Reviews in this issue:
D-Project - Find Your Sun
While listening to Find Your Sun by D-Project I briefly thought of people's habits of arranging music into categories. My CD collection is based on a simple alphabetical order, but I know of many who like to arrange theirs into musical properties like blues, jazz, metal and so on. Some even divide them further, into certain contemporary time-frames (60s, 70s) or on the basis of progressive properties (neo-prog, crossover prog, art-rock, influenced by...). D-Project might prove to be a challenge in defying all of these possibilities.
Founder Stephane Desbiens (guitars, keyboards and vocals) started the band in 2006 and is still at the heart of it, together with Jean Gosselin (drums), Philippe Desbiens (bass), and Isabelle Cormier on violin and backing vocals. With production and mastering by Andy Jackson, former sound engineer of Pink Floyd, they excel at delivering high quality progressive rock with many styles and influences. And "many" only covers a small part of it, for this is an amalgamation in the form of an endless roll of Liquorice Allsorts.
Take for instance the gorgeous track Tell Me, which opens with delicate, wobbly touches on guitar and lovely Mellotron sounds, reminiscent of early seventies Barclay James Harvest, before it gently flows into a melancholic guitar solo which softly glides onward with divine touches of King Crimson. Computerised vocals give it a touch of electronic 80s pop, which is a lovely contrast to the effective contra-rhythms lying underneath. A brief Pink Floyd section slowly erupts into Porcupine Tree riffs and King Crimson complexity, where adorable violins add extra depth. Rush bass-plucks sparkle amongst ambient sounds and the morish, caressing ending with emotive violin that is reminiscent of Pavlov’s Dog (and to a lesser degree UK) leaves one in complete perplexity. And I probably forgot to mention several other musical references along the way.
And this meticulously-paved pathway is apparent on all tracks, arranged together with carefully crafted segments, each giving glimpses of beautiful sub-genres in the progressive field.
The End immediately generates a feel towards A Momentary Lap Of Reason by aforementioned Pink Floyd, before it quickly shifts gear into the complexities of Dream Theater. A weldless change into Outer Limits suddenly shifts into an acoustical intermezzo, with harmonies and delicate flute, to be overtaken by the earlier-instigated segments.
The title track, Find Your Sun, is divided into two sections, initially harbouring classical piano and a divine, orchestral interlude, ready to be played on classical FM. However the second part would definitely be dismissed as being way too extreme, showing Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, Yes and an unctuous Kansas feel. This constant changing within one track is precisely done and feels completely natural, but it greatly affects the cohesiveness of the album. The contrived musical ad-libs give me the feeling that many bits and pieces have been glued together to create the maximum effect within the song. Suddenly the phrase “Adhesive tape”-prog, recently encountered in an interview, made sense to me.
They tend to go overboard with this administering of eclectic prog on some tracks. Crude Reality has a slightly too-prolonged intro, gliding into the dark side of Pink Floyd, which can be appreciated. But the use of explicit saxophone, so well-known within the Floyd sound, actually does more brain damage than is necessary, and makes it sound corny and overdone. Thankfully moments like this are scarce.
Going back to my initial dwellings, this album is hard to qualify into any category, exhibiting so many faces, styles and aspects outside and within the genre. Adding it to your CD collection using alphabetical order is a fine solution but I'd like to help in offering another suggestion; one that finally hit me after many turns in my CD-player.
D-Project deliver strong, progressive music with familiar and memorable melancholy rock, all bound together by strength. The "Adhesive tape" reference doesn’t exactly suit them, so the only available respectful option is to start a new category and file them under "Duct-tape" prog. Maybe that’s what the D stands for anyway, besides Desbiens. Recommended listening.
Jacob Holm-Lupo - On Track... Blue Öyster Cult: Every Album, Every Song [Book]
The On Track series, with in-depth analysis of every song on every album by a certain chosen artist continues, with an unexpected but very welcomed surprise. With recent editions involving Queen, Deep Purple, Yes and ELP the inclusion of Blue Oyster Cult (BÖC) this early on in the series is remarkable.
Maybe this New York band, dubbed the “thinking man’s heavy metal band”, gained some new interest after the recently published book Career Of Evil by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym of J.K. "Harry Potter" Rowling), which features many references to BÖC? Or is this book a precursor to other artists whom are in many ways intertwined to BÖC, like Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and other influential classic metal-orientated bands? Who knows, but as a devoted BÖC fan since 1981 I applaud this effort.
With some sadness I must say BÖC are mostly known to the general public via their iconic hit (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and to a lesser extent Burnin’ For You and Godzilla. In The Netherlands, even those last two are pretty unknown, and here BÖC is part of the one-hit wonder society. Wrongfully so, and I’d like to make an analogy and assumption here by comparing it to Dust In The Wind by Kansas. That song is known to almost every person in the world (young and old), but in no way does it cover the Kansas legacy, as there is evidently so much more to be told about their music and heritage. Thankfully this book about BÖC can help with this, for it is well written, filled with lovely insights, and answers many questions to the history of the band whilst leaving room for interpretation. And improvement, but I’ll come to that later on.
Whether BÖC fits the progressive label as such is merely a question of insight. Looking at complete albums, there are only a few coming to terms with that statement. Albums like Fire Of Unknown Origin, Cultösaurus Erectus and The Revölution By Night can definitely be accounted as such. Amongst their other albums, there are many tracks which have a proggy feel and embodiment to them. In hindsight this unique combination of prog, hard-rock / metal, pop, blues, jazz, and above all melody, might have subconsciously planted a seed for prog within me coming to full blossom, after I encountered their music all these years ago.
From this book's point of view, a lot of proggy moments occur in BÖC’s career, confirming my suspicions to this. Some are recognisable, some not that obvious, so for sake of argument let’s just induct them as such.
The author of this enlightening work is the no. 1 BÖC fan of Norway Jacob Holm-Lupo, also known as a member of progressive rock band White Willow. Being a musician himself, he manages to approach the songs from a different angle than most other writers / critics, which is a bonus. With imagery descriptions and adequate technical musical terms, he engagingly describes the song structures, superficial layers, inner depth and expressiveness with great precision. Whilst doing so, he also manages to keep a gentle flow to his story telling, which makes it easy to read and readily accessible for the casual reader.
To give this reader more insight into the world of BÖC, Holm-Lupo uses the Imaginos concept by producer Sandy Pearlman as a starting point and red-line in his story, and builds upon this accordingly. Using information from books like Agents Of Fortune by Martin Popoff, the Morning Final fanzines and several interviews, he successfully assembles a cohesive story and a clear picture for this band, all set in its appropriate time-frame.
The way Holm-Lupo incorporates this into each chapter with references and unique insights, gives the book strength, character and credibility. A clever technique, is the partial use of lyrics bringing over a point of reference, enforcing his arguments or simply exemplify his reasoning behind the music. Funnily, I tended to sing instead of read those parts; singing them internally from the top of my head to the music described.
The book of 158 pages has been divided into chapters delving into each individual album, which in case of BÖC can easily been done. Still active and on tour forever, they have existed for almost 50 years, but haven’t been a hugely productive force. Only 11 studio albums have seen the light of day from 1972 up to 1988, and just a few (four to be exact) have been released since.
Out of those four, and for reasons unknown, Cult Classic, re-recordings of their best-known songs released in 1994, is completely absent from the book. (The same recording was re-issued by other labels under the titles Champions Of Rock and E.T.I. Revisited in 1998 and 2004, every time with different artwork.) It isn’t mentioned at all and this fact feels strange, for these recordings took place around the period of the Stephen King movie The Stand, the novel of which is actually mentioned in the book. Why he decided not to include it raises an eyebrow on my part, for it’s a solid CD with strong renditions of their iconic tracks recorded with a line-up featuring Chuck Burgi and Jon Rogers, whom he seems to hold in high regard. Maybe it doesn’t offer anything particularly new, but surely mentioning it would have been appropriate?
He addresses the live albums in the appendix, which seems fine, since they essentially don’t bring anything new to his analytical approach, apart from the discussed occasional jam which elevated some of their songs. His recommended live album is understandable, once set in the right frame of mind, and is simply a matter of taste.
But from a critic's point of view, I would have advised a different one for two simple reasons. The first one being that he picks a rather hard-to-get, non-commercially available live album recorded in 1986 that can only be downloaded in MP3 files once you have bought the essential, all-encompassing Columbia Box Set. So far so good, but I’m sorry to say that the download website doesn’t work anymore. Not his fault, obviously, and something for Columbia to set right, but it does make the album even harder to get.
The second reason is two-folded. Firstly, I’d rather pick On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, my desert island disc featuring a great collection of early BÖC tracks, exquisite jams with Subhuman as the ultimate proggy opener. And secondly, this album contains a sublime version of Buck’s Boogie, featuring majestic, gorgeous guitar-work from Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser (a highly underrated guitarist), duelling with luscious keys from the late Allen Lanier.
Now for some mind-boggling reason this "track" is completely omitted from the book and has miraculously been obliterated from existence. In my mind that is a blasphemy and a monumental mistake, for it has been around since 1972 and has been most essential in the lifespan of BÖC. As a live favourite it has been played numerous times and it should have been accounted for in the book, as it even carries the name of one of the two remaining original members (the other one being Eric Bloom).
And that’s one of the aspects where the problem lies for a completist like me. The caption “every album, every song” implies thoroughness and completeness. Inconsequently he discusses some of their bonus tracks in depth, like on Secret Treaties and Spectres, but surpasses any of the added tracks to the other re-masters and the box set, which are quite a few. He even makes the mistake of saying the re-master of Tyranny And Mutation only contains contemporaneous live tracks, which is a factual injustice, for strangely enough it contains a properly recorded studio version of aforementioned Buck’s Boogie. Maybe he had a "Black Night" whilst writing this section.
Solo efforts from band members are ignored, which is fine, although I question the thought behind the analytical absence of their Stalk Forrest Group album St. Cecilia of 1970, which has been officially released, albeit not under the BÖC moniker. Lastly, when chapter 14 abruptly ends, he dives straight into the live section, and the oyster boys are frankly left swimming as to what has happened to them during these past 18 years. A short closing summary of memorable events would have been nice, for a lot has occurred these past few years within the BÖC field. Most recently they had their reunion gigs, and rumour has it that a fresh divine wind will blow at long last with a promised new album featuring newest member (for 16 years) Richie Castellano (Band Geek).
All things considered, this edition is a worthy addition to the series, enhanced with a memorable photo inlay, giving BÖC-starters a lovely insight into their music, lyrical content and heritage. He makes an effort to really highlight the songs, and keeps a constant flow throughout. On most parts I am like-minded towards specific tracks and despite its minor mistakes, loose ends, and incompleteness, it's a good read. My advice as the no. 23 BÖC fan of Holland is to just buy this book, start reading and get yourself acquainted with Blue Öyster Cult. We need more cowbell!
Red Bazar - Things As They Appear
Things As They Appear, the follow-up to 2016's Tales From The Bookcase (review here), kicks off with the great Temple, an excellent tone-setting track for Red Bazar's fourth album.
With an unchanged line-up of Andy Wilson (guitar), Mick Wilson (bass), Paul Comerie (drums), and the ubiquitous Peter Jones (vocals, keyboards), with Gary Marsh playing keyboards and keyboard arrangements on all but one track, the band have matured into a solid prog act. There is a grandiosity to the performances that verges on the epic, especially on the aforementioned Temple and the following song Nothing Left.
Jones in particular has found his own voice with some fine singing throughout and creating some big choruses with multi-tracking, particularly on Liar where the vocals blend well with the muscular guitar riffs. A really nice switch in tempo in the middle of the song provides a pure prog moment that wouldn't be contemplated in any other genre.
The title of Rocky Bone Runway may seem rather odd, until one reads the lyrics: "as you take off from your runway of rocks and bones". It is a somewhat angry song about the false hope purveyed by leaders, dictators and other such charlatans. The song contains a superlative middle eight, in which Comerie comes into his own as Andy Wilson, solos away. This, as well as a strong chorus, saves the track which kind of loses its way in the middle section. Spiral brings in a change of pace with acoustic guitars and sweeping keyboard lines. Lyrically it summarises Pink Floyd's The Wall in under five minutes, which is pretty good going by any standards! The instrumental coda is a grand addition, subtly changing the keyboard sounds and slowly gathering in the rest of the group, to create a rollickingly-good ending.
Although the lyrics to the songs fill up the complete booklet (there is a lot of them), it is not something that is evident from listening to the album, mainly because they blend so well with the instruments, so that each supports each other. But that doesn't mean the instrumental sections are minimised, as there are plenty of breaks where the group can show off their abilities.
Jones' performances with Francis Dunnery seems to have had an effect, as The Parting has some keyboard and vocal elements that are strongly reminiscent of It Bites in their prime, which is not any kind of condemnation, as it adds a degree of variety to the album.
The album not only starts in great form, it also ends with it. We Will Find You has a kind of grungy, doom-laden beginning that rather threatens to be an update on the signature Black Sabbath sound. Thankfully (?) Jones is no Ozzy and even his most menacing vocals maintain a melodic overtone. A prominent bass riff drives the song and provides a uniqueness unheard on the previous tracks. An interesting and atmospheric song that presents the band in a new light, even if the ending is a bit of a disappointment. I think it would have been more impactful if the playout was shorter or the keyboards were not so light and airy, as it doesn't really suit the mood of the song.
A quick shout out to Gary Marsh for his excellent work on the artwork. He is obviously quite a whizz on more than one type of keyboard! The photo on Page 11 of the booklet is one of my favourite images this year. But to find out what it is, I guess you'll just have to buy the album, it's certainly worth obtaining.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia - Live At The Chicago Theatre
Disc 2: Road To Utopia (5:21), Play This Game (4:17), Swing To The Right (4:28), Trapped (3:12), Set Me Free (3:17), Love In Action (3:40), Hammer In My Heart (4:39), Princess of the Universe (3:21), I Will Wait (4:18), Rock Love (5:00), Love Is The Answer (4:38), One World (3:31), Just One Victory (5:52)
After a thirty-year-plus hiatus, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia graced the Chicago Theatre stage on May 22, 2018. This release is a recording of that concert, available in a 4 disc set (2 CDs, a Blue-Ray and a DVD). Unfortunately, only the CDs were provided for review.
This re-incarnation of Utopia has three-quarters of the stable line-up that recorded as Utopia from 1977's Ra, up to 1986’s Trivia. The band features Todd Rundgren (guitar, vocals), Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), Willie Wilcox (drums, vocals) and replacing Roger Powell on keyboards is Gil Assayas (who is an Israeli composer, producer, and vocalist).
For the progressive rock-inclined listener (me) this is a release of, literally, two halves. The first disc being the most progressive, whilst the second disc offers more rock and power-pop, with prog touches. I have long been a fan of the earlier versions of Utopia (from 1974’s Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, to 1977’s Oops! Wrong Planet) but I gradually lost interest after that, as the band shed the prog, for well-crafted rock and new-wave power-pop.
The first disc concentrates on tracks from the 1974-77 period in the main. Anyone who is familiar with Todd Rundgren’s work will know this is his most progressive period. The tracks run more or less in chronological order. Starting with 74’s Utopia Theme, a magnificent prog beast, with the band firing on all cylinders from the off. Utopia follow this with an excerpt from the side-long epic The Ikon. It makes you want to go back and play the original in all its bonkers, 30-minute glory.
After these, mainly, instrumental tracks, the vocals begin to take centre stage. With all four players possessed of terrific voices, the harmonies are exquisite, even if on occasion, age and the workload of giving live performances of these songs does show some signs of strain. But that is easily forgotten, as you get swept up in the power of the performances.
Across the disc, Utopia move on through their back catalogue. They take in the garage-rock-prog of Do Ya and Freedom Fighters, and the karmic investigation of the human condition on The Wheel. The overlapping vocal lines here, are a thing of joy.
More prog follows with Overture Communion With The Sun from 77’s Ra. In between there is a visit to the more song-structured rock-pop-prog from the settled, later line-up. One of which, Monument, is new to me. It turns out that it was a bonus track added to 1986’s Trivia compilation as a sweetener. Monument is a hidden gem, with Kasim Sulton on vocals and one of Todd Rundgren’s best guitar solos, it was a great and welcome surprise amongst the more familiar material.
The second disc moves into Utopia’s late 70s and 80s output with dips into the great Oops! Wrong Planet from 1977. This disc contains the supremely tuneful classic rock, pop and new wave styles (with some prog touches). Highlights here are the almost heads-down rocker Play This Game, the vocal harmonies of Swing To The Right, and the politically engaged rock of Trapped and Love In Action.
The disc and the concert close with the triple whammy of Love Is The Answer, the Tom Petty-ish One World, and the traditional sing-along of the goose-pimple inducing Just One Victory. Even though the disc is lighter on the progressive invention, it won me over.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Live At The Chicago Theatre is a recording of energy and commitment that belies the participants' veteran recording status. Anyone who is a fan of Todd Rundgren and the Utopia band project shouldn’t hesitate. Newbies looking for a ‘best of’ could do no better than start here.
Now, where can I get a look at the DVD...
Ruphus - New Born Day
Ruphus from Norway is a band that accompanied me during my musical (and physical) youth. They formed in 1972 and released six LPs. Yes, LPs! The world didn't know about CDs back then, not to mention music streaming. There were also a few compilations during their nine years of existence, until 1981.
They were fairly well known in Germany (probably more than elsewhere in Europe except Norway), having played a number of popular festivals there in the late seventies (some of which I was lucky to attend). The band underwent both various changes in its line-up and a re-orientation concerning its musical style during its existence. The latter in particular, took place starting with the third album Let Your Light Shine (the first one being produced by Terje Rypdal), which shifted the style from a heavier, organ-driven, psychedelic progressive rock sound, towards a rather symphonic jazz rock, a genre that the band remained true to until their dissolution.
Last year, the Karisma record label (having prog bands such as Magic Pie, Wobbler, Oak, and Tusmørke under their wings) decided to reissue the entire discography of Ruphus, to be mastered by Jacob Holm-Lupo (known for his work with White Willow among others, plus a book on Blue Öyster Cult, reviewed in this same issue). As this reissue program is probably going to take place in chronological order, it started with Ruphus' first release, New Born Day. On the occasion of the official release on March 8th, 2019, the band played a concert in Oslo, which is supposed not to be the only one.
The line-up of this first release consisted of Hans Petter Danielsen (guitar), Kjell Larsen (guitar, flute), Hakon Graf (keyboards, vibes), Thor Bentiksen (drums, percussion), Asle Nilsen (bass guitar, flute), Gudny Aspaas (vocals), and Rune Sundby (vocals, acoustic guitar, sax). The future musical development of the band will show that this line-up basically changed with every release, with Kjell Larsen and Asle Nilsen becoming the only band members to participate on every album.
Now what are the music's distinctive features? Firstly, to me the focus on the Hammond organ as the leading keyboard (Day After Tomorrow, but in fact evident in every track), the pounding bass lines (New Born Day), the fierceness of the guitar (Coloured Dreams), the alternation of rougher parts with smoother ones, and the focussed use of the flute (Scientific Ways) and sax (Still Alive) as lead instruments.
Striking is the excellent interplay of both male and female lead vocals, even within the same track, without predominance of one over the other. Everything is very balanced. Gudny Aspaas is the voice that adds edge and sharpness, whilst Rune Sundby provides for the more gentle undertones.
The music is more psychedelic and heavier compared to the band's subsequent releases and less symphonic. However, it just occasionally has the sometimes gloomy and melancholic atmospheres displayed here and there by contemporary Scandinavian progressive rock bands. The music sounds retro but by no means old-fashioned. It is decently complex, but without any l'art pour l'art attitude. It is always varied and challenging. I tend to see Atomic Rooster, Uriah Heep, plus German bands Frumpy, Birth Control and Atlantis as the main sources of inspiration.
Ths sound quality of this reissue is excellent, crystal-clear and perfectly mixed. What a difference compared to my old LP!
The art work of this release is also quite appealing to me, showing a landscape, frozen and paralysed by winter, with rocks looking like terrifying monsters, and icicles like predators' teeth. The inner sleeve reveals how friendly and peaceful that same landscape looks, once the winter has gone, and light and colours have replaced gloom and obscurity. It is new born, so to say.
I am pleased that this band's discography is "new-born" as well, and will be more visible to progressive rock lovers now and in future. Ruphus, together with some other bands of its era, such as Popul Vuh (not to be confused with its German namesake), Titanic, Tribute, and Kaipa, for instance (most of them buried in oblivion, except for the latter one), belongs to the roots of Scandinavian progressive rock, which nowadays is strong, important and distinctive. With so many excellent Scandinavian progressive rock releases out there, it is more than justified to make the listeners aware of how it all started 45 years ago.
This is recommended not only to nostalgic wishing to make a musical journey through time, but to every progressive rock fan looking to enlarge their spectrum of Scandinavian progressive rock. I have liked the LP, which I spent my pocket money on almost 45 years ago, ever since.