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Archive for August, 2012

TRACKLISTING:
1. Snake Eating Its Tail (1:44)
2. Norrgarden Nyvla (3:03)
3. Hands of the Juggler  (4:44)
4. Rethinking Plague (3:49)
5. Presage (10:21)
6. Land Arf   (6:19)
7. Brachilogia (3:08)
8. Distillando   (4:11)
9. Crossroads (4:37)
10. Luoghi Che Aspettano (6:44)

LINEUP:
Emilio Galante – flute, piccolo
Valerio Cipollone – bass clarinet, clarinet
Andrea Pecolo – violin
Bianca Fervidi – cello

With:
Massimo Giuntoli – piano (6)

As my readers will have noticed, this blog generally deals with music that, in one way or the other, belongs to the rock universe. However, the album that will be reviewed in the following paragraphs (as the ensemble’s own name aptly points out), while conceived as an homage to a movement in whose name the word is prominently featured, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as rock.

AltrOck Chamber Quartet is the brainchild of gifted flutist and composer Emilio Galante, known for his work with avant-jazz ensemble Sonata Islands (hence the album’s title), who is here assisted by Valerio Cipollone (also a member of Yugen, one of the finest modern outfits in the RIO/Avant vein), Bianca Fervidi and Andrea Pecolo. The album’s witty cover artwork (a brilliant concept by AltrOck resident graphic artist Paolo Ske Botta), showing a violin adorned by Brazilian-themed images, plays on the possible misunderstanding of the word RIO  by those unaware of the acronym’s meaning. Composer Giovanni Venosta, who was responsible for the transcription of three of the original compositions featured on the album, revisits his first experiences with the Rock in Opposition movement in the album’s foreword (offered also in an English-language version, with an eye for AltrOck’s growing international following).

Recorded in February 2012 and released a few months later,  Sonata Islands Goes RIO might be  called (at least in part) a rather highbrow take on a very popular rock product such as the tribute album. Indeed, half of the 10 tracks on the album reinterpret well-known RIO/Avant compositions, while the remaining five are the work of modern Italian composers (including Galante himself) who have been influenced by the subgenre’s distinctive modes of expression. In true chamber tradition, the music is performed by a very limited number of instruments – flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin and cello – ruling out the presence of percussion, guitars or keyboards (with the exception of Massimo Giuntoli’s “Land Arf”, on which the composer himself guests on piano). While at first the result is very intriguing, even fascinating, those who are not chamber music devotees may find things a bit heavy going after a while – even if the album, at around 48 minutes, is by no means excessively long.

For the chamber-music novice, the most approachable tracks are definitely those in the first half of the album, especially the three Fred Frith compositions, “Snake Eating Its Tail” (transcribed by renowned clarinetist Mauro Pedron), “Norrgarden Nyvla” and “Hands of the Juggler” (both transcribed by Giovanni Venosta). In the second, Galante’s flute adopts a particularly assertive, almost harsh tone, while the first makes the most of the lively dialogue-like interplay of the reeds, and the third skillfully shifts from stately melody to dissonance. Galante’s revisitation of Thinking Plague’s “Love” – aptly titled “Rethinking Plague” –  conveys the  elaborate angularity of the Denver band’s sound, while adapting it to a somewhat different musical format. However, Venosta’s string-driven transcription of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Presage”, while undoubtedly faithful to the spirit of the original, cannot fully convey its hauntingly martial allure, and the absence of  Daniel Denis’ imperious drumming diminishes the impact of the final product .

On the other hand, the more recent compositions seem to  be much more suited to the minimalistic chamber format – starting with Francesco Zago’s jagged, intricate “Brachilogia7”, led by Galante’s sharp-toned piccolo. Massimo Giuntoli’s brisk, almost upbeat piano lends a sense of fullness and rhythm to “Land Arf”, whose melancholy middle section showcases Andrea Pecolo’s violin to great effect. Galante’s own composition “Distillando” (originally commissioned by the History Museum of the north-eastern Italian city of Trento) is sparse and almost ethereal in spite of the piercing tone of the piccolo, while the lilting tango of Tiziano Popoli’s “Crossroads” reintroduces a measure of melody in its engaging duet between violin and reeds. “Luoghi Che Aspettano”, penned by Stefano Zorzanello, closes the album with its ambitious but surprisingly effective combination of eerie dissonance and more upbeat, almost melodic flow.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Sonata Islands Goes RIO is not for everyone. Chamber music in itself can be an acquired taste even for classical music fans, and the daunting nature of anything bearing a RIO label has been discussed all too often in this blog. However, the sheer excellence of the individual performances and the often riveting quality of the music should be enough to attract open-minded listeners who are looking for something more challenging than traditional progressive rock. Needless to say, the album will delight fans of RIO/Avant Prog and contemporary chamber music.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/album/sonata-islands-goe-rio-mw0002397513

http://www.sonataislands.com/

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Nebulos (4:40)
2. Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié (5:32)
3. Sprouts (3:11)
4. Sprouts (Continued) (1:57)
5. Sprouts (Continued) (1:19)
6. Sprouts (Continued) (3:57)
7. Troïde (7:31)
8. La Serrure (2:32)
9. Soft Fate (1:25)
10. Boletus Edulis (2:52)
11. Dynamique Cassoulet (2:28)
12. Fast Fate (0:35)
13. Le Chiffre (4:05)

LINEUP:
Guillaume Amiel-  bass marimba, vibraphone, percussion
Maxime Delporte – double bass
Ferdinand Doumerc – tenor, alto and sopranino saxes, flute, crooning (11)
Stéphane Gratteau –  drums
Rémi Leclerc – Fender Rhodes, clavinet, Moog, Hammond organ, piano
Marc Maffiolo – bass and tenor saxes

With:
Olivier Cussac – lap steel guitar (2)
Sarah Roussel – words (3-7)
Nicolas Gardel – trumpet (9, 12, 13)
Olivier “Lapin” Sabatier – trombone (9, 12, 13)

Based in the southern French city of Toulouse, Stabat Akish are a sextet formed in 2007 by bassist/composer Maxime Delporte. In 2009 they caught the attention of free-jazz icon John Zorn, who released their self-titled debut album on his own label, Tzadik Records. The band’s sophomore effort, Nebulos, was released on Italian label AltrOck Productions in the early summer of 2012.

As much as I try to avoid resorting to definitions that might sound a bit overblown, “jazz meets chamber rock with a liberal dash of Zappaesque humour thrown in for good measure” describes Stabat Akish’s music quite effectively. With a distinctive, mostly acoustic instrumentation that rules out the guitar on all but one track, but places a heavy emphasis on reeds and mallet percussion (as well as on founder Maxime Delporte’s expertly handled double bass)  they privilege a sophisticated delivery that, while undeniably full of twists and turns, is not as daunting as the typical output of other bands and artists found under the RIO/Avant umbrella. In fact, Nebulos is at the same time very complex and surprisingly approachable, and not just on account of its very restrained running time and light-hearted attitude. The band members, while all considerably gifted and in full command of their own instruments, behave like true ensemble players, and avoid hitting the listener over the head with their technical skill.

On the whole, Nebulos is elegant and very pleasing to the ear, its intricate instrumental texture relieved by an appealing lightness of touch and a keen sense of melody that is not often associated with the genre. Even when the music possesses a loose, almost improvisational feel, it never sounds unscripted or haphazard. The title-track acts introduces the album in style, opening briskly then gradually slowing down, with all the instruments engaged in a sort of lively conversation, blending subtle electronics with warmer, organic tones. However, it is the second track – bearing the tongue-twister-like title of “Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié” (A Slightly Bent Poplar) – that best illustrates Stabat Akish’s effortless marriage of sheer melodic beauty and avant-garde tendencies. Pervaded by the heady tinkle of marimba and vibraphone and the ethereal, faraway strains of Olivier Cussac’s lap steel guitar, contrasted with  buzzing sound effects and cascading drums, it is oddly cinematic and thoroughly riveting.

Stabat Akish’s take on the old prog stalwart of the “epic”, the four-part “Sprouts”,  is made of almost bite-size sections veering from the sax-driven, meditative mood of the first part to the classic jazz feel of the final part, and includes a short spoken-word section in which Sarah Roussel recites something concerning the titular sprouts. Roussel’s voice – almost an additional instrument – also stars in the 7-minute “Troïde”, the longest track on the album, and also the most openly experimental, in which an increasingly agitated phone conversation in three languages is punctuated by sparse drums, piano and whistling synth. “La Serrure” begins in low-key, atmospheric fashion, then suddenly turns into a very upbeat, circus-like tune; similarly, “Dynamique Cassoulet” packs an astonishing amount of variety in under 3 minutes, including a very entertaining appearance by reedist Ferdinand Doumerc in the role of a crooner. On the other hand, “Boletus Edulis” (the scientific name of the delicious porcini mushrooms) blends ambient-like sound effects of birdsong and burbling water with charming, Eastern-tinged  percussion and flute; while “Le Chiffre” closes the album in style with a triumphant, albeit slightly chaotic big-band workout, in which the saxes are augmented by trumpet and trombone.

An intriguingly classy effort, Nebulos is warmly recommended to lovers of modern jazz and RIO/Avant/chamber rock, though the more traditionally-minded faction of the prog audience might find it a more appealing proposition than other recent releases in a similar vein.  Another fine release from the AltrOck roster, purveyor of endless musical surprises, the album – in keeping with the label’s tradition for outstanding visual packaging – is accompanied by high-quality artwork and photography.

Links:
http://stabatakish.com/

http://www.altrock.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Three Jumps the Devil (7:05)
2. You’ll Wait Forever (6:28)
3. Never Worry (3:59)
4. Thief (7:26)
5. Brightening Sky (5:23)
6. Rosa (16:09)
7. Bye Bye Now (5:33)

LINEUP:
Robbie Wilson – vocals, guitars, trumpet, organ
Luke Foster – drums, percussion, piano
Peter Evans – bass, glockenspiel
Chris Lloyd – guitars, thumb piano

With:
Thomas Feiner – vocals, instrumentation
Anna-Lynne Williams – vocals
Bruce White – viola
Helen Whittaker – flute

Autumn Chorus (a name that describes the band’s sound to a T) hail from the historic English city of Brighton, known to music fans as the setting to The Who’s iconic Quadrophenia. The band was born in 2007 from the close friendship between the four members, nourished by their shared love for the beautiful countryside of south-eastern England. That same countryside provided the setting for the recording sessions of their debut album, The Village to the Vale, which started in September 2009, with a number of guest musicians drafted in to add depth and richness to the final product. First released in 2011 as a digital download,  the album found a home on the Fading Records subdivision of cutting-edge Italian label AltrOck Productions, and was released in CD format in May 2012.

While the album’s charmingly pastoral title and  cover artwork might suggest a slightly twee, folk-tinged effort in quintessentially English style, a peer inside the elegant CD booklet will reveal that the homage paid by Autumn Chorus to the bountiful natural beauty of England’s green and pleasant land is quite far removed from the usual Seventies clichés. The stunningly beautiful, sepia-tinted nature photography that adorns the booklet offers a visual equivalent of the band’s stately yet riveting musical output, which blends the atmospheric, almost brittle quality of post-rock with the great English tradition of church choral music. It seems inevitable for any new band or artist to be compared to someone else, and Autumn Chorus are no exception – eliciting comparisons with post-rock icons such as Sigur Rós, or even with seminal post-proggers Radiohead. However, the most noticeable influence that will emerge after repeated listens of The Village to the Vale is Talk Talk’s groundbreaking 1988 album Spirit of Eden.

In keeping with the post-rock aesthetics, Autumn Chorus make use of traditional rock instruments to produce a sound that often hints at classical and chamber music. Indeed, the drums are employed as they would be in an orchestral context,  to add texture and increase the emotional impact of a passage, rather than in the dynamic, propulsive role they usually fulfill in a rock band. Ethereal and tightly woven at the same time, the music moves in slow, swelling waves, interspersed with pauses of rarefied calm. The liberal use of those fascinatingly hybrid instruments, the glockenspiel and the thumb piano, adds a further layer to the solid foundation of traditional keyboards such as piano and organ, while the guitar is mostly used for dimension rather than as the main actor. However, Robbie Wilson’s enchanting choirboy-like voice, assisted by gorgeous vocal harmonies and paralleled by the nostalgic sound of the trumpet, is probably the most important instrument for Autumn Chorus’ sound.

Clocking in at about 52 minutes, The Village to the Vale features seven tracks ranging from the 4 minutes of the enchanting chorale of “Never Worry” – a melancholy, subdued piece laced with mournful viola and trumpet and embellished by angelic vocal harmonies – to the haunting 16 minutes of “Rosa”. Drums and organ impart a solemn, almost martial pace to opener “Three Jumps the Devil”, while Wilson’s politely wistful vocals find an echo in the sedate, vaguely forlorn sound of the trumpet. “You’ll Wait Forever” seems to embody the melancholy beauty of the autumnal season, with viola and surging keyboards reinforced by the delicate tinkle of the glockenspiel. The more upbeat “Thief”, somewhat reminiscent of Radiohead circa OK Computer, closes the first half of the album with  an intriguing blend of conventional rock modes (including a rare guitar solo) and the folksy, pastoral touch of the flute.

“Brightening Sky”, probably the most accessible (and, in my view, least successful) track on the album, features the lovely voice of Anna-Lynne Williams alongside Wilson’s, though thankfully avoiding the corny results typical of many female-fronted prog bands. Far from being a run-of-the-mill prog “epic”, in spite of its respectable running time, “Rosa” is a veritable tour de force made of gradual build-ups culminating in explosions of sound, powered by drums, keyboards and guitar, and moments of gentle respite. The album is wrapped up by the haunting “Bye Bye Now”, a meditative, elegantly orchestrated piece in which the presence of a child’s recorded voice seems to hint at some private tragedy, also reflected in the title.

In spite of what may seem, The Village to the Vale is anything but a nostalgia trip, and manages to combine a timeless, old-world vibe with some thoroughly modern attitudes. Those who might believe that Autumn Chorus are just another addition to the ever-growing roster of rather unimaginative contemporary British prog bands had better think again. In fact, the album is one of those rare efforts that will appeal to both long-time progressive rock fans and those newcomers to the genre who may be daunted by an overly pretentious approach. Easily one of the most interesting debuts of the past few years, The Village to the Vale is a delightful listen that most prog lovers will appreciate.

Links:
http://autumnchorus.bandcamp.com/

https://www.facebook.com/autumnchorus

http://production.altrock.it/start.asp

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The present review is likely to be an exception in a blog that has been so far exclusively dedicated to music. In fact, this is the review of a book that has nothing to do with music – except for the fact that its author is as big as a music fan as I am. He is also one of the best friends I have made in the past few years (even if we have not yet met face to face), and someone whose dedication to the cause of progressive rock vastly eclipses mine.

With plenty of experience as a journalist and a blogger, Torodd Fuglesteg (a native of Norway who currently resides in Glasgow, Scotland) loves to write about a wealth of subjects, from his frequent bicycle rides to weightier commentaries about the state of the world  – not to mention short but informative album reviews. The Final Ride is his first full-length book, a semi-autobiographical novel published in e-book form in the summer of 2012 that blends fact and fiction in a way that may prove either frustrating or intriguing for readers –  or both. Though not perfect (nor intended to be), it makes compulsive reading, and packs an intense emotional punch for all its no-frills, matter-of-fact style.

Browsing through Torodd’s numerous writings available on the Web, a picture emerges of a complex person, at the same time reserved and open about himself, possessed of an uncommon depth of feeling and empathy for his fellow humans. He is also provided of a keen sense of self-deprecating humour, and quite single-minded in his pursuits, be it music or bike rides. However, in the story narrated in The Final Ride music is never mentioned, and humour is conspicuously absent: indeed, the tale unfolds in sober, somber fashion until its deeply moving, albeit somewhat shocking end.

Written almost in diary form, the story takes place over a week, and is divided in seven chapters (one for each day), in turn divided into shorter sections, chronicling the first-person narrator’s journey to the places where he spent the first half of his life. From various hints scattered throughout the book, we learn that the narrator is a man in his sixties, and we cannot help but feel amazed at his stamina in facing a lengthy and physically demanding bicycle ride in a mountainous area. Very few names are mentioned, and the narrator’s country of origin is hinted at but never revealed explicitly, so that the reader is left to wonder which parts of the tale are fact, and which are fiction.

The realistic tone of the narration is threaded with a hauntingly lyrical vein of sadness and loss, often conveyed by natural imagery – like the yellow dandelions mentioned in the novel’s opening sentence. Lakes, rivers, mountains and fields do not merely provide a dramatic backdrop, but take on an almost human quality. Indeed, for a novel that has been compared to a road movie, the human presence is downplayed,  and the narrator’s interaction with the people he meets during his trip is kept to a minimum, so that it feels as if he is travelling alone in a country peopled by the ghosts of his past. As he is an expatriate, the people who have an important role everyday life (such as his long-time partner, Angela), though always present in his thoughts, are physically removed from the main stage of the tale, leaving him free to concentrate on his memories.

The narration seamlessly weaves the past and the present, with each scene from the present (the bike ride) conjuring a memory from the past. The transition is managed expertly, creating a sense of flow with its accomplished, almost stream-of-consciousness technique. There is also a lot of repetition, as if the narrator wanted to constantly remind the reader of his shortcomings and bad choices.The draft-like, somewhat unpolished nature of the text (complete with a few consistently misspelled words) adds to its peculiar charm, rather than making it look amateurish.

The Final Ride is not always comfortable reading, and the reader might occasionally be put off by the narrator’s negative perception of himself. However, the story is not all unrelenting misery, and – while his memories are clearly a source of pain for the narrator, and his estrangement from his former life is often harrowing to witness – there is also a sense of gratitude and appreciation of life that rescues the novel from being a complete gloom-fest. The feeling of self-loathing that pervades much of the narration is tempered by acceptance, and the simple comfort found in one’s hobbies and interests – not to mention the calming influence of a woman’s sincere love and support.

The story struck a chord with me on several levels, and will probably have the same effect on people who have gone through drastic changes in their life, and lost many of the cornerstones of their previous lives. The narrator’s bleak sense of loss following the death of his parents, sharply contrasted with his voluntary estrangement from his siblings and other surviving relatives, is likely to resonate keenly with many readers, as is his choice to leave his home country for good and rebuild a life elsewhere.

While it may look at first like a tale of defeat, the novel is ultimately about coming to terms with your choices, and making the most of what life throws at you. Indeed, the whole writing process must have been deeply cathartic for the author – like closing a door for the last time, and deciding to look ahead instead of looking back. In spite of its stark, potentially depressing subject matter, The Final Ride makes for an oddly uplifting read.

Links:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/torodd-fuglesteg/the-final-ride/ebook/product-20236299.html

http://www.toroddfuglesteg.com/

http://toroddfuglesteg.blogspot.com/

http://thesoundoffightingcats.blogspot.co.uk/

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SETLIST:

MoeTar
Butchers of Baghdad
Dichotomy
Infinitesimal Sky
Regression to the Mean
Random Tandem
Entropy of the Century
New World Chaos
Never Home
Ist or an Ism
Friction

miRthkon
Zhagunk
Automaton
Daddylonglegz
Kharms Way
Coven of Coyotes
Nocturne
Bag
Banana
Cascades
Honey Key Jamboree
QX1
Hapax Legomena
Encore (?)

In the slightly unlikely timeframe of mid-August, two of Oakland’s finest bands, miRthkon and MoeTar, finally landed on the East Coast for their first-ever tour in this part of the country. Although the heat and humidity must have come as a shock to residents of a region blessed (at least in the eyes of this hot-weather hater) with a permanently mild, cool climate, the bands’ members – in spite of the inevitable tiredness and the less-than-ideal temperature inside the notoriously AC-less Orion Studios – acquitted themselves splendidly, and inaugurated their long-awaited tour with a bang.

Not surprisingly, seen the high level of praise garnered by both bands’ debut albums – miRthkon’s Vehicle (2009) and MoeTar’s From These Small Seeds (2010, reissued in 2012 with a new cover) – the venue was almost packed to capacity, with its usual “house party” atmosphere in full swing – folding chairs, coolers and small buffet of refreshments included. The lower-than-average temperature, helped by an almost strategically-timed summer storm that allowed some pleasantly cool air to waft into the crowded stage area from the open bay, made things more bearable – at least for the audience, because the bands had to cope not only with the intense humidity, but also with the heat generated by the stage lights. However, none of these adverse circumstances had any impact on the quality of either performance, which exceeded the attendees’ already high expectations.

Five-piece MoeTar had already elicited very positive reactions by West Coast prog fans, opening for the likes of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Allan Holdsworth in the past few months. Fronted by vocalist extraordinaire Moorea Dickason (aka Moe) – simply put, one of the best female voices I have had the privilege to hear in a long time – they share one member with miRthkon, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lebofsky. With his highly focused, somewhat serious mien, Lebovsky (who plays keyboards in MoeTar, and bass in miRthkon) was a perfect foil to Moorea’s boundless energy and thoroughly engaging stage presence. Sporting streaks of bright blue face paint that gave her an endearingly childlike look, she commanded the audience’s attention right from the first notes of opener “Butchers of Baghdad” with her jaw-dropping vocal acrobatics. While many female singers adopt a stereotypical melodic approach, often with rather tiresome operatic touches (and equally often sounding alarmingly alike), Moorea bends the music to her will, tackling vertiginous scales with seemingly no effort at all. MoeTar’s songs, built around her interpretation of Tarik (aka Tar) Ragab’s quirky, literate lyrics, offer a heavily eclectic mix of accessibility and complexity, with influences as far-ranging as traditional jazz, iconic acts such as XTC and Kate Bush, and a healthy pinch of RIO/Avant spice. Together with other modern North American bands such as 3Rdegree or Half Past Four, MoeTar are at the vanguard of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock, embracing the song form and giving it a much-needed overhaul, all the while shunning the blatant AOR leanings of other bigger-name bands or artists.

During their hour-long set, MoeTar treated the audience to a selection of tracks from their debut – including the haunting torch song for the 21st century “Never Home” and the superbly intense, hard-edged “Ist or an Ism” – plus a couple of tantalizing previews of their new album, which revealed a more experimental bent while remaining true to the band’s song-based approach. Individual performances were top-notch – from Matthew Heulitt’s assertive but consistently melodic guitar to Tarik Ragab and David M. Flores’ dynamic rhythm section and Lebofsky’s seamless handling of organ, synth and piano – but MoeTar are very much an ensemble operation, even if Moorea’s vocals may be the most obvious draw. Most importantly, the band members looked completely at ease on stage, conveying a genuine sense of enjoyment that reinforced the intelligent, yet down-to earth appeal of their music.

After a leisurely break dedicated to social interaction and purchase of CDs and assorted merchandise, miRthkon – that self-professed “amplified chamber ensemble masquerading as a rock band” – took to the stage, and proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with their highly energized, highly technical blend of almost everything under the sun (including classical music, with an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne”). Possibly the most qualified pretenders to the Frank Zappa throne, with an idiosyncratic lineup that dispenses with keyboards but boasts a dual-guitar, dual-reed attack, they reinterpret the sometimes overly serious Avant-Prog aesthetic with a lightness of touch and oodles of absurdist humour that belie the mind-boggling complexity of their music. Indeed, miRthkon are not by any means minimalistic, and a glorious sense of bombast occasionally runs through their brilliantly-titled and –executed compositions.

Though dealing with the effects of a kidney stone discovered during the 3000-mile coast-to-coast drive, guitarist and founder Wally Scharold fulfilled his frontman duties with aplomb, his endearingly whimsical between-song banter adding to the entertainment value of the evening. Since the release of Vehicle, the band have replaced guitarist and co-founder Rob Pumpelly with Travis Andrews, who looked a bit shy at first, but then got nicely into the swing of things, proving an excellent sparring partner for Scharold. While drummer Matt Guggemos was hidden behind his bandmates, due to the distinctive configuration of the Orion stage, his often thunderous, but always creative drumming, in perfect synergy with Matt Lebofsky’s powerful yet sleek bass lines, lent both texture and dynamics to the band’s dazzlingly unpredictable sound. However, the duo of alto saxophonist Jamison Smeltz, with his impressive sideburns and amusing facial expressions, and “Goddess of the Cane” Carolyn Walter, in a bright blue dress and a funny head ornament that looked like a pair of small goat horns, were the true focus of attention. Both seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and their visual appeal went hand-in-hand with their boisterous musical contribution. For a band that calls itself by the slightly daunting tagline of “Oaklandish chambercore”, miRthkon were a lot of fun and, in their own peculiar way, much more approachable than many outfits bearing the RIO/Avant label. In fact, the music was never noisy or gratuitously chaotic, and the band’s inimitable sense of humour enhanced its appeal, avoiding the dour, needlessly convoluted stance that often gives Avant-Prog a bad rap.

As usual, the sound quality – masterfully engineered by Mike Potter, who looked as pleased as punch throughout the evening – was excellent, and brought out each of the bands’ distinctive qualities without beating the attendees’ eardrums into submission. A special mention goes to the selection of music played before and between sets – I never thought I would hear James Brown played alongside Blue Öyster Cult and more traditional fare at a progressive rock concert! I was also glad to see quite a few women and younger people among the audience. Indeed, the evening was also a celebration of female talent, with Moorea Dickason’s incredible vocal performance and Carolyn Walter’s masterful handling of her “forest of horns” – both talented, attractive women with a friendly, engaging attitude who manage to shine without capitalizing on their looks.

All in all, it was definitely one of the best shows of the past few years, and a very uplifting moment after the setbacks suffered by the US prog scene in recent times. These two bands are a brilliant example of proactive behaviour and genuine creative spirit, and deserve to have their efforts crowned with success. If they are playing anywhere near you, do yourselves a favour and make sure you do not miss them: their performance will dispel any doubts you might harbor about the future of progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moetar.com

http://www.mirthkon.com

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While other progressive rock festivals have been experiencing problems, or even folded altogether, ProgDay – the world’s longest-running event of this kind –  still soldiers on, and is about to celebrate its 18th anniversary. As usual, the 2012 edition of the “proggers’ picnic” is scheduled to take place on Labor Day Weekend (September 1-2) on the tree-ringed grounds of Storybook Farm, Chapel Hill (North Carolina).

This year’s lineup places a heavy emphasis on homegrown bands, with the whole of the Sunday lineup hailing from the  East Coast of the US  – a bold move indeed, and one  that will afford a unique opportunity for those outfits to showcase their talent  before an appreciative audience in an idyllic setting. The Washington/Baltimore region will be represented by local favourites Ephemeral Sun and Ilúvatar, the lively New York scene by avant-proggers Doctor Nerve and über-eclectic trio Consider The Source, and New England by another couple of label-defying acts, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic (from Boston) and Dreadnaught (from New Hampshire).  Only two non-US acts are scheduled to perform: Italian outfit Accordo dei Contrari, whose 2011 album Kublai garnered the approval of the prog community on both sides of the Atlantic, and Montreal-based quartet Karcius. On the whole, ProgDay’s 2012 sums up all the distinctive features of modern progressive rock, ranging from time-honoured tradition to cutting-edge trends.

Those who are interested in attending will be able to purchase patron passes ($ 140) or ordinary weekend passes ($ 90) in advance from the festival’s website (until August 15). Both kinds of tickets, as well as single-day passes, will also be available at the gate. Detailed information on the event, including music samples, a link to the official hotel and other practical tips, can be found at http://www.progday.net.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. You’re Fooling Yourselves (6:53)
2. Exit Strategy (5:46)
3. The Socio-Economic Petri Dish (6:51)
4. Incoherent Ramblings (7:46)
5. The Ones To Follow (3:15)
6. A Work Of Art (2:53)
7. Televised (6:54)
8. The Millions Of Last Moments (2:07)
9. Memetic Pandemic (7:29)
10. A Nihilist’s Love Song (3:39)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Patrick Kliesch – guitar, backing vocals
Eric Pseja – guitar, backing vocals
Aaron Nobel – drums, percussion

With:
Rob Durham – flute (6)
Bill Fox – alto and tenor saxes (6)
Cara Brewer – backing vocals (10)
Veronica Puleo – backing vocals (10)
Jed Levin – spoken word intro (4)

In the years following the release of Narrow-Caster, their “comeback” album after a 12-year hiatus, New Jersey band 3RDegree have been hard at work on its follow-up, which was finally completed in the early summer of 2012. The band’s lineup has also undergone some changes: drummer Rob Durham (who guests on one track) was replaced by Aaron Nobel (who joined the band just in time for their appearance at ProgDay 2009), while second guitarist Eric Pseja had collaborated with them as a guest musician for the 2007 reunion concerts.

As I pointed out in my review of Narrow-Caster, 3RDegree are one of those bands that are bound to divide opinions within the prog community. While critics have generally greeted their albums with words of praise, the public’s response has not always been equally enthusiastic. Though the band members proudly state their allegiance to the progressive rock camp, their sound – in true art-rock tradition – contains enough “mainstream” elements to make purists frown, eliciting doubts as to its actual prog quotient. George Dobbs’ extraordinary vocals (clearly more influenced by Stevie Wonder than Jon Anderson or Peter Gabriel) are also a sore point with those fans who find it hard to break away from the Seventies mould. The band’s frequent reliance on the conventional song form is another source of controversy for those who forget that, in fact, even in its heyday prog never completely rejected traditional song modes, though often rendering them almost unrecognizable.

Compared to Narrow-Caster, The Long Division ups the ante in terms of complexity, while retaining its accessible, deceptively upbeat flavour.  For starters, the songs’ running times have gradually increased from the average 4 minutes of Narrow-Caster to over 6 minutes for half of the tracks on The Long Division.  While there are no epics in the conventional prog sense, the album is intended as a sort of loose concept that, while firmly rooted in the peculiar atmosphere of a US presidential election year, can also resonate with citizens of most Western countries, especially in the current global situation. The clean, geometric lines of the striking cover artwork contrast sharply with the stereotypically fanciful prog aesthetics, its bright blue and red hues identifying  the two main US political parties, separated by an apparently unbridgeable gap.

From a musical point of view, the main ingredients that made Narrow-Caster such as successful example of modern “crossover” prog  – such as its memorable melodies – do not disguise the intricacy of the instrumental fabric and the frequent changes in tempo and mood. George Dobbs’ voice, authoritative as usual, is assisted by gorgeous, layered vocal harmonies reminiscent of early Yes or even The Beatles that complement the lush instrumental interplay. The double-guitar configuration, with Eric Pseja flanking founding member Patrick Kliesch, has undeniably beefed up the sound, though as a whole The Long Division comes across as a smoother-sounding effort, less reliant on high-powered riffs and more focused on Dobbs’ keyboards.

The 10 songs on The Long Division are arranged in a pattern that alternates uptempo numbers with more laid-back ones. “You’re Fooling Yourselves” – a fitting introduction to the musical and lyrical themes of the album, mixed by Echolyn’s Brett Kull – showcases the band’s trademark blend of catchy hooks and subtle complexity, with intriguing vocal textures and sleek guitar solos ranging from meditative to energetic. The mellotron-infused “Exit Strategy”, with its airy, orchestral feel, is dominated by vocals, though Robert James Pashman’s strong bass lines emerge prominently. The bass is also the undisputed protagonist of the funky, exhilarating “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish” – sounding like Yes probably would if they had been founded in the 21st century, and displaying the band’s collective talent in both the instrumental and vocal department. “Incoherent Ramblings” (the longest track on the album at almost 8 minutes) is an extremely well-constructed piece, bringing together the mellow, atmospheric component of 3RDegree’s inspiration and the sense of urgency often lurking even in the more relaxed numbers; while the brisk “The Ones to Follow” offers another vocal showcase for Dobbs and an almost infectious chorus.

The second half of the album opens with the hauntingly romantic, piano-led “A Work of Art”, the only song dating back from the early incarnation of the band, enhanced by sax, flute and mellotron and featuring an unusually subdued vocal performance by Dobbs. Things pick up with the slashing riffs and hard rock vibe of the Rush-influenced “Televised”, driven by Pashman’s fat, groovy bass line and Nobel’s muscular yet intricate drumming, the heaviness softened by the Beatlesian flavour of the harmony vocals.  The short, gentle instrumental “The Millions of Last Moments” prepares the listener to the album’s grand finale – the melodic-with-a-bite, sinuous “Memetic Pandemic”, which allows Dobbs to shine on piano and organ as well as in the singing department, and the catchy “A Nihilist’s Love Song”, based on a chiming acoustic guitar line reinforced by piano and layers of vocal harmonies.

With The Long Division, 3RDegree prove that they have reached their full maturity as a band, delivering an intelligent, well-rounded example of modern progressive rock. Much like Man On Fire’s splendid 2011 album Chrysalis,  the album epitomizes the “new frontier” of the genre without denying the legacy of the past, or pandering to blatantly commercial trends. Avoiding the bloated excesses of many retro-oriented bands, The Long Division is a complete package of classy music, top-notch vocals and thought-provoking lyrics – recommended to anyone but incurable elitists.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/

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