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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. “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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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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TRACKLISTING:
1. Iperbole (6:21)
2. Butterfly Song (8:31)
3. Trasfiguratofunky (7:31)
4. Negative (7:03)
5. Just Cannot Forget (2:25)
6. Flash (5:23)
7. Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit (6:49)
8. Vacuum Fluctuation (8:04)
9. Re-Awakening (8:03)
10. Isterectomia (7.26)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Seravalle – vocals, electric, acoustic, e-bow & 12-string guitars, synths, keyboards, samples
Raffaello Indri – electric guitar
William Toson – fretted & fretless bass guitars
Ivan Moni Bidin – drums
Gianpietro Seravalle – electronic percussion, soundscapes

With:
Simone D’Eusanio – violin (1, 2, 8)
Cristian Rigano – synth solos (3)
Giorgio Pacorig – keyboards (3)
Pietro Sponton – congas (3), vibraphone (4)
Flavia Quass – vocals (4)
Andrea Fontana – percussion (4)
Davide Casali – bass clarinet (5)
Jacques Centonze – percussion (8)
Carlo Franceschinis – double bass (8)
Alessandro Bertoni – piano (9)
Mariano Bulligan – cellos (9)
Massimo De Mattia – flute (9, 10), bass flute (10)

In spite of a name referencing one of Genesis’ most popular songs and a “progressive metal” tag, Italian band Garden Wall are neither one of the many followers of the “retro-prog” trend, nor a bunch of Opeth or Dream Theater devotees. Hailing from the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, the band was put together by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Seravalle in the late Eighties, and released their debut album in 1993. Assurdo, their eight album, forms the third and final chapter of the trilogy begun in 2002 with Forget the Colours, and continued with 2004’s Towards the Silence. It is also their first release with Lizard Records  (one of the most rolific independent labels for modern progressive rock), and – unlike their 2008 album, Aliena(c)tion – contains completely new material.

Now a quintet, with only Seravalle and guitarist Raffaello Indri left of the original lineup, Garden Wall have pulled out all the stops for their recording comeback. Not being familiar with their previous output, and misled by the “prog-metal” tag, when I first heard the album I was confronted with something that was almost impossible to label. Moreover, while most of my reviews include comparisons with other bands or artists (something that readers generally appreciate), this time I was hard put to find any suitable frame of reference within the progressive rock spectrum.

If I had to use a single adjective to define Assurdo, I would call it unpredictable. While far too many albums and individual songs seem to endlessly reproduce the same structure, the 10 compositions featured on Garden Wall’s eight CD take the listener on a veritable rollercoaster ride that will leave all but the most open-minded rather bewildered, as well as drained. To say that Assurdo is not an easy listen would be an understatement: spanning a wide range of influences and moods, each song conceived as a mini-suite in many different movements, and providing a canvas for Alessandro Seravalle’s amazing vocal gymnastics, the album is an exercise in deconstruction rather than a showcase for cohesive compositional standards.

Obviously, this is not meant as criticism: though Assurdo is clearly a daunting prospect for anyone not used to more challenging fare than the average “mainstream prog” release, it can also be immensely rewarding for those who will invest time and patience in  trying to “unlock” it. Its densely woven texture, made of so many different layers, its deeply literate nature (the album’s title comes a quote from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, “Everything is absurd when you see it clearly”), a complex instrumentation  blending state-of-the-art electronic soundscapes with warm ethnic percussion, lyrical flute and violin, and gutsy electric guitar – all make for a very demanding listening experience, though one that can confidently bear the “progressive” label. For all its cosmopolitan, cutting-edge allure, Assurdo does have that indefinable “Italian” quality that the use of the Italian language (though juxtaposed with English) lends to even the most avant-garde musical efforts – as proved by a band like Nichelodeon, whose mainman Claudio Milano has been actively involved in the realization of Garden Wall’s latest effort.

Assurdo is one of those albums that need to be absorbed as a whole, so that trying to describe any of the tracks in detail would feel like a pointless exercise. The tracks run between 2 and 8 minutes, with the lone instrumental “Just Cannot Forget” strategically placed in the middle, as a sort of interlude. Taking Demetrio Stratos as a springboard, Seravalle dominates the rest – at times speaking, at others whispering, or even screaming or growling.  Garden Wall’s  impressively omnivorous approach encompasses the academic suggestions of opener “Iperbole”, to the deconstructed funk of the appropriately-named “Trasfiguratofunky”, the haunting trip-hop of “Negative”, the heady Middle Eastern flavour of “Vacuum Fluctuation” – blending jazzy organ, industrial electronics and heavy riffing as in “Clamores Horrendos Ad Sidera Tollit”, employing flute and violin to complement the spacey, ambient-like electronics of closer “Isterectomia”.

At under 70 minutes, Assurdo is not an excessively long album for today’s standards.  However, with its unabashedly eclectic, experimental bent, coupled with a distinct lack of anything even remotely resembling a catchy tune (as well as Seravalle’s acquired-taste vocals), the album is rarely a comfortable listening experience – though a much more solid effort than some overly pretentious releases in the experimental prog field. In any case, adventurous listeners will find a lot to appreciate in Assurdo, one of the most intriguing albums released in 2011, and one that definitely deserves more exposure.

Links:
http://www.gardenwallband.com/

http://www.lizardrecords.net63.net/index.php

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Pyjamageddon  4:16
2. Blind Jack of Knaresborough  4:21
3. Yockenthwaite  3:59
4. Metal Trees  4:52
5. The Cloud Of Unknowing 6:56
6. Blind Jack’s Unicycle 0:59
7. The Modern Architrave  5:43
8. Kirton In The Rain  3:55
9. Long Shore Drift  3:33
10. Rubber Road  3:16
11. Crossing the Bay 0:37
12. The Sun Unconquered  3:34

LINEUP:
Mark Joell – keyboards, tumbi, shouting through cymbals, funny vocals, funny handshake
Colin Robinson – 6-string fretless bass, corrupted vocals, shehnai, xaphoon, tablas, junk
Alex Stone –  guitar, accordion, kantele, portable harmonium, serious vocals

With:
Sean Corlett – voice (1)
Tim Bradshaw – trombone  (7)
Nastassja Joell – vocals (8,12)

In spite of England’s exalted status as the cradle of the original progressive rock movement, I do not get to review modern English bands very often. This week, however, I have chosen to devote both of  my new reviews to bands hailing from the British Isles, even if I can hardly imagine two acts as different from each other as purveyors of classy pop-prog Exhibit A and arch-experimental outfit Big Block 454.

Hailing from the north-western English city of Manchester – better known for its pre-Britpop scene of the early Nineties than for progressive music – Big Block 454 (named after a car engine developed in the Seventies) were founded in 1988 by Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and have been active since then, though in different configurations. Bells and Proclamations, their seventh album, sees them stripped down to a trio of multi-instrumentalists (including Robinson, the one constant member of the band) with guest musicians featured on some tracks.

Even a cursory look at Big Block 454’s back catalogue will clearly reveal their self-proclaimed nature as “a semi-amorphous post-modern / situationist neo-dada cross-platform compositional construct” rather than a band in the traditional sense. While quirky, absurdist titles such as Their Coats Flapped Like God’s Chops (their fifth album, released in 2004) might bring to mind post-rock bands, Big Block 454 are quite a different beast – a veritable melting pot of diverse influences and sources of inspiration, rendered in an outwardly conventional song form, with short, even snappy morsels which are instead densely packed with ideas and variations. This is art-rock in its purest and most literal form – indeed, in its earliest manifestation, the band provided the soundtrack for a Dadaist art installation. Though the easiest way to categorize Big Block 454 would be to place them squarely in the somewhat overcrowded RIO/Avant camp, if you expect something along the lines of the darkly mesmerizing chamber-rock of Univers Zéro or the Canterbury-meets-avant-garde compositions of Henry Cow, you will be disappointed. In fact, the band lean more towards the humorous side of the RIO/Avant spectrum, as embodied by the likes Samla Mammas Manna or Stormy Six, though with an uniquely British twist.

Armed with an impressive instrumentation, including both conventional rock staples and more exotic items, the band offer 12 tracks none of which runs longer than 7 minutes, and which might be very effectively described as deconstructed pop songs. While there faint mainstream suggestions to be found in Bells and Proclamations, they are treated as parts of a fascinating mosaic. Indeed, though the very first impression may be a bit too off-kilter for comfort, threads of melody will emerge from repeated listens, and the album as a whole may prove much less impenetrable than a lot of music bearing the RIO/Avant tag. Eclecticism is the name of the game here, and – though it will probably not have symphonic prog fans jumping for joy – the album will intrigue and reward motivated listeners.

All of the 12 numbers feature vocals, and the vocal style adopted by the members of the band complements the music perfectly – deep-toned, not exactly melodic, yet oddly catchy, occasionally even infectious. Opener “Pyjamageddon” immediately sets the tone, both with its quirky title (used as a chorus of sorts throughout the song) and its extensive use of electronic effects, enhancing an almost danceable tune that might bring to mind some instances of techno/house music. The next two songs develop in a similar vein: “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” blends snippets of melody with electronic noises, theatrical vocals and blaring sax over a strong percussive background; while “Yockenthwaite”, with its mix of the pastoral, the quirky and the experimental, made me think of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Things turn mellower with the haunting, folksy “Metal Trees” and its accordion-infused coda, and especially the beautiful “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the album’s longest item at almost 7 minutes – a hypnotic, psychedelic mini-epic driven by organ and melancholy guitar chords and vocals, again strongly reminiscent of early Pink Floyd – like a 21st-century version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” minus the scream.

After the short, chaotic interlude of “Blind Jack’s Unicycle”, “The Modern Architrave” offers a skewed take on an Eighties synth-pop song, suggestive of archetypal ‘pronk’ acts such as The Stranglers, followed by an entertaining (though quite unrelated), circus-like section; while the brisk “Kirton in the Rain” evokes memories of Devo, with its funny vocal harmonies weaving in and out of the song. The hauntingly minimalistic “Long Shore Drift” is another highlight, with its slow, almost liquid movement and mournful vocals, which seems to flow into the muted, lullaby-like “Rubber Road”, peppered by faintly sinister creaking sounds. The album is then wrapped up by the snappy “Crossing the Bay”, almost like a Fifties’ pop song filtered through modern electronics, and the New Wave-meets-raga of  “The Sun Unconquered”, with its quirky, slightly out-of-tune vocals and atmospheric keyboard coda.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Bells and Proclamations is the kind of album that is likely to send fans of traditional prog running for the exits. Indeed, I would call it a textbook example of the ‘great divide’ between ‘progressive’ and ‘Prog’. Needless to say, an open mind is indispensable in approaching this album, as well as the whole of Big Block 454’s output. This is an album that, as I previously hinted, may need repeated listens in order to sink in fully, and is also very unlikely to appeal to people who prize melody and great hooks. On the other hand, fans of Krautrock, Eighties new wave, electronic music and genre-bending acts such as Zappa, Gong and King Crimson (and eclectic-minded listeners in general) will find a lot to appreciate in Bells and Proclamations – a genuinely progressive effort with a welcome dose of offbeat, very British humour. The album can be downloaded (for free or by naming your own price) from Big Block 454’s Bandcamp page.

Links:
http://bigblock454.bandcamp.com/

http://bigblock454.tumblr.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Cave (23:35)
2. White Light, No Heat (11:28)
3. God’s Elastic Acre (18:16)
4. Sati & The Trainman (11:14)

LINEUP:
Gayle Ellett – analog and digital keyboards, electric guitar, effects
Chuck Oken, Jr. – analog, digital and modular keyboards, electronic percussion, effects, loop processing and reconstruction

With:
Richard Pinhas – guitar loops (1-3)

Ukab Maerd’s The Waiting Room, the second of Djam Karet’s side projects to be  released in 2010, is a very different affair from Mike Henderson’s song-oriented White Arrow Project. The brainchild of Djam Karet’s founding members Gayle Ellet and Chuck Oken, Jr., with legendary French musician Richard Pinhas guesting on three out of four tracks, Ukab Maerd (“Baku Dream” spelled backwards – a reference to DK’s 2003 album A Night for Baku) is a vehicle for the creation of hypnotic soundscapes inspired by the European electronic music of the Seventies. The two musicians describe the album’s content as mind music that draws its inspiration from dream language and Surrealist art – a definition that fits it to a T.

While neither an expert nor a dedicated listener of progressive electronic music, I recognize its importance both in historical and artistic terms, and The Waiting Room provides a fine example of the possibilities offered by technology. Even if its running time of about 64 minutes (divided into four tracks, none under 11 minutes) might turn it into an ordeal for people who are not used to listening to music produced almost exclusively with electronic instruments, the album undeniably possesses a mesmerizing quality, at least if taken in judicious doses. As can be expected, the main points of reference are German giants such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, as well as their followers from other European countries (including Pinhas’ former band Heldon). Most of the album was recorded live at two different performances by Ellett and Oken, with Pinhas’ parts added subsequently.

Many people are put off by electronic music on account of its supposedly cold, overly cerebral nature, unlike warmer, more down-to-earth musical forms such as rock or blues. While this may in some respects not be entirely wrong, the music presented on The Waiting Room intrigues and captures in a sharply different fashion than guitar-driven rock, progressive or otherwise. As the pointed out in the press release, it is music that appeals to the mind rather than the body, conceived to be listened to with some degree of concentration, and therefore always at risk of fading in the background if used as a soundtrack for other activities. With a minimal amount of percussion, and guitars manipulated in such a way as to become unrecognizable, the music ebbs and flows with hypnotic regularity, while all kinds of electronic sound effects enhance the moods and atmospheres created by layers of synthesizers.

“The Cave” evokes the titular place with uncanny accuracy, eerie sounds suggesting machinery or sloshing underground waters, the keyboards surging in waves or subsiding with a movement that may come across as monotonous, but also subtly unsettling and quite fascinating. The following “White Light, No Heat” alternates between majestic keyboard surges that create a sense of keen tension and disturbing industrial noises, replaced in the second half by tinkling yet vaguely robotic keys; while “God’s Elastic Acre” unfolds in a cinematic sweep underpinned by clanging, echoing sounds, droning and bubbling noises, while the solemn tone of the keyboards takes on a more upbeat, Eastern-tinged note towards the end. Album closer “Sati and the Trainman”, the more accessible number by far, revolves around a pulsating synth line paralleled by a slower, more atmospheric tune that suggests a train running through a darkened, slightly sinister landscape.

Needless to say, devotees of this particular genre will be able to show The Waiting Room the appreciation it deserves; while those listeners who can only process small quantities of almost completely electronic music might find it a bit too demanding to sit through the whole 64 minutes, and decide instead to break the album into separate segments. On any account, The Waiting Room is a fine example of vintage progressive electronics, and –  even for those who, like me, have never been keen followers of electronic music – it is very much worth a listen.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/ukabmaerd
http://www.djamkaret.com

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