Damn Fine Coffee — For Richmond Or Poorer
This is the third album released under the Damn Fine Coffee moniker. It is a solo effort from former Finneus Gauge drummer John Buzby, who proves he is far more than just a drummer on For Richmond Or Poorer. John is a multi-instrumentalist and song-writer in his own right. Previous Damn Fine Coffee albums have featured other musicians, but this latest release is a true solo album. John has written all the material, lays all instruments, sings and has produced the album. I can only assume that John is lacking in confidence in his graphic design skills, as he has again called upon the regular artist for previous DFC albums, Joey Irizarry, to provide the artwork for the project.
It was John's decision from the outset that Damn Fine Coffee would dispense with electric guitar, and the sound would be stripped down, featuring only a drum and bass rhythm section supporting John's keyboards. Upon first listening to the album it came as a surprise to hear music sitting somewhere between Faith No More and Spock's Beard. John's voice is a mix of Neal Morse and Nick D'Virgilio, but it lacks the training and delivery of both these singers. The songs all range between three and six minutes. There is a link between the songs which looks at the risks, failures, and pain that comes with pursuing one's dreams, and the valuable lessons that accompany the cost.
Opening track Home Of The Strange is a good introduction to the bombastic sound of Damn Fine Coffee, with its driving rhythm section with dancing keyboards, and multi layered vocals. Unfortunately, aside from This Time I Think and Show Me The Way, it is pretty much the same formula for all of the songs. There is very little variation in the songs, and I found the album very difficult to listen to in one go. If I were presented with an EP of a selection of some of the songs, I may have found the perseverance to better absorb myself in the music, but the nine tracks here were too much of a trial to listen to in one go.
John is obviously a very talented and dedicated musician, with some good ideas, who might benefit from having a writing partner to help him with the best use of them. I hate being critical, but I am looking for something with a wider degree of variety than what Damn Fine Coffee has delivered here; it might do with a splash of milk and spoon of sugar to become more to my taste.
Dawnwalker — Ages
Although this is my first review of 2021, I'm still discovering some real gems released in 2020. In this case the band is Dawnwalker, based in London, and the album is their fourth full length entitled Ages, released in December.
I've never heard of them before, so I'm not going to compare this album with their six previous releases, mainly because there is no need. The music here speaks for itself and those who already know the band could judge its evolution for themselves. Dawnwalker defines their sound as post/prog metal; blending modern heavy music with melodic, folk and progressive influences. Well, this looks great to me, since lately I'm becoming an addict to post rock/metal/doom so having all of these sounds blended with some prog and folk should be more than enough for me to appreciate this album.
The album has eight songs, four of them lasting more than ten minutes, three compositions acting like introductions or interludes and a final "normal" five-minute track. It's good to know this, because this album has been made to listen to in full. By doing so, the listener will discover how well Dawnwalker develops the quieter parts and the incredible, explosive counterpoints.
I'm not a particular fan of black metal voices but they are here and they fit really well into the album´s atmosphere. For those always looking for some references or similar artists, I won't be specific because here you can find many of them, from some old Opeth, The Ocean, many post rock bands you can name and some Adrift moments (a Spanish post rock/metal band that also has black metal voices). I know I'm not being of much help here but the music from Dawnwalker is better listened to, than described.
Go and check the mysterious introduction in Melekh that invites you to enter the album before discovering the calm of The Wheel that starts growing, until you receive the first punch of reality. Now that you are here, Ancient Sands keeps you on top with a stunning post rock entrance, before doom and black metal parts play their games. No calm here but great clean choruses.
By now it's impossible to scape from Ages. Numi leads you to Burning World, and no, this is not Tool playing the first chords. It is a stunning song that grows and can make you even change your mood because of the power in those harsh vocals.
Looking for the folk parts? Well, maybe try the initial passages of Colony. A Gathering can convince you. Stunning melodic vocals that you will be repeating when you finish the album with its final instrumental jam before The Cataclysm closes the album in a very melancholic way with more great vocal melodies. It is a perfect closing track and will be a perfect hymn for the audience when this crazy C*vid situation ends and we can go back to live shows again. I don't know if I´ll ever be able to see Dawnwalker playing live but with these songs and their style, I'm sure it would be a great show.
I've been increasing my score after each listening, so I can only recommend it as one of the best discoveries of 2020. Now I'm checking their previous Crestfallen EP, also from 2020 and discovering great things too, so I will dig a bit more because I'm convinced that we have here a very good band that will keep growing.
Eye 2 Eye — Nowhere Highway
The origins of Eye 2 Eye date back to 2003 when they were founded as Eye To Eye. Since the subtle name-change around about 2007, several consecutive albums have seen the light of day, of which only the 2009 release After All... got into view here at DPRP. Now thirteen years on, Eye 2 Eye present Nowhere Highway, a concept album that develops the talent that started with Ghosts Part 1 on their previous 2017 effort The Light Bearer.
Being unfamiliar with the band's former output, initially it was the conceptual story of spirited familiarity that ignited my interest. In short, it involves a musician who has lost his inspiration and seeks to find it again through the delirious, intoxicating nature of Scottish Whisky, binge-drinking himself into a coma, leading him onto the Nowhere Highway. A misty road on which he is caught in a persistent duel between his own ghosts and his muse.
Besides founding members Didier Pegues (drums) and Phillipe Benabas (keyboards), the band nowadays consists of Etienne Damin (bass/guitars) and Bruno Pegues on guitars, completed by returning vocalist Jack Daly who also sang lead vocals on their second album After All.... Aided by a few guests, like for instance Thierry Lalet on Feadog, the story has been translated into a marvellous musical narrative which opens with it's first highlight Behind The Veil.
Thanks to an atmospheric entrance incorporating bagpipes, TV-sounds and buzzing pub noises, the scene is staged effectively, projecting captivating images of the Scottish Highlands, while the enchanting violin (Marie Pascale Vironneau) glides among intimate piano parts, slowly building around touches of Pink Floyd. Then all of a sudden a remarkably distinctive mid-seventies production shifts the sound to an era reminiscent to Jane's Fire, Water, Earth & Air. A sudden veil masks some of the music's fidelity, making it sound shrouded, hollow and occasionally thin as if recorded from a next-door warehouse. A curious feeling, for thanks to this effect the lovely synth waves give rise to early eighties neo-prog, while the inspired symphonic elements in the closing segment sees them successfully soar into Omega territories during their Skyrobber and Gammapolis period, which is where my affection to this album becomes addictive.
The successively emotional and tranquil The Hidden Muse, inhibiting delicate Saga influences and tangible desperateness, follows. It showcases the interplay of the musicians most excellently. Mysteriously, the muddled production takes away some of the intricate arrangements and the transition into the tantalising synthesizer passage and an overwhelming guitar-solo feels a bit forced. Overall though it's a thoroughly enjoyable track igniting flashes of IQ and Aragon, the latter especially in light of Daly's expressive vocals, more befitting the music than The Light Bearer vocalist.
The Choice, divided into six individual chapters each filled to the brim with many alternating moods and atmospheres, continues the caressing, neo-prog path beautifully. The gorgeous violin parts, fluent Genesis-styled guitars and uplifting dynamics, incorporating elements of vocal aggressiveness, glides marvellously into an electronic Pink Floyd-inspired P'Cock environment, ultimately culminating in the albums' second highlight, The Fight.
The initial conversation between violin, guitar and synth is superb, after which the familiar Marillion-influenced melodies unlock many Grendel memories that slowly start 'assassin' my brain through the sparkling synth passages.
A slight return to intimacy in The Silent Shroud once again channels Hungarian Omega, where the graceful backing vocals by Claudine Istria bring depth and emotion. With feelings of desperation shining through, it ends sensitively with a brilliant melancholic solo by Pegues and Istria's blissful vocals.
The pleasant melodies echo onward into Moon's Ago with nice percussive accents and symphonic elements. In the end-section, the excellent interplay finally floats to the surface with each instrument captured clearly in the mix, breathing a sensitive, dreamy feel. With playful basslines guiding the heavenly violin, classical influences and synths, it transgresses into the album's magnum opus Nowhere Highway.
Here the tense, imaginative drowning is caught superbly via the long-lasting build-up of melodies in a similar vain as IQ during their Tales From The Lush Attic/The Wake period. It works splendidly, much like the angelic vocals that are embraced by magnificent guitar parts in The Muse's Caress and the electronic New Wave-like structures of Wandering, flowing seamlessly into The Holy Glow. With Lost In Time breathing aspects of Marillion's Script For a Jester's Tear, the big surprise is however Virtual Sunset.
From long ago experiences I'm still under the impression that too much drinking makes one's sky spin with twinkling stars, but in this beautiful, pinnacle moment Eye 2 Eye's tremendous delirium brings it closer to a colourful horizon filled with the absolute brilliance of Eloy's Planets. With guitar parts meticulously resembling those of Frank Bornemann, it is a most delightful ending to a highly entertaining and joyous concept album.
And there's more. For listening to the album on headphones turns out to offer the sonic Alka-Seltzer effect that clarifies the album's underlying hidden beauty. Arrangements start to fall into place, echoing effects fade into revelations of harmonious play, and many other subtleties surrounding the compositions can now easily be picked up, instead of being deduced. The fizzy neo-progressive feel ignites further memories of Pallas, Comedy Of Errors and to some extend even Kansas when the violin is applied. A nice additional dram for those in favour of a more contemporary approach, although for me it works either way.
Despite the initial production worries Nowhere Highway turns out to be a rather engaging and nostalgic effort, fit for those in search of early British prog rock. The adventurous twists and turns within the eclectic, slightly complex compositions, sufficiently surpasses the lack of originality which is a nice bonus. All in all a fine accomplishment which exceeds expectations when Eye 2 Eye touch upon elements of Eloy and Omega and rise above themselves. These pristinely executed movements are what I hope they will continue to implement into their appealing music in future. Slainte!
Naryan — The Withering
Naryan hail from Ylöjärvi, a small town near Tampere in Finland and were founded by Lauri Kovero and Harri Rantanen in 2005. Since then, the band has undergone quite a few line-up changes, recorded a few demos and EPs, and two albums: Naryan in 2013 and Black Letters in 2016. Prior to writing this review, the band was unknown to me. I am glad that this is no longer the case.
Besides Lauri Kovero (guitars), who has been present since the start, Naryan consist of Raino Ketola (guitars), Tommi Tanhuanpää (drums, backing vocals), Antti Väliniemi (bass), Tommi Niemi (vocals), Nona Onnela (violin), and Evelina Sydänlähde (piano, flute, backing vocals). There are several guest musicians on cello, flugel horn, trombone and trumpet, plus members of the Tampere Opera Choir who perform on this release and contribute to the orchestrally-sounding parts.
Before spending time on Naryan's music, it is essential to spare some words on the story of the album. Hardly have I ever come across a release where music and story are so closely entwined; where the music reflects the story to such a large extent. From reading the lyrics on the band's website, or merely from looking at the titles of each track, one gathers that the lyrical content is about the withering of (human) life. It is clearly about the loss of a beloved one.
The album starts with the track The End, making it evident that this loss has already occurred, that it is irreversible (Now You're Gone) and that the beloved one is irreplaceable (You Are The One), and is unlikely to be seen again in this world (Until We Meet Again). It all means that in reality The World Is Filled With Silence from now on. A sad story, full of emotions, sorrow, grief, and melancholy, all of them being captured perfectly by Naryan's music.
The story, exuding an atmosphere of sadness and melancholy, means that these elements are running like a red thread through the entire release. Consequently, forget about complexity, musical extravaganzas, stunning solos, variety, speed, lush keyboards, frequent breaks, changes of tempo and mood, sophisticated structures, or epics.
All of these are characteristics, I usually attach a high degree of relevance to in defining my own preferred style of prog rock. However, whilst providing for a stunning listening experience, these elements but do not always address one's emotions and imagination. Naryan's music does exactely that, being mid-tempo at the most, lyrical, solemn, sometimes introverted and gloomy, melodic and touching, and manages almost without any solos. The vocals, male and female, are warm, sentimental and sensible.
Distinctive is the abundant use of strings (cello, violin), leading to a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, which I have not heard frequently in progressive rock. The only comparison of a band doing the same thing coming to my mind is Electric Light Orchestra, however I consider their music as much more upbeat. Apart from this, the tracks remind me of the sadness in some of Leonard Cohen's, and Lou Reed's music, the gentleness and orchestral touches of Moody Blues and the subtledness of Clannad and Anathema. However, the fact that I struggled a bit with these comparisons is evidence of Naryan's originality.
Overall, the release shows similarities with and characteristics of a (mini-) opera, and could perfectly act as the soundtrack of a sad and emotional movie (the watching of which might result in a substantial use of paper tissues, if one is prone to tears). Black Swan and You Are The One are the most striking examples of that. The album also has elements of classical programme music (Mussorgski's Pictures At An Exhibition probably being the best-known representative of that musical style).
It is the first time in my DPRP reviewer's career that I attach a recommended-tag to a release, even though the music does not match my personal prog rock requirements and preferences as mentioned above. What impressed and even fascinated me was the power of the associations, images, and emotions that this music is able to evoke. There is sadness, grief, and melancholy, in line with the nature of the story (and going with the current pandemic situation). I felt touched, but not depressed after repetitive listening. Give it a try and let the feelings and emotions sink in!
Outside In — Karmatrain [boxed edition]
We don't usually do this, but in this case, it'd be rude not to.
It was last summer that I stumbled across this debut album from Auckland-based fivesome Outside In. A real slow-burner of a listen, its blend of emotive crossover pop-prog within a web of non-traditional song structures reminded me of bands such as A Liquid Landscape, The Addiction Dream, InFictions, Votum (Metafiction), Soup (The Beauty Of Our Youth) and Wolverine (Communication Lost).
So why this second review of the album?
Well, last summer I only had a digital promo to work from. On the negative side, I commented in my review "that the addition of the lyrics, with some artwork inspired by them, would have enhanced the package considerably".
Some time afterwards, the band kindly forwarded me the Full Monty.
And what a great package it is.
Artists from the "progressive" genre are adept at releasing endless "special edition" bonus options of their works; especially when it comes to re-issues. However very few independent artists are able to afford such luxuries, especially when it comes to debut albums. Over my years of reviewing, only a handful (literally) of such releases have been bolstered by truly memorable extras such as additional artwork and packaging. Two of the best examples have been Proloud's Rebuilding (2002), and more recently Evan Carson's intriguing Ocipinski.
Thus this boxed-set edition by Outside In is worthy of making some (more) fuss about.
Encased in an embossed black box, there is a signed poster and lyric sheet, and a set of postcards with some atmospheric photography by Jales Fyfe to illustrate each song. The lyrics sit on the other side. You even get some Outside In stickers and the ultimate add-on: an Outside In badge!
The biggest plus-point however is being able to play the actual CD on my main system. Fresh details emerge from every track. The sound is pristine. Listening with the lyrics to-hand and the added imagery, really takes this to the next level? Chapeau!
If I may suggest that a few extra photos of the full boxed package would enhance the sales potential on your Bandcamp page? The current description considerably undersells the quality of what is on offer for a value-for-money 20NZDollars. You can of course opt for the digital version, and the band is doing pre-sales for a double vinyl edition too.
So a final thanks to the band for their kindness in posting this halfway around the world. When Outside In have gone onto become a (prog) household name and are about to release their tenth album, then this will be a wonderful collectors' item (only 250 have been made). Until then, it will give me many hours of listening (and viewing) pleasure.
Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project — I Am A Stranger In The Earth
Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project's second studio album, I Am A Stranger In The Earth, finds the Russian group further distinguishing themselves in the realm of instrumental prog. In my review of their first album, I noted that there were some similarities to early Pink Floyd. In a review of their live album from 2019, Martin Burns notes that the group "looks lightly at the progressive psychedelia of the late 1960s and early 70s, but then twists it into shapes of entirely their own making." The Floyd influences remain on their new album, but that kind of psychedelic undertone from the 60s and 70s really is morphed into something unique here.
The band is led by Ivan Rozmainsky on keyboards and Vladimir Mikhaylov on guitars, percussion, and various other things. These two provide the creative direction. Yurij Grosier plays some fantastic drums. Max Lokosov provides a strong low-end with the bass, and Leonid Perevalov plays clarinet, which is one of the defining features of the group. Violin also appears prominently on this record, with playing done by Anatoly Emelyanov and Konstantin Karpinsky. I'll direct you to the Bandcamp album page for a complete list of people who contributed to the album, because there are many more.
The album is entirely instrumental apart from some periodic female vocals by Anastasia Mikhaylova. There are no lyrics, however, so her voice is used like another instrument. I felt it added a nice human touch to the final track, Do Not Postpose for Later. The production of the record is very lush without being too busy. There are a lot of instruments used with a lot of guests musicians, but they don't crowd each other out. Obviously they aren't all playing at once. In addition to their playing, Rozmainsky and Mikhaylov act as composers, placing these many instruments where they need to be in the album.
Guitar and keyboards play equally prominent roles, with the keyboards usually featuring a swirling synth tone. The drums and bass provide an excellent rhythm section. Combined with the other instruments, particularly clarinet and violin, the album has kept me interested each time I listen to it. This group truly excels in making instrumental prog. There are moments of improvisation, which is to be expected from this kind of music, but the improv' all fits within the creative framework laid out by Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov.
There are a couple of moments that I thought could have used some smoother or more intricate playing. Parts of Summer Haze. Lazy Dreams, in particular, felt a bit choppy in the synth or whatever it is that alternates with the guitar. But this wasn't a frequent occurrence, and perhaps that's the risk that is taken in more improvisational music.
I see I Am A Stranger In The Earth as being a step forward for the Rozmainsky & Mikhaylov Project. I enjoyed their first album, but I think this one is even better. It's a smoother kind of rock that helps soothe the soul. And if there's anything we all could use these days, it's some soul soothing.