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Archive for the ‘Folk’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Koskella (3:50)
2. Isätön Poika (5:03)
3. Valonvaltiatar (4:59)
4. Lintunen (4:10)
5. Kaihomieli (3:45)
6. Suolla (4:17)
7. Aihetta Lauluun (4:22)
8. Pohjalainen Pitkä Poika (3:57)
9. Oivallus (3:49)
10. Virran Mukana (5:24)

LINEUP:
Petri Koivistoinen – guitars, kantele, bass (9), all kinds of gadgets
Nina Hiironniemi – vocals
Mika Hiironniemi – drums, percussion & thingies, keyboards (3, 10)
Pate Laitinen – bass

With:
Janne Haka-Risku – keyboards

This will be the first of a trio of reviews dedicated to new bands from Finland – a country that, in spite of its relative isolation in geographical terms, has earned a place of its own on the contemporary music scene. Though the country is often associated with metal – both of the power/symphonic and the extreme variety – the Land of a Thousand Lakes enjoys a thriving, variegated progressive rock scene, and a very high rate of musical activity (not to mention excellent educational standards) for a population of slightly over 5 million. As I mentioned last year when reviewing Tuvalu’s debut album, I always welcome the opportunity to listen to some new music coming from Finland, on account of my close personal connection with the country. Therefore, once again I thank my good friend, Helsinki-based artist Eetu Pellonpää, for exposing me to some of the bands whose recordings are graced by his distinctive artwork.

Hiidensointi (whose name, meaning “The Voice of Hiisi”, references a nature deity of the ancient Finnish religion) are a quintet based in the thriving city of Tampere, where they were formed in 2007 by guitarist Petri Kivistoinen and drummer Mika Hiironniemi. After the 2010 release of their self-titled debut, the band underwent a line-up change, with keyboardist Janne Haka-Risku leaving the band to be replaced by violinist Petri Ahonen. They also started work on their second album (which should be released some time in 2012), all the while keeping up with their busy performance schedule around the Tampere region.

Though barely known outside Finland, the members of Hiidensointi (as is very often the case with artists from northern Europe) are very accomplished instrumentalists, with a solid  background and plenty of experience. While they call themselves “folk-oriented progressive rock”, their debut album, rather than anything suggesting the complexity or epic sweep of classic prog, is an accessible, song-oriented effort featuring 10 tracks with an average running time of 4 minutes. The folk overtones are not as evident as in the debut album by Positive Wave (a band with a similar musical direction), and always take a back seat to a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure.  On the other hand, recent live recordings of the band reveal that the presence of a violinist lends a more definite folksy tone to their sound, which will probably come to the fore in their second album.

Like Tuvalu and Positive Wave, Hiidensointi sing in their native language – which is likely to be a turn-off for those who think that English is the only suitable medium for music – and are fronted by a female vocalist. Nina Hiironniemi (wife of drummer Mika), who is also responsible for the lyrics, possesses a confident, versatile voice (though not as impressive as Positive Wave’s Susan Karttunen) that avoids the cookie-cutter, saccharine sweetness plaguing many modern prog bands, and tackles the material with considerable assurance. Petri Koivistoinen replaces her in the plaintive “Suolla”, the one track with a clear-cut folk matrix – assisted by the subdued lilt of the kantele, or Finnish zither (the Finnish national instrument, an object of mythical proportions).

As a whole, and right from opening track “Koskella”, Hiidensointi comes across as remarkably catchy and upbeat, often dance-like – almost debunking the myth of the supposedly melancholy nature of Scandinavian music.  The pervasive rumble of the organ, coupled with Petri Koivistoinen’s energetic guitar, inject an unmistakable classic hard rock vibe à la Deep Purple into tracks like “Isäton Poika” and “Kaihomieli”. Suffused with a gentle wistfulness, “Lintunen” showcases Nina Hiironniemi’s vocal dexterity in adopting a deeper, lower register to complement the instrumental mood, and alternating between singing and speaking in the final section of the song.  Album closer “Virran Mukana” marks a distinct change of pace, with Pate Laitinen’s funky bass line beefed up by organ and guitar, reminding me a bit of Camel’s “Summer Lightning” with its hints at Seventies dance music.

Clocking in at a compact 41 minutes, Hiidensointi is a well-crafted debut by a talented band, with plenty of catchy hooks, pleasing melodies and excellent singing. However, it is also not very likely to impress those looking for a musical offer more firmly rooted in the Finnish folk tradition, in the style of an internationally renowned band like Värttinä. In my view, the album would have proved more interesting if it had pursued the route shown by “Suolla” (and hinted at by the mysterious, dark green hue of the artwork), and delved deeper into the fascinating treasure trove of Finnish folklore. Hopefully their forthcoming second album will take a more definite turn in that direction.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/hiidensointi

http://sites.google.com/site/hiidensointi/

http://eetupellonpaa.deviantart.com/

http://www.reverbnation.com/hiidensointi

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Calling Out (4:55)
2. Still Water (5:04)
3. Unity (1:59)
4. Another Day (4:36)
5. Water Of Life (10:00)
6. Live For Him (5:26)
7. Indian Summer (2:38)
8. By My Side (3:55)
9. Vacant Halls (6:44)
10. Freedom Road (6:05)

LINEUP:
Dave Auerbach – guitars
Dean Hallal – lead and backing vocals
Kevin Jarvis – keyboards, guitars, dulcimer, vocals
Jennifer Meeks – flute, lead and backing vocals
Frank Tyson – bass, vocals, whistling
Rick Walker – drums, percussion

With:
Jeff Hodges – additional keyboards, percussion, samples and loops

Hailing from Sumter (South Carolina), where they were formed in 1997 by keyboardist Kevin Jarvis and drummer Rick Walker, Farpoint have 12 years of live performances and 5 studio albums under their collective belts. Their recording debut, First Light, appeared  in 2002, though with a different line-up than the one appearing on this album.  Kindred is also the band’s first release for Georgia-based label 10T Records, while their previous albums had all been released independently.

Farpoint are part of a group of mostly American bands and artists that are openly Christian in inspiration, which is bound to alienate some listeners. To be honest, Farpoint are not as heavy-handed as other acts (Neal Morse comes to mind) in the way they handle the religious content of their lyrics. Moreover, the generally upbeat, positive nature of their musical offer may come across as refreshing in an age of often somewhat contrived misery and navel-gazing. Rather than concentrating on complex theological issues, Farpoint’s lyrical universe is simple, almost naive, their unabashedly optimistic songs revolving about ideas of love, hope and trust, both in God and mankind.

On a personal level, even if I am not religious, and would rather not see music turned into a vehicle for any ideological manifesto, I do not see anything wrong with delivering a positive message. The main problem, at least to my ears, is that quite a few of the songs on Kindred (right from opener “Calling Out”) remind me of the music that would be played during a service, back in my days as a good Catholic girl and a member of the local church choir. Associating this kind of music with progressive rock can be a tad awkward, and indeed Kindred is only marginally related to prog as we know it. On occasion, the instrumental interplay allows glimpses of greater complexity, but on the whole the majority of the tracks featured on the album are rather conventional, mainstream-sounding songs with a heavy emphasis on vocals and plenty of catchy hooks.

In any case, the members of Farpoint show excellent musicianship, and their songwriting skills are none too shabby either. Production-wise, Kindred can boast of outstanding clarity of sound, which allows each instrument to shine without overwhelming the others. Farpoint are very much ensemble players, each of the members contributing to the final result. The album is also quite well-balanced, clocking in at a very reasonable 51 minutes, with two shorter, mostly acoustic instrumental interludes (“Unity” and “Indian Summer”) and most of the other songs between 4 and 6 minutes – with the sole exception of the 10-minute “Water of Life”. However, those expecting a towering effort in typical “prog epic” tradition will be disappointed, because the song – in spite of some noteworthy instrumental passages such as the lengthy, flute- and guitar-driven introduction, with some sterling bass work by Frank Tyson (whose flawless performance is one of the best points of the album) – becomes quite lightweight every time vocals are involved.

On the other hand, the prog references are few and far between, and mostly concentrated in the uncharacteristically meditative, downbeat “Vacant Rooms” (in my view the highlight of the album, a heartfelt reflection on the loss of loved ones), with its spacey keyboards and lovely, Gilmour-influenced guitar solo leading to an intense crescendo in the final part of the song. “Live for Him” displays some lively classic rock touches, especially in Dave Auerbach’s excellent guitar and Hammond organ passages that bring to mind early Deep Purple, as well as an interesting drumming pattern in the bridge – but is somehow let down by the country-meets-church-music flavour of the vocal parts. A couple of other songs – notably “Another Day”, with its jangly, bluegrass-style guitar – reminded me of the alt.country slant of The Decemberists’ latest album, The King Is Dead,  though minus Colin Meloy’s distinctive vocals. Indeed, Dean Hallal’s smooth, well-modulated voice seems quite well-suited to mainstream, country-tinged pop-rock; while Jennifer Meeks’s ethereal soprano is quite underused, her only solo spot being the rather cheesy “By My Side”.

Clearly informed by strong faith and a positive worldview, Kindred is likely to appeal to those listeners who lean towards the melodic, more accessible side of prog, as well as those who like a well-crafted mainstream song delivered in a pleasing manner. Personally, I found the instrumental passages far more interesting than anything featuring vocals, though I am quite sure that  a lot of people will find the album as a whole to their taste. Needless to say, anyone who objects to religious or other ideological messages in their music will do well to steer clear of this album.

Links:
http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.farpointband.com/

http://www.10trecords.com

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SETLIST:
July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed on The King Is Dead  may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Helmi (5:52)
2. Huominen Ei Lopu Koskaan (6:01)
3. Utuinen (4:10)
4. Sumuista Metsää (3:57)
5. Siniset Laineet (5:47)
6. Valkoinen Huone (4:07)
7. Kauan (5:11)
8. Päivä Kerrallaan (4:31)
9. Elämä (5:09)
10. Yli Niittyjen (5:18)
11. Viimeistä Iltaa (4:26)

LINEUP:
Susan Karttunen – vocals
Jani Häggblom – keyboards, backing vocals
Pekka Kalliosuo – guitars
Ayhan Akgez – bass
Henri Tuomi – drums
Sini Palokangas – saxophone, vibes, violin
Henri Onodera – percussion

As pointed out at the beginning of the previous review, Positive Wave and Tuvalu share quite a few features: they are both based in Helsinki, have female vocalists, and sing in Finnish rather than the ubiquitous English. Here, however, the similarities end, because Positive Wave is definitely a different beast. There is nothing whatsoever that might remind the listener of Tuvalu’s brooding intensity on Positive Wave’s debut album, but rather a triumph of upbeat rhythms, joyful vocal performances and plenty of melody, with liberal sprinklings of folk and jazz influences that bring to mind other eclectic Finnish outfits like Piirpauke and Värttinä.

Though they have been around, in different incarnations, since 1998, this album is Positive Wave’s recording debut, released in 2010 when the band – always very active on the live front in their native country – finally found a stable line-up. Now a seven-piece, besides the more traditional rock instrumentation they also include saxophone and violin, like a mini-orchestra. As is the case of most Finnish bands, the collective musicianship is excellent, but the band’s real strength is undoubtedly Susan Karttunen’s stunning voice. While resembling Tuvalu’s Annina Antinranta’s  in pitch and tone, Susan’s singing approach is quite different, and fits the band’s musical direction like a glove.

When I first heard Positive Wave, I superficially thought they sounded like an above-average pop band rather than a prog one. Although subsequent listens  changed my opinion of the album, there is no denying that it is indeed very much a song-oriented effort. The songs, on the other hand, in some ways differ from the standard format. Some of them are downright infectious, and the overall mood of the album – reflecting the band’s name – is upbeat and uplifting, debunking the all too common myth of  the morose Finns. With a beautiful yet simple cover that hints at the love of nature that is deeply rooted in the Finnish psyche (also referenced in many of the song titles), the album comes across as a celebration of life – and one of the songs is in fact called “Elämä”, which in Finnish means “life”.

In spite of the catchy, song-oriented nature of the album, those features so highly prized by progressive rock fans lurk in the instrumental parts, while Susan Karttunen’s vocals blend jazz, pop, folk and even soul stylings in a heady mixture that cannot fail to captivate lovers of great singing. The unmistakable sound of vintage keyboards interacting with fluid, melodic electric guitar bring to mind Canterbury bands, especially Caravan (as my friend Torodd Fuglesteg pointed out in his review of the album), and the addition of sax  and violin enriches the sound and enhances the jazzy nature of some of the arrangements. There are no lengthy numbers of staggering complexity: the individual members’ skills are conveyed in a subtle, tasteful fashion, best exemplified by the twists and turns of the longest track, “Huominen Ei Lopu Koskaan” (Tomorrow Never Ends), a jazzy offering chock full of great keyboard and sax passages, brisk percussion, muted guitar, and, of course, excellent vocals.

While Opener “Helmi” (Pearl) leans more towards the folksy side of things, with jangling, Celtic-tinged guitar, “Valkoinen Huone” (White Room) is an elegant number with echoes of Steely Dan’s classy style, especially in the opening section, and “Siniset Laineet” (Blue Waves) brings back comparisons with Caravan’s unique mix of accessibility and progressive sensibilities. As can be expected, not all of the 11 tracks are equally successful, and towards the end the album tends to drag a bit, especially as the material becomes more subdued and even slightly monotonous. Closing number “Viimeistä Iltaa” (Last Evening), however, though uncharacteristically subdued and melancholy, is in my view a good choice to wrap up the album, and the combination of violin and Susan’s delicate vocals sounds especially poignant.

Though not perfect, and a tad naïve at times, Positive Wave is a very interesting proposition for those who enjoy song-based prog as well as its more complex manifestations. While there is clearly some filler material, and – while not long for today’s standards – the album might have benefited from some trimming, the strengths of the band come across quite clearly, and their obvious enthusiasm and positive attitude (pardon the pun) bodes very well for the future. An intriguing find, and a must for fans of female vocals.

Links:
http://www.positivewave.net

http://www.myspace.com/positivewave

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Epilogo  (2:41)
2. Giù nella Forra  (1:47)
3. Casa di Blu  (0:58)
4. La Guida  (1:28)
5. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Chiusa  (0:53)
6. Dimmi Chi Sei  (2:30)
7. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Schiusa  (0:53)
8. Fame Che Ride  (1:18)
9. Ladri e Stranieri  (4:49)
10. Soldati  (2:01)
11. Un Lupo  (3:29)
12. Canto Antico  (2:38)
13. Casa Non Mai Vista  (2:23)
14. Cristo Guarito  (3:10)
15. La Lettera  (1:52)
16. Gli Scantinati  (3:56)
17. Requiem  (2:29)
18. Nessuno Muore Mai  (1:37)
19. Non Sono Morto  (2:21)

LINEUP:
Leonardo Bonetti – vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards
Paola Feraiorni – vocals
Fabio Brait – acoustic guitar
Aldo Orazi – drums

Racconto d’Inverno (A Winter Tale), the third album by Rome-based outfit Arpia,  was released in early 2009 together with band mastermind Leonardo Bonetti’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title.  Like Arpia’s previous two albums, Liberazione (1995) and Terramare (2006), Racconto d’Inverno is a concept album,  a musical rendition of a book that in turn is based on two other works, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short story Racconto d’Autunno (An Autumn Story). It is also one of those albums that are extremely difficult to define. It is progressive rock, but not as we commonly know it –  indeed, if taken superficially, it can even come across as remarkably accessible in a ‘sophisticated pop-rock’  kind of way.  Moreover, it  is almost completely acoustic, with keyboards used as a complement rather than as a main ingredient.

Though they have been active for over 25 years with the same core line-up, Arpia are anything but a prolific band. Racconto d’Inverno, however, is the effort that really raises the bar in terms of the development and maturation of their individual style, and not just any old, tired variation on the ‘rock opera’ theme. The concise, yet supremely elegant lyrics, perfectly suited to the dual vocal approach adopted by the band, emphasize the aura of mingled fear and fascination pervading the whole disc. In a way, though musically quite different, it could be compared to another similarly structured album released in the first months of 2009, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love.

The story (which follows a circular narrative pattern) is told from the point of view of its protagonist, a drifter roaming in the mountains near the border during World War Two. While trying to escape from the war zone, he meets a mysterious young man who guides him to an equally mysterious, derelict house deep in a forested gorge, haunted by the presence of a woman. Though those familiar with Italian literature will immediately notice the link with the rich tradition of fiction set against the background of those terrible years, Racconto d’Inverno is not a realistic account of the horrors of war, but rather a hauntingly Gothic tale that may also be read metaphorically.

From a musical perspective, Racconto d’Inverno does not suggest ‘traditional’ Italian prog, but rather bands that merge folk and world music influences with darkly rarefied atmospheres, such  as Australian outfit Dead Can Dance –  to which I would add seminal British prog-folk band The Pentangle (especially as regards the use of dual male and female lead vocals). There is indeed a clear folk undercurrent in Arpia’s music, emphasized by the use of the acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and further reinforced by the expressive singing style of Leonardo Bonetti and Paola Feraiorni (already featured as a guest on Terramare, and now a full member of the band). Indeed, Paola’s voice is one of the main draws of the album – crystal-clear in tone, yet forceful, in the tradition of the great folk-rock female singers of the Seventies such as Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny. Her pristine, controlled delivery, far removed from the modern penchant for either saccharine sweetness or operatic grandiosity in female vocals, is the ideal vehicle for the often unsettling subject matter, dominated by the presence of death.

Arpia are also to be commended for having kept the album  at a very restrained 42 minutes, aware of the pitfalls of excessive length, especially on a project of this nature. The music, which favours the repetition of themes in selected episodes (as demonstrated, for instance, by the mirror-like melody of “Epilogo” and “Non Sono Morto”), may initially come across as somewhat monotonous, a bit like the shades of grey of the album cover and booklet –  though further listens will easily dispel this impression. Given the importance of the storyline, familiarity with the Italian language is definitely a bonus, though not indispensable in order to enjoy the album. Even without understanding the actual words, Leonardo and Paola’s stunning vocals  help the listener to connect with the story.

Racconto d’Inverno should be seen as a suite in 19 short movements (only the imperious, Middle Eastern-tinged “Ladri e Stranieri” approaches the 5-minute mark) rather than a standard collection of songs. As to be expected on an album of this nature, the music is very much at the service of the story, rather than the other way around. Though the acoustic guitars play by far the biggest role (together, obviously, with the vocals), the keyboards lurk in the background, introduced first in “Un Lupo”, and finally taking the lead in the climactic ending of the tale, the dual punch of  “Gli Scantinati” and “Requiem”. Here, combined with the mournful sound of strings and the almost unbearably intense vocals, the keyboards create a dirge-like melody that suggest some decidedly sinister goings-on in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and its ilk.

By releasing an album of such peculiar nature, Arpia have made an extremely bold move, putting artistic integrity before any concerns of commercial success. Intensely original in its combination of mesmerizing music, intriguing storytelling and splendid vocal performances, minimalistic yet deeply moving, Racconto d’Inverno is a masterpiece of atmosphere and restraint,  an album that will appeal to all lovers of music relying on simplicity and purity rather than technical flash. Those who have a good knowledge of Italian might also want to check out the novel, and possibly its source, Tommaso Landolfi’s Racconto d’Autunno – as well as Bonetti’s latest literary effort,  Racconto di Primavera (A Spring Tale), released in October 2010.

Links:
http://www.arpia.info
http://www.leonardobonetti.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Leslie Anne Levine    (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (4:31)
3. July, July! (2:51)
4. A Cautionary Song  (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill  (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire’s Lament  (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10.California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade  (9:50)

LINEUP:
Colin Meloy – lead vocals, guitars, percussion
Chris Funk – guitars, pedal steel, theremin
Jenny Conlee – Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, regular piano, accordion
Nate Query –  upright bass
Ezra Holbrook – drums, percussion, backing vocals

Many of those people who (sometimes in spite of themselves) were won over by The Decemberists’ award-winning 2009 release, the sumptuous rock opera The Hazards of Love, will certainly have felt the impulse to delve into the Portland band’s back catalogue, and thus come across their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Though the specialized press has often placed the band under the ‘progressive rock’ umbrella (as  was definitely the case with the first article I read about them,  in the autumn of 2006), true-blue prog fans are sharply divided about this issue. While the more conservative set often refuse to acknowledge anything not sounding like the Seventies bands, the more open-minded fans have equally often embraced the band as a firm favourite.

As is the case of all Decemberists releases but The Hazards of Love (and possibly their 2004 EP, The Tain),  Castaways and Cutouts is an effort that can only in part be called progressive. In fact, a good proportion of the songs follow in the footsteps of  the great American folk tradition, influenced by its European counterpart, yet at the same time noticeably different.  It is nevertheless an album that prog fans can definitely find appealing (unless they are of a seriously close-minded disposition), and even features a couple of tracks that might be tagged as ‘epics’. Based on a series of vignettes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate members of society (as the title implies), handled in terms that range from the downright grotesque to the deeply compassionate, the album undeniably possesses a powerful lyrical impact – which has become a constant of the band’s output, making very effective use of Colin Meloy’s fertile, erudite imagination and remarkable skill as a wordsmith.

Meloy’s stories, deeply rooted in the folklore of both the Old and the New World, are not meant to leave the listener cold, even resorting to shock tactics in their stark description of seedy milieus and events. Indeed, some of the situations depicted on  Castaways and Cutouts are not for the faint-hearted, even without resorting to excessively graphic detail. Luckily, not all is not doom and gloom on this album. Meloy approaches his subject matter, no matter how sordid or depressing, from a perspective of poetic realism, presenting the events with a compassionate stance, avoiding the almost masochistic wallowing in misery that, for instance, seems to be almost the rule for progressive metal bands. His voice, with its somewhat nasal twang and precise enunciation, may be an acquired taste for some, but is also quite perfect for the sort of storytelling displayed on the album.

I have always been impressed by The Decemberists’ ability to produce memorable opening tracks – in my view, one of the real strengths of a band in compositional terms – and “Leslie Ann Levine” is no exception. A hard-hitting account of suicide and stillbirth, told from the point of view of a dead baby, it is the follow-up to “We All Go Down Together” (featured on  Picaresque, the band’s third studio release), which, however, does not pack the same punch, either musically or lyrically. While its folksy, accordion-driven tune, with its vague French flavour, is only mildly wistful, the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. Some of the songs are straight-up acoustic folk numbers, where the music seems to take a back seat, and as such might appear too ‘simple’ to those craving the complexity (whether authentic or fake) of ‘mainstream’ progressive rock. The profoundly disturbing, dirge-like “A Cautionary Song” (a tale of prostitution motivated by abject poverty), and the wistfully romantic love songs  “Grace Cathedral Hill” and “Clementine” belong to this group, where the minimalistic musical accompaniment allows the narrative component to emerge, driven along by Meloy’s plaintive, nostalgia-filled vocal style.

On the other hand, the upbeat “July! July!”, whose deceptively optimistic mood conceals another disquieting tale of violent death, and the haunting dreamscapes of “I Dreamed I Was an Architect” display a catchier, more listener-friendly approach, with memorable choruses and a richer instrumental background. The aptly-titled “Cocoon”, a dreamy, almost slow-motion number inspired by the science fiction of the late Kurt Vonnegut, feels almost reassuring in the midst of so much turmoil; while “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an infectious divertissement sporting some of the wackiest rhymes this side of Lewis Carroll. That leaves the two aforementioned epics, though in terms of running time only album closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” might be described as such. However, the mesmerizing, Hammond-drenched strains of “Odalisque” – another pitch-black, convoluted tale of sexual perversion, rape and (probably) infanticide – are such a towering achievement as to give the impression of a much longer song. “California One”, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of nature and youth with a deep vein of nostalgia for a bygone past – its almost 11 minutes, driven by piano, pedal-steel guitar and touches of theremin, evoking a distinct Sixties West Coast feel.

An outstanding debut album, lavishly packaged in a booklet graced by the quirky illustrations of Carson Ellis (Colin Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, and a professional graphic artist), Castaways and Cutouts is highly recommended to those who are constantly seeking for both lyrical challenges and music that manages to be catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Though here they will not find the myriad complexities and head-spinning changes of canonical progressive rock, open-minded (and curious) prog fans could do much worse than get acquainted with the wild and wonderful world of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists.

Links:
http://www.decemberists.com

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Tracklisting:
1. Light Flight (3:19)
2. Once I Had a Sweetheart (4:43)
3. Spring Time Promises (4:09)
4. Lyke-Wake Dirge (3:36)
5. Train Song (4:47)
6. Hunting Song (6:44)
7. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
8. The Cuckoo (4:30)
9. House Carpenter (5:32)

Bonus tracks
10. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
11. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:42)
12. Cold Mountain (2:02)
13. I Saw an Angel (2:52)

Lineup:
Jacqui McShee – vocals
Bert Jansch – guitar, banjo, vocals
John Renbourn – guitar, sitar, vocals
Danny Thompson – double bass
Terry Cox – drums, percussion,  glockenspiel, vocals (4)

There must have been something in the water in Great Britain back in 1969 that inspired musicians to produce such an impressive number of landmark albums. Though best known to progressive rock fans for King Crimson’s seminal debut, the year saw the release of other essential discs for the history of rock in all its forms. Pentangle’s third album, Basket of Light, is one of those, though unfortunately it may easily fly under the radar of most listeners but dedicated folk-rock  enthusiasts – which is a pity, because the album is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Indeed, Basket of Light is everything a lover of progressive folk-rock might expect, and then some. Bert Jansch’s and John Renbourn’s fluid, jangling guitars weave seamless melodies, backed by Danny Thompson’s impeccable double bass work and Terry Cox’s precise, understated drumming, while  Jacqui McShee’s enchantingly crystalline tones soar above  the fray. Though this is the recipe for all of Pentangle’s best output, Basket of Light possesses a cohesive nature that somewhat eludes their other albums, even as good as they are. Though more than half of the material featured here consists of rearrangements of traditional British or American folk songs, the band’s original compositions are shining examples of how those traditions impacted their creative process, allowing them to craft songs that are at the same time accessible and musically complex (though very subtly so,  avoiding the over-the-top  nature of too much canonical prog).

The album’s title comes from a line of “Train Song”, probably the best-known number  in the band’s output, and one of the original compositions previously mentioned. Indeed, the title describes the album quite aptly – it is an overall uplifting slice of music, though not in the quirkily humorous way typical of Canterbury bands. For instance, “Lyke-Wake Dirge” (as the title implies) is based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon funeral chant, and as such might be expected to be quite depressing – which is, however, not the case. With its gorgeous, three-part vocals and a delicate, barely perceptible guitar accompaniment, the song possesses a melancholy kind of beauty, yet is anything but gloomy. On the other hand, album opener “Light Flight” is a deceptively light and airy tune permeated by a faint sense of nostalgia, which follows some interesting rhythm patterns and introduces the listener to the delights of Jacqui’s vocals. Gentler and less assertive than Annie Haslam’s, but powerful in its own way, her voice possesses an authentic sweetness devoid of that saccharine aftertaste so rife in her modern followers.

Interestingly, a good proportion of the album is dedicated to American music, in the shape of two folk songs derived from traditional English ballads (“Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the somewhat disturbing “House Carpenter”), and “Sally Go Round the Roses”, the only hit by New York girl group The Jaynetts, a delightful, feel-good tune (originally written by Phil Spector) showcasing a different side of Jacqui’s singing style.  The latter is also present in two different versions as a bonus track, together with two other songs that, while penned by the band or individual members, are strongly redolent of  the American musical tradition (especially the upbeat “Cold Mountain”). The aforementioned “Train Song”, written as a lament for the passing of the steam train, has a basic blues structure with vocal arrangements that reproduce the sound of a train in motion; while “The Cuckoo” is a traditional folk song from Somerset interpreted by Jacqui in piercingly sweet tones. “Hunting Song”, an original band composition based on traditional materials (namely an episode of the King Arthur cycle involving Morgana Le Fay and a hunting horn), is an almost seven-minute mini-epic sung by Jansch and McShee in their sharply contrasting timbres, and infused with the gently tinkling sound of the glockenspiel. In “House Carpenter”, which closes the original edition of the album,  Renbourn’s and Jansch’s banjo-sitar interplay reinforces the sinister atmosphere of the tale of a young woman lured to perdition by the Devil himself.

Ever since I was a child, I have been deeply fascinated by folklore and mythology, so my attraction to bands like Pentangle should not come as a surprise.  On albums like this one, the music and the lyrics seem to mesh together seamlessly, and the sheer beauty of the vocals lends new intensity to those centuries-old tales of love,  death, magic and treason.  If, according to a popular stereotype, prog fans have an affinity for fantasy literature, then the root of it all is here, in the enthralling yet disquieting ballads interpreted by the exquisite voices of Jacqui McShee and her peers – as the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, pointed out in many of his writings.

In the previous paragraphs I have often used the word ”progressive’. So, can Basket of Light be really tagged as a prog album?  Of course it can, though you should not expect anything resembling the likes of Yes or Genesis. We are not talking about lengthy epics with a pinch of folksy spicing thrown in for good measure, but rather about a genuinely progressive approach, where folk, blues, jazz, country and medieval/Elizabethan music are blended together with immaculate instrumental proficiency and vocals that achieve the perfect balance between technique and emotion. This is the kind of music whose progressiveness is made of subtle layers of light and shade, rather than a pile-up of flash and bombast. Indeed, many modern bands would have a lot to learn from this album –  a masterpiece of class, expertise and restraint, and a delight from start to finish.

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