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Posts Tagged ‘Drums’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Lucid (1:40)
2. La Bealtaine (7:52)
3. In Orbit (12:30)
4. This Past Presence (6:14)
5. A Faerie’s Play (5:19)
6. The River (10:04)
7. Lucid Dreams (2:19)

LINEUP:
Morten Andreas Eriksen – guitars
Lars Fredrik Frøislie-  keyboards, marxophone, vocals
Kristian Karl Hultgren – bass, saxophone, glockenspiel
Martin Nordrum Kneppen – drums, percussion
Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo – vocals

With:
Ketil Vestrum Einarsen – flute
Hanne Rekdal – bassoon

This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult reviews I have written in a long time (if not the most difficult), and one that may turn out to be quite controversial. In order to convey my opinion effectively, I will have to make a clear distinction between the actual quality of the music and any considerations relating to originality of content.

Before someone indicts me of being one of those snobs that turn up their noses at anything that might remind them of bygone times, I do enjoy a lot of so-called “retro prog”, and Wobbler’s Afterglow was one of my favourite albums for 2009. Moreover, I am quite aware that the “retro” phenomenon is not only a prerogative of symphonic prog:  a band choosing to imitate Magma or Univers Zéro is no less “retro” than one imitating Yes or Genesis. Like it or not, originality these days is rather thin on the ground, and throughout the 40+ years of prog’s existence as a musical genre there have been countless instances of bands shamelessly cloning more successful and influential acts (one name for all: Starcastle). In more recent years the number of tribute bands has been steadily growing, attracting relatively large audiences (often larger than those commanded by bands or artists that play their own original material). While fans of the more cutting-edge varieties of progressive rock may throw around the “retro” label with a sort of contempt, others wear it as a badge of honour, further widening the gap within the “prog community”.

First emerged on the prog scene in 2005 with their debut Hinterland, Wobbler – led by multi-instrumentalist and vintage keyboard collector Lars Fredrik Frøislie (also the mind  behind experimental metal act In Lingua Mortua) –  quickly established themselves as the darlings of the retro-oriented crowd, especially those who had been mourning the early demise of Änglagård. Even though a sizable portion of the current prog scene consists of acts that might be tagged as “retro”, Wobbler have taken the concept a step further, down to their refusal to use MIDI technology or any post-1975 instruments. Both Hinterland and its follow-up Afterglow (2009) had been based on material originally composed and recorded in demo form immediately after the band’s formation in 1999; Rites at Dawn, on the other hand, comprises entirely new material, the first original music by the band in almost 10 years.

Rites at Dawn is an album of pristine perfection. With its gorgeous, clean-lined artwork (surprisingly modern for a band that has never hidden its worship of all things Seventies) and thorough liner notes, listing the equipment used in loving detail, the centrefold photo depicting them in a rustic period setting reminiscent of Songs from the Wood-era Jethro Tull, it is an unashamed paean to the golden age of prog, tailor-made to send traditionalists into fits of delight, or else to be dismissed by forward-thinkers as a mere nostalgia trip. The truth, as is often the case in life, lies somewhere in between. I believe that the fellow reviewer who compared Wobbler’s music to neoclassical art hit the nail over the head, since Rites at Dawn possesses the smooth, polished beauty of a Canova statue. As such, it has raised the bar for “retro-prog” to almost unattainable levels.

Indeed, speaking in strictly objective terms, the music on Rites at Dawn is beautiful, intricate and flawlessly performed, in spite of the slightly disturbing feeling of déjà vu that grips the listener as soon as the vocals in “La Bealtaine” kick in. Drenched in gorgeous Mellotron, fuelled by the fat, trebly sound of a vintage Rickenbacker bass, embellished by layers of keyboards and soothing vocal harmonies, the whole album is a clear homage to Yes circa Fragile and Close to the Edge, even as regards the lyrical matter, based upon pagan rituals and nature worship. While both their previous efforts showed the imprint of Gentle Giant and Gryphon, as well as legendary early Nineties acts such as Änglagård and Anekdoten,  Rites at Dawn sound less “Scandinavian” and definitely more upbeat. The band’s new singer, Andreas Wettergreen Stromman Prestmo, gets a lot of room to flex his impressive, Jon Anderson-like pipes, as all but the two tracks that bookend the album, “Lucid” and “Lucid Dreams”, feature vocals (unlike the band’s previous albums, which were mostly instrumental). The vocal parts are balanced by the magnificent instrumental interplay, chock full of head-spinning tempo changes, scintillating solo spots and moments of atmospheric, ethereal beauty, enhanced by touches of flute and glockenspiel, with the distinctive drone of the bassoon lending further depth to some of the passages. Clocking in at 45 minutes, the album is longer than Afterglow and shorter than Hinterland, with only two tracks, “In Orbit” and “The River”, running over 10 minutes.

An album of sterling quality from a formal point of view, Rites at Dawn is probably the closest any band has come in recent years to recreating the original sound of the Seventies (though, of course, with modern production values). That said, its often uncomfortably derivative nature leads me to adopt a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards it. While I do like the music a lot, and will be probably be listening to the album for my personal pleasure in the future, I cannot help questioning the point of reproducing the sounds of a bygone age down to the last detail – as well as wondering if such a move is going to benefit the prog scene in the long run. However, it is undeniable that there is an audience for albums like Rites at Dawn among those listeners who thrive upon nostalgia. Highly recommended to fans of vintage symphonic prog, it is probably best avoided by anyone who expects prog to be actually progressive.

Links:
http://www.wobblermusic.com/

http://www.myspace.com/wobblermusic

http://www.termorecords.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. G.B. Evidence (5:19)
2. Arabesque (12:32)
3. Dark Magus (9:00)
4. L’Ombra di un Sogno (6:55)
5. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta, Part I (5:08)
6. Battery Park (6:37)

LINEUP:
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Hammond organ, acoustic and electric piano, Arp Odyssey, Minimoog
Cristian Franchi – drums
Daniele Piccinini – bass
Marco Marzo Maracas – guitar, oud

With:
Richard Sinclair – vocals (4)
Antonio “Cooper” Cupertino – percussion (4)

Hailing from the historic Italian city of Bologna, home to the oldest university in the world, Accordo dei Contrari (Italian for “Agreement of the Opposites”) started out their career in as a trio; then, after a number of line-up changes, recorded their debut album, Kinesis (released in 2007) as a quartet. The same line-up is featured on Kublai, their sophomore effort, released in the spring of 2011 – an album that is sure to put them on the map of even the most demanding lovers of progressive rock. Sadly, the band was one of the “innocent victims”, so to speak, of the unfortunate cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which deprived American prog fans of the opportunity to witness a number of exciting modern bands.

While the album’s title may bring to mind the fabled character of the Mongolian emperor celebrated by the likes of Marco Polo and S.T. Coleridge, in this case the name Kublai is meant to  represent “the most distant point in an imaginary landscape. It represents ordered chaos, light and dark, the balance between written and improvised music.” A clear statement of intent that accurately sums up the musical content of Accordo dei Contrari’s second album. With its stylishly minimalistic cover artwork, Kublai is a supremely classy package that shows a band whose compositional and instrumental mastery is growing by leaps and bounds.

Running at a compact, perfectly balanced 45 minutes, the album sounds fresh and original even when the band’s main sources of inspiration are referenced. While Accordo dei Contrari do not choose to employ as extensive an array of instruments as other modern bands, they manage to create an impressive volume of sound with a rather restrained instrumentation, dispensing with the violin and saxophone featured on their debut, and therefore perfecting the “electric quartet” format. For an album that might be tagged as jazz-rock, Kublai seems to revolve a lot around Giovanni Parmeggiani’s stunning keyboard work. Indeed, the keyboards are definitely the driving force of the disc, with the distinctive rumble of the Hammond organ lending a touch of unbridled hard rock passion to the overall sound: there are moments on Kublai in which Parmeggiani sounds as if he was channeling Jon Lord.

Opener “G.B. Evidence”, a variation on a Thelonious Monk composition, immediately introduces the listener to the fascinating world of Accordo dei Contrari, with Cristian Franci’s crisp, inventive drumming, bolstered by Daniele Piccinini’s sleek, versatile bass lines, sparring with Marco Marzo’s simmering guitar and Parmeggiani’s subtly layered keyboards. In the second half, guitar and organ engage in a sort of dialogue that conjures images of Deep Purple jamming with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Clocking in at 12 minutes “Arabesque” presents Accordo dei Contrari’s own twist on the obligatory prog ‘epic’, making effective use of a steady electronic drone to create a faintly ominous atmosphere underlying the stately beauty of the Eastern-flavoured acoustic guitar arpeggios in the first part of the track. The overall loose, somewhat rarefied texture, the flow of the music broken by frequent pauses and surges in volume, occasionally gains intensity in bursts of energy that bring to mind the revolutionary sonic melting pot of Area circa Arbeit Macht Frei. Bookended by sonorous gong. “Dark Magus” (a nod to Miles Davis’ 1974 album of the same title) reinforces the impression of classic jazz rock coupled with the intensity of vintage hard rock. Parmeggiani attacks his Hammond with unadulterated abandon, while Franci’s stellar drumming propels the whole of the composition along, with Marco Marzo’s guitar in an invaluable supporting role.

Strategically placed at the opening of the album’s second half, “L’Ombra di un Sogno (Shadow of a Dream)” is the only track with vocals, provided by none other than the ‘voice of Canterbury’, Richard Sinclair, who also wrote the gentle, moving lyrics in memory of his dog. Centred around Sinclair’s subdued yet emotional interpretation, his velvety baritone bending the music to its will, the song – somewhat sparse at first, with a hauntingly insistent guitar line, then taking a jazzier turn towards the end – brings the the sound of iconic Canterbury bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health into the 21st century. On the other hand, “Piu’ Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Espressione Vissuta, Pt. 1”  steers towards a more symphonic direction, with organ and guitar alternating in the lead role, and an overall solemn, meditative feel even when the pace picks up. The album ends with the “Battery Park” (inspired by a windy, sunny February day by the Hudson River in New York City), a lovely, piano-led  piece based around a main theme developed in a stop-start movement, the various sections climaxing and then subsiding like the natural flow of a water course.

A perfect marriage of formal elegance and emotion, rich with diverse influences but always cohesive, Kublai clearly proves that Accordo dei Contrari are ready to take their rightful place alongside D.F.A. as purveyors of impeccably executed, yet warm and emotional jazz-rock in which keyboards play a prominent role. The band have amply fulfilled the promise shown by their debut, Kinesis, and the compositional and technical maturity shown on their sophomore effort bodes extremely well for their future career. A must for fans of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock in general, Kublai will delight anyone who loves great music – whatever the label attached to it.

Links:
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:

1. Transformation (2.01)
2. Room Without Shadows (4.49)
3. Road To Asheville (5.40)
4. Hex (4.35)
5. Blood Sky (5.01)
6. Anamnesis (5.50)
7. Vibrissa (4.47)
8. Possession (4.22)
9. S. Karma (4.43)
10. The Face Of Another (4.20)

LINEUP:
Mark Cook – Warr guitar, fretless bass, fretless guitar, ebow, synth, acoustic and nylon string guitars, chunk guitar, programming, synth treatments, loops, keyboards
Mike Davison – guitars, guitar synth, nylon string guitar, sitar
Jason Spradlin – drums, marimba, camel bells, low synth drone

With:
Gayle Ellett – mellotron (5), guitar (5, 6, 7), upright bass, bouzouki (7)
Bob Fisher – flute (3, 9)
Gavin Harrison – drums (7, 8 )
Jerry Marotta – drums, percussion (5)
Pat Mastelotto – drums, electronics, percussion (6)
Martin McCall – percussion (3)
Mike McGary – keyboards, additional synth treatments (7)
Markus Reuter – touch guitar, guitar, loops (6, 8 )
Dave Streett – Warr guitar (3, 5), bass guitar (6, 7, 10)
Kris Swenson – vocals (5), vocal samples (8)

A trio of musicians based in Arlington (Texas), Herd of Instinct are one of the hottest new names on the vast progressive rock scene. The band was formed in 2007 by guitarist Mark Cook and drummer Jason Spradlin after the demise of their previous band, 99 Names of God, and started work on their self-titled debut immediately after the addtion of guitarist Mike Davison. The album, finally released in May 2011 on Djam Karet’s new label, Firepool Record, sees the collaboration of an impressive roster of guest musicians, including Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett, German guitarist and composer Markus Reuter, and celebrated drummers Gavin Harrison, Jerry Marotta and Pat Mastelotto.

The connection with Djam Karet, one of the few genuine cult bands on the whole progressive rock scene, undoubtedly creates expectations of intricate yet dynamic instrumental music – and this is exactly what Herd of Instinct offer in their debut (in spite of the presence of one track with vocals). Instrumental prog bands are often outstanding, and also tend to branch out far more than bands that prominently feature vocals. In a way, the instrumental dimension, fuelling the eclecticism that is an essential component of truly progressive music, allows musicians to explore avenues that sometimes are limited by the presence of a singer, and experiment with different aspects of sound (including pauses of silence) and the creation of a wide range of moods.

Gloriously omnivorous and unabashedly bold, Herd of Instinct stake their claim on the territory where King Crimson held sway for 35 years. Even if Fripp has made a comeback of sorts in very recent times with the excellent A Scarcity of Miracles, Herd of Instinct’s debut brings back memories of state-of-the-art instrumental masterpieces such as “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Fracture” or “The Sheltering Sky”-  a towering, multilayered achievement marrying flawless technical skill with a healthy dose of emotion, a feast of haunting soundscapes and jagged rhythms that seems to epitomize the very idea of progressiveness.

Clocking in at about 48 minutes, Herd of Instinct features 10 relatively short tracks that are nevertheless packed with changes in tempo and mood, striking an admirable balance between edginess, melody and atmosphere “Transformation” introduces the album in brooding, highly cinematic fashion, with pounding drums and piano, ominously surging keyboard waves and tinkling bells. With the following track, “Room Without Shadows”, things take a decidedly heavier turn, the spacious orchestral effects already featured in the previous number blending with borderline metal riffing, and a stunning guitar solo that would not be out of place on an album like Starless and Bible Black. The gorgeously muted, Eastern-tinged opening to “Road to Asheville”, with its haunting flute, sitar and ethnic percussion, suddenly shifts into a crushingly heavy, riff-driven passage, ending on a mournful note with slow, acoustic guitar chords: while the aptly-titled “Hex” (the perfect soundtrack for some horror movie) opens with eerie electronic effects and then, slowly but inexorably, gains intensity, with crashing cymbals and spiky riffing opening in a marvellous guitar solo. “Anamnesis” is very much in a similar vein, a veritable feast for guitar lovers fuelled by spectacular drum work (courtesy of King Crimson’s very own Pat Mastelotto), with loops and other electronic effects depicting a richly emotional soundscape.

“Blood Sky”, the only track featuring vocals, is one of the undisputed highlights of the album, a haunting showcase for the husky, understated vocals of former 99 Names of God singer Kris Swenson. Mellotron and marimba add subtle atmospheric layers to the spectacular guitar interplay, fleshed out by stunning percussion patterns.”Vibrissa” and “Possession” pursue a similar route, the former slow and measured, with interlocking guitar lines and soloing alternating between wildness and melody; the latter sparse and percussion-driven, with understated guitar work enhanced by snippets of wailing vocal samples. On “S. Karma”, the echoing, almost liquid sound of Mike Cook’s Warr guitar comes into its own, offset by an uncharacteristically aggressive flute solo that seems to mimic the heavy riffing. Closing track “The Face of Another” presents a basic power trio configuration assisted by electronics that provide a range of interesting effects as a background for Cook’s splendid guitar excursions – like a 21st-century take on King Crimson’s iconic “Discipline”.

Herd of Instinct is one of those rare debut albums that are practically perfect in every respect, and need no suggestions for further improvement. An absolute must for fans of King Crimson, it will delight devotees of complex, hard-edged yet atmospheric prog, and those who are somewhat weary of technically competent bands that are sorely lacking in the originality department. With outstanding (though slightly disturbing) cover artwork and photography,  as well as excellent production by guest bassist/Warr guitarist Dave Streett, Herd of Instinct can be hailed as a serious contender for best release of 2011.

Links:
http://www.wix.com/herdofinstinct/herdofinstinct

http://www.myspace.com/herdofinstinctband

http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/HerdofInstinct

http://www.djamkaret.com/disc-fr001.php

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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sirens Dance (3:52)
2. Aging Backwards (5:20)
3. Flanders Fields (5:05)
4. Sleepless Night (5:59)
5. Horny (2:57)
6. Little Bird (4:09)
7. Duck on a Walk (3:25)
8. The Greatest Kick of the Day (3:23)
9. Never Lose your Mind (2:43)
10. Love Song (5:27)
11. Purple Frog (5:05)

LINEUP:
Jonathan Callens – drums, backing vocals (9)
Jouni Isoherranen – bass, backing vocals  (5, 9)
Gabor Humble Vörös – guitar, vocals
Pol Mareen – saxophone
Pedro Guridi – clarinets, backing vocals (5)
Pieter Claus – marimba, vibraphone, percussions

With:
Lisa Jordens – backing vocals (3, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Hanneke Osterlijnck – backing vocals (3, 6)
Joriska Vanhaelewyn – backing vocals  (2)
Juan Carlos Torres Iturra – Spanish vocals (6)
Leika Mochan – backing vocals (9)
Attila Czigany – harmonica (6)
Joris Buysse – flute  (6)
Fre Vandaele – whistle (3, 4)
Wouter Vandenabeele – violin (4)
Megan Quill – vocals (10, 11)
Franciska Roose – vocals (10, 11)

Many will almost automatically associate Belgium with the more left-field fringes of progressive rock, as the country has contributed essentially to the development of the subgenre with outfits such as Univers Zéro, Present, and Aranis. Though those bands seem to enjoy a rather daunting reputation in the more traditionalist prog circles, even a superficial listen to Humble Grumble’s debut album, Flanders Fields, will come as a positive surprise to those who tend to dismiss anything even remotely ‘avant-garde’ as noisy or depressing.

Humble Grumble was first formed in 1996 in the Belgian region of Ghent by Hungarian guitarist/vocalist Gabor Humble Vörös and other former members of a folk/jazz ensemble called Dearest Companion. Though that first incarnation disbanded after some time, the band was reformed in more recent times as a multicultural outfit, with members hailing from Finland and Chile as well as Belgium. The result was  Flanders Fields, released in the first half of 2011 by Italian label AltrOck Productions.

While placing Humble Grumble under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella may be the easiest solution when it comes to the very popular activity of classifying a band or artist, it also paints a rather limited picture of this decidedly intriguing outfit. A sextet conspicuously lacking in keyboards, but employing instead saxophone, clarinet, vibraphone and marimba, Humble Grumble also avail themselves of the collaboration of a host of guest artists, which lends their music a well-rounded, almost orchestral quality.

On the other hand, Flanders Fields is very much a song-based effort, with 10 out of 11 tracks featuring vocals, none of them running above 6 minutes. The whole album clocks in at a very restrained 43 minutes, which allows the listener to fully appreciate the music without getting overwhelmed by it (as is far too often the case with modern releases). The short running time, however, may somewhat deceptive, since each of the tracks is densely packed with tempo changes, intriguing vocal interplay and rhythmic solutions of frequently astounding complexity – all flavoured with unashamed eclecticism. This makes for a surprisingly listener-friendly mixture, though obviously not in a commercial sense.

The most surprising thing about the album, though, is its strongly upbeat nature, and that in spite of the distincly subdued nature of the title-track, whose lyrics juxtapose somber remembrances of WWI with equally pessimistic musings on the state of modern-day Belgium. With this one notable exception, Flanders Fields brims with nonsensical, somewhat anarchic humour that inevitably brings to mind the likes of Frank Zappa and Gong. The latter band is probably the most evident term of comparison for Humble Grumble – down to its multi-national configuration. Mainman Gabor Humble’s engaging vocal approach is quite reminiscent of Daevid Allen’s (as well as Robert Wyatt and Caravan’s Pye Hastings), with the frequent intervention of female backing vocalists bringing to mind more than a fleeting echo of those notorious “space whispers” (especially in the self-explanatory “Horny”, a short, lively Gong-meets-Zappa number). Drums and percussion play a large, not merely propulsive role, while Humble’s guitar is nicely complemented by the warm, expressive tones of the reeds, so that keyboards are never really missed. In spite of the ‘avant’ tag, there is a lot of melody and very little dissonance in Humble Grumble’s sound, as well as plenty of diverse ‘world music’ influences.

Rather uncharacteristically Flanders Fields opens with its only instrumental track, “Sirens Dance”, in which Eastern touches and slow, almost sultry jazzy tones spice up a dynamic, cheerful fabric. “Aging Backwards” introduces Gabor Humble’s melodic yet keenly ironical vocals, as well as displaying his remarkably versatile guitar playing; while the title-track, as previously hinted, brings a note of sober melancholy, the beautiful female harmony vocals and the clear, tinkling sound of the marimba adding a lyrical, romantic tinge. “Sleepless Night”, with its Gentle Giant-inspired vocal harmonies, keeps up the understated mood of the title-track, enhanced by the wistful voice of the violin – a mood that recurs in the mellow, almost delicate “Never Lose Your Mind”, where the lush vocal harmonies evoke Queen as well as Gentle Giant. On the other hand, the more upbeat numbers such as  the folk-meets-Avant “Little Bird”, with vocals both in English and Spanish,  and the funny, lively “Duck on a Walk” conjure echoes of Canterbury; while the Gong and Zappa references emerge most clearly in the last couple of songs, “Love Song” and “Purple Frog”, though tempered by gentler passages led by reeds or female vocals.

Warmly recommended to devotees of Gong and the Canterbury scene in general – as well as any act that uses humour as an essential ingredient of its music –  Flanders Fields can nonetheless appeal to all but the most staunchly conservative prog fans. In particular, those who are not crazy about lengthy epics will be impressed by the way in which Humble Grumble manage to introduce a high level of complexity within the restrictions of the song format. A very enjoyable release from another excellent addition to the already outstanding AltrOck Production roster.

Links:
http://www.humblegrumble.be/

http://www.myspace.com/humblegrumble

http://production.altrock.it/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Stone Salad (13:26)
2. Familiarization Results (7:45)
3. Harry Heller Theater (12:11)
4. Perfect Place (1:37)
5. Parallels (20:01)
6. Influence of Time (10:22)
7. Crashmind (9:57)
8. Desert Circle (15:51)
9. Babylon Dreams (9:38)

LINEUP:
Igor Elizov – keyboards, grand piano
Al Khalmurzaev – keyboards, synths, 12-string guitar, flute
Vitaly Popeloff  – acoustic steel & nylon guitars, voice
Ali Izmailov – drums, percussion
Sur’at Kasimov – fretless bass

While quite a few people might consider the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan little more than a backwater plagued by many of  the same issues as most developing countries, very few would ever associate it with rock, let alone prog. However, the country, situated on the ancient Silk Road, is anything but irrelevant in terms of historical and cultural heritage, and has a surprisingly high literacy rate – higher than many Western countries. Though its contribution to progressive rock (like the majority of Asian countries with the exception of Japan and very few others) is certainly not large in terms of quantity, the few outfits hailing from Uzbekistan have attracted enough attention to put the country on the prog map, and none more effectively than Tashkent-based quintet From.uz.

Formed in 2004 by guitarist Vitaly Popeloff and bassist/producer Andrew Mara-Novik, From.uz proudly declare their origins in their own name, with the dot added on occasion of the release of their third album, Seventh Story, in order to make the meaning “from Uzbekistan” even clearer. The band underwent a line-up change prior to the release of Seventh Story, with only Vitaly Popeloff and Al Khalmurzaev left from the line-up that had recorded their first two albums, and three new musicians joining the ranks. From.uz’s new configuration is the one featured on the aptly-titled Quartus Artifactus, a double CD/DVD set recorded live in June 2009. As the album’s subtitle points out, Quartus Artifactus contains “the best of From.uz in a progressive chamber style”, yhet there is definitely more to it than the usual live album/compilation format.

The live setting seems to be the most natural for a band like From.uz, whose debut, Audio Diplomacy (2007), was a live recording – quite an unusual choice for an album of completely new material. Quartus Artifactus, on the other hand, contains mainly acoustic versions of material taken from the band’s three previous albums. Since practical issues make playing abroad rather difficult for them, the recourse to the DVD format is the band’s chosen way to bring their music out to their growing fanbase. Being signed to US-based label 10T Records has obviously helped them to gain a larger following than if they had kept within their borders, and their music possesses an undeniably exotic appeal. While many other outfits bring ethnic elements to their sound, From.uz are the real thing, bridging the East-West divide with a musical offer that brings together the great Russian classical tradition, centuries of Eastern folk music and the modernity of rock and jazz – as well as other, perhaps less obvious influences.

The members of From.uz are very accomplished musicians, but thankfully they never give the impression of wanting to hit the listener over the head with their technical skill. While their music is undeniably quite complex, and requiring quite a bit of attention, the acoustic dimension lends additional warmth and depth to it, smoothing the occasionally hard edges of its electric counterpart. Furthermore, the accompanying DVD, even in its almost stark simplicity, reveals a genuine sense of enjoyment on the part of the musicians. While the quality of the images may not be as pristine as in other productions, watching the band perform injects new life into the material. Arranged in a semicircle, and seated most of the time, the band members come across as concentrated but never detached from the audience, and the intimate setting of the small theatre reinforces the ‘chamber’ definition mentioned in the album’s subtitle. The extra features allow us a look behind the scenes, showing the crew’s tireless work and the band members’ unassuming yet dedicated attitude.

Running at abour 100 minutes, the 9 tracks featured  on the set offer a well-rounded picture of the band’s output and general approach. As anyone already familiar with From.uz will know, their compositions tend to be rather long, with only the short guitar/vocal interlude “Perfect Place” and “Familiarization Results” clocking in at below 9 minutes. The music’s inherent complexity benefits from the semi-acoustic rendition immensely, retaining its head-spinning intricacy while acquiring more than a hint of endearing softness.  Guitarist Vitaly Popeloff’s is a delight to watch (or even just to hear), his stunningly accomplished acoustic playing, together with Ali Izmailov’s spectacular drumming, the engine behind From.uz’s sound. While he is very much in evidence throughout the set, Popeloff’s showcase spot occurs in the first half of “Desert Circle”, where he runs the gamut of his instrument’s expressive possibilities, ranging from slow, meditative tones to jazzier, Latin-tinged licks. He is also a more than capable vocalist, as proved by his performance on the aforementioned “Perfect Place” and “Parallels”.

Opener “Stone Salad” (from Overlook) introduces the listener to the lush tapestry of From.uz’s music, with its jazz-rock foundation overlaid by many different influences, including the expected Eastern ones. The earlier material from the Audio Diplomacy album (“Familiarization Results”, “Harry Heller Theatre” and “Babylon Dreams”) possesses a more distinct classical flavour, though the latter number takes a sharper, jazzy route. The monumental “Parallels” (taken from Seventh Story, like “Perfect Place”, “Desert Circle” and “Influence of Time”,), at 20 minutes the longest item on the album, blends the symphonic, the atmospheric and the jazzy component of the band’s inspiration in a richly complex, yet deeply emotional creation; while “Crashmind” (also from Overlook) is a dynamic, fusiony number based on variations on a theme that runs through the whole composition. Igor Elizov and Al Khalmurzaev’s keyboards add rich, subtly shaded layers of sound, and Sur’at Kasimov’s fretless bass acts as a discreet but reliable driving force.

The splendid artwork, courtesy of the band’s official artist and US manager, Ken Westphal, offers an added bonus to both newcomers and fans of the band. Westphal’s style, here rendered in gorgeous shades of blue, green and grey, is subtly reminiscent of Roger Dean, though more streamlined – the dreamlike quality of the  inner gatefold image of water and sky tempered by a life-like touch. All in all, Quartus Artifactus provides a stunningly-packaged introduction to one of the best instrumental progressive rock bands on the current scene, and one that will hopefully get an opportunity to perform in the US in the near future.

 

Links:
http://www.fromuzband.com/

http://10trecords.com/

http://www.kenwestphal.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Overture 3.07
2. Il Tredici 11.46
3. Dark Age 6.18
4. The Guillotine 6.00
5. Timepiece 5.30
6. Sobriety 8.19
7. Tema 1.08
8. Steam 9.30

LINEUP:
Gadi Ben Elisha – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin
Sagi Barness – bass guitar
Aviv Barness – keyboards, saxophone
Igal Baram – drums, percussion
Shem-Tov Levi – flute

With:
Michael Lam – English horn
Elinoy Yogev – bassoon

The name Sanhedrin will not fail to ring a bell with those who are familiar with the Gospels – either because of their religious upbringing or inclination, or for reasons of historical interest – as the name indicates the supreme court of ancient Israel by which Jesus Christ was tried. Though there are also three extreme metal outfits bearing the same name, this particular band (unlike the others, and like the original institution)  hails from Israel, a country whose contribution to the progressive rock scene has been steadily growing – especially in terms of quality – over the past few years.

Originally formed by brothers Sagi and Aviv Barness as a Camel tribute band, Sanhedrin soon started writing their own material, influenced by the golden era of progressive rock. After going through the usual turmoil of line-up changes, in 2006 they started recording their debut album. Four years in the making, Ever After was mixed and mastered by renowned Israeli sound engineer and  producer Udi Koomran, and completed in 2010 – to be released in February 2011 as on the Fading Records division of Italian label AltrOck Productions.

The musical connection between Sanhedrin and Camel will soon become evident even to a first-time listener. Andy Latimer’s crew, even if not as hugely influential on the younger generations of prog bands  as the likes of Genesis, Yes or ELP,  have clearly been a source of inspiration for many outfits who choose a more melodic direction while avoiding the excess of bombast that occasionally characterizes symphonic prog. Even if Camel have sometimes been rather unkindly indicted of being purveyors of ‘elevator prog’, or just a second-tier band lacking the clout of the bigger-name acts, it is undeniable that their restrained elegance has won over a lot of fans.

While Ever After may not be the most original album released in the past few months or so, it is definitely not overtly derivative – at least not as much as other albums which I have recently heard, and which are quite highly rated. Fading Records has been created for albums with a more traditional prog bent than the material usually issued by AltrOck Productions, and their first release, Ciccada’s A Child in the Mirror, was a stunning example of ‘retro-prog’ that managed not to sound like a carbon copy of the great Seventies bands. Ever After is much in the same vein, a classy product performed with impressive technical skill, yet exuding a sense of warmth and pastoral beauty that makes listening a genuinely enjoyable experience. While Camel are obviously the most relevant influence, on numerous occasions Pink Floyd (especially their early Seventies output) spring to mind, and echoes of early Genesis can also be detected. However, Sanhedrin also bring their own signature to the table: the ethnic references subtly scattered throughout the album (not just Middle Eastern, but also Celtic and central European) remind the listener of Israel’s multicultural milieu. Like Camel, the basic combination of guitar-bass-drums-keyboards is enhanced by the exquisitely soothing sound of the flute, with additional woodwinds also employed to add depth and dimension. Unlike the English band, though, Sanhedrin have opted for an exclusively instrumental format, which is quite an interesting choice, and a deviation from the standard symphonic tradition, where vocals play a rather important role.

As Israel is part of the Mediterranean region, it is not surprising to find echoes of vintage Italian prog right from the opening track, appropriately called “Ouverture”, together with a nice pinch of Middle Eastern spicing and jazzy touches. The 3-minute number sets the album’s mood very effectively, with its beautifully clear guitar tone, gentle flute and airy keyboards, the various sections flowing seamlessly into each other. The nearly 12-minute ”Il Tredici”, the longest track on the album (which runs at a very sensible 51 minutes), brings the Camel and Pink Floyd influences together in a majestic slice of gently melancholy symphonic prog, with magnificent Latimer- and Gilmour-inspired guitar leads and layers of keyboards. In spite of its slightly macabre title (suggested by the faint recorded sounds of an angry mob heard throughout the piece), “The Guillotine” alternates atmospheric, almost meditative moments with brisker ones driven along by organ and march-like drumming.

More ethnic influences emerge in the first half of “Dark Age”, possibly the highlight of the whole album, dedicated to fellow Israeli musician Arik Hayat of Sympozion, who committed suicide at the end of 2008. The lively, Celtic-tinged tune, described by lilting mandolin and flute, reminded me of some instances of Italian ‘minstrel’ Angelo Branduardi’s output, while the somber, organ-dominated mood of the middle section lifts towards the end, with a slightly dissonant passage suggestive of King Crimson. “Sobriety”, true to its title, merges the Celtic flavour of its flute-and-drum opening with the spacey yet majestic tone of Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets (clearly referenced in a particular organ passage), and an intricate ending that brings martial drums and sharp, clear guitar to the fore. While “Timepiece” adds some almost tentative bouts of heavier riffing to a framework that combines the pastoral feel of Camel with the atmospheric mood of Pink Floyd, closing track “Steam” (introduced by the short acoustic interlude of “Tema”) explores definitely heavier territory, especially in its second half, where the assertive tone of the guitar and the subtle shifts in tempo commanded by bass and drums seem to suggest a running train; the electric piano section in the middle brought instead to my mind Ray Manzarek’s stunning performance in The Doors’ iconic “Riders on the Storm”.

While, as the previous paragraphs make it abundantly clear, Ever After may not be the most innovative proposition on the current prog scene, it is an album whose every note spells class and a deep love of the musical craft. A thoroughly enjoyable listen, highly recommended to fans of classic symphonic prog, especially those who lean more towards the instrumental side of things, it is an excellent debut from an equally excellent new band.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/sanhedrin1

http://www.reverbnation.com/sanhedrin1

http://production.altrock.it/index.htm

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bella Lee (3:34)
2. Parliamone (5:43)
3. Infraditi (7:36)
4. Fungo (6:42)
5 Cane di Schiena (6:32)
6. Pappa Irreale (2:27)
7. Antenna (7:59)
8. Klez (4:16)
9. Max Dembo (8:47)

LINEUP:
Filippo Cantarella – violin, viola
Marco Ravera – electric and acoustic guitar, synthesizer
Tommaso Rolando  – acoustic bass, electric bass, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, sampler, trumpet
Nando Magni – trombone
Nicola Magri – drums

With:
Cosimo Francavilla – soprano saxophone (2)
Antonio Carletti – weird vocals (7)

In my writings I have often mentioned the lively music scene of the great port of Genoa – not surprising for a city that, throughout its long history, has been one of the many melting pots of the Mediterranean region, bringing together East and West, North and South in a heady mixture of tradition and modernity. This is the kind of fertile ground from where Fabrizio De André’s Creuza de Ma, one of the undisputed masterpieces of the whole ‘world music’ scene, originated. Five-piece Calomito, a relatively recent addition to the variegated Italian music scene, bring an unique twist to the time-honoured musical heritage of their home town, with a sound that marries the warmth of the Mediterranean with a strong international bent.

Calomito have been around since the mid-2000, releasing their debut album, Inaudito, in 2005. After a five-year hiatus and some line-up changes, the band have made a comeback with Cane di Schiena, issued in the first half of 2011 by Milan-based label AltrOck Productions (also responsible for outstanding, cutting-edge releases such as Yugen’s three albums and mirRthkon’s Vehicle). Though they have been almost forcibly placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella, Calomito are one of those bands that – luckily for fans of genuinely interesting music, much less so for those who delight in labelling everything – are extremely hard to pigeonhole, due to their boldly eclectic approach to music-making.

As a fellow Italian reviewer  jokingly stated at the beginning of his own review of the album, you may want to consider taking a couple of days off in order to listen to Cane di Schiena properly. Indeed, though clocking in at a mere 53 minutes, the album presents an  incredibly dense (though never claustrophobic) amount of music which unfolds with each successive listen, and therefore devoid of any immediately digestible tunes. On the other hand, unlike what many believe about any kind of music that bears even a faint whiff of ‘avant-garde’, there is nothing discordant, abrasive or random about Calomito’s sound. Each of the tracks is clearly very carefully structured, as it is nearly always the case with ‘chamber rock’ outfits – a definition that, in my view, fits Calomito to a T. Like their label mates Yugen, they transcend the boundaries of the RIO/Avant classification, and should rather be seen as purveyors of eclectic yet oddly intimate music tha requires all of the listener’s attention to be fully appreciated.

This does not imply that Cane di Schiena is one of those deadly serious albums that command a quasi-religious devotion. Calomito’s humorous disposition, which descends directly from the likes of Stormy Six and Picchio dal Pozzo (as well as the Canterbury scene, which is also a clear musical influence), immediately comes across from titles such as “Pappa Irreale”(a pun on pappa reale, the Italian for “royal jelly”) or “Infraditi” (an intentionally ungrammatical spelling of the  word meaning “flip-flops”). The music itself, while quite light-hearted at times, can on occasion reach for a more subdued, sober tone. On the whole, Cane di Schiena comes across as a flawlessly executed album that never descends into a depressing or overly involved tone.

As is the case of other ‘chamber prog’ ensembles, Calomito employ a number of other instruments alongside the traditional rock trinity of bass, guitar and drums, assisted by various synthesizers. The substantial contribution of the horns evokes parallels with bands such as Miriodor, which emerge quite clearly right from the album’s opening track, “Bella Lee” – an incredibly dense 3 minutes of music; while the equally important role played by strings (violin and viola) brings instead to mind one of the best modern‘chamber rock’ outfits,  Seattle-based band Moraine, as well as vintage Frank Zappa. The more upbeat passages, suggesting a jazz-rock or Canterbury matrix, made me think of Forgas Band Phenomena, though Calomito sound slightly more angular than the French band. Furthermore, while Univers Zéro’s broodingly apocalyptic production seems to be the polar opposite in tone to Calomito’s essentially cheerful approach, Nicola Magri’s stunning, beyond-merely-propulsive drumming style cannot but evoke the way in which Daniel Denis supports the whole fabric of the Belgian outfit’s sound.

Trying to describe any of the nine tracks in detail would not do any of them justice. While “Infraditi” is probably the one track with the strongest connections to the RIO/Avant school of progressive rock – an astoundingly complex, 7-minute rollercoaster ride apparently throwing in anything but the proverbial kitchen sink, from carnival-like music to jazzy touches to jagged, almost dissonant passages – the somewhat low-key “Parliamone”, true to its title (meaning “let’s talk about it”) seems to reproduce a dialogue between two persons, with horns and synthesizers in the role of human voices. The choppy, dynamic “Fungo” exemplifies the way in which Calomito use pauses to create interest, rather than produce an impression of patchiness; while the title-track’s slow, meditative mood, some passages so low as to be barely audible, produces an intense, almost mesmerizing effect.

Especially in the second half of the album some intriguingly exotic influences show up, which bring to mind comparisons with Slivovitz, another über-eclectic Italian outfit hailing from Naples, my home country’s second biggest port (and musical capital). “ Pappa Irreale”’s lilting, dance-like pace punctuated by violin is sharply redolent of Irish folk, or even American country; and the upbeat, drum-driven “Klez”, as the title points out, contains elements of klezmer and Eastern European gypsy music. A folksy also tone emerges in parts of the initially low-key “Antenna”, possibly the most complex number on the album (and the only one briefly featuring ‘weird vocals’), ending with an exhilarating crescendo in which guitar, trombone and violin seem to engage in a sort of conversation. Closing track “Max Dembo” introduces some new elements, such as spacey sound effects that  enhance the powerful, rolling tone of the drums and the echoing guitar lines, as well as shades of Brazil in the relaxed, almost sultry pace of first half of the track.

In spite of the density of its musical content, Cane di Schiena is far from inaccessible, and – while undoubtedly a challenging listen – does not rely on spiky, jarring sounds to make its impact. There is plenty of melody to be found on the album, and the music possesses a natural flow and easy elegance that make listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Even though fans of traditional symphonic prog may be daunted by anything bearing the label of ‘avant-garde’, I would encourage everyone who loves progressive music to give Calomito a try. With their successful blend of technical skill, seemingly boundless creativity, eclectic influences and keen sense of humour, they are one of the most interesting bands heard in the past couple of years, and definitely one to watch.

Links:
http://www.calomito.com/

http://www.myspace.com/calomito

http://production.altrock.it/start.asp

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Walk On Alone (12:31)
2. Voices (6:24)
3. Weapon (6:52)
4. What I Have Done (5:56)
5. Mind Over Matter (2:38)
6. Prelude (1:48)
7. World in Front of Me (11:19)

LINEUP:
John Baker – lead and backing vocals, guitars, guitar synthesizer, mandolin
Kerry Chicoine – bass, backing vocals
Steve Mauk – keyboards, backing vocals
Jerry Beller – drums, percussion, backing vocals

A quartet of experienced musicians based in Los Angeles, Mars Hollow were brought to the attention of progressive rock fans by the release of their self-titled debut album, almost one year ago. The highly awaited disc did not disappoint, and the band were immediately invited to perform at the 2010 edition of ProgDay, where I had the pleasure to meet them and see them on stage. In spite of the dreaded word ‘hype’ rearing its ugly head, or of those who may point out that Mars Hollow’s music does not really bring anything new to the prog table, and that it is also too poppy for its own good, the band’s dedication to music-making is undeniable, as is their professional attitude.

These days it is certainly not usual for artists to release an album a year, and long waits are often in order for fans of any musical genre. This seems to be even truer in the world of prog, when it is not uncommon for acts to let at least three years pass between releases – mainly due to those practical issues that I have often mentioned in my writing. Mars Hollow, however, chose to buck the trend by going into the studio a mere two months after their successful ProgDay appearance – with a well-respected musician and producer like Billy Sherwood (of Yes, Conspiracy and Circa fame) at the helm, and a strong commitment to delivering the goods in an even more impressive manner than their debut. Needless to say, the band’s sophomore effort – heralded by another prestigious live appearance, this time at the 2011 edition of ROSfest – was even more highly awaited than their debut, though the anticipation was tinged with the kind of anxiety engendered by far too many examples of anything but lucky second times.

While Mars Hollow, with refreshing honesty, have never claimed to be purveyors of daringly cutting-edge music (as is the case with some acts that, in my opinion, are nowhere as consistently good), World in Front of Me rises way above any considerations of innovation, progression, or whatever you choose to call it. Even though their self-titled debut was a hugely enjoyable slice of catchy, melodic prog with modern production values and all-round excellent performances, World in Front of Me is, simply put, pure gold – an album possessed of an almost timeless quality, a flawlessly executed homage to the best that progressive rock has to offer that, in many ways, transcends the very definition of prog. Odd as it may sound, I would compare it with another recent release that has left a lasting impression on me – Black Country Communion’s debut. Now, while the latter are definitely more of a classic hard rock act than a progressive one, their first album is also one of those very rare efforts that manage to reach a very high standard of quality without reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Clocking in at a perfect 47 minutes, World in Front of Me is bookended by two 10-minute-plus tracks which – like “Dawn of Creation” on their debut album – eschew the tired, worn-out template of the ultra-convoluted (and ultimately patchy) ‘epic’ in favour of an orgy of enchanting melodies, splendid vocal parts, and scintillating instrumental interplay. With consummate sense of balance, the five tracks sandwiched between those two display a variety of moods, from the melancholy, mainly acoustic “Mind Over Matter” to the jagged, somewhat tense “Voices” – shorter, yet no less dense and involved. To use a cliché, Mars Hollow are like a well-oiled machine, their individual skills honed by years of experience and a genuine love of their craft, creating layer upon layer of lovely sounds that, while sustaining that uplifting quality so evident in their debut, are tinged with a hint of gentle sadness suggesting the wisdom that comes with maturity. And mature is probably one of the most effective descriptions for World in Front of Me: though lacking anything as infectious as “Midnight”, it is hard not to find yourself singing along the title-track or “Walk on Alone”, as well as listening raptly to the seamless ebb and flow of the instrumental passages.

As was the case with the band’s debut, World in Front of Me is strongly keyboard-based, with John Baker’s guitar used in a supporting (though indispensable) role rather than as the star of the show. However, Sherwood’s crystal-clear production has given the rhythm section a much more prominent role. Jerry Beller’s dynamic yet sophisticated drumming is not merely propulsive, but adds a lot of dimension to the music, sometimes following the melody laid out by the keyboards and guitar, sometimes playing in a sort of counterpoint; while Kerry Chicoine’s rumbling, pneumatic Rickenbacker bursts out of the densely woven fabric of the sound in a way rarely heard since Chris Squire introduced his ‘lead bass’ approach to the instrument. Indeed, Yes might be mentioned as probably the biggest influence on this album – though, rather than the toweringly unapproachable Yes of Close to the Edge fame, Mars Hollow bring to mind the band that, with their first three albums, gave the music world a textbook-perfect example of contamination between classic pop-rock and the fledgling progressive trend.

Steve Mauk handles his array of keyboards with impressive aplomb, supported by the relentless work of the rhythm section. While the gorgeously wistful, rippling piano piece that is “Prelude” puts him directly in the spotlight, his lush yet sedate contribution to the overall sound perfectly complements John Baker’s understated guitar work and commanding vocal performance. As I stated in my review of Mars Hollow’s debut, Baker’s voice – a soaring, admirably controlled tenor reminiscent of a smoother Geddy Lee, with touches of early Steve Walsh – may not be to everyone’s taste, but his handling of the somewhat downbeat, meditative lyrics (mostly focusing on the end of a relationship) is nothing short of masterful, and the harmony sections suggest the effortless grace of vintage Yes and, occasionally, even Gentle Giant.

As regards the individual tracks, opener “Walk On Alone” and the title-track are classic prog heaven, blending memorable melodies – catchy, though in a very subtle fashion, and dispensing with a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure – with instrumental passages of stunning elegance and understated complexity. While the former number is more airy and relaxed, the latter seems to slowly build up to a climax, with a sense of tension occasionally surfacing. “Voices” and “Weapon”, though shorter, are conceived along similar lines, successfully merging haunting vocal sections with intense instrumental passages; while “What I Have Done”, with its more streamlined approach and catchy harmony vocals, comes closest to the spirit of Mars Hollow’s debut, though without the bold airplay potential of songs like “Midnight” or “Eureka”.

Down to its stylish cover photo, depicting the stark beauty of the Death Valley desert, World in Front of Me is a supremely elegant album that succeeds in the task of combining accessibility with dazzling technical proficiency and a genuine feeling of warmth. Let us forget for a moment about ‘retro-prog’ or any such ultimately pointless labels. Mars Hollow’s intention was never to revolutionize the music world, but rather to produce an album that people will enjoy, cherish, and possibly relate to in terms of their own experience. A pleasure from start to finish, this is definitely a very serious contender for album of the year.

Links:
http://www.marshollow.com/

http://www.10trecords.com/

 

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1.  Commencement (2:47)
2.  Neap Tide (9:20)
3.  Primrose Path  (6:38)
4.  Dawn  (2:56)
5.  Catlord  (8:54)
6.  Illuminati  (0:42)
7.  Work In Progress  (6:54)
8.  Missing Time (8:49)
9.  Faunus  (11:17)
10. Io  (9:13)

LINEUP:
Michael J. Butzen – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin
Jeffrey Schuelke – keyboards, piano
Thomas Ford – drums, electronic percussion

With:
Chris Kringel – fretless bass  (1-7, 9-10)
Elizabeth Grimm – violin (8, 9, 10)
Chad Burkholz – bass (8)

The name ‘Fibonacci sequence’ refers to a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two. Named after medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, who introduced it to Western Europe, it is featured in literature, cinema, the visual arts and music: for instance, the lyrics to the title-track of Tool’s celebrated Lateralus album are arranged on the basis of the Fibonacci sequence.

On the other hand, even if Fibonacci Sequence would be a perfect name for a math-rock band, the Milwaukee-based trio bearing this name are quite a different beast. Those who delight in sticking labels on everything and everyone will certainly have their work cut out for them with a band like Fibonacci Sequence, as their unabashed eclecticism makes classification all but impossible. While one moment they may conjure shades of progressive metal, the next passage will take the listener into almost symphonic territory, with clear, melodic sounds and lush layers of keyboards – not to mention the tantalizing Latin and Middle Eastern references and the sprinkling of jazzy touches. Their omnivorous approach is further borne out by the influences mentioned by the band – a list ranging from Yes, Rush and Dream Theater to The Police, Sting and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

For those who thrive on making comparisons with more established acts, I would mention equally eclectic instrumental outfits like From.uz or Djam Karet, as well as more metal-oriented ones like Canvas Solaris or Relocator – as well as the obligatory Liquid Tension Experiment or Planet X. Unlike the latter bands, though, Fibonacci Sequence’s sound is more distinctly guitar-based, with keyboards used as an accent rather than dominating their whole music. Faced with such almost effortless proficiency, which nevertheless does not come across as cold and detached, the listener would be forgiven for thinking that the band are one of the many projects that (often due to practical issues) have no life outside the walls of a recording studio. The band, however, are quite active on the live front in their home town of Milwaukee, and the announcement of their participation to the 2011 edition of ProgDay has whetted the appetite of the  numerous fans of instrumental progressive rock.

The aptly-titled Numerology, Fibonacci Sequence’s debut full-lenght album, was released about a year after the 2-track EP We Three Kings, which featured a very interesting arrangement of the popular 19th century Christmas carol. On this album, the three core musicians avail themselves of the valuable contribution of fretless bassist Chris Kringel (formerly with Cynic and their offshoot Portal) on all but one of the tracks, as well as bassist Chad Burkholz on “Missing Time”, and violinist Elizabeth Grimm on the last three numbers. Most of the tracks on Numerology run between 6 and 11 minutes, long enough to allow the band members to branch out and create intricate musical weaves; the album as a whole clocks in at a quite manageable 65 minutes. The band manage to produce an impressive volume of sound of exceptional clarity, every instrument given a strikingly dimensional feel in the mix. As in the best productions, in spite of the complexity of the compositions, the music flows smoothly and naturally, without giving the impression of being too complicated for its own good.

Right from the opening strains of the short but punchy “Commencement” – a lush, melodic guitar number powered by an impressive drum sound – the sheer quality of the recording comes across in no uncertain terms. While Michael J. Butzen’s guitars take the leading role, the engine propelling Fibonacci Sequence’s music along is Thomas Ford’s powerful yet restrained drumming, a full-bodied sound that manages not to overwhelm the other instruments. Fibonacci Sequence’s trademark blend of melody, heaviness and sleek instrumental expertise emerges in “Neap Tide” (also featured on the EP), a heady, multilayered mix of sharp riffing, acoustic, pastoral beauty and jazzy licks whose dense sonic texture manages not to feel stifling or contrived. On the other hand, “Primrose Path” comes across as a contemporary-sounding version of vintage Santana, down to the jazzy, Latin-tinged guitar work. Perfectly descriptive of its title, “Dawn” is a slow, meditative acoustic guitar piece introduced by atmospheric keyboards and birdsong, which introduces the thunderously drum-driven “Catlord”, its heaviness spiced by Eastern touches in the clean, mesmerizing guitar lines.

After the very short ambient piece “Illuminati”, Fibonacci Sequence display more of their exciting compositional skills in the album’s final four tracks, starting with the splendid bass showcase that is “Work in Progress”, peppered by frequent pauses that, instead of disrupting the flow of the music, seem to stimulate the listener’s attention. With “Missing Time” we enter Liquid Tension Experiment/Planet X territory, Jeffrey Schuelke’s keyboards taking more of a lead role and Butzen’s guitar injecting a touch of fiery, yet shred-free edginess, and the violin adding a symphonic note to the second half of the track. The 11-minute “Faunus” (the longest track on the album) is deceptively more linear in structure, with a tense, riff-laden first half and a slow, almost melancholy ending punctuated by lovely guitar and violin; while closing track “Io” picks up from where the previous number left off, with a moody beginning and a mainly keyboard-driven middle section, culminating with an extended guitar solo of outstanding quality. Interestingly, the album begins and ends with the crackling of an old vinyl record – a sound dear to many old-school prog fans.

Besides the obvious quality of their  music, both in terms of composition and execution, Fibonacci Sequence’s nature of real live outfit makes them an even more intriguing proposition. The simple fact that they are not easy to pigeonhole should be seen as a positive sign, especially in these times when increasingly outrageous labels are created with alarming regularity. In any case, Numerology is one of the finest instrumental prog albums released in the past couple of years or so, and their ProgDay appearance will hopefully contribute to putting Fibonacci Sequence on the map for those progressive rock fans who are still unaware of them. Highly recommended.

Links:
http://fib-seq.blogspot.com/

http://www.myspace.com/fibonaccisequenceband

 

 

 

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