Apotheus — Ergo Atlas
Just as I was losing all hope, it appears that progressive-metal does still have some room to surprise and delight me.
Hailing from Portugal, Apotheus is a new name to me. This is despite them having previously released two albums in the form of When Hope and Despair Collide (2013) and The Far Star (2019). Ergo Atlas continues the storyline from their previous album; a tale inspired by the sci-fi author Issac Asimov.
I selected this album to review, based on an interesting cover, some band photos that suggested a higher than average promotional effort, and an impressive official video sent to me by Black Lion records.
However, owing to the paucity of prog albums to please me so far this year, and as I am able to count the number of prog-metal bands from Portugal in my collection on one hand (with digits to spare), my expectations were modest.
Apotheus consists of Miguel Andrade (vocals/rhythm guitar), Luís (lead guitar), Daniel Rocha (bass), and Albano (drums). For once, their self-description is accurate. They state: "Drawing from a wide range of influences, our music is a roller coaster that combines heavy riffs, intricate rhythms, and delicate melodies."
If anything, that somewhat understates what Apotheus has achieved with Ergo Atlas. Having spun this album steadily over the past month, I am delighted to conclude that it is a winner in every respect.
It is one of those records that needs to listened to and enjoyed as a single piece of music. There is a coherence and consistency to the songwriting and performance that gives each of the nine tracks (episodes) a sound that is very much Apotheus. Yet the range of styles and dynamics utilised here, makes each track rather unique.
My notes show that at various points I am reminded of Wheel and Soen, Wolverine, Votum, Porcupine Tree and Riverside, Damnation Day and Magnitude Nine, Fates Warning, Gojira and Opeth, Thence and Antimatter. I'd say that 'melancholic prog-metal-lite' is the most common mode (think Votum and Wolverine especially). However, when it gets heavy, and it often does, it is very heavy (think Gojira). Elsewhere, we have some proggy orchestrations, some industrial electronic sounds and a bit of alt-rock.
Miguel Andrade has the sort of emotional, mid-range vocal that I have come to prefer in recent years. He knows how to use different timbres and melodic patterns but always with the melody at the centre. He does use death growls across the album. I'd prefer less of this, but given the huge variety of styles that are employed across the album, it just about works for me.
I am especially impressed by the drumming, helped by a perfect production that just sparkles out of my speakers. I'm not particularly into sci-fi storylines; and it's a bit hard to follow with no lyric sheet in the promo pack. If you are, then it will add another dimension to the music. But thankfully the storytelling didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the songs as ... well ... just great songs.
Last year I was struggling to make a Top 20 albums of the year. This year I will be pushing it to select a Top 10. Perhaps I am at the stage where I have just heard it all before? Maybe it's time to just enjoy the music that I have already gathered over the past half a century, and leave it at that?
I am delighted that I have sustained my musical adventures long enough to encounter Apotheus. Ergo Atlas will be towards the top of my Top 10 albums of 2023, and it is one that all lovers of adventurous and melodic progressive-metal should add to their collections.
Dede Booth — Parallels
Beautiful, airy landscape cover of Parallels just screams for parallels (pun intended) with Peter Mohrbacher and Ed Unitsky artworks, right? Experienced progheads may take a guess and assume that Dede Booth's music should probably rotate somewhere around modern prog metal with breakdowns, tight drumming and occasional metalcore vocals. Modern bands just love this type of cover images (see Caligula's Horse, Azure or Countless Skies). Well, this is not the case. Dede Booth is a Boston-based indie (heavy accent on “indie”) multi-instrumentalist, quite far from modern rock / metal area. She holds the drumsticks, provides guitar work, plays synths and sings. Oh, and she also arranged the cover herself, with a little help of AI, and supposedly wrote the lyrics, so Parallels is an ultimate example of a solo record.
Parallels turned to be a controversial listen to me. There are both good and bad sides to my experience, and I'll start with pros. The music is creative, out-of-patterns. The cons? It is too creative and too much out-of-patterns. The musical basis for Parallels is ethereal wave, akin to the bands from 4AD label — dreamy, loosely composed music with a lot of reverb effects and multilayered everything. Very indie and out of this world.
The music is composed and performed by Dede herself, who is, above all, a drummer. Thus, the drums are recorded in a way that they stand out as a front-line instrument, doing rhythmical patterns all over the echoing walls of guitars and synths. It feels a bit like listening to Cocteau Twins with Dominic Howard (Muse) as guest musician with drums too high in the mix. Another example that came to my mind is King Of Agogik, also led by a drummer, but that project is much closer to traditional prog.
The concept is intriguing on paper, but definitely not to everyone's taste. The bass parts are almost inaudible, if present at all, which doesn't help with the dynamics.
Third, Dede is a fine drummer, capable of doing intricate rhythmical patterns, and a decent guitarist, but she is a questionable vocalist. She is often out-of-tune, with a limited range and a rather negligible approach to how she sings. Not that all other indie vocalists possess operatic ranges and precision, but the way the vocals are delivered here simply hinders the overall impression for me.
The vocals are all over the record, because Parallels is a concept, philosophical album about a magical journey of an esoteric entity – which, again, raises interest towards the record, but presents new challenges for Dede to sing – and actually tell a story, make a narrative flow. History of prog rock knows many cases when more professional vocalists attempted to do the same and failed (I won't tell you who is on my mind and leave this to your erudite skills, dear readers). Needless to say, that it is not easy to follow a story delivered in a weird manner (even if the story itself is weird).
I stated a lot of criticism above, but all this should not overshadow the fact, that Parallels is an inventive effort, trying some paths least taken and not playing it safe. I am just not particularly fond of how the ideas were brought into life. If you are looking for music completely out-of-the-box, be welcome to check this album out.
Dimwind — The Futility Of Breathing
Out of Sweden comes Dimwind. An instrumental post-metal band who "strive to provoke both reflection and empowerment" with their music. Since their formation, the two-piece of Andreas Hansen (guitars, keys, bass) and Jonas Eriksson (drums) have released the very well received debut Slow Wave Violence, as well as a split-EP with Breaths called Seasons. Now, in 2023 they have dropped album number two: The Futility of Breathing.
First Light Never Stays begins with a full-on post-metal experience. Chugging, yet melodic and emotive, the guitar works are laid alongside drumming that would be very much at home on earlier Solstafir and Katla efforts. The intense riffs are sprinkled with hints of synths to add some extra spice.
This hard-hitting, intense and emotionally-charged music does not let-up as it builds and grows until shortly after the halfway mark in Once A Lushful Green. Here things slow down, with a spoken passage about grief over some stripped-down music. It feels as if the music is the journey through the sadness and anger/frustration that can come with losing a loved one.
Withering Unseen brings an almost tortured and despairing level of post-metal. Heavy, aggressive, but still tinged with melody and melancholy, before morphing into a mix of groove/alt/post-metal. Think Tool back in 2006, but being written by Kontinuum.
The album is a fantastic mix of styles, twists and turns, rises and falls. Every area is crafted to capture your attention and keep you fixed on the music. This is allowed free rein to paint every picture you need, thanks to the lack of vocals. The production is perfect for this "DIY" sound as well. You can hear everything perfectly, but it retains an air of "live" sound to it, and a raw edge that is lacking from many modern release.
This album is currently tied in first place for my favourite instrumental ever (the other being Five Incantations by Jo Quail), and is likely to be there for a long time; unless Anderson and Jonas can top it with their next effort.
Fans of any of the previously mentioned groups, or ones such as Mogwai and Pg.Lost should absolutely have these two chaps in their playlists.
Steve Hackett — Foxtrot At Fifty + Hackett Highlights - Live in Brighton
When Steve Hackett played at the Tanzbrunnen in Cologne in 1994, opening for Marillion, he had only one Genesis song in his repertoire: his own instrumental Horizons. On many live recordings from the seventies and eighties, the approach looks quite similar.
This repression (perhaps even denial) of his own musical past changes slowly with the newly recorded studio versions on the CD Genesis Revisited (1996) and then really with the successor Genesis Revisited II (2012). Since then, Hackett, who left the band in 1977, has been bringing the music of Genesis back to live stages in a big way. And he documents this through regular releases, with the audio material always being supplemented by the accompanying concert film on DVD or Blu-ray.
Since starting off with Genesis Revisited: Live At Hammersmith (2013), the latest recording, Foxtrot At Fifty + Hackett Highlights: Live In Brighton, is the eighth live release in ten years. This may be a bit too much of a good thing, even for some fans. But no one is forced to buy the stuff.
One thing is for sure: if you decide to buy it, you will not regret it.
Hackett has had a great live band for several years, including exceptional musicians such as Nick Beggs, Roine Stolt and Nick D'Virgilio. Currently, in addition to singer Nad Sylvan (Agents of Mercy), who still masters the parts of Peter Gabriel brilliantly, it consists of Hackett's longtime companion Roger King (keyboards) as well as drummer Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson, Pendragon, Fish), Rob Townsend on saxophone and woodwinds and bass player Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Karmakanic). Guest Amanda Lehmann (vocals, guitar) joins the band again. It's a great band, worthy of the song material from Hackett's solo career and the Genesis album Foxtrot (1972). None of it sounds dusty, quite the opposite. The music comes across as dewy as if it had just been composed.
After Steve Hackett has already devoted himself in recent years to complete performances of the albums Wind and Wuthering, Selling England by the Pound and Seconds out, it is now the turn of Foxtrot, his personal second album with Genesis as a successor to founding guitarist Anthony Phillips. The album celebrated its 50th anniversary at the time of the tour. Incidentally, this latest recording from the English seaside resort of Brighton is dated October 9, 2022.
Before the band turns to the Genesis classic, it first goes to some highlights from Hackett's solo catalogue. Ace of Wands from his solo debut Voyage of the Acolyte (1975), recorded while still a Genesis member and with support from Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins (among others) is a fitting start. With A Tower Struck Down and Shadow of the Hierophant (excellently sung by Amanda Lehmann) two more pieces of this great record follow later. They are also musically still very close to Genesis in their prime; no wonder, since many of the songs were originally written for the band, but Hackett couldn't put them through against the material of his colleagues.
The Devil's Cathedral from the 2021 studio album Surrender of Silence, a humorous announced, powerful song with a jazzy edge, then proves that Steve Hackett is still making relevant music today. The album Spectral Mornings (1979) is represented by two classics, the fabulous title track and the good-humored Every Day.
Jonas Reingold shows off his impressive skills with a bass solo, and there's a very rare excursion to the best track on the 1983 album Highly Strung (which incidentally features Ian Mosley drumming before he joined Marillion), namely the sometimes overlooked gem Camino Royale, where Rob Townsend is allowed to let off steam. All in all, a very good selection from Hackett's solo work, which should also make the day of every fan of the old Genesis.
And the pleasure-levels can be increased. Majestically the first bars of Watcher of the Skies float out of the speakers. The piece develops in the known, rousing way. The rather stately Time Table makes the listener's pulse settle back to normal speed. But it picks up again immediately with Get 'Em Out by Friday. This bizarre and gloomy dystopia about housing shortages could not be thematically more relevant than today.
The very British-sounding, pastoral Can-utility and the Coastliners is also flawlessly performed. And the short guitar piece Horizons, a Hackett standard, leads up to the climax, the 23-minute Supper's Ready. In its entirety it is far more than the sum of its seven parts, to this day the blueprint of the progressive rock genre. Steve and his band once again do full justice to this wonderful piece of music. A brilliant performance. Two encores bring the recording to a worthy close: the ever-popular Firth Of Fifth (from Selling England By The Pound, 1973) and, of course, Los Endos (from A Trick Of The Tail, 1976), which also features the song Slogans (from the solo album Defector, 1980). Simply great.
The musicians do their job very well overall, letting the timeless music of one of the most beautiful Genesis albums shine anew in an absolutely worthy form. Above all, however, hovers the maestro himself. Virtuoso Hackett has lost nothing of his magical dexterity in his long career. His grandiose solos give you goosebumps time and again. You could listen to him forever. Another great document of another great concert.
Brian J. Robb — On Track: Depeche Mode
This book looks at Depeche Mode's studio releases over the span of four decades, from their first in 1980 to their latest, this year's Memento Mori. Brian J. Robb examines their evolution from "plinky-plonky" synth-pop chart-stars, through to the debauched post-punk, industrial rock, electronic synth gods of the early 1990s, to their recovery and eventual longevity. A longevity that continues to be creative and fulfilling. Although it was a close-run thing at the time of singer Dave Gahan's overdose-induced heart-failure. Over the same period, they also moved from small venues to becoming an arena-filling, forceful live act. It's a shame that the live 101 album and tour film get only passing mentions, as they were pivotal in Depeche Mode's American breakthrough.
Brian J. Robb's On Track: Depeche Mode continues the fine tradition of Sonicbond Publishing's imprint. Each album is introduced by Robb with a mix of the then current cultural and musical scene, the band's interpersonal and personal backgrounds, as well as placing the releases in the context of the music reception by fans and critics alike.
Robb's analysis and critical track by track detail is succinct and to-the-point. He includes related B-sides (remember those!) and non-album singles, as well as clearly recounting the trials and tribulations of a band who moved from fresh-faced youths on BBC's Top Of The Pops, to the much more interesting stadium-conquering synth kings.
They may not strike everyone as a prog band, but they certainly are adventurous and inventive enough to be considered prog-adjacent. I consistently return to two of their albums, 1990's Violator and 1993's Songs Of Faith And Devotion, both are worth checking out.
If you are interested in Depeche Mode, this is a great place to start, with Robb's engaging writing style and persuasive arguments. He has me reaching for my wallet for a few albums that I have missed. He makes them sound just my sort of thing.
TFNRSH — Tiefenrausch
Tiefenrausch (Deep Frenzy) is the debut album by German instrumental progressive / psychedelic hard rock band Tfnrsh. Or Tiefenrausch, I cannot tell. Artwork and names on the web are ambiguous so TFNRSH could be just a styling or the intended spelling. Pronunciation is likely the same. Ah well, let's go straight to the music.
Slow to build the song, and not going into very fast modes, Open Eyes still stays away from stoner / doom, by having a lot of guitar melodies. Melancholic overall, the power has a lot of punch and release. Different guitar tones take their time doing different melodies, before breaking into solos, meaning that the compositions are important.
Death Or Freedom is built on top of a blues layer that reminds me of a fuzzier Pink Floyd, but turns to post-metal outbursts and contrasting secions not unlike MONO. The sadness here is palpable and it is beautiful.
While staying true to their own sound, Birds does break out a bit with the sort of wah-wah guitar riffs and melodies that I hear in Yuri Gagarin. But not for too long. The progressive label sticks. It's the most spacy track on the album.
SLIFT has to be a tribute to Slift. Not as raw as the French perhaps, but it definitely means that if you know of these bands you should check out the other. The melodic guitar sections are a trip on their own, and get a little more space in this track.
The album itself contains four songs spread across 42 minutes. This will be what is on the LP and CD versions. The digital version on Bandcamp has a bonus track, 19 BØNES, that was released as a single and is available for name-your-price. Interestingly, the second bonus is the official album trailer. It is a bit of an overture, but if you want to hear what this band is about in eight minutes, then 19 BØNES could serve as a proper introduction, as it has many of the elements found elsewhere on the album.
During the whole album you hear the sound that this band is aiming for. The album shows a very good production, not draining the headphones with distortion but a mix that has a place for all instruments, as well as adding a level of distortion you'd expect with this type of music. And let's not forget that beautiful cover!