Illuminae — Dark Horizons
Ian Jones fresh from his Chasing The Moon project and erstwhile (or current, I never can tell) holder of the Karnataka flame has united with Polish singer and pianist Agnieszka Świta, mostly known for her work with Clive Nolan's Caamora musical theatre group. Supported by a trio of reputable musicians in drummer Craig Blundell, guitarist Luke Machin and keyboardist Gonzalo Carrera as well a trio of guests that include John Helliwell, Troy Donockley and, almost inevitably these days, Steve Hackett, there is no doubt of the calibre of the performers.
Rooted in the symphonic rock that Jones is mostly associated with there are plenty of bright melodies on offer and several tunes that are memorable after the first time of hearing. But overall it is a fairly safe album, and doesn't offer much that is startingly different or original. Fans of Nolan's epic constructs will probably lap this album up as it occupies much of the same theatrical space as his epic productions, although I have to say they are not really my cup of tea. I am also not that partial to Świta's overblown vocal style; yes she is technically a superb singer, effortlessly hitting notes that cover a wide range of staves, but it is all a bit over-dramatised with every song having to wrought with 'epic' qualities.
Standout tracks are the energetic, and actually rather brilliant, Blood On Your Hands where Blundell's powerful drumming provides the driving force and the closing number Dark Horizons, particularly the instrumental section during which Machin makes his guitar sing. Helliwell's contribution to Sign Of Infinity is, of course, exemplary but Donockley's pipes are rather lost in the mish-mash of Heretics And Prophecy. And the less said about the outbreak of beats, or whatever one should call them, on Dark Angel, the better.
Illuminae's debut is, I'm sure, one that will gather a lot of positive reviews and be gladly welcomed into the homes of numerous people. However, it is an album that I don't feel has enough staying power to still being regularly taken off the shelf in years to come. But as I have said, it's a musical genre that I don't have any real affinity for. And no matter how many times I hear the storm and solitary church bell intro to The Lighthouse I can't get over expecting to hear the crunching riffs of the eponymous Black Sabbath title track!
Steve Lukather — I Found The Sun Again
I have to begin by mentioning Steve Lukather's inexplicable cover on his brand-new album of Joe Walsh's Welcome To The Club. I love Joe Walsh; I love the song; but it never needed to be recorded by anyone else. Not sure why Lukather did it - I suppose he just liked the song. He also covers Traffic's Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys and Robin Trower's Bridge Of Sighs - the latter track being one of the best things on the album.
And having started by revealing those surprising covers, I have likely also revealed that Steve Lukather's I Found The Sun Again isn't what anyone would call a typical progressive rock album. In fact, a few songs aside, there's little that's progressive about this album at all. However, I thought it worthy of a review on DPRP because one of the things we stand for is musical excellence, and I don't imagine anyone would care to deny that Lukather is one of the finest guitar players of the last fifty years or so. If you agree, you'll find a lot to like on this album.
Looking for Toto? I might as well confess that, whenever I hear Lukather's name, the awesome pop-power chords of Hold The Line crash into my head. He'd be sorry to hear that admission, but I bought that single as soon as I heard the song on the radio and went on to buy the album, and even as a teenager, I recognized the talent in that band, especially the excellence and versatility of the guitar playing. (Incidentally, long-time Toto bandmate David Paich appears on this album.)
However, there's nothing here that sounds like Toto, except insofar as Lukather's trademark guitar sound is inextricably bound up with that band's history. The most Toto-like song is certainly Serpent Soul, while the most sort-of-progressive song is likely the album-ending Robin Trower cover, which clocks in at more than eight minutes and showcases some simply excellent soloing by Lukather. It reminds me of late-period Pink Floyd, so there's your progressive element.
Elsewhere, as I've said, there's a lot to like and not a dog on the album (except, I'm afraid, for Welcome To The Club– anyone attempting that song should demonstrate a sense of humour that I don't hear in Lukather's version). The lovely ballad Journey Through nicely offsets the energetic Traffic cover that precedes it, and if you don't like Run to Me, one of my favourites here, you just don't like pop music. Lukather has said that he wanted to capture the spirit of the seventies, but this could have been a hit in the sixties or even the fifties.
So if you are a fan committed to progressive rock and progressive rock alone, don't seek out this album. If, however, you want to hear what a master musician and songwriter is doing forty-some years after his first big hit, I can heartily recommend Lukather's I Found The Sun Again. Just maybe skip the Joe Walsh cover and play Joe's original instead.
Joe Macre — Bullet Train
Devoted fans of Crack The Sky (CTS) will have instant recognition towards the name Joe Macre, seeing he's one of the founding members of this illustrious Àmerican band. He played with them during their successful 'progressive' 1975-1980 years and joined their ranks again briefly from 2004 to 2009. A very early successful achievement is their debut album Crack The Sky which Rolling Stone Magazine voted debut of the year at the time. A status still recognised in light of its ranking in the top 50 progressive albums of all time.
For many a European fan, let alone Dutch ones, this recognition is very much under the radar. A somewhat peculiar case, for under the guidance of the charismatic John Palumbo the band has released quite a strong legacy amounting to roundabout 30 albums up to present day. Many of those I hold dear, especially the brilliant 1978 effort Safety In Numbers which, although recorded without Palumbo, contains the exquisite Palumbo-penned Nuclear Apathy, with its majestic title track coming close second. Rather surprisingly Macre's Bullet Train marks the first ever CTS-related album to be featured on DPRP.
Over the years Macre has worked with many well known artists (The Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Oliver Wakeman to name a few) and won several award-winning mixing/composing credits for films and commercials. After the brief CTS-stint in recent years, Macre is now focussed on recording music at his own Joe Mac's American Garage. The resulting debut album Bullet Train features many visiting guests each adding their own juicy flavours to the spicy musical mix of the album. Talented musicians which next to several unknown names, at least to me, includes members from CTS (Palumbo, Bobby Hird, Joey D'Amico and Rick Witkowski) and Chris Elliott and Jerry Oxidine from 86 Bullets, whom in fact I don't know as well.
Much like CTS, who never shied away from incorporating genres like punk, rock, new wave and prog into their music, Bullet Train is a wondrous collection of different styles in line with this appetising eclectic mixture, thriving upon foremost Southern rock, blues and classic seventies rock with a delicate touch of prog on a few occasions.
Drag It Down's catchy West Coast rock, slightly reminiscent to Michael Stanley Band, opens the album vibrantly with some lovely organ touches, a delightful vintage sound and well balanced mix bringing out all the individual instruments. The captured energetic performance sees, next to upfront bass parts, some tantalising fireworks from Chris Elliot on guitar, who manages to bring equal steamy performances in the sleazy classic rocker Slow Ryder and bluesy Beatles-esque You Can't Take It With You.
Both of these tracks are surrounded by rupturing blues harp melodies from Al Macre, which sees a fuming reprisal in the Southern blues rock of Diesel Locomotive, a composition perfectly in place on any Lynyrd Skynyrd album. The sheer intoxicating spicy rock, with Beach Boys/Beatles-appeal, continues in the mildly prog-ish That Summer which is embedded with a tangible time-warping atmosphere mindful to Prins Obi's deliciousness. At The Roadhouse, effectively a CTS composition, concludes the bluesy aspect of the album with some elegant jazzy notes, signature vocal deliveries by Palumbo and a finger-licking tasty Kentucky Fried slide-guitar solo by Hird.
Many of these songs sound refreshingly spontaneous, surpassed by the quirkiness of If I Only Had A Brain, a song originally from the 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz. With a memorable seventies Brian May (Queen) inspired solo from Jim Griffiths it delicately shows the fun elements encountered by the individual musicians during their Garage rendezvous moments.
For prog enthusiasts Bring On The Night might be more their cup of tea, showing an upbeat groovy drive and structural progressive twists accomplished through enticing complex organ/guitar interactions. The formidable submissions of Elliot, Witkowski and Jeff Adams on lead guitar furthermore bring instant memories of CTS formative years, which is a lovely reminiscing moment.
The revisitation of CTS's Safety In Numbers greatly exceeds this marvellous feeling. With minor detailed alterations/enhancements and a scrumptious tweak in Macre's bass lines, now brightly smouldering in the mix, the composition's natural grace has been carefully preserved, serving as a joyous and strong embracive momentum on the album. The vocals from original vocalist Gary Chappell, in fine form after an absence of 40 years, adds further nostalgia and warmth to this wonderful composition giving it the same enchanting and majestic appeal as it did four decades ago.
Bullet Train ends on the wings of the uplifting Lennon/McCartney composed Goodbye which exhales mild comforting Elvis Presley vibes as it trails off into the sunset with a sweet lingering finish, readying musical tastebuds for supplemental well-seasoned treats out of Joe's Garage. With summer approaching fast and an announced spring release of Macre's second album The Dream Is Free precisely my Cuppa Joe.
Harking back to alluring seventies inspired (blues)-rock and tasteful CTS infused prog escapades Bullit Train's infectious diversified blend most effectively lightens up my present days. Fans of CTS will know exactly what to do, while the accomplished variety of the album should hopefully bring Macre towards new shores. Thankfully The Netherlands falls into this category for once. Here's hoping that the mentioned tour does as well.
Molesome — Are You There?
Over the last year I have had the pleasure of discovering the variety of work originating from Roth Händle Studios in Stockholm, Sweden, and particularly that masterminded by the immensely talented Mattias Olsson. First came the release from Mattias' band Molesome, and the emotional Tom & Tiger, and then the collaboration between Mattias and Tom Doncourt, the wonderful Cathedral.
Now, following in close succession is the new Molesome release, Are You There? With this album, Mattias and his fellow collaborators have provided the listener with a concept album. As you might expect, this is not your normal concept album, but one which focuses on life's unintended interruptions, such as spam emails, phone calls from unknown people with Asian accents telling you that you have recently had and accident and are due massive financial compensation. Basically all the white noise life creates. While this could have produced an album of indeterminable nonsense, Molesome have actually created an artistic acknowledgement of all of modern life's annoyances.
The eighteen tracks which extend to 50 minutes, are varied to say the least. The Mellotron is used as the primary instrument to produce the musical foundation to many of the tracks. The studio tweaking of these sounds has produced a very modern sound rather than sounding nostalgic which you might think. Many other instruments have then been added to embellish the sonic soundscape. This includes Mattias' always stunning drumming, along with other analogue synthesisers and guitars. The kitchen sink is not used, but a child's speak and spell toy is credited as being included on the aptly named Alphabat. I'll leave it up to you to se if you can identify it.
Some of the tracks do feel like an annoyance at first, but suddenly mixed into the sound is a familiar musical phrase which tweaks your aural senses into life. Such instances (and I apologise if these passages were not intended to do this), include The Second Voice were the oboe appears to play the melody from O Sole Mio which was composed by Eduardo di Capua. Tim (Original Soundtrack) begins, and my immediate reaction was that I was listening to Talking Heads. There are plenty more times I felt my ears identifying frustratingly familiar musical references, and struggling to identify or label them.
Some of the songs do include singers, such as the catchy Iceman, were Mattias' daughter Tiger provides the voice, and the striking Naturales, were Trinidad Carillo adds her vulnerable vocals in a memorable and haunting way.
Are You There?, may be to eclectic a mix for some, but if you approach the album with an open mind, and allow yourself to become immersed into the music, I genuinely feel you will be surprised and rewarded in equal measure.
Dennis Rea — Giant Steppes
If you like albums that explore new territories you will appreciate the canvas of sounds presented in Giant Steppes. If you like albums that meld different styles and culturally tinged musical idioms into something that is quite idiosyncratic, you may find yourself doing a jig of delight after listening to this interesting fusion of Western music, folk and contemporary music associated with the region of Central Asia.
If you like something that sits outside the usual parameters of prog rock and is progressive in its outlook and execution, you may well smirk and shiver in anticipation at the prospect of spending time in its enchanting caress.
Denis Rea has been involved in a number of innovative projects over the years. He is perhaps best known as the guitarist of Moraine whose brand of jazz based fusion has satisfied and delighted audiences through the years. See these DPRP.net reviews for Moraine: Manifest Density, Metamorphic Rock, and Groundswell.
However, he is also equally respected for his work with other bands and projects that might be considered perhaps less accessible than Moraine. In particular, he was a founding member of innovative Iron Kim Style where freedom of expression and improvisation rather than written structure appeared to be the bands prime consideration. Rea was also an influential figure in Jon Davis' Zhongyu.
Zhongyu's self-titled debut release was an exciting synthesis of eastern music with progressive jazz. Its authentic Asiatic sound was primarily created by the clever use of percussion, and the use of a guzhheng .The album was reviewed by DPRP.net in 2016 in issue 51.
With Giant Steppes, Rea continues to explore the exciting possibilities of melding Asian and Western Music. It develops his penchant for exploring the music of East and Central Asia. In his last solo album Views From Chicheng Precipice, Rea utilized instruments such as, the Dan bau to give the album an authentic Eastern sound in his quest to synthesise and adapt a range of musical ideas typically associated with various regions of China.
The use of traditional instruments continues in Giant Steppes. During The Fellowship Of Tsering a dungchen horn is featured and in Live At Gaoching an unexpected flavour is provided by the rhythmic pulse of a digeridoo. In Giant Steppes Rea's fusion of East and West is focused upon the musical culture and traditions of Xinjang, and the Altai and Tuva regions of Russia.
An accurate representation of the music of the area lies at the heart of many of the albums compositions Three of the four tunes are traditional compositions , although one piece namely, Wind Of The World's Nest, is primarily Rea's own tune. A fourth piece entitled The Fellowship Of Tsering is based upon two songs by the celebrated Tibetan singer songwriter Jampa Tsering.
The traditional components of these tunes are respectively thrown into the air to be altered, rearranged and redefined. This creates an album that whilst being true to its ethnic and cultural roots, takes on a whole new contemporary identity.
A sense of authenticity is provided by the contribution of a number of players associated with the music of those regions. Tuvan singer Albert Kuvezin (Yat Kha) features on two pieces and his no holds barred throat singing is a real highlight during Wind Of The World's Nest. Altai By And By features the talents of vocal group Juliana and Pava who specialize in Russian vocal folk music. If that was not enough, the album uses location recordings of Tibetan prayer flag and prayer wheel to add an extra touch of realism to tunes like The Fellowship Of Tsering
Rea's creative vision works successfully on many different levels. The album is accompanied by a book Tuva And Busted. This provides a backdrop about how Rea came to create the album and provides details about his interest in the music of that region. At the time of writing it is available on a link as a free download on Rea's Giant Steppes Bandcamp page.
I found the album to be an immersive experience and whilst I did not enthuse about every aspect, it more than held my attention. Each track included something, or had some aspect that I really enjoyed.
The long running Live at Gaoching is an excellent opening statement. There are three distinct parts to it. I particularly enjoyed the expansive opening section. Its twisted marching beat and interesting ethnic air was reminiscent of the mix of influences that Trillian Green used to bring to their art. The use of the Digeridoo ensures that this piece has a memorable identity. Its earthy rhythmic warbling provided a primeval pull, which was hard to ignore.
I was very impressed with Rea's guitar work in this track. Distorted and clear tones are used to complement each other. The sustained high notes and sweeping soundscape of effects were reminiscent of Robert Fripp. At one point, the sax and guitar created a marvelous union of sounds and their bright discussion was undoubtedly one of the highlights of this excellent arrangement.
Nevertheless, I was even more impressed by Altai By And By. I have always been smitten by the imaginative use of the human voice and I hold bands and performers such as Ikarus, The Trondheim Voices and Norma Winstone in high regard. I now need to add Juliana and Pava to that list.
Their innovative chanting and vocal improvising is superbly juxtaposed against the menace and exceptional fretted skills of Rea. The composition is a mixture of harmony, and discord. It works so well on so many levels. One moment serene and candle lit; the next moment menacing and dusk dark. The ensemble's use of a noticeable pause between their vocal phrasing is used to dramatic effect. As a consequence, there were a number of occasions when the vocals pulse and fire like an unexpected lightning strike against a table black, draped night sky. This noticeable phenomenon regularly raised my goosebumps and satiated my appetite for the use of the human voice as an instrument in its own right.
To use the word mainstream prog in conjunction with any of the pieces of Giant Steppes is almost definitely a misnomer. However, for any listener who might be put off by the thought of vocal chanting and the progressive free expressionism of Altai By And By, the final two tracks on the album contain elements that I imagine many prog rock fans might find more enjoyable.
Wind Of The World's Nest is an interesting piece and aspects of it might satisfy the rocker that lies within. Its heavy atmosphere is complemented and added to by the contribution of Albert Kuvezin. He uses the deepest traditional form of throat singing and his menacing growl certainly creates a distinctive sound. However, this is not a chorus and verse affair. The sax interlude was reminiscent of something that would not have been out of place in Zappa's Hot Rats .The arrangement includes many interesting instrumental sections that are full of different tempos. I particularly liked the manner in which jaunty folk like melodies were used as a contrast to the bombastic vocal sections. These beautiful moments softly break free from the shackled expectations that are created by the hard edged, no holds barred, moments of the tune.
The final tune on the album contained a stand out sound. I now want to hear other albums which include a Dungchen horn. Its intervention during The Fellowship Of Tsering is unnerving and dramatic to say the least. It alters the mood of the piece and changed its direction, just as my interest in its straight ahead, jam like structure was beginning to wane.
However, the majority of The Fellowship Of Tsering is very accessible. It has some satisfying changes of direction and has enough ambient and avant moments to keep things sparkling, or dull depending on your taste. I enjoyed the times during the piece, when the extended exploitation of folk based rhythms and themes reminded me of bands such as Flasket Brinner and Agusa.
As the album ends, I cannot rid the bellowing sound of the Dungchen horn from my consciousness its mammoth trunk snorting, reaches into me and pervades my thoughts.
If you like albums that utilize seldom heard instruments then much of Giant Steppes will impress. With its unusual array of sounds and skillful amalgam of styles, it is certainly able to take the listener to the outer limits of the imagination.
I recommend that you check it out and hope that you enjoy the trip!
P.S. Does anybody know any satisfying Dungchen horn albums?
Unquiet Music LTD — In The Name Of... (A Prayer For Our Times)
Before getting into reviewing this work I feel I need to explain myself and my connection with music. I am very much a musical child of the 80's. My first love is that of Neo-Prog first discovered with the rise of NWOBPR, along with the rock and metal of the time. While my interest has lead me to explore the originators of the genre, there is very little of the time before the 80s which captivate me as much as the output of “my” era. When listening to the output of the prog greats like Yes and Genesis, my favourite eras are probably those which die hard fans of the bands hate, such as 90215 and the hits Genesis produced later in their career. Having made this clear, one thing I missed, or did not become part of, was what my predecessors seemed to require to enable them to listen to music, was the taking of any form of herbal enhancement. I did not even understand why people drunk themselves into oblivion when at a concert. I always wanted to watch the band as well as listen to the music. I wanted to basically feel entertained. I missed the hippy and psychedelic eras, and found no need or desire to explore these in that manner. I can, and still do, find myself regularly amazed by the some of the artists of the era, Jimi Hendrix is the one which immediately springs to mind.
So, why have I made this statement? It is to make clear that reviewing something I clearly do not understand and have no affinity for is not easy. With this in mind, Unquiet Music LTD have delivered an album that leaves me flummoxed. I an not only lost for words, but also have found myself questioning whether I consider it music? My wife, while not a fan of a lot of Progressive Music, but having a broad musical palate, used the car one day when I had left this CD in the player, and her response when returning was far from complimentary.
With In The Name Of, I feel Unquiet Music LTD produce music for a very specific audience, and unfortunately I am not a part of that collective. Genesis, Joy Division and Simple Minds are quoted as influences and no matter how hard I try, I have failed to find any similarities with these bands here. Other bands are mentioned, along with the “rai” scene. This is not a musical style I have come across before.
I will not try to describe how the music made me feel or react, as I do not get any pleasure from criticising something people are passionate about, therefore I will just say if you want to test your own concept of music or feel like what you are listening to is not challenging enough for you, then this may be for you. If you feel safe in the comfort of a particular genre, then this may prove a step too far.