Dream Aria — Out Of The Void
The band's Facebook introduction reads: "Dream Aria is a Toronto based band who blends traditional Progressive Rock with New Prog, World music, Goth, Ambient Textural and Classical music genres". Pretty impressive on paper, right?
Ok, all you Goth guys (if any here on DPRP), relax. Dream Aria has the same relation to gothic music that Christmas Vanilla Frappuccino with choco crumbs has to black coffee. (Well, maybe the point is that the vocalist is fond of long black dresses with wide sleeves?). And then, I would be cautious to place a “Progressive” label to Dream Aria's music (which is also only occasionally rocky).
I must confess that I didn't like the album at all on my first listen. Not to say that I am fond of it now, but on the other side there is nothing really wrong with it. Ann Aria Burstyn is no doubt a fine vocalist with a low-to-mid-register, pleasant mezzo voice, and the rest of the band also competently supports her vocals. The record opens with three mildly groovy numbers – The Void, The Professor and Valhalla, reminding me of post-Heather Findlay Mostly Autumn on their average day. Then things change to bring the listener an unrestrained new-age Essence, followed by Kitaro-style techno Lingua Cosmica and then returning to pop-folk-rock with Perfect Storm and The Hourglass. The disk is completed with more new age softness of the last three numbers.
The Perfect Storm seems to be the strongest track here, with a well-caught, upbeat momentum, and that is where all the elements of the band fit together the best.
I have three main problems with this record: lack of memorable songwriting (more about that below), very basic rhythm patterns and equally simple guitar riffing with a raw crunch/overdrive effect that, I should confess, sometimes made me cringe. Commonly, I have low tolerance towards bands that spread one and a half musical ideas to 10+minutes tracks, pretending to be progressive. Here my feeling is exactly the opposite – Dream Aria tends to end their songs quite abruptly, without giving the musical ideas a chance to breathe and develop. And that's a pity, because a listener doesn't have enough time to feel the ambience and catch the so-necessary ear-hooks.
I am sure that the band is capable of making more convincing material, but lovers of new age music and female-fronted soft-rock projects like Kingfisher Sky, The Wishing Tree, and Panic Room might find this release by Dream Aria worthy of attention.
Stefan Elefteriu — Quantum Gates
I am a fan of a lot of the electronic music that was released from the 1970's to the 90's. Particularly the melodic, rhythmic style that has become more rare since the influx of Electronic Dance Music into the genre. Much of Quantum Gates reminds me of a time in the 80's when electronica become more accessible. At the time, established electronic and prog artists like Tangerine Dream, Eddie Jobson, Patrick Moraz, Pete Bardens, Michael Hoenig and others gravitated to labels like 'Private Music' or 'Cinema' as an effective outlet for their creativity.
That is not to say that this album sounds dated. In fact, Elefteriu does an admirable job of presenting classically melodic, electronic music in a modern casing. As an example, Lonely Alien is the most contemporary sounding song, but it still toes that traditional line without crossing into electronic dance music. There is a substantial amount of variety to the twelve tracks that make up this release. Vocals are effectively utilized on Hold On and Too High, which is somewhat rare for an electronic album of this type. Also, a rock infused flair is prominent at times, while other songs employ a more classical, movie score like style. Not surprising considering Elefteriu's origins in rock music and the fact that he has written film scores.
This is a well crafted, intricately performed electronic album. Much like the recordings by the artists noted above, I could see this appealing to progressive rock fans. Elefteriu's doesn't seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead, his compositions reflect back to an era of electronic music where melody was key. The instrumentation is creative, the songs resonate and ultimately, Quantum Gates is a very entertaining addition to a genre that could use more recordings of this style and quality.
Julius Project — Cut The Tongue
Welcome to a release which took more than forty years to see the light of day, forming a symbiosis of the seventies Italian prog rock composing style and nowadays production, recording and arranging techniques.
During 1978-1981, Lecce-based keyboarder Giuseppe "Julius" Chiriatti wrote a concept album about a young man going through the vicissitudes of his life, including the reliance on false prophets, before finding the meaning of his existence. The work was never recorded and performed, though, and fell into oblivion for more than 35 years thereafter.
It was only in 2014 when it was, more or less coincidentally, rediscovered by his daughter Bianca, who also performs part of the vocals. Having decided that it should finally be completed, the arranging, producing and recording took place with two music collectives, one led by Giuseppe Chiriatti in Lecce and the other by Milan-based keyboarder Paolo Dolfini (formerly with Italian progsters Jumbo), who was also responsible for the overall coordination.
His "Northern fraction" consists of Filippo Dolfini (drums) and Marco Croci (bass, vocals, formerly with Maxophone), plus another two ex-Jumbo members Dario Guidotti (flute) and Daniele Bianchini (guitar) as well as Flavio Scansani (guitar). The "Southern fraction", besides Giuseppe (keyboards, vocals) is made up of Francesco Marra and Mario Manfreda on guitars, of Egidio Presicce (saxophone), and Martina Chiriatti (vocals).
Although most of the music was composed and thus the framework set some 40 years ago, the arrangements, finishing touches and production took place during last year. I believe it therefore is justified to draw comparisons not only to bands Giuseppe Chiriatti might have been inspired of at the time of composing his music, but also to those he did not know of in those days (because they surfaced much later). This brings us to the prog rock bands name dropping section of this review.
Julius Project's music clearly is rooted in the tradition of the 70s Italian progressive rock school. However, for me, whilst showing many elements of this genre, it does not always have this typical "Mediterranean" romantic, lyrical, sometimes melancholic singing-songwriting timbre of his peers. That of Banco, Museo Rosenbach, Quella Vecchia Locanda, PFM and especially Locanda Delle Fate and subsequent time periods like La Maschera Di Cera, Mangala Vallis, and CAP. Instead, I find many similarities to the more neo-prog oriented Italian bands, such as Melting Clock, LogoS, Cellar Noise, Barock Project, and Submarine Silence. Leaving Italy, mid-seventies' period Genesis, Different Light, and Magenta are the first reminiscences that come to my mind.
Additionally, I recognise features of the Dutch prog rock school, owing to the symphonic, classical music-influenced parts, starting with early Kayak, and Earth And Fire (especially on the opening track) to Flamborough Head, Silhouette, and even the keyboard playing style of Rick van der Linden with Trace (I See The Sea).
Although this may sound like an enormous potpourri of musical influences, Julius Project managed to carefully amalgamate all the bits and pieces to create a seamlessly floating consistent one hour piece of music. Where the total is more than the sum of its individual parts, whilst keeping its individual style. This is even more remarkable given the fact that this release, although originally composed by one person, was arranged, produced and recorded remotely by two groups of musicians based in opposite parts of Italy. I assume (without knowing for sure, though) that all of the musicians performing on Cut The Tongue have not physically met during that process.
The genre is retro, but with a modern and fresh sound, thus perfectly bridging a time span of more than 40 years from composing until releasing. It incorporates the musical influences mentioned above without sounding artificial and cloned. The music is varied, accessible, full of beautiful melodies and goosebump-producing moments, e.g. the guitar melody on The Fog, the hooks of the organ on Island and of the synthesizer on Wandering or the keyboard extravaganzas on I See The Sea, and In The Room.
Being the work of one keyboarder and having a second one responsible for the arranging and the recording of the keyboards, it is clear that the music is very keyboard-oriented. However, acoustic and electric guitars are also given room to contribute to the overall symphonic and melodic sentiment (not surprising with so many guitarists performing). Added to this is the well-measured use of the flute (especially on Cut The Tongue, and Mask & Money) and a lively rhythm section. Vocals (male and female) are contributed by various musicians, including Richard Sinclair (ex-Caravan amongst others) on the title track, the only one newly composed by Giuseppe Chiriatti in 2019. Lyrically, by giving the advice to Cut The Tongue of false prophets, I believe he hints at today's role and influence of fake news.
I very much like this release, because, in a perfectly balanced way, it both meets my expectations I attach to prog rock (musical abilities, variedness, keyboards-orientation, complexity, catchiness, melodics) and touches my emotions and feelings. It is one of these unique gems which definitely merited to be brought to life, which rounds off the spectrum of distinctive releases of RPI and deserves a place in any well-sorted prog rock music collection. Therefore, considering the usual degree of subjectivity, I give it the highest possible score.
It will be interesting to see if this project develops into a permanent and stable band releasing further album(s), or whether it remains a one-time affair. In any case, the bar has been raised high for a possible sophomore release.
Sproingg — Clam
I'm all for experimental off-tune cacophony or downright loopy weirdness when it comes to music. Take the work of The Mercury Tree for example, it is obviously very clever what with microtonal tuning and 17 notes per octave, that imbues a deliberate sense of discomfort, ie. it's “art rock”. Pat Metheny's Zero Tolerance for Silence showed that even the most anodyne of artists can turn his hand to shock-and-awe noise-fests. You don't listen to such stuff for relaxation, or an appreciation of the beauty of life. No, it's more akin to reading a piece of classic literature because you know it will make you a better person, even though deep down you know you would prefer to be sat down with a NY Times bestseller, or the latest edition of DPRP.
So, even though it would be much easier to be admiring of what these three, in normal circumstances, probably talented musicians from Freiberg have vomited out in these sessions (and appear rather high-brow and cultivated in the process), this reviewer would rather call it for what it is: unlistenable drivel. I've used the analogy of a high-school music lesson for other reviews, but this is more in the nursery-school-toddlers-stumbling-across-an-open-instrument-cupboard territory. On their bandcamp page someone mentions the following: "They have successfully managed to create their music by blending & fusing in the styles of King Crimson, Wire and the Ozric Tentacles". Errrmm, no they haven't.
There are some vaguely Ok bits. The undulating time signature challenge of Progg Is A Five-Letter Word ticks a box or two but still veers into what can only be described as “all the wrong notes”. Lovebird Dogbane plods along like the theme to a scary animation, and In A Recent Survey sounds like a funeral dirge for Frank Zappa that he would probably appreciate, but it's just all too much. I am aware of some salutary reviews on the internet such as “dynamism, hypnotic intrigue and other ingenious concurrent polyrhythmic patterns”. Better them than me, I say.
To sum up, if you have ever seen David Lynch's 1977 film Eraserhead, this could well be the soundtrack. 'nuff said.
Starfish64 — The Crimson Cabinet
Singer-songwriter Dieter Hoffmann (vocals, guitars, keyboards, programming) founded starfish64 in 2006 as a means of launching his solo career. Over the course of years his aspirations have now firmly settled as a full-band consisting out of Henrik Knopp (drums), Dominik Suhl (guitars) and Martin Pownall (basses, guitars, keyboards, vocals). Further contributions on The Crimson Cabinet come from Jan Thiede (acoustic guitars, vocals, glockenspiel), Simon Triebel (guitars) and Peter Herrmann on pedal steelguitar.
Personally they were unknown to me but a quick survey on starfish64's Bandcamp page reveals many EP's and several albums of which three: Refugee, An Altered State, and The Future In Reverse) were favourably reviewed on DPRP. The engaging The Crimson Cabinet nicely rounds it off to a successful quartet.
It did take a while though, for I like a touch of energetic rock in my musical variety, something less apparent in starfish64' delightful laid-back compositions. The single metal reference to be found can be attributed to the playground picture in the booklet, depicting a deserted swinging device made from steel. Although for some unexplainable reason Lost & Found, exhaling joyous early Porcupine Tree influences and tasty synths, reminds me of the pristine atmospheres found on Demon' British Standard Approved, a NWOBHM pioneer.
That's where any other metal reference stops, for starfish64's strength lies in crafting powerful, progressively pop-structured, artful compositions that contain a beautiful sense of simmering melancholy and brooding emotion. Aided by meticulously restrained performances the album flows through an unrivalled wonderful stream of sorrow, pain, hurt, loneliness, despair, hopelessness and peaceful nothingness. Where Hoffmann's touching melancholic vocals occasionally show resemblance to a lesser pensive Thomas Thielen (T) and Steve Hogarth (Marillion).
The trajectory of the album gives me the impression of gazing out a window in an inner spirited journey, meanwhile unlocking mind-carriages that have just passed their final stop, en-route to a derelict marshalling destination. The inescapable Nowhere Bound [Aimless Mix] being a perfect example sketching out a desolate dry landscape through its sensitive Pink Floyd inspired atmosphere, highlighted by great guitar work and Hoffmann's extremely tangible saddening vocals. A marvellous reflective ending to a strong album that starts off carefully with mellow poppy melodies in Spindrift, preceded by the scenic opener In The Lobby.
Spindrift actually turns out to be a relatively mild uplifting track, for starfish64's ostensible relaxed compositions can be very deceiving. They harbour unsettling moody feelings underneath their shiny surface, strengthened by poetic thoughtful lyrics and sophisticated detailing in the arrangements. The brilliance of interplay between the musicians elevates this even further, aided by an excellent crystalline production.
The comfortable song Future Perfect Tense is surrounded by tranquillizing reassurance and a silky smooth pop sense, embraced by beautifully harmonising cherishing children's choir. Equally appealing is the light energetic Pink Floyd/Roger Waters approach in Mr. O'Brayne showing lots of intricate variations, a lovely keyboard movement and delicious pedal steel guitar parts that overwhelm in melancholy and gracious melodies.
Together with the aforementioned Nowhere Bound it's the two remaining tracks, The Crimson Cabinet and The Future In Reverse, that impress the most. The title track unlocks Pink Floyd-ian Time boxes as it glides through echoes of Porcupine Tree and restrained bluesy Sam Braun psychedelics. The hypnotising dreamy atmosphere, caressed by refined backing harmonies, gives effortless emotive appeal. Luscious piano intertwines with intricate instrumentation to slowly build towards a gorgeous melodic endplay, shaped through a delicious moving guitar solo.
The Future In Reverse, linking to starfish64's previous effort, tops this with a beautiful all-encompassing ambient Porcupine Tree feel, where acoustic guitars caress and its cautiously intensified atmospheric build up is met by sparkling keys. It's tasty festive bridge shows delicate reminiscing elements of joy before it slowly converges into a nice synth-movement that drowns into a coda of an innocently pleasing playground buzz silenced by roaring thunder. The successive Nowhere Bound, comprising many details and touchingly emotive guitars, ends the album on a high melancholic note.
Over time starfish64's progressive artful pop-songs lit up my inner feelings of warmth and embrace. Once firmly seated in the solitude of my favourite chair, with lights half dim, it evolved into an attractive album that grows ever stronger. A fine companion in hectic times, able to shift to breathtaking comfort in the quietness of reflective moments.
Previous albums came with the remark of using headphones (and a drink for good measure) for a full experience. Sound advice in The Crimson Cabinet's case as well, for besides the preferable seclusion it reveals many elegant subtleties missed upon a regular stereo experience. Overall a solid and recommendable follow up to 2018' The Future In Reverse, capturing starfish64's sound-identity perfectly once again.
As a last remark those interested might also want to check out the introductory collection 10X64 (A Collection Of Odds) on Bandcamp. Use it to your advantage, for not only does it showcase starfish64' steady pathway towards this fine achievement, it's also free of charge!