Beatrix Players — Living And Alive
Let me start this review with a "surprising" confession: I love progressive rock! Essentially, I do this for its incredible range and the wide spectrum of musical styles covered. They all differ from each other, whilst claiming to be part of the prog family. There is something for everybody. Take the bombast of the 20+ minutes-epics from representatives such as Transatlantic, and The Tangent, the symphonic and lyrical work of many of the RPI bands, the playfulness, and humour of Caravan's Canterbury school, Hawkwind's spacy sound, the vehemence and power of progressive metal à la Dream Theater, and Seventh Wonder - and the fragility, delicateness, and intimacy of the music on Beatrix Players' second album called Living And Alive. Compared to the latter style mentioned before, their sound seems to me like a dandelion - but a resistant one.
Beatrix Players were formed by vocalist Amy Birks in 2006, together with co-composer Helena Dove and Tom Manning on guitar. This line-up lasted until 2013, when Manning and Dove left and were replaced by two other musicians, whom Beatrix Players recorded their first album Magnified with in 2017. The band broke up shortly thereafter, with Amy Birks releasing two solo albums in 2020, and 2022. However, Beatrix Players then reunited with the founding members Dove and Manning and included renowned additional musicians in the line-up for its sophomore album Living And Alive: John Hackett (flute) (yes, the brother), Oliver Day (guitar), Andrew Booker (drums), Jane Fenton (cello), Matthew Lumb (piano), and Kyle Welsh (bass). With respect to the band's name, I take on a fellow reviewer's assumption that it may not be taken from the Latin word "beatrix", meaning the happy one, but from "viatrix", the Latin feminine form of "viator", meaning the traveller.
With respect to its lyrics, the album takes the listener on a journey discovering and exploring various form of human emotions. Quoting Amy Birks: "Living And Alive is an honest album, that explores how life isn't just about living, but that it's about having the courage to really be alive and own it. Simply put: you are your best you, and will only ever be second best if you're trying to be something other than you..." From what I can hear and interpret in Amy's singing, it is about thoughtfulness (Somebody Else's Eyes), anger (Starts Again), sadness (A Beautiful Lie), consternation (Purgatory), regret (You Can't Hit A Nail), relief (Free), and determination (Me I Am Me). The theme of the importance of life is also reflected in the artwork. The front cover is designed around a 6-week pregnancy scan. The back cover shows the eight musicians around a card table, their faces reflecting all kind of characters, probably alluding to the variety of human life.
Musically, Beatrix Players' release is a meaningful blend of art rock and (chamber) prog with a healthy dose of folk and echoes of country and jazz. If it weren't for the electric guitar, this album would pass for completely unplugged. The music is shaped and carried by Amy's expressive, inspiring, and captivating singing, reminiscent of Kate Bush, and Tori Amos, and John Hackett's intriguing, and versatile flute plays an important role. However, the outstanding quality of all the musicians provides for a perfect balance of each instrument and the entire music very much to sound like a band effort. In doing so, Beatrix Players consistently rely on the principle of "less is more" instead of consciously flaunting their musical abilities. The instruments are used in a very measured to sparing way. And yet this album is full of variety, full of little subtleties, full of unexpected twists, full of poignant moments, full of outstanding musicianship, full of catchy arrangements, and top-notch production.
In terms of the mood that this music spreads, I found that an air of contemplation, melancholy, wistfulness, and reflectiveness hovers over most of Beatrix Players' songs. But this atmosphere did not affect my mood as a listener. On the contrary, I found the songs inspiring and encouraging, and I think it is the way how music and lyrics interact which was responsible for that. Expressive, forceful, unambiguous, and powerful lyrics are paired with emotional, fragile, delicate, and intense sounding music - what a fruitful union!
The album did not reveal any weak moment for me, but many strong ones. The way the melodic piano outro on Snowflakes is revisited by the acoustic guitar intro on Somebody Else's Eyes - great handover. The touching piano playing on Purgatory. The beautiful flute/cello duet in the second half of You Can't Hit A Nail (my "primus inter 10 strong pares"). The sadness expressed in Jane Fenton's cello solo on A Beautiful Lie. The uplifting vocals on Free. The variedness of Me I Am Me. Originality being a key element of Beatrix Players' music, I can't come up with many bands to really compare them with. Very occasionally, the interaction of flute and acoustic guitar makes me think of Jethro Tull, the vocals (very) sometimes recall Fleetwood Mac, and the interplay of vocals and piano reminds me of the band Iamthemorning, which I also like very much.
To my ears, Beatrix Players have released a fascinating album. It requires to be listened to very attentively, and it may take some time to grow upon you (at least it did with me), but then you may find yourself wanting to suck in every note. Highly recommended to anyone looking for demanding, catchy, melodic, intense, and varied music with captivating vocals. For me, a sure candidate on my "2023 album of the year" list. I love progressive rock!
Flaming Bess — Wrinkle In Time
"Our final and best work."
So starts the press statement that accompanies Flaming Bess' latest offering. If this really is their swan song then there's much truth to these words for Wrinkle In Time is a wonderful and fully engaging album filled with beautiful developed ideas and meticulously arranged, fully convincing, adventurous compositions. And it might well be their best work indeed, although in honesty I can't fully comment on this simply because the band and its legacy were completely unknown to me.
This is a rather surprising fact in itself seeing the band was founded in 1969 and in varying line-ups have managed to release six albums over the years, out of which only their 2008 effort Wachter Des Lichts left a slight crease on our pages. This time around, 54 years after their foundation, the current formation of well seasoned musicians Hans Wende (bass, guitar), Hans Schweiß (drums, percussion), Peter Figge (keyboards) and Achim Wierschem (guitar, programming) now leave behind a very memorable (proverbial) dent!
The nicely designed and cared for 24-page booklet marks a fine opening statement off sorts and offers a handsome insight into the history of the band, including a brief retrospective of their previous albums alongside a timeline which highlights the different incarnations that created these records. The booklet's overall layout isn't flawless though. Besides the lyrics being incomplete, the order is also somewhat chronologically confusing. And I do question the decision to include the stories and individual member statements in the German language only, which obviously surpasses a significant part of their foreign audience.
This aspect can also be found in the German spoken parts of Scriptum Praeterita, which both through their ambient atmospheric nature and Dr. Markus Wierschem's voice resemblance remind of the story outlines as captured on Anyone's Daughter's Piktors Verwandlungen. These few language barrier issues are frankly the only reservations I have. For the music, captured in a warm crystalline and pristine open production, speaks volumes in either language.
The album starts off with Shadows Of Dawn. A bluesy pop styled neo-prog composition with elegance of melody that reminds me of a cross between Eric Clapton and For Absent Friends and featuring Andrés Rexach on guitar. It is soon that clear every member knows his instrument by heart. Wrinkle In Time is an excellent demonstration in knowing how to craft and execute a beautiful piece of coherent and touching music.
Opening with synth driven neo-prog that segues into a piano guided passage (played by Markus Roth) with passionate vocals by guesting vocalist Mike Hartman, this anthemic bluesy composition tells the band's history in a metaphorical way and shows a perfect diversified build-up. Driving interplay with melancholic solos, symphonic swirling synths played by Martin Kuna — a passionate delivery that makes all the difference. This epic song rounds off soothingly with a touch of flaming rock with solid harmonies and fine guitar play. It entertains effortlessly, from start to finish.
On The Edge follows suite¸ with elegance of uplifting jazz and sensitive interplay. Refined piano movements and magnificent guitar melodies turn back the clock to a time of mid-seventies Camel and nowadays Karfagen. In that respect, Distance goes the actual distance with beautiful captivating melodies. An exciting change of pace sets the engaging melodies of this colourful composition on fire in memory of Anyone's Daughter, Camel and Leo Carnicello.
To this symphonic prog richness, Cold Comes The Night shares another protrusive touch of Camel, with echoes of Pink Floyd, and complemented by ethereal vocals and grandeur of melodic guitar. Time Flies By brings a rhythmic melody galore, that envisions Karfagen, with all members getting to showcase their exceptional instrumental skills and chemistry of interplay more than once.
Whether this composition actually features Peter Allion on keys, as mentioned in the booklet, is unclear because the female vocals of Aurora Ferrer are also stated to be included in this composition. Which they are clearly not, as her charismatic grace in the excellent brooding atmosphere of Dreamfall shows. It opens up a sky of twinkling Landmarq arrangements, then slowly evolves into a dusky neo-prog atmosphere reminiscent of Cyrcus Flight. This song is another fine highlight of the album.
After the pop-oriented flavours of Wind Of Hope, the perfectly concise piano-led ballad Now I Regret, and the aforementioned Scriptum Praeterita II, the album finally ends on a high with the magical Universal Mind. If going out with a bang is ever in need of a demonstration, then this marvellous song can surely function as a prime example. Next to compelling neo-progressive Mystery dynamics, this epic song exhibits elements of Saga in the keyboard / guitar work. It shows a grand diversification in atmospheres and melodies, one more beautiful than the other. The finale is a sensitively played and emotionally charged mesmerizing coda. A truly great song to round off the album and end Flaming Bess' lifespan.
They say you should stop at your peak. Based on the impressive Wrinkle In Time, and my recent catch-up of their 50-year history that's available for exploration on Bandcamp, I can wholeheartedly state that Flaming Bess have fully succeeded in this. Although with the crowning closing song Universal Mind in mind, I secretly hope the band will continue to press on after this. Wrinkle In Time is well worth discovering for the progressive rock enthusiast who longs for a modern touch of nostalgic freshness. Off you go!
Gentle Giant — Interview
Interview was Gentle Giant's eighth album in seven years coming after the masterful Free Hand. There was a broad concept behind the album based on an imaginary interview with the band with Sounds music journalist Philip Sutcliffe acting the part of the interviewer. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your opinion of concept albums, the interview is rather played down with only fragments of the questions and the band's deliberately bored answers being heard throughout. The success of Free Hand had seen the Giant essentially spending almost a year on the road with concerts throughout the UK, Europe and North America and so when they entered the studio almost immediately following the last date of the tour the band was on top form and were musically very tight. It is rather unbelievable to consider that the whole album was written, recorded and mastered in a matter of four weeks, something the band now has some reservations about as they would have preferred to have had a bit longer to hone the material. Although that may have been to the detriment of the album as, despite being probably the most uncompromising album in the band's catalogue, it features some great writing and immaculate performances from the entire band.
The title track is a bit of a rocker with a totally bizarre piano interlude that none other than Mike Keneally thinks is just total genius. Give It Back has a light reggae-ish vibe and is the most restrained piece on the album and no surprise that it was chosen as the single. However, give the rather atonal vibe/glockenspiel middle section made it too out there to trouble the charts. Speaking of out there, Design starts off with lovely layered vocals and goes into some amazing vocal interplays along similar lines to On Reflection from Free Hand. However, the musical accompaniment is purely percussion, sounding at time rather like the "five man drum bash" that was a popular part of the Giant live experience. Within the band there are divided opinions as to the worthiness of the track, Kerry Minnear hates it but John "Pugwash" Weathers and Derek Shulman in particular are big fans saying that it is remarkable that they even considered such an approach, although to be fair they had already released a percussion focused track, namely An Inmate's Lullaby on 1973's In A Glass House.
Another Show is classic Gentle Giant with intricate interweaving of the instruments and vocals while Empty City is a rather overlooked gem by the band, possibly because they never performed it live. Primarily a Ray Shulman composition, it starts with an acoustic guitar duet with Ray and Gary Green blending perfectly. Violin and vocals take us through the next section before a lovely electric guitar solo and a lovely harmonised vocal interlude before it is back to a repeat of the violin and vocal section and finishing up with some tinkering on the keyboards by Mr. Minnear. Would probably have been quite difficult to replicate effectively on stage, although I am sure they could have managed it if Derek took charge of the bass parts.
The last two tracks on the album, Timing and I Lost My Head both featured regularly in the set list with the former track being a bit more playful and sedate and the latter ending the album as it started with a real rocker, although the delicate opening flatters to deceive. Harking back to the more medieval type music they made their own in the early days of the group, it is nearly three minutes in before things are ramped up with electric piano and clavichord and Derek's forceful vocals dominate, a really great song!
As for Steven Wilson's remix well he has done a marvellous job in opening out the album and giving greater clarity to the individual instruments. In particular, the bass lines are brought further forward and one can really hear just how intricate Ray Shulman's playing was and how well it complemented and even challenged the melody. There are also a host of previously unheard snippets that were either completely obscured or even muted during the original mix. Examples include a previously unheard organ part towards the end of I Lost My Head and whole new vocal sections in Timing that had been omitted on the original album to give the music a bigger instrumental part. The Blu-ray also contains a complete instrumental mix of the album that gives a better appreciation of the intricacies and tightness of the band. Also on the Blu-ray are a 5.1 and Dolby Atmos mix neither of which I could properly assess from the downloads received for review.
This was the last of the truly great Gentle Giant albums before they started writing what would hopefully be more commercial music featured on the first side of The Missing Piece album. But before that the band headed out on tour again recording several date compiled on the exceptionally good Playing The Foo live album. All that can be said is that this remix of the Interview album is an absolute delight opening up new vistas and dimensions. Even if you already own the album, the remix is certainly worth obtaining as it enhances the album to magnificent effect.
James Griffiths — Decades: Queen In The 1970s
Name one band that originated in the 70s that is massively imprinted into our collective (music) memory then there can be only one: Queen! Especially those living and growing up in the Eighties will recall many moments when the band firmly stepped into the spotlights with iconic hits such as Crazy Thing Called Love, Another One Bites The Dust, Radio Gaga, Under Pressure, A Kind Of Magic, I Want It All, Breakthru and Innuendo. As a mere few examples Queen can actually pride itself in issuing three consecutive 'Best of' releases completely refrained of duplicate songs. Something which is quite an accomplishment in my view, although admittedly their 1981 Greatest Hits release, which is still the best sold album of all time in the UK, is the one to go to IMHO.
Next to these major hits, amongst a great many other things, Queen in a flash made vacuum cleaning hilariously sexy and brought life to the cinema with soundtracks to Flash Gordon and the box office hit Highlander. The latter a fantasy-action adventure starring Sean Connery and Christoffer Lambert about immortality. A price Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor were rewarded one year prior when they performed the ultimate live performance at Bob Geldof's Live Aid on the 13th of July 1985.
All these unforgettable moments are just the tip of a still growing iceberg of which the successful foundations were formed in the 70s, the topic of James Griffiths exceptional Decades-read. Exceptional on the one hand for its fact-brimming enthusiastically well-worded page-turner narrative, and on the other for Griffiths splendid achievement to tell a story which has been told many times over in documentaries, books, movies and magazines in a magnificently cohesive, splendidly insightful and immaculate comprehensive new way.
Taking leeway by opening his story on Thursday the 5th of September 1946, the date of Farrokh 'Freddie Mercury' Bulsara's birth, Griffiths imaginative words also includes the 1968/1969 pre-Queen incarnation Smile. This is a great decision by the knowledgeable writer because these years are not only an essential part of the band's history with both May and Taylor being introduced to Mercury, who to my surprise was much more involved in Smile than what I previously assumed. It also provides the perfect opportunity for extensive character development for all four Queen members, each of them turning into relatable persons of flesh and blood through Griffiths insightful in-depth story.
Starting off with 1973's debut Queen, one of the band's proggiest albums with artwork that shows Mercury in full glorious iconic pose, Griffith successfully brings the bands initial struggling years to life by addressing many era specific aspects and details including near bankruptcy, (cancelled) touring, musical rivalry, bad press and mild to big success (the album Queen II and hit single Killer Queen respectively for instance). Simultaneously he offers splendid analysed impressions of the various songs entrusted to the various releases, thereby not forgetting about the sparse non-album tracks and covers recorded and played live-only during those years.
Halfway down the book, as well as the decade, Queen's pinnacle moment then arrives when A Night At The Opera hits the shelves and Bohemian Rhapsody propels them into stardom beyond compare. This year in Queen's career receives the most pages and honest words of high praise from Griffiths. Something which is rather understandable because with the band now well and truly on top of their game this album perfectly shows their collective strength and delivers some exquisite songs like You're my Best Friend, Love Of My Life, I'm In Love With My Car and the stunning personal favourite The Prophet's Song.
Consolidating their hit successes with Somebody To Love from A Day At The Races, amidst a transforming musical background of disco and Punk which is thoughtfully elaborated upon by Griffiths, Queen then in the following year (1977) release an EP (news to me!) and capture the heart of the author when a video of the band's new anthem We Are The Champions shows a flamboyant Mercury dressed in a leotard. Paired with We Will Rock You, a song that in my experience dangerously topped/tipped many a beer when pounded to in a pub, and accompanied by songs like It's Late, Sheer Heart Attack and Spread Your Wings it marked another victorious phase in the band's career.
One that would prove to challenging to maintain as the subsequent Jazz shows. Addressing the album in varying opinionated objective angles, including its Queen-unworthy production values and the band's creative difficulties, Griffiths still manages to sell the album over beautifully. Something he does equally fine for my own secondary discovery of the band in the chapter addressing their 1979 live album Live Killers, whose A-side especially proves to be a brilliant treasure trove discovery. My first discovery being Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Queen's final by Griffiths' heralded single release of 1979 from the upcoming game-changing The Game album.
Offering a welcomed brief guide to compilation/live-albums of interest that capture the era and reminiscing on their (individual) eighties output and the band's achievements after Mercury's passing on the 24th of November 1991, Griffiths in his postscript rightfully feels a bit frustrated to end Queen's story here. For the show was, and is, far from over with Queen (aka May & Taylor) continuing their stride with a posthumous Made In Heaven release and several collaborations including Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert and the (thankfully once witnessed) hugely popular West End stage production of We Will Rock You that was produced together with Ben Elton. Only a few examples of the times the band/brand made its appearance into the still firmly shining spotlights again.
So all that's left to say is for Griffiths to put his 'frustrations' aside and to start work on Queen's next decade volume, and for you to get on your bikes and ride to the nearest bookshop and grab a copy to let Griffiths entertain you! As an essential purchase for fans of the band I'm fully convinced You'll love it!