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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ancestors’ Tale (5:24)
2. The Departure (0:58)
3. Hopperknockity Tune (4:01)
4. Selves Unmade (5:56)
5. The Raw, the Cooked and the Overeasy (5:27)
6. An Elephant in Berlin (8:29)
7. Dinosaur on the Floor (3:51)
8. The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires (9:17)
9. Zodiac (7:17)
10. Walk the Plank (7:37)

LINEUP:
Jackie Royce – bassoon, contra-bassoon, flute
Steve Roberts – piano, electric piano, organ, mellotron, marimba, vibraphone, samplers
Gary Pahler – drums, percussion
Steve Good – clarinet, bass clarinet
Joee Conroy – fretless bass, Chapman stick, electric guitar, acoustic 12-string guitar, electronics

With:
Cheyenne Mize – vocals, violin (1, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Sydney Simpson – double bass (6, 9, 10)
Gregory Acker – saxes, flutes, percussion, didgeridoo (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In my years as a reviewer, it has rarely happened for an album to make such an impression that – barely halfway through my first listening – I felt inclined to claim that it was one of the best I had heard in a long time. Listening to the apparently endless series of releases filed under the ever-growing “progressive” umbrella tends to make one a bit jaded, so that even albums received enthusiastically rarely make it to the status of regular presences in a reviewer’s CD player. However, my very first exposure to Ut Gret’s latest effort, Ancestor’s Tale – their first release for AltrOck Productions – was one of those moments in which the sheer beauty of the sounds coming out of the speakers caught me by surprise, and elicited superlatives that I normally use very sparingly.

Founded in 1981 by multi-instrumentalist Joee Conroy, a native of Louisville (Kentucky) while living in California, Ut Gret went through different incarnations before Conroy moved back to Louisville and teamed up with former collaborator Steve Roberts (founder of Avant-Prog outfit French TV), where the band’s debut album, Time of the Grets, was released in 1990. The band is currently a five-piece, augmented by a number of guest artists, and all of its members have an impressive amount of experience in a wide-ranging array of musical genres.

With a distinctive handle combining the medieval name for the C (or Do) note with the name of a fictitious tribe of barbarian invaders, Ut Gret label their output as “pan-idiomatic music” – a definition borne out by the eclectic, often markedly experimental nature of their musical pursuits in the course of the past three decades, and which at the same time niftily dispenses with the often pesky “progressive” tag. Their variegated history is also reflected by their recordings, with a 3-CD archival box set of mostly experimental material (including a live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C”) titled Recent Fossils released in 2006, followed by Radical Symmetry in 2011.

While there is progressiveness aplenty on display on Ancestor’s Tale, the music is also surprisingly accessible: multilayered and eclectic, yet consistently melodic, it might well be tagged as “Canterbury by way of Louisville, KY.” The influence of the seminal movement is openly acknowledged in the mind-blowingly intricate but appealingly fluid “Hopperknockity Tune”, a tribute to Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (though Conroy’s glissando guitar also nods to Gong’s Daevid Allen), but is quite evident on most of the album, not least in the quirky yet literate song titles. On the other hand, the band’s origins notwithstanding, there is very little, if anything, suggesting traditional American genres such as blues, country, or Kentucky’s own bluegrass; while the weird, improvisational duet between Gregory Acker’s sax and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler’s drums in “The Departure” provides almost the only instance of the “difficult” music generally identified with the Avant-Prog tag.

While featuring all the traditional rock staples (not to mention a mellotron), the rich instrumentation emphasizes the woodwinds, according a starring role to Steve Good’s clarinets and Jackie Royce’s bassoon and contra-bassoon (the undisputed protagonists of the dramatic, expressive “An Elephant in Berlin”, a piece strongly suggestive of late 19th century classical/chamber music). Both sets of instruments also come into their own in the three final tracks, which together form almost one half of the album’s 58-minute running time. Low-key moments and flares of intensity alternate in the 9-minute “The Grotesque Pageant of Dying Empires”, whose middle section also showcases some gorgeously atmospheric six-string action from Conroy. The mellotron-drenched “Zodiac” pays homage to Robert Fripp and early King Crimson, with hints of Maurice Ravel in the subtly tense build-up. while album closer “Walk the Plank” begins with a swaying, nostalgic waltz-like pace, then suddenly veers into Univers Zéro territory with a somber, riveting tone in which guitar, flute, vibraphone and eerie, bird-like effects interweave on a solemn mellotron backdrop.

Besides the effortless complexity of the instrumental parts, much of Ancestor’s Tale’s unique charm resides in Cheyenne Mize’s star turn on the four tracks with vocals. The Louisville-based, indie folk singer-songwriter’s sublime pipes will cause jaws to drop right from the opening of the title-track – her voice gliding smoothly and caressing the ear like warm honey, crystal-clear but with a haunting note of sensuality, and not a hint of the stilted theatrics so frequent in so many female prog singers. Never domineering, though not submissive, Mize’s voice blends with the instrumentation and sets the mood: whimsical yet somewhat pensive in the multifaceted “Selves Unmade”; sober and wistful in the stately “The Raw, The Cooked and The Overeasy”, where Royce’s puffing bassoon offers her a perfect foil; more upbeat in the title-track, though with a hint of torch-song flavour in the song’s second half; and, again, sedate and melancholy in the heavy, oddly cinematic “Dinosaur on the Floor”, which also features a spectacular contra-bassoon solo.

While my reviews always convey my own personal enjoyment of an album, I rarely wax lyrical as other writers are wont to do. Ancestor’s Tale, however, is one of the very few albums released in recent years that deserve to be called perfect. From the quirky, Oriental-inspired cover artwork (titled “Moby of the Orient”) and lavishly illustrated, detail-rich booklet to the astonishingly accomplished performances of all the musicians involved, the album is a joy from start to finish, and one of the most rewarding listening experiences I have had for quite a while. Moreover, it is one of those rare albums that, in spite of its complexity and sky-high technical quotient, can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in great music – regardless of labels.

Links:
http://www.utgret.net/
https://www.facebook.com/UtGret
http://utgret1.bandcamp.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Introduction (1:49)
2. How Wonderful (7:03)
3. Her Voice (10:08)
4. Airtight (5:13)
5. The Knowledge Enterprise – Overture (3:19)
6. The Knowledge Enterprise – Conceivers and Deceivers (4:53)
7. The Knowledge Enterprise – Tonight (6:22)
8. The Knowledge Enterprise – With These Eyes (5:29)
9. The Knowledge Enterprise – Finale (1:26)

LINEUP:
Geoffrey Langley – vocals, keyboards
Steve Kostas – lead guitar
Justin Carlton – vocals, guitars
Richmond Carlton – bass, harp
Joe Henderson – vocals, drums

Founded in early 2012 by vocalist/keyboardist Geoffrey Langley, five-piece The Twenty Committee are the newest entry in the thriving progressive rock scene of the Philadelphia/New Jersey region. A few months after the band’s formation, Langley went to Nashville to audition for Neal Morse’s touring band, and the quality of his material attracted Morse’s attention. In July 2012, Langley went back to Nashville with the rest of the band to record their debut album at Radiant Studios. A Lifeblood Psalm, produced by Morse’s long-time collaborator Jerry Guidroz, was released in April 2013, and followed by a number of live shows (including one at the NJ Proghouse in March 2013).

Like other bands from the same geographical area (notably Shadow Circus, 3RDegree and IZZ, but also the edgier The Tea Club and Thank You Scientist), The Twenty Committee straddle the line between progressive and pop – their lush, multilayered arrangements coexisting with catchy melodies, topped off by Geoffrey Langley’s impeccable vocals. In a genre where the majority of vocalists are either idiosyncratic (cue the many Geddy Lee clones) or so discreet as to be almost nondescript (as in the Steven Wilson school), Langley impresses for his smooth, clear tones, never sounding strained or cheesy, and truly a perfect fit for the band’s material. From the instrumental point of view, the presence of a second guitar (not frequent in prog), together with the strings provided by renowned session orchestra The Nashville String Machine, flesh out the sound and lend it a symphonic dimension.

Unlike those “crossover” prog bands who focus on the reinterpretation of the song form rather than on prog’s old warhorse, the epic, The Twenty Committee pay tribute to the genre’s time-honoured tradition by featuring a 10-minute track and a five-part suite. In spite of that, the album’s running time is kept to a very restrained 45 minutes, which allows the listener to enjoy the music without feeling overwhelmed. Though the Neal Morse connection, as well as the album’s general catchy-meets-symphonic allure, have elicited comparisons with Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, many times while listening to A Lifeblood Psalm I was reminded of Echolyn, especially their self-titled 2012 album.

A recorded radio broadcast leads into the short “Introduction”, where Langley’s soothing voice and piano are complemented by strings and guitar. Then “How Wonderful” reveals The Twenty Committee’s approach to crossover prog, with echoes of classic Genesis in the lush yet smoothly flowing interplay of keyboards and guitar (both acoustic and electric), elegant vocal harmonies and plenty of emotion, culminating in a dramatic guitar solo by the excellent Steve Kostas. The Echolyn influence surfaces strongly in the 10 minutes of “Her Voice”, which is also the most likely to appeal to those with a more left-field bent on account of the atmospheric “controlled chaos” of its middle section, as well as its evident jazz influences emphasized by brisk electric piano – definitely a very ambitious offering with lots of twists and turns and outstanding performances throughout. The gentle ballad “Airtight”, its autumnal feel enhanced by strings and harp, closes the album’s first half on a low-key note, reprising the mood of the opener.

Presented as five separate tracks, the unconventional suite of “The Knowledge Enterprise” (a title with a strong “modern prog” flavour, just like the album’s cover artwork) introduces some new elements in the mix – such as the metal-tinged riffs and whistling moog of the energetic instrumental “Overture”. “Conceivers and Deceivers” blends tradition and modernity, piano punctuating the ebb and flow of the music, and sudden surges of intensity adding a dramatic, almost cinematic dimension reminiscent of The Tea Club. The brothers McGowan’s outfit is also evoked by the masterful handling of quiet-loud dynamics of “Tonight”, enhanced by the strings’ stateliness. On the other hand, while the melodic development of “With These Eyes” is somewhat more predictable, Langley’s exquisite vocals and the dreamy, waltzy moog at the end add interest. The suite is then wrapped up by a short, upbeat “Finale”.

While A Lifeblood Psalm is somewhat more “mainstream” than most of the albums I generally review, the outstanding musicianship and excellent production values make for a very rewarding listening experience. For a debut, it certainly sounds extremely accomplished (though not so much as to come across as contrived), and establishes The Twenty Committee as a great new addition to the roster of young US bands that embrace the ethos of prog’s “new frontier”.

Links:
http://thetwentycommittee.com/
http://thetwentycommittee.bandcamp.com/

 

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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For most up-and-coming progressive rock bands, while recording an album may be relatively easy because of the advantages offered by modern technology, giving exposure to their music has become increasingly difficult and frustrating. Indeed, as I have often pointed out in these pages, the market is oversaturated, opportunities to play live can be few and far between, and gigs often poorly attended. However, there are some brave souls who have made a mission out of helping new artists gain recognition, making full use of the many possibilities offered by the Internet.

One of these people is Nikola Savić, founder of the thriving ProgSphere website, to which I have been contributing articles for the past couple of years. The site, besides the usual reviews, interviews and other assorted news items on the progressive rock universe (with an eye to modern developments such as prog metal, but also a healthy respect for the icons of the genre and its decades-long history), has produced a number of podcasts and 12 compilations of new music, called Progstravaganza, launched in August 2010. With over 22,000 downloads, these compilations  have had a remarkable success for an independent endeavour, presenting a wide range of bands and artists – from standard-bearers of the modern psychedelic space-rock scene such as Astra or My Brother the Wind to the elegant jazz-rock of D.F.A. and Forgas Band Phenomena, from the cutting-edge jazz-metal of Exivious and Blotted Science to the heady eclecticism of Moraine, Herd of Instinct and Gösta Berlings Saga. A massive 79-track sampler of tracks taken from the first 11 Progstravaganza compilations has recently been made available on the site’s Bandcamp page.

Less than two weeks ago, ProgSphere has announced that a 13th Progstravaganza compilation is in the pipeline, and invited bands and artists to submit their music for inclusion. It is an opportunity not to be missed, as Progstravaganza XIII – to be released at the end of July – will be promoted by more than 50 radio stations, and every participant will be covered in depth in the compilation’s digital booklet. The contact information for anyone interested in participating in the initiative can be found in the first of the links below.

Links:
http://www.prog-sphere.com/news/prog-sphere-announces-new-progstravaganza-compilation-and-calls-on-bands-to-take-part/

http://prog-sphere.bandcamp.com/album/progstravaganza-i-ix

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SETLISTS:

IZZ Quad
Late Night Salvation
This Is How It Happens
Long Distance Runaround/The Fish
Lucky for Me
Celtic Cross
Breathless
Never Remember
House
Rose-Colored Lenses
John Galgano’s Solo Spot
Paul Bremner’s Solo Spot
Three of a Perfect Pair
Light From Your Eyes
23 Minutes

3RDegree
Cautionary Tale
Top Secret
Televised
Apophenia
You’re Fooling Yourselves
Free For All
Memetic Pandemic
The Socio-Economic Petri Dish
Incoherent Ramblings
Leave This Place Forever
Human Interest Story

After a rather barren winter season concert-wise, the evening of Saturday, May 18 saw us back at the Orion Studios for a show that we had been expecting ever since 3RDegree cancelled their participation in the DC-SOAR fundraiser back in November 2012. With guitarist Patrick Kliesch, one of their founding members, currently living on the West Coast, the New Jersey band needed to find a second guitarist to complete their melodic yet powerful sound, Though it took some time before guitarist Bryan Zeigler joined the fold, in the early spring of 2013 3RDegree were finally ready to embark on a four-date tour that saw them return to the Baltimore/DC area after a three-year absence.

Robert James Pashman

Robert James Pashman

Though some bad luck kept dogging the band when co-headliners Oblivion Sun had to pull out of the NJ Proghouse and Orion dates due to Frank Wyatt’s wrist injury, they soldiered on and managed to make things happen – much to the delight of those who had enjoyed their critically acclaimed 2012 album, The Long Division. Thankfully, a scaled-down version of celebrated New York outfit IZZ (rechristened for the occasion “IZZ Quad” to emphasize their quartet formation), led by multi-instrumentalist/songwriter John Galgano, stepped in to fill the void, allowing those who, like myself, had missed the complete lineup’s show in October 2012, to enjoy the music of one of the most talented modern prog bands in the US and beyond.

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John Galgano

Without co-founder Tom Galgano and percussionist Greg DiMiceli, and former band member Laura Meade (who is also John Galgano’s wife) replacing vocalist Anmarie Byrnes, IZZ Quad concentrated on acoustic or otherwise subdued pieces rather than full-fledged epics, highlighting their impressive songwriting skills though keeping an eye on the instrumental component. Their setlist also included a number of classic prog covers, the first of which in particular elicited the audience’s approval. Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” came with Chris Squire’s iconic bass solo piece, “The Fish”, tacked at the end just like in the original recorded version – though with Paul Bremner’s guitar replacing some of the multi-tracked bass lines; while King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” was softened by Laura Meade’s melodious vocals (reminiscent of Phideaux’ Valerie Gracious), quite different from Adrian Belew’s rather idiosyncratic tones. The highlight of the set, however, came in the shape of  “House”, Marillion’s somewhat obscure foray into trip-hop, with Meade’s hauntingly intimate interpretation bringing to mind Tori Amos or even Joni Mitchell.

Laura Meade

Laura Meade

As Galgano jokingly pointed out, referring to the quartet’s initial handle of “IZZ Lite”, there was nothing “lite” about IZZ Quad’s performance, which married melody and accessibility with full-blown prog modes, highlighting each of the members’ considerable talent. Paul “Brems” Bremner’s boisterous “Celtic Cross” and John Galgano’s low-key existentialist musings in “1000”, followed by an exhilarating piano rendition of ELP’s “Eruption”, complemented some of the band’s classic songs, such as opener “Late Night Salvation”. For a near-newcomer such as myself, the IZZ Quad set was an excellent introduction to the band. The quality of the playing was consistently outstanding, with Galgano handling acoustic guitar and keyboards as well as his striking black-and-silver bass, Bremner contributing crystal-clear, elegantly atmospheric guitar parts, and drummer Brian Coralian laying down a subtle, jazz-inflected backbeat. The band also demonstrated their unusually tight songwriting skills, effortlessly shifting from full-blown progressive workouts to mellow pieces in a singer-songwriter vein.

Paul Bremner

Paul Bremner

My first and only experience of 3RDegree on stage had been in the late spring of 2009, when they had performed at a DC-SOAR sponsored gig at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java together with local outfits Brave and Ephemeral Sun. Their third album, Narrow-Caster, had been released the previous year, marking the band’s comeback after a lengthy hiatus. Though I had found their set very enjoyable at the time, the band I saw on stage at the Orion had definitely grown in stature in the past three years. The Long Division had made many reviewers’ personal “best of 2012” lists (including mine), but sometimes there can be a disconnect between what is committed to record and a band’s actual stage-worthiness. 3RDegree, however, are perfectionists, and would have never undertaken a tour without being 100% confident of being able to deliver the goods. With a solid foundation in terms of material, and countless rehearsal sessions to ensure that everything was fine-tuned, the band treated the rather sparse audience to a blistering set that, while drawing mostly upon The Long Division, also found room for their previous albums.

Eric Pseja

Eric Pseja

While 3RDegree have always proudly proclaimed their allegiance to the prog rock ethic, their take on the genre is a very individual one, firmly rooted in the traditional song form rather than focused on the production of instrumental fireworks. Indeed, George Dobbs’ powerful, versatile voice is the engine that drives the 3RDegree machine. Sitting behind his keyboard rig (decorated for the occasion with an elaborate sporting the colours of the US flag), the band’s very own “mad scientist” bounced and gestured with almost manic energy, shaking his distinctive mane of hair and tearing through the songs with a style that owed more to Stevie Wonder or Glenn Hughes than Jon Anderson, assisted by the smoothly flowing vocal harmonies contributed by his bandmates.

George Dobbs

George Dobbs

The twin-axe attack of Eric Pseja and Bryan Zeigler added a keen hard rock edge, while Robert James Pashman’s nimble, pulsating bass lines and Aaron Nobel’s dynamic drumming often took a funky direction that evoked shades of Trapeze or King’s X. In a top-notch setlist that included the impossibly catchy yet thought-provoking “You’re Fooling Yourselves” (“#7 in North Korea!”), the barnstorming “Apophenia” and “Top Secret” (both showcases for Dobbs’ impassioned vocals) and the wistful mini-epic “Memetic Pandemic”, the bluesy, Deep Purple-meets-Steely Dan swagger of “The Socio-Economic Petri Dish” summed up 3RDegree’s unique brand of 21st century art rock: music that makes you think, but at the same time makes you want to sing along, liberally seasoned with a healthy dose of humour. In particular, new guy Bryan Zeigler’s infectious enthusiasm – culminating in a hilarious cowbell-wielding turn in “Incoherent Ramblings” – was a welcome addition to the band’s stage presence.

Bryan Zeigler

Bryan Zeigler

As my readers will probably guess, the only downside of the evening was the rather poor turnout: no more than 30 people altogether, and that on a Saturday evening. In a perfect world, both bands would be superstars and sell CDs by the truckload – not to mention perform before a crowd as large as the one drawn by Steven Wilson only one month ago. Unfortunately, many so-called prog fans prefer to pay lip service to the genre on Internet discussion boards rather than go out and attend a show – even when the price is a mere $15. In any case, those who bothered to turn out enjoyed an evening of stellar progressive rock by two bands with outstanding songwriting skills (something that has become increasingly rare) and enough instrumental flair to please the most demanding fans. I, for one, hope to have the opportunity to see both IZZ and 3RDegree again very soon.  Finally, a big thank you to  Helaine Carson Burch for the photos that accompany this article.

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

http://www.izznet.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. It Strikes You (4:27)
2. Good Things (6:27)
3. All Day and All Night (4:45)
4. Rise (6:00)
5. Landmines (4:46)
6. Cool Water (5:25)
7. Spin the Girl (2:42)
8. Fate (4:16)
9. I Am Lion (6:35)
10. Wolf (3:09)
11. Darkness Knew (4:37)
12. The Earth (5:27)

LINEUP:
Kyree Vibrant – vocals
Constantin Necrasov – guitars, backing vocals
Dmitry Lesov – bass, Chapman stick, backing vocals
Igor Kurtzman – keyboards, backing vocals
Marcello Ciurleo – drums, backing vocals

Back in the summer of 2009, the release of Toronto-based outfit Half Past Four’s recording debut –  the quirkily-titled Rabbit in the Vestibule – caused quite of bit of stir in the progressive rock community. However, in spite of the album’s largely positive reception and a barnstorming appearance at the 2010 edition of ProgDay, the band seemingly dropped off the radar for over two years. Formed in 2005 by vocalist/lyricist Kyree Vibrant and three musicians of Eastern European descent – bassist Dmitry “Les” Lesov, keyboardist Igor “Iggy” Kurtzman and guitarist Constantin Necrasov – the band were very active on the live front both in Canada and in the US until the search for a new drummer (a problem jokingly referred to as “Spinal Tap-like” on the band’s website) forced them to take a break. In early 2012, drummer Marcello Ciurleo finally joined, allowing the band to concentrate on the recording of Good Things.

Those who missed Half Past Four the first time around might be forgiven for thinking they are just another newcomer to that “female-fronted prog” bandwagon that has yielded a multitude of technically impeccable, though often soulless Annie Haslam clones. However, even a quick spin of Good Things will put any such fears to rest, because the Canadian quintet’s sophomore effort is a concentrate of humour, original ideas and outstanding musicianship that will reconcile a lot of jaded listeners (myself included) with a genre that, in recent years, seems to have left quality control by the wayside. The album’s unassuming title and delightful, retro-style artwork also stand out on a scene where hyperbole and pretentiousness abound, emphasizing the light-hearted attitude that has always been one of Half Past Four’s defining features.

Half Past Four can be counted among the trailblazers of what I call the “new frontier” of progressive rock – a 21st-century take on the “art rock” form associated with such diverse acts as Roxy Music, David Bowie, 10cc, Steely Dan and Supertramp. While many new bands follow in the footsteps of the classic icons of the genre, often letting their ambition run wild to the detriment of quality, bands such as Half Past Four, MoeTar  and 3RDegree (as well as a number of others) imbue that old pop music staple – the “short” song form – with progressive sensibilities, skillfully demonstrating that complexity does not necessarily mean excess.

Indeed, Good Things is packed with the kind of twists and turns that every self-respecting progressive rock album should offer, From a compositional point of view, the band has grown exponentially, and using the term “quantum leap” would not be an overstatement. In particular, Kyree Vibrant’s stunning vocal performance throughout the album elicits comparisons with MoeTar’s Moorea Dickason and District 97’s Leslie Hunt – both experienced, well-rounded artists like Kyree herself, as well as gifted vocalists. Her strong, confident voice dominates the proceedings,  from the soothing, wistful tones of “Fate” to the breathtaking acrobatics of the Russian-inspired “Spin the Girl” and the anthemic “Rise”. Each of the musicians strives to create s an extremely tight instrumental texture. Keyboardist Iggy Kurtzman’s consistently outstanding work  anchors the album and complements the singing in dramatic flurries or in gentle brush strokes. Newcomer Marcello Ciurleo and the ever-reliable Dmitry “Les” Lesov lay down complex rhythm patterns, leading the path to exhilarating, dramatic crescendos of intensity and assisting Constantin Necrasov’s head-on riffing in the heavier offerings, while capable of more subdued touches in the slower ones.

Like most classic albums, Good Things begins and ends on a high note. The jaunty talk-box intro of opener “It Strikes” immediately sets the mood, showcasing the album’s signature juxtaposition of breezy, catchy melodies and heavier, riff-laden sections, bound together by Iggy’s fluid piano and Les and Ciurleo’s pyrotechnic rhythm section, with Kyree’s commanding voice firmly in the lead. On the other hand, closing track “The Earth” reprises the exhilarating intensity of “Biel” on the band’s debut, climaxing with Kyree’s voice soaring to an impossibly high pitch. In such as dense album, there is something for everyone – from the jazzy, jagged “Landmines” (which made me think of both MoeTar and 3RDegree) to the rousing Russian folk echoes of “Spin the Girl”, from the cheery, almost comedic “Wolf” to the subdued atmosphere of “All Day and All Night” and the haunting mix of low-key melody and tense, brooding riffs of “I Am Lion” and the title-track – the latter reminiscent of District 97’s approach, though somewhat more restrained.

With a sensible running time of about 58 minutes, and none of the 12 songs over 6 minutes, Good Things achieves an admirable balance, coming across as a mature, highly entertaining album that is already poised to become one of the year’s undisputed highlights. Obviously, those who expect progressive rock albums to contain at least one 10-minute-plus and/or endless instrumental noodlings will not fail to be disappointed. However, if the genre has any hope of becoming relevant again, instead of slowly turning into a parody of itself, it is through albums like this one and bands like Half Past Four.

Links:
http://www.halfpastfour.com

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http://www.progshine.net/2013/04/interview-half-past-four.html

 

 

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Setlist:
Luminol
Drive Home
The Pin Drop
Postcard
The Holy Drinker
Deform to Form a Star
The Watchmaker
Index
Insurgentes
Harmony Korine
No Part of Me
Raider II
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Encore:
Medley: Remainder the Black Dog/No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun

As my readers will not have failed to notice, my love affair with music – especially progressive rock – has cooled down considerably over the past few months. A combination of personal issues and the inevitable burnout caused by the punishing pace maintained for over three years forced me to take a break after I realized that writing reviews had become a chore. Though I had previously experienced periods of writer’s block, this time around it had impaired my enjoyment of music to the point that I was dreading, rather than anticipating, the evening of April 20, when the celebrated Steven Wilson and his “all-star” band were slated to grace the stage of Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre. I will therefore apologize if this piece is more of a collection of personal impressions than my usual detailed account.

Most of my readers are well aware that – while recognizing the man’s talent and unstinting work ethic – I have never subscribed to the Steven Wilson cult, and most of his output (whether solo or with his many projects, including Porcupine Tree) has always failed to fully resonate with me. Though I had meant to get Wilson’s latest opus, the highly acclaimed The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) to familiarize myself with the material before the show, my disenchantment with music (coupled with other, unrelated issues) prevented me from doing so, and I went in expecting to be somewhat underwhelmed. However, I am glad to say that the concert vastly exceeded my expectations, and I walked out of the theatre with a renewed appreciation for music of the progressive persuasion, even if not yet fully converted to the “Wilson cult”.

Mainly known as a temple of jazz and soul music, the renovated Howard Theatre (opened in 1910, but gone into a decline that forced it to close for decades after the 1968 riots) has already hosted a number of rock concerts since its 2012 rebirth. While its stylish, dimly lit interior does not allow for a lot of socialization, and its bar and restaurant menu are not exactly good value for money, the theatre’s superb acoustics, state-of-the-art lighting and spacious stage are designed to enhance any music performed there. What better setting, then, for über-perfectionist Steven Wilson, the high priest of pristine sound quality, the man behind a slew of 5.1 reissues of progressive rock classics?

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I am generally rather suspicious of supergroups, which can often be a triumph of style over substance, and the all-star cast assembled by Wilson for his latest album and tour brought back memories of Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project’ rather sterile headlining performance at NEARfest 2010. In spite of being prepared for the worst – that is, an ultimately soulless display of technical fireworks – the opening strains of “Luminol” put my fears to rest, immediately pushing  Nick Beggs’ impossibly nimble bass lines and Marco Minnemann’s thunderous yet intricate drumming into the limelight, though at the same time emphasizing their contribution to the  composition as a whole Indeed, the extremely tight outfit allowed very little room for solo spots, and each of the musicians put his own considerable expertise at the service of the songs.

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In the centre of the stage, slight and dressed in black, the obligatorily barefoot Wilson, flanked by Beggs and guitarist Guthrie Govan,  switched between guitar, keyboards and 5-string bass, with Minnemann, keyboardist Adam Holzman and reedist Theo Travis positioned at the back. Though I fully expected Govan to launch into lengthy shred-fests, his understated role was undoubtedly one of the show’s most positive surprises. In spite of his standard guitar-hero image (complete with flowing locks and the occasional shape-throwing), his performance was remarkably restrained, his trademark scorching fretboard work delivered on rare occasions, such as at the end of “Drive Home”. The impassive Theo Travis’ blaring saxophone injected a jazzy, almost frantic  note, while his flute’s meditative tones complemented some of the more subdued passages. Adam Holtzman’s magnificent keyboard textures laid out a rich foundation, in turn atmospheric and dramatic, according to the needs of each composition.

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Over nearly 2 and a half hours,  Wilson’s latest album was performed in its entirety, the seven songs interspersed with tracks from the artist’s two previous solo efforts, Insurgentes (2008) and Grace for Drowning (2011) – with no references whatsoever to Porcupine Tree, who seem to have been put on ice for the time being. While this might be bad news for the band’s many fans, I feel that The Raven That Refused to Sing features much stronger material than most of PT’s albums from In Absentia onwards. Indeed, in Wilson’s solo output any overt metal or alternative rock references are eschewed or toned down, though a keen edge is always lurking around the corner. Even in the longer compositions, any excesses are reined in by keeping the emphasis firmly placed on the songwriting. Drawing upon the wide range of diverse experiences of his band members – jazz, avant-garde, metal, pop, classic rock and, of course, “traditional” prog – Wilson as a solo artist has built a sound in which his very vocals become an additional instrument, with lyrics kept to a minimum taking a back seat to the music. The unrelentingly gloomy subject matter (cleverly targeted by Wilson’s surprisingly laid-back stage banter) is reinforced by a skillful use of visuals that develops and refines Pink Floyd’s ground-breaking paradigm, conjuring disquieting, often nightmarish images out of an H.P. Lovecraft story (in particular the ones accompanying “Harmony Korine”), and proves a necessary complement to the music.

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While Wilson’s music is not exactly innovative (and very little of what is released nowadays can be called so), he succeeds in the feat of updating the classic prog sound, using King Crimson, Yes and Genesis as a springboard rather than as a template. Veering between the brooding, haunting atmosphere of the likes of “Drive Home” or “Deform to Form a Star” and jagged, frantic-paced moments in which all the instruments strive together to build up an increasing sense of tension, his compositions sound as carefully structured as any of the Seventies classics, though not as blatantly contrived as a lot of modern prog. From a personal point of view, I found those driving, dynamic pieces far more involving and emotionally charged than the quieter, moodier ones, which tended to sound somewhat alike after a while. In a show characterized by a consistently high level of quality, two songs stood out: the creepy, chilling “Raider II” (from Grace for Drowning) and the mesmerizing “The Watchmaker”, during which the band played behind a semi-sheer curtain used as a screen for the stunning visuals.

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Considering Wilson’s tireless activity as a producer and sound engineer, it was a fortunate coincidence that April 20 also celebrates a cherished institution that is stubbornly resisting the encroachment of online sales – record stores. Not surprisingly, the venue was packed, with many far younger attendees than the average prog gig or festival – a testimony to Wilson’s appeal to a large cross-section of the concert-going, music-buying public, even to those who are not necessarily into “progressive rock”. Watching the crowd, and reflecting on the poor attendance of most prog shows, I thought that Steven Wilson must be doing something right in order to attract such large numbers, even if his band (no matter how talented) does not include any of the Seventies icons, and his performances showcase very recent original material rather than the ever-popular tributes and covers. Moreover (and rather ironically), now that he has stopped rejecting the “prog” tag  and fully embraced the genre, his music has gained in appeal. Not being a PR expert, I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon, but I am sure there must be a lesson somewhere for the multitude of prog bands that struggle to draw a crowd larger than 30 people.

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Even if I cannot see myself resuming the same pace of the past couple of years as regards writing reviews – at least not in the foreseeable future – I am grateful to Steven Wilson and his outstanding crew for showing me that music can still have an important role in my life as a source of enjoyment. By way of a conclusion, I would like to thank friends Michael Inman and Helaine Carson Burch for putting some of their outstanding photographs at my disposal for this article.

 

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