Reviews in this issue:
4db - Animal
On the evidence of the music presented in Animal there is no denying that 4db are excellent exponents of jazz-rock. 4db hail from France and Animal is their second release.
The album offers vibrating bass tones, and clean cut guitar solos. These principal ingredients are, augmented by a series of elegant piano interludes and swathes of singing and squawking synth embellishments. This gives much of the album an attractive flamboyance that is hard to ignore and is often irresistible.
Much of the release has a reassuringly familiar feel, which hints towards the style of bands and artists such as, Gary Boyle, Isotope, and Gilgamesh. During the eleven compositions featured in Animal, 4db skilfully, display many of the instrumental flavours usually associated with some of the best examples of fusion and progressive jazz.
On the face of it, the album conforms to some of the compositional norms connected to this type of music. The majority of the tunes have an introductory section. This section is then developed, or elaborated upon melodically, with some possibility of improvisation. Finally, there is a return to the opening melody, and elements of the introductory section occur again in some form.
In this respect, Animal agreeably exhibits a number of satisfying traits usually associated with fusion. Fine solo parts and spacious arrangements provide many opportunities for experimentation, or improvisation and ensure that the album has a gratifying appeal for fusion aficionados
Nevertheless, the album is never stale or unimaginatively generic in its scope and breadth. The release has a number of instrumental passages that offer unexpectedly exciting melodic twists and imaginatively explores surprising musical paths.
Animal is on occasions a beautifully gentle and reflective experience. It is colourfully festooned, with many expressive and memorable instrumental passages. There were instances when the agreeable tones of some of the guitar solos were somewhat reminiscent of the smoothly sweet style of Pat Metheny. However, any notions that the music merely exhibits an ear friendly laid back air are frequently challenged.
Although gorgeous melodies and lush ensemble compositions abound, the band are able to juxtapose these laid-back components, with no holds barred instrumental sections and a selection of tracks, which have suggestions of a jagged-edged rock appeal. These provide moments of genuine excitement and inject an added zest to proceedings to help vigorously stir the pot.
Fleur de singe, pt. 2 is one of the most energetic pieces on offer and is one of highlights of the album. Guitarist and principal composer Damien Boureau’s distorted tone is pleasantly harmonious and his quick-fingered frills brought to mind the work of Gary Boyle. The whole piece froths ,simmers, spits and bubbles to great effect and the inclusion of a free flowing piano section in the middle of the track, along with some spirited synth runs during the arrangements latter stages, only adds to its overall seductive appeal.
My favourite piece on the album is undoubtedly Vieux robo. It features a memorable motif and includes a number of stop start moments that help to provide a palpable sense of fun and spontaneity. Over the course of the tune, every twist and possible development of the recurrent theme occurs. That 4db are able to do this and still maintain a listener’s attention is a testimony to the bands skill and ability in being able keep things sounding fresh and inventive. There is an unexpected avant section at the midpoint, which swirls and curls in mad abandon, to deliver a twisted dissection of the main motif.
The use of repeated themes creates a familiar and mesmerising ambience that is instantly appealing, but the sum of all of its parts constructs something that is unique and altogether captivating. The keyboard parts provided by Thomas Cassis are quite magnificent. Olivier Michel’s growling vibrating bass lines are equally impressive and provides an underlying resonance in this composition and throughout the album that pounds the heart, wobbles the gut and thumps the chest.
Added to this quite intoxicating mixture, Vieux robo also offers some wonderful sections where the brushwork of drummer Quentin Rondreux creates a delicate and gentle framework for the other members of the ensemble to excel. In this respect, I was reminded of the work of Trevor Tomkins’s, in Gilgamesh’s Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Me Into. Later in the piece, an expressive and heavily atmospheric guitar section breaks through. Although different in structure, it possessed a similar ability to impress as the slow burning beauty of Gary Boyle’s expressive playing in Isotope’s Spanish Sun.
The bands performance in this piece is impeccable, but the nature and structure of this track is brilliantly quirky. It is easy to visualise the smiles on the band members faces as they extract every possibility from its truly memorable motif.
The majority of the other tracks also function very well and with the exception of the Sauvage, I have enjoyed listening to them on a regular basis.
Sauvage is a somewhat predictable riff-laden jam piece that features space rock effects and squawking synths. It starts brightly and promises much, but ultimately fails to develop interestingly and consequently is one of the few pieces on the album that fails to satisfy.
On the other hand, La danse du lion is a lovely upbeat tune. This excellent sometimes funky rib-rattling and toe-tapping composition gives the band an opportunity to display an impressive cohesive style, which comes to the fore during the excellent ensemble parts. This colourful and stylish platform, offers a jump off point for elaborate, synth, bass, organ, and guitar parts to flourish. The piece concludes with a rhythmic dance section embellished with the piercing warbling of a retro sounding synth that might have come straight from the 70s. This section is particularly effective and was strangely and unnervingly reminiscent of some of the hip-shaking folk rock rhythms of mid 70s Jethro Tull.
A number of pieces prominently feature the bass. These include the excellent Sensala and the beautifully constructed Lune Rousse. The speaker rattling low-end tones of Lune Rousse are sadly somewhat over bearing; so much so, that on occasions they threaten to usurp and dominate the delicate nature of much of the tune.
Abysses is probably the most impressive of the bass-centred tunes. Within its evolving spacious rhythmic structure, it displays a variety of percussive bass techniques. These are set against a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe. Notably, it begins with a full-sounding bass and keyboard interlude that was redolent of the approach of Hugh Hopper in his Two Rainbows Daily collaboration with Alan Gowen. In the second half of the tune as the pace quickens fine guitar breaks and a variety of atmospheric keyboard effects break through .Abysses satisfyingly concludes with a reprise and variation of the bass tones that began proceedings.
I have thoroughly enjoyed 4db’s Animal. The album delivers a great stylistic mix. The album has many genuinely exciting solo flourishes. These raise the bar high and help to enhance the arrangements of the compositions on offer. The combination of all of these traits creates a hugely appealing album. I look forward to hearing more from this talented band in the future. In the meantime, I will continue to play Animal regularly.
Elizabeth The Last - Elizabeth The Last
2018 has been a very strong year for instrument prog-rock and entering the arena with a strong album is Elizabeth The Last, an instrumental prog-rock trio from Dortmund, and this self-titled album is their third release.
They form a classic trio line-up of guitar, drums and bass, but the sound has piano and synths added to it courtesy of their drummer Arnd Finke. They also make use of guest brass players on certain tracks. However, they take delight in turning up the volume and they avoid the post-rock slow-build-sudden-release formula. Elizabeth The Last’s sound has echoes of mid-period guitar-driven instrumental Porcupine Tree, as found on Stupid Dream and In Absentia. There are passages of luscious heavy riffs that can change in moment like a metal Frank Zappa.
Elizabeth The Last opens with the Morse code bass pulse of Centralia. It quickly builds and takes in sections of heads-down, fast-paced riffing without ever losing sight of the hum-along melodic content. It has a false ending that wrong-foots you before upping the energy further so that when Centralia does finish it leaves you wanting more. And more is exactly what you get over the following four tracks.
Spacey electronics and the circling guitar motifs of André Krispin blend throughout Comparison Of Faces. There are subtly discordant harmonies that unsettle the ear and Pascal Hahn's trumpet gives non-jazz colour to the sound. Benjamin Oppermann’s bass anchors the swirling space-rock sections of Parallel Timelines before metal edged guitars drive it to its conclusion.
The two halves of New Future move from the ballad first section with its piano and crisp Saxophone of David Brück to the heavy prog of its second part. There are hints of Berlin School synths and electronics on Your Longing For Recognition but like a hyperactive child it refuses to settle and has a King Crimson eclecticism to it.
Elizabeth The Last’s Elizabeth The Last is an inventive album of prog-rock instrumentals that wears any influences lightly and repays repeat listens.
Jordjø - Jordjø
CD 2: Mine Templer I (6:12), Den Klaustrofobiske Masken (8:26), Svarthelleren (5:58), Under Aurora B (8:57), I Atuans Gravkammer (6:50), Betula Obscura (1:36), Se Valinors Lamper! (7:10), Fugløykallen (3:46), Solina, Min Dronning (7:06), I Momos Trädgård (2:39)
The self-titled fourth album by Norwegian Håkon Oftung’s project continues the style and quality of their earlier albums: music that celebrates the less popular styles of the seventies, mainly keyboard driven proto-prog combined with elements of Kraut. Based on the styles of Kaipa, Can, Sahara, Änglagård, Camel, early Eloy and Ash Ra Tempel, the band has created a double album of low energetic, sinister music that has lots of different elements on offer over time.
Since this is a compilation collecting all tracks from four releases (three demo tapes and a split release), the wide variation could ahve been expected: while one song contains harmonies and chord progressions in the likes of The Beach Boys, the next one comes in in an arrangement that could have been Yes’s and another song could have been written by ELP and it goes on like that throughout the album. Useless to name all references.
But despite this broad variety, the album doesn’t really bring something new to the table. It appears to me that the intention was to exactly re-create the style, artist X has done already, so one doesn’t hear anything surprising. Also the songs itself appear to be knitted together rather randomly.
All the different parts in a song fully stand for themselves and are in no way connected to each other. Only Oftung’s flute is some kind of a red line throughout the album, and his untrained, unprofessional vocals.
In that way the Jordsjø music is good for melancholic moments when one wants to re-enjoy the music of the seventies without listening to the same old songs over and over again. But even for this purpose, I think the quality of the writing does not provide the ultimate experience.
I personally will not look into the band an further, mainly because I can’t stand this kind of singing.
The Silent State - The Silent State
One of the most interesting albums to come my way this year has to be the debut eponymous album by The Silent State. A truly international collaboration the five core members of the band - Wilson Goh (vocals), Amith Narayan (guitars, mandolin, vocals), Justin Bannister (piano, vocals), Kala Charan (drums, percussion, rav vast), and Kie Watkins (sousaphone, trombone) - hailing from Australia, India, Singapore, and the United States. What is more, the cast of supporting musicians - Dave D'aranjo (bass), Shaju Vaadiyil (violin), Darrel Xin (erhu), Sridhar G (flute), and Simon Mariadoss (spoken word) also hail from across the globe. With musical influences from across their individual cultures and a collection of instruments that are not typically found in prog bands the results are certainly eclectic, and truly progressive.
Things kick off with Our Endless Now is introduced by a spoken word piece that is somewhat negative. A plaintive acoustic guitar underpins the speech until at its conclusion the tune shifts to a more positive rhythm that is enforced by a defiant vocal, a repeated single piano chord and some trombone slides. Things ramp up with the addition of some funky bass and drums, multiple layers of vocals, guitar, electric piano and more trombone. It is a real smorgasbord of a song that somewhat defies classification and is all the better for it.
A Cautionary Tale also starts with a more subdued air, largely vocals, acoustic guitar and deep bass keyboards, eventually joined by strings. Goh sings with perfect enunciation and has a rather unique timbre that is pleasing to the ear. The song contains my favourite lyrics of the year so far: "...like peacock feathers in a cowboy hat, we stick out in all the wrong dimensions..."!
There is a different vocalist on Here And Now, which at a guess I would attribute to Bannister (well, I have a 50% chance of being right!). The song is a simple composition which allows the lush violin strings space to shine through. the interesting drum patterns are clear but perfectly mixed into the arrangement. The instrumental Hang It Up! has a more ethnic feeling, purely attributable to the instrumentation used. The opening five seconds of What Goes/Comes Around reminds me of Life's What You Make It by Talk Talk but that reminiscence is swept aside as the band starts up. The song is a joyous experience, although the lyrics hide a twist or two, and, again, the clarity of the mix is impressive with every instrument clearly discernible.
Vocal harmonies are the order of the day on Blunt Knife with mandolin adding tonal variety. Finally, The Anarchist's Raga is another delightful instrumental that ends with a spoken quote from Voltairine de Cleyre, the turn of the nineteenth century American anarchist who opposed capitalism, the state, marriage and the domination of religion over sexuality and women's lives, and acts as a riposte to the opening speech of doom.
Based on these 30 minutes, The Silent State are an intriguing proposition. They certainly know how to fuse the various and many influences into an original whole and are obviously not lacking in any performance or recording ability. Despite their wide geographical dispersion it seems they are a gigging concern which would be something to behold. If any criticism were to be levelled at the band then perhaps a tad more diversity wouldn't go amiss, particularly over a recording lasting more than 30 minutes, but that is essentially nit-picking as what is on offer in this first 30 minutes is just fine. If they can maintain their collaboration then they are certainly a group to watch out for in the future.
Spires - A Parting Gift
Spires have once again returned to the light of the UK prog scene with their latest release A Parting Gift, the follow up to 2014’s The Whisperer - an album I found to be a fantastic slab of epic progressive metal featuring everything I wanted from an album like that. And so, without further ado I am going to jump straight in to see if this album can compete with their previous releases.
At over an hour of music, there is a lot to take in with this album, but it has a good mix. It has the pounding and crushing heaviness of progressive death metal, with the harsh growls to assault your ears, to the soft passages and clean vocals and acoustics that could accompany a Pink Floyd track. It is expertly crafted, produced and performed.
The influences are very evident on this release. With The Seer standing out as showing their respect to the legends of progressive metal, specifically Opeth (think Ghost Reveries, but from the UK) and Emperor. An all-round outstanding track (complete with a stunning guitar solo) that really showcases the influences, and the writing skill of the band, with every member shining on it.
In contrast, the title track A Parting Gift has more of a traditional prog rock sound to it, with elements of it reminding me of King Crimson and Porcupine Tree. Soft acoustic passages, crescendos in all the right places and soaring vocals are laid out for you here.
Finally, we enter the closing track. A mammoth 17-minute long monster. This track has a nice ebb and flow, building up and cooling down, with solos and atmosphere strewn across it to keep it interesting. It is a brilliant closer to the album, encompassing every emotion generated throughout and every style present. Easily my favourite, although, the previous tracks set a fairly high bar to beat!
If you like technical and epic progressive death metal, then pick this up. If you like your music to be a mix between Opeth and King Crimson, then have a listen. It is a brilliantly written album with some superb musicianship. Like their previous release, this is soon going to be another favourite of mine I suspect.
Twelfth Night - Sequences
Back in the early 1980s a band formed at the University of Reading arguably kicked off the prog rock revival with their instrumental Live At The Target album. Taking up the entire second side of that album was the epic Sequences, a tour de force that was the highlight of every concert. In 1981 newly appointed singer Geoff Mann kicked off the next, vocal, era of the band by performing the track as a triumphant closing number of their set as opening act of the Reading Festival, a performance that made the audience sit up and take notice of the relatively unknown band. Geoff, who had also been a student at the University and had occupied a room in the halls of residence next door to guitarist Andy Revell, had written the lyrics to accompany an embryonic version of the piece as far back as 1979 although it was not until the Festival appearance that the music and lyrics were first heard together. Throughout Geoff's tenure with the band the epic tale of a young soldier in the First World War became a spectacular concert ending with the singer providing a visual centrepiece acting out the lyrics to great effect, with strobes and, when venues permitted, flash bombs enhancing the atmosphere. Forget your Gateway's, your Grendel's, and your Ripper's, there was nothing else of that prog era that could match the intensity of the vocalist, the majesty of the musicianship and the sheer spectacle of the performance of Sequences.
Zip forward thirty odd years and we arrive at the centenary of the end of the First World War. The significance of the anniversary has meant that there has been extensive coverage of the conflict and lots of local and national remembrances with even young children being taught about the horrors endured and sacrifices made by the millions of combatants from around the world. The release of this album is the band's contribution to those remembrances, but don't think that it is just a reissue of previously released material, that would most likely have been regarded as a somewhat cynical ploy. The band wanted to create something special as a tribute to the fallen and so have reworked the track, adding an overture and orchestrations, sound effects and new sections to really enhance the recording, the first vocal version recorded n a studio. What is more the band is donating a substantial portion of the money from each CD sold as well as soliciting contributions from on-line purchasers, to the Royal British Legion annual Poppy Appeal, which, even before the CD was officially released, had raised several thousand pounds.
What of the band? With Geoff having sadly passed away and original bassist Clive Mitten busy with his C:Live Collective just who are Twelfth Night on this album? Brian Devoil (drums, percussion) and Andy Revell (guitars, additional vocals) remain from the original band (indeed the duo were the precursors of TN as the pair won the University Battle of the Bands competition performing a track that became the first piece the band recorded) with Mark Spencer (vocals, keyboards, rhythm guitar, programming, orchestrations and sundry other bits and pieces) and Dean Baker (piano, keyboards) who have played as part of the group since they reformed in 2007. Andy Faulkner (bass) makes a second guest appearance with the band following on from his NEARfest appearance in 2012, Anastasia Koburg provides additional vocals and the 'TN Peace Choir' of Lee Abraham, Tim Bowness, Darren Callow, Idris Evans, Simon Godfrey, Helen Johnson, Cliff Pearson, Ed Percival, and Alan Reed make a brief but important contribution.
The new recording itself is simply magnificent. The opening fanfare and overture provides a superb introduction with Baker's piano and the sumptuous orchestrations adding a symphonic element to proceedings. Spencer is possessed of a voice that has a timbre close to that of Mann's and in places the similarity is quite spooky. A lovely touch is that Mann himself makes an appearance delivering the Sgt. Major's Pep Talk isolated from the 1983 Live And Let Live recording and provides a great contrast with Revell's rather plummy, upper class Colonel's Pep Talk. A new section acts as a bridge to the front line with some lovely classical guitar providing the quiet before the storm.
And what a storm it is! Full on assault as the troops go over the top into the onslaught. Revell's playing is phenomenal creating a maelstrom that is evocative of the madness of battle and Faulkner provides a solid bass line that is just perfect. I do kind of miss Devoil's machine gun drum fills even if they have been replaced in places with recordings of real machine guns! The aftermath of the battle has some wonderful cello providing a melancholy air that is displaced by another display of guitar finesse. The finale, pushed along by a trotting string section brings the song to a triumphant end with the 'Peace Choir' delivering the final two lines with aplomb. A suitably over the top crescendo brings the music to an end.
The instrumental version is a completely different mix from the vocal version which draws out the nuances in the music. As befits a band who for several years only played instrumental music, the piece does not suffer from a lack of vocals. If anything the focus is drawn into the music and different elements come to the fore. The elegant beauty of the guitar phrases juxtaposed by the more more modern synth elements courtesy of Mr Baker. The bass stands out more and all credit to Mr Faulkner for his fluid and uncomplicated performance. Despite the drama foisted on the piece by the lyrics, the music alone conveys emotions in a more subtle, yet heightened, manner. The interconnected elemental structure is more easily discerned and, although instrumental, vocalisations by Spencer and Koburg are maintained, the voices being employed as additional instruments. The newer, quieter sections leave spaces that enhance the contrasts and give the singing guitar solos greater prominence. The instrumental version is not simply a space filler but standout piece in its own right, harking back to the origins of the group.
Interpretations is essentially Mr Baker performing piano variations of three of the main musical themes from Sequences, although some orchestrations and synth washes are included as well as some subtle programmed drums. The tempo is a lot slower throughout and focuses on the main melody line. Even though the themes are instantly recognisable, the transposition from electric to acoustic adds another dimension. The result is a moving and beautiful collection of music that would not be out of place performed at any remembrance service. Although it might seem excessive to have a 57-minute CD containing just one song, it is almost as if there are actually three totally different pieces and the CD would be immensely poorer if any one of the elements was excluded. In addition the 16-page booklet by Paul Tippet that accompanies the release is exceptional and moving in its own right: this is a release whose focus is, rightly, on the casualties of war and not on the band.
There are numerous reasons why you should buy this CD but, more importantly, there are no reasons why you shouldn't.