Reviews in this issue:
Charlie Barnes - Oceanography
Intro (1:55), Oceanography (4:42), Will & Testament (3:54), Bruising (3:37), Ruins (4:43), One Word Answers (5:35), The Departure (4:15), Legacy (5:32), Former Glories (3:39), Maria (4:03), All I Have (3:43), The Weather (5:07)
So say Charlie Barnes explaining the broad themes behind Oceanography a record that addresses his inner conflicts as an artist, the idea of 'making it' and what that even means, while at the same time dealing in a heavy sense of self-awareness that such inner turmoil pales in the context of wider issues currently facing the world. Coming two years after the debut More Stately Mansions, it sees Barnes building on the groundwork laid down by that album. It is also a testament to his work ethic as it has not been an idle two years for the singer and multi-instrumentalist. If getting married and relocating to a new part of the country wasn't change enough, shortly after the release of More Stately Mansions, he successfully auditioned to become a touring member of the band Bastille who, apparently, are currently one the UK's biggest bands, although I have to say I have never heard of them (but then, contemporary rock bands are not really my area of expertise!). This has seen Barnes having to hone his performance skills from playing in tiny back room venues as a solo artist, to relatively small venues on occasional live outings with Amplifier to touring the arenas of the world with Bastille.
Musically, the style has is not that different to that found on the previous release although there is a greater use of synths, a consequence of how the album was written and recorded, in diverse hotel rooms, countries and studios at opportune times during and between tours. Amplifier guitarist Steve Durose once again handles production duties and also made substantial contributions to the arrangements. Unfortunately, we received limited information with the pre-release download of the album so no idea who else plays on the album but once suspects that the band assembled for the last album are largely absent.
Barnes' vocal abilities are showcased throughout with soaring choruses a prominent feature. The experience of playing to large crowds has obviously had an effect as the title track is a rousing anthem that would translate well to a big venue. There is a great deal of variety across the album. Songs such as Ruins and Maria showcase Barnes' admiration for his early influences of Amplifier and Oceansize, more in the way they are arranged than in the overall style. And there is Bruising, a heavier effort that shuns the synths in favour of electric guitar.
Quieter moments come with the piano based Former Glories and The Weather, who benefit from the more stripped back approach. If I had to guess where The Departure was written or recorded I would take a stab at Wales, if only for the reason that the opening reminds me of a Welsh male voice choir! Will & Testament provides the biggest departure from most of the rest of the album having a more pop/rock feel and featuring Bastille main man Dan Smith on backing vocals, largely brought about by the Bastille man's curiosity as to what Barnes was actually doing at the various studio sessions he scheduled during tours.
I have to say that initially I felt somewhat disappointed by the album as it seemed a somewhat regressive step from the last album with too much reliance on synths and drums laid down without the aid of a drummer or drum kit. However, it is an album that does require several listens before the songs click and the intimacy of the quieter songs shine through. On the whole, Oceanography is a worthy release that sees Barnes expanding his musical palette somewhat, even if, understandably, centre stage is given to his remarkable vocal abilities, something that is probably least showcased in All I Have, the video of which seems Barnes singing directly to various walls and hedges. Smething for all you amateur psychologists to ponder over! A solid if somewhat 'safe' album.
Mark Hughes: 6 out of 10
Galahad - Seas Of Change
Seas of Change: I. Storms Are A Comin', II. Lords, Ladies And Gentlemen, III. The Great Unknown, IV. Sea Of Uncertainty, V. Up In Smoke, VI. A Sense Of Revolution, VII. Dust, VIII. 'Tis But A Dream, IX. As Time Fades, X. Mare's Nest, XI. The Greater Unknown, XII. Storms Are A Comin' (Reprise) (42:43), Dust (Extended Edit) (5:57), Smoke (Extended Edit) (7:14)
The latest album Seas Of Change is their most diverse to date, drawing inspiration from previous works as well as occasional excursions into uncharted waters (if you pardon the pun). The music was written, orchestrated and arranged by keyboardist Dean Baker with singer and founding member Stuart Nicholson providing the lyrics. Together, they've produced a rich musical soundstage upon which the other band members - guitarist Lee Abraham, drummer Spencer Luckman and bassist Tim Ashton are given ample space to flex their musical muscles.
Containing just three tracks, it's a concept album with a topical, political bias. Without specifically referencing Brexit, it concerns the uncertain future for Britain following the divisive June 2016 referendum to withdraw from the European Union. The Tangent covered similar ground in their 2017 album The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery but for me, Nicholson's inventive wordplay is far more palatable than Andy Tillison's sermonising rhetoric. Whilst there are scathing remarks at the politicians expense, Nicholson assumes the role of an impartial observer for the most part, leaving the listener to decide what the future will bring.
Musically, this is the band's most ambitious undertaking to date with Baker's orchestral keys and Abraham's expressive guitar creating a widescreen, cinematic sound with traces of symphonic metal. Nicholson is in fine voice throughout with his precise articulation and rounded vowels harking back to the neo-prog style of old (think Fish in his prime). Factor in the inventive choral arrangements and film composers like James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone readily come to mind, albeit in a prog-rock Dream Theater-ish context.
Although the title track Seas Of Change clocks in at nearly 43 minutes, the opening 12 minutes alone is a feast of prog rock references. Opening (and closing) with an ethereal female voice (courtesy of Sarah Bolter), an atmospheric Floydian guitar solo gives way to a bombastic guitar and organ section enhanced with Yes style "aahs" straight out of Close To The Edge.
From here it takes an unexpected turn into ambient territory with spacey keyboard and percussive effects. Around the midway point, a pastoral acoustic interlude evokes mid-seventies Genesis whilst the line "The wall of death is lowered in Parliament Square" is a sly nod to Fly On A Windshield from Genesis' own magnum opus The Lamb Lies Down On Braodway.
The only aspect that does not work for me is the spoken parts including mock news reports which overstates the message somewhat and disrupts the musical flow. That's a minor criticism however in an otherwise flawless track.
Although much shorter in length, the tracks Dust and Smoke are equally ambitious in their sweep and scope, expanding on themes from Seas Of Change to give the album a sense of continuity. At just 6 minutes, Dust is probably my favourite song with its galloping riff, strident orchestrations and metallic shredding.
It's the final song, the moody Smoke however where Abraham really comes into his own with a barnstorming guitar solo to bring the album to a satisfying conclusion. An excellent songwriter in his own right, Abraham does a fine job throughout the album, stamping his own authority on Baker's themes. The rhythm partnership of Ashton and Luckman is equally excellent, driving the music with power and precision aided by Karl Groom's typically full bodied production.
Seas Of Change might not have the immediacy of some of their previous albums, but for me it's Galahad's most successful offering to date. And whilst the lyrics are understandably pessimistic at times given the subject, as befitting the vibrant tone of the music Nicholson concludes on a note of defiant optimism with the closing line "Bring it on..."
Geoff Feakes: 9 out of 10
Rolo Tomassi - Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It
Towards Dawn (3:45), Aftermath (3:53), Rituals (3:25), The Hollow Hour (7:28), Balancing The Dark (3:59), Alma Mater (3:22), A Flood Of Light (8:20), Whispers Among Us (5:10), Contretemps (8:17), Risen (5:37)
They seem to have been described as playing just about ever genre of rock music possible including math-core, experimental, alternative and progressive rock, grind-core, post and progressive hardcore, post-metal and even, a new one on me, screamo. The descriptions probably tell you quite a bit about the problems of endlessly categorising music as it ultimately becomes meaningless. The warning flags were raised, however, by the last genre mentioned, and yes, the album does feature vocals tunelessly shouting and screamed in a rather pointless, to me anyway, attempt to come over all aggressive.
Anyone who has read my reviews over the past 16 years will know that I have a thing for good singing and can be quite critical of deficiencies in the vocal area. I have never been able to understand why any band would want to bellow out gruff and distorted words particularly when Eva Spence is perfectly able to hold a tune and is altogether a decent vocalist. Things do start off very well with Towards Dawn and Aftermath being interesting songs, the latter of which being quite reminiscent of female-fronted bands from the late 1980s with more proggy overtones. It also ends superbly well with Risen having a passing resemblance to Anathema. However, what comes in-between is literally anathema to me.
Maybe I am getting old but I can find no pleasure in being screamed at, particularly when it is combined with endless metallic riffing. There are some fairly interesting musical snippets every now and then buried amongst the dross. Moments of A Flood Of Light could almost be described as melodic and if it was sung all the way through Contretemps would be a very enjoyable song. If Rolo Tomassi followed the example of Anathema and ditched the shouting and overt metal and continued in a more melodic and progressive vein then I would certainly be interested in hearing what they could come up with. However, if they continue creating albums like this then expanding outside of a niche audience is very unlikely.
As a final observation, I don't know how many of you have heard of the on-line music and pop culture magazine The Quietus but they have to be responsible for one of the most misleading and unintentionally funniest description of Rolo Tomassi, stating that they are "like a polished chrome King Crimson for the 21st Century"...
Mark Hughes: 4 out of 10
Sound The Bell! - Sound The Bell!
The Birds And The Beasts (5:16), Chambers Of Fall (7:57), Song Of The Stars (5:47), The Wedding (5:54), Garden Of Love (12:42), Vivianne (6:35)
Have you ever listened to one of those albums that appear to contradict all that you usually hold dear and enjoy? Even though you know it's something that you would not normally listen to; somehow you find yourself bewitched by it. It then takes on the air of a secret garden of delights; its colours, textures and odours hidden out of sight; to be only tasted and experienced when no one else is around.
From the moment, the first bass notes rattle the window panes and vibrate the ornaments to create a precarious window sill dance, you realise that Sound The Bell! is going to be an intense experience.
It's an album that is crammed full of good tunes. It has the potential to lure, enthral and entrap, but is probably best heard at a neighbour evicting volume for it to be fully appreciated. As the sound is dialled, a powerful mix of voice, bass, drums and guitar is ferociously unleashed, to whip up a maelstrom of granite filled sounds.
The album begins with The Birds And The Beasts. It is an excellent opener and underneath its rocky exterior it has some interesting embellishments. In overall style it bears some resemblance to the gruff rock style of Yokeshire in their Masque Of Shadows release. There are marked similarities in the vocal harmonies and in the changes of pace that occur during the harmonised sections.
Sound The Bell! hail from Finland and are made up of Panu Ukkonen (vocals, electric bass), Antero Mentu (electric guitar) and Simo Laihonen on drums. The band members have an impressive pedigree having been members in the past of bands as diverse as Black Motor, Utopianisti and Aalto. Their debut release is a tightly girthed rocking horse of an album with hints of prog added in for good measure.
Although the band often employs a classic rock based style, Sound The Bell! sounds fresh and inventive. The trio add their own creative stamp to much of the music. This alters the complexion of what is on offer and raises it beyond the usual parameters associated with a standard menu of rock.
Guitarist Mentu is particularly impressive and some of his solos are guaranteed to have you gurning in support of his exertions. His choice of tones during an extended solo in Garden Of Love is particularly dirty and is thickened with surging slicks of oil black distortion. The rhythm section is also vibrant and when the need arises they too are not afraid to add a touch of off-beat invention and a waft of imaginative instrumental flair more usually connected with prog rather than rock.
Panu Ukkonen's vocal performance is superb. His skillful command of a wide mix of vocal styles, full range and evocative delivery had me comparing his performance to amongst others, Jim Morrison, Morrissey and Black Bonzo's Magnus Kärnebro. His expressive contribution adds an extra sparkle to proceedings and ensures that the albums collection of six excellent tunes is sung in the best possible manner.
Chambers Of Falls is one of the highlights of the album. It contains a guitar sound that is reminiscent of Plankton and an evocatively sung Jim Morrison-like vocal. It has an interesting structure, an unpredictable manner and an unusual melodic quality. Song Of The Stars is on the face of it, a straight forward rocker, but Ukkonen's double tracked vocals in the chorus colour it with a warbling hint of Morrissey. On the other hand, the vocal harmonies in the excellent hard riffing The Wedding share similarities with the approach so successfully used by Wishbone Ash in their Argus and Pilgrimage albums. The guitar solo that propels the piece towards its conclusion is genuinely exciting.
Whether or not my enjoyment of this album will be long lasting, remains to be seen. I suspect that I may tire of it long before my neighbour's tenth knock at the door.
In the meantime, I find myself dreaming of sounding the bell and rejoicing in anticipation, that once again, I will be alone with my precious secret garden of delights.
Owen Davies: 7.5 out of 10
Weend’ô - Time Of Awakening
Time Of Awakening - Part I (7:06), Time Of Awakening - Part II (5:05), Time Of Awakening - Part III (8:07), Angel Dust (8:20), Elea - Part I (7:07), Elea - Part II (3:23)
Time Of Awakening - Part 1 begins the journey with a minimalistic, yet ensnaring sound with some beautiful vocal work by Laetitia. There are some interesting riffs, some nice leads and licks. From this track alone, it is easy to see the influences from both Pink Floyd and Tool.
Part 2 has a softer, more "light" beginning, with more use of synths and piano to build the scene. A very chilled and relaxed piece, with some lovely keyboard work.
The final part of the trilogy starts with an almost Opeth type acoustic passage before the full band enters with some proggy goodness. Complex riffing intertwines with the drums and bass to keep you waiting expectantly. A powerful slab of riffs and soaring vocals that grabs you and doesn't let go until the second half, where it is replaced with atmospherics to let you breathe.
The second half of the album kicks off with Angel Dust. Another slower-paced, more laid back and almost bluesy track, with a bit of a feel to it similar to The Sound Of Muzack by Porcupine Tree. This builds up into quite a powerful track that sounds like a good mix between the aforementioned tree and Anathema.
Elea Part 1 helps showcase the skill of the band, with a beautifully written song that flits between relaxed and a bit melancholy, with more staccato riffing and more anthemic choruses.
Finally, we come to the end of the album with Elea Part 2. A short but sweet finale, this is more just a rolling build up with a vocal melody over the top to bring in the end.
A very good album, perfect for fans of classic prog like Pink Floyd and modern prog such as Anathema and Porcupine Tree. The songs are superbly crafted, and every bit of the album keeps you hooked and content.
Calum Gibson: 8 out of 10