Echo Us — Inland Empire
A brief look into the history books shows us that during the entire running-time of the human race there has never existed an empire that has not had access to the coast. This should give us listeners, a second thought about the hidden trick on the album title (besides the evident reference to the David Lynch film). An inland empire is an entity either completely imaginary or extremely peaceful. That's the crux, as both interpretations describe the new effort by Echo Us with a marksman's precision.
The press release states that the album sums up Echo Us' initial trilogy of records, which started with The Tide Decides in 2009, and ended with the enigmatically titled II:XII A Priori Memoriae in 2014. Musically, however, Inland Empire takes off right where the project's previous effort, The Windsong Spires, left listeners in 2021.
Most of the tracks were actually written before The Spires, but the sound design experience that was gained from that record, is very apparent here. The music is still grounded in a new-agey prog, not far from Mike Oldfield's charted territory.
Ethan Matthews, the mastermind behind Echo Us, mixes ambient, trance, ethnic music, ethereal vocals and occasional rock parts into a very beautiful tapestry. And while on the surface the music is easy listening and ear-friendly, it still possesses intellectual undertows that would keep prog-heads entertained throughout. Oldfield-esque music has many adherents, starting from the esteemed author of Ommadawn himself to Robert Reed's tribute-type Sanctuary sequence. But even with such rivals in the race, it still strikes me how fresh and forward-thinking Ethan's music sounds.
As previously, the oh-so-familiar rhythm section does not exist here in any (even rudimentary) form. Drums are replaced with percussion, and bass is simply omitted. On the other hand, the abundance of keyboards and strings really leaves a profound impression.
For instance, Dark Shock features choirs, symphonic outbursts and mixes dark and light themes into an amalgam of moods. Ethan's vocal lines sound very benign for most of the album, but at times almost post-punkish overtones appear in his performance. Far Above the Sky arguably serves as the main hit of the album. It is quite a radio-friendly number with a simple, utterly effective refrain. More dreamy and relaxed pieces like Solarium and the title track are interwoven with acoustic or ambient interludes. The closing and longest composition Singing With You sums up themes and ideas from the previous tracks.
Like all of Ethan's previous efforts, Inland Empire is basically a monolithic piece of work divided into parts, mostly for the listeners' convenience; as in symphonic music rather than on a rock album. No matter how good or skipable individual tracks are, Echo Us definitely expects you to listen to the album in its entirety.
Ethan Matthews not only writes prog music, but progresses himself with each new release, and adds something peculiar to his lexicon. If you can get over the fact that there's no rock here, you'll be rewarded with an ear-gracing experience. Besides Oldfield fans, everyone who's after melodic, masterfully-arranged sympho, akin to Karfagen, Sunchild and Antony Kalugin should take notice of this album.
Morgendust — Morgendust
Morgendust is a new Dutch band hailing from the city of Zwolle, home of the renowned Hedon venue. The line-up consists of Iwan Blokzijl on keyboards and vocals, Marco de Haan and Ron van Kruistum on guitars and vocals, Dario Pozderski on bass and vocals and his son Patrick on drums.
The band members have been long-time friends, including the time when Van Kruistum, De Haan and Dario Pozderski were part of in the Dutch neo-prog band PTS during the nineties. With that band, they released some nice albums on the now legendary SI Music label. But after the demise of that label, the band soon dissolved.
In 2018 the five of them decided to initiate Morgendust, just to play the type of music they all enjoyed. A year later their first EP was released, to be followed by a couple of singles and a cover album entitled 14, which received mixed reactions. The band also decided to stay completely independent, investing their own money and time in their own studio, writing their own songs and lyrics. Their considerable years of experience made them hire some experienced lads to take care of the mixing (Guido Aalbers who has worked with Coldplay, Muse and Queens of the Stone Age) and mastering (Andy VanDette who has worked with Steven Wilson). This ensures that the end product would meet their quality demands. It has all contributed to a debut CD that is convincing in every respect.
In the promo package, the band refers to Tears For Fears as one of their inspirations, and that makes sense in several ways. The production of this album is awesome. The music very well played and sung. The style of music is dynamic, rocky and very, very melodious; a song like These Shadows could easily have been part of an eighties Tears For Fears album.
Just like that band, they don't deter from playing poppy tunes. Listen to the very addictive first single 1982 and you'll hear a potential hit single with meaningful lyrics that should receive a lot of well-deserved airplay. In fact the first four tracks are leaning towards the poppy side of rock music but in a more than acceptable way.
With The Losing End the music becomes heavier, reminding me of Toto and Saga, to name just a few. From that point on the album dynamically flows from heavy pop, to AOR, and back. Fortunately there are also two short resting points in the dynamic that this album radiates. The two short tracks, The Years and The Way Out, present a different, more restrained musical mood without heavy guitar riffs, bass plucking or heavy drumming. Instead we hear just percussion, piano, keys, soft guitar picking and vocals, which do the job perfectly, showing the wide musical abilities of this band as well as their eclectic musical taste.
The 13 short to moderate-length songs were selected from a pile of more than 30 songs that the band recorded during the pandemic. Most songs are up-tempo with catchy choruses, fine verses and few if any solos, mostly on guitar. The vocals are very good, both solo and harmony, except for the misplaced distorted vocals in The Losing End which I found quite repelling and therefore the real low-point of the album. Some distortion is also used in These Shadows and The Way Out, but in these songs the distortion is not annoying at all.
Apart from the Tears For Fears reference I hear hints of For Absent Friends, Sniff 'n The Tears, Comsat Angels, Simple Minds, Kayak, Blackfield and Saga. The wide variation in styles that these bands represent can all be heard in a very appealing way, without making this album incoherent. That's quite an achievement!
Admittedly the music on this album is not really prog. But songs that are played so well, with so much feeling for melody, clever use of subtle sounds and excellent vocals (well, apart from some distortions) will definitely appeal to many prog fans. This album could well end up high in my 2023 favourite album list.
Palimpsest — Primary
Palimpsest (noun.) is a “second-hand” scroll or manuscript, on which new text is written on top of the older one, that has usually been washed away or erased. Such were the times back then. Probably bookcases didn't occupy that much house-space in the days of yore.
Jokes aside, I find the name very pertinent for this UK project. Firstly because it sounds very prog, but mainly because the project's mastermind, David Brown (also known as GlamDave) came to prog-rock from the entirely different territories of glam, post-punk and 80s rock. He wrote his prog-rock opus, Primary, atop his previous music career.
I should confess that I have a soft spot for artists coming to prog from other genres, not only because it graces my vulnerable prog-head ego, but also because these people really bring a lot of fresh blood and out-of-the-box experiences. The Palimpsest is no different, in this sense. Dave claims that his biggest influences are Fish-era Marillion, Genesis and Rush, but I cannot help but notice that his interests are wider than a simple worshipping of these demi-gods.
Thematically Primary shares a lot with Clutching at Straws (and musically with Fish's Vigil / Exile era). But as for the Genesis and Rush influences, I see a more general respect than direct influence. I may not be an expert in modern neo-prog, but the closest parallel I can draw is with Canadians Simply They, whose 2018 debut Calendar received a lot of justified praise, and also It Bites (especially Map of the Past). Some AOR influences are also there, however The Palimpsest is a far cry from happy stadium-rock. Already intrigued?
Akin to the above-mentioned Map of the Past, Primary is a concept, lives-and-times album, that tells a story of a protagonist's downfall, and supposedly further rise to new heights. Hello / Death of the Only Child is the mini-epic opener, but possesses more storytelling than musical value. It could have been shorter without losing the essence.
However, the next sequence works just fine for me. From the melodic neo on Dearly Beloved, through the almost Discipline-dark The Stranger, to a ballad of Questions featuring a smooth, Rothery-influenced solo (“Me, I just drink to get sober again”).
Enough opens the second part of the album in a very recognisable, Fish-narrative manner, warming-up listeners before the second epic. Time and Tides is a dark rocker with many shifting moods, a good groove and emotional vocals. These elements make the track a pinnacle of the story.
The tides change with Miss You, a lighter, warmer and more upbeat AOR track, which would not be out of place on a Magnum record. The track is a mixed bag when it comes to vocals. At times Dave provides great harmonies and at other times is not so confident when hitting higher notes. Maybe demonstrates the most-apparent glam influence, continuing the optimistic, major-harmony approach. Reprise sums up the record with a short but cathartic guitar solo and the main theme on the piano.
Depending on how you look at neo-prog as a genre, Primary may seem either too simple and late-for-the-party or, on the contrary, letting some fresh air in. The album is nicely recorded, with a good dynamic range and all the rock accents working well. One definite thing is that Primary is NOT lame! It's not perfect, but the vital force within the project is undeniably strong.
Scaladei — School Of Pure Soul
Three years ago Scaladei, originating from Catalonia (Spain) and founded by Enric Pascual (vocals, drums, keyboard, Mellotron) of Harnakis fame and Santi Calero (guitars), independently released the fine The Swing Of Things. Now three years on, Scaladei have found shelter at 5 Lunas Producciones, a Spanish label specialising in Spanish progressive rock and Prog Andaluz. This is a well-deserved appreciation for their music, which has shown a nice upward trajectory.
On the last album's title track they were accompanied by Samuel Calero on bass, which at the time proved to be an excellent choice as it provided the needed depth their music at times missed out on. He is now fully integrated as a member, which marks one of the first noticeable upgrades. Together with a slight upgrade in the sound quality, which leaves behind the occasional demo-stages of their debut, this results in an all together more dynamic and fresher sound.
As on their first effort, School Of Pure Soul brings a delightful array of neo-progressive influences from the likes of Leviathan, IQ, and early Marillion/Genesis, with lots of warmth from thje Mellotron and tasteful melancholic guitar work.
The opener, Tall And Proud, is a fine example in that respect, standing proud and tall through its atmospheric opening that is reminiscent of Eloy. This is followed by gracious guitars and engaging melodies in its long intro. At the same time this mid-paced composition also shows that arrangements still require some tidying, and that Pascual's rhythmic drumming has more of a meritorious, serving role than excelling in versatility. He fully compensates for this in a very pleasing way, with his beautiful executions on piano, Mellotron and synths.
Yama Uba then delivers an authentic, passionately-sung sound with beautifully-created, dreamy atmospheres that exposes tasty guitar work with warming Mellotron slowly driving onwards in an Eloy/IQ way. A musical direction which, as shown on The Swing Of Things, they excel in.
The subsequent Taking Blows shows the same drive and a world of ideas and alternations, before it flows into Nothing Can Take You, which represents one of several highlights on the album. This concise song splendidly shows how Scaladei can craft a nicely varied song that fully satisfies through its provoked memories of Amenophis and Madison Dyke.
Reach The Top and Gleaming Way glide by in similar, engaging vain, where the former brings a fine dynamic interplay of synths and guitar, before a slightly rough transition leads this wonderfully built-up momentum into an atmospheric oasis of refined piano-playing supported again by Mellotron. The latter adds mellow-paced melodies, saturated with drama, which fuels thoughts of Daal.
The strongest-lasting impression is that of early IQ, more precisely their Tales From The Lush Attic period. Especially in the curiously titled Don't Want Dream It Over. This comes to the fore when the compelling, menacing melodies, in which elements of classical music and a lot of beautiful keyboard work can e enjoyed, flawlessly glide in the momentous opening moments of the consecutive Sakura Essence. The oriental influences within this fine composition are inspired as well.
In the epic closing title-track many of these elements pass superbly one more time. A strong testimony to Scaladei's craftsmanship and an excellent finale.
Carefully developing their own seventies/eighties-inspired sound, School Of Pure Soul is a fine step up the ladder and worth investigating for those who enjoy nicely-crafted (neo)-progressive rock surrounded by a delightful retro sound. Some minor issues in production and arrangements are still apparent, but these are nicely overcome by the strength of the material. The album shows more consistency and cohesiveness when compared to The Swing Of Things, so all in all this is a successful effort by Scaladei. I look forward to their future plans with anticipation.
Strandberg Project — The Works
CD 2: Made in Finland Update: Crossover (6:36), Yellow (5:33), Yes, This Is It (5:48), Grand Canyon Of My Dreams (5:10), Two Sisters (3:55), It's A Journey (4:47), Past And Present (6:10), The Magician’s Departure (3:18), Hahmo (6:25), Behind The Curtains (5:24)
CD 3: Progressive Construction: The Searcher’s Prelude (1:33), The Searcher (3:18), Under Construction (3:07), Freedom And Honor (7:44), Wizard Samba (4:27, Busy Weekend (2:59), Lets Get Started (4:27), Freedom and Honor Part II (5:10), Chillin' (5:00), Let’s Get Started Live (2:10), Love Trusts (6:02), The Searcher’s Departure (2:47)
CD 4: Creativity: Daughters (4:22), Dominique (9:53), Anni (9:02), The Searcher’s Prelude (3:55) The Searcher/Good News Medley (12:49), Rollercoaster (5:17), Awakening (5:00), Going Home (7:35)
Within the progressive rock world, Jan-Olof Strandberg is an artist who one might recognise from his participation on projects by Paidarion, Progression, several Samurai Of Prog albums, and his delightful funkalicious involvement on the title track of Kimmo Pörsti's album Past & Present.
From 1975 onwards, when Strandberg's bass-playing career began, he has become a household name in the field of (progressive) jazz, recording and performing with the likes of Mel Gaynor, Michael Manrig, Mikinori Fujiwara, Robert Webb and Ida Nielsen, to name but a few. Having played in groups like Funky President, Steel City and F.F. (Fast Forward) he has toured the world since 1995, be it either as a solo artist or with his Strandberg Project.
The Works is a massively impressive omnibus that consists of four hugely varied albums that capture many of these moments that took place between 2003-2022. The 4-CD set offers a grand selection of recordings which have never before been released or finished properly.
The first CD, The Nordic Treatment, present a selection of the funkiest fusion songs imaginable, with Paul Jackson (vocals, bass) trading slap bass, main bass, bass solos and bass fills with Strandberg, who repays this with wah-wah bass, fretless bass, 5&6 string bass and other groovy miscellaneous bass parts. Add to this some outstanding guitar play by Sami Virtanen and the swirling keys from Jukka Gustavson. It is all held tightly together by the excellent drums from Jartsa Karvonen.
Those who enjoy soulfully-played free-style jazz with touches of Jerry Goodman, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Pat Metheny will have multiple field days. Personally I don't hear much prog in it, yet playing pleasure splashes off the record, and it's all rather enjoyable from start to finish.
On the second CD, Made In Finland Update, it gets way more interesting from a progressive-rock point of view with atmospheric opener Crossover. This echoes with touches of dreamy Pink Floyd and Camel while outstanding bass and guitar refinements grace its beauty. The magical intricacies of Yellow, featuring enchanting vocals by Jenny Darren alongside the heavenly, Yes-inspired guitar by Bogati-Bokor Akos (Yesterdays) keeps the mesmerising flow beautifully going, as does the symphonic-laced Grand Canyon Of My Dreams, the extremely impressive Hahmo and the pristine album closer Behind The Curtains.
Amidst these delightful moments, originally found on various Paidarion albums, one finds songs like Yes, This Is It, Two Sisters and Pörsti's revisited Past And Present. Each lay down the groove with funky elements and delightful interplay, spiced with sultry sax and ravishing guitar. All in all this album is a perfect marriage of Pörsti's solo material and that of Paidarion, which makes it a perfect match for those, like me, who enjoy both.
The third CD, Progressive Construction, also visits these jazz-inspired, funky-fusion realms as well as engaging tracks like Under Construction, Wizard Samba and Let's Get Started. Each of these are marvellous examples of the talents involved, with interplay and instrumental control beyond belief, and sure to meet the approval of Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke or Saskia Laroo enthusiasts. Bookended by tense, atmospheric soundscapes created by Jukka Gustavson, both Freedom And Honor Part II and Let's Get Started Live add smooth Miles Davis touches, followed by a sensitively brooding Love Trusts which adds a touchingly relaxing ambience that glides smoothly onwards with impressive guitar work and soothing vocals.
Surprisingly, amidst all this Busy Weekend ups experimentalism by adding beatbox and scratching, while The Searcher progresses from a to-be-cut-with-a-knife, doomy soundscape, into a rousingly-complex entity that erupts with psychedelic sax before a peaceful bridge brings an oasis of tranquil darkness that envisions King Crimson.
The highlight of this CD for me, in photo finish with the ultimately-relaxed Chillin', is the silky-smooth Freedom And Honor. Its peaceful arrangements and serene design is simply magical and could have lasted a great deal longer.
Which brings us to the fourth CD, Creativity, a collection of studio and live songs recorded in 2022. Except the 2008 studio recording of Rollercoaster, which is every bit it promises to be when enticing vibrant rhythms soar into twisting and turning melodies. A fantastical Strandberg gives Mark King (Level 42) a run for his money here. Featuring Pörsti (percussion/drums) and Juhani Aaltonen (flute) both Awakening and Going Home bring studio recordings from the 14th of November 2022 which both express a gentle touch of summery folk, with the latter adding several delightful improvisations into areas of jazz.
These songs provide a beautiful balance to the two live tracks recorded in Helsinki on the 19th of April 2022: The Searcher's Prelude and The Searcher/Good News Medley. Mindful of an accessible hybrid of Lucas Lee and Kalaban it's the latter's compelling message that stuns, through its multi-layered connection of melodies that move, captivate and fascinate at the same time.
This CD's main attraction is pristinely presented at the beginning, when after the Dixie Dregs-reminiscent Daughters, Strandberg's project gives birth to Dominique and Anni. Fully blossoming into maturity, both 'ladies' bring enchanting subtleties and wonderful musical gallantry, in which subdued, sensitive play is dressed up with exquisite bass work and gorgeous jazzy guitars. Together they provide a comfortable and reassuringly laid-back feeling. Hopefully composers Strandberg and Vitanen are blessed by a multitude of twin/triplets/step/grand-daughters, for these divine songs, recorded live in Tampere on the 20th of April 2022, are breathtaking.
Individually packed with fold-out covers and a booklet provided with liner notes and colourful photographs, this is a most-comprehensive box-set and an essential purchase for fans of Strandberg's work. Samurai of Prog-related progressive rock fans who enjoy an enticing touch of occasional fusion in their music, must certainly check it out as well. Its highly-affordable price should be pleasing as well, for one is rewarded with four strong albums that each in their own way provide a multitude of listening pleasure. Highly recommended!
Wedingoth — Five Stars Above
Wedingoth are a four-piece band from Lyon, and Five Stars Above is their fourth full-length release. They have been producing albums of song-focused progressive metal, with symphonic touches since 2009's Candlelight. Up to now they seem to have been flying under the progressive radar, having picked up some coverage from the more metal-leaning websites. But with this album they move into the progressive light, albeit one tinged with something of the night. Imagine, if you will, a genre Venn diagram where prog-metal, metal and bass-driven goth-rock intersect. And in that little space you will find Wedingoth.
This sparsely populated Venn intersection makes Wedingoth an intriguing listen.
The opener Dear Universe builds from strummed guitar and organ, into a dark atmosphere of whispered vocals and threat. It segues seamlessly into the heavier Masterpiece Of Life. All choral voices and keys are interspersed with delicious riffs from Steeven Segarra, who also plays most of the keyboards on the album. It comes fully to life with the strong, passionate vocals of Céline Nephthys, who has a wide range but doesn't go in for operatic show-boating. All this is balanced by Manon Fortin's growling bass lines and Stéphane Rochas's lively drumming.
The album continues with smart variations on this template. There is the slower-paced blues of Dear Man On Earth. The closest song to classic goth-rock is The Space Man, with its dark riffs and keyboard washes, although it never loses the prog invention. The keyboards, from guest Olivier Castan, lifts the full-on prog-metal of Cross The Mirror above the run-of-the-mill.
The standout track is also the longest. My Own Sacrifice has an arched structure from an acoustic opening, over the central, bass-led, punchy section and back down to the acoustic. But it doesn't stop there as it cleverly resolves into an electric finale. Wedingoth close Five Stars Above with the cooling, acoustic balladry of Love.
Wedingoth's Five Stars Above has been a good find, and they make great use of its singular position in the genre Venn diagram.