Pete Chilvers And Jon Durant — Always Golden Sands
British keyboard player Pete Chilvers, known for his collaborations with Brian Eno and Tim Bowness, has got together with American 'cloud' guitarist Jon Durant to create two releases of ambient music, inspired by their love of 1970s and 80s ambient jazz. The two releases are out on the ECM label, whose roster includes Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Terje Rypdal and so on.
Released at the end of 2020, the first fruit of this cross-continental collaboration is the three track EP Always Golden Sands. It blends acoustic piano with keyboard washes and Durant's fluctuating guitar soundscapes, alongside Chilvers' generative processes, so beloved of ambient musicians.
The music here is well-textured and melodically-engaging in that quiet, ambient way. There is a sympathy between Chilvers and Durant that belies the distance involved in the recording. That prevents these pieces just drifting along. Always Autumn has a mid-paced melody with a relaxed melancholy that evokes mists and mellow fruitfulness. Shifting Sands' slow pulse grows organically across a piano melody and long, shimmering guitar lines, as it soundtracks an imaginary documentary on the Atacama desert. Elements of ECM's ambient jazz appears on Golden but it is an unflashy and quiet jazz, with enough variation to add to the flow, rather than to disrupt it.
The music on Always Golden Sands has a filigree of detail that makes the concentration required to appreciate it, worthwhile. Ambient music is not aural wallpaper or easy listening. The soundscapes that Pete Chilvers and Jon Durant produce are intriguing, and ambient enthusiasts will find much to like here.
Pete Chilvers And Jon Durant — Vista
Following on from the end of 2020's EP Always Golden Sands, the team of Pete Chilvers (remodelled pianos, synths, generative processes) and Jon Durant (cloud guitar, fretless guitar, mixing) have released Vista, their debut full-length album.
On Vista there is less variation than on the EP. Most tracks begin with a not-particularly-memorable melody, picked out on acoustic piano, that slowly develops, in that ambient way, but unfortunately into not very much. As each piece goes along, clusters of keyboards are added in whispers, over which sustained guitar lines add to the chilly atmospherics.
There is only a modicum of variation between the tracks, with only two standing out. The unsettling Quarantine has an intriguing level of disquiet running under its glistening top-line. Then Age Of Steam has a more compelling melody and a rhythm that is marginally faster than glacial, with a looping bass pulse as its focus.
As with almost all ambient music, the listener must be prepared to concentrate to get the most from this music, but no matter how much I work at this, I find the melodies on Vista do not have sufficient weight to sustain my interest. This is especially the case on the longer tracks. Yes, I'm looking at you Sunset, my interest fades with each swathe of quiet keys and guitar, as they coast along.
Overall Vista is adrift in a sea of ambience, somewhat direction-less with only two pieces to recommend it. If only the players had introduced a bit more of the ECN style jazz that they admire, I might have liked this more. It is introspective to the point of almost impenetrability, and a disappointment after I had enjoyed the previous EP.
Fife Augury — The Shape Of A Tree
I quite like this album. I'm also aware that there are several problems with that statement. The first is that whether I like it or not is largely irrelevant. What matters is how good the album is and whether you will like it. The second is that I seem to be damning with faint praise. However, I mean exactly what I say. Although this is not a great album, and I will have some adverse criticisms of it, I still (as I say) quite like it.
A word about the band itself. Fife Augery is actually a duo from the south of France. Paul Roman sings lead and plays many of the instruments (and is particularly impressive on bass, but more about that in a moment), and William Moustrou plays lead, acoustic, and twelve-string guitars.
The drums, which are pretty good, are played by nobody. The release notes explain that Roman and Moustrou programmed the drum tracks on computer, and darn it if they don't sound (mostly) like real drums. The production is also pretty good. At times, when Moustrou is riffing away and the music is at its heaviest, the sound can be a bit murky. However, since this was largely a DIY project, that murkiness can be forgiven.
What does the music sound like? The influences listed by the band include Steven Wilson, Pain of Salvation, Genesis, Riverside, Queen, and Dream Theater. I'm going to come out and say that, unless Queen made an album that I don't know about, I find it impossible to hear anything that reminds me of Queen here. Genesis might be a stretch, too, except in the duo's progressive ambitions, but I can imagine how a fondness for Steven Wilson might have informed some of the compositions. Incidentally, the tracks are often on the long side. The first track, Escaping Light is eight-and-a-half minutes, and a couple other songs are eleven and twelve minutes. What partly redeems the length, is that the songs are internally quite varied, with only a few exceptions.
So if Fife Augery don't sound like Queen, what do they sound like? They describe themselves as progressive metal, but I would put the emphasis on metal. (I except from that description the lovely mostly acoustic “Wave” and the mainly instrumental “Plurality.”)
One of the problems with the album is that all the metallic songs rely on pretty much the same distorted guitar sound, although there is typically an acoustic interlude or bass solo in the middle of the longer songs. This is the case on Singularity, which also features at one point some cookie monster vocals, although through much of the album, Roman's vocals are clean and unadorned.
Now, as a fan of metal of all kinds, I quite like (there's that qualification again) the band's overall sound. The musicianship is good, and at times very impressive, check out the stunning bass intro to What I Should Be and the very tasty guitar solo in Singularity for example. These guys can really play.
But there are two over-riding problems with the album. The first, and I hate to say it, is that Paul Roman just isn't the greatest singer. His voice isn't particularly powerful and is far enough back in the mix that it's sometimes hard to hear. There are even a few occasions when he goes off-key, and one could wish those passages had been re-recorded. More successful are the numerous passages sung by the two together. I found myself thinking several times of Deftones, and that's meant as high praise.
The second problem might not be seen as problem by some listeners, and it's one common to many first albums. The duo is too ambitious, by which I mean that the songs didn't have to be so darned long and cram so many interludes and time changes into them. In fact, almost without exception, the most successful songs here are the shorter ones, Wave and the amusingly titled When Owls Fall.
This is a band that is still finding its sound, and that's understandable, but what the songs gain from internal variety, they lose in terms of unity. Okay, I'm old-fashioned, but I like a bit of a tune. Remember King Crimson's incomparable album Red? Even when that remarkable band was in full flight, there was a clear melody in the songs, and of course they were capable (I'm still thinking of that album) of a beauty such as Fallen Angel. Goodness knows I'm not expecting a duo of young men making their first album to equal the best of King Crimson. I'm only suggesting that ambition can be combined with restraint.
I'll end as I began: I quite like this album, and I expect to listen to it on and off in the future. I will also look forward to the next effort by this talented duo. I can only imagine that, with this album under their belts, they'll have learned what to do and what not to do, and I expect to like the next album more than “quite”.
Meer — Playing House
A number of years ago I happened across a song called Cabin Pressure that absolutely gripped me. However, try as I might, I could not find the song anywhere, a task hindered somewhat by the fact that the name of the band had eluded my powers of recovery from the memory banks.
As inevitably follows, the song was also forgotten. Slip forward through time and the album Playing House by Norwegian band Meer slips through my letter box. As soon as the first song gets going, the female voice stirs up the memories and, following a bit of research into the band, I discover that back in 2012, a forerunner of the current band (who went by the rather dubious name of Ted Glen Extended) had released an eponymous EP that included a song called, you guessed it, Cabin Pressure!
What is more, it was still available for download which, in exchange for a very reasonable amount of money, it promptly was, and proved to be an excellent purchase.
Further research revealed that the current band was an eight-piece collective featuring Johanne Kippersund on vocals, Knut Kippersund on vocals, Eivind Strømstad on guitar, Åsa Ree on violin, Ingvild Nordstoga Eide on viola, Ole Gjøstøl on piano, Morten Strypet on bass and Mats Lillehaug on drums.
Playing House is the band's second album, coming four years after their self-titled debut (which proved somewhat harder to track down, but was eventually secured, thanks to Discogs!) and fully lives up to the description in the accompanying record label information sheet as being an 'alternative progressive pop orchestra' with 'a massive sound, fabulous melodies, awesome harmonies and quite a few surprises'.
The sublime opening of Picking Up The Pieces with the grandiose piano and swelling strings, leads into the opening verse sung by the dual lead vocalists Johanne and Knut Kippersund. Johanne's voice is more prominent, with Knut's voice used more to provide the harmonies. There is something about the timbre of Johanne's voice that just resonates with me, but even so it would be hard to adore a song based on just a lovely vocal.
Gladly the band don't disappoint and the music is a glorious mixture of orchestral inventiveness, harder-hitting rock sections and progressive playfulness. As good an opening to an album as you are ever likely to hear.
Good as the first track may be, it pales compared with Beehive, the band's latest single. The arrangement has a touch of John Barry about it, mixed in with a dash of a classic title song from a lost James Bond film. The chorus is instantly infectious, check out the video below. (Then go to YouTube and have a watch/listen to the band's great lock-down recording of Whitesnake's Here I Go Again, an original take on a great song of my youth).
All At Sea, which features Knut Kippersund singing the verses and the two singers sharing the chorus vocals. Knut has appeared on Norway's version of the TV singing show The Voice, but don't hold that against him. A pizzicato violin and bowed viola create a nice contrast but the vocals are the main focus of the song, delivering the melody with the instruments supporting but not overwhelming. The song also has a terrific drum sound!
The seamless transition into Songs Of Us gives the impression that the two songs are one piece, as they work together so well, resulting in a rather proggy epic. Child is rather more staccato and sparse than previous songs but gives Morten Strypet's bass playing a chance to shine, although overall the song is lacking in an all-persuasive kick.
You Were A Drum sees the return of Johanne as lead vocalist, who provides some impressive background vocalisations in the instrumental section. The stop-start vocal ties in with the previous track, while the soaring strings are backed by some meaty punches from the rhythm section. A very interesting song that reveals hidden layers as one delves deeper into it.
The start of Honey is like some 80's synth band, but makes sense when the rest of the band come in to provide an interesting juxtaposition of musical styles, winning-out with a great arrangement, some top-fight melodies and another fine chorus. The vocal arrangement is also totally brilliant!
It is not surprising that Across The Ocean was the first single to be extracted from the album. It has large crossover appeal, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of Beehive, and is marred only slightly by the weird effects added to the vocals midway through; singers this good don't need any artificial manipulation. The end section, with massed voices of the whole band, again adds something different, although I think the ending is rather anti-climactic.
Things are shaken up with a big stick on She Goes which follows a similar template to You Were A Drum but with a much grander approach. A very dynamic song, I imagine this would be exceptional performed live with the whole band applying muscle and dynamic tension leading up the rousing, final vocal section and an ending that leaves one wanting more.
In complete contrast Where Do We Go From Here? is simplicity itself. Knut's plaintive vocal, backed by bass and electric guitar played through an echo chamber, is all that can be heard for the first three minutes, before a solitary organ chord and long, drawn-out notes from the strings add minimal colour. It is the most unique song on the album, standing out by its sparseness.
It is always best to go out on a high, and Lay It Down doesn't disappoint. Easily summed up as 'absolutely bloody marvellous'. No matter what superlatives are used, they would not do this justice.
Over the years, I have found that the first great album of a new year has been longer and longer arriving (obviously the progsters want to wait to make sure of a good position in the DPRP poll!). However, Meer have reversed that trend and delivered a stunning album during January. There is simply no way that I will forget about this album for the rest of the year, and neither should you, it is simply too great to be neglected.
Nine Stones Close — Traces (10th Anniversary Version)
Due to demand, Nine Stones Close have released a 10th anniversary vinyl version of their 2011 album, Traces. I will be honest, until having received this album to review, I had not heard of either the band nor the album. Listening to Traces, and some of the more recent releases, it may be a band I'll need to investigate further, when time permits.
Originally from England, band founder Adrian Jones, had released a debut album in 2008 entitled St Lo under the Nine Stones Close name. This was very much a solo venture at this time, and in an attempt to gain some interest, he gave away CD copies at the Dutch Marillion Convention in 2009. This proved beneficial in creating a working relationship with members of Riversea. This lead to Brendan Eyre contributing keyboards to this, the second Nine Stones Close album, along with Marc Atkinson providing his wonderfully majestic voice to the project. The original release of Trace was reviewed by DPRP. Nine Stones Close has gone on to produce two more albums.
During the original writing phase of the album, Adrian was dealing with a number of personal problems. His outlet was composing the songs which would appear on Traces. This is probably the reason why Traces feels far more introspective than Nine Stones Close's future releases. This is certainly not a negative, as it helps Adrian display his melodic style of guitar playing. With its tasteful and restrained approach, this at times bares comparisons to Rothery, Gilmour and Latimer.
Containing just over 40 minutes of music, and five tracks, the decision to re-release Traces on vinyl seems a good idea. If demand is good enough, then the album may also see its return to CD.
From the opening chords of Reality Check, there seems to be a strong connection to Marillion's sound, both the classic and newer versions. Adrian's solo on this particular track has all the hallmarks of a classic Steve Rothery solo.
Threads, with Marc Atkinson's vulnerable vocal, sustained guitar and swirling keyboards, pitch this track somewhere between Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree. It is full of emotion and asks some serious questions about death.
For me, the album is not without its flaws. This is evident with Falling To Pieces, which is very much a song which is of a traditional composition, and feels slightly out of place with the rest of the record.
The album's final epic track, Thicker Than Water, weighs in at nearly 15 minutes and allows Nine Stones Close to demonstrate what a classic song should be. It begins with a slow intro where the Marillion comparisons can't be avoided, especially with Marc delivering his vocals in the same vulnerable and fragile way that Steve Hogarth manages to portray. The track goes through a number of tempo changes, building a dramatic soundscape that is worth numerous visits to fully absorb the quality.
I can't comment on the differences that the remastering has bought about, but to me the mix is very good, enabling the listener to easily define each instrument. This does sound like a very modern production.
Traces is a very good neo-progressive album with leanings towards Marillion, that with the addition of Marc Atkinson, raises the quality far beyond the average.
Steven Wilson — The Future Bites
Prog fans are extremely dedicated, but that loyalty can quickly fade when established musicians stray too far from what some fans consider 'progressive'. Genesis, Yes, Peter Gabriel and others still get flack from once loyal admirers. The most recent example is Steven Wilson, who is perhaps the most popular prog artist of the last two decades. The visible dissent from some supporters began in 2017 with To The Bone, but that criticism was minimal compared to the outrage over The Future Bites. I have seen the words "sell out", "pop star" and "commercial garbage" used, and those were some of the nicer comments.
I can't be too judgemental, because upon hearing Personal Shopper and Emminent Sleaze, I too was initially taken aback. Perhaps, it was the female singers, the electronic instrumentation or the more immediate sound, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Steven has never been shy about his love of all kinds of music, including pop. He has unabashedly noted Abba and Prince as two of his favorites. Also, his other projects, Blackfield and No-Man are definitely more pop than prog.
As with the work of any musician that I admire, I gave this album a proper chance and it certainly paid off.
Considering all the elements of this album, the shock and awe reaction to it is surprising and I would dare say, misguided. Though the music contained within its nine tracks is somewhat different, this is also unmistakenly the work of Steven Wilson. He once again has followed his own musical path and is willing to shake things up artistically. Though I understand expectations and disappointment, anyone who considers this to be an example of modern pop, hasn't heard the top 40 in a very long time.
The aforementioned tracks are probably the most unlike his previous work, but who else could record a song quite like Personal Shopper? The same could be said for Unself/Self, King Ghost, Man of the People, Follower and Count of Unease. All of these songs bring an effective new twist to Wilson's diverse signature style.
12 Things I Forgot, a highlight, is more traditional, but still fits the overall tone of the album. Nothing here reflects the overt, classic prog of The Raven Who Refused to Sing or much of Hand Cannot Erase. Regardless, these compositions are compelling, the performances top notch and the production values, stellar. In fact, this is one of the best sounding albums I've heard in years.
The Future Bites could be placed in the same category of progressive music by bands like Tears for Fears, XTC or Talk Talk. The material is less organic and more accessible than much of Wilson's previous work, but it is also undeniably artistic and memorable. Ultimately, this release stands as another noteworthy achievement in a career that is overflowing with them.
Adhering to the 'less is more' length of classic albums, it is a brisk and potent 42 minutes. However, for those wanting more, the special edition box set contains an additional six new songs, and he has also released a b-sides collection of other tracks recorded in the same sessions. That set includes a very good remake of Lonely Robot's, In Floral Green.