Apogee - Conspiracy Of Fools
In a recording career spanning nearly 30 years, this is the ninth studio album from Apogee, AKA German composer, multi-instrumentalist and singer Arne Schäfer. Four of the previous albums have been reviewed by the DPRP with generally favourable results. Certainly enough to peak my interest when the opportunity to review this release presented itself.
In my experience, the quality of one man band albums can be variable, especially production values. It takes more than access to a studio and spare time on one's hands to produce good music. No such issues with Apogee however, Conspiracy Of Fools is an album of memorable music, superb musicianship, tight arrangements and first rate production. Thankfully there is also an absence of synthetic percussion, with drummer Ebi Graef providing solid support throughout. Mention should also go to the CD digipak with fine artwork by Bernd Webler.
Before I go any further however we will have to get around the elephant in the room, namely Schäfer’s singing. Like many musicians who adopt a half spoken, half sung style to accommodate vocal limitations, Schäfer’s talents are better displayed behind a guitar or keyboard than a microphone. Or to put it another way, if you don’t care for Andy Tillison’s singing then you may will find Schäfer’s equally off-putting.
Fortunately, he excels on both keyboards and guitar, especially the latter. His versatility ranges from the melodic Steve Hackett-inspired solo during the title song to the articulate bass lines and jazzy improv of Allan Holdsworth in Incomprehensible Intention to the dexterous classical guitar picking of Losing Gentle Control. He also does a neat line in George Harrison (by way of Steve Howe) style slide guitar during the concluding The Whispering From Outside.
Schäfer’s keyboard technique also evokes the usual 1970s suspects, favouring synths and string samples for the most part plus organ and piano. He weaves melodic textures including vintage Mellotron flute and strings which during Colors And Shade tips its hat to the grandeur of Genesis’ Watcher Of The Skies. In contrast, the new-agey synths of Jean-Michel Jarre are evident in the intro to the aforementioned The Whispering From Outside.
The melodies themselves are also noteworthy and despite my reservations regarding the vocals there is no denying the optimistic charm of songs like Override Our Instincts with its memorable Beatles-ish chorus. Interestingly, this same song veers off into UK instrumental territory for its final 3 minutes or so.
There is a good deal to like about the music of Apogee but ultimately for me the disparity between the instrumental qualities and the singing is not helped by the vocals dominating every song. Even the bands that have influenced Schäfer like Genesis, ELP, King Crimson and Gentle Giant who all had ace vocalists in their ranks included the occasional instrumental in their repertoire.
Jack O The Clock - Repetitions Of The Old City - II
Much of Jack O The Clock;s latest album, Repetitions Of The Old City - II, was composed before and at the same time as their previous release Repetitions Of The Old City - I.
The most recent instalment of this duo of albums compliments the original perfectly. Whilst II arguably does not have the same immediate satisfying impact of part 1, exemplified in tunes such as Videos Of The Dead and Fighting The Doughboy. Nevertheless, it rewards the listener who perseveres and after a number of plays, the album comes into its own. It offers some superb ensemble moments, but overall, has a much darker aura and is musically denser than its predecessor is.
The album has three distinct sections: The Blizzard, Interlude, and Artifacts Of Love And Isolation.
The Blizzard has its own feel and vibe, beginning with a spoken narrative Damascus Gate. The longest piece in this section, Miracle Car Wash 1978, is full of interesting twists, turns, and is, best described, as an example of avant twisted folk. Island time is a much more accessible composition and is an uplifting tune that cleans the sonic palette and readjusts the senses, following the unique after taste caused by exposure to the excellent Miracle Car Wash 1978.
Artifacts Of Love And Isolation has a somewhat different overall feel and tracks such as Into The Fireplace emit a sinister, disturbing glow. There were times during this section of six tunes, that artists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy came to mind.
My favourite piece on the album is undoubtedly the instrumental Guru On The Road, which makes up the interlude section. Even though it is one of the album's most structured pieces, it has a wonderful collective energy where all the members of the band all bring their A game to the table.
The combination of bassoon and violin once again features prominently throughout the release and supplies much of the album with a recognisable flavour. This combination continues to explore some of the stylistic traits that were so successful in part 1.
As might be expected, principal composer and founding member Damon Waitkus continues to have an essential part in delivering the band's unique and idiosyncratic stound.
Waitkus' attractive wobbly-warbled voice is central to the albums narrative; he probably has one of the most easily recognisable vocal styles in the world of prog. His vocal delivery during The Blizzard section of the release brought to mind the vocal style and intonations sometimes used by the American band Interpol.
The album contains many memorable vocal refrains and choruses, but Waitkus heartfelt deliver of the line "Don't touch me yet my love" in the intriguingly titled I Am Afraid Of Fucking The Whole Thing Up must rank as one of the vocal highlights of the album.
A Sick Boy is especially interesting and is an excellent and memorable way to conclude the album. It acts as bridge to the first album and is a fitting conclusion to this duo series of releases, as it contains many parts that revisit some of the musical themes present in part 1’s standout track Fighting The Dough Boy.
The album will appeal to anybody who enjoys music that sits outside the box and enjoys music that defies usual genre norms, although the release shows an awareness and sensitivity to American folk traditions. If you appreciate music that utilises some of the sounds associated with Americana, but also enjoy tightly arranged albums like Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses, then there are certain to be many parts of this release that will impress. The mix of so many different stylistic approaches with more than a whiff of the unpredictability associated with more avant music makes it a fascinating and often hugely enjoyable album.
Special note must be given to the fact that the download version of this album is offered in 24 bits. A download that is actually of higher quality than CD in a time where lossy MP3 still seems to rule! Top class decision and an example for many.
Strangefish - The Spotlight Effect
One of my favourite albums of 2006 was undoubtedly Fortune Telling by Strangefish. In my review I confidently declared that “This album captures a band in a rapid state of development with a strong future ahead”. Little did I know that it would be a full 12 years before the next album. This was partly due to the band taking time out following a "farewell" show for the Classic Rock Society in Rotherham on 21st June 2008 (one of the best gigs this reviewer has witnessed).
Reformed in 2012, this is their third album following Fortune Telling and the 2003 debut Full Scale. The lineup that recorded both those albums remains mostly intact, namely Steve Taylor (vocals), Paul O'Neil (keyboards), Bob (guitars) and Dave Whittaker (drums). Replacing Julian Gregory on bass is Carl Howard with additional vocals from Dave’s wife Jo Whittaker.
Although 12 years is a long time in rock (bands have formed, released 3 or 4 albums and parted in the same time) I was still surprised by the contrast between The Spotlight Effect and the last album. Whereas Fortune Telling acknowledged their neo-prog roots (Strangefish formed in 1989), this has a darker, more contemporary edge.
It's a telling indication of the way music is sold these days (i.e. a lack of stores where you can walk in a browse) that a band who are relatively unknown in the wider world have the confidence to release a CD that doesn't have their name or the title on the cover.
Rather than a catchy uptempo opener as is the norm, Death of Common Sense is a stripped down, folk style protest song in the spirit of early Lindisfarne and Billy Bragg. Backed by strummed acoustic guitar, Taylor’s scathing indictment of the legal system, the media, blind conformity and the stifling of individuality provide a thread that runs through the album.
Progress In Reverse picks up the thread and runs with it, led by Howard’s trebly bass intro. Frantic guitar and organ interplay and a melodic Genesis interlude at the midway point standout. But don’t be fooled, both this song and Iconacon that follows contain some of the band’s heaviest, riff driven music to date with the latter almost collapsing under its own weight around the halfway mark. Thankfully it regroups for an excillerting second half, pausing only for Taylor’s sardonic vocal outro.
Summer Slips Away returns to an acoustic setting with Taylor lamenting the passing of summer and another year. The poetic lyrics are suitably melancholic although for me the romantic arrangement and vocals seem out of place, reminding me of the MOR tendencies of popular art-rockers Elbow.
Clocking in at 18 minutes and divided into three parts, Delicate is undoubtedly the albums centerpiece. Part 1, Now Is Not The Time, is a bright, melodious song with lush keys bringing Big Big Train to mind which even a bluesy guitar solo can’t distract. Part 2, Half The Battle, ups the tempo although melody remains to the fore with a noodly synth break and rhapsodic piano that dates back to early 1970s Renaissance. Taylor’s spoken excerpt recalls Fish’s intro to Marillion’s Bitter Suite. Part 3, The Light At The Other Side, takes an unexpected turn into big ballad territory with piano, keyboard orchestrations and Jo’s theatrical vocal rounded off with a short but epic finale.
The (almost) title song Spotlight Effect keeps the proggy momentum going with its syncopated rhythm with Jo backing Steve’s strong lead to harmonious effect. The instrumental section with histrionic guitar pyrotechnics is full of Led Zeppelin / Rainbow bravado but the song and synth led instrumental sequence that follows is pure Strangefish at their infectious best.
Reverse Switch transforms the main hook from Progress In Reverse into an ambient synths (of the kind found on a Geoff Downes solo project) instrumental providing a respite before the final song. The uplifting Up To You is propelled by a bubbling synth and galloping guitar rhythm, recreating the driving momentum of Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell. Jo and Steve share lead vocal duties and a gloriously bombastic keyboard sequence is the icing on the cake.
This latest album from Strangefish touches many bases including folk-rock, hard-rock, soft-rock, theatrical-rock and prog-rock. Call me bias (this is the DPRP after all) but it's the latter style where the band are most successful. That’s despite the absence of Julian Gregory’s violin which graced the last two albums although Jo’s vocal contributions more than compensate. That aside, all the songs (with the possible exception of Summer Slips Away) are tailor made for the stage where the band, fronted by the charismatic Taylor, are at their best.
Tumbletown - Never Too Late
Five years after their debut album, we see the arrival of Never Too Late by Dutch band Tumbletown (currently styled as TumbleTown or Tumble Town). A long wait, but after only a few minutes into the album, I knew it was worth it.
With two lead guitarists, there's bound to be a lot of guitar, but this is far from a guitar album. All instruments are serving the music, the melodies, the experience. Aldo Adema gave me a list of the guitar sections stating who played lead where, and although there is a difference in style, I was wrong several times in guessing who played what, proving Adema and Uil have an overlap in style, but are mainly complementary, enlarging the pallette of the songs.
Where Silhouette keyboard player Erik Laan was a guest on the first album, he has now joined the line-up. A good decision, as on this album his input is crucial. Erik's son Arjan Laan on drums is now the guest. Does that say anything about the line-up for the next album?
The credits say the music and lyrics were written by Uil and the arrangements were done by Adema. Having no idea which parts of the end result can be contributed to songwriting or arranging, especially the long instrumental sections, I can only say that it seems like the combination of the two is what makes this album what it is. Most of the tracks have a foundation of a song structure, but what happens with those, is what makes this album so wonderful. Take the short Prelude, which brings several moods, changing melodies, and a build-up in power.
Your ears are taken on a journey that has no predefined path and will make sudden turns to go to unexpected places, while still making sense. It all happens within the context of the song and never becomes a pastiche of unrelated ideas, nor does it become too complex. Sometimes it brings you back to a verse but just slightly different, some choruses, some revisited themes, but with so many things going on, this album remains a journey of exploration for many spins to come.
The array of different keyboard sounds give a wonderful variation in several solos. Some are longer, some are short outbursts between verses. Some are very symphonic, some subdued.
Erik Laan is the lead vocalist on Transatlantic and it is very convinving. I don't think Uil would have done a bad job here, but I love Laan's warm and emotional voice. Maybe they could share vocals more? Uil's vocals on Do Not Leave Me Now should get special mention here, especially in the well-arranged end section.
Are there any points of criticism? I'd have to think hard, but a few times I was a little surprised by the choice of words. "The world is a stage and we are all players". That is a bit of a cliche now, don't you think? And the English expression is that something is "falling on deaf ears", not "on deaf man's ears", which is a literal translation of the Dutch version of the expression. The promo package doesn't include the lyrics, so I couldn't read along with the songs, but those instances were noticable.
But the lyrics I do understand, the words, and especially the vocal melodies fit the music just perfectly, both in bold statements like Do As They Do, as well as the storytelling of Transatlantic.
I'd have to say Avalon is probably my least favourite track because it does not have the surprising bits and changes in melody or tempo that most of the other tracks have. Or maybe it's just my taste that prefers heavy music. It does offer a very nice keyboard and guitar solo, though.
I've always been, and still am, a big fan of Egdon Heath (their latest studio album from 1996 was reviewed here) and have always considered them to be a modern prog band with a foundation of symphonic prog / neo-prog, but always growing from one album into the next. Where Seven Day Hunt (review of their album here) was a continuation of that, I can easily see Tumbletown as the next generation, growing further, taking in all what is happening in the musical world, plus the growing experience of the musicians.
Too modern for neo-prog or symphonic prog, this is powerful but not prog-metal. There are lots of things happening but it's still accessible. It's very hard to find references except for the bands these guys were or are still part of. In the distance I hear Genesis, IQ, or Collage, but also much more and it goes further than that. If you also consider the great mix and production, then you have a must-have album here.
This is one of the best contemporary prog albums I've heard in years. I guess they would need one or two guest musicians to make this sound as good on stage as it does on the album, but I surely hope they manage to play this in a live setting one day.
Yuka And Chronoship - Ship
Creaking ropes, water lapping on a hull and the words "Where do we come from? Where are we going?". Well, the answer the latter question is that we are going on a prog adventure. For the next 32 minutes Yuka And Chronoship explore the legend of the Argo. In Greek mythology, the Argo was Jason’s ship, crewed by the Argonauts, who joined in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.
Across the seven tracks of the ARGO suite, Yuka And Chronoship have released a blindingly good collection of supremely tuneful, mainly instrumental, 1970s infused classic prog. Evoking memories of all the greats of that era that don’t need listing here. They have absorbed those influences and produced a heartfelt modern take on classic prog. This music on Ship is in no way a retro or a heritage take on the classic era. Yuka And Chronoship just take it as a jumping off point.
The ARGO suite opens with a gentle overture as Yuka Funakoshi’s elegant and plaintive piano accompanies guest vocalist Sonja Kristina from Curved Air. Unfortunately she only appears on this short track. After this scene setting, the suite kicks into prog gear with this keyboard-led band on magnificent form. They swap gentler passages with heavier prog sections throughout the album. On Ship the guitars of Takashi Miyazawa are more prominent and, crucially, louder than on the band’s last release in 2015. The really good The 3rd Planetary Chronicles.
Yuka And Chronoship whip up a prog storm on Landing as they head into heavy prog territory. And on A Dragon That Never Sleeps they take a left turn into prog-fusion. Propelled by the nimble fingered bass of Shun Taguchi, who lays down a solid foundation for Yuka’s synth solo. This track puts me in mind of her fellow country woman. and also a keyboard player, Hiromi Uehara and her Hiromi’s Sonicbloom Time Control album.
The wordless vocals, a prominent feature of The 3rd Planetary Chronicles, make only an occasional but telling entry in the ARGO suite. The vocals reinforce the innate melodicism of the music written by Yuka and often turn the songs in to full-on earworms. The album has superb arrangements and production. The ARGO suite is a triumph.
The four songs that make up the remainder of Ship are of equal quality. The Air Ship Of Jean Giraud is a cracking synth workout, and is a tribute to the French artist better known under his creative pseudonym of Moebius. On Visible Light the magnificently subtle rolling snare-drum of Ikko Tanaka pushes at Yuka’s vocal. Sung in her native Japanese she shows another side to the band, and I feel she should really sing proper lyrics more often. It also has her best synth solo, a thing of power and beauty.
Yuka And Chronoship take a breath for the jaunty folk like melody of Old Ship On The Grass, mixing piano and, I think, ukulele. The closing Did You Find A Star was originally slated to be sung by John Wetton but his untimely death prevented that. The band were going to shelve the song but instead they turned this lovely track into a fitting tribute to John Wetton. Sung in English by Hiroyuki Izuta who has a fine voice that echoes Wetton’s. Halfway through the track before Yuka’s keys come to the fore in that gentle way that the late Richard Wright did on some Floyd songs, and the guitar sings in the background in a Floydian way. It is a terrific memorial and conclusion to a wonderful album.
This is an album of modern classic prog with incisive arrangements and infectious melodies played by musicians with talent to spare. Listen to this but be prepared to find yourself singing these rich tunes at odd hours of the day or night. Yuka And Chronoship’s Ship is one of the best albums I have heard this year and I can’t imagine it not being in my top 5 come December.