Album Reviews

Issue 2021-150

Opher Goodwin — Roy Harper: On Track... Every Album, Every Song [Book (157 pages)]

Opher Goodwin - Roy Harper: On Track... Every Album, Every Song
Mark Hughes

Another title in the rapidly growing list of books published by SonicBond, this time featuring original maverick and friend to a guitar rock god or two, Roy Harper.

As a long-standing Harper fan I know that tackling his discography is not a task for the faint-hearted. With albums going in and out of print, reissues, alternative versions and limited editions, there is a lot to get to grips with. Thankfully Goodwin handles everything with aplomb, clarifying where extra tracks on various re-releases originally stemmed from and where they fit into Harper's recording chronology. It makes it easy to disentangle the frequently messy and confusing slew of releases from a prolific writer.

Of course, it helps that Goodwin has been friends with Harper since 1967, just after the release of Harper's surprising debut album Sophisticated Beggar; surprising in that it eschewed the folk and blues numbers that Harper had gained a reputation for from his busking and folk club performances and comprised all-original material. Perhaps more startling was that it also featured a full band in places, not what the folk crowd that had primarily been his audience up to that point had been expecting. These were the first signs that Harper would stick to his own plans and not be pushed into doing what others necessarily wanted or expected.

What will be alien to modern bands is the fact that Harper's first two albums, released on different labels, were both commercial failures. Yet the musical environment of the time meant that it was the music that mattered and the lack of commercial appeal was not considered a black mark against the artist. He found a longer-lasting home on Harvest Records for his third album, Flat Baroque And Berserk, the first of seven essential albums he recorded for the label over the next decade.

Goodwin's personal memories and analysis of the songs and albums adds a lot to the book and offer insights that keep things interesting, more than some other titles in the series in being a sterile list of songs. Harper was never an artist that was likely to trouble the singles chart but he did consistently release such items. Although a lot of the songs unique to the format, particularly from the earliest years, have been compiled and re-issued, his b-sides remain some of the hardest items to locate for the collector. In that respect this book is a valuable guide to what was released, and in some cases what has not been released, both of which can be quite frustrating for the searching completist!

I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the live Roy Harper as, despite the brilliance of the studio output, it was on stage that Harper excelled. As at least a couple of the official live albums were assembled from a multitude of recorded concerts, there is potentially a lot of recorded material that remains locked in the vaults. However, considering that recording details and locations were omitted from Inbetween Every Line as all the tapes were mixed up and it wasn't deemed necessary to sort them out, it could be a major task sorting them out if, indeed, they still exist.

Despite his long recording career, there doesn't appear to be much studio material left languishing in the vaults and it seems increasingly unlikely that Harper will return to the studio to record a new album, despite how well his last album, 2013's Man And Myth was received. So it is from these putative live archives that any future releases will presumably be drawn.

As such, this volume can be assumed to be as complete a record of the musical legacy of one of Britain's finest and most idiosyncratic singer-songwriters as you are likely to find. Written in a relaxed and enjoyable style, it is an easy-to-read volume that will introduce, and re-introduce, the reader to the delights of the Harper catalogue. I certainly dug out a few of his lesser-played albums from my collection and listened to them in a new light after reading the book. And if that is not recommendation enough, I don't know what is.

Now, back to searching for the missing items. Anyone know where I can find Goodbye Ladybird?

Obsidian Mantra — Minds Led Astray

Obsidian Mantra - Minds Led Astray
Shield Of Disbelief (5:52), The Demon-Haunted World (4:26), Ghost Hunt (The Discoverie) (4:48), False Spirituality (5:25), Interlude 1 (0:39), The Orphans Bloodline (5:47), The First Disbeliever (4:32), Circle Of Mourners (4:38), Interlude 2 (0:40), Eternal Atonement (6:08)
Calum Gibson

Obsidian Mantra are a band with some well-known fellow countrymen and a high bar to reach in terms of extreme metal. From the likes of the blackened death of Behemoth, to the more-technical leanings of Decapitated or the straight-up death of Vadar, the band have big shoes to fill. Coming into being in 2014, the group released their first EP a year later, followed shortly after by the album Existential Gravity, before coming back with the follow-up Minds Led Astray in 2020.

They describe themselves as a black-groove-death metal group, and from the opener Shield Of Disbelief it is easy to see why. Elements of black metal and death are present, but there is an undeniability to the “groove” underneath it all. Think Gojira, if they had gone further into death metal after Terra Incognita. Discordant notes and in-your-face chugging are present throughout, with deep, harsh screams to set a deeply unsettling mood that grabs you and pulls you in.

The album drips with prog-death feeling. Technical and tight rhythms, over an inevitable line of drumming, it doesn't let up with the dynamics involved. It is heavy, dense, layered and relentless. The focus on the double bass from Witan keeps the album at a steady pace. This is particularly present on The First Disbeliever. This track has a lot more melody than the rest, but that just serves to make it more intense and hard-hitting.

It never particularly speeds up or slows down, but just remains at a steady, chunky and full-bodied pace and sound throughout. While normally, a 42:55 album that doesn't drastically change pace would get a bit boring, in this case it is perfect. It retains the heavy groove, while introducing enough prog and discordance to keep each track fresh. The rhythm section is paced enough that you can't help but get swept up by it all, and the riffs are never lacking.

All in all, it is a dark and heavy album. Chuggy, chunky, laden with prog-potency but ultimately a tight and superbly effective album. I wasn't sure what “black-groove-death” was before this album, but I have discovered I am apparently a fan of it now.

I'd recommend these guys to people who enjoy Behemoth, Vadar, Decapitated, Gorod or the early work of Gojira. If you like groove and blackened death metal, these are your guys.

Asaf Sirkis — Solar Flash

Asaf Sirkis - Solar Flash
Kinship (6:35), Under The Ice (5:44), Aquila (5:20), Polish Suite - Part 1 (4:06), Polish Suite - Part 2 (7:56), For Eric (9:00), Solar Flash (6:06), Polish Suite - Part 3 (4:57)
Owen Davies

Asaf Sirkis is a highly-respected musician in jazz and jazz-fusion circles. He regularly appears on albums associated with the Moon June label. His recent collaborative work includes contributions to Truce and Tales From The Dreaming City.

As well as being a respected performer, he is also a composer of some note. He has regularly recorded albums as a solo artist or as a principal member. In 2019 he was involved in a collaboration with Sylwia Bialas. Their Our New Earth release covered a number of styles. However, the stand-out of that release was undoubtedly the outstanding 21-minute Earth Suite.

In comparison to Our New Earth, Solar Flash arguably contains a more identifiable jazz-fusion style. Nevertheless, there is plenty of variation on offer and the breadth of the compositions ensures that the musicians are given numerous opportunities to show their inventive technique.

Solar Flash is a beautifully recorded album. The production qualities are superb and give all aspects of the music an impressive warmth and vibrancy. By the time the album concluded, I was left with a sense of awe and an enjoyable feeling that I had experienced something quite special.

Asaf Sirkis is simply just an incredible drummer. Gary Husband's ability to play just the right sort of piano, synth or keyboard accompaniment to embellish and enhance a composition is particularly impressive. His contribution is crucial to the album's inviting appeal.

I was delighted that analogue synth tones have a spotlight in a number of pieces. These sweep, rasp and hum in an evocative manner, to bring back memories of hazy nights and low-slung lights filtering through the smoke-lit mists of cavernous music venues.

Husband's contribution during the fast-paced Kinship is both melodious and eye-catching. His vigorous flourishes create an exciting air and offer just the right contrast to Kevin Glasgow's elegant and perfectly formed bass interlude.

All of this is underpinned and neatly woven together by Sirkis' striking kit work. It's a piece that contains many of the instrumental and compositional traits that will make many fusion aficionados shiver with delight.

Kevin Glasgow's melodic style of playing is easy on the ear. His flowing bass interludes are a highlight. I was particularly taken by the interesting higher tones which he frequently employs. His enchanting contribution, both as a member of the ensemble and as soloist, during Under the Ice is memorable.

However, in this track and on other occasions it was once again the evocative tones of Husband's pulsating contribution that manages to shake the senses and take the breath away.

Guitarist Mark Wingfield guests on three tracks. His appearance during Aquila is quite dramatic and provides a mournful, unusual air. His idiosyncratic tones are easily recognisable. In this tune they create a sheeted, banshee atmosphere; full of foreboding and menace. Wingfield's' notable contribution extends the scope of the album, and when the need arises, helps to create a mysterious soundscape where low growls, yelps and sustained, high-pitched squeals all have a role to play.

Singer Sylwia Bialas provides wordless vocals on three of the compositions. Her perfect sense of tone is used to good effect during Kinship. Her overall contribution provides the album with a great feeling of balance. The human voice gives the music a natural air which contrasts superbly with the sometimes-unsettling effects of Wingfield's, by-turns, harmonious and discordant guitar tones. Her gentle tones are also able to give the album a change of mood and delicate air when the need arises. In this respect, her precise vocal lines, which are delivered with aplomb during the Polish suite, are really enchanting.

The three parts that make up the Polish Suite are without doubt the highlight of the album. Bialas' stunning contribution and atmospheric phrasing in parts one and two are supported by Husband's piano. Although the instrumentation is sparse, the tune's spacious delivery and fragile human aspect provides a warmth that is simply irresistible.

Part one held me tightly in its spell. During its latter stages, Husband's engaging piano playing is placed under the spotlight. I can pay Husband no greater compliment than to say that his piano playing and the atmosphere that he was able to create were very reminiscent of John Taylor's magnificent work with Azimuth.

Part two begins with a lovely vocal and piano introduction that develops some of the themes introduced earlier. Bialas' perfect pitch and immaculate phrasing is every bit as atmospheric as the great Norma Winstone's best wordless vocal work.

As might be expected, Sirkis' subtle caresses and strokes add to this section's overall beauty. Sirkis' deft touch and magnificent sense of timing, ensures that time spent in the company of this album passes quickly.

Later, Wingfield's soundscape of swirling tones takes centre stage. In a twisting canvas of dynamic textures, each floating swirl is carefully chosen for its atmospheric effect. Wingfield brings a plethora of nail-splitting sounds to the fore, summoning a range of abstract barks and unimaginable tones. These are rich in texture and full of emotion. As this improvised section of the piece developed, I could not help but feel that the grunt, grapple, and groan of Wingfield's guitar could well be too abstract (or free) for many people's taste. However, whatever your view about the accessibility or otherwise of this part of the suite, the skill level is undeniable.

Unfortunately, I felt that the album was briefly marred by the inclusion of a spoken word element during For Eric. I found much of it irritating when I first heard it and that feeling has not subsided. Consequently, it's a track I always skip. This is probably a pity, as I am sure that the composition has its merits.

Luckily, the quality of the title track more-than-compensates and soothes away any lasting feelings of frustration. It's a fine fusion piece and there were occasions when the rich, retro Husband's synth tones were reminiscent of the work of Jan Hammer.

The album closes with Part three of the excellent Polish suite. Wingfield has a prominent role in this concluding section and his buoyant combination of unusual tones and textures brings the album to a gratifying end.

If you like progressive jazz fusion, I am confident that you will find lots of aspects to enjoy in Asaf Sirkis' Solar Flash.

Sweeping Death — Tristesse

Sweeping Death - Tristesse
The World As Will (7:20), After The Rift (5:06), Sublime Me (7:27)
Calum Gibson

Germany is well known for some of the world's best hard rock and metal bands, from Scorpions and Rammstein to Blind Guardian, Avantasia and Helloween. Formed in 2016 with a hope of joining their fellow countrymen in the hall of metal fame, we have Sweeping Death. Since their formation, they have released an EP and one full length album. Tristesse is their second EP.

The World As Will kicks in with an intro that sounds as if Porcupine Tree had gone a bit heavier with Deadwing before Elias Witzigmann brings in some powerful vocals and a subdued bridge brings you into the melodic side of their brand of metal. Fast-paced and awash with riffs, double bass, technical leads and soaring vocals, this track ticks all the prog-metal boxes.

With the middle of the EP upon us, Alter The Rift comes in with an almost Avenged Sevenfold feel with the melodies and vocals. But this is more on the prog side and less of the metal-core. Catchy hooks and licks are located everywhere here, to keep even the most stubborn and immovable of listeners moving.

Finally, we have the closer Sublime Me. This one starts with a darker tone, providing some tension and unease. Tremolos come in to help further this atmosphere, as the song builds and builds with a sense of foreboding and nerves. This feeling stays present throughout, at times sounding similar to some work by Primordial with the sense of approaching doom and elements of melodic black metal thrown in.

The only let down that I could pinpoint is maybe the mixing. Some elements occasionally get a bit lost in the confusion. Which can make picking out the instruments or vocals a bit difficult occasionally. However, the EP is still very promising and in terms of the song-writing it is fantastic.

Fans of Ayreon, Avantasia, Primordial and similar should definitely have a listen to these guys.

Album Reviews