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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Un Dono (2:13)
2. Wizard Intro (3:03)
3. Madre Africa (7:54)
4. Questa Penombra E’ Lenta (6:57)
5. Chimera (4:23)
6. The Game (10:38)
a. Wizard of your Sky
b. Mickey’s
c. Jump
d. Wizard of your Life
7. Cluster Bombs (6:43)
8. This Open Show (3:16)
9. C’Era Una Volta (2:59)

LINEUP:
Paolo Siani – drums, vocals, keyboards, bass, guitars

With:
Ricky Belloni – electric guitar (6)
Carlo Cantini – violin (6)
Guido Guglielminetti – bass (2, 4, 6)
Mauro Pagani / flute (3)
Alessandro Siani – electronics (1, 5)
Franco Testa – bass (5)
Roberto Tiranti – vocals (3, 6, 7)
Giorgio Usai – Hammond organ (6)
Joe Vescovi – Hammond organ (3)
Marco Zoccheddu – electric guitar (2, 3, 4, 7), piano (5, 7)
Gianni Alberti – sax (5)
Ottavia Bruno – vocals (5)
Giacomo Caiolo – acoustic guitar (4)
Nadia Enghèben – soprano (3)
Alberto “Artley” Buttarelli – vocals, flute (8)
Diego Gordi – piano (8)
Fabio Gordi – piano (8)
Daniele Pagani – piano (8)
Giuliano Papa – cello (8)
Vittorio Pedrali – vocal recitation (1)

In spite of his tenure as the drummer of Italian Seventies band Nuova Idea, Paolo Siani is certainly not a household name in the world of progressive rock – unless you count those dedicated fans of the scene who collect even the most obscure albums. Additionally, he shares the same name with an Italian-American artist of vastly different temperament, which can be misleading to those who are looking for more information. Although an excellent outfit, Nuova Idea did not achieve the fame of their fellow Genoese New Trolls (whom keyboardist Giorgio Usai and guitarist Ricky Belloni joined after the band’s demise) or Delirium, and disbanded after their third album, the highly-regarded Clowns, released in 1973. Subsequently Siani joined avant-garde outfit Opus Avantra for their second album, then beat band Equipe 84. Though he dropped off the musical radar for almost three decades, he worked as a producer and kept writing and recording his own music. It was the renewed interest in prog and the Italian Seventies scene that prompted Siani to resume his career as a musician – as well as a commendable humanitarian purpose, that is, raising funds on behalf of Genoa’s renowned Gaslini paediatric hospital.

Though Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams, released by Genoa-based label Black Widow, is to all intents and purposes a solo project by Siani, it also sees a reunion of sorts of his mother band, as well as an impressive roster of guest musicians, including three of his former Nuova Idea bandmates: the above-mentioned Giorgio Usai and Ricky Belloni, plus guitarist Marco Zoccheddu, who had left the band to join Osage Tribe after Nuova Idea’s debut. Unlike many albums of this kind, however, it is remarkably tight from a compositional point of view. Moreover, despite Italian prog’s reputation for being somewhat overwrought,  the album avoids that particular trap, keeping melody and clarity at the forefront while not neglecting the occasional flight of instrumental fancy.

Clocking in at under 50 minutes, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is a decidedly song-oriented effort that manages to achieve a good balance between vocal and instrumental parts. The album opens with “Un Dono”, where an expressive male voice recites a brief, uplifting text by Mahatma Gandhi on a backdrop of sparse electronic keyboards. The following instrumental, “Wizard Intro”, blends symphonic suggestions à la Yes with hard rock touches, all infused with an unmistakable Italian flavour. “Chimera”, also instrumental, hints instead at a jazzy inspiration, with a loose structure made up of different solo spots (bass, sax and piano) over a train-like background rhythm provided by drums and keyboards. Siani’s voice can be heard on one track, “Questa Penombra E’ Lenta” (which is also the closest the album gets to a conventional ballad in the unique Italian style), assisted by the clear, melodic voice of Ottavia Bruno, and complemented by lovely acoustic guitar and an airy synth solo.

Three tracks feature the powerful yet clear voice of Roberto Tiranti, lead singer of power/progressive metal band Labyrinth (with a brief stint in New Trolls in the late Nineties). His gritty performance on “Cluster Bombs” – a hard-hitting, anti-war song powered by Hammond and military-style drumming that owes more than a little to Deep Purple or Uriah Heep – increases the song’s emotional impact. Tiranti shows his more melodic side on the 10-minute, 4-part epic “The Game”, a richly textured composition where all the instruments get their chance to shine without overwhelming each other, with Hammond flurries and wistful violin strains. Tiranti then reverts to a more authoritative, hard-rocking persona in the haunting “Madre Africa”, where the Deep Purple influences represented by Joe Vescovi (formerly of The Trip, a band that briefly included Ritchie Blackmore among his members) and his Hammond organ are tempered by Mauro Pagani’s flute, whose sound brings to mind Delirium or Osanna. The album is wrapped up by two short, low-key pieces, the melancholy, cello-driven “This Open Show” and the instrumental “C’Era Una Volta”, a Baroque-inspired number performed by Siani alone.

As can be expected, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is not particularly innovative, nor does it pretend to be such. Like other fellow reviewers, I also have some reservations on the choice of mixing Italian and English lyrics. The supposed ‘international appeal’ of English vocals, in my opinion, dilutes that unique quality of Italian prog that is so often connected with the use of such a great vehicle for music as the Italian language. However, in spite of these drawbacks, the album is a solid effort, a fine slice of vintage Italian prog with a thoroughly 21st-century sound quality, and excellent performances all round from Siani and his guest musicians. The album should also appeal to fans of classic hard rock with progressive overtones. At the time of writing, Paolo Siani is planning a live show in October in his hometown of Genoa, which hopefully will not remain a one-off.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=77100

 

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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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