Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Cuneiform Records’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Sorrows of the Moon (5:10)
2. Two for Joy (6:50)
3. Little Shadow (11:48)
4. If Not Inertia (6:57)
5. The Widening Gyre (8:01)
6. Gonz (6:38)
7. Let’s  (5:23)

LINEUP:
Brett Sroka – trombone, computer, whistling
Sam Harris – piano, prepared-piano, Rhodes electric piano
Shawn Baltazor – drums

With:
Mary Halvorsen – guitar, effects (1, 5, 6)
Sebastian Kruger – acoustic guitar (7)

Electroacoustic trio Ergo was formed in the early 2000s by New York-based trombonist Brett Sroka, who was inspired by the seamless blend of electronics and more traditional instrumentation featured on Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. After the 2006 release of their debut, Quality Anatomechanical Music Since 2005, original drummer Damion Reid was replaced by Shawn Baltazor, while current keyboardist Sam Harris (who replaced Carl Maguire) joined in 2010. Ergo have been signed to Cuneiform Records since their second album, multitude,  solitude (2009), and have performed at a number of on avant-garde music festivals, such as Washington DC’ Sonic Circuits  – where they will be appearing again in September 2012.

The sinuous curves rendered in minimalistic black and white of the artwork (titled “Loop in Layers”) that graces the cover of If Not Inertia, Ergo’s third CD release, come across almost as a statement of intent. Indeed, the band’s sound hinges on the use of loops and a wide range of other electronic effects, controlled by Sroka’s trusted computer, which mesh with the warm, organic tones of the trombone, drums and piano. Ambient, avant-garde and free jazz mingle in seven tracks that offer dissonant patterns underpinned by insistent drones, and some unexpected snippets of skewed melody that temper the austerely rarefied quality of the music.

The seven compositions included on If Not Inertia range from the 5 minutes of opener “Sorrows of the Moon” to the almost 12 minutes of “Little Shadow”, for a total running time of around 50 minutes. Some of the tracks offer intriguing sonic renditions of celebrated literary works in a way that – while markedly different from the grandiose approach of the average progressive rock band – undeniably makes for an arresting listening experience. The three band members are supplemented by renowned avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson (guesting on three tracks) and acoustic guitarist Sebastian Kruger on one track.

If Not Inertia is an album of light and shade, made of sounds that possess a somewhat brittle quality, like glass that is about to break. The main instruments often seem to be playing different lines, which nevertheless coalesce to create a texture reminiscent of an abstract painting, at the same time ethereal and intensely expressive.  “Sorrows of the Moon” recreates the Baudelaire poem of the same name in melancholy, haunting fashion, depicting its inherent languor and ennui through the mournful voice of the trombone and a droning piano line overlaid by almost melodic guitar. “The Widening Gyre”, inspired by William Butler Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming”, like the titular item starts out slowly with measured drums and gentle piano, then erupts into trombone-led chaos that conveys the poem’s stark, powerful imagery (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”). While “Two for Joy” and the title-track rely on plenty of sound effects (such as whistling) to weave an ethereal yet slightly spooky atmosphere, the buoyant trombone in closing track “Let’s” is almost catchy, bolstered by drums, piano and lilting acoustic guitar.

If Not Inertia will delight lovers of ambient and experimental jazz, as well as those with a keen interest in the use of computers for music-making. This is an album for adventurous listeners, and those with a high tolerance for dissonance and the lack of a recognizable structure – which means it may be of somewhat limited interest for the traditional prog fan. On the other hand, open-minded music buffs will find it a challenging but rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.ergoisaband.com/

http://www.myspace.com/ergo

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
CD:
1. Corps et Âmes (6:26)
2. Loin d’Issy (7:14)
3. George V (10:27)
4. Ultraviolet (8:18)
5. Feu Sacré (6:50)
6. Midi-Minuit (13:30)

DVD (Recorded live at NEARfest 2010):
1. Ultraviolet (8:34)
2. L’Axe Du Fou (16:06)
3. Feu Sacré (6:53)
4. Soleil 12 (9:09)
5. Double Sens (13:38)
6. Extralucide (10:20)
7. Éclipse (7:45)

LINEUP:
Patrick Forgas – drums
Sébastien Trognon – tenor, alto & soprano saxes, flute
Dimitri Alexaline –  trumpet, flugelhorn
Benjamin Violet – guitar
Karolina Mlodecka – violin
Igor Brover – keyboards
Kengo Mochizuki – bass

Active on the music scene since the mid-Seventies, drummer/composer Patrick Forgas has often been regarded as the French answer to Robert Wyatt. Indeed, Forgas describes his discovery of Soft Machine’s second album, at the age of 18, as nothing short of life-changing. Anyone familiar with his debut album, Cocktail (originally released in 1977, and reissued by Musea Records in 2009 as an expanded edition) will not fail to notice the similarities in the two drummers’ vocal styles, as well as in terms of musical content.

In spite of a career marked by frequent breaks from music-making, Forgas has always been able to reignite his creative spark. Forgas Band Phenomena was born in the late Nineties, and released two albums with a lineup that included mallet percussionist Mireille Bauer (of Gong fame). Then, after a 6-year hiatus, they reappeared in 2005 with a revamped configuration and a live album, Soleil 12, which featured mostly new material. The breakthrough for the band, however, came in 2009 with the release of the magnificent L’Axe du Fou, and their highly acclaimed performance at the 2010 edition of NEARfest. That career-defining show is captured on the DVD that accompanies Acte V, the band’s fifth album, released at the beginning of 2012 on Cuneiform Records.  The album’s title, which at a superficial glance may seem self-explanatory, is illustrated in the liner notes with some intriguingly esoteric references that also expand on the origin of some of the track titles.

Acte V features the same lineup as the band’s previous album – a rock-solid ensemble of 7 people, led by Patrick Forgas’ discreet but astonishingly precise drumming, bolstered by Kengo Mochizuki’s equally understated, reliable bass lines. With an  instrumentation that includes violin, trumpet, flute and saxophone as well as the rock “basics” of bass, guitar, drums and keyboards, Forgas Band Phenomena produce an impressive volume of music that comes across as lush and tight at the same time, with a slightly repetitive yet heady quality that holds the listener’s interest. Karolina Mlodecka’s violin soars above the fray with lyrical abandon, often sparring with the forceful blare of the horns and the razor-sharp edge of Benjamin Violet’s guitar. Forgas’ handles the cymbals with a firm yet delicate touch, their metallic tinkle blending with Igor Brover’s sparkling electric piano to create one of the hallmarks of the band’s sound.

As a whole, Acte V is a more nuanced effort than the ebullient L’Axe du Fou, and may need repeated listens before it starts growing on you.  While the mood is definitely upbeat, alternating energetic bursts of sound with more stately, subdued passages, those shifts are effected with remarkable subtlety, rather than in the blatantly head-spinning fashion preferred by more overtly “technical” bands. The music flows elegantly and naturally, the horns conferring an appealing “big band” touch that is quite unique. In spite of the Canterbury comparisons, Forgas Band Phenomena’s  powerful, exhilarating sound may bring to mind a cross between Caravan circa For Girls Grow Plump in the Night and early jazz-rock outfits such as Colosseum or Blood Sweat & Tears, rather than the sparser experimental approach of Soft Machine.

Clocking in at a healthy 52 minutes, Acte V comprises 6 well-balanced, richly arranged tracks. Even if, at a superficial listen, they might sound rather alike, variety is achieved by contrasting the “choral” sections, in which all the instruments emote together, driving the melody along, with solo spots that never smack of self-indulgence. Opener “Corps et Âmes” allows Violet’s guitar to step into the limelight, imparting a piercingly clear rock tone offset by the airy lyricism of the violin and the full-on blasts of Dimitri Alexaline’s trumpet and Sébastien Trognon’s sax. “Loin d’Issy” hovers between a dynamic, upbeat mood and a gentler one, the almost mournful trumpet solo in the middle bringing to mind Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtracks; while “George V” and “Ultraviolet” raise the rock stakes with blistering guitar combined with assertive horns and violin to produce an intensely exhilarating effect. Sax and violin interweave smoothly, though with a sharp edge that emerges towards the end, in the intricate “Feu Sacré”; then the album is brought to a close by the 13-minute “Midi-Minuit”, an ambitious orchestral piece that allows each of the instruments its time in the spotlight, displaying a slightly angular, jazzy allure at first, then unexpectedly introducing a different, more regular pace before the end, with hauntingly atmospheric effects.

The DVD that completes the package (rounded off by a stunningly stylish cover in trendy sepia tones, reprising the Ferris wheel theme of Forgas Band Phenomena’s first three albums) offers a unique opportunity to witness the band’s blend of energy and sophistication coming alive on stage. The 75-minute set showcases a selection of compositions from the past (“Soleil 12”, “Extralucide”, “Eclipse”), the present (three out of four tracks from L’Axe du Fou, which had been released a few months before the show) and the future (“Ultraviolet” and “Feu Sacré”), as well as shots of the band. With outstanding image and sound quality, it is a must for anyone who wants to witness what, in my view, was the highlight of the whole event (together with Moraine’s breakthrough performance on the following day).

All in all, Acte V is an album that oozes pure class from one of the finest bands on the modern progressive rock scene. This is one of those rare efforts that may actually succeed in bridging the ever-widening gap between the retro-oriented and the forward-looking components of the prog audience, appealing to both “factions” on account of the strength of its musical offer. A must-listen for jazz-rock fans and lovers of instrumental music, Acte V is highly recommended to everyone.

Links:
http://forgasbp.online.fr/

http://www.myspace.com/forgasbandphenomena

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. Malthusian Dances (6:39)
2. I Cannot Fly (8:34)
3. Sleeper Cell Anthem (6:10)
4. A Virtuous Man (11:45)
5. The Gyre (4:42)
6. Climbing the Mountain (8:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine Di Falco – voice
Mark Harris – saxes, clarinets
Mike Johnson – guitars
Kimara Sajn – drums, keyboards
Dave Willey – bass

With:
Kaveh Rastegar –  bass (1)
Robin Chestnut – drums (5)
Dexter Ford – bass (5)

Described by founder Mike Johnson as an “enterprise” rather than a band in the conventional sense, Thinking Plague seem to fit the definition of “cult act” to a T. The many different incarnations of the US answer to seminal European outfits such as Henry Cow and Univers Zéro – based in the rugged mountain state of Colorado, where it was formed by Johnson and guitarist/drummer Bob Drake in 1982 – read like a veritable “who’s who” of the US avant-progressive scene. Thinking Plague’s whole existence has also been characterized by a constant struggle against circumstances, which has inevitably impacted the frequency of their releases. Indeed, with a total of 7 studio albums released in almost 30 years of history, they definitely count among the least prolific bands on the scene, together with Cuneiform label mates Miriodor.

The average progressive rock fan, steeped in the grand symphonic tradition of the early Seventies, usually has a very controversial relationship with the more forward-thinking fringes of the movement – and very few bands are as likely to send prog fans running for the exits as Thinking Plague. Unabashedly intellectual, as their very name (associating the act of thinking with a curse of sorts) suggests, with extremely well-written, thought-provoking lyrics, Thinking Plague take the proverbial complexity of the Avant subgenre up a notch.  Decline and Fall, their highly-awaited seventh album, released almost 9 years after A History of Madness, is certainly no exception. The album also showcases the band’s new lineup (though drummer Robin Chestnut, who was introduced on the occasion of Thinking Plague’s headlining appearance at Cuneifest in November 2011, only appears on one track), spotlighting the contributions of new singer Elaine DiFalco (recently seen on two outstanding albums, Dave Willey and Friends’ Immeasurable Currents and 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard) and drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn, a gifted multi-instrumentalist well-known on the Seattle experimental music scene.

Clocking in at under 47 minutes, and entirely written by Mike Johnson, Decline and Fall features 6 tracks connected by a fil rouge made all too clear by the title and artwork  – an apocalyptic reflection on the dismal state of Planet Earth, which, according to Johnson’s musings, has long gone past the point of no return. Through vivid verbal imagery flawlessly supported by the head-spinningly intricate music, humankind is depicted as rushing headlong (and heedlessly) towards destruction, its disappearance the only thing that will be able to save the Earth. While the term “concept album” is generally associated with overambitious productions that often collapse beneath the weight of their own pretensions, Decline and Fall is tight and tense, the synergy between lyrics and music embodied by Elaine DiFalco’s stunning vocal performance. Reviews often mention the role of vocals as just another instrument, but the observation is rarely as fitting as in this particular case. DiFalco’s extremely versatile voice ranges from soothing the ear with subdued gentleness to tackling parts of rollercoaster-like intensity, bolstered by the use of multi-tracking to almost vertiginous effect.

Though the word “multilayered” frequently crops up in prog reviews, it sounds like an understatement if applied to Decline and Fall. True, the listener might occasionally feel that the music is too clever or intricate for its own good, in a sort of “art for art’s sake” manner, and keeping track of the twists and turns in the compositions is anything but an easy task. Decline and Fall demands a lot from its listeners, and it is definitely not the kind of music you would want to keep in the background while doing the housework. On the other hand, contrarily to the trend shown by most “mainstream” prog, displays of individual brilliance have little or no place in Thinking Plague’s world. Each instrument, like a thread in a tight, complex weave, gets its chance to shine, but as part of a whole rather than in isolation. Consequently, solo spots are few and far between, though the excellent sound quality brings each contribution to the fore.

Similarly, Decline and Fall is best approached as a whole, even if each track has its own distinct personality. Unpredictable by definition, the music can be almost unbearably dense, while at times turning rarefied, almost ethereal. Brisk opener “Malthusian Dances” thrives on Sajn’s commanding percussion work, while Mark Harris’ assertive clarinet spars with Johnson’s guitar. “I Cannot Fly”, a barbed attack on the easy consolation offered by religion, is suitably sparse and dissonant, though fleshed out by Dave Willey’s muscular bass lines – which are also spotlighted in “Sleeper Cell Anthem”, together with Sajn’s solemn, martial drumming. The mesmerizing ebb and flow of the  album’s centerpiece, the almost 12-minute “A Virtuous Man”, is so fragmented as to be nearly impossible to describe, and yet oddly cohesive;  DiFalco’s voice seamlessly blends with the impossibly complex lines of the music, surging and fading along with it. The shorter, mostly instrumental “The Gyre” introduces closing track “Climbing the Mountain”, an oddly serene, keyboard-driven number enriched by atmospheric mellotron and understated piano whose unexpectedly abrupt ending seems to suggest humankind’s inevitable demise.

No matter how clichéd it may sound, the warning of “not for the faint-hearted” is quite fitting for an album such as Decline and Fall. Those looking for catchy melodies, conventionally “beautiful” singing and lush orchestrations are bound to be put off by Thinking Plague’s off-kilter, yet highly reasoned approach to composition, and the undeniably depressing subject matter is unlikely to appeal to fans of the more escapist side of prog. This is not the by-numbers doom-and-gloom typical of many progressive metal bands, but a genuinely dystopian vision of the future of humankind conveyed in strikingly beautiful imagery – a true soundtrack of the Apocalypse. While Decline and Fall is clearly not an easy proposition, it will yield rich rewards for those brave enough to approach it.

Links:
http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. 354 (6:00)
2. Icosahedron (3:13)
3. Island (12:26)
4. Gliese 581g (6:16)
5. Waves (2:45)
6. Geosignal (2:09)
7. Soterargatan 1 (12:45)

LINEUP:
Einar Baldursson –  guitars
David Lundberg-  Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, synthesizers
Alexander Skepp – drums, percussion
Gabriel Hermansson-  bass guitar, Moog Taurus

With:
Mattias Olsson –  additional hidden & lost sounds
Fredrik Carlzon – French horn, trumpet
Cecilia Linné – cello
Leo Svensson – musical saw
Ulf Åkerstedt – bass tuba, bass trumpet, contrabass trumpet, bass harmonica

Hailing from the Swedish town of Vällingby, on the outskirts of Stockholm, and named after one of the masterpieces of their home country’s literature – a Gothic romance about a defrocked priest written in 1891 by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf – Gösta Berlings Saga are quite different from the stereotypical retro/symphonic-oriented Scandinavian prog band. Their debut album, Tid Är Ljud, was released in 2006, two years after the band’s formation; however, it took their sophomore effort, 2009’s Detta Här Hänt, to put them on the map of the international prog community, garnering very positive critical attention. Glue Works, the band’s first album for Cuneiform Records , came out a couple of months after the cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which would have been Gösta Berlings Saga’s first appearance outside Europe – an appointment that has only been delayed, as the band’s inclusion in the lineup of NEARfest’s final edition (scheduled for June 2012) was announced at the end of October.

Produced by Änglagård/White Willow drummer Mattias Olsson, Glue Works (the first Gösta Berlings Saga album to bear an English title) stands out even in a year characterized by a glut of impressive prog releases. Like the band’s previous releases, it is a completely instrumental effort, comprising 7 tracks running between 2 and 12 minutes, and, at a mere 46 minutes, shorter than either of its predecessors. Even a cursory listen to the album will make it clear that Gösta Berlings Saga do not need to fill a CD to capacity to convey their musical message, which hinges on cohesion, intensity and mood-building rather than copious amounts of padding. Though their sound displays an unmistakable Northern European imprint – blending mellowness and angularity with subtle brushstrokes –  and the presence of Mattias Olsson anchors the album to the Scandinavian prog “renaissance” of the early Nineties,  some distinctly modern features lurk beneath those Mellotron washes.

On a scene where, in spite of the “progressive” name, true originality is very often at a premium, Gösta Berlings Saga’s approach, while not forsaking the complexity that is synonymous with progressive rock, also relies on other factors to make an impact. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head with mind-boggling time signature changes and flashy solo spots, they balance the sheer emotional intensity of their compositions with a remarkably disciplined texture, where each instrument contributes to the whole instead of striving for the spotlight. With a classic configuration of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards augmented by cello, horns and some not so usual presences such as the musical saw and other assorted effects, the band produce an impressive volume of sound while keeping a tight rein on any temptation to overreach themselves.

Opener “354” develops from a main theme repeated in a tense, almost obsessive fashion, intensified by the piercing tone of Einar Baldursson’s guitar and David Lundberg’s sparse electric piano, building up to a climax whose hauntingly cinematic quality is emphasized by the eerie sound of the musical saw. Alexander Skepp’s forceful drumming, coupled with Gabriel Hermansson’s growling bass lines, propels the composition forward with a mesmerizing precision reminiscent of Univers Zéro’s Daniel Denis. This imperious, faintly menacing mood is reprised by the much shorter, but equally hard-hitting “Icosahedron”, whose wistful, autumnal-sounding piano bookends are offset by a jagged, slightly dissonant guitar solo.

It is with “Island”, however, that Glue Works really comes into its own. This towering, 12-minute wild ride – epic in the true sense of the word – packs a punch that is both emotional and intellectual, its relentless, wave-like surge reminiscent of post-rock/post-metal bands like Pelican or Ulver. The track opens with the steady, mournful drone of Cecilia Linné’s cello, bringing to mind Anekdoten and  creating that subdued, intimate mood so typical of “chamber rock”. Then lilting piano and keen-edged guitar add their voices to the heady instrumental stew, driven along by the commanding pace of the drums; the final section blends abrasive sounds with warmer, organic ones in an exhilarating climax. After such unadulterated intensity, the sparse, atmospheric texture of “Gliese 581g” (the name of a small planet in the constellation of the Libra) almost feels like a welcome respite; however, the track’s second half develops in a completely different direction, strongly rhythmic with razor-sharp guitar slashes.

Two short tracks, the atmospheric, synth-driven “Waves” with its solemn, almost tribal beat, and the tense, ominous “Geosignal” introduce the album’s final and longest number, “Sorterargatan 1” (named after a street in the band’s home town of Vällingby, and reprising a track featured on Detta Här Hänt). Though not as viscerally intense as “Island”, it is a dramatic slice of Crimsonian angularity interspersed with the imposing, martial stride of Magma, the powerful surge of the drums and bass bolstering the lead guitar’s unbridled exertions – until, all of a sudden, everything subsides, leaving the stage to sparse piano and gently chiming glockenspiel, later fleshed out by the addition of cello and horns in a poignant, melancholy-drenched coda.

With its minimalistic packaging and boldly eclectic approach, Glue Works manages to sound thoroughly modern without rejecting the influence of the “founding fathers” of prog. Indeed, it successfully marries the no-holds-barred intensity of King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Univers Zéro with the entrancing, layered textures of post-rock, achieving a nearly perfect mix of melody, atmospherics and aggression. Challenging without being inaccessible, impeccably executed yet devoid of self-indulgence, Glue Works is a must-listen for lovers of instrumental prog, and highly recommended to everyone else. Gösta Berlings Saga have established themselves as one of the bands to watch in this second decade of the 21st century, and their performance at NEARfest 2012 promises to be memorable.

Links:
http://www.gostaberlingssaga.se/

Read Full Post »

After pulling off the remarkable feat of bringing two progressive rock legends such as Magma and Univers Zéro to Washington DC for the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, cult independent label Cuneiform Records has done it again. Even if November is generally not as thriving on the live music front as the spring and summer months, the label has brought excitement to fans of genuinely progressive music (of both the rock and the jazz variety) with two events: Cuneiform Curates the Stone, a series of concerts taking place from November 15 to November 30 at John Zorn’s avant-garde space in NYC’s East Village, and a more concentrated, two-day bash aptly called CuneiFest, organized on November 19-20 at the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore.

While RIO/Avant-Prog (as the subgenre is often called for ease of reference, though somewhat inaccurately) does have a hard core of dedicated supporters in the US, it lacks the following it enjoys in Europe, where the Rock In Opposition Festival, organized in southern France in September, has now reached its fourth edition. The presence of one or more bands identified with this particular subgenre is guaranteed to send people literally running for the exits at any US prog festival, and even the bigger names like the above-mentioned Magma or Univers Zéro have often proved controversial. No one, therefore, expected crowds of hundreds of people to show up at the Orion on Saturday, November 19. Indeed, Cuneiform mainman Steve Feigenbaum had put a mere 65 tickets on sale, and expected to sell no more than exactly that number. I am happy to report that Rock Day was sold out:  the small, cozy space of the Orion was nicely filled by people convened from various parts of the country, as well as farther afield (like Israel and Norway), comfortably sitting on the chairs provided by the Cuneiform crew. On each chair a bright yellow flyer was draped, containing detailed information not only on the day’s schedule, but also on the surrounding area (as well as the lunch and dinner menu).

For such a small, family-run enterprise, the Cuneiform team (consisting of Steve, his wife Joyce and her right-hand man Javier Diaz, both in charge of the promotional department, plus various interns) did an extremely impressive job in organizing the day. The main stage area was not as cluttered as it usually is when people bring their own chairs and coolers, leaving hardly any room to move around, and the lights festooning the walls created a festive feel in that small, high-ceilinged space. As the Orion is located at the far end of an industrial park, with very few amenities within walking (or even driving) distance, the organizers had contacted a local Italian restaurant in order to make a selection of food, both hot and cold, available to the attendees for a very reasonable price – set up buffet-style in the space opposite the Orion’s main body. The beautiful, relatively mild weather encouraged people to eat their lunch outside, enjoying the sunshine and the community atmosphere already inherent to most Orion events. To me, music and food are a quintessentially perfect pairing, and the convivial aspect was one of the highlights of the event, providing the attendees with the opportunity to chill out and socialize after each intensity-packed set.

The six bands selected for the Rock Day emphasized the amazing diversity within a subgenre that is all too often dismissed as over-intellectual (even within a non-mainstream genre like progressive rock) or just plain noisy. While none of those bands could ever be described as catchy or accessible, and very clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, most of them belied the fearsome reputation of avant-prog as a bunch of  purveyors of jarring, melody-free fare. All of them were also homegrown, hailing from such diverse environments as Colorado, New York, New England and California – a very significant move on the part of Cuneiform, and probably not just motivated by the inevitable financial considerations. In spite of many US prog fans’ obsession with foreign bands, it is easy to forget that in a such a large country, especially in these times of economic strictures, witnessing a performance of any act based on the other side of the country, or even a couple of states away, is anything but a frequent occurrence.

Steve Feigenbaum opened the festival, greeting the audience and introducing the first band, the quaintly-named Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores – one of the projects in which Redfearn, a singer-songwriter from the historic New England town of Providence, has been involved for a number of years. The six-piece that graced the Orion stage  had one of the most distinctive configurations I have ever seen in progressive rock, actually featuring almost no typical rock instrumentation. With contrabass, horn, organ, percussion and assorted objects, and the accordion (played by Redfearn himself) used as a pivotal element, the band’s profoundly fascinating sound possessed an unmistakable Old World flavour. Out of the six bands on the lineup, they had the highest melodic quotient, though a subtly skewed kind of melody, with a mournful, hypnotic quality intensified by the drone of Orion Rigel Dommisse’s organ and her plaintive vocals. While the strong folk component of the band’s music reminded me of modern acid-folk outfits like Espers, with hints of The Decemberists (especially as regards the Americana element and the dark lyrical matter), the many different ingredients of such a heady musical mixture made it quite unique. The longish, complex songs were surprisingly easy to follow, with “Wings of the Magpie” coming across as a particular highlight. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores are a band that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone willing to dip their toes in the avant-prog waters, but still find the prospect somewhat daunting.

When, after an half-hour break for more socializing and refreshments, Los Angeles quartet Upsilon Acrux took to the stage, the contrast with the previous set could not have been greater. In an evening that presented a number of interesting band configurations, Upsilon Acrux’s minimalistic two-guitar, two-drummer approach easily won first prize – at least in the sheer energy and volume stakes. Having reviewed the band’s most recent album, 2009’s Radian Futura, I knew what to expect – an angular, dissonant aural onslaught, with enough manic energy coming out of the two drummers (Dylan Fuijoka and Mark Kimbrell) to light up a whole town, and a conspicuous absence of melody. In fact, Upsilon Acrux delivered a 30-minute performance that – while riveting to watch, particularly on account of the drummers’ uncanny precision in laying down jaggedly intricate patterns in perfect unison – bordered dangerously close to white-noise territory. The two guitarists, founder (and only constant member in a band known for its revolving-door policy) Paul Lai and his sidekick Noah Guevara, churned out slashing, piercing chords of almost unbearable intensity. It was math-rock in its purest form, so brutally intense to make the likes of Don Caballero sound tame – and, needless to say, it left a sizable part of the audience rather perplexed. Even those who listen to RIO/Avant-Prog as a matter of course found the band’s uncompromising approach a bit hard to take, and almost everyone agreed that a longer set would have discouraged at least some of the attendees. The band’s somewhat dour presence, with little or no interaction with the audience, also seemed to parallel the spiky, bristling nature of their music. On the other hand, Upsilon Acrux were definitely worth watching (albeit in small doses), and an excellent addition to a lineup that showcased the wide-ranging musical offer to be found under the Cuneiform umbrella.

Next on the bill were New York-based quintet Afuche, who had recently released their first album, Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match. In a way, the title is an accurate representation of the band itself – another high-energy outfit, though imbued with a sheer sense of enthusiasm, as well as a distinct Latin flavour (the band’s name actually refers to a very distinctive percussion instrument used in Latin jazz). Their 30-minute set, while full of sonic clashes and crashes, was also spirited and entertaining, with a charismatic focal point in keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist Ruben Sindo Acosta – a wiry, diminutive dynamo with a rakish mustache and a curtain of black hair, jumping up and down when pounding the keys of his rig, or bashing his drums with unadulterated gusto. His facial expressions were a sight to behold, while his vocal style owed a lot to traditional Afro-Cuban music, though infused with a manic energy all of his own. Saxophonist Andrew Carrico also cut quite an interesting figure – tall and lanky with long hair and an impressive mustache, wielding his blaring baritone sax with a bit of a swagger, while guitarist Zach Ryalls, bassist Denny Tek and drummer Ian Chang (all three looking very young) kept a lower visual profile, though laying down the groundwork for Ruben’s unflagging energy and showmanship. With plenty of groovy, infectious rhythms and a genuinely omnivorous attitude, Afuche were for many the true revelation of the evening.

New York power trio Zevious had been one of the highlights of ProgDay 2011, so I was looking forward to seeing them again – as were those in the audience who had also attended the North Carolina festival in September. Those expecting a repeat of that astonishing Sunday-morning set, however, were in for a treat, because the band’s CuneiFest set felt markedly different – as tight as ever, but with a sense of almost claustrophobic intensity derived by the indoor setting. In the compact, dimly lit space of the Orion, the unrelenting, yet seamlessly flowing stream of music produced by the band’s three members created a veritable wall of sound,  endowed with a mesmerizing quality akin to the best King Crimson instrumentals, with hints of the primeval heaviness of Black Sabbath in the slower passages – always loud and powerful, yet never one-dimensional (unlike Upsilon Acrux no-holds-barred assault). While my playful description of “King Crimson on steroids” might be fitting in some ways, Zevious are definitely much more than that. Possibly taking to heart my criticism about their lack of interaction with the audience at ProgDay (mostly motivated by the early hour and the unfamiliar situation of playing outdoors and in broad daylight), they had gained in terms of both mobility and communication, the triangular shape of the stage perfectly suited to their configuration. Drummer extraordinaire Jeff Eber, the powerhouse at the heart of Zevious’ sound, propelled the music along with a smile on his face, his stunning polyrhythms meshing with Johnny DeBlase’s muscular bottom end and the electric fireworks of Mike Eber’s guitar. All in all, it was an almost career-defining performance, and the festival’s finest hour as far as I am concerned.

After such a scintillating set, dinner break was upon us, giving the audience a much-needed respite and more opportunities for bonding before plates of tasty food. Then, at about 7.20 (almost right on schedule), Hamster Theatre begun their set, enthusiastically introduced by Steve Feigenbaum – who pointed out that the band had only performed three times on the East Coast since their inception, almost 20 years ago. Based in Colorado, the band shares three members with headliners Thinking Plague –  multi-instrumentalist (and founder) Dave Willey, guitarist Mike Johnson and vocalist/reedist Mark Harris – so it is not surprising to hear similarities in their sounds, which share a highly eclectic bent. However, the foundation of Hamster Theatre’s music – mostly instrumental, unlike Thinking Plague’s – lies in folk, as the central role played by Dave Willey’s accordion shows quite clearly. Their set started in a rather subdued, almost soothing fashion, than things became gradually more complex, with jazzy touches creeping in, and then all of a sudden evoking reminiscences of Univers Zéro and their eerily mesmerizing brand chamber-prog. In spite of the problems caused by a dodgy guitar amp, the set flowed on smoothly, each instrument finely detailed, the sharpness of the guitar tempered by the wistful tone of the reeds and. Hamster Theatre’s music sounds big and often upbeat, with a strong Old World flavour and unexpectedly spiky moments. Even if my appreciation of their set was somewhat marred by the sleepiness that inevitably follows a meal (I am also much more of a morning than an evening person), I was impressed by the fine balance of eclecticism and discipline in the band’s music, and also by their warm, engaging stage manner, as befits seasoned performers. While, with the exception of  bassist Brian McDougal, the band members  performed sitting down, the lack of physical dynamics was amply compensated by the agile versatility of the music.

Highly awaited headliners Thinking Plague took the stage almost 20 minutes late on schedule because of soundcheck-related problems. They also had to contend with another emergency situation – the illness of singer Elaine DiFalco (who has been a member of the band for the past four years), who, however, soldiered on, dosing herself with aspirin in order to be able to perform (albeit in a limited capacity), and taking a bottle of water on stage with her in order to keep her vocal chords hydrated. As a teacher, I could relate to her plight quite well, and could not help admiring her mettle. Petite, with a striking, high-cheekboned face, Elaine possesses a surprisingly commanding stage presence, her husky, well-modulated voice oddly seductive though light years removed from the trite clichés that so many female singers feel obliged to follow. Before the festival, I had heard her on Dave Willey and Friends’ stunning Immeasurable Currents, and had been deeply impressed. Though I have some reservations on the way her haunting vocals fit into the multilayered texture of Thinking Plague’s music, I am sure the less than ideal conditions in which she performed contributed to my impression. Never the most prolific of outfits, they are releasing a new studio album (the first since 2003’s A History of Madness), titled Decline and Fall, in the early months of 2012, and the Orion set provided them with a great opportunity to showcase some of their new material, as well as some of their older compositions. Among the über-eclectic, intricate bulk of Thinking Plague’s output, there was also time for the humorously-introduced, never-played-before “The Fountain of All Tears”, a slow-burning ballad in 4/4 that very few would associate with one of the dreaded “Avant” bands. With legendary drummer Dave Kerman having relocated to Switzerland, the drum stool was occupied by Robin Chestnut, introduced by Mike Johnson as the only band member under 40;  he also joked about Robin’s forthcoming Ph.D in Mathematics, which makes him the ideal drummer for a band like Thinking Plague. Keyboardist Kimara Sajn manned his rig with an unobtrusive but engaging mien, his delight in music-making obvious from his body language. I was barely acquainted with the band’s output before the festival, and their set encouraged me to delve into their back catalogue.

By way of a conclusion, I would like to stress that, as good as all of these bands are on CD, the live setting really makes their music come alive, and also gives them a more “human” dimension that helps debunk the myth of their brainy inaccessibility. For all their dedication to the production of challenging music, these are people who, first and foremost, enjoy what they do, and obviously love being on stage as much as any “mainstream” rock band.

All in all, it was a wonderful day of music and social interaction with like-minded people, and the perfect way to spend the third anniversary of my arrival in the US – even though my husband was unable to share it with me because of work commitments, which also prevented us from attending the  festival’s Jazz Day. My sincerest thanks go to Steve, Joyce and their tireless team: though all of them were looking quite exhausted at the end of the day, their happiness and satisfaction was also palpable. The gorgeous (and delicious) layer cake served just before the Thinking Plague set was a very nice touch to celebrate the effort and care that had gone into the organization of the event. Kudos also to Mike Potter and his collaborators for the state-of-the-art sound quality of each performance, and also for getting the Orion premises in tip-top shape.  Even if it will very probably remain a one-off, CuneiFest will be long remembered in the annals of the US progressive rock community as the very embodiment of the old “small is beautiful” adage.

Links:
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

http://bkrstk.com/alec-k-redfearn-and-the-eyesores/

http://www.myspace.com/upsilonacrux

http://www.myspace.com/afuche

http://zevious.com/

http://www.generalrubric.com/hamster/main.html

http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

Read Full Post »

TRACK LISTING:
1. Where’s the Captain? (5:11)
2. Coma Cluster (4:42)
3. Mostly Skulls (5:12)
4. That Ticket Exploded  (5:54)
5. The Noose (4:28)
6. iNCITING (4:39)
7. Gradual Decay (4:45)
8. The Ditch (5:49)
9. After the Air Raid (3:20)
10. The Children and the Rats (4:59)
11. Glass Tables (4:35)

LINEUP:
Mike Eber – guitars
Jeff Eber – drums
Johnny DeBlase – electric and upright bass

Another impressive find from the ever-reliable Cuneiform Records, Zevious hail from New York City.  Formed in 2006 by guitarist Mike Eber, his cousin, drummer Jeff Eber (formerly of experimental progressive metal band Dysrhythmia) and bassist Johnny DeBlase, they started out as a straight-ahead jazz trio before they decided to take a more innovative direction.  Their self-titled debut album was released in 2008, followed one year later by After the Air Raid, recorded and mixed by Colin Marston of tech/extreme prog-metal band Behold…The Arctopus. Following a successful US tour in the spring of 2011, Zevious have been invited to perform at the 2011 edition of ProgDay (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), the longest-running progressive rock festival in the USA.

The three members of the band have been active on the music scene for over ten years, and their collective experience is clearly brought to bear in After the Air Raid, a high-energy blend of sleek jazz/fusion, angular math-rock, and a spicy sprinkling of metal – challenging without being overtaxing, thoroughly modern without turning its back to the old-school progressive rock tradition. Not as spiky and impenetrable as their label mates Upsilon Acrux, Zevious have managed not to banish melody altogether, though it is handled in a very unconventional manner.  For all its cutting-edge allure, Zevious’ music is not meant to be abrasive or forbidding, and draws much of its power from being able to keep the listener on their toes, though without wearying them out with a relentless barrage of wildly clashing sounds.

A cutting-edge permutation of that old classic rock stalwart, the power trio, Zevious manage to produce a huge volume of sound without the use of any keyboards or other props. Theirs is also a fully collaborative effort, as it would be hard to single out any of the three members as the star of the album. While Mike Eber’s guitar weaves dazzling webs, avoiding the ever-present pitfalls of mindless shredding, Johnny DeBlase’s fluid yet powerful bass provides a solid layer of bottom end for Jeff Eber’s stunning drum patterns, displaying the experience gained as a member of avant-progressive metal band Dysrhythmia in an array of head-spinning polyrhythms – though the influence of more “classic” drummers, such as Bill Bruford, can also be detected.

The 11 tracks featured on After the Air Raid are rather short from a prog-purist point of view, but pack more twists and turns in their restrained running time than many “epics”, though without descending into the excesses to which the more experimental prog acts are often prone. While most of the compositions clearly point to math-rock’s hypnotic, multilayered angularity, the band’s original jazz foundation adds a welcome touch of melody that is often lacking in otherwise outstanding bands like Don Caballero or Battles. With such a consistently high level of quality, it is difficult to pick out any standout tracks; however, I was particularly impressed by the brilliant, Black Sabbath-meets-jazz/fusion workout of That Ticket Exploded, or the Rush-on-steroids, bass-driven extravaganza that is iNCITING. The Noose and The Ditch both steer towards heavier territory – the former strongly reminiscent of a jazzier version of King Crimson with its devastatingly effective bass-drum interplay; the latter more aggressive, with an almost punk intensity, Mike Eber’s guitar let loose over thundering drums and a steady bass line. In sharp contrast, the title-track reveals the more subdued side of the band’s sound, a hauntingly melancholy piece revolving around Mike’s muted, atmospheric guitar work.

Clocking in at 51 minutes, this is a very dense album, and perhaps just a tad overlong on account of the unabated intensity of the music. In fact, those who prefer a more traditional approach to prog, as well as those who object to a lack of vocals, may find it a somewhat stressful listen. On the other hand, with stellar performances all round, and a brilliant combination of diverse influences and creative ideas, After the Air Raid is highly recommended to anyone with a keen interest in contemporary progressive rock.

Links:
http://zevious.com/

http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

Read Full Post »

TRACKLISTING:
1. La Faulx  (25:03)
2. Jack the Ripper (13:20)
3. Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu (12:51)
4. Chaos Hermetique (bonus track) (11:52)

LINEUP:
Michel Berckmans – oboe, bassoon (1-3)
Daniel Denis – drums, percussion
Patrick Hanappier – violin, viola
Vincent Motouille – keyboards (4)
Guy Segers – bass, voice
Roger Trigaux – guitar, piano, organ, harmonium

Released when the original prog movement had, for the most part, already run out of steam, over the years Heresie has built a reputation as one of the gloomiest, most disturbing records ever produced in a progressive rock context. A descent into unadulterated darkness, Univers Zéro’s second album enjoys near-legendary status in the more forward-thinking circles of prog fans. As technically brilliant as any of the ‘big name’ bands of the early Seventies (and possibly even more so), the Belgian outfit approach the creation of highly challenging music from a distinctly different angle than the likes of Genesis or Yes – while a comparison with King Crimson might feel more appropriate.

Almost 32 years after Heresie’s release, Univers Zéro are the only founding band of the Rock in Opposition movement to be still active. With their latest release, Clivages, hailed as one of the last year’s landmark albums, their performance at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival in Washington DC (thanks to the joint efforts of the festival organizers and the band’s label, Cuneiform Records) was nothing short of breathtaking. They are also, however, a very divisive band to the more conservative set of prog fans, who often look upon the whole RIO/Avant scene as little more than a bunch of purveyors of jarring, overly demanding fare with pseudo-intellectual pretensions. While most of the classic prog of the ‘70s is symphonic in inspiration, with Univers Zéro we enter ‘chamber rock’ territory – which, just like its classical counterpart, can be the object of equally intense love or loathing.

Originally running at a whopping 50 minutes (very unusually for a single vinyl album), and almost completely acoustic, Heresie undoubtedly shares more with academic music than conventional rock, with typical rock instruments like the guitar taking a back seat. While Daniel Denis’ astounding drumming forms the core of the band’s sound, his style distinctly clashes with the common image of the powerhouse rock drummer. Having been so lucky as to see him and Magma’s Christian Vander on stage in the space of a week, I was struck by how both of them come across as almost antithetic to the brash, flamboyant style of drummers such as Mike Portnoy. Indeed, both Denis’ and Vander’s  approach to drumming brings to mind the role of percussion in an orchestra –  not merely propulsive, but textural and expressive at the same time. .

Though frequently described as the ideal soundtrack to a horror movie (or even to one of HP Lovecraft’s insomnia-inducing short stories), Heresie does not have a lot in common with the hard-hitting, yet slightly garish music produced by the likes of Goblin and Keith Emerson for Dario Argento’s iconic slasher flicks. As pointed out in the very thorough liner notes (courtesy of Renato Moraes and Aymeric Leroy, Canterbury expert extraordinaire and founder of the Calyx website), the album’s centrepiece, the monumental, 25-minute “La Faulx” (The Scythe) parallels the structure of Ingmar Bergman’s legendary The Seventh Seal – also suggested by the bleak, sepia-tinted cover artwork. Though “La Faulx” might at first appear as Univers Zéro’s idiosyncratic take on that old prog warhorse, the ‘epic’, I see it as perfectly contained chamber piece rather than a mini-symphony like “Close to the Edge”or “Supper’s Ready”. Opening with about seven minutes of nightmarishly chaotic sounds, echoing drum beats and menacing vocal growls in an invented language that would give any death metal band a run for their money, it develops into an intense, mesmerizing theme propelled along by Denis’ subtle yet relentless drumming and Michel Berckmans’ rich tapestry of woodwinds, interspersed by the plaintive voice of the violin. When, towards the end, the controlled chaos subsides, a hint of melody surfaces, as well as a measure of calm that seem to reflect the ending of Bergman’s masterpiece.

While apparently more cohesive and linear in compositional structure, “Jack the Ripper” suggests the devastation wrought by the titular character by means of harsh violin slashes, while the bassoon and drums at the beginning evoke the slow, plodding pace of a funeral march. The whole structure of the track is indeed ruled by the drums, whose expressive potential unfolds fully, lending them a ‘voice’ that transcends mere rhythmic beat. On the other hand, “Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu” (We’ll Let You Know in Due Time) is the most classically-inspired of the three original compositions, with a tuneful, almost upbeat first half reminiscent of Stravinsky, gradually driving towards a disturbing, doom-laden culmination – the ‘due time’ of the title probably referring to the moment of death.

The thorough remixing process undergone by Heresie lifts the music from the murky depths of the original version – perhaps effective in terms of atmosphere, but much less so in terms of musical enjoyment. However, besides the definite improvement of the sound quality, the main attraction of the album lies in the previously unreleased track “Chaos Hermetique”, remastered from an audio cassette copy and originally recorded in 1975,  prior to Berckmans’ arrival. With a definitely more electric direction, it revolves around composer Roger Trigaux’s guitar, conjuring shades of the sleek angularity of King Crimson; while Denis assumes a more conventional rock drummer role, providing plenty of bottom end in unison with Guy Segers’ bass.

Splendidly composed and flawlessly executed, Heresie can nonetheless prove nearly unapproachable for those who believe melody and memorable tunes are essential components of music. While not as harsh or atonal as other efforts by RIO/Avant bands, and much more disciplined and tightly knit than one might expect, this is an album that needs to be listened to with care and attention, preferably when the time and mood are right – and not just because it is ‘scary’ music that might not make you sleep at night. Based on painstaking detail (like most chamber music) rather than broad sweeps, it also possesses the austere beauty of medieval architecture, stark though not exactly minimalistic, yet full of  majesty and power. In any case, I would recommend Heresie to anyone interested in authentically progressive, challenging music, though not necessarily ‘prog’ in the canonical sense of the word. A liking for early 20th-century academic music would also help when approaching Univers Zéro’s output as a whole.

Links:
http://www.univers-zero.com
http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts