Reviews in this issue:
John Holden - Capture Light
One of the joys of reviewing, is the possibility to hear new music in advance of the general populace, and where possible to contribute towards making an album “heard” by that same populace. That is why I am very happy to write this review for John Holden, a local man from Cheshire who has put this album together over a two-year period. It is entirely self-financed and released via Bandcamp and features a veritable list of collaborators.
Right from the opening notes and stanzas of Tears From The Sun you can tell that this album is going to be something special and one that rewards the diligent listener. With the exemplary keyboard work of Oliver Wakeman, this creates a suitably epic sound with some sweet, delicate piano and hearty Hammond, before the soaring voice of Joe Payne (ex-Enid singer). With the delicate acoustic guitar of Oliver Day this is a stirring mood piece that sings of the days of the Spanish conquistadors and the search for the fabled city of Eldorado, the city of gold. It is all told from the viewpoint of a priest, who follows the expedition but who comes to realise that the culture is being eroded as greed and corruption has consumed the rest of the explorers and the trip. It is a fine opener for all the moods and stories yet to unfold.
Crimson Sky follows, led by the fine, delicate vocals of Julie Grater and featuring Oliver Day’s guitar alongside a fine guitar solo from Billy Sherwood (Yes, World Trade) this is a very haunting song, which tells us that in dreams Crimson Skies are associated with turbulent and tumultuous times.
The title track, Capture Light, tells of a bitter rivalry between Titian and fellow painter Tintoretto, who was Titian’s master for a while. Between the two men (along with a third artist, Veronese) grew a bitter dislike to outdo each other’s accomplishments. Tintoretto became one the acclaimed Venetian artists and his final major work was Il Paradiso for the grand council chamber of the Doge’s Palace and is one of the world’s largest paintings on canvas.
Ancient of Days follows and features Marc Atkinson (Riversea) and Jean Paggeau (Mystery) alongside Lee-Anne Beecher and tells of the constant journey that is life and how we all keep searching for enlightenment, knowledge and for our place in this world. It is a short piece that doesn’t overstay its welcome at all.
Next up is One Race that talks of the US black runner Jesse Owens who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 in spite of the negative response from the black community who wanted him to boycott the games but also as an riposte to Hitler’s desire to use the games to promote his Aryan supremacy myth. Jesse Owens was still subjected to racial separation and was not to meet Hitler or the US President, but his record stands supreme and is a stirring testament to the great athlete he was.
Dream Catching is a tribute to Native American Red Hawk who spent his life telling others about Native American traditions and the idea of a dream catcher. This track is beautifully voiced by Julie and Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales) with great narration throughout, all set against a gentle, ethnic-sounding keyboard setting and timbre that is very relaxing to listen to. This leads us to No Man’s Land, the penultimate track which uses a jazzier feel to explore the concept of green therapy as an antidote to anxiety and depression and the song exhorts us to not forget our origins and to embrace the cycle of nature.
Final song Sea Glass Hearts is about how time heals and how we can learn to love again. It is a very delicate and gentle song, that features a duet between Julie Gater and Peter Jones with the complementary guitar work of Oliver Day making this gentle piece with its heartfelt sentiments. It also hosts a lovely sax solo from Peter Jones to bring this album to a peaceful close.
Overall this is a very fine album and a wonderful piece of work, with great music and lyrics throughout and excellent performances from all concerned. Style-wise it covers a multitude of influences but there is a strong symphonic prog element present, something that is no surprise since John is a big fan of Yes and Big Big Train.
This is a very satisfying album and one that repays multiple listens. I offer hearty congratulations to John Holden for making his dream come true in such a worthwhile and listenable manner. This is a very worthy and significant album and I heartily recommend it to all.
No-Man - Returning Jesus
Disc 2: Something Falls (3:34), Close Your Eyes (EP Version) (7:47), Carolina Reprise (3:00), Until Tomorrow (Hifi) (2:59), Chelsea Cap (5:25), Darkroom (3:52), Until Tomorrow (Lofi) (3:15), Song About The Heart (2:48), Lighthouse (First Demo) (10:27), Darkroom (Alternate Version) (5:35), Like A Child (4:10), Chelsea Cap (Alternate Version) (6:50), Lighthouse (Second Demo) (8:58), Slow It All Down (Long Version) (5:13), All That You Are (Demo) (4:36)
So, does every album deserve to be reissued? Does it have to be a timeless classic to get the regal treatment? Well, apparently not, as for every Close To The Edge or Aqualung Steven Wilson glossy remix, you get countless remixes, remasters and special "ultimate" editions of obscure albums not many people remember (or care about, for that matter).
Where does this expanded Returning Jesus, No-Man's fourth studio album, stand in the grand scheme of things then? What makes it special? Is it relevant at all? Is it worth your time and your money? Questions, questions...
Here's one more. Was the original album any good in the first place? Well, for those fond of Wilson's more melancholic, dreamy persona, and Tim Bowness's Bowie/Scott Walker emotive vocals, this is a real treat. Although I personally tend to favour the two albums which came later, Together We're Stranger (2003) and Schoolyard Ghosts (2008).
The more arty, atmospheric (think Talk Talk) side of No-Man is well represented in this trilogy of introspective, dare I say "rainy" albums. Regarding this particular release, there are many gems to be found, from the jazzy (thanks to Ian Carr's trumpet) seductive opener Only Rain, to the tasty percussion on Close Your Eyes, the sad beauty of Carolina Skeletons or the proggier aesthetics of Lighthouse, all performed with subtlety and elegance by a host of guests including Colin Edwin, Theo Travis and drummer Steve Jansen of Japan fame.
The main attraction here is, obviously, the very generous 78 minute bonus CD, jam-packed with demos, EP tracks and alternate versions. It is certainly a lot to take in, and not all of it is up to the same standard, but these are worthy additions to the core album. The main reason why most of these tracks weren't included in the original release has to be attributed to coherence, not quality. Something Falls is obviously a nice song, but it belongs in a Wilson solo album. The same applies to Chelsea Cap and Darkroom, both evoking the spirit of Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun (although there's an alternate version of Chelsea Cap which is closer to No-Man's aesthetics).
Some cuts, such as both versions of the banjo-led Until Tomorrow, are pretty non-descript and don't really fit anywhere save for a single b-side or a rarities compilation, but there are also many different sketches of tracks that eventually were included in the main release. It makes for quite an interesting process of evolution, so you can witness a short, simple song like Song About The Heart evolve into an eight-minute multi-part journey (the aforementioned Lighthouse) through a painstaking labour of trying, testing and demoing. In the case of Close Your Eyes, it is deconstruction which intervenes, and the result is the intriguing Like A Child, one of the most experimental tracks on the double album.
All these proceedings leading up to the completion and release of the album, which took place over a period of several years, are wonderfully detailed in the insightful, yet funny, liner notes by Tim Bowness, which make the booklet an essential read. Here are a few excerpts: "You can take the man out of the Prog, but you can't take the Prog out of the man" or "The truth was that no-one was eagerly awaiting a new No-man album in 2001", and my favorite, a quote from a journalist reviewing the album: "I don't like anything about this album and what makes it even worse is that it's obvious the band themselves love it". Indeed!
A non-essential release for progheads, but a very worthy addition to any self-respecting all-things-Wilson fan collection.
Rausch - Book II
Doug Rausch is a talented American piano player with an education in ‘serious’ music. Yet he followed his own road that brought him into contact with Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater fame who led him to the world of progressive music. When he subsequently met Gary Wehrkamp, guitarist of progressive metal outfit Shadow Gallery, his dream to record his own album started to materialise. In 2010 he released his debut album, simply entitled Rausch, that was .
That has now been followed by Book II, the difficult second album. The first impression is good. The cover is very well thought out, and the booklet excellently designed. Opener Greener Grass starts off with a really nice, soft piano intro and Rausch’s rather high voice over it. Think of Styx or even Crowded House and you come close. Around the two-minute mark the electric guitar plunges in and the overall mood changes towards an AOR-orientated rock song, one that brings Richard Marx or John Waite to mind. It is quite enjoyable but the intro promised more. Rausch’s voice sounds nice but not remarkable, with enough power and expression to keep the listener's attention.
Swansong is more or less in the same vein and more AOR than prog. The nice, wild guitar solo by Wehrkamp towards the end tilts the song above mediocre, but as a whole the song fails to impress me.
Subtle piano playing opens the very attractive Drain that develops into a slow ballad with acoustic guitar and a very nice vocal melody. After around four minutes, the full band comes in and the song develops further with orchestral keys in the background and a formidable guitar solo. There is a lot of variation in this song, and after seven minutes the acoustic guitar returns, as well as the softly sung vocals, before the song ends in a full eruption of the band. The slow built-up of this song with the use of piano and the fierce guitars alternated with acoustic guitar, reminds me of Mostly Autumn or even Nightwish. It is a very nice song that promises a lot for the rest of the album.
But then things turn for the worse for the first time. The intro of Irked irritated me immediately. The low-sounding synth sound introduces Rausch’s voice in a very low tone that is possibly supposed to create a spooky or menacing mood, but totally fails to do so. Yet where most songs are completely spoiled because of such an lousy intro, Rausch manages to regain the attention through a very attractive, jazzy piece of piano playing halfway through the song, followed by a fantastic guitar solo that reminded me strongly of Ritchie Blackmore. The solo almost closes the song, but unfortunately that irritating low synth theme returns as a coda. And so I was left with a song I didn’t like in the beginning and at the end, but that was quite nice inbetween. You can call that original.
In Good day the masculine American rock attitude that already showed in Swansong returns. It is a nice but unremarkable song in the vein of Richard Marx, typically recorded to get some airplay in the US. The vocal harmonies are nice, the guitar solo is nice but it never stands out.
With The end Rausch completely loses me. It is a repetitive track, with a driving bass and drums theme, lacking a recognisable melody, over which the electric guitar starts to play loud riffs. To cut it short: I think it sounds like a demo that should never have made it onto a real record without further elaboration. But instead it takes up almost 10 minutes of the record, which is a shame.
Next song Time out is quite a cheerful one, with an appealing vocal melody and a decent solo on acoustic guitar. This song shows what Rausch is capable of but too seldom shows, that is, to write a good melody without too much loud instrumentation. But also here the instrumental middle section goes nowhere, whereas the verse and chorus lines are really nice. A good production would have made this one stand out.
Then things seriously go wrong in Speechless. I assume he intended to write some kind of metal track with a very loud electric guitar intro and fast double bass drum playing. The result is a song with such a simple intro that it is almost an insult to the listener. The vocals are too forced, the vocal melody too straightforward, the end too unoriginal. It doesn’t sound like metal, nor like neo-prog, nor like AOR, nor like anything else. It’s in-between all those styles and therefore a total failure.
As if to show that he is perfectly capable of composing beautiful melodic music, Rausch convinces completely with the closing track Slow Suite II: Isolation. It offers just what the title suggests and after the deception of the former song, this track feels like a warm shower after a cold, chilly day. He shows that he is more than capable of delivering a strong melody, for which a stripped-down musical background of just piano is more than enough. It is by far the most convincing track of the album.
Lyrically most of the songs deal with the inner struggle of how to get on with life, and how to deal with the dilemmas that are all around. The lyrics are not particularly uplifting, nor depressing, they are expressing the negative feelings that seem to pop up naturally, and to fight them with positive thoughts that always takes up a lot of energy.
Given the diversity on this album, Rausch is clearly inspired by a wide range of music. Yet what his album lacks are strong compositions. There are many different and attractive musical ideas that come together well in strong songs, like Drain and the closing track. But most ideas deserve a better production, a tighter critical editing, and the addition of an inspired solo like in Irked to make the songs stand out.
Instead it is an album with lots of nice but also some irritating musical moments that lack coherence. That determines to a large extent my rather low rating. I hear a talented musician with loads of ideas but with too little real scrutiny to make all these ideas an entity. Because of the lovely closing track, and because the design of the album as well as the booklet are top-notch, there is no way I can rate this album really low. But it came really close.
Sonar with David Torn - Vortex
The combination of two seemingly disparate and distinct musical styles can often be an abject failure, or surprisingly may occasionally create an unexpected delight. In the case of Sonar’s Vortex, the band's polyrhythmic math rock style has been mixed and melded with David Torn’s exquisite tones and expressive, improvised guitarinterjections to create something that is rarely unappealing, but is frequently magnificent.
Vortex is an album that works on so many levels. The majority of the tracks feature complex and intricate patterns that spin in different directions, but skilfully interlock to create a hypnotic groove.
I have to admit that listening to Sonar’s latest release has been a journey of discovery. I was unfamiliar with their previous albums. After listening to their earlier discography, it is clear that Sonar possesses an adroit ability and awareness of how best to establish a mesmerising landscape of shifting rhythms and sounds, that simultaneously challenge the brain and relax the senses.
This is certainly the case throughout Vortex, but the addition of David Torn gives the band’s sound an altogether harder edge. Vortex has an exciting collaborative, collective air of energy, and possesses an exciting unpredictability. The array of shrieking, soothing and surreal sounds unleashed by Torn's unpredictable loops and effects, appears to be at odds with the satisfying, yet for the most part, politely flavoured compositions, and the minimalist, recurring grooves that are a feature of the band's earlier output.
I was previously familiar with David Torn’s contribution to Jan Garbarek’s It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice and I thoroughly enjoyed Torn’s outstanding range of tones in that release; particularly on One Day In March I Go Down To The Sea And Listen.
However, listening to his contribution on Vortex has been a revelation. Torn is undoubtedly a gifted player who combines virtuosity and technical proficiency with an ability to create emotional timbres full of sustained fluttering. But there is something that is both futuristic and primeval about the gurn-inducing soundscapes and embellishments that he provides. Torn’s contribution to this album contains some of the most enthralling guitar tones and textures that I have heard in many a year.
The stylistic blending of Torn and Sonar brings out the best in all of the performers. The recording session captures something special. The empathy that the musicians share is apparent; as is their determination to create music that is complex, yet entertaining, and above all something that is emotionally fulfilling.
The players are able to deliver a performance that whilst containing elements of a recognisable trademark sound associated with Sonar, also has a fresh, improvised dimension that provides this release with an emotional pull that perhaps is not apparent in the band's tightly spun and carefully arranged previous works. Nowhere is this in more evidence, than in the fully-improvised muscle-flexing, Lookface that concludes Vortex in a notably raucous and thoroughly convincing manner.
The sound quality of Vortex is a definite selling point. The recording has an enjoyable and persuasive clarity that enables the listeners to hear each instrument with unambiguous precision and fully immerse themselves in the aural experience provided. The album was recorded at the Powerplay studios in Switzerland in February 2017 and the sound engineer was D. James Goodwin. David Torn produced the album.
Many of the compositions have a gentle hint of King Crimson about them, and in this respect, both Starless and Bible Black and Discipline eras are suggested by the band's penchant for using complex, recurring guitar patterns, odd beats and shifting loops of sounds. The influence is particularly identifiable in the opening track, Part 44, and in the first half of the impressive Red Shift. In both pieces, the bass of Christian Kuntner has a huge bottom-end sound.
However, it is the precise, delicate and persistent patterns of guitarists Stephen Thelen and Bernard Wagner that create a basis and platform for Torn to establish layers of looped guitars, hewn in granite, but brought to life by the heart. The tightly weaved arrangements that are at the centre of much of Vortex, give Torn numerous opportunities to consistently improvise and to express his creativity in a shower of expansive squalls, screams and sustained sounds.
Red Shift is one of the highlights of the album, and at its onset possesses some attractive dissonant qualities, a great groove and a foot-swinging interlude. The slower-paced free section that precedes the breakout of Torn's guitar, provides a perfect foil for the cryful, expressive mayhem that follows. The contrast between the aggression of Torn’s colourful interventions and the precise patterns laid down by the rest of the band is superb.
My favourite piece is undoubtedly Waves and Particles. Everything about it connects in just the right way. It has great melodic qualities that are disguised, drizzled and draped in recurring rhythms of challenging complexity. It is also energetically equipped with layers of Torn’s spiteful tones. This kaleidoscopic mish-mash of styles is very captivating and makes this piece such a delicately-relaxing and unnervingly-exciting experience
Vortex’s recurring and distinctive style and sound may not appeal to everybody. The album unquestionably has an identifiable atmosphere and approach that is evident throughout, and in this respect some variation of instrumentation might have given the recording some extra colours. On the other hand, the inclusion of perhaps flutes, saxes, or keyboards could have detracted from the very essence that makes the album so palatable. The combination of instruments and unlikely synthesis of styles works superbly.
The skillful and successful application of this mixture, ensures that Vortex has an enduring appeal and possesses a mesmerising trance-like quality.
I initially approached Vortex in a tentative manner, but it was not long before its impressive array of heartfelt compositions and inventive layers of banshee sounds enchanted me. I unreservedly recommend this album. I have enjoyed it and have found it to be a thoroughly rewarding experience. That overall feeling has not diminished, despite numerous plays, and it is obvious that this release has hidden depth.
Nolan Stolz Rock Orchestra - Nolan Stolz Rock Orchestra
This is not an easy album to listen to or to enjoy as it is a dense-sounding prog rock take on some obscure-ish classical pieces from the likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel and Mahler. None of these feature regularly on Classic FM but will be known to many from Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy album which covered Bolero.
The album opens with The Rites Of Spring Suite which itself is an excerpt of the whole ballet score from Igor Stravinsky - not as well known as The Firebird suite that Yes used to cover and use as an intro' piece in the 1970s. This is a very strong and solid composition, that is fairly accessible in that it is pretty straightforward in its execution and style, with Nolan Stolz himself handling keyboards, guitar, bass and drums alongside the flute of Gaiul Winds and Richard Forrester’s guitar parts.
This is great opening number and whilst I realise that prog rock covers of minor classics will not be to everyone’s taste, this is handled both with respect and with openness to the music, whilst allowing for a degree of experimentation. Take for instance the aforementioned Bolero by Maurice Ravel which uses clarinet and saxophones to detail the melody and some fine guitar and organ lines to great effect. This is a piece that builds in intensity and volume with different instrumentation adding emphasis to the beat and tempo. This is a bold reworking of a familiar piece as used extensively by Torvill and Dean in their figure skating peak. Stirring stuff indeed.
This is an album in which persistence and dedication will reward the listener with some great ensemble playing and a very well-produced and balanced sound that improves the more you listen.
However such patience is nothing compared to the patience required by Nolan in creating this disc. To state that this album has been a long-term project, would be a gross under-statement.
Formed in 1999 in Las Vegas, the NSRO began as a side project involving arrangements of Mahler and Stravinsky. The project grew with more arrangements and musicians, but it took several years to record. The project disbanded in 2004 when Nolan left Vegas to go to graduate school. However, the final parts were added in 2007, and Nolan mixed it in 2008. In 2010, he returned to Las Vegas to teach music, at which point the album was mastered the album. It has taken a further seven years however to get an official release on CD and for digital download.
Diversions For Four is a live recording and is a brief and a jazzy exploration of the piece. It includes improvisation using both traditional and graphic notation to the guitar and bass parts whilst retaining the trumpet and percussion elements from the original work. This has a very good guitar line that runs through it and is a very good piece.
You don’t have to be classical buff to enjoy this unusual album, but as I loved the classical re-interpretations of ELP, I find much here to appreciate and enjoy. That said, this is more of a minor release for me, but I do hope that it is well received by the more adventurous prog rock fans.
Next are two short symphony extracts, one from Scriabin and one from Mahler. The Scriabin one opens with a grandiose and bold statement, then at the 1:12 mark a more subdued theme replaces it, changing at the 2:21 mark to a far more upbeat, joyful timbre that is taken at a brisk pace with the guitar line soaring above the melody. This then mutates and takes the theme down to a lower key of E flat from C major. This is a very adventurous musical journey that concludes with the re-emergence of the initial opening.
Symphony No 6 takes Mahler's multi-layered orchestration, with the main theme played by synthesisers with the bassoon strings and brass parts being covered by guitar and bass, with the alma theme being reprised at the very end.
Another concise and accessible piece which leads to the frankly odd weird and slightly disturbing The Erking (sung in English and German) this comes from the warped mind of Schubert and its theme is very disturbing with strong suggestions of cruelty and abuse from the Erking. Musically this is a fast-paced romp or gallop through the tune which whilst pleasant is marred by the narrative and seems to end the album on a downward note.
The booklet that accompanies the music is very informative about how the pieces are put together.
So, in summary this album will not be to everyone’s liking but if you stick with it, there is some elegant and dramatic music on offer here.