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Posts Tagged ‘Knitting By Twilight’

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Yesterday, during my customary early morning ritual of checking my Facebook news feed, I came upon a piece of news that filled me with deep sadness – something that, at least subconsciously, I had been dreading for a while. An outstanding musician and wonderful human being whom I had had the privilege to befriend – albeit without meeting him face-to-face – had passed away suddenly, leaving this world quietly, like the true gentleman he was.

My first encounter with John Orsi will be forever tied to the beginnings of my “career” as an official reviewer for a long-established website, with which I collaborated for slightly over one year. Knitting By Twilight’s An Evening Out of Town was the first album I reviewed for that website, choosing it from a bunch of other CDs because of its title and lovely cover artwork – and also the fact that the band hailed from Providence, the home town of one of my favourite writers, H.P. Lovecraft. The music did not disappoint my expectations, and I gave the album an enthusiastic assessment, accompanied by a high rating. Before that, most of my reviews had dealt with relatively high-profile albums in my collection. When, a couple of months later,  John sent me a note of thanks, I had my first inkling of the importance of those reviews for people who make music out of passion, juggling their calling with the demands of everyday life. In the following years, I had the opportunity to  review three albums in which John was involved – Incandescent Sky’s Four Faradays in a Cage, Knitting By Twilight’s Weathering, and finally his own solo effort, A Room for the Night.

After that first contact, John and I occasionally wrote to each other in the old-fashioned way – by using pen and paper (in my case, my handmade cards, which he loved). We found out that we had many things in common besides music – art, literature, cats, good food, and, of course, our Italian roots. Then, at the beginning of this year, he told me he felt the need to withdraw from the social media scene. The last I heard of him was in early February. I sent him a card for his birthday in July, but, when I did not hear anything from him after that, I started getting worried. However, I respected his need for privacy, and did not try to contact him – something that I now regret deeply.

In this time of the year we remember the birthday or the passing of many influential artists who are not with us any longer – such as Jimi Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius or Frank Zappa. Though John was nowhere as famous as those icons of modern music, he was passionate about his music and forged his individual path without caring about commercial success. His skills as a drummer and percussionist were as remarkable as they were understated, and each of his recordings highlights his love of percussion instruments of any description, which he used not just a rhythmic backdrop, but by giving them a voice of their own.

Although I will always regret not being able to meet John in person, I will cherish our friendship and remember him not only through his words, but also through his music. Therefore, I urge all my readers – especially those who love atmospheric instrumental music – to check out the albums mentioned above, as well as the rest of John’s output on his own label, It’s Twilight Time, as a way of celebrating his love for music and life –  though the latter was cut off way too soon.

Links:
http://www.overflower.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Crescent Park (2:36)
2. Hodges’ Lodge (4:17)
3. Jaldi (2:26)
4. Togetherness (2:30)
5. Companion Wheel (1:39)
6. Two Trains Passing in the Night (not that many trains pass in my night anymore) (9:39)

LINEUP:
John Orsi – all instruments

Although he would amply deserve to be a household name to devotees of progressive rock in all its forms, John Orsi is quite content to occupy a niche – as he has been doing for the past 30 years or so. The talented multi-instrumentalist and composer, hailing from the historic New England city of Providence, has been active since the early 1980s with a number of projects, which – even though they might have flown under the radar of most “mainstream” prog fans – have been characterized by a constant flow of creative ideas, as well as intensive research into the possibilities offered by percussion instruments, both canonical and unorthodox.

Since 1994, Orsi has been channeling most of his creative efforts in musical collective Knitting By Twilight, as well as a few other projects (such as Incandescent Sky and Herd of Mers), and A Room for the Night is his first solo release in quite a long time. The 23-minute EP –  released in August 2012 , while Orsi and his “guitar mates” were waiting for their respective schedules to be sorted out before taking their music to the stage –has been conceived on a much smaller scale than Knitting By Twilight’s Weathering or Incandescent Sky’s Four Faradays in a Cage. On the other hand, it allows Orsi to indulge in a less formal style of composition, as well as handle all the instruments (both the “proper” and the “improper” ones, as the artist points out in the liner notes with his customary sense of humour).

Those who witnessed Dame Evelyn Glennie’s amazing performance during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics earlier this summer might be intrigued to learn that the Scottish percussionist is one of Orsi’s major influences, together with a host of other artists, some of them quite obscure, others instead familiar to a wider public. Indeed, those who are always looking for terms of comparison will recognize some echoes of Kate Bush’s most experimental work (such as showcased in her 1982 album The Dreaming) while listening to the EP.

While unlikely to attract fans of the more elaborate forms of prog, A Room for the Night is an utterly charming slice of instrumental music that is hard to label, though the ambient component of Orsi’s inspiration is very much in evidence. The six tracks – most of them rather short, with the sole exception of closer “Two Trains Passing in the Night”, which, at over 9 minutes, expands on the themes introduced by the previous compositions, reproducing the motion of a train through the alternation of different rhythm patterns – are like sonic sketches that listeners are almost encouraged to flesh out in their mind. Bound together by discreet keyboards, the music showcases Orsi’s lifelong love of percussion, bringing very unusual implements into the musical arena – such as tin pie plates and metal tubs – as well as more conventional gear, albeit belonging to different ethnic traditions than the Western one. The addition of  recordings of diverse sounds and human voices (taken from real-life situations) produces the sonic equivalent of an artistic collage based on found objects  – riveting to the eye (or, in this case, the ear) even in its somewhat fluid, unplanned quality. The result is 23 minutes of music that shifts from whimsical to meditative, with some occasional forays into vaguely ominous, cinematic moods created by sustained keyboard washes and subtle layers of percussion patterns.

As the previous paragraphs make it clear, a track-by-track analysis of A Room for the Night would be counterproductive, as the EP should be enjoyed as a whole – possibly, as Orsi himself suggests, with the help of headphones, and in the right situation. This is not sonic wallpaper meant to unobtrusively fade in the background, but rather the kind of ambient-tinged music that will stimulate the mind as much as the ear. With Orsi’s usual attention to the visual aspect of his productions, the lovingly-packaged CD comes accompanied by the delightful artwork of early 20th-century illustrator Kayren Draper. A delicate, almost brittle, hauntingly fascinating collection of musical pieces with no other purpose than creative expression, A Room for the Night may not be the kind of release that appeals to everyone across the progressive rock spectrum. However, just like all of Orsi’s back catalogue, it is definitely an effort highly deserving of attention on the part of adventurous listeners.

Links:
www.overflower.com

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Even though it comes slightly late in comparison to other blogs and websites, this retrospective of the past year has been in the pipeline for a while. It is a first time for me, though obviously I have participated in quite a few surveys of this kind in my time as a collaborator of various music sites. However, the year 2011 has been uncommonly rich in excellent releases covering the whole of the progressive rock spectrum – similar in this to 2009 rather than the somewhat lackluster 2010.

My activity as a reviewer has also reached an unprecedented level in the past 12 months, and this (as well as other factors) have allowed me to listen to a wider range and number of new albums than in previous years – though not all of the albums I will be mentioning in the following paragraphs have been the object of a review. I have also been actively involved on the prog scene, attending festivals and gigs and keeping up a steady network of contacts with artists, label owners and fellow reviewers and fans. As the end-of-year statistics point out, the total number of views received by this blog in 2011 exceeded any of the expectations I had at the start of this venture, one and a half years ago.

Obviously, I cannot claim to have heard each and every prog (and related) album released in 2011, and quite of few of the big-name releases of the past year will be conspicuously absent from this overview. I will also refrain from using the usual list format, let alone a “Top 10/20/100” one, in spite of its undeniable popularity with music fans. While I am sure that everyone will be very curious to learn about my # 1 album of 2011,  this curiosity will have to remain unsatisfied, because I hardly ever think in terms of “absolute favourites”, and would be hard put to name my favourite band or artist (or literary author, for that matter). Although most “year in review” pieces do contain a measure of narcissism, the main aim of this post is to stimulate people’s curiosity, as well as debate, rather than turning it into a pointless competition of the “my list is better than yours” sort. We are all adult enough to be aware of the mostly subjective nature of lists, overviews, retrospectives and the like, and hopefully no one here is out to change other people’s minds.

In 2011, the prog “revival” reached unparalleled proportions, bolstered by the many opportunities offered by the Internet. In spite of the loud cries of woe about a supposed “death of the CD”, the number of acts that keep releasing their material in physical format is still quite high, and many of them still choose to put extra care in the artwork and liner notes, with often remarkable results. While the oversaturation of what remains very much a niche market cannot be denied, it is also true that high-quality productions are far from scarce, and the advent of legal streaming sites like the excellent Progstreaming has made it possible for everyone to sample an album before taking the plunge. Unfortunately, the wealth of music available either in digital or physical form does not correspond to higher availability of performing opportunities for those acts who still believe in the power of live performances. The shocking announcement of NEARfest 2011’s cancellation, at the end of March, rocked the prog fandom for months, and even the subsequent announcement of NEARfest Apocalypse for June 2012 did not allay many people’s fears concerning the dwindling range of gigging opportunities, especially here in the US (Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, seems to be doing much better in this respect). The prog community is also splintering in a way that, coupled with a worryingly nostalgic attitude and increasing reluctance to leave one’s own comfort zone, might spell disaster for the future.

2011 marked not only the return of a number of high-profile acts, but also some outstanding recording debuts. If I was forced at gunpoint to choose a favourite, this award would probably go to Texas-based trio Herd of Instinct’s self-titled debut, the first album released on Firepool Records, legendary Californian band Djam Karet’s own label. An almost entirely instrumental effort with the exception of one (gorgeous) song, the Herd’s debut shares this format with another of the year’s milestones, Accordo dei Contrari’s Kublai (whose only song features the incomparable vocals of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair). These two albums, as well as Marbin’s classy Breaking the Cycle and Dialeto’s intriguing Chromatic Freedom, illustrate how the song form can be reinvented in such a way as not to disrupt the flow of the music, incorporating the vocals into a fabric that hinges on complex instrumental interplay.

In the realm of the purely instrumental releases, top marks go to Gösta Berlings Saga’s stunning third album, Glue Works (“Island” alone is worth the price of admission), alongside a trio of AltrOck Productions releases – Ske’s elegant 1000 Autunni (the first solo project by Yugen keyboardist Paolo Botta), Calomito’s intense Cane di Schiena and Camembert’s ebullient Schnörgl Attack – and a couple of outstanding offers from the ever-reliable MoonJune Records, the world-jazz of Slivovitz’s Bani Ahead and the superb testimony of Moraine’s NEARfest 2010 set, Metamorphic Rock. Lovers of creative percussion will surely enjoy Knitting By Twilight’s enchanting Weathering (and possibly check out the Providence collective’s previous releases); while Lunatic Soul’s Impressions (the third solo album by Riverside’s Mariusz Duda) will satisfy those addicted to haunting, ethnic-tinged soundscapes. On a more traditional note, Derek Sherinian’s Oceana presents a solid example of guitar- and keyboard-based progressive fusion, which spotlights ensemble playing rather than individual displays of technical fireworks.

The 2011 releases that feature vocals as an essential part run the gamut from experimental to melody- and song-oriented. Big Block 454’s quirky Bells and Proclamations, and another couple of AltrOck releases – The Nerve Institute’s multifaceted Architect of Flesh-Density, and Dave Willey and Friends’ moving homage to Willey’s father, the beautiful Immeasurable Currents (review forthcoming) – are outstanding instances of the first category. More in a jazz than a rock vein, Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan showcases the Italian artist’s superlative vocal technique, all the while offering music that is eminently listenable and upbeat. The ultra-eclectic Zappa homage that is Electric Sorcery’s Believe in Your Own Best Friend throws a lot of diverse influences into its heady mix of outrageous storyline and constantly challenging music. On the other hand, Man On Fire’s Chrysalis is a blueprint for modern “crossover prog”, seamlessly blending the accessibility of Eighties-style quality pop with some seriously intricate instrumental work; while fellow 10T Records band Mars Hollow make a true quantum leap with their second album, World in Front of Me, which follows in the footsteps of early Yes in terms of successfully marrying gorgeous pop melodies with instrumental flights of fancy. However, the crown for 2011 in the realm of “mainstream” progressive rock goes to Phideaux’s magnificent Snowtorch, an incredibly dense concentrate of haunting vocals, memorable tunes and thought-provoking lyrical content.

Some landmark albums released during the past year are at least tangentially related to progressive rock. In all probability, my personal award of most played album of the year should go to Black Country Communion’s 2, a more mature, well-rounded effort than its barnstorming predecessor. Thanks to the Glenn Hughes-led quartet, classic hard rock is undergoing a renaissance, with a recognizable yet subtly updated sound. BCC guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s latest opus, Dust Bowl, while not revolutionary in any sense, features scintillating guitar and soulful vocals in its modern treatment of time-honoured blues modes. In a completely different vein, Kate Bush’s ninth studio album (not counting the rather controversial Director’s Cut, released a few months earlier), 50 Words for Snow, shows an artist that still possesses the ability and the power to surprise her followers. English contemporary classical ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra’s I A Moon (one of the year’s biggest discoveries for me, thanks to a friend’s recommendation) offer a mesmerizing blend of Old-World folk, avant-garde and academic chamber music that is, in many ways, much more progressive than the slew of cookie-cutter acts so revered in prog circles.

Some other albums, while not quite making the cut, have attracted enough of my interest, and are very much worth checking out: AltrOck releases Sanhedrin’s Ever After, Abrete Gandul’s Enjambre Sismico, Humble Grumble’s Flanders Fields, Factor Burzaco’s II and October EquusSaturnal, Ozric TentaclesPaper Monkeys, CopernicusCipher and Decipher, and From.uz’s Quartus Artifactus; for the more conservatively-minded listeners, The AnabasisBack From Being Gone, La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut, and TCP’s Fantastic Dreamer also deserve a mention. There have also been a number of albums that, even though heard superficially, and mainly in the final weeks of the year, have left enough of an impression to make me want to write about them at some point – chief among those, Discipline’s To Shatter All Accord.

As I anticipated at the opening of this essay, my readers will be sure to notice some glaring omissions from this overview. The most noticeable ones  are probably Jakszyk Fripp CollinsA Scarcity of Miracles and Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning – undoubtedly two of the most highly rated releases of the year. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated listens, neither album has yet clicked with me, even if I clearly perceive their very high standard of quality. Though I hesitate to use the term “disappointment”, The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead did not resonate with me in the same way as its predecessors; its songs, however, acquired a new dimension when performed live.

Some other high-profile 2011 releases have failed to register on my personal meter. Such is the case of Opeth’s Heritage, Karmakanic’s In a Perfect World, and White Willow’s Terminal Twilight – all excellent albums, but lacking in that undefinable “something” that would kindle my enthusiasm. Others (such as Wobbler’s acclaimed Rites at Dawn or Glass Hammer’s Cor Cordium), though in no way displeasing to the ear, are too staunchly, unabashedly retro to truly impress,. As to YesFly from Here (possibly the year’s most eagerly awaited release), I am not ashamed to admit that I have refused to listen to it – even though I own most of the band’s back catalogue, and their earlier albums get regular spins in my player. With up-and-coming acts struggling to get their music across, I believe that spending too much time on the interpersonal dynamics of a band that do not particularly need to be supported is quite detrimental to the scene as a whole.

Some other albums that have been very positively received (at least by part of the fandom) have escaped my attention completely, in some cases for lack of interest (Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events), or simply for lack of listening opportunities (Agents of Mercy’s The Black Forest, Mastodon’s The Hunter, Van Der Graaf Generator’s A Grounding in Numbers, The Tangent’s COMM, among others). Hopefully I will manage to hear at least some of those discs in the near future, and possibly write reviews of them. With the overwhelming quantity of music released in the past year, the very concrete danger of getting burned out (and therefore becoming unable to appreciate anything at all) is always lurking around the corner.

2011 has also been an outstanding year for concerts, as witnessed by the live reviews I have published in these pages. Besides seeing my beloved Blue Oyster Cult not once but twice (after a 25-year wait), I was treated to an outstanding edition of ProgDay, a stunning “goodbye” performance by Phideaux at the Orion Studios, the electrifying Two of a Perfect Trio tour, and the highly successful one-off CuneiFest (to name but a few). While the NEARfest cancellation cast a pall on the prog scene for some time, bands and artists are still doing their best to bring their music on stage for the benefits of those fans who still love to attend live shows.

Unlike other sites, I will refrain from mentioning “prog personalities”, or awarding any other such dubious prizes. As I previously stated, the whole point of this piece is to encourage people to delve into the abundant musical output of the past year, especially in regard to those lesser-known acts that deserve more exposure. With a few highly-awaited releases already in the pipeline for the coming months, it remains to be seen if 2012 will be able to keep up with its predecessor. On behalf of the survival of non-mainstream music, we all hope this will be the case.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. A Thousand Islands (3:59)
2. Clouds and Stars (2:46)
3. Heavy Water (5:55)
4. Biddeford Pool (4.30)
5. Harold’s Budds (6:01)
6. The Doorman’s Dairy Dream(4:10)
7. Rainy Day Trains (6:33)
8. Weathering (5:36)

LINEUP:
John Orsi  – drums, percussion, keyboards
Mike Marando – guitars (3, 5, 7, 8), bass (5, 7), ebow guitar (7)
Manny Silva – guitars (1)

Knitting By Twilight is a music and art collective based in the historic New England city of Providence (known as the hometown of cult horror writer HP Lovecraft), where it was founded by John Orsi and Michael Watson in the spring of 1994. Orsi, a talented composer and multi-instrumentalist, has been the only constant in the outfit throughout the years. Weathering, the sixth CD released by Knitting By Twilight since their inception, comes in a stunning six-panel package graced with a full-size image of late 19th-century French artist Antoine Bouguereau’s painting Biblis. Orsi is also involved with Incandescent Sky and Herd of Mers, both signed to his own label It’s Twilight Time.

When I started my “career” as an official reviewer (as opposed to writing about albums in my own collection), I chose Knitting By Twilight’s fourth album, bearing the charming title of An Evening Out of Time, for my very first review. In spite of my extensive exposure to all kinds of music, I had rarely chanced upon something so distinctive and delicate, yet bearing very little resemblance to the “prog” that made up the bulk of my listening and reviewing routine. Everything about the album drew my attention – from the lovely, romantic artwork (a constant of Knitting By Twilight’s output) to the quirkily delightful titles, reminiscent of haiku-style poems or Impressionist paintings rather than the slightly self-conscious grandeur of a lot of “mainstream” progressive rock. The music within was no less fascinating, even if very much of an acquired taste, requiring both patience and an appreciation for muted contrasts of light and shade rather than intricate arrangements, flowing melodies or instrumental flights of fancy.

Knitting By Twilight’s music revolves around John Orsi’s remarkable, yet understated skill as a percussionist. Totally passionate about his craft, and using his extensive, inspirational array of instruments (listed in loving detail on the CD) to generate sounds that range from pastoral gentleness to eerie dissonance, Orsi is the polar opposite of the stereotype of the muscular, propulsive rock drummer, his approach quite far removed from the technically gifted, yet overly assertive likes of Mike Portnoy and his ilk. He also handles keyboards, which add depth to the compositions and create an atmospheric backdrop for both his percussive forays and the guitar touches provided by Manny Silva and Mike Marando (the latter also a member of Incandescent Sky) on some of the tracks.

Unlike most traditional prog, the music featured on Weathering is not tightly orchestrated, but rather loose and improvisational, deeply evocative, often airy and rarefied, occasionally a tad uncomfortable. As both the main title and the individual titles suggest, the album is very much a celebration of weather and nature, seen as metaphors for many of life’s situations. However, though some listeners might expect a new-agey, somewhat limp-wristed musical offer, there are different kinds of beauty on display on this album, some of them reflecting the languor and sensuality of the cover art, others edgier and slightly ominous.

At a superficial glance, there is not a lot of variety on Weathering, centred as it is on Orsi’s elaborate, yet oddly natural percussive patterns, achieved with both traditional instruments and more exotic ones – many made of metal, producing sharp, bell-like sounds. Clocking in at a very restrained 38 minutes, the album is a collection of tracks that run the gamut from the understated, haunting beauty of opener “A Thousand Islands” to the chaotic, challenging bouts of dissonance of the aptly-titled “Heavy Water” and the eerily buzzing keyboard tapestry of “Harold’s Budds” (a pun on the name of American composer Harold Budd), punctuated by bells and piercing guitar. In “Rainy Day Trains”, the title’s vivid imagery is conjured by clanging cymbals and surging keyboard waves, a difficult though exhilarating combination of sounds tempered by the solemn tone of Marando’s guitar. In the subtly melodic “The Doorman’s Dairy Dream”, layers of keyboards support the delicate, sparse percussion, used more as an accent than as the main event.  “Clouds and Stars” is as gracefully romantic as its title implies, with a main theme embroidered by various percussion, and faint Eastern suggestions backed by faraway-sounding keyboards; while in “Biddeford Pool” the keyboards suggest the ebb and flow of water, spiked by the faint metallic dissonance produced by the percussion. The title-track wraps up the album in stately fashion, with guitar, percussion and keyboards interacting slowly and steadily to create a rich, haunting texture.

As hinted in the previous paragraphs, Weathering is not for everyone – its refined minimalism very much in contrast with the carefully arranged lushness of most symphonic/neo prog, and the lack of memorable melodic structures posing another hurdle for those accustomed to more conventional fare. Like all mood/ambient-based music, it has its own time and place, being much better suited to moments of calm and meditation than more energetic activities. Warmly recommended to those who appreciate music that can evoke subtle nuances, dreamy soundscapes and also slightly disquieting atmospheres, it should also not be missed by  dedicated percussionists and lovers of inventive drumming. Fans of artists such as Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Dead Can Dance are also quite likely to appreciate Weathering’s exquisite, though not immediately accessible nature.

Links:
http://www.overflower.com/KnittingByTwilight_Welcome.htm

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