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Index-MrSax
In many ways, the present review is an unexpected little “miracle”, which only a week ago seemed highly unlikely to happen. Though it will be noticeably shorter and not as detailed as those I wrote for past events, I fervently hope that my readers will not be too disappointed.

When ProgDay started, in the late summer of 1994, no one would have probably thought it would become the world’s longest-running progressive rock festival. As for myself, I was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and would have never imagined that I would one day move to the United States. Since 2010, however, it has become for me and my husband an appointment that we would not miss for anything in the world. Unfortunately, due to an accumulation of stress (caused by a seemingly endless series of setbacks, professional and otherwise), I was in such poor shape that I doubted the wisdom of attending the festival at all. For almost the whole of 2014’s first eight months I felt as if I was being swallowed by a black hole, slowly losing interest in many of the things that I normally enjoy – music being the chief victim of this state of affairs. I dropped out of the East Coast prog scene completely, shunning concerts and avoiding contact with people. Though I tried to keep up with new releases, most of the music I heard just went over my head, and did not make any lasting impression.

Even if, a mere couple of days before the event, I had regained most of my enthusiasm for it, this year did feel different. For one thing, I felt much less inclined to be a “social butterfly”, and spent a lot of time in my lawn chair, safely sheltered from the sun under the main pavilion, with a book to keep me company and help me concentrate on the music – while my notebook stayed safely tucked in one of the pockets of my tote bag. After a surprisingly mild summer with very pleasant temperatures, Labor Day weekend seemed to concentrate most of the season’s worth of heat and humidity, and being on the field for two days did take its toll, though I was wise enough not to overextend myself, and get enough rest at the end of the day.

To be perfectly honest, my lack of enthusiasm for this year’s festival was not only the product of negative personal circumstances, but was also related to the line-up. Compared to the previous editions I had attended, this was surely the most “conservative” line-up assembled by the organizers, and had become even more so when Mexican outfit Luz de Riada (featuring Ramsés Luna, formerly of the brilliant Cabezas de Cera) were forced to withdraw almost at the very last moment because of a visa-related snag (oh, the joys of the US immigration system!). However, unlike those prog fans I so much like to bash, I know that a band should be seen on stage before being dismissed, and that the apparently unassuming Storybook Farm stage has a way to bring out the best in the artists that tread it. Indeed, I am glad to say that none of the bands invited for 2014 disappointed in that sense, even when their music was not exactly my cup of tea.

On Saturday morning we were once again welcomed by the lush greenery and comforting familiarity of Storybook Farm – a bucolic, relaxed setting that took openers Zombie Frogs, clearly much more used to the unrelenting intensity of metal-based events, by surprise. The youthful (and obviously talented) Boston quintet were more impressive for their stage presence (which included a guitarist with a superb head of reddish-blond dreadlocks) and infectious enthusiasm than for their riff-heavy music, which I found rather hard to get into, and a tad too reminiscent of Dream Theater for comfort. However, they were just what the audience needed to get going at a relatively early hour – and let us not forget that progressive metal (like it or not) remains the best vehicle to introduce the younger generations to the prog scene.

Highly awaited Spanish quintet Kotebel – among the foremost standard-bearers of modern symphonic prog, with enough of an edge to appeal to the notoriously hard to please Avant-Prog set – came on stage next, providing that sharp contrast that is one of the hallmarks of a successful prog festival. Fronted by the engaging father-daughter keyboard duo of Carlos and Adriana Plaza, they performed their latest CD opus, the marvelous Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble, holding the audience captive with the sheer beauty and effortless complexity of their music – which completely eschews the pretentiousness all too often associated with classical-inspired prog.

Minnesota’s Galactic Cowboy Orchestra proved to be one of the highlights of the festival for me – in spite of the limitations of occupying the dreaded third slot, when most of the audience are feeling the effects of the increasing heat. A four-piece fronted by the dazzling smile and chops of violinist/vocalist Lisi Wright (whose voice reminded me at times of the incomparable Moorea Dickason of MoeTar), those rightful heirs to Dixie Dregs were probably the most eclectic band on this year’s line-up. Most importantly, they are one of those bands whose music (though already good on CD), truly comes alive on stage, emphasizing the individual members’ skills as well as their flawless ensemble playing.

Though founded by Florentine guitarist/composer Franco Falsini, and part of the original RPI scene of the Seventies, Sensation’s Fix have always been more of an international venture than a genuinely Italian one – and that was also reflected in a sound that evoked historic Krautrock bands such as Ashra Tempel and Agitation Free. Even if perhaps not the best choice as a closing act on a hot and humid day, the Italian-American quartet (again featuring a talented female musician, keyboardist Candace Miller) performed with evident pleasure, the hypnotic, laid-back vibe of the music and Falsini’s riveting guitar tone occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd circa Meddle. The band also stayed for the whole of the festival, and seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

Climate-wise, Sunday was very much a repeat of the previous day – tolerable in the morning, much less so as the day progressed. The musical menu started somewhat earlier, as openers Backhand had asked for an extra 15 minutes to play all the material they had put together for the occasion. To me and most of the audience, the Venezuelan outfit were an unknown quantity, though each of its members could boast of an impressive résumé. The songs on the ProgDay website pointed to a prog-flavoured classic rock/AOR outfit, and their performance did not belie that impression – though they sounded immensely better on stage, with Dutch-born keyboardist Adrianus van Woerkom a particular highlight. Vocalist Phil Naro proved a consummate frontman in the Robert Plant/David Coverdale mould, his high tenor sharply bringing to mind the Led Zeppelin singer. Although his trim, lion-maned presence (complete with large belt buckle and mirrored shades) may have been quite at odds with the stereotypical prog canon, there is no denying that it added entertainment value to a context that tends to take itself way too seriously.

With a modern prog legend such as drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson at the helm, it is no wonder that Necromonkey were eagerly awaited – especially by those members of the audience who favour the more experimental side of the genre. The presence of two out of four members of the wonderful Gösta Berlings Saga (keyboardist David Lundberg, who is the other official half of Necromonkey, and guitarist Einar Baldursson) created an unmistakable link with the haunting post-rock-meets-Zeuhl sound of the quartet that in 2012 took NEARfest by storm. As good as Necromonkey’s two studio albums are, being performed by a four-piece band (including bassist Kringle Harmonist) took their music to the next level, lending it a well-rounded, quasi-orchestral quality. Though driven by Olsson’s uncannily precise time-keeping and Lundberg’s mellotron and other keyboards, the band’s performance also spotlighted Baldursson’s stunningly beautiful guitar work. For all their very low-key stage presence (quite a contrast with Backhand’s flamboyance), Necromonkey’s set delivered all we were expecting, and more.

In spite of a 15-year-long career and six albums, Travis Larson Band are not exactly a household name in prog circles – very probably because their music is not exactly what most people would call prog. A classic power trio fronted by the tall, lanky Travis Larson, they delivered an energetic, enthusiastic performance that emphasized not only Larson’s dazzling six-string work, but also Jennifer Young’s stunning skills in wielding a bass almost as big as she was, and Dale Moon’s seamless drumming. Unfortunately, by that time the heat and humidity were taking their toll on the audience, and after a while I started finding it hard to concentrate on the music. Thankfully, I will have the opportunity to see the band again in October at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, and I am quite sure that an indoor setting might do more justice to their music.

The celebration of a milestone such as a 20th anniversary needed to end with a bang, and I am happy to report that my fellow Italians Alex Carpani Band (featuring legendary ex-VDGG saxophonist David Jackson) provided plenty of fireworks. Again, while their latest album, 4 Destinies, had not made much of an impression on me, in spite of its obvious quality, the live dimension brought the very best out of the Bologna-based quintet. Fronted by the charismatic Joe Sal, whose impressive pipes were honed by his early years as a hard rock singer, the band performed 4 Destinies in its entirety, though alternating their own material with VDGG classics such as Darkness, Killer and Man-Erg. In spite of that, and possibly because of Jackson’s endearing yet unconventional character, ACB’s set avoided the feel of a nostalgia-fest – also because of the remarkable stage craft of each of its members. They sent the crowd into fits of ecstasy by performing PFM’s timeless Impressioni di settembre, followed by an exhilarating version of George Martin’s Theme One. Though the solo spots were a tad overlong, Jackson’s performance alone was worth the price of admission.

As cheesy as it may sound, this 20th edition of ProgDay marked a sort of rebirth for me, after a long period of darkness in which music had become a mere footnote. In the past few years, my tastes have gradually evolved, and I have found myself moving away from a lot of “traditional” prog. On the other hand, though this year’s ProgDay line-up was definitely lighter on the cutting-edge side of things, the overall level of quality was as high as in previous years, offering a nicely balanced mix of subgenres that reflected modern prog’s increasingly diversified nature. And then, the beauty of the setting and the genuinely friendly vibe of the festival have fortunately stayed the same, getting newcomers hooked so that every year there are new additions to the event’s core of loyal supporters.

In any case, in spite of this year’s less than auspicious circumstances, my ProgDay experience was an all-round success, and I want to thank the organizers from the bottom of my heart for their hard work on behalf of non-mainstream music (or, as Travis Larson put it, non-commercial – a better definition to me than the ever-debated “prog” label). As usual, it was wonderful to see friends (that we had not seen for quite a while, and spend quality time with them – which included sampling the delights of local Mexican and Indian restaurants. A special mention goes to HT Riekels and Melissa Palmer, two of the newest converts to the joys of ProgDay, and both also excellent music writers.

This review was written, first and foremost, as a tribute to all the people who made ProgDay’s 20th anniversary such a memorable occasion. I do not yet know whether I will ever go back to writing on a regular basis, as (besides having other priorities) the kind of pace I kept for the past few years is likely to get anyone burned out after a while. However, what truly matters is that the “curse” seems to have been broken, and that I can still appreciate music and feel the inclination to write about it – even if not as much in detail as before. In the meantime, I will continue contributing to the weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, doing my best to spotlight new bands and artists who deserve to be heard. We will see what happens next…

Links:
http://www.progday.net

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ancestors’ Tale (5:24)
2. The Departure (0:58)
3. Hopperknockity Tune (4:01)
4. Selves Unmade (5:56)
5. The Raw, the Cooked and the Overeasy (5:27)
6. An Elephant in Berlin (8:29)
7. Dinosaur on the Floor (3:51)
8. The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires (9:17)
9. Zodiac (7:17)
10. Walk the Plank (7:37)

LINEUP:
Jackie Royce – bassoon, contra-bassoon, flute
Steve Roberts – piano, electric piano, organ, mellotron, marimba, vibraphone, samplers
Gary Pahler – drums, percussion
Steve Good – clarinet, bass clarinet
Joee Conroy – fretless bass, Chapman stick, electric guitar, acoustic 12-string guitar, electronics

With:
Cheyenne Mize – vocals, violin (1, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Sydney Simpson – double bass (6, 9, 10)
Gregory Acker – saxes, flutes, percussion, didgeridoo (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In my years as a reviewer, it has rarely happened for an album to make such an impression that – barely halfway through my first listening – I felt inclined to claim that it was one of the best I had heard in a long time. Listening to the apparently endless series of releases filed under the ever-growing “progressive” umbrella tends to make one a bit jaded, so that even albums received enthusiastically rarely make it to the status of regular presences in a reviewer’s CD player. However, my very first exposure to Ut Gret’s latest effort, Ancestor’s Tale – their first release for AltrOck Productions – was one of those moments in which the sheer beauty of the sounds coming out of the speakers caught me by surprise, and elicited superlatives that I normally use very sparingly.

Founded in 1981 by multi-instrumentalist Joee Conroy, a native of Louisville (Kentucky) while living in California, Ut Gret went through different incarnations before Conroy moved back to Louisville and teamed up with former collaborator Steve Roberts (founder of Avant-Prog outfit French TV), where the band’s debut album, Time of the Grets, was released in 1990. The band is currently a five-piece, augmented by a number of guest artists, and all of its members have an impressive amount of experience in a wide-ranging array of musical genres.

With a distinctive handle combining the medieval name for the C (or Do) note with the name of a fictitious tribe of barbarian invaders, Ut Gret label their output as “pan-idiomatic music” – a definition borne out by the eclectic, often markedly experimental nature of their musical pursuits in the course of the past three decades, and which at the same time niftily dispenses with the often pesky “progressive” tag. Their variegated history is also reflected by their recordings, with a 3-CD archival box set of mostly experimental material (including a live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C”) titled Recent Fossils released in 2006, followed by Radical Symmetry in 2011.

While there is progressiveness aplenty on display on Ancestor’s Tale, the music is also surprisingly accessible: multilayered and eclectic, yet consistently melodic, it might well be tagged as “Canterbury by way of Louisville, KY.” The influence of the seminal movement is openly acknowledged in the mind-blowingly intricate but appealingly fluid “Hopperknockity Tune”, a tribute to Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (though Conroy’s glissando guitar also nods to Gong’s Daevid Allen), but is quite evident on most of the album, not least in the quirky yet literate song titles. On the other hand, the band’s origins notwithstanding, there is very little, if anything, suggesting traditional American genres such as blues, country, or Kentucky’s own bluegrass; while the weird, improvisational duet between Gregory Acker’s sax and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler’s drums in “The Departure” provides almost the only instance of the “difficult” music generally identified with the Avant-Prog tag.

While featuring all the traditional rock staples (not to mention a mellotron), the rich instrumentation emphasizes the woodwinds, according a starring role to Steve Good’s clarinets and Jackie Royce’s bassoon and contra-bassoon (the undisputed protagonists of the dramatic, expressive “An Elephant in Berlin”, a piece strongly suggestive of late 19th century classical/chamber music). Both sets of instruments also come into their own in the three final tracks, which together form almost one half of the album’s 58-minute running time. Low-key moments and flares of intensity alternate in the 9-minute “The Grotesque Pageant of Dying Empires”, whose middle section also showcases some gorgeously atmospheric six-string action from Conroy. The mellotron-drenched “Zodiac” pays homage to Robert Fripp and early King Crimson, with hints of Maurice Ravel in the subtly tense build-up. while album closer “Walk the Plank” begins with a swaying, nostalgic waltz-like pace, then suddenly veers into Univers Zéro territory with a somber, riveting tone in which guitar, flute, vibraphone and eerie, bird-like effects interweave on a solemn mellotron backdrop.

Besides the effortless complexity of the instrumental parts, much of Ancestor’s Tale’s unique charm resides in Cheyenne Mize’s star turn on the four tracks with vocals. The Louisville-based, indie folk singer-songwriter’s sublime pipes will cause jaws to drop right from the opening of the title-track – her voice gliding smoothly and caressing the ear like warm honey, crystal-clear but with a haunting note of sensuality, and not a hint of the stilted theatrics so frequent in so many female prog singers. Never domineering, though not submissive, Mize’s voice blends with the instrumentation and sets the mood: whimsical yet somewhat pensive in the multifaceted “Selves Unmade”; sober and wistful in the stately “The Raw, The Cooked and The Overeasy”, where Royce’s puffing bassoon offers her a perfect foil; more upbeat in the title-track, though with a hint of torch-song flavour in the song’s second half; and, again, sedate and melancholy in the heavy, oddly cinematic “Dinosaur on the Floor”, which also features a spectacular contra-bassoon solo.

While my reviews always convey my own personal enjoyment of an album, I rarely wax lyrical as other writers are wont to do. Ancestor’s Tale, however, is one of the very few albums released in recent years that deserve to be called perfect. From the quirky, Oriental-inspired cover artwork (titled “Moby of the Orient”) and lavishly illustrated, detail-rich booklet to the astonishingly accomplished performances of all the musicians involved, the album is a joy from start to finish, and one of the most rewarding listening experiences I have had for quite a while. Moreover, it is one of those rare albums that, in spite of its complexity and sky-high technical quotient, can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in great music – regardless of labels.

Links:

http://www.utgret.net/

https://www.facebook.com/UtGret

http://utgret1.bandcamp.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Oxymoron (2:45)
2. Flow (2:09)
3. Unsettled (2:45)
4. The Other Side (3:30)
5. The Ascent (2:31)
6. Coulrophobia (3:24)
7. Lucid (2:46)
8. KEA (2:24)
9. Street and Circus (4:56)
10. The Bridge (11:49)
11. A Boy (2:50)

LINEUP:
Matt Stevens – guitars, loops

With:
Stuart Marshall – drums (1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10)
Pat Mastelotto – drums (5)
Lorenzo Feliciati– bass (5)
Charlie Cawood – bass (1, 3, 4, 10), pipa (4)
Kev Feazey – bass (7), percussion (10), programming (2)
Jem Godfrey – keyboards (4)
Emmett Elvin – keyboards (6)
Chrissie Caulfield – violin (1, 10)
Jon Hart – vibraphone (6)
Nicholas Wyatt Duke – spoken word (10)

In the past few years, London-based guitarist and composer Matt Stevens has become one of the most prolific and intriguing figures on the variegated progressive rock scene. Active both as a solo artist and with his band The Fierce And The Dead, he has also appeared on albums of other notable British outfits, such as Cosmograf and Nine Stones Close. Lucid, his fourth studio album, released on Esoteric Antenna in March 2014, was the result of three years of work, and was developed during what Stevens openly admitted was a dark time in his life.

While committed to the progressive rock cause, and therefore not at all reluctant to be labeled as a prog artist, Stevens is also an omnivorous listener, whose musical interests range from “pronk” icons The Cardiacs to extreme metal by way of King Crimson, Nick Drake and Neil Young. This open-minded attitude is reflected in his music, based on acoustic guitar and live loops – a veritable “guitar orchestra” – which has been performed all over Great Britain.

For a first-time listener, one of the most surprising (and refreshing) aspects of Lucid is that Stevens manages to create energetic, often hard-edged music with an instrument that, in popular imagination, is associated more with folk or singer-songwriters than rock. Enriched by the contribution of guest musicians from some of Britain’s most interesting modern progressive outfits (including his The Fierce and The Dead partners, drummer Stuart Marshall and bassist Kev Feazey, who is also the album’s producer), the album is a tightly composed effort that also allows Stevens to explore new territory, while refining and maturing the style he had already showcased in his previous releases.

With most tracks between two and five minutes (for an overall running time of around 42 minutes), Lucid runs counter to the stereotypical prog trend of long, rambling compositions. Though King Crimson will inevitably come to mind on more than one occasion, Stevens’ manifold influences are brought to bear, and an almost punk attitude emerges, especially in the more upfront pieces such as opener “Oxymoron”, which barges in assertively, blending energy and a quirky sense of melody. The spirit of Fripp’s trailblazing crew is never far, and the participation of drummer Pat Mastelotto on the powerful yet hypnotic “The Ascent” reinforces the connection. On this particular track, Stevens pulls out all the stops, sparring with Mastelotto and renowned bassist Lorenzo Feliciati in a crescendo of intensity only marginally tempered by Jem Godfrey’s keyboards. In a very similar vein, “Unsettled” foregrounds the angular interplay of guitar and drums, then the guitar takes the lead forcefully with an almost howling tone.

Other tracks emphasize the atmospheric component of Stevens’ compositional vein, though never stinting on the aggression whenever necessary. The spacious texture and juxtaposition of gentleness and almost industrial edginess of “Flow” reminded me of Herd of Instinct, as did the subdued, ethnic-tinged “The Other Side”, to which Knifeworld bassist Charlie Cawood contributes the lilting sound of the Chinese pipa. More Eastern suggestions surface in the beautiful yet vaguely ominous “Coulrophobia” (fear of clowns), John Hart’s crystalline vibraphone and Guapo’s Emmett Elvin’s subtle keyboards perfectly complementing Stevens’ chiming guitar.

“Street and Circus”, a slow and evocative duet between Stevens and Stuart Marshall’s measured drums, at times leaving the guitar to emote on its own, provides a fitting introduction to the album’s unexpected pièce de resistance – an almost 12-minute masterpiece of ambiance and shifting moods titled “The Bridge”. Ominous guitar riffs develop into an almost Sabbathian plod, then sustained lead guitar and Chrissie Caulfield’s violin weave an eerie, ethereal atmosphere with a sense of tension lurking beneath the apparent gentleness. Towards the end, Stevens’ guitar surges in a wailing tone, leading to a cinematic ending that, once again, put me in mind of Herd of Instinct’s most ambitious compositions. The album’s wrap-up comes in apparently anticlimactic fashion, with the soothing, melancholy melody of the sparse “A Boy” – a companion piece to the fluid elegance of “KEA”, showcasing Stevens’ skillful use of acoustic loops.

A big step forward in Matt Stevens’ career as a musician, composer and performer, Lucid is a masterful example of instrumental progressive rock with a contemporary attitude and a healthy respect for the genre’s glorious past. Because of his dedication to his craft and fiercely independent spirit, Stevens has become an example to follow for many non-mainstream musicians, and the sound advice laid out in his blog makes essential reading for anyone venturing into the troubled waters of progressive music-making. In any case, Lucid is essential listening for anyone keen to explore innovative approaches to guitar playing, as well as fans of the King Crimson school of prog.

Links:

http://www.mattstevensguitar.com/

http://mattstevens.bandcamp.com/album/lucid

http://mattstevensguitar.blogspot.com/

http://www.esotericrecordings.com/antenna.html

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Introduction (1:49)
2. How Wonderful (7:03)
3. Her Voice (10:08)
4. Airtight (5:13)
5. The Knowledge Enterprise – Overture (3:19)
6. The Knowledge Enterprise – Conceivers and Deceivers (4:53)
7. The Knowledge Enterprise – Tonight (6:22)
8. The Knowledge Enterprise – With These Eyes (5:29)
9. The Knowledge Enterprise – Finale (1:26)

LINEUP:
Geoffrey Langley – vocals, keyboards
Steve Kostas – lead guitar
Justin Carlton – vocals, guitars
Richmond Carlton – bass, harp
Joe Henderson – vocals, drums

Founded in early 2012 by vocalist/keyboardist Geoffrey Langley, five-piece The Twenty Committee are the newest entry in the thriving progressive rock scene of the Philadelphia/New Jersey region. A few months after the band’s formation, Langley went to Nashville to audition for Neal Morse’s touring band, and the quality of his material attracted Morse’s attention. In July 2012, Langley went back to Nashville with the rest of the band to record their debut album at Radiant Studios. A Lifeblood Psalm, produced by Morse’s long-time collaborator Jerry Guidroz, was released in April 2013, and followed by a number of live shows (including one at the NJ Proghouse in March 2013).

Like other bands from the same geographical area (notably Shadow Circus, 3RDegree and IZZ, but also the edgier The Tea Club and Thank You Scientist), The Twenty Committee straddle the line between progressive and pop – their lush, multilayered arrangements coexisting with catchy melodies, topped off by Geoffrey Langley’s impeccable vocals. In a genre where the majority of vocalists are either idiosyncratic (cue the many Geddy Lee clones) or so discreet as to be almost nondescript (as in the Steven Wilson school), Langley impresses for his smooth, clear tones, never sounding strained or cheesy, and truly a perfect fit for the band’s material. From the instrumental point of view, the presence of a second guitar (not frequent in prog), together with the strings provided by renowned session orchestra The Nashville String Machine, flesh out the sound and lend it a symphonic dimension.

Unlike those “crossover” prog bands who focus on the reinterpretation of the song form rather than on prog’s old warhorse, the epic, The Twenty Committee pay tribute to the genre’s time-honoured tradition by featuring a 10-minute track and a five-part suite. In spite of that, the album’s running time is kept to a very restrained 45 minutes, which allows the listener to enjoy the music without feeling overwhelmed. Though the Neal Morse connection, as well as the album’s general catchy-meets-symphonic allure, have elicited comparisons with Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, many times while listening to A Lifeblood Psalm I was reminded of Echolyn, especially their self-titled 2012 album.

A recorded radio broadcast leads into the short “Introduction”, where Langley’s soothing voice and piano are complemented by strings and guitar. Then “How Wonderful” reveals The Twenty Committee’s approach to crossover prog, with echoes of classic Genesis in the lush yet smoothly flowing interplay of keyboards and guitar (both acoustic and electric), elegant vocal harmonies and plenty of emotion, culminating in a dramatic guitar solo by the excellent Steve Kostas. The Echolyn influence surfaces strongly in the 10 minutes of “Her Voice”, which is also the most likely to appeal to those with a more left-field bent on account of the atmospheric “controlled chaos” of its middle section, as well as its evident jazz influences emphasized by brisk electric piano – definitely a very ambitious offering with lots of twists and turns and outstanding performances throughout. The gentle ballad “Airtight”, its autumnal feel enhanced by strings and harp, closes the album’s first half on a low-key note, reprising the mood of the opener.

Presented as five separate tracks, the unconventional suite of “The Knowledge Enterprise” (a title with a strong “modern prog” flavour, just like the album’s cover artwork) introduces some new elements in the mix – such as the metal-tinged riffs and whistling moog of the energetic instrumental “Overture”. “Conceivers and Deceivers” blends tradition and modernity, piano punctuating the ebb and flow of the music, and sudden surges of intensity adding a dramatic, almost cinematic dimension reminiscent of The Tea Club. The brothers McGowan’s outfit is also evoked by the masterful handling of quiet-loud dynamics of “Tonight”, enhanced by the strings’ stateliness. On the other hand, while the melodic development of “With These Eyes” is somewhat more predictable, Langley’s exquisite vocals and the dreamy, waltzy moog at the end add interest. The suite is then wrapped up by a short, upbeat “Finale”.

While A Lifeblood Psalm is somewhat more “mainstream” than most of the albums I generally review, the outstanding musicianship and excellent production values make for a very rewarding listening experience. For a debut, it certainly sounds extremely accomplished (though not so much as to come across as contrived), and establishes The Twenty Committee as a great new addition to the roster of young US bands that embrace the ethos of prog’s “new frontier”.

Links:

http://thetwentycommittee.com/

http://thetwentycommittee.bandcamp.com/

 

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In general terms, the word “saga” evokes images of grandiosely epic tales steeped in myth or remote history. In fact, this book’s high-sounding title, together with the obviously Scandinavian sound of its author’s name, may very well lead readers to expect something quite different from what is actually offered in its pages.

Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga, the second novel by Norwegian author Torodd Fuglesteg resembles its predecessor, The Final Ride, though it also diverges from it in quite a few ways. First of all, it is narrated in the third person – therefore lacking The Final Ride’s obvious autobiographical flavour; moreover, the presence of multiple points of view besides the main character’s lends a more realistic, multidimensional feel to the narration. However, the matter-of-fact, often unadorned style – a legacy from the author’s past experiences as a journalist – has not changed, even if the story has a much more ambitious scope, and is over twice as long as the author’s previous effort.

Organized in five rather lengthy chapters, the novel chronicles the life of a peculiar figure of “man without qualities”, his relationship with his family and the world at large. While the narration revolves around Peter Svarttjern, his family and friends are equally important to the development of the story. References to contemporary events and phenomena (first and foremost, the rise of computers and information technology) frequently crop up – especially as regards changes in the fabric of Norwegian society – but, as a whole, this backdrop often reads as a sort of alternate history, as the information is patchy and there are no dates to provide an actual timeframe. This, however, is in no way detrimental to the story, whose main focus is private rather than public.

Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga would comfortably fit in the “family saga” subgenre that includes famed literary works such as Thomas Mann’s The Buddenbrooks and Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not surprisingly, death and loss are constant presences – but then, so is life, as generation follows generation. Illness, financial and professional setbacks, and failed relationships disrupt the lives of the novel’s many characters, but optimism surfaces as the younger generations learn from their elders’ mistakes, and forge their own path in life.

Though the novel’s blurb states in no uncertain terms that Fragments is the story of “a man forgotten by everyone”, and “pointless as life itself” – therefore warning the reader that this is not an exactly uplifting read – the tale is far less gloomy than one might expect. The author’s main concern are those who, on account of personality disorders or other mental problems, have shut themselves out of a “normal” life – presented in all their vulnerable humanity with deep empathy, albeit without whitewashing. Peter Svarttjern is what today would be called a nerd: computers become his lifeline as he grows up in surroundings that become increasingly alien, even hostile, cultivating his mostly solitary hobbies (such as fly-fishing, jigsaw puzzles, and subsequently motorbike rides) and his unflagging work ethic to the detriment of human relationships. Especially in the second half of the story, he comes across like an outsider trying to look in, and never being able to recreate the simplicity of his earlier life as regards human relationships. On the other hand, it is made clear that he does have feelings for the people in his life, both family and friends, and that any loss or falling out wounds him deeply. Particularly poignant is his almost non-existent relationship to women, who often see him as a freak and ultimately cause him to adopt a cold, distant attitude as a defense against further rejection.

The author’s own rather conflicted relationship with his native country, which was also explored in The Final Ride, is one of the central themes of the novel. Like the author, Peter Svarttjern leaves Norway when still young, and most of his life unfolds away from it. Unlike the author, though, he never forms an attachment any of the countries where he spends his working life, and never manages to sever his ties with Norway – no matter how hard he tries. In the way of many expatriates (something I personally know all too well), he nurtures a love-hate relationship with his native country, which he leaves gladly (and with good reason), but which then becomes an object of yearning almost immediately after moving away.

The use of a third-person narrator with multiple points of view allows for a more objective take on the events, if compared to the intensely personal perspective displayed on The Final Ride. However, the narrator is not as detached that one might expect, as if he/she was an observer with at least a partial interest in the plight of the characters – an aspect highlighted by the detailed way in which the relationships within Peter’s family and with the outside world are illustrated. His tendency to repeat the name of the subject of each paragraph reinforces his focus on each character, so that the events are laid out almost as in a list, often dispensing with the use of connectors and other words that give a written text a sense of natural flow.

The author saves his descriptive, almost lyrical vein for the paragraphs that have different animals as protagonists frequently interrupting the narrative – a way of emphasizing the ultimate pointlessness of human existence (with all its attending toil and strife) in the grand scheme of things. For those passages, he reveals a deeply sensitive, emotional understanding of nature, and a touching identification with non-human creatures. In fact, the story opens and closes with the appearance of the same animals, as if minimizing the true relevance of the human-centred narrative in comparison with the endless cycle of nature.

Even if Torodd Fuglesteg’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and his chosen subject matter is not always comfortable to read about, his genuine love of writing and storytelling shines out of every page. Moreover, his reluctance to patronize either the reader or his characters, together with his obvious empathy for the many failings of human nature, make his work likely to appeal to sensitive, insightful readers. At the moment, the author is already at work on his third novel, which he states will be shorter though considerably darker in tone. The official release is planned by the end of this year, or the early months of 2015.

Links:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IPRD688
http://www.toroddfuglesteg.com/
http://toroddfuglesteg.blogspot.co.uk/
http://thesoundoffightingcats.blogspot.co.uk/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Life Is (4:21)
2. A Good Man (3:49)
3. Childhood Dreams (6:31)
4. Les Larmes (9:36)
5. Tuesday Rain (5:08)
6. Ileana’s Song (3:37)
7. When You’re Dead (7:15)
8. Pigeon’s Intrusion (6:00)
9. Le Voyage (3:22)
10. Linear Blindness (4:12)
11. Butterflies (6:38)

LINEUP:
Susan Clynes – piano, vocals
Simon Lenski – cello (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Pierre Mottet – bass (2, 6)
Nico Chkifi – drums (2, 6)

Belgian singer/pianist/composer Susan Clynes first came to the attention of the progressive rock audience for her stunning vocal performance on the song “Glass Cubes” (written by her husband, keyboardist Antoine Guenet, also a member of Univers Zéro and Sh.t.gn) on The Wrong Object’s critically acclaimed 2013 album After the Exhibition. With a solid academic background supporting her obvious passion for music, it was just a matter of time before Clynes’s talent – first showcased in the piano trio album Sugar for a Dream, released in 2005, when the artist was just 17 years old – was recognized outside the boundaries of her native country, thanks to the sponsorship of peerless talent-scout Leonardo Pavkovic of Moonjune Records.

Released in February 2014, Life Is… marks Clynes’ international debut, and presents material recorded by the artist during three concerts held in two different locations. Although not exactly a prog album (indeed, its conventional rock quotient is very limited, it does stand squarely in that vast “grey area” at the periphery of that much-debated genre, and does have enough progressive characteristics to appeal to a sizable slice of its fandom. True, its intimate nature and stripped-down instrumentation, may be seen as a turn-off by those who crave lush, multilayered arrangements and an impressive arsenal of instruments, both traditional and exotic. On the other hand, Life Is… is a poster child for that often-applied tag of “progressive but not prog” (a blessing or a curse, depending on points of view).

While comparisons to highly regarded artists such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Fiona Apple (not to mention their spiritual “mothers”, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell) abound, it would be unfair to suggest that Clynes is in any way a copycat artist. For one thing, her strong, confident voice (sounding a bit strained on a couple of tracks, but then at 26 years of age she has still plenty of room for growth), eschews the overly ethereal or mock-operatic tones adopted by far too many female singers, and is actually more effective when keeping to a mid-range. Additionally, Clynes places an even stronger emphasis on the instrumental component, often using her voice as an instrument rather than in “traditional” singing.

With its catchy melody and uplifting, life-affirming lyrics, the title-track possesses a faint Canterbury vibe even in its chamber dimension; Clynes’ emotional vocals and dramatic piano do not need any further embellishments to keep listeners on their toes. The song is one of four recorded during a solo performance at the library of the Cultural Centre of the Flemish town of Bree – together with the rarefied torch song of “Tuesday Rain”, the more assertive “Linear Blindness” and the gentle, impressionistic instrumental vignette of “Le Voyage”. On the other hand, the jaunty, energetic “A Good Man” (which reminded me a lot of Kate Bush) and the delightful, lilting ballad “Ileana’s Song” (dedicated to her daughter, who was born during the recording of the album) feature the discreet presence of Pierre Mottet’s double bass and Nico Chkifi’s drums, and were recorded during the first of two shows at Brussels’ historic Art Deco bar The Archiduc.

In the remaining five tracks (also recorded at The Archiduc, though on a different occasion), Clynes is accompanied by cellist Simon Lenski of Belgian chamber rock outfit DAAU on cello, with truly outstanding results. The distinctive sound of the instrument complements her voice, and allows her to display her full potential – as in the scintillating “Childhood Dreams” (dedicated to another influential figure in Clynes’ life, her aunt Yoka, who passed away while she was writing the album), with its breezy scat overtones. The 9-minute “Les Larmes” (the longest track on the album), dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is infused by a warm Spanish/Mediterranean feel enhanced by Susan’s lovely wordless vocalizing, while the cello, even with its occasionally strident, drawn-out tone, lends it an almost classical solemnity – which also emerges in the autumnal, Old-World-flavoured instrumental “Pigeon’s Intrusion”. In sharp contrast with the bright-eyed optimism of the title-track, “When You Are Dead” sounds hypnotic and ominous, with Clynes’ lower-pitched voice and the treated cello dipping and surging in unison in a blend of romanticism and tension – a pattern also displayed in haunting closing track “Butterflies”.

With a well-balanced running time of about one hour, plenty of melody, yet also ample room for more offbeat fare, Life Is… offers an accessible listening experience, yet with enough of an edge to appeal to listeners of a more adventurous bent. Packaged in an attractively minimalist cover showing a lovely photo of the artist’s face – embellished by clear gems that mirror the sparkling nature of her music – and the added interest value of Sid Smith’s impeccably penned liner notes, this album is already poised to become one of 2014’s highlights in terms of non-mainstream music releases.

Links:
http://susanoclynes.wix.com/susanclynes-music
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/061_SUSAN-CLYNES_Life-Is_MJR061/
http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/life-is

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. “There Seem to Be Knifestains in Your Blood” (4:17)
2. The Sheltering Waters (6:30)
3. The Counterfeit Pedestrian (2:36)
4. (A) Glimpse (of Possible Endings) (15:24)
5. The Worst Is Behind Us (8:40)

LINEUP:
David Lundberg – all instruments
Mattias Olsson – all instruments

With:
Kristofer Eng Radjabi – theremin (1)
Rob Martino – Chapman stick (2)
Einar Baldursson – electric guitar, slide guitar, e-bow (4)
Leo Svensson-Sander – cello (1,4), musical saw (4)
Elias Modig – bass (4)
Yann Le Nestour – bass clarinet, metal clarinet (4)
Martin Von Bahr – oboe (4, 5)
Tiger Olsson – vocals (5)

Just one year after the release of their debut Necroplex, the dynamic Swedish duo of Mattias Olsson and David Lundberg – aka Necromonkey – are back with their sophomore effort, titled A Glimpse of Possible Endings. While both musicians have continued their regular recording and concert activity (Lundberg with Gösta Berlings Saga, Olsson with, among others, The Opium Cartel and barnstorming Italian newcomers Ingranaggi della Valle), they have also kept up their collaboration throughout the year, ensconced in Olsson’s state-of-the-art Roth Händle Studios in Stockholm (where Gösta Berlings Saga’s magnificent Glue Works was also recorded).

While marking a continuity of sorts with its predecessor, A Glimpse of Possible Endings is also different in quite a few respects – notably more ambitious and more focused. On the other hand, the first thing most listeners will notice is the album’s very restrained running time of a mere 37 minutes. With so many bands and artists opting for sprawling opuses that are inevitably packed with filler, this definitely sounds like a statement of intent on the part of Olsson and Lundberg. In no way affecting the interest value of the compositions – which, in their own way, are as complex as any traditional prog numbers – this streamlined approach makes the most of the duo’s impressive instrumentation, supplemented by the contribution of a number of guest artists (including Gösta Berlings Saga’s guitarist Einar Baldursson, who had also guested on Necroplex, and talented US Chapman stickist Rob Martino). Interestingly, the mellotron’s starring role is interpreted in decidedly unexpected fashion – more as an endless repository of samples of various instruments than a creator of retro-tinged symphonic atmospheres.

The five tracks on the album are conceived as impressionistic vignettes rather than highly structured compositions, though not as random as they may first seem. They range from the two minutes of the sparse piano interlude “The Counterfeit Pedestrian” – backed by the faint crackle of a blind record player – to the 15 of the title-track. This most unconventional “epic” is an intricate but oddly cohesive sonic patchwork in which the hauntingly organic texture of mellotron, piano,  marimba and xylophone, bolstered by cello, woodwinds and dramatic massed choirs, vie with Einar Baldursson’s sharp, almost free-form guitar and a wide array of riveting electronic effects.

Opener “There Seem to Be Knifestains in Your Blood” sets the mood, though with an unexpectedly catchy note. A jangling, Morriconesque guitar, backed by unflagging electronic drums, weaves a memorable tune at a slow, hypnotic pace, soon joined by the ghostly wail of a theremin. The very title of “The Sheltering Waters” will not fail to evoke one of “new” King Crimson’s most iconic pieces – and, indeed, the presence of Rob Martino’s Chapman stick, combined with the gentle, echoing guitar and eerie percussive effects, ideally connects this hauntingly atmospheric track to its illustrious quasi-namesake. The album’s wrap-up comes with the stately, surging synth washes of “The Worst Is Behind Us”, whose subdued, serene ending indeed suggests the calm after a real or metaphorical storm.

As already observed in my review of Necroplex, Necromonkey’s music may be an acquired taste, and disappoint those who are looking for connections with the high-profile Scandinavian outfits that brought Olsson and Lundberg to the attention of the prog audience. In any case, A Glimpse of Possible Endings is a flawlessly performed album, in which Olsson and Lundberg’s outstanding musicianship and compositional skills are subtly displayed, yet never flaunted – just like the music’s high emotional content. It is perhaps a more “serious” endeavour than Necroplex, bound to appeal to fans of non-traditional progressive music (not necessarily rock) rather than those with more mainstream sensibilities, and requiring repeated listens in order to be fully appreciated. The stylish, sepia-toned cover artwork by Henning Lindahl, with its faint Art Deco suggestions, rounds out a most excellent musical experience.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Necromonkey/109218875773387
http://rothhandlestudios.blogspot.com/2014/02/necromonkey-glimpse-of-possible-endings.html

 

 

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