Connection Theory — Connection Theory
Connection Theory hail from the Wirrel in north western England and consist of the couple Duncan and Laura Cooper. Whilst Duncan is responsible for the songwriting and plays every instrument on this release (guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute, and drum programming), his wife Laura takes care of the vocals on three of the five tracks (the other two being instrumentals). Information on the band being very scarce (if not to say non-existent), the only thing I found on the internet is a definition of the mathematical phenomenon of a Connection Theory, which I shall spare you in order not to unnecessarely protract this review. Needless to say that I have not come across these musicians before, who present their first release with this EP.
Now, when you turn to this album, don't make the mistake I first did by listening to it just "en passant". Connection Theory's music deserves unrivaled attention and best comes across through headphones. By and large, this is because its catchiness, subtleness and melody, and the structure of its songs do not surface right away, but want and need to be discovered gradually.
Rati Acutus is the easiest song for me to do that. Vocals feature on three tracks, and besides "real" melodies with lyrics, also prevail in the form of echoisms. Striking is the use of repetitive melodies, as they occur in electronic rock as a basis for the additional instruments. However not being produced by a sequencer in this case, but by acoustic and electric guitars, bass and piano. This sometimes creates a slight hypnotic feeling whilst listening. Flute and saxophone are used as the main soloing instruments, drums are programmed, but rather sound like they are being played by a human being. Whilst not being sheer musical wizardry, the musicianship is of high quality, and I very much liked the production and the mixing, with all the instruments sounding crisp, clear and well-balanced.
I found it difficult to find musical comparisons to this album, and I asked myself whether this is owing to my limited knowledge of this kind of progressive rock (which is not my most preferred genre and which I don't listen to very often), or whether it is a token of Connection Theory's originality. The repetitive musical patterns as the basis for the solo instruments are not unlike what a sequencer does in electronic rock. Some of the more dissonant parts hint at King Crimson, the sax playing reminds me of Soft Machine, and the vocals on Drumlins And Dropstones sound like what I have heard from French band Drama. But all these impressions are just glimpses and might also be a bit far-fetched to some listeners. If I had to somehow pigeonhole Connection Theory's music, I would put it close to Canterbury, rather than calling it neo-prog or symphonic prog.
I must admit, I struggled a bit with this release and the review. First listenings produced a shoulders-shrugging "So what?" reaction. However, I have a certain degree of natural respect for an artist who puts determination, energy, and his/her heart and soul into the project of releasing an album containing music he/she stands for (especially under these current difficult circumstances), even if the outcome does not entirely correspond to my prog rock taste. And I have to say that as I managed to better familiarise myself with the music, the more often I listened to it.
In this respect, I consider it a good decision to opt for the EP-format to test the waters with respect to the first reactions from the audience. Listening to a 60-minute release of this kind would have been difficult for me, but the 30+ minutes were just convenient to pique my curiosity as to what a forthcoming release might sound like. Recommended to curious listeners with a broad perception of what is a part of progressive rock, and being prepared to devote a considerable degree of attention and concentration whilst listening.
Herd Of Instinct — Unravel
Herd Of Instinct's new album, Unravel, is their sixth release and follows on from 2019's Incantation. This consists of unreleased tracks from previous albums, improvisations and newly recorded work. These instrumental pieces work well together as an album and are not as disparate as the description sounds.
Herd Of Instinct's sound is one that mixes progressive rock with ambient touches and a smattering of electronica. The main instrumental focus changes from track to track, with liberal use of Warr guitar (a guitar equivalent of the Chapman Stick), synths and Mellotron, with guests popping up to add flute, trumpet and violin.
Using this broad pallet, they make stimulating progressive rock instrumentals that mainly stay clear of the post-rock build-and-release dynamic. The use of classic keyboards (Moog, Mellotron) as well as guitar, gives each of these pieces engaging textures. They never forget to bring the melody, nor on some of the tracks, the punch.
There is the interplay between keys and guitar on Conjure's pacey rocking prog. On Furnace's twisted space-boogie they visit Kosmische Musik. The driving bass line anchors it, so that the guitars can soar, helped by the sliding U8 Touch guitar of Markus Reuter (Stick Men). It has an intensity of rhythm and melody that would make Can proud.
Herd Of Instinct also make soundtrack-like works. The title track evolves out of pulsing electronica into a guitar-led piece. Alice Krige Parts 1 & 2 starts in atmospheric, almost ambient mode. It has a Peter Gabriel-like world music edge to the percussion and super trumpet. Pounding drums, rich guitar and fretless bass introduce Part 2, before more trumpet brings it full circle. And, in a first for the band, they have recorded a cover version of Radiohead's National Anthem. This Kid A track works better here in an instrumental version, in my opinion. A couple of the shorter tracks may have been better, for me, if they had been expanded a bit more, but it is a minor point.
Herd Of Instinct's Unravel is an eclectic, subtle but focussed set of tunes. The adventurous arrangements and layers of music have an engaging effect, and they grow with repeat exposure. A fine collection.
Motorpsycho — The All Is One
The only music I have really listened to by Motorpsycho is the collaboration with Ståle Storløkken on The Death Defying Unicorn which I bought on the recommendation on DPRP.net. But it ended up being one of those albums that I admired a lot for its breadth and ambition, without really loving it the way the reviewer did. But when I heard a track from The All Is One, it fired my interest and I purchased the album as a download.
Motorpsycho have been recording for over 20 years and this new release is their 24th studio release. Prolific doesn't really cover it. I can't speak to the quality of the albums I haven't heard but this new one is a banger.
Over the space of 84 minutes they go from sunny West Coast harmonies and acoustic-driven songs, to crashing heavy prog riffs, with most points in-between, channelling a great dollop of ambition through a "Hey! We can be a genre all of our own" attitude. For instance, most bands would have put their forty-two minute, five-part epic N.O.X. ∞ as the opening track. But Motorpsycho have bookended it with what is, effectively, two related four-track EPs. This may sound awkward, but this running order works astonishingly well. It gives an arched structure to The All Is One, as it moves from acoustic beginning, to acoustic end.
Motorpsycho open with the psychedelic title track. Acoustic guitar leads gently into the full band firing away, generating an early 70s feel but with a decidedly 2020's edge. The Mellotron and electric guitar touches are magical. The sunny harmonies and vocal melody, counterpoint the dark lyric of distrust, fake news and disaffection with the state of modern politics.
Acoustic guitars are used for the riffs in the rocking The Same Old Rock (One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy). The acoustics hold their own over Tomas Järmyr's tribal drumming. Then his drum roll introduces The Magpie, which has a ripper of a guitar solo on it that pushes the amps to the edge of distortion.
A short, acoustic ballad finishes the first section of the album and it gives no hint as to the magnificent prog beast that is the N.O.X. ∞ suite. According to the band, it was written 'for ballet inspied by paintings, alchemy and tarot'. These linked songs and instrumentals segue into one another, forming a continuous musical work. The melody from the opening section Circles Around The Sun, Pt. 1 occurs in varying guises through the work, giving a harmonious structure amid the thunder and lightning that Motorpsycho produce.
Motorpsycho go into full 'come on, keep up' mode on N.O.X. ∞ without ditching any subtlety. The detailed arrangements are a joy, supported as they are by a clear mix and a stunning production. The vocals are deeper in the mix here and add to the mystery and density of the music.
N.O.X. ∞ brings out surprising moments that aren't anticipated by the first four tracks. There is brilliant violin and horns in the opening part. They have fabulous instrumental sections, especially in the heads-down prog of Ouroboros (Strange Loop), where its looping, multi-faceted melody grows into flying space-rock. They take a breath with the sliding guitars of Ascension. The pace picks up after the clock-tick pulse opening of Night Of Pan, then it slowly grows a sense of menace. Its layers of keyboards and guitars are forced forward by Bent Sæther's bass into more space rock territory, so good it makes Hawkwind sound a bit, well, pedestrian. They close the suite with Circles Around The Sun, Pt. 2, with no let-up in energy or inventiveness.
What a cracking work N.O.X. ∞ is. It moves from one "wow" moment to the next, its forty-two minutes steams-by without a mis-step. It is the sound of a band operating as a single, symbiotic unit, making music that is organically intertwined, purposeful and just brilliant.
A Steve Hackett-style classical guitar instrumental decompresses the ear as the last four tracks start. It also sees a return to the acoustic-led format of the opening tracks of The All Is One. Again, exploring the West Coast psyche, but with the heaviness that Motorpsycho are capable of on Dreams Of Fancy. They close the album with the hope-filled Like Chrome, with its mix of Mellotron and guitars. It reminds me of those fine Welsh rockers Man.
Motorpsycho say that The All is One is the third part of a loose and informal trilogy titled the "Gullvåg Trilogy", kicked off by The Tower (2017) and connected by The Crucible (2019). Presumably it is named after the artist who produced all the trilogy's artwork, Håkon Gullvåg. I have not heard the previous two releases in the trilogy but this stands on its own. Though given how much I like this, I now have the previous two releases at the top of my must-get list.
A magnificent and thrilling release. The sound of a band pressing fast-forward into the future from a rock-solid understanding of their long musical past.
Rien Faire — Rien Faire
When in a philosophical or grumpy mood, I find myself thinking that many modern prog-rock bands tend to sacrifice the “prog” side, concentrating on playing complex, groovy, but all-the-same conservative rock music. Here's an opposite example of artists sacrificing “rock” for the sake of “prog”.
The Bandcamp annotation for Rien Faire reads: “Sit down on a chair. Don't expect anything, those who do, have already made some choices. Don't muse, because this is also a sort of activity. Don't interact. The music doesn't resemble anything? That's for the better”. At this point, I should actually stop writing, to prevent my opinions from clouding your impressions, as the band insists. But since this is my first review for DPRP, stopping here won't make the esteemed board of DPRP elders happy. So bear with me a while.
The “anti-rock” self-definition of the band is indeed a good point. Pulsation is something this French trio is very good at, but their sound is miles away from the usual rock groove. No riffs, nothing to tap your foot to; and still the pulse is there, created by tricky interplay of drums, keyboard and bass. The guitar does not play an important role in the band's sound and is mostly used for bass patterns.
Not heeding the warning from Rien Faire, I myself made a mistake, expecting something quirky, dissonant and aggressive, in the vein of Nebelnest, or Stabat Akish, or even Chromb! (the main band for Lucas, the bass / guitar player). U-huh, that served me right!
Au contraire, the absence of the rock groove, of the modern wall-of-sound approach makes the record sound minimalistic and light. Compared to 90% of nowadays prog, it literally feels like watching the 1964 Franco-Italian comedy film Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez after a month of being stuck with movies from the Marvel Comics superhero franchise.
I cannot find any direct analogies, but try thinking of the more optimistic version of early Brian Eno (Warm Jets to After Science era), an obscure and fairly unexplored branch of prog music, with touches of Ange, nods to chansons Française, indie-pop and late 90-ies post-rock. The drummer delivers excellent patterns in the vein of Do Make Say Think and A Silver Mt. Zion.
The standouts? The funny, crimzoid and rhythmically complex Sombre Jambe and Jambre Gill will stick in your head for a couple of weeks. Le ciel est mou valiantly balances between indie-pop and post-rock, creating an atmosphere both dissonant and dreamy. Le Racle route provides a pulsing bass line and a wonderful arrangement for the three vocalists. Briefly speaking, most tracks do have their special tips, so after a couple of listens you get lost in the track list.
Although many things seem to be fine with the record, what bothers me is the vocals. Whereas Marie (keys, vocals) does a good job, the other singers have similar timbres, limited ranges, and their vocals are occasionally almost out-of-tune (although with avant-prog, you never know exactly if it is really out-of-tune, right?). The other thing is the album cover, which reflects the humorous side of Rien Faire's music, but doesn't highlight its lyrical / dreamy aspects; no less important if you ask me.
This is a light, mocking and sunny record, with lots of breathing space. An imperfect but charming Pop-In-Opposition album, keeping the creativity flame burning high. Recommended for the open-minded.
Violent Silence — Twilight Furies
Violent Silence are not a band that makes frequent visits to the recording studio, with at least seven years separating each of their three most recent albums. This latest Twilight Furies was proceeded by A Broken Truce (2013), Kinetic (2005) and Violent Silence (2003). All three have been positively reviewed by DPRP.net. Twilight Furies is released by Open Mind Records, the band's third label to date, which may partly explain the lengthy gaps between releases.
Since A Broken Truce, Violent Silence have lost three members and recruited singer Erik Forsberg and bassist Simon M. Svensson.
With the absence of a guitarist, the band's dual keyboard frontline of founding members Johan Hedman and Hannes Ljunghall remains intact. Hedman also doubles as the drummer and is responsible for the lyrics and production, while he and Ljunghall co-wrote the music. Judging by the excellent artwork and song titles, there appears to be an ecological theme, although I could be wrong because the lyrics are darkly oblique, especially as sung by Forsberg (more about that later).
If you're familiar with any of the previous albums, then Twilight Furies may come as a surprise. It's unlike anything the band has recorded before and the lengthy Tectonic Plates sets the tone.
Following a showy volley of drums and a lively synth break, it eases into an incessant groove utilising rhythmic loops and repeated keyboard patterns. The sound of the marimba is prominent, although I'm unsure if this is a keyboard patch or the real thing. Unfortunately, to my ears Forsberg's abrasive vocals are at odds with the music. He doesn't so much sing, as snarl the words. The drumming and bass playing on the other hand is superb, driving the song at a relentless, but still melodic pace. There's a great sense of dynamics, with a couple of neat synth solos and tricky time signatures that channel Dream Theater and Haken.
They are clearly comfortable with long-form songs, as the third track Scorched Earth Path testifies. It's not too dissimilar to Tectonic Plates, with the sound of the marimba once more to the fore. There is a touch of electronica and I was reminded of the minimalist style of composers like Phillip Glass and Terry Riley, only with a lot more clout. The polyrhythms and counterpoint vocal harmonies are deftly handled, although Forsberg's strained tones are for me an unwelcome distraction. The Genesis-style crescendo at the end is a nice touch however. The shorter tracks, including the instrumental Dance Of The Shuriken, are for the most-part minimalist tone poems.
Of the other two lengthy songs, Lunar Sunrise and Twilight Furies, the former is probably the album's most uplifting song, with a memorable melody that has a Mike Oldfield and Camel quality. The Gregorian chant-like sequence works well, thanks to the presence of the celestial organ. The penultimate Twilight Furies is a lively workout with syncopated, looped rhythms and punchy drums and bass. The atmospheric vocal round section brings Gentle Giant (by way of Spock's Beard) to mind, but once again, the aggressive solo singing belongs to another song entirely. Image if you can, a turbo-charged Steve Reich fronted by Metallica's James Hetfield with a bad case of laryngitis and you'll have some idea of what to expect.
I must confess, after several plays the vocals do become a little more palatable, although they remain a taste that I will never fully acquire. I should stress however that judging by the positive reviews I've read elsewhere, mine may well be an isolated issue. That aside, musically this is a very fine album where the musicianship is quite stunning at times, especially the keys and drums of Mr Hedman. Please though Johan, don't leave it another seven years before the next release, I may not be around to enjoy it!