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Archive for January, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. La Faulx  (25:03)
2. Jack the Ripper (13:20)
3. Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu (12:51)
4. Chaos Hermetique (bonus track) (11:52)

LINEUP:
Michel Berckmans – oboe, bassoon (1-3)
Daniel Denis – drums, percussion
Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola
Vincent Motouille – keyboards (4)
Guy Segers – bass, voice
Roger Trigaux – guitar, piano, organ, harmonium

Released when the original prog movement had, for the most part, already run out of steam, over the years Heresie has built a reputation as one of the gloomiest, most disturbing records ever produced in a progressive rock context. A descent into unadulterated darkness, Univers Zéro’s second album enjoys near-legendary status in the more forward-thinking circles of prog fans. As technically brilliant as any of the ‘big name’ bands of the early Seventies (and possibly even more so), the Belgian outfit approach the creation of highly challenging music from a distinctly different angle than the likes of Genesis or Yes – while a comparison with King Crimson might feel more appropriate.

Almost 32 years after Heresie’s release, Univers Zéro are the only founding band of the Rock in Opposition movement to be still active. With their latest release, Clivages, hailed as one of the last year’s landmark albums, their performance at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington DC (thanks to the joint efforts of the festival organizers and the band’s label, Cuneiform Records) was nothing short of breathtaking. They are also, however, a very divisive band to the more conservative set of prog fans, who often look upon the whole RIO/Avant scene as little more than a bunch of purveyors of jarring, overly demanding fare with pseudo-intellectual pretensions. While most of the classic prog of the ‘70s is symphonic in inspiration, with Univers Zéro we enter ‘chamber rock’ territory – which, just like its classical counterpart, can be the object of equally intense love or loathing.

Originally running at a whopping 50 minutes (very unusually for a single vinyl album), and almost completely acoustic, Heresie undoubtedly shares more with academic music than conventional rock, with typical rock instruments like the guitar taking a back seat. While Daniel Denis’ astounding drumming forms the core of the band’s sound, his style distinctly clashes with the common image of the powerhouse rock drummer. Having been so lucky as to see him and Magma’s Christian Vander on stage in the space of a week, I was struck by how both of them come across as almost antithetic to the brash, flamboyant style of drummers such as Mike Portnoy. Indeed, both Denis’ and Vander’s  approach to drumming brings to mind the role of percussion in an orchestra –  not merely propulsive, but textural and expressive at the same time. .

Though frequently described as the ideal soundtrack to a horror movie (or even to one of HP Lovecraft’s insomnia-inducing short stories), Heresie does not have a lot in common with the hard-hitting, yet slightly garish music produced by the likes of Goblin and Keith Emerson for Dario Argento’s iconic slasher flicks. As pointed out in the very thorough liner notes (courtesy of Renato Moraes and Aymeric Leroy, Canterbury expert extraordinaire and founder of the Calyx website), the album’s centrepiece, the monumental, 25-minute “La Faulx” (The Scythe) parallels the structure of Ingmar Bergman’s legendary The Seventh Seal – also suggested by the bleak, sepia-tinted cover artwork. Though “La Faulx” might at first appear as Univers Zéro’s idiosyncratic take on that old prog warhorse, the ‘epic’, I see it as perfectly contained chamber piece rather than a mini-symphony like “Close to the Edge”or “Supper’s Ready”. Opening with about seven minutes of nightmarishly chaotic sounds, echoing drum beats and menacing vocal growls in an invented language that would give any death metal band a run for their money, it develops into an intense, mesmerizing theme propelled along by Denis’ subtle yet relentless drumming and Michel Berckmans’ rich tapestry of woodwinds, interspersed by the plaintive voice of the violin. When, towards the end, the controlled chaos subsides, a hint of melody surfaces, as well as a measure of calm that seem to reflect the ending of Bergman’s masterpiece.

While apparently more cohesive and linear in compositional structure, “Jack the Ripper” suggests the devastation wrought by the titular character by means of harsh violin slashes, while the bassoon and drums at the beginning evoke the slow, plodding pace of a funeral march. The whole structure of the track is indeed ruled by the drums, whose expressive potential unfolds fully, lending them a ‘voice’ that transcends mere rhythmic beat. On the other hand, “Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu” (We’ll Let You Know in Due Time) is the most classically-inspired of the three original compositions, with a tuneful, almost upbeat first half reminiscent of Stravinsky, gradually driving towards a disturbing, doom-laden culmination – the ‘due time’ of the title probably referring to the moment of death.

The thorough remixing process undergone by Heresie lifts the music from the murky depths of the original version – perhaps effective in terms of atmosphere, but much less so in terms of musical enjoyment. However, besides the definite improvement of the sound quality, the main attraction of the album lies in the previously unreleased track “Chaos Hermetique”, remastered from an audio cassette copy and originally recorded in 1975,  prior to Berckmans’ arrival. With a definitely more electric direction, it revolves around composer Roger Trigaux’s guitar, conjuring shades of the sleek angularity of King Crimson; while Denis assumes a more conventional rock drummer role, providing plenty of bottom end in unison with Guy Segers’ bass.

Splendidly composed and flawlessly executed, Heresie can nonetheless prove nearly unapproachable for those who believe melody and memorable tunes are essential components of music. While not as harsh or atonal as other efforts by RIO/Avant bands, and much more disciplined and tightly knit than one might expect, this is an album that needs to be listened to with care and attention, preferably when the time and mood are right – and not just because it is ‘scary’ music that might not make you sleep at night. Based on painstaking detail (like most chamber music) rather than broad sweeps, it also possesses the austere beauty of medieval architecture, stark though not exactly minimalistic, yet full of  majesty and power. In any case, I would recommend Heresie to anyone interested in authentically progressive, challenging music, though not necessarily ‘prog’ in the canonical sense of the word. A liking for early 20th-century academic music would also help when approaching Univers Zéro’s output as a whole.

Links:
http://www.univers-zero.com
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bodhisattva  (5:19)
2. Razor Boy  (3:11)
3. The Boston Rag  (5:40)
4. Your Gold Teeth  (7:02)
5. Show Biz Kids  (5:25)
6. My Old School  (5:47)
7. Pearl of the Quarter  (3:50)
8. King of the World  (5:04)

LINEUP:
Donald Fagen – piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica, vocals
Ray Brown – string bass on Razor Boy
Denny Dias – guitar, Stereo Mixmaster General
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, vocals

With:
Ben Benay – acoustic guitar
Ray Brown – string bass (2)
Rick Derringer – slide guitar (5)
Victor Feldman – vibes, marimba, percussion
Ernie Watts – saxophone
Johnny Rotella – saxophone
Lanny Morgan – saxophone
Bill Perkins – saxophone
Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia Hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston, Michael Fennelly – background vocals

Steely Dan are one of those bands that are loved passionately by a great many progressive rock fans, but whose legitimacy as a genuinely progressive outfit can spark some really heated debate. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with ‘traditional’ prog (as in 30-minute epics, head-spinning time signature changes, and all that jazz), its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance – not to mention Donald Fagen’s literate, sarcastic lyrics –  deserves a place in any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.

Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past few years that I really got to know them in depth – thanks to the man who is now my husband. Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy (the band’s sophomore effort) their masterpiece, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with  complex instrumental interplay that would do any ‘classic’ prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently carefree melodies.

Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with “Bodhisattva”, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (the pun in ‘the sparkle of your China’ is quite priceless). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has a brisk, almost danceable rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. “Razor Boy” follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of Steely Dan’s many seedy tales of lost lives: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away….”  The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone lends a haunting quality to the song. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite number, the moody, somewhat menacing “The Boston Rag”, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (“Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag”), and the closest Steely Dan get to guitar power chords.

Out of the remaining songs, the hit “My Old School” and the romantic, French-flavoured “Pearl of the Quarter” lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. “Your Gold Teeth”, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers – the venomous “Showbiz Kids”, punctuated by relentless background chants of ‘outrageous’, and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer “King of the World”, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by distinctive, slightly cheesy synth sounds.

Even though at a superficial listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, yet ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep even the most demanding prog fan on their toes. Everything is there – the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this gem. You will not regret it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Disarray (3:02)
2. Faceless (7:57)
3. Wither (9:23)
4. Star Bound (4:43)
5. Numb (4:05)
6. Astral Dream (7:03)
7. Delusion (4:06)
8. Dance of the Elders  (8:18)
9. Takes My Breath Away (2010)  (14:14)
10. Altered State (9:43)
11. Reflections (5:14)

LINEUP:
Jeff Hamel – guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals
Jessica Rasche – vocals
Chris Nathe – drums

With:
Jerry Swan – bass (5)
John Wooten – drums (6, 8)
Gregg Johns – guitars, talkbox (10)
Jeremy Hamel – guitars (11)

When I reviewed Majestic’s album Descension in the summer of 2009, my words reflected my lack of enthusiasm for what I saw as yet another ‘solo pilot’ project by a very skilled multi-istrumentalist (Jeff Hamel, formerly of prog-metal band Osmium), ambitious yet lacking in direction. Things took a definite turn for the better with their following album Arrival – the first recorded with the participation of vocalist Jessica Rasche – though I still expressed some reservations about the compositional aspect. Rasche’s arrival (pardon the pun), however, brought some welcome depth and intensity to Hamel’s lengthy, sometimes rambling compositions, and the added bonus of one of the best female voices heard on CD in the past few years.

With Ataraxia (a philosophical concept meaning ‘freedom from worry’ in Greek) it would not be overstating the case to speak about a quantum leap for the Minneapolis-based outfit – now become a real band, with Rasche’s husband Chris Nathe on drums. With the collaboration of a few guests (including Gregg Johns, Hamel’s partner in Proximal Distance, and leader of Mississippi-based project Slychosis), though resting mainly on Hamel’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist, Majestic have produced an album that is unabashedly ambitious – almost 80 minutes long, offering a wide range of sounds and styles that had already been foreshadowed in the band’s previous efforts, though not as coherently developed. The evident progressive metal bent of Arrival is here kept to a minimum, while the symphonic component emerges with far more authority. Indeed, Majestic seem to have grown out of that fascination with prog-metal that, in my view, caused Arrival to be not as impressive as it might have been.

This time, Majestic decidedly head for more traditional prog territories, with most of the compositions bridging the gap between Pink Floyd-style spacey moods and symphonic textures, solemn and pastoral in turn. The longer, weightier compositions (between 7 and 12 minutes) are interspersed by shorter, more accessible numbers that prevent the album from turning into too onerous a listen on account of its length. Most important, though, the music on Ataraxia keeps melody at the forefront, all the while avoiding any descents into cheesiness. As a matter of fact, the danger of sounding too close to those terminally cheesy, female-fronted symphonic metal bands (whose progressive quotient is often rather flimsy) is thankfully kept at bay by Jessica Rasche’s stunning performance. Her clear yet assertive voice steers clear of the operatic excesses of so many female singers, relying on a near-perfect balance between sweetness and power.

All but two of the tracks on Ataraxia feature vocals – mostly Jessica’s, though Jeff Hamel makes a brief appearance on the last two tracks. Touches of Genesis circa Wind and Wuthering surface in the cascading finale of the wistful, melodious opener “Disarray”; while following number “Faceless” begins very much in the prog-metal vein displayed on Majestic’s previous recording effort, then subsiding in favour of a fuller, more symphonic mood with plenty of tempo changes to add interest. The longest track on the album, the 14-minute “Take My Breath Away”, takes instead a more stately direction, with solemn, march-like passages and a lovely, nostalgic mood, enhanced by Jessica’s pure, heartfelt tones and Hamel’s clear, Gilmourian guitar. Another highlight, “Wither displays all of Jessica’s vocal versatility, with a darker mood and a sense of tension that contrast with the almost pastoral quality of “Faceless“, and more of  Hamel’s excellent guitar work.

As wonderful as Rasche’s vocals are, the two instrumentals can easily be numbered among the album’s highlights. The hard-edged riffing and overall ‘metallic’ touches in “Astral Dream” are never overdone, and do not overwhelm the spacey atmosphere created by the synths and the clear, piercing tone of the guitar; while the aptly-titled “Dance of the Elders” reveals a folksy inspiration in its lilting pace and a classical feel in the guitar parts, as well as reminiscences of the likes of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream in the haunting keyboard passages. As to the shorter tracks, the piano-led, funky workout of “Star Bound” allows Jessica to pay homage to her idol Ann Wilson of Heart, and the equally dynamic “Delusion” reveals a distinct influence of Pink Floyd circa Dark Side of the Moon, with a final section where Jessica’s vocalizing made me think of Clare Torry in the immortal “The Great Gig in the Sky”; while “Numb” and “Reflections” are both subdued, romantic ballads which, in my opinion, do not add a lot to the album – the latter providing a rather anticlimactic, though soothing, conclusion.

While Majestic do not pretend to be reinventing the wheel, Ataraxia is a classy offering, showcasing the work of a band brimming with an enthusiasm and love of their craft that have become increasingly rare in the music world, and whose compositional skills are growing by leaps and bounds. Though, as my faithful readers know, I tend to be rather critical of albums that exceed one hour in length, and believe that Ataraxia would have benefited from a bit of trimming, its refreshing lack of pomposity and ‘cheese factor’ balance its undeniable ambitiousness. Moreover, Jessica Rasche’s delightful vocals alone are worth the price of admission – she is a real find, and living proof of how a female singer does not need to indulge in operatic or cloyingly sweet excesses to offer a credible performance in a prog context.

Links:
http://www.majesticsongs.com

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Interlude: Changes # 3

Though I am very happy with the way my blog has been received so far, in the past few days I have been presented with the very interesting opportunity of collaborating with a relatively new prog website (called ProgSphere)  in order to help it grow and establish itself on the thriving Internet scene.

As I will be free to contribute at my own pace, avoiding the overload that forced me to interrupt my previous collaboration, I will also have time to dedicate myself to this blog by posting more ‘vault’ reviews – which  I have noticed my readers appreciate as much as those of new material.  However, at least for the time being, my ‘new’ reviews will be posted both here and on ProgSphere.  Though it is indeed rewarding to do one’s own thing, it is also nice to be able to help a new website to develop and gain a loyal following.

Therefore, I invite all of you to check ProgSphere – not just for my own reviews, but especially for those written by its other collaborators, who deserve as much appreciation for their work as I have got from you over the past few months. Thanks for sticking around!

Link:
http://www.prog-sphere.com

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Hungry Ghost (8:32)
2. The Red Threaded Sexy Beast (12:42)
3. Consider Figure Three (9:48)
4. The Packing House (12:56)
5. Dedicated to KC (9:48)
6. The Gypsy and the Hegemon (10:55)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – organ, analog synth, mellotron, digital synths
Mike Henderson – guitars, ebow, effects
Aaron Kenyon – 5-string bass, effects
Mike Murray – guitars, ebow, effects
Chuck Oken, Jr. – drums, altered voices

Despite their decades-long career as one of the foremost US progressive rock bands, I have to admit that this album was my very first approach to Djam Karet’s music. Although I was obviously familiar with the name – Edward Macan devoted a section of his seminal book Rocking the Classics to them as examples of ‘post-progressive’ rock – but, for some reason or the other, I had never got around to hearing any of their material. Thankfully, the opportunity came some time in 2010, when I got in touch with Gayle Ellett after reviewing the second album of his side project Fernwood, and he sent me a copy of The Heavy Soul Sessions. And what better introduction to a band’s music than a live album, even if recorded in the studio rather than before an audience? Indeed, The Heavy Soul Sessions was recorded immediately after the band’s performance at the French prog festival Crescendo in the summer of 2009, with a view to recreating the atmosphere of a live setting in the studio without any resource to overdubs or the like. An elusive outfit for most of their career, Djam Karet have not been very active on the live front in the past few years, and seeing them perform on a stage has become a rare treat for their loyal following.

Released five years after Djam Karet’s latest studio effort to date, Recollection Harvest, The Heavy Soul Sessions gathers five tracks from the band’s back catalogue, plus a cover of “Dedicated to KC” from Richard Pinhas’ album L’Ethique. The oldest number, “Consider Figure Three”, originally appeared on the Suspension and Displacement album, released in 1991 as a companion effort to the harder-edged Burning the Hard City. “The Packing House” and “The Gypsy and the Hegemon” are taken from Recollection Harvest, while “Hungry Ghost” and the “The Red-Threaded Sexy Beast” (which actually conflates two separate compositions, “Red Threads” and “Sexy Beast”) come from 2003’s A Night for Baku.  The album as a whole runs at a reasonable 64 minutes (with individual tracks between 8 and 12 minutes), presenting a highly satisfying picture of the band’s skills and expressive potential, accrued in the almost 30 years of their musical career. To Djam Karet newcomers like myself, the six tracks are a real boon, as they show a band that has grown and matured constantly over the years, and whose individual members’ side projects have proved to be a source of enrichment rather than a drain.

Djam Karet’s music has often been described as ‘King Crimson meets Pink Floyd’ – a definition which is only partly true. Following Macan’s advice, the band have finally managed to bridge the gap between their rock side and their inclination towards spacey, ambient textures that make good use of cutting-edge technology. Their unabashed eclecticism emerges from even a cursory listen to The Heavy Soul Sessions: the dynamic, riff-heavy opener “Hungry Ghost”; the gentle, almost pastoral moods of “The Gypsy and the Hegemon”; the trippy, Pinkfloydian passages in “The Red-Threaded Sexy Beast”; the airy, measured beauty of the piano and guitar work in “The Packing House”; the choppy, galloping pace of the organ-led “Dedicated to K.C.” On the other hand, “Consider Figure Three” showcases the ambient/electronic side of the band’s creativity (further explored in the side project Ukab Maerd, soon to be reviewed here). Mentioned in Macan’s overview, it is a haunting, brooding piece where the recorded voice of a doctor recites a dry scientific text over a background of spacey electronic effects, surging keyboard waves and Eastern-tinged chanting.

The compositions are ruled by the seamless interaction between Gayle Ellett’s keyboards and Mike Murray (the band’s newest member) and Mike Henderson’s guitars. Unlike the traditional ‘twin guitar’ format of many classic and hard rock bands, their main function is to add layers of sound and complement the keyboards, rather than act as perpetual sparring partners, or provide relentless rifferama – though riffs surface every now and then, aided and abetted by the powerful yet restrained rhythm section of Chuck Oken Jr and Aaron Kenyon. The music’s natural flow is not at odds with its complexity; even the frequent pauses and changes in time signature do not create that impression of patchiness or lack of a coherent structure that seem to be a constant in the output of ambitious yet less experienced bands. The remarkably fluid interplay between all the instruments puts to shame the displays of virtuosity for its own sake that plague many recent releases.

While the band’s hardcore fanbase will probably be disappointed by the lack of any new material after a five-year wait, The Heavy Soul Sessions provides a great opportunity for those who (like myself) want to get acquainted with Djam Karet’s output. Hopefully this excellent album will encourage more people to delve into the band’s back catalogue, available through their website. Highly recommended to lovers of instrumental prog, and an excellent introduction to the work of one of the most representative bands of the ‘second generation’ of progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.djamkaret.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Fame (3:53)
2. Fiaba (6:57)
3. Claustrofilia (5:27)
4. Malamore e la Luna (8:59)
5. Amanti in Guerra (5:56)
6. Ombre Cinesi (5:38)
7. Apnea (7:15)
8. Il Giardino degli Altri (8:16)
9. La Corsa dei Trattori (ghost track) (1:44)
10. Se (7:59)
11. Lana di Vetro (7:55)
12. Ciò Che Rimane (8:59)

LINEUP:
Francesco Chiapperini –  alto and soprano sax, clarinet, flute, EWI
Andrea Illuminati – piano, melodica, bombarda
Claudio Milano – vocals
Andrea Murada – percussion, didjeridoo, noise effects, flute, rhythmic vocals
Max Pierini – electric upright bass, ocarina
Luca Pissavini – electrified viola, synth, toy instruments, “Matilda” noise machinery, field recordings, no-input mixer, duduk, theremin
Lorenzo Sempio – electric guitar, baritone guitar, guitar synth and effects

With:
Carola Caruso – backing vocals (6), vocals (2)
Stefano Delle Monache – electronics and laptop (6)
Estibaliz Igea – opera soprano singer (5)
Luciano Margorani – electric guitar, noises (4)
Luca Olivieri – synth, noises (3), glockenspiel (11)
Claudio Pirro – classical guitar (1, 2)
Antonello Raggi – electronics, laptop (10)
Marco Tuppo – synth (11)

For all the prejudice held by some so-called experts against Italian progressive rock outfits – seen as purveyors of sickly sweet melodies and bombastic, often overdone compositions – the Italian scene offers quite a surprising range of options for those who like their progressive music to have something of an edge. While not as plentiful or high-profile as those hailing from other European countries (Belgium comes to mind), avant-garde bands and solo artists have been a prominent feature on the Italian scene since the golden days of the Seventies, with names such as Picchio dal Pozzo, Opus Avantra and even Area (often too hastily labelled as a jazz-rock band). In the first decade of the 21st century, Italy has produced a number of very interesting outfits on the more left-field fringe of progressive rock – even if some of them really have very few rock elements in their musical output.

Hailing from Milan, the current incarnation Nichelodeon is a seven-piece, almost a mini-orchestra, augmented by a number of guest musicians. Originally born as a project by composer/singer Claudio Milano – a highly qualified musician and visual artist with extensive international experience – with Francesco Zago and Maurizio Fasoli of Yugen (the band that made waves in 2007 with their debut release, Labirinto d’Acqua), unlike the latter and other outfits loosely placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella, Nichelodeon are a vocal-based act rather than an instrumental one. As a matter of fact, the term ‘band’ might be seen as somewhat restrictive when referring to Nichelodeon, who see themselves as a workshop open to the contribution of any artist willing to experiment. Consequently, very much unlike many modern acts whose activity is generally limited to the studio, a marked emphasis is placed on their live performances – as witnessed by Come Sta Annie?, the DVD released as a companion effort to Il Gioco del Silenzio, recorded in the spring of 2010 as a tribute to the 20th anniversary of ground-breaking TV series Twin Peaks.

It should be obvious from this short introduction that Nichelodeon are not purveyors of ‘conventional’ progressive rock. In the very thorough liner notes of the album, they describe themselves as ‘a chemical laboratory, engaged in performing audio-visual crafts’ – a description that, for once, does not ring like idle boasting.  Running at almost 80 minutes, Il Gioco del Silenzio (whose title refers to a very popular children’s game) is anything but an easy listen, occasionally even slightly uncomfortable, but always compelling. On account of its strong vocal orientation, it reminded me of the work of another Italian avant-garde outfit, S.A.D.O. –  Claudio Milano could indeed compete with S.A.D.O. vocalist Boris Savoldelli for the title of heir of the late, great Demetrio Stratos. However, while Savoldelli’s approach tends to be more ironical  (if not exactly light-hearted), Milano’s compositions are definitely intense, demanding a lot of attention on the part of the listener, and graced by highly literate, thought-provoking lyrics that are presented both in Italian and English.

Recorded live in the studio, Il Gioco del Silenzio is a dark, angular effort with a subtly subversive vein – chamber music for the 21st century, conceived as a homage to the European song tradition and unabashedly intellectual in its appeal. Fearlessly blending different musical influences – from folk to tango, from electronica to opera – with the support of a rich, inventive instrumentation, the 12 songs challenge the mind and the ear, creating intriguingly bleak landscapes of existentialist malaise and moral decadence reminiscent of the cultural climate of the early 20th century. Needless to say, reviewing such an album can uncommonly challenging. At times the mere listening experience can feel somewhat frustrating, since the music almost begs to be rendered in visual terms. As can be expected, Il Gioco del Silenzio is not always a comfortable listening experience – on the contrary, the sudden bouts of dissonance breaking up the melodic flow of a song, and the distinct creepiness of some sound effects create disquieting atmospheres that are very likely to put off those seeking more conventional, reassuring fare.

The band cite a wide range of very diverse influences, from contemporary academic music icons such as Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono to monuments of highbrow European songwriting like Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel. On the other hand, the names of Red-era King Crimson, as well as seminal RIO/Avant outfits Henry Cow, Art Bears and Univers Zéro will ring most familiar to progressive rock fans; indeed, something of the darkly mesmerizing textures of Daniel Denis’ outfit circa Heresie can be detected while listening to Il Gioco del Silenzio. However, here the instrumental component, while not by any means secondary, is put at the service of Claudio Milano’s commanding vocal exertions. Milano’s extensive training and experience of vocal styles often quite far removed from the Western tradition  (“Il Giardino degli Altri” offers a taste of his love for ethnic chants, as well as hypnotic tribal percussion patterns) fits the moods and atmospheres evoked by the musical background like a glove. His voice, lyrical, aggressive and manic in turns, sets the pace and almost bends the instruments to its will – as shown most clearly by the positively arduous “Ombre Cinesi”.

With only a couple of exceptions, the tracks tend to be rather long (though not in an ‘epic’ sense); four of them (“Fame”, “Malamore e la Luna”, “Amanti in Guerra” e “Ciò Che Rimane”) were previously featured on Nichelodeon’s debut album, Cinemanemico (2008). Combining traditional song forms with all-out experimentation, they showcase Milano’s maddeningly versatile vocals over a rarefied, occasionally strident instrumental background of unremitting intensity. On any account, describing any of the songs in detail would be a difficult and thankless task – by and large, it might be stated that they are quite similar to each other, even without actually sounding alike. The red thread of tension running through the songs keeps listeners on their toes, enhanced by the dramatic use of hammering piano chords, sound effects and vaguely sinister reeds. Milano’s voice dips and soars in the space of a few minutes, as shown immediately by the first couple of songs, “Fame” and “Fiaba”, as well as the dramatic “Claustrofilia”, highlighted by snippets of guitar soloing in true rock style. Closing track “Ciò Che Rimane” (together with “Malamore e la Luna” the longest number on the album, clocking in at almost 9 minutes) also features some noteworthy guitar work, as well as a vocal performance that made me think of Demetrio Stratos and Area.

Though definitely a tad too long for my standards, and certainly anything but an easy or relaxing proposition,  Il Gioco del Silenzio is one of the most interesting releases of the past year. It also provides further proof that – in spite of the many practical hurdles facing musicians that do not subscribe to a mainstream view of things – the progressive scene is very much alive in Italy, and has a lot to offer to devotees of genuinely challenging music. A particular mention should also be made for the austerely elegant packaging, including some stunning photography of the band and distinctive cover artwork by painter Valentina Campagni.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/nichelodeonband
http://www.claudiomilano.it

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2010 in review

While I was away I got this email from the WordPress guys… Not bad at all for somebody who started out as a complete newbie of the blogosphere!

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2010. That’s about 7 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 36 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 38 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was September 13th with 311 views. The most popular post that day was Jakko M. Jakszyk – The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (2006).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, dgmlive.com, progressiveears.com, hangingsounds.blogspot.com, and billsprogblog.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for basket of light, pentangle basket of light, pink floyd a saucerful of secrets, the tea club rabbit, and incandescent sky.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Jakko M. Jakszyk – The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (2006) September 2010
6 comments

2

Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga (2010) October 2010
8 comments

3

The Pentangle – Basket of Light (1969) July 2010

4

About June 2010

5

The Tea Club – Rabbit (2010) November 2010
2 comments

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TRACKLISTING:
1. I Am The One You Warned Me Of  (5:04)
2. Les Invisibles (5:33)
3. In The Presence Of Another World  (6:26)
4. Del Rio’s Song  (5:31)
5. The Siege And Investiture Of Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle At Weisseria (6:43)
6. Astronomy  (6:47)
7. Magna Of Illusion  (5:53)
8. Blue Öyster Cult  (7:18)
9. Imaginos  (5:46)

LINEUP:
Eric Bloom –  vocals
Albert Bouchard –  guitar, percussion, vocals
Joe Bouchard –  keyboard, vocals
Allen Lanier –  keyboards
Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser –  guitars, vocals

With:
Kenny Aaronson – bass
Thommy Price –  drums
Jack Secret –  additional vocals
Tommy Moringiello –  guitars
Jack Rigg –  guitars
Tommy Zvoncheck –  keyboards
Shocking U – backing vocals (3)
Joey Cerisano – additional lead vocal (5)
Jon Rogers – additional lead vocal (9)
Daniel Levitin –  additional backing vocals
Marc Biederman –  guitar
Kevin Carlson –  guitar
Robby Krieger – lead guitar (7,8)
Daniel Levitin –  guitar
Aldo Nova – guitar
Joe Satriani –  lead guitar (5)

Back from my well-deserved vacation, I am quite ready to resume my reviewing duties as regards both new and older material.  Though I have a couple of reviews of recent releases in the works, I would like to devote the first slot of the new year to what is possibly the most intriguing album by the band that brought us the original Fire of Unknown Origin (pun unintended).

Just before Imaginos was released, the mighty Blue Oyster Cult had been in disarray, a shadow of their former powerful selves. With the departure of some key members, the spark seemed gone forever – as witnessed by their previous, rather lacklustre release, 1986’s Club Ninja, held by many as their weakest recording effort. However, the completion of this 20-year-long project (originally conceived by drummer Albert Bouchard and mastermind Sandy Pearlman) brought the original members of the band together for what was destined to be their last great album (in some ways, even their masterpiece), and certainly one of their most progressive offerings.

The very elaborate concept behind Imaginos was at least partly inspired by HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and crafted in order to provide an ‘alternative’ explanation for the onset of World War One.  The titular character is a ‘modified child’ with supernatural abilities, whose story is told (though not in chronological order) in the nine songs on the album, and foreshadowed on two songs featured on 1974’s Secret Treaties – “Subhuman” and “Astronomy”. Both appear on Imaginos, the latter with a different musical arrangement (in my view inferior to the original, and way too ‘Eighties’ for my tastes), the former rewritten as “Blue Oyster Cult”.

Such an intriguing, grandiose concept needed to be implemented accordingly. Therefore, the five members of the band brought on board a number of other musicians, including the ‘Guitar Orchestra of the State of Imaginos’, an impressive array of lead guitarists that included The Doors’ Robbie Krieger (who had already guested on BOC’s “ET Live”), and six-string wizard Joe Satriani. The result is a rich, majestic sound that fits the storyline like a glove, immediately noticeable from the first strains of opener “I Am the One You Warned Me Of,” which sets things off with a bang. In comparison to the somewhat limp-wristed nature of the band’s previous two efforts, The Revolution by Night and Club Ninja,  an exhilarating sense of energy can be  clearly perceived here. Even the more accessible numbers, like the sax-driven title-track, which closes the album on a somewhat cheerful note, in spite of its rather disturbing lyrics, or the even more upbeat “Del Rio’s Song” (possibly the album’s weakest link) seem to barge in with an assertiveness approached by none of the compositions appearing on either of the above-mentioned releases.

Vocalist Eric Bloom – one of the most distinctive (and underrated) voices in rock – is at the top of his game, belting out the obscure lyrics with self-assured forcefulness. On the rousing “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria”, though, Bloom is replaced by guest singer Joey Cerisano; the song climaxes with a haunting chorus of “World without end”, and Joe Satriani’s blistering solo makes it even more memorable. Buck Dharma’s well-mannered voice does the honours on “Les Invisibles” – though the song itself is anything but reassuring, with its sinister synth effects and guitar work, and its insistent, almost obsessive repetition of the word ‘seven’; while “In the Presence of Another World” is a dark-hued mid-tempo, almost ballady at times, with a thundering, yet oddly catchy chorus stating that “Your master is a monster”.

The true highpoint of the album, however, comes  in the second half, with the double whammy of “Magna of Illusion” and “Blue Oyster Cult”. The former, named after the mysterious obsidian mirror that Desdinova (the new name given to Imaginos by his rescuers, the human servants of ‘the Invisible Ones’) finds in a jungle in the Yucatan, and which, kept for twenty years in his attic, poisons the minds of European leaders before the outbreak of WWI, is a triumphal, keyboard- and guitar-laden march related from the point of view of the protagonist’s granddaughter. “Blue Oyster Cult”, on the other hand, is as creepily addictive as its earlier version, “Subhuman”, with an anthemic close celebrating the occult nature of the band’s name as originally conceived by Sandy Pearlman.

Many BOC albums boast outstanding cover artwork, and Imaginos is no exception – the über-Gothic Victorian mansion (a San Francisco landmark burned to the ground in 1907)  poised on a cliff on the background of a stormy sky aptly conveying the sense of mystery and menace implicit in the whole story.  At any rate, despite its Eighties-style production (rather evident, for instance, in the drum sound), this is an album of epic proportions that will appeal to both hard rock and progressive rock fans – a much-needed reminder of the greatness and unique approach of this seminal band.

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