Album Reviews

Issue 2023-039

The Black Cat's Eye — The Empty Space Between A Seamount And Shock-Headed Julia

The Black Cat's Eye - The Empty Space Between A Seamount And Shock-Headed Julia
Kill The Sun And The Moon And The Stars (20:17), Katla (5:05), Winter Song (3:46), In My Dreams The Wind Chases Away The Clouds (5:25), Lostlostlostlostlostlostlostlost (5:31)
Mark Hughes

Formed in Frankfurt am Main in 2018, it has taken the band five years to release their debut album. Since they released their eponymous debut EP in early 2019 the band has been honing their sound, making this album a much more appealing listen than the heavier and less-subtle EP.

The group has an unusual line-up in that it features three guitarists: Wolfgang Schönecker, Steffen Ahrens and Christian Blaser. The latter is also the band's vocalist, keyboard player and composer. The line-up is completed by Jens Cappel on bass and Stefan Schulz-Anker on drums.

The first thing I have to say, is that I have absolutely no idea what on earth the title of the album means or what the album's cover represents, although it does look like something Hipgnosis would have come up with, back in their peak.

The second thing to say is that it is a bold move to open your debut album with a 20-minute instrumental piece! But the band pulls it off with aplomb. Fans of mid-period Pink Floyd will no doubt slobber over Kill The Sun And The Moon And The Stars, and they will have every right to do so. It is a marvellous piece of music. The Floyd influences are blatantly obvious (the pedal steel introduced in the last couple of minutes is perhaps a bit too Dark Side Of The Moon-ish) but for the most part it glimmers with originality.

With three guitarists one might expect a heavier vibe but on the whole things are kept fairly sedate, without a great deal of brashness or brutality. Katla, which opens side two of the album starts at a more frantic pace with the trio of guitarists fighting amongst themselves but maintaining a melody and avoiding thrashing things out. This track, also an instrumental, does come closest to having a post-rock sound, but with its variety of textures and the first really identifiable keyboard contribution, it is a nice contrast.

Further contrast is provided by the gentle and largely acoustic Winter Song, which features flute contributions from Walter Dorn. I suppose having been drawn into the Floydian world, one can't help but think of Grantchester Meadows, not that the two pieces are even close-cousins, just that the presence of a quieter, more acoustic, piece placed in the middle of an album brings up the comparison. Blaser's vocals fit in well with the music and he sings in English.

In My Dreams The Wind Chases Away The Clouds has a more psychedelic feel to it, with a great, throbbing bass. The characters of the guitarists are beautifully elegant on this piece, which blossoms throughout its five and a bit minutes, to a fluid piece of music.

Closer, Lostlostlostlostlostlostlostlost, is the only other vocal track on the album and again shows a different side to the band's musical approach. Not to be confined by genre labels, the piece has an almost lightish, gothy air, mainly imposed by the deep, largely-spoken vocals which are livened at the end by breaking into singing in a higher register, and just about audible backing vocals from Lucie Cerveny. The album ends with a 60-second guitar solo that brings things to a lovely conclusion.

This is an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable debut that is worthy of attention and hopefully the start of something big for an exciting young band.

Black Oak — Egolution

Black Oak - Egolution
Epilog (1:07), Trauma (4:21), Shadows (4:47), Equilibrium Pt I (2:14), Conflict (5:20), Collapse (5:23), Doubt (5:23), Equilibrium Pt II (2:14), Death (3:51), Transition (7:30), Prolog (6:28)
Calum Gibson

Black Oak have joined the esoteric world of post-metal from their homeland of Sweden, and brought their debut album, Egolution, to our ears. They are a group of friends with a love of music from jazz to death metal, and everything in-between.

After a short intro, we are thrust into the chugging riffs and almost visceral harsh vocals from Samuéla, before we shift to the more atmospheric and post-metal style of the bridge, with her switching seamlessly into soaring and enticing clean vocals. This back and forth continues until the death-metal style outro to Trauma. The music working in tandem with the vocals is impeccable, with each instrument and vocal line matching the intensity and weight of the next. This is very apparent throughout Shadows.

Collapse is another that lands hard, with an energetic line of drums and licks running behind some ferocious chugs. A bit predictably, it flows as well between the heavy and softer sections. However, they are so well executed that it doesn't get repetitive. This is evidenced further in Doubt, where the group let the song talk for them. Well-paced, addictively-heavy and a great basis for showing what the band can do. Definitely the best track on the release.

The final section of the album continues with the same as what came before. Rapid chugging, alongside unrepentant double bass drums, and tormented and angelic vocals in equal measure.

Transition is another contender for the best track. Gentle yet dark and brooding, it builds in focus and tension throughout, giving false expectations of a heavy break at various points, before falling back to the growing sound of martyrdom. Finally, the last two minutes bring the heavy in.

The album is a strong one. It hits the crushing heavy parts, and caresses through the softer areas. Stylistically, they fall within the realms of a lot of the new prog-metal groups, such as Jinjer, Sleep Token and Spiritbox. Unfortunately, this isn't quite my style; a few too many chugs for my taste. However, there is very little at fault with the album, and anyone who is a fan of the new style of prog-metal would be a fool to not pick this album up.

Exit Stage Left — Appleberry Trees

Exit Stage Left - Appleberry Trees
Piece Of Gold (4:36), Good People (4:11), End Of The Night (6:49), Appleberry Trees (4:01), Vagabond's Respite (6:59), Son (6:30), Sine Through (4:07), The Poet (6:35), Old Man Smile (3:49), Champs-Élysées (3:41)
Jerry van Kooten

Exit Stage Left are young band from Sweden, which started in late 2019. For DPRP readers, I am sure that the band name, as it did for me, brings up a reference to Rush. And with the opening track that expectation is met. The riffs, melodies and vocal lines make an honest bow to Red Barchetta and Spirit Of Radio, giving a clue as to which Rush-era we're talking about.

Further on the album, a few more songs show a bit of love for the Canadian trio, but these are minimal. Perhaps Piece Of Gold was planned as the first track to get that out of the way? It is a very good opener, but the album has a lot more to offer.

The band make it clear that they are heavily influenced by 70s and 80s prog, and rock in general. Their YouTube channel will give some hints as well, as it has a bunch of videos where they cover bands like Cream, Rush, Thin Lizzy, Asia and Blue Öyster Cult. Also on there are some acoustic performances of songs from this album.

The band manage to find a good balance between easier-to-digest sections, with breaks and shifts-in-tempo and the melody that we know from Kansas. This means that the music has a quality of getting stuck in your head quickly, but you keep on hearing new things every time you listen to it. I had that with Kansas, and in a lesser degree with bands like Styx.

Vagabond's Respite is probably the most progressive track, with influences of Kansas and Saga shining through. This track just keeps on revealing

The focus is on the songs and telling their stories. The solos are never really long, although all instruments get their places to play a leading role, including the bass and drums. Guitarist and lead vocalist Arvid Wilhelmsson has a very good rock voice.

The excellent mix and production leaves room for all the instruments. Nothing is forced to the foreground, while the overall sound is encompassing and warm. Every subtle layer of sound is recognisable, while everything is part of the whole.

Recently, the album was also released as a 3-sided vinyl.

This is a surprising debut that I know will keep on revealing things for a long time to come. A gig with the recently reviewed Highproject would make a very entertaining prog night!

Hackberry — Breathing Space

Hackberry - Breathing Space
Lunares (15:50), Solitary March (10:23), Foreshadow (11:46), Manticore (12:07)
Jerry van Kooten

Hackberry are a heavy, instrumental prog band from the northern provence of Groningen in The Netherlands. After an EP in 2016, they released their full-length debut in 2018. The line-up has remained steady, with two guitarists (Francesco Bonardi and Marijn de Boer) plus Tim Hidskes on keys, Simon Venema on bass and Christ Bechtum on drums.

After the debut album, they managed to score a record deal with Construction Records. I hope this is going to bring them more recognition and possibly send them on a tour through Scandinavia with a stop in mid-Sweden. A guy can hope, right?

Needless to say, I have been looking forward to this one. Ever since we received (on vinyl, no less!) their debut album I was very enthusiastic. So, was it worth the wait?

Four tracks totalling 50 minutes of music is a lot to take in. But what a pleasure it has been.

What about that music then? I would describe it as a foundation of post-metal, that is soaked in a mix of 1970s hard rock and modern progressive rock, a pinch of grunge and stoner, and a large dose of psychedelia. One of the strong points of Hackberry is that they manage to combine these influences, not just into something refreshingly their own, but something that will appeal to people who have a penchant for any of these styles.

The subdued start in Solitary March, slowly builds to a section with soaring guitar melodies. Then we have a lovely series of breaks that take you into the next section. It's happening in several places, but especially the last couple of minutes of this track where I get the same feeling as I do from listening to the best Toundra songs; and people who know my taste will understand that means a lot. The emotion that is put into the songs and playing is palpable, and regularly gives me goosebumps.

The opening of Foreshadow is another beauty, where the power of a distorted guitar mixes so well with the sadness from plucked guitar, keyboards and timid drums. Of course this builds towards something heavier; an emotional trip with many changes.

After having a slight emphasis on post-rock in Foreshadow, it shifts to hard-prog in Manticore. It contains even more unexpected breaks and changes than before. The guitars and keyboards are mixing melodies, to weave intricate patterns. The sound is more epic here and there.

Some words on the mix too, as it is excellent. During "verses" (it's all instrumental, so I used the quotes) when the guitars are doing their chugging, you can hear a bass line providing melodies, almost taking you by the hand through the storm. During some quiet sections, like a beautifully melancholic section in Lunares or the end of Foreshadow with just piano and bass, you hear the piano vibrate, the bass strings vibrate, and fingers moving on the fretboard. Having found a perfect balance between the level of distortion on the one hand and sound clarity on the other hand, this is keeping the sound more open than with some other bands in the same field, without losing the warm and lovingly-disturbing embrace that this type of music often has.

To wrap things up, this album will give your no-doubt progressive-inclined ears a lot to process and appreciate. It's loaded with riffs, wonderful tapestries of keyboard swashes and a tight rhythm section. Just so many things going on. How did they manage to find that awesome balance between overwhelmingly heavy, groovy, emotional, and epic? I already liked their first album so much, and now this!

Neil Howell — The Wasteland

Neil Howell - The Wasteland
Welcome To The Desert (4:54), The Cruellest Month (6:39), Handful Of Dust (4:19), Clairvoyant (3:42), Winter Dawn (5:30), Nothing (3:01), Hurry Up (4:29), Unreal City (4:51), Entering The Whirlpool (4:21), With Like Patience (4:01), Falling Towers (4:32), Upon The Shore (4:14), The Fisher King (6:20)
Jerry van Kooten

Neil Howell is a multi-instrumentalist from Missouri, USA. I think mainly a guitarist, but he did all the music on this album by himself, and has someone credited as just Angela sing on track 12.

The name Neil Howell is new to me, so render me surprised when I found out that this is his eighth full-length release in just two-and-a-half years! Add to that a compilation album with remixes and an instrumental EP and you can see that Howell is a busy man.

It leaves me in a difficult position though: since I like this album, The Wasteland, there is a long list of releases to check out and buy! On the other hand, Howell has priced his first two albums and the EP at 3 USD, the next two at 5 USD, and the other albums at 7 USD, which are very friendly prices.

For those who need a quick label slapped on an album, this would be "modern prog-metal".

The titles of the album and the opening track are fitting for the atmosphere that is set, when you start the album. An acoustic guitar intro followed by a heavy doom riff are as dry as a desert. Progressive rhythms and breaks deliver twists and turns, and a heartbreaking blues-turning-metal guitar solo rips straight through your heart. Opeth eat your heart out.

That description of the atmosphere does not apply to the whole album. Although some kind of darkness is never far away (which is something I love), the melancholy in The Cruellest Month gives a feeling of hope as well.

And things keep on changing slightly. Handful Of Dust and Winter Dawn are mostly acoustic songs. Howell sings with a lovely timbre, showing a lot of emotion. Even fragile in With Like Patience.

Clairvoyant on the other hand is up there with Devin Townsend, and that includes the completely unexpected breaks from the main heaviness.

I hear a cross-breed between industrial and nu-metal in the shortest song, Nothing. Upon The Shore also has a touch of Nine Inch Nails, but with heart and soul, not the industrial coldness. This also includes guest vocalist Angela, adding another layer to the richly built-up songs.

And probably the fastest and heaviest song is Hurry Up, which has a myriad of different riffing parts, book-ended by superfast but still melodic guitar solos. What a surprising song structure.

With Like Patience is another song where Howell shows that he has a beautiful voice for the slower, dark acoustic songs as well. Warm, fragile, bluesy.

The whole album is a showcase for Howell's music. It is far from a guitarist's album or any kind of soloist album. The focus is on the songwriting, and it is as varied as Opeth or Haken. Howell is very proficient on the instruments he has used, and the variety of vocal sounds he produces is impressive as well.

Howell credits himself with vocals, guitars, bass, synths, and programming, which means the drums are programmed. I didn't read this info before I started listening to the album, and because of the diversity in sounds and countless fills and breaks, it never occurred to me, they were programmed. An awful lot of time must have gone into this.

The production is excellent. These days it's easy to make a good recording, but if you don't know about mixing and mastering it is still easy to ruin the overall sound of an album. Mixing the heaviest track and then something like Unreal City must require different techniques. The results are clear, with subtlety in even the heavier sections. Check out the sudden breaks in the final track. The sound is just wonderful.

I hope Howell can get a band together and deliver this music from a stage. What an unexpectedly overwhelming album!

Davide Ronfetto — Enlightening Nights, Darkening Days

Davide Ronfetto - Enlightening Nights, Darkening Days
Night City Lights (5:06), Absent (6:17), Under the Rain (5:49), Four Notes of Shame (10:03), Love Moan (7:34), The Thin Man (5:28), Witch (6:05), Hidden Glade (6:42)
Theo Verstrael

Italian bass and guitar player Davide Ronfetto has worked with quite a few renowned prog musicians over the last decade, including Marco Minneman (The Aristocats, Steven Wilson), Anna Portalupi (Tarja Turunen, Steve Lukather) and Edmondo Romano (PFM). As a solo artist his output was until now limited to an EP in 2015 which passed us by. Four years ago he started working on this, his first full solo album. That is quite a long time to record an album, so the logical question is whether it was worth this long wait.

Ronfetto plays bass and does all the vocals in the eight songs. His bass playing is very good but not dominant at all. His warm voice is very pleasant to listen to, both in the lead and harmony vocals, and reminded me of Tears For Fears' Ronald Orzabal or Toto's Bobby Kimball. His Italian accent is present but not disturbing at all. His band on this album consists of Gabriele Tiezzi (guitars), Elisa Montaldo (keyboards) and Omar Maiorano (drums) while Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree, bass), Edmondo Romano (PFM, saxophone) and Heather Findlay (vocals) have guest appearances on some of the songs.

The album starts with two chords, after which the vocals begin to build on Night City Lights, a pleasant opener with a quiet opening section, flowing smoothly into an energetic rhythm after half-a-minute. Although the rocky chorus is rather simple and the short synth solo sounds a bit out of date, the song remains very attractive. In the central instrumental part of the song, the pace is lowered after which the energetic vocals quickly return. All in all it is a lively opener that energises the listener.

Absent is a rather slow song with very fine interplay between electric guitar, organ, piano and Mellotron in the background. I especially liked the multi-voice harmony singing. A beautiful piece.

And then things change for the worse. For some reason Ronfetto has assumed that he should try to satisfy both his prog fans, and his thrash metal friends. For after a fine, quiet opening Under The Rain suddenly features loud guitar riffing for a minute and a half, after which the very calm and beautiful vocals take over. The heavy riffing returns once more, and another time after a calm guitar solo. The last part of the song is an excellent vocal part with beautiful keys, acoustic guitar and some harmonica. Why those ugly guitars had to fit into this song is beyond me. To my ears it doesn't work at all and completely spoils this fine song.

The epic track Four Notes Of Shame starts with a fine piano motif, some guitar riffing comes in, thankfully far better than in the former song, after which soft keys take over. The instrumental intro lasts for more than three-and-half minute and is simply fantastic. The calm vocals lift the song even further, for the melody is great and sung very well. Around the six-minute mark the music starts to become slightly heavier, with a low guitar riff, some threatening key sounds and faster drumming, after which an electric solo takes the listener back to the main musical theme followed by a great saxophone solo. The vocal melody closes this very satisfying epic song that above all proves that Ronfetto is a keen composer of epic prog songs.

Love Moan is a very quiet ballad, dominated by acoustic guitar and piano, accompanying Ronfetto's soft vocals. The chorus is drenched in Mellotron and brings hints of Barclay James Harvest's The Poet to my mind. Indeed, it is that good! After the busy song preceding this, it is a welcome resting point on the album.

The Thin Man is a more up-tempo song with piano and Mellotron all around. The harmony vocals are strikingly good again, the guitar solo as simple and thus very fitting in the song. There are some organ sounds in the background that enrich the guitar soloing considerably. The rather long coda is formed by the electric guitar, fine bass playing, Mellotron sounds and a very fine piano motif to round things off. Rather straightforward perhaps, but it works!

And then the real low-point of the album entitled Witch comes in. Over low guitar chords, some low vocals are almost rapped. There are some loud guitar riffs and the song takes off as a sort of mix between Motorhead and Little River Band. Those familiar with these bands will realise that it's an impossible combination. And indeed it's horrible, in spite of the rather quiet instrumental middle section with fine bass and guitar playing. I'll certainly skip this one during future spins of the album.

Last song Hidden Glade fortunately comes to the rescue of the album. It is another quiet song, with beautiful acoustic guitar, and piano in which Ronfetto's voice mingles smoothly with Heather Findlay's. The verse melody is rather low for her vocal register, but she manages to handle it. The chorus is higher in tone and thus shows their two voices at their best. The piano theme is wonderful, wandering throughout the entire song, leading towards the loud guitar solo closing off the song as well as the album. This duet certainly gives me a taste for more!

I found it difficult to grade this album. I really like the six proggy songs. They are all quite good and attractive to listen to. Unfortunately the two attempts to include some straightforward thrash metal on the album spoil it totally. I sincerely hope that Ronfetto will choose to stick to his prog side, or to divide his prog songs and his thrash metal output on separate albums.

Given the quality of the prog songs, I have decided not to grade the album low, but if next time there are more thrash metal songs included, I certainly will!

Album Reviews