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Archive for November, 2012

New Jersey band 3RDegree have been around for close to two decades, but only in recent years have they come to the attention of the progressive rock community. The 2008 release of their third studio album, Narrow-Caster, followed by their appearance at ProgDay 2009, paved the way for the extremely positive feedback garnered by their fourth recording effort, The Long Division, definitely one of the strongest releases of 2012. With their distinctive sound, effortlessly blending catchy hooks and gorgeous vocal harmonies with elaborate arrangements and plenty of technical fireworks in a song-based context, 3RDegree offer a refreshingly modern take on the old prog warhorse that may appeal even to those who find the genre too pretentious for its own good. The band members – Robert James Pashman, George Dobbs, Patrick Kliesch, Eric Pseja and Aaron Nobel – have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.

Your biography is exhaustively detailed on your website, so I will limit myself to a couple of questions on the subject. What led you to disbanding after Human Interest Story, and why did you decide to give it another go (which, by the way, seems to have become increasingly common among prog bands)? 

George:  We saw our differences more than we saw our similarities.  As for the re-formation, Rob had a vision, which expanded as time went on. I didn’t have anything going on to speak of at the time, and I liked the new songs Rob and Pat were writing, so that’s how I ended up back in the fold.

Robert: We got frustrated with “the scene” and we were in the New York City area! It feels funny complaining about the lack of our ability to create a fan base when there’s such a population center surrounding us, but getting the sort of music we were doing in front of the people who like it was killing us.  The Internet hadn’t taken hold yet as a music marketplace, and the festival scene was not known to us, so we were playing aimlessly all over NJ and NY.  The only thing we did that was a bit inventive was that we befriended a few other prog bands, and I would present a group of us to bookers and club owners.  All those bands are now gone, although one of them was You Were Spiraling, fronted by Tom Brislin, who went on to play with Yes, Renaissance and Camel, and is now a solo artist.

Now something about your individual background as musicians. How did you start playing music, and what other experiences did you have prior to joining 3RDegree?

Eric:  I’ve been singing since I was about eight, first in my church choir, then in my high school madrigal choir.  I also landed singing leads in my high school musicals for all four years, which helped me to get comfortable with performance.  Also in high school, I taught myself to play guitar.  In college, I learned bass guitar and pursued a music minor.

George: When I was 14, I had these cool friends who had all been playing music for years. It was sort of contagious, and eye-opening. As for everything else leading up to and inclusive of my first round with 3RDegree, I have wished it to the corn-field (reference: Twilight Zone).

Patrick: I started in fourth grade playing clarinet for the school band and then I took up guitar in seventh grade. I had a couple of high school bands where we did mostly Rush and Yes covers. 3RDegree was the first “real” band that I had joined.

Robert: I took piano lessons when I was 12 and continued to 17. I then got a portable recording studio and got lessons on that instead of piano from my piano teacher Angelo Panetta, whom I then started working as Assistant Engineer for, followed by Pat when I left college.  Angelo now mixes all our albums.  In junior year of high school I taught myself bass and started a power trio where I sang, played keys and bass doing Rush, Genesis and other things like that.  3RDegree was started out of the ashes of that band in 1990 with my meeting with Rob Durham, our drummer until 2008.

Aaron: I started playing drums when I was nine and did the usual routine of playing in the school orchestra. I had an aunt that had great taste in music and made me tapes I used to play along to-along with the rock radio du jour: Dixie Dregs, Permanent Waves/Signals-era Rush, Abacab-era Genesis, Van Halen, Men At Work, The Police. In high school I played in basement bands with classmates and was a bit more advanced than the guys I was playing with… We’d end up playing crude Metallica and Slayer covers. After graduating I started taking private lessons mostly focusing on technique, jazz, funk, reading. Around that time I tried out for a locally successful metal band, Know Idea, and ended up landing the gig. I was the very green 18-year old among semi-seasoned mid-20’s guys, we had full lights, pyro, professional sound system, box truck, roadies. We were very briefly signed to a subsidiary of Warner. The week after the band broke up I got a call from my step brother, who was a professional musician, to join his keyboard based funk project. Best thing about that was he was the engineer at Star Castle studios so we had a wicked rehearsal space there and free recording. I also played in a progressive rock trio a la Rush called Showcase with two local prodigies – my recordings with them happen to be among my favorite. I was restless and decided to take a stab at music school, auditioned for Miami U and New School – decided it wasn’t worth the money. I ended up doing studio work for a local rock band and playing in a desert rock band a la Kyuss called Amnesty Underground . Things were great music wise, but, still restless, I moved to Orlando, did some convention band work, some original music, tried out for some Disney stuff (serious competition down there). When I came back a few years later the two guys I was in Showcase with had another project going and enlisted me. Called Selfmadesoul, the music contained a lot of electronic elements and orchestrations so I played a hybrid acoustic/electronic kit with an octapad, foot pedals, and electronic pads. Everything was automated, so I played to a click which was great training. Incidentally it was while I was in Selfmadesoul that I became friends with the guys in Spiraling, which is my link to 3RDegree.

Aaron Nobel behind the kit

Are any of you professional musicians, or with a day job related to the music industry? If not, how do you juggle your day jobs with your musical activity?

George: None of us presently make “a living” playing music. Balancing a day job with music, easy – balancing personal life with music is the tricky thing. My solution so far: personal life centered around music.

Patrick: I work as a writer/director/editor, so some times I write music for the things I produce. My brother is a professional musician. He is the composer for the new Disney series Sophia The First.

Robert: It’s tough.  I work odd hours and have kids like 2 other band members as well, but with my trusty laptop I eke out band work whenever I can.  My difficulty comes in with the many hats I wear in the band and when I should take off one and put on another.  It’s very unartistic promoting a new album and tending the social networks. When to stop doing that and start writing is like restarting a computer rather than just minimizing one window and opening another – to use a computer metaphor.

Aaron: I’m in a 9-5 as a senior tech support for one of the largest manufacturers of HVAC actuators in the world. It doesn’t get in the way too much- it’s the other bands, quality time with my girlfriend, and fitness endeavors that get in the way!

Are any of you involved in any other projects besides 3RDegree?

Eric:  In college, I joined my fraternity house band CRUST, where I took on bass guitar and vocal duties.  Our music is very tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Spinal Tap.  After we graduated and moved apart (to New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan), we’ve still made it a point to get together every year to write and record.  We’ve been doing this for over twenty years.  It’s a great outlet for the “less technical” side of my musical personality.  As a matter of fact, we’re on the verge of releasing a new album this winter!

George: I’ve been recording a few tracks with some friends, at Rave Tesar’s Studio X (where the last Renaissance album was recorded).  I keep my chops up with bar band gigs every few weeks.

Aaron: I’m in a progressive rock instrumental trio in my hometown. I do a bit of jazz gigs around the New Haven, CT area. I play with the Lyric Hall Silent Movie Orchestra providing the live sound track to silent movies. I sub for a couple local cover bands and a Celtic rock band called The Ruffians. I always complain about how busy I am, but I rarely say no to an offer.

George Dobbs – the voice of 3RDegree

3RDegree do not sound like “traditional” prog, and, rather than going for lengthy, elaborate compositions like many of the iconic Seventies bands, are undeniably a song-oriented band. What is your relationship to the genre, and your opinion on its future developments?

Eric:  We’re all very well-versed in rock history, and progressive rock’s important contributions to the development of modern music, but I believe the true essence of being progressive is allowing your band’s natural chemistry to dictate the direction of the music regardless of current commercial trends.  We don’t have a “formula” for our music.  As technical and meticulous as it sounds at times, our music is developed very organically, which is why people find it hard to define.  Every song we write has a varying degree of each band member’s personality within, and our personalities are quite diverse.

George: We come out of a “crossover prog.” tradition. Even Yes, with their Awaken/Delirium/CTTE/Tales epics, had shorter songs, often with very well defined refrains – (and I’m talking pre-90125… hell, even pre- Tormato). I think those other efforts are to be cherished and emulated -not to be merely tolerated.  The future of prog, ehh, what do I know?  I think it involves nanobots.

Patrick: I’ve always approached songwriting as melody first and arrangement second. The melody is the foundation, and, with a good foundation, you can play around and have fun with arrangements. Rob and I never were into the esoteric prog stuff that ventured into long solos and experimentation. Then when George came along, his writing meshed with ours and defined our song-based prog rock even more so. I can’t speak for the future of prog as a whole – I can only say that we as 3RDegree are going to keep pushing new limits. I never want our listeners to think they know what the next album is going to sound like. I always want to surprise and challenge our fan base.

Robert: For 3RDegree to pursue a song idea, I think there has to be an element of one or more of the hallmarks of what is generally considered prog mixed with just good songwriting a la XTC, Todd Rundgren and other songsmiths that aren’t particularly considered prog artists. We don’t run into any huge arguments over which of our songs are to be included in our repertoire, but we sometimes have a slight crisis over it.  I’d say on any given album of ours, there is a song or two that may be far from the prog tradition but, when tucked into the running order of an album, fits just fine.

What music do you usually listen to, and what are your biggest influences – prog and otherwise?

Eric: My musical tastes are all over the map, so there really is nothing usual about what I listen to.  For instance, the other day I listened to The Doors’  Strange Days, followed by Opeth’s Blackwater Park, then AOMusic and Miriam Stockley (I absolutely love her voice)!  Prog-wise, I’m a fan of the usual suspects:  Yes, Genesis, ELP, etc.  More recently however, I’ve grown to be a huge fan of Porcupine Tree and Devin Townsend as well.

Eric Pseja and his home-brewed ale

Aaron: It depends on my mood. I actually listen to a lot of jazz – Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Louie Armstrong. My formative years I listened to A LOT of Rush, Living Colour, ings X, The Police, Dixie Dregs. I dig anything that Ty Tabor has a part in. I love old school hip-hop, funk, French house. I had a Dream Theater phase, but lately in prog-world I’m really digging Gavin Harrison & 05RIC. Gavin’s linear playing boggles the mind. I’ve spent entire commutes to work over going over one section of song trying to figure out his licks.

George: No regular listening habits.  4 albums I bought in the past few months: Broken Bells, Ambrosia’s 1st album, Walter Becker (Circus Money), and IZZ (Crush of Night).  Artists that have probably left their greatest mark on me are are Genesis, Floyd, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and XTC.  More current artists that I admire and keep my eye on are Mutemath, Beardfish, Self (Matt Mahaffey) and Bird and The Bee.

Patrick: Let’s refer to my starred files in Spotify: And So I Watch You From Afar, Cut Copy, Grizzly Bear, Holy Fuck, M83, Amanda Palmer. They’ve all released my favorite albums of the past year or so. Biggest influences in prog – Yes, Rush, Genesis. Non-prog biggest influences – Beatles, Zeppelin, Radiohead.

Robert: Prog favs are Rush, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Marillion, Ambrosia, David Sylvian, Kevin Gilbert, etc. Songwriting favs are XTC, Jellyfish, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell….Pop favs include Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Tears For Fears.  Love Cocteau Twins, Björk, Radiohead.  Newer prog favs are Echolyn and Izz.

One of your founding members resides on the West Coast, thousands of miles from the rest of you. How do you negotiate the physical distance during the songwriting and the recording stage?

George: It’s really not that difficult, if and when we are motivated.  FTP and the universal “WAV” file make it somewhat negotiable.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s really not too tough. A month ago we all FaceBook chatted for several hours and spoke about the direction of the next album. Additionally, I can FaceTime as the rest of the band rehearses. Soon there will be a way where I can play along real time with them. JamHub is close to that right now – I think there is a 200-mile distance for real time playing.

Guitarist and founding member Patrick Kliesch

Robert: JamHub is enabling us to play at decent volumes and to hear each other better.  Whether we will be able to integrate Pat into that in real time 3000 miles away – and cheaply – remains to be seen.

Your songs are clearly the work of people who put a lot of attention in every detail.  How do you handle the songwriting process? Would you call yourselves perfectionists?

Eric: Our recording process is a balancing act; making sure the music is well-produced without sounding too sterile.  While we take great care to make sure the complexities of our music are clearly defined, we also believe there’s something to an album that’s got some live-band feel as well.

George:  Robert always keeps us to a pretty strict time line, so there’s only so much room for perfectionism. He’s like Roger Corman in that regard …He’s also a bit like Harvey Corman, only shorter.

Patrick: It’s hard to define the songwriting process, because every song takes on a life of its own and each one dictates the way that the song will be sculpted. But generally, the principal songwriter will present his song idea to the band with his initial arrangements and flourishes, and then the rest of us will add keys, guitars and other touches on top of that.

Robert: Or that song that’s presented isn’t finished (just a chorus or verse), and another band member is encouraged to run with it.  We’re good like that.  We never have an argument over who is writing too much or too little.  Members get busy in their lives in different times and slack is picked up when needed. We also have a pretty harsh song filter -a built-in quality control within the band that ensures that we all feel good about everything that gets to the recording phase.  We’re not going to spend time on a song getting it ready for the drum recording sessions that start off the process and not see it through.  That would be too much wasted time.  I – as band “leader” – do my utmost to not waste anyone’s time, be it at a rehearsal or whatever else.  The reason for this is because we’re not in our 20’s with a short list of commitments.  Quite the opposite.

What is your relationship to the other prog bands in the NJ/NYC area? Do you have any ongoing form of collaboration with other musicians, especially as regards finding opportunities for playing live?

Robert: There’s a camaraderie between the band leaders of a bunch of bands out there – mostly aided by Facebook.  I’m in the same “boat” as a lot of these guys and, while we’re sort of “in competition” for the prog fans’ hard-earned dollar, so to speak, we seem to have empathy for each other’s rough road.  Shadow Circus, Edensong, IZZ, Pinnacle – just a few names of bands near us who are fighting the good fight.

Talking of what, what have been your experiences as a live band? Do you think that releasing albums is more important than treading the boards of a stage, or the other way round?

Eric: It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to simply jam a weekend away.  Both Rob and I have two little kids at home, and all of us have full-time jobs that require most of our time.  While we strive to get out on stage if at all possible, we’re beginning to accept that it’s becoming more difficult to do so, especially on short notice.  For me personally, I am simply grateful that I’m able to be creative even when I can’t “tour” to support the music I’ve helped create.  Playing live is a wonderful thing, but to me, I don’t find it as important or gratifying as the creative process.

3RDegree having a good time

George: Live music means never having to say you had a sound check. Writing is absolutely more important to me, in terms of 3RDegree; and what are we going to play if we aren’t building and perfecting the oeuvre?

Robert: It’s such a double edged sword.  We have had a difficult relationship with “the stage” since it always had seemed we have to drop everything to ready ourselves for a particular gig.  Problem is, there’s only so many places you can play and you can only play them so many times SO, what happens is you find an album done, maybe a few shows and then the rust sets in again.  When The Long Division was done back in June, I had spent so much time getting it ready to get out there (mastering, final mixes, pre-funding, pre-orders, album cover-concept, finding the artist, going back and forth with him until final draft, music video shooting and editing, advertising, mailing to press and radio and more) that we couldn’t get a live show together in time for the proper “tour”, and found out in the process that we really need two guitarists live since Pat cannot join us in the flesh.  Good thing about playing live is the ability to move some merch.  It’s very, very hard to sell shirts and non-musical gear from a website, no matter how much you take pictures or video of it.  Same thing with our new beer glasses.  After someone sees a band live, they often feel like a “souvenir” and that’s where it starts to make sense to get on stage again from a monetary point of view.  Even the positive energy from playing a live gig can be squashed by a host of issues.  I will say that, since our regrouping, the quality of the audience at our shows is better tenfold.  We do not set up shows willy-nilly like the old days.

Since its release, The Long Division has garnered a lot of critical praise. Has this positive feedback translated into sales?

George: Not as much as some airplay would. But it’s nice to know that someone gets us. And the fanbase does grow in no small part due to this acknowledgement.

Robert: It seems to be selling better than Narrow-Caster so far, given its short time frame and word of mouth seems to be better and reviews and buzz have been exponentially more positive.  We were surprised by how well things went with Narrow-Caster, so to say press is noticeably better is a pretty good place to be in.  The only downside is the expectation going forward, but we just do what we do and hopefully everyone comes along for the ride.  Although there are a handful of people who like our last album better.

You are one of the very few bands on the modern prog scene whose lyrics are based on current affairs rather than on more abstract topics. Why is it so, and has it always been that way?

George:  It’s always been that way.  Right back to the 1st album, current affairs seems to be Robert’s passion, when he was writing about Wall Street, the Cold War, AIDS.  Well, you certainly run less of a chance of turning someone off if you stay away from “social commentary.” But this is true of all music, not just the prog scene – hardcore punk excepting. My M.O. is that all subjects are fair game for lyrics, just as long as you are making art and not propagandart.

Robert: We released our last album as the world was falling apart – the fall of 2008.  While I was busy getting the 3RDegree name out there in various ways, Pat and George started on two of the pieces that would define The Long Division almost four years later – “You’re Fooling Yourselves”, started by Pat, and “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish”, started and almost entirely written by George.


Robert James Pashman and one of his concerns

How has the album been received outside the US, seen as its lyrical content is firmly rooted in the US socio-political situation? Do you think that its plea towards mutual understanding and cooperation may find an echo in other parts of the world?

George: If anything, the salient political topics may have helped us to finally reach a wider audience in the USA. Prior to The Long Division, we seem to have historically gone over best in “Germanic” countries.

Robert: I think we’ve been lucky that it’s been doing quite well in Europe as I was concerned not that people outside the US wouldn’t know about the subject matter, but that they wouldn’t particularly be interested in it.  Many of the reviews point out that we spend quite a bit of time on the general subject of divisions in the American political system, and that it’s done well.  We certainly labored a bit making sure the songs weren’t taking a hard political stance, but rather coming at it all from an apolitical angle.  We all have our leanings, but I think none of the band are in love with the personalities or politicians we tend to agree with.

Now that the new album is finally out, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any new material ready, or is another long wait on the horizon for your fans?

George: Less of a wait this time, but we’re still looking at 2014, at best.

Patrick: Yeah, I’d concur that 2014 would be the release for the next album. It’s already half recorded. We’re shooting for another half dozen songs to be recorded in the next studio session. And, speaking of the future, that’s exactly what this next album is going to concentrate on – futurist themes.

Robert: I’d say we may play a few shows in the spring if our rehearsals go that way and we find a lead guitarist.  If not, we will focus squarely on writing a few more songs and fleshing out the ones we’ve recorded already.  Four songs are recorded on drums from The Long Division sessions.  I’d say roughly six more need to be done in a final drum session hopefully this coming summer.  Four songs are written-at least in part-but not recorded.  One of the upcoming songs is the longest we have ever recorded.  The Long Division has 4 of the longest songs we have ever recorded up to that time, so you can see the trend towards song length, but we still keep to our solemn pledge: “Gnome-Free Since ‘93”!

Thank you for your answers, and all the best for a great 2013!

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TRACKLISTING:
1. First Difference (3:18)
2. Edge of the Earth (3:40)
3. Ode to the Summer (4:10)
4. Dorothy (4:25)
5. Truth Seeker (3:06)
6. Night Shaped Light (3:38)
7. Promise Me (2:40)
8. Black Wave (2:40)
9. Moving World (4:08)
10. Paradise Lost (8:22)

LINEUP:
Liam Magill – lead vocals, guitar, flute, percussion, effects
Raven Bush – violin, mandolin, piano, percussion, vocals, effects
Fred Rother – drums
Joel Magill – bass, vocals, percussion, effects

For all my familiarity with the current progressive rock scene, English band Syd Arthur took me completely by surprise, as I had never heard their name prior to receiving On And On, their debut album, as a gift from a friend. Though very few albums make a deep impression on me on first listen, On And On was one of those rare cases, and one of the strongest releases I have heard in a year that has not been at all stingy with interesting music.

In the past couple of years, Syd Arthur have received extensive coverage on magazines and websites dedicated to non-mainstream music, and on February 15, 2010 were featured as New Band of the Day by British newspaper The Guardian, notoriously harsh towards old-school prog. While most of those articles mentioned the “P” word, the numerous webzines and blog sites specializing in the genre seem to  have been largely unaware of them – which is not the case with other bands associated with the psychedelic rock revival, such as Dungen or Black Mountain.

Syd Arthur (whose name was inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, one of the iconic texts of the hippie era, and also the inspiration for Yes’ Close to the Edge) are a quartet hailing from the historic English town of Canterbury – a place synonymous with one of the most distinctive strains of the multifaceted progressive rock  universe. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call them the direct heirs of the scene that developed in the late Sixties, producing highly influential bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. In many ways, Syd Arthur are deeply rooted in that scene, pursuing the path laid out by Caravan and Soft Machine in their early albums before both bands took a more “progressive” direction. In addition, the “Syd” part of the band’s name evokes the spirit of  psychedelic rock icon Syd Barrett, who was also an important influence on the original Canterbury bands.

While Syd Arthur’s music may not be the most ground-breaking on the market, it undoubtedly modernizes a sound that is all too often prone to showing its age. The four band members, in spite of their obvious youth, have been together since 2006, and have already accumulated enough experience to set up their own recording studio and independent label (named Dawn Chorus Recording Company). Their recording debut, the EP Moving World, was released in 2010, followed by the single “Ode to the Summer” in the following year, and finally by On And On in the summer of 2012. Like most progressive bands that shun the “prog” tag, they also have an impressive record of live performances in the UK and in other European countries. Interestingly, violinist Raven Bush is the son of writer and photographer John Carder Bush, Kate Bush’s elder brother, and – though Syd Arthur’s music as a whole might not immediately recall Kate’s – some similarities can be noticed, especially in terms of approach to the traditional song format.

With their distinctive configuration – which gives violin a starring role in conjunction with the guitar, while keyboards are used very sparingly – Syd Arthur play music from a bygone era with a contemporary flair, blending psychedelic folk with funky jazz-rock suggestions and some heady spacey nuances, both acoustic and electric elements well in evidence. The eclectic inspiration – so often resulting in a mishmash of unfinished ideas – is instead handled skillfully, and the songs have an easy, natural flow, their delightful musical texture enhanced by Liam Magill’s unique vocal delivery – a 21st century take on Robert Wyatt, a tenor imbued with a gentle wistfulness and innate sense of melody, yet never whiny or overdramatic.

Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes, On And On is a short album, and  – with the sole exception of closer “Paradise Lost”, its songs are also short (3 minutes on average). However, the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure is often cleverly disguised or understated, and the appeal of the melodies is never made too obvious. Opener “First Difference” blends the airy lyricism of the violin and acoustic guitar with the slight edge injected by the electric guitar, and a hint of reggae in the song’s easy mid-pace. Liam Magill’s voice follows the musical line, never dominating the instruments though not taking a back seat either. The following two songs are variations on the same theme, but with enough personality of their own to stand individually – the changes in pacing within each piece handled with subtlety, allowing the music to flow naturally without ever sounding strained or contrived.

“Dorothy” (recently released as a single), on the other hand, is a slow, nostalgic number – almost a jazzy torch song, while the uptempo “Truth Seeker” introduces a vein of psychedelic electricity, which in “Night Shaped Light” coexists with a samba-tinged saunter. “Moving World” brings back echoes of early Soft Machine, though with a folksier flavour softening the psychedelic edge. The 8 minutes of “Paradise Lost” come almost as a surprise, as the track diverges noticeably from the rest of the album – not only in running time, but also in its looser structure and in the different role of the vocals – mostly present in the form of chanting, or else treated as to be almost unrecognizable. The heavy, distorted guitar-violin interplay in the middle of the track hints at stoner rock, or even Jefferson Airplane at their most experimental. All of this, as well as the recourse to atmospheric sound effects, hints at possible future developments in the band’s style.

Unlike other bands that tap into the rich vein of the psychedelic rock tradition, Syd Arthur do not indulge in lengthy, hypnotic riff-feasts, and introduce elements of “prog” complexity with admirable lightness of hand – much as Caravan or Soft Machine did in their early stages, or Hatfield and the North when blending catchy tunes with intricate jazz-rock patterns. Highly recommended to to fans of the Canterbury scene and early Pink Floyd, as well as to anyone who does not equate progressive rock with 30-minute epics, On and On is a surprisingly accomplished production, and a genuinely delightful listen.

Links:
http://sydarthur.co.uk/

http://www.myspace.com/sydarthur

http://www.dawnchorusrecordco.com/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/feb/15/new-band-syd-arthur

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Horse Heart (6:06)
2. Taurokathapsia (4:52)
3. Cream Sky (6:23)
4. Spiraling (12:48)
5. Roots Growth (5:47)
6. See You in Me (7:50)
7. Ritual of Apollo & Dionysus (4:00)
8. Northern Lights (5:49)

LINEUP:
Stelios Romaliadis – flute

With:
Lisa Isaksson – vocals, balalaika, harp, flute (1)
David Svedmyr – mellotron, zither, bells (1)
Jennie Ståbis –  vocals (1)
Fotini Kallianou – cello (1, 2, 5, 7)
Katerina Papachristou – double bass (1, 2, 7)
Fotis Siotas – viola, violin (2, 5)
Lefteris Moumtzis – vocals, acoustic guitar (3)
Alex Bolpasis – acoustic guitar (3)
Pavlos Michaelides – violin (3)
Andria Degens – vocals (4, 6)
Giorgos Varoutas – electric guitar (4)
David Jackson – saxophones (5)
Elsa Kundig – cello (5)
Nikos Fokas – Fender Rhodes piano (5)
Nikos Papanagiotou – drums (5)
Greg Haines – cello (6)
Georgia Smerou – bassoon (7)
Georgia Konstadopoulou  – cor anglais, oboe (7)

The distinctively-named Lüüp (an idiosyncratic spelling of the word “loop”) is a project by flutist and composer Stelios Romaliadis, a young but very gifted artist based in Athens (Greece). Lüüp’s recording debut, Distress Signal Code (released in October 2008 on Musea Records) saw the participation of legendary ex-VDGG saxophonist David Jackson. The project’s second release, Meadow Rituals, was released in May 2011 on independent label Experimedia, but only recently came to my attention – thanks to the networking opportunities offered by the social media scene.

Unlike Distress Signal Code – which had been recorded with the input of a restricted number of musicians – Meadow Rituals involves a large cast of artists from different European countries who supply a varied, largely acoustic instrumentation ranging from strings to guitars. Some of the guest musicians, such as David Jackson, vocalist Lisa Isaksson (of Swedish outfit Lisa o Piu) and pianist Nikos Fokas, also performed on Lüüp’s debut. The album was recorded in Greece, Germany, Sweden and the UK – the home countries of the musicians involved.

While certainly progressive, both in spirit and in actual execution, Meadow Rituals is not a rock album, and traditional rock instruments only make occasional appearances. Vocals – whenever present – seamlessly blend with the other instruments so as to enhance the delicate, almost brittle nature of each piece. Though Romaliadis’s flute, as can be expected, is at the core of Lüüp’s music, each instrument contributes to the development of the compositions in its own individual way.

In opening track “Horse Heart”, vocals take centre stage: Lisa Isaksson’s pure, ethereal voice – supported by backing vocalist Jennie Ståbis and a heady mélange of mellotron, zither, balalaika and harp – tempers the dark, melancholy feel of the piece, and the deep-toned twang of Katerina Papachristou’s double bass evokes memories of Pentangle – though in a more experimental vein. Intriguing world music suggestions emerge in the riveting “Cream Sky”, where flute, acoustic guitar and violin find a perfect foil in Lefteris Moumtzis’ soothing baritone – reminiscent of Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry. The album’s centerpiece, however, lies in the 12-minute “Spiraling”, masterfully built around the subdued yet deeply haunting voice of Andria Degens (of British act Pantaleimon), with its timeless Celtic tinge complemented by sparse guitar, violin and flute, which  mesh with the vocal line to create a magical atmosphere. Degens’ voice returns in the nearly 8-minute “See You in Me”, accompanied by Romaliadis’ flute and British composer Greg Haines’ cello in an almost avant-garde workout of austere beauty.

The remaining four tracks are all instrumental. In the solemn “Taurokathapsia” (a Greek word for the ancient Cretan ritual of bull-leaping, depicted in Minoan frescoes), the interplay of deep, resonating cello and double bass and delicate describes the scene in sonic terms, with violin injecting a stately, classical feel. Another strongly descriptive number, “Ritual of Apollo & Dionysus” conveys the dialogue between the two gods through the alternation of flute and oboe on one hand, and cor anglais and bassoon on the other; while in closer “Northern Lights” Romaliadis’ flute evokes the titular phenomenon with trills and leaps, followed by pauses of quiet. On the other hand, “Roots Growth” is the closest the album gets to a more conventional rock sound, and the only track that features drums, as well as electric piano – though there is nothing conventional about it. A folk-tinged number, with a lilting, dance-like movement, it revolves around the contrast between Romaliadis’ pastoral flute and David Jackson’s more assertive saxophone.

Clocking in at almost 54 minutes, Meadow Rituals is a well-balanced, carefully structured effort that, as hinted in the previous paragraphs, is focused on atmosphere rather than energy. While those who need the adrenalin rush provided by guitar solos or banks of keyboards will probably find it disappointing or just plain uninspiring, fans of world music, New Age, ambient and the whole ECM catalogue – as well as classical and chamber music, especially of the 20th-century variety (Debussy comes to mind) – will find a lot to appreciate. Highly recommended to those who have been intrigued by some of the music that I have reviewed in recent times (such as Janel & Anthony, Ergo and Knitting By Twilight/John Orsi), Meadow Rituals is beautiful aural and visual experience, whose stunning photography and haunting musical content will engage your mind and soothe your soul.

Links:
http://label.experimedia.net/015/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/L%C3%BC%C3%BCp/193352967368528

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Ephemeral Sun
Theme from Top Gun
Untitled #1
Prism
Harvest Aorta Part I
Untitled #2
Winter Has No Mercy
Harvest Aorta Part II

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit & Witch
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
Shadow Circus
Captain Trips
The Long Road
Big Fire
The Seduction of Harold Lauder

As I announced a couple of months ago, the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR) has organized two shows at the Orion Studios in Baltimore to raise funds for its activity, which hinges on the promotion of progressive music in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US. The first of the two events, scheduled for November 3, 2012, was to have been a triple bill, featuring New Jersey bands Shadow Circus and 3RDegree, as well as Northern Virginia’s finest, Ephemeral Sun. Unfortunately, 3RDegree had to pull out due to conflicts between their professional and family lives and the inevitable need for rehearsals, but the show went ahead as a double bill.

While the presence of 3RDegree would have made the show an even bigger draw, the two bands treated the audience to excellent performances, which highlighted both the differences and the similarities in their approach. In spite of its fundraising status, the gig was sparsely attended (which is the rule rather than the exception, unless the bill features a foreign band or one of the few domestic acts with a relatively strong following), but the 30-odd people who turned out more than made up with their obvious enthusiasm. Although some technical problems occurred during the soundcheck, the actual performances were characterized by outstanding sound quality (thanks to Mike Potter’s tireless work), which brought out each of the band’s strengths and detailed every instrument’s contribution.

As I pointed out in my review of ProgDay 2012, Ephemeral Sun’s music is more suited to the dark than the light, and the dimly lit setting of the Orion Studios enhanced the rivetingly cinematic quality of their music. After the turmoil of the past years, the band have now found a stability that is clearly reflected in the synergy between the four members, whose individual input is equally essential in the fabric of he sound. The pulsating power of Charles Gore and Jeff Malone’s rhythm section unfolds a rock-solid, yet subtly shifting foundation for Brian O’Neill’s sharp yet elegant guitar exertions and John Battema’s dramatic layers of keyboards. Ephemeral Sun treated the audience to a mix of older material (such as the metal-edged “Winter Has No Mercy” from their debut album Broken Door) and more recent offerings, such as the majestic “Harvest Aorta” suite (split in two halves) from their eponymous second album, and a couple of new compositions still without an official title – as well as a rousing version of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic theme from Top Gun at the very opening of their set.

The quartet’s collective performance was flawless as usual, their music deploying all of its powerful emotional punch in the small, intimate premises. One of the most striking elements of Saturday night’s show was the band members’ impressive handling of the frequent tempo shifts in their generally lengthy compositions, keeping an eye on internal coherence so that the music flowed effortlessly without ever coming across as patchy. And then, the passage in which Battema let rip on the organ in true Emerson fashion was alone worth the price of admission. All in all, Ephemeral Sun seem to be going from strength to strength, and their new material sounds extremely promising – even if it will be some time before  their new album finally sees the light of day.

With a name inspired by the traveling carnival in Ray Bradbury’s iconic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Shadow Circus’ theatrical streak comes as no surprise, and makes good use of frontman David Bobick’s degree in musical theatre. The band’s founders, Bobick and guitarist John Fontana, are also fans of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and this interest is reflected in the subject matter of the majority of their songs. Saturday night’s show offered Shadow Circus the opportunity to showcase some of the material (no less than 7 songs) from their forthcoming third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night, which will be released on 10T Records in early December. Shadow Circus had played at the Orion almost exactly 2 years ago, opening for Italian band  The Watch, though with a different line-up. The band’s new configuration – comprising, besides mainstays Fontana and Bobick, original bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower, augmented by backing vocalist Paroo Streich – blazed through new and older material with assurance and flair, displaying chops and heart in equal measure.

Although all of the band members cite progressive rock as their main source of  inspiration, Shadow Circus’s music is also deeply rooted in classic and hard rock, and the influence of the likes of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin is unmistakable. As is the case with Ephemeral Sun, keyboards play a very prominent in Shadow Circus’ sound. With his impassive mien and slight frame, David Silver proved an essential foil for Fontana’s guitar, his love of Keith Emerson evident throughout the set, especially in the fiery Hammond runs that enhanced stunning instrumentals such as “Overture” and “Tesseract”; indeed, the latter may easily be the best thing that the band has ever recorded. he dramatic intensity of the instrumentals was balanced by the catchy quality of the songs featuring David Bobick’s expressive vocal delivery and flamboyant stage presence, with Paroo Streich’s backing vocals providing a pleasing contrast. The rhythm section of Matt Masek and Jason Brower anchored the sound with power and style, the two musicians complementing each other perfectly. Always attentive to the visual aspect of their performance, the band members were all decked in black with a touch of red (a special mention for Bobick’s beard and the large red flower sported by Streich, who also provided a bit of eye candy for the predominantly male audience), and also employed a few stage props to enhance the impact of their music with a quirky theatrical touch thankfully devoid of cheesiness.

By way of a conclusion, I have to admit that I found the not exactly stellar turnout quite depressing, especially on a weekend night. Even if the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the north-eastern corridor cannot be discounted, neither can the well-known apathy of many of those who think supporting progressive rock means getting embroiled in pointless discussions on some Internet forum. While modern technology offers almost any band or solo artist the possibility to record and release their own material with relatively little expense, it has also emphasized the lack of quality control of many such projects. Therefore, live performance has increasing become the benchmark by which to judge a band’s real worth. However, the diminishing opportunities – compounded by the cliquish mentality of a large part of the already fragmented prog audience –will probably to lead to the demise of many a fine outfit, discouraged and frustrated by the lack of support. It is immensely sad to see such gifted musicians grateful for the opportunity to play before a handful of people.

This situation has also impacted my own enthusiasm for writing about music, There is only so much that a reviewer/critic can do to support the scene, when it is the fans themselves who seem to be hell-bent on destroying the motivation of artists who already face considerable struggles in getting their music across in an oversaturated market while dealing with the demands of real life. As much as I like to listen to music at home, nothing beats the experience of a live show, and it will be a sad day when only big (i.e. commercially successful) names will be able to perform on stage.

Links:
http://www.ephemeralsun.com

http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

http://www.dc-soar.org

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Houndstooth Pt. 1 (4:04)
2. Houndstooth Pt. 2 (5:29)
3. Expo ’67 (5:04)
4. Flossing With Buddha (4:35)
5. Message From Uncle Stan: Grey Shirt (8:29)
6. Message From Uncle Stan: Green House (3:49)
7. Saffron Myst (4:02)
8. Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service (7:46)

LINEUP:
Graham Epp – electric guitars, MicroMoog, Farfisa Organ, Farf Muff, ARP String Ensemble, Korg MS2000, electric and acoustic pianos
Jesse Warkentin – electric guitars, MicroMoog, Farfisa Organ, Farf Muff, ARP String Ensemble, Korg MS2000, electric and acoustic pianos
Scott Ellenberger –  electric and acoustic bass, Briscoe organ, percussion
Andy Rudolph – drums, percussion, electronics

With:
Eric Lussier – harpsichord (8)

At the end of February 2012, Mahogany Frog played two dates in the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo – one of the largest cities in the world, and the birthplace of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a tragic accident in 1994. The sixth album of the Canadian quartet is dedicated to this legendary figure, who enjoys the status of national hero in his native country.

Based in Winnipeg (Manitoba), and named after an amphibian from south-east Asia, Mahogany Frog have been together since the late Nineties, and released six albums with different lineups – founders Jesse Warkentin and Graham Epp being the only constant members of the band. Senna, released in September 2012 by New York label Moonjune Records, comes four years after DO5, their first album for Moonjune. Besides their recording activity, Mahogany Frog are quite busy on the live front, gigging regularly in Canada and occasionally elsewhere: in 2010 they were invited to perform at the 16th edition of ProgDay, and wowed the crowd with their unique brand of wildly eclectic instrumental progressive rock.

Before Senna’s release, Mahogany Frog had undergone another lineup change, as drummer Jean-Paul Perron (who had been with the band since its inception) was replaced with Andy Rudolph, an electronic performance artist whose expertise with drum machines as well as a traditional kit adds a keen contemporary edge to the jazz-tinged, psychedelic wall of sound produced by the band. With all members possessing multi-instrumentalist skills, and  switching effortlessly from keyboards (both analog and digital) to guitars and all sorts of cutting-edge electronic gadgets, Mahogany Frog’s music is at the same time cheerfully chaotic and sharply energizing –  a collection of soundscapes that throw together a multitude of influences with wild abandon and unabashed eclecticism, but also with a method to its madness. Not surprisingly, the band have managed to land concert opportunities that most prog bands can only dream of – and that in spite of the often counterproductive “progressive rock” tag. While paying homage to Seventies trailblazers such as Soft Machine and early Pink Floyd, Mahogany Frog also embrace modern trends such as post-rock and even techno and trip-hop, seasoning the heady brew of their sound with the ambient-like flavour of field recordings of birds and whales.

The juxtaposition of organic warmth and state-of-the-art technology is revealed right from  the intro of  “Houndstooth Pt 1”, suggesting the sound of an engine being started (in keeping with the album’s title and cover artwork). The solemn drone of the organ evokes Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets, and the mix of piercing slide guitar, rugged riffing and wacky electronic effects rivets the attention. “Houndstooth Pt 2” pushes distorted, almost Hendrixian guitar chords to the fore with a strong space-rock matrix, mingled with an atmospheric surge propelled by Andy Rudolph’s authoritative drumming. The compact, dense riffing and whistling synth in “Expo ‘67” are tempered by organ sweeps redolent of The Doors and a clear, sharp guitar solo; while bucolic birdsong introduces the lively, dance-like pace of “Flossing With Buddha”, in which layers of keyboards are bolstered by Andy Rudolph’s powerful drums.

The second half of the album opens with the sparse texture of “Message From Uncle Stan: Grey Shirt” (the longest track on the album), resting on strident, almost industrial sound effects, but soon evolving into an exhilarating guitar duel, backed by assertive organ and clearly inspired by Ennio Morricone’s iconic style. The shorter “Message From Uncle Stan: Green House” starts out slowly with a faintly ominous, spacey drone, then the organ signals a sudden, crescendo-like change of pace. Then, after the brief respite of the airy, electronic mood piece of “Saffron Myst”, chaos erupts with “Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service”, where buzzing feedback and metal-tinged riffing coexist with a field recording of whales, as well as an unexpected harpsichord finale with an elegant, almost classical lilt.

Clocking in at a very restrained 43 minutes, with only one of the 8 tracks exceeding the 8-minute mark, Senna makes the most of its highly concentrated musical content, striking a nearly perfect balance between inventiveness and sheer energy – a rare achievement even for an all-instrumental album. It also shows a band at the top of their game, whose expressive power seems to have been honed by their four-year break between albums. Indeed, Mahogany Frog deliver the kind of music that has the potential to appeal to a large cross-section of the non-mainstream audience – not just dyed-in-the-wool prog fans, but also those who actually believe in the original meaning of that pesky “progressive” word. A highly recommended album, Senna is definitely one of the most consistently strong releases of the year.

Links:
http://www.mahoganyfrog.com

http://www.myspace.com/mahoganyfrog

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Paradox (7:11)
2. Stravinsky (with Bach intro) (11:32)
3. Future (7:17)
4. Don Juan (6:13)
5. Bliker 3 (10:15)
6. Etude Indienne (12:51)
7. Miles Away (4:15)
8. Transparansi (13:16)

LINEUP:
Adi Darmawan – bass guitar, piano (5)
Agam Hamzah – guitar
Gusti Hendi – drums, percussion

In Bahasa Indonesia, the language spoken in the vast south-east Asian archipelago, orgil means “crazy people”, and its backward spelling. Ligro, has been chosen as a handle by a fiery power trio led by guitarist extraordinaire Agam Hamzah – together with Tohpati Ario Hutomo, one of the hottest new names on the contemporary guitar scene. Dictionary 2 is the barnstorming international debut by Hamzah and his equally talented cohorts, bassist Adi Darmawan and drummer Gusti Hendi, released on NYC label Moonjune Records – whose mainman, Leonardo Pavkovic, keeps unearthing new gems in far-flung places like Indonesia, obscure to most Westerners in spite of their rich musical tradition. Formed in 2004, Ligro have already released an album (titled Dictionary 1), and participated to various musical events in their home country and abroad.

As pointed out on the band’s website, the three members have different cultural backgrounds –which might well surprise those Western listeners who are unaware of Indonesia’s history and cultural diversity. In particular, drummer Gusti Hendi originates from Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo), and a Gondang drum – a percussion instrument of the Batak people of Sumatra,  which he plays with a “Kalimantan beat” – seamlessly integrates with the rest of his Western-style kit. Ligro’s sound, on the other hand, is for the most part inspired by jazz-rock/fusion greats such as Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Mahavishnu Orchestra and their ilk – in this, a perfect complement to another excellent 2012 album coming from Indonesia, Tohpati Bertiga’s Riot.

As can be expected, the eight tracks on Dictionary 2 – ranging from the 4 minutes of the Miles Davis tribute of “Miles Away” to the 13 minutes of closer “Transparansi” – hinge on Hamzah’s scintillating guitar, which manages to run the gamut from understated, almost wistful melody to fiery, hard-edged runs and breathtaking bravura pieces. While Adi Damarwan’s bass provides a discreet but ever-present bottom end, its flexible, well-rounded sound emerging in selected occasions (such as the stunningly intricate interplay of “Etude Indienne”), Gusti Hendi proves to be Hamzah’s true sparring partner on the album. This becomes evident right from the opening bars of “Paradox”, where Hendi’s authoritative, cymbal-heavy style sets the pace for a barrage of stop-start riffs, repeated in different pitches until pace slows down, allowing Hamzah to deploy his more sensitive, melodic side. “Stravinsky”, one of the album’s undisputed highlights, is based on the titular composer’s “An Easy Piece Using Five Notes”, and introduced by a Bach-inspired intro sketched by guitar and bass. The low-key mood of the intro, however, soon gains in intensity, with drums and guitar sparring fiercely until the almost slo-mo ending. A respite is offered by the measured, melody-infused “Future”, and the bluesy yet subdued “Don Juan”, with its nod to vintage Jeff Beck.

While the lovely, classical-styled piano intro (courtesy of Adi Dimarwan) of the 10-minute “Bliker 3” might point to another low-key affair, this is only partly true, because the loose, almost improvisational texture of the track hides a keen sense of tension, complete with eerie spacey effects – and even veering into heavier territory in the track’s exhilarating climax. Hamzah and Dimarwan duel at often breakneck speed in the virtuoso piece “Etude Indienne”, which employs Indian scales traditionally played on the sitar; Hendi’s drumming, on the other hand, keeps a low profile until the end, when it resumes its assertive tone. As the tongue-in-cheek title suggests,”Miles Away” is the jazziest (and the shortest) number on the album, its choppy, jaunty pace somewhat muted in contrast with the earlier fireworks. The jam-like “Transparansi” closes the album with a bang, almost drawing together all the motifs previously introduced, and allowing Hendi to indulge in some traditional percussion work that adds a note of warmth to the slightly chaotic texture of the composition.

Clocking in at about 73 minutes, Dictionary 2 is undoubtedly an ambitious endeavour, though – quite unlike the majority of albums with such a hefty running time – it hardly ever outstays its welcome. The sheer amount of energy and enthusiasm that permeate almost every minute of the album make listening a much easier and more rewarding task than it would ordinarily be for an album half of whose tracks exceed the 10-minute mark. While the East-meets-West component is limited, the tantalizing input of ethnic elements increases the interest quotient of the ebullient, jazz-rock matrix of the sound. Last but not least, the striking cover artwork connects the album to the rich cultural tradition of Ligro’s homeland.  Dictionary 2 is highly recommended to guitar freaks and jazz-rock fans – and, in general, to anyone keen on discovering new frontiers in progressive music-making. Agam Hamzah, Adi Damarwan and Gusti Hendi are indeed “crazy people”, but in the best possible way.

Links:
http://www.ligrotrio.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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