Album Reviews

Issue 2024-011

Azmari — Maelström

Belgium
2023
43:07
Azmari - Maelström
Sheep Party (5:28), Khamsin (5:18), Abyssal Wandering (6:42), Hadashi (2:26), Zargana (4:36), Crab Squad (5:21), Octopus Perspective (7:41), Nanomia (5:30)
9
Owen Davies

When a release features such exotic instruments as the Ney, the Baglama Sax and the Turkish Kaval, then it is a reasonable assumption that the music is going to offer something that sits somewhat outside a few of the usual parameters of prog-rock. Azmari cite some of their influences as Okay Temiz, The Heliocentrics, Antibales and the Sons Of Kemet. Whilst I can recognise nods to the textures and flavourings of these artists in Azmari's art, the sound that they create is utterly unique and unmistakably their own. Azmari's bold determination to mix disparate styles and genres of music is fully apparent in this outstanding release.

If you appreciate the music of bands such as Black Flower, M Chuzi, Echoes Of Zoo, Compro Opro and Consider The Source, then Azmari's progressive fusion of Western and Middle Eastern styles will probably be highly appealing.

I was very impressed with their previous release. After numerous plays I can heartily declare that Maelström is equally good and is even more satisfying. The music simply bursts from the speakers and never fails to excite or intrigue. Rhythmic passages abound, these coalesce with brief Avant passages that shake off any toe tapping fatigue and loosen the shackles of any pre-determined expectations.

The sound quality of Maelström is outstanding. It is undoubtedly one of the best sounding releases that I have heard in a long while. The production and audio qualities are superb. Every instrument's subtle frill, gutsy bulge, and trill has a striking and distinctive place in the mix.

However, it is undoubtedly the players' mastery of their instruments that adds an extra dimension to the superb sonic qualities of the music. All the members of the ensemble excel. The propulsive rhythm section of Niels D'haegeleer (bass) and Arthur Ancion (drums) are the pulsating heartbeat of the band. The abundant grooves that are created cannot be ignored. They clasp, entrap, and instruct fingers and toes to submit and tap enthusiastically to the strikes of yet another rhythmic beat.

Percussionists Arthur Ancion, Basile Bourtenbourg, and Ambroos De Schepper add an extra rhythmic texture, or elements of sparse subtlety when required. There were times when the vast assortment of percussive sounds deployed, reminded me of the way such players as, Jamie Muir, Naná Vasconcelos, and Marylyn Mazur, utilised the silent spaces with punctuated rattling to great effect.

Some of the most muscular parts of the album are provided by the exquisite stomach-rumbling, low-end tones of the baritone saxophone of Mattéo Badet. His bulging cheek, gurning, face-stretched playing in the superb Zargana is simply wonderful.

Zargana is probably my favourite track on the album. All its components work well and everything about its arrangement fits together seamlessly. The propulsive and insistent riff that fuels the tune is relentless and totally compelling. However, whilst the recurring riff occupies and captures the senses, there are many other things to admire about the composition. The bands playing in Zargana is simply excellent. Basile Bourtembourg's sparkling keyboard embellishments ensure that there is always something interesting going on in support of the tunes intoxicating brand of head twirling progressive jazz.

Indeed, Bourtembourg's contribution throughout Maelström is very impressive. In the opening composition of the album, his twisted organ tones have an enchanting effect and weave a clasping spell. Sheep Party is a splendid tune and is a good indication of the band's skill. The rest of the release is equally impressive. Each composition contains several outstanding passages.

For example, Octopus Perspective features a snake-twisting percussive opening and some stunning synth yowls. A funky groove is established and the use of lots of effects gives space for a delightful soprano sax interlude to evolve. It develops in an intriguing manner and satisfyingly reaches out to explore many different routes.

Nathan Daems is a key member of Black Flower and Echoes Of Zoo, and he makes a notable guest appearance in Crab Squad. It is a piece that has a huge presence. The main motif of the tune rumbles and sweeps across the speakers with the bite and thrust of a shifting sand storm. However, The distinctively fragile and ethereal sound of Daems' contribution on the Ney in this magnificent piece offers a unique tint. Consequently, this provides the album with a subtle aura and a vastly different hue.

The contrasting elements of Crab Squad , are very evocative, so much so, that you can almost taste the breeze-swept, desert-grit that emanates from the swirling sandy atmosphere of the tune. This feeling is enhanced and vividly crafted by the bands tightly wrapped caravan of sounds.

The use of the flute in several tracks provides some lighter moments and offer a sense of contrast from the lapel-grabbing energy of the sax driven pieces. In this respect, Hadashi emerges at a welcome point in the albums running order. Its unfussy stripped back nature and hum along flute-frills and trills offer just the right level of frivolity to make it hugely enjoyable.

Flautist Ambroos De Scheffer, also excels in the exciting and upbeat Khamsin. It is probably the most accessible tune on the album. The tones of the kaval enrich the track. Fluttering wind struck bursts of energy, gust, and swirl in this striking and very enjoyable tune. Khamsin also features the exotic plucked sound of the Baglama Sax. The combination of so many different ingredients ensure the tune has many standout moments that stir and jiggle the senses.

The most reflective piece on the album is Nanomia. Its soothing keyboard tones create a memorable backdrop for the piece to evolve and gently develop.

A host of disparate influences are readily apparent in Abyssal Wandering. This is a piece, that has some delightful repeated saxophone phrases and includes an Avant uninhibited middle section. The whole piece is garnished boldly by some extended trance like interludes that have a loosely knit air. Pulsating dub beats are also integrated into the arrangement. The unusual combination of different types of music creates a mesmerising effect. Indeed, this sort of mixture of styles should not really work. The fact that it does, is testimony to the bands creativity and their courage to deliver a truly progressive approach to their art.

Azmari's latest album is inventive and satisfying in so many ways. Its exciting array of sounds certainly ticks all the right boxes for me.

I hope that their next release is just as good. Who knows they may even add more Kaval, and Ney to their far-reaching and wonderfully rich tapestry of sounds.

Anton Barbeau — Morgenmusik / Nachtschlager

Germany
2023
39:12, 31:21
Anton Barbeau - Morgenmusik / Nachtschlager
Disc 1: Waiting On The Radio (4:06), Bop (5:05), Milksnake (3:45), Maa (0:29), Mothership Projection (3:12), Gambit (2:48), Greasy (0:45), Backlight Clean (0:28), Coming Clean (3:56), Dog Go Zombie (2:48), Gabay d’Lito (2:37), I Demand A Dream (4:01), Circustime Train (2:47), Hindi Morgen (0:24)
Disc 2: Chrono Optik (1:48), Beautiful Look (2:50), Dumb Thumping (2:50), Kottbusser Blues (3:45), What Did The Operator Say? (2:26), “Freakout” (0:23), “Granny’s Gummy Crumpets” (0:15), Ding Dong (Wake Up) (3:35), Pull The Veil Away (3:09), KANT FM (0:13), Come Back (2:27), Ganja On The Farm (2:14), Cheeky Pips (0:08), Nachtschlager (3:39), Colin’s Onion (0:14), Cranking Em Out (1:25), Help Yourself To A Biscuit (6:28)
8
Martin Burns

Multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Anton Barbeau is a Berlin based American is a prolific recoding artist. To date he has released over 30 albums including, in 2023, this double album plus another (Polynormal AB) in November.

On this double release, Morgenmusik / Nachtschlager, he has help from Colin Moulding of XTC and Bryan Poole of Elf Power and Of Montreal, in producing this mix of psychedelic rock and weird art-pop. The music Anton Barbeau shares the acid infused oddness and melodic power of the likes of Syd Barrett, The Dukes Of Stratosphear, XTC, Julian Cope and Frank Zappa in his Mothers Of Invention phase.

As you can see from the running times the songs are all short and punchy psyche-pop nuggets interspersed with faux radio adverts and sound collages. The songs generally favour a guitar based approach, but keyboards fill out a lot of the sound and the rhythm section is funky and hard hitting by turns.

There are nods to other artists too. On Chrono Optik has a very early David Bowie feel to it. Others have a Canterbury vibe and there is even a bass led psyche-blues with Kottbusser Blues. Nothing here outstays its welcome and its gentle humour never palls and doesn't become irritating.

I have really enjoyed this release. Anton Barbeau's Morgenmusik/Nachtschlager has reminded me how much I have always enjoyed Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star. If you have a soft spot for any of the artists mentioned here then get with this joyful release.

Tune In, Turn On and Drop a big smile.

Dreamwalkers Inc — The First Tragedy Of Klahera

Netherlands
2023
86:47
Dreamwalkers Inc - The First Tragedy Of Klahera
Justice My Tragedy (8:38), Child Of The Bloodmoon (4:36), Oldstead (5:49), Broken Puzzle Piece (6:16), It Lives (5:38), Despicable (5:33), Knowledge From Afar (5:07), Celebrations (7:37), Mother Dearest (13:40), Pushed (4:06), Heroes And Charlatans (4:42), Discovery (3:51), Chain Of Consequences (11:14)
9
Jerry van Kooten

Having grown from TDW's backing band into an entity of their own, Dreamwalkers Inc present their third album. After 2019's debut First Re-Draft, which was more like a shedding of links with the past, and 2020's live album, A Night At The Theatre, the band took some time, but it was worth the wait!

Before us lies an 86-minute concept album that is just the beginning of a story. And a story it is. It is based on a story written by front-man Tom de Wit, which is being turned into a novel by Janneke Stam. And right now we have a musical adaption. Also, the next album is going to be a continuation of the story. They have made a lyric video for the whole album as well. Pretty big project if you ask me, we're looking at some people who are very serious about their art here!

Dreamwalkers Inc comprises six people, and contrary to the TDW projects and previous incarnations of the band, there is only Tom de Wit handling synths, without a designated keyboard player. Besides the band-approach to writing and arranging the music, this is another is a way to make a difference between Dreamwalkers Inc and TDW.

"The story is a high fantasy/steampunk epic, that details about a girl found in a forest on a dark fated night that is adopted into a small village by a loving couple." The girl is Klahera, as in the album title. Subjects in the story are social alienation and trying to belong somewhere. No dragons and fairies here, but some proper drama. More like a film than a fairy tale.

Before we're even three-way minutes into the opening track we've met several singers and voices — solo and harmony, and therefore I presume characters in the story. In the same time we've also gone through several changes, which says something about what to expect. When you know the band's previous output this will not surprise you much, but with removing a dedicated keyboard player, the sound has changed. Unless you're very keyboard-focused you're not going to miss this. The multiple layers are still there, just filled with guitar and voices.

The voices have been selected carefully, I assume they are all proper voice actors. For someone who's more focused on the music and can be distracted by many human voices (and brass, for that matter, it's just my hearing and taste), there is not one that I don't like. The main voices by Tom de Wit and Radina Dimcheva are a good match and contrast at the same time.

Losing the symphonic aspect makes it more modern prog-metal and has elements you also find in the wonderful Hackberry and the likes. The melodic/symphonic is never away, just less like epic metal. Two excellent guitarist provide an array of styles,

86 minutes is a lot. When listening to parts of the album (simply because there is not always 86 minutes of time to listen in one go — it takes me three commutes to hear it once), digestion is not a problem. Even with the many changes in the music and the waterfall of musical things happening, there are lots of acoustic sections, a bluesy solo, a quiet part so the voice actors can be actually heard and understood. Making the story so important is dangerous for the music but there is not a single place where I think one has had to back down for the other. Even at places where there are voices rather than singing, there is actual music underneath and not just a soundscape.

As a whole, I would love to sit down, listen to the album while reading the story, the promo package did not include the lyrics. Just take the time I would usually do when I want to read a book. But there is another way, if you prefer a digital book over an analog: you can watch the whole project as a lyrics video! The amount of work that has gone into this must be enormous.

This album might be a challenge for several kinds of people. If you're looking for an easy to digest prog metal album, it is too long. Epic metal? Too many softer and bluesy sections. Operatic singing? Nope: rawer, bluesier, warmer vocals. Flashy and aggressive playing? Too diverse. But which prog metal listener is not up to a challenge? If I read this paragraph as a reader, I would be attracted to all the things I just mentioned might be problematic for some people. Fact is that this simply ticks a lot of boxes for me, and that includes getting goosebumps from an emotional piece or bluesy guitar solo, an adrenaline shot from sudden changes in the music, or blown away by a wall of sound. A wonderful rollercoaster of styles and emotions that will take ages to fully fathom.

Karfagen — Messages From Afar (Second Nature)

Ukraine
2024
48:24
Karfagen - Messages From Afar (Second Nature)
Ride Your Dream (3:41), Fantasion (7:25), November Blue (4:34), Bond Of Love (Expanded Version) (7:02), Agora By Night (4:31), Daybreak (3:47), Bright Little Star (3:55), Searching For Mr. Kite (Expanded Version) (11:04), Second Nature (2:25)
9
Greg Cummins

If one had to nominate a musician whose contribution to progressive rock was founded upon sheer talent, a copious body of work and a level of excellence on each album, then surely Antony Kalugin's name would need to appear on a very short list. For as long as I care to remember I have been totally mesmerised by the beauty, versatility and sophistication of every album Antony has been involved with since 2010 when I bought a copy of Solitary Sandpiper Journey. Once becoming aware of his earlier work with Sunchild and Hoggwash, I naturally followed up with those titles and now have almost 30 recordings that feature Antony as the main composer, whether as a solo affair or with any of his three main bands. If you can name another musician within the progressive rock genre that can come close to this milestone, then I might need to become aware of him / them.

2024 sees the release of yet another excellent album replete with majestic and bombastic keyboard excursions that fill the room with some truly memorable melodies that I find hard to believe were penned by only one person. I'm not sure exactly what is in the drinking water in Ukraine these days but there seems to be no limit to the originality and versatility to Antony's songsmithing skills. If you were to blend all the gorgeous and highly emotive passages from Tony Banks, Kayak, Camel, The Flower Kings, Monarch Trail, Druid, Cast (Mexico), Greenslade, Aries, David Minasian, Marillion, IQ, Renaissance, PFM, Robert Reed, Celeste, Locanda delle Fate or Quella Vecchia Locanda then you would still not reach half way.

Antony has often been quoted as saying he does not find much benefit with highly aggressive passages and as his melodies speak on so many levels, you can understand why he has concentrated his songwriting skills to accommodate that tenet. To be fair, if you were to immerse yourself under headphones with almost any of his albums, it becomes easy to drift off and allow the lush musical contents to take you wherever Antony has guided his vessel. To bludgeon the listener with anything too abrasive or cacophonous would undermine the integrity of the beauty of the previous passages he has so painstakingly created for your enjoyment. Let's just say I have become a willing victim for just about all of his music and allow the contents of many of his CDs to fully overtake my inner emotions. This one is no exception.

Although Antony's main musical arsenal lies within the keyboard arena, he is also no slouch on the guitar, although he often calls upon other musicians (whether as guests or more permanent members of his regular ensemble), to fill that role. The input from guitar is somewhat constrained throughout the album so if you were to expect some six string flurries, you won't find too many here. There are however, a few excellent passages featuring some very tasty and soaring lead breaks that hit the target every time, so it's not as if this instrument has been left out of the picture. There are a few tracks that feature vocals, and it's great to see Colin Bass (Camel / Velvet Opera) chime in on vocals for track 7. It should also be noted that the CD version of the album features 3 bonus tracks with both digital and physical formats being officially released on 5th January 2024.

The album unfolds like a sonic journey, seamlessly blending various musical elements to create a truly immersive experience. Kalugin's mastery in composing complex and emotive pieces is evident from the opening track, setting the stage for an exploration of musical landscapes that transcend traditional boundaries. One of the striking aspects of his latest album is the diversity of influences that Kalugin seamlessly weaves into the fabric of the album. Drawing inspiration from progressive rock, fusion, classical, and folk music, he creates a sound that is uniquely Karfagen. The intricate arrangements and lush orchestrations showcase Kalugin's ability to harness a wide array of musical styles, creating a sonic tapestry that is both intricate and accessible. The extensive use of piano is also very welcome as it places itself as one of the most revered instruments of all time for its beauty and emotional reach.

I must confess to not understanding how creative one person can possibly be, especially when you consider he is only in his early 40's and releases a new album every 6-12 months or so on average. To say he has been extremely busy during the past 15 years would be an understatement.

In terms of influences, it's clear that Antony draws inspiration from the classic progressive rock acts of the 70s, such as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson to name only a few. However, he infuses these influences with a modern sensibility, creating a sound that is both nostalgic and contemporary. The fusion of styles also brings to mind the works of modern prog-rock artists like The Flower Kings, Mystery, Glass Hammer, Neal Morse and others who inject more harmony and accessibility than normal. If you enjoy the synthesizer as much as I do and like to explore the limits that this incredible instrument can create, then I suggest if you are only going to buy a few albums every so often, then add this gem to your list. You won't be disappointed.

This is a very contemplative album full of gorgeous melodies and subtle but inspiring passages that are literally straight out of heaven. I'm finding it hard to find any album I've heard recently that comes close to touching this stunning release for sheer beauty and melodicism. It really is inspiringly brilliant and comes with a highly recommended label.

Indrek Patte — In

Estonia
2023
54:03
Indrek Patte - In
The Opening (6:21), Are You In (5:28), Twisted Reality (7:14), Restless (7:17), Walking With You (6:41), Fragile (5:00), Lord Of The Miracles (15:50)
9
Jan Buddenberg

As part of the Baltic states the European country Estonia is best known for its beautiful lakes, waterfalls, picturesque old towns, wonderful nature reserves, the capitol city Tallinn where the liqueur Vana Tallinn originates from, and their triumphant win at the European song-festival in 2001. OK, maybe that last fact isn't too well-known by prog purists at heart. But as far as my knowledge goes this for me is about the only music related accomplishment that made it past Estonia's borders. Until now that is, because Estonia's latest export in form of Indrek Patte's In is the most interesting offer I've ever encountered from this country. Spirits included!

Patte's comprehensive website-bio shows that his musical career actually started way back in the late seventies, when he founded the band Linnu Tee and featured as a lead vocalist for various pop groups in the early 80s. Meanwhile, he was composing his own prog-influenced music. In 1984 then began work as a recording engineer and producer, shortly joined the ranks of Estonian rock giant Ruja, and continued his musical journey with a series of soundtracks and a founding role in the Led Zeppelin tribute project Led-R. In 2004, he then became a devoted Christian and started playing in a worship band to finally celebrate the release of his first solo album Celebration in 2011. To be followed by Thank And Share in 2014 and Cinemanic in 2017.

On this fourth effort, Patte (lead-vocals, keys, music arrangements) is aided by the talents of Mathieu Spaeter (guitars), Vladislav Reinfeldt (bass), Andrus Lillepea (drums, percussion), Priidik Soon (flute), Edward Soon (cello), and Hendrik Soon (violin). Musicians who are probably part of the "Indrek Patte Band" as well, although that particular information is unknown to me. What I do know however is that my answer to Patte's Are You In question is a highly affirmative "Yes"!

Frankly it's impossible to say no. The instrumental The Opening turns out to be such a brilliant opener. As an instant winner and a sublime introduction to Patte's music it instantly captivates with strong symphonic melodies and infectious dynamics in enticing Styx tradition while vivid virtuoso synth play glows with delicious Landmarq charm. Soaring through a multitude of beautiful transitions and an atmospheric bridge with intricate flute melodies, in all around beautiful ensemble play, it ends fabulously in a stratosphere of rich synth movements and delightful majestic guitars reminiscent of Karfagen.

The other instrumental Fragile shows similar hypnotism when after a jazz inspired opening, its melodies slowly build towards a majestic passage of emotive guitar. Based on song title and the eclectic array of songs that precede it, which I'll get into in a moment, I was somewhat expecting to find a Yes influence in this immaculately construed song. Yet the amazing Hackett-like guitar movement that follows the song's second bridge fully replaced this expectancy with impressions of Genesis' iconic Firth Of Fifth, which in a calm and relaxing lengthy Camel ride finalises the composition on a captivating high.

In between these two instrumentals Patte and company frequently manage to dazzle, surprise, and tantalise. Showcasing a clear beginning and end with tight dynamics and an elegant melodic rock approach this for instance in Are You In leads to recollections of both Jadis and Saga in light of synths and structure, while Patte's strong emotional vocals extract memories of Dare. Highlighted by a ravishing guitar solo which in the final stages of the song irons out into an overwhelming melancholic coda, Twisted Reality on its turn delivers a delightfully variegated stream of perfectly performed harmonious twists and turns that voices both E.L.P and estranging Frank Zappa.

Walking With You also glides towards multi-layered symphonic embraced rockier shores, with a glancing role for swirling synth parts and overall attractive guitar play. Halfway down however, it suddenly dips into a groovy jazz passage designed with challenging time-signatures and excellent virtuosic play, and to my utmost satisfactory surprise splashes refreshingly into a brilliant musical environment which It Bites held the patent for during their magical early days. Blistering guitar solo likeness included.

It is however the amazing Restless that satisfies the most. Blasting off with synth melodies and fantastical groovy interplay, it soars past a variety of dynamic passages and energetic accelerations with compelling ease. Its coda features a polyphonic vocal section that segues into a truly ingeniously crafted passage of musical complexities which massively recalls Gentle Giant's unfathomable musical brilliance. A style which many artists have successfully incorporated/replicated/duplicated into their music over the years, but none of them so originally beautiful and gloriously effective as Patte's victorious interpretation here IMHO.

As a prime example on how to save one's proggiest best for last, the epic three-part closer Lord Of The Miracles surpasses all. This miraculous divine crafted composition, in which Patte's thoughtful and modern day reflective words of religion come to the fore the most clearly, fires on all prog cylinders. Rich and entertaining symphonic movements, whirlwind designs of dynamic interplay, and marvellous, shape-shifting melodies follow, which will have Transatlantic fans sit happily on cloud nine. The high soaring symphonic melodies and magnificent guitar solo will also enthusiastically welcome those in favour of Lifesigns.

After all of the above, the short evaluation is that the impeccably produced In is an absolute delight that ranks high on my list of favourites. I'm convinced that the adventurous array of superbly composed songs will have you on the edge of your seat in no-time, while standout performances will effortlessly keep you there for the entire duration of In's captivating musical experience. An essential purchase/listen for those who firmly believe in symphonic prog!

Treebeard — Nostalgia

Austrilia
2021
1:03:12
Treebeard - Nostalgia
Flatgates (6:44), The Ratcatcher (10:39), Pollen (8:25), Nostalgia (3:41), 8x0 (7:48), Terra (10:45), Dear Magdalena (7:42), Nostalgia II (7:20)
9
Calum Gibson

Australia, the gift that keeps on giving in terms of prog these days. After some fine recent releases from the likes of Caligula's Horse, and Voyager performing at Eurovision 2023, we now have Treebeard and their debut album Nostalgia from 2021. Described as having songs with "a sonic spectrum ranging the peaceful and emotive, to the destructive and furious", it certainly sounds promising.

We start gently as a throbbing bass lives in the background, building up to the band entering around halfway through Flatgates. From here is a swell of distortion as the track take the courses through to The Ratcatcher. These 10 minutes encapsulates the bands sound. Ranging from calm at laden with textures, it rises through emotional verses and melancholic tones to an aggressively heavy outro. Pollen is more on the post-rock level of sonic movement. Relying on guitars, voice-overs and a slow pace to keep it both heavy musically, but almost haunting in its calmness. At the end of side one we have the shortest track at under 4 minutes - Nostalgia. Relying solely on clean guitar work, the piece is minimalist but continues the heavy feeling of fragility that runs alongside the distorted punches found through the album.

Punches such as 8x0 as it fires in on all cylinders with unabridged post-metal fury and rolls onwards to an intense and anxious crescendo. Terra however is more tender as it draws you in. Again, mainly composed of the two guitars working together over a background of faint atmospherics, until the rest moves in with the rhythm section. From here it is kicked up into a groove laden track, with hook laden leads and riffs that don't let you go. Ethereal vocals and guitar work set the sound for Dear Magdalena's opening half before more of the ferocious, but still moody and brooding distortion sounds out with a tone that fits the album's title. Finally, Nostalgia II arrives to close off. Largely a continuation of part 1, it does however bring "the riff back, but heavier". This time with the full force of the group behind it and showing the "sonic spectrum ranging the peaceful and emotive, to the destructive and furious"

This is superb in my opinion for a post rock album. I could easily see the band at festivals like Arc Tangent or Damnation in the UK and easily alongside greats of the genre like Mogwai, Sólstafir, God is an Astronaut or similar bands.

If you have any interest in post-rock/metal then have a listen.

Album Reviews