a shimmery 1980s effects-laden sound, featuring lots of choruses, reverb and digital delay. I'm pleasantly reminded of 80s new wave guitars, and of Alex Lifeson's textural style on Rush's Grace Under Pressure album. Even when the guitars get heavier, with some Kansas-sounding riffs, there are no blues influences to be found, giving this album a modern, or at least decidedly non-70s sound.

There's no common theme between the songs, and the lyrics generally have an uplifting, be good to yourself and others, peace and love vibe. The vocals are in English, with pronunciations and syllable emphasis that don't always feel 100% natural. The lead vocals are a weaker element of the album, with neither singer having a particularly compelling voice, but there are very nice sections of harmony vocals sung by all members of the band, and it's impossible to forget (for long) that this is after all a guitar album.

From a compositional perspective, none of the songs are particularly memorable, unfortunately. The strongest songwriting is heard in the final, 14-minute track Four Inches, which develops nicely from a Wish You Were Here guitar intro, through diverse musical sections, eventually coming full circle in its conclusion.

The quirky qualities of Four Inches could easily appeal to fans of the lighter side of Izz, Tears for Fears, and Lonely Robot, as well as those wanting to enjoy a "blast from the past" of 80s guitar styles.

Ricochet — Kazakhstan

Ricochet - Kazakhstan
The Custodians (6:40), King Of Tales (4:37), Farewell (9:35), Interception (6:04), Waiting For The Storm (6:25), Beyond The Line (6:10), Losing Ground (6:55), On A Distant Shore (5:12), Kazakhstan (7:00).
Greg Cummins

Ricochet is a German band that I stumbled across many years ago when their 1995 debut called Among The Elements crossed my desk. It was enthusiastically welcomed by only a smattering of people, which may have been the reason the band waited another 10 years before releasing their second album, entitled Zarah - A Teartown Story. How ironic is it that we have now waited a further 18 years to discover the workmanship on their third offering, Kazakhstan.

But the wait has definitely been worth it. The band have certainly matured and evolved over such a long time, as it seems that all members who were on board from the beginning are still on the payroll except their new vocalist, Michael Keuter who joined about 10 years ago. The remaining band members, Hans Strenge (bass), Jan Keimer (drums), Heiko Holler (guitar) and Bjorn Tiemann (keyboards) have all honed their respective skills and delivered a really immersive and competent album full of nice surprises and very competent playing.

The enjoyment I have gained from hearing their new album lies in the excellent balance between the heavier sections and the more balladic moments when their vocalist can let his emotional strengths shine through. His voice is strong, with a full and powerful delivery, and with an ability to reach the higher registers without much effort. This is a skill to be admired, as not all metal vocalists can do it convincingly.

I am reminded slightly of one of Australia's favourite vocalists from the 60s-70's called Doug Parkinson who might have sounded like Michael had he sung metal songs back in his heyday. This is perfectly showcased on the track, Beyond The Line. You may know the name as he released excellent versions of Dear Prudence and Without You in the late 60s along with a number of minor hits. He sadly passed away in March last year.

The opening song, The Custodians, is suitably placed to get the innings under way. With pummelling drums and an onslaught from the guitars and keyboards, together with a great vocal section, the listener is in for a treat.

King of Tales is a rollicking number and reminds you that this is a metal band who hold no prisoners. With a great, catchy underlying riff and a driving rhythm section, this sure keeps the pedal to the metal. A great song.

Farewell begins with a few crushing riffs and power chords but then gives way to some superb guitar and keyboard wizardry which is so typical of Heiko's and Bjorn's style. Their musical skills permeate their way right throughout the album, helping it to become an instant hit.

Interception is probably one of the best songs, and being a softer ballad type of affair, it showcases how well the band gel together. It also has a really pleasant and very melodic synth pattern that is pure bliss. Scorching lead guitar playing just adds to the magic.

The middle section of the album contains equally appealing songs that give a perfect example of how to meld melodic music, with a metal edge, yet keeping the crunch factor at a suitable level. They also add some middle eastern influences on occasion to give the music a welcome variation. Others have likened Ricochet's music to Dream Theater, Marillion, Pain of Salvation, Fates Warning, Arena and other bands of a similar style. I would have to agree with most of those suggestions.

Ironically, an old version of the final song was performed live in Maria's Ballroom, (Hamburg), in 2016 and is the sample linked in the video below. I feel confident the band have released a decent platter, full of tasty songs that their fans will be keen to try out.

Vault — The Perfect Truth

Vault - The Perfect Truth
The Perfect Truth (5:24), In Limbo (1:22), Lucid Dream (4:54), Metamorphosis (3:08), Holo (5:52), The Future Day Of Yet To Come (6:52), Can't Handle The Darkness (6:23)
Chris Haggstrom

Vault, a band from Enschede, The Netherlands, has followed-up their 2020 EP Blindfolds Aside with a concept album called The Perfect Truth.

The Perfect Truth is about the limitations of people's individual perspectives, because of which (per the album's press release) "we are all inextricably linked to the violence, suffering and aggression that occurs on our planet." Themes of disillusionment and resignation pervade, along with some anger expressed by distorted guitars or vocals, and further reinforced through spoken-word sections. The spoken sections don't come across as heavy-handed (as they often can), but tend to be repetitious, as in: "But I could never see the way you see / I could never think the way you think / I could never feel the way you feel."

Musically, their approach is heavily influenced by Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, early Blackfield, and Pink Floyd, with touches of Opeth and Riverside. Most songs begin in a similar way, with arpeggios played on acoustic or electric guitar, then dissonant notes being gradually introduced over a sparse bed of minimalist drums and bass. The band apparently does play live, but this album overall has a rather sterile, studio quality and is similar throughout.

Lead vocalist Maico Ordelmans sings softly in a relaxed, slightly-breathy voice somewhat reminiscent of David Gilmour, and the band makes frequent use of harmony vocals, further increasing the Pink Floyd feel.

And so it's left to Kyle Janssen's lead guitar to add the textural and dynamic interest, and in this role, he does a commendable job. My favourite moments from the album are all guitar sections, ranging from bottleneck slide guitar, to blues-influenced passages, to Steven Wilson-style, rapidly-picked, ascending single-note melodies.

One of the album's two highlights is Lucid Dream, which in terms of songwriting has the most contrast between sections of all the songs. Heavy, riffing guitar sections play against mellow, atmospheric parts, and then the music drops-out leaving just harmonised vocals, which are followed by a wonderfully melodic guitar solo.

The other standout track is The Future Day Of Yet to Come. Ordelmans sounds his best here, when he pushes his voice a little higher into a strong bridge melody, while Janssen's playing, with a warm, vintage tube amp tone and bottleneck slide get plenty of time to shine.

With a running time of only 34 minutes, and with two out of seven tracks being more like interludes than songs, I can't help thinking that The Perfect Truth wasn't developed as much as it could have been in terms of songwriting and structure. The lyrical concept gets stretched thin and ideally needed to go somewhere, maybe not exactly positive, but perhaps hopeful. The album also sticks too closely to the same arrangements and influences throughout, for me to fully recommend, except to those who just can't get enough Steven Wilson and Pink Floyd-influenced music in their diet.

Album Reviews