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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. Life Is (4:21)
2. A Good Man (3:49)
3. Childhood Dreams (6:31)
4. Les Larmes (9:36)
5. Tuesday Rain (5:08)
6. Ileana’s Song (3:37)
7. When You’re Dead (7:15)
8. Pigeon’s Intrusion (6:00)
9. Le Voyage (3:22)
10. Linear Blindness (4:12)
11. Butterflies (6:38)

LINEUP:
Susan Clynes – piano, vocals
Simon Lenski – cello (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Pierre Mottet – bass (2, 6)
Nico Chkifi – drums (2, 6)

Belgian singer/pianist/composer Susan Clynes first came to the attention of the progressive rock audience for her stunning vocal performance on the song “Glass Cubes” (written by her husband, keyboardist Antoine Guenet, also a member of Univers Zéro and Sh.t.gn) on The Wrong Object’s critically acclaimed 2013 album After the Exhibition. With a solid academic background supporting her obvious passion for music, it was just a matter of time before Clynes’s talent – first showcased in the piano trio album Sugar for a Dream, released in 2005, when the artist was just 17 years old – was recognized outside the boundaries of her native country, thanks to the sponsorship of peerless talent-scout Leonardo Pavkovic of Moonjune Records.

Released in February 2014, Life Is… marks Clynes’ international debut, and presents material recorded by the artist during three concerts held in two different locations. Although not exactly a prog album (indeed, its conventional rock quotient is very limited, it does stand squarely in that vast “grey area” at the periphery of that much-debated genre, and does have enough progressive characteristics to appeal to a sizable slice of its fandom. True, its intimate nature and stripped-down instrumentation, may be seen as a turn-off by those who crave lush, multilayered arrangements and an impressive arsenal of instruments, both traditional and exotic. On the other hand, Life Is… is a poster child for that often-applied tag of “progressive but not prog” (a blessing or a curse, depending on points of view).

While comparisons to highly regarded artists such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Fiona Apple (not to mention their spiritual “mothers”, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell) abound, it would be unfair to suggest that Clynes is in any way a copycat artist. For one thing, her strong, confident voice (sounding a bit strained on a couple of tracks, but then at 26 years of age she has still plenty of room for growth), eschews the overly ethereal or mock-operatic tones adopted by far too many female singers, and is actually more effective when keeping to a mid-range. Additionally, Clynes places an even stronger emphasis on the instrumental component, often using her voice as an instrument rather than in “traditional” singing.

With its catchy melody and uplifting, life-affirming lyrics, the title-track possesses a faint Canterbury vibe even in its chamber dimension; Clynes’ emotional vocals and dramatic piano do not need any further embellishments to keep listeners on their toes. The song is one of four recorded during a solo performance at the library of the Cultural Centre of the Flemish town of Bree – together with the rarefied torch song of “Tuesday Rain”, the more assertive “Linear Blindness” and the gentle, impressionistic instrumental vignette of “Le Voyage”. On the other hand, the jaunty, energetic “A Good Man” (which reminded me a lot of Kate Bush) and the delightful, lilting ballad “Ileana’s Song” (dedicated to her daughter, who was born during the recording of the album) feature the discreet presence of Pierre Mottet’s double bass and Nico Chkifi’s drums, and were recorded during the first of two shows at Brussels’ historic Art Deco bar The Archiduc.

In the remaining five tracks (also recorded at The Archiduc, though on a different occasion), Clynes is accompanied by cellist Simon Lenski of Belgian chamber rock outfit DAAU on cello, with truly outstanding results. The distinctive sound of the instrument complements her voice, and allows her to display her full potential – as in the scintillating “Childhood Dreams” (dedicated to another influential figure in Clynes’ life, her aunt Yoka, who passed away while she was writing the album), with its breezy scat overtones. The 9-minute “Les Larmes” (the longest track on the album), dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is infused by a warm Spanish/Mediterranean feel enhanced by Susan’s lovely wordless vocalizing, while the cello, even with its occasionally strident, drawn-out tone, lends it an almost classical solemnity – which also emerges in the autumnal, Old-World-flavoured instrumental “Pigeon’s Intrusion”. In sharp contrast with the bright-eyed optimism of the title-track, “When You Are Dead” sounds hypnotic and ominous, with Clynes’ lower-pitched voice and the treated cello dipping and surging in unison in a blend of romanticism and tension – a pattern also displayed in haunting closing track “Butterflies”.

With a well-balanced running time of about one hour, plenty of melody, yet also ample room for more offbeat fare, Life Is… offers an accessible listening experience, yet with enough of an edge to appeal to listeners of a more adventurous bent. Packaged in an attractively minimalist cover showing a lovely photo of the artist’s face – embellished by clear gems that mirror the sparkling nature of her music – and the added interest value of Sid Smith’s impeccably penned liner notes, this album is already poised to become one of 2014’s highlights in terms of non-mainstream music releases.

Links:
http://susanoclynes.wix.com/susanclynes-music
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/061_SUSAN-CLYNES_Life-Is_MJR061/
http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/life-is

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Two Views on Flight (4:17)
2. Ankoku (4:55)
3. Words Lurking (3:12)
4. Kurai (5:50)
5. Flow My Tears (4:17)
6. Ananke (1:34)
7. Running Water (5:04)
8. The Ghosts of Dawn (4:14)
9. In Darkness Let Me Dwell (4:55)
10. A Knife Under the Pillow (1:22)
11. Coming Back Home (3:56)
12. Waiting For the Crash (2:08)
13. A Dark Vanessa (3:03)
14. This Night Wounds Time (3:16)

LINEUP
:
Paolo «Ske» Botta – keyboards
Jacopo Costa – vibes
Elaine Di Falco – vocals
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Pat Moonchy – electric zen garden
Giuseppe A. Olivini – percussion, theremin
Francesco Zago – guitars, mellotron, bass

With:
Bianca Fervidi – cello (1-3)
Rachel O’Brien – vocals (5)

2013 was another very busy year for guitarist/composer (and AltrOck Productions co-founder) Francesco Zago. In the summer, his new “vintage prog” band Not A Good Sign made its recording and concert debut, and a few months later  he appeared on In Between, the new album by his long-time associate Markus Stauss’ outfit Spaltklang – to which should be added his participation in original RIO band Stormy Six’s live CD/DVD Benvenuti nel Ghetto.

However, it is with the Empty Days project that Zago offers his most distinctive contribution to the rich musical landscape of the recently ended year. Featuring some of his Yugen cohorts (the ubiquitous Paolo “Ske” Botta, Jacopo Costa, Maurizio Fasoli and Giuseppe Olivini), plus Milan-based sound/noise artist Pat Moonchy and US-based vocalist Elaine Di Falco (of Thinking Plague/3 Mice fame, who had also guested on Yugen’s 2010 album Iridule), Empty Days was not conceived as a studio-only project: the release of their eponymous album in September 2013 was accompanied by a few live appearances in Italy and Switzerland, as well as at Wurzburg’s Freakshow Festival in Germany.

Clocking in at about 50 minutes, Empty Days includes 7 songs and 7 instrumentals, all relatively short, which represent the two main directions of Zago’s current musical interests: art-rock songs with brooding lyrics and ethereal melodies, and darkly rarefied ambient compositions, arranged in a neatly alternating pattern. Unlike Yugen’s intricate, carefully composed pieces, the tracks are more like impressionistic sketches created through a shimmering sonic palette in delicate patterns of light and shade.  Interestingly, Empty Days’ outstanding artwork, with its muted sepia shades and  austere layout, for once is not credited to AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist Paolo “Ske” Botta. While the cover image was provided by renowned contemporary artist Salvatore Garau (who is also Stormy Six’s drummer), the booklet is credited to Zago himself, proving the versatility of his artistic inspiration.

Elaine Di Falco’s performance is one of the undisputed strengths of Empty Days. Here she shows a different side of her art than on Thinking Plague’s 2012 album, Decline and Fall – where the music’s mind-boggling complexity forced her voice into an apparently flat, yet oddly riveting timbre. Here, her dusky contralto displays more curves than angles, lending a hauntingly soft quality to Zago’s wistful vignettes, and providing the ideal vehicle for the pensive, often rather gloomy lyrics. Only one of the songs, the well-known “Flow My Tears” by English Renaissance composer John Dowland,   is interpreted by a different singer – mezzo soprano Rachel O’Brien, whose classically trained voice adds to the piece’s mournful feel.

Di Falco’s multitracked vocals, complemented by Fasoli’s rippling piano and Costa’s gently chiming vibraphone in opener “Two Views on Flight”, weaves a magical, dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Dead Can Dance or Kate Bush (or even Gentle Giant), while the somber drone of the cello fits her like a glove in the delicate “Words Lurking”, echoed by Zago’s subtle guitar. “Coming Back Home” revisits one of the songs featured on Not A Good Sign’s debut in understated yet markedly atmospheric fashion, enhanced by mellotron surges and ethereal guitar arpeggios. On the other hand, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” (another Dowland composition) and “A Dark Vanessa” (from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire) hinge on Di Falco’s deep, almost whispered vocals and minimalist instrumentation to create a mysterious, faintly unsettling mood. The album’s centerpiece, however, is the arrestingly beautiful “Running Water” (with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney), whose title is evoked by Fasoli’s flowing piano and DiFalco’s compelling voice, almost chasing each other in a hypnotic movement.

Ranging from the almost 6 minutes of “Kurai” to the barely over one minute of the piano interlude of“A Knife Under the Pillow”, the instrumentals, explore the instruments’ potential to build up cinematic ambient soundscapes that veer from the soothing, Japanese-inspired “The Ghosts of Dawn”, with its rarefied, crystalline sound effects, to the strident, menacing “Ananke” and “Waiting for the Crash”. The longest track on the album at almost 6 minutes, “Kurai”, with its sparse, ominous texture, slashed by sudden cascading chimes and eerily reverberating sounds, aptly reflects its title (Japanese for “dark”, and also the name of another of Zago’s projects, whose album was released in 2009). The 5-minute “Ankoku” is a spacey, faintly discordant piece anchored by Bianca Fervidi’s cello’s muted drone; while in closing track “This Night Wounds Time” piano and mellotron surge in unison, echoing between pauses of near-silence.
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As I anticipated in my 2013 retrospective, Empty Days fully deserves to be included among the year’s landmark albums. Though, not surprisingly, its main target will be the ever-demanding RIO/Avant crowd, the strong melodic quotient of the songs make the album potentially more accessible for people who are normally daunted by “weird” music. In any case, Empty Days is a thing of beauty, lovingly crafted by one of the most genuinely creative artists on the current progressive rock scene, and highly recommended to anyone who loves music that flies in the face of today’s depressing commercial trends

Links:
http://www.francescozago.com

https://www.facebook.com/FrancescoZagoMusician

http://www.altrock.it

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giardino

TRACKLISTING:
1. Mattino (2:09)
2. Caduta massi (6:07)
3. Dal recinto (3:58)
4. Palude del diavolo (4:14)
5. Tema dei campi (5:01)
6. Ed io non c’ero (4:59)
7. Dite a mia moglie (5:05)
8. Il giardino disincantato (8:43)
9. Sopra tutto e tutti (9:01)
10. Per mano conduco Matilde (4:35)
11. Terre emerse (Bolero primo) (7:43)

LINEUP:
Valeria Marzocchi – flute, piccolo, vocals
Nicola Bimbi – oboe, English horn
Lorenzo Del Pecchia – clarinet, bass clarinet
Maicol Pucci – trumpet, flugelhorn
Stefano Giannotti –  lead vocals, classical and electric guitars, banjo, componium, harmonica, synth, teponatzli, metallophone, plastic bottle
Emanuela Lari – piano, organ, vocals
Valentina Cinquini –  harp, vocals
Gabriele Michetti –  bass guitar, double bass, vocals
Matteo Cammisa –  drums, xylophone, tympani

With:
Thomas Bloch – glass harmonica (1)

The name OTEME – an almost-acronym for Osservatorio delle Terre Emerse (Observatory of Dry Lands) – will in all likelihood not ring familiar to most progressive rock fans, even though the ensemble’s founder, Stefano Giannotti, has had a long and distinguished career in the field of contemporary music. Hailing from the beautiful medieval city of Lucca in Italy’s Tuscany, Giannotti has been writing and performing music for over 30 years, and his work – which encompasses songs, orchestral scores, chamber music, radio and video art, and  much more – has received numerous international awards, especially in Germany.  OTEME is one of his most recent projects, begun in 2010, though the compositions were developed over a period of about 21 years. The ensemble’s debut album, Il giardino disincantato (The Disenchanted Garden), was recorded in 2011, and finally released in 2013 by independent French label Edd Strapontins (internationally distributed by Ma.ra.cash Records).

Il giardino disincantato’s lavish, lovingly assembled packaging goes to show that fortunately not everyone subscribes to the theory of the visual aspect of music-making (embodied, in this case, by the “physical” CD) being on its way out. With his extensive artistic background (which includes videomaking), Giannotti obviously still believes in the partnership of music and visuals. The 27-page booklet features gorgeous photography that juxtaposes nature and everyday objects (such as the vintage saucepan that represents the “dry lands” in the ensemble’s name, in a modern take on the classic still life), as well as detailed notes and all the lyrics in both Italian and English. The understated elegance of the package, blending minimalism and an appealing “shabby chic” feel, will whet the listener’s appetite, hinting at the nature of the musical content while avoiding sensory overload.

Right from the very first notes of  Il giardino disincantato, Stefano Giannotti’s  mastery of a wide range of expressive modes becomes evident. Though he is credited as the sole writer, the album is very much a group effort. The richly variegated instrumentation merges traditional rock and classical/chamber music staples with rare instruments such as the componium (a programmable music box) and the teponatzli, an Aztec wooden drum. However, Giannotti’s understated yet well-modulated voice works much as an additional instrument, assisted by the ethereal backing vocals contributed by some (mostly female) band members. His interpretation of the beautiful lyrics – fusing literate references with an everyday, matter-of fact tone, and making full use of the many distinctive features of the Italian language – is riveting in its simplicity, far removed from the theatrics to which many prog and avant-garde singers are prone. While listening to the album, I was occasionally reminded of Franco Battiato’s effortless mix of the popular and the highbrow.

Though not a concept album, Il giardino disincantato should be heard as a whole rather than by picking and choosing songs in the manner of the iPod generation. In fact, even if the various tracks date back from different times, they work seamlessly rather than coming across as a disparate collection of items. The intriguing minimalism of opener “Mattino” – in which Giannotti’s voice is accompanied by renowned French musician Thomas Bloch’s eerie glass harmonica – immediately catches the attention and prepares the listener for what is to come. Out of the album’s four instrumentals, “Caduta massi” and the title-track decidedly veer into RIO/Avant territory – the former’s angular, expressive texture interspersed by gentler moments with an appealing Canterbury tinge, the latter taking an almost free-jazz direction with its buoyant, blaring horns – while the haunting “Tema dei campi” evokes reminiscences of Oriental music and the rarefied “Terre emerse (Bolero Primo)” evidences a clear modern classical matrix.

On the other hand, the songs draw upon Italy’s rich singer-songwriter tradition, painting charmingly surrealistic images through Giannotti’s cultivated vocal delivery and a discreet yet unmistakable instrumental presence: the delightfully lilting “Dal recinto”, the delicately wistful “Palude del diavolo” and the wry “Dite a mia moglie”, where the voice is punctuated by English horn. “Per mano conduco Matilde” is a mesmerizing, minimalistic sound sculpture in which the intersecting five voices are complemented by the componium’s eerie tinkling. The 9-minute “Sopra tutto e tutti”, however, is the album’s highlight, bringing all the main components together in an easily flowing, irresistibly melodic song that subtly introduces elements of prog’s trademark intricacy through the seamless interplay of  piano and woodwinds.

Even though Il giardino disincantato may have flown under the radar of most prog fans, especially those dwelling outside Europe, anyone who is keen to explore new challenging music should make an effort to get this album – in particular, those who in 2013 appreciated the likes of Five-Storey Ensemble’s Not That City and Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days. The excellent English translations in the booklet allow non-Italian speakers an insight into Giannotti’s thought-provoking lyrics, helping them to gain an even deeper appreciation for the essential synergy between words and music. A true gem (for the discovery of which I cannot thank my fellow writer Donato Zoppo enough) and one of the standout albums of 2013, Il giardino disincantato will be a treat for all discerning music lovers.

Links:
http://www.stefanogiannotti.com

http://www.maracash.com

http://www.eddstrapontins.net

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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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5-storey ens

TRACKLISTING:
1. The Harbinger (5:51)
2. Bondman’s Wings (2:24)
3. The Incommunication (5:23)
4. To Ringfly (3:12)
5. A Disappearing Road (4:43)
6. The Unpainted (7:58)
7. Yesterday Dormant (5:41)
8. The Protector (3:23)
9. Fear-Dream (3:47)
10. Amid the Smoke and Different Questions (6:31)
11. Not That City (6:58)

LINEUP:
Vitaly Appow – bassoon, saxes
Alexander But’ko – accordion
Andrey Evdokimov – acoustic and electric guitars
Natalja Malashkova – oboe
Dmitry Maslovsky – bass guitar
Olga Podgaiskaja – piano, keyboards, vocals
Olga Polakova – flute
Anastasia Popova – violin
Nikolay Semitko – drums, percussion
Vyacheslav Plesko — double bass
Sergey Dolgushev – vocals

With:
Jury Korogoda —electric guitar (6,9)
Cirill Christia — violin (6,8,9)
Nadia Christia — cello (6, 9,11)

One of the very few bands originating from the small and politically isolated Eastern European country of Belarus, Rational Diet was an unabashedly intellectual ensemble whose music was not for the faint-hearted. After releasing a total of five albums (the last three of which on Italian label AltrOck Productions) between 2000 and 2010, Rational Diet split up because of a disagreement over artistic direction. Its members went on to form two separate groups, Archestra and Five-Storey Ensemble, whose debut albums – titled Arches and Not That City – were both released in the spring of 2013. While Arches was released on French label Soleil Mutant (a subdivision of Soleil Zeuhl), Five-Storey Ensemble have remained part of the AltrOck roster.

Not That City’s liner notes trace the genesis of this new yet familiar band, explaining the reasons for the change, reflected in the album’s more intimate and “streamlined” sound if compared with Rational Diet’s overly intellectual approach (which had become a liability rather than an asset, hindering the band’s natural development). The transition from Rational Diet to Five-Storey Ensemble was complete when the former band’s  remaining members – keyboardist/vocalist/main composer Olga Podgaiskaja, bassist Dmitry Maslovsky, drummer Nikolaj Semitko and reedist Vitaly Appow – merged with  Fratrez, a quartet hailing from the Belarus capital of Minsk, whose sound was strongly rooted in medieval and folk music. The lineup that recorded Not That City (a mini-orchestra with no less than 11 members) is augmented by former Rational Diet bandmates Cirill and Nadia Christia and Archestra guitarist Jury Korogoda on a handful of tracks.

A mostly acoustic album, performed with instruments generally associated with classical and folk music, Not That City has very few connections to rock music (even of the progressive variety), and the presence of drums and electric guitar/bass is so discreet as to be almost imperceptible. In this and other aspects, Five-Storey Ensemble bring to mind Belgian outfit Aranis, though their sound also bears the unmistakable imprint of the Eastern European tradition. The literary inspiration that had been an essential component of Rational Diet’s output is still very much in evidence: the album features three songs with lyrics by early 20th century poet Alexander Vvedensky, and another two were originally part of the soundtrack for the experimental play Bondman’s Wings.

Though Not That City is largely instrumental, some of the tracks feature vocals with an operatic quality that, however, meshes remarkably well with the instrumentation rather than swamping it. Band leader Olga Podgaiskaja’s sweet, achingly wistful soprano complements Sergey Dolgushev’s intense tenor;  their duet in the sprightly, folksy “Yesterday Dormant” acquires a dramatic quality from the use of two different themes –  melodic, almost pleading for the female voice,  more upbeat for the male one. In the intimate, melancholy ”The Incommunication”, the two voices occupy centre stage, while the instruments (mainly piano and bassoon) keep discreetly in the background.

Running at a very reasonable 55 minutes, the album as a whole is very cohesive and surprisingly full of melody, with few concessions to those spiky, dissonant moments so often associated with the Avant-Progressive subgenre – the most notable of which can be found in the second half of “A Disappearing Road”  and in the complex, riveting textures of the nearly 8 minutes of “The Unpainted”, where the electric guitar is treated like an orchestral instrument rather than a typically rock one. Conversely, the influence of medieval and Renaissance music emerges clearly in the lilting, percussive “To Ringfly” and “The Protector”; while the aptly titled “Fear-Dream”, laden with a dark, menacing tone, taps into a richly cinematic vein that is also evident in “Amid the Smoke and Different Questions”, in which Dolgushev uses his voice as another instrument. The album’s bookends, opener “The Harbinger” and the title-track, sum up the whole of the band’s musical approach, blending almost gloomy solemnity with elegant dance-like passages, showcasing the instruments’ flawless interplay and the band’s mastery of the art of buildup – both examples of stately yet ]mesmerizing 21st –century chamber music with only passing nods to the rock aesthetics.

An astonishing beautiful album that (rather uncharacteristically) drew me in right from the first listen, Not That City, as already hinted in the previous paragraphs, has much more in common with modern classical music than rock. Though certainly more accessible than most of the band’s previous incarnation’s output, it does require a good amount of concentration on the part of the listener, as well as an appreciation for the minimalistic, understated approach of chamber rock as compared to conventional prog’s tendency towards bombast. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the top releases of the year so far, and highly recommended to only to fans of the RIO/Avant scene, but also to all open-minded music lovers.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/album/not-that-city-mw0002529122

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=205&id2=207

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

LINEUP:
Stelios Romaliadis – flute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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