Nick Fletcher — Quadrivium
It seems only a short while since Nick Fletcher released the rather wonderful The Cloud Of Unknowing, or does time really pass faster as one ages?
This is his third instrumental solo electric guitar album since 2020. Here Fletcher teams up with Anika Nilles, the last drummer in the Jeff Beck Group who obviously knows a thing or two about virtuoso guitarists. Tim Harries (ex Bill Bruford's Earthworks) is again bassist of choice, with keyboards mostly provided by Caroline Bonnett, although Dave Bainbridge guests on three tracks.
Firstly, the title. Quadrivium, a term likely coined by the 6th century Roman senator Boethius, was the name given to the subjects that in medieval times were considered to be essential foundation topics for anyone who wanted to undertake more advanced studies in philosophy or theology. The four subjects were all related to numerology and consisted of arithmetic (numbers in the abstract), geometry (numbers in space), music (numbers in time) and astronomy (numbers in space and time). It might be an odd combination of subjects these days, but at the time academics were absorbed in such theories as the harmony of the spheres which considered the movement of planets and other celestial objects as a form of music. Each track on the album is a reflection on arithmetic, geometry or astronomy; music having been excluded as the album IS music!
Anyone who read my review of the last album will know the musical touchmarks that Fletcher incorporates into his music. I might also add one notable omission, that of Pat Metheney the spirit of whom can be recognised in tracks such as Riding The Event Horizon and Aphelion. And yes, Fletcher is that good he can comfortably be put in the same bracket as such legends.
The album starts and ends with the largely electronic soundscapes of A Wave On The Ocean Of Eternity and Standing On The Edge Of Time which, respectively, act as a prelude and dénouement to proceedings. Accompanying these are three associated interludes, Ziggurat Of Dreams Parts 1 and 2 and To The Stars We Shall Return, which all take on a similar form with dreamy keyboards backing Fletcher exquisitely soloing over the top. The latter of these tracks has some subtle percussion added, to give it a more Eastern flavour. The guitar tone on these pieces is pure, and the playing precise, so much so that one can't help think of David Gilmour in his more atmospheric moments. However, one shouldn't think of the music as being remotely Floyd-ish; It's not.
The remaining six pieces feature the full band, and right from the moment that Overture To The Cosmos kicks off, one can appreciate why Jeff Beck employed the talents of drummer Nilles. A real powerhouse behind the kit, she is explosive, powerful and inventive without dominating the other players. The pace throughout this and the subsequent track, Riding The Event Horizon, is furious with some of the best ensemble playing I have heard in years.
After these two pieces it is abundantly clear why the interludes are needed, to allow the listener time to recover from what has just been delivered. In this age of downloading, Quadrivium goes against the trend and is actually an album that is more than a collection of tracks, it is designed to be heard as a continuous piece of music and makes the most sense when heard in that manner. Indeed, one could hesitantly call it a concept album!
The second duo of band tracks are a little less frantic. The Fifth Parallel is more sedate, but nonetheless enticing with Fletcher providing one of his most intricate solos on the album. Aphelion is redolent of the Pat Metheney Group that featured Lyle Mays, and is just as enticing.
The technical excellence is maintained throughout The Helix, with the final band track, The Journey To Varanasi, featuring Fletcher on a very authentic-sounding sitar guitar, not surprising considering Varnasis is a city in Northern India. However, this is not an exploration of Indian classical music played via Western instruments but a full-on rock instrumental. Powerful guitar chords back up the sitar guitar runs. Fletcher's electric guitar solo is punctuated by some audaciously random keyboard chords, with Nilles pounding away in the background. Superlative musicianship. Superlative music.
There is no doubt that Fletcher's assembled group of musicians form a stellar band, and if they had been around and released this album 50 years ago they would be one of the legendary groups of the era. Don't take that as meaning that they, and this album, belong in that era. It is not a throwback to the past, but a modern exploration of a certain type of music. Even having been sent a free digital review copy, I willingly paid for a CD as it was important to me to have a copy of the album in my collection. Seriously, it is that impressive.
Simon McMurdo — On Track... Nightwish
Nightwish is one of those bands that have garnered occasional interest from this website. We have only reviewed two of their studio albums, Once and Dark Passion Play. Both have received quite positive duo reviews. Since then the band has been through several significant personnel changes but also managed to release three more studio albums, on which the symphonic element in their music has steadily grown, using full orchestras and choirs as well as uillean pipes, flutes and other instruments rarely associated with metal. It culminated in the 30-minute orchestral suite, All The Works Which Adorn The World that filled the bonus cd accompanying their 2020 release Human :||: Nature. It's hard to imagine that music can get more proggy!
During a career spanning more than 25 years they have become one of the leading bands in the female-fronted metal scene, selling out big venues in countries like the UK, USA, Germany, The Netherlands and of course their homeland Finland.
I came across Nightwish thanks to my metal-loving, youngest son. He wanted to attend a Nightwish gig during their 2012 Imaginaerium tour but couldn't find a mate to accompany him. Until then, I had heard only the single Nemo from their Once album and liked that song quite a lot. To persuade me, my son played some snippets of the then new album featuring new singer Annette Olzon. Since I liked those songs even more than Nemo, I decided to go to the gig.
The experience that evening was mixed. The two supporting acts on that night, Eklipse and Battle Beast, proved true examples of the heavy metal type that I find horrendous. I was definitely one of the very few with that opinion in the sold out venue. But Nightwish proved far more attractive than I had anticipated, although they also used an occasional grunt which I thoroughly dislike. Olzon stood her ground, the show was spectacular, the setlist exciting with a good variation of heavy, folky and proggy songs and the sound excellent. So I started listening to them, really enjoying the Imaginaerium album and the two following albums with new vocalist Floor Jansen.
Thus, this new On Track volume attracted my attention. English author and metal aficionado Simon McMurdo describes the history of the band since their inception in 1996 using the familiar chronological built-up of this series. Every album is introduced by a list of all musicians, the orchestra and choir used, as well as their conductors, the recording and production information and the information on the artwork, even including all photographers who supplied images for the booklet. For the last two albums this list takes up a full page! I really like this effort by the author, for the artists working on the often-outstanding booklets are all too often overlooked.
On many other moments in the book you'll experience that McMurdo has done his research well, thus paying tribute to the band he clearly admires. A good example is the mentioning on Floor Jansen's other vocal activities, for which he had to use rather unusual information sources. Most of these sources are restricted to The Netherlands, Jansen's home country, and thus written in Dutch which will be as difficult to comprehend for him as the mother language of the band.
The ten studio albums, including the Over The Hills And Far Away EP, are introduced with a short description of the state of mind of the band's main songwriter and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen. His thoughts and aims form the lead towards dealing with the individual songs, often using quotes from metal magazines such as Kerrang!. That could have been exciting but in spite of his smart writing style it starts to annoy that McMurdo hardly ever takes a different view, let alone tells his own feelings about an album or song. The book reads as a summary of what Holopainen wants us to hear and like, and that is not enough for an attractive read.
The description is completed with short stories on the changes in line-up with extensive notes on the departures of original singer Tarja Turunen and her successor Annette Olzon. Unfortunately the details given in the book are again quite factual and very skewed towards Holopainen's view on the events, thus taking much of the drama away. McMurdo's own opinion or critique would have spiced the story; I feel that he missed an opportunity to make this a really exciting book.
All songs are then treated in the order of the album, in which McMurdo primarily focuses on the lyrics and their inspiration. Musical descriptions are very scarce, and by omitting that, the author almost completely neglects the importance of the drums and bass in the music of Nightwish. For each song he details whether that song was ever played live and on which tour. To me that information could have been summarised in a table at the end of the book, thus making room for more insight into the music, the instruments used, the role of producers or the reception of each album by the fans around the world. Also, McMurdo limits himself to regularly mentioning Finland and the UK, thus neglecting the success of the band in the Americas and the rest of Europe.
Dealing with the older albums he repeatedly mentions that Floor Jansen has sung the old songs in her own way, suggesting that she is his favourite vocalist. At the end of each chapter, he briefly mentions bonus tracks, B-sides and singles which provides a good overview to the listener on special songs released with the album at hand. The book occasionally mentions the numerous side projects of Holopainen and the other members of the band. Listing those activities in more detail would have been a fine extra source of information.
The introduction to the book is another serious point of criticism. It is actually a short summary of what is to come, not an invitation to read on. Furthermore, the author has refrained from writing any sort of conclusion or epilogue. After 137 pages, the text bluntly ends with a description of Nightwish's latest live album Decades: Live In Buenos Aires, and that's it. Very unsatisfactory, an editor should have helped him here to make a proper end to this volume.
This volume is chiefly an easy-to-digest factual narrative on the remarkable history of this Finnish band. By reporting, instead of reviewing or judging, McMurdo shows himself primarily as a historian than as a critical journalist. That makes this book a bit dull and disappointing.
Residuos Mentales — A Temporary State of Bliss
Residuos Mentales' A Temporary State Of Bliss runs to 44 minutes over four tracks. So you sort of know that this is going to be, if not an old school instrumental prog album, then at least a modern take on the classic prog tropes of the 1970s.
This second studio album follows their well-regarded 2018 debut Introspection. The new release keeps the cinematic, widescreen, classic prog-rock of the debut, but adds metallic and heavy prog elements.
The core of Residuos Mentales remains the duo of Stratos Morianos (keyboards) and Alexandros Mantas (guitars, flute). Again, they have help from unnamed collaborators on drums, trumpet, horns and strings. I suppose they could be samples, but they sound fresh and real to me.
The album kicks off with the longest track. The Stuff Of Dreams is a multipart suite that hangs together perfectly. It opens with big Vangelis synth chords that linger over pulsing bass synths, joined by picked electric guitar. The guitar leads into the second section; This is slower and more acoustic with a short keyboard-led melody that is a bit of a ringer for Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, but it soon moves on.
A Tony Banks-like piano theme brings in the third section, with acoustic guitar, bass and drums. It could be a lost Bond theme. Its melody is capped by a gem of an electric guitar solo that brings to mind Andy Latimer. Heavy prog guitars and keys push the final section along, until it fades to lithe bass and acoustic piano. Another fluid guitar solo closes it. It is a cracking instrumental take on classic prog, along the lines of Camel and Genesis. But this is not heritage prog, as Residuos Mentales' modern prog is well, uhmm, modern.
The shortest track follows. The Missing Part is a ballad that builds beautifully from acoustic piano and guitar, to drums and bass with a high-quality trumpet solo as the honey on this Greek dish. When it ends, you can't help but feel it is just as long as it needs to be; nothing extra, nothing else needed and nothing missing.
Next is A Series Of Self-Correcting Errors. Here things change. The acoustic opening is soon blown away by an almost heads-down melodic prog-metal. After combined synth and electric guitar solos, it goes in a stately direction with Mellotron and electric guitar, before picking up pace and adding flute. It is a track infused with 1970s melodicism and modern heavy prog. Another great piece.
Finally, Impending Catastrophe closes the album. Keys and flute get heavied-up by the full band chugging along superbly. Lighter touches are added, before it closes with a medieval Gryphon-like folk tune. Not where you expect it to go on a first listen.
This is my first encounter with Residuos Mentales and I hope that A Temporary State Of Bliss is not my last. Nothing on this release feels shoehorned in. It feels organic, superbly thought through, and played with passionate intensity. It is not to be missed.
Ethan Roy — On Track... Lou Reed (1972-1986)
Though definitely not prog, I have a liking for Lou Reed. The reason for this is that on 3rd October 1973 I went to the Birmingham (UK) Odeon to see my first gig, and it was Lou Reed. I became a fan, and a fan of live music at the same time. The next gig a few weeks later was Hatfield And The North supporting Gong with a film shown between those two bands of Mike Oldfield performing Tubular Bells. Soon after I saw Gentle Giant. I think my fate was set to be a prog rock fan for the rest of my days. But I never forgot about Reed.
Anyway, enough of me, back to Ethan Roy's book. Of all the Every Album, Every Song books I have read, this is the one most critical of its subject's releases. Roy is a professor of english composition in Troy, New York, and a long-time fan of Lou Reed. The mini biography on the rear jacket of the book states that Roy's first tattoo was the cover image of Reed's The Blue Mask from 1982. You can only admire the commitment. However, Roy's love for Reed is tempered by a clear-eyed assessment of both the positive and negative aspects of Reed's output.
As with all the books in this series, Roy puts each album in the context of the goings-on in Reed's life, the contemporary reception of the releases and of Reed's fractious relationship with fellow musicians, critics and his record companies. As befits an English professor, Roy concentrates as much on Reed's lyrics as his music. Roy also has a way with a well-timed phrase. For instance, when discussing the track Keep Away he states: "Revving up with a toothsome, gutbucket riff that would make Keef Riffhard blush". There are many similar moments that make you smile.
Another good addition to the series, Ethan Roy's On Track... Lou Reed - Every Album, Every Song (1972-1986) is probably not one for die-hard prog fans, even if Reed's debut solo album, recorded in London in 1972, featured two familiar names to readers of this site: Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe!
Roy is a companionable guide to Reed, for the curious and for fans alike.