Tim Arnold — Super Connected
Tim Arnold's Super Connected is his 26th release. This is the first time he has crossed my radar. If this album of smart art-rock is anything to go by, then I think I have been missing out.
Singer and songwriter Tim Arnold is a multi-instrumentalist playing pianos, guitars, percussion, bass, device samples and programming. Alongside various accompanists, he has released a strong album brimming with observational lyrics, set to a tuneful mélange of art-rock and progressive pop. Think David Bowie, Tears For Fears, Ultravox and 10CC if you want a flavour of what he gets up to here. To some extent you can see this in the cover art, that (if you squint) sort of references Aladdin Sane's iconic sleeve.
He sings each song "in character", from a different person's perspective, each of whom has a unique mental challenge in trying to deal with a world dominated by social media and big tech; a big tech that encourages screen dependency in search of profit. Tim Arnold conceived this set of songs with guidance from his mentors Kevin Godley and Lindsay Kemp.
The theme of Super Connected is reminiscent of Bowie's 1. Outside but I feel that Arnold's concision and focus is an improvement in any sort of comparison. Bowie's does tend to ramble here and there.
Courtesy of Jethro Tull's bassist Jonathan Noyc, the music on Super Connected is a superbly arranged and produced mixture of inventive art-pop, progressive pop and alternative synth pop. Arnold has a superb voice and knows when to hold back and when to let rip.
There are all sorts of highlights on this set, and from the opening of Start With The Sound you know you are in accomplished hands. It is an intense, tuneful opening of multitracked voices, glitchy electronics, strings and full band. The horn-driven, prog-pop of the title track is terrific. The critique of Instagram on You Like My Pictures is set to a funky sound like the Bowie of Let's Dance.
The cleverness returns with the sampling of the tuned phone keypad that forms a pulsing backing to The Touch Of A Screen. Its melancholic violin (Jonathan Hill) and cello (Nick Holland) work so well. Send More Light's piano ballad singer-songwriter tropes leave you asking just how good is Tim Arnold? Where Am I In All Of This? is an art-pop take on Muse but with a less histrionic Matt Bellamy singing.
There are a couple of missteps though. The mock advert, voiced by Stephen Fry, soon falls victim to the skip button. And the rap ending to The Complete Solution's mickey-take of sales culture fails to convince. Minor details though. If we did a half mark this would go up by the half. As it is, it's still a top 10 album for the year.
If you have a liking for the smart art-pop, progressive pop bands and the artists mentioned already, then Tim Arnold's Super Connected demands your investigation.
Breaths — Floruit
Breaths is a project I've been following since hearing Though Life... back in 2021. For those new to this outfit, then this is one-man band from the USA, combining elements of doom, black and post-metal into a unique but recognisable form of music. Album one was Lined in Silver, followed by the aforementioned Though Life... and then Isolera and Seasons, a split EP with Dimwind in 2022.
From the start on this new release, we have atmospherics and heavy, slow chugs on the guitar. Musically and vocally it is very reminiscent of some of Devin Townsend's work, albeit a bit slower. From here we continue in this style, but with some added post metal styles. The vocals often blend in with the wall of sound, becoming more a part of the music and melody, rather than something to focus on itself.
The slow, chugging progression doesn't stop anytime soon, as the wall of post/doom-gaze rolls onwards with long, deliberate chords that skirt the realms of doom, but keeping the atmosphere of shoe-gaze, and a tone developed from black/post metal, the album pushes on.
Unfortunately by a third of the way through, it hasn't changed much from track to track. Until The Walking Dead hits the speakers. A full on prog/death number packed with harsh vocals and energetic music. Picture Wisdom Comes by Gojira but passed through a Devin Townsend filter.
However, after this we fall into the previous, slower-paced styling again.
Squander breathes a bit of more life in to the proceedings, with a bit more energy. A mix-up in some guitar work and rhythm brings a jolt of passion into the mix, but sadly it is over too soon, and we are back to the previous sounds.
I would be lying if I said this album didn't disappoint me, but it has to be said that after the strength of Though Life..., the split effort with Dimwind, and even the more experimental nature of Isolera, there was bound to be a dip at some point.
That isn't to say it is a bad album. Individually, the tracks are fantastic, it is just that 13 of them in one take makes it a bit of a hike. Production-wise it sounds fantastic. The blending of the vocals as more of an instrument, adds a lot of depth and character. If it was the first five songs, released as an EP, then I feel I would have been more attached.
Downes Braide Association (DBA) — Celestial Songs
In the pantheon of prog-rock keyboardists, Geoff Downes is unfairly overlooked among the more flashy legends of the genre. Having employed a more subtle style, he nonetheless created his own unmistakable sound. As a member of Asia, Yes and The Buggles, he co-wrote and performed on some of the most recognisable songs in all of prog and rock.
Downes' more recent career accomplishments include DBA, his collaboration with the multi talented Chris Braide. Eleven years since their debut, the duo has blossomed into one of prog-rock's most exceptional acts. Celestial Songs is their fifth studio album, and it does not disappoint.
Again showcasing a deft blend of pop, rock and prog, there is a strength to the material that reflects a decade's worth of increased synergy. Look What You Do, with its memorable Downes keyboard motif book-ending Braide's soulful performance, is a perfect blending of their talents. Clear Light, Will To Power and the outstanding Heart Shaped Hole display the band's ability to create an epic feel, while avoiding excess. The latter features some incredible guitar work from Dave Bainbridge, who shines throughout the album.
Keep on Moving is a nostalgic gem penned with Francis Dunnery, who also plays guitar on the track. Alternately, Bainbridge puts his guitar aside to furnish a beatific keyboard solo. The song's crossover potential is significant. In a more adventurous radio landscape than exists today, it would be in steady rotation. Similarly, On the Run and the Beatles-que Goodbye to You (Sister Shame) are infectiously-catchy album highlights.
Darker Side of Fame (with Marc Almond) and most particularly, Hey Kid and Dear Petra, all show DBA lyrically unafraid to tackle serious topics. On each, Braide wears his heart on his sleeve with affecting results. Beyond the Stars brings the album to a memorable close. Reminiscent of Yes's Awaken, Downes' signature keyboard melodies dominate this compelling and classically-progressive song. Also, in what has become a trademark of the DBA sound, poet Barney Ashton-Bullock provides narrative verse throughout. His poetry, that closes this excellent album, truly resonates. It is stunning.
Downes Braide Association continues to make albums that are essential. Celestial Songs is a consummate blend of songwriting expertise and skillful musicianship. It is also DBA's strongest and most consistent album to date. To those already initiated, continue to spread the word about this great band. For those who are to this point unaware, this release is a great place to start.
DBA is creating albums that can proudly stand alongside classics of the prog/rock genres. In that sense, Roger Dean's exquisite cover art is absolutely perfect and one of his best ever.
Sound Of Strangers — Crossing Borders
Sound Of Strangers is a band from the Netherlands that started in 2016 inspired by the music of Marillion, Rush, Riverside and Pink Floyd. From the first spin of this new album, Crossing Borders, I can confirm those influences are evident. The music of Sound Of Strangers is very neo-prog. The aforementioned bands are certainly influences but also Arena, Enchant and Sylvan come to mind.
The band is founded by Serge Mannee, who recently parted ways with the rest of the band, so Sound of Strangers is currently looking for a guitarist/vocalist. On the album the keyboards are done by Henk Zorge, but he has been replaced by Ron Mozer (For Absent Friends, Ulysses). To complete the band we have Paul Peperkamp (bass), Paul Krempel (guitar) and Oscar Alblas (drums).
The album Crossing Borders has that familiar sound of eighties neo-prog. If you grew up on that music, then this music will sink in very easily with its very pleasant sound and a good fresh atmosphere. The opener Ocean Sky is almost ten minutes long and sounds like the old and new Marillion music blended into a single song with a lot of piano melodies and lengthy guitar solos, something neo-prog fans can digest immediately.
Endless Night is a bit more mellow with a more dramatic, bombastic-sounding chorus. This is the first time on this album that we hear part of a speech from Donald Trump. Sound Of Strangers apparently also has a bit of a political message in the music. Years Of Memories is a lovely song that sings about a beautiful day but sounds like a sad song. I think the song The Wake has no reference to the album/song by IQ, but playing the neo-prog that Sound Of Strangers make, I would not be surprised if there is some connection.
The song Crossing Borders is my favourite on this album. For some reason there is a lot more happening in this song and all parts are nicely crafted together. The song is more up-tempo and there are the familiar melodies and solos. But there is a lot more happening in this song. Stateless Ending has more atmospheric parts and the guitar solos and keyboard melodies are very much present. This song reminds me a bit of The Aurora Project. On Fire And Ice the voice of Donald Trump is again present in a speech. Also Greta Thunberg can be heard, as maybe the fire to his ice.
Crossing Borders is a very good debut album from Sound Of Strangers. The music certainly is neo-prog, and it transports you back to the days of eighties Marillion and Pink Floyd. It took a few spins to get into this album, and it is hard to resist the temptation to grab old neo-prog albums after each play. It is new music but it sounds so familiar, it makes you want to grab those old albums. I hope Sound Of Stranger is able to solve their line-up problems because Crossing Borders sure needs a follow-up. Sound Of Strangers is a welcome addition to the Dutch progressive rock scene.