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Archive for July, 2011

First of all, a little background information. Although I am a native speaker of Italian, the English language has been a constant presence in my life since I was 7 years old. Languages are not only a passion for me, but also my main professional expertise (I am a language teacher with experience as a translator), and probably my biggest talent, though I have not been able to learn as many as I would have liked. Having learned English at such an early age (something I will never thank my parents enough for), as well as a few other languages along the way, has not only allowed me to meet and communicate with people from every corner of the world, but also shaped the kind of person I am today, and my whole worldview. Therefore, whenever I happen upon people singing the praises of monolingualism, or stating that they do not need to learn any foreign languages because “everyone speaks English”, my hackles rise, and I tend to lose at least some respect for those who utter such nonsense.

While the original progressive rock movement originated in England, and extremely influential bands such as Yes and Genesis are as English as afternoon tea, that same movement put deep-seated roots in other countries whose first language is not English – first and foremost my native Italy, but also places as far removed from Europe as Japan, Brazil and Argentina. Nowadays the practice of English lyrics may have become widespread, especially out of commercial considerations, but in the early Seventies most bands and artists from non-English-speaking countries (with some notable exceptions such as many German bands) chose to use their native languages. Though lack of proficiency was undoubtedly  one of the main reasons (since foreign language teaching was not as widespread or methodologically advanced at the time as it is today), this choice was also closely connected to a desire to adapt the new musical trend to the musical and cultural roots of the artists. As any treatise on Italian prog (or RPI, as it is now commonly called in prog circles) worth its salt will clearly illustrate, the whole scene cannot be divorced by its use of Italian – a language that has been often labelled as “the most beautiful in the world”, and which has proved its worth time and again in the history of music, regardless of genre.

Obviously, there is also a school of thought maintaining that English is the only language suited to rock music –  which seems to hold more or less true for heavy metal, though not necessarily for other rock genres. In particular, the distinctive features of prog make it an ideal vehicle for just about any language, and not just because it contains extended instrumental breaks that make vocals almost an afterthought. No one who has ever listened to Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Los Jaivas or Ange (to mention three bands from different countries and cultural environments) will regret their choice to use Italian, Spanish or French instead of English, on account of the perfect fit between those languages and the band’s musical direction. Not surprisingly, real devotees of Italian prog are not particularly keen on “translated” albums such as PFM’s Photos of Ghosts or Banco’s As in a Last Supper, and even albums that were originally recorded in English, such as Cherry Five’s self-titled debut or New Trolls’ Searching for a Land, tend not to evoke as much enthusiasm as their Italian-language counterparts.

Indeed, the use of Italian is as much a part of RPI as the passionate, quasi-operatic vocal style or the incorporation of folk and classical elements – and the same holds true for Spanish or French prog. Even an impenetrable (at least for us Westerners) language like Japanese complements the music of Japanese prog bands much better than the often poor attempts at English lyrics – equally often marred by a less than stellar pronunciation (a common problem for speakers of languages with vastly different phonetic systems than English). Conversely, the choice to use English may come at the price of error-riddled lyrics and liner notes, with often laughable results that inevitably end up hurting the band’s credibility on the international scene. The misguided idea that English is a much easier language to master than, say, Italian or Spanish – coupled with the utterly deplorable trend of resorting to those terrifying language manglers, online translators – is the main culprit behind song titles containing visible blunders, or positively ridiculous lyrics which do a band or artist no favours.

In spite of all the arguments in favour of using one’s native tongue, there is still quite a lot of prejudice about progressive rock with lyrics in languages other than English – mostly on the part of people from English-speaking countries, though not always necessarily so. Many native English speakers are not used to hearing other languages spoken on TV or at the movies, due to the prevalence of English in the entertainment industry; some people may even feel threatened by what they cannot understand, while others are hampered by a kind of mental laziness, so to speak. This is especially true in a country like the USA, where English has always been instrumental to the assimilation of newcomers into American society – to the extent that most second-generation Americans do not speak their parents’ language. In general terms, Europeans are more used to hearing different languages, in some cases within their own country, and learning one or more foreign languages  (even as a hobby)  is definitely more common in Europe than in the US.

A couple of months ago, a shockingly mean-spirited attack on prog with non-English vocals was delivered in a review published on the only mainstream magazine currently dedicated to prog.  In his account of Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s excellent debut album, the reviewer stated that “ […] no matter how hard they might try to build it up, the majority of Italian prog bands have made little impact on the world stage”, and then proceeded to make matters worse by adding that “the blunt, politically incorrect truth is that, in spite of occasional flashes of musical magic,with all the lyrics being delivered in Italian, it’s still an album most would never listen to more than once.” Though it was not the first time that the magazine had taken a swipe at non-English prog, the virulence of the attack was unprecedented.

Obviously, the author of the review was unaware, or maybe intentionally oblivious, of the sizable number of people worldwide whose appreciation of Italian prog drives them to invest large amounts of money in the purchase of both vintage and modern releases. The same might be said for French or Spanish prog, or even for Eastern European acts, all of whom have a dedicated following in English-speaking countries. In fact, the news that Greg Walker, one of the foremost online prog sellers,  is organizing a festival for 2012 which will feature bands from Italy and other European countries (most of them singing in their respective languages) has already created a lot of anticipation in the prog community, proving that particular writer’s statement dead wrong, as well as unnecessarily chauvinistic. While people have every right to dislike music sung in foreign languages (and, in my years of frequentation of prog discussion boards, I have come across quite a few that fit this description), the line should be drawn at blatantly untrue statements, especially when informed by a sense of condescension and barely concealed xenophobia.

Personally, I find it rather sad that, in the second decade of the 21st century, there are still people who feel out of their depth when confronted with something even slightly unfamiliar. The aversion to foreign-language vocals might be compared to many people’s unwillingness to taste any “exotic” foods, even relatively tame ones, and it is definitely rooted in a reluctance to step out of one’s comfort zone. However, one would expect a bit more open-mindedness from fans of a genre that proudly bears the “progressive” tag, and the suspicion that there may be some ulterior motives behind statements such as the ones featured in that review leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Thankfully, in the far-flung community of progressive rock lovers there are enough people who recognize that understanding lyrical content is nowhere as important as being captivated by the music, and that vocals can often be considered as an additional instrument – regardless of what a singer is singing about.  Petty, spiteful comments such as “no one would listen more than once to an album not sung in English” paint their author as a narrow-minded person who is stuck in a sort of late-colonial frame of mind, basically viewing anyone who does not adopt their language as inferior and unworthy of attention. Progressive rock deserves better than so-called journalists supporting such bigoted views.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. One Cloud  (3:35)
2. The Long Circle (11:05)
3.Conscious Dream (5:15)
4. Cloud Dispersed   (2:16)
5. Differential (5:27)
6. Turbulence (1:25)
7. Mighty Distant Star  (6:10)
8. The Third Enigma (13:15)

LINEUP:
Rob Martino – Chapman stick

Released in May 2010, One Cloud is the recording debut of Chapman stick virtuoso Rob Martino, a talented artist who came to the attention of prog fans for his appearance in the documentary film Romantic Warriors – though he also guested on Phideaux’s career-defining Doomsday Afternoon in 2007, and participated in the 2009 edition of the 3RP Prog Festival. A fellow resident of Northern Virginia (as well as a fellow cat lover), Rob is very active on the live front around the US Northeast, performing both his own material and covers of other artists’ music. While an accomplished multi-instrumentalist with an extensive musical background, since 2004 he has chosen to focus exclusively on the Chapman stick, one of the most versatile instruments on the current music scene, which has been enthusiastically adopted by many progressive artists.

Though Rob Martino is first and foremost a dedicated follower of progressive rock, the music showcased on One Cloud transcends the boundaries of prog as it is commonly perceived, its distinctive style hard to label. In fact, his compositions display a wide range of influences, from folk to classical music, which makes them more likely to appeal to a broader audience than  just the so-called “prog community”. In any case, the artist’s personal imprint emerges quite clearly, so that the music does not feel as derivative as is unfortunately the case with a rather large slice of current “mainstream” prog releases. More than anything, however, the album spotlights the enormous expressive potential of an instrument that can, to all intents and purposes, almost replace a whole band. Its unique nature (it is played with both hands by tapping the strings, rather than plucking or strumming them) allows for multi-part arrangements, in which the Chapman stick acts the role of piano and percussion, as well as guitar and bass.

Even though I had already experienced music played solely on the Chapman stick, I was deeply impressed by the the sheer beauty of the compositions featured on One Cloud. Understated, yet fluid and full of melody, the music possesses surprising clarity coupled with a feel of engaging warmth. While there is plenty of complexity involved, the tracks often as multilayered as anything you would find on most full-fledged prog albums, the music suggests a sense of elegance and purity rather than the sometimes overblown lushness of symphonic prog. All in all, the album is anything but a showcase for empty virtuosity, the focus being on composition rather than technique.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, the album strikes a nearly perfect balance between shorter pieces and longer numbers with an almost epic scope. A superficial listen may give the impression that the tracks sound rather similar to one another, and somehow this may hold true even after repeated listens, as  One Cloud (whose title is in itself very suggestive of the music’s nature) – unlike albums that involve conventional instrumentation – hinges on subtle contrasts of light and shade, rather than on the impact of powerful guitar riffs, soaring vocals or towering keyboard sweeps. While, in some ways, it is more accessible than the average prog album, at the same time it demands the listener’s full attention in order to avoid fading into the background – as is often the case with “mood” music.

The title-track opens the album with a tune that, while not exactly upbeat, is quite catchy in its own way, and immediately introduces the listener to the captivating textures that the Chapman stick allows a musician to create. The two “epics”, 10-minute “The Long Circle” and 13-minute“The Third Enigma”, share a similar structure, gradually gaining intensity from a sparse, subdued start; both exude a melancholy, meditative feel, and the frequent tempo changes that break up the flow of the music add further interest, together with the quasi-orchestral effects that help to flesh out the sound. On the other hand, on a couple of tracks, notably “Conscious Dream” and the aptly-titled “Turbulence”, the instrument takes on a sharp, almost percussive tone.

Though, if you felt inclined to nitpick, One Cloud may occasionally come across as slightly one-dimensional (which is probably inevitable for an album based on a single instrument), it is also a lovingly-crafted effort with a strong crossover appeal, and an outstanding example of committed music-making. Highly recommended to fans of the Chapman stick and its close relative, the Warr guitar, as well as anyone who appreciates any recordings featuring acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments, it will offer a deeply satisfying listening experience to lovers of instrumental music.

Links:
http://robmartino.com/

http://www.myspace.com/robmartino

 

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Interlude: Changes… Again!

In the past year, since Fire of Unknown Origin came into existence, there have been quite a few changes in my situation as a music writer – changes which I have duly reported here for all my readers, both the core of my audience and those who stumble upon the  blog through a Google search or a link on some other site. Therefore, this is the right time to announce another change, which is bound to have some sort of impact on this blog (even if not necessarily in negative terms).

On Monday, July 18, my first review was published on the Dutch Progressive Rock Pages, known for short as DPRP -one of the longest-running, most comprehensive progressive rock websites currently available on the Internet. This marked the official start of a collaboration that I hope will last for as long as humanly possible, and that will expose my writings to an even wider audience. While it will not mean the end of this blog, which has been too successful a venture to just kill it off – or even let it languish almost untended, soon to be forgotten – there will be inevitable changes as regards the frequency of its updates. In fact, I will keep any reviews I write for DPRP exclusive to that site, so that there will not be any overlap between my two main commitments. If I have the time and inclination, I will start posting “vault” reviews again, and obviously review any other material that has already been covered (or will be covered) by other DPRP writers. And then, I hope to be able to post more opinion pieces like the ones I wrote about the NEARfest cancellation – I already have a couple of interesting topics in mind.

For those of you who are in touch with me via Facebook, I will continue to post links to any new articles on my FB page, as well as links to any of my reviews published on DPRP. In the meantime, I would like to thank everyone once again for sticking with me, and for helping to make this blog a success story.

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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Calling Out (4:55)
2. Still Water (5:04)
3. Unity (1:59)
4. Another Day (4:36)
5. Water Of Life (10:00)
6. Live For Him (5:26)
7. Indian Summer (2:38)
8. By My Side (3:55)
9. Vacant Halls (6:44)
10. Freedom Road (6:05)

LINEUP:
Dave Auerbach – guitars
Dean Hallal – lead and backing vocals
Kevin Jarvis – keyboards, guitars, dulcimer, vocals
Jennifer Meeks – flute, lead and backing vocals
Frank Tyson – bass, vocals, whistling
Rick Walker – drums, percussion

With:
Jeff Hodges – additional keyboards, percussion, samples and loops

Hailing from Sumter (South Carolina), where they were formed in 1997 by keyboardist Kevin Jarvis and drummer Rick Walker, Farpoint have 12 years of live performances and 5 studio albums under their collective belts. Their recording debut, First Light, appeared  in 2002, though with a different line-up than the one appearing on this album.  Kindred is also the band’s first release for Georgia-based label 10T Records, while their previous albums had all been released independently.

Farpoint are part of a group of mostly American bands and artists that are openly Christian in inspiration, which is bound to alienate some listeners. To be honest, Farpoint are not as heavy-handed as other acts (Neal Morse comes to mind) in the way they handle the religious content of their lyrics. Moreover, the generally upbeat, positive nature of their musical offer may come across as refreshing in an age of often somewhat contrived misery and navel-gazing. Rather than concentrating on complex theological issues, Farpoint’s lyrical universe is simple, almost naive, their unabashedly optimistic songs revolving about ideas of love, hope and trust, both in God and mankind.

On a personal level, even if I am not religious, and would rather not see music turned into a vehicle for any ideological manifesto, I do not see anything wrong with delivering a positive message. The main problem, at least to my ears, is that quite a few of the songs on Kindred (right from opener “Calling Out”) remind me of the music that would be played during a service, back in my days as a good Catholic girl and a member of the local church choir. Associating this kind of music with progressive rock can be a tad awkward, and indeed Kindred is only marginally related to prog as we know it. On occasion, the instrumental interplay allows glimpses of greater complexity, but on the whole the majority of the tracks featured on the album are rather conventional, mainstream-sounding songs with a heavy emphasis on vocals and plenty of catchy hooks.

In any case, the members of Farpoint show excellent musicianship, and their songwriting skills are none too shabby either. Production-wise, Kindred can boast of outstanding clarity of sound, which allows each instrument to shine without overwhelming the others. Farpoint are very much ensemble players, each of the members contributing to the final result. The album is also quite well-balanced, clocking in at a very reasonable 51 minutes, with two shorter, mostly acoustic instrumental interludes (“Unity” and “Indian Summer”) and most of the other songs between 4 and 6 minutes – with the sole exception of the 10-minute “Water of Life”. However, those expecting a towering effort in typical “prog epic” tradition will be disappointed, because the song – in spite of some noteworthy instrumental passages such as the lengthy, flute- and guitar-driven introduction, with some sterling bass work by Frank Tyson (whose flawless performance is one of the best points of the album) – becomes quite lightweight every time vocals are involved.

On the other hand, the prog references are few and far between, and mostly concentrated in the uncharacteristically meditative, downbeat “Vacant Rooms” (in my view the highlight of the album, a heartfelt reflection on the loss of loved ones), with its spacey keyboards and lovely, Gilmour-influenced guitar solo leading to an intense crescendo in the final part of the song. “Live for Him” displays some lively classic rock touches, especially in Dave Auerbach’s excellent guitar and Hammond organ passages that bring to mind early Deep Purple, as well as an interesting drumming pattern in the bridge – but is somehow let down by the country-meets-church-music flavour of the vocal parts. A couple of other songs – notably “Another Day”, with its jangly, bluegrass-style guitar – reminded me of the alt.country slant of The Decemberists’ latest album, The King Is Dead,  though minus Colin Meloy’s distinctive vocals. Indeed, Dean Hallal’s smooth, well-modulated voice seems quite well-suited to mainstream, country-tinged pop-rock; while Jennifer Meeks’s ethereal soprano is quite underused, her only solo spot being the rather cheesy “By My Side”.

Clearly informed by strong faith and a positive worldview, Kindred is likely to appeal to those listeners who lean towards the melodic, more accessible side of prog, as well as those who like a well-crafted mainstream song delivered in a pleasing manner. Personally, I found the instrumental passages far more interesting than anything featuring vocals, though I am quite sure that  a lot of people will find the album as a whole to their taste. Needless to say, anyone who objects to religious or other ideological messages in their music will do well to steer clear of this album.

Links:
http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.10trecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Lucid (1:40)
2. La Bealtaine (7:52)
3. In Orbit (12:30)
4. This Past Presence (6:14)
5. A Faerie’s Play (5:19)
6. The River (10:04)
7. Lucid Dreams (2:19)

LINEUP:
Morten Andreas Eriksen – guitars
Lars Fredrik Frøislie-  keyboards, marxophone, vocals
Kristian Karl Hultgren – bass, saxophone, glockenspiel
Martin Nordrum Kneppen – drums, percussion
Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo – vocals

With:
Ketil Vestrum Einarsen – flute
Hanne Rekdal – bassoon

This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult reviews I have written in a long time (if not the most difficult), and one that may turn out to be quite controversial. In order to convey my opinion effectively, I will have to make a clear distinction between the actual quality of the music and any considerations relating to originality of content.

Before someone indicts me of being one of those snobs that turn up their noses at anything that might remind them of bygone times, I do enjoy a lot of so-called “retro prog”, and Wobbler’s Afterglow was one of my favourite albums for 2009. Moreover, I am quite aware that the “retro” phenomenon is not only a prerogative of symphonic prog:  a band choosing to imitate Magma or Univers Zéro is no less “retro” than one imitating Yes or Genesis. Like it or not, originality these days is rather thin on the ground, and throughout the 40+ years of prog’s existence as a musical genre there have been countless instances of bands shamelessly cloning more successful and influential acts (one name for all: Starcastle). In more recent years the number of tribute bands has been steadily growing, attracting relatively large audiences (often larger than those commanded by bands or artists that play their own original material). While fans of the more cutting-edge varieties of progressive rock may throw around the “retro” label with a sort of contempt, others wear it as a badge of honour, further widening the gap within the “prog community”.

First emerged on the prog scene in 2005 with their debut Hinterland, Wobbler – led by multi-instrumentalist and vintage keyboard collector Lars Fredrik Frøislie (also the mind  behind experimental metal act In Lingua Mortua) –  quickly established themselves as the darlings of the retro-oriented crowd, especially those who had been mourning the early demise of Änglagård. Even though a sizable portion of the current prog scene consists of acts that might be tagged as “retro”, Wobbler have taken the concept a step further, down to their refusal to use MIDI technology or any post-1975 instruments. Both Hinterland and its follow-up Afterglow (2009) had been based on material originally composed and recorded in demo form immediately after the band’s formation in 1999; Rites at Dawn, on the other hand, comprises entirely new material, the first original music by the band in almost 10 years.

Rites at Dawn is an album of pristine perfection. With its gorgeous, clean-lined artwork (surprisingly modern for a band that has never hidden its worship of all things Seventies) and thorough liner notes, listing the equipment used in loving detail, the centrefold photo depicting them in a rustic period setting reminiscent of Songs from the Wood-era Jethro Tull, it is an unashamed paean to the golden age of prog, tailor-made to send traditionalists into fits of delight, or else to be dismissed by forward-thinkers as a mere nostalgia trip. The truth, as is often the case in life, lies somewhere in between. I believe that the fellow reviewer who compared Wobbler’s music to neoclassical art hit the nail over the head, since Rites at Dawn possesses the smooth, polished beauty of a Canova statue. As such, it has raised the bar for “retro-prog” to almost unattainable levels.

Indeed, speaking in strictly objective terms, the music on Rites at Dawn is beautiful, intricate and flawlessly performed, in spite of the slightly disturbing feeling of déjà vu that grips the listener as soon as the vocals in “La Bealtaine” kick in. Drenched in gorgeous Mellotron, fuelled by the fat, trebly sound of a vintage Rickenbacker bass, embellished by layers of keyboards and soothing vocal harmonies, the whole album is a clear homage to Yes circa Fragile and Close to the Edge, even as regards the lyrical matter, based upon pagan rituals and nature worship. While both their previous efforts showed the imprint of Gentle Giant and Gryphon, as well as legendary early Nineties acts such as Änglagård and Anekdoten,  Rites at Dawn sound less “Scandinavian” and definitely more upbeat. The band’s new singer, Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo, gets a lot of room to flex his impressive, Jon Anderson-like pipes, as all but the two tracks that bookend the album, “Lucid” and “Lucid Dreams”, feature vocals (unlike the band’s previous albums, which were mostly instrumental). The vocal parts are balanced by the magnificent instrumental interplay, chock full of head-spinning tempo changes, scintillating solo spots and moments of atmospheric, ethereal beauty, enhanced by touches of flute and glockenspiel, with the distinctive drone of the bassoon lending further depth to some of the passages. Clocking in at 45 minutes, the album is longer than Afterglow and shorter than Hinterland, with only two tracks, “In Orbit” and “The River”, running over 10 minutes.

An album of sterling quality from a formal point of view, Rites at Dawn is probably the closest any band has come in recent years to recreating the original sound of the Seventies (though, of course, with modern production values). That said, its often uncomfortably derivative nature leads me to adopt a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards it. While I do like the music a lot, and will be probably be listening to the album for my personal pleasure in the future, I cannot help questioning the point of reproducing the sounds of a bygone age down to the last detail – as well as wondering if such a move is going to benefit the prog scene in the long run. However, it is undeniable that there is an audience for albums like Rites at Dawn among those listeners who thrive upon nostalgia. Highly recommended to fans of vintage symphonic prog, it is probably best avoided by anyone who expects prog to be actually progressive.

Links:
http://www.wobblermusic.com/

http://www.myspace.com/wobblermusic

http://www.termorecords.com

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