Posts Tagged ‘medieval’


1. GK Contramundum (2:00)
2. Awaiting the Call. (5:10)
3. Parenting Parents (6:45)
4. Utter Once Her Name (5:30)
5. Remembering When (4:00)
6. Ramblin’ Sailor (18:14)
7. Your Healing Hand (8:18)
8. Firmus Finale (4:40)

Bonus tracks (previously unreleased 24-track recordings):
9. Rear View Mirror (3:34)
10. Alison Waits (A Ghost Story) (10:40)

Alan Benjamin – guitars, basses, stick, mandolin, recorder
Henry Ptak – keyboards, lead vocals, backing vocals, percussion
Mark Ptak – keyboards, backing vocals, percussion
Drew Siciliano – drums

Shunji Saegusa –  bass (6)
Ken Serio – drums (10)

My first contact with Advent’s music dates back from a couple of years ago, when I reviewed Dante’s Inferno, the first instalment of the monumental The Divine Comedy project released by Musea Records. The band’s contribution, a song called “Canto XXVI – The Evil Counselors”, impressed me as one of the most interesting tracks on that 4-CD set; therefore, I eagerly grasped at the opportunity to review their second album, Cantus Firmus – which, even if released exactly five years ago, is still recent enough not to qualify as a ‘vault’ review.

While quite a few North American bands have taken the classic English progressive rock sound of the Seventies as their blueprint, no one, when listening to this album for the first time,  would ever associate Advent with the bustling, overcrowded and down-to-earth East Coast of the US. Though hailing from New Jersey (home of a number of fine prog outfits, such as Shadow Circus, The Tea Club and 3rd Degree), here is a band that sounds more English than most contemporary English bands. Their love for the Old Country is evident right from cover artwork and logo (by artist and illustrator Michael Phipps), inspired by the stunning illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Formed in 1989 by two highly accomplished multi-instrumentalists with a wide range of musical interests, Alan Benjamin and Henry Ptak (whose brother Mark joined the band some time later), Advent released their self-titled debut album in 1997, and then dropped off the radar for nine years. After the inevitable line-up changes (notably the addition of drummer Drew Siciliano), in 2006 Cantus Firmus finally appeared, to a very warm reception. The album’s title, meaning ‘fixed song’ in Latin, refers to a pre-existing melody that forms the base of a polyphonic composition – another nod to medieval and Renaissance musical tradition.

Like most acts, modern or otherwise, Advent have their own strong set of references, and are refreshingly honest about it. Though modern bands that openly pay homage to one or more of the prog greats of the Seventies are neither new nor surprising, Advent distinguish themselves from the myriad of Genesis or Yes-inspired outfits by having a rather unlikely pair of bands like Gentle Giant and Procol Harum as their main source of inspiration. Indeed, the band’s name brings to mind one of Gentle Giant’s most iconic songs, “The Advent of Panurge”. With such influences, it is not surprising that the music on Cantus Firmus is sophisticated, understated and devoid of hard edges – as well as admirably tight in compositional terms. Indeed, while not a concept, the album projects a sense of cohesiveness, with the first eight tracks acting much like the movements of a symphony. On the other hand, the two bonus tracks (both originally featured on the band’s debut album), though bringing the album’s running time close to a rather hefty 70 minutes, are not unwelcome additions, as they bear witness to Advent’s gradual but steady development of their own artistic personality.

Advent’s love for everything Gentle Giant immediately surfaces in the opening track, the short but sweet “GK Contramundum”, dedicated to English 20th-century author Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and sung entirely a cappella. The song flows directly into “Awaiting the Call”, a lovely instrumental number with hints of Genesis and Camel in Alan Benjamin’s stately, melodic guitar solo and the lush, elegant sweep of the Ptak brothers’ keyboards. “Parenting Parents” and its companion piece “Your Healing Hand”, both dealing with the topic of the relationship between parents and their children, share the same keenly sentimental quality (which thankfully never descends into mawkishness): while the latter is very sparse, almost hymn-like in tone with its whispered vocal harmonies, the former couples lilting, madrigal-like passages of touching sensitivity with instrumental surges led by Benjamin’s fluid, crystal-clear guitar.

“Utter Once Her Name”, a sparse, meditative number with a strong Gentle Giant vibe, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental “Remembering When”, featuring some really inspired acoustic and electric guitar work, introduce the album’s centrepiece, the 18-minute “Ramblin’ Sailor”. Featuring the participation of Japanese band Kenso’s bassist, Shunji Saegusa, it is based on a traditional English folk song called “The Rambling Sailor”; the stunning complexity of its instrumental parts is relieved by the sprightly, cheerful nature of  the contrapuntal vocal parts, including a chorus of ‘carousing sailors’. The magnificent central section is occasionally reminiscent of the stately yet riveting pace of Genesis’ instrumental compositions, while the titular sailor’s farewell to the sea is conveyed by a slower, more sedate passage enhanced by the distinctive sound of the recorder. The core of the album is then brought to a close by the upbeat, fanfare-like “Firmus Finale”, in which hints of Gryphon’s quirky take on medieval music join the Genesis and Gentle Giant influences.

Though some might complain that Cantus Firmus is not a truly original proposition, and wave the dreaded ‘retro’ word around, the album – far from being a mere tribute-like effort – simply oozes class and dedication. In spite of the individual band members’ impressive chops, in this case technical skill is put at the service of the music, and not the other way round. Moreover, the emotional content is conveyed with grace and delicacy rather with the self-indulgent angst typical of may higher-profile bands. Gentler and more meditative than the output of bands in a similar vein such as Änglagård or Wobbler, Cantus Firmus will definitely appeal to fans of vintage prog of an eclectic bent – though some listeners might be turned off by its unabashed sentimentality and occasional church-like gravity. At the time of writing, Advent are working on their third album, which will hopefully be released within the year.



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1. Light Flight (3:19)
2. Once I Had a Sweetheart (4:43)
3. Spring Time Promises (4:09)
4. Lyke-Wake Dirge (3:36)
5. Train Song (4:47)
6. Hunting Song (6:44)
7. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
8. The Cuckoo (4:30)
9. House Carpenter (5:32)

Bonus tracks
10. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:40)
11. Sally Go Round the Roses (3:42)
12. Cold Mountain (2:02)
13. I Saw an Angel (2:52)

Jacqui McShee – vocals
Bert Jansch – guitar, banjo, vocals
John Renbourn – guitar, sitar, vocals
Danny Thompson – double bass
Terry Cox – drums, percussion,  glockenspiel, vocals (4)

There must have been something in the water in Great Britain back in 1969 that inspired musicians to produce such an impressive number of landmark albums. Though best known to progressive rock fans for King Crimson’s seminal debut, the year saw the release of other essential discs for the history of rock in all its forms. Pentangle’s third album, Basket of Light, is one of those, though unfortunately it may easily fly under the radar of most listeners but dedicated folk-rock  enthusiasts – which is a pity, because the album is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Indeed, Basket of Light is everything a lover of progressive folk-rock might expect, and then some. Bert Jansch’s and John Renbourn’s fluid, jangling guitars weave seamless melodies, backed by Danny Thompson’s impeccable double bass work and Terry Cox’s precise, understated drumming, while  Jacqui McShee’s enchantingly crystalline tones soar above  the fray. Though this is the recipe for all of Pentangle’s best output, Basket of Light possesses a cohesive nature that somewhat eludes their other albums, even as good as they are. Though more than half of the material featured here consists of rearrangements of traditional British or American folk songs, the band’s original compositions are shining examples of how those traditions impacted their creative process, allowing them to craft songs that are at the same time accessible and musically complex (though very subtly so,  avoiding the over-the-top  nature of too much canonical prog).

The album’s title comes from a line of “Train Song”, probably the best-known number  in the band’s output, and one of the original compositions previously mentioned. Indeed, the title describes the album quite aptly – it is an overall uplifting slice of music, though not in the quirkily humorous way typical of Canterbury bands. For instance, “Lyke-Wake Dirge” (as the title implies) is based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon funeral chant, and as such might be expected to be quite depressing – which is, however, not the case. With its gorgeous, three-part vocals and a delicate, barely perceptible guitar accompaniment, the song possesses a melancholy kind of beauty, yet is anything but gloomy. On the other hand, album opener “Light Flight” is a deceptively light and airy tune permeated by a faint sense of nostalgia, which follows some interesting rhythm patterns and introduces the listener to the delights of Jacqui’s vocals. Gentler and less assertive than Annie Haslam’s, but powerful in its own way, her voice possesses an authentic sweetness devoid of that saccharine aftertaste so rife in her modern followers.

Interestingly, a good proportion of the album is dedicated to American music, in the shape of two folk songs derived from traditional English ballads (“Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the somewhat disturbing “House Carpenter”), and “Sally Go Round the Roses”, the only hit by New York girl group The Jaynetts, a delightful, feel-good tune (originally written by Phil Spector) showcasing a different side of Jacqui’s singing style.  The latter is also present in two different versions as a bonus track, together with two other songs that, while penned by the band or individual members, are strongly redolent of  the American musical tradition (especially the upbeat “Cold Mountain”). The aforementioned “Train Song”, written as a lament for the passing of the steam train, has a basic blues structure with vocal arrangements that reproduce the sound of a train in motion; while “The Cuckoo” is a traditional folk song from Somerset interpreted by Jacqui in piercingly sweet tones. “Hunting Song”, an original band composition based on traditional materials (namely an episode of the King Arthur cycle involving Morgana Le Fay and a hunting horn), is an almost seven-minute mini-epic sung by Jansch and McShee in their sharply contrasting timbres, and infused with the gently tinkling sound of the glockenspiel. In “House Carpenter”, which closes the original edition of the album,  Renbourn’s and Jansch’s banjo-sitar interplay reinforces the sinister atmosphere of the tale of a young woman lured to perdition by the Devil himself.

Ever since I was a child, I have been deeply fascinated by folklore and mythology, so my attraction to bands like Pentangle should not come as a surprise.  On albums like this one, the music and the lyrics seem to mesh together seamlessly, and the sheer beauty of the vocals lends new intensity to those centuries-old tales of love,  death, magic and treason.  If, according to a popular stereotype, prog fans have an affinity for fantasy literature, then the root of it all is here, in the enthralling yet disquieting ballads interpreted by the exquisite voices of Jacqui McShee and her peers – as the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, pointed out in many of his writings.

In the previous paragraphs I have often used the word ”progressive’. So, can Basket of Light be really tagged as a prog album?  Of course it can, though you should not expect anything resembling the likes of Yes or Genesis. We are not talking about lengthy epics with a pinch of folksy spicing thrown in for good measure, but rather about a genuinely progressive approach, where folk, blues, jazz, country and medieval/Elizabethan music are blended together with immaculate instrumental proficiency and vocals that achieve the perfect balance between technique and emotion. This is the kind of music whose progressiveness is made of subtle layers of light and shade, rather than a pile-up of flash and bombast. Indeed, many modern bands would have a lot to learn from this album –  a masterpiece of class, expertise and restraint, and a delight from start to finish.

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