Album Reviews

Issue 2021-160

Force Of Progress — R3design

Force Of Progress - R3design
Ultra Conversation (5:52), Viral Signs I - Ambassador Of Light (10:29), Next (7:07), Viral Signs II - Incident 3030 (16:03), Lady Lake (4:33), Redesign (6:18)
Thomas Otten

R3design is the third (as the reverse "e" in the album title points out to) release by German prog rock musicians Hanspeter Hess (keyboards, also with The Healing Road), Chris Grundmann (keyboards, guitar, bass, active as well with Cynity), and Markus Roth (keyboards, guitar, bass, known from his work with Marquette, and Horizontal Ascension).

Their first album Calculated Risk came out in 2017, followed by A Secret Place from 2020. Since then, Force Of Progress shrunk to a trio, losing drummer Dominik Wimmer. The band then formed a partnership with Dennis Degen (drums) and Sebastian Schleicher (guitar, bass) of Degen Herb Mroszczok Schleicher (who released one album under this name, titled Theories In The Absence of Definition.

Curiously, although being mentioned as "just" guest musicians, Degen and Schleicher are the only ones appearing on every track of the album, while none of the six tracks show a shared performance of the three founding members.

Instead, no less than six experienced guest guitarists (Achim Wierschen, Stefan Huth, Claus Flittiger, Thorsten Praest, Amadeus Sektas, and Julian Küster) make this release sound varied with respect to the guitar soloing work. They also provide for some "guitar competition" atmosphere as well, without detracting from the homogeneity and the coherence of the music at any time. I wonder whether we are dealing with a prog rock project or a band here, but at the end of the day, it is the quality of the music that counts, and that is what the listener gets a healthy dose of on this record.

R3design is a balanced mix of instrumental progressive rock and progressive metal. Whilst A Secret Place, to my ears, seemed to put a stronger focus on the keyboard work, both with respect to soloing and as background, R3design shows a bias towards the guitar parts, no wonder with such an illustrious array of (guest) guitarists.

In terms of comparisons to other bands, Dream Theater without James LaBrie, Liquid Tension Experiment, and instrumental versions of other prog metal bands such as Aeon Zen, and Threshold need to be mentioned. While I found the previous album to be more difficult to pigeon-hole music-wise, overall the spectrum of genres covered by the songs on R3design is more dense and coherent, basically centring around prog and prog-metal, with a little hard rock and neo-prog as the two poles.

Whenever the guitars are at the foreground, the prog-metal element is more evident. If keyboards are in command, then things turn more into pure prog, and Force Of Progress are not too far away from acts such as Spock's Beard, Neal Morse Band, Transatlantic, The Flower Kings, plus some Swedish keyboard-driven bands à la Brighteye Brison and Magic Pie (without their respective vocalists, mind you).

The album starts with Ultra Conversation, which, according to the band, "symbolises the transition from the album A Secret Place to R3design" and indeed comes closest to what the band did on the predecessor. It ends with Redesign, the only song written by "full-time" keyboarder Hanspeter Hess, a three-part piece about "redesigning your life after losing a loved one. From the old busy times, through the impact of grief, to the hope for a powerful and new life."

In between, there is the two-part epic Viral Signs, flirting with neo-prog in the first part and full of virtuous guitar and keyboard soloing in the second. Next, ventures a bit into hard rock territory whilst Lady Lake, catchy with a slight touch of AOR, is like early Saga.

When I saw that this release was up for review, I was curious. I had the chance to review its predecessor and concluded then that this was highly-technical music appealing to my intellect and respect, rather than to my emotions. I wondered how the force of progress had worked to redesign the band's music on their new release. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

Not much progress was needed to enhance the musicians' technical abilities; they remain at an outstanding level. For me, the force of progress mainly consisted in combining technical extravaganzas with accessibility, in avoiding the impression that this music was written solely for the purpose of letting off steam and showing off musically, and in dispelling a feeling of l'art-pour-l'art.

Don't get me wrong, this album still is full of stunning complexity, ability, and velocity. Take the guitar/synth/organ interplay and soloing between minutes 10 and 12 of Viral Signs II, and the entire opener Ultra Conversation as examples amongst many others. On the other hand, there are catchy, almost simple-sounding (in a positive way) moments, such as the entire song Lady Lake, plus quiet, atmospheric parts such as in Viral Signs I, and in the middle section of Redesign.

What I found particularly successful is that the band has managed to avoid juxtaposing these characteristics as contrasts; rather presenting them as a unified whole. The final track (my favourite) is representative of that achievement. Coincidentally (or intentionally after all), it is the release's eponymous one. If that is the result of the band's redesigning effort, in my opinion it has definitely worked. I look forward to whether the band will continue on this chosen path. In the meantime, I will enjoy this album, and I am confident that it will appeal to listeners looking for high-quality instrumental progressive rock/metal with catchy and accessible melodies and fierce soloing.

Editorial Note We try to include information to artist websites for our readers to find information and samples. In most cases, we get a list of links from the artists. In some cases, we have to go and look for ourselves, even on platforms not every reviewer is active on. In this case, the given website link pointed to something that had hardly any info, had not been updated since 2017, and all external links went to the Wix sites instead of the band sites. Only the link to the band's Facebook page worked. The Instagram link found on there ended in an error page. Apparently the band want you to find out where to get this music by yourself. We recommend the band will take their promotional activities more seriously and have their online presence a bit up to date, if they want people to find them.

Maragda — Maragda

Maragda - Maragda
The Core As The Whole (5:11), The Calling (5:34), Hermit (3:49), Orb Of Delusion (4:12), Crystal Passage (3:18), Beyond The Ruins (4:02), The Blue Ceiling (4:40)
Jerry van Kooten

"A tough trip to the unknown" as their own description, plus a few samples from different songs, was enough for me to select this album for a review. Maragda are a new band from Barcelona, Spain. Just three guys, playing guitar, bass, and drums, and sharing vocals and synths.

The intro of the opening track gave me visions (and hopes) of some post-metal, like their countrymen in Toundra are playing. Heavy and fuzzy, but with a sense of prog. Somewhat like combining the power of Electric Wizard with a dose of Rush. The track delivers variety in different sections, something that this album is going to have a lot more of.

The Calling has progressive rhythms with energetic drumming. With an interesting vocal melody, it evokes 80s punk rock. The same kind of punky attitude you find in a band like Pure Reason Revolution.

Then Hermit adds a darker space-rock feel with some extra prog chops. Great guitar melodies, not least the space-y guitar solo near the end.

The darkest track on the album is Orb Of Delusion. The dreamy vocal lines reminded me of some slow Black Label Society tracks. That is also bringing in a bluesy background to the song.

An album this short doesn't really need a breather, but with Crystal Passage we get one. Instrumental, ethereal guitar and synths. It's different again and it does break the either dark or heavy or energetic flow, but at 10% of the album's length this song is a bit too much.

Of course, Beyond The Ruins brings us right back in-there. As the title made me hope for heavy, the opening has Toundra written all over it. The verses have, as in The Calling, a great vocal delivery and interesting vocal lines. The end is as heavy as the start. This has the combination of the thundering, overwhelming power of post-metal, combined with progressive song-writing.

The closing track is an instrumental that builds up nicely from dreamy post-rock, via modern progressive, to a psychedelic guitar ending, offering an overview of the styles that make up Maragda. I do think it's a pity they end with a fade-out, especially during a section I wish would last longer.

The proggy rhythms, breaks, and melodies are a constant. The lower frequencies are solid. Guitar solos are fierce, sometimes fast, sometimes space-y. The energy is often off-the-chart. Even for its length, it's a very diverse album. No patchwork, the tracks do fit together as a unit. The shortness, the out-of-place track, and the fade-out are things that are easy to change on the next album, and it leaves enough to be enjoyed. This is very promising!

Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) — I Dreamed Of Electric Sheep

40:50, 40:50
Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) - I Dreamed Of Electric Sheep
English version: Worlds Beyond (3:18), Adrenaline Oasis (4:55), Let Go (4:07), City Life (5:02), If I Had Wings (4:24), Electric Sheep (4:10), Daily Heroes (3:49), Kindred Souls (6:19); bonus tracks: Transhumance (1:06), Transhumance Jam (3:40)
Italian version: Mondi paralleli (3:18), Umani alieni (4:55), Ombre amiche (4:07), La grande corsa (5:02), AtmoSpace (4:24), Pecore elettriche (4:10), Mr. Non Lo So (3:49), Il respiro del tempo (6:19); bonus tracks: Transumanza (1:06), Transumanza Jam (3:40)
Geoff Feakes

Like many English-speaking prog fans of a certain age, my introduction to Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) was the 1973 symphonic masterpiece Photos Of Ghosts. They had previously released two Italian-language albums ( Storia Di Un Minuto and Per Un Amico) but Photos Of Ghosts was the first of four studio recordings on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Manticore label. It was the law of diminishing returns however, with the jazz-fusion influenced Jet Lag released in 1977 being the final, and the weakest, of the quartet.

As such, everything else that they released afterwards flew completely under my radar. With the release of their latest album, I Dreamed Of Electric Sheep / Ho sognato pecore elettriche, I felt it was high time to re-acquaint myself with the music of PFM.

Like their previous album, Emotional Tattoos from 2017, it's a double CD (or double vinyl LP if you prefer) with the songs sung in English on one disc and in Italian on the other. In much the same way that Photos Of Ghosts utilised the backing tracks recorded for Per Un Amico, the vocals are the only aspect that differentiates the two discs.

Drummer Franz Di Cioccio is the only remaining member from the halcyon days of Photos Of Ghosts, although bassist Patrick Djivas joined soon after in 1974. With Di Cioccio also established as the lead vocalist, PFM have evolved into a seven-piece line-up which includes Marco Sfogli (electric guitar), Lucio Fabbri (violin, keyboards), Alessandro Scaglione (piano, Hammond, Minimoog, keyboards), Roberto Gualdi (additional drums), and Alberto Bravin (additional keyboards, vocals).

As the title suggests, I Dreamed Of Electric Sheep is a sci-fi concept based on the cult film Blade Runner, which in turn is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. Space rock it isn't however, with the opening instrumental Worlds Beyond featuring a strident orchestral intro followed by Dream Theater style riffing. Di Cioccio is a decent singer, as Adrenaline Oasis testifies, and he does well to keep up with Sfogli's choppy riffs. The balladic Let Go heralds a change of pace, with Minimoog, piano and keys-strings providing a dreamy backdrop.

City Life is another showcase for Sfogli's talents, with his fleet-footed guitar lines dancing nimbly around the tricky time signatures, which, combined with Djivas' punchy bass lines, brings a touch of Ayreon to the table. The restless Electric Sheep borders on funk-fusion, and although it's not my cup of prog, the band's technical proficiency astounds at times. Likewise, Daily Heroes features syncopated rhythms and jazzy guitar and synth exchanges, although it's the strident Hammond flurries that linger in the memory.

At over six minutes, Kindred Souls is the longest song by far and allows PFM to show off their special guests, Ian Anderson and Steve Hackett. Despite the synthetic rhythms, it has a celtic-rock vibe thanks to a synth replicating the sound of pipes, aided by Anderson's flute embellishments. The choral treatment of the vocals gives it an anthemic, stately quality as Hackett weighs in with his unmistakable, weaving guitar textures.

Although Di Cioccio has an admirable command of English, his accent, coupled with the dense arrangements, often renders the words illegible. Switching to the Italian version, and it's evident that he is more comfortable singing in his native tongue. On songs like La grande corsa, the vocals sound more natural with some lines less-obviously spoken when compared with the English version (City Life).

Common to both discs is the 'bonus track' instrumental workouts Transhumance and Transhumance Jam. Unfettered, the band demonstrate their fusion chops to the full, with fuzzed Hammond, explosive drumming and frantic guitar and synth noodling that bring Liquid Tension Experiment to mind.

There is no doubt that this is a very polished slice of contemporary prog rock from one of the genre's finest bands. It's also heartening that they remain a working unit and continue performing live to this day. I still enjoy listening to PFM's early 70s albums, whereas this is an album I admire. While that's a worthy endorsement, enjoyment and admiration are two very different things.

PFM on

Rhizone — Timelines

Rhizone - Timelines
Sonata // Quit Zero // (6:35), High Noon (11:03), God Hell (9:02), Big City Son (4:39), The Little Dots In Life (4:13), Cut My Throat (8:05), Kuŝi (8:34), The Glass Man (17:09)
Andy Read

Anyone up for a high-art, avant-progressive-art-rock concept album in three parts (acts), as a prelude to a full-blown post-modern theatre-show?

If not, then the debut offering by this multi-media project out of Vienna is unlikely to be your glass of Glühwein!

If so, then Timelines might just be one of your discoveries of the year. Please read on.

Rhizone is clearly not your common-or-garden art-rock band. The members come from a huge variety of musical backgrounds such as metal, jazz, free-improvisation, reggae, classical music and folk. There is a backbone to the storyline and compositions formed by philosophy, psychology and sociology. Lyrically and vocally there is a pot-pourri of poetry, theater, various singing styles, spoken word and even a bit of rap.

"The vision of Rhizone is to create a multi-media prog rock theatre in three acts," explains Michael Auinger (guitar, saxophone). "Timelines is the first act and album, and its borderlines and lines of flight will follow. There's also a theatre script already written, and we're going to release cinematic short films with the music, telling specific aspects of the story."

Alongside Michael, the core band consists of Thomas Hutter (acoustic guitar, vocals), Georg Hinterberger (drums), Lukas Brandl (bass), and Ulrike Grill (vocals, synths). However, the idea is to work with lots of other guest musicians, as well as other artists such as cinematographers, actors or shibari (Japanese rope bondage) artists to achieve their ambitious vision. Timelines credits guest musicians on violin, cello, double bass, trumpet, throat singing and tablas.

Apart from the mix of genres and art forms, the special thing about Rhizone is that the individual songs are based on a concrete story that is to be told with the music.

Timelines is the first of three concept albums (Borderlines and Lines Of Flight will follow) and is considered the prelude to Metropolis, Or In Search Of The Black Water; one gigantomanimous rock opera of four hours with actors and stage art and much more. The 24-song complete work is based on a narrative that describes how a protagonist, suffering from schizophrenia, gradually falls into madness.

We follow the introverted boy who, as the lack of meaningful human interactions becomes unbearable, starts to recreate the world around him. Across the eight tracks on this first album, the 'Timelines' affecting him are depicted by means of a daily routine.

"It's our first album after six plus years of jamming, sweating, working, discussing, finding the right people and creating the story, the vision and the concept," explains Georg. "This is an album full of hope, dreams ... and personal growth."

"I see it like one big song, one big story, which has its highs and lows and flows in directions you might not have anticipated," continues Ulli. "Just like a few hours in the life of the schizophrenic protagonist. Each song may sound quite different, but if you listen to the whole story, you will hear the common thread."

"We have recurring musical themes throughout the album underlining this. Lyrics are narrating his experiences, thoughts and dreams and a theatre script (provided as a PDF for those who buy the album) is providing more context, narrative sequences and dialogues. To me, it's extremely important how an album sounds as a whole and how the songs are ordered to achieve a constant flow, instead of focusing on isolated songs," expresses Michael.

I agree. It is difficult to describe the album, because references to individual songs would not do justice to the whole work. For this album to work, you have to read the storyline, wrap yourself up in the concept and listen very carefully to the music as one single piece of art.

I could take an individual track, but they are all so different (albeit with connecting motifs) that it would not be much help. So I shall cover four tracks; half the album. That at least will point you in the right direction.

Rhizone, promo photo

For the song Kuši the influence of neo-folk bands Heilung, Wardruna, and, in the lighter moments, Kalandra are clear. A simple rhythm slowly builds over a distant approaching storm, replaced by a stark electronic hum. The beautiful female vocal brings light, before harmonies (other voices) add depth over a glockenspiel's metallic tinging. Deep male voices add threat, on top of a sizzling, stressed violin. Then, a disturbed calm falls, amidst a swirling sky of electronic emotions and confused drum beats, before the female voices return, this time on waves of strings. Intense.

The male and female vocals have a more balanced presence across God Hell. Some strikingly-contrasting harmonies (and disharmonies) are employed to good effect (the duel vocals are superb across the album). This is a dark song, again incorporating the moods of Scandinavian post-black metal. The acoustic guitar and strings add touches of gentleness. A saxophone adds some free jazz. The guitars have an thudding, industrial bent.

Big City Sun is a brief moment of American singer/songwriter with a pop/country feel thanks to the male/female close harmonies. The sax this time adds a late-night bar atmosphere, over a gently-strummed acoustic guitar. Doo-wap, mixes with jazz, towards the end.

The Little Dots is a flow of cascading free-jazz over semi-spoken words leading into the manically-theatrical Cut My Throat. I won't even begin to describe the kaleidoscopic 17-minutes of avant-prog epic-ness that is The Glass Man. Among many other things it incorporates motifs from the opening track in a changed form, closing the album in a somewhat chaotic full circle.

One of the great things about progressive music, is the way that artists bend and blend genres to create new sounds. You need to give this album your dedicated time, but if you do, then it offers listeners a maze-like tapestry of atmospheres and emotions in which one can become happily lost, without really knowing it.

Album Reviews