A.C.T. - Rebirth
I was introduced to A.C.T. in 1999 through a friend via the band's first album, Today’s Report. I fell in love instantly with their sound, progressive pop structures and AOR / prog metal crafted musicality. Like a contagious virus this band has managed to infiltrate into my happy system, nestle therein and continue to grow with each following album.
Being able to see them perform live in those days, prior to and in support of Imaginary Friends and Last Epic firmly secured them in my heart, and when they finally got their tour with Saga, the future looked bright and shiny. Silence, one of the musical highlights of the year 2006, should have perfected it, but unexpectedly proved to be a tragic turning point, resulting in the real deal: silence.
Dormant for years, the happy virus prevailed in 2014 with the release of Circus Pandemonium, and the additional retrospective “caught in act” live-studio performance on Trifles and Pandemonium. Both were highly acclaimed albums and a smooth continuation and upgrade to their previous efforts. Astonishingly these superb albums again didn’t gather much commercial success. A puzzling thought, which still strikes me as odd, as it probably does to the band as well. Thankfully they carry on nonetheless, firmly believing in their music, and now present their new intriguingly-named EP Rebirth.
And once the summery, twirling bird sounds burst into sparkling keyboards and engaging melodies, it’s as if time has stood still since that first encounter all those years ago.
The Ruler Of The World is an instant trip back to the eclectic sound of their first album, with a bursting, rejuvenated newfound energy. Magnificently-executed, sudden, unexpected tempo changes, frivolous theatrical melodies and cheerful vocals flow naturally, supported by tight, dynamic drums and bass. Keys, next to adding playful piano parts, add lots of symphonic orchestral bridges which combine delightfully with the refined guitar parts. Add to this the carefully arranged vocal harmonies, reminiscent of Queen at their mid-seventies creative peak, and my inner grin has instantly reappeared.
The excitingly catchy Running Out Of Luck enforces more intense happy feelings and provokes cheerful images and visions of an unforgettable quirky dance routine by vocalist Herman Saming. The interplay is superb throughout, with each instrument complementing the next, yet undeniably creating its own melody-line in between. In full swing, they incorporate touches of the aforementioned Saga and City Boy with technical precision, individual musicality and enchanting keyboards, establishing a happy outer expression on my face.
A minor departure from these first two tracks is Digital Affair, with a more 80s synth pop approach, enhanced by the use of computerised vocals. Slightly less complex and more straight forward, it needs some adjustment on my part, though the bridges and choruses do fall into A.C.T.'s unique category and trademark. With a highly seductive middle section of unctuous guitars, gracefully flowing into It Bites and with upliftingly-profound melancholic melodies, mood swings and happy sunny keyboards, it gives a more than welcome Last Epic feel, maintaining my facial smile.
As if to immediately apologise for this slight diversion, Meet The Past sparkles with a catchy, keyboard-driven pomp rock extraordinaire, carrying the Trickster / E.L.O. influence brilliantly with orchestral interludes, reggae strides and an enchantingly refined piano. The divine vocal interaction of Saming, with Jerry Sahlin (synthesisers, vocals, backing vocals) adds extra depth and layers, a feature they could explore more in future. The spontaneous, groovy drive laid down by Peter Asp (bass) and Thomas Lejon (drums) carries the track splendidly. Again very much to my liking, judging from my now evidential ear to ear smile.
The last song of the EP, A Broken Trust, gives further insight into their versatility and refinement. With strong riffs from the impeccable, and virtuouso Ola Andersson on guitars, a playful seventies hard-rock like track glides by, exhibiting brief touches of Uriah Heep and Deep Purple. Adjustment is needed ever so delicately again, but the combination of progressive deliciousness, frequently shifting rhythms, elusive harmonies, beautiful arrangements (ABBA coming to mind), orchestration and an outstanding guitar-solo, all have the same end result: a heart-warming firm and solid grin. This might be the stranger in their midst, but I’ll take it any day, no questions asked.
It feels like A.C.T. have found a way to go back to zero and apply their knowledge to relaunch themselves exactly as they did at the beginning at their career. Impressive, vibrant and bursting full of ideas and energy, brought with a playful boyish charm. One might argue they proceed more or less on the same pathway, but if after 20 years they still manage to change this grumpy old reviewer into a reborn, happy-go-lucky youngster, you won't hear me complain. Far from it. And judging from the ending, with chattering birds and piano strophes closing abruptly in familiar daintiness, there may be more hatching soon. Egg-cellent!
Anima Mundi - Once Upon A Live
CD 2: Endless Star (14:39), Lone Rider (7:10), Train To Future (15:54), Time To Understand (13:55), Cosmic Man (13:11)
In the past, especially in the 70s, I first became acquainted with several bands by first listening to one of their live albums. I became enchanted by Renaissance through their magnificent Live at the Carnegie Hall. I learnt the power of the Wishbone Ash dual-guitar line-up through Live Dates. I lost my initial mismatch with Supertramp through their Paris live album. All these live albums presented bands that delivered something extra: more energy, new arrangements, more power, improvisations and extended versions. It often happened that I preferred these live versions, far more than the studio renditions.
That all came to my mind when I heard about the new live set by Cuban-based Anima Mundi; a band that has received numerous raving reviews for their studio albums as well as for their gigs in many media including this website. Those reviews made me anxious to get to know their music, but somehow I always missed their records. But now, for a couple of weeks, I have had in my CD player, their second live album entitled Once Upon A Time Live that was recorded at the El Ciervo Encantado Theater in Havana on June 17, 2017. The set also comes as a DVD, but the review set only had the audio files available.
My expectations were high. I hoped for an intriguing first encounter with this band through this live album. A collection that should have encapsulated a special show in their home country for an enthusiastic crowd. Yet I was also aware of the fact that a very first encounter with a band via a live album, has one big disadvantage; that no comparison can be made between the live and studio versions. And I think that has seriously hampered my introduction to Anima Mundi.
The band that took the stage on that June night in the Cuban capital consisted of long-time band leader Roberto Díaz, playing guitars as well as doing lead and backing vocals, co-founding member Virginia Peraza on keyboards and backing vocals, Yaroski Corredera on bass guitar, Marco Alonso on drums, percussion and saxophone and Michel Bermúdez on lead vocals, acoustic guitar, backing keyboards and percussion.
The setlist on that evening leaned heavily on the highly-rated 2016 album I Me Myself of which every track was performed. Fortunately these songs were not played in the album order, but were interspersed with songs from Lamplighter (Endless Star) and The Way (Time To Understand and Cosmic Man). All three are stretched considerably, compared to the studio versions. Noteworthy is that the setlist only includes two short songs from their most recent album Insomnia, of which Electric Credo is also much shortened. While doing these live recordings the band was still in the stage of recording that studio album.
To be frank, the start of this live set is far from promising. Two incomprehensible and negligible studio soundscapes open this 'live' set, ending abruptly. Were they played from tape to open the gig? Because no audience is heard, I doubt that. Should they warm up the listener? Well, they most certainly didn’t warm me up but instead annoyed me heavily as being not interesting, not fitting into the rest of the songs, having at best a demo quality, and not succeeding at all in grabbing my attention. Maybe these tracks serve a purpose on the DVD. Thankfully they are both very short. After a first listen, I would recommend that you skip these tracks.
Of course things can only become better, and they surely do. The first epic, The Chimney, The Wheel And The War is a great example of what this band is capable of. This very varied track, with numerous time and mood changes, features their prog potential, albeit I found the song a bit too long.
It features a very nice vocal melody, an addictive nice piano theme, some soaring saxophone and a heavy organ and guitar melody and a subsequent heavenly guitar solo during the first seven minutes. From that point, the song starts to sound very much like Pink Floyd's Echoes with its slow pace, long notes and weird guitar sounds over a bombastic keyboard background, added by some tubular bells. The spooky keyboards sound as a full copy of the aforementioned classic Floyd-track. It is not until the uplifting keyboard theme that emerges around the 14-minute mark, that the song becomes alive again. The applause at the end sounds a bit hesitant, which is strange as the band's playing was great.
The energetic Somewhere starts off rather heavy but becomes an almost standard song with a verse-chorus build-up after a couple of minutes. The best is yet to come though, for the song becomes another elaborate soundscape during the last six minutes. The vocals are excellent, reminding me instantly of Maurits Kalsbeek, frontman of former Dutch prog band Egdon Heath. The moody guitar and the lush Mellotron bring back to mind the good old days of epic Mellotron songs by Barclay James Harvest or King Crimson, and that is certainly meant as a compliment! In the coda of this fine song, Marco Alonso gets plenty of room to let his saxophone excel against some restrained bass and guitar.
The rather dreadful Artful Device Maker is another totally uninteresting instrumental that adds nothing to the fine atmosphere that the preceding song had built. It also just stops. The audience reacts accordingly, not really knowing how to appreciate this. Wrong choice. Too bad.
Yet the band picks up the energy easily with the powerful Flowers, which offers a nice guitar riff and a powerful pace. In style, the song is very reminiscent of the aforementioned Egdon Heath during their Nebula period. The guitar solos halfway through, and at the end are very nice. The sheer energy, the compact song structure and the intense vocals make this easily the best song of the first disc.
Nine Swans is another Echoes rip-off, with exactly those spacey sounds that coloured the classic original. It is followed by Electric Credo, which is another short, spacey, instrumental track that again doesn’t succeed in grabbing my attention. I admin I dislike space rock, so maybe I simply don’t understand the attractiveness of this kind of music.
The mood becomes totally different in Clockwork Heart, a more or less lounge song with an easy-to-digest vocal line, a bossa-nova bass melody, a cello-like keys theme and a very relaxed, almost improvised guitar part. It sounds really tropical but also a bit out of tune, considering the rest of the set. The applause is broken off very awkwardly.
The second disc is filled with five epics. Endless Star has a very prolonged and not so exciting intro that drags on. Then a banjo-like guitar comes in and the song takes shape. A very fine Floydian guitar solo takes the song towards higher levels, with an increased tempo, some fine keyboard playing and a melancholic mood. Then at the nine-minute mark the music becomes chaotic, loses momentum and melody, and becomes an uninteresting, pumping psychedelic affair. (One bass note played for minutes. How interesting is that?). Just before the end, the song develops towards a majestic, almost orchestral coda that sounds absolutely great. With half of its length, in which that boring instrumental middle section is skipped, this would have been a great song.
From the start of Lone Rider a western-movie landscape comes to mind, with a blazing wind over a deserted, dry landscape, decorated with rolling prairie grass tuffs. The soft acoustic guitar and flute-like keys match perfectly to that image. The song, with a very nice vocal melody and two great guitar solos, as well as the ‘flute’ coda, made my day.
Train To Future starts as another energetic song, with a pumping rhythm during its first nine minutes. Then a sudden break occurs, which even makes the crowd applaud, before the music picks up again in a totally different pace and mood. After ten minutes an extended and heavenly guitar solo builds up the tension towards the end to drop into a cello-like, beautiful coda that must have had its inspiration from Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother Suite.
The last two songs of the set are the only ones that also occurred on their 2012 live album Live in Europe. Time To Understand is a guitar and keys driven epic that grows stronger towards its bombastic end, with, again, lots of guitar and Mellotron.
The album closer and traditional encore of Anima Mundi gigs Cosmic Man starts off quietly, gets some pace, slows down again in the middle during a rather boring instrumental part, but wins the listener back with a nice and bombastic guitar solo towards the end. As I am not familiar with the studio version, I suspect that the middle section is the extension. It is not the most interesting part of the song.
Having listened to this live set several times now, I have to admit that I’m not completely blown away by Anima Mundi’s music. There are numerous fine, sometimes even great musical moments, with fine guitar and Mellotron interplay. There are plenty of interesting musical ideas and the playing itself throughout the album is top-notch. But there are also too many uninteresting musical parts that go on too long. Especially in the softer sections, I find the variation in the music unsatisfying.
The album is produced well, although I always regret it when the audience is hardly audible in-between the songs. The absence of an enthusiastic reaction from the audience, diminishes to my opinion that unique feeling of witnessing a band play live.
I expect this live set to be a must-have for existing fans. But will it also attract new fans? Because of the varied setlist, it offers an interesting kaleidoscope of Anima Mundi’s output that makes it worthwhile for those who haven’t heard this interesting band before. I myself will certainly check them out further, although I’m not sure if that will lead to the same appreciation as the aforementioned seventies bands have achieved. Just give it a try!
Tim Bowness - Flowers At The Scene
Tim Bowness needs no introduction, does he? His name has been a recurring presence in many important releases over the last 25 years, a period which has seen him lend his talents to No-Man (together with prog superstar Steven Wilson, guesting on this release), OSI (Jim Matheos also lending a hand), Nosound and White Willow to name but a few, adding up to more than 30 titles featuring him as a vocalist, composer or collaborator of some sort.
Flowers At The Scene is his fifth solo release, and the fourth in five years; so idleness still appears to be a word absent from Tim's dictionary. What you'll find here is unmistakably coherent with that body of work, but it also functions as some kind of compendium of 90s No-Man, or as a long-lost archive-release (look no further than the title track).
From the production/arrangement standpoint, the eleven tracks here are engaging and varied enough, though mostly (as is often the case with Bowness) on the mellow end of things. There are some very interesting keyboard ideas and textures here and there, and Jim Matheos contributes some wonderful guitar to both Rainmark and the title track. Elsewhere, the standout track It Is The World benefits from some welcome urgency, courtesy of none other than Peter Hammill. And one can't help but love the 80s vibe found on Ghostlike (probably my favourite of the lot).
The thing is, much as I love Tim's voice, and accepting he is no Joe Cocker, I believe his vocals would benefit from a bit more aggression and grit in some of the more dynamic tracks, like the opener I Go Deeper, but instead he goes his whole trademark gloomy, languid route all the way. For instance, a quirkier, bolder approach would have worked wonders on album-closer What Lies Here, and would have been all-the-more in tune with Andy Partridge and Kevin Godley's presence in the cast of characters.
As is ever the case, the Tim Bowness experience remains soothing and pleasant, with a modern twist and immaculate production to match, but certainly a bit more variety and audacity on the vocals could help lift some of the more monotonous passages. So, definitely good, but unfortunately not great.
Kinetic Element - The Face Of Life
Kinetic Element return with their third album, the follow-up to 2016's Travelog. Founder members Mike Vissagio (keyboards, vocals) and Michael Murray (drums, backing vocals) along with Mark Tupko (bass), who joined the band in 2014, are joined by new boys St. John Coleman (vocals) and a man who will be familiar to regular DPRP readers, Peter Matuchniak (guitars). Vissagio composed the majority of the album, apart from All Open Eyes which is a co-composition with the band's previous guitarist Todd Russel.
Although not a concept, the album focuses on the human condition, and there is a strong religious element to the lyrics, although, thankfully, not as in your face as Neil Morse. The album kicks off in fine style with Epistle, where Tupko's bass makes an immediate impact. Ditto Matuchniak's guitar work. The freedom of not fronting the band or being faced with singing, seems to have freed up his playing with deft touches added throughout. In many ways Vissagio takes rather a back seat, a synth solo towards the beginning of the song is his major upfront contribution, although that doesn't diminish the vital role he plays in holding the rest of the song together.
All Open Eyes is the first of the two epics that make up the bulk of the album. A largely a capella opening that has distinct folk echoes, introduces a great instrumental section that focuses on the song rather than individual prowess, and once again Tupko and Matuchniak impress. A more restrained piano section introduces the vocals, which I have a feeling don't truly reflect the power of Coleman's voice as he seems rather restrained. A very proggy section lifts the tempo and volume, before the final verse takes us back to the main melody with a plentiful supply of different keyboard and guitar sounds employed to good effect.
The band seems to have got past the overtly ELP-type performances of previous albums and now have more of their own style, which is reflected across the album. This is particularly heard on the almost 20-minute title track, which throws in odd curve balls in order to keep things interesting. The musical segments that make up the piece are fairly distinct but are patched together well to provide a continual flow. Although there are a lot of lyrics in the piece, the vocals do not mean that instrumental sections are few and far between. Indeed, it is some four-and-a-half minutes before Coleman is first heard, and he has plenty of opportunities during the rest of the track to strut his funky stuff, if he were so inclined. Unfortunately, the piece seems to somewhat fizzle out, rather than ending on a big crescendo as one would have hoped for.
I could have done without the first half of the final track, Last Words, as it isn't all that interesting to my ears until the rest of the band join in with Vissagio and Coleman. In fact, my preference would have been to have dropped Last Words and end with the 'bonus' Lost Words, which is I think the better version of the song.
So a pretty strong album for a band that has plenty to offer, even if they don't quite yet reach the heights of some of their contemporaries.
Ni - Pantophobie
The new album from Ni is an instrumental concept album called Pantophobie. The title translates as a fear of everything, Each track is about a different phobia. So, running through the nine tracks in order, you get fear of sunlight, chickens, vegetables, writer’s block, being ridiculed, being forgotten or ignored, an abnormal fear of failure, speaking, and the fear of walking or standing.
These concepts are explored through experimental, avant-garde, threateningly noisy, hardcore and math rock. Ni’s four members, Anthony Béard (guitar), Nicolas Bernollin (drums), Benoit Lecomte (bass) and François Mignot (guitar), play with a scary commitment to their vision.
The vision on Pantophobie is of angular melodies, complex and irregular rhythms, and heavy riffing between the members. They manage to hold this altogether through sheer musicianship, when some of the music seems on the brink of falling apart. This is what it would sound like if Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band ditched the weird psyche-blues for aggressive progressive metal. The opening track has that Beefheartian edge to it, with slicing riffs, disruptive rhythms and staccato pulses of angry melody.
Pantophobie continues to explore ni’s vision, looking in every nook of the niche in which they find themselves. Some tracks have more structure and less avante tendencies (Alektorophobie, Lachanophobie). There is mutant funk-metal on Catagelophobie that would probably scare the proverbial out of a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fan. Guitar riffs bounce off each other over the grinding SunO)))-style middle of Kakorraphiophobie.
All in all, the French noise-monsters Ni will be an acquired taste. One that I don’t think I will be able to acquire. With Pantophobie they have shown me where the limits of my listening pleasures lie. To be fair to Ni, they do have strong melodies throughout Pantophobie, but they do smash them up with desolate arrangements.
Progressive rock listeners, in my experience, are prepared to meet a band half-way when they try experimenting, or indeed if they head in the other direction, towards the pop-influenced side of things. So, if you want to listen to Ni, be prepared for a demanding listen and possibly give it a miss if you are weak-of-heart or loose-of-bowel.
But if you have a strong constitution and like your music to be incredibly powerful and challenging, as well as superbly played and recorded, then Ni’s Pantophobie might be for you.