A Formal Horse — Here Comes A Man From The Council With A Flamethrower
Some five years after forming Southampton's A Formal Horse finally release their debut album; the enigmatically titled Here Comes A Man From The Council With A Flamethrower. The band's previous three EPs, released annually between 2014 and 2016, all featured different female vocalists but, happily, Hayley McDonnell has been a constant presence since then, fronting the sonic soundscapes created by Benjamin Short (guitars, backing vocals), Russell Mann (bass) and Mike Stringfellow (drums).
Don't let the fact that none of the 16 tracks on the album break the four-minute mark delude you into thinking that the band can't figure very highly on the prog scale, as you would be sadly mistaken. The album demands to be listened to as a whole, not because it is anything so tawdry as a concept album, just that the natural flow between songs and the ever-changing styles, tempos and song structures keep the listener on their toes.
Bands that immediately come to mind, are a less manic version of The Cardiacs, mixed with Belew-era King Crimson. Indeed, Short's lyrics are replete with non-sequiturs and some of the most crazy lines since Scott Walker's last album. These are just a few examples:
"On the sleeves of her teeth, Lucozade, Drummer Go Away" (Bee)
"Roadkill: slowly decompose, Like I melt into a sofa in a sad place, Where the taps flow latte for, Roadkill: slowly decompose" (Lonely Doe Young Doe)
"Drinking straws in bubbles don't play fair, Coat hangers in a row don't play fair" (Petroleum).
But it is unfair of me to isolate such lines, as they do seem to make sense in the context of the songs, and besides, McDonnell's utterly compelling and rather beautiful voice easily translates the most obscure lyric into mellifluous harmony.
There are three instrumentals on the album (although there is no lyrical component to I Just Called To Say I Like You, McDonnell does provide soothing vocalisations throughout the piece, providing continuity between the heavier electric beginning and the acoustic ending). Coda and Unison One are both replete with musical inventiveness and say more in their sub-two-minute settings than many bands can manage in half-an-hour. Meanwhile Unison 3, the longest track on the album, racks up the Crimson comparisons with some fine playing throughout.
The album also sounds amazing, thanks to the skills of Rob Aubrey, whose high-flying credentials includes, among others, long-term associations with IQ and Big Big Train.
There is much to admire on this debut album, as it easily ranks alongside the output of many established bands. It needs to be heard in its entirety to grasp its magnificence; the nuanced delights that only reveal themselves after repeated listenings.
To my mind this was one of the most interesting albums to appear last year and well worthy of a place in any modern prog music collection. Let's hope the follow-up comes well before 2024.
Halcyon Reign — The Voyage
Sometimes it's the simple things in life that make your day. A pat on the shoulder, a funny joke, a soothing drink, a splendid movie, some delightful music or an emotive concert; whatever rocks your boat. In this particular case it's The Voyage by Halcyon Reign that delivers this momentary lapse of happiness, with a wonderfully melancholic musical trip down memory lane. It's an album filled with playful, creative and expressive prog metal filled with fierce riffs, dynamic grooves, shifting melodies and delicate surprises.
The first and probably biggest surprise of them all is the immaculate packaging. Emphasising the loose theme of the album, the digi-pack contains a booklet illustrated with monstrous sea creatures from the depths of the oceans, and upon flicking open the package, reveals an ingenious supplementary dimension to the album. The unfolded encased gesture to check out befriended bands, makes it even more moving and altogether it ignites an instant ear to ear smile. A huge grin that is maintained as the adventurous, dynamic and energetic compositions float by.
Hailing from Sydney, Halcyon Reign where formed in 2016 by Lachlan Arvidson (guitar, vocals and seaworthy), Luke Delbridge (bass, gang vocals and caffeine) and Simon Bowles (drums, backing vocals and madness). A threesome of friends aiming to capture the adrenaline rush of a moshpit, whilst trying to inflict pain-free headbanging nods and expressive shout-along vocal interactions into their music. It's all been self-produced, aided by Adam Jordan, with mastering of the album by Don Bartley (Karnivool, Metallica).
Although the sound is sometimes cloudy, it manages to enhance the overall darker, ominous atmosphere of the album, giving the compositions greater impact and a welcome melancholic feel to the "good old days" of NBWOHM. It captures the same atmosphere and feel as The Warning by Queensrÿche, while the occasional accentuating keys give rise to a more progressive touch, comparable to the precious hidden gem The Prophet by Omega (not to be confused with the Hungarian Omega).
And from the first sounds of 'Welcome Reality' we're in for rocky explorations of thundering bass lines upon a solid foundation of versatile rhythmic drumming, while dark, forceful riffs build structures and texture. The raw, aggressive and expressive vocals fit perfectly, further harnessing the approachable, yet mildly complex music which shifts through different timescales and moods. With an old school Rush-like middle section, a strong melody and complementary bell sounds, it is a solid opener to the album.
It's excitingly smooth sailing with the first of the two epic tracks, The Kraken. The additional guitars by Harry Drummond, in the subdued, twin guitar opening of the track, enchant, after which it bounces from left to right with touches of Triumph (especially on the guitar parts). Solid Metallica riffs push the track forward, with Arvidson's vocals reminiscent of Daniel Viktor (Circadian Pulse). The end section is an astounding array of ongoing riffs, while the bass rolls freely, and inventive drums expressively work towards a crescendo with brilliant sludge-metal touches of Dream Theater.
The straight forward, rugged rock approach of Peleliu, filled with alternating, delicate, melancholic melodies and congenial choruses showcases the tightness of the band perfectly. The subtle hint, in the form of a warning bell, feels as if to say "start headbanging here". Moments later it changes towards a jazzier resting point, where the versatility of Arvidson's vocals and some slight Rush influences give rise to Lemur Voice associations.
Beyond The Cape, the other epic, tops all of this. The quiet opening flows into an overwhelming wave of metal and delicious melodies, while many layers, and an infinite array of riffs plough on. The forceful thundering rhythm section and confident vocals add boldness, while the constant variations in melody and the effective keys spark images of the aforementioned Omega. The thrilling layers of guitar in this predominantly instrumental beast, leave nothing to be desired.
As a precursor, the short atmospheric interlude Last Horizon builds tension, excellently continued in The Voyage. Here sweet, jazzy guitars and energetic rock go back and forth within delicate melodic rock structures, mindful of Lemur Voice and Dream Theater again. Erupting midway, it sails into electrifying territories, while sound fragments give further depth to the story and music, culminating in a divine ending section and equally addictive melody.
The CD comes with a hidden, stand-alone bonus track in the form of the strange, yet funny and playful The Squatch, another obvious monster-inspired track. Its initial melody might throw one off-guard, as it starts off in the best Country & Western tradition (Willie Nelson) with convincing slide guitar by Arvidson. Converging to Hillbilly-spiced Kentucky-fried rock, it transforms into mad-crazy, raging, vintage, organic metal with dashes of doom. A joyful ending to an entertaining album.
This is a highly recommendable effort where the remarkable packaging still amazes me every time I open it. Judging by this universally well-known "oddity" and the musical endeavours on Halcyon Reign's debut they are never short of ideas, and the combination of solid, diverse compositions and equally impressive delivery makes this band a unity to be reckoned with in future.
The energetic sensation provided throughout the album makes you want to push the repeat button multiple times, whilst searching for that long-haired wig to get that satisfying feeling of wavering hairs. Well at least in my case, for although The Voyage has a rejuvenating effect, I think I'm going bald!
Life In Digital — Signs To The Far Side
For me, Yes' 90125 was the most musically inspiring album I have ever heard. This was a real step forward in music, and provided for me, the 1980s' first real progressive record. The musical marriage of top quality musicians, with the then modern technology and modern production techniques was simply stunning. The two following Yes releases, Big Generator and Talk, while maintaining a similar style, never reclaimed the magic of 90125.
Stepping forward nearly 40 years, and I had my first experience of Life In Digital via their video for Karma which was posted online. My first impression of was simply: “WOW”.
So, Life In Digital have released their sophomore album, Signs To The Future. The brain child of John Beagley, a musician with a long history, including the 90s synth pop band So It Is, who could have been huge, but due to John and fellow band member Chris Andrew's inability to dance, meant that their lack of visual appeal held them back. Since then John has developed his keyboard and synth skills, worked with a massive list of musicians, and released a large amount of self-published material. His most recent credit is for adding vocals to the forthcoming Glass Hammer album, Dreaming City.
John has now partnered with vocalist Robin Schell, who has had stints with the bands Blue Shift and Midnight Under Glass, and most recently added his vocal talents to the Yes tribute album Yesterday and Today. Robin's addition to the Yes tribute provides a clue to his vocal range. Robin has a voice which easily nestles somewhere between Jon Anderson and Geddy Lee. This being the case, I cannot imagine any review or article featuring Life In Digital not mentioning Yes somewhere.
My first listen to Signs To The Far Side, caused me a degree of consternation; this being whether this was the right side of the line between using the original as a starting point, or merely copying it. To clarify this, I decided to look at what is now the norm in both TV and film over recent years, this being the “re-imagining” of an idea. Once I had got this clear within my mind, further listening provided the luxury of being able to enjoy, what is a tremendous album, and re-imagining my favourite period of Yes.
The experience of hearing the single version of Karma had whet my appetite. So after dealing with my early concerns, I was really looking forward to delving into the album.
The opener is the full 22-minutes-plus of Karma. The listener is transported through so many musical twists and turns, that even sat down, it leaves you dizzy. An extraordinarily complex piece of music that will take a multitude of listens to even tap the surface of the track. Robin's voice has the ability to caress our aural receptors, and at the same time impart emotion in a way that I rarely experience. His vocal melodies, at times, raise goosebumps while drawing you into the song. All the time, a hugely varied soundscape leaves the listener being reminded that electronic music can easily contain as much feeling and emotion as acoustic instruments, when played by such a talented musician as John so evidently is.
The album also brings back welcome memories of the electronic bands of the 80s such as Ultravox, OMD and Howard Jones (of who John is a huge fan, having released a tribute album of Howard's songs). Having said this, the music never dwells in nostalgia, as everything feels fresh and modern. This is most evident in Suspended Animation, with its driving bass line, guitar sound reminiscent of Duran Duran, and its multi-tracked vocals on the chorus.
The obvious quality of Life In Digital's output has caught the ear of Rob Reed, and the band have now signed with Rob's White Knight label. This will hopefully be the catalyst for Life In Digital to be heard by many more people, who I hope have a similar enthusiasm as I have, and therefore broaden the audience for John and Robin. This is an album for anyone who found any degree of wonderment when they first listened to 90125. If this might be you, then get a copy at all costs.
Moonrise — Travel Within
Moonrise is the Polish prog project of Kamil Konieczniak who plays keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums. The 2008 debut album, The Lights Of A Distant Bay, took the prog world by surprise and established Moonrise as a promising new member of the Polish prog family. Since the debut, Moonrise has produced two more albums with different vocalists, that received equally enthusiastic reviews. Somehow all those albums have not been reviewed on dprp.net, which is a bit of a shame. Fortunately we get the chance to set things straight with their latest release entitled Travel Within. On this album Marcin Staszek does the lead and backing vocals, except on Calling Your Number which is sung by Łukasz Gall.
I heard their debut a couple of years ago and play it once in a while since. The music on that album is predominantly mellow and dreamy, even melancholic to my ears, reminding me strongly of Porcupine Tree in the nineties. The long guitar parts called up memories of Andy Latimer, David Gilmour, Nick Barrett and also Lee Abraham, while the many keyboard parts prompted memories of Tony Banks and Martin Orford, musicians I reckon to be flame-keepers of prog. So I was very curious what Konieczniak had come up with on this new one.
The opening song Dive turns out to be very disappointing. Old school synth sounds in the intro are followed by a rather nice vocal melody that evolves through a very uninteresting synth sequence, into an awkward ending, dominated by distorted vocals and an ugly guitar riff. The short guitar solo in the middle is attractive, but the intro and especially the last part spoil this song completely. I always assume that bands select their strongest song to open an album, so was this awkward track proof that Moonrise had taken a different path?
Thankfully that is not the case at all. With The Answer and especially Rubicon, two rather slow but great songs with haunting keys, emotive guitar soloing and strong vocals, the band regains its strength and does not lose it again.
The first one is a beautiful, slow song in which the quiet vocals are sparsely supported by dreamy guitars and minimal keys and drums, building towards a powerful full band finale. The music creates a very nice, spacey mood that combines well with lyrics that tell the story of a pilot. Without changing the mood, Rubicon tells the story of a love lost. Staszek succeeds in expressing the pain the narrator feels when thinking of what has gone wrong. Keys are dominant here, with sparse guitar outbursts. The emotional mood of having lost something valuable, can also be heard in Little Stone that features a similar vocal expression to Rubicon.
Then the mood of the album changes considerably. The pace gets more up-tempo, the tone of the lyrics lighten and the overall feel is more positive. Between the Lines has strong vocals with hints of Toto and Boston, and a very catchy chorus with wonderful guitar sounds.
A dreamy sax, played by Dariusz Rybka, opens the longest track, Like an Arrow. It is another slow song until some spoken words about the seven-minute mark. Then a fabulous guitar outburst introduces a totally different mood in the song, making it easily the most prog composition on the album. The beautiful ballad Time is the perfect match to the former song, because of its completely different musical mood, with quiet piano and loads of Mellotron.
The album closes with another emotional love song, Calling my Number that has such a catchy chorus that it will remain in your head for quite some time. I don't fully understand why this song needed another vocalist for Gall's voice is not very different to Staszek's. The guitar solo at the end of the song is wonderful.
So, Moonrise has again delivered a nice album that will appeal to listeners who like well-structured and multi-layered extensive songs. The older Porcupine Tree, the symphonic side of Toto and recent Anathema could well have served as inspiration for this set of songs. I especially liked the frequent guitar outbursts and the strong vocals, sung in English without a hint of an accent (as far as I can judge that). The English grammar is far from faultless, as can be read in the rather sombre booklet, but that will only annoy native English speakers a little.
Actually there is little to refrain from granting this album a high rating. Yet their choice for such an ugly, a-typical opener makes that impossible for me. I think it is best for all to just skip that song and enjoy the rest of the album.
North Of South — The Dogma And The Outsider
Having been a fan of North of South's last release (New Latitudes) I was quite eager to see the follow up, which has now arrived a year later in 2019. For those who are new to North of South, it is a project formed by Chechu Nos back in 2017 with influences ranging from melodic death metal, to pop rock. It is an interesting mix which comes across very enjoyably.
My initial thoughts were that this feels like it has a more accomplished sound. Ember Remains is a fantastic opener, melodic and proggy with catchy leads and passages. It also features a superb guest in the form of Kobi Farhi of Orphaned Land, who helps give the track that wee push to go from “great” to “brilliant”. It is absolutely the standout track for me.
We Refused to Hear Them (It's Our Song) also features a guest in the form of the incredible Anna Murphy (Cellar Darling, ex-Eluveite) for what can simply be described as a pretty rocking track. It is fast-paced and again shows a further developed skill set from Chechu with regards to writing catchy music. These two tracks fairly some up the album; catchy, proggy, melodic and quick.
On Unexpected Shores is quite a chilled instrumental piece, with some fantastic piano work. It is well put together, flows easily and is generally just really enjoyable. It helps break up the pace of the album as well.
Englishman In New York also features Zuberoa Aznarez (from Diabulus In Musica) and continues the fun and almost playful sound that can sometimes be heard on the album. It is a fine end to a very fine record.
In my last review I made a comment about the vocals sometimes sounding too quiet, however they are perfect in this release. Everything has folded together to create an altogether more mature album; one that has progressed from the earlier sound of New Latitudes and shows an artist who is properly finding his feet.