Reviews in this issue:
Citizen K - III
Citizen K (aka Swedish singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Klas Qvist) first came to my attention in 2014 with the EP King Of Second Thoughts. Although prog-lite (in a Moody Blues-ish vein), I was struck by the quality of the melodies and vocal harmonies. The subsequent double CD Second Thoughts (2017) passed me by so this aptly titled third CD III was a perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with Citizen K.
Whilst The Moody Blues influences are less obvious this time around, the songs remain melodic, retro in style and prog-lite. In fact, it could almost be a tribute to the sophisticated pop of the 60’s and 70’s with traces of Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Andrew Gold, Steely Dan, Eric Carmen, The Eagles, Bread, Clifford T. Ward, 10cc and ELO amongst so many others I could mention. This is often in the form of sly musical references such as How Are You Gonna Handle It? which quotes the tumbling instrumental bridge from David Bowie’s Starman).
Although there is no indication that this is a concept album as such, there is a recurring theme of travel that runs through several tracks including Welcome Abroad, Ocean's Call, Cancelled Flight, How Are You Gonna Handle It?, Radio Classic (No More Songs About Jetplanes, Please!) and (with its California references) And You Danced All Night.
Many of the songs are piano led, but guitars (acoustic and electric) are prominent with keys, bass and drums well placed in the mix thanks to the clean and crystal clear sound. Choral hooks with exquisite harmonies are the order of the day, especially the sunny Let This Be Love, the rhythmic Ocean's Call, the poignant Cancelled Flight and the nostalgic Beach Boys tribute And You Danced All Night.
That said, Welcome Abroad that opens is a memorable instrumental as is Beasts Of England which despite the title is not the anthem from George Orwell's novel Animal Farm set to music but a breezy instrumental with jangling acoustic guitars, sampled mellotron flute and a lyrical guitar break (that bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic Jessica by the Allman Brothers Band).
The easy on the ear, radio friendly format of the songs here will not be to everyone's taste but it certainly works for me in a tuneful, undemanding way. Every track is supremely well crafted and performed and there is no doubt that Qvist has an impeccable ear for a good melody and a remarkable affinity with the classic sounds of old. Listen to this and it's easy to forget that punk, new wave, hip hop and thrash metal ever happened.
Deep Energy Orchestra - Playing With Fire
Recorded live over two-days at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA as part of an Artist Residency Award, Playing With Fire is the first live recording by Deep Energy Orchestra. Formed by world/jazz bassist Jason Everett (aka Mister E) and mainly performing his compositions, the orchestra is a string and percussion driven exploration of prog-rock, jazz fusion and Indian classical music in the style of Shakti mixed with elements of the Mahavisnu Orchestra.
As well as Jason Everett’s 7-string fretless and 6-string acoustic basses, Deep Energy Orchestra features Trey Gunn (King Crimson) on Warr Guitar (a Chapman Stick like guitar played percussively), Indian percussion master V. Selvaganesh (Shakti, Masters Of Percussion) and lead violinist Radhika Iyer playing her seven-string electric violin. Other musicians who rounded out the sound are tabla player Anil Prasad, and classical musicians, Rachel Nesvig on violin, Aleida Gehrels on viola, and Phil Hirschi on cello.
For a live album Playing With Fire is remarkably free of extraneous crowd noise (which I personally always find distracting on live albums) and it sounds superb, full of depth but with clarity between the instrumentation that allows the music to shine.
The music on Playing With Fire is a mash-up of Indian classical music with slippery fretless bass lines and wonderful electric violin (I have always had a soft spot for the electric violin). There is, in the main, little in the way of droning strings rather it is the lively and fiercely complex rhythms of the tabla and kanjira that gives the music life.
The tracks here develop from simple openings into hypnotic groove laden interplays between the main players. For instance, on Mysterious World there is terrific shifting of the melody from the string trio to the electric violin and back again. The River is probably the most classically Indian influenced track. There is an extended cover of John McLaughlin’s Lotus Feet from the Mahavishnu’s 1975 album Inner Worlds. Here, Everett’s fretless bass goes for an extended walk against subtle, detailed electric guitar lines in waves of build and release.
The centrepiece of the album in the three-part Resolve/Improv/Caravan. A twenty-minute tour-de-force of musicianship and melody, that is hypnotic and that by its climax achieves an orchestral density that seems impossible with such a relatively small ensemble.
This is the best non-post-rock instrumental album I’ve heard since Charlie Cawood’s The Divine Abstract. So, if world music infused jazz-prog floats your particular boat jump right in with Deep Energy Orchestra’s Playing With Fire you won’t be disappointed.
Gösta Berlings Saga - Et Ex
Album number five and Sweden's Gösta Berlings Saga finally stand a chance of more widespread recognition after signing to InsideOut. The band's cinemascopic music has always struck a personal chord with their energetic instrumental prog offerings with plenty of nuances, convolutions and drama. Et Ex doesn't venture far from the impressive blueprint they have established since their 2006 debut album Tid Är Ljud (Time is Sound), with opener Veras Tema offering a relatively light and melodic introduction before seamlessly segueing into the heavier The Shortcomings Of Efficacy, which maintains the melody line from the opening number but this time unladen by guitars. Although post-rock elements can't be denied, there is a lot more to this Nordic quartet than one would normally associate with bands from that particular genre; greater dynamism, greater scope, greater vision? Even the rather abstract, shouted vocals at the end of the second number don't distract from the music, although admittedly they are, thankfully, rather low in the mix.
Square 5, is somewhat of a disappointment, again themes from the opening two numbers are replicated on different instrumentation but the overall sound is rather hollow and the programmed beats are, in my opinion, beneath such a talented band. Over And Out channels The Cardiacs, albeit in a less manic form, mixed in perhaps with a dash of Depeche Mode, the results certainly being interesting. Artefacts is well named as the chops and changes throughout this piece could well be consistent with the amalgamation of snippets from different compositions that didn't quite make it to completion. The slowest number on the album, the piece flows along well with the piano and guitar section in the first part being rather beautiful.
Ornithologists out there will recognise the three species of birds in the title of Capercaillie Lammergeyer Cassowary & Repeat, all of which are suffering population decline due to erosion of their natural habitat. That probably has nothing to do with the reason the track is named as it is and there is a distinct lack of bird calls throughout, which is somewhat of a relief as none of the named animals could remotely be called songbirds! The engaging instrumental, which, bar the drums, is performed almost entirely on a variety of keyboards, increases in intensity until all is silenced bar a faux organ playing a repetitive motif. As this progresses a subliminal guitar is introduced as well as a keyboard bearing saxophonic overtones.
Keeping the listener on their feet, the brief Brus Från Stan is a complete contrast being an acoustic guitar with added bombilation (that's humming, for those without a handy dictionary) that certainly wasn't recorded in a studio environment; the lower fidelity actually increases the contrast.
Final track 'Fundament' is the standout track of the album, although more in the context of 'stand apart' than just quality (or length!), It has a different 'flavour' to the rest of the album, which is possibly partly related to the extended duration. Again, keyboards are the main instrumentation with a Tangerine Dream like quality to proceedings. What is certain is that the piece is very enticing, whilst writing this I have played it four times in a row and I have yet to get to grips with its intricacies.
Although Et Ex is less raw and aggressive than the first couple of albums bearing the Gösta Berlings Saga name, it does show compositional progress and may ultimately prove to be the more satisfying album. Certainly InsideOut have nothing to complain about with the first album delivered by their new signing.
Hillward - System
Music-wise, it's been another odd year for me. Lots of very dull, predictable albums from bands that I usually enjoy. No single album has really hit me from a first (or even a third) listen. However there have been a few sleepers. Albums where I know there is something great to be discovered, but where that greatness takes its time to reveal itself. This is one such record.
Hillward is a heavy prog quintet from Quebec. Those with good memories may recall that their debut album, the beautifully entitled Flies in Amber Stones, was one of my favourite albums back in 2015 (review here). The band started as a side project featuring several members from the progressive metal outfit Southern Cross. The idea was to deliver a collection of songs deemed as too lightweight for the Southern Cross moniker.
Since then the side project has become a full band, with lead singer and guitarist David Lizotte, bassist Jean-François Boudreault and drummer Antoine Guertin, having been joined by Alexandre Lapierre (guitars and vocals) and André-Philippe Pouliot (keys and vocals). A series of live shows with the likes of Symphony X and Uriah Heep has been used to refine their songwriting.
The opening pairing of Foster The River and Long Way Down fully encapsulate the Hillward spirit. I tend to treat them as one song in two parts. The first is a broodingly-thoughtful, yet calmly-intense ambience. The second explodes as a more bombastic and forceful composition. It's brief-yet-hook-imbued chorus was one of this album's few love-at-first-listen moments. It will be tough for Hillward to ever create a better way to begin an album.
The suspenseful alternation of heavy and light continues, with the Floyd-meets-Porcupine Tree-on-a-date-with-Votum vibe of Haven. It is a thing of shy beauty. Hollow combines that same vibe with uptempo, bombastic guitars and a more forthright vocal. This is another great coupling. It is impossible to select a favourite amongst this opening quartet, as they work best when listened too as a whole.
I have long-expressed my appreciation of David Lizotte's vocal ability and the guitar work across this album is again excellent as well. However it is the drumming of Antoine Guertin that shouts from the rooftops here. Perfectly judged in every respect. Powerful when power is needed, tribal when tribal is needed. Subtlety when subtlety is required. The keyboards are used more for texture and atmosphere, but they do add some lovely details on tracks such as Life in Serigraph.
The second half of the album continues in a similar fashion, but with a tendency towards a more heavily violent attack from the guitars on both Life In Serigraph and Flat Light.
Like a sudden burst of sunlight between storms, Fragile is a delight, due to the way it brings an unexpected, bright, fresh innocence. Clever.
The use of a clicking tock is often used to herald an explosion, but the band avoids the cliché by offering a more rounded ending to the album with Behind The Silence.
With their second album Hillward have created a masterclass in how to coalesce power, tenderness, introspection and a world view through a superb collection of original, intelligent and highly listenable modern, heavy, progressive music. System is a truly compelling and memorable listen from start to finish.
Jet Black Sea - The Overview Effect
This is the third album by the duo of Adrian Jones (of Nine Stones Close on stringed instruments) and Michel Simons (electronics) and it's an ambitious one, with one near-album-long-track book-ended by two songs.
Helped by guests Christiaan Bruin on drums and Adrian O'Shaughnessy on the few vocal sections, Jones and Simons wrote and played everything.
This project is new to me, so I cannot comment on or compare this with their previous albums, but the first thing that struck me was that they are in the same field, or have a clear overlap, with Norwegian post-rockers Gazpacho.
There are differences too. JBS use more electronics, less vocals. Although the title track could be divided into sections marked as "songs", the whole track, or the whole album really, should be experienced and therefore regarded as a single piece of work. In that respect they differ from Gazpacho, who limit their songs, where JBS are more like explorers.
The overall feel matches, though. The atmosphere is important. With no need to rush to make a point, the tone is more melancholic than happy (which is something I like).
This album is not like an experiment. Experiments can fail. It's an exploration that does go beyond boundaries, but that never strays from anything musical or goes into endless ambient sections. There is always something going on. Even some actual guitar solos! My taste wouldn't mind having more of those but that is not the point of this album.
The excellent vocals are clear and warm. I wouldn't mind hearing more of O'Shaughnessy's voice but in these compositions I don't miss it either, telling me it's a perfectly balanced trip not to leave you bored for a second.
This is probably more in the alternative range (using the word as a sub-genre here) than anything else, but touches post-rock, prog, and ambient music. If you're a fan of Gazpacho and the like, I think you're going to love this. If you're listening to a lot of ambient music this might be to your liking and take you further and probably out of your comfort zone, but it will be worth it.
Roller Trio - New Devices
Listening to this album led to me thinking about the role and importance of genre descriptions in determining whether an album might attract a potential listener’s attention.
In an attempt to grab interest, I could easily use words such as innovative and challenging, to describe Roller Trio’s music, or, I could just sum it all up and boldly say that this album offers a glorious racket that you will either love or hate. Unfortunately, such statements only offer a fogged, or a somewhat imprecise signpost of what is experienced.
I could also add the dreaded jazz word, as no doubt that is where this album would be located in a record store. However, such a description would be highly misleading, for this album has little in common with many people’s perception of Jazz. You will not find anything akin to the saxophone sweetness of Bill Evans in this disc. You will not even find tried and trusted jazz structures. You will however, experience fine playing where improvisation is an important factor.
This disc is in a number of ways, almost as inventive and original as some of the albums that redefined the parameters of jazz in the late sixties and early seventies. Whilst I would make no crass claims that this is as important an album as say, perhaps Bitches Brew was in reshaping genre boundaries associated with jazz. It is perhaps enough to say that New Devices shares a similar belligerent attitude to established musical norms, as its illustrious predecessor. This makes the album a thrilling and unpredictable experience.
In this context, this album will have some jazz plaudits reaching for their well-worn copy of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and equally many prog fans reaching for an off button.
Nevertheless, New Devices successfully manages to draw from both genres, as well as a host of other influences such as, electronica, techno and dance. This creates an interesting musical encounter that has a unique flavour
When I eventually became familiar with its numerous shifts and turns, New Devices developed into a thoroughly rewarding experience. It is progressive in almost every respect and each track tries to offer an unknown and undiscovered tint. Roller Trio’s newly discovered tints hues and tones, exemplified to good effect throughout New Devices, can be added onto an already colourful musical landscape created by a current crop of outstanding young British jazz influenced bands and artists. These include the music of Rob Luft, Flying Machines, Dinosaur, Big Bad Wolf and World Service Project, where innovation and a quest to be different are significant ingredients.
The album has many enjoyable moments. The members of Roller Trio create a lush soundscape of layered sounds, onto which, added solos and inspired improvisations play a major part. Bandleader James Mainwaring's saxophone is the most prominent instrument and provides a range of memorable tongue twisting solos, where power, melody, tone and dissonance are all used to good effect.
His chaotic yet perfectly crafted sax solo in the unusually styled electronica and loops of the opening piece Decline Of Northern Civilisation offers many moments of genuine frenzy and excitement. Similarly, Mainwaring’s controlled squawking on soprano sax in the impressive Enthusela is equally enthralling and was reminiscent of some of Jan Garbarek’s most evocative work. However, Mainwaring’s most expressive moment probably occurs during Nobody Wants To Run The World.
However, despite the individual brilliance of Mainwaring’s sax work, the compelling ensemble work of the band best defines the band’s overall sound. Individually they are excellent performers; collectively they are a magnificent unit and wonderful team, where each component part compliments the other.
Enthusela for example, is propelled by a dark expansive bass line and glued by stark drum strikes that Soft Machine’s illustrious rhythm section of either Hugh Hopper or Roy Babbington on bass and John Marshall on drums would have been quite at ease playing.
Chris Sharkey provides many of the albums soundscapes; his use of looped synthesised sax sounds creates a stark and unusual backdrop for Mainwaring to carry many of the tunes melodies. Similarly, his use of a variety of electronic effects creates a bleak industrial sound that contrasts beautifully with the identifiable human forms of expression associated with Mainwaring’s plaintive and frenzied sax passages.
His guitar work helps to give the music depth, but is primarily an ensemble instrument, rather than a solo voice. Nobody Wants To Run The World, is one of the few pieces where Sharkey’s guitar makes a noticeable prominent contribution.
Drummer Luke Reddin-Williams excels in many of the pieces. His standout moment occurs in the clanging, chiming, rhythmic patterns created in the glorious chaotic jam-filled noise of Mad Dryad. It lasts only five minutes, but during that time, it manages to take the listener on a journey that lingers in the memory long after it has ended. Words that can be used to describe the tracks bittersweet after taste include confusing, anarchic, frenzied and above all, simply just astonishing.
The album works best when the band slow things down and give the music room to breathe. The moody dark grey tones of The Third Persona slowly bubble and cook with a menacing mood, which emphasises both time and space in equal measures. The separation between instruments that is apparent in this piece and in the equally phlegmatic, Sever So Slightly is fantastic and gives the music a magnificent contemplative tone. The slow ambience of both of these compositions offers a great contrast to the chaotic menagerie of sounds that is a key ingredient of many of the other tracks.
I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of what New Devices had to offer, and will play it frequently.
However, will New Devices appeal to a prog audience? If you define prog in a limited way, just as some might define jazz using clearly defined parameters, probably not.
If your interpretation of prog encompasses styles that do not simply hark back to those associated with the seventies, but also draws upon a host of other influences, including a smattering of traits associated with prog, electronica, jazz and avant-garde music; then Roller Trio’s, bold progressive album played with heaps of feeling might hold some interest.
Sadly, I suspect that much of New Devices will neither hold great appeal for the majority of jazz or prog fans, but it is undeniable, that it offers a unique sound that is full of creative ideas and is fully laden with artistic integrity. As such, New Devices will undoubtedly find its own niche and no doubt should draw in a loyal number of supporters.
If you like a glorious racket, check it out!