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Archive for March, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. Oro Caldo (18:30)
2. Stanza Città (1:45)
3. Animale Senza Respiro (21:36)

LINEUP:
Danilo Rustici – guitars, vox organ, electric piano, vocals
Lino Vairetti – lead vocals, rhythm guitars, ARP 2600, Mellotron
Elio D’Anna – tenor and soprano sax, flute, vocals
Massimo Guarino – drums, vibraphone, percussion
Lello Brandi – bass

Palepoli (The Old Town, currently the gorgeous seafront area called Santa Lucia) is the original nucleus of the city that would later become Naples, one of the most loved and loathed places in the world – the Italian music capital, and a notorious abode of crime and squalor (cue the hard-hitting movie Gomorrah, and the deplorable rubbish débacle of a few years ago, which seems to have reared its ugly head once again). Naples is breathtaking in its splendour, and infuriating in its unbridled anarchy – perhaps not the best place to live for those who like quiet and order, but also one to  experience  at least once in a lifetime (for the glorious food as well as for the scenery, the art and the music). The old adage  “See Naples and then die” is indeed quite true. A walk in the so-called Spanish quarters is the closest you can get to a Middle Eastern souk in the heart of western Europe – and probably no one has managed to capture that heady atmosphere better than the third album released by Naples’ own Osanna.

One of the most distinctive bands of the original RPI scene, Osanna were hot stuff back in the Seventies. With their painted faces (harking back to the city’s traditional mask of Pulcinella) and wild, energetic sound, they blended British-style heavy rock with influences coming from the venerable musical tradition of their hometown. It has even been intimated that Peter Gabriel took his cue from Osanna for his stage make-up when the two bands toured Italy together. Like so many of their fellow Neapolitans, the five members of the band had music in their blood – not the tasteful, restrained kind practiced by northern Italians PFM, though, but rather a full-throttle blend of passion, energy and chops.

Much in the same way as ELP’s output, Palepoli is not for those in search of subtlety, though I would not call it self-indulgent either. The chaos on display on the album is of the controlled variety, in spite of the somewhat fragmented nature of the compositions. However, those fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle, eventually fall together to form a complete picture. The two main tracks, sprawling epics that approach or even exceed 20 minutes in length, are linked by a short piece reprising the opening of the album itself, and give an entirely new meaning to the expression ‘rollercoaster ride’. It is no wonder that Palepoli commands such adoration on the part of prog fans. Indeed, it shows progressive rock at its authentic best, soothing and lyrical at times, and at others raw, aggressive and passionate. It also offers further proof of the invaluable contribution brought by local musical traditions  to the progressive melting pot.

Unlike Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and their fellow Neapolitans Balletto di Bronzo, Osanna’s sound is driven by Danilo Rustici’s slashing guitar and Elio D’Anna’s sax and flute – which add a mixture of lyricism and aggression to the already exciting texture of the music – rather than by keyboards. However, it is Lino Vairetti’s stellar vocal performance that lends the album a unique appeal.  Heir to one of the greatest singing traditions in the Western world, Vairetti fully deserves pride of place among the great prog singers:  in my view, his clear, versatile voice is probably second only to Banco’s Francesco Di Giacomo on the Italian prog scene.

The intro to the first track, “Oro Caldo”, a colourful, richly-textured patchwork of musical moods,  suggests the atmosphere of Naples’ narrow alleys and street markets, dirty, noisy, and thoroughly fascinating, a babel of sounds, voices and sights. The influence of Neapolitan folk music, such as the frantic rhythms of the tarantella, is evident throughout the piece, especially when, at the beginning, the band members sing in Neapolitan – probably one of the best vehicles for song and music known to man, and a language with a rich literary tradition in its own right.  “Oro Caldo” rocks hard, but also offers quieter, more meditative moments – just like escaping the chaotic atmosphere of the Naples alleys into a darkened, half-deserted church.

The second epic, “Animale Senza Respiro”, is a somewhat more structured piece, though it does adopt the same eclectic approach as “Oro Caldo”. It is also a distinctly darker offering, with some angular, jazzy stylings bordering on the avant-garde, dominated by flutes and saxes, interspersed with almost unexpected acoustic breaks. Though it is definitely not as easy on the ear as PFM’s stately, melodic compositions, it is nonetheless a captivating number with a strong emotional impact.

If you want soothing, pastoral beauty, or music that does not demand too much engagement from the listener, give this one a miss. Like the city of Naples itself, Palepoli is not for the squeamish. However, if you like your prog with some bite (and here there is plenty – think lashings of red hot pepper), and do not mind hearing people sing in a language other than English, this will grab you like few other discs produced in the Seventies. A concept album that is rooted in gritty reality and not in the airy-fairy, supported by first-class musicianship and singing, Palepoli has  acquired near-legendary status among prog fans, and deservedly so.

After an almost 20-year hiatus, Osanna reformed in the early 2000s (though only Lino Vairetti remains of the original line-up), and recently joined forces with former Van Der Graaf Generator’s saxophonist David Jackson. Their 2009 album, Prog Family, is an excellent compendium of the band’s whole output, with new arrangements of their classics and the contribution of such distinguished guests as singer Sophya Baccini (also a native of Naples), Balletto di Bronzo keyboardist Gianni Leone, and former King Crimson violinist David Cross.

Below this post you will find a link to an interview with Lino Vairetti which I translated for the ProgSphere website, shedding some light on the band’s past and recent history. In the light of the events of the past weekend (amply discussed in my previous blog post), the interviewer’s mention of NEARfest  feels particularly poignant. In my view, Osanna would have made a wonderful headliner for the festival, but were not even considered… Food for thought?

Links:
http://www.osanna.it/

http://www.prog-sphere.com/index.php?s=Lino+Vairetti

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The Internet channels dedicated to progressive rock were bursting at the seams yesterday after the shocking news of the cancellation of one of the year’s most awaited events, the North-East Art Rock Festival, affectionately known as NEARfest.  When I first saw the announcement, posted as a link on the Wall of one of my Facebook friends, my first impulse was to check mentally if it was already April 1…

Unfortunately, yesterday was only March 26, and the news was no joke.  As could be expected, the general mood in the so-called ‘prog community’ was subdued,  and many of the people who had been attending the event for years (not to mention actively contributing to its realization) were positively devastated. For many, NEARfest went beyond a simple music festival: it was an opportunity to meet friends living thousands of miles away, and spend a weekend away from the worries and routine of ‘normal’ life. Now, instead, people are going to lose money they have already paid for airfares, car rentals and the like – not to mention the sadness at seeing their expectations of a wonderful weekend of music and friendship brutally dashed. Considering the average age of the attendees, this is not something that should be discounted.

Obviously, as all too often happens in similar circumstances, speculation was rife, as well as unashamed finger-pointing. People will always be people, and, in their disappointment,  the NEARfest ‘orphans’ were looking for something – or, even better, someone – to shoulder the blame.  While some blamed the poor state of the economy, others pointed their finger squarely at the close-mindedness, snobbishness and elitism of prog fans, which this year reached unprecedented levels due to a rather controversial line-up. The choice of a so-called ‘jam band’ like Umphrey’s McGee as Sunday headliner drew fierce criticism, and – added to a rather ‘experimental’ line-up lacking (unlike the previous years) any of the big names of the Seventies – contributed to a general lack of enthusiasm for this year’s edition. Some were even berating the organizers for not having disclosed the reality of the situation and asked for help before cancelling the event  – something which, after some of the flak they got for their choices, I cannot blame them for not doing.

Did the news take me completely by surprise? To be perfectly honest, it  did not. In some ways, I had seen it coming, especially when I compared last year’s patron sales with this year’s. Anyway, though I started putting down my thoughts yesterday afternoon, I decided to let the night bring me counsel (as we would say in Italy), and complete my essay with a clearer mind, without giving in to the temptation to blast everyone in sight. Having got our tickets in the mail two days before, that temptation would have been understandable.

As a latecomer to NEARfest,  I had been looking forward to the event, possibly even more so than the previous two editions. In the past year I have been able to meet an increasing number of members of the community, both through concert attendances, my activity as a reviewer, and the ubiquitous Facebook.  For me – a relative newcomer to the country, still with a semi-precarious status, and not yet feeling completely at ease in my new surroundings – feeling part of a group of people that shared a passion for a musical genre had provided a sense of belonging that is essential for expatriates. Though last year I had been deeply disappointed by the attitude of the organizers, who never bothered to acknowledge the lengthy review I had written for the website I was collaborating with at the time, I decided to go again this year, and contribute to the festival through the Patron Program (which, for two people, amounts to the not inconsiderable sum of $ 650).

As the regular readers of my blog know quite well, I am not interested in labels, and am by nature very curious of anything new – a prerequisite for anyone who ‘works’ as a more or less official reviewer. I also have rather diverse musical tastes, and will give anything a chance before dismissing it. On the other hand, years of frequentation of the online prog scene have made one thing very clear: for many fans, ‘progressive’ is just a word stripped of its original meaning. This seems to be especially true in my native country of Italy, where people worship Genesis and their ilk to the extent that newer bands are often forced to look for an audience outside the national borders, while tribute bands do a roaring trade. However, Europe as a whole seems to fare somewhat better in this sense, with festivals such as Gouveia Art Rock (which takes place in Portugal, a country that is far from wealthy for Western standards) that keep selling out, not to mention large-scale events such as High Voltage. Moreover, the nature of the continent (including the ease of travelling within the member states of the European Union) makes it easier for artists to tour other European countries if things are not too rosy on their home turf.

Though, as every adult person knows, very little in life is black and white, and things are obviously not as clear-cut as one might wish, I cannot help feeling that a festival that had become one of the year’s bright lights for many people (not to mention an event many bands and artists from all over the world would have sold their souls to play) has been failed, if not outright sabotaged, by the same people who were expected to support it – even if, in many cases, because of very real impediments. Even if this may sound harsh, it is hard not to wonder when one year people flock to see a bunch of glorified tribute bands – financial and other worries notwithstanding – and the following year the festival suddenly loses all appeal for them.

The sad truth, in my view, is that prog fans have become complacent with the astonishing revival of the genre in past few years – and have also got into the typical frame of mind of  ‘having your cake and eating it’, or, if you prefer, ‘my way or the highway’. Yes, they want prog to prosper and all that, and spend hours on the Internet dissecting the most obscure albums – but, when it comes to supporting those bands and artists that are flying the flag in the here and now, then all of a sudden they bail out, unless they see one  of the ‘big names’ (preferably dating back from the Seventies, though a few from later years would also qualify) on the bill. I wonder how any of those ‘new’ bands (many of whom have been around for ten years or more) are supposed to become ‘headliner material’ if no one gives them a chance to play in front of a decent audience. In a sort of perverse way, it reminds me of the situation in which many young job-seekers find themselves – being unable to apply for jobs due to lack of experience, which no one allows them to gain by hiring them.

It does not help either that many of the hardcore members of the ‘community’ have a much more limited view of prog than the one espoused by the press – as even a cursory look at Classic Rock Presents Prog (a magazine I do not particularly care for, but which has been undeniably successful) should be  enough to prove. Additionally, the younger set of prog fans are also more likely to be into progressive metal (even in its more extreme incarnations) or ‘crossover’ acts, both of which are looked upon with suspicion or even disdain by a good deal of the older stalwarts. In spite of the organizers having made it very clear in last year’s festival programme that the 2011 edition was going to be a transitional one, people still refused to accept that the future of progressive rock – if it is to survive – lies beyond the slowly drying out reservoir of  the ‘old guard’, and those newer bands that, to various degrees, reproduce the Seventies vibe. When a band like Iona are considered ‘more prog’ (whatever that means) than The Pineapple Thief or The Mars Volta, then you know that the future of the whole genre is in serious trouble.

Obviously, the above remarks do not apply to everyone, and I would never downplay the very serious difficulties that many people are going through in their everyday lives. It would also be crass of me to suggest people have to force themselves to like music that is not to their taste – I, for one, know how excruciating it can be to sit through a CD you cannot get into. However, while not suggesting that people go against the grain of their own tastes – let alone resort to stealing in order to finance their festival-going habit –  it is also clear that a change of attitude is needed if we do not want progressive music (rock or otherwise) to die out for good.

Anyway, whatever the truth of the situation, yesterday will be remembered as a very sad day for the whole community of progressive rock fans, at least as regards the USA. Even if the NEARfest organizers decide to regroup and make a comeback next year, it is unlikely that things will ever be the same. Might it have been avoided? Not being privy to the organization’s inner workings, I do not claim to have any easy answers. Clearly there were issues of miscommunication, as no one who was not an insider had any idea that the general sales were going so badly. However, it is also difficult to ignore the bickering that went on for days after every band announcement, and the nasty words that accompanied the disclosure of the Sunday headliner. This is why many of yesterday’s proclamations smack of crocodile tears, or at least sound needlessly defensive. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic, but I cannot help wondering if yesterday’s events will mean a death knell for this amazing ‘prog revival’, or rather a much-needed wake-up call for the whole scene.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Apophenia (4:45)
2. It Works (5:05)
3. Narrow-Caster (3:09)
4. Live With This Forever (5:09)
5. Cautionary Tale (5:05)
6. The Proverbial Banana Peel (3:09)
7. Young Once (5:14)
8. Scenery (5:49)
9. Free For All (4:35)
10. The Last Gasp (4:57)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, vocals
Pat Kliesch – guitars, vocals
Rob Durham – drums, percussion

With:
Dan D’Elia – drums (3, 10)
Veronica Puleo – backing vocals (10)

“3RDegree – Defiling perfectly good songs with prog since 1990”

The definition of ‘narrow-caster’ (as opposed to a broadcaster) –  “one who transmits a TV programme […] or otherwise disseminate information, to a comparatively small audience defined by special interest or geographical location” – seems to be a perfect fit for anyone engaged in the production of progressive rock. In spite of the genre’s relative popularity these days, both the musicians and those who (like myself and many others) support it through our writings are perfectly aware that prog is not likely to become the next mainstream sensation, and its appeal will remain limited to a niche audience.

Based in New Jersey (though guitarist Pat Kliesch resides in Los Angeles), 3RDegree formed over 20 years ago, but disbanded after a few years after the release of two albums, discouraged by the lack of response from their intended audience. In 2005, Kliesch and the other two original members, bassist Robert James Pashman and drummer Rob Durham (vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs would join them later), met again with a view to reforming the band, taking advantage of those opportunities offered by the Internet that were not yet fully available in the mid-Nineties. The result was Narrow-Caster, released in the first half of 2008, mostly comprising material that had been conceived prior to the band’s demise in 1997, but completely rearranged for the occasion.

The reactions of the ‘prog community’ to the album have been somewhat mixed, as illustrated by the many reviews published since its release. Although 3RDegree have always proclaimed their love of progressive rock (as stated by the quote I used as a heading, which is proudly emblazoned on the band’s official T-shirt), the influences they list on their Facebook page point to a very eclectic bunch of musicians – with the likes of Rush, Level 42, Genesis and Stevie Wonder mentioned in the same breath. In fact, labelling 3RDegree as a ‘conventional’ prog band would do them a serious disservice: they should rather be counted among the rightful heirs of legendary genre-bending outfits such as 10cc, Supertramp, Roxy Music and Queen. These bands and others, pioneers of the much-debated genre called Art Rock, are seen by some as little more than marginally related to prog, by others as no less progressive than icons such as Yes or Genesis.

For today’s standards, Narrow-Caster is a short album, with no track longer than 5-odd minutes. Chock-full of hooks and melodies that would be the envy of many bigger-name bands, it is one of those independent releases that manage to sound like a million dollars. While the label-happy brigade (the ones that always wonder if a band, artist or album is prog or not before they say anything else) might frown and turn up their noses, at the beginning of the 21st century, with progressive rock in all its manifestations enjoying an almost unexpected Renaissance, an increasing number of outfits have rediscovered the importance of a well-crafted song as opposed to sprawling, patchy  and often terminally boring epics. 3RDegree are part of a solid, though not too large, contingent of bands who do not believe that ‘pop’ is always a bad word, and who deliver consistently intelligent, classy music without the need to release a whopping 80 minutes of it.

While all the members of 3RDegree are gifted musicians, creating rich sonic textures without anyone seeking to outdo the other, the band’s real ace in the hole is George Dobbs’ absolutely stunning voice (which, I am happy to say, sounds every bit as good live as it does on CD). Though I have seen it compared to the likes of Michael Jackson, in my view the closest comparison are Glenn Hughes (of Trapeze, Deep Purple and, more recently, Black Country Communion fame), and of course Stevie Wonder. George’s versatile, soul-infused tenor can shift from soothing to aggressive in the space of a single song, stamping his unique imprint on the band’s music without overwhelming it. 3RDegree’s love of classic prog acts such as Yes and Gentle Giant – as well as The Beatles and the hard-to-pinpoint King’s X – shines through the superb vocal harmonies that grace most of the songs.

The album kicks off in high gear with “Apophenia”, an intriguing mid-tempo with echoes of Rush in the guitar parts that immediately introduces the listener to 3RDegree’s heady blend of aggressive, catchy and atmospheric elements. Dobbs delivers the thought-provoking lyrics, belying the apparently carefree tone of the music (something perfected by the likes of Steely Dan and Supertramp, to name but two) in impassioned yet perfectly controlled fashion. The Steely Dan comparisons rear their head in the splendid “It Works”, my favourite number on the album, with excellent guitar and keyboard work bolstered by Pashman’s nimble bass lines, and one of Dobbs’ finest moments together with the energetic “Free for All” – where a deceptively blissful chorus is offset by the spiky, riff-heavy electricity of the verse.

While the title-track and the smooth, jazz- and soul-tinged “Scenery” showcase 3RDegree’s more accessible side, with plenty of catchy vocal harmonies and laid-back melodies, the short but punchy “The Proverbial Banana Peel” sees the band experiment with both electronics and metal-like power chords The nicely-paced “Cautionary Tale” delivers a biting indictment of religious fanaticism through almost seductive vocals and an atmospheric guitar solo, and “Live With This Forever” marries a great hook, supported by Dobbs’ stellar performance both on vocals and keyboards, with some harder-edged guitar work. “Young Once” and “The Last Gasp”, on the other hand, are probably the two songs where the constantly lurking progressive component of 3RDegree’s sound emerges most clearly: the former, a wistful number in the Steely Dan vein, unexpectedly features a lovely, ambient-like bridge; while the latter closes the album in style with a brilliant combination of dreamy vocals, Rush-like guitar riffs and a majestic, orchestra-backed, bass- and keyboards-led coda that brings Yes to mind.

If you are looking for music that successfully combines accessibility, great musicianship and stunning vocals, look no further than Narrow-Caster, definitely one of the best releases of the first decade of the 21st century – regardless of labels.  In a perfect world, these guys would be stars, since it takes a whole lot of skill and dedication to write music that is at the same time approachable and sophisticated. At the time of writing, 3RDegree are working on their fourth album, which will hopefully be released by the end of the year. In the meantime, check out the band’s two DVD releases, The Reunion Concerts (released in the same year as Narrow-Caster) and Live at ProgDay 2009, capturing their performance on the small but legendary stage in the beautiful surroundings of  Storybook Farm.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/3RDegree/Home.html

http://www.myspace.com/3RDegreeNJ


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TRACKLISTING:
1. Helmi (5:52)
2. Huominen Ei Lopu Koskaan (6:01)
3. Utuinen (4:10)
4. Sumuista Metsää (3:57)
5. Siniset Laineet (5:47)
6. Valkoinen Huone (4:07)
7. Kauan (5:11)
8. Päivä Kerrallaan (4:31)
9. Elämä (5:09)
10. Yli Niittyjen (5:18)
11. Viimeistä Iltaa (4:26)

LINEUP:
Susan Karttunen – vocals
Jani Häggblom – keyboards, backing vocals
Pekka Kalliosuo – guitars
Ayhan Akgez – bass
Henri Tuomi – drums
Sini Palokangas – saxophone, vibes, violin
Henri Onodera – percussion

As pointed out at the beginning of the previous review, Positive Wave and Tuvalu share quite a few features: they are both based in Helsinki, have female vocalists, and sing in Finnish rather than the ubiquitous English. Here, however, the similarities end, because Positive Wave is definitely a different beast. There is nothing whatsoever that might remind the listener of Tuvalu’s brooding intensity on Positive Wave’s debut album, but rather a triumph of upbeat rhythms, joyful vocal performances and plenty of melody, with liberal sprinklings of folk and jazz influences that bring to mind other eclectic Finnish outfits like Piirpauke and Värttinä.

Though they have been around, in different incarnations, since 1998, this album is Positive Wave’s recording debut, released in 2010 when the band – always very active on the live front in their native country – finally found a stable line-up. Now a seven-piece, besides the more traditional rock instrumentation they also include saxophone and violin, like a mini-orchestra. As is the case of most Finnish bands, the collective musicianship is excellent, but the band’s real strength is undoubtedly Susan Karttunen’s stunning voice. While resembling Tuvalu’s Annina Antinranta’s  in pitch and tone, Susan’s singing approach is quite different, and fits the band’s musical direction like a glove.

When I first heard Positive Wave, I superficially thought they sounded like an above-average pop band rather than a prog one. Although subsequent listens  changed my opinion of the album, there is no denying that it is indeed very much a song-oriented effort. The songs, on the other hand, in some ways differ from the standard format. Some of them are downright infectious, and the overall mood of the album – reflecting the band’s name – is upbeat and uplifting, debunking the all too common myth of  the morose Finns. With a beautiful yet simple cover that hints at the love of nature that is deeply rooted in the Finnish psyche (also referenced in many of the song titles), the album comes across as a celebration of life – and one of the songs is in fact called “Elämä”, which in Finnish means “life”.

In spite of the catchy, song-oriented nature of the album, those features so highly prized by progressive rock fans lurk in the instrumental parts, while Susan Karttunen’s vocals blend jazz, pop, folk and even soul stylings in a heady mixture that cannot fail to captivate lovers of great singing. The unmistakable sound of vintage keyboards interacting with fluid, melodic electric guitar bring to mind Canterbury bands, especially Caravan (as my friend Torodd Fuglesteg pointed out in his review of the album), and the addition of sax  and violin enriches the sound and enhances the jazzy nature of some of the arrangements. There are no lengthy numbers of staggering complexity: the individual members’ skills are conveyed in a subtle, tasteful fashion, best exemplified by the twists and turns of the longest track, “Huominen Ei Lopu Koskaan” (Tomorrow Never Ends), a jazzy offering chock full of great keyboard and sax passages, brisk percussion, muted guitar, and, of course, excellent vocals.

While Opener “Helmi” (Pearl) leans more towards the folksy side of things, with jangling, Celtic-tinged guitar, “Valkoinen Huone” (White Room) is an elegant number with echoes of Steely Dan’s classy style, especially in the opening section, and “Siniset Laineet” (Blue Waves) brings back comparisons with Caravan’s unique mix of accessibility and progressive sensibilities. As can be expected, not all of the 11 tracks are equally successful, and towards the end the album tends to drag a bit, especially as the material becomes more subdued and even slightly monotonous. Closing number “Viimeistä Iltaa” (Last Evening), however, though uncharacteristically subdued and melancholy, is in my view a good choice to wrap up the album, and the combination of violin and Susan’s delicate vocals sounds especially poignant.

Though not perfect, and a tad naïve at times, Positive Wave is a very interesting proposition for those who enjoy song-based prog as well as its more complex manifestations. While there is clearly some filler material, and – while not long for today’s standards – the album might have benefited from some trimming, the strengths of the band come across quite clearly, and their obvious enthusiasm and positive attitude (pardon the pun) bodes very well for the future. An intriguing find, and a must for fans of female vocals.

Links:
http://www.positivewave.net

http://www.myspace.com/positivewave

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot (3:56)
2. Parahin Nikola (5:02)
3. – (3:05)
4. Pimeys On Ystävä (12:59)
5. Tulvien Jälkeen (4:24)
6. Fantasmagoria (10:18)
7. Valkoinen Sumu Nousee (5:24)
8. Pakenevan Veden Voima (8:32)

LINEUP:
Annina Antinranta – vocals
Antti Harmainen – guitars
Jussi Oskari – bass, bass pedals
Jussi Matikainen  – drums

Though at least nominally part of the celebrated Scandinavian scene,  Finland has always been somewhat of a mysterious object in the European context, especially as regards progressive rock.  In comparison with neighbouring Sweden, Finland seems to be better known for its wealth of metal bands – both of the extreme and the symphonic persuasion (names like Amorphis or Nightwish come to mind). On the other hand, the country’s contribution to the progressive movement should not be discounted – with Seventies bands such as Tasavallan Presidentti, Wigwam and Finnforest, as well as its later contribution to the RIO/Avant scene with iconic acts such as Höyry-Kone and their offshoot Alamaailman Vasarat. Thanks to Finland’s thriving cultural milieu, the level of musicianship of Finnish bands and artists is also quite high, and homegrown acts are likely to receive quite a lot of attention, in spite of the pervasive presence of mass-produced music from the English-speaking world.

Between the mid-Nineties and the beginning of the 21st century, I spent almost six years in Finland, which will always hold a special place in my heart. It has therefore been a pleasure for me to review the two CDs that, at the end of last year, were brought to my attention by my friend Eetu Pellonpää. Although both of these bands might be easily defined as obscure, their albums offer as much interesting material as those released by higher-profile acts. In spite of their obvious musical differences (which will clearly emerge from my reviews), they have something in common besides their geographical provenience: they both have female vocalists, and they both sing in their native language – a language that, like Italian, is vowel-rich and adapts very well to being put to music.

A quartet currently based in the Helsinki area, Tuvalu (called after German director Veit Helmer’s 1999 movie of the same name) have been around since 2003, and released three albums  In spite of that, they seem to have flown almost completely under the radar of the numerous online publications dedicated to progressive rock. Though released in the early months of 2010, their eponymous third album has been reviewed mainly on Finnish websites, and a Google search turned out only a couple of comments on English-language sites. Tuvalu’s music, however, holds quite a few elements of interest for open-minded prog fans – the kind who do not balk at interpretations of the prog ‘language’ that differ from  the traditional symphonic one. Indeed, from what can be heard on this album, Tuvalu’s sound owes much more to The Mars Volta than to Yes or Genesis, though the influence of Rush and King Crimson can also be clearly detected. The presence of a female vocalist with a strong personality like Annina Antinranta is an added bonus. Annina (who is also responsible for the lyrics) is not an over-the-top soprano in the mould of her celebrated fellow Finn Tarja Turunen, but her commanding, confident voice can handle a variety of moods and styles.

All of the tracks on Tuvalu feature vocals, with the exception of the untitled ‘ghost track’ occupying the third slot, which is also the album’s only instrumental. With two tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, and another at 8, there is plenty of ‘epic’ material to please those who are not satisfied by shorter, snappier offerings. At 58 minutes, the overall running time is quite restrained for these times, and allows listeners to take in the music without weariness setting in halfway through the album. Though the music as a whole tends to be somewhat on the aggressive side, with a powerful rhythm structure and supercharged riffing, the overall effect is nicely balanced by moments when the instruments create haunting, rarefied atmospheres with a definite psychedelic bent.

As previously suggested, the blueprint is The Mars Volta’s blend of hardcore aggression, wistful, Latin-tinged melodies and trippy electronic moods, with more than a hint of the steely, streamlined approach of King Crimson from the ‘80s onwards, as well as Rush’s marriage of accessibility and complexity. Opener “Tulevien Aikojen Luurangot” (Skeletons of the Future) combines a simmering sense of tension with rhythmic explosions that push the drums at the forefront; Annina Antinranta delivers her own dark, somewhat skewed lyrics with remarkable clarity and self-assurance. In the following number, “Parahin Nikola”, the intensity is tempered by more sedate instrumental breaks punctuated by spacey sound effects. The latter are the undisputed protagonists of the ‘ghost track’, which distinctly brings to mind the ‘noise’ sections of The Mars Volta’s 2005 album Frances the Mute.

In typical rollercoaster-ride style, the epic “Pimeys on Ystävä” (Darkness Is a Friend) – a tad patchy, yet fascinating – alternates bursts of manic energy with slower, more subdued passages that showcase Annina’s vocal versatility; the insistent, interlocking guitar lines conjure strong echoes of King Crimson circa Discipline. The second epic, “Fantasmagoria”, throws some doomy, Sabbath-like moments into its frantic, riff-driven, Rush-meets-TMV fabric. “Valkoinen Sumu Nousee” (White Fog Rises) features shouting, punk-like vocals before calming down a bit, while “Tulvien Jälkeen” (After the Floods) reveals the melodic, atmospheric side of the band, with muted vocals and measured, bell-like guitar sounds.

From the above description, it should be clear enough that fans of the more melodic incarnations of prog might find Tuvalu not exactly to their taste. Anything sporting a strong Mars Volta influence is bound to come across as an acquired taste – with the added drawback of vocals in a language that, for most people, is nothing short of impenetrable, and distinctive, grey-hued artwork that seems to reflect the brooding quality of the music. On the other hand, open-minded lovers of progressive music might do worse than to give this album a listen, and possibly more than one. Tuvalu can definitely hold their own on the ‘modern prog’ scene, and deserve far more exposure than they have got so far.

Links:
http://www.tuvalu.ws

 

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I recently received this press release from Black Widow Records –  the Genoa-based label whose roster includes a number of historic Italian progressive rock acts, as well as many newer ones – which I am glad to share with my readers, especially the many fans of Italian prog.

On Friday, April 8, 2011, Delirium,  one of the seminal bands of the original Rock Progressivo Italiano movement, will be performing at Genova’s Teatro Govi.  The concert will be opened by gifted Neapolitan singer Sophya Baccini (whose excellent solo debut, Aradia, was released in 2009), with legendary Osanna vocalist Lino Vairetti as a special guest.

In the course of the evening, Delirium will present their new DVD, Il Viaggio Continua: La Storia 1970-2010 (recently released by Black Widow), which features original live footage from the Seventies, plus a recording of the band’s concert at the Teatro Politeama (also in Genoa) in 2008. Their setlist will include material from both  their ’70s albums and their critically acclaimed 2009 CD Il Nome del Vento – as well as semi-acoustic arrangements of some of their best-known songs.

Though I am aware that for most of my readers it will not be possible to attend this event, if any of you happen to be in the area, this is definitely an opportunity not to be missed. In the next couple of weeks Genoa will host a number of  events that will further strengthen its status as a hotbed for great progressive rock.

The concert will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are € 15.

Teatro Govi – Via P. Pastorino 23-25 R – Genoa, Italy.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.sophyabaccini.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. BunChakeze (1:57)
2. Whose Dream? (4:05)
3. Walk in Paradise (6:57)
4. Handful of Rice (5:10)
5. Flight of the Phoenix (6:20)
6. Midnight Skies (6:25)
7. Long Distance Runner (6:09)
8. The Deal (7:50)
9. Whose Dream? (reprise) (2:24)

LINEUP:
Colin Tench – guitars, synthesizers, backing vocals
Gary Derrick – bass, bass pedals
Cliff Deighton – drums
Joey Lugassy – vocals

With:
Alex Foulcer – piano

The rather weirdly-named BunChakeze (a ‘creative’ spelling of the more mundane ‘bunch of keys’) were one of the many bands born in the mid-Eighties who – in spite of  the much-touted Neo-Prog breakthrough of those years – found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Formed in 1984 by guitarist Colin Tench, drummer Cliff Deighton and bassist Gary Derrick after the demise of the six-piece Odin of London, like the former they were among the many casualties of the lack of interest in music that did not comply with the stereotypes of that era. All too aware of the indifference of record labels and promoters, BunChakeze voluntarily dropped off the radar and went their separate ways after having recorded an album’s worth of material.  Fast forward about 25 years, to 2010,  when  – thanks to progressive rock’s surprising Renaissance – BunChakeze emerged from oblivion. Taking full advantage of the possibilities of the Internet, they finally released their album, and set about to actively promoting it all over the community of progressive rock fans.

To be perfectly honest, when I got my copy of Whose Dream?, after having read a slew of enthusiastic reviews, I was curious to see if it really was the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread, or rather one of the many rather undistinguished releases that seem to be a dime a dozen on the current prog scene. Indeed, not everyone would view BunChakeze’s obvious enthusiasm about their release in a completely positive light, and some would even think, “do we really need yet another album by a long-dead band?”. On the other hand, though occasionally showing its age, Whose Dream? is a pleasant listen, easy to approach in just one listening session (unlike so many modern releases), and featuring some noteworthy guitar work courtesy of Colin Tench. True, it is not the most progressive album on the market, and its catchy nature may prove a turn-off for the more elitist fringe. Moreover, the sound quality is anything but flattering to the material: neither the tinny drum sound nor the dated, whistling synthesizers do the album any favours, and Joey Lugassy’s voice sounds positively strained at times. However, it is definitely no worse than many current releases frequently hailed as near-masterpieces beyond their true merits.

A strongly song-oriented album, with no tracks longer than 7 minutes, Whose Dream? shows a distinct lack of sprawling epics –a refreshing change of pace from the often overambitious efforts that seem to be the rule these days. Some of the compositions, in spite of their relative shortness, do have an epic scope of sorts: “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Midnight Skies” (dedicated to the plight of Native Americans) both offer enough tempo changes (though never in an overly complex fashion) and instrumental interest to qualify as mini-epics, The general mood of the album tends to be somewhat melancholy, both musically and lyrically – perhaps reflecting the frustration the band members were experiencing at the time the music was composed.

As the band members themselves are ready to admit, the biggest influence on BunChakeze’s sound are Pink Floyd, in their more subdued, hauntingly melodic incarnation rather than the experimental one.  The intro to “The Deal” is a dead ringer for “Welcome to the Machine”, and Colin Tench’s clear, smoothly flowing lead guitar pays more than cursory homage to David Gilmour’s hugely influential style. Hints of Kansas (without the grandiosity) surface in “Long Distance Runner”, while “Walk in Paradise” shows touches of Deep Purple-style hard rock (even in Lugassy’s vocal approach) in its first half, suddenly changing into a more melodic pace reminiscent of Genesis and Camel.  Two sprightly instrumentals  bookend the album,  putting Tench’s Spanish-flavoured guitar on display; while the above-mentioned “The Deal” is by far the darkest offering on the album, with its haunting bass line, echoing guitar chords, and almost lush keyboard sounds.

At the time of writing, though the various band members have long since been engaged in other things (not necessarily music-related), it seems that BunChakeze are definitely getting back together, possibly with a view to playing some live shows. Though Whose Dream? is certainly no masterpiece, BunChakeze are a group of talented musicians who deserve respect for their resilience and dedication to their craft.  A special mention should go to the very nice CD booklet, with thorough yet funny liner notes, lyrics (which are quite interesting, though occasionally a bit on the naïve side), and vintage photos of the band. Fans of neo-prog and melodic prog in general could do much worse than get hold of Whose Dream?, and help the newly reformed  band to fulfil their dream of finally performing on a stage.

Links:
http://www.bunchakeze.com

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