Album Reviews

Issue 2024-040

Duo Review

Airbag — The Century Of The Self

Airbag - The Century Of The Self
Dysphoria (10:39), Tyrants And Kings (6:47), Awakening (6:41), Erase (7:52), Tear It Down (14:59)
Armin Rößler

The band's Bandcamp page reads: "Airbag has been hailed as one of the most important [bands] to emerge from the Norwegian prog scene over the past decades. The band has a unique sound that draws elements from classic and progressive rock, chill and jazz, and [has] influences from a wide range of genres — from Pink Floyd to Radiohead."

There's no need to disagree with that. Since their first official album Identity (2009), which essentially consists of re-recordings of a series of EPs released from 2004 onwards, Airbag have undergone an impressive development. The fact that the aforementioned Pink Floyd were the inspiration for their sound (no wonder, as the members played in a Pink Floyd cover band at the same time) cannot be denied even today. Their songs are also reminiscent of the quieter pieces by Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief or their compatriots Gazpacho.

The music is atmospherically dense, elegiac and imbued with a melancholy that is perhaps a little typically Scandinavian. Since A Day At The Beach (2020), Airbag have shrunk to a trio at their core: Asle Tostrup (vocals), Henrik Bergan Fossum (drums) and Bjørn Riis (guitar). They are once again supported on the new album by a number of guest musicians, namely Kristian Hultgren (Wobbler) on bass, who also appeared on the previous album, Ole Michael Bjørndal (Caligonaut) on guitar and Simen Valldal Johannessen (Oak) on keyboards — a small hall of fame of Norwegian progressive rock. Their sound is defined by Tostrup's always somewhat plaintive voice (without being whiny) and Riis' magnificent guitar playing. The great musician has played some of the most beautiful guitar solos in modern progressive rock on the previous Airbag albums and his growing number of solo records (most recently Everything To Everyone and the EP A Fleeting Glimpse, both 2022).

The structure of the new album The Century Of The Self (Karisma Records) already makes the prog fan's mouth water: a more than ten-minute epic at the beginning, a second epic with almost fifteen minutes playing time at the end, three shorter songs in between, still six to eight minutes long, these are the discs that arouse curiosity for great deeds. Dysphoria is the expected start. The title describes an illness that is a disorder of emotional experience characterized by an anxious, depressed, sad and irritable mood. Those affected are said to experience themselves as dissatisfied, bad-tempered, disgruntled, grumpy, sullen or angry. A song on this subject can hardly be cheerful, and Airbag don't even try, instead indulging in melancholy tones for ten minutes without being boring, quite the opposite. The guitar in particular always provides a splash of color and Tostrup's characteristic vocals keep the listener on the edge of their seat. Nevertheless, this piece needs to be worked through and is anything but light fare.

The following Tyrants And Kings is a little less melancholy, with the bass mixed far forward standing out in particular. Acoustic guitar sounds open Awakening, but without even a hint of campfire romance. And then it gets really heavy, with Erase, introduced by an aggressively pumping bass, the band ventures into heavy prog territory. Airbag themselves write about the song, which can be heard in advance as a single: "Erase is probably one of the heaviest songs we've ever written, and it was the first one we wrote for the new album. It pretty much defined the mood and theme for the rest of the material. Erase is a commentary on the whole canceling culture and how everything we don't like is just erased. It's a really scary concept. We tried to capture some of that brutality and power in the music and the production." From a musical point of view, there is nothing to add to this, but perhaps with regard to the overall concept, The Century Of The Self deals with the topic of "cancel culture" and the rewriting of personal history. According to the band, it is "a reflection of our modern zeitgeist, a poignant commentary on a world characterized by fear and condemnation".

However, Erase remains the heaviest song on the album, the rest is far more typical of Airbag's work to date, and with Tear It down we return to more familiar territory, the melancholy takes over again, but a slightly aggressive underlying note creeps back in — again, certainly in keeping with the title — after the calmer opening. As it is probably thematically intended, this leaves the listener with a certain unease and inner restlessness instead of a sense of well-being. What all the songs have in common are the wonderful guitar solos by Bjørn Riis, who once again gives us goosebumps. A beautiful album if dark tones can also be considered beautiful, the band's most varied work to date.

The Century Of The Self is available on CD, a limited edition digisleeve CD, digital formats, as well as three different LP versions: black vinyl, limited edition red vinyl and limited edition black and red splatter vinyl.

Calum Gibson

Airbag are a group with a long history in prog, are returning in 2024 with album number six: Century Of The Self. Having previously enjoyed works from guitarist Bjørn Riis, and some of the groups previous work, I was looking forward to this.

We kick off with Dysphoria — a slow burner if track driven by a smooth bass line, and with a very Porcupine Tree sound to it. Gentle, modern prog structures are found throughout, complimented by guitars that try to sound aggressive at times, but always remain inoffensive. Tyrants And Kings continues with a driving bass line and Pink Floyd tone, complete with a very 80s prog style chorus. However, little else really happens through the track aside from a couple of solos by Bjørn that could have easily been lifted from The Wall.

Unfortunately, Awakening does the same, but with less of a punchy rhythm to it. and deviates very little from the tone of the previous two tracks. The near-7-minute runtime feels an age as it plods along. Thankfully, Erase has a bit more of a funky intro, with the twin attack of drums and bass giving an almost punk feel to it. This excitement soon gives way to despair however, as the same rhythm continues throughout. The vocals feel uninspired, the chorus lands with little more than a whimper and the 8-minute runtime does little favour for it either.

Tear It Down rounds off the album with an equally family friendly guitar and synth line and flat vocals. While a 15-minute track is ambitious for any band (except maybe Dream Theater or Magma), here it is too ambitious. If they had ended it after the solos, at around 8 minutes it would have been a wonderful closer. But the rather pedestrian prog continues after this. In short, it reminds me of a phrase my brother used many years ago regarding a band he couldn't get into - "it was like a journey into mediocrity".

The album isn't bad in any way. The group have a style, and they stick with it. Which on the one hand — if it ain't broke don't fix it. But on the other hand — this style of "quiet" and "accessible" prog has been done to death and become very formulaic. While I get the band started as a Pink Floyd cover band, and are heavily inspired by them, this album itself feels like a tribute to them rather than a genuine effort.

It should be noted, the lead single Erase is centred around the idea of cancel culture. This sadly dims my view of the album and the band, as cancel culture is not the issue (consequences are) and is a term more often used by questionable people as clickbait to fabricate outrage and oppress people and their rights to existence, as well as to shout when their own questionable views are remarked upon, and they have been shown the door.

I hope Airbag are not in this group.

If you're a fan of Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd or The Pineapple Thief or indeed anything released by the K-Scope record label or produced by Steven Wilson, then these folks would suit you.

Emerald City Council — Motion Carries

Emerald City Council - Motion Carries
Realize I - Escape From The Ancient (4:56), Realize II - Brutal Camouflage (4:59), Noisy Talking (4:46), Mortal Game (6:16), Ice Thinning (5:22), Platforms Of Illusion (20:35), Diversion I (3:00), No Thanks To You (4:32), Realize III - The Comfort Of Suffering (6:15)
Jan Buddenberg

A common saying that in proverbial terms usually involves children states that 'those who ask, don't get'. I'm all too aware the same applies to grown-ups as well, but on occasion we elderly actually do receive what we wish for. Like now for instance with Emerald City Council's Motion Carries which, in almost direct answer to my question asked in Legacy Pilots' Helix review, features the masterful singing and melodic range of Jake Livgren (Proto-Kaw, nephew of Kerry Livgren (Kansas) for the whole duration of an album.

Founded in 2021 by composing saxophonist/keyboardist Brent Bristow (Professor of Music at Arkansas State University-Beebe) and completed in line up by aforementioned Livgren (vocals, keys), Jeremy Nichols (bass), Seth Hankerson (guitar) and drummer Noah Hungate (son of Toto's David Hungate), this group effort is admittedly not the solo album I envisioned. You won't hear me complain at all though for Motion Carries is basically the next best thing.

OK, one complaint I can't ignore is the absence of accompanying lyrics which are only to be found on the band's website. But with narrating contributions by actor Jeffery Combs (Star Trek) alongside several outstanding guesting appearances on guitar from the likes of Paul Bielatowicz, Mike Thompson, Steve Rankin, and Brandon Goff, Motion Carries is the next best magnificent thing imaginable! Especially if you, like me, are a melodic rock enthusiastic Kansas devotee who enjoys an indulgent saxophone trial.

This sensual "prog-dividing" instrument, which previously made its way sporadically into the Kansas sound (e.g. Vinyl Confessions) and several Kerry Livgren related albums (Proto-Kaw and AD's (IMHO) sublime desert island disc Timeline), is now most pleasingly given centre stage on Motion Carries by Bristow. In such a delicious virtuously played way that on numerous moments he answers the unasked question as to what Kansas would have sounded like if Robby Steinhardt had favoured sax over violin. Thereby simultaneously formulating at selected times what could have become of early 70s Jethro Tull if Ian Anderson had lived in a fully flute-free reality.

Add to this a beautiful melody focussed approach, a vibrant acoustic touch reminiscent of Styx and Tyketto, spectacular adventurous interplay akin to Spock's Beard, and Neal Morse Band, and a sensitive jazzy environment that sometimes visualises Toto and we're not fully, erm, in Kansas any more. Although it proves hard not to envision this satisfying musical state when, following Combs' intro narration, melodies in Realize I - Escape From The Ancient soar into exciting unbridled melodic rock that contagiously thrives on enticing sax play.

Not to mention the brilliant Ice Thinning. Elevated by Livgren's sublime vocal cords, this delivers Kansas memories in spades. Designed with striking synth decorations and a rocking cradle of seamlessly flowing alternating melodies laced with exquisite sax this composition will undoubtedly have fans of Masque in raptures. Followed closely by those in favour of Leftoverture, thanks to epic transitions and a miracle bridge.

In between, Realize II - Brutal Camouflage offers an engaging touch of pop with acoustic finesse and rocking harmonious interplay which from a distance reminds of Damn Yankees until flashes of synths, earworm choruses, and exuberantly played dynamic performances complemented by vocal harmonies shifts this to recollections of NMB and Flying Colors. To this, Noisy Talking adds groovy irresistible rock highlighted by strength in vocal accomplishments and excellent all around sax and guitar soloing spurred on by Hungate's superb rhythmic agility. Mortal Game brings lively, sophisticated jazz movements in memory of Ambrosia. Highlighted by Livgren's emotional voice and ideally befitting saxophone melodies, this slowly awakens thoughts of Toto's Fahrenheit. Melancholic guitars take hold of the melody for a final intensifying run of soothing melodies that end the song on a climactic high.

Following the short rejoicing instrumental Diversion I, featuring both Combs and Rankin on acoustic guitar while the latter also adds mandolin, the Toto connection becomes even stronger in No Thanks To You. In this composition, reminiscent of Mecca, Emerald City Council turn back the clock to Toto's most appealing AOR period (1980 - 1985) and mystically play into my musical kryptonite with catchy ear-candy melodies and intelligent musical arrangements,with a tasty guitar solo and vocal harmonies that have written hit-potential all over it. The sublime Realize III - The Comfort Of Suffering in the end finalises the album on a majestic high with melodies and sounds that bring early Kansas back — listen to the ingenious guitar riff around the 2:52 mark and you'll instantly get the picture — which are all transported ravishingly into the present.

Pinnacle highlight amongst these aforementioned highlights is the album's six-part magnum opus Platform Of Illusion. Aiming for epic-of-the-year, it opens with folky medieval atmospheres created through recorders and harpsichord. This wonderful composition then effortlessly manoeuvres from jazz fusion (Connection) onto acoustic melodic prog (Best Life) and spiritedly performed Livgren-oozing melodies brought to life by nephew Livgren (Comments). Harmoniously construed blues and jazz from which additional images of Transatlantic emerge (Identity), and a tantalising transition sets melodies firmly in vigorous (prog)-rocking motion (Revelation) until finally a rerun of themes and motifs elevated by epic Livgren-patented symphonic greatness (Best Life (Reprise)) ends this massively impressive tour de force.

In my biased Kansas/melodic rock/AOR/prog opinion music as described above doesn't get much better than this (even with saxophone being the leading instrument!). And as a solid year contender that showcases a commanding appeal to fans of Kansas, NMB, Pattern Seeking Animals, and Spock's Beard I cannot but wholeheartedly agree with Melodic Revolution Records' motto of "music you didn't know you would love". Please get acquainted to Motion Carries as soon as possible and order a copy! I'm convinced you'll love it!

Eons Past — Vanishing Point

Eons Past - Vanishing Point
Awakening (6:16), Drift (4:13), Skinwalker (5:21), Armored (4:36), Kaze no Uta (1:34), Icarus Falls (9:11), Dark Matter (3:20), Sanctum (4:52), Ramtha (6:38), Sojourn (1:43), Where the Trail Ends (6:31), Vanishing Point (4:37), Inviolate (6:25)
Sergey Nikulichev

Eons Past is a US trio scattered between the East and West Coast and, obviously, working together online to make music. The name of the band shines with epic colors, suitable for a prog-power metal collective, that boasts more strings than a harp quartet, but actually the trio firmly stands as an alternative prog project, relying on legacy of Maynard James Keenan and his followers. (Might "eons past" stand for periods of waiting between Tool's releases? Who knows...)

Apart from Tool, I also hear influences from the Australian alt-prog scene. But however cool and innovative this scene is, I should say, Vanishing Point gathered a solid bucket of debut's flaws.

\1. It is too long for a newcomer's release, especially based on someone else's sound. To demonstrate to listeners and yourselves that you mastered Karnivool's approach – 30 minutes is quite sufficient, borderline – 45 minutes.

\2. Instead of session / guest drummers, the band needs a fully employed member behind the drum-set. Not that the rhythmic work is bad or unprofessional, but leaves a feeling of artificial implementation of patterns.

\3. The music is not entertaining enough. Karnivool's Sound Awake was, for instance – like speaking to a nervous, but poetic schizophrenic. Vanishing Point is – akin to the artwork – a journey through barchans and hollows of flangered guitars, whimpering vocals and drum paradiddles.

Is there a potential? Undeniably yes. There's nothing terribly wrong neither with the music itself, nor with technical skills, quite competent. While Karnivool is silent for more than a decade and with equally unprolific Tool, there's no doubt that Eons Past's music shall find its listeners. I shall be happy to see the band evolve and grow, maybe with new releases outshining the debut (as it was in case of Caligula's Horse), but as a separate statement this album doesn't have a lot of value for me.

Vanishing Point is the perfect example of niche prog music. If you like the Tool - Karnivool - Caligula's Horse thread, you might find this record interesting. And should it happen that Lateralus is in your “most overrated records” list, there's nothing here to make you change your mind.

The Tangent — To Follow Polaris

The Tangent - To Follow Polaris
CD: The North Sky (11:08), A "Like" In The Darkness (8:19), The Fine Line (8:04), The Anachronism (21:01), The Single (From A Re-Opened Time Capsule) (5:52), The North Sky (video/radio edit) (3:42), Tea At Betty‘s (17:31)
LP: The North Sky (11:08), A "Like" In The Darkness (8:19), The Fine Line (8:04), The Single (From A Re-Opened Time Capsule) (5:52), The North Sky (video/radio edit) (3:42), The Anachronism (21:01), Tea At Betty‘s (17:31)
Armin Rößler

If you believe the Wikipedia entry, a remarkable thirty-five musicians have contributed to The Tangent's albums in the almost twenty years to date. Started as a supposedly one-off project by creative head Andy Tillison (Parallel Or 90 Degrees) with prominent partners such as Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) and David Jackson (ex-Van der Graaf Generator) to create the wonderful album The Music That Died Alone (2003). The Tangent have developed into a band despite an extremely large number of line-up changes, which still consistently delivers music on a high level and has established itself in its very own niche – inspired by the heroes of the seventies such as Yes, which can be clearly heard again and again, but above all by the Canterbury prog of groups such as Caravan, Hatfield & The North or the early Soft Machine. On the last records, Proxy (2018), Auto Reconnaissance (2020) and Songs From The Hard Shoulder (2022), the band also seemed to have found its identity, playing all records in the same constellation with Tillison (vocals, keyboards), Luke Machin (guitar, vocals), Jonas Reingold (bass, vocals), Steve Roberts (drums), and Theo Travis (saxophone, flute). And what does Andy Tillison do? A complete solo effort under the Tangent label. With the somewhat coyly placed addition "by one“ on the cover.

As Tillison composes all the pieces anyway, To Follow Polaris sounds unmistakably like The Tangent from the very first second. In this respect, the decision to release the album as The Tangent rather than under the Andy Tillison Diskdrive label (his outlet for electronic music) or the jazz rock equivalent Andy Tillison Multiplex, as with Tillison's other solo projects, is understandable. The North Sky is the perfect prelude in this respect, because it has all the ingredients the listener expects: it's a little restless, but very lively, has beautiful vocal harmonies and rich organs, is sometimes rock, sometimes jazz, sometimes folk. Flutes come from a device called aerophone, which this time replaces the real wind instruments. A very good track that makes you want more.

However, this does not necessarily mean I want a second version of the same song, the shorter "video / radio edit". It is also not placed at the end, as a proper bonus track, but rather irritatingly as the sixth of seven tracks on the CD version. The following and last number on the CD, however, is a real bonus track! And on the double LP in the neat gatefold cover it can already be heard at the end of side two, so as the fifth song. I found this rather irritating. Additional point of irritation here: does a prog band with no realistic chart potential need a radio edit? One may have some doubts, especially as the short version has nothing new to add to the great song, but rather robs it of important parts.

Back to the album and the tongue-in-cheek title of the second song, A "Like“ In The Darkness. It starts off more calmly and deliberately, conveying a dense atmosphere, almost a little dark, and only becomes more bombastic in the last third. The Fine Line then convinces with that relaxed jazz feeling that is so typical of Canterbury prog, but has also long been typical for The Tangent, with Tillison speaking more than singing. A beautiful, very convincing piece, but its style would have offered plenty of scope for real flute and/or clarinet from Theo Travis, for example – it seems a bit like a wasted opportunity to get even more out of the song. The LP features The Single (From A Re-Opened Time Capsule) as the fourth track, on the CD it is number five. (This has undoubtedly to do with the length of vinyl sides.) Apart from the energetic "but here, now“, which is sung with great fervour and orchestrated theatrically, the song initially ripples along with few highlights until quite late on, when an initially nice, then increasingly energetic keyboard solo sets in, which is joined by other instruments.

In fact, this is why the vinyl sequence of only adding the twenty-one-minute long track The Anachronism afterwards seems to make more sense (let's ignore the inserted radio edit of The North Sky, which is probably just where it could have been placed) – if you listen to The Anachronism first and then The Single, the latter seems like something unnecessarily added. Conversely, The Single is a successful prelude, especially towards the end, which prepares the long track perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the eight parts of the track include everything that progressive rock in general and The Tangent in particular have to offer – from a soundtrack character to hints of prog metal. A cornucopia of ideas that, despite or because of its diversity, works very well as a whole and never gets boring despite its length.

The conclusion with the bonus track Tea At Betty's is a double-edged sword. The jazzy piano that introduces the song sets the tone, which is never abandoned. Andy Tillison gives himself a seventeen-minute playground on which he is clearly having fun, it takes the listener along for a long time – and yet he has to be a little careful not to become too arbitrary, too unfocused and too little song-oriented with his music. There have also been hints of this on the last Tangent albums, for example in Jinxed Of Jersey (on Auto Reconnaissance), which begins excitingly, but cannot maintain this tension for almost sixteen minutes, becomes less and less interesting and at some point just offers only more of the same. But we'll let a bonus track get away with that.

The liner notes on To Follow Polaris are of course also interesting. Andy Tillison's explanations of what bothers him about today's world, from politicians and technocrats to the political systems to which we subject ourselves and which, for him, sensibly always end with the syllables „-cracies“ (the reference to the supposed spelling mistake is not to be missed), could lead to a fundamental pessimism, but this is not the case. In fact, Tillison remains positive and believes in a better future for his grandchildren. Anyone who has experienced the man live is bound to find him likeable anyway, and his attitude does the rest. Andy Tillison is a real character, without whom today's prog scene would be missing something and someone.

And musically? His approach of not wanting to replace his band colleagues, but rather to show what he has learned from them, is certainly commendable and of real artistic value, because it also involves a challenge that you first have to face – getting out of your comfort zone. As always, Tillison's vocals fit the music very well and his virtuoso and passionate keyboard playing is beyond reproach. On bass, which he claims to be playing for the first time on a recording, he remains inconspicuous. On drums, to be honest, one wishes for a real drummer with much more presence, variability and courage. And it shouldn't be a big secret that the guitar in progressive rock can also conjure up the odd solo with a goosebumps feeling. In this respect, the conclusion is rather ambivalent. Mostly good songs, well played – but the question of how they would have sounded with the full band always remains in the back of your mind. Andy Tillison has already announced that he wants to record the next album as "The Tangent By Five“ again. There's certainly no harm in that. And perhaps there will be an opportunity on the next tour to play one or two songs from To Follow Polaris live in even fuller splendour with the whole band. Perhaps even the whole album and then please also as a live recording – just for comparison.

Album Reviews