Reviews in this issue:
The Gardening Club - The Riddle
The Gardening Club came to people’s attention in 2017 when their long lost 1983, self-titled debut album, was finally re-released. The positive response that it garnered led to their working on new material and its ultimate release as The Riddle.
Musician and illustrator Martin Springett, UK born but resident in Canada from an early age, is the main man of The Gardening Club. On this new release he has collaborated with producer and guitarist Norm Macpherson. Also helping out is Norm’s son James Macpherson on drums and programming, respected jazz bassist Sean Drabbit and saxophonist Wayne Kozak. They have set the words of their friend and poet Cyril McGolgan.
The Gardening Club have produced a work that, though recorded in Canada, feels fundamentally English. The England of early seventies, mildly psychedelic Canterbury. It's as if Genesis were from the wealds of Kent. They also display echoes of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres, Caravan, Camel, Barclay James Harvest, Gordon Giltrap, and Anthony Phillips. But don’t let this list of artists make you think that The Gardening Club are just an amalgam of these myriad but similar styles. They have transcended these and forged a singular identity of their own.
The Riddle skips through a parallel sound world due to the superb slide guitar playing of Norm Macpherson. I confess to always having had a soft spot for the sound of a slide guitar and I have been a fan of Ry Cooder since the early seventies. Though I generally find most blues predictable and samey I make an exception in Mr Cooder’s case. And on The Riddle the slide playing could be Mr Cooder at his most subtle and least bluesy.
The music The Gardening Club establishes its own identity quickly because of the slide guitar, something you don’t hear much of in any genre of prog. From The Riddle Overture onward you feel they are on to something different with an orchestrated density of acoustic guitar, slide and synth. This sound picture continues throughout the album.
They also have an engaging way with strange poetic lyrics. Sung by Martin Springett in a world-wear voice that is characterful and vulnerable, if not particularly strong. The songs innovate within a limited pallet. Starting with the odd-ball, up-tempo, acoustic pop-prog of Whirled Away. This could have come from XTC’s English Settlement. On Seven Year Old Poet the tempo switches about as its protagonist contends with ‘merciless grey walls cheer him on…pursuing a dog on fire’. Strange and poetic.
Sean Drabbit’s lithe, and quietly funky, fretless bass playing anchors the best songs here. That is most of them by the way. But it is especially noteworthy on The Original Sleep (parts 1 and 2) and on Tears At The Matinee. The latter uses melancholic sax as they lament that "one day life out ran us". Terrific songs that are hymns to time passing and opportunities not quite grasped. Expressed through lovely distinctive melodies, gentle harmonies, vibraphone, non-intrusive percussion alongside expressive slide and synth work.
The Gardening Club’s The Riddle is a great album of strange songs and joyful instrumentals. It is an album imbued with autumnal colour - vibrant golds, yellows and reds - underpinned with the melancholy that winter will soon follow. The Riddle is a delight.
The Last Detail - At Last... The Tale And Other Stories
CD 2: Overture (1:45), The Prophet (4:03), Beneath The Waterfall (2:17), Imagining (2:36), The Forest (2:43), The Prince Of Darkness (5:10), Alisia (2:34), The Battle (parts I & II) (5:18), A New Beginning (3:05), Waterford (3:54), Bearhind Lane / Letter To Chadwick (4:01), Lucinda (4:09), The Marquis Of W. (4:12), Mirrors (3:52), The Feast (3:35), Near The Thames (3:56), Gloves And Boots (3:07), Fire In The Night (3:48), The Document / Epilogue (6:28)
Wow. The first thing you see when a review copy arrives is the packaging. In this case a special kind of packaging. Wow. JBM Promotion have started releasing a magazine called True Music Guide, with an issue focusing on a single release on any of the labels they are promoting. These magazines are for sale, albeit in a limited edition, and are used as promo packaging for the releases. I was already impressed by the previous format (three-panel fold-out covers with lots of information) they used for sending out promos, but this is another level. A 16-page, full-colour booklet with bio, info, etc. Hence the wow. That's a wonderful way to bring your material to people's attention. Kudos to JBM!
The Last Detail were a Dutch progressive rock band formed in the late 1980s. Keyboard player Julian Driessen (previously in Ywis and Year And A Day, and later Timelock) and singer Ruud Stoker (with Julian in Year And A Day, later also in Timelock) teamed up with guitarist Bart Feis. This line-up, with the aid of a drum computer, recorded The Silhouette, a kind of rock opera, released as a cassette album.
That same year, extending the band with old friend Bert de Bruijne on bass they met FREIA Music, who re-issues the first cassette album and its follow-up cassette album Waterford in 1989. Shortly after the band played their first gig, with new recruit René Kerst on drums. Finally in a proper recording studio, the band re-recorded one track of each cassette, presented as one, for the Exposure 88 compilation album.
Personal decisions resulted in Bert Feis and René Kerst leaving and being replaced by Peter Stoker (Ruud's brother, also in Year And A Day) and Andy de Zeeuw. This line-up played live several times and recorded the band's first CD album: At Last... The Tale, which includes some more re-recordings of tracks from the cassette albums, plus a few new ones. Five more songs (three of them further re-recordings from the first two cassette albums) ended up on an EP and a compilation album.
A multitude of reasons, among which was the stress from becoming a band in demand, led to the band calling it quits.
What we have here now is this thing called At Last... The Tale And Other Stories. This compilation collects all officially released material the band ever released. Even better than the CD title is derived from, a bonus disc is included that contains the complete original two cassette albums! Much to love for a completist. Only the four songs the band recorded in 1989 for a four-track demo (another four previously released tracks re-recorded) are not included. This was a demo meant for promotion only, to get gigs, and would not have fit on these 2 discs anyway.
It's been a while since I heard the music, so it's a bit of a test to see whether this has stood the test of time.
Only after listening to this, I now realise there was some kind of sub-genre of prog rock in Holland going on at the time. I hear similarities in songwriting of bands like Achet-Aton, Wings Of Steel, Sinister Street, Marathon. (Note that I deliberately do not mention Egdon Heath among those.) Song-oriented rock songs, a tad poppy at times, a heavy emphasis on the melodies of course, lots of soloing, not too complex in structure. Like a Dutch version of more song-structured neo-prog. In that sense, German band Chandelier have to get a mention too here, combining the same elements albeit with a different style.
Although many of the songs show a pop/rock foundation, The Last Detail add a lot of things that elevate the songs to a higher level. Songs like Kingdom's Road or Mirrors are good examples. Innocence has the same ingredients at its foundation, but adding acoustic guitar, tempo changes, and keyboard solo is where the song grows. Imagining will have you fooled for being very poppy, if it weren't for that soaring keyboard solo.
There are also songs like Answers, short as it is, still showing diversity and great keyboard and guitar interplay. This is where experience in arranging songs shows. And the wonderful Gloves And Boots is very special, from an intriguing guitar intro to full-bodied rocker.
Comparing the re-recorded tracks to their originals is interesting. On the side of production but especially arrangements, which are different here and there, you hear how the band has grown in a short time. The originals do already show a band finding and doing their own thing. The keyboard melodies are not just like some other band, the guitar riffs and arrangements in the music show inventiveness and maturity, adding clever bits to the songs, setting the band apart from several of their contemporaries.
On the first edition of the CD, the context of The Silhouette and Waterford was left, breaking the concept. The songs on this particular release have been grouped again, but I have to say it's of no consequence - the songs are individual entities and although it can be nice to have a sequence of songs telling a story, it also sounds somewhat less pretentious this way.
As far as re-issues go, this is as good as it gets, you won't find a better compiled collection than this. The music also warrants a re-issue to make this music available again, for although the songwriting might sound a little "Dutch prog in the late 1980s / early 1990s" (we should make up an easier name for that...), the originality, knack for melodies and twists, and energy this band showed made them rise above the common playfield at the time and a top player from that era.
Prins Obi And The Dream Warriors - Prins Obi And The Dream Warriors
Don’t panic, your still safe and sound on the DPRP website! The intriguingly remarkable familiar 1950s science fiction band name might suggest otherwise, but rest assured for Prins Obi is Georgios Dimakis, member of Baby Guru. So far he has released two albums under his alter ego: Notions in 2014 and The Age Of Tourlou in 2017. This third instalment can be seen as his third solo album, or as the pilot episode of Obi and his companions The Dream Warriors, consisting of shapeshifting musicians from the area of Athens, Greece.
Together they create a magical mystery tour extraordinaire filled with time warped musical themes transporting us, the listeners, to the happening late sixties, laid back early seventies or the rocking mid-seventies of the last century. Is it ancient Greek mythology in play here, or does he actually own a time-machine equipped with a dripping melancholy studio? With a striking resemblance to 50s Sci-Fi be ready to board and be taken on a journey of nostalgic proportions.
A quick look at the length of the tracks themselves (11 tracks, totalling 37 minutes) rules out epic progressive tracks. This is indeed the opposite, a rather ingenious diversity of short tracks highlighting the best of proto-prog with surprising influences, distinctive characteristics and sentimental insights. Imagine driving your polished modern day car into a time capsule after which an almost immediate transportation happens, materialising it into a scruffy old Scooby Doo’s "The Mystery Machine", filled with Scooby-snacks and the fresh fragrance and mesmerising air of the smoking seventies.
Bathing in rock ‘n roll with retro production, Concentration gains controls with a surprising link to Sneak Attack by Canadian hard rock band Lynx, also evoked through the vocals. Morphing lightly to a later pre-punk era Flower Child (Reprise) gradually changes atmosphere to an early seventies Flower Power era filled with hypnotic keys, frantically played psychedelic guitars and heavy riffing bass, giving exactly what it says on the tin.
Some tracks are sung in Greek like Negative People / Άμοιρε Άνθρωπε and Δίνη, giving them authenticity and for some curious reason sound like artful pieces of 60s era Hungarian Omega, though I have to admit I can’t differentiate between the Greek and Hungarian languages myself. On Αδαμάντινα Φτερά you’d expect Greek as well, but it’s English lyrics set to a friendly melody with touches of The Nice and Greek natives Aphrodite’s Child.
Fingers is a finger-licking treat filled with sounds of Klaatu, further images of surf by The Beach Boys and spacious jamming on a yellow submarine owned by The Beatles. Guilty Pleasure Theme pulls another trick out of the bag with a spooky resemblance to The Doors, complete with spiritual organs, fussy bass, mellow drumming and a psychedelic flow of enchanting vocals.
Indicating their versatility they boldly go to psychedelic rockabilly on Astral Lady Blues and just as easily to intricate delicacies like For Absent Friends and the piano infused imaginative fragile romantic ballad Wide Open, giving of glimpses of John Lennon. Or to Syd Barret’s Pink Floyd on Sally Jupinero, embraced by a Moody Blues feel.
Pilot episodes tend to basically give insights into the characters and confine the boundaries in which the adventures take place. This first visionary statement of Prins Obi And The Dream Warriors is filled with lots of ideas, sounds of yore and refined recycled freshness. The distinct cohesive accomplished careful construction of songs withholding excessive unnecessary improvisations, results in a stairway for a series of fun episodes rightfully theirs to explore.
The music on this album focuses on a fixed point in time: the Genesis of progressive rock. At that time no boundaries were applied and exploration bloomed and flourished. Therefore evolution can go either way and I appreciatively hope they warp themselves a little closer to my world in time, but for now give love and peace a chance and take a trip with Obi. Excitingly short, but with ever so enjoyable touching sweetness.
Xavi Reija - The Sound Of The Earth
I just cannot work out why this album is so utterly compelling. Its ugly beauty and barbed mesh of discordant sounds leaves a disturbingly pungent after taste that cannot be easily removed; even by the liberal soothing application of a number of Brian Wilson’s most melodic tunes.
The fine musicianship of all of the players involved leaves little doubt that they have brought their "A" game to the project. The album features Xavi Reija (drums), Tony Levin (bass, double bass) Markus Reuter (touch guitar) and Dusan Jevtovic (guitar). The recording of The Sound Of The Earth took place on one day during August 2016. The spontaneous nature of much of that session is self-evident in much of the music that is on offer. The compositions are lively, inventive and perhaps more importantly, are loosely structured.
This enables all of the performers to improvise and adapt to the collective strengths of the other players. The imaginative space and sense of mystery and shared purpose that this creates, gives a great deal of freedom, for the exploration and timing of a variety of routes through the music. On some occasions, the diversions are fruitful and the results are genuinely exciting, on other occasions much less so.
There are numerous virtuoso passages, which display a range of incredible wide-open-mouth skills. Fans of progressive jazz fusion, will no doubt, quiver and shiver with absolute delight at the stirring way in which the music is delivered. Fans of melodic prog might bow their heads in disbelief and pound the pillow with a frustrated fist.
The Sound Of The Earth is not the sort of album for the fainthearted. If you enjoy music that you can hum, or whistle along to, then unfortunately, much of it may not be appealing. It is however, the sort of album to accompany hours, spent in concentration in darkened repose, whilst trying to unpick which path, or direction a player is choosing to travel at any given time.
The longest track on the album The Sound Of The Earth IV is in this respect, a mind-gazers delight. Its ambient sprawling nature and colourful patchwork of moods offers numerous opportunities to encounter and experience a patchwork of different sonic colours and varied musical routes.
The sound and approach of the two guitarists featured in the release is very distinctive and makes this aspect one of the albums most fascinating and enjoyable features. The contrast between the weeping raw cascading of the heavily distorted tones of Jevtovic, with the Fripp like fluidity of Reuter’s touch guitar is intriguing. The manner in which the two players duel, improvise and imaginatively joust is never less than enthralling and is often captivating.
Reija does not dominate proceedings and his contribution strikes just the right sort of balance between power and sensitivity. In tandem with Tony Levin, the rhythm section is impressive to say the least and the loose structure of the tunes gives more than enough opportunities for both players to excel.
There were times when the heartfelt warmth of a simple tune, or the chill of a doleful melody would have provided an emotional scaffold to drape the heart, or would have offered some less challenging relief, from the undoubted technical brilliance on show. The only tunes that have some sort of semblance of conventional sonic beauty are Serenity and in particular Lovely Place. Herein lies what some might perceive to be the main issue with this album. To put that in some context, it is not difficult to imagine many listeners who find the musical norms of mainstream prog appealing, shouting out in unison.
"That’s heavy shit man, but where are the tunes?"
Personally, I was not too bothered about the lack of an epic song to sing, or an Aqualung-like riff, or two, to knuckle rap. The Sound Of The Earth is an album that explores a raft of musical possibilities and this is what makes it so interesting, even though it is not always consistently satisfying.
The occasional glimpses of a more ear friendly approach in tunes like Lovely Place, did little to nullify the challenging assault upon the senses emitted by the largely unstructured and on occasion’s discordantly raucous nature of the compositions. In the midst of the albums impressive inventiveness, I probably would have liked to have uncovered and discovered a warm melodic heart, beating or lurking beneath the squeals of twisted guitars, atmospheric effects and strident rhythms.
The album begins forcefully with Deep Ocean. Its opening section has a gruff edge and combines an insistent riff with a multi-faceted attack upon the senses where all the players step up to the plate to combine forces in a highly charged and purposeful manner. When it all comes together, as during Deep Ocean and in the moody and equally evocative Take A Walk, which is somewhat reminiscent of the style of mid 70s King Crimson, the results are mesmerising. This piece clasps the senses tightly. The sound quality is magnificent. It contains bulging bass lines, rhythmic guitar patterns, snappy drums and teases with a whiff of the unexpected.
Overall, The Sound Of The Earth is a fine example of freely structured, yet highly sophisticated and intricate progressive jazz fusion, played with panache and consummate skill. These elements intertwine and combine to ensure that much of the album is often utterly compelling.
What more could anybody wish for?
Whilst checking out The Sound Of The Earth, you may even find yourself so captivated, that you choose to ignore a thought that seeps into your mind, or a shout uttered from the darkened corner of the room.
"Anybody want to hear Pet Sounds? Let’s have a sing along tune?"
Well, wouldn't that be nice!
The Samurai Of Prog - Omnibus - The Early Years
CD 2, Secrets Of Disguise (CD 1): Three Piece Suite (12:40), Sweet Iphigenia (7:32), Descenso En El Maelstrom (5:29), Before The Dance (2:50), Dancing With The Moonlit Knight (8:28), Aspirations (6:37), Traveler (5:16), Sameassa Vedessä (5:10), One More Red Nightmare (7:29), To Take Him Away (7:11), Time And A Word (7:11)
CD 3, Secrets Of Disguise (CD 2): Singring And The Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale) (22:57), Darkness (8:10), Jacob’s Ladder (7:20), The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward (another alternative) (14:45), bonus tracks: This Side (5:13), The Other Side (Of Me) (7:16), Karn Evil 9 Second Impression (7:07)
CD 4, Imperial Hotel: After The Echoes (8:43), Limoncello (7:57), Victoria's Summer Home (2:53), The Imperial Hotel (28:10), Into The Lake (7:52), bonus tracks: Un Respiro E Tutto Cambia (5:22), Anatta (3:55), La Magia È La Realtà (6:21), Rimani Nella Mia Vita (4:10)
If you missed out on the first three Samurai Of Prog albums, Undercover from 2011 from 2011, Secrets Of Disguise from 2013 and The Imperial Hotel from 2015 then you know have a chance to buy all three in a single box set under the name of Omnibus - The Early Years. Each CD comes in its own gatefold sleeve featuring the original artwork with a booklet of relevant information featuring a load of new artwork by the ever brilliant Ed Unitsky.
What is more, there is another 50+ minutes of bonus material. Some tweaks have been applied with some parts being re-recorded or re-edited and both of the first two albums have been completely remixed. The original reviews, accessed by the above links, are still largely appropriate although perhaps my original rating of Undercover was a tad low as I have grown to appreciate the album a lot more since it was first released. (Well, all apart from Assassing which is neither their, nor Marillion's, finest hour.) Basil's review of Secrets Of Disguise can be ignored as he seems to have completely missed the point. So, for the purposes of this review, I will just focus on the new tracks and any significant updates to the original material.
One point to note is that the original bonus tracks on Undercover, the covers of songs by Marco Bernard's first band Electroshock, have been excised for this release.
Most of the major updates have occurred to the first album with Gravitá 9.81 having more than doubled in length. The new extended version was recorded last year by Bernard (bass), Kimmo Pörsti (drums), Stefano Vicarelli (keyboards), and Marek Arnold (saxophone) replacing Risto Salmi's original. Also replaced is Kolumbán Zoltán's bass in the third and final section of Starship Trooper (Würm). Extended, by 100 seconds, is Pörsti's excellent instrumental piece The Promise, the new mix of which, by Pörsti himself, is quite superb.
John William's Journey To The Island, which was written for the original Jurassic Park film, is a new recording especially for the box set which features, in addition to the core Samurai members, Octavio Stampalia on keyboards, Srdjan Brankovic on guitars, and Marc Papeghin on French horn and trumpet. Very much "progged up", the piece still retains the drama or the original, it is amazing the fullness of sound that just six musicians can generate.
Final track is a remix of An Indictment Ever After from The Oceanic Legion project that the trio worked on with Lalo Huber and Carlos Lucena (from Argentina's Nexus) which was originally released on the Colossus project release Decameron - Ten Days In 100 Novellas, Part III.
Onto Secrets Of Disguise. The biggest change is to One More Red Nightmare where Unruh's original vocal that was rather distorted and pushed back in the mix, has been replaced with a completely new recording which is much cleaner and upfront. The original version also featured both Pörsti and Unruh on drums but Pörsti, in remixing the album, removed his own drum track. Paradoxically, it almost sounds like there are actually more drums on this version and shows that Unruh is quite a superb drummer, although that shouldn't really come as any surprised considering how accomplished he is on so many other instruments!
Both Traveler and Singring And The Glass Guitar have both been shortened (by about 40 seconds each) on the new release, although it is not immediately obvious where the changes have been made. Apparently The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward is a different version, which would make this one the third! Fortunately it is an excellent song and I will leave it to someone else to analyse the differences between the versions.
The bonus tracks on this album include two more songs from the Oceanic Legion sessions; This Side and The Other Side (of Me), both previously unreleased. The first of these tracks has been enhanced with the saxophone of Marek Arnold and is an excellent slice of instrumental prog while the second has been transformed by the voice of Michelle Young. Both pieces are worthy additions, it is just surprising that they have remained unreleased up to this point and were not considered for the band's Archivarium collection.
The album is concluded by Presto Ballet's Kerry Shacklet and his rendition of Karn Evil 9 (Second Impression). The primary piano and keyboard recording, along with other sections of this ELP classic, have been around quite a while but for the release bass and drums have been added to provide a version every bit as good as the original.
No remixing or re-editing on The Imperial Hotel CD as it was just about perfect on its original release. With two bonus tracks added to the first CD and three to the second, it makes perfect sense that this final CD should feature four additional tracks. The first is Un Respiro E Tutto Cambia from the pen of Luca Scherani, the keyboard player with Italian proggers Höstsonaten. Fellow Italian Stefano Galifi, from Museo Rosenbach provides the vocals and Swede Johan Öijen on guitar (who I believe plays, or has played, in several bands, the only one of which I am familiar with is Brighteye Bison). Even without vocals one can always pick of Italian prog songs as they have their own unique style and Un Respiro E Tutto Cambia is no exception.
Öijen also plays on Anatta, the first collaboration of TSOP with Canadian keyboard player Christian Bideau, an artist I am not familiar with but based on this one track is someone I intend to keep my eye out for in the future. Another artist that is new to me is keyboardist Ella Montaldo whose main prog credentials come from her band Il Tempio Delle Clessidre, although a quick scroll through her website shows that she has many strings to her bow. Montaldo's contribution offers a taste of what is to come next from TSOP, the album Toki No Kaze, a tribute to Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, although not entirely as the version here is sung in Italian whereas the forthcoming album version will be sing in Japanese. A superb song with fantastic orchestration and performance throughout from everyone involved.
Finally, we have another new recording of an old song a section of the classic 1972 album Papillon by Latte e Miele. The song's composer Oliviero Lacagnina plays keyboards and Marc Papeghin adds French horn and trumpet but once again it is Unruh who deserves the plaudits for his violin, flute, singing and classical guitar is the heart of the piece.
Overall, an excellent package containing three impressive albums albums. The box set is a limited release so worth getting your hands on quick!