Reviews in this issue:
Mother Bass - Mother Bass
Here we have yet another fine hard rock/heavy metal group emerging from The Netherlands with their eponymous debut album Mother Bass. Ten tracks of thumping music that will tickle the fancy of many metal head fans. In fact if you are metal head then worth checking them out.
Progressive? Not really and I don't think they would want to be classed as such - their website states hard rock / alternative / neo-grunge. Alternative they are but not really pushing anything unique in style but sticking closely to the genre labels they've placed upon themselves.
All the tracks are relatively short, so no excursions into progressive metal extended forms, but replete with power chords, strong riffs, superb guitar solos with a solid drumming and bass department. The vocalist Daan Dekker is worth a special mention. He has a quirkiness about his vocal delivery and it's difficult to say who he reminds me of. The quirky side does in some ways puts me in mind of Peter Hammill and when he hits some of the higher notes, then possibly a touch of Geddy Lee or Robert Plant if I were pushed for names.
Some great guitar solo work from Friso Woudstra, especially on tracks like Sceneries, Roadside Epiphany and Fly. In fact, he achieves a great crunchy sound throughout the album that lends itself to the grungy side of the music.
One track that stuck its head above the old hard rock parapet was the start of the song Grand Old Town. A jazzy guitar vibe intro with a laid back vocal accompaniment before the band came crashing in which really caught my attention. However, too short, but a very good song in its structure. The following track, Stranger Once, is another song that catches one's attention. Slow, sleazy sort of vibe with some nice electric guitar picking before it descends into all out rock with some fine high-pitched vocals.
The best track that sums this band up and their sound is the final track on the album, Eventide. It's probably their closest to being proggy! Everything in there, from great guitar work plus solos, strong bass runs, fine vocals and all accompanied with solid drumming. I think this is their best song.
It's maybe a bit unfair to review this album with a progressive hat on since this is a fine hard rock/metal album that should see the band do well. Their songs are well-crafted, punchy and certainly have a grungy/metal edge to most of them; this is a very tight band. But purely looking at it progressively these guys are not really charting any new waters. I rate this album 6 out of 10.
Not A Good Sign - Icebound
Italian progressive rock has, in the main, kept faith with the heritage of 1970s symphonic prog. But it has evolved the genre in many ways. This is especially true of Milanese band Not A Good Sign. They have used that 70s platform to launch an amalgam of those sounds with the heavier elements of modern prog.
Their third release Icebound follows on from the well-regarded self-titled debut in 2013 and 2015’s equally praised From A Distance. On Icebound you get another album chock-full of mini-epics with keyboards and guitar to the forefront. These are twisty symphonic prog songs and instrumentals that are fresh and alive in their hummable melodies. There is no hint of retro-pastiche or cliché to found.
The trump card here is Not A Good Sign’s judicious use of guest musicians to broaden the musical pallet, adding in timpani, glockenspiel and percussion. The icing on this cake, for me, is the addition of Eloisa Manera’s superb violin. She broadens the musical colour palette in subtle ways. Her interplay with the rest of the band is terrific but really shines on the instrumental Hidden Smile.
Then later in this set you get the inimitable David Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator fame adding saxes and flute to the VDGG-channelling Trapped In. The track builds from soulful bass and vocal through many stages as it moves from a gentle caress to a punch-in-the-face climax. It sent me back to listen to the VDGG live album Vital the only album where Jackson and violinist Graham Smith performed together. This Not A Good Sign track, and indeed the album itself, stands up to this comparison with ease.
Elsewhere on Icebound songs switch and turn in very interesting ways. On Frozen Words the music moves from acoustic, almost folk prog, to full-on symphonic prog and where you might think they will go down a jazz route they pull a surprise by going into guitar led heavy prog that heads off towards prog metal territory. This is great stuff.
All in all, Not A Good Sign’s Icebound is an album of Italian prog that moves the genre on into very interesting and adventurous areas. The heavy symphonic prog here has focused melodies and punchy arrangements. Icebound is well worth investigating.
Pinski - Sound The Alarm
Pinski is the nickname of German Cologne-based composer, singer and guitarist Insa Reichwein. Pinski has been active in the music scene since around 2010, when she formed a band called Who’s Pinski, who recorded three EPs in their first five years of existence. In 2016, she gathered a more stable line-up consisting, besides her, of Stephan Schöpe (drums), Ian Alexander Griffiths (guitar), and Christopher Streidt (bass). She abbreviated the band’s name to Pinski and started work on the recording of the first full length album.
Production of that album was taken care of by Fabio Trentini, known for his cooperation with, amongst others, H-Blockx, Donuts, and Guano Apes. Hence, it is not totally surprising that Pinski’s music is not too far away from that musical genre. The record label’s press clipping accompanying the release describes Pinski’s music as “rock with a strong progressive note”. I don’t fully understand why the record company is trying to emphasis the progressive touch of this release, instead of selling it for what it is (in my view) and what it does particularly well: alternative rock in the vein of bands such as The Offspring, Bad Religion, Green Day and the ones mentioned above. Imagine Billy Talent with a female singer.
Okay, there is a slight hint of progressive here and there, some Porcupine Tree (without keyboards, though) basically in Red Sun, Humanity, and Society. But to my ears, it is a rather ephemeral impression. So much for subjectivity.
Anyway, don’t let yourself be misled by the album cover, which might suggest a singer-songwriter style of Pinski’s music. That is not the case. Her vocals can be mellow, angry, tender, desperate, severe, and yet always highly passionate and emotional, as evidenced in particular by the beautiful Stay Alive. Her distorted acoustic guitar is a perfect complement to Ian Alexander Griffiths’s crisp and punchy riffing and Stephan Schöpe’s virtuous and accurate drumming.
Lyrically, the eleven songs, all of which have been written by Insa Reichwein, deal with various aspects of relationships between people and elements in our society, which Pinski does not seem to always be in agreement with, particularly apparent in the song Society itself. There is a good balance between short, catchy and rocky pieces (Ugly Side, Sound The Alarm_, III) and ballads (Butterflies, Light Calling).
Approaching this album with my prog mind and listening to it with my prog-minded ears, it did not blow me away. Being a bit old-school in that respect, I am missing keyboards, long tracks, and more complicated song structures. Listeners with a stronger (alternative) rock affinity would probably see that differently. It is yet another example of how broad the scope of "progressive" can be and how strong it depends on each one’s subjective evaluation.
Does my personal, humble assessment implicate that the music is of inferior quality? Not at all. Judging the album merely based upon "prog or not" would be unjustified. We are being offered a dynamic, varied, powerful, and tight piece of music, excellent musicianship and a flawless production. It might definitely be worthwhile to see and hear Pinski play live.
Royal Architect - Et In Arcadia Ego
I can't remember when I received an LP, an actual LP, to review. Slowly going back to vinyl, I can only applaud this initiative! Royal Architect are a new band from the USA, led by Matthew Graboski. He is no doubt related to Jay and Jeff Graboski of Oho, once hailed as the American answer to Pink Floyd. With the LP, I received two CDs with older recordings under the name of Oho (one of which is reviewed here) and another CD by El Sledge (+), another band with Matthew Graboski, from a while ago.
But back to Royal Architect for now. Their music is described by themselves as "hard-hitting guitar/piano rock with some progressive flair". That fits, but for readers of DPRP I would like to add something. Rock songs are the foundation, but there is a lot of variety in sections and contrast between powerful and delicate, that to me is more than just "some progressive flair".
Piano indeed. Expect no synth solos. A lot of the music on this album relies on the interplay between guitar and piano, and they succeed in producing a very interesting record. It is one that is progressive, which might be surprising to readers who expect a lot of synths in their prog. It has all, of course, to do with how they play it. Different approaches in the songs make it a varied offering. Sometimes the piano takes lead, sometimes the guitar. I especially like it, as happens several times on the album, when the piano adds a layer of melancholy to the the soaring guitar melodies, making it very emotional and powerful.
Think of intricate melodies of Kansas, but perhaps less complex. Or like Styx, but then more progressive, not AOR. Where a song like As Above, So Below has a rock song structure, especially during the verses and choruses, the underlying music has lots of breaks and changes in volume and speed.
The vocals might be a bit of an acquired taste but I've acquired it. It's an emotional and powerful delivery, and with the rough edges it's not a typical prog voice. It depends on your taste what you think of that, but to me that is a good thing.
The most important aspect of this album is that the music is intense, often haunting. It was a good choice to select Draco Volens for the opening track as it is a good introduction to the album's diversity of songwriting and playing, and even more so the atmosphere. Where the guitar wails, the piano builds up the tension. This song could have lasted a bit longer to my taste.
The attitude towards melody and intensity reminds me of Timothy Pure, taking a post-rock influence into solid rock songwriting, where the experience, feel, and effect of the music are very important. Afternoon Phantoms has a touch of Nektar in the guitar melody. The second half of This Cloak could be a heavier Pink Floyd. But most important is the impact it has on the listener. Even in a subdued song like Afternoon Phantoms, the first part being a ballad, the guitar melody makes the atmosphere palpable. Let The Knives Sing is almost terrifying, going all kinds of places with its sudden breaks.
Where my taste usually prefers something heavier (I also quite like the El Sledge (+) album), with every spin, this album keeps making me close my eyes and feel the music, growing on me more and more. What a great and refreshing surprise!
Slivovitz - Liver
On their latest album recorded live in Milan in 2016 and appropriately titled Liver, Slivovitz has successfully managed to capture the excitement of their performance in a series of groove driven tunes. The album has a playful exuberance. The Italian octet’s ability to lay down compelling rhythms with a persuasive power to excite is at the forefront of much of what is on offer.
The album draws upon material from the bands Bani Ahead, All You Can Eat and Hubris releases. It also includes a refreshing interpretation of Nirvana’s Negative Creep.
The bass playing of Vincenzo Lamagna and industrious drumming of Salvatore Rainone offer a buoyant foundation for the other players to extend and develop the tunes. This helps to ensure that the pieces on offer in Liver are relatively different to their studio counterparts. The studio compositions have a more sophisticated sound and their excellent sonic qualities helps to give those compositions a greater dynamic range. Nevertheless, the inventive live interpretations of the material and exciting energy that is on display easily compensate for any loss in depth or subtlety.
The rhythm section's contribution helps to create a contagious funk-driven sound. Liver's belly-shaking rhythms could make the wearing of a corset compulsory for some men over a certain age. Even when tightly trussed, the persistent rhythms have a way of finding a way through. At the very least, the albums pugnacious hooks and riffs are sure to lead to involuntary finger and foot tapping. It is clear from the outset, that Liver has a capability to move hapless limbs in all directions. Liver is perhaps best listened to, in a room with ample space for high leg kicks, long arm handclaps, belly flops and unrehearsed torso shaking.
The album contains numerous passages where the combination of trumpet and sax impose themselves on proceedings, to create a foot loose, trouser popping, and shirt-free mix of interlocking riffs, melodious intervals and expressive blowing. The sound that they produce is often larger than life and in this respect, the use of woodwind and brass instruments provides a style that is similar, but is perhaps even more infectious than the music of Herbie Hancock, Nucleus, Snarky Puppy, or Loose Tubes.
Despite being an eight-piece rather than a large collective of musicians, Slivovitz has many of the facets that Snarky Puppy brings to the table. Both bands showcase funk-laden instrumental jazz fusion music that has a big sound and is constructed containing danceable beats, strong melodies and memorable motifs. In a live setting, the jazz conventions inherent in the framework and structure of the compositions, provides many opportunities for both bands to improvise and stretch things out.
However, whilst Snarky Puppy tunes are frequently polite and sophisticated, Slivovitz often demonstrates a more white-knuckle, impolite approach to both composition and particularly performance. Slivovitz’s compositions are characterised by their overall unpredictability and willingness to introduce the leathery scent and clenched fist aggression of rock into proceedings.
Slivovitz’s music often exudes an air of spontaneity. The band members are able transmit a palpable sense of excitement and are able to thrill and impress with their skill and panache. Slivovitz’s albums have a progressive edge where tunes often shape shift and evolve. Their compositions frequently give opportunities for memorable motifs to recur and face gurning riffs to take centre stage. This is particularly the case during the colourful performance captured in Liver that is arguably much more raucous than anything associated with Snarky Puppy.
Such stylistic comparisons are largely erroneous, as Slivovitz has perfected the art of offering a sound that often has a distinctive style. In this respect, their frequent use of a violin as a solo voice within the octet has an important part to play in the soundscapes created. The free squalling and scraping of the bow in the excellent solo passages in Cleopatra and Mani In Faccia are excellent. The unexpected interlude in the latter stages of Currywurst also displays violinist Riccardo Villari skill and virtuosity to good effect.
Similarly, guitarist Marcello Giannini provides the band with an extra dimension and gives their music an identifiable rocky texture. His rhythmic embellishments and use of distortion in tunes such as, Mani In Faccia complement the music perfectly to give the band’s sound a hard edge when required. His solo during Caldo Bagno is without doubt, one of the highlights of the album. It is enthralling and provides a glorious granite strewn interlude before proceedings end with a satisfying saxophone part.
The unusual inclusion of a harmonica as a featured instrument, in what is essentially a funk laden fusion band gives Slivovitz a uniquely identifiable style. Derek di Perri offers a great contrast to the sax, trumpet, violin and guitar parts. He provides the music with a cobalt pigmented dash of earthy blues. His spotlight in Currywurst contains more than enough primeval pull to compel a listener to demand another course by hitting the repeat button.
The whole of Liver is similarly, a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which warrants repeated listens. It has excellent sonic properties. There are no lengthy spoken introductions, which overtime can become tiresome. Crowd noise is never intrusive.
I am sure that I will continue to play this entertaining release in the months to come.