Reviews in this issue:
Ecovillage - Sacred World [download, cassette]
Sacred World is the fifth album by Swedish band Ecovillage. The core of the band is Emil Holmström and Peter Wikström who between them play a huge array of instruments including synthesisers, electric piano, grand piano, meditation drums, acoustic guitars, music boxes, sampled voices, cello, flutes, and sitar, into which are incorporated field recordings from around the world. Prior to their first album's release they became enamoured with the textures and musical layering on the first album by Fernwood, an acoustic album by California duo Gayle Ellet and Todd Montgomery (Almeria). They asked Ellet if he could provide some overdubs to their recordings and the rest is, as they say, history with Ellet making contributions to all five of Ecovillage's albums.
Ellet is probably best known in prog circles for Djam Karet although that is the thin end of the wedge as he must be one of the hardest working musicians having appeared on over 100 albums, contributed music to over 50 films and television shows and is currently a member of seven different bands!
On Sacred World he adds harmonium, dilruba, surmandal, guitar, eight-string tenor ukulele, wooden flutes, tanpura, udu, ocean drum, windchimes and ebow, as well as ontributing field recordings captured around his home in Topanga, California. The only other musician on the album is Erik Plamberg contributes trumpet to the final song, For Artur.
The album is purely instrumental, very plaintive and relaxing, with, as may be expected from the instruments played, ambient overtones. David Sylvian, particularly his albums with Holgar Czukay, springs to mind and there is an almost spiritual quality to the pieces which are presented with no gaps between tracks.
Effectively it is an hour-long work that flows gracefully along making one lose track of time. Although I can't claim to be a huge fan of ambient music, Sacred World is totally captivating and offers an excellent listening experience. The balance, tonality and layering is superb and at $5 for a high quality download is a real bargain.
Lapis Lazuli - Brain
Have you ever found yourself reflecting on whether you will enjoy a band's latest release as much as you did, when you first heard their music on a previous album? I have!
Lapis Lazuli’s idiosyncratic style first smote and clasped me in 2014. The bands Alien Abracadaver album ticked all the right boxes. Satisfyingly, it still does (review here). Their next release Wrong Meeting only served to reinforce my love affair with their intricate mix of cacophonous grooves, memorable leg twitching rhythms and dramatic shifts of mood, tempo and direction.
Their latest album, Brain sees the band reduce from a five piece to a four piece-losing saxophonist Phil Holmes along the way. After listening to Brain, a couple of times, I found myself considering my feelings about the bands altered instrumentation and its impact on the bands overall sound. I guess that many readers have also experienced how difficult it can be, to reassess, or reconnect with the way a bands style/ sound can develop, change and evolve over time.
Cross-legged and head-phoned, as Brain ends, I recite a simple couplet whilst plucking the flowers from a fading elderly Christmas poinsettia plant.
I love them, I love them not.
I repeat the mantra until all that remains is a solitary petal and a bitter sweet aural after taste. As I snatch the last petal, it drops cheatingly to the floor to coincide with the whispered words 'I love them'
When in doubt, this structured variation of the daisy oracle never fails to sign-post an opinion to reflect upon. In this case, it provided an opportunity to consider and explain why I was initially undecided whether I remained in thrall of Lapis Lazuli’s latest development of their art.
There is no doubt, that Brain is a challenging album, but overtime, if a listener is able to persevere and stick with it, it is ultimately every bit as rewarding as Lapis Lazuli's previous releases. Whilst, a number of sections of Brain did not immediately appeal and stubbornly continue not to do so, there is so much more about the album to praise and commend rather than to criticise.
Stylistically, Brain manages to straddle an exciting path decorated with signposts to bands such as, National Health, Gong, and King Crimson. The path is also subtly coloured, by a wide plethora of other influences. These include for good measure, rock, reggae, space rock, bossa nova, dub, ska, math rock, psychedelia and hints of various forms of dance music. The musicianship throughout the album is superb and the long duration of the tracks, give many opportunities for all members of the band to step into the spotlight to excel both individually and as a collective.
The lack of the sax in this album means that on the face of it Brain possesses a much harder edge than its predecessors do. The guitar has much more prominence and therefore Brain is noticeably heavier. There are arguably, fewer occasions where the band is able to explore contrasts between light and shade.
The heavy riffing, dramatic changes of volume and beautifully ugly groove of And Stay Out epitomise this change of emphasis and gives Brain a different and possibly a more contemporary muscular sound. Nevertheless, the album still contains an idiosyncratic style that is instantly recognisable as Lapis Lazuli's own. If you enjoyed _ Wrong Meeting_ then much of_ Brain_ will also similarly impress.
To replace the way in which the saxophone was utilised, a number of guitar effects carry the melodies and embellish the arrangements. In this respect, there is plenty of exciting interplay between guitarists Neil Sullivan and Dan Lander. Brain features some biting guitar parts and the way in which Sullivan uses his instrument to duel rhythmically with the other players, or to provide a lush effect laden atmospheric soundscape is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the album.
A range of keyboard styled effects is also used to good effect. These boldly tint the arrangements, as in the gorgeous Alan Gowen-like synth effect that flutters freely, during the impressive Falling Line. The careful use of these effects provides the band with an interesting and varied palette of sounds. These give the arrangements depth and add a varied range of colours to the bands canvas.
However, I must admit that there were times when I missed the expressive blowing of the sax, it probably would have given the album another dimension and arguably could have added a more natural human element to the bands compositions.
Cacophonous passages full of structured chaos, fevered invention and open mouthed gusto are a noticeable feature of the album. There are many occasions when the music cascades, gushes and gurns as it twists with tumultuous unabated fury. Discord and melody compete, clash, combine and complement the other, to create a muscle twitching patchwork of interlocking riffs and gyrating rhythms. There were occasions when the bands unique amalgam of styles and layered riffs had such a heated intensity that it produced a sort of aural overload that was difficult to digest, let alone comprehend. Perhaps that is what the band set out to achieve.
The twisted frenzy of much of the bands ensemble work and the nimble and often unexpected transitions of tempo and rhythm that occur might aptly be representative of the chaos, and stimulus overload of a brain locked into turmoil, created by the choice and temptation inherent in the ever-changing technology of the modern world.
The album begins with Low Key. It initially channels a sound and style beloved by Ennio Morricone in his soundtracks to numerous spaghetti westerns. Lapis Lazuli has never been afraid to introduce moments of tongue in cheek humour to their music. In the past, they have done this, by fleetingly referencing a theme tune or identifiable style. For example, during Wrong Meeting’s School, there were musical references to the theme of the TV series Grange Hill. Similarly, during Alien, with a knowing wink and a smile the band introduced a jazzy interlude, straight from the stylebook of Glenn Miller. The beginning of Brain carries on this tradition in a splendid manner.
The tune contains many of the hallmarks that over the years have made Lapis Lazuli such an interesting band. It has stop start sections, changes of pace and rhythm, outstanding solo passages, a wonderful recurring motif and magnificent interplay between the members of the ensemble. The guitar parts are quite outstanding and the dragon breathed interplay between the two guitarists creates a wondrous racket that is stubbornly challenging and delightfully mesmerising in equal measures.
Perhaps more importantly, just like the majority of the bands work, Low Key is so delightfully challenging that it resists any attempts to be sung or hummed. Similarly, it defiantly refuses to embed itself in the memory. It is the sort of piece, which continues to offer something new to discover.
Falling Line is a beautiful piece and is probably the most melodic and relatively straightforward tune on offer. It has a reassuringly familiar fusion feel that contains some impressive low-end work delivered by Luke Mennis and a synth effect solo that fans of Gilgamesh will adore.
The highlight of the album is undoubtedly Hired Soul. It is every bit as memorable as the bands previous standout composition’s Alien and School.
Hired Soul has a memorable motif and unlike a number of Lapis Lazuli compositions, it manages to stay in the memory long after the piece ends. Its main theme would probably even pass the Old Grey Whistle test. The tune is remarkably fresh and refreshingly manages to exude an air of spontaneity within its carefully spun and structured arrangement.
Hired Soul contains many different sections. These connect in some way, to the tracks main motif, but also offer something completely novel. In this way, each segment has a unique and part to play as the whole piece unfurls. Hired Soul is an uplifting composition that is fiendishly complex, but superficially at least, is also deceptively accessible. This lengthy track has some delightful contrasts and manages in parts to be subtle and gently reflective.
In other passages and as a superb contrast, it displays copious amounts of fist pumping aggression that is sure to bludgeon the brain, knock the knees and rattle the roof. This is no more apparent, than in the gorgeous reflective bass part that precedes a pulse quickening guitar solo that occurs during the latter half of the piece. It shortly brought to mind how National Health utilised a similar type of approach to contrast both light and shade during their Borogroves piece. Put simply Hired Soul is monstrously complex and is incredibly good.
Throughout the release, the contribution of drummer Adam Brodigan is outstanding. He propels the music along with some excellent kit work and his ability to lay down a variety of complex rhythms whilst displaying the enviable skill of being able to mix power and subtlety to enhance the music is a notable feature of the album.
In many ways, Brain is probably Lapis Lazuli's most impressive album yet. It is certainly their most challenging and whilst not everything about it resonates, much of it does. Any misgivings I might have had about the bands harder and somewhat more contemporary sound have receded with repeated plays. I listen to Brain regularly and it just gets better and better. As the album spins and concludes, I sit loose-legged, head-phoned and red-faced.
I shout out a simple mantra.
I love them!
LizZard - Shift
I became aware of LizZard when I went to see The Pineapple Thief in Sheffield in the later part of 2018, where this French trio were the support act. My brother, nephew and I, were impressed with LizZard and their take on prog-metal alt-rock. They were a great live act and were well received at the end of their short set. Later my brother purchased a copy of their latest release Shift for me as a Christmas present (bless him).
Now the question was, would the recording stand up to the memory of the live act. I have been burnt before when a support act was terrific and their album a poor listen. (I’m looking at you, Random Hold. Their debut album The View From Here was duly purchased and singularly failed to capture their magnificent live presence, and it was a disappointment all round. Out of interest, they were supporting Peter Gabriel way back in the day (1980), but obviously I’m still not bitter about it).
The good news is that Shift matches that night’s live performance and is cracker of an album. The album has the confident swagger of a band that play live together, and the production and mix is punchy and powerful. This is their fourth release having debuted in 2008 and I think ten years’ experience shows in LizZard’s ensemble playing.
A short instrumental with ominous bass chords leads the way into the striking Singularity. Metal riffing smacks from the speakers as Mathieu Ricou (guitar and vocals) and William Knox’s bass rock a melodic core to its foundations. Underneath is the subtle drums of Katy Elwell, her less-is-more approach, is a welcome change from the approach of many prog-metal drummers. It’s one of those albums where more fills and fussiness would just detract from the power of the rhythms.
Lyrically, Shift is bound together with a loose concept as the songs deal with the notions of identity and mental well-being. Somewhat similar to the way Kim Seviour’s 2017 release Recovery Is Learning does. A strong vocalist Ricou holds his own against the fierce sound this unassuming trio make, without resort to growling or screaming.
The music LizZard produce is not just a set of monolithic metal tunes. Even though they have a way with grandiose riffs and all kinds of headbanging goodness. Repeated listens show a band that has a compelling experimentalism (within a limited envelope, it is true) that encompasses touches of Radiohead reflected in the melancholy of Passing By and Bloom as well as nodding to the heavy prog of Stupid Dream era Porcupine Tree and Riverside’s Love Fear And The Time Machine. In the middle of Shift, the title track is a prog-metal meets alt-rock instrumental that demonstrates the chops that LizZard displayed in the live arena. Over six superb minutes of crunchy riffs mixed with delicate passages and a short, perfectly formed guitar solo this is where they won a new fan.
So, I have been trying to think of a ‘if you like these you will love this’ type comparison as short hand for this album. The best I came up with is Australia’s Voyager. LizZard share Voyager’s melodic, dynamic and structural sense but they remain resolutely their own band. LizZard’s Shift is a terrific discovery and I want to see them live again, now that I am more familiar with their material. LizZard are a reminder to never be too cool to turn up for the lowly support band.
Maat Lander - Seasons Of Space - Book #2
Maat Lander’s latest release takes up the story of Maat the great space adventurer as he continues his journey through his very own invented universe. It continues in a similar style to the bands previous release Seasons Of Space - Book 1. Whilst perhaps Book 2 does not consistently reach the heights achieved by its impressive predecessor, it is an enjoyable album and should satisfy aficionados of progressive space rock.
Maat Lander's music is set within the stylistic parameters of space rock, but their progressive outlook to this genre, ensures that there is frequently enough variation in style, melody and rhythm to keep things interesting over the course of the album and often also within individual compositions.
Maat Lander is made up of members of Vespero and Re-Stoned. Given this, it is not surprising that Maat Lander’s music contains some of the exciting genre crossing and unexpected twists and turns that are often associated with Vespero. However, whereas Vespero have arguably broken free of some of the stylistic shackles of space rock by using a wide range of instruments and introducing folk and ethnic influences into the mix, Maat Lander have only loosened the cuffs.
They happily adopt many stereotypical space rock effects and musical norms into their repertoire and incorporate many stylistic norms that are often associated with bands such as Hawkwind, Øresund Space Collective, and The Ozric Tentacles.
Nevertheless, the band are able to add their own unique ingredient to this mix and in this respect the mouth-watering guitar work of Ilya Lipkin is central to establishing the bands own specific brand. Over the course of the album, he is able to display great versatility. Gruff guitar riffs, sustained flowing notes and delicate acoustic passages are used to good effect and provide the release with necessary variation, whenever a space-laden groove is about to overstay its welcome.
The other members of the trio also perform impressively. In particular, drummer Ivan Fedotov’s kit work is much more to the fore in many of the pieces than in his work with Vespero. His high impact playing in a number of tunes, help to propel them along with a relentless energy .When he utilises a natural kit as opposed to a wave drum or drum machine, his playing gives the album a fresh, organic and subtly evolving sound.
Arkadiy Fedotov's bass work is similarly engaging and on the occasions such as, during Meteors Serenade when it is given a degree of prominence in the gurgling mix of rhythmic synths. His belch bubbling tone and sense of timing adds an extra dimension to the bands insistent deep-galaxy, starlit-night, groove.
Meteors Serenade is one of the standout tracks. It is the longest piece on the album and this gives an opportunity to explore a number of moods and tempos. It does what it suggests in the title, it really is a serenade albeit, with a fiery edge, blazing guitar riffs, and multi layered guitar effects. It also includes a violin effect that gives the tune an extra dimension and offers the same sort of high-end variability of tone that Vespero’s violinist Vitaly Borodin is able to provide to their work.
The piece ends with a delightful acoustic interlude. This reinforces the variety and versatility that Maat Lander are able to display and also in the flamenco-tinged Quantum Ballad, when they choose to step outside the confines that their preferred genre strives to impose upon them.
The sound quality of the album is generally good, but there were occasions when the busy nature of the music and multi layers of effects and instruments used produced a sonic approach that was a bank of sounds. Therefore, for my taste some of the more hectic instrumental passages and in particular the galactic groove sections, lacked the space to distinctly identify some of the individual components.
After the high standards set by its predecessor, this latest instalment of Maat’s story was only occasionally able to equal, or exceed the quality of that release. Despite the fine playing of the trio and in particular Lipkin’s engaging and emotive breath taking fret work, there were occasions when I felt that the use of different instrumentation like perhaps a saxophone or a trumpet would have provided the album with an enjoyably different choice of sounds, a greater dynamic range and even more variety.
However, overall, I enjoyed most of Seasons Of Space Book 2.It offers a delightful extravaganza of skilful, but varied psychedelic space rock to savour. Some of the synthesiser parts are wonderful. They swoop, swirl drone, and dart to create a carefully spun soundscape over which, Lipkin is able to spotlight his undoubted skill and versatility. The music flows freely, and is able to drape the listener in a kaleidoscopic shawl of lush rhythms and hypo-space pops and pulses.
Shadow Matter - Shadow Matter
Shadow Matter started as a project by guitarist Remco de Jong around 2012, after the breakup of Lap Of Time. Whilst writing music, helping him along in the process where Gerben Gerrit Verhaar on vocals, Johan van den Berg on drums, and Jeroen Herrelaar and Buks Kemp both on bass. Supplying synths himself, finally now lies before us the debut album of Shadow Matter. And to make things clear and bright: progressive up to a point, and oozing rock - with a capital R!
All 9 tracks range around the 5-minute mark and with no long epics present the progressive touches are rather to be found in complexity, intensity and technical virtuosity of the songs. And it has to be said De Jong has succeeded in creating keen musical structures filled with a diverse style of riffs, hooks and ample varieties in similar vein as for instance Pain Of Salvation. Sprinkle this with a sniff of prog-metal like amongst others Savatage and touches of Tool, and you might get a notion off the directness and direction of Shadow Matter.
Production (mixed and mastered by Oz Craggs in the UK) adds a dark atmosphere, in good harmony to the never-ending gripping flow of riffing guitars which are sometimes highlighted by shredding solos. Subtle and yet complex differences in rhythm and tempos intensify the overall feel and mood, thereby delivering a punchy raw experience as a result.
Rock is immediately evident on opening track Take Time, grabbing instantly with heavy, fueled guitar rock, hard-hitting drums, pumping bass and most impressive: the energetic expressive accent-less powerful voice of Verhaar. “Holland’s Got Talent” eat your heart out, we have a winner! Intense, powerful, rough, strong, provocative and flexible - Verhaar has got it all. Primary feel to his voice is a mix of Jeff Scott Soto and Zak Stevens aided by the straight forward (melodic) hard rock similarities of Machines Of Grace and SOTO. Further into the album this gradually shifts towards secondary images of Eddie Vedder and Bono. The slow change of musical scenery and a more melodic tendency of the music as we move along the tracks add to this image substantially.
There’s no letting go with the music holding a firm grip combining metal and hard-rock on the one hand and on the other a more heavier side of the spectrum in the form of Pearl Jam and U2 resourcefulness. Sometimes this is strengthened and amplified through guest solos by Nico van Heiningen on Running and Ronald Van Den Bos on Let It Flow. Especially the latter shows the writing abilities of De Jong and hopefully forecasts a craved possible future for Shadow Matter. As one of the tracks featuring the sparse use of synths, it drips with refined melodies alongside a playful solid song structure. Most favorable it shows a natural flow towards the to me so appreciated progressive metal Kingcrow-style.
However well played and superbly done, I do however feel that without a ballad or resting point present, it does start to feel a little bit monotonous after a while. And all good intentions aside, I do also question some passages which feel rather familiar after listening to the album several times. Absolutely fine by me as a Blue Oyster Cult adept, and likely to be coincidental, but one of those is the intro to A Fire, A Kiss which sounds familiar to BOC’s Harvest Moon.
As debut albums go it’s a good one, leaving room for improvement. At first it might deceivingly sound like straight forward rock, and to the untrained ears might be quite a workload. You can ask the missus... With each musician giving their best, the many underlying layers shifting and shaping the music, and a dark production adding character there’s however no complaining. My advice is to lock yourself in your soundproof darkroom and absorb this thoroughly if you like your progressive alternative rock hard.