Archangel — Third Warning
Behind Archangel one finds the name of Gabriele Manzini, keyboard player for Ubi Maior and former member of The Watch. Third Warning is his third release after the 2009 debut The Akallabeth, a heavy progressive-folk album inspired upon creations by Tolkien. It was followed by the 2013 effort of Tales Of Love And Blood where gothic metal and new-wave influences found their way into his compositions.
On Third Warning Manzini (keyboards, flute, stun guitar, backing vocals) acclaims a change of direction by stating an intention to return to his progressive roots influenced by Genesis (especially their A Trick Of The Tail era), Alan Parsons Project and Mike Oldfield.
Aiding Manzini foremost are Davide Martinelli (drums), Walter Gualtiero Gorreri (bass), Alessandro Dovì (guitars) and Giancarlo Padula (The Forty Days) on vocals, while great contributions are delivered by Stefano Mancarella and Marcella Arganese on guitars in Thetis and The End Of The World respectively.
The references given turn out to be only partly applicable, for I'm actually overly reminded of progressive rock with a lush mid-80s sound that bares a distinct Marillion mark. For example, the slowly-intensifying, initially-restrained, and dreamy The Last Days Of Beauty leads to strong Misplaced Childhood associations, while Steve Rothery-like guitar lines, sounds and melodies sees me instantly humming the lyrics of 'On The Rebound...' in the spooky Cinderella Search, resemblant to the opening chords of Thetis.
Thetis is actually one of the reasons why I decided to have several lengthy intervals between listening sessions. Although I quite liked its Eloy-induced atmospheres, lovely guitar coda and occasional IQ/Galahad-like vocal deliveries by Padula, there's hardly any change in the melodies, while the incredibly slowly-intensifying pace of the song feels like riding behind a Sunday driver without the foresight of an accelerating detour.
It proved to be of no avail, for despite Manzini's excellence on keys shining through beautifully in songs like the epic When The Eagle Hung His Head and Circle Of Life, the album never really lifts off for me. Technological Anguish's opening dynamic rhythm and elegant Arena-inspired melodies, that flow smoothly into the mellow symphonies of Metal Into Brain, presents a fine start of the album. The latter's tasty Hammond organ solo adds a lovely touch, but it all sounds so very familiar.
Several of the compositions glide along in a tardy, mellow fashion which brings a constant enforced handbrake feel to the music. This lack of energy is most imminent in the sweet, gooey Parson's likeness of Circle Of Life and the beginning of The End Of The World. The latter's dynamics and nicely arranged synth accents with its intricately atmospheric 'powerful' ending is therefore heartily welcomed, much like the subsequent instrumental Storm Over St. Andrew's Churchyard, the album's highlight. Here orchestral elaborations and symphonic elements, surrounded by enchanting piano play and mild bombast, slowly work their way to an epic finale of excellent organ movements, which will delight fans of Genesis/The Watch.
In the all-encompassing finale, When The Eagle Hung His Head, every element encountered thus far passes one final time. From luscious piano play and lovely synth solos, to predictable song structures and slowly progressing melancholic melodies. Here the second reason for my listening intermissions comes around the corner: Padula's precarious vocal delivery.
His voice takes some getting used to and for the first half of the album displays some fine moments, yet there are instances where he over-exceeds his one dimensional limitations. This for instance leads to a very narrow escape in The End Of The World, while it sadly tips the enjoyment-balance in a negative spin when he passionately deliveries a forced performance in When The Eagle Hung His Head, sounding uneven and out of his depth.
Like any good prog record the music starts to reveal its nature upon multiple encounters, which is a definite positive, yet unfortunately the overall outcome does not do it for me. The shortcomings in originality and underwhelming vocal impressions leaves me feeling that more could have been done here. The talent amongst the musicians is certainly there.
Progressive novices and fans of atmospheric neo-prog with a preference for Marillion might feel otherwise, so please don't hold back in listening to Archangel's effort, as there are some excellent moments to be found and a lot of care and attention has been given to both compositions and artwork.
Aura — Imaginations
Not to be confused with the Italian band of the same name, Aura are a Swedish band who have been around for eleven years, and in that time have released five albums with Imaginations being the latest, released towards the end of last year.
The quartet features Lennie Andrews (vocals, keyboards, guitars, some drums and all sound effects), Joacim A Sternkrans (vocals, guitars), Conny Engelund (bass, background vocals, guitars) and Ulf George Andersson (drums, percussion). As with all their previous albums, Imaginations is a concept album, and a very contemporary one, as it is influenced by the covid-19 pandemic (nicely titled 'CoronAlone'), aircraft being shot down over Tehran and an American president who has turned the world upside down (mmm, wonder who that could be?!)
From the off, sound effects populate the concept's narratives and there is a definite nod to The Wall in how they are used to drive the story along. They are fused seamlessly with the music. The grandiose instrumental title track that opens the album has an almost Russian military feel to the way the layered vocalisations are laid over the insistent beat that builds into a crescendo as we approach Together Alone Again.
Although both Andrews and Sternkrans handle lead vocals on different tracks, it is fair to say that neither is in possession of a powerhouse set of vocal chords. This is to the detriment of the album as a whole, as musically they have all the requisites required. The variety of songs, styles and tempos makes the album an interesting listen throughout, indeed Tomorrow Will Be A New Day is an almost anthemic number that feels like it should be more of a concluding piece, than towards the beginning of the album.
The transitions between songs are very well done, giving the album a continuity that emphasises the conceptual nature of the work. However, everything is somewhat let down by the singing, Angry Bards and Flick Of A Coin being prime examples. The latter song would be so much better with a better quality vocalist, as fundamentally it is a very good song; proggy with a catchy chorus and great melody.
And that just about sums up the album. Aura have the potential to crossover to a much larger audience, as the songs and musicianship are not in question. The production could be improved upon and perhaps they could be a bit more adventurous in some of their arrangements, but on the whole they have nailed their own particular slice of prog, and I do love the drum solo at the start of Green Rain, a very novel and interesting way to start a song! However, the rather monotone delivery of the vocals and some of the more, shall we say, wayward notes, interfered with my enjoyment of this album.
But plenty of ideas and decent music, just missing the killer punch of a more forceful singer.
Echoes And Signals — Mercurial
Echoes And Signals is a progressive rock band from Russia. When I searched the internet for info on the band I found them categorised as an instrumental post/progressive/math rock band. Thus for Mercurial, I must presume that they have changed their style, as the album contains mostly songs with vocals and their sound has become a lot more melodic.
On their previous album, Monodrama, the major part of the music is instrumental apart from one song with vocals from Marjana Semkina of Russian band Iamthemorning. On Mercurial guitar player Fedor Kivokurtsev has stepped up to do the vocals. His voice reminds me of Mariusz Duda from Riverside. Bass player Alexey Zaytsev is also still present but drummer Yaroslav Egorov is replaced by Leo Margarit from Pain Of Salvation.
The new sound of Echoes And Signals can be compared with Porcupine Tree, Riverside, The Aurora Project, and when the songs get lengthy and atmospheric, I hear some Anathema.
The opener The Darkness is mostly atmospheric with a heavy part in the middle. There is a stretched atmospheric part opening the album, and when the song suddenly becomes heavier, it has many changes, and it sounds aggressive. Tower is a longer song but kind of built the same way, with atmospheric mellow parts and heavier and aggressive parts alternating. The difference in style between mellow and heavy parts on the first two songs is more significant than on the rest of the album.
On the song Broken Machine the difference between the styles is more balanced and more to my personal taste. It has some heavier parts but they sound more bombastic and more in line with the less heavy parts in the song. Just like the opener, In Transition starts mellow but this song is also more balanced. It has a nice, slow, pounding rhythm instead of faster heavy music and makes this song a nicer trip.
The title Chaos predicts heavy stuff but it is more keyboard psychedelic. Mirror and Dust are the only songs I could discover with somewhat lengthy melodic guitar solos. I must say I do miss those melodic guitar solos on this album. I do love the bombastic chords that pound along in a hypnotising way but an occasional extra solo would have been welcome.
Echoes And Signals are no longer an instrumental band. The music has become more melodic than on their previous releases and that is a good step. If you like music in the style of Porcupine Tree and Riverside then you can definitely give this album a try.
Exanimis — Marionnettiste
There was a time when if someone had mentioned to me that France would be the next a hot-bed of extreme metal, I would have laughed. Now however, I can believe it. With bands such as the metal titans of Gojira storming the world stage, or the weird jazz stylings of Gorod, or the progressive steamroller that is Klone, it is no wonder people are starting to take notice. And now comes the debut from the symphonic/prog death band Exanimis.
The album kicks-off with a very symphonic-styled intro before the crushing wall of complex death riffs come flying in, accompanied by textbook insane drumming and bass work. The harsh and deep growls of Alexandre Dervieux to complete the sound. The board is set, and the pieces are moving for this album now.
Every track is a hefty layer of incredibly technical riffing, frantic drumming and growled vocals to make the earth shake the way the subject matter of Stampede Of The 10,000 (the Uruk-Hai from Lord Of The Rings) do.
The drumming is constant, and the guitars both chug and wheedle away with solos left, right and centre. Symphonic elements provide atmosphere and tension across the album, creating a foreboding and dreading feel.
It is a superbly crafted album with some fantastic tracks, such as Stampede Of The 10,000 , The Wrathful Beast or The Flow Of The Spume On The Shore. However, it unfortunately lacks a bit of diversity. Every song is, as I said, a hefty chunk of progressive and symphonic technical death metal. But that is the problem, as every song is a hefty chunk of progressive and symphonic technical death metal. Some bits do sound repetitive as a result.
However, I'd say that is the only downside for me. I still think it is a great album. If you're a fan of Gorod, Dimmu Borgir, The Breathing Process, or Fleshgod Apocalypse to name a few, then I strongly suspect you will enjoy this. Go have a listen. I'm confident the next album will be even better.
Illutia — Un sitio sin lugar
Some gorgeous, pompous synth keys, a nice voice with Spanish lyrics, and a moderate, calm rhythm section; this is how the Argentinian proggers from Illutia introduce themselves on their debut album Un sitio sin lugar (A site without place). The music itself is not as surreal as the album's Escher-influenced cover, but definitely shares the same bright colours.
The band's sound is closer to early neo-prog, with synth keys all over the place and a distinct Iberian flavour in their harmonic approach. While the band cites early Genesis as their major influence, I am reminded of 70s Spanish prog (Iceberg), Orford-era IQ and 80s Pallas, with bass and keys playing the central role in building the basis of composition (as opposed to the more guitar-centered Jadis and Pendragon).
Illutia are no copycats of course, and their musical message is light and optimistic, as compared to the angst-loving dinosaurs of the genre. Fans of epic, neo-style solos will be pleased to find some nice examples here (namely Un sitio sin lugar and Mascaras que caen), as well as some acoustic passages, but surprisingly my ear-radar has not registered more than a couple of guitar riffs on the entire record. Funny thing: 90% of guitarists now seem to forget about higher strings and frets from 12th to 22nd on their instruments, while Illutia's axeman rarely uses 5-6th strings.
Ojos de espectador is the most dynamic track. It is bright and flashy in a neo-prog way, floating nicely between minor and major harmonies, while En el hielo is my favorite one, with its nice strumming rhythm (love those accented upstrokes) and clever chord progressions.
This is a debut record, and not exactly without flaws. My main problem is that Illutia seems to over-rely on largo-tempo melodies. It is fine for one or two songs, but after first 20 minutes gets tiresome. Initially I didn't like most of the vocal melodies at all (the voice itself is good however), and even thought that it would be better to have the record entirely instrumental. But after a couple of listens, I grew more accustomed to what the vocals bring to the table. I still however wish that Illutia's next effort was more diverse in dynamics.
If you are tired of modern-day, over-produced djent-metal-rock, or consider yourself a fan of early keys-oriented neo-prog and are yearning to find out how that sort of music would sound in 2021, Illutia offers a peculiar interpretation. The band has its own voice; one that is not blindly following the day's fashion.