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Archive for December, 2013

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Pilman Radiant (26:15):
i. Visitation
ii. The Divine Vessel
iii. Wriggling Magnet
iv. Mosquito Mange
v. Divine Vessel’s Reprise
2. Complex #7 (4:47)
3. Tremors From the Future (11:15)

Bonus Live DVD:
1. Five Suns (32:19)
2. King Lindorm (14:19)

LINEUP:
Emmet Elvin – Fender Rhodes, organ, synth, harmonium, screeching guitar (1.i)
James Sedwards  – bass
Kavus Torabi – guitar, santoor
David J. Smith – drums, percussion, additional keyboards, santoor

With
:
Thomas Frasier Scott – soprano sax, alto sax, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon
Dave Newhouse – baritone sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, alto flute
Chloe Herington – bassoon
Sarah Anderson – violin, viola
Geri McEwan – violin
Sam Morris – French horn
Emma Sullivan – trumpet
Antti Uusimaki – additional keyboards and effects

After  having produced one of the most powerful album trilogies in recent times – Five Suns (2003), Black Oni (2004) and Elixirs (2008) – in the past few years British outfit Guapo seemed to have dropped off the radar. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’Sullivan’s departure following the release of Elixirs (which had been recorded as a duo by O’Sullivan and drummer David J. Smith after the departure of bassist/guitarist Matt Thompson in 2005) brought about a lengthy hiatus and rumours of the band’s demise. However, at the end of January 2013 Guapo resurfaced with a veritable bang – a brand-new studio album (their ninth), titled History of the Visitation, which also saw their return to the Cuneiform Records fold ten years after the career-defining Five Suns.

Lineup changes are nothing new in Guapo’s chequered history, which began in the mid-Nineties with the release of three EPs, and then unfolded with various recordings and collaborations. In the intervening years, the trio configuration that had recorded  Five Suns and Black Oni became a quartet with the addition of Iranian-born guitarist Kavus Torabi (of Cardiacs and Knifeworld fame, recently announced as the new guitarist for Gong) and bassist James Sedwards, while  keyboardist Emmett Elvin (like Sedwards, also a member of fellow Cuneiform outfit Chrome Hoof) replaced O’Sullivan in time for the recording of History of the Visitation.

Guapo are a textbook example of the mind-boggling variety to be found under the RIO/Avant umbrella – a label that, as is the case of bands such as miRthkon and Zevious, fits them only in part .Though the names of Magma and Univers Zéro often crop up in reviews of their material, those two seminal left-field bands are just a small part of Guapo’s musical identity in the second decade of the 21th century. The central role of David J. Smith (the only member left of the band’s original lineup) evokes comparisons with Christian Vander and Daniel Denis. However, Kavus Torabi’s pyrotechnic guitar skills lend to modern-day Guapo a keen, metal-like edge, while Emmett Elvin’s keyboards can weave heady, majestic textures in the best prog tradition, and James Sedwards’ rumbling bottom end often emerges from the fray to add another dimension to the uncompromisingly arcane, brooding nature of the band’s sound. The frequent repetition of lines and themes increases the hypnotic feel of the music in a fashion that brings to mind King Crimson and also some instances of post-rock.

Recorded with the assistance of a number of guest musicians (including The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse), History of the Visitation clocks in at a mere 42 minutes. The first of the album’s three tracks is a 26-minute, 5-movement suite titled “The Pilman Radiant” – a title that, just like the album’s own title, references the cult Russian science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic, written by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971, on which Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker is also based.  Guapo’s  moody yet hard-hitting music renders the intricate, visionary content of the story without any need for words, painting a picture that, in its own way, is as grandiose as any “classic” prog, though more viscerally intense.

Somewhat more streamlined than the monumental Five Suns and Black Oni suites, “The Pilman Radiant” wins my personal prize as best “epic” of 2013. Its five movements are easily distinguishable, yet they form an organic whole. Introduced by the surging layers of keyboards, assorted sound effects and crashing drums of “Visitation” – later reprised by the short, appropriately spacey “Mosquito Mange” – the suite comes into its own with the eerie, quietly brooding beauty of the waltz-like “The Divine Vessel”, led by fluid electric piano and unexpectedly melodic guitar; pace and intensity increase, propelled by drums and bass, in the driving “Wriggling Magnet”, in which Elvin’s roaring organ complements Torabi’s gorgeous, rock-styled solo turn, then a grittier, metal-edged reprise of “The Divine Vessel” brings this exhilarating musical experience to a close.

Strategically inserted between two much longer, more complex compositions, the 4-minute dark ambient piece of “Complex #7” skillfully piles up layers keyboards and assorted sound effects with the added contribution of reeds, creating a mounting sense of tension with the ominous feel of a horror-movie soundtrack.  On the other hand, “Tremors From the Future” concentrates a dizzying variety of twists and turns in slightly over 11 minutes, its skewed melodic development powered by guitar and organ sparring and interweaving while drums and bass evoke the titular tremors with their steadily pulsing movement.

The interest value of History of the Visitation gets a further boost from the presence of an almost 50-minute DVD featuring two of the band’s most iconic live performances from the past few years. The NEARfest 2006 performance of a somewhat shortened version of Five Suns, flawlessly shot in black and white, highlights Torabi’s flamboyant stage presence and boundless energy, as well as Smith’s role as the band’s rhythmic engine; while the more rudimentary quality of the video recorded the following year at the RIO festival does not detract at all from the power of the angular “King Lindorm” thanks to Udi Koomran’s top-notch mixing and mastering work.

In spite of the band’s reputation for scaring away some of the more conservative prog fans – also on account of the notoriously loud volume of their performances – History of the Visitation is a relatively more listener-friendly proposition than Guapo’s previous albums. The higher melodic content and skillfully achieved balance between hard-driving sections and more low-key ones are likely to surprise people who would not ordinarily appreciate anything bearing a RIO/Avant tag. Indeed, there are moments of sheer beauty on History of the Visitation that offset the band’s trademark looming darkness and wall-of-sound heaviness. With its toweringly Gothic atmosphere conveyed through stunning musicianship, this is definitely one of the year’s landmark releases.

Links:
http://guaponews.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/guapoband/info

http://guapo1.bandcamp.com/album/history-of-the-visitation

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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Barely 10 days after the passing of John Orsi, I find myself writing about the demise of another fine progressive rock musician whose work I had  the pleasure of reviewing on this blog.  Though Dave Kulju passed away on December 10, I only found out this morning – again, while scrolling down my Facebook feed. He would have turned 44 in January.

My first contact with Dave also happened when I was collaborating with that other website, and he sent me his second solo album, Notes From the Margin, for review. I remember being intrigued by his obviously Finnish surname (I lived in Finland from 1996 to 2001, and still have very fond memories of that country), though only later did I ask him if he had Finnish roots. Unfortunately, I did not get round to reviewing the CD on that occasion, so when we connected on Facebook a few months later I asked him to send me another copy. The album turned out to be a cut above the majority of the “solo pilot” projects I had reviewed in the past – marrying melody and accessibility with a genuine love of progressive rock, and paying homage to the genre’s glorious past without coming across as blatantly regressive.

In the past few months, Dave had been working on some new music, and towards the end of November he posted a video of a new song on his blog (which also hosted examples of his impressive photography, including quite a few shots from NEARfest Apocalypse). He had also been working with a couple of old friends with the intent of starting a band, and recorded two demos titled “Big Sur” and “Echoes of Warning”. In spite of his commitments to work and family, he always found the time for music, which was his greatest passion together with photography, computers and sports.

Although both Dave and I were in Bethlehem for the final edition of NEArfest, we managed to miss each other, but hoped there would be a next time in which to meet face to face. Sadly, fate decreed otherwise, and for the second time in this month of December – a month that has acquired a special poignancy for me since my mother’s passing at the end of 2004 – I have to mourn the passing of a talented artist and very nice human being. I hope those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Dave’s music will want to check it out and keep his memory alive.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Attend to Your Configuration (2:47)
2. Was Solis (6:02)
3. Pantocyclus (4:07)
4. White Minus Red (6:55)
5. Crime of Separate Action (6:32)
6. Entanglement (4:19)
7. A Tiller in a Tempest (3:15)
8. Passing Through the Wall (4:22)
9. This Could Be the End of the Line (2:23)
10. Plying the Cold Trade (8:02)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – bass

Four years after their barnstorming second album, the aptly-titled After the Air Raid, New York-based trio Zevious are back with their long-awaited third full-length CD, Passing Through the Wall, also released on Cuneiform Records. In the intervening years the band have maintained a brisk schedule of live performances – including the 2011 edition of ProgDay and, a couple of months later, Cuneifest at Baltimore’s Orion Studios. All three Zevious members are also involved in other projects, which pits them against the likes of Steven Wilson as the most hard-working people in progressive rock.

Zevious, like miRthkon and many of the bands and artists featured on these pages, stand on the outer limits of the progressive rock spectrum – that twilight zone that some would label as “progressive but not prog”, a definition that shows how for many fans the genre has become nothing more than a collection of dated mannerisms. The trio’s musical approach, however, is every bit as complex as the average “mainstream” prog band’s, though relying only on the essential rock instrumentation to create an impressive volume of sound characterized by a very high level of energy. Indeed, Zevious are definitely not for everyone, especially those who believe that the “progressive” in “progressive rock” has been stripped of its original meaning.

The definition of “King Crimson on steroids” that I used in my previous reviews of the band still holds true for Passing Through the Wall – perhaps even more so than for its predecessor. Zevious take the hauntingly repetitive, angular structure of pieces like “Red” or “Discipline” as a springboard, and inject it with an almost manic energy that owes a lot to metal and punk. As drummer Jeff Ebert, whose mind-boggling polyrhythms are at the core of the band’s sound, is also a member of hyper-technical metal band Dysrhythmia (with whom Zevious played some shows in November 2013), Zevious are seriously heavy, though in a different way than, for instance, miRthkon or Guapo – two bands that, like Zevious, straddle the line between Avant Progressive and experimental metal.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, and packaged in a minimalistic, black-and-white cover with an Escherian feel, Passing Through the Wall comprises 10 tracks ranging from 2 to 8 minutes – a structure both similar and different from their previous album. The shorter tracks emphasize energy and dynamic pacing, while the longer ones allow for more variation. However, those who are looking for dramatic shifts within the same track  in classic prog tradition are in for a disappointment, because at a first listen the compositions on the album may sound all rather alike. Tempo changes are handled subtly as a whole, and the music’s hard-driving intensity does not disguise the complexity of the instrumental interplay.

The imperiously-titled and –paced “Attend to Your Configuration” barges in with its relentless web of interlocking bass and guitar lines driven by Jeff Ebert’s acrobatic drumming, then slows down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the second half. In  the considerably longer “Was Solis” Mike Ebert’s clear-toned guitar weaves sinuously in and out the rumbling backdrop of Johnny DeBlase’s bass, sparring with the drums and occasionally going into slo-mo mode for atmospheric effect. “Pantocyclus” melds skewed melody and haunting, insistent pattern peppered by piercing guitar effects, while the strikingly Crimsonian “White Minus Red” is powered by a superb performance by DeBlase, the rhythmic foundation steadily surging and flowing, then gaining momentum towards the end. The slow, ominous strains of “Crime of Separate Action” wrap up the first half of the album, again showcasing DeBlase’s astonishing propulsive/textural bass work supporting Mike Eber’s eerily chiming guitar.

The first half of“Entanglement” pulls out all the stops in terms of escalating guitar assault,  with drums all over the place; in contrast, “A Tiller in the Tempest” slower, somewhat rarefied pauses relieve the tension of the tight instrumental work. The short, fast-paced “This Could Be the End of the Line” acts as an interlude of sorts between the two most distinctive pieces on the album – the title-track, with its uncharacteristically muted guitar-bass-drum pattern, whose understated intensity creates a heady, drone-like texture; and 8-minute closing track “Plying the Cold Trade”, whose dirge-like pace and somber, Gothic feel offer a rather sharp departure from the unrelenting energy of the previous numbers.

Obviously, Zevious are not going to encounter the favour of the average melodic prog fan, while their music should prove to be far more appealing to the younger generations, weaned on a diet of post/math rock, technical metal and crossover bands such as The Mars Volta. They are also one of those bands who – as good as they sound on CD – have to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, as their hard-driving yet sophisticated music gains a whole new dimension on stage. In any case, Passing Through the Wall is a riveting slice of modern progressive music, powerful and intricate though not devoid of melody, and definitely deserving to be heard with some measure of concentration. Highly recommended to all adventurous prog fans, this album is sure to be featured in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://zevioustrio.blogspot.com/

http://cuneiformrecords.com

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Yesterday, during my customary early morning ritual of checking my Facebook news feed, I came upon a piece of news that filled me with deep sadness – something that, at least subconsciously, I had been dreading for a while. An outstanding musician and wonderful human being whom I had had the privilege to befriend – albeit without meeting him face-to-face – had passed away suddenly, leaving this world quietly, like the true gentleman he was.

My first encounter with John Orsi will be forever tied to the beginnings of my “career” as an official reviewer for a long-established website, with which I collaborated for slightly over one year. Knitting By Twilight’s An Evening Out of Town was the first album I reviewed for that website, choosing it from a bunch of other CDs because of its title and lovely cover artwork – and also the fact that the band hailed from Providence, the home town of one of my favourite writers, H.P. Lovecraft. The music did not disappoint my expectations, and I gave the album an enthusiastic assessment, accompanied by a high rating. Before that, most of my reviews had dealt with relatively high-profile albums in my collection. When, a couple of months later,  John sent me a note of thanks, I had my first inkling of the importance of those reviews for people who make music out of passion, juggling their calling with the demands of everyday life. In the following years, I had the opportunity to  review three albums in which John was involved – Incandescent Sky’s Four Faradays in a Cage, Knitting By Twilight’s Weathering, and finally his own solo effort, A Room for the Night.

After that first contact, John and I occasionally wrote to each other in the old-fashioned way – by using pen and paper (in my case, my handmade cards, which he loved). We found out that we had many things in common besides music – art, literature, cats, good food, and, of course, our Italian roots. Then, at the beginning of this year, he told me he felt the need to withdraw from the social media scene. The last I heard of him was in early February. I sent him a card for his birthday in July, but, when I did not hear anything from him after that, I started getting worried. However, I respected his need for privacy, and did not try to contact him – something that I now regret deeply.

In this time of the year we remember the birthday or the passing of many influential artists who are not with us any longer – such as Jimi Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius or Frank Zappa. Though John was nowhere as famous as those icons of modern music, he was passionate about his music and forged his individual path without caring about commercial success. His skills as a drummer and percussionist were as remarkable as they were understated, and each of his recordings highlights his love of percussion instruments of any description, which he used not just a rhythmic backdrop, but by giving them a voice of their own.

Although I will always regret not being able to meet John in person, I will cherish our friendship and remember him not only through his words, but also through his music. Therefore, I urge all my readers – especially those who love atmospheric instrumental music – to check out the albums mentioned above, as well as the rest of John’s output on his own label, It’s Twilight Time, as a way of celebrating his love for music and life –  though the latter was cut off way too soon.

Links:
http://www.overflower.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. QXP-13 Space Modulator (3:49)
2. Eat a Bag of DiX (5:08)
3. Hapax Legomena (4:47)
4. Nocturne, op.33 (4:15)
5. The Cascades (6:37)
6. Snack(s) – The Song! (7:12)
7. Osedax (6:16)
8. Mymaridae (6:25)
9. Variety Pack (2:52)
10.Fairies Wear Boots (7:35)

LINEUP:
Wally Scharold – electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, programming, clapping, keyboards, synths
Travis Andrews – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, vocals
Carolyn Walter – clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon
Jamison Smeltz – alto sax, baritone sax, clapping
Matt Lebofsky – bass, vocals, keyboards, guitars, junk drums
Matt Guggemos – drums

In the late spring of 2009, the debut album of a hitherto unknown band from Oakland (California), by the idiosyncratically-spelled name of miRthkon, made waves on the progressive rock scene. A monumental, 70-minute slab of quirky, Zappaesque avant-progressive rock with a healthy dose of metal-inspired energy and intriguing references to contemporary classical music –  a package rounded out by outstanding artwork and a wacky background mythology – Vehicle was mentioned by many (including myself) in their personal “best of 2009” lists. Once again, Marcello Marinone and his AltrOck Productions cohorts had unearthed a gem.

Founded around 2005 by guitarist/composer Wally Scharold, miRthkon went through the customary stages of upheaval (and the release of EP The Joy of Illusion) before stabilizing their lineup. With two new members on board – guitarist Travis Andrews and bassist/keyboardistMatt Lebofsky (also a member of Secret Chiefs 3 and MoeTar) replacing Rob Pumpelly and Nat Hawkes – the band are a solid six-piece propelled by a twin-guitar and twin-reed attack that sets them apart from almost everyone else. A quintessential live outfit, they have recently managed to bring their unique brand of progressive rock to Europe. Indeed, after Scharold recovered from some health issues that had forced the band to cancel the second half of their 2012 tour with MoeTar, 2013 has proved to be very good year for miRthkon as a live act, with successful appearances at the first edition of Seaprog in Seattle, the 2013 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux, and a one-day festival organized by the AltrOck staff in Milan. In addition to their busy concert schedule, the band have spent a good part of the past few years working on the follow-up to Vehicle – a full-length album by the title of Snack(s), which was finally released in the autumn of 2013, following the band’s European tour.

Though miRthkon are anything but your conventional “nostalgia prog” band, they seem to have learned an important lesson from the genre’s golden age: that is, the importance of the visual aspect. Their albums are not just challenging sonic buffets of wide-ranging eclecticism, but also visual feasts that display another facet of Wally Scharold’s considerable talent. Snack(s)’s artwork is a true stroke of genius,  a parody of modern society’s addiction to junk food, with the cover and each page of the booklet imitating the packaging of some popular snacks, down to the mandatory (in the US at least) nutritional breakdown – which contains detailed information about each track, including the daunting time signatures, as well as the lyrics cleverly disguised as “ingredients”. Not your average Roger Dean opus for sure, but extremely well-made, and hugely entertaining.

Though it might raise eyebrows, the “avant-garde metal” tag that has been attached to miRthkon is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The combination of deadpan humour and highbrow references is far from uncommon in the world of technical/avant-garde metal, though miRthkon take it up a notch and imbue their heady genre-bending blend with the jazz-tinged energy of Carolyn Walter and Jamison Smeltz’s array of reeds. Indeed, Snack(s) is the kind of album that will keep you on the edge of your seat, not knowing if that low-key, almost conventionally melodic passage will erupt into chaos (albeit of the controlled variety) in just a couple of seconds. Most of the album’s 10 tracks were written by either Scharold or Lebovsky, with the notable exception of an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s piano piece “Nocturne” (which was part of the band’s setlist at the Orion Studios in August 2012), and a similarly idiosyncratic cover of Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”.

Compared to Vehicle, Snack(s) is more focused (also in virtue of being almost 15 minutes shorter) and also somewhat heavier, though losing none of the compositional complexity that had made miRthkon’s debut so riveting. Crushingly heavy guitar riffs coexist with joyfully blaring reeds in the exhilarating jazz-metal blend tinged with ska (of all things!) of opener “QXP-13 Space Modulator”, a hyper-energetic instrumental that prepares the listener for the mind-boggling twists and turns of “Eat a Bag of DiX”, which juxtaposes brooding chamber-like sections with electrifying guitar forays and almost punk vocals. “Hapax Legomena” ’s deceptively laid-back, jazzy intro soon turns into a bracing duel between guitars and reeds; while wistful clarinet keeps the classical flavour in “Nocturne”, though offset by the guitars and spiked by an odd reggae-like rhythm. The first half of the album ends with the angular yet atmospheric heaviness (and rather apocalyptic lyrics) of “The Cascades”, enhanced by the organic sound of the glockenspiel, organ and piano.

Eerie electronic effects and upbeat, anthemic singing pepper the 7-minute “Snack(s) – The Song!”, driven by Matt Guggemos’ spectacular drumming and reeds blaring in unison. The sinuous, faintly disturbing first half of “Osedax” again brings melody into the equation, with haunting clarinet and a brief yet striking bass-guitar duet followed by a choppy, drum-driven section complete with shouting vocals at the end. After the maze-like complexity of the multilayered “Mymaridae”- whose inexhaustible intensity evokes a swarm of the titular “microscopic parasitic wasps” in a textbook example of controlled chaos – the less than 3 minutes of the bassoon-led “Variety Pack” provide a short but welcome oasis of calm before the grand finale. The longest track on the album, miRthkon’s take on “Fairies Wear Boots” keeps the spirit of the original even in its “deconstructive” approach, replacing Tony Iommi’s iconic riffing with a spirited double baritone sax attack, and Scharold channeling his inner Ozzy Osbourne in a very aggressive vocal turn.

The somewhat clichéd expression “not for the faint-hearted” seems to have been tailor-made for miRthkon. Snack(s), just like the band’s live shows, is a constant adrenaline rush, with only occasional moments of respite, and therefore not very likely to make a dent in the convictions of those who equate prog with lush melodies and grandiose, quasi-symphonic arrangements. Such intense music, almost relentless at times, may require a lot of concentration on the part of the listener. In any case, Snack(s) is one of the most original albums released in 2013, and a must-listen for fans of truly progressive, challenging music. Highly recommended to anyone wishing to step out of their comfort zone.

Links:
http://www.mirthkon.com/

http://mirthkon.bandcamp.com/album/snack-s

http://www.altrock.it

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