Reviews in this issue:
Alkaloid - Liquid Anatomy
Alakaloid emerged out of Bavaria in 2014, formed originally by Hannes Grossmann (ex-Obscura, ex-Thulcandra, Blotted Science to name but a few) and was joined by Morean (Dark Fortress, ex-Messenger (the one from Bavaria)). They were soon joined by other veterans of the extreme metal genre, including ex-Necrophagist member Christian Munzer. They quickly got an album out in 2015 (The Malkuth Grimoire) to favourable reviews and have returned in 2018 with follow up album Liquid Anatomy. Having been a fan of progressive music and a lover of extreme metal (and indeed some of the members of other and previous bands) I look forward to this.
Based on the band’s previous experience, you can expect a heavy album. But this one combines elements of almost funky prog riffing, reminiscent of bluesy prog like Ayreon with the technical death metal elements early Opeth and Dismember.
The band are supremely talented and showcase all this well. It has everything you would want from a technical death metal band: blast beats and machine gun drumming, riffs that drip heaviness and solos designed with the single job of melting faces. It also has everything you would want from a prog album: odd time signatures, complex passages, a mixture of styles woven through (Azagoth for example having some eastern influences in the music), changes to keep you entertained and guessing what will happen next and contrasting sections.
The talent is shown in the difference between tracks such as As Decreed By Laws Unwritten (largely death metal), Liquid Anatomy (a more ‘mellow’ track) and In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches, which contains what can only be described as some funky bass work and drumming and really brings in the old prog influences, with some sounds similar to Yes and Rush.
The stand out tracks for me would be Liquid Anatomy, this seems to blend a style of prog similar to Blind Guardian and what sounds to me like a death metal version of new Katatonia and some very melodic leads, and Rise Of The Cephalopods. This final, near 20-minute epic close is essentially this album condensed. Technical, heavy, proggy, epic, with bits to sing along and bits to let your hair down and head bang to your heart's content. A superb closer for a brilliant album.
If you like your extreme metal such as Bloodbath, Unleashed, Dismember as well as your prog such as Ayreon, Orphaned Land or Blind Guardian then definitely have a listen. I doubt you will be disappointed. If this album isn’t regarded as a classic of the progressive extreme metal genre in the coming years, I will eat this review.
Daniel Crommie - Winter Roses
Winter Roses is the latest solo album from multi instrumentalist Daniel Crommie in a recording career spanning 43 years. A native of Portland, Oregon he is also a member of DC Sound Collective whose current album The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small I played and reviewed back-to-back with this release (see below). Here, Crommie plays all the instruments including concert flute, various bamboo and clay flutes, analogue and digital synthesizers, gongs, bells, cymbals, samples and rhythm devices.
He describes the music as “Part cinematic soundtrack, part audio travelogue… somewhat experimental, Winter Roses extrapolates upon themes of light and shadow, tuneful and abstract, quietude and other-worldly dissonance.” I’m not so sure about “cinematic” although I can imagine some of the pieces accompanying a low key scene in an arthouse movie. “Tuneful” is also a bit of a stretch but otherwise I would say it's a reasonable assessment.
Crommie goes on to describes some of the pieces as “improvisational” and certainly there is often a distinct absence of melody and development. And although the 14 tracks vary in length from just over 1 minute to 9 minutes, there is little to differentiate between them in terms of structure or tempo. Only the sound of the instruments - flute, synths and percussion, distinguish each piece. Crommie is a fine flutist but there is no displays of showy musicianship here, his playing is for the most part somber and understated.
The opening track King Nine is the exception with an engaging little flute and keys melody in the vein of Mike Oldfield and what sounds like tabla drums. Seven Cycles also holds the interest thanks to its quirky rhythms and sustained synth theme whilst the minimalist An Oceanic Moment has an undeniably hauntity quality.
Sadly the rest of the album consists of mostly minimalist offerings with the emphasis on improvised flute, ambient synths and occasional synthetic percussive loops. I have to confess that by the mid-album stage and the surprisingly low key title track Winter Roses my attention span was being to flag.
As such, I greeted the final track Starlit almost with a sense of relief even though the swirling, spacey synths (in the vein of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream) barely sustain its 9 minute length.
Winter Roses is undeniably a very personal work from Daniel Crommie that does perhaps deserve a more sympathetic ear than mine. If you are an admirer of Brian Eno for example then there may be a good deal to your liking here. Fortunately, all the tracks can be heard on Crommie’s bandcamp site so please listen and judge for yourself.
DC Sound Collective - The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small
Led by Oregon based multi instrumentalist Daniel Crommie, DC Sound Collective have been around since 2011 with several CDs to their credit. The four most recent have been reviewed by the DPRP with mostly positive (if not necessarily high scoring) results. Crommie’s career goes back much further however as the 64 albums listed on his bandcamp site testify. As well as those released under his own name there are various side projects including Group Du Jour, Saturnalia Trio and Echo System.
Released in 2017, this is their most recent album with Crommie providing flutes, keyboards, percussion, harmonica and samples. He is joined by DCSC regulars Eldon Hardenbrook (bass, electric and nylon string guitars, keyboards, drums), Bruce Hazen (electric guitar) and Colin Henson (electric guitar). During the nineties and noughties Henson was guitarist with cult experimentalists Jade Warrior with whom DCSC have an obvious affinity. Additional musicians include Leslie Gray (violin, viola), Bo Parker (tongue drums, tubes) and Michael Maldonado (soprano sax).
The tracks are all instrumentals which is perhaps not a bad thing given the comments I’ve read regarding the vocals on the previous albums. The music can be loosely described as free-form with a semi improvised, laidback jazz vibe. Crommie and his collaborators favour colours and textures over melodies, hooks and riffs, preferring instead to explore the sound potential of their instruments.
The opening cut K-219 features flute to the fore with an earthy, baroque tone very much in the style of Thijs van Leer and Ian Anderson. A touch of nylon guitar, Mellotron-like strings and distorted guitar brings Robert Fripp instantly to mind. Sadly the drum sound is thin and synthetic, undermining the overall dynamics of the piece.
Tradewind a very loose, lightweight jazzy instrumental with much improvisation, particularly in the guitar department. The highlights are Hardenbrook’s articulate fretless bass lines and a dreamy Mellotron interlude. The ending has a distinctively Middle Eastern flavour.
Umbriel is the most tuneful track on the album thanks to an engaging slide guitar melody underpinned with a variety of percussive effects the gives it a world music ambiance. El Faro has a lazy, sultry ambiance that ebbs and flows with flute and harmonica weaving in and out. It has an hypnotic charm although this barely justifies its 8 minute length.
As you would gather from the title, the epic length closer Apophis 3 is the third in a series of similarly themed DCSC tracks. The name comes from an asteroid that caused a brief period of concern in 2004 regarding its potential close proximity to the earth.
The track opens in dramatic fashion with orchestral keyboard stabs before embarking on a variety of instrumental interludes. These include a pastoral acoustic guitar and flute section, ambient electronica grooves, avant-garde sound effects and a bluesy guitar solo with a Latin rhythm the brings Santana readily to mind. A big, trebly guitar part recalls Ennio Morricone’s Man With A Harmonica theme leading to a sustained Floyd-ian ambient keys and guitar interlude. A mellow sax solo over a ringing guitar rhythm recalls the smooth jazz of Spyro Gyra before a haunting Vangelis-like finale.
Whilst it undeniably has its moments, I have to confess that at 36 plus minutes this track did stretch my powers of endurance a little which is a fair summation of the album as a whole. The overall mood is mellow with a total lack of urgency which may prove to a be a little off-putting for some. On the plus side, it boasts a crisp, clean sound ensuring every instrument cuts through, although as in the case of the thin drum sound that’s not always a good thing.
The album title by the way is taken from the book The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small published in 2008. Written by Marian Wright Edelman, it addresses the abuse, abandonment and poverty suffered by millions of children throughout the world. Given the absence of lyrics, there’s no obvious connection between this album and the book but it is a great title all the same.
Dinosaur - Wonder Trail
Dinosaur’s previous album Together As One was a finalist for the coveted Mercury prize in 2017. After the success of that album, it would have been understandable if for their next release, Wonder Trail that the band continued in the same style. Bandleader Laura Jurd has not stylistically allowed herself and the band to tread water.
Wonder Trail is a very different type of album. It is as if Dinosaur has used the springboard of their Mercury success to challenge preconceptions about the band. Jurd’s bold vision to extend the stylistic boundaries associated with her band works well. The decision to explore new territories may well perhaps alienate some of the audience that found Together As One such a palatable experience.
Whilst Together As One was a thrilling and engaging album, full of interesting compositions containing an accessible form of jazz fusion that differing audiences could enjoy, Wonder Trail is altogether a much more challenging experience, where he compositions stretch across a number of stylistic boundaries. The album demonstrates how Jazz based music can incorporate a number of other genres in a distinctive and often unique mix of sounds.
This clever amalgam exhibits itself in many different ways. Wonder Trail’s ambitious fusion includes folk melodies, ambient segments and free jazz diversions in its eclectic mix. By far the biggest change in the band’s sound is the frequent utilisation of a raft of electronic effects. Keyboard player Elliot Galvin’s use of various synthesisers has an important role in the bands arrangements.
In this respect, Galvin’s decision not to use the Hammond sound that was integral to much of Together As One was initially disappointing. However, his interesting use of and blend of synths, gives Wonder Trail an avant-synth-pop 80s wash and develops some of the stylistic innovations that Polar Bear were associated with during the first decade of the millennium. The mixture of effects fits in perfectly with the band’s latest arrangements. Galvin’s excellent recent solo album, The Influencing Machine included sections that hinted towards this direction in a number of the tunes, but in Wonder Trail this style comes fully to fruition.
In Wonder, Trail his use of an assortment of synths, electronic textures and drones is at the heart of many of the compositions. Galvin creates soundscapes and swirling cascades of richly rhythmic effects that either set the scene, or embellish the parts played by the other instruments. When Galvin’s interjections interweave with the magnificent rhythm section led by drummer Corrie Dick and the melodious trumpet lines of Laura Jurd, the result is often enthralling.
Jurd is a masterful trumpet player who manages to combine the edginess and brilliance of players such as, Miles Davis with some of the warm tones that might be associated with Ian Carr. As might be expected, her performance throughout Wonder Trail is faultless and is full of memorable phrasing and expressive solos.
There is a powerful intensity inherent within a number of the tunes and this is only emphasised by the heavy-toned, insistent and often beautifully ugly bass lines of Connor Chaplin. These are often highly placed in the mix. His playing throughout is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the release. The album has wonderful dynamic qualities and the expressive manner in which the band shift between loud and reflective quiet passages is also a standout feature of the album.
The mid part of Wonder Trail is by far the strongest and I have found myself drawn to Shine Your Light, Forgive, Forget, Old Times' Sake and Set Free, repeatedly. The latter half of the album conversely contains pieces that push against boundaries and can be challenging.
Swimming and Renewal (Part II) contain abstract interludes, full of innovative expressionism and beautifully melodic segments in equal measures. These instrumental paragraphs with their own sub-plot and interesting twists and tunes, sit together within each piece, to form the equivalent of a musical short story. This uneasy mix of opposites works well. They show that Dinosaur’s art is not always about tuneful arrangements and whistle ready melodies, but can be about provocatively ugly soundscapes designed and arranged to create a profound effect.
A number of tunes feature laid back vocals. This is a new departure for Dinosaur and this human touch helps to soften the undoubted technical expertise and instrumental virtuosity that is on display, to give these tunes an endearing heart felt dimension. Many of the vocal pieces incorporate a Zen like message and exude an underlying spirituality. The combination works well and ensures that Wonder Trail has enough variation to make it a satisfying experience. The piece that concludes the album And Still We Wonder, is a wonderful example of this alluring mix.
Wonder Trail is a fine example of how young British jazz musicians and bands such as, Rob Luft, Snowpoet, Strobes and Big Bad wolf, are producing music that pushes against stylistic boundaries and should appeal, not only to jazz aficionados, but also to fans of progressive music.
Whether their brand of genre crossing music will interest fans of classic prog bands such as Yes and Genesis is debatable. However, if you enjoy prog bands that include a smattering of jazz influences such as, National Health, or appreciate the fusion of Incahoots, Nucleus and Soft Machine, then some, or all of the work of this current wave of British Jazz artists might appeal.
In this respect, Dinosaur’s Wonder Trail might be a good place to start. It is certainly a fine album!
Sammal - Suuliekki
Although I am a big fan of progressive rock coming from Scandinavia, I must confess that this band, which with Suuliekki already release their third full length album, has completely escaped my radar. Sammal hail from Turku, Finland. Their self-titled debut came out in 2013, followed by the EP No 2 in 2014 and Myrskyvaroitus in 2015.
The band state that they devoted more time collecting new song material and incorporating new ideas into the songwriting prior to releasing Suuliekki. Although I am still catching up I am still not familiar enough with Sammal’s earlier work to fully assess that statement and to recognize substantial differences, but it seems that the music has moved away a bit from that spontaneous jamming style to show more constructed song structures.
The line-up of Sammal is stable and consists of Jura Salmi (guitar, keyboards), Janu Kiviniemi (vocals), Juhani Laine (keyboards, guitar), Lasse Ilano (bass), and Tuomas Karivaara (drums and percussion). Sammal’s music is deeply rooted in the 70s prog/psych area. Fuzzy guitars alternate with driving Hammond to provide for a dense, atmospheric, tight, cohesive and analogue sounding music with a strong vintage character.
Folky elements inherent in many other Scandinavian bands’ works are less present here. Instead, Sammal’s songs sometimes are symphonic and melodic (Suuliekki, Herran Pelko, Ylistys Ja Kumarrus: my favorite with its beautiful synthesizer/organ/guitar interplay in the middle section), psychedelic and spacey (Samettimetsä, the only track which is a bit darker, and Vitutuksen Valtameri), hard rock (Lukitut Päivät, Kiitävät Yöt, Pinnalle Kaltevalle) and retro prog (_Maailiman Surullisin Suomalainen).
I don’t understand a single word of the lyrics, but the voice of Janu Kiviniemi perfectly suits the music and both intonation and melody merge for an overall harmonious impression. Overall, Sammal’s music wilfully appears to be a bit odd, old-fashioned and quirky in a sympathetic way. It is unpretentious, naturally-sounding, accessible but with the necessary twists and turns. The band have avoided to unnecessarily drag out their songs, coming up with an LP-friendly overall length of around 44 minutes, whetting the listeners’ appetite for more. The more I listened to the album, the more I liked it.
I had to rack my brains to come up with suitable comparisons with respect to Sammal’s music. Whilst this is also owing to my scarce knowledge of the Finnish progressive rock scene, it certainly is due to a large extent to Sammal’s originality. Their music by and large lacks the moody, dark and melancholic atmosphere, the stringency and the seriousness sometimes displayed by bands such as Anglagard, Anekdoten, Viima and Sinkadus. Instead, it is rather laid-back, upbeat and here and there comes across with a wink. There are hints of Uriah Heep and Deep Purple for the more hard rock-oriented songs mentioned above, which are a bit like what we know from the Black Widow label (Wicked Minds for instance).
Whilst simply lumping Sammal together with other Scandinavian retro prog/hard psych bands would mean to underestimate the band’s individuality, it is fair to say that analogies exist with peers such as Malady, Tusmorke (without the flute, though), Aardvark, Overhead, and Von Hertzen Brothers. There is the bit of everything in Suulliekki, without the music becoming incoherent.
Listeners familiar with (and fond of) the bands mentioned above will recognize their influences, but will be provided with something discrete, not with a mere clone. I hope that with this release, Sammal will step out of what I believe is still a small circle of insiders. They surely would deserve the be known by a wider audience.
I was inclined to deduct .5 of the grade for the inferior sound quality of the digital files I was provided with. However, I refrained from doing so, because the band is not able to help it that labels prevent reviewers from reviewing based upon the best available quality source (CD or files in at least 16 bits / 44.1 KHz). Reviews can't cover things as sleeve, artwork, booklet, and lyrics (not applicable in this case as commenting on Finnish lyrics clearly is beyond me, but anyway). Pity. You can buy the album (CD or LP) from Svart records or buy lossy and lossless files from the band's Bandcamp site.