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Archive for the ‘Symphonic’ Category

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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Lucid (1:40)
2. La Bealtaine (7:52)
3. In Orbit (12:30)
4. This Past Presence (6:14)
5. A Faerie’s Play (5:19)
6. The River (10:04)
7. Lucid Dreams (2:19)

LINEUP:
Morten Andreas Eriksen – guitars
Lars Fredrik Frøislie-  keyboards, marxophone, vocals
Kristian Karl Hultgren – bass, saxophone, glockenspiel
Martin Nordrum Kneppen – drums, percussion
Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo – vocals

With:
Ketil Vestrum Einarsen – flute
Hanne Rekdal – bassoon

This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult reviews I have written in a long time (if not the most difficult), and one that may turn out to be quite controversial. In order to convey my opinion effectively, I will have to make a clear distinction between the actual quality of the music and any considerations relating to originality of content.

Before someone indicts me of being one of those snobs that turn up their noses at anything that might remind them of bygone times, I do enjoy a lot of so-called “retro prog”, and Wobbler’s Afterglow was one of my favourite albums for 2009. Moreover, I am quite aware that the “retro” phenomenon is not only a prerogative of symphonic prog:  a band choosing to imitate Magma or Univers Zéro is no less “retro” than one imitating Yes or Genesis. Like it or not, originality these days is rather thin on the ground, and throughout the 40+ years of prog’s existence as a musical genre there have been countless instances of bands shamelessly cloning more successful and influential acts (one name for all: Starcastle). In more recent years the number of tribute bands has been steadily growing, attracting relatively large audiences (often larger than those commanded by bands or artists that play their own original material). While fans of the more cutting-edge varieties of progressive rock may throw around the “retro” label with a sort of contempt, others wear it as a badge of honour, further widening the gap within the “prog community”.

First emerged on the prog scene in 2005 with their debut Hinterland, Wobbler – led by multi-instrumentalist and vintage keyboard collector Lars Fredrik Frøislie (also the mind  behind experimental metal act In Lingua Mortua) –  quickly established themselves as the darlings of the retro-oriented crowd, especially those who had been mourning the early demise of Änglagård. Even though a sizable portion of the current prog scene consists of acts that might be tagged as “retro”, Wobbler have taken the concept a step further, down to their refusal to use MIDI technology or any post-1975 instruments. Both Hinterland and its follow-up Afterglow (2009) had been based on material originally composed and recorded in demo form immediately after the band’s formation in 1999; Rites at Dawn, on the other hand, comprises entirely new material, the first original music by the band in almost 10 years.

Rites at Dawn is an album of pristine perfection. With its gorgeous, clean-lined artwork (surprisingly modern for a band that has never hidden its worship of all things Seventies) and thorough liner notes, listing the equipment used in loving detail, the centrefold photo depicting them in a rustic period setting reminiscent of Songs from the Wood-era Jethro Tull, it is an unashamed paean to the golden age of prog, tailor-made to send traditionalists into fits of delight, or else to be dismissed by forward-thinkers as a mere nostalgia trip. The truth, as is often the case in life, lies somewhere in between. I believe that the fellow reviewer who compared Wobbler’s music to neoclassical art hit the nail over the head, since Rites at Dawn possesses the smooth, polished beauty of a Canova statue. As such, it has raised the bar for “retro-prog” to almost unattainable levels.

Indeed, speaking in strictly objective terms, the music on Rites at Dawn is beautiful, intricate and flawlessly performed, in spite of the slightly disturbing feeling of déjà vu that grips the listener as soon as the vocals in “La Bealtaine” kick in. Drenched in gorgeous Mellotron, fuelled by the fat, trebly sound of a vintage Rickenbacker bass, embellished by layers of keyboards and soothing vocal harmonies, the whole album is a clear homage to Yes circa Fragile and Close to the Edge, even as regards the lyrical matter, based upon pagan rituals and nature worship. While both their previous efforts showed the imprint of Gentle Giant and Gryphon, as well as legendary early Nineties acts such as Änglagård and Anekdoten,  Rites at Dawn sound less “Scandinavian” and definitely more upbeat. The band’s new singer, Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo, gets a lot of room to flex his impressive, Jon Anderson-like pipes, as all but the two tracks that bookend the album, “Lucid” and “Lucid Dreams”, feature vocals (unlike the band’s previous albums, which were mostly instrumental). The vocal parts are balanced by the magnificent instrumental interplay, chock full of head-spinning tempo changes, scintillating solo spots and moments of atmospheric, ethereal beauty, enhanced by touches of flute and glockenspiel, with the distinctive drone of the bassoon lending further depth to some of the passages. Clocking in at 45 minutes, the album is longer than Afterglow and shorter than Hinterland, with only two tracks, “In Orbit” and “The River”, running over 10 minutes.

An album of sterling quality from a formal point of view, Rites at Dawn is probably the closest any band has come in recent years to recreating the original sound of the Seventies (though, of course, with modern production values). That said, its often uncomfortably derivative nature leads me to adopt a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards it. While I do like the music a lot, and will be probably be listening to the album for my personal pleasure in the future, I cannot help questioning the point of reproducing the sounds of a bygone age down to the last detail – as well as wondering if such a move is going to benefit the prog scene in the long run. However, it is undeniable that there is an audience for albums like Rites at Dawn among those listeners who thrive upon nostalgia. Highly recommended to fans of vintage symphonic prog, it is probably best avoided by anyone who expects prog to be actually progressive.

Links:
http://www.wobblermusic.com/

http://www.myspace.com/wobblermusic

http://www.termorecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 1969 (14:14)
2. Turn It Up (6:55)
3. The World Is Caving In (9:00)
4. Can’t Take It With You (5:44)
5. There’s Nothing Wrong With the World (7:23)
6. Bite the Grit (4:59)
7. When Fear Came to Town (9:55)

LINEUP:
Jonas Reingold – fretted and fretless bass, backing vocals
Marcus Liliequist – drums
Göran Edman – vocals
Lalle Larsson – keyboards, backing vocals
Nils Erikson – vocals, keyboards
Krister Jonsson – guitars

Even if I tend to be familiar with most of the names circulating around the progressive rock scene, there are quite a few bands or artists whose music will remain an unknown quantity at least until I receive one of their albums for reviewing purposes  Swedish band Karmakanic belong to the group of acts who, in spite of their impressive pedigree and reputation among prog fans, so far had managed to fly under my personal radar. While my ignorance of all things Karmakanic was all set to end at this year’s edition of NEARfest, after the festival’s unfortunate cancellation I welcomed the opportunity to review their latest album, and finally get acquainted with such a highly rated outfit.

Started at the very beginning of the 21st century, Karmakanic is one of the numerous projects in which bassist Jonas Reingold (of Flower Kings fame) is involved. In a Perfect World is their fourth studio release, highly awaited by those fans who lean towards the melodic, traditional end of the prog spectrum. Though I tend to privilege music that is somewhat more challenging, I am open-minded enough to recognize quality, and – while In a Perfect World may not impress the listener overmuch at first – its tightly organized structure and richly varied musical offer gradually unfold with each successive listen.

Karmakanic might be firmly rooted in the great classic progressive tradition, but their musical approach privileges the creation of engaging melodies, striking the right balance between accessibility and complexity, with rather down-to-earth lyrics and songs that, even when long, do not overstay their welcome. From such an album as In a Perfect World you can expect extremely accomplished musicianship, strong vocals,  with a broad spectrum of influences ranging from the golden years of progressive rock to classic rock and even some quality pop (namely The Beatles). Moreover, while some of the songs wear their influences on their sleeve, so to speak, the healthy dose of eclecticism (in some cases responsible for some rather daring combinations), lends the album a freshness often missing from a lot of ‘mainstream’ prog.

For a band created as a side project by one of the most celebrated bassists on the prog scene, Karmakanic’s sound is not as dominated by the ‘bottom end’ as one might expect. In their current configuration as a six-piece, the band present a remarkably balanced picture, with all the instruments contributing to the intricate yet smoothly flowing texture of each individual composition. Lead singer Göran Edman has a confident, often understated voice that is an excellent match for the material, and capable of displays of assertiveness when needed. The two keyboardists, Lalle Larsson and Nils Erikson, provide plenty of those lush textures so prized by fans of vintage prog, accented by the versatility of Krister Jonsson’s guitars, effortlessy shifting from melody to aggressive riffing; while Reingold’s bass, bolstered by Marcus Liliequist’s strong drumming, emerges through the fray without stealing the limelight or overpowering the other instruments.

Out of the album’s 7 tracks (running at a total of 58 minutes), opener “1969” is the closest Karmakanic get to recreating a classic symphonic prog vibe. A 14-minute epic brimming with instrumental brilliance and plenty of tempo and mood changes, occasional touches of atmospheric Pink Floyd inspiration, and a veritable feast of majestic, sweeping keyboards and rippling piano, its Yes influences are particularly evident in Reingold’s full, twangy bass sound and the soaring vocal harmonies. In sharp contrast, “Turn It Up” is a much more linear number, whose Yes references hark back to the much-maligned Rabin era, and whose catchy chorus, powered by keyboard flurries and heavy riffing, would have some serious airplay potential in a more discerning world. “The World Is Caving In” begins instead in a deceptively low-key, almost somber fashion before developing into a pomp-rock behemoth with more than a passing nod to the likes of Styx or Kansas, and Edman channelling Steve Walsh especially in the grandiose, passionate ending.

With “Can’t Take It With You”, undoubtedly the most distinctive track on the album, Karmakanic take a leaf out of their fellow Swedes Diablo Swing Orchestra’s book, juxtaposing an upbeat, Cuban-flavoured rhythm with crushingly heavy riffs and almost atonal vocal lines; while things go back to normal with the dynamic, yet melodic “There’s Nothing Wrong With the World”, influenced by Yes’ more recent output.  “Bite the Grit”, on the other hand,. marries catchy Beatles-inspired melodies with more heavy riffage and whistling synths. The album is then wrapped up by the slow-burning blues of “When Fear Comes to Town”, complete with smoky piano and a smouldering, Gilmour-tinged guitar solo, and featuring a soulful vocal performance by Edman.

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in symphonic prog with an eclectic attitude, In a Perfect World is not as unabashedly ‘retro’ as other recent releases, though it  may still disappoint those who are looking for cutting-edge music. It is nonetheless a finely crafted effort by a truly  excellent band, and thankfully devoid of that overweening ambitiousness that can be the downfall of many an album.

Links:
http://www.jonasreingold.com/

http://www.reingoldmusic.com/

http://www.insideoutmusic.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Stone Salad (13:26)
2. Familiarization Results (7:45)
3. Harry Heller Theater (12:11)
4. Perfect Place (1:37)
5. Parallels (20:01)
6. Influence of Time (10:22)
7. Crashmind (9:57)
8. Desert Circle (15:51)
9. Babylon Dreams (9:38)

LINEUP:
Igor Elizov – keyboards, grand piano
Al Khalmurzaev – keyboards, synths, 12-string guitar, flute
Vitaly Popeloff  – acoustic steel & nylon guitars, voice
Ali Izmailov – drums, percussion
Sur’at Kasimov – fretless bass

While quite a few people might consider the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan little more than a backwater plagued by many of  the same issues as most developing countries, very few would ever associate it with rock, let alone prog. However, the country, situated on the ancient Silk Road, is anything but irrelevant in terms of historical and cultural heritage, and has a surprisingly high literacy rate – higher than many Western countries. Though its contribution to progressive rock (like the majority of Asian countries with the exception of Japan and very few others) is certainly not large in terms of quantity, the few outfits hailing from Uzbekistan have attracted enough attention to put the country on the prog map, and none more effectively than Tashkent-based quintet From.uz.

Formed in 2004 by guitarist Vitaly Popeloff and bassist/producer Andrew Mara-Novik, From.uz proudly declare their origins in their own name, with the dot added on occasion of the release of their third album, Seventh Story, in order to make the meaning “from Uzbekistan” even clearer. The band underwent a line-up change prior to the release of Seventh Story, with only Vitaly Popeloff and Al Khalmurzaev left from the line-up that had recorded their first two albums, and three new musicians joining the ranks. From.uz’s new configuration is the one featured on the aptly-titled Quartus Artifactus, a double CD/DVD set recorded live in June 2009. As the album’s subtitle points out, Quartus Artifactus contains “the best of From.uz in a progressive chamber style”, yhet there is definitely more to it than the usual live album/compilation format.

The live setting seems to be the most natural for a band like From.uz, whose debut, Audio Diplomacy (2007), was a live recording – quite an unusual choice for an album of completely new material. Quartus Artifactus, on the other hand, contains mainly acoustic versions of material taken from the band’s three previous albums. Since practical issues make playing abroad rather difficult for them, the recourse to the DVD format is the band’s chosen way to bring their music out to their growing fanbase. Being signed to US-based label 10T Records has obviously helped them to gain a larger following than if they had kept within their borders, and their music possesses an undeniably exotic appeal. While many other outfits bring ethnic elements to their sound, From.uz are the real thing, bridging the East-West divide with a musical offer that brings together the great Russian classical tradition, centuries of Eastern folk music and the modernity of rock and jazz – as well as other, perhaps less obvious influences.

The members of From.uz are very accomplished musicians, but thankfully they never give the impression of wanting to hit the listener over the head with their technical skill. While their music is undeniably quite complex, and requiring quite a bit of attention, the acoustic dimension lends additional warmth and depth to it, smoothing the occasionally hard edges of its electric counterpart. Furthermore, the accompanying DVD, even in its almost stark simplicity, reveals a genuine sense of enjoyment on the part of the musicians. While the quality of the images may not be as pristine as in other productions, watching the band perform injects new life into the material. Arranged in a semicircle, and seated most of the time, the band members come across as concentrated but never detached from the audience, and the intimate setting of the small theatre reinforces the ‘chamber’ definition mentioned in the album’s subtitle. The extra features allow us a look behind the scenes, showing the crew’s tireless work and the band members’ unassuming yet dedicated attitude.

Running at abour 100 minutes, the 9 tracks featured  on the set offer a well-rounded picture of the band’s output and general approach. As anyone already familiar with From.uz will know, their compositions tend to be rather long, with only the short guitar/vocal interlude “Perfect Place” and “Familiarization Results” clocking in at below 9 minutes. The music’s inherent complexity benefits from the semi-acoustic rendition immensely, retaining its head-spinning intricacy while acquiring more than a hint of endearing softness.  Guitarist Vitaly Popeloff’s is a delight to watch (or even just to hear), his stunningly accomplished acoustic playing, together with Ali Izmailov’s spectacular drumming, the engine behind From.uz’s sound. While he is very much in evidence throughout the set, Popeloff’s showcase spot occurs in the first half of “Desert Circle”, where he runs the gamut of his instrument’s expressive possibilities, ranging from slow, meditative tones to jazzier, Latin-tinged licks. He is also a more than capable vocalist, as proved by his performance on the aforementioned “Perfect Place” and “Parallels”.

Opener “Stone Salad” (from Overlook) introduces the listener to the lush tapestry of From.uz’s music, with its jazz-rock foundation overlaid by many different influences, including the expected Eastern ones. The earlier material from the Audio Diplomacy album (“Familiarization Results”, “Harry Heller Theatre” and “Babylon Dreams”) possesses a more distinct classical flavour, though the latter number takes a sharper, jazzy route. The monumental “Parallels” (taken from Seventh Story, like “Perfect Place”, “Desert Circle” and “Influence of Time”,), at 20 minutes the longest item on the album, blends the symphonic, the atmospheric and the jazzy component of the band’s inspiration in a richly complex, yet deeply emotional creation; while “Crashmind” (also from Overlook) is a dynamic, fusiony number based on variations on a theme that runs through the whole composition. Igor Elizov and Al Khalmurzaev’s keyboards add rich, subtly shaded layers of sound, and Sur’at Kasimov’s fretless bass acts as a discreet but reliable driving force.

The splendid artwork, courtesy of the band’s official artist and US manager, Ken Westphal, offers an added bonus to both newcomers and fans of the band. Westphal’s style, here rendered in gorgeous shades of blue, green and grey, is subtly reminiscent of Roger Dean, though more streamlined – the dreamlike quality of the  inner gatefold image of water and sky tempered by a life-like touch. All in all, Quartus Artifactus provides a stunningly-packaged introduction to one of the best instrumental progressive rock bands on the current scene, and one that will hopefully get an opportunity to perform in the US in the near future.

 

Links:
http://www.fromuzband.com/

http://10trecords.com/

http://www.kenwestphal.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Overture 3.07
2. Il Tredici 11.46
3. Dark Age 6.18
4. The Guillotine 6.00
5. Timepiece 5.30
6. Sobriety 8.19
7. Tema 1.08
8. Steam 9.30

LINEUP:
Gadi Ben Elisha – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin
Sagi Barness – bass guitar
Aviv Barness – keyboards, saxophone
Igal Baram – drums, percussion
Shem-Tov Levi – flute

With:
Michael Lam – English horn
Elinoy Yogev – bassoon

The name Sanhedrin will not fail to ring a bell with those who are familiar with the Gospels – either because of their religious upbringing or inclination, or for reasons of historical interest – as the name indicates the supreme court of ancient Israel by which Jesus Christ was tried. Though there are also three extreme metal outfits bearing the same name, this particular band (unlike the others, and like the original institution)  hails from Israel, a country whose contribution to the progressive rock scene has been steadily growing – especially in terms of quality – over the past few years.

Originally formed by brothers Sagi and Aviv Barness as a Camel tribute band, Sanhedrin soon started writing their own material, influenced by the golden era of progressive rock. After going through the usual turmoil of line-up changes, in 2006 they started recording their debut album. Four years in the making, Ever After was mixed and mastered by renowned Israeli sound engineer and  producer Udi Koomran, and completed in 2010 – to be released in February 2011 as on the Fading Records division of Italian label AltrOck Productions.

The musical connection between Sanhedrin and Camel will soon become evident even to a first-time listener. Andy Latimer’s crew, even if not as hugely influential on the younger generations of prog bands  as the likes of Genesis, Yes or ELP,  have clearly been a source of inspiration for many outfits who choose a more melodic direction while avoiding the excess of bombast that occasionally characterizes symphonic prog. Even if Camel have sometimes been rather unkindly indicted of being purveyors of ‘elevator prog’, or just a second-tier band lacking the clout of the bigger-name acts, it is undeniable that their restrained elegance has won over a lot of fans.

While Ever After may not be the most original album released in the past few months or so, it is definitely not overtly derivative – at least not as much as other albums which I have recently heard, and which are quite highly rated. Fading Records has been created for albums with a more traditional prog bent than the material usually issued by AltrOck Productions, and their first release, Ciccada’s A Child in the Mirror, was a stunning example of ‘retro-prog’ that managed not to sound like a carbon copy of the great Seventies bands. Ever After is much in the same vein, a classy product performed with impressive technical skill, yet exuding a sense of warmth and pastoral beauty that makes listening a genuinely enjoyable experience. While Camel are obviously the most relevant influence, on numerous occasions Pink Floyd (especially their early Seventies output) spring to mind, and echoes of early Genesis can also be detected. However, Sanhedrin also bring their own signature to the table: the ethnic references subtly scattered throughout the album (not just Middle Eastern, but also Celtic and central European) remind the listener of Israel’s multicultural milieu. Like Camel, the basic combination of guitar-bass-drums-keyboards is enhanced by the exquisitely soothing sound of the flute, with additional woodwinds also employed to add depth and dimension. Unlike the English band, though, Sanhedrin have opted for an exclusively instrumental format, which is quite an interesting choice, and a deviation from the standard symphonic tradition, where vocals play a rather important role.

As Israel is part of the Mediterranean region, it is not surprising to find echoes of vintage Italian prog right from the opening track, appropriately called “Ouverture”, together with a nice pinch of Middle Eastern spicing and jazzy touches. The 3-minute number sets the album’s mood very effectively, with its beautifully clear guitar tone, gentle flute and airy keyboards, the various sections flowing seamlessly into each other. The nearly 12-minute ”Il Tredici”, the longest track on the album (which runs at a very sensible 51 minutes), brings the Camel and Pink Floyd influences together in a majestic slice of gently melancholy symphonic prog, with magnificent Latimer- and Gilmour-inspired guitar leads and layers of keyboards. In spite of its slightly macabre title (suggested by the faint recorded sounds of an angry mob heard throughout the piece), “The Guillotine” alternates atmospheric, almost meditative moments with brisker ones driven along by organ and march-like drumming.

More ethnic influences emerge in the first half of “Dark Age”, possibly the highlight of the whole album, dedicated to fellow Israeli musician Arik Hayat of Sympozion, who committed suicide at the end of 2008. The lively, Celtic-tinged tune, described by lilting mandolin and flute, reminded me of some instances of Italian ‘minstrel’ Angelo Branduardi’s output, while the somber, organ-dominated mood of the middle section lifts towards the end, with a slightly dissonant passage suggestive of King Crimson. “Sobriety”, true to its title, merges the Celtic flavour of its flute-and-drum opening with the spacey yet majestic tone of Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets (clearly referenced in a particular organ passage), and an intricate ending that brings martial drums and sharp, clear guitar to the fore. While “Timepiece” adds some almost tentative bouts of heavier riffing to a framework that combines the pastoral feel of Camel with the atmospheric mood of Pink Floyd, closing track “Steam” (introduced by the short acoustic interlude of “Tema”) explores definitely heavier territory, especially in its second half, where the assertive tone of the guitar and the subtle shifts in tempo commanded by bass and drums seem to suggest a running train; the electric piano section in the middle brought instead to my mind Ray Manzarek’s stunning performance in The Doors’ iconic “Riders on the Storm”.

While, as the previous paragraphs make it abundantly clear, Ever After may not be the most innovative proposition on the current prog scene, it is an album whose every note spells class and a deep love of the musical craft. A thoroughly enjoyable listen, highly recommended to fans of classic symphonic prog, especially those who lean more towards the instrumental side of things, it is an excellent debut from an equally excellent new band.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/sanhedrin1

http://www.reverbnation.com/sanhedrin1

http://production.altrock.it/index.htm

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 4378th Day (15:41)
2. No (5:59)
3. War, Act 2 (21:06)

LINEUP:
Rodrigo San Martín – electric and acoustic guitars, bass, mellotron, hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, piano, keyboards, orchestra arragements, synthesized glockenspiel, drum programming
Jelena Perisic – vocals
Craig Kerley – vocals

South America has been a hotbed for progressive rock ever since the beginning of the movement, and Argentina – with its richly diverse musical heritage – is no exception. Even though Argentine prog bands are rarely household names, keen followers of the genre are well aware of the generally excellent level of those outfits. While many of those bands and artists follow in the footsteps of the classic symphonic prog tradition (with some of them displaying Italian prog influences – not surprising in a country where about half of the population is of Italian origin), many of the newer acts have embraced other styles, like progressive metal, and are not afraid of incorporating them into a traditional symphonic fabric.

Rodrigo San Martín is a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a lot of experience on the Argentine music scene as a musician, composer, producer and event organizer, in spite of his young age (he was born in 1988).  He is the lead guitarist of prog band De Rien, as well as the mastermind of the project Souls Ignite. His debut album as a solo artist, simply called 1, was released in April 2010, and featured a 40-minute composition performed solely by San Martín. Conversely, on his sophomore effort, There’s No Way Out (released in November of the same year), San Martín avails himself of the contribution of two guest singers, Jelena Perisic from Serbia and  Craig Kerley from the US.

Clocking in at a mere 42 minutes (a very short running time for today’s standards), There’s No Way Out has a distinctive structure, with two epic-length tracks bookending a more conventional song. The three numbers are different enough from each other to sustain the listener’s interest, and even the two epics are rather nicely balanced, projecting an impression of cohesiveness which is not always the case with long compositions. San Martín handles all the instruments with admirable expertise, though the unmistakably artificial sound of programmed drums is hard to miss, and sometimes clashes with the overall warmth of the music. On the other hand, the vocal performances are consistently good, both singers handling the material authoritatively and stamping their own individual mark on the songs.

Opener “4387th Day” is the closest the album gets to traditional symphonic prog, especially in the first half, dominated by atmospheric keyboards, mellotron and orchestral arrangements with flute and strings, as well as Jelena Parisic’s melodious, yet not sickly sweet voice. Then pace and intensity increase with the introduction of heavy guitar riffs and whistling synth, while towards the end things calm down again. “No”, running slightly over 5 minutes, functions as a sort of interlude between the two ‘main events’, and brings a classic rock note (with touches of AOR) to the ambitious prog context of the album. Distorted guitar, with a distinct Seventies flavour, features prominently here, and Craig Kerley’s gutsy vocal performance is a perfect fit for the overall tone of th song – though the juxtaposition of a more sentimental mood, enhanced by strings and harmony vocals, with harder-edged suggestions occasionally teeters on the brink of cheesiness.

The third and final track, “War, Act2”,  is the undisputed highlight of the album, and – at least in my view –quite superior to both the previous numbers. In spite of its 21-minute running time, it never outstays its welcome, and manages to paint a near-perfect sonic rendition of its title. Here, the contrast between furiously riff-driven sections bordering on extreme metal and dreamy, rarefied passages which, nonetheless, suggest a slow but relentless build up of tension works very well. Jelena Parisic’s voice, while still soothing and well-modulated, reaches for a lower register in order to convey a subtle feeling of menace, and the beautiful guitar solo in the middle brings to mind David Gilmour’s signature style, melodic yet faintly brooding. The frequently occurring changes o mood and pace, unlike what happens in other compositions of comparable scope and length, do not project an impression of patchiness, but rather create an impressively organic whole.

Though not without flaws (mainly lying in the use of programmed drums, whose all too recognizable sound often detracts from the listening experience), There’s No Way Out is a very promising album from an extremely talented young artist, featuring a healthy dose of eclecticism. While the more conservative set of prog fans may be turned off by the strong metal component, particularly evident in the final track, those with a more open-minded disposition are likely to appreciate Rodrigo San Martín’s skill as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. I will be definitely looking forward to hearing the forthcoming De Rien album, to see what he is capable of in a band context.

Links:
http://www.rodrigosanmartin.com.ar/

 

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