Reviews in this issue:
Aliante - Forme Libere
Aliante ("Glider" in English) released their debut album Forme Libere in September 2017. It is a shame that I did not get to hear this sooner as it would have effortlessly elbowed its way into my top 5 for the year and would have made my choice of top spot more difficult.
Aliante are a keyboard-led power trio. I know a power trio should be guitar, bass and drums but the absence of guitar here is no hindrance to the majesty of this collection of symphonic prog tunes. Entirely instrumental, Aliante’s music nods towards ELP, Patrick Moraz, and fellow countrymen Le Orme but remain entirely their own men.
After the short introductory title track, things blaze into life with Kilowatt Store which should really be called Megawatt Store! Fierce organ and cymbal washes give way to a symphonic prog masterclass. Bassist Alfonso Capasso holds down the melody as Enrico Filippi’s keyboards go all out. Phenomenal energy powers from the speakers as the organ and synth solos successfully punch well above their weight. There is more in this five minutes than many an epic four times as long.
Bur there is more to Aliante than just power. The two-part Tre di Quattro gently and subtly builds from piano and sliding bass lines to a terrific synth solo. Then in its second part it develops a loping rhythm accompanied by dark organ fills, squelchy keys and another astonishing synth solo. Two crackers for two so far, if you are keeping score.
Jacopo Giusti’s percussion opens Etnomenia he is soon joined by piano and bass. Here Aliante show they are not afraid to leave spaces around the notes and its coda has an improvised feel without descending into lazy jazz. Kinesis finds Aliante adding yet more colour to their sound. Electric piano, percussion washes and an early Todd Rundgren’s Utopia-like melody that develops into a synth solo equal to that of Tony Bank’s one on Genesis’ Firth of Fifth. Yes, it’s that good.
After a short Mellotron-drenched interlude comes L’ultima balena, a masterpiece of classically infused piano and synth symphonic prog. It is just brilliant. This brilliance continues with the superbly melodic closer San Gregorio. A five part suite that makes you exclaim “blimey Charlie, I didn’t think they made them like this anymore!”
So as you can probably tell, I’m a little bit enthusiastic about this album. I find myself echoing Patrick McAfee’s excellent review of Rob Reed’s Sanctuary III. In that leaning towards the classics of the 70s only take a band so far. Here with Forme Libere Alicante have more than provided enough substance to produce a classic. As it says in our guidelines "if it ranks with the classics of all time" then it gets a 10. This ranks with the classics of all time and it feels like a lost classic that has just been rediscovered and don't let the poor artwork put you off.
Frequency Drift - Letters To Maro
Although I’ve let Frequency Drift pass me by for the most part, I found their last album (2016’s aptly titled Last) appealing in a tuneful, undemanding kind of way, which prompted me to take on this review. Since then however, they’ve lost bassist Rainer Wolf, guitarist Martin Schnella and singer Melanie Mau. The latter has been replaced by Irini Alexa, their third female vocalist in as many albums.
The band describe their music as "cinematic" which in my experience of late, is shorthand for post-rock with elements of classical and prog. And under the leadership of multi-instrumentalist Andreas Hack, that’s precisely what you get here.
With the absence of a full-time guitarist, the songs are noticeably guitar-lite especially when compared with the last album. Hack does provide guitar and bass, but his style is more about mood, atmosphere and textures. That’s also true of his keyboard technique, creating orchestral effects in a similar fashion to Robert John Godfrey of The Enid although Hack’s arrangements are starker and more understated.
This suits the melancholia of songs like the opening Dear Maro and the percussive Underground which set the tone of the album. Keyboardist Nerissa Schwarz’s stirring Mellotron in the former and sublime electric harp in the later elevate both songs above the ordinary. The catchy Electricity is more uplifting (and dare I say poppy) with its ringing, rhythmic guitar bringing to mind the indie bands of the 1980’s. An edited version of this song has been released as a single.
Neon continues the vibrant tone with inspired drumming from Wolfgang Ostermann whilst Deprivation almost takes them into ballad territory with a superb performance from Alexa. She has a beautiful, clear voice, not unlike her predecessors although with perhaps more range and emotion. Her singing can be serene one moment, theatrical the next, often with a touch of folky earthiness in here voice.
With 11 songs in all, for me they are not all as memorable as they could be with both Izanami and Nine being a little too languid for their own good. That said, Izanami is spliced in half with a dramatic fuzzed guitar section that reminded me a little of Ultravox. Escalator and Who’s Master allow Alexa to display her threatrictical side whilst Sleep Paralysis reveals more than a hint of Annie Haslam in her singing.
At nearly 10 minutes, the penultimate Who’s Master is given ample space to build from mellow piano beginnings to an intense finale. The concluding Ghosts When It Rains on the other hand is one of those tracks that ends far sooner than it should. A truly hypnotic instrumental, the Frequency Drift orchestra of Mellotron and synths pull out all the stops to tear at the listeners heartstrings.
Although Letters To Maro is more post-rock than prog rock, it has a melodic, brooding quality that’s hard to resist, especially when you factor in the sensuous voice of Irini Alexa. If however, metallic riffs and histrionic soling are a prerequisite for your listening pleasure, then I suggest you look elsewhere.
Hillmen - Whiskey Mountain Sessions Vol. II
It has been seven years since Hillmen issued Whiskey Mountain Sessions Vol. I and this second volume is very much in the same light as the first: totally improvised, recorded live with no edits or overdubs, just spontaneous music created in a mountaintop studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Peter Hillmen (drums) and Gayle Ellett (keyboards) provide the consistency with the first album with new boys Lito Magana jr. (guitar) and Jeff Smith (bass) completing the line-up.
The musicianship throughout is superb although don't expect long technical solos, this is the sound of four musicians playing together and playing music with feel and passion. Magana adds a more aggressive edge than supplied by Mike Murray on Volume I and his playing is instrumental (excuse the pun) in driving the group forward, particularly on The Long Way Home. Ellett's keyboards switch between electric piano and the more ethereal sounds of a Mini-Moog synthesiser which adds diversity and different textures.
The Mestizo Insect Frog Jam has a rather slow start, Smith's insistent bass riff and Magana's chord strumming backing Ellett's meandering over the keys but once they settle into a grove things lift off. The electric piano lends a more jazzy sound but the piano/synth combination works very well.
Fire Breather is pretty much a second take of the Frog Jam, starting in a similar manner but, of course, following different musical diversions. The two pieces could have been edited together to provide essentially an LP with one long piece on each side, but that wouldn't have been in the spirit of things. Having said that, Magana comes into his own in the last half of Fire Breather with some blistering runs on his six string.
I found it very easy to get lost in the music and be transported along with the changes that effortlessly flowed between the instrumentalists. I actually prefer this latest addition to the first volume as, in my opinion, it has greater variety and dynamics as well as a unique freshness.
Instrumental music, particularly when it is improvised, may not float everyone's boat but there is no denying the quality of these four exemplary musicians and if you liked the first volume, or any of the Djam Karet albums or off-shoot projects, then this Hillmen album will fit in nicely with your collection.
Dave Liebman, Tatuya Nakatani, Adam Rudolph - The Unknowable
The Unknowable begins and ends with two pieces entitled Bendediction. The opening piece sets the scene for what is to follow, whilst the closing piece gives an opportunity to reflect upon the sonic experiences that precede it.
The release contains thirteen completely improvised group pieces. The improvisations are short, ranging in length from between three to four minutes. The longest piece Cosmogram has a running time of just less than five minutes.
Over the years, the personnel involved in the album have made important contributions in jazz and avant-jazz circles. The trio consists of Dave Liebman (tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes, piri, Fender Rhodes), Tatsuya Nakatani (drum kit, gongs, percussion) and Adam Rudolph (hand drum set, percussion, sintir, mbuti harp, overtone flutes, Fender Rhodes, electronics). Liebman is perhaps best known for his work with Miles Davis and John Schofield. Natatakani has had a distinguished recording career having appeared on over 80 albums. Rudolph is an impressive improviser and has been a key member of a number of groups including Go Organic Orchestra and the Moving Pictures octet.
Given the background of the players, it is not surprising that little of what is on offer has any affinity with prog. The experimental and avant-improvised nature of the album is creatively bold and progressive in every sense, but its structure owes more to abstract rhythms, percussive noises, ethereal soundscapes and silent pauses between sounds, than to melody as a key component.
The spontaneous and often impenetrable nature of the compositions ensures that this release will probably mainly appeal to a niche audience. At times, I found myself scratching my head at what I was hearing, in much the same way as I did, when looking at a replica of Marchel Duchamp’s The Fountain, or Magdalena Abakanowicz’s artful pile of rocks, in her much-lauded Embryology on a visit to the Tate modern.
The most challenging pieces are undoubtedly The Truth, Transmutations and Premonition. These improvisations were hard to digest, let alone comprehend. The silence, which followed the conclusion of each of these tracks, was a minor reward for the feat of endurance that was required to listen to each composition in their entirety. Despite the obvious technical brilliance of the players involved and numerous plays, it proved nigh impossible to look beyond the fundamental abstract nature of this trio of experimental compositions and discover or experience anything that was remotely tuneful or relatively enjoyable.
On the other hand, some tracks of the album are quite appealing, but even the more accessible compositions, do little to quicken the pulse, or command the hairs of the neck to stand to attention. The atmospheric percussion, assorted effects and emotive flute playing that features in Skyway Dream is a daydreamer’s delight, providing just the right amount of expressionism to fuel inventive journeys of the mind. Similarly, Late Moon has an elusive technicolour quality that demands that it is visualised. Its menagerie of percussive effects and wispy, wooden flute is able to conjure up an assortment of rain forest images.
Distant Twilight has some fascinating rhythmic patterns and interesting percussion parts that reminded me of both King Crimson's. Larks Tongues In Aspic era and aspects of Collin Walcott's Grazing Dreams album. Like Late Moon, Distant Twilight has a sweet flute ambiance that evokes vivid imagery. Both pieces were also at times vaguely reminiscent of the work and style of Jade Warrior.
Cosmogram is a slow-paced piercing flute affair that also contains a raft of electronic effects. Its wash of ambient sounds is simultaneously calming and unsettling. It would be a useful accompaniment for anybody seeking help in establishing a mood for a period of relaxed reflection. Conversely, I suspect that for many, Cosmogram's rambling meandering might be a cause of frustration or agitation.
The album as a whole is an interesting experience and its array of unusual sounds, loose structure, innovative compositions and spontaneous nature contains many facets that aficionados of avant music will no doubt appreciate. Overall, although the album is technically adept and imaginative, I unfortunately found it an unappealing experience, which for the most part, contained neither warmth nor emotion.
Plenty - It Could Be Home
More than thirty years since their formation, Plenty, the band formed when Tim Bowness (vocals) and Michael Bearpark (guitar) from Warringtonian Art Rock band After The Stranger joined forces with Brian Hulse (keyboards) and David K Jones (bass) from Liverpudlian post-punk eccentrics A Better Mousetrap, have finally released their debut album. Back in the mid to late 1980s the band did self-release three cassettes (with increasingly bizarre titles) and made an appearance on the 1987 prog compilation album Double Exposure which also featured the first Tim Bowness - Stephen Wilson collaboration as the (pre-truncated) No-Man Is An Island that ultimately lend to the demise of Plenty.
Hulse, Jones and Bowness, the core trio who had appeared on all the band's demos, had several discussions over the years about reuniting and finishing off a complete album, finally got back together in 2016 to re-record some of their early material to so it was available to a wider audience and not left as a footnote to the progressive rock revival of the early 1980s.
They were accompanied in their endeavours by pianist Peter Chilvers and No Man violinist Steve Bingham, with Michael Bearpark making a return to the fold to add a solo to one song. Apparently 16 tracks were recorded with Bowness assembling a running order of ten that would make a coherent, traditional length album.
Three of the songs appeared on 1987's Prattle (Sultry Songs For Swingin' Celibates) cassette and one on 1988's Stripped (For The Sake Of St. Anthony) with one more from the unreleased 1990s sessions Swanky (A Beginner’s Guide To Love Motels). (I did warn you about the titles!) Four of the tracks were written and demo'd but not previously unreleased, although the demo of the album's title track, along with three other period demos, is available as a download with initial orders of the album, called, in keeping with the original cassette titles, Poppycock (The Jet Black Beard Of Destiny). To round it off is one completely new song, written during the recording process, the first new song in 27 years!
Having only previously heard Forest Almost Burning - Sacrifice that was released on the Double Exposure album I was slightly disappointed that was not one of the tracks included, although given that Forest Almost Burning also appeared on the very first No Man (Is An Island) limited edition 12" single, I guess the band were worried about over-exposing this song (ha!).
Unsurprisingly, there is a strong resemblance to No Man, largely because of Bowness' softly intoned vocals. Indeed, Never Needing commonly featured in early No Man performances. The album is very much one of atmosphere and is generally pretty low key, as exemplified by the opening number, As Tears Go By the Jagger-Richards composition that gave Marianne Faithful a hit way back in 1964. The minimalist approach actually suits the song very well, as does the duetted chorus with and unidentified (by me at least!) female singer. The arrangements very much follow the 80s template of drum machines and characteristic synth sounds but manages to avoid sounding dated. Hide is very upbeat, particularly as it is about mental illness, with a prominent bass and some simplistic guitar additions.
Broken Nights, from the 1990 sessions, is actually one of my least favourite tracks on the album, far too basic with too dominant synths, considering Bowness has stated that this session produced some of the best work he has been involved in co-writing, it is surprising that only one of those session tracks made the cut, and one that to me is inferior to the other material.
Foolish Waking has a great lyric and is nicely accompanied by piano and guitar atmospherics with sweeping synths in the background. The final four tracks are a good enough reason for buying the album. Strange Gods, again features a piano backing with a more modern drum machine (i.e. it actual sounds like real drums) and has a nice build culminating in Bearpark's searing solo. Climb is another up-tempo number where Bowness forsakes his usual singing approach and actually projects his voice, particularly on the chorus. The Good Man, the new number, fits nicely with the older material, in many ways it is quite indistinguishable with the exception that it perhaps displays a bit more musical wisdom and adventure, with a guitar again adding variety to the palette. It Could Be Home is a perfect closing number, summing up things nicely with an air of positivity and lightness.
Although I originally plumped for this review mainly out of curiosity and for more of a fondness for the Bowness solo oeuvre than that of No Man, I have to say that it did exceed my expectations. Whether you view it simply as an exercise in nostalgia or as a gift for fans who want a complete collection there is no doubt that Plenty have come up with an album that defies the gap between the writing and the recording.
Although No Man fans will inevitably be delighted with this collection, there is a lot contained on the album that will satisfy even the most casual listener. Who knows, maybe there will be enough interest for the other songs recorded during these sessions to be released along with some new recordings of previously untouched demos? Best not wait another 30 years though....