Built For The Future — Brave New World
Brave New World is the second album by Texan band Built For The Future, but to write this review I decided to start from the beginning and I listened to their first album called Chasing Light. The reason I did that is because the band says that the life journey continues after their previous album, so I found it interesting to follow their steps. I'm not going to review the album again but for those interested, we gave them a good score back in 2015.
The main actor in this band is Patric Farrell doing everything from bass, guitars, keyboards, drums to programming and vocals. Kenny Bissett is onboard again on vocals, guitars and keyboards and first album collaborator David Peña is now recognised as a full-time member playing guitars, synths and "atmospheres".
As one can notice, the keyboards will be quite important in this album. On Chasing Light, Built For The Future tried to tell stories from real experiences that represented real feelings, and the escapism from those experiences. The songs there were catchy, not so progressive but it was a very solid effort showing that the band had more potential.
With Brave New World they have reached another level in terms of compositions and atmosphere. Here we can find longer songs, but it is not merely a case of adding some extra minutes but adding more layers and taking the time to develop the songs. Of course they don't have so many catchy choruses but the great melodies are here too.
The album is said to be the continuation of the initial journey into a new world; a new home. I don't know if the band did it on purpose but it seems like a good topic to write about nowadays. Also the name of the band could indicate the progressive spirit of their music, so it'd be very interesting to check if Built For The Future keeps progressing in the future.
As I said, the songs here are deeper in terms of composition, and each one develops in its own way. However the whole album shows a unique atmosphere, I guess thanks to the keyboards and programmed drums. The 80s vibe is still here but this time with darker tones. Some Tears For Fears comes to my mind and even some Anathema, but I'm sure each listener will find many more influences and touches here and there.
The production is again better than in Chasing Light and the vocals have improved a lot in my opinion. Not easy to pick some highlights, because the whole album is really good. You will love the long songs such as City Of The Sun or the ending theme Line Of Sight, because the band shows all its potential to build nice passages, topped with great melodies. You also will find yourself enjoying the short tracks too, like Azimuth, and the great synths and acoustic guitars.
I have changed this review after listening the album several times, because it keeps growing after each encounter and now I can say it's a great record with the kind of music that leaves you wanting more when you finish. I'm glad the band decided to go further with their composition style and became a progressive rock band with capital letters. I hope they can keep building their future with even bigger letters and release new interesting music soon. Highly recommended.
Cosmos — The Deciding Moments Of Your Life
Cosmos hail from the Bern area of Switzerland and were founded by Reto Iseli (drums, lead vocals) as Glacier Eagles back in 1990. Olivier Maier (guitar) and Heiko Garrn (bass) also belong to the founding members. Besides them, I assume (because I did not have a physical copy of the release) that Benj Allenbach (keyboards) and/or Thomas Kohler (keyboards), as well as Sandra Moser (backing vocals) feature as musicians on this, the band's first release, which came out in 1994.
Progressive Gears Records (responsible for releasing, among others, that great band Different Light) has now re-issued this debut, but there also seems to be a remastered version issued in 2008, containing two bonus tracks, one of them assumingly being from that year, as it somehow sounds more lively compared to the otherwise rather mid-tempo music on the rest of this release.
Right from the very beginning, Cosmos makes no bones about their admiration for the music of Pink Floyd and their intention to walk on the musical paths of their role models. However, Cosmos concentrate on their idols' period around the second half of the seventies, disregarding all the experimental and psychedelic elements which marked the band's earlier work. This provides for an extremely melodic and accessible type of music without twists, turns and breaks. Spacey keyboards (piano, synths), long drawn-out guitar solos, easy to digest harmonies, calm, mellow, and sometimes multi-layered vocals with occasional echo-effects, provide for an overall atmosphere of tranquility, unpretentiousness and simplicity. Those are characteristics, which occasionally induced a certain gravity in my eyelids whilst enjoying this form of relaxation by means of listening to music.
Moreover, the fact that the band's music reflects a very specific, if not to say restricted, period of their role model's musical career, means that the structures, melodies and harmonies of all the tracks sound fairly similar. Expressed a bit exaggeratedly, (too) many songs on this release remind me of a sole Pink Floyd track, which is Comfortably Numb.
The most striking example is Just A Little Pinprick (which is in fact a line from the lyrics of Comfortably Numb), but the album's title track, Where Is Yourself, and When The Bird Flies Down South fall into the same category. Nonetheless, I strongly liked some of the songs, especially I Wonder, which somehow differs from the others, being a bit faster and more lively, with a melodic guitar/synthesizer interplay in the middle section.
Voice Of Nature also stands out due to its great acoustic and electric guitar melodies and its melancholic undertone (probably given the fact that some of those voices, such as the cries of whales that we hear in this song, might well fall silent sooner or later) and With You because of its great guitar solo, reminding me more of John Lees of Barclay James Harvest, rather than of David Gilmour.
Cosmos split in 1998 but reformed some years later, releasing a live album, then Skygarden in 2006, and a third album Mindgames in 2012. (Ed. - To complete the picture, In The Dark Of The Night is a 2CD compilation that was released in 2016.) Progressive Gears Records plan to re-issue Mindgames soon (contractual problems currently prevent a re-release of Skygarden).
According to the info on the band's website, Cosmos intend to come up with a new album in 2020; or should I say, "intended to", because nothing had been released by the time of me writing this review in th middle of November. Maybe, Covid-19 has delayed things? In any case, one might challenge the logic to take a 26-year-old album as a basis for comparison with a forthcoming release.
However, I consider it as being interesting to find out whether Cosmos has been able to stick to their guns of sounding like a Pink Floyd tribute band throughout their entire existence. They have so far managed to do just that with remarkable persistence and consistency for their firt three albums, even at the risk of being accused of lacking individuality and originality.
Anyway, Cosmos' first release deserves to be reviewed discretely and should not be confined to just being an instrument to evaluate a band's musical development. Recommended to listeners looking for very melodic, accessible and uncomplicated "prog-lite" and having a strong affinity to Pink Floyd's music of The Wall era, whilst being willing to take for granted that an epigone usually lags behind the original.
Let's hear what Cosmos 2021 will sound like. Will they be less smooth, uniform and polished, and a bit more varied, rough and complex? The musical style they are dedicated to would certainly allow for that.
Valerie Gracious, Steve Unruh & Phideaux Xavier — 71319 Live At Monforti Manor
Phideaux's Set: The Error Lives On (8:53), Candybrain / The Sleepers Wake (5:12), Darkness At Noon (2:46), One Star (5:26), Inspecting The Spoils (3:33), You And Me Against A World Of Pain (5:35), A Curse Of Miracles (6:11), The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice (two) (9:51), Infinite Supply (5:54)
Back in 2016, multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh was asked to play an after-show set at Progstock and thought it might be fun to throw in a cover version or two. One that he chose was One Star, a song by Phideaux that had appeared on the album The Great Leap. As Phideaux himself was also at the festival, it would have been churlish not to invite the composer to join him on the song. So were sown the seeds of this collaborative live album.
Split into two sets, one by each of Unruh and Phideaux, there was plenty of opportunity for further collaboration on songs specially arranged to suit a more acoustic setting. Singer Valerie Gracious, whose vocals are an integral part of Phideaux's songs, was invited along to the party to add her wonderful voice to the mix. Although the three had rehearsed their contributions individually, it was only the day before the concert that they actually got together to rehearse; indeed I believe it was the first time that Steve and Valerie had actually met in person.
The concert, in front of a small, select audience, started with five solo songs from Unruh featuring his one-man-band set-up where, using a variety of instruments and a loop pedal, he created remarkably well-rounded and full versions of selections from his extensive back catalogue. The playing throughout is superb, with Unruh proving to be a master of switching between instruments, seamlessly keeping the songs flowing so that it sounds like a band rather than an individual performing.
The improvisation in The Lawn Chair Song, played first on violin and then acoustic guitar is simply perfect and sounds like it is part of the original song. Phideaux joins on bass guitar for the second half of Steve's set. Never a pair to take the easy route, instead of knocking out a few short numbers, they perform two lengthy tracks: the 19-minute title track from 2001's Two Little Awakenings (https://www.dprp.net/reviews/2005-039#unruh) and the 11-minute Luxury Denial from Steve's first solo album in nine years, Precipice, which was released the night of the concert.
The stripped-back rendition of Two Little Awakenings works particularly well and Phideaux's bass playing can be heard clearly throughout, providing a great contrast to the acoustic guitar. In my original review of the song I described it as "a romantic discourse", something that is emphasised by Valerie Gracious vocalising one side of the discussion. Phideaux can be heard harmonising at one point and rather endearingly at the end of the song, he politely asks if he can stay on stage.
The faster and heavier Luxury Denial sounds as if the duo have been performing the song together for years with the harmony vocals being spot-on and the changes in tempo providing an engaging and exciting listen. Anyone at the show who didn't immediately pick up a copy of the new album after hearing this performance, would be a fool.
Phideaux's set opened with The Error Lives On, a song from his latest album Infernal. With Phideaux on piano again, the song stands out in its more acoustic form, giving the joint vocals of Phideaux and Valerie greater prominence as well as Steve's violin and acoustic guitar solos. I love this version of the song. The drama is raised, the violin tone is dreamingly perfect to suit the melancholy of the track, the brief pizzicato section adds variety and the following bowed melody brings an air of psychedelia.
The second song, Candybrain is blended with The Sleeper Wakes so well that you would put money down that it was actually one song, not two different pieces composed 11 years apart. It was a late addition to the set only being added in the dinner interval after Steve's set. As it was something that Steve had not rehearsed, it was going to just be a duo piece. But when Steve heard Valerie and Phideaux quickly running through the pieces, he ran to fetch his violin from the stage and rehearsed the melody line and confidently said he was happy to perform as a trio. Again, the musicianship on display is remarkable and it is almost unbelievable that it all came together in a matter of minutes.
In contrast to the studio versions, Gracious takes solo lead vocals on Darkness At Noon and Infinite Supply, both from the 2009 album Number Seven, as well as the surprise inclusion of Inspecting The Spoils. Many long-term Phideaux fans may not know of this song, as it comes from Phideaux's eponymous debut album from 1992, a release that he himself doesn't include in the band's discography. The inclusion here is a nice recognition of that album and brings a whole new flavour to the song.
The trio adopt Steve's solo arrangement of 'One Star' which adds a degree of heaviness to proceedings. Alongside this is A Curse Of Miracles (another deep dive into the back catalogue coming from the Phideaux band's debut album 2004's Ghost Story) which allows Phideaux and Steve to share vocal duties. You And Me Against A World Of Pain is genuinely an emotional tear-jerker and the power of this sparse rendition is immense.
There had originally been no intention to release the concert as an album and the recording was low in the long list of priorities in the approach to the gig. However the recording is incredible. Each of the three musicians' vocals and various instruments are crystal clear and the audience is well balanced in the mix. There is not a single track across the combined 104 minutes playing time that is undeserving of its place. This is as close to a perfect live album as you are ever likely to hear.
However, it is set closer, Infinite Supply, that sums up the magnificence of the trio with Phideaux on piano, Steve's perfect violin solo and Valerie's vocals. Hear this song and you will realise how much you need 71319 in your life. Buy the album and realise that Gracious Xavier Unruh are unique and profoundly talented musicians and song writers. Without a doubt my album of the year.
Methodica — Clockworks
This Italian band has been around for over a decade, releasing two previous albums, Searching For Reflections (2009) and The Silence Of Wisdom (2015) as well as sharing stages with the full-house of prog big names (Queensrÿche, Fates Warning, Pendragon, Marillion, Riverside and Dream Theater).
Clockworks is my first encounter with this band, and boy have I been enjoying this album!
This should be an immediate 'must-buy' for those who enjoy progressive metal in the 'traditional' vein but with a real modern punch. The riffing is deep, the keys and electronics are equally to the fore, the rhythm section is intense and the vocals are consistently hitting my 'ear-worm' button.
It's complex but highly accessible. The extended instrumental sections are as much about dynamics and intensity as showing-off the band members' dexterity. It often leaves me with a similar feeling as last year's Human from Darkwater, especially the more moody tracks like The Door to You. More obscure bands such as Sacrum and Ascendia, who mix groove with the modern and traditional, are other worthwhile comparisons.
Whilst all five members ensure that this album's success is very much a result of the sum-of-its-parts, I must mention drummer Marco Piccoli who really mixes up the rhythms, the grooves, the intensity and the fills to great effect, and Massimo Piubelli whose vocals are brilliant throughout.
This is one of those albums where a track-by-track description is not really necessary. If the above description has piqued your interest, then you can try Clockworks with confidence. It had taken until November but I have finally found my favourite 'traditional-modern' prog-metal album of the year. Trust me, this is good.
Poor Genetic Material — Here Now
German band Poor Genetic Material has been around for more than two decades, supplying us with nine moderate to high quality albums, based upon the ratings of my colleagues here at DPRP. Yet this band doesn't standout as one of the leading bands in the genre. And that is a bit peculiar, isn't it?
The line-up of the band has remained unchanged for 15 years and that is a strong asset. Vocal duties are carried out by Philip Griffiths who has a moderate, strong and very pleasant voice. Stefan Glomb plays guitars, Philipp Jaehne is the keyboardist and Pia Darmstaedter is the flautist, while Denis Sturm (bass) and Dominik Steinbacher (drums) form the tight rhythm section. Being together for such a long time enables them to reach a high level of musical quality and that can be heard throughout the album.
I listened to their 2013 2CD set Islands around the time it was released and was surprised by their music that was well-crafted and varied with the occasional epic, extensive and clever use of the flute (which is one of my favourite instruments) combined with guitar outbursts. It is no wonder that Andy Latimer is often mentioned when describing PGM's music. Whilst enjoying it thoroughly back then, I haven't listened to it much after that period, nor was I very curious for new output.
Reading the reviews of their former albums I started to realise what the reason is. The music is extremely enjoyable and well executed but it takes quite some time to digest and appreciate it all. The absence of really memorable moments, melodies that stick in your memory, clever hooks or awesome solos may well account for the phenomenon that all seems good, but it is soon forgotten. And Here Now is no exception to that experience.
The album comes in an attractive cardboard sleeve with a nice photograph of a gymnastic person against a setting sun as the front cover, and sober artwork inside. The song lyrics are absent nor can they be found on their Facebook page which is a pity.
The music is again of a high quality. Take for instance the shortest track, Serendipity, a driving, up-tempo, rocky song with excellent vocals, a catchy chorus and fine musicianship. It's the kind of music that almost everybody could listen to without being offended or irritated, but it doesn't make a big impression. The same is true for the title track, which is musically more interesting because of the nice interplay between guitar and flute. Alas, the sudden end of the song is very ugly.
The band is stronger in the longer tracks, with The Waiting Game as a real highlight. Within its nearly seven minutes a lot happens in tempo, in melody, in instruments taking the lead, and with a simple but beautiful flute solo around the four-minute mark. That is followed by a very fine guitar work-out with subtle piano in the background. Towards the end, the keys play a quiet, slow and very appropriate instrumental introduction to a final guitar solo that is then faded out far too quickly; a real shame, it should have lasted at least another minute or so!
Note From My Younger Self is a more straightforward rock song with again a very fine vocal melody and a prominent role for drums and bass. The harmony singing in the chorus is addictive, almost sing-along (in the good sense of that phrase). The instrumental middle section is quiet and relaxed, with intricate flute and keys against a subtly-pumping bass. It is simply a very fine song.
The epic on the album is The Garden with lead vocals by Martin Griffiths, the father of main vocalist Philip. Unfortunately I have mixed feelings about those vocals. Martin Griffiths' pronunciation is, at least at the start of the song, over the top, too sophisticated and too unnatural. It improves as the song progresses but this spoilt the listening to this song considerably. On the other hand the song has a fine build-up, an easy sing-along recurring theme, beautiful duets of guitar and flute and very nice variation in the melodies. The long guitar solo, followed by an energetic full-band outburst at the end of the song, lifts it up.
Last song This Place starts off with delicate flute, over soft organ playing, which is accompanied by good singing. The key-drenched vocal melody keeps on flowing while constantly changing towards the strong mid-section, with fierce drumming and guitar riffing. A long and quiet flute solo follows, giving way to Glomb to play a very fine guitar solo before the end closes in a spacey piano coda. Maybe a real bang would have been a more appropriate end to this fine song and of the album as well.
With Here Now, PGM has delivered another decent and consistent album, almost as expected. It is very nice to listen to, with many fine to beautiful moments, flowing melodies and some occasional weak sections. The decent and gentle music is of high quality, yet the memories of that music don't last long. I say that with regret, for I like the album and the music, and I wish I could have appreciated it more. But somewhere it misses rawness, spontaneity or the vital energy needed to make it a stand-out album. Maybe next time they could spend slightly less time in a perfect production and more time in live playing in the studio?
Pure Reason Revolution — The Dark Third
In Aurélia (3:59), Borgens Vor (4:18), The Exact Colour (4:06), The Twyncyn/Trembling Willows (7:17), Golden Clothes (7:32)
Way before I had the privilege of writing for DPRP, I was (and still am) an avid reader of the site. So back in 2006, having heard one track that had piqued my interest, I turned to the duo review of Pure Reason Revolution's The Dark Third and on the strength of those reviews I bought the album. It has remained in my 'regularly-played' list ever since and it is one of the best releases of the noughties.
Having recently reformed after a ten-year break and released a new and well received album Eupnea, this year also sees PRR re-releasing The Dark Third with a running order and bonus disc that matches the US release from 2006. This means there are changes to two tracks on the main disc with the original tracks shifted onto the bonus disc.
On the main disc, The Exact Colour a pastoral piece is replaced by Nimos And Tambos. Following on from the masterpiece that is The Bright Ambassadors Of Morning is a tough ask for any song. The Exact Colour slows the flow and rests the ear, whereas Nimos And Tambos develops from bubbling synths and a gothy bass-line into an intense prog rocker that I feel works better than the track it replaces.
The other track that has been moved is the terrific song The Twyncyn/Trembling Willows. It has been replaced by the equally terrific mini-epic Arrival/The Intention Craft. It starts quietly with birdsong and acoustic strumming before growing into crunchy guitars. It then breaks down into a piano and violin interlude before kicking into gear again in an alt-rock/punky prog style with phenomenal energy. It ends with piano, drums and glitchy electronics. There is so much here, that it is jaw-dropping.
PRR also add an additional track to the end of The Dark Third, so rather than ending with a satisfying revisit of the Bright Ambassadors' theme, you get Asleep In Eidertown. This revisits the atmospheric psychedelia of Aeropause but with PRR's trademark, exquisite harmony vocals. It demonstrates another side to this extraordinarily-talented group, but I think I prefer the re-stated Ambassadors' theme as an album closer.
Obviously, the bonus disc doesn't have the flow of the first disc, but the new tracks are well worth the investment. The fabulous In Aurélia has grungy guitars and dark electronics over a fierce drum pattern. It is a first cousin to the sound that Depeche Mode had on Songs of Faith and Devotion.
Ethereal electronics and whispered voices introduce Borgens Vor, giving way to a synth melody before abruptly turning into a bass-driven, heads-down rocker but infused with PRR's individual sound. These tracks are followed by the refugees from the original release and I point you to the original duo review (link above) for details on those tracks.
The final bonus track is Golden Clothes with its looping drum groove underpinning the electronics and guitars; Its mix of ballad, that devolves into a rocking ending, works well.
The new running order of Pure Reason Revolution's The Dark Third and the bonus disc make this a must-buy for fans. It is also the best place to start on the Pure Reason Revolution journey for newbies. Get it, get it now.
Nathaniel Webb — Marillion In The 1980s (Decades) [Book]
I first found out about this book from a colleague at DPRP just prior to interviewing Mick Pointer to coincide with the release of the Script For A Jesters Tear Deluxe edition. Mick himself was horrified by the fact that a book was being written about the early years of the band that he formed, and he had not been contacted with regards to its release. I must admit, it does seem strange to write a book about people who are still living and not to approach them to ask them if they wished to contribute, or at least seek their permission to write a book about them, especially with the ease in which most musicians can now be contacted, compared to the early and pre 2000s, and how approachable Mick and Fish both are.
Mick is certainly still prepared to discuss “his” band, and Fish is also a great conversationalist and I am sure would have been prepared to contribute. I feel this book is a huge missed-opportunity to try and write a book about Marillion's early years, especially considering the time that has passed. It would be a chance to see how the people involved at the time, now feel about what went down, and their views may have altered over the years. Mick, being the business man he is, wondered whether he was due royalties from the book.
The book itself retells what is already the well documented early years of the band, from Mick Pointer's early bands, the formation of Silmarillion, the joining of various members until the band dropped the Sil. Then the recording of Script, Mick's firing, the torrid time trying to fill the vacant drum stool, the difficult second album, the unprecedented success of Misplaced Childhood, the trauma of writing Clutching At Straws, Fish's decision to leave the band, and how Marillion finally found the suitable replacement singer. Phew, this could easily become a film.
I don't know whether there is any intention of covering Marillion's progress through the following decades with further books, but that would provide a quandary due the how this volume has been planned. It covers Fish's debut solo album Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors, therefore would future volumes follow Fish's career, and also Mick Pointer's post-Marillion activities? Something to think about there.
Being released by Sonicbond Publishing, who currently also publish the On Track series of books, this Decades release also has the author providing his own personal review of each track Marillion released during this decade. Webb also reviews the unreleased early songs that are so sought after by the bootleg community of the 80s and 90s, of which I was part of. It is with these reviews that a reader who is not a musician becomes isolated. Nathaniel is clearly a musician and he analyses most of the songs from a musician's perspective. What for me should have been one of the interesting parts of the book, quickly became the part I skipped. I recently reviewed the On Track edition for Iron Maiden and found Steve Pilkington's fan-view of the songs much more reader-friendly than Nathaniel's.
Other areas of the book do not really uncover any ground that has not already been thoroughly explored in Mick Wall's Market Square Heroes or on Collins' Separated Out. Having read these books I may be being over-critical, so for anyone who has not read either of these previously mentioned books, then I am sure you will find some interesting facts and stories here.
All credit must go to Sonicbond Publishing for putting out books which would generally be perceived as having minority interest. So let's look to the future and see what other tomes we can look forward to.
Whitewater — Dark Planet
Bad Elephant Music describes Whitewater as an ambient duo, and I think that may have been true of their previous albums. However their ambient sound has developed into a more mature progressive rock sound, with the remaining atmospheric tracks containing strong melodies and memorable lyrics. The aforementioned duo is Stuart Stephens and Paul Powell, but Mike Kershaw and Gareth Cole are important additions to the group's developing sound. Stuart sings lead vocals on several tracks, and he plays guitar and keyboards. Paul handles percussion and drum programming.
Mike Kershaw returns to provide vocals on several tracks, having sung on several songs on Whitewater's previous album, Universal Medium. Kershaw is often derided for his vocals, but I've always enjoyed his solo albums. He's a good keyboardist, and he's an excellent lyricist. His vocal range is limited, but his almost chant-like style of singing can be used to great effect.
Again and Time To Move Along are solid examples of that on this record. Kershaw actually wrote the lyrics to Things That Can't Be Said, Dark Planet, and Time To Move Along, although he sings on more than just those tracks. His lyrics on Dark Planet are a bit dark and hopeless, but I suppose those are the times in which we live. Clare Stephens provides backing vocals for that track as well.
Gareth Cole's simple-yet-soulful guitar licks add depth and clarity. His work has been popping up all over the place in some of the more obscure areas of prog, and I've really enjoyed it. He's extremely talented, and he raises the quality of every song he plays on. On this album, that happens to be the tracks Dark Planet, Stand In Line, As You Were, and Everything (Up Till Now). His solos on those songs really elevate the album overall.
I'm not well-versed in Whitewater's back catalog, but based upon previous DPRP reviews of a couple of their albums and listening to some excerpts, I'd say that the band has taken a big step forward in production quality. The drums have a much fuller and more natural sound. The piano sounds cleaner. The synths have a deeper tone. It sounds less tinny and more like a professional record. The music also sounds more upbeat. I hear a similar progression in quality here that I've heard in Kershaw's own solo output. Working with Bad Elephant Music seems to have really helped these artists' potential.
Overall the album could benefit from a more prominent low-end presence in the music. A standout bass could really elevate these songs, creating a proper rhythm section. Stuart Stephens' vocals also leave a little bit to be desired, but he at least brings a higher range and tone, to balance Kershaw's deep voice. The high points on the album certainly come with Cole's guitar solos. The switch from singing to guitar solo on As You Were really makes you sit up and take notice. The man is extremely talented. He plays with a soul that really cuts through and stands out.
This album was my introduction to Whitewater, and I wasn't disappointed. Had I listened to one of their previous albums first, I think I may not have wanted to give this one a chance. Their sound has really progressed for the better on Dark Planet, and I recommend you give it a listen.
Zebras Don't Smoke — Don’t Mention The Swedes
During the 1970s and early 80s, Sweden's most successful export ABBA enjoyed a string of hit singles that rivalled The Beatles for their universal appeal and abiding popularity. Despite the group's highly publicised break-up, the music has endured, thanks to consistent airplay, reissues, compilations and the musical/film Mamma Mia!. Even the spectacularly-bad singing of Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep in the movie version couldn't diminish the songs' charms but how would they stand up as the subject of a prog-rock tribute album?
If the name Zebras Don't Smoke is unfamiliar, the musicians involved won't be. They include Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes (who's no stranger to pop), Spock's Beard bassist Dave Meros and his ex-bandmate Nick D'Virgilio on drums. Helming the project is ABBA fan and singer Lynden Williams, along with guitarist Ollie Hannifan who spent two years as a member of the Mamma Mia! touring company. Rounding-off the impressive line-up is classically-trained singer Rachael Hawnt. This same ensemble has also recorded under the names Deckchair Poets, Zorbonauts, and Jerusalem.
Given the title and band name, this is clearly not an album that's meant to be taken too seriously, and to prove the point, it opens with one of ABBA's most vivacious songs. The title and lyrics of Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Gal After Midnight) have been reworked and sung from the point of view of a heterosexual male. It works better than you might expect and avoids sounding too cheesy thanks to Williams' gutsy vocal, Hannifan's galloping riff and Downes' vibrant synths. Meros' bass playing is particularly impressive and D'Virgilio as we know can adapt his drumming to virtually any musical style you care to mention.
The mood continues with ABBA's penultimate single Under Attack, and Elaine, the B side of The Winner Takes It All single. Both are fine examples of catchy euro-pop. Hawnt is mostly responsible for the choral backing and she perfectly captures the vocal sparkle of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Elsewhere, familiar songs like Summer Night City, a superb The Name Of The Game and Lay All Your Love On Me are juxtaposed with lesser known, but equally compelling album tracks like Tiger. It's evident that the success of ABBA's songs relied as much on Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' classy arrangements as they did on having an ear for a good tune.
The album's revelation is the concluding Get On The Carousel, a song that went unrecorded by ABBA, even though it was a regular stage number. It hurtles along at a blistering pace with a pounding rhythm and a very proggy synth solo courtesy of Downes. A worthy reminder that this is, after all, a prog-rock tribute album.
I'm sure that many DPRP readers will, in addition to their progressive rock tastes, have a soft spot for ABBA. No one combined quality pop, euro-disco and MOR sensibilities with the same credibility that they did. As such, it's gratifying that Don't Mention The Swedes plays it pretty straight, taking few liberties with the original arrangements while adding a progressive rock spin. I'll even excuse the omission of Does Your Mother Know, probably my favourite ABBA single.
I must confess that before listening to this album, I was expecting to dismiss it as a case of musicians with too much time on their hands during lockdown. I couldn't have been more wrong, even though I'm not normally a great fan of cover songs. In these troubling times we can all do with a little more cheer, especially with Christmas just around the corner, and Zebras Don't Smoke certainly provide that.
ZIO — Flower Torania
Zio is the project of drummer/percussionist Jimmy Pallagrosi (ex-Karnataka, Franck Carducci Band) and while Flower Torania was released in January of this year the album befell upon me many months later. A circumstantial situation comparable to my discoveries of Mystery and Nemo, both of which got me hooked to regularly return. Flower Torania, inspired upon Pallagrosi's real life experiences, and conceptually construed in an alternative virtual game world, shows the same addictive qualities.
The story has similarities to movies like Tron and the recent Ready Player One, while the visual game components and the superb graphical artwork brings to mind adventure-packed games like Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog and Supaplex. Marvellous platform games from the 80s that serve as the perfect inspiration for this dazzling, high-adrenalin album, that comes nostalgically alive via talkative, suggestive lyrics.
Many 80s games have over time evolved into virtual reality games, yet VR has never been one of my strengths as the simulated scenery doesn't compute in my brain. The imaginative decor, natural flow and massive appeal of Flower Torania however does full-heartedly compute in my brain, and is the real deal!
Together with a colourful cast of vocalists that amongst others sees That Joe Payne (ex-The Enid) and Hayley Griffiths (Karnataka) involved in the creative songwriting process, Pallagrosi has also enlisted the help of Olivier Castan (keyboards) and Marc Fascia (guitars) in the songwriting compartment. Together with Lzi Hayes and Alex Lofocco sharing bass duties, the end result is a thrilling and adventurous wild ride, that furthermore sees great guesting spots from Richard Henshall (guitar, Haken), Alfonso Alfano (accordion) and Cagri Toziuoglu (orchestration).
The story takes off when the main character Toby finds a console in the real world and instinctively is drawn towards it. Touching it, transports him onto an extravagant and exuberant virtual world where he becomes Alan, the hero of the story personified by That Joe Payne. Here he must fulfil his quest to free the cursed Belbi (Heather Findlay, Mostly Autumn) by completing three highly outrageous and complex challenges, thereby utilising all of his skills and special powers.
Yet there's a catch. He needs to do so in unison with the alluring flower Torania, shaped luxuriantly by Hayley Griffiths, thereby preventing the flower from ever touching the ground, as this will impose a curse upon Belbi eternally.
With all his skills, strength, speed and unconditional determination he flies off into an overwhelming adventure; soaring through levels, dodging boulders, jumping obstacles, avoiding enemies and collecting prizes as he narrowly escapes the evil booby trap dangers via electrifying flight. Will he conquer the challenges that lie ahead in these wonderful, yet treacherous rainbow islands? Can he crush all of Nato's (Franck Carducci) barricades, up there safely in his magic kingdom filled with gold and diamonds? Will Alan be victorious and gain victory as he frees Belbi from her curse?
Similar to the obsessive addictiveness of many of those games, Zio sets off for an extraordinary flight into an opulent musical realm described by Carducci as "Whitney Houston meets Freddie Mercury performing with Rush". Personally I feel inclined to replace Houston, as the heavenly female vocals found on the album are carved from a superior rock all together, reminiscent to Anneke van Giersbergen's angelic voice.
The other two references, I can fully agree with, as the album reveals itself to be a stunning array of inventive compositions that sees luscious instrumentation and infectiously addictive melodies bringing forth images of a theatrical Ayreon intertwining with a flirtatious Queen. Musical dimensions morph together into a plethora of ideas, adding elements of AOR, pomp rock, neo-prog and a perplexing surprise element, yielding a delirious Gold Rush.
The production is a sonic delight, giving the songs warmth, power and vibrancy.
After the introductory Ride Along, an immediate highlight is X-Ray, gripping firmly through its dynamically-tight rhythms, refined AOR touches and astonishing vocals. Here the precision established through the immaculate harmonies of Payne and Griffiths are beyond belief, much like all the other perfectly interacting vocals later on. The scrumptiously-layered track, already gliding through heart-warming melodies and enchanting choruses, becomes even better, when halfway a secret compartment opens up to reveal Alan's adversary Nato. What follows is a tantalising passage featuring an overwhelming prog-metal segment with fierce riffs, hooks and a sparkling key solo. After a short return to the prior melodies, we are launched straight into the musical richness of Wings Inside.
Excelling in harmonies again, sounding theatrical and grand, it shows tendencies towards the 80s, yet it sounds refreshingly contemporary with the spirit of Ayreon. This marvellous feeling is surpassed in the lively Jupiter. Featuring an extremely catchy refrain, this awesome symphonic epic is elevated through its dynamic grooves and iron-clad instrumentation, leaving a prodigious impression with a spine-chilling guitar solo.
Just before that, Carducci gets his chance to shine in Gold & Power. An opportunity he seizes perfectly, igniting images of his colourful stage image. The electronic, threatening atmosphere, surrounded by typical 80-sounding drums, works wonders in this wondrous musical landscape, as does the sublime build-up, readying for a powerful leap into the divine Straight Up From Underneath.
Bursting with Queen-like musical melodies, it glides into piano and bluesy surroundings, beautifully sung by Findlay and graciously met by Payne, moments later. The crowning moment is when the music transforms into the spitting image of Freddie Mercury thanks to Payne's vocals, strengthened by the Boston and Brian May-feel brought forward by the tantalising guitar sound. A delightfully entertaining track.
The restrained opening of Erwin's Opera initially takes a step back and slowly builds to emotive sensitivity, as it builds up again via an X-Ray-type bridge. Carducci's holy flamboyancy is then met by sparkling bass frivolities that rapidly change into unrivalled guitar virtuosity and a short return to the enchanting romanticism of harmonic vocals.
Majestically drawn on ominous sounds Inner City: Shorroma showcases tasty organ, impressive melodies and musical decorative changes in the best Ayreon tradition. A stunning track, demonstrating the strength of all involved and a near mission impossible to surpass.
The short, sensitive reflections in Ma Petite Histoire and mesmerising ending coda of Flower Torania indeed fall short towards this monumental task. However the victorious Interstellar List defies all logic and exceeds all my expectations. A galaxian milestone it almost brings me to tears through its head-spinning mixture of exquisite pop, alternating with metal, whilst shifting through pompous melodies, breathing with overtly infectious disco, giving me Saturday Night Fever all week long!
After Pain Of Salvation's failed attempt, I thought I wouldn't find any attraction to this musical form ever again, but Zio shows that in this bold, fascinating world, anything is possible. The effective ease in which the melodies shift seamlessly through rhythmic changes and stellar synths, is deceivingly simplistic yet triumphantly complex. It even incorporates an uplifting Bee Gee's Stayin' Alive atmosphere via its irresistible hand claps!
Flower Torania is a brilliant example of how inspiration from a certain period in time can result in a timeless, gobsmacking effort. A formidable album that continues to grow, to give new insights and to bring pleasing satisfactions on many different levels. The addictive equivalent of ms. Pacman running at incredible velocity through mazes of gem-packed delicacies: next level prog!
Whether this will finish atop the podium in my personal top 10 list of this year, hangs in the balance, but rest assured it most certainly will find a spot amongst my favourite albums of 2020. Here's to hoping the announced live concerts will lift off, for this story screams for a performance on stage! A massively impressive album and anyone still in need for a Christmas List offering should consider including this highly addictive album, for after inserting a coin it will always be a case of "press play and ... Go!"