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Posts Tagged ‘Keyboards’

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. Beginning (1:51)
2. Progressions (4:53)
3. What (2:23)
4. In Memoriam (5:39)
5. Guantanabu 1 (7:07)
6. Guantanabu 2 (1:38)
7. Guantanabu 3 (4:15)
8. Straviko (5:59)
9. Before the End (0:32)
10. Mereditika (7:34)

LINEUP:
Carolina Restuccia – vocals
Pol González – vocals
Paul Torterolo – drums
Fernando Taborda – guitars
Nahuel Tavosnanska – bass
Alan Courtis – guitars
Carlos Lucero – guitars
Fabian Keroglian – vibraphone, percussion
Sebastian Schachtel –  accordion
Sergio Catalán – flutes
Federico Landaburu – clarinet
Will Genz – bassoon, double bassoon
Mauro Rosales – soprano sax
Nolly Rosa – alto and baritone sax
Dana Najlis – clarinet
Mauro Zannoli – electronic processes

Chamber orchestra directed by Marcelo Delgado

Hailing from Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina (a city generally not associated with progressive music, rock or otherwise, in spite of its venerable musical tradition), Factor Burzaco are the brainchild of composer Abel Gilbert. However, Gilbert is not part of the impressive line-up performing on the band’s second album – while he was directly involved as a musician on Factor Burzaco’s debut, released in 2007 on the homegrown label Viajero Inmóvil.  The album was greeted with lavish praise in RIO/Avant prog circles, and also managed to win over a few of the more conservative fans of ‘mainstream’ prog. Their sophomore effort, simply titled II, was recorded between 2008 and 2010, and released in the first half of 2011.

Calling Factor Burzaco a band in the rock sense of the word would be very limiting, as well as rather inaccurate. With a staggering sixteen musicians credited as playon on the album, the term ‘chamber ensemble’ would definitely sound more appropriate. Additionally, the music showcased on II only bears a slight resemblance to conventiona ‘progressive rock’, even more so than in the case of other RIO/Avant outfits. Though Abel Gilbert mentions bands like King Crimson and Henry Cow among his chief sources of inspiration, while listening to the album I was sharply reminded of the work of classical composers such as Debussy or Stravinsky (also listed by Gilbert as major influences on his writing).

Though the album, at under 40 minutes, is very short for today’s standards, it is definitely not an easy listening experience, not even for  devotees of all things RIO/Avant. The 10 tracks, rather than as individual numbers, are meant to be seen as movements of a single composition, a true chamber piece that commands the utmost attention from the listener, and will not tolerate being relegated to the role of sonic wallpaper. Indeed, II is not for the faint-hearted, and will appeal to those who like music to stimulate the mind rather than the body. As the liner notes illustrate quite clearly, this is a highly intellectual musical effort, and not one for the casual listener.

Factor Burzaco’s most distinctive feature lies in Carolina Restuccia’s acrobatic, unconventional soprano, which has drawn comparisons to Kate Bush and Dagmar Krause. A couple of tracks also brought to mind another intriguing new band in a similar vein, Italian outfit Nichelodeon and their outstanding singer Claudio Milano. While Restuccia’s voice is pivotal to the fabric of the music, it does not dominate it, performing the function of an additional instrument rather than overwhelming the others. In a few tracks she is flanked by male vocalist, Pol González, which creates an intensely dramatic contrast imbued with a sort of skewed operatic quality.

In spite of the sheer number of musicians involved, the music on II comes across as somewhat minimalistic, and eminently sophisticated – the kind that you cannot just let run in the background and more or less ignore. Its complexity does not come from piling up elements, or packing more tempo changes into a single track than anyone can wrap their heard around. Its layers are gossamer thin, its moods a play of light and shade, the music itself forming sharp peaks and valleys of sound, with sudden climaxes and equally sudden pauses, moving from whispers to screams. Some passages are intensely cinematic, their sparse, ominous quality the perfect foil for some movie based on psychological horror rather than in-your-face gore. Though conventional melody may be thin on the ground, the dissonant patterns are expertly handled, so they never feel gratuitously jarring.

With an album of this nature, a detailed track-by-track description would be ineffective, as well as counterproductive. In fact, as previously intimated, II should be approached as a single composition divided into separate movements, the shorter ones intended as interludes or introductory pieces – as in the case of the aptly-titled “Beginning”, in which slowly mounting keyboards and vocals set the tone for the entire album – and making use of electronic effects to evoke a sense of anticipation or sheer tension. Mallet percussion instruments produce cascades of tinkling sounds to fill the pauses, while melancholy reeds paint delicate soundscapes reminiscent of Debussy – especially noticeable in “Straviko” and “Mereditika”, a magnificently atmospheric number that provides a perfect ending for the album. On the other hand, “In Memoriam” relies on the theatrical effect produced by vocal and guitar bursts interspersed by whispers; while “Guantanabu 1” and “Guantanabu 3” revolve around the stunning interplay of Restuccia and González’s voices emoting and chasing each other over a loose, haunting instrumental backdrop.

As the previous paragraphs should make it abundantly clear, Factor Burzaco’s sophomore effort is not recommended for those listeners who find it difficult to step outside their individual comfort zones. Those looking for the rock component in the ‘progressive rock’ definition are also quite likely to be disappointed, as II qualifies more as modern chamber music than conventional rock  (though typical rock instruments such as guitar and bass are featured in the line-up). Open-minded, inquisitive listeners, on the other hand, will find a lot to love in this album, although it may need repeated spins in order to fully sink in. All in all, another excellent release from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions, and a must for fans of RIO/Avant prog.

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

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. 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. 4378th Day (15:41)
2. No (5:59)
3. War, Act 2 (21:06)

LINEUP:
Rodrigo San Martín – electric and acoustic guitars, bass, mellotron, hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, piano, keyboards, orchestra arragements, synthesized glockenspiel, drum programming
Jelena Perisic – vocals
Craig Kerley – vocals

South America has been a hotbed for progressive rock ever since the beginning of the movement, and Argentina – with its richly diverse musical heritage – is no exception. Even though Argentine prog bands are rarely household names, keen followers of the genre are well aware of the generally excellent level of those outfits. While many of those bands and artists follow in the footsteps of the classic symphonic prog tradition (with some of them displaying Italian prog influences – not surprising in a country where about half of the population is of Italian origin), many of the newer acts have embraced other styles, like progressive metal, and are not afraid of incorporating them into a traditional symphonic fabric.

Rodrigo San Martín is a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a lot of experience on the Argentine music scene as a musician, composer, producer and event organizer, in spite of his young age (he was born in 1988).  He is the lead guitarist of prog band De Rien, as well as the mastermind of the project Souls Ignite. His debut album as a solo artist, simply called 1, was released in April 2010, and featured a 40-minute composition performed solely by San Martín. Conversely, on his sophomore effort, There’s No Way Out (released in November of the same year), San Martín avails himself of the contribution of two guest singers, Jelena Perisic from Serbia and  Craig Kerley from the US.

Clocking in at a mere 42 minutes (a very short running time for today’s standards), There’s No Way Out has a distinctive structure, with two epic-length tracks bookending a more conventional song. The three numbers are different enough from each other to sustain the listener’s interest, and even the two epics are rather nicely balanced, projecting an impression of cohesiveness which is not always the case with long compositions. San Martín handles all the instruments with admirable expertise, though the unmistakably artificial sound of programmed drums is hard to miss, and sometimes clashes with the overall warmth of the music. On the other hand, the vocal performances are consistently good, both singers handling the material authoritatively and stamping their own individual mark on the songs.

Opener “4387th Day” is the closest the album gets to traditional symphonic prog, especially in the first half, dominated by atmospheric keyboards, mellotron and orchestral arrangements with flute and strings, as well as Jelena Parisic’s melodious, yet not sickly sweet voice. Then pace and intensity increase with the introduction of heavy guitar riffs and whistling synth, while towards the end things calm down again. “No”, running slightly over 5 minutes, functions as a sort of interlude between the two ‘main events’, and brings a classic rock note (with touches of AOR) to the ambitious prog context of the album. Distorted guitar, with a distinct Seventies flavour, features prominently here, and Craig Kerley’s gutsy vocal performance is a perfect fit for the overall tone of th song – though the juxtaposition of a more sentimental mood, enhanced by strings and harmony vocals, with harder-edged suggestions occasionally teeters on the brink of cheesiness.

The third and final track, “War, Act2”,  is the undisputed highlight of the album, and – at least in my view –quite superior to both the previous numbers. In spite of its 21-minute running time, it never outstays its welcome, and manages to paint a near-perfect sonic rendition of its title. Here, the contrast between furiously riff-driven sections bordering on extreme metal and dreamy, rarefied passages which, nonetheless, suggest a slow but relentless build up of tension works very well. Jelena Parisic’s voice, while still soothing and well-modulated, reaches for a lower register in order to convey a subtle feeling of menace, and the beautiful guitar solo in the middle brings to mind David Gilmour’s signature style, melodic yet faintly brooding. The frequently occurring changes o mood and pace, unlike what happens in other compositions of comparable scope and length, do not project an impression of patchiness, but rather create an impressively organic whole.

Though not without flaws (mainly lying in the use of programmed drums, whose all too recognizable sound often detracts from the listening experience), There’s No Way Out is a very promising album from an extremely talented young artist, featuring a healthy dose of eclecticism. While the more conservative set of prog fans may be turned off by the strong metal component, particularly evident in the final track, those with a more open-minded disposition are likely to appreciate Rodrigo San Martín’s skill as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. I will be definitely looking forward to hearing the forthcoming De Rien album, to see what he is capable of in a band context.

Links:
http://www.rodrigosanmartin.com.ar/

 

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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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