The Black Light — Unnatural Order
The Black Light are a duo based in Swindon and Winchester and consist of Martin Bassett (guitars, bass, keyboards, vocals) and Andrew Watt (drums, keyboards, vocals). Their teaming-up for making music started in college back in 1996, and finally resulted in the release of the album All Forgotten Dreams in 2017, to which Unnatural Order is the successor.
We have 13 tracks clocking between 0:42 and 7:05, and seamlessly merging into one another lyrically. They lead us through reflections on life, on ways to set the right priorities, on the difficulties and setbacks in relationships, on the impact of false ambitions, and the necessity of being determined. These appear to be thought-provoking topics, and I was a bit disappointed not finding any information on the lyrics online, allowing me as a non-native English-speaker to delve deeper into their poetry. That corresponds to my impression that the online presence of the band is not that exhaustive. Thus, little surprise that I had not come across The Black Light prior to writing this review.
The music on this release eludes a clear pigeonholing, and thus once more stresses how multifaceted and manifold this musical genre really is. It is a combination of alternative, hard, and indie rock, with doses of metal and ambient, all of which are resting on a solid prog rock foundation.
The fact that I had difficulties finding musical reminiscences at the beginning, speaks for quite some degree of originality in this band's music. With the help of some remarks in another review, I was able to identify bands such as Agent Fresco, The Smashing Pumpkins, Oceansize, and Radiohead as peers, not all of which I would have associated with progressive rock in the first instance. Similarities here and there also exist with the work of Lunatic Soul, and Long Distance Calling.
Even though both musicians are credited with playing keyboards, their use is fairly scarce (okay, that is a rather subjective impression - I am a keyboard aficionado). Most of the time, they are confined to providing a sound basis for the guitars, which clearly play a prominent role in the musical arrangements.
Interesting and unusual for me in this context, is the fact that although being guitar-oriented, the music does not offer a single note of guitar solo. No soloing, however, does not imply guitars sounding dull and boring, although my first impression was that of a certain repeat effect with respect to the riffing. Subsequent and more careful listening revealed those riffs being characterised by a considerable punch, and a liking of uneven rhythms, and complex chord sequences, such as I have come across listening to some mid-period Rush records. The same holds true for the song structures and arrangements. I found them to become more ambitious the more often I listened to them. The tracks Crush and No Going Home are good examples of that.
Striking also is the appearance of catchy melodic hooks in some of the tracks and a tendency towards building-up tension and intensity as the song progresses, particularly apparent in my favourite track We Are Animals.
This is an album where applying the "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" rule might result in jumping to false conclusions with respect to its music. It certainly deserves a second, and even a third or a fourth chance to prove that there is more behind it compared to what is being evoked by a single listening.
In familiarising myself with this release, I crossed out bit-by-bit the notes I had taken after I heard the music for the first time: "Where are the keys?", "The riffing often sounds the same.", "No idea which band to compare them with.", "I am missing the solos", "It has some lengths!". I admit, this album did not blow my mind, it just wasn't my favourite prog style altogether. However, I acknowledge and respect The Black Light's music as being well crafted, accessible, subtle and enigmatic, with more in store, than on first display.
Recommended for listeners having an open-minded approach to what prog rock should sound like and with a liking of dense, compact and catchy, guitar-oriented music with subtle twists and turns.
Cynic — Ascension Codes
The name Cynic is synonymous with what it means to be truly progressive in music. Built on five years of demos, their debut album in 1993, Focus, is a certified classic that broke virgin musical ground and spawned a seemingly-endless array of bands that have since pushed and blended the musical boundaries that it had shattered.
That album was followed by a transformation into the short-lived Portal, and then a further splinter toward Aeon Spoke, a collection of ambient electronica that featured founder members Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert.
The long-awaited Cynic follow-up to Focus finally emerged 15 years later. Traced In Air (2008) was worthy of the Cynic name. The widely disliked Kindly Bent To Free Us (2014), less so.
Once ahead of their time, Cynic were now playing catch-up. Two EPs and two singles have since emerged but any attempts to regain their position as exemplars of progressive music, was dealt a horrible double blow in 2020 with the premature deaths of drummer Sean Reinert at the age of 48, and bassist Sean Malone in December, aged just 50.
Reinert, a founding Cynic member, was truly influential. His work on Focus and before that on Death's watershed Human album, found him sculpting extreme technical metal with a jazz-fusion-inspired approach. Now taken for granted, that approach was undoubtedly pioneered in a large part by Reinert. His imprint on progressive metal is inescapable.
In his many years with Cynic, Gordian Knot and others, Sean Malone's virtuoso playing has left a similar legacy.
Surviving member Paul Masvidal explains that the seeds of a fourth Cynic full-length existed long before the deaths and he decided to push forward. “I wanted to make this record right after Kindly Bent To Free Us,” says Masvidal. “I was raring to go, hyper-creative, in this total flow state. And then it all imploded.”
Drummer Matt Lynch who was brought in to replace Reinhert in 2015 continues his role here. As Masvidal notes, Lynch's "hybrid modern style is like a fusion of drum and bass electronic music influences combined with modern jazz/prog approaches".
But how to replace Sean Malone on bass? Masvidal's answer: "Don't even try". The lines of bass notes heard throughout Ascension Codes are performed on bass synthesizer by keyboardist Dave Mackay.
With a diverse smattering of guest musicians, Ascension Codes finds the trio inhabiting a corner of the musical spectrum all their own. Their Venn diagram shows intersections with death metal, prog rock, thrash metal, experimental, new age and jazz fusion, spread over a tapestry of celestial, spiritual and yogic themes
There are nine main songs separated by the embedded “ascension codes”: Mu-54, A'-va432, Ha-144 and so on. Little more than waves and blips of electronica, I find these 30-second pieces annoying and distracting in the way that they insistently break up the flow of the main songs. I much prefer the digital album with these removed.
These nine main songs are definitive Cynic numbers that stand strong on their own.
Mythical Serpents, 6th Dimensional Architect, Architects of Consciousness (my favourite) and Diamond Light Body all mix the heavy with the celestial, as they adventure over emotional peaks and valleys, while the trio's mathematical sequences challenge the head.
Whilst they all share a recognisable soundscape to the music found on Focus, I would never refer to this as progressive metal. There are bursts of metallic guitar. The drum-work is often intense. There are some death growls (actually more like whispers), but these are hidden so far back in the mix that you'll have to seek them out.
This album will hold far more interest to those who enjoy progressive electronic music with a spiritual brightness or the more Floydian ends of progressive music.
According to Masvidal the future of Cynic is unclear. Ascension Codes is an ambitious, and a worthy addition to their catalogue that will delight open-minded fans of progressive music. It sure has been an adventurous journey so far.
Directionless Vector — Explorations
Czechia has always been something of an overshadowed country in terms of rock / metal, with such neighbours as Poland and Hungary doing extremely well in terms of a local scene. However, a lack of quantity does not always mean a lack of quality. And connoisseurs would probably agree that there's something very Kafkaesque about the entire Czechia music scene, with a special tinge towards surrealism, and frequent avant-garde leanings. One can remember such names as Forgotten Silence, Lykathea Aflame and Master's Hammer, or on the softer side Different Light and Us Jsme Doma.
Here's another addition to the weird world of Czech music, a debut effort from Directionless Vector (DV), an obscure project with anonymous members (however, very likely with some decent background in other bands).
Ingredients here are avant-garde doom (dissonant, mournful and heavily distorted chords against aggressive drumming), classical music (lots of piano passages) and more surprisingly some prog rock (mysterious atmosphere, multi-faceted compositions with acoustic parts) and even post-punk (notice some very characteristic bass lines). Not a direct influence, but I feel that parallels can be drawn to early My Dying Bride, Swans, Maudlin of the Well and from more recent outputs Thy Catafalque and Solefald. DV shares many similarities with the latter, specifically in the way they handle major harmonies in the extreme metal wrapping, and in the jumps between the calm and the harsh passages.
Most prog-lovers would appreciate the longest track, Seven Men, but my favourite is the closing Melt Your Crown. This is almost a Kayo Dot composition, with misty, late-November atmospheres and a bass / trumpet / piano conversation, evolving into vast, majestic post-black “OST”-music in its coda.
On the negative side, the music sometimes jumps too early between parts of the compositions, not allowing a listener to stay and plunge a bit deeper into the moods that have been created.
If you've read all Kafka available out there, including his letters, and still yearn for more, try Directionless Vector to plunge into a claustrophobic world of early 20th century surrealism. Not jaw-dropping, but still an extremely fine debut.
Gazpacho — Fireworking At St Croix
Due to the pandemic, Gazpacho's Fireworker 2020 album tour was cancelled. Stuck with the predicament of having rehearsed a well-honed show and the prospect of a long period off the road, the band regrouped at their very own rehearsal space in beautiful Fredrikstad for a live performance that was streamed to fans worldwide on 25th of October 2020.
It was a pure and complete rendition of their new album, plus an encore. No fixes, no polishes, lights but no light show, no audience, not even catering. In Thomas Andersen's own words: “We wanted an 'honest' live stream. Not a gig on an empty stage with a light show. We decided to perform it exactly how we play when we record or rehearse in the actual room we use.”
The original stream has now been re-edited and expanded with 30 minutes of additional material not included in the original broadcast.
The initial thing to say is that you have several choices here. Firstly there is the digital version available from the Kscope Bandcamp page (link above). There is also a single CD and a double-vinyl version. All have the same tracks as listed above. The digital version is the one being reviewed here.
The next step-up is the Blu-Ray edition. This contains the video version of all the tracks that appear on the CD and digital versions, plus the original live-stream encore of Chequered Light Buildings. It also contains 2.5 hours of bonus material including promo videos, interviews and a bonus concert filmed at the last night of the Soyuz Tour in 2019.
For completists, then the 'Deluxe 4-disc hardback book edition' offers the whole show on double CD, Blu-Ray and DVD as well as 48-page coffee table book including extensive liner notes about the Fireworker concept and the history of Gazpacho, including never before seen photos and alternative album artwork.
As Andersen states, there was no intention of making this a "live" show. It is more of a recorded live rehearsal. There is no talking or presentation, and of course it misses the dynamic, the unpredictability and the ambience given by performing on stage in front of hundreds of people. So lower your expectations of this being a live album accordingly.
For fans, the main attraction of this will be to experience the "live" version of their latest Fireworker album. Continuing the band's voyage into deeper, concept-driven albums, this has never been an easy listen. While I can appreciate its execution, this has not changed my view that there are parts that I enjoy (Space Cowboy and Fireworker), but others that remain impenetrable.
I do find the rest of the set-list disappointing. The Walk parts I and II already appear on both London and A Night At Loreley, whilst Winter Is Never is on all three previous live albums. The band will never match the stunning version they delivered at Loreley in 2010; one of my all-time favourite live performances.
I would have preferred to hear something fresher; there being plenty of candidates on the more recent Molok and Soyuz efforts. Fans however should find interest in the inclusion of Substitute For Murder from their second album When Earth Lets Go. Some may also be piqued that they have to get the Blu-Ray or book versions to hear/see the original encore of Chequered Light Buildings. I can see that the running time maybe a factor for the single CD and vinyl versions, but excluding it from the digital version is just Kscope being stingy.
Gazpacho will finally be taking their Fireworker show around Europe in April 2022, complete with lights, audience, and catering. With the co-headliners being Pure Reason Revolution, it should be worth the wait. The tour dates are here, but the year still needs to be updated there!
Pattern Seeking Animals — Only Passing Through
Pattern Seeking Animals began as a vehicle for Spock's Beard composer/musician John Boegehold to utilise material that he felt wasn't suited for the band. Joining him on this endeavour were fellow Spock's alumni, Ted Leonard (lead vocals and guitar), Dave Meros (bass), and Jimmy Keegan (drums). Their debut album in 2018 garnered rightfully-positive reviews, though it did feel a bit like a side project. The follow-up, Prehensile Tales (2020) began to change that perception, but it is the wholly entertaining, Only Passing Through that fully establishes their band identity.
The album displays an American prog/rock style that is somewhat reminiscent of Kansas in their heyday and even Leonard's other band Enchant. Most of the songs are generally compact in length, but undeniably complex in their arrangements and instrumentation. This is evident from the start with the rustic Everdark Mountain and the engagingly proggy, I Can't Stay Here Anymore.
There is a cinematic quality to much of the material, such as on the lyrically compelling Said the Stranger and the album's lone epic, Time has a Way. Like the best long-form prog tracks, it is well crafted and dazzles with its effortless flow and musical diversity. The use of strings and brass on the song is particularly effective.
Rock, Paper, Scissors, Much Ado and the excellent title track, while a bit more straightforward, are nonetheless distinct and creative. The album closer, Here with You with Me is a definite highlight. Impeccably performed, the song artfully builds to a memorable conclusion driven by a guitar solo. I'm not Alright and the buoyant Just Another Day at the Beach are quality bonus tracks, which avoids them feeling tacked-on in any way.
Boegehold has recently announced that Pattern Seeking Animals will now be his primary focus and the vehicle for his compositions. It is not difficult to see why. What started as the subsidiary of a big-name prog band has blossomed into an independent and essential outfit. There is a confidence and quality to Only Passing Through that is impossible to miss. Another great 2022 release that comes highly recommended!
Anyone familiar with the name Spocks Beard will probably have come across the name of this band too, as they have been busy releasing an album roughly every year since their debut in 2019.
While Ted Leonard (lead vocals and guitar), Dave Meros (bass and vocals) and Jimmy Keegan (drums and vocals) have all served time with Spock's Beard, they teamed up with John Boegehold (keyboards, programming and production) in May 2018 to form the current band. In all honesty, it seems that the chemistry between these musicians has hit a high point, as all previous albums have been well received and initial spins of their 2022 album suggest this trend will continue.
Of particular note is the vocal unity within the band, as their multi-part harmonies are very nicely done and pay homage to Kansas in parts, while there are references to Enchant and Salem Hill in others. All the singers throw everything at the microphone to create a very compelling result.
Additionally, chief song-smith Boegehold, has been able to include a decent assortment of instruments to add some spice to the mix. These include strings, brass, charango, ronrocco, (a stringed mandolin from the Andes region), ukulele, violin, trumpet, cello and bassoon. Many of these can be heard on the epic track Time Has A Way. Some of these instruments may seem odd to include for a progressive rock project such as this, however, their inclusion only enhances those songs where they are included and don't affect the music's flow or continuity.
The complexity of the songs is also just perfect, as things never get bogged down with too much simplicity or needless noodling. Far too many bands fall victim to this problem, whether it be because the creative juices have dried up or the inspiration to write very compelling music has been overlooked. This album is full of well-executed tracks that move and shake in one instant, and then quickly segue into more passive sections that add even more melody and melancholy.
While there are no real stand-out songs for me, there are certainly no clangers here either. It is the complete package, that one needs to admire with bands such as this. The sound is modern, bright, adventurous, but above all, rewarding.
Pattern Seeking Animals are a great example of a band full of excellent musicians who know their craft well, have moved with the times and know how to deliver a convincing set of songs that will please many fans. At this stage, their latest offering is probably not quite as compelling as Prehensile Tales but further spins, (five so far), may convince me otherwise. A great effort none-the-less and certainly one I can recommend.
This album is officially released on the Inside Out label on 1st April 2022 in either a 2LP +CD version (with etching on side D) or a limited edition CD or in a digital version.