Reviews in this issue:
Birzer Bandana - Of Course It Must Be
Last year, I reviewed Birzer Bandana's debut album, Becoming One, and I found it very enjoyable. This year, the duo of Dave Bandana on vocals and instruments and Brad Birzer on lyrics have struck again with an album even better than their first. This time around, the lyrics are less focused upon theological issues and instead explore broader issues related to the human experience. The music feels more natural, and the overall result is quite stunning. The drums, in particular, sound much more natural than they did on the group's first album.
Of Course It Must Be is a well-polished album that gets more interesting with repeated listens. At time atmospheric, the music gives you time and space to consider the lyrics in depth. Olga Kent's violin throughout the album is reminiscent of David Cross's work, and it adds a sophisticated aspect to the music. It also adds an eerie texture. About four minutes into the first track, Adrift, the appearance of the violin and increase in tempo reminds me of Big Big Train's more upbeat work.
The Void, which clocks in as the longest track on the album, builds very nicely. Dealing with memory, war, and violence, the lyrics stack on each other until Bandana darkly sings, "Something was hell. Nothing is hell. The Void." The musical path Bandana takes the listener on to get to that haunting conclusion should thrill any prog fan. The guitar solo is just icing on the cake.
Birzer's lyrics are simple yet profound. They are also quite catchy. I found myself humming along after only a few listens. Yes sees the album title pop in, and it is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album. The lyrics discuss the necessary dualties of life, such as good and evil, beautiful and hideous, and truth and lies. As I said, the lyrics cause you to think. Birzer's lyrics end the album on themes of hope and love in the aptly named Calm.
Musically, Bandana and his primary guests Olga Kent and Kenny Miller (acoustic guitar) have created a cohesive album that flows very well. Every track has held my interest with repeated listens. While Bandana does not have the strongest voice in the world, the mild distortion he applies in production actually helps his voice match the atmospheric keyboards and violin. In this regard, Bandana has found a way to use his voice to match his musical strengths. Since Of Course It Must Be is "name your price" on Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to charity, there is no reason not to check this album out. If you like your prog to deliver something new with each listen, you'll certainly enjoy Birzer Bandana.
Kaukolampi - 1
Timo Kaukolampi is the frontman for Finnish band K-P-X, unfortunately not a band I am overly familiar with, but a brief run through on the internet show them to have a mix of progressive leaning techno, electronica, and krautrock as the basis of their sound. On this, his debut solo album, he has ditched the techno and the motorik beats producing an album that mixes Berlin School electronic prog and ambient washes that seem tailor made to soundtrack the shadowy spaces of the world.
The five tracks on 1 abandon the standard song structure for longer free-form explorations, of which some are more successful than others. The opener, The Prodigal Son Of Magnesia, is immediately striking for the dark, foreboding sound that Kaukolampi establishes. Its densely layered electronic washes slowly let in building pulses. Pulses that increase its creepiness, until a release lets in some light. A terrific opener like Blade Runner-era Vangelis providing the soundtrack to The Exorcist.
Kaukolampi's dance/trance background remerges on a couple of tracks. The first of which, Three Legged Giant Centipede, with its bass heavy forward momentum, I find becomes repetitive rather than hypnotic. It needs the leftfield quirkiness of an Underworld to alleviate relentless beat. The other track in this mode is the altogether more interesting Bottomless Well Of Forgotten Secrets. Where it benefits from the addition of hand percussion, and it brings to mind some of Tangerine Dream’s recent output.
There is a track dedicated to the late Finnish film composer Mika Vainio. Epiphyte (Requiem For Mika) is a slow paced and rather delicate eulogy and creates a mood of contemplation expressed through its very formlessness. I can’t quite figure out how this great track works (which is a good thing).
The last track, Public Execution Of The Nodding Lotus Eater, starts well enough with an avant-garde mix of detuned radio static, seemingly random single drum beats and industrial clanking amongst the dark synth washes but it descends into an ambient ethereal weightlessness that just tested my patience. Its flat second half left me rather nonplussed.
Overall, Kaukolampi’s 1 has slightly more hits than misses and he demonstrates a singular voice that is unafraid of experimentation.
Monarch Trail - Sand
Though I am happy that so many artists are getting their music out there in the modern prog era, I miss the way that major record labels would focus on identifying the best bands. That is one of the key reasons why the greats of the past continue to be so influential. Nowadays, there is more music available, but it is difficult to find the diamonds in the sea of new bands and album releases. When I listen to modern bands, particularly the ones who fashion themselves on classic prog, I ponder if they would have passed the major label litmus test?
Sand is the second studio album from the Canadian neo-prog band Monarch Trail and it is my introduction to their work. Upon first listen, I was immediately struck by the booming keyboard work of Ken Baird. I originally fell in love with prog rock due mainly to the groundbreaking genius of musicians like Tony Banks, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Tony Kaye, Eddie Jobson and others. Mr. Baird certainly bears their influence as this album is reflective of their talents in the truest and best sense of the word.
Admitted, I am a fan of this type of keyboard heavy prog, but many modern albums of this type fall flat. That isn't the case with this release due to its adept mix of songwriting and great performances from each member. Though Baird is centre stage to a significant extent (he is also lead vocalist), Sand feels every bit like a band project. The album is made up of tracks that are engaging not only in terms of quality, but also in the many musical styles that are utilized. From heavy symphonic prog (Station Theme, Back To Start, Missing) to jazz (Charlie's Kitchen) to ballad infused (First Thoughts), there is a lot of musical ground covered.
The highlight though is the epic twenty-five minute title track. Though a prog staple, these long form songs can be risky. It's one thing when a three minute song doesn't work, but when half the album tanks, that is a problem. No such issue here as Sand is an epic that is successful from beginning to end. Each section is distinctive, but there is a successful flow to the piece that truly works.
There is nothing particularly unique about this album, but it matters not. It is a recording of substantial merit, that is filled with great melodies and moments of musical wonder. While reminding me of prog albums of the past, it still feels fresh. In regard to my initial question above, Sand is definitely of major label quality. Highly recommended!
Dominique Vantomme - Vegir
Many factors set Vegir apart from amongst many other modern fusion albums and help to raise it to a winning podium position.
Firstly, Vegir contains a mixture of styles that include many reference points that fans of both prog and jazz might appreciate. This, combination helps to create an album that sounds fresh, organic and unique.
Secondly, Vegir’s sonic qualities make it a delight to hear. Its production and recording values are superb and this helps to give Vegir an imposing presence and a wondrous clarity that makes it joyous to listen to. It also makes it relatively easy to appreciate every subtle nuance.
Thirdly, the release exudes an exciting energy and everything about the album exhibits an edge of the seat feeling of spontaneity. The album is the product of a day of recording during October 2016.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the compositions are highly imaginative, and very refreshing. They are full of flamboyant arrangements that rarely follow a formulaic or predictably familiar path. Vegir’s expressive tunes and interesting structural characteristics are able to satisfy both heart and mind.
The eight tracks on offer give the performers many opportunities to bring out the best in each other. Outstanding arrangements delivered with energy and skillful aplomb enables the musicians to display their impressive "team player qualities". The fine display of empathy and collective musicianship that lies at the heart of the album also acts as a springboard for the individual players to display their own virtuoso skills in a series of magnificent and often superb solo parts.
The personnel responsible for so many inspirational jaw-dropping moments include Dominic Vantomme (Fender Rhodes, electric piano, piano, Mini Moog and Mellotron), Michael Delville (guitars), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick) and Maxime Lenssen (drums).
Vantomme provides an abundance of genuinely superb keyboard parts, but two solos in particular hit all the right spots. The bendy gurgling Moog solo that is a major component of Equal Minds works brilliantly and the expansive keyboard interlude during The Self-Licking Ice-Cream Cone is just as satisfying. However, it is as a key component of the bands overall sound that Vantomme’s contribution excels. His thoughtful embellishments subtle touches and flamboyant flourishes provide many of the albums harmonies and melodies and in so doing helps to generate much of the albums atmospheric mix of moods.
Delville’s contribution is equally important and his mastery of his instrument, accomplished use of effects and superb choice of tones of effects is clearly apparent throughout the album. The guitar highlights include the stop/start machine gun riffing and flowing Fripp-toned solo in The Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone, and the wailing and expressive cries emitted during Playing Chess With Barney Rubble. However, my favourite guitar part probably occurs during the opening piece Double Down. It is so flamboyant that it almost has a stunt guitar element to it. (If you remember Frank Zappa’s use of Steve Vai during shows in the eighties, you will know what I mean.) The solo that develops is quite outstanding and displays Delville instantly recognisable signature sound, as shown in his excellent work with The Wrong Object and more recently with Machine Mass.
Apart from the solo parts, Delville makes a sparkling contribution to the overall sound of the album providing a mixture of supporting yelps, yowls, and imaginative soundscapes. These create a rich backdrop for the other instruments to come to the fore.
However, despite the jewel-crested input of Vantomme and Delville, the player who perhaps gives this album a distinctive edge is Tony Levin. His style of playing and deeply melodic choice of tones is instantly recognisable and highly satisfying. The bass is high in the mix and this prominence enables the way it both complements and contrasts with the other instruments to be fully developed.
As one might expect, the bass has an important role and prominent part in in establishing and maintaining a foot and finger-shaking groove in many of the ensemble passages. In this respect, the groove created during the first half of Double Down and in the latter half of Playing Chess With Barney Rubble are particularly insistent and engaging.
Sizzurp is one of the albums most unpredictable and challenging pieces. It begins and ends with an ear friendly theme that could have featured in any contemporary Sc-Fi movie. After numerous twists, it is made even more interesting because it includes an unexpected bass interlude where Levin is able to summon up some beautiful deep resonances and an array of melodic bottom end sounds. These are in keeping with the unusual mix of styles that are prevalent in the piece.Sizzurp is a track that does not rest for long in one particular mood, style or tempo and is full of freedom, invention, innovation and improvisation. It includes rocking riffs, space rock sounds, distorted keys, banshee guitar parts underpinned or emphasised by a fine bass led groove.
Maxime Lenssen’s skilled hands and feet are at the heart of much that the album offers. His unobtrusive presence offers just the right mix of flair and knot breaking dexterity to keep the music moving forward in an engaging rhythmic manner. Outstanding drum patterns are a noticeable component of each tune and give the compositions a distinctive rhythmic identity. For example, Double Down includes lavish sprinklings of delightful brushwork and Emmetropia features some subtle cymbal work.
Vegir is an excellent album. Its mixture of styles should appeal to many prog fans. The music is unique, but for readers who like comparisons there were times when the music briefly reminded me of other bands. For example, the mixture of spacey effects in Equal Minds was reminiscent of some of the work of Vespero and Maat Lander. The beginning section of The Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone has a vibe that is similar to aspects ofNational Health’s style. Plutocracy has a similar ethnic feel to some of the music created by Consider the Source, whilst Agent Orange is full of the power distortion and gusto that some might associate with bands such as King Crimson.
In the end, these stylistic signposts are superfluous as Vegir is an album that communicates its own message in its own unique way. It thoroughly deserves a top place on any winners' podium of contemporary instrumental progressive fusion. Vegir stands alone as an magnificent example of that art.
Teemu Viinikainen III - Return of Robert Dickson
There is something about live in the studio releases that I find irresistible. The last few years have seen some outstanding examples such as, Mark Wingfield’s The Lighthouse and Dusan Jevtovic’s No Answer. In these albums, improvisation has a key role and the superb performance of the players is self-evident, and is easily apparent, without the need for studio trickery, or frequent overdubs. As a consequence, these accomplished albums have an exciting unpredictability that possess a genuine thrill factor.
Teemu Viinikainen’s Return Of Robert Dickson joins a growing list of exceptional and exciting edge-of-the-seat live studio albums. The players' enthusiasm for their art is apparent as yelps of satisfaction are in evidence during the album, as the performers summon inspiration and deliver music from the heart. Consequently, much of Return Of Robert Dickson has the quality to leave listeners in stunned silence and in awe of the zeal and musicianship on display.
The release is the acclaimed Finnish guitarists’ fourth studio album and in this collection of tunes, Viinikainen returns to the subject matter of his 2005 debut album _ Tales Of Robert Dixon._ In his latest outing Viinikainen adopts a much more hard-edged abrasive electric style than in his previous recordings. This album is bound to satisfy anybody who enjoys music that contains subtly toned electric guitar parts and a plethora of accomplished solos. The exquisite solos on offer contain just the right mixture of wanton aggression and considered expression, where each note plays a part in creating a balance between a refined bouquet and a wild posy of sounds.
The album also contains some wonderfully accomplished keyboard and percussion parts. Keyboard player Mikael Myrskog excels on both the Moog and the Rhodes. He supplies much of the albums bottom end and the way in which the moog is able to take on the role of the bass is highly impressive.
Drummer Joonas Riippa plays with a great sense or knowledge of what works well in the context of a piece whether it be bombast or subtlety and his contribution throughout is magnificent. There were occasions in tunes such as, Fine Again and most notably in Amoroso where aspects of the tunes arrangement combined with Riippa’s excellent feel and touch, reminded me of the contribution of Trevor Tomkins in Gilgamesh’s Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Me Into album.
Viinikainen’s outstanding guitar parts are high in the mix. His distorted sound and distinctive tone and, wonderful use of a range of effects is at times reminiscent of Dusan Jevtovic, whilst his quick-fingered embellishments contain some of the melodic expressionism associated with players like John Etheridge and Al Di Meola.
Viinikainen’s contribution is exciting in its own right, but when combined with the talents of the other players and a set of truly excellent tunes, it makes the album an absolute joy to hear. The trio complement each other and ensures that the music has a natural intuitive flow where the empathy that each of the musicians has towards the other is fully in evidence.
The album contains eight compositions. The pace style and structure of the tunes is varied and offers a combination that includes frenetic riffing and reflective tuneful noodling. Return Of Robert Dixon is a progressive jazz fusion album that will satisfy any readers who appreciate the music of artists and bands as varied as Pat Metheny, Return to Forever, Gilgamesh, and Isotope.
The album begins with Return (part I) and ends with a reprise of the tune in Return (part II). These two elegant pieces are short-lived and feature guitar, synth and percussion. They serve as a functional introduction and wholesome conclusion to the album. The opening piece Return (part I) reacquaints the listener with the subject matter of Viinikainen’s first solo album and is no doubt, intended to refresh and whet a listeners sonic taste buds prior to the main course of the albums more substantial tracks.
The delightful concluding piece Return (part II) acts as a soothing ear balm to counter the insistent recurrent riffing and free flowing guitar tones of the previous tune III and gives an opportunity for measured reflection. However, perhaps more importantly, Return (part II) enables the albums enchanting musical circle that begins with Return (part I) to be perfectly drawn, and finished in a fitting manner.
The other compositions have thoroughly engaging qualities and include improvised sections performed with great skill and much panache. There is a wonderful Al Dimeola Latino feel to the middle section of Fine Again and the muscular power of MM is quite intoxicating. Conversely, Amoroso’s languid soundscape and gorgeous mix of Rhodes and guitar are just sublime. It successfully fulfils its undoubted aim to gently bath and swaddle a listener’s cochlea hairs in an elegant clasp. However, JS and Birdman are probably the albums most interesting pieces and standout compositions.
JS contains one of those memorable melodies that have a likeable knack of being able to return to your thoughts hours and days and even weeks after you last heard it. It is easy on the ear and relatively straightforward to hum whilst at the same time; the arrangement of the whole piece is enjoyably complex and is never less than interesting. Viinikainen’s choice of tones and wonderful use of harmonics are a highlight of the piece. However, the key board interlude in the second half of the tune is also equally impressive and the spacious quality of the arrangement gives enough room for every member of the trio to express themselves.
JS has a recognisable jazz-based heritage, but Birdman on the other hand, although using structures associated with jazz has a harder and edgier rock based foundation. The tune features a discordant stop stat riff borne on an aggressive salvo of notes. The piece also includes some magnificent drum fills that exhibit such positive qualities, that they can be likened to anything that skilled players as, John Marshall or Asaf Sirkis might have created.
Birdman also features a finely crafted guitar solo played in a style that could be loosely associated with John Abercrombie. The tune is an outstanding master class of jazz rock fusion. The satisfying laughter heard as the tape stops reveals the exuberant nature of the piece and reinforces the feeling that this is essentially a live studio performance.
Return Of Robert Dickson is an album that I thoroughly recommend. I have grown to appreciate its subtleties the more that I have played it. Its compositions are first rate and will definitely satisfy anybody who appreciates well-crafted jazz fusion. However, it is the animated performance of the trio individually and as a collective, which makes the album absolutely compelling and irresistible in every respect.