Album Reviews

Prog-Tober 2020

Issue 2020-084: Day 14 — Live Albums Special

October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.

A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!

Welcome to Progtober!

In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.

As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.

Circuline — CircuLive::NewView

CD: 76:36, DVD: 76:41
Circuline - CircuLive::NewView
CD: Intro / Erosion (1:39), Soleil Noir (2:29), One Wish (6:40), Nautilus (6:24), Piano Challenge (6:25), Hollow (10:18), Return (acoustic) (3:27), Fallout Shelter (4:53), Pale Blue Dot (4:58), Forbidden Planet + Drum Feature (7:09), Inception (5:34), Summit (11:02), Stereotypes (5:39)
DVD: Intro / Erosion, Soleil Noir, One Wish, Nautilus, Piano Challenge, Hollow, Return (acoustic), Fallout Shelter, Pale Blue Dot, Forbidden Planet + Drum Feature, Inception, Summit, Stereotypes
Blu-ray: same as DVD; bonus video content: Concert with Audio Commentary, Backstage and Behind the Scenes, Official Music Videos, Onstage Photo Slide Show, Concert Posters Slide Show
Geoff Feakes

In 2018, I had the pleasure of reviewing the very fine live CD/DVD CircuLive::Majestik by New York symphonic rockers Circuline. Two years on, the band present another live offering, CircuLive::NewView, a recording that dates back to 14th October 2017. The venue, The Union County Performing Arts Center, Rahway, New Jersey, was the setting for the first annual ProgStock Festival. Understandably, the planned 2020 event was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Circuline are no strangers to festivals, having performed at RoSfest, Sonic Voyage, Liberty Music Fest and Progtoberfest in the US and the Harmonix Fest in the UK with IO Earth.

Between the Majestik show, which took place in May 2016, and this one, Circuline have replaced their guitarists, with Alek Darson and Joel Simches taking over on lead and bass respectively. Simches has since been replaced by Matt Dorsey who played bass on their debut studio album. Otherwise the line-up remains Andrew Colyer (keyboards, vocals), Darin Brannon (drums, keyboards), Natalie Brown (lead vocals), and William "Billy" Spillane (lead vocals, rhythm guitar). Unsurprisingly, given that the band did not release a new studio album in the interim, many songs from the Majestik set are repeated here. All the material, with the exception of the Sound Of Contact cover Pale Blue Dot, are taken from the band's two studio albums Return (2015) and CounterPoint (2016).

Although combined male and female lead vocals isn't unique in prog circles (Anathema for example spring to mind) the vocal arrangements give Circuline's sound an extra dimension. The singers often exchange lines during the verses, whilst combining for the choruses. Keyboardist Colyer accompanies Natalie and Billy for the three-part harmonies and provides the occasional lead vocal. Along with drummer Brannon, he is also responsible for the majority of the compositions. The resulting songs are an appealing combination of vocal melodies, that have a contemporary, mainstream rock vibe, and retro-prog instrumental sections.

The CD gets off to a splendid start with the back-to-back instrumentals Erosion and Soleil Noir. One Wish benefits from Natalie's warm soulful tones, contrasting with the bombastic, metal-edged instrumental sequence. Nautilus is an opportunity for Simches to show-off his bass talents, while Colyer's synth solo incorporates a sly nod to the original Star Trek theme. The musical references continue in the Keith Emerson-flavoured Piano Challenge, Ciculine's answer to Duelling Banjos. It incorporates elements of ELP's Trilogy, classical music and Rick Wakeman's intro to Yes' Awaken.

The strident Hollow returns to ELP territory with a nod to Tarkus in the instrumental centerpiece, while an acoustic Return features sweet harmonies and Darson's jazzy guitar picking. The slow-burning instrumental Fallout Shelter, with its spacey meanderings, is a grower while the aforementioned Pale Blue Dot is a quality song with an electric piano riff that brings to mind Supertramp's Dreamer. The title by the way is a reference to a distant image of the Earth as photographed by the Voyager 1 space probe. Forbidden Planet maintains the space theme, and the ambient intro finds Coyler in Blade Runner territory. The memorable song section, with Natalie and Billy dueting superbly, is heightened by blistering guitar accompaniment.

Probably my favourite song, Inception couples a ringing piano motif with Brannon's martial drum pattern to compelling effect, before reaching an epic, guitar-led finale. It's strong enough to be the set closer but the band have a couple more tricks up their collective sleeves.

The penultimate Summit is a song of two halves. The first part has a cool jazz-rock vibe and boasts the best vocal harmonising in the set, while the second half is a masterclass in guitar and keyboard dynamics that recalls the Canterbury bands of the 70s. Stereotypes, featuring another blistering solo from Darson, brings the show to a rousing conclusion.

Spin the DVD and one's appreciation of the show improves two-fold. The two singers project a genuine warmth, and during the opening instrumental, Soleil Noir, Natalie proves you can dance to prog. Billy looks dapper in his red ringmaster-style jacket, brandishing a twin neck guitar. To his left, Simches' stage presence and full-blooded bass sound brings the late, great Chris Squire to mind. Piano Challenge reveals itself to be a face-off between Colyer and Brannon as they playfully attempt to outperform each other with their joint piano skills, while Simches switches to drums. For me, it's the highlight of the show and it also goes down well with the appreciative ProgStock audience.

During the instrumental coda to Hollow, Darson adds a touch of Steve Hackett-style string-tapping to his solo while he brings a flamenco-style dexterity to the acoustic Return. Fallout Shelter proves to be more effective on video and a compelling showcase for guitar and drums. Likewise, the Drum Feature at the end of Forbidden Planet is a visual treat with a skin-thumping display from the entire band (with the exception of Natalie who sticks to tambourine). It's a throwback to the stage theatrics of Gentle Giant and Yes' live performance of Ritual.

CircuLive::NewView is available from the band's website in a variety of different bundles. My three-disc digipak came with a stylish tour programme and a handy coaster/mouse pad on which a hot mug of coffee sits as I write this review. Unfortunately, the luddite that I am, I no longer have a Blu-ray player so I can't comment on the bonus content. I'm sure it's well up to Circuline's usual high standards and I would have certainly liked to have heard the concert audio commentary.

Like CircuLive::Majestik, this is a fine, and thoroughly recommended testimony to Circuline's stagecraft and their superb material. Newcomers Darson and Simches are real assets, raising the already impressive musicianship to a new level. The performances are tighter, as are the vocal arrangements. Despite the absence of new songs, the arrangements sound fresh and the Piano Challenge and Drum Feature are entertaining additions to the set. Although the musical comparators mentioned above are all British and very 1970s, Circuline compare favourably with contemporary, home-grown acts like Glass Hammer, Spock's Beard and Kansas.

Kinetic Element — Live From New York

Kinetic Element - Live From New York
War Song (19:22), Into The Lair (9:00), Chasing The Lesser Light (20:45), Epistle (6:37), The Face Of Life (19:27)
Mark Hughes

After three studio albums, Kinetic Element release their first live album. It was recorded at the infamous My Father's Place in Roslyn, New York back in October 2019, about six months after the release of their third album The Face Of Life. Unsurprisingly the line-up of the band is the same as on that album: Mike Visagio (keyboards, backing vocals), Michael Murray (drums), Mark Tupko (bass), St. John Coleman (vocals), and Peter Matuchniak (guitars).

The recording starts on a high with the instrumental opening of War Song, which offers Matuchniak opportunities to spread his guitar all over the place, combining well with Visaggio's keyboards who has a couple of nice keyboard runs. The second section starts with a brief Celtic-flavoured jig before the vocals kick in. Having not been a member of the band when the song was originally written and released, Coleman does a reasonable job of singing the lines laid down by another, although I have to say the vocals are my least favourite thing about the album, being generally too high. Being taken down a tone or two, would I am sure suit Coleman better.

Instrumentally there is nothing to complain about. Matuchniak and Visaggio are great foils playing off each other, while Tupko's bass is clear and prominent in all the right places. The closing instrumental section is particularly nice, although the long tracks do have a tad 'prog-by-numbers' feel to them.

Second track, Into The Lair is, like War Song, from the band's second album, 2016's Travelogue. Musically this piece is a prog-lover's delight with Visaggio cramming in an unfeasibly large number of different keyboard sounds and Matuchniak proving he was a fine choice as the band's guitarist. In many ways it would have been preferable as an instrumental number as Coleman's voice tends to grate at times, particularly his non-lyrical contributions.

Chasing The Lesser Light is a new song from the next studio album which takes America's quest to land on the moon as its subject matter. Murray shines on this song with some exceptionally busy drum patterns that drive the song along and give a sense of urgency to proceedings. A nice jazzy piano break adds variety and it is nice to hear electric piano being incorporated amongst the more cosmic synth sounds. Why Coleman insists on singing in the higher registers is beyond me, as it is not his forte. Jon Anderson he is not. Hopefully the studio version will display better vocal control, as it does tend to wander every now and then. Again, musically the band shows its strengths, with the final instrumental section being very nicely written and performed, allowing Visaggio to show off his talents.

The final two tracks are both taken from the most recent album, with Epistle showing that the shorter song can be just as impressive and powerful, if not more so. The opening few minutes to The Face Of Life displays a great intensity, showing how well the band has prepared for the gig, functioning well as a unit given that this is only the third gig of the current line-up. Visaggio's backing vocals tend to be a tad on the flat side but are not too distracting. The song contains the strongest melodies of anything in the set and the whole piece has been adapted well for live performance.

There does seem to be a rather too-clinical approach to things, and one would have liked to have heard a bit less restraint in places and generally a greater number of hooks that would make the songs rather more memorable. Even after hearing the individual songs many times, both as studio recordings and on this live album, I would be hard-pressed to really distinguish between the pieces or hum one to myself. Maybe a greater focus on writing shorter songs rather than always going for epic numbers, with lots of individual sections bolted together, would be a profitable approach? But having said that, the band are very good at what they do, with some excellent instrumental flourishes that will satisfy even the most hard-to-impress prog head.

Soft Machine — Live At The Baked Potato

Soft Machine - Live At The Baked Potato
Out-Bloody-Intro (2:30), Out-Bloody-Rageous Pt. 1 (5:28), Sideburn (2:18), Hazard Profile Pt. 1 (6:29), Kings & Queens (4:36), The Tale Of Taliesin (6:19), Heart Off Guard (2:16), Broken Hill (3:44), Fourteen Hour Dream (6:26), The Man Who Waved At Trains (5:12), Life On Bridges (7:00), Hidden Details (7:03)
Héctor Gómez

When leafing through 20th century music encyclopedias, the page referencing Soft Machine will most likely exclusively mention the early incarnations of the band, when the influence of both Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt's personalities left a mark upon the Softs' own crazy brand of Canterbury psychedelia.

But then there's the "other" Soft Machine, the one which doesn't get as much love or praise and doesn't seem to be poised to go down in history as a seminal proposition. Even though it's true that this incarnation of the band ended up being somehow trapped in the tropes of 70s fusion, it still managed to produce some exciting and challenging music. The run from Fourth (1971) to Bundles (1975) is up there with the original Brand X, Nucleus and Colosseum as the best British jazz rock there's ever been.

Those "golden years" are present on the setlist of this live recording, which is as good as any other live album released by the band. At 56, Theo Travis, with his floaty and breezy flutes and scorching saxes is the rookie of the band, but in any case the music sounds vital and intense, with an octogenarian rhythm section on top form (John Marshall is almost as amazing as his 40 year-old self) and the incendiary guitars of John Etheridge giving it all an edge of urgency (funny then that Hugh Hopper once said: "We certainly didn't want a guitarist" when forming the band).

Classics such as Out-Bloody-Rageous (from Third), Kings And Queens (from Fourth) or The Man Who Waved At Trains (from Bundles) are all honored in dynamic fashion and crystal clear sound, with the band showing great mastery of light and shade (as on The Tale Of Taliesin from Softs) and even beauty (on Heart Off Guard). For those on the lookout for intensity, look no further than drum solo Sideburn and the oddly catchy classic Hazard Profile. There's also room for newer material from their 2018 Hidden Details album, namely its guitar-heavy title track and the more off-kilter Life On Bridges.

For a band that has been around in different shapes and forms producing unconventional music for more than 50 years, it is a triumph to still be able to play at this level of complexity and to come across as vigorous as this. Old music, but young heart indeed.

Album Reviews