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Archive for the ‘Canterbury Scene’ Category

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sopla viento del Este (4:36)
2. Bounkam Rêverie (4:08)
3. Leilya (4:00)
4. Una para Lars (3:57)

Suite Sendas de Ofir:
5. En Ruta (1:39)
6. White Bird (6:21)
7.  Sendas de Ofir (4:44)
8. Oricalco (2:32)
9. Oricalco Coda (2:28)

10. Aurelia quiere saber (2:23)
11. Sunda Stream (2:42)
12. Aguas del Bagradas (4:18)

LINEUP:
Ángel Ontalva –  guitar, flute
Víctor Rodríguez – keyboards, melodica (10)
Amanda Pazos Cosse – bass
Fran Mangas – saxophones
Toni Mangas – drums
Pablo Ortega – cello (4)
Salib – vocals (3)

Spanish guitarist and graphic artist Ángel Ontalva is the mind behind RIO/Avant band October Equus and a slew of other eclectic projects. He is also the founder of the independent label OctoberXart Records, on which his main band’s latest album, Permafrost, was released in the late spring of 2013. A few months before Permafrost, Ontalva released his first solo album, Mundo Flotante, which includes material originated around 2007, and recorded between 2009 and 2012. Two other members of October Equus – bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse, who is also the artist’s wife, and keyboardist Victor Rodriguez – appear on the album,  as well as other musicians who had already previously collaborated with Ontalva.

Those who approach this album expecting something along the lines of October Equus’ austerely refined take on Avant-Prog may be disappointed, because Mundo Flotante is quite a different animal. Though featuring the same accomplished musicianship and compositional skill, there is very little to remind the listener of Univers Zéro or Henry Cow, while comparisons with the Canterbury scene will often crop up. Indeed, the album’s very title of “Floating World” neatly sums up the airy, effortlessly fluid nature of the music, reminiscent of the quirky elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health. A rich instrumental texture unfolds a subtly shifting backdrop for Ontalva’s beautiful guitar excursions, suffused with the warmth of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tradition. In fact, the album’s roots lie in one of Ontalva’s many projects, called Transarabian Connection, whose sound blended classic jazz-rock and chamber music with the traditional music of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. The overall effect is of refined elegance and high listenability in spite of the obvious complexity of the pieces. The music possesses an upbeat, almost catchy feel – obviously not in a mainstream sense, but still making listening a pleasurable experience even for those who are used to more straightforward, melodic fare.

Five of the 12 tracks listed on Mundo Flotante are grouped in a suite titled “Sendas de Ofir”, the album’s centerpiece also on account of it strategic placement in the middle of things. Bookended by gentle, subtly melancholy melodies woven by electric and acoustic guitar, saxophone and keyboards, its central section alternates rarefied passages with an almost improvisational feel and more buoyant ones, led by energetic drums and sax and introducing a hint of dissonance. The elegant flow of the music, its many changes handled with a skilled touch, make for riveting listening, without none of the pretentiousness often associated with ambitious, multi-part compositions.

The remaining tracks are even more intriguing, some of their titles hinting at the presence of heady Middle Eastern suggestions. In particular“Leilya”, the only piece featuring Salib’s haunting wordless vocals well complemented by flute, sax, piano and guitar, conjures a North African market place, as well as the timeless magic of flamenco; opener “Sopla el viento del Este”, on the other hand, marries ethnic flavour and a jaunty, appealingly loose jazzy pace, which spotlights Ontalva’s guitar alongside organ and sax. The charming “Bounkam Reverie” evokes the Canterbury sound with its smooth yet intricate interplay between guitar, keyboards and drums (especially in evidence here), while in “Una para Lars” the cello adds its sober voice to the beautiful, romantic tapestry of acoustic guitar arpeggios embellished by tinkling percussion. The wistful “Aurelia quiere saber” pursues the almost autumnal mood of the last part of the suite, with melodica adding an appealing folksy touch. In contrast, the two final tracks on the album – “Sunda Stream” and “Aguas del Bagradas”-  reprise the brisk, jazzy tone of the opener, with some sharper, angular moments that hint at Ontalva’s work with October Equus.

Clocking in at a mere 43 minutes, Mundo Flotante is full of beautiful, laid-back music that is never in danger of overstaying its welcome, and where Ontalva’s remarkable compositional skill is not overshadowed by excessive ambition (as is often the case with solo albums). The strong ethnic component will especially appeal to those who love some exotic spice in their music of choice, but the album can be safely recommended to most lovers of progressive rock, especially those who lean towards the instrumental side of the genre.

Links:
http://www.octoberxart.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Culturismo Ballo Organizzare (5.50)
2. ΔU (1:53)
3. Dj Psicosi (3:49)
4. Preparazione Bomba H (3:13)
5. Sintagma (1:09)
6. JessicaLaura (3:18)
7. (che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano (3:49)
8. Rifondazione Unghie (3:18)
9. Ballata dell’amore stocastico (3:16)
10. χΦ (1:30)
11. Nabucco Chiappe d’Oro (4:14)
12. Il Papa buono (2:52)
13. Accidenti (0:24)
14. Centoquarantaduemilaottocentocinquantasette (2:06)
15. Profiterol (1:29)
16. Estate 216 solszt (1:24)
17. Puk 10 (2:25)
18. Il Contrario di Tutto (2:21)

LINEUP:
Dario D’Alessandro – guitar, vocals, keyboards, glockenspiel, percussion
Davide Di Giovanni – piano, organ, MS10, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, vocals
Daniele Di Giovanni – drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, vocals
Domenico Salamone – bass
Federico Cardaci – minimoog, memotron, organ
Dario Lo Cicero – flutes, wind controller
Mauro Turdo – additional guitar (1)

With
:
Paolo Ske Botta: synthesizers, organ, electronics, glockenspiel
Giovanni Di Martino – Microkorg (3)
Totò Puleo – trumpet (3)

With its high-sounding title – taken straight from the realms of philosophy –  Homunculus Res’ debut might initially give the impression of yet another stereotypically pretentious “conventional” prog opus. However, a closer look at the distinctive cover artwork depicting a mushroom-sprouting human head next to a tiny gnome in a pointed red hat should readily clue the listener in on the album’s true nature.

Hailing from the Palermo, Sicily, the band – one of the newest recruits of the thriving AltrOck Productions stable –  is a loose configuration of musicians revolving around multi-instrumentalist and main songwriter Dario D’Alessandro. If the triangular island in the southern Mediterranean sounds like an unlikely birthplace for a progressive rock band – especially if compared with hubs such as Genoa or Milan – it should be pointed out that Franco Battiato, one of the most iconic figures of the early Italian prog scene, also hails from Sicily. Like Battiato, Homunculus Res blend high and popular culture in their lyrics, and also enjoy citations from other musical sources, even though their sound is firmly rooted in the Canterbury tradition. The breezy, often infectious quality of the music –  interspersed with more sedate, almost introspective moments and some seriously intricate instrumental flights – recalls early Soft Machine and Caravan, as well as fellow Italians Picchio Dal Pozzo (whose legitimate heirs Homunculus Res are poised to become) and Stormy Six, or even a more obscure Canterbury-inspired gem,  Cocktail by Patrick Forgas (who later went on to form the outstanding jazz-rock combo Forgas Band Phenomena).

Most of the album’s 18 short tracks (whose titles will reveal an intriguing mix of highbrow, whimsical and more down-to-earth elements) are so closely linked together musically that they almost flow into each other – especially the instrumental numbers, mostly concentrated in the second half. In spite of the album’s overall light-hearted attitude and apparent focus on shorter compositions, the music is richly textured, thanks to the band’s impressively varied instrumentation. While keyboards (supplied by D’Alessandro, Davide Di Giovanni and Federico Cardaci, as well as special guest Paolo Ske Botta) are clearly the stars of the show –  aided and abetted by Daniele Di Giovanni’s ebullient, acrobatic drumming – the guitar plays a discreet but invaluable supporting role, only rarely stepping into the limelight.

The album opens with a song that will stick in your head for a long time – the mostly instrumental “Culturismo Ballo Organizzare”, whose almost 6 minutes are packed with exhilarating stops and starts, while vocals are used as an irresistibly quirky enhancement of the musical line  rather than the “main event”. The following “ΔU” starts in a deceptively low-key, almost wistful manner reminiscent of Hatfield and the North, then turns frantic and chaotic, with strident synth dominating the tune. “DJ Psicosi” returns to the upbeat form of the opener, its title repeated in almost hypnotic fashion, while a weirdly echoing trumpet adds a nostalgic note. The Canterbury vibe takes over in “Preparazione Bomba H”, as well as in the majority of the instrumental pieces comprising the second half of the album (which also occasionally hint at Latin and Brazilian rhythms).

Occasional references to other artists crop up throughout the album, as in the nod to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” in the above-mentioned “Dj Psicosi”, and the lullaby-like homage to Fabrizio De André’ “La Guerra di Piero” at the beginning and at the end of the flute-laced “(che ne sai tu di un) Cerchio nel Grano” (whose very title hints at Lucio Battisti’s “Pensieri e parole”). On the album there is also room for a couple of  ballads, whose apparently romantic tone is belied by the subtle irony of the lyrics – “Jessicalaura” and “La ballata dell’amore stocastico”, in which Dario D’Alessandro channels his inner Richard Sinclair, accompanied by elegant piano. The energetic “Rifondazione Unghie”, on the other hand, features dynamic flute and guitar interplay in pure Jethro Tull style; while the subdued mood of album closer “Il Contrario di Tutto” emphasizes the lyrical musings on the plight of a disillusioned young man longing for an escape from day-to-day routine.

Loaded with humour and the obvious pleasure of the craft of music-making, Limiti all’eguaglianza della Parte con il Tutto is the perfect antidote to too much overwrought, self-important prog. Though the lyrics and their cultural references might be lost on non-speakers of Italian, an understanding of the words is not necessary to enjoy the album and its sophisticated yet accessible brand of “Canterbury Samba Progressive”. Highly recommended to everyone but those who believe that progressive rock and humour should not mix, or else object to non-English lyrics, Homunculus Res’ debut is a delightful, intelligent album that effortlessly blends retro and modern attitudes, with the added interest value of Dario D’Alessandro’s outstanding artwork.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/homunculus-res-mn0003137197

https://www.facebook.com/HomunculusRes

http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2lGwBU4eo-z8QDVLen0fnA?feature=watch


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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. First Difference (3:18)
2. Edge of the Earth (3:40)
3. Ode to the Summer (4:10)
4. Dorothy (4:25)
5. Truth Seeker (3:06)
6. Night Shaped Light (3:38)
7. Promise Me (2:40)
8. Black Wave (2:40)
9. Moving World (4:08)
10. Paradise Lost (8:22)

LINEUP:
Liam Magill – lead vocals, guitar, flute, percussion, effects
Raven Bush – violin, mandolin, piano, percussion, vocals, effects
Fred Rother – drums
Joel Magill – bass, vocals, percussion, effects

For all my familiarity with the current progressive rock scene, English band Syd Arthur took me completely by surprise, as I had never heard their name prior to receiving On And On, their debut album, as a gift from a friend. Though very few albums make a deep impression on me on first listen, On And On was one of those rare cases, and one of the strongest releases I have heard in a year that has not been at all stingy with interesting music.

In the past couple of years, Syd Arthur have received extensive coverage on magazines and websites dedicated to non-mainstream music, and on February 15, 2010 were featured as New Band of the Day by British newspaper The Guardian, notoriously harsh towards old-school prog. While most of those articles mentioned the “P” word, the numerous webzines and blog sites specializing in the genre seem to  have been largely unaware of them – which is not the case with other bands associated with the psychedelic rock revival, such as Dungen or Black Mountain.

Syd Arthur (whose name was inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, one of the iconic texts of the hippie era, and also the inspiration for Yes’ Close to the Edge) are a quartet hailing from the historic English town of Canterbury – a place synonymous with one of the most distinctive strains of the multifaceted progressive rock  universe. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call them the direct heirs of the scene that developed in the late Sixties, producing highly influential bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. In many ways, Syd Arthur are deeply rooted in that scene, pursuing the path laid out by Caravan and Soft Machine in their early albums before both bands took a more “progressive” direction. In addition, the “Syd” part of the band’s name evokes the spirit of  psychedelic rock icon Syd Barrett, who was also an important influence on the original Canterbury bands.

While Syd Arthur’s music may not be the most ground-breaking on the market, it undoubtedly modernizes a sound that is all too often prone to showing its age. The four band members, in spite of their obvious youth, have been together since 2006, and have already accumulated enough experience to set up their own recording studio and independent label (named Dawn Chorus Recording Company). Their recording debut, the EP Moving World, was released in 2010, followed by the single “Ode to the Summer” in the following year, and finally by On And On in the summer of 2012. Like most progressive bands that shun the “prog” tag, they also have an impressive record of live performances in the UK and in other European countries. Interestingly, violinist Raven Bush is the son of writer and photographer John Carder Bush, Kate Bush’s elder brother, and – though Syd Arthur’s music as a whole might not immediately recall Kate’s – some similarities can be noticed, especially in terms of approach to the traditional song format.

With their distinctive configuration – which gives violin a starring role in conjunction with the guitar, while keyboards are used very sparingly – Syd Arthur play music from a bygone era with a contemporary flair, blending psychedelic folk with funky jazz-rock suggestions and some heady spacey nuances, both acoustic and electric elements well in evidence. The eclectic inspiration – so often resulting in a mishmash of unfinished ideas – is instead handled skillfully, and the songs have an easy, natural flow, their delightful musical texture enhanced by Liam Magill’s unique vocal delivery – a 21st century take on Robert Wyatt, a tenor imbued with a gentle wistfulness and innate sense of melody, yet never whiny or overdramatic.

Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes, On And On is a short album, and  – with the sole exception of closer “Paradise Lost”, its songs are also short (3 minutes on average). However, the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure is often cleverly disguised or understated, and the appeal of the melodies is never made too obvious. Opener “First Difference” blends the airy lyricism of the violin and acoustic guitar with the slight edge injected by the electric guitar, and a hint of reggae in the song’s easy mid-pace. Liam Magill’s voice follows the musical line, never dominating the instruments though not taking a back seat either. The following two songs are variations on the same theme, but with enough personality of their own to stand individually – the changes in pacing within each piece handled with subtlety, allowing the music to flow naturally without ever sounding strained or contrived.

“Dorothy” (recently released as a single), on the other hand, is a slow, nostalgic number – almost a jazzy torch song, while the uptempo “Truth Seeker” introduces a vein of psychedelic electricity, which in “Night Shaped Light” coexists with a samba-tinged saunter. “Moving World” brings back echoes of early Soft Machine, though with a folksier flavour softening the psychedelic edge. The 8 minutes of “Paradise Lost” come almost as a surprise, as the track diverges noticeably from the rest of the album – not only in running time, but also in its looser structure and in the different role of the vocals – mostly present in the form of chanting, or else treated as to be almost unrecognizable. The heavy, distorted guitar-violin interplay in the middle of the track hints at stoner rock, or even Jefferson Airplane at their most experimental. All of this, as well as the recourse to atmospheric sound effects, hints at possible future developments in the band’s style.

Unlike other bands that tap into the rich vein of the psychedelic rock tradition, Syd Arthur do not indulge in lengthy, hypnotic riff-feasts, and introduce elements of “prog” complexity with admirable lightness of hand – much as Caravan or Soft Machine did in their early stages, or Hatfield and the North when blending catchy tunes with intricate jazz-rock patterns. Highly recommended to to fans of the Canterbury scene and early Pink Floyd, as well as to anyone who does not equate progressive rock with 30-minute epics, On and On is a surprisingly accomplished production, and a genuinely delightful listen.

Links:
http://sydarthur.co.uk/

http://www.myspace.com/sydarthur

http://www.dawnchorusrecordco.com/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/feb/15/new-band-syd-arthur

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Knee (5:05)
2. Oom Pah (5:09)
3. Missing the Train (3:41)
4. Rainbro (5:02)
5. Too Good To Be True (4:11)
6. Somnambulist Subversion (4:34)
7. Nut Job (3:12)
8. Forgotten Planet (6:00)
9. Dirty Spoons (5:12)
10. 25 Miles to Freedom (10:30)

LINEUP:
Melody Ferris – vocals
Ivor Holloway – tenor and alto saxophone, clarinet
Pat Moran – electric bass
Nick Peck – Hammond B-3 organ, clavinet, Fender Rhodes electric piano, minimoog Voyager, mellotron, piano, Arp String Ensemble, Wurlitzer 200A electric piano
Doug Port – drums
David Shaff – trumpet
Ryder Shelly – vibraphone
David Slusser – Slussomatic, electronics
Andrew Vernon – keyboards, Farfisa organ
Bill Wolter –  electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, electronics

Line-up on # 10:
Shayna Dunkelman – vibes, crotales
Melody Ferris – vocals
Jordan Glenn- drums
Ivor Holloway – tenor saxophone
Curtis McKinney – electric bass
Charith Premawardhana – viola
Max Stoffregen –  piano, synth
Bill Wolter – guitar, keyboards

The high level of quality offered by AltrOck Productions and its subsidiary label, Fading Records, will no longer come as a surprise for progressive rock fans. However, there are times when an album released on the Milan-based label will exceed expectations – and this is definitely the case with Rainbro, Inner Ear Brigade’s debut album.  Formed in 2005 in Oakland (California) by multi-instrumentalist and composer Bill Wolter, the band  was originally a quartet; then, in the following years, the lineup grew into a 7-piece, with a number of honorary members participating in the recording of the album. Rainbro was recorded in the summer of 2010, and released on the international market in January 2012.

The Bay Area city of Oakland has long been a hotbed of cutting-edge music, being home to such highly acclaimed outfits as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and  miRthkon (also on the AltrOck roster), as well as legendary guitarist/composer Fred Frith. However, Inner Ear Brigade have something that sets them apart from other bands that fall under the avant-progressive umbrella, and makes them more easily approachable by “mainstream” prog fans. With their extended lineup and intriguing instrumentation – featuring a healthy mix of vintage keyboards, state-of-the-art electronics and conventional rock gear, augmented by reeds, horns and vibraphone – they produce a lush, fluid sound that suggests the understated elegance of Canterbury bands such as Hatfield and the North or National Health rather than the austere beauty of Univers Zéro or the martial grandeur of Magma.

In quintessentially eclectic fashion, Inner Ear Brigade throw many diverse influences into their musical melting pot, straddling the divide between reverence towards past glories and a genuinely forward-thinking attitude. While the progressive rock scene suffers from a glut of acts often hopelessly rooted in the past and seemingly unable to go beyond reproducing the classic Seventies sound, Inner Ear Brigade use the influences drawn from the rich treasure trove of the golden age of prog as a springboard for creating their own sound, rather than as an exercise in nostalgia.

Though all of the band members are remarkably talented, Inner Ear Brigade’s ace in the hole is Melody Ferris’ voice, which at a superficial listen might recall the distinctive style associated with avant-prog and represented by Thinking Plague’s Deborah Perry and Elaine DiFalco. Indeed, the demanding vocal lines tackled by Ferris in opening track “Knee” sound like a textbook example of the subgenre’s conventions. However, as the album progresses, Ferris’ vocals become increasingly more versatile, engaging in singing and wordless vocalizing with equal effectiveness, and often  “playing” along the other instruments rather than acting as a separate entity (a fine example of this is the atmospheric “Too Good to Be True”).  The quirky lyrics enhance the album’s overall playful mood and emphasize its Zappa and Canterbury references, which the band share with their fellow Oaklanders miRthkon.

The first half of the album displays the strongest avant-prog imprint, effortlessly blending accessibility and experimentalism, catchy tunes and whooshing, spacey electronic effects.  A sunny California vibe tempers the bouts of dissonance in tracks such as “Missing the Train”, while saxes and trumpet add a buoyantly jazzy note. In some of the tracks – notably the trio of instrumentals that precede the album’s “epic”, the 10-minute “25 Miles to Freedom” (recorded in 2009 with a different lineup) – the two souls of the band seem to coexist, with melodic, laid-back passages alternating with more energetic, upbeat ones, and short yet effective forays into more experimental terrain, duly bolstered by liberally used electronics. The title-track is powered by harsh guitar riffs and blaring horns; while the closing track takes the band deep into Canterbury territory, with Ferris’ splendid vocal performance bringing to mind the incomparable Northettes, and the viola adding a wistful, lyrical touch to a rich, almost symphonic texture. Varied yet cohesive, “25 Miles to Freedom” wraps up the album with a bang, conveying a palpable sense of enjoyment on the part of the band that listeners will be hard put not to share.

With a well-balanced running time of about 52 minutes, Rainbro never overstays its welcome, in spite of the undeniable complexity of the music. The album’s ebullient yet intricate nature will attract lovers of quirky, eclectic progressive rock, while the presence of vintage instruments typical of traditional prog may encourage the more conservative set of fans to give Inner Ear Brigade’s music a try. All in all, Rainbro is an outstanding debut for a band that is definitely going places, and a strong contender for my personal “best of 2012”.

Links:
http://innerearbrigade.com/

http://innerearbrigade.bandcamp.com/

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=182&id2=183

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Infinicheese (1:35)
2. Clacos Zero (0:35)
3.Untung Untungan 2.0 (11:13)
4. Clacos 1 : Notre Mère à Tous (1:58)
5. El Ruotuav Ed Sram (8:16)
6. Clacos 2 : Die Experimente von Dr Frankenschnörgl (0:48)
7. Le Meurtrier Volant (9:01)
8. La Danse du Chameau:
a) Batifolade  (5:29)
b) Soif! (1:17)
c) La Tempête De Sable (4:51)
d) Rêveries Lubriques Sous une Dune (1:09)
e) The Final Run  (5:01)

LINEUP:
Fabrice Toussaint – tenor trombone, xybraphone, congas, tam-tam, triangle, other percussionBernard Eber – trumpet, didgeridoo, cowbell, whistle, voices
Pierre Wawrzyniak – bass, acoustic guitar, voices
Philémon Walter – drums
Guillaume Gravelin – harp
Vincent Sexauer – electric guitar

 With:
Julien Travelletti – bass trombone (3, 5, 7, 8), tuba (7)
Francesco Zago – electric guitar (3)

When coming across a French band named Camembert, and an album title featuring the word “Attahk”, most progressive rock fans will inevitably think of two illustrious outfits such as Magma and Gong – both of whom have also ties with France. Add to that a rather left-field story about the Earth being invaded by small, gelatin-like beings from outer space called Schnörgl, led by a mad scientist researching weapons of mass destruction, and involving a giant spaceship made of intergalactic cheese – and the resemblance will steadily grow, so that a first-time listener might wonder if they are being confronted with the new frontier of “retro-prog”. However, there is very little “retro-anything” about Camembert, whose thoroughly modern brand of jazz-rock proudly sports that strongly absurdist streak that is one of the distinctive traits of French prog.

Camembert are a six-piece hailing from the city of Strasbourg in north-eastern France, where they formed in 2005.  Schnörgl Attahk, their first full-length CD, which marks the beginning of the band’s collaboration with Milan-based label AltrOck Productions, was preceded in 2009 by the release of the 6-track EP Clacosmique. Most of the material that had originally appeared on the EP has been included on the album, though in almost completely rearranged form. Camembert members Fabrice Toussaint and Pierre Wawrzyniak had also appeared on another noteworthy 2011 release, Ske’s 1000 Autunni – and Ske mainman Paolo Botta (who also plays keyboards with Yugen, and is a gifted graphic artist) returned the favour by providing suitably wacky artwork for Camembert’s debut.

As previously hinted, Schnörgl Attahk manages the remarkable feat of combining an amazing level of complexity with an upbeat, ebullient mood that will provide the perfect antidote to the excess of earnestness of far too much prog. The outrageous tale of Dr Frankenschnörgl and his dastardly plans for a global takeover is told through the artwork and detailed liner notes, as the album is completely instrumental. On the other hand, while no actual singing is involved, the music suggests the events in strikingly effective manner, appealing to the listener’s powers of imagination.

Like the best examples of progressive rock (modern or otherwise), Schnörgl Attahk is a quintessentially eclectic effort. The band’s handling of their main sources of inspiration eschews derivativeness, moving rather along the lines of incorporating those sources into the fabric of their own original sound – whose foundation is a sinuously intricate brand of jazz-rock with roots in Frank Zappa’s output circa Apostrophe, as well as Shamal/Gazeuse!-era Gong (incidentally, both Pierre Moerlen and Mireille Bauer were originally from the Strasbourg area – perhaps something in the water?). However, the many pieces of Camembert’s musical mosaic are extremely variegated, supported by a very distinctive instrumentation that rules out keyboards, but hinges primarily on an unusual combination of horns, mallet percussion and harp. The gentle, liquid voice of the latter, blending harmoniously with the rippling tinkle of Fabrice Toussaint’s xybraphone and the warm, organic sound of various percussion instruments, gives Camembert’s sound a unique imprint.

While the two short, consecutive openers, “Infinicheese” and “Clacos Zero”, set the scene in textbook-spacey fashion, with swishing electronics and occasional guitar touches, the 11-minute “Untung Untungan 2.0” makes a bold entrance with its lively avant-fusion allure, then unfolds in a myriad of dazzling twists and turns, to which Francesco Zago’s guitar lends some extra bite. The easy, natural flow of the music, whose melodic flair almost belies its inherent complexity, brings to mind Canterbury acts like Hatfield and the North, and the energetic presence of the horns, coupled with Pierre Wawrzyniak’s solid bass lines, lend a funky swagger to tracks like “El Ruotuav ed Sram” (“Le Vautour de Mars” spelled backwards). Shades of Magma and Univers Zéro lurk in the imperious, martial pace of  the intense “Le Meurtrier Volant”, while in the 5-part suite, “La Danse du Chameau”, sprightly Latin-tinged rhythms in the style of early Santana, weird voices and dense, faintly dissonant passages coexist, held together by the lush yet unconventional instrumentation.

An exciting slice of sparkling eclecticism, combining melody, complexity and zany humour in an irresistible mixture, Schnörgl Attahk is almost mandatory listening for fans of modern jazz-rock and RIO/Avant prog, and will particularly appeal to fans of genre-straddling bands such as Frogg Café, miRthkon or Miriodor, as well as newer outfits like Calomito or Slivovitz. With all-round outstanding performances, excellent production values (courtesy of Udi Koomran and Eric Gauthier-Lafaye), and a genuinely positive attitude that will put a smile on your face (as well as a very restrained running time, which allows the music to be absorbed without weariness setting in), Schnörgl Attahk  proves that it is fully possible to pay homage to the trailblazers of the past without turning into a nostalgia act.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/camembert67

http://production.altrock.it/home.asp?lang=ita_&id=9&id2=9

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ludiche Ecchimosi  (5 Danze Immaginarie) (9:42):
a) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 1 (1:44)
b) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 2 (2:30)
c) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 3 (3:04)
d) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 4 (0:51)
e) Ludiche Ecchimosi # 5 (1:33)
2. Il Folletto di Cera (4:31):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:28)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:03)
3. Inseguito dai Creditori (6:01)
4. Tre Pezzi Brevi (7:46):
a) Flutter (5:50)
b) In Mezzo (0:15)
c) Snappy (1:41)
5. L’Onda Vertebrata (20:08):
a) Ouverture (1:55)
b) … Tra le Gocce Che Verso l’Alto Guardano… (2:03)
c) Tu… Onda Vertebrata (1:57)
d) …di un’Ombra… (1:00)
e) Intermezzo (1:44)
f) In Bilico (2:13)
g) Passaggio (2:00)
h) … Addomestico il Sogno (2:21)
i) Non Credere Più (2:25)
l) Coda con Fanfara (2:30)

Bonus tracks:
6. La Follia del Mimo Azoto (3:41):
a) The Breznev Funk Club
b) La Follia del Mimo Azoto
c) The Breznev Funk Club (Reprise)
7. Il Folletto di Cera (instrumental version) (4:30):
a) Miniatura # 1 (0:29)
b) Il Folletto di Cera (4:01)

LINEUP:
Franco Sciscio – voice, Sprechgesang
Giuliana Di Mitrio – mezzosoprano
Maria Mianulli – flute
Francesco Manfredi – clarinet in B flat
Michele Motola – soprano and alto sax
Gianfranco Menzella – alto, tenor and baritone sax
Francesco Panico – trumpet in B flat
Francesco Tritto – trombone
Tommaso De Vito Francesco – bass guitar, contrabass, oboe
Michele Fracchiolla – drums, percussion, vibraphone, marimba
Pino Manfredi – piano, keyboards
Rocco Lomonaco – classical, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, quatro, harmonica
Duilio Maci – violin
Angela Schiralli – cello

Breznev Fun Club’s cleverly amusing name, which hinges on the common mispronunciation of the words fan and fun on the part of English-speaking Italians, may not be very familiar to most progressive rock listeners, but it is certainly a secret worth learning about.  As the album’s subtitle of Lost and Found implies, L’Onda Vertebrata is a collection of music written in the years 1990-1997 by multi-instrumentalist and composer Rocco Lomonaco (based in Milan, but hailing from the southern Italian region of Basilicata) and singer/lyricist Francesco Sciscio, and performed by an extended line-up of guest musicians, most of them members of chamber and symphonic orchestras. Though Breznev Fun Club was originally born as a trio, the evolution of their music in a more experimental direction required a looser configuration. However, Lomonaco is planning to put together a smaller group in order to perform on stage the music included on this album and its follow-up, titled Il Misantropo Felice, scheduled for a 2012 release on AltrOck Productions.

For an album that can be quite comfortably placed under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly melodic and accessible effort, sophisticated yet not needlessly daunting. Indeed, despite the undeniably complex and “highbrow” nature of the music,  the album as a whole never tries to hit the listener over the head with its cleverness and supposed superiority to “mainstream” prog. Even Franco Sciscio’s half-sung, half-recited vocals (a technique called by the German word of Sprechgesang) do not sound as overdone as in other albums that employ a similar style – though obviously they can be much of an acquired taste, and a deterrent for those who prefer a more traditional approach to singing.

L’Onda Vertebrata shares a number of features with contemporary classical and chamber music, and at times– as is the case with other similar outfits, such as Aranis or Factor Burzaco – it may strike the listener as rather far removed from the directness of rock. However, there are also moments in which the whole range of rock instruments is effectively employed, emphasizing the eclecticism of Breznev Fun Club’s approach.  Though, as the liner notes point out, the individual numbers are pieced together from parts composed in different moments of the band’s activity – reflected by their structure of “mini-suites” in various movements – they come across as much more cohesive than one might expect.

As suggested in the previous paragraphs, the music on display on L’Onda Vertebrata offers a lot of variety, though in an elegantly understated way. Echoes of Canterbury (especially Hatfield and the North and National Health) surface in opener “Ludiche Ecchimosi”, introduced by the lovely vocalizing of mezzosoprano Giuliana Di Mitrio, who also appears in the final part of the sparse, Debussy-like “Tre Pezzi Brevi”, accented by the clear, lilting sound of mallet percussion; while the lively “Inseguito dai Creditori”, whose choppy, Hammond-driven first half turns solemn, almost austere towards the end, might be effectively described as “Canterbury with a bite”. “Il Folletto di Cera” is a textbook example of how avant-garde does not necessarily mean noisy or jarring, with Sciscio’s theatrical vocals (reminiscent of Nichelodeon’s Claudio Milano) offset by the gentle, romantic flow of the melodies seamlessly woven by the lush instrumentation.

More than a conventional prog “epic”, the 20-minute title-track is a mini-opera divided in 10 parts that offers a wide range of modes of expression – from the airy, slow-paced opening to heavier, dramatic passages which brought to my mind Italian Seventies cult outfit Pholas Dactylus, from solemn church organ to fluid, jazzy moments enhanced by a rich fabric of horns and reeds. The first of the two bonus tracks, “La Follia del Mimo Azoto”, harks back to the time when Breznev Fun Club were heavily funk-oriented, at times reminding me of New York-based outfit Afroskull with their powerful horn section; while the Canterbury influence emerges again in the instrumental-only version of “Il Folletto di Cera”.

In spite of its rather intellectual vibe, L’Onda Vertebrata is a surprisingly accessible album, which is sure to win over lovers of both “chamber rock” and contemporary academic music, but that may even appeal to those of more mainstream tastes – especially on account of its high melodic quotient (quite revealing of its Italian matrix). An excellent, classy testimony of Rocco Lomonaco’s over two decades of activity as a musician and composer, the album will also whet the appetite of devoted followers of AltrOck Production’s roster in anticipation of the release of Il Misantropo Felice. The very detailed liner notes (unfortunately only in Italian), illustrating the history of the band as well as of each of the tracks, and the striking green hues of the cover artwork also deserve a special mention.

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

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Breznev-Fun-Club/122126211199607?sk=wall

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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. G.B. Evidence (5:19)
2. Arabesque (12:32)
3. Dark Magus (9:00)
4. L’Ombra di un Sogno (6:55)
5. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta, Part I (5:08)
6. Battery Park (6:37)

LINEUP:
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Hammond organ, acoustic and electric piano, Arp Odyssey, Minimoog
Cristian Franchi – drums
Daniele Piccinini – bass
Marco Marzo Maracas – guitar, oud

With:
Richard Sinclair – vocals (4)
Antonio “Cooper” Cupertino – percussion (4)

Hailing from the historic Italian city of Bologna, home to the oldest university in the world, Accordo dei Contrari (Italian for “Agreement of the Opposites”) started out their career in as a trio; then, after a number of line-up changes, recorded their debut album, Kinesis (released in 2007) as a quartet. The same line-up is featured on Kublai, their sophomore effort, released in the spring of 2011 – an album that is sure to put them on the map of even the most demanding lovers of progressive rock. Sadly, the band was one of the “innocent victims”, so to speak, of the unfortunate cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which deprived American prog fans of the opportunity to witness a number of exciting modern bands.

While the album’s title may bring to mind the fabled character of the Mongolian emperor celebrated by the likes of Marco Polo and S.T. Coleridge, in this case the name Kublai is meant to  represent “the most distant point in an imaginary landscape. It represents ordered chaos, light and dark, the balance between written and improvised music.” A clear statement of intent that accurately sums up the musical content of Accordo dei Contrari’s second album. With its stylishly minimalistic cover artwork, Kublai is a supremely classy package that shows a band whose compositional and instrumental mastery is growing by leaps and bounds.

Running at a compact, perfectly balanced 45 minutes, the album sounds fresh and original even when the band’s main sources of inspiration are referenced. While Accordo dei Contrari do not choose to employ as extensive an array of instruments as other modern bands, they manage to create an impressive volume of sound with a rather restrained instrumentation, dispensing with the violin and saxophone featured on their debut, and therefore perfecting the “electric quartet” format. For an album that might be tagged as jazz-rock, Kublai seems to revolve a lot around Giovanni Parmeggiani’s stunning keyboard work. Indeed, the keyboards are definitely the driving force of the disc, with the distinctive rumble of the Hammond organ lending a touch of unbridled hard rock passion to the overall sound: there are moments on Kublai in which Parmeggiani sounds as if he was channeling Jon Lord.

Opener “G.B. Evidence”, a variation on a Thelonious Monk composition, immediately introduces the listener to the fascinating world of Accordo dei Contrari, with Cristian Franci’s crisp, inventive drumming, bolstered by Daniele Piccinini’s sleek, versatile bass lines, sparring with Marco Marzo’s simmering guitar and Parmeggiani’s subtly layered keyboards. In the second half, guitar and organ engage in a sort of dialogue that conjures images of Deep Purple jamming with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Clocking in at 12 minutes “Arabesque” presents Accordo dei Contrari’s own twist on the obligatory prog ‘epic’, making effective use of a steady electronic drone to create a faintly ominous atmosphere underlying the stately beauty of the Eastern-flavoured acoustic guitar arpeggios in the first part of the track. The overall loose, somewhat rarefied texture, the flow of the music broken by frequent pauses and surges in volume, occasionally gains intensity in bursts of energy that bring to mind the revolutionary sonic melting pot of Area circa Arbeit Macht Frei. Bookended by sonorous gong. “Dark Magus” (a nod to Miles Davis’ 1974 album of the same title) reinforces the impression of classic jazz rock coupled with the intensity of vintage hard rock. Parmeggiani attacks his Hammond with unadulterated abandon, while Franci’s stellar drumming propels the whole of the composition along, with Marco Marzo’s guitar in an invaluable supporting role.

Strategically placed at the opening of the album’s second half, “L’Ombra di un Sogno (Shadow of a Dream)” is the only track with vocals, provided by none other than the ‘voice of Canterbury’, Richard Sinclair, who also wrote the gentle, moving lyrics in memory of his dog. Centred around Sinclair’s subdued yet emotional interpretation, his velvety baritone bending the music to its will, the song – somewhat sparse at first, with a hauntingly insistent guitar line, then taking a jazzier turn towards the end – brings the the sound of iconic Canterbury bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health into the 21st century. On the other hand, “Piu’ Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Espressione Vissuta, Pt. 1”  steers towards a more symphonic direction, with organ and guitar alternating in the lead role, and an overall solemn, meditative feel even when the pace picks up. The album ends with the “Battery Park” (inspired by a windy, sunny February day by the Hudson River in New York City), a lovely, piano-led  piece based around a main theme developed in a stop-start movement, the various sections climaxing and then subsiding like the natural flow of a water course.

A perfect marriage of formal elegance and emotion, rich with diverse influences but always cohesive, Kublai clearly proves that Accordo dei Contrari are ready to take their rightful place alongside D.F.A. as purveyors of impeccably executed, yet warm and emotional jazz-rock in which keyboards play a prominent role. The band have amply fulfilled the promise shown by their debut, Kinesis, and the compositional and technical maturity shown on their sophomore effort bodes extremely well for their future career. A must for fans of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock in general, Kublai will delight anyone who loves great music – whatever the label attached to it.

Links:
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/

 

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