Reviews in this issue:
Agusa - Ekstasis - Live In Rome
The questions are simple, the answers less so!
How does a band ensure that their latest album is going to be every bit as good as their previous discs and last excellent release?
How does a band develop the tunes released in their last album, especially if that last release was successful?
A resolution of this conundrum might well be complex and the answers numerous and varied, but Swedish band Agusa came up with a solution of sorts.
They decided to release a live album that showcase rearranged and slightly extended versions of four tunes that featured in their last album, that was entitled Agusa (review here) and one tune Uti vår hage that featured in their debut. It was also presented in a much expanded form in their live Katarsis release (review here).
The live setting provides many opportunities for the band to explore new directions, whilst retaining elements that were successful in the original studio recordings. The result for anybody who is acquainted with Agusa's output is something that sounds reassuringly familiar, but is inventive, exciting and fresh in every respect. The result for anybody who is not familiar with the band, but who enjoys loosely spun instrumental prog, is never less than stunning.
Ekstatis melds the organic, ever changing and slowly evolving flavours of their jam like approach of the past with the more structured approach to composition that emerged in Agusa. There are many foot-tapping moments, easy on the ear tunes and whistle friendly melodies contained within the albums four tracks. Whilst many of the new areas explored follow a linear and easily recognisable direction, there are occasional off-piste passages, as in the mid-section of Sagor från Saaris that surprise and delight.
Agusa's instrumentation, style and influences are varied, but their use of Nordic folk idioms draws significantly upon the approach delivered by fellow Swedish bands such as, Kebnekajse, Fläsket Brinner and Grovjobb. The dance inducing folk rhythms and hearthside melodies, used by Agusa also display elements that are hardened by the tinted colours of blues based rock. Agusa style provides many aspects to enjoy. The band’s music should appeal to anybody that likes to hear variety of influences in prog.
The flute is the principal instrument and is the most prominent voice for carrying the bands tuneful melodies. Jenny Puertas playing provides a focal point and some of her fluttering lines and snarling overblown embellishments are genuinely moving. At other times, her fragile reed like tone is less so. Nevertheless, her strident playing at the beginning of tunes like Sagor från Saaris and in the midpoint of_ Landet Längesen/Sorgenfriis_, are an absolute flute progger's delight. The mysterious sort of call and response section, involving the sound of a trilling flute and a twisted guitar is excellent. Much of Ekstasis will satisfy those who enjoy the earthy folk inflected flute prog of bands and artists like Tusmorke, Jordso, Maladyand Björn J:son Lindh.
The organ has an important role to play in the bands overall sound. Ekstatis marks the recording debut for the band of Jeppe Juul. Juul makes a significant and impressive contribution and adds an extra touch of flair to the band’s sound. His sensitive use of tone and the skilled organ interjections that joust and playfully bellow to wind spin with the flute are hugely enjoyable. The deep vibrating resonances of the flowing organ runs that underpin much of the tunes are equally gratifying. The organ passage and solo in the introductory section of Sagor från Saaris is excellent. Much of Agusa’s music may well be very satisfying for readers who enjoy organ-based bands, such as London Underground
The manner in which the guitar is a part of the band’s sound, is no less important to Agusa’s recognisable sound and the albums overall success. The heavy fuzzed approach used by Mikael Ödesjö will be sure to delight any readers who prefer an instantly recognisable retro guitar sound. The guitar break and solo in the first half of Uti vår hage and later towards the end of the track following Tim Wallander’s pithy drum interlude are fluidly expressive and full of fuzzed distorted menace. Much of Agusa's music will have readers enthralled, if they enjoy the music of guitar bands such as, Plankton, who similarly employ a loose jam approach with the suggestive tint of a hint of rock, folk, and blues.
Nevertheless, Agusa are arguably not a band of virtuoso soloists and their enticing power is in their excellent collective approach, where each player is able to empathise with each other and bring out the best in each other. The solos when they occur, be it on guitar, organ, or flute, are all handled with skilled aplomb, but the sum of all these parts are more important than any single component.
Ekstatis is a finely recorded album. The crisp production values ensure that the various instruments have clear separation. The sound has a live in the room feel. The playing has a raw edge that gives much of the release an air of spontaneity. In this respect, it is a true reflection of a live band pursuing their art. The excitement of the bands performance is clear to hear and while some minor mistakes can be discerned, this provides the release with a feeling of genuine artistic authenticity that makes it even more palatable. The overall performance of the band is excellent and the album is equally impressive.
This is particularly the case in the knee-rocking Sagor från Saaris, where all members of the band make noticeable contributions both individually and collectively. My favourite part in this piece that has many highlights is the hazy guitar accompaniment, which develops briefly into a fully stoked fire baked solo of singing yelps and whoops. The main body of the flute led tune is infectious. In addition, its strength lies in the tunes ability to anchor the rest of the piece around its memorable motif.
The other pieces are equally enjoyable. The gently lolling melody and biting guitar and organ accompaniment of Landet Längesen never fail to ensnare me in their charming clasp. It is probably my favourite piece on the album. I particularly like the manner in which it changes moods and the way in which, the tempo quickens as the band are able to move seamlessly and inventively through the gears, from passive, to aggressive, and to hypo space rock mode when the need arises.
I really like many aspects of this album. There is very little that in any way disappoints. Ekstasis has been a constant companion in the last few months and continues to satisfy. The music has a rare playful organic quality and while its relatively straight-ahead nature may not always satisfy the brain, its potent mix of styles, comprehensible use of improvisation and strong emotive pull, certainly warms the heart.
Coma Rossi - Coma Rossi
It's always a refreshing reminder that progressive (cliché alert!) rock related music knows no boundaries and here we have one of the few bands from the Indian subcontinent called Coma Rossi with their self-titled debut album. These guys are based in Bangalore.
What do they sound like? Well, from their FB page their influences range from: Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Camel, Tool, No-Man, Dave Brubeck, Japan, Radiohead to Tangerine Dream. It's safe to say you can certainly hear some of these western influences, especially any project by Steven Wilson.
What's the album about? Here's a quote from the album notes:"The music, though not bound by a singular concept, dwells in the underbelly of human emotions and surrealism that affects our perception of the world. The lyrics explore the feelings of loss, grief, and effect of time on relationships, but with a very strong undertone of hope. This album strives to depict human existence in midst of all the modern day chaos and the machine which is life."
And the music? Well here's my take on this band and album.
They're not an out-and-out technical band in the sense of complicated and bewildering solos strewn all over the place. It's more about creating atmospheric, layered tapestry of sounds, that can combine distorted metal-based riffs with supporting spacey keyboards and the occasional solo here and there. Certainly the first track, Mirage falls into this category. In fact this track does remind me of Opeth. The band do have a hankering for a good melody which is clear throughout the album with some great vocals from Tom Borah who sounds very western in his singing. Another track that conjures up these musical attributes is the intensity of the instrumental Jomolungma Is Far Away, with a fine guitar solo work towards the end.
There are more ambient heart-felt moments like Yellow Escape with definite leanings towards No-man and anything that Tim Bowness might have touched! A very atmospheric and sad vibe that works well within the overall context of this album. A good song indeed.
The centre piece to this album is the 14 minute track Dream. Replete with throbbing synthesisers, jangly stroked guitar chords, sympathetic solos, metallic riffs, atmospheric keyboard soundscapes, guitar and piano arpeggios, haunting background vocals that make for a fine track.
The song Turn Back Time is a track worth mentioning here because they enter the realms of cross-over prog with leanings towards a more pop sound with a very good melody, catchy chorus and some wonderful singing from Tom Borah, best on the album. Check out the official video.
The last track Lost continues with that cross-over pop feel with acoustic guitars, haunting melody, spacey keyboard sounds. Then it suddenly explodes into a heavier vibe with a startling synth keyboard solo (reminded me of Steve Wilson's Regret #9). Further into the song we also get a good guitar solo. A sub 10 minute track that offers some great moments and a fine way to end the album.
Overall it's a good debut album, but I do feel they missed a trick by not weaving into their compositions their take on western prog by incorporating some of their rich cultural musical heritage - isn't that being progressive? I know artists such as Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel have plundered such rich seams of music and it would have been interesting what Coma Rossi would have conjured up coming at it from the opposite direction. Also for me the album is too long (curse of the CD I guess) as I personally find it hard to find the time to listen to an album that's over an hour long. If vinyl only existed I wonder what these guys would have done differently to hit that magic 45 minute mark.
Anyway, great start guys, a worthy 7 out of 10.
Garrett N - Let's Get Surreal
Garrett N is a solo artist, instrumentalist, composer and producer whose work has featured extensively across assorted programmes across US television networks. Let's Get Surreal is his second solo album following on from 2008's Instrumentals And Oddities album, although I first came across him several years earlier when he contributed a track to a collection of fan-based Pink Floyd tributes None Of Us Is Pink curated by a friend of mine. His musical mission is a stand against low quality, compressed streamed music by restoring the hi-fi production qualities of yore.
There is no doubt that the album is a soundtrack from a film that's yet to be made. The rich soundscapes, menacing synth attacks and audio inserts, primarily from George Bush Jr on the terror threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (and a speech that, despite its inaccuracies and audio manipulation, is still more eloquent than anything the current US president utters) on Saddam-Espace and Michael Caine reminiscing about historic slurs on gay men on Avant3 / Ahip1 / Caine.
Although the core music is delivered by a variety of synths, organs and even Mellotron, the presence of electric and acoustic guitars and some heavy bass can be heard throughout as well, although generally distorted through a variety of effects, as well as some simple but effective drumming. There are certain nods towards Pink Floyd and even a, probably coincidental, recurring riff from the Tears For Fears track Change while Middle Eastern textures are cleverly blended in to the mix.
There are so many layers to the music that not much space is left in the sonic spectrum but despite that nothing seems too overwhelming, in fact when more minimal sections appear they seem almost barren. With the exception of the aforementioned vocal inserts and the song Avant, arguably the least impressive moment on the album, everything is instrumental with each part meticulously crafted to add to the tension, mystery and sinister nature of the proceedings.
One cannot really separate individual tracks as out of context of the whole work their power is somewhat diminished. Sure, tracks like Overture and The Eternal Laugh do have an inherent integrity partly due to their length but timing is not a sufficient marker as both Ahip2 / Reprise / Bak3 / Unknown and Avant4 / Outtro / Epilogue do not really stand alone and require the listener to be familiar with what has gone before to make sense of them. One can speculate that this is part of the kickback against modern listening experiences where in many cases the 'album' has ceased to exist but essentially it is just effective composition.
There is a saying that "familiarity breeds contempt" but that is unreservedly disproved by Let's Get Surreal as the more one becomes familiar with its components the greater the understanding and appreciation. Garrett N is without doubt a meticulous producer and although it has taken a decade to arrive, perhaps making the GW Bush inserts rather dated, it's quality and dynamism are not easily ignored. Give your speakers and your ears a workout and listen to this album and see just how surreal things get.
Svarc Hanley Longhawn - SHL#2
As I listened to SHL2, a string of artists and influences shortly flashed into mind. Any album that immediately gives rise to thoughts about artists as diverse as Gilgamesh, Return To Forever, Isotope, Tony Williams lifetime, Van Der Graaf Generator, London Underground, Gary Boyle and Asaf Sirkis And The Inner Noise must be doing something right.
SHL are a trio originally based in Leeds. They consist of Nik Svarc electric and acoustic guitars, Steve Hanley drums, percussion, and Martin Longhawn, organ and Wurlitzer.
SHL#2 is a very enjoyable album, it has great sound quality and the performances captured are fresh and often inspired. The bands approach to their instruments offer a broad palette of sounds. The album presents a combination of jazz, fusion, blues and rock. The tunes of the album give an opportunity to enjoy music that is equally adept at creating moody cerebral atmospheres or foot curling, hand whirling, toe tapping grooves. There is a great balance between freedom and structure in the eight pieces on offer. Equally, there is a great balance between savage snarling guitar passages and fluent organ runs.
On occasions, the album makes excellent use of the contrasts offered by the soothing tones of the organ, when set against the brash controlled harshness of Svarc’s fiery guitar runs. That is not to say that Svarc’s style is all about hair raising, eye bulging intensity. He is equally competent when the volume is turned down, or when he uses a range of layered effects such as, those utilised at the start of Peace #2, or when he chooses to use a range of melodic chords, as in the beginning of 1955. It is this contrast between fleet fingered fretwork and a different, more subtle approach when necessary, that makes Svarc’s performance so engaging
Nik Svarc has the sort of tone that other players can only aspire to and his fantastic command of his instrument is a real highlight of the album. His playing is very evocative and is never cold or lacking in emotion despite its obvious technical quality. However, all of the players make impressive contributions during the course of the album. The often-understated kit work of Steve Hanley gives a number of the tunes great rhythmic energy. Martin Longhawn’s contribution is equally significant and he enjoyably provides numerous organ embellishments, which are quite simply outstanding.
1955 has a great groove and the hip swaying rhythms and choppy guitar riffs in this tune and also in Bloogie were reminiscent of the type of knuckle rapping funky style that Gary Boyle dabbled with in the concluding days of Isotope and also in his solo discography ,or more latterly in tunes like Mr Forgetful from his Games release.
The rest of the tunes are equally as enjoyable. Cuenta is one of those tunes that compel you to shake a limb. It just bounces along and has many standout guitar moments complemented by an infectious organ undercurrent and a quick-fingered rhythm that propels it along to unexpected places.
Brexit is probably the most progressive piece on offer. Its main theme is reminiscent of something that Return To Forever might have created. However, it does not stay in any one groove for too long. It is an exciting composition. It has discordant passages, numerous stop start parts, and displays a wide variety of moods including reflection, tranquillity and aggression. These in many ways can be considered to represent the chaos, differing opinions and uncertainty that many observers might associate with the Brexit process.
Peace #1 is one of my favourite tunes of the album. The combination of instruments just sounds so fresh and it possesses the same sort of gentle vibe that Gilgamesh were so adept of pulling off in their Another Fine Tune You've Got Me Into release. Peace #1 contains some beautifully sensitive guitar frills, which evoke the feel and spirit of what Phil Lee was able to achieve with Gilgamesh. However, the real highlight of Peace #1 is probably the sweet toned organ fluttering provided by Longhawn that transports much of the tune to an ethereal level.
Some of the most expansive guitar work occurs in Peace #2. The second and third minutes are bathed in a mass of swirling, sweeps of snarling distortion reminiscent of Frank Zappa. The piece is divided into two parts by a drum break. The second half of the composition is more meditative and uses a repeated guitar phrase to create a math rock trance like effect.
Overall, listening to the skilful performance of SHL has been very rewarding. The tunes are strong and the arrangements are excellent.To say that I have enjoyed SHL#2 is an understatement. It is simply great!
Check it out if you can.
Syndone - Mysoginia
Progressive ensemble Syndone make a bold and brave statement with their newest album Mysoginia. The subject, the hate towards women, causes much controversy and insights around the globe on many different levels. In this male-dominated world, equal rights, sex, religion and politics are all big, ever so dangerous topics. Interpretation of this exorbitant predominant male behavior and transferring it onto music is an admirable and challenging task. Thankfully Syndone created a pedestal for these beautiful fascinating creatures we know as females in the broadest sense of the word.
Founded in 1989 and led by Nik Comoglio, Syndone have thus far released six albums with since recently cover a variety of complex tales and philosophies like 2012’s La bella è la bestia (Beauty And The Beast) and Eros & Thanathos from 2016. All their albums are packed with drama, classical themes, theatrics, melancholy and complex refinement and Mysoginia is no exception to the rule.
The music on this album feels and glows like an ode to those precious givers of life, our mothers and lovers alike. The music beholds many surprises laced with frivolities, sparkles, butterfly feelings, happiness and genuine tenderness. Inscrutable symphonic richness and beguiling choirs weave into bewitching minimalistic classical music touchingly portrayed via piano and violins. Captivating complex progressive moving strophes characterize the gentle inner and outer beauty of our loved ones perfectly. Just the food for thought for this good old fashioned lover boy.
Methodical and emotional the unity of gifted musicians create a picturesque delight which flies like a butterfly: a beautiful, wondrous, loose and free spirit. Mood swinging unexpectedly as if stung by a bee resulting in a the luscious diversity of styles bound together, like a marriage made in heaven. What originates are exquisite miniature Mona Lisa paintings caressingly filled with melody and operetta. Harmoniously waltzing, gliding and seducing through enchanting spellbinding femininity.
Elating passages reminiscent of Emerson, Lake & Palmer go hand in hand with bedside manners of Greenslade, tickled by the distinct voice of Ruggeri. The cheerful, complicated and fragile compositions make a permanent relation to that era of prog, surgically updated on production. All brought with a sincere and honest flair of Italian persuasiveness with frisky impressions of PFM and Banco. Amongst all this fairness, lyrics in English and Italian add authenticity and drama aided by a festive orchestral symphonic penetration.
Unpredictable Marilyn Monroe curves stride along like a White Queen, highlighting a graceful congeniality; adding depth, beauty, mystique and musicality. It’s impossible to define a women in two words, but if two more songs can then Killer Queen and You Take My Breath Away by Queen might give an idea off my fatal attraction to this album.
Contrary to several women, I am lost for words though. Something disturbing crawled under my skin whilst doing this review. Only MP3 files and a web-link at my disposal looks and feels somehow like a serious amputation and an unnecessary self-inflicted rape. An ignorant crime of passion strangely out of order or perhaps male punishment?
The moral of the story? Loosely interpreted love conquers all and without it we are lost. Let music be the lubricant that binds us all. Now don’t be shy and get sucked in by Mysoginia, it’s a lovely heartwarming delicate place. Buy some roses for your valentine, before you get any suspicion of Misandry (hatred of men), if you're male, like me. Intriguingly I wonder what misandry would sound like? Maybe their next album, who knows... Highly recommended.