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Posts Tagged ‘American’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Loopy (5.59)
2. A Serious Man (3.49)
3. Mom’s Song (2.05)
4. Bar Stomp (3.04)
5. Outdoor Revolution (3.08)
6. Western Sky (2.12)
7. Burning Match (5.11)
8. Claire’s Indigo (2.11)
9. Snufkin (2.48)
10. Old Silhouette (4.12)
11. Winds of Grace (8.39)

LINEUP:
Dani Rabin – guitar
Danny Markovitch – saxophone
Steve Rodby – bass
Paul Wertico – drums, percussion (1, 8)

With:
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Matt Davidson – vocals (3, 6)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 6)
Makaya McCraven – drums (4)
Daniel White – lyrics, vocals (11)

Marbin’s eponymous debut came to my attention towards the end of 2009, soon after its release. Even if the duo formed by two young, talented Israeli-born musicians who had recently moved to Chicago was an unknown quantity to me and most other reviewers, the album’s endearingly naïve artwork and intriguing musical offer were enough to warrant closer scrutiny. With a name cleverly fashioned out of the surnames of the two artists (Danny MARkovitch and Dani RaBIN), Marbin made their debut on the US music scene with an album full of intriguing melodies crafted with ony two instruments – Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s saxophone – characterised by an ethereal, almost brittle quality, reminiscent of the delicacy of Far Eastern art, complex yet at the same time not too taxing for the listener.

The year 2010 marked a veritable quantum leap for Marbin (very active on the live front in the Chicago area), when they came under the radar of MoonJune Records’ mainman Leonardo Pavkovic, a man with a keen eye for new acts of outstanding quality. Promptly snapped up by the New York-based label, Marbin – who in the meantime had become a real band, with the addition of  Pat Metheny alumni Steve Rodby (bass) and Paul Wertico (drums) – released their second album at the beginning of 2011.

Breaking the Cycle is indeed an impressive effort, which sees the band build upon the foundation laid by their debut, while fine-tuning their sound and adding layers of complexity, though without making things unnecessarily convoluted. Indeed, rather interestingly, a fellow reviewer used the term ‘easy listening’ in connection to the album –  a definition that may conjure images of that openly commercial subgenre known as smooth jazz. However, while Breaking the Cycle does have plenty of smoothness and melody, I would certainly never call it background music. The presence of a full-blown rhythm section has given a boost to the ambient-tinged, chamber-like atmosphere of the debut, and some of the tracks display a more than satisfying level of energy and dynamics, all the while keeping true to the deeper nature of their sound.

Clocking in at slightly over 40 minutes, Breaking the Cycle immediately appears as a supremely sophisticated effort, starting from the striking cover artwork whose mix of the industrial (the bridge on the front cover) and the natural (the elephant on the back cover) seems to reflect the nature of the music itself. While the majority of the tracks lean towards the slower, more atmospheric side of things, delivered in a rather short, somewhat compact format, the album is bookended by two numbers that differ quite sharply from the rest, as well as from each other. Opener “Loopy” is the closest Marbin get to a ‘conventional’ jazz-fusion sound, almost 6 minutes of sax and guitar emoting over an exhilarating jungle beat laid down by Wertico’s drums and percussion that gives a first taste of the seamless interplay between the instruments. On the other hand, the medieval-tinged, acoustic folk ballad “Winds of Grace”, masterfully interpreted by guest singer Daniel White (who also wrote the lyrics), though apparently out of place in the context of the album,  is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia and loss suggested by several other tracks.

Indeed, the three numbers that form the central section of the album might almost be considered as parts of a single suite, since they are characterized by a wistful, romantic (though anything but cheesy) mood. An extended sax solo is the real showstopper in “Outdoor Revolution”, while wordless vocalizing enhances the country-tinged acoustic guitar in “Western Sky”. “Burning Match” seems to reflect its title almost perfectly, its smouldering atmosphere touched with a hint of sadness, the yearning tone of the sax suggesting the end of a love affair. A strong visual element is evoked throughout the album: “Old Silhouette” creates a faintly mysterious picture, yet full of subtle warmth intensified by the slow, deep movement of the percussion; while the sweet, soothing chanting in “Mom’s Song”, combined with the gentleness of the guitar, brought to my mind images of a beach at sunset. In sharp contrast, “Bar Stomp” delivers exactly what the title promises – a bluesy, electrified romp with Rabin’s guitar taking centre stage, bolstered by an imposing percussive apparatus involving the presence of three drummers (Wertico plus guests Makaya McCraven and Jamey Haddad), and spiced up with a hint of cinematic tension.

The final remarks I made in my review of Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan may also apply to Breaking the Cycle. Oozing sheer class, with outstanding performances all round, yet plenty of warmth and accessibility (unlike a lot of hyper-technical albums), this is a release that has the potential to appeal to anyone who loves good music and does not care about sticking a label on anything they hear. Judging from the positive reactions to this album, Marbin are definitely going to be another asset for the ever-reliable MoonJune Records.

Links:
http://www.marbinmusic.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Apophenia (4:45)
2. It Works (5:05)
3. Narrow-Caster (3:09)
4. Live With This Forever (5:09)
5. Cautionary Tale (5:05)
6. The Proverbial Banana Peel (3:09)
7. Young Once (5:14)
8. Scenery (5:49)
9. Free For All (4:35)
10. The Last Gasp (4:57)

LINEUP:
George Dobbs – lead vocals, keyboards
Robert James Pashman – bass, keyboards, vocals
Pat Kliesch – guitars, vocals
Rob Durham – drums, percussion

With:
Dan D’Elia – drums (3, 10)
Veronica Puleo – backing vocals (10)

“3RDegree – Defiling perfectly good songs with prog since 1990”

The definition of ‘narrow-caster’ (as opposed to a broadcaster) –  “one who transmits a TV programme […] or otherwise disseminate information, to a comparatively small audience defined by special interest or geographical location” – seems to be a perfect fit for anyone engaged in the production of progressive rock. In spite of the genre’s relative popularity these days, both the musicians and those who (like myself and many others) support it through our writings are perfectly aware that prog is not likely to become the next mainstream sensation, and its appeal will remain limited to a niche audience.

Based in New Jersey (though guitarist Pat Kliesch resides in Los Angeles), 3RDegree formed over 20 years ago, but disbanded after a few years after the release of two albums, discouraged by the lack of response from their intended audience. In 2005, Kliesch and the other two original members, bassist Robert James Pashman and drummer Rob Durham (vocalist/keyboardist George Dobbs would join them later), met again with a view to reforming the band, taking advantage of those opportunities offered by the Internet that were not yet fully available in the mid-Nineties. The result was Narrow-Caster, released in the first half of 2008, mostly comprising material that had been conceived prior to the band’s demise in 1997, but completely rearranged for the occasion.

The reactions of the ‘prog community’ to the album have been somewhat mixed, as illustrated by the many reviews published since its release. Although 3RDegree have always proclaimed their love of progressive rock (as stated by the quote I used as a heading, which is proudly emblazoned on the band’s official T-shirt), the influences they list on their Facebook page point to a very eclectic bunch of musicians – with the likes of Rush, Level 42, Genesis and Stevie Wonder mentioned in the same breath. In fact, labelling 3RDegree as a ‘conventional’ prog band would do them a serious disservice: they should rather be counted among the rightful heirs of legendary genre-bending outfits such as 10cc, Supertramp, Roxy Music and Queen. These bands and others, pioneers of the much-debated genre called Art Rock, are seen by some as little more than marginally related to prog, by others as no less progressive than icons such as Yes or Genesis.

For today’s standards, Narrow-Caster is a short album, with no track longer than 5-odd minutes. Chock-full of hooks and melodies that would be the envy of many bigger-name bands, it is one of those independent releases that manage to sound like a million dollars. While the label-happy brigade (the ones that always wonder if a band, artist or album is prog or not before they say anything else) might frown and turn up their noses, at the beginning of the 21st century, with progressive rock in all its manifestations enjoying an almost unexpected Renaissance, an increasing number of outfits have rediscovered the importance of a well-crafted song as opposed to sprawling, patchy  and often terminally boring epics. 3RDegree are part of a solid, though not too large, contingent of bands who do not believe that ‘pop’ is always a bad word, and who deliver consistently intelligent, classy music without the need to release a whopping 80 minutes of it.

While all the members of 3RDegree are gifted musicians, creating rich sonic textures without anyone seeking to outdo the other, the band’s real ace in the hole is George Dobbs’ absolutely stunning voice (which, I am happy to say, sounds every bit as good live as it does on CD). Though I have seen it compared to the likes of Michael Jackson, in my view the closest comparison are Glenn Hughes (of Trapeze, Deep Purple and, more recently, Black Country Communion fame), and of course Stevie Wonder. George’s versatile, soul-infused tenor can shift from soothing to aggressive in the space of a single song, stamping his unique imprint on the band’s music without overwhelming it. 3RDegree’s love of classic prog acts such as Yes and Gentle Giant – as well as The Beatles and the hard-to-pinpoint King’s X – shines through the superb vocal harmonies that grace most of the songs.

The album kicks off in high gear with “Apophenia”, an intriguing mid-tempo with echoes of Rush in the guitar parts that immediately introduces the listener to 3RDegree’s heady blend of aggressive, catchy and atmospheric elements. Dobbs delivers the thought-provoking lyrics, belying the apparently carefree tone of the music (something perfected by the likes of Steely Dan and Supertramp, to name but two) in impassioned yet perfectly controlled fashion. The Steely Dan comparisons rear their head in the splendid “It Works”, my favourite number on the album, with excellent guitar and keyboard work bolstered by Pashman’s nimble bass lines, and one of Dobbs’ finest moments together with the energetic “Free for All” – where a deceptively blissful chorus is offset by the spiky, riff-heavy electricity of the verse.

While the title-track and the smooth, jazz- and soul-tinged “Scenery” showcase 3RDegree’s more accessible side, with plenty of catchy vocal harmonies and laid-back melodies, the short but punchy “The Proverbial Banana Peel” sees the band experiment with both electronics and metal-like power chords The nicely-paced “Cautionary Tale” delivers a biting indictment of religious fanaticism through almost seductive vocals and an atmospheric guitar solo, and “Live With This Forever” marries a great hook, supported by Dobbs’ stellar performance both on vocals and keyboards, with some harder-edged guitar work. “Young Once” and “The Last Gasp”, on the other hand, are probably the two songs where the constantly lurking progressive component of 3RDegree’s sound emerges most clearly: the former, a wistful number in the Steely Dan vein, unexpectedly features a lovely, ambient-like bridge; while the latter closes the album in style with a brilliant combination of dreamy vocals, Rush-like guitar riffs and a majestic, orchestra-backed, bass- and keyboards-led coda that brings Yes to mind.

If you are looking for music that successfully combines accessibility, great musicianship and stunning vocals, look no further than Narrow-Caster, definitely one of the best releases of the first decade of the 21st century – regardless of labels.  In a perfect world, these guys would be stars, since it takes a whole lot of skill and dedication to write music that is at the same time approachable and sophisticated. At the time of writing, 3RDegree are working on their fourth album, which will hopefully be released by the end of the year. In the meantime, check out the band’s two DVD releases, The Reunion Concerts (released in the same year as Narrow-Caster) and Live at ProgDay 2009, capturing their performance on the small but legendary stage in the beautiful surroundings of  Storybook Farm.

Links:
http://www.3rdegreeonline.com/3RDegree/Home.html

http://www.myspace.com/3RDegreeNJ


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TRACKLISTING:

1. Geistly Suite (7:51)
2. Importance (7:34)
3. Fallen Tiger (6:53)
4. Things Unsaid (5:14)
5. Odessa (5:44)
6. Angelus Novusaum (7:26)
7. When the Fog Clears (6:01)
8. Midnight (6:43)

LINEUP:
Gregg Johns – guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Ceci Whitehurst – lead vocals
Clay Pell – bass
Todd Sears – drums, percussion, keyboards, vocals

With:
Jeff Hamel – guitar, keyboards (1)
Bones Theriot – guitar (4)
Michael Fortenberry – trumpet (6)
Bridget Shield – lead vocals (8)

Two years ago I received Slychosis’ second album, Slychedelia, to review, and was immediately impressed by the CD’s striking artwork. Visuals have always been essential in progressive rock, and the Mississippi-based outfit had pulled out all the stops by enlisting the services of Surrealist Ukrainian artist Vladimir Moldavsky. Such a strong visual appeal boded well for the album – which, while not as downright quirky as Moldavsky’s imagery, nonetheless presented an intriguing blend of skilfully used electronics and more traditional instrumentation firmly rooted in a prog framework, with a nice balance between vocal and instrumental parts. My main criticism towards Slychedelia was that it was basically a solo album by mainman Gregg Johns with some guest musicians rather than a band effort, and in some of the tracks the presence of programmed drums (that reliable staple of many a ‘solo-pilot’ project) was often hard to ignore.

For Slychosis’ third album, Gregg Johns seemingly followed my advice by putting together a real band, with vocalist Ceci Whitehurst and drummer/vocalist Todd Sears (both of whom had appeared on Slychedelia), and brand-new bassist Clay Pell. While on Slychedelia a number of tracks had been recorded by Johns without any outside help, Mental Hygiene (a title that hints at Johns’ day job as a psychologist), is very much a group effort, and can also count on the contribution of some guest musicians. With a remarkably restrained running time of under 54 minutes (almost 10 minutes shorter than the previous effort), and tracks averaging 6 minutes, the album sounds like a definite step forward for Slychosis – in the same way as putting together a steady line-up was a step forward for Majestic, the band led by Jeff Hamel, Johns’ collaborator in the Proximal Distance project (guesting here on one track).

However, while I am sure that Slychosis’ evolution will be appreciated by a lot of listeners, my view is (perhaps perversely so) somewhat different. Though the album was obviously put together with a lot of care and dedication, I cannot help seeing it as a step backward if compared with Slychedelia, an album I had found genuinely enjoyable in spite of its flaws. My first listen of Mental Hygiene, on the other hand, left me somewhat puzzled, and – while subsequent listens helped me warm to the album somehow – I still do not find it as convincing as I was expecting it to be. Though there are undoubtedly a number of good ideas there, they are not fully brought to fruition. It feels almost as if the album had two souls – a progressive one, with frequent excursions into prog-metal territory, and a more listener-friendly one, expressed by catchy choruses and engaging melodies. This is the kind of formula perfected by Porcupine Tree (a clear influence on this album) in their more recent releases, and nowadays employed by quite a few outfits – with varying degrees of success

Mental Hygiene makes use of both a female and a male vocalist, one of the hottest trends on the current prog scene Now, though Ceci Whitehurst’s low-pitched, well-modulated voice is undoubtedly pleasing, it does not seem completely suited to the material on offer here. The Slychedelia song on which she guested, the wry “Cosmic Irony”, made good use of her somewhat androgynous tone. Here, instead, she is occasionally swamped by the heavy riffing, and I often found myself wishing for a higher-pitched voice– such as Majestic’s Jessica Rasche, who also contributed her impressive pipes to Proximal Distance’s debut. Moreover, when Todd Sears steps behind the microphone, he sounds oddly similar to Whitehurst – while the definite metallic bent of some of the compositions would call for more assertive voices.

Opener “Geistly Suite” is a prime example of  some of the album’s shortcomings. In less than 8 minutes, three or four main sections can be identified, each of them somewhat at odds with the other. While the first part veers towards prog-metal, with hints of Queensryche’s more symphonic-oriented pieces, the second part features some funky electric piano and synth work, and is then followed by a sedate, vocal-led section vaguely reminiscent of Genesis. While all the instrumental performances are quite worthy of note, the composition as a whole sounds a bit patchy. The same problem surfaces in closing track “Midnight” (featuring guest singer Bridget Shield’s soulful vocals), where a catchy chorus, heavy riffing and distorted guitar coexist without really harmonizing.

Most of the tracks are in a similar mould, with really good bits let down by some less successful ones. The lone instrumental “Odessa”, probably the album’s highlight, provides a showcase for Johns’ considerable skill as a guitarist, ranging from a beautiful, melodic solo with echoes of David Gilmour to wild, unleashed wailing. On the other hand, the melodic ballad “Fallen Tiger” borders dangerously on cheesiness, and might have been omitted without any detriment to the album.  The Celtic-tinged “Things Unsaid” (whose melody reminds me in some odd way of Mike Oldfield’s “Moonlight Shadow”) features an aggressive guitar solo by Bones Theriot of Louisiana-based band Abigail’s Ghost; while the short trumpet solo in the slow, almost plodding “Angelus Novusaum” seems somewhat misplaced in the fabric of the song.

Though this review may come across as a tad harsh, Mental Hygiene – while not as intriguing as Slychosis’ previous release – is nevertheless a perfectly competent album, and points to a band that is gradually coming of age, so to speak. It is to be hoped, however, that their next effort will see them concentrate more on the compositional aspect, as well as not leaning too heavily on the Porcupine Tree/symphonic prog metal influences. The members of Slychosis are obviously talented musicians with a lot to offer, but – in my opinion – they need to find a more distinctive voice of their own, or they will risk going unnoticed on the oversaturated progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.slychosis.com

http://www.vladimir-moldavsky.com

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TRACKLISTING:

1. GK Contramundum (2:00)
2. Awaiting the Call. (5:10)
3. Parenting Parents (6:45)
4. Utter Once Her Name (5:30)
5. Remembering When (4:00)
6. Ramblin’ Sailor (18:14)
7. Your Healing Hand (8:18)
8. Firmus Finale (4:40)

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased 24-track recordings):
9. Rear View Mirror (3:34)
10. Alison Waits (A Ghost Story) (10:40)

LINEUP:
Alan Benjamin – guitars, basses, stick, mandolin, recorder
Henry Ptak – keyboards, lead vocals, backing vocals, percussion
Mark Ptak – keyboards, backing vocals, percussion
Drew Siciliano – drums

With:
Shunji Saegusa –  bass (6)
Ken Serio – drums (10)

My first contact with Advent’s music dates back from a couple of years ago, when I reviewed Dante’s Inferno, the first instalment of the monumental The Divine Comedy project released by Musea Records. The band’s contribution, a song called “Canto XXVI – The Evil Counselors”, impressed me as one of the most interesting tracks on that 4-CD set; therefore, I eagerly grasped at the opportunity to review their second album, Cantus Firmus – which, even if released exactly five years ago, is still recent enough not to qualify as a ‘vault’ review.

While quite a few North American bands have taken the classic English progressive rock sound of the Seventies as their blueprint, no one, when listening to this album for the first time,  would ever associate Advent with the bustling, overcrowded and down-to-earth East Coast of the US. Though hailing from New Jersey (home of a number of fine prog outfits, such as Shadow Circus, The Tea Club and 3rd Degree), here is a band that sounds more English than most contemporary English bands. Their love for the Old Country is evident right from cover artwork and logo (by artist and illustrator Michael Phipps), inspired by the stunning illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Formed in 1989 by two highly accomplished multi-instrumentalists with a wide range of musical interests, Alan Benjamin and Henry Ptak (whose brother Mark joined the band some time later), Advent released their self-titled debut album in 1997, and then dropped off the radar for nine years. After the inevitable line-up changes (notably the addition of drummer Drew Siciliano), in 2006 Cantus Firmus finally appeared, to a very warm reception. The album’s title, meaning ‘fixed song’ in Latin, refers to a pre-existing melody that forms the base of a polyphonic composition – another nod to medieval and Renaissance musical tradition.

Like most acts, modern or otherwise, Advent have their own strong set of references, and are refreshingly honest about it. Though modern bands that openly pay homage to one or more of the prog greats of the Seventies are neither new nor surprising, Advent distinguish themselves from the myriad of Genesis or Yes-inspired outfits by having a rather unlikely pair of bands like Gentle Giant and Procol Harum as their main source of inspiration. Indeed, the band’s name brings to mind one of Gentle Giant’s most iconic songs, “The Advent of Panurge”. With such influences, it is not surprising that the music on Cantus Firmus is sophisticated, understated and devoid of hard edges – as well as admirably tight in compositional terms. Indeed, while not a concept, the album projects a sense of cohesiveness, with the first eight tracks acting much like the movements of a symphony. On the other hand, the two bonus tracks (both originally featured on the band’s debut album), though bringing the album’s running time close to a rather hefty 70 minutes, are not unwelcome additions, as they bear witness to Advent’s gradual but steady development of their own artistic personality.

Advent’s love for everything Gentle Giant immediately surfaces in the opening track, the short but sweet “GK Contramundum”, dedicated to English 20th-century author Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and sung entirely a cappella. The song flows directly into “Awaiting the Call”, a lovely instrumental number with hints of Genesis and Camel in Alan Benjamin’s stately, melodic guitar solo and the lush, elegant sweep of the Ptak brothers’ keyboards. “Parenting Parents” and its companion piece “Your Healing Hand”, both dealing with the topic of the relationship between parents and their children, share the same keenly sentimental quality (which thankfully never descends into mawkishness): while the latter is very sparse, almost hymn-like in tone with its whispered vocal harmonies, the former couples lilting, madrigal-like passages of touching sensitivity with instrumental surges led by Benjamin’s fluid, crystal-clear guitar.

“Utter Once Her Name”, a sparse, meditative number with a strong Gentle Giant vibe, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Remembering When”, featuring some really inspired acoustic and electric guitar work, introduce the album’s centrepiece, the 18-minute “Ramblin’ Sailor”. Featuring the participation of Japanese band Kenso’s bassist, Shunji Saegusa, it is based on a traditional English folk song called “The Rambling Sailor”; the stunning complexity of its instrumental parts is relieved by the sprightly, cheerful nature of  the contrapuntal vocal parts, including a chorus of ‘carousing sailors’. The magnificent central section is occasionally reminiscent of the stately yet riveting pace of Genesis’ instrumental compositions, while the titular sailor’s farewell to the sea is conveyed by a slower, more sedate passage enhanced by the distinctive sound of the recorder. The core of the album is then brought to a close by the upbeat, fanfare-like “Firmus Finale”, in which hints of Gryphon’s quirky take on medieval music join the Genesis and Gentle Giant influences.

Though some might complain that Cantus Firmus is not a truly original proposition, and wave the dreaded ‘retro’ word around, the album – far from being a mere tribute-like effort – simply oozes class and dedication. In spite of the individual band members’ impressive chops, in this case technical skill is put at the service of the music, and not the other way round. Moreover, the emotional content is conveyed with grace and delicacy rather with the self-indulgent angst typical of may higher-profile bands. Gentler and more meditative than the output of bands in a similar vein such as Änglagård or Wobbler, Cantus Firmus will definitely appeal to fans of vintage prog of an eclectic bent – though some listeners might be turned off by its unabashed sentimentality and occasional church-like gravity. At the time of writing, Advent are working on their third album, which will hopefully be released within the year.

Links:
http://www.adventmusic.net

http://www.michaelphipps.net/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bodhisattva  (5:19)
2. Razor Boy  (3:11)
3. The Boston Rag  (5:40)
4. Your Gold Teeth  (7:02)
5. Show Biz Kids  (5:25)
6. My Old School  (5:47)
7. Pearl of the Quarter  (3:50)
8. King of the World  (5:04)

LINEUP:
Donald Fagen – piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica, vocals
Ray Brown – string bass on Razor Boy
Denny Dias – guitar, Stereo Mixmaster General
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, vocals

With:
Ben Benay – acoustic guitar
Ray Brown – string bass (2)
Rick Derringer – slide guitar (5)
Victor Feldman – vibes, marimba, percussion
Ernie Watts – saxophone
Johnny Rotella – saxophone
Lanny Morgan – saxophone
Bill Perkins – saxophone
Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia Hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston, Michael Fennelly – background vocals

Steely Dan are one of those bands that are loved passionately by a great many progressive rock fans, but whose legitimacy as a genuinely progressive outfit can spark some really heated debate. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with ‘traditional’ prog (as in 30-minute epics, head-spinning time signature changes, and all that jazz), its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance – not to mention Donald Fagen’s literate, sarcastic lyrics –  deserves a place in any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.

Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past few years that I really got to know them in depth – thanks to the man who is now my husband. Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy (the band’s sophomore effort) their masterpiece, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with  complex instrumental interplay that would do any ‘classic’ prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently carefree melodies.

Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with “Bodhisattva”, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (the pun in ‘the sparkle of your China’ is quite priceless). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has a brisk, almost danceable rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. “Razor Boy” follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of Steely Dan’s many seedy tales of lost lives: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away….”  The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone lends a haunting quality to the song. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite number, the moody, somewhat menacing “The Boston Rag”, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (“Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag”), and the closest Steely Dan get to guitar power chords.

Out of the remaining songs, the hit “My Old School” and the romantic, French-flavoured “Pearl of the Quarter” lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. “Your Gold Teeth”, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers – the venomous “Showbiz Kids”, punctuated by relentless background chants of ‘outrageous’, and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer “King of the World”, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by distinctive, slightly cheesy synth sounds.

Even though at a superficial listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, yet ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep even the most demanding prog fan on their toes. Everything is there – the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this gem. You will not regret it.

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