Album Reviews

Issue 2024-008

Monarch Trail — Four Sides

Canada
2023
73:29
Monarch Trail - Four Sides
The Oldest Of Trees (22:39), Eris (19:46), Twenty K (17:06), Moon To Follow (9:37), Afterthought (4:21)
9
Greg Cummins

Regular readers of this website may have become aware that I am a huge fan of Ken Baird's ensemble of players who fly under the Monarch Trail banner as their previous output sees them amongst the finest exports that Canada has produced (but only if you exclude maple syrup). My previous review of Wither Down can be read here.

As with previous albums, it is great to see that the cohesiveness of prior albums is again guaranteed as the regular musicians are also on board with this latest release. These guys are: Ken Baird (piano, keyboards, vocals, guitars (1,5), recorder, Penny whistle), Chris Lamont (drums), Dino Verginella (bass) together with guest guitarists Kelly Kereliuk (track 3) and Steve Cochrane (track 4). The synergistic unity between these extremely talented musicians is something to really admire.

Monarch Trail's latest offering, Four Sides, is a musical journey that transcends the boundaries of progressive rock, delivering a captivating and intricate listening experience. Comprising five distinct tracks, each with its own unique charm, the album showcases the band's evolution while maintaining the core elements that have endeared them to fans of the genre.

This is a long album by any measure at over 73 minutes but containing three gloriously epics songs, will ensure the listener will have an enjoyable journey to contemplate. Ken's keyboard and songwriting skills are always what drives his various projects so fans of symphonic progressive rock will find plenty to absorb here. The extended synth passages on many of the songs are quite thrilling and showcase just how much good phrasing and sensible structure can play in making music so accessible and complete. As expected, the adventurous and masterful keyboard skills displayed throughout the album are what sets this album apart from many others that you might discover. Marking a departure from their previous works, Monarch Trail employs a more intricate and layered approach, giving the keys a really prominent role in shaping the sonic landscape. This becomes very evident on the opening song and which at over 20 minutes in length will give you more than you bargained for. Its complexity is right up there with the best in the business but its length does not impede any enjoyment as the song unfolds its inner DNA so easily.

There is a slight deviation away from prior albums as the ethereal and very spacious sounds as found on the first half of Eris is more of a Tangerine Dream styled affair. While I don't mind lots of synth work as is often enjoyed from the Germans, the opening passages of this song just amble along a bit too slowly for my ears and detract somewhat from what should have been a cracking good song. At almost 20 minutes duration, this could have had three minutes at the beginning clipped and no-one would have noted the omission. After this first three minute section, the first part of this song has me recalling the intense beauty of two songs by Mychael Danna from his 1991 Sirens album. The songs are called Deidre Of The Sorrows and Phoenix Anastasias. They are both extremely immersive, gorgeously melodic beyond words but very haunting at the other extreme. As the song Eris is so much of a similar cosmic journey, it almost seems a shame to alter its direction halfway through as Ken has done. While I am a keen supporter of infusing music with complex time signatures to ensure people keep paying attention, sometimes I feel some songs just need to be heard as they originally began. While this song is a really enjoyable cosmic experience for the first half, when the organ, drums, bass, guitar and keyboards change direction so dramatically, it really breaks the mood that was so perfectly created before. This abrupt change reminds me slightly of Greenslade as it bounces along nicely only to encompass some of the most dreamy and lofty keyboard drenched motifs at the songs conclusion that I have heard in ages. Sheer beauty! Perhaps the song could have been split into two separate pieces but then again, this might not work as intended by Ken.

The third track sees Ken resuming with his vocals and whilst he is not the strongest of singers, his efforts on the song just about hit all the right notes. Pensive piano takes centre stage about a quarter of the way through this epic and again showcases how much of a fine player Ken has become. It allows the song to build with the other instruments chiming in against the ivories leading the way. Flashy synth runs play counterpoint to Kelly's guitar lead breaks underpinned by Ken's vocals in a slightly falsetto mode. This gives the song some diversity that was not found on the other tracks.

The remarkable feature of these first three songs involves the sheer beauty and melodicism contained within. The originality is also amongst the most adventurous I have heard throughout Ken's vast career. The blistering synth work on Twenty K is a real highlight of the album but then again, you could easily ascribe that superlative to any of the songs on offer. The final song, entitled Afterthought is anything but as its infectious melody makes it one extremely dynamic closer to what is yet another excellent album by the Canadians. Just listen to the incredible piano backdrops throughout and follow the melody line into total bliss until you have finally succumbed to the album's depth and intrigue.

As I have mentioned in a previous review, this thoroughly absorbing body of work is going to appeal to those with a predilection for music by Genesis, Millenium, Steve Thorne, Kayak, Druid, Greenslade, IQ, Iris, Steve Hackett, Camel, Mexican band Cast, Knight Area, Mindgames, Martin Orford, Like Wendy and David Minasian, to name a few.

Comparing this new album to any of their previous releases, it's evident that the band has evolved both in terms of sound and songwriting. While their earlier works showcased a penchant for intricate compositions, this album takes it a step further by pushing the boundaries of musical exploration. The keyboards, in particular, have become more integral to the overall sound, demonstrating a willingness to experiment with different textures and tones. For my ears, this album has Ken playing what I consider, is his best keyboard work yet.

In terms of originality, their new album stands as a testament to Monarch Trail's commitment to forging their own path within the progressive rock genre. While they draw inspiration from the classics, the album showcases a unique blend of influences, resulting in a sound that is distinctly theirs. The adventurous keyboard skills displayed throughout the album contribute significantly to this originality, serving as a defining element that sets them apart from their contemporaries. If you have not yet enjoyed the enormous skills of this totally engaging band, this is a great place to start while I also recommend exploring their earlier albums to complete the picture. A stunning achievement guys! Really well done!

Nebelnest — Nebelnest

France
1999 / 2023
59:14
Nebelnest - Nebelnest
Improv: Pooks Part 1 (3:22), Psykial Trysm: Shafoo (7:03), Psykial Trysm: Najha (5:53), Etude de Shimshot (9:30), Improv: Uncertain Journey (5:17), Solilock (4:50), Absinthe (9:23), Crab Nebula (6:22), Improv: Pooks Part 2 (7:28)
8
Sergey Nikulichev

Reviewer challenge: to write this review not using clichés like “cult classic” and “obscure masterpiece”. Ding! Challenge accepted!

In all honesty, it would be somewhat unfair to use these banalities to describe Nebelnest. The band doesn't need them, really. One thing should be said: the Cuneiform label is doing a splendid job reviving records and bands such as this French quartet. For many reasons, actually. One reason is because back in 1999 when this debut had been released, it was really ahead of its time. The other reason is that in 2024 it has a different quality and should give listeners a different experience. Unlike what it was on the threshold of the 21st century. While this first album is not a frequent guest in my earphones, I often revisit its heirs, Nova Express and Zepto, and there's a lot to enjoy in both, as well. However, having these files on the laptop gave me an opportunity to revisit the band's most extreme record.

One of the probable reasons why Nebelnest never got the wide-audience acclaim, was that even for the liberal-thinking prog community it was a standalone phenomenon. Instrumental mixture of King Crimson harmonies with Zeuhl, space rock and occasional tribal rhythms — while totally “prog”, musically — is not to everyone's taste. On the other hand, it provides a truly rewarding listen to those who search for something new and fresh.

The cornerstone of Nebelnest's music is the killer rhythm section, consisting of Gregory Tejedor on bass and Michael Anselmi behind the drum-set, and what these musicians are doing is literally one of the busiest jobs, comparable to a middle-class mother with three kids. A bassist's work is never done, if you permit! As soon as a listener appreciates the boldness of starting an album with a 3-minutes improvisation, he's plunged into polyrhythmic labyrinths of Shafoo, a track drifting from aggression to mellow, almost ambient parts and back to space-rock bass groove & insane guitar wailing. The following Najha and Etude de Shimshot reminded me of Anekdoten (Crimzoid riffs and arpeggios against wall of organ sounds).

Solilock lures one's ears with a rather straightforward, almost catchy opening section, only to hit them with another ice-cold guitar frenzy and all the other instruments happily going at sixes and sevens. Survivors are rewarded with a more down-to-earth Absinthe with Gregory's precise, confident bass leading the whole composition from one section to another. My favourite piece on the record is the subsequent Crab Nebula , where the instrumental parts merge all the noises and groove into a new quality of being raw and atmospheric at once.

A couple of words should be said about the Cuneiform's job on the reissue, and sound-wise it is great, giving a clear picture of all the instruments. It's one of those rare examples, when drums and bass are deliberately put under the spotlight to test the extremes of your audio system.

I made a vow not to use clichés, but one exception should be made. Nebelnest are, what you might say, “overlooked”. Although not metallic in sound, the record proves to reach extreme aggressiveness with grace of an experienced executioner. While a lot of the avant-proggers put an air of madcap joyfulness (see Bubblemath, Mr. Bungle, Etron Fou Leloublan) or misanthropy (Univers Zero, Art Zoyd), this quartet is neither, aiming at being noisy, frenetic and carnivore. If the purpose of this re-release is to gain new crowd, then I urge fans of Gojira, Animals as Leaders, Blood Incantation or early ear-piercing black metal to see if you can stomach this one. Here lies different approach to being heavy.

The Round Window — The Round Window

UK
2022
49:25
The Round Window - The Round Window
The Window (3:31), Take My Hand (6:27), Among The Clouds (5:30), Victory (7:04), Out Of Time (6:58), Nobody Home (5:19), Avalon (5:36), Another Chance (9:00)
8
Martin Burns

I have really listened to the two The Round Window releases that were received at DPRP.net, this self-titled debut and their second album Everywhere & Nowhere, the wrong way around as I started with the second one. (See below.) But having really enjoyed Everywhere & Nowhere I was quite happy to back-pedal to the debut.

The Round Window are an Essex based five piece formed in 2018 by father and son Rich Lock (vocals) and Tom Lock (keyboards, vocals) soon joined by Jack Lock (drums, percussion). They became the line-up that recorded this, their 20222 self-titled debut with the addition of David Brazington (guitars) and Dietmar Schantin (bass). They describe themselves as "a widescreen rock band" with an eclectic range of influences, such as acoustic rock, classic and melodic rock, and prog-rock. A description with which it is difficult to argue.

With this debut The Round Window immediately establish their sound. One that develops their AOR and classic rock influenced melodies with loads of prog keyboards, guitar, pin sharp rhythmic invention and solid melodic bass.

The album opens with the doleful piano melody of The Window, a slow build instrumental wrong foots the listener by setting for a big guitar outburst but instead opts for a section of bass synths and saves the guitar for later. They follow this with the uplifting melody and lyric of Take My Hand. Its prog take on classic rock works brilliantly with corking synth and guitar solos polished with some violin infills.

Another fine guitar solo is the centrepiece of the politically edged Victory, that opens in acoustic ballad mode with delicate flute from guest Angela Gordon. It becomes more electric as it progresses. Funky bass and organ introduce Out Of Time and adds a bluesy guitar solo into the mix along with nice vocal harmonies.

The Round Window is a textured debut that promises more and that is what the band provide on their second album, where they step it up but still retain the charm and focus of this release. These guys absolutely know where they are going with their sound world.

The Round Window — Everywhere & Nowhere

UK
2023
52:54
The Round Window - Everywhere & Nowhere
The Tides (10:58), Everywhere & Nowhere (4:59), All Roads Lead Home (5:23), Resist (6:03), Holes (6:20), Ghosts (5:02), Parabellum (8:54), Epilogue (5:15)
The Tides 10:58, Everywhere & Nowhere (4:59), All Roads Lead Home (5:23), Resist (6:03), Holes (6:20), Ghosts (5:02), Parabellum (8:54), Epilogue (5:15)
9
Martin Burns

This unashamedly joyous mixture of classic prog and AOR style melodies has been a tremendous way to end 2023.

The line-up of the band has not changed since the debut album. This second album Everywhere & Nowhere, like their debut, is mixed and mastered by Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf, and he lets the rich prog rock shine in all its detail and power. A prog rock informed by classic 70s prog rock aligned with magnificent AOR style melodies.

The ten-minute opener shows what The Round Window can do. The Tides is an initially up-tempo track that weaves a sound world of delicacy and power, balancing smart riffs with fine keyboards, pin sharp drumming and quietly funky Colin Edwin-like bass. It has characterful vocals and terrific guitar and synth solos. The use of dynamic quiet and loud passages is seamless with acoustic instruments (piano, guitar) coming alive in the gentler passages.

I'm not going to track by track this album as I'm sure I will soon run out of superlatives and I seem to have misplaced my Thesaurus. However, I will mention Resist's mid-paced slice of classic prog because it also features the near perfect non-jazz saxophone of Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, The Bardic Depths, Cyan) that is an expressive delight. It also contains a knowing tribute to Supertramp with electric piano and the sax.

I don't know what's in the water down in Essex, but I hope The Round Window keep drinking it. Everywhere & Nowhere is a terrific release that gives both Cosmograf and Comedy Of Errors a real run for their money.

United Progressive Fraternity — Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope

various
2023
188:04, 61:31, 58:42, 68:11
United Progressive Fraternity - Planetary Overload Part 2: Hope
CD 1 — Hope Eternal - Being Of Equal - Who We Are: Hope Is / Drums Of Hope (7:43), Love Never Leaves Us (7:42), Soundscaped Quote: Gerd Leonhard (0:47), The Answer (5:30), Being Of Equal (20:48), Islands (5:10), Transition - Tuning In (0:25), Chants Of Hope (2:23), Homosapien (6:20), Quote: Sir David Attenborough (0:42), Who We Really Are (3:54)
CD 2 — Owning It - A Delicate Balance - After A Long Road: We Only Get One Chance (10:02), Transition - Suspense (0:13), Faultline (6:37), Learning (4:34), Stabilisation (8:02), The Bees In Us (6:40), Quote: Chief Oren Lyons (1:01), The Changes We Make (4:59), Return To Earth (5:14), Hymn Of Hope (6:52), Reprise (4:23)
CD 3 — Romantechs - The Secret Life Of Light: The Secret Life Of Light (5:12), Mechanical Love (5:12), New Beginning (5:04), Running Water (7:44), Reflect (4:22), Spinning On The Surface (7:53), The First Kiss (5:13), Justified (11:38), Secret Garden (15:49)
9
Mark Hughes

Wow! This is one epic of an album, nearly three-and-one-quarter hours of music is a lot to absorb, but I guess we should have expected no less considering that the first part of Planetary Overload, Loss weighed in just short of two hours. And like with Part One, there are a host of contributors, 60 in total. Although with the Fraternity's masterminds Mark Trueack and Steve Unruh overseeing everything and Trueack providing vocals throughout, there is a consistency running through the album even though the component pieces deploy a scintillating variety of styles, albeit in a broad progressive vein. A quarter of the contributors had a hand in composing the music on the album, with keyboard players being in the majority (Chris LeBled, Dale Nougher, Rachel Flowers. Nick Magnus, Alex Grata, Lisa LaRue, Owen Lelean and Stephen Layton) with others that are credited to performing on keyboards, guitar and, in a couple of cases, bass (Ben Craven, Gordo Bennett, Tony Riveryman, Jean Pierre Louverton and Peter Lazar). That leaves just two composers who don't "tickle the ivories" (Steve Unruh who seems to play most things except keyboards, and Colin Tench). Trueack and Unruh also contribute lyrics and vocal melodies to numerous pieces.

It takes a long time to fully absorb the album and I confess to not being there yet, it will take a long time to become familiar with all the nuances and deep crevices where musical delights hide, but this review is already ridiculously overdue (for which I apologise). There are delights aplenty and one that hits immediately is Islands, mainly because it is the heaviest number on the album with composer Unruh's guitars and bass driving the song forcefully along. Hans Jörg Schmitz (King Of Agogik) sounds like he is having a whale of a time whopping his drums and crashing his cymbals; Trueack trades lead vocals with Hasse Fröberg (The Flower Kings) in a most delightful manner; Jamison Smeltz, who once recorded an album of Yes covers as a one-man sax quartet, blasts his tenor saxophone with enough power to stir the dust on my speakers; and amongst all that Rachel Flowers makes sure her piano is heard above the glorious racket the others create. The middle section features Unruh providing a background narration that brings to mind Paradise By The Dashboard Light. Different musical style, totally different topic but there is a similarity. A monster of a track and a lot of fun. Flowers contributes Who We Really Are a lovely ballad featuring Flowers on piano and fretless bass with a lovely violin solo from Unruh that meshes brilliantly with the piano. Flowers and Unruh also provide multi-layered harmony vocals that fall welcomingly on the ears.

The Big number on the album, Being Of Equal, is a Bennett and Unruh composition that has a somewhat slow start but gradually builds. There are a dazzling number of different instruments deployed and some big name contributions including Steve Hackett on sustainer guitar, Colin Edin on fretless and e-bow bass and Ryo Okumoto on Hammond and Minimoog and the harmony vocals of Elisa Montaldo (Vly) are a continual delight. All pleasant enough and tracks along nicely when, at about the eleven-minute mark there is a change in direction, Belew-esque guitar passage, layered voices (Trueack, Unruh, Fröberg and Montaldo) provide a different texture that is enticing and curious leading to a heavier section that takes your breath away; modern prog at its best.

On to the second CD which kicks off with We Only Get One Chance. It is in a more laid back style and does require one to pay a lot of attention in order to really grasp all that is going on. Really requires headphones, a darkened room and no distractions in order to gain the full impact. More of a lament or a dirge (in the true sense of the word) than anything, Unruh's plaintive violin weeping sorrow. There are some great moments to listen out for, Steve Gresswell's synth strings, Claire Vezina's passionate vocals and Colin Tench's crisp guitar lines are just three things to listen out for. Faultline is, like Islands on the first disc, more guitar orientated, no surprise that it come from the pen of Unruh who also provides some Anderson style flute. Nick Magnus is credited as a co-composer alongside Unruh and Trueack, his main contribution being and underlying piano part and a 'mad scientist brass section' simulated from breath-controlled keyboards and samples. There is also a real brass section provided by Clive Hodson on tenor saxophone and trombone alongside Brendon Darby on trumpet and flugal horn (both muted and unmuted). A very different style from what one would expect but one that works well. Alex Grata's Learning is a gorgeously flowing number full of sentiment and totally nails the ballad approach thanks mainly to Don Schiff, who not only plays upright bass but adds all the many textures of the piece by his contributions on cello and string synths.

After such a strong opening to the second CD, I found both Stabilisation and The Bees In Us rather disappointing. Stabilisation was a bit too much of a mish-mass, the heavier section and weird synth parts feeling too anomalous and somewhat contrived although the ending is rather good with Unruh's violin once again providing a plaintive air and Michael St-Pere's guitar solo hitting all the right notes. I can't quite grasp what irks me about The Bees In Us, although the lyrics, vocal delivery and backing vocals are the main contender. Certainly the music is fine, although not all that adventurous. Ironically, the painting accompanying the song is just superb, almost photographic. Ed Unitsky once again needs to be congratulated for his brilliant artwork across the whole package he really is a most pre-eminate artist of these days.

The final four songs on the album, preceded by a spoken audio quote from Chief Oren Lyons, are the ones that sum up the album's title, Hope. It is not too late to change and build a better future for the planet and all the species living upon it. The rhythmic, almost tribal, beat of The Changes We Make is down to Unruh (who lest we forget was a drummer in his earliest musical ventures) who also provides all the other instrumentation except keyboards and classical piano flourishes by composer Owen Lelean. The song merges neatly into Return To Earth a more vocally dominant piece with some nice sax embellishments from Ian Ritchie. But it is Hymn Of Hope that is the standout piece. It is indeed a hymn and the overt simplicity of the piece gives it a greater power. Michelle Young's choir of vocals, Alphonso Johnson's fretless bass and, once again, Unruh's violin make major contributions to Stephen Layton's eloquent piano base. Reprise is a very upbeat ending to the album and gets rather funky at times!

As with Planetary Overload Part 1, there is an extra bonus disc by the Romantechs, the core trio of Trueack, Unruh and Chris Leled. However, this time Don Schiff plays stick bass on four tracks, Claire Verzina, Holly Trueack and Joanna St. Claire add feminine vocals to a track apiece and Simon Schroeder plays drums on one track. The album consists of reworking of older material from across the UPF and Unitopia catalogue along with a few that I don't recognise - it doesn't help that the track titles have been amended or totally changed! But that is somewhat a moot point as the album, as intended, is a rather light relief compared with the main album. The album shouldn't be considered as an integral part of the UPF concept as it stands apart from the whole concept and mission of the fundamental UPF trilogy. Ideally, one should take the two Romantech titles and combine them as a completely separate double album that is filed independently of UPF in one's collection. That way both albums can be enjoyed based on their own (significant) merits rather than an addendum to Planetary Overload.

The UPF albums form a compelling trilogy of seriously progressive music with an important message for the world. The grand scope and execution of the project is to be applauded and admired; with each release being a triumph in their own right but combined form a staggering accumulation that warrants attention.

Unitopia — Seven Chambers

Australia
2023
82:28
Unitopia - Seven Chambers
CD 1: Broken Heart (8:31), Something Invisible (7:20), Bittersweet (6:39), Mania (12:30), The Stroke of Midnight (9:39)
CD 2: Helen (19:14), The Uncertain (18:34)
7
Héctor Gómez

Unitopias double album The Garden, released back in 2008, was one of the very first reviews I ever wrote for DPRP, and a fairly positive at that. Flash forward 15 years later and here's another double from Australia's finest, which not only happens to be quite a good one but also nothing short of a miracle, as after their 2012 covers release Covered Mirror they seemed to have vanished, their remains scattered between Southern Empire and Universal Progressive Fraternity. 40-minute albums are back, as are 80-minute doubles, and so is Unitopia.

Broken Heart kicks things off in dramatic fashion, with an opening that's best described as Wind & Wuthering meets Duke then morphs into prog metal. The Genesis references don't stop there, as the more sombre, introspective Invisible Changes will give you Peter Gabriel vibes, thanks to both Mark Trueack's scratchy pipes and John Greenwood's intriguing guitar textures. The retro prog atmosphere keeps surfacing on Bittersweet, a very Flower Kings-sounding piece which is unfortunately burdened by some cheesy lyrics and a shopping list rapping section which is, well... puzzling.

The first true epic takes shape in Mania, a fairly entertaining 12 minutes encompassing all things prog which is also the first track featuring the legendary Chester Thompson and his unmistakable touch on drums. Match that with another rhythm luminary's talents, those of Alphonso Johnson's, and after some playful motifs and (slightly forced) processed vocals, you get to a memorable instrumental workout around the 10-minute mark which stretches until the end of the song. The Stroke Of Midnight closes the first chapter on a highly emotional note via Steve Unruh's simply stunning violin flourishes. It might not be the best song on the album, but it has to be my favourite passage.

If prog epics are what you're craving for, then the two tracks totalling over 38 minutes of disc 2 should more than satisfy your needs. Of this pair of lengthy pieces, Helen might be the one with better flow and smoother transitions between movements. Everyone gets to shine here, from the grace and gravitas of the rhythm section to the drama brought by the acoustic guitar and piano and even some Eddie Jobson-type of violin intensity. The breathing machines and other sound effects also add an extra cinematic dimension, in spite of the French voices seeming to be a bit random here. All in all, not as good an epic as The Garden was, but a very enjoyable one nevertheless.

There's still a further 18 minutes left, and The Uncertain is a bit of a mixed bag, as it gets off to a bit of a rocky start with some odd vocals and occasionally rambles, but then there's also a phenomenal extended instrumental passage, and the "beauty and frailty" section is truly captivating. The percussion-led final section harks back to The Garden, then everything seems to come full circle.

Overall, as somewhat unsophisticated the lyrics and hit-and-miss the heavier sections might be, Seven Chambers is one of the year's most solid releases, offering very good retro-prog and confirming Unitopia as a creative force to be reckoned with.

Album Reviews