Reviews in this issue:
The Aurora Project - Grey_World_Live
Let's start with the good news first. The release of Grey_World_Live by The Aurora Project coincides with the 35th anniversary of Dutch record label Freya Music. Having started in 1984 and re-vamped in 2002 this record label has substantially grown over the years, with many divisions now shared under the Dutch Music Works moniker.
Focusing on Dutch progressive rock, the label includes bands like Sky Architect, Tumbletown and Skylake along with alternative/metal orientated groups such as Autumn and Semistereo. To celebrate its birthday in style, Freya Music opted to organise a concert on the 11th of May 2019 at De Cacaofabriek in Helmond. The Aurora Project, in the midst of recording their fifth album, agreed to play a one-off gig for the occasion and took the opportunity to launch their new live album Grey_World_Live.
Having played a small club tour following the successful release of World Of Grey, they recorded the final night's performance at Parkvilla Theatre, Alphen aan den Rijn (Netherlands) on the 7th of April 2017. A venue with fine acoustics and an intimate setting, where the audience is seated, it allows for a different approach. They thoughtfully used this to their advantage by incorporating a few surprising acoustic tracks in their set. Captured in an authentic way, Grey_World_Live proves to be an honest representation of the band at that time in their career.
By the time that this small club tour had ended, The Aurora Project had crafted into a well-oiled machine. Each musician excels, and the interplay and interaction between each member is spot on. With Rob Krijgsman on bass and Joris Bol playing drums, the rhythm section is solid. Playfully, yet forcefully the two of them build a firm foundation for the neo-progressive compositions, on many occasions reminiscent of bands like RPWL, Galahad and Arena.
Marcel Guijt adds bombastic layers, supportive keys and refined piano, while the expressive vocals by Dennis Binnekade enhance the dark theme of the music accordingly. Without favouring any of the players though, it's Remco van den Berg on guitars who steals the show. Melancholic solos, strong riffs, intense rock or delightful blues and slide guitar like David Gilmour; you name it, he plays it magnificently throughout, lifting the music as a result.
With World Of Grey (read the review here) as a red line, The Aurora Project work their way through a strong set of fan favourites, some of which are only available on the digital version of this album, which entails the full concert. The renditions, when compared to the studio versions have gained power and strength as evident in Stone Eagle and Deadly Embrace. Expect Us and Warmongers, incorporating lovely Rush influences, immediately grasp and captivate after the appetisingly-subdued and melancholic atmospheres of opener Circles In The Water.
Nocturnal Lament, performed in a semi-acoustic arrangement fits the setting perfectly, which can also be stated for Alles Is Een. Beautifully reconstructed, the latter is a rather unique version of The Event Horizon from their debut album, being sung in Dutch for the occasion. The acoustic execution, in combination with Dutch lyrics pulls it way out of prog's boundaries and into pop territories like Van Dik Hout, a band I never in my life thought of referencing here at DPRP.
Gradually, during the concert each member overcomes his diffidence and confidently showcases their individual qualities, thereby lifting superior compositions like World Of Grey and Dronewars. Each track is performed as good as the next one, with a delicious neo-progressive Pallas and Marathon feel to it. No wonder they were asked to do some encores.
On a sad note, I must mention this concert was filmed, but not deemed good enough to be issued as a DVD release. Hopefully their single unique performance of 2019 is recorded and will have a different fate, to become another momentum to The Aurora Project's quality and Freia Music's milestone.
In case you were wondering on the bad news: there isn't any! This album rocks and is a heartfelt, truthful registration of a solid performance by The Aurora Project. Strong deliveries, excellent recitals of their material and with surprises to boot. Assured listening if you like atmospheric, melodic neo-progressive rock with influences by the aforementioned bands and groups like Porcupine Tree, Marillion and Saga.
A perfect compilation for discovering their music or, when already acquainted, a delicate liquorice for long-time fans awaiting the new album. A recommendable effort and therefore congratulations seem in order to both Freia Music and The Aurora Project!
Blå Lotus - Högtid
Blå Lotus are a Swedish band consisting of Fredrik Andersson (Hammond and Farfisa organs, Mellotron, synths, electric piano, flute, vocals), Linus Karlsson (bass, theremin, random sound effects) and Wiktor Nydén (drums, percussion) who formed in 2016 and have previously released Tube Alloys in early 2018.
Inspired by old-school progressive bands, the trio set about to create "a fulfilling soundscape equipped with just bass, drums and Hammond organ". One might immediately think of ELP as a comparison but that is not really the case, as this Swedish group have less classical pretensions and more jam-based riffs. Naturally, as the sole lead instrument, the compositions are dominated by the organ, especially as Andersson is also the main composer.
Interestingly, two of the songs, Pagan Solstice and Unreal Estate, date back to Andersson's previous band in which he played guitar (quite the talented individual), but have been rearranged to be more suited to the organ. It is admirable that the group decided to completely forego adding any guitar to the pieces, to enable the songs to be played live without having to draft in any supporting musicians; although the flute embellishments may prove difficult for Andersson, whilst simultaneously playing the Hammond.
There is a definite encapsulation of 70s prog, and the overall sound is a lot fuller than one would imagine from the line-up. Full use of the broad Hammond soundscape is utilised and a real pagan spirit is achieved on the opening track by cleverly giving the vocals a more ethereal treatment.
The variety of riffs used throughout the opening number, continue on the instrumental Open Hand On All Fours accompanied by a jaunty melody, some great sounding drums and an extended organ solo. Unreal Estate features more flute, although it is sometimes obscured by the organ, and has a more folky character, with more spaces in the instrumentation and, overall, not so heavy as the previous two tracks. Another great solo from Andersson in the middle of the track keeps the ears pinned open, without ever losing the essential character of the song, particularly when switching from Hammond to synth.
The start of While You Were Asleep resembles the start of a hymn, probably owing to the switch to the Farfisa organ as lead. It is a slower number that doesn't really come over as well, particularly in the vocal department, and retains rather too much of a jam element, as opposed to being a more structured and considered piece.
Gånglåt is, apparently, an old Swedish marching tune, or at least a variation on one, as it would be pretty difficult to march in any orderly manner to the Lotus rendition! A nice piece of music nevertheless.
Apparently, Summer Demons, the longest track on the album, started out as a two-minute piece in the vein of a Neil Young folk song, something that is not at all evident from the finished composition. It is a very engaging piece of music that offers up a lot throughout its running time. The lighter synth solo is a nice deviation away from the organ riffing, although said riffing is still evident in the background. The album closer, Rats'n Brats, is an excuse for the band to indulge in their rock and roll fantasies, letting their hair down, creating havoc and overloading fuzz boxes. A fun piece to end proceedings.
The reception of Högtid will come down to whether the listener is a fan of the Hammond organ or not. As a lover of the instrument I found a lot to like on this album, even if the sound was somewhat muddy and lacking in dynamics. It is not a huge departure from the debut album, so if you liked that one, you'll also find favour in this one.
Broken Parachute - Living Dangerously
Way back in 1997 Danny Chang (Pink Faries, Patto and Just Good Friends), along with some like minded musicians including Rob Reed (Magenta) and Andy Edwards (Ezra) joined together to compose an album of songs paying homage to some of the bands of the 70s that had influenced them. To make the sound more authentic it was decided that Rob, who played keys on the release, would only use vintage keyboards. The result was the self titled The Fyreworks album, and for me this is one of my favourite albums of all time, one I return to regularly. It should have been massive, but was received with luke warm reviews from the Prog-press of the time. Looking back I still can not understand why The Fyreworks is still looked upon with a degree of aloofness, and is not today considered a classic.
Jump forward 22 years and Broken Parachute, to my ears, have tried a similar approach with their latest release, Living Dangerously. The press release that supports the album claims that they have taken a mixture of classic rock, à la Deep Purple and Yes, jazz, blues and something modern, to produce the sounds on this album. Additionally I certainly hear a lot of Pink Floyd, and nods-a-plenty to the bands The Fyreworks paid tribute to such as Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator and Jethro Tull.
Don't be fooled into thinking that with all the previously named bands you'll be listening to something stuck in nostalgia; far from it. One thing which Living Dangerously has a-plenty is amazing melody, mixed with choruses which you'll have repeating in you mind for the forthcoming weeks. I can hear touches of classic 80s and 90s pop bands, such as Talking Heads and Duran Duran.
All of this produces a very eclectic mix, but thoroughly enjoyable. Marcus Taylor (guitar, bass and percussion) is an excellent guitar player. While he can produce Gilmoresque guitar solos, he has a heavier guitar sound than the one usually associated with bands who have Pink Floyd leanings. He can also shred it when the mood needs and provide some spectacular riffing, which provides a contrast to the album's sound.
Ben Bell, who is becoming a prolific name in the prog world at present (being a member of both Gandalf's Fist and Fusion Orchestra, along with his own solo project, Patchwork Cacopheny), provides keyboards, bass and vocals on the album. Ben's playing compliments Marcus' guitar throughout, both having the time to shine, but also providing memorable textures along he way. Ben demonstrates his understanding of the Hammond organ, producing some solos reminiscent of John Lord and Rick Wakeman. Listen to Bad Politics, and you'll think you've discovered an unreleased Yes track, not just for the keys, but also the guitar which is very Steve Howe.
The album epic track, Devils, weighing in at over nine minutes, begins in laid back mood, before a chorus which reminds me of Stevie Windwood, due to Ben Bell's excellent vocals, before entering Frank Zappa territory with a suitably chaotic instrumental section. There is then a zany Dr And The Medics sing-along section, before Ben lets rip with his voice, now sounding like John Waite.
Mention must also go to the album's drummer, James Chapman, who on the track Lines, shines with his jazz strokes, driving along a very King Crimson type track.
This is a very impressive prog release, and one which should cement Broken Parachute's place as one of the bands to watch for years to come. Marcus and Ben should be extremely proud of what they have produced and lets all hope this is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
The Gift - Antenna
Eric Perry's Review
The Gift have been on the progressive rock scene since 2003, formed from a (then) partnership between vocalist Mike Morton and Leroy James on guitar. A shared desire to work on a progressive rock project, has in time grown to become a gigging six-piece band with three albums under their belt.
Antenna is their latest studio release and represents a shift in direction, with a self-declared, streamlined sound that moves closer towards a more radio-friendly classic rock; dabbling less in the long-composition prog elements that helped form the basis for the group in the first place.
There are still a couple of lengthy tracks featured within, and it is clear the band have not abandoned these structures entirely, however for the most-part the tracks range from four to six minutes. If this was the thrust of its design, then the album hits its mark, as this is where the band are strongest.
Unlike earlier releases, The Gift have been less successful with the longer pieces, evident on Changeling where the transitions between musical passages over its 10-minute runtime could have been smoother. The overall effect, between some of the harder and softer moments, feels frustratingly disjointed and clumsy. The input from an external producer could help the band potentially to develop the flow, and better weave together the joins in the melodies. In this instance, with Changeling, there is a great five or six minute song in there, trying to get out.
And this is in fact the story of the album as a whole. There is no doubt that there is evidence of great song writing, combined with some superb musicianship and endearing passages of music, which is impacted somewhat by the production, specifically the levels within the mix on vocals and drums.
Issues with the production are none-more-evident than on the exposed treatment of Morton's voice on the opener, We Are Connected. What stands out is the lack of harmony represented on the majority of the album to support his vocal capabilities, which is a shame as there is no doubt that when it is used, it proves to be very effective. The catchy Back To Eden provides the best example of layering on the vocal passages and this lifts the track into one of the better pieces on the album.
The more significant issues with production are the drums, and more so the percussion levels. The sound of 16th's on the high-hat should not be overly obvious and demand your attention above the keyboard or guitars. Likewise the drum sound is too significant throughout much of the album, dominating the listening experience. Not to get too myopic about the mixing, there are times when it comes together pretty well too.
In terms of the most successful moments on Antenna, these are the acoustic pieces such as Snowfall, Hand In Hand and When You Are Old. The delicate intricacies on these numbers really do shine through beautifully. Morton's voice feels more at home on the quieter pieces, which play better to his range and emotional timbre.
Of the rockier numbers, the Thin Lizzy-tinted Wild Roses is the standout song. This track underlines the feeling that comes with Antenna, that there is a great deal here to enjoy, and for the most part it isn't that progressive; in turn proving that 'old school' rock still has legs in the 21st century.
The Gift have chosen with their fourth outing to occupy a space which isn't that clear or well defined. Are they on the progressive rock fringes or are they mainstream rock? Either way you cannot help but admire their purpose, which seems to say they just want to make their own music without having to be one or the other. There is no envelope-pushing with Antenna, it is (mostly) straight-ahead rock which should translate well into a working band show. And in times of closing venues and a lack of support, their intent should be applauded all the more. If they plan to reach a bigger audience, they need to move beyond the small production values presented here and focus on their strengths.
André de Boer's Review
The Gift's fourth studio album has been three years in the making and follows Why The Sea Is Salt, (reviewed by Mark Hughes here). The band took it serious, decided to make a switch and created Antenna. A switch to the time we live in. Hence also rockier. A very good and apt choice.
Antenna turns out to be a splendid mix of rock, classical influences, typical highly appreciated The Gift prog and more. Attending their London release show in June underlined their sheer joy, the love of music and enthusiasm this band, album and stage presence echoes. You can feel it and hear it. So please read on.
So, we've got the renewing songs to begin with. Let's start with the opening track We Are Connected right away then. A solid song used to meticulously add a rock feeling to The Gift's original sound, addressing the future. And it works perfectly, this song sticks in your head because of it's tempo and lyrics. Oh, and I can tell you it's hard to get it out of your head again! Wild Roses is another catching rock track that fits the scene. Especially contagious if played live! Closer, the closing track, mixes in all styles mentioned before, working up to a guitar driven splendid apotheosis!
Beside that there are some great sensitive songs on board. Back To Eden follows a recognisable prog road, Snowfall is the most sensitive love song on lost love ever written, When You Are Old obviously addresses everyone's future, Far Stranger being the more 'heavy' sensitive one referring to artificial intelligence and robots. Hand In Hand certainly is one of the most pure and intimate instrumental guitar songs I know, played by Dave and Stef.
Of course you can relate some of the tracks to The Gift's earlier successful albums. And there's nothing wrong with that, on the contrary. The band managed to lift it a tad in order to make the music penetrate your ears and skin for some goose pimples! My favourite pick is Changeling, a song of epic ten minute length. Full of changes, percussion, guitar and key extravaganza's. A brilliant piece, maybe even the ultimate prog song around to date.
A special note on the band's keyboard and keytar player Gabriele Baldocci because of his rock contribution next to his classical piano existence. A special note on singer Mike Morton for writing much of both lyrics and compositions. For cool bassist Stef Dickers keeping it all together and also for playing acoustic guitar. For Neil Hayman being a drummer avant la lettre. For Dave Lloyd and Leroy James for their excellent rockin' and riffin'.
I fully second The Gift's own slogan: Masters of modern progressive. The band has delivered a very strong album with all songs resonating for a very long time, pushing you to play this brilliant Antenna again and again. Did I say it is addictive? It certainly is, The Gift turned into the loveliest rock-dealers on earth! Highly recommended, only one click above to try.
North Sea Radio Orchestra, John Greaves & Annie Barbazza - Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom
Laying my cards on the table, I have never been a fan of Robert Wyatt. I find his melancholic, tremulous falsetto, that alternates between anguished and vulnerable, difficult to get on board with. Although, to be fair, he sounds like no-one else. Some of my friends at school (yes a very long time ago) were fans of his and so I heard quite a bit, but never warmed to his music, distracted as I was by his individual vocal style and raging teenage hormones (probably).
So, with the North Sea Radio Orchestra's (NSRO from here on) re-imagining of Wyatt's 1974 album Rock Bottom landing in my inbox, I thought that this would be the ideal way to revisit his music. And, Wow!, I'm so glad I did. But first some more background.
NSRO main man Craig Fortnum chose to arrange works by Robert Wyatt for a concert during the Musiche Nuove a Piacenza Festival in Italy. Subsequently they went into the studio to record the concert as live. With pin-sharp sound and mixing, it allows all the colours of the NSRO's players to shine with exquisite detail throughout Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom. Along with the complete Rock Bottom there are also four other Wyatt songs as bonus material, but unlike a lot of bonus material these four feel essential as well.
Joining NSRO for the concert and recording, on bass and vocals, is John Greaves of Henry Cow and National Health, whilst lead vocalist Annie Barbazza also contributes Farfisa organ. She is a protégé of Greg Lake who signed her to Manticore records and he produced one of her releases. With apologies for the lengthy pre-amble, I'll move on to the music.
The first six tracks on Folly Bololey follow the original track listing of Rock Bottom. Sea Song opens proceedings, but instead of the drones underpinning Wyatt's original, you get the warm, enfolding timbres of NSRO's chamber orchestral instrumentation.
Fortnum's arrangements are mini masterpieces throughout. Here strings, vibes, bassoon and acoustic guitar lead you in to Wyatt's singularly strange world. Its gentle melody calls forward Annie Barbazza's wonderful, smoky voice that can dip into a surprisingly low register at times. She relates well to Wyatt's often strange, lysergic lyrics that compares his love interest to various marine creatures, and easily makes them sound like her own work. By the end of the first track NSRO had won me over to Wyatt World.
Wyatt's jazz background pops up lightly in the percussion on A Last Straw, as the bassoon leads the melody. Here ex-Cardiacs William.D.Drake's piano adds sparkle and he duets with Annie B, adding yet more colour to this album. The duets continue on the up-tempo folk rock of Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road with its beautiful vibes and bass. Here John Greaves also adds his honey-drenched Welsh accent, as he recites the mad poetry at the end of the song.
The centrepiece of Rock Bottom are the twin tracks Alifib and Alifie. The first is a love song to Wyatt's long-term love, the poet and painter Alfreda Benge. Slow-paced with shimmering strings, vibes and breath used as a gentle percussive beat, it gives way to bassy atmospherics under its surreal lyrics. This segues into Alifie where the song is radically reworked in a modern classical/jazz way, with a pinch of avant-garde craziness which manages to overcome my avant-phobia.
Graves' bass, Fortnum's guitar and a martial beat close the reworked original album, with the weird poetry of Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road. Given that the original album is 45 years old, Folly Bololey makes it sound modern and timeless. Don't ask me how, but it just does! If the NSRO's album finished here it would be terrific but there's more.
The bonus tracks, from different parts of Robert Wyatt's career, take this release up another level. From 1975's Old Rottenhat, NSRO cover The British Road and make it sound like the British classical composer Vaughan Williams' setting of a quietly political lyric. Its folk melody mixes with a systems music-style pulse to make this is a beautiful slice of left-field pop-prog.
NSRO move on to 1997's Shleep's Maryan, which has a breathy and delicious vocal from Annie Barbazza and is a fantastic piece of chamber pop. Then they cover Robert Wyatt's last hit single Shipbuilding. This version of the Elvis Costello/Clive Langer song, written for Wyatt, is the one that most resembles Wyatt's original. I think this is due to Craig Fortnum's lead vocal, but it would be hard to make a mess of this fantastic song, and the NSRO's strings give it an added sheen of melancholy.
They finish the album with O Caroline from Matching Mole's 1972 self-titled debut album. This lovely track, with its falling melodic refrain, is sung by John Greaves whose voice is achingly world-weary. A triumphant end to a triumphant album.
The North Sea Radio Orchestra, John Greaves & Annie Barbazza: Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom has made me appreciate Wyatt as a songwriter and is in danger of making me revisit Wyatt's originals to see what my school friends were banging on about all those years ago. But in the mean time Folly Boleley is just the best thing I've heard so far this year and it will be playing repeatedly in the Burns household. I love this album.