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Archive for the ‘Symphonic’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Prologue (7:00)
2. Part I (12:25)
3. Part II (9:09)
4. Part III (16:52)
5. Part IV (13:30)

LINEUP:
Fabio Zuffanti – bass guitar, Moog Taurus bass pedals, cymbals, tambourine
Luca Scherani – Mellotron, Minimoog, Korg Sigma, Hammond organ, grand piano, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano, accordion, mandolin
Maurizio Di Tollo- drums
Matteo Nahum – electric, acoustic and classical guitars
Silvia Trabucco – violin
Joanne Roan – flute
Edmondo Romano – bagpipe, soprano sax, tin whistle, bodhran

With:
Alessandro Corvaglia –  lead vocals (Parts I and IV)
Carlo Carnevali – recitation, vocals (Part I)
Davide Merletto – lead vocals (Part II)
Marco Dogliotti –  lead vocals (Part III)
Simona Angioloni – lead vocals (Part IV)

In spite of its name (an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 film, Autumn Sonata in the English translation, which marked Ingrid Bergman’s final appearance on the big screen), Höstsonaten -one of the many projects in which bassist/composer Fabio Zuffanti (known to US prog fans for his work with Finisterre and La Maschera di Cera) is involved – hails from the Italian port city of Genoa. Its self-titled recording debut came in 1996, followed in 1998 by Mirrorgames, and then by the four albums comprising the Seasoncycles (Springsong, Winterthrough, Autumsymphony and Summereve), released between 2002 and 2011. Though Höstsonaten is a solo project rather than a conventional band, every one of its albums has been conceived as a group effort with the contribution of a number of talented Italian musicians, some of them members of Zuffanti’s other projects (such as Finisterre, La Maschera di Cera and Aries).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s iconic 9-part poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (published in 1798 as part of the ground-breaking first edition of  Lyrical Ballads), is one of those literary works that seem to have been created expressly to be put to music, especially in a progressive rock setting. A riveting tale of guilt, atonement and redemption set largely at sea, it epitomizes Romanticism with its heady blend of Christianity, pantheism and Gothic horror (masterfully captured by 19th-century illustrator Gustave Doré, one of whose etchings is reproduced at the end of the CD booklet). Most rock fans will be familiar with Iron Maiden’s stunning, 13-minute rendition that was included on their fifth album, 1984’s Powerslave. Indeed, Iron Maiden’s epic (by many considered a full-fledged example of progressive rock) was the original inspiration for Zuffanti’s own interpretation of Coleridge’s poem – which first appeared in Höstsonaten’s first two albums (as Part I and Part II). However, Zuffanti was not satisfied with the results, and decided to expand his vision and present the poem in its entirety (while the Iron Maiden song condensed Coleridge’s story, quoting the poet’s words only briefly), even if split between two albums, with Chapter Two’s release planned for 2013.

The ambitious scope of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (as well as its respected literary source) will remind dedicated prog fans of the the numerous Colossus Project CD sets released by Musea Records in the past decade or so. Zuffanti himself has frequently collaborated with those endeavours, and graphic artist/drummer Davide Guidoni (one of Colossus Project’s mainstays) has contributed his accomplished artwork to the disc. Coleridge’s original text is interpreted by four different singers plus a reciting voice. As good as the vocal performances are, however, the music is the real strength of the album, effectively conveying the dramatic development of the story – from the joyful departure of the ship to the culmination of the tragedy caused by the Mariner’s wanton killing of the albatross, the “bird of good omen” that steers the ship through a deadly ice field.

The instrumental “Prologue” sets the scene with ominously tolling bells and the haunting sound of the waves, then builds up to a rich tapestry of keyboards (manned by Luca Scherani of La Coscienza di Zeno) laced with violin and Matteo Nahum’s stately, melodic guitar. Though the Genesis influence hovers on the whole album, Zuffanti also introduces heavier elements to bolster the work’s quintessentially dramatic nature. Part I (with vocals by La Maschera di Cera’s Alessandro Corvaglia, assisted by long-time Zuffanti collaborator Carlo Carnevali) is the most consistently symphonic episode, juxtaposing lush keyboard textures, choral mellotron and melodic guitar with the lyrical touch of the violin and the pastoral sound of the flute, and then gradually increasing the intensity quotient, leading to the mournful, melancholy mood  that accompanies the killing of the albatross.  After a deceptively subdued opening, Part II quickly builds up to a powerful climax, with roaring Hammond organ and synth slashes complementing Davide Merletto’s vocals, while some sax inserts add interest, and the eerie, rarefied sound effects at the end aptly convey the plight of the ship becalmed in the middle of an empty ocean.

Part III (at 16 minutes the longest track on the album) marks a definite change of pace, often veering into prog-metal territory and bringing to mind the melodic yet powerful style of bands such as Symphony X. Marco Dogliotto’s clear, assertive tenor (reminiscent of a less histrionic James LaBrie) navigates the shifts in the narrative with confidence and flair, while Silvia Trabucco’s violin alternately soothes and roars, sparring with guitar and organ in almost aggressive fashion. The slow, inexorable approach of the ghost ship is rendered in a chillingly understated way; then the music gains momentum once again to describe the death of the ship’s crew. Piercing bagpipes at the opening of Part IV convey the plight of the Mariner, alone on a ship with the corpses of his mates, whose staring eyes curse him. Corvaglia’s vocals blend with Simona Angioloni’s pure soprano, and the folksy suggestions are reinforced by the use of typical Celtic instruments such as the tin whistle and the bodhran, as well as the accordion, which perfectly complement the wistful, romantic note of the violin. Then, grandiose mellotron and powerful riffs, propelled by Maurizio Di Tollo’s imperious drumming, lead to the climactic moment of the Mariner’s redemption.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Chapter One keeps to a restrained running time of about 58 minutes, and I have to applaud Zuffanti’s choice of splitting such an ambitious endeavor in two parts, rather than  releasing a double CD that would have probably been indicted as overly pretentious. Displaying all the symphonic splendour of the golden age of prog, with a tantalizing sprinkling of folk and jazz influences and occasional forays into metal territory, the album manages nevertheless to sound modern (though obviously not “innovative”), avoiding the unabashedly retro stance of some highly praised releases of the past couple of years. Moreover, the lasting appeal of its literary source removes that whiff of cheesiness that often accompanies such ambitious productions. Highly recommended to fans of classic symphonic prog, with particular regard to the Italian school, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Chapter One is a very accomplished effort, and a loving homage to one of the milestones of English-language literature.

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

http://www.zuffantiprojects.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
Studio:
1. Crescendo (8:51)
2. Sequenza Circolare (2:41)
3. La Giostra (7:27)
4. Non Chiudere a Chiave le Stelle (3:41)

Live (Asti, Teatro Alfieri, 1977):
5. Non Chiudere a Chiave le Stelle [coda] (1:02)
6. Crescendo (4:31)
7. Vendesi Saggezza (7:48)

LINEUP:
Studio album:
Leonardo Sasso – vocals
Luciano Boero – bass guitar, acoustic guitar
Oscar Mazzoglio – Hammond B3 organ, Mellotron M 400, Yamaha Motif XS6, Roland V-Combo VR-760, Korg X50
Giorgio Gardino – drums, percussion
Max Brignolo – electric guitar
Maurizio Muha – piano, minimoog, Mellotron M 400

Live album:
Leonardo Sasso – vocals
Luciano Boero – bass guitar
Ezio Vevey – guitar
Oscar Mazzoglio – Hammond organ, keyboards, minimoog
Giorgio Gardino – drums, vibraphone |
Michele Conta – piano, keyboards
Alberto Gaviglio – flute, guitar

Locanda Delle Fate’s fairytale-like name stems from a rather unromantic place – a brothel in their home town of Asti, in north-western Italy (well-known to wine lovers for its fabulous sparkling dessert wine). Originally a seven-piece, the band got together in the early Seventies to play covers of the legendary English prog acts, then moved on to writing their own material. Their first demo attracted the attention of the high-profile record label Phonogram, and their debut album, Forse le Lucciole Non Si Amano Più was released in the summer of 1977. Unfortunately the days of prog’s widespread commercial success were numbered, with the punk and disco movements already in full swing. Disappointed by the lack of response to the album, Locanda Delle Fate disbanded shortly afterwards; their partial reunion in 1999  for the pop-oriented Homo Homini Lupus was also short-lived.

In spite of being plagued by bad timing, in later years Locanda Delle Fate and their 1977 album have become a cult object of sorts for fans of classic Seventies prog, especially those more oriented towards a lush, romantic sound steeped in the Italian tradition as well as in the symphonic stylings of early Genesis. Indeed, they have often been tagged as the Italian answer to Genesis, and those who prefer the edgier side of the Italian prog scene tend to dismiss them as overly sweet and melodic. However, it cannot be denied that Locanda Delle Fate are more than just a bunch of Genesis wannabes: besides their obvious talent as musicians and composers, they can also boast of the magnificent vocals of Leonardo Sasso (who did not participate in the 1999 reunion).

Locanda delle Fate got together once again in 2010, taking full advantage of the much-touted prog revival, and the success that eluded them the first time around seems to have finally headed their way. The release of The Missing Fireflies at the beginning of 2012 presents their loyal fans with some previously unreleased material, including some original 1977 live recordings. Thanks to Marcello Marinone of AltrOck Productions and his father Davide (who had been the sound engineer on Forse Le Lucciole…), the “missing fireflies” have finally seen the light of day;  the original live tapes have been painstakingly cleaned up, and the proofs for the cover artwork of the 1977 album have kindly been put at the band’s disposal by artist Biagio Cairone. The stylishly packaged album is enhanced by Paolo Ske Botta’s graphics and classy photography; while AltrOck stalwart Udi Koomran has lent his expertise to the mastering of the finished product.

For obvious reasons, The Missing Fireflies… will be seen more as a collectors’ item than a genuine new release. The four studio tracks, however, reveal the strength of Locanda Delle Fate’s current line-up, which includes most of its founding members. Only one of those tracks, “Non Chiudere a Chiave le Stelle”, appeared on the band’s debut album, though  the keyboard-heavy “Crescendo” (also present in a shorter live version) and “La Giostra” also date back from their early days. The only completely new track is the 2-minute piano bravura piece “Sequenza Circolare”, composed and interpreted by keyboardist Maurizio Muha, which introduces the stunning “La Giostra” – a gorgeously melodic composition with tightly-woven instrumental parts complementing Sasso’s warm, smooth vocals, melding Genesis influences (particularly evident in Max Brignolo’s airy, stately guitar work) with Italian flair.

The live tracks amount to less than half of the album – which, at around 35 minutes, is already quite short for today’s standards. In spite of the less than stellar sound quality, they allow the band’s collective talent to shine. In  the exhilarating version of “Vendesi Saggezza”, Sasso’s passionate vocal performance brings to mind Francesco Di Giacomo (to whom he has often been compared), while powerful, Banco-like keyboard parts blend with a pastoral feel in true Genesis style.

All in all, The Missing Fireflies will be a worthwhile investment for dedicated followers of the band and fans of the original RPI scene, while newcomers might want to try Forse Le Lucciole Non Si Amano Più before taking the plunge. In any case, the release of the album, together with the success of Locanda Delle Fate’s recent live outings (at the time of writing, they have just returned from Japan, where they appeared at a festival in Tokyo together with other historic Italian prog bands), bodes well for the future of the new incarnation of the band. US prog fans will have the unique opportunity to see them at Farfest, which is scheduled to take place on October 4-7, 2012, at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware.

Links:
http://www.locandadellefate.com/

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=125&id2=176

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TRACKLISTING:
1. A Child & A Well (4:46)
2. The Fall (5:27)
3. Man & Angel (5:30)
4. Little Town (5:31)
5. Run Free You Idiot (4:13)
6. Empty Promises (4:41)
7. The Postman (6:21)
8. A Fantasy (8:42)

LINEUP:
Julia Feldman – vocals
Udi Horev – guitar
Dvir Katz – flute
Yuri Tulchinsky – keyboards
Avi Cohen-Hillel – bass guitar
Michael Gorodinsky – drums

With:
Udi Koomran – electronics (8)

In spite of their name (Latin for “fake music”, referring to the use of notes lying outside the “true music” system as established by Guido D’Arezzo), there is nothing fake or contrived about Musica Ficta, an Israeli six-piece formed in 2003 by guitarist and composer Udi Horev. Their debut album, A Child & A Well (English translation of the Hebrew Yeled Vebeer) was originally recorded in 2005, but only released on the international market in 2012, on the Fading Records subdivision of  AltrOck Productions – thanks to renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran’s close relationship with the cutting-edge Italian label. Koomran, who mastered the album, also guests on one track; while Paolo “Ske” Botta is responsible for the stylish graphics.

Musica Ficta are a supergroup of sorts, featuring the considerable talents of Russian-born jazz singer Julia Feldman and flutist/composer Dvir Katz, known on the jazz scene as the leader of Chameleon Trio. The other band members (original keyboardist Yuri Tulchinsky was replaced by Omer Rizi just after the recording of the album) are also obviously very talented, and well-versed in a wide range of musical modes besides rock. This should not come as news to anyone familiar with the small but thriving Israeli progressive music scene, which last year produced one of the classiest “retro-prog” albums of 2011, Sanhedrin’s Ever After, and can boast of a strikingly original prog metal band such as Orphaned Land.

True to the multiethnic nature of their home country, Musica Ficta infuse their sound with influences that go beyond classic prog. The use of Hebrew for the lyrics (though all of the song titles are in English) adds an exotic touch to the music, whose heady blend of lyricism ad heaviness contains suggestions of medieval and Renaissance music, and tantalizing hints of Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music (particularly evident in the title-track). With those characteristics, further enhanced by the presence of a strong female vocalist, Musica Ficta may draw comparisons to Ciccada, a band whose debut album (bearing the uncannily similar title of A Child in the Mirror) was the first Fading Records release.

In keeping with a praiseworthy trend for shorter, more compact albums, A Child & A Well clocks in at a healthy 45 minutes, with relatively short tracks (the longest, the instrumental “A Fantasy”, is under 9 minutes) that nevertheless offer all the complexity and lush instrumentation that a self-respecting prog fan might desire. Most of the compositions feature Julia Feldman’s confident, highly trained voice, as capable of hitting the high notes as of reaching for deeper, more subdued tones. For some odd reason, however, her voice failed to resonate with me – especially in the album’s attempt at a power ballad of sorts, the slightly sappy “Little Town”, which is rescued by its Genesis-meets-PFM finale. Personal gripes aside, Feldman’s performance will not fail to impress fans of commanding female vocalists such as Annie Haslam or Christina Booth. The title-track (which can be also enjoyed as a video, with the band dressed in 18th-century costume) is probably Feldman’s finest hour on this album, the lilting, dance-like pace of the singing offset by the harder-edged instrumental sections, driven by organ and guitar.

The central role of the flute in A Child & A Well has elicited inevitable comparisons with Jethro Tull, compounded by the often aggressive stance of the electric guitar – and, indeed, Udi Horev’s approach owes a lot to Martin Barre’s hard-driving style. “Man & Angel” rests on the balance between gentler, vocal-based passages and heavier instrumental ones that characterizes much of the output of Ian Anderson’s band; the same dynamics of folk-ballad-meets-hard-rock can be found in the intense “The Postman”. Indeed, However, there are also nods to lesser-known outfits like Delirium (in my view, one of the best early Italian prog bands), whose influence emerges in the jazzy, bass-driven instrumental “Run Free You Idiot”  – an intriguing concoction of Avant suggestions, razor-sharp guitar riffs and lilting harpsichord that is definitely one of the highlights of the whole album. My personal pick, however, would be the 8-minute-plus “A Fantasy” – a stately, supremely atmospheric guitar showcase, acoustic at first, then electric, complemented by the eerily surging drone of Koomran’s haunting electronic soundscapes.

A Child & A Well is a superbly performed album that,while not perfect (I personally found the second half more satisfactory than the first), has the potential to appeal to most progressive rock fans, even those more inclined towards cutting-edge stuff rather than anything with a “retro” flavour. Unfortunately, Musica Ficta seem to have dropped off the radar in the past few years, with its members engaged in other projects. It is to be hoped that they will surface again in the near future, because their debut surely shows a lot of promise.

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

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=125&id2=178

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1. Sundering Jewel (5:38)
2. Hijacked (3:35)
3. Belong to the Stars (8:01)
4. MesmerEyes (5:39)
5. London Rain (8:22)
6. A Milligram of Joy (7:56)
7. Electric Stillness (5:43)

LINEUP:
Matteo Ballarin – vocals, electric, nylon string, acoustic and lap steel guitars, arrangements
Andrea De Nardi – vocals, piano, organ, keyboards, programming, arrangements

With:
Edoardo Papes – drums, percussion
Giovanni Scarabel – bass guitar

Former Life was born from the friendship between guitarist Matteo Ballarin and keyboardist Andrea De Nardi, two young and gifted musicians based in north-eastern Italy. Lifelong fans of progressive rock, they started working together at the very beginning of the new century, and by 2008 had gathered enough original material for a full-length album. Electric Stillness, released under the name Former Life and recorded with the help of bassist Giovanni Scarabel and drummer Edoardo Papes, came out three years later. Ballarin and De Nardi are also members of the Pink Floyd tribute band Pink Size; in 2011 they joined former Le Orme frontman Aldo Tagliapietra’s band, and appear on his solo album Nella Pietra e Nel Vento (also released in 2011). In October of the same year Former Life started performing as a live outfit, joined by bassist Carlo Scalet and drummer Manuel Smaniotto (who is also a member of Tagliapietra’s band).

Electric Stillness is the result of years of work on the part of two artists who, in spite of their young age, have already had extensive experience on the music scene. The care and dedication behind the album are evident right from its visual presentation, with an elegant, vaguely Impressionist cover that reflects the understated, autumnal quality of the music, and a detailed booklet including lyrics. Not surprisingly, seen the enduring popularity of the format with contemporary acts,  it is also a concept album of sorts, focusing on the close (and inevitable) relationship between the past (the “former life”) and the present. The band’s name also hints at De Nardi and Ballarin’s emotional and artistic connection with the golden age of prog of the early Seventies – which will be clearly revealed by even a cursory listen to Electric Stillness.

However, it would be unfair to Former Life to tag them as yet another nostalgia act. Unlike the many bands and artists who make a point of trying to sound almost exactly like the Seventies legends (down to refusing to use any digital equipment),  Electric Stillness manages to pay homage to those heady years while sounding modern and fresh. Though no one will mistake the album for a cutting-edge effort, the music possesses a natural, easy flow, while displaying enough complexity to please fans of “traditional” prog. At times, when listening to the album, I was distinctly reminded of Genesis circa Wind and Wuthering; on the other hand, the emphasis on atmospheric soundscapes rather than masses of sweeping keyboards brings to mind Pink Floyd in their Seventies heyday. Wish You Were Here is a particularly strong term of comparison, with the legendary intro to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” referenced at the beginning of “A Milligram of Joy”. Indeed, though their keen sense of melody anchors them to their home country’s rich musical tradition (occasionally suggesting vintage PFM),  Former Life sound more international than typically Italian. The impression is compounded by their use of English-language lyrics, which lends a cosmopolitan flair to the whole project.

The first half of opening track “Sundering Jewel” is a classical-influenced piano solo that aptly reflects the autumnal mood of the cover artwork; the Hackettian flavour of the faraway-sounding guitar complements the polite, well-modulated vocals, reminiscent of David Gilmour’s understated delivery rather than Peter Gabriel’s assertive rasp. The album’s sole instrumental, “Hijacked”, follows with a decidedly jazzy bent, its brisk, flowing pace enhanced by the neat bass line, rumbling organ and sax inserts. The 8-minute “Belongs to the Stars” starts out slowly, with an airy melody that soon blends with the tense, dramatic note introduced by organ, piano and guitar; while the slightly longer “London Rain” is rife with references to late-Seventies Genesis, with subtle yet intriguing shifts between pauses of quiet and sprightly, almost dance-like passages. “MesmerEyes”  is the closest the album gets to a conventional song, enhanced by some fine guitar-organ interplay in the bridge. The title-track hovers between subdued, atmospheric sections and majestically symphonic ones; while the above-mentioned “A Milligram of Joy” offers some nicely upbeat moments, with sax and bass assisting guitar and keyboards in the creation of a tightly woven instrumental texture.

At under 44 minutes, Electric Stillness contains little or no filler, and Former Life deserve kudos for having produced a well-balanced album that is focused on quality rather than quantity. Even if it may not be the most innovative effort on the market, it is still a classy album – easily as good as many releases by higher-profile outfits –  that will delight fans of melodic prog and bands such as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Camel. Andrea De Nardo and Matteo Ballarin have talent in spades, and Electric Stillness augurs well for the future of their musical career.

Links:
http://www.theformerlife.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Diabolique (2:27)
2. Nobody Dies Forever Part 1 (2:37)
3. Aquamarine (5:07)
4. Ready to Lose (6:02)
5. The Conjurer (4:13)
6. No Specific Harm (10:58)
7. Solace (2:43)
8. Nobody Dies Forever Part 2 (1:51)
9. Great & Terrible Potions (9:06)

Bonus tracks:
10. Ready to Lose (Single Edit) (3:39)
11. Nobody Dies Forever (Single Edit) (2:59)
12. No Specific Harm (Single Edit) (3:29)

LINEUP:
Ben Craven – vocals, all instruments

Prior to the release of this CD, Ben Craven may not have been a household name for progressive rock fans; however, an album whose cover bears the unmistakable style of legendary artist Roger Dean is bound not to fly under the radar for too long. A self-taught “cinematic progressive rock singer-songwriter” from Brisbane (Australia), in 2005 he released his debut album, Two False Idols, under the handle of Tunisia. Great & Terrible Potions, Craven’s first full-length CD under his own name (preceded in 2007 by a digital-only EP, Under Deconstruction), was released in the late summer of 2011 after Dean had put the finishing touches to the artwork.

Modern technology offers artists the opportunity to release and record their own music without having to rely on outside assistance – be it the backing of a record label or  simply the presence of other musicians – and, as a result, the market has been flooded with “solo-pilot” projects that, more often than not, have little to recommend them. However, this is not the case with Great & Terrible Potions, as the album – though obviously targeted to the “mainstream” prog crowd – is not only very accomplished in a technical sense, but even manages to display some measure of originality. While the overall sound does reference classic symphonic/neo acts such as Genesis and Marillion (with occasional nods to Pink Floyd), Craven’s warm, engaging vocals hint at a singer-songwriter matrix rather than conventional prog. Catchy, almost hummable tunes abound, but at the same time the music often possesses a broad, cinematic sweep that is not overdone to the point of cheesiness.

Running at around 55 minutes, Great & Terrible Potions offers a nice balance of shorter and longer tracks, both instrumental and featuring vocals. While Craven has chosen to dispense with the ever-popular multi-part epics, the presence of two songs hovering around the 10-minute mark will keep the more traditionally-minded set happy. On the other hand, the three bonus tracks appended to the album, though emphasizing the accessibility of the material, do not really add anything of particular interest to the equation.

The cinematic bent of Craven’s compositional approach immediately shows up in the short but punchy instrumental opener “Diabolique”, complete with ominous sound effects, leading to an intense Hammond organ coda in pure Jon Lord style. The first part of “Nobody Dies Forever” is introduced by atmospheric noises in true spy-movie fashion, then develops into a slow, measured number in which Craven’s slightly breathy, yet well-modulated voice is complemented by guitar and keyboards. “Aquamarine”, the longest of the instrumentals at 5 minutes, gradually builds a sense of tension through keyboard washes and faint choral effects, then softens into a clear, melodic guitar solo in the classic Hackett/Gilmour mould. The remaining two instrumentals, “The Conjurer” (dedicated to the late Richard Wright) and “Solace” are quite similar in mood and structure, the harmonious interplay of piano and guitar highlighting the emotional content.

While the catchy mid-tempo “Ready to Lose” shows some serious airplay potential, blending neo-prog stylings with almost Beatlesian suggestions, “No Specific Harm” and the title-track, the two longest numbers on the CD, head for more ambitious territory, though avoiding the excesses that often plague prog epics. The Middle-Eastern flavour of the former parallels the Biblical references of the lyrics, with a dramatic, eerie keyboard-driven middle section bookended by gently haunting vocal-led passages offset by piano and acoustic guitar. Similarly, the title-track develops from a subdued, piano-and-voice opening into a  lilting, waltz-like pace enhanced by strings and majestic keyboard sweeps, then climaxes in a soaring slide guitar solo.

While not breaking any new ground, and probably a bit too “traditional” to attract the interest of those looking for more cutting-edge fare, Great & Terrible Potions is definitely above the average of the many rather derivative releases that flood the market on an almost daily basis. Offering a well-balanced mix of instrumental complexity and catchy melodies interpreted by a strong, confident voice, it references past glories while not aiming for an unabashedly retro sound. Coupled with the striking visuals of Roger Dean’s cover and overall stylish packaging (including a foldout booklet that doubles as a mini-poster), the music will not fail to satisfy fans of classic symphonic prog, as well as those who appreciate good-quality movie soundtracks.

Links:
http://bencraven.com/

http://www.rogerdean.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Achilles (14:51):
a. Troy
b. Achilles To Patroclus
c. Achilles To Hector
d. Achilles To Priam
e. Achilles To Thetis
f. Crossing The River Styx
2. The Quind (9:23)
3. The Eyes Of Age (4:30)
4. Alice’s Eerie Dream (11:50):
a. Searching For Alice
b. A Mad Tea Party From 7 To 11
c. Across The Looking-Glass
5. The Last Oddity (10:17)
6. The Carpet Crawlers (6:06)
7. Alice’s Eerie Dream [Radio Edit] (3:59)

LINEUP:
Franck Carducci –  basses, electric and acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals, keyboards, mandolin, percussion

With:
Richard Vecchi – keyboards, guitar
Phildas Bhakta  – drums (1)
John Hackett  – flute (1)
Florence Marien – voices (1)
Niko Leroy – Hammond organ, synths (1)
Christophe Obadia – guitar, didgeridoo, vocals (2)
Toff “Crazy Monk” – drums (2, 5)
Vivika Sapori-Sudemäe – violin (3, 6)
Yanne Matis – vocals (3, 6)
Fred Boisson – drums (3, 6)
Gilles Carducci – mandolin (3)
Larry Crockett – drums (4)
Michael Strobel – guitar (4)
Nicolas Gauthier – vocals (2,4), handclaps (4)
Marianne Delphin – vocals (2, 4), handclaps (4)
Chris Morphin – handclaps (4)
Julia – reading from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (4)

Netherlands-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Franck Carducci grew up in a musical family, and learned his first instrument (the Hammond organ) at the age of 5. He then joined his first rock band at 14, and between the ages of 20 and 30 was involved with many different bands and recording projects. The real turning point in his career, however, came in 2010, when he opened for Steve Hackett, one of his heroes, and the legendary guitarist encouraged him to release his own solo material. The result was Oddity, released in the late spring of 2011.

Though the slightly kitschy cover artwork (by Italian graphic artist Manuela Mambretti) might put off some prospective listeners, it is always wise not to judge a book by its cover, because the music showcased in Oddity is surprisingly accomplished. Performed by Carducci with the help of a number of guest artists (who include Steve’s brother, John Hackett, and renowned session drummers Phildas Bhakta and  Larry Crockett), this is not your typical “solo-pilot” project featuring the inevitable programmed drums, but definitely a group effort with a warm,  organic feel. While you will not find anything ground-breaking here, there is plenty to satisfy the cravings of fans of classic progressive rock, served with lashings of melody and brilliant instrumental interplay. Carducci’s voice, though pleasant, may not be the most memorable on the scene, but this is compensated by the presence of backing vocalists such as French folk singer Yanne Matis, with whom Carducci toured and recorded two albums.

In 61 minutes’ running time, Oddity features a neat mix of epic-length tracks and shorter numbers, including a cover of Genesis’ iconic “The Carpet Crawlers” (which, though enhanced by the wistful tone of the violin, suffers in the vocal department from comparisons with Peter Gabriel’s stunning performance). Although the Genesis influence is quite pervasive, by and large the album manages to avoid the blatant derivativeness that mars other similarly “retro-oriented” efforts. The almost 15-minute, 6-part epic “Achilles”, placed at the onset of the album, is a definite attention-catcher for the symphonic prog set, offering a suitable mix of dramatic grandiosity – with soaring guitar, layers upon layers of Mellotron, organ and synth, and solemn drum rolls – and more sedate passages, with rippling piano and pastoral flute (courtesy of John Hackett). On the other hand, “The Quind” (an invented word  meaning “quiet mind”) hinges on rarefied, ambient-like textures enhanced by the use of eerie sound effects and ethnic instruments like the didgeridoo that may bring to mind early Pink Floyd; while the heavily keyboard-based  “The Last Oddity” (inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey) blends spacey suggestions with classic symphonic ones, while the bluesy Hammond coda adds some bite.

A couple of tracks break (at least in part) the traditional prog mould. “The Eyes of Age”, with its lilting, mandolin- and violin-laced pace, sounds a lot like something out of the repertoire of an Irish folk outfit with hints of American country. Apart from the dramatic, Genesis-like middle section, which includes some excerpts of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”, the other multi-part epic, “Alice’s Eerie Dream” (also present as a much shorter radio edit), is a classic hard rock workout whose rather catchy chorus hints at Jimi Hendrix’s legendary “Voodoo Chile”, powered by Carducci’s Hammond organ and Michael Strobel’s fiery lead guitar in a way that made me think of the Allman Brothers Band – though a gutsy, bluesy voice would have served the song better than Carducci’s rather high-pitched vocals.

Even if the artwork may not be to everyone’s taste, Oddity comes very nicely packaged for an independent production, with exhaustive liner notes and lyrics. With plenty of melody, soothingly atmospheric moments and some noteworthy Hammond organ work, they album may firmly entrenched in the “retro” camp, but, very refreshingly, does not pretend to be otherwise. While Oddity is unlikely to find favour with those who are searching for more challenging (or authentically progressive) fare, fans of mainstream prog will find a lot to appreciate.

Links:
http://www.franckcarducci.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Hawks Circle The Mountain (7:09)
2. Snowswept (4:12)
3. Kansas Regrets (4:39)
4. Red Leaves (8.39)
5. Floor 67 (9:53)
6. Natasha of the Burning Woods (6:28)
7. Searise (13:10)
8. A Rumour of Twilight (2:33)
9. The Howling Wind (5:28) (bonus track)

LINEUP:
Jacob Holm-Lupo – guitars
Lars Fredrik Frøislie – keyboards
Sylvia Skjellestad – vocals
Mattias Olsson – drums
Ketil Vestrum Einarsen – flutes, woodwinds
Ellen Andrea Wang – bass

With:
Tim Bowness – vocals (3)
David Lundberg – Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer (3), orchestration (2)
Michael S Judge – guitar solo (1)

In the early Nineties, Norwegian outfit White Willow was among the contingent of Scandinavian bands that spearheaded a revival of progressive rock that in the next two decades would spread to the rest of the world. After almost 20 years of activity, appearances at high-profile festivals such as NEARfest, Crescendo and Summer’s End,  and the release of 6 studio album, they have established themselves as one of the most important modern prog acts. Led by multi-instrumentalist and composer Jacob Holm-Lupo (owner of Termo Records together with keyboardist Lars Fredrik Frøislie), the band have gone through numerous line-up changes, and the release of their fifth album, Signal To Noise (2006) was followed by a six-year hiatus. Now down to a quintet, with only Holm-Lupo remaining of the band that had debuted in 1995 with the acclaimed Ignis Fatuus, White Willow have made their long-awaited comeback with the return of original vocalist Sylvia Erichsen (now Skjellestad), as well as two new entries  – bassist Ellen Andrea Wang (of Norwegian avant-garde outfit SynKoke) and drummer Mattias Olsson (known for his work with Änglagård and Pär Lindh Project).

Before Terminal Twilight, White Willow were one of the (unfortunately) many bands with whose name and reputation I was acquainted – without, however, having ever heard any of their music. Being familiar with the “big two” names of the Scandinavian prog renaissance, and having read reviews of the band’s previous albums, I was expecting something along the lines of Änglagård or Anekdoten’s output, a  riveting mixture of melody and angularity tinged with sadness, though never gratuitously depressing. My first taste of Terminal Twilight was, however, quite different, as some of the songs (especially those in the first half of the album) featured catchy, almost upbeat elements typical of successful “crossovers” between conventional progressive rock modes and more mainstream genres. Sylvia Skjellestad occasionally sounded like a gentler, less quirky version of Björk, and a few times I was reminded of Celtic/New Age artists such as Clannad or Loreena McKennitt.

It took me a number of listens before the many layers of the album began to unfold, revealing the sheer eclecticism of the band. While the album is not tainted with the blatant derivativeness that seems to be common currency nowadays, I was able to detect quite a few diverse influences while listening to Terminal Twilight. At first,  the mainstream component (mainly conveyed by the vocals) seemed to prevail, but with successive listens the complexity of the compositions began to emerge. The classic symphonic component, represented by Frøislie’s impressive array of vintage keyboards, is at times cleverly concealed, and will often surface when least expected. With a line-up that reads like a “who’s who” of Scandinavian prog (besides Olsson’s past associations, Frøislie is also involved with Wobbler and In Lingua Mortua, and flutist Ketil Westrum Einarsen was a member of Jaga Jazzist), the stunning musicianship displayed on the album will certainly not come as a surprise, though listeners never feels they are being bludgeoned over the head with technical fireworks. In true Scandinavian tradition, the members of White Willow are ensemble players, and individual skill is put at the service of the end result.

Clocking in at about one hour, Terminal Twilight features eight “official” tracks, plus a bonus track, the strongly percussive “The Howling Wind”, which with its experimental feel might point to intriguing future developments in the band’s sound. Opener “Hawks Circling the Mountain” immediately evidences the contrast between the mellow, almost genial vocals and the intricacy of the instrumental sections. Frøislie’s keyboards paint a rich range of soundscapes, with chilly electronics competing with the warmth of the piano and mellotron to which the flute adds its distinctive voice, while the guitar remains on the sidelines for most of the song, emerging towards the end in a jangly, slightly discordant solo (courtesy of Mike Judge, aka The Nerve Institute). In the next two tracks, with their restrained running time and strong crossover appeal, White Willow veer into contemporary prog/art rock territorie,. The combination of martial, tribal-sounding drums and chiming guitar in “Snowswept” reminded me of U2, while the atmospheric “Kansas Regrets” sees a sensitive vocal performance from guest Tim Bowness of No-Man; not surprisingly, the song contains echoes of Porcupine Tree, as well as Jakko Jakszyk’s work as a solo artist and on the latest King Crimson project, A Scarcity of Miracles.

With “Red Leaves”, the album enters more traditional prog territory, with an orgy of Mellotron and other keyboards whose majestic sweep brings to mind Rick Wakeman and his essential contribution to the classic Yes albums of the early Seventies. Jacob Holm-Lupo’s guitar steps into the limelight in the second half of the track, lending both a harder edge and an almost Hackettian lyricism. “Floor 67”, the second longest song on the album, merges the poppy, Latin-tinged accessibility of the vocals (reinforced by the mention of siestas and verandas in the lyrics) with faintly new-agey acoustic passages, and heavier, drum-fuelled  moments – in my view, not very successfully, since the track comes across as a bit patchy. On the other hand, the album’s pièce de resistance, the 13-minute “Searise”, will delight fans of vintage Anglagard and Anekdoten. Mattias Olsson’s sensational drum performance is aided and abetted by Froislie’s no-holds-barred keyboards (incuding some particularly fine Hammond organ runs), and tempered by gently pastoral flute inserts that reminded me of early PFM. Mostly instrumental, the song packs quite a few tempo changes, and its solemn symphonic structure is enlivened by glimpses of jazz and folk influences. The album is wrapped up by the short “A Rumour of Twilight”, a melancholy, mainly acoustic number with lovely guitar; the other instrumental, “Natasha of the Burning Woods”, hovers between rarefied and densely orchestrated without clearly choosing either direction, though enhanced by the clear, melodic tone of the steel guitar.

With its beautiful though faintly disturbing cover artwork,  Terminal Twilight enjoys superb sound quality (not surprising to anyone acquainted with both Frøislie and Holm-Lupo’s painstaking search for sonic perfection), and achieves a commendable balance between vocal and instrumental sections. However, it is an also an album that requires time and attention in order to be fully appreciated, and the first approach might be deceiving as well as disappointing. Moreover, the album’s unabashed eclecticism may produce an impression of patchiness that only repeated listens will dispel. In any case, Terminal Twilight is a very solid release that manages to  reconcile the classic symphonic prog tradition with the more contemporary trends of the genre, and is therefore likely to appeal to both conservative and adventurous fans.

Links:
http://www.whitewillow.info/

http://www.myspace.com/whitewillowband

http://www.termorecords.com/

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