Damanek - On Track
Nanabohzo and the Rainbow (7:48), Long Time Shadow Falls (7:47), The Cosmic Score (5:56), Believer-Redeemer (5:48), Oil Over Arabia (5:33), Big Parade (4:15), Madison Blue (3:12), Dark Sun (13:43)
The quality of the performances by the guest participants and group members, ensures that this is an album that often delights and rarely disappoints. With no disrespect meant to the players that have accompanied Manning in his various solo projects over the years; the talents of Marek Arnold on saxes and clarinet, Dan Marsh on the bass and Sean Timms on the keyboard make up the core members of Damanek and have been able to raise and interpret Manning's creative muse to another level.
Stephen Dundon of Molly Bloom provides some flute parts on Madison Blue. His subtle contribution adds an extra elegance to this stunningly beautiful tune. Dundon has been a frequent contributor to Manning's live band and has also contributed to his recorded output over the years.
The longest piece on the album, Dark Sun, features Uif Reinhardt on drums and Phideaux adds some vocal parts to good effect. Other guest players also leave their mark upon the album, including Brody Green (drums), Tim Irrgang (percussion), Antonio Vittozzi and Luke Machin (guitars) and Nick Magus on keyboards.
Marek Arnold's contribution stands out, and is one of the album's most attractive features. His ensemble playing embellishes proceedings and his distinctive solo parts leave a rich and highly polished sheen. Arnold furnishes On Track with a unique and identifiable instrumental voice; one that complements Guy Manning's earnest vocal style. His expressive reed work is a pivotal part of many of the compositions.
The contribution of Luke Machin is as equally rewarding. On the occasions, where his idiosyncratic and eloquent guitar style breaks through and comes fully to the fore, the album takes on a distinctly more muscular tone.
On Track is an album that should appeal to those who appreciate melodic songs that have a recognisable structure. There are numerous opportunities within the carefully constructed framework, provided by Manning's hook-laden tunes, for instrumental parts to emerge. The lyrical content of the album is successfully offset by a colourful palette of sounds. The instrumentalists of the band provide a consistent backdrop, that complements and on occasions accentuates the high quality of Manning's songwriting. This creates an inviting musical embrace that is hard to shun. The tunes provide ample warmth to relax, sit back and bask in. Conversely, there are times when the players, combined with Manning's thoughtful crooning, are able to create a warning-mood that emits a cold, slate-grey shadow that is difficult to ignore.
The contrast and ultimately successful resolution between Manning's song-based approach and a range of impressive instrumental passages is probably the most significant component, of what makes this rewarding release ultimately so interesting and enjoyable.
On Track contains eight heartfelt tunes which relate to a range of issues that are unflinchingly relevant to the 21st century. Pithy lyrics and wry observations about the state of the planet, convey a variety of emotions, including, despair, frustration and hope.
Damanek's fine album is sure to please a varied audience. Sweeping keyboard parts, rhythmic interludes and moving guitar solos are incorporated into many of the compositions. Many prog fans are likely to be enthralled by the musical package that is on offer. The other constituent parts that make up this release, including recording quality, art work and sleeve notes, are all excellent and play their part in making this an attractive album.
The cleverly-crafted tunes incorporate numerous changes of mood and shifts in tempo, whilst retaining a recognisable structure that is easy on the ear, and memorable for the mind. This is without question, a major achievement, and one that is rarely done so successfully. For many this will be On Track's most important selling point.
I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the tunes on offer, but on a personal level, I felt that the repetitive nature of a number of the choruses meant that they had a potential to outstay their welcome. Luckily, the sheer beauty and attractive nature of those melodies, meant that this potential was rarely realised. It is somewhat ironic that one of the album's most appealing qualities, is arguably an aspect that some could perceive as a weakness.
If you are irritated by repetition, then there is a possibility that the choral elements of tunes such as Nanabohzo and the Rainbow, Long Time Shadow Falls, Believer-Redeemer, and The Big Parade may grate and scrape upon your bones before they conclude or fade to nothing.
Nevertheless, tunes such as, Long Time Shadow Falls, Believer–Redeemer and Oil over Arabia work well in other ways. The instrumental sections in Long Time Shadow Falls and Oil over Arabia are genuinely captivating.
Believer-Redeemer and Oil Over Arabia improbably and suavely wear a vocal approach reminiscent of the crooning, smooth, sweet-ear candy style of George Benson in the 80s. Manning has rarely sung as well, and his vocal performance throughout the album, and particularly in the delightful Madison Blue, is wonderfully effective.
The highlight of the album is probably Dark Sun, and it concludes this brooding and totally absorbing album in a fitting way. It is a pensive and reflective piece that excels lyrically. The complex arrangement is superbly executed by the whole band. The evocative chorus that lies at the heart of the piece, has a menacing power that is accentuated by the excellent ensemble playing, chunky guitar parts and raft of solos that accompany it. In this tune, the chorus acts as a focal point and works extremely well. On this occasion, it is more than able to hold its own, and is a perfect tool for maintaining tension and interest. It offers an discernible structure and a jumping off point for a variety of musical ideas to be explored.
As the piece evolves, the vivid imagery of the chorus has the impact and long-lasting power to remain embedded in the mind. It lingers like the memory of a fragrant bouquet, as a series of instrumental interludes make their presence felt, to transport the piece to an even higher level. Manning's crisp and personable delivery is able to convey his worldly observations in a manner which invites the listener to respond. The refrain at the mid-point of the tune- which signposts a change of mood when Guy plaintively warbles "someone else's sadness someone else's pain", is simply magnificent. This poignant interlude is both profound and touching, and rates alongside In My Life as the most emotionally engaging and compelling music that Manning has ever composed.
Overall, On Track is a highly satisfying album that has a number of outstanding qualities. It will doubtless be reassuring for some readers, that On Track does not contain impenetrable experimentation and unpredictable improvisation. On the contrary, it unpretentiously contains a number of finely crafted tunes that are accessible, yet are able to hold and maintain a listener's attention. These are sung with genuine passion and played with much skill and panache. I am confident that it will appeal to many DPRP readers. I therefore, have no hesitation in recommending this very enjoyable release.
Owen Davies: 9 out of 10
Gungfly - On Her Journey To The Sun
Of The Orb (10:43), On Her Journey To The Sun (5:00), He Held An Axe (4:49), My Hero (7:46), If You Fall, Pt. 1 (3:09), Polymixia (11:38), Over My Eyes (4:39), Old Demons Die Hard (6:56), Keith (The Son Of Sun) (5:32), The River Of Sadness (12:02), All A Dream (2:21)
Although going under a band name, in reality this is largely an outlet for the prolific Sjöblom, who since 2006 has been the main composer behind some 14 albums, which doesn't include his contributions to three albums by Big Big Train. On Her Journey To The Sun doesn't skimp on running time either, coming in at just a handful of seconds under 75 minutes, which although good value is, in my opinion, to the detriment of the album. Overall, the result seems to lack focus, meanders a bit and could do with some pruning. Sure, there are lots of ideas and plenty of melodies, and even some quite sublime moments, but to my ears the whole things doesn't really gel. For example, the opener, Of The Orb, doesn't really justify its near eleven-minute running time. A Gentle Giant-ish section seems to be shoe-horned into the piece, and the guitar 'doodle' is inserted too many times.
Likewise, on the other longer tracks one does get a 'prog by numbers' impression, with a widdly keyboard solo here, a big climatic section there, and a strange bit between the two, which doesn't help the flow. The track My Hero is a good example.
The shorter tracks tend to work better, Over My Eyes being the pick of the bunch, with it's gorgeous string accompaniment. If You Fall part 1 also has its moments. Old Demons Die Hard is not to my taste, being all over the place with a distracting lyrical excess, and I fail to see the purpose of the over-loud telephone ring, which is at best distracting, and at worst annoying. Some redemption is granted by a nice guitar solo.
When things are held more in-check, as on Keith (The Son Of Sun) the result is much more enjoyable. There is a more harmonious feel and the album ends on the best of the long tracks, The River Of Sadness, which ironically, is rather jolly in places, particularly the accordion and piano interlude.
All A Dream is a spoken word piece, set against a dreamy piano setting, and is rather excellent, although I am reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey and keep expecting to hear the immortal line: "Oh my god, it's full of stars"!! There is a nice touch in that the closing lyric of the album, is the same as the opening, brings it all to a conclusion.
Although to some it may seem that I have been excessively harsh, it is partly because I thought the first two Gungfly albums were something a bit special and original, whereas On Her Journey To The Sun seems to lack that certain something. It may grow on me with time, but there are definitely other Sjöblom albums that I would reach for first.
Mark Hughes: 6 out of 10
Pendragon - Masquerade 20 [DVD]
The Masquerade Overture (3:05), As Good as Gold (7:28), Paintbox (8:18), The Pursuit of Excellence (2:31), Guardian of My Soul (12:56), The Shadow (9:42), Master of Illusion (15:53), King of the Castle (5:00), Schizo (7:29), Beautiful Soul (7:21), Faces of Light (6:17), Nostradamus (4:11), Explorers of the Infinite (10:59), Come Home, Jack (11:16), This Green and Pleasant Land (11:48), Breaking the Spell (13:05), Indigo (12:40), bonus material
So it was a logical thing to take the 20th birthday of this iconic album to the road, and to do the complete album live. And it was also quite logical to record it for eternity in the Teatr Slaski im. Stanislawa Wyspianskiego in Katowice, Poland, as the audience there is always very receptive and enthusiastic while witnessing a Pendragon gig. The quality of previous DVDs recorded here were quite good and the personnel costs are rather low. So it was quite logical that I expected another decent Pendragon DVD, but it has proved to be far better than "decent".
First the few critical remarks on this release. Why the reception of a band is left out of the audio mix is a rather usual, yet no less irritating habit of DVD producers. Unfortunately this DVD is no exception. As the last sounds of the opera-like title track emerge, and as the band enters the stage, the whole theatre applaudes, screams, waves and yells but nothing of this is heard. That single moment makes you feel you are witnessing a real live gig.
Another rather irritating aspect of the film, is the use of a hand-held camera filming from the audience towards the stage. The idea is nice (you're seeing the band as if you're standing in the audience) but the pictures are unstable and grainy and thus far inferior to the pictures taken by multiple cameras on stage. Lastly the energy in the gig flows away a bit after Nostradamus, when two beautiful, yet rather slow and quiet songs off their latest album, Men Who Climb Mountains are performed.
But these are the only things I don't particularly like about this release, and there is much, almost too much, to counteract these slight downfalls. The band plays amazingly well and is also having a lot of fun on stage, even though they have played some of these tracks so many times already. New drummer Jan-Vincent Velazco, the third drummer since Fudge Smith left in 2006 (why is it that some bands seem to have so much trouble to keep their drummer aboard?) is enjoying himself enormously and doing a great job on the drum stool. He gets a short solo at the end of the original album and he enjoys being in the spotlight, but his playing is foremost in the background, building a very solid rhythm section with bass player Peter Gee. Although he wasn't there from the very beginning, Gee is a long-standing member of the band and that is shown clearly in the ease with which he plays and interacts with musical leader Nick Barrett. I think he is an underrated bass player, but I also think he doesn't give a damn.
Clive Nolan is no longer hidden away behind a considerable number of impressive keyboards, but now uses a rotating multi-keyboard that makes the stage look far more permeable than before. His playing is impeccable as always, and the same can be said about his serious facial impression. Doing the job well, that's his mission, and so he does.
Both background vocalists, Magenta's Christina Booth (so good to see her perform bare-foot again!) and Verity Smith (a.o. singing on Clive Nolan's prog opera Alchemy) add excellent vocals on some tracks, especially on The Pursuit of Excellence and Guardian of my Soul. Their vocals blend fluently with Nick Barrett's, that are also held very well throughout the two-and-a-half hour gig. Too bad the two ladies don't get some more footage.
And finally, as said Nick Barrett is enjoying himself, feels the warmth of the crowd that takes him to that higher level, in what can only be called a perfect performance. The smile on his face is never far away and he shares it with both the band members and the audience, meanwhile playing his guitar as well as ever.
Of course the track list is no surprise as far as it concerns the TMO-album. The songs are performed in the same order as on the album, without any interaction with the audience. And that works remarkably well. That interaction comes when Nick Barrett announces that the band will add two of the bonus tracks that were part of the special two-cd set of the album. Those tracks were reworkings of parts of the original songs but were never played live. In King of the Castle both background vocalists add a superb new vocal layer to the song, and that alone makes this a special release.
In the second half of the gig, more emphasis is laid on recent albums, so on this video you'll see the first live renditions of four songs from Men Who Climb Mountains, as well as a great performance of live favourite This Green and Pleasant Land from the Passion album. Although these are great songs, the energy in the gig wears down a bit, and that is a pity. Yet that energy quickly returns during the fantastic and rousing rendition of Breaking the Spell. What a great track it is and what a good performance the band gives, with a special nod to Nick Barrett's guitar solo. That long solo comes very close in terms of melody, fluency and intensity to probably the best guitar solo ever (in my opinion of course), Genesis' Firth of Fifth.
The theatre is a rather small venue but because the band has no longer has a large amount of keyboards on stage, it looks a lot greater than on former videos. The lighting is very good too, with abundant use of bright colours during the performance of TMO, thus adding considerably to the overall quality of the images.
The package of the DVD is nicely crafted, with fine large photographs of all musicians in the booklet, as well as the information on this particular gig and the crew that produced this release. The bonus material is an asset, with a very pleasant interview with Peter Gee and Jan-Vincent Velasco. It is good to hear information on the band from members other than Nick. The interview proves the good atmosphere in the band and illustrates its future ambitions. Peter Gee is an amicable storyteller, while Velasco is rather shy, I guess because he feels (rightly so!) that he's the new kid on the block. The added clip, of the track In Bardo that was filmed in Sri Lanka, is totally over the top and therefore enjoyable to see at least once.
All in all this is simply a fantastic DVD release and a worthy celebration of their most popular album. For Pendragon fans this is a great addition to their collection; go and get this one! For those who are new to the band, I can whole-heartedly recommend it as a starting point: you'll see this fine band in excellent form, performing excellent songs, in an excellent way. That's quite some excellence all together, but they deserve it to be called that way.
Theo Verstrael: 9 out of 10
Sumo Sun - Stamina
Undone (9:43), Clever (6:47), Dread (5:20), Onlooker (8:16), Sleep (2:32), The Higher Game (5:20), Till It's Gone (6:11), Down (7:28)
The album kicks off with a nearly 10-minute long track, built up with many layers featuring Mickael's superb vocals. The first half is chilled, minimalistic and melodic, while the second half brings in the guitars to showcase the heavier side of the band. The following track, Clever, follows a similar pattern, further showcasing the formidable vocal talents and riffing abilities of the band.
As may be expected from the shortest song on a prog rock album, Sleep is the "ballad". A slow-paced track that involves keys, strings and no guitar work or drums. I feel however, that it benefits from this, with no stereotypical solos or crescendos. It isn't a ballad as such, more of a chilled-out, "eye of the storm" type track.
The Higher Game brings a more prog rock sound to proceedings, akin to some of Porcupine Tree's works. If there was going to be a single released, I would suggest this is the track chosen. Not too long, with good beats, a nice solo and soaring vocals. This track has the lot.
All in all, this is a solid heavy prog rock album. Definitely worth a listen if you are a fan of bands such as Coma, Riverside and Votum.
Calum Gibson: 7.5 out of 10
Vespero - Azmari: Abyssinian Liventure
The Course of Abagaz (17:23), Maui (5:57), Tall Tree (8:34), Abyssinian Ground (6:22), Frozen Lilies (Melt in Heaven) (5:33), Marine (7:12), Shum-Shir (7:19), The Emperor's Second Self (8:55)
Azmari is an excellent live album that should appeal to those who enjoy instrumental music and appreciate the sound of bands such as the Ozric Tentacles. The quality of the recording is crisp and clear, and any audience noise that is discernible, is unobtrusive and is limited to applause at the conclusion of each piece.
In this album, Russian band Vespero has refined their own brand of instrumental space rock, where ethnic music and jazz rock influences play an important part. The band has perfected the art of utilising a diverse range of influences not normally associated with that genre, into their work. This is apparent in the band's sharp live performance, which often has an enviable cutting edge.
Because of its rhythmic intensity and furious energy, Vespero's music occupies a space that invites the listener to enter into a sonic world; one that is stimulating and has the capability to mesmerise. However, what is on offer throughout Azmari is not monotonous or one-dimensional. It is neither unnervingly challenging, nor is it unduly repetitive, but it is highly addictive, and as a consequence is an absolute pleasure to listen to.
The players are able to express themselves in a creative manner within the clearly signposted parameters of each piece. Ample space is given for the tunes to develop in an organic way. Jamming without direction or form, is nowhere to be found. The use of mind-numbing electronic effects, often associated with space rock, are kept under control and these never threaten to overpower the appealing melodies, complex rhythms and recognisable compositional structures that are at the heart of the band's music.
Shifts in the choice of lead instrument frequently occur. This ensures that the band has a varied palette of sounds at their disposal. Whether delivered by saxophone, guitar, or violin, the band's melodic ideas are always presented in an exciting and dynamic manner. Although often easy on the ear, they never fail to quicken the heart. When these elements are combined with a range of carefully chosen effects, grand sweeping keyboard parts and a rhythm section equally at home laying down an insistent groove or some complicated afro beat patterns, then the result is never tiresome or uninteresting.
In this respect, the three interpretations of pieces originally a part of Lique Mekwas are an excellent showcase for the band's compositional talents, and their undoubted ability to convey their art to an audience in an exciting and appealing manner. The 17-minute-long, challenging nature of the Curse of Abigaz ensures that the piece would almost certainly fail any 'Old Grey Whistle Test'. Nevertheless, the subtle changes of emphasis and direction, that frequently occur, will probably captivate and delight those who enjoy expansive music where the emphasis is on the development of a series of musical ideas, rather than upon a conventional chorus and verse structure.
Abysynnian Ground is another of the Lique Mekwas pieces. The rendition to be found here is striking and the live performance of the band emphasises that this piece owes more to fusion than to any other genre. The frantic interplay that is exhibited between members of the rhythm section is totally enthralling. The whole piece is a fine example of the type of approach and style that arguably sets Vespero apart from many of the other bands that have the fortune (or misfortune) to be chained with a space rock moniker.
The final Lique Mekwas composition offered in this set is The Emperor's Second Self. This piece is bedecked with boldly-bulging, belching bass lines, Fripp-toned guitar frills and bow work that both dives and ducks with gnarled aggression, whilst equally gliding nobly with nimble aplomb. It is a slow-building piece that readily exudes fistfuls of bare-knuckled tension and red planet menace, whilst the principal instruments spitefully and savagely spit out their lines with venom, as they compete for dominance.
Overall, Azmari is an excellent addition to the Vespero discography and highlights a band that is clearly at the top of their game. Vespero are faithfully able to reproduce their studio sound, but crucially on the basis of Azmari, they are more than capable of expanding their compositions when necessary, to produce a fluidly-exciting live performance and create an absolutely intriguing album.
Owen Davies: 8.5 out of 10