Reviews in this issue:
Aton Five - Solarstalgia
Five years and two EPs after their formation, this Russian instrumental prog / psych band have released their full-length debut album. Following a digital release in late 2018, the band signed with R.A.I.G. Records early this year who released the album on CD.
A combination of prog and psychedelic can come in many different variations. Aton Five are grounded in the heavy, blues-based rock from the early 1970s, which I tend to call progressive blues. Heavy on the use of keyboards and the obligatory guitar of course, and at the psychedelic end of the spectrum - think Cream, Hendrix and Mountain. But that's just the opening track. Then add a large dose of prog, both in the keyboard sounds and song structures, but do not stir! The elements have their own place on this album and are not mixed into a monotonous mush.
Journey sounds like a modern version of The Doors in some of their more accessible songs like Ship Of Fools, with the end section reminding me of Eloy. The Dreadnought lives up to the description of their sound in the press kit with the tag lines: 'proggy psych rock'.
Milky Way Incident features vocal samples and a Hawkwind-like opening that takes you on a trip and almost makes you feel like you've been in an accident. It's thoughtfully crafted though with changing structures and soaring melodies. Time sounds more modern, departing from the 70s sound and feel, and structure-wise ventures into more progressive territories.
Starting things slowly, The Endless Desert establishes an atmosphere appropriate for the song's title. You can almost sense the menace of a drought. There's also a bit of a Doors vibe here and while at first listen I thought 17 minutes was a tad too long, it started to grow on me. With some of the songs, I had to get used to the changing moods. The album is loaded with tasteful, multi-layered sections, alternating with swirling solos on keyboards and guitars, or both simultaneously.
A Chain Of Events has a modern-sounding keyboard solo, then a guitar solo in the style of Iron Maiden, followed by a battle between the two. It's an excellent rollercoaster ride of powerful riffs, keyboard-led melodies, and guitar solos. During the quieter sections there's some great bass playing, which made me realise that I wouldn't have minded the bass higher in the mix in the heavier parts.
Especially Milky Way Incident and The Endless Desert tell a story, with the titles aptly reflecting the sound, mood and atmosphere. It's a trip in the broadest sense of the term.
The first time I listened to the album, it seemed like a mixed bag of styles. But the common ingredients are variations in tempo, melodies, atmosphere, written parts and solos. The album never becomes dull and for me has exactly the right balance of heavy and melodic. Tasteful soloing on keyboards and guitar are handled by virtuoso players but their solo spots are never used for showing off. The careful sequencing of the tracks gives the album an excellent flow to experience and enjoy all of Aton Five's musical aspects.
Personally, A Chain Of Events is the highlight of the album, being the perfect mix of prog and psych with some great proggy and blues-based soloing.
Whether your taste is prog that likes to wander off into psych territory or is firmly rooted in psych with prog on the side, Solarstalgia is highly recommended. What a debut, what a trip!
Ciolkowska - Avtomat Proshlogo
Ciolkowska (Циолковская) are a young band originating from St. Petersburg in Russia. Formed in 2012, Avtomat Proshlogo is their seventh release. They're tagged as a Psychedelic Space Rock'band, but listening to this album, they offer much more than this tag would suggest. One surprise is the quality of the production on the disc, which gives each instrument clarity in the mix. This is even more surprising when you realise that the tracks are all recorded live.
The band are a five piece consisting of guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and most surprisingly, ukulele. But don't think you are going to be subjected to any window cleaning songs à la George Formby! Far from it, Aleysa Izlesa takes the electric ukulele and turns it into a unique musical experience, using it to add a harp like melody to the songs.
Ciolkowska's compositions take most of the tracks beyond the typical Space Rock formula. The tracks contain many musical twists and turns, engaging the listener and making you want to appreciate the full experience on offer.
Don't be fooled by the intro track, Map, which is a 19 second wall of sound overlaid with ethnic vocals. This is akin to a stark wake-up call, putting your aural senses on alert.
The first proper track, Earth, begins with a gentle guitar melody before the other instruments, including voice, come crashing in. Bass and ukulele then take centre stage with a dreamy section, before the other instruments return. While Ciolkowska have been tagged as a Space Rock band, one thing that is evident throughout is the energy the group generate.
The third offering, Thereabouts, introduces trumpeter Aleksey Gorshkov. His playing on this track is restrained, but sufficient to add a Jazzy feel to a slow and brooding track. Drummer David Aaronson sounds at times like a frustrated metal drummer, that is until he is allowed to properly let rip towards the end of Thereabouts. Here, he is afforded the time to demonstrate his obvious talent which also provides a unique ending to the song.
Two of the songs, Ceiling About The Prison Inside and About Lord And Buddha, are labelled as covers by Liompa and udUbrenje. But a gold star to anyone who has heard of either band being covered here. Both are apparently Russian Underground bands.
We Are From Jazz certainly lives up to its title. A wonderful jazz bass line from Vano Ayvazyan lays the foundation of an extremely accomplished six minutes of modern jazz with all musicians shining during the track. Not at all what I expected but it shows the bands versatility to its fullest.
108 contains an almost Hari Krishna chanting passage, during which the names of deceased musicians such as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix can be heard. I would assume that there is some significance here in that most of the musicians named died aged 27. I tried to find a connection between the numbers 108 and 27, but so far, I have failed. (Editor's note: The song is titled after the sacred Hindu number, 108).
To say this album surprised and entertained me would be an understatement. I just hope that any further ventures into this undiscovered genre will be as rewarding. If you want your senses to be challenged, then you would find it hard not to find something on this release to enjoy. It's a long time since an album I've listened to has oozed the youth and energy that radiates from this release.
Jordsjø - Nattfiolen
Norway's Jordsjø are a new name to me and I must say I haven't been as excited on hearing a band for the first time since I witnessed Wobbler play at NEARFest several years ago. Which is very appropriate as there are definite similarities between the two bands. Taking cues from the prime years of melodic, symphonic progressive rock with folk tinges, Jordsjø create their flowing, dreamy soundscapes using plenty of analogue synths, Hammond organs, Mellotrons, piano, flutes, guitars (acoustic and electric), jaunty bass lines and lashings of melody.
What is surprising is that all these instruments are played by one man, Håkon Oftung, who also has the temerity to have a fine singing voice. Still, it's not a completely one-man effort as Kristian Frøland handles drumming and percussion duties. Having said that, Ouverture is a flute and piano composition and Septemberbål is an acoustic guitar solo, neither piece having any requirements for a man hitting things.
Vocal sections are actually quite brief which leaves plenty of room for the song melodies to breathe and for playful excursions of timing and tempos to develop within the musical framework. For example, Stifinner contains the full gamut from quiet acoustic guitar passages to louder and brasher sections where everything is let loose. Superficially, there are areas that invoke memories of Focus, no doubt the combination of flute and Hammond triggering the musical memories. The wind instrument plays a lead role more akin to that played by Thijs van Leer as opposed to the more strident attack of, for example, Ian Anderson.
Solens Sirkulære Sang, the album's highlight for me, has a marvellously mellow electric guitar part in the opening section before a beautiful chordal transition takes us into a mesmerising instrumental section that repeats and builds with Frøland's varying fills emphasising the important role he has in the band. The closing couple of minutes takes on some post-rock elements increasing with intensity as it goes along.
The closing three tracks all offer top quality variations on the earlier pieces with Mine Templer II presenting Frøland at his best, Til Våren providing everything a prog fan could ask for in nine minutes and Ulvenatt closing things out instrumentally with a fine melody that rivals Camel at their best. Oddly enough, the album's title track didn't make the cut for the album. While the high quality demo of the track Nattfiolen (available from the group's Bandcamp page on a name your price basis) does display some stylistic differences to the album pieces, some of those could, if necessary, been smoothed over in the final recording. Or they could have been edited out as the piece has a running time four and a half minutes longer than the lengthiest album track (and if you can't do the maths, the demo is over 13 and a half minutes in total!).
Still, at forty minutes, the album is perfect as it is, and a great pleasure to listen to.
Pedro Marques - Building Walls With Sound
After developing songs over several years, Portuguese multi-instrumentalist Pedro Marques released his first album early this year. Building Walls With Sound is heavily instrumental, although Pedro sings on a few tracks. Apart from the drums on a few songs, Marques handled all the instruments on the album. Guitar stands front and center most of the time, but the drums, bass, and keyboards are all top notch.
Marques is an excellent guitarist, and his riffs, shredding, and solos really drive this album. At times the album is rather heavy, although it never really reaches metal. For the most part, the music is quite upbeat with a positive sound to it. The guitar tone is smooth, which makes for an enjoyable listen. Who needs vocals when the guitar can do the singing?
In addition to the electric guitar, several songs also have acoustic touches. The end of When The Bullet Bites The Wall has a nice interplay between piano and acoustic guitar. The next track, the shorter Magaptera Coelestium, features a more traditional sounding Spanish-style guitar.
On Your Mind features the most singing and lyrics, and Marques proves that he has a great voice in addition to being a talented musician. The song is about a man who has a normal job by day but works as a government assassin by night.
The album is available only digitally, but it comes with a nice PDF booklet that has liner notes for each song. I found it very nice to read a bit about the stories Marques is telling through the instrumental songs. I wish all instrumental music offered this. It brings another layer to the music as a whole.
Overall this is a very strong album. The instrumentation is very well done, which makes for a very interesting and pleasant album. Even though vocals and lyrics are very sparse, they are well done when utilised. Hopefully, there will be even more of them on future albums. This album should appeal to most prog fans; the music varies from the more complex and aggressive to calmer and more sedate moments. Hopefully there will be more to come in the future from Mr. Marques.
Moon Letters - Until They Feel The Sun
Welcome to "This Is Your Life"! And a grand applause to our hosts on this evening's fantastic voyage: Moon Letters!
That's the vision I have when listening to Until They Feel The Sun. For if there is an album which sums up many of my childhood affections and passionate explorations and findings in music then this is the one. To elaborate, I must mention that we grew up being constantly fuelled on music by a mentor who devotedly fed, nourished, tweaked and polished our small community with a wide variety of inspired seventies music. It was around 1980 and it ranged from hard-rock and metal to AOR and progressive rock, with everything in between. He also provided our first encounters with neo-progressive bands like Pallas and Marillion, still in the early stages of their careers, and managed to warm our hearts to bands like Lynx, Kansas, Saga and Styx.
In between this musical journey we tried to find precious gems ourselves. Individual discoveries we immediately spread amongst our group, being so exceptional they needed to be heard by all. As it turns out, it proved to be a long list of melancholic records, with some still to be found on my desert island list. Obviously accompanied by a great many more, discovered in the years that followed, circling and hovering above, attempting to find a landing place. They were albums with a marvellous display of talent and musicality, whilst being adventurous, comforting and unique.
Each has a distinct sound and corresponding feeling or memory attached to them. So trying to categorise and explain this complex palate is therefore nigh on impossible. Or so I thought. I swear I don't recall ever having conversed with any of Moon Letters' members, but they still come awfully close to expressing my upbringing with Until They Feel The Sun.
Having only been around since 2016, Moon Letters originate from Seattle, which is the place to be right now with organised events like the Seattle Seaprog festival. It's also the base for many new prog bands including Moon Letters. Along with Michael Trew on vocals and flute, they consist of John Allday (keyboards and vocals), Dave Webb (guitar), Mike Murphy (bass and vocals) and Kelly Mynes (drums and percussion).
Ambitiously, their first album is a concept telling the bittersweet tale of a man falling in love with a Selkie, a mysterious, mystical, elusive creature from the sea with the ability to bond with, and morph into human form (and back again). This romantic fairytale is beautifully captured through many layers and deeply touching lighter movements while heavier elements express the inner turmoil of the relationship. And thankfully these struggles are many, for it's the heavier passages where Moon Letters excel.
It begins with an enchanting instrumental overture Skara Brae, locating the events near the islands in the Orkney region of Scotland, coincidentally the birthplace of one of my favourite whiskies. Great melodies with a seventies symphonic feel reveal themselves with a distinct Yes feel (circa Close To The Edge) and a vintage, melancholic production. It suddenly changes to a heavier prog approach with short prog-folk insertions.
Divine, Genesis style flute appears in On the Shoreline, which I would also associate with Neuschwanstein, a band that captured my heart. Superb bass lines and keyboards follow, while guitar gently caresses with elements of Steve Hackett and Starcastle. Trew's vocals, sounding sad yet cheerful at the same time, enhance the melancholy feeling.
Trew's vocals are pleasant, appealing and a delight to hear, reminiscent of a tuneful Druid and Sebastian Hardie. His expressive vocal range hits all the right notes, managing to capture the feel and mood of the concept. One can feel the excitement or agonising pain of the character through the lyrics, most evidently in the exquisite serenity displayed in What Is Your Country. It's a wondrously, mesmerising acapella track filled with enchanting harmonies, carried forward by sparse drums.
With Beware The Finman, the delicacy gradually turns into a more adventurous style of prog. A sudden outburst breathes fire into a Jethro Tull style landscape during their Stormwatch and A prime. A refined touch of Ian Anderson style flutes are enclosed in a highly dynamic and musically complex structure, filled with riffs and breaks. Midway through, modern sounding synths sparkle and heavy prog picks up with fleet footed, virtuous drums before slowing down into a symphonic coda. With an emotive John Petrucci-like (Dream Theater) guitar solo, the song bombastically finishes in grandiose Transatlantic style.
The rhythm section of bass and drums throughout is joyous, laying down complex structures with constantly changing chords and shifting time signatures, comparable to that of King Crimson. It's more in the region of Thick As A Brick era Jethro Tull however with a wonderful display of refined musical structures that's both alluring and soothing.
During Those Dark Eyes, dark elements of Pain Of Salvation pass by through harrowing vocals, with flying Moog giving a seventies feel, containing delightful touches of Tull and Yes. It intensifies with superb interplay and keys into a more contemporary, uptempo neo-prog sound which reaches a peak in the haunting epic Sea Battle.
Here, we soar into dark territories with constant mood changes and elements of Queen with complex rhythms superbly executed. Delicate passages alternate with rockier segments and psychedelic keys, with Gentle Giant and UK like interplay on guitar, bass and drums. This overwhelming wave of moreish prog, in combination with the beguiling vocals of Trew, similar to those of Brad Love (Aviary) here, could have lasted me a lifetime. It continues with blasting organ and happy movements (à la A.C.T. and City Boy) containing emotive guitars, ending in a sea of melodic hard rock with shades of Nektar.
The spine chilling The Tarnalin provides excellent glimpses of a Beatles inspired Aviary with piano and meticulous Queen like harmonies. Dramatically driven by marching drums and mournful trumpets, the song ends on a blissful, intimate note. The brittle, emotionally charged acoustic interlude It's All Around You gives way to the album's biggest surprise in the form of The Red Knight.
On this majestic track, Moon Letters raise the bar higher with perfectly executed vintage keyboard driven hard-rock / AOR. The combination of heavy melodies, harmonies, Moog, rocking riffs and complex prog passages oozes a sumptuous flow of early seventies Kansas with traces of Rose's A Taste Of Neptune. Interlocking solo's, ever-changing rhythm breaks and frequently climbed scales drive this highly contagious, entertaining and dynamic track onward, resulting in tears of happiness.
To round off the concept, Sunset Of Man begins with enchanting flute, gradually recalling Genesis. Spacious keys morph into graceful Anima Mundi style symphonies (à la The Way) before spiralling into strong, up-tempo folk rock. Here Webb shows his guitar skills for one final time, making Martin Barre look pale in comparison. Aqualung like hooks juggle with Frank Marino style technique to finish this prodigious saga on a high.
Moon Letters' debut album has all the makings of a classic. 35 years ago, it would have been shared instantly amongst our group of music devotees, embracing it and spreading its existence to others. It's a fulfilling throwback to the greatest moments of rock from the seventies, filled with progressiveness and has a foothold in today's music scene.
The comparisons made in this review are just a fraction of the influences to be heard on this wholly satisfying album. With each turn, delicious and unexpected surprises occur. It even manages on occasions to spark fond memories of Netherworld's In The Following Halflight, an album that's been on my desert island for a long time.
Any day now, Until They Feel The Sun will plot its course, to fly alongside Mystery and Dilemma above my desert island. Perhaps I should build a control tower and a landing strip to keep things organised and create some way of descent. Until that occurs, I'd advise everyone to listen and hear for yourself the beauty that lies within this album.
Ruphus - Ranshart
Karisma Records, home for current Norwegian progressive rock bands from such as Airbag, Bjoern Riis, Magic Pie, Oak, Tusmørke, and Wobbler, continues the re-issue of Ruphus' catalogue of studio albums. Following New Born Day, this is Ruphus' second album, originally released in 1974. Using the original master tapes, re-mastering was again done by Jacob Holm-Lupo, also known for working with White Willow, for example.
The comments in the CD booklet are not shy of calling Ranshart "The best Norwegian prog rock album released in the seventies" and "the closest any Norwegian band came to the majestic expression that Yes and Genesis were known for in the 70s", with Ruphus being "no less than a Norwegian counterpart to Yes." The author responsible for these comments calls himself a "fan and friend", hence, one can assume a certain degree of subjective euphoria - but all in all, he is by no means wrong.
The line-up on Ranshart is different from the one on the preceding album, although the musicians are not listed in the CD booklet. Such information would have been useful on account of the fact that Ruphus' line-up continually changed with all six studio albums released during their career which lasted from 1972 to 1981. The text in the booklet does mention that on Ranshart, Ruphus shrank from a septet to a quintet after Hans Petter Danielsen left the band and they replaced their two former vocalists Gudny Aspaas and Rune Sundby with Rune Oestdahl. A comparison with my LPs revealed that the four musicians remaining from the first release were Kjell Larsen (guitars), Hakon Graf (keyboards), Alex Nilsen (bass, flute) and Thor Bendiksen (drums).
Not only in terms of their line-up, but also musically, Ruphus changed its focus in the early period of the band's recording career several times, before adopting (and keeping) a jazz-rock influenced style which began with the third album. The heavy organ-driven, slightly psychedelic style of New Born Day, reminiscent of Atomic Rooster and Birth Control amongst others, developed into a more symphonic, progressive rock approach. In my opinion, this is probably the Ruphus release that comes closest to early Yes (where I fully agree with the statement in the booklet) and to what other, more contemporary Scandinavian progressive rock bands such as Anglagard and Anekdoten were doing some 20 to 30 years later. As such, I found the music altogether a bit more melancholic and soft.
As is often the case with symphonic prog rock, keyboards play a prominent role. Compared with the first release, the spectrum of keyboards played expanded, with Hammond still dominating, complemented by piano, Mellotron strings and an increased dose of synthesizer, especially evident on Back Side. In my opinion, losing the dual male/female vocals had a somewhat detrimental effect on the quality and variety of the vocals on this release. Rune Oestdahl's voice is not as distinctive as the combined efforts of his two predecessors.
Not surprisingly, the strongest parts can be found in the only instrumental Pictures Of A Day, for me, the best piece of music Ruphus wrote during their career. It's very 'Scandinavian' (i.e. somewhat melancholic and gloomy), with great Hammond, crisp Rickenbacker bass and extensive flute soloing providing a haunting, goose-bumps inducing melody (sometimes also found in the work of Focus). This track is by far, the most scratched part on my LP due to repetitive plays, and 40 years after buying the LP, I still love this song. Even more now because I have the benefit of the excellent sound quality and perfect mixing of this reissue.
Is Ranshart an improvement compared with the first release? Well, I'd rather call it an evolvement. Apparently, Ruphus were in search of a distinctive musical style in the beginning of the band's career (the frequent line-up changes might have been both the cause and effect), and as such they were suited to please the varied musical tastes of their listeners. This release is for those that admire the more symphonic elements of prog. The slightly weaker vocals are the downside of this release which represents the roots of Scandinavian progressive rock. That should, however, not discourage any listener from giving it serious consideration when enlarging his or hers musical portfolio to include melodic, retro-sounding, well-played, symphonic progressive rock.