Reviews in this issue:
Dustin Behm - The Beyond
When this debut album was on offer, its description had put it in the direction of Animals As Leaders. For that reason I raised my arm. But it was only to find out that it couldn’t be any more different, so this is an example of an album that has got the wrong reviewer.
The Beyond is a typical instrumental shred album and the instrumental skills displayed are sheer jaw dropping. But in my opinion that’s as far how it goes to put it besides the Washington based geniuses. Sure, AAL are technical geniuses beyond believe, but despite the instrumental inhumanity they still have the skills to write tunes that can attract and draw images to the listeners. Plus, their music has more of a an ambient character which one enjoy when listening.
Mr Behm’s debut does quite the opposite. His intend must have been to use as many techniques as possible to put out the highest amount of notes that can be played by a human, and he has achieved that in many levels. While it’s all overly impressive, yes, jaw-dropping instrumental skills, its production kills it entirely for me. The songs have no emotional output to me, nor images to be drawn in mind, nothing to tell. It’s all pure instrumental skills and Mr Behm has no concept how to write, arrange and mix the different layers of a modern production into sonic depth.
It appears that the backing tracks not only tend to contain as many notes as the leads do, they also are treated equally in tone and levels, so that they don’t separate. For me the backing tracks and leads often blend into one another and I lose overview of what guitar plays which line, and sometimes even the bass guitar interferes. Let alone the sheer mad drum programming, which disturbs even more than it helps as a guide.
And the album does that from beginning to end, although there is one ballad in between. It is like a machine gun, spitting out deadly notes at the listener over and over until he’s done. I’ve been trying to get used to this album so many times, in many variations, so that I could learn to understand the musical speech of it, but, alas, I failed. I never managed to spin the album entirely. Three tracks at once is all I can take, then I’m fed up.
As a reviewer I am in struggle to give it a proper rating, because the composition and production are not good, as all we get to hear is an achievement of artistic instrumental skills. But on the other hand those skills are so incredibly good that it would be wrong to rate it too low. So the compromise is to balance it in the middle, giving credit to both of those worlds.
Circuline - CircuLive::Majestik [CD/DVD]
DVD: New Day, Who I Am, Return, Forbidden Planet, Hollow, Stereotypes, Inception, America The Beautiful, Nautilus, One Wish, Summit, Stay, Silence Revealed
With two studio albums to their name, this is the debut live CD and DVD (or Blu-Ray option if you prefer) from American art rockers Circuline. It captures the band’s performance at the Majestic Theatre, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the 7th May 2016 during the 13th international Rites of Spring Festival (RoSfest).
Unsurprisingly, the setlist is culled from the two previous albums Return (2015) and CounterPoint (2016). The line-up is Andrew Colyer (keyboards, vocals), Darin Brannon drums), Natalie Brown (lead vocals), William "Billy" Spillane (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Beledo (guitar). Guesting on bass guitar throughout is Harold Skeete (Ad Astra) whilst electric violinist Joe Deninzon (Stratospherius) makes an appearance for the final song.
Although the band members have a history of performing covers in various other line-ups, all the songs (with one minor exception) in this 90 minute set are original compositions, indicative of the confidence Circuline have in their own material.
Before watching the DVD, I gave the CD several spins to hear how it stands up without the visual distractions. The sound quality is as you would expect first rate with instruments and voices crystal clear and well placed in the mix. The music is song oriented, mostly around the 6 minute mark although there is ample space, especially in the longer pieces for the musicians to flex their instrumental muscles. Due to time constraints, the instrumental New Day which opens the live set and the DVD (and the last studio album) is omitted from the CD.
Circuline promote themselves as “Modern Cinematic Progressive Rock” and certainly Colyer’s tasteful piano and lush keyboard orchestrations go someway to justifying that claim. I was reminded of one time Simple Minds keyboardist Mick MacNeil (I wonder what became of him) while the strident organ and noodly synth breaks recall the late, great Keith Emerson. This is especially apparent in the longer songs like Hollow featuring an instrumental sequence that tips its hat to ELP’s Tarkus.
Guitarist Beledo on the other hand is from a different school altogether, often improvising around the melody with shredding solos and jazz spontaneity. Stereotypes and Inception boast inventive solos in the style of Allan Holdsworth whilst the mellow jazz playing in Summit and Stay has the taste and refinement of Larry Carlton.
Brannon is a drumming powerhouse and its his rhythmic precision along with Colyer’s meticulous arrangements (as well as their songwriting) that gives the songs their shape and structure. His rhythm partner Skeete had only been guesting with the band for two weeks but he’s completely at home with the complexities of their music. He even gets a solo spot (a la Chris Squire) with his rendition of America The Beautiful.
Like many American prog acts from Kansas to Glass Hammer, strong vocals and harmonies are an important ingredient of Circuline and such is their versatility, Natalie and Billy would be equally at home belting out blues and soul standards. The unison singing is not as harmonious as it could be however, although things do improve as the set progresses. Billy sings in a high register (he also fronts the Led Zeppelin tribute band No Quarter) whilst Natalie has a more rounded, soulful voice.
Watching the DVD brings Natalie and Billy’s performance into perspective. On stage they are in their element, entertaining the audience with amusing between-song banter. Despite my reservations regarding the harmonies, their timing is impeccable with backing vocals courtesy of Colyer. That said, it's the solo verses in songs like Stereotypes and Stay that show their individual qualities to their best advantage.
The DVD video transfer is excellent and benefits from multi-angle camera work whilst the stylish stage lighting is as good as you would expect from RoSfest. The only (minor) disappointment is that the static cameras stay focused on the stage so the audience remain mostly unseen as does the elegant Majestic Theatre auditorium.
The songs themselves boast tight arrangements and catchy tunes, typified in Return and the ballad like Forbidden Planet with its epic instrumental finale. There are plenty of hooks and diversity, including the ringing guitar motif of Inception, the funky groove of Nautilus, the bombastic instrumental workout of One Wish, the smouldering jaziness of Summit and the anthemic choral hook in the otherwise sublime Stay .
There is a final surprise in the closing song Silence Revealed. What sounded like a guitar solo on the CD turns out to be shredding violin solo (and I never thought I would write that in a review) from guest Joe Deninzon. In contrast, Beledo’s solo that follows is uncharacteristically understated and as such I can’t help thinking that this was an opportunity missed. A call and response violin and guitar duel would have surely been a more thrilling way to end the show.
The DVD bonus material includes photo and poster montages plus four promo videos although these can also be viewed on the Circuline website along with excerpts from this show. They are certainly worth a look if only to compare the studio versions of Return, One Wish and _ Silence Revealed_with the live versions and to see the band in action with their previous guitarist and bassist.
Whilst a live release after only two studio albums is potentially limiting in terms of available material, this is a very fine package from Circuline and well above average in terms of songs, performance, sound, visuals and presentation.
Entering Polaris - Godseed
Entering Polaris is the newest studio project by Tom “Tee” Tas, well known for his work with Ostrogoth, Thorium and Neo-Prophet. Whilst being part of these groups, he has written a lot of music ranging in various styles in his favourite genre (metal) intended for future releases under his own flag. Just recently, a fruition in the form of Godseed has revealed itself. Being the first offering of a two-part, it is accomplished with the aid of many vocalist, all successful in the metal department. Similar to concepts like Ayreon and Tobias Sammett’s Avantasia, a big armory of guests were selected including Thomas Vikström (Therion), Georg Neuhauser (Serenity), Björn Strid (Soilwork), Audrey Dandeville (Irradiance) and Sindre Nedland (In Vain), with Tom Tas supplying bass and guitars, assisted by Vincent van Kerckhove on drums.
Tee strikes an instant home run on production, where his foremost thought must have been “the first blow is half the battle”; for it sounds like a bell and mixing throughout is handled extremely well by Simone Mularoni from DGM. Straight away from the opening track Nostalgia For Infinity, the balance and interaction between guitars, bass and drums is spot on, thereby creating the perfect scenery for the vocalists.
A brief melodic intro on guitar and a powerful progressive speed-metal adventure starts, reminiscent of Symphony X. Catchy aggressive heavy riffs trading licks with frequent furious soloing guitars, scattering lots of flying arpeggios. The concrete fundamentals are furthermore supplied by accurate, disciplined, fast-paced drumming and carried onward by strong melodic vocals from Henrik Fevre (Anubis Gate), contrasting nicely against the screams and grunts supplied by Björn Strid.
Following the same canvas we travel onwards in a world of heavy melodic power-metal, set to a high standard, demonstrating great technical skills and quality arrangements. Solidified by influences from the eighties with the likes of Helloween, Judas Priest, early Queensryche and Iron Maiden the relatively short virtuous, powerful tracks flash by leaving nothing to be desired. If you’re a fan you’re in for a treat, for it’s all done to perfection; sometimes lifted with progressive touches like the sax solo in Flightless by Gregg Rossetti (Suspyre), which is a welcome surprise.
Personally I like to have more of those proggy touches and just when my thoughts slowly start drifting astray from this exposure of uniformity in power-metal, the ballad A Song Of Distant Earth grips me by bringing relief. Accompanied by acoustic guitars Lance King (Balance Of Power) hits the spot making this song a desperately needed diversion. From here on in it’s a far better place to reside in. Still aggressive and highly melodic, reminiscent of Savatage and Queensryche, there’s a more progressive angle in Paradise Reclaimed, to which Audrey Dandeville provides her lovely opera vocals blending just right with Neuhauser and Vikström, with second guitar supplied by Joris Van Daele (Michael Angelo Batio).
Saving the best for last, the two final tracks are the actual highlights on the album. Fabio Lione (Rhapsody of Fire) and Arno Menses (Sieges Even, Subsignal) lift the music to a higher plane, where the pleasant tuneful voice of Menses is a delightful experience. An even greater exhibition of adventurous progressive metal gracefully shows at the end with the epic track The Long Run. Executed with influences of Angra and in particular Rush, several vocalists get a chance to shine one final time, providing some lovely harmonies while the melody constantly shifts back and forth, both heavy and subdued, this time assisted by excellent guitars from Dario Frodo (Ostrogoth, Thorium). By far the best track on the album.
I have to admit it’s all impressive, but I think the album could have been superior. The absence of keyboards results in a narrowed playing field and I think they would add some nice colourings. The different vocals certainly add extra dimensions, lifting and accentuating the complex metal tracks. Fsing Sieges Even and Rhapsody in _ The Field Of Ghosts_ turns out beautiful, the analogy is uncanny. However, does the combination of strengths successfully create something different and exiting, or does the result feel like playing it safe? Somehow I can’t beat the impression of the latter.
Still a worthy effort though, and if it’s your cup of tee, please be my guest and listen. You will enjoy this. If your preference is on the even heavier side of the metal spectrum, then the upcoming part two of the series, Thriving Force (under the project name In Motion) might be just the album for you, tapping sternly into the vain of melodic death and trash metal. I’m game to see what lies in store.
GEPH - Apophenia
GEPH are an instrumental trio whose music contains waves of wanton fury and fused with hints of hardened metal, stunning fusion and expressive jazz elements. The band hail from Boston USA and are made up of Josh Goldberg and John Tyler Kent on Chapman Stick and Josh Merhar on drums. The release is very much a collective effort. All of the songs were written and performed by GEPH, with the exception of Little Guy, which was penned by John Tyler Kent.
The bands key elements scrap and scrum, as they create rhythmic patterns, which harmoniously unite, or unexpectedly produce disturbingly distorted passages that discordantly part. This creates an exciting experience, and offers an often tumultuous and cacophonous journey that clasps the listener in a tight embrace from beginning to end. The overall effect of the style of the album and its use of instrumentation is to create an insistent assault upon the senses.
It is difficult to ascribe genres to this impressive release, but the music broadly fits under the fusion label, containing a mixture of grinding grizzled low end riffs that consistently pound pulsate and throb. Their overall style has some similarity to bands such as Mindflowers, Brand X, Liquid Tension Experiment and Tribal Tech. On occasions, the music of GEPH was also reminiscent of the blistering style and complexity of Fromuz.
The use of recurring phrases and riffs that make you want to cling to the edge of the seat is reminiscent of the most endearing work of the Three Wise Monkeys. The album has many changing colours; richly displayed in ever-changing tempos, ambient passages, crunchy rhythms and buoyant stick parts.
The combination of two stick players gives the compositions an easily identifiable sound and provides a deeply satisfying bottom end. Tapping stick lines provide added percussive energy. In many of the compositions, a combination of rhythmic low frequency tones and dextrous drum strikes set the pace and the mood by creating a manic groove.
The music is also often characterised by screaming embellishments of sustained high frequency tones presumably played by a stick and processed with effects, similar in intensity and feel to a sound associated with some of Robert Fripp’s Frippertronic style.
Many of the pieces smoulder and scorch, to detonate with red-lipped passion and clenched-fist fury. There is an abrasive quality about much of the music. This ensures that it reaches out to its audience in a ferocious manner. The album undoubtedly works best when heard in small chunks. Over the course of the album the complexity and intensity of the music has the potential to induce listener fatigue for anyone who might be more accustomed to conventional forms of prog.
To give a more detailed flavour of Apophenia, let me highlight and describe some of the more interesting aspects of some of the tracks on offer.
The album begins with Macroaggressions. Its unexpected tuneful theme that emerges at its mid-point ensures that the piece has a good balance between all-out aggression and carefully crafted, melodic reflection. The next piece, Whole Body Headbang, begins with poly-rhythms and initially has a light air and an overall math rock feel, not unlike the work of Sonar. However, it soon morphs into a showcase of bulging low frequency bursts of distortion, exciting riffing and neck flicking mayhem .
Little Guy offers a change of pace. Its pleasant ambient nature and Frippertronic vibe delivers an opportunity for late night stargazing. Little Guy is a great contrast to what has gone before and provides a pleasant interlude of calm before the intensive riffing contained in the next piece Get Your Insignificance On begins.
Mourningstar is probably the most effective piece on the album. It has some unusual stop start sections and some metal influenced riffing. The spikey relentless drive of this piece more than compensates for any deficiencies it might have in subtlety, timbre or variation.
W.W.F.D is probably the most unusual piece on the album. The first part of the piece contains prominent drums and a fuzzy low end that oozes with purpose and cascades wildly to dominate. The top end features a riff that Jimi Hendrix might have created. The purple haze guitar effect screams out from another dimension as it combines with an extended torture chamber of bottom-end effects and screaming Fripp tones.
This mayhem abruptly ends and a long-running meandering ambient passage emerges to balm the nerves and soothe the senses with droning effects, littered with twinkling star-lit embellishments. Inevitably, the tune turns from indistinct grey to warning red, as the mood gradually changes and the piece concludes with an extended heavy-footed stomping flurry.
Apophenia is a technically adept album. It should appeal to readers who enjoy music that is intense, sometimes chaotic, and full of dark foreboding. It also has some ambient moments that offer opportunities for reflection, but it is more often loud, brash and furious. Overall I found it a disturbing experience and thoroughly appealing.
Piniol - Bran Coucou
This is an intriguing, if difficult, release. Two French avant-garde prog/Rock in Opposition bands have amalgamated to give to the world Bran Coucou. The bands in question are Poil, a keyboard led trio (Antoine Arnera on keyboards and lead vocals, Boris Cassone bass and vocals, and Guilhem Meier on drums and vocals) who have formed this septet with the band ni (Anthony Béard and François Mignot on guitars and vocals, Benoit Lecomte on bass and vocals, and on drums, Jean Joly). Together they form Piniol a band with two drummers, two bass players, two guitarist and a keyboard player. As I said intriguing.
The difficult part comes with the blistering avant-garde prog that Piniol produces. Kicking off with the fourteen minutes Pilon Bran Coucou they lure you in with a deceptively gentle opening before working up quite a head of steam as bludgeoning riffs arise, and that is just in the first four minutes. It breaks into Magma style chanted vocals that babble in fast and precise ways (but in what language I can’t identify with any certainty). Then with another left turn into a brutal, metal edged assault, until it reaches its conclusion.
The rest of the album continues in much the same eclectic, logic-defying vein. Mixing dense poly-rhythm, that two powerhouse drummers can provide, with violent slabs of guitar and a bass heavy sound. In all this the keyboards only occasionally come to the fore and often to my ears lost in the maelstrom. This is complex, heavy and loud amalgam of avant-garde prog, prog-metal, RIO and Zeuhl. These songs have long instrumental sections and baffling, but well sung, vocal parts, though on Shô Shin the vocals are identifiably in Japanese and very rudely in English.
Some of these pieces work better than other for me. I find the longer tracks more wearing but the bass-led shorter songs such as Mimolle where Piniol display their jazzier chops are really good. But my favourite track is Orbite, here Piniol take a post-rock structure and give it a thorough kicking. Ending up with a grungy, dirty Sabbath like conclusion.
This album would suit anyone who thinks Magma need an injection of prog-metal to cure of them of their avant-jazz ways. Piniol never descend into pure noise or discordance, there are always melodies not hummable melodies but melodies nonetheless. Bran Coucou sometimes teeters on the edge of chaos but Piniol always remain in control of this wildly complex music. This is for prog fans with very adventurous ears.