Album Reviews

Issue 2011-018: Phideaux - Snowtorch - Round Table Review

Round Table Review

Phideaux – Snowtorch

Phideaux - Snowtorch

Phideaux - Snowtorch
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:AMPCORP02
Year of Release:2011
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Snowtorch [Part One] a) Star Of Light, b) Retrograde, c) Fox On The Rocks, d) Celestine (19:36), Helix (5:54), Snowtorch [Part Two] a) Blowtorch Snowjob b) Fox Rock 2 c) Coronal Mass Ejection (16:08), "." (2:40)

Jez Rowden's Review

After Phideaux Xavier’s growth into one of the standard bearers of modern progressive music over the last few years as a result of a string of quite breathtaking albums this is one of the most anticipated releases of 2011. Phideaux’s albums are never cut from exactly the same cloth as previous ones and this is the case with Snowtorch which bears resemblances to recent releases such as Number Seven and Doomsday Afternoon but is certainly not a rehash. There is definite momentum and movement into new territory with great confidence and the results are wholly successful. Phideaux’s output is certainly prolific, this being the 8th album since 2003, but the quality control and standard of the music produced is awe-inspiring.

The band features the usual suspects, all of whom put in superb performances with special mention for the always magnificent Valerie Gracious whose vocals define some of the most spine-tingling moments of the Phideaux oeuvre and Gabriel Moffat for a stunning production job as well as guitar. Elsewhere Ariel Farber, Mark Sherkus and Johnny Unicorn add sterling violin, piano and sax when called upon with Rich Hutchins (drums) and Matthew Kennedy (bass) pushing the beat forward, particularly on the percussive second half of Snowtorch. I like the tone and presentation of Xavier’s vocal and, although he doesn’t have the range of some of his co-vocalists, his voice is warm and welcoming. He does appear to be at the edge of his vocal capabilities during the intricate Fox On The Rocks but, no matter, he manages to pull it off successfully. Additional vocals from Farber, Unicorn, Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan-Moldawsky offer a choral feel at times and the use of acoustic instruments gives the album an organic edge, acoustic guitar, violin, piano and sax being essential to the Phideaux sound. Here they are augmented by guest cello and flute but Phideaux balance all these instruments well within their sound which can be very driving and heavy when required. The real beauty of this band is that the playing is uniformly excellent with no individual standouts. This is a team effort with a great ensemble feel and it was a privilege and pleasure to see the full band at last year’s Summer’s End Festival. They are one of the true “must sees” of the current crop of bands.

Snowtorch is structured into two multi-part sections (Part One and Part Two) with Helix acting as a buffer between them and the brief finale “.” tying everything together. The music may be a little more forthright than previously and a little darker, not that previous albums didn’t have a touch of the night about them. This album may also be a little less Gothic but certainly packs quite a punch, the result being a modern sounding album that takes its influences from many traditions and genres and creates something of its own.

The title track moves through its various movements, some sections reminding of Yes, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer with a post-punk edge. Helix stands alone as the centre of the album and features another superb performance from Valerie Gracious with fine support from the whole band. The momentum is not lost by splitting the main piece and Helix fits in superbly with the rest of the music. It could have been integrated into Snowtorch and is lyrically linked to it but exists separately as the heart of the album. “.” is a brief, jolly and upbeat coda. The album wouldn’t have suffered if it had been left off but as a celebratory close it justifies its place.

The pieces flow beautifully and sound like familiar friends within a few spins. That said, investing time in this album sees it blossom and reveal itself in its full glory. Phideaux Xavier writes so well, the music is complicated but makes perfect sense, and the whole band fully contributes so in no way is this album a disappointment. Anyone who enjoyed the above-mentioned stellar releases is sure to love Snowtorch.

A triumph and an early contender for album of the year.

Mark Hughes' Review

Following the release of Phideaux's Number Seven in 2009, expectations were high for 7.5 a collection of additional tracks written at the time of Number Seven along with sundry other pieces recorded for various other projects the band had been asked to contribute to. Originally scheduled for release towards the end of 2010, 7.5 was notable by its non appearance. Enter the new year and it seemed as if 7.5 had been permanently shelved when rumours circulated that an entirely new album was in the pipeline. What apparently transpired is the band had entered the studio to finish off 7.5 and got caught up in a whole host of new ideas that took immediate precedence. The result is Snowtorch a concept album featuring nearly 45 minutes of new music. Although there are four tracks on the album, it is essentially one long piece of music as the tracks run into each other with various themes recurring throughout the album. Anyone familiar with Phideaux will know how expertly the numerous musicians that comprise the band are intertwined throughout the songs. The dual vocals of Phideaux Xavier and the wonderful Valerie Gracious are always a treat to hear and, more than on previous releases, the keyboards of Mark Sherkus and Johnny Unicorn are frequently distinguished with swirling organs on the one hand and melodic synth lines on the other. There are also liberal infusions of piano (by Sherkus and Xavier) plus lush strings (by Ariel Farber on violin and guest Stefanie Fife and cello) to add to the atmosphere.

It is often the case that prog bands think it is an essential for them to include long numbers in their repertoire as it is the 'done thing'. However in a lot, perhaps the majority, of cases the musicians themselves are not experienced enough, or competent enough composers to convincingly pull off extended pieces. Simply bolting together odd bits and pieces and adding some rather second rate lyrics in the expectation that a combined running time of 10+ minutes will pull in the plaudits doesn't cut it with me. Fortunately, some musicians, Phideaux included, are beyond such subterfuge and ensure that every second of running time is essential to the composition. Such is Snowtorch, which is much more in the format of a symphony, bringing together carefully crafted highs and lows that entice and excite the listener, taking them along for the entire ride. One easily becomes absorbed in the experience of actually listening to the music, becoming aware of the nuances, the melodic lines repeated first on piano, then on violin, and finally on guitar, being carried through the twists and turns, and savouring each bar. Surprisingly, solos are few and far between, the essence being the band interactions which only strengthens the impact of the music. Although Phideaux the artist lends his name to the band and is the main songwriter, Phideaux the band come first: this is no ego-driven solo escapade, and there are large chunks of the album where he has no vocal lines and his acoustic guitar is not required: again it is the music that comes first. In that respect, the album is distinctly a Phideaux (band) release, and aside from a brief ELP-like keyboard run (circa 10.5 minutes into Snowtorch [part one] if you can't spot it!), is hard to provide comparisons with any other band except themselves. And it has to be said, they have achieved new heights with Snowtorch, even to the extent of the artwork, which requires more than a second glance to understand! It would be impossibly naive and futile to waste time providing descriptors of individual tracks as they need to be heard in context and together to do them complete justice. Having said that, the final track, which I have called Instrumental Reprise (although it was unnamed on the pre-release copy of the album received by DPRP and possibly not included on the final album) is a delight. Tending towards the much more orchestral with the piano and violin taking initial prominence before electronic keyboards round out the sound, it is a lighter antidote to the heavier aspects of Snowtorch [Part Two] and the often darker lyrical content.

In a very short time I have grown to love this album and each time I play it I hear more levels and am more impressed by the composition and arrangements. Superlatives are easy to bandy around, however I can honestly say that if no other albums are released this year, I will still consider 2011 a great year for progressive music, simply because it was the year Snowtorch was released.

Edwin Roosjen's Review

Reviewing a Phideaux album must be the hardest job in the reviewing business. I remember listening to The Great Leap for the first time and could not understand what the fuss was all about, however after numerous spins it became one of my favourite albums and is still my favourite Phideaux album. Xavier Phideaux is a master in creating albums that slowly reveal their beauty and therefore remain enjoyable for a long time. After The Great Leap, which is very much song-based, Phideaux turned more progressive on Doomsday Afternoon, the follow-up album, with many recurring themes. His next album Number Seven was the next logical step, also recurring themes and even more the feeling that the whole album is one big piece of music instead of separate songs.

Snowtorch again follows this logical progression. Split into two parts, with two much smaller pieces, this album, in my opinion, can truly be regarded as one long song. It is therefore only natural that I can only review this album in its entirety. The recurring themes are not as prominent as on it's two predecessors and the melodies change more rapidly and do not come back as often as on the aforementioned albums. Phideaux decided to put more ideas into this album and he has got a lot of those. Each Snowtorch part can be split into smaller parts but it does not break down the bigger picture.

This album is more compact but still all Phideaux elements are present, the female vocals, the LALALALALA chanting and the many keyboard melodies. The guitar has lost a bit of ground again in favour of the keyboards, so in theory this album has moved away from the style of music I prefer. The Great Leap is still my favourite Phideaux album because I prefer song based albums and I like my music with a bit more guitar. Still Snowtorch caught me and Xavier Phideaux amazes me again, it is a wonderful album that will be one of the best of 2011.

Brian Watson's Review

Welcome back my friends…

Yes, it’s been a while but life, and all that goes with it does tend to get in the way sometimes.

I have been diligently putting reviewing into the ‘to do’ pile on an almost daily basis but on my all too infrequent days off I consistently disappoint myself when, at day’s end, realisation dawns that I have done little but change (the many many) channels of shit on the TV.

When is a man just a mouse?
When he hides in the house and ignores what is happening
Covers his eyes to the lies that he tells
So he won’t have to know
Hiding away from the fray In a hole in the wall
In a world become small. Nothing to say

(Snowtorch Part Two – Fox Rock 2)

I have nevertheless, and despite myself, not been that averse to spending money. Hard earned, and let’s face it better spent on fun stuff than on such luxuries as the mortgage, food and what not.

So, added to cart has been one of these digital download doohickies, as I await a physical CD from the American States of Unitedness. But this is not any mere mp3 dungload, bought on a whim after too much pinot. This is the new album by American musician, guitarist and all-round nice guy Phideaux Xavier whose band, Phideaux, is perhaps one of my top ten favourite bands. Ever. Their performance at last year’s Summer’s End Festival was to my mind sublime, and one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended. At that gig, and on this record, bass guitar is played by Mathew Kennedy, of US band Discipline, another of my top ten bands of all time. So it’s looking promising already. The album’s called Snowtorch, and it’s “a musing on life, language and solar flares”. Apparently.

I blame DPRP for my near fanatical love of this band. It was the 2005 review of Chupacabras that first piqued my interest and I proceeded to buy that. What’s not to like about a prog concept album about a mythical Mexican devil beast kind of thing? But I am an objective reviewer, and will keep any fan boy silliness to a minimum. I can’t promise anything, mind, for I cried when I first heard Yes perform Awaken live for the first time, and once when listening to In Earnest by The Tangent I was so overwhelmed a bit of wee came out.

Everything the band had recorded prior to that landed on my doormat soon after. And every new release since has been awaited with that sense of teenage giddy excitement I once reserved for LPs by Genesis, Yes, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult et al.

Every single one of their seven albums before this one has been awarded a DPRP recommended rating. Which should tell you something. Now, not many bands achieve this accolade (The Tangent spring to mind as another member of this small and perfectly formed group).

With "Number 7 ½" (comprising bits and pieces as well as seminal track Tempest of Mutiny) slated for later this year hopefully, what, then do we make of Phideaux’ Number 8, aka Snowtorch?

The ten-piece line-up from Number Seven (and Summer’s End) remains, although on this record we also have Stephanie Fife who plays cello, and Chris Bleth who adds flute and soprano saxophone.

The length, however, doesn’t match the girth, so to speak. No. It’s not a long album by any stretch of the imagination, clocking in around the 40 minute mark, with Snowtorch proper split into two multi faceted suites and the standalone song Helix, debuted at Summer’s End, sandwiched in-between. And there’s an unnamed, fourth track just over two and a half minutes long (“.”) that ends the album. The separate sections signal changes in tempo, tone and musical emphasis but otherwise this could quite easily be perceived, and listened to as one long song. An epic in other words. I’m sure it’ll be played live as such.

Snowtorch is for my money the most immediate, and instantly accessible piece Phideaux have ever released. Highly melodic, there are a great many foot-tapping moments on first listen. And you can’t say that about a lot of prog. There are more peaks and troughs, there’s more light and shade than on, say, Number Seven. There’s so much more going on sonically on this record than on the one before (which Phideaux re-mixed only a short while after it had been first released, which must tell you something). That’s not to say that Number Seven was a bad record. Far from it. It’s an excellent album, as they all are but it followed after a fantastic one. Or two, as The Great Leap and Doomsday Afternoon are kind of related temporally and conceptually. A good friend of mine, trying to sum up why he was ever, ever so slightly disappointed in Number Seven, termed it “a bit samey”. Which as critique goes is as close to the mark as it gets, I guess. Anyhoo…

Snowtorch [Part One] kicks things off, and is split into four sections, the closing one of which, Celestine, is an instrumental.

It all starts off slowly enough, with Star Of Light, and is unmistakably Phideaux – he has one of the most original, and expressive voices you’re ever likely to hear. Three female vocalists contribute here, as they do at varying stages throughout the album, all the singers playing roles, adding texture, breathing life into the songs.

Lyrically it’s poignant, thoughtful, and superbly crafted. Phideaux writes lyrics as well as Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue. The words, and their cadence are in and of themselves musical. When the piano kicks in and the song really gets going the arrangement is incredibly cinematic, layering instruments and voices, into a joyous, but if you listen closely an ever so slightly dark whole:

See the helix alive, we cast you aside and thrive
So come now and we’ll settle the bet
It’s a dark hour that you’ll never forget
Is it lonely as you take in the next to last breath
And die

Retrograde is up next, an altogether rockier beast thanks to the phenomenally good guitar playing of Gabriel Moffatt.

Fox On The Rocks – starts off like a lost Supertramp tune, before a beautifully understated solo by Moffat gives way to a dreamy vocal/piano interlude. The keyboards then take primacy, for a fantastic extended solo workout. Close your eyes and you’d swear Tony Banks circa Wind And Wuthering was tinkling the ivories.

Celestine is an Eastern-tinged instrumental melange that latterly adds some saxophone. You know when something gets inside your head and you just can’t shake it? Well, the sax passage is so reminiscent of a 1980s British TV show my OCD has gone into hyper-superdrive. For the life of me I cannot recall the title, but it’s so evocative, just as the smell of freshly cut grass or newly laid tarmac can trigger moments - and memories - from childhood). Anyway, enough of my regressing. That’s what I pay Doctor Geoff (is he a real Doctor, I wonder?) for. It all ends, as all things must, in an anthemic, slightly (organ)ic fashion.

It’s the organ that leads us into Helix, restrained, yet booming guitar chords and Hammond evoking The Yes Album. It’s a hair on the back of the neck moment, this is. Female vocals are to the fore, as is Moffat’s bluesy guitar, filling in the empty spaces, electronically conversing with the leads, in this tale of life, the universe, and everything. Monkeys indeed. Glad we stopped the faeces flinging, mind.

The instrumental Blowtorch Snowjob (see what they’ve done there?) kicks off Snowtorch [Part Two] and is typical, strident Phideaux, with strummed acoustic, keys, organ, mellotron and strings. To name but a few of the instruments on offer. Try to listen to this on some good cans, and in Pro Logic II on a 5.1 system if you can – the way the organ sound is thrown around the speakers is something to behold. If you’ve ever listened to Starship Trooper on headphones you’ll know what I mean.

Fox Rock 2 – The ladies take on primary vocal duties again, over a bouncy piano theme before Coronal Mass Injection, which sees the return of Phideaux and some much, much darker piano and surgically stabbing guitar. Then, all too quickly, it’s time for the final denouement:

In the madness, something came out
And it’s moving, dissolving the doubt
These words, these beautiful vowels
Storming around from the silence where everything’s found
Always looming, like rain from a cloud
Words, and all that’s aroused

.” is two and half minutes of happy, up tempo music, complete with harmonising and jolly ‘hoopla’, reprising themes from the overall piece. Telling us all, I guess, in a comforting and friendly manner “Don’t Panic”. For whilst…

Every god is a letdown
All heroes are false
So there ends the lesson
It’s a hell of a course


...then at least we’ve got music like this to listen to.

Brilliant: One of my top 5 of the year.

And just to clear up the mystery of "." or the un-named track that closes the album:

"It is unmarked on the CD and LP labels. It doesn't appear on the artwork, nor does it's total time factor in to the timings on the labels. We had to designate it as something for itunes and for the CD database so we chose the character "." as the designation - I hesitate to call it title for it is an unmarked oddity.

As for the reason behind this. We loved the instrumental reprise of this music, but also felt that the album "ended" so completely and totally that we couldn't really work this bit in. So, we opted to have it be a surprise for those who are just listening. We didn't want to title it because we really thought of it as a coda/bonus. However, once we had this piece in place it seemed to make sense with the overall theme of the record. But we didn't want to make a big deal about it by giving it a title."


JEZ ROWDEN : 9.5 out of 10
MARK HUGHES : 10 out of 10
EDWIN ROOSJEN : 9 out of 10
BRIAN WATSON : 9 out of 10

Album Reviews