Agusa — Prima Materia
First of all, the sound production of this album is simply wonderful. It sounds rich and full. It manages to conjure up some of the warmth normally associated with analogue recordings. Second, the musicianship is simply excellent. There are some inspiring standout solos. These shimmer with incandescent splendour and leave a warming after glow. Third, the tunes are simply very enjoyable. The arrangements are lengthy, tightly-knit, and well-constructed, but also offer the space and provide many opportunities for unexpected sections and diversions to occur.
These three elements combine so well, and help to ensure that almost everything about Prima Materia is a positive listening experience. It is undoubtedly Agusa's most enjoyable release so far.
I have long admired the bands easily identifiable style and have been fortunate to review their albums for DPRP on several occasions. Almost everything about Prima Materia is exceptional!
Agusa's previous release En annan värld included a couple of new members, Simon Ström on bass and Roman Andrén on keyboards. They made a stunning contribution and strengthened Agusa overall sound. Prima Materia sees a further change to the bands line up with drummer Nicolas Difornis replacing long-standing member Tim Wallandar. Once again, the change seems to have worked positively and much of the sense of freshness associated with this release is due to no small part to the consistently excellent and skillful contributions of the newest members of the group.
Prima Materia should find favour amongst a wide variety of prog fans. It contains elements that will appeal to fans of bands as diverse as Camel, Focus, Solaris, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Agusa are not afraid to channel some of these influences when the need arises, but equally are able to offer something that is full of bubbling creativity, verve, and swagger. Agusa have perfected a style and approach that is identifiably unique and unequivocally their own, whilst still being enjoyably retro enough in sound and form to potentially satisfy classic prog fans.
The CD packaging is not particularly informative, and it would have been agreeable if this album contained provided a booklet or even an insert with extensive and elaborate sleeve notes. However, this is a very minor criticism as the music does all that it needs to and any improvement of the way the disc is presented would simply be a smattering of colourful topping to adorn a very enjoyable and extremely tasteful offering.
One noticeable development in Agusa's sound in Prima Materia is the use of vocals in small segments in three tracks. This offers a set of different colours to appreciate for listeners who might be used to Agusa's previous releases. This variation to the bands palette of sounds works well. For a moment in Lust och fägring, backing voices appear as the music channels some of the melodic qualities of Pink Floyds Brain Damage. These sort of contrasts, that utilise vocals, are very effective. For example Ur askan changes pace brilliantly and the mood softens as the delicate vocals of Jenny Puertas cast a delicate reflective shadow that contrasts very effectively with the innovative progressive and rhythmic music that is predominant during much of this piece.
Similarly, the use of wordless vocals at the start of Så ock på Jorden create a different type of canvas that also works very effectively. Something about this opening segment was reminiscent of the laid back, yet upbeat atmosphere created by one or two of the wordless vocal passages in Robert Erdesz Meeting Point release. Notwithstanding, this somewhat tenuous comparison, the use of vocals in Så ock på Jorden works well and sets the scene for the instrumental passages which follow to develop in several interesting ways.
However, at the heart of everything that makes this album so compelling and appealing is certainly, the quality of the melodies that the band create. Although the pieces are long, their strong melodic content ensures that the principal theme, or motif of each composition easily becomes embedded in the consciousness long before the piece ends. This aspect helps to make Agusa's music both accessible and highly satisfying. Their frequent use of melodies and motifs that are more often or not usually associated with Scandinavian folk music provides the album with an earthy and endearing air. It is very satisfying to observe how the band develop, explore, or often ring out every breath from a persistent melodic idea over the course of a piece.
The opening piece Lust och fägring is an excellent example of everything that Agusa do well. It encapsulates the way Agusa are able to explore and develop various themes over the course of a composition. It rises and falls, gently clasps, and roughly embraces.
I particularly enjoyed the bands take on Gershwin's Summertime which is seamlessly integrated into the composition. Subtlety and aggression all have a part to play. In this respect, the boisterous closing three minutes of the piece are quite superb. The band are simmering with steamy aplomb and everything really flows; beautifully executed call and response passages reign down creating an exciting climax and culmination of all that had gone before.
Prima Materia contains many impressive flute and guitar solos. The dramatic embellishments and spotlight work of guitarist Mikael Ödesjö shine brightly throughout. There are many standout sections, but the magnificent solo during Under bar himmel makes me gurn with tickling, twitching, delight every time I hear it.
Flautist Jenny Puertas really raises the bar on this album and Prima Materia undoubtedly captures her best performance yet for Agusa. There are so many wonderful silver tube moments to admire. Prima Materia is probably one of the most satisfying flute prog albums that I have ever heard. The album contains gently wafting flute tones, that flex, flutter, and flicker like falling leaves on a frosted field. By way of contrast, it also contains frequent bursts of aggressive breathy flute that players such as Harold Mc Nair, Jeremy Steig, Attila Kollar, and of course Ian Anderson are sometimes associated with.
Indeed, there are one or two snorting snarling flute riffs that are quite reminiscent of Anderson. The most persuasive of these probably occur during Så ock på Jorden, which has some fiery flute interjections. Under bar himmel also contains some impressive overblown breathy flute passages. It is a very impressive piece that moves effortlessly through its various sections, with both flute and guitar in solo spotlights. However, Så Ock På Jorden never forgets the importance of form, structure, and melody. This helps to make the piece accessible, and satisfying.
The most interesting and probably the most progressive track on the album is Ur askan. Its overall sound and structure indicate that Agusa are continuing to develop as a band. In this composition traditional Scandinavian flute motifs are combined with elements of Ethio-jazz. Stop start rhythms abound and a buttock shifting groove weaves in and out of the piece. As mentioned previously, it also contains a brief vocal section. This provides yet another contrasting facet to a tune that has so many other distinctive and diverse elements.
The bass and drums are quite outstanding and have an important role in delivering Ur askan's toe-shifting and knuckle-wrapping qualities. The evocative use of the organ and the atmosphere that it creates, in this excellent track, are very reminiscent of aspects of the style of bands such as, the Hoodna Orchestra, Azmari and Black Flower. Indeed, the outstanding performance of Andrén is a major highlight, not only in this piece, but also throughout this release.
It is very rare to award a 10 for an album. However, on this occasion, I have no hesitation. I think Prima Materia is quite outstanding and indeed I believe it is often brilliant.
I've been looking forward to the next Agusa album ever since I discovered them, which was shortly after their first album. With every album, the band seemed to grow. The line-up has changed a few times, which has no doubt had an impact on the band's sound. The most obvious one is when Jenny Puertas joined, adding flute to the line-up. But with every change, somehow the band grew. Well, at least to my taste, but I think also from a more objective point of view.
With their latest release, Prima Materia, a few things stick out. For the first time in Agusa history there are vocals! Track 1 and 3 have a few lines of lyrics, mixed as background vocals but still clear, while the final track has some wordless vocals.
Another thing that I noticed is that the band are incorporating more influences, resulting in a broader sound. Some sections are symphonic, some are old-school psychedelic like The Doors (the sound of the organ used on a couple of solos adds to this feeling). There is a Camel influence shining through more than on previous albums, showing the flute sound is also expanding. Some parts show a tendency towards jazz, especially in the solos.
With a great balance between the melodic instruments doing both the themes and the solos, the whole album sounds very adventurous. Each of the four songs has a theme with melodies that tend to stick easily, alternated with solos that go from the restrained to wobbly spacey heavy.
Like the CD, the LP does not have a lot of info, which is a pity, but we can find all information online of course. I was wondering about the pressing, with one side of 25 minutes and one of 18, which could have been balanced out by changing the track order. I have tried listening to the album with tracks in order of 2, 3, 1, 4. It does not affect the listening pleasure. I am far from an expert on vinyl pressings, perhaps the density of the groove cannot be changed above 21 minutes?
On the other hand, the excellent mix and warm production of the album are so damn good, fitting the music perfectly.
When focusing on the compositions, there is also nothing but good to mention. Long tracks can be tricky, long tracks that have nothing but good parts are rare. But here we are, with catching melodic themes, build-ups, breaks, and diverse solos. Then the right balance of all the influences, which creates a flow in each track that just takes you away. The richness of the sound with three melodic players and a creative rhythm section is sublime.
I hardly ever rate something a 10. I have done that a couple of times in the past 25 years and one or two times regretted it later on. I learnt that it's hard to recognise a future classic. But based on just that a 10 can only be handed out to old releases. So I decided to use it for very likely future classics. It's dangerous though, with how Agusa have been developing their sound and how its appeal has been growing with every album, I cannot rate the next album 11! Still, I predict that at least in my book this is a future classic, one I will love for a very long time.
Chandelier — We Can Fly
Do we need to introduce Chandelier? After the long hiatus the band has taken, perhaps so. Formed in 1986, the band managed a first exclamation mark with their demo Fragments (1988), still released on cassette. With the CD Pure (1990) – from today's point of view perhaps still a bit naive and not fully mature, although already featuring some great tracks – and even more so with the follow-up Facing Gravity (1992), they quickly became the spearhead of the (at that time honestly very, very small) German progressive rock scene. But Chandelier also gained deserved attention internationally.
Various changes in the line-up then unfortunately threw a spanner in the works. It took some time until with Timecode (1997) the third album could be released. Qualitatively unfortunately not quite on the level of the predecessors, the band was denied the break-trough despite a tour in the support of Spock's Beard. Consequence: The professional and family life got the preference, Chandelier were history. Until the Polish label Chicadisc re-released the old discs in 2018 and 2019, remastered by Eroc (Grobschnitt) and each enhanced with a bonus CD. So fans can enjoy the complete Fragments demo (on the Pure reissue), the recording of a 1993 concert in Paris (on Facing Gravity), as well as re-recordings of older tracks and some very old demos (Timecode). The first two albums were also released on colored vinyl, Timecode unfortunately not (yet?).
Even better: A supposedly one-time reunion concert of the (almost) original band at the Night Of The Prog Festival 2019 (CD/DVD Live At Loreley) turned into more. The concerts postponed due to the Corona pandemic actually took place in 2021, Martin Eden's equally eccentric and high-quality solo album Sol (2022) made people sit up and take notice, and now fan dreams are coming true: Chandelier have actually recorded a new album, We Can Fly. And it is not a disappointment, quite the opposite. It justifies every spark of anticipation. It starts with the visuals. That the band and especially their singer have always cultivated a very special sense of humor is proven not least by the cover of the new album: if the seal flying over desert sand is not a real eye-catcher, what is? Ingenious!
And acoustically? Is that a brief Echoes reminiscence? Not quite, but perhaps at least a Floydian allusion. Then Chandelier start with a lot of power in the first song Space Controller. Yes, that's the familiar sound, that's how you know the band. Martin Eden's voice comes in after 90 seconds, he speaks first, then his characteristic vocals ring out. Nice. Briefly the drums are in the foreground, the song picks up speed, keyboard and guitar fight a short duel, probably nobody expected the band to be so playful after a break of about twenty-five years. That's a good start. As for the personnel: Martin Eden (vocals), Udo Lang (guitars), Herry Rubarth (drums) and Christoph Tiber (bass) have been joined by Armin Riemer (keyboards) since Live At Loreley.
When Martin Eden then sings the words "this is the story of the day" at the start of Help Me, the listener inevitably feels transported back to the days of Pure or perhaps even the Fragments tape. Does the voice drive the music or is it the other way around? It doesn't matter at all. It sounds fresh and refreshing, not like sedate middle-aged gentlemen, but is simply fun even in the quieter passages. Without reaching too deep into the construction kit of progressive rock, this is nevertheless only at first glance a rather simply structured piece, which superficially rocks forward nicely and entertains splendidly. The proggy moments are there, though. After about three minutes there is a great organ part to hear, also the guitar sets short but concise highlights. Great! Spring, with the recurring lines "we can fly" as the disguised title song, is then a lot more epic, cracks the ten-minute mark. The instruments harmonize perfectly, seem to feast on the successful interplay, and Martin Eden's voice sits enthroned above it, somewhere in a state of mind between suffering and majestic. Anthemic! Despite all the pathos, one imagines the singer with a mischievous grin.
In Between is the ballad of the album. If Stay (from Pure) was perhaps a bit too kitschy from today's perspective, despite all its cult character, Chandelier had found the formula for the romantic moment with Safe on Facing Gravity, which they revive here. Also important in this song are the contributions of Toni "Moff" Mollo (ex-Grobschnitt) on vocals and Rüdiger Blömer (Flying Circus), who contributes the string sounds, both of whom make other guest appearances. The following Mixed Magnificient Arts is then somewhat more inconspicuous despite its weird title, at least leaves room for Udo Lang for another short guitar solo and is – if at all – perhaps most dispensable. The possibly quite deliberate breather for the final feat is followed by another, but quite different moment of brief pause with Light. The sublime piece, originally part of a larger work by the Slovak composer Peter Machajdík, lives from the introductory church organ and Martin Eden's voice.
And then it gets down to business once again – or only really. A cappella the singer starts in Forever And A Day, his colleagues join in, time for one last goosebumps. No, the shanty interjections in the chorus ("sail on, sail on ... fly on, fly on“) don't even have a hint of awkwardness. It suits Chandelier, keyboard and guitar quickly lead the way back into prog spheres, the rhythm section provides the solid foundation. After the chorus has been sung for the second time, the band takes the time for an extended instrumental passage, which could have lasted even longer. But then the vocals are back, pure drama, the tempo remains high, the song pushes forward until the next break with the third chorus. Now comes, for the grand finale, the bombast: the sound is powerful, the guitar of Udo Lang still swings over it, who once again delivers an excellent solo, into which then Martin Eden intersperses the last lines of this song and this album. The title does not promise too much: Forever And A Day has what it takes to become a classic in the band's repertoire.
Strong album. Please keep going.
What seemed unlikely half a decade ago has now, somewhat in striking resemblance to the album's artwork, become a reality. Following their highly successful reunion shows, one of which was beautifully captured on Live At Loreley, Chandelier have taken off again and after an absence of 26 years recently presented their fourth studio album We Can Fly.
The question almost certainly arising is whether Chandelier are still able to light up the hearts of those who cherish and enjoy the excellent neo-prog they were known for during the 90s. The short biased answer to this is an impressively affirmative "yes!", because on a whole the music sounds authentically Chandelier-ian and many of the seven included tracks each in their own way show that they perfectly know how to write and profoundly execute beautifully rounded and captivating compositions.
Aided by Rüdiger Blömer (Flying Circus) on strings evidence of this quickly surfaces in the exceptionally well-construed Space Controller. Opening familiarly with lively melodies, highlighted by guitar and key interaction, several delightful memories of their sublime Facing Gravity are formed when Eden's charismatic time-unaffected vocals enter the stage with spoken and sung parts. This image grows in vision and sound shortly after when precision interplay and an acceleration by Tiber in Eloy style blasts melodies into an energetic passage.
The delightful uptempo rocker Help Me, the very first song the band composed after their reunion and that also sees them reunite with Toni "Moff" Mollo, follows suit. The song is a tad less catchy and vigorously uplifting than their previous collaboration All My Ways from 1992, and Mollo's pinched vocals do take some adjustment on my part. But once again, Chandelier show their composing ability with a song that shows a clear beginning and end. In the middle it converges through various alternating atmospheres that thrive from lush instrumentation including delightful Hammond organ and a gorgeous solo by Lang.
In the epic Spring, Chandelier most triumphantly return to true form. At first this wonderful song somewhat reminds me of their album Pure. In light of the song's magnificent build-up with exemplary bass, intricate keys accents (headphones advised!) and moving guitar solo, this however slowly develops into memories of Facing Gravity again. Especially when piano guide the melodies into another beautiful solo by Lang. Hopefully this song will be a fixed feature in their upcoming live sets. To me, this album highlight shares a rivalling likeness to beautiful iconic songs such as Cuckoo, Wash & Go and Glimpse Of Home.
A song almost destined to become a part of their set-list is In Between which, placed perfectly in the middle of the album, stands strong with melancholic camaraderie. With its symphonies of strings by Blömer and slowly intensifying melodies, this linking-arms ballad is undeniably a grand departing sing-along, illuminated by various forms of light. Although in all honesty, the vocal performances of Eden and Moff Mollo here don't fully set my heart on fire.
The catchy pop-prog of Mixed Magnificent Arts however effortlessly does. Tasty and virtuously played keys, a fragile atmospheric bridge, and emotional guitar work from Lang keep neo-prog festivities relentlessly going. After the ecclesiastical beacon of Light, a song written by chamber / orchestral / electronic and multimedia works artist Peter Machajdík, that features spirited harmony vocals between Eden and Mollo, Chandelier round off the album with a successful return to epic song-smithery through the lengthy Forever And A Day.
This sea-worthy composition sets off with an a cappella intro and then smoothly sails onwards with subdued melodies. It is guided by intricate rhythms and elegant splashes of guitar, when Wurlitzer keys and melodies swaying with "shanty" prog come into play. A surprising element touched upon again in harmony by Eden and Mollo later on. This entertaining song offers an adventurous course in neo-prog which is merrily navigated upon with sparkling synths, recurring refrains, and a wonderful guitar solo. Finally, a lyrical salute to the preceding Light is presented, after which melodies peacefully drift away.
In summary, We Can Fly, self-released and suitably mixed and recorded by Lang and Riemer, boasts excellent musicianship and song constructions. Chandelier reinstate many of their unique and magical neo-progressive values they so unfortunately abandoned by the time Timecode was released. It's less coherent from a musical point of view, but in overall comparison I prefer it nonetheless and find it a solid and successful comeback album. To existing fans it comes highly recommended. It offers a fine place to start for those still unacquainted to the band. Here's to a long flight!