Alase — A Matter Of Time
Well, well, well Finland. We meet again in my musical journey. Having begun to take up a large chunk of my music collection with the vast hordes of gothic, melodic, symphonic and atmospheric rock and metal, I have begun to suspect the country is my favourite for music. So the suggestion of an atmospheric prog band from the same place as one of my other favourite groups (Swallow the Sun, whose vocalist has sung with Alase, actually) made me happy. With their debut album Vastaus garnering critical acclaim in 2019, there is a high bar for the group this time round with A Matter Of Time (most vocals are done by fellow countryman Juha Tretjakov of Pressure Points). Let's see what they can do.
Instantly, we are treated to an atmosphere of melancholy metal in Understanding The Waves. Juha provides some fantastic clean vocal work here as the music provides some heavy low end and bulk to the verses and melodic chorus. Clear Sky Is Not A Curse opens with some Katatonia-like textures spliced with some of Klone's rhythm work. Flowing, gentle and lamenting but always present.
Fates Intervention kicks off with some harsh vocal work from Markus Hirvonen (Noumena) and some chug heavy riffing. This one brings top mind, both musically and vocally, the work of the sadly split up Ghost Brigade - a sublime mix of heavy, tension, atmosphere and impact. Following this, we come across Unburdened. Here we have a mix of the harsh styles but tinged with an underlying melancholy but bubbles under the surface, but doesn't take away from the metal elements or the melody.
Splitting the record right down the middle, is the gentle and introspective Life Ahead. With a very bass heavy main rhythm, we are drawn into the lyrics with the music promoting the journey into ourselves.
The Source takes us back out into the open, with a brooding and chunky does of metal as the drums drive the pace forwards. The longest track, Out Of Place follows with some imposing atmospherics and vocal deliveries to bring in unease and tension. What follows is some chugging djent style riffs that flirt with the pros of the genre, but never go over the top with the bends. Feeling Free is a slow journey of lamentations and gentle despair. And finally, sung in Finish, we have Ajan kysymys. Layers of music conjoin and fold over each other to produce the most emotive number, with soft and heavy sections crossing paths and intertwining with Juha's frankly sublime vocal delivery. The wall of guitars combines flawlessly with the vocal harmonies to deliver an outstanding ending.
A good and very solid bit of work here. While not pushing any new ground, it maintains a sense of uniqueness to it. Maybe not a must for fans of atmospheric melancholy rock/metal, but definitely one you can't go wrong with.
Chaos And The Cosmos — Our Song
Just a short while ago I "awarded" the New Jersey sextet Schizo Fun Addict with the most misleading band name of 2023, and already it totally looks like a premature decision, because Seattle's Chaos And The Cosmos is equally misleading, to the least. (And let's not forget a strange familiarity with a completely different band we've reviewed a couple of times, by the name of Chaos Over Cosmos!) What kind of music could a band with a name like this play? Progressive metal? Space Rock? Avant-garde black metal? Nope!
On the contrary, C&TC plays, I would say, "flower child" music, although in all fairness, this is "flower child music version 2", because the musicians do not provide a blind copy of the 60s sound, rather aiming at keeping the spirit.
Influences can be traced to The Byrds (in how much the band relies on acoustic guitar rhythms), Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles (some orchestral arrangements). I can also hear traces of post-Canterbury sound, specifically Caravan circa 1976 and further. Paul Langer's voice bears a lot of similarities to Pye Hastings' nonchalant, frivolous manner (check the opening track The Singularity). If I am allowed one more comparison, that would be Fish On Friday, whose benign sound stands very close to C&TC, minus the electric guitars.
As a whole, Our Song also serves as a good example of a fairly retro band that does not use the elsewhere-omnipresent Hammond retro-sound. Instead of the organ, the band boasts a string section, an occasional trumpet, synth keys and lots of acoustics. The latter do most of the rhythm job, to the extent that drums are almost inaudible behind the strumming for most of the time.
The centerpiece of the record is definitely the Our Song Suite, encompassing the last four tracks, and especially the closing 13 minutes House Of Love with hints of space rock, lots of symphonic keys and beautiful, airy atmosphere.
The cover art is also a funny one, with Mother Earth overshadowed by what seems to be a giant Insta-model butt (but that's only until you take a closer look).
Fans of Kaipa, Fish On Friday, hippie folk and other "kind man prog" should check this debut. My personal taste drifted rather far away from what the band plays, but nonetheless, there's no doubt that this is professional, inventive and quite out-of-the-box music.
Mowgli — Gueule de boa
Mowgli's album title is a French play on words: Gueule de boa means “the throat of the boa” in English, but the pronunciation is the same as the French equivalent of “hangover”.
Mowgli are a three-piece progressive jazz group. Founded by saxophonist and flautist Ferdinand Doumerc who has previously released three albums with the band Pulcinella. On this new venture he is joined by keyboard player Bastien Andrieu, and drummer Pierre Pollet. The compositions and arrangements are by all three musicians involved.
They create a sound that mixes the acoustic and electric and rarely does it descend into the standard theme-solos-theme structure of classic jazz. Instead, there is hard riffing sax, keyboard interludes and a mix of fierce and soft drums, intricate rhythms, great melodies and often a sense of serious fun. In this they are a small band version, in a lot of respects, of the excellent Snarky Puppy.
The album opener Malalamoler has that sense of fun with its Morse-code pulses that is then blown away by the speedy sax and drums. The fun returns in a quieter section as the sax solos over Farfisa organ in a parody of lounge jazz. One Eyed Jack's leisurely paced melody is just lovely, with an arrangement that allows the music to breathe.
Electric piano introduces Dario underpinning a thick saxophone sound. It moves off into a bonkers take on Electronic Dance Music. While Bicouic orbidède's unison staccato chords have a Zappa feel to it which is washed away by electric piano, tapping delicate drums and alto sax that develops an Eastern influenced sound. The closing Sauge d'une nuit d'été all synth burbles, atmospheric keys and flute wraps up this album with a delicious melody.
With its great cover (by Anna Natter / Cinniature), Mowgli's Gueule de boa is a cracking album of progressive jazz, which is melodic, has an extremely low squealing component, and develops its tunes to excellent levels. A fine release.
Ocean's Edge — The Voyager
Ocean's Edge saw the light of day in Athens in 2017, when Manos Sideris (bass), John Aktypis (guitar), and Panos Haritidis (keyboards) met through an online ad. The first foundations as a band were laid through including Xristos Palamides (drums). Thereafter, Ocean's Edge went through a few birth pangs before stabilizing with Manos Xanthakis joining on vocals and Constantinos Mavroyiannis (guitar) replacing founding member John Aktypis, who appears as guest musician on the track Sacrifice. Producing and recording of the album mainly took place in the second half of 2022, with the track Supernatural being released as single in December 2022 and the full-length album, Ocean's Edge's first one, in May 2023.
Lyrically, The Voyager deals with topics ranging from internal quests, philosophical/existential patterns to social themes, describing some of the band's own voyage through darker and brighter times and aiming at encouraging the listeners to think about their own voyages through life. As stated in the band's press release, Ocean's Edge also draws inspiration from current and past sci-fi media and pop culture including books, movies, etc.
From beginning to end, Ocean's Edge make it clear what kind of music they want to play: progressive metal of the original kind, as it was developed by the style-defining bands such as Dream Theater (they can't miss in this enumeration), Symphony X, Redemption, Threshold, Fates Warning, Enchant, Shadow Gallery and others in the first decade of their respective existences. Call it "traditional" or "old school", the style is easy to pigeonhole. Further searching of comparable peers led me to names such as fellow countrymen False Coda, and Until Rain, as well as Scandinavian prog metal bands Pressure Points and Pagan's Mind, amongst others. In addition, Ocean's Edge's music also touches upon less prog metal-oriented bands such as Dio, Rainbow, and Iron Maiden.
"A lot is happening in this music" — that was my wife's amazingly apt and unequivocal statement when I played her the song Fragile (my favourite). And indeed, this album leaves little time for the listeners to catch their breath. After the one-minute spacy intro, they'd better have their seatbelts fastened, as the songs take them full-speed through a musical storm of guitar riffing and soloing, keys extravaganzas, and a fluid, crisp, and fierce rhythm section. This is well-crafted, intelligent, complex music, which avoids unnecessary complexity and thus stays catchy and accessible throughout. The classical song structures comprising verse, chorus, and bridge are hardly audible. Instead, Ocean's Edge string together different parts musically and manage to make the result sound coherent, an approach which provides for many unexpected twists and turns and a considerable degree of variety.
Provided you accept that there is a form of prog metal called traditional or old-school, this album is a perfect representative of that style. It makes it easy for the listener to recognize and "tick-off" the style defining features. Restriction to pure prog metal without admixture of related music styles, complex structures missing clearly audible verse - chorus - bridge - verse patterns, multiple sections, unconventional time signatures and syncopation, highly skilled musicianship, virtuosic soloing and intricate riffing, lyrics centring around philosophical, spiritual, and existential themes - they are all present. The only elements not that obvious to my ears were varying tempos, and the use of both aggressive and melodic vocals within the same song (although I qualify this statement a little regarding the last two tracks). Manos Xanthakis' voice mainly stays in the mid-range in terms of dynamics, aggressiveness, and melody, and, whilst being varied, the songs most of the time go full throttle from beginning to end. I wouldn't mind if the diversity of the tracks also extended to the vocal style and the tempo. This is already practised to some extent in the two long tracks closing the album, and in the subtle way the soft, simple, almost Floyd-ian title track The Voyager bridges the complex, dynamic, and powerful preceding and succeeding song.
I am glad that I came across this album, as it did me good for different reasons. It has not only brought me closer again to the style of prog metal in general, which I had neglected a bit lately. It also reminded me that traditional prog metal the way that Ocean's Edge play was still the form I had always liked best. In addition, whilst researching for and writing this review, I (re)discovered several new and old exciting prog metal bands. I liked listening to The Voyager, will keep on doing so, and look forward to an anticipated successor. I hope that many listeners will feel the same way. This album has what it takes to appeal to fans from different styles besides prog metal, without wanting to pander or curry favour: heavy metal, melodic/symphonic metal, progressive rock. Strong debut, guys from Ocean's Edge!