The Church — The Hypnogogue
Australia's The Church are into their 43rd year of existence, in which time they have released a total of 26 albums, the latest of which is called The Hypnogogue. With just one original member remaining, bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey, who has also released a remarkable 51 solo and collaboration albums, the newest line-up of the band also features drummer Tim Powles, who joined in 1994, guitarist Ian Haug (2013), multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Cain (2020) and new-boy guitarist Ashley Naylor. Never a group to be constrained by genre, this latest releases is, according to Kilbey: "The most prog rock thing we have ever done. We've never created a concept album before".
Although the concept is difficult to fathom out, particularly without any lyrics to guide one, the press release does provide a very brief synopsis: "The Hypnogogue is set in 2054, a dystopian and broken-down future. Invented by Sun Kim Jong, a North Korean scientist and occult dabbler, it is a machine and a process that pulls music straight off dreams."
Very science fiction, and of course one has to believe that people dream original music all the time. Guess it worked for Paul McCartney and Yesterday. There are definite new musical areas explored by the band in this release. Succulent could, in a parallel universe, be an unused demo from The Wall. The Hypnogogue is a relatively simple song whose very basic, almost monotonous beat is quite entrancing, and with its myriad of brief flourishes gives added depth. C'est La Vie is an awkward pop song with a programmed drum beat, but blossoms out into an album highlight. Opener Ascendance (sic) has the most obvious connections with the roots of the band, with the neo-psychedelic flavourings shimmering prominently.
Slower numbers like Aerodrome and These Coming Days explore a gentler, and on the former song, more acoustic side to the band. Antarctica is more experimental, but doesn't really hang together too well, despite a promising start. Thorn is an interesting piece that comes at you from several different angles. Things are wrapped up nicely by Second Bridge, which successfully displays progressive ambitions.
At over an hour, there is a lot of music on this album to get one's head around. Reportedly there are a further six tracks that were recorded at the same time as the rest of the album, that will find their way out into the world at some point. One never really knows what to expect from The Church, and with The Hypnagogue they have continued along the unexpected path. Yet, despite all that, it still sounds very much like a Church album. And a very good one to boot. If you are a fan, you will not be disappointed.
Omnerod — The Amensal Rise
The next band leading the charge in the realms of modern prog is an outfit from Belgium known as Omnerod. Since their formation in 2009, the group have been hard at work with a debut, Ivory Dune, in 2014, followed by the well received Arteries in 2019. Since then, the group have had a stable line up and released the EP Construction as well as being involved with various festivals such as Online Festival in 2021, alongside the likes of Luna's Call and Green Carnation. Now, in 2023, we have album number three: The Amensal Rise
My first impression of the album was sheer terror, as I let the relative silence of the first 10 seconds leave me unprepared for the sudden and jarringly-loud beginning of the music. The terror soon turned to interest, then appreciation, before finally subsiding and giving way to enjoyment.
Satellites showcases a crushingly-heavy sound that is not afraid to dip into more psychedelic passages to keep things interesting. The talents and varied influences are shown even more in the disjointed, musical anxiety and panic attack of Spore. We are left drifting between calm, almost Queen or Pink Floyd-styled verses and soundscapes, before delving into crazed, blazed beats and disharmony, before climbing back up to clarity. Despite my description, it works supremely well. A complicated song that gives complicated emotions, but matches them perfectly.
The album is full of turns and blind sides, from both calm and jazzy interludes, to full-on technical death metal sections that take no prisoners. Gruff, heavy explosions of vocals flit in and out of softer, more Matt Belamy (Muse) type styling. But it works, and it works well.
The only slight issue I have, is down to my personal preference and thoughts on a lot of the musical tone the new wave of modern prog has. Bands such as Leprous and Haken and similar all have a different, but somehow still the same, style of writing and tone to the guitars. That style is present here, albeit in a more veiled way. That does of course suggest that if you are a fan of those groups, and death metal, then you have found your unicorn here.
The easiest way to describe them based on this album, would be if you took The Ocean and mixed it with a bit of Perihelion Ship and maybe a smattering of Gorod to cover the more twisting and technical riffs. All in all, a damn good mix of styles and well executed.
Pledge Of Healing — One Step Closer
Pledge Of Healing is a musical collaboration between composer/multi-instrumentalist Cyril Delvallez (guitars, keys, bass, programming, backing vocals) and lyricist Claire Sergue (lead and backing vocals) which was founded as recently as 2021. Supported on various tracks by David Hazak and Laurent Leyder on bass, and the appearances of Alex Soubry and Cédric Argoff on guitar, they offer sounds reminiscent of Massive Attack, Anathema, Muse and Radiohead. A shortlist I personally would like to expand with names such as The Gathering, Edenya and Obrasqi.
Edenya comes to mind quite frequently. This is partially due to the shared French origins of the band and the fact that Pledge Of Healing also involves a duo that consists of a gifted musician accompanied by a female vocalist who expresses a broad range of emotion through her pristine vocals. Further similarities such as an atmospheric musical approach and a recent evolution of both duos evolving into a full-fledged band, strengthens this feel even more.
Best listened to at twilight hours for optimal experience of the music's introspective nature, A Friend For Bad Times instantly grabs hold through its shady atmospheres and Claire's crystalline voice that expresses emotions in ways reminiscent to Björk and Sinead O'Conner.
The sudden appearance of New Wave-inspired trip-hop melodies and restrained performances with slowly intensifying guitars brings delightful memories of Obrasqi, which is followed by a brooding sense of coldness that bathes the song in a flame of neo-prog, reminiscent of Monnaie De Singe.
Hopes And Dreams brings a slightly lighter, yet still oppressively tinged, atmosphere with slow moving melodies. In combination with Claire's captivating vocals, this brings doomy enlightenment as encountered in early The Gathering days with Anneke van Giersbergen. The initial up-tempo approach with driving bass lines in What I Have Left, followed by a dreamy passage that incorporates symphonic decorations, delivers this image even more. When guitar-led melodies intensify and Claire's vocals soar into enchanting heights, the resemblance is actually uncanny.
Life Explorer demonstrates elegant groovy funk followed by classical-accentuated melodies, which reveals a haunting depth that invites for reflection. The Universe Responds exposes a wonderful cycle of beautiful harmonizing vocals and dreamy melodies which are answered with a touch of trip-hop. The one thing that stands out in these two delightful tracks is the beguiling performance from Claire, who through the heartfelt purity expressed in her vocal delivery elevates both onto unprecedented heights.
Her vocal deliveries in the two lyric-free compositions (Too Late and Through The Storm...) also accomplish this. In the former, this heavenly aspect offers a thoughtful contrast to its worldly, tribal-inspired coda. In the slowly culminating Through The Storm, it provides the perfect accompaniment to the awakening post-rock surroundings, in which echoing guitar and tightness of drums dictate the compelling melodies. As a final example of her versatile range, she effortlessly shifts to palpable expressions of blues in the Pink Floyd-illuminated Rain To Light Of The Sun.
Choosing a favourite track is difficult, but if I had to, then Thrill Ride it would be. Fully captivating from start to finish. The Gathering gloominess and expressive vocals that move through a shadow-play of intricately-crafted melodies. It breathes lightness and spooky darkness courtesy of Claire's compelling voice. This is exactly the thrilling journey it promises to be.
Overall, One step Closer presents a promising start of something beautiful. I'm very much interested to see how Pledge Of Healing will develop and hone their craft over time, especially in light of their newborn incarnation as a six-piece. If your fondness in music lies towards beautifully-construed, atmospheric art-rock, then this is definitely an album to discover.
Tritop — Rise Of Kassandra
Within my close circle of friends, there are many with whom I share a passion towards music. This not only includes prog but a great many other varieties as well. Our combined appreciations and tastes results in us covering quite a lot of musical ground, and the many new discoveries we make are almost instinctively shared and listen to in each other's company, whenever we get the chance to meet.
It was during one of these recent engagements that my prog-metal pal Peter introduced me to Tritop. The music showed an instant likeability that showcased originality, whilst keeping many of its secrets hidden.
That very same night I contacted the band, followed by the shiny arrival some days later of Tritop's debut album. Since then the album has been a constant companion, for the music falls in the same category of happiness and bliss that bands like A.C.T, Mental Fracture and Moon Letters have had on me through their infectious amalgamation of (heavy) prog, ingenious melodies, and unbridled virtuosity. All spiced with a touch of pomp-rock, captured in a vintage seventies feel.
Although officially started in 2016, Tritop's roots go back to 2008 when founder/composer and drummer Ivo Di Traglia forms Wanderlust with the idea to release music of his own. Reaching mild success in the southern region of Italy, the project came to a halt when members started to go their separate ways, leaving Ivo behind to continue his writing with the intent of recording once again with a new band.
This started to take shape in 2016 when Ivo was joined by Francesco Caponera (guitar), Pierfrancesco Di Pofi (keys), Jacopo Tuzi (bass) and Mattia Fagiolo (vocals). Accompanied by various guesting guitarists and Ivo's brother Iacopo Di Traglia providing lyrics, it was in January 2023 that they presented their debut album, Rise Of Kassandra.
Getting straight to the point, it's the first few minutes of the epic opening title track that provides a great feast of recognition through playful seventies-styled prog, to which elements of jazz and tantalising key partitions bring thoughts of Yes, Styx and Kansas. Full of melody and dynamic play with many breaks, riffs and spectacular guitars, the music eventually settles in more classical atmospheres with Mellotron and beautiful harmonies, somewhat reminiscent to Queen.
After a touch of Italian-flavoured prog with a darkening ambience, this highly diversified composition then awakens in breathtaking sceneries as drawn by Yes in their prime, followed by refreshing drops of driving pomp. Joyously entertaining so far, it is the streams of attractive guitar play and marvelling interaction played with rhythmic dexterity and synths that swell into a wave of progressive rock, mindful of the mighty Vienna from Japan, that make this song a triumphant experience. This euphoric passage finally segues into a short movement of epic vocals and succulent synths in marvellous synchronised flow, after which this excellent opener seamlessly transitions into Delighted Insanity.
Here the so far exuberant musical adventure ride takes amazing flight. A demonstration of instrumental prowess, highly energetic deliveries, and melodies galore that drive my better half nuts — I willingly volunteer for a soundproof isolation booth from which the key is thrown away while this insanely delightful song is played on repeat for eternity on the inside! Capturing a divine sense of seventies (hard) rock with strong, expressive, and perfectly befitting vocals, it's especially the songs instrumental segment that impresses the most. To me, this irresistible part ignites visions of a perfect marriage between aforementioned A.C.T and Mental Fracture. The pyrotechnic instrumental fireworks remind me of Dream Theater, the recurring thematic touch of Vienna gulfs into a mouthwatering splash of pomp rock in the best Rose tradition. Ultimate satisfaction achieved. Nothing short of brilliant, this blinder of a song is deliciously gobsmacking tasty.
After this exceptional piece of music, Tritop journey on towards Island Of Servitude which also shows phenomenal interplay with tight drumming and a tidal wave of playful delights. Jazzy, with endlessly shifting chord progressions and vibrant melodies laced with harmonies and melodic guitars. A.C.T. once more. This splendidly arranged composition of perfect concise length leaves nothing to be desired, although in light of the maddening brilliance of the previous track, it does ever so insignificantly fall short. In Tritop's defense, it was a sheer impossible task to begin with anyway.
The Sacred Law Of Retribution, an epic 23-minute suite divided into seven parts, keeps the highly addictive prog festivities effortlessly going with an entrance of Gentle Giant / Queen styled vocal section, after which the melodies gain a feel of majestic grandeur: excellent melody-laden melancholic guitars, emotional vocals, and bombast. Shifting to minimal sensitive piano graced by Mellotron just before the start of section called Flashback, the music then slowly descends into a dark and mysterious cavern lit by a suspenseful atmosphere in memory of King Crimson and Daal. It is here that the contagious heavy-prog style, reminiscent of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, surfaces. Under percussive perfection and Rainbow-dynamics, Fagolio's formidable voice comes up full trumps in The Crawl, Part 2 when he stretches his vocal cords to extremes in likeness of for instance HeKz.
A spectacular guitar solo over excellent interplay opens up a thrilling movement full of flashy synths and pomp met by odd time signatures. The following funky bass-led passage with touches of Haken provides a fresh breeze of air. This massively entertaining part suddenly changes atmosphere to yield a celestial feel which somehow draws up a picture of a caped That Joe Payne, who mere seconds later delivers a truly rewarding two-minute length escapade of magical synth-wizardry in gorgeous Wakeman style. A stately melancholic solo finally leads this fabulous composition into Farewell, My Love, which rounds this fantastic composition off with strong passionate vocals and epic melodies. A symphonic flight of Transatlantic allure.
Rise Of Kassandra has all the hallmarks of becoming a future classic. They obviously like their vintage prog, and the way in which they incorporate this with many other bright ideas into their energetic and inventive music ticks many, if not all, of my boxes. Undoubtedly a band to watch! If you still need convincing, then check out the band's recently released live-capture of the album's title track in the video below.
Meanwhile, it feels about time to get together again to see what other magnificent surprises my prog-metal-pal might have in store.