The John Irvine Band — Scanning The Dark Horizon
Despite the name, The John Irvine Band is not a band per se, but multi-instrumentalist Irvine accompanied (at least on the last three albums) by a changing occupant behind the drum stool.
Scanning The Dark Horizon follows last year's Psychopomp that received a recommended review in our hallowed pages. Sitting firmly in the progressive-fusion category, the new album has a bit of a twist, in that it is a concept album; the first instalment of a planned sci-fi trilogy.
The plot of this opening release is summarised in a short narrative given on the inside cover of the album, as well as on Irvine's Bandcamp page, and as you can see from the opening passage, it doesn't have the most optimistic of openings:
"It was time to leave Earth. Truth be told, it was time years ago, but we'd held on, waiting for things to get better. They never did, of course. They'd only got worse. We were always Scanning The Dark Horizon, constantly looking out for anything that could be considered a threat to our already fragile existence."
As with all of Irvine's releases, the album is entirely instrumental, so the text handily indicates where each musical piece fits into the story. In case you think that writing a coherent science-fiction story would be beyond the purview of a musician, then it should be pointed out that Irvine has already written and published three sci-fi novels (under the name John K. Irvine), although the last of these was seven years ago, and they receive no mention on his website.
Irvine is an excellent guitarist and is no slouch on the keyboards either. His compositional skills are well-honed. It is obvious that he has a great love for prog-fusion, and has learnt a lot from listening to the greats of the genre. With the interplay of guitar and keyboards, the most immediate reference is to Pat Metheney & Lyle Mays, although on this album Irvine tends to a much heavier approach than that esteemed duo.
The tunes are intricate, engaging and have a great degree of sonic depth. Andrew Scott's drumming is well-integrated and fits perfectly. His playing and percussive effects on The Cloud Seeders in particular totally enhances Irvine's playing. A lot of the bass work seems to be provided electronically, rather than on a guitar, which gives the album a more electronic feel. Fans of the more guitar-heavy fusion may feel slightly let down, as there is a dominance of keyboards on the album.
And that is where I fear the album fails somewhat, as the keyboard sounds employed are, to say the least, very annoying. There is too much in the higher octaves, giving a rather screechy and 1980s sound to things. However, when Irvine does let his fingers fly over the frets, such as on the title track, A World On The Run and my favourite piece on the album, Of Seas And Ocean, it is a delight to listen to. Given the somewhat pessimistic nature of the story's précis, the music is on the whole very upbeat. A couple of slower numbers, such as Solar Winds and Lifeline, vary the pace somewhat.
This is an enjoyable album by a couple of class musicians who have mastered their instruments. I just hope that the next part of the trilogy utilises less synth-bass and a wider diversity of keyboard sounds.
Madlen Key — Event Horizon
The Paris-based five-piece Madlen Key have released their debut album Event Horizon. Led by composer, arranger, lead vocalist, guitarist and violinist Caroline Calen, they produce music that is indie art-pop with just the odd progressive flourish.
Madlen Key choose to open the album with The Maze, a track so laid-back it is nearly soporific. It has an annoying soft-rock pop melody and arrangement that is not particularly inviting to the prog listener. However, things do improve as the album goes on, but it doesn't really escape from a generic indie-art-pop feel.
The better tracks for me are where bassist, Grégoire Lozach, and guitarist, Baptiste Mottais, get to display their chops. A super guitar solo saves Flaming Tree from edging towards blandness. On The Stream, a great bass line and some nice synth playing from Antoine Geremia make this possibly the best track. After a quiet beginning, Memories Of My Friends comes to life with lead bass and another good guitar solo.
The rest of the tracks vary from the loud/quiet blues of Ubik, the acoustic torch song Pensando En Ti - Je Pense À Toi, to the sitar-laden Keep A Secret that ends with a string-laden coda that would grace the soundtrack of a cheesy rom-com.
Madlen Key's Event Horizon is a tuneful collection of songs whose pacing and arrangements are a little to similar and never really escape the limitations they seem to have set for themselves in terms of indie-art-pop. They do have some complexity and are often harmonically interesting. The production, playing and singing is first-rate, as is the cover art. I wanted to like this more than I did, but it ultimately disappoints on repeat plays. However, I suspect that Madlen Key will at some point produce a great album.
Seven Reizh — L'albatros
When the opportunity arises to review a new album by a long-time favourite French band, you don't need to ask me twice. Such was the case when I noticed L'albatros being listed for review, so naturally I had to review it. And what an absolutely delightful album it has turned out to be.
For those not familiar with Seven Reizh, it consists of Claude Mignon (composer, arrangements, electric, lap steel and acoustic guitars, piano, synths) and Gérard Le Dortz (lyrics and novel writer). They are the foundation members who do all the spade work with creating these lush, exploratory journeys that really take the listener to heaven and back.
They are ably assisted in the project by more than two dozen extremely gifted musicians and vocalists from literally all over the world. Particular mention should be made of Farid Aït Siameur (Kabyle vocals) and Laurène Bourvon (English and French vocals), as these singers form the main thrust of the deep messages lying within the music. Farid sings with a mournful, almost elegiac style that is so befitting of these nine songs. There can be no denying the enormous amount of emotion he is able to muster. Laurene imparts so many gorgeous interpretations upon the listener, as she sings so effortlessly in both languages.
In addition to these wonderful vocalists, the band utilises a mesmerising array of instruments, again from right across the planet, including electric and acoustic guitars, piano, accordion, tenor saxophone, clarinet, Scottish bagpipes, Uillean pipes, whistles, bombard, concert flute, oboe, horn, duduk, harmonica, violin, Celtic harp, ehru (a two-stringed Chinese violin), cimbalom, basses, double bass, drums and percussion. Finally, we also have the inclusion of additional Breton, French and German vocals, to really make a statement.
This is the fourth instalment of the band's music since its debut with Strinkadenn in 2001, and it forms part of a quadrilogy of releases that add to the unfolding story-line. As I don't have release notes supplied and as French is not a second language for me, I can't comment too deeply on the lyrical aspect to the album. Thankfully, the music speaks well and truly for itself. So for my ears at least, I can become fully absorbed with the music alone. I am fully satisfied with such an indulgence.
The music is breathtakingly beautiful, with lush, gorgeous melodies abounding throughout almost every song. This is carried wonderfully by the infectiously emotive singing. Together this gives the music such enormous depth and breadth.
When so many bands are likely to pummel your ears into submission with a wall of sound that quite frankly has been done to death so many times before, it is really encouraging to see so much effort has been generated with this album to produce something that is really quite unique on so many levels. It is also pleasing to see the use of the bombard, which is a woodwind instrument often associated with Breton music. It plays a diatonic scale over two octaves, and sounds superb when used by such maestros.
I am reminded of some of the very best material to have evolved from the likes of Enya, Malicorne, Tri Yann, Gwendal, Barzaz, Gabriel Yacoub, Clannad, Gwerz, Cirque Du Soleil, Phil Thornton / Hossam Ramzy, Kornog, Sinead O'Connor (Sean-Nos Nua), Afro Celt Sound System, artists on Peter Gabriel's Real World record label, Loreena McKennitt and a possible vague reference to Deep Forest.
The ehru is introduced at the beginning stages of the opening song but when the light percussion begins, the music takes on a totally different vibe. As if that was not enough, the cimbalon (dulcimer family) is used with delicately struck notes that really add appeal. The song is just so melodic and catchy, it will become an instant earworm. A wonderful opener.
Brizh sees the introduction of Lauren singing in French. Her plaintive style is accompanied by violins, softly-plucked guitars and percussion. It is also the longest song on the album at almost 15 minutes. She is then joined by Farid using his emotive voice, some sax and orchestral accompaniment to add some texture and depth. As the song is building, the music takes on a typical Pink Floyd wall of sound to remind you that this is not some lame nursery rhyme.
The album moves more into a progressive, new-age sound with Kriz. It is very reminiscent of Medwyn Goodall's album Medicine Woman, sans the vocals. This is a very peaceful and moving piece, one that is also enhanced by more plaintive singing and the two-stringed Chinese violin wailing softly in the background. Halfway through, the tension picks up a little, with a grander and heavier sound underpinned by percussion and power-chords that float above the vocals.
Lostmarc'h continues the mesmeric sounds you have enjoyed so far, but I just wish I had studied French a little harder at school, as I can't determine what our vocalist is singing. Delicate piano passages, intersperse with Lauren's lilting voice, along with sax and guitar that build towards the song's crescendo.
Finally, Er Lein begins with a slightly foreboding sound using bass, drums and vocals but the celtic-inspired sounds of the uillean pipes and whistles soon have you checking you are not listening to Dan Ar Braz's excellent live album called Heritage of The Celts which was released in 1995. Again, the song has an incredibly infectious melody to it, one that you'll be thinking you have heard before. What a totally incredible song to finish proceedings.
Although this may not be an album for everyone, it has totally captured me and is an album I will keep enjoying for many years to come. It represents a cultural milestone in creative song-smithing. Totally recommended!
Arjen Lucassen's Supersonic Revolution — Golden Age Of Music
Arjen Lucassen has a new project. It is called Arjen Lucassen's Supersonic Revolution, and Golden Age Of Music is the name of their debut album. The origin of this project was that Lucassen was asked by a music magazine to do a cover of the song I Heard It On The X from ZZ Top. With befriended musicians, he organised the recordings. He had so much fun that he wanted to form a band and do more like this. The idea in his head was to write songs in the style of the seventies; to celebrate the era in which Arjen was formed. So we have seventies glam-rock music with lots of Hammond and blistering guitars but updated to this time. The sound of the seventies has already been done to perfection.
Joining Arjen Lucassen in his Supersonic Revolution are Timo Somers on guitar (Vengeance, Delain), Joost van den Broek on keyboard (After Forever, Ayreon, Star One), Koen Herfst on drums (Vandenberg, Epica) and Jaycee Cuijpers on vocals (Praying Mantis, Star One). For a change, Arjen only plays bass guitar on Golden Age Of Music.
What dominates this album is the heavy rock sound, with thick organ sounds of Star One. Just like the latest Star One this album will be liked by people who enjoy those thick keyboard sounds. If I should sum it up, the music is a combination of Deep Purple combined with Vengeance, Arjen's hard rock band in the eighties.
Golden Age Of Music is not a space metal opera nor does it deal with sci-fi elements. The lyrics are mostly about the feeling of growing up, guided by the great music of the seventies.
Sr Prelude is a short keyboard instrumental opener like on any Star One album. The Glamattack is immediately right in your face. It starts with a fast, technical guitar lick by Timo Somers and then the hard rock with double bass drum kicks in. No lyrics about prophecies, knights, visions, or supreme beings. Instead, we have hairspray, make-up, satin, gold, platform heels and highlighting your hair. Certainly a topic that is not the usual cup of tea on Ayreon releases.
The music on opening song The Glamattack sounds a lot like Star One. On the second song, Golden Age Of Music, it turns a bit more towards Vengeance. Catchy, sing-along chorus and fashion tips that now go to bell-bottom jeans and Daisy Dukes. Singer Jaycee Cuijpers does a fine job on this album and his voice suits the music perfectly.
The Rise Of The Starman is about David Bowie, one of the biggest stars of the glam-rock era. Again it is another steady rock song. The first part of the album is filled with these kinds of songs. Burn It Down starts with a Deep Purple-like organ riff. It is a pounding rock song that will get many heads shaking when/if performed live. There are even more Vengeance influences on this song.
Up until now it is mostly hard rock music with a big nod to the glam-rock. Arjen Lucassen could fill an album with more of these songs and I would thoroughly enjoy it. However, the second part of the album has more variety and stretches the boundaries a bit.
Odyssey starts gentle and evolves into a slow, pounding rock song. It has some more progressive-metal parts in it and some fierce guitar solos. The lyrics do not give fashion tips this time, but tell you to "Touch The Silver Moon". There is another thick organ intro on They Took Us By Storm. I do like those heavy organ sounds just like on the latest Star One release.
On Golden Boy there are more Ayreon influences. It is not as heavy as the first part of the album and has more symphonic elements. Holy Holy Ground is a laid-back, bluesy kind of song. Nice to see that Lucassen choose not to repeat the same kind of hard songs throughout the whole album. On Flight Of the Century it is back to the hard rock again. Great solos again by Timo, and Joost laying down a thick layer of organ sounds. Great stuff.
The closing song, Came To Mock, Stayed To Rock starts with an acoustic guitar laying down a groovy melody. It evolves into a nice blues-rock song with again great solos by Timo and Joost.
The album contains a few bonus tracks. The first one is a cover of Children Of The Revolution from glam rock icons T-Rex. The second one is the song which made it all happen for the Supersonic Revolution, the ZZ Top cover I Heard It On The X. You can hear they had a lot of fun recording this one, and it is a good thing that this fun resulted in a complete album. The next cover song is not so obvious, it is Fantasy from Earth Wind & Fire; soul and funk turned into rock music. The closing bonus track is Love Is All, originally by Rodger Clover with Ronnie James Dio on vocals. This last one kind of falls apart in a rock version. It is iconic because of the brass section and replacing them with guitar does not work in my opinion.
Last year we had a new Star One release and now Arjen Lucassen brings a new project. The style of this Supersonic Revolution is much like Star One but the sci-fi element is replaced with a seventies vibe. Just like on Revel In Time the music is dominated by heavy organ layers, this time turning more towards hard/glam rock. If I should summarise the style, then it is a combination of Deep Purple and Vengeance. No rotating musicians or vocalists but five guys that are clearly having a wonderful time creating this music. No progressive music boundaries will be broken by Golden Age Of Music but this album will certainly be enjoyed by many fans. Again Arjen Lucassen has created another great album.