Blazin' Quartet — Sleeping Beauty
Ears twitch, eyes close in relaxed response.
"The colours, the colours, oh the colours!"
Luscious bold sweeps of sound and subtlety camouflaged aural tints bulge and waft from the speakers. An ear pleasing and shifting mind colouring array of tones, pigments and hues combine to provide a multi-sensory experience.
The vivid flushes, elegant flurries and calming colours of Sleeping Beauty blush and stir the senses. The enchanting nature of the music is easily understood. Unruffled passages are a regular feature and these delicate moments have a great impact. Their splendour is able to soothe the turbulence of the day away and their sophisticated nature hints at what lies in the shadows. Delve into this album's canvas of sounds a little more deeply and its secret shades soon become revealed.
Perhaps the best analogy that I can give of the intricacy, complexity and finely coloured detail that is on offer is to imagine that you are looking at a landscape where the predominant colour is green.
Superficially, that is what the mind tells. Look more carefully and an unimaginable green based kaleidoscope is revealed. Viridian Pine trees , contrast with the chartreuse tinge of sun scorched freshly flayed fields; wilder, water-washed and dung dressed pastures emit a fulsome goblin hue.
A paltry listen will tell you that is primarily a jazz album. Listen more attentively and a raft of different influences and elements are vividly revealed.
Guest Magic Malik sprinkles some of his special sparkling dust and provides some guttural flute phrasing and improvised scat singing on Guchi. Alongside, Naïssam Jalal he is probably my favourite flautist at the moment.
Malik makes another superb contribution in Rues des Balkans. Folk influences brightly colour this outstanding piece and it is certainly one of the highlights of the album. Malik's impact in both compositions provides a edgy dash of colour that contrasts in a satisfying and coherent manner with the tranquil tones and relaxing stains predominantly on display in many of the other pieces.
I have always had a soft spot for albums that have a planned beginning and end; it is certainly the case that the appropriately titled Intro and Outro which bookend the seven other pieces and gives the album an identifiable cohesion.
There are some lovely laid back moments in the title track. It is a beautiful tune. Although a glorious melody lies at its heart, there is still room for the players to venture a little bit from its tuneful path. The mid-section is intriguing and I particularly enjoyed the way in which the players inventively explore other routes in a progressive and sometimes avant fashion. The trumpet playing is expressive and has a strong emotive pull. Andreas Polyzogopoulos excels on many of the tracks and his cheek bulging virtuosity is undoubtedly a standout characteristic of the album.
The album contains two Ennio Morricone covers. In The Man with the Harmonica, the Quartet manage to capture that trilling Latino style that is a trademark of Morricone's art which, arguably, came to popular notice in the spaghetti westerns of 60's with the release of The Good the Bad and the Ugly in 1966. The quartet does justice to his work and arguably adds a little bit extra too. The guitar solo in Guchi is worth the price of this album alone. Federico Casagrande plays with a clean and expressive tone and his finely picked choice of notes works tremendously well in the context of the tune.
The other Morricone piece is A l'Aube du Cinquième Jour (Gott Mit Uns). Its engaging qualities are beautifully revealed by the band's interpretation. It's the sort of tune that lodges in the memory and refuses to budge, even after its last alluring notes have meandered and faded gently away. Once again the imperious playing of Casagrande has a prominent part to play and the spacious dialogue between trumpet and the strings is simply outstanding.
Drummer and band leader Srdjan Ivanovic composed the majority of the tracks on the album. His ability to create compositions that are able to stir the imagination and colourfully paint a beautiful canvas is one of the main reasons why this album is so impressive and easy on the ear. Needless to say, his performance behind the drum kit is also equally striking. Alongside double bassist Mihail Ivanov, the rhythm section is able to throttle down or throttle up as the need arises.
For the most part, deft strokes and tummy soothing bass lines are the order of the day. Indeed, it is the uncluttered and unhurried nature of Ivanovic's stick work that helps to provide many of the compositions with space to breath and a timeless meditative air.
I guess all that is left for me to do is to spin the album again; allow my ears to wiggle and let my eyes rest. I am sure that it won't be long before I utter these words
"The colours, the colours, wow those colours!"
Daniel Crommie — A Prelude To The New Normal
Progressive rock is surely music for people with imagination. Here's a test for your skills, dear prog lovers. Try imagining an ambient fan. Ambient. Fan. Tough luck, right? Not because ambient is a bad or defective genre, but because ambient itself contradicts the very definition of fanboyish attitude. Rock fans, jazz fans, country fans, hell, even classical music has fans (although they look different and don't wear leather jackets with patches). Ambient has… adepts, probably? So don't expect me to tell you “Crommie rocks!” or “This is the best ambient release of 2021!” because Daniel's music is not really about hitting the charts (and because I am a layman in many things about ambient). It does create a mood or a series of moods, which is the ultimate target anyway.
It is a bane upon ambient releases to be eternally compared to works by the colossal Brian Eno. It seems to be a fair thing to do, looking at the grandiosity of the ex-Roxy Music mastermind's legacy, but not really a fair thing to do towards the musicians who are being compared. I guess that I can do a tiny-tiny-small favour to Daniel, not comparing him to the bald genius. Indeed, there is a whole lot of everything that sets Crommie's music from that of Eno. Eno's take on ambient is minimalistic, rather dark, or better to say – noir, with a post-punkish vibe, like waiting for Bowie's vocals to enter the next second. Crommie's music is happier. Not as cosmic as Tangerine Dream and not as cinematic as Vangelis.
My comparisons would be Ozric Tentacles' more ethnic releases, Jade Warrior – for their love to Celtic and Gaelic legacy, which Daniel seems to embrace too, and new age stars (Kitaro, maybe). Indeed, there is a new age tone to this album, but not preachy in a Jon Anderson way, rather calm and benign. Think Troy Donockley meeting Klaus Schultze and proclaiming “have space suit will travel!”.
Whereas Tangerine's ambient often drones and Eno's ambient sparks, Crommie's ambient swirls and chimes, by virtue of constant presence of woodwinds, mixed with techno rhythmic synths (Within Reason from A Prelude) or ethnic percussion, or both (Fancy Red Lipstick from Noisemaker).
A lot of tracks have interesting structures and development, albeit in a different, non-prog way. Nuances and sounds are weaved into the palette delicately, almost unnoticeably. So don't expect your favorite roller coaster rides of tempos from Crommie. Ambient is a music for those who keep patience, and sometimes a lot of patience. I, personally, wish the albums would offer more diversity in moods. However the tone of the two disks is unmistakably different. Noisemaker is slightly more urbanistic and rainy, and A Prelude is more pastoral and sunny despite a dark Gustave Dore cover. Generally, I cannot help admitting that both albums have a certain charm even for newbies in folk-ambient. When you need to concentrate on your daily chores, Crommie's music helps you doing this clearing the brain and not distracting from anything.
Yours truly had a chance to get familiar with two releases out of three, scheduled by Daniel for 2021 (a common prolificacy among ambient musicians, I reckon), so in case you love atmospheric techno music, delicately seasoned with flutes and reed pipes, stay tuned for yet another one. I would also like to thank Daniel for providing his music via mail, while I was waiting for the CDs to arrive with fingers crossed and a postman's voodoo doll in my lap.
MaterialEyes — Three Of A Kind
MaterialEyes is a new name to me even though this is their third album and they're based in West Yorkshire just down the road from my hometown of Wakefield. Three Of A Kind follows Strange Road (2018) and 2019's In Focus and the title can be interpreted as a collective term for the albums as well as a reference to the trio that make up the band. They are Dave Westmoreland (vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitar, flute), Will Lawery (vocals, guitars) and Martyn Howes (vocals, lead guitar, keyboards, bass, drums). Guest Anthony Naughton provides additional vocals on the three opening songs.
There is no doubt that MaterialEyes wear their influences on their collective sleeves, in this case vintage 1970's prog. With seven tracks averaging nearly ten minutes each, the songs are given ample space to unfold. Despite the musical variations, twists and turns, there is a melodic, almost mellow vibe that prevails.
The opening song Adrenaline High was inspired by a Yes concert in London attended by a young Martyn Howes in October 1978. Your reviewer saw them at the same venue that very same week. It boasts Yes-like close harmonies and a tricky Gentle Giant style instrumental section which features an unexpected funky guitar riff. A stirring synth theme brings to mind a similar sequence from The Remembering on Tales From Topographic Oceans.
For Fabulist, Will Lawery provides lead vocals and his melancholic tone reminded me of the sadly departed Barclay James Harvest keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme. He's backed by strummed acoustic guitar which provides a folky vibe with perhaps a hint of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb. The organ and synth textures are a delight.
Dave Westmoreland takes over writing and singing duties for I Have Loved The Stars Too Long based on Sarah Williams' 19th century poem The Old Astronomer. A slow, simmering intro builds to an exquisite instrumental section that has more than a hint of Camel. The majestic synth theme is complemented by a beautiful keyboard produced violin timbre.
Curiously, When Tomorrow Comes Around is built around the perennial Bo Diddley shuffle rhythm although the instrumental mid-section opts for a walking - but still nimble - bass line. The stately guitar cadenza brings a touch of Andrew Latimer to the table. The tranquil No One Knows is dedicated to loved ones since departed with gentle acoustic guitar and flute supported by symphonic keys that ebb and flow.
A haunting keyboard theme opens The Writings On The Wall that slowly and very effectively builds in tempo and instrumentation. The vocal melody that occupies the mid-section is underpinned by the riff from Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn Theme which is slightly at odds with what's gone before. It concludes with another gorgeous melody that forms the basis for a melodic guitar coda.
The closing instrumental Jerusalem Armageddon takes a leaf out of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's book, incorporating Hubert Parry's rousing music for the hymn Jerusalem. The galloping guitar riff that follows is reminiscent of David Gilmour's lick from Run Like Hell by way of Billy Joel's It's Still Rock and Roll to Me. The two melodies are woven together to represent a confrontation between good and evil although it lacks the dynamics that ELP brought to similar musical conflicts like Tarkus and Karn Evil 9.
Like many recent albums, the recording of Three Of A Kind was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. When the joint sessions came to halt in March 2020, Martyn Howes completed the album, adding bass and drums. Although the production would benefit from a tad more punch - and a dedicated drummer - in places, the recording is crystal clear, allowing the rich melodies, superb musicianship and fine vocals to work their charm. If the bands namechecked in this review float your musical boat, this is highly recommended.
The Samurai Of Prog — The Lady And The Lion And Other Grimm Tales I
After having recorded or been involved in approximately six to eight albums in the previous year alone one might think the members of The Samurai Of Prog (TSoP) would slow recordings down shortly, preventing them of developing signs of fatigue. One needn't worry though for during the past months they have recorded several new efforts of which the wonderful The Lady And The Lion And Other Grimm Tales I designates their first 2021 release.
Biggest advantage in retaining their consistent output is the large gathering of outside composers, which over the years sees a lovely diverse and increasing clan of contributors. With Kimmo Pörsti (drums), Marco Bernard (shukar bass) and Steve Unruh (vocals, violin, flute) having these external options available I for one wonder how their selection procedure towards a new album works? Do they have a concept in mind and then invite composers thereby giving directions, or are they continuously flooded by a comfortable oasis from which they angle the individual songs, this time tying into a concept? Either way, the songs that surface on The Lady And The Lion from their fertile virtual pond are without exception a perfect continuation of TSoP's impressive growing legacy.
It starts off with elegant atmospheres and playful jazz/folk airiness in Into The Woods, slowly shifting from mild tension building melodies towards laid back violin and flute passages that reveals an alluring Jethro Tull/Camel environment. Immediately the balance between restrained instrumentation, sparkling keyboard movements and it's beautiful melodic guitar stand out, while the music's vibrant sound is spot on. A magical opener, composed by Alessandro Di Benedetti, which after the memorable whispered words of "Once upon a time" strolls through a field of classical influences into the enticingly delicious progressive spectacle The Three Snake Leaves from composer Jaime Rosas.
Sharpening their blades during the joyous violin impregnated opening sequence that brings brief memories of Alan Parsons, the composition magically enters a bombastic Spartacus (Triumvirat) arena, where virtuously supercalifragilistic key eruptions sets a delicious battling progressive scene. Sparkling play amongst a lovely variety of melodies and atmospheric delicious bass lines reveals tantalising twists and turns in similarity to the original meandering Grimm tale, stridently progressing into moody early Eighties Marillion delight, ignited through darkened atmospheres and Unruh's charismatic expressive vocals mindful of Fish.
The epic composition furthermore exhibits a masterful violin movement resembles UK/Kansas, while uplifting melodies and Pörsti's excellent grooving drums lace the enchanting melodies with energy, graciously sliding into another round of Jethro Tull inspired folk rock, especially considering the underlying musical intricacies. Now fully armoured it's the additional thriving combination of Bernard's refined bass play and added drama from Cam Blokland's (Southern Empire) fiercely seductive guitar parts that gives life to this excellent album-highlight as the exciting memorable melodies slowly work themselves towards a tantalising finish.
The orchestral symphonies of Long John, written by Ton Scherpenzeel (Kayak) who himself delivers tasteful arrangements and beautifully designed keyboard parts, thereupon brings Canterbury influences with a delightful nostalgic Greenslade feel. Richly encased with folkloric slant and swooning melodies, in which enchanting guitar by Carmine Carpasso provides beautiful colourisations. While the flute, amidst tightly played dexterous rhythms, creates a refined fairytale-like medieval environment before the the song strides onward towards a wonderful marching finale that fades into caressing folk melodies. Now bookended between two majestic compositions, which unintentionally cast the smallest possible shade over its summery atmosphere, it would have been an assured highlight on the TSoP spin-off The Guildmaster.
The musical novelization of A Queen's Wish, enjoying world fame as the story of Snow White, shows the immaculate perfection of TSoP transforming the Grimm brothers' storytelling into enchanting music, provided one likes a bit of theatrics. Composed by Alessandro Di Benedetti with lyrics by Unruh it opens gently with lovely royal harpsichord embellishments and captivating minstrel touches by Unruh. Seasoning this electrifying fairytale composition is Valerie Gracious' (Phideaux) beautiful bewitching vocal performance who as the song progresses perfectly morphs from a pristine enchanting queen into a devious and treacherous jealous witch. A captivating performance giving alluring depth and sprinkles of magic to the song.
With freshly sparkling and stately tuneful 'on the edge of your seat' passages, sometimes haunting sometimes festive but always mesmerising in an Italian prog/Genesis kind-a-way. It converges from sophisticated acoustics (Rafael Pacha) into tasty luminescent keys (Di Benedetti) and menacing guitar melodies from KariKari Riihimaki before it shortly rests in a forest of jazz where Unruh picks up the storyline in the iconic apple scene. Eating the wrong end of the apple leads to a musically righteous powerful revival of generous Seventies influenced prog with luscious synth and emotive guitar, after which mood changes from touching violin sadness into vocal cheerfulness carrying the composition towards a final grandeur, as it incorporates moving Transatlantic elements and a convivial celebrating solo by Riihimaki.
Strangely enough, the title track The Lady And The Lion, single handedly played by David Myers on grand piano, is to me the least effective Grimm fairy tale conversion. The song itself is excellently performed with many variations, playful touching moments, recurring themes and a wonderfully satisfying ending. Yet the mutual connection is put to the test here. As a listener you get completely transported, but being a completely instrumental song, I experience difficulty towards identification with the Grimm Tale.
Emphasizing the otherwise beautiful and successful story/music renditions is the final Avantasia/Ayreon-styled The Blue Light which besides Unruh and Gracious features Marcelo Ezcurra (backing vocals) and Bart Schwertmann (Kayak) on lead vocals. Besides the sublime vocal interactions, great a-capella opening and pristine Gentle Giant variations it's Schwertmann's impressive vocals that bring a compelling Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) expressiveness which gives the composition powerful dynamic brilliance. The fluent build up from acoustic refinement in which flute and violin converse enticingly towards an exciting atmospheric passage reigned by vocal interactions is superb. Whereafter a battle of delicious E.L.P. bravery from composer/keyboard player Octavia Stampàlia with ripping guitars, encircled by classically chorded Jethro Tull melodies/flute insertions, becomes the compositions crowning moment. A final conclusive passage of triumphant trumpets (Marc Papeghin) giving wings to heavenly Mandalaband inspired orchestrations masterly ends a marvellous collection of adventurous eclectic songs.
Aided by imaginative and meticulously cared for beautiful artwork, including brief synopsis of the fairy-tales, the elaborated compositions of The Lady And The Lion once again provide a beautiful anthology of many progressive movements from the Seventies/early Eighties, captured within a great contemporary modern sound. The diversity shown within, beneath, between and behind the songs, as well as the excellent performances also marks a powerful demonstration of TSoP's tireless strength, harnessed by an ever-growing network of truly talented musicians and composers.
Once more their thus far forged empire of impressive releases has been given an ultra-strong enforcement with the beautiful The Lady And The Lion. For me it ranks high in their oeuvre as well as being a strong top 10 contender for 2021. I am eagerly looking forward to part two of their Grimm tales in the already announced as The White Snake. May they prog on happily forever after. To be continued...
Stealing The Fire — King Of Shadows
You think Tool took too long to release their last album?... Well, Stealing The Fire has released their second album just twenty years after their debut album. In fact King Of Shadows was published in 2020 but here I am trying to appreciate this music from this Norfolk based progressive rock band. And the bad thing is that I'm not enjoying the album as I expected after reading their press release.
The band mentions Porcupine Tree, Queen, The Flower Kings as influences but I can't hear any of them, They also quote Camel, Pink Floyd, Ozric Tentacles, and Genesis. I'm not a sucker for the classics so I can't tell you if the influences are there.
The thing is I was also expecting some British folk which, I love, and they even mention experimental electronic... I guess it's my fault for expecting so many things but in my opinion they also try to put in too many things and the final result doesn't click the right keys, specially the two instrumental songs Fools Parade and Out Of Nothing. Also Medusa is lacking some punch even when it's the more straight ahead, rock oriented song. Opener King Of Shadows is a good song and a great example of how unusual musical structures can work, but sadly you have to wait till the closer epic to find this again. The Tower is the best song and it last more than eighteen minutes so you can almost forget the middle part of the album.
Don't take me wrong because Stealing The Fire knows how to play and they have interesting moments and complex structures but this album would work better as a mini album with two long songs. The sound is good and I like the guitar playing but I think they can make better songs. I only hope they don't wait twenty years to release their next collection. I´ll be here waiting because Stealing The Fire have good ideas that should be transformed into great songs.