Reviews in this issue:
Juhani Aaltonen and Raoul Björkenheim - Awakening
Awakenings is a live album recorded during 2016 at the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland. It features six improvisations performed by the duo of Juhani Aaltonen on flute, and Raoul Björkenheim on guitar. The sound quality of the recording is excellent and the album as a whole could satisfy anybody who enjoys the tasteful trilling of the silver tube and the sonorous sounds of both six- and twelve- stringed guitars.
Raoul Björkenheim is probably best known to progressive music fans for his membership of eCsTacy, who released a number of albums on the American Cuneiform label. Their self-titled debut in 2014 displayed a mix of swirling rhythms, free-jazz sax breaks, an eclectic range of ethnic influences and tasteful guitar embellishments combining elements of both jazz and rock.
Björkenheim is an expressive and fluid performer and his playing throughout Awakening highlights his ability to create soundshapes that captivate and mesmerise.
Juhani Aaltonen is probably best known to prog fans for his membership of Tasavallan Presidentti. Nowadays, Aaltonen is one of the foremost flautists in Finland. He has won numerous awards, including the Finnish equivalent of a Grammy.
Given, both players’ background in free jazz, Awakenings contains little that veers towards avant territory, and given the sparse instrumentation used, this is probably a good thing. The melodic meanderings on offer, certainly creates a less challenging, more accessible, and perhaps ultimately more enjoyable experience for a wider audience to appreciate.
The album is a beautiful listening experience and contains the type of music that is able to create a calm, reflective mood to awake to, as dawn rises, or relax to, as dusk falls.
Aaltonen’s expressive flurries dominate the opening compositions. The silver-plated notes rise gently, and momentarily linger, to waft the room with a pungent, flute-filled essence that will satiate listeners who appreciate the work of artists as diverse as Ian Anderson and Robert Dick.
However, Awakenings has a delightful equilibrium, and its mix of instruments contains a natural feeling of ebb and flow. Björkenheim’s understated embellishments have an equally important role in creating the album's identifiable sound and ensure that it is able to cast a spell that never fails to enchant.
The tunes are accessible enough to be background music, but they come into their own when listened to carefully. The music is largely laid back, gentle and intimate, but as a contrast also includes some particularly fiery flute passages, where grunts, over-blowing and expressive yelps are used to good effect. In this respect, Aaltonen’s style owes more to players such as, Harold Mc Nair and Jeremy Steig, than to Herbie Mann, although there are many melodic moments that exhibit a similar sweetness of sound associated with Mann.
The title track is particularly beautiful. Conversely, the closing piece Eyes Of The Wise contains some of the album's most aggressive moments where Björkenheim’s rhythmic contribution creates a perfect backdrop for a series of fully charged spittle-flying flute lines to dominate and impress.
Pinn Dropp - PD/EP - Re: Verse, Re: Treat, Re: Unite
This punchy, but unwieldly-titled EP, comes from Warsaw-based trio Pinn Dropp. They display their chops over one short and two longer tracks. The shorter song, Kingdom Of Silence, is a classy, mid-tempo, proggy power ballad. It makes you sit up and listen to the great voice that bassist and keyboard player Mateusz Jagiełło possesses. He easily holds his own when singing against Piotr Sym’s elegant guitar solo.
Pinn Dropp then move on to the more epic tracks. These echo their compatriots Riverside and Osada Vida as well as other bands that weave fluidly around the heavy prog/prog rock line such as IO Earth, Kingcrow or even later-day Pendragon. They are not doing anything startlingly original but they are doing what they do really well, innovating with a defined palette.
The two long tracks, Unresolved and Cyclothymia are never less-than-interesting, mixing instrumental passages of power and subtlety within tightly controlled song structures. The use of sinewy synth solos and crisp guitar work, all ably supported by the percussion work of Dariusz Piwowarczyk, makes this a very satisfying set of songs.
The best of these two is Cyclothymia. It has, I thought, a baffling lyric until I Googled the meaning of its title (a condition that resembles mild bi-polar disorder). Thus on a re-listen, that made the song more special.
Pinn Dropp’s PD/EP Re: Verse, Re: Treat, Re: Unite is an excellent taster for the band's talent and potential. It will be interesting which of the many paths hinted at in this three-track selection the band will follow on their next release.
Roz Vitalis - The Hidden Man Of The Heart
This is the new album from the Russian instrumental progressive rock co-operative known as Roz Vitalis, coming three years after their debut album Lavoro d'amore. It is a collection of compositions, joined by pieces of a classical nature performed by a string quartet which adds a good flow to these all instrumental but melodic tracks.
Russian progressive music is making great waves at the moment with the likes of Iamthemorning and Eternal Wanderers all presenting music with great emotional depth, character and individuality. This album adds nicely to that list, as this is a very impressive and immersive experience. You really need to let this music rest on you, to appreciate its beauty and depth. The album is a holistic journey into the soul of man and the string pieces act as a pause for contemplation by, and for, the listener.
The album opens with Someone Passed Over by the string quartet. This is an openly spiritual album addressing the disconnect between man and his search for eternal purposes and meaning. That is quite a heavy subject matter but certainly an intriguing concept, and tracks like Trampled By The Lion And Adder evoke something of that struggle, between what is, and what could be.
This album addresses all of that without words, but with great music in which you can hear traces of the likes of Camel and Steve Hackett, This is a compelling and individual release. It is a mixture of disparate styles and sounds but it’s a journey that richly rewards your efforts and investment.
I really like the link pieces too, as they bring a sense of wholeness to the album and make it an almost cinematic experience (it sounds great on headphones too).
Rhapsody Of Refugees, with its flute passages and prominent bass line and keyboards, sounds like Moon Madness-era Camel and with some fine electric guitar work, this song is a stunning encapsulation of what this band is all about.
Blurred has a guitar line that sounds like it could have come straight from Voyage Of The Acolyte whilst track 6 Thou Shalt Tread Upon The Lion And The Adder is another sprightly jaunt through various cornucopias of musical forms with more strident guitar lines and crashing keyboard sounds all set against a very strong melody line throughout and with lots going on in the mix.
This album is never less than interesting, often captivating and on some tracks outstanding, there is so much going on here that it's almost too rich at times. Jungle Waltz is another favourite track with an almost Mariachi trumpet section and some fine piano before an urgent, almost angry section, evokes the wildness of the jungle and how we find ourselves in that place.
There is plenty of variety to be enjoyed as well. Wounded By The Lion And The Adder has a great violin section that gathers in both intensity and pace to create a fast moving track. Fret Not Thyself Because Of Evildoers opens as a dark and sinuous beast of a piece, before breaking out into something more accessible and less intense with some great bass playing and fine organ work from Ivan Rozmainsky, the main man of the band. A great sounding guitar solo from Vladimir Efimov makes this a standout track amongst a plethora of strong and impressive music.
Overall, this is a very impressive album, and I heartily recommend it to folks who like complex albums, and artists like Camel or Steve Hackett.
Season Of The Crow - Let It Fly
Let It Fly is the self-released debut album by San Francisco Bay Area-based Season Of The Crow. Founded in 2012 by members of different nationalities hailing from Finland, United States, India and Israel, their music can be described as dark, heavy prog with an inclination towards prog-metal. The mysterious artwork, combined with provoking lyrics appends to the image of the band and creates a dark, almost secretive atmosphere which also helps to build the intensity of the music.
Right from the opener, Drink From The Fountain, their trademark becomes obvious. Driving bass-lines, superb technical drumming, and great interplay between the guitar and keyboard throughout. On top of this, vocalist Riki Carignan adds drama and character to the melodies with a lower and darker voice than one might expect from a female vocalist in this field of music. I have to admit I had to get used to her vocals, for I prefer a higher-pitched voice myself, but once you are well and truly exploring the album, her voice works really well and starts growing with each turn.
The first songs are perfect examples off skillful songwriting by drummer Gavin Carignan. Excellent guitar-work can be enjoyed from Kapil Krishnamurthy, which takes turns in harmony with the luscious keys provided by Juha Merimaa. The structure of the songs is compact, inspired and adventurous, laced with multiple layers of depth. Vanden Plas and Porcupine Tree influences, and even themes from seventies hard-rock bands such as Deep Purple (especially the use of the keyboards) can be heard, all done with a modern, energising approach.
Right in the middle of the album, Modis Operandi (a three part suite) makes a bold statement as to what lies in store for us, the listener. It opens with heavy guitars, fast paced drumming and grooving bass-lines supplied by Mike LePond (of Symphony X-fame). Suddenly all the pieces they painted up to this point fall into place perfectly, with Riki’s voice fitting in wonderfully. She shines even brighter in the lighter, more subtle, progressive mid-section that is beautifully coloured by tantalising keys. An even more exiting, slow build-up closes the suite, in a very Porcupine Tree-like climax.
After all this technical virtuosity, Season Of The Crow takes a step back with Garden, a dark, acoustic ballad that is reminiscent of Metallica during their One period. Mostly accompanied by guitar and piano, it’s the perfect set-up for the rest of the album. Still dominated by heavy prog, leaning towards metal, they maintain the high standard they have set for themselves, sometimes also incorporating sounds of the far east.
It culminates with the best track on the album, Into The Sea. A lovely interlude on piano, ignites into bombastic and aggressive prog-metal heaven, reminding me of Savatage during their Gutter Ballet / Wake of Magellan era. Soaring vocals and a bridge filled with blistering solos on keyboards and guitars give this track a never-ending drive, and once it’s finished you are left with a gratified feeling of drifting happily in the open sea.
A first single (Convocations Of Destiny) has been released to support the album, and let’s hope it pays off, for if Season Of The Crow can keep up this level, then they have a bright future ahead of them. Not only is Gavin Carignan capable of writing outstanding, intensely diverse, complex songs, their sound is unique enough to stand out in the big pool of progressive metal. This album will definitely appeal to fans of Dream Theater and Symphony X, if prog-metal is what you fancy, then please check this album out!
Starfish64 - The Future In Reverse
Starfish64 is the well-established music project by German singer-songwriter Dieter Hoffmann. After being in various bands, Hoffmann started this project as a platform for his solo output. Over the years he gathered musicians around him and formed a full band, consisting of Henrik Kropp (drums and design), Dominik Suhl (guitars and basses) and Martin Pownall (basses and guitars). Hoffmann himself sings and plays guitars and keys. He is also responsible for composing the music and writing the lyrics, with input by his band colleagues.
The band has already released a few records, most notably the last two Refugees and An Altered State Of Joy, both critically acclaimed by various music magazines and blogs. On their new record, The Future In Reverse, the band is joined by guest musicians Kass Moody, Julie Pownall, Jan Thiede and Simon Triebel.
With minimal equipment, the band has tried to create a nice stereo sound (recording guitars in a garden shed or drums in a living room) and has succeeded. Not only that, they have also created some very enjoyable music, a kind of relaxed and melodic (and sometimes poppy) prog. At times there are some spacey sounds and atmospheres. The only thing the album lacks is some heavy rock, which would have been a nice addition. Still, the album is good and reminds me of Hogarth-era Marillion or a laid-back Porcupine Tree.
Yesterday's Favourite Smile is a very catchy tune which stays in your head and is follewd by the calm Tomorrow In Dark Water, before Determination kicks in with its 12 minutes of Floydian space rock. Molehils is a little more straight-forward and well-placed between the two long tracks Determination and the next Charting An Abyss, which clocks in at an impressive 18 minutes. The song combines all the previous elements and can be seen as a perfect example of Starfish64's art.
All-in-all this album mixes some nice styles and ideas in a very neat way and shows that the project has turned into a real band that has found its sound. It would be interesting to hear and see them live!