Reviews in this issue:
Plini - Sunhead
One of the problems in releasing one EP after another is that one has a lot of releases but only little recognition in an album-oriented world. For that matter it took us 11 releases to take a full note on on the work of this genius. But we cannot neglect his music any longer!
What began as a couple of ambitious guitar studies years ago, in an attempt to fill the footsteps of artists á la Animals And Leaders, has grown and increasingly got better over time, resulting in a great album that was released in 2016. Plini’s style has evolved into a pretty unique sound, which can be placed in the regions of David Maxim Micic, Sithu Aye and the likes: pretty ambitious instrumental music that combines heavy metal elements with the cool ambient sounds of easy jazz songs, welded together in a complex, progressive way. Handmade Cities was a great album concerning music theory and instrumental skills and was kind of an easy listening ear pleaser, very good but nothing that would make you jaw drop.
The collection of tunes released under the name Sunhead somehow marks a U-turn in direction and have to be labeled as "EP of the year". Plini found the most exotic chords and progressions, music is capable of it seem and created melodic arcs of adventurous harmonics to them. It is a jazz piece we’re talking about here, one of the most versatile I’ve ever heard, ranging from ambient, moody moments to heavy outbursts in a way that’s always keeping the listener in a good mood but never has enough room to let the mind go wandering. It is stuffed with so many ideas, riffs and changes that one might wonder how all that can fit in just one song. And still he provides room for solo spots of every musician involved.
It is a jazz piece of such a high standard that a league of highest-standard jazz musicians must be ripping out their hair while trying to write something similar in quality. It took me at least two dozens of spins to get familiar with most details of the composition and I still enjoy every listen just like the first time I ran into this awesome piece of music. 9,5 points out of 10 only to shout out to Mr Plini: „I want a full album of this, please!“
Rainburn - Insignify
For a little while now, I have been predicting that the Indian sub-continent will be the next big hot-bed for forward-looking progressive music.
Back in 2014 I reviewed the excellent debut album by Hindu rockers Coshish and also hailed Rainburn's debut five-track EP Canvas Of Silence. Both bands showed an ability to mix and meld styles from across the world, and both releases were listed among my best albums of 2014. Rainburn's track Refuge has a harmonic-hook-from-heaven which made it my most played song of that year.
Since then I have been keeping a close eye on numerous young Indian bands that have been emerging and been developing an exciting range of new sounds. The economic, cultural and logistical barriers have meant that few have yet to release a full album, but of those that have, Skyharbor and Motherjane have impressed many, whilst Fossils is worth seeking out for their engaging mixture of Bengali language and progressive rock. Indian progressive metalcore group Gaia, formed by multi-instrumentalist Abhiruk Patowary, will release its debut album, Aerial, next month.
Indian bands offer such exciting possibilities because of the way in which they seem able to evolve the rich heritage of progressive music from an entirely new perspective, by incorporating a lot of influences from Indian classical and folk music. All of the bands listed above will sound very distinct, compared to prog rock bands from elsewhere.
And there is no better example than Rainburn, a promising band out of Bangalore whose debut full album is about to be released.
They have even managed to encapsulate their rich mélange of styles and cultures in the album title; Insignify being a portmanteau of signify (to symbolise something) and insignificance (having no consequence).
Insignify is a concept album, told from a musician’s point of view, that deals with issues of existentialism, the significance of human life, narcissism, craving importance, insecurity and the search for reason. The protagonist of this story, Vincent, goes through the entire range of these emotions within the span of a single day.
A remarkable and central feature of the Indian classical music tradition is the use of ragas or raagas. A melodic framework for improvisation consisting of at least five notes, they are considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to "colour the mind" and affect the emotions of the audience.
In Hindustani (north Indian) music, many ragas are associated with a particular time of day or night. For the compositions within this album, ragas specific to the time in the story are often used as departure points.
Not for a moment does this sound like "indian” classical music, but there is most definitely something in the way that these ten tracks are composed that has created music which sounds fresh and original and exciting.
Musically this sits somewhere between the realms of heavy progressive rock and lighter progressive metal. The guitar (split 50/50 between acoustic and electric) is far more prominent than they keyboards. Indeed the guitar work of Vats Iyengar is spellbinding throughout this album; no more so than on the opening song Merchant of Dreams (a remixed version from the debut single). Suicide Note follows a similar style and is equally enjoyable.
Elsewhere (Elusive Light, Mirrors and Within) the band mixes an almost 60s hippie pop-rock sensibility with some familiar and some less-familiar progressive stylings. I just love the vocal harmonies, akin to those used by Moon Safari or Simon & Garfunkel.
Someone New sits somewhere in between the two extremes. With its clear Pain Of Salvation and Kingcrow influences, it is one of my favourite tracks. School Of Atlantis highlights some of the band's jazz influences, with a great use of the flute towards the end. This is another favourite song.
The only track which does not work is Purpose, where a new style of vocal work is attempted, but sounds really horrible.
Overall Insignify is an incredibly impressive debut album from a band with a bright future ahead. If you would like to hear why Indian progressive music has such an exciting future, then this is as good a place to jump onboard as any.
(Note: Copies have already been distributed to those who supported the crowd-funding appeal for this album. The band is due to release this album independently on 7 November. Please watch their website or Facebook pages for more details)
Servants Of Science - Another Day - The Swan Song: Live
Almost three months to the day after releasing their debut album, The Swan Song, Servants Of Science recorded the whole album again, although this time live at The Prince Albert public house in their home town of Brighton. A brave move, even more so considering it appears it was the debut gig by the band, which comprises Stuart Avis (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Andy Bay (bass), Neil Beards (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Helena DeLuca (rhythm guitar, vocals), Adam McKee (drums) and Ian Brocken (lead guitar).
The album, a concept, tells the tale of an astronaut who witnesses the end of the world while floating in space, although if that hadn't been stated in the press release of the studio version it would be pretty impossible to determine this from the lyrics, although some of the NASA dialogue may have given a subtle hint.
The album is very well recorded, particularly as Servants Of Science are a relatively large band performing in a relatively small venue, and one that was not designed with acoustic excellence in mind. The clarity, balance and separation between the instruments and vocalists is excellent; Brocken's lead guitar and the Mellotron effects in particular come over well. The vocalists are not swamped and the use of both male and female leads adds dynamics and variety, although DeLuca may not have had a poorer on-stage sound as her singing is a tad flat at times when taking lead duties but are mostly fine when singing duets or harmonies.
The music itself is well accomplished with the experience of the musicians - Avis, Bay and McKee have known and played music together for over twenty years - immediately obvious. There are plenty of atmospherics, sound effects and instrumental pieces that encompass all that is great about prog, but by far the best are when Brocken is playing solos, particularly on Servants Of Science and the excellent big finale number Burning In The Cold.
An impressive live debut that is nicely recorded. My main question is why the live recording so soon? I know it celebrates the first live performance but that, and the fact that it was recorded almost immediately after the album's release, means that the songs are very similar to the versions on the recently released album.
It may have been interesting to hear how the pieces developed over the space of time and after more gigs and associated rehearsals, as heard on Burning In The Cold where the more languid studio version takes on a somewhat rockier and explosive nature live.
So is it worth buying? Well if you are a fan of the band or their album then certainly, as you are unlikely to be disappointed. But as a first venture into the group, well it is debatable as to if, with the exception of the closing track, the live version surpasses the studio recording which, by it's very nature, is more controlled and with, obviously, better production values (plus a great album cover!).
Soft Machine - Hidden Details
Soft Machine have been through many incarnations, in terms of personnel, since forming in 1966. The current membership is John Etheridge (electric & acoustic guitar), Theo Travis (sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano), Roy Babbington (bass guitar) and John Marshall (drums). A line up that has been steady since the mid-2000s. As a band they continue to plough the Canterbury-jazz-rock field for which Soft Machine are renowned artistically, though I don’t think they ever broke through commercially in the way some other Canterbury bands did.
Their new album is Hidden Details and it upholds their musical tradition by revisiting a couple of compositions from the mid-70s, written by former member Mike Ratledge. The rest comprises of new compositions. It was recorded over three days (so I assume ‘as live’) at the late, great Jon Hiseman’s studios at the end of 2017. The album overall has a superb sound so every detail of the music can be heard.
The album itself falls into three types of musical styles. There are compositions in the individualistic Soft Machine jazz-rock way, some ambient like pieces, and then those that see a return to the Canterbury style that they helped create.
Soft Machine have a very distinctive way about them as regards the influence of jazz on their music. They don’t go down the usual jazz paths of establish a theme then the band member’s solo on the theme before returning to it as used in classic jazz. Nor do they go the Miles Davis/Weather Report route of slowly building a theme before creating the odd solo within that structure, or not really having identifiable solos at all.
On Hidden Details, the jazz-rock tracks, such as the title track, are idiosyncratic beasts. The title track for instance has a brief intro and then Theo Travis’ sax goes for an extended solo before handing over half way to John Etheridge’s incendiary guitar playing. Both solos are by turns intricate and expansive, plunging the listener into a swirling pool of sound. It is an unsettling but mesmerising opener.
Some of the other jazz-rock tracks vary in quality. For me there is a rudderless drift to the avant-jazz realm on Ground Lift, though it is nearly saved by some great guitar soundscapes. The avant-jazz returns in a more successful way on Life On Bridges. It moves from gentle reverb sax to Etheridge’s splendid guitar and the light touches of drums and bass lead to a far better result. Even though at a first listen it seems more hard-core.
The ambient influenced tracks on are short but generally substantial. The pick of them being Etheridge’s solo guitar piece Drifting White, along with the two closing tracks. Night Sky’s classical style flute and guitar produces a piece of quiet reflection. The rest of Hidden Details returns to the Canterbury meets jazz sound of classic 70s Soft Machine but with a modern vigour to it.
They rework Mike Ratledge’s Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1 (originally from 1970’s Third album) adding an intro to it. It signals a return to the use of electric piano, what older fans of the band call ‘cosmic tinkles’. It opens up the sound world here adding a spacey dimension. This is especially successful on the other Ratledge track The Man Who Waved At Trains (from 1975’s Bundles) that it allows the bass, flute and subtle, tender drumming room to take a relaxed breath. It’s absolutely lovely.
There are three tracks that each time I listen to them I think they are the best on Hidden Details. There is the ballad Broken Hill, which is very powerful with guitar sailing over the electric piano and cymbal washes, as Soft Machine go for feeling where for lesser bands Would have gone for flash. This also applies to the bass led Fourteen Hour Dream, where Travis’ flute predominates and the guitar solo is precisely controlled. Finally there is the punchy One Glove, with it’s funkier groove and two smoking solos from Etheridge and Travis. I find I can’t choose between these three as to which is the best.
Soft Machine’s Hidden Details is a terrific mix of the band’s legacy and new, innovative moves, while keeping their idiosyncratic charm firmly in place. Long standing fans will revel in this, and for newcomers it’s a great place to start.
WalzWerk - WalzWerk
German progressive rock managed to achieve their own offspring in progressive rock with Krautrock in the early seventies, and is well known for a huge list of renowned names. Right up into the early eighties there were lots of different groups to find and admire, from the obvious bigger ones like Eloy and Jane, to contemporaries like Novalis, Triumvirat, Kraan and lesser known illustrious one’s like Amenophis and Neuschwanstein; just to name a few, the list seems endless.
Introduction of punk, disco, new wave, and pop-music globally resulted in most bands gradually seizing to be and although some countries survived this era with a wave of neo-progressive music, most notably the United Kingdom, Germany foremost shifted towards a whole different playing field with “Die Neue Welle”. A more mainstream pop/rock-oriented musical direction with German lyrics, to which iconic groups like Anyone’s Daughter and Grobschnitt tried their luck, ultimately fading in the end altogether, leaving just a handful of bands keeping the fire burning on the German progressive rock scene during the eighties.
It turned out satisfying with the (re)birth of countless progressive rock groups and the steadily growing vast majority of progressive metal bands, showing the evolution of music on the German market splendidly. However, none (to my knowledge) took the opportunity to sing completely in German though, all sticking to the more favorable approach with lyrics in English. So the debut-album by WalzWerk immediately caught my ear. Augmented by tags on their Bandcamp site of Deutsch-rock, melodic rock, prog-rock, rock and metal, could this be the spark for the missing link we have been waiting for?
WalzWerk was initially shaped in 2010 by Felix Weis (guitar, vocals) and Jo Warmer (bass, synths) fusing the former's fondness for rock and metal with the latter preference to jazz and soul. Just recently, in 2017, the band was reinforced by Lutz Fronczek (guitars) and Markus Lampe Specht on drums. During writing-sessions a final conjunction was wrought with guest vocalist Simone Görtz, providing a soothing counterbalance to the powerful rock orientated voice of Weis, and with the recording mastered by Steve Kitsch (The Pineapple Thief) truth has to be told that a progressive beauty has effectively been constructed.
Straight from the opening chords of Wortgefecht, forcefully interlaced with grandeur hard-hitting riffs reminiscent of Porcupine Tree, up to the social critical Nie zu Spät, Walzwerk showcase an exceptional array of progressive music. By blending soft jazzy structures to intense heavy rock, dub-beats complementing Krautrock, implementing ambient, and synths accentuating complex melodies, they achieve a wonderful mix of styles, rock and progressiveness which is marvelous to empathise with. Lyrics dealing with earthly issues of life, desire and love are brought with powerful precision, leaving room to analyze and sometimes manage to ignite a disturbed sense of sentiment, making one remember their own struggles in relationships and life.
The vocal contrast between Weis and Görtz works exceptionally well, smoothly underlining contradictions like good/bad, quiet/loud, right/wrong; subsequently adding refinement and complexity to the complicated sound walls. German lyrics, obviously challenging to some, are easily accessible in being both straightforward and tuneful, thereby expressing a strong personal statement to the powerful music; which ties in beautifully with, on the one hand, very delicate and intricate structures alternating with, on the other hand, an aggressive, bombastic and explosive character. Musically this could work splendidly in intimate settings like theaters, or go all the way on bigger international festivals; hopefully showing that a language-barrier can be non-existent like it did for Rammstein.
The enigmatic tracks all have several layers of depth, to which the ingenious first single Sinuston is a perfect example; describing the intense tale of a finished relationship which one half of a relation apparently can’t or won’t accept. Through casting complex rhythms incorporating a sinus-tone (from personal experience, a strikingly accurate sound resembling death), a dynamic musical mood-confused disturbing energetic journey is forged, ultimately flowing into a superb gently moving melancholic closing section.
Especially worth mentioning is the instrumental Bukanon, the first ever written music by WalzWerk. By combining alternative guitars with virtuous explosive supportive drums, jazzy bass-rhythms and an adventurous heavy complex musical structure like Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet and Sounds Like This by Nektar, it’s the musical highlight of the album, lending itself extremely well for long alternative progressive Krautrock-improvisations, personally wishing it might extend to magical Solar Music proportions during concerts...
The allegation and sum of its parts has resulted in WalzWerk successfully crafting a strong ironclad bridge between alternative progressive rock and Deutsch-rock which is very commendable; presenting themselves adequately capable of filling in fragments of the missing link along the way. Highly recommended for fans of Porcupine Tree and Riverside, with a taste for the adventurous.