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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Entering the Sub Levels of Necroplex (11:00)
2. Everybody Likes Hornets But Nobody Likes Hornet Egg (5:00)
3. The Rage Within the Clouds (10:43)
4. The Electric Rectum Electoral (7:06)
5. Like Fun You Are (7:05)
6. The Current Beneath the Squarewave (5:54)

LINEUP:
David Lundberg, Mattias Olsson and Kristian Holmgren – keyboards, drum machines, electronics, sound effects

One year after the release of their acclaimed second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings, the ever-busy duo of Mattias Olsson and David Lundberg (aka Necromonkey) are back with an album that may come as a surprise (or possibly even a shock) to all those who were expecting them to stick to their prog roots. In fact, whereas the supremely punny-titled Show Me Where It Hertz may well prove to be one of 2015’s landmark releases, it is also very much of an acquired taste.

Introduced by Henning Lindahl’s striking artwork and the band’s elegantly minimalistic logo, Show Me Where It Hertz stems from a performance that took place in January 2015 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Fylkingen, a club in Necromonkey’s home town of Stockholm. The show involved a specially-tailored setlist to honour the venue’s commitment to synth-based music, Krautrock and psychedelia. Olsson and Lundberg – joined for the occasion by Kristian Holmgren (who also guested on A Glimpse of Possible Endings) – swapped their rock instrumentation for drum machines and an array of mostly modular synthesizers, rearranging and reshaping their material to fit this new configuration.

The result of this experiment is 48 minutes of electronic progressive music, recorded shortly afterwards at Olsson’s own Roth-Händle studios – that bear the band’s unmistakable imprint of sweeping, mellotron-infused soundscapes on a backdrop of pulsating drum machines. Those who are familiar with Necromonkey’s previous albums will occasionally recognize a tune amongst the swirls and surges of the synths – as hinted by the titles of the six tracks. This almost Futurist exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction of a band’s own material is rarely encountered in a mainstream prog context – which often privileges note-perfect renditions – and bears witness to Olsson and Lundberg’s commitment to the creation of boundary-pushing music.

Despite the perception many people have of electronic music, Show Me Where It Hertz us anything but uniform. Opener “Entering the Sub Levels of Necroplex” – the longest track on the album at 11 minutes – chugs along, propelled by the almost danceable throb of the drum machine amidst the mad howls and whooshes of the synths, and the eerie, disembodied treated vocals muttering in the background, reminiscent of Kraftwerk, though not as glacially impassive. In the much shorter “Everybody Likes Hornets But No One Likes Hornets’ Eggs”, the melodic, airy sweep of the mellotron coexists with the robotic rhythm – a modus operandi that is further explored in the almost 11-minute “The Rage Within the Clouds”, where majestic, airy soundscapes lurk beneath the steadily pulsing synths and rhythm devices. This juxtaposition of icy, technical precision and atmospheric warmth (which brings to mind the work of Franco Battiato in the early Seventies) also characterizes “The Electric Rectum Electoral”, with its almost symphonic mellotron and drone-like synths, and the slow, stately closing track “The Current Beneath the Squarewave”. “Like Fun You Are”, on the other hand, delves deep into experimental territory, building up from spacey, hypnotic atmospheres towards a frantically pulsating ending.

Make no mistake, Show Me Where It Hertz is not for everyone. A high level of tolerance for the lack of traditional rock (or classical, for that matter) instruments is required in order to fully appreciate the album– as well as a taste for the electronic-driven subsets of the progressive universe, such as space rock and Krautrock. In any case, Necromonkey deserve kudos for their genuinely forward-thinking attitude, and their desire not to remain imprisoned in the cage of their followers’ expectations. I cannot think of a better summation of a genuine progressive spirit than their remark about the life-altering quality of the experience that led to the recording of this album. Though Show Me Where It Hertz is very far removed from anything that Änglagård or Gösta Berlings Saga have produced over the years, I would gladly recommend it to every open-minded prog listener.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Necromonkey/109218875773387

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bells Spring (3:44)
2. The Pan Chaser (4:56)
3. Vision at Vasquez Rocks (3:59)
4. Red Hill Trail (3:52)
5. The Lost Night (4:21)
6. Crossing the Divide (3:49)
7. Owens Hideaway (3:51)
8. Young Mountain Memory (3:18)
9. After the Big Sky Falls (2:42)
10. Escape From Sycamore Canyon (4.46)
11. Winter Way (3:12)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – Greek bouzouki, dilruba, charango, tanpura, surmandal, Rhodes, harmonium, ruan, dobro, upright bass, guitar, piano, tenor ukulele, bells/chimes, moog, mellotron, organ, electric guitar, field recordings
Todd Montgomery – Irish bouzouki, sitar, guitar, banjo, baritone guitar, mandolin, violin, slide bouzouki, bowed guitar, EBow, electric mandolin, baritone electric guitar

A lot of the music released today under the “progressive” umbrella has very little in common with the banks-of-keyboards variety that flourished in the early Seventies. On the other hand, the rather stale adherence to modes of expression that were forward-thinking in their time is still seen by many as a requirement for artists who want to aspire to the “prog” tag, and anything deviating from that template is often hastily dismissed.

Southern California duo Fernwood belong to that vast grey area, which often houses veritable gems always at risk of being overlooked by the “prog audience” at large. However, one half of the duo has serious prog credentials – being none other than Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet fame. The epitome of eclecticism, Ellett (one of the few professional musicians in the modern prog scene) is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, involved in projects that go from movie scores to the hypnotic, Crimson-infused sound of Texas outfit Herd of Instinct. Though not as familiar to prog audiences, the duo’s other half, Todd Montgomery, has a 40-year-odd career as a musician under his belt, especially in the field of traditional music from the Old and the New World.

My first contact with Fernwood came a few years ago, when I was writing for another website, and often had to deal with music that did nothing for me (and that’s an understatement). When I received the duo’s second album, Sangita, right from the first listen it felt like a diamond lost in a sea of coarse glass. While the music – performed with an array of exotic, mostly wooden instruments with arcane names – was disqualified from being “rock” by a lack of drums, it possessed a beauty and elegance (not to mention a level of subtle, understated complexity) that are often missing in a lot (of conventional progressive rock. Now, better late than never (as the album was released in February, when I was dealing with some personal issues), Arcadia, Fernwood’s third recording effort has finally come under my scrutiny.

Packaged in pristinely beautiful nature photography, Arcadia is a concept album of sorts – its 11 tracks (all on the short side, the longest clocking in at under 5 minutes) representing stages of a journey in search of the titular Utopian paradise. Unlike in most of my reviews, there is very little point in a track-by-track analysis in the case of Arcadia, as the compositions form an organic whole, and the differences between them are a matter of subtle nuances. In fact, they can be seen as impressionistic sketches, in which the instruments are used like colours to create a warm, multi-hued palette celebrating the beauty of nature. Influences from a wide range of musical traditions (Celtic in “Vision at Vasquez Rocks”, Far Eastern in the rarefied “Winter Way”, to name but two) are brought to bear, each piece exploring a range of shifting moods in tune with the changing seasons. Here and there, touches of modern technology, such as brief but recognizable Mellotron washes, enhance the delightfully laid-back atmospheres.

Needless to say, Arcadia is not recommended to anyone looking for a true-blue prog album in the key of Ellett’s main gig, though it will appeal quite a lot to those who are on the lookout for interesting music on the fringes of the variegated prog sphere. Soothing and refreshing, and romantic in the original sense of the word, Arcadia is the perfect antidote to the frantic pace of modern life, and to the plasticky, disposable quality of most of what passes for music these days.

Links:
http://www.fernwoodmusicgroup.com/
https://fernwood.bandcamp.com/album/arcadia

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. “There Seem to Be Knifestains in Your Blood” (4:17)
2. The Sheltering Waters (6:30)
3. The Counterfeit Pedestrian (2:36)
4. (A) Glimpse (of Possible Endings) (15:24)
5. The Worst Is Behind Us (8:40)

LINEUP:
David Lundberg – all instruments
Mattias Olsson – all instruments

With:
Kristofer Eng Radjabi – theremin (1)
Rob Martino – Chapman stick (2)
Einar Baldursson – electric guitar, slide guitar, e-bow (4)
Leo Svensson-Sander – cello (1,4), musical saw (4)
Elias Modig – bass (4)
Yann Le Nestour – bass clarinet, metal clarinet (4)
Martin Von Bahr – oboe (4, 5)
Tiger Olsson – vocals (5)

Just one year after the release of their debut Necroplex, the dynamic Swedish duo of Mattias Olsson and David Lundberg – aka Necromonkey – are back with their sophomore effort, titled A Glimpse of Possible Endings. While both musicians have continued their regular recording and concert activity (Lundberg with Gösta Berlings Saga, Olsson with, among others, The Opium Cartel and barnstorming Italian newcomers Ingranaggi della Valle), they have also kept up their collaboration throughout the year, ensconced in Olsson’s state-of-the-art Roth Händle Studios in Stockholm (where Gösta Berlings Saga’s magnificent Glue Works was also recorded).

While marking a continuity of sorts with its predecessor, A Glimpse of Possible Endings is also different in quite a few respects – notably more ambitious and more focused. On the other hand, the first thing most listeners will notice is the album’s very restrained running time of a mere 37 minutes. With so many bands and artists opting for sprawling opuses that are inevitably packed with filler, this definitely sounds like a statement of intent on the part of Olsson and Lundberg. In no way affecting the interest value of the compositions – which, in their own way, are as complex as any traditional prog numbers – this streamlined approach makes the most of the duo’s impressive instrumentation, supplemented by the contribution of a number of guest artists (including Gösta Berlings Saga’s guitarist Einar Baldursson, who had also guested on Necroplex, and talented US Chapman stickist Rob Martino). Interestingly, the mellotron’s starring role is interpreted in decidedly unexpected fashion – more as an endless repository of samples of various instruments than a creator of retro-tinged symphonic atmospheres.

The five tracks on the album are conceived as impressionistic vignettes rather than highly structured compositions, though not as random as they may first seem. They range from the two minutes of the sparse piano interlude “The Counterfeit Pedestrian” – backed by the faint crackle of a blind record player – to the 15 of the title-track. This most unconventional “epic” is an intricate but oddly cohesive sonic patchwork in which the hauntingly organic texture of mellotron, piano,  marimba and xylophone, bolstered by cello, woodwinds and dramatic massed choirs, vie with Einar Baldursson’s sharp, almost free-form guitar and a wide array of riveting electronic effects.

Opener “There Seem to Be Knifestains in Your Blood” sets the mood, though with an unexpectedly catchy note. A jangling, Morriconesque guitar, backed by unflagging electronic drums, weaves a memorable tune at a slow, hypnotic pace, soon joined by the ghostly wail of a theremin. The very title of “The Sheltering Waters” will not fail to evoke one of “new” King Crimson’s most iconic pieces – and, indeed, the presence of Rob Martino’s Chapman stick, combined with the gentle, echoing guitar and eerie percussive effects, ideally connects this hauntingly atmospheric track to its illustrious quasi-namesake. The album’s wrap-up comes with the stately, surging synth washes of “The Worst Is Behind Us”, whose subdued, serene ending indeed suggests the calm after a real or metaphorical storm.

As already observed in my review of Necroplex, Necromonkey’s music may be an acquired taste, and disappoint those who are looking for connections with the high-profile Scandinavian outfits that brought Olsson and Lundberg to the attention of the prog audience. In any case, A Glimpse of Possible Endings is a flawlessly performed album, in which Olsson and Lundberg’s outstanding musicianship and compositional skills are subtly displayed, yet never flaunted – just like the music’s high emotional content. It is perhaps a more “serious” endeavour than Necroplex, bound to appeal to fans of non-traditional progressive music (not necessarily rock) rather than those with more mainstream sensibilities, and requiring repeated listens in order to be fully appreciated. The stylish, sepia-toned cover artwork by Henning Lindahl, with its faint Art Deco suggestions, rounds out a most excellent musical experience.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Necromonkey/109218875773387
http://rothhandlestudios.blogspot.com/2014/02/necromonkey-glimpse-of-possible-endings.html

 

 

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Pensiero-Nomade

TRACKLISTING:
1. Barcarola (4:25)
2. Cerchi d’acqua (4:26)
3. Danza notturna (5:14)
4. Calce e carbone (5:09)
5. La colomba e il pavone (4:17)
6. Tournesol (4:28)
7. Prima dell’estate (5:50)
8. Scirocco (5:03)
9. Imperfetta solitudine (6:19)
10. Sensitive (2:54)
11. Verso casa (4:07)

LINEUP
:
Salvo Lazzara – guitars
Luca Pietropaoli – trumpet, flugelhorn, contrabass, piano, electronics
Davide Guidoni – drums, percussion

With:
Clarissa Botsford – vocals (10)

Pensiero Nomade is a solo project by Sicilian-born guitarist/composer Salvo Lazzara – previously know to fans of Italian progressive rock as a member of Germinale, a band that released three albums for Mellow Records in the Nineties, and also participated in some of the tribute compilations released by that label. At the beginning of the new century Lazzara moved to Rome, where he realized that his musical interests were changing, and took up the study of jazz and improvisation. Pensiero Nomade was born from that experience: the project’s very name hints at the wide range of influences that inform Lazzara’s compositional approach, from jazz to world music to ambient/electronics. The project’s debut album, Per questi e altri naufragi, was released in 2007, and followed by Tempi migliori (2009), Materie e memorie (2011), and, finally, Imperfetta solitudine in the summer of 2013.

While Pensiero Nomade’s previous album saw Lazzara flanked by a group of four musicians, including a flutist and a keyboardist, the lineup on Imperfetta solitudine is a stripped-down trio that features Luca Pietropaoli on trumpet, flugelhorn, piano, contrabass and electronics, and Davide Guidoni (one-half of Daal, as well an excellent graphic artist) on drums and percussion. The result is an album that, while undoubtedly “progressive”, is quite far removed from “prog” in a conventional sense.

Indeed, unlike many contemporary prog albums, Imperfetta solitudine is neither brash or loud, though it would be a mistake to consider it mere background music. It certainly needs to be savoured at the right time and in the right surroundings, preferably after the sun has gone down, and when it is possible to lend it some attention – as is the case with albums in which subtlety and nuance are much more important than forced variety. Nothing is fast or hurried here, and the musical texture is loose and atmospheric, though not random. The sounds are organic, never jarring, but not artificially smooth either. The gentle movement of Lazzara’s acoustic guitar in opener “Barcarola” evokes flowing water, while the trumpet’s smoky, melancholy voice sounds almost human. The same pensive tone, almost an aid to meditation and reflection, can be found in the melodiously wistful “Calce e carbone”, the ethereal  “Tournesol” and solemn closing track “Verso casa”. The faintly disquieting “Sensitive” is the only number to feature the haunting vocals of guest artist Clarissa Botsford; while the uplifting “Cerchi d’acqua” exudes an almost vintage West Coast feel.

The 11 tracks are all relatively short, and only the title-track – a lovely, harmonious guitar bravura piece in which Lazzara uses the strings to create a percussion-like effect – exceeds 6 minutes. While the emphasis is firmly placed on the seamless, constantly riveting interplay between Lazzara’s guitar and Pietropaoli’s trumpet, Guidoni’s elegant, accomplished rhythmic touch adds dimension to otherwise low-key tracks such as “Scirocco” and La colomba e il pavone”; then it comes into its own in the lively “Prima dell’estate”, where it engages in a striking “dialogue” with the trumpet, and” and the stately “Danza notturna”, to which hand percussion adds a discreet touch of warmth.

Although Imperfetta solitudine is very likely to have flown under the radar of most “mainstream” prog fans, it can be warmly recommended to lovers of music that speaks to inner feelings and emotions as well as the ear, and evokes far subtler moods and atmospheres than those usually associated with the pomp and circumstance of classic progressive rock. Complemented by stylishly minimalist cover photography that reflects the nocturnal, meditative nature of the music, this album will appeal to devotees of the output of labels such as ECM or Moonjune Records, as well as those who are keen to explore the thriving diversity of the Italian music scene.

Links:
http://www.reverbnation.com/pensieronomade

http://www.myspace.com/pensieronomade

http://www.zonedimusica.com

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5-storey ens

TRACKLISTING:
1. The Harbinger (5:51)
2. Bondman’s Wings (2:24)
3. The Incommunication (5:23)
4. To Ringfly (3:12)
5. A Disappearing Road (4:43)
6. The Unpainted (7:58)
7. Yesterday Dormant (5:41)
8. The Protector (3:23)
9. Fear-Dream (3:47)
10. Amid the Smoke and Different Questions (6:31)
11. Not That City (6:58)

LINEUP:
Vitaly Appow – bassoon, saxes
Alexander But’ko – accordion
Andrey Evdokimov – acoustic and electric guitars
Natalja Malashkova – oboe
Dmitry Maslovsky – bass guitar
Olga Podgaiskaja – piano, keyboards, vocals
Olga Polakova – flute
Anastasia Popova – violin
Nikolay Semitko – drums, percussion
Vyacheslav Plesko — double bass
Sergey Dolgushev – vocals

With:
Jury Korogoda —electric guitar (6,9)
Cirill Christia — violin (6,8,9)
Nadia Christia — cello (6, 9,11)

One of the very few bands originating from the small and politically isolated Eastern European country of Belarus, Rational Diet was an unabashedly intellectual ensemble whose music was not for the faint-hearted. After releasing a total of five albums (the last three of which on Italian label AltrOck Productions) between 2000 and 2010, Rational Diet split up because of a disagreement over artistic direction. Its members went on to form two separate groups, Archestra and Five-Storey Ensemble, whose debut albums – titled Arches and Not That City – were both released in the spring of 2013. While Arches was released on French label Soleil Mutant (a subdivision of Soleil Zeuhl), Five-Storey Ensemble have remained part of the AltrOck roster.

Not That City’s liner notes trace the genesis of this new yet familiar band, explaining the reasons for the change, reflected in the album’s more intimate and “streamlined” sound if compared with Rational Diet’s overly intellectual approach (which had become a liability rather than an asset, hindering the band’s natural development). The transition from Rational Diet to Five-Storey Ensemble was complete when the former band’s  remaining members – keyboardist/vocalist/main composer Olga Podgaiskaja, bassist Dmitry Maslovsky, drummer Nikolaj Semitko and reedist Vitaly Appow – merged with  Fratrez, a quartet hailing from the Belarus capital of Minsk, whose sound was strongly rooted in medieval and folk music. The lineup that recorded Not That City (a mini-orchestra with no less than 11 members) is augmented by former Rational Diet bandmates Cirill and Nadia Christia and Archestra guitarist Jury Korogoda on a handful of tracks.

A mostly acoustic album, performed with instruments generally associated with classical and folk music, Not That City has very few connections to rock music (even of the progressive variety), and the presence of drums and electric guitar/bass is so discreet as to be almost imperceptible. In this and other aspects, Five-Storey Ensemble bring to mind Belgian outfit Aranis, though their sound also bears the unmistakable imprint of the Eastern European tradition. The literary inspiration that had been an essential component of Rational Diet’s output is still very much in evidence: the album features three songs with lyrics by early 20th century poet Alexander Vvedensky, and another two were originally part of the soundtrack for the experimental play Bondman’s Wings.

Though Not That City is largely instrumental, some of the tracks feature vocals with an operatic quality that, however, meshes remarkably well with the instrumentation rather than swamping it. Band leader Olga Podgaiskaja’s sweet, achingly wistful soprano complements Sergey Dolgushev’s intense tenor;  their duet in the sprightly, folksy “Yesterday Dormant” acquires a dramatic quality from the use of two different themes –  melodic, almost pleading for the female voice,  more upbeat for the male one. In the intimate, melancholy ”The Incommunication”, the two voices occupy centre stage, while the instruments (mainly piano and bassoon) keep discreetly in the background.

Running at a very reasonable 55 minutes, the album as a whole is very cohesive and surprisingly full of melody, with few concessions to those spiky, dissonant moments so often associated with the Avant-Progressive subgenre – the most notable of which can be found in the second half of “A Disappearing Road”  and in the complex, riveting textures of the nearly 8 minutes of “The Unpainted”, where the electric guitar is treated like an orchestral instrument rather than a typically rock one. Conversely, the influence of medieval and Renaissance music emerges clearly in the lilting, percussive “To Ringfly” and “The Protector”; while the aptly titled “Fear-Dream”, laden with a dark, menacing tone, taps into a richly cinematic vein that is also evident in “Amid the Smoke and Different Questions”, in which Dolgushev uses his voice as another instrument. The album’s bookends, opener “The Harbinger” and the title-track, sum up the whole of the band’s musical approach, blending almost gloomy solemnity with elegant dance-like passages, showcasing the instruments’ flawless interplay and the band’s mastery of the art of buildup – both examples of stately yet ]mesmerizing 21st –century chamber music with only passing nods to the rock aesthetics.

An astonishing beautiful album that (rather uncharacteristically) drew me in right from the first listen, Not That City, as already hinted in the previous paragraphs, has much more in common with modern classical music than rock. Though certainly more accessible than most of the band’s previous incarnation’s output, it does require a good amount of concentration on the part of the listener, as well as an appreciation for the minimalistic, understated approach of chamber rock as compared to conventional prog’s tendency towards bombast. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the top releases of the year so far, and highly recommended to only to fans of the RIO/Avant scene, but also to all open-minded music lovers.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/album/not-that-city-mw0002529122

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=205&id2=207

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pea (3:11)
2. Asshole Vote (6:16)
3. Elements (4:17)
4. Tuba Melt (2:04)
5. Small Rome (2:35)
6. Every Dead Indian (8:37)
7. Empty Traps and Nightfall (2:49)
8. Spoken (2:58)
9. The Utopian and the Teaspoon (5:04)
10. Winds Over Iceland (1:21)
11. Knock Knock Hornets Nest (6:29)
12. Notebook Memory (2:04)
13. Last Entry (4:56)

LINEUP:
David Lundberg & Mattias Olsson – keyboards, guitars, drums, percussion, drum machines, electronics, sound effects

With:
Cecilia Linné – cello (1, 2, 5, 6, 13)
Michele Benincaso – bass (2, 5, 6, 7, 9)
Ulf Åkerstedt – contrabass trumpet (2), bass trumpet (2, 4, 9), tuba (2, 4)
Einar Urgur Baldursson – electric guitars, e-bow, electric sitar (9), baritone guitar (10), electric 12-string guitar (11), mandolin (13)
Yann LeNestour – bass clarinet (6, 9, 12)
Ulph Andersson – additional editing (2), reading (4)
Matti Bye – Hammond L-100 (6)
Noah Gest – lap steel (11)
Shep Gest – voice (8)
Elvira de Troia – voice (2)
Akaba & Tiger Olsson– vocals (13)

Necromonkey was born from the meeting of two artists whom a thousand-odd US progressive rock fans had the pleasure of seeing on stage in the summer of 2012. Drummer Mattias Olsson is a household name in prog circles, being a founding member of legendary Swedish band Änglagård (which he left in the autumn of 2012), while keyboardist David Lundberg is one-fourth of NEARfest Apocalypse revelation Gösta Berlings Saga. Olsson (a classically-trained percussionist, composer and producer) met in 2008 during the recording sessions for Gösta Berlings Saga’s second album, Detta Här Hänt, and realized they were kindred spirits. Lundberg was subsequently invited to join the reformed Änglagård as a live keyboardist for their 2012 dates, while Olsson joined Gösta Berlings Saga on stage at NEARfest for the band’s exhilarating encore.

Necroplex, the title of Necromonkey’s debut album (composed and recorded in 2010 at Olsson’s own Roth-Händle studios in Stockholm), refers to the Echoplex tape delay used by many notable guitarists in the Sixties and Seventies. While Olsson and Lundberg handle the majority of the instruments, combining cutting-edge technology with vintage equipment, a number of guest musicians (including Gösta Berlings Saga’s guitarist Einar Baldursson) contribute to the final result with an array of acoustic and electric instruments. Clocking in at about 52 minutes, the album features 13 relatively short, mostly instrumental tracks that – unlike so much of the formulaic, somewhat “safe” fare that seems to be popular these days – challenge prog fans’ irresistible urge to label everything.

Debunking the stereotype of the dour Northern European, Necroplex is pervaded by a healthy dose of slightly absurdist, tongue-in-cheek humour, evident in the track titles and the descriptions included in the CD booklet, emphasizing that the making of the album was a relaxed and highly entertaining process for  Olsson and Lundberg. Though first-time listeners may be disappointed to find a different animal than the bands with which the two artists are associated, successive listens will reveal subtle but unmistakable references to the sound of both Änglagård and Gösta Berlings Saga.

Melancholy and appealingly zany in turn, balancing acoustic, electric and electronic elements with skill and delicacy, Necroplex possesses a hauntingly cinematic quality that hints at Olsson’s experience as a composer of film and theatre soundtracks. Variety is the name of the game, each track telling its own story in exquisitely multilayered fashion. From subdued ambient interludes such as “Winds Over Iceland” (featuring Einar Baldursson’s meditative baritone guitar), the sparse bass solo of “Empty Traps and Nightfall” and the rarefied clarinet of “Notebook Memory” to the free-form avant-garde leanings of the wacky “Tuba Melt” and the surreal narration of the aptly-titled “Spoken”, the album offers a veritable journey through moods and atmospheres as wildly shifting as the clouds depicted on its cover.

The liberal use of drum machines imparts a martial, almost robotic pace to tracks such as the angular “The Utopian and the Teaspoon” and “Asshole Vote”, where it is reinforced by scratchy turntable effects, and softened by Cecilia Linné’s sober cello, while the ever-present mellotron confers to the sound an orchestral quality through an array of choral and string effects. “Small Rome” has the allure of a classical chamber piece, with its cello and flowing piano, while the album’s two longest tracks – the 8-minute “Every Dead Indian” and “Knock Knock Hornet’s Nest” – merge harsh industrial suggestions with the surging post-rock sweep of Gösta Berlings Saga, driven by Olsson’s eclectic drumming and accented by chiming guitar. Closing track “Last Entry”, on the other hand, privileges the warmth of acoustic instruments such as mandolin, vibraphone and glockenspiel, enhanced by gentle chanting and mellotron, introducing a note of folksy Scandinavian wistfulness that evokes Änglagård and Anekdoten at their most introspective.

Forward-thinking lovers of instrumental music will not fail to appreciate Necroplex – an album whose thoroughly modern stance also pays homage to the likes of early Pink Floyd – as will those who have been intrigued by some of the bands and artists covered in this blog, such as Ergo, Knitting By Twilight, Lüüp and the obvious choice, Gösta Berlings Saga. All in all, this is an album that rewards patience, and proves that vintage prog staples and cutting-edge technology can be successfully combined to produce music that is genuinely progressive, yet appealingly down-to-earth. Even if released early in the year, I expect Necroplex to appear in many “best of 2013” lists. Fans will also be glad to hear that Olsson and Lundberg are already working on a follow-up.

Links:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Necromonkey/109218875773387

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

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