Downriver Dead Men Go — Ruins
The rather oddly named Downriver Dead Men Go are a "cinematic post-rock band" hailing from Leiden in the Netherlands. The quintet of Gerrit Koekebakker (vocals, guitar), Michel Varkevisser (guitar, backing vocals), Peter van Dijk (keyboards), Menno Kolk (bass guitar), and Marcel Heijnen (drums) have released two previous albums, Tides (2015) and Departures (2018). Ruins, having slipped past the DPRP radar when it was released towards the end of 2022, also features guest keyboard player Remco Den Hollander and promises the band adopting, in places, a rather heavier approach than on their previous albums.
The group eschews the instrumental approach favoured by the majority of post-rock groups but this in no way hampers the dynamism and shifting musical crescendos and lulls associated with the genre, particularly as Koekebakker is an expressively fine vocalist. This is evident on the crushing opener of a title track that over a glorious ten minutes sets out the expansive parameters of the album. Guitars are very much to the fore and although the keyboards can be heard they play a more subservient role fleshing out the musical horizons. It is then straight into the more restrained Secret, the seamless transition between tracks working very well blending the two pieces together in a wonderfully smooth manner. The very realistic cello sound achieved on the latter stages of the song adds delightful light orchestral flair to an altogether rather lovely song.
Helpless continues the more restrained approach with a simple but effective keyboard line present throughout the track with embellishments of guitar and backing vocals. One is anticipating that at any moment the track will explode but showing admirable restraint the group keep things on the level and instead opt for a sublime guitar solo from Varkevisser that has nods towards a Gilmour-esque style and structure. The melancholic opening to Line In The Sand drips with pathos with the subliminal sounds of fighting in the background and the strongly questioning lyrics it is hard not to interpret the piece as being a reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine although the song has a wider scope reflecting on man's inhumanity to his fellow man as evidenced by the inclusion of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's speech announcing the start of the second world war to the British people on 3 September 1939. A moving and mature song.
The band's claim for the new album to have a somewhat heavier approach seems to be rather misplaced as aside from Ruins things have been rather low-key. That vibe continues with the opening of Cruel World which, like Helpless, has a similar low-key and simplistic (not meant in a negative way) structure. The rather depressing lyrics are beautifully sung by Koekebakker while the band builds and layers atmosphere gradually building as the song progresses at a perfect pace. The nearly 12-minute running time is justified as the build up is immaculately paced culminating in a glorious barrage of guitars over which Koekebakker still manages to make his voice heard. Cruel World is an astonishingly effective song that displays the whole band at their absolute best. It is hard to imagine how any band could follow such a piece and Downriver Dead Men Go don't even attempt to, instead opting for a brief piano and vocal piece to end the album. With no gap between the two final songs, The Lie acts as a coda to proceedings and ends the album in the perfect manner.
Ruins is a masterful accomplishment of great songwriting, great arranging and great playing. The running time is perfectly judged to provide a completely satisfying listen and although the overall ambiance may be rather downbeat, one cannot question the authenticity and passion behind the music. For those why shy away from post-rock because of a lack of vocals then Downriver Dead Men Go have provided a great way to sample the genre.
The Foundation — Mask
The Foundation hail from the splendidly named northern village of Tweede Exloërmond. Their debut album Mask is subtitled A Fairy Tale Of Real Life. Its theme is one of choosing to remove your mask of responsibilities that can lead to hate and instead choose love.
The Foundation was formed by keyboard player Ron Lammers who roped in several musicians to flesh out his compositions. The music that The Foundation produce is on the symphonic end of neo-prog. Balancing out Lammers' keyboards is Gijs Koopman' bass and Taurus pedals, along with Jan Grijpstra's drums, producing a neo-prog sound that has elements of the kind that Rush produced in the 1980s, though more symphonic.
They kick off with a double helping of Floyd-ian instrumentals (Before The Dawn and Birth) that quickly establish what The Foundation are all about. Swathes of keyboards and stridently melodic guitar lines, a great rhythm section and sprinklings of flute and violin. It is on Climbing Mountains that Mark Smit's strong tenor brings another layer of melodic interest.
Lammers and his cohort have a way with an earworm prog melody on the likes of Blind To Reality and Unconditional. They mix up the sound on Renewal with acoustic piano, flute (Judith van der Valk) and violin (Sjoerd Bearda) leading to a great guitar and synth solos.
The best tracks are the two longer ones, the closer Future with a cracking solo guitar (Rinie Huigen). While Mask starts with epic Vangelis keys soon joined by the full band. Changes in volume, a lovely synth solo and melancholy violin at the coda, makes this one a track many bands would be proud of.
The Foundation's Mask is a debut that ticks all the neo-prog and symphonic boxes. It may not be bringing anything new to the neo-prog party but with its sheer tune-smithery it is eminently listenable. If you have a liking for IQ, Arena or Pendragon then get in on the ground floor with The Foundation as they will produce something special in the future.
Fuzz Sagrado — Luz e Sombra
Christian Peters is a name you might know from Terraplane, Soultitude, and Samsara Blues Experiment, who are not on indefinite hiatus. Fuzz Sagrado is his new project. According to him, a slight return to a more rock and heavy format. Now based in Brasil, apparently, he wrote and produced this album all by himself.
When I started to listen to this I had no idea who was behind it, and I was happy to hear some Samsara again, but this heavier, more organic and basically more progressive sound really appealed to me.
A fat blues sound, not too distorted, welcomes you into a world that does not need drugs to be spaced out. Still, "we are human", so we're still very down to earth. There's a bit more Hawkwind in here than in previous projects. This, of course, cannot be a record by Christian Peters without long and melodic guitar solos.
The album contains more songs than an average SBE album. There is more focus on songwriting and the resulting album is probably interesting for a wider area of music listeners. The sonic spectrum is wider. More progressive rock, a bit of folk, a bit of REM. All wrapped in Peters' layers of melodies, riffs, and desert soundscapes. Perhaps more Pink Floyd than before, which might heighten the appeal.
I've written many reviews about psychedelic rock. This is another version that falls into the same category that just keeps on expanding (see what I did there?). Fuzz Sagrado are more into the blues circle in the total Venn diagram of psychedelic rock than previous ones, but this combination of styles just keeps on pressing the right buttons for me.
I assume the lyrics to Leaving Samsara tell of his leaving his previous project. I hope the lyrics are a darker version than the truth.
Stefano Panunzi — Pages From The Sea
First time I heard about Stefano Panunzi was when I was reviewing his previous album Beyond The Illusion. His album before that one, A Rose, was released twelve years earlier. Thankfully Stefano Panunzi took not that much time for his latest album, only two years now for the release of this new album Pages From The Sea. Just like on his previous solo albums Stefano provides the keyboards and piano, accompanied by a variety of musicians.
The music provided is progressive rock with many jazz influences. There are of course influences from Stefano's own band Fjieri but also No-Man, Isildurs Bane and Richard Barbieri. The use of other instruments, besides the usual suspects, made me really like the previous album Beyond The Illusion. On Pages From The Sea there are still some of those present, like the trumpet and flugelhorn, but overall there is not as much of these as on the Beyond The Illusion album. But it is not a miss, on Pages From The Sea other instruments are more upfront. There is a more prominent place for the bass. If you can even speak of a prominent place, because Stefano manages to create a very solid sound with enough room for every instrument. If there is one prominent thing on this album, it is beautiful music.
On Pages From The Sea Stefano is once again helped by his Fjieri member Nicola Lori, but this time only on the first two songs. On Which Truth there is a nice role for the flugelhorn by Mike Applebaum. Vocals on Not Waving, But Drowning are provided by Jakko M. Jakszyk (King Crimson and The Tangent). On The Secret the bass is handled by Fabio Trentini. He already played bass on the opening song but on The Secret he is allowed more freedom. I really like the way the bass is mixed into the sound of this album. At times demanding more attention but never too far upfront in the sound. Main bass players are Fabio Trentini, four songs, and Fabio Fraschini, five songs. If you listen very closely you can hear which Fabio is playing bass, but you would probably need the booklet to confirm.
Jakko M. Jakszyk is the main vocalists on this album with contributions to three of the songs. The middle part of the album features a couple of songs with different vocalists. The Sea features Peter Goddard; You And I features Robby Aceto, who later returns for Swimming To Sea. In between is the song Every Drop Of Your Love which features two King Crimson members, Pat Mastelotto and Jakko M. Jakszyk. I usually prefer one vocalist, but I can understand the choice for diversity.
On You And I there are some nice trumpet parts. I would have liked them better with a more upfront role in an instrumental song like this, though. I'm Feeling So Blue is another beautiful instrumental song and this one features again Mike Applebaum on the flugelhorn. The best song with vocals on this album is Those Words (Words Are All We Have), of course sung by Jakko M. Jakszyk. This is the song that sticks in your head and makes you singalong in public. An Autumn Day features SiRenée on vocals and also features Markus Reuter (Stick Men and The Crimson ProjeKCt) on Warr guitar. With this song, Pages From The Sea has a more experimental song at the end of the album. Closing song The Sea Woman is mainly Stefano Panunzi on his keyboards.
With this, Stefano Panunzi has created another beautiful album. This time only two years after the previous album. Although having a large number of different musicians, Panunzi manages to produce an album with a cohesive sound. I like the addition of trumpet and flugelhorn and I really like the way the bass at times has a place more upfront without disturbing the overall sound. Just beautiful.
Soft Machine — The Dutch Lesson
On the night of October 26, 1973, Bert Boogaard, a record store owner took his front row seat at the De Lantaren venue in Rotterdam, The Netherlands armed with his trusty Uher portable tape machine and proceeded to record Soft Machine's gig that night. Now 50 years later that recording has been released as The Dutch Lesson.
These 50-year-old tapes have been terrifically mastered by Ian Beabout. This leaves the sound lively and energetic, making it is the best quality bootleg I've heard for many a year. The sound is generally clear with only a bit of tape hiss being heard during the very quiet sections. Occasionally the drums overpower the band and every so often Karl Jenkins' soprano sax, baritone sax and oboe are a little unclear. But overall, this recording catches this iteration of Soft Machine on storming form.
Soft Machine had recently released their album Seven but found it difficult to do it justice live, due to the number of overdubs used in its recording, that they found could not be replicated on stage. So, much of the music here comes from the previous album, the imaginatively titled Six which also was released in 1973.
The music on The Dutch Lesson see the Softs in jazz-rock mode, far away from their psychedelic origins in the Canterbury Scene. The music sees two keyboards being used, organ and electric piano from Mike Ratledge, with additional electric piano from Karl Jenkins when he's not busy playing wind instruments. Setting down some lengthy grooves are Roy Babbington (electric 6-string bass) and John Marshall (drums). Marshall's drumming throughout is forceful and rocks rather than skittering about like the typical jazz drummer (if there is such a thing). This gives a tension to their sound that I find convincing and engaging.
The pieces on the The Dutch Lesson move from the short, improvised, avant-jazz tracks (Between, Lefty) and the slightly longer Improvisation. But in the main you get groove based longer instrumentals that see colourful interplay between all the band members.
Highlights among many are the quiet pulsing electric pianos that slowly build into the groove-tastic The Soft Weed Factor. There is a Debussy feel to the sax and electric piano on EPV. On Down The Road they sound like they have been listening to a fair bit of electric period Miles Davis.
This being the 1970's though, you do have to have the obligatory solos from some of the Softs. However, here this works well as the Softs have structured the solos into what feels like a four-part suite. Starting with Roy Babbington's lovely, exploratory bass solo piece Ealing Comedy it segues seamlessly into the full band on 37 1/2, a classy and powerful jazz-rock workout that moves into the not overlong and entertaining drum solo of J.S.M., then the band returns for the short coda Riff II.
This is the end of disc 1, and I assume the band left the stage for a short break before returning for an extended encore as featured on disc 2. These are again all segue together. With Hazard Profile, not yet recorded but would turn up on 1975's Bundles, seeing the Softs trying out a space-rock groove to great effect.
Soft Machine's The Dutch Lesson captures a band in full flight, with committed performances that display a sympathy between the players that allows for inspirational moments of improvisation while remaining true to the abundant melodies.
I'm not sure if this is the place to start if you are new to Soft Machines' music, but I'm sort of new to it, only having listened to some way back in the 70s. However, I enjoyed this a lot. If you are a fan of Soft Machine, then The Dutch Lesson should be an automatic acquisition. As to everyone else approach with open-mindedness, and you may find it, as I did, a rewarding listen.
Xeno — Reconstruction
Dutch prog-metal outfit Zeno released a slayer of an EP with late 2022's Reconstruction. The three tracks find the band revisiting three songs from their first album, 2016's Atlas Construct, and working them in their new style. The result is a genre-bending display of musical prowess.
Columns is the longest track, and it moves through heavy djent-like passages to calmer piano-driven sections. The band masterfully ebb and flow through the song, layering in orchestral bits along the way. The opening is dark, brooding, and symphonic. It isn't until over a minute in that the metal crunch drops down on the listener, but when it does, it's magnificently heavy. The crunch continues for a bit before we get a cleaner guitar solo. The cleaner guitar paves the way for a much more mellow passage of clean vocals over piano, drums, and a heavy bassline. As the song moves forward, we get a blend of distorted and clean vocals. The inclusion of piano throughout the song, be it the heavy or quieter parts, makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the heavy metal. The end result is rather unique. The riffs on Columns are great, and the song has drive and focus.
Pillars takes the heaviness up a notch and keeps it there the whole song. The clean vocals are gone, with a bit more variation in the distorted vocals compared to the first track. The drums, bass, and guitar travel at a heavy djent gallop.
Gift is the shortest track at under four minutes, but it's just as heavy as the first two songs. The lyrics are almost chanted more than sung. Lyrically it is very simple, with the music ultimately speaking the most. Gift can almost be described as thrash metal, albeit with symphonic overtones.
If I had to make one complaint, I think the distorted vocals would be better in a higher register, or at least more variety in the screams. It is a little monotonous as it is.
Reconstruction may be a short EP, but it packs plenty of promise for a band on the ascent. Fans of progressive metal and specifically djent should enjoy them, but fans of symphonic metal may also enjoy the band's sound