Reviews in this issue:
The Akku Quintet - Depart
The Akku Quintet is an eclectic jazz-prog group founded and led by composer and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli, whose other job is as the drummer for the minimalist post-rockers Sonar. With this quintet, he further explores minimalist grooves but in an atmospheric, prog-jazz setting.
The Akku Quintet’s Depart is their fourth release and was recorded live in the studio over a four-day period. The quintet is a quietly formidable unit and the music on Depart has the authority of a whispered order. They know, instinctively, that there is no need to shout.
The music on Depart relies on the subtle interplay of instrumentation over repeating phrases and rhythms, and the melodies are insistent in their jazzy intimacy. Imagine Soft Machine collaborating with Michael Nyman.
There is nothing on Depart that isn’t controlled; from the sonorous harmonies, to the intertwining and handing on of melodic and rhythmic lines between the players. On Largo you can follow the two competing rhythms that are established by Pasquinelli’s drumming and Maja Nydegger’s keys, that then melt together as Markus Ischer’s snaky, sustained guitar lines take the melody forward, before passing the baton on to Michael Gilsenan’s sax. The tempo builds along the way, as it explores a cracking jazz take on post-rock.
The rest of the album explores their singular musical world in a similar way. Made in China features a tuned percussion loop, a short bass solo from Andi Schnellmann and a guitar solo that threatens breakout of the controlled atmosphere and to go stratospheric. The title track has the sax taking the lead, as it moves away from a Soft Machine-like opening melody into some intense repetition.
On Depart The Akku Quintet have set out their stall as minimalist and eclectic jazz-proggers to great success. Showing themselves to be a group with exquisitely controlled chops. But just once or twice I wish they would just let fly. Hopefully that’s what they do in the live arena.
Iamthemorning - The Bell
Formed in 2010, Russian duo Iamthemorning have certainly struck a chord with the DPRP, with their first four albums (three studio and one live) receiving an average rating of 9 out of 10. The Bell is the fourth studio creation from the extraordinary talents of singer Marjana Semkina and pianist, keyboardist Gleb Kolyadin.
Recorded in Russia, the UK and Canada, with the exception of guitarist and recording engineer Vlad Avy, they are supported by a fresh team of musicians. Musically however, it will hold few surprises for those familiar with the previous albums.
In the words of Marjana: “Cruelty is the central theme of the album, together with all the different ways we respond to it and cope with it”. The beautiful cover artwork by regular collaborator Constantine Nagishkin, featuring a bell suspended above a grave, harks back to the Victorians who had an irrational fear of being buried alive. Musically, it’s described as a modern blend of rock, classical and folk, which I wouldn’t dispute although I would add 'progressive' to the list. Everyone’s favourite online encyclopedia also describes their music as ‘Chamber Prog’, but I think that’s a tad misleading.
From the first bars of the opening song, Freak Show, the listener is struck by the purity and grace of Marjana’s heavenly singing. In his review of the last album Lighthouse, DPRP colleague Andy Read likened her voice to that of Julianne Regan of All About Eve and there is certainly a similarity. Heather Findlay is probably an even closer comparison. I’m also reminded of Christina Booth of Magenta; not so much the sound of her voice but the phrasing and intonation. Given the lilt in her voice and the absence of an obvious accent, if you didn’t know she was Russian, you would swear she was of British or Irish descent.
Freak Show is a bit of an oddity in the context of this album, being by far the most mainstream rock-oriented, with a driving rhythm, distorted guitar solo and improvised saxophone. It’s probably the weakest tune on the album and as such a curious opener, although I rather like Avy’s classical guitar parts. In comparison, Sleeping Beauty, Blue Sea and Black And Blue are more stripped-back, with an acoustic vibe that allows the haunting melodies and Gleb’s exceptional, classically-trained piano playing to shine through. In that respect, the appropriately titled Sleeping Beauty is probably the album’s quintessential song with a gorgeous melody and a sumptuous piano solo.
Six Feet (which relates to the cover artwork) benefits from surging strings, courtesy of the St. Petersburg Orchestra "1703", whilst Song Of Psyche with its rippling acoustic guitar and plaintive theme is almost heartbreaking. The vocal and piano combination during Lilies put me in mind of Renaissance, especially Gleb’s strident solo around the three minute mark.
The album’s proggiest offering however is Salute, with an instrumental sequence that adds a touch of Mike Oldfield with trumpet, a soaring guitar solo and a tasteful synth and harp coda. The sparsely arranged title track, with just voice and piano, brings things to a serene close.
With its often gentle, thought-provoking songs, The Bell is a fine addition to the Iamthemorning catalogue. Although they occasionally spice-up the songs with a variety of instrumentation, including bass and drums, for me they are at their best with voice, piano and occasional acoustic guitar and strings. Judging by the venues on their tour later this year, they are popular in Germany, although music of this calibre has the potential to appeal on a universal scale and deserves the widest possible audience. Oh, and by the way Andy, you’ll be pleased to know that on several tracks Marjana sings right up to the very end.
Inventions - Logica
This is the third album from Dutch multi-instrumentalist Christiaan Bruin in his Inventions series. It follows in the footsteps of Meta (2017) and Curiosity (2018). He has also released several albums under the pseudonyms Chris and The Black Codex, as well as being a member of Sky Architect, Mayra Orchestra and Nine Stones Close. A fine pedigree and an impressive work ethic, I think you’ll agree.
He composed, produced and plays (almost) all the instruments on this album, aided by the inimitable Theo Travis (soprano sax, tenor sax, flute), the DOT Quartet (strings) and Andy Rowe (narration). In the words of Bruin himself it’s a “concept album about the deep links between mathematics, logic, language, perception, art and physics”. Musically it borrows heavily from early Mike Oldfield and King Crimson and Bruin’s husky and reverb-drenched singing adds Peter Gabriel to the equation.
The two longest tracks, Logica and The Sum Of All Things, give Bruin ample space to layer the instruments and build to a grandiose peak in true Oldfield fashion. If you can imagine Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge or Icantations incorporating Gabriel’s voice, then you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect. There is even a lyrical reference to Music Of The Spheres, the title of Oldfield’s 2008 album.
Three Worlds, Three Mysteries does it more concisely and without the singing, rising to a majestic climax. As a result, it’s probably the best and most self-contained track on the album. The compelling orchestral repetition evident on several tracks owes a good deal to Phillip Glass.
Bruin proves himself to be a very capable musician on drums, bass, keys and guitar. Mind Of God captures the spirit of early Crimson complete with Robert Fripp-style guitar noodling and Mellotron samples. For his part, Travis adds playful flute and melancholic sax to the title song and an extended solo during Citadels. The DOT Quartet are also a major asset, from the rhythmic Platonics that opens the album, to the heavenly strings during the concluding The Sum Of All Things.
It’s not all good news however. The drawn out, distorted guitar solo during the title track is so excruciating, one has to wonder what possessed Bruin to play it.
My main issue with this album however is the narration. It’s a distraction during tracks like Three Worlds, Three Mysteries and Citadels but at least it’s contained at the beginning, whereas during The Sum Of All Things the narration is a recurrent and in my opinion unwelcome interruption throughout the track. It’s not helped by the fact that Rowe’s voice has been compressed, so that he sounds like an announcer on an old 1960s transistor radio.
Criticism aside, this album has a good deal to recommend it, especially if you can’t get enough of Mike Oldfield or early King Crimson and have a penchant for the more orchestral side of prog. Whilst Bruin’s voice is an acquired taste, he creates rich musical textures, with recurring themes and timbres that give the tracks a unifying quality. The detailed and colourful cover artwork by Marcus Springer also deserves a special mention.
Jouis - Mind Bahn
A few days ago, I visited the allotment of old Uncle Joe. His goose-white snowdrop hair, avalanched and drifting, sported an unruly cap. The tattered cloth of the cap was worn crookedly, in a late night party style. It balanced precariously upon his mushroom-grey scalp. He raised his garden-vintage flowerpot hands. As he then greeted me with a clasping embrace, I noticed that his palms were large, pitted and gravel; dressed by the toiling of the hoe.
We chatted for a while about the merits of using nature alone, to create the stunning colours, plants and flavours associated with his plot. He was disdainful of Cousin Pete’s vegetables. In the adjacent plot, with the aid of industrial-sized supports, Pete’s crowded, over-sized beans stood ungainly, gangly and tall. He scoffed that chemical enhancers enlarged them and tasting them would reveal a bitter, cloying, unnatural aftertaste.
Our discussions soon turned to music. Joe will only listen to vinyl. Experiencing his weathered collection, full of hearty crackles, clicks and clacks is in many ways the antithesis of hearing music housed within a pristine digital wrapper. Joe likens the way in which sound can nowadays be manipulated and squashed to suit digital listening, to the way in which Pete’s vegetable plot is overgrown and artificially sustained.
His argument is a simple one. Joe asserts that: "A natural, organic sound is always going to be superior to anything that is altered and tweaked for a certain type of market, or anything that might be superficially enhanced."
Listening to Jouis' Mind Bahn is occasionally a frustrating experience, and there were times when its disappointing sonic qualities appear to bear Joe's argument out. Mind Bahn contains some wonderful tunes and the trio’s overall performance is excellent. Unfortunately, on occasions, much that is positive about this release, is disguised and lost in a dense mulch of sound that makes it seem as if much of the recording of the album occurred in a cluttered auditory space. Consequently, Mind Bahn is often sonically unpalatable.
In many ways, the choice of production values, mirror Syd Arthur’s Apricity. Like Apricity, Mind Bahn seems as if it was recorded with the intention of listening to it on a phone, or some other lo-fi device.
It sounds condensed and compressed and there is often a muddy quality to the mix. This is particularly in evidence when a larger range of instruments and vocal harmonies are involved such as during parts of Effloresce and during the Caravan and early Pink Floyd-esque meanderings of the otherwise excellent Wiltons Green.
One of the pieces that suffers the most from sporadic bouts of misplaced loudness, distortion and sonic disfigurement is undoubtedly Turtle. It is a well-crafted tune with some genuinely beautiful aspects and exciting instrumental parts, but the recording's inability to allow its individual components adequate room to breathe, frequently creates a narrow-based spectrum of sound, that at times is neither pleasing on the ears, nor soothing to the mind.
As if to emphasise this point, a well spun, more open, live version of this tune is available on Youtube. The live performance emphasises the beautiful melodies of the piece, but discards the condensed and narrow sound of the studio version. Compare it with the studio version and you will probably understand what I am trying to express. Nevertheless, Turtle is still in many ways probably the most satisfying composition on the album.
Not-withstanding my less than enthusiastic feelings about the album's overall sound, Mind Bahn contains many fantastic moments and offers many memorable melodies and fine instrumental passages. Trapped within the constraints of its sonic cage, yowling, scraping, biting and clawing to escape, a great album lies in wait. Tunes such as Sinking Stones, Turtle, Cloud Plough and Medievil have much to offer.
The release also contains some delightful acoustic tunes, where the mix is perfect and not an issue. Indeed, whenever the instrumentation and vocals are sparse, the album comes into its own. The acoustic tunes act as stripped-back, spacious interludes and offer a pleasing contrast to the squashed sound and busier style that is predominant in many of the other pieces.
Cat is a contemplative piano piece that hits all the right spots. Beachcomber is a lovely acoustic guitar and vocal piece that evokes memories of the pungent aroma of seaweed and the sparkling twinkle of wave-washed seashells, in strolls in and amongst the driftwood.
If a listener manages to persevere and look beyond Mind Bahn’s production values, there are many things to enjoy and admire. Not least of which, is Jouis' excellent and admirable knack of channelling a style that signposts a palatable mix of West-Coast-meets-Canterbury.
In this respect, Mind Bahn is a worthy successor to the band's clear-sounding and excellent debut album Dojo. Mind Bahn capably expands and develops the pleasingly melodic, laid-back style that was so fresh and captivating in that album.
Exquisite vocal harmonies reminding me of CSNY, Wishbone Ash and early Yes still lie at the heart of many of the tunes. A distinctive laid-back vibe pervades the album and this is skilfully juxtaposed with some heavier rhythms and strident instrumental passages. In this respect, the instrumental piece Medievil is a fine example of the band's prowess in creating a bone-shaking, head-nodding sound when the need arises.
In Mind Bahn, Jouis have once again succeeded in creating an album where jazz rhythms, psychedelic musings and lush vocal harmonies play a part. The album contains a set of ear-friendly and sometimes complex tunes that possess an ability to uplift the spirit.
It is such a shame about the overall sound quality. At the time of writing, Mind Bahn is available in two versions, as a digital download and as a vinyl. This review was constructed, using WAV files as the source material, so it is unlikely that any other formats will sound significantly different.
As I left the allotment, I found myself unable to resist the temptation to glance back and compare Uncle Joe and Cousin Pete’s vegetable plots and consider their approach to cultivation.
Pete's crop sported a canopy of unnatural leaves, defended by a phalanx of slug pellets. Consequently, the plants had little room to develop, or breathe. In comparison, Joe's patch was verdant, but sparser. It was obvious however, that Joe's plants were able to reach upwards, without the aid of supports and with ample space to express their beautiful foliage. His careful nurturing and conviction about 'what tastes best', had given his crop lots of room and many opportunities to develop naturally.
With this in mind, I could not help to reflect upon about how better Mind Bahn might have sounded, if the recording engineer, producer and band had cultivated the music in a different, more natural and organic manner.
Last Flight To Pluto - A Drop In The Ocean
Wales is famous for many things: Saint David, Mount Snowden, rugby, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, the location for the re-launch of Dr Who, and a few dragons to name but a few. But who would have imagined that Wales is slowly becoming the centre of the progressive rock universe? Could this be due to the involvement of The Doctor? Perhaps Torchwood should investigate? If the second release by Last Flight To Pluto, A Drop In The Ocean, is anything to go by, then this certainly adds a strong argument to confirm this theory.
Last Flight To Pluto are a relatively new band, who have quickly created positive waves within the progressive press. This was evidenced by the band being featured in the Limelight section, in the June 2016 issue of Prog Magazine.
The band's first release, See You At The End, was reviewed by DPRP in 2015, and received favourable comments from reviewer James R Turner.
A familiar name jumped out at me when I looked at the list of band members; namely Daz Joseph. After doing some research, I was able to confirm this was the same Daz who I had the privilege to meet and see play for Ezra, who were supporting Threshold at Rotherham in 1998.
Ezra were a band (surprise, surprise) originating from Wales, and who released three great prog rock albums between 1994 and 2006. They received a degree of notoriety by appearing on a BBC Radio One show, after a fan contacted the show to report that "Ezra were better than Better Than Ezra." Ezra were occasionally helped by Rob Reed, who added keyboards to their sound. Rob is the multi-talented mastermind behind Cyan, Magenta, and many more bands. He has recently released a newly recorded version of the Doctor Who theme, and is also, unsurprisingly, a Welshman. The connections continue to grow as Rob, after hearing a demo track by Last Flight To Pluto titled Masheena, not only asked to add keyboards to the track, but also signed them to his co-owned label, White Knight Records.
What Last Flight To Pluto have released with A Drop In The Ocean, is a diverse CD; delivering songs which are immediately memorable, and could easily be played on popular commercial radio stations. The band mix catchy choruses, with strong instrumental passages. I can hear influences from bands such as Marillion, Rush and Pink Floyd to name but a few.
What helps elevate this release to something unique, is the mesmorising voice of Alice Freya. Imagine putting Paloma Faith, Cyndi Lauper and the aforementioned Dane Shirley Bassey into a blender. Mix them together, then add a pinch of Janis Joplin, and this will give you an idea of what to expect from Alice's vocals.
The album consists of six songs, all between seven and ten minutes long, but they seem much shorter when played. There are so many things packed into most of the songs, but this does not feel overwhelming. The instrumental sections never drag, but draw you into a stunning aural extravaganza. During the quieter moments, Alice's voice takes you on its own wondrous journey.
Highlights are the previously mentioned Masheena, which starts with a driving guitar riff, that pulls you in, before the tempo slows prior to your first experience of Alice's voice. The harmonies on this track, and throughout the album, are exquisite, and towards the end of the song, there is a section which reminds me of an exert from Marillion's Grendel. Masheena is a great album opener with intelligent lyrics, and provides just the right introduction to the band, making you want to listen to the rest of disc.
The second track, Time And Love, begins with the driving duel guitars of Jack Parry and Ryan Barnard, who provide some stunning duel guitar interplay throughout the album. It sounds as though considerable time has been spent during the writing process, to maximise the duel guitars. Consequently, it will require repeated listens to fully appreciate the intricacies in some of the musical passages.
Coverland begins slowly, before the band kicks in, with an intro which reminds me of early Rush. This is due to the guitars interplaying with the bass of Lewis Kreft, before Alice lets rip, turning the song into something reminiscent of early PJ Harvey.
I could continue describing the high quality of the songs, but I hope from the comparisons with the eclectic range of artists I have mentioned, that you have at the very least, a feel of what this band sounds like. Ultimately, Last Flight to Pluto have a lot to offer anyone who decides to give them a listen.
Before finishing, I want to come back to Daz Joseph. He provides some truly inspiring, and exceptional drumming throughout the album. He is also jointly responsible for the high quality production, co writing all songs with Alice, and contributing keyboards. He truly deserves the MVP award, for his contribution to this release.
To summarise; I am sure if you give Last Flight To Pluto a listen you will be rewarded with something out of the ordinary. This, I feel, is due to the youth and enthusiasm, along with the eclectic sound of the band. Hopefully, they will continue to produce the same high quality music for a long time to come. After repeated listens, this release could well be in my top ten at the end of the year. I highly recommend you give this a listen.
So, what is it that's in the Welsh water that helps to produce such high quality, multi talented artists? If anyone knows, then bottle it, because you could make a fortune. Could it be due to the interference of a rogue Time Lord? Who knows, but if it is, we can all be thankful for choosing to add his magic to the wonderful world of prog.
Parallel Minds - Every Hour Wounds... The Last One Kills
Parallel Minds have taken some serious progressive steps since their debut album Headlong Disaster was released in 2015. The groove-metal influences, reminiscent of Sepultura and Korn sound vibrantly playful, whereas the trashy riffs sound superior, more intense, angry, and tight, often reminding me of Symphony X. Bonded by a new drummer and a recently added bass player, a concrete foundation has also been cemented for a more concise progressive speed/power-metal tour de force.
On full force, the powerful metal tracks display a quantum variety of riffs, hooks and technical bravery. In the title track(s) Grégory Giraudo (guitars) forges strong melodies and catchy riffs surrounded by impressive technically skilful shredding. Amongst this tastiness, vocalist Stéphane Fradet utters raging screams or heartfelt, sharp and angry in-your-face vocals (which in I Am C might take some getting used to). His overall melodic vocal skills are arguably less eloquent, sounding like a scruffy, harsh Jon Oliva (Savatage), falling short within a James Hatfield (Metallica) timbre.
The Savatage influence is apparent in just about every song, be it melodic, metallic or atmospheric, where regular sirens of pre-Gutter Ballet come to mind with a Taunting Cobras finesse. Frankly this aspect is what slowly lures me in. Tonight He Grins Again, a cover from the iconic Streets by Savatage is a solid, sound and decent version, though it lacks the dark, dramatic atmosphere of the original, especially from a vocal point of view.
Both of the epics, Syria and The 52Hz Whale, radiate Iron Maiden and foremost Queensrÿche making them the most progressive and bombastic tracks on the album. The full album version of Syria, featuring guest vocals by Kobi Farhi (Orphaned Land) and Yossi Sassi (ex-Orphaned Land), is a far superior version to the edited bonus-track, making that an unnecessary addition. The inserted touches of melodic hard-rock / metal territories on Amerinds, On Your Own and How, to the death metal cages within Kolyma, all feel natural in this powerfully raging album.
With Every Hour Wounds... The Last One Kills Parallel Minds have upped their game, where the strong Savatage bond and the slowly revealing differences on multiple listens pull it out of the obvious trashy heavy metal. In comparison to their debut, this is a more cohesive and a much better balanced effort. Despite its welcomed modern production it may lack the subtlety and refinement usually applied within progressive rock, but it’s food for thought to power metal fans with a taste for progressive savouries.
Seven Steps To The Green Door - The?Lie
When this release arrived in the post, I was surprised to find that in addition to the CD digipak (and press release) it also included a 48 page, A5-size booklet. Inside the digipak there is a note saying: “Please read full story The?Book / The?Lie before listening!” Needless to say, I gave the booklet (The?Book part 2) a courtesy thumb-through before playing the CD. It reads like a script for a play (or in this case, a rock opera) and whilst I still hadn’t fully grasped the story, it did not affect my enjoyment of the music in the slightest.
For the record, the concept is religious fanaticism and its effect on a family caught up in the actions of their zealous church leaders. It’s the second part of a proposed trilogy with the band’s third album The?Book (2011) being the first part. The Book in question is depicted on the cover of both albums, only on this latest, it's showing signs of wear and tear. Unusually, the band’s name doesn’t appear on the album cover and the title is very faint. If you're intrigued by the concept, both parts of the story can be downloaded from the band’s website. Given the time span between the two albums, it could be several years before the third part is released. (Some confusion is raised with the title being styled and spelled differently in documentation, Bandcamp titles, and artwork: The?Lie, The? Lie, and The ? Lie.)
The masterminds behind Seven Steps To The Green Door are the multi-talented Marek Arnold and drummer Ulf Reinhardt who both composed the music. The core lineup is Arnold (piano, organ, keyboards, soprano and alto saxophones, clarinet, seaboard, venova), Reinhardt (drums), Jana Pöche (vocals) as ‘Mother’, Lars Köhler (vocals) as ‘Samuel’, Anne Trautmann (vocals) as ‘Lover / Samuel's girlfriend’ and Stephan Pankow (electric guitars). They are joined by a host of guest musicians including Luke Machin (main electric guitars) and singers including Peter Jones. The narrative and lyrics are by George Andrade and the original story by Thoralf Koss.
The music veers from tuneful, melodic prog, to high speed prog-metal with some truly epic moments along the way, particularly in Heaven and the 10-minute closer Come To Your Father.
The singing is singularly excellent throughout. Köhler as ‘Samuel’ carries a good deal of the story (and singing) and is superb, whilst Jones as the ‘Father’ is a revelation, giving a histrionic performance far removed from his day job in Tiger Moth Tales. Both Pöche and Trautmann have beautiful voices, and the latter has an engaging duet with Köhler during A Dream That Strayed - II. To accommodate several characters in one song, there is also some impressive counterpoint singing, particularly in The Word Made Flesh and the 10-minute Hear My Voice Tonight. The latter also features an exquisite piano melody.
Arnold’s keys and sax playing is tasteful throughout, adding melodic fills where necessary to move the songs along and the occasional (and never indulgent) solo. Although the characters (and therefore singers) are listed for each song, the musicians aren’t, so it's not always obvious who’s playing on each song. With four electric guitarists credited, (Machin, Pankow, Andreas Gemeinhardt, and Jason Melidonie), staccato riffs and the occasional shredding solo are offset with some soaring flights of virtuosity. A fine example of the latter, appears during Come To Your Father which to my ears has Machin’s imprint. Along with Arnold and Reinhardt, he is also responsible for the arrangements.
There's no mistaking the violin playing of Steve Unruh, who provides a blistering solo during the metal-edged A Price To Pray - II. Michael Schetter as the main bass player does a sterling job throughout, and Reinhardt’s articulate drumming keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
With seven vocalists and eleven musicians involved, I realise I haven’t name-checked everyone but needless to say it's an ensemble work with stellar performances all round. My only gripe, and it's a minor one, is the spoken sections, especially the opening track AΩ - I (where Jones affects an American accent). Whilst I accept that they have a part to play in driving the narrative, personally I find them a distraction as far as the music is concerned.
Whilst I’m unfamiliar with the previous releases, given the reviews I’ve read and the quality of the music here, I’ll wager that this fifth album from SSTTGD is their best yet. It’s an ambitious and superbly executed project, with everyone involved rising to the occasion. It should appeal to prog fans in general and especially those who have a penchant for symphonic metal, the musicals of Clive Nolan or the concept albums of Arjen Lucassen and Ayreon.