Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Acoustic’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

http://10trecords.com/

http://www.kenwestphal.com/

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1 Never Be The Same (3:18)
2. Rage (4:37)
3. Lasso (5:17)
4. Stone Wall (4:19)
5. Emergence (4:40)
6. Starting Over (4:44)
7. Can’t Wait Anymore (4:18)
8. Equinox (5:34)
9. Goddess (4:32)
10. Continuum (6:28)
11. Read My Mind (5:02)
12. Summertime (4:37)

LINEUP:
Mike Henderson –  acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, hand and electronic percussion, mandolin, effects
Caroline Dourley – vocals
Jack Housen – vocals, bouzouki, guitar (11)
Chuck Oken, Jr – drums
Dion Sorrell – electric cello, bass (5)

The year 2010 saw the release of two albums by side projects of members of historic US prog outfit Djam Karet, along with the band’s live-in-the-studio album The Heavy Soul Sessions. While Chuck Oken, Jr and Gayle Ellett explore electronic progressive music with Ukab Maerd,  guitarist Mike Henderson is responsible for this largely acoustic, song-oriented White Arrow Project. According to the accompanying press release, the album took many years to complete, and, though all its participants live in the same Southern Californian town, this is the first time they have actually worked together on the same project. While this lends the album a warm, endearingly ‘homemade’ feel, light years removed from the contrived nature of so many mainstream productions, White Arrow Project sounds definitely more streamlined than most of Djam Karet’s output. Not that it should come as a surprise to long-time fans of the band, who are by now quite used to its members’ need for branching out and expanding their sonic horizons – as also witnessed by the two albums released in the past couple of years by Gayle Ellett’s acoustic side project Fernwood.

Though the album is solely credited to Henderson, who lends his distinctive guitar style to the compositions (as well as playing most of the other instruments), the musicians involved (including Chuck Oken, Jr. on drums) form a very tight unit, whose contribution is essential to the fabric of the sound. Employing both male and female vocals, White Arrow Project is a quintessentially melodic offering,  with quite a few catchy, almost poppy moments (such as closing track “Summertime”) and a distinct lack of hard edges. The album lacks any numbers longer than 6 minutes, most of them featuring vocals and keeping a steady, relaxed mid-pace. The press release mentions influences such as Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Brian Eno, and the moody, atmospheric nature of the  instrumental tracks may indeed bring the latter musician to mind. The similarity between some of the songs and Kate Bush’s output is also quite remarkable, particularly as regards the presence of the bouzouki’s distinctive metallic twang. On the other hand,  I have found the Dead Can Dance comparisons somewhat more tenuous – since neither of the vocalists (while perfectly adequate) reaches the stellar level of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, nor does the music possess the same deeply haunting quality.

Out of the 12 tracks featured on the album, most involve singing of some sort, which, in my view, often detracts from the musical aspect instead of enhancing it as it should. Caroline Dourley, with her well-trained, well-modulated voice, only sings on a handful of tracks, the majority being performed by Jack Housen – whose contribution on the bouzouki is an essential component of the album’s overall sound. However, I found his vocals rather disappointing, at times reminiscent of Gordon Haskell on King Crimson’s Lizard, though not as grating. The presence of a truly commanding male voice such as the aforementioned Brendan Perry would have lifted the level of the album from merely pleasant to actually memorable.

Not surprisingly, then, the true highlights of this album are provided by the three instrumentals, showing that the group of musicians are indeed a finely-tuned unit. The Eastern-flavoured “Emergence” (where the Dead Can Dance comparisons surface most strongly), “Equinox”, with its acoustic/electric interplay, and the hauntingly percussive “Continuum” meld gentle, folksy strains and New-Age-tinged electronics, creating soothing textures and intriguing soundscapes. As to the vocal tracks, I found those performed by Caroline Dourley more impressive than the ones featuring Jack Housen (with the exception of the muted, hypnotic “Stone Wall”). On “Lasso”, Dourley’s subdued vocals forms a backdrop for the instruments rather than the other way round; while the Celtic undertones of “Can’t Wait Anymore” may bring to mind Clannad’s more recent output.

A lovingly crafted album by a group of gifted musicians, White Arrow Project is likely to appeal to those who like folk- and ambient-tinged music with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts – as well as those who are looking for some respite from the demands of the weightier instances of prog. With a very manageable running time of 57 minutes, it is a very listener-friendly disc without being overtly commercial, performed with passion and skill. On the other hand, its pleasant but not quite memorable nature might cause it to be overlooked among the glut of progressive or quasi-progressive albums that are flooding the market.

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

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. Epilogo  (2:41)
2. Giù nella Forra  (1:47)
3. Casa di Blu  (0:58)
4. La Guida  (1:28)
5. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Chiusa  (0:53)
6. Dimmi Chi Sei  (2:30)
7. Cosa Dice Quella Porta Schiusa  (0:53)
8. Fame Che Ride  (1:18)
9. Ladri e Stranieri  (4:49)
10. Soldati  (2:01)
11. Un Lupo  (3:29)
12. Canto Antico  (2:38)
13. Casa Non Mai Vista  (2:23)
14. Cristo Guarito  (3:10)
15. La Lettera  (1:52)
16. Gli Scantinati  (3:56)
17. Requiem  (2:29)
18. Nessuno Muore Mai  (1:37)
19. Non Sono Morto  (2:21)

LINEUP:
Leonardo Bonetti – vocals, bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards
Paola Feraiorni – vocals
Fabio Brait – acoustic guitar
Aldo Orazi – drums

Racconto d’Inverno (A Winter Tale), the third album by Rome-based outfit Arpia,  was released in early 2009 together with band mastermind Leonardo Bonetti’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title.  Like Arpia’s previous two albums, Liberazione (1995) and Terramare (2006), Racconto d’Inverno is a concept album,  a musical rendition of a book that in turn is based on two other works, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short story Racconto d’Autunno (An Autumn Story). It is also one of those albums that are extremely difficult to define. It is progressive rock, but not as we commonly know it –  indeed, if taken superficially, it can even come across as remarkably accessible in a ‘sophisticated pop-rock’  kind of way.  Moreover, it  is almost completely acoustic, with keyboards used as a complement rather than as a main ingredient.

Though they have been active for over 25 years with the same core line-up, Arpia are anything but a prolific band. Racconto d’Inverno, however, is the effort that really raises the bar in terms of the development and maturation of their individual style, and not just any old, tired variation on the ‘rock opera’ theme. The concise, yet supremely elegant lyrics, perfectly suited to the dual vocal approach adopted by the band, emphasize the aura of mingled fear and fascination pervading the whole disc. In a way, though musically quite different, it could be compared to another similarly structured album released in the first months of 2009, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love.

The story (which follows a circular narrative pattern) is told from the point of view of its protagonist, a drifter roaming in the mountains near the border during World War Two. While trying to escape from the war zone, he meets a mysterious young man who guides him to an equally mysterious, derelict house deep in a forested gorge, haunted by the presence of a woman. Though those familiar with Italian literature will immediately notice the link with the rich tradition of fiction set against the background of those terrible years, Racconto d’Inverno is not a realistic account of the horrors of war, but rather a hauntingly Gothic tale that may also be read metaphorically.

From a musical perspective, Racconto d’Inverno does not suggest ‘traditional’ Italian prog, but rather bands that merge folk and world music influences with darkly rarefied atmospheres, such  as Australian outfit Dead Can Dance –  to which I would add seminal British prog-folk band The Pentangle (especially as regards the use of dual male and female lead vocals). There is indeed a clear folk undercurrent in Arpia’s music, emphasized by the use of the acoustic guitar as the main instrument, and further reinforced by the expressive singing style of Leonardo Bonetti and Paola Feraiorni (already featured as a guest on Terramare, and now a full member of the band). Indeed, Paola’s voice is one of the main draws of the album – crystal-clear in tone, yet forceful, in the tradition of the great folk-rock female singers of the Seventies such as Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny. Her pristine, controlled delivery, far removed from the modern penchant for either saccharine sweetness or operatic grandiosity in female vocals, is the ideal vehicle for the often unsettling subject matter, dominated by the presence of death.

Arpia are also to be commended for having kept the album  at a very restrained 42 minutes, aware of the pitfalls of excessive length, especially on a project of this nature. The music, which favours the repetition of themes in selected episodes (as demonstrated, for instance, by the mirror-like melody of “Epilogo” and “Non Sono Morto”), may initially come across as somewhat monotonous, a bit like the shades of grey of the album cover and booklet –  though further listens will easily dispel this impression. Given the importance of the storyline, familiarity with the Italian language is definitely a bonus, though not indispensable in order to enjoy the album. Even without understanding the actual words, Leonardo and Paola’s stunning vocals  help the listener to connect with the story.

Racconto d’Inverno should be seen as a suite in 19 short movements (only the imperious, Middle Eastern-tinged “Ladri e Stranieri” approaches the 5-minute mark) rather than a standard collection of songs. As to be expected on an album of this nature, the music is very much at the service of the story, rather than the other way around. Though the acoustic guitars play by far the biggest role (together, obviously, with the vocals), the keyboards lurk in the background, introduced first in “Un Lupo”, and finally taking the lead in the climactic ending of the tale, the dual punch of  “Gli Scantinati” and “Requiem”. Here, combined with the mournful sound of strings and the almost unbearably intense vocals, the keyboards create a dirge-like melody that suggest some decidedly sinister goings-on in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and its ilk.

By releasing an album of such peculiar nature, Arpia have made an extremely bold move, putting artistic integrity before any concerns of commercial success. Intensely original in its combination of mesmerizing music, intriguing storytelling and splendid vocal performances, minimalistic yet deeply moving, Racconto d’Inverno is a masterpiece of atmosphere and restraint,  an album that will appeal to all lovers of music relying on simplicity and purity rather than technical flash. Those who have a good knowledge of Italian might also want to check out the novel, and possibly its source, Tommaso Landolfi’s Racconto d’Autunno – as well as Bonetti’s latest literary effort,  Racconto di Primavera (A Spring Tale), released in October 2010.

Links:
http://www.arpia.info
http://www.leonardobonetti.it

Read Full Post »

Tracklisting:
1. Light Flight (3:19)
2. Once I Had a Sweetheart (4:43)
3. Spring Time Promises (4:09)
4. Lyke-Wake Dirge (3:36)
5. Train Song (4:47)
6. Hunting Song (6:44)
7. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
8. The Cuckoo (4:30)
9. House Carpenter (5:32)

Bonus tracks
10. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
11. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:42)
12. Cold Mountain (2:02)
13. I Saw an Angel (2:52)

Lineup:
Jacqui McShee – vocals
Bert Jansch – guitar, banjo, vocals
John Renbourn – guitar, sitar, vocals
Danny Thompson – double bass
Terry Cox – drums, percussion,  glockenspiel, vocals (4)

There must have been something in the water in Great Britain back in 1969 that inspired musicians to produce such an impressive number of landmark albums. Though best known to progressive rock fans for King Crimson’s seminal debut, the year saw the release of other essential discs for the history of rock in all its forms. Pentangle’s third album, Basket of Light, is one of those, though unfortunately it may easily fly under the radar of most listeners but dedicated folk-rock  enthusiasts – which is a pity, because the album is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Indeed, Basket of Light is everything a lover of progressive folk-rock might expect, and then some. Bert Jansch’s and John Renbourn’s fluid, jangling guitars weave seamless melodies, backed by Danny Thompson’s impeccable double bass work and Terry Cox’s precise, understated drumming, while  Jacqui McShee’s enchantingly crystalline tones soar above  the fray. Though this is the recipe for all of Pentangle’s best output, Basket of Light possesses a cohesive nature that somewhat eludes their other albums, even as good as they are. Though more than half of the material featured here consists of rearrangements of traditional British or American folk songs, the band’s original compositions are shining examples of how those traditions impacted their creative process, allowing them to craft songs that are at the same time accessible and musically complex (though very subtly so,  avoiding the over-the-top  nature of too much canonical prog).

The album’s title comes from a line of “Train Song”, probably the best-known number  in the band’s output, and one of the original compositions previously mentioned. Indeed, the title describes the album quite aptly – it is an overall uplifting slice of music, though not in the quirkily humorous way typical of Canterbury bands. For instance, “Lyke-Wake Dirge” (as the title implies) is based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon funeral chant, and as such might be expected to be quite depressing – which is, however, not the case. With its gorgeous, three-part vocals and a delicate, barely perceptible guitar accompaniment, the song possesses a melancholy kind of beauty, yet is anything but gloomy. On the other hand, album opener “Light Flight” is a deceptively light and airy tune permeated by a faint sense of nostalgia, which follows some interesting rhythm patterns and introduces the listener to the delights of Jacqui’s vocals. Gentler and less assertive than Annie Haslam’s, but powerful in its own way, her voice possesses an authentic sweetness devoid of that saccharine aftertaste so rife in her modern followers.

Interestingly, a good proportion of the album is dedicated to American music, in the shape of two folk songs derived from traditional English ballads (“Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the somewhat disturbing “House Carpenter”), and “Sally Go Round the Roses”, the only hit by New York girl group The Jaynetts, a delightful, feel-good tune (originally written by Phil Spector) showcasing a different side of Jacqui’s singing style.  The latter is also present in two different versions as a bonus track, together with two other songs that, while penned by the band or individual members, are strongly redolent of  the American musical tradition (especially the upbeat “Cold Mountain”). The aforementioned “Train Song”, written as a lament for the passing of the steam train, has a basic blues structure with vocal arrangements that reproduce the sound of a train in motion; while “The Cuckoo” is a traditional folk song from Somerset interpreted by Jacqui in piercingly sweet tones. “Hunting Song”, an original band composition based on traditional materials (namely an episode of the King Arthur cycle involving Morgana Le Fay and a hunting horn), is an almost seven-minute mini-epic sung by Jansch and McShee in their sharply contrasting timbres, and infused with the gently tinkling sound of the glockenspiel. In “House Carpenter”, which closes the original edition of the album,  Renbourn’s and Jansch’s banjo-sitar interplay reinforces the sinister atmosphere of the tale of a young woman lured to perdition by the Devil himself.

Ever since I was a child, I have been deeply fascinated by folklore and mythology, so my attraction to bands like Pentangle should not come as a surprise.  On albums like this one, the music and the lyrics seem to mesh together seamlessly, and the sheer beauty of the vocals lends new intensity to those centuries-old tales of love,  death, magic and treason.  If, according to a popular stereotype, prog fans have an affinity for fantasy literature, then the root of it all is here, in the enthralling yet disquieting ballads interpreted by the exquisite voices of Jacqui McShee and her peers – as the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, pointed out in many of his writings.

In the previous paragraphs I have often used the word ”progressive’. So, can Basket of Light be really tagged as a prog album?  Of course it can, though you should not expect anything resembling the likes of Yes or Genesis. We are not talking about lengthy epics with a pinch of folksy spicing thrown in for good measure, but rather about a genuinely progressive approach, where folk, blues, jazz, country and medieval/Elizabethan music are blended together with immaculate instrumental proficiency and vocals that achieve the perfect balance between technique and emotion. This is the kind of music whose progressiveness is made of subtle layers of light and shade, rather than a pile-up of flash and bombast. Indeed, many modern bands would have a lot to learn from this album –  a masterpiece of class, expertise and restraint, and a delight from start to finish.

Read Full Post »