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Archive for October, 2010

TRACKLISTING:
1. Leslie Anne Levine    (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (4:31)
3. July, July! (2:51)
4. A Cautionary Song  (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill  (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire’s Lament  (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10.California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade  (9:50)

LINEUP:
Colin Meloy – lead vocals, guitars, percussion
Chris Funk – guitars, pedal steel, theremin
Jenny Conlee – Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, regular piano, accordion
Nate Query –  upright bass
Ezra Holbrook – drums, percussion, backing vocals

Many of those people who (sometimes in spite of themselves) were won over by The Decemberists’ award-winning 2009 release, the sumptuous rock opera The Hazards of Love, will certainly have felt the impulse to delve into the Portland band’s back catalogue, and thus come across their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Though the specialized press has often placed the band under the ‘progressive rock’ umbrella (as  was definitely the case with the first article I read about them,  in the autumn of 2006), true-blue prog fans are sharply divided about this issue. While the more conservative set often refuse to acknowledge anything not sounding like the Seventies bands, the more open-minded fans have equally often embraced the band as a firm favourite.

As is the case of all Decemberists releases but The Hazards of Love (and possibly their 2004 EP, The Tain),  Castaways and Cutouts is an effort that can only in part be called progressive. In fact, a good proportion of the songs follow in the footsteps of  the great American folk tradition, influenced by its European counterpart, yet at the same time noticeably different.  It is nevertheless an album that prog fans can definitely find appealing (unless they are of a seriously close-minded disposition), and even features a couple of tracks that might be tagged as ‘epics’. Based on a series of vignettes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate members of society (as the title implies), handled in terms that range from the downright grotesque to the deeply compassionate, the album undeniably possesses a powerful lyrical impact – which has become a constant of the band’s output, making very effective use of Colin Meloy’s fertile, erudite imagination and remarkable skill as a wordsmith.

Meloy’s stories, deeply rooted in the folklore of both the Old and the New World, are not meant to leave the listener cold, even resorting to shock tactics in their stark description of seedy milieus and events. Indeed, some of the situations depicted on  Castaways and Cutouts are not for the faint-hearted, even without resorting to excessively graphic detail. Luckily, not all is not doom and gloom on this album. Meloy approaches his subject matter, no matter how sordid or depressing, from a perspective of poetic realism, presenting the events with a compassionate stance, avoiding the almost masochistic wallowing in misery that, for instance, seems to be almost the rule for progressive metal bands. His voice, with its somewhat nasal twang and precise enunciation, may be an acquired taste for some, but is also quite perfect for the sort of storytelling displayed on the album.

I have always been impressed by The Decemberists’ ability to produce memorable opening tracks – in my view, one of the real strengths of a band in compositional terms – and “Leslie Ann Levine” is no exception. A hard-hitting account of suicide and stillbirth, told from the point of view of a dead baby, it is the follow-up to “We All Go Down Together” (featured on  Picaresque, the band’s third studio release), which, however, does not pack the same punch, either musically or lyrically. While its folksy, accordion-driven tune, with its vague French flavour, is only mildly wistful, the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. Some of the songs are straight-up acoustic folk numbers, where the music seems to take a back seat, and as such might appear too ‘simple’ to those craving the complexity (whether authentic or fake) of ‘mainstream’ progressive rock. The profoundly disturbing, dirge-like “A Cautionary Song” (a tale of prostitution motivated by abject poverty), and the wistfully romantic love songs  “Grace Cathedral Hill” and “Clementine” belong to this group, where the minimalistic musical accompaniment allows the narrative component to emerge, driven along by Meloy’s plaintive, nostalgia-filled vocal style.

On the other hand, the upbeat “July! July!”, whose deceptively optimistic mood conceals another disquieting tale of violent death, and the haunting dreamscapes of “I Dreamed I Was an Architect” display a catchier, more listener-friendly approach, with memorable choruses and a richer instrumental background. The aptly-titled “Cocoon”, a dreamy, almost slow-motion number inspired by the science fiction of the late Kurt Vonnegut, feels almost reassuring in the midst of so much turmoil; while “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an infectious divertissement sporting some of the wackiest rhymes this side of Lewis Carroll. That leaves the two aforementioned epics, though in terms of running time only album closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” might be described as such. However, the mesmerizing, Hammond-drenched strains of “Odalisque” – another pitch-black, convoluted tale of sexual perversion, rape and (probably) infanticide – are such a towering achievement as to give the impression of a much longer song. “California One”, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of nature and youth with a deep vein of nostalgia for a bygone past – its almost 11 minutes, driven by piano, pedal-steel guitar and touches of theremin, evoking a distinct Sixties West Coast feel.

An outstanding debut album, lavishly packaged in a booklet graced by the quirky illustrations of Carson Ellis (Colin Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, and a professional graphic artist), Castaways and Cutouts is highly recommended to those who are constantly seeking for both lyrical challenges and music that manages to be catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Though here they will not find the myriad complexities and head-spinning changes of canonical progressive rock, open-minded (and curious) prog fans could do much worse than get acquainted with the wild and wonderful world of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists.

Links:
http://www.decemberists.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Lake of Fire (4:22)
2. Money Speaks (4:40)
3. You’ll Just Have to See It to Believe (5:22)
4. Stars of Sayulita (6:12)
5. Warning (4:20)
6. What Have They Done to the Rain (4:56)
7. Abandoned Mines (5:45)
8. Suicide Train (4:23)
9. Telstar (3:55)
10. Dateless Oblivion & Divine Repose (1:54)

Bonus tracks:
11. Abandoned Mines – Forest Fang Remix (8:26)
12. You’ll Just Have to See It to Believe – Alternate Mix (5:48)
13. Lake of Fire – Evan Schiller Remix (4:21)

LINEUP:
Barry Cleveland – electric & acoustic guitar, electric & acoustic 12-string guitar, Moog guitar, GuitarViol, sampled percussion, sampled Mellotron, voice (8), bass (8)
Robert Powell – pedal-steel guitar (1-5, 7, 9, 11-13), lap-steel guitar (4)
Michael Manring – bass (1-9, 11-13)
Celso Alberti – drums, percussion (1-4, 6-9, 11-13)
Amy X Neuburg – vocals (1, 2, 6, 9, 10 & 13).

With:
Harry Manx – vocals (4)
Deborah Holland – vocals (4)
Artist General – voice (5)
Erdem Helvacioglu – acoustic-electric guitar, electronics (3,13)
Rick Walker – chain-link drums, teapot (5), congas (4), dumbec (7)
Gino Robair – dumbec, kendang (6)

As anticipated in my previous post, here is my third review in a row of an album released in 2010 by MoonJune Records – and, like its predecessors, definitely one of the top releases of the year. Hologramatron, the fifth album credited to the name of San Francisco-based guitarist, composer and journalist Barry Cleveland (currently Associate Editor for Guitar Player magazine), has recently been submitted for the Grammy Award as “Best Alternative Rock Album of 2010” – and deservedly so.  A labour of love, whose recording took several years to complete, Hologramatron (whose title, according to the artist himself, means ‘whatever you need it to mean’) is one of those rare musical efforts that manage to sound like very little else. With derivative acts a dime a dozen on the current music scene, listening to such an album can be an exhilarating experience. Although Barry Cleveland’s name may be the most prominent on the cover, unlike your average ‘solo pilot’ release this is very much a collective effort, in which the input of each member of the band is recognizable, yet at the same time meshes with the others to form an organic whole.

Unabashedly eclectic,  Hologramatron has been called a modern ‘protest album’, and with very good reason – though only part of the songs have an unmistakable socio-political bent. However, it is first and foremost a collection of inspired, thought-provoking compositions performed by a group of amazingly talented, experienced musicians who manage to come across as an extremely tight unit rather than a combination of over-inflated egos. While vocalist Amy X Neuburg (a classically-trained singer, and a truly serendipitous find for Cleveland) may be relatively unknown outside dedicated avant-garde circles – in spite of an impressive curriculum as a composer and ‘avant-cabaret’ artist – the name of bassist Michael Manring is nothing short of legendary among four-string fans, and both drummer Celso Alberti and pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell can claim a number of prestigious affiliations. When such collective talent is gathered together, the results may often be a tad underwhelming – especially when musicians forget that they are at the service of the music, and not the other way round.

Thankfully, this is not the case with Hologramatron. The impressive cohesion between all the artists involved, band members and guests, results in 10 tracks that display a remarkably original approach, even when external influences can be detected . While listening to the album for the first time, the closest comparison that came into my mind was with the late ‘90s – early 2000’s incarnation of King Crimson – and Robert Fripp is undoubtedly one of Barry Cleveland’s most noticeable sources of inspiration. In contrast with the majority of prog albums released in the past year or so, Hologramatron is based on relatively short compositions, none longer than 6 minutes –  and, indeed, half of the tracks are songs with a more or less ‘conventional’ verse-chorus-verse structure. The album might even be seen as a lesson on how to produce music that does not rely on 30-minute epics or convoluted concept stories in order to be progressive.

As I previously pointed out, eclecticism is the name of the game, with the hard-hitting earnestness of tracks like “Lake of Fire” or “Money Speaks” relieved by the inclusion of two covers of Sixties hit songs (which, in my personal view, do not really fit too well with the rest of the album), or the gentle yet emotional content of “Stars of Sayulita”. The psychedelic-meets-ambient component of Cleveland’s creativity (which was brilliantly showcased in the band’s live performance at ProgDay 2010) is here represented by the instrumental tracks, namely “You’ll Just Have to See It to Believe It” and “Abandoned Mines” – where Cleveland’s array of traditional and electronic guitars, effectively supported by Robert Powell’s pedal-steel guitar, Manring’s stellar bass and understated percussion patterns, weave subtly entrancing, multilayered textures.

On opener “Lake of Fire” (whose firebrand lyrics point a sharp finger at Christian fundamentalism),  Amy X Neuburg adopts two sharply different singing styles in the verse and the chorus – soothing, almost seductive in the former, venomously aggressive in the latter. The splendidly bass-driven “Money Talks” and the haunting “Stars of Sayulita”, graced by the warm, bluesy vocals of Harry Manx and Deborah Holland, follow a similar ‘mainstream’ pattern – as, obviously, do the two covers, “What Have They Done to the Rain” and “Telstar”, whose cheerful nature contrasts almost jarringly with the rest. Two of the tracks with vocals, however, diverge quite sharply: the ominous, electronics-laden avant-rap of the aptly-titled “Warning” (with vocals courtesy of long-time Cleveland collaborator Michael Masley, aka Artist General), and the tense “Suicide Train” (interpreted by Cleveland himself), an effort that borders on metal, featuring a beautiful, hypnotic guitar solo bolstered by crashing drums.

Running at around 64 minutes, Hologramatron is nowhere as cumbersome as many other current releases, though the three bonus tracks tagged at its end do not really add a lot (unless you happen to be a staunch completist) – with the possible exception of the remix of “Abandoned Mines” (nearly three minutes longer than the original), which possesses an eerily cinematic quality.  A masterful blend of mainstream sensibilities, socially-aware lyrics, intriguing atmospheres and stunning instrumental and vocal performances, this is a unique album that is warmly recommended to progressive music fans.

Links:
http://www.barrycleveland.com

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TRACKLISTING:
…Rattlin’ All the Time
:
1. Tarabos  (5:10)
2. Chloe And The Pirates  (7:56)
3. All White  (6:24)
4. The Man Who Waved At Trains  (3:54)
5. As If  (4:14)
6. Hibou, Anemone And Bear  (3:28)
7. Out-Bloody-Rageous  (8:36)
8. Pig   (4:28)
9. Esther’s Nose Job   (6:04)
10. Slightly All the Time  (9:32)

…Before the Moon:
11. Leonardo’s E-Mail  (4:11)
12. Moonvision   (2:17)
13. Many Moons, Many Junes  (3:05)

…After the Moon:
14. Lunar Impression  (1:17)
15. Circular Lines In The Air  (2:46
16. Moon Geezers (to Elton and Hugh)  (3:27)

LINEUP:
Beppe Crovella – Mellotron, Wurlitzer E200 electric piano, Fender Rhodes Stage 73 electric piano, Hammond organ M102, Hohner electric piano, Hohner Clavinet D6, Roesler Grand Piano, Farfisa Professional

This is meant as the second instalment in a trio of reviews of albums released by one of the most forward-thinking independent labels on the current music scene  – New York-based MoonJune Records. As a follow-up to View from Chicheng Precipice, here is another album that many listeners may very well see as nearly unapproachable, but whose authentically progressive nature can hardly be denied.

The subtitle to Beppe Crovella’s  What’s Rattlin’ on the Moon? reads “A Personal Vision of the Music of Mike Ratledge” – which alone should put paid to any allegations that this is yet another run-of-the-mill tribute album. An extraordinary musician in his own right, with an impressive career both as a solo artist and the mind behind Italian jazz-rock outfit Arti e Mestieri, Crovella is clearly not interested in faithfully reproducing music that is available elsewhere – but rather in offering his own reinterpretation of some of the legendary Soft Machine keyboardist’s ground-breaking compositions. The result of this daring, enlightened operation (conceived by Crovella and MoonJune Records mainman Leonardo Pavkovic) is a disc that, while anything but easy to approach, and obviously possessing very limited mass appeal, is a fascinating listen, especially for anyone with a keen interest in vintage keyboards.

Since the music of Soft Machine is undeniably an acquired taste in itself, commanding an almost fanatical adoration on the part of its fans, and an equally strong rejection on the part of ‘unbelievers’, an album offering an apparently one-dimensional take on said music is very likely to send a lot of people running for the exits. First of all, it requires quite a bit of patience on the part of the listener, even from those who should be used to the less than easily digestible nature of most progressive rock. Moreover, the distinct lack of the ‘rock’ part of the genre definition can prove a turn off – and the sheer length of the project (close to 80 minutes) is not likely to help sceptics warm to it.  However, those who will stick with the album and give it the attention it deserves will reap their rewards, because  What’s Rattlin’ on the Moon? offers many moments of real interest, and some of sheer delight.

A master of his craft, Crovella recreates the sound of an entire band with his array of vintage keyboards – ruling out the use of those synthesizers and their ilk that have become so indispensable in modern music-making. It is often astonishing to hear those keyboards fulfil the role of the bass or drums, though in most cases they just weave layers of sound in the Softs’ typically free-form style. As the album is divided into three recognizable parts,  the pauses between the individual numbers are almost non-existent – as if each part was meant to be listened to as a single track. This makes for a very distinctive listening experience, the polar opposite of a conventional song-based approach – though equally far removed from the somewhat sterile displays of technical dexterity that are often an integral part of ‘prog’ recordings.

The ten Soft Machine compositions are reinterpreted in such a way as to be nearly unrecognizable. This is especially the case of the two tracks from the band’s iconic Third album, “Out-Bloody-Rageous” and “Slightly All the Time”, the latter being possibly the highlight of the disc with its hypnotic yet melodic line and fascinating use of the Mellotron to provide choral effects. All the compositions share the same rarefied, riveting texture, which is intended to be savoured slowly, possibly not in one take. At every successive listen, different effects will unfold – pulsating,  surging, solemn, sometimes flowing, sometimes choppy, creating subtly shifting layers of sound. It is the kind of music that will fade in the background if left unattended, so to speak – meant to be listened to, not just heard.

The two mini-suites at the end of the album are original Crovella compositions intended, in some ways, to ‘describe’ the creative process behind the album. Both are largely piano-based and less idiosyncratic than the first part of the disc, with a stronger melodic development and some jazzy touches. “Moon Geezers”, dedicated to the sadly deceased former Soft Machine members Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper, closes the album on a suitably measured, melancholy note.

As already intimated, What’s Rattlin’ on the Moon? is not an album that will appeal to everyone, especially not those with short attention spans. It does, however, stand head and shoulders above the many hackneyed tribute albums that flood the progressive rock market. Experimental and very personal (even if a tad overlong), this is a must-listen for Soft Machine fans, and highly recommended to lovers of genuinely personal takes on prog classics.

Links:
http://www.beppecrovella.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Three Views From Chicheng Precipice (after Bai Yuyi) (9:52)
2. Tangabata (15:52)
3. Kan Hai De Re Zi  (Days by the Sea) (3:44)
4. Aviariations on “A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (6:48)
5. Bagua  (Eight Trigrams) (10:41)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea electric and resonator guitars, melodica, Naxi jaw harp, kalimba, dan bau (Vietnamese monochord)
Alicia Allenviolin (1, 3)
Greg Campbell drums, percussion (2)
Ruth Davidson cello (1, 3)
James DeJoie bass flute, bamboo flute, bass clarinet (2)
Caterina De Re voice (4)
Stuart Dempster trombone, conch shell (2)
Will Dowd – drums, percussion (1)
Elizabeth Falconer koto (5)
John Falconer shakuhachi (5)
Jay Jaskot drums (3)
Paul Kikuchi percussion (5)
Kevin Millard baliset (3)

In spite of China’s venerable musical tradition, very few people outside the ‘Asian studies’ circles are aware the authentic musical heritage of the Far East, unless it is in the most superficial of terms. Mentions of Chinese music might conjure, at least to the uninitiated, memories of the cheesy (when not downright ghastly) ‘sonic wallpaper’ that will accompany a meal in most Chinese restaurants of the Western world. However, I am happy to report that Views from Chicheng Precipice – the first recording effort solely credited to Seattle-based guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, a true veteran of the progressive music scene of the US Pacific Northwest – is light years removed from any such kitschy scenario.

Those who are familiar with Rea’s current main projects, the eclectic art-rock of Moraine and the improvisational jazz-rock of Iron Kim Style, will probably find themselves somewhat puzzled by this album – which, on the other hand, provides further proof of the guitarist’s broad horizons and dedication to the pursuit of creative musical avenues. While world music may be all the rage in a some circles, it is nevertheless not easy to find artists that approach the tradition of a country as distant (both literally and metaphorically) as China with such rigorously philological spirit as Rea manages to do – informed by his first-hand, in-depth knowledge of the musical and cultural background of both China and Taiwan, where he spent the years between 1989 and 1993.

Recorded between 2006 and 2008, Views from Chicheng Precipice sees the participation of members of both Moraine and Iron Kim Style, as well as other musicians from the Seattle scene, such as Japanese music specialists Elizabeth and John Falconer, and trombone master Stuart Dempster. Running at under 50 minutes, the album features five tracks presenting different facets of the Chinese musical heritage, seen through the eyes of a Western artist in a respectful yet uniquely personal way. Indeed, four out of five numbers (the sole exception being the title-track) are traditional compositions arranged by Rea so as to preserve their spirit even when reinterpreting their form.

Out of those five tracks, the East-West collision of “Days by the Sea” might almost be described as a pop song of sorts (also on account of its markedly shorter running time). Rea’s guitar weaves a tune that, while respectful to the original, incorporates elements of African-American blues, sparring with Alicia Allen’s violin in a stunning dialogue that brought to my mind Rea’s work with Moraine. The title-track, on the other hand, is built around three pentatonic motifs that comprise an original sonic triptych, with a recurring theme and plenty of scope left for improvisations. The composition was performed by Moraine during their performance at NEARfest 2010, though not many members of the audience were able to grasp its sheer elegance and grace in a live setting. Here the triptych comes across in all its understated power, the seamless flow of the music evoking the beauty of the titular mountain landscape (Qingcheng Mountain is the site of a Daoist sanctuary in China’s Sichuan Province). Rea’s guitar converses smoothly with Allen’s violin, while a drum-led improvisation adds a free-jazz touch to the central part of the composition.

The remaining three numbers are of a distinctly more challenging nature, since each of them develops in a fashion that is definitely less attuned to the Western ear. The 15-minute “Tangabata” and the 10-minute “Bagua” both have their roots in ceremonial music, as borne out by their stately, measured pace. The latter makes use of traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto and the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), supported by solemn yet dramatic percussion work in the creation of a gently meditative mood. “Tangabata”, though a far from accessible piece, might be called the real highlight of the album. While featuring a distinctly Western-flavoured, free-jazz improv section at its very end, most of the composition remains faithful to its ancient origins – a sparse melody of austere beauty, almost suspended in time, made of deep, echoing sounds occasionally brightened by chiming bells. Finally, in “Aviariations on A Hundred Birds Serenade the Phoenix” (whose gently punning title reflects Rea’s ever-present sense of humour) the Chinese oboe traditionally used in the titular piece is replaced by Caterina De Re’s piercing vocal acrobatics, mimicking birdsong in a performance that brings together contemporary Western academic music and Chinese opera. Rea plays guitar and kalimba, whose sounds almost merge with De Re’s impossibly high notes.

Miles away from any tawdrily commercial ‘world music’ recreations, Views from Chicheng Precipice is, as Rea himself puts it, a love letter to the country where he spent four years of his life, an experience that was essential for his development as a musician. A refined, understated listen, it is an album made of subtle contrasts of light and shade, and as such needs to be approached with respect and concentration. The music possesses the delicate, almost brittle beauty of Far Eastern art, in stark contrast with the ‘in-your-face’ nature of much that is fashionable in this day and age. Being such an unabashed labour of love, imbued with profound feelings towards the country and its culture, sets it head and shoulders above the many blatantly contrived releases flooding the current music market. Those who will find themselves intrigued by the album could do much worse than get hold of a copy of Dennis’ book Live at the Forbidden City, a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely well-written account of his years in China and Taiwan – and a perfect companion to this disc. A special mention is also deserved by the stunningly minimalistic cover artwork and detailed liner notes – a simple yet classy package for an album that everyone with an interest in world music should check out.

Link:
http://www.dennisrea.com

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TRACK LIST:
STAGE:
1. Hipster Spinster  (6:06)
2. March To Orion  (5:11)
3. Mystic Jam  (7:28)
4. Market Square  (8:13)

STUDIO:
5. Hide & Seek  (3:58)
6. Jazzmin  (5:07)
7. Say What?  (3:38)
8. The Timekeeper  (2:53)
9. 28 Degrees  (4:34)
10. Neon Noodle  (4:17)

FILM:
11. Z’Hadum  (10:26)
12. Phantom Lair  (4:41)
13. Break A Leg  (4:03)
14. Christine’s Theme  (2:40)

LINEUP:
Vic Samalot – electric and acoustic guitar
Bobbi Holt – keyboards, 2nd guitar (10), percussion (5)
Jeffrey Scott – bass guitar
Ivan George – drums
Vince Broncaccio – drums (8, 10)
Phil Quidort – trumpet (4)

Sessions is the fifth album released by Cleveland-based outfit Rare Blend, founded by guitarist Vic Samalot and keyboardist Bobbi Holt in 1993. Celebrating their 17th year of activity in 2010, Rare Blend are indeed aptly named – a band that successfully blends jazz-fusion, traditional progressive rock and jam-band attitudes, coupled with a healthy dose of sterling musicianship and a genuine sense of enjoyment. A remarkably tight band, capable of tackling complex compositions and recording them in one take, they emphasize live performance rather than polished studio recording – as their long experience and affiliation with local festivals, supported by their obvious dedication to their music, allow them to take advantage of every opportunity to perform before an audience.

Sessions clearly proves that the band have come a long way since their debut as a duo, Cinefusion, released in 1995. Honed by years of regular gigging,  they have gradually moved from the generic ‘prog’ approach of that first release towards a fluid form of jazz-rock rooted in the golden years of the genre, though infused with a personal touch. Rare Blend are in the habit of recording everything they play, be it in the studio or on stage, which spells a remarkable confidence in their craft. Though never rehearsed, their music shows a kind of discipline does not so much stem from endless hours spent perfecting each and every one of their compositions, as from an easy familiarity with the demands of performance.

The first part of the album contains four tracks recorded live in various venues (including the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore, recently featured in the documentary film Romantic Warriors). Opener “Hipster Spinster” blends fluid, vintage jazz-rock stylings with atmospheric keyboards à la Pink Floyd – an influence that also surfaces in the Middle Eastern-tinged “Mystic Jam”; while “March to Orion” is driven by Jeff Scott’s solid bass line (a constant of the album, like glue holding the fabric of the compositions together), underpinning Samalot’s ever-reliable guitar forays. “Market Square” (named after the place in Cleveland where the track was originally recorded) sees the impromptu participation of Phil Quidort on trumpet, adding a wistful note to a dynamic yet oddly mesmerizing number, and sparring with Samalot’s guitar over Scott’s pumping bass line.

The six studio tracks (recorded in one take during rehearsals) display more of the band’s trademark free-form, yet appealingly melodic approach, with a loose texture ensuring that every instrument gets the chance to shine. All the tracks are rather short (with the aptly-titled “Jazzmin” the longest at 5 minutes), the funky, uptempo “The Timekeeper” and “Say What?” nicely balanced by the atmospheric mood of “Neon Noodle”, enhanced by some beautiful interplay between electric and acoustic guitar.

The Film section features four compositions conceived as soundtracks to two famous silent movies of the 1920s. The album’s longest track, the strongly cinematic “Z’Hadum” (inspired by Fritz Lang’s iconic Metropolis),  is a suitably Gothic offering,with a peculiar structure broken down by frequent pauses that create a sense of palpable tension, its hypnotic pace providing an ideal backdrop for synth and guitar excursions. The three remaining numbers (inspired by the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera), all markedly shorter and veering towards classic  progressive rock territories, share a similarly ominous mood.

If I had to level some criticism at Sessions, it would be on account of its running time of almost 72 minutes. Though somehow justified by the album’s distinctive format, I still feel that some judicious editing would not have gone amiss. However, the album aims at offering as complete as possible a picture of Rare Blend’s varied output, and its three-part structure makes it easier to break it down into sections for listening purposes. In any case, Sessions is packed with energetic, brilliantly executed compositions that will definitely appeal to fans of jazz-rock/fusion, especially those who enjoy spontaneous, unscripted performances. It is also an excellent introduction to Rare Blend for those who are not yet familiar with the band.

Link:
http://www.rareblend.net

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TRACK LIST:
1. Look! It’s Coming  7:45
2. Old World News  8:22
3. Truth Seeker  9:48
4. Belteshazzar’s Dream  8:10
5. Plowshares Into Swords  10:15
6. Locust Swarm  4:31

LINEUP:
J.R. Fernandez – keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, lead vocals (2, 3, 5)
Anthony Davis – lead vocals (1, 5 – second verse), voice (4)
A.I. Fernandez – bass guitar (3)

With:
Scott Rockenfield – drums

Novus Rex is a project formed by the father/son duo J.R. and A.I. Fernandez. Now based in Denver, Colorado (USA), J.R. Fernandez was raised in the New York City metropolitan area during the Seventies, and his interest in keyboards began at an early age. Later, he brought to bear his formal education in electronics engineering and computer science in his musical activity, especially as regards the use of  Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) technology.

The title of Novus Rex’s debut album, as well as the idea behind it, was inspired by the Bible, in particular the books of the prophets Daniel, Isaiah and Joel (the album title is actually taken from the latter) – as well as by history and current events. As concept albums go,  Plowshares Into Swords is quite a rare occurrence, since, for the most part, it lets the music – rather than the words – do the talking. Though elaborate concepts do have a loyal following, other people (including myself) often find themselves put off by the excessive wordiness (when not outright preachy nature) of many of those efforts – where the music often seems to be pushed in the background in favour of the verbal message. Luckily, J.R. Fernandez’ priorities for his project’s debut release are very clear: indeed,  while four out of the six tracks that comprise Plowshares Into Swords have lyrics, these are short and to the point, and in no way detract from what is really the focus of the album – the musical content.

Rooted in vintage progressive rock, with touches of jazz-rock and electronica, Plowshares Into Swords revolves around Fernandez’s skill as a keyboardist. With both digital and analog keyboards thrown into the mix, the album sounds lush and warm, with an easy, natural flow that is often hard to achieve properly. The synthesizers never sound wheezing or piercing as it frequently happens in modern recordings, and the passages in which Fernandez lets rip on the Hammond organ can be positively stunning. The album’s organic feel is further enhanced by the contribution of Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfield, which prevents the dreaded artificial effect caused by the all too common use of programmed drums.

The album’s press release mentions such influences as Pink Floyd, Vangelis and ELP – and, for once, this is not just throwing names around for the sake of it, since these three acts are clearly referenced in Novus Rex’s music. However, it would be unfair to label the album as overtly derivative, because Plowshares Into Swords reveals a genuinely personal imprint, even if steeped in the glorious tradition of the Seventies. Fernandez has listened to a lot of different music in his lifetime, which obviously informs his compositional approach. While his handling of keyboard duties does bring Keith Emerson to mind, he is definitely more restrained, and never indulges in over-the-top soloing. The rich layers of keyboards that feature so prominently on the album are at the service of the compositions rather than the other way around.

“Look! It’s Coming” opens the album in a dramatic, cinematic way, with spacey, multilayered keyboards and eerie sound effects, bringing to mind Vangelis, Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd – the latter comparison reinforced by the Gilmourian echoes in the guitar solo. However, the distinctive vocal contribution of the late Anthony Davis (an experienced musician and good friend of Fernandez,  who also wrote the song’s lyrics) adds a touch of its own. Emerson’s influence surfaces most clearly in the following tracks, such as the intense “Old World News”, the imperious, almost martially-paced “Beltheshazzar’s Dream” (in my view the most successful number on the album), and the somewhat more low-key title-track. On the other hand, the heavy riffing and guitar-keyboard interplay in  “Truth Seeker” brings to mind vintage hard rock acts such as Blue Oyster Cult. The disc is closed by the relatively short, atmospheric instrumental “Locust Swarm”, where layers of keyboards weave a dance-like tune.

Running below 50 minutes, Plowshares Into Swords is a compact, well-rounded album that is both accessible and suitably complex. J.R. Fernandez proves that he can fuse disparate influences with his own inspiration, and come up with an album that, while not wildly innovative, manages to hit the progressive spot. Lovers of classic, keyboard-oriented prog will find a lot to interest them in this solid debut by a gifted musician and composer. This a disc that makes good use of both tradition and technological innovation, and is also a very pleasing, rewarding listen for everyone but the most snobbish of progressive rock fans.

Link:
http://www.novusrex.net

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Interlude – Changes #2

As I mentioned in my post of about two weeks ago,  I mean to give this blog a somewhat different function – not just a repository of reviews of  vintage albums, but mainly a showcase for new material.  The blog format will allow me to concentrate on the musical content of any album without having to worry about giving a rating – something that I have been increasingly feeling as a pointless constraint.

With my previous post –  the review of the Romantic Warriors documentary film – I have inaugurated my blog’s new trend. In the next few days I will start posting reviews of albums released in the past year or so, most of them exclusive to this site – which means my updates will be more frequent.  I know I have a small but loyal readership, and many musicians have appreciated the care and effort I put into the reviews I used to write for other sites. This is something I want to continue, though this time at my own pace, and in my own terms.

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