Reviews in this issue:
Ally The Fiddle - Up
Here at DPRP Towers we have a system of allocating albums. We receive them. We list them to all reviewers. They select the ones they'd like to review. We send the albums out. They review them. We publish the reviews. This year we will publish more than one album for every day of the year. We are far-from-perfect, but after 20-plus years and over 7000 reviews, DPRP must be doing something right.
But, you ask, what happens when no-one selects an album? One of my jobs at DPRP Towers (I actually live in a single storey farmhouse but why spoil a good image) is to give such albums a second chance. It could be that it's not very good, or upon a closer listen it's just not very prog or very deserving of a full review. It then gets assigned to one of our mini reviews. Most "orphan" promos, as we call them, go that way.
However every now and again something catches my ear and generates a: "Why the feck didn't anyone select this?"
To cut a short story miniscule, that is what happened to the promo for UP, the second album from north German sextet Ally The Fiddle. It could have been the very mermaidsy, folksy cover or the tag of "progressive violin metal" that put our reviewers off. This is neither mermaidsy, nor violinsy, nor metally. It is a well-delivered piece of progressive music.
The Ally behind the fiddle is Ally Storch, previously known as a member of medieval rockers Subway To Sally and Schandmaul. She describes her aim as not wishing to commit herself to one genre; to create music with many facets.
That's a fair analysis. In addition to prog and metal, the music here leans heavily on the cinematic, classic rock and especially jazz-rock.
It is not without fault. It does jump around a lot; both within songs and between tracks. The jumps within songs often seem more on a whim, than as part of the compositional story. Those with more avant-garde tastes will find much to admire.
The jumps between tracks can give a feeling of a playlist on "random play". The album's long playing length, adds to it not being an album that is easy to listen to in one sitting.
That said, the individual tracks all offer something of interest. The playing throughout is superb. It all bounds out of my speakers. Ally's violin moves between adding higher-pitched, symphonic textures, to coming centre stage as a solo or rhythm instrument. It does not dominate, with the guitar (superbly played throughout) actually being the main instrumental. The instrumental sections and instrumental tracks occupy the bulk of this album. However Ally is also blessed with a unique voice. She gives those songs which have a vocal element an immediate impression. I enjoy these the most.
Overall this is an original, varied and superbly performed album that will hold interest to those who enjoy progressive instrumental rock, with heavy doses of jazz rock, occasional bursts of heavy guitar and distinct vocals, and a dash of the avant-garde. Extra love will be given if you enjoy some violin with your music.
Too good to become an orphan!
Ann My Guard - Moira
Every time I visit my beloved Sweden for a holiday, the contrast between there and my life here in Holland, with crowded cities and predictable work, is big. Arriving is like a breath of fresh air, clearing the airways and my head, like the first frosty morning in autumn.
When Ann My Guard came my way for a review, I was greeted with a description including terms like "female-fronted metal" and "gothic", which made me think of rather crowded genres and predictable music. After an almost a-cappela intro, I expected a crashing break into a formulaic, keyboard-driven cinematic section. I expected operatic vocals. I expected instrumental symphonic sections, with guitar riffs and keyboards sounding like violins.
Instead, it was like a breath of fresh air.
Contrary to the expected burst of power, Sacred deceptively starts quietly and mysteriously. Fifteen seconds later, there's the burst, overwhelming you with a prog metal riff.
This is not an easy album to categorise. Prog-metal is only part of the story. The first three tracks, following the opening, are clearly living in that sub-genre. Sometimes a little more metal than prog-metal, but with cleverly arranged layers of sounds and vocals.
While Elijah has more classic song structure, the power of the choruses, the singing, and especially its thunderous ending is addictive.
I felt a bout of nostalgia when I was reminded of the sorely missed 1997 The Gathering sound in The Day I Die. The Raven has an air of symphonic folk-rock à la Blackmore's Night. A little gothic sound in Roseblood, mysterious soundscapes in Mētéra.
This may sound like it's a mixed bag, but the album still sounds like a solid unit. Good songwriting, clever breaks, good metal riffing, some good guitar solos, and several keyboard and piano layers. The vocals are multi-layered as well, which I hope they can recreate live. A lot is going on here.
Let's not continue without giving special mention to the voice of Hungarian singer Eszter Anna Baumann, who is nowhere near the typical gothic voices (fortunately). Angelic in The Descent, almost cute in doll metal style of Sacred I (think Babymetal, except that Baumann sounds real instead of a doll), deep and mysterious in Morpheus, angry in Mountain II, but always powerful in every part of her range. Think Ann Wilson or Blondie doing metal.
While the songwriting might not be groundbreaking, it's the melodic power and excellent arrangements of the instruments and several layers of vocals that are so convincing and have pulled me into listening to this album for days in a row.
The only thing I would change is the track order. I found myself making a playlist that had some of the heavier tracks at the end, like Elijah or The Day I Die. Morpheus, the most symphonic track, is good, but its pace is slower. The way this album starts, with The Raven and Morpheus, leave me wanting to end as heavy and fast as it started out.
If there's one thing you remember from this review, let it be that I want you to forget that "female-fronted metal" is a genre. Forget this album has to be in a genre, except it under that big "prog metal" banner, and give this a listen!
Argos - Unidentified Dying Objects
German prog band Argos has been around for many years, arriving in 2009 with their self-titled debut album that received very positive reviews, including here on dprp.net. With their subsequent three albums, the band has managed to gain the same level of appreciation, which is quite an achievement for a new band. Yet their very existence completely passed me by until I solicited to review their latest offering that bears the intriguing title Unidentified Dying Objects.
Argos hail from Germany and consist of founding members Thomas Klarmann (basses, flute, acoustic guitar, Mellotron, synths, backing vocals, lead vocals) and Robert Gozon (electric and acoustic pianos, lead and backing vocals). Since their second album Circles, the pair have been joined by Enrico Florczak (acoustic and electric guitars, backing vocals, soundscapes) and Ulf Jacobs (drums and percussion). On this album Thilo Brauss plays organ, clarinet, synths, soundscapes and melodica while Andy Tillison (keyboards), Linus Kåse (alto saxophone), Marek Arnold (clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone) and Johannes Steinbronn (trumpet) add some guest musical duties.
A first look at the song titles brought about a smile on my face: for who dares to call a song The Days of Perky Pat or Shock-headed Peter? Well, I could think of one band residing in the Canterbury area of the UK that still goes very strong, Caravan. After listening to this album numerous times, I can only conclude that Argos is obviously inspired by that very band. Yet they offer more than enough twists and turns of their own. Klarmann’s singing is very reminiscent of Pye Hastings’ voice, in the sense that he hasn’t a very expressive voice, yet it suits the music surprisingly well. His German accent is sometimes audible, but never annoying.
Overall this is quite a cheerful and varied album. Opener The Hunters Last Stand is a moderate, rocky affair with a very proggy mood, as it meanders widely during its seven-minute-plus duration. Pumping drums and bass, a very varied vocal line, some old school synth solos and an appealing guitar solo, is all packed into this song, that nonetheless floats and flows.
The next two songs, Unpainted Dreams and Beneath the Valley of Sleep are decent but also a bit anonymous. Nice listens, but nothing special, which feels a bit like a disappointment after the strong opener.
The tongue-in-cheek track, The Days Of Perky Pat isn’t my cup of tea but admirers of English humour may well indulge in it. Shock-headed Peter is a light-hearted song, with strong reminiscences to Caravan’s Golf Girl, including the nice twists and varied instrumentation with clarinet, soprano sax and flute in the middle section that will cheer up anybody.
Still Fighting Gravity starts as a tv-series sound score but develops into a jazzy, bossa nova-like song with nice electric piano, saxophone and guitar, and in the end a short vocal part that introduces another delightful guitar solo. Elsewhere is a waltz-like song featuring nice flute playing by Klarmann, an instrument he might have used more for my taste.
The album closes with the epic When The Tide Comes In, which consists of seven parts and is clocking at more than 18 minutes. Most epics that close albums stand there because they are supposed to be the highlights of those albums. Alas Argos didn’t manage to achieve that. In fact, I found it a rather mediocre affair. The greatest let-down is the inclusion of some spoken text telling a not-so-interesting story of aliens from Mars preparing to travel to earth. Not only is that story hardly original and done far better by numerous others, they also decided to leave it unfinished and to fade out the song and thus the album with spoken lines. That is very unsatisfying and brings down the entire album. Another disappointment is the hardly distinguishable flow between the different parts of the song. The individual parts in themselves are nice and attractive, but the glue is lacking, making it more of a collection of short, separate pieces, rather than a coherent epic piece.
In spite of these slight disappointments, I enjoyed listening to this album. For those who are already familiar with the band, this new one may not offer much new, but something that is good can be enjoyed over and over again. For those who like to listen to bands like Caravan, Camel during their Rain Dances-period or the like, give this one a try and you will not be disappointed.
Central Unit - Whatever Day Suits You Best
Bologna-based Central Unit have released their follow up to 2010’s I See You. The album Whatever Day Suits You Best mixes electronica, prog and jazz into a thick and heady brew of dance-beat inflected, instrumental jazz-fusion.
Central Unit are a four-piece consisting of Alberto Pietropoli (sax and flutes), Enrico Giuliani (bass), Riccardo Lolli (keyboards and programming) and Andrea Ventura (drums and percussion). If you are looking at the line-up, and are thinking: “ah now that looks like an instrumental Van Der Graaf Generator, those perennial favourites of the Italian prog community”, then you would be, as I was, wrong. The sound here is more individualistic and reminds me of the French electronica-meets-jazz of Moksha Samnyasin and also of Sonny Simmons’ 2015 album Nomadic. It is livelier, less dark, though just as substantial.
Across six tracks the individualistic sound of Central Unit is thoroughly explored. On Board begins as a Bartok-like string experiment, before quickly morphing into the most dance-inflected track here. Electronic beats vie with the live drums, and the sax provides the refrain and solo. It is a little relentless in its danceability for my taste. However, Gear Path more than makes up for that, with its nod to North African modal structures and its loose-limbed, almost dub-bass arrangement. It has the keys floating in and out of the mix and it has a great groove to it. In fact, all of the tracks on Whatever Day Suits You Best have a delicious groove to them.
Multi-tracked saxes provide a punchy horn section on Snowed Under. Its sequencer-style rhythm is surprisingly funky, and the flute trills, add warmth. The skittering rhythms of Get It Out Of Your System weaves around the bass-line. Mellotron and synth give this a proggier feel, which extends into the rather splendid and stately Seesaw Daydream. Here a breathy flute melody is taken up by the gentle piano, and the whole track is just enchanting.
This short album closes with a What Use (Bob Costa Remix), remixed from a previously released EP (Loving Machinery), released in 1982. It is a cover of a track by American post-punk experimentalists Tuxedomoon, and it is given a hard-edged Underworld-style makeover.
Central Unit’s ace card is Enrico Giuliani's supple, mesmerising bass-playing. He anchors the melodic structures, allowing everyone else to play around. It leads to a bold mix of electronics, jazz and prog on Whatever Day Suits You Best.
Dilemma - Random Acts Of Liberation
Jan Buddenberg's Review
If memory serves me right, it was around 1983 or 1984 that I bought a relatively new magazine SymInfo (if you could call it that with 16 pages), during one of my earliest prog concerts, probably Saga or Marillion. This first encounter was certainly not to be my last, for in the wake of the popularity of neo-progressive rock it grew quickly to become a substantial magazine. Within a few years it was even able to organise events and concerts. Thus onto 1986 and the first such concert took place in Paradiso, Amsterdam creating a buzz in the scene and giving other bands (still mainly from the United Kingdom) a huge opportunity to regularly play in The Netherlands in different cities like Tilburg (Noorderligt), Zoetermeer (De Boerderij) and Uden (De Pul). Rapidly growing, with the magazine getting a better look and feel, they changed the name to SI Magazine, continuously investing into progressive rock, which now had bands coming from the Netherlands such as Egdon Heath, Achet Aton and For Absent Friends.
To fill a need for the public, who would like to get their hands on the music described in the magazine (this still being before the internet caught on), SI Magazine started a post-order service which soon enabled them to release albums under their own merit via the label SI-Music, a remarkable achievement in the Dutch music industry. Many new artists found their way to the label, paving the way for some bigger names like Landmarq and Everon. This evolution continued with further growth through a worldwide distribution deal with Roadrunner Records sometime in 1994. And that was the time we got to meet Dilemma, who had been busy from the early 1990s.
Founded by singer Butler and keyboard player Robin Z (Zuiderveld), Dilemma had already released an EP, Trapped in 1993 featuring three very diverse tracks, and based on this recording a contract was quickly signed with SI Music. Imbroccata, their successful debut album, most notably in Japan, gave them the opportunity to tour bigger venues in The Netherlands and establish a reasonable following. Confidently they started work on their second album, The Overwhelming at the famous Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum. Sadly the actual CD never happened, as the agreement between SI-Music and Roadrunner collapsed, resulting in the discontinuation of the label and causing a ripple effect on Dilemma to fall apart (an effect causing different problems to many contracted bands at the time, I’m sad to say).
Hooking up again in 2003 as The Underneath they forged a more solid and compact, updated sound, though only for a brief period. It took them several more years to return in 2011 at the request of IO Pages, the successor to SI Magazine, with an almost completely different line-up of Robbie Z. and Butler, playing with Paul Crezee on guitar, Erik van der Vlis on bass and Collin Leijenaar (Kayak*, *Affector) on drums. Several successful gigs were played, music was written, but silently and quietly the band went into hibernation for five years... to only just recently emerge again with this, their anxiously awaited second album.
And I am delighted to announce that Christmas (a festive, highly anticipated, rewarding and joyous moment during the year) has come early thanks to Random Acts Of Liberation. Like an advent-box of deliciously-wrapped chocolates, it oozes progressive rock, bursting with exciting surprises and careful doses of flavor, textures and smooth, refined odors. You might want to pinch yourself to actually realise that you are still awake. But perhaps you don’t want to, for what’s on offer is magical. In 72 marvelous minutes, Dilemma manage to give a retrospective of exquisite progressive rock, which due to a very open and transparent production, sounds passionate, sensitive, playful and versatile; on top of which they retain their own identity.
The first surprise is the fresh, sharp and vibrant recording, accomplished by Leijenaar at his Novae studio in Ede. Combined with the vocals recorded in Hilversum and the final mixing and mastering by Rich Mouser (producer Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic in Los Angeles, we have an immaculate, crystalline sound.
The second surprise is Declan “Dec” Burke (Frost*), who has taken over vocal duties from Butler (since around 2015), giving the whole album a sumptuous flow with his strong, delicate, melodic, unique voice. The third surprise (remember, an advent-box leading up to Christmas has many more) is the quality of the musicianship achieved throughout the album. It is showcased and captured in mellow passages, melancholic parts, technical transitions and ravishing sections, with each member playing without any boundaries and with a passion as if their lives depended on it.
The Space Between The Waves firmly sets the mood and flow of the album with an addictive riff and luscious keyboards, to which cheerful drums and a firm bass-line add structure. With Dec delivering melodic vocals to this perfect entrance, it shows the continuous growth of Dilemma in a nutshell. Captivating hooks and enchanting melodies result in a fine mixture of Enchant, Rush and a more pop-orientated Porcupine Tree vibe, rounded-off by a strong, tasteful guitar solo.
If not fully convinced yet of their potential, Amsterdam (This City) follows as the first single, immediately luring you in with a strong hook and delightfully-diversified drums; a Christmas Day lunch for fans of Neil Peart or Mike Portnoy. Lifted by layers of keys, the melodic pop approach once again pays off in many ways, from the beautiful beginning, accentuated on violins by Frank Van Essen, via the slowly-intensifying, complex rhythms, and culminating in a fierce heavy pomp-rock. With arrangements carefully worked out, this is iron-clad song writing from start to finish, sometimes reminiscent of It Bites (_Once Around the World _) and *Neal Morse*.
The pop structures and framework, one of their strong points, work exceptionally well for Dilemma. They tend to incorporate lots of influences into their music, all the while managing to keep it modern and fresh. All That Matters, a radio-friendly and very catchy AOR track, and Intervals, a relaxed ballad, bring memories of Toto and New England. On a similar note is Play With Sand, with a heavier intro and sprinkled throughout with keyboards, ends with an outstanding solo by Crezee. Prodigal Son opens softly, slowly transforming towards exquisite 90s Marillion-like progressive rock featuring some lovely keys and a superb solo on guitar, before finishing with some luscious, heavenly pop, complemented by rich, choir-like vocals.
Gracefully they exceed expectations to present neo-progressive rock in an almost timeless fashion on several tracks, beginning with Aether; an atmospheric, ever-so-slightly complex and subtly moving track. With Jessica Koomen supplying backing vocals, this should definitely appeal to fans of early Enchant and Season’s End era Marillion, especially on the guitar parts.
Using further female background vocals works wonders with Wonder (Not Of My Own), a ballad evoking emotions through the loveliest of touches on bass, delicate keyboard-fills and light-weight drums; and when the guitar kicks in it’s like listening to the best track from Toto’s The Seventh One.
Equally qualified and timeless is Openly. Reminiscent of Aether, it flows magnificently with a slightly different atmosphere and a powerful, moving, melancholic melody that is reminiscent of Enchant, before ending in an eruption of excellent eclectic prog.
Though not strictly a concept-album, this includes some shorter instrumental songs like Spiral Pt. II, linking it to the first album and aiding the general concept of the album. Amongst all this beauty there’s Dear Brian, a short acoustic interlude, bursting with restraint and challenges, nicely depicted in the lyrics and vocals, with violins adding profoundness. It is a delicately crafted, dreamy track.
Pinching myself again, it’s Pseudocomaphobia, quickly unwrapping itself and bringing a gorgeous taste for my palate, gradually turning me into a chocoholic. With a hard rock-vibe, tight, powerful drums, soaring guitars and organ, it instantly transforms into a haunting track with compelling rhythms and a driving chorus. Suddenly it changes, with keys breaking into a delicious solo like John Beck (It Bites), highlighting shards of Blue Oyster Cult and lastly reverting back to the beginning, with an now even darker, more intense drive and a bombastic wild finale.
Then it’s time to unwrap the biggest delicacy. The epic The Inner Darkness is the pinnacle track of the album. A certainty to adjust your judgment of Dilemma, for this is progressive rock in Optima Forma. Whereas Transatlantic has their Whirlwind, this is Dilemma’s equivalent of a very moreish fondant cake. Firm and solid from the outside, with a heart-warming liquid centre filling you with joy and delight.
Opening acoustically, it rumbles with mighty progressive rock, bestowing elements of Yes and Transatlantic. The well-constructed composition continues on a joyous stream, reminiscent of Neal Morse (with Leijenaar being his former drummer and tour-operator it is an obvious influence). The stormy, runny middle section, supplying goose bumps, is sheer genius; up tempo, progressive and utterly rhythmic with a bridge slowly leading to a wonderful, thundering execution of technical progressive rock before oozing into the mellow grandeur of Pink Floyd-styled prog.
So there you have it. When looking at the references, this album is essential for all who adore prog, for it melts in your mouth/ears. Mike Portnoy, acknowledging their potential, immediately took them on board as a support act for his Europe-tour with Sons Of Apollo; and me, I still have trouble grasping this band to be from Holland (apart from Dec), for it’s brilliant, adventurous and keeps on delivering more and more with each listen, like an infinite box of deliciousness.
As you might have guessed by now, I simply can’t ignore the impression that I have now listened to what could easily be the best album of the year.
Guille Palladino's Review
After several years of absence from the progressive rock scene Dutch/British band Dilemma, fronted by keyboard player Robin Z, is back with a brand new album entitled Random Acts Of Liberation. This time the line-up is complemented by amazing drummer Colin Leijenaar (Kayak, Neal Morse, Affector), frontman Declan “Dec” Burke (Frost*, Darwin’s Radio) on both guitars and voices, Paul Creeze on guitars and finally Erik van der Bils on bass.
At first sight this is an incredible album with all the ingredients to make it a total progressive rock masterpiece. They have also completed a successful tour as the support band for Sons of Apollo, promoting and positioning them as a very important and interesting new (or renewed) progressive rock act.
The bedrock of this album is Burke on guitars, with his trademark voice combined with some great keyboard arrangements and solos by Robin Z.
We also have a totally-gone-mad Colin Leijenaar doing incredible work on the drums with wonderful skills, techniques, timings and fills throughout the album. His work gives a stronger and diverse approach to every song, reminding me of the techniques by drummers like Mike Portnoy, Craig Blundell, Nick D’Virgilio and even Gavin Harrison. He is the absolute protagonist of this album.
It is easy to identify the main musical influences that come from Frost, Darwin’s Radio and the likes of Neal Morse’s, Spocks Beard, Arena, Marillion, Sylvan and even Subsignal. Yet there are also influences from varied sub genres such as progressive rock, neo-prog, hard rock and some progressive metal arrangements, all of which enhance this great album.
It is very hard to define the highlights because we are talking about an almost perfectly conceived album, but I will share the moments that I like best from this album.
The opening and first single The Space Between The Waves offers an explosive opening for this album with great rhythmic changes, in which Colin shows us what he is going to do behind the drum set. Amsterdam (This City) is some kind of hard rock song, combined with a Marillion-like piano arrangement that gives us the first hard approach of this album. My absolute favorite song is Aether, one of the most beautiful prog ballads I’ve ever heard, with an undisputable influence from Darwin’s Radio and even Marillion.
All that Matters is a very easy-to-listen-to song, with a more British rock approach, whilst Dear Brain is a beautiful Spock’s Beard_-influenced acoustic ballad and Prodigal Song is a more pop-oriented track with some arrangements that remind me Frost* and Sylvan.
Their musical style is also present in Openly, which offers arrangements from the classic neo-prog era. Finally Wonder (Not Of My Own) closes beautifully this wonderful album, with a great drum arrangement that makes this song an evocative listen which gets you asking for more, before entering a closing instrumental entitled The Mist Of Vale.
Without any doubt we are in front of one of the most outstanding albums of this year. An album that is full of talent and beautifully conceived, composed and developed. So I don’t have any dilemma to give this masterpiece a perfect score, as I cannot recommend it enough.