Album Reviews

Issue 2024-021

Aliènor — The Raven

Aliènor - The Raven
The Raven (7:49), Circle Of Live (6.15), Inescapable (4:22), Back From Eternity (5:27), Pray For Silence (6:28), Evil Raising (7:29), Salam (Peace) (4:16), Judgement Day (5:53)
Thomas Otten

"Better late than never" — this may have been the motto and the motivation for Marburg (Germany)-based Eleonore Pongratz. Born in 1953, she made her starting experience in prog/hard rock music between 1978 and 1982, when she was the keyboard player of the German band Softeis, which she released two albums with. Thereafter, she abandoned her music career and pursued other life plans. However, she couldn't seem to let go of music completely, so after her retirement she decided to continue her musical career and to form a band of like-minded people. That band project, however, turned out to be easier said than done. Having had no (or no satisfying) reactions to her requests, she opted for creating her own online project under the name of Aliènor in 2021. Her website gives an interesting and in-depth insight of the "making-of"-process of The Raven. Someone like me, who used to (and still sometimes does) play analogue keyboards but does not have the slightest clue of nowadays digital producing and composing possibilities, couldn't help but be amazed when going through the descriptions of the various stages of the project. Apparently, Eleonore started the entire process in a self-educated manner, something that I find even more astonishing and that has my full respect.

And the process proved to be lengthy and cumbersome. Once the framework was in place, Eleonore recruited musicians from all over the world via a freelance platform to have more vocals, guitars, bass, violin, and drums with the music. Altogether, 12 musicians from 11 countries, many of them assuming the vocals (did not find out who sings on which track, though), were involved. Mixing and mastering finally was done by a professional. Hence, it is fair to say that Aliènor is not a band, but the ambitious project of a single musician, maybe to fulfil a life-long dream. Eleonore wrote all the music, plays keyboards and is responsible for the lyrics. It's amazing what can be done to realise an album these days. I think I need to revise my idea that musicians often physically go into the studio together to record an album.

Given the aforesaid, one is inclined to come to the conclusion with respect to the music on The Raven that if an artist grew up with, played and was influenced by progressive rock from the seventies/eighties, then this must be reflected in her work. And indeed, some similarities with bands that were active and known during that period and thereafter notably in Germany can't be denied. I hear influences from Ramses, the rockier parts of Eloy, the bombast of Flaming Bess, the keyboards-drenched music by Choice, and Epidaurus, the melodic sound of Swiss bands such as Irrwisch, Deyss, and Clepsydra, the organ playing style of Dorothea Raukes from Streetmark - many (but not all) of them unfortunately having fallen into oblivion. But Aliènor's music doesn't just sound retro and like a stereotype of that time, no, it seems to have fallen out of time in the positive sense that it simply defies all current trends. It becomes evident that Eleonore Pongratz has realised the type of music that she wanted: hard rock sounding with symphonic prog elements, doses of art-rock, with keyboards which have found a good balance between both being in the foreground and putting themselves at the service of guitars and the rhythm section.

Common to almost all the songs is a spacy and electronic music sounding intro (the one from the title track The Raven even reminds me of Jean-Michel Jarre), before either keyboards or heavy riffing guitars take the lead. The vocal parts in my opinion suffer a bit from the fact that various singers feature on this album. That slightly comes at the expense of coherence and homogeneity, but certainly provides for variety and flexibility. The songs are arranged in a way to come across dense and compact, but still offer some room for soloing both from guitar (more often according to my impression) and keyboards. All in all, they are not unduly complex, but varied enough the keep the listeners' attention focussed.

The first two tracks are the strongest ones on this release to my ears. After its electronic music intro, The Raven offers melodic sounding organ accompanied by acoustic guitars, both dramatic, and melancholic female vocals, alternating punchy, and catchy synthesizer and guitar soloing, lots of variety and a sophisticated arrangement to highlight prog elements. Having listened to that track as a "teaser", it became clear that I wanted to review this album. The instrumental Circle Of Life thereafter scores with some catchy hooks, and especially its spacy, sad, and melodic sounding violin against a fierce rhythm section, a bit reminiscent of Eddie Jobson, and his band UK.

The songs that follow do their best to live up to the high expectations that have been fuelled by the two inaugurating tracks. Inescapable for instance is a melodic hard rock/AOR song, where the keyboards take a step back to let the guitar do its duties. Pray For Silence perfectly translates, by alternating hard rock and spacy sequences, how information, emotions, expectations, and obligations beating down on us make someone pray for silence which is felt soothing and relieving. Evil Raising, musically very much sounding like Eloy, lyrically deals with the rising of the Third Reich, and displays a gloomy, distressing atmosphere, which builds up and intensifies as the song progresses - in keeping with the topic.

Given Eleonore's personal background and the circumstances under which this album was realised, the outcome definitely is worthwhile to be given a closer attention. Recommended not only to prog rock lovers having an affinity with those "relics from the past" mentioned above, but to everyone looking for varied, original, accessible, easy-to-digest prog rock with harder edges, symphonic and spacy elements. Was The Raven a flash in the pan or are we likely to hear more from Aliènor because her appetite has been whetted to keep on going? At least mine has. Time will tell...

Benjamin Croft — We Are Here To Help

Benjamin Croft - We Are Here To Help
The Age Of Magrathea (7:14), We Are Here To Help (5:09), You Made Me Miss (6:48), (Caught In The Flypaper (6:14), Same Siders (5:06), Wrestling With Plato (6:49), Lower Moat Manor (4:50), She Flies Softly On (5:41),
Greg Cummins

Confession time! Benjamin Croft is yet another musician that I had not heard about until his latest album was up for review. Reading the promotional material that accompanied the release I noticed a slew of well known and highly regarded guest musicians who had made many contributions to the 8 tracks that comprise Ben's 3rd album. Apart from Ben who is responsible for all keyboards and compositions, he is joined by Jeff Scott Soto (vocals), Lynsey Ward (vocals), Greg Howe, Mike Stern, Per Nilsson, Carter Arrington and Frank Gambale (guitars), Billy Sheehan, Stu Hamm, Dave Marks and Flo Moore (bass), along with Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann (drums). To be able to draw upon such luminaries within the prog rock industry to help with such a project is testament to how highly they must feel towards Ben as a person and as a musician. Needless to say, the quality of playing, compositions and cohesion on this album is exceptionally tight.

Ben has been quoted as stating his influences and favourite bands include Frank Zappa, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, UK., Weather Report, Return To Forever, Allan Holdsworth, ELP, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Kate Bush and classical composers such as Shostokovich, Bach & Bartok. You can detect these influences in just about all the songs on the album, although I would also add David Sancious (as you might hear on his excellent Transformation album from 1976) along with the odd snippet from none other than keyboard legend, Jan Hammer. Ben's keyboard skills are incredibly inventive and professional and his use of the synthesizer on many songs here will leave you truly inspired. If you were ever motivated to learn how to play such a compelling instrument, now would be the perfect time to simply give up. Use that spare time wisely to invest in albums such as this and just leave it to the experts.

Trust me, learning to play the synth requires a lot of work along with having an innate ability with either piano or organ as beginner instruments. When I gave up playing (drums mostly), professionally, I sold all of my equipment and plowed all the proceeds into buying progressive rock / jazz fusion records as I determined I was going to enjoy far more good music that way rather than trying to find other like-minded musicians who wanted to play the sort of music I wanted to. Admittedly, I grew up on a steady diet of Genesis, Kansas, Yes, King Crimson, Curved Air, Gentle Giant, PFM, Return To Forever, Jean Luc Ponty etc so there was no way my old bandmates could achieve that level of musical creativity, despite their own individual talents. Needless to say, I never looked back as I derived untold amounts of pleasure listening to such magic music as was available in spades during the 70s.

With such a formidable line-up of talent on the album you would think that the basis of the music would fall within the jazz fusion sector. While there are certainly some fully blown fusion pieces, the album is also blessed with some highly melodic and powerfully relevant vocal tracks courtesy of Jeff Scott Soto, (We Are Here To Help), (She Flies Softly On), and Lynsey Ward (Caught In The Flypaper), (Wrestling With Plato), who sounds so close to Kate Bush at times, you can sense the affinity Ben must have for her style. Tony Banks (Genesis), Ton Scherpenzeel (Kayak) and Pete Bardens (Camel) would be rightfully considered amongst the most melodic and competent keyboard players for most of their career. Whilst Ben's songwriting skills are infused with jazz fusion motifs more often that what you might hear with straight progressive rock, that is not to say he does not possess any melody with his music. It is certainly evident throughout many of his songs and just helps to complete a superb palette of sounds he is able to conjure up for his audience.

16 different keyboard instruments have been used on these tracks including Minimoog, ARP Odyssey, Fender Rhodes, Prophet 10, Yamaha CS80, Roland Jupiter 8, Hammond B3/C3, Oberheim OB-X, Mellotron M4000 and many others. Needless to say if you are a keyboard fanatic like myself, you'll be in seventh heaven when you hear some of the wizardry at play. They don't come much better than this.

So we have a highly professional album that mixes things up a lot with plenty of progressive rock riffs, jazz fusion embellishments, stunning vocals on those songs that feature lyrics along with a highly gifted songwriter and composer. Needless to say, I can see this ridiculously talented man will find himself a household name in the not too distant future. Run, don't walk and order a copy today. The album, which was mixed at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios by Stephen W Tayler (Kate Bush, Rush) and mastered at AIR Studios by Barry Grint (David Bowie, Prince), is scheduled for release on 3rd May 2024.

This stunningly clever album will certainly be in my top 10 for the year!

The Gatekeepers — The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers - The Gatekeepers
Butterflies (2:33), I Like the Strange Things (3:49), A Promising Direction (2:57), Who Are the Gatekeepers? (3:02), The Professional (5:05), Ignorance (0:13), The Patron (3:39), Anonymity (0:13), The Pundit (3:27), I Think I Like the Strange Things? (1:36), Obscurity (0:16), The Algorithm (3:48), A Compromising Direction (3:15), All The Way To The Bank (4:09), I Like The Normal Things (4:09), All The Way To The Bank (Remix) (4:15), The Professional (Seen It All Mix) (4:23), Tight Armhole (The Algorithm Remix) (3:27), The Patron (Cattle Baron Mix) (3:46)
Sergey Nikulichev

How many similarities can you, dear readers, find between The Residents and projects like Ayreon? Very few of them and very superficial ones, probably. This seems almost like two poles of musical direction, to some extent. Well, at least before 2022 – because in 2022 one chunk of common ground emerged, actually. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Gatekeepers, a conceptual musical project with weird, but coherent storytelling and multiple guests – based on avant-garde music instead of retro-rock extravaganza. The cover of the album is wittingly made as a cartoon plate, so here's a comics analogy for you: to Ayreon's Superman The Gatekeepers are sort of a Bizarro character, doing everything that Superman does but with an insane twist. And logically, while Arjen's project features big names of rock / prog, the more obscure guests are present here – the better!

Let's have a quick glance at these guests:

  • Shawn Phillips, a musician with a prominent career in folk and jazz since the early 70-ies
  • Elaine di Falco, Deborah Perry and Bob Drake (Thinking Plague)
  • Amy Denio (multiple projects, I know her from her involvement with The Science Group)
  • Dan Britton (mastermind behind Deluge Grander & Birds & Buildings)
  • Mont Campbell (Egg, National Health)
  • Duncan Mackay (Cockney Rebel, 10cc)
  • Matthew Parmenter (Discipline and solo – no vocals this time, but Matthew renders his skills as a violin player here)
  • The Residents
  • Morgan Agren (Kaipa, The Tangent, Karmakanic) on the drums etc.

The "dark Arjen" behind the curtains of this avant-musical is Alex Wroten, LA-based composer and film director. During the first decade of this century he also released a quartet of solo CDs, that I am not familiar with, unfortunately. Now after a lengthy silence he comes with revenge and Zappaesque fun to rejoice all the lovers of atonal experiments and avant-pop. Apart from Zappa, who is influence-number-one, undoubtedly, bands like Moetar, Bent Knee and The Wrong Object come to mind when listening to The Gatekeepers, with a pinch of The Beatles' / 60-ies acid-folk psychedelia thrown in. The compositions are neither as obscure as in Thinking Plague, nor as epic as in Magma, leaning somewhat towards the cabaret and pin-up aesthetics. Lyrically, the concept album deals – rather unsurprisingly – with apologetics of weird art, weird taste in music and free, absurdist thinking as opposed to the commercial and patterns-friendly products of quasi artists.

The album is extremely well recorded – no wonder, since Alex has profound knowledge of cinematic sound, which he carefully recreated here. Without the banal wall-of-sound effects and lo-fi cacophony of the underground scene – he made all the compositions sound rich & deep. One can easily distinguish between the strings, brass sections and percussion – no matter which track to jump to, and most of the compositions have their own, distinguishable sound palette – which is a breath of fresh air, compared to your-usual-generic-prog-metal albums recorded on one array of presets.

There's one weakness in The Gatekeepers and the hint lies precisely on the surface, in the project's name. The music is made to please the avant-fans and does not really care if the newcomers like it. If you love avant-pop, acid folk and cinematic harmonies of the first half of the XX century, you'll find plenty to enjoy here. If you are not yet into such stuff and looking for an “entry ticket” to try something more daring, it's better to seek less odd material. This record is complex, very multi-faceted, not-for-everyone and gloatingly proud of it.

Neil Howell — The Renaissance Is Over

Neil Howell - The Renaissance Is Over
The Height Of Civilization (8:25), Second Choice (4:36), Better Luck Next Time (5:20), Metal Head (5:06), The Renaissance Is Over (10:37), When The Iron Is Hot (4:47), It Will Happen To You (6:48), Past Lives (10:05)
Jerry van Kooten

When I reviewed his previous release, The Wasteland, I found out Neil Howell is a very active musician. So I am not surprised that one year later we can welcome his latest release, The Renaissance Is Over.

Multi-instrumentalist but I guess guitarist at heart, we get another riff-laden album that sounds a little heavier in the heavy sections than before. Neil is a prog metal musician. There is a lot going on to wrap your ears and brains around, so it is challenging.

A change is that there are several sections with metal grunts. Not my favourite type of vocals, but they do work well where they are used. In Metal Head for example, the most extreme metal track with drum blasts and high-speed tempo. And still, so many breaks and changes — fast to slower, back again, and fast to in-your-face metal. The melodic lead guitar playing is adding that extra layer. Alternating the grunts with his normal voice is a great touch. This track is the one that puts the widest grin on my face from pure joy listening to it.

Although it's easy to lose oneself in the technical side of prog metal, the emotional element remains an important one in Howell's music. In that sense he shares the approach that I also hear in Dreamwalkers Inc.

The first half of the title track is slower that with the keyboards and especially vocal lines remind me of Timothy Pure, who although nowhere near metal, were also very focused on the effects of the intense emotional layers in their music. Although the track goes into real metal after that for a while, you still feel the heart and soul that went into the music, the bluesy background on which this is built. This is more prominent in the piano / guitar part following it, but it is mainly omnipresent.

The excellent album closer, Past Lives, is probably the most progressive in a non-metal way. The slow melancholic start has Howell's bluesy voice. The production shines brightest here. The warmth of the guitar and piano have been captured beautifully. The drums, however, sound a bit dry, I guess those were programmed. A great bridge to the heavy part that shows another side of his voice. Powerful without sounding strained. Much nicer to listen to than the, IMHO, over-hyped Chris Cornell. Epic but not in the typical epic symphonic metal way. Another reflective bit making it a bit darker, after which the anger is let go again with a guitar solo that is both melodic and metal.

When The Iron Is Hot needs a special mention as it is an instrumental and more experimental track, exploring slightly different elements making it perfect as the soundtrack for a scene in a science fiction film. Part of this spills over into It Will Happen To You, which is another diverse track. Is this a preview on what to expect on his next album?

I love Howell's approach to prog metal. While the progressive riffing is not unique, the warmth in his playing and his voice are a very welcome change to an otherwise more tech-focused world. Creative songwriting and changes in abundance, there is a lot to enjoy here.

When you buy the album on Bandcamp you can download the files and get a bonus track: The Last Gap Of Generation X (4:44). Anger is heard in a Rage Against The Machine or System Of A Down style mixed with melodic sections again like Timothy Pure — unexpected and lovely to hear.

Last Ark Out — Lift

Last Ark Out - Lift
Brackish (5:02), Dyab (4:51), Late To The Game (3:54), Libra (6:52), Scorpio (5:10), Song Needs A Title (5:03), It's That Dream Again (3:53)
Martin Burns

Vancouver-based instrumental five-piece Last Ark Out have released their second album of jazz-fusion with a progressive and symphonic rock edge. Lift follows on, after a fair wait, from 2017's full-length debut Wake. The music on Lift is beautifully produced and mixed, so every detail is pin sharp, and very enjoyable.

The album is introduced with the solo drums of Colin Parker. Brackish then develops quickly as Jeff Gammon's slinky bass comes in and, guest musician, Sasha Berliner adds her wonderful synth vibes. The synth vibraphone solos gives the track a winding and beguiling melodic pwer. This is a marvellously serpantine fusion-prog tune.

Featuring Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy) on drums and more lithe funky bass, Dyab, sees guitarist Arthur Pascau Smith and the alto saxophone of Justin Gorrie (also plays guitar and EMEO digital sax on the album) shine. Smith's guitar solo at the machine head end of the fret board makes for an unusual sound, sidestepping convention. Packing a lot into this track but never letting it get messy lets them include a squelchy synth solo from keyboardist James Huumo. Funky fusion at its ingenious best.

Last Ark Out use a wide pallet of instrumental colour to further enhance this collection of fusion-prog crackers. An early Weather Report feel feeds the funk on Late To The Game with its syncopated drums and upbeat melody. Wayne Shorter informs the tenor sax solo of Hailey Niswanger on Libra and her clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute wind arrangement gives this atmospheric ballad a mini Maria Schneider Orchestra big-band like scope.

Guitars lead the uptempo Scorpio mixing a questing forward momentum with breath regaining pauses. Another super ballad follows in the form of Song Needs A Title with Allison Au's delicious heartbreaking alto sax melody a complete winner for me.

It is just Last Ark Out by themselves for the closer It's That Dream Again, and here they flex their progressive muscles mixing in Radiohead syle alt-rock inflections to its lovely tune.

Last Ark Out's Lift has been a sumptuous discovery. The only complaint I have is the rather short overall running time, but don't let that put you off this groove laden and swaggeringly tuneful collection.

Regna — Meridian

Regna - Meridian
Meridian: Black Crows (4:24), Collapse (in Technicolor) (3:48), Awake Again (7:14), Coda (2:06)
Jan Buddenberg

Since joining DPRP my inner prog radar has been in constant discovery mode. I hope by prog this setting will never malfunction, for over the years I made many delightful finds. A most recent one being the full length 2023 debut Cinema (review to follow) by Barcelona based Regna, which caught my eyes and ears during a Bandcamp Friday sweep earlier this year. The here reviewed Meridian, a conceptual suite in four acts that captures the evolution in feelings of loss, anger and uncertainty which leads into a world of estrangement and desertion, is their first ever EP from 2015.

Featuring a line-up consisting out of Alejandro Domínguez (guitar), Xavier Martínez (guitar), Arturo García (bass), Miquel González (keyboards), Marc Illa (vocals), and Eric Lavado (drums) Meridian on a whole offers brightness in ideas and a well-thought-out concept with lots of mood swings and great harmonious executions focussed on melody.

This all starts with the shady Black Crows which in its Mellotron warmed acoustic opening reminds of Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven. Just before stepping on the first imaginative stair step the song's melodies then however smoothly traverse into a direction of subdued and mellow paced Wishbone Ash styled classic rock with graciously flowing guitar melodies complemented by melancholic sadness of vocals.

The suite, in line with mood of the story, seamlessly glides onwards into the instrumental Collapse (in Technicolor) where dynamic heavy prog designs accompanied by rhythmic dexterity and eerie otherworldly synths evolves into vibrantly melodic and tunefully played classical themes. Captured in a warm vintage sound this excellent psychedelic second act continues to impress with exciting gamely interplay and after a delightful touch of fuzzy bass dashes onwards with contagious synth virtuosity akin Mental Fracture into third act Awake Again.

This EP highlight wakes up in calming comfort of returning Mellotron, which in play and atmosphere reflects mid 70s Rush. The song gradually starts to build uplifting momentum with subtlety and harmonically tight melodies that brings visions of Tritop. Following an exciting instrumental passage formulated in lush vintage keys and driving all around play that brings Nuova Era to mind, this delightful energetic composition finally rushes into a splendidly arranged whirlpool of psychedelic guitar and ELP. It ultimately appeases into the soothing Coda in which tangible voiced sadness and mournfully recurring themes satisfyingly round off Regna's concept full circle.

Beautifully capable in transporting the glorious nostalgic progressive past into a thrilling contemporary future Regna's first step on the prog ladder bursts with potential and proves to be a very recommendable effort.

No longer available in physical form Meridian is now available at the band's Bandcamp page at a "Name Your Price" offer. My simple advice therefore is to head on over and give this young band your full support. Don't forget to pick up a physical copy of Cinema while you're at it, because this most excellent debut fully delivers on Regna's promise!

Album Reviews