Reviews in this issue:
Carptree - Subimago
My interest was piqued at the first casual spin of this album. I heard several things I liked, mainly because of the sound and melodies. A retro sound with a modern twist, like an updated Uriah Heep. Add an experienced, soulful voice. What could possibly go wrong?
Sadly it soon became apparent that I was constantly looking at the player to see which song I was listening to. None of them appeared to have a clear identity. I was ignoring this notion for a while, thinking it would just take me longer to get into the songs, but the feeling persisted.
And there was something else that was nagging at my concentration. Although I like sudden changes in music, such as outbursts or explosions of sound into a heavy section or a solo breaking, here are these sudden stops where a louder piece of music suddenly breaks into a near-silence, often with soft vocals starting the next verse. Like the musicians couldn't think of a more natural change.
Of course, you can use this as an idea once. But it happens three times in the first song. Then three songs have two of those, and another song has three. This was becoming a gimmick, and not a funny one. Was there a limit in time or level of songwriting? Or were there too many ideas, resulting in a patchwork of different ideas (as perfected by the likes of Shadow Gallery)?
When Celestial Sky continued a piece in a single style for a bit longer, my attention was maintained, only to be lost at that sudden stop again at 4:25. Eye Of The Storm has a different kind of sudden stop, less sudden, it just takes one measure, but the damage to my concentration was already done.
It's a pity. So many good things I hear, while the resulting product fails to please. I'll dive into their previous albums one day and see if the songs there will be more to my liking.
The mix and production sound pretty good, but the mastering was done too loud. There is clipping all over the place. Or is that because of the MP3 encoder? That's why we don't like reviewing from MP3.
So, some great sections, great sounds, melodies and solos, good singing, and I like the dark atmospheres that the heavier sections bring. Lots of memorable ingredients, but my taste needs some memorable songs or songwriting as well, and less annoyance.
The Emerald Dawn - Nocturne
The Emerald Dawn is a musical quartet from Cornwall, UK combining elements of (neo-)prog, jazz, rock, and classical music to create atmospheric music set in a vintage production. Next to multi-instrumentalists Tree Stewart (keyboards, piano, flute, vocals and more) and Ally Carter (guitar, saxophone, keyboards, vocals), the band consists of Tom Jackson on drums and David Greenaway on bass.
And to get straight to the point: the “listen to the album in the dark, preferably alone” as recommended by The Emerald Dawn themselves, doesn’t reveal anything significant to me. It must be said that the expressiveness whilst listening solemnly to their album in different settings, whether it be daytime or night-time, does set my imagination and mind wandering off towards a certain point of interpretation. But no matter how hard I tried (or instinctively didn’t), supplemental nocturnal experiences never dawned on me, even by taking into account the suggestive haunting artwork, their occult appearance and the focus towards night, darkness, hidden mysteries, gargoyles and creepily cast shadows.
In fact Moonlight has the complete opposite effect. An enchanting piano melody slowly opens up to a strong, emotive guitar solo in best Grobschnitt tradition, radiating a divine Solar Music ray of light. This light shines even brighter, when halfway through the song, church organs subtly support the outburst of gorgeous guitar that illuminates joyous krautrock intertwined with a lovely grand piano. The ideal length, being the shortest of the four substantial tracks, is a further blessing.
Less successfully, As Darkness Falls precedes, starting out with a sinister guitar, delivering an opening statement of grandeur after the opening spoken words of Prologue. With a solid rhythm section and a huge tapestry of keyboards, it moves through several phases filled with adventurous jamming on guitar and keyboards, reminiscent of 70s early progressive Eloy. Added spacy surroundings and a jazzy Kalaban interlude showcase a fine example of their musical arrangements, without over-stretching it (albeit only just).
This drawn-out, long-winded approach is significantly apparent in the 21-minute epic track of the album The Child Within. Opening in classic neo-progressive style like Marillion’s Script For A Jester’s Tear / Fugazi period, they stay true to form in creating an emotive, dark, atmospheric track that’s however too overflowing with solos, despite its intent and execution. The voice of Tree resembles that of Laura Basla from Tale Cue, which is actually quite nice, but I’d rather hear her casting otherworldly, Gothic, angelic vocal-sounds, which in this particular case effectively disguises the childish, predictable lyrics.
In The Dead Of Night is set in a jazzy environment, invoked through the use of saxophone and a playfully laid-down fretless bass. Here the vocals unsuccessfully serve an unnerving purpose, sounding rather dull, monotonous and not convincing at all, especially the male part. Thankfully the instrumental middle-part and end-section involves some lovely emotional organ and melancholic guitar duels like Anyone’s Daughter and the aforementioned Grobschnitt, showing exactly where this band's strength lies.
In conclusion, the vocals are a hit and miss, and probably they would be better off being completely instrumental. The interaction between the virtuous organ/keyboards and delicious, improvisational, emotive guitar is a big plus-point and can result in heavenly music, as clearly demonstrated in Moonlight. Furthermore they could explore the jazz-inspired instalments in their compositions some more, for they show promise and add an appreciated variety to their nurtured, atmospheric, dreamy music. All in all, this is a good effort with some fine moments, worth investigating.
Fervent Mind - Tranquilize
Norway is a hotbed for forward-thinking musicians, or so it seems. There, extreme metal, avant-garde jazz and sophisticated pop all coexist in a melting pot of inifinite possibilities, and record labels such as Rune Grammofon or Karisma Records act as catalysts of this flood of talent. It is courtesy of the latter that Oslo's Fervent Mind have released their new album, a slab of contemporary pop with some nods to post rock and jazz.
Tranquilize is off to an eerie start with the ethereal soundscapes of A Series Of Fragments, which segues into Torrid. This keeps an hypnotic pulse before bursting out and releasing the tension around the four-minute mark. Right from the start the sound reminds me of Paatos (check them out if you haven't already) and Live Sollid's vocals are reminiscent of those by Petronella Nettermalm. The (almost) title track ramps up the intensity, but this time it is Anekdoten (especially their most recent releases) that I hear, with frantic guitars, and a stronger presence of vintage keyboards to add colour to the proceedings.
The concept of Sleeping Strange is effectively invoked through creepy sound effects verging on musique concrete, before giving way to some sort of languid, lethargic balladry not too far removed from some trip-hop aestethics akin to those of Portishead. Crystal rounds-off this trippy passage, acting as a two-minute minimalistic coda. This weird, implied torpor still finds its way on tracks such as Runaway Bride and All Sounds Muted, which are supposed (?) to pick up the pace, but where drums seem to be constantly on the verge of collapsing, and lyrics are definitely sung in a dispassionate manner. It might sound too cerebral and detached, and probably it is, but there's also blood running through the band's veins, mainly thanks to Simen Skrebergene's fiery guitar work. In this regard, look no further than the instrumental Disappearing Into The Masses Part 2, the closest Fervent Mind get to traditional prog tropes, but also the track where they feel most alive.
Tongues goes back to Portishead and even Massive Attack, managing to sound both sweet and ghostly, airy and claustrophobic, with just the right amount of cinematic bombast to lift the song in its closing stages. Closing track Strain, brings things full circle somehow, as it goes back to the hypnotic echoes which open the album, and also manages to encapsulate everything this band has to offer within its six minutes.
For those who like modern, sophisticated pop with strong ties to more progressive avenues (think of Radiohead), this is a very pleasant, if albeit somewhat safe, listen.
King Of Agogik - After The Last Stroke
After The Last Stroke is the seventh solo album by multi-instrumentalist Hans Jörg Schmitz, who releases albums under the name King Of Agogik. Ostensibly a drummer, he also plays keyboards, guitar and bass, although freely admits his limitations on these instruments. Handily he has plenty of musical friends who he can call in to help out where necessary.
The bulk of this mostly instrumental album was composed by Schmitz, although three of the four longest numbers were co-compositions, so let's start with those. The undoubted highlight of the album is the epic A Day Without End, and not for anything so crass as it being the longest track! Co-written with Steve Unruh, who pops up all over the place these days, his characteristic flute and violin feature prominently throughout. Unruh, along with Schmitz and Dago Wilms, also adds guitar, with keyboards by Enno Nilson and Schmitz, bass by Guy Farmer and grass and woodwind by Peter Simon.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are tinges of the Resistor sound here and there, but the keyboards and piano provide differentiation. A fine collection of sequential melodies keeps things moving along, with lots of twists and turns and repeated elements sneaking through. The entwining of guitar and violin is delightful, with some wonderful effects added to the latter. There are so many different sections, that the piece never fails to keep one's attention. In all honesty it all seems to fly by a lot quicker than the 20+ minutes.
Gannef, co-composed by pianist Philipp Schmitz, only shares Simon and HJ Schmitz with A Day Without End. Guitar duties are undertaken by Johannes Andrè, and Jeffrey Harlington contributes double bass. The track starts with a very ambient guitar section, before lapsing into an off-beat rhythm with Eastern-influenced woodwind and vocalisations (by Alanda Scapes). The track doesn't really flow for me, being broken up by a 90-second drum solo which is actually rather good, as is the drumming throughout the rest of the song and indeed the whole album. It is somewhat too disjointed and staccato, with an ending that doesn't really fit, although the purpose of the track, a tribute to Fabian Kuratil, is undoubtedly attained.
Plug In - Plaques Out just features the two composers, Wilms on guitar and bass, and HJ Schmitz on drums and keyboards. Despite just being the two of them, it is the heaviest piece on the album. Some great playing, a very nice keyboard riff and some quite eccentric sound effects, all contribute to a high-energy performance where the drum solo is an integral component. The end features a selection of clips from various films, spliced together in an intriguing way.
The final long-form track is the closing number, Retromantic Lullaby, dedicated to the musicians from the formative years of rock and prog music that have come to the end of their lives. In spite of the inspiration for the piece, musically it is an upbeat and jaunty number that sees HJ Schmitz providing the bulk of the performance, with Farmer on bass and Simon on brass and woodwind, although neither of the supporting musicians are particularly prominent. The last few minutes is a very well put-together collection of snippets from prog classics, overlaid with bird song and light percussion. It's fun to listen out for your favourite!
Enough of the epics, what of the shorter songs? Well at close to seven minutes, The White Raven can hardly be thought of as short. It is a great opener to the album, with Wilms, Nilson, Farmer and HL Schmitz being joined by Simon on oboe and Erik Vaxjö on Mellotron. A tribute to Dutch hippy legend Kees Hoekert, who was instrumental in the legalisation of cannabis in The Netherlands, the piece features some very amusing sound bites from a presumably-American documentary on hippies and flower power. The somewhat haunting piano coda seems to bring the piece to a sombre end, before a fine flourish and a final message creates a more appropriate finale.
Carbon Soot is a fine drum solo. I could never understand why so many people dislike drum solos, as I have always been a fan. The rhythmic possibilities and sound palette are far wider than a guitar for example, and this brief piece gives a small example of what creative drummers can achieve.
The lovely Patterns On The Water, with its flowing keyboard line is an apt tribute to Woolly Wolstenholme, one of the founders of Barclay James Harvest. Offering a lighter mood, enhanced by Simon's oboe and 12-string guitar from Andrew Marshall, this is a truly fine piece of music.
The oboe also features on Watching The Moon, a graceful lament that leads into Back In The Second Line, a rather sorrowful dirge that features death announcements of a multitude of famous people, although Frank Zappa is the primary beneficiary of the tribute. Written in a style that could very well have been from one of Zappa's albums, the inclusion of uilleann pipes (played by Scott Taylor) is a clever idea that works well.
Overall, the album, my first introduction to King Of Agogik, is a very interesting collection of pieces that mostly work very well. HJ Schmitz is a talented composer and performer, and After The Last Stroke is a worthy inclusion in the admittedly rather small list of fine albums created by drummers.
Slug Comparison - When You Were Living Here
Regular readers will know my fondness for everything so far created by Canadian band Fen and more latterly their frontman/guitarist Doug Harrison under his inventively entitled solo project. Over the last two years Doug has released a series of singles/EPs (less imaginatively titled IIa, IIb, IIc, and IId). Each showed the many different aspects of his song writing: a thoughtful blend of dark and light, acoustic and heavy, progressive and more straightforward.
Now all four EPs have been combined, along with two new tracks (Fine With It and One More Step), to form the second Slug Comparison album, with a full release on the Dutch-based Rock Company label. From the up-tempo, dirty, distorted anger of Exactly What To Do, through the acoustic thoughtfulness of Let Some Light and onto the progressively pastoral gothic vibe of the title track, this will please all fans of Doug's amazing voice and his ability to communicate a deep sense of meaning and emotion in his music.
This is one of those albums where different tracks will find favour according to one's mood. Current favourites include the bouncy rock of Thoughts, with its lovely guitar details around the two-minute mark and the clever way that the guitar then mirrors the vocal. It is very much a stripped-down Fen. The acoustically-menacing vibe of Fine With It, and the unusual beat, around the alt-Amercian country of Hyperslump, also bring a smile.
Although the tracks tend to clock-in around the four to five-minute mark, that somewhat belies the complexity and different shades contained within. In no way "progressive" in the traditional sense, there is a depth to each composition, and a variation in styles across the album, that rewards careful listening.
A couple of the later tracks are a little too lightweight for my tastes. Purple Monkey borrows from Simon & Garfunkel. It's preceded by the pairing of Hold of You and Beings Far Away. All decent songs in their own right, but to maintain the flow of the album, towards the end it needs some aggression to break up the ambient flow. So Ya Got A Great Guitar is a solid track, but the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, sit oddly with the more serious tone elsewhere.
The self-titled debut album from Slug Comparison sat comfortably in my list of favourite albums five years ago (article here). Although this collection doesn't have quite the same consistency, When You Were Living Here is a wonderful example of modern, progressive alt-rock. Expect to see it in-or-around my Top 10 once again!
The album is available in digital formats on all the usual platforms and in CD format through the band's label. The bonus track is freely available from the Slug Comparison Bandcamp page (link above).