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Archive for November, 2013

Relics+from+the+Wasteland

TRACKLISTING:
1. That’s a Malört (3:17)
2. Relapse (3:40)
3. Forty Flights (3:33)
4. Bardog  (4:03)
5. Trials of Cromulence (4:03)
6. The Camels Make the Rules (4:15)
7.  La Hojarasca (4:05)
8.  Crab Recess (2:37)
9.  Medea’s Dance of Vengeance (3:10)
10. Sarabande (5:18)
11. For Ellie (2:57)
12. Songs from the Wood (4:40)

LINEUP:
Aaron Geller – acoustic guitar
Andy Tillotson – acoustic guitar
Tim McCaskey – acoustic guitar
Luis Nasser – acoustic bass

With:
Brian Harris – keyboards (10)

With their distinctive name that celebrates the joys of possibility, all-acoustic outfit Might Could started out as a duo formed by Andy Tillotson and Tim McCaskey when they were in graduate school at the University of Maryland. They expanded to a trio with the arrival of Aaron Geller in 2003, and finally became a quartet when Luis “Gordo” Nasser, who was at college with both founders, joined on acoustic bass. They released two albums, All Intertwined and Wood Knot,  in 2005 and 2007 respectively, before going on hiatus for a few years. Nasser, Tillotson and McCaskey are also members of Sonus Umbra, and Might Could’s third effort, Relics from the Wasteland, was released at the end of August 2013, at the same time as Sonus Umbra’s Winter Soulstice.

For all their high technical quotient, acoustic guitar albums can fail to impress some progressive rock fans, who may not fully appreciate the subtlety of music that dispenses with the conventional trappings of rock – without realizing that a band such as Might Could  can produce as much complexity as the average prog band with their lush keyboard textures and  intricate arrangements. Additionally, as exciting an instrument as the electric guitar can be, it can occasionally come across as ham-fisted if compared to the versatility of its acoustic counterpart – which can be in some ways compared to that of the human voice. Even if acoustic guitar albums can be perceived by some as one-dimensional, Relics from the Wasteland proves this common misconception quite wrong, displaying as many layers of complexity and as wide a range of influences as any “real” prog album.  In fact, the presence of Luis Nasser’s acoustic bass adds a depth that compensates for the lack of a conventional rock rhythm section, and the riveting interplay between the three guitars possesses a natural elegance all too often disguised by an electric instrumentation.

Relics from the Wasteland’s 12 tracks – none longer than 5 minutes – were all written by Geller, Nasser and Tillotson, with the sole exception of the band’s first two covers: an intense rendition of Samuel Barber’s “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance”, with its spiraling lead guitar, and a version of Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood”. The entertaining liner notes relate the story of some of the titles, mixing family life (the delightful “Crab Recess” and “For Ellie”) with good-natured debauchery (“That’s a Malört” and “Bardog”), and creating a connection between musicians and listeners that accentuates the intimate nature of music such as this – made of a palette of subtle nuances rather than bold brushstrokes.

As acoustic guitar music is often associated with the Spanish and Latin tradition, it is not surprising to find a definite Latin flavour right in opener “That’s a Malört”, as well as the sprightly “La Hojarasca”. The lovely, pensive “Relapse”, with its circular structure, and the lilting “Crab Recess” emphasize the band’s more subdued side, while in “Forty Flights” and “Bardog” pace and mood shift nimbly, juxtaposing moments of bouncy energy with pauses of melodic reflection. “Trials of Cromulence” and “The Camels Make the Rules” explore more complex territory, the former introducing some frantic riffs and dynamic percussive patterns in an almost counterpointal structure, the latter unfolding like a conversation between the three guitars, with the bass in a solid supporting role. “For Ellie”, after a very low-key start, turns into a lively homage to Django Reinhardt’s “gypsy jazz” style, while the swaying dance movement of “Sarabande” is fleshed out by organ (courtesy of Sonus Umbra’s keyboardist Brian Harris). An amazingly faithful cover of “Songs from the Wood” wraps up the album, the guitars recreating the vocal interplay of the original, while the bass comes into its own in the second half of the song, with some great percussive effects.

Relics from the Wasteland is highly recommended to lovers of acoustic, progressive-oriented instrumental music such as California Guitar Trio, Béla Fleck or Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett’s side project Fernwood. This is the kind of music that shines in a live setting, highlighting ensemble playing as well as each musician’s individual style. The cover artwork by New England artist Elizabeth Moss, striking in its stark, almost primitive style, rounds out a classy package that will appeal to all fans of sophisticated music, especially those keen to explore the intriguing soundscapes created by acoustic string instruments..

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Might-Could/85937785745

https://mightcouldguitars.bandcamp.com/

https://myspace.com/mightcould/music/album/relics-from-the-wasteland-19221682

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Terra Sancta (12:25)
2. Move Over I’m Driving (7:58)
3. Pasta Fazeuhl (14:02)
4-6. Under Wuhu Son:
In the Bright Light (8:22)
Left for Dead (5:36)
Brace Against the Fall (6:15)
7. From the Fence (12:05)
8. Belgian Boogie Board (10:31)

LINEUP:
Bill Ayasse – violin, viola, mandolin, hand percussion, vocals
Frank Camiola – electric guitar, banjo, string bass
James Guarnieri – drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion
John Lieto – trombone and bass trombone
Nick Lieto – lead vocals, piano, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
Andrew Sussman – electric bass, cello, acoustic guitar

With:
Sharon Ayasse – flute (3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
Dennis Lippe – electric guitar (1, 7)
Dee Harris – Indian slide guitar, tambora (1)
Nitim Mohan-  tabla (1)
Vessela Stoyanova – marimba (1, 4, 5, 6)
Michael Kollmer – marimba, xylophone (3, 8)
Jon Preddice – cello (3, 8)
Steven Sussman – clarinet, bass clarinet (4, 5, 6, 8)
Steve Katsikas – keyboards (4)
Mike Kauffman – alto and tenor saxophones (8)

Though my reviewing efforts usually focus on recent releases, every now and then it feels good do break my own rules. This review should have been published three years ago on a different website, but, unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise. Almost unexpectedly, the opportunity for writing this long-overdue piece came barely over a month ago, when I had the privilege of seeing Frogg Café perform at the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend – a triumphant return to the stage after years of absence, and hopefully not a one-off.

Born towards the end of the 20th century in the New York metropolitan area as a Frank Zappa tribute band named Lumpy Gravy, Frogg Café have been through their share of lineup changes. However, their fifth studio album, Bateless Edge  – released in the early summer of 2010 – saw the return of their original lineup (including guitarist Frank Camiola),  augmented by trombonist John Lieto, who had appeared on their double live CD The Safenzee Diaries (2007). Although highly anticipated albums may often disappoint expectations, this is definitely not the case of Bateless Edge – an effort as monumental in scope as the odd-looking contraptions gracing its stylishly grungy cover in  muted shades of grey.

With the band’s six-piece configuration expanded by a host of guest musicians (including Steve Katsikas of 10T Records label mates Little Atlas) contributing a wide range of additional instruments, it is no wonder that Bateless Edge sounds big – symphonic in the true sense of the word. Indeed, in spite of the generic jazz-rock tag often attached to them, Frogg Café might be effectively described as the link between brass rock in the style of early Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Colosseum and progressive rock proper, with frequent forays into more experimental territory and a healthy balance between loose-textured jams and tighter, more disciplined compositions.

With a running time between 6 and over 20 minutes, the six tracks on Bateless Edge well represent their authors’ different personalities. Frank Camiola’s two ambitious contributions reflect his fascination with the more left-field fringes of the progressive spectrum (well displayed in his side project Cardboard Amanda’s eponymous 2006 album). The amusingly-titled “Pasta Fazeuhl” (inspired by Magma’s appearance at NEARfest 2003)  is a veritable rollercoaster ride in which angular Frippian guitar forms collide with brooding, cello-driven passages reminiscent of Univers Zéro and hauntingly military marches in true Magma style, with brief yet intriguing classical touches, freely blaring horns and wild bursts of guitar. Album closer “Belgian Boogie Board” was originally written in minimalistic form for the Cardboard Amanda album, but was then expanded and rearranged as a 28-page score involving almost as many instruments – a true tour-de-force that might easily be described as RIO meets brass rock, a joyful instance of controlled chaos.

Nick Lieto’s contributions, in stark contrast with Camiola’s, are definitely the most accessible on the album, emphasizing melody and a bright, upbeat mood. In the instrumental “Move Over I’m Driving”, Bill Ayasse’s sprightly violin and mandolin introduce folksy elements in its choppy, dance-like pace, to which the horns add a quasi-orchestral quality, and all the instruments take turns in a call-and-response pattern. On the other hand, “From the Fence”, for all its 12-minute running time, is the closest the album gets to a conventional song with a lovely, easy flow enhanced by Lieto’s expressive vocals and memorable, almost Beatlesian chorus; Ayasse’s stunning violin turn lends an appealing Old-World feel to the piece.

Andrew Sussman’s own two pieces bring those two strains together, with plenty of variety and a hint of an edge to temper the melodic quotient. “Terra Sancta”, dedicated to the children who lost parents in the 9/11 bombings, opens the album in authoritative yet catchy fashion (at odds with the stark, poignant lyrics), driven by buoyant horns and spiced by Eastern instruments such as the tabla and Indian slide guitar. A more somber, slightly dissonant section in the middle breaks this deceptively upbeat feel, with the guitar launching into a very expressive solo before the reprise of the main theme. The second of Sussman’s compositions, “Under Wuhu Son”,  is a three-part suite with another deeply emotional story behind it (this time a very personal one, as it refers to the musician and his family’s struggle to adopt a little Chinese girl), and acts as the album’s centerpiece also in a literal sense. The wistful, elegiac tone of “In the Bright Light”, intensified by lyrical violin, flute and marimba, segues into the surprisingly intense, metal-tinged riffing and forceful horns of the instrumental “Left for Dead”; then the intensity eases with the jaunty, melodic “Brace Against the Fall”, featuring a lovely guitar solo that shows Camiola’s more sensitive side.

Although my regular readers know that I am generally very critical of albums that I perceive to be excessively long, I will make an exception for Bateless Edge – the only album I have heard in the past few years whose almost 80-minute running time hardly has any negative impact on its quality. While there might be a bit of self-indulgence here and there, the overall level of the music is so high that those occasional lapses can easily be overlooked. With its tight musicianship and eclectic compositional approach, Bateless Edge celebrates the pleasure of music-making by offering the sonic equivalent of a lavish banquet. Though most dedicated prog fans will already have heard the album by now, those who have missed it would do well to give it a listen – or possibly more than one, as this is easily one of the best releases of the past few years.

Links:
http://www.froggcafe.com/

http://10trecords.com/

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SETLISTS:

Shadow Circus
Overture
Daddy’s Gone
Whosit, Whatsit and Which
Make Way for the Big Show
Tesseract
Uriel
Camazotz
The Battle for Charles Wallace
Willoughby

Edensong
To See But Not Believe
Reunion
Cold City
Water Run
Nocturne
Years in the Garden of Years
In the Longest of Days
The Sixth Day
Beneath the Tide

After the successful outcome of their first festival, just one month ago, the unstoppable NJ Proghouse ‘staph’ have not been resting on their laurels, and have continued in their commendable mission of providing a showcase for the best progressive music at the local, national and international level. With an impressive series of shows already planned for the next few months (and some more yet to be confirmed) the group of passionate music fans based in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley have turned into a force to be reckoned with – especially now that they can count on the quaint yet welcoming premises of Dunellen’s Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse as a regular venue.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to head north from my Northern Virginia home (though this time on my own) to attend the highly awaited debut of Shadow Circus at the NJ Proghouse, which also coincided with their very first outing with their new lineup. I had last seen the band one year ago at the Orion Studios, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and a few weeks before the official release of their critically acclaimed third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night – a show that had been plagued by a number of technical issues and had seen a less than stellar turnout. Unexpected lineup changes had prevented the band from performing again for quite a long time, in spite of the album’s positive reception. Understandably, this show right on their home turf was of paramount importance for the band led by guitarist John Fontana and vocalist David Bobick. For the occasion, they had teamed up with another local band, Edensong (who had performed at ProgDay 2009) – a very interesting pairing, seen as the two outfits’ approach to progressive rock is at the same time similar and different.

It felt oddly comforting to be back at Roxy and Dukes after a month that, for me, had been fraught with stressful events. The low-ceilinged, dimly lit interior of the venue, with its endearingly kitschy décor, looked much roomier with the tables arranged in groups of two or three  rather than in long rows, making it easier for people to move around. The turnout was not too bad for a late Sunday afternoon, and there were quite a few familiar faces among the audience. Indeed, the  Proghouse ‘staph’, together with the Roxy and Dukes staff, have created a warm, friendly ambiance for both performers and attendees, so that every show feels like a house party that invites people to linger rather than depart abruptly when the music is over.

Shadow Circus had been announced as performing their latest album in its entirety – which turned out to not to be strictly true, as the lovely, ethereal “Ixchel” was omitted for technical reasons (i.e. the lack of a female backup vocalist). However, the album’s overall impact was not lessened in the least, and the band’s two newest members – bassist Chris Valentine and drummer Campbell Youngblood-Petersen – looked perfectly at ease, projecting enthusiasm and self-confidence  as well as showing considerable skill with their respective instruments.

Decked in black as usual – with only keyboardist David Silver’s snazzy jacket’s bright red lapels adding a touch of colour – Shadow Circus delivered an energetic performance, deploying all the theatrical flair of their material and their trademark blend of classic symphonic prog and hard rock, powerful yet melodic and accessible. John Fontana – looking highly concentrated and just a bit tense – cranked out riffs and blistering solos on his trusty blue axe, while Silver’s impassive mien belied the exuberance of his Emerson-inspired keyboard runs (and that in spite of a few technical glitches). Sporting a purple-dyed beard and round mirrored shades, his microphone decorated with a large silver cross in pure Black Sabbath style, David Bobick handled his master-of-ceremonies duties with consummate ease. He introduced the album’s back story as soon as he appeared on stage at the end of the grandiose instrumental “Overture”, then put his theatrical training to good use while belting out the songs with gusto. The band wrapped up their set with one of their undisputed crowd-pleasers, “Willoughby”, which got the audience to sing along to the infectious chorus.

Originally formed in 2002 by guitarist/composer James Byron Schoen when attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Edensong have been through a myriad of lineup changes before and after the release of their full-length debut, The Fruit Fallen (2008), which included songs dating back from the early days of the band. Though not exactly prolific, they are very eclectic in their approach, blending classic prog with a host of other influences ranging from Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel to modern progressive metal. This eclecticism was amply displayed on the Roxy and Dukes stage, where Edensong proved that they are not just a heavier version of Jethro Tull (as some have labeled them). Obviously, the prominent role of the flute – used as a lead instrument as much as the guitar or the keyboards – will elicit comparisons with Ian Anderson’s crew, but Edensong’s music also possesses a keen contemporary edge  and an intriguingly dark, mysterious vibe.

Though I was somewhat tired when they got on stage, I could not help admiring the dramatic intensity of their sound (albeit with a strong undercurrent of melody) and their impressive stage presence. The youthful quintet’s bohemian appearance, which reminded me a bit of The Tea Club, intensified the music’s emotional impact.  Bare-chested flutist Barry Seroff very physical approach to his instrument matched the engaging antics of bassist TD Towers (a dead ringer for a young Ian Anderson, clothes included), and keyboardist Stefan Paolini drew the eye with his bright red pants. Drummer Tony Waldman kept up with Towers’ unflagging energy, while James Byron Schoen himself, though more sedate in demeanor, cut a striking figure with his red beard, jaunty hat and Steven Wilson-like bare feet. While his voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, I found it fit the music really well, and his edgy yet melodic guitar playing was not at all affected by this double duty. The band performed a selection of songs from The Fruit Fallen and their 2010 EP Echoes of Edensong, plus three songs (“Cold City”, “Years in the Garden of Years” and “In the Longest of Days”) from their forthcoming new album, which will be based on the concept of time.

As usual, attendance could have been higher, especially considering that the show ended no later than 9.15 p.m. Unfortunately, it seems that any band who does not feature attractive young women or members of prog’s old guard will have to be content with drawing no more than 50 people. On the other hand, it was heartening to see two bands sharing the stage on equal footing (no headliners and openers, and the same time allotted to both) and obviously admiring and supporting each other’s work. This was my fourth time seeing Shadow Circus perform live, and I am glad to say that the band has grown both in self-assurance and musical stature. As for Edensong, I will be looking forward to their new album, and hope to see them again on stage soon. On the whole, the evening was definitely worth the trip, and my only regret is that Roxy and Dukes is not closer to our home.

Links:
http://www.njproghouse.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Open the Door, See the Ground (10:17)
2. Conversation (8:02)
3. Pop Sick Love Carousel (6:16)
4. Reverie #2 (14:51)
5. Love Letter from Canada (4:26)
6. Dangerous Kitchen (9:04)
7. A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love (10:48)

LINEUP:
Reza Ryan – guitar
Adi Wijaya – keyboards
Enriko Gultom – bass
Alfiah Akbar – drums

With:
Nicholas Combe – sax (6, 7)

With their rather intriguing handle (allegedly referring to a former girlfriend of guitarist Reza Ryan’s), accompanied by equally intriguing cover artwork, I Know You Well Miss Clara are the latest gem unearthed by Moonjune Records’ Leonardo Pavkovic in the thriving Indonesian music scene. The quartet join fellow countrymen simakDialog, Tohpati and Ligro on the New York label’s ever-growing roster of progressive artists with their debut album, aptly titled Chapter One. Formed in 2010 in the erstwhile Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta (which is also a renowned centre for Javanese classical art and culture) when its members were studying at the Indonesia Institute for the Arts, the band caught Pavkovic’s attention during one of his frequent trips to South-East Asia in search of new talent.

As pointed out in the liner notes (penned by esteemed music writer and King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), Chapter One was recorded in 18 hours, all of the tracks being first or second takes – a testimony to the band’s energy and enthusiasm for their craft. The album itself offers a refreshing take on the classic jazz-rock template so well interpreted in the Seventies by the likes of Return to Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra – the latter being by far the biggest influence on the band’s sound. Canterbury outfits such as Hatfield and the North and National Health are also a clear source of inspiration for I Know You Well Miss Clara, as indicated by a playful exuberance that speaks volumes about the  members’ enjoyment of music-making, coupled (though never in conflict) with a very high level of technical proficiency.

If compared with simakDialog (whose latest album, The 6th Story, was released at the same time as Chapter One) I Know You Well Miss Clara are more firmly rooted in the Western jazz-rock tradition, with a lone drummer (the excellent Alfiah Akbar) employing a standard kit rather than a trio of kendang percussionists. Although their sound also places a stronger emphasis on guitar (which is not surprising, seen as Reza Ryan is the main composer), none of the four band members prevails on the other or indulges in showing off his skills. Opening track “Open the Door, See the Ground” starts out sedately, then veers into a more experimental mood, with dramatic drums and whooshing, spacey synth complementing Ryan’s sizzling yet tasteful solo. The interplay between the guitar and Adi Wijaya’s piano (both electric and acoustic) is spotlighted in the appropriately-titled “Conversation”, a more laid-back piece with an entrancing ebb-and-flow movement and plenty of melody. This elegant yet accessible approach, injected with sudden surges of energy driven by organ and guitar, is also pursued in the Canterbury-flavoured“Pop Sick Love Carousel”; while the album’s centerpiece, the almost 15-minute “Reverie #2”, starts out at a slow-burning pace, then gradually gains momentum – both piano and guitar emoting in almost improvisational fashion, bolstered by Enriko Gultom’s nimble bass lines – slowing down again towards the end.

The shortest track on the album at around 4 minutes, “Love Letter From Canada” is also the most unusual: a haunting, emotional ambient study of surging keyboard washes, sparse guitar  and cascading cymbals, it hints at interesting future developments in the band’s sound. Its mood is briefly reprised at the beginning of “Dangerous Kitchen”, which then morphs into a leisurely jazzy piece where guest Nicholas Combe’s sax and guitar work almost in unison, leaving some room for a bit of improvisation before the end. A lovely tribute to Ryan’s idol John McLaughlin – by the amusingly tongue-in-cheek title of “A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love” – closes the album in style, referencing the iconic “Dance of Maya” (from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame) in a buoyant, dance-like ride interspersed by pensive, sax-led passages before its exhilarating, almost cinematic finale.

Clocking in at around 63 minutes, Chapter One is never at risk of overstaying its welcome in spite of the length of the majority of its tracks. Successfully blending serious chops with engaging spontaneity and enthusiasm, I Know You Well Miss Clara’s debut is one of the best instrumental albums released in 2013 so far, and will delight devotees of classic jazz-rock/fusion – especially those who prize emotion over an excess of technical fireworks. Hopefully the band will follow in simakDialog’s footsteps and visit the US as soon as possible.

Links:
http://iknowyouwellmissclara.weebly.com/index.html

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/chapter-one

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/057_I-KNOW-YOU-WELL-MISS-CLARA_Chapter-One_MJR057/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. La roue (3:43)
2. Cobra Fakir (8:53)
3. RVB7 (3:56)
4. Paris-Roubaix (2:14)
5. Titan (4:17)
6. Un cas sibérien (2:28)
7. Speed-dating sur Mars (7:07)
8. Tandem (8:23)
9. Maringouin (3:41)
10. Space Cowboy (3:11)
11. Expérience 7 (2:27)

LINEUP:
Pascal Globensky – keyboards, synths, piano
Rémi Leclerc – drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable
Bernard Falaise – guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable

Born in 1980 from the meeting of keyboardist Pascal Globensky and multi-instrumentalist François Émon, French Canadian band Miriodor can be counted amongst the veterans of the current progressive rock scene. Surprisingly, despite the many changes the lineup has undergone in the past three decades, Globensky and drummer Rémi Leclerc, another of the band’s earliest members, are still on board – as is guitarist Bernard Falaise, who has been with the band for 20 years even if not part of its original configuration.

Never a prolific outfit, with only eight studio albums released since their inception and lengthy breaks between each new release, Miriodor seem to have embraced the old tenet about quality trumping quantity. They have also maintained a healthy level of concert activity throughout the years, with high-profile performances at international events such as NEARfest in 2002, FMPM in 2007 and 2008, the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux (France) and Sonic Circuits in Washington DC (where they opened for Univers Zéro) in 2010. Cobra Fakir, their eighth studio album, was finally released on Cuneiform Records at the end of September 2013, a few weeks after their appearance at the 19th edition of ProgDay. Though the album was recorded as a trio, Miriodor have gone back to being a quartet with the addition of bassist Nicolas Lessard, who replaced longtime member Nicolas Masino.

As one of the landmark progressive rock releases of the first decade of the 21st century, Miriodor’s 2009 album, Avanti!, was a tough act to follow. Cobra Fakir, however, though it obviously shares a lot with its predecessor, it also shows the band moving in a somewhat different direction. While their sound – sometimes described as the “happy” counterpart to Univers Zéro austere gloom – is immediately recognizable, the band have made some changes to their compositional approach. Unlike Avanti!, which featured six longish tracks, Miriodor’s latest effort presents a wider range of running times, from the almost 9 minutes of the title-track to 2-minute interludes such as “Paris-Roubaix” (a perfect sonic rendition of the titular bicycle race with its layers of slightly atonal keyboards) and the appealingly noisy, almost improvisational “Un cas sibérien”. A longer track list also means a more noticeable diversity –  with the shorter compositions providing an outlet for experimentation, often involving an array of inventive sound effects. Though there are no guests contributing to Cobra Fakir, this does not necessarily result in a more stripped-down sound, and very few listeners will miss Avanti!’s richer instrumentation.  In fact, the album perfectly demonstrates how multilayered keyboards, far from becoming a byword for bombast, can be used for rhythmic as well as melodic and textural purposes.

Leisurely acoustic guitar introduces “La roue”, whose upbeat main theme – as its title (“The Wheel”) suggests – hints at carnival music, offset by angular, somewhat darker patterns around the middle, and reinforced by sounds of clanging metal, breaking glass and the scratchy turntable effects that crop up throughout the album. The title-track sums up the album’s many faces in its 9 minutes of musical whirlwind – the sedate, meditative first half rendering in sonic terms the tale of the cobra and the fakir outlined in the liner notes, followed by a myriad of tempo and mood changes, often sharply veering towards dissonance yet always informed by an internal logic, then coming full circle with its melancholy, acoustic close. Only a handful of seconds shorter, “Tandem” has a more cohesive structure and an almost classical feel, with sampled flute and harpsichord complementing the piano and synth, and a plethora of sound effects intensifying the trippy, guitar-heavy mood of the ending.

In “RVB7”, assorted percussive effects and the crystalline tinkle of the vibraphone create an amazing blend of sounds that enhances the keyboards and guitar in a lively, dance-like pace; while “Titan” hinges on a brooding, cinematic crescendo punctuated by organ, solemn drum rolls, and surging, distorted guitar, creating a Gothic atmosphere that evokes Univers Zéro. Without any need for words, “Speed-dating sur Mars” tells an entertaining tale through  spacey effects and a sprightly, keyboard-led rhythm, as well as a brief, romantic piano interlude. More spacey goodness (as the title makes it quite obvious) is offered by “Space Cowboy”, where electronic effects hold sway, while melody, infused with a nostalgic Old-World flavour and the gentle sway of a waltz, is the key word in “Maringouin”, easily the most “mainstream” piece on the album. “Experiénce 7” wraps up the album with a short yet intense exercise in atmospheric buildup, conducted almost solely by surging keyboard washes and eerie sound effects.

With its intriguing cover art juxtaposing Hindu mysticism and their native Québec’s winter landscape, Cobra Fakir may well confirm Miriodor’s status as the RIO/Avant band that – on account of their keen melodic flair coexisting with more boundary-pushing tendencies – manages to appeal even to staunch symphonic/neo fans. Balancing edgy dissonance and  haunting atmospheres, engaging circus-like tunes and moments of reflection, the album will benefit from repeated listens in order to let its magic unfold, but will amply reward the listener’s patience. Another outstanding effort from one of the best live bands I have seen in the past few years – their understated mastery of their instruments as close to perfection as it gets – Cobra Fakir does not disappoint expectations, and will certainly feature in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://miriodor.com/wp/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Stepping In (10:01)
2. Lain Parantina (9:06)
3. Harmologic (3:52)
4. What I Would Say (6:17)
5. For Once and Never (6:29)
6. Common League (3:53)
7. As Far As It Can Be (Jaco) (8:01)
8. 5, 6 (4:38)
9. Ari (6:52)

LINEUP:
Riza Arshad – Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano, synth, soundscapes
Tohpati – guitar
Adhitya Pratama - bass
Endang Ramdan – Sundanese kendang percussion (left)
Erlan Suwardana – Sundanese kendang percussion (right)
Cucu Kurnia – assorted metal percussion

Undoubtedly the best-known modern Indonesian outfit in a progressive rock/jazz context, simakDialog have attracted a cult following in the West since the release of their 2007 live album Patahan (their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records), followed in 2009  by Demi Masa. Formed in 1993 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by jazz-trained keyboardist Riza Arshad and guitarist extraordinaire Tohpati Ario Hutomo, the band released three albums – Lukisan, Baur and Trance/Mission – between 1995 and 2002 before Pavkovic took them under his wing and gave them international recognition. After a series of mishaps (including the cancellation of NEARfest 2011, where they were scheduled to appear), their long-awaited US tour – which coincided with the release of their fifth studio album, The 6th Story – finally materialized in the late summer of 2013, kicking off with a headlining performance at ProgDay that was unfortunately interrupted by heavy rain, and wrapped up by a very well-attended show at the Orion Studios, introduced by French avant-garde trio Jean-Louis.

As used and abused as the “East meets West” definition can be, there is no better way to describe simakDialog’s music to the uninitiated. Alongside electric guitar, bass and that iconic cornerstone of jazz-rock, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the six-piece configuration of the band features a trio of percussionists in the style of the traditional gamelan ensembles – Erdang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing the Sundanese two-headed kendang drums, and Cucu Kurnia (the band’s most recent addition) handling metal percussion. The result is a uniquely warm sound with a remarkably natural flow, capable of flashes of angularity and even brief forays into noise, yet never overwrought. In addition, though each of simakDialog’s members is a virtuoso of his own instrument, the band emphasize ensemble playing at its finest rather than technical flash, with individual skills put at the service of the composition rather than the other way round.

SimakDialog’s music, on the other hand, may not prove to be the easiest proposition for those who are used to the in-your-face antics of many traditional prog bands. Subtlety is the operative word on The 6th Story, and that in itself requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener. Their leisurely, unhurried approach to live performance has also more in common with Eastern than Western tradition, focusing on the sheer joy of playing and the creation of subtle moods rather than the head-on adrenaline rush of the standard rock concert.

Clocking in at a handful of seconds under an hour, The 6th Story (the band’s first entirely instrumental album in over 10 years) opens with “Stepping In”, the album’s longest track, which aptly illustrates simakDialog’s  modus operandi. While the sinuous interplay of Tohpati’s guitar and Riza Arshad’s scintillating Fender Rhodes immediately leaps out from the speakers, it is the joyful mayhem of the three percussionists that impresses in the long run, bolstered by Adithya Pratama’s impeccable bass emerging every now and then in the foreground. The track unfolds with supreme elegance, spiced up by sound effects that turn slightly chaotic towards the end. The 9-minute “Lain Parantina” also conveys a sunny, bright feel with its oddly catchy main theme and skillfully handled tempo changes, gaining momentum then slowing down to an almost sparse texture,  held together by the steady stream of percussion. Tohpati’s guitar is spotlighted in the much shorter “Harmologic”, while the piano takes an almost supporting role, working almost as an additional percussion instrument. In the second shortest track on the album, “Common League”, soundscapes add an intriguing note to the lively yet fluid sparring of piano and guitar.

SimakDialog’s more energetic side surfaces in “5,6”, where Tohpati displays his rock credentials (amply demonstrated in his power trio Tohpati Bertiga’s 2012 debut, Riot) with a distorted guitar solo; while the upbeat “For Once and Never” revolves around the expressive, almost conversational interplay of the two main instruments, supported by Pratama’s versatile bass. The discreet, laid-back “What Should I Say” pleases the ear with its smooth sounds, and “As Far As It Can Be (Jaco)” – a tribute to the ground-breaking bassist written by Arshad together with fellow Indonesian musician Robert M.K. – takes on a suitably elegiac tone, full of lovely, stately melody. “Ari” then closes the album by giving synth a leading role alongside the piano, with the ever-reliable percussion background seconding the music’s ebb and flow.

For the audiophile, headphones will be a must in order to savour The 6th Story in full, as letting it run in the background will definitely not do any favours to the music’s understated elegance.  Although the album may resonate more with jazz fans than the average prog audience, it is highly recommended to all open-minded listeners, especially those who enjoy the influence of different ethnic traditions on established Western modes of expression. All in all, The 6th Story is an extremely classy  effort (and one of the standout releases of 2013) from a group of very nice, unassuming and talented musicians, whom I hope to see again in the US very soon.

Links:
http://simakdialog.com

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/artists_mjr/simakDialog/

https://myspace.com/simakdialog/music/songs

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trancelucid5

TRACKLISTING:
1. TM (3:33)
2. Spyglass (4:47)
3. Illumination (4:03)
4. Pocket (3:31)
5. The Crossing (3:29)

Palace of Ether:
6. Many Rooms (2:47)
7. Saints in Stone (3:25)
8. Dream of Antiquity (4:34)
9. Painted Dancer (1:51)
10. Actors in Armor (2:56)
11. Before the Idiots (3:51)
12. Vox of Silence (2:02)
13. Horsemen at the Gate (2:13)
14. Nightlit Moons (2:34)
15. Remembrance (5:40)

LINEUP:
Dave Halverson – guitar, synthesizer, bass
Terry Lee – drums, percussion
Richard Bugbee – keyboards

With:
Damien Gonzalez – bass (1)

Although they have been around for about 20 years, Oakland-based outfit Trance Lucid have managed to keep under the radar of the majority of progressive rock fans. Formed in 1993 by guitarist Dave Halverson and drummer Terry Lee, the band released their debut album, Arise, in 1996, followed by Vigil (2000) and The Colors of Darkness (2005). Very active on the live front in the Bay Area, at the end of 2007 Trance Lucid also released a live album, Unrevisited Live, which included 11 previously unreleased compositions performed at five different shows. After a few years’ hiatus, the band regrouped with the addition of keyboardist Richard Bugbee and Halverson himself replacing Bill Noertker on bass duties, and finally released their fifth album, Palace of Ether, in the summer of 2013. Halverson is also an established solo artist, with four albums to his name released between 2003 and 2009.

Stylishly packaged, with an appealing, sepia-toned vintage photo reproduced on the cover, Palace of Ether is a 51-minute slice of instrumental, guitar-based music that reflects the breadth of Halverson’s musical interests and sources of inspiration. While it can be loosely labeled as jazz-rock, Trance Lucid’s sound features elements of other genres, such as blues, funk, world music and even post-rock. Though Halverson’s guitar might be expected to dominate the proceedings, the other instruments are given ample space, and prove equally essential to the musical development of the compositions. The music featured on Palace of Ether runs the gamut from almost straightforward bluesy rock to haunting Oriental influences, showing Halverson’s versatility as a composer. His fluid, consistently melodic style steers clear of self-indulgence, and meshes perfectly with his bandmates’ accomplished input.

Palace of Ether is clearly divided in two halves, the first comprising five stand-alone tracks, the second a 32-minute, 10-part suite that, according to the band’s website, originated 15 years ago. With the exception of the slightly longer closing number “Remembrance” none of the tracks exceed 5 minutes; the album, however, comes across as remarkably tight. In fact, while the tracks may sound somewhat alike on the first couple of listens, the use of apparently similar themes contributes to the cohesive feel of the album.

Opener “TM” gives a taste of Halverson’s compositional approach with a raw-sounding riff in pure Hawkwind style, gradually morphing into a melodic yet somewhat rarefied variation on a single theme. His mastery of quiet-loud dynamics also comes out in the funky “Spyglass” and the brisk, electric “Pocket”, in which Richard Bugbee’s keyboard textures intensify the sense of mounting tension; while “Illumination” and “The Crossing” showcase Trance Lucid’s mellower side –  the latter highlighting the jazzy component of the band’s sound, Halverson’s guitar nicely underpinned by piano ripples, then gradually building up to an exhilarating finale.

As good as these tracks are, the Palace of Ether suite is the true focus of interest of the album, especially for progressive rock fans – and not merely on account of its running time. The twangy, sitar-like sound of the guitar on “Many Rooms” weaves a mystical, Eastern-tinged atmosphere, aptly conveying the “ethereal” nature of the title with the aid of surging mellotron washes – a subdued, entrancing mood that returns in “Saints in Stone”, and even more so in the lovely “Dream of Antiquity”, whose spacious yet carefully structured instrumental texture emphasizes Bugbee’s skillfully layered keyboards. The intricate guitar arpeggios in “Painted Dancer” boldly blend vintage psychedelic rock and hints of bluegrass, while “Vox of Silence” and “Horsemen at the Gate” veer towards an ambient-like direction. On the other hand, “Actors in Armor” “Before the Idiots” and “Remembrance” reprise the more energetic, blues- and jazz-inflected tone of the first half of the album, occasionally reminiscent of the work of Jeff Beck and Allan Holdsworth.

Though Trance Lucid may not be exactly a household name to most of the readers of this blog, Dave Halverson and his bandmates deserve to be more widely known on account of the quality of the music showcased on Palace of Ether. Indeed, both fans and practitioners of the six strings find a lot to appreciate in this eminently listenable album – with enough original ideas not to sound like a rehash of the work of other, better-known names, and avoiding the descent into self-indulgence that has been the undoing of many a would-be ”guitar hero”. Especially recommended to fans of Moonjune Records’ classy output, and instrumental rock in general, the album may need a few spins to click, but is definitely worth the effort.

Links:
http://www.trancelucid.com/home.html

http://www.davehalverson.com/

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