Album Reviews

Issue 2024-042

Cosmograf — Live At The 1865 – The Official Bootleg

Cosmograf - Live At The 1865 – The Official Bootleg
British Made (5:54), The Man Left In Space (10:10), Bakelite Switch (8:27), White Car (10:02), Regretful Refrain (6:57), Four Wall Euphoria (6:27), Arcade Machine (9:21), The Motorway (11:16), The Ghost Gets Made (8:51)
Armin Rößler

Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, but was convicted of doping in 2013 and had to relinquish all his titles. And Robin Armstrong? He and his band Cosmograf took to the stage at The 1865 in Southampton on May 14, 2023. At first glance, this may not have been quite as earth-shattering as the achievements and experiences of the other two Armstrongs (all three are neither related by blood nor marriage), but it also has rarity value: Cosmograf, more a project by Robin Armstrong than a real band, only perform live concerts very, very rarely. Unless the research has been completely misleading, this recording comes from just the fourth of only five official gigs in the band's entire history, which began back in 2009 with End Of Ecclesia. Guitarist Lee Abraham (Galahad) and drummer Kyle Fenton were already present at the very first gig in 2014, with bassist Alastair Martin being the fourth live member.

"There was no original intention for the gig to be recorded, but a decent soundboard stereo mix was made available after the show, that had captured something very interesting. Much of the set played that night, provided too much temptation not to share some of that experience with a much wider audience", Robin Armstrong is quoted as saying. After nine studio albums, a live recording is certainly no harm, especially when variety is large and the repertoire draws on almost the entire Cosmograf catalog. The fact that the live versions sometimes differ significantly from the studio works, is in the nature of things: on the regular albums Robin Armstrong plays many instruments alone (one of the exceptions are the drums, which have recently been regularly played by Kyle Fenton) and invites more or less prominent guests to join in: For example, the Cosmograf albums have already featured some musicians from Big Big Train, with whom Armstrong was also active live in 2018/19, as well as members of Spock's Beard, The Tangent, or It Bites and prog celebrities such as Nick Beggs (The Mute Gods, Trifecta) or Colin Edwin (ex-Porcupine Tree).

British Made (originally found on the latest studio album Heroic Materials, 2022) kicks things off. The track gives a good impression of the exciting concept album, which tells the story of a pilot in World War II who looks back on a time when he felt important, which is no longer the case. Instrumentally, this is a rather restrained start, and the vocals also sound a little subdued, until a guitar solo sets the first exclamation mark after just under three minutes. The song then picks up speed, but stays thoughtful and reflective, perfectly according to the album's theme.

The following track is a little heavier. The Man Left In Space takes us back to the album of the same name from 2013. As the title suggests, it tells another not-so-happy story – of an astronaut who has somehow been forgotten in space. With a relaxed organ, a strikingly driving bass, first an acoustic guitar, then an electric one that plays a solo worth listening to, this track now contains a lot of the typical Cosmograf style, which Armstrong himself summarizes as follows: "[The] sound is rooted in 70s classic rock with many contemporary influences from rock, progressive rock and metal [author's note: I'd put a question mark behind the latter]. There is always a particular emphasis on concepts and atmospheric production leading to comparisons with artists such as Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree, and Steven Wilson." The live incarnation cannot reproduce the perfect euphony of the studio recordings, one of Cosmograf's trademarks, but you would not expect it either, given the subtitle The Official Bootleg. The live sound is much rougher, and the vocals are a little neglected in the mix.

The electric guitar is the highlight of the third song, Bakelite Switch (from When Age Has Done Its Duty, 2011), before the keyboard comes to the fore. Things get really emotional with White Car (Capacitor, 2014), which can't deny its proximity to Pink Floyd in the days of The Division Bell, but in direct comparison it really does put up a brave fight. It has a pleasant elegance for a long time, conveys a thoughtful mood, makes you sit up and take notice in the middle section with somewhat heavier guitars and then oscillates between melodiousness and heaviness (still no metal, sorry). In keeping with the title, Regretful Refrain (Heroic Materials, 2022) has a surprisingly bluesy note that conveys melancholy and sadness, introduced by a plaintive guitar that later delivers another great solo. Emotions that one would also wish for Armstrong's vocals, which remain a little too uniform in this live setting. The support from Abraham and Fenton, who both contribute backing vocals, doesn't change this.

The album The Unreasonable Silence (2016) is visited twice, another concept album based on an essay by philosopher and writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) that revolves around the existential questions of life and the universe (and possibly everything, too) – Four Wall Euphoria again has some convincing instrumental passages to offer, Arcade Machine initially seems to have a somewhat simpler conception, but then it takes on spacy sounds and spoken vocals – after which Armstrong comes out of his shell a little in his vocal passages, pushing more into the foreground, but ultimately remaining more part of the whole than really standing out. The Motorway takes us back to The Hay-Man Dreams, undoubtedly a highlight in the Cosmograf catalog, before the band really picks up speed once again with The Ghost Gets Made (from Capacitor, 2014).

My conclusion is that this is a good, very honest live album that shows some weaknesses, especially in the vocals. As mentioned, Live at The 1865 can't keep up with the sound of the studio albums, but that does not matter at all. The recording shows that Cosmograf can also score as a live band. And at least as good as the footballer Adam Armstrong, who has just scored a goal for Southampton FC (which fits perfectly with the recording venue) to win the Championship play-off final and seal promotion to the Premier League. These Armstrongs...

Intelligent Music Project VIII — Miracles Beyond

Intelligent Music Project VIII - Miracles Beyond
Intro (1:37), Thunder (4:27), Days Rollin (3:42), For You (3:40), Real (3:26), Expecting You (3:27), Miracles Beyond (4:30), Then I Knew (3:09), Anyway (3:41), Right I Said (3:34), Believe In Love (3:00), A New Day (3:22), Walls (8:18), Shine For You (3:43)
Edwin Roosjen

Intelligent Music Project is a project originating from Bulgaria which started in 2012 with Milen Vrabevski MD as the mastermind. In 2022, they participated in the Eurovision song contest, but they did not make it to the final. That might have been a good thing. On Wikipedia, the band is labeled as a supergroup and many musicians are mentioned on their website. Among the cast of musicians are Simon Philips (Toto) on drums, John Payne (Asia), Carl Sentance (Nazareth) and Joseph Williams (Toto).

Miracles Beyond is the eight project album, and with each release the counter behind the band name goes up a point. The name Intelligent Music Project sets the bar high, so I was eager to find out what I was going to hear.

Intro is mainly classical music, mostly piano with violin. If classical stands for intelligence, the term flows a bit to the background when Thunder opens with a standard hard rock riff and a standard drum rhythm. The vocals are spot on, which is what you can expect with John Payne and Carl Sentance on vocal duties. Technically everything is fine, the vocals sound clear, but the arrangements could have done with a bit more layers of instruments. Days Rollin' does deliver on that element as it feature some more layers of sound and sounds a lot more completed than the previous one. Nice singalong chorus with vocals from Joseph Williams.

For You starts with some gentle piano. When the vocal lines start they remind me a lot of Kayak, very melodic. For the chorus the pace increases, and it turns more into a standard rocker. The music on Miracles Beyond has some intelligent parts but many times it falls back into more standard rock tunes. Is not necessarily a bad thing but at times the sound becomes a bit too thin, I really miss a layer of (intelligent?) instruments.

The standard rock continues with Real and with Expecting You it brings a slower bluesy kind of track. Lovely transition riff that would have been perfect if it was more dramatic. Again, I do miss an extra layer in the sound to make it more interesting. And then the song changes into a tune that can be found as a demo tune on many instrument or free music software. Not a bad song but it does not deliver the goods.

The title track is a ballad with wonderful melodies. Just as my expectations were lowered, this song turns out to be a very nice one. On the next couple of songs the intensity level is dropped to a steady normal.

Most songs contain interesting elements. A song like Then I Knew has a vocal lines that stick in your head for a long time. I like the twin guitar sound on Right I Said. Believe In Love starts out like a ballad and then evolves into a folk party song. Although it is enjoyable, I do not know if it is really in place on this album. A New Day is a bit more bluesy again but with more strength and power, which is a plus. The slow but powerful, pounding song Walls also has more of that spirit. Next time more of that please. Closing song Shine For You is an easy listening pop rock radio. Very likeable.

The Intelligent Music Project is an interesting project, and it brings together a lot of renowned musicians and is filled with professionally performed music. Technically, everything is fine, but as a total product, it is not the satisfying experience I was expecting from reading the ingredients. Miracles Beyond is not a bad album, but it just does not sound steady and good enough. During most the whole album I was missing something, as if the sound engineer forgot to turn up a slider. Like french fries without the mayonnaise. Did we receive an early mix, perhaps?

Schubmodul — Lost In Kelp Forest

Schubmodul - Lost In Kelp Forest
Voyage (6:49), Emerald Maze (9:56), Renegade One (5:21), Silent Echoes (8:30), Ascension (4:35), Ascension (4:35)
Ignacio Bernaola

How can you make a concept album while the album is instrumental? That's a rhetorical question, of course, do not expect an answer from me. What comes first, the concept or the music? I find it very difficult to understand a concept without lyrics. It could be an instrumental album that evokes certain spatial sounds related to something, but I don't understand how a concept can be developed without lyrics. And that is what German band Schubmodul propose in their second album called Lost In Kelp Forest. They describe it as a concept album that takes place in an underwater world, but if not for the narrated voices it could have been taking place inside a cave, in a forest, or in the middle of a big city.

But my questioning and brain-wrecking about this must have clouded my initial anticipation. Because in the end I can only say one thing about this album: it is very good! I still can't find anything in their music that would indicate that there is an underwater story here, but musically, this is simply a joy to listen to.

Without contributing anything new to the stoner genre, the compositions are very well-structured and the band handles time changes certainly well. Of course there are influences that are clearly sensed, like those King Buffalo rhythms and guitars in the song Silent Echoes. I also like the way the guitar appears to play some epic melodies above the overall and classic stoner sound. Check Renegade One and you will know what I'm talking about.

Schubmodul has created a magnificent album that draws from many places, without being tied only to the stoner genre, and introduce very interesting elements and compositional structures that are mixing very well. This leaves room for post-rock, psychedelic and atmospheric sounds that contribute to creating varied songs that really take you from one place to another without realising it.

Let's just say they take you to those underwater places if you listen to the narrator voices...

I can recommend this great album that I'm sure will be returning to my CD player very often. And as a bonus recommendation, I have to suggest you listen to their previous album called Modul I. Another concept album taking place in the vastness of space. Or wherever you want, of course.

Erich Zann Ensemble — Bieber Sessions

Erich Zann Ensemble - Bieber Sessions
Brown Rice (8:49), Dröhnung (11:37), Pan Teutonia Express (6:51), La Thébaide (6:42), Brown Rice (Reprise) (4:23)
Jan Buddenberg

The Erich Zann Ensemble, a name most likely derived from an HP Lovecraft novel, is a collective of frequently changing musicians led by bassist/multi-instrumentalist Frank Incense of The Sun Or The Moon fame. Joining him on Bieber Sessions, which for those in need of reassurance refers to the Bieber Studio in Offenbach where the music was created during jam sessions, are Daniel Reck (horns of plenty, looper, instrumental all sorts), Niclas Ciriacy (drums, percussion), Christoph Heimbach (saxophone, flute), and a few guesting musicians who at a later stage added their parts to the recordings.

The elusive mixture of mostly improvised composition entrusted to this debut are bookended by two versions of Brown Rice. Both based upon a 70s composition from free jazz trumpeting pioneer Don Cherry it is here in Brown Rice the ensemble serves up an EM-inspired brew of experimental repetitive rhythms, ethereal vocals, worldly percussive elements, and shuffling beats which injected by hypnotic saxophone envisions proto-Hawkwind. Brown Rice (Reprise) finalises proceedings with dynamic rhythms and lively uptempo, vocal guided, trance-inducing melodies that slowly awakens a perception of spellbinding space rock paranoia.

Dröhnung massages the senses in form of a spiritual zen work-out in a Gong and Spirits Burning style, ending happily with a Krautrock climax. It is La Thébaide that threads into groovy environments of acid jazz. This is all together a fine experience, but I find the engaging Pan Teutonia Express to please the most. Especially when its soothing psychedelic dub rhythms step up a gear towards accelerating sax-controlled melodies that energetically groove with Lucky Chops.

Prog purists at heart will likely prefer watching grass grow. Or alternatively smoke it. But for those who enjoy a hotpot of unfathomable avant-garde acid jazz, krautrock, and psychedelica, this album is quite a recommendable trip!

Album Reviews