Reviews in this issue:
Birdeatsbaby — The World Conspires Against Us
Birdeatsbaby, a band name literally out of a dream (this dream being one of band leader Mishkin Fitzgerald's). They began their journey in Brighton when Mishkin and Garry Mitchell met at university. They initially began in the punk-cabaret scene, but have since gone on and evolved into a bit of stadium rock, meets prog, meets a dash of metal. Through their career, the band had numerous successful tours and even had support from the likes of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman to name a few. Now on their 5th album, the band are no strangers to this life.
So, onto the album. It is an interesting mix of styles. Some slower, more melancholic and minimalistic ballads such as How Do I Get Here, and some heavier tracks like Painkiller. Throughout it all there is a nice blending of styles. The church based vocal training of Fitzgerald along with the addition of strings from Hana Maria really help take the band from a standard prog rock/metal band to something more.
I can't quite put my finger on it but there is “something” just that bit different about them and their sound and song writing. The cabaret sound is still an underlying current through the songs, which adds another level of intricacy to the sounds, such as in Esmerelda.
A number of influences can be heard throughout the album, with some tracks sounding a bit Muse meets Evanescence. The cabaret element really becomes apparent in Kill No One which would sound right at home on the album of metal bands recording The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack.
All in all it is an interesting, sometimes manic, sometimes sorrowful but ultimately curiously interesting album.
Geoff Feakes — On Track... The Moody Blues [book]
The interesting book series On Track saw the publication in 2019 of yet another prog volume dealing with one of the godfathers of the scene, The Moody Blues. Well, that is at least how I see the Moodies but I am well aware of the ongoing debate whether they are prog or have ever been prog. The simple fact that we review this issue here at DPRP.net should say enough.
But there is also another reason to review it: our DPRP colleague Geoff Feakes is the author of this volume, being an big fan of the band since the 1970s. And he sure knew what he was up to when he started this book as he has already reviewed the Genesis and Yes volumes in this book series for DPRP.net, books I am not familiar with. He granted them high ratings so I guess he'll be very pleased to get the opportunity to join the series as an author. Which leaves me with the difficult task to stay objective.
This book is the first one of this series I laid my hands on. To be honest, I had some second thoughts when I first saw it. The book size is rather small, the cover is far from original, the paper is cheap, the font is mediocre, the margins small so the pages look cramped with ink and the photos are nice but nothing special. So why are these books so popular, apart from the very friendly price? You'll find the answer at the end.
It is not easy to write about music. Describing sounds in words has some serious limitations for the simple reason that what you can hear can't be expressed well in language. That means that dealing with 16 studio albums comprising more than 200 original songs demands a lot of creative writing. Of course, no one will read these kind of books from beginning to the end but the reader has to be seduced to take the book up again and again to relate to the songs described. The reader has to read about the lyrics, the music and the context it was all produced so that he will listen again to what was thought to be familiar tunes. And that is exactly what this nice book brought about with me.
I first came across the Moodies by means of their 1974 This Is The Moody Blues compilation. Of course I had heard Nights In White Satin before but it left me rather cold. That compilation changed all that for I was stunned by the rich variation in moods, instrumentation, new sounds and musical forms. From that moment on I began to listen to their albums and became a fan until the nineties. Their music didn't become much better ever since. So what would the author have made of that?
Geoff Feakes is clear about being a big fan of the band, at least since they shed off their blues origin back in the sixties. That is fine as he writes with warmth and affection about the classic seven albums, ranging from the majestic Days Of Future Past to Seventh Sojourn. He is openly enthusiastic at times, yet he is also critical on certain songs as being too simple, too cheesy or too mellow. He can't hide his enthusiasm for his favourite album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and is remarkably harsh on Seventh Sojourn (my personal favourite) but he succeeds very well in describing these albums in a rich and very readable writing style.
He also knows well what he writes about; a lot of nice-to-know details can be found, of which the mellotron connection between keyboardist Mike Pinder with The Beatles during their recording of Strawberry Fields Forever is the most remarkable. More details can be found on the instruments used, the inclusion of album songs in historic setlists and the relationship between the members of the band. He doesn't use many words on the untimely departure of Mike Pinder and only briefly describes the far from peaceful departure of Patrick Moraz in 1991. That makes this book a genuine and serious source of information; it's history, folks, not gossip.
More assets can be mentioned. From Octave onwards the Moodies output slowly lost their creativity and artistry, as the band evolved from an innovative amalgamation of creative musical minds into a pop group with some prog credentials. They succeeded well in making rather good albums like The Present and now and then they recorded really great songs, like the highly acclaimed The Voice or I Know You're Out There Somewhere, both far from favourites of the author. But the downfall in their musical quality after the nineties is all too obvious with lacklustre albums like Strange Times and Keys Of The Kingdom. Feakes is far more critical on these recent albums although he tries to find sparks of the great music they once made, in individual songs or, if necessary, in parts of songs. It is apparent that it took him quite an effort to keep writing about their nineties and later output in a positive way but he does it well, which makes it all very credible.
Another nice feature is the short but punctual description of all live albums, the plethora of compilation albums and all solo albums as well as collaborations on albums by other artists. The book is also very up-to-date with the inclusion of the most recent solo album by John Lodge as well as mentioning the recent sad passing of flautist Ray Thomas.
The greatest asset is the inclusion in the book of the Blue Jays album as if it was a Moody Blues album. This stunning album was released by principal composers Justin Hayward and John Lodge together in 1975 under the Blue Jays moniker. Its orchestral music easily ranks among the best prog in those days and thus amongst the best albums ever recorded by any of the Moodies. It will always remain a mystery why this superb album never got a worthy successor. Fortunately it gets its fully deserved description and appreciation in this volume.
This lovely book made me go back to all my Moody Blues albums; to listen to them more intensely, to hear the things that were described in this book but missed by me so far. That meant many nice hours enjoying this classic prog, again amazed about the enormous richness in the music the Moody Blues made. And again I realised that these guys have been real innovators, paving the way for many others by blending poetry with music, by using so many different kinds of instruments that were never used before as well as by developing complex orchestral arrangements.
They altered their own future as well as that of orchestral prog by not recording another version of Dvorak's New World as asked by the record company, but instead recording their fully original Days Of Future Past with an orchestra. And the rest, they say, is history, now penned down in a very fine manner. Don't let yourself be distracted by the size or the superficial quality of this gem, this is simply a highly recommended book written by a fine author about no less than a great band.
Issun — Dark Green Glow
Dark Green Glow is a debut album from a heavy prog band out of Hanover in Germany. It tells a conceptional horror story, which is set in a mysterious green glowing forest.
The band consists of the main songwriter Tobias Schröder (vocals, keys, percussion), Marc Andrejkovits (bass), Markus Ottenberg (guitars) and drummer Simon Schröder. On the actual album all guitars are played by Martin Schnella, who many will know for his work with Seven Steps To The Green Door, Flaming Row, and Melanie Mau. Martin also engineered, mixed and mastered the album.
Issun have been largely previewed as a prog metal band. Whist heavy guitars do form a part of the band's sound, the overall picture is far more of a heavy prog sound, relying heavily on much lighter guitar and keyboard textures. Fans of Enchant, Flying Colours, Kansas and Styx are far more likey to find favour with the 10 songs here, than lovers of Darkwater, Dream Theater and Distorted Harmony.
First impressions gave a favourable nod to the vocal department and the percussion, both of which use all corners of their palettes to colour the tracks (and the story).
Lost Generation and Falling Away are two strong openers and probably my favourite songs. The first takes the heavier approach of Enchant with a wonderful, hooky chorus as a great showcase for the vocals. The second, offers a lighter touch, similar to the poppier moments of Flying Colours.
Sleep In The Forest sounds like fellow countrymen Cryptex, with excellent drum work and a heavier second part. Tempest Of Laughter shows an ability to write a coherent multi-part epic; one that keeps the listener engaged throughout.
The second half of the album does not connect with me in the same way. The melodies are not as memorable, the needs of the storyline appears to have taken control of the music, and a playing time of over 70 minutes will always struggle to hold my attention.
So overall this can be marked as a very impressive debut album from a band with room and the potential to develop their sound and song-writing. Issun: a name to watch.
Egor Lappo — Azimuth
These days it's easier than it has ever been for any talented musician to record their own music without the aid of a record label. This has given rise to many independent artists who, many years ago, would not have been able to share this talent with the rest of the world. There are probably more independent bands today than there are contracted recording artists, and some of the best music I've heard over the last few years has come from musicians who record in their bedrooms simply as hobby or an outlet.
So let me introduce Egor Lappo, from Saint Petersburg. Azimuth is his second full length album and the follow up to 2018's Way Without Light (review here), which featured a host of guest musicians and is well worth checking out. This time around however, Lappo takes care of almost everything musically here, except for the drums and the vocals on one track. He is clearly an incredibly skilled guitarist but also understands how to create lush soundscapes using synths, strings and keys to give the songs depth and backbone.
The album opens incredibly strongly with Faded Morning Sun, I was immediately reminded of an Ayreon style epic here. The first verse gives way to a truly stunning chorus which is followed by an equally brilliant instrumental section. The guitars and keyboards sound very futuristic and the song has some Devin Townsend-esq layering and time signatures. About half way through the song enters a quieter section with acoustic guitars and mysterious vocals before returning to the original chorus and eventually playing out with a wonderful guitar solo. These are the kinds of openers I absolutely love on progressive metal albums and this track sets the bar very high for the rest of the album.
Indifferent Times is a much more straightforward song and is a more old school, rock and roll affair. This could have easily been lifted from an 80's Rush album, and while Lappo's influences can be easy to spot throughout this album, it's his vocals that make the song very definitely his. This is where I feel people are going to have their biggest issue with this album as a whole. Egor can sing, make no mistake about it, but it's on this song where you can hear him almost struggle to hit some of the notes in certain sections and while his voice doesn't bother me at all, it's unfortunately one of the weaker parts of this record as a whole and I can see some people being put off by his delivery.
Continuing with All You Do Is Sway, the album plants itself firmly back into prog metal territory, and this is another great song. Its futuristic, sci-fi soundscapes are at the forefront here and the melodies are incredibly memorable. His vocals also sound stronger here, his voice definitely suits the heavier moments and he simply sounds better when his vocals are harmonised. This track is followed up with a shorter instrumental, Far From Noise, which showcases Egor's more modern clean guitar playing style, it's a very interesting piece and serves as a nice transistion into the second half of the album.
Magnify is another brilliant track. This one is again pretty heavy, but it shows off another of Egor's influences, Neal Morse. I'm quite certain if Neal was to venture into territory this heavy, this is what it would sound like, and that's no bad thing. The melodies in this song are very strong and the song flows wonderfully, the level of song writing here is top class and I had this particular song stuck in my head for a good while after listening.
In A Bind has an absolutely beautiful opening section, another track that could have been written by the mighty Rush, this is the only song on the album to feature programmed drums, and although it's quite obvious, it doesn't take anything away from the song. What lets this one down however, is the rather bland chorus, it's just not very interesting and sounds a little out of place after the fantastic intro. Multiple listens only made me dislike the chorus even more, to the point where I found myself skipping this song entirely on some listens, which is a shame because it really does open strongly.
Fortunately, my distaste for the previous song was soon forgotten. Aware is the albums second instrumental track and it is absolutely outstanding. Sounding like something Sound Of Contact might have come up with. It is a glorious four minute masterpiece of music and I absolutely love every second of it. The sci-fi vibes are very strong here as the song builds up into a sort of 70's space rock meets Ziltoid The Omniscient, but not as heavy. That's how it sounded in my head anyway. The synth piano section in the second half of the song just blew me away. I could listen to an entire album of this kind of stuff every day, it is magnificent.
I've mentioned before in my reviews how one song can sometimes make or break an album, transport a good album to a great album or an average album to a poor album. Waste Of Space absolutely does the former. This song is a powerhouse of a closer and is very different from anything else on the album. Featuring vocalist Artem Sergeev, it is almost relentless in it's six and a half minute running time. This guy's vocal delivery is superb, sounding like a slightly less angry Joe Duplantier from venomous French groove metal band Gojira. Musically this song is a persistent headrush of powerchords overlayed with a brilliant little guitar melody which sounds truly inspired, the added aggression here is a great way to play out the album and I wish we'd heard more of this earlier in the album.
Azimuth is a fantastic album with a couple of unfortunate drawbacks. If you don't like Egor's vocals then you're not going to get through it, however, if the vocals are more to your taste then you are in for an absolute treat of a progressive metal record. Despite some odd song writing decisions which almost spoil a couple of tracks, the majority of the material here is top notch and essential listening for any prog metal fan. Egor Lappo might wear his influences clearly on his sleeve, but he is an incredible musician and some of the ideas here are among the best I've heard this year. There are one or two hints of genius at work here, especially in the albums last two tracks, yet there is just some work to do to meld those ideas together into something truly special. I very much look forward to what Egor Lappo comes up with in the future.
The Minstrel’s Ghost — Jack: A Different Tale
With his first The Minstrel's Ghost album since 2012, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Blake Carpenter returns once again under the guise of 'TMG' one last time to deliver what may be a daring and unusual venture.
Following the pattern of storytelling that has been the basis for this projects' output since 2011's Dream's Come True and 2012's Road to Avalon (review here), Jack: A Different Tale is a personal interpretation of the story of Jack the Ripper, focusing on the elements of the infamous murderer's personality, offering us alternate forces that shaped it from childhood.
As a character from history, there are numerous stories and sensationalist views that surround the Victorian London murderer, and with the recent focus shifting towards the lives of the victims in the form of the recent Sunday Times bestseller, The Five, can this concept of Jack add anything new? From a musical perspective, the character is deeply ingrained in rock tropes, see Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy and Motorhead for the dark subject matter in all its heaviness.
Carpenter's Jack is an exception to the norm, avoiding much of the bloody motifs and house of horror spectacle. Instead he provides us with an introspective, and slow, melancholic journey from a painful childhood to a suggested post-event internal conflict. This is no mysterious, savage figure that delights in his crimes, instead adopting a more controversial view of a rather pathetic character, possibly a victim in his own right.
As with the emotional content, the musical influences within are also worn on the sleeve. The opening quarter of the album is a late Pink Floyd, mother-obsessed, slow burner. It's somewhat familiar fare, yet loaded with some palpable feeling. Mercifully, and to its credit, it isn't shackled with the downbeat and gloomy Waters styling, defying initial expectations.
The standout track, A New Day, has a more upbeat, individual sound and is reminiscent of Unitopia in places with hints of Truack in the vocal performance. Key to its success is the superb driving bass from Troy James Martin, coupled with some sublime guitar work from Carpenter. It's in the shadow of the echo-laden, Gilmour guitar that Carpenter's own performance lies for much of the album, with hints of Latimer on the more Camel-reminiscent Darkness Falls.
Elsewhere the amusingly titled, Saucy Jacky sounds like it could have been written in the late 70s UK post-punk era, with its spiky bass work along with a pacy, stripped-back, punchy snare. Cleverly Carpenter's guitar melds well alongside, making this one of the album's few treats. If TMG are closing the book with this release, the diverse output here can give hope for future new directions.
The problem with Jack however, is that despite some occasional tasty hooks and decent musicianship, there isn't one track here that quite matches its lofty aspirations, and nothing that raises the hairs on the back of the neck. It's all expertly delivered, but misses the drama it seeks to portray. Much of this could have been resolved with a production to match the performances.
Then there's the vantage point that Carpenter and the band have chosen to present to us. Whilst the history of Jack the Ripper is ever-fascinating and endlessly speculated, the internal psychology of the man and the events that led to his murderous brutality are a somewhat difficult pill to swallow. His internal monologue, that ventures to blame the failures of his mother, feels uncomfortable, reaching a peak on New Scars with a withering, pathetic wail of 'Why?'
A mixed bag of clearly accomplished songwriting and playing, it is flawed by its chosen theme and at best, understated production.
Western Electric Sound System — The Incredible Shrinking Man
Every so often an album appears out of nowhere that, for whatever reason, proves to be a captivating listening experience. Frequently it has an indescribable quality proving hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that lodges the music in the brain. Such an experience was The Incredible Shrinking Man the debut album by UK trio Western Electric Sound System.
No young whippersnappers are these and all three have a musical pedigree. Rob (guitar, bass) and Duncan (drums, percussion) Forrester were founding members of early 90s band This Picture, whose debut single Naked Rain was a Radio 1 record of the week and topped the American college radio charts. After two albums and plenty of European and US touring, the band disappeared from view. Duncan Forrester resurfaced in Christian rock band Bell Jar who released three albums during their 10-year lifespan before breaking up around 2005. Following the split, Bell Jar's keyboard player, Stephen Whitfield, entered into a writing partnership with Rob F and eventually decided to venture into a recording studio accompanied by, who better than Duncan F. Renowned mixing and recording engineer Stephen W. Tayler who had worked on This Picture's second album, was sent tapes of the work in progress and was immediately captivated volunteering his services for mixing and post-production duties.
What strikes one first as opening track Fear And Loathing begins is Whitfield's deep bass voice, foreboding and ominous set against a sparse musical background of singular drum beats and chiming guitar notes picked out of the ether. A groaning organ swells the sound before proceedings reverse to close things off in a mirror image of the beginning. A very effective transition into Man In Black, possibly the darkest love song ever written, but entirely captivating with a chorus that screws itself into the brain. A more upbeat number, the addition of the sawing fiddle of Martin Bell (last heard as a member of The Wonder Stuff) adds a different tonality, although things are kept towards the lower end of the musical register.
Without any break it is straight into Night Train an extended piece that is more about building a sonic structure than delivering a conventional song. Interestingly, the lyric to this number are not printed in the accompanying booklet, although there are not that many of them and they are repetitive. Musically, the interweaving of the guitar, piano and drums is masterful, only playing what is necessary and remaining silent when not adding anything to the composition, the ebb and flow of the song is hypnotic.
Feel, like Man In Black, has a more jaunty musical backing with a strong chorus although the lyrics are somewhat dark, a theme that carries on into Twelve Day. With a rhythm background based on clapping and shaken percussion it is almost an invitation to sing along, until you are faced with lines such as 'I feel the life, feel the life everlasting, ebbing out, ebbing out of me'. Impressive word play as well. At The Edge Of The World features some fantastic electric piano and a great bass line all pushed back behind the more prominent vocals. The marvellous sound effects added to the end of the songs completes the piece.
Now, we get to Lullaby which will totally pervert any previously held idea of the definition of a lullaby. Although the harmony vocals do generate a more tranquil and restive air, the dark lyrics would give anyone nightmares - 'I'm the priest who touched you up, I'm the Pope who hushed it up, I set you free to fly, only to shoot you from the sky'. Sweet dreams kiddies. We conclude with the title track, another epic number telling a tale straight out of the Scandinavian noir notebooks. The instrumental coda lifts the whole piece, rising from minimalistic playing to a gloriously rousing section where the trio rock out in the most effective way, as if the whole album has been building up to a final crescendo. Tantalisingly, the anticipated climax never materialises with the song sliding back into a more ambient conclusion.
On the whole this is a stunning debut album. Bold in its approach and delivery, defying such meaningless concepts as genre and creating a dark and dystopian yet thoroughly enjoyable artistic statement. Widespread recognition of previous musical endeavours may have eluded the band members, but I hope their time had finally arrived as this album is an amazing musical statement of intent.