Reviews in this issue:
Dewa Budjana - Mahandini
I guess that one of the ways that a musician can ensure that his art gets greater exposure to a different and potentially larger audience is to bookend your latest release with a contribution from a well-known international artist with a large fan base.
The press release suggests that John Frusciante's contribution came about because of their friendship. The two became friends earlier than this recording. Budjana says: "The first time we met it was on 2015, my International manager Leonardo Pavkovic and guitarist and former editor of Guitar Player Magazine, Barry Cleveland, introduced me to John. He is a great person. Every time I went to Los Angeles, he always asked to meet up for dinner and we talked about music. On this album, I re-arranged his songs, and he sang on Crowded and Zone."
Whatever the reasons, there is no denying that the involvement of Frusciante and the other musicians chosen to be a part of Mahandini has exposed the art of Dewa Budjana to a larger/ different international audience and has created lots of chatter amongst music pundits.
The musicians who feature throughout are also of a similar high calibre and include Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment), the highly regarded drummer Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats) and the prodigious talents of bassist Mohini Dey (Steve Vai).
You may well ask why I am rambling on about one particular guest player in an album that also highlights the talents of such illustrious guests as Mike Stern (Miles Davis, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, and Jaco Pastorius) and the Indonesian singer Soimah Pancawati.
The reason is simple; the two tracks Crowded and Zone which bookend the album stand apart in every way. They were composed by Frusciante and originally were released in his Enclosure album. Although these tunes were shaken up and tastefully re arranged by Budjana, they are stylistically different to the rest of the album. The solid rock leanings of the tracks and doleful lyrics, sung with heartfelt angst by Frusciante, sit incongruously alongside Budjana’s ethnically tinged and delightfully sophisticated fusion offerings.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as the use of a variety of styles in a recording is usually a welcome facet to have in any release. Similarly, any artist who consistently strives to explore new musical territories should be commended.
However, it is the bluntness of the instrument, which is the main problem here. The strategic positioning of the two tracks featuring Frusciante ensure that it affects your perception of the album as it begins and remains long in the memory and pervades the senses like a strong odour after the album has ended.
This would not be a problem if these two tracks were so outstanding, as to leave the listener with positive expectations and a flavoursome aftertaste, but sadly they are not and their clichéd rock musings are representative of neither the style, nor the excellence that copiously oozes out from the rest of the album.
What is for sure is that Mahandini manages to straddle two camps and draw in a potential audience from amongst, rock, fusion and prog fans. One thing that is immediately apparent about the other superb pieces that make up the album is that Budjana is able to lay down a memorable tune that clings snugly to the memory like a closely fit latex glove.I have been warbling the main theme of Queen Kanya in my head for many days. It is a remarkable tune and is every bit as enjoyable as the compositions that made up Budjana’s excellent last release Zentuary.
The sound quality of the album is remarkable. Rich Breen and Jimmy Haslip should receive great credit for their mixing and mastering work. Each instrument is clear and precise and the clearly defined mix gives wonderful separation between the instruments. This creates a spacious and at times gorgeous expansive experience, where every instrumental shade and subtle nuance is easy to identify.
This is in evidence, to good effect, during the differing tempos colours and moods that dart in and around the main theme of_ Queen Kanya_. The tune has a tightly s pun nature, but the solo parts emit an exciting and bright spontaneity that is only achieved when quality players have the freedom of expression to improvise.
There are two highlights in Queen Kanya that are worthy of mention. Firstly, the midpoint of the tune features an exhilarating synth solo where fans of Dream Theater will easily recognise Judess Rudess inimitable style and approach to this instrument. Secondly, the piece contains an improvised drum, voice and bass section using a South Indian vocal percussive style. The nimble fingered full-bodied bass slaps, which accompany this section, are superb. The manner in which Mohini Dey’s voice is used a percussive instrument in the Konnokol tradition is excellent and adds an exciting inventive dimension to an already excellent track.
The album maintains an air of excitement and spontaneity throughout and it is never clear which direction a solo is going to take. Hyang Giri features vocalist Soimah Pancawati and her evocative tones give the piece an air of mystery. Her tone and annunciation provides the tune with an identifiable and traditional South East Asian ethnic ambience. The way in which her idiosyncratic tones meld with a contemporary western sound is notable. It is a memorable track in every way, but the solo parts help to transcend it to another, even more remarkable level.
Budjana’s' solo parts dominate from the midpoint of the piece. From somewhere deep within Budjana’s inner self, an expressive succession and combination of notes are in turns, summoned up, crafted and then delivered. The finely sculpted tones, wails, whelps, and cries of delight that are scattered with abandon from his instrument are superb. The way, in which his solos develop to complement, the main body of the music are magnificent in every respect.
The numerous guitar and bass improvisations exude huge amounts of skill and enviable virtuoso ability, but as a contrast it is the fluid and remarkably pristine piano playing of Rudess that catches the eye and adds a further jazz inspired contrast to the ethnic, rock and fusion elements of the tune.
After the intensity of the soloing, heavy riffing and chanting of Hyang Giri the pace slackens in the moody and evocative Jung Oman. It has a fluid and instantly memorable guitar theme. This declares that it is melodic enough to hum, but its undoubted highlight is the beautiful acoustic guitar interlude. Some wonderful drum parts and a firm clasping bass line melodically support the delightful acoustic passage. It is a beautiful piece that is suggestive of orange-rimmed sunsets and turquoise waters lashing upon a palm leaved shore.
The throttle is set to fast forward in the no holds barred fusion extravaganza that is ILW. It is one of the heaviest pieces on the album and it whizzes by in an uncompromising mix of aggressive ensemble playing and fine guitar parts. It is the sort of tune, which shows that Budjana can rock out destructively with the best of them. The improvised and lengthy guitar solos at the midpoint of the tune is totally engaging and shows why Budjana and Stern are so highly regarded amongst his fellow musicians. The carefully selected tones during their respective solo parts are hugely expressive.
The title track is notable for its complex time signatures and tuneful free flowing melody. It is a gorgeous piece of fusion. The enthusiastic and exuberant manner in which the players interact is very gratifying. It is even more notable, because it includes a flamboyant buoyant bass solo and a delightfully swinging electric piano interlude. In this respect, all of the components seamlessly fit together to produce a thrilling and high quality piece of progressive fusion that will have jazzers and rockers alike lifting their cut glass and leather cups in appreciation. The fluid guitar solo that occurs as the piece sprints and later meanders towards its striking drummed conclusion is delightful.
Despite my misgivings about the running order of the album and the nature of the opening and closing tracks Mahandini is an excellent album. It has is an exciting mix of styles, it delivers a string of memorable melodies, it melds East Asian music with fusion and elements of rock, but most of all it delivers an accessible idiosyncratic sound that is immediately identifiable as Dewa Budjana’s own.
Stephen Lambe - On Track... Yes - Every Album, Every Song [Book]
Sonicbond Publishing have released several excellent books in the On Track series, featuring artists like Queen, Deep Purple and Emerson Lake And Palmer. The latest, Yes - Every Album, Every Song appraises every album and song recorded by the band from the underrated 1969 self-titled debut up to and including the latest and (for me) underwhelming Heaven And Earth from 2014.
In addition to being one of the organisers of the annual Summer's End Progressive Rock Festival, the author Stephen Lambe is also responsible for the excellent 2013 book Citizens Of Hope and Glory: The Story Of Progressive Rock (a must have for genre fans). He is also a self-confessed Yes fan well versed in the ups and downs of the bands career which is perhaps enough to recommended this book. That’s not to say he heaps praise without discretion; overall, he provides a balanced, honest and unbiased viewpoint. The book is also refreshingly free from the conjecture and inaccuracies often found in publications relating to the prog genre.
The book opens with an Introduction (naturally) where the author gives a well written and informative account of the band’s history in just a few short pages. From there he dedicates a section to each band member (and there’s been plenty of them) and no Yes book would be complete without acknowledging Roger Dean and the album artwork. In the latter part of the book he discusses compilations, live albums and tributes. One particular chapter I appreciated was Twelve Unsung Yes Tracks, mainly because I agree with virtually every single one of his choices.
It’s the central section however that’s the real meat of this book. Lambe devotes a chapter to every studio album including an introduction to each, and every track is individually discussed. As a Yes fan I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about the band but I found some of the comments here quite enlightening. And, if you wondering, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe get a look-in as well.
The icing on the cake is 16 pages of colour photographs including album artwork, band photos (some new to me) and memorabilia. Interestingly, the ticket stubs are mostly from concerts I attended myself so who knows, we may have sat just a few rows from each other.
Whilst the author is undoubtedly knowledgeable in all things Yes, such is the detail and quality of the content, clearly a good deal of research has gone into this book. For that he should be highly congratulated. Thoroughly recommended to all Yes and prog-rock devotees and lovers of a good read.
Methexis - Topos
On holiday I’m always on the lookout for tasty local products, mouth-watering beverages and distinctive passionately made spirited delights which have a fair price and supply comfort and pleasure whilst savouring. As a result my palate has been enriched by many flavours, fragrances, discoveries and extremely comforting and soothing drinks these past 25 years. This learning curve never stops widening my appreciation throughout. In similar respect this can be stated for music as well, although my experience on that matter has been going on even longer.
Taste adjusts in time and I don’t know whether there’s an optimum age as to when one’s palate functions best, so on the subject of music I keep my ears in condition and open, whilst being massaged and sensitively seduced by the beautiful nourishing sounds of progressive rock. Thankfully the interlacing of music and precious liquid gold results in certain circumstances in an invigorating surplus. To my surprise, this is exactly what happened with Topos by Methexis, a musical project by Nikitas Kissonas (ex Verbal Delirium).
Topos consists of two 20 minute long instrumental tracks, or 13 slices of deliciousness when using the code supplied with the CD. A lovely gesture to enjoy one’s favourite bits of the album, but my advice is to rather sit back and enjoy the ride. Relax with a nice uplifting drink and dream away from start to finish. Just let yourself be carried away to atmospheric heights, mysterious surroundings, enticing mood swings, uplifting segments and assuring comforting familiar places. Close your eyes and imagine melancholic sceneries, of which the following is only one of many possible scenarios.
Topos 1 grips instantly with heavy Zappa rock seamlessly continuing in open-structured jazz with elegant bass lines. The complimenting cheerful and flexible drums (Theodore Christodoulou) lay down a casual foundation upon which guitars gently sway. Additional hypnotising flutes by Nicolas Nikolopoulos slowly transport you into a forest filled with exceptional animals like Snow Goose, merrily wandering on a pathway to the swinging sounds of trumpets supplied by Konstantinos Kefalas.
Abruptly the forest opens to reveal a mysterious, ancient, church-like castle at the heart of an open spacious field revealing pristine ambient surroundings. Slowly gliding onward, guided by flute, enchanting trumpets lure you to the porch and once inside you hear a sparkling jazz ensemble in full swing. Closing the door the serene silence bewitches and looking around in the hall you hear electronic sounds of Tangerine Dream caressingly filling a window with glowing stars. Walking up the stairs towards the window excitement slowly takes control and mystery and imagination increase with haunting guitars and pumping bass rhythms referring to The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Alan Parsons Project.
Peeking through the window a scene unfolds in which alienated beings converse, straight out of War Of The Worlds by Jeff Wayne. Careful observation and analysis of these creatures from Kalaban reveal their humanity and once instigated a lovely conversation starts via communicative drums and organic keys erupting in a talkative emotive guitar solo. Drowsy from adventure a weary heavy sleep sets in, making your world tumble down into darkness, to be blissfully awoken in Topos 2.
Topos 2, dedicated to Andy Latimer, continues the story in which we slowly wake up in a huge designed hall guided by grand piano courtesy of Panagiotis Krabis. Has it all been a dream? Randomly checking empty halls and chambers gives glimpses and minute distractions in classical minimalistic forms like Greek traditional fragments, elegant piano parts and unctuous flute solos. At long last a familiar trumpet sound emerges and an exit leads straight into a wondrous landscape of heavenly spacey, jazz-laced, Pet Metheny guitars.
A narrow path widens slowly intensifying and slightly neurotic we climb hills and cast eyes upon a spaceship and inquisitively board it, just in time to fly off into the open space. Like a stationary traveller where guided by strongly influenced Camel guitars harmoniously changing to epic sounds of David Gilmour shining a light on our crazy old diamond we call earth. Overwhelming piano and keyboard improvisations from Space makes you want to stay but the captivating flight is over nonetheless and descent starts.
Diving into earth’s atmosphere hypnotic and slight raving psychedelic rhythms pulsate like Porcupine Tree, converging into a different universe with heavy technical complex acid rock and psychedelic composites. The rocky Flight abruptly changes to swing with loose piano taking it full circle to the start of this immaculate journey.
Likewise to Residuos Mentales this piece of art is imaginatively written and an inspiring piece of passionate refined music. The sheer joy of drifting with your eyes closed and let vivid imagination and thoughts fly freely is a wonderful feeling which I can recommend to anyone. Released in 2018 this beauty has many more hidden treasures, so I’ll poor myself another Grand Fine Metaxa and excavate further, meanwhile apologising for this long-time overdue review. Rectifications are also in order to my personal top 10 of 2018, Gia Mas (cheers) to that.
The Neal Morse Band - The Great Adventure
Act II: Chapter 4: Overture 2, Long Ago, The Dream Continues, Fighting With Destiny, Vanity Fair (18:13), Chapter 5 : Welcome To The World 2, The Element Of Fear, Child Of Wonder, The Great Despair, Freedom Calling, A Love That Never Dies (30:57)
As a long time listener of progressive rock, there is a rule that I should always adhere to: don't judge an album on the first listen! When I completed my first spin of The Great Adventure, I was underwhelmed. There was a familiarity to it that felt like more of the same from Neal. As a sequel of sorts to the last Neal Morse Band album, The Similitude Of A Dream, I expected some comparisons, but the feeling of deja-vu was significant.
However, after another listen, the album started to form its own identity. The melodies and performances grabbed my attention and ultimately, the quality of the songwriting won me over. Neal long ago established himself in that area and the compositional input of the other NMB members just adds to the dynamic. When also figuring in the excellent performances and the complexity of the overall work, it became clear that is a ton to enjoy about The Great Adventure.
As with almost any double length concept album, there are certainly highs and a few lows. Some of the heavier rocking tracks are a bit redundant, but there is an exuberance and grandiose to the majority of the material that is very appealing. The flow, both musically and conceptually works well and the reoccurring themes are placed effectively throughout.
To an extent, a concept album like this demands to be reviewed as a total piece of music, but there are standout moments worth singling out. If a more adventurous commercial music scene existed today, the catchy title track would be played on radio stations across the globe. Similarly, Hey Ho Let's Go and Vanity Fair are fun pop excursions that are strategically placed amongst the elaborate prog.
Fighting with Destiny and The Great Despair offer up compelling metal tinged melodies while Freedom Calling and A Love That Never Dies end the album in an appropriately dramatic fashion. In my estimation, no other artist is as good as Neal Morse at producing such sweeping and memorable album closers. They are also quite powerful in a concert setting.
Yes, as my first listen indicated, The Great Adventure is somewhat reminiscent of other Morse recordings. Also, I hope that the NMB forgoes the double album concept format next time as three in a row would be pushing it. All that considered, don't let any of it sway you. This is another monumental and artistically successful recording from one of the greats of the modern prog scene.
O.R.k. - Ramagehead
On album number three, the international all-star combo moves a great step forward. What has already been an incredibly impressing alt-rock effort, has now transcended into a rather modern, streamlined form of a musical gem. The songwriting is much more focused than before to maintain a rather modern overall sound. A lot of the Crimson influences had been put aside to give room to other aspects of the band members’ history.
Colin Edwin explains that they "wanted to harness the power, unpredictability and spontaneity of the O.R.k. live experience into a static recording whilst aiming for a high-resolution sonic space that can be revisited repeatedly by the avid listener to discover ever deeper layers." The outcome of it is a guitar oriented album with pretty heavy aspects in parts.
The heaviness of the opener Kneel To Nothing might be a smack in the face for some who’d expect the same as before, but it is a sheer brilliant aggressive track. LEF fully shouting out his melodies over Carmelo Pipitone’s most aggressive guitars is but just one aspect of a great, heavy song. Colin Edwin’s legendary bass licks add a certain depth to the track, which make it so obvious how important the man was for the success of Porcupine Tree. And as if it were impossible to tell something new about Pat Mastelotto, I am caught by surprise how heavy he can roll his fills.
And it almost goes on like this in the next song, but from there the aggression slowly calms down to lead into more thoughtful moods of the next songs. Still, the guitar is the instrument of choice, clean guitars and acoustic ones base the moodier tracks, the keyboards fade quite a bit into the background, compared to on the older albums. LEF’s vocals are not as exalted as we knew them. but I find it a good thing, as it makes the band more accessible to many. Still, at quieter parts, he again brings his vocal stream down to „almost nothing“, which is still so much more than so many other singer can put out at all.
With rather more groovy elements á la mid-era Porcupine Tree than the usual Crimson-esque style, Ramagehead has quite some outrageous moments on offer. But that is only natural, since "Ramagehead is not a concept album as such, but there is certainly an identifiable theme, in that we attempt to express the everyday bewilderment bought about by the uncertain times we are living in, and the constant confusing information overload that we are all subjected to in today’s post-fact environment," Edwin continues.
I believe it’s always best to write music about matters that really bother you, because these are always the best albums. Ramagehead proves that once again, it is an album of such quality that it will end up very high on many end-of-year lists. Music is not competition, but it will be hard for many artists to hold their new music against this masterpiece. Should I mention that Serj Tankian of System Of A Down has a guest spot on Black Blooms? Probably so, even though it is a little disturbing for me because he does not manage to match the quality that is given by O.R.k.
Stephan Thelen - Fractal Guitar
After hearing Fractal Guitar on many occasions, I was unsure how best to describe it. I pondered whether it was an early morning album, best suited as an accompaniment to the sun peeping over the horizon, or whether it was an album to caress in the hours of the midnight chill.
In reality, it works equally well in either setting, for Fractal Guitar offers a mesmerising soundscape of mood inducing music that will suit most occasions, including amongst others, wheel hugging journeys on the motorway and the occasional sweat dripped trip to the dusty treadmill.
Perhaps, this album is so compelling, because of the gurn-lipped solos, which rise up menacingly from an intricate patchwork of effects.
Maybe, this release is so mysteriously satisfying, because of the abrupt ending of Radiant Day, which contrasts with the squealing/droning languid ambience of the conclusion of the wonderfully evocative Briefing For A Descent Into Hell.
Perhaps, this album is so intriguing, because the relatively long duration of each piece, enables the music to evolve and subtly change in indeterminable ways.
Maybe, this album is so bewitching, because of the finely meshed web of sounds and interlocking guitar effects that dominate proceedings.
One thing is certain, Fractal Guitar will fascinate and will no doubt, hold great appeal to anybody who has more than a passing interest in the way in which a wide array of different guitar effects amid wickedly complex time signatures can be utilised. These elements help to create something that is by turns, outwardly familiar, but on the other hand often sounds unique.
Stephan Thelen is perhaps best known as the guitarist for the Swiss band Sonar and much of Fractal Guitar makes use of a similar approach associated with Sonar and in particular to Vortex which was their last studio album.
In his work with Sonar, Thelen only uses reverb to create his trademark sound. However, in his solo album he uses a much greater range of effects. To be specific, in the release he uses an effect which he describes as Fractal Guitar. Thelen describes the Fractal Guitar effect as a "rhythmic delay with a very high feedback level that creates cascading delay patterns in odd time signatures".
This solo album is perhaps not as minimalist as the style of music usually associated with Sonar. It has great depth within its multitude of layers and complex patterns of guitar effects. Nevertheless, I found it a source of satisfaction that Fractal Guitar retains copious amounts of the slowly evolving and ever changing polyrhythmic approach that is associated with Sonar.
Much of the music, meanders, and drifts reassuringly, with the natural certainty of the gentle methodical lapping of a tidal estuary. As a contrast, numerous guitar solos break free from the carefully spun, calculated calm. When this occurs, the music takes on a new ferocious identity. It spits, froths, and spirals just like spiteful surge water, when it breaks aggressively against a shattered shore bank.
Fractal Guitar includes contributions from some of the planet's leading guitar players, including, Marcus Reuter, David Torn, Henry Kaiser, Jon Durant, Bill Walker, Matt Tate, and Barry Cleveland. Tate provides the album with a resounding bottom end resonance in all of the compositions. Drummer Manuel Pasquinelli features on Briefing For A Descent Into Hell, Radiant Day, and Road Movie. The two other pieces feature Benno Kaiser on drums. Percussionist Andi Pupato adds his rhythmic skills to proceedings in the title track.
Different players feature in each of the pieces and a full run down of who performs in each track is available on Thelen’s Bandcamp page. It is sometimes difficult to identify which guitarist is the most prominent in the mix at any one time but David Torn’s ferocious contribution during the opening track is easy to identify and is particularly notable. Similarly, it is easy to recognise the bright contribution of Stephan Thelen’s fractal guitar in the title track. I have had hours of fun listening to the fading of the delay patterns in this piece, as they come to the fore, gradually break and then gently recede. The spacious interjections of Barry Cleveland are also impressive in Radiant Day
On the surface, the album presents a superficially accessible facade of finely woven patterns, and interesting rhythms. However, glimpse and delve beneath this exterior shell and the listener is confronted by a complex mesh of diverse effects, multi layers of knitted sounds and loops that are always interesting and often magnificently compelling. Underneath this, the sinewy tones of Tate’s low frequency playing provides the music with an ornament wobbling low end and lashings of gut wobbling power, that on occasions, was similar in style to that often associated with Tony Levin and King Crimson.
Although the music is tightly weaved, much of it exudes a fresh spontaneous air where the soloists appear to have lots of freedom to improvise. This creates an impressive soundscape that readily enables a slide show of imaginary images to linger or flash upon the mind. In this respect, apart from Thelen’s consistent input, the soundscapes and overall contribution of Marcus Reuter also has an essential part to play in adding an array of colours to the albums overall canvass of sounds.
The recurring nature and revolving patterns of the music create a mesmerising effect. At times I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of what was on offer. At other times, I sat in awe at the range and scope of what the various soloists were able to achieve.
As I listened to Fractal Guitar, it was impossible not to recognise the significant role that Robert Fripp must have played in the development of a soundscape and effect driven approach to the guitar. Although substantially different to what Thelen achieves in Fractal Guitar, the tones and techniques used in albums such as No Pussyfooting and Evening Star must have been influential along the way. All three albums are skilfully able to create an all-encompassing soundscape of lapping tones, and passive beauty with lolling peaks and troughs interspersed with passages of incredible intensity.
Whilst Fractal Guitar may not appeal to listeners, who might be more comfortable with a song related prog style, for anybody who takes the time to bathe in the warmth of its ambient wash, there is much to admire and lots of diverse elements to encounter. Overall, this ensures that much of Fractal Guitar is a satisfying and enjoyable experience.
Any of the descriptions set out below, or a combination of them, probably sums up this excellent album in an appropriate manner. Therefore, I urge you to have some fun; perhaps whilst toasting the setting sun, or greeting the dawn, by checking it out. You might even wish to pick up a pin and choose whichever description you think fits the best.
Fractal Guitar is by turns; reflective, tumultuous, meditative, methodical, unusual, calming, tempestuous, compelling, mysterious, but above all, it is extremely intriguing.