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Posts Tagged ‘Guitar’

TRACKLISTING:
1. Paradox (7:11)
2. Stravinsky (with Bach intro) (11:32)
3. Future (7:17)
4. Don Juan (6:13)
5. Bliker 3 (10:15)
6. Etude Indienne (12:51)
7. Miles Away (4:15)
8. Transparansi (13:16)

LINEUP:
Adi Darmawan – bass guitar, piano (5)
Agam Hamzah – guitar
Gusti Hendi – drums, percussion

In Bahasa Indonesia, the language spoken in the vast south-east Asian archipelago, orgil means “crazy people”, and its backward spelling. Ligro, has been chosen as a handle by a fiery power trio led by guitarist extraordinaire Agam Hamzah – together with Tohpati Ario Hutomo, one of the hottest new names on the contemporary guitar scene. Dictionary 2 is the barnstorming international debut by Hamzah and his equally talented cohorts, bassist Adi Darmawan and drummer Gusti Hendi, released on NYC label Moonjune Records – whose mainman, Leonardo Pavkovic, keeps unearthing new gems in far-flung places like Indonesia, obscure to most Westerners in spite of their rich musical tradition. Formed in 2004, Ligro have already released an album (titled Dictionary 1), and participated to various musical events in their home country and abroad.

As pointed out on the band’s website, the three members have different cultural backgrounds –which might well surprise those Western listeners who are unaware of Indonesia’s history and cultural diversity. In particular, drummer Gusti Hendi originates from Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo), and a Gondang drum – a percussion instrument of the Batak people of Sumatra,  which he plays with a “Kalimantan beat” – seamlessly integrates with the rest of his Western-style kit. Ligro’s sound, on the other hand, is for the most part inspired by jazz-rock/fusion greats such as Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Mahavishnu Orchestra and their ilk – in this, a perfect complement to another excellent 2012 album coming from Indonesia, Tohpati Bertiga’s Riot.

As can be expected, the eight tracks on Dictionary 2 – ranging from the 4 minutes of the Miles Davis tribute of “Miles Away” to the 13 minutes of closer “Transparansi” – hinge on Hamzah’s scintillating guitar, which manages to run the gamut from understated, almost wistful melody to fiery, hard-edged runs and breathtaking bravura pieces. While Adi Damarwan’s bass provides a discreet but ever-present bottom end, its flexible, well-rounded sound emerging in selected occasions (such as the stunningly intricate interplay of “Etude Indienne”), Gusti Hendi proves to be Hamzah’s true sparring partner on the album. This becomes evident right from the opening bars of “Paradox”, where Hendi’s authoritative, cymbal-heavy style sets the pace for a barrage of stop-start riffs, repeated in different pitches until pace slows down, allowing Hamzah to deploy his more sensitive, melodic side. “Stravinsky”, one of the album’s undisputed highlights, is based on the titular composer’s “An Easy Piece Using Five Notes”, and introduced by a Bach-inspired intro sketched by guitar and bass. The low-key mood of the intro, however, soon gains in intensity, with drums and guitar sparring fiercely until the almost slo-mo ending. A respite is offered by the measured, melody-infused “Future”, and the bluesy yet subdued “Don Juan”, with its nod to vintage Jeff Beck.

While the lovely, classical-styled piano intro (courtesy of Adi Dimarwan) of the 10-minute “Bliker 3” might point to another low-key affair, this is only partly true, because the loose, almost improvisational texture of the track hides a keen sense of tension, complete with eerie spacey effects – and even veering into heavier territory in the track’s exhilarating climax. Hamzah and Dimarwan duel at often breakneck speed in the virtuoso piece “Etude Indienne”, which employs Indian scales traditionally played on the sitar; Hendi’s drumming, on the other hand, keeps a low profile until the end, when it resumes its assertive tone. As the tongue-in-cheek title suggests,”Miles Away” is the jazziest (and the shortest) number on the album, its choppy, jaunty pace somewhat muted in contrast with the earlier fireworks. The jam-like “Transparansi” closes the album with a bang, almost drawing together all the motifs previously introduced, and allowing Hendi to indulge in some traditional percussion work that adds a note of warmth to the slightly chaotic texture of the composition.

Clocking in at about 73 minutes, Dictionary 2 is undoubtedly an ambitious endeavour, though – quite unlike the majority of albums with such a hefty running time – it hardly ever outstays its welcome. The sheer amount of energy and enthusiasm that permeate almost every minute of the album make listening a much easier and more rewarding task than it would ordinarily be for an album half of whose tracks exceed the 10-minute mark. While the East-meets-West component is limited, the tantalizing input of ethnic elements increases the interest quotient of the ebullient, jazz-rock matrix of the sound. Last but not least, the striking cover artwork connects the album to the rich cultural tradition of Ligro’s homeland.  Dictionary 2 is highly recommended to guitar freaks and jazz-rock fans – and, in general, to anyone keen on discovering new frontiers in progressive music-making. Agam Hamzah, Adi Damarwan and Gusti Hendi are indeed “crazy people”, but in the best possible way.

Links:
http://www.ligrotrio.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Past Present (6:46)
2. 16 Feet Below (5:42)
3. Underpass (5:33)
4. Push Too (5:05)
5. Pendulum (6:31)
6. Depth Charge (6:20)
7. Of Age (6:40)
8. New Resolution (8:37)

LINEUP:
Dean Watson – all instruments

Two years after the excellent Unsettled, Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson is back with his sophomore effort, Imposing Elements – inspired like its predecessor by the work of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. Both those who download the album from Watson’s Bandcamp page and those who opt for the physical object will be treated to an impressive cover depicting one of Eady’s austere, Gothic-tinged industrial landscapes, realized with the ancient encaustic technique.

The relationship between progressive rock (in all its manifestations) and the visual arts is a long-standing one, and for many devotees of the genre it is almost impossible to separate the music from the images that graced the covers of vinyl LPs in the Sixties and Seventies. Though Eady’s work suggests a Blade Runner-like universe (perhaps more suited to a highly technical metal band) than the bright-hued flights of fancy of Roger Dean and his ilk, it is interesting to see how Watson rendered the visuals in musical terms – stressing the painting’s undeniably majestic aspect rather than its bleakness.

With impressive technical and compositional skills honed in years of experience on the music scene, Watson is not your typical self-important artist who delivers one vanity project after the other, regardless of whether quality matches quantity. Even someone who, like me, is generally a bit wary of the ubiquitous “solo-pilot” releases made possible by modern technology and the widespread use of the Internet will not fail to recognize that Watson is someone who genuinely cares about producing high-quality music, rather than out to bludgeon his audience over the head with pointless pyrotechnics.

While Unsettled was a classy, eminently listenable effort, Imposing Elements marks a big step ahead for Watson, both as an instrumentalist and a composer. Firmly rooted in the progressive jazz-fusion tradition represented by the likes of Jeff Beck circa Blow by Blow and Wired, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Bruford and  Brand X (among many others), the  album transcends the divide between conservatism and innovation, proving that great music does not necessarily have to be groundbreaking.  Imposing Elements is a more understated effort than Unsettled, dispensing almost completely with the (admittedly trendy) metal overtones of its predecessor, while raising the bar in terms of composition. Indeed, for his sophomore effort, Watson seems to have gone for a more laid-back mood, allowing for frequent tempo changes but never pushing too hard on the accelerator. Balance and restraint are the name of the game – something that is often conspicuously absent in the work of many modern acts.

Watson’s first love, the keyboards, are the undisputed protagonists of Imposing Elements, creating rich layers of sound and seamlessly sparring with the guitar (which on this album takes on more of a supporting role).  The whistle of the synths has been decidedly toned down this time around, while organ and piano (both electric and acoustic) frequently step into the limelight. Watson even brings in the iconic mellotron to add a touch of symphonic lushness, especially evident in the soothingly meditative “Pendulum”. The drums, with their surprisingly organic sound, lay down intricate patterns that have elicited comparisons with jazz-rock luminaries such as Bruford or Cobham.

Instrumentally speaking, however, the biggest improvement is the presence of a real electric bass, especially effective in the dramatic “Of Age” (which is the closest the album gets to the prog-metal mood of the previous release), as well as stately, evocative opener “Past Present”. Watson also shines at creating rarefied atmospheres, as in slow-burning closer “New Resolution”, hovering between a loose, jazzy texture and a tighter, brisker pace, or the electronics-laden “Depth Charge”. Percussion shines in “Push Too”, bolstering the exertions of synth and guitar; while “16 Feet Below” and “Underpass” run the gamut of tempo and mood changes – the latter displaying an intriguingly funky swagger.

With tracks between 5 and 8 minutes, and a total running time of 52 minutes, Imposing Elements never outstays its welcome. While a lot of jazz/fusion may come across as formally impeccable but rather emotionless, Dean Watson’s music possesses a thoroughly human dimension, revealing the artist’s dedication to his craft. I am sure that Watson’s compositions would transfer effortlessly to a stage setting, although the current music scene makes it increasingly difficult for musicians to perform live, therefore encouraging studio-only projects. However, even if this never happens, Imposing Elements remains an outstanding release, highly recommended to fans of progressive fusion and instrumental music in general.

Links:
http://deanwatson.bandcamp.com/album/imposing-elements

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/deanwatson12

http://www.myspace.com/deanwatson2

http://www.roneady.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bogus (7:41)
2. Dead Man Walking (6:26)
3. De Rerum Natura (7:42)
4. Follow the Weaver (7:49)
5. Ride the Owl (4:26)
6. Avoid Feelings (6:40)
7. That Night (7:04)
8. Ultraworld (9:45)

LINEUP:
Barbara Rubin – vocals
Francesco Salvadeo – guitars
Giordano Mattiuzzo – bass
Lorenzo Marcenaro – keyboards
Claudio Cavalli – drums

Hailing from Alessandria, in north-western Italy, Loreweaver began their career in 2008, when vocalist Barbara Rubin (a classically-trained violinist) joined  a quartet of musicians that had been playing together for some time – guitarist Francesco Salvadeo, keyboardist Lorenzo Marcenaro, bassist Giordano Mattiuzzo and drummer Andrea Mazza (later replaced by Claudio Cavalli). Imperviae Auditiones (which in English sounds more or less like “difficult listening”) their recording debut, was first released in 2009 by the band themselves; then, in the spring of 2011, after Loreweaver got signed by SG Records (an Italian label specializing in heavy metal, punk and alternative rock), the album finally got an official release.

As my readers may know, I am not a fan of progressive metal, and most of my contacts with this subgenre have been through reviewing rather than personal choice. In particular, anything that might remind me of subgenre icons Dream Theater leaves me quite cold. However, I also pride myself on being as objective as possible, and, even if an album may not be my listening material of choice, I make a point of giving quality its due  – and Loreweaver’s debut, in spite of the almost inevitable rough edges, is quite a remarkable effort.

While Italy is home to an impressive number of progressive metal bands, the genre is somehow perceived as “foreign”, and not only on account of the widespread practice of using English for both lyrics and band names. In the Eighties, a few Italian metal bands adopted their native language, but nowadays this trend seems to have faded almost completely. The choice of English is undoubtedly crucial for all those bands that want to travel outside their home country and make a name for themselves on the international market (as fellow Italians Lacuna Coil did with unqualified success). This strategy certainly helped Loreweaver, whose appearance at the 2011 edition of the Fused Festival in Lydney (UK) drew a lot of attention to this distinctive version of a female-fronted prog-metal band.

Indeed, Loreweaver’s ace in the hole, the single factor that prevents them from sounding just like another of the many Dream Theater disciples, is the presence of Barbara Rubin behind the microphone. My first contact with her came in 2009, when I reviewed her debut solo album, Under the Ice, and was impressed by her voice, a warm, self-assured contralto with enough versatility to tackle both out-and-out rockers and gentler, more intimate pieces. On a music scene overrun with pseudo-operatic wailers or cloyingly sweet, cutesy sopranos, Barbara’s clear, powerful pipes sound refreshingly different – as does her avoidance of either femme-fatale or tough-chick affectations. Her classical training has clearly influenced her singing technique, and her voice sounds perfectly in control, negotiating the often wild shifts in tempo and mood typical of the genre in an almost effortless, authoritative manner. Although her voice is unmistakably feminine, her approach is more masculine, steering well clear of mawkishness and saccharine-sweetness even in the  obligatory, piano-infused power ballad That Night. Indeed, Rubin comes across as a heavier version of Janis Joplin or Grace Slick rather than yet another Tarja Turunen clone, decked in corsets and lace.

The songs, all between 6 and almost 10 minutes (with the exception of the lone instrumental Ride the Own, at barely over 4 minutes the shortest track on the album), blend riff-driven heaviness with synth sweeps, eerie electronics and occasional bouts of mellowness provided by piano and acoustic guitar. Bogus kicks off  with a slice of classic of prog-metal, in which the hissing synthesizers and inevitable spots of rapid-fire drumming  receive a welcome injection of remarkably un-cheesy melody from Rubin’s powerful, yet astonishingly controlled vocals. In Dead Man Walking an atmospheric, slightly sinister component prevails, with Rubin’s voice alternately soothing and shouting, and Francesco Salvadeo’s sharp, clear guitar solo drawing things to a close with just a touch of shredding; while De Rerum Natura is grandiosely dramatic, with so many changes to make the average listener’s head spin, veering from doomy slowness to a more upbeat, dance-like pace. Follow the Weaver, on the other hand, seems to take the contrast between melody and aggression to extremes, with an airy, melodic middle section decidedly at odds with the rest of the track. Avoid Feelings has a similar structure, though more nuanced, and lashings of whistling, wheezing sound effects offset by wistful piano. The album is then wrapped up by the sci-fi-tinged epic Ultraworld, complete with ominous recorded voices and strident electronics, and propelled by Rubin’s sensational vocal performance, whose intensity is paralleled by the smooth guitar-keyboard interplay.

Professionally packaged with suitably disturbing artwork, liner notes and lyrics (which are, however, somewhat difficult to read), Imperviae Auditiones does not stray far from the template, of “traditional” progressive metal, either musically or lyrically. However, Barbara Rubin’s vocals are enough to make a difference, and attract the interest of those fans of the genre that are a bit weary of run-of-the-mill, Gothic/symphonic bands fronted by the token siren-voiced temptress. Loreweaver are a promising band with the potential to develop an even more personal sound in their future releases.

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

http://www.sgrecords.it

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Enigma 5 (4:07)
2. We Got It All (6:26)
3. Dialeto (3:50)
4. Está No Ar (4:43)
5. As Pedras Voam (3:29)
6. This Is The World (8:01)
7. Chromatic Freedom (6:26)
8. Eu Me Lembro (6:05)
9. Falsa Valsa (4:28)
10. Rainha Perversa (2:43)
11. Train Of Destruction (4:23)
12. Divided By Zero (3:09)

LINEUP:
Nelson Coelho – guitars, vocals
Andrei Ivanovic – fretless bass
Miguel Angel – drums, backing vocals

With:
Nice Juliano – backing vocals (1, 4, 6)

Hailing from the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo – one of the largest cities in the world, and no less of a cultural melting pot than its North American equivalents – Dialeto are a modern take on the time-honoured rock stalwart of the power trio. Though they were formed as far back as 1987 by guitarist Nelson Coelho, bassist Andrei Ivanovic and drummer Miguel Angel – three musicians with extensive experience in the underground scene of their home town – and released an album in 1991, they went on hiatus in 1994, and surfaced again almost 15 years later. Will Exist Forever, released in 2008, featured the original content of their debut, including “Existence” (whose chorus line provided the title for the album itself), a composition based on a traditional theme from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Though the Middle Eastern connection may sound surprising to those who are not acquainted with Brazilian culture, it is deeply rooted in the social and ethnic makeup of the country. In a truly cosmopolitan city like São Paulo, people of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, northern European, Middle and Far Eastern origin and a myriad others live side by side, and cultural cross-fertilization – even in matters relating to everyday life, like food – is a common occurrence. The members of Dialeto  may have grown up listening to Western progressive rock, but in such an environment the influence of “world music” – as well as Brazil’s own peerless musical heritage – was always present in some way or another. The band’s music, a heady blend of angular, hard-edged prog as developed and perfected by King Crimson, haunting Eastern tunes, a pinch of that inimitably Brazilian sense of wistful melody, and more than a whiff of post-punk/new wave dynamics, seems to reflect their multicultural background.

The title of Dialeto’s second album, Chromatic Freedom, refers to a specific concept derived from influential Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and adapted to rock music – the exploration of the 12-note scale, also known as chromatic scale. The simple yet striking cover artwork reinforces the concept with a sort of visual pun. The essential role of cultural and ethnic integration in Dialeto’s sound is also rooted in Bartok’s artistic vision, as witnessed by the quote that introduces the band’s bio on their website. However, the album, far from being overly pretentious, is surprisingly approachable, its eclecticism realized in a streamlined rather than sprawling manner. Dialeto’s stripped-down format allows the three musicians remarkable freedom, their instruments emoting in synch or adopting a more free-form stance according to the requirements of the composition. They also produce an impressive amount of sound – a characteristic they share with the two King Crimson-related outfits that have been wowing American audiences these past few weeks, Tony Levin’s Stick Men and Adrian Belew’s Power Trio. All of these bands display an almost uncanny ability to produce endlessly intriguing textures using just the basic rock instruments – a markedly different approach to progressive rock than the traditional symphonic one.

Just like King Crimson and its offshoots, Dialeto allow vocals into the equation, often using them as an additional instrument – at times gentle and soothing, at others harsh and assertive. Lyrics are both in English and the band’s native Portuguese – the latter, in my view, a much more interesting choice, especially as the unique phonetic features of Portuguese and its proven effectiveness as a vehicle for music inject a sense of alluringly exotic warmth in the intricate fabric of Dialeto’s sound.

When listening to Chromatic Freedom, I was reminded of Texas-based band Herd of Instinct, another trio that made its recording debut earlier this year – though Dialeto lack the latter’s extensive use of touch guitars and the contribution of keyboards and other instruments to create eerie, ambient-like textures. The bare-bones instrumentation adopted by Dialeto, as well as the insistent, aggressively riff-based nature of many of their compositions, has prompted comparisons with punk and post-punk – reinforced by the vocal style in songs such as “Train of Destruction”. On the other hand, the analogy with Herd of Instinct’s debut (or even some of Trey Gunn’s output) is most evidently borne out by the album’s longest track, the hypnotic “This Is the World”, where the three instruments begin in a subdued tone – paralleled by the muted, almost whispered vocals – then the guitar gains strength towards the end.

Almost in a statement of intent, opener “Enigma”, propelled by Andrei Ivanovic’s pneumatic fretless bass and Miguel Angel’s tribal drum beat, skillfully blends echoes of King Crimson with Eastern-tinged chanting and eerie, drawn-out guitar sounds. The brooding bass line of “We Got It All” echoes the moody monotone of the singing, then the track takes a chaotic turn, with the vocals gaining a punk-like intensity; while the band’s signature tune “Dialeto” wanders into funky territory, with superb bass work throughout. The influence of Brazilian music emerges most clearly in the lovely, melodic “Falsa Valsa”, featuring a clear, piercing guitar solo, and in “Está No Ar” Brazil meets the Orient with a solid injection of abrasive Frippian guitar and towering bass lines. The most distinctly Crimsonian echoes, however, can be found the title-track, with its relentless, guitar-driven build-up, and the hauntingly atmospheric “Eu Me Lembro” – both of them bringing to mind the Wetton-Bruford period.

Although King Crimson have been frequently mentioned in the previous paragraphs, I wish to dispel any impressions that Chromatic Freedom is in any way a derivative effort. Dialeto have a very strong individual imprint, and any influences are reworked and integrated into the fabric of a sound made even more distinctive by the Brazilian and Middle Eastern suggestions. While the presence of vocals may be seen as disruptive by faithful devotees of purely instrumental music, in my view it contributes to making Dialeto an almost unique proposition. With an ideal running time below one hour and a nice balance between shorter, punchier numbers and longer, more atmospheric ones, Chromatic Freedom will appeal to the adventurous listener, and to everyone who still believes that prog can actually be progressive.

Links:
http://www.dialeto.org

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Repeat It (4:33)
2. In A Sense (5:24)
3. A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story (5:07)
4. Chrysalis:
Part 1: In Between The Lines (2:53)
Part 2:  The Pundits (3:00)
Part 3: The Muse Returns (1:41)
Part 4: Free to Fall (3:15)
5. The Projectionist (4:40)
6. Tear Gas (4:46)
7. Higher Than Mountains (4:19)
8. Gravity (10:12)
9. Gravity (instrumental – bonus track) (10:02)

LINEUP:
Eric Sands – fretted and fretless bass, electric guitars
Jeff Hodges – vocals, piano, organ, synth, samples, percussion
Elise Testone – vocals
Quentin Ravenel – drums
Cameron Harder Handel – trumpet
Jenny Hugh – violin
Steve Carroll – lyrics, imagery

With:
Keith Bruce – electric guitar (1, 5)
Oliver Caminos – guitar (2, 3)
Alexandra Hodges – backing vocals (5)
Tim Hodson – acoustic guitar (2, 8 )
Vitaly Popeloff – guitar (1, 4/1, 4/2)
Dan Wright – guitar (4/4, 6)

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, where they were founded by multi-instrumentalists Eric Sands and Jeff Hodges, Man On Fire first appeared on the music scene in 1998 with the release of their eponymous debut album. It was followed by The Undefined Design (2003), which featured Kansas’ David Ragsdale on violin, and Habitat (2006), with Adrian Belew guesting on guitar (as well as  Ragsdale’s return). Chrysalis, their long-awaited fourth album, sees the band expanded to a six-piece, with lyrics provided once again by 10T Records president Steve Carroll.

Though I was familiar with the band’s name, my only contact with Man On Fire prior to Chrysalis occurred when I had the opportunity to listen to Undercover, a compilation of cover versions of famous progressive rock songs released by 10T Records in 2009. Man On Fire’s contribution to the album, Japan’s “Visions of China”, obviously attracted my attention, as the song is a great favourite of mine; however, in the intervening months I was so overwhelmed with music to review that I all but forgot about it. The comments I had heard about the band were all largely positive, but most of them pointed out that Man On Fire were not “really” prog – meaning they did not sound like Yes or Genesis, and had at least some “mainstream” potential, which made them somewhat suspect in the eyes of purists.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I received a promo copy of Chrysalis in the mail, I did expect a measure of accessibility from the band. What took me completely by surprise, however, was the sheer brilliance of the music that came out of my speakers once I put the CD into my player. Fresh and exhilarating, brimming with memorable melodies and stunning vocal performances, it took me back to that time – the early to mid-1980s – when I spent most of my days glued to the radio, soaking in all the newest releases. In spite of that period’s grim reputation of being a wasteland for progressive rock, the ‘80s were rife with incredible talent, both as regards quality pop and more experimental fare (not to mention the wealth of classic heavy metal albums). The essence of that musical bounty – so undeservedly reviled by the snobs of this world – came back in full force when I first heard Chrysalis. The album was that rare beast – a perfect marriage between the cream of the ‘80s’ musical crop and a genuinely progressive attitude, made of technical brilliance and unabashed eclecticism.

Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from the world of cooking, Chrysalis is definitely not “your mom’s prog” Though the very mention of  the ‘80s and prog in the same breath may conjure memories of extremely divisive albums such as Yes’ 90125 or the whole of Genesis’ output in that decade, Chrysalis possesses a warm, organic sound that avoids some of the excesses of that decade (such as the over-reliance on electronic drums), all the while keeping that inimitable blend of accessibility and subtle complexity. Unlike so many “real” prog releases, which seem to adopt a “more is more” approach often resulting in bloated, pretentious affairs, this is an album that makes listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Chrysalis is a lean, mean machine offering 58 minutes of perfectly balanced music – with the majority of the tracks between 4 and 5 minutes, a 4-part epic that, in spite of its very restrained running time (10 minutes), manages to hold the attention much better than its twice-as-long counterparts, and a stunner of a closing track that sums up the album and lays the groundwork for the future developments of the band’s career.

Right from the opening strains of “Repeat It” it becomes obvious that Chrysalis is not your average symphonic prog album with a Seventies fetish. Its funky swagger, with Eric Sands’s meaty bass lines enhanced by synth bursts, provides a perfect foil for Jeff Hodges’ occasionally gruff, immensely expressive vocals. Organ flurries and airy keyboards, accented by guitar (courtesy of From.uz mainman Vitaly Popeloff), add layers of texture to the catchy yet intriguing fabric of the song. The haunting folksy beauty of Jenny Hugh’s violin refrain joins the mix of pneumatic bass and weird electronics – so reminiscent of Japan’s best moments – to make “In a Sense” one of the highlights of the album, driven to an exhilarating pace by the soulful vocal interplay between Hodges and Elise Testone, and tempered by more atmospheric moments. The Japan influence is unmistakable on most of the album, though Hodges’ voice is definitely not as languid as David Sylvian’s, often coming across as more Motown than standard prog. The skewed ballad of “A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story”, bolstered by the flawless work of the rhythm section and peppered with trumpet bursts underscoring the intensity of the vocals, reminded me of another exquisitely boundary-crossing outfit – New Jersey’s own 3RDegree, who share Man On Fire’s appreciation of eclectic acts such as Rush. The Canadian trio’s influence crops up in the most accessible track on the album, the upbeat “Higher Than Mountains”, whose mainstream appeal is subtly spiked by a slightly chaotic ending.

The title-track offers a nice twist on the old warhorse of the multi-part epic, with short sections strung together by a main theme, and made especially memorable by the wistful voice of Cameron Harder Handel’s trumpet. Eric Sands is again joined by Vitaly Popeloff on guitar, providing both clean, melodic lines with an almost Gilmourian touch and  harsh riffs, while the mood runs the gamut from hauntingly melancholy (as in Pt 3, “The Muse Returns”) to dynamic and muscular (as in Pt 4, “Free to Fall”), with distinct echoes of bands such as Tears for Fears or Talk Talk as well as Rush or Pink Floyd. With “The Projectionist” the band dive headlong into pure ‘80s territory with an irresistibly funky, slightly angular number propelled by Quentin Ravenel’s drums, spiced up by bits of dissonance and softened by lovely vocal harmonies and entrancing keyboard washes,  hinting at some of Duran Duran’s best output. “Tear Gas” goes even further, regaling the listener with a prime example of “progressive dance” that  evokes both Madonna and the “red/blue/yellow” period of King Crimson’s career – throwing in weird electronic effects, razor-sharp riffing, slinky bass lines, soulful trumpet and haunting female backing vocals. Then, when you thought things could not get more interesting, “Gravity (also included in an instrumental-only version) kicks in, wrapping up the album with 10 minutes of absolute bliss, and the splendid voice of Elise Testone (bringing back memories of Alison Moyet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Holly Johnson) as the icing on the cake. The song is so funky and exhilarating that it makes you want to dance, the synergy between the instruments nothing short of astonishing, while the trumpet solo at the end, followed by sparse, wistful piano and recorded voices, is alone worth the price of admission.

As many of the references I have used in the previous paragraphs make abundantly clear, those who believe that the 1980s were a dismal time for interesting music would do very well to steer clear of Chrysalis. While, from a compositional point of view, the album has enough complexity to sustain any comparisons with  more “traditional” prog releases,  the music featured on Chrysalis is quite unlikely to appeal to purists or staunch ‘70s worshippers. On the other hand, anyone into art rock/crossover (labels that are often used condescendingly to define something that cannot fully aspire to the hallowed “prog” tag), and, obviously, devotees of ‘80s music will not fail to appreciate the brilliance of Man On Fire’s latest effort. With striking artwork and photography and Steve Carroll’s literate, thought-provoking lyrics rounding off a thoroughly modern package, Chrysalis is another strong contender for my personal Top 10 of 2011. Hopefully the band will not keep us waiting for another six years before their next release.

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

http://10trecords.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement) (8:13)
2. Tip-Toe the Fault-Line (6:57)
3. Ashes To Ear (5:18)
4. Shades Of Hades (5:43)
5. Reductio Ad Absurdum (6:18)
6. On Again/Off Again (7:25)
7. Lotus (6:17)
8. Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols):
Pt. 1 – Pareidolized (The Ocean In The Shell) (10:00)
Pt. 2 – Parasol (1:43)
Pt. 3 – Wave The Banner (1:41)
Pt. 4 – Fish Afraid Of Drowning (2:14)
Pt. 5 – Moebius Knot (2:26)
Pt. 6 – Full Circle (1:55)
Pt. 7 – Let it Wash Away (The Lotus Effect) (5:49)

LINEUP:
Paul Adrian Villarreal – vocals, guitars
Marcel Coenen – guitars
Daniel Kohn – bass
Rene Kroon – keyboards
Roel Van Helden – drums

Dutch quintet Sun Caged was first formed in 1999 by guitarist Marcel Coenen and drummer Dennis Leeflang. Their self-titled debut album (mixed by Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon) was released in 2003, followed by Artemisia in 2007 (with new lead singer Paul Adrian Villareal on board), and then by The Lotus Effect in the early summer of 2011 (the first with new bassist Daniel Kohn). All of the band’s albums have been released on Finnish label Lion Music. Sun Caged have also toured in support of established bands such as Vanden Plas and Fates Warning.

As some of my regular readers may already know, I am not the biggest fan of “classic” progressive metal – that is, the subgenre that was made popular by Dream Theater with their 1992 album Images and Words, and since then attracted adoration and abuse in almost equal proportion. While I have always had a lot of time for classic heavy metal, I find its marriage with progressive rock (mostly of the symphonic persuasion) largely uninspiring, with very few exceptions. For this reason, I generally refrain from reviewing albums by bands that follow in the wake of the New York quintet – as it is not always easy to keep our personal tastes and inclinations from getting in the way of objectivity.

Though firmly placed in the classic prog metal tradition of soaring vocals, guitar fireworks and majestic keyboard sweeps, Sun Caged’s third studio album has got enough individuality to separate it from the mass of run-of-the-mill Dream Theater clones that are flooding the market with their CDs. While the album, running at about 72 minutes, and complete with rather esoteric titles (though tinged with a sort of skewed humour that is not too usual in the genre), is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, the band’s cohesion allows them to come across as a unit rather than a random collection of virtuosos. Moreover, this ambition does not result in an unchecked proliferation of sprawling pieces with more twists and turns than the average listener can effectively digest. In fact, the songs are all quite tight in compositional terms, making the most of the instrumental and vocal expertise of the members, yet keeping to a relatively straightforward structure.

The vast majority of the tracks feature vocals, making the most of Paul Adrian Villareal’s impressive range and clarity. While a high tenor like most singers in the genre, his powerful, yet melodic voice adapts to the music with remarkable adroitness, rarely if ever indulging in over-the-top antics, and – most importantly – never sounding strained, as unfortunately it is often the case with Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Though voices such as Villareal’s can be much of an acquired taste, his consistently solid performance on The Lotus Effect show that is very much in control of everything that is going on around him. His skill and confidence  are especially spotlighted in “On Again/Off Again”, his voice soaring above the relentless tapestry of riffs and keyboards, and the mellow “Reductio Ad Absurdum” , a ballad in the tradition of Dream Theater’s “Another Day” or “Space Dye Vest”.

The Lotus Effect has a rather distinctive structure, featuring 7 stand-alone tracks and the 7-part epic “Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols)”, most of the tracks striking a nice balance between melody and heaviness. Though driven by often harsh, aggressive guitar riffs, the music relies on the contribution of keyboards for texture and depth, and the piano tempers  the high level of energy with its gentle, fluid touch. While Marcel Coenen’s guitar is always at the forefront, its interplay with Rene Kroon’s sweeping, piercing synth gives distinction to tracks such as “Tip-Toe the Fault Line”, the intense but melodic “Pareidolized” and the ultra-heavy “Moebius Knot” (the only completely instrumental track on the album), which borders on extreme metal with its dense riffing and Roel Van Helden’s frantic drumming. Opener “Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement)” is also high on the heaviness quotient, with its energetic riffing reminiscent of classic thrash metal. Here and there, however, other influences crop up, such as in the funky slap bass line in the middle of “Shades of Hades”, and the Eastern echoes in the synth line and percussion pattern of “Lotus”; while “Parasol” has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. On the other hand, closing track “Let It Wash Away (The Lotus Effect)”, with its lush keyboard parts, exudes that sense of melodic grandiosity that is typical of a lot of classic prog.

While The Lotus Effect may not be exactly my cup of tea, it is undoubtedly a finely-crafted production that will not fail to appeal to the many followers of “traditional” progressive metal. A tad overlong for my tastes, but much better structured than many efforts of comparable length and scope, the album offers a nice mix of melody, heaviness and virtuosity – the latter hardly ever descending into mere showing off. Band founder Marcel Coenen is also to be commended for the versatility of his guitar playing, and his avoidance (for the most part) of the dreaded pitfalls of shredding. That said, as talented a band as Sun Caged undeniably are, The Lotus Effect is quite unlikely to convert any naysayers to the joys of prog metal

Links:
http://www.suncaged.com/home.html

http://www.myspace.com/suncaged

http://www.reverbnation.com/suncaged

http://www.lionmusic.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Goodbye Sweet Innocence (10:40)
2. Living In The Past (11:59)
3. Forgotten Land (9:57)

LINEUP:
Mariusz Duda – vocal, bass, acoustic guitar
Piotr Grudziński – guitars
Piotr Kozieradzki – drums
Michał Łapaj – keyboards, Hammond organ

Hailing from the Polish capital of Warsaw, Riverside need no introduction to fans of modern progressive rock. After 10 years of activity, the release of four full-length albums, a live CD/DVD and a number of singles and EPs, and an extensive touring activity that has brought them to perform at numerous events in Europe and America, the quartet fronted by bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda  has established itself as one of the top acts in the genre, particularly in progressive metal circles.

To be honest, I have always thought that the progressive metal tag was a rather uncomfortable fit for a band like Riverside. While their sound undeniably possesses a keen edge, in my view the more explicit metal traits, such as harsh, dense riffing and aggressive vocals, are used as accents rather than the main event; their music also seems to have more in common with eclectic, hard-to-pinpoint bands such as Porcupine Tree and Tool than the pyrotechnics of Dream Theater and their ilk, or the cerebral experimentalism of bands like UneXpect. With the moody, brooding atmosphere shared by other Polish bands, spiked by sudden surges in intensity, yet mellow and subtly haunting, Riverside’s compositions take full advantage of modern technology, and find a perfect foil to the instrumental side of things in Mariusz Duda’s velvet-smooth voice – equally at home on slower, meditative numbers and on those that push the aggressive elements to the forefront.

Released in June 2011 on the occasion of the band’s 10th anniversary tour, Memories in My Head is a mini-album featuring three new songs (all around the 10-minute mark), the first studio material following their acclaimed fourth album, Anno Domini High Definition. Clocking in at 32 minutes, the disc is in some ways a return to Riverside’s more mellow beginnings, bookended by atmospheric, ambient-like sounds produced by Michał Łapaj’s array of keyboards – something that has been criticized by some reviewers as superfluous, but which I found an interesting addition to the heavier approach adopted by the band in their recent output. The spacey, hypnotic textures of those instrumental passages clearly reveal the influence of Pink Floyd – especially the obsessive, mechanical sound effects in the intro to “Goodbye Sweet Innocence” that inevitably bring to mind Dark Side of the Moon. The track then develops into a slow, somber piece, showcasing Mariusz Duda’s throaty, soothing vocals and some fine guitar work by Piotr Grudziński (sometimes evidencing that faint Eastern vibe that seems to be a constant of Riverside’s music) sparring with Lapaj’s piercing synths.

Strategically placed in the middle, “Living in the Past” is not only the longest track on the CD, but also the one with the strongest ties to Riverside’s metal-hued tendencies of the past few years. Some of the initial parts juxtapose spacey Pink Floyd-like moments with hints of the guitar-organ dynamics so crucial for the sound of Deep Purple and other vintage hard rock outfits, while whistling synth and heavy riffing sharpen the taste. Though the composition comes across as occasionally patchy, mainly on account of the frequent, abrupt shifts between quiet and loud sections, the instrumental interplay is outstanding, and the coda, driven by clean, melodic guitar and Hammond flurries, is alone worth the price of admission. Finally, on closing track “Forgotten Land” Duda’s bass steps into the limelight, and his voice turns occasionally more assertive, while beautiful, mellow guitar and slow, measured pace, together with plentiful sound effects, create a haunting mood that fits the lyrical matter like a glove.

With stylish photography in a variety of hues of grey, bleak imagery suggesting the passing of time, and lyrics relating to memory and loss (as the titles make it abundantly clear), Memories in My Head is a finely-crafted release, though clearly a transitional one for the Polish band. Its more laid-back, atmospheric nature will appeal to the more conservative-minded prog fans turned off by overtly metal nature of Anno Domini High Definition (as witnessed by some of the reactions to the band’s excellent set at the 2010 edition of  NEARFest), and the lavish use of electronics in the tradition of vintage Pink Floyd, or even of seminal electro-prog bands like Tangerine Dream, may point at interesting developments in Riverside’s future releases.

Links:
http://riversideband.pl/en/

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