Reviews in this issue:
Bibeau - Bibeau
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Bibeau's self-titled debut will hold much interest for those who enjoy music that seeks to bridge the classic rock and progressive heavy rock from the last century, to the rock and metal styles of the modern era. At various stages of listening to these eleven tracks you will find clear references to everything from Rush, Iron Maiden (note the cover version) and Led Zeppelin, to Avenged Sevenfold, Dream Theater and latter-day Opeth.
"A Wall of Sound" is an over-used description, but I feel it is well apportioned in the case of this album.
This is music with feeling. The combination of singer Drew Theiring's soaring, impassioned melodies over an adventurously-progressive dual guitar approach and complex time signatures, rhythms and arrangements, has created a band with an all-too-rare sound of its own.
There is no doubt that musically all of the ingredients are there. Yet this is still a work in progress. What is lacking are enough "wow" moments in terms of melodies and riffs that really stick in the mind.
The fact that I only have MP3 files on which to bass this review, may be a factor in the sound being rather flat and raw (or maybe not). A fuller sound to the vocals and rhythm section would give this a bigger bite. The addition of keyboards would add depth and wider variation to the sound palette. A couple of the tracks could have been dropped to give the album a sharper running time.
Overall, this can be filed under "impressive debut album by a band well worth keeping an eye on".
Circles - The Last One
Once again, Australia has shown itself to be a country full of music. Circles are yet another band in a long list of progressive rock and metal acts to come from that area of the world. Amongst their peers are groups such as Caligula’s Horse (who at the time of writing, Circles are touring with), Voyager, Ne Obliviscarus and Be’lakor. With their latest release, _ The Last One_, being released by Season of Mist, they join an incredible group of artists.
The album starts with some heavy, down-tuned guitars that set the scene for the album. From the start, it is clear who the band’s influences are with them worn proudly on their sleeves. Chugging guitars and staccato riffs abound, with intricate drumming and an ever-present bass, mixed with soaring clean and screamed vocals.
The album continues in this trend, with chugging djenty tracks mixed in with some softer ones that have a distinct “modern prog ballad” sound to them. Disappointingly, the album never really strays from this safe territory. The songs are well written and beautifully produced, with a very crisp and very clear, clean sound, but it is what I would describe as a safe album. It maximises on the impact of all the main points of the genre to bring an album that is a perfect example of the genre, but as a result will be unlikely to really stand out.
Rather unfortunately, I found it difficult to fully get into this album. There isn’t any doubting that the band are very good at what they do, but I am afraid it just isn’t for me. While talented, a lot of the album felt a bit predictable. However, it is only the band's second album, so I will await what comes next with interest.
If you are a fan of bands like Caligula’s Horse, Periphery, Tesseract and similar, you will most likely enjoy these guys.
Daniel Crommie - Phantoms From The Passed
Compilation albums come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some can be very handy, like the “Best Off” releases which can make it easy for the all-round music lover to just have an artist's memorable songs without having to bother with any deep album tracks which are probably not of interest anyway. Pop-music a fine example here.
A compilation of one artist's material can be ideal for having indeed the best songs, sometimes with extras in the form of a sought after B-side or newly recorded tracks. Usually the problem for me with this, is the fact that I have all of those tracks except probably one, so it feels meaningless to buy it. Thankfully many artists and record labels out there create beautiful box-sets for completists like me though; an admirable thought.
The third variation, of which Phantoms From The Passed is a fine example, is one that delves deeper into a certain period of an artist's career, giving emphasis to some of their best work (for what’s the use of compiling their not so good music!). In the case of Daniel Crommie this encapsulates a physical CD to retrospectively highlight a period of 2005 up to 2018, during which he released 12(!) solo albums, only available as downloads from his Bandcamp site.
Still preferring a real CD instead of any downloaded ones (call me old fashioned), it’s the perfect opportunity for me to get acquainted with Daniel's music. Maybe it might trigger me to indulge into buying all his stuff, which is quite a lot, for he has been making music since 1975 releasing albums with Group Du Jour, Saturnalia Trio and most recently with DC Sound Collective to name a few. A foresight to a costly affair?
Crommie plays all the instruments himself, varying from sequencers and synthesisers to all kinds of different flutes; wood and clay. All tracks, and likely all of the albums represented on this compilation, are engineered and produced by Crommie himself, with the overall result being a very good sound quality. Something that is desperately needed for his kind of music, for it is minimalistic, highly spiritual, filled with folklore and painstakingly scenic.
Going Under, opens engagingly with lovely synths and keys reminiscent of pioneers like Tangerine Dream, but after three minutes I actually feel like sinking indeed. I like thinking and listening out of the box, but what is to follow is far out of my comfort zone.
That said though, Crommie is still perfectly capable in depicting graphic images to your mind with his music, brilliantly demonstrated by Jungle Wire and King Nine, which have a natural fresh vibe and feel to them. My son (10 years of age) instantly called out “music from Africa!” on hearing just a few notes, circumstantially providing evidence to the scene being portrayed. Another example is Far East, which through samples of Chinese (or Japanese, too difficult for me to separate the two) indeed sounds Eastern influenced. This is probably the best track, sounding a bit like Underwraps by Jethro Tull from a galaxy far away.
The use of flutes is nice, sometimes reminiscent of Ian Anderson and George Zamfir, but the picture I receive most of the times is native Indians, completely dressed up, trying to sell their pan-flute CDs on flee-markets; enjoyable to watch and I do respect their efforts, but this is so not my cup of chamomile tea. Instead I need a decent coffee, a punchy ristretto to keep me awake.
As for the rest of the album, it’s mostly the equivalent of galaxies; vast emptiness with a blip, spacey synth and occasional sounds, perfect for relaxation and meditation. If one can imagine a BBC program about planets and stars, this could be the perfect accompaniment. Deep Cave Antlers is exemplary with a coldness to it, rarely varying, thereby creating an atmosphere of watery caves indeed. Portal, an extract of 11:24 minutes out of the original 12:12 (??) and Storm Front both result in me effectively dozing-off, for it is mostly synth noises sprinkled with waves, some sounds (birds, frogs) and minimal music. If this is what stasis in space is supposed to be like, then please wake me up, for there must be something happening when listening to music.
In conclusion this is all too yoga for me, rationally and worryingly picked up by my wife checking in on me to see whether I was alright. I’m more the progressive fan, with a taste for preferably heavier sounds, diversity, playfulness, riffs, hooks and melodies and so much more. Matching Flutter & Fade, generating images of butterflies, evidently doesn’t match this.
If you’re a fan of New Age, Zen, Fripp or Eno or actually like going to a spa in general (no sweeping statement intended) this could be worth your while and you should go check out Daniel's Bandcamp site. This compilation nevertheless managed to do exactly what it should do; giving me a very good insight into the world of Crommie, inadvertently saving me some money for other worldly explorations.
Al Kryszak - Soft Clowns Of The Sea
Al Kryszak has 30 years of composing to his credit, having scored soundtracks for a multitude of silent films as well as more contemporary works. He also periodically releases solo albums and plays in the alternative progressive band Rev from his hometown of Buffalo, New York.
Soft Clowns Of The Sea is the tenth release under his own name, on which he plays all the instruments except drums which are provided by Mike Brydalski. In his press release, Kryszak states that the album has "prog, protest and experimental roots", the middle part of that trilogy broadly relating to the perils of climate change and, more specifically, about "a father calming his son as they drift off in the night sea, from a destroyed past to a shaky and unwelcoming future". A large part of the album (11 of the 19 tracks) is instrumental and mostly acoustic; tracks that demonstrate not only Kryszak's compositional mastery but also his prowess on guitar, bass and keyboards.
The diversity of the instrumental numbers is broad, ranging from the piano and classical guitar opening Prelude, to the atmospheric baritone electric guitar tracks Home Is Behind & Before Us, Soft Clowns Of The Sea: Day 4 (with piano accompaniment) and Day 5 (with organ), and onto the synth orchestrated intermezzo of First, Do No Harm. The excellent Soft Clowns Of The Sea: Casualty, Hold Fire - Save Water and Soft Clowns Of The Sea: Conclusion are up-tempo numbers that, particularly in the case of the latter piece, prog out in no uncertain terms.
With protest and prog covered, there just remains the experimental; an area covered by the lengthy Soft Clowns: Things Under The Night Water. It is a collection of various guitar pieces that mixes the styles of the other instrumentals in a cohesive manner, such that the track slips by without one really noticing how much time has passed.
Now for a very obscure reference that I doubt many people will know! When I heard the first vocal track, Catch Me Sleeping I had to check that there wasn't a secret guest vocalist, as I was certain it was Dr. Minz whose album Adventures In The Solid World he recorded with The Chronic Harmonic way back in 1997 (and gave away free to anyone who asked for a copy). Apparently not though, as Kryszak himself sings all the lead vocals, with backing vocals by Stephen Copel and Duane Ingalls. Kryszak has quite a unique voice, not unpleasant but unlikely to win any awards. However, it is adaptable enough to suit the musical tempos, although the limitations are more noticeable on the quieter tracks Sun In My Eyes and Sometimes No Sleeping. However the strength of the melodies and, in the case of the latter song, lovely fretless bass, more than outweigh any deficiencies.
My favourite of the songs is Hold Them All where the Dr. Minz comparison comes to the fore and the music falls into the experimental category, particularly when compared to the lovely acoustic ditty Pledge Of 2017, which is undoubtedly related to Trump's inauguration.
The final track Time Without Guilt is probably the least representative of the album, which is ironic given that is the song that a video has been made of. With a more percussive approach, probably the weakest vocal and by lacking much of the guitar prowess displayed on other tracks, this song should not be taken as a marker for the whole CD!
At 76 minutes Soft Clowns Of The Sea does require a level of commitment. When I first received the album it did seem to me that the album was overly long, but after a few playings I tried to work out what I would eliminate from the album. All I could come up with was finishing the album at track 18. Time Without Guilt coming after two excellent instrumentals seemed to detract from the highs of those two pieces, and its omission would not harm the structure of the album. Besides, it seems fitting to end with a piece that is titled as the conclusion of the album.
Oak - False Memory Archives
Mark Hughes's Review
It has been five years since Norwegian band Oak released their debut album, Lighthouse which garnered a rave review in DPRP. Since that release they have lost their guitarist Ole Michael Bjørndal and are now a three-piece of Simen Valldal Johannessen (vocals, piano, keyboards), Sigbjørn Reiakvam (bass, electric guitars, banjo, keyboards) and Øystein Sootholtet (drums, percussion, keyboards).
Any suspicion that the debut release was a fluke that managed to hit the zeitgeist of the time, are dispelled immediately this CD begins with We, The Drowned. The feeling is very melancholic, aided by the empathetic and quite sublime vocals of Johannessen. The five-year interlude has certainly not been spent in idleness, as quality pervades with each song, offering something different and yet familiar. Claire De Lune is heavier on the electronica and some teeth rattling low bass frequencies mingled in with a lovely fretless bass. Melodies are always to the fore and the rather unique blend of musical influences, from folk-rock, electronic dance, classical, post-rock and, yes, even prog are blended to perfection.
The title track is, by itself, worth getting hold of the album for, the syncopated clapping providing a backdrop to the keyboard melody as well as more superb vocals. The slow and quiet start to Lost Causes is very deceptive, as it is a great surprise when the deeply intoned spoken text breaks out. The build of the track is very considered and mature with fellow countryman Bjorn Riis (from Airbag), with whom some of Oak have toured as part of his backing band, adding some class guitar phrases that gradually come become more prominent and eventually take over as the lead instrument. There also sounds like some quite out-there saxophone, but as no sax player is mentioned I guess it is either some very clever playing or adept programming.
The Intermezzo, a piano adaptation of Debussy's Claire De Lune (mmm, I wonder where we have heard that before?) blends wonderfully into The Lights, the lyrics of which alternate between more deeply intoned talking and sung sections. In written form that might sound a bit naff, but it works remarkably well. The contrast between the two and the whispered title lends an air of mystery and suspense. There is a sort of resemblance to the last two albums by Talk Talk, not as minimalistic, but certainly a bold and novel approach.
An organ opens These Are The Stars We're Aiming For and things proceed along quite gently until a splendid chorus drags one out of their reverie. The album is completed by two tracks that are of a more contemplative nature. Transparent Eyes is a love song of sadness and loss. It is followed by the largely acoustic and perhaps confessional, Psalm 51. A beautiful way to end the album, although the end of the songs offer hints that it is not actually the final world.
For a second album, False Memory Archive is stunningly accomplished and leaves one wanting more. However, if five years is the time one has to wait in order to achieve an album of this quality, then it is well worth the wait.
Bryan Morey's Review
There are few albums capable of evoking so many layers of emotion as Oak's two studio releases. The Norwegian band's first album, Lighthouse is a must-listen. Originally released digitally in 2013, the band released it on CD in 2016, fooling this reviewer into thinking it was a new release. It ended up being the top album on my "best of 2016" list, and I don't regret that, despite my error, because it was my favorite album from that year. I suspect False Memory Archive will find its way to the top of my 2018 list.
This album is flawless. Every note, every lyric, and every sound blend together perfectly to create an exquisitely crafted piece of music. Throughout the album, the listener is swamped by a sense of nostalgia and a sense of home, with feelings of both pain and joy.
Simply put, this album is both human and humane. It captures the wide range of emotions we feel, without focusing on any particular one. For instance, Steven Wilson is most often associated with melancholy themes. While that influence is present in Oak, it isn't overwhelming. You aren't left with a melancholic sense after listening to Oak.
For those unfamiliar with this band, their music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd's, Riverside's, Porcupine Tree's, and Steven Wilson's more atmospheric moments. Oak is much more consistent and cohesive with their sound, though. They have heavy and soft moments, but they flow more naturally than any of the aforementioned bands. Any particular song might go from calm piano, to heavy guitars with steady drumming. Even the first song, We, The Drowned, begins with a heavy drum beat closely resembling the great drum intros commonly found in classic rock and metal songs. And yet, there is nothing "metal" about Oak. They are progressive, experimental, and classical all at the same time. From the classical nods to Debussy's Claire de Lune, to the wilder saxophone sound in Lost Causes, this album is diverse yet consistent. Everything fits, and nothing is left out. The prevalence of piano in the music gives the album an overwhelming sense of calm, while the bass, drums, guitars, and other synth sounds work together to propel the album.
While many prog bands have virtuoso musicians that take music to the next level through sheer talent, Oak take the route Pink Floyd chose. That is, they use all of the instruments and singing to make a complex and virtuosic sound, much like a symphony does in a classical work. It is no surprise, then, that the band cites classical music as a key influence, as well as classical training in individual members' backgrounds. Their music is composed in a way that places the music in the center without having particular instruments distract. There are beautiful guitar solos and wonderful singing, yet those moments draw you into the music itself. Your focus is on the song rather than on a particular solo. Big Big Train is the only band I know of that uses this same technique as effectively and brilliantly.
The final track, Psalm 51, is an excellent example of how Oak use a combination of music, lyrics, and singing to emotionally guide the listener. The song gradually builds and releases with the lyrics, before the singing stops with a few minutes left. After that, the instrumentation gradually builds, adding various instruments one at a time. The song does not get particularly loud or noisy though. It matures. By the time all instruments are swirling together, the song and the album reach perfection. This gradual building takes you on an emotional journey that swells and releases at the right moments. The band uses this technique sparingly throughout the album to great effect, but it is best done on this final song. It is the best album-closing song I've heard since Big Big Train's Curator Of Butterflies.
After listening to False Memory Archive, I'm left wanting to listen to it all over again. It doesn't get old. The final song, in particular, holds up exceptionally well to multiple listenings, without becoming stale. The music and lyrics are so well written and the singing is so soothing and powerful that I don't grow tired of it. The complexity of the music offers many layers and themes to listen for upon repeated listens, and the lyrics have deep layers of meaning that will reward for years of enjoyment, much as Lighthouse has for me over the past two years.
Oak stand out, even in this wonderful genre of progressive rock where we are rewarded with many bands and albums of high quality. Every reader of this website should investigate this band. They are a hidden gem that should not be ignored. Bands like this don't come around very often.
Side Effects - Descending Rabbit Holes
My first ever review of a band from Croatia. Side Effects is a power trio from Zagreb consisting of Ivan Mihaljevic (guitar and vocals), with Petar Stojko on bass and Alen Frljak behind the drum kit.
They have so far released three albums (Sandcastle in 2008, Destination Unknown in 2010, and Counterclockwise six years ago). Their latest album, Descending Rabbit Holes celebrates their decade-anniversary, but is the first time I have heard them. Overall it's been an enjoyable encounter.
The nine tracks can be best described as an eclectic blend of rock styles, leaning most strongly towards the melodic hard rock of the 80s and the groove-rock, blues-based sounds of Richie Kotzen and Tesla. The catchy opener and Colorblind are both straight-forward blends of these two artists.
Scratch the Surface takes on more of a modern alt-rock influence. Diversion provides exactly that, with its bluesy, funky vibe, whilst the album-closer borrows a riff and the guitar sound from White Lion but forgets to also borrow one of their hooks. Hideout is a slice of very southern America-sounding blues rock, but without the bombast and hummability perfected by bands such as Tangier. Don’t Turn Away is a predictably-forgettable mid-album power ballad.
The band is most interesting when it stretches its composition skills by blending in some progressive elements.
In The Shadow Of A Crumbled Fort begins as another catchy rocker but halfway through shifts to a wonderfully dreamy, ambient bridge and guitar solo, before returning to the main theme. A great track.
Opening with metallic guitar, The Siren Song has a chorus that echoes American country music, that just about stays on the right side of cheesy. Again the song shifts ground effectively halfway through, to incorporate a very 80s style of progressive metal. This is the most experimental song, but it works.
This track and the three very strong openers, plus Ivan's great vocal performance, alongside some nifty guitar chops, have made my first trip towards music Made In Croatia, an enjoyable experience. Probably not enough here to gain the interest of those seeking more progressive music, but for those who like to Rock-Out every so often, then there are much worse holes to find oneself in!