Bioplan — Epipath + Ocular
Andi Kravljaca might be recognised as being the vocalist to several albums by Silent Call, Aeon Zen, and Seventh Wonder. But on these dual EP releases, now combined into one album, he doesn't showcase any vocals. Instead he displays exceptional instrumental skills in form of amazing, virtuous and technical guitar wizardry. A most splendid surprise, which sees him soar through instrumental progressive metal pieces with a strong sense of an 80s feel.
The CD/digital album consists of the two individual EPs, namely Ocular from 2019 and Epipath from 2020. A slightly different running order, places the individual bonus tracks from each EP at the end. A good decision as it keeps the pace of the music in a nicely arranged flow. It has to be said though that these remixed tracks are the two most time-warpingly-infectious, 80s-styled tracks on the album.
There is also a complementary limited edition box-set version which is housed in a VHS (video-cassette) box, designed by Tom de Wit (Dreamwalkers Inc.) (whose label Layered Reality Productions is responsible for this release), that manages to breath the same melancholic, nostalgic, almost over the top feel. Not only through its lovely retro appearance, but upon opening, it reveals some typical 80s mementos like a plectrum and sticker, while the signed personified letter and graphic CD design add a further delightful touch. A promising package, which from a musical point of view proves to be equally fulfilling. (There are only 100 of these available: so be quick!)
The Gavin Graham remix of Ingress starts with synth rock instantly propelling my inner time machine to 1984, where Super Mario Bros. meet Axel F on a Donkey Kong ride. The electronic disco beat of Invective (retrologue remix) even tops this, turning the original, adventurous prog metal track into a raving dance party. Both tracks are great examples of the inventiveness and creativity of Kravljaca, where guitars play a less dominant role.
Alongside the heavier intonation of Ocular compared to the lighter side of Epipath, there are a few other differences. On the former, the bass parts are handled by Rich Hinks (Aeon Zen), while on the latter this is competently done by Kravljaca; to such an extend that you really have to examine the compositions to notice any subtle differences. Furthermore Invective from Ocular sees a few guest performances by Alistair Bell and Emil Pohjalainen on solo guitar, as well as appetising keyboard solos by Pekka Laitinen and Andreas Söderin. Only Harri Koskela on keys adds his refined feature to Epipath's Atomic Era Cocktails.
That's where the basic differences end, and a wild ride in elementary prog-metal fusion begins, graciously opened by the synth-led Ingress. A delicate beat and fine guitar acrobatics flow in a vibrant Rush atmosphere sharing a likeness to their Grace Under Pressure period. Superbly continued in the djenty, groove-inspired Perspex Cassidy, where a slight transition to rock fusion then forcefully sets the tone of the album. The modern fierce riffs, tightness of rhythm, jazzy notes and complex breaks are soothing while Kravljaca's guitar outburst makes the track mindful to Hybridism.
He's A Transponster glides into poppy atmospheres and features twinkling synth and catchy melodies. Filled with flying arpeggios, stunning shreds and guitar virtuosity, the many alterations keeps the composition fresh and exciting.
The subdued Steve Morse interlude character of VFR into IMC manages to do exactly the same, all leading up to the excellent Atomic Era Cocktails. Igniting sparks of Crockett and Tubbs sailing the waves of Miami Vice, it crashes through many chords and scales into an overwhelming keyboard solo before slowly converging into an unparalleled, upbeat electronic synthwave.
The danger of becoming too one-dimensional after all the guitar bravery thus far, is avoided as the gentle Astral floats by. Normality is however restored with the tour de force of Invective. Aided by the aforementioned guests, it soars through heavy riffs, delicate jazzy vibes and complex movements all encased in technical prog metal and djent, where the short key eruption is welcomed.
The rotational intertwining of keys and guitars, sees the same principles in the spellbinding Permeant and Inclement, although the djent element is less apparent. In both tracks the constantly shifting soundscapes and guitar extravaganzas surf at high tide. The restrained, melodic, bluesy nature of Refractive, showing brief glimpses of Neal Schon, at long last brings some untold passionate relief.
Together with the crystal clear production (mastered and mixed by Hinks) the album most certainly packs a punch through its very accomplished, complex, instrumental prog metal. Personally I prefer the refinement in arrangements and superior 80s feel of Epipath, although the powerful energetic fusion vibe to Ocular is equally appealing. The refreshing use of synth, especially in the way it's been used in Atomic Era Cocktails, is delicious, yet I wouldn't mind further implementation of a healthy dose of tantalising keyboard solos, for this adds substantial flavour, depth and diversification.
Further recommendations falls towards those who prefer the likes of Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani under the premises of a progressive metal working environment. One lingering thought keeps me wondering what might happen when Kravljaca would add his clear, high-pitched vocals to this. Maybe next time, for there is a infinity of possible explorations in this joyous hybrid field.
Caligula's Horse — Rise Radiant
Brisbane's Caligula's Horse have been on a steady rise since their inception in 2011. The quality and consistency of their releases has been magnificent to behold and only continues to impress with Rise Radiant, the band's fifth full-length album.
Part of an ever-increasing Australian progressive metal scene, along with bands like Karnivool, Voyager, Chaos Divine and Hemina, Caligula's Horse have been at the forefront of this movement since their breakthrough album Bloom in 2015. I was fortunate enough to see the band perform live when, in 2018, they opened the UK's Damnation festival to an enthusiastic crowd, and delivered a breathtaking performance, showcasing the band's incredible tightness and musical discipline.
Caligula's Horse have a very recognisable sound, thanks mostly to vocalist Jim Grey and lead guitarist Sam Vallen. Jim, formerly of now defunct Aussie prog rockers, Arcane, has one of those unique voices that is simply unmistakable, he has a beautifully-rounded pallet with the ability to sing soft, subtle passages and then just as easily evolve into an aggressive, yet melodic style. He is able to bring an emotional and personal layer to the music, which so many other bands lack.
Just as impressive is the guitar work of founding member Sam Vallen. His style is metallic, modern and focused, yet you can sense he grew up listening to a lot of Steve Vai and 80s hair metal. His incredible solos, which are littered throughout the album, are some of the highlights, and are always a welcome addition to the songs. The rest of the band do an outstanding job of keeping the sound tight and layered. The production and mix of this record are also top notch; this is possibly the best sounding album the band has put out to date.
The opening duo of Tempest and Slow Violence, get the album off to a great start. The opener contains an absolutely massive chorus, showcasing the band's ability to meld gorgeous vocal melodies with crashing guitars, driving rhythms and subtle, yet hugely effective keyboards in the background. The sound lies somewhere between modern metal, djent and progressive rock, with a sensible restraint, never allowing too much of anything to get out of hand.
Slow Violence, the album's lead single, contains another great chorus and more clever, disjointed rhythm work. This is more of a haunting track than the previous, it has some tremendously catchy vocal hooks and can remain stuck in your head well after listening.
Salt is where the album begins to shed its skin and show just how inventive Caligula's Horse can be. Opening with fast, aggressive guitars and drums, the song explodes into a truly epic riff, similar to something Devin Townsend might have written. Later the band slow things down, showing a slightly jazzy side to their sound. The melodies in this section of the song are truly inspired. It's simply a joy to listen to. Equally as impressive is the ambient ballad Resonate, another beautifully melodic moment on the album. It serves as a much needed rest after the rollercoaster that was Salt, and prepares the listener for the much heavier Oceanrise.
Quite possibly my favourite song on the album, Valkyrie, is a powerful lesson in the art of writing a modern progressive metal song. Everything about this track hits the spot for me. The riffs are intelligent and unrelenting, the lyrics are poetic and haunting, and the chorus is epic in every respect. Even when you think the chorus is about done, it gets even bigger and better. The highlight of the song is the subtle, arpeggiated keyboards that back up the second part of the chorus. This is an effect that the band Mind's Eye used throughout their masterpiece, A Gentleman's Hurricane, and it works brilliantly here to accentuate the guitar and vocal melodies; a true goosebumps moment.
Autumn is a slow burner, probably more so than any other Caligula's Horse song. This took ages to grow on me, slowly revealing its beautiful moments. Starting with just acoustic guitar and vocals, the song slowly builds its atmosphere as it carries the listener on a wonderful journey. This is one of the most mature songs the band have ever written and shows a real growth and an ability to tread new ground while still sounding fresh.
The song flows effortlessly into epic closer, The Ascent, almost as if they were the same track. This ten-minute monster is the album's longest track and another one that took its time getting under my skin. It contains all the band's hallmarks: flourishing guitar solo's, great rhythms and more fantastic vocal melodies, and while it's not as strong or as in your face as a track like Graves (the closer from previous album, In Contact,) it serves as an excellent cut-off point to a great album and a worthy addition to the band's superb catalogue.
Although they weren't included in my review copy, the released version of the album contains two bonus tracks. The first is a cover of Peter Gabriel's, Don't Give Up, featuring some beautiful female vocals singing the parts that were originally sung by Kate Bush. The second bonus track is a cover of the Split Enz track, Message To My Girl. This 1983 hit is brilliantly reproduced here in all its 80s glory. It's an absolutely fantastic cover, the band making the song their own, while doing the original justice.
So this is another very impressive release from the Australians andit is bound to further extend the band's popularity on all fronts. I'd highly recommend this album to anyone who is not familiar with the band as an excellent introduction to their unique sound. Existing fans will no doubt be happy at the music on offer here and I have a feeling this may just creep into my top ten albums of the year.
Duncan Harris — Hawkwind - On Track... - Every Album, Every Song [book]
The delightful On Track... books by Sonicbond Publishing are written by authors ranging from dedicated fans, to musicians and renowned reviewers. In this particular case, it sees musical journalist and interviewer Duncan Harris achieve something rather unique, at least to my knowledge. For when I think of Hawkwind, truckloads of infinite line-up changes, numerous studio albums and a plethora of miscellaneous, related albums and songs pop up straight away, making we wonder how on earth he can address all this within the standard of 160 pages.
Some artists, like for instance Frank Zappa, have such an extensive discography, that one can feel the necessity to address a certain time-frame in order to retain a captivating story. The daunting task to address every single song ever released by Hawkwind in their 50 years of existence, made me anticipate something similar especially with the many B-sides, demo's and alternate takes on many obscure compilations, some of which have not even been endorsed by the band.
Ever since my first introduction to this band through Orgone Accumulator from Space Ritual at the age of 12, I have already tried to tie-up many loose ends concerning Hawkwind over the years; but from round about 1989 I eventually gave up. Harris's detailed information and helpful descriptions would have saved me a lot of time, for he most confidently works his way through their timeline and miraculously manages to squeeze it all in, for most parts. A complement in itself, yet admittedly he takes some liberties.
One of these is the upfront strange choice of including Robert Calvert's Captain Lockheed & The Starfighters, an album not released under the Hawkwind banner, although it sees the whole band involved. Similarly strange is the official Hawkwind release SpaceBrock, now deemed as being a Dave Brock solo album and thus skipped as an entry, while the Psychedelic Warriors album White Zone, which some might see as a Hawkwind album, is only mentioned. The die-hard Hawkwind fan will probably have more oddities and discussions to add, but for me Harris manages to justify these personal decisions full-heartedly.
The resulting chronologically-entertaining tale, showing great readability, is filled to the brim with (funny) remarks, sidelines, surprising "new to me" knowledge and facts. The eight dividing chapters, each handling a specific era of the band, provides further clearness and soothing classification. In alignment to this is the reassuring fact that non-album tracks like Silver Machine and Urban Guerilla get due credit in between the surrounding albums, securely proving Harris's intent to be as thorough as possible.
As founding fathers to space-rock and psychedelic rock, Hawkwinds' tale in these past five decades has been nothing short of a complex one. From a musical point of view, it has seen them glide along with krautrock and hardrock, flirt with punk, techno, ambient and house and try occasional experimentation with blues, jazz, and dance; with differing results. The short-lived Hawklords incarnation, many band spin-offs and countless changes of musicians doesn't make it any easier to form a red line, yet Harris very capably paints the bigger picture.
He denotes the importance and influence of each individual member, while acknowledging the impact of illustrious ex-members like Lemmy Kilminster (Motorhead), Robert Calvert and Nik Turner. Subsequently his appraisal and mostly positive opinions shine through delicately, whilst he's simultaneously not afraid of adding several critical question marks to some of their musical dwellings.
A departure from the standardised concept, is the full run down of three of their live albums, while only a few others get mentioned (from which some individual tracks get a brief description). It stands to reason though why these albums are included. Space Ritual is the epiphany of their earlier, groundbreaking period containing many unreleased gems, while Live Seventy Nine gave them a fresh new lease on life, and the epic Live Chronicles is a true testament to one of their more fruitful creative periods. The latter two also contain many new tracks, so are warranted additions.
It also underlines the importance and strength of Hawkwind as a live act, which I was fortunate to witness on two occasions during the "Oldie Rock" phase of the band (1992-1998). Circumstantial inhaling during these events shrouds any precise recollection. Only vague memories of snakes, dancers, hypnotic strobe lightning and The Golden Void, one of my favourite tracks, come to mind. For the life of me I can't remember which line-up I saw in 1996, as this is obscured by clouds (concrete fog might be more accurate) and thankfully the book now sheds some light to this.
A minor downside is the fact that the individual albums, unlike previous editions, don't start afresh on a new page. It saves for valuable printing space, but impacts on the readability. With occasional insertions of tracks from a not entirely discussed and only mentioned (live)-album, it makes for occasional confused reading. An appendix with page references to these individual songs would have been appreciated.
The overall completeness of tracks is however a solid achievement and by putting many of the loose tracks alongside its correct period or associated album, makes the book a perfect work-of-reference from a collector's point of view. It is not all-encompassing though, seeing the curious absence of We Two Are One from Spacehawks (see video), especially since the other tracks from this compilation are featured.
Finally the fact that Harris does refrain from being too analytical in detailed deconstruction of the tracks is a big pro, mainly because of its side effect. He offers accurate, to-the-point musical descriptions and then excitingly tends to focus, when applicable, on the specific circumstances, whilst delving into the political, social, cultural or satirical aspects of the compositions. This is were Harris excels and adds substantial value and historical depth. Together with his accessible, entertaining way of writing, this proves to be the page-turning quality of the book to me.
I applaud every single book I have read from the series so far. Besides containing a soothing entertainment factor, enriching the reader with much useful information, these books are also capable of igniting precious memories and a (returned) fondness and interest in the artist involved. Thankfully this time around without the need to acquire part of their discography, since Harris has me convinced I already own the essential Hawkwind albums.
A last general remark is the use of different writers, each with their own perspective and background in the series. This is a great asset, making every encounter feel fresh. Based on this book and all the previous ones I've read from the series, it will see me return on a fairly regular basis, where the prospect of books on Kansas and Dream Theater has already whetted my appetite. Then again, I'm always hungry for prog (knowledge).
McStine & Minnemann — McStine & Minnemann
McStine & Minnemann is the self-titled debut from multi-instrumentalists Randy McStine (Lo-Fi Resistance) and Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson). Full of hook-laden, short-form rock tracks, the appeal for prog fans will reside in the complexity of the performances. In fact, it is impressive how these two talented musicians stick to a fairly accessible musical format while still presenting some extremely intricate and diverse instrumentation.
You can hear shades of bands like Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief and even Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. Tracks such as Program, Falling From Grace, Catrina, Activate and Voyager provide a mix of edgy alternative rock with a 70s, multi-layered vocal approach. McStine is an excellent singer and this blending of styles suits him well. Other songs (Your Offenses, Top of the Bucket, The Closer) offer a heightened commercial approach, but the end results are no less effective.
McStine & Minnemann pack a lot of power and diversity into the album's brisk 36 minutes. As a result, many of the songs seem deceivingly longer or more detailed than their relatively short running times would suggest. Regardless of their length, there is no mistaking these for standard pop/rock songs. They are elaborate, three to four minute gems without a wasted note.
Minnemann is one of the finest musicians/drummers working at the moment, so his excellent performances here come as no surprise. Although I'd heard some Lo-Fi Resistance and The Fringe material, Randy McStine's work here was the real discovery for me. The album is a great showcase of his talents and a very entertaining launch for this gifted musical duo.
Odessey & Oracle — Crocorama
In choosing albums to review, I usually listen to samples to figure out if I want to review the album, sometimes I just use pot luck, but for Odessey & Oracle's Crocorama I was rather taken by the collage cover artwork by Luca Tanzini, with its late 60s, early 70s vibe. It has been years since I have done that and I'm so glad that I did.
I assume that the band derived their name from the 1968 psychedelic pop album by The Zombies, as they have the same misspelling of Odessey as on The Zombies album cover. Crocorama has the same late 60s, early 70s psychedelic vibe to its compact songs. Odessey & Oracle also include healthy doses of baroque pop (harpsichord, recorders, oboe, trumpets and flutes) but add in vintage analogue synths, organ, electric piano and guitars that give their sound a contemporary edge.
This is the Lyon quartet's third album and it is sung entirely in French. It has the feel of Francois Hardy covering songs by Syd Barrett, Jefferson Airplane and the previously mentioned Zombies.
Using the psyche-pop template, Odessey & Oracle have created a set of densely arranged, meatily layered songs that grab one's interest. The production values are high and all the instruments can be heard clearly.
On the title track, burbling synths and banjo back a Revolver era Beatles-esque melody. The mix of Fanny L'Héritier's lead vocals and guitarist/bassist Guillaume Médioni, give an organic folky feel like The Incredible String Band. The vocals throughout are captivating, though I understand almost no French. When the two duet on Les Enfants it is quite special and although you think its going to be a melancholic ballad, it gets interrupted by Alice Baudoin's harpsichord-driven, fast sections that lead to an orchestral conclusion.
I'm not going to track-by-track this cracking collection of beautifully played psyche-pop. I'm sure that Odessey & Oracle's Crocorama will not be for everyone, as this is on the brightly-lit end of the prog spectrum, about as far from growly, dystopian prog-metal as you can get.
But if you have a soft spot for any of the artists already mentioned or if you like the XTC psyche-offshoot The Dukes of Stratosphear or Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star then investigate this mix of sunny, uplifting, often beguiling, collection of chamber pop, baroque pop and psychedelia. It will make you wonder what is in the water in Lyon?
Claudio Scolari Project — Upside Down
First-off, my apologies to the Claudio Scolari Project for the delay in reviewing this release. They sent it to me at the end of last year and I only found it in a Covid lockdown tidy-up.
This new release follows on from, and very much continues, the avant-jazz-prog sound world of their previous release Natural Impulse. Upside Down has the same improvisatory, live-in-the-studio feel, with the musicians producing short, melodic phrases on trumpet or piano that they then play around with, they add synth noise, disruptive percussion, electronics and avant-noise.
Over ten tracks Claudio Scolari Project move from Miles Davis' early electric period exploration of a groove (Smoke in C Minor and Underground Soul) but then they experiment with avant-noises from synths and drum fills.
This is much how Upside Down continues, with less and less prog in evidence and more modernist avant-jazz. The short, melodic phrases on trumpet and/or piano get repeated, without much in the way of development. It is, for me, an indictment of the album that I think the best track is Twister, which is a drum duet where there isn't a melody to interrupt. Its rhythmic invention is captivating and it keeps moving and developing throughout.
Claudio Scolari Project Upside Down is a difficult listen with its constant disruptions to what the ear initially settles on. I like a lot of jazz, but this is a modernist jazz step too far for me.