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zhongyu

TRACKLISTING:
1. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2 (2:06)
2. Torture Chambers of Commerce (4:42)
3. Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted (3:45)
4. Hydraulic Fracas (8:03)
5. Tunnel at the End of the Light (4:05)
6. Apple of My Mind’s Eye 1 (2:02)
7. Half Remembered Drowning Dream (5:20)
8. Sleepwalking the Dog (6:41)
9. Wanderland Wonderlust (5:31)
10. Cat Hair All Over It (2:10)
11. MBBL (5:17)
12. All Food Comes From China (4:51)

LINEUP:
Jon Davis – Chapman Stick, guzheng, Mellotron, ARP 2600
Dennis Rea – electric guitar, resonator guitar
Alicia DeJoie – electric violin
James DeJoie – baritone saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Randy Doak – drums, percussion

With:
Daniel Barry: trumpet (11)

Because of its geographical location, Seattle, the Emerald City, looks towards Asia as much as it does towards the American continent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find artists that draw their inspiration not only from Western sources, but also from the rich musical tradition of the East. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to review Dennis Rea’s beautiful solo album View from Chicheng Precipice, informed by his four-year experience in China and Taiwan. Now it is the turn of Zhongyu, the quintet formed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Davis (who spent three years in Beijing in the first decade of the 21st century), together with Rea and his fellow Morainians Alicia and James DeJoie, as well as drummer Randy Doak.

With the glut of “progressive” albums released every day, and the high level of quality of this year’s average release, an album such as Zhongyu’s eponymous debut is highly at risk of flying under the radar. A labour of love, many years in the making – as emphasized by the band’s name, meaning “finally” in Mandarin Chinese, Zhongyu deserves much more attention than it has received so far, a few months after its release on NYC-based Moonjune Records. Recorded and mixed by legendary Seattle engineer Steve Fisk, the album is introduced by artwork clearly inspired by Chinese propaganda posters, though interpreted with a humorous twist: the uniformed woman is armed with a guitar, and surrounded by flowers and butterflies in a sort of “make music, not war” context.

As hackneyed as the “East meets West” phrase may be, I believe there is no better description for an album that marries free-jazz improvisation and progressive rock with traditional Chinese music – the lilting sound of the zither-like guzheng (often played by Davis with a bow) elegantly blending with state-of-the-art electronics, gritty guitar, deep-voiced baritone sax, soothing flute and soaring violin. This fusion of apparently very different elements  works surprisingly well, weaving atmospheres at the same time ethereal and intense. Zhongyu’s bookends, “Apple of My Mind’s Eye 2” and “All Food Comes From China” (yes, the titles are punny and creative – another bonus point in my book), explore this territory in different ways – the former merging spacey effects with a heady melody produced by guzheng manipulated in various ways, the latter achieving a seamless combination of acoustic, electric and electronic elements.

The 8-minute “Hydraulic Fracas” perfectly embodies the spirit of the album, with the flute’s Eastern flavour contrasted to the electric guitar darkly reverberating in the background. “Iron Rice Bowl Has Rusted” pairs guzheng and flute in a delicate, ethereal texture, while in the haunting “Half Remembered Drowning Dream” gentle chimes enhance the sound of the ethnic instrument. “Sleepwalking the Dog” is a textbook example of modern jazz-rock emphasizing ensemble playing rather than individual prowess, particularly the essential synergy between sax and violin. On the other hand,  the almost improvisational, free-jazz bent of “Tunnel at the End of Light” reminded me of Rea’s defunct project Iron Kim Style, while Moraine (and King Crimson  circa Starless and Bible Black) are evoked in the riveting “Torture Chamber of Commerce”, where melody and dissonance clash and coexist.

Besides Zhongyu’s obvious musical charms, it was a pleasure for me to review an album by a band whose main creative force is a fellow reviewer as well as a gifted musician. I have often read and appreciated Jon Davis’ writings on Exposé magazine, and am glad to have had the opportunity of expressing my opinion on his music. In any case, I count Zhongyu among one of this bumper year’s top releases, highly recommended to lovers of instrumental progressive rock – especially those who value the cross-fertilization of Western and Eastern musical traditions.

Links:
http://zhongyuband.net/
http://zhongyu-moonjune.bandcamp.com/album/zhongyu

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Devoto (5:54)
2. Sotterfugio (1:24)
3. Multiverso (5:46)
4. Distratto da Me (7:28)
5. Eterno Ritorno (3:24)
6. Più Uguale (10:09)
7. Transizione (7:05)
8. Autore del Futuro (7:01)
9. Figli (6:59)
10. Quattro Piccole Mani (4:37)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Bonetti  – violin, mandolin
Mauro Collina – guitars, bouzouki, dobro
Alberto Piras –  vocals
Alessandro Porreca – bass
Luigi Ricciardiello – organ, piano, synth
Claudio Trotta – Maurus drums

With:
Luigi Savino – synth, contrabass
Alessandro Meroli – baritone saxophone
Marco Matteuzzi – alto saxophone
Massimo Greco –  trumpet

Odd as it may sound, I had never heard of Deus Ex Machina before I moved to the US. When their first album, Gladium Caeli, was released in 1991, I was taking one of my many breaks from intensive music listening, and, by the time I got back into progressive rock, they had already gone into hiatus. After settling in the New World, as I was getting into the local prog scene, attending concerts and festivals and meeting people, I heard frequent reports of the Bologna-based outfit’s great music and stage presence – not to mention their rather unique use of Latin in their lyrics. Unfortunately, it seemed Deus Ex Machina’s lengthy break from recording and performing was at risk of turning into a permanent state of affairs – as it is much too often the case with non-mainstream bands.

Fast forward to October 2015, and the announcement of Deus Ex Machina’s reappearance on stage in Milan – the prelude to the almost unexpected release of a new album, their sixth (the third for Cuneiform Records), with the added bonus of original keyboardist Luigi Ricciardiello’s return after two decades.  Devoto dropped at the end of June, about a month after the band’s participation in the 22th edition of ProgDay was announced – to ecstatic reactions from those who had witnessed their previous US appearances.

In the past, Deus Ex Machina have often elicited comparisons to Area, one of the defining bands of the original RPI scene. Their previous albums, especially the ambitious De Republica, did indeed channel the seminal Milan outfit, and not only because of Alberto Piras’ remarkable vocal acrobatics. However, the  band members have always emphasized their rock roots, which (as they are keen on pointing out) are clearly given pride of place on Devoto.

After an eight-year break, a band can move forward, or continue as if nothing had happened. Deus Ex Machina have inequivocably chosen the former path with Devoto – abandoning their trademark Latin lyrics for one thing (a process that had already started in the early 2000’s). Their wholehearted embrace of Italian connects the album to the long-standing Italian prog tradition, a link strengthened by violinist Alessandro Bonetti’s association with PFM, whose timeless influence often surfaces in his elegant yet soulful playing.

When compared to the band’s previous output,  Devoto might come across as more straightforward: this, however, is true only up to a point. In fact, the album’s multiple layers will unfold upon repeated in-depth  listens. Deus Ex Machina have also outdone themselves in terms of producing memorable melodies, which obviously works wonders for the album’s accessibility – as proved right from the start by the title-track, whose chorus can get stuck in your head for days. The deceptive quality of the album’s supposedly streamlined nature emerges in songs such as “Distratto da Me”, whose appealingly melodic, mid-paced intro suddenly turns into an almost free-form instrumental section sounding like Area jamming with Deep Purple. Indeed, Ricciardiello’s gritty Hammond organ puts its stamp all over the album, while his sweeping synth soundscapes (supplemented by arranger Luigi Savino’s contribution) lend a spacey note to the short mood piece “Sotterfugio”, as well as the final section of the 10-minute “Più Uguale”.  As witnessed by the funky swagger of a number of songs, such as the energetic “Transizione”, drummer Claudio Trotta – aided and abetted by Alessandro Porreca’s nimble bass lines – is firing on all cylinders, fueled by his love for soul music.

While Alberto Piras’ charismatic vocals tend to capture the listener’s attention,  his co-composer Mauro Collina’s performance on guitar is one of Devoto’s strengths – fully in evidence not only in fierce electric solos, but also in the folksy, all-acoustic “Eterno Ritorno” and in the lovely instrumental closer “Quattro Piccole Mani”, where he shines on slide guitar. Piras bends the structure of the Italian language to fit the energy and complexity of the music, with surprising results (as in the intense, almost brooding “Multiverso”), or behaves like an additional instrument (as in the second half of the bluesy “Autore del Futuro”). Two saxophones and a trumpet (courtesy of  guest musicians Alessandro Merola, Marco Matteuzzi and Massimo Greco) beef up the already lush instrumental fabric of the songs, enhancing the dynamic, jazzy vibe of “Figli” (also a showcase for Bonetti’s fiery violin) and the already-mentioned “Distratto da Me”.

Though not claiming in any way to reinvent the wheel (which these days I find highly refreshing), Devoto is pure class from start to finish, With its admirable balance of dazzling instrumental flights and riveting vocals, permeated by a strong sense of melody, it packs a lot in just one hour. Fans of both Italian prog and classic jazz-rock should not miss this album, and try to catch Deus Ex Machina live if possible, as their music – made with passion as well as impeccable technical skill – really comes alive on stage, conveying the joy of playing together.  A special mention is deserved by the album’s intriguing artwork and detailed liner notes – which include English translations of the lyrics for the benefit of international audiences.

Links:
https://cuneiformrecords.bandcamp.com/album/devoto

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com/bandshtml/deus.html

 

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 Art-MovedByThePiper-B&W

Though 2016, unlike the past couple of years, has been a relatively positive year for me, I am still suffering from an overload of stress. As a consequence, in the weeks leading to the festival I was not really “feeling” it as I usually do. Coupled with a few minor physical issues, this state of affairs might have resulted in a definitely lower-key ProgDay. However, I am happy to report that, even if I was not at my best, my enjoyment of the festival as a whole did not suffer at all. Things might have been much worse if the weather had been a repeat of 2012, with its killer heat and humidity – something I deeply feared, after two very hot months. However, the weather was the best I have ever experienced in my seven years as a ProgDay attendee – even better than last year. Being able to wear a lightweight jacket on Saturday morning and evening felt almost like a luxury, and even Sunday’s warmer temperature was thoroughly pleasant and comfortable.

The days leading to what has become one of the bright spots of the year for us and a lot of other people were rife with uncertainty because of the whims of Mother Nature, embodied by a pesky hurricane/tropical storm named Hermine. Forums and social media abounded with posts of people following every twist and turn of the weather situation, while the organizers, already on site, were pondering whether to move the first day of the festival to the back-up venue – something that could have proved to be a much bigger headache than the rain. While we had left our Northern Virginia home under a sunny sky, the cloud cover intensified as we drove south, though the rain only made its appearance as we were nearing the hotel. On Friday afternoon, it rained on and off, but never excessively, and everyone was elated when the decision to hold the first day at the farm was announced. ProgDay’s idyllic outdoor setting is one of the festival’s biggest charms, especially for people who come from urban areas and see too much asphalt and concrete in their everyday life.

Entering the lobby of the Comfort Inn and seeing familiar faces after a year or more is always a rewarding experience. This year we were particularly happy to find our friend Michael Inman, back in the fold after a year’s absence. The afternoon was spent reconnecting with friends and acquaintances, as well as a bit of shopping. We left early for dinner at our regular Friday night spot – the excellent Mexican restaurant just down the road – and, after some more after-dinner socializing in the lobby, we headed off to bed.

Saturday morning dawned nice and cool, cloudy but with no rain in sight. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the first day was impaired by an almost sleepless night, and during the second set I was feeling rather down. Thankfully the cool breeze helped clear my head a bit, though I would be lying if I said that I was able to revert completely to my normal self.

Though Luz De Riada had been scheduled to perform two years ago, some snag intervened to prevent their participation. A project by former Cabezas de Cera member Ramsés Luna with  a revolving cast of gifted musicians from Mexico and other Latin American countries, the band has released a trilogy of albums titled Cuentos y Fábulas. Since everything Ramsés touches seems to turn into gold (as witnessed by Pascal Gutman Trio’s stellar performance at last year’s edition), they were one of the bands I was most interested in seeing. The presence of bassist Luis Nasser (of Sonus Umbra/Might Could fame) was an added bonus, as I had never been able to see him on stage, despite having known him for a few years. My expectations were not disappointed, because Luz De Riada played an outstanding set. Luis’ spirited introductions were entertaining as well as informative, and the music possessed all the qualities I look for in a progressive rock band – mysterious, edgy yet melodic, and full of tantalizing ethnic influences, not to mention very original. Though some echoes of King Crimson surfaced at times (not a bad thing at all in my book), there was no whiff of derivativeness in the band’s performance. They also put up a great show, with Ramsés playing woodwinds and at the same time triggering intriguing MIDI effects, and Luis dominating the scene with his impressive bass playing and charismatic figure. Guitarist Aaron Geller (also a member of acoustic guitar quartet Might Could) and drummer Brandon Cameron were no slouches either, each of them contributing to the tight, heady fabric of the music. Luz De Riada were definitely one of the best openers ever seen at ProgDay, and  a band I hope to see on stage again soon.

The second band on the Saturday menu was a completely unknown quantity to me and to most of the other attendees – rather unusual for a group of people who tend to be knowledgeable about the most obscure acts under the “progressive” umbrella. Jonathan Scales Fourchestra brought to the ever-eclectic ProgDay roster the sound of an instrument not generally associated with “our” genre, the steel pan drums. The talented trio (not a quartet, in spite of the name!) from Asheville – featuring Scales together with bassist Jay White and drummer Chaisaray Schenk – played a set of eclectic jazz-rock driven by the distinctive sound of the steel pans – a mainstay of Caribbean musical genres such as calypso. Like most other idiophones, the steel pans can be rather overpowering, and after a while my attention started to wander a bit – a situation not helped by the fact that I was suffering from lack of proper sleep. However, a lot of people (including my husband) loved them, and I believe they were a great way to expose the ProgDay crowd to something different from the usual progressive rock fare.

As I had committed to helping José and Adele (of Romantic Warriors fame) with interviewing the members of Deus Ex Machina for their upcoming RPI feature, I completely missed Eye’s set. Judging by the music I could hear from the back of the field, where we had retreated to find a quieter spot, I could detect Hawkwind, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath influences – which, as a fan of classic hard rock, made me regret what I was missing, especially after hearing about how keyboardist Lisa Bella Donna had rocked the Hammond organ, one of my favourite rock instruments. What I had heard of the band’s recorded output had left me rather cold, but I suspected (and rightly so) that they would deliver the goods on stage. Most of the people I spoke to when I came back to the field found them hugely entertaining, and thought they were an excellent addition to the festival. Retro-oriented music, when done properly, and with an eye (pardon the pun) to entertainment, is something I can enjoy as much as more modern stuff.

Because of the above-mentioned interview, I had got to know my fellow Italians Deus Ex Machina quite well before they stepped on stage for their long-awaited set – the first on US soil in over 10 years, and 20 years after their first ProgDay. With an excellent new album (Devoto) out, the first after an eight-year hiatus, the Bologna-based six-piece had lost none of the energy and  drive that had made them firm favourites of the US prog audience. Fronted by charismatic vocalist Alberto Piras, the band performed at the top of their game, their flawless proficiency put at the service of the music rather than the other way around. While they would never claim to be the most innovative of bands, their intense yet melodic brand of Mediterranean-flavoured jazz-rock (with an emphasis on the second part of the word) translated seamlessly to the stage, and provided a perfect closer to the day. As a native Italian speaker, I especially appreciated the way Alberto wraps his stunning voice (reminiscent of the late, great Demetrio Stratos, but also very much his own) around the syllables of the often long, complex words he uses in the song lyrics. All the six members interacted with the ease of a long association (made even stronger by the bonds of friendship), without once giving the impression of sacrificing spontaneity on the altar of technical skill. All in all, Deus Ex Machina’s performance was every bit as good as I expected, and ended the day on a very satisfying note. For me it was also a real pleasure to spend time with the band members, speaking my native tongue and exchanging impressions on a wide range of subjects.

After a lovely Japanese-Korean dinner with a group of friends, we retired relatively early, and I was able to enjoy a refreshing night’s sleep, which definitely made the festival’s second day more enjoyable. The weather was as gorgeous as it can be in early September – sunny yet breezy, and blissfully dry. By 10.30, the first band of the day – Philadelphia quartet In the Presence of Wolves – were ready to take to the stage. As usual on Sunday mornings, people were somewhat sleepy, and the organizers had chosen the opening act with that in mind. As with Eye, the music I had heard prior to the festival had not made much of an impression; however, as it is generally the case with young bands, I was expecting them to deliver the goods live – and they did. A couple of songs into their set, everyone on the field was wide awake, some even headbanging and throwing shapes. The band’s boundless energy was a pleasure to watch, and their hard-hitting music had enough sophistication to please those prog fans open-minded enough not to cringe at the very mention of metal. Though they were obviously not used to prog audiences, the members of In the Presence of Wolves were thrilled at the opportunity to perform at ProgDay. To be perfectly honest, I found the vocals a bit of a turn-off at first (in part due to the sound problems that plagued most of the day); however, as a whole I enjoyed  the set, whose high point was a cracking cover of The Mars Volta’s “Goliath”, one of my favourite songs by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s crew.

Among the last bands to be announced, Long Island quartet Ad Astra was another band I had not been acquainted with before the festival. Led by guitarist Joe Nardulli, they play a brand of instrumental prog that might be labeled as “symphonic fusion”, based on the interplay between guitar and keyboards. Unfortunately, the sound issues that had started rearing their ugly head during the previous set came into full force while Ad Astra were on stage, especially affecting the keyboards, whose tinny, Eighties-style sound did not do the music any favours. Though the band members’ technical skill could not be faulted, and their enthusiasm at being part of the festival was palpable, Ad Astra’s music was fluid and pleasant but hardly memorable. The compositions blended into each other without a lot of variation, eventually fading into the background, and the band’s rather static stage presence compounded the issue. On the other hand, while I and other friends found it hard to connect with the music, many other attendees seemed to appreciate what they were hearing – which is just how things should be. One of ProgDay’s strengths lies in its eclectic lineups, offering something for everyone. As much as I would love a whole lineup made of cutting-edge bands, a good festival needs variety, and ProgDay has always offered variety in spades.

Together with Deus Ex Machina and, to a certain extent, rising stars Bent Knee, Discipline were ProgDay 2016’s biggest draw, and not only for sentimental reasons. The return of the “house band” of the festival’s first six years accounted for much of this year’s above-average attendance. The only “traditional” prog band on the lineup, Discipline bring to the genre that sense of angst and darkness perfected by Van Der Graaf Generator in prog’s heyday. Though these days Matthew Parmenter sits behind the keyboards, his white face paint and all-black garb his only concessions to theatricality, he lets his measured gestures and facial expressions speak as effectively as his whole body did when he was a full-fledged frontman. At ProgDay he was at the top of his game, at times wielding his voice like a weapon, at others whispering almost soothingly. With a longer than average set that comprised a whopping three epics – the magnificent “Rogue”, as well as “Crutches” and “Canto IV” – they pulled out all the stops. Guitarist Chris Herin (also a member of fellow Detroit outfit Tiles) finally got to put his stamp on the material, especially during the aforementioned “Rogue”, which relies a lot on the interaction between keyboards and guitar. While the new track premiered for the benefit of the ProgDay audience, “Life Imitates Art”, left me somewhat cold, the overall strength of the material, coupled with the band’s flawless performance, made for a deeply satisfying experience, which not even the ever-present sound issues could affect. The set’s emotional punch was intensified by Peter Renfro’s warm-hearted introduction, reminiscing about the festival’s early years, especially that edition of 20 years ago that saw Discipline and Deus Ex Machina share the Storybook Farm stage for the first time.

Hot on the heels of their first European tour, Boston sextet Bent Knee arrived on the ProgDay stage surrounded by high expectations. In the past year or so, they have come from being an unknown quantity to reaping huge amounts of praise, fast becoming one of the modern prog scene’s highest-touted acts. I actually was one of the first people to discover them through their second album, Shiny-Eyed Babies (mentioned in my 2014 year in review article), and was glad to see that I was not wrong about their potential. Having heard of their stellar performance at ROSfest 2016, when I saw them at Orion Studios in May, my expectations were not disappointed, as their show there packed a visceral punch that left my hands aching for some time because of too much enthusiastic clapping. However, their ProgDay set did not connect with me in the same way, even though I am quite sure most of the problem lay with me rather than the band. Not only was I feeling tired at the end of the day, but the sound (again!) did not do the band justice, especially as regards Courtney Swain’s powerful vocals. A Kate Bush for the 21st century, this young lady is possessed of  remarkable pipes, of which she is in full control. Unfortunately, the sound overemphasized her voice’s piercing quality, with rather uncomfortable (occasionally even painful) results. I was also a bit puzzled by their choice of playing most of their songs without pausing to interact with the audience as they had done at Orion – whose intimate setting provided a more suitable frame for their highly individual take on edgy “wonky pop”. That being said, Bent Knee were a big hit with most of the crowd, and deservedly so. The front line of Courtney, violinist Chris Baum, guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion, assisted by Gavin Wallace-Ainsworth’s textural drumming, was a delight to watch – particularly during their blistering rendition of “Way Too Long”, complete with a Pete Townsend-like jump from Levin, rousing chorus and all-round antics not frequently seen in a prog milieu – a fitting climax to an outstanding edition of the festival.

Though the female presence on stage was not as noticeable as in past years, the bands that performed at ProgDay 2016 were remarkable for their ethnic diversity – which unfortunately does not yet extend to the audience. The growing involvement of a younger generation of musicians also bodes well for the future of the progressive scene, even if a lot of the music played at ProgDay does not conform to the standard prog template. In my view, this is one of the festival’s greatest strengths. Over the years, ProgDay has become a showcase for the finest new progressive music, and its bucolic quaintness does not disguise the fact that its musical offer has consistently been top-notch in every sense. Dispensing with the trappings that have proved to be the weakness of other events (which means not having to rely on big-name draws), and having secured the unwavering support of a strong core of attendees, the festival has come out of the shadows, and displayed a staying power few people would have bet on when it first started. I am also glad to say that this year’s attendance was definitely more than satisfactory, so much that I even managed to miss a couple of people in the crowd!

As usual at the end of my review, I would like to thank the organizers, the volunteers and everyone involved in making ProgDay 2016 an unqualified success. The experience is always so intense that, upon getting back home, it feels as if we have been gone for a month instead of a mere three days. Knowing that ProgDay 2017 will happen, and that the first three bands have already been secured (though only one was officially announced) makes the long wait for next year’s Labor Day weekend both harder and easier to bear. It was a wonderful, restorative weekend, and I am happy to have made some new friends during this edition. The definition of “family reunion” that is often applied ProgDay was never more apt. It is also heartening to see a growing number of young participants (such as the very cool Thomas, the son of our dear friend HT Riekels), as well as a strong contingent of  “prog ladies”, immortalized this year in a group photo that should put paid to the tired old cliché that women do not like progressive music. The only negative (besides the lack of bassoons)? That it was over way too soon!

Links:
http://www.progday.net

 

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bonesaw (4:48)
2. Trigger (3:00)
3. St James Infirmary (5:12)
4. Stone Don’t Sway (3:46)
5. Family (4:51)
6. Moonshiner (4:12)
7. Tennessee (4:01)
8. Little More Feeling (2:20)
9. Smiles and Scars (4:39)

LINEUP:
George Gierer – guitar, banjo, lead vocals, marinated ice
Andrew Sussman – cello, bass, banjo, mandolin, vocals

With:
Dan Bonis – lap steel and resonator guitars (1)
John Lieto – trombone (3)
Nick Lieto – trumpet (3)
James Guarnieri – cymbal (2)
Bill Ayasse – fiddle (8)

Those who still follow my rare posts, as well as my (fortunately) much more frequent contribution to DPRP’s weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, may have noticed that my choices are increasingly drifting away from “conventional” prog, and touching upon music genres that are not traditionally associated with it. In fact, my tastes have always been rather eclectic, and as a rule I do not like to restrict my focus to just one genre. Therefore, I was glad of the opportunity to review Pluck & Rail’s debut album – especially after having seen the duo in action during Frogg Café’s performance at the Orion Studios in April 2016.

Pluck & Rail is a new venture in which Froggs bassist Andrew Sussman is joined by guitarist/vocalist George Gierer, of folkabilly band South County (based in Yonkers, NY). Fans of the NYC  jazz-rock quintet (now guitar-less, following Frank Camiola’s relocation to the UK) should not, however, expect anything in a similar vein – in spite of the participation of all the remaining FC members. Trigger is steeped in Americana, and, not surprisingly, its relationship with prog is rather tenuous.

Clocking in at a snappy 37 minutes, Trigger is a collection of nine songs – packaged in elegant, vintage-style artwork –  that draw on the US’ rich tradition of folk, country and blues, with occasional jazzy and even punk touches. It hinges on the seamless interplay between the two mainmen, though the instrumental brilliance is put at the service of the songs rather than spotlighted for its own sake – unlike what happens all too often  in prog. As you would expect, the bulk of the songs are wistful, mid-paced ballads, masterfully interpreted by Gierer’s deep, slightly smoky voice. The lyrics, in keeping with the folk tradition  (both American and European) also referenced by the Portland band, spin dark, gloomy tales of death, loss, addiction and similar cheery topics – which, however, go hand-in-glove with the music.

Opener “Bonesaw” immediately sets the tone,  with distinct echoes of The Decemberists’ early work – minus Colin Meloy’s somewhat nasal tone; Dan Bonis’ lap steel guitar adds its distinctive twang to the melancholy but catchy tone of the song. The title-track definitely breaks the mould:  an intense workout for Sussman’s cello, beefed up by James Guarnieri on cymbals, its aggressive, shouted vocals suggest an acoustic take on punk rock (not coincidentally for a song dealing with the topic of addiction). The revamped traditional folk/blues of “St. James Infirmary”, a song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 (also covered by Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and The Animals, among many others), pits Gierer’s vocals against the brothers Lieto’s call-and-response horns, which emphasize the song’s mournful allure. On the other hand, the jaunty, almost rocking pace of Trigger’s shortest song, the 2-minute “Little More Feeling”, is nicely enhanced by Bill Ayasse’s brisk fiddle, while “Smiles and Scars” wraps up the album on a plaintive, whisky-soaked note.

Being European, I am not what you would call an expert on American folk, nor can I claim to be a frequent listener to this genre. However, as a lifelong music lover, I found that Trigger strikes the right chord. Clearly a labour of love by two outstanding musicians, it is recommended listening to everyone who loves good music, particularly of the acoustic variety. As to hardcore proggers, I believe that everyone needs an occasional respite from 20-minute epics with more time signature changes than you can wrap your head around. You might do much worse than give Trigger a listen, and possibly more than one.

Links:
http://www.pluckandrail.com
https://www.facebook.com/pluckandrail/?fref=ts
https://pluckandrail.bandcamp.com/releases

 

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Manifestation Part Two (5:54)
2. Gridlock (3:37)
3. Baba Yaga (4:35)
4. Manifestation Part One (5:16)
5. Saddha (7:00)
6. Nocturne (1:48)
7. Dybbuk (6:08)
8. Time and Again (3:26)
9. Shatterpoint (6:34)
10. Waterfalls and Black Rainbows (3:46)

LINEUP:
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, fretted and fretless guitar, fretless bass, mellotron, thumb piano, synth, samples
Gayle Ellett – mellotron, moog, Hammond organ, guitar
Mike McGary: mellotron, Rhodes, organ, clavinet, synth, piano, bells
Rick Read – Chapman stick, fretted and fretless bass, Taurus pedals
Ross Young – drums

With:
Bill Bachman – drums (1, 3, 7)
Bob Fisher – flute (4-7), saxophone (2, 8)
Stephen Page – violin (2, 6, 9, 8)

Three years after Conjure, Herd of Instinct are back with a brand-new album, and an equally brand-new lineup. Only Mark Cook (recently in the spotlight on Hands’ outstanding 2015 album, Caviar Bobsled) remains of the original trio that released its self-titled debut in 2011, immediately awakening the interest of the progressive rock fandom. Drummer Jason Spradlin and guitarist Mark Davison have left, replaced by Ross Young and Rick Read,  a pair of excellent musicians from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, formerly with Cook in another local outfit named Minefield. The lineup is completed by multi-instrumentalist Gayle Ellett (of Djam Karet and Fernwood fame) and keyboardist Mike McGary. Drummer Bill Bachman (the other half of the Spoke of Shadows project), violinist Stephen Page and flutist/saxophonist Bob Fisher (who guested on the band’s previous albums) are also on board.

Released on Djam Karet’s Firepool Records label, Manifestation marks both a continuation and an evolution in the band’s approach. While its sound is almost immediately recognizable, based as it is on the versatile, hypnotic sound of the Warr guitar and other touch instruments, it has also acquired a dimension that I might call “symphonic” – though not exactly in the sense it is commonly meant when discussing prog. Indeed, Herd of Instinct may be one of the few currently active bands who have managed to forge their own individual sound, in which influences are incorporated into the fabric of the music without coming across as overtly derivative. The overall effect is one of effortless melody coupled with heady tempo shifts, where the sharper edges are softened by the lush, multilayered instrumental texture. In particular, Rick Read’s Chapman stick and the pervasive presence of prog’s iconic instrument, the mellotron, add depth and complexity – as well as that symphonic feel that sets the album apart from its more austere predecessors.

Clocking in at under 50 minutes, Manifestation continues with the band’s tradition of compositions whose short yet pithy titles evoke mental images. On three of the ten completely instrumental tracks, a somewhat longer running time than on the band’s previous albums allows the musicians to display a wide range of modes of expression, though leaving no room for self-indulgence.

Opener “Manifestation Part Two” introduces the “new” Herd of Instinct, successfully infusing  the band’s seamless ensemble dynamics and stunning solo spots with a haunting sense of melody. Interestingly, “Manifestation Part One” occupies the fourth slot, reprising most of the features of “Part One” (including a lovely Warr guitar solo towards the end), though in somewhat more streamlined fashion. In “Gridlock” the sleek interplay of violin, saxophone and guitar is supported by a brisk drum beat, while the Hammond organ and wailing guitar in the angular “Time and Again” blend vintage psychedelic suggestions with echoes of Eighties King Crimson. On the other hand, intriguing funky elements and an almost wild guitar solo coexist with sound effects and majestic mellotron washes in the energetic “Shatterpoint”.

Manifestation does not forget to tap into Herd of Instinct’s trademark Gothic vein, evoked by the weirdly bleak landscape depicted by the album’s cover art. While the strategically-placed, flute-and-violin interlude “Nocturne” turns from pastoral to almost dissonant in under two minutes, “Baba Yaga” paints a haunting, doom-laden picture in which gentle classical guitar arpeggios are juxtaposed with eerie keyboards and harsh riffs. The intense “Dybbuk” takes the listener on a rollercoaster ride, introducing elements of jazz (courtesy of Rick Read’s fretless bass) and metal into its foundation of interlocking guitar lines fleshed out by keyboards. The 7-minute “Saddha” (a Sanskrit word for “faith”, one of the central tenets of Buddhism)  makes use of a panoply of eerie, ominous sound effects (including a spoken reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) to reinforce the darkly Crimsonian tapestry of guitar, mellotron and flute, backed by Ross Young’s uncannily precise drumming. Finally, “Waterfalls and Black Rainbows” starts out in almost subdued fashion, then increases its dramatic quotient to wrap up the album in style.

Although 2016 promises to be a bumper year for progressive releases, Manifestation is already poised to become a favourite for many of the genre’s devotees. With this album, Herd of Instinct prove they have finally reached their maturity, and have the potential to go on to even better things. Highly recommended to fans of  instrumental prog (especially the King Crimson-inspired brand),  Manifestation is also a must-listen for anyone interested in touch guitars, either as a listener or as a practitioner.

Links:
http://herdofinstinct.wix.com/herdofinstinct

https://www.facebook.com/Herd-of-Instinct-153462274689341/

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Canterbury Bells (4:50)
2. Duke Street (4:47)
3. Muffin Man Redux (7:23)
4. Lost in a Photograph (4:21)
5. Blind Eye (4:56)
6. Shwang Time (4:58)
7. Rovian Cue (4:10)

LINEUP:
Dave Newhouse – keyboards, woodwinds, drums
Billy Swann – bass
Paul Sears – drums
Mark Stanley – guitar
George Newhouse – drums
Steve Pastena – French horn

As wonderfully illustrated by Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s superb documentary Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, the Canterbury scene expanded well beyond the borders of Great Britain, spawning a number of excellent bands in other countries. One of those outfits was The Muffins, a four-piece with an idiosyncratic configuration (drums, bass and double woodwinds) originally established in 1973 in the Maryland/Washington DC area, and reformed in the late Nineties after a lengthy hiatus. Though drummer Paul Sears’ move to Arizona in 2010 has curtailed the band’s live appearances, their recording activity has not ground to a halt, with two albums released in the past five years. The band members have also been contributing to several interesting projects in the field of progressive music.

Named after The Muffins’ 1978 debut album – one of the essential Canterbury-related releases – Manna/Mirage is the newest project by founding member Dave Newhouse (one of the band’s two woodwind players). Not surprisingly, fellow Muffins Billy Swann and Paul Sears are also on board, as well as Newhouse’s son George, guitarist Mark Stanley (of Chainsaw Jazz and Thee Maximalists), and newest recruit, Steve Pastena, on French horn. The ensemble’s debut, released in the autumn of 2015, bears the title of Blue Dogs – a title inspired by a painting by artist and RIO/Canterbury fan Gonzalo Fuentes Riquelme (aka Guerrilla Graphics), which graces the CD cover. The album was mixed and produced by none other than Mike Potter of Orion Studios – probably the most important venue for progressive music in the US, and the setting of The Muffins’ most recent performance to date, in May 2015.

As related in detail on Manna/Mirage’s website, Blue Dogs was originally meant as half of a big- band album by The Muffins. Clocking in at a mere 35 minutes, the album is such a rewarding listen that it almost feels like the appetizer before a full meal – jam-packed with buoyant horns and woodwinds, energetic yet stylish drumming, multilayered keyboards and keen-edged guitar. While the imprint of Newhouse’s mother band is clearly stamped all over it, Blue Dogs goes one step further, bearing witness to the artist’s love of classic jazz, as well as the Canterbury sound’s trademark blend of elegance and whimsy.

In the aptly-titled opening track “Canterbury Bells”, the titular bells are provided by a gently lilting glockenspiel, while Newhouse’s jaunty keyboards and woodwinds flesh out the sound. Dedicated to Duke Ellington (whose recorded voice can be heard at the end), the jazzy “Duke Street” starts out in an upbeat mood, then turns sparser and looser, the instruments’ staggered interplay of the especially riveting. Newhouse’s expressive woodwinds take centre stage in the exhilarating “Shwang Time”, where the big-band origin of the music is clearly on display. In contrast, “Lost in a Photograph” (whose title hints at nostalgia for things past) provides a foil for the album’s more dynamic compositions, with its stately, almost melancholy mood, while closing track “Rovian Cue” starts out brightly, and then mellows out, the piano and the woodwinds complementing each other.

That leaves Blue Dogs’ two most distinctive tracks, which increase the interest value of an already outstanding album. At over 7 minutes, “Muffin Man Redux” is propelled by Paul Sears’ pyrotechnic drumming, while leisurely bass and guitar mesh together to complement the spirited call of the saxes. A citation of the gospel classic “When the Saints Go Marching In” leads the way to a fuzzed-organ passage in true Steward-Ratledge style, followed by an amusing rendition of the nursery rhyme that lends its title to the song. On the other hand, after a slow, sedate beginning, “Blind Eye” veers into Avant/Zeuhl territory, with its many tempo changes, meandering guitar and blaring saxes.

Although Blue Dogs is obviously a must-listen for any self-respecting fan of the Canterbury scene, the album will provide 35 minutes of bliss to everyone who loves great music. Newhouse’s love of his craft and his knowledge of different genres are all brought to bear in what is definitely one of the top releases of 2015 – though, unfortunately, not one that will have received as much exposure as other (and, in my view, inferior) albums. I hope this review will in some way redress the situation, or at least create some curiosity. Those who appreciate the album will be glad to know that Manna/Mirage’s follow-up effort has already been composed and halfway recorded, and will see the light in 2017. In the meantime, what about some live shows?

Links:
http://www.mannamirage.com

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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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