Reviews in this issue:
- Unitopia - Covered Mirror Vol.1: Smooth As Silk
- Yugen - Mirrors
- Toon Martens Project - TMP
- Lord Of Mushrooms - Perspectives
- Unit Wail - Pangaea Proxima
- Marcus Eaton - As If You Had Wings
- Oblivion Sun - The High Places
- Barock Project - Coffee in Neukölln
- Seven Waters - Pathfinder
- Mountain Mirrors - Asylum Acres
- The Room - Open Fire
Unitopia - Covered Mirror Vol.1:Smooth As Silk
Tracklist: 'Signs Of Life' Prelude (2:01), Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (6:32), Easter (6:42), Man Of Colours (5:22), Genesis Medley (The Silent Sun / Supper's Ready / Dancing With The Moonlit Knight / The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway / Carpet Crawlers) (10:10), Rain Song (7:02), Even In The Quietest Moments (6:41), Can We Still Be Friends (4:20), Speaking The Truth (Interlude) (1:19), Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime (5:09), Yes Medley (And You And I / Awaken / Close To The Edge / Soon / Onward / South Side Of The Sky / Owner Of A Lonely Heart) (12:11), To One In Paradise (5:04), Bonus Track: The Way The Waters Are Moving (3:18)
Two of the best albums in recent times IMO have been The Garden (2008) and Artificial (2010) both from Australia’s finest, Unitopia. Following the excellent 2011 live album/DVD One Night In Europe (which curiously passed the DPRP by) comes the bands latest offering, Covered Mirror Vol.1: Smooth As Silk. The album subtitle - 'A Collection Of Songs That Inspire Unitopia' speaks for itself whilst the phrase 'Smooth As Silk' is indicative of the mood of the songs which are all on the distinctly mellow, melodic side. Genre wise however it's a mixed bag with quality pop tunes rubbing shoulders with prog classics where scanning the tracklist is rather like leafing through an old but much loved record collection.
The album opens with an original composition, the 'Signs Of Life' Prelude which serves as an instrumental introduction to Calling Occupants.... I say original, but in reality the wonderfully overblown orchestral arrangement owes a significant debt to John Williams' score for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft was of course a 1976 hit for Canadian proggers Klaatu but many I'm sure will be more familiar with The Carpenters' epic version from the following year. Unitopia's take on the song remains faithful to both with elaborate orchestral keys from Sean Timms and a sensitive interpretation by vocalist Mark Trueack. With the sound of crashing waves, it segues seamlessly into Marillion's Easter from 1989's Seasons End album and whilst Trueack cannot quite compete with Steve Hogarth's wistful delivery it's still a beautiful version with a memorable solo from guitarist Matt Williams and a particularly uplifting coda.
Man Of Colours will perhaps be of more significance to Unitopia themselves than most of us being the title song from the 1987 album by fellow Aussies Icehouse and a massive seller in their home country. It's a good tune and whilst I'm familiar with Icehouse's brand of '80s synth-pop and the hit Crazy in particular (taken from the same album) this is a more low-key affair with mellow sax, a chugging riff and engaging harmonies.
Even if you're familiar with the songs that make up Unitopia's Genesis Medley (all taken from the Peter Gabriel era) the treatment here holds one or two surprises. Unitopia put the emphasis on the opening and closing songs (The Silent Sun and Carpet Crawlers respectively) with the intervening pieces fleetingly but respectively referenced (the lyrical Lover's Leap intro to Supper's Ready, a variation of the third and second verses from Dancing With The Moonlit Knight and a couple of lines of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway). Presented as a mature ballad, The Silent Sun is a revelation and a pointed reminder of just how good those very early Genesis tunes were even though they were all too soon disowned by the band. Carpet Crawlers is performed almost in its entirety and underlines the similarity between Trueack's and Gabriel's voices.
Even though Led Zeppelin's fifth album Houses Of The Holy from 1973 is in my collection, Rain Song was never one of my favourite Zepp tracks (No Quarter for me was the album highlight). That said it proves to be one of the most successful adaptations here with Unitopia perfectly capturing the folk-meets-blues ambiance with inspired use of acoustic guitar, clarinet and electric sitar. Supertramp's 1977 album title song Even In The Quietest Moments is perhaps another not so obvious inclusion and although it's once again a worthy version, Unitopia's take on Dreamer, Crime Of The Century or The Logical Song would have been a tantalising prospect. The men from down under make this their own with the addition of jungle sounds, tribal rhythms (courtesy of drummer David Hopgood and percussionist Tim Irrgang) plus didgeridoo and impromptu soprano sax from Dan Burgess.
Can We Still Be Friends was a minor US hit for Todd Rundgren in 1978 and like many of his pop tunes it's a very catchy affair benefitting from the lovely wordless harmonies here. A rambling flute solo (entitled Speaking The Truth) leads into The Korgis' sugar sweet ballad Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime from 1980. Beside the Genesis and Yes medleys, this was one of the tracks I was really looking forward to having been covered numerous times before but never bettering the original which was a guilty pleasure of mine. The Unitopia arrangement is busier with acoustic guitar, flute, koto and a gritty (but not out of place) guitar solo.
If you're wondering how Yes epics like And You And I, Awaken and Close To The Edge can be squeezed into a medley lasting a little over 12 minutes the answer is simple but effective nonetheless. Taking the grandiose guitar and keyboard fanfare from Yes' live version of And You And I to similarly open here, Unitopia combine and overlap key vocal lines from Awaken, Close To The Edge, Soon, Onward (and an un-credited Survival) to create an hypnotic choral tapestry to stir the heart of any Yes fan. The memorable piano and chanting mid-section of South Side Of The Sky follows before a mellow version of Owner Of A Lonely Heart is given perhaps more time than it deserves to play-out. I should at this point mention Ed Unitsky's stunning artwork which combines several of the original album covers (most notably Houses Of The Holy and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) but sadly nothing by Yes. As good as these collages are, I would have loved to have seen Unitsky's take on Roger Dean's landscapes for CTTE and Relayer.
Lifted from the 1976 Tales Of Mystery And Imagination debut album by The Alan Parsons Project, To One In Paradise is a genuine piece of Beatles influenced nostalgia. Unitopia do full justice to the song with a swirling mosaic of counterpoint harmonies against a tranquil orchestral backdrop. If there was a competition to guess which song by The Flower Kings closed this collection I would be willing to bet that at least 50 other songs would be chosen before coming up with The Way The Waters Are Moving. That is unless you're familiar with Musea's A Flower Full Of Stars tribute album where Unitopia first performed the song which originally appeared on TFKs 2006 Paradox Hotel album and is one of shortest ever penned by Stolt and Bodin. Not wanting to repeat their previous version, Unitopia have revamped the arrangement although still staying close to the original with classical guitar and strings providing a low-key but still very satisfying conclusion to the set.
No matter how earnest the intent, tribute albums are often on the receiving end of negative reviews (and with some justification). Unitopia in their favour however have produced a meticulous reworking of some well-known and not so well-known tunes that vary significantly in their complexity. Whilst remaining faithful to the spirit of the originals, Timms, Trueack and their collaborators inject enough of their own personality to avoid sounding like slavish copyists. The fact that several of these songs happen to be personal favourites of this particular reviewer is a very happy coincidence where for me the opening three tracks alone are worth the price of admission.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Yugen - Mirrors
Track list: On The Brink (0:59), Brachilogia (3:09), Catacresi (6:39), La Mosca Stregata (0:57), Overmurmur (5:30), Industry (7:50), Cloudscape (10:38), Ice (1:55), Becchime (12:38), Corale Metallurgico (9:19)
When news broke of Yugen's appearance at the 2011 RIO Fest, an annual event held in Carmaux, France, I did wonder how the ultra-complex compositions of guitarist and band leader Francesco Zago would translate into a live setting; indeed could it even be done? Bearing in mind that the last studio album, the fantastic Iridule from 2010, had a cast of almost 20 musicians appearing in various combinations and playing all manner of exotic instruments, it is a high accomplishment indeed that the tunes could be rearranged for an ensemble of a mere 7 players, as is the case here.
Francesco says in the liner notes "Working in a studio and putting on a live show are two totally different things...The fact is in order to play this music properly...without mistakes...rather than shivering every time you look at the score...(you) probably need 100 hours rehearsing...but...we had only 10 or 12 in total!". That statement tells you the high calibre of the musicians on show here for sure, as any mistakes, if there are any, are far beyond my ability to spot.
Of the 10 tracks, 5 are taken from Iridule, 4 from their debut, 2006's Labirinto d'Acqua, with the addition of a storming cover of Henry Cow's Industry. Yugen's second album was a tribute to Stormy Six member Tommaso Leddi, and did not contain any original compositions, and so is not represented here.
For those not familiar with Yugen, the Cow is an obvious influence, but more so modern classical composers such as Stockhausen, Ligeti, Bartók, Messiaen, to name but four. It would be safe to say that this is in fact modern classical chamber music, using "rock" instrumentation. Francesco often contrasts angry guitar passages with modern chamber instrumentation to produce an enthralling and entertaining contrast in styles, the sometimes spiky guitaring belying the fact that he originally took up piano aged 10, playing along to Led Zeppelin tunes! Emphasising that contrast, passages in Catacresi veer from the playful to the quietly contemplative to angry and back again, and this piece sums up what Yugen are all about.
A studious classical vibe shines through on the labyrinthine Overmurmur, followed by Industry, which manages to meld the classical aura with a skewed rock edge in a manner not seen since...well, Henry Cow, probably. Henry Cow, founders of the RIO movement with the other bands that came together back in 1979 now find their sonic traditions continued and advanced into the modern age by Yugen and a handful of other European and American bands, and this cover of Industry, a tune that was acerbic enough in its time, continues that graph line. Staying largely faithful to the original but sounding more organic, possibly because of the live recording, you can almost see Francesco and the band deep in concentration as they pick their way through the score.
After those two "difficult" pieces, the reverential audience is given a head massage by the dreamy progressive anthem that is Cloudscape, probably the most accessible tune in the band's repertoire, and a good place to start YouTubing for the uninitiated. While I mention the all-pervasive video service, which for those too young to remember hi-fidelity sadly seems to serve nowadays as their prime source of audio, the whole concert is up there for your delectation; and if you like it, please buy this CD! Needless to say, unlike the bootleg-quality of the YT clips the sound on this CD is superb, and credit where it is due to Andrea Rizzardo in that regard.
Back to Cloudscape: Francesco gently swoops in with a sustained e-bow guitar note, behind which keyboard maestro Paolo "Ske" Botta paints swathes of impressionistic colour on the backdrop of what, for Yugen, is a relatively simple cyclical tune. Matteo Lorito's repeated bass motif, occasionally spiced with complex runs up and down the fretboard, underpins layers of atmosphere building up and up, helped along by Maurizio Fasoli's piano, Valerio Cipolloni's clarinet and Jacopo Costa's marimba. Pinning it down and embellishing the beat with rim shots is Michele Salgarello on the drums, and, not to be left out, Francesco now slots in a glorious short'n'sweet guitar break as the tune reaches its climax. This is a lovely piece of composition, and it is true progressive music my friend; you will find no cliché here.
The brief but mellifluous clarinet-led tune Ice continues the reverie and leads straight into Becchime, which is in complete contrast and instantly jerks one out of any settled complacency. Featuring some strangely tangential playing from each member from the off, it is slowly corralled into a theme before flying out the window once more. A self-contained mini-avant-symphony, Becchime goes to places few other bands will take you. Whether or not you have the curiosity to be taken is not a problem the band would deem worthy of consideration. Suffice to say, you can't dance to it, but it rocks in a way that would delight scientists! Not only that, but judging from a YT clip of this, the band was having a blast, firing off one another with a joy that is clear to see.
This music is a place where the mind and the heart meet, a place where gorgeous tunes are juxtaposed with pieces where melody is subsumed by intricate cerebral flexing. To the musically untrained ear it can sound quite chaotic at times, and quite how this was scored is way beyond my zero musical ability to comprehend. Like I say, chaotic, but in a good way, and this underlines my earlier point; this is classical music, make no mistake. It is not the kind of thing that were someone to stumble across it in 100 years time they would consider it dated, similar to how we might view Mozart. Yes, it is that good!
In my 'umble opinion, Yugen are one of the best avant-prog bands currently working. If you dig this kind of thing you need this album, particularly if you are new to the band, for it serves as a perfect introduction to their sometimes difficult but always rewarding musical universe.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Toon Martens Project - TMP
Tracklist: Columbus (8:07), Waste Of Time (3:10), 70's Suite – 70 (4:22), 71 (7:43), 7 Wolves (6:26), 72 (2:24), 73 (2:41), Free Of The Spell (4:40), Cruising (3:44), Syrinx (6:35), Forward (5:51), Far Behind (8:57), Babylon (4:10), Ginkgo Bilboa (5:36)
Toon Martens - Keyboards
Christophe Belien - Bass
Johan Van Den Berghe - Drums
Guy Guisson - Vocals
Filip Gijbels – Guitar
In a world of continual change and high speed living the need for good music to relax, unwind and be challenged by is possibly greater than ever, with society seeking to make music just another tradable commodity it is reassuring to know that some musical genres still seek to stand outside of these parameters.
This is how I feel about progressive rock and the ever expanding cottage industry of artists and bands carefully and slowly crafting their own music at their own pace, free from corporate big brother constraints and seeking to make, very often at great personal sacrifice and cost, music that has life, depth, colour and value.
Into this category we can add the Toon Martens Project or TMP.
Here is an album played by a band from Belgium that seek to take us back to the halcyon days of the early 1970's, when those truly stunning and original progressive rock albums were unleashed on the wider world and you know what, they've done an outstanding job of it too.
What is it with Belgium at the moment? For years it's been famous mainly for Chocolate, Stella Artois and the machinations of the EU, but now there seems to be something of a musical renaissance happening, firstly there is the very Alan Parsons like Fish On Friday and now there is TMP both seeking to craft intelligent and articulate music that falls under the "progressive" tag.
Starting with an opening swath of keyboards over which Filip Giebels guitar plays a haunting reverb drenched line Columbus sets the scene for what follows over the next 74 minutes, with Guy Guisson sounding not unlike John Wetton this could be a lengthier Asia track balancing delicacy with restraint before entering an up-tempo segment of swelling Hammond organ. As an opener it's a great introduction to the fine music this band create, whilst heavily keyboard reliant there is enough six string wizardry on display to satisfy everyone and it's a fine opening salvo.
The 70's Suite is a fabulous idea, over 23 minutes in duration and broken up into 5 segments this takes the listener on a journey through the early 70's, each segment taking a different approach and sounding different from the previous one, quite what the 7 Wolves song represents is beyond me but it's an interesting concept and one that works very well over the duration of the piece. Both 72 and 73 are shorter pieces that conclude the suite well.
The CD is a mix of instrumental and vocal songs and there is a fine balance between the two styles. What is apparent is the sheer joy that these guys had in making this music that actually covers a variety of bases and even genres within progressive rock from the epic to the almost jazzy. The use of horns on selected songs adds a certain funkiness as does the fretless bass with songs like Syrinx showcasing this jazzier side of TMP.
Far Behind is one of the longer tracks and it uses some very pastoral sounding keyboards and sets these against some very fiery guitar work. On their website TMP say that they get easily bored hence the variety on this CD but for me it really works and I think they've created a really worthy release here with much to attract the average listener.
Closing track Ginkgo Biloba is a very good summation of all that precedes it. The track features on YouTube too showing just how versatile this outfit can be, often within the same song. With a walking riff and some fiery guitar this is the track to hear and see if TMP capture your interest.
I have to say this is a lengthy album and it will take several listens to really get what is going on here. It's very well played, produced, crafted and conceived and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. It's quite an old CD now but it is very much worthy of your investigation so on this basis I have no hesitation in awarding it 8/10 as it is a fine album. I look forward to seeing just what TMP deliver next.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Lord Of Mushrooms - Perspectives
French progressive metal band Lord of Mushrooms return with their third release, Perspectives, an album that features their new vocalist Gustavo 'Gus' Monsanto, (ex-Adagio). As ever there is always a bit of excitement when a Lion Music release arrives at Chez O'Boyle although I am not too sure whether the other half sees it that way when the amp gets cranked and the air guitar is brandished; now there's a sight for sore eyes! Their 7 Deadly Songs received a palatable 7 out of 10 from our very own Prog Metalmeister Andy Read, a man, like myself, who knows a thing or two about this genre, who knows and appreciates a good quality release and Perspectives falls into this category.
The band has a more original sound and approach than some of their label mates; in saying this, all the hallmark technicality, style and showmanship that is synonymous with this label is still present. The band has found balance in their tones, offering various approaches, marrying the old with the new, powerful engagements that harmoniously work on differing levels.
Monsanto's vocals are clear and a real pleasure to listen to, adding an extra dimension to the music, an approach that is commercial, in the positive sense of the term, a sound that makes it more accessible.
It's rather hard to see what is not to like about this album as the music here is rather engaging, powerful and infectious making participation all the more pleasurable. There are massive guitar riffs strewn throughout that more than match the solid backline that bonds everything together offering a solid foundation. Even the sometimes sedate keyboard tones that at times sound barren just offer so much effect; when they aren't participating in this said manner they offer resounding attitude. As an added bonus, the band aren't afraid to slow things down, taking respite, allowing you to gather your breath, the quirky Missing Link being a prime example of this. The band may reduce their virtuosity slightly, but their signature trademarks are still ever present throughout, as are the massive powerful approaches that stalk both the music and the listener.
Even when the band are playing with their instrumental passages you are left under no illusions that they mean business. They are adept and well versed (Red Queen's Race being a prime example, even with its loose tones), Laurent James' (guitar) and Luca Mariotti's (keyboards) interactions propped up by Marco Taveli (drums) and Julien Negro (bass), manifesting itself with zestful exuberance, a theme that is present throughout the whole album which leads me to the conclusion of recommending this album to all who like this approach. Nyx's Robe confirms again the band's standing with its brooding heaviness and its jazz rock, fusion interludes confirming that if the band carries on in this manner, producing such quality, that they do indeed have a bright future ahead of them. The bass heavy album opener Imago is another real highlight that sets their stall out for what is presented on this album, being the perfect statement of what this band are all about. LOM avoid falling into the trap of presenting weaker material, something that really keeps the album on track and gives it its power and strength.
Perspectives is an album that will win them new listeners and an album that has set the bar for them. I am looking forward to hearing what they will come up with next.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Unit Wail - Pangaea Proxima
This band is the project of ex-Shrub-Niggurath guitarist Franck-William Fromy. Those familiar with the French avant rockers will have an inkling of what to expect from Unit Wail, but this band are more "rock" and although they do lurch leftwards now and again, they are less wilfully menacing and less possessed of the more avant/Zeuhl inclinations of the Lovecraft-ian combo.
Occupying a territory of their own in a sort of post-rock Crimsoid universe, all the compositions are those of keyboard player Vincent Sicot-Vantalon. Franck's guitar often takes the starring role but is never overpowering as he leads his troops into battle on the bleak landscapes they inhabit, and the three other musicians contribute fretless bass, drums and synths, so chamber rock this is definitely not.
Vincent's ominous vignettes (only one track just scrapes past the 5 minute mark) conjure an ink-black atmosphere; evident from the beginning as Franck introduces a weaving guitar figure as Mesozoïc Cities slowly uncoils. Next up, the insidious creeping vine of Ombos winds its weaving fingers round your synapses and before you know it you're sucked down into the eerie world of Unit Wail.
Elsewhere industrial funk grooves and dark ambient soundscapes collide, but never losing sight of a melody, sometimes slowly unfolding over a charging rhythm, sometimes faster, more urgent. All the while Franck's guitar is the star, sometimes recalling Fripp, or less obviously Carlos Alomar from the Bowie band of yore.
Outerspace is about as far removed from traditional space rock as you could wish, and halfway in a real dirty fuzz-bass from Adrian Luna funks it up no end. This is more Sputnik than Star Trek and sounds like it might crash and burn at any moment. A word here for drummer Philippe Haxaire, who holds things together with power while also embellishing the rhythm with real verve, especially so on the chaotic Humanoïd Fish From Encelade, a title that sounds like something lifted from a Mothers' album.
Sometimes avant prog can be a bit dry, a bit too much of an intellectual exercise for some to take; not me, I love it, but you knew I'd say that no doubt. However, on this album by keeping things relatively short (not sweet though!) there are enough changes in pace and style to stop it becoming a mere exercise in musical proficiency.
Echoed piano and Philippe's driving almost Bonham-like drumming over a neo-Kraftewerkian synth figure make for a dance tune from a scary parallel universe on Holocene Extinction, inducing several shades of panic at the disco. More robotic-funk from Adrian's fretless bass and Franck's spidery guitar line takes the thing down, on the one. James Brown might even have approved!
Shambhala, the longest piece on the album, introduces itself like a lounge band at the end of a particularly heavy party in Valhalla. As the mess is cleared up synth player Emmanuel Pothier comes into his own with a simple but insidious melody around which the rest of the band groove away contentedly.
You might have noticed the last track is pleasantly entitled Subdeath, and its funereal slow march to the seventh ring and beyond recalls Shrub-Niggurath at their most playful. That might have been a joke! Whatever, a fittingly obsidian end to a strange but perversely enjoyable album.
Thoroughly modern in approach, always evolving and highly involving, this is a must-have album for fans of dark prog. Highly recommended.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Marcus Eaton - As If You Had Wings
I suspect that most readers, like this reviewer, will be totally ignorant of American songwriter Marcus Eaton. Surprising, as since 1999 he has released five studio album, two live albums and has opened for well known and established acts as diverse as Bob Dylan, Train, The Dave Matthews Band, Tim Reynolds, The Derek Trucks Band, John Mayer, Jewel, Counting Crows, Jason Mraz and Sheryl Crow. He is also currently working with the brilliant David Crosby on a new solo Croz album which seems to have been in the making for several years. Crosby himself had the following to say about his young collaborator: "Truthfully I think he's one of the best young singer-songwriter guys in America, maybe in the world. He's an enormously talented person. And it comes from a very, very good place. People who really listen to music, I think, will find him just a joy. He's a really brilliant writer. Brilliant musically. Brilliant lyrically. And he just plays (guitar) like God on a good day". High praise indeed.
As If You Had Wings is the latest release from Eaton and on it he is accompanied by his band, a trio with Garrett Sayers on bass and Kevin Rogers on drums. It was released in 2011 but only found its way to us late last year, probably because it, like most of Eaton's releases, is an entirely independent effort; no record company or even distributor on board to help push the albums, particularly outside of the US. Although only touching on prog in the most oblique ways, the effusive praise heaped on Eaton by Crosby is actually quite justified. Taking direction from the major singer songwriters there is quite a West Coast feel to much of the material, but updated from the sixties heyday of the genre by incorporation of many different styles and tones. The arrangements, particularly for a three-piece, are very full and the trio can certainly rock when they get the urge. I was particularly impressed by Rogers who is one of the most exciting drummers I have heard in a long time. Not flash or egotistical but solid, forceful and imaginative in his fills and rhythms - take a listen to, for example, Over You which has an instrumental ending worthy of many prog bands without any superfluous nonsense to distract from the song, or his polyrhythmic patterns on Dismantle The Machine, stunning.
And that is the essence of this album, it is all about songs. From the infectious opening of Life In Reverse, the intelligent and somewhat philosophical lyrical bent of Eleven and What's The Difference?, the funky blues on the excellent Dreams Of Flying, the mellow Weightless ballad, the flamenco-inspired Who You Are and the excellent interplay of drums, bass and guitar on You Can't Open Your Eyes. Indeed, this latter track, which closes out the album, is the highlight ending with a brilliantly succinct and enticing jam which shows that Eaton is no slouch on the electric guitar. No wonder such six-string masters as Tim Reynolds and Dave Matthews are passionate supporters.
With Eaton and his colleagues regularly mentioned as a trio on a par with the likes of Rush, Cream and The Police there is no denying the calibre of the musicianship. The album is certainly a grower, taking a while for this listener to fully appreciate what each of the songs on As If You Had Wings has to offer, but gradually the quality of what was on offer shone through. Excellent songwriting, performed excellently. Can't ask for anything more than that.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Oblivion Sun - The High Places
Tracklist: Deckard (6:35), March of the Mushroom Men (3:38), Everything (2:39), Dead Sea Squirrels (6:35), The High Places (My Eyes (6:10), Awakening (1:59), Flowers (2:31), The Rules (5:40), The Cage (3:53), Our Eyes (2:07)
Quite some years have passed since the excellent debut album, Oblivion Sun, by the band with that same name. That album was released in 2007 and it's taken them almost six year to come up with follow up. Besides some line-up changes this also must have had something to do with some health issues that Stanley Whitaker had to face. The core of Oblivion Sun was and still consists of Happy the Man members Frank Wyatt (keyboards and reeds) and Stan Whitaker (guitars and vocals) but apart from that a lot has changed and The High Places is a totally different record from the debut release. First of all the rhythm section and extra keyboard player that were present on the debut are all gone. The band is a four piece now with, next to Wyatt and Whitaker, David Hughes on bass (he replaces Dave DeMarco) and vocals and Bill Brasso (he replaces Chris Mack) on drums and percussion. The album has been produced by the band. Responsible for the mastering was none other than Happy the Man co-founder Kit Watkins! Secondly on this album there is far more room for the vocals of Whitaker and of the ten tracks on the album (the last six together form the 22 minute title track) only three tracks are instrumentals. And finally; The debut album was firmly rooted in the jazzy rock side of progressive rock while this one sits far more on the rock side of progressive rock. However despite all the changes the music still sounds familiar and recognizable as Oblivion Sun and the beautiful piano chord progressions from Wyatt remain, although his reed playing seems to be taking a bit of a step back on this album. It's still there though. There is far more room for Whitaker's guitar and there are a lot of (short) solos on this record. The rhythm section seems to have a rockier way of playing and, man, they are tight. It all makes this album sound heavier than its predecessor. Whitaker's guitar is to the fore on the very progressive March of the Mushroom Men with some beautiful Mellotron (samples) from Wyatt. Everything is an accessible short acoustic ballad sung beautifully by Wyatt that is very unlike anything that was on the debut album. Deckard and Dead Sea Squirrels are both more familiar sounding instrumental tracks, Brasso really hitting it hard on the latter. Both tracks are filled with great melodies and adventurous twists and turns.
The centre piece of the album however is the 22 minute title track comprising six parts. It opens almost like a Discipline song with the excellent My Eyes but when Wyatt starts singing it's very much Happy the Man, epecially Wind Up Doll Day Wind from Crafty Hands springing to mind. David Hughes adds some nice background vocals throughout the title track and the middle part has a fierce guitar solo. That same "Discipline" part returns throughout Awakenings and all the parts are very focused on the vocals with little room for instrumental adventures although Wyatt plays a nice Moog solo during Flowers and the middle section of The Rules shows the tightness of the rhythm section once again. Wyatt plays some beautiful piano at the beginning of The Cage after which rolling drums and Wyatt's guitar lead us into the next chapter of the track which has some bleak lyrics:
The opening melody of The High Places returns again in the concluding Our Eyes which has a hopeful ending with Wyatt and Hughes singing "Find her". The title track is a good song, but I feel an epic like this also needs some musical fireworks and instrumental sections. Both are a bit neglected in favor of all the lyrics.
Although this is a very good record I can't help but miss the exhilarating musical twists and turns that were so present on the debut album, the first two tracks of this album and Dead Sea Squirrels. Don't get me wrong I fully enjoyed this album and I think that Wyatt has a very nice and pleasant voice but there is a little bit too much emphasis on the vocals this time around.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Barock Project – Coffee in Neukölln
Tracklist: Back To You (7:16), Coffee in Neukölln (8:20), Kyrie (1:14), Fool'S Epilogue (10:43), Streets Of Berlin (7:06), Starfull Jack (6:55), Inside My Dreamer's eyes I (4:54), Inside My Dreamer's Eyes II (6:26), The Lives Of Others (11:10)
Bombastic prog rock, that's more or less what you could call the latest release of Italian proggers Barock Project. After a stunning debut and slightly less positively welcomed second release back in 2009 now comes Barock Project's third Release with the odd title Coffee In Neukölln; now what's in Neukölln to make the coffee worth drinking?
What's in a name? Well for one thing you can make the right choice, Barock Project certainly have with their huge leaning towards classical music. Let's say we hear The Enid playing together with PFM, this points towards the type of music on Coffee In Neukölln.
A resemblance to Le Orme also springs to mind. Which is not really surprising as Barock Project, like PFM and Le Orme are Italian, and also belong to the genre we call RPI - Rock Progressivo Italiano. The biggest difference is that Barock Project do not make records in their native language.
The album starts out with a few well written but nonetheless not too spectacular tracks, Back To You and the title track, Coffee in Neukölln, the latter especially reminds me a lot of '70s symphonic rock. Then after these steady opening tracks, mind you we've gone beyond 15 minutes already, things start to boil with Kyrie, a choir sings accompanied by Church organ in the tradition of old, the band continues into Fool's Epilogue which I find musically a very strong piece although I do not really like the vocal lines and the parts they are fitting. Barock Project are obviously at their best when the piano parts are almost classical as is the complete feel of the song up to 3:30 mark when it starts rocking the house with firm guitar parts joining the orchestration and heavier drums to really turn the classical into rock.
The Streets of Berlin is the next track and, surprise surprise - I never thought I would be writing this in a review of a prog rock album - this song is absolutely danceable, apart from the really easy going break with flute and piano and when that has passed it's swinging again. It's a pleasure to listen to.
Starfull Jack definitely has its roots in Jazz, with all the swing that is needed for a good swinging jazzrock tune leaning heavily on the piano and keyboard soundscapes with the jazzy drum patterns to back it up. The song is spun out a bit too much IMHO and should have ended at approximately 5 minutes instead of nearly 7.
Up next is a song divided into two separate parts, I have no clue why as it seems all the more obvious to turn it into one especially as the parts fit together. I have struggled for a while as to where I have heard the bass sound before.
The two-parter kicks off as a Pallas type song and develops into a song more like old style Genesis in the second part. The ending of the song is very sudden which is surprising, as if something is missing.
The last track on the album is the longest, The Lives Of Others begins with a softly played piano part in a jazz/blues style reminding me of a Queen song, My Meloncholy Blues. Four minutes into the song the heavier part starts with heavy drumming and a droning bass, on top of these backlines all sorts of mysterious parts come via a choir, keyboard soloing, a guitar solo too, giving the song the edges it needs as the beginning isn't all that interesting. The instrumental parts make up for this flaw at the start big time. The tiny glockenspiel at the end of the album is a nice detail.
All in all Coffee In Neukölln is an album with highs and lows, giving listening pleasure but not being all that consistent compositionally unfortunately. Luca Pancaldi has a good voice, but his vocal lines are not all that exciting to me. The lack of consistency may have something to do with the fact that Barock project are now a three piece band instead of the five piece band they were before, meaning each band member needs to put in more effort to reach the same goal.
Still, it is a nice album to have although not a must have. I will surely listen to 1 or 2 tracks in the future.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Seven Waters - Pathfinder
Tracklist: Lost in Winter (5:09), Enslaved (4:50), Curse of the Dark Moon (6:33), (The Abduction of) Europa (5:46)
Seven Waters is a Dutch progressive metal band or should I just rank them amongst the gothic metal bands that seem to flourish in The Netherlands. It seems like a patent on that label is still pending anyway.
From the eastern parts of The Netherlands yet another band emerges. Seven Waters is a female fronted four piece outfit featuring Karen Leijzer - Vocals, Michiel Leijzer - guitars, Robert Molenaar - drums and Chris van Ouwekerk - bass and backing vocals.
If you know the big Dutch prog scene and then especially the female fronted bands like Within Temptation, Epica or Delain you instantly know where to place Seven Waters as the recipe for their music is like the afore mentioned bands filled with high pitched female vocals. All arranged carefully on top of a melodic style nearing classical music. The difference that distinguishes Seven Waters from, lets say, Within Tempation is the lack of majestic keyboard soundscapes to back up the band. This to my surprise is very refreshing, the lack of the huge and ever present keyboard soundscapes is not missed.
Guitars dominate the sound, along with strong playing on the bass. I can hear people say, you said no keyboards yet the album info states Maarten Vroon on keyboards. True There are keys present, piano and others, but the use is intrinsic and inadvertently present.
This 4 track album is the debut of another band that may find its way to a wider audience, the music being arranged and produced. We will see what happens next; a full album, live performances. I will certainly try to visit a performance soon if possible.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mountain Mirrors - Asylum Acres
Tracklist: Your Angels (2:51), Dead River Co. (3:00), Full of Flies (5:03), Asylum Acres (2:40), Spell (3:06), Purgatory Chasm (1:18), Full of Flies (alternative Sandman remix) (5:05)
Mountain Mirrors are centred around the talents, both composing and performing, of Jeff Sanders, a Massachusetts multi-instrumentalist who rounds out his compositions with selected guests and friends. Asylum Acres is the sixth release by Sanders under the Mountain Mirrors name and the first since Dreadnought back in 2009. On this release Sanders sings and plays all the guitars and synthesisers and is accompanied by Steve Riley on drums, Kurt Baumer on violins and Dave DeMarco on bass (except on Spell where the bottom end is provided by Phil Rohr).
Sanders original influences lay more towards the thrash/metal end of the rock spectrum although, thankfully, he doesn't play that kind of music personally opting for what he describes as "dark, atmospheric and heavy acoustic music". This is a pretty apt description as the music is generally rather downbeat with rich baritone vocals, sombre acoustic guitars and somewhat haunting violins. Lyrically things also tend to be somewhat on the morose side, Dead River Co. being a prime example, jolly folk music this is not! This might be starting to sound somewhat negative so, let's look at some of the positive aspects. Although there are not a lot of the traditional prog excesses on display, this brief album (more of an EP really) is engaging and does reward repeated listening. The sparseness, almost barren at times, and unclutteredness of the arrangements, for example at the end of Full Of Flies where it is left to the violin to provide a rather unorthodox 'solo', is quite refreshing and the mix, by Johnny Geib, is very clear, with, for example, the separation between multiple violin lines on title track being crystal clear.
However, it is the more conventional and fuller Spell that is the highlight for me. The addition of electric guitars adds another dimension and again the mix is exemplary with the acoustic and electric guitars coming through in great clarity, even during the latter's solo. This track is nicely sung as well, although the abrupt ending was rather a shock and disappointment. Purgatory Chasm is a lovely electric/acoustic guitar instrumental that is perfect soundtrack music. Recently, sanders has posted a free re-mix of Full Of Flies on his website and Bandcamp page. This version enhances comparisons with Damnation-era Opeth and is worth checking out if you want to get a better idea of the type of music on offer.
So something a bit different from my normal fare and I feel all the better for it; variety really is the spice of life! Opeth have shown there is a market amongst prog fans for this type of music and I have enjoyed my brief exposure to Mountain Mirrors more than I have to some recent efforts by the more famous group. It would be good to see recognition for someone who did not have the name of Stephen Wilson attached to it.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
The Room - Open Fire
Tracklist: Flesh and Bone (5:10), A Casual Believer (5:40), 16 Tonnes (6:45), Screaming Through The Noise (5:44), A Multitude of Angels (6:06), In The Shadows (9:28), Behind The Silence (3:59), The Spark (7:12), ICU (5:59)
After one of my DPRP colleagues gave short shrift to a previously released single taken from this album, it was with an open mind and heart that I approached Open Fire.
Just to recap, The Room is a brand new band which specialises in melodic rock with prog influences. The line-up comprises guitarist Steve Anderson (Sphere³/Grey Lady Down), keyboards player Steve Checkley (Trigger), drummer Andrew Rae (Legacy), Andy Rowe (Firebird/Prime Cut) and vocalist Martin Wilson (Legacy/Grey Lady Down).
Signed to Melodic Revolution Records in October last year, Open Fire is their debut album released two months later in December.
The sound of a helicopter starts the opening track, Flesh and Bone, which is probably one of the best songs on the album with an insistent beat, hooky chorus line and chunky riffs pushing along a strong melody over which Wilson's vocals fly high.
Though more rock than prog, there is no mistaking from the off who their main musical influences are as this song is full of characteristic Saga flourishes from Anderson's flighty guitar and Wilson's Michael Sadler-like phrasing.
Then straight into A Casual Believer, one of the tracks on the single, again with a very Saga-esque tinkling keyboards intro after which it canters along at a decent pace driven by Rae's drums after which the keyboards return towards the end along with a sonorous guitar.
Next track, 16 Tonnes, is more downbeat and lacks some of the interesting elements which defined the first two tracks. It takes a long time to get going before it reaches some added features such as vocal harmonies, sustained guitar riffing and an insistent piano motif.
Checkley's poignant piano lifts the curtain on Screaming Through The Noise, a slower and more measured track that is distinguished by a lovely expressive guitar solo from Anderson. Next comes Multitude of Angels, the other track on the single with Anderson this time channelling Alex Lifeson rather than Saga's Ian Crichton, the rhythm and chorus melody putting me in mind of Rush's Marathon.
In The Shadows is the album's magnum opus, starting with the sound of footsteps, a thunderstorm and a door closing before it opens up into a spooky tale about those demons which lurk in the darkness. Even with the added effects of "radio" voices (another occasional Saga trademark) and several changes of tempo, it would have benefitted from a more dramatic setting to convey the story better.
The shortest track, Behind The Silence is one of the most compelling with just piano and voice telling the story of young love, and again, Wilson sounds amazingly like Michael Sadler in his delivery.
The Spark is one of the most innovative songs which flows along nicely with a lovely lilting melody underpinned with subtle drums. This is the one track which does point a way forward for them because it has so many promising elements contained within it such as Rowe's bass rising to the fore, a lovely synth run from Checkley and a very polished vocal outing from Wilson, whose clear, distinctive voice really does come into its own here.
Unfortunately, this is followed by the closing track, ICU, which is heavier than the other tracks and is the one song which was not easy listening because of the mix on the chorus line which really sounds discordant.
Overall, Open Fire is not unpleasant; however nor is it groundbreaking in either content or style. There are three excellent songs, Flesh and Bone, Behind the Silence and The Spark, which really stand out on their own individual merits.
Perhaps being a Saga fan helped me to see where their main influences lie and there is definitely an over-reliance on the great Canadian band in informing much of the content of Open Fire. However, that's not a bad place to start and The Room should really start looking to their own strengths, which do shine through intermittently here, to use as the basis for their second album.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10