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Posts Tagged ‘AltrOck Productions’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Kurt’s Casino (9:53)
2. The Little Man (3:55)
3. Accidentally in San Sebastian (4:22)
4. The Campfire Strikes Back (4:36)
5. The Dancing Dinosaur (10:28)
6. Skunks (5:01)
7. Pate a Tartiner (6:07)

LINEUP:
Gabor Humble – guitar, vocals
Megan Quill – vocals
Liesbeth Verlaet – vocals
Jouni Isoherranen – bass, keyboards
Jonathan Callens – drums
Pol Mareen – saxophone
Pedro Guridi – bass clarinet
Joren Cautaers – vibraphone, percussion

With:
Pieter Claus – marimba solo (1)
Jana Voros – baby sounds (3)
Lisa Jordens – backing vocals (3)
Francisca Rose – pronouncing “tartiner” correctly (3)

Two years after the release of Flanders Fields, their first album for Milan-based label AltrOck Productions, Belgian outfit Humble Grumble have made their comeback in the spring of 2013 with Guzzle It Up!. Though mainman Gabor Humble first established the band in 1996, Humble Grumble’s current incarnation dates back from very recent times, and is multi-national in nature – including, besides Hungarian-born Humble, Finnish bassist/keyboardist Jouni Isoherranen and Chilean reedist Pedro Guridi, as well as a number of Flemish musicians. The band also have quite a few festival appearances under their belt, and, around the time of the new album’s release, they performed at Gouveia Art Rock Festival in Portugal and AltrOck’s very own event in Milan, Italy.

While emphasizing the continuity of the band’s sound, Guzzle It Up! also marks a departure from Flanders Fields, and not just in terms of lineup. In fact, when the previous album featured a core group of six people and an extended cast of guest artists, here the situation has been reversed: the eight-piece band – with Humble, Isoherranen, Guridi, saxophonist Pol Mareen and drummer Jonathan Callens joined by vocalists Liesbeth Verlaet and Megan Quills and mallet percussionist Joren Cautaers – handles all the tracks, and the contribution of guests is marginal. The rich instrumental texture of Flanders Fields has remained unaltered, with the clear-voiced lilt of the vibraphone providing a refreshing change from the usual keyboards, and the saxophone often engaging in dynamic duets with Humble’s guitar. The latter’s versatile vocals are complemented by the two female voices, their lively exchanges often bordering on endearingly wacky, and perfectly suited to the music’s overall mood. On the other hand, Guzzle It Up! is clearly more ambitious in terms of structure: while Flanders Fields was a collection of 11 remarkably short songs, here a shorter tracklist is compensated by running times that have more than doubled. With two out of 7 songs around the 10-minute mark, even the shorter tracks seem to have adopted a more leisurely pace than the dense, whirlwind-like numbers that made up the band’s previous effort. There are no instrumentals either, and a lot of emphasis is placed on the vocal interplay between Humble and his two female cohorts.

Humble Grumble’s more ambitious approach is introduced right from the start with the almost 10-minute“Kurt’s Casino”, a brilliant combination of upbeat, downright infectious melodies and the rather somber subject matter of suicide, propelled by Jonathan Callens’ spectacular drum work and  Pol Mareen’s ebullient sax, and enhanced by vibraphone and marimba (the latter courtesy of former member Pieter Claus). The album’s longest track, “The Dancing Dinosaur”, gives a new meaning to the word “eclectic” by throwing a slew of diverse influences into the equation with carefree abandon – jazz inflections as well as the inevitable Zappaesque bent coexisting with catchy, almost poppy chorus, wistful sax section, an atmospheric guitar solo and an unexpected, galloping hoedown towards the end.

Driven by Callens’ pyrotechnic drumming, “The Little Man” suggests Samla Mammas Manna’s carnival-like zaniness; “The Campfire Strikes Again” strays even further into Zappa-meets-RIO-meets-Gong territory, seasoned with a pinch of dissonance and the vocalists’ striking repartee. Vocals (including rapping) and assorted wacky sound effects are the foundation of the off-kilter “Accidentally in San Sebastian”, while “Skunks” (whose lyrics that would make Frank Zappa quite proud) pulls out all the stops, with Humble’s exaggerated falsetto and chaotic vocal “harmonies” that sound like a skewed version of Gentle Giant, a wild guitar solo and hints of Eastern European folk. “Pate a Tartiner” wraps up the album in suitably eccentric fashion, also introducing an appealing funky note to complement the ever-present Gong and Zappa influences.

Clocking in at a very restrained 44 minutes, Guzzle It Up! is as much of an acquired taste as its predecessor – possibly even more so. Though the quality of the individual performances is outstanding, and the sheer joy of  making music refreshingly evident, its abrupt changes in mood and style can strike some of the more mainstream-oriented listeners as inconsistent and even frustrating, and the wacky, anarchist humour of the lyrics can be occasionally hard to take for those who prefer a bit more subtlety. On the other hand, fans of Zappa, Gong and the Canterbury scene will not fail to appreciate the album and its ambitious direction. The photos in the CD booklet and on the band’s website clearly point out that Humble Grumble belong on the stage, and that the studio format must be somewhat constraining to them. Highly recommended to any open-minded progressive rock fans, Guzzle It Up! may not be an easily approachable album, but is definitely an intriguing one.

Links:
http://www.humblegrumble.com/

https://myspace.com/humblegrumble

http://www.altrock.it

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5-storey ens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In a couple of weeks’ time, fans of AltrOck Productions, the cutting-edge Italian label founded by Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago in 2005, will be offered the unique opportunity to attend a two-day festival featuring a selection of exciting Italian and European bands, many of them have appeared on these pages.

The event, scheduled to take place on the weekend of June 1-2 at La Casa di Alex, a cultural centre on the outskirts of Milan, will see a total of seven bands taking turns on the stage. The label’s subsection Fading Records, dedicated to bands and artists who revisit “traditional” prog modes with a modern attitude, will be represented by Ciccada (Greece), La Coscienza di Zeno and Ske (Italy), who will be joined by highly awaited Norwegian outfit Wobbler; while October Equus (Spain) and Humble Grumble (Belgium) will add some intriguing RIO/Avant spice to the proceedings. Bassist Pierre “W-Cheese” Wawrzyniak (of fellow AltrOckers Camembert) will join Ske on stage for their first-ever live performance: while La Coscienza di Zeno will premiere their forthcoming second album, titled Sensitività.

The festival will also mark the stage debut of Not A Good Sign, the newest offering from AltrOck and  the label’s own “supergroup” of sorts, featuring Yugen’s Paolo “Ske” Botta (who is also the label’s main graphic artist) and Francesco Zago, and La Coscienza di Zeno’s Gabriele Guidi Colombi and Alessio Calandriello, as well as drummer Martino Malacrida. The band, who was started in 2011 by Botta and Zago (later joined by the other members),  aims to revisit the sounds of classic prog – liberally seasoned with hard rock and psychedelic suggestions – with a thoroughly modern attitude, focusing on the creation of melancholy, haunting atmospheres. Their self-titled recording debut, officially released on June 10, will be available for purchase at the festival. Yugen’s Maurizio Fasoli (piano), cellist Bianca Fervidi and vocalist Sharon Fortnam (Cardiacs/North Sea Radio Orchestra) also guest on the album. You can listen to a preview of the album here.

Links:
http://altrockfading.blogspot.it/

http://www.alexetxea.it/

www.altrock.it

https://www.facebook.com/notagoodsign

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Tanto Gonfio Saremo (5:49)
2. La Cumbia Inglés (6:04)
3. Zamba del Chaparrón (6:43)
4. Camino a Dos Rius (4:05)
5. Saracinesca (5:29)
6. Amuleto (3:36)
7. Impro (1:39)
8. Peperina en el Semaforo (6:11)

LINEUP:
Facundo Moreno – classical guitar, charango
Santiago Moreno – classical guitar
Tommaso Rolando – contrabass, electric bass
Marco Ravera – electric guitar
Mattia Tommasini – violin
Santo Florelli – drums
Manuel Merialdo – percussion, glockenspiel

With:
Filippo Gambetta – diatonic accordion (3)
Tatiana Zakharova – voice (7)

Aparecidos were established by Argentine brothers Facundo and Santiago Moreno, who in 2001  had left their home country and settled in the Italian “prog hub” of Genoa, where they had the opportunity to meet other like-minded musicians. The band’s debut album, titled Lo Que Hay en el Charco, was released in 2009 for independent label Dodicilune. For their sophomore effort,  recorded with a slightly different lineup (which includes two members of fellow Genoese band Calomito, guitarist Marco Ravera and bassist Tommaso Rolando), they joined the AltrOck Productions roster – already home to a number of distinguished contemporary acts.

Palito Bombón Helado was released in November 2012, at the tail end of a year characterized by a large number of high-quality releases. Though the album appeared on the market almost at the same time as Mirrors, the highly anticipated live album by AltrOck’s standard-bearers Yugen, it managed to attract the attention of the growing contingent of devotees of the Milan-based label’s output.  Indeed, Palito Bombón Helado – whose title and endearingly naïf artwork refer to the ice cream bars on a stick sold in the streets of Buenos Aires at a time when ice was a rarity imported from the US and England – feels like a breath of fresh air, marrying superb musicianship with the bittersweet combination of wistfulness and joie de vivre typical of Argentina’s rich musical tradition, whose mostly European background mingles with African and indigenous influences.

In Aparecidos’ musical universe, the folk/acoustic and the electric/rock component coexist in perfect harmony, complementing each other rather than competing for attention. An exquisite flair for melody lends the music a natural flow, making it easy on the ear. The compositions emphasize the ties between Argentina and the rest of the South American continent:  “La Cumbia Inglés” draws on a traditional Colombian dance adopted in the Argentine canon, while the prominent presence of the charango (a stringed instrument traditionally made with the shell of an armadillo) anchors the album to the native heritage of the Andean region. The instrument’s  distinctive lilting, metallic tone, introduced to European audiences by Chilean bands Inti Illimani and Quilapayún in the Seventies and Eighties, blends with the intricate classical guitar patterns to perfection. Santo Florelli’s drumming, complemented by Manuel Merialdo’s percussion and Tommaso Rolando’s bass and contrabass, evidences a great sense of rhythm, sometimes imparting a solemn, almost grandiose pace to the music.

Though Palito Bombón Helado is conceived as an instrumental album, occasional vocal touches add to the overall musical texture – such as the vocalizing (courtesy of Tatiana Zakharova)  that enhances the upbeat, march-like pace of “Saracinesca”, or the appealing, Brazilian-tinged warbling at the end of opener “Tanto Gonfio Saremo”.  All of the 8 tracks have their distinct personalities, and feature some spectacular musicianship from everyone involved – warm hand percussion underpinning the seamless interplay of the brothers Moreno’s classical guitars, the crystalline tinkle of the glockenspiel, the accordion’s folksy wistfulness that tempers the joyful bounce of much of the music, the violin’s sweeping lyricism.

Marco Ravera’s elegantly understated electric guitar connects the music to the rock universe, though without stepping too assertively into the limelight: outstanding examples of its role can be found in the afore-mentioned “La Cumbia Inglés” and in the hauntingly beautiful closing track “Peperina en el Semaforo”. Mattia Tommasini’s violin comes into its own in the subdued “Zamba del Chaparrón”, based on Argentina’s national dance, showcasing the effortless nature of the instrumental interplay, with perfect balance between the electric exertions of Ravera’s guitar and the acoustic instruments, and a brief foray into Avant territory towards the end, with drums, accordion and guitar playing in a sort of skewed slo-mo pattern. On the other hand, the short “Impro” is just what the title implies, with a snippet of the iconic “’O Sole Mio” paying a humorious homage to the Italian tradition.

As delightful and refreshing as the delicacy it is named after,  Palito Bombón Helado (mastered by renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran) is stylishly eclectic combination of world music, European folk and jazz with a pinch of Avant-Progressive spice, whose complexity is not immediately apparent, and never contrived. Those who appreciate the work of artists such as Cédric Vuille (his 3 Mice project with Thinking Plague’s Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco comes to mind) or the late Lars Hollmer will find this album a very rewarding proposition, and even the more “conservative” prog listeners will find a lot to like in these 40 minutes of music, even if they do not reflect the conventional features of the genre. In any case, this is another excellent release from the ever-reliable AltrOck label, which in the past few years has become a byword for music whose uniqueness will please those who are increasingly frustrated by the formulaic nature of so much modern prog.

Links:
http://aparecidos.bandcamp.com/album/palito-bombon-helado

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=203&id2=204

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1505

No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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yugen mirrors

TRACKLISTING:
1. On the Brink (0:59)
2. Brachilogia7  (3:09)
3. Catacresi5 (6:39)
4. La Mosca Stregata ( 0:57)
5. Overmurmur (5:30)
6. Industry (7:50)
7. Cloudscape (10:38)
8. Ice (1:55)
9. Becchime (12:38)
10. Corale Metallurgico (9:19)

LINEUP:
Paolo Ske Botta – organ, electric piano, synth
Valerio Cipollone – soprano sax, clarinets
Jacopo Costa – marimba, vibes
Maurizio Fasoli – piano
Matteo Lorito – bass
Michele Salgarello – drums
Francesco Zago – guitar

Founded in 2004 in Milan (Italy) by guitarist/composer Francesco Zago and AltrOck Productions mainman Marcello Marinone, Yugen (a core concept of  Japanese aesthetics that can be roughly translated as “profound grace and beauty”) took the progressive rock scene by storm with the 2006 release of their debut album, Labirinto d’Acqua – a supremely accomplished slice of chamber rock following in the footsteps of the original Rock in Opposition movement. Their second album, Uova Fatali, came two years later, and was based on music composed by Stormy Six’s Tommaso Leddi; while their third effort, Iridule (2010), was widely hailed as a masterpiece of the RIO/Avant subgenre.

An ensemble rather than a conventional band, Yugen revolve around a core group of Zago, keyboardist Paolo Ske Botta (often mentioned in this blog for his work as AltrOck’s in-house graphic artist) and pianist Maurizio Fasoli, joined in 2008 by reedist Valerio Cipollone, and augmented by a number of high-profile guest artists (including  mainstays of the US Avant Progressive scene such as Dave Kerman, Dave Willey, Elaine DiFalco and Mike Johnson,  and Guy Segers of Univers Zéro fame) In September 2011, almost exactly one year after Iridule’s release, the band appeared at the fourth edition of the Rock in Opposition festival, organized in the southern French town of Carmaux. Their performance as a seven-piece –a short excerpt of which is featured in Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s documentary Romantic Warriors II – was captured on CD with the assistance of Orion Studios owner Mike Potter, and released at the tail end of 2012 with the title of Mirrors.

Though some may have wondered about Yugen’s ability to recreate Zago’s astonishingly intricate, painstakingly orchestrated compositions as a mere seven-piece rather than as an ensemble of up to 18 musicians (as in their studio albums), any doubts will immediately be dispelled by the sheer quality of the performances recorded on Mirrors. In spite of the constraints –  such as the allegedly short time dedicated to rehearsal – the band as a whole handle the complexities of the music with remarkable flair, without sounding cold or clinical as the highbrow quality of the material might suggest. While Zago’s main sources of inspiration as a composer (as pointed out by Sid Smith in his excellent liner notes) lie in both Renaissance and 20th-century classical music, his earlier rock roots often surface. His dense guitar riffs provide a backdrop for the constantly shifting dialogue between reeds and keyboards, bolstering the impeccable work of Michele Salgarello and Matteo Lorito’s rhythm section – which tackles daunting tempo changes with admirable composure. The music blends sharp angles and smooth curves, flowing naturally even at its most intricate, with melody lurking in the most unexpected places and revealing the unmistakable Italian imprint of this quintessentially cosmopolitan outfit.

The almost 60-minute album features 10 tracks drawn from Labirinto d’Acqua and Iridule, rearranged so as to adapt to the more rigid configuration of a live band. The longest, more intense compositions are concentrated in the second half of the album, which is introduced by a stunning version of Henry Cow’s iconic “Industry” (from the English band’s final release, 1979’s Western Culture). With their deeply intellectual titles reflecting the nature of the music, the compositions are arrestingly complex, though with a sense of organic warmth that is sometimes lacking in the production of highly celebrated bands belonging to the same movement.

Introduced by the dramatic drums and piercing, sustained guitar of “On the Brink”, the set unfolds with two tracks from Labirinto d’Acqua. The shorter “Brachilogia” weaves a sinuous, slightly dissonant tune, beefed up by guitar riffs and high-energy drumming, in which clarinet and marimba share the spotlight, interspersed by subdued piano passages; while “Catacresi” fully deploys Paolo Botta’s arsenal of keyboards, ranging from the sharp whistle of the synth to airy, atmospheric passages that would not be out of place on a Genesis album, creating a sort of cinematic tension. The instruments at times converge in perfect unison, at others pursue their individual paths, though with a constantly perceptible sense of inner discipline.

After the brief respite of “La Mosca Stregata”, “Overmurmur” barges in with an almost strident, apparently chaotic development, each instrument thrown in sharp relief, gradually mellowing out towards the end. The aforementioned “Industry” renders the martial, intense mood of the original, though softening its abrasive quality and spotlighting the deep, slightly hoarse rumble of the organ. On the other hand, “Cloudscape” reveals a different facet of Zago’s creative inspiration, its 10 minutes a masterpiece of skillfully handled atmospherics that paint a breathtaking sonic picture of the title. The track develops fluidly and elegantly, its sounds beautiful and melodic albeit not in a conventional, mainstream sense, slowing down almost to a whisper before the end. In the short, entrancing “Ice” – originally conceived as a showcase for Elaine DiFalco’s distinctive contralto, with lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney  – the vocals are replaced with a wistful clarinet line redolent of Debussy, preparing the listener for the one-two punch of “Becchime” and “Corale Metallurgico”. The former is the kind of composition that is likely to send fans of melodic prog running for the exits, and makes indeed for demanding listening. Unabashedly cerebral and gloriously intricate (and twice as long as the studio version featured on Iridule) its multiple, angular twists and turns and bristling sound effects evoke the squawking of the chickens referenced in the title (becchime means “chicken feed” in Italian). Also true to its title, album closer “Corale Metallurgico” conveys a powerful industrial feel, with peaks of intensity ebbing into rarefied pauses, and moments of almost unbridled chaos suddenly morphing into a dynamic flow.

Presented in a visually stylish package with outstanding artwork and photography (courtesy of Paolo Botta, Lutz Diehl and Alessandro Achilli), as well as Sid Smith’s thought-provoking liner notes, Mirrors captures one of the foremost standard-bearers of contemporary cutting-edge progressive rock at the very height of its creative powers. Although the music may not always be what one would term accessible, even staunch followers of the more traditional branches of prog might find something to appreciate in the album’s pristine beauty. An absolute must for fans of RIO/Avant –Prog and chamber rock, Mirrors is sure to go down as one of the standout releases of 2012.

Links:
http://us.myspace.com/yugenband

https://www.facebook.com/Yugentheband

http://production.altrock.it/

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TRACKLISTING:
Absence (29:38):
1. overt (2:25)
2. primo frammento (2:24)
3. epicicli I (2:24)
4. secondo frammento (2:09)
5. arioso (2:01)
6. terzo frammento (2:12)
7. un coeur mécanique (2:14)
8. resti (quarto frammento) (1:58)
9. epicicli II (2:22)
10. toccata (2:29)
11. hélas avril (2:15)
12. danzante (quinto frammento) (2:05)
13. clos (2:41)
Upon a Ground (15:29):
14. part I (5:22)
15. part II (6:01)
16. part III (4:00)

LINEUP:
Michele Epifani – Hammond organ (1-13), e-piano, synthesizer (14-16)
Stefano Colombi – e-guitar (1-16)
Luca Falsetti- drums, percussion (1-16)
Valerio Cipollone – clarinet, bass clarinet (1-13)
Maurizio Fasoli – grand piano (1-13)
Antonio Marrone – e-bass (1-13)
Pierluigi Mencattini – violin (1-13)
Cristiano Pomante – vibraphone, marimba (1-13)
Carmine Ianieri – tenor sax (14-16)
Massimo Magri – cello (14-16)
Simone Pacelli – e-bass (14-16)
Manuel Trabucco – tenor sax (14-16)

Subtilior (Latin for  “more refined”) is the name adopted by Michele Epifani, keyboardist and main driving force of Italian “retro-prog” band Areknamés, for his first solo outing. With its rather obscure reference to a musical style of the late Middle Ages, called ars subtilior, the project hints at a highly complex, sophisticated offer, and indeed –  very much in keeping with AltrOck Productions’ consistently high level of quality – this is what Absence Upon a Ground delivers.

Though Epifani is credited as composer on all the 16 short pieces featured on the album, Absence Upon a Ground is anything but one of those ubiquitous (and often tiresome) “solo pilot” projects that clutter the oversaturated progressive market. It is instead very much an ensemble effort, to which each of the 12 musicians involved contributes his unique expertise. In some ways, this album is a perfect complement to Altrock Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes Rio, as both represent a fusion of traditional chamber music and progressive rock that demands a lot from the listener, but will offer rich rewards to those who will have the patience to give it their full attention.

Due to Absence Upon a Ground’s peculiar structure, a track-by-track analysis would be hard to conduct, if not actually counterproductive. The album features two main multi-part suites – the almost 30-minute “Absence”, and the 15-minute “Upon a Ground”. Epifani, drummer Luca Falsetti and guitarist Stefano Colombi perform on all the tracks, while the other artists appear on either one or the other composition. Valerio Cipollone and Maurizio Fasoli of Yugen are among the performers on “Absence” (Epifani guested on both Le Uova Fatali and Iridule, the second and third release of the Milan-based outfit). In true chamber-rock tradition, the instrumentation blends rock staples such as drums, guitar and bass with reeds (clarinet and saxophone), strings and the haunting chimes of marimba and vibraphone, which combine seamlessly with the warm, fluid sound of the grand piano. Epifani’s signature Hammond organ, though credited in the liner notes, is barely perceptible, while the reeds, strings and percussion form the most readily noticeable layer of the sound’s fabric.

“Absence”  (which, as the title suggests, is meant to be a reflection in musical terms on the topic of absence) comprises 13 short movements – all around the 2-minute mark – that are meant to be taken in as a whole. The chamber feel is very strong in the stately pace and often sparse texture of the music, or in the occasionally lively, conversation-like interaction between different instruments. Dissonance is used sparingly, and hints of melody – though handled in rather unconventional fashion – surface to bind the parts of the suite together. Sudden flares of intensity leave room to rarefied, ambient-like moods with a meditative, almost autumnal feel. The overall effect is one of understated elegance, though with an underlying density that makes repeated listens essential.

The 15-minute “Upon a Ground” features three longer, relatively self-contained sections, characterized by a more cinematic feel that leans more towards the RIO/Avant-Prog side of things. Mainstays of the genre such as sax and cello, as well as eerily intriguing electronic effects, replace the lyrical sounds of clarinet and violin, and the texture often feels looser, almost improvisational – in that deceptive fashion typical of Avant-Prog that effectively disguises a high degree of compositional discipline. All the three movements alternate atonal, knotty passages, with bursts of tenor sax and underpinned by the steady, mournful drone of the cello, and more subdued moments sprinkled by the gentle, tinkling sound of the mallet percussion.

If I had to level some criticism at Absence Upon a Ground, I might say that the album may come across as slightly cold and detached – a not uncommon problem with a lot of Avant/chamber rock. On the other hand, the sheer quality of the performances and the superior compositional skills involved are undeniable, and will delight those who privilege this particular manifestation of progressive music. Highly recommended to lovers of RIO/Avant prog and chamber music – as well as any open-minded listeners – the album is, however, unlikely to appeal to those who like a more “mainstream” approach to progressive rock. As usual for AltrOck releases, the visual aspect of the packaging (with Paolo Ske Botta in charge of the artwork) is top-notch, adding to the album’s interest value.

Links:
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=188&id2=193

http://altrockproductions.bandcamp.com/track/subtilior-medley

http://www.allmusic.com/album/absence-upon-a-ground-mw0002389334

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snake Eating Its Tail (1:44)
2. Norrgarden Nyvla (3:03)
3. Hands of the Juggler  (4:44)
4. Rethinking Plague (3:49)
5. Presage (10:21)
6. Land Arf   (6:19)
7. Brachilogia (3:08)
8. Distillando   (4:11)
9. Crossroads (4:37)
10. Luoghi Che Aspettano (6:44)

LINEUP:
Emilio Galante – flute, piccolo
Valerio Cipollone – bass clarinet, clarinet
Andrea Pecolo – violin
Bianca Fervidi – cello

With:
Massimo Giuntoli – piano (6)

As my readers will have noticed, this blog generally deals with music that, in one way or the other, belongs to the rock universe. However, the album that will be reviewed in the following paragraphs (as the ensemble’s own name aptly points out), while conceived as an homage to a movement in whose name the word is prominently featured, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as rock.

AltrOck Chamber Quartet is the brainchild of gifted flutist and composer Emilio Galante, known for his work with avant-jazz ensemble Sonata Islands (hence the album’s title), who is here assisted by Valerio Cipollone (also a member of Yugen, one of the finest modern outfits in the RIO/Avant vein), Bianca Fervidi and Andrea Pecolo. The album’s witty cover artwork (a brilliant concept by AltrOck resident graphic artist Paolo Ske Botta), showing a violin adorned by Brazilian-themed images, plays on the possible misunderstanding of the word RIO  by those unaware of the acronym’s meaning. Composer Giovanni Venosta, who was responsible for the transcription of three of the original compositions featured on the album, revisits his first experiences with the Rock in Opposition movement in the album’s foreword (offered also in an English-language version, with an eye for AltrOck’s growing international following).

Recorded in February 2012 and released a few months later,  Sonata Islands Goes RIO might be  called (at least in part) a rather highbrow take on a very popular rock product such as the tribute album. Indeed, half of the 10 tracks on the album reinterpret well-known RIO/Avant compositions, while the remaining five are the work of modern Italian composers (including Galante himself) who have been influenced by the subgenre’s distinctive modes of expression. In true chamber tradition, the music is performed by a very limited number of instruments – flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin and cello – ruling out the presence of percussion, guitars or keyboards (with the exception of Massimo Giuntoli’s “Land Arf”, on which the composer himself guests on piano). While at first the result is very intriguing, even fascinating, those who are not chamber music devotees may find things a bit heavy going after a while – even if the album, at around 48 minutes, is by no means excessively long.

For the chamber-music novice, the most approachable tracks are definitely those in the first half of the album, especially the three Fred Frith compositions, “Snake Eating Its Tail” (transcribed by renowned clarinetist Mauro Pedron), “Norrgarden Nyvla” and “Hands of the Juggler” (both transcribed by Giovanni Venosta). In the second, Galante’s flute adopts a particularly assertive, almost harsh tone, while the first makes the most of the lively dialogue-like interplay of the reeds, and the third skillfully shifts from stately melody to dissonance. Galante’s revisitation of Thinking Plague’s “Love” – aptly titled “Rethinking Plague” –  conveys the  elaborate angularity of the Denver band’s sound, while adapting it to a somewhat different musical format. However, Venosta’s string-driven transcription of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Presage”, while undoubtedly faithful to the spirit of the original, cannot fully convey its hauntingly martial allure, and the absence of  Daniel Denis’ imperious drumming diminishes the impact of the final product .

On the other hand, the more recent compositions seem to  be much more suited to the minimalistic chamber format – starting with Francesco Zago’s jagged, intricate “Brachilogia7”, led by Galante’s sharp-toned piccolo. Massimo Giuntoli’s brisk, almost upbeat piano lends a sense of fullness and rhythm to “Land Arf”, whose melancholy middle section showcases Andrea Pecolo’s violin to great effect. Galante’s own composition “Distillando” (originally commissioned by the History Museum of the north-eastern Italian city of Trento) is sparse and almost ethereal in spite of the piercing tone of the piccolo, while the lilting tango of Tiziano Popoli’s “Crossroads” reintroduces a measure of melody in its engaging duet between violin and reeds. “Luoghi Che Aspettano”, penned by Stefano Zorzanello, closes the album with its ambitious but surprisingly effective combination of eerie dissonance and more upbeat, almost melodic flow.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Sonata Islands Goes RIO is not for everyone. Chamber music in itself can be an acquired taste even for classical music fans, and the daunting nature of anything bearing a RIO label has been discussed all too often in this blog. However, the sheer excellence of the individual performances and the often riveting quality of the music should be enough to attract open-minded listeners who are looking for something more challenging than traditional progressive rock. Needless to say, the album will delight fans of RIO/Avant Prog and contemporary chamber music.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/album/sonata-islands-goe-rio-mw0002397513

http://www.sonataislands.com/

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Nebulos (4:40)
2. Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié (5:32)
3. Sprouts (3:11)
4. Sprouts (Continued) (1:57)
5. Sprouts (Continued) (1:19)
6. Sprouts (Continued) (3:57)
7. Troïde (7:31)
8. La Serrure (2:32)
9. Soft Fate (1:25)
10. Boletus Edulis (2:52)
11. Dynamique Cassoulet (2:28)
12. Fast Fate (0:35)
13. Le Chiffre (4:05)

LINEUP:
Guillaume Amiel-  bass marimba, vibraphone, percussion
Maxime Delporte – double bass
Ferdinand Doumerc – tenor, alto and sopranino saxes, flute, crooning (11)
Stéphane Gratteau –  drums
Rémi Leclerc – Fender Rhodes, clavinet, Moog, Hammond organ, piano
Marc Maffiolo – bass and tenor saxes

With:
Olivier Cussac – lap steel guitar (2)
Sarah Roussel – words (3-7)
Nicolas Gardel – trumpet (9, 12, 13)
Olivier “Lapin” Sabatier – trombone (9, 12, 13)

Based in the southern French city of Toulouse, Stabat Akish are a sextet formed in 2007 by bassist/composer Maxime Delporte. In 2009 they caught the attention of free-jazz icon John Zorn, who released their self-titled debut album on his own label, Tzadik Records. The band’s sophomore effort, Nebulos, was released on Italian label AltrOck Productions in the early summer of 2012.

As much as I try to avoid resorting to definitions that might sound a bit overblown, “jazz meets chamber rock with a liberal dash of Zappaesque humour thrown in for good measure” describes Stabat Akish’s music quite effectively. With a distinctive, mostly acoustic instrumentation that rules out the guitar on all but one track, but places a heavy emphasis on reeds and mallet percussion (as well as on founder Maxime Delporte’s expertly handled double bass)  they privilege a sophisticated delivery that, while undeniably full of twists and turns, is not as daunting as the typical output of other bands and artists found under the RIO/Avant umbrella. In fact, Nebulos is at the same time very complex and surprisingly approachable, and not just on account of its very restrained running time and light-hearted attitude. The band members, while all considerably gifted and in full command of their own instruments, behave like true ensemble players, and avoid hitting the listener over the head with their technical skill.

On the whole, Nebulos is elegant and very pleasing to the ear, its intricate instrumental texture relieved by an appealing lightness of touch and a keen sense of melody that is not often associated with the genre. Even when the music possesses a loose, almost improvisational feel, it never sounds unscripted or haphazard. The title-track acts introduces the album in style, opening briskly then gradually slowing down, with all the instruments engaged in a sort of lively conversation, blending subtle electronics with warmer, organic tones. However, it is the second track – bearing the tongue-twister-like title of “Un Peuplier Un Peu Plié” (A Slightly Bent Poplar) – that best illustrates Stabat Akish’s effortless marriage of sheer melodic beauty and avant-garde tendencies. Pervaded by the heady tinkle of marimba and vibraphone and the ethereal, faraway strains of Olivier Cussac’s lap steel guitar, contrasted with  buzzing sound effects and cascading drums, it is oddly cinematic and thoroughly riveting.

Stabat Akish’s take on the old prog stalwart of the “epic”, the four-part “Sprouts”,  is made of almost bite-size sections veering from the sax-driven, meditative mood of the first part to the classic jazz feel of the final part, and includes a short spoken-word section in which Sarah Roussel recites something concerning the titular sprouts. Roussel’s voice – almost an additional instrument – also stars in the 7-minute “Troïde”, the longest track on the album, and also the most openly experimental, in which an increasingly agitated phone conversation in three languages is punctuated by sparse drums, piano and whistling synth. “La Serrure” begins in low-key, atmospheric fashion, then suddenly turns into a very upbeat, circus-like tune; similarly, “Dynamique Cassoulet” packs an astonishing amount of variety in under 3 minutes, including a very entertaining appearance by reedist Ferdinand Doumerc in the role of a crooner. On the other hand, “Boletus Edulis” (the scientific name of the delicious porcini mushrooms) blends ambient-like sound effects of birdsong and burbling water with charming, Eastern-tinged  percussion and flute; while “Le Chiffre” closes the album in style with a triumphant, albeit slightly chaotic big-band workout, in which the saxes are augmented by trumpet and trombone.

An intriguingly classy effort, Nebulos is warmly recommended to lovers of modern jazz and RIO/Avant/chamber rock, though the more traditionally-minded faction of the prog audience might find it a more appealing proposition than other recent releases in a similar vein.  Another fine release from the AltrOck roster, purveyor of endless musical surprises, the album – in keeping with the label’s tradition for outstanding visual packaging – is accompanied by high-quality artwork and photography.

Links:
http://stabatakish.com/

http://www.altrock.it

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The name of Argentine band Cucamonga will not fail to ring a bell with Frank Zappa fans, as it references the Californian suburban city (now called Rancho Cucamonga) where Zappa’s Studio Z was located. Unfortunately, the information available on this quintet – led by guitarist Oscar “Frodo” Peralta, who is also the band’s main composer – is very sparse, and they currently have no active website or social media presence. Their debut album, Alter Huevo, recorded in early 2011 in the northern Argentine city of Santa Fe, was released a year later by AltrOck Productions.

Not surprisingly, Zappa is a major influence on Cucamonga’s sound, which comfortably straddles the line between avant-progressive rock and classic jazz-rock/fusion, with liberal doses of humour thrown in as an added bonus. Clearly a bunch of talented and dedicated musicians, their particular brand of music may not be extremely innovative (nor does it claim to be), but it is sure to intrigue the discerning listener, with enough complexity to please the most demanding fans and an endearingly light-hearted attitude to temper the technical dexterity. Though Alter Huevo is mostly instrumental, voices and bursts of laughter add a quirky touch to a few tracks. Warm hints of Latin music are scattered throughout the album, while the accordion – the iconic protagonist of tango music – lends its distinctive Old World flavour to some of  the compositions. However, Cucamonga’s sound rests on three main instruments – guitar, sax and drums – effectively complemented by keyboards and mallet percussion.

With a running time just under 40 minutes, Alter Huevo is a compact, well-balanced album that is easy to enjoy without getting overwhelmed by an excess of notes. Opener “Tetascotch”, the longest track on the album, and the most complex in terms of mood and tempo changes, kicks off with a funny circus-like tune, then takes a more laid-back turn, with all the instruments getting their chance to shine in classic jazz-rock fashion. “El Dengue De La Laguna” continues on the same path, showcasing Julian Macedo’s stellar drumming – propulsive and textural at the same time – while the instrumental interplay often suggests a dialogue without words, with an elegance that hints at vintage Canterbury. “Tu Guaina” and “Variaciones Sobre Tu Hermana” veer towards the Avant end of the spectrum, the latter throwing in some dissonance and moments of rarefied calm enhanced by the cascading tinkle of the mallet percussion.

With “Tillana”, Cucamonga tackle a traditional piece of Carnatic music (the classical music of Southern India) originally rearranged by legendary percussionist Trilok Gurtu for his 1993 album Crazy Saints – which, as can be expected, pushes percussion to the forefront, though guitar, sax and piano also play a strong role. “Cerrazón En Al Teyú Cuaré” alternates slow, melancholy moments with sudden surges of power. The short, upbeat “Dominguillo” introduces album closer “Cletalandia”, based on a hilarious radio broadcast about restoring sensuality in marriage – something that would have definitely won Zappa’s seal of approval. Those familiar with Spanish will enjoy reading the text in the CD booklet. Musically speaking, the track is bookended by energetic sections very much in classic jazz-rock style, powered by Adriano Demartini’s groovy bass lines; while the central part, which includes the broadcast, is accompanied by sparse yet expressive sax.

In keeping with AltrOck’s reputation for stylishly packaged products, Alter Huevo comes with a nicely illustrated booklet (courtesy of the label’s resident graphic artist, the multi-talented Paolo Ske Botta) that successfully combines elegance and whimsy. Udi Koomran’s experienced mastering guarantees excellent sound quality, emphasizing Cucamonga’s varied instrumentation and the impressive skill of the players. Lovers of eclectic jazz-rock with a pinch of avant-garde and world-music spice (as offered by bands as AltrOck’s own Calomito or MoonJune’s Slivovitz) will appreciate this solid, classy offering by an interesting new band. However, it would be a good idea if Cucamonga took a more active role in promoting their music on the Web, which in this day and age is nothing short of indispensable.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/cucamonga-p2600792

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=179&id2=180

http://soundcloud.com/udi-koomran/sets/cucomonga-alter-huevo-altrock/

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