Reviews in this issue:
Jordan Blum - Jethro Tull - Every Album, Every Song [Book]
A classic case of how a book can bring back memories and subsequently inspire one to dive straight into the back-catalogue becasue of its delightful page turning readability. At least that's what happened to me after reading the engaging, informative and passionately written Jethro Tull - Every Album, Every Song book by Jordan Blum in the On Track series. Whether this applies to anyone who is oblivious to Jethro Tull (if they exist...), I can't answer exactly. But Blum has succeeded in writing a positive, objective, inspirational and sometimes challenging book, deservedly issued by Sonicbond Publishing.
Not recalling my exact first encounter with Jethro Tull though it is likely to be somewhere in the mid-eighties via the televised "Bach Rock" concert in Berlin on the 6th of March 1985, or a rerun thereof. Bear in mind I was 15 years old then, young enough to rock 'n roll obviously, so the opener Black Sunday grasped my full attention, featuring Eddie Jobson of UK, whom I had just discovered. And things got even better with Ian Anderson as the captivating mastermind on flute, vocals and acoustic guitar alongside wing/axe-man Martin "Lancelot" Barre constantly throwing out gorgeous electrifying guitar work. So by the time Hunting Girl came on (the second track) I was figuratively skating away to the record store, where Stormwatch turned out to be my first catch.
In those dark ages I naturally dived into their legacy, which already consisted of a staggering amount at that stage in their career, thus discovering the many diversities and bearded faces of their music. From the bluesy start on This Was and the conceptual genius of Thick As A Brick, to the less successful pop orientated Underwraps through to the highly influential progressive folk-rock of Songs From The Wood. With Jan Akkerman (Focus) giving a perfect rendition of Locomotive Breath during a solo-concert in 1986 at 't Krogt, Bussum, the vibrant Live, Bursting Out was to be my second acquisition, which effectively provided a perfect overview of all this wondrous musicality.
It stands to reason that Jethro Tull after all these years is to be seen as one of the top five progressive bands coming from Great Britain, alongside contemporaries like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd. Their adventurous progressive folk rock, demonstrated by various iconic tracks fittingly described in the book, have influenced many artists along the way, thus enriching the musical playing field of progressive rock as a whole. And so much more besides such as winning a Grammy Award in the hard-rock/metal category. Which is dubious at least. It feels like giving Metallica the "Ambient Album of the Year" award. Still a very much deserved approval of Jethro Tull's significance in rock music.
So on to the book, where Blum follows the directives of the series describing each studio outing in chronological order, using the latest commercially available editions of the albums as a reference. Each paragraph starts with a short intro where Blum provides insights into the creation of the album placing them in their correct time-frame. Highlighting the essential interesting historical facts surrounding the album gives further depth, substance and weight to the book. Wisely he avoids or circles around any negativies or conflicting personnel differences.
For the first part (1968-1978) covers the updated versions of This Was up to Heavy Horses which have had the Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) remixing treatment. From Stormwatch on (the second part) it's the 25th anniversary edition or just the ordinary release as it is. This thankfully proves to be a blessing to the fan like me who needs a few gentle reminders, or the inquisitive beginner, who can now compare his own collection to the most complete one in regard to each album.
Jethro Tull have issued many B-sides, out-takes, unreleased tracks and even some stand-alone singles not featured on original albums. These are thankfully gathered or mentioned in a short abridged form at the end of each paragraph. Considering the thoroughness which is applied on the Wilson re-issues it's likely that once all the albums have been given his treatment, all non album tracks will have found their rightful place. Cunningly it also allows for future editions of the book, with only the bonuses having to be addressed, starting from Stormwatch.
As a result the substantial amount of undiscussed treasured songs, mostly featured on Nightcaps and the much sought after 20th anniversary box set, can now eventually find their way to the rightful album. One has to start somewhere, and Blum has supplied a good starting point. The live albums are addressed shortly, which seems just fine, making this book a great gesture to the discovering reader slowly growing to be a fan, for all essential tracks and obligatory albums are accounted for in the book.
A further pleasant and welcomed surprise is the imaginative creative writing of Blum, for which he holds an MFA award. There's never a dull moment and he keeps an elegant flow going throughout, whether the album is worth exploring or not. It is also stripped of a repetitive style, apart from the woodwind associations, but I guess that goes without saying. He uses a great variety of graphic descriptions in line with the ebb and flow of the music, capturing it's changes, fragility, bridges and rocking intricacies through carefully chosen words. This way he moulds, builds and shapes the mood and feel of the music securely into book-form, which is a nice side effect.
It might however prove to be ever so slightly hard to follow his well crafted long sentences. Especially at the beginning of the book he wanders off in a sentence adding several punctuation marks and futher remarks at the same time. He also takes sidesteps or inserts lyrics between brackets that sometimes becomes too much, forcing one to read some parts over and over to fully grasp it. Even the book's editor might have missed a few inaccuracies in it's slipstream. Curiously this hearty concerned complexity gradually fades as the book progresses, in correspondence with the less complex appearance of Jethro Tull after Stormwatch.
In 2011 news spread that Jethro Tull was no longer, which is where the book could have ended. For historical importance, and by choice of the author, the solo efforts by Ian Anderson have been included as well, briefly, but still it adds to the picture. On the one hand a reasonable addition for the majority of Tull-music was written by Anderson and some of his solo-albums build upon the Thick As A Brick concept. On the other hand it means that Barre should have had his own chapter as well. It seems only fair after 50 years of devotion to the band, which nowadays still sees both Anderson and Barre touring (separately though) under some kind of Jethro Tull banner.
I only caught them once in 1994 in their secondary prime (or third, depending on your preference) on their 25th anniversary tour. And thanks to this book the memories have flooded back again, with firmly reinstating my fondness for this music. So whether you are a fan or not, stand up and get hold of a copy and spend some lovely hours in prog history. Next up in the CD re-issue series is Stormwatch, which means I hopefully will only have to wait a few more years for Underwraps to arrive, with, hopefully, a bonus DVD/Bluray of Bach Rock in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. If Blum is unable to retain his oozing excitement on some soon to be expected re-issues, why should I.
Cykada - Cykada
Cykada are a young London based instrumental group. The collective includes members of various genre bending outfits such as Ezra Collective, Maisha and Undergrooveland. The band consists of bassist Jamie Benzies, keyboardist Tilé Gichigi-Lipere, drummer Tim Doyle, trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom, saxophonist James Mollison and guitarist Javi Pérez.
Their music draws upon jazz and world music, particularly from West Africa. They also incorporate a mixture of electronics and experimental beats. Beneath an accomplished veneer of instrumental prowess and compositional sophistication, the album has an exuberant energy and often projects a raw and surprisingly raucous rocky edge.
This concoction frequently creates an infectious rhythmic sound that is hard to resist and even harder to stand still to. The album's enthusiastic mix of instruments and styles conveys a mood that is full of frivolity and joyous fun. Much of the music radiates with an unfettered freedom of expression and displays an admirable sense of creativity and spontaneity.
At times, Cykada’s music majestically and anarchically swings. The occasional nod to a more traditional swing style is regularly offset by a contemporary sound which utilises the clever and stirring use of keyboard and electro trickery and programming by Tilé Gichigi-Lipere.
The principal instruments at the forefront of the band’s sound are the saxophone and the trumpet. This strident core produces a progressive jazz fusion sound that should appeal to those who might enjoy the swing and push of bands such as Njet Njet 9, and the integration of electronics effects and soundscapes by artists such as Strobes, Polar Bear and Dinosaur's most recent work.
The electronics and keyboard player Gichigi-Lipere’s contribution is particularly notable in the excellent Dimension Stepper. This tune’s mix of electronics, yowling guitars and impossible dance rhythms creates a surreal and irresistible dance track. Its resourceful changes of pace and implausible changes of rhythm will please anybody, who in their dreams, has imagined themselves as a fast footed, fleet fingered, disruptive dancer sporting a torn tuxedo.
There were occasions when some of the Afro beats; boisterous bass lines and fine trumpet soloing recalled the work of Miles Davis' Tutu album. However, more often than not the type of music produced by Cykada defies stylistic signposts or comparisons. Its unique style is distinctive but is also accessible. In this respect, despite having many unpredictable moments, this album is never particularly challenging because it has so many pleasurable hooks and memorable melodies.
The album begins convincingly with Creation. This tune embodies much of what is so invigorating about this album. It is an uplifting piece with a twisted world sound. Imagine if you like, a distorted type of mariachi music that sweeps you breathlessly off your feet, with hip swaying rhythms. It unexpectedly shakes and stirs you with its use of an array of electronic swirls and beats. If you able to do so you may well understand this albums potential effect upon an unsuspecting listener.
During Creation, the collective elements of the band meld seamlessly to produce a toe tapping, happy moon face, smiling big sound, where the swooping, singing effects of the trumpet and saxophone is skilfully enhanced by some tasteful tapping, rhythmic guitar embellishments, deep seated bass tones and busy kit work.
I was particularly impressed with the inventive work of guitarist Perez. His work mostly lies deep in the bowels of the band’s sound providing tasteful embellishments and wicked guitar effects. On the occasions that he takes a more prominent role as in his psychedelic, dirty distorted, fuzzy solo in Third Eye Thunder. The result is enthralling and captivating.
However, his best work probably occurs during Ophelia's Message. His solo is full of screeching squawking emotion and offers a perfect antidote to anybody who thinks that progressive jazz fusion lacks emotion. This album is brimming with warmth and feeling. Perez fretwork often cuts and blasts in and out of the arrangements with wind biting incisiveness and leather gloved power. Nothing about this album's emotive pull is flat, weak or insipid.
Overall, Cykada's self-titled debut is very impressive. It crosses boundaries and never sticks to one style for too long. Its numerous twists, turns, and changes of direction ensure that this inventive album is never bland or one-dimensional. It does not contain any disappointing tunes. The standard of musicianship and performance is consistently high and all of the pieces include standout and inventive features.
Cykada’s innovative mix of disparate influences, draws from many eras and forms of music, but the breadth and scope of the kaleidoscopic musical patterns that it creates are timeless in every respect.
I have grown to like it a lot.
Cyril - The Way Through
This is the third release from German melodic prog rockers Cyril who formed in 2010. Key member Marek Arnold is a man of many talents (and bands) and the story and lyrics for this album were written by his Damanek colleague Guy Manning. The first two Cyril albums Gone Through Years (2013) and Paralyzed (2016) were both well received by DPRP. The lineup remains unchanged, namely Arnold (keyboards, seaboard, saxophones), Denis Strassburg (bass, programming), Ralf Dietsch (guitars), Clemens Litschko (drums, percussion), Manuel Schmid (vocals, keyboards) and Larry Brödel (vocals).
Manning’s concept is the dreams of a patient who’s in intensive care, suspended between life and death. Given the scenario, the songs with music by Arnold, Strassburg and Schmid are surprisingly uplifting for the most part in a melodic prog vein. The Gate sets the tone, an intro of ambient keys is followed by riffing guitars, bubbling synths, piano and fluid lead guitar runs. The melody is memorable with Schmid and Brödel exchanging lead vocals. Their voices are quite distinctive but gel harmoniously with Brödel sounding not unlike Phil Collins at times.
My Own Reflection boasts a ridiculously catchy chorus and a lyrical sax solo. A repeated piano motif in the instrumental bridge builds slowly with layered instruments to a powerful coda. First Love (A Lullaby) has an equally infectious choral hook and soaring guitar before playing out with another stirring finale, driven by busy, inventive drumming. The longest track, Get Up High is a song in three distinct parts. The first is a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar song with melodic sax fills. It pauses for a short, cascading piano solo modeled on the intro to Yes’ Awaken. From here on we’re in prog-metal territory with crunching djent riffs, a punchy organ sound and prominent bass. Another mellow, piano led instrumental bridge before concluding with ambient synths.
Bass and drums take time out for the delicate A Sign On The Road. Electric piano reprises the melody from the earlier song My Own Reflection, underscoring Schmid’s engaging vocal. A touch of keys strings, sax and acoustic guitar are the icing on the cake. The Wasteland - Home Again features another strong vocal melody, bookended by bubbling Jean-Michel Jarre like synths. The melodic, instrumental sequence with piano and 12-string guitar brings Genesis to mind. The (mostly) instrumental The Way Through? concludes the album in fine style. It’s centred around the tasteful, fretless bass playing of guest Robert Brenner (who like Arnold and Brödel is a member of Toxic Smile). Keys strings and ringing guitar provide a lush backdrop with sax playing a variation of the melody from First Love (A Lullaby). The final spoken words are from Guy Manning himself who leaves the story hanging on a note of uncertainty.
This excellent album is Cyril’s best yet and needless to say it’s highly recommended. The melodies are strong, the musicianship and production sharp and with a running time of a little over 46 minutes, you’ll find yourself reaching for the repeat button.
Gong - The Universe Also Collapses
The ever changing musical consortium that is Gong continue with their second album since the death of de facto head Pixie Daevid Allen. Now on their 37th line-up, the five current members - Kavus Torabi (vocals, guitar), Dave Sturt (bass), Ian East (saxophones, flute), Fabio Golfetti (guitars) and Cheb Nettles (drums) - are the latest musicians out of a total of 52 members that have graced Gong's stage and studio output.
Lyrically, the latest album is a reflection on the phrase "Remember, there is only now". This is incorporating the usual meaning of such statements of "living for the day". But it goes somewhat more towards the metaphysical interpretation of "the Big bang and the eventual collapse of the Universe and everything in between is all happening in the same instant: all we have is this and it is beautiful". Which may involve a degree more heavy contemplation than your average musical release and is a world away from flying teapots.
Happily, the musical consistency is maintained from the very well received Rejoice I'm Dead and Allen's swansong I See You, largely due to the near consistent line-up and the helmsmanship of Kavus Torabi.
Gong have always had a very distinct sound even though their albums are frequently dramatically different. The Universe Also Collapses maintains that fine tradition of the unique Gong sound from the very opening bars of Forever Reoccurring. The opening song is the longest ever to be recorded under the band's name with the second longest appearing just two songs later. However, it is the opening number that really displays a masterclass of how to build a song, starting minimally then gradually adding in different layers, be they saxes, guitars or bass. The ebb and flow of the piece is prime modern psychedelia. The second track, If Never I'm And Ever You, has a touch of the David Jackson-era Van der Graaf Generator about it although with less menacing vocals.
The second half of the album follows the blue print of the first with the 13-minute My Sawtooth Wake adding new dimensions to the Gong sound with the rhythm section in particular making their mark in a highly syncopated fashion. Undoubtedly the most adventurous Gong sound in a while with an undeniable overlap with Torabi's Knifeworld, which is not necessarily a bad thing! The album concludes with the more acoustic The Elemental, with the saxes maintaining the musical link to the other tracks and the lyrics providing a summation of the album's, if you will, concept.
The future of Gong certainly looks secure in the hands of the current incarnation. Who while staying true to the ideology and ethos of the original band's intentions are able to drive things forward in new interpretations of the group's musical heritage. Although I don't think the album displays Torabi at his best vocally, instrumentally there is nothing to which any Gong fan would object.
The Pneumatic Transit - Chordae Tendineae
This new The Pneumatic Transit album is a follow-up to their debut album, 2015’s Concerto For Double Moon which had an enthusiastic reception in these pages (review here) by me strangely!
Chordae Tendineae, which is the medical name for heartstrings, displays a growth from their debut. The band’s line-up remains the same, with Jeff Zampillo (guitars, Mellotron, devices) as the main composer providing the foundation, with the other band members' contributions adding their own personal style to proceedings.
There are just four extended instrumental tracks on Chordae Tendineae. Each track is self-contained, with its individuality expressed in different musical ways.
Atriums starts with a quiet intro of overlaid guitars and keys, growing with cello and drums. It builds its melody but avoids the post-rock build-and-release structure by breaking up the long track with an avant-metal section, before adding more overlaid guitars, cymbal washes and Mellotron and finally ending with a pounding heavy coda. This is the guitar track in this collection, and its constant, moving instrumental basis and its dynamic changes keep things constantly engaging.
It is sax and EWI maestro Carl Coan’s turn to shine on Casino Mouse. The engaging initial melody and arrangement has the touch of a John Barry Bond film soundtrack to it. As it develops, Coan’s horns come to the fore and it's the trumpet solo followed by a sax solo that just lifts this piece into the stratosphere. It manages to be jazzy but not jazz, with a hint of Miles Davis in his rockier explorations such as Bitches Brew or In A Silent Way. It ends with a great guitar solo from Zampillo.
There is something new for The Pneumatic Transit on Residual Sentience, as it takes a repetitive, minimalist approach similar to some of Sonar’s work. The minimalism is alleviated by the ebbing and flowing cello lines of Michael Ferraro and broken up by the most distorted, dirty-sounding synth solo I’ve ever heard from Waz Fox’s keyboards. This is a great track, with an arching symmetry to it.
Then, in complete contrast, you get very fast guitar runs introducing The Fountain and The Feather. It suddenly pauses for breath, before it launches an aural assault of thumping but still subtle drums from Michael Mirro, punchy guitar chords that alternate with fleet-fingered, jazzy runs on the fretboard. There is a Doors-like improvisation, with electric piano and guitar evoking wind-blown sand and parched landscapes. The heaviest track, it ends this multi-faceted album in fine style.
The Pneumatic Transit’s Chordae Tendineae is an adventurous and a little challenging, in that Frank Zappa way of not being comfortably categorisable. You know jazzy but not quite jazz, rock but unsettlingly left field, nodding towards classical elements but disruptively hyperactive. Everything the open minded prog listener might want. Have a listen, as you never know what you might discover.
Sonora Sunrise - The Route Through The Canyon
Sonora Sunrise is a Russian band from the Altai region, northeast of Kazakhstan, and relatively close to both Mongolia and the far northwestern parts of China. This is a region that is still largely unknown and misunderstood in the West. As they say Altai is a sacred land of ancient mountains that are still keeping secrets and old shamanic rites. I guess the listener can imagine the type of music the band is offering by reading this introduction: great atmospheres, space rock, some stoner rock touches and ambient music trying to evoke those deserts and mountains in Altai.
As that area is truly unknown by most of the west, one can instead think about those southwestern deserts of the US and Mexico. In fact Sonora Sunrise, or Sonora Sunset is also the trade name for an eye-catching red and green gem material. The original Sonora Sunrise material was found at the Milpillas Mine, located in the state of Sonora, Mexico. So there you have that connection between Altai and Mexican landscapes. Also the gem itself apparently represents the land, the green, and the sky by the red.
After this explanation the music the band produces is easier to understand and appreciate. This is an album to enjoy while being relaxed and getting surrounded by the atmospheres they create in order to start your Route Through Then Canyon. And the album starts with the atmospheric Ancient Stones (Sundown) including some female vocals. Now the listener is calmed and ready to start the route. Welcome to the Sandland goes next and it has all the good elements of space rock and ambient rock. Great guitar parts and space effects while progressing in to a hypnotic end. Unexpected Trip continues with the ambient style but this time you can feel a great improvised tune and very nice drumming. In fact, the band itself says they recorded the album in two days with all the members participating. After that they added some more guitars, rare synthesisers of the Soviet era and the vocals. Maybe because of this improvisation they called the song Unexpected Trip.
Poison starts with a moderate stoner rock rhythm and it´s followed by great guitars effects and synths. Things calm down again the end of the song and it finishes as it started. Great one. The we have another interlude called Ancient Stones (Uprise of Jupiter). At only fifty seconds it acts as an introduction to the last three songs of the album. Starting with Canyon its acoustic guitar and female vocals start softly and the increasing the tones during the song keeps the listener enveloped in its captivating ambience. Million of Snakes is a personal favourite: noisy guitar in the beginning giving way to a guitar solo over noisy and stoner guitars until the tribal percussions finish the song.
And now the surprise of the album. And a good one indeed. Easy-going acoustic guitar playing in Roadside Picnic, which I'm sure the listeners won't expect but it fits really well. The closing track, the third part of Ancient Stones (Planetary Standoff) finishes the album with synth work and clear tribal drums.
This is a very good album by Sonora Sunrise that deserves attention. It will be a great addition to progressive rock lovers who are trying to avoid complex structures and want more relaxed compositions on a summer evening. With The Route Through The Canyon they can pretend they are travelling through the desert. Really looking forward to their next album.