Album Reviews

Issue 2021-084

Dewa Budjana — Naurora

Dewa Budjana - Naurora
Naurora (11:03), Swarna Jingga (6:51), Kmalasana (7:05), Sabana Shanti (7:50), Blue Mansion (7:48)
Owen Davies

Naurora gleams and glistens vibrantly. Its wide, outgoing arrangements and satisfying characteristics provide a sense of exhilaration and serenity that continue from the moment it begins, to the moment it ends.

After the atmospheric opening section of the title track fades to grey, Dewa Budjana's trademark guitar tone imposes itself. From this point, it is apparent that his latest release is going to be an experience to savour.

Naurora is undoubtedly Budjana's most satisfying work yet. It is progressive. It is fresh. It is engaging. It is complex and technically brilliant. It is an album that has an extraordinary ability to communicate many moods, whilst at the same time, it is able to exceed anything that might be categorised as commonplace. It is superlative in every way.

This album has is an exhilarating mix of styles, it delivers a succession of memorable motifs. It melds traces of East Asian music with progressive jazz fusion and some occasional elements of rock. But most of all it delivers an idiosyncratic sound that is instantaneously identifiable as Dewa Budjana's own. His tunes consistently clasp his listeners in a multi-coloured drape of gorgeous melodies, invigorating guitar parts and marvellous ensemble passages that have a commodious air. Naurora contains many different musical hues that massage the brain, and provides many boisterous interludes to undoubtedly rattle an ear lobe or two.

Budjana's expressive guitar playing oozes with emotion. Each guitar embellishment radiates with feeling. He has an exciting proficiency to choose just the right sort of tone or effect to complement the mood or direction of a tune. On the many occasions where the guitar is prominent, the solos are inventive and each note creates a character in the solo's overall story. The clever and precise use of effects creates an interlocking soundscape that provides a shawl of sounds. This approach also gives the music an identifiable texture, and this is notably the case when Budjana's imaginative and innovative guitar parts are combined with other instruments.

Over the years, Dewa Budjana has been able to draw upon the services of a number of top-drawer musicians to interpret his art. This trend continues in Naurora. The release features the outstanding pianist Joey Alexander on two of the five tracks. Gary Husband plays piano and synth on Blue Mansion .

Guitarist Mateus Asato is featured alongside Budjana on the superb Swarna Jingga. Electric bass duties are shared between Jimmy Johnson and Carlitos Del Puerto. The drum stool is shared by Simon Phillips and Dave Weckl. Weckl plays on two compositions, and Phillips features on the other three.

A different and contrasting musical colour is provided by Paul Mc Candless. He plays sax on Sabana Shanti. Ben Williams and Carlitos Del Puerto use the Upright bass to good effect on Blue Mansion and Sabana Shanti. With such capable performers, it is not surprising that the playing throughout is consistently inventive, and frequently is simply outstanding.

Although Budjana's compositions are inventive and innovative, the significance of melody is never forgotten. As a consequence, his tunes are able to clasp the emotions. He is able to incorporate technical aspects of fusion, with tunes that have memorable hooks. Ethnic hints, engaging piano interludes and evocative guitar sounds all have an important part to play. These combine and help to create an innovative sound that crosses genres. The tunes burp, sparkle, pop and fizz, as fusion and world music combine in a bubbling cocktail of unforgettable originality.

Distinctive influences swirl frenetically in a maelstrom of complex, shifting sounds. Aggression, distortion, tranquillity and melody all have a role to play. There are many opportunities to experience thunderous segments of music played with vigorous intensity, as well as interludes of gentle subtlety that calm the senses and soothe the heart. These reflective intervals are adorned with creativity, and are impregnated with an infusion of class and elegance.

Although the music gives the impression of being tightly arranged, much of it exudes a fresh, spontaneous air and the soloists appear to have lots of freedom to improvise. For example, Joey Alexander's astonishing piano solo, that has a prominent part to play in the title track, simply swaggers and swings.

There is a great balance between invention, innovation and structure in the five pieces on offer. Equally, there is a similar balance between savage, snarling guitar passages, fluent piano and keyboard runs.

All members of the band excel as a collective and impress individually on the occasions when they have a prominent role to play. There are numerous virtuoso passages, which display a range of incredible skills. When solos occur, they thoughtfully complement the piece, rather than dictate its direction. This type of awareness and empathy for the course and ambience of a piece, is in evidence in McCandless' spacious blowing and Alexander's elegant, snaking contribution during the outstanding Sabana Shanti.

The insistent, twisting rhythms and buoyant raft of magnificent guitar parts of Blue Mansion are enhanced by Husband's fleet-fingered piano work. Satisfyingly, Husband also provides a glorious synth interlude that squeals and slides in an engaging and enjoyable manner.

The album's tunes are frequently characterised by a number of bubbling bass interludes. These flourishes work superbly and are integral to the arrangements. The low-end of the album is further enhanced by the rhythmic flourishes and sensitive embellishments provided by the upright bass. Puerto's solo during Blue Mansion is especially memorable. The bassist's great sense of tone, rhythm and space create a hugely enjoyable platform for the skills of drummer Phillips and Weckl to be fully utilised.

The drumming throughout is incredibly persuasive. Its rhythmic tenacity is sure to knock the knees and tap the toes of any listener who is persuaded to shake and roll to its call. The oddly syncopated rhythms and solo kit parts during Blue Mansion are intricate and powerful, and the crisp recording quality of the album captures Philips' busy and resolute style perfectly.

The drum work of Weckl also offers the listener a masterclass of touch and syncopation. His skill is fully illuminated in Sabana Shanti and Swarna Jingga. Apart from supporting the music brilliantly, Weckl's majestic drum interval in Swarna Jingga simply adds to the quality of what is on offer. He is able to achieve just the right mixture of grace and power throughout his performance. Fans of progressive jazz fusion will no doubt wink and nod with approval at the rousing way in which the rhythms are presented.

Repetition is used to good effect, but the use of identifiable phrases and melodies is never predictable or monotonous. This creates a gripping familiarity that is instantly appealing. The manner in which Budjana, incorporates so many memorable passages into his music by using a variety of styles, ensures that Naurora is totally compelling.

Tunes like Kmalasana have strong hooks and are never complicated or convoluted for the sake of it. Nevertheless, the music is satisfying. There are many occasions when the music takes detours and turns with vigorous intent. This keeps things interesting and helps to grip and knead the senses.

Kmalasana builds slowly and threatens to charm any doubters with its guile and allure. The piece has an understated radiance and provides a soothing sunset atmosphere to the album. However, Budjana's fiercely energised solo blasts away any sun-tranced stupor. The strident and emotive wailings of his guitar are summoned from the depths of his being, and as a result, this section of Kmalasana possesses the blazing fury and heated tones that are often associated with the blurring energy of guitar-based rock fusion. It is a true highlight of the set.

Nevertheless, this impressive release has many other standout moments. The music goes way beyond any usual boundaries that might be associated with fusion. It is awash with accessible melodies and memorable motifs. These elements combine to give the album an outward accessibility. Dig deeper though, and the album's true ingenuity reveals itself, as hidden seams shimmer brightly through rocky outcrops, to reveal an album that has many outstanding and complex parts.

Naurora is a fantastic album and I hope that you are able to check it out.

Echo Us — The Windsong Spires

Echo Us - The Windsong Spires
We Seek The Descending Levers (8:06), If You Can Imagine (5:29), The Night Sky (3:18), When The Windsong Spires (5:49), Squals (3:52), Fly You Home (4:40), And When They Dance At Dusk (4:15), I'll Wave You In (4:53), And Acquiesce (5:41), If We Can Breathe Again (3:39), Under The Smallest Sky (11:39)
Sergey Nikulichev

Echo Us is a project by Ethan Matthews, Portland-based multi-instrumentalist, thoroughly exploring legacy of Mike Oldfield and Jean-Michel Jarre since the turn of the XXI century (pun intended). I am not familiar yet with the first three releases by Echo Us, but I was immediately captured by the charm of II:XII, A Priori Memoriae back in 2014 and its successor released three years later. Revisiting these records I only stood firmer in my affection for the sound developed by Ethan.

Now, we have Rob Reed from Magenta very closely cosplaying early Oldfield's sound on his solo records, multiple folk-dream-pop projects being influenced by Maggie Reilly's era, while Ethan seems to be more fond of Oldfield's later career, say, Earth Moving to Amarok to Distant Earth.

What you need to know about The Windsong Spires is that it is an extremely atmospheric, beautiful and tender tapestry of sound, quite far away from rock music. The Spires are so serene, that they are able to turn a dozen one-man black metal projects into Jon Anderson's roadies. No 7/4 low-strings riffing here, sorry. Honestly speaking - no riffing at all, as the guitar is mostly used to play licks and phrases with that sweet overdrive effect, instantly recognizable since the release of Tubular Bells.

Also, although the release is split into 11 tracks, essentially The Spires are a monolith one-hour suite, with themes from different pieces sounding and echoing all through the record. Some pieces have a latino-tribal feel, quite close to Oldfield's Amarok, but not mimicking it. There is a natural development of Oldfield / Jarre's ideas, and it is not hard to see that Matthews – above being a fan of both giants – is an accomplished musician with his own ideas and approach. Charlotte Engler from Portland shoegazers Daydream Machine graces the record with ethereal vocal parts, Andrew Greene (ex-Nicodemus) holds tight the drum sticks and the maestro himself plays all the other instruments.

This release takes Matthews away from the prog-tinged mysticism of his previous albums towards franker new-age approach. Which is not exactly bad, but I sort of miss that sense of mystery which his Moving Water and A Priori Memoriae evoked. Anyway, it is a pleasant adventure and a worthy addition to my collection. Usually I recommend a couple of tracks from reviewed releases, but in this case the most fair advice would be to listen to the album in its entirety.

While Echo Us might appear too conservative and dreamy for our more rock-oriented audience, I would still recommend this album. It is a fresh listen, compared to the umpteenth sympho / prog / metal roller-coaster, coming from a not-so-crowded musical niche. It may also appeal both to prog lovers and to people who prefer lighter, less overwhelming music.

Ekphrasis — Weird Interbreeding (White Edition)

Ekphrasis - Weird Interbreeding (White Edition)
Whispers From Erebos (5:54), Breaking Colours (8:53), I'd Never Thought To Try (4:18), A Maze In Oneiroi II (5:32), Modal Work (8:07), Nova (3:44), Through The Mirror (6:15), Gaïa's Equanimity (12:10), Weird Interbreeding (8:12), The Father's Piece (4:43)
Sergey Nikulichev

Hearing the first four tracks of Ekphrasis' CD, I was sharpening my poison pen, fully intending to write a merciless, bitter review for it. Nothing, just nothing worked for me here. The sound was like Pat Metheny Band and Periphery trying to share the same stage at one time, with a sound engineer desperately turning the knobs to find balance between the two. The band was flouncing between math-djent riffs, quazi-extreme metal parts, and jazz-fusion arpeggios and licks, in a chaotic, non-structured way. Composition skills, groove, melody; all was laid on an altar and sacrificed to complex rhythm patterns and technical riffage. And of course, there are heaps of breakdowns to the gods of breakdowns. The listener is invited to assemble a composition of their own from these scattered details, like an IKEA shopper.

Fortunately for me things got better with the fifth track, Modal Work, and stayed on a fine level until the end of the album. The compositions became more focused, and technical prowess found its way to fit with the other aspects. Not that I loved everything from the second half of the album, but I could tolerate it and see the links between the parts of compositions.

I did not like the sound upon the first listen, and with further attempts it showed no improvement. The dynamic range is low, and every instrument, though distinguishable, is clamped on the record. The other problem (plaguing the whole genre probably) is that the non-euclidean riffs and passages are so similar in their mood and message, that it is hard to distinguish between tracks.

Pat Metheny Band, Karnivool, AAL, Hemina, Bubblemath, Periphery; all these bands can be cited as influences and be compared to Ekphrasis. The difference is that they are accomplished artists, and Ekphrasis is yet to become one. It is a hermetic record, thriving on self-sufficiency. It does not speak with a listener, it does not involve a listener as much as I would wish to. However, I cannot deny that this is complex music, so if “complex” equals “progressive” for you, then give this record a try.

Kali Trio — Loom

Kali Trio - Loom
Shipol (11:25), Transitoriness (10:52), Dry Soul (8:09), Folding Space (14:46)
Owen Davies

The Kali Trio's latest offering is sure to impress any listeners who like music that has a variety of textures, expertly woven into an easily identifiable sound.

Although the album has a minimalist feel in places (where what is suggested can be as important as what is played), there are many moments where the impression is given that the band are creating an ever-developing, flowing and fluctuating soundscape. In this respect, the use of dynamics has an important role, and a variety of timbres are utilised to good effect, to fashion an impact.

The band is adept at entwining a trance-inducing blanket of sounds, where texture and a multi-layered approach has a significant role. The band is able to bridge and explore many different styles. Ambient sections, cohabit with rocky, guitar-led outbursts, and the use of a variety of effects provides an atmospheric, almost space rock feel to some sections of their art.

There is a disconcerting aggression that underlies a number of the compositions. Once they evolve, the majority of the tunes have climatic sequences, which inventively break free. These are sure to thrill and delight anybody who approaches their tunes with an open mind and a patient ear.

Nonetheless, sparseness and subtlety also have an important part to play. These seemingly ill-at-ease factors combine to create a release that is never mundane or predictable. On the contrary, is often extraordinary, and sometimes even remarkable.

The trio is able to skilfully create tension through the use of repeated phrases, rhythms and themes. They are able to resolve any feeling that you know where the music is going, by unexpectedly changing tact, or by changing the rhythm, mood or pace of the piece.

All members of the trio are highly competent players. During the course of the four lengthy pieces, there are many examples of an ability to improvise and showcase their understanding of each other. Undoubtedly, the long duration of the band's collective compositions helps them to explore their ideas in a way in which a more tightly-spun compositional style would be unable to do so.

I could not help not to draw comparisons with the work of Ikarus in their Mosaismic release, as the opening track began. Shipol shares a similar rhythmic approach, but unlike Ikarus, where the voice plays an important part in supplementing the rhythmic basis of the music, the guitar plays that role in the opening section. On reflection, this tenuous comparison was probably not valid in the first place, and is certainly not valid as the tune develops and bares its teeth.

The last three minutes are dominated by some industrial power guitar wails and moans, albeit underpinned by a rich rhythmic tapestry which still had me thinking of the approach of Ikarus. The effect of the explosive guitar interjections in Shipol are at worst mind-numbing and at best are totally mesmerising. I found it absolutely captivating and had no problem with its piercing qualities. If you like Sonar's work with David Torn, you may well enjoy the opening piece of Loom.

The high quality of the band's playing ensures that a listener might be able to become totally immersed in the shifting patterns that are spun. I was!

It was soon apparent that there is an innovative and inventive progressive edge to the trio's approach to playing and composition. This makes the whole experience of the album very rewarding.

I am not sure, if I will return to the album often in the summer months. But I know that if I were to play it regularly, and I probably will in the darker winter months, I would discover something new each time.

Overall, I felt that the ambience of the album was quite dark and very intense. The soundscapes created were discordant, cloudy grey and industrial, rather than melodic, sunlit and verdant.

There were times when I found the hypnotic shifting and pulsing rhythms quite overwhelming and a tad disconcerting. Nevertheless, I felt that Kali Trio's easily identifiable style and idiosyncratic approach was appealing and fresh. The music kept me interested and the trio provided a great amalgam of different stylistic elements.

Loom is probably not the sort of album that the fans of classic prog bands would probably enjoy. I played it for my Pink Floyd and Yes-loving pal a few weeks ago. He lasted about three minutes before he pleaded with me to play something more accessible.

Personally, I didn't find Loom inaccessible, but there is no doubt that its repetitive rhythms and ever-spiralling, evolving soundscape might try the patience of listeners who are more used to conventional song structures.

I rather enjoyed it, but the look on my friend's face said it all!

Guy M Tkach and Peter M Sieker — Steven Wilson Footprints. Volume 1: Early Years & Porcupine Tree [Book]

1175 pages
Guy M Tkach and Peter M Sieker - Steven Wilson Footprints. Volume 1: Early Years & Porcupine Tree
Mark Hughes

This PDF-only book is the first part of a planned trilogy documenting the studio and live work of Steven Wilson. With assistance and contributions from Wilson himself, the chronologically-arranged chapters form an oral history replete with contemporary quotes from Wilson and his musical collaborators.

An exhaustive time-line, detailing studio sessions, tours and individual live performances, it is populated with a multitude of pictures, newspaper scans and images of an inordinate amount of memorabilia. But probably the most valuable aspect for fans, is the ridiculously detailed discography that includes all known, and even some rumoured, releases featuring Wilson. The depth of detail is astonishing, outlining every version, variant and format from white label promos to exclusive limited editions, all accompanied in the lavish discography appendix with images of each release. The authors have also included place-holders where they are missing an image in the hope that readers and fellow collectors will be able to aid them in filling in the blanks.

The time-line itself is as complete as can be, taking into account the vagaries of memories and the fact that inevitably some things will fall between the cracks. At times it can be a bit 'anoraky', with details of set lists at every gig, and whether there is a known audio or video recording of the concert. But I did find it interesting following the trajectory of Porcupine Tree as they progressed through different-sized venues, whose capacity is handily noted, in different territories. The story doesn't stop with Porcupine Tree's final concert but continues to detail every PT-related release, press mention and re-issue, right up to the end of 2020.

The early years of Steven Wilson's musical journey is frequently obscured by confusion and misinformation as to what was released and when. Wilson himself admits that several pieces ascribed to his early discography do not in fact exist. In his earliest days he would often exaggerate his recording experience by making up song titles and releases in an attempt to impress labels. Tellingly, he himself even has difficulties remembering if some of the song titles listed were actual musical pieces or not!

The book can be ordered directly from the authors here. The price of £ 10, € 12, or $ 14 is a small amount for the information the book contains and the sheer effort and research that has gone into producing this volume of work.

The details, images, pictures (many of which are unique to this volume) and the comprehensiveness of this release will be a major delight for all Wilson and Porcupine Tree fans; even those who are not as fanatical as the authors! What is more, the whole endeavour is entirely in aid of charity, with the authors only requiring proof of your donation to a charity of your choice before they send you the PDF document and a unique password that will only work on your version of the PDF. What a great way to distribute this work as the purchaser can aid his personal charitable cause (as long as it is not pursuing political goals) without the administrative hassles of dealing with numerous donations from around the world.

This fact alone makes this worth supporting the authors (and even though I was sent a free review copy I donated £15 to the UK MS Society on behalf of the authors). However anyone with an interest in the development of a major artist will find something of interest within the 1200 pages. One final quibble is that I did find it difficult to navigate within the document and more hyperlinks between sections would have been helpful, but one can't have everything!

In case you are wondering why the book is restricted to just the early years of Mr Wilson and Porcupine Tree, you should be encouraged by the 'Volume 1' in the title. Two further volumes are in preparation. Volume 2 will cover Wilson's solo career, including those items issued under his alter-egos as well as guest performances, production and remixing activities. The final volume will cover his collaborations with other musicians. The No-Man minefield of releases will be something that will be a joy to see unravelled.

Buy a copy and see if you can fill any gaps in the authors' knowledge or collections, they would be more than grateful if you could!

Album Reviews