Album Reviews

Issue 2024-029

Echo Splinter — The Last Stand

Echo Splinter - The Last Stand
Armageddon (7:44), Footsteps On The Sun (3:30), Draw the Line (5:38), Raised Hopes (4:16), Last Stand (4:48), Overture: Weight of the World (1:11), Nothing to Be Done (4:24)
Sergey Nikulichev

What do we, progheads, usually say, learning that there is a new rock / metal band out there, rehearing remotely due to physical distance and influenced by Killswitch Engage, Periphery and Alter Bridge? Right, we say “yuck!” or “yawn” and move forward to a new release by InsideOut. Now that the purists and elitists are gone, and only unbiased crowd is left, let's take a closer look to the debutants.

Indeed, Echo Splinter is an on-line project built by people from the US, Switzerland and the UK. The participants define their genre as a mix of post-hardcore, hard rock and alternative metal. While there's no denying that ES have studied Mark Tremonti's licks, I also hear similarities to the sound of Australian melodic prog-metal bands Voyager and Teramaze, for instance. Is there a lot of alternative metal in the mix? I don't think so – if we take Soundgarden, Mastodon or Machine Head as epitomes of the genre, Echo Splinter plays on very different harmonies, than the above-mentioned titans.

The band provides a crystal-clear, slightly “cool-and-icy” production, which is softened to comfortable temperature with nice melodies and steady groove – a trick mastered by Threshold, for instance. If you love modern hard rock and grew familiar with more obscure names like Arrow Haze, Renegade Five or The Farmer Boys — these guys are in the same cohort.

Melodic, articulate solos (nods to Tremonti, again), larger-than-life choruses, occasional (far from overwhelming) breakdowns and modern alt/hard rock sound. None of this is groundbreaking, but nonetheless here lies a consistent formula, that will surely make you stay on these “radio waves” — for a while, at least. Good songs, tightly played, sung by a vocalist with some impressive pipes and decently recorded. This should be praised in a sincere, non-condescending way. Probably, my biggest complaint is the slightly formulaic production, in the vein of bigger rock names, but, again, this is a debut E.P.

Not 100% prog, but still a worthy contender for Newcomer of the Year.

Flame Drop — Flow

Flame Drop - Flow
Without Brakes (11:52), Ambient Emotions (15:00), Splitting The Sunrise (3:33), Divided Ocean (5:09), In Heaven (12:46), Out Of Balance (11:39)
Jan Buddenberg

Behind the Zürich-based Flame Drop one finds multi-instrumentalists Felix Waldispühl (drums, piano, keyboards, trombone, Djembe) and Roland Hegi (guitars, bass, synths, programming, keyboards). Knowing each other from the instrumental prog group FORS, in September 2022 they set out to gather ideas, which quickly got both of their musical juices flowing and resulted in the 2023 release of their debut Flow.

Whether this creative run is one of the ideas behind the album's title is unknown to me, but Flow is without doubt one of the best befitting overarching characterisations of the well-construed and expertly performed continuous stream of beautifully arranged instrumental compositions that make up the album. In ways similar this also directly applies to each of the six adventurous compositions, with the added bonus that every composition is brilliantly compliant to its individual song title.

A fine demonstration of this is opener Without Brakes which as a thrilling fusion inspired joyride starts off grooving with engaging melodies and tightness of rhythms driven by spirited guitar play. It manoeuvres towards a calming ambient environment designed with gracious guitar and EM atmosphere, highlighted by refined piano, elements of vocal jazz and touches of world music. Picking up speed all systems are then, fuelled by a stationary drive of groovy drum patterns, energetically set to go for a series of excellent freewheeling solos on guitar and synths which at slight danger of overstaying their repetitive welcome perfectly finds the brake pedal in the end.

Ambient Emotions follows this with a lengthy atmospheric opening that showcases impending late 70s/early 80s Rush, highlighted by intricate and intensifying designs of melancholic guitars embraced by synths that brings Higher Circles to mind. A third of the way into the song these melodies dim and start to glow again with structural appeal of Alan Parsons while melancholic guitars light up the atmosphere with David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) brightness. The song's third and final segment tops this off with genuine feelings of happiness and serenity as music mobile intricacies and romance of piano gradually matures into a breathtakingly beautiful emotive guitar solo. Fans of Steve Vai, John Petrucci and Jeff Beck (to name but a few) will shed many a euphoric tear.

Following the sensitive footsteps of guitar maestros like Cody Clegg and Xavier Boscher, both Splitting The Sunrise and Divided Ocean go on to bring peaceful imprints of morning brightness kindled by lovely delicate piano parts while Hegi gently drizzles his six string magic on top of the perfectly harmonious melodies. In Heaven's twelve-minute mood swing galore of elegant ambient, prog metal, fierce riffs, lush synth decorations and spectacular interplay between guitar and synths, fully delivers on its Edenic promise for early 80s Saga fans.

Final composition on the album, the one song that started it all for Flame Drop in 2022, is the exquisite Out Of Balance. Strikingly captured in context visually in the moving video that accompanies it this exceptional composition flows even more natural through 10+ minutes of massively impressive variegated proggy fusion, and after lengthy escapades of stellar guitar and synth interaction finalises the album on a perfectly symbiotic harmonious high.

Growing in appeal at every turn the short overall conclusion is that Flame Drop's excellent debut Flow showcases great promise and comes highly recommendable for those who enjoy the adventurous fusion side of our beloved melodic progressive rock spectrum. If you want to pick up a copy of the album first hand, then by all means pay them a visit on the 18th of July at the warm-up party of the final Night Of The Prog festival at Lorely, St. Goarshausen for which they were recently invited. Or alternatively head on over to Bandcamp, check out the music and order one today. I'm convinced you won't regret it.

Holler — Reborn

Holler - Reborn
I Don't Want (4:59), Music Is The One (4:44), Into Me Forever (3:43), Those Eyes (5:06), Falling Apart (4:06), Wrong Words (4:03), Don't Walk Away (4:23), Invisible Man (4:30), How Long (5:05), Without You (4:34), Within Me (4:13), Yulia (4:45)
Edwin Roosjen

The main man behind the Holler project is Terence Holler, who is known as being the vocalist in his previous band Eldritch. In 2021, Eldritch released the album EOS, after which Eldritch and Holler decided to part ways. Eldritch is a progressive metal band but for his album Reborn Holler turned towards an AOR style of music. A slight pinch of melodic rock with some singalong choruses result in an easy digestible smooth mainstream rock album.

From the first melody of the album in Do You Believe you can figure out what you are going to get. A lot of slick melodies with an eighties glam-rock vibe. All songs are of good quality and Terence Holler for sure is a good vocalist. Reborn is filled with AOR songs of good quality musician ship and each song has just a bit of a twist of its own.

Each song flies easily into your ear, but also out the other ear. Sometimes a twist is for the best and sometimes a twist is going the wrong way. Falling Apart is one of those songs that takes a bit of a wrong turn. Some disco elements that are just too cheesy, even forty years ago when AOR was booming this song would not be interesting.

Holler is a good vocalist, and he knows how to produce a good sounding album. But creating a good sounding album is not enough to make a good album. It is not a bad album, but it sounds rather predictable and slick. A song like Wrong Words at first spin sounds nice but the title is sung so many times that I lost count. Don't Walk Away is a nice rock ballad but also with a very predictable flow. The lyrics contain all rock ballad clichés there are.

So if you are a fan of Eldritch then it is not an obvious fact that you will like Reborn. I am a lover of AOR, but compared to other albums I know within the genre, I doubt if I will pick up Reborn again. The songs are too predictable and I cannot remember hearing anything special. Hopefully Terence Holler can get the magic back from the Eldritch days.

Magoria — Hollingsworth Mansion

Magoria - Hollingsworth Mansion
The Haunted House (2:53), New Estate (5:09), Don't Open The Gate (5:12), Diamond In The Dark (5:16), The Secret Of This Village (4:10), What Do They Want From Me (3:36), The House Of No One At All (2:04), Enter The Twilight World (4:53), I Can't Restrain Her Anymore (5:28), When Our Time Will Come (4:43), Leave Us (5:26), The Time Has Come (4:02), From Dusk Till Dawn (5:33), Die For The Love Of Your Life (5:08), Postludium (2:43)
Edwin Roosjen

Magoria is a project spawn from the mind of Mark Bogert. Mark was the guitar player for Knight Area from 2012 until the band disbanded in 2023. Mark is a renowned guitar player that ends up high on many guitar polls in guitar magazines. Music is not a competition but about creating beautiful music and that is what Mark does. With numerous guest musicians and vocalist the rock opera about Jack the Ripper JtR 1888 was released in 2019 and Magoria was born. I do not know if the disbanding of Knight Area made it possible but Mark found time to continue the Magoria project and created a second album Hollingsworth Mansion. Instead of a serial killer, this new story deals with a haunted horror house.

The line-up changed just a little bit from the previous album which is remarkable if you consider Magoria has a line-up of over ten musicians and vocalists. Hollingsworth Mansion is filled with progressive rock ranging from metal to rock to melodic to bombastic theatrical music. Magoria can be compared to other projects with many guest musicians and vocalists. Ayreon, off course, and Avantasia, but I also hear a some familiar elements from the Nolan/Wakeman albums. The usual suspects when reviewing an album that calls itself a rock opera.

The album starts with an ominous intro. Immediately the horror element is brought to the table. Each song on the album tells a part of the story of the castle Hollingsworth Mansion. The castle completely burned down and the family Hollingsworth died in the fire. Years later the castle was rebuild but all the new owners complained about the castle being haunted.

Difference with the previous album JtR 1888 is that Hollingsworth Mansion is not a double album, if we can still speak of that in these streaming days. Hollingsworth Mansion is about half an hour shorter which means there is more than an hour of music to enjoy here. With the shorter playtime than its predecessor, I have to say it feels like there is a better balance in the compositions.

The first part of the album has a couple of powerful rockers, New Estate and Diamond In The Dark, and a couple more dramatic songs, Don't Open The Gate and The Secret Of This Village. What Do They Want From Me is more theatrical and reminds me a lot of Nolan/Wakeman. There was always a discussion with the Nolan/Wakeman album whether the narrative spoken words were too much. There is some narrative spoken word on the song The House Of No At All and I like the way it is positioned in the music. It is a combination of speaking but also a bit woven into the melody, nice compromise.

The album has a very fine balance between listening to separate songs or trying to follow the story. You can easily pick a handful of songs and play at random and another day listen to the whole story. You can pick heavier songs like Enter The Twilight World and The Time Has Come and bang your head or have a power-ballad session with I Can't Restrain Her Anymore and When Our Time Will Come. If you are a fan of theatrical music like me then you will like the bombastic songs Leave Us and From Dusk Till Dawn. The album ends with a singalong with Die For The Love Of Your Live and instrumental Postludium.

Hollingsworth Mansion is the perfect second album for Magoria. Mark Bogert placed himself into the top of the rock opera league. It is nice to play the album back to front and enjoy the story, preferably with the booklet in hand. It is also possible to just grab a few songs and enjoy some great music. Although we're still in the first half of the year, I would be surprised if Hollingsworth Mansion will not be my album of the year and I will certainly try to be there when Mark brings this album to the stage.

The Pneumatic Transit — Forbidden Trinkets

The Pneumatic Transit - Forbidden Trinkets
The House Of Peacocks (7:31), A Parody Of A Parody (8:39), Forbidden Trinkets (7:28), Luciferin (6:42), Digital Mannequins (8:44), Palace Of Tears (10:57)
Bruce Warren

Released back in January, the fourth album from The Pneumatic Transit finds the Jeff Zampillo-helmed fusion group in a dark place. This is a dark place of their own creation and one they nurture over the entirety of Forbidden Trinkets' 50 minutes. It is also a record born of winter, specifically a Midwest US winter. There is a depth to those winters that make them unique — where everything is covered by a shadow that is not quite darkness, but not entirely light either. You feel that depth throughout Forbidden Trinkets as sounds seem to go down a tunnel and emerge into that not quite light again.

Zampillo notes the album was recorded in live rooms, with great reverb, and includes a 19th century schoolhouse with 50 foot brick walls. Recorded with ribbon microphones, as well, this album has a fantastic natural sound, along with the great depth to it all. It also helps he is alongside some truly great players. Right from the start the haunting violin of Katherine Andrick grabs hold of you. Her lines are often doubled with herself, or alongside cellist Michael Ferraro. The recording does not have the typical top-end of the violin, adding to the atmosphere of the piece. The House Of Peacocks comes out of the gate absolutely ferocious and the strings play a huge role throughout the album.

In addition to the strings, we have two top free-jazz players in saxophonist Tobias Meinhart (who is the leader of Berlin People) and trumpeter Willie Waldman (whose own Project features Jake Cinniger of jam-prog veterans Umphrey's McGee). Each of these players gets their turn to shine, Meinhart on Luciferin and Waldman on The House Of Peacocks Behind all of this is drummer Frank Alongi who is driving the train and keeping all the pieces in line. His fluid playing on all the tracks is a true highlight.

But at the center of everything is Zampillo. His guitar playing is blistering when it needs to be, his Rhodes and Mellotron playing both add a great amount of feeling - that Rhodes sound, it just does something to you. The vocals are light and slightly low in the mix, which is also pitch-perfect. Forbidden Trinkets is less of a fusion record than their prior releases (Concerto For Double Moon and Chordae Tendineae), leaning more into The Mars Volta than Mahavishnu, but not by very much, and not at all to its detriment.

This is a deep record, with layers on top of layers; complex and beautiful. Without a doubt, this is Album Of The Year worthy.

Chester Thompson — Wake-Up Call

Chester Thompson - Wake-Up Call
Wake-Up Call (4:04), Sunrise (4:50), Hide And Seek (4:14), Feel It (5:04), Smack 'Em (4:17), Sometime Soon (4:43), Attitude (4:24), Joy! Joy! Joy! (4:13), Reflection (5:46)
Héctor Gómez

You are what you eat, or so they say. Well, if you also are what you listen to, then Chester Thompson's drumming is ingrained in many a progger's DNA. Always there to serve the song, always elegant, always grooving and always ready to elevate whatever he's lending his talent to. Wake-Up Call is here to prove it, and although the sounds on display are pretty safe fusion fare, Thompson's finesse makes everything smoother and funkier somehow -not the least thanks to Robert "Peewee" Hill's commendable chops on bass, it should be said-.

There's the occasional spark of technical flash, as is the case with Smack 'Em's fiery tom rolls, and as is customary with any jazz fusion release everyone gets the chance to shine in their solo spots, but other than that it's all about the tune and the groove here. Overall, it could be said the tone is quite light and playful, with plenty of catchy hooks and melodies, as well as a welcome variety to spice things up a bit. In this regard, Genesis' influence can be felt in the eponymous opening track as well as on closer Reflection, both featuring a strong presence of somewhat proggy keyboard runs.

Elsewhere, the beautiful Sunrise is a more reflective piano-led piece, whereas Sometime Soon is all sunny, breezy syncopation and Attitude includes some sax swagger for a change. You might even find traces of Weather Report in certain Zawinul-isms in Michiko Hill's tinkling of the ivories here and there, but at the same time don't expect to stumble upon any Zappa-isms, as this feels like an album made to be easily digested rather than to challenge the listener.

So, easy listening it might be, but we should be grateful that a 75-year-old legend still has both the energy and the chops to keep the flame alive, and long may it continue.

Album Reviews