Apogee — Through The Gate
Apogee, the brainchild of the talented multi-instrumentalist Arne Schäfer, has returned with its latest offering, Through The Gate. As the twelfth instalment in Apogee's discography, this album showcases Schäfer's musical prowess and unique approach to progressive rock. However, it also contains certain elements that might pose a challenge for long-time fans, particularly when it comes to the vocal delivery.
Through The Gate continues Apogee's tradition of intricate compositions, elaborate arrangements, and a fusion of various progressive rock sub-genres. Fans familiar with Apogee's earlier albums will recognise Schäfer's signature blend of melodic hooks, complex time signatures, and masterful instrumentation. However, there's a notable shift in tone and atmosphere with this release. The album feels more introspective, weaving a sonic narrative that invites listeners on a journey through the intricacies of Schäfer's mind. To quote Arne from his release notes, the musical spectrum also includes influences from classical, folk rock / heavy rock, together with some jazz influences woven into the title track. As with all the albums released under the Apogee moniker, all but one of the 12 albums have 6 songs or fewer, with some only having 3. Each album is therefore enhanced with long epic tales of adventure that really shine on multiple levels and reinforce Arne's reputation for quality and consistency.
I have been a loyal fan of both Apogee and his other project, Versus X since 1991 and have greatly admired the complexity and finesse of just about all of his / their albums. My main gripe however, will be the same one that keeps raising its ugly head every time as it does with many other fans. Arne Schäfer's vocals on Through The Gate may be divisive among the fan base and his delivery, though emotive and heartfelt, lacks the polished finesse that some listeners might expect. The raw, unfiltered nature of his vocals may prove challenging for those accustomed to the pristine, soaring voices commonly associated with progressive rock. I have noticed on a few web-sites, the term being touted that the vocals possess a "Hammillian" trait. While I recognise the connection with Peter Hammill from Van Der Graaf Generator fame, I feel Pete's vocal delivery is far more polished and digestible compared to Arne's which often sound flat, out of tune and otherwise unpleasant.
I often rate the albums equally well and for the most part, their collective output is certainly deserving of a wider audience. However, there can be no escaping the fact that for many fans, they could easily feel short-changed by the substandard vocals. Considering this issue has been mentioned so many times within other reviews and by so many people, this begs the question as to why Arne has not taken notice of such comments and acted accordingly, releasing some new music with a guest vocalist, or two even.
As I don't believe that Apogee play live very much, if at all, the additional cost to bring a lesser known but talented younger vocalist to join in a new studio project could easily be rewarded with additional album sales in the future. Such a singer need not be added permanently to the payroll so this manoeuvre might be all that is required to attract new fans or help reunite older ones back into the fold. Requesting the record buying public to continue listening to great music spoiled by such lack lustre vocals, wears out over time and begs the question, How much more of this should we endure? I know I am feeling a little more ambivalent after each new release as each one possesses the same predictable let down with the vocals.
One could argue that introducing a dedicated vocalist might enhance the overall appeal of Apogee's music. A vocalist with a wider range and a more refined technique could complement Schäfer's instrumental prowess, creating a harmonious balance between the complex instrumentation and the vocal elements. This change might broaden Apogee's audience and make the music more accessible to those who find Schäfer's vocal style an acquired taste. Surely there must be a plethora of vocalists all waiting in the wings and yearning for that break-through that might be available by working collaboratively with someone such as Arne Schäfer whose pedigree and calibre of musical skills are beyond reproach.
Versus X, the other side of Arne's musical resume, provides an interesting point of reference when exploring Through The Gate. While both projects share a penchant for intricate compositions and experimental soundscapes, their approaches differ. Versus X benefits greatly by being very much a collaborative effort with all the musicians onboard contributing significantly to the overall sound. That is not evident with Apogee's music as the only other contributor to this album is supplied by drummer, Eberhard Graef. Arne is responsible for all keyboards, bass, orchestrations, electric / acoustic guitars, together with lead and backing vocals.
The musicianship on this album however, is exceptional and might even rate as one of Apogee's best efforts to date. With soaring lead breaks, scintillating synthesizer runs and melancholic piano / keyboards, fans must surely be impressed with what is on offer here. Fans of Anthony Kalugen, Karfagen, Sunchild, and Hoggwash could certainly find much to enjoy here, especially with the longer epics that both musicians are renowed for. This is a quality album for sure, especially from an instrumental perspective but with the vocal caveat mentioned earlier.
Kevan Furbank — 1972: When Progressive Rock Ruled The World
Besides the popular Decades and On Track... series, Sonicbond offers a steadily growing series of books that cover a variety of musical related topics. A recent example being DPRP's own Geoffrey Feakes' book 1973: The Golden Year Of Progressive Rock. One of the latest additions to this 'yet to be named' history series is Kevan Furbank's 1972: When Progressive Rock Ruled The World.
Whether progressive rock actually ruled the world in 1972 is open for discussion. But after Furbank's introduction it quickly dawns that 1972 was indeed a brilliant transition year with many iconic albums to be found from all over the world. And with a touch of imagination one can almost identify to the words of Furbank that if you happened to show your appreciation by carrying a copy of Close To The Edge under your arm whilst walking on the street, you would blend in near perfectly to the environment.
One album short of (numeral) perfection, Furbank for his fourth Sonicbond book has chosen 22 groundbreaking albums to act as evidence for his appeal. And not wasting much time he instantly plays various trump cards in form of timeless testimonies by aforementioned Yes, Jethro Tull (Thick As A Brick), Genesis (Foxtrot) and ELP's Trilogy. This first strike most definitely speaks in Furbank's favour because these iconic albums not only managed to shape the year 1972, but simultaneously paved the way for a brilliantly bright future of progressive rock that still massively resonates today.
His next given example is Pink Floyd's Obscured By Clouds, which fully darkened by its follow up is less impressive as a 1972 witness. But he quickly responds with two splendid Gentle Giant entries (Three Friends, Octopus), which combined with the previously hailed albums makes it hard to ignore the amount of majorly influential and inventively crafted albums released during this period in time.
Showcasing how quick prog spread itself around the globe Furbank also fully justified includes two albums each by Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso in his narrative, and focuses on albums by Focus, The Strawbs, Frank Zappa and Aphrodite's Child. The latter a welcomed ear-opening submission which I in admittance so far always neglected, but based on Furbank's praising words must check out.
Speaking of words, Furbank's engaging writing style shows passionate well-chosen vocabulary, is easy to read, and beautifully descriptive in nature. This fully benefits each album covered and gives excellent reading appeal to his interchangeable stories. For in similar experience to Feakes' I didn't read the book from start to finish, but finished it in one go as I journeyed my way through chapters, thereby choosing favourite albums first (Santana's Caravanserai) before I ventured into the relatively unknown with bands like Neu!, Can and Curved Air.
A fine feature within all of these chapters is Furbank's to the point "Story So Far" inclusions, before he surgically analysis the various aspects of albums and their corresponding music. Equally fine is the humour with which these elaborations are laced, sometimes resulting in welled up tears of laughter when a view/comment is inserted that borders on the hilariously funny.
After the last two briefly described efforts of Bo Hansson and Uriah Heep, both giving the impression Furbank has ranked the albums in descending order of favouritism, a detailed sum up of many exceptional albums not selected for evidence is presented. This list of 21 additional albums includes artists like as Nektar, Hawkwind, Renaissance, Caravan and Alquin. As Furbank so truthfully points out I indeed would have swapped several entries and to strengthen his appeal would have submitted an essential clue (IMHO: see video). So here's hoping he will continue to build his engaging case with a sequel based on the wonderful music these albums exhibit.
Taking everything into consideration I for the moment still decide against 1972 to be crowned as the year that prog rock ruled. But judging on this fine and splendidly recommendable read I am fully convinced Furbank's comical word-smithery and well-researched entertaining approach will have many enthusiastic progressive rock readers vote in 1972's favour!
Oslo Tapes — Staring At The Sun Before Goin' Blind
Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Marco Campitelli records as Oslo Tapes. The project is named for his deep love for Norway and its peoples. His fourth album Staring At The Sun Before Goin' Blind is a harmonically rich mix of psyche, post-rock and krautrock with art-rock inflections. It has been produced by Amaury Cambuzat (faUSt, Ulan Bator), who also has co-composer credit with Marco Campitelli.
Helping out Marco on this album are Mauro Spada (bass), Davide Di Virgilio (drums), Stefano Micolucci (bass, upright bass), Federico Sergente (percussion), and Nicola Amici aka Kaouenn (guitars, synths, and percussion). Collectively the music has hints of shoegaze, Radiohead, Spiritualized and stoner psyche in its layers of vocals, guitars and keyboards. It is also imbibed with a Nordic melancholy.
This all makes for interesting listening. The layered density of the music makes up for the mid-paced tempos of most of the material. The opener Gravity is a case in point. A mid-paced metronomic rhythm, layers of keyboards and guitars further lifted by forceful bass playing and nice vocals. Making use of the build and release post-rock template to good effect and with enough variation to make it less predictable.
All the tracks are of this standard but some do go that bit further. Ethereal Song, for instance, has nothing ethereal about its tribal drum pattern, nor Trialogos's Sicker Man's cello, to say nothing of the crashing guitar chords and churning groove. Add in glitchy electronica, synth strings and you have the full package.
There is an intense mix of Kosmische groove avant-dance moves on Reject Yr Regret as it moves from the light to the dark and back again. Dahm Majuri Cipolla, drummer for the Japanese post-rockers MONO, brings a space-rcok edge to the bubbling synths and punchy guitars to Middle Ground.
So all in all, Oslo Tapes' Staring At The Sun Before Goin' Blind pushes the boundaries of the post-rock-kosmische intersection, and as the Oslo Tapes' Bandcamp page states this is music that is "noise and introspection" and so it is. A release to investigate.
Roz Vitalis — Quia Nesciunt Quid Faciunt
Roz Vitalis hail from St. Petersburg and were founded in 2001 as a solo project by keyboarder and composer Ivan Rozmainsky, but quickly developed into a fully-fledged band during the first years of their existence. The band has been fairly active since then, producing a constant string of releases. Quia Nesciunt Quid Faciunt already is their 11th one. Their penultimate studio release The Hidden Man Of The Heart dates back from 2018, however, but the band produced a couple of live albums thereafter. Despite this considerable productivity and continuous coverage on DPRP, Roz Vitalis have never come beyond "the name rings a bell" stage for me yet. I am glad that this review gave me the opportunity to deal with their music intensively for the first time.
I could not find out how stable their line-up was over time, but on this album, it consists, besides Ivan, of Vladimir Semenov Tyan-Shansky (acoustic & electric guitars), Vladislav Korotkikh (whistle, flutes), Ruslan Kirillov (bass guitar), and Evgeny Trefilov (drums, keyboards), the latter one having left the band after recording and prior to this album being published. The core band is supported by a number of guest musicians, notably Alexey Gorshkov on trumpets, brought into play efficiently on various occasions.
The title of this release, Quia Nesciunt Quid Faciunt, translates to "For they not know what they do" and can be interpreted as the Latin version of a part of Luke 23:34, originally written down in the Greek language, and supposed to be among the last words spoken by Jesus Christ on the cross. Merely looking at the titles of each track and lacking any hint from the (non-existing) lyrics, I was not able to establish any religious context, though. This may create some room for speculation (or not?) as to whom this statement may have been directed at, but of course it is up to each listener to draw his/her own conclusions and to form an opinion. Strikingly (or not?), the first part of this bible verse ("Father, forgive them") does not appear in this title.
Forming an opinion on Roz Vitalis' music is not so trivial, though. Let us start with the obvious: the music is instrumental. Also, relatively easy to figure out: keyboards have a slight musical predominance, classical song structures are non-existent. Certain hooks are played repeatedly, taken up and transformed by various instruments. Melodic moments are often provided by flutes and the trumpet. The songs have an inherent complexity, with rhythmic structures not always being clearly recognisable. Breaks and changes of tempo, and mood occur unexpectedly, at points in time when (or intentionally before) the listeners may have got used to a specific melodic pattern. The music is experimental at times but does not lack a melodious basic mood. Upbeat moments are scarce, though, and especially the softer parts display a feeling of melancholy and darkness, when the flute and especially the trumpet assume the soloing. Daybreaking, Se Caminiamo Nella Luce, and parts of Premonition are the best representatives of the aforesaid. For me, those are the most atmospheric, meditative, and strongest parts on this release, together with the catchy opener Bait Of Success.
What does all this mean for categorising Roz Vitalis' music with the much-used classifications of prog rock? Even if these are not always very meaningful and are subject to subjective perception, I find myself using them: avant-garde, chamber-prog with Canterbury elements, neo-prog, symphonic, and RIO snippets, plus even some jazzy elements. This music is a little bit of everything and not really much of anything - so far, a negative sounding conclusion. It is varied, surprising, atmospheric, technical, and unusual. I tend towards this positive interpretation, but I deny myself drawing comparisons with other band's music in this review.
Even if it is written here and there that progressive rock only plays a comparatively minor role in the overall music spectrum, there are many subtypes of this musical style and countless bands that can be categorised as belonging to it. Given the abundance of releases, I can therefore imagine that some readers hope that a review will give them a quick indication of whether the music on the album corresponds to their individual preferences - and whether they should lend a closer ear to the respective album. With regard to the music of Roz Vitalis, I am not sure whether I can fulfil this hope. As already mentioned, their sound does not fall into a specific prog rock category and is nothing that can be pigeonholed easily. This by itself is not to be criticised, quite the contrary. But regardless of all the variety, all the unexpected twists and turns, all the changes of tempo, beat, and mood, I could not help but get the impression that the themes within each song sometimes seemed to be pieced together without a clearly recognisable musical thread. Also, in comparing this release with The Hidden Man Of The Heart, the songs here and there sounded somewhat "unaccomplished" to me in terms of arrangements, production, and mixing. Maybe that simply is an element of Roz Vitalis' musical style. In any case, I have no idea of the circumstances under which the band recorded and produced this album.
All this does not prevent me, however, from acknowledging that Roz Vitalis are capable and talented musicians. Unlike the addressees of their message, they know what they do, and have delivered an ambitious, challenging, varied, and unconforming work of instrumental prog rock which will please listeners not looking for predictable run-of-the-mill structures and melodies. I admit that I prefer a bit more of catchiness and accessibility (and emotional vocals), but Roz Vitalis certainly have enlarged my spectrum of prog and I will keep a closer ear on that band with respect to further things to come.
Syndone — Dirty Thirty
After a somewhat shaky start in 1992 and the release of 2 underwhelming albums, Nik Comoglio (composition, orchestration, hammond, moog, mellotron, keyboards), put the band on hiatus for a while until 2010 which saw the release of the band's best effort at the time with an album that seemed to set the standard for many of their offerings to follow.
Every 2 years or so thereafter, the band produced a variety of well composed, brilliantly executed and musically eclectic albums that ticked a lot of boxes for many fans of the RPI genre. Now with their 9th official release, I see a continuation of much of what has gone before but with a slight twist here and there.
Delicate piano often introduces each piece but, as with any competent composer, Nik has engaged the services of his fellow musicians to help supercharge those songs whereby the arrangements have been cranked up a notch or two to produce a multi faceted album that hits hard on many levels. Their main vocalist, (Riccardo Ruggeri), has been with the band since 2010's Melapesante's release. Between Nik's keyboard and compositional skills together with Riccardo's vocal gyrations, I am sometimes hearing a more modern, progressive sounding variation of Atomic Rooster.
Riccardo certainly has the perfect theatrical style of voice suited to Nik's compositions as he weaves his way through each song with impeccable emotional control and force. At times, he sounds slightly similar to Freddie Mercury, while on some tracks, I detected a slight similarity to Shirley Strachan of Skyhooks' fame.
The complexity of the music is also matched by the outstanding ability of each of the musicians as they certainly know their instruments backwards. Their drummer, (Ciro Lavarone) provides some interesting fills from time to time while Simone Rubinato delivers plentiful grinding bass when required. The music possess a smorgasbord of varieties that should appeal on a number of levels. From highly theatrical pieces to grinding rockers, Syndone have the chops to impress right from the get go. From soft, introspective sections to the more challenging, symphonic excursions, the experience is quite engaging.
Unfortunately, the band don't appear to have updated their media information as I could not find any mention of their latest album on Spotify (as of December 2023) nor any mention on YouTube. Additionally, I have not been provided with any digital information by way of lyric sheets, covers or other press information. Perhaps they need to give some more attention to this crucial area.
Z Machine — Merging Worlds
Z Machine are from Swansea in South Wales. The vitality that they generate in their rousing sax and guitar led jazz-rock, echoes the vigour of the thrusting waves, which break upon the headland which surrounds Swansea's Mumbles lighthouse.
Heavy riffs, rumbling bass lines, aggressive saxophone bursts and chugging guitar parts all have a part to play in creating the raucous and powerful energy that is apparent in much of Merging Worlds.
There are many occasions during the album, when Z Machine's performance has a gripping muscular appeal. It is not so much, the quality of the playing, nor the quality of the compositions that have the most significant impact, rather, it is something much more visceral; something that rouses and ignites the primeval senses that lie beneath.
The album contains six tightly woven compositions which are interspersed with several ambient interludes. I can understand why the band decided upon this format, as it certainly offers a contrast from the fiery full throttle effects of most of the tunes.
However, after a few plays I quickly skipped these tracks. The sound effects and various noises and field recordings of voices, dogs and thunder soon began to grate. A few gentler tunes would have done the job equally well, and may well have enhanced the album.
Time spent in the exciting and forceful company of Merging Worlds passes quickly. Despite each of the major tunes starting in a similar way, with a prominent drum beat, there were lots of interesting aspects in each tune to keep me fully engaged.
Saxophonist Rob Harrison has a prominent role to play in the album's success. The use of two guitarists in the band also works well. I had fun following the work of Gareth Piper and Owen Rosser in tunes such as Spacewalk where the guitarists alternate between two channels.
There are numerous call and response passages, the one featuring the Sax and the guitar in Synoceratus bites particularly hard.
Synoceratus has rather a different vibe to the other pieces. It features flute in its early stages and its slow tempo almost bluesy call and response interlude gives it yet another set of colours. However, like the other major tunes, much of this track simply drips with sweat and brawny riff filled energy.
Whilst, the tunes are compelling in their limb rattling intensity, their raw aggression and lack of subtlety can be a tad overwhelming. Nevertheless, Z Machine are a band that would no doubt be wonderful in a live setting.
Bonus Eruptus would be a magnificent opening number. It is probably the best tune of the album. Some characteristics of it made me think of Frank Zappa's Hot Rats era. The boisterous eruptions of the sax also had me drawing comparisons with the ferocious approach Ron Aspery had to his instrument in Back Door's debut.
There is also some incredible sax spitting in Big Old Hen. The piece begins with a heavy stop start groove that throws out reedy bursts and metallic guitar shards in all directions. It even has a section that is heavily influenced by early King Crimson. Later there is a pleasant flute led interlude complete with a Carlos Santana style guitar solo.
Once the resonance of the fluid guitar tones recede, the music steams, boils, spits, and spills over as the sax emerges once again. It strides with purpose, then is caught in an exchange of blows with the bass, drums, and guitars. Rumbling, howls, and sax growls fill the spaces and rattle like a groaning monster caught in a riff-heavy, cacophonous death dance.
On the other hand, Myrtle the Turtle flattered to deceive. After a few plays I decided that its red face puffing and blowing was not for me. Even its fade to grey sound effects ending was unable to remedy its total lack of subtlety. On reflection, it is not a poor track, it just did not appeal to me.
I enjoyed many aspects of Z. Machine's Merging Worlds. It will be interesting to see how their sound progresses.
There is lots to admire about Z. Machine's approach. The relentless riffs that are a feature of their compositions are certainly infectious and memorable. I will certainly play many of the tracks of this album again.