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Posts Tagged ‘American’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Save The Yuppie Breeding Grounds (4:12)
2. Ephebus Amoebus (4:55)
3. Nacho Sunset (4:29)
4. $9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie (5:51)
5. Manifest Density (3:55)
6. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (4:01)
7. Disillusioned Avatar (5:15)
8. Kuru (5:02)
9. Revenge Grandmother (5:11)
10. Staggerin’ (4:41)
11. Middlebräu (6:46)

LINEUP:
Dennis Rea – electric guitar
Ruth Davidson – cello
Alicia Allen – violin
Kevin Millard – bass guitar, baliset
Jay Jaskot – drums

The city of Seattle has long been known as a hotbed for innovative music, from Jimi Hendrix to the grunge movement through progressive metal pioneers Queensryche. For several decades, it has also been the home of globe-trotting guitarist and composer Dennis Rea, originally from upstate New York, but now a full-fledged member of the Pacific Northwest artistic community. While Rea, in  his many years of tireless activity in the realms of creative music-making, has gathered an impressive discography (especially in terms of quality), he has never become a household name as he would have amply deserved. Luckily, the release of Moraine’s debut album in 2009, as well as his first solo album proper, View from Chicheng Precipice, and Iron Kim Style’s debut in 2010, have contributed to putting Rea’s name on the sprawling map of the progressive music scene.

Indeed, Moraine were selected for the 2010 edition of NEARfest, where they elicited quite a lot of interest – in spite of having been described as ‘avant-garde’ on the festival’s press material, a definition which (coupled with their placement in the opening Sunday slot, also known as the ‘rude awakening’, and generally reserved for rather idiosyncratic bands) kept the more conservative members of the audience away from their set. The members of the band, and Rea in particular, were somewhat amused at having been lumped together with much more ‘mainstream’ bands under the all-encompassing prog banner. In these times of derivative acts being peddled as the best thing since sliced bread, Moraine were possibly the most genuinely progressive band on the bill – though, as purveyors of hard-to-pinpoint music, they left some of the more label-happy members of the audience a tad baffled.

Although instrumental albums are seemingly a dime a dozen these days, Manifest Density (a brilliant pun on one of the most obnoxious aspects of US history) is not your average cookie-cutter instance of amazing chops unencumbered by soul and emotion. With a total of 11 tracks averaging 5 minutes in length  (the longest running at under 7 minutes),  and all of the five band members but drummer Jay Jaskot contributing to the compositional process, it is very much an ensemble effort, a collection of contemporary chamber rock pieces that comes with a liberal helping of almost Canterbury-like dry wit – though more geared to 21st-century American society. The essential input of the violin may draw comparisons with bands such as King Crimson circa Larks’ Tongue in Aspic or Mahavishnu Orchestra, while the pervasive presence of the cello may bring to mind Swedish Gothic proggers Anekdoten. However, in Moraine’s sound the cello’s unmistakable drone does not create the same kind of claustrophobic atmosphere, but rather adds that kind of depth that is generally supplied by the keyboards in the output of more conventional prog bands.

Since the individual members of Moraine have parallel involvements in a number of very diverse projects, ranging from jazz to stoner rock, it will not come as a surprise that eclecticism is the name of the game on Manifest Density. However, those anticipating a hodge-podge of disparate ideas that ultimately do not coalesce would be making the wrong assumption: the album as a whole impresses for its cohesion, even allowing for the different compositional styles of each band member. While Dennis Rea’s compositions (such as “Kuru” or “Staggerin’”) tend to favour a jazzier, more experimental style, two of the three tracks penned by co-founder Ruth Davidson (“$9 Pay-Per-View Lifetime TV Movie” and “Revenge Grandmother”) possess a wistful, low-key quality, shared by Alicia Allen’s deeply lyrical “Disillusioned Avatar”. On the other hand, album opener “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”, also written by Davidson, is an energetic yet haunting number with a strong Crimsonian vibe; while bassist Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” opens in a slow, atmospheric fashion, then develops into a frenzied workout, with guitar and violin sparring with each other.

The quirky track titles inject a welcome dose of humour into the proceedings – a recurring feature in the work of other modern instrumental bands, but which Moraine (and especially Dennis Rea) seem to have got down to a fine art. Actually, the titles fit the musical content astonishingly well: “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” is suitably dissonant, at times chaotic, with subtle Gothic undertones; while the upbeat “Nacho Sunset”, embellished by stunningly clear, lilting guitar work and gentle violin, has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. Though the album’s sound is mostly driven by the flawlessly intricate interplay between Rea’s distinctive guitar and Allen’s versatile violin lyrical and assertive in turns, none of the other instruments is confined to a mere supporting role, and each of them contributes in keeping the sonic texture tight. An excellent example of this is album closer (and personal favourite) “Middlebräu”: after a funky first half, propelled by magnificent bass and drums (very much in classic jazz-rock vein),  a pause signals an abrupt change of pace, and the beginning of a simply magnificent, almost slo-mo coda featuring an intense, meditative guitar solo (the closest Rea comes to a traditional rock solo).

When Moraine performed at NEARfest, their lineup had changed, with obvious consequences for their sound. Ruth Davidson and Jay Jaskot had moved away from Seattle, and been replaced by  drummer Stephen T Cavit (also an award-winning composer of film and TV scores), and woodwind player Jim DeJoie ( now Alicia Allen’s husband). The switch from cello to woodwinds lent the music a brighter, but also slightly more angular quality, reminiscent of those bands, such as Henry Cow, on the more experimental end of the Canterbury scene. This bodes well for the band’s second album, which is already in the works at the time of writing. In the spring of 2011 Moraine will also embark on a tour of the US East Coast, with dates at the New Jersey Proghouse and the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore already confirmed. Catch them if you can – they are a very entertaining live act, and Manifest Density qualifies as one of the most promising debut albums of the past decade in the progressive music field.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. September Song (9.27)
2. Antarctica  (9.05)
3. The Byways  (4.17)
4. Orange Ice  (10.20)
5. Concrete, Glass, Steel  (4.37)
6. Four Faradays in a Cage  (16.25)

LINEUP:
John MacNeill – keyboards
Mike Marando – bass guitar
John Orsi – drumset, percussion
Don Sullivan – guitar, guitar-to-MIDI

Based in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), instrumental quartet Incandescent Sky are part of the roster of fine musicians signed to the label It’s Twilight Time – founded in 1994 by musicians/composers John Orsi and Michael Watson, and home to a number of highly interesting acts. I first came across the label in the late spring of 2009, when I was sent Knitting By Twilight’s album An Evening Out of Town to review – by a fortunate coincidence, that album was to be the very first review I wrote for the site I collaborated with until recently. Because of the almost complete lack of exposure that It’s Twilight Time’s output has received so far – even in terms of specialized press and websites – very few people have had the opportunity to know the beautiful music produced by Orsi and his cohorts, as well as the stunning artwork accompanying each of their releases. As the caption on the label’s website recites, its acts provide ‘works of whimsy, wonder and wistful thinking’ – which is as apt a description as they come.

Four Faradays in a Cage (a pun referring to an electrical device called Faraday cage) is the third CD release by Incandescent Sky, following Glorious Stereo (2003) and Paths and Angles (2005). Originally recorded in September 2007 during a live improvisation session, the album was only committed to CD in 2010. It is therefore alike in conception to a number of other albums I have recently reviewed, seemingly going against the grain of the modern tendency to spend ages in the studio in order to get things ‘right’. These ‘live in the studio’ efforts, while sounding anything but shoddy or haphazard, inject a welcome sense of freshness and spontaneity into today’s often contrived approach to music-making.

Tagged on their own website as ‘an inventive improvisational instrumental ensemble’ (yes, Orsi does like his alliterations!), Incandescent Sky prove true to their definition, as it immediately becomes obvious when listening to Four Faradays in a Cage. In spite of the improvisational nature of the six compositions presented on the album, there is nothing sloppy about them. While there are some similarities in pattern, each track has got its own individuality, which prevents the album as a whole from sounding repetitive. The end result is a disc chock full of music that is in turn hypnotic, invigorating and deeply atmospheric, mainly based on a traditional rock instrumentation though making judicious use of cutting-edge technology. Running at about 53 minutes, it never overstays its welcome, with the two shorter tracks nicely balancing the longer offerings. In spite of the obvious talent and experience of the musicians involved, Four Faradays in a Cage always steers clear of spotlighting any of the band members’ individual chops at the expense of the bigger picture – a fine example of how talent can be effectively put to the service of the music, and not the other way around.

All of the six compositions possess a rich texture, to which all the instruments contribute in a distinctive yet somewhat understated fashion. The music feels spacious, beautifully flowing, yet at times almost seething with intensity. Most importantly, though some occasional references to external sources can be picked out, it sounds original in a way that has become increasingly rare in these days of unashamedly derivative productions. It might be said that describing the individual numbers is simple and at the same time rather demanding. Unlike so many ‘mainstream’ prog recordings, where the complexity is shoved right in the listener’s face – often with the unwelcome result of obliterating any sense of genuine emotion – Four Faradays in a Cage comes across as an extremely emotional album. However, there is also a sense of energy emanating from the music, which is not at odds with the delicate, melancholy nature of some of its parts.

“September Song” sums up the album’s main features, as well as rendering its title quite perfectly in musical terms. Opening with sparse, spacey keyboards and guitar, it develops into an airy, slow-paced composition, with Don Sullivan’s clear, relaxed guitar occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, or Pat Metheny when it adopts a lower register in the second half of the track. Propelled by Orsi’s impeccably creative percussion work, the tempo increases, slightly at first, then steadily, until the piece reaches a climax – a pattern that can be noticed in most of the tracks, although with variations. The following number, “Anctartica”, manages to conjure views of the icy, windswept wastes of the titular continent through the ebb and flow of the keyboards and the slow-burning interplay of drums and guitar which, especially towards the end, creates a mesmerizing ambient mood.

While “The Byways”, the shortest track on the album, acts as a laid-back, hypnotic interlude where the guitar seems to follow the pattern laid out by the drums, further enhanced by electronic effects, the intriguingly-titled “Orange Ice” brings the listener into Vangelis territory, with its steadily surging waves of electronic keyboards, and the guitar sounding almost suspended in time and space – though the second half sees the drums and bass take the lead, setting an almost military pace spiked by slashes of electronics. Not surprisingly, seen its title, “Concrete, Glass, Steel” brims with energy reminiscent of the third incarnation of King Crimson (albeit mellowed out by melodic keyboard work), and introduces the tour de force that is the 16-minute title-track – a stunning workout of really epic proportions where all the instruments strive together in order to create a densely textured, somewhat cinematic soundscape that at times feels like King Crimson on steroids. Synthetizers are pushed to the forefront, with keyboardist John MacNeill delivering passages that might comfortably sit in Keith Emerson’s oeuvre. As usual, Orsi’s outstanding drumming, bolstered by Mike Marando’s ever-reliable bass, is the driving force behind the composition, punctuating wild keyboard flights and unleashed guitar exertions, then slowing things down until all the instruments gradually subside.

The above description should make it clear that Four Faradays in a Cage is much more likely to appeal to lovers of instrumental music that combines technical skill with hefty doses of ambiance and emotion, rather than to worshippers of anything fast and flashy. It is, indeed, an album to be savoured slowly and carefully, in order to appreciate its moments of sheer beauty, as well as its moody intensity and the subtle yet flawless interaction between the instruments. Highly recommended to all fans of genuinely progressive music (as well as drum enthusiasts, who should check out John Orsi’s magnificent performance), it will hopefully encourage my readers to get acquainted with the remarkable talents gathered under the It’s Twilight Time banner.

Links:
http://www.incandescentsky.com
http://www.itstwilightmusic.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Simon Magus  (6:23)
2. Diamondized  (6:33)
3. The Night I Killed Steve Shelley  (9:07)
4. Royal Oil Can  (5:15)
5. Out of the Oceans  (7:17)
6. He is Like a Spider  (6:20)
7. Nuclear Density Gauge  (7:21)
8. Tumbleweeds  (4:09)
9. Astro  (11:30)

LINEUP:
Patrick McGowan – vocals, guitar
Dan McGowan – vocals, guitar
Kyle Minnick – drums
Becky Osenenko – bass

With:
Tom Brislin – keyboards

In 2008, New Jersey-based trio The Tea Club’s debut release made waves on the progressive rock scene, and sparked a lot of interest in this youthful new band. A completely self-produced effort, General Winter’s Secret Museum brimmed with freshness, enthusiasm and not inconsiderable chops. Moreover – most important in this age of manufactured, cookie-cutter musical outfits – it sounded original, not sporting its influences too openly. The Tea Club were at the forefront of the new generation of ‘crossover’ progressive rock bands, fuelled by the raw energy of post-punk and indie/alternative rock, with an eye to melody and another to complexity –  a power trio for the new millennium, with enough quirkiness and intricacy to appeal to the old-school set, and contemporary-sounding enough to make headway with the younger fans.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the release of Rabbit, the band’s sophomore effort, was eagerly awaited in prog circles. Due to their ideal location right in the middle of the ‘prog hub’ of the US Northeast (the main subject of the documentary film Romantic Warriors), they have been able to gain a loyal following, as well as the opportunity to increase their visibility by playing relatively frequent live shows. Unlike other bands of recent formation, they have never suffered from overhype, and still retain an endearingly down-to-earth attitude. On the other hand, Rabbit comes across as a clearly more ambitious project that its somewhat stripped-down predecessor. With the basic lineup augmented by bassist Becky Osenenko, longer track times (including a couple of almost epic-length numbers) and the unobtrusive but constant presence of the keyboards (manned by an experienced musician such as Tom Brislin, known for his associations with the likes of Yes and Renaissance), the albums marks a shift away from General Winter’s… immediate, hard-rocking impact into more nuanced modern prog territories.

This time around,The Tea Club are a tad less restrained about letting their sources of inspiration show – though this does by no means spell derivativeness. The band occasionally sound like a toned-down version of The Mars Volta, an impression compounded by the McGowan brothers’ high-pitched vocals – even though they go for a distinctly more melodic approach than Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s occasionally abrasive tones. There actually are some numbers that bring to mind the generally low-key mood of Octahedron, the Volta’s latest release. The first two songs, “Simon Magus” and “Diamondized”, are both sophisticated, well-constructed numbers, the former with a more dramatic edge, the second relying on atmosphere rather than power. Indeed, Rabbit’s most remarkable distinguishing feature is its slower pacing, seemingly light years removed from General Winter’s… exhilarating urgency. Its reflective, somewhat attenuated mood cannot but bring to mind  the haunting atmospheres created by bands like Radiohead and The Pineapple Thief. A song like the 9-minute “The Night I Killed Steve Shelley” (one of the undisputed highlights of the album) seems to bring together the two strains of the band’s creative impulse, alternating understated, almost meditative, moments with bursts of intensity driven by fat bass chords, eerie keyboard effecs and high-energy riffing.

True to their new direction, The Tea Club also throw a couple of slow-burners into the mix – namely the muted, mesmerizing “Royal Oil Can”, with its solemn drumming and tinkling guitars, and the gentle, percussion-less “Tumbleweeds”, reminiscent of Radiohead circa OK Computer. While the closing epic “Astro”, in my view, is not a completely successful endeavour, reproducing in some way the stop-start structure of “…Steve Shelley” (though featuring a nice instrumental section with one of the rare guitar solos on the album, as well as assertive keyboard touches and commanding vocals), Rabbit’s real highlight lies in the powerful “Nuclear Density Gauge”, a kind of mellower yet subtly menacing version of a Mars Volta number spiced by jagged drum patterns, neat bass lines and haunting vocal exchanges.

Although I suspect Rabbit is one of those albums that will slowly but relentlessly grow on me, I also have to admit that, at least on the first couple of listens, it did not grip me in the same way as General Winter’ Secret Museum. As a whole, the album seems to lack the ‘peaks and valleys’ that made its predecessor such a compelling effort, and sometimes the tracks seem to blur into each other. I also found the ubiquitous vocalizing a tad off-putting, as if it deprived the music of some much-needed energy. Personally speaking, I would be glad to see The Tea Club adopt a more ‘back to basics’ approach for their next release, recapturing some of the edginess and vitality of their debut and blending it with their newfound sophistication. However, in spite of these shortcomings, Rabbit is undeniably a lovingly-crafted effort from a band that oozes potential. With a striking cover in gorgeous hues of blue and green (courtesy of  Kendra DeSimone), the McGowan brothers’ own quirky artwork gracing the booklet, and intriguing, thought-provoking lyrics, it offers a complete package in the finest progressive rock tradition.

Links:
http://www.theteaclub.net

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Tracklisting: 1. Fire Of Unknown Origin (4:11) 2. Burnin’ For You (4:30) 3. Veteran Of The Psychic Wars (4:50) 4. Sole Survivor (4:04) 5. Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver (3:19) 6. Vengeance (The Pact) (4:41) 7. After Dark (4:25) 8. Joan Crawford (4:54) 9. Don’t Turn Your Back (4:02) Lineup: Eric Bloom – lead vocals, bass (5) Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser –  lead guitar, vocals, bass (8) Joseph Bouchard – bass, vocals Allen Lanier-  keyboards Albert Bouchard – drums, synthesizer, vocals Though it may not be the peak of originality, I would like to inaugurate my blog by posting a review of the album from which it takes its name. Released almost 30 years ago, the wonderfully-titled Fire of Unknown Origin counts as a firm favourite of mine – strange as it may sound to those who may not find it anything special, or even think it borders too much on AOR territory for comfort. However, it also contains a few songs that I would not hesitate to call masterpieces, as well as superb artwork, and a genuinely progressive vibe (though you should not expect anything resembling Yes or Genesis, of course). Fire of Unknown Origin features a major hit in “Burnin’ for You”, written and interpreted by criminally underrated guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser – a catchy little number that got the band a lot of airplay at the time of the album’s release. Though a more straightforward (and also more openly commercial) composition than the legendary  “Don’t Fear the Reaper”,  it is still AOR with a bite, unlike some of the band’s later output. The other songs, however, are a different story – starting with the title-track, its  typically cryptic lyrics penned by punk muse Patti Smith (who was in a long-term relationship with keyboardist Allen Lanier). A fine showcase for Lanier’s skills,  it straddles the line between sophistication and commercial potential. The album’s standout track, however, is the magnificent  “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, written by vocalist Eric Bloom together with English fantasy writer Michael Moorcock (also known for his collaboration with Hawkwind), who in the previous couple of years had provided lyrics for two other BOC  songs, “Black Blade” and “The Great Sun Jester”.   As good as those two tracks are, “Veteran” is in a different league – definitely one of the band’s classics, and one of those songs that, right from day one, have held a constant appeal for me, especially in some difficult moments of my life: “My energy is spent at last/And my armour is destroyed/And I’ve used up all my weapons/And I’m helpless and bereaved….” A slowly but powerfully surging composition, it features a killer guitar solo by Roeser, and a haunting drum pattern that was probably inspired by Peter Gabriel’s equally riveting “Intruder”. Like most of the album, the song was originally written for the soundtrack of the animated film Heavy Metal, but was the only one to eventually feature in its final version. While “Sole Survivor”, featuring former Meat Loaf vocalist Karla DeVito, and the upbeat but somewhat weak  “After Dark”  follow the AOR-inclined path of “Burning for You”, the eerie, ominous “Vengeance (The Pact)”, and the dramatic “Joan Crawford” present the listener with frequent time changes, lush musical textures and intense, forceful vocals. The album closes with the soothing vocal harmonies, layered bass and keyboard lines of the deceptively catchy “Don’t Turn Your Back”,  whose lyrics  (not surprisingly for the band) deal with the subject of death. Like its predecessor, the excellent Cultosaurus ErectusFire of Unknown Origin was produced by hard-rock icon Martin Birch, who in those years would also revive Black Sabbath’s flagging career – and then proceed to make stars out of Iron Maiden. With great clarity of sound, sterling performances from all the band members, powerfully emotional vocals, and intriguing  lyrics, it ranks undoubtedly as one of BOC’s best offerings. Though not as strongly cohesive as their third release, the stunning Secret Treaties, it is nevertheless highly recommended to all fans of vintage classic rock with a progressive bent.

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