Leon Alvarado — Charging The Electric Dream
Originally from Caracas in Venezuela but now based in Texas, Leon Alvarado is a keyboard and electronic artist who has released three albums since his debut in 2008. Two of his previous releases have been reviewed here at DRPR. Music from An Expanded Universe from 2015, and 2017's The Future Left Behind, both got warm reviews, although we did miss out on the debut.
Leon Alvarado's latest, Charging The Electric Dream, was released at the end of 2022. It is a compilation of orphaned pieces that he could not fit onto the other releases but were ones he thought deserved an airing. He was quite right in that thought, as the music here is eminently listenable. He makes use of a series of vintage synths (MiniMoog, Roland Jupiter 8, Korg M1, ARP 2600) and software versions (Roland TR-808) to enhance and rework the orphaned pieces where he felt it necessary, while others are here as they were rediscovered on his hard-drives.
The recordings are clear and well-produced allowing all the layers of melody to be easily discerned. The music here takes influences from the greats of electronic music (Brian Eno, Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and Jean Michel Jarre) but these inspirations are worn lightly. However, they do (to a great extent) tell you what you are going to get from this album.
There are no great surprises, but what is here is a set of solidly-accomplished, melodic and repeat-playable electronic soundscapes. Nothing here heads off into any sort of ambient doodling. You can have fun playing spot-the-influence or just immerse yourself in a well-crafted sound-world.
As the pieces on the album were recorded over a couple of decades and at different times, the album does lack that overall thematic cohesion that electronic music usually displays, but there is really nothing wrong with that. To reflect this, the cover, designed by Leon Alvarado, is a collage of his face from different eras of his life using various passport photos.
Leon Alvarado's Charging The Electric Dream is a good quality album of synth-driven prog with detours into electronic dance, synth-pop and even world music.
Ardarith — Home
Ardarith is a progressive metal project founded by Max Pfaffinger in 2016. The name Ardarith comes from Tolkien, Arda means the world and Spirit represents soul.
Home is a progressive metal opera with a variety of musicians. Many different vocalists for all the different emotions, and many guest musicians who provide a solo on this project. Among Max's music influences are Ayreon, Opeth and Amorphis. When using so many musicians and vocalists, of course Ayreon comes to mind and I do hear a lot of stuff Ayreon fans will like. With the big difference being that Max Pfaffinger does not play an instrument himself on the album. The music of Ardarith is a bit more heavy than Ayreon albums, a bit more towards Nightwish, Within Temptation and I can hear a hint of Threshold.
Home is the debut album for this project. The inspiration for the concept of this album was the question of what it means when people leave their home when there is a war.
The album starts with war noises including alarm sounds. Instead of just an instrumental intro, Prologue evolves into a complete song. With the twin-guitar melody, it sounds a lot like Ayreon. Home is a heavy progressive metal album and this opening song also holds heavy, grunting parts. On Ayreon albums the grunting is usually once or twice on one ablum but Ardarith has more of that, so you have to be able to handle grunting.
Enter The Void is a fast heavy metal song, again with some heavy passages, and then it suddenly becomes piano with violin. On this song Max Pfaffinger easily jumps from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Home is an album with many different musicians and vocalists but the sound is very coherent. This could be because Max Pfaffinger has a solid base of musicians that play on the whole album, and the guests only provide solos. On Lay Down To Sleep there is a nice acoustic guitar solo. Not very common, an acoustic guitar solo over heavy music, but it works on this song. The end of the song is heavy, with a fast keyboard solo. Five vocalists seems a lot, but the vocal parts do not change as often as for example on an Ayreon album.
Each song has multiple voices but each has a complete part of the lyrics to perform. Each song has its own part within the story. According to that part, the song is mellow or heavy. Hope and Awakenings are a bit more mellow than Open The Lock and The Key but all songs nicely fit within a bandwidth that Max Pfaffinger allows his project to be in. The album ends with the song Disclosure offering over ten minutes of the best that Ardarith has to offer.
Home is the debut album for Ardarith, the progressive metal project of Max Pfaffinger. Max is surrounded by a solid base layer of musicians that lay a consistent foundation on this album. The guest musicians provide the solos, acoustic guitar, flute or violin, all fits in perfectly with the music. On Home there are five vocalists that each get an emotion to portray. Emotions to tell the story of what people go through when they have to leave their home in case of a war. Home is a very good album, if you like progressive metal then this is one to check out.
Docker's Guild — The Mystic Technocracy - Season 2: The Age Of Entropy
Docker's Guild is lead by American-French musician Douglas R Docker. Docker's Guild is a massive progressive metal project. According to the information sent by the artist, it will result in a total of nine albums. It will consist of five main Season albums, with four transitional albums in between.
It started in 2012 with the album Season 1: The Age Of Ignorance. The first in-between album was released in 2016 with the title The Heisenberg Diaries – Book A: Sounds of Future Past. With a time-span of ten years between the first and the second season, Docker better speed-up this huge project, otherwise it won't be finished until 2052.
The Mystic Technocracy is a progressive metal opera with sci-fi influences. Therefore, bands like Ayreon and Avantasia immediately come to mind. Just like these projects, Douglas R Docker is supported by many guest musicians. Amongst these are Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake), Nita Strauss (Alice Cooper), Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering) and Amanda Somerville. When reading reviews and listening to Season One it is noticeable that it has influences from the eighties pop sounds. Season Two also has some of that but The Age Of Entropy is flooded with classical music influences.
Terminus starts with some narration, and as the voice states he wants to hear Mozarts Fantasia number four in C minor. The second part of the first song is loosely based around that piece of music. K475 W.A.M. starts by leaning heavily on the classical music approach. Soon it fires up, with many keyboard solos flying all over the place. The second part of the song is really heavy and some classical Yngwie Malmsteen-like tunes can be heard.
Nocturne must be a reference to the Nocturnes by Chopin. Again the classical approach dominates, but this one is only piano and not the keyboard cacophony that was present in the previous song. On Rings this mellow part continues, but now the vocals are starting. The first complete song is Lucy, a progressive metal song with more song structure than the opening numbers. It is a very nice song that I slowly start to appreciate more and more. On Die Today the eighties keyboard stuff appears. It is a catchy,, short, up-tempo song with some grunting-like vocals.
On Machine Messiah there appear to be no rules at all. It is heavy, catchy and has classical parts. Machine Messiah is a real bombardment on your mind, and after ten minutes of that, the next song, Le Chemin, is something completely different. It is very laid-back, almost reggae, with a relaxing zen-feel and with French chanting vocals. I do not mind abrupt alternations in my music but these are the kind of changes that I usually get when one of the kids accidentally connects to the sound-bar in the living room.
The next songs are a bit more in an equal sound space. Atlantis Town, The Arrow and Crusades are not really heavy songs and have more of the eighties keyboard style of the first Season album.
With The King In Purple the narration is back. This is a very bombastic piece. I read a complaint that the narration on the first season album was too much, but I do not feel that this is the case for The Age Of Entropy. Cassilda's Song has a very complex rhythm, being a very progressive metal song with heavy vocals. Urbs Aeterna is again a more catchy song. Pornocracy (Saeculum Obscurum) reminds me a lot of Ghost. The Head is again very technical progressive metal and all over the place. At the end there is a bonus track called S.O.S. Spazio 1999. A song in Italian probably based on music Ennio Morricone wrote for the film Space 1999.
Docker's Guild is a huge project by Douglas R Docker. This is the second of the Season albums and the third of the total of nine albums. And this album is a big nut to crack. Over 70 minutes of a progressive metal space opera. Compared to Season One it has more classical music influences which I like. At some parts, the music is all over the place and the transitions are at times very abrupt. So in the end I like this album, but it is meant for the progressive metal fans that can handle some different stuff and sudden changes.
Mr. Gil — Love Will Never Come
If there's a place for plagiarism in music, there should also be a place for plagiarism in reviews. So I am unashamedly going to borrow something from my DPRP colleague, Andy Read. In a recent issue, dedicated to Polish Prog, when describing music by Tales of Diffusion, Andy compared it to “a blend of Satellite, Lunatic Soul and Fren”. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't think of a more precise definition to Love Will Never Come by Mr. Gil, although musically there's a lot of difference between this CD and The Bird. Sorry, Andy!
Firstly, a short background history can do no harm. Mirek Gil is an accomplished guitar player, composer and producer, taking part in the cornerstone acts Collage, Satellite and Believe, as well as pursuing his solo career with five releases so far. After leaving Satellite he mostly concentrated on Believe, last heard of in 2017 when their sixth (and arguably best) albul, Seven Widows was finalised. That was a tragic, intimate and multi-layered trip, which stands for me among the best releases in Polish prog, an incredibly rich scene itself.
For Love Will Never Come, Mirek Gil has retained Believe's rhythm section of Przemas Zawadski on bass and Robert Kubajek on drums. The only replacement turns out to be in the vocal department, with Karol Wroblewski stepping to the mic instead of Lukasz Ociepa. Karol is no newcomer either, rendering his talents to Believe for three releases from 2009 to 2013.
However, prog-heads hungry for the rich, fairytale-coloured sound of the Collage releases would not find peace here. Love Will Never Come does feature some of that intimate, romantic atmosphere, but in a minimalistic sepia (almost noir) tone. Here's where comparisons with Lunatic Soul (and to some extent Tim Bowness) pop into my mind.
The sound almost 90% consists of clean or delayed arpeggios, accompanied by slowly-grooving rhythms. The first two tracks, Fight and Stone, are built on quite simple, moody musical phrases, fresh out of Mariusz Duda's cookbook. The tender Without You and the sombre Begging Hands with heavy, deliberately-disturbing outbursts, bring memories of Believe's past history.
Growing reminds me of post-Night is the New Day Katatonia, to the extent that I almost hear Jonas Renkse's overtones in Wroblewski's delivery, before the second half hits, and the composition takes a lighter, elegiac turn.
Overall, this feels like a transitional effort for Gil and his squad. On the positive side is the great, crystal-clear sound (who could expect less from the Polish scene) and an inventive rhythm section, that is not supposed to steal the show, but does just that.
On the negative side lies the repetitiveness of at least half of the tracks. There is a certain conservative, b-side feel to Love, as if the material comes from earlier, unused drafts for Believe. These musical ideas are worthy of being explored and recorded, but that does not place the record on the same level as the previous efforts. However, I encourage fans of Polish sound not to skip this release.
Starquake — At The Circus
Starquake is yet another outfit that has remained totally unknown to me, despite having been around since 2015 and having released two previous albums. They are a German consortium of players who fall under the hard rock / progressive rock genre and sit comfortably within either format, as their music would appeal to both types of fans.
The current line-up includes Mikey Wenzl (vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, all song-writing), Jan van Meerendonk (drums), and is accompanied by Andy Pernpeitner (Hammond organ), Joe Wagner (guitar solos), Alex Kugler (guitar solos) who all add various contributions to a large amount of tracks. A handful of other musicians also contribute various instruments here and there. You would need to consider this as mostly a solo affair albeit with supporting contributions from the others.
Mikey has a pretty decent voice and is able to pen a number of quality songs that have enough variety to keep things interesting. According to his website, At The Circus is a loose concept album, with Mikey reaching for the stars by trying to write Sgt Pepper meets A Night At The Opera. His influences include, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Queen and a melodic version of Iron Maiden, seasoned with a little prog rock. I can detect some of these influences here and there, but not all.
Life's A Circus gets things under way properly, after a short introduction of fairground-styled music. It invites you to don your Deep Purple cap and groove away to the sounds of the 70s. Layered vocals abound within the song, and you can instantly feel the energy being unleashed, as the riffs get bigger and bolder.
Nu Knots reminds me very slightly of a song called On The Spree by Hungarian band called Omega and features plenty of swirling organ, underpinned by a catchy and propulsive beat.
Life Without You is probably the catchiest song on the album and features some nice, albeit brief accompanying vocals from Gaby Weihmayer.
Platform for me is the stand-out track with its slight nod in the direction of Pink Floyd, or RPWL, and features a great guitar solo that captures the essence of what David Gilmour manages to achieve on a regular basis.
Similarly, On The Train To Nowhere has a very catchy chorus and is one of the better songs on offer. Power chords predominate throughout the song. It is helped-along by the use of what sounds like a harmonica, but it may well have been something sampled using the keyboards. In either event, the sound produced emulates a train's horn / siren system and sounds pretty cool.
The first part of Never Really Over didn't do much for me, as the singing is very granular with a lot of snarly-styled vocals. Thankfully, it is brought back to earth with some decent organ swirls, before the snarling returns.
Afterlife again features plenty of swirling sounds courtesy of the Hammond organ, which we all know and love, but the closing part of the song sounded a little untidy.
All My Friends Are Dead is a regular-styled rocker with a driving beat and a decent style to it, although it is nothing that you haven't heard before. Think Black Betty!
The album also includes four tracks of a very short duration and as they finish before they really get started. You might question their inclusion. I couldn't really see that they added anything to the overall package, but I'm sure there is an underlying reason.
Prayer is another fairly catchy song that features good singing and a memorable chorus and Farewell is the longest song at over eight minutes duration and includes multipart harmonies and honky-tonk piano to add some variety to proceedings.
Overall, this is quite a reasonable album and is very accessible for the most part, but I expect buyers of their latest album might tire of it quite quickly, as I have done after only a handful of spins. Not a bad effort at all.
TNNE — Life 3.0
Six years after Wonderland, Luxembourg's prime prog band TNNE (The No Name Experience) return to the scene with Life 3.0. It is a concept album not as one might expect involving Max Tegmark's bestseller about the rise of AI which was published in 2017 under the exact same name, but one inspired and based upon Tad William's novel City Of Golden Shadows.
As the first novel in William's critically acclaimed science fiction tetralogy Otherland, books I'm unfamiliar with myself, it tells of a future society where virtual worlds and real life are completely integrated into everyday life. A global conspiracy threatens to sacrifice the future of humanity for the promise of a utopia based on virtual reality. Within its intricately woven and extensive narrative, it follows the path of various people in search of a mysterious golden city which is hidden deep within 'The Net'. It simultaneously tells of their adventures to discover the motivations of a Grail Brotherhood and the quest to uncover the truth behind their world.
The band consists of Patrick Kiefer (vocals), Stephane Rosset (bass), Alex Rukavina (keys), Gilles Wagner (drums) and newcomer Cédric Gilis on guitar.
Complemented by the voice of Roby Rinaldetti, explaining the conceptual plot, it is the atmospheric opener The Net that starts off in a promising fashion, with orchestrations and dynamic play followed by excellent, melancholic guitar melodies. Over the course of the album, TNNE almost fully deliver on this promise with strong, technically-sublime play and a multitude of delightful neo-progressive influences that regularly evoke memories of IQ, Arena, Marillion, Crystal Palace and the heavier, complex side of The Ancestry Program.
The strongest resemblance though is one of déjà vu towards the excellent Two Hundred Pages effort by Crayon Phase. Much like that album, the music on display here shows excellent maturity in both execution and song-smithery, leading to a conclusion that the band has evolved from "basic elementary colouring" towards a higher degree of multi-layered progressive painting.
But surprisingly, it appears it has a hard time sticking to memory after numerous encounters. An enigma of sorts, which I can't actually fully explain. Perhaps I am missing something in the overall flow of the album, as it is most certainly not down to the musical elements. The band step into a broad variety of exciting musical pathways which I find strangely refreshing and joyously satisfying.
This is most notable in the fantastic Dreaming Awake. It presents a delightfully expressive musical interpretation of the book's opening chapter, telling the adventurous story of the wounded British infantryman Paul Jonas in the fictional reality of the first world war.
This spellbinding song grabs hold with its opening statement of blazing synths, and brims with ideas, arrangements, mood changes and a richness in musical styles. Next to a strong awareness of storytelling, this highly energetic composition shifts through a variety of moods designed by smooth jazz, a lightness of piano and the daunting darkness of prog (metal). All of this complies beautifully with the images of safety, danger and adventure that the dreamed story evokes. After a wonderful draft of bombastic marching rhythms, a relieving coda finally concludes this magnificent composition.
Kiefer's passionately delivered vocals tend to be somewhat monotonous which at times adds a slight RPWL dimension to the listening experience. Normally this is not my favourite cup of tea, but as soon as the Marillion-inspired opening of No Man's Land transforms into a musical landscape that embraces these vocals with pop-laced melodies, I receive impressions of FM's City Of Fear which makes me feel nostalgically happy.
During the superb Behind The Mirror a delightful touch of dynamically-driven neo-prog, crafted with a wealth of challenging melodies that shuffle in and out of odd time signatures, and morphing rhythms and a splendid guitar solo keeps me effortlessly in fixation. Followed by the demanding Heavenly Visions ups the scale in intense complexity.
The instrumental embrace of Harvest cleanses the vigorous listening experience with a graciously flowing, melancholic guitar solo that brings soothing relief. In itself, this calming song presents a comforting touch, yet as the closure of the musical concept I find it doesn't work and is unexpectedly underwhelming. I can only assume that a rewarding sequel to this "intermezzo" composition will spring to life on TNNE's next effort, when they interpret the second volume in William's Otherland series.
Regardless of this, Life 3.0 is a solidly convincing album which successfully leaves behind many of the shortages as noted in DPRP's review of their previous effort Wonderland. All in all a splendid and very recommendable effort for fans of contemporary dynamic prog, who like to engage into the neo-progressive 80s as well.