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Dario D’Alessandro

After a couple of months of silence, I am glad to have the opportunity to post this outstanding interview with Dario D’Alessandro of Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res (undoubtedly one of the best modern bands to come out of Italy for a long time), conducted by fellow music enthusiast Michael Björn.

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Homunculus Res
Dario D’Alessandro interview

(Japanese language version originally published in Strange Days #198, March 19 2016)

Text & interview: Michael Björn

Already with the first propulsive beats in odd time signatures on their debut album in 2013, Homunculus Res made it clear that great things were happening on the island of Sicily. With their new album Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era, there is no longer any doubt that they are the new heirs to the throne of Canterbury-inspired progressive rock bands.

When the organ resolves the last 40 seconds of “Doppiofondo del barile” you could swear that Hatfield & the North are in the studio control room, clapping their hands. But although the humour, the inventive song writing, the short pop songs, the mass of ideas piled on top of each other and the complex arrangements all firmly root them in the Canterbury music tradition, Homunculus Res are no copycats.

Whereas Egg, Caravan and National Health all had a lovely cup of tea waiting for them at the end of a song; there is no such romantic dream of Albion in the music made by Homunculus Res.

When you leave that cup of tea behind, strange things happen. One could argue that Henry Cow did exactly this and the result was the RIO movement. Homunculus Res, however, are less overtly oriented towards politics; their focus instead seems to be the modernistic tradition of mainland Europe. They re-examine and re-invigorate their Canterbury influences in every twist and turn, outfit them with retro-futuristic sounds from space machines and dance moves from the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub.

Although such modernistic influences were certainly an integral part of the Canterbury scene, particularly during Soft Machine’s early years, here they are developed into a unique strain of rock music that touches a deep nerve in the listener.

How did Homunculus Res manage to develop their singular vision? We asked bandleader Dario D’Alessandro to tell us more.

How, when and why was Homunculus Res formed?

Dario: The band was founded in 2010. At that time, I wanted to play progressive music that was complex but at the same time pleasant to listen to and fun. I had already written several songs. The meeting with the Di Giovanni brothers – Daniele on drums and David on keyboard –  has made this possible because they also wanted to experiment with odd time signatures and musical mathematical games. Like me, they also they a strong taste for melody.

The current line-up is a prog-rock quintet, including Mauro Turdo, to whom I willingly leave the most difficult guitar parts, and Daniele Crisci on bass. When we play a live show, we try to involve horn players, flute and /or sax, to complete the arrangements.

We are all interested in the arts. As for myself, I am primarily a painter and graphic artist. In fact, I curate all the graphical parts of our project.

 

Davide Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Is it true that the band name Homunculus Res comes from Otto Rippert’s six-part science fiction film “Homunculus” from 1916? What does the name signify to you?

Dario: I wanted a band name that was mysterious but also funny. Initially, it was Homunculus REX, haha! A graceful mockery of the seriousness of certain themes that still fascinate me. The name can also be a derogatory version of Man himself; a small man with no soul, morally poor. Probably this character metaphorically represents a critique of modern society. The inspiration mainly comes from Goethe’s Faust.


You have a different approach to music than most other Italian progressive bands.

Dario: True, we have a different approach than the Italian style in general; less “romantic”, more amused and perhaps more geared to the North-European and American tastes.

I don’t know why.


My two favourite Italian bands are Homunculus Res and Breznev Fun Club. Would you count yourself as part of the same scene?

Dario: We can probably both broadly be called Avant-Prog, but it is obvious that there are huge differences in our styles. Breznev Fun Club leader Rocco Lomonaco is a great meticulous composer who looks to the contemporary avant-garde music; whereas we are a band that basically uses the rock language.

But Rocco and I hold each other in high regard and we will write something together soon.


You have called Picchio Dal Pozzo the most important Italian band. Do you see Homunculus Res as a continuation of their music?

Dario: For me, Picchio dal Pozzo is something wonderfully unique and unrepeatable that happened on the Italian music scene. I am very pleased that the critics compare us, but we feel very tiny compared to them, although they are an endless source of inspiration. Maybe what we have in common is a surreal sense of humour.

Picchio dal Pozzo founding member Aldo De Scalzi has in fact collaborated on a song on our second album. He is very nice to us; a very kind and cheerful person.


How did you get so many artists to guest on the album?

Dario: Well, I just expressed my admiration to them and vice versa. For example, I found the music of Regal Worm very fresh, unconventional and similar to our intentions.

For us it was a real privilege. Dave Newhouse (the Muffins / Rascal Reporters) played many horn parts, showing great mastery and naturalness with the modesty that is typical of great musicians. He’s a wonderful and sensitive person.


There is also a track called “Egg Soup” by Steve Kretzmer from Rascal Reporters. Did he write it for you? I thought Steve Kretzmer had left music for good?

Dario: I included the opening theme from the fantastic Rascal Reporters album “Happy Accidents” on our first album. Then, I came in contact with Brian Donohoe (Volaré, Alpha Cop), who has taken over the huge Rascal Reporters tape archive in order to digitise and remaster it.

Brian put me in touch with Steve Kretzmer, who was amazed that someone had done a Rascal Reporters cover. I tried to convince Steve to play or make a song together, although he has not played for a long time. However, thanks to Brian, they had the brilliant idea to give me an unreleased 1977 piano piece, “Egg Soup”.

From what I know, Steve Kretzmer will return to write music.


What is Canterbury music to you?

Dario: For me, as for many others, it is music that quirkily and smartly blends electric jazz with the progressive rock and psychedelia: A quest into complex rhythms and delicious harmonies with a pataphysical and surreal attitude. Everything is so graceful and refined, both in the most violent raids of Egg and in the most ethereal Wyatt melodies.

You seem to have a strong affection for the nonsensical elements of that music. The absurdism as well as the humour shines through even though I do not understand a word of Italian.

Dario: The absurdity attracts me, and I am attracted to music that explores the unknown. I am fascinated by eccentric literary authors such as Rabelais, Sterne, Kafka and Jarry; and I love Dadaism and Surrealism. However I would not call my lyrics “nonsense” – it is more appropriate to think of them as symbolic texts.

I try to give a musicality to the words. If the humour comes out even for a not Italian listener, this pleases me!

Top: Daniele Crisci, Mauro Turdo, Davide Di Giovanni Bottom: Daniele Di Giovanni, Dario D’Alessandro

 

Many of your songs are extremely short…

Dario: Many things can happen within a short space of time – and we tend to get bored when repeating or stretching phrases or riffs. This may stem from our love for beautiful “pop” songs, and we hope it is also stimulating for the curious listener


Your new album also contains the 18-minute track “Ospedale Civico” that seems to reference National Health. Why keep some things together and divide others up?

Dario: My way of composing is similar to the method of a writer of short stories. “Ospedale Civico” is connected by various internal references, recurring themes and self-citations, in a coherent continuum and self-sufficient form. The song is definitely a reference to National Health; it is a hallucinatory journey inside a public hospital, treated as in a J.G. Ballard story. Full of disjointed phrases uttered by patients, the general feeling is grotesque and restless but, because of that, it is tragicomic as in the Italian cinema tradition.

I also involved Wyatt Moss-Wellington, who sang some magnificent choruses. He was making a beautiful, long piece entitled “Sanitary Apocalypse” during the same period; an enjoyable coincidence, so it was perfect for the cause.


Is there any collaboration on the writing or on arrangements?

Dario: I write almost everything and propose it to the group.  I have not studied music so I do not write a score, even if I try to translate the music to midi files. The songs originate on guitar or keyboard or, in the case where I need to understand things concomitantly, they are born on a computer.

We then try to find the best arrangement together, and witnessing a song take shape with the band is the thing I enjoy the most. On some parts I’m inflexible (some chords, a sequence of notes, or a precise rhythm), while for other things I leave it the group to decide all together.

On each record, there are also one or two songs written by keyboardist Davide.


I saw a live concert recording of you online. Is it very difficult to play your music live?

Dario: Some songs are not very easy to play. There are so many things to remember and many steps are very tight. Maybe we mostly love the studio atmosphere; we work on the arrangements and we have fun during recordings and postproduction.

In any case we do rehearse frequently and our few concerts are appreciated even by those who don’t know us.

 

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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. 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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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Last Song (8:20)
2. Heavy Lifting (6:20)
3. Discourse on Method (5:38)
4. Drum Roe (1:06)
5. Halfway to Salem (7:36)
6. Still Life (7:01)
7. Talking Points (3:52)
8. Like Me (6:18)
9. Into the Night (2:20)
10. Shards (3:16)
11. Alis Volat Propiis (4:48)
12. This and That (4:23)
13. Busy Signal (11:31)

LINEUP:
Skip Durbin – woodwinds, exotics
John Rousseau – drums
Rex Bozarth – Chapman Stick, bass, cello, background vocals
Martin McCall – drums, percussion
Shannon Day – vintage and contemporary keyboards
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, bass, guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion, devices
Steve Powell – bass, additional keyboards, background vocals, noises
Ernie Myers – vocals, guitars

When discussing the somewhat obscure US prog scene of the Seventies, Hands will likely not be among the first names that spring to mind. However, the Texas band – founded by guitarist Ernie Myers and keyboardist Michael Clay (both members of jazz-rock outfit Prism) – has been around since 1977, more or less as long as higher-profile bands such as The Muffins and Happy the Man. Their first two albums, Hands and Palm Mystery, though released in the late Nineties, feature material dating back from the band’s early years, before their 2002 reunion with the aptly titled Twenty-Five Winters – followed in 2008 by the excellent Strangelet.

Seven years later, Hands are back with the elegantly-packaged, cryptically-titled Caviar Bobsled, and a revamped lineup that comprises no less than eight members. Founder Michael Clay and drummer John Fiveash have left, replaced by Skip Durbin, Rex Bozarth, Shannon Day and John Rousseau, all involved in the band’s previous incarnations. With Myers and bassist Steve Powell at the helm, the 2015 version of Hands amounts more to a small orchestra than a mere rock band, as the array of instruments employed on the album (duly detailed in the extensive liner notes) is nothing short of astonishing.

While all too often such ambitious undertakings turn out to be triumphs of style over substance, Caviar Bobsled is nothing of the sort, delivering instead a lesson on how modern progressive rock should sound like, and handling the inevitable references to prog’s “golden oldies” in such a way as to provide fleeting reminders rather than blatantly obvious homages. In fact, there is very little on Caviar Bobsled that can be termed derivative.

Clocking in at almost 73 minutes, Caviar Bobsled is a long, densely packed album. While I usually consider running times in excess of 60 minutes a drawback rather than an asset, Hands’ latest effort holds together admirably well, with a minimal amount of filler. Though Myers (whose polite, well-modulated vocals fit the music to a T) is responsible for writing most of the 13 songs, other band members get their chance in the spotlight. Individual times are also well-balanced, with the two longest tracks bookending the album, and the shorter, catchier numbers located closer to the middle.

Musically speaking, Caviar Bobsled is a veritable rollercoaster ride, running the gamut of styles and deftly blending various sources of inspiration to achieve a strikingly original result. Eclecticism is the name of the game: I can think of very few albums in which echoes of Queen and The Beatles rub elbows with angular patterns in pure King Crimson style – often in the space of the same song, as borne out by the brilliant “Heavy Lifting”, a song that packs more in barely over 6 minutes than many epics do in 20, or the deceptively accessible “Discourse on Method”.

In opener “The Last Song”, the rugged appeal of Shannon Day’s Hammond B3 organ injects shades of Deep Purple in a richly arranged texture that brings to mind Belew-era King Crimson. Warm folksy traits emerge in the playful, largely acoustic “Talking Points”, “Shards” and “This and That”, the latter also reminiscent of Gentle Giant and Caravan with its pastoral flute and jaunty percussion. On the flip side, the intricately orchestrated “Still Life” with its dramatic, surging intro, mercurially shifts from ethereal sparseness to roaring organ and guitar passages with a more classic prog feel. Closer “Busy Signal” encompasses all of the album’s characteristics, veering from nostalgic to majestic to atmospheric in the space of 11-odd minutes, and putting each band member’s skill on display in a breathtakingly multifaceted whole.

My personal highlight, however, is one of the three instrumental interludes that add a further layer of interest to the album. With its poetic title and gorgeously hypnotic sounds, “Alis Volat Propiis” (“Flies With Its Own Wings” – I will always be partial to a bit of Latin!) turns the spotlight on Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct and Spoke of Shadows fame), whose Warr guitar recreates the spellbinding atmospheres that characterize his work with those bands. Though Cook plays only on 5 songs out of 13, his contribution to the fabric of those composition is essential – as in the elegiac “Halfway to Salem” (where he plays 12-string electric guitar), or in the instrumental sections of “Still Life” and “Busy Signal”. Though shorter, the other two instrumentals hold their own – “Drum Roe” showcasing drummer Martin McCall’s skills, and Rex Bozarths’s lovely, mournful cello solo spot “Into the Night” treading in chamber music territory.

Those prog fans who are often frustrated in their search for new music that is fresh and interesting – though not as openly challenging or potentially offputting as anything with metal elements or avant-garde leanings – are warmly encouraged to check out Caviar Bobsled. The care and dedication that have gone into its writing and recording are evident, and the album offers something to almost everyone. Although Hands are still one of the best-kept secrets of the thriving US prog scene, this highly rewarding effort deserves to be known to a larger audience, and will definitely find a place in my personal Best of 2015 list.

Links:
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/hands3
http://www.shroomangel.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Magnet (6:07)
2. Remember Where You Were (7:43)
3. Dr. Abraham (8:11)
4. The Fox in the Hole (4:45)
6. Wasp in a Wig (6:16)
7. The White Book (9:57)

LINEUP:
Patrick McGowan – vocals, guitars, keyboards
Dan McGowan – vocals, guitars, keyboards
Jamie Wolff – bass, violin, cello
Reinhardt McGeddon – keyboards
Tony Davis – drums

Though the band originally intended to release the follow-up to 2012’s highly acclaimed Quickly, Quickly, Quickly just one year later – as, like Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, the albums were seen as two halves of a whole rather than separate items – the wait for The Tea Club’s fourth album turned out to be much longer. Now, in the last quarter of 2015, the New Jersey outfit’s latest effort has finally surfaced.

As is often the case, extensive line-up changes were involved in the delay. While the band’s mainstays, brothers Dan and Pat McGowan, are a reliable constant, the new blood brings something valuable to the equation. So, enter Joe Dorsey (aka Reinhardt McGeddon) with his array of keyboards, as well as bassist Jamie Wolff and drummer Tony Davis providing a solid yet flexible rhythmic backbone.

The aptly-titled Grappling – a fitting caption for the career of any progressive rock act in this age of disposable music – clearly reveals its close kinship with The Tea Club’s earlier effort, but, at the same time, also sheds a light on the band’s development in the course of the past three years. Though there are enough immediately recognizable elements in the sound – the explosive crescendos, driven by the McGowan brother’s vertiginous vocals, balanced by low-key, almost meditative passages – there is also the feeling of a band striving to get out of its own comfort zone.

Indeed, in some ways, Grappling is the “proggiest” album the band has ever recorded, the one that most will remind the listener of the classics, whose influence is skillfully combined with that of modern progressive rock icons such as Radiohead, Dredg and The Mars Volta. The drums – very prominent in the mix – are a true propulsive force, almost dominating the proceedings with the sheer power of their presence, while the major role of the organ evokes shades of Yes and ELP, though without any overt concessions to the “retro” craze.

If I had to summarize Grappling in just one word, I would choose “ambitious”. Right from the first notes of opener “The Magnet”, it is quite evident that The Tea Club have spared no effort in the making of their fourth album, and that their attention to detail has reached unprecedented heights. On the other hand, the album clocks in at a very restrained 42 minutes. After the experiment of the 16-minute epic “Firebears”, which opened Quickly Quickly Quickly, here the band went for a different route, packing a lot into the album’s six tracks while keeping their individual running time under 10 minutes.

With this sort of introduction, it will not come as a surprise that the individual songs are not easy to describe adequately. In fact, the music is so multifaceted and mercurial as to be occasionally hard to grasp. Opening with the bang of “The Magnet”, a catchy yet intricately woven song that introduces all the album’s distinctive elements in dramatic fashion, Grappling unfolds in a riot of sound, each song packed with unpredictable twists and turns. Things slow down at the beginning of “Remember Where You Were”, which starts out as a ballady mid-tempo before shifting into high gear, the volume surging and the vocals almost roaring, a hint of dissonance spicing the melodic texture and bringing Yes to mind. The grandiosely symphonic intro of “Dr Abraham” also evokes memories of vintage prog, though the song later unfolds in wildly unpredictable fashion, with ominous whispered vocals, atonal piano flurries and pounding drums – sounding like a 21-century version of Relayer-era Yes jamming with The Mars Volta.

Grappling’s second half is introduced by the charming “The Fox in the Hole”, a relatively understated piece with hints of Celtic folk, and plenty of opportunity for drummer Tony Davis to deploy his percussive skills. “Wasp in a Wig” initially brings to mind a traditional rock power ballad, but quickly turns into a chameleon-like display of classic Tea Club tactics, going into slo-mo, then gaining momentum again, and ending with a very engaging vocal and instrumental coda. The mellotron-drenched “The White Book” (the album’s longest track at nearly 10 minutes) closes the album on a stately, melodic note, occasionally reminiscent of Echolyn (another recognizable influence on the band’s sound), though still displaying their distinctive use of quiet-loud dynamics.

With Grappling, The Tea Club prove they have reached their full maturity as a compositional force, and are ready to assume a leading role in the overcrowded modern prog scene. The album has the potential to bridge the ever-growing gap between nostalgia-bound fans and those more rooted in the present (and the future) of the genre, and is therefore highly recommended to all lovers of progressive rock – except, of course, those for whom anything produced after 1989 is immediately disqualified.

Links:
http://www.theteaclub.net/