Reviews in this issue:
All Traps On Earth - Drop Of Light
The pencil-grey mist swept in across Morecombe bay and swathed the rock cut tomb in an eerie half-light that favoured neither day nor night. A drop of light half-heartedly spotlights the ancient church. The tombs are now no longer a trap on earth. They take on a sentinel role and survey the coast line below.
I could hardly have chosen a better place to sit and take in the misty grey atmosphere of All Traps On Earth enigmatic and hugely evocative A Drop Of Light. Heysham church is a wonderful place steeped in history and rock folklore. One of the ancient rock cut tombs features as the cover picture for a Black Sabbath compilation album.
A Drop Of Light is one of those albums that will undoubtedly in the future feature in many best-of lists. However, the album was released in late 2018, and understandably; therefore, it did not feature in many end of year lists. Its irresistible mixture of cloying Mellotron, discordant stop start intervals and gurgling bass lines will no doubt tick many boxes for a wide variety of prog fans.
The music displays a raft of influences and exudes a number of the trademarks that are associated with melancholic Scandinavian prog bands such as Jordso or Sinkadus and of course another, perhaps better known Swedish band, to whom a number of the musicians involved in All Traps On Earth are also connected.
Well-known Änglagård bassist Johan Brand initially created the compositions of All Traps On Earth. Originally, the album was going to be a solo project, but as the tunes developed and the arrangements became more complex and sophisticated, former Änglagård bandmate Thomas Johnson contributed to the compositions and arrangements and provided keyboards. Current Änglagård bandmate Erik Hammarström features on drums. Vocalist Miranda Brand completes the quartet.
A number of guests make contributions, including most notably guitarist Phil Mercy of Thieves Kitchen. The other guest players involved provide a delightful mixture of brass and wind contributions, which consistently alter the mood of the album, by providing a natural richness that is uplifting. They also provide a varied sonic range in compositions, that often give opportunities for a developing and evolving organic palette of sounds to emerge.
The guest players include Magnus Bage (concert flute), Matthias Baath (bass and concert flute, tenor and alto recorder), Fredrik Lindberg (bass clarinet, baritone, tenor alto, and soprano saxophone) and Karl Olanddersson (trumpet, flugelhorn).
The influence of mid-seventies King Crimson lurks beneath the surface and is noticeable in pieces like Omen when the music throttles up and the volume increases. Occasionally, some of the playful tongue in cheek and stop/start break-neck rhythms reminded me of the sort of twisted riffs that Frank Zappa used to conjure up. However, this is more than likely just a dubious misguided attempt on my part to sign post some aspects of the music.
The use of the human voice and the careful arrangement and fine embellishments provided by brass and wind instruments makes the album enjoyable and gives it an extra dimension. It certainly allows the band to make great use of dynamics, tempo, volume and mood. The way in which these elements are woven into the bands dense patchwork of sounds is on occasions nothing short of incredible. Similarly, the way in which the band lightens a broody passage of music, by the introduction of a flute, trumpet, or sax is often particularly successful.
The album contains four lengthy compositions and by way of contrast offers, one shorter lighter and brighter prominent piano interval tune entitled First Step.
Miranda Brands vocals add a human touch that contrasts effectively with the pounding bass lines of her father and the keyboard/Mellotron draped sound blanket that envelops the ensemble parts of the release. Her wordless vocal lines are a highlight of many of the tracks of the album. Her contribution is full of gothic brooding and fits the music in a glorious manner.
Whilst Brand’s voice is an integral part of the albums soundscape and her wordless chanting provides an interesting counterpoint; the effect is occasionally a tad monotonous, as she rarely uses her voice as an improvisational instrument in its own right. It certainly does not provide a rich tapestry of textures and vocalisations in the way that say Norma Winstone did so adventurously and innovatively in albums such has Michael Garrick’s Home Stretch Blues and Troppo, or in her solo Edge Of Time release.
The most impressive piece is probably Magmatic Warning. It features restless and gentle passages in abundance, a spiteful flute riff to salivate over and has enough twists and turns to motivate sedentary music lovers to stand up, shake and squeal with delight.
The closing tune of the album is Bortglömda Gårdarferent and it offers a different taste, it features lyrics that are sung with gentle expression and a degree of subtlety. These sung interludes, coexist with forceful passages of vocalised chanting and ferocious ensemble playing. This track offers many moods. It concludes in an impressive manner, with the lolling beauty of a calming pastoral passage, that features flute piano, and synths.
As the mist recedes and the ranks of tombs banked in the grounds of Heysham church become visible once more, Bortglömda Gårdarferent beautifully concludes and All Traps On Earth ends. The overall impression is favourable in almost every respect. The albums ugly beauty is commanding. Its roll call of insistent sounds and pervasive slate grey atmosphere lingers in the memory as time inevitably fast-forwards to the present.
I have tried in my ramblings about this album to not compare Brand's latest work with Änglagård’s back catalogue, but comparisons are inevitable. Whilst I feel that A Drop Of Light offers more opportunities to explore light and shade than most of Änglagård’s albums, its tunes are equally as insistent and reassuringly challenging.
In many ways I found A Drop Of Light more enjoyable than many of Änglagård’s studio releases , but in my view, it could not quite match the power and atmosphere of the live performance captured in Prog På Svenska. However, if All Traps On Earth is viewed as a separate project totally distinct from Änglagård (which it undoubtedly is), then it stands up superbly to any scrutiny or analysis and has much to commend it.
If you enjoy prog played with power, subtlety and adventure, then some if not all, of this excellent album will no doubt satisfy.
Daniel Eliseev Project - Night Shadow
The Daniel Eliseev Project (D.E.P.) is a Bulgarian prog metal outfit that is simultaneously heavy and sparse. It has moments of prog metal bombast and technicality, yet it leaves room for calmer moments that have a distinct European flair. The group features seven main musicians, with three other guests playing on the album. Daniel Eliseev is the chief composer, arranger, producer, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist. Lead vocals are masterfully handled by Konstantin Djambazov, who reminds me a lot of Jon Anderson. He certainly has the range and tone of the Yes vocalist, but his voice works really well for this metal-oriented group. The other members of the group come from various well known Bulgarian rock bands and tribute bands.
Night Shadow is a highly accessible album. It is short enough to easily absorb in a single sitting. The vocal harmonies and synth overtones create a unique sound, with the short Hidden Voices being a good example of that. There is a lot of variety on the album, with the first few tracks featuring a heavy tone while the second half of the album is quieter. A Song For You is much quieter with female lead vocals by Neil Toteva. The song is heavily driven by vocals and acoustic guitar, but the melody makes it an interesting listen.
The final track, The Journey Along combines the calmer and heavier elements featured throughout the album, which makes it a great track to end the album. At just under ten minutes in length, it is able to slowly build. The multiple guitar solos really make the song stand out. The piece demonstrates everything this group does well. It has strong bass lines, complex yet not overpowering drums, complex lyrics, masterful singing in multiple styles, and interesting and impactful guitar work.
The eclectic mix of songs on Night Shadow should appeal to progressive rock fans of all types. There is something for everyone from the metalhead to the person who prefers more contemplative prog such as iamthemorning. It is clear that the many musicians in D.E.P. have a lot of experience making music since this album sounds very mature for a first release. I look forward to more from the group.
Pinn Dropp - Perfectly Flawed
Poland is a birth-pool of many (neo)-progressive rock bands, and in the right constellation this sometimes makes my heart skip a beat with excitement. For firmly embedded in my melancholic system lies the imprint of witnessing something extraordinary in 1994 at the Aurora Borealis festival in Tilburg: Collage presenting their near-perfect second album Moonshine. Unknown to them at the time I was standing approximately 30 to 40 yards away from the stage, but once they started I felt like I broke the world-record of gaining front-row access in a split second. The thrill of emotive engaging sincere guitars in combination with superbly delivered symphonic progressive rock I’ll never forget and is without a doubt one of the best performances I ever witnessed and absorbed.
In a different way this specific feeling nearly occurs when listening to Perfectly Flawed by Pinn Dropp. For one because of the similarities to Collage, but also for the extensive delivery of progressive rock with long outstanding epic tracks, refined fluent diversities and sparkling passages. The incorporation of a further singular perfected element embedded within the music makes my adrenaline boil and ready to set a new unbeatable record again in securing access at the front. Let me explain.
Pinn Dropp was founded by Piotr Sym (electric & acoustic guitars, keyboards) in 2015 and he soon was joined by drummer and producer Dariusz Piwowarczyk. Shortly afterwards the recruitment of Mateusz Jagiełło on vocals, bass, and keyboards followed and this line-up released an EP Re:Verse, Re:Treat, Re:Unite, which was met with success and critical acclaim (review here).
With the final enlisting of Paweł Woliński handling bass guitar, thereby giving Jagiełło ample of room for keyboards, they reworked these tracks for inclusion on their debut album Perfectly Flawed. A further three epic tracks now see the light of day, with the title track even lasting 21 minutes. A wise decision to include these new renditions for they add cohesiveness and signal the growth of Pinn Dropp in sounding richer, stronger, more versatile and matured. On top of that they now contain a healthy dose of that secretive succulent heart-melting ingredient.
No, it’s not the sparkling keyboard wizardry so unctuously filling each track with tantalising solos and uplifting feelings reminiscent of Starcastle. Less so the light intricate classical piano work which ignites warm feelings to Collage. Neither is it the interaction of keys and fine guitar passages shifting my thoughts to the more American approach of prog like Kansas and Animator. Not even coming close is the chemistry of vocals and keys in combination with sparkling guitar that ignites enchanting moving pictures of Dragonfly, an superb 1980s obscurity of symphonic prog from Switzerland.
Is it the seeming easiness and elegant simplicity portrayed in the compositions that gives each track a melancholic favourable complexity like Sieges Even, Subsignal and Yes? Is it the drums giving the right flow and cheerfulness while maintaining controlled playfulness indirectly accentuating and serving the compositions?
It can’t be the exhibited familiar enchanting epic structures in which the arrangements make all the difference and add depth, leaving room for imagination and giving comfort? Nor can it be undeniable accomplished neo-progressive attitude in which the technical abilities of each of the player is shown. And surely not the vocals which on a whole are strong, pleasant, refrained of accent and highly melodic, although there are passages in which mechanical distorted slight aggressive vocals harm the soft delicateness of its progressive structures, destroying its pristine surface.
Is it echoes of Pink Floyd adding darkness and drama, or the flair and frivolity of Dream Theater heightening their sound? The combination of soothing light weighted prog-metal touches like Shadow Gallery intertwining with precious Hackett filled mid-seventies Genesis deliciousness? Is it the overall length of the tracks which prove to be a test on compositions sometimes, simply by the fact of overstretching it? Nope. With true originality to be found still, this is a strong near-perfect performance of the highest quality, from start to finish.
So what put my heart so graciously under pressure? Definitely not the flawed omission of all lyrics with the curious exception of the title track. Most certainly not the exclusion of the bonus track which is solely available on Bandcamp and annoyingly isn’t featured on the physical product. Not a matter of flaw, but a mistake in my opinion.
No, the warm blanket factor they on occasion implement are the use of riffs, bass lines and soaring synthesizers thereby establishing a direct link to Rush during their most prolific progressive period; A Farewell To Kings up to the, for me, unrivalled perfect Moving Pictures, with a sidestep to other subdivisions. Evidently present on some tracks this elevates their music, broadens their range and is a sheer joyous momentum and a very welcomed delightful aspect.
On the EP this is developed to a lesser degree, so it seems this caressing element is most likely induced by their new bass player. Or maybe from the freedom it brings of one less demanding job for Jagiełło to handle, for playing bass, vocals and keyboards at the same time is near impossible to do. Either way, it’s what especially attracts me to this album and is met with high appreciation, resolving almost all of my issues on this release. Almost.
If Pinn Dropp where to play in your neighbourhood I’d make sure to be in the front row, just in case they open with Unresolved, a heavenly symphonic blend of Rush, Dragonfly and Enchant. Breaking an new record in my condition 25 years on would be pushing it, so I’ll see you there upfront. I hope Pinn Dropp follow this path they have set out for themselves, continue to impress and keep on practising what they do best, for practice makes perfect.
RPWL - Tales From Outer Space
Germany's RPWL have possibly come up with the album of their career with Tales From Outer Space. Although the album cover may look like something from a 1950s comic, the music is right out of the top drawer of modern prog.
For their first album of original material since 2014's Wanted, the band have turned away from the concept format and instead come up with seven individual pieces that have a thematical science fiction link. Visitation from an alien race who can't believe the mess we have created of the planet and the selfish, materialistic attitude of the human race and so bugger off again is only the start of things!
The quartet of Yogi Lang (vocals and keyboards), Kalle Wallner (guitar and bass), Markus Jehle (keyboards) and Marc Turiaux (drums) have made the most of the subject area and employed a whole range of cosmic sounds and styles that provide a lush and fresh approach with Wallner and Jehle inn their element. Lang, always possessed with a fine set of pipes, delivers an excellent performance and Turiaux inserts some lovely drum fills, particularly on Welcome To The Freak Show.
Of course, given the band's history there are inevitable nods in the direction of Pink Floyd, but it is a case of influence rather then imitation, even if Floyd/Gilmour bassist Guy Pratt does play on Not Our Place To Be (which, incidentally, sounds nothing like Floyd) and elsewhere throughout the album. In fact the song that is most reminiscent of PF is the somewhat poppier What I Really Need, which has stylistic renderings of the post-Waters incarnation of the band, although it is largely down to the female backing vocals and guitar chords.
There is a considerable amount of variety on the album, from mellow pieces such as the fine closing track Far Away From Home as well as meatier, heavier sections in the longer numbers Light Of The World and Give Birth To The Sun.
A lush and majestic album that sets a high standard for others releasing albums this year, terrific.
Shalash Band - Shalash
Shalash Band was formed in Moscow in 2016 and consists of Dmitry Karavaev (keyboards) and Maxim Smirnov (drums, percussion). Information on the band in the web is not that abundant and the ones available mostly are in the Russian language and Cyrillic letters respectively. Amongst others, the names of the tracks one can find in various streaming services just are the initials of the corresponding Russian words. Some research work plus the help of Google Translator and the findings by a fellow reviewer led to the following translated tracklist: 54321, 12/8, For Glory, Wall Of Sound (For Truth), Vremiri, Russian Tradtitonal, Knight Tournament, Dance, Woodstock, Shed. Shalash, which means shed or hut, is the band's first release.
Well, if not much is available neither on the musicians themselves nor on the individual tracks, let's concentrate on the music itself, and that turns out to be a rewarding and worthwhile exercise. Shalash Band's music comes through in a cheerful, exhilarated, humorous, sometimes winking, toe-tapping, airy, versatile and harmonic way. That represent a healthy contrast to the gravity, seriousness and complexity sometimes displayed by other forms of progressive rock. Don't get me wrong, neither form is more "valuable" than the other, it is just that Shalash Band's music is fun to listen to, almost having a "beachy" character without being superficial or uninspired.
Take the track W, for instance, called Woodstock in Russian. I guess Shalash Band must have associated that festival with the music of Santana, given the latino-samba rhythm of that song. The other tracks, though, are far from that musical style. Instead, we are offered melodic, keyboard-driven music (mainly organ and synthesizer) in the vain of ELP, Triumvirat, Trace, Procul Harum, Ekseption, and lesser-known 70s German prog bands Tritonus and Sixty-Nine. Influences from classical music, often found in the music of bands from Russia such as Little Tragedies, are also evident in this release. However, whilst both the skills of Karavaev and Smirnov (the latter one being a bit more low-key, but sill extremely efficient, targeted, and accurate) are excellent, one never gets the impression of a band's claptrap or "posing" with their musical abilities. No l'art-pour-l'art, but decent complexity and structures to always highlight the music, not the musician.
I liked the melodic organ chord sequences, the accessibility of the music, its driving grooves and its sweeping rhythms. Whilst the organ is the predominant musical factor, the variety is provided by differing sounds of the synthesizer used as the lead instrument. I was surprised how "complete" this duo sounds music-wise, also on their live performances (thanks to programming and overdubs, I assume). Especially the bass lines made me think of a real bass player guesting on the album at first instance, but there is none and those lines have been created on keyboards. My favorite tracks are S.Z. because of that aforesaid extremely groovy bass line in the second part of the song (be careful when listening to it whilst driving on the highway - it has "lead foot potential"), and also S because of its pulsating and almost hypnotic organ rhythm.
I suggest to use earphones for listening to that album, as otherwise, the sound comes across a bit flat and muffled. There probably is slight upward potential in the production. I also regretted the total absence of electric and acoustic piano with regards to the selection of keyboard sounds. For me, pianos should be an integral part of keyboard-driven progressive rock music such as it is played by Shalash Band. So, why not extent the range of keyboards on the forthcoming album? Anyway, these are only small downers which do not trouble the overall positive impression.
It would be interesting to see how the band will evolve going forward. Are they going to continue in the same way as a keyboards/drums duo? Or will they, on the basis of their existing considerable musical skills, try to have the implementation and realisation of their manifold musical ideas resting on multiple shoulders? I personally would opt for the latter approach. Adding a permanent bass and guitar player certainly would provide for an even higher degree of diversity, musical depths, cutting, and complexity.
It would also prevent the band from having to make recourse to pre-programmed keyboard sounds and overdubs for their live performances to sound as the studio version, as it now happens in their live sessions (as you can see in some videos). In any case, all of this only becomes relevant if the band intents to release a follow-up album, something which I very much hope will happen in the not too distant future.