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Archive for May, 2011

TRACKLISTING:
1. Day Of Destiny (4:06)
2. The Wrap (Intro) (5:16)
3. Under The Wrap (38:19)
4. An Angel (5:42)
5. Ilusionist (1:16)
6. The Wrap (Outro) (4:59)

 LINEUP:
Antony Kalugin – keyboards, vocals, percussion
Maxim Velichko – electric guitars
Sergey Balalaev – drums
Kostya Ionenko – bass
Sergey Kovalev – bayan, vocals
Roman Gorielov – acoustic guitar, backing vocals

With:
Helen Bour – oboe (1, 2)
Alexandr Pastukhov – bassoon (1, 2, 3)
Oksana Podmaryova – cello (3, 6)
Max Morozov – viola (3, 6)
Daria Maiourova – violin (3, 6)

One of the projects by talented and prolific Ukrainian musician Antony Kalugin (also involved with Karfagen and Hoggwash), Sunchild released their debut album, The Gnomon, in 2008, followed by The Invisible Line in 2009. The Wrap, the band’s third album, was recorded over a two-year period, and released in September 2010. An accomplished artists in spite of his young age, Kalugin has picked a group of gifted Ukrainian musicians for his projects, including string and woodwind players that give his bands’ musical output a well-rounded symphonic dimension.

Like a number of other bands from the Russian Federation, Sunchild’s approach to progressive rock is more traditional than innovative, though carried through with panache and impressive technical skill. While the band’s sound is not as openly influenced by classical music as the likes of Little Tragedies, Kalugin’s use of keyboards favouring piano and synthesizers rather than organ, quite a few diverse influences are detectable in Sunchild’s music other than the expected symphonic/Neo-prog strain. Alongside the intense melodic content, enhanced by pleasing vocal harmonies and lovely piano and flute passages, a distinct progressive metal feel surfaces in some of the compositions, which is in line with the trend followed by many contemporary bands that might be gathered under the Neo umbrella.

Like its two predecessors, The Wrap is based around an elaborate, rather esoteric philosophical concept, in this case the conflict between the self and its shadow – something that is likely to send some people running for the exits, and cause great delight in others. Although Kalugin was assisted by a native speaker of English, Will Mackie, in penning the lyrics, they are somewhat hit and miss – which anyway is not a particularly important factor, as I am first and foremost interested in the music. Unless lyrics contain something highly offensive (which is not the case here), I tend to be quite indifferent to them, unlike other critics that are often quick to point out any lyrical shortcomings. In any case, Kalugin is a more than adequate vocalist, capably assisted by his bandmates in the harmony parts, and even his slight accent does not detract from his delivery as is the case of other non-English-speaking musicians

Running at slightly below 60 minutes, The Wrap is dominated by the almost 40-minute epic “Under the Wrap”, which is strategically placed in the middle of the album (a good move, in my view). As I have pointed out on several occasions, I believe that it is extremely difficult for any given band or artist to sustain a composition of such length when it is conceived as a single block, and “Under the Wrap” is no exception. In spite of the undeniable quality of the music, the epic is more of a collection of disparate passages following one another without a common thread than an organic whole, which would have probably benefited from being presented in separate sections. As things are, the composition comes across as quite patchy, its first half starting out in subdued fashion, with subtle references to the great Russian composers of the Romantic era (reinforced by the presence of a bassoon and a string section), and then heading in a strongly metal-flavoured direction suggestive of Dream Theater circa Images and Words. The second half, instead, is strongly reminiscent of Genesis, with a couple of vocal passages in which Kalugin sounds very much like Peter Gabriel, a definitely classical-sounding, string-led section, and then a beautifully melodic guitar solo fading out at the end. Though the musicianship is consistently top notch, there are simply too many ideas left somehow underdeveloped, and not enough cohesion.

The remaining five tracks on the album are noticeably shorter the epic, and certainly much more successful in sheer compositional terms. Three of them feature vocals, and are generally mid-paced, melodic pieces with lush keyboard and guitar textures and excellent vocal parts. Opener “Day of Destiny” borders on AOR, with a very catchy chorus and flawless instrumental interplay; while closing track “The Wrap (Outro)” briefly reprises the opener’s main theme, with a brief metal-tinged section leading to an atmospheric, string-led conclusion. On the other hand, “An Angel”, followed by the short, soothing acoustic interlude “Illusionist”, as the title implies is a lovely, rarefied ballad featuring a gorgeous guitar solo backed by piano and percussion. The other instrumental track, “The Wrap (Intro)”, seems to reproduce the structure of the epic, though in a more cohesive way, blending prog-metal suggestions with pastoral moments in the vein of vintage Genesis or Camel.

As the previous paragraphs illustrate quite clearly, The Wrap is quite likely to appeal to fans of classic symphonic and Neo-prog, even if the occasional prog metal overtones may put off some of the more traditionally-oriented listeners. In any case, even if decidedly retro in tone, it is a finely-crafted album brimming with enjoyable melodies, and executed with undisputable skill and professionalism. The very thorough booklet, with its stylish artwork and photography, is also deserving of a mention. In spite of the somewhat patchy nature of the epic, the album would be a worthy addition to the music collection of any melodic prog lover.

Links:
http://www.antonykalugin.net/

 

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Since I moved to the USA two and a half years ago, progressive rock festivals have always been one of the highlights of the year for me and my husband. However, we had skipped both of the previous editions of the Rites of Spring Festival (aka ROSfest) – mainly on account the general musical direction of the event, since our tastes tend to lean more towards the more adventurous side of prog. We both pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, though, and the cancellation of this year’s edition of NEARfest was the catalyst that made us decide to take the plunge. As it is often the case in life, a very positive experience came out of a negative (and quite unexpected) occurrence.

The 2011 edition of ROSFest was organized, for the second year in a row, in the small historic town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the prime US tourist sites, Gettysburg is known worldwide for one of the bloodiest battles of its time, the clash between the Union and Confederate armies that occurred on July 1-3, 1863, and pretty much decided the final outcome of the Civil War (hence the title of my review). The town itself exudes a quaint, out-of-time vibe, with plenty of antique and craft shops, as well as fine eating and drinking establishments, though hardly any stores catering for everyday needs (such as pharmacies or grocery stores), and no taxis or any public transportation except for some vintage-looking blue buses.  The drive from the official festival hotel to the town centre goes through part of the huge battlefield, a sobering sight dotted with markers commemorating all the different regiments that fought on those fateful three days, said to be haunted by the ghosts of the over 50.000 soldiers who lost their lives there. In the month of May, the countryside is at its very best, the colours fresh and bright, flowers growing by the roadside, the road lined with quaint houses and bright red barns: however, it is hard not to think of the bloodshed and wholesale slaughter, and when driving through the battlefield at night it is easy to imagine ghosts wandering in the misty darkness.

The festival venue was a treat – a gorgeous Art Deco theatre with an excellent seating arrangement, crystal chandeliers and plenty of that old-fashioned charm that seems to have been banished by the spread of modern multiplexes. Though not as spacious as Bethlehem’s Zoellner Arts Centre, and lacking in enough seats for people waiting in the lobby between sets, it offered nicely appointed spaces, with the gallery taken over by vendors and band merchandising (though I think the bands might have used a bit more room), and a nice table set up in the lobby for CD signing after each show. The abundance of eating places in the immediate vicinity, as well as the generous breaks between sets, made it easier for the attendees to take their time without having to rush about in order not to miss anything; the bar was also fairly priced as things go, and manned (or perhaps I should say ‘womanned’) by a couple of very nice ladies. The theatre also employed a group of equally nice ladies as ushers (something I had not seen for a long time), though I have to admit I missed the very convenient wristband system implemented by other events.

Unfortunately, in spite of the NEARfest cancellation having redirected some would-be attendees to ROSfest, there were quite a few empty seats in the theatre. The crowd, however, made up in enthusiasm what was lacking in numbers. Some people had chosen to get tickets only for Saturday and Sunday, but there was still a fair attendance on Friday night, mainly on account of headliners Moon Safari. On the whole, it can be estimated that the Majestic Theatre was 70-75% full – not bad per se, but neither the sell-out that some were anticipating. Times are still tough for many people in the US, and the splintering of the ‘prog community’ in a myriad of sub-groups does not help matters. Not all the NEARfest orphans had  chosen to support ROSfest, and for a very simple reason: as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, ROSfest mainly caters to what I often call the more conservative set of prog fans, those who like melody, vocal-oriented compositions, and, more often than not, anything that seems to recreate the magic of the Seventies (a slant that was reflected by many of the CDs on sale in the vendor area). Nothing wrong with that, of course: there are plenty of bands and artists on the current scene that prefer to look to the past for their main inspiration, and many of them do it very well. Even if my loyal readership might sometimes get the idea that I am biased against ‘retro-prog’, there are quite a few acts falling under this category that I enjoy a lot, as long as their music ‘speaks’ to me somehow.

This year, organizers George Roldan and Krista Phillips and their team had made a somewhat bold move, and dispensed with any nostalgia acts in favour of a rather intriguing range of relatively new bands, about half of them hailing from the US (which, knowing the audience, might have been a factor in the relatively low attendance). In particular, Sunday headliners Quidam, though familiar to devotees of neo-prog and Polish prog in general, did not possess the clout or vintage credentials of last year’s headliners Renaissance. However, judging from what was seen on stage over the past weekend, in musical terms it was a move that paid in spades. Both my husband and I were impressed by the diversity of the acts selected for this year’s edition, and were also pleasantly surprised on several occasions. Needless to say, the sound quality and the lighting were first-rate, and the intimate feel of the venue made for a nice community experience, further enhanced by the warmth and professional attitude of the organizers.

The festival kicked off at 5 p.m. of Friday, May 20, with local band Epiicycle, featuring George’s son Anthony Roldan. A young quartet, though already with three albums under their belt, they sounded somewhat out of synch with the event’s general musical direction, sounding more akin to the likes of Porcupine Tree, Tool and other ‘alt-prog’ bands than Yes or Genesis (though their last song, which featured violin and cello, had a more conventional proggy feel with shades of Anekdoten). In spite of some obvious weaknesses, especially in the vocal department, their enthusiasm was endearing, and the event obviously provided a great chance for them to play in front of a considerable audience, as well as to grow and refine their sound.

Though I was not familiar with Tinyfish’s music, I remembered guitarist/vocalist Simon Godfrey as one of the old-time members of the progressive rock forum where I started my ‘career’, and had often seen the band mentioned there. However, even if I had never had the opportunity to check them out, their set (which, regrettably, we had to leave early due to a prior engagement) was one of the real surprises of the weekend for both of us. Simply put, Simon Godfrey is an incredible vocalist, probably the best heard over the weekend (no mean feat, since there was quite a bunch of fine singers on display), with a strong, passionate voice that adds depth and interest to the band’s classy musical output. With a sound harking back to the glory days of vintage Neo-Prog, clean and melodic yet with a nicely sharp edge – more Pink Floyd than Genesis – immaculate musicianship, a powerhouse of a drummer in Leon Camfield,  and a liberal sprinkling of that wonderful English humour, they delivered a flawless set that left the audience deeply impressed.  The narration (courtesy of lyricist Rob Ramsay) of the background story to their latest album, The Big Red Spark =  an elaborate sci-fi concept that has gained a lot of critical acclaim since its release – also injected a welcome dose of theatrics into the proceedings. Tinyfish would definitely have deserved to play a longer set, and I would love to see them again in the future.

After a two-hour dinner break, the theatre filled up nicely for the eagerly awaited Friday headliners, Swedish six-piece Moon Safari, ROSfest alumni (they had performed at the 2009 edition of the festival) and firm favourites of the audience. A bunch of tall, good-looking young men with impressive stage craft and a bit of a swagger, they were greeted deliriously by the crowd, who seemed to lap up every single note they played and sung. Unfortunately, I have to admit that their set was one of the low points of the event for me, though not due to any lack of talent on the part of the band. Having read reviews of their three albums, I was aware that their music was probably not going to be my cup of tea – and, in spite of my open mind, this time I was not wrong. True, the band members are extremely gifted, and their vocal harmonies – hinting at early Yes, Queen and (obviously) The Beatles and The Beach Boys –  are nothing short of stunning, with some state-of-the-art a cappella parts; while the impeccably executed instrumental passages reminded me of Collins-era Genesis. Even if some might view Moon Safari as purveyors of ‘prog for the ladies’ (a stereotyped definition that I loathe), they seemed to appeal in equal proportion to many of the men in the audience. Their music is a melodic, airy confection, easy on the ear, with a smooth, nearly effortless flow – yet not enough to hold my attention, though I liked the nod to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” (a rather unlikely artist to be quoted by a prog band). Anyway, even if their optimistic, upbeat set came across to me as rather underwhelming, it was undeniably performed with genuine enthusiasm and flair, and anyone who is into melodic, accessible prog should definitely give Moon Safari a try.

Due to physical tiredness (I was never at my best over the whole weekend, which occasionally affected my enjoyment of the music and the company), we missed Going for the One’s performance at the after-show party, though we heard quite a bit of commotion from our room, which was located close to the party premises. Though I am personally not a big fan of tribute bands, I have read some very positive comments on their show, and I am glad their show went down so well, especially in these times when it seems so hard for bands to find gigs.

The Saturday bill was introduced by Polish quartet Osada Vida, whose latest album, Uninvited Dreams, I had reviewed for the website with which I was previously involved. As was to be expected after the night’s partying, many people skipped their set, which was a pity, because the band – a group of seasoned performers with an interesting contemporary bent to their sound – put up an excellent show. As I pointed out in my review, the closest term of comparison would be their fellow countrymen Riverside, whose outstanding performance I had enjoyed at last year’s edition of NEARfest – though Osada Vida have less of a metallic edge, the occasional bouts of heaviness in their music used as a complement rather than the main event. Obviously overjoyed at having been invited to play in the US in front of a sizable crowd, the band treated the audience to a nice selection of tracks from their back catalogue, interspersed by bassist/vocalist Lukasz Lisiak’s friendly, self-deprecating banter. He was quick to stress that he was not a true singer (something that I had observed when listening to Uninvited Dreams), his voice perhaps more suited to metal than prog. However, he acquitted himself well,  while the instrumental interplay was superb, with searing guitar leads, and hard-hitting drums complementing Lisiak’s fluid bass lines, everything rounded up by Rafal Paluszek’s unobtrusive but essential keyboards. All in all, it was a very enjoyable set from a band that I would not mind seeing again soon.

In the past five years or so, especially owing to their appearance in the Romantic Warriors documentary and the sheer quality of their releases, Phideaux have attracted a lot of attention in the prog world, and – judging from what was seen on the Majestic stage – very deservedly so. As far as I was concerned, they were one of the main draws of the whole event, and they did not disappoint me at all. Led by the volcanic mind and considerable songwriting talent of Renaissance man Phideaux Xavier (an extremely nice, articulate gentleman whom I met at breakfast together with some other members of the band), they are a mini-orchestra of 10 people rather than a conventional band, which makes for a full, genuinely symphonic sound, very melodic but never cheesy or overtly poppy, enhanced by consistently thought-provoking lyrical concepts. Though not necessarily to everyone’s taste, it is hard to deny that they do not really sound like anyone else, which is a rarity in this day and age. While watching their show, I kept being reminded of Roger Waters – not so much for the actual musical content as for the emphasis placed on the creation of veritable concept-based ‘rock operas’, as well as the presence of an extended lineup. With a wonderfully humorous twist on the supposed ‘end of the world’ that was expected to occur at 6 p.m. on that same day, their set revolved around their breakthrough 2006 album, Doomsday Afternoon, and also included a sizable chunk from their most recent release, the critically acclaimed Snowtorch. In any case, Phideaux’s performance was one of the undisputed highlights of the festival. With splendid vocals, top-notch instrumental performances, Phideaux’s set was a big, ambitious achievement with lots of depth, many of the songs driving to exhilarating crescendos and featuring plenty of light and shade. While there are hardly any sharp edges to Phideaux’s music, it comes across as deeply emotional rather than overly sweet, definitely melodic yet powerful, with a nice balance between the acoustic and electric component and a gentle folksy edge tempering the intensity of the more orchestral parts. Definitely one of the high points of the weekend, it was magnificent performance from one of the most distinctive acts on the current prog scene.

After a nice (and much needed) late lunch at a nearby Irish pub, it was time for us to head back to our seats for the following performance – which might have been the biggest surprise of the whole weekend for both of us. Erik Norlander and his Galactic Collective, a group of fine musicians from the Cleveland area, were introduced by Michelle Moog-Koussa of the Bob Moog Foundation, as Norlander’s appearance was meant as a celebration of what would have been Moog’s 77th birthday on Sunday, May 22. The right side of the stage was taken up by a huge stack of modular synthesizers, affectionately dubbed ‘ the wall of doom’ by Norlander himself (a truly warm and genial host) – which led us to expect an orgy of electronic music in the style of Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze. We could not have been more wrong, because, after three rather interesting instrumental tracks, Norlander introduced on stage his wife Lana Lane (as well as another backing vocalist), and things took a decidedly heavy turn. Accompanied by a sci-fi-themed slideshow which complemented the music quite nicely, the musical offer might be described as ‘Pink Floyd on steroids meets ELP backed by an 80’s hair metal band’. It was bombastic, over-the-top, with more than a whiff of cheese, and as subtle as a sledgehammer – the guitarist even played a brief solo spot with his teeth! – but, in some perverse way, hugely entertaining. Though I found the instrumental stuff more captivating in purely musical terms (especially the excellent “Trantor Station”, inspired by Asimov’s Foundation series), as a staunch hard rock/classic metal fan I could not help being impressed by the “Astrology Suite”, a powerful, anthemic number showcasing Lana Lane’s bold yet clear vocals that sounded like something out of the Rainbow/Ronnie James Dio songbook. Pity that the band finished their set some ten minutes late on schedule – the only instance in an event characterized by superb time management.

Led by legendary keyboardist and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame), Daemonia might be construed as a tribute band of sorts, with a repertoire based on Simonetti’s iconic horror-movie soundtracks as well as homages to other influential musicians. Mainly a live act, they have a strong progressive metal bias, powered by Titta Tani’s thunderous drums complementing the dramatic sweep of Simonetti’s keyboards. A classically-trained musician, risen to international fame thanks to his movie scores, Simonetti is a very nice, down-to-earth guy who obviously loves his craft, and is genuinely grateful for the success he has achieved over his career. Meeting him and the rest of the band was one of my personal highlights, as all of them hail from my hometown of Rome, and it was great to be able to exchange views and jokes in my native language. Since I was expecting an all-instrumental set, I was somewhat surprised when Simonetti introduced a singer on stage – a petite, very attractive young lady by the name of Silvia Specchio, who proceeded to belt out a few songs (including a Nightwish cover) with a powerful, self-assured voice. As impressive as she was, however, my preference went to the instrumentals, and I particularly appreciated the tributes to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” and Keith Emerson’s towering Gothic masterpiece, “Mater Tenebrarum” (from the soundtrack to Dario Argento’s Inferno). The impressively lit show, accompanied by footage of the movies themselves (including a favourite of American audiences, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), climaxed with the highly awaited main theme from Dario Argento’s cult thriller, Profondo Rosso, and its sinister, immediately recognizable keyboard riff. As in the case of Galactic Collective, perhaps not the most subtle music around, with a fair amount of bombast and a high heaviness quotient, but very powerful, and a fitting conclusion to the second day of the festival.

The Sunday opening spot – affectionately known as the Church of Prog – was reserved for our most eagerly awaited band, Los Angeles’ very own Mars Hollow. Having followed them right from the release of their debut album one year ago, through their first performance on the East Coast at last year’s edition of ProgDay, we were thrilled to be able to see them again. “Voices”, the preview track posted on the band’s Facebook page, promised great things to come. We had also been impressed by their high level of professionalism – coupled with a truly friendly, level-headed attitude. The Mars Hollow guys (who are all close to me in age, creating an even stronger personal bond) love making music with a passion, and this is very clearly reflected in their overall approach. Their set (which, in my opinion, would have deserved a higher billing) was a flawless combination of first-rate musicianship, gorgeous tunes, warmth and accessibility, showing a band that has grown by leaps and bounds since their already excellent debut. Fronted by the dynamic duo of vocalist/guitarist John Baker and irrepressible bassist/vocalist Kerry Chicoine, with stately yet magnificent keyboard work by Steve Mauk, and powered by Jerry Beller’s tireless, immaculate timekeeping, Mars Hollow treated the audience to a set comprising material from both their debut album and the new one, World in Front of Me. The growth and maturation of their sound was evidently displayed by their new material, definitely more challenging and subtly layered while keeping its listener-friendly quality. I found myself singing along the likes of “Midnight” (a song with serious airplay potential, at least in a perfect world) and the epic “Dawn of Creation”, which wrapped up the set accompanied by Mars-themed images. While Chicoine’s remarkable showmanship and the massive sound of his black-and-white, vintage Rickenbacker captivated the audience’s attention, Baker projected a more sedate presence, his soaring tenor perfectly in control, his lead guitar breaks clear and fluid. All in all, an absolutely superb performance, and the undisputed highlight of the whole event for me.

The presence on the bill of the much-touted District 97 was undeniably one of the biggest draws for a large part of the audience. After months of reading enthusiastic comments about the band being “the future of prog”, their debut album, Hybrid Child, had left me rather underwhelmed, in spite of the obvious talent involved. However, being aware that the live setting often brings out the best in a band or artist, lending more depth and dimension to music all too often emasculated by the recording process, I was looking forward to their set, even if not with the same attitude as their core of die-hard fans. The Chicago-based band, even though unable to avail themselves of the presence of cellist Katinka Kleijn) did not disappoint their followers’ high expectations, and delivered a very strong set that included some new material from their forthcoming second album, as well as excerpts from the “Mindscan” epic, the fast and furious “Termites” and  the superb power-pop tune “I Can’t Take You With Me”. The fresh-faced members of the band are indeed top-notch musicians, with a special mention for powerhouse drummer Jonathan Schang and guitarist Rob Clearfield, and the band as a whole is extremely tight, even if their musical output occasionally gave me the impression of being somewhat overambitious. At times the music suggested the frantic intensity of extreme metal, and it was funny to see the same people who thought Osada Vida were too heavy rave about District 97. The main focus of attention, however, lay in vocalist Leslie Hunt, a diminutive bundle of energy with an impressive stage presence that, in many ways, breaks the mould of the stereotypical female prog singer. I have to admit that, at first, I was a bit annoyed by her constant jumping and dancing about the stage, which seemed somewhat out of synch with the music, but, as the set progressed, the two aspect coalesced with striking results. Odd as it may sound, while watching the band on stage, I could not help thinking that District 97 might very well be considered a 21st-century version of Queen – on account of a very similar, fearlessly genre-bending attitude, blending theatricality, memorable tunes, finely-honed technical skills, melody and sheer heaviness. Like Freddie Mercury, Leslie is a very physical frontwoman, though her performance did not hinge on sex appeal even when wearing just duct tape from the waist up (a matter of comfort rather than titillation). On the whole, even if I cannot say to have been completely converted, now I view District 97 in a much more positive light, and am looking forward to hearing more from them.

Back to the theatre after another visit to the Irish pub, it was time for British band The Reasoning, another act eagerly awaited by quite a few attendees. Formed by bassist Matthew Cohen after his split from Magenta, and fronted by his wife Rachel Cohen (née Jones, formerly with Karnataka), it is one of those bands that I usually tend to bypass in spite of their undeniable talent, and  (as in the case of Moon Safari) their set did nothing to change my views. Though The Reasoning are clearly an accomplished band with plenty of experience under their collective belts, most of their set was marred by the piercingly loud guitar, which felt like having a hole drilled in your brain, and obviously covered the rest of the instruments, as well as the vocals. Rachel Cohen, an attractive young woman with long dark hair and an endearingly witty banter mostly focused on her brainy pursuits, danced around the stage on bare feet, banging her tambourine and delivering an excellent vocal performance, occasionally assisted by keyboardist Tony Turrell. Surely the most typically ‘feminine’ voice heard on stage during the weekend (together with Phideaux’s outstanding Valerie Gracious), her ethereal soprano, though lovely to hear, sounds a bit too similar to a number of other female vocalists. The band’s set hovered between a decidedly heavy direction (sometimes dangerously teetering on the edge of symphonic/Gothic metal) and more subdued, atmospheric numbers with a more melodic bent – skilfully executed and excellently interpreted by Cohen, but ultimately not exciting enough to keep my attention going for two hours. Anyway, even if they are not my cup of tea, The Reasoning are a very proficient outfit whose brand of prog has a dedicated following, and they deserve to find opportunities to perform away from their home turf.

As I already pointed out, Sunday headliners Quidam were not the kind of band that many of the festival regulars would have expected as a fitting conclusion to the event. Though excellent examples of the high level reached by Polish prog bands, as witnessed by their fellow countrymen Osada Vida the previous day, unlike former headliners such as Renaissance, Pendragon or Nektar they are not a household name – and, as proved by the unfortunate NEARfest cancellation, for many fans the names on the bill are the decisive factor, rather than the pleasure of discovery. As with Osada Vida, I had got acquainted with Quidam through my review of their live album, The Fifth Season, a well-rounded, very pleasing effort that had left me much more impressed than I had originally expected. Anyway, any misgivings on the part of some members of the audience notwithstanding, the band played an impressive set, though tinged with special poignancy on account of the news that frontman Bartek Kossowicz had received on the same day from Poland – his wife had lost their first child. With admirable professionalism, Kossowicz – a warm, appealing frontman with a strong voice and a stage presence reminiscent of an old-school metalhead rather than your typical progger – delivered a great performance, doing his best to involve the audience, and conveying the excitement and gratitude of the whole band for having been invited to the event. Their own classy compositions, sung both in English and Polish, blended stylish, Camel-influenced prog, enhanced by the contribution of flutist Jacek Zasada and violinist Tylda Ciołkosz, with classic rock and hard rock undertones in a strongly emotional, melodic package – magnificently embodied by their closing track, the stunning “Alone Together”, a low-key, somewhat somber number featuring a riveting dialogue between keyboards and violin. The band also performed a few covers, as they have been doing for some time during their concerts: King Crimson’s “Red”, The Doors’ magnificent “Riders on the Storm” (very enthusiastically greeted by the crowd), Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and a lovely version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, with the audience singing along in a very moving ending to a great weekend of music.

Before I wrap up this very long and detailed review, I would like to acknowledge the wealth of female musical talent seen on stage over the weekend. The ladies are really making headway into the progressive world, ad this is also borne out by the increasing number of women in the audience. Next time the old, worn out cliché of “girls don’t listen to prog” comes up, the facts will prove it wrong. I would also like to encourage the organizers to seriously think about having at least one American band as a headliner for the festival’s next edition. There are so many gifted artists in this country that deserve recognition for their tireless work on behalf of progressive music.

Now it is time to mention all the great people I met during the weekend: Chapman stick wizard Rob Martino, James Byron Schoen of Edensong, our dear friends John Fontana and David Bobick of Shadow Circus, Alan Benjamin of Advent and his lovely wife Amy, Mike Visaggio of Kinetic Element, Greg Walker of Syn-Phonic (with whom I talked about his recent visit to Rome), Jim Hoffman,  the lovely ladies Sonya Kukcinovich-Hill (aka Spock’s Babe), Amy V. Simmons, Evelyn Chote and Melissa Palmer, the indefatigable Jose Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt (who filmed the whole event, assisted by their daughter Paloma), the members of Phideaux, my fellow Romans of Daemonia, and, of course, our friends of Mars Hollow. Once again, a huge thank you to George, Krista and everyone else who worked hard for months in order to put together such a fantastic event, three unforgettable days of music and fun with like-minded people. We will be sure not to miss ROSfest 2012!

Links:
http://www.rosfest.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Skating on Europa 9:35
2. Know Again 6:26
3. A Poet’s Talespin I: Half-Slept Moments 1:56
4. A Poet’s Talespin II: Soft Collisions 8:28
5. A Poet’s Talespin III: The Bridge 7:55
6. A Poet’s Talespin IV: I Write 5:01
7. A Poet’s Talespin V: In the Shadows 6:17
8. Get the Hell off my Lawn 4:20
9. Counted the Stars 1:18

LINEUP:
Dave Kulju – electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, guitar synthesizer, sound effects and programming
Frank Basile – drums

With:
Annie Oya – vocals (3)
Ian Cameron – electric and acoustic violins (2)

Notes in the Margin is the second album released by US multi-instrumentalist Dave Kulju, based in Rochester (New Hampshire). After his recording debut with Electrum, Frames of Mind (1998), followed in 2002 by Standard Deviation, when the band went on hiatus he started devoting his free time to his solo career, releasing Abstract Expression in 2007, which brought him to the attention of the community of progressive rock followers.  Like Abstract Expressions – even if Kulju is in charge of the majority of the instrumentation – Notes in the Margin is not your typical, ubiquitous ‘solo-pilot’ projects made possible by modern recording technology, but features a real drummer, Frank Basile, as well as a couple of other guests. Unlike its predecessor, though, the album is not completely instrumental, and its centrepiece, the five-part epic “A Poet’s Talespin” (adapted from two poems by Australian poet Amanda Joy) features the amazing contribution of UK-based  session vocalist Annie Oya.

Three years in the making, the process lovingly detailed on Dave’s own website, Notes in the Margin is an unusually elegant, deeply literate effort that eschews any of the pretentiousness often associated with prog, and manages to emphasize emotional content without being mawkish or contrived. The striking cover, a photo taken by Kulju himself (who is a gifted photographer as well as a talented musician), immediately projects a stylish contemporary image that sharply deviates from the old prog cliché of fantasy/sci-fi themed artwork, with its still life centred around a vintage typewriter. According to the artist, the album title is a reflection on the process of making the record itself – a process involving a lot of rewriting and refinement, just like a work of literature.

For a project completely conceived in the studio, Notes in the Margin sounds remarkably organic,  multilayered though never overdone, each instrument standing out in clear detail. It comes very much across as a guitar-based album, showcasing Kulju’s fluid, clean style, inspired by the likes of David Gilmour and Andy Latimer without being derivative. Keyboards, on the other hand, are used more as a foundation than the main event, though the epic can boast of some positively gorgeous piano passages. Surprisingly, however, the real protagonist of Notes in the Margin is the bass, merging seamlessly with Frank Basile’s excellent drum work to set the pace, and stamping its own distinctive touch on the fabric of the compositions. The music flows smoothly, with enough complexity to satisfy the cravings of most prog fans, except those who are looking for innovation at all costs. Indeed, while Notes in the Margin does not offer anything startlingly new, neither does the vast majority of current releases, and the musical content here is undeniably above average.

With a practically perfect running time of about 51 minutes, no filler is needed on Notes in the Margin, and none of the tracks feels padded or stretched beyond reason. Album opener “Skating on Europa”, loosely based on the work of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, is a forceful yet melodic number which, in spite of its almost 10-minute duration, never outstays its welcome. Driven by thunderous yet not overwhelming drums and a sleek, dynamic bass line, it pushes Kulju’s fluid, fiery lead guitar to the forefront with exhilarating effect. In “Know Again” (the English translation of the Greek word anagnorisis, the moment of recognition for the protagonist of a Greek tragedy)  the keyboards take more of a lead role, and Ian Cameron’s contribution on acoustic and electric violin add further layers of dimension to a piece that, while not exactly jazzy, shifts subtly from a subdued tone to a sort of crescendo, slowing down again towards the end.

The album’s epic, “A Poet’s Talespin”, which (like Shadow Circus’ “Project Blue” or The Rebel Wheel’s “The Discovery of Witchcraft”, to name but two recent examples) is conceived as five separate pieces strung together by a  musical and lyrical fil rouge, rather than as a massive 30-minute behemoth. As previously hinted, it is also the only composition featuring Annie Oya’s lovely vocals, soothing and melodious yet devoid of that cloying sweetness all too frequent in female prog singers. Introduced by a gorgeous classical piano piece, the romantic, mid-paced (and very aptly titled) “Soft Collisions” develops into a number of subtle complexity where the vocals are complemented by Kulju’s superb guitar and bass work and the recurring presence of the piano. “The Bridge” treads spacey territory, with a subdued, more acoustic bent; while the symphonic, keyboard-driven “I Write” is brimming with gentle sadness, and “In the Shadows” closes the epic with an instrumental reprise of the main theme, rendered in spacious, atmospheric tones reminiscent of Pink Floyd. The album is wrapped up by two instrumentals – the highly dynamic, riff-based “Get the Hell Off My Lawn”, bringing to mind Rush compositions such as “Leave That Thing Alone”, with bass and guitar working together to create intense textures; and the short, somber keyboard piece “Counted the Stars”, named after a phrase in an Anne Sexton poem that was the earliest inspiration for the epic.

With superb production values and sterling sound quality, Notes in the Margin is indeed an excellent release, worthy of the attention of even the more demanding prog listeners. It is a pity that – like most studio-only projects – it will probably flow under the radar of many fans in favour of more extensively publicized albums. A labour of love in every sense of the term, classy and literate yet full of endearing warmth, this is a must for everyone who loves melodic, guitar-oriented progressive rock. It would be a boon if, one day, Dave managed to put a band together and perform his music on stage, in spite of all the well-documented difficulties that plague those artists looking for live outlets for their work.

Links:
http://www.davekmusic.com/

http://www.littleglasspen.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Fino all’Aurora (6:44)
2. D-Sigma (4:13)
3. 4.18 (1:37)
4. Discesa (7:32)
5. Tra Due Petali di Fuoco (6:06)
6. L’Inganno (7:20)
7. Agli Uomini Che Sanno Già Volare (4:36)
8. Il Declino (5:44)
9. Phoenix (5:07)
10. La Notte Trasparente (7:47)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Corvaglia – vocals
Fabio Zuffanti –  bass, bass pedals, backing vocals
Agostino Macor – keyboards
Andrea Monetti – flute, sax
Matteo Nahum – guitars
Maurizio Di Tollo – drums, backing vocals

One of the many projects in which Genoa-based bassist and composer Fabio Zuffanti is involved, La Maschera di Cera (The Wax Mask, named after a ‘50s horror movie starring Vincent Price) have been active since the beginning of the new millennium, releasing four studio albums and a live one. Their third album, LuxAde (released in 2006, and based on the Greek myth of Orpheus) brought them to the attention of the many fans of classic Italian prog scattered around the globe, which culminated with their appearances at the 2007 edition of NEARfest and the 2009 edition of ProgDay, two of the highest-profile progressive rock events in the world. They also appeared in the Romantic Warriors documentary, alongside fellow Italians D.F.A.

Petali di Fuoco, their fourth studio release (produced by a veritable RPI icon such as PFM drummer/frontman Franz Di Cioccio) marks a distinct change in the band’s compositional approach, and consequently also in their sound, which has been somewhat streamlined. While the band’s three previous albums had the hard-edged, retro-symphonic sound of Seventies outfits such Il Balletto di Bronzo and Biglietto per l’Inferno down pat, dispensing with the electric guitar in favour of luxurious keyboard textures and plenty of Mellotron – as well as sporting a strong conceptual bent – Petali di Fuoco takes a more mainstream direction, featuring 9 shorter, unconnected songs with more straightforward lyrics. While there are still Italian bands paying homage to the great tradition of the elaborate concept album, La Maschera di Cera seem to have followed the example set by other Genoese bands like Delirium (with their superb comeback release Il Nome del Vento) and Il Tempio delle Clessidre, and chosen a more accessible format for this album.

On Petali di Fuoco, the core of founding members Alessandro Corvaglia, Fabio Zuffanti, Agostino Macor and Andrea Monetti (plus drummer Maurizio Di Tollo, who joined the band in 2004) has been augmented by guitarist Matteo Nahum, who proves to be the album’s real ace in the hole. A classically-trained musician (and devoted Steve Hackett fan)  with the perfect combination of flawless technique (without any concessions to the deplorable shredding trend) and genuine emotion, his contribution lifts the level of the album from merely good to excellent. Even though the music is unabashedly retro, a loving homage to the classic Italian prog sound of the Seventies without any real claim to innovation, and the songs sometimes skirt the Italian melodic pop tradition a bit too close for comfort, Petali di Fuoco delivers a very satisfying listening experience, at least for those people who like their prog with lots of vocals. On the other hand, Alessandro Corvaglia’s strong, confident voice, markedly different from the operatic style of the likes of Francesco Di Giacomo, but equally suited to tackling material at the same time melodic and challenging, can bring to mind some internationally-known Italian pop singers, and therefore come across as vaguely annoying to those who like the angular, acquired-taste vocal styles of so many prog singers.

Running at about 55 minutes, Petali di Fuoco is a well-balanced effort that never threatens to outstay its welcome. Most of the songs – as immediately evidenced by opener “Fino all’Aurora”, an upbeat, organ- and flute-driven number ending with a beautiful guitar solo  – have a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure, but the lush orchestration and seamless instrumental interplay reveal their progressive matrix. Though Corvaglia’s voice often seems to dominate the proceedings, the instruments spin a tightly-knit web of sound that provides a solid foundation for the development of each song. While “D-Sigma” and “Discesa” keep things simmering in the same spirit as the opener, with melodious, Hackett-inspired guitar passages opening airy spaces in the dense, keyboard-driven heavy prog textures of the songs, the title-track and “Agli Uomini Che Sanno Già Volare” take a more subdued direction, with a sparser, somewhat melancholy instrumental backdrop that pushes the vocals to the forefront and leaves a lot of room for Corvaglia’s emotional delivery.

Though Petali di Fuoco is a strongly vocal-driven album, two instrumentals have been included – one, “4.18”, a short classical guitar number in the style of Genesis’ “Horizons”, the other, “Phoenix”, starting out slowly but building up to a crescendo powered by keyboards and drums – a structure paralleled by “Il Declino”, in which a somewhat somber piano solo is offset by the unbridled passion of Corvaglia’s vocals. On the other hand, with “L’Inganno” La Maschera di Cera explore vintage hard rock territory, powered by Agostino Macor’s rumbling Hammond organ and whistling Moog, and featuring an almost jazzy piano passage in the middle, as well as a soaring guitar solo at the end. The album ends with a veritable bang: “La Notte Trasparente”, at almost 8 minutes the longest track on the album, is also the most complex, with all the instruments creating intricate yet airy textures with more than a nod to classic Genesis, and a showcase for Matteo Nahum’s spectacular guitar work. His solo at the end starts out slowly, and then gradually drives towards an exhilarating climax that had me think about Gary Moore or Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma.

Though some prog fans may be disappointed by the lack of epics and the generally more streamlined nature of Petali di Fuoco, the album will certainy prove a treat for lovers of the sounds of vintage Italian prog. With lush instrumentation, a nice balance between orchestral grandiosity and more intimate, subdued moments, plenty of melody and warm, passionate vocals, it contains all the elements that keep attracting many listeners to Italian progressive rock – as well as those that often turn people off, such as the enhanced sentimentality and occasionally bombastic passage (though not as prominently as in their previous studio albums). It is, indeed, very much a ‘retro-prog’ effort – which might make it pointless (as a fellow reviewer put it) in the eyes of some of the more jaded set – but it cannot be denied that Petali di Fuoco is a quality offering brimming with flair and songwriting expertise. Even if, speaking from a strictly personal point of view, the music on the album is not always my cup of tea, I would not hesitate to recommend the album to everyone interested in Italian prog.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/lamascheradicera

http://www.zuffantiprojects.com/

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TRACKLISTING:

CD1
1. Hymn (4:29)
2. The Joy of Molybdenum (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (5:29)
3. The Fifth Spin of the Sun (2:04)
4. Val El Diablo (feat. Alonso Arreola) (4:35)
5. Morning Dream (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (6:49)
6. Real Life (5:12)
7. Maslenitsa (feat. The Farlanders) (9:31)
8. Gallina (1:05)
9. Dziban (6:15)
10. Misery, Misery, Die, Die, Die… (feat. TU) (1:55)
11. Pole (0:44)
12. Thick and Thorny (feat. Quodia) (2:35)
13. Down Spin (1:13) 14. Absinthe & A Cracker (feat. TU) (3:17)
15. The Shimmering (2:23)
16. Fandango (feat. TU) (4:05)
17. Well (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (5:56)

CD2
1. Jacaranda (feat. KTU) (3:57)
2. The Magnificent Jinn (3:24)
3. Contact (3:50)
4. Drunk (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (6:26)
5. Killing for London (6:32)
6. Kuma (4:29)
7. Single Cell Shark (feat. Matte Henderson) (3:31)
8. Cheeky (feat. matt Chamberlin) (3:33)
9. Make My Grave in the Shape of a Heart (feat. TU) (1:24)
10. Spectra (1:57)
11. Capturing the Beam (1:23)
12. Hard Winds (3:05)
13. Arrakis (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (6:54)
14. Flood (3:17)
15. Untamed Chicken (feat. TU) (4:15)
16. Down in Shadows (feat. N.Y.X.) (4:44)
17. Californ-a-tron (0:49)
18. Vals (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (3:18)
19. 9:47 P.M. (feat. Saro Cosentina) (5:03)

Reviewing a compilation obviously involves a rather different process than reviewing an album of completely new material. My readers will forgive me if this write-up is not as detailed as my reviews usually are, and, for instance, does not include information on all the musicians featured on every track. In this particular case, the compilation is a 2-CD package, comprising a total of 36 tracks spanning almost 20 years of the career of one of the most interesting artists on the current music scene – Texas-born touch guitarist, composer and multimedia storyteller  Trey Gunn, known to the majority of prog fans for his 10-year stint in King Crimson.

I have to admit to having been for quite a long time largely unfamiliar with Gunn’s musical output outside Fripp’s legendary band and a handful of scattered tracks from some of his solo projects. However, two years ago I had the opportunity to see him perform live as a guest of Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project, and was highly impressed by his skills and warm stage personality. Later, I found out that he was born exactly two days before me – perhaps not very relevant from a musical point of view, but an interesting bit of trivia nonetheless.

Released in November 2010, I’ll Tell What I Saw is jam-packed with extremely stimulating music taken from the numerous albums recorded by Gunn in the years from 1993 to the present day, both in his own name or with various other projects featuring international artists. Running at over 2 hours, it manages to sustain a consistently high level of quality, with hardly any filler at all, offering a heady mix of musical styles interpreted with flair, skill and soul. Indeed, Trey Gunn’s output might easily be held up as an example of a genuinely progressive approach to music-making, open-minded and eclectic, always looking for new sources of inspiration, and never letting his creative impulse grow stale.

The oldest items included in the compilation date back from Gunn’s debut album One Thousand Years (released in 1993), and (perhaps unsurprisingly) reveal a strong King Crimson influence, with “Kuma” in particular sounding like something out of the magnificent Discipline. As a matter of fact, the Crimsonian vibe can be heard in all of Gunn’s Nineties material, as witnessed by “Hard Winds”, another track characterized by the insistent, interlocking guitar lines and heavy yet intricate drumming typical of Fripp’s crew in their Eighties and Nineties incarnations. Gunn’s two more recent projects involving drummers – TU with fellow KC alum Pat Mastelotto, and Modulator with German-born wunderkind Marco Minnemann (who was also part of Eddie Jobson’s band when I saw them in 2009) – spotlight the marriage between the drums and the stunning versatility of Gunn’s trademark Warr guitar, with dramatic, mesmerizing textures and plenty of driving energy. However, while the TU tracks are more structured, the Modulator stuff (originally conceived as a 51-minute guitar solo) is largely improvisational in nature. Some of these numbers, especially the thunderous “Untamed Chicken”, seem to emphasize the drum-driven heaviness that characterizes compositions like “Level Five” (from King Crimson’s 2003 album The Power to Believe). Italian outfit N.Y.X.’s “Down in the Shadows” carries nuances of ‘alternative prog’ in the dark, industrial-tinged style perfected by Tool; while the bass-powered “Arrakis”, recorded live in 2001, foreshadows the avant-fusion of contemporary bands such as Zevious.

On the other hand, Gunn’s collaboration with Russian singer Inna Zhelennaya on her 2009 album Cocoon and on the eponymous 2005 album by The Farlanders explore the fascinating reaches of world music, injecting a welcome dose of thoroughly un-cheesy melody (also evidenced in gorgeous opening “Hymn”) in the proceedings. Zhelennaya’s hauntingly keening Russian-language vocals, somehow reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard’s otherworldly chanting, blend uncannily well with Gunn’s quicksilver guitar, producing some very distinctive results in the likes of the hypnotic “Maslenitsa” (the longest track on the album at almost 10 minutes, and possibly its highlight), “Well” and “Drunk”. Entrancing ambient tones, coloured with a feel of gentle melancholy, surface in Gunn’s collaboration with Russian clarinetist Sergey Klevezny; while the slow, liquid “9:47 PM Eastern Time” brings to mind KC’s “The Sheltering Sky”. KTU’s accordion-laden ”Jacaranda” and the Middle Eastern-flavoured “The Magnificent Jinn” branch further out in world music territory, though combining those ethnic influences with the angular dynamics typical of King Crimson.

As exciting and eclectic as I’ll Tell What I Saw is, I would not recommend listening to the whole 2-CD set in one take, since music this challenging and edgy might induce a sense of sonic overload, especially in those listeners who are used to more conventionally structured fare. Thankfully, there is enough diversity within those 36 tracks to keep the most demanding listeners happy. It is, however, music with a high level of complexity, even in the case of the shorter compositions, and needs to be approached with the right attitude. All in all, this is an excellent summary of Trey Gunn’s adventurous, ever-changing career, and an outstanding introduction to the work of one of the most intriguing purveyors of genuinely progressive music on the current scene.

Links:
http://www.treygunn.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Into the Subatomic (5:21)
2. Free at Last! (5:17)
3. Mud Becomes Mind (5:14)
4. I Don’t Believe (5:53)
5. Matter Is Energy (4:55)
6. Comprehensible (6:38)
7. Infinite Strength (8:05)
8. Where No One Can Win (8:05)
9. Step Out of Your Body (5:12)
10. The Cauldron (15:18)

LINEUP:
Copernicus – poetry, lead vocals, keyboards
Pierce Turner – musical director, piano, Hammond organ, percussion, backing vocals
Larry Kirwan – electric guitar, vocals
Mike Fazio – electric guitar
Bob Hoffnar – steel guitar
Raimundo Penaforte – viola, acoustic guitar, cavaquinho, percussion, vocals
Cesar Aragundi – electric and acoustic guitar
Fred Parcells – trombone
Rob Thomas – violin
Matty Fillou – tenor saxophone, percussion
Marvin Wright – bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion
George Rush – tuba, contrabass, bass guitar
Thomas Hamlin – drums, percussion
Mark Brotter – drums, percussion

The thirteenth album by New York-based performer-poet Copernicus (aka Joseph Smalkovski), and the third released by MoonJune Records (which is going to reissue the artist’s whole catalogue), Cipher and Decipher is definitely not your average ‘progressive rock’ album, ambitious but ultimately accessible. In fact, is one of those records for which the expression ‘acquired taste’ seems to be tailor-made, and which is at the same time easy and difficult to describe: easy if you want to simplify matters, and say that it is based around a somewhat loopy guy’s ranting and raving over a rather free-form musical background; difficult if you want, instead, to avoid platitudes and offer would-be listeners a more in-depth, nuanced analysis.

Needless to say, even from a quick perusing of the release notes it should be clear that Cipher and Decipher is not for the faint-hearted, or those who like carefully structured music, engaging melodies and conventional singing. This is the archetypal underground production, a marriage of music and poetry steeped in the American beat tradition, dripping with existential ennui and metaphysical musings, in which the music often feels like an afterthought, often sharply diverging from the vocal parts in a sort of schizophrenic effect. Clocking in at slightly under 70 minutes, and barely offering any respite from Copernicus’ over-the-top vocal exertions, it sounds more than a bit daunting (even for a forward-thinking label like MoonJune) and as such quite unlikely to appeal to casual or mainstream-oriented listeners.

And yet, in spite of all these drawbacks, Cipher and Decipher exerts a weird sort of attraction. After a while everything seems to click and, so to speak, begins to make sense. Even as Copernicus’ voice may rub you the wrong way, and make you wish he limited himself to publishing books of poetry like most other people would do, the music perversely sucks you in, and you may find yourself actually enjoying the experience – almost in spite of yourself. At times Copernicus’ secular-preacher recitation blends with the music, at others the two go their separate ways, in a somewhat frustrating fashion. He roars, cajoles, whines, chants, emotes like a Shakespearian actor, leaving very little breathing space to the listener, repeating the key words around which his whole work seems to revolve with a sort of incantatory effect, often augmented by the loose yet oddly mesmerizing nature of the musical accompaniment.

Regarding the concept on which Cipher and Decipher is based, my readers will be able to find all the background information they need in the links I have provided at the end of the review – as well as in the album’s very thorough liner notes. While other reviewers have dedicated at least some space to the album’s lyrical content, I would rather concentrate on the musical aspect, even if I realize it is far from easy to divorce the two. Generally, I do not particularly care for nihilism, and have to admit not being too interested in speculations about the nature of the universe, though neither aspect disturbs me as other kinds of content (i.e. overtly racist lyrics) would. My main interest here is the music, and this is why I would rather avoid launching in any detailed analysis of Copernicus’ message which is much better presented elsewhere.

When listening to Cipher and Decipher, it is important to bear in mind that the music and the vocals often seem to be at odds with each other instead of working together, as would happen in more mainstream recordings. This means that special attention to the musical part is required, and it obviously helps if you like almost completely unscripted music as opposed to the carefully constructed patterns of most conventional progressive rock. Provided by a veritable orchestra of 15 outstanding musicians (including 4 guitarists and almost a full horn section) led by long-time Copernicus associates, expatriate Irishmen Pierce Turner and Larry Kirwan (the latter, together with Thomas Hamlin and Fred Parcells, a member of Celtic-inspired band Black 47), the musical accompaniment to Copernicus’ proclamations is a wildly eclectic mix of influences ranging from experimental free-jazz to early Pink Floyd-style psychedelia.

Organ-drenched opener “Into the Subatomic” immediately sets the scene, both musically and lyrically, followed by the lovely but somber “Free at Last!”, the most genuinely Pinkfloydian number on offer, embellished by some noteworthy acoustic and electric guitar work; while “Mud Becomes Mind” sports a cheery, Afro-Brazilian vibe. The disc’s central section owes quite a lot to free-jazz, rather gloomy in “I Don’t Believe” with its lonesome-sounding trumpet, sparse yet upbeat in “Matter Is Energy”. On the other hand, “Comprehensible” superimposes an overt homage to Pink Floyd, with Larry Kirwan repeating “set the controls further out of the sun” (a paraphrase of the title of one of their most iconic early compositions) to the somewhat chaotic free-jazz template, and “Infinite Strength” (based on Van Morrison’s celebrated “Gloria”) sounds like something out of the Blues Brothers soundtrack – making you want to dance in spite of Copernicus’ weighty proclamations. More Latin influences surface in the funky “Step Out of Your Body”, and the references to Iraq and Afghanistan in “No One Can Win” are aptly punctuated by Middle Eastern echoes conjured by flute and strings. The album climaxes with the sonic and verbal apocalypse of the aptly-titled “The Cauldron”, a 15-minute, voice-driven space jam.

As the previous paragraphs clearly illustrate, Cipher and Decipher is a very peculiar effort, targeted to adventurous listeners, and likely to send the more conservative set of prog fans running for the exits. This is not background music, and is definitely not relaxing – on the contrary, it can easily become a tad wearying, especially on account of Copernicus’ very idiosyncratic vocal delivery and apocalyptic lyrics. The album’s running time can also be an issue, so those who find it hard to concentrate for long might want to avoid tackling it in one go. However, its somewhat sneaky allure may well win over those who are not afraid to get acquainted with less predictable approaches to progressive music.

Links:
http://www.copernicusonline.net

http://www.moonjune.com

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=74511 (interview)

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
14. Waylaid
15. Middlebräu [encore]

Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.

Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output,  this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.

Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle,  and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.

Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.

Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).

To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.

The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input.  As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.

The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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