Reviews in this issue:
Light Damage - Numbers
After a three year hiatus following the release of their critically acclaimed debut album, Light Damage return with their second CD Numbers. Founded in 2005 in different formations, mostly playing covers, they settled into a stable line-up releasing their first album of original material in 2015. This proggy delight, molded from 10 consecutive years of intensified hard labour is filled with gracious neo-prog, reminiscent of Arena, Pink Floyd, IQ and Pendragon amongst others.
On it they display fresh catchy melodic progressive rock spiced up with some more heavier parts. On the left site we get swirling keyboards and lovely piano, alternating harmonious with luscious guitars and sophisticated progressive rock on the right side. On the back it's tight playful drums and bass giving momentum to the musical structures, blended all together on the front with distinctive vocals, the only weak point on the album for they take some getting used to.
It stilled my appetite a bit for Numbers, their second instalment, which seems to suffer from SAS: “Second Album Syndrome”. Artists spent years working on their debut album thereby perfecting it on all fronts, scraping through a lot of material seen fit to release. For a second release bands sometimes surpass themselves in creating an even better one, of which multiple examples can be found. Several bands manage to uphold their quality and resourcefulness, carrying on their flame perfectly; nothing more or less. Others may have already peaked with their first album, and as a result it becomes virtually impossible to produce a follow up which can compete with the predecessor. Listening to Numbers gives me feelings of another scenario. Perhaps there’s an issue with deciding which road to take. Or they might try too hard to incorporate too much in the time spent.
The six tracks vary from 3 shorter tracks, 2 longer ones of approximate 9 minutes each, and the epic track From Minor To Sailor clocking in at almost 20 minutes. To achieve more refinement and a deeper broader spectrum to their music they’ve asked several guests to enrich their songs, ranging from violin and cello up to flute and double bass. This works perfectly well in opening track Number 261.
The elegant beautiful female vocals of Marilyn Placek instantly catches on and interact nicely with John’s voice. Expecting neo-progressive rock my perceptions were quickly altered for we actually drift towards progressive gothic metal. Strong melodies are held together tightly by Fréderik Hardy on bass and newcomer Christophe Szczyrk on drums and supported all the way with signature artful guitar.
Equally short but less exciting is Bloomed, sounding more like an intro of some sorts. A spacey, slightly psychedelic rhythm flows into a straight forward thematic atmosphere. Guitars gain control halfway through but quickly diminish, making room for a short return to the opening sequence.
The opening sounds of From Minor To Sailor gets my traditional-prog heart beating straight away, starting off in refined fashion with touches of Neuschwanstein with flute lifting the music into higher altitudes. What follows is safely executed neo-progressive rock in the style of Galahad. Guitarist Stephane Lecocq pleasantly invites us to get along for the journey with some strong solos but it feels different somehow. Drums sound more basic and less versatile and above all it’s the vocals, already an acquired taste, tending to lose control in range and words, some of which completely mispronounced.
A worst-case scenario dimly lights up during the next 10 minutes of the track. Though executed well, the musical theme repeats itself over and over, mostly just differing in instrumentation. Nothing wrong with incorporating a musical theme several times in a long track, but 14 minutes of the same melodies is hugely over-stretching it. The ongoing repetitive lyrics effectively make it sound more like useless extensions instead of proper explorations. At the near end they fortunately manage to change it for the better, but this ship has already sailed its course for being simply too long.
Onwards we sail with Little Dark One which opens with a beautiful classical interlude transgressing slowly into a neo-progressive track reminiscent of Shadowland and Marillion. Frisky piano and divine solos by Lecocq result in an exemplary melancholic song with a hint of Irrwisch. The cinematic Phantom Twin anchors further with succulent atmospheric progressive, dark and mysterious spacey prog, similar to contemporaries like RanestRane. The heavenly piano parts by Pérignon work out really well in contrast to the artistic guitars and the moving Pink Floyd style displayed.
Lastly we get Untitled where a musical box, played by Charlie Bertrand, can be heard over distant chatter. Cello, violins and piano take over guided by Spanish spoken words silently ending the album like waves on a shore. It’s a rather empty shell, unrelated, uninspired and oddly out of place.
To me this second album fills me with mixed emotions. On the one hand they deliver almost too safe futilities, and on the other finely executed superb adventurous neo-prog, definitely worth checking out. The addition of flute, cello and violins is a welcome added bonus giving their music more layers and depth and I have a hunch they have a better album in them somewhere. I therefore hope their next album will be a work of ARTS; Artistically Renewed Third Sublimity. It’s known to have been done successfully in the past by others.
Pymlico - Nightscape
Nightscape is a sophisticated album. It offers a blend of progressive jazz fusion that should appeal to anybody who enjoys music that gently massages the senses and throws in occasional passages of measured fury for good measure. The album successfully mixes a number of styles, including, jazz, symphonic prog and fusion.
The general feel of the album travels much more towards the middle of the road and mainstream than Pymlico’s previous album Meeting Point released in 2016. This is in no small measure due to the use of more accessible song structures and melodies that have their roots in pop and alternative rock. There is nothing on Nightscape that is nearly as cutting edge as NOL86161360 which was probably the best and most progressive tune on Meeting Point.
Tunes like, Wide Awake and Gabagool have strong hooks and are never complicated or convoluted for the sake of it. Nevertheless, the music is satisfying. There are many occasions when the direction the music takes, turns sharply to keep things interesting and knead the senses with vigorous intent. This is apparent during Ghost Notes where metal chugging riffs appear unexpectedly to compete with the overall funky jazz vibe that scaffolds many parts of the tune.
Pymlico is an instrumental band from Oslo. Arild Brøter founded them in 2009. Brøter is the drummer and principal composer of the band. His brother Øyvind Brøter is the keyboard player. His jaunty solos and rich symphonic embellishments enrich the bands ensemble sound where the principal voices are often shared between saxophone and guitar.
Pymlico’s collective sound makes much of the album endearing. When this is combined with compositions that are agreeably undemanding on the ear, the result is an album that is both relaxing and frequently hummable. The album is a showcase for some particularly impressive saxophone and guitar passages, but does not brim with a plethora of solo parts and virtuoso performances. However, the different members of the group all have an important role to play both collectively and individually to create what has become Pymlico’s trademark style.
The most satisfying tune of Nightscape is probably the thoroughly engaging A Room With A View. It is reminiscent of some of the best Scandinavian jazz to have appeared on the ECM label. If I had not been listening intently, I may even have mistaken it for a long lost Jan Garbarek outtake from the early 90s. At any rate, it is an excellent piece and has that same misty haunting atmosphere wrapped up in blankets of melody that Garbarek was able to bring to his work in albums like Visible World and Twelve Moons. A Room With A View has the added attraction of including dramatic guitar parts and includes some satisfying sections that move away from its recurring motif. This provides Room With a View a highly polished veneer and an accomplished air, which will satisfy fans of prog and jazz alike.
Wide Awake is an excellent opening piece. It begins with an expressive saxophone introduction and is crammed with watery keyboard parts. These are an excellent foil to the fluid guitar led chorus. The chorus is striking. It has a strident melody and captivating hook that lodges itself deep in the memory.
On more than one occasion during Wide Awake and in the equally enjoyable Gabagool, the type of approach of Klaus Doldinger’s Passport came to mind. There is a distinct similarity in both style and sound to that used by Passport in albums such as Cross Collateral. Like Passport, Pymlico, possess an uncanny ability of being able to bridge a gap between accessibility and complexity. This ability makes their best compositions equally appealing to both to heart, hands and head.
Gabagool includes some brilliant rhythmic sections and exudes a surprisingly funky air. There is also a hugely satisfying brief flute break provided by guest Ketil Vestrum Einarsen. During Gabagool, the band effortlessly moves through the gears whilst exploring different tempos moods and ideas. It is an appealing piece and shows what Pymlico are capable of when everything falls into place.
The best four pieces on the album are so appealing that they rank amongst some of the best compositions I have reviewed this year. Without doubt, my least favourite piece on the album is Road Movie. Its repetitive nature and wordless vocals, which sweetly warble la-la-la, ensured that I soon tired of it and was unable to discover anything about it over time to be enthusiastic about.
Other tracks such as Tofana 10 AM, (which also evokes something that is akin the spirit of Passport) is a tad too repetitive for its own good. This track and Silver Arrow do not work quite as well as the albums standout pieces and arguably diminish what would otherwise have been a fantastic release. Nevertheless, the moody and often cinematic Silver Arrow frequently stirs up quite a mesmerising vibe, which on occasions gives it a math rock like ambience. It also includes a great drum break for good measure.
During my first few weeks in the company of Nightscape, I was smitten; sadly, those feelings have diminished over time. However, the best parts of the album far outweigh its weakest moments and overall it is an album that I have no hesitation in recommending to others.
ScienceNV - The Quest For Prester John Volume 1
ScienceNV - The Quest For Prester John Volume 2
My favourite collective of scientific musicians have been somewhat quiet over the past five years, an absence that was explained when the two separate volumes of The Quest For Prester John arrived in the post recently. Although two individual albums I will review them in combination given they are two halves of the same story. Yes it is a concept but one based on a true story, which itself was a myth! Confused? Perhaps a summary of the legend will help explain.
Prester John (John the Priest) is a medieval legend which persisted from the mid 12th century up to the early 17th century. The legend was essentially Christian propaganda against the spread of Islam suggesting there was a powerful Christian presence beyond the known regions of Medieval Christendom. The legend was also used to explain historical events in distant lands in Christian terms. Originally Prester John was thought to rule over a Christian kingdom in Asia (India). However, geographical uncertainties at this time put India in three separate parts of the world, one of which was in Africa, roughly in the location of Ethiopia. With greater explorations of the (then) unknown world, it became more and more obvious that the previously assumed location of Prester John was incorrect so a new location in a less explored region was postulated. Thus, the legend of the quest for Prester John was formed. By the 17th century scholars were increasingly sure that Prester John had probably never existed thus ending half a millennium of futile and frequently tragic quests.
ScienceNV decided that this would make a great concept from the perspective of two main protagonists, Eloise and Roderick, who both participate in the great quest. One volume is dedicated to each of the characters with their respective tales forming the bulk of each volume. Eloise's tale is preceded by a brief introductory Fanfare before heading into the first epic. For the first time, the band have employed vocalists, nine of them, to deliver the story. The different voices allow a greater depth to the pieces with some crazy harmonising (The Brides Of God) and some very good lead performances. The music is equally as diverse with some excellent jamming and a host of different instruments, such as sax and oboe alongside the guitar, bass, drums and keyboards of the band. As one would expect in a track lasting nearly 33 minutes, there are lots of different tempos and styles; the instrumental delicacy of Half A Step is particularly enjoyable.
Two instrumental pieces, An Earthly Paradise and The Gates of Alexander, portray different locations on the quest, the former having an ambient style before the militaristic style of the latter, with some great low register synth sounds and some good interplay between the guitars and keys. The 'Heave Ho' chants are rather distracting though and could have been limited to the start of the piece. The two Falls pieces tell of explorations along the Nile and discovery of a perfect land after cresting a giant waterfall near the source of the river. The second instrumental part is rather quirky with an unusual structure but both are very well played and performed. The closing piece of the first volume, The Mongols, rounds things off with some frantic prog riffing.
Volume two also starts with the epic number and Roderick's Tale. Briefly, Roderick, a knight, sets out to join Prester John travelling over seas, deserts and strange lands eventually coming across the mass slaughter at Al-Samij. The indiscriminate killings cause Roderick to doubt his quest and question what he purports to be fighting for, eventually realising that the war is not right, rejecting his knighthood and returning back home. Again, the band have come up with lots of different soundscapes to represent different parts of the voyage. A very wide dynamic range is used throughout, oddly enough The Carnage at Al-Samij not being the heavy onslaught one might imagine but actually one of the quieter pieces and I love the way the lyric is delivered!
The next three tracks are instrumental. A Byzantine Interlude is more of a period piece with plenty of oboes and flutes; Thirty Ethiopian Ambassadors, each ambassador represented by a different synth lead, is a refutation of Prester John's kingdom residing in Ethiopia, and must have been a right pain to program in each different synth sound while River Of Jewels is this volume's more ambient and ethereal piece. Jolly nice it is too. The whole tale is wrapped up with The End Of A Legend which for the first third is a quite frantic group piece with some fine Anderson-like Flute interjections. The vocal sections, split by another frantic episode, are a quiet lament portraying the realisation of the futile nature of the quest for something that was nothing more than a legend.
A very ambitious project but one that largely succeeds with aplomb. There is a lot of fine music and the ambitious vocalisations and additional instruments provided by more than 30 guests contributors, help to provide variety and contrast to keep the interest high over the two albums. A worthy effort worth investigating.
Vespero - Hollow Moon
Maybe it is the way in which the tunes shift direction, which makes Hollow Moon so engaging. Maybe it is the way that a succession of instruments joust and bounce off each other that makes Hollow Moon so exhilarating. Perhaps, it is the manner in which, both wooden and electronic elements meld together, that makes Hollow Moon so captivating. Maybe it is the way that compositions arrangements provide ample room for members of the band to solo with abandon that makes Hollow Moon so thrilling.
Maybe, it is a combination of all of these and other equally impressive factors that ensures that Hollow Moon is such a satisfying release and one that is a definite contender to be included in many best of 2018 lists. It certainly would have appeared in mine if at the time of writing this review I had not already compiled and submitted mine to DPRP’s editor.
Hollow Moon marks a noticeable development in the style and sound of Vespero. The band began in 2003 and released their first full-length album in 2007. The reintroduction of guest Pavel Alekseev on tenor saxophone last featured on 2016’s Azmari: Abyssinian Liventure, once again gives Vespero an added dimension. His contribution (which was missing on both 2017’s Shum Shir and also in the bands excellent 2018 Carta Marina collaboration with guitarist Angel Ontalva) offers the band far greater scope and provides a range of distinct or mixed sonic colours to choose, from within their kaleidoscopic palette of sounds.
When Alekseev’s melodic and strident, blowing and Vitaly Borodin's tasteful bow work combine, the result is often stunning. This combination frequently ensures that the music has a natural, organic feel, which, contrasts delightfully with the surging technology of the various guitar and keyboard effects.
In Hollow Moon the band move further away from some of the trademark sounds associated with space rock and move closer to a style hinted at in their last two studio releases that incorporates fusion. Jazz rock influences are to the fore in tunes such as the excellent Flight Of The Lieutenant and the exciting Space Clipper's Wreckage
Flight Of The Lieutenant is a stonking tune. It melds many different styles effortlessly together. It is rock-like in places, and wonderfully progressive and inventive in others. The bass playing of Ark Vespero throughout the release is a highlight and in this piece, his bubbling contribution buoyantly propels the music to different territories where many interesting musical ideas are developed and brought to fruition. In one part of the tune, the guitar growls and enters a cool call and response with itself draped in echo and reverb. In another passage, the sax burps passionately to reel things back to the main theme.
Whether predominantly delivered by saxophone, guitar, or violin, the band delivers their arrangements in an exciting manner that makes full use of unexpected shifts of tempo. The clever use of effects and dynamics enables the band to deliver both frantic and reflective passages with great aplomb.
At the heart of much of Hollow Moon is a skilful complexity that is easily observable. Many of the tunes contain flamboyant guitar solos that sing melodically and scream discordantly. Foot-stomping rhythms that lay down a mesmerising belly-bouncing groove are woven into an interlocking ensemble approach. The album also contains many stirring melodies that frequently astound. The creative use of a variety of keyboards provides a multi-layered backdrop that helps to propel the swifter parts of a composition but also during quieter and more reflective interludes gives the music the space to express itself.
These facets individually and collectively draw the listener in. This impressive combination ensures that the music the result is usually relatively accessible and is never hackneyed or uninspiring. On the contrary, Hollow Moon is frequently fascinating and always engaging.
One of the most unexpected developments of the bands style in hollow moon is the tasteful use of acoustic instruments such as mandolin acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordion, piano and on occasions the use of a natural sounding violin. The way in which these elements are inventively incorporated into tracks such as Sublunarian and Tardigrada's Milk is often thrilling. This mix is skilfully blended with the bands overall electric and technologically rich sound. The result is often superb.
The beginning of Sublunarian has an almost pastoral feel reminiscent of some of the structures occasionally used by Jethro Tull. Its acoustic beginning is quite stunning and the tunes inventive use of the lower register provides the slower parts of the piece with a unique combination of sounds.
The composition is full of surprises and teases the listener with many stop start detours. Once the volume and energy turns to red on the dial and a frantic change of pace occurs the piece occupies some of the style and structures associated with fusion. The electric violin solo, which is dominant in the faster section, is thrilling, despite a full-on approach in the latter half of the track. The arrangement still gives an opportunity for acoustic instruments to be heard in the form of a series of outstanding acoustic guitar interjections, which are complemented by some natural sounding violin parts.
Another interesting development in the band’s sound is the introduction of an even wider range of influences including in the case of Moon Trovants, a smattering of folk rhythms that come to the fore in a thigh-slapping dance-like section led by violin in the middle of the piece. This remarkable sounding track incorporates a range of styles and on occasions during its latter stages, its mix of squealing guitar and space-effect keys almost wears a funky air. It all ends too soon and somewhat disappointingly fade to grey with an unsatisfying fadeout.
Other tunes on offer such as Mare Ingenii- and _Watershed Point are quiet and contemplative. They both offer an opportunity for reflection and provide relaxing interludes between the relatively upbeat and forthright tunes that are prominent in the majority of the album.
The tunes, which open and conclude the album are relatively short and have an ambient nature. Watching The Earth Rise is particularly beautiful and displays a symphonic orchestral character as it gently meanders to finish off proceedings.
Whatever makes this album such a gratifying release, there is no doubt that overall, Hollow Moon is an excellent album. I highly recommend it. It is probably Vespero’s most satisfying album yet.