Reviews in this issue:
Aerostation - Aerostation
While listening to this record by Aerostation, and writing down words and feelings associated with the music, one word kept cropping up, modern. I then got to thinking, because I feel it is modern, will other people. And will they hopefully listen to this great work, also feel it is modern? As I looked through the bands I had listed, I had a bit of a conundrum. Hardly any of the bands listed where modern in terms of age, at least one is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. So, how can music which reminds me of bands decades old be classed as modern?
So, off I went to try and discover what the term modern music meant. I soon found the definition which describes Aerostation's modern approach. This being “reinterpreting older categories of music, innovations that led to new ways of organising and approaching harmonic, melodic, sonic, and rhythmic aspects of music”. While being wordy, this best describes what Aerostation have achieved with their debut release. I just hope my description does the music the justice it deserves.
Aerostation are a new Italian band, but don't let the word “new” lead you to think you are embarking on listening to a group of young enthusiastic musicians taking their first steps into a life of music. You would be far from the mark. Leader of the group is Alex Carpani, an almost legend in Italian progressive music. His musical journey began while he was a school classmate with Keith Emerson's son Aaron. From this early age Alex has had an immense interest in progressive rock and a deep love of keyboards. His list of collaborators reads like a who's who of the progressive world, and includes David Jackson (VDGG), David Cross (King Crimson), and eminent peers of the Italian progressive royalty including PFM, Le Orme and Osanna. I could continue providing details of Alex's accomplishments, but the link to his website above will provide you with further details should you wish to discover more.
Joining Alex (who plays keyboards, sings and produces) in the band is Gigi Cavalli Cocchi, a highly respected drummer, who readers will mostly know for Mangala Vallis. The bands 2002 release, The Book Of Dreams, received a large amount of exposure, receiving extremely positive reviews. The final member is bass player Jacopo Rossi, who has played bass in a number of thrash and extreme metal bands over recent years.
You may notice from the instruments listed that there is not a guitar mentioned. Well yes that is correct, but let me give you advance notice, any ELP references are confined to one song. This being the albums instrumental track, Long Distances. This is due to the ultra pomp of the track with its driving rhythm section, allowing Alex Carpani to deliver some majestic keyboard sounds, which reminded me of Fanfare For The Common Man. The song transitions through many distinct phases, but is always dramatic, engaging and entertaining. Now we have the ELP reference out of the way, on with the rest of the disc.
The albums short introductory track, Voices, could be easily likened to Rush's Countown, due to the lavish keyboards, interspersed with sampled commentary from the lunar launches, among other things.
Wide Eyes And Wonder is an up tempo track whose opening riff immediately assures you that you will not be missing the guitar at all. Alex's voice is reminiscent of John Mitchell's, and some of the album tracks would not be out of place on some of John's projects. The chorus here gives you a clue that melody and hooks are important in the songs of Aerostation.
Straight To The Sun starts like a Muse track, before leading into a song which reminds me of the bastard child of Gary Numan and Asia. You need to hear this to understand, and this neatly confirms my earlier comments about sounding modern.
Fourteen Days Of Lightness is more laid back, with a latter-day Genesis sounding chorus, where you realise what a great voice Alex has. The track is driven along by the rhythm section, and it enables you to appreciate what Gigi and Jacopo add to the bands overall sound. It is certainly not just an Alex Carpani solo album.
Coldness gets us back to the big bombastic sounds which could be Ultravox, with the songs hooks reminiscent of Midge Ure at his best. The keyboard sounds used on this track are stunning, making the sound so immense. This proves that Alex's ear for production is as amazing as his keyboard playing and song writing. Some people are born with far too much talent, but I'm glad to have discovered Alex's over generous gift.
After the previously mentioned instrumental, Long Distances, we are treated to The Arrow, where I am still trying to work out whether it is the keys which gently introduce the song, or bass harmonics. We are then led to a funky verse and chorus, which again harkens back to the great British pop bands of the 90's. Listen to this and feel totally uplifted. This is just glorious.
As The Ghost Bride begins, you have to check that there is no guitar, as the keys sound so much like one. Jacopo produces a great bass solo before the song builds from a mellow backing track to the pop prog sound, which only Muse seem to currently produce. For a song only 5 and a half minutes long, it transitions almost as many times as Suppers Ready, here Alex's voice reminds me of Peter Gabriel. Gigi's pounding drums shine, before the song closes with a Tony Banks like keyboard passage.
From Day To Night is another poppy rocker, with the chorus sounding almost grungy. The way the musicians combine here is akin to 90's Rush, no one outdoing anyone else, all providing the melody which keeps the track solid, and if any part were removed, the song would collapse into nothingness. This is song writing at its best.
The penultimate track, One Billion Steps, at last allows you the opportunity to breath, with a mellow keyboard intro. This does not last long before the drums and bass gets your adrenaline pumping again. A proggy number, utilising sampled rhythms which allow the song to build towards a stunningly bombastic ending.
All too soon we get to the final track, Kepler-186F. An intriguing title, which is the name of a planet, 582 light years from Earth and of a similar size and thought to possibly be habitable. We are treated to a powerful closing instrumental, in the same vain as the opening track, again featuring sound bites relating to the lunar missions.
After nearly fifty minutes the album left me breathless. At times it felt like a nostalgia trip, and other times like I was listening to something completely new. Something... modern.
The whole album is based around space travel, and the artwork accompanying is as high a quality as the music. The front cover features a haunting astronaut image. The graphics inside the booklet all relate to the development of space travel. This fittingly compliments the music.
If you are after some big pomp prog, then you will be hard pushed to find an album of this quality this year. This album amazes, uplifts and energises the listener, making you wanting to travel the space ways in Areostation's company, and you will repeat that journey many times once you experience the music delivered here.
Constellia - Secret Garden
Constellia was founded by Max Enix, a vocalist, composer and keyboarder from France. Despite a multiple and abundant social media presence of the band, I have not discovered where exactly he hails from, but I suppose he is based in or near Colmar in Alsace.
Secret Garden is the first release of what he calls a "project". Max has been active with various bands and projects over the last ten years and, according to his information, has now found the "good moment" to accomplish "a more ambitious and personal project" with this release. For this purpose, he has gathered around him "professional musicians who already played in many other bands": Cedric Kick Mells (drums), Sébastien Dubail (guitars), Luciana Silversong (vocals), Francois Koehler (bass - otherwise calling himself Franz Ka - a deliberate allusion to the German blues/kraut rock band Franz K. or not?), and Evi Anton (keyboards).
Apparently, Max Enix is contemplating line-up changes for forthcoming releases and live performances. Keyboards and guitar will be taken care of by Matthieu Spehner and Tony Mastromatteo respectively in future and Vincent Mornas (strings, violin) already is part of the live line-up to diversify Constellia's musical spectrum.
Describing Constellia's music, let me start by again quoting the statements on the band's website: Secret Garden is meant "...to propose you an alternative rock music to the borders of progressive music tainted with pop music corresponding to an all new musical universal poetic, mysterious and futuristic at the same time." So far, so good. Max Enix mentions musical influences ranging from Michael Jackson and Robbie Williams to Era, Enigma, Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, Opeth, and Anathema, amongst others. According to my impression, the (symphonic) progressive metal fraction of this list is the one with the most noticeable presence.
Having listened to this album quite a few times, I tend towards classifying it as a mix of (neo) prog, AOR and (symphonic) progressive metal. The neo prog element becomes manifest especially in the way the keyboards are used: predominantly layers of strings and gentle piano arpeggios, mostly as intro of the songs (almost every song opens that way), no organ, close to no soloing. Overall, not totally unlike the harder parts of Pendragon. The progressive metal influences are evident in the abundant use of the guitar and the way the riffing and soloing are done.
The singing, especially in tracks such as The Mask of Innocence (Outro Finale) and Candle Of Hope the latter one reminding me of Within Temptation and other female-fronted bands of that kind, that mix of slowly sung words with fast guitar riffing (eg. in Angels Forest), provides for the symphonic character of the progressive metal parts.
Overall, the music avoids much complexity (with less than 5 minutes per song on average, there is not much room for lengthy technical extravaganzas or building-up complex structures). Thus, everything stays at a somewhat more simplistic level musically and structurally than most of the bands mentioned as Max Enix's sources of inspiration.
In return, the songs are dense, compact and catchy upon first listening, and that's where the AOR nature of this release becomes apparent. The Ocean Of Dreams, my favourite track, is a good representative of that, along with Tree Of Life which could have been from Asia (without John Wetton's charismatic voice though). Shining Star, on the other hand, reminds me of French band Drama, and other songs do as well.
In all fairness, Constellia's music has not left a long-lasting impression with me - not yet. I found the song structures to be a bit too similar throughout, and, but that is a matter of taste, lacking complexity and diversity. What I liked is the accessibility of the music, its catchy melodies, the harmonious interaction of piano and guitar, and, above all, the spirit of optimism, enthusiasm and forward looking attitude, which becomes apparent by going through Constellia's social media presence.
This healthy dose of enthusiasm, coupled with line-up changes already taking effect and envisaged (eg. the inclusion of a violinist) should allow the band to tap its full potential. Those listeners who prefer their prog in a "mild" form with AOR characteristics and easy to digest prog metal elements may already give this release a serious chance. In any case, it will be interesting to follow Constellia's development.
Dizzy Mystics - Wanderlost
You got to love it when a band offers a debut album stating that they are influenced by Tool, Primus, Frank Zappa and Steely Dan with additional info of being chock full of psychedelic flavours. Spicy simmered in funk and surrounded by a dash of metal and receiving appraisal online mentioning "Primus drinking wine with Rush on acid". A fierce cocktail which enhanced by a deeper glance at the quirky spaced out artwork makes you proverbially toss the handbook on prog out the window.
The wine reference even throws you further off guard. For is it a white refreshing Sauvignon, crisp and fruity, oozing delicate refinement making you think summer's up? Or is it a Shiraz; bold and ferocious and packed with peppery meatiness. Or could it be a fizzy bubbling experience, sparkling with cheerful joy and frivolity? What about a majestic blend of earthy Pinot Noir and liquorice Viognier whilst dancing in the moonlight with jam-sumptuous Black Muscat. Either way, some of these amalgamations might give some insight into the versatility and complex nature lying within the full-bodied music in Wanderlost's glass.
Dizzy Mystics is essentially multi-instrumentalist Kyle Halldorson on vocals, guitars, bass, mandolin, tambourine, shakers and Djembe. Aaron Edgar is the only other musician supplying drums, yet still the overall feel to the music is that of a full band at work. The live band (and most likely the most recent harvested formation of Dizzy Mystics) consists of guitarist Alexandre Joyal, drummer Jeffrey Laird and bassist Aaron Bacon.
One undeniable aspect is the funk orientation of the material, justifying the Primus association instantly. The compositions in comparison to Primus are more accessibly song-structured, with a Red Hot Chili Pepper's attitude. A good example here is Letter, which starts with nice semi-acoustics and heavy rocky counter-rhythms while funky Californication folk-grooves interact with slight bluesy freakiness. Several songs later The Anti Dream ups the anti with hard heady funk-rock in Glen Hughes style (Return Of Crystal Karma), adding roaring bass lines, strong vocals and in the end section softness of Rush.
Rester (Analog Chameleon) adds a smooth, soft and subtle Merlot-note with shards of Dixie Dregs-fusion, and much the same as Shindigjig, which adds an appealing country shuffle featuring solid riffs and tight drums reminiscent of very early seventies Rush. The complex interacting harmonic vocals and eclectic instrumentation even places it in a line dance with Yes's Soundchaser. The short, sweet appetizer The Frequent See, Consistent Seas that follows cleans the palate and is a well structured composition with a luscious Max Webster feel to it, instigated by sophisticated soft and complex Zappa-esque rock. An appreciated familiar bouquet experienced quite frequently on other tracks as well.
Besides the seamless intertwining slightly aggressive guest vocals on uptempo grunge/west-coast rocker Diamond Duller (Kelsey Halldorson, Gerrit Delaquis and Paula DaCosta), it is Halldorson handling all the vocal duties. And he does a good job of it, like for instance in Jaunt; an musical uptown funky version of Enchant-like progressive rock featuring tuneful vocals. Fallasophy and The Scythe Pendulum Swing are even highlights in this respect, where his voice reassuringly reminds me of Ted Leonard (Enchant) but more in a Xen - 84000 Dharma Doors kind of way, the alternative crossover prog project by Enchant from 1999.
Analogue to a seductive liquorice ice wine, Fallasophy spine chillingly shifts through waves and splashes of interplay and flavours, flirting with flashy guitar and a constant drive laid on by fussy bass and rolling drums. Personal favourite The Scythe Pendulum Swing starts out groovy while incorporating a mellow jazz swing, before shifting into a laid back section with great jazzy guitars. The intense organic rocky ending adds another earthy burgundy sunshine to the wine-list.
The wine galore is the epic Wanderlost which is equal to a warm energetic Cabernet Sauvignon. Technical riffs, melodic rhythms tripping with a rocky psychedelic syrupy middle section, additional acidic highlights and dynamical finish. All textures and bold flavours experienced thus far are frequented one last time, ending this flight in vintage port surroundings filled with fresh tantalising progressive metal aroma's. A smooth and succulent long lasting finish to a tasty album.
If you feel like having a glass yourself, by all means be my guest. The music has the capability of refilling it automatically for you, giving of lots of flavour and pleasure on the go. Though unlike a normal wine tasting where you start with white and gradually build up in flavour and complexity towards red, Dizzy Mystics pour at random. The mouthwatering properties yielded this way is a dynamical hectic, complex, versatile, busy yet exciting tingling superior cru.
Surprisingly even over time a matured recipe of Steely Dan uncorks so most references actually apply, though I still have to find an opener for Tool. It's just a question as to whether you cautiously sip and taste the music, or gulp it down admiringly with the foresight of a slight hangover? Either way, Dizzy Mystics can pop the champagne and toast to a satisfying release. Santé.
Scott Lawlor - Atom Heart Mother
If you were to ask a Pink Floyd fan to name their favourite album, it probably wouldn't be Atom Heart Mother (abbreviated AHM from here on). Although the album reached #1 on the UK charts, it was, at best, a transitional effort from a band struggling to find a new musical direction following the breakdown of leader Syd Barrett. AHM's cover art, the photo of a cow staring blankly at the camera (a Holstein named Lulubelle III), certainly signalled an abrupt change in direction from Barrett's psychedelic pop. But to what exactly, "cow prog"?
Listening to the original Pink Floyd AHM suite, it's easy to hear how the track could benefit from a modern reworking. The sound of the piece, for starters, is often muddy, and the tempo uneven. This is surprising, since the album was recorded in EMI Studios (renamed Abbey Road that same year), with then-state-of-the-art 8-track technology, Alan Parsons as co-engineer, and long-time Beatles engineer Norman Smith in his usual role as Pink Floyd's producer.
The AHM suite itself was little more than a few musical themes, with the working title of The Amazing Pudding, when Pink Floyd handed it off to avant-garde composer Ron Geesin to complete while the band went on tour. Geesin augmented Floyd's plod-rock sound with a brass section, a vocal choir, and a cello. He painted the suite's two main themes in sharp contrast. Theme A (let's call it Father's Shout from the movement in which it first appears) burst forth with brassy, staccato bluster, while Theme B, Breast Milky, featured a plaintive solo cello. David Gilmour's slide and blues-based guitar wove in and out, providing in retrospect the clearest hint of the Floyd's future musical direction, and for me, the best moments of the original piece.
Sitting down to listen to Scott Lawlor's electronic re-imagining of the AHM title suite, I found myself wondering if Pink Floyd's AHM was a sub-par musical effort that was only made marginally interesting by the addition of studio musicians? Or was AHM actually a hidden gem of composition foreshadowing the Floyd's best work to come, a "Dark Side of the Moo", if you will, but dragged down by classical instrumentation that was, fortunately only briefly, fashionable at the time?
Leaping forward from 1970 to 2019, Scott Lawlor, a remarkably prolific keyboardist and ambient composer, revisits the title suite of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother as it approaches the 50th anniversary of the original album's release.
Immediately, it is clear that Lawlor does not feel bound by the original piece. For one thing, the 24-minute suite is expanded to 46 minutes, so by all means, grab a comfortable chair. And while the Floyd version began with a Geesin-written brass introduction leading into the urgent brass statement of the Father's Shout theme, Lawlor declares his intention to highlight the melodic side of AHM by opening with the melodic Breast Milky theme. His keyboard playing of this sad but beautiful melody is more fluid than the original cello, and it's very easy to slip into a relaxed mood.
After setting a soothing tone with the melodic theme, Lawlor touches very subtly on Geesin's brass intro before bringing in the "band". His synth or sampled drums, guitar, and bass make their entrances, and all, especially the bass and drums, are refreshingly clear and well-defined. Surprisingly, nothing about the guitar sounds disruptingly artificial, and Gilmour's slide guitar is nicely emulated.
After 12 minutes, the sound of a tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, enters and adds an expansive world-music flavor to the sound. At this point, I forgot all about the hired EMI musicians awkwardly sight-reading pages from music stands in 1970. The piece builds into a semi-climax at around 16 minutes, when the Father's Shout theme finally enters, but with only spacey synth chords and no brass melody, maintaining the pleasant vibe.
The next 18 minutes of the suite are mostly abstract and of little musical interest, until eventually brass keyboards, a restatement of the Father's Shout theme, and other themes are gradually reintroduced, with the piece settling soothingly into a sustained E Minor chord.
As an aside: this minor chord ending is a welcome change from the Floyd original, which shifted jarringly at its end from E Minor to E Major, the minor-to-major-third chord shift known in classical music as the "Picardy Third". The Picardy, or "Happy Third", is a longstanding tradition in classical music, even pre-dating Bach, and perhaps began as a way to give a darker, minor or modal piece a happy conclusion, like the ending of a bad Hollywood movie.
Scott Lawlor's AHM suite, though unnecessarily drawn-out in the middle section, is a relaxing way to revisit the 1970 Pink Floyd track. By sacrificing the contrast between the instruments in the original arrangement, Lawlor highlights the melodic side of AHM. The liberties Lawlor takes with AHM may bother Floyd purists, but if one can accept that this is a work of inspiration rather than recreation, it's a 45-minute journey worth taking.
The quantity of Lawlor's output makes me think he can't invest a lot of time into each release, and some of the choices he made for AHM seem to confirm my theory that he's playing mostly by ear and not getting deep into the compositional details. Thus, my earlier question about whether the possible brilliance of the composition of AHM could be revealed with a modern arrangement will remain unanswered for now.
Those familiar with the original version and open to a more mellow spin will likely enjoy Lawlor's Atom Heart Mother. And ambient fans will get to hear some of the quirkier side-notes from the Pink Floyd legacy, re-imagined by Lawlor after nearly 50 years.
Lead Inc - Mirage
Lead Inc began as an instrumental group back in 2014, with a keen interest in exploring the "contrast between sluggish sounding parts and a focus on ambience", according to their Bandcamp page. Their sound further evolved from this light and dark idea to incorporate more progressive elements when vocalist Naomi joined, bringing in some soul-influenced vocals. It sounds like quiet an interesting mix, so with that in mind I dove into it.
Album opener Alice has an interesting grove to it, it can easily be seen from this how the band started as an instrumental group, however the vocals add even more depth to the track before the heavier outro.
As per their Facebook page, it is clear to see the influences from Tool on the album. Imagine Tool but with slightly less pretension and some soulful vocals and you will have a good idea about what these folks sound like. For a debut album it hits the right notes. Always building when it should build, falling when it should and keeping the atmosphere ever evolving.
Elements of much of the evolution of prog are apparent on the album, with some sections sounding a bit like King Crimson, other sections would fit nicely with Porcupine Tree.
It has a good steady modern prog-metal sound to it, with lots of staccato leads and chugging rhythms, but it all comes together well to create what becomes a truly enjoyable album. It did however take me a couple of listens to really get into it, but when I did, I began to really enjoy the album.
It does still have some areas that are typical of the genre, and there will likely be a few comparisons to Tool with this album, however it is their debut, so I'd expect great things in the future.
If you are a fan of Tool, Caligula's Horse, Pigeon Toe and similar bands then definitely check it out. It may take a few listens, as it did with me, but it is certainly a grower and a fantastic debut album.