Reviews in this issue:
Bryan Beller - Scenes From The Flood
CD 2 -- Part Three: Bunkistan (5:15), As Advertised (3:54), Army Of The Black Rectangles (1:20), The Outer Boundary (1:30), Angles & Exits (9:39); Part Four: The Inner Boundary (3:02), World Class (9:25), Sweet Water (7:13), Let Go Of Everything (3:35)
Bryan Beller may not be that familiar a name, unless you are prone to the musical innovations of The Aristocrats, but to American guitarists such as Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani he is the go-to-guy they turn to when a bassist is required. These supporting role and band activities have somewhat limited his solo career, which extends to just two previous studio albums and one live album over the previous sixteen years.
However, it has given him a packed address book and the ability to call in favours from the multitude of musicians he has worked with. And an impressive list it is too. Guitarists performing on the album include fellow Aristocrat Guthrie Govan, well-known six-stringers such as Mike Keneally, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci and Darran Charles, as well as lesser known players with 'A' grade credentials Rick Mussallam, Teddy Kumpel, Mike Dawes, Nili Brosh, Janet Feder, Griff Peters, Mike Olekshy, Jamie Kime and Jake Howsam Lowe.
Occupation of the drum stool switches between Haken's Ray Hearne and three session supremos Gene Hoglan, Nate Morton and Joe Travers, while other instruments are provided by Christopher Allis, Paul Cartwright, Julian Coryell, Fred Kron, Evan Mazunik, Matt Rohde, Rishabh Seen and Leah Zeger. Beller himself handles all bass duties, some lead guitar, lots of extra guitars and keyboards as well as spoken vocals on two tracks and actual singing on a further track.
With the bulk of the 87-minute playing time being instrumental, there is plenty of scope for diversity, which is delivered with panache. One is never sure what is coming up next, or where one track ends and the next begins, given the seamless transition between pieces that imposes a natural flow. This skilful accomplishment is all the more impressive given each track is performed by a different ensemble of musicians recorded at 22 different locations across four countries (USA, UK, India and Australia).
The scene-setting The Scouring Of Three & Seventeen introduces a theme that is repeated across the album, leading into Volunteer State where Satriani delivers a wonderfully melodic guitar line and tasteful solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitars and banjo.
Everything And Nothing is the first spoken word piece and the first opportunity for Beller to really express his superlative bass skills which provides an amazingly intricate lead line, with and without a fuzz pedal. A touch of drum and bass on The Quickening alters the mood somewhat, delivering a different genre of music. It is eclipsed by the more aggressive Steiner In Ellipses, where Keneally's contribution is more evident than on the previous track.
Part Two of the album starts with Always Worth It with contributions from four guitarists and two drummers. The emphasis is on texture and rhythm, rather than excessive soloing and has a more 70s classic rock feel. Lookout Mountain is a total contrast, with the first half of the piece consisting of Beller playing Tibetan bowls which is complemented on the second half by some lovely acoustic baritone guitar played by Mike Dawes.
However, this mellow interlude is blown aside by The Storm, with the tandem lead guitars of Darren Charles and Jake Howsam Lowe providing riffage, over which Jamie Kime solos. The deluge from the storm naturally leads to The Flood, an atmospheric and soothing acoustic piece dominated by piano, with barely discernible guitar in the background.
Disc two and Part Three begins with three tracks featuring Bellar playing everything except drums and percussion, and showcasing three contrasting sides of Beller's compositional styles.
Bunkistan displays a lightness of touch and rhythm as well as sumptuous bass lines. As Advertised has a more electronic feel, although Beller does show that although he has some impressive guitarist friends, he is no mean slouch in playing lead lines when he wants. The brief Army Of Black Rectangles, is the second spoken vocal track against an angry backdrop accentuated by some great drumming from Joe Travers, who makes a similar contribution to the previous track.
The gloriously upbeat melody of The Outer Boundary follows on immediately, giving the impression of a single piece. Angles & Exits is the only track not composed by Beller, instead coming from the pen of the extraordinary Janet Feder, originally released on her 2015 album This Close. Beller's rendition is pretty true to the original, albeit in an extended form, with the bass providing a sympathetic replacement for the original prepared guitar. His sung vocals are pretty good and it is surprising he hasn't featured them more. Rick Musallam provides a fine guitar arrangement that brings the song to a climatic ending. Great stuff!
The final part of the album begins with The Inner Boundary, which progresses from a somewhat ethereal opening to a more chaotic ending with the sound of a jet 'plane taking us into World Class. Rishabh Seen's sitar and Paul Cartwright's violins and violas provide an authentic Indian flavour, locked into a rock groove with Nili Brosh's guitar syncing perfectly with the sitar. Even those who might think sitars are somewhat passé won't fail to be impressed by this exceptional and exciting piece of music; even John Petrucci's widdly solo doesn't distract (although I am sage enough to realise that his contribution may be a highlight to many).
The jet then whisks us off to the land of Sweet Water with a lovely pairing of Guthrie Govan and Mike Keneally on lead and acoustic guitars, respectively. Beller takes over on lead guitar towards the end of the song and one would be hard pushed to notice the change; praise indeed given the high regard Govan is held in.
The final say is, appropriately, given over to Beller whose bass, guitar and keyboards form the jaunty tune of Let Go Of Everything. What seems to be a light and jolly ending to the album is undermined when a whole darker tone is adopted for the final two minutes, an almost apocalyptic conclusion.
Beller has created a thoroughly engaging double album of mostly instrumental music that maintains the interest throughout. That might not seem exceptional to us older prog fans but is definitely a challenge in the era when a lot of people seemingly can't stay focused for nine minutes let alone 90! There are genuinely exciting moments and some interesting musical combinations that are worthy of potential further exploration, but overall, the musical vision and drive belongs to the exceptional musician that is Bryan Beller.
Paul D'Adamo - Rawfully Organic
"Come for the Peter Gabriel covers and stay for the originals" might be the concept behind Rawfully Organic. This is the second full-length studio release from Paul D'Adamo, a Texas-based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator.
D'Adamo has worked with a lot of big names in the prog world, and many are guests on this album, including Jerry Marotta, Tony Levin, Vinnie Colaiuta, Trey Gunn, and Billy Sherwood. With a horn section and strings, Rawfully Organic is definitely a big production effort.
For prog fans, the originals are unlikely to be of much interest unless you're in the camp that believes that Phil Collins' solo material is better than anything ever recorded by Genesis.
Time Heals All Wounds and Lovin' Me Back to Life are well-executed R&B tracks, and D'Adamo's voice fits the style very well. Long Lost Greeting is a Michael McDonald-style ballad complete with strings. And if there were any doubt that McDonald is a big influence on D'Adamo's singing, he includes a cover of McDonald's I Can Let Go Now. D'Adamo delivers a remarkable vocal performance on this track, impressively extending his range up to high C, while maintaining an even tone throughout this emotional ballad.
Now about those Gabriel covers. Here, D'Adamo's voice is less natural, and his tendency to put high notes in the back of his throat loses the intimacy of Gabriel's delivery.
Kiss of Life sticks closest to the original. It's done slightly slower and with a horn section, but doesn't take the piece into new territory. Toward the end, D'Adamo starts ad-libbing lines like "tasting gazpacho, spicy cilantro," which made me anxious for the track to finish.
Wallflower also mirrors the original at first, then builds dramatically with strings into a triumphant-sounding finish that didn't feel right to me, given that the song is about political prisoners in South America who will very likely never be released by their captors.
Games Without Frontiers begins with "aaah-oooh" vocals, and then adds a bluesy, muted trumpet and jazz flute, like something Henry Mancini might have used for his Hatari soundtrack in the 1960s. Gabriel's angry anti-war message is lost in the New Orleans sound.
Don't Give Up is probably the last Peter Gabriel piece I would expect to be done a capella (vocals without musical accompaniment) with just finger snaps and then drums and percussion. The vocals are unfortunately "pitchy" (a polite way to say off-tune), and for that reason I found it difficult to listen to.
Hasn't Back In NYC already been covered to death? Kevin Gilbert, Francis Dunnery, Jeff Buckley, and so many others have all put their spin on this song. I could probably find a Frank Sinatra version if I dug hard enough. D'Adamo does a straight-forward cover, and he really commits to the spirit of the vocal, struggling just a bit, but mostly succeeding in maintaining the grittiness of the original, though not adding anything new.
Where there are strengths in Rawfully Organic, they are less to be found in the Gabriel and Genesis covers than in the R&B-leaning material. Though there are good musical performances throughout, the Gabriel covers suffer either from lack of originality or authenticity. While I enjoyed hearing D'Adamo's recreations, they ultimately made me better appreciate the sparse and quirky arrangements Gabriel used for the dark lyrical themes of his earlier solo albums.
Elusion - Singularity
In 2015 Domingo Smets (guitar, ex-Ancient Rites) felt the need to start something new and teamed up with Evy Verbruggen (vocals). With the addition of Kristof De Greef (bass) and Frederik van Mieghem on drums Elusion was born. Their first EP, Desert Of Enticement, quickly gathered good reviews and was substantially promoted with a series of gigs in their home country.
Shortly after this initial success, they secured a record deal and started working on their full length debut album Singularity. Stijn Van Peborgh (guitar) was added to the line-up to broaden and strengthen their sound of a female-fronted progressive (power) metal band. A sub-genre with a huge playing field bearing a lot of strong "rivalries", and to put it into perspective, the "competition" has just got a bit more exciting.
For Singularity is filled with strong compositions, fierce riffs, complicated breaks, theatrical symphonic orchestrations, infectious melodies, diverse dynamic rhythms and an attractive cohesiveness throughout. Of equal, or even bigger importance, is the voice of Verbruggen. She excels in the higher regions, whilst holding her own in the middle sections. Furthermore the grunts she occasionally throws out, sets her apart from many obvious front-women and emphasises her versatility as a vocalist.
The majestic, classical, symphonic opening with choir-like vocals in Choices And Chances immediately builds tension, while tight riffs and playful drums drive the song forward. The engaging, crystal clear, high soaring vocals of Verbruggen captivate, igniting images of After Forever. The bombastic and lovely colouring through symphonic elements deepen the sound, only to be let loose by the unexpected female grunts of Verbruggen.
She tries these grunts again in The Tales That Trees Tell, to a somewhat larger extent, but for me it just diverts from the music. The symphonic power metal in the vein of Nightwish and Delain, is however highly appealing, and the Eastern musical influences add a further nice touch. The Strive keeps the flow going with strong guitar work, many dynamical changes, an intense, haunting, grunted bridge section, slight Iron Maiden references and a grand opera coda.
What follows, by lack of a better comparison, is their 15 minutes of Ayreon-worship. Lovelorn thrives on the superb, intertwining harmonies of Verbruggen with Björn Strid (Soilwork), set in some delightful folklorist gothic metal (The Gathering), while the resting point In Eternity alluringly-enchants in serene beauty. Here delicate piano slowly makes way for a divine theatrical orchestral interlude, gracefully underlined by Verbruggen's heavenly vocals, showing exactly where her strength lies. Elusion's finest quarter-hour continues with Reconciliation Of Opposites displaying forceful riffs, luscious alternations and solid power metal where the Eastern influences sparkle glimpses of Myrath.
They continue to deliver with My War Within and Crystal Doubts, both confidently executed power metal tracks filled with an excess of symphonic layers, fast-paced drumming, catchy refrains and solid rhythms. These more powerful approaches do however cause Verbruggen to overstretch her vocal chords ever so slightly, but that's easily forgiven once Anamnesis kicks in.
This penultimate track encompasses all their strengths, and incorporates further acoustic guitars, enriching the compositional dynamics of the song. Especially the end section is one of exceptional beauty transitioning slowly into a luxurious symphonic comforting finale. A perfect finish to a good and solid album, if it weren't for the added bonus remix version of The Strive. This rather strange take on new wave/synth pop feels severely out of place. The basic structure of the song still stands proud, but it could now just as easily be a Madonna track.
It goes without saying that compared to their EP Elusion have taken several big steps forward with the release of Singularity. There's room for improvement on production, and with a bit more focus on individual strengths they will most likely deliver a stunning album in future. At this early stage in their career they show great promise and are definitely worth checking out for fans of progressive metal with a symphonic preference and a female touch à la Within Temptation and Epica.
Introitus - Shadows
Family business unit Introitus is back with their fourth album entitled Shadows, the follow-up to the highly acclaimed Anima album from 2014. Founder members Mats Bender (keyboards) and his wife Anna Jobs Bender (lead vocals) succeeded in keeping most of the band together. Son Mattias plays the drums and daughter Johanna sings along in the choruses. Pär Helje is again master on the guitar while Dennis Lindkvist plays bass. Additional players are Martin Jobs (I guess brother of..) on vocals in My Hero, and Linnéa Syrjälä on accordion, ocarina (a clay flute), chalumeau (wooden woodwind instrument) and vocals. The latter replaces Henrik Björland.
Anima was an album I really liked (review here). The overall mood and the variations in quiet and loud, long and short pieces, was all in a good balance. So the expectations were high with this one.
The new album opens strongly with the power ballad Belong. The short intro is based upon a slow guitar riff backed by organ, powerful drums and a terrific bass loop. Anna Jobs has no trouble in dominating over these fierce instruments when she starts to sing the first verse after some 20 seconds. The vocal melody floats fluently from verse to chorus and back, and is simply very nice. Halfway through the song, a stunning fast guitar solo develops into a short and effective keys solo, after which the song comes back to the central theme. Did I say strong opener? It surely is!
From then on the album is slowly losing me. The title track starts promising, with a pumping rhythm and another nice vocal melody. Yet the chorus doesn't do it for me. The repeating line of: “I am you, you are me” starts to annoy quite soon. Mats Bender plays a rather uninteresting keys solo, that is saved by a beautiful flute interlude played by Helena Tenstam. The following guitar solo is heavenly, as is the extensive coda with Tubular Bells-like sounds and a wide tapestry of keys. Yet in-between there is that annoying chorus spoiling the song completely.
The instrumental Beyond Fantasy is almost on its own merit worth the purchase of this album. It is a very moody, melancholic piece of music that meanders through its seven-minute duration. I don't know if it was their intention to try to create an image of Swedish nature, yet it certainly did that job for me.
With Desperation, the same annoyance comes around as with the title track. The nice verse lines lead towards the irritating chorus that consists simply of the words "Desperation - isolation – frustration – desolation", repeated so often that I almost wanted to skip the song altogether after two spins. That would have been a shame, for the instrumentation with accordion is rather beautiful and sometimes quite subtle, with again a very fine flute solo. A very intricate piano solo and a great guitar solo at the end are also highlights. Yet those repeated choruses, albeit with different musical ideas surrounding it, just kill the song. What a pity.
In Figures the band seems to take another bend. The tempo is considerably higher, the main mood far heavier than in the preceding songs, with Mats' keyboards and the pumping bass leading the way towards a short vocal part. The song bears a strong feeling of The Gathering featuring Anneke van Giersbergen.
My Hero opens with some accordion and very gentle vocals. It all sounds very different from the rockier Figures, showing a side of the band that I think is their best: melodic, moody, rich and with some unexpected instrumentation. This particular song features two different vocalists, as Anna Jobs is joined by her brother Martin on vocals. Their voices blend well and also sound great against the soft accordion. But then there are some Swedish spoken words at the end, adding absolutely nothing to the song.
With its extensive intro with accordion, Mellotron, and piano, of almost three minutes before the band bursts in, Awakening immediately appealed to me. The instrumental song floats from intricate to full rock, from Keith Emerson-like soloing on the synth, to almost shredding on the guitar, then evolving in an Andy Latimer-style guitar solo, with some effective “Na-na-na” vocals in the background to complete the musical painting. A great piece of music, illustrating the musical capabilities of this fine band perfectly. I wish they had included more of this type of song on the album.
After liking their former albums a lot, I have to conclude that I feel far less attracted to this new one. There are many moments to enjoy intensely, especially in the instrumental parts; these are rich, varied, melancholic or rocky, slow or sometimes fast but all very melodious to listen to.
The problem lies in some choruses, being far too repetitive and having very weak lyrics. And to be frank, Anna's singing has been better on the former albums as well. That all leads to a far lower rating than I had expected. The good thing is then of course that things can easily become better with the next album that hopefully won't be as long in the making as this one.
Mangeur De Rêves - Histoires A L´Envers
I must admit I didn't know anything about this band when I picked the album to write this review. I felt curiosity because of the band's name, Mangeur De Rêves, which could be translated as Dreams Eater. What to find under this name? Maybe some kind of progressive dark metal, guttural vocals? Nope. Mangeur De Rêves has delivered a really beautiful album full of ear-catching songs playing soft folk and progressive rock. And what a coincidence for me, because this year I'm really hooked on this type of sound, after listening to the new masterpieces released by The Tea Club and Kaprekar's Constant.
The album is called Histoires A L´Envers (Stories Upside Down) and has only six songs (the first track, Hier, is only a short intro). The band defines their sound as a mixture that includes folk, prog and pop. And I have to agree. And the sound itself is atmospheric and soft, including beautiful vocal harmonies sung in French, which is the perfect language for this kind of music.
Dernier Hiver perfectly represents the band's sound, with acoustic arrangements and great vocals that introduce you to the gloomy atmosphere that will continue to permeate the album. Ainsi Parlait Pinel goes next and it is the best song, having great choruses, harmonies and progressions going from smooth parts, to more dynamic moments.
Don't expect big changes in terms of the music, because the acoustic guitars and drum tapping is still there, which is great. Fille De Lune is softer and slower and includes very good guitars towards the end. Ballade En Haute Mer (Ballad On The High Seas) is full of emotion. One thing is for sure, these guys know how to make great songs using simple music and great vocals. No extra chords or impossible arrangements. Only a bluesy guitar that perfectly fills some gaps to give the song a different approach. Smart move.
Refuge is an instrumental, without percussion. That bluesy guitar appears again and it seems like another intro for the last song called Enfants De Coeur. This is a good closing song that resumes all of what we have described during the previous 30 minutes.
This is a really good debut album by Mangeur De Rêves, that leaves you wanting more. Their sounds catches you, and the songs flow extraordinarily well within a very melancholic atmosphere that is well executed by each member of the band without any need to introduce additional elements or complex instrumental arrangements. Simplicity at the service of music. I hope we can hear the next Mangeur De Rêves album soon.
This Winter Machine - A Tower Of Clocks
Live In Leeds (Bonus Disc): Lullaby (Interrupted) & Fractured (15:43), After Tomorrow Comes (7:42), The Man Who Never Was (14:52)
This Winter Machine's debut album, The Man Who Never Was, caused quite a stir in prog circles and was cited as one of the best albums of 2017. Not bad for a band that formed only the year before. They hail from Leeds in West Yorkshire, just 15 miles up the road from where I sit writing this review.
Since The Man Who Never Was, there have been several changes in personnel, although the band's sound has changed hardly a jot. The line-up for this second album features Al Winter (vocals), Mark Numan (keyboards, backing vocals), Graham Garbett (guitars, backing vocals), Scott Owens (guitars, backing vocals), Andy Milner (drums, percusion) and Pete Priestley (bass, bass pedals). Priestley left the band in April this year and has been replaced by Stuart Mcauley.
A Tower Of Clocks was scheduled for release in 2018 but the band decided instead to devote the best part of two years in its creation. It has certainly been worth the wait.
This could be loosely described as a concept album, encompassing themes such as time, loss and identity. Musically, This Winter Machine sit comfortably and unashamedly in the neo-prog category with Fish-era Marillion being an obvious influence.
The album opens, unusually, with a long instrumental, but it works, giving a foretaste of what's to come. Herald begins with the hooting of an owl and a stirring synth fanfare. The keyboard textures are reminiscent of Mark Kelly circa Misplaced Childhood and the simulated sound of ticking clocks is followed by rippling piano and Steve Rothery-style weeping guitar. A hint of distortion signals the main theme, and a very memorable one it is too. A sprightly guitar and synth melody follows and the rhythm section kicks in with articulate bass runs and busy drum fills. A grand opening statement, and fortunately most of what follows lives up to its promise.
The album features several piano-led songs, and although they are not love songs per se, they have a ballad-y feel about them. During Flying, which could easily pass as 80s Genesis, the owl featured in the opening track and cover art acts as a kind of narrator and also an observer to some of the events portrayed in the later songs. The melancholic Justified is another piano ballad with a lovely melody, delivered with appropriate restraint by Winter. The soaring guitar bridge again references Mr Rothery. In Amber follows in a similar vein (sans rhythm section) with a touch of keys strings. It's a heartrending tale of lost love, with a suitably emotive vocal.
Winter is a versatile singer who's equally at home with the lighter ballads and the heavier rock songs. Symmetry And Light falls into the later category, with a circular riff recalling vintage Twelfth Night. The chorus and instrumental mid-sections really rock, bringing Rush to the table. Both The Hunt and Delta open with ambient keys and bass pedal effects that echo the atmospheric intro to Marillion's Bitter Suite. The former is an indictment of blood sports, with a lively but melodic instrumental sequence driven by a pulsating bass line.
Delta on the other hand is a heartbreaking tale of a young girl who has a secret to reveal to her parents. It boasts big power chords, a mellow interlude and a scorching guitar solo that brings Nick Barrett to mind. This song in particular benefits from two guitarists, with melodic solo flights offset by powerful riffs.
The penultimate song, When We Were Young, is another poignant ballad, reflecting on times gone-by before the death of a loved one. Dual, ringing acoustic guitars are to the fore, supplemented by lush backing voices and rhythmic electric piano.
If bass and drums were conspicuously absent on the previous song, they make up for it on the closing track, Carnivale. Despite the light-hearted, wurlitzer-style organ introduction, the instrumental sections are dark and menacing for the most part, with powerful riffs and a trebly bass solo. For me however, the anthemic choral hook is not quite as memorable as it could be.
The bonus CD features a live performance from the band's hometown of Leeds, although there is no information to confirm exactly where and when it was recorded. No matter, it's a superb recording, with the band in top form, effortlessly recreating four songs from the debut album. Evidence, if need be, that they can deliver the goods live.
Lullaby (Interrupted) works superbly in a live environment with a hard-hitting instrumental sequence, staccato riffs and soaring flights of guitar. Fractured is an instrumental delight, from the atmospheric Floyd-ian intro, to the thrilling synth motif and soaring guitar finale.
Winter's voice is powerful and clear during After Tomorrow Comes, a brooding, mid-tempo song with piano and a rippling, Rothery-style rhythm guitar.
The disc highlight however is The Man Who Never Was. The weeping guitar intro, searing guitar melody and stunning twin guitar playing, brings the performance to a satisfying conclusion.
This Winter Machine have without a doubt created a worthy successor to their excellent debut. A Tower Of Clocks is brimming with fine melodies and skilful performances. Winter's lyrics tell thought-provoking stories and his sharp production renders every word and note crystal clear. Praise should also go to Tom Roberts for his atmospheric artwork. While there is nothing strikingly original about this album, it's all done with style and panache.
If melodic prog is your thing then there is no reason why this shouldn't be added to your collection.