Karda Estra - The Seas and the Stars
Tidal (1:16), Lighthouse (5:15), Andromeda Approaches! (3:58), The Big Freeze (2:11), The Sleepers of Gliese (6:07), Return to the Singularity (1:20)
2015 was a bumper year even for a prolific outfit such as Karda Estra, witnessing the release of no less than three recordings: the full-length album Strange Relations, and two EPs, The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds. In a musical climate where the wise maxim "less is more" often seems to be forgotten, Wileman's two EPs amply prove that an artist does not need to cram 80 minutes of music on a CD in order to deliver the goods. Both EPs - barely 20 minutes of music each - are like perfectly-formed small plates that will not cloy your appetite, but rather leave you wanting more.
While there are enough differences between the EPs to keep things interesting, Karda Estra's trademark Gothic, cinematic flavour permeates both.
Released in June 2015, The Sea and the Starsis a hauntingly melodic effort, with strong folk overtones. A concept of sorts, the EP revolves around an apocalyptic sci-fi theme, the collision between the Andromeda galaxy and our own observed from an empty shoreline - hence the title. The bare-bones lineup includes, besides Wileman (who plays the bulk of the instruments), his wife Ileesha on vocals, and Amy Fry on reeds.
The EP's overarching theme, which evokes humankind's loneliness in the vastness of the universe, is masterfully emphasised by the haunting instrumental and vocal textures, and each of the six tracks paints a picture that lingers in the listener's mind. In just one minute, opener Tidal, true to its title, builds up a sense of tension that then ebbs away. The slow, beautiful movement of piano and glockenspiel in Lighthouse, rarefied yet perfectly melodic, is infused by the clarinet's evocative sound. The pastoral Andromeda Approaches! introduces Ileesha Wileman's pure, haunting voice in its ethereal texture, backed by mournful guitar and the gentle chime of the glockenspiel, while The Big Freeze, sparse and mysterious, treads into experimental territory with its rather unsettling electronic effects.
The longest track on the EP at six minutes, The Sleepers of Gliese also avails itself of Ileesha's melodious, wistful tones, richly complemented by all the instruments, in a heady fusion of chamber and folk. Then the short Return to the Singularity wraps things up in atmospheric, cinematic fashion.
Like all of Karda Estra's work, The Seas and the Stars needs to be experienced unhurriedly, concentrating on the music rather than letting it run in the background. Fans of modern progressive folk/psychedelic bands such as Espers or Firefly Burning are strongly advised to check this out.
Raffaella Berry: 8 out of 10
Karda Estra - Future Sounds
September Song (2:05), Season's Greet (3:55), Niall (5:08), Young Crescent (5:52), Yondo (5:20), Future Sounds (3:10)
The EP's longest track, Young Crescent, juxtaposes creepy, spacey sounds with more melodic interplay between piano and harpsichord, its many pauses and reverb effects skilfully creating suspense. The title-track, placed at the end of the EP, builds on the sinister atmosphere of Yondo, though toning things down a bit and developing also in terms of melody.
Strategically located in the middle of the EP, the only track featuring Paul Sears bears the name of his deceased son, Niall, and is something that resonates with me on a personal level. Though I had never met that gifted young man (killed in action in Afghanistan a few days after his 23rd birthday), I was there on that beautiful July day in 2012 when we bid him farewell - a poignant occasion whose memory has remained with me for almost four years. Niall is a slow, stately composition driven by gentle glockenspiel and electric piano, then turning more assertive, almost gritty in its second half, when the guitar takes the lead. Sears' subtle, understated drumming orchestrates the muted changes of pace of a lovely piece of music that manages to be elegiac without descending into moroseness.
Though Wileman has been releasing music under the Karda Estra handle since 1998, the English ensemble is still one of the best-kept secrets of the modern progressive rock scene, and fully deserves to be known better. Needless to say, both EPs are highly recommended to fans of eclectic, atmospheric prog, and a foray into Karda Estra's back catalogue will also yield satisfying results.
Raffaella Berry: 8 out of 10
Magma - Slag Tanz
Imëhntösz - Alerte! (2:19), Slag (3:03), Dümb (2:57), Vers la Nuit (3:30), Dümblaë - Le silence des mondaes (2:58), Zü Zaïn! (2:16), Slag Tanz (2:29), Wohldünt (1:23)
Assuming they need no introduction, the collective who brought to life masterpieces such as Mëkanïk Dëstruktïw Kömmandöh or Köhntarkösz had to hibernate in the 80s, but when Vander revived the band the following decade, they were back for good and better than ever, producing two towering albums which, IMHO, are even more impressive than their seminal works of the 70s; do yourself a favour and get 2004's K.A and 2009's Ëmëhntëhtt-Ré, as both are simply mindblowing.
Nowadays, it seems that the EP is the format of choice for Magma, and this trend begun in 2012 with Félicité Thösz which, as its title implies, offered a somewhat mellower incarnation of the band. Then 2014's Rïah Sahïltaahk offered a, dare I say, pointless remake (or reboot) of one of their classic pieces, originally included in the 1001º Centigrades album of 1971. After these "detours", Slag Tanz is a return to a more, in Magma's terms, "conventional" approach, in the sense that its sound features their trademark blend of jazz, contemporary and rock with an aggressive, menacing and intense approach, often resembling a continuous trance-inducing climax. Simplistically marketed as a "jazz metal symphony" by their label, this newest EP is nevertheless a slight disappointment to my ears. All the usual suspects are present and correct: Vander's furious drumming, Philippe Bussonnet's growling basslines, James MacGaw's sneaky guitar, the magic touch of Benoit Alziary's insidious vibraphone...
...but there's something missing, and that is intensity; or is it subtlety? I know it sounds contradictory, but there's a lack of dynamics that affects both the climatic moments and the quieter ones. The stage is where Magma's music truly comes alive, and that's specially true with this particular piece of music, which sounded both relentless and mesmerising when I saw them play it live in Carcassonne in the summer of 2013.
Although there's a lot of good music to be enjoyed in this 21-minute (subdivided, though, into shorter sections) suite, it somehow is only an "average" rendition of the piece and, in consequence, the work of a slightly lesser incarnation of the band. It also doesn't help that Hervé Aknin's vocals are, well, definitely an acquired taste (even for Magma); he's definitely not the best vocalist the band has had, and one can only imagine how this EP would have sounded with Klaus Blaskiz's vocals on it.
So, although it is worth adding Slag Tanz to your collection, it is by no means the most memorable offering by this legendary band, and definitely not the place where to start your trip into their fascinating world. Try the albums mentioned above: you're in for a treat.
Héctor Gómez: 7 out of 10
Peter Matuchniak - A Live Destination
London Vibe (3:29), Lionheart Betrayed (2:40), Sandcastles (2:53), Across the Pond (4:35), Destiny (2:59), Product (8:29), Spies (4:31), Oyster Club (6:18), Tunnel (2:42), Go Fast (1:57), Go Slow (2:23), Island (7:42), Reprisal (5:08), Chaos (2:11), Victory (6:53), Landscape Burning (11:01)
The album starts with five tracks from Matuchniak's first album Uncover Me, which provide an introduction not only to the show but also as to how a London boy ended up in California, with Sandcastles incorporating parts of a jazz tune that, if Matuchniak is to believed, was instrumental (excuse the pun!) in driving the decision for leaving England's shore.
What follows next is the whole of the Destiny album played in sequence with tracks flowing seamlessly together. The quality of the musicianship is very impressive and the band is very tight, sounding like they are touring regulars, rather than just performing the occasional one-off gigs. The set finishes with the lengthy Landscape Burning, the split track that opened and closed the Uncover Me album, here joined together for the performance.
In essence, the live versions are not that dramatically different from the studio versions, although there is perhaps a greater flow to proceedings. Matuchniak is a genial host and his song introductions are interesting, mildly witty and to the point. What is great is that this really is a band performing and not just a solo artist with accompanying musicians. Wisely, the majority of the vocals are shared between Bonino, Zahn, Connor and Alyssa M who obviously inherited the singing gene from her mother! Perhaps a trifle unfair to her father, he is not a bad vocalist per se, but he tends to be a bit flat (as in unemotional) and when compared with the capabilities of the rest of the band there is no comparison. Alyssa, if she so desires, could have a great future as a singer as she is very assured and confident on stage and really does have an amazing voice. The musicianship cannot be faulted and I am sure that the band must really kick out some jams in rehearsals!
The album is available for a very modest price from Matuchniak's website, but unfortunately the film of the show, which Peter kindly sent me a download of does not appear to be currently available. This is a great shame as I found watching the concert added a new dimension, which is something considering I normally prefer listening to live recordings rather than watching them! Perhaps if you ask nicely Peter may sell you a download!
All-in-all a fine release and if you enjoyed either or both of the studio albums this is a nice addition to the collection.
Mark Hughes: 8 out of 10
Billy Sherwood - Collection
Drone Deciphers (6:01), Seeing Through The Walls (10:54), Call (5:51), On Impact (7:57), Dying Breed (4:13), The Recurring Dream (7:26), What Was The Question? (7:07) I Hung My Head (5:14), Dark To Light (4:59)
The aptly titled Collection takes one song apiece from each of his seven solo albums, which include the debut The Big Peace (1999) and the most recent Divided By One. These are 'solo' albums in every sense of the word, in addition to bass, vocals and production Sherwood also plays guitars, synths and drums. What's more, his wife Michi is responsible for the artwork and photography.
For anyone that's familiar with Sherwood's work elsewhere (particularly his influence on Yes' 1997 Open Your Eyes album) the songs and production here will come as no surprise. In many ways they epitomise the American style of cool, radio friendly, AOR flavoured prog. This is most obvious in the multi-layered vocals, adding a rather synthetic gloss to his singing. And despite the time span covered here, the songs could have easily been recorded during the same session, indicative of his consistent (some might say samey) style.
Drone Deciphers, taken from The Art Of Survival (2012), is a surprisingly low-key but atmospheric opener, with a relaxed rhythm curiously reminiscent of Tears For Fears' sublime Woman In Chains. Seeing Through The Walls is easily the best song on his third album At The Speed Of Life (2008), although at 11 minutes it does outstay its welcome a little.
On the other hand, the funky Call, from his debut album, is a tighter, more disciplined offering, whilst Dying Breed (from 2010's Oneirology album) brings to mind the laid back, west-coast feel of The Eagles, with superb acoustic guitar picking.
Sherwood's playing is faultless throughout this collection with guitar, drums and bass particularly strong during What Was The Question? (the title song of his 2011 album). It's not hard to see why he's an essential part of the current Yes line-up.
The album concludes with two previously unreleased tracks. For the first, he follows in the unlikely footsteps of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen with a creditable cover of Sting's elegy to the wild west I Hung My Head, whilst the final tune, the upbeat Dark To Light, is one of Sherwood's own featuring a very convincing electric sitar solo.
I'm not convinced this collection includes the best songs Sherwood's solo albums have to offer but then again that's a matter of personal taste. Either way, it provides a fair, if not especially compressive, representation of his work to date.
Geoff Feakes: 6.5 out of 10
Billy Sherwood - Divided By One
On Impact (7:58), The Scene Comes Alive (4:17), No Stone Unturned (4:58), Between Us (4:24), Divided by One (4:21), Sequence of Events (6:15), Sphere of Influence (5:00), Here for You (5:44), Constellation Codex (5:18), End of an Era (8:11)
A man of many talents, as well as his work with Yes, Sherwood fronted US proggers World Trade from 1987 to 1995, partnered Squire as one half of Conspiracy from 2000 onwards, formed two Yes spin-off bands (Circa in 2006 and Yoso in 2009) and has produced several tribute albums to the likes of Pink Floyd, amongst others. As well as all that, he has a string of solo recordings to his name.
Divided By One is his seventh solo outing and, in keeping with its predecessors (and in stark contrast to Citizen), it's very much a one-man band affair with Sherwood responsible for all instruments, vocals, compositions and production. The songs are mostly around the five-minute length, bookended by two eight-minute tracks that will perhaps be of most interest to prog aficionados.
The opening song, On Impact, is a tad disjointed in places and doesn't perhaps justify its playing time but there is some fine instrumental work (especially bass) with Sherwood's trademark multi-layered vocals to the fore. The spiky intro to the concluding End of an Era is reminiscent of Yes' otherwise best forgotten Shock to the System, but settles into a fine melody with massed harmonies and soaring lead guitar leaving an impression.
In between, the title song, Divided By One, with its pseudo-classical style keys and catchy chorus stands out, as does the rhythmic Sphere of Influence, which would have made a fine instrumental.
Also of note are two ballad-like songs, Between Us and Here for You, which provide a more relaxed and welcome change of pace. The psychedelic imagery of Constellation Codex, on the other hand, clearly owes a debt to The Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows.
Divided By One sits comfortably alongside Sherwood's previous albums and although for me his songs and arrangements can be a tad samey at times, here there is more variety and tonal colour than I recall from his previous efforts. As such, this is as good a place as any to start if you've yet to sample his solo work.
Geoff Feakes: 7 out of 10
S.O.T.E. - Chosen
Lucid Dream (6:22), Head the Call (5:03), The One (11:13), Sacrificial Lamb (6:12), Heirs of the Earth (5:27), The Final Gain (7:10), Perfect Strike (5:07), Lament-Double Standard (9:17), Heed the Call Revisited (5:58), Sort the Mess (6:01), Power and Glory (9:22)
In the Netherlands, Ayreon (Arjan Lucassen) is probably the "master of rock opera", but I think S.O.T.E. haven't done a bad job either! The style of their previous albums is still very recognisable with the guitar playing by Leijdekker still in the leading role. He has a characteristic voice that might not appeal to everyone but it didn't bother me too much. and I think it blends well with the music.
S.O.T.E. certainly know how to play and the rhythm section (Boer and de Vries) don't play the easiest of melodies. Some of the compositions are in fact not always easy to follow and that might be a problem for some listeners. The drummer, by the way, has recently been replaced by Mark van der Werf.
The orchestral parts at times remind me of movie soundtracks and really sound great. The album contains both short and long tracks and the story is about the dream of a man in a pub with a positive idea about the overpopulation in the world, that turns into a nightmare of power and manipulation. There is lots of variation on Chosen, from calmly orchestral to heavy rock with growling vocals and distorted voices.
It's a daring effort by these Dutch guys and most of the album sounds very convincing. I probably would have liked more distinctive voices for the different characters. In that area, I think they should listen to the rock operas by Ayreon, Clive Nolan and also compatriots Kayak, who released Cleopatra-The Crown Of Isis in 2014. But this is without doubt an album worth listening to and I recommend all readers to give this album a try. If you like rock-opera this is certainly no disappointment.
Peter Swanson: 7.5 out of 10
Devin Townsend Project - Devin Townsend Presents: Ziltoid, Live at the Royal Albert Hall [CD / DVD]
Z² (3:48), From Sleep Awake (3:47), Ziltoidian Empire (5:50), War Princess (8:57), Deathray (4:43), March of the Poozers (6:30), Wandering Eye (3:40), Earth (7:38), Ziltoid Goes Home (6:38), Through the Wormhole (3:37), Dimension Z (8:10), Namaste (3:57), Night (4:58), Deadhead (7:49), Earth Day (9:36), Christeen (5:05), Supercrush! (5:26), Kingdom (7:40), Lucky Animals (3:31), Heatwave (5:41), Funeral (7:20), Bastard (10:45), The Death of Music (10:23), Universal Flame (15:19)
Please note that I did not receive the DVD for this review, so am only reviewing the audio version, a hefty three discs worth of live material.
Inevitably, the first disc is the entire second instalment of the Ziltoid Saga, the so called Dark Matters disc. More than discs two and three, missing the visual presentation here is a bit disappointing for me. I was compelled to check out as many YouTube videos as I could, for my own enjoyment, and to hopefully allow me to give a more informed review.
The clocks tick and the choirs fire up as Z² starts off the proceedings. The narrator enters and delivers an alternative message than the one on the disc - a more puerile, toilet humour based one, which Townsend seems to revel in. It's amusing, but I do think maybe personally his puerile banter between songs maybe detracts slightly from the quality of the show. As ever though, he is on great form, and clearly overjoyed by what he surely considers a privilege to bring his obscure music to the hallowed halls of Royal Albert.
A song by song description isn't required here - it's the whole Dark Matter discs played from start to finish with no breaks. Musically, there's no deviation from the album, save for a few different speeches by the narrator. It's note for note perfect, the playing is spot on by the whole band and the sound quality is great - no mean feat given the sheer density and technicality of Townsend's music.
Special mention must be given to Dominique Lenore Persi, fulfilling the role she recorded on the studio album as the War Princess. Townsend has once again uncovered some top talent, and her vocal performance is exquisite. I'll be checking out her band, Stolen Babies, for sure.
I'm sure the DVD would greatly add to the enjoyment of this segment of the concert greatly. To see the War Princess in full regalia, on stage Poozers, as well as the huge video screens showing, of course, Ziltoid, Captain Spectacular and the narrator. I must say that some of the lengthy passages of narration and dialogue on their own can be a bit annoying, and I definitely felt that with the studio version, not helped by an incredibly cheesy storyline. But seeing it all acted out I'm sure it would make a lot more sense.
The close of the Dark Matter album signals a break in the evening. The remainder of the set is a 'voted for by the fans' run down of classics from the length and breadth of Townsend's solo career (so no Strapping Young Lad here, I'm afraid). More recent tracks such as Supercrush and Lucky Animals stand up against concert staples such as Kingdom and Earth Day. Deadhead from Accelerated Evolution is so good, I always thought it was a huge track. Townsend's wife, Tracey, who was in the crowd, must have felt awesome pride for her man during this song.
Heatwave, from Epiclouder is a bit of a low point for me. Maybe it's just my taste. It does show yet another side to Townsend that he has been exploring more of late - his country side, which has culminated in the interesting Casualties of Cool project. The show builds towards an epic climax, with a couple of tunes that Townsend probably hasn't played for years, if ever, in a live setting. Bastard is suitably massive, but The Death of Music is the real treat. I always loved this song, and it works incredibly well here in this live version, being a lot more downbeat and sparse than much of his oeuvre.
The show closes with the suitable party atmosphere song Universal Flame from the 'other' Ziltoid disc. It's a great feel-good number, Devin style, and a perfect closer to this celebration of Townsend's fantastic music. For any fan, this album/DVD is a must that won't disappoint.
Matt George: 9 out of 10
Toxic Smile - Farewell
With Farewell, they turn their back on metal and provide us with a never-heard-before variation of heavy neo prog. But it's not like we hear a new band on the album. The difference mainly is that they've almost completely put aside the guitar riffing and based the new material on keyboards, while the guitar has a minor role. Even though the guitar has a lesser aggressive tone, which fits perfectly to this new approach, it is responsible for a couple of heavy outbursts and sinister moments and as a pace setter for faster parts of this one-track album. And this track is the other game changer. Farewell is just one epic track, and its concept is about a man who decides to go blind in order to feel the world and its things with all other senses, in lieu of looking at its ugly surfaces and relying on the eyes as the only sense used. It is the conceptual writing that makes such a difference, as it frees the band from conventional song structures and makes them follow the storytelling structure and its emotional lead instead.
The outcome is incredible, never had I thought that Arnold has such an endless stream of creativity. The music is firmly woven of many many ideas, melodies, arpeggios, harmony changes, highs and lows, happy and mellow, soft and aggressive moments, and one new idea hunts the next throughout all 42 minutes.
It is absolutely impossible to become bored with this piece. Keyboardist Arnold and guitarist Uwe Reinholz work hand in hand to push from one moment to the next, while the keys always have the lead. The rhythm section rides a tour de force of odd time signatures and syncopations, and they manage to make it sound effortless and remain fully in style. In fact it is amazing to see how the two Roberts (Brenner on bass and Eisfeldt on drums) can handle a neo prog outfit as ingeniously as they do in prog metal. Larry B.'s vocals sit perfectly on top of it. He has already a timbre close to Peter Gabriel, which fits this new style even better than before, and his melodies are purely epic.
The only thing I am unhappy with is the flimsy lyrics. While the music provides us with a narrative rollercoaster that gives us so many ideas what could be going on while hearing it, the lyrics do just plan nothing. They simply repeat the idea of the concept in a couple of variations, with no story told, no conclusion and no philosophy provided. And even doing just that, it is linguistically bald. But in the end it's good that there are some, otherwise we couldn't wave in those epic melodies.
Raimond Fischbach: 8 out of 10
Yojo - Yojo
Sundiver (5:55), VHS (6:26), Pterodactyl (5:28), Captain Kirk Had a Bad Day (4:20), Waltz (4:16), Alien (8:21), Aftermath (5:26), Double Henry (4:21), Rough Sleeper (8:18)
It features busy drumming, some very tasteful trumpet and unusual guitar playing. There's keyboards in the mix, too, somewhere, but it's the guitar and trumpet that dominate the sound.
When the trumpet is in full flow is when the music is at its best. It's free, smooth, and perfect evening jazz music. When the guitar dominates, however, it goes a little bit more experimental, and detracts from the overall experience.
Sundiver starts nicely enough, although the guitar doesn't always work as well as it could.
Pterodactyl is a stand out. It grooves along, courtesy of the wonderful trumpet, a little in a Mark Isham vein. When the guitar comes in, there's a bit more of an aggressive feel, not dissimilar to Porcupine Tree, however, it's fleeting, before we're into a section that wouldn't sound out of place on a Steven Wilson album. However, again, it's fleeting, as we're off into a more laid-back jazz-fusion zone.
But it's a great track that shows when Yojo aren't trying to be experimental is when the music works best.
The strangely titled Captain Kirk Had a Bad Day is more of the same. And there's not a Star Trek sound in earshot.The stuttering Waltz is similar, but again dominated by Alexey Gorshkov's sublime trumpet, until the guitar takes over and the mood gets a bit lost before Gorshkov rescues it again at the very end.
The overly-long Alien tries too hard to be an improvised piece in the image of early Weather Report. It's all over the place, and quite easily the album's best candidate for the skip button. The spoken word at the beginning of Aftermath serves little purpose and distracts from the music. Double Henry is a bit more uptempo and far more leans to the rock side of things, but just when it's getting going, the tempo gets lost. And it never comes back on the closing track, which goes from pedestrian to phrenetic, with the once sublime trumpet screeching and wailing as the track loses its way completely, in spite of the somewhat out-of-place Barack Obama sound clip.
Some of the tighter moments, mainly when the trumpet is the lead instrument, are really impressive, but the momentum is too often lost. It's decent enough jazz, at times, but it lacks a real sense of purpose or the variety to make it outstanding. It genre hops a little too much and that causes a bit of frustration.
But, there's more than enough promise to suggest that, in time, Yojo could fine tune their sound, and develop into a quite special fusion band. They're just not there yet.
Jim Cornall: 6 out of 10