Reviews in this issue:
The Fierce And The Dead - Live USA 17
Recorded at RoSFest in May 2017, this live album is the perfect accompaniment to Field Recordings, the band's mini live album recorded in 2016. In many ways the album marks the end of an era, as it was one of the last shows the band - Kev Feazey (bass), Stuart Marshall (drums) Matt Stevens (guitar and noises) and Steve Cleaton (guitar and other noises) - performed before they started incorporating keyboards into their stage set up.
The audience were treated to a selection of highlights from across the band's recordings, with three tracks each from If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe, Spooky Action and the, at the time of the recording, yet to be released The Euphoric. The band proved to be the perfect wake-up act, being the first act on the Sunday of the festival.
The bouncy 1991 opens proceedings with the bass and drums immediately locking into a groove over which the two guitarists ply their trade. The deep and heavy Let's Start A Cult keeps things relatively simple, before one of the band's earliest compositions, Flint, digs into the plethora of effects pedals that are utilised to establish the band's rather unique sound.
Spooky Action, with its interweaving guitar melody lines, adds a degree of brightness before the more atmospheric Andy Fox provides an eerie and mysterious vibe that, in my opinion, takes rather too long to reach the more aggressive end section. I Like It, I'm Into It seems to add to the mid-set lull before The Wait, despite its gentleness providing a richness that seems to reinvigorate proceedings. The final two tracks showcase the advances the band have made, with Truck and Parts 7 and 8 from The Euphoric making sure no-one had slipped into a Sunday morning snooze.
The RoSFest performance is a good representation of the band, which mixes a high degree of musical proficiency and innovation with imaginative songwriting, to provide an overall sound that is somewhat unique to the four musicians from Rushden. My only, minor, gripe is that I would have preferred the album to have contained the complete performance from the festival. It is clear from the fades at the end of several songs that some excisions have taken place which, even if they were just spoken introductions would have been nice to have included.
I also suspect that the set has been rearranged from how it was performed and, annoyingly, at least one song has been omitted (Magnet In Your Face was delivered as a free download to those who pre-ordered the album from the record label). Given the album is under 38 minutes long and Magnet... extends to just 2 minutes, it is hard to justify it's removal or see who it benefits. I am sure I am not the only one who likes things to be complete, and as they were originally presented.
Still, an album worth having, particularly as the excellent cover by Mark Buckingham continues the theme of the previous two albums.
Yogi Lang - A Way Out Of Here
It has been over nine years since RPWL's vocalist Yogi Lang released his first solo album, No Decoder, during which time RPWL have kept him busy with numerous tours, album and DVD releases. On this album Yang plays all the keyboards and vocals, but is ably assisted by Torsten Weber (guitars), Stephan Treutter (drums) and Yvo Fischer (bass) with some sublime backing vocals by Conny Kreitmeier and Bine Heller.
The basic lyrical premise of the album is that if one has found a way of getting into a situation, there must be a way out, even if it is not immediately obvious. And more often than not, the solution will involve love, often in the guise of empathy and compassion, in some form or other. Such a statement may induce a certain degree of nausea, and imaginings of some hippy-dippy flower-power throwback, but it is definitely not the case; the message here being somewhat deeper than the often superficial stylings of the late 1960s.
The album is overall quite a mellow affair, but Lang has created an atmosphere, in both the music and vocals, of supreme assurance and peacefulness. Playing the album, one can't help but feel relaxed and, to a degree, reassured. It's a big world out there, everyone has problems, but ultimately solutions can and will be found. But there are breakout elements throughout the album, and it would be wrong to assume that everything is of a laid back nature.
Freedom Of The Day, the only track not written entirely by Yang (the co-writer is bassist Guy Pratt), is one of only two acoustic-based numbers, the other being The Sound Of The Ocean, but even that has layers of guitar over the top with an excellently judged electric solo from Weber.
The marvellous Move On is quite a prog epic, portraying different moods and a plethora of musical variations, rising to a startling guitar solo in the heaviest section towards the end of the song. It is somewhat mirrored by the closing track, I'll Be There For You, a sublime way to bring the album to a close. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are quite strong Pink Floyd influences, no more so than on the title track, where the backing vocalists come into their own. In fact, much of the listening pleasure of the album stems from the contributions of Kreitmeier and Heller, whose heavenly vocals add a lot of depth, and massively contribute to the soothing atmosphere.
I have to say I have fallen in love with this release, as it ticks all the right boxes that I look for in an album and something that I know I will be listening a lot to over the coming years. The CD album comes packaged with a DVD from Lang's 2011 performance at De Boerderij, that was not available for review. A transparent vinyl version is also in the offering. Whatever, this is an album to be treasured.
Nevaria - Finally Free
Nevaria, founded in 2017 by vocalist Tanja Schneider (ex-Dawn Of Destiny) and Markus Spiethaler (keyboards and vocals), hail from Bayreuth, Germany. With the arrival of Kim Wölfel on guitar, Kevin Deese (bass) and Alexander Dahlen on drums, 2019 sees the release of their debut album, Finally Free. Being musically orientated in the female-fronted symphonic prog metal genre, sets them a challenging task, with its many competitors and the watchful eye of the predictability-ghost lurking just around the corner.
Yet if there ever was a sign of a phantom here, then it would be Casper the friendly ghost, for the symphonic metal compositions to be found here encompass an enlightening, smooth and entertaining charm. Staying true to the genre, they incorporate refined melodies and delicate arrangements into their uplifting concise structures. Furthermore these contain a soothing poppy feel, making them without exception familiarly comfortable.
Within this structured framework, they manage to excel with complicated riffs, breaks, melancholic solos, exciting shreds and bombastic, passionate passages, while lighter touches on piano and elevating keys add further refinement.
Pinpointing a standout track is hard, for all of the songs, except one (which I'll address later), have a natural appeal through their dynamic flow, gracious symphonies and catchy melodies. This solid foundation creates a perfect stage for Schneider to shine with her heavenly, angelic voice, reminiscent to Charlotte Wessels (Delain). The attention to detail, clean production and musical quality throughout also mirrors that of Wessel's Phantasma project.
Whether it be the delightful uptempo tracks Life, Finally Free and Drowning, or the laid-back (power) ballads like Wind and Control, it's all tastefully done, with each musician in service of the song. The harmonies supplied by Schneider herself work beautifully, enhancing the divine atmosphere. Standing in glaring contrast are the harsh vocals from Spiethaler that, although deepening their sound, to me feel somewhat out of place (Leaving You and Deserve Honesty), but that's down to taste.
Curiously, amidst all the warm, friendly prog metal, Raise Your Fist leaves you bathing in a cold sweat. This rather straight forward hardrock song with symphonic injections makes you want to do exactly what it says on the tin, yet amongst the other tracks it feels odd, diverting from what Nevaria entails. No denying though, that even here Schneider and her companions firmly hold their ground.
In combination with the fine artwork and thoughtful, earthly lyrics addressing personality disorders, loss, distorted realities and every day struggles, it is evident that with Finally Free Nevaria have released a solid album. As a debut album it shows great promise, with room left to grow, and as such is recommendable to fans of Within Temptation as it will most likely get them, as it did to me, into high spirits.
Retrospective - Latent Avidity
This album just gets better and better and better with each listen. In the car. Whilst cooking. At my desk. On my bed. In the bath. Full hi-fi. Laptop. Mp3 or the full CD. There are just so many details. So many grooves and textures and moods. So many little melodies. Amazing guitar details. So many things to like in less than 50 minutes of music. So thank the Lord for whoever invented the 'replay' button!
I first encountered Retrospective eight years ago at the fifth Progressive Promotion Festival in Germany where their hour-long set impressed many (review here).
Album number four features a largely unchanged line-up albeit with, it appears, one fewer guitarist. Jakub Roszak has that accented Polish voice that I have really warmed to and is one of the key elements that makes the Retrospective sound immediately recognisable. Beata Łagoda contributes keyboards but increasingly important is the shift she puts in as a vocalist. Her backing vocals richen the textures (as on the balladic Stop For A While) and she ably takes lead on one song here (Loneliness).
The guitar playing of Maciej Klimek is one of the things I love about Retrospective. He again creates some terrific riff and guitar fills throughout this album, but it's his soloing with which I fall in love with every time. Łukasz Marszałek on bass and Robert Kusik (drums) complete the line-up.
In terms of these seven new songs, the sounds is a natural continuation from the band's last two albums, albeit veering overall towards more rock stylings. There is still that sense of melancholia seeping throughout the album, and the guitar work in particular encapsulates many of the sounds favoured by the likes of Riverside and Collage. The way that Jakub Roszak uses semi-spoken melodies to link phases of songs is another detail that I enjoy.
The first single, Still There is an impressive opener with a dark, threatening riff and foreboding vocals which hint at a sonic explosion that never arrives. The soft rock chorus, followed by a superb guitar solo from the school of Mirek Gil (Collage, Believe) shows clever restraint. This band are masters at keeping the listener guessing where each song is going.
The Seed Has Been Sown is the album's centrepiece. Again we have some great intensity in the opening section. A lovely break around the three-minute mark changes the pace cleverly with a section led by a plucked guitar leading the listener onto a different vocal approach. The track returns to the original theme, but with a heavier metallic riff.
The rock sensibilities are most evident in the second half of the album. In The Middle Of The Forest has a very different, almost pop, groove mirroring the style of Simple Minds, before the final third takes a change of key for a Riverside meets U2 conclusion. Programmed Fear is catchy and bright with a guitar line that again recalls classic U2.
I'm always a big fan of ambiguous album titles. 'Latent avidity' is where one has a keen interest in someone or something, but one keeps that enthusiasm hidden or explored. Latent Avidity is one of the best Polish (alt-)prog releases you will hear in this or any other year. There is certainly nothing latent in my avidity for this album.
Valis Ablaze - Render
Hailing from Bristol, England, these young men have nothing more in mind than setting new standards in the newest, modern form of prog metal, which is melodic djent. And on their sophomore album, Render, they have pretty much nailed it and made good ground in this genre, that has become so quickly overrun.
Their formula is simple, although quite hard to achieve, but nevertheless, these guys have fully succeeded. One ingredient is the usual odd-metered but heavily grooving rhythm section, which which they bring to new levels. The second ingredient consists of radio-friendly vocal melodies that are of complex harmonies and have a certain epicness.
But the most important role is their guitar arrangements. In a genre where guitarists either stick to the basics strictly or, on the other hand, outdo it sillily by spitting out as many notes throughout, these young men brilliantly connect the djenty grooves with great licks, riffing, chord harmonies and arpeggios. Plus they bring back the long-lost lead guitar.
But it's not like just tossing the unusual into a genre. The guys in Valis Ablaze compose and arrange their songs pretty cleverly, in a way in which all these techniques work hand in hand seamlessly. Musically their songs become rather complex, but they still appear lightly and easily digestible. And that's what makes them stand out from the masses of modern djent bands. Their songs are extremely catchy, melodic and uplifting, and yet, still quite complex and complicated in structure, giving the eager listener a lot to enjoy.
Damian Wilson - Thank You - The Holdsworth Sessions
Make no mistake, Damian Wilson has one of the finest voices in rock, and whether it be solo or a collaboration, you can guarantee his work will have that unmistakable stamp of quality. He has five solo albums to his credit, fronted Landmarq, Threshold, and Headspace, and has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with both Rick and Adam Wakeman. A highly versatile singer, he's been much in demand over the years, performing in Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon and Star One projects, Clive Nolan's musical Alchemy and a two-year stage run in the lead role of Les Misérables.
The Wilson & Wakeman album Stripped, released earlier this year, demonstrated just how effective his voice is in an acoustic setting, helped by a memorable collection of songs. This five-track EP is in a similar vein, with Damian backed by piano, violin and cello. Pianist and producer Andrew Holdsworth's association with Wilson dates back to his 1997 solo debut Cosmas. That album concluded with one of my favourite songs, Just The Way It Goes, which has a haunting, melancholic tone not unlike those here.
The songs have a very personal, almost autobiographical feel, helped by the sparse arrangements, which allow Wilson's impassioned vocals to shine through. His singing is sensitive and sincere, with loss and longing being a recurring theme that threads through the album.
The title song, Thank You, is a heartfelt tribute to Damian's boat 'Mistral' where he spent the happiest four-and-a-half years of his life on the River Thames. It was written shortly before the boat sank while he was travelling to the Cropredy Festival in July 2019 to perform with Adam Wakeman. Appropriately, the triumphant chorus, with its beautiful string accompaniment, is complemented by verses tinged with sadness. If I was getting married tomorrow, this is the song my wife and I would have our first dance to.
Let Me Down Slowly is a slow ballad that was written by Damian following a traumatic breakup. He gives a heart-rending performance in a song worthy of I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables. During the chorus, he's joined by the gorgeous soprano of Judith Charron, and in the verses, Tony Woollard's mournful cello. Holdsworth's piano is sympathetically sparse and the heartbreaking lyrics will strike a chord with anyone that's been in a similar situation.
A different version of God Be My Judge appeared on the 2016 Wilson & Wakeman album Weir Keeper's Tale. Here, the elegant piano and strings arrangement is perfect, as Wilson's soaring choral hook takes flight. The song is a comment on the outdated institutions and customs that somehow survive in our modern society.
Until I'm With You was originally written for folk singer Sue Graves. It was inspired by the village of Mullion, which was once a fishing community on the beautiful Lizard Peninsula in south Cornwall. The song drips with nostalgia recalling times gone, lifted by Charlie Brown's elegiac violin and Holdsworth's rippling keys.
The final song, Can You Hear Me, is dedicated to Damian's best friend since boyhood, Nick Woodbridge who disappeared one day and has not been heard of since. Justin Wilson and Paul Jude Wilson provide evocative vocal backing, as a wistful and reflective Wilson literally reaches out to his long-lost friend.
Don't let the playing time of less than 20 minutes put you off, this is a collection worthy of everyone's attention, where every song oozes class and quality. The songs are performed with maturity, sensitivity and depth, with Wilson's compelling performance drawing the listener in and holding them in a warm embrace. This level of emotion from a singer and songwriter is rare these days.
Thank You was released on 11 October to coincide with Damian's 50th birthday and is available as a vinyl and CD package, digipak CD and digital download.