Course Of Fate — Somnium
During the year we as reviewers and fans of the genre are presented with a variety of challenges. One of those presented itself when Course Of Fate released the anniversary edition of their 2013 EP Cognizance at the same time they issued Somnium, the follow-up to their debut Mindweaver.
In light of Mindweaver's high ranking in my 2020 list, I obviously couldn't be more pleased with the prospect of having to indulge with two offerings. But the question quickly became which album I wanted to start out with? I followed my instinct and gave Somnium the opportunity first to bowl me over. Which on its first two run, was still several pins short off doing so. As opposed to the greatly appealing EP which I decided to concentrate on instead. But as so often with great progressive albums, through perseverance I found out that Somnium is one of those exceptional albums that gets better and better with each listen. And now finally, quite a few months down the line (sorry guys), I can conclude Somnium is right up there with Mindweaver.
Recorded over a three-year period in the same line-up as Mindweaver, the band mention this album to be "heavily influenced by the loneliness and insecurities of a two-year pandemic lockdown". A nightmare time which is thoughtfully reflected upon in lyrics and as a musical result showcases a slightly more aggressive approach, thereby leaving every hallmark of Mindweaver's masterpiece securely intact.
In reflection of that surreal period, instrumental opener Prelude starts off with ominous atmospheres. It is followed by Queensrÿche riffs that lead into dynamically tight bombastic prog-metal melodies reminiscent of Symphony X. This together with the introduction of various conceptual themes and a coda Dream Theater interplay sets up beautifully for Morpheus' Dream. A powerful composition, in line with their debut, which shows fierceness of power-metal with melodies and epic harmonies that frequently recall Queensrÿche. Especially in light of the song's masterly constructed transitions, atmosphere accentuating synths, and the beautiful melodic twin-guitar deliveries.
Eivind Gunnesen's expressive vocals in Morpheus' Dream did require some minor adjustments on my part, but as soon as the outstanding emotional guitar solo finalises, I find he comes fully into his own. An example of which is demonstrated in Wintersong. An inventively crafted melody-laden composition manoeuvres effortlessly back and forth between metal and progressive passages. Next to harmony of sound and tightly arranged aggressiveness performed with power of Metallica, it furthermore features an intricately construed bridge complemented by refined piano and a captivating melancholic guitar solo.
After this convincing start, Course Of Fate take their foot off the power-metal pedal and over the next two songs offer a moments rest. Out of these Blindside brings epic Kingcrow designs in melody, highlighted by exemplary bass and keyboard parts. An overwhelming emotive guitar solo and Gunnesen's strong emotional performance in the complex parts of the song add a touch of Pain Of Salvation anger. While Rememberance explores both old and new territories as ambient atmospheres of solitude and echoes of Pink Floyd gradually intensify into melodies that converge into a wall of guitars which round off in a grand post-rock styled finale shaded by melancholic sadness.
We return to familiar prog-metal grounds with Vile At Heart. This is a compelling song where Gunnesen' dark and moody David Bowie-like expression manages to draw up near-apocalyptic images of Saviour Machine. Course Of Fate then pull out all the stops with Valkyrie. This was one of the songs that delivered a full strike the first time around. It converges with sublime ease through passages of dainty lightness and bombastic synth-driven darkness, and especially the propulsion into towering melodies impresses the most. Closely followed by the successive epic guitar melodies and tantalising synth solo that lead towards this song's intensely satisfying alarming climax.
Somnium's second full strike, as far as I'm concerned, follows directly after Echoes' short enchanting symphonic interlude in form of ...Of Ruins. In this anthemic composition, Course Of Fate pull out even more stops and showcase their magnificent song-smithery through an impressive array of sublime transitions from grand to small and a combination of captivating melodies in which elements of power-metal, graceful guitar work, dynamic interplay, subtlety in melodies, and a return of ambient post-rock all lead towards a monumental finale of overwhelming soothing beauty.
In short, the highly recommendable Somnium, which is dedicated to bassist Nygaard who sadly passed away in April 2023, shows that Course Of Fate wear their influences with pride and most confidently are plotting a course towards their own place of uniqueness in the world of progressive metal. If I were allowed to dream big I hope this trajectory also includes an invitation for this year's edition of the European ProgPower festivalin Baarlo, Netherlands. That would be a dream come true...
Glorious Wolf — Mysterious Traveler
Glorious Wolf is the solo project invented by multi-instrumentalist Ruud Dielen. The first album he released as Glorious Wolf was Aquarius in 2017, an almost completely instrumental album with jazz-fusion influenced music. On his second album Zodiac, there are a lot more vocals, while the jazzy influences are pushed to the back, with more (progressive) rock and even some blues elements coming in. Now, Glorious Wolf returns with the album Mysterious Traveler. Just about half of the album is instrumental, sitting in nicely between the previous two albums. The style of music has moved even more towards progressive rock, but the bluesy and jazzy elements have not disappeared completely. What is new, is that on Mysterious Traveler a few songs have female vocals sung by Celia van Onna. The artwork on this album is, again, by Ed Unitsky, and it is lovely.
The album opens with Repentance, with vocals by Frank van der Borg. With this album I would say do not judge the album by its opener. The start is fierce but then after a sloppy guitar piece it becomes a bit too sluggish to my liking. The vocals with supporting bass line never really keep the song going. How strange that the song titled Slow Down is the one that steams it up! Guitar and keyboard tunes alternate and provide a nice pace and uplifting sound during the first three minutes. After that there is a slower part with some Pink Floyd-like guitar playing evolving in some more old bluesy Pink Floyd stuff. The True Story is a slower song and this time the bass line succeeds in carrying the song forward, this is what I missed during the opening song. This is the first song to feature the vocals by Celia van Onna. The vocals, chanting at times, fit in nicely with the music.
On the next song, the Glorious Wolf is Howling At The Moon, clearly marking the shift towards more progressive territories. This instrumental song has a guitar melody that carries the part throughout the whole song and at any time some instrument can take the lead and provide wonderful melodies. Title track Mysterious Traveler is a bit slower instrumental song with many dark passages. A mysterious sounding song with many ambient sounds and noises.
Battlefield is a lot different. A fierce guitar tune, just like the opening song, but mostly carried by keyboard tunes. At several points it really explodes with a heavy guitar riff, mostly short-lived, but mainly the song has a bluesy feel with melodic soloing. Closing song Beautifully Broken is by far the best on the album. With a title like that this song is of course a mellow song and not a heavy rocker. The first part has vocals by Celia van Onna and I advise everyone to give this song a chance. The vocal melodies are very well written and fit perfectly in the surrounding melodies and atmosphere provided by the instruments. If you listen to this, you will be hooked immediately. The second part of the song is an instrumental outro with a lot of Pink Floyd influences.
I was pleasantly surprised with Mysterious Traveler by Glorious Wolf. With the turn towards progressive rock sound the Pink Floyd influences are more upfront. Many instrumental songs and passages but also some great female vocals by Celia van Onna, especially on Beautifully Broken. This last song is definitely one to check out and when you do, the rest of the songs will get your attention automatically. Just like me, you will end up listing to this album a lot, Mysterious Traveler is a highly enjoyable journey.
Gula — Birds Of The Apocalypse
It was a bit quiet after their 2018 debut albm, but when their Bandcamp page showed an EP with a live improvisation session I knew the band was still alive, and it would not be long till their sophomore effort, which was finally released in December 2023. It now appears that they even started on it before the pandemic hit, and have not been able to work on it for almost two years.
The line-up has remained unchanged with Ilja Fase on bass and vocals, Jan Bleijenberg on guitars and vocals, Aad Oliehoek on drums, and Pieter Dirksen on synths and effects and now also some guitar. Their own description of "combining psychedelic and atmospheric with doom and metal" is very to the point.
The album opens with a hypnotic bass line which, after a classic doom section with a lot of "yeah" in the lyrics, is revisited in the second half with added effects, creating an atmosphere that is almost mid-70s Hawkwind. The bass is melodic, and driving constantly.
The hypnotic soundscapes return in Blind Spot. Ilja Fase's vocals are dreamily spooky during the slower bits, but she goes into higher ranges as a slow build-up towards a faster-paced section. More Hawkwind! A few lines of lyrics are repeated in different ways, even with singer Bleijenberg, adding some unexpected complexity there, building up to a guitar solo that breaks from the doom foundation even more, and slowly gliding into proper post-rock style.
It becomes clear that the order of the songs is very deliberate here. The musical style is changing and growing with every next song. Not going from one extreme to another, but gradually taking you on a trip. Ana Is Anna is more post-rock than they were ever before, with the bass and synths still being quite hypnotic. The middle break and build-up reminds me a bit of MONO.
Laughing Song probably has the darkest atmosphere on the album, so... good title! It's on the slow side with two sections faster, where the sound grows into post rock territories. For me it is sometimes a bit too slow, especially when the intro to the next song Symbiosis is also taking its time. But it's still that tension span the musical flow is following.
Like a circle turning, No Harmony is a hypnotic beast, going via heavy Hawkwind into post-metal. Quite the breathtaking track.
The title track is slower again, although the power builds up in the middle section. References keep popping up without making a lot of sense. This is like a heavy and weird techno Doors party, or a heavy Ozric Tentacles session. The final track, Pigs In Space closes the song cycle with the most melodic vocal melodies on the album, and the most psychedelic song of them.
From the opening movement to the end, the production really fits the music. It's great to hear clarity in a fuzzy sound.
I really like the contrast between the low and high ranges in Fase's voice in this type of music. My taste is satisfied with fast-paced heavy multi-layered music more than doom, so the extra layers that Gula are adding to their bottom layer is making it very interesting to my ears.
As they put it themselves, the overall biggest musical label would be psychedelic rock. If you regularly find yourself there, take a listen to Ana Is Anna and Pigs In Space. If slower heavy rock is already in your collection, Laughing Song and the title track are great points to start.
I like the heaviness of doom, the psychedelic influences for extra layers, the Krautrock in the faster sections. It's never just one of these - it's the mix of everything that makes the Gula sound a new combination of familiar elements, like a new recipe. I am glad to see they are still active and would love to see them live one day! That must be a wonderful heavy, psychedelic evening.
Masters Of Your Mind — Masters Of Your Mind
Masters Of Your Mind are from Melbourne and this short self-titled debut album is a quite a surprise. The duo of Ren Parisi (drums, guitars, bass, vocals and songwriting), Emilio Sarpa (bass, vocals) worked together in the metal band Taipan from the early 1980s to quite recently with guitarist Dave Zafara.
For this new project, the duo have not used Dave Zafara, instead they have recruited the keyboard player James Leigh. Masters Of Your Mind's music is like having 80s Rush with an alternative rock fixation. Lean, fat free, muscular prog-metal with a heavy emphasis on synths. Superbly sung prog miniatures litter the album. Though calling it an album is a bit of a stretch as I have reviewed longer EPs in the past.
The clear production and mix allow you to hear exactly what Masters Of Your Mind are up to on this release. On Valley Of The Shadows they are joined by singer Zafira and her wordless vocals give the track an Eastern flavour. Throughout Masters Of Your Mind, the melodies are ear-catching and difficult to forget. The guitar riffs are a joy and the keyboards add a wonderful dimension. For me the only mistake they make is in extending The Titans Of Genesis with two minutes of unnecessary sound effects.
Masters of Your Mind's debut is a cracker of artfully executed alternative-prog rock melodic songs. If you need half an hour of cobweb-clearing music then these are your guys.
Second Hand — Reality
Over a decade ago I was unfortunately burgled and had about 300 CDs stolen. Amongst them was the debut album by Second Hand named Reality that was first released, on vinyl of course, in 1968. I originally bought a CD reissue as I was, and still am, crazy about the music from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, both obscure and well known. Reality was one of the CDs that I never got round to replacing, either because I couldn't find a copy or more likely had forgotten all about it. So It was with a degree of curiosity that I came to listen to the album again after so many years.
The group's roots stretch back 1965 when Ken Elliot (vocals, keyboards) met Kieran O'Connor (drums) in a school art class; both were 15-years-old. Teaming up with local guitar prodigy Bob Gibbons they formed The Next Collection, inspired by the notification on post collection boxes. Ah, the years when there was more than one postal collection (and delivery) each day! The line-up was completed by another teenager, Arthur Kitchener, who was recruited to play bass. In 1967, they won a "battle of the bands" competition held in the most unlikely setting of an ice rink in Streatham, South London and claimed their prize of a demo recording session. Impressing the studio owner with their flair, ability and original songs, he offered them some further studio time free of charge, the results of which landed the band a publishing deal with none other than Apple Records, although the label showed no further interest in the still teenage group. However, they were used as the backing band to another artist signed to Apple Publishing, Dennis Couldry. Both sides of the resulting 1968 Couldry single are also included on this re-issue as bonus tracks, although it has to be noted that only the B-side, I Was Nearly There is labelled on the original single as featuring The Next Collection.
A change of name to The Moving Finger landed them a deal with Polydor Records (although I am sure it was more than the group name that prompted the label to hand over the, even in 1968, measly sum of £500) and work started on recording the debut album. The sessions were not without problems. Studio owner Vic Keary suffered a nervous breakdown, the lack of funding meant that recordings could only be made on an ad hoc basis in studio dead time and after completion of only four songs Kitchener decided to leave the band and was replaced with Nic South, another teenager from the local area. To cap it all, after the album was completed and in the process of being manufactured, a complete redesign of artwork was required as the group were forced to change their name when another group called The Moving Finger released a single on Mercury Records. The reprinting of album sleeves etc. caused a delay in the album's release and obviously ate up any promotional budget allocated to the album as it gathered no reviews, no airplay and seemingly no distribution as Elliot states that he never saw a copy of the album in any record shop.
One thing is certain listening to that album again is that is certainly no long-lost classic! It does sound rather dated and with the exception of the really rather enjoyable title track, the songs are more in a pop-psych vein than anything truly progressive. Although that doesn't mean it can be totally dismissed. A Fairy Tale is a great song and should have been a big hit with the right backing and promotion. Very much of its time but lashings of Mellotron make it a piece with prog pretensions and is a very assured piece for such a young group of musicians. Rhubarb! features some ferocious guitar work from Gibbons and Steam Tugs (Cockney rhyming slang for bed bugs) combines the best aspects of those two songs (i.e. the Mellotron and guitar work). Steam Tugs was one of the songs that prompted Keary to offer the band free studio time, the resulting demo (without Mellotron) being included as a bonus track.
The whimsical nature of the period is displayed in the rather forgettable Denis James The Clown and the slightly better Good Old '59 (We Are Slowly Gettin' Older) while The World Will End Yesterday is full-on psychedelic. Denis James (Ode To D.J.) and Mainliner unfortunately don't really cut the mustard, although the latter does show the group willing to explore more adventurous arrangements. Finally, The Bath Song Is quite a mash-up of sound effects and Mellotron, ending with a news report of the death of Dennis James, whomsoever he might be, although seemingly it is an X-ray of his hand that appears of the album's sleeve. Very much along the lines of A Day In The Life but far from the quality of The Beatles' masterpiece. Returning to Reality, this is very much a proto-prog masterpiece. Chris Williams provides an enticing string arrangement and some fine flute playing and the sound effects are nothing less than dramatic. It is rather surprising that this piece has not been picked up on over the years as a fine example of early progressive rock.
No real surprise that Polydor soon dropped the band who struggled on for another three years releasing a further two Vic Keary produced albums, both in 1971, Death May Be Your Santa Claus and a self-titled release after the departure of Gibbons and a change of name to Chillum. Although Reality is certainly an interesting album, it is the two later albums that are the real highlights of the group's recording career.
Shadow Circus — From The Shadows
Out of the US, comes Shadow Circus. A self-described "dark progressive hard rock band", formed by guitarist John Fontana and singer David Bobick in 2006. Now, for their first release since 2012's On A Dark And Stormy Night, the duo are joined by former members of Devin Townsend Project (drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen) and Pain Of Salvation/Meshuggah (bassist Gustaf Hielm) to complete the line-up for From The Shadows.
Album opener Vampires straddles the lines between goth/shock rock with added dashes of metal thrown in. A suitable style for the macabre lyrics, which is to be expected with the influence from horror and dark fantasy (their name comes from the Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes after all). A New Death however sticks with the more metal sounded, aided by Ryan's talents. The prog metal side of influences is clear here, with some areas sounding similar to Queensrÿche for example. For any fans of Ghost, Into The Fire should be enjoyable. Bobick's vocals are similar to Papa Emiritus, with the music taking a circus like "stomp" feel: eerie and twisted and diving into the carnival style of spooky. Halfway point Moonshine Haze continues that Ghost style vibe, however it misses the mark somehow. I found this track drags a bit at over 6 minutes, with little to change up the tempo or style.
Side 2 begins with From The Shadows, a weaving goth rock number that flirts with pop hooks through the chorus, but keeps the intensity as a key factor throughout the rest, with driving drums pushing the guitars and keys onwards. Another full on hard rock number comes next with Through The Witching Hour. A solid foundation of the bass and drums allows for Bobick and Fontana to lean fully into their respective talents. Second to last, Pay The Piper, opens with some acoustic work, and cello courtesy of Matt Masek (former bassist for the band). Musically the guitar is reminiscent of Tool, it turns out Fontana admitted he had been listening to a lot of Adam Jones (Tool guitarist) when writing this, which adds a nice layer of grunge/alt metal to the shock rock vibes. And finally the album closer Second Star To The Right. A gentle, piano melody over some dreamlike vocals and electronic drums leads us to the melancholic end of the album.
The album doesn't break new ground, and I feel some of the levels could do with adjusting as occasionally the keyboards sound above everything while the guitar solos, or even vocals get a bit lost in the mix. However, for some catchy, goth/horror themed hard rock and metal it is a solid release with some gems throughout.
Definitely one for fans of Ghost, Alice Cooper, Avantasia or Avatar.