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Archive for the ‘Fusion’ Category

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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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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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cover_713122182013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Open the Door, See the Ground (10:17)
2. Conversation (8:02)
3. Pop Sick Love Carousel (6:16)
4. Reverie #2 (14:51)
5. Love Letter from Canada (4:26)
6. Dangerous Kitchen (9:04)
7. A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love (10:48)

LINEUP:
Reza Ryan – guitar
Adi Wijaya – keyboards
Enriko Gultom – bass
Alfiah Akbar – drums

With:
Nicholas Combe – sax (6, 7)

With their rather intriguing handle (allegedly referring to a former girlfriend of guitarist Reza Ryan’s), accompanied by equally intriguing cover artwork, I Know You Well Miss Clara are the latest gem unearthed by Moonjune Records’ Leonardo Pavkovic in the thriving Indonesian music scene. The quartet join fellow countrymen simakDialog, Tohpati and Ligro on the New York label’s ever-growing roster of progressive artists with their debut album, aptly titled Chapter One. Formed in 2010 in the erstwhile Indonesian capital of Yogyakarta (which is also a renowned centre for Javanese classical art and culture) when its members were studying at the Indonesia Institute for the Arts, the band caught Pavkovic’s attention during one of his frequent trips to South-East Asia in search of new talent.

As pointed out in the liner notes (penned by esteemed music writer and King Crimson biographer Sid Smith), Chapter One was recorded in 18 hours, all of the tracks being first or second takes – a testimony to the band’s energy and enthusiasm for their craft. The album itself offers a refreshing take on the classic jazz-rock template so well interpreted in the Seventies by the likes of Return to Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra – the latter being by far the biggest influence on the band’s sound. Canterbury outfits such as Hatfield and the North and National Health are also a clear source of inspiration for I Know You Well Miss Clara, as indicated by a playful exuberance that speaks volumes about the  members’ enjoyment of music-making, coupled (though never in conflict) with a very high level of technical proficiency.

If compared with simakDialog (whose latest album, The 6th Story, was released at the same time as Chapter One) I Know You Well Miss Clara are more firmly rooted in the Western jazz-rock tradition, with a lone drummer (the excellent Alfiah Akbar) employing a standard kit rather than a trio of kendang percussionists. Although their sound also places a stronger emphasis on guitar (which is not surprising, seen as Reza Ryan is the main composer), none of the four band members prevails on the other or indulges in showing off his skills. Opening track “Open the Door, See the Ground” starts out sedately, then veers into a more experimental mood, with dramatic drums and whooshing, spacey synth complementing Ryan’s sizzling yet tasteful solo. The interplay between the guitar and Adi Wijaya’s piano (both electric and acoustic) is spotlighted in the appropriately-titled “Conversation”, a more laid-back piece with an entrancing ebb-and-flow movement and plenty of melody. This elegant yet accessible approach, injected with sudden surges of energy driven by organ and guitar, is also pursued in the Canterbury-flavoured“Pop Sick Love Carousel”; while the album’s centerpiece, the almost 15-minute “Reverie #2”, starts out at a slow-burning pace, then gradually gains momentum – both piano and guitar emoting in almost improvisational fashion, bolstered by Enriko Gultom’s nimble bass lines – slowing down again towards the end.

The shortest track on the album at around 4 minutes, “Love Letter From Canada” is also the most unusual: a haunting, emotional ambient study of surging keyboard washes, sparse guitar  and cascading cymbals, it hints at interesting future developments in the band’s sound. Its mood is briefly reprised at the beginning of “Dangerous Kitchen”, which then morphs into a leisurely jazzy piece where guest Nicholas Combe’s sax and guitar work almost in unison, leaving some room for a bit of improvisation before the end. A lovely tribute to Ryan’s idol John McLaughlin – by the amusingly tongue-in-cheek title of “A Dancing Girl from Planet Marsavishnu Named After the Love” – closes the album in style, referencing the iconic “Dance of Maya” (from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame) in a buoyant, dance-like ride interspersed by pensive, sax-led passages before its exhilarating, almost cinematic finale.

Clocking in at around 63 minutes, Chapter One is never at risk of overstaying its welcome in spite of the length of the majority of its tracks. Successfully blending serious chops with engaging spontaneity and enthusiasm, I Know You Well Miss Clara’s debut is one of the best instrumental albums released in 2013 so far, and will delight devotees of classic jazz-rock/fusion – especially those who prize emotion over an excess of technical fireworks. Hopefully the band will follow in simakDialog’s footsteps and visit the US as soon as possible.

Links:
http://iknowyouwellmissclara.weebly.com/index.html

http://moonjunerecords.bandcamp.com/album/chapter-one

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/057_I-KNOW-YOU-WELL-MISS-CLARA_Chapter-One_MJR057/

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cover_429103182013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Stepping In (10:01)
2. Lain Parantina (9:06)
3. Harmologic (3:52)
4. What I Would Say (6:17)
5. For Once and Never (6:29)
6. Common League (3:53)
7. As Far As It Can Be (Jaco) (8:01)
8. 5, 6 (4:38)
9. Ari (6:52)

LINEUP:
Riza Arshad – Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano, synth, soundscapes
Tohpati – guitar
Adhitya Pratama - bass
Endang Ramdan – Sundanese kendang percussion (left)
Erlan Suwardana – Sundanese kendang percussion (right)
Cucu Kurnia – assorted metal percussion

Undoubtedly the best-known modern Indonesian outfit in a progressive rock/jazz context, simakDialog have attracted a cult following in the West since the release of their 2007 live album Patahan (their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records), followed in 2009  by Demi Masa. Formed in 1993 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by jazz-trained keyboardist Riza Arshad and guitarist extraordinaire Tohpati Ario Hutomo, the band released three albums – Lukisan, Baur and Trance/Mission – between 1995 and 2002 before Pavkovic took them under his wing and gave them international recognition. After a series of mishaps (including the cancellation of NEARfest 2011, where they were scheduled to appear), their long-awaited US tour – which coincided with the release of their fifth studio album, The 6th Story – finally materialized in the late summer of 2013, kicking off with a headlining performance at ProgDay that was unfortunately interrupted by heavy rain, and wrapped up by a very well-attended show at the Orion Studios, introduced by French avant-garde trio Jean-Louis.

As used and abused as the “East meets West” definition can be, there is no better way to describe simakDialog’s music to the uninitiated. Alongside electric guitar, bass and that iconic cornerstone of jazz-rock, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the six-piece configuration of the band features a trio of percussionists in the style of the traditional gamelan ensembles – Erdang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing the Sundanese two-headed kendang drums, and Cucu Kurnia (the band’s most recent addition) handling metal percussion. The result is a uniquely warm sound with a remarkably natural flow, capable of flashes of angularity and even brief forays into noise, yet never overwrought. In addition, though each of simakDialog’s members is a virtuoso of his own instrument, the band emphasize ensemble playing at its finest rather than technical flash, with individual skills put at the service of the composition rather than the other way round.

SimakDialog’s music, on the other hand, may not prove to be the easiest proposition for those who are used to the in-your-face antics of many traditional prog bands. Subtlety is the operative word on The 6th Story, and that in itself requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener. Their leisurely, unhurried approach to live performance has also more in common with Eastern than Western tradition, focusing on the sheer joy of playing and the creation of subtle moods rather than the head-on adrenaline rush of the standard rock concert.

Clocking in at a handful of seconds under an hour, The 6th Story (the band’s first entirely instrumental album in over 10 years) opens with “Stepping In”, the album’s longest track, which aptly illustrates simakDialog’s  modus operandi. While the sinuous interplay of Tohpati’s guitar and Riza Arshad’s scintillating Fender Rhodes immediately leaps out from the speakers, it is the joyful mayhem of the three percussionists that impresses in the long run, bolstered by Adithya Pratama’s impeccable bass emerging every now and then in the foreground. The track unfolds with supreme elegance, spiced up by sound effects that turn slightly chaotic towards the end. The 9-minute “Lain Parantina” also conveys a sunny, bright feel with its oddly catchy main theme and skillfully handled tempo changes, gaining momentum then slowing down to an almost sparse texture,  held together by the steady stream of percussion. Tohpati’s guitar is spotlighted in the much shorter “Harmologic”, while the piano takes an almost supporting role, working almost as an additional percussion instrument. In the second shortest track on the album, “Common League”, soundscapes add an intriguing note to the lively yet fluid sparring of piano and guitar.

SimakDialog’s more energetic side surfaces in “5,6”, where Tohpati displays his rock credentials (amply demonstrated in his power trio Tohpati Bertiga’s 2012 debut, Riot) with a distorted guitar solo; while the upbeat “For Once and Never” revolves around the expressive, almost conversational interplay of the two main instruments, supported by Pratama’s versatile bass. The discreet, laid-back “What Should I Say” pleases the ear with its smooth sounds, and “As Far As It Can Be (Jaco)” – a tribute to the ground-breaking bassist written by Arshad together with fellow Indonesian musician Robert M.K. – takes on a suitably elegiac tone, full of lovely, stately melody. “Ari” then closes the album by giving synth a leading role alongside the piano, with the ever-reliable percussion background seconding the music’s ebb and flow.

For the audiophile, headphones will be a must in order to savour The 6th Story in full, as letting it run in the background will definitely not do any favours to the music’s understated elegance.  Although the album may resonate more with jazz fans than the average prog audience, it is highly recommended to all open-minded listeners, especially those who enjoy the influence of different ethnic traditions on established Western modes of expression. All in all, The 6th Story is an extremely classy  effort (and one of the standout releases of 2013) from a group of very nice, unassuming and talented musicians, whom I hope to see again in the US very soon.

Links:
http://simakdialog.com

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/artists_mjr/simakDialog/

https://myspace.com/simakdialog/music/songs

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cover_3318122182013_r

TRACKLISTING:
1. Grip It (5:50)
2. Gillz (6:37)
3. Whopner (6:13)
4. Drumbeaux (8:36)
5. Quirk (4:09)
6. BHP (6:03)
7. Meltdown (4:57)
8. Tocino (4:25)
9. I’m Calm Now (6:49)

LINEUP:
John Ziegler –  guitar
Lance Morrison – bass
Danny Carey – drums
Jeff Babko – keyboards

Though their name might not be familiar to many progressive rock fans, Volto! have been around since the start of the new century. Formed by drummer extraordinaire Danny Carey (of Tool fame) together with guitarist John Ziegler,  his former bandmate in Pigmy Love Circus, and session bassist Lance Morrison (who is also a member of Don Henley’s touring band), they started out as a cover band, playing live in the Los Angeles area whenever it was possible for them to get together. A few years later, they ventured into writing and performing  their own material. The next logical step was to head into Carey’s home studio to record their debut album, enlisting the services of veteran session keyboardist Jeff Babko and engineer Joe Barresi (who worked on Tool’s most recent album, 10,000 Days). Incitare was released in August 2013, coinciding with Volto!’s appearance at Yestival in Camden (NJ), alongside Yes, Renaissance, Carl Palmer Band and Sound of Contact.

Anyone who approaches Incitare hoping for some Tool-related music to fill the long wait for the cult quartet’s next album is bound to be disappointed, because Volto!’s debut shares very little (if anything) with Tool’s intense, esoteric sound. In spite of its high-sounding Latin title (“to drive/encourage”), the album is full of the genuine pleasure of playing music, as reflected by the humorous, cartoon-inspired black-and-white cover artwork. While the impressive résumé of the band members might lead some listeners to expect a triumph of style over substance, Incitare comes across as surprisingly easy on the ear. The music possesses a natural flow that is not always associated with such an amount of technical skill: it is exhilarating, energetic and often quite heavy, but never used as a showcase for pointless fireworks, and also unexpectedly melodic.

That being said, Incitare does not lay any claim to being innovative – rooted as it is in the classic jazz-rock tradition of the Seventies, with just a touch of contemporary flair to spice things up. The prominent role of drums and guitar and their seamless, scintillating interplay evoke Billy Cobham’s collaboration with Tommy Bolin on the seminal Spectrum album, or Mahavishnu Orchestra circa Birds of Fire; on the other hand, Jeff Babko’s bold keyboard work hints at some modern-day heavy fusion outfits such as Derek Sherinian’s Planet X (as well as his solo work).

These comparisons immediately spring to mind as “Grip It” opens the album, its fiery, relentless guitar riffs and keyboards backed by Carey’s pyrotechnic drumming; the pace slows down towards the middle, with Ziegler delivering a clear, piercingly melodic solo before things heat up again. The next two tracks showcase the band’s skillful handling of contrasts between dynamic urgency and more laid-back moments. Electric piano lends its unmistakable touch to the intriguing structure of “Gillz”: in the first part, the instruments apparently play at odds but manage to keep a sense of cohesion, while the pace quickens in the finale, driven by lively drums and heavy riffing. “Whopner” is pervaded by a mysterious atmosphere, with faraway-sounding guitar and an almost military drumbeat; then organ takes the lead and drums gain momentum. As hinted in the title, “Drumbeaux” – at over 8 minutes the longest track on the album – spotlights Carrey’s celebrated skills, its central section dedicated to a drum solo that does not overstay its welcome, bookended by spacey, riff-heavy ensemble playing.

Airy and melodic, “Quirk” brings back again echoes of Cobham’s Spectrum, with guitar and electric piano indulging in an elegant duet; while “BHP” barges in with a funky swagger and a barrage of crunching riffs, underpinned by spacey electronics and Carey’s spectacular drumming, then turns subdued, almost romantic in the middle, displaying the band’s ability to shift gears in seemingly effortless fashion. The aptly titled “Meltdown” sees the band dabble with all sorts of electronic effects, while Carey lets rip on his kit, apparently having the time of his life; then the sleek, bass-driven ride of “Tocino” brings things back to normal, with Lance Morrison finally stepping into the limelight and elegant piano flurries enhancing the brisk pace of the track. The album closes on a high note with the power-ballad-meets-vintage-fusion of “I’m Calm Now” – Ziegler’s slow-burning lead reminiscent of Jeff Beck or Gary Moore (especially in his Colosseum II days), then leaving the stage to Babko’s eerily reverberating electric piano and moody, understated synth.

Besides its obvious appeal for fans of impeccably played classic jazz-rock/fusion (especially those who are not averse to a bit of heaviness), Incitare is also a very cohesive piece of work, and avoids the temptation of sprawling, overlong compositions. It also celebrates the joy of playing music at a very high level of proficiency without hitting the listener over the head with one’s chops. In these times of studio-only projects, often conducted over the Internet without any physical contact between the musician, it is heartwarming to see an album that has its origins in live performance – an excellent example of instrumental music that sounds fresh and engaging without pretending to reinvent the wheel.

Links:
http://www.voltoband.com/

http://www.concordmusicgroup.com

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marbin13

TRACKLISTING:
1. Blue Fingers (3:09)
2. Inner Monologue (4:34)
3. Breaking the Cycle (4:15)
4. On the Square (4:24)
5. Café De Nuit (2:32)
6. Redline (5:21)
7. Volta (4:17)
8. The Ballad of Daniel White (4:31)
9. Down Goes the Day (2:02)
10. The Way to Riches (3:21)
11. And the Night Gave Nothing  (2:48)
12. Purple Fiddle  (4:46)
13. Last Day of August  (5:01)
14. Last Chapter of Dreaming  (3:46)

LINEUP:
Danny Markovitch – saxophone, keyboards (5, 14)
Dani Rabin – guitar
Justyn Lawrence – drums (except for 2, 5, 10)
Jae Gentile – bass (except for 5, 10)

With:
Paul Wertico – drums (2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12)
Steve Rodby – bass (5, 10, 14)
Zohar Fresco – percussion (3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12)
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12)
Victor Garcia – trumpet (3, 12)
Matt Nelson – keyboards (4, 5, 6, 8, 13)
Rob Clearfield – keyboards (14)
Greg Spero – keyboards (14)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 5, 12, 14)
Jabari Rayford – vocals (12, 14)
Abraha Rayford – vocals (12, 14)
Caleb Willitz – vocals (3, 12, 14)
Justin Ruff – vocals (3)

Chicago-based band Marbin, founded in 2007 by Israeli-born Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (saxophone), and cleverly named by conflating their two surnames, have the distinction of being one of the busiest outfits on the current non-mainstream music scene. Indeed, with hundred of gigs a year under their belt, they have even found the time to produce a video tutorial on “How to Make a Living Touring With Your Band”. Though Marbin started out as a duo, independently releasing their self-titled debut in 2009, by the time they were snapped up by Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records (which released their sophomore effort, Breaking the Cycle, in 2011), they had become a full-fledged band, a quartet that availed itself of the collaboration of two experienced jazz-fusion musicians such as Pat Metheny alumni Paul Wertico (drums) and Steve Rodby (bass).

Two years later, Marbin are back with Last Chapter of Dreaming, recorded with drummer Justyn Lawrence and bassist Jae Gentile, who have been part of Marbin’s live incarnation since 2008, plus a host of other musicians. Wertico and Rodby are still on board as special guests, together with percussionist Jamey Haddad, who was also present on Breaking the Cycle. Among the rather lengthy list of collaborators, prog fans will recognize the name of District 97 keyboardist Rob Clearfield, who guests on one track.

Though the album is very much a team effort, very cohesive from an instrumental point of view, Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s sax steal the show with their scintillating interplay, denoting the ease that comes from a long partnership coupled with the sheer enjoyment of music-making. Unlike the band’s previous effort, which featured a traditional song, on Last Chapter of Dreaming vocals appear only in the shape of wordless vocalizing; while the addition of other drummers and percussionists lends an appealing sense of dynamics to the two mainmen’s exertions. The final product is a very sophisticated mix of rock, jazz and blues with hints of world music, though in some ways not as successful as the band’s previous two albums.

Especially if compared to Marbin’s debut – an exquisitely minimalistic production that made the most of Rabin and Markovitch’s impressive skills – Last Chapter of Dreaming, at least in part, takes a sharp turn in a more mainstream direction, a trend that had already surfaced in some episodes of Breaking the Cycle, though not as noticeably as here. In particular, the handful of tracks featuring vocals veer dangerously close to easy listening. While “Breaking the Cycle” (oddly enough, not featured on the album of the same title) is given a dramatic, cinematic sweep by Victor Garcia’s wistful trumpet, the airy, lullaby-like “Café de Nuit” oozes a nostalgic Old-World feel, and both “Purple Fiddle” and the title-track – with their slow, laid-back vibe – put me in mind of a slightly cheesy soundtrack for some European Seventies movie.

The more rock-oriented tracks see Marbin at their best, such as pyrotechnic opener “Blue Fingers” with its assertive, metal-tinged riffing and energetic sax, the brisk, Hammond-laced “On the Square”, and the jazzy rock’n’roll workout of “Redline” (also enhanced by discreet Hammond organ). The exhilarating “Volta”, shifting from a melodic, laid-back mood to frantic, riff-laden bursts of energy complemented by a Morricone-influenced cinematic grandiosity, is one of the undisputed highlights of the whole album – as is the subdued “The Ballad of Daniel White”, showcasing Justyn Lawrence’s superb drumming.

With 14 rather short tracks spread over 55 minutes, Last Chapter of Dreaming avoids overstaying its welcome as other, more ambitious albums do, though some of the tracks might have been omitted without too much detriment. Though a classy offering, flawlessly performed by a group of outstanding musicians, it is not as organic as its predecessor, and flirts a bit too closely with smooth jazz to find favour with lovers of the more challenging fare generally released by Moonjune Records. The album makes nevertheless for a very pleasing listening experience, and a special mention is deserved by the stunning cover artwork, courtesy of Portland-based artist Brin Levinson (also responsible for the cover of Breaking the Cycle, as well as Dissonati’s debut Reductio Ad Absurdum).

Links:
http://marbinmusic.com/

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/050_MARBIN_Last-Chapter-of-Dreaming_MJR050/

http://www.youtube.com/user/marbinmusic

http://brinlevinson.com/

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201153latheorie

TRACKLISTING:
1. Supernova (8:28)
2. Rêves Prémonitoires (6:46)
3. D’Hêtre À Être (9:47)
4. Singes (8:31)
5. Le Bas Art de l’Épouvante (8:11)
6. Berceuse Moderne (7:06)
7. Renaissances (9:51)

LINEUP:
Mathieu Torres – guitar
Tadzio Gottberg – drums
Stéphanie Artaud – piano

With:
Maxime Jaslier – saxophone (2), bass guitar (6)

With a name taken from theoretical physics,  which in English translates as “string theory” (particularly suited to a musical venture), French band La Théorie des Cordes started out as a trio in 2010. Their debut album, Premières Vibrations, released in 2011 on Musea Records, was recorded with a fourth musician, Maxime Jaslier, guesting on two tracks. In the summer of 2012, the band’s core members – guitarist Mathieu Torres and pianist Stéphanie Artaud – were joined by drummer Ophélie Luminati (who replaced original member Tadzio Gottberg), reedist/percussionist Julien Langlois and bassist George Storey, so that the trio has now become a quintet. In the meantime, La Théorie des Cordes have started recording their second album, titled Singes Electriques, and have also been busy on the live front. Their schedule for 2013 includes a slot at the prestigious Crescendo festival in the month of August.

La Théorie des Cordes call themselves “a creative family”, and theirs is a multifaceted concept, involving the use of elaborate stage costumes, the realization of videoclips, and  a lavishly illustrated CD booklet in which a set of  high-sounding “lyrics” explains each of the completely instrumental tracks. Indeed, Premières Vibrations comes across as a very ambitious project. In spite of their obvious youth, the band members are extremely accomplished, and their music – an elegant, deeply melodic form of jazz-rock with an appealingly warm Latin tinge, and occasional forays into edgier territory – relies on a rather idiosyncratic configuration that rules out the bass guitar (here only present in one out of seven tracks), and hinges on the scintillating interplay of Stéphanie Artaud’s piano and Mathieu Torres’ guitar.

Clocking in at around 58 minutes, and featuring 7 tracks with an average running time of 8 minutes, Premières Vibrations is not excessively long for today’s standards, and does not outstay its welcome. On the other hand, while the music is overall very pleasing to the ear, with a smooth, natural flow, it sometimes gives the same impression as those stories whose author likes to use a lot of words to express a relatively straightforward concept. The tracks all share a similar structure, alternating slower and faster sections in which guitar and piano take turns into the spotlight, with drums providing a dynamic and often inventive rhythmic accompaniment  – sometimes resulting in a loose, almost rambling feel.

Opener “Supernova” aptly exemplifies the album’s general direction, introducing the instruments almost tentatively, and then gradually building up, with Mathieu Torres’ brilliant guitar neatly meshing with fluid piano. The Latin-flavoured “Rêves Premonitoires” is enhanced by the presence of Maxime Jaslier’s saxophone, which duets with the two main instruments adding depth of expression to the sound. At almost 10 minutes, the sedate, vaguely somber “D’Hêtre À Être”, is perhaps a tad overlong and somewhat monotonous, though picking up towards the end; while “Singes”, enhanced by electric piano and echoing effects that oddly reminded me of Pink Floyd, blends a haunting atmosphere with some harder-edged moments.

“Le Bas Art de l’Épouvante” marks a sharp change of mood, with its almost cinematic sweep and dramatic tempo shifts, pauses of respite followed by piercing guitar and cascading piano. As its title (“modern lullaby”) implies, the jazzy “Berceuse Moderne” is stately and soothing, with discreet drumming and bass adding some bottom end to the airy exertions of the guitar and piano. Finally, “Renaissance” pushes the heavier elements to the fore – especially those guitar riffs that had been lurking in the background in some of the previous tracks – evoking comparisons with King Crimson circa Thrak and The Power to Believe.

In spite of the misgivings previously expressed on some aspects of the composition, Premières Vibrations contains some fine music that is likely to please fans of classic jazz-rock, especially those who prize melody as well as technical skill. Thankfully the album is devoid of that deplorable tendency to show off that sometimes mars other releases in the same vein, though La Théorie des Cordes should keep a tighter rein on the compositional aspect. In any case, the album is a rewarding listen, and a promising debut from a group of excellent musicians.

Links:
http://www.latheoriedescordes.com

http://www.myspace.com/theoriedescordes

http://www.musearecords.com

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