Reviews in this issue:
41Point9 - Mr. Astute Trousers
Seven years after their debut album 41Point9 are back with Mr. Astute Trousers. Today’s line-up still features long-time friends Bob Madsen (bass, production) and Brian Cline (lead and backing vocals) with Kenny Steel (keyboards, guitars), accompanied by session musicians Mike Vanderhule (drums, Y&T) and Chad Quist (guitars).
I easily overlooked the facts that Madsen helped out Enchant on several occasions and Cline was their original singer (immortalized on the limited bonus CD of A Blue Print Of The World). It’s however a seed that once planted in your head is hard to get rid of. Which is wonderful as an Enchant adept, and this album proves to be a strong melodic progressive surprise. And much more, for Madsen and Cline hold no boundaries to their compositions and incorporate lots of different pop elements to it.
Compared to their debut 41Point9 have raised the bar considerably for themselves. Songs have in a way become more concise and complex, meanwhile maintaining a vibrant fluency. Level 42 funky bass rhythms (or Ed Platt of Enchant, whomever you fancy) spice things up nicely and further poppy influences add an undeniable comforting familiarity.
When Valkyries Cry instantly inflicts satisfaction by opening with Giant guitars slowly building into grandeur melodic symphonic prog, reminiscent of Spock’s Beard, Genesis and Yes (90125 era). A soothing symphonic middle section adds just the right amount of diversion, after which royal accords bring it all together in the end, with strong expressive vocals by Cline.
Through immaculate instrumentation, with each musician complimenting each other, a perfect harmonious atmosphere is created still leaving room for each to shine. Delicate hit-potential tracks like Confessions At Midnight and The Loch melt with captivating enchanted neo-progressive tracks like The Black Line and These Four Lands. Free-style jazz/rock fusion structurally reminiscent of Rush in Tilting At Windmills compliments the Mecca / Toto-styled AOR in Big Data and Don’t Cut Down The Rose.
All-encompassing is The Marine, a tribute to the sacrifices embodied by all who serve in honour and traditions of the marine corps. Soft touches of progressive metal caressingly fade into a delicate intense silence to which emotive vocals cry out heart-felt tears of loss. Merciful bridges enthral giving off burst of consolation and marching rhythms interact with violins adding loss, fragility, sadness and pride at the same time. Heart-warming it ends in excellent peaceful strokes of hope and glimpses of home.
Musical downside is the fact that the strength of the album lies predominantly on the first half of the record, making my ears and attention wander off in the end. A different running order might aid and give more cohesion for this otherwise cunning piece of work. The relatively simplistic casual artwork is also in strange contradictory to the sophisticated music which is minutely refined and detailed.
41Point9 plan to start a tour to promote the album and although hailing from California, Kansas looks like the right place to start. Lastly, likewise to Dilemma they succeed in incorporating a wide range of influences and varieties thereby exceeding expectations, fitting me like an almost perfect glove (or trousers in this case) and I can recommend is to all prog-fans out there.
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest - The 50th Anniversary Concert
Being active for 50 years or more in any kind of business is an achievement to be admired, no matter what business you’re in. (Well, maybe dictatorship should be exempt from this admiration.) And daring to come back to your roots and making that worthwhile makes such a commemoration more than valuable to record and pass it on to those who are willing or even eager to become part of it.
Barclay James Harvest originates from the surroundings of Saddleworth in the wet north of England. They started off in 1968 with their first and very English single entitled Early Morning which got some airplay. Meanwhile, the four founding members, Les Holroyd (bass), John Lees (guitars), the late Mel Pritchard (drums), and the also late Woolly Wolstenholme (keyboards) lived together in a worn-down farm house financed by a local entrepreneur from Oldham, who saw their potential and dared to invest in them. It was quite a hard living, devoid of any luxury and money but full of idealism. I assume that none of them would have thought of a life in prog music 50 years on. And of course no one could anticipate that nowadays the band is still around, albeit in two different outfits. The most active version of the band is John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest and they had a busy year celebrating their 50th anniversary.
The band played two shows in Greece with an orchestra, something they were renowned for at the start of their career (they once had their own orchestra which almost led to a very nasty bankruptcy); it can only be hoped for that these shows were also recorded and will be released in the near future. Furthermore they played the 1974 Everyone Is Everybody Else album in its entirety, which meant that some songs which have rarely if ever been played live before, especially See Me, See You were now brought to the stage. On 6 May 2018 the band played a very special 50th anniversary jubilee show in The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. That show was recorded and is now released as a 2CD plus DVD set, lushly packaged in a fourfold digipack with two booklets cramped with photos that in itself is already worth the purchase.
For this review I started with the CD set and that was the wrong choice. As far as the music goes, Barclay James Harvest have released stronger live albums. Lees' voice has become a bit hoarser (he’s in his seventies now), his guitar playing has become somewhat less accurate and less daring, the extensions in some of the songs are somewhat more predictable. But maybe my expectations were simply too high since their first Live double album ranks amongst my all-time favourites.
Then I turned to the DVD and after having watched it fully I realised what a pity it is that I was not in the audience. For many reasons, this is a really memorable show.
The first is the opening of the show. Instead of starting of loud, bombastic and/or energetic to try to set the mood, the band just comes up, take their seats (!), pick up their instruments and start with the 1968 B-side of Early Morning, entitled Mr. Sunshine. It’s a song many fans will recognise, but it is nowhere to be found on any of their numerous live recordings. It is the first setlist surprise of many. It is also a very appropriate opening of this anniversary concert, the semi-acoustic version of this old and for some rather obscure song works remarkably well. It also shows that this band is tight, dedicated and sure can make a lot of fun. Apart from Lees on guitar and vocals, there is Craig Fletcher on bass and vocals, Jez Smith on keys, piano and vocals and the cool Kevin Whitehead on drums.
The setlist is another real asset of this set. Apart from the aforementioned Mr. Sunshine, the concert features no less than six songs that have never been recorded live before. Now the listener can enjoy live renditions of In My Life from 1975's Time Honoured Ghosts, Paraiso dos cavalos from 1983's Ring Of Changes glued together with Sideshow from Victims Of Circumstance, the phenomenal tribute to Woolly Wolstenholme in On Leave from their most recent North album and finally, as the first encore, that 1968 single Early Morning. In the latter, Wolstenholme’s original Mellotron is dragged up the stage, also as a salute to this dearly missed friend. Not to keyboardist Jez Smith's appraisal though, as he clearly points out with a big smile that the sound of that unreliable instrument “is terrible”. It is another tribute after having dedicated The Iron Maiden to his memory. This whole set is dedicated to the memory of the two founding members that are no longer with us.
And that is not all. At the start of the second part of the gig, the band plays an extensive acoustic medley in which another set of rare live songs are featured. The medley ranges from Delph Town Morn from 1973 off their Baby James Harvest album through 1974 with One Night and 1987's Guitar Blues to Unreservedly Yours from 2016. While playing these songs the covers of the respective albums are shown on the large screen behind the band, as well as parts of old live recordings, parts of the Granada documentary at the start of their career, and some other clips.
All these very nice things that make any extra feature totally superfluous, are not the most important reasons why I immediately liked this DVD. It is the sheer pleasure between the members of the band, culminating in truly hilarious announcements of these ancient songs that make this set a must-have. John Lees, the leader of the band and the lead song writer, has always been quite shy on stage, concentrating on this singing and playing, just doing nothing out of the extraordinary. Yet during this gig he is constantly in a superb manner, challenged by the clown in the band, bass player Craig Fletcher, which leads to numerous stories connected to the songs. That way, we hear some interesting details about going on stage at their famous Reichstag concert with roughly 250.000 people attending. Or about their first and not so successful encounter with a folk singer named Davy Jones as their support act and who would a little later become world famous with his first single Space Oddity. Or about writing songs for Rod Stewart. Lees turns out to be an entertaining storyteller, speaking English in a way that also non-natives can understand what he’s saying; that cannot be said of Fletcher who’s North-English accent is quite hard to follow. Remarkably, the stories in between the songs stay interesting, also after having heard them a couple of times.
With this excellent and rare mix of rarely played classics, long-time live favourites, and new songs, and with the variation in acoustic and full electric versions, this set is another very welcome addition to their already impressive live catalogue. Musically it may not be their best but in many other respects this is a set that any fan of melodic, sophisticated prog should have.
Mike Goode - On Track… Emerson Lake & Palmer - Every Album, Every Song [Book]
The On Track series of books established in 2018 by Sonicbond Publishing has already set high standards and this recent addition maintains the excellent work. The series includes both mainstream artists and prog related bands and this book dedicated to Emerson Lake & Palmer belongs very much in the latter category. That said, in their day, ELP were one of the most successful acts in the world which didn’t always endear them to the rock press.
The author Mike Goode is a designer, art director and writer, but more importantly he is a music fan, especially when it comes to ELP. That said, like all the other writers in the series, he maintains a balanced view throughout the book, offering both praise and criticism as appropriate. You may not always agree with his views, but his informed analysis is beyond reproach. The book is also thankfully free from the bias and conjecture often found in many rock music related publications.
If you haven’t read any of the books by now (and you should) the format includes a separate chapter dedicated to each studio album. Within each chapter, every song is individually analysed which is one of the unique qualities of the On Track series. As ELP released only 10 studio albums, it allows Goode the freedom to delve more deeply into each track. He also includes rarities and bonus tracks within each chapter. Even if you are a fan, you may find some of his comments enlightening.
The book also trace’s the band’s career, including the highs and lows. There is a chapter dedicated to live albums as well as collaborations and solo albums. In short, Goode has left no stone unturned in his endeavour to capture the essence of this most unique band. In fact it’s surprising that there has been so few books dedicated to ELP, The Show That Never Ends from 2001 being one of the few that comes to mind. Goode however certainly makes up for that.
Like all the books in the series thus far, this is superbly researched and written. It’s reasonably compact size allows you to take it most anywhere to read on the train, bus, aeroplane; or if you have a holiday scheduled, whilst lounging by a pool. On a personal note, I’ve had to make many recent hospital visits for ongoing treatment and this book helped me make it through many hours of otherwise tedious waiting. I can’t really give it a higher recommendation than that.
Imperial Age - The Legacy Of Atlantis
Imperial Age was founded in 2012 by vocalists Alexander Osipov and Jane Odintsova and have thus far released an EP and two albums, of which The Legacy Of Atlantis is their second and most recent effort. Highly successful and widely appreciated, they are now Russian’s most successful symphonic metal act, fully endorsed by Christofer Johnsson of Therion fame. They recorded their second full album in 2018 with a slightly different line-up, adding a third vocalist and circumstantially hiring studio musicians to get their concept across.
And with just one glance at the artwork and the website and it’s clear the concept is well thought through with each minor detail cleverly filled in. The wardrobe, the lyrics, the atmosphere and believes of Atlantis: it’s all combined perfectly delivering an interesting package at first glance. Rest assured, this goes safely for the music as well, but something is amiss.
Without revealing too much one can easily detect it’s a smooth sailing trip amongst progressive symphonic metal with lots of drama, theatricals, bombastic highlights, metal passages and opera. It’s safe to say the tracks have been carefully crafted into mini opera’s, not in the least through the vocals, ranging from tenors to sopranos. It all fits to create an "Atlantian" atmosphere, enhanced further by the support of the folksy approach on several tracks. The addition of the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir gives it a Gothic heavenly unearthly feel as well.
Drums roll and march confidently and combined with the foundations laid down by bass gives the metal tracks a compelling drive. With an engaging amount of keys ranging from huge tapestries to pompous fills dancing with the gracious guitars it’s a well-executed concept, touching boundaries with Trans Siberian Orchestra, Nightwish and the likes in the field. But frankly there the problem lies.
Perfecting and tweaking might get heartwarming results in the end, but does it still get the emotions, excitement and feelings across? The finely tuned and harmonious over-production sadly feels cold and detached, resulting in a vacancy of emotions so deeply needed for this type of music. It simply sounds too perfect and ambitious thereby eliminating almost every emotion and warmth.
The nine tracks all have consistency and obvious show skills, but fall short in being mutually similar and ever so familiar. The ordinary musical structures, tried and tested, stand in the way of lifting this album out of the grey surroundings of mediocrity. If one would shuffle the tracks on playing them, I wonder if you would notice?
Focusing on a concept of Atlantis has been done several times before so interpretations are likely to be filled with traps and they’ve fallen for it. Domini Canes for instance has certain passages which are almost a direct copy of Pallas’s Atlantis Suite. The use of orchestration in whatever way precisely applied, isn’t a surprise either, resulting into the opposite effect of drowning them into obscurity. The acquired taste for the male vocals in this respect doesn’t help as well, giving me disturbing references to Studio 100 in Brussels responsible for flooding the Dutch and Belgium market with insignificant ear-friendly repeats. A case of a dime a dozen: nice but nothing new on the horizon for me.
To support the album they toured Europe extensively as support to Therion and hallmarked this just recently by releasing a limited live CD Live In Wroclaw. I hope and gather this live setting will bring some of the necessary emotions and depth across, which I find absent on this release. Overall still a good effort though and worth investigating for symphonic metal fans.
Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project - Adventures At The Babooinumfest 2017
This new album from the St. Petersburg-based quartet Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project Adventures At The Babooinumfest 2017 was recorded over three days of the festival. It features live re-workings of tracks from their debut release From The Light review here alongside new pieces and entirely improvised works.
Entirely instrumental Adventures...'s ace in the hole is the replacement of the bass player’s role by the warmer, organic tones of Leonid Perevalov’s bass clarinet. It gives these pieces a beautifully breathy undertone, that is at times quite magical.
Formed two years ago by Roz Vitalis’ keyboard player Ivan Rozmainsky and guitarist Vladmir Mikhaylov, the Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project (RMP) looks lightly at the progressive psychedelia of the late 1960s and early 70s but then twists it into shapes of entirely their own making. RMP make music that is a post-rock take on prog psyche.
The Pink Floyd referencing opening track is RMP’s starting point, but they soon leave it behind. Their folk-like melodies are put through a post-rock blender. Using swirling keys, with the organ setting featuring heavily along with electric piano, joined guitar shapes and noises (Mikhaylov is credited with guitar and screwdriver), all underpinned with bass clarinet and Yurii Groiser’s drumming, giving this music a strong identity.
There are only one or two tracks where the improvisational nature of what they are attempting ends up a little messy, but that can be the nature of this kind of warts and all live recording. A live recording that captures the band’s energy and commitment, and it is well recorded. The other downside that I sometimes feel is that the band never really let rip. Some pieces remain somewhat earthbound when they might have been flying. Maybe a longer track or two would have allowed this to happen.
You get an idea how that might go with Forsake Me Not. The last track on Adventures... and one that was recorded live in the studio. Here, Leonid Perevalov switches from bass clarinet to clarinet and he takes more of a lead role with Ivan Rozmainsky’s keys. Guitarist Vladmir Mikhaylov moves over to the bass and he gives it a thorough going over. The melody slowly evolves in a spacey post-rock way with the clarinet’s innate melodicism making the closer a terrific listen.
But even with my minor grumbles, this is a release with far more hits than misses. So along with the small but appreciative crowd on these recordings, I add my applause.