Reviews in this issue:
Jon Anderson - 1000 Hands Chapter One
2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Yes. That milestone was celebrated with tours by the current incarnation of the band as well as Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman. Missing however was any new studio material from either unit. That fact makes this new release by Jon Anderson all the more welcome. The origins of 1000 Hands began in the early 1990s and Jon recently made the decision to complete the work.
The personnel on the album is one of the most formidable groups of musicians ever assembled. For the sake of keeping this review at a reasonable length, my recommendation is that you click on the website link above and prepare to be impressed. Sometimes though, the more isn't the merrier. Many are the albums that feel disjointed due to an overburdening of guest musicians. Thankfully that isn't the case here. There is a cohesiveness to 1000 Hands that is all the more impressive considering the span of its creation.
With the lack of any new Yes material, it is worth mentioning the participation of Chris Squire, Alan White, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe in this project. Howe's performance on the song Now And Again is recent and is the first time that he and Anderson have recorded together in many years. With the recent clashes between the two Yes camps, this marks a nice "union" by two musicians who have created some classic music together.
Typical of Jon's solo work, there is buoyancy to the material, and tracks like Ramalama, Make Me Happy, and WDMCF may have even the most stubborn prog fan tapping their feet. First Born Leaders, Activate, Twice In A Lifetime and the title track offer up the instrumentation and musical dynamic to please any Yes fan. Special mention must go to the work of producer Michael Franklin and the excellent orchestration and choral performances included throughout the album.
Fifty one years into his legendary music career, 1000 Hands is a landmark achievement for Jon, and stands as his finest solo release since the 80s. That he acquired the help of so many other legends is a testiment to the respect that he has earned amongst his musical peers. Perhaps due to the nature of its creation, there is a reflective tone to the material that plays like a career retrospective of the Jon Anderson sound. Ultimately, 1000 Hands is a tremendously entertaining gift, from one of the all time greats of the progressive rock scene.
Avandra - Descender
It had to happen. The only surprise is that it has taken so long.
For the past decade or so, the original, traditional progressive metal style, the one with which I grew older with in the 90s and early noughties, has verged towards extinction. Shunted out of favour and economic viability by its evolutionary nieces and nephews of djent, post rock and the various forms of grunty-death stuff.
However the joy of musical evolution is that it keeps on evolving. In the same way as flared trousers and Hawaiian shirts have at various times returned from fashion oblivion, if one hangs around long enough, eventually the music you once-loved will come back into fashion; albeit in a somewhat altered form.
For me, too many of the djent and post-rock bands of the past decade have done little but reprocess the same riffs and moods. Thankfully more and more of the new "progressive metal bands" are looking back into the history of the genre to find inspiration.
This newish band from Puerto Rico is one such example. There is a certain djenty and post-rocky vibe to some of their rhythms and guitar playing but it is mixed with that melodic sense of songwriting that prioritises memorable hooks and choruses. (Of course many of those early progressive metal bands took their own inspiration from the melodic hard rock of the 80s alongside the progressiveness of the 70s).
Anyhow, history lesson aside, this album has been a joyful discovery.
Avandra was initially created as a one-man studio 'band' by singer, guitarist and keyboardist Christian Ayala Cruz. However, the positive response to his debut album, Tymora (click on the samples link above), encouraged him to form a band and play some live dates in their hurricane-ravaged home country. And before they knew it, the quartet were snapped up by the Blood Music record label for this, the second Avandra offering.
The full line-up consists of a tight rhythm section of drummer Adrián Arroyo Schuck and bassist Gabriel Rodríguez Martinez. There is a second guitarist in the shape of Luis Javier Rivera Guilbot. It is unclear how the guitar roles are split, but the guitar lines are concise and effective throughout this album. The line-up is extended by guest spots from current and former members of Haken, Dream Theater, and Astronoid.
Beyond The Threshold, Pt. 1 is a modern prog-metal wet dream for any fans who enjoy Dream Theater when they want to emphasise the dancey interplay between guitars and keys.
Christian’s rich, harmomised vocals are considerably easier on the ear than the voice of Mr LaBrie. I am equally reminded of the long-forgotten Speaking To Stones. The bridge that links this opener with its second part is beautiful in the way that Wolverine often can be. The vocals mirror those on Essence a highly recommended album from fellow Americans The Addiction Dream. And from that same year, the metered melancholy here, has something of the debut album from Dutch band A Liquid Landscape. The song then evolves into more of a post rock format, but with more piano. The vocal and piano section halfway through this song is stunning.
A Decision Must be Made is where Kansas meets Katatonia. Mainly voice and piano, it soothes with its symphonic melancholy.
The Narrowing of Meaning contrasts, with a dextrous, djent-fueled guitar opening that constantly and quickly evolves through 11 minutes of progressive musical bliss. Again it is Christian's calm vocal which drives the piece. The guitars and keys add texture and colour and dynamic flow. This album is much more about texture than showcasing. This song is on a par with the softer side of much-underrated American prog-metallers Odd Logic.
Even You leaves a short but sweet sensation; a necessary pause before the album's highlight, the 13-minute Adder’s Bite. Part Fates Warning, part Shadow Gallery, part latter-day Opeth, there is a threatening undertone to the light, acoustic guitar that draws me in every time. Again the layered vocals are stunning, as is the way the song bursts into life just before the halfway point. The Shadow Gallery influences are strongest here, especially when Christian increasingly mirrors the late Mike Baker as the song progresses. Andromeda and Darkwater are also brought to mind in the overall tone. One of the best songs I will hear in 2019.
Derelict Minds is the final song (Q.E. being a somewhat inconsequential instrumental reprise) and closes the album in a similar style to the opening. The playing here is more progressive and technical. The vocals again relying more on beauty than aggression. Again I am reminded of the softer moments of Speaking To Stones, despite a more djenty guitar style in the second half.
Overall this is a real grower of an album. Not an instant smash. It takes its time to weave its melodies into your heart. It is still getting better with each listen. A definite contender for my Top 10 albums of the year run-down. A highly recommended listen for anyone who enjoys any of the bands mentioned in this review.
Tim Burness - Interconnected
Eighties prog survivor Tim Burness returns with his eighth solo album, which was recorded with the help of a trio of musicians that have accompanied him on the majority of his albums: Fudge Smith (drums), Keith Hastings (bass), and Monty Oxymoron (keyboards) whose more usual gig is with The Damned.
Burness describes his music up as "progressive pop-rock", which is a very apt description of the opening song Electric Energy.
Read a review of any of Burness' solo albums and you will most likely encounter a somewhat disparaging comment on the vocals. I wish I could say they were wrong but unfortunately the album is really marred by the vocals, which is a shame, as the musical backdrop is mostly very good indeed, with Monty adding neat little fills all over the place (listen to the manic section on I Am Afraid (Saturn Conjunct Pluto) or the lovely piano on Making It Up) and Burness himself creating a range of sonic sculptures with his guitar. In many ways his voice reminds me of an early Nick Barrett but with a more limited range.
Lyrically there is a mixture of serious and amusing. Examples of the latter include Dear Stranger, about the perils on internet dating (and featuring possibly the first appearance of Microsoft's Siri as a vocal contributor) and Still Mumbling a return to the upper class twit from the UK parliament who first made an appearance on the first Burness solo album Infinite Ocean / Mumbling In The House Of Commons and I could say exactly the same thing about this song as reviewer Ed Sander said about the original appearance 20 years ago!
The two best tracks are Ants and Beautiful World. Ants takes a more progressive approach, in that it is much more experimental with the ebow guitar, discordant keyboards and treated vocals, which actually fit the track very well. It stands out for its uniqueness.
Beautiful World is more traditionally progressive (and no, I don't mean because it is the longest track!) but it has a lovely melody, builds well and features a perfectly-judged guitar solo from Julian Tardo. I can imagine this sung by a female vocalist who is able to sustain the notes to blend with the music, which would make it quite an immense track. Its more epic qualities, also makes it a great way to end the album, at least it would, except for the presence of the frankly abysmal One More Time, something that even Chas & Dave would have thought unworthy of covering.
Given the long-standing observations on Burness' lack of vocal ability, I am at a loss as to why he perseveres with singing, particularly, as others have commented, the standard of the music is very high. Perhaps it needs the other members of his band to suggest they try getting another vocalist involved, as I am sure a better singer would improve sales and make the group a more enticing live draw.
Hackberry - Hackberry
Hackberry is a relatively new band form the Netherlands, founded in 2015, and this is their debut album after an EP a few years ago. The line-up consists of Simon Venema (bass), Chris Bechtum (drums), guitar players Francesco Bonardi and Marijn de Boer, and Tim Hidskes on keyboards.
In their own words, they play a mix of progressive rock, stoner, metal, grunge and psychedelica. That description could still cover a lot of musical styles, so let me describe this blend for you.
Opener Ophidian Stride is the longest track. Groove-laden post metal parts alternate with sections of moody near-acoustic parts, with an excellent production adding to the atmosphere. Your senses are taken through contemplation, tension, feelings of fear, loss, and anger. People who know me, or at least my taste, know I love it when music speaks in emotions. And this song says a lot.
Shortest track, Miraggio, opens with a melancholic piano tune. Readers who know my taste, know I like this. The tune then slowly changes into heavier areas. After a very melodic and intricate guitar solo, comes a part that has some riffing like Iron Maiden playing post-metal, something I hear on the final track as well.
There's also some modern prog riffing, not unlike Day Six, surprisingly alternated with melodies that have a sense of neo-prog. Other parts remind me of Devil Doll's powerful breaks.
There are hardly any keyboard solos, but the keyboards are used to great effect. In several cases there's that lovely Hammond sound laying thick layers whilst adding to the rhythm part and as the foundation for the melodies. All over the album, the twin guitars play different parts. Some guitar solos are fierce and fast, others bluesy. This combination makes the sound very rich.
Sometimes I feel like listening to prog rock and metal with a post-metal idiom. In that respect it seems Hackberry have been listening to Toundra's latest album, as it gives off the same feel. And I mean that as a big compliment.
Most melodies are delivered on guitar, while keyboards in general play a supporting role. You'll recognise some neo-prog melodies here and there, but just not as we know it. The next minute we're washed away by waves of multilayered walls of post-metal sound not unlike Russian Circles or Pelican. Or riffing like Day Six.
The aggressive opening of Aboard follows the ending of Miraggio, and it could be a part 2 of the former. There is some lovely organ work here supporting the twin guitar lines.
Desert Orchid was released as an EP in 2016 and has been re-recorded for this album. It boasts some impressive, fast and melodic guitar melodies. With the other guitar boosting a super-shredding sound, it results in a very nice contrast.
Both the aggressive parts as well as the more mysterious bits remind me of the atmopshere created on Toundra's latest album Vortex. Some of the guitar work breathes some Blue Öyster Cult as well.
Their own description doesn't do their music justice. Every time I am working on this review, I am adding and changing things. Highly melodic stuff and perhaps I like the psychedelic touch to the proggy bits best. Then there's the meloncholic parts and post-metal attitude and melodies. This is an intense blend that I am enjoying a lot.
To our friends at ProgPower I'd say: take note of this band! If you're a lover of prog metal that is not about technical prowess but about the composition and feel, then you should really have a go at this. This is going to accompany me during many activities!
Please note you can buy this on Bandcamp as a digital release but also on LP. In fact, the LP is what was sent to us as a review copy - very charming!
Si Hayden - Guitar Tree Hill
Occasionally one comes across a fairly well-established artist that leads one to wonder: "How come I've never heard of this group/musician before?" Such is the case with Si Hayden, a guitarist from Coventry, England that none other than Guitarist magazine has described as 'an acoustic virtuoso'.
With any unfamiliar artist, the first thing I do is a bit of research on their history, and I was quite frankly astounded that Mr Hayden has, since 1998, released well over 50 albums of mostly original music. Not only that, he has contributed to well over another 100 albums by other artists. How can someone be that prolific and yet remain such a relative unknown? His range is pretty phenomenal as well, from solo acoustic and electric recordings, to more band-based releases, as well as albums that fall into the jazz field, music for theatrical performances and television soundtracks.
At first glance that's an average of over two albums a year in the last 20 years. But even that is a somewhat distorted average as there seems to have been very few releases between 1998 and 2005 (which brings the average up to over 3.5 albums a year). Anyway, the obvious question is: what of the quality of the music?
On Guitar Tree Hill Hayden is joined by Adam Holt on drums and Ben Haines on drums, performing eight original instrumental pieces. And no fears over the quality, as each of the pieces is exceptional in their own way, featuring inventive guitar playing, engaging song melodies, some furious soloing and the trio of musicians gelling throughout an album that exudes quality.
Sonically there is nothing to complain about either, with great separation between the instruments meaning that even when Hayden is soloing, the bass playing and drum rhythms are clearly distinguishable. To top it all, I even like the album's cover design!
The pieces are largely rock-based with nods towards the progressive genre, although Oxidised Nation is a bit more avant-garde, with some interesting effects utilised, and fine, fine bass playing from Holt.
Intrigued, I have purchased several more of Hayden's albums, from solo acoustic live recordings, to his guitar rendition of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, and I am simply in awe of the man. If instrumental guitar-based rock music is your thing, then you definitely should give this album a listen. It won't disappoint. And I have just found out that although this album was only released on 15 February 2019, a new album, Production has already been released!
Heartscore - Black Riders Part 1
Heartscore have emerged out of Germany, with a sound described on their Bandcamp page as a “like a cross of Captain Beefheart, black metal and Wagner”, which has got to be the most eclectic mix of sounds I’ve ever heard a band describe themselves as. Being a fan of black metal and knowing my brother (who it must be said has an interesting music taste) will occasionally dive into the world of Captain Beefheart, I could not pass up the opportunity to hear this.
Album opener In The Desert sets the mood of a dark, electronic and industrial sound, rather similar to that of the likes of Nine Inch Nails, but with the added twist of an unexpected, but delightfully odd, saxophone solo at the end.
The album continues with this eccentric mix of metal and electronica, with a sound going between NIN, vocals similar to that of Messiah Marcolin of Candlemass fame and the aforementioned Captain Beefheart (think of their track Frownland but with distorted guitars and electronic drums).
There are chaotic passages, as well as more dark and atmospheric electronic tracks such as Black Riders Came From The Sea. It is a wonderfully bizarre mix of styles that both entertains and confuses you. That is really the only way to describe it. An eccentric and chaotic album where you never know what to expect, but one that never ceases to entertain.
The album was a thoroughly confusing one for me, in the sense that I was never entirely sure what was coming next. However, this is used in a positive way. It is a very enjoyable album that is just fun.
If you’re a fan of any kind of chaotic prog music and industrial metal, you will probably enjoy this. One way or another, it isn’t an album you are likely to forget.