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Archive for April, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. Neon Knights (3:54)
2. Children of the Sea (5:35)
3. Lady Evil (4:26)
4. Heaven and Hell (6.59)
5. Wishing Well (4.08)
6. Die Young (4:46)
7. Walk Away (4:26)
8. Lonely Is the Word (5:53)

LINEUP:
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitar
Geezer Butler – bass
Bill Ward – drums
Geoff Nichols – keyboards

Though I generally try to be as unbiased as possible in my reviews, in this particular occasion I will have to let objectivity take a back seat, because Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath’s ninth album, is one of my top 10 albums of all time. As my faithful readers should know by now, even if the majority of the music I review can be placed under the extensive ‘progressive rock’ umbrella, my listening tastes are quite eclectic, and I do have quite a soft spot for what might be termed ‘classic heavy metal’. Indeed, Heaven and Hell is a masterpiece of the genre, signaling the band’s return to sparkling form after the severe decline shown by their late Seventies albums

At the beginning of the new decade, Sabbath underwent what could be called a total makeover. Gone was the muddy, uncertain sound a of their earlier albums, to be replaced by Martin Birch’s state-of-the-art, crystal-clear production, which allowed every instrument to shine – not just Geezer Butler’s and Bill Ward’s thunderous rhythm section or Tony Iommi’s legendary riffing, but especially new guy Ronnie James Dio’s awe-inspiring roar. The latter’s addition  made the real difference in the band’s performance: though Ozzy’s distinctive, eerie wail had been Black Sabbath’s trademark  since the beginning of their career, Dio (who had left Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow to join the band) was something else completely. Such changes obviously altered the band’s sound in a rather substantial way, so that  Heaven and Hell sounds quite unlike their Seventies output – less chillingly menacing, more crushingly powerful, yet also more accessible.

The hard-driving “Neon Knights” (one of the strongest opening tracks ever) sounds like a statement of intent right from the start, brimming with Iommi’s towering guitar riffs and Dio’s soaring bellow. Things slow down for the following number, the epic, doom-laden “Children of the Sea” – one of Dio’s career-defining vocal performances together with Rainbow’s “Stargazer”.  On the other hand, “Lady Evil” is a catchy, uptempo song, punctuated by Butler’s booming, dynamic bass lines, which provides a respite of sorts before the monumental title-track – strategically placed at the end of Side A when the album was originally released.

A concert classic for both Dio-era Black Sabbath and its unfortunately short-lived, eponymous band, “Heaven and Hell” is a crushingly heavy cavalcade bolstered by Butler’s thundering bass and Iommi’s manic riffing, with Dio’s voice soaring and swooping above the din in true epic style. As a sort of release of tension, another catchy tune follows, the almost poppy “Wishing Well” (no relation to the Free song of the same title).   “Die Young” can instead be counted as another of the album’s highlights – a powerful, keyboard-laden hard rocker, it sees another cracking vocal performance from Dio, enhanced by Iommi’s  sterling guitar work.

While the slightly nondescript “Walk Away” is, in my view, the only track   that approaches filler status, the album is wrapped up by another memorable number.  “Lonely Is the Word” most closely resembles Sabbath’s earlier output with Ozzy – a sinister slice of doom driven by Iommi’s iconic riffing,  while Dio’s vocals sound pleading and commanding in turn. The wistful yet intense guitar solo at the end of the song is undoubtedly one of Iommi’s finest moments.

Originally released on April 25, 1980, Heaven and Hell  is still revered by rock fans, even though the younger generations of metal fans may find it  somewhat lightweight if compared with the output of the countless extreme metal acts flooding the current scene.  While it  does contain occasional progressive touches, it  was never as influential to the development of prog-metal as Black Sabbath’s Ozzy-era offerings. The presence of a few catchy tunes might also put off some purists, who might find the likes of  “Lady Evil” o “Wishing Well” too close to AOR for comfort.

All this criticism notwithstanding, Heaven and Hell is one of the milestone releases of the past 40 years, and one of the greatest vocal albums in the history of rock. As well as being a celebration of the album’s 31st anniversary, this review is meant as a homage to Ronnie James Dio, who passed away almost a year ago, on May 16, 2010. Together with Rainbow’s Rising, this album was possibly Ronnie’s finest hour.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Loopy (5.59)
2. A Serious Man (3.49)
3. Mom’s Song (2.05)
4. Bar Stomp (3.04)
5. Outdoor Revolution (3.08)
6. Western Sky (2.12)
7. Burning Match (5.11)
8. Claire’s Indigo (2.11)
9. Snufkin (2.48)
10. Old Silhouette (4.12)
11. Winds of Grace (8.39)

LINEUP:
Dani Rabin – guitar
Danny Markovitch – saxophone
Steve Rodby – bass
Paul Wertico – drums, percussion (1, 8)

With:
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Matt Davidson – vocals (3, 6)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 6)
Makaya McCraven – drums (4)
Daniel White – lyrics, vocals (11)

Marbin’s eponymous debut came to my attention towards the end of 2009, soon after its release. Even if the duo formed by two young, talented Israeli-born musicians who had recently moved to Chicago was an unknown quantity to me and most other reviewers, the album’s endearingly naïve artwork and intriguing musical offer were enough to warrant closer scrutiny. With a name cleverly fashioned out of the surnames of the two artists (Danny MARkovitch and Dani RaBIN), Marbin made their debut on the US music scene with an album full of intriguing melodies crafted with ony two instruments – Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s saxophone – characterised by an ethereal, almost brittle quality, reminiscent of the delicacy of Far Eastern art, complex yet at the same time not too taxing for the listener.

The year 2010 marked a veritable quantum leap for Marbin (very active on the live front in the Chicago area), when they came under the radar of MoonJune Records’ mainman Leonardo Pavkovic, a man with a keen eye for new acts of outstanding quality. Promptly snapped up by the New York-based label, Marbin – who in the meantime had become a real band, with the addition of  Pat Metheny alumni Steve Rodby (bass) and Paul Wertico (drums) – released their second album at the beginning of 2011.

Breaking the Cycle is indeed an impressive effort, which sees the band build upon the foundation laid by their debut, while fine-tuning their sound and adding layers of complexity, though without making things unnecessarily convoluted. Indeed, rather interestingly, a fellow reviewer used the term ‘easy listening’ in connection to the album –  a definition that may conjure images of that openly commercial subgenre known as smooth jazz. However, while Breaking the Cycle does have plenty of smoothness and melody, I would certainly never call it background music. The presence of a full-blown rhythm section has given a boost to the ambient-tinged, chamber-like atmosphere of the debut, and some of the tracks display a more than satisfying level of energy and dynamics, all the while keeping true to the deeper nature of their sound.

Clocking in at slightly over 40 minutes, Breaking the Cycle immediately appears as a supremely sophisticated effort, starting from the striking cover artwork whose mix of the industrial (the bridge on the front cover) and the natural (the elephant on the back cover) seems to reflect the nature of the music itself. While the majority of the tracks lean towards the slower, more atmospheric side of things, delivered in a rather short, somewhat compact format, the album is bookended by two numbers that differ quite sharply from the rest, as well as from each other. Opener “Loopy” is the closest Marbin get to a ‘conventional’ jazz-fusion sound, almost 6 minutes of sax and guitar emoting over an exhilarating jungle beat laid down by Wertico’s drums and percussion that gives a first taste of the seamless interplay between the instruments. On the other hand, the medieval-tinged, acoustic folk ballad “Winds of Grace”, masterfully interpreted by guest singer Daniel White (who also wrote the lyrics), though apparently out of place in the context of the album,  is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia and loss suggested by several other tracks.

Indeed, the three numbers that form the central section of the album might almost be considered as parts of a single suite, since they are characterized by a wistful, romantic (though anything but cheesy) mood. An extended sax solo is the real showstopper in “Outdoor Revolution”, while wordless vocalizing enhances the country-tinged acoustic guitar in “Western Sky”. “Burning Match” seems to reflect its title almost perfectly, its smouldering atmosphere touched with a hint of sadness, the yearning tone of the sax suggesting the end of a love affair. A strong visual element is evoked throughout the album: “Old Silhouette” creates a faintly mysterious picture, yet full of subtle warmth intensified by the slow, deep movement of the percussion; while the sweet, soothing chanting in “Mom’s Song”, combined with the gentleness of the guitar, brought to my mind images of a beach at sunset. In sharp contrast, “Bar Stomp” delivers exactly what the title promises – a bluesy, electrified romp with Rabin’s guitar taking centre stage, bolstered by an imposing percussive apparatus involving the presence of three drummers (Wertico plus guests Makaya McCraven and Jamey Haddad), and spiced up with a hint of cinematic tension.

The final remarks I made in my review of Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan may also apply to Breaking the Cycle. Oozing sheer class, with outstanding performances all round, yet plenty of warmth and accessibility (unlike a lot of hyper-technical albums), this is a release that has the potential to appeal to anyone who loves good music and does not care about sticking a label on anything they hear. Judging from the positive reactions to this album, Marbin are definitely going to be another asset for the ever-reliable MoonJune Records.

Links:
http://www.marbinmusic.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Aria (2:09)
2. Biocosmopolitan (3:36)
3. Concrete Clima (4:26)
4. The Discordia (3:42)
5. Kerouac in New York City (3:13)
6. Is Difficult to Fly Without Whisky (3:26)
7. Dandy Dog (2:12)
8. Danny Is a Man Now (1:42)
9. Biocosmo (3:39)
10. Lovecity (2:47)
11. Springstorm (3:21)
12. The Miss Kiss (2:57)
13. My Barry Lindon (1:28)
14. Closin’ Theme (2:32)
15. Crosstown Traffic (bonus track) (4:03)
16. Biocosmo (English version – bonus track) (4:14)

Bonus video:
The Miss Kiss

LINEUP:
Boris Savoldelli – all vocals and vocal instruments, piano (9, 16)

With:
Jimmy Haslip – bass (2)
Paolo Fresu – trumpet, flugelhorn (3, 5)

At a first glance, Boris Savoldelli’s second solo album does not spell ‘progressive rock’. With 14 songs (plus two bonus tracks) between 1 and 4 minutes in length, and a rather minimalistic instrumental accompaniment, Biocosmopolitan looks light years away from the lushly orchestrated productions of the flag-bearers of the genre. Moreover, even if the output of New York-based MoonJune Records (one of the few authentically forward-thinking labels in the business) is frequently placed under the used-and-abused ‘prog’ umbrella, this album displays a somewhat different approach to music-making, one that tries to offers something genuinely original rather than a more or less successful replica of Seventies modes.

My first encounter with Boris Savoldelli’s music dates back from 2009, when I reviewed his solo debut, Insanology – an album that impressed me for its unique blend of elegance and uncontrived cheerfulness. It was one of those truly enjoyable discs whose apparent simplicity reveals layers of complexity with every successive listen. It is, however, not the complexity for its own sake that can be sometimes encountered in ‘standard’ progressive rock, but is rather achieved with a lightness of  touch, a kind of consummate subtlety that is all too rare on the modern music scene – all accomplished with one main instrument, Savoldelli’s voice, a veritable one-man-orchestra of stunning versatility that has been compared to luminaries like Bobby McFerrin or Demetrio Stratos.

Indeed, Boris Savoldelli is much more than an ordinary singer – to quote our fellow Italians PFM, he is a real maestro della voce, a master of the art of shaping his voice in ways that would sound impossible to most people, replacing most of the conventional instrumentation used in jazz and rock with an array of awe-inspiring effects whose apparently effortless nature belie the years of hard work behind it all. While most of the songs, which blend traditional and unconventional features, have a similar structure – where two or more vocal lines (both percussive and harmonic) intersect and spar with each other – as a whole Biocosmopolitan does not sound monotonous or repetitive. In my view, his unique handling of the linguistic aspects is probably the single most important factor for the album’s success. English and Italian intermingle with astounding naturalness (while on most other albums a mix of languages would sound contrived) that lends the album a truly cosmopolitan feel – with devices such as alliteration and assonance used to bolster the musical content, creating intriguing rhythms and textures.

In the four years between Insanology and Biocosmopolitan, Boris Savoldelli has been quite busy, though on a more decidedly experimental level – releasing the album Protoplasmic in collaboration with Elliott Sharp, as well as three albums with avant-garde outfit S.A.D.O. While Insanology saw the presence of veteran jazz guitarist Marc Ribot on two tracks, this time Savoldelli avails himself of the collaboration of two outstanding musicians – renowned Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, and bassist Jimmy Haslip (of Yellowjackets fame). Haslip’s bass adds depth and interest to the title-track, complementing Savoldelli’s bluesy vocals in a song that is much more complex than it short running time would suggest. Fresu’s wistful-sounding trumpet punctuates the cheery, infectious repetition of the line “the corner is dirty” in the pause-laden “Concrete Clima” (the longest track on the album at slightly over 4 minutes), and its sudden bursts of sounds enrich the fabric of the bright, endearingly nonsensical “Kerouac in New York”.

Most of the songs share the same sunny, upbeat nature and exude a genuine sense of warmth, reminding the listener of exotic vocal styles or of the sensuality of Latin rhythms, combining modernity and a charming retro feel (most evident in the Fifties’ doo-wop style of the hugely entertaining “The Miss Kiss”). Boris’s voice ranges from gritty, passionate blues tones to elegant, jazzy smoothness, infused with a genuine sense of humour and enjoyment. The only number that clearly differs from the rest is the melancholy ballad “Biocosmo”, a slow-burner (also present as a bonus track with English-language vocals) accompanied by piano and ending with solemn, choir-like chanting and distant clinking sounds, which one can almost imagine Savoldelli performing in the semi-darkness of a smoky night club. The album is then wrapped up, in cinematic fashion,  by two humorous complementary pieces, “My Barry Lindon “ – basically a series of ‘thank you’, handclaps and assorted sounds with occasional vocal harmonies thrown in – and “Closin’ Theme”, where a voice recites the album’s credits in English with mock seriousness. The second bonus track, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic”(already included on Insanology), is the closest the album goes to traditional rock, with Savoldelli offering a more than credible performance as a hard rock vocalist.

Biocosmopolitan is one of those rare albums that are potentially appealing to all music lovers, regardless of genres and labels – though it might disappoint those who require songs to be over 10 minutes in length, or object to the lack of ‘proper’ instruments, or even shun any kind of music that is not dead serious or just plain depressing. Progressive without necessarily being ‘prog’, entertaining and at times even exhilarating, Biocosmopolitan is an ideal showcase for the amazing vocal and compositional talents of an artist whose work proves that impeccably performed music can also be fun.

Links:
http://www.borisinger.eu

http://www.moonjune.com

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It is my pleasure to present the very first guest review to be featured on my blog – a wonderful account of Van der Graaf Generator’s Rome show written by my dear friend Victor Andrei Părău, a professional musician whom ProgArchives regulars will remember by his screen name of Ricochet. Enjoy!

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Such a great concert.” That was all I managed to write down, three days after returning home. Surely, a Van der Graaf Generator concert has to be more inspiring than that.

Well, my first impulse was to catch a flight to the nearest stop of their spring tour, since they did quite an arch throughout Europe after playing several times in England. It is perhaps strange for some, this express desire to finally see one of your favorite bands on stage, to make on your own all the right moves in order to accomplish that, to travel and make a special case out of it, or even to think of it as something to be done “at least once in your lifetime”. Yet, to be honest, most of the concerts I’ve attended were this emotional. While I do already have a strong backup of jazz or experimental concerts, should Jethro Tull’s progressiveness be up for debate (I think that’s the trend lately) and also not count a few less evoking names, then what Van der Graaf offered was quite the first fully ranked progressive rock concert for me, in all its details – from the atmosphere down to the trio’s own manifest.

Time affecting bands was never a hot topic for me, although many groups have embarrased themselves – some still do. Make no mistake, time is ticking loud enough for VdGG themselves. Peter Hammill looks the most dried up; even Guy Evans’ look isn’t as badass as it was a couple of years ago. In contrast, Hugh Banton’s appearance is elegant and humble, something further proved by how he looked so zen at the keyboards, playing his part, more so brilliantly.  But their reunion is truly one of the most successful. The first great sign of this concert was to witness these seniors’ instrumental skills, as good as ever, most of the times veraciously energetic, even with a tinge of crassness, with all their trademark accents and maddening difficult rhythms, something they’ve never let go of.

Of course, I did miss the best rides of their comeback, those up until 2007, highlighted by the live gem Real Time, if not by the work on Present as well, which I always considered to be a great album, with its clever duality. I’ve seen enough fans being a little more sceptical  when it comes to the new trio form and their recent acts. While preparing for the trip, I caught news of this tour’s first shows being heavily focused on the new material, while later mixing it with the heavily desired classics. Actually, if you check the Live List on their homepage, this is all pretty relative. Nevertheless, let’s just say the Rome concert was one of the odd-numbered ones or something, indeed promoting the new stuff, with the old tracks being the high points. Hammill even joked about it a bit when announcing they will move on to something “vecchioma non troppo vecchio”.

Oh right, Rome! Well, Prague would have initially been my pick, had it not taken me a total of two days just to travel by train back and forth. There was no window for me to go to the smaller town of Cesena, so it had to be the Eternal City, adding touristic pressure to the entire trip. By the end of a five-day experience, it was hard  to consider that I went there just to see the guys. The Auditorium Parco della Musica was a destination in itself, with exhibits taking place in the Luciano Berio Largo, with chatty and modish people at the coffeehouse making me look like a peasant, with Mahler’s Ninth playing at the same time in another concert hall. I was definitely split in many sides that evening: one completely burned out after seeing Ancient Rome the whole day, one being, of course, the eager music fan and a third moderating, as in trying to keep the first alive and the second from pretentiously picking the pulse, thus simply enjoy the whole thing. As I waited for the M bus to arrive and take me to the Auditorium, along with a rather impatient British old lady and a German couple of the same age, I feared I might actually be among the youngest spectators. Fortunately, the public proved to be mixed: genuine rock enthusiasts and Graaf fanboys, people who had forgotten to change their clothes since the ‘70s, young bloods equally interested.

The screechy “nearer and nearer” (constantly misheard by me as mirror, mirror) chorus, or even the keyboard polyphonic frolics from Interference Patterns could have proved annoying, but I felt it was a good opener. The chorus blasts were heavier than usual and the keyboard animation was also of great effect. As mentioned before, picking up the strange rhythms and intricate melodic patterns, all in heterogeneous time signatures, can be the first thing that connects you with the profoundly personal, however awkward, Van der Graaf spirit – something even Trisector, as shabby of an album as it is often credited, does manage. This, on the other hand, is the departure I regret on A Grounding in Numbers, an album I met with too great expectations, the positive reactions doing no good either. Actually, even without thinking about the past when listening to it  (which is indeed a rather bad viewpoint), I find very little substance in their new songs – or the slideshow itself. The trio picked the decent stuff from that album, avoiding, for instance, nutty songs on mathematics and such. First was Mr. Sands – a sort of odd character every band gives life to at some point (see R.E.M.’s Mr. Richards) – and the more halcyon Your Time Starts Now, with a first fully sonorous organ line from Banton. Hammill moved to electric guitar, acting clumsy between each piece to mask the seconds delayed by his preparations. The heavy instrumental verve returned with All That Before,  portions of an already towering intensity.

There was no greater enthusiasm than when the classics were played (a small sad side to it being  that it felt like they were the only thing the public was truly waiting for). Hammill did prepare us for them, yet, as the ovations interrupted the first line of Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, it was clear the game would carry on. There was indeed more to it. When Hammill made his dramatic pause at “frightening in the silence”, someone from the audience jumped in, screaming the “sileeeeeeeeence” in perfect imitation. Hammill replied  faithfully. It was a bloody genius moment. Needless to say, at the end of the final triumphing choral of the piece, the audience jumped to its feet. It felt less great to follow up with irritating keyboard dialogues from All Over the Place, something matched on the new album only by the awful irregularities on Splink. I really enjoyed  Over the Hill next. It’s the most powerful separator between Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, also linking closest to the old Van der Graaf, with its catchphrases, cold/pulsating transitions, lyrically & musically encompassing.

Finalmente there was Man-Erg, apparently a given in these concerts, proving even more what this band is all about. The sentimental, lyrical opening was never too comforting, while the thundering section was downright macabre and convulsive. At one point, Evans kicked the hell out of his small gong so much that he send it flying. People were shouting requests by the time of the encore, be it Sleepwalkers, Wondering or Necromancer (what!). However, it was Scorched Earth – probably my favorite VdGG of all time (but I could be biased to say that right now). I can’t think of a better encore that I’ve heard. Yes, it did lack Jaxxon’s crazy improvisations, but everything else was in place. It pierced through me entirely and it was mind-blowing. The lights were turned back on right after the trio left the stage, and the fans gave up too quickly.

So, going back to my first line, it was a great concert. Hammill’s vocals were slightly off, but I dare mention it again that all three of them were absolutely impressive at their instruments. Becoming their fan(boy) was a rough deal, so I’m pretty content with going all the way through this – except, perhaps, a couple more bits and pieces on their creation that aren’t quite put together, even now. Occasionally, it’s great to also hear others puzzle over what Van der Graaf were able to create, extending to how refined music sounded back in those days.

…okay, maybe it was my dad being so nostalgic. But my feelings persist.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pyjamageddon  4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough  4:21
3. Yockenthwaite  3:59
4. Metal Trees  4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave  5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain  3:55
9. Long Shore Drift  3:33
10. Rubber Road  3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered  3:34

LINEUP:
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone –  guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals

With:
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone  (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)

In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of  my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.

Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.

Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.

Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.

All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.

After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of  “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.

Links:
http://bigblock454.bandcamp.com/

http://bigblock454.tumblr.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Touch the Stars (4:21)
2. Carousel (4:16)
3. First to Last (5:24)
4. A Far Cry (5:37)
5. Rush of Blood (6:00)
6. Darker Sun (6:54)
7. Wake Up to Reality (5:08)
8. Missing Years (4:45)
9. Scenario (6:32)

LINEUP:
Dave Foss – vocals
Nick Hampson – guitars, voices (spooky)
Neil Foss – guitar, backing vocals
Steve Watts – keyboards, backing vocals
Paul Caswell – drums

As my long-time readers probably know, I have never been a keen follower of either neo-prog or AOR. In the Eighties – that supposed wasteland for good music – I mostly listened to heavy metal or new wave, and I never went much further than Fish-era Marillion in my exploration of the neo-prog scene. In recent years, thanks to my activity as a reviewer for several progressive rock websites and, I have got acquainted with a lot of diverse, challenging music, which has shaped my tastes in a direction that is often quite the opposite of radio-friendliness. Anyway, whatever my personal tastes, it is essential for a reviewer to keep an open mind and be able to step out of his or her comfort zone – which can lead to pleasant surprises, such as Exhibit A’s third album, the quaintly-titled Make Mine a Lobster.

Based in the county of Essex in southern England, Exhibit A were formed in 1986 after the demise of another band called Mithra. They released two albums in the early Nineties, then went into a lengthy hiatus that lasted until 2007, when the five members of the band got back together to discuss recording some new material. In the second half of 2010, Make Mine a Lobster was finally released – sixteen years after the band’s second album – attracting the attention of fans of the more melodic, listener-friendly variety of progressive rock.

Unlike so many modern outfits that do so while blithely ripping off other bands or artists, the members of Exhibit A do not claim to be purveyors of wildly innovative fare. Their album – skilfully composed, arranged and performed – is a tribute to the sheer joy of making music that has nothing to do with a desire to rake in the big bucks. They clearly play the music they like, without caring about whether it is trendy or rather a bit on the dated side. Although some reviewers have compared them to Asia, there is a world of difference between that custom-built supergroup, put together with the clear purpose of scaling the charts, and Exhibit A’s  genuine enthusiasm.

After reading reviews of Make Mine a Lobster, I was somewhat doubtful about what I was going to find – and was, instead, confronted with a genuinely pleasing listen, something that I might slip into my CD player for pleasure and not just for reviewing purposes. Thankfully, my attitude towards ‘pop music’ (a definition that is, in my opinion, way too broad to be used with any real accuracy) is anything but snobbish and narrow-minded. It takes quite a lot of skill to write a good pop song, and I would take good pop over bad prog any day. Bands like Exhibit A, who are not afraid of labelling themselves ‘prog-pop-rock’, are perfect for those times when I need music to please my ear without challenging it too much – and I do not mean this statement to be in the least patronizing. Weary as I am of the endless posturing and waving around of the word ‘proggy’ as if it was the greatest accolade, I found Exhibit A’s approach to music-making extremely refreshing and honest. In the Eighties, mentioning prog and Duran Duran in the same breath would have been next to anathema, but on their website Exhibit A proudly display quotes referencing the former ‘pin-up’ band. Indeed, their sound is firmly rooted in the Eighties, blending AOR, quality synth-driven pop and progressive suggestions in a classy mixture, admirably complemented by the clear, versatile tenor of lead vocalist Dave Foss.

Not surprisingly, Make Mine a Lobster is based on relatively short songs that display a rather traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. However, what sets the album above many comparable efforts is the tightness of both the songwriting and the performances, which does not allow for the presence of weak links. The two longest numbers, “Darker Sun” and “Scenario”, clocking in at almost 7 minutes, offer plenty of unobtrusive but noticeable progressive touches in the instrumental parts, such as excellent guitar-keyboards interplay bolstered by precise drumming, and slower, atmospheric sections. Album opener “Touch the Stars” and “Rush of Blood”, on the other hand, are definitely accessible tracks with some serious airplay potential, offering plenty of sweeping keyboards, soaring vocals and melodic guitar licks. All of the above-mentioned songs, as well as “Carousel”, bear the imprint of Rush circa Hold Your Fire. The slower, more subdued numbers like “First to Last”, with its moody guitar coda, and the piano-infused ballad “Missing Years” (featuring a lovely, almost Gilmourian guitar solo) may bring to mind Asia at their best, or even purveyors of quality Eighties pop like Tears for Fears or Talk Talk. “Wake Up to Reality”, with its subtle tempo changes and remarkable synth-guitar interplay, is somewhat more complex than the rest; while “A Far Cry”, despite the Rush reference in the title, brings again Asia to mind, spiced up by some sharper guitar riffing and enhanced by Dave Foss’s outstanding vocals.

Though I would not call it a masterpiece (and masterpieces are rather thin on the ground these days…), Make Mine a Lobster is quite a worthwhile effort, at least for those progressive rock fans who are not averse to the more accessible side of their favourite musical genre. True, the keyboards (especially the synths) may occasionally sound a bit dated, and, if you object to high tenor vocals or 4/4 time signatures, then you should probably give this one a pass.In any case, this is as accomplished an album as those released by bands in the same vein with far higher aspirations, and one that will appeal not just to fans of AOR and the catchier end of the prog spectrum, but also to anyone keeping an open mind as regards musical matters.

Links:
http://www.exhibita.org.uk/

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Now that the dust has settled, and life is slowly getting back to normal for the ‘prog community’ after a lengthy wound-licking session, it is time to draw some conclusions, and see if there is any way forward for the whole scene after such a traumatic, unexpected event – or else, if we have to consider the possibility that NEARfest’s cancellation might spell the genre’s upcoming demise. The many thoughtful responses to my original article go to show that this unfortunate occurrence had a strong impact on the far-flung community of progressive rock fans. However, it is probably much too soon to gauge if this impact will have a destructive effect on the prog scene, or rather help people to understand that nothing can be taken for granted, and that the music which we all claim to love should be cherished and nurtured.

When the full import of the cancellation finally sank in, some long-time NEARfest attendees reacted as if they had experienced the loss of a loved one, or, at the very least, of something precious and unique. Some, believing that the festival (like the Titanic) was unsinkable, and would always break even, had been completely blindsided the situation. Others, conversely, stood by their conviction that the organizers had somehow ‘asked for it’ by assembling a weak line-up, and claimed their right to bail out if the programme was not attractive enough. All in all, it was not a particularly pretty sight.

Those outside the core group of stalwart festival-goers had rather different insights to provide. While the news made no one happy, most of the ‘outsiders’ contested the motivations that had led the organizers to their decision, and – almost unanimously – laid the blame on the lack of support on the part of the community. After a few days from the announcement, people’s façades of goodwill and equanimity began to slip. Instead of pulling together, the community showed that the cracks were deepening, and none more noticeably than the one between the two main ‘factions’ – those still steeped in nostalgia, and those who choose to look forward. It feels like, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, the twain shall never meet, at least not for some time.

One of the biggest implications of the whole débacle is that the prog scene has been left with a metaphorical black eye – even if now, some two weeks after the fact,  everything seems to be back to ‘business as usual’ in the extensive network of prog-related sites. With prog fans’ long-standing reputation for elitism and ‘living in the past’, this is not going to do them any favours with the rest of the underground music scene. In spite of the negative comments that had accompanied the announcement of their headliner status, the members of Umphrey’s McGee had been looking forward to performing for the NEARfest audience, and  the statement posted on their own website after the cancellation made their disappointment quite obvious.

Unfortunately, in their stubborn close-mindedness, many prog fans do not realize that even a relatively successful band like Umphrey’s McGee might be glad to be involved in something that might expose them to a new audience and pose them a challenge of sorts. Caught up in endless, hair-splitting debates about the nature of prog, and obsessed with putting a label on everything they hear, they seem to forget that in their beloved Seventies the music scene was much more open and accepting. It was normal at the time to see bands as diverse as ELP, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Eagles and Earth, Wind and Fire share a stage at California Jam without people having hissy fits –a trend that seems to have made a comeback in recent years, as proved by last year’s High Voltage festival in London. Many festival-goers also seem to have forgotten about the “Art Rock” present in the NEARfest acronym in their cries of woe over the booking of anything that does not fit their own narrow definition of progressive rock.

Indeed, the adventurous spirit of the late Sixties and early Seventies seems to have deserted a large slice of the prog community, in spite of the almost idealized portrait painted by last year’s documentary Romantic Warriors. To paraphrase Genesis, far too many fans seem to know what they like, and like what they know – and, in times of severe economic crisis, this has made them even more suspicious of leaving their individual comfort zones. Therefore, the need for ‘big names’ (a musical equivalent of designer labels) in order to draw the crowds, even when they do not necessarily mean better quality. The 2010 edition of NEARfest was headlined by Eddie Jobson and his Ultimate Zero Project (an impressive collection of gifted musicians), which, against all expectations, left a good part of the audience cold, when not positively frustrated. Indeed, the complaining about the band coming on stage late (with accusations of ‘star behaviour’ liberally thrown around), or just not delivering from a musical point of view, went on for days – just like any discussion brimming with negative comments about Yes’ latest incarnation or Phil Collins’ alleged destruction of Genesis usually does.

Yet, it seems the lesson has not been learned. At least here in the US, any ‘vintage’ band will always have the edge over modern bands, no matter how good the latter may be. The comments that I have often come across about bands or artists not being as good live as they are on CD are quite revealing of this suspicious (for lack of a better word) attitude towards anything new. Moreover, bands or artists who try to publicize their activity on discussion boards may end up being accused of ‘spamming’ – not to mention the deplorable attitude that seems to consider ‘international’ acts the only ones worth spending money on. Apparently, for quite a few prog fans, so-called ‘obscure’ bands are interesting only as additions to their already extensive CD or vinyl collections.

At the time of writing, only three of the major US prog festivals are still standing. ROSfest (which mainly appeals to a more ‘conservative’ audience) will be taking place on the third weekend of May, and has indeed has taken advantage of NEARfest’s cancellation by attracting at least some of its ‘orphans’ (including myself and my husband), especially those living in the Northeast. The ProgDay lineup seems to have already been finalized, though only two bands have been announced so far; while the future of CalProg is still uncertain. In the meantime, Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, is teeming with prog and other music festivals, most of them featuring up-and-coming bands.

As I observed in my opening paragraph, my original essay received a lot of feedback, both from artists and fans. Interestingly (though not surprisingly), the points of view of these two groups often differ quite sharply. While the fans displayed a range of feelings that went from censure to disappointment and even outright sadness, the musicians’ attitude as a whole expressed worry about the future of the scene, especially as regards opportunities for live performances. Having met many of those people in the past few years, and knowing about the constant struggles they face in order to get their music to be heard, I have no qualms in stating that I am completely on their side – even if I have never played a note in my whole life. Here are a few of the points that have emerged from the discussion of the past two weeks.

  • Promoters and independent label owners are growing disenchanted with the overall attitude of the fandom. Bringing international artists to the USA is neither cheap nor fast, and a snag in the visa process may cause a cancellation of a band or artist’s appearance (as it already did several times in the past). Moreover, those who work behind the scenes are quite likely to sustain financial losses in the event of a cancellation, as well as damage to their reputation of reliability – on top of the inevitable practical headaches. Promoters have already started wondering whether is worth going through all that hassle in order to bring bands to the US with the looming risk of seeing  an event evaporate if their prospective audience do not find their names appealing enough.
  • Home-grown acts are growing increasingly frustrated with being relegated to the status of stopgaps to fall back on when international names defect – ignoring the struggles they have to go through in order to find gigs outside the narrow borders of their home states or regions. Some of the comments about last year’s amazing ProgDay line-up being second-rate because of the lack of international bands were rather enlightening, as well as profoundly depressing. The US are currently home to a large number of exciting acts, ranging from the retro-oriented to those of a more avant-garde bent.  Quite a few of them have also produced genuinely challenging music, which does not deserve being dismissed so offhandedly. It is not like any of those bands are able to perform every weekend somewhere around the country. Such a blinkered attitude is not only deeply unfair towards those talented, hard-working musicians, but unmotivated as well. The oversaturation of the market that I so often mention in my reviews does not help either, as it causes a staggering number of bands or solo artists to compete for a handful of live spots.
  • A number of interesting suggestions have come from the ranks of the artists, who in some cases have had direct experience of organizing events. The almost unanimous advice was to stop catering solely to a niche audience, and consider the idea of multi-genre festivals, like the above-mentioned High Voltage, Reading Festival and other lower-profile events taking place in Europe and on the American continent. In spite of the jaded, world-weary attitude of many members of the community, who blithely foresee the death of live performances, people still enjoy live music quite a lot, and multi-genre events have the advantage of offering something to everyone. While most musicians would welcome the opportunity to perform at a festival covering a broader range of genres, they are also aware of the often unbending mindset of many fans. There is a clear disconnect between the two camps, with the fans standing their ground and claiming their right to support only the music they find worthwhile, and musicians feeling increasingly marginalized and taken for granted.
  • The disconnect between the organizers and their prospective audience also played a large role in the festival’s demise. Having been able to rely for years on end on a core of regular attendees, the organizers put too much faith in them, and were caught off guard when support dropped as sharply as it did this year. Practically no efforts were made to reach outside this restricted group, and the tools offered by the Internet were not deployed to their full effect. Not only did the organizers neglect to advertise the event on other progressive sites than their privileged channel (a US-based forum), but they declined to use the three public Facebook pages dedicated to the event, or even their own board. The latter has been down for over a year, and their dedicated mailing list is only accessible to those who register from the event’s website – not as visible as the social networking sites of which other events make widespread use. Since patron sales were the festival’s cornerstone, no efforts should have been spared to gain new supporters – possibly among forward-thinking people who would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing the bands on the bill, instead of turning up their noses because they were not famous or not ‘prog’ enough.
  • A number of NEARfest attendees (including myself and my husband) have often been left with the feeling of intruding on a private club meeting. Some have felt definitely rebuffed, and complained about a borderline hostile atmosphere – an impression that the core community has tried to refute in every way, even to the point of denying the evidence. In my humble opinion, when organizers rely so heavily on patrons’ donations in order to keep the festival going, they cannot afford to give part of the audience the impression of a high-school-style clique that keeps interlopers at bay. Last year’s incident with my review made me briefly consider not to attend in 2011, no matter how much I liked most other aspects of the festival. Other people had decided to stop attending altogether after one snub too many. Unfortunately, it seems that the members of the core group are either unaware of their attitude, or have decided not to care about other people’s opinions.
  • Some people from both camps have also suggested alternative methods of funding events, such as using funding platforms like Kickstarter or CrowdFund – as well as scaling back the size of the events, at least until the economy recovers. Indeed, as illustrated by the previous paragraphs, it is not wise to rely too much on the goodwill of patrons, especially when such reliance implies damaging the prospects of younger bands in order to craft a more attractive line-up. This might be a viable option to pursue in a country like the US, where public funding for the arts is not as widespread as in Europe and other Western countries.

To be perfectly honest, many of the reactions I have come across in the past two weeks do not bode well for the future of the US progressive rock scene. Thanks to the Internet, bands and artists would still be able to get their material across to interested listeners – but the opportunities for live performances would get even more scarce than they currently are, which would favour those bands who are chiefly studio-based projects. The frustration may eventually put an end to the existence of many bands, and the competition for the very few remaining live slots may well become unsustainable. Even worse, many of the more cutting-edge bands that in the past few years have been welcomed under the prog umbrella might decide to seek greener pastures, and disassociate themselves from the scene. That would leave prog as the preserve of those bands that, with their conservative, even ‘regressive’ approach,  are still capable of attracting crowds. The gap between ‘Prog’ and ‘progressive’ would inevitably widen, and become almost impossible to bridge – as a few enlightened people realize. Anyway, even if it is probably too soon to give in to pessimism, as long as the majority of the fans are unwilling to step out of their comfort zones, the future of the scene looks anything but bright.

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