Reviews in this issue:
Sam Braun - Dreaming Of Life
Sam Braun is a producer and musician based in Berlin, Germany, and Dreaming Of Life is his first solo album. Where one might expect an album with stand alone stylistic tracks as a first attempt, he makes a bold statement in delivering said stylistic tracks but in form of a conceptual album, and a strong one at that. All tracks having individual quality, and the outstanding conceptual theme is executed superbly containing mood swings, atmosphere, intensity, frivolities and accomplished strong playing.
In order to carry the concept across, Braun has invited a group of talented musicians whilst supplying keyboards himself. Perfectly cast, it’s Vincent Esterházy on vocals who has a typical vocal style varying from soft intrinsic touches up to an intense rough edginess. This way he’s able to express many dark feelings like despair, loss, anger and frustration but also lighter sides like hope and longing in this mostly sober concept.
The sudden rhythmic changes and complex nature of the songs are carefully monitored by Nicholas Stampf on drums adding tasty playful details, forcefully when needed and minutely withheld when called for. Bass by Florian Toma is cheerful, depressing and yet demanding while the firm and worrying emotive unctuous guitars by Philipp Sengle carry the depth of it all even further. With Braun adding minimalistic classical piano parts, sparkling keys, overpowering synth and computerized sounds, wonderful images of concept albums like The Incident by Porcupine Tree, The Wall by Pink Floyd and Be by Pain Of Salvation come to mind.
Prologue is an instant gripping track with new wave and rock spontaneously interacting with softer light touches on piano and a drowsy deep layered middle-section incorporating a slow but highly suggestible atmosphere. The sad, almost paranoia worldly observations within are meticulously performed with harrowing effects through disturbing complex musical structures and are likely to appeal to fans of Pain Of Salvation.
Day 1 for instance starts with a dark atmosphere and glides by slowly with strikingly accurate vocals which seem exhausted, dejected and hopeless for one. Floydian guitars pick up the sadness with sparkling keyboards transforming the conceptual scene carefully to a state of awareness, though not of joy, more of necessity. Waking Up is probably the most awakening moment where fierce keys and computerized vocals converging to twinkling keys and progressive sounds like Anyone’s Daughter's In Blau era. Only brief, for the disturbing sadness gains control again with Web Of Lies.
Real, a beautifully crafted slow skin crawling ballad reminiscent of Roger Waters is followed by Try Again, a complex technical entity with spontaneous bursting live explosions and abruptly dying mellow satisfactions. Gone gradually lifts the appearing comatose state with grungy riffs and if the sorrow of the overall concept isn’t depressing enough then this revelation of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana throws in some more to the plate. Nevermind, for it’s the mildly uplifting Another Chance that thankfully gives some relieve and shards of Kingcrow, though the nihilistic breath-taking silence and depressive Nirvana state in Breath kicks you right back and makes you wonder whether the main character of this concept album is (based on) Cobain?
Everywhere I Go finally ends with depressive chords, grunge and sparkling piano leading to catchy rock where after a light acoustic interlude the music slowly caresses you into a mellow drowsiness and a dreamy state of mind, taking it full circle.
So happiness doesn’t seem to be in Braun’s vocabulary with this album, and normally I do tend to lean more towards that piece of mind. The concept is however exceptionally well thought through, beautifully arranged and the equally gloomy sonorous production gives the right atmosphere throughout. The combination of intensity, musicality, compositions and the way they are expertly played probably warrant a higher rating then mine if you like this type of pensive music. Definitely worth checking out.
The Gödel Codex - Oak
There is something very exciting about the way an artist might try to expand their artistic horizons. When they delve into territories that they might not normally be associated with, the results are usually fascinating. The Gödel Codex have succeeded in creating a refreshing and often avant blend of prog, pop and electronica in an album that is both thought provoking and moving.
The Gödel Codex is made up of musicians who are more usually identified as drummer Etienne Plumer, with the slick jazz leanings of Rêve d’éléphant Orchestra, and guitarist Michel Delville and keyboard player Antoine Guenet, with the toe rapping fusion of The Wrong Object. The fourth member of the project is videographer / creator of electronic music Christophe Bailleau.
These different players unite and meld seamlessly, to create a sometimes-inspirational musical platform that crosses genres and combines a number of styles. The unlikely combination of influences is able to produce a twisted and thoroughly engaging set of tunes.
Carefully wrapped in a glowing shawl of electronic effects, the pieces on offer satisfyingly also exhibit many of the sensibilities of pop. The sing-along elements, which are an enjoyable feature in a number of tunes like, The Needles Eye, Granules, One Last Sound, and Stand Or Fall, combine with unusual and distinctive musical passages. These enjoyably also contain the exciting unpredictability that improvisation can provide.
There is an enviable freshness to much of the album and its quirky approach to composition and song writing is never less than enjoyable and is often thrilling.
There were times when the album reminded me of the approach that John Greaves took in his intriguing Accident album. Just like Accident, Oak successfully treads a fine line between electronica avant influences and pop. Tunes such as Granules and Bells, exhibit a similar combination, of fine off beat music, coupled with a compelling and frequently dark delivery.
Many of the tunes also offer hints towards a Canterbury style and in this respect the storytelling approach of Bells had a similar sort of tongue in cheek innocence and soulful earnestness as Magic Bus exhibited in their Phillip The Egg album. Similarly, when the pace quickens and the vocal harmonies recede, towards the end of the superb one last Sound, a new mood emerges which evokes some of the best of the Canterbury sound, with an instrumental break that is reminiscent of National Health or Hatfield And The North at their most compelling.
On other occasions, in tunes like, One Last Sound and Can It Be, I found their peculiar structure and clasping choruses redolent of the sort of approach that William Drake was able to perfect in his outstanding Revere Reach album. As a contrast, the pulsing effects and gurgling grip of a groaning guitar that provides much of the atmosphere in Matisse, would no doubt appeal to anybody who has ever star gazed to the sounds of Fripp and Eno.
However, these allusions to other bands and artists are merely stylistic signposts and the music on offer in Oak is unique and satisfyingly has its own idiosyncrasies that make it an absolute joy to hear.
The contribution of Guenet is outstanding and his evocative clean and precise piano playing takes many of the tunes to ethereal heights. His embellishments in Can It Be are impressive. The fresh piano droplets, that dance and cascade during the solo interlude during Stand Or Fall are particularly memorable.
The performance of Delville is similarly engaging and the way in which his playing complements Guenet in Stand Or Fall is excellent. However, the most head spinning guitar moment of the album occurs during Granules. It is one of the album's strongest and most interesting compositions and has numerous off-piste moments. The piercing shrieks of Delville’s guitar dominate its final portion in a quite unforgettable manner. After Delville’s sparkling contribution, the piece concludes with a fascinating array of snorting hooting sounds and effects.
Initially, the overall mix of styles that are, blended and presented in Oak did not entirely convince me. However, over time the album has really impressed me. It contains many endearing elements. I have played it regularly and no doubt, will continue to take it off the shelf. It just gets better and better and is undoubtedly, an album that benefits from time spent in its company.
Oak contains many unusual elements to discover and contains nothing that is either mundane, or reassuringly conventional in its complex and often challenging pursuit of its art. Ultimately, this is what makes it such an exciting and enjoyable release.
Mörglbl - The Story of Scott Rötti
Having just completed celebrations to mark their 20th birthday, France's finest purveyors of jazz-metal return with their seventh album.
The power-fusion trio of founders Christophe Godin (guitar) and bassist Ivan Rougny, with drummer of ten-plus-years Aurelian Ouzoulias have long been a favourite on the live circuit, with their mix of complex instrumental workouts and an odd-ball sense of humour that never takes itself too seriously.
I first stumbled across them at the 2007 Headway Festival in Amsterdam, before reviewing their entertaining third album Grötesk (review here).
Despite its run of unpronounceable song titles, there is far less of the tongue-in-cheek humour evidence on these 11 new tracks. The music is more focused. Far fewer left-field forays into the hedgerows of the avant-garde. Whilst the jazz influences are still strong, there is also greater weight given to the prog and the metallic sides of their song writing. Large chucks of this album simply rock, with tracks such as Prog Töllog (the ambient-jazz mid-section aside) content to owe their souls to the power trio tradition.
The overall effect, is that this is a far more accessible listen than the vast majority of such albums. For fans of guitar-led, instru-metal heavy rock with generous helpings of jazz and prog, this will be one of your most enjoyable albums of the year. Allez, allez, allez!
The Re-Stoned - Ram's Head
When I showed my wife what I was reviewing she said "Oh, I didn’t think you covered tribute acts." She thought The Re-Stoned Ram’s Head was some form of tribute to The Rolling Stones’ 70s album Goat’s Head Soup. So how mistaken was she? Very mistaken!
Instead, The Re-Stoned are purveyors of heavy psychedelic, instrumental space rock. Hailing from Moscow, Ram’s Head is their eighth album. Employing the classic trio line-up of guitars, bass and drums plus electronic effects, they produce raucous, groove laden space rock. Salted with liberal doses of stoner rock, hard rock and prog rock. The play in loose but very much together way that I’m sure seems deceptively simple. It is with music a very live feel, but it has dirt and grime under the fingernails, and it sounds fabulous, full of hook-laden melodies.
The Re-Stoned stomp their way into your ear canals with the well titled Chromagnetic Stomp. Vladimir Kislyakov’s fuzzed up bass line is in danger of loosening your teeth. Joined by the effects heavy, and heavy, guitar of Ilya Lipkin and the drums of Maximilian Maxotsky, the track dares you not to nod your head along with it. It makes you want to turn the volume up to eleven.
With Land Of Crimson Clouds, whose title could set up expectations in the prog fan. But The Re-Stoned kick those expectations out of the park with a grinding effects-laden riff and pounding drums. This is top-notch, earthy, stoner rock that channels the spirit of Black Sabbath.
The band then shake the dirt from their collective boots and heads off into space. The space-rock groove of Smoke Sea propels itself forward on a star drive of bass. The lengthy Acid Truck gives the band room to roam. Its first half is a boogie that sneakily accelerates to the midway point where the band break to start all over again. Here, Ilya Lipkin’s guitar moves between the delicate wah-wah of the first half to the flanged blast of the second. Imagine Budgie jamming with Robin Trower while Hawkwind look on admiringly.
The closer, Dune Surfer, is a head-down rock out riff-fest. But my favourite track here is Orange Sky And Bottle Neck. It uses electronics and bottle neck run through effects pedals to evoke the dusty, baked and dry desert of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Paris Texas but re-imagining it as an evolving, atmospheric, stoner rock piece.
The Re-Stoned’s Ram’s Head may be unashamedly retro and in thrall to 1970s space rock and analogue sounds of overdriven amps, but when it’s done this well, who cares. Light the candles and the joss sticks, get the motorbike leathers out and inhale. We're off for a ride right here in front of the stereo.
The Winter Tree - Topaz Islands Dreaming
This is the sixth album from The Winter Tree, AKA songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and singer Andrew Laitres. It should not be confused with his last release, the digital-only EP Topaz which was a taster for this album. All seven tracks from the EP are included here, along with 10 cover versions that range from Bob Dylan to Prefab Sprout. He is joined by several guest musicians and singers including Nad Sylvan who will be well known to prog afficandos.
Whilst I’m not normally a fan of covers, I must admit I was swayed by Laitres’ eclectic selections. Even though the artists are all very famous, the songs themselves are less familiar. They also lend themselves to a laid back, unplugged treatment for the most part, giving the album a sense of continuity which it may have otherwise been lacking.
It opens with Elton John’s 60 Years On which is as much a tribute to orchestral arranger Paul Buckmaster as it is the bespectacled piano player. The orchestral keyboards by Ruben Wijga are suitably lush and whilst Sylvan is better know for covering Genesis songs, he does a pretty convincing job here. The Beatles’ Mother Nature's Son from the White Album is true to the original with a beautiful acoustic arrangement and jaunty rhythm during the bridge. Laitres’ vocal however sounds closer to John Lennon than Paul McCartney who sang the original.
Looking For Atlantis captures the restless energy of the Prefab Sprout original with Laitres echoing Paddy McAloon’s breathy singing style. Andrijana Janevska provides the playful female backing vocals. Lydia Salnikova gives the best vocal performance on the album with her take on The Dawntreader. She evokes the restrained beauty of Joni Mitchell’s voice with a suitably sparse backing of cello and acoustic guitar.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree is the first of the original tracks and is W.B. Yeats' famous poem set to music written by Laitres. Sylvan’s sung narration is suitably evocative against a haunting backdrop of acoustic guitar and keyboard strings.
Back to the cover versions with That's The Way one of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic offerings regularly performed by Laitres. He plays the role of Robert Plant (very well) whilst Neil Whitford skillfully handles the slide and acoustic guitars. At 5 and half minutes, the original was already longer than it needed to be in my view and Laitres extends it by another minute and a half. Matilda Mother appeared on the 1967 debut Pink Floyd album and Laitres captures the quirkiness that was Syd Barrett. Marco Gnoatto is responsible for the suitably manic organ solo.
The elegant Isle Of Islay, one of Donovan’s most plaintive songs, is treated to a beautiful acoustic arrangement of steel and nylon string guitars. In a similar vein, And The Tide Rushes In is an often overlooked Moody Blues classic written by Ray Thomas. It boasts a rich arrangement of classical guitar, violin and Jacob Holm-Lupo’s Mellotron which mirrors the restraint of Mike Pinder’s.
Fires is the second poem adaptation, written by the first world war poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. Laires provides the thoughtful vocals as well as gentle guitar and keyboards. The third Nod is a more contemporary poem by Walter de la Mare. The rhythmic treatment of drums, bass and a surging instrumental bridge (taken from an earlier Laitres song The Light) gives it a more ‘song’-like feel.
Oh Sister is a very early Bob Dylan song, perfectly sung as a male / female duet by Laitres and Kat Bulo. Kat also plays the evocative violin, the song’s lead instrument. Dream Ships Set Sail by Bill Nelson is one of the most underrated songs from an underrated artist. This majestic treatment boats superb guitar and keys playing capped by Tim Lundberg’s echo laden guitar solo. This version is the highlight of the album in my view.
To close the album, Topaz Islands is a 26 minute new age work in four parts, performed (and mostly improvised) by Laitres. It was inspired by Claude Martin’s superb cover artwork and I know that it’s a cliche to say so, but this is definitely music to chill out to.
Part 1, A World Of Its Own is a dreamy, hypnotic piece, with ambient synth effects reminiscent of Phaedra era Tangerine Dream. Paradox Island is more rhythmic with programmed drums overlaid by a memorable synth melody that becomes more playful as the track developes. Part III, Northern Waters has a brooding, melancholic theme courtesy of flute like keys. Closer The Farthest Shore features bubbling and swirling synth effects that returns to Tangerine Dream territory with birdlike flourishes to close.
On paper, this album seems like an incongruous hybrid of cover versions, laid back songs and ambient instrumentals but somehow it actually works. As I mentioned before, it’s helped by the fact that the covers will be mostly unfamiliar and the often acoustic arrangements blend with Laitres’ own compositions. And whilst 78 plus minutes may seem like a long haul, it’s generally engaging throughout. More art rock than prog rock, but there’s nothing wrong with that.