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Archive for March, 2012

Some of my readers may have noticed that, after a very busy first half of the month in terms of posting, I have more or less dropped off the radar in the past two weeks. My original intention was to publish two more reviews of albums by modern Italian bands before the end of March, but unfortunately something completely unexpected happened that threw a king-sized spanner in the works.

Needless to say, as much as I love writing about music, at the moment reviewing is the last thing on my mind. I will not go into details, because the misery that human beings can inflict on each other in the name of misguided ideals does not belong on a blog dedicated to one of the highest endeavours of the human mind. Though it is nothing that cannot be remedied (and thankfully not health-related), it will very probably take a heavy toll in terms of stress, worry and financial expense.

As this blog has been the source of so much satisfaction to me, I felt I owed an explanation to my readers and supporters. Too many bloggers, even very good ones, disappear into thin air when confronted with difficulties or life changes, and I wanted to inform those who have made this venture worthwhile of what is going on. Thank you in advance of your support and understanding, and hope to be back as soon as possible!

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In the past few years, rarely has a debut album by a completely unknown act taken me by surprise – and won my approval –so much as Herd of Instinct’s self-titled album, released in the late spring of 2011 on the brand-new label Firepool Records, legendary southern California outfit Djam Karet’s own label. With an impressive roster of guest musicians, and a sound that brings together atmospheric, cinematic and ethnic elements, the album garnered a lot of praise in the progressive rock community, though some people have tended to overlook the actual band members in favour of the high-profile names. However, the Texas-based trio  are experienced musicians who deserve much more exposure than they have got so far. While we wait for their second album to be released later in 2012, the three members of the band – Jason Spradlin, Mark Cook and Mike Davison –  joined by Gayle Ellett (Djam Karet founder and unofficial fourth member of Herd of Instinct),  have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.

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Let us start from the basics, for those readers who are not yet familiar with your history. How was Herd of Instinct born?

Jason: Herd of Instinct formed in 2007. We’re from Arlington, Texas. Before Herd of Instinct, Mike Davison had played in a band called Nervewerks, while Mark Cook and I were in the band 99 Names of God. Both bands were friends, and we played many shows together. A few months before 99 Names broke up, I invited Mike to come out and jam with Mark and I. A great time was had by all. When it was official that 99 Names was done for good, the 3 of us decided to form a new group. Meanwhile, in a separate project, Mark Cook and Warr guitarist Dave Streett were writing and recording music and employing various guest musicians. At some point it was decided to merge our group with Mark and Dave’s project. That is basically the birth of Herd of Instinct.

Mike: As Jason mentioned, over several years both bands (99 Names and Nervewerks) had seen each other’s live performances, played shows together, enjoyed each other’s crafts. , when 99 Names had  a show on my side of town, 40 miles north-east of Mark and Jason’s home town, I would go see them play. It was after one of these shows, Jason asked me to come out and jam with Mark and himself. Nervewerks had already disbanded into a few different projects, and 99 Names had, unknowingly, played their last show the night Jason invited me out. The three of us have developed a great chemistry over the years, and with the addition of all these amazing players, it just took the CD over the top. There’s a lot of nice flavors being added to the Herd Trio on the upcoming album as well.

Gayle: My involvement began many years ago, when Dave Streett approached me about recording on some of his songs. And through Dave I later met Mark, their great drummer Jason Spradlin, Mike and the other members of Herd. And later I decided to release their debut CD on a new record label that I created with Chuck Oken jr., called Firepool Records. And we are very happy to be releasing their new Herd CD too. A few months ago Herd Of Instinct flew me down their studio in Dallas, Texas, for a week to record on their second album. That was really fun and productive, and it’s been very enjoyable for me to be working with these great musicians!

Your very striking name comes from an album that is somewhat of a cult item. What led you to choose it?

Mark: Jason and I are fans of O.Rang’s album Herd of Instinct. The recording is a masterpiece of texture. We spent some time trying to come up with a name that was open-ended. HoI just seemed to feel right.

Jason: Before we decided on the name Herd of Instinct, we were calling ourselves Mirror People. Just when you think you’ve picked a name no one else has used, a search engine reveals otherwise. Mark and I are fans of Talk Talk, and one of our favourite albums is by an off-shoot of them –  .O.Rang, and their 1997 LP Herd Of Instinct. The 3 of us each made lists of possible band names. As it turns out, Mark and I both had the name Herd of Instinct on our lists. We hope that Lee Harris and Paul Webb can find it in their hearts to forgive us!!

What is your musical background? Was the music of the 70’s (prog or otherwise) influential in your development as individual musicians and as a band?

Mark: I started playing guitar when I was very young and moved on to the Warr guitar. King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Rush have very much influenced HoI. Other musicians, outside of “prog”, that have influenced the way I approach music are John Zorn, Philip Glass, Bill Laswell, Ennio Morricone, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis. I should also note other art mediums have had a major impact on my playing – Salvador Dali, Philip K. Dick, Kobo Abe, Margurite Duras, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg. The way these people approach their craft is a great source of inspiration.

Jason: My love of music has been snowballing since I first sat behind a drum kit in 1977. Music of the 60’s and 70’s was very influential to me as I learned the basics of rock drumming. As the 1980’s rolled in I developed an obsession with hard rock and underground heavy metal. Along with some school friends, I helped formed the doom metal band Last Chapter. While I was in that band we released a CD called The Living Waters, which has become a minor cult favourite in doom metal circles. I guess it was the late 80’s when I developed a love for jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic music.

Mike: For me I think it was the “Whole Lotta Love” solo that started my guitar addiction. I learned as much Zeppelin as I could, which for a study is good with the wide range, acoustic guitars, open tunings, the picking techniques, blues, rock, metal, folk, and so on. Hendrix, Floyd, Jeff beck, rush,  I couldn’t get enough of it. I was into everything from SRV to Metallica. It was the early 90’s when I fell heavily into King Crimson, early Genesis, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and on and on. From Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree, classical to jazz, night to day, it’s all influential. I’ve played with rock, jazz, pop, folk, prog, and flamenco bands. That’s been some of the best influence and inspiration for me. Playing the different, and with many great players, you can’t beat it!

Gayle: I was a teenager in the 1970’s, and the music of your teen years is always very influential and significant to a person’s view and appreciation of music that stays with you for the rest of your life. So I am heavy influenced by the music of the 1970’s, especially groups such as Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentile Giant, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Return To Forever and others.

Your debut album took four years to complete, which is not unusual nowadays. What prevented you from releasing it sooner?

Mark: HoI builds songs slowly. It’s a process that takes time, and when a piece “feels” finished we move on. Sometimes it’s a waiting game for a piece of music to settle.

Jason: The musical tastes within this band go in many directions. So much so, that our music goes through several evolutionary phases. An aging process occurs with the music as well. The politics of merging our band with the side project, along with job schedules, and just the ups and downs of everyday life all combined in such a way that it took forever to complete our debut album in a timely fashion. It was a learning experience for all. We now work at a quicker pace.

How did you manage to involve artists such as Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison in your debut?

Mark: Dave Streett and I began collaborating on a recording project that included material with Gavin. When HoI was formed, the approach was very close to the music Dave and I were writing. Dave was also participating in the material HoI was developing. We eventually came to the conclusion to combine the material and focus on making it a band effort instead of two separate projects. Dave would periodically fly to Texas to work with the core band. Pat got involved because Dave and I were working with Markus Reuter on the track “Anamnesis”. Markus was in Texas working with Pat a few days before he came to our studio to work on music. He mentioned Pat might be interested in participating. We were honored to have musicians of their caliber collaborating with us. They both created some amazing parts that really took the track to another level.

Touch guitars seem to be an essential component of your sound. What is that first attracted you to those instruments? What about their role in the musical context of Herd of Instinct, both live and in the studio?

Mark:  Initially the attraction to touchstyle instruments was the expanded range. Having very low notes and high notes increases the palette and choices I have when writing. Warr guitars are stereo, which allows me to play two distinct parts or utilize two radically different processed signals. HoI’s live sound is very full for a trio. I’m usually doing two parts. Mike plays guitar and guitar synth, so he can also have two distinct sounds happening at the same time. This layering of sound can give the impression of a lot bigger band.

One of the most intriguing features of your sound lies in the world-music suggestions, particularly evident in tracks such as “Road to Asheville”. What role does ethnic music play at the compositional level?

Mark: The harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of non-Western music have been very influential on our melodic writing and our use of repetition. How we incorporate the influences varies. On “Road to Asheville” the approach was to blend the Middle Eastern tonalities with other genres. The whole approach of the track “Possession” was basically influenced by dub music.  The new material continues to have strong elements of ethnic music. A few tracks feature Gayle playing the dilruba, which is a bowed Indian instrument.

Jason: As a band, we are very curious about music from around the world. We try to incorporate various ethnic elements into our compositions when we feel it will make the music more interesting. When I first began playing with Mark in 99 Names of God, they were already using drone techniques and Eastern-flavoured sounds. Naturally we continued this tradition when we formed Herd of Instinct. Some of the most beautiful music can be found outside the Western world, and we do not shy away from these influences.

Mike: I’m a huge fan of what artists like Bill Laswell and John McLaughlin do with combining Eastern and Western music and musicians…..or whatever it may be.  Having easy access to the sounds of  instruments from all over the world through a guitar synth has  opened new paths for me personally.

Recording mainly instrumental albums with only one or two vocal tracks seems to have become increasingly fashionable. Why did you decide to do so on your debut, instead of going the totally instrumental route?

Mark: The voice is something people immediately connect with. We placed “Blood Sky” in the middle to break the cd into two instrumental halves. The piece is kind of like a pacing element for the listener to latch on to something sonically very different from the previous tracks and also to lead into the 2nd half of the album.

Jason: For the kind of music we play, I prefer taking the all- instrumental path. However, the human voice, whether it is spoken word, vocalizations, or singing actual lyrics, does seem to be a necessary ingredient for most music lovers. Unless the singer is very good, or charmingly unusual, I prefer instrumental. Kris Swenson’s vocals on the track “Blood Sky” are, in my opinion, beautiful, and are what absolutely MAKE this song. For us, vocals are another color to paint with, and they are not used as a device to make a song more accessible.

Mike: Some of my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for 30 years, I still couldn’t tell you how the words go. Usually the words are the last thing i focus on. When I’m listening to music, i never think, this has a voice or words…or it doesn’t. Not to demise the importance of a singer or vocals in a song. It usually ends up being the most important ingredient. It can certainly make or break a tune.

Your second album is already well under way. Is it going to sound noticeably different from its predecessor, and, if so, in which way?

Mark: We’re still trying to take the listener on a journey with lots of twists and turns. There will definitely be some sonic surprises. We’re very happy that Gayle’s elegant keyboard playing is heavily featured in the new music.

Jason: The album is coming along nicely, but is very challenging for me in that an attempt to play outside my comfort zone has been established. Old habits die hard. Having said that, the new album will contain many of the hallmarks of our debut. There’ll be more use of various electronics and programming, and less involvement of hi-profile guests. Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet is providing most of the keyboards for this album, so expect a more pronounced dynamic there. My one word description for our new album: cinematic.

Gayle: To my ears, the new Herd CD will be similar to their debut album, and that’s a good thing! Their music seamlessly combines elements of electronic space, with lots of strong grooves, beautiful melodies, and wailing solos, all in equal share. Their music is dynamic and interesting. But it is always flowing smoothly along in a very natural way. It’s a real treat to record with this great group (and yes, I am biased).

This question is mainly meant for Gayle Ellett. How did Firepool Records come to be, and why were Herd of Instinct chosen for the label’s “test drive”, so to speak?

Gayle: Dave and I had been talking about the new CD they were recording. And while they were working on their debut album, they asked me for help in finding them a record label to release it. We tried approaching a few labels, but then I thought “HEY, Chuck Oken jr. and I should just form a new record company and we could release their CD for them.” And so, Firepool Records was born, initially to release their CD. Then Chuck and I thought we’d use that label to release some other CDs, and so far that has included the Henderson/Oken album Dream Theory in the IE, and a CD by my free improvisation group Hillmen (named after our jazz drummer Peter Hillman) called The Whiskey Mountain Sessions. So far we have been VERY happy with our relationship with the members of Herd of Instinct. They are really nice guys, but more importantly, they are all GREAT MUSICIANS! So its been a real pleasure to work with professional players such as them. And now we are recording music for their second CD, and it is all going very well.

Are any of you professional musicians? Are you involved in other projects besides Herd of Instinct?

Mark: Jason and I participated in a Liquid Sound Company CD last year, called Acid Music for Acid People, with John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus). This is John’s psychedelic solo project. I’ve also recently worked on music for the gaming company Acceleroto.

Jason: We all still have day jobs for now. Since 1996 I’ve been the drummer for Liquid Sound Company with my friend John Perez, of Solitude Aeturnus. We’ve released 3 albums, the most recent being 2011’s Acid Music For Acid People, which includes Herd of Instinct’s Mark Cook on Warr guitar. It would be nice to see Liquid Sound Company become a live act, and those details are being worked out. I know for certain we’ll be making another album.

Mike: There is the day job….must support the music habit. I’m currently playing some nylon guitar and guitar synth in a Nuevo Flamenco band with an amazing guitarist, David Gallegos, and some old mates from Nervewerks. 

Gayle: I’m a full-time professional musician, I’ve played on over 90 CDs, and currently I am playing/recording with 6 bands: Djam Karet, Herd Of Instinct, Hillmen, Fernwood, Joee Corso Band, and the Jim Crawford Band. I also write music for TV shows such as General Hospital  and Knock First on ABC-TV, Swingtown and Rebecca’s Garden on CBS-TV, Next and Exposed on MTV, The Osbournes Reloaded on FOX-TV, Bad Girls Road Trip on Oxygen-TV, House Hunters International on HGTV, Surfer and Powder on ESPN-TV, Clark Howard on CNN/HLN, etc. And I’ve also written music for such projects such as Brad Pitt’s feature film Year Of The Dog, Kiss The Bride (with Tori Spelling), The Devil’s Muse (directed by Ramzi Abed), and others. I’ve also written a lot of music for TV commercials, art installations, animations, music libraries, computer games, educational websites, and numerous corporate applications.

As I have often pointed out in my writings, finding gigs is becoming increasingly difficult for non-mainstream bands. What have your experiences been in this respect? What is your local scene like, and have you ever had the opportunity to perform outside your home turf?

Jason: In the Dallas/Fort Worth area there is a thriving metal and indie scene. For progressive rock, however, the bands that play this music, or anything avant-garde, it is difficult to build a dedicated following. We are still able to book shows for ourselves, but we are rarely on a bill with like-minded bands. To give you an example of this, at the last show Herd of Instinct played, a mariachi band opened the show, followed by HoI, and then after us there was a metal-ish cover band. It begs the question: whatever happened to continuity? As far as playing away from our home turf, this has not happened yet. We hope to one day play at one the prog festivals that happen annually.

GE: Speaking of Los Angeles, where I live, I’d say that finding any good-paying gigs is difficult these days. But there are also many places where you could perform live, if you did not mind not being paid any money. I think that it is better for a band to spend a year making a new CD, instead of spending a year just doing live performances.

And now, a loaded question to wrap up this interview… A little bird told me that you do not like to be tagged as “prog”.While I cannot blame you for a number of reasons, this attitude seems to be increasingly common in artists that, nevertheless, keep on sending their material to prog websites and magazines for review. Can you expand a bit on this topic?

Mark: Definitely there is a contradiction there. If “prog”defines an approach to making music then it’s a positive thing. If the label “prog” sets up a list of rules to follow then it’s a negative thing. I think most artists generally do not like being limited by the expectations of a specific label. On the other hand, if a band is tagged with a label this can bring a certain acceptance and openness to what you create.

Jason: Haha!! I think I know who that little bird is! Well let’s face it: The progressive rock community is the one audience that would most likely connect with Herd of Instinct’s music. We don’t sit around and play Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant albums exclusively, but we do own those albums. We’re not musically trapped in a world of aerie faerie nonsense. What we play is a kind of hybrid music that fuses together many ingredients. We are definitely progressive and moving forward.

Mike: Unfortunately, everything in this world has to be labeled, categorized, and narrowed down. Louis Armstrong said “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good.”  When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. How old or new it is, who or where it comes from, what matters is…..is it good, or is it bad? 

Gayle: If the term “prog” included the style of music known as Art Rock (music made as an art-form, not towards commercial success), then I would say Herd of Instinct is a prog band (and Djam Karet is as well). You could also say that the term progressive rock is about rock music that has been pushed forward (progressed) by the composers into new and complex forms. And if prog rock has “progressed forward”, from the early years of Genesis and Yes (and Marillion and Dream Theater), to now include new groups that really don’t sound like them at all, such as Herd of Instinct, then you could say that Herd is a prog band. Speaking just for myself and my group Djam Karet, we do not refer to ourselves as a prog band because we feel that a large amount of our music falls outside of that category. In Djam Karet there are influences of surf guitar music, electronic, hard rock and other styles.

Thank you very much to all of you for your patience in answering my questions. Looking forward to your new album!

Mark:  Raffaella, thank you very much for all your support.

Jason: Thank you for giving us this opportunity Raff! We are extremely grateful.

Mike: Thank you for all you do!

Gayle: Many thanks for giving Herd of Instinct the exposure I believe they truly deserve.

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

http://www.wix.com/herdofinstinct/herdofinstinct

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Eclissi Pt. 1 – L’Occhio e la Maschera (8:23)
2. La Maschera della Visione (5:58)
3. Fantasia (8:58)
4. Nel Nulla Etereo Soggiogato dall’Ignoto la Mente Si Espande (7:01)
5. Purpurea (10:00)
6. Follia (19:12)
7. Eclissi Pt. 2 – La Genesi (9:36)

LINEUP:
Gabriele Marroni – guitars
Filippo Menconi – bass
Andrea Valerio – piano, synth
Raffaele Crezzini – drums, percussion
Diego Samo – keyboards, synth

With:
Paolo Carelli – narration
Michele Sanchini – cello
Matteo Canestri – bass
Lucio Pacchieri – drums
Giovanni Ferretti – piano, synth

A band name such as Labirinto Di Specchi (Maze of Mirrors) suggests purveyors of intricate, multilayered music, heavy on atmosphere and intensity rather than smoothly flowing melodies. Indeed, the young five-piece hailing from the beautiful Tuscan town of Montepulciano (a place well known to wine lovers) belong to the growing contingent of new Italian bands that have updated the blueprint for progressive rock set by the iconic bands of the Seventies, and produced an album packed full of the twists and turns implied by their name.

Labirinto Di Specchi have been together since 2005; their first recording effort, a demo titled La Maschera della Visione, attracted the attention of Lizard Records, an independent label with a proven record for modern prog releases of a consistently high standard. Hanblecheya (a word in the Native American Lakota language denoting a vision quest), the band’s full-length debut, contains reworked material from the demo, as well as new compositions .It also sees the participation of a number of guest artists – most remarkably, that of Paolo Carelli, former vocalist of Pholas Dactylus, a short-lived outfit that in 1973 released Concerto delle Menti, one of the cult albums of the original RPI movement.

Clocking in at almost 70 minutes, Hanblecheya is impressively ambitious, its seven lengthy compositions describing the experience of the titular vision quest through a very distinctive format. Though there is no actual singing involved,  Paolo Carelli’s solemn, deep-voiced narration is like a thread connecting the seven tracks to each other. While synthesizers and assorted electronics are definitely at the core of the band’s musical vision, the fluid, melodic touch of the piano and full-throated rumble of the organ provide an organic foil, further balanced by the autumnal drone of the cello and the pervasive presence of both acoustic and electric guitars.

Any album tagged as “Porcupine Tree meets Pholas Dactylus” sounds like a rather interesting proposition, and Hanblecheya does not disappoint expectations. Though clearly not an easy listening experience, it is also surprisingly mature in its treatment of the inevitable influences. The psychedelic/space component, firmly rooted in the use of a wide range of electronics, gains a harder edge from occasional bursts of riffing that suggest a prog metal inspiration (particularly evident in “La Maschera della Visione”, the shortest track of the album and possibly the most accessible); while entrancing Mediterranean and Eastern suggestion lurk in the two compositions bookending the album , with the heady, raga-inspired section in opener “Eclissi Pt.1 – L’Occhio e la Maschera” reprised in the second half of “Eclissi Pt. 2 – La Genesi”.

Not all of the many ideas thrown into Hanblecheya’s  melting pot of are successful: the classical-meets-electronic bent of  the second half of “Fantasia” borders dangerously on the cheesiness of those classical “rock” adaptations that were quite popular in the Eighties, and clashes with the wistful, atmospheric mood of the first part of the song.  On the other hand, the ominous post rock surge of “Purpurea” and the all-out experimentalism of “Nel Nulla Etereo Soggiogato dall’Ignoto la Mente Si Espande”, revolving around Carelli’s eerily effective narration (the most reminiscent of his Pholas Dactylus days), and wrapped up by a noisy industrial section (the whole bringing to mind label mates Runaway Totem at their most impenetrable) hold up to close scrutiny, in spite of their undeniably “difficult” nature. The album’s crowning achievement, however, comes with the 19-minute “Foll(i)a” (a title conflating the Italian words for “crowd” and “madness”), an intensely cinematic piece that, while paying homage to Steven Wilson’s signature style, manages to avoid blatant derivativeness.  A fresh take on the old “epic” warhorse, the track hinges on a “duel” between a whole array of electronic effects and the gentle ripple of the piano, ending in an exhilarating cascade of cymbals, piano and majestic synth washes.

Although, as suggested in the previous paragraphs, Hanblecheya is not for everyone, it has all it takes to attract those prog fans who like the genre to look forward without completely turning its back to its glorious past. Firmly anchored to the Italian progressive tradition by its keen sense of melody and the rivetingly dramatic tone of Paolo Carelli’s narration, yet unafraid to experiment with more radical musical directions, and skilled in combining the acoustic, the electric and the electronic component (though at times the slashing, whistling presence of synths can become a tad overwhelming), Labirinto Di Specchi are a band that adventurous listeners would do well to check out.

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

http://www.lizardrecords.it/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ordinary Li(f)e (8:00)
2. A Sea Without Shores (3:45)
3. In Circle (9:01)
4. Lying on a Pink  Cloud (12:38)
5. Acid Carousel (3:50)
6. Ashes (3:49)
7. Night Euphoria (6:27)
8. Outside the Rain (6:41)
9. Colliding  (7:00)
10. Starseeing on the Shore (8:53)

LINEUP:
Francesco Bassoli – guitars
Tiziano Cofanelli  – drums
Luca Guidobaldi – vocals
Luca Parca – bass
Claudio Stasi – piano, keyboards

Formed in 2006, when the four former members of a prog metal cover band called Kimaera  Project joined forces with vocalist Luca Guidobaldi, Rome- based quintet Seventh Will debuted in 2007 with the demo Pink Clouds and Heavy Rain. In the following years, they concentrated on the realization of their first full-length CD, an ambitious concept by the title of Ordinary Li(f)e, eventually released in 2010.

For many progressive rock fans, the Italian scene is almost automatically associated with the so-called “symphonic’ bands of the Seventies, all operatic vocals, sweeping keyboards and lush arrangements. However, in the second decade of the 21st century Italian prog does not seem to be stuck in a time warp, and bands such  as Seventh Will show that there the Seventies model is not the only blueprint for acts hailing from the boot-shaped peninsula. In fact, a first-time listener may notice that Ordinary Li(fe) does not sound typically Italian – and not only on account of the English-language lyrics. While quite a few contemporary Italian bands display that timeless sense of warmth and melody that is one of the hallmarks of Italian music, and that seems to complement progressive rock so well, Seventh Will have chosen to tread a different, more international-sounding path.

Ordinary Li(fe) is a very ambitious undertaking, based on an elaborate concept (one day in the life of Will, an archetypal “ordinary man”), illustrated in detail on the band’s blog. With a running time of 68 minutes, and most tracks over the 6-minute mark, it inevitably features some filler material that might have been left out without detriment to the album’s overall structure. Moreover, the longer tracks, particularly the 12-minute “Lying on a Pink Cloud”, occasionally suffer from lack of cohesion, sounding at times like a collection of separate passages strung together without an actual plan. Luca Guidobaldi’s high-pitched, vaguely plaintive vocals  belong to the Thom Yorke/Matt Bellamy school of singing – with a pinch of  Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s more aggressive tone thrown in – with only his accent giving his non-English origin away.

While the band’s previous prog metal matrix– represented mainly by sharp riffs and sudden accelerations – occasionally emerges, most evidently in the intense yet atmospheric “Colliding” (which made me think of Riverside circa Second Life Syndrome), on the whole the album comes across as a rather eclectic effort. Indeed, its basic Pink Floyd/Porcupine Tree inspiration is enhanced by nods to vintage hard rock (as in the title track, which opens the album with Hammond organ swirls offset by more subdued passages), or to more avant-garde acts such as The Mars Volta or Mr Bungle, complete with slightly dissonant passages (as in “Night Euphoria”). The band’s liberal use of quiet-loud dynamics indicates the band’s allegiance to the post-prog aesthetics embodied by most of the acts on the Kscope roster, including their fellow Italians Nosound. US band The Tea Club might also provide a useful term of comparison, especially on account of the similar vocal style and the use of slow build-up leading to powerful climaxes – as exemplified by “In Circle”.

On the other hand, a couple of contiguous pieces, “Acid Carousel” and “Ashes”, draw upon Pink Floyd’s late Seventies heyday – the former echoing the theatrical scope of The Wall (hard not to be reminded of Roger Waters’ commanding performance in “The Trial”); the latter patterned on melancholy acoustic pieces such as “Wish You Were Here”. Album closer “Starseeing on the Shore” offers a sonic rendition of the lovely cover image with a slow-burning, atmospheric ballad driven by acoustic guitar, piano and vocals, and synth effects evoking the sound of the surf.

Though, as is very often the case with debut albums, Ordinary Li(fe) is still very much of a “work in progress”, and inevitably derivative in parts, it also points to a promising band that is trying to break free of the  “retro-prog”  mould. It is to be hoped that they will adopt a more streamlined approach to songwriting in their next recording effort. In any case, the album is likely to appeal to fans of modern progressive rock, with particular regard to Steven Wilson’s numerous projects and most of Kscope’s output.

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

http://seventhwill.blogspot.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Orbitary Volcano (7:11)
2. …Phantom Wakes (12:26)
3. Cosmic Train to Anticreation (7:41)
4. Trinity Quadrilogy (10:53)

LINEUP:
Tuomas –  electric and acoustic guitars
Sini  – saxophones, percussion, mallets, tubular bells
Marko – drums, percussion
Teppo – keyboards, voices
Ville – bass

With:
Antti – trombone

Known only by their first names, the five members of Dasputnik hail from the former Finnish capital of Turku, where they first got together in 2005 as a jamming project called Mystery Space. They became Dasputnik during the following year, which also saw their first live performance. After two demos (titled Demo and Blatta Caverna), they finally released their debut album, Parapsychosis, in 2009, followed by Cyclokosmia in the spring of 2011.

With its stunningly bright-hued artwork (apparently based on the Garden of Eden)  and song titles such as “Cosmic Train to Anticreation”, Cyclokosmia proudly declares Dasputnik’s allegiance to the time-honoured school of psychedelic/space rock – which,  in this second decade of the 21st century, is enjoying something of a revival both in Europe and in the US. Scandinavian countries, as is so often the case in the variegated world of progressive rock, seem to be at the forefront of this movement, with outfits such as Øresund Space Collective, My Brother the Wind and Dungen (to name but three) attracting quite a lot of international attention. Finland’s remarkable contribution to this thriving subgenre, while perhaps not large in terms of sheer number of bands, has been remarkable, includes names such as cult trio Kingston Wall in the early Nineties, and, in more recent times, Hidria Spacefolk and Taipuva Luotisuora.

Many of the bands adopting the psych/space aesthetics, both in the Old and the New World, blend trippy jams in the iconic style of Gong, Steve Hillage and Ozric Tentacles with the harder-edged, fuzz-heavy suggestions typical of stoner rock – via the subgenre’s founding fathers Black Sabbath and Hawkwind. However, the average first-time listener will not fail to be impressed by the mature, almost understated quality of Dasputnik’s music. Rather than pushing screaming guitars to the forefront in quasi- metal fashion, the riffing is employed judiciously, often kept in the background to add some bite to the other instruments’ mellower, Eastern-tinged efforts. Various percussion instruments, including mallets and tubular bells, join their warm, organic sound to the swirling electronics that are a key ingredient of any self-respecting psych/space band’s toolkit. The impression of naturally flowing smoothness is compounded by the prominent role of Sini’s saxes, occasionally complemented by the solemn voice of the trombone.

While, in compositional terms, the four tracks on Cyclokosmia share the typical features of the subgenre – developing slowly but relentlessly, with instruments playing in parallel and repeating the same tune with minor changes, with a rivetingly hypnotic effect (as exemplified by the stately closing track “Trinity Quadrilogy”) – the music is rendered in surprisingly sophisticated terms, with the instruments contributing their own individual voices, yet striving together to produce a harmonious whole. Sax and electric piano are responsible for injecting hefty doses of heady melody, balancing out the more free-form passages (as in the 12-minute “…Phantom Wakes”, the album’s longest track). Opener “Orbitary Volcano” is introduced by gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios with a faint Spanish flavour, then organ and synth take the lead, alternating with sax and electric guitar. Surprisingly, it is one of the two shorter tracks – the previously mentioned “Cosmic Train to Anticreation” – that packs the most variation in its nearly 8 minutes, juxtaposing harsh, churning guitar riffs with an almost funky bass line, then introducing a brisk, dance-like Eastern European motif as a surprise factor.

Clocking in at under 40 minutes, Cyclokosmia (which was also released as a vinyl LP on the band’s own label, Art Safari Records) combines vintage psychedelic suggestions with thoroughly modern production values that enhance the mix of sophistication and intensity in Dasputnik’s music. While it does not substantially deviate from the well-established psychedelic/space rock canon, the album is nevertheless highly recommended to fans of the subgenre, and it also has the potential to appeal to most lovers of progressive rock, regardless of niches and labels.

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

http://equaldreams.com/artsafarirecords

http://eetupellonpaa.deviantart.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Osa Yksi (4:04)
2. Osa Kaksi (4:28)
3. Osa Kolme (4:33)
4. Osa Neljä (4:04)
5. Osa Viisi (5:31)
6. Osa Kuusi (9:39)

LINEUP:
Joonas Hietala – organ, synthesizer, piano, guitar, accordion, percussion, clapping, bass (1)
Vesa Makkonen – bass, voice (4)
Heikki Korhola – drums, clapping
Sini Palokangas  – soprano saxophone, vibraphone, violin, alto saxophone (3), voice (6)
Jussi Hurskainen – alto saxophone
Nico Kanerva – clarinet
Heikki Puska – harp
Janne Vuorensyrjä – turntables

The second part of my mini-feature on modern Finnish bands focuses on the debut album by Helsinki-based ensemble/multimedia art collective Vitkaste, a seven-piece created in 2003 by guitarist/keyboardist Joonas Hietala, bassist Vesa Makkonen and drummer Heikki Korhola. The album’s title, Lestinjoki, comes from the river in western Finland near which Hietala spent the summer of 2008, and wrote most of what would later become the body of Vitkaste’s debut. The composition was then expanded to become a suite in six parts – dubbed “Lestinjoki Electronic Acoustic Symphony” – and the album was released in the early months of 2011.

Clocking in at a mere 32 minutes, Lestinjoki is more of an enhanced EP than an actual full-length album. Though the striking artwork by Joonas Hietala and Eetu Pellonpää might suggest a band steeped in the psychedelic tradition, Vitkaste’s musical offer treads somewhat different territory – an eclectic, lushly arranged concoction that blends smooth jazz-rock with more conventional symphonic prog modes, throwing a hint of chamber rock into the mix. While previous reviewers of the album have drawn comparisons to Camel – especially if the English band’s debut album, with its jazzy overtones, is taken as a frame of reference –the near-legendary Wigwam, one of the trailblazers of the original Finnish prog scene, would also deserve a mention as a model for Vitkaste’s approach.

As Lestinjoki is meant as a single composition, the pauses between the tracks (accordingly named Part 1-6) are nearly imperceptible, creating an impression of remarkable cohesion and fluidity. The music itself is very pleasing to the ear, never jarring or overly convoluted, and its complexity is rendered in subtle shadings rather than dramatic contrasts. Not surprisingly for a piece of music named after a river, the six parts of Lestinjoki flow smoothly and steadily, enhanced by the almost liquid, tinkling sound of instruments like the harp and the vibraphone. Violin and accordion add a touch of sedate, folksy melancholy, while occasional chanting and turntable scratches inject an eerie, faintly disquieting note into the richly orchestral texture of the composition.

Although none of the instruments can be said to dominate, a more focused listen will reveal the discreet yet unmistakable role of the drums in setting the pace and mood of each individual piece, with subtle shifts whose presence may not always be immediately perceived . The guitar also works behind the scenes, only occasionally stepping into the limelight, sometimes providing a more assertive foil to the gentler voice of the piano (as in “Osa  Kuusi”, where the guitar sound is intensified by the use of the wah-wah pedal). On the other hand, sax and clarinet contribute a jazzier feel, at times perhaps a bit too “loungey” for comfort, though the band have mastered dynamics well enough to know when to turn the volume down and go for a more atmospheric mood.

As a whole, Lestinjoki is a solid effort, easy on the ear yet not too streamlined for the demanding tastes of the average prog fan, and short enough to be enjoyed in one sitting without having to push the Pause button. Vitkaste are clearly a talented outfit, and their debut album – though not exactly ground-breaking, and slightly on the derivative side of things – definitely shows the right amount of potential for interesting future developments. However, for the time being, the gorgeous artwork remains Lestinjoki‘s most memorable feature.

Links:
http://vitkaste.net/

http://eetupellonpaa.deviantart.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Koskella (3:50)
2. Isätön Poika (5:03)
3. Valonvaltiatar (4:59)
4. Lintunen (4:10)
5. Kaihomieli (3:45)
6. Suolla (4:17)
7. Aihetta Lauluun (4:22)
8. Pohjalainen Pitkä Poika (3:57)
9. Oivallus (3:49)
10. Virran Mukana (5:24)

LINEUP:
Petri Koivistoinen – guitars, kantele, bass (9), all kinds of gadgets
Nina Hiironniemi – vocals
Mika Hiironniemi – drums, percussion & thingies, keyboards (3, 10)
Pate Laitinen – bass

With:
Janne Haka-Risku – keyboards

This will be the first of a trio of reviews dedicated to new bands from Finland – a country that, in spite of its relative isolation in geographical terms, has earned a place of its own on the contemporary music scene. Though the country is often associated with metal – both of the power/symphonic and the extreme variety – the Land of a Thousand Lakes enjoys a thriving, variegated progressive rock scene, and a very high rate of musical activity (not to mention excellent educational standards) for a population of slightly over 5 million. As I mentioned last year when reviewing Tuvalu’s debut album, I always welcome the opportunity to listen to some new music coming from Finland, on account of my close personal connection with the country. Therefore, once again I thank my good friend, Helsinki-based artist Eetu Pellonpää, for exposing me to some of the bands whose recordings are graced by his distinctive artwork.

Hiidensointi (whose name, meaning “The Voice of Hiisi”, references a nature deity of the ancient Finnish religion) are a quintet based in the thriving city of Tampere, where they were formed in 2007 by guitarist Petri Kivistoinen and drummer Mika Hiironniemi. After the 2010 release of their self-titled debut, the band underwent a line-up change, with keyboardist Janne Haka-Risku leaving the band to be replaced by violinist Petri Ahonen. They also started work on their second album (which should be released some time in 2012), all the while keeping up with their busy performance schedule around the Tampere region.

Though barely known outside Finland, the members of Hiidensointi (as is very often the case with artists from northern Europe) are very accomplished instrumentalists, with a solid  background and plenty of experience. While they call themselves “folk-oriented progressive rock”, their debut album, rather than anything suggesting the complexity or epic sweep of classic prog, is an accessible, song-oriented effort featuring 10 tracks with an average running time of 4 minutes. The folk overtones are not as evident as in the debut album by Positive Wave (a band with a similar musical direction), and always take a back seat to a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure.  On the other hand, recent live recordings of the band reveal that the presence of a violinist lends a more definite folksy tone to their sound, which will probably come to the fore in their second album.

Like Tuvalu and Positive Wave, Hiidensointi sing in their native language – which is likely to be a turn-off for those who think that English is the only suitable medium for music – and are fronted by a female vocalist. Nina Hiironniemi (wife of drummer Mika), who is also responsible for the lyrics, possesses a confident, versatile voice (though not as impressive as Positive Wave’s Susan Karttunen) that avoids the cookie-cutter, saccharine sweetness plaguing many modern prog bands, and tackles the material with considerable assurance. Petri Koivistoinen replaces her in the plaintive “Suolla”, the one track with a clear-cut folk matrix – assisted by the subdued lilt of the kantele, or Finnish zither (the Finnish national instrument, an object of mythical proportions).

As a whole, and right from opening track “Koskella”, Hiidensointi comes across as remarkably catchy and upbeat, often dance-like – almost debunking the myth of the supposedly melancholy nature of Scandinavian music.  The pervasive rumble of the organ, coupled with Petri Koivistoinen’s energetic guitar, inject an unmistakable classic hard rock vibe à la Deep Purple into tracks like “Isäton Poika” and “Kaihomieli”. Suffused with a gentle wistfulness, “Lintunen” showcases Nina Hiironniemi’s vocal dexterity in adopting a deeper, lower register to complement the instrumental mood, and alternating between singing and speaking in the final section of the song.  Album closer “Virran Mukana” marks a distinct change of pace, with Pate Laitinen’s funky bass line beefed up by organ and guitar, reminding me a bit of Camel’s “Summer Lightning” with its hints at Seventies dance music.

Clocking in at a compact 41 minutes, Hiidensointi is a well-crafted debut by a talented band, with plenty of catchy hooks, pleasing melodies and excellent singing. However, it is also not very likely to impress those looking for a musical offer more firmly rooted in the Finnish folk tradition, in the style of an internationally renowned band like Värttinä. In my view, the album would have proved more interesting if it had pursued the route shown by “Suolla” (and hinted at by the mysterious, dark green hue of the artwork), and delved deeper into the fascinating treasure trove of Finnish folklore. Hopefully their forthcoming second album will take a more definite turn in that direction.

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

http://sites.google.com/site/hiidensointi/

http://eetupellonpaa.deviantart.com/

http://www.reverbnation.com/hiidensointi

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