Reviews in this issue:
Magic Pie - Fragments Of The 5th Element
Geoff Feakes's Review
This is the fifth album from Norway’s Magic Pie, which no doubt explains the title, Fragments Of The 5th Element. With five tracks, it remains numerically consistent and like the last album, King For A Day (2015), it concludes with an epic-length song. The line-up from that album remains intact; namely Kim Stenberg (guitars, vocals), Eirikur Hauksson (lead vocals), Erling Henanger (keyboards, backing vocals), Eirik Hanssen (vocals), Lars Petter Holstad (bass, backing vocals) and Jan T. Johannessen (drums).
For anyone familiar with their previous albums, there will be little in the way of surprises here, but that’s no bad thing. It’s a heady combination of melodic prog, classic rock and prog metal with energetic playing, memorable tunes, rich harmonies and big choral hooks. Band leader Stenberg is mostly responsible for the music, and singer Hauksson the lyrics. It’s not a million miles from the sound of Spock's Beard, although as you will see in my song-by-song appraisal below, it takes its inspiration from several sources and it treads that well-worn path taken by the more accessible, contemporary prog bands.
The Man Who Had It All is a powerful opening statement of intent. Clearly the band (or Stenberg at least) have been listening to Rush. The vibrant intro, with its crashing chords, is strikingly similar to the instrumental hook in Spirit Of The Radio, whilst the heavy guitar riff that follows, harks back to Tom Sawyer. An elegant piano sequence with layered harmonies adds a touch of Queen, as does the jaunty mid-section. The song also features inventive guitar and organ interplay and elements of prog-metal bombast that recalls Dream Theater.
P & C keeps up the momentum with its staccato riffs, chanted verses, a catchy choral hook and a shredding guitar solo.
Following an explosive intro, Table For Two moves down a gear or two. It’s an engaging, almost romantic song with another memorable chorus, superb guitar and synth exchanges, and a lyrical guitar solo to play out.
Touched By An Angel is the album’s least successful song in my view. It has power ballad aspirations, but the chorus is just a tad too melodramatic. Without the harmonies evident in the previous songs, Hauksson’s vocals have a rawness that’s curiously reminiscent of David Bowie. Otherwise it's a guitar tour-de-force, with Stenberg’s lengthy bluesy soloing, that opens and closes the song, bringing to mind Gary Moore and Parisienne Walkways.
Given the standard set by the preceding songs, especially The Man Who Had It All and P & C, expectations run high for the 23-minute closer The Hedonist. And for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint. As you would expect, they throw everything into this song including an ambient keys intro, bombastic instrumental sequences, a mellow acoustic guitar and keys interlude and a jazzy electric piano section. Bass and drums are suitably muscular throughout and Hauksson and Hanssen combine harmoniously for the powerful vocal sections. The Tangent, Haken and Neal Morse come to mind at various points; the latter especially in the finale which includes the inevitable histrionic guitar solo. Henanger’s synth playing is more subtle, and he wraps things up with a tasteful (and very Minimoog sounding) solo.
Although this album builds on a successful formula, Magic Pie are by no means resting on their laurels. Overall, the songs have more attack and a greater sense of urgency, the performances and production are sharper, the tunes more memorable. Evidence if need be that Sweden does not have a monopoly on the best of Scandinavian prog-rock.
Patrick McAfee's Review
There is something that is wonderfully nostalgic about Magic Pie's music. It harkens back to a time in the 70s and 80s when bands were releasing music that was grand, yet unpretentious. Deviod of the overly-heavy lyrical messages or cynicism of some modern releases, the music entertained and connected with listeners in a very basic way. I believe that is why so much of what was recorded back then is still extremely popular with today's audiences. In many ways, Fragments Of The 5th Element works in that same fashion.
That isn't to imply that there is anything frivolous about the album, as it is certainly well written and impeccably performed. In fact, it reminded me of some of the great 70s releases by bands such as Kansas, Deep Purple and Rainbow. Magic Pie certainly employs a harder, more modern rock sound, particularly on the opening duo, The Man Who Had It All and P & C. Overall though, the spirit of the album leans towards 70s rock and yet, the material sounds fresh and contemporary.
Table For Two is a very pleasant, straightforward rocker with an infectious chorus and Touched By An Angel impresses with its bluesy, Bowie-esque vibe. However, the calling card for most prog fans will be the 23-minute, The Hedonist.
Prog epics are hardly a rare thing at this point and some would argue that they are an overused staple of the genre. When done well though, there is still something thrilling about a long-form song. This one clicks a majority of the right buttons and definitely sustains its length in an enjoyable fashion. Suitably complex in structure, musicianship and production, The Hedonist is one of the better of the recent prog epics.
Magic Pie is not reinventing the musical wheel in any way, nor do I think they are attempting to. Unabashedly retro, their music works, essentially due to its old-school ability to entertain. Though I've heard all of Magic Pie's previous releases, none of them have resonated with me in quite the same way as this one. It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint all of the reasons why an album is a creative success. Fragments Of The 5th Element falls into that category, mainly because of just how enjoyable it is to listen to.
The Samurai Of Prog - Tori No Kaze
The Samurai Of Prog's seventh album is a musical tribute to Japanese manga/anime artist Hayao Miyazaki, hence the Japanese title of Tori No Kaze (winds of time). As usual with TSOP, the core trio of bassist Marco Bernard, drummer Kimmo Pörsti and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Steve Unruh are joined by a plethora of guests, some familiar from previous albums, some new.
Also in keeping with previous albums, the task of composing the music on the album has been delegated to guest keyboard players. The 12 tracks, spanning an impressive 75 minutes, includes five instrumentals that are congregated towards the beginning of the album, and each is fantastic in its own right.
A Tear In The Sunset kicks things off in fine prog style, with heavily orchestrated sections interspersed with delicate piano, flute and realistic string interludes. The overall sound is of a soundtrack for a film that has yet to be made. Hats-off to composer Octavio Stampalia, the Argentinian keyboardist who plays with Jinetes Negros. The piece also features contributions from Stampalia's bandmate Pablo Robotti and Kari Riihimäki on guitars, with French horn and trumpet being played by Marc Papeghin.
David Myers will need no introduction to regular TSOP listeners and with Fair Play he has achieved a pinnacle with a gorgeous piano melody accompanied by Unruh on flute and some violin. The brief piece is an absolute delight.
The piano of Alessandro di Benedetti introduces Zero, another accomplished piece of music that also ramps-up the symphonic elements with a variety of synths employed to add texture and tone.
Au Contraire, composed by Oliviero Lacagnina from early 70s Italian prog band Latte e Miele, also includes Papeghin's brass, which contrasts nicely with Unruh's flute and violin. Unruh is on the top of his game throughout the album, but particularly so on this excellent slice of dynamic and intricate prog.
The final instrumental, The Bicycle Ride, comes courtesy of The Ukraine's Antony Kalugin (Karfagan, Hoggwash, Sunchild, AKKO). It would have been absolutely perfect if it had ended at the 3'30" mark, as the last minute is rather superfluous and tends to meander waywardly.
These songs cover a wide variety of styles and tend to not have so many overtly progressive aspects, which certainly doesn't diminish their inclusion.
On The Never Ending Line di Benedetti, the only composer to contribute more than one piece, is joined by his Mad Crayon bandmate, guitarist Federico Tetti and Finnish vocalist Daniel Fäldt (Simon Says) whose impassioned vocals deliver a more reflective mood, enhanced by some smooth saxophone from Marek Arnold. Reality is written by Japanese pianist Yuko Tomiyama and sung by her mostly in her native language. The orchestration by José Medina (Last Knight, Mandalaband) is a perfect accompaniment, and the first vocal section in English could be straight from Solstice in their prime.
Glass Hammer's Alan Shikoh provides a tasty guitar solo to give the piece a bit of edge. I think that this song would have benefited from an edit, taking its leave after about eight minutes. Instead, the ending rather sticks out like a sore thumb and just seems to be an attempt to inject a few modern beats, that is not in keeping with the rest of the album.
Unruh gets to flex his vocal cords on Castle Blue Dream and The Spirits Around Us as he contributes lyrics to the music by Italian composers and keyboardists Sergio Chierici and Danilo Sesti, respectively. The first of these pieces is really a showcase for Unruh, as his vocal, violin, flute and classical guitar contributions are absolutely perfect. Arnold's sax also weaves its way into the piece which, as a whole, adds another layer to the album. It is one of those brilliant, indefinable songs that could only appear on a prog album and not seem out of place.
Electric guitars are back on Spirits... provided by Kenrou Tanaka from the Japanese group Interpose+ and Unruh's six-string foil in Resistor, Fran Turner. The song is like a symphony condensed into six minutes.
Nausicaä E I Custodi Della Vita is one of those pieces that I am never quite sure about. Are the child vocalisations an inspiration or an annoyance? Probably the latter, as they do detract somewhat from the excellent performances of Luca Scherani (keyboards and composer), Marcella Arganese (guitars) and Elisa Montaldo (vocals). The TSOP boys themselves are also notable for their distinctive contributions.
On Think Green, Michele Mutti (La Torre dell'Alchimista) keeps the spirit of ELP alive, while actor, singer and lyricist Michele Marinini continues the ecological message of the last UPF album to the fore.
Unsurprisingly, this is the progiest of the vocal tracks and is a very strong song (and that is in spite of rather than because of the ELP influences!). Pianist and vocalist Elisa Montaldo (Il Tempio Delle Clessidre, Vly) wraps things up perfectly with her lush composition La Magia è la Realtà, which also features an orchestration by José Medina. Once again Unruh adds his multi-instrumental skills, but still leaving space for Ruben Alvarez to add in a succinct guitar solo.
Tori No Kaze certainly provides value for money, as aside from a full CD of exceptional music, there is a packed 20-page booklet, a tri-fold outer sleeve and even a full colour inner sleeve for the CD. The always exceptional art of Ed Unitsky graces the booklet and the external faces of the outer sleeve, while, in keeping with the subject, the internal faces of the outer sleeve, the inner sleeve and first spread in the booklet are illustrated in true manga style by Alessandra Bernard. This is an all-round excellent package from exceptional musicians. In fact, the only thing I can really fault is that the CD sleeve won't close properly and lie flat!
Snowman - Inner Light
Snowman are a progressive rock outfit who hail from Portugal and have released their first recorded effort, an EP entitled Inner Light. They are influenced by such luminaries as Pink Floyd, Steven Wilson, and Opeth.
Given the baby noises towards the end of the opening track, Sophia, one can only assume that the title of the song is the baby's name. The guitar work is very good and reminiscent of Dave Gilmour or Steve Rothery. It's a short track, mainly instrumental with a strong melodic guitar solo, accompanied with underlying synth-pad sounds, and a Richard Wright piano-style piece towards the end. Even the short vocal has a Floydian sound to it. A good opening track that gets you interested.
She's Not There has Porcupine Tree and Opeth written all over it. Here the band flex their muscles and stray beyond the five-minute mark to give us eight minutes of prog. This certainly gets rockier and shifts up a gear or two from the opening track. Once again good guitar work but the choice of synth solo sounds were less inspiring and a little bit annoying in places. But overall the band show they can deliver extended forms of prog-based music.
Our Smile starts with a simple opening guitar riff before the rest of the band enters. I heard some Pendragon in there, with the vocalist sounding a bit like Nick Barrett in places. Once again the choice of some of the synth sounds for the background motifs and solos didn't quite do it for me, but the guitar solo work once again is very good. The song doesn't quite hit the highs as did the first two tracks.
Leave It All Behind starts with an opening piano, quickly followed by the rest of the band with catchy, pop-style guitar motifs. For once I did like the choice of synth solo sounds on this track. As with other tacks, the drumming and bass are solid throughout. Another good song.
Laura is a short acoustic guitar piece. Simple, heartfelt and honest, avoiding unnecessary ornamentations that would have cluttered up such a lovely melody. A beautiful piece and one that Steve Hackett would be proud of.
I did find it frustrating that the tracks, for example the opener Sophia, had such prog potential but don't go that extra mile and end up being short of four minutes.
Overall this is a great EP, albeit short at just 25 minutes of music. However, there is enough here to whet most prog aficionado's whistles and to keep an ear out for the band's first full length CD in the future.
This Is Not An Elephant - This Is Not An Elephant
Out of the vacuum that Munich’s prog scene has become, finally a new quartet has arisen, celebrating progressive alternative metal at a pretty catchy level. With a style that originates in the early alternative rock scene of the eighties, the band marries rock, grunge, and metal elements in a rather clever and spicy way.
Main man guitarist Andreas Krebs seems to have an endless source of riffs in his head, of which he uses quite many throughout this debut album. On a quest to avoid chord strumming and power chords equally, he creates a rather catchy, melodic guitar tapestry; one that is rich in its varying patterns, often supported by a down-tuned harmoniser to give the guitar a heavier edge.
Bass player Randy M. Salo diligently adds to the pulsating sonic picture by having almost the same amounts of notes on his sheet whilst supporting the guitar and Florian Wolf’s groovy drumming. David Kreisl rounds off the picture perfectly, by adding quite exceptional vocal lines and harmonies in a style that reminds me sometimes of Duran Duran's Simon LeBon and in other moments of Layne Staley of Alice In Chains.
In that way, the band has created an album in a rather unique style, consisting of nine varying songs that are catchy all the way through and never cease to entertain, even after hundreds of spins. On the contrary, whenever one ends up at the last note, the feeling of not having enough comes up. And by saying that I hope the band has a sophomore album on offer rather soon.