Album Reviews

Issue 2023-042

Grice — Polarchoral

Grice - Polarchoral
Involution (7:35), Damage Done (5:08), Winter (7:16), Without Her (4:54), Saviour (5:52), Alarm Bells (10:26), Band of Brothers (5:09), Legend (5:32), Polarchoral (14:05), Lapis Lazuli (4:09)
Sergey Nikulichev

Behind the musical project Grice stands the UK singer / songwriter / composer Grice Peters; self-defined as the “art rock hipster”. Which sounds to me a pretty close observation, with all the positive and negative implications of the word. (What stands behind the album name Polarchoral escapes me, but let's acknowledge its high “prog decency” rate).

Grice's sophomore album Alexandrine was concisely but positively reviewed by Gert Hulshof, and music-wise it looks like little has changed since those times, apart from (probably) growing experience and professionalism.

Grice definitely cherishes artistic freedom, as most hipsters do, and has access to the upper echelons of UK prog scene, having a chance to invite such musicians as Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen. These names already hint at the concept behind Grice's music. It is crafted according to the methods developed by Talk Talk, Japan and the likes. Without a speck of hesitation, I am putting it on a shelf of “minimalistic” prog.

Outstanding track number one is the charmingly Beatle-esque Winter (Harrison/Lennon rather than Macca) with delightful trumpet from Luca Calabrese (also a frequent guest with Isildur's Bane, Richard Barbieri and Roland Buhlmann, reviewed by yours truly). The second one is the indie-rock Saviour with a simple but effective, upbeat post-punkish rhythm and nice-sounding, overlaid vocal lines (think mid-period Blackfield)

On the positive side is the production, the esteemed guests' input and the variety of fairly exotic instruments (autoharp, triangle, uilleann pipes, trumpet).

The main problem that I have with Polarchoral is that the interesting material is too, so to say, stretched. The running time of almost all the tracks (except Saviour and Legend ) is not justified. There's simply not enough development to keep them going. Yes, they plunge you in a certain meditative, sepia-toned atmosphere, but after the first three compositions, I grew impatient, and by the end of the record I found an honest urge to re-evaluate all the early Megadeth material.

After repeated listens Polarchoral remains for me a rather self-indulgent release, in a sense that the final result entertains the artist a tad more than his listeners. Which is not exactly a bad thing, but some censorship (or even better, self-censorship) would be welcome. Fans of No-Man or post-Somewhere Else Marillion may give this record a spin, but if the mentioning of Gazpacho or Tim Bowness makes you yawn, approach with caution.

Andrew Môn Hughes, Grant Walters, Mark Crohan — Decades: The Bee Gees In The 1970s

312 pages
Andrew Môn Hughes, Grant Walters, Mark Crohan - Decades: The Bee Gees In The 1970s
Mark Hughes

The second of the four parts of The Bee Gees Decades series, covers the 1970s, which neatly divides into two five-year periods. The first five years are the ones that will be covered in this review, as I doubt there will be many readers interested in the post 1975 years when the brothers became associated with the disco scene and prominently featured the falsetto of Barry Gibb.

That era is, in my opinion, best summed up by the parody release Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices by Gary, Norris and Dobbin Cribb (aka Angus Deayton, Michael Fenton Stevens and Phillip Pope, respectively) under the group name of the Hee Bee Gee Bees! Even if one does not admire the nature of some of the output of the three musicians during this decade, one cannot fault their work-ethic, recording 15 studio albums, a double live album, contributions to soundtrack albums (including, of course, Saturday Night Fever) as well as penning songs for numerous other artists.

The decade began in a somewhat disjointed fashion. The Bee Gees as a musical entity had ceased to exist, following the release of their exceptional 1969 album Odessa. Robin had left his brothers, as he felt he wasn't given enough recognition for his work on that album and elected to go solo. He recorded two solo albums in 1969/1970, Robin's Reign and Sing Slowly Sisters, although only the first of these was released at the time. He also enjoyed huge single success with Saved By The Bell. It wasn't until the 2015 triple CD anthology release Saved By The Bell — The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970 that the full extent of his output in this period became more widely know.

Although the extent of officially-released songs extended to just 12 numbers, there were an astonishing 34 other complete recordings or demos that had remained in the vault; not bad for someone who was still just 20 years old at the end of this period. Although not of the same quality as the material recorded as The Bee Gees, there are some very interesting pieces, including a couple of lengthy numbers. Hudson's Fallen Wind was a five-part extravaganza that extended to over 12 minutes, and the original demo of Return To Australia clocked in at eight minutes.That gave an indication of his willingness to experiment.

Meanwhile, Barry and Maurice released Cucumber Castle under the name of The Bee Gees which was accompanied by a film that was aired on the BBC. The album spawned another huge international hit, Don't Forget To Remember, but overall missed the three-part harmonies associated with the band and, on a couple of tracks at least, saw the groups' only foray into a more country sound, a genre that both Maurice and Barry were fans of, but one that Robin was not.

One of the tracks included on Cucumber Castle, Bury Me Down By The River, had been released as a single by P.P. Arnold in late 1969. Recorded with musicians who also played on the Bee Gees version and produced by Barry, the collaboration was the first fruits that would continue into 1970 with the elder Gibb brother writing and producing an entire album for the much-admired soul singer. However, record and managerial politics prevented the album's release for 46 years. The recordings were eventually released in 2017 under the title The Turning Tide.

It wasn't just Arnold's album that went unreleased but also solo albums from both Barry (The Kids No Good) and Maurice (The Loner). Although both artists released a single under their own names in 1970, both albums have yet to be released.

One of the reasons for the non-appearance of these albums is that in June 1970 Maurice and Robin started writing together again, completing over 14 songs. Two months later, Robin and Barry reconciled their differences and immediately collaborated on a song that Barry was working on called How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?. The next day, the three brothers wrote Lonely Days together. Those two days of writing produced two songs that would become the group's biggest US hits in the early 1970s. The resulting album 2 Years On contained some great songs but was rather an uneven affair, and seems to suffer from being rushed by the band's label in order to have new Bee Gees product available.

Barely two months after finishing 2 Years On, the band were back in the studio to start work on their next album. Not that they rested during those two months, as they managed to fit in tours of both America and Australia.

These recordings became Trafalger another very strong album, if perhaps a bit too reliant on ballads, possibly due to the success of the Lonely Days and How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? in America. Although the brothers were more than adept at coming up with memorable melodies, it has to be said that their lyrical endeavours did sometimes border on the throwaway, lacking in depth or meaning.

1972 started out with more recording sessions for a non-album single (My World) before returning for a second tour of Australia in seven months, selling out eight concerts, each with a 20,000+ capacity. Following a tour of the Far East, with scenes of almost Beatlemania intensity, work began on the next album, To Whom It May Concern. Although the album spawned two hit singles, Run To Me and Alive, the overall impression was one of a rather lightweight, superficial release. It seemed, as the album title alluded to, that the brothers had lost direction and didn't know who their audience was, and were relying on somewhat maudlin songs that were temporary fixtures in the singles charts.

Even before To Whom It May Concern was scheduled for release, the band were back in the studio recording the follow-up album. This time they realised a change was needed, and so decided to record in Los Angeles in a concentrated period of studio time, uninterrupted by tours, television appearances and non group recording/producing activities. Although the recording of the album was completed in September 1972, the band were on a roll and so a few weeks later they were back in LA starting work on yet another new album, one that would not see a release.

The Brothers Gibb next album, Life In A Tin Can, was released in January 1973 (although the US delayed release until March). In a rather snide review, Rolling Stone damned the album with faint praise by describing it as "vaguely pleasant and certainly innocuous enough to fit right in with the prevalent '70s soft-rock ambiance". To be fair, the album was a bit of a non-entity, although over time has accumulated a large number of fans, primarily down to the 'Americana' nature of the music.

Lacking a hit single, surprisingly the very good Saw A New Morning failed to chart anywhere, the album was a flop almost everywhere apart from Italy, and given the studio time and discarded tracks known to have been recorded, was only 32 minutes long. The follow-up was the strangely titled A Kick In The Head Is Worth Eight In The Pants, but after the single Wouldn't I Be Someone? became another chart failure, the record company withheld the album, stating that it lacked commercial potential.

It is certainly a better effort than Life In A Tin Can. A decent enough album with a few very good songs, although unlikely to have changed the band's commercial fortunes had it been released.

Although the band were still drawing large audiences for concerts in North America, Australasia and the Far East, in the UK they were down to the level of playing residencies at small clubs, almost becoming akin to a cabaret act. Realising things had to change, the brothers reluctantly agreed the need for an external producer to oversee the next album, Mr. Natural. The album had a harder edge to it, with a few more rocking numbers and more guitar. Indeed, Heavy Breathing was a horn-driven number that wouldn't have been out of place on an early Chicago album. In live concerts of the period, it was the encore number, and usually incorporated a lengthy jam that lasted for anything up to quarter of an hour.

Unfortunately, despite being the most up-tempo and adventurous album the group had recorded in several years, the album once again failed to chart or produce any hit singles. With their label set to drop them unless they could generate a new audience, a completely new musical approach had to be adopted. So in early 1975 the group flew out to Miami where a thriving local musical scene was gathering attention, largely boosted by the use of new technology and electronic instruments. These new instruments along with the recently 'discovered' falsetto in Barry's voice, saw the band connecting with the much-needed new direction. The success of the singles Nights On Broadway and Jive Talking set the template for the disco-era and that is where we leave things.

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened, had Mr. Natural been a big success, and if it had seen The Bee Gees continue in a rockier direction. Whatever your perceptions of The Bee Gees, there is no doubting their abilities as songwriters. Even though I have little interest in the post 1974 music of the group, I still found this book to be interesting and informative when covering those years. But what is truly remarkable is the effort and commitment the three brothers put into their musical activities and the sheer volume of work they produced, much of which remains unreleased to this day.

All credit to the authors for their meticulous research and compiling all the activities of, and surrounding, the group. This is recommended reading, even if SonicBond's quality-control is lacking, particularly with respect to the contents page.

Kodiak Empire — The Great Acceleration

Kodiak Empire - The Great Acceleration
The Difference (6:07), Within The Comfort (7:33), Animist (4:29), Maralinga (2:21), Marcel (8:53)
Greg Cummins

After five listens to this new short-player from Australia, I am still trying to find out what makes this band tick. Considered a progressive rock / experimental band you would like to hear something fresh and different. Structurally, their songs defy the standard format and often make a tangential move sideways, then into reverse gear, only to find that they return to their original departure point sometime later.

Featuring only five songs, the band try to make amends for this by throwing everything into the mix to deliver something you may or may not have heard before. I was really hoping to discover a new Aussie band to rival the likes of Anubis, whose album A Tower Of Silence totally blew me away. That album is replete with great songwriting, stellar musicianship and for us Aussies, a degree of originality not often found down under.

Sadly, this was not to be the case for Kodiak Empire as I am not finding much material that has that essential replay-ability factor. If I can not "get" an album after an obligatory six spins, then I probably won't after two-dozen, but I certainly don't intend to persevere for that long to discover what is going on. I also don't believe the record-buying public will feel any different either.

There is, however, a definite degree of innate ability within the members of the band. Their vocalist has great control and uses a high-pitched delivery to really good effect, while their drummer is particularly creative. The other members all contribute their respective parts with equal amounts of ability and professionalism. It's with the song structures that I find the music a little wanting, as I am now finding even less memorable material to cling to for repeated listens.

Despite being sent a physical review CD for a change, I could not find any details on the inner booklet as to the membership of the band and the instruments used. This is probably a bit of a lost opportunity, as not everyone uses social media. I don't. Additionally, with a run-time of less than 30 minutes, for my money that is way too short. Two or three additional songs might have made all the difference.

While the five songs all have a degree of grunginess, thankfully the first four are not riddled with any lengthy bouts with growl vocals, as this is a concept I still find hard to fathom. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but when you consider progressive rock in its earliest guise was all the rage in the late 60s / early 70s, no band from that initial period relied on harsh vocals to try and influence the listener. Marcel, does include some harsh vocals at the end of the song, but it was not really offensive as it seemed to fit the music reasonably well.

I really wanted to become enamoured with this album, as my more recent acquisitions of "Aussie" prog only include bands such as The Butterfly Effect, Caligula's Horse, Karnivool, Unitopia and sleepmakeswaves. I often find progressive rock music in general to have escaped the majority of our local bands here, as they made a better name for themselves with the more familiar stadium rock genre, (Midnight Oil, INXS, Rose Tattoo, Hunters & Collectors, AC/DC, etc). There are credible exceptions of course, but from a personal perspective, my enjoyment of prog lies predominantly overseas.

I accept Kodiak Empire will have developed a decent amount of fans since they debuted with Silent Bodies in 2012, but it has taken them over 10 years to deliver their next offering of only five songs. I'm not sure what they have been up to during that decade, but to survive in this highly competitive industry, fresh, quality material is required on a more regular basis to remain relevant.

Lazuli — Onze (11)

Lazuli - Onze (11)
Sillonner des océans de vinyles (5:03), Triste carnaval (5:03), Qui d'autre que l'autre (4:36), Égoïne (5:22), Lagune grise (5:21), Parlons du temps (5:05), Le pleureur sous la pluie (5:04), Les mots désuets (3:09), La bétaillère (4:05), Mille rêves hors de leur cage (6:20), Le grand vide (5:11)
Greg Cummins

For those not familiar with Lazuli, they are a French band that formed in 1999 and have released 11 studio albums to critical acclaim amongst a diverse range of fans, myself included. They currently consist of Dominique Leonetti (vocals, guitars), Arnaud Beyney (guitar), Claude Leonetti (Léode), (Romain Thorel (keyboards, French horn), Vincent Barnavol (drums & percussion, marimba).

Most of the tracks on their latest album are around the five-minute minute mark, so the band are able to concentrate on creating shorter songs that get straight to the point, and without creating any epics that often grace a number of albums. The music is sophisticated yet highly memorable after only a few spins. For me, that is quite the contradiction as it is sung in their mother-tongue, and

French is certainly not my favourite language, yet it only took three plays before I was becoming very familiar with the structure of all the songs and quickly realised this was going to be yet another highlight of the band's career.

Utilising delicately-struck guitars and piano within many of their songs, Lazuli manage to capture the imagination time after time, as each song keeps leaving you wanting more. Similarities are a little difficult, due to the French language restricting any likeness with more traditional bands that sing in English. However, I'll suggest Porcupine Tree, Blackfield and a few others detailed later.

Dominique Leonetti is the perfect vocalist for a band such as Lazuli, as he has a very expressive and emotionally charged voice in much the same way that Christian Decamps (Ange), was able to demonstrate to such a polished degree. As the French language tends to be a somewhat theatrical one (without the extreme gesticulations that is found with the Italian language), it stands to reason that the listener can quickly become absorbed with each song's magic allure.

Bordering on world music in parts, with a softer, more refined style of progressive rock, the band could never be accused of writing music that becomes too angular or dissonant. Each song is very well composed, with all notes being meticulously crafted and positioned to ensure the music is easy to absorb and follow. There is no really extreme complexity to the smorgasbord of songs here, but thankfully they don't require too much of the listener for everything to be easily consumed. There is plenty of meat on the bone here for a vast array of tastes.

Favourite French bands and artists of mine include Ange, Shylock, Atoll, Nemo, Carpe Diem, Pulsar, Malicorne, Tri Yann, Gabriel Yacoub and Dan Ar Braz, so its stands to reason Lazuli have become such a favourite band for my personal listening requirements. If you removed the more traditional Breton and Celtic influences from those last four names, you might get some idea of how Lazuli sounds as a whole. Admittedly, their sound is a little more modern and contemporary, but it still exhibits many crucial traits that were so evident on exemplary progressive rock albums of yore. Highly recommended!

Lazuli On

M-Opus — At the Mercy Of Manannán

M-Opus - At the Mercy Of Manannán
Setting Off (2:03), Riverflow (6:45), Whirlpool (3:14), To The Other Side (9:03), Na Bruídaí (7:55), Valley Of Elah (4:07), Scaling Novas (3:09), Carnivale (5:15)
Martin Burns

M-Opus have always taken the idea of retro-prog down a logical and entertaining path. Their first two albums, Triptych and Origins, purport to be from 1975 and 1978 respectively. They form part of their imagined, historical discography. This new release, At the Mercy Of Manannán, purports to come from 1972 in this imagined historic discography.

Other indicators exist that this might be a lost 1972 prog classic. It is a concept album about a group of sailors on a hazardous journey, where they encounter the king of the afterlife, the sea god Manannán. It heavily features the strident Rickenbacker bass sound beloved of Yes' Chris Squire and Genesis' Mike Rutherford. Alongside this, you have vintage keys (Mellotron, mini-Moog, Rhodes piano, piano and organ), guitars (electric 6 and 7 strings, acoustic and acoustic 12 string) and drums. All boxes ticked it seems, so now it's down to what M-Opus do with these resources.

You can play spot-the-influences with At The Mercy Of Manannán, which is fun, but this isn't pure retro-prog by any stretch. Each of the songs is a strongly melodic, and focussed take on the history of prog circa 1972. It tips its hat here and there, but comes across like a lost classic because of the sheer strength of the performance and the songwriting skill.

The album begins with the gentle-paced Setting Off; all burbling keys, whistling and tubular bells. This segues into the prog-kick of Riverflow. Jonathan Casey's organ, synths and bass carry the commercial melody forward, with guitar embellishments from PJ O'Connel and Colin Sullivan. Casey also sings, and his voice is strong and easily carries the tune.

The relatively-short instrumental Whirlpool is brimming with King Crimson-like energy, with Mark Grist's drum-work an outstanding feature. The multi-sections of To The Other Side move from a two-Steve's acoustic opening (Hackett / Howe) through Mellotron-drenched passages, Fender Rhodes jazziness and some Jon Lord-like dirty organ.

Casey switches to Gaelic for Na Bruídaí (The Nightmares in English). The song starts off as a two-minute prog boogie, then goes off in all sorts of prog tangents. It works in a way that I'm at a loss to explain. Inventive and original.

M-Opus calm things a bit with the dance rhythm of Valley Of Elah. There is cracking organ work on Scaling Novas and the closing Crimson-ish instrumental Carnivale rounds off this watery trip-to-the-afterworld in fine style.

M-Opus' At the Mercy Of Manannán wears its 1972-based influences proudly but with many modern features to its energetic run through that classic year of prog. This new addition to M-Opus' historical discography takes elements from the likes of Yes' Close To The Edge, Genesis' Foxtrot, Focus' Focus 3 and smatterings of Deep Purple's Machine Head amongst others. But they have the instrumental and melodic skills to make it all their own, in creating this 'lost classic'.

If you have a soft spot for Big Big Train's or Glasshammer's take on classic prog, then dive into this thoroughly-engaging and enjoyable album.

Pyramaze — Bloodlines

Pyramaze - Bloodlines
Bloodlines (2:07), Taking What's Mine (3:58), Fortress (4:57), Broken Arrow (4:20), Even If You're Gone (5:08), Alliance (4:13), The Midnight Sun (5:10), Stop The Bleeding (4:52), The Mystery (5:31), Wolves Of The Sea (4:00).
Greg Cummins

Pyramaze, the Danish progressive-power-metal band, has returned with their latest offering, Bloodlines. This highly anticipated album, to be officially released on 23rd June 2023, showcases the band's growth and evolution since their last release from 2020. With a blend of powerful vocals, intricate guitar work, and symphonic elements, Pyramaze once again delivers a captivating and dynamic listening experience.

For this album, the line-up includes Terje Harøy (vocals), Jacob Hansen (guitars, bass), Jonah Weingarten (keyboards), Toke Skjønnemand (guitars), Morten Gade Sørensen (drums)

One of the notable strengths of their new release is an ability to create an immersive atmosphere. From the opening track to the closing moments, the album transports the listener to a world of epic battles, mystical realms, and emotional journeys. The combination of melodic and symphonic elements elevates the songs to new heights, creating an engaging and captivating sonic landscape.

The band's songwriting on this album is also commendable. Each track is meticulously crafted, showcasing a blend of technicality and catchiness. Pyramaze effortlessly weaves intricate guitar solos and riffs with memorable choruses, resulting in songs that are both musically engaging and emotionally resonant. Tracks like Broken Arrow and The Mystery are shining examples of this prowess.

Another strength lies in the vocal performance of vocalist Terje Harøy, who has been with the band since 2015. Harøy's powerful and versatile voice has added a new dimension to Pyramaze's sound. His range allows him to easily achieve the highest highs and to deliver emotive, heartfelt moments. His performance on tracks like Alliance and The Mystery showcases his ability to convey both power and vulnerability. Melissa Bonny also adds a nice touch, with her vocal contribution to Alliance.

Each member of Pyramaze contributes significantly to the overall sound and success of the album. Guitarists Toke Skjønnemand and Jacob Hansen deliver a stunning display of technical prowess and melodic sensibility. Their guitar work ranges from blistering solos, to intricate harmonies, providing the backbone of the band's sound. Jacob's thundering bass-lines add significantly to the enviable wall of sound.

Jonah Weingarten's keyboard arrangements play a crucial role in creating the symphonic elements that enhance the album's atmosphere. His skilful use of orchestral sounds and atmospheric textures adds depth and grandeur. Meanwhile, drummer Morten Gade Sørensen provides a solid rhythm section, laying a strong foundation for the complex musical arrangements.

Their latest offering features a wide range of instruments, each employed skillfully to enhance the overall sound. The guitars are crisp and powerful, with Skjønnemand and Hansen expertly using a variety of electric guitars and effects to create a diverse palette of tones. Weingarten's keyboards encompass both traditional keyboard sounds and symphonic orchestral elements, adding richness and texture to the music.

Bloodlines represents a natural progression in Pyramaze's discography while retaining their signature sound. The symphonic elements on this album are more prominent compared to their earlier albums. While Pyramaze has always incorporated symphonic elements into their music, they are more intricately woven into the fabric of the songs on this album. This evolution adds a grandiose and cinematic quality to the overall sound. This is very noticeable on the final song, Wolves Of The Sea.

Bloodlines is a triumph for Pyramaze, showcasing their growth as musicians and songwriters. The album excels in creating a captivating atmosphere, with its blend of powerful vocals, intricate guitar work, and symphonic elements. Each member of the band contributes significantly to the album's success, highlighting their individual skills and cohesive musicality.

While 2023 sees the band deliver a strong release, it is not without its minor weaknesses. Some tracks may feel slightly formulaic, adhering closely to the band's established sound. Additionally, I have found the keyboards are often mixed a bit low, which is a huge shame as they represent a huge part of my favourite arsenal of instruments. However, these moments are overshadowed by the album's overall strength and the band's ability to create engaging and emotionally resonant music. It is also a huge improvement on their 2017 album called Contingent, and also a slight notch above the previous album, Epitaph.

In summary, this new album is a testament to Pyramaze's talent and creativity. It is a worthy addition to their discography and will undoubtedly please fans of progressive-power-metal. With this album, Pyramaze proves once again that they are a force to be reckoned with in the metal scene.

Pyramaze On

Album Reviews