Album Reviews

Issue 2024-031

The Bardic Depths — What We Really Like In Stories

The Bardic Depths - What We Really Like In Stories
Genius (1:00), What We Like In Stories (5:48), You've Written Poetry My Boy (4:59), Vendetta (9:07), Old Delights (2:41), The Feast Is Over (6:34), Stillpoint (4:51), Whispers In Space (10:00)
Edwin Roosjen

The Bardic Depths is a project that started with the collaboration between historian Brad Birzer and multi-instrumentalist Dave Bandana. They were communicating via the internet and the result were two albums released using the project name Birzer Bandana: Becoming One in 2017 and Of Course It Must Be in 2018. They started working with Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) who formed record label Gravity Dream in 2019.

This opened doors to contacts within the Big Big Train family and besides the help of Robin Armstrong other renowned musicians were added to the project. In 2020 the release of the self-titled debut album for The Bardic Depth was a fact. In 2022, they released their second album Promises Of Hope and now again two years later we have their third album What We Really Like In Stories.

As on the previous album, the musicians besides Bandana are Gareth Cole (One Sided Horse, Fractal Mirror), Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Camel, Cyan) and Tim Gehrt (Streets, Steve Walsh).

The Bardic Depth play progressive rock with a lot of elements from the seventies sound of the genre. If you like that old familiar feeling of that era then you will like much of What We Really Like In Stories. Melodic rock music with interesting lyrics dedicated to various writers.

After the instrumental intro Genius, the title track starts in a genuine neo-prog style. The song is about J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis, very melodic song and instantly likeable, a great opener for the album. This song is sung by Peter Jones, the next song You've Written Poetry My Boy, about Ray Bradbury, features the vocals of Dave Bandana. Their voices are not that far apart and Dave Bandana provides good vocals. But if you have to sing on the same album as Peter Jones, then you know he will steal the show.

Vendetta is about comic book writer Alan Moore who wrote V For Vendetta. The lead vocals are shared and when they all sing together I can hear some relation to Spocks Beard there. I always like it when albums give me the urge to check new things out. It can be an old band or artist and in the case of What We Really Like In Stories it is authors and books I am putting on my list to check out later. Nice to get introduced and (re)discover artistic works, be it music or books!

Old Delights is a mellow short song about Wila Cather. The Feast Is Over is dedicated to Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan The Barbarian and Red Sonja. I have memories of seeing these films when I was young.

Stillpoint is a slow and gentle atmospheric song about Walter M. Miller Jr and Whispers In Space is a song about Robert Rankin. Enough books to read and all brought to us by this very nice album from The Bardic Depth. It is one of those albums I can put on at any time and instantly feel fine.

What We Really Like In Stories is a good neo-prog album that is the next logical step after their previous album. The collaboration with Robin Armstrong made a turn towards a more professional sound, and it is off course very nice to have Peter Jones in your band on vocals — what a voice. I like their previous album Promises Of Hope and I think they improved a bit more with this new one. An instantly likeable album with a lot of references to the seventies progressive rock sound. Not groundbreaking, but good old quality neo-prog.

Jef Bek — Distant Starlight

Jef Bek - Distant Starlight
Distant Starlight (14:06), Momentary Champion (3:59), Riptide (14:49), What One Has (4:46), She Has Started To Drink (7:43), They Are Playing A Game / Jack Is Afraid Of Jill (2:49), When Silence Calls (11:48)
Thomas Otten

I confess: although being a longtime regular listener to progressive rock, I have never come across a musician named Jef Bek — at least not with this spelling of his name. I hope that I am, at least partially, exculpated from this ignorance because Jef Bek, hailing from Chicago but currently living in Los Angeles, is not known because of his prog rock activities. He has spent the majority of his long-lasting musical career composing and performing live interactive original music for theatrical productions. As a multi-instrumentalist with focus on drums and keyboards, he won numerous awards in this field, but only started his parallel musical career in 2020, when the intention of returning to his youth love of writing and producing progressive rock started to take form. He used the 2020 pandemic lockdown to develop first ideas in this direction and invited musical friends from Chicago, most of them he had played with for 40 years, to also perform on his album. A total of 15 musicians are collaborating on Distant Starlight. Besides Jef Bek (who is responsible for composing all the tracks, drumming, playing keyboards on all the songs, and handling the vocals on some of the tracks), there is Callum Crush (vocals, additional vocal arrangements), Chris Block (bass, guitars, mellotron), Bill Henshell (bass, guitar), Jeff Libersher (guitar) plus a number of further musicians each make their appearances in different parts of the album on guitar, bass, vocals, trumpet, and tuba respectively.

Musically, Jef Bek makes no secret out of the influence that progressive rock of the seventies has exercised on him. His music has a retrospective feel to it, and already the first listening brought back memories of quite a few of the US bands of that era that I discovered and listened to for the first time some 30 years ago: Mithrandir, Cathedral, Lift, Starcastle, Realm, Quill, North Star, Ancient Vision plus some others, most of which, I guess, have fallen into oblivion more or less right now. Additionally, of the protagonists of that time, it is Yes, and especially Gentle Giant that is music comes closest to in my opinion. I also heard snippets of the polyrhythms of Gong, mainly in the track What One Has, due to the use of brass instruments. Of the more recent bands, Haken was the first one to come to my mind. Given this peer group, don't expect Jef Bek's songs to sound polished, earworm like, melodious, catchy, and particularly accessible throughout. These characteristics sometimes flash up (often when the listener doesn't suspect them), but basically the songs are rather unwieldy to my ears and only reveal themselves after repeated listening. This means, on the other hand, that because of its variety, there is no wear-out effect, and even numerous spins makes one discover new aspects and sophistries. Given Jef's instrumental focus, and musical abilities, keyboards stand out due to their versatility, and are very present on this album, but do not outplay the other instruments. I find the song structures to be rather complex (in fact, hardly recognisable to my ears), with many breaks, changes in tempo and rhythm, and sometimes multi-layered vocals.

Seen in this light, this prog should not necessarily belong to my preferred style from the outset. Nonetheless, the more often I listened to Distant Starlight, the more it captivated me. I think that is because whenever, whilst listening to the songs, I was about to lose the thread because of the complexity and the passages that felt dissonant to me, a catchy part suddenly picked me up again. According to Jef Bek, it was his intention to record an "original progressive rock album". I consider this element of originality to be expressed by the fact that he managed to come up with music which combines complexity with enough accessibility for the listener to remain focussed. Furthermore, he writes songs which sound complex without a recognisable red thread, but nonetheless coherent. Riptide, and She Has Started To Drink are the most representative examples of this in my opinion.

When I started to concentrate on progressive rock back in the seventies, there were the "big four" which had staked out the progressive rock field, created the basic directions which this music evolved into, and influenced many bands thereafter: Genesis, Yes, ELP, and King Crimson. Quite a few count Gentle Giant as number five in this group. I always have belonged to the Genesis-followers, and to some extent to the Yes- and ELP- ones. Gentle Giant were not melodic and catchy enough for me (and King Crimson too complicated). This personal bias, though, has not kept me from strongly appreciating this album by a musician of whom I consider Gentle Giant as being his main source of inspiration. This release is full of well-played and arranged music, varied with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, some catchy moments, a good balance of keyboards, and guitars, complicated but nonetheless accessible — if one invests the required listening time.

As Jef Bek pointed out in an interview, he was born with the — now missing — "f" in his first and the "c" in his surname. As a young man dreaming of success in the music industry, he changed his name in order not to be confused with the "guitarist's guitarist" later, should his dreams ever come true. With respect to his career as composer and performer of live theater music, I think his ambitions must have been fully realised. With respect to his intentions in the progressive rock segment, I consider Distant Starlight to be at least an excellent starting point, combined with my hope that Jef will keep on extending and amplifying this (his) "second mainstay".

Confusion Field — Future Impact Of Past Diversions

Confusion Field - Future Impact Of Past Diversions
Atom Child (5:19), Secondhand Escape (3:51), Do Not Engage The Enemy (5:24), Phoenix Learns To Fly (4:14), To The End Of The Hex (4:53), Defence Solution (4:17), Tomorrow Started Yesterday (6:02), The Waiting Room (3:58), Factory Shadow (10:48)
Jan Buddenberg

"A mandatory listen for fans of modern progressive rock."

With this statement I ended my 2021 review with of Confusion Field's debut Disconnection Complete. Words I strongly stand by today and (spoiler alert!) have to repeat regarding the stunning Future Impact Of Past Diversions. Simply because it's an equally impressive album which beautifully prolongs Confusion Field's stylistically chosen pathway. One which combines pop, prog, metal and new wave into a perfectly concise alluring whole whilst shining bright with expressions of 80s Rush and modern prog bands like Riverside and RPWL, to which this time around a delicious synth element straight out of the roaring 80s has been implemented.

Recorded in the same line-up of project leader Tomi Kankainen (vocals, bass, keyboards, guitars), Petri Honkonen (drums), and Markus Jämsen (guitar), and aided on backing vocals by Janne Liekkinen, this revolutionary element instantly becomes apparent in the strongly gripping Atom Child. Showcasing masterful multi-layered designs that burst with energy this song ups the anti in synth arrangements and most effectively carries 80s synth-pop nostalgia into the contemporary new with a sensational dark-wave blast that at times reminds me of Depeche Mode and edgier bands like The Cure and Killing Joke.

Thriving on drive, dynamic performances and tantalising transitions perfected by a thrilling guitar solo, this brilliant opener perfectly sets up the album and seamlessly segues into the sophisticated pop elegance of Secondhand Escape. Another excellent composition that exhibits intricately flowing melodies and fine diversity in expressive vocals highlighted by dexterous rhythms, blasting synths and exceptional guitar work which all combined Signals Rush in more enchanting ways than one.

This highly attractive omnipresent influence that frequently fuses sounds reminiscent of Rush's Grace Under Pressure with the musical dexterity as explored on their Hold Your Fire, effortlessly holds me captive as well during To The End Of The Hex. Perfectly balanced with a rotary of enticing guitars hovering over layers of synths, and showcasing thrilling designs in compelling song-aimed melodies that feature majestic transitions and a stunning solo by Jämsen, this atmospheric composition is sure to increase the heart rate of many a Rush fan.

Defence Solution is bound to achieve the same through sound, feel and striking guitar resemblances, while exemplary powerful bass, driving melodies and elements of bombast highlighted by synths complements this strong composition with a delightful nostalgic 80s Eloy impression. A modern Riverside charm to many which also comes beautifully to the fore when Kankainen's sturdy bass enters the wonderful melancholic atmospheres of Tomorrow Started Yesterday. Then this exceptionally crafted highlight starts to build transfixing momentum and brilliantly navigates past alternating movements of hopeful intensity and ambient dejection, until melodies embraced by synths and touching guitar fade away with tangible expressions of hopeless solitude.

Two exceptional highlights amongst these highlight are, as far as I'm concerned, the vibrant pop-inspired Phoenix Learns To Fly and Do Not Engage The Enemy. Tying in perfectly with the album's overall theme of escapism in all its different forms, also beautifully reflected in the gorgeous artwork, it is here Phoenix Learns To Fly's irresistible salvo of inventive musical arrangements and new wave inspired textures recalls Talk Talk and The Simple Minds. While Do Not Engage The Enemy's exceptional combination of arresting industrial atmospheres and incredibly catchy chorus propulsions fires of a round of contagiously dynamic melodies which are destined to befriend those in favour Gary Numan and Midge Ure's Ultravox.

Gathering all of the above findings and putting them together with the wonderful shifting emotional atmospheres of The Waiting Room and the sublime album finale Factory Shadow, a closing epic which in a progressive nutshell way gloriously recaptures every magical ingredient with a fantastic coda of mightily impressive guitar play to boot, and only one conclusion remains. Confusion Field have brilliantly slayed the "always-difficult" sophomore beast and delivered a stunning album.

If you like me fully connect to Disconnected Complete, and appreciate well constructed modern progressive rock awash with synths, richness in atmosphere, intricate arrangements and all around outstanding performances then the replete with highlights Future Impact Of Past Diversions is an essential purchase that must not escape your attention! In other words: A mandatory listen for fans of modern progressive rock!

Metro Society — The London Conspiracy Chapter I 1898

Metro Society - The London Conspiracy Chapter I 1898
London 1898 (2:59), City Streets (7:34), Lost Souls (6:29), Pieces Of The Past (9:25), Society (6:37), Underground (5:33), Inferno (7:23)
Calum Gibson

Back in 2005, 3 friends came together through a love of prog rock and metal to form Metro Society. With the first album, A Journey In Paris dropping in 2007 to good reviews, the band unfortunately entered a hiatus. However, they have returned now in 2024 with a new album — the concept album The London Conspiracy, Chapter 1: 1898.

"A London detective's murder mystery set in the year 1898. A young detective discovers his mentor, the Chief Constable murdered. The detective is on a journey of discovery."

Setting the scene, the short instrumental of London 1898 leads you in, sounding similar to some of Dream Theater's work, as it then transitions to City Streets. An intro to the story, this one sets the scene of dark and gloomy Victorian London to the backdrop of riffs and solid rhythm work. George Margaritopoulos makes an impression as a catchy and talented vocalist here. Lost Souls is a dark sounding track that details the detective finding his deceased mentor. The music hits with a punch of crunchy riffs and lighter leads to bring forth that storytelling vibe, showing the protagonist's determinism and reflection.

Pieces Of The Past begins the investigation, with our plucky protagonist being told to move on from the case. The story driven style of prog metal continues, rising and falling with the characters emotions and intensity, going from melodic passages to dark and tight chugs as detective questions his sanity for example. Following this we are treated to the instrumental Society, a 6-minute showcase of the bands talent as musicians and full to the brim with chunky riffs and solos from both bass and guitar.

In Underground, we see the plucky detective questioning if he is on the right path as he makes his way into the dark underbelly of London. The track is marching quest as the music goes from ominous and dark verses to charismatic and melodic choruses. And finally, we meet the object of the investigation in Inferno as the villain throws threats to the hero alongside dark and aggressive riffs and drums. It is another heavy, chugging, riff filled section of metal that matches the feel of the climax of a gritty thriller.

The album has some drawbacks – some of the levels sound a bit off and the production of the music could do with some added polishing as it occasionally falls a bit behind the vocals in terms of sound quality. The story isn't anything new either so far. However, it is a catchy album with an easy-to-follow path (helped by the lyrics being literal), and while slightly cheesy at parts, it is nonetheless an enjoyable listen.

Musically, it is very reminiscent of similar ones like 2112 by Rush or Metropolis Part 2 by Dream Theater, or Ziltoid the Omniscient by Devin Townsend. So, if you're a fan of them, have a listen. I know I'm looking forward to chapter II.

Passage — Crystal

Passage - Crystal
Ancolie (Triste Fleur) (8:30), Crystal (7:39), L’Incertitude (8:39), Souvenance (2:11), Time Flies (8:10), La Promesse (7:16), Oasis (5:05)
Martin Burns

Formed in 2001 in Québec City, Passage were originally a Doom/Gothic metal band influenced by the likes of Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Katatonia. But they have changed quite a bit since those days. Slimming down to the duo of Sébastien Robitaille (guitars, piano, synths, bass, harmonius vocals, orchestrations) and Luc Gaulin (drums, percussion) and evolving into a particularly pensive mix of ambient, neo-classical and post-rock. The music is detailed and emotive, forming a soundtrack to the album's concept. One 'depicting the sad soul of an old man who realises his time has passed too quickly'.

The concept leads to a deep introspective melancholy to the melodies on Crystal, which I found a little difficult to buy into at first, but on repeat listens they grew in stature until I was won over by the majestic grandeur of these instrumentals. Taking unhurried tempos that allow the melodies and their arrangements to get under the skin, in a similar the way to Max Richter's neo-classical music or Brian Enos Music For Films albums. Where paying close attention is rewarded with an engagement that may be missed in our busy everyday existence.

Passage, promo photo

Making use throughout the album of delicate strings (no additional musicians are credited) paired with piano, soaring guitars and progressive rhythms. The melodies build and develop in terrific ways. On the opening track Ancolie (Triste Fleur) the mix of strings, synths and choral voices is like recent Tangerine Dream if they had a less electronic line-up of instruments.

Radiohead like indie-art-rock guitars appear on the title track and also on Time Flies. There are sections in which heavier crescendos play a part, especially on the title track and alongside the rolling drum-pattern driven La Promesse. The wordless massed harmony vocals that appear on most of the tracks are charismatic and beguiling, adding a Hans Zimmer like frame to the music.

I wasn't sure about Passage's Crystal at first mainly because of the somewhat similar tempos used throughout the album. But the sheer vibrancy of instrumental colours and the serpentine interweaving of the melodies won me over.

If you have any interest in the notion of an Original Sound Tracks to Imaginary Films (OSTIF, hey, have I invented a new genre acronym?! Probably not) this is well worth a listen.

Mark Wingfield — The Gathering

Mark Wingfield - The Gathering
The Corkscrew Tower (5:09), Stormlight (7:30), Apparition In The Vaults (5:46), A Fleeting Glance (6:27), Pursued In The Snow (8:56), The Lost Room (8:33), The Listening Trees (6:54), Journey Home (9:43), Together We Rise (6:09), Cinnamon Bird (7:41)
Owen Davies

Wow, that was an experience!

After seventy-two minutes of visiting The Gathering's lush soundscape, I am left to ponder which words adequately and in some small way sum up aspects of Mark Wingfield's latest release. A gathering of six words might just do it.

Strange and Surreal!
Emotive and Evocative!
Unsettling and Uplifting!

These descriptions are summoned and invoked by the vibrancy, dexterity, and skillful combination of Mark Wingfield's instantly recognisable guitar textures and timbres, Asaf Sirkis' extraordinary drumming , Gary Husband's flowing and imposing keyboards and the growling and disturbingly melodic bass lines of Tony Levin and Percy Jones.

The Gathering is certainly one of the most interesting albums that Wingfield has been involved in during recent years. Several of these albums have been reviewed by DPRP.

The tunes of The Gathering sway, pulsate and evolve seamlessly in a fascinating manner. The flavours and colours of Wingfield's expressive guitar provide a rich topping which sets the tone and mood for most of the compositions. Its purring ambience and piercing wailing and howling is undoubtedly the most prominent aspect of the release; however, Sirkis drumming and mastery of his kit is the glue that holds everything together. It offers a firm and frequently changing or evolving base from which the other players can spring forward to prominence when the need arises.

In this respect the opening number The Corkscrew is not in any regards a hummable tune, but rather is a memorable and thought-provoking experience. The same could be said of all the compositions which follow.

The album evolved from a performance by Wingfield, Husband, and Sirkis in Spain in 2021. Levin and Jones were invited to add bass parts, and it is fair to say that their inspired involvement adds a lot to the overall project and undeniably provides a wider palette of sounds. Percy Jones vibrant and flowing bass part in Stormlight provides a perfect contrast to Wingfield's singeing tones and Tony Levin's outstanding contribution in The Listening Trees and especially The Lost Room is equally satisfying.

It is difficult to discern what is improvised and what is composed, but as the tunes unfold, there is no doubt that all the musicians involved were inspired. During the spiralling twists and turns of Apparition In The Vaults, you can almost sense the excitement of the players.

All the parts of this release work well together for example Husbands bright and natural piano tones in The Corkscrew and in tunes such as, The Lost Room and in the mid-point of The Listening Trees act as a deliberate contrast to the guitars eerie and somewhat disconcerting yet distinctive tonal qualities.

As I listened to the album, it occurred to me that this type of music can abrasively scrape the bones if not in the mood, but satisfyingly if you are in a receptive state, its intricate meanderings, squalls, and calming moments can bathe the mind in a positive wash of vivid patterns and colours. Similarly, it's possible to view the album as self-indulgent and inaccessible, or alternatively, it might be perceived as creatively brilliant, boldly progressive, and of course, hugely inventive.

I tend to think of The Gathering positively. It as a fine example of its type. There is no doubt that it is certainly inventive in its execution and totally progressive in nature. Most of all though, The Gathering offers a wonderful array of sounds, that are cleverly bound by a distinctive style which is beguiling utterly satisfying.

It is uplifting and evocative. It is strange and unsettling. It is emotive and surreal.

It is without doubt an experience!

Album Reviews