Reviews in this issue:
Arcade Messiah - Diagnosis
Arcade Messiah - Hell By Default
New music by John Bassett, this time in the guise of his guitar-driven Arcade Messiah project, is always welcome. So to have two simultaneous releases is a double delight. The fact that they are available on a 'pay what you want' basis from his Bandcamp page is just extra icing on the cake.
Although the combined running time is almost an hour, spread over eight tracks, there is in fact just five new compositions, with the title tracks of each release present in both vocal and instrumental forms, plus a remix of Hell By Default included on the Diagnosis release. Taking this track first, both the remix and the instrumental versions sound somewhat heavier than the original, with the remix getting my personal vote of favour.
Those familiar with previous Arcade Messiah releases will know what to expect; heavy, riffing guitars within a melodic framework with vocals slightly pushed back in the mix. The twin-guitar approach works well, both in the heavier numbers and the less in-your-face songs, such as Death X-Ray, which finds Bassett harmonising with himself and a somewhat lusher keyboard backing in places. A lovely, reverberating drum is prominent throughout the song, which may have benefited from a cleaner vocal sound.
Diagnosis offers no relief, with a nice juxtapositioning of the riffing and solo guitars. An echo on the vocals in the opening section adds a sense of mystery, but I think the instrumental version displays the various tones and underlying ferocity to greater effect.
The lengthy Sleep Phoenix opens new ground for the Arcade Messiah brand, with a more laid back approach, some piano and individual notes picked out on the two main guitars, and a third providing distant chords as backing. The languid instrumental is quite hypnotic and, in a strange way, soothing. No Dishonour is again a gentler piece and has a very Steven Wilson feel to it. The simplicity of the song is its very strength, and it merges the boundaries between Bassett's various musical incarnations.
Although separate releases, to my mind the two can't really be separated. I suppose one could consider Hell By Default as a single drawn from the parent Diagnosis album, although these days, what does it really matter?
The instrumental versions of both title tracks ties in with the original approach of the first two albums, while the vocal versions are a reflection of the singing added to the third album; so whatever your preference both are satisfied. As with all of Bassett's releases there is little to fault in his songwriting or performance, a truly solo artist who can switch between genres (or sub-genres if you will) with consummate ease. The potential to pick up these albums at little or no cost is the perfect opportunity to explore one facet of Basset's output, and hopefully encourage the uninitiated to explore further.
Baba Yoga - L'Uomo Progressivo
Looking for something different and out of the ordinary? Do you like the era of seventies Italian prog (Goblin, Banco, PFM) and are you not afraid to try a multitude of sidesteps into disco, folk, fusion, classical and jazz (to name but a few)? Do you appreciate a concept album wonderfully illustrated by Enzo Faraldo in which expressionism, surrealism and absurdism walk hand-in-hand with this musical extravaganza? Then maybe the challenging L'Uomo Progressivo could be just for you.
Baba Yoga is a project by Gianfranco Salvatore (synthesisers) and Danilo Cherni (keyboards, member of Goblin Rebirth). They invited many guests from contemporary bands like the aforementioned Banco, Osanna and Jumbo whilst playing many other instruments themselves such as the oud, recorders, harpsichord and autoharp.
Capturing their music in a few words might prove to be just as difficult as the compositions, for they alter and change within seconds. From a fairly familiar King Crimson-esque RIO feel (Ouverture) we travel towards folkloristic melodies with harpsichord and troubadour vocals (L'Uomo Progressivo). Unexpectedly, it then settles down onto atmospheric contemporary prog, with sensitive piano and some mysterious, alienating, conspiratorial chants (Flatus Vocis).
Contro I Sapienti returns towards an acoustical avant-garde medieval play, with controversial vocals by Alvaro Fella. This is followed by spoken passages, jazzy improvisations and experimental movements set in an aboriginal world-music environment in Ciacatùn (Fai L'amore).
The bewitching, minimalistic classical piano recital of Il Diavolone, in combination with melancholic expressive vocals and subtle choirs, is the perfect entrance to the highlight of the album. Dio (Deinde In Obscuris) is a dark, mysterious, bluesy song, slowly building in intensity while the bridge echoes Pink Floyd with enchanting guitars.
The interlude, Come Un Cavaliere Antico, revisits acoustic minstrel folklore, while in Sette Doni complex rhythmic disco and slight psychedelics dominate, before the poppy jazz-fusion inspired Scommetto evolves into spacious, ambient and unexplainable feelings of Eloy.
Shangri-La bursts with uptempo rock and beautiful guitars by Giacomo Anselmi, with a feel of Le Orme and Banco, passionately highlighted by Luciano Regoli's vocals and some frivolous jazz-play. Finally, Le Cose Nell'aria rounds off the concept in an emotive and sensitive way, reminiscent to RanestRane, and featuring some delicious guitars.
The mixture of so many genres and use of unconventional instruments reminds me sometimes of Orquesta Metafisica. Likewise the complexities of the music are a real roller-coaster, although in a hit and a miss fashion. This manifests itself particularly on the vocal parts. Some of it is done exceptionally well, like the choirs and female touches, but frequently it damages the end result considerably, as in Contro I Sapienti.
This is obviously a progressive obscurity with a serious dash of avant-garde, and it takes more than a few spins to get to the essence of the album; if ever you get there. As such it is a recommendable effort that is worth investigating.
Hawkestrel - The Future Is Us
Alan Davey, bassist with Hawkwind from 1984 to 1996 and then from 2000 to 2007, has brought together various members of the extended Hawkwind family to create a super-group of sorts in the form of Hawkestrel. Filled with Davey tunes and the odd cover, The Future Is Us is more than just a tribute to Hawkwind. It takes their space-rock essence and runs with it.
The prime example of this is the opener Do What You Need To Do, here Davey, not just taking the bass duties but also all of the other instrumental work and vocals, enlists Hawkwind violinist Simon House to add his soaring violin to this pounding space-rock groove. It is an opener that would feel right at home on any classic Hawkwind release.
Next up is Hawkind co-founder Nik Turner and guitarist Paul Rudolph who add sax and a hard-rock guitar to World For Fear's Mellotron-laden groove. One of the best tracks follows. Sea Of Sand has Hawkestrel mixing middle eastern, windblown tonalities into space-rock in an innovative way. Here Ginger Baker takes the drum stool, and singer Bridget Wishart gives a powerful vocal that makes you wish she had sung more with Hawkwind, and indeed on this album.
There is more inventive space-rock on the title track. Here Davey mixes in a post-rock feel, with Rudolph's guitar going into overdrive. Davey also has a way with a catchy melody, adding a classic-rock-pop edge to Goodbye Death Valley's heads-down rockiness. And Bridget Wishaw returns on the bass-heavy, driving Free Like Us. The album closes with the hard-rock boogie of Bad Boys For Life (2019 AD Version) with a great synth solo, and Lemmy rising from the grave on vocals.
Also making a surprise appearance, on a cover of Sonic Attack, is William Shatner whose spoken-word role really works. His mix of world weariness, gives a sense of this warning having been given many times before, without evoking any Captain Kirk-style campiness.
So that is the upside of this album; Hawkestrel set themselves a standard and achieve it well. There are just two or three tracks that don't quite match that standard, but they still display a willingness to try to innovate in their chosen space rock... er... space. These tend to come in the second half of the album.
Simon House returns on May Sun, a slow ballad that aims for the mysterious but ends up being a bit repetitive. I like the slide guitar on Old Dinah but its swirling psychedelia mainly passes me by. Finally, Hawkestrel's (the track) synth-dominated spaciness is just too densely layered for the ear to pick out a clear path within it. But I would rather have these heroic but less successful tries, than any amount of by-the-numbers filler any day.
Overall, Hawkestrel's The Future Is Us is a successful amalgam of space-rock grooves and atmospherics, with great performances, tunes and a sense of adventure. It barrels along and can stand, head held high, alongside many of the classic Hawkwind releases. If you like Hawkwind check out The Future Is Us and if you are looking for a way into Hawkspace you can safely start here.
Lucifer's Friend - Black Moon
This second studio album since Lucifer's Friend reformed in 2015, sees the band in fine form. Vocalist John Lawton, at a sprightly 73 years of age, still possesses a fine voice and is not afraid of belting it out at full volume. However the contributions of the rest of the band, original members Peter Hesslein (guitar) and Dieter Horns (bass) who both have had recent health troubles preventing the band from touring, Jogi Wichmann (keyboards, although he is only credited with synthesiser solos on the band's website) and the recently departed Stephan Eggert (drums and percussion), all put in solid performances.
In a couple of years the band will reach their 50th anniversary, and although they haven't been active in all that time, they have retained a coterie of fans, particularly in mainland Europe.
Although there is nothing startlingly different about Black Moon, it is a fine collection of classic hard rock numbers. Highlights include some funky trumpet and a blistering solo, played by Chuck Findlay; the wonderful Passengers with it's strong resemblance to Uriah Heep in their prime; a more sedate Palace Of Fools that is quite the mini epic displaying the band's prog tendencies; and a hard rockin' Call The Captain that contains an excellent riff and a catchy chorus.
Actually, there isn't really a duff track on the album, as they all possess something that makes them that little bit special. Stefan Pintev's manic violin on Freedom, the bluesy vibe and smooth guitar playing on the ballad Little Man, and the great arrangement of Taking It To The Edge imbues each of the songs with a quality that can only come from years of experience. Black Moon is the quality, good time, honest-to-goodness enjoyable rock album that we all love to listen to every now and again.
With new drummer Markus Fellenberg onboard and recording already started on a new album to be called The Last Stand (which was original name for Black Moon) it appears that there is at least one more album in the band. If that maintains the quality of this album, and does prove to be the band's swan song, then it will be a fine conclusion to a career that will have seen the band release a dozen eclectic and interesting albums.
Pythagoras - Live At Pulchri - Presenting DNA Ilja Walraven
After the release of The Correlated ABC, one would have assumed that with the passing of Bob de Jong, Pythagoras would cease to exist. Thankfully remaining founder René de Haan has got a few more lives left in him, of which Live At Pulchri is the first one to take shape. Dedicated to his dear lost friends (Pieter Courtens and Bob de Jong) this live recording was done in 2015 at Pulchri, an art gallery in The Hague, The Netherlands (a venue famous for its exhibits of contemporary modern art since its creation in 1947).
In this particular instance, Ilja Walraven's exhibition contained an overview of his creative artwork from the last decade, with a specially constructed art installation using augmented reality. This central piece of the show was developed in cooperation with Rob Bothof and called Digitaal Na Analoog (Digital After Analogue), or DNA when shortened in Dutch. Not entirely coincidental, the same abbreviation as the genetic code molecule.
And amidst this exhibition, on the 15th of November 2015, René de Haan (synthesisers / Mellotron) presented a new incarnation of Pythagoras. This time with Rob Bothof on a custom-built sequencer (a D-Robber Custom Looper), Peer Wassenaar on bass, and drums/percussion now carefully constructed by Joshua Samson, filling the empty seat exceptionally well. To get a glimpse of what the audience experienced on that day, several paintings by Walraven have been reproduced within the artful booklet, also providing some sort of secure handhold to the adventurous soundscapes captured on the album.
The recording contains the last 79 minutes of the concert given by Pythagoras, and within these minutes they stay true to their original, unique sound with a mixture of experimental instrumental progressive electronic music blended with hypnotic improvisations and kittenish dance trips. Whether the first part of the performance will be available in future, only time will tell.
Starting off is A Cat's Tale, which is divided into four parts, with each part individually interpreting as a phase of a cat's personification. Mysterious, graceful, statuesque, frivolous, flexible, grumpy, hungry: a cat's life caught in refined musical translations.
With precise, steady, rhythmic drums and a cautious, loosely-played bass Manifesto strides by with experimental swing, incorporating electronic cat sounds, while the generated soundscapes are filled with many improvisations on keys. The atmospheric middle section encompasses a gorgeous Mellotron, with re-occurring, affectionate electronic cat whinyness and frivolous bass lines.
Seamlessly flowing into Anecdote, Pythagoras plunge into a funky disco beat where loops and Mellotron are met by quirky noises and hypnotic dance surroundings, preparing a perfect scratching pole for space improvisations equalling that of an acid-based Ozric Tentacles. Conundrum takes this even further and borders on rave, with many improvisations on keys, whilst containing an overall psychedelic feel. In the end phase of the track the music lands on it feet again to be concluded by the last part Nightwatch. Embedded with a purring, ambient feel, the music sneaks through unsettling leaps and enerving experimental strangeness, whilst maintaining a dynamic, bouncy rhythm.
Surprisingly 60 minutes have passed by unnoticed, when Sapristi! highlights another different character by exposing a jazzy, laid-back structure, encaged in a mysterious atmosphere. Experimental, talkative freakiness prevails, to morph slowly into slight Grobschnitt Krautrock, before paving the way to a lingering finale in the form of A Cat's Tail. Here Mellotron regains control, depicting a cinematic decor filled with robotic vocal sounds, teasing bird keys and wriggling repetitive rhythms.
The production is crystal clear throughout and together with the flawless performances, it is hard to believe this is actually a live performance. Evidence of this is however given in the dying seconds of the CD with a sudden eruption of deserved applause, for it is indeed a remarkable achievement. Undoubtedly this cat-suite needs a lot of attention from its listener, but once nestled in, it is bound to find a home for followers of Kraftwerk or Klaus Schulze and admirers of the avant-garde.
We Are Kin - Bruised Sky
We Are Kin were formed in Manchester in 2013, and Bruised Sky is their third release. Founder members Dan Zambas (piano, synths) and Gary Boast (drums, producer) have recruited Emma Brewin-Caddy (vocals) and Lee Braddock (bass) to flesh-out their vision, and that vision involves not using guitar.
So Bruised Sky relies heavily on electronic textures, piano, bass and drums to underpin the soulful, jazzy vocals of Emma Brewin-Caddy. The album opens with Circles, and its synth washes soon develop into slow pulses. But just as you think it's going to turn into a Tangerine Dream-esq sequencer-dominated number, We Are Kin remain at the same slow pace but add jazzy vocals that give an entirely different, smokey feel to the electronic textures, producing a contemporary R&B ballad feel. A good start, that sets out where this release will go.
This precise layering continues throughout the album, mixing electronics, unfussy drumming, subtle bass and soulful vocals. There are small variations to the template, that require the listener to pay full attention, as you would on any ambient album.
The Fawn, a song that approaches mid-paced, has the kind of emotional build and release that Anathema have made their own. There is a hint of post-rock to Leave Me Be, but it is really made by Emma's soul-jazz vocal.
Ryuichi Sakamoto looms large (in a good way) over the title track and there is a hint of Mick Karn and David Sylvian in Nothing More's progressive enthusiasm. The long closing track, Paper Boat, is more diverse in its sound palette, although it still retains the slow to mid-tempo, whilst the four-minute coda evokes the glitchy trip-hop of Portishead.
We Are Kin's Bruised Sky is an individual and difficult album to pin down and is trying something entirely new in the world of electronic-driven prog. I enjoyed its singular vision, but the minimal variation in pace makes the tracks bleed into each other somewhat. As a result, Bruised Sky seems much longer than it actually is. I found that I enjoyed the tracks far more individually, rather than in the context of the album. On each track there is much to like and admire. You end up thinking: "Oh yes that works, that's a new approach, that's interesting." But as an album, I find the repetitive pacing a problem.
But if you have a hankering for a more progressive take on the slow songs of the likes of Portishead or Japan, with a contemporary soul feel, then We Are Kin's Bruised Kin will suit you.
Oh, and hats raised to the minimalist cover art of Lisa Fratzke.