Karmamoi — Strings From The Edge Of Sound
Karmamoi do not sound like a typical Italian band. Instead of Mediterranean lightness, a rather Scandinavian-like melancholy dominates the songs on their latest album, Strings From The Edge Of Sound. The sixth album of the group based around founder and drummer Daniele Giovannoni differs in several points from its predecessors.
First, there is a new permanent singer with Valerio Sgargi, who was last listed as a guest on Room 101 (2021). Second, in addition to four new compositions, five older pieces have been arranged for orchestra and newly recorded. This fits very well to the melancholic sound of Karmamoi. It does not seem at all forced, as is often the case with rock-meets-orchestra projects, but also seems to lace the band a little bit into a stylistic corset.
Variety is unfortunately missing in the 60-plus minutes of playing time. A lot of the music sounds very similar. Besides Giovannoni (who also contributes keyboards and backing vocals) and Sgargi, Alex Massari (guitar) and Alessandro Cefalì (bass) are part of the current line-up. Guests include Colin Edwin on bass (ex Porcupine Tree), Geoff Leigh on flute (ex Henry Cow), Sara Rinaldi (vocals) and Luca Uggias (piano). All have appeared on previous Karmamoi albums.
Black Hole Era, the first track of the album, starts promisingly. The studied musician Valerio Sgargi's past in opera and musical production is noticeable (in the casting show The Voice Of Italy he dared to sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody). Sgargi has a very powerful, expressive tenor voice that sounds rather unusual for a progressive rock album. After a bright chime, the singer asks existential questions like "Who am I?" and "Where am I going?" to guitar sounds that are gently plucked at the beginning. The song picks up speed and the mood tilts a bit after the contemplative start, towards the gloomy and threatening, which also dominates the rest of the CD. Now the other instruments are also there (although in this song still without orchestra) and give a lot of bombast as a preview of what is to come.
In the following track, Nashira, the orchestral sounds arranged by Emilio Merone can be heard for the first time, but they don't set any convincing colourful spots here yet. The song has a handful of tempo changes, but no real highlights.
With the likewise-orchestrated Take Me Home, the exalted bombast is back. It is powerful, and pregnant with meaning, yet somehow always seems a bit too pretentious. One actually feels reminded of a (rock) opera and musical. The real prog elements fall by the wayside.
This is by no means badly done and also sounds largely appealing, but I feel that it would definitely gain from having a bit more variety. A good example is Tell Me, the second new composition. Without the track-listing on the enclosed info sheet, the lack of orchestral sounds would probably not be noticed when listening; so much does the song resemble the previous one in its basic mood. After a little more than four-and-a-half minutes the guitar puts an exclamation mark, but it would have needed a few more of them. As in the shorter solo in the following and again orchestrated Room 101, it supports the overall sound, rather than going its own way. And the dynamics, which for example characterise Your Name with its hectic strings, would have benefited from a few other parts.
The way the rock band and orchestra complement each other is certainly positive. That is well done. Less successful from my point of view is the lack of variety, which means a risk of becoming tedious. Nothing against melancholy, but here it occasionally comes close to ponderousness. Nevertheless, Strings From The Edge Of Sound could be your perfect album for gloomy November evenings.
Lifesigns — Live In The Netherlands
All studio albums by UK prog outfit Lifesigns have obtained rave reviews on this site, as well as on numerous others where prog music is still highly valued. Their blend of modern neo-prog epics and accessible tunes, combined with an absolute mastery over their instruments, great production and clever songwriting has won many fans since their debut Lifesigns in 2013. I own that album, but I have to confess that I rarely listen to it. I can't say why, since I really do like it.
Live In The Netherlands is their second live set, released eight years after the Live In London – Under The Bridge set. This time it was recorded in De Boerderij, the best known prog venue in The Netherlands. Of course there is some overlap in the two album's setlists but in this show the emphasis lies heavily on their third album Altitude. Six out of seven songs on the second disc are from that album, augmented with the rather non-descript Kings from the John Young Band. The only Altitude song that is missing is the short instrumental Arkhangelsk which is actually not missed at all. Disc one contains several songs from the debut album and the sophomore album Cardington.
For a Dutchman, the front cover of this 2CD set could be regarded as just one of those annoying examples of a far too simple representation of our country. On the other hand, the photo is actually quite beautiful and will certainly attract many to this disc.
Apart from founding father John Young (keyboards, lead vocals), the complete band changed after the London gig. But it has not made the band weaker, maybe even on the contrary. Jon Poole takes care of the bass as well as harmony vocals, Zoltán Csörsz plays drums and Dave Bainbridge (Iona, Celestial Fire) handles the guitar and keyboard duties. Co-founding father Steve Rispin is important as the sound designer.
The band is welcomed to the stage by a cheering Boerderij crowd (so good that this start is audible), a venue Lifesigns have come to love intensely, and open with N from their second album. This epic is played impeccably, with a first very fine guitar solo by Bainbridge. He can also show his exceptional talents in the rocky Open Skies, a song from the John Young Band catalogue and to my ears a strange outlier in the set because of its straightforward rock character.
The same holds true for last song, Kings, and because both songs also featured on the London live set their inclusion in this new set is a bit too much. The audience didn't mind at all, sounding as supportive for this tune as for all others and that makes perfect sense.
The playing is fantastic, the singing by Young, be it lead or in harmony with Poole, is good on tone and warm in mood. The music is varied and has an intriguing blend of complexity and addictiveness in the choruses. The guitar solos are simply awesome (listen for instance to Impossible). The guys are clearly having a good time on stage and interact with the audience in-between the songs, something that is all too often missed from a live album. The sound is crystal clear with all instruments and intricacies well mixed. Even the violin and children's choir samples in Altitude sound magnificent, amplifying the already great bass playing, moody key sounds and awesome guitar solos. This epic is easily the absolute highlight of the evening.
So what is not to like?
I've been puzzling on that question for a while. While enjoying what I heard, there was something that was missing, to my ears. I eventually concluded that there are two reasons why I kept having my doubts with this live set. Firstly the music is played so perfectly and is mixed so well that it almost sounds as if it was recorded in a studio with overdubs and other sound corrections. That is a huge and well-meant compliment to the band and their sound crew. Yet it took away my feeling of listening to a real live band.
What struck me most was that I liked the music a lot, but it didn't spark any emotion in me. I felt no real excitement or energy flowing. Of course that a purely personal appreciation of what is on offer here, so no way I'd give this album a low rating. The only thing I'm critical about is the inclusion of the two John Young songs that — again, to me — don't match the quality of the rest of the music.
So this is a very good live set by a formidable band of exceptional and sympathetic musicians, but I'm afraid I won't listen to it very often.
Moonlight Sky — Con Fusion
There is something quite special about the landscape of Slovenia. Azure blue rivers, foaming waterfalls, mountain paths and wind-lapped lakes. I have fond memories of visiting the village of Bohinj and watching the fish dart beneath the bridge by its picturesque church. The colours, the smells, the landscape combine. All are clasped in a homogenous and symbiotic affiliation, creating a sensory experience that is both mysterious and alluringly beautiful.
I have similar feelings about the Slovenian band Moonlight Sky's latest release. Everything about Con Fusion is beautifully blended. It is aggressive and brashly exciting. It is harmonious and sweetly accessible. It satisfies in several distinctive ways, but more than anything else, it engagingly contains many melodic high-points and a plethora of foot-tapping hooks. These give the album an undeniably charming allure, which beckons the listeners in.
Con Fusion's gusty rhythms and intricate arrangements bend, bob and bow like ruby-red poppies in a striking breeze. The clever changes of pace and outstanding musicianship are combined within a raft of memorable tunes to create a wonderful experience.
Surfing the ever-bobbing currents of Con Fusion and buoyed by its ever-changing white-water swell of exciting sounds, I rapidly concluded that Moonlight Sky have created an album that is captivating in every way.
Moonlight Sky have certainly evolved since DPRP's review of their first two albums in 2012.
Moonlight Sky have continued this direction of travel on Con Fusion and have perfected an easily-identifiable sound. Over the years they have inexorably moved towards a rhythmic style of fusion; one that is flavoured with tasty references to the stylistic traits of bands such as Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although I thoroughly enjoyed their last release, Con Fusion raises the bar by several notches.
There are many outstanding passages of music to savour and enjoy during the eight tunes. The members of the band all make outstanding contributions, both as a collective and as individual performers.
Guitarist Miha Petric and keyboard player Jan Sever provide many impressive and standout melodic moments. Petric's quick-fingered forays and memorable range of tones are simply outstanding. The album contains several dazzling guitar solos. These range from the bluesy blasts that erupt in Spaces, the fluid tones that elaborately enrich Artur, the dominant soloing of Infinite Improbability and the ferocious, molten embers and fretted shards that ignite proceedings during the fiery and funky East Of Order.
Sever's mastery of his instrument ensures that the album is awash with a kaleidoscope of colourful textures. His skilful approach provides space and subtlety when needed, and throbbing pulsating energy as required.
However, bassist Janez Moder and drummer Ziga Kozar provide much of the heavy lifting of the album. The rhythm section is superb and reinforces much of what makes this release so compelling. Shifting time signatures and energetic rhythms abound. These gyrate hips, legs and toes in a shaking stew and drive the knee tap and knuckle tap elements of the music with great aplomb.
The sweat-filled drum break that drips with dexterity and dominates the closing stages of Spaces, is quite splendid. Kozar's crisp drumming is a highlight throughout. Its significant role and place in the mix provides a powerful and significant punch.
Producer Matej Gobec should be commended on the overall sound quality of the album. The clear sonic values and wide dynamic range certainly enhance things.
Modez employs a wide range of styles and tones throughout the release. And his role is integral to the album's overall success. Some of his most compelling playing can be heard during Voyager. This piece contains some fine changes of pace which highlight Modez's superb lyrical tone during its gentler slumbering moments. His tastefully forceful embellishments during the ensemble parts of the piece are reminiscent of Return to Forever's approach during their No Mystery release. The growly, low-end gurglings, which fortify the beautiful piano parts during the opening section of Artur, are enchanting.
Whilst Moonlight Sky have undoubtedly developed and honed their own idiosyncratic style of fusion over their last two albums, it seems, as noted earlier in this review, that bands such as Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra have had some influence on their approach to composition and to their sound. For example, the rhythmic ensemble playing and the properties of the synthesiser solo in the title track reminded me in some small way of Chick Corea. Similarly, some of the Eastern motifs and guitar embellishments (in conjunction and in harmony with the keyboards) in East Of Order were slightly reminiscent of some aspects of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
One of my favourite pieces of the album is the opening track. In Shifting Sands, Middle Eastern motifs are prominently displayed and the whole piece has an atmospheric ambience. It also includes some sections reminiscent of Return To Forever. For those readers who like reviews to signpost some stylistic traits, some parts of this album also reminded me of Gilgamesh. These occurred most notably during a brief section of Spaces and in the ephemeral, soft-paced drumming and brush work interlude in East Of Order.
Con Fusion is an excellent album. I will play it often, and it is undoubtedly Moonlight Sky's best release so far. It ticks many boxes, and time spent in its company is a totally satisfying sensory experience.
What more could anybody wish for? An afternoon watching fish darting beneath a bridge perhaps!
Soft Machine — Other Doors
Soft Machine's follow up to 2018's Hidden Details sees the band continuing further down the quiet jazz-rock mode. There is one change in personnel, as Freddy Baker comes in on fretless bass guitar to replace the retiring, long-time basis Roy Babbington (who does make a couple of cameo appearances). The other members are John Etheridge (guitars), Theo Travis (winds and keyboards) and John Marshall, who sadly died after this recording was completed.
It's a shame that this last hurrah for Marshall is a rather inoffensive and bland affair. It has an awful lot of short, improvised pieces that basically go nowhere. Just because they have been recorded and often show the chops of individual players, doesn't mean that they need to be heard. The one exception to this would the bass guitar duet, Now! Is The Time, which is a farewell-come-handover between Roy Babbington and Freddy Baker, and works well.
The longest track on the album, Crocked Usage, is a mishmash of improvised noodling that neither acquires a melody nor a groove, and manages to be irritating and boring at the same time. It made me go back to Hidden Details to make sure I hadn't made a mistake in liking that album a lot when reviewing it. I can say that I stick by that review. It is a good album. This one not so much.
The better tracks, though not coming up to the standard of those on Hidden Details would be of interest to fans of Soft Machine but maybe not to casual listeners. As with the previous album, they revisit songs from their past. The reworking of Penny Hitch (from 1973's Seven) has a good, looping groove to its gentle jazz-fusion. And from their 1968 debut they play Joy Of A Toy that has a nice Canterbury psyche-blues to it.
The marginally heavier guitars of the title track add some much-needed contrast. But the best track is the bonus one, Backwards, that commences with wah-wah pedalled psyche guitar and some fine soprano sax playing. Stately for its first half, it changes up into a faster tempo, with guitar taking flight and Travis shifting to Fender Rhodes.
Soft Machine's Other Doors is an album in need of some serious editing. I feel it's a release for Soft Machine completists only. It's a shame it isn't as colourful as Lasse Hoile's cover art.