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I hope my readers will forgive me if this post is somewhat less detailed than the ones I wrote in the past, as up to the very last moment I was not sure I felt up to writing my usual “Best of the Year” piece. However, I have tried my best to comment on the many highlights of a year that – while utterly dismal in terms of global events – was definitely a bumper year for interesting progressive music.

In my native Italy, leap years are considered unlucky, and 2016 did nothing to dispel this myth, crammed as it was with global turmoil and high-profile deaths. For prog fans, this year will go down in history for the double whammy of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake’s loss, as well as David Bowie’s passing a couple of days after the release of his Blackstar album. On the other and, while many of the protagonists of prog’s heyday have started leaving this planet, the younger generations – though faced with a world increasingly uncaring about music as an art form – have been forging a path ahead for the progressive genre, often displaying the barest of affiliations to the modes of the past. A few of the names that will appear in this post, as well as in many fans’ lists, have received warm accolades in the  “mainstream” press, and are therefore getting exposed to more diverse audiences. In many ways, these artists resemble the original prog generation in their desire to explore and experiment, rather than stick to a tried-and-tested formula as the “retro” acts do.

Even if lately my reviewing activity has been almost non-existent, I have kept in touch with new releases through my regular participation in DPRP’s Something for the Weekend? feature. On the other hand, a lot of highly rated 2016 albums have flown directly under my radar, so anyone who wishes to read further should take the absence of a rather large number of prog fans’ favourites into account – as the title of this post makes it quite clear. As usual, I have not had either the time or the inclination (or both) to listen to many of the albums that are prominently featured in many people’s Top 10 (or 20, or 50…) lists, because the amount of music released during the past 12 months under the increasingly broad “progressive” label was nothing short of staggering. And then, in all honesty, my tastes have been steadily drifting away from the traditional prog still enthusiastically embraced by both artists and fans. While I still have a lot of time for the classics, I am constantly on the lookout for modern music that will redefine the prog label without sounding derivative. In this respect, 2016 was like a 12-month Christmas.

For this edition, I have decided to adopt a similar format to the one used by my esteemed friend and fellow reviewer, Roger Trenwith, on his excellent Astounded by Sound! blog. In this way, I will still avoid the dreaded (though popular) numbered list, and at the same time make it somewhat easier for my readers to pick out albums. Although the order of appearance may partly reflect my own preferences, all the albums briefly described in the following paragraphs are well worth checking out. I have tried to include all those albums that have impressed me during the past 12 months, (many of which have already been recommended by me or my fellow reviewers on Something for the Weekend?) though obviously there are bound to be omissions for which I apologize beforehand. Links to Bandcamp or other streaming services are provided whenever available.

And here we go…

Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden (UK) – A real joy from start to finish, as intricate and eclectic as the best vintage prog,  Knifeworld’s third release is yet another winner from prog’s other busiest man, the one and only Kavus Torabi.

North Sea Radio OrchestraDronne (UK)  – Another Cardiacs-related effort, the fourth album by the ensemble led by Craig Fortnam is pure class, brimming with ethereal beauty and sterling performances.

Bent KneeSay So (USA) – The third full-length release from the Boston crew led by charismatic vocalist Courtney Swain boasts interesting songwriting and an almost punky edge, tempered by a sort of  confessional vibe.

Gong Rejoice! I’m Dead! (Multi-national) – Though Daevid Allen may be gone from this earthly plane, he left his beloved creature in the trusty hands of Kavus Torabi (again!), who gives the album a modern edge while paying homage to the band’s decades-long history.

Gösta Berlings SagaSersophane (Sweden) – Released just two weeks before the end of the year, the long-awaited fourth album from the magnificent Swedes (augmented, as usual, by Mattias Olsson) brings 2016 to a close with a bang. 40 minutes of stunningly hypnotic instrumental music by one of the finest bands in the business.

Deus Ex MachinaDevoto (Italy) – Another highly awaited comeback from one of Italy’s most distinctive bands, chock full of energy, melody and outstanding performances – though without any Latin in sight.

YugenDeath by Water (Italy) – The iconic Milan-based ensemble led by guitarist Francesco Zago is back with a dense, austere album that demands a lot from the listener. Modern Avant-Prog at its finest.

ZhongyuZhongyu (USA) –  Seamlessly blending jazz-rock, Avant-Prog, Far Eastern music and improvisation, the debut album by Jon Davis’ Seattle-based quintet (featuring three members of Moraine) is a must-listen for lovers of cutting-edge instrumental prog.

Richard Pinhas & Barry ClevelandMu (Multi-national) – Beautifully atmospheric music performed by a quartet of extremely gifted musicians – guitarists Pinhas and Cleveland plus the extraordinary rhythm section of Michael Manring and Celso Alberti.

Mamma Non PiangereN.3 (Italy) – The triumphant return of the veteran Italian RIO/Avant outfit will put a smile on your face,even if you do not understand the language. Stunning vocal performance from Laura Agostinelli of Garamond.

Jeremy FlowerThe Real Me (USA) – Carla Kihlstedt lends her vocals and violin to this lovely album from a gifted Boston-based musician. Top-class, surprisingly accessible chamber pop.

Finnegan ShanahanThe Two Halves (USA) – A charming, chamber prog-meets-Celtic folk debut for a talented young musician.

The WinstonsThe Winstons (Italy) – Three established indie musicians from Italy pay homage to early Soft Machine inone of the very few unabashedly retro efforts that actually works.

PanzerpappaPestrottedans (Norway) – Avant-Prog that will not scare first-timers away with a distinct new-Canterbury flavour from one of Norway’s most reliable bands

CorimaAmaterasu (USA) – Magma meets punk in the highly anticipated sophomore release of California’s electrifying Zeuhl-ers.

Chromb! – 1000 (France) – The Lyon scene is a real treasure trove of great bands exploring the many facets of the Avant universe – as illustrated by Chromb!’s outstanding third album.

UkandanzAwo (France) – What would happen if you crossed traditional Ethiopian music with RIO/Avant? The answer is Ukandanz –another winner from the seemingly inexhaustible  Lyon scene.

Herd of InstinctManifestation (USA) –  Intense and mysterious, yet pervasively melodic, the Texas band’s third album displays a stronger influence from their Djam Karet mentors than their previous releases.

Emmett ElvinAssault on the Tyranny of Reason (UK) – Proudly eclectic (and unexpectedly fun) effort from the man behind the keyboards of modern prog giants Knifeworld, Guapo and Chrome Hoof.

French TV –  Ambassadors of Health and Clean Living (USA) – Mike Sary’s veteran project’s comeback, recorded with the members of Japanese instrumental band TEE, offers a challenging  blend of RIO/Avant and jazz-rock.

Jack O’ The ClockRepetitions Of The Old City I (USA) – The latest effort from Damon Waitkus’ crew confirms their status as purveyors of unique-sounding chamber rock.

AmpledeedBYOB (USA) – The second album from the Californian band brings more top-notch art rock with plenty of diverse influences

Luz de RiadaCuentos y Fabulas 3 (Mexico) – Ramsés Luna’s collective sounds like almost nothing else, though of course fans of Cabezas de Cera will found a lot to love in this album.

Nicotina Es PrimaveraAnimal Cerámico (Argentina) – From the thriving Argentinian scene, sophisticated yet accessible Avant-Prog from an excellent new band.

Amoeba SplitSecond Split (Spain) – The Canterbury sound gets a 21-st century makeover in this outstanding instrumental album

Half Past FourLand of the Blind (Canada) – The irrepressible Canadians pack more into an EP than many bands in 80 minutes. Quirky, elegant and fun modern prog.

UlverATGCLVLSSCAP (Norway) – The mighty Norwegians’ homage to vintage Krautrock is pristinely beautiful.

a.P.A.t.T.Fun With Music (UK) – Just what the title says. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism rules!

Ill WickerUntamed (Sweden) – Dark, haunting acid-folk inspired by Comus and other Seventies cult bands.

VesperoLique Mekwas (Russia) – Russia’s answer to Ozric Tentacles deploy their whole arsenal of psych/space rock with intriguing world music touches.

PsychoyogiShrine (UK) – Short but sweet 2016 release from one of the UK scene’s hidden treasures – a must for “new Canterbury” fans.

Simon McKechnieFrom My Head to My Feet (UK) –  Another lesson on how to add interest and progressive quotient to the song format from one of the genre’s unsung heroes.

David BowieBlackstar (UK)  – Released just before his unexpected passing, Bowie’s swan song is a riveting testimony to his undimmed creative spirit.

N.y.X.The News (Italy) – Darkly Crimsonian vibes abound in the northern Italian trio’s second album.

Axon/NeuronMetamorphosis (USA) – An eclectic double CD for an excellent female-fronted band in the MoeTar vein.

iNFiNiENLight at the Endless Tunnel (USA) – Third album for another MoeTar-inspired band, with artwork from Tarik Ragab himself.

The Stargazer’s AssistantRemoteness of Light – Mesmerizing, multilayered soundscapes from Guapo drummer David J. Smith.

SternpostStatues Asleep (Sweden) – Ethereal, sophisticated chamber-pop reminiscent of Robert Wyatt.

Yawning ManHistorical Graffiti (USA) – A stunning instrumental “desert rock” album recorded in Argentina from an excellent southern California outfit.

Iron MountainUnum (Ireland) – Post-rock meets folk-metal  in this intriguing instrumental album.

Vaults of ZinKadath (USA) – HP Lovecraft-inspired Avant-Zeuhl-Metal.

Thank You ScientistStranger Heads Prevail (USA) – Energetic prog-pop from New Jersey’s wrecking crew.

The Mercury TreePermutations (USA) – Intricate, guitar-based modern prog from a band in constant development.

EdensongYears in the Garden of Years (USA) – The long-awaited second album from the New Jersey band will not disappoint fans of hard-edged prog.

ShamblemathsShamblemaths (Norway)  – Ambitious debut from another promising Norwegian outfit – eclectic prog at its finest.

Seven ImpaleContrapasso (Norway) – A darker, more intense follow-up to their highly praised debut.

Disen GageSnapshots (Russia) – Eclectic, guitar-based instrumental prog with a playful edge.

Factor Burzaco3.76 (Argentina) – New versions of older material from Argentina’s leading Avant-Prog outfit.

BubuResplandor (Argentina) – A short but highly satisfying comeback from a band that fully deserves its cult status.

GriotGerald (Portugal) – The concept album reinterpreted in modern art-rock terms.

Mothertongue – <em>Unsongs (UK) – Exhilarating, brass-led progressive pop.

AfenginnOpus (Sweden) – Haunting Scandinavian prog-folk.

Violeta de OutonoSpaces (Brazil) – Psych-space meets Canterbury with a South American flavour.

The Observatory – <em>August Is the Cruellest (Singapore) – Moody, melancholy post-rock inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

MacroscreamMacroscream (Italy) – The second album of this Roman six-piece hovers between tradition and quirkiness.

Il Rumore BiancoAntropocene (Italy) – RPI with an edge for the full-length debut of this band from Verona.

Syndone Eros e Thanatos (Italy)Cinematic RPI with echoes of Van Der Graaf.

Mad FellazII (Italy) – For fans of the jazzier, funkier side of Italian prog.

Alex’s HandKünstler Sch***e (USA) – Another Avant-punk opus from the Seattle crew.

Horse LordsInterventions (USA) – African-inspired polyrhythms and a saxophone that sounds just like a guitar. Oh my!

Za!Loloismo (Spain) – A percussion-driven mix of styles with an almost tribal flair.

GoatRequiem (Sweden) – African rhythms (again!) meet psychedelic rock with interesting results.

Sparkle in GreyBrahim Izdag (Italy) – A celebration of multiculturalism through rock, electronics and a lot more.

Savoldelli/Casarano/BardosciaThe Great Jazz Gig in the Sky (Italy) – One of the most brilliant ideas ever for a tribute album. Jazz and Dark Side of the Moon are a match made in heaven!

Pluck & RailTrigger (USA) – A fine roots/folk album featuring Frogg Café’s Andrew Sussman

TilesPretending 2 Run (USA) – The ambitious return of  the Detroit heavy proggers is a double CD package put together with the utmost care.

Sonus UmbraBeyond the Panopticon (USA) – Heavy yet melodic, atmospheric comeback from the Chicago-based septet led by Luis Nasser.

Mike KershawWhat Lies Beneath (UK) – Melancholy, atmospheric song-based progressive rock

Matthew ParmenterAll Our Yesterdays (USA) –  A collection of classy, deeply emotional songs from Discipline’s mainman.

Fractal MirrorSlow Burn 1 (The Netherlands) – Another laid-back album of song-based modern art rock

iamthemorningLighthouse (Russia) – Ethereal and delicate offering from the highly-regarded Russian duo.

MarbinGoat Man and the House of the Dead (USA) – Eclectic, high-energy fusion from one of the progressive scene’s busiest bands.

Though as a rule I generally mention albums I have heard in their entirety, this year I will make an exception for a handful of interesting albums that – for some reason or another – I have managed to listen to only partially:

Stick MenProg Noir (Multi-national) – Waiting for King Crimson to release some new material, here is a feast for lovers of touch guitars and intricate polyrhythms.

MoulettesPreternatural (UK) – Mythical creatures inspire this slice of  exciting, hyper-eclectic “wonky pop”.

The Sea NymphsOn the Dry Land (UK) – The second of the “lost” albums by Cardiacs’ spin-off trio is elegiac and whimsical.

Bob DrakeArx Pilosa (USA/France) – A collection of bite-sized Avant-Pop songs from one of Thinking Plague’s founders.

Free Salamander ExhibitUndestroyed (USA) – The much-anticipated return of some former members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum hits all the right buttons.

Three Trapped TigersSilent Earthling (UK) – Hypnotic yet surprisingly melodic take on math-rock.

Although, as I pointed out in the introduction,  in my list there are quite a few of what the average prog fan would consider glaring omissions, I believe that the majority of the music mentioned above has the potential to appeal to anyone but the most hidebound listeners. It might not be “your father’s prog”, but it is definitely worth a try if you want to expand your musical horizons – and support a bunch of highly deserving artists (and the independent labels that keep up the good work in spite of all the setbacks) in the process.

Before I bring this rather lengthy post to a close, I would like to spend a few words on the question of reviews, or lack thereof. As much as I would love to start reviewing again on a regular basis, I do not see myself resuming that activity – which was of great comfort to me in difficult times – on the scale of the earlier years of this decade. In a person’s life there is probably a time for everything, and my career as a reviewer was probably fated to be a short (though intense) one. I will keep this blog alive on behalf of the many bands and artists whom I wrote about in the past few years, and for publishing the occasional piece like this one. However, I believe it is time to pass the torch to other reviewers, who are much more prolific and reliable than I have been since 2013 or so. I will keep up my contributions to Something for the Weekend? as a means of spreading the word about new music, as well as occasionally adding some band to the ProgArchives database. In the meantime, while we wait for the first 2017 releases, I hope my readers will discover at least one new band or solo artist by browsing my suggestions. Happy listening, and a great 2017 to everyone!

 

 

 

 

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zhongyu

TRACKLISTING:
1. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2 (2:06)
2. Torture Chambers of Commerce (4:42)
3. Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted (3:45)
4. Hydraulic Fracas (8:03)
5. Tunnel at the End of the Light (4:05)
6. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 1 (2:02)
7. Half Remembered Drowning Dream (5:20)
8. Sleepwalking the Dog (6:41)
9. Wanderland Wonderlust (5:31)
10. Cat Hair All Over It (2:10)
11. MBBL (5:17)
12. All Food Comes From China (4:51)

LINEUP:
Jon Davis – Chapman Stick, guzheng, Mellotron, ARP 2600
Dennis Rea – electric guitar, resonator guitar
Alicia DeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Randy Doak – drums, percussion

With:
Daniel Barry: trumpet (11)

Because of its geographical location, Seattle, the Emerald City, looks towards Asia as much as it does towards the American continent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find artists that draw their inspiration not only from Western sources, but also from the rich musical tradition of the East. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to review Dennis Rea’s beautiful solo album View from Chicheng Precipice, informed by his four-year experience in China and Taiwan. Now it is the turn of Zhongyu, the quintet formed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Davis (who spent three years in Beijing in the first decade of the 21st century), together with Rea and his fellow Morainians Alicia and James DeJoie, as well as drummer Randy Doak.

With the glut of “progressive” albums released every day, and the high level of quality of this year’s average release, an album such as Zhongyu’s eponymous debut is highly at risk of flying under the radar. A labour of love, many years in the making – as emphasized by the band’s name, meaning “finally” in Mandarin Chinese, Zhongyu deserves much more attention than it has received so far, a few months after its release on NYC-based Moonjune Records. Recorded and mixed by legendary Seattle engineer Steve Fisk, the album is introduced by artwork clearly inspired by Chinese propaganda posters, though interpreted with a humorous twist: the uniformed woman is armed with a guitar, and surrounded by flowers and butterflies in a sort of “make music, not war” context.

As hackneyed as the “East meets West” phrase may be, I believe there is no better description for an album that marries free-jazz improvisation and progressive rock with traditional Chinese music – the lilting sound of the zither-like guzheng (often played by Davis with a bow) elegantly blending with state-of-the-art electronics, gritty guitar, deep-voiced baritone sax, soothing flute and soaring violin. This fusion of apparently very different elements  works surprisingly well, weaving atmospheres at the same time ethereal and intense. Zhongyu’s bookends, “Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2” and “All Food Comes From China” (yes, the titles are punny and creative – another bonus point in my book), explore this territory in different ways – the former merging spacey effects with a heady melody produced by guzheng manipulated in various ways, the latter achieving a seamless combination of acoustic, electric and electronic elements.

The 8-minute “Hydraulic Fracas” perfectly embodies the spirit of the album, with the flute’s Eastern flavour contrasted to the electric guitar darkly reverberating in the background. “Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted” pairs guzheng and flute in a delicate, ethereal texture, while in the haunting “Half Remembered Drowning Dream” gentle chimes enhance the sound of the ethnic instrument. “Sleepwalking the Dog” is a textbook example of modern jazz-rock emphasizing ensemble playing rather than individual prowess, particularly the essential synergy between sax and violin. On the other hand,  the almost improvisational, free-jazz bent of “Tunnel at the End of Light” reminded me of Rea’s defunct project Iron Kim Style, while Moraine (and King Crimson  circa Starless and Bible Black) are evoked in the riveting “Torture Chamber of Commerce”, where melody and dissonance clash and coexist.

Besides Zhongyu’s obvious musical charms, it was a pleasure for me to review an album by a band whose main creative force is a fellow reviewer as well as a gifted musician. I have often read and appreciated Jon Davis’ writings on Exposé magazine, and am glad to have had the opportunity of expressing my opinion on his music. In any case, I count Zhongyu among one of this bumper year’s top releases, highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock – especially those who value the cross-fertilization of Western and Eastern musical traditions.

Links:
http://zhongyuband.net/
http://zhongyu-moonjune.bandcamp.com/album/zhongyu

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cover_32198362016_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Devoto (5:54)
2. Sotterfugio (1:24)
3. Multiverso (5:46)
4. Distratto da Me (7:28)
5. Eterno Ritorno (3:24)
6. Più Uguale (10:09)
7. Transizione (7:05)
8. Autore del Futuro (7:01)
9. Figli (6:59)
10. Quattro Piccole Mani (4:37)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Bonetti  – violin, mandolin
Mauro Collina – guitars, bouzouki, dobro
Alberto Piras –  vocals
Alessandro Porreca – bass
Luigi Ricciardiello – organ, piano, synth
Claudio Trotta – Maurus drums

With:
Luigi Savino – synth, contrabass
Alessandro Meroli – baritone saxophone
Marco Matteuzzi – alto saxophone
Massimo Greco –  trumpet

Odd as it may sound, I had never heard of Deus Ex Machina before I moved to the US. When their first album, Gladium Caeli, was released in 1991, I was taking one of my many breaks from intensive music listening, and, by the time I got back into progressive rock, they had already gone into hiatus. After settling in the New World, as I was getting into the local prog scene, attending concerts and festivals and meeting people, I heard frequent reports of the Bologna-based outfit’s great music and stage presence – not to mention their rather unique use of Latin in their lyrics. Unfortunately, it seemed Deus Ex Machina’s lengthy break from recording and performing was at risk of turning into a permanent state of affairs – as it is much too often the case with non-mainstream bands.

Fast forward to October 2015, and the announcement of Deus Ex Machina’s reappearance on stage in Milan – the prelude to the almost unexpected release of a new album, their sixth (the third for Cuneiform Records), with the added bonus of original keyboardist Luigi Ricciardiello’s return after two decades.  Devoto dropped at the end of June, about a month after the band’s participation in the 22th edition of ProgDay was announced – to ecstatic reactions from those who had witnessed their previous US appearances.

In the past, Deus Ex Machina have often elicited comparisons to Area, one of the defining bands of the original RPI scene. Their previous albums, especially the ambitious De Republica, did indeed channel the seminal Milan outfit, and not only because of Alberto Piras’ remarkable vocal acrobatics. However, the  band members have always emphasized their rock roots, which (as they are keen on pointing out) are clearly given pride of place on Devoto.

After an eight-year break, a band can move forward, or continue as if nothing had happened. Deus Ex Machina have inequivocably chosen the former path with Devoto – abandoning their trademark Latin lyrics for one thing (a process that had already started in the early 2000’s). Their wholehearted embrace of Italian connects the album to the long-standing Italian prog tradition, a link strengthened by violinist Alessandro Bonetti’s association with PFM, whose timeless influence often surfaces in his elegant yet soulful playing.

When compared to the band’s previous output,  Devoto might come across as more straightforward: this, however, is true only up to a point. In fact, the album’s multiple layers will unfold upon repeated in-depth  listens. Deus Ex Machina have also outdone themselves in terms of producing memorable melodies, which obviously works wonders for the album’s accessibility – as proved right from the start by the title-track, whose chorus can get stuck in your head for days. The deceptive quality of the album’s supposedly streamlined nature emerges in songs such as “Distratto da Me”, whose appealingly melodic, mid-paced intro suddenly turns into an almost free-form instrumental section sounding like Area jamming with Deep Purple. Indeed, Ricciardiello’s gritty Hammond organ puts its stamp all over the album, while his sweeping synth soundscapes (supplemented by arranger Luigi Savino’s contribution) lend a spacey note to the short mood piece “Sotterfugio”, as well as the final section of the 10-minute “Più Uguale”.  As witnessed by the funky swagger of a number of songs, such as the energetic “Transizione”, drummer Claudio Trotta – aided and abetted by Alessandro Porreca’s nimble bass lines – is firing on all cylinders, fueled by his love for soul music.

While Alberto Piras’ charismatic vocals tend to capture the listener’s attention,  his co-composer Mauro Collina’s performance on guitar is one of Devoto’s strengths – fully in evidence not only in fierce electric solos, but also in the folksy, all-acoustic “Eterno Ritorno” and in the lovely instrumental closer “Quattro Piccole Mani”, where he shines on slide guitar. Piras bends the structure of the Italian language to fit the energy and complexity of the music, with surprising results (as in the intense, almost brooding “Multiverso”), or behaves like an additional instrument (as in the second half of the bluesy “Autore del Futuro”). Two saxophones and a trumpet (courtesy of  guest musicians Alessandro Merola, Marco Matteuzzi and Massimo Greco) beef up the already lush instrumental fabric of the songs, enhancing the dynamic, jazzy vibe of “Figli” (also a showcase for Bonetti’s fiery violin) and the already-mentioned “Distratto da Me”.

Though not claiming in any way to reinvent the wheel (which these days I find highly refreshing), Devoto is pure class from start to finish, With its admirable balance of dazzling instrumental flights and riveting vocals, permeated by a strong sense of melody, it packs a lot in just one hour. Fans of both Italian prog and classic jazz-rock should not miss this album, and try to catch Deus Ex Machina live if possible, as their music – made with passion as well as impeccable technical skill – really comes alive on stage, conveying the joy of playing together.  A special mention is deserved by the album’s intriguing artwork and detailed liner notes – which include English translations of the lyrics for the benefit of international audiences.

Links:
https://cuneiformrecords.bandcamp.com/album/devoto

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com/bandshtml/deus.html

 

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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

SDC14875

First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Mustardseed (3:11)
2. Skein (3:52)
3. Fountain of Euthanasia (3:25)
4. Gnashville (4:12)
5. In That Distant Place (6:20)
6. Synecdoche (3:52)
7. The Earth Is an Atom (5:12)
8. Waylaid (7:20)
9. Spiritual Gatecrasher (7:18)
10. The Okanogan Lobe (7:41)

LINEUP:
AliciaDeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute
Kevin Millard – NS stick bass
Dennis Rea – guitar, electronic interventions, Mellotron
Tom Zgonc – drums

Four years after their recording debut, Manifest Density – followed by a career-defining appearance at NEARfest 2010, captured on their second album, Metamorphic Rock – Seattle quintet Moraine are back with Groundswell, their long-awaited third release. In the past couple of years, there have been some remarkable events for the band – namely the entry of drummer Tom Zgonc (a longtime associate of guitarist and mainman Dennis Rea) to replace Stephen Cavit, and appearances at West Coast festivals SeaProg and NorCalProg.

Introduced by a striking aerial photograph of the Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha – one of the loneliest places on Earth – Groundswell shows a band firing on all cylinders. While the backing of Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records label remains a reliable constant in the band’s career, Moraine are clearly not the kind of outfit that thrives on playing it safe, and this third chapter in their recording history clearly points forward rather than backward. With renowned sound engineer Steve Fisk (of Nirvana and Soundgarden fame) at the helm, the album sounds powerful yet clear, gritty in all the right places, yet almost ethereal when needed. Though some of the tracks had already appeared on Metamorphic Rock, they are not mere duplicates of already available material, but are integrated into the fabric of an album that stands out for its compositional tightness.

Clocking in around a very sensible 52 minutes, Groundswell bears all the hallmarks of classic Moraine, in particular their signature device of using a main theme in their compositions that brings them full circle. The music is powered by the tireless engine of Tom Zgonc’s drums and Kevin Millard’s stick bass, but also clustered around the shifting, intersecting lines of James DeJoie’s sax, Alicia DeJoie’s violin, and of course Dennis Rea’s guitar. This core trio is also responsible for the majority of the writing, with two of the 10 tracks written by other Seattle-based musicians. Indeed, the opening track, “Mustardseed”, a composition by composer and conductor Daniel Barry, is redolent of the warmth of faraway countries with its lazy, sauntering violin and sax duet, into which Rea’s sharp, meandering guitar interjects. On the other hand, the muted, rarefied elegance of “In a Distant Place” (written by Jon Davis of Zhongyu, whose members also include Rea and the DeJoies) owes a lot to Chinese music, though a burst of distinctly Western energy enlivens its texture towards the end.

The jaunty-paced “Skein” blends Moraine’s trademark sound with the almost big-band swagger of the main sax line, until an almost tempestuous climax of crashing drums and echoing guitar riffs. “Synecdoche” emphasizes adrenaline-drenched energy rather than melody, allowing Rea’s guitar free rein; whereas “Gnashville” does suggest country music (albeit in a very skewed fashion) in the starring role accorded to Alicia DeJoie’s violin, which engages in some Paganini-like acrobatics complemented by the distinctly hard rock vibe of Rea’s low-toned, growling guitar. “Fountain of Euthanasia” strikes a middle ground, its briskly upbeat opening shading into a pensive violin study offset by gently chiming guitar; similarly, “The Earth Is an Atom” juxtaposes an overall meditative mood with the sax’s more assertive exertions.

The album culminates with a trio of 7-minute-plus tracks that showcase the development of Moraine’s musical identity through the past few years. The deceptively lively beginning of “Waylaid” fades into a middle section that brings to mind Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets – a sparse, hauntingly beautiful electronic storm infused with the violin’s ethereal touch. “Spiritual Gatecrasher” brings back that heady Oriental flavour, mixed with a witty, Canterbury-like bounce, the dreamy softness of James DeJoie’s flute spiced up by a sprinkling of guitar effects. Then, Rea’s love for geology emerges once again in the album’s closing track, “The Okanogan Lobe” (a reference to an ancient glacier of the Columbia River Valley) – Moraine’s own version of a symphonic poem, whose majestic pace seems to mimic the movement of the ice throughout the eras. Rea’s guitar is at its most lyrical in the intense, slo-mo climax that follows a lively jazz-rock workout.

Groundswell marks Moraine’s triumphant return to the progressive rock fray. The band successfully weave their diverse influences together in a seamless whole that highlights their uniqueness with every twist and turn of the music. Moraine are among the foremost standard-bearers of a modern form of jazz-rock that yearns to break free from the ponderous heritage of the Seventies. A near-perfect blend of lyricism, atmosphere and raw energy, Groundswell embodies, in many ways, the modern progressive ethos. Highly recommended to all open-minded prog listeners, this is essential listening for lovers of instrumental progressive rock.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com/

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/groundswell
http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Nadir (9:31)
2. Dandelion (4:47)
3. Seth Zeugma (5:48)
4. Dua (5:44)
5. Tiglath (8:28)
6. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2) (3:21)

LINEUP:
Cristian Franchi – drums
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, minimoog, acoustic piano
Daniele Piccinini – bass guitar
Marco Marzo Maracas – electric and acoustic guitar

With:
Vladimiro Cantaluppi – violin (3), viola (6)
Marina Scaramagli – cello (6)
Enrico Guerzoni – cello (3)

For my first album review after over four months of silence, what better choice than the new album of one of the most interesting new bands of the past few years – Bologna’s own Accordo dei Contrari, who managed to impress the ProgDay crowd in 2012 in spite of performing at the hottest time of a truly sweltering day? Three years after the highly praised Kublaione of my top albums for 2011 – the young but immensely talented Italian quartet have made their comeback with an album whose title is as minimalistic as its striking artwork (courtesy of drummer Cristian Franchi and Dario D’Alessandro of fellow AltrOckers Homunculus Res). AdC also marks the band’s return to the AltrOck roster, as they their debut, Kinesis (at present unfortunately still out of print), had been released in 2006 by the Milan-based label.

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, AdC is highly concentrated, and in many ways different from its predecessor – though there are some unmistakable signs of continuity to be found. According to the English-language liner notes, the album was recorded over a very short period of time, in an almost “live in the studio” situation. While “Dua” and “Seth Zeugma” date back from the time the band was working on Kublai (though they did not find a place on that album), the remaining four tracks were all composed in the intervening years. Although far from unusual, this state of affairs might have resulted in a patchy effort, but fortunately AdC – no matter how chequered its history may be – has turned out to be remarkably cohesive.

Completely instrumental (unlike Kublai, which saw the participation of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair on one track), and with only two tracks over the 6-minute mark, it leaves very little room for self-indulgence – a danger often lurking in a subgenre like jazz-rock, which thrives on technical proficiency. The four band members weave a tight web of sound, each contributing his own individual imprint, but always keeping an eye an eye to the final result. As a whole, AdC comes across as heavier than its predecessor, with Marco Marzo’s electric guitar playing a leading role and lending a keen edge to keyboardist Giovanni Parmeggiani’s sophisticated writing. This time around, one can definitely hear less Canterbury and more Area in Accordo dei Contrari’s music.

The almost 10-minute “Nadir” opens the album with the ominous, cinematic impact of surging synths, then all the other instruments chime in, foregrounding guitar and drums in a well-paced, jazzy romp that blends energy and melody. The exhilarating contrast between Marzo’s gritty guitar and Parmeggiani’s liquid piano demonstrates the band’s excellent control of quiet-loud dynamics. Marzo’s six strings, offset by discreet Hammond organ, step forward right from the start of the shorter but punchy “Dandelion”, while Daniele Piccinini and Cristian Franchi’s flawless rhythm backbone imparts a choppy, energizing pace to the composition. Introduced by the lovely classical feel of grand piano and strings, “Seth Zeugma” soon veers into hard rock territory, guitar and organ sparring in a fashion reminiscent of classic Deep Purple or Colosseum II.

Piano and drums take firmly the lead in “Dua”, with melodic flurries and a gentle, waltz-like pace at the beginning, then a choppy, stop-start movement that culminates in a driving, insistent coda. In the 8-minute “Tiglath”, the band carefully build up a crescendo from a very sparse, atmospheric opening, with a vaguely Oriental tune followed by some intense, gritty guitar and organ exertions made more interesting by asymmetrical rhythm patterns. The short and sweet “Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta (Pt.2)” closes the album on a very different note, the somber drone of the cello underpinning lyrical violin and pensive guitar arpeggios.

Enhanced by Udi Koomran’s expert mastering, and produced by AltrOck’s own founder, Marcello Marinone, AdC may be over a bit too soon, but it definitely makes up in quality for what it may lack in running time. The album shows a band at the top of their game, capable of engaging in unbridled jazz-rock workouts as well as laying down understated, classical-tinged melodies. Highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock, AdC will please the band’s following, while wetting their appetite for Accordo dei Contrari’s next release.

Links:
http://accordodeicontrari.bandcamp.com/album/adc-2014
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/
http://www.altrock.it

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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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