Kenny Bisset — Broken Wilderness
2020 is still giving us very good music. With no live concerts artists had mucho more time than a regular year to produce new music and Kenny Bisset was no exception. I bet many of our readers haven't heard this name before but let's start saying that Kenny is one of the founding members of the band Built For The Future, whose last album Brave New World I had the pleasure to review a few months ago. Check the review here and I'm sure you will agree with my high score because it is a very good album.
Broken Wilderness is the first solo album from Kenny and he has done everything from producing to writing and playing all the instruments, except some guitars and mellotron played by his Built For The Future bandmate Patric Farrell. Kenny Bissett says his goal is simple: to share his songs, and the word HIS is the important thing here because one can feel this is a very personal album. Not in the way he's developing very deep lyrics because, as he affirms, lyrics are almost secondary to melody and emotion, but in the way he combines vocals melodies with soft and dynamic passages. No complex structures or instrumentation here just good songs that flow so well along the whole album that you will left wanting more. I can't find low points in this album and I really enjoy the basic drum programming, which is odd because I usually enjoy complex drumming. Kenny Bissett doesn't need that to form good songs and he has succeeded due to great guitar tunes and his vocals melodies, that match perfectly in the ambience of the album.
There is no need to describe each song because it's better to listen to Broken Wilderness in full, from beginning to end, but I'm sure you will find the title track as the perfect combination of all I have said before. For those looking for some musical references... I'm not good at that, but maybe you can hear some The Pineapple Thief or even Anathema, but feel free to include all the bands you want that play soft and emotional music in a simple but effective way.
Highly recommended to be enjoyed in the evening with a glass of whatever drink you enjoy. Once again it is a very good album I have discovered that will make me attentive to future albums, not only by Kenny Bissett, but also for his band Built For The Future.
Tom Newman — A Faerie Symphony II
Although Tom Newman is best remembered as co-producer of the seminal Tubular Bells, his CV includes several solo albums recorded and released under his own name. In the early 70s, he helped establish The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire for Virgin Records where numerous prog acts recorded including Gong, Magma, Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream. He also went on to produce some of Mike Oldfield's better albums including Hergest Ridge, Islands, Amarok and Tubular Bells II. More recently, he has worked with Rob Reed of Magenta fame and Les Penning who played recorder on Oldfield's Ommadawn.
Newman's third solo album Faerie Symphony was originally released in 1977 and although well received and featuring obvious Oldfield influences, it sank without trace under the combined weight of punk and disco. 44 years later, he has returned with a successor, A Faerie Symphony II. In true Oldfield fashion, Newman plays many of the instruments himself, supported by Rob Reed and Jade Warrior flautist Jon Field who also performed on the 1977 album. The CD artwork is a painting of The Manor where it all began for Newman over 50 years ago.
The album opens promisingly with Strong Ladies Promenade and even though it's a mellow offering, the sampled bird song, lilting mandolin and lush keyboard orchestrations have an engaging charm. Unfortunately, it's one of the few fully developed tracks on the album. Elsewhere, the pieces are more abstract and stripped back, often featuring sampled voices, random percussion, occasional improvised flute and dissonance, offset by symphonic keyboard washes.
Theena Shee 2021 is a successor to Dance Of Daoine Sidhe on Faeire Symphony and is for me the standout track. It's a rousing military drum tattoo with a prominent bass line, chiming percussion and what sounds like backwards wordless vocals. It brings to mind Tubular Bells II, especially the Oldfield flavoured electric guitar, presumably played by Rob Reed.
The acoustic guitar led Faerie Waltz is another worthy offering with a simple but delightful melody that could almost be a laidback variation of Theena Shee 2021. Again, the lush keyboard strings are heavenly. It's followed by the triumphant Reed Vikings which is notable for its massed choral voices against an acoustic guitar, muted electric guitar and keys backdrop.
Despite the many plus points, A Faerie Symphony II - like its predecessor - is a work I've struggled to fully engage with. Newman is quoted as saying that “this album is not intended to be comfortable, predictable or commercial!" That being his objective, he has for the most part succeeded. A Faerie Symphony II is available from Tigermoth Records as a single CD and as a two disc package with the 6-track Dance Of The Stems EP.
Nine Skies — 5.20
Nine Skies from Nice is a band I had not heard of before until I saw their latest release 5.20 on DPRP's pipeline list. I am glad that my job as reviewer once more gave me the opportunity to make a musical discovery. 5.20 is the band's third studio release, following Return Home from 2017 and Sweetheart Grips, which came out in 2019. Almost simultaneously with 5.20, the band released a live recording Live @Prog en Beauce of their participation at the eponymous festival in October 2019. By the way: the album title 5.20 is a kind of reward to one of the band members, who, as a notorious and permanent late comer, at last managed to be bang on time for the band's 5.20 AM departure to a.m. festival. The beautiful artwork of the cover is a painting by the contemporary artist Michael Cheval.
The line-up on 5.20 consists of no less than nine musicians (I am asking myself if there is a connection between that number and the name of the band): Aliénor Favier (vocals), Eric Bouillette (guitars, mandolin, violin, keyboards, arrangements), Alexandre Lamia (guitars, keyboards, arrangements), Anne-Claire Rallo (keyboards), David Darnaud (guitars), Achraf El Asraoui (vocals, guitars), Bernard Hery (bass), Fabien Galia (drums, percussion), and Laurent Benhamou (saxophones). The band again was able to win well-known guest musicians to contribute to this release: Steve Hackett for the track Wilderness, and his brother John Hackett on flute for the track The Old Man In The Snow plus Damian Wilson (Arena, Threshold, Ayreon et al.) on vocals of the song Porcelain Hill. I consider their involvements as a compliment for and a proof of the band's qualities and abilities.
Unlike the two preceding studio releases, which in terms of the lyrics were concept albums, 5.20, according to the band's info, is "poetic with common themes and feelings" as the read thread. Lyrics are provided by Anne-Claire Rallo, who, as she puts it, has a soft spot for metaphorical lyrics about fundamental issues such as death, faith, anguishes, the meaning of life, beauty, decay, and darkness. Overall, there is a slightly mournful and gloomy mood in these lyrics, and I assume that the pandemic situation must have had its influences, whilst not being addressed overtly, though. That mood, together with some elements of drama, is perfectly expressed in the male/female singing of Achraf El Asraoui (who joined the band prior to this release) and Aliénor Favier and fully reflected in the band's music.
Compared to the previous two albums, on 5.20, the band changed its approach to writing and producing progressive rock music, which, by and large, relies on acoustic elements here. In order to accomplish this change, the band enlarged the spectrum of instruments used to also include flute, saxophone, and string instruments such as violin, viola, cello and mandolin. Guitars, except for Steve Hackett's solo on Wilderness, are used in their acoustic versions, and the dominating keyboard is the grand piano. This re-orientation, however, has by no means been to the detriment of variety, depth and versatility. On the contrary, the listener is offered a musically well-balanced, delicate, and lyrical release, full of emotions. The music is not characterized by excessive dynamism, stunning virtuosity (although the musical abilities are excellent) and technical complicatedness. Instead, it comes through light and airy, subtle, sometimes even a bit timid and contained, with a gentle instrumentation and an emphasis on small details rather than bombast. Male and female vocals, ranging from rough to hushed, do complement each other and efficiently accentuate the emotions inherent in the lyrics and the music.
To my ears, this release has no weak, but many strong moments. Steve Hackett's guitar parts on Wilderness after a rigorous break around the 4:00 mark, Achraf El Asraoui's and Damian Wilson's emotional singing on Golden Drops, and Porcelain Hill respectively, the dreaminess of the acoustic guitar on Beauty Of Decay, the acoustic guitar/piano interplay on the instrumental Dear Mind with its almost hypnotizing piano melody towards the end, the plaintive and contemplative piano playing on Achristas (close your eyes and dream!), to name just a few.
I had some difficulties to find musical similarities with other bands, and I think that speaks for Nine Skies' originality. Wilderness could definitely have appeared on an early Steve Hackett album, the piano-only song Achristas brought Keith Jarrett to my mind. Overall, there is some of the melancholy of Jordsjoe, and Kerrs Pink and hints at the work of French peers Lazuli, and Norway's Gazpacho, but none of these comparisons really fits perfectly.
Highly recommended to any prog rock lover. I can only advise to give this release repeated runs for full appreciation and to focus on nothing else when listening to the music. Its subtlety, depth, its small details, meticulous arrangements, catchy harmonies, delicateness, timidity, and variety require (and definitely deserve) the audience's unrivalled attention. Halfway through the prog year 2021, this album already is earmarked for being included in my top 10-list. Chèrs membres de Nine Skies: votre musique est merveilleuse! Une belle découverte. J'en suis ravi!
Svarc Hanley Longhawn — 20/21
I was fortunate enough to review Svarc Hanley Longhawn's (SHL) previous album in 2019. I thoroughly enjoyed what I heard then and was eager to check out how the trio had developed their art.
The trio is still based in Leeds and the line-up of SHL remains unchanged. The band consists of Nik Svarc on electric and acoustic guitars and Loops, Steve Hanley on drums, percussion, and Martin Longhawn on organ, Wurlitzer and piano.
In many ways their latest release 20/21 is even more accomplished and enjoyable. It certainly develops the band's sound by adding some Avant touches here and there. Inventive compositions, such as the intriguing The Message Will Differ and the excellent We Elastic offer a different approach to the band's previous album. In these tunes, discordance, effects and a quest to create an abstract canvas of sounds are prominently displayed. These furnish the album with an interesting, but somewhat less accessible set of musical colours.
I think that the trio have got the mix of styles just right. The less accessible and arguably innovative pieces are offset and complemented by the straight ahead, easy on the ear, arrangements of many of the other compositions.
For example, Little Brother and Hidden continue in the funky style that was a trademark of their 1955 tune on their previous release. Little Brother has head rolling rhythms and offers an opportunity to raise eyebrows in an attempt to capture the boogie, by swaying your buttocks in an embarrassing manner in an attempt to seize the groove. As in their previous album I was again reminded of the type of finger rapping funky style that Gary Boyle dabbled with in the concluding days of Isotope and particularly with the Gary Boyle band of the early 80's.
The opening piece on the album The Ask is a very good introduction to what the band is all about. It has a variety of moods and shows that the trio are able to effortlessly switch from rhythmic sections to more contemplative passages.
The guitar tones chosen by Svarc throughout are very engaging and I was often drawn to compare his approach with aspects of Jeff Beck's work on Blow by Blow and Wired. Whilst 20/21 arguably does not achieve anywhere near the heights of those two outstanding albums, there were many occasions when I felt that this enjoyable release offered a similar vibe. A number of 20/21's tunes are quite memorable and contain strong melodic hooks just like Beck's fine albums did. In this respect the title track is quite outstanding.
Steve Hanley does a great job behind the drum kit and the crisp recording quality of the release helps to capture his strong wrist style. His work in the beautifully ugly We Elastic was particularly impressive. Martin Longhawn has an important role to play in the albums success. Whilst his organ playing is arguably never as exciting as say someone like Elephant 9's Ståle Storløkken, he is able to supply just enough stylish verve and swagger to add an extra bit of thrust to a tune when the need arises. His elegant piano work during the reflective sections of The Ask brought an extra dimension to the piece and provided an enjoyable contrast to Svarc's expressive solo.
Whilst, Jeff Beck often came to mind during the album, Svarc's heavy use of distortion and textures in The Message Will Differ and We Elastic made me compare this type of approach with the thick tones often associated with Dusan Jevtovic. During, a brief section of The Message Will Differ, I was also briefly tempted to draw comparisons with some of the stylistic traits and intensity associated with John Abercrombie on his 1975 Gateway release.
I thoroughly enjoyed 20/21.
I am confident that anybody who has a penchant for accessible fusion music, will also probably appreciate many aspects of this album. On occasions, it offered something fresh, but overall did not deviate too far from the type of approach that was successful on their previous release. At times that approach was a little too predictable for my taste, but Svarc's excellent performance throughout always provided moments to value and enjoy.
It is an album I will certainly play again and I am looking forward to the trio's planned release of a live album later this year.
White Moth Black Butterfly — The Cost Of Dreaming
I'm a big fan of alt synth-pop. Progressive music doesn't have to have lashings of amped-up guitars to turn the needle. Look at Bel Canto or Suzanne Sondfur both always interesting, evocative, and atmospheric. So it is with the latest release from White Moth Black Butterfly (WMBB), described by the band as "an outpouring of love and a cry for help". Following on from 2017s Atone, it would have been easy to expect that The Cost Of Dreaming would be a natural continuation, an easy listen to get swallowed into. First track Ether gives that impression, with an ultra-wide soundscape and impassioned reverbed vocals from founder and Tesseract frontman Daniel Thompkins.
Prayer for Rain signals the more electronica leanings for the rest of the album though, courtesy in large part from Salt Lake City's Randy Slaugh (Devin Townsend) making a distinct departure from Atone. And while first single The Dreamer heralds Jordan Bethany's grippingly gorgeous childlike voice, later up is an about-face with Use You, and if the album as a whole portrays a series of dreams, this song is the darkest of nightmares, recounting domestic abuse, replete with sobs and screams. Heavy stuff indeed.
A more up-beat poppy number, despite its title, Darker Days is almost positively 90s in feel, with Jordan and Daniel dueting clearly to tell the story within, confirmed with a most-unproglike sax solo from Kenny Fong and the fact that at times Thompkins sounds very similar, to these ears, to George Michael. After the more ambient interlude of Sands of Despair we get another soothing ear-massage from Jordan, and Keshav Dhar (Skyhabour) chimes in with some welcome just-about-detectable guitar to juice the mood a bit. It's extremely evocative stuff when you absorb the lyrics and picture yourself on some Outer Hebridean island.
Soma is a little forgettable, despite being selectable for video release. Liberate continues the narrative suggesting that the dream is an act of escape, but the lyrics as a whole are I'm sure wide open to interpretation depending on the mood and disposition of the listener. You can't argue with Unholy though, where Daniel lets his Tesseract scream out of the cage, at least partially, before a drum-thumping end gives way into Bloom featuring Eric Guenther (The Contortionist) and (yes!) a lovely proggy keyboard solo and spacey melding into the beautiful finale Spirits with Jordan harmonising over the darkness-shattering story-end - "bathe your head in light, 'cos we were made to fly". Large, happy sounds.
The whole album would make an excellent storyboard, and cries out for a multimedia experience. Pending that, dim the lights, write down three things you are grateful for, and sweet dreams.