The Gardening Club — The Owl
Having to discover new ways of working in the current isolated conditions seems to have strengthened, rather than disrupted the duo of Norm MacPherson (production, orchestrations, slide guitar, mandolin, baritone guitar) and Martin Springett (vocals, lyrics, acoustic guitars), focussing what they do, to create what is, arguably, their best single piece of music.
The Owl continues The Gardening Club's slide guitar-infused take on pastoral Canterbury style progressive music that has been established on their previous releases. The trademark charm, mixed with dark fantasy is all in place, with stories of strange encounters on balmy summer nights. There is also a new edge on the These Are The Days section, one that calls for a reshaping of hope, in dark political times.
The music moves from the Steve Hackett/Genesis-like acoustic opening, through to shimmering strings, organ and Peter Dowse's bass on The Boy And The Bird. Things change with the instrumental section on Norm's composition Memory's Arrow, with its surprisingly dark, grinding riff that sets off his floating slide playing to perfection. The Owl flows seamlessly from section to section with another highlight being The Siren's gorgeous fretless bass courtesy of Drew Birston. The seventeen minutes fly by in a focussed stream of delightful music.
This EP is a superb addition to The Gardening Club's cannon. I can't wait for the next full length release from these guys.
Bernard L'Hoir — Noachis Terra
Some albums have 'movie/theme-park soundtrack' appeal written all over them and Noachis Terra, referring to an outstretched continent on the southern hemisphere of Mars, falls predominantly into such a category. Bernard L'Hoir (composer, orchestrations and keyboards) intention is to musically illustrate the wonders of our solar system. The result has become a beautiful painting of elegant compositions, magnificently floating on immaculately-arranged streams of classical (chamber) music, new age and ambient, dripping with expressive sunflower beds of conveying melodies.
We set sail in the scenic opener Noachis Terra, as flute and violins dance intricately alongside classical piano play while epic orchestrations project a 'Pirate Of The Caribbean' atmosphere. It glides across smooth craters of sensitive flute enchantments (Dark Ages), into soft classical fairytale tidings with Disney overture allure (The Last Call). Or restfully floats on majestically generated Orinoco flows that graciously touch upon Enya as the beautiful voice of Valentine Uytterhoeven adds wordless vocals in Slap Happy.
The sombre and delicate menace of the classically inspired Stress levitates lusciously on ethereal vocals, which in Fear Of Infinity takes a mountainous Vangelis flight as it glides through views of gothic expressions that softly land on sophisticated Philip Glass minimalism. And while soft percussion and glamorous piano alongside enchanting orchestrations bring feelings of security in In The Middle Of Nowhere, Superstition reaches an oriental state as percussive brushstrokes and sparkling violin and piano create uplifting valleys of depth.
The evocative classical music magically fits with the artistic autumnal design of the cover, which is most suitably illustrated by the grandiose cello and poignant violin partitions delineated in A Real Story.
Perception on its turn brings a subtle Spanish feel while xylophone and sensitive bass brings exotic atmospheres. Earthly African vibes, lively castagnettes and jazz-orientated piano brings a final energising statement in A Day In Mattheo's Life.
Thanks to the cooperation of a handful of gifted musicians, L'Hoir has managed to realise a beautifully variegated and creative album, entertaining throughout and with a wonderfully crafted depth that on occasion ignites shining memories of Residuos Mentales's Introspection.
A fine achievement and definitely worth listening to/exploring for fans of the references mentioned within this review.
Toto — With A Little Help From My Friends
This new live album captures a lockdown concert originally streamed online from Los Angeles on November 21, 2020. Joining Steve Lukather, Joseph Williams and David Paich (who appears on two tracks) are new band members bassist John Pierce (Huey Lewis and The News), drummer Robert Searight (Ghost-Note / Snarky Puppy), and keyboardist / background vocalist Steve Maggiora. Keyboardist Dominique Taplin (Prince, Ghost-Note) and multi-instrumentalist / vocalist Warren Ham (Ringo Starr) continue their tenure in the ensemble. This marks the fifteenth incarnation of the TOTO line-up.
There is no faulting the performances, with the layered vocal harmonies and the extended solo spots being perfectly delivered. There is a certain level of jamming, especially in Lukather's solos that makes each Toto live set a somewhat different experience. The seven-minute version of Rosanna is a cracking example of this.
The set list is a broad mix from the Toto discography. Along with the hits (thankfully devoid of Africa) there are some interesting deep cuts such as Kingdom Of Desire and You Are The Flower (with some nice words for original singer Bobby Kimball). The drum solo could have been left in lockdown though!
Recorded in front of a small group of family and friends, what is missing from this set is the presence of a live crowd and the resulting energy and atmosphere that brings. This is more of a 'in the studio' live album in that respect.
You can get this as an audio version or with the DVD showing the full recording of the show (the DVD was not available for review). Owing to the studio setting and that all the video tracks seem to be available to view on YouTube, then I'd suggest the DVD is for Toto completists. The bonus material is a documentary featuring interviews with all band members. Toto will be touring next year, and on the strength of this set, they are well worth seeing if you can.
The Zone — Prophecies
This is the third album released by the blues, alternative, progressive rock band from Hampshire, England. Formed in 2005 and comprised of four seasoned club musicians, they claim influences from everything from Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Rush and The Stranglers.
I'd probably file this under the alternative rock category for the most part. I can certainly see The Stranglers influence, especially in the guitar patterns, the bubbling bass and the somewhat mono-toned vocals. The keys add a solid background that merges Floyd with Ultravox. The rare bursts of bluesy guitar solos are a joy, as is the use of pianos and the extended instrumental sections. They are never complex, but add additional dimensions to the songs where they are present; something that brings them out of the ordinary.
The opening pair have some nice hooks. Standing In The Rain pays nice homage to the Chili Peppers in their Californication days and develops in a great way with one of those extended instrumental sections. The closing track, The Warning is also enjoyable with its psychedelic vibe and 2112 Doomsday foreboding. The way that Karma is split into three parts and inserted at random spots across the album, does not work at all.