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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Pilman Radiant (26:15):
i. Visitation
ii. The Divine Vessel
iii. Wriggling Magnet
iv. Mosquito Mange
v. Divine Vessel’s Reprise
2. Complex #7 (4:47)
3. Tremors From the Future (11:15)

Bonus Live DVD:
1. Five Suns (32:19)
2. King Lindorm (14:19)

LINEUP:
Emmet Elvin – Fender Rhodes, organ, synth, harmonium, screeching guitar (1.i)
James Sedwards  – bass
Kavus Torabi – guitar, santoor
David J. Smith – drums, percussion, additional keyboards, santoor

With
:
Thomas Frasier Scott – soprano sax, alto sax, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon
Dave Newhouse – baritone sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, alto flute
Chloe Herington – bassoon
Sarah Anderson – violin, viola
Geri McEwan – violin
Sam Morris – French horn
Emma Sullivan – trumpet
Antti Uusimaki – additional keyboards and effects

After  having produced one of the most powerful album trilogies in recent times – Five Suns (2003), Black Oni (2004) and Elixirs (2008) – in the past few years British outfit Guapo seemed to have dropped off the radar. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’Sullivan’s departure following the release of Elixirs (which had been recorded as a duo by O’Sullivan and drummer David J. Smith after the departure of bassist/guitarist Matt Thompson in 2005) brought about a lengthy hiatus and rumours of the band’s demise. However, at the end of January 2013 Guapo resurfaced with a veritable bang – a brand-new studio album (their ninth), titled History of the Visitation, which also saw their return to the Cuneiform Records fold ten years after the career-defining Five Suns.

Lineup changes are nothing new in Guapo’s chequered history, which began in the mid-Nineties with the release of three EPs, and then unfolded with various recordings and collaborations. In the intervening years, the trio configuration that had recorded  Five Suns and Black Oni became a quartet with the addition of Iranian-born guitarist Kavus Torabi (of Cardiacs and Knifeworld fame, recently announced as the new guitarist for Gong) and bassist James Sedwards, while  keyboardist Emmett Elvin (like Sedwards, also a member of fellow Cuneiform outfit Chrome Hoof) replaced O’Sullivan in time for the recording of History of the Visitation.

Guapo are a textbook example of the mind-boggling variety to be found under the RIO/Avant umbrella – a label that, as is the case of bands such as miRthkon and Zevious, fits them only in part .Though the names of Magma and Univers Zéro often crop up in reviews of their material, those two seminal left-field bands are just a small part of Guapo’s musical identity in the second decade of the 21th century. The central role of David J. Smith (the only member left of the band’s original lineup) evokes comparisons with Christian Vander and Daniel Denis. However, Kavus Torabi’s pyrotechnic guitar skills lend to modern-day Guapo a keen, metal-like edge, while Emmett Elvin’s keyboards can weave heady, majestic textures in the best prog tradition, and James Sedwards’ rumbling bottom end often emerges from the fray to add another dimension to the uncompromisingly arcane, brooding nature of the band’s sound. The frequent repetition of lines and themes increases the hypnotic feel of the music in a fashion that brings to mind King Crimson and also some instances of post-rock.

Recorded with the assistance of a number of guest musicians (including The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse), History of the Visitation clocks in at a mere 42 minutes. The first of the album’s three tracks is a 26-minute, 5-movement suite titled “The Pilman Radiant” – a title that, just like the album’s own title, references the cult Russian science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic, written by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971, on which Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker is also based.  Guapo’s  moody yet hard-hitting music renders the intricate, visionary content of the story without any need for words, painting a picture that, in its own way, is as grandiose as any “classic” prog, though more viscerally intense.

Somewhat more streamlined than the monumental Five Suns and Black Oni suites, “The Pilman Radiant” wins my personal prize as best “epic” of 2013. Its five movements are easily distinguishable, yet they form an organic whole. Introduced by the surging layers of keyboards, assorted sound effects and crashing drums of “Visitation” – later reprised by the short, appropriately spacey “Mosquito Mange” – the suite comes into its own with the eerie, quietly brooding beauty of the waltz-like “The Divine Vessel”, led by fluid electric piano and unexpectedly melodic guitar; pace and intensity increase, propelled by drums and bass, in the driving “Wriggling Magnet”, in which Elvin’s roaring organ complements Torabi’s gorgeous, rock-styled solo turn, then a grittier, metal-edged reprise of “The Divine Vessel” brings this exhilarating musical experience to a close.

Strategically inserted between two much longer, more complex compositions, the 4-minute dark ambient piece of “Complex #7” skillfully piles up layers keyboards and assorted sound effects with the added contribution of reeds, creating a mounting sense of tension with the ominous feel of a horror-movie soundtrack.  On the other hand, “Tremors From the Future” concentrates a dizzying variety of twists and turns in slightly over 11 minutes, its skewed melodic development powered by guitar and organ sparring and interweaving while drums and bass evoke the titular tremors with their steadily pulsing movement.

The interest value of History of the Visitation gets a further boost from the presence of an almost 50-minute DVD featuring two of the band’s most iconic live performances from the past few years. The NEARfest 2006 performance of a somewhat shortened version of Five Suns, flawlessly shot in black and white, highlights Torabi’s flamboyant stage presence and boundless energy, as well as Smith’s role as the band’s rhythmic engine; while the more rudimentary quality of the video recorded the following year at the RIO festival does not detract at all from the power of the angular “King Lindorm” thanks to Udi Koomran’s top-notch mixing and mastering work.

In spite of the band’s reputation for scaring away some of the more conservative prog fans – also on account of the notoriously loud volume of their performances – History of the Visitation is a relatively more listener-friendly proposition than Guapo’s previous albums. The higher melodic content and skillfully achieved balance between hard-driving sections and more low-key ones are likely to surprise people who would not ordinarily appreciate anything bearing a RIO/Avant tag. Indeed, there are moments of sheer beauty on History of the Visitation that offset the band’s trademark looming darkness and wall-of-sound heaviness. With its toweringly Gothic atmosphere conveyed through stunning musicianship, this is definitely one of the year’s landmark releases.

Links:
http://guaponews.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/guapoband/info

http://guapo1.bandcamp.com/album/history-of-the-visitation

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Attend to Your Configuration (2:47)
2. Was Solis (6:02)
3. Pantocyclus (4:07)
4. White Minus Red (6:55)
5. Crime of Separate Action (6:32)
6. Entanglement (4:19)
7. A Tiller in a Tempest (3:15)
8. Passing Through the Wall (4:22)
9. This Could Be the End of the Line (2:23)
10. Plying the Cold Trade (8:02)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – bass

Four years after their barnstorming second album, the aptly-titled After the Air Raid, New York-based trio Zevious are back with their long-awaited third full-length CD, Passing Through the Wall, also released on Cuneiform Records. In the intervening years the band have maintained a brisk schedule of live performances – including the 2011 edition of ProgDay and, a couple of months later, Cuneifest at Baltimore’s Orion Studios. All three Zevious members are also involved in other projects, which pits them against the likes of Steven Wilson as the most hard-working people in progressive rock.

Zevious, like miRthkon and many of the bands and artists featured on these pages, stand on the outer limits of the progressive rock spectrum – that twilight zone that some would label as “progressive but not prog”, a definition that shows how for many fans the genre has become nothing more than a collection of dated mannerisms. The trio’s musical approach, however, is every bit as complex as the average “mainstream” prog band’s, though relying only on the essential rock instrumentation to create an impressive volume of sound characterized by a very high level of energy. Indeed, Zevious are definitely not for everyone, especially those who believe that the “progressive” in “progressive rock” has been stripped of its original meaning.

The definition of “King Crimson on steroids” that I used in my previous reviews of the band still holds true for Passing Through the Wall – perhaps even more so than for its predecessor. Zevious take the hauntingly repetitive, angular structure of pieces like “Red” or “Discipline” as a springboard, and inject it with an almost manic energy that owes a lot to metal and punk. As drummer Jeff Ebert, whose mind-boggling polyrhythms are at the core of the band’s sound, is also a member of hyper-technical metal band Dysrhythmia (with whom Zevious played some shows in November 2013), Zevious are seriously heavy, though in a different way than, for instance, miRthkon or Guapo – two bands that, like Zevious, straddle the line between Avant Progressive and experimental metal.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, and packaged in a minimalistic, black-and-white cover with an Escherian feel, Passing Through the Wall comprises 10 tracks ranging from 2 to 8 minutes – a structure both similar and different from their previous album. The shorter tracks emphasize energy and dynamic pacing, while the longer ones allow for more variation. However, those who are looking for dramatic shifts within the same track  in classic prog tradition are in for a disappointment, because at a first listen the compositions on the album may sound all rather alike. Tempo changes are handled subtly as a whole, and the music’s hard-driving intensity does not disguise the complexity of the instrumental interplay.

The imperiously-titled and –paced “Attend to Your Configuration” barges in with its relentless web of interlocking bass and guitar lines driven by Jeff Ebert’s acrobatic drumming, then slows down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the second half. In  the considerably longer “Was Solis” Mike Ebert’s clear-toned guitar weaves sinuously in and out the rumbling backdrop of Johnny DeBlase’s bass, sparring with the drums and occasionally going into slo-mo mode for atmospheric effect. “Pantocyclus” melds skewed melody and haunting, insistent pattern peppered by piercing guitar effects, while the strikingly Crimsonian “White Minus Red” is powered by a superb performance by DeBlase, the rhythmic foundation steadily surging and flowing, then gaining momentum towards the end. The slow, ominous strains of “Crime of Separate Action” wrap up the first half of the album, again showcasing DeBlase’s astonishing propulsive/textural bass work supporting Mike Eber’s eerily chiming guitar.

The first half of“Entanglement” pulls out all the stops in terms of escalating guitar assault,  with drums all over the place; in contrast, “A Tiller in the Tempest” slower, somewhat rarefied pauses relieve the tension of the tight instrumental work. The short, fast-paced “This Could Be the End of the Line” acts as an interlude of sorts between the two most distinctive pieces on the album – the title-track, with its uncharacteristically muted guitar-bass-drum pattern, whose understated intensity creates a heady, drone-like texture; and 8-minute closing track “Plying the Cold Trade”, whose dirge-like pace and somber, Gothic feel offer a rather sharp departure from the unrelenting energy of the previous numbers.

Obviously, Zevious are not going to encounter the favour of the average melodic prog fan, while their music should prove to be far more appealing to the younger generations, weaned on a diet of post/math rock, technical metal and crossover bands such as The Mars Volta. They are also one of those bands who – as good as they sound on CD – have to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, as their hard-driving yet sophisticated music gains a whole new dimension on stage. In any case, Passing Through the Wall is a riveting slice of modern progressive music, powerful and intricate though not devoid of melody, and definitely deserving to be heard with some measure of concentration. Highly recommended to all adventurous prog fans, this album is sure to be featured in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://zevioustrio.blogspot.com/

http://cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. QXP-13 Space Modulator (3:49)
2. Eat a Bag of DiX (5:08)
3. Hapax Legomena (4:47)
4. Nocturne, op.33 (4:15)
5. The Cascades (6:37)
6. Snack(s) – The Song! (7:12)
7. Osedax (6:16)
8. Mymaridae (6:25)
9. Variety Pack (2:52)
10.Fairies Wear Boots (7:35)

LINEUP:
Wally Scharold – electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, programming, clapping, keyboards, synths
Travis Andrews – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, vocals
Carolyn Walter – clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon
Jamison Smeltz – alto sax, baritone sax, clapping
Matt Lebofsky – bass, vocals, keyboards, guitars, junk drums
Matt Guggemos – drums

In the late spring of 2009, the debut album of a hitherto unknown band from Oakland (California), by the idiosyncratically-spelled name of miRthkon, made waves on the progressive rock scene. A monumental, 70-minute slab of quirky, Zappaesque avant-progressive rock with a healthy dose of metal-inspired energy and intriguing references to contemporary classical music –  a package rounded out by outstanding artwork and a wacky background mythology – Vehicle was mentioned by many (including myself) in their personal “best of 2009” lists. Once again, Marcello Marinone and his AltrOck Productions cohorts had unearthed a gem.

Founded around 2005 by guitarist/composer Wally Scharold, miRthkon went through the customary stages of upheaval (and the release of EP The Joy of Illusion) before stabilizing their lineup. With two new members on board – guitarist Travis Andrews and bassist/keyboardistMatt Lebofsky (also a member of Secret Chiefs 3 and MoeTar) replacing Rob Pumpelly and Nat Hawkes – the band are a solid six-piece propelled by a twin-guitar and twin-reed attack that sets them apart from almost everyone else. A quintessential live outfit, they have recently managed to bring their unique brand of progressive rock to Europe. Indeed, after Scharold recovered from some health issues that had forced the band to cancel the second half of their 2012 tour with MoeTar, 2013 has proved to be very good year for miRthkon as a live act, with successful appearances at the first edition of Seaprog in Seattle, the 2013 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux, and a one-day festival organized by the AltrOck staff in Milan. In addition to their busy concert schedule, the band have spent a good part of the past few years working on the follow-up to Vehicle – a full-length album by the title of Snack(s), which was finally released in the autumn of 2013, following the band’s European tour.

Though miRthkon are anything but your conventional “nostalgia prog” band, they seem to have learned an important lesson from the genre’s golden age: that is, the importance of the visual aspect. Their albums are not just challenging sonic buffets of wide-ranging eclecticism, but also visual feasts that display another facet of Wally Scharold’s considerable talent. Snack(s)’s artwork is a true stroke of genius,  a parody of modern society’s addiction to junk food, with the cover and each page of the booklet imitating the packaging of some popular snacks, down to the mandatory (in the US at least) nutritional breakdown – which contains detailed information about each track, including the daunting time signatures, as well as the lyrics cleverly disguised as “ingredients”. Not your average Roger Dean opus for sure, but extremely well-made, and hugely entertaining.

Though it might raise eyebrows, the “avant-garde metal” tag that has been attached to miRthkon is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The combination of deadpan humour and highbrow references is far from uncommon in the world of technical/avant-garde metal, though miRthkon take it up a notch and imbue their heady genre-bending blend with the jazz-tinged energy of Carolyn Walter and Jamison Smeltz’s array of reeds. Indeed, Snack(s) is the kind of album that will keep you on the edge of your seat, not knowing if that low-key, almost conventionally melodic passage will erupt into chaos (albeit of the controlled variety) in just a couple of seconds. Most of the album’s 10 tracks were written by either Scharold or Lebovsky, with the notable exception of an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s piano piece “Nocturne” (which was part of the band’s setlist at the Orion Studios in August 2012), and a similarly idiosyncratic cover of Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”.

Compared to Vehicle, Snack(s) is more focused (also in virtue of being almost 15 minutes shorter) and also somewhat heavier, though losing none of the compositional complexity that had made miRthkon’s debut so riveting. Crushingly heavy guitar riffs coexist with joyfully blaring reeds in the exhilarating jazz-metal blend tinged with ska (of all things!) of opener “QXP-13 Space Modulator”, a hyper-energetic instrumental that prepares the listener for the mind-boggling twists and turns of “Eat a Bag of DiX”, which juxtaposes brooding chamber-like sections with electrifying guitar forays and almost punk vocals. “Hapax Legomena” ’s deceptively laid-back, jazzy intro soon turns into a bracing duel between guitars and reeds; while wistful clarinet keeps the classical flavour in “Nocturne”, though offset by the guitars and spiked by an odd reggae-like rhythm. The first half of the album ends with the angular yet atmospheric heaviness (and rather apocalyptic lyrics) of “The Cascades”, enhanced by the organic sound of the glockenspiel, organ and piano.

Eerie electronic effects and upbeat, anthemic singing pepper the 7-minute “Snack(s) – The Song!”, driven by Matt Guggemos’ spectacular drumming and reeds blaring in unison. The sinuous, faintly disturbing first half of “Osedax” again brings melody into the equation, with haunting clarinet and a brief yet striking bass-guitar duet followed by a choppy, drum-driven section complete with shouting vocals at the end. After the maze-like complexity of the multilayered “Mymaridae”- whose inexhaustible intensity evokes a swarm of the titular “microscopic parasitic wasps” in a textbook example of controlled chaos – the less than 3 minutes of the bassoon-led “Variety Pack” provide a short but welcome oasis of calm before the grand finale. The longest track on the album, miRthkon’s take on “Fairies Wear Boots” keeps the spirit of the original even in its “deconstructive” approach, replacing Tony Iommi’s iconic riffing with a spirited double baritone sax attack, and Scharold channeling his inner Ozzy Osbourne in a very aggressive vocal turn.

The somewhat clichéd expression “not for the faint-hearted” seems to have been tailor-made for miRthkon. Snack(s), just like the band’s live shows, is a constant adrenaline rush, with only occasional moments of respite, and therefore not very likely to make a dent in the convictions of those who equate prog with lush melodies and grandiose, quasi-symphonic arrangements. Such intense music, almost relentless at times, may require a lot of concentration on the part of the listener. In any case, Snack(s) is one of the most original albums released in 2013, and a must-listen for fans of truly progressive, challenging music. Highly recommended to anyone wishing to step out of their comfort zone.

Links:
http://www.mirthkon.com/

http://mirthkon.bandcamp.com/album/snack-s

http://www.altrock.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. La roue (3:43)
2. Cobra Fakir (8:53)
3. RVB7 (3:56)
4. Paris-Roubaix (2:14)
5. Titan (4:17)
6. Un cas sibérien (2:28)
7. Speed-dating sur Mars (7:07)
8. Tandem (8:23)
9. Maringouin (3:41)
10. Space Cowboy (3:11)
11. Expérience 7 (2:27)

LINEUP:
Pascal Globensky – keyboards, synths, piano
Rémi Leclerc – drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable
Bernard Falaise – guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable

Born in 1980 from the meeting of keyboardist Pascal Globensky and multi-instrumentalist François Émon, French Canadian band Miriodor can be counted amongst the veterans of the current progressive rock scene. Surprisingly, despite the many changes the lineup has undergone in the past three decades, Globensky and drummer Rémi Leclerc, another of the band’s earliest members, are still on board – as is guitarist Bernard Falaise, who has been with the band for 20 years even if not part of its original configuration.

Never a prolific outfit, with only eight studio albums released since their inception and lengthy breaks between each new release, Miriodor seem to have embraced the old tenet about quality trumping quantity. They have also maintained a healthy level of concert activity throughout the years, with high-profile performances at international events such as NEARfest in 2002, FMPM in 2007 and 2008, the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux (France) and Sonic Circuits in Washington DC (where they opened for Univers Zéro) in 2010. Cobra Fakir, their eighth studio album, was finally released on Cuneiform Records at the end of September 2013, a few weeks after their appearance at the 19th edition of ProgDay. Though the album was recorded as a trio, Miriodor have gone back to being a quartet with the addition of bassist Nicolas Lessard, who replaced longtime member Nicolas Masino.

As one of the landmark progressive rock releases of the first decade of the 21st century, Miriodor’s 2009 album, Avanti!, was a tough act to follow. Cobra Fakir, however, though it obviously shares a lot with its predecessor, it also shows the band moving in a somewhat different direction. While their sound – sometimes described as the “happy” counterpart to Univers Zéro austere gloom – is immediately recognizable, the band have made some changes to their compositional approach. Unlike Avanti!, which featured six longish tracks, Miriodor’s latest effort presents a wider range of running times, from the almost 9 minutes of the title-track to 2-minute interludes such as “Paris-Roubaix” (a perfect sonic rendition of the titular bicycle race with its layers of slightly atonal keyboards) and the appealingly noisy, almost improvisational “Un cas sibérien”. A longer track list also means a more noticeable diversity –  with the shorter compositions providing an outlet for experimentation, often involving an array of inventive sound effects. Though there are no guests contributing to Cobra Fakir, this does not necessarily result in a more stripped-down sound, and very few listeners will miss Avanti!’s richer instrumentation.  In fact, the album perfectly demonstrates how multilayered keyboards, far from becoming a byword for bombast, can be used for rhythmic as well as melodic and textural purposes.

Leisurely acoustic guitar introduces “La roue”, whose upbeat main theme – as its title (“The Wheel”) suggests – hints at carnival music, offset by angular, somewhat darker patterns around the middle, and reinforced by sounds of clanging metal, breaking glass and the scratchy turntable effects that crop up throughout the album. The title-track sums up the album’s many faces in its 9 minutes of musical whirlwind – the sedate, meditative first half rendering in sonic terms the tale of the cobra and the fakir outlined in the liner notes, followed by a myriad of tempo and mood changes, often sharply veering towards dissonance yet always informed by an internal logic, then coming full circle with its melancholy, acoustic close. Only a handful of seconds shorter, “Tandem” has a more cohesive structure and an almost classical feel, with sampled flute and harpsichord complementing the piano and synth, and a plethora of sound effects intensifying the trippy, guitar-heavy mood of the ending.

In “RVB7”, assorted percussive effects and the crystalline tinkle of the vibraphone create an amazing blend of sounds that enhances the keyboards and guitar in a lively, dance-like pace; while “Titan” hinges on a brooding, cinematic crescendo punctuated by organ, solemn drum rolls, and surging, distorted guitar, creating a Gothic atmosphere that evokes Univers Zéro. Without any need for words, “Speed-dating sur Mars” tells an entertaining tale through  spacey effects and a sprightly, keyboard-led rhythm, as well as a brief, romantic piano interlude. More spacey goodness (as the title makes it quite obvious) is offered by “Space Cowboy”, where electronic effects hold sway, while melody, infused with a nostalgic Old-World flavour and the gentle sway of a waltz, is the key word in “Maringouin”, easily the most “mainstream” piece on the album. “Experiénce 7” wraps up the album with a short yet intense exercise in atmospheric buildup, conducted almost solely by surging keyboard washes and eerie sound effects.

With its intriguing cover art juxtaposing Hindu mysticism and their native Québec’s winter landscape, Cobra Fakir may well confirm Miriodor’s status as the RIO/Avant band that – on account of their keen melodic flair coexisting with more boundary-pushing tendencies – manages to appeal even to staunch symphonic/neo fans. Balancing edgy dissonance and  haunting atmospheres, engaging circus-like tunes and moments of reflection, the album will benefit from repeated listens in order to let its magic unfold, but will amply reward the listener’s patience. Another outstanding effort from one of the best live bands I have seen in the past few years – their understated mastery of their instruments as close to perfection as it gets – Cobra Fakir does not disappoint expectations, and will certainly feature in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://miriodor.com/wp/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Erosive Forces of Wind and Water (5:14)
2. Lead Poisoning (5:14)
3. Boots, Nails, Watches… (5:25)
4. Thermokarst (5:15)
5. Trapped in the Sea Ice (3:59)
6. …Books, Saws, Silk Handkerchiefs… (3:52)
7. Graves of the Crewmen Buried on Beechey Island (6:17)
8. …Two Double-Barreled Guns and 40 Lbs of Chocolate (5:31)

LINEUP:
Ángel Ontalva – guitar
Victor Rodriguez – keyboards
Amanda Pazos Cosse – bass
Vasco Trilla – drums, percussion

Formed in 2003 in the historic Spanish city of Toledo by guitarist/composer Ángel Ontalva, bassist Amanda Pazos Cosse and keyboardist Victor Rodriguez, for their fourth CD release October Equus have gone back to a quartet format, just as they started out ten years ago. Permafrost,  released in May 2013, is also their first album released by Ontalva’s own independent label, OctoberXart Records. Though, after 2011’s Saturnal, the band have parted ways with AltrOck Records, they appeared at the Italian label’s festival in June 2013, and the new album was mastered by AltrOck’s preferred sound engineer, Udi Koomran, at his Tel Aviv studio.

The lineup changes occurred after Saturnal (recorded as a seven-piece) imply that October Equus have gone back to the basics  on their fourth album – taking reeds and cello out of the equation, though without renouncing the complexity of their particular take on the RIO/Avant-Prog aesthetics. In fact, the album marks a definite step forward for the band, allowing them to distance themselves from the influence of Univers Zéro – which loomed quite large on their previous releases –  and give their sound a more personal imprint. While their style remains firmly ensconced in “chamber rock” territory, the new stripped-down format pushes Ontalva’s guitar to the fore, constantly supported by Victor Rodriguez’s array of keyboards. Drummer Vasco Trilla (also a member of jazz-rock outfit Planeta Imaginario) provides an inventive, often dramatic rhythmic backbone, assisted by Amanda Pazos Cosse’s discreet yet versatile bass lines.

As suggested by the title and the booklet’s detailed artwork, Permafrost is a concept album, based on the tragic ending of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. Besides his obvious musical talent, Ontalva (who, together with Rodriguez,  is the band’s main songwriter,) is also an outstanding graphic artist, and his black-and-white illustrations complement each episode of the musical odyssey. Though completely instrumental, the music manages to convey the atmosphere of fear, loneliness and impending doom without relying on words – perhaps even more effectively because of their absence. The stark appearance of the cover, distinguished by a striking use of white space, evokes the bleakness of the Arctic winter, while on the back cover Franklin’s last note is reproduced.

 Those who believe any band tagged RIO/Avant-Prog must thrive on dissonance might find their convictions challenged by Permafrost. Indeed, the album often comes across as surprisingly melodic – though of course, not exactly in the same way as your average symphonic/neo prog release. As a whole, though Univers Zéro are referenced on more than one occasion, I was often reminded of Miriodor’s effortless complexity and elegant blend of angularity and fluidity. Obviously, given the nature of the story narrated by the music, the album has its fair share of tense, Gothic moments, rendered by a skillful mix of electronic effects and conventional rock instruments – as in closing track “…Two Double-Barreled Guns and 40 Lbs of Chocolate”, as ominously menacing as a horror movie soundtrack.

The correspondence between track titles and musical content is often astonishingly precise: eerie mellotron and swelling piano flurries, coupled with tinkling vibraphone, evoke the desolation of the abandoned ships in “…Books, Saws, Silk Handkerchiefs…” , while the mesmerizingly measured pace of “Graves of the Crewmen Buried on Beechey Island” – almost Pinkfloydian in its slow, mournful development – is punctuated by suitably dirge-like drumming. Rodriguez switches from organ (whose fuzzed-over sound hints at Soft Machine) to synths, piano and even mellotron, working in unison with Ontalva’s expressive, jazzy guitar to create a wide range of atmospheres – haunting and almost romantic at times (as in the autumnal, melancholy “Lead Poisoning”), strident and aggressive at others (“Thermokarst”).

Clocking in at barely over 40 minutes, Permafrost is an intense, cohesive effort that packs more punch  in its very restrained running time than most 70-minute albums. Though, as was the case with its predecessors, its main audience will be the RIO/Avant crowd, there is enough on the album to appeal to those with somewhat more mainstream tastes. Among its many qualities, this disc proves that “concept albums” can be something different from the overblown messes that have unfortunately become synonymous with progressive rock, and that a purely instrumental palette can be used very effectively for storytelling purposes. Definitely one of the strongest releases of the year so far, Permafrost is highly recommended to all open-minded music fans.

Links:
www.octoberxart.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Toz (9:25)
2. Intermud (2:59)
3. Dunb (8:57)
4. Bùmlo (5:34)
5. Mlùez (6:16)
6. Ïh (8:18)

LINEUP:
Captain Flapattak – drums, vocals
Fabien De Kerbalek – guitar, vocals
Brhüno – tenor/soprano saxophones, bassoon, vocals
Thybo – guitar
Sam – alto/baritone saxophones, alto clarinet, flute, vocals
Damoon – bass, vocals (1-3)
Sir Alron – bass, vocals (4-6)
Marhïon Mouette – vocals, percussion (1-3)
Emilie Massue – vocals, percussion (4-6)

With the Ensemble Pantagrulair (1-3):
Séverine – flute, piccolo
Rémi – oboe
Catherine – clarinet
Pierre – horn

Even if, at first, their name may ring a bell with the many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work (Rhûn means “East” in one of his invented languages), French outfit Rhùn are firmly entrenched in the Zeuhl tradition initiated by their fellow countrymen Magma in the late Sixties. The subtitle “Fanfare du Chaos” proudly emblazoned on the cover of their full-length debut album, Ïh, should leave no doubts as to the contents of the disc itself and its potential to appeal to the more adventurous fringes of the progressive rock audience.

The band – based in the northern French region of Normandy – revolves around the figure of drummer/vocalist Captain Flapattak, flanked by a group of other musicians who, like him, go for the most part by pseudonyms in the style of early Gong. Though very little is available in the way of a biography, from their social media presence it can be inferred that Rhùn have enjoyed a lively concert activity in the past few years. After a three-song demo released in 2008, their first proper recording effort – an EP also titled Ïh (like one of the tracks on the demo)came at the end of 2012. Both of these recordings have been remastered by AltrOck Productions stalwart Udi Koomran and released in CD format by the Milan-based label in the early summer of 2013 – allowing the listener to trace the band’s development from a more rough-edged sound to longer, more elaborate compositions. Besides Captain Flapattak, Fabien de Kerbalek and Thybo (guitars, vocals), Brhüno (sax, bassoon, vocals) and Sam (sax, clarinet, vocals) appear on all the songs on the CD, while other members of this rather eclectic configuration have changed in the intervening years. At present, the band is a six-piece that also includes Damoon (bass, vocals); a reed quartet called Ensemble Pantagrulair also appears on the EP tracks.

The 9-minute “Toz” opens the album with a fair sonic rendition of that “fanfare of chaos” subtitle – a burst of horns, drums and vocals like a less melodic version of Magma, with hints of fellow French outfit Jack Dupon in the extravagantly theatrical vocals. The track develops as a veritable rollercoaster ride, reminiscent of Üdü Wüdü-era Magma – driven by powerful, martial bass and drums, and throwing in Hendrixian guitar solos, massed male-female choirs, majestic horns, carnival tunes and much more, with rare moments of respite. After this rather demanding listening experience, the short classical intermezzo of “Intermud” – with flute and oboe conversing discreetly in a Debussy-like piece – comes as a welcome surprise, though things change sharply once again when the insistent, hypnotic choir of “Dunb” kicks in. Alternating subdued, atmospheric passages with frantic bouts of dissonance, the track pushes Damoon’s thundering bass to the forefront, culminating in a fierce, almost operatic crescendo.

As can be expected, the two parts of the album (which runs barely over 40 minutes) differ quite noticeably. The three demo tracks also show a clear Gong influence – immediately suggested by the wacky, atonal female vocals and blaring saxes in “Bùmlo”– and a raw, almost unscripted quality. Captain Flapattak’s drum take the lead role in “Mlùez”, which combines a laid-back, jazzy allure with a smattering of RIO/Avant angularity; while the title-track veers into free-jazz territory, with low-key, psychedelic moments balancing out the dissonance. As a whole, the second half lacks the orchestral quality of the EP tracks, though the Magma influence is not as overwhelming.

Obviously, Ïh is not the kind of album that is going to convert those who find Zeuhl unpalatable, while lovers of this most idiosyncratic of prog subgenres will find a lot to appreciate in the album – including the stylish photography featured in the CD booklet. As pointed out in the previous paragraphs, the frequent lack of melody (at least in a conventional sense) may put off some listeners, and the compositional aspect might be improved upon, especially as regards cohesiveness. While Rhùn’s interpretation of Zeuhl is definitely more old-school than that of a band like Corima, and more dependent on the Magma influence, the band has still a lot of margin to develop a more personal approach.

Links:
https://myspace.com/rhundesfoins

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rh%C3%B9n/348653246789

http://www.altrock.it

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