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Posts Tagged ‘Cuneiform Records’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Devoto (5:54)
2. Sotterfugio (1:24)
3. Multiverso (5:46)
4. Distratto da Me (7:28)
5. Eterno Ritorno (3:24)
6. Più Uguale (10:09)
7. Transizione (7:05)
8. Autore del Futuro (7:01)
9. Figli (6:59)
10. Quattro Piccole Mani (4:37)

LINEUP:
Alessandro Bonetti  – violin, mandolin
Mauro Collina – guitars, bouzouki, dobro
Alberto Piras –  vocals
Alessandro Porreca – bass
Luigi Ricciardiello – organ, piano, synth
Claudio Trotta – Maurus drums

With:
Luigi Savino – synth, contrabass
Alessandro Meroli – baritone saxophone
Marco Matteuzzi – alto saxophone
Massimo Greco –  trumpet

Odd as it may sound, I had never heard of Deus Ex Machina before I moved to the US. When their first album, Gladium Caeli, was released in 1991, I was taking one of my many breaks from intensive music listening, and, by the time I got back into progressive rock, they had already gone into hiatus. After settling in the New World, as I was getting into the local prog scene, attending concerts and festivals and meeting people, I heard frequent reports of the Bologna-based outfit’s great music and stage presence – not to mention their rather unique use of Latin in their lyrics. Unfortunately, it seemed Deus Ex Machina’s lengthy break from recording and performing was at risk of turning into a permanent state of affairs – as it is much too often the case with non-mainstream bands.

Fast forward to October 2015, and the announcement of Deus Ex Machina’s reappearance on stage in Milan – the prelude to the almost unexpected release of a new album, their sixth (the third for Cuneiform Records), with the added bonus of original keyboardist Luigi Ricciardiello’s return after two decades.  Devoto dropped at the end of June, about a month after the band’s participation in the 22th edition of ProgDay was announced – to ecstatic reactions from those who had witnessed their previous US appearances.

In the past, Deus Ex Machina have often elicited comparisons to Area, one of the defining bands of the original RPI scene. Their previous albums, especially the ambitious De Republica, did indeed channel the seminal Milan outfit, and not only because of Alberto Piras’ remarkable vocal acrobatics. However, the  band members have always emphasized their rock roots, which (as they are keen on pointing out) are clearly given pride of place on Devoto.

After an eight-year break, a band can move forward, or continue as if nothing had happened. Deus Ex Machina have inequivocably chosen the former path with Devoto – abandoning their trademark Latin lyrics for one thing (a process that had already started in the early 2000’s). Their wholehearted embrace of Italian connects the album to the long-standing Italian prog tradition, a link strengthened by violinist Alessandro Bonetti’s association with PFM, whose timeless influence often surfaces in his elegant yet soulful playing.

When compared to the band’s previous output,  Devoto might come across as more straightforward: this, however, is true only up to a point. In fact, the album’s multiple layers will unfold upon repeated in-depth  listens. Deus Ex Machina have also outdone themselves in terms of producing memorable melodies, which obviously works wonders for the album’s accessibility – as proved right from the start by the title-track, whose chorus can get stuck in your head for days. The deceptive quality of the album’s supposedly streamlined nature emerges in songs such as “Distratto da Me”, whose appealingly melodic, mid-paced intro suddenly turns into an almost free-form instrumental section sounding like Area jamming with Deep Purple. Indeed, Ricciardiello’s gritty Hammond organ puts its stamp all over the album, while his sweeping synth soundscapes (supplemented by arranger Luigi Savino’s contribution) lend a spacey note to the short mood piece “Sotterfugio”, as well as the final section of the 10-minute “Più Uguale”.  As witnessed by the funky swagger of a number of songs, such as the energetic “Transizione”, drummer Claudio Trotta – aided and abetted by Alessandro Porreca’s nimble bass lines – is firing on all cylinders, fueled by his love for soul music.

While Alberto Piras’ charismatic vocals tend to capture the listener’s attention,  his co-composer Mauro Collina’s performance on guitar is one of Devoto’s strengths – fully in evidence not only in fierce electric solos, but also in the folksy, all-acoustic “Eterno Ritorno” and in the lovely instrumental closer “Quattro Piccole Mani”, where he shines on slide guitar. Piras bends the structure of the Italian language to fit the energy and complexity of the music, with surprising results (as in the intense, almost brooding “Multiverso”), or behaves like an additional instrument (as in the second half of the bluesy “Autore del Futuro”). Two saxophones and a trumpet (courtesy of  guest musicians Alessandro Merola, Marco Matteuzzi and Massimo Greco) beef up the already lush instrumental fabric of the songs, enhancing the dynamic, jazzy vibe of “Figli” (also a showcase for Bonetti’s fiery violin) and the already-mentioned “Distratto da Me”.

Though not claiming in any way to reinvent the wheel (which these days I find highly refreshing), Devoto is pure class from start to finish, With its admirable balance of dazzling instrumental flights and riveting vocals, permeated by a strong sense of melody, it packs a lot in just one hour. Fans of both Italian prog and classic jazz-rock should not miss this album, and try to catch Deus Ex Machina live if possible, as their music – made with passion as well as impeccable technical skill – really comes alive on stage, conveying the joy of playing together.  A special mention is deserved by the album’s intriguing artwork and detailed liner notes – which include English translations of the lyrics for the benefit of international audiences.

Links:
https://cuneiformrecords.bandcamp.com/album/devoto

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com/bandshtml/deus.html

 

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Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Pilman Radiant (26:15):
i. Visitation
ii. The Divine Vessel
iii. Wriggling Magnet
iv. Mosquito Mange
v. Divine Vessel’s Reprise
2. Complex #7 (4:47)
3. Tremors From the Future (11:15)

Bonus Live DVD:
1. Five Suns (32:19)
2. King Lindorm (14:19)

LINEUP:
Emmet Elvin – Fender Rhodes, organ, synth, harmonium, screeching guitar (1.i)
James Sedwards  – bass
Kavus Torabi – guitar, santoor
David J. Smith – drums, percussion, additional keyboards, santoor

With
:
Thomas Frasier Scott – soprano sax, alto sax, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon
Dave Newhouse – baritone sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, alto flute
Chloe Herington – bassoon
Sarah Anderson – violin, viola
Geri McEwan – violin
Sam Morris – French horn
Emma Sullivan – trumpet
Antti Uusimaki – additional keyboards and effects

After  having produced one of the most powerful album trilogies in recent times – Five Suns (2003), Black Oni (2004) and Elixirs (2008) – in the past few years British outfit Guapo seemed to have dropped off the radar. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’Sullivan’s departure following the release of Elixirs (which had been recorded as a duo by O’Sullivan and drummer David J. Smith after the departure of bassist/guitarist Matt Thompson in 2005) brought about a lengthy hiatus and rumours of the band’s demise. However, at the end of January 2013 Guapo resurfaced with a veritable bang – a brand-new studio album (their ninth), titled History of the Visitation, which also saw their return to the Cuneiform Records fold ten years after the career-defining Five Suns.

Lineup changes are nothing new in Guapo’s chequered history, which began in the mid-Nineties with the release of three EPs, and then unfolded with various recordings and collaborations. In the intervening years, the trio configuration that had recorded  Five Suns and Black Oni became a quartet with the addition of Iranian-born guitarist Kavus Torabi (of Cardiacs and Knifeworld fame, recently announced as the new guitarist for Gong) and bassist James Sedwards, while  keyboardist Emmett Elvin (like Sedwards, also a member of fellow Cuneiform outfit Chrome Hoof) replaced O’Sullivan in time for the recording of History of the Visitation.

Guapo are a textbook example of the mind-boggling variety to be found under the RIO/Avant umbrella – a label that, as is the case of bands such as miRthkon and Zevious, fits them only in part .Though the names of Magma and Univers Zéro often crop up in reviews of their material, those two seminal left-field bands are just a small part of Guapo’s musical identity in the second decade of the 21th century. The central role of David J. Smith (the only member left of the band’s original lineup) evokes comparisons with Christian Vander and Daniel Denis. However, Kavus Torabi’s pyrotechnic guitar skills lend to modern-day Guapo a keen, metal-like edge, while Emmett Elvin’s keyboards can weave heady, majestic textures in the best prog tradition, and James Sedwards’ rumbling bottom end often emerges from the fray to add another dimension to the uncompromisingly arcane, brooding nature of the band’s sound. The frequent repetition of lines and themes increases the hypnotic feel of the music in a fashion that brings to mind King Crimson and also some instances of post-rock.

Recorded with the assistance of a number of guest musicians (including The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse), History of the Visitation clocks in at a mere 42 minutes. The first of the album’s three tracks is a 26-minute, 5-movement suite titled “The Pilman Radiant” – a title that, just like the album’s own title, references the cult Russian science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic, written by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971, on which Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker is also based.  Guapo’s  moody yet hard-hitting music renders the intricate, visionary content of the story without any need for words, painting a picture that, in its own way, is as grandiose as any “classic” prog, though more viscerally intense.

Somewhat more streamlined than the monumental Five Suns and Black Oni suites, “The Pilman Radiant” wins my personal prize as best “epic” of 2013. Its five movements are easily distinguishable, yet they form an organic whole. Introduced by the surging layers of keyboards, assorted sound effects and crashing drums of “Visitation” – later reprised by the short, appropriately spacey “Mosquito Mange” – the suite comes into its own with the eerie, quietly brooding beauty of the waltz-like “The Divine Vessel”, led by fluid electric piano and unexpectedly melodic guitar; pace and intensity increase, propelled by drums and bass, in the driving “Wriggling Magnet”, in which Elvin’s roaring organ complements Torabi’s gorgeous, rock-styled solo turn, then a grittier, metal-edged reprise of “The Divine Vessel” brings this exhilarating musical experience to a close.

Strategically inserted between two much longer, more complex compositions, the 4-minute dark ambient piece of “Complex #7” skillfully piles up layers keyboards and assorted sound effects with the added contribution of reeds, creating a mounting sense of tension with the ominous feel of a horror-movie soundtrack.  On the other hand, “Tremors From the Future” concentrates a dizzying variety of twists and turns in slightly over 11 minutes, its skewed melodic development powered by guitar and organ sparring and interweaving while drums and bass evoke the titular tremors with their steadily pulsing movement.

The interest value of History of the Visitation gets a further boost from the presence of an almost 50-minute DVD featuring two of the band’s most iconic live performances from the past few years. The NEARfest 2006 performance of a somewhat shortened version of Five Suns, flawlessly shot in black and white, highlights Torabi’s flamboyant stage presence and boundless energy, as well as Smith’s role as the band’s rhythmic engine; while the more rudimentary quality of the video recorded the following year at the RIO festival does not detract at all from the power of the angular “King Lindorm” thanks to Udi Koomran’s top-notch mixing and mastering work.

In spite of the band’s reputation for scaring away some of the more conservative prog fans – also on account of the notoriously loud volume of their performances – History of the Visitation is a relatively more listener-friendly proposition than Guapo’s previous albums. The higher melodic content and skillfully achieved balance between hard-driving sections and more low-key ones are likely to surprise people who would not ordinarily appreciate anything bearing a RIO/Avant tag. Indeed, there are moments of sheer beauty on History of the Visitation that offset the band’s trademark looming darkness and wall-of-sound heaviness. With its toweringly Gothic atmosphere conveyed through stunning musicianship, this is definitely one of the year’s landmark releases.

Links:
http://guaponews.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/guapoband/info

http://guapo1.bandcamp.com/album/history-of-the-visitation

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Attend to Your Configuration (2:47)
2. Was Solis (6:02)
3. Pantocyclus (4:07)
4. White Minus Red (6:55)
5. Crime of Separate Action (6:32)
6. Entanglement (4:19)
7. A Tiller in a Tempest (3:15)
8. Passing Through the Wall (4:22)
9. This Could Be the End of the Line (2:23)
10. Plying the Cold Trade (8:02)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – bass

Four years after their barnstorming second album, the aptly-titled After the Air Raid, New York-based trio Zevious are back with their long-awaited third full-length CD, Passing Through the Wall, also released on Cuneiform Records. In the intervening years the band have maintained a brisk schedule of live performances – including the 2011 edition of ProgDay and, a couple of months later, Cuneifest at Baltimore’s Orion Studios. All three Zevious members are also involved in other projects, which pits them against the likes of Steven Wilson as the most hard-working people in progressive rock.

Zevious, like miRthkon and many of the bands and artists featured on these pages, stand on the outer limits of the progressive rock spectrum – that twilight zone that some would label as “progressive but not prog”, a definition that shows how for many fans the genre has become nothing more than a collection of dated mannerisms. The trio’s musical approach, however, is every bit as complex as the average “mainstream” prog band’s, though relying only on the essential rock instrumentation to create an impressive volume of sound characterized by a very high level of energy. Indeed, Zevious are definitely not for everyone, especially those who believe that the “progressive” in “progressive rock” has been stripped of its original meaning.

The definition of “King Crimson on steroids” that I used in my previous reviews of the band still holds true for Passing Through the Wall – perhaps even more so than for its predecessor. Zevious take the hauntingly repetitive, angular structure of pieces like “Red” or “Discipline” as a springboard, and inject it with an almost manic energy that owes a lot to metal and punk. As drummer Jeff Ebert, whose mind-boggling polyrhythms are at the core of the band’s sound, is also a member of hyper-technical metal band Dysrhythmia (with whom Zevious played some shows in November 2013), Zevious are seriously heavy, though in a different way than, for instance, miRthkon or Guapo – two bands that, like Zevious, straddle the line between Avant Progressive and experimental metal.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, and packaged in a minimalistic, black-and-white cover with an Escherian feel, Passing Through the Wall comprises 10 tracks ranging from 2 to 8 minutes – a structure both similar and different from their previous album. The shorter tracks emphasize energy and dynamic pacing, while the longer ones allow for more variation. However, those who are looking for dramatic shifts within the same track  in classic prog tradition are in for a disappointment, because at a first listen the compositions on the album may sound all rather alike. Tempo changes are handled subtly as a whole, and the music’s hard-driving intensity does not disguise the complexity of the instrumental interplay.

The imperiously-titled and –paced “Attend to Your Configuration” barges in with its relentless web of interlocking bass and guitar lines driven by Jeff Ebert’s acrobatic drumming, then slows down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the second half. In  the considerably longer “Was Solis” Mike Ebert’s clear-toned guitar weaves sinuously in and out the rumbling backdrop of Johnny DeBlase’s bass, sparring with the drums and occasionally going into slo-mo mode for atmospheric effect. “Pantocyclus” melds skewed melody and haunting, insistent pattern peppered by piercing guitar effects, while the strikingly Crimsonian “White Minus Red” is powered by a superb performance by DeBlase, the rhythmic foundation steadily surging and flowing, then gaining momentum towards the end. The slow, ominous strains of “Crime of Separate Action” wrap up the first half of the album, again showcasing DeBlase’s astonishing propulsive/textural bass work supporting Mike Eber’s eerily chiming guitar.

The first half of“Entanglement” pulls out all the stops in terms of escalating guitar assault,  with drums all over the place; in contrast, “A Tiller in the Tempest” slower, somewhat rarefied pauses relieve the tension of the tight instrumental work. The short, fast-paced “This Could Be the End of the Line” acts as an interlude of sorts between the two most distinctive pieces on the album – the title-track, with its uncharacteristically muted guitar-bass-drum pattern, whose understated intensity creates a heady, drone-like texture; and 8-minute closing track “Plying the Cold Trade”, whose dirge-like pace and somber, Gothic feel offer a rather sharp departure from the unrelenting energy of the previous numbers.

Obviously, Zevious are not going to encounter the favour of the average melodic prog fan, while their music should prove to be far more appealing to the younger generations, weaned on a diet of post/math rock, technical metal and crossover bands such as The Mars Volta. They are also one of those bands who – as good as they sound on CD – have to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, as their hard-driving yet sophisticated music gains a whole new dimension on stage. In any case, Passing Through the Wall is a riveting slice of modern progressive music, powerful and intricate though not devoid of melody, and definitely deserving to be heard with some measure of concentration. Highly recommended to all adventurous prog fans, this album is sure to be featured in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://zevioustrio.blogspot.com/

http://cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. La roue (3:43)
2. Cobra Fakir (8:53)
3. RVB7 (3:56)
4. Paris-Roubaix (2:14)
5. Titan (4:17)
6. Un cas sibérien (2:28)
7. Speed-dating sur Mars (7:07)
8. Tandem (8:23)
9. Maringouin (3:41)
10. Space Cowboy (3:11)
11. Expérience 7 (2:27)

LINEUP:
Pascal Globensky – keyboards, synths, piano
Rémi Leclerc – drums, percussion, keyboards, turntable
Bernard Falaise – guitars, bass, keyboards, banjo, turntable

Born in 1980 from the meeting of keyboardist Pascal Globensky and multi-instrumentalist François Émon, French Canadian band Miriodor can be counted amongst the veterans of the current progressive rock scene. Surprisingly, despite the many changes the lineup has undergone in the past three decades, Globensky and drummer Rémi Leclerc, another of the band’s earliest members, are still on board – as is guitarist Bernard Falaise, who has been with the band for 20 years even if not part of its original configuration.

Never a prolific outfit, with only eight studio albums released since their inception and lengthy breaks between each new release, Miriodor seem to have embraced the old tenet about quality trumping quantity. They have also maintained a healthy level of concert activity throughout the years, with high-profile performances at international events such as NEARfest in 2002, FMPM in 2007 and 2008, the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux (France) and Sonic Circuits in Washington DC (where they opened for Univers Zéro) in 2010. Cobra Fakir, their eighth studio album, was finally released on Cuneiform Records at the end of September 2013, a few weeks after their appearance at the 19th edition of ProgDay. Though the album was recorded as a trio, Miriodor have gone back to being a quartet with the addition of bassist Nicolas Lessard, who replaced longtime member Nicolas Masino.

As one of the landmark progressive rock releases of the first decade of the 21st century, Miriodor’s 2009 album, Avanti!, was a tough act to follow. Cobra Fakir, however, though it obviously shares a lot with its predecessor, it also shows the band moving in a somewhat different direction. While their sound – sometimes described as the “happy” counterpart to Univers Zéro austere gloom – is immediately recognizable, the band have made some changes to their compositional approach. Unlike Avanti!, which featured six longish tracks, Miriodor’s latest effort presents a wider range of running times, from the almost 9 minutes of the title-track to 2-minute interludes such as “Paris-Roubaix” (a perfect sonic rendition of the titular bicycle race with its layers of slightly atonal keyboards) and the appealingly noisy, almost improvisational “Un cas sibérien”. A longer track list also means a more noticeable diversity –  with the shorter compositions providing an outlet for experimentation, often involving an array of inventive sound effects. Though there are no guests contributing to Cobra Fakir, this does not necessarily result in a more stripped-down sound, and very few listeners will miss Avanti!’s richer instrumentation.  In fact, the album perfectly demonstrates how multilayered keyboards, far from becoming a byword for bombast, can be used for rhythmic as well as melodic and textural purposes.

Leisurely acoustic guitar introduces “La roue”, whose upbeat main theme – as its title (“The Wheel”) suggests – hints at carnival music, offset by angular, somewhat darker patterns around the middle, and reinforced by sounds of clanging metal, breaking glass and the scratchy turntable effects that crop up throughout the album. The title-track sums up the album’s many faces in its 9 minutes of musical whirlwind – the sedate, meditative first half rendering in sonic terms the tale of the cobra and the fakir outlined in the liner notes, followed by a myriad of tempo and mood changes, often sharply veering towards dissonance yet always informed by an internal logic, then coming full circle with its melancholy, acoustic close. Only a handful of seconds shorter, “Tandem” has a more cohesive structure and an almost classical feel, with sampled flute and harpsichord complementing the piano and synth, and a plethora of sound effects intensifying the trippy, guitar-heavy mood of the ending.

In “RVB7”, assorted percussive effects and the crystalline tinkle of the vibraphone create an amazing blend of sounds that enhances the keyboards and guitar in a lively, dance-like pace; while “Titan” hinges on a brooding, cinematic crescendo punctuated by organ, solemn drum rolls, and surging, distorted guitar, creating a Gothic atmosphere that evokes Univers Zéro. Without any need for words, “Speed-dating sur Mars” tells an entertaining tale through  spacey effects and a sprightly, keyboard-led rhythm, as well as a brief, romantic piano interlude. More spacey goodness (as the title makes it quite obvious) is offered by “Space Cowboy”, where electronic effects hold sway, while melody, infused with a nostalgic Old-World flavour and the gentle sway of a waltz, is the key word in “Maringouin”, easily the most “mainstream” piece on the album. “Experiénce 7” wraps up the album with a short yet intense exercise in atmospheric buildup, conducted almost solely by surging keyboard washes and eerie sound effects.

With its intriguing cover art juxtaposing Hindu mysticism and their native Québec’s winter landscape, Cobra Fakir may well confirm Miriodor’s status as the RIO/Avant band that – on account of their keen melodic flair coexisting with more boundary-pushing tendencies – manages to appeal even to staunch symphonic/neo fans. Balancing edgy dissonance and  haunting atmospheres, engaging circus-like tunes and moments of reflection, the album will benefit from repeated listens in order to let its magic unfold, but will amply reward the listener’s patience. Another outstanding effort from one of the best live bands I have seen in the past few years – their understated mastery of their instruments as close to perfection as it gets – Cobra Fakir does not disappoint expectations, and will certainly feature in many “best of 2013” lists.

Links:
http://miriodor.com/wp/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

 

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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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TRACKLISTING:
Disc One (CD)
1.  Beat Mm (3:16)
2.  Siska (2:02)
3.  Crazy Stuff (1:05)
4. Tyskromans (3:15)
5.  Nyfin (2:23)
6.  Mellan Stol Och Bord (2:30)
7.  Skrona (1:24)
8.  Tages (2:01)
9.  Kanske (1:08)
10.  Den Arga Kvinnan (1:08)
11.  Tivolimarsch (3:32)
12.  Forutbestämningen (Predestinator) (2:50)
13.  Vendelvarianter (2:34)
14.  Okjak (2:41)
15.  Ukuleles (2:33)
16.  Bam ba ra (0:33)
17.  Antilobo (1:31)
18.  Innanpop (2:49)
19.  Proggövergång (0:12)
20.  Talrika (original) (4:36)
21.  Radioyl (2:07)
22.  Aningar (1983) (2:45)
23.  Go to Africa (3:58)
24.  Vandelmässa (1:11)
25.  Franklåt (original) (3:01)
26.  In the R.I.O. (concept) (1:37)

Disc Two (DVD)
Live: Gouveia Art Rock Festival 2005
1. Viandra (3:52)
2. Simfågeldans (4:48)
3. Moro (1:45)
4. Dron (4:20)
5. Tama-Chan Snoa (3:40)
6. Höstvisa (4:09)
With Michel Berckmans (bassoon):
7. Portaletyde (3:41)
8. Nåt (4:13)
9. Utflykt Med Damcykel (6:04)
10. Inte Quanta (2:54)
With Miriodor:
11. Talrika (4:59)

Live: Houwiesse, Weite, Switzerland 2005 (with Fizzè [accordion])
  1. Portaletyde (4:03)
2. Franska Valsen (2:47)
3. Nåt (4:27)
4. Höstvisa (3:42)
5. Boeves Psalm (3:26)
6. Dron (4:31)
7. Inte Quanta (3:02)

LINEUP:
Lars Hollmer – accordion, keyboards, melodic, ukulele, mandolin, percussion, voices, and more

With:
Eino Haapala – guitar (14)

The release of With Floury Hand (English translation of the Swedish Med Mjölad Hand) in the summer of 2012 – three and a half years after Lars Hollmer’s untimely passing on Christmas Day, 2008 – came as a boon to all the devoted followers of the influential Swedish artist who had still not come to terms with his demise. The presence of a 72-minute DVD, capturing Hollmer on stage on two different occasions, both in 2005, makes the album an even more valuable document of the creativity of a musician who, in the almost forty years of his career, managed to carve a niche for himself even when playing music that never pandered to commercial trends.

The album’s quirky title, derived from a recipe that Hollmer’s daughter was reading aloud during a family dinner in 2007, highlights the artist’s keen sense of humour, always a prominent feature of his musical output. As pointed out by its bracketed subtitle, With Floury Hand is a collection of sketches – 26 short tracks (the longest clocking in at slightly over 4 minutes), belonging to different periods of Hollmer’s career, some of them still in a draft state, which showcase the artist’s zest for inventive, boundary-pushing music-making. As both the CD and the DVD poignantly illustrate, Hollmer’s creative spark was clearly far from being extinguished: indeed, unlike in the case of many of his contemporaries, his wide-ranging inspiration and brilliantly eclectic vein had not been dimmed by the passing years.

A year or so after his father’s passing, when the worst of the grief had run its course, Hollmer’s son Gabriel started to delve into the extensive archives that the artist himself had been exploring when, in May 2008, he was diagnosed with the advanced-stage lung cancer that took his life a few months later. The result of this not always comfortable, yet ultimately cathartic process was released three years later thanks to the intervention of Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records, who helped Gabriel give shape to the project. Some of the material that Hollmer had intended for the follow-up to 2007’s somber, subdued Viandra – an album that was to have a very different tone, reflecting the more upbeat, whimsical side of the artist’s creativity – has been included on With Floury Hand. As Gabriel explains in his thorough liner notes, the album as a whole blends finished and unfinished material, experimentation and tradition, melody and  endearing silliness – summing up Hollmer’s artistic personality in under an hour’s running time.

With Floury Hand is introduced by the bracing tune of “Beat Mm”, a jam built around a sequencer theme that Hollmer had conceived as a “car song”. Jaunty, folksy accordion showcases such as “Siska” or the infectious, circus-like “Tivolimarsch” alternate with more sedate, gently melancholy pieces reminiscent of another master of the instrument, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla – such as the melancholy “Tages”, “Nyfin” or “Vendelvarianter”. The warm tone of the accordion is often complemented by neat percussion patterns, while the liberal use of electronics introduces modernity in a traditional context. Nods to Hollmer’s role as one of the founders of the RIO movement appear in the more left-field offerings, such as “Den Arga Kvinnan” (The Angry Woman”), with its clashing sounds, the eerie electronics of “Radioyl” , and the multilayered, synth-driven “Mellan Stol Och Bord”.

The few tracks that feature vocals reveal Hollmer’s playful side,  like the ‘fake German lied’ of “Tyskromans”, or the ‘stupid and funny’ “Kanske”. On the other hand, the very aptly-titled “Aningar” (Premonitions” exemplifies Hollmer’s darker vein, its menacing. cinematic pace hinting at Univers Zéro; while “Go to Africa”, as the title implies, is a vocal jam over a steady arpeggiator beat that pays homage to the African musical tradition. Finally, the exhilarating “Okjak” – a fine specimen of ‘happy’ RIO/Avant composition – sees Hollmer flanked by his former Von Zamla bandmate Eino Haapala on guitar.

The two performances featured on the  DVD, while quite different from each other, will delight Hollmer’s fans in equal measure. The first half shows Hollmer on stage at the Gouveia Art Rock Festival – first on his own, accompanied only by his faithful accordion and melodica, then by his friend and longtime collaborator Michel Berckmans (of Univers Zéro fame) on bassoon, and finally with Miriodor, for a stunning rendition of “Talrika” (featured on the French Canadian band’s 2005 album Parade, and whose original version appears on the CD). In the second half of the DVD, the artist is captured in the small, intimate setting of Swiss club Heuwiesse, performing as a duo with Swiss accordionist Fizzè.

With its colourful cover artwork (by Hollmer’s daughter Rinda) and heartfelt liner notes, With Floury Hand is a touching homage to a gifted artist who never compromised his integrity, and who would have continued to produce great music if fate had not decreed otherwise. The album is obviously recommended to fans of the original RIO/Avant movement, as well as European folk; however, it can be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in quality rather  than labels or tags.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/lars-hollmer-mn0000783767

http://www.myspace.com/larshollmer

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Big Sur (4:51)
2. The Clearing  (2:21)
3. Leaving The Woods (5:40)
4. Symphony Hills (1:07)
5. Lily In The Garden (4:15)
6. Auburn Road (0:43)
7. Mustang Song (5:40)
8. Stay With Me (0:51)
9. A Viennesian Life (3:50)
10. Broome’s Orchard (7:56)
11. ‘Cross The Williamsburg Bridge (1:33)
12. Where Will We Go (6:39)
13. Finale (1:28)

LINEUP:
Janel Leppin – cello, Indian cello, violin, Saarang Maestro DX,  Prophet 5, piano, koto, electric guitar, Hammond organ, Mellotron, harpsichord, vibraphone, detuned autoharp, singing spoon, loops, electronics
Anthony Pirog – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, electric sitar, lap harp, lap steel, bass mandolin, bass, cymbals, gong, vibraphone, music boxes, loops, electronics

With:
Mike Reina – mellotron (9)

Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog are two accomplished multi-instrumentalists who grew up in Vienna, a charming Northern Virginia town that is part of the Washington DC metropolitan area, where they attended the same high school. During those years, they began playing together at Leppin’s home village of Wedderburn, though they only started performing as a duo in 2005. Their eponymous debut album was released in 2006, and since then the duo has attracted a lot of attention on the independent music scene. The memory of the two musicians’ idyllic teenage years and the loss of the Leppin family home (converted into yet another housing development) is the inspiration behind Where Is Home, their sophomore effort, released in the summer of 2012 after three years of  steady work.

Janel and Anthony have different, yet complementary musical backgrounds: Pirog, a Berklee graduate, is a guitarist with a jazz background and an eclectic attitude, while Leppin is a conservatory-trained cellist deeply influenced by North Indian and Persian classical music. Those wide-ranging sources of inspiration converge in the duo’s musical output, which even the most obsessive classification geeks would find it hard to label, and even harder to compare to other acts. Seamlessly blending acoustic and electric instruments with cutting-edge electronics, enhanced by  a discreet sprinkling of percussion (though without drums), Janel & Anthony’s music possesses a uniquely intimate charm and gently wistful tone that would make it the ideal soundtrack for a crisp autumn evening. Though the instrumentation featured on the album is surprisingly rich, the compositions hinge on the sleek interplay between Leppin’s cello and Pirog’s electric guitar on an entrancing backdrop of skillfully employed loops. the high level of complexity is realized with an elegant subtlety that contrasts with the over-the-top antics of so many modern prog acts.

The elegiac nature of Where Is Home – steeped in the nostalgia for a bygone era, and suggested by most of the track titles –  unfolds gradually, as opener “Big Sur” is jaunty romp with the heady Eastern flavour contributed by Leppin’s sitar and Saarang Maestro DX (a digital version of the tanpura, a long-necked North Indian lute), while pizzicato cello lends a sharp, almost percussive rhythm that complements the insistent chime of Pirog’s guitar. Then, “The Clearing” marks a shift in tone, introducing a slight element of dissonance in the track’s sedate, meditative mood vaguely tinged with menace – a mood that continues in the haunting “Leaving the Woods”, based on a slow, measured conversation between guitar and cello, which sometimes merge, sometimes go their separate ways. The longer tracks are interspersed by short, ambient-like interludes mostly based on electronics, though the album itself runs at a very restrained 46 minutes – the ideal duration for such a sophisticated, mood-based effort.

While the cello-driven “Lily in the Garden” exudes a lovely autumnal charm, intensified by the almost monotonous pace of the guitar, “Mustang Song” sees Leppin and Pirog engage in a bracing guitar-based duet, shifting from a soothing, melodic tone to a more assertive one. In “A Viennesian Life” two mellotrons (one of them courtesy of sound engineer Mike Reina) are brought in to add further layers to the lush atmosphere of the piece, in which several different strains play at the same time and are expertly meshed by the two musicians. In contrast, the longest track on the album, the almost 8-minute “Broome’s Orchard” has a more straightforward structure, and the many instruments involved act discreetly, without disrupting the sparse, meditative mood of the piece. Finally, the middle section of “Where Will We Go” introduces atonal elements and eerie electronic noises, bookended by more melodic parts.

An exquisite album that conflates impeccable formal skill with genuine feeling, Where Is Home is highly recommended to lovers of chamber-rock and instrumental music that privileges atmosphere and emotion over complexity for its own sake. In spite of the “avant” tag that Janel and Anthony’s association with Cuneiform Records or events such as the Sonic Circuits festival might evoke, the album is surprisingly accessible, and will hold an almost irresistible appeal for those for whom music means more than just a backdrop to everyday activities.

Links:
http://www.janelandanthony.com

http://www.janelleppin.com

http://www.anthonypirog.com

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

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