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Posts Tagged ‘MoonJune Records’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Burden Of Proof (5:51)
2. Voyage Beyond Seven (4:53)
3. Kitto (1:50)
4. Pie Chart (5:07)
5. JPS (1:03)
6. Kings and Queens (6:46)
7. Fallout (6:59)
8. Going Somewhere Canorous? (1:13)
9. Black And Crimson (5:05)
10. The Brief (2:27)
11. Pump Room (5:19)
12. Green Cubes (5:33)
13. They Landed on a Hill (3:03)

LINEUP:
John Etheridge – electric guitar
Roy Babbington – bass guitar
John Marshall – drums, percussion
Theo Travis, tenor sax, flute, Fender Rhodes piano

It should not come as a surprise to find Soft Machine Legacy on the roster of an independent label named after one of the original Soft Machine’s most iconic compositions. The band – the last in a series of Soft Machine offshoots started by bassist Hugh Hopper back in 1978 with Soft Heap – was born in 2004, when guitarist Allan Holdsworth left Soft Works and was replaced by John Etheridge. They released a studio album and two live ones between 2005 and 2006, just before founding member Elton Dean’s untimely passing. Their second studio-based effort, 2007’s Steam,  saw renowned flutist/saxophonist Theo Travis (currently also a member of Gong, The Tangent and Steven Wilson’s band)  take Dean’s place; the album was also to be the last with Hugh Hopper, who succumbed to leukemia in 2009. In spite of these setbacks, Travis, Etheridge and drummer John Marshall (who had originally replaced Robert Wyatt in 1971) recruited another Soft Machine alumnus, bassist Roy Babbington, and went on to produce their third studio album. Burden of Proof, recorded in Italy at Arti e Mestieri keyboardist Beppe Crovella’s Electromantic Studios was finally released on Moonjune Records in the spring of 2013.

Though its name may suggest yet another of the many tribute bands whose popularity often eclipses that of bands performing their own material, Soft Machine Legacy deliver much more than just a reverent homage to one of the most influential bands of the early progressive rock scene. The “Legacy” at the end of the band’s name (even when all of its founders had the legal right to call themselves Soft Machine) emphasizes the continuity between the “mother” band and its offshoots, while ruling out slavish imitation. Bringing together the variegated threads of the history of the band founded by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen in the mid-Sixties, the quartet led by John Etheridge have perfected their own original sound. Travis’ own soundscaping system, called Ambitronics, lends the proceedings a haunting ambient component, bringing to mind his work with Robert Fripp, and integrating with Etheridge’s use of loops and other effects to replace Mike Ratledge’s trademark fuzzed organ; while his sparing but effective use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano creates an ideal connection to Soft Machine’s turning-point album, Fourth (their first completely instrumental effort).

Featuring 13 relatively short compositions spread over a running time of about 55 minutes, Burden of Proof possesses an internal cohesion of its own. The longer, more structured pieces (between 3 and 7 minutes) are bridged by shorter interludes, mostly improvisational in nature; despite this apparent fragmentation, the music flows effortlessly, and the two “souls” of the album fit together without leaving an impression of patchiness. A stunning rendition of Hugh Hopper’s “Kings and Queens” (from Soft Machine’s Fourth) – strategically located in the middle of the album, and led by Theo Travis’ melodic, melancholy flute meshing with Etheridge’s measured guitar – functions as a centerpiece that captures the original band’s moment of transition from its psychedelic roots to state-of-the-art jazz-rock. Roy Babbington (who guested on Fourth, though not on “Kings and Queens”) is a discreet but unmistakable presence, his finely-honed synergy with John Marshall’s impeccable drumming in evidence right from the opening strains of the title-track – which later develops into an intriguing “conversation piece” between sax and guitar. The upbeat sax intro to “Voyage Beyond Seven” briefly dispels the previous number’s elegantly laid-back atmosphere, before going into a sort of slow-motion that culminates into a rather chaotic, spacey jam with sudden flares of volume.

The deeply atmospheric Etheridge showcase of “Kitto” leads into the slow-burning, jazz-blues saunter of “Pie Chart” – an unexpected but welcome deviation from the band’s heady yet somewhat lofty stylings, as is the bracing boogie-rock of “Pump Room”, with Etheridge delivering a barrage of rough-and-ready riffs and scratchy, distorted chords, aided and abetted by Travis’ buoyant sax. “Black and Crimson” is all about melody Soft Machine Legacy-style, with an almost Latin feel; while the nearly 7-minute “Fallout” sandwiches a loose, improvisational section between a brisk, sax-and-guitar-driven main theme, bolstered by Marshall’s dramatic drum rolls. The album is wrapped up by the noisy avant-garde bash of “Green Cubes”, followed by the spacey, meditative strains of “They Landed on a Hill” – a finale that, in a way, represents the album’s two souls.

Those who have followed Soft Machine Legacy and its previous incarnations for the past two decades will find a lot to love in Burden of Proof, an album that combines melody and ambiance with the almost carefree abandon of improvisation. The four members of Soft Machine Legacy draws upon their individual strengths, striving to create music that, while sophisticated, is also not too detached from the earthiness of rock. Though the amount of improvisation may put off those who prefer their music to be scripted, and the minimalistic approach to composition may be found unsatisfactory by fans of prog’s more convoluted aspects, the album captures a group of seasoned musicians who obviously still enjoy themselves both in the studio and on stage. Even if sometimes demanding, Burden of Proof is also a consistently rewarding listen.

Links:
http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/052_SOFT-MACHINE-LEGACY_Burden-Of-Proof_MJR052/

http://www.johnetheridge.com/softmachinelegacy/index.htm

https://myspace.com/softmachinelegacy/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Windmaster (6:26)
2. Dorian Grey (4:27)
3. The Last Tribe (1:56)
4. Lydia in the Playground (5:20)
5. Unimpossible (7:47)
6. Tarde Demais (3:40)
7. Vintitreis (4:19)
8. Whereisit (5:11)
9. Sand Horses (4:07)
10. Chromaterius (3:42)

LINEUP:
Nelson Coelho – guitar
Jorge Pescara – touch guitars
Miguel Angel – drums

In the past few years, Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records has become a go-to resource for fans of guitarists that eschew the tired antics of traditional “guitar heroes” to focus on creative, envelope-pushing playing put at the service of the  music. In the past few years, outstanding players from far-flung locales such as Indonesia have become part of  the Moonjune roster – with noteworthy releases such as Tohpati Bertiga’s Riot, Ligro’s Dictionary 2 and Dewa Budjana’s Dawai in Paradise. Brazilian power trio Dialeto  are the latest addition to the New York label, getting their first international release with their third album, The Last Tribe.

In the two years following the release of Chromatic Freedom, the São Paulo outfit, founded in the late Eighties and led by guitarist and composer Nelson Coelho, have replaced original bassist Andrei Ivanovic with touch guitarist Jorge Pescara – a change that has influenced their sound in a rather interesting way. While Chromatic Freedom featured a few songs with vocals, on The Last Tribe Dialeto have taken a completely instrumental direction, concentrating on compositions that blend King Crimson-style angular, asymmetrical patterns with heady Latin suggestions and fiery blues licks, occasionally with a keen metal-like edge. Though some reviewers have labeled them as jazz-fusion, the latter genre is only one of the ingredients of Dialeto’s heady brew. While technical virtuosity is definitely emphasized,  Dialeto’s musical offer exudes a surprising warmth and a pronounced sense of melody – which is not always the case with all-instrumental albums.

The introduction of touch guitars is the key to the subtle yet noticeable change in Dialeto’s sound on The Last Tribe, adding a sense of fullness and softening the rougher edges displayed on Chromatic Freedom. The versatility of the instrument – capable of producing dry, low-down bass lines as well as reverberating, keyboard-like sound waves – complements Coelho’s scintillating guitar exertions and Miguel Angel’s all-over-the-place drumming. Though not as heavy on the ambient component as Herd of Instinct (a band with a similar configuration and approach), Dialeto’s 2013 incarnation benefits from the synergy of touch and traditional guitar, which lends an intriguingly mysterious quality to its sound.

As already noticed on Chromatic Freedom, Coelho’s compositional style hinges on subtle yet recognizable variations on a theme, repeated with an almost hypnotic effect, creating a strong cohesion between The Last Tribe’s 10 tracks.  Running times are kept relatively short, packing a lot of content in those few minutes without putting too much strain on the listener’s attention span. The album as a whole runs at a very restrained 47 minutes, proving once again that, in the progressive rock realm, quality does not depend on quantity.

Opener “The Windmaster”sets the tone, with its clear-voiced guitar touched with a hint of Brazilian saudade; melody remains at the forefront even when the guitar turns a bit harsher and the  intensity increases. Similar in conception, “Dorian Grey” also introduces a haunting atmospheric note. The album hovers between low-key, mid-paced pieces such as the ballad-like “Lydia in the Playground” and the laid-back, Spanish-tinged “Tarde Demais”, spiced up by sudden flares of electricity in the shape of dense riffing and assertive drumming, and spiky, energy-laden ones )mostly concentrated in the album’s second half), descending directly from King Crimson circa Thrak and The Power to Believe.

The almost 8-minute, Brazilian-flavoured “Unimpossible”, which best illustrates the band’s modus operandi of building variations on a theme, and the exhilarating “Vintitreis” blend the soft and the hard side of Dialeto’s sound, Coelho’s guitar tone shifting from bright and sunny to razor-sharp, supported by Miguel Angel’s drum acrobatics; while “Whereisit”, “Sand Horses” and especially closing track “Chromaterius” kick the mood into high gear, with plenty of riffs and forceful drumming, the three main instruments interacting seamlessly in angular patterns only occasionally relieved by quieter moments. Finally, the steady drumbeat and brisk, dance-like pace of the short title-track convey the “tribal” element in the title.

Accompanied by amusingly weird cover artwork, The Last Tribe (mixed and mastered by fellow paulista Fabio Golfetti of Violeta de Outono, who has recently joined Gong) will not fail to appeal to lovers of instrumental progressive rock, especially those who set a great store by technically proficient yet soulful guitar playing rather than lightning-fast shredding. The album, which finally sees Nelson Coelho take his rightful place among other distinguished six-stringers on the Moonjune roster, such as Barry Cleveland, Dennis Rea and Michel Delville, is also warmly recommended to fans of King Crimson and its “trio” offshoots.

Links:
http://www.dialeto.org

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/054_DIALETO_The-Last-Tribe_MJR054/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Detox Gruel (4:13)
2. Spanish Fly (5:19)
3. Yantra (8:04)
4. Frank Nuts (3:38)
5. Jungle Cow Part I (5:50)
6. Jungle Cow Part II (4:40)
7. Jungle Cow Part III (6:07)
8. Glass Cubes (8:30)
9. Wrong but Not False (5:28)
10. Flashlight Into Black Hole (3:05)
11. Stammtisch (5:59)

LINEUP:
Michel Delville – guitar, Roland GR-09
Antoine Guenet  – keyboards, vocals
Marti Melia – bass and tenor saxes, clarinet
François Lourtie – tenor, alto and soprano saxes, voice
Pierre Mottet – bass
Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, objects, samples

With:
Benoît Moerlen – marimba and electronic vibraphone (2, 3, 5-7, 11)
Susan Clynes – vocals (8)

After the release of Machine Mass Trio’s As Real As Thinking and douBt’s Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love in the past couple of years, guitarist extraordinaire Michel Delville returns with his  main band, all-Belgian combo The Wrong Object. Only Delville and drummer Laurent Delchambre remain from the lineup that released Stories from the Shed in 2008: the band has now become a sextet with the addition of four new members, including brilliant keyboardist Antoine Guenet, the leader of avant-metal-jazz outfit Sh.tg.n. (whose self-titled debut was released in 2012), who recently joined RIO/Avant icons Univers Zéro.

One of the most prolific artists signed to Moonjune Records, the label founded by Leonardo Pavkovic in 2001, Delville is an extremely talented guitarist and composer, with a genuinely progressive attitude and a strong commitment to creative music-making. Though The Wrong Object have been in existence for over 10 years, and enjoyed a thriving concert activity all over Europe (witnessed by two live albums, The Unbelievable Truth (recorded in 2005 with the late, great Elton Dean) and Platform One (recorded in 2007 with renowned British jazz musicians Annie Whitehead and Harry Beckett), their studio debut came relatively late with Stories From the Shed – an excellent album drawing on a wide range of sources of inspiration. However, the 5-year break has brought further refinement to the band’s sound, resulting in a quantum leap in terms of quality.

Although Delville is the undisputed band leader and main composer, it would be wrong to assume that The Wrong Object’s sound is dominated by guitar antics. In fact – very much in the way of his Moonjune label mate Dennis Rea of Moraine –  Delville’s presence is surprisingly discreet, often leaving the limelight to the band’s duo of saxophonists, Marti Melia and François Lourtie. Guenet’s keyboards flesh out the tune according to need, adding occasional melodic flourishes or energetic organ runs, while Laurent Delchambre’s versatile drumming and Pierre Mottet’s understated yet nimble bass lines provide a reliable foundation that keeps up effortlessly with the shifts in tempo and mood. Delville’s guitar anchors the album to the rock aesthetics, ramping up the electricity quotient even when keeping almost unobtrusively in the background. Renowned mallet percussionist Benoit Moerlen (of Gong/Gongzilla fame) guests on more than half of the tracks, adding the tinkling, cascading sound of his marimba and electronic vibraphone to the sonic texture.

Spread over nearly 60 minutes, the 11 tracks on After the Exhibition flow naturally in spite of their density. For all its eclecticism, the music is surprisingly cohesive and never comes across as contrived or overdone. Electric flare-ups coexist with intimate, subdued moments in an unpredictable and constantly exciting mix; at the same time, though, is also a more disciplined feel than in Delville’s two previous releases with douBt and Machine Mass Trio.

Opening with the shock tactics of the brisk, exhilarating “Detox Gruel”, propelled by raucous sax with dashes of organ and Delville’s slightly strident guitar, the album’s first half culminates with the unorthodox three-part “suite” of “Jungle Cow”. In over 16 minutes of music, the composition morphs from a collection of sparse, spacey sound effects into an intense sax-and-guitar duel. The 8-minute “Yantra” juxtaposes atmospheric lyricism and heady, almost free-form improvisation with blaring saxes and unleashed guitar, while the jaunty “Spanish Fly” is reminiscent of modern classical composers such as Bartok or Stravinsky, as well as jazz and Middle Eastern music..

The album’s second half is introduced by the jaw-droppingly beautiful “Glass Cubes” interpreted by the elegantly expressive voice of Belgian singer/songwriter Susan Clynes (compared by some to modern jazz icon Annette Peacock), complemented by Guenet’s gorgeous piano and backing vocals – a stylish, magical slice of 21st-century Canterbury sound that hints at the best moments of Hatfield and the North and Soft Machine. The final three numbers feel like an ideal continuation of the mood set by “Glass Cubes”, with definite Canterbury undertones in the sprightly, catchy “Wrong but Not False” and the invigorating, funk-tinged “Flashlight Into Black Hole”, where Pierre Mottet’s bass comes into its own. Wrapping up the album in style, the romantic, Old-World flavour and elegant waltz-like pace of “Stammtisch”, conducted like a conversation between guitar, piano and sax, is briefly interrupted by the instruments interacting chaotically, then calm returns for a slo-mo finale.

With its perfectly balanced running time, After the Exhibition is a true rollercoaster ride of dazzling musicianship coupled with sophisticated flair for melody that tempers and softens the bristling intensity of the album’s more electrifying parts.  Even if the avant-garde component is not as strongly spotlighted as in their previous effort, RIO/Avant fans will find a lot to appreciate in the album, as will lovers of the Canterbury scene, classic jazz-rock, and even psychedelic/space rock. On the other hand, the sheer beauty of “Glass Cubes” might win over those who are more attached to prog’s traditional extended-song format. Highly recommended to everyone, After the Exhibition is an exercise in pure class, and will certainly grace many a “best of 2013” list.

Links:
http://www.wrongobject.com/

http://www.moonjune.com/mjr_web_2013/catalog_mjr/055_THE-WRONG-OBJECT_After-The-Exhibition_MJR055/

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No doubt about it: 2012 was a difficult year for most of us. True to the Italian saying about leap years being unlucky, 2012 ran the gamut from weather-related disasters, wars and other acts of random violence to political malfunction and economic near-collapse, sparing almost no part of the world. There was no lack of disruption in my own little world either. In spite of all my good resolutions, the year started with a few weeks of less than stellar physical condition (nothing serious, but enough to grind most of my projects to a halt), and then I was hit by a double-whammy of bureaucracy-related problems that –  while obviously not tragic – caused enough distress to cast a pall over the remaining months.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 2012 I have been less prolific a reviewer than in previous years, or that the views on this blog have somehow decreased, though not dramatically so. Constant stress can wreak havoc on inspiration, and at times it was hard to come up with a coherent sentence – let alone an 800-word review. However, in spite of the seemingly endless stream of worry and general annoyance, music has remained a source of delight and (as the title of this essay points out) comfort when things got really tough.

The number of progressive rock-related albums released during 2012 was nothing short of staggering. The second decade of the 21st century started indeed with a bang in 2011, and, at least for the time being, the trend does not show any signs of being reversed. Many of those albums were made available for streaming (at least for a limited time) by websites such as Progstreaming, Bandcamp or Soundcloud, allowing the often cash-strapped fans a “test run”. On the other hand, the sheer volume of new releases made it necessary to pick and choose to avoid being overwhelmed. While confirming the vitality of the genre, this also showed one of the downsides of the digital age – the oversaturation of the market, and frequent lack of quality control.

As my readers know, I do not do “top 10/20/50/100” lists, leaving this exercise to people who are interested in arranging their choices according to a more or less strict order of preference. From my perspective, there have been milestone releases, and others that – while perhaps not equally memorable – still deserve a mention. On any account, even more so than in the previous year, 2012 has emphasized the ever-widening gulf between the retro-oriented and the forward-thinking components of the prog audience. Sometimes, while looking at the reviews pages of some of the leading websites of the genre, I have had the impression that (to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling) the twain shall hardly ever meet. In the US, such a split has been detrimental to the festival scene – though the void left by NEARfest’s demise may lead organizers to step out of their typical audience’s comfort zone in order to attract a more diverse crowd.

Though I am most familiar with albums that I have reviewed, or otherwise own, there are others that have left enough of an impression to deserve a mention in this post. As my choices have been mainly informed by personal taste, I will apologize beforehand for any major omissions. While I may consider those albums essential listening, some of my readers will certainly disagree with me, and suggest their own personal picks –and this is exactly how things should be. Indeed, as the French would say, vive la différence!

Although I have built a reputation as a fan of the more “difficult” stuff, one of my favourite albums of the year (and one that is likely to be featured in many top 10 lists) is an album that, in many respects, is not even “prog” in the conventional sense of the word. However, Echolyn’s self-titled eighth studio album – unlike so many true-blue prog releases – is a masterpiece of songwriting, instrumentally tight without any concessions to self-indulgence, and packing a huge emotional punch. Another highly awaited, almost unexpected comeback – 18 years after the band’s previous studio effort – Änglagård’s third studio album, Viljans Öga, reveals a keen, almost avant-garde edge beneath its pastoral surface, well highlighted in their impeccable NEARfest appearance.

2012 was a milestone year for what I like to call the “new frontier” of prog – less focused on epic grandeur and more song-oriented. In the second decade of the 21st century, “progressive rock” and “song” are not antithetic concepts any longer, and going for 5 minutes instead than 15 is not a sign of sell-out. Three albums in particular stand out: 3RDegree’s The Long Division, a perfect combination of great melodies, intelligent lyrics and outstanding musicianship with the added value of George Dobbs’ Stevie Wonder-influenced vocals; the Magna Carta reissue of MoeTar’s 2010 debut From These Small Seeds, a heady blend of catchy hooks, edgier suggestions and Moorea Dickason’s stellar, jazz-inflected voice; and Syd Arthur’s delightful “modern Canterbury” debut, On And On – infused with the spirit of early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

As in the previous years, in 2012 the ever-growing instrumental prog scene produced some outstanding albums. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson wowed devotees of high-energy jazz-rock with Imposing Elements, the second installment of his one-man project – inspired by the industrial Gothic paintings of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. In the early months of 2012, French seven-piece Forgas Band Phenomena made a triumphant recording comeback with the exhilaratingly accomplished Acte V. Another two excellent Cuneiform releases, Ergo’s second album If Not Inertia and Janel & Anthony’s lovely debut, Where Is Home, while not immediately approachable, will gradually win over the discerning listener with their deep emotion and lyricism. In a similar vein, A Room for the Night by drummer extraordinaire John Orsi (the mind behind Providence-based collective Knitting By Twilight) provides a veritable aural feast for percussion lovers. On the cusp of prog, jazz and metal, the aptly-titled Brutal Romance marks the thunderous return of ebullient French power trio Mörglbl, led by Christophe Godin’s humour-laden guitar acrobatics. Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records specializes in instrumental music of a consistently high standard of quality, and this year’s landmark releases were no exception: Indonesian powerhouses Ligro (Dictionary 2) and Tohpati Bertiga (Riot), Canadian quartet Mahogany Frog’s rivetingly eclectic Senna, and douBt’s towering Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love – all of them true melting pots of rock, jazz, avant-garde and psychedelia. Also very much worthy of exploration, Kotebel’s Concert for Piano and Electric Ensemble revisits and updates the marriage of classical music and progressive rock with a heady dose of traditional Spanish flavour.

The left-field fringe of the progressive rock spectrum was spearheaded by the tireless efforts of dedicated labels such as Cuneiform Records and AltrOck Productions. One of  2012’s musical milestones – the long-awaited sixth studio album by seminal US Avant outfit Thinking Plague, titled Decline and Fall – was released in the very first weeks of the year. Mike Johnson’s monumentally intricate, intensely gloomy reflection on humankind’s impending Doomsday was complemented by a Thinking Plague-related project of a vastly different nature  – the charming, Old-World whimsy of 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard, Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco’s transatlantic collaboration with Swiss multi-instrumentalist Cédric Vuille. By an intriguing coincidence, almost at the tail end of the year came the stunning live album by one of the foremost modern RIO/Avant outfits, Yugen’s Mirrors – recorded at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival in Carmaux (France). A special mention is also deserved by Cuneiform’s touching tribute to RIO icon Lars Hollmer, With Floury Hand (sketches), released four years after the artist’s untimely passing.

On the Zeuhl front, founding fathers Magma made their comeback with the short and unusually low-key Félicité Thosz, proving once again Christian Vander’s versatility and seemingly endless reservoir of ideas; while the US produced an astonishing example of Zeuhl inspired by Aztec mythology – multi-national outfit Corima’s second album Quetzalcoatl. Eclectic albums such as Cucamonga’s Alter Huevo, Inner Ear Brigade’s Rainbro (featuring another extremely talented female vocalist, Melody Ferris) and Stabat Akish’s Nebulos – as well as chamber-rock gems such as Subtilior’s Absence Upon a Ground  and AltrOck Chamber Quartet’s Sonata Islands Goes RIO – reinforced AltrOck’s essential role in the discovery of new, exciting talent on the cutting edge of the progressive rock scene. Also worthy of a mention as regards the Avant-Progressive field are the politically-charged Songs From the Empire by Scott Brazieal, one of the founding fathers of the US Avant scene; the exhilarating Sleep Furiously by English outfit Thumpermonkey;  the wacked-out return of cult Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat, titled Valta; and French quartet Jack Dupon’s energetic double live CD set, Bascule A Vif . The Avant-Progressive scene was also celebrated in the second episode of José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt’s documentary film series dedicated to progressive rock , Romantic Warriors II – About Rock in Opposition.

The year was also noted for hotly anticipated comebacks from high-profile acts:  first of all, Rush, who were also finally inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the joy of their substantial following. Their Clockwork Angels, while not a life-altering masterpiece, is definitely their strongest effort in almost 20 years. 2012 also saw the release of Ian Anderson’s Thick As a Brick 2, mixed by none other than Steven Wilson (also responsible in 2012 for the 40th Anniversary edition of King Crimson’s seminal Larks’ Tongues in Aspic) – a solid, well-crafted album, though not on a par with the original. While King Crimson seem to have been put on hold indefinitely, Robert Fripp has not been idle, and the elegant Travis/Fripp CD/DVD package Follow offers a complete aural and visual experience – suitably rarefied yet spiked by almost unexpected electric surges – to diehard fans of the legendary guitarist.

On the “modern prog” front, standard-bearers The Mars Volta’s sixth studio album Noctourniquet marks a return to form for the band, as it is their tightest, most cohesive effort in quite a long time. The Tea Club’s third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly confirms the status of the New Jersey band (now a trio) as one of the most interesting modern outfits, with a respectful eye towards the golden age of the genre; while Gazpacho’s deeply atmospheric March of Ghosts offers another fine example of English label KScope’s “post-progressive” direction. In a more accessible vein, Canadian/Ukrainian duo Ummagma’s  pair of debut albums, Ummagma and Antigravity,  will appeal to fans of Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins with their ethereal yet uplifting feel.

Though I cannot call myself a fan of progressive metal, the debut albums by female-fronted German band Effloresce (Coma Ghosts) and Israeli outfit Distorted Harmony (Utopia) made enough of an impression to deserve a mention here; while Diablo Swing Orchestra’s Pandora’s Piñata – the band’s most mature effort to date – transcends the boundaries of the genre.  At the very beginning of the year, Steve Brockmann and George Andrade’s opus AIRS: A Rock Opera updates the classic rock opera format while deftly avoiding the cheesiness of other similar efforts, concentrating on a moving tale of guilt and redemption interpreted by an array of considerable vocal and instrumental talent.

The thriving contemporary psychedelic/space rock scene also produced a slew of fine albums that combine modernity and eclecticism with an unmistakable retro touch: among many others, Øresund Space Collective’s mellow West, Space and Love, Earthling Society’s eerie pagan-fest Stations of the Ghost, Colour Haze’s Krautrock-influenced double CD set She Said, Diagonal’s fiery The Second Mechanism, Astra’s highly awaited (though to these ears not as impressive as the others) second album, The Black Chord. Fans of Krautrock, and Can in particular, should also check out Black and Ginger by Churn Milk Joan, one of the many projects by volcanic English multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson (of Big Block 454 fame); while Australian band Tame Impala’s Lonerism will appeal to those who like psychedelic rock in a song-based format.

As prolific and varied as ever, the Italian progressive rock scene produced a number of remarkable albums ranging from the classic symphonic prog of Höstsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Pt. 1, Alphataurus’ comeback AttosecondO and Locanda delle Fate’s The Missing Fireflies (featuring both older and new material) to more left-field fare such as Nichelodeon’s live album NO, Stereokimono’s Intergalactic Art Café and Daal’s Dodecahedron. Another of Fabio Zuffanti’s many projects besides Höstsonaten, L’Ombra della Sera, presents an appealingly Gothic-tinged, almost completely instrumental homage to the soundtracks of cult Italian TV series of the Seventies. Aldo Tagliapietra’s Nella Pietra e Nel Vento, his first release after his split from Le Orme, a classy, prog-tinged singer-songwriter effort, boasts a splendid cover by Paul Whitehead. The prize of most impressive RPI album of the year, however, goes to Il Bacio della Medusa’s ultra-dramatic historical concept Deus Lo Vult, with side project Ornithos’ eclectic debut La Trasfigurazione a close second.

Of the many “traditional” prog albums released in 2012, one in particular stands out on account of its superb songwriting: Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1, an effort of great distinction though not as impressive as its predecessor, 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Autumn Chorus’ debut The Village to the Vale also celebrates the glories of England’s green and pleasant land with a near-perfect marriage of pastoral symphonic prog and haunting post-rock; while Israeli outfit Musica Ficta’s A Child & A Well (originally released in 2006) blends ancient and folk music suggestions with jazz and symphonic prog. Released just three weeks before the end of the year, Shadow Circus’ third album, On a Dark and Stormy Night (their first for 10T Records), based on Madeleine L’Engle’s cult novel A Wrinkle in Time, fuses symphonic prog with classic and hard rock in an exhilarating mixture. On the other hand, Pacific Northwest trio Dissonati’s debut, Reductio Ad Absurdum, gives classic prog modes a makeover with influences from new wave and avant-garde. Highly touted outfit District 97’s sophomore effort, Trouble With Machines, proves that the Chicago band is much more than a nine days’ wonder, showcasing their  tighter songwriting skills, as well as vocalist/frontwoman Leslie Hunt’s undeniable talent and charisma.

With such a huge wealth of releases, it was materially impossible for me to listen to everything I would have wanted to, and my personal circumstances often impaired my enjoyment of music, as well as my concentration. Among the releases of note that I missed in 2012 (though I still hope to be able to hear in 2013), I will mention Beardfish’s The Void, Anathema’s Weather Systems, Dead Can Dance’s comeback Anastasis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (another comeback, released after a 10-year hiatus), AranisMade in Belgium, The Muffins’ Mother Tongue, Alec K. Redfearn and the EyesoresSister Death, and Motorpsycho’s The Death-Defying Unicorn. All of these albums have been very positively received by the prog community, even if they will not necessarily appeal to everyone.

As was the case with my 2011 retrospective, quite a few highly acclaimed prog albums will be missing from this article. This implies no judgment in terms of intrinsic quality, but is simply determined by personal taste. Albums such as The Flower KingsBanks of Eden, Marillion’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made or IZZ’s Crush of Night (to name but three) –although thoroughly professional and excellent from a musical point of view – failed to set my world on fire. A pure matter of chemistry – as further demonstrated by my lack of enthusiasm for Storm Corrosion’s self-titled album (which reflected my reaction to Steven Wilson’s Grace for Drowning in 2011), or Mike Keneally’s undoubtedly outstanding Wing Beat Fantastic, co-written with Andy Partridge of XTC fame.

2012 was also a great year for live music, with both big names and new talent hitting the road. While we missed some of the former (such as Rush and Peter Gabriel), as well as this year’s edition of RoSfest,  the one-two punch of NEARfest Apocalypse and ProgDay 2012 more than made up for it. Unfortunately, the all-out Seventies bash named FarFest, organized by a veteran of the US prog scene such as Greg Walker, and planned for early October 2012 – was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, reinforcing the impression that the era of larger-scale prog festivals may well be coming to an end (in spite of the announcement of Baja Prog’s return in the spring of 2013). On the other hand, the much less ambitious ProgDay model is likely to become the way forward, as are the smaller, intimate gigs organized by people such as Mike Potter of Orion Studios, the NJ Proghouse “staph”, and our very own DC-SOAR.

With an impressive list of forthcoming releases for every progressive taste, 2013 looks set up to be as great a year as the previous two. In the meantime, we should continue to support the independent music scene in our best capacity – not just by buying albums or writing about them, but also attending gigs and generally maintaining a positive, constructive attitude. I would also like to thank all my friends and readers for their input and encouragement, which has been invaluable especially whenever the pressures of “real life” became too hard to bear. If this piece has seen the light of day, it is because you have made me feel that it was still worth it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. There Is a War Going On (3:22)
2. Jalal (7:16)
3. No More Quarrel With the Devil (4:41)
4. Rising Upon Clouds (5:41)
5. Purple Haze (4:47)
6. The Invitation (4:03)
7. Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love (12:14)
8. There Is a War Going On (reprise) (1:18)
9. Tears Before Bedtime (2:44)
10. The Human Abstract (6:24)
11. No More Quarrel With the Devil (reprise) (1:14)
12. Mercury (4:19)
13. Goodbye My Fellow Soldier (9:10)

LINEUP:
Alex Maguire – keyboards, sequencer
Michel Delville – guitar, Roland GR09, samples
Tony Bianco – drums, sequencer

Three years after the release of their debut, Never Pet a Burning Dog (with Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair guesting on three tracks), multinational trio douBt are back with a new album whose title of Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love comes from “The Divine Image”, one of the poems in William Blake’s inspirational Songs of Innocence and Experience. The album, recorded in 2011, was released in the autumn of 2012. The three band members – British keyboardist Alex Maguire, seasoned American drummer Tony Bianco and volcanic Belgian guitarist Michel Delville  – come from different yet complementary musical experiences, and have also collaborated on previous occasions (Delville and Bianco in Machine Mass Trio, Delville and Maguire on the Brewed in Belgium live album, released by Moonjune in 2008). Together they form an unconventional power trio, where the bass guitar is replaced by cutting-edge technology:  indeed, on Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love the role of technology as support to the explosive energy of rock is promoted with great effectiveness.

Just like its predecessor, Never Pet a Burning Dog (where the improvisational, free-jazz component was married to an unmistakable Canterbury influence), Mercy. Pity, Peace & Love sums up the current direction of Moonjune Records mainman Leonardo Pavkovic’s view of progressive music-making. Drawing upon rock, jazz, fusion, ambient and avant-garde with a fearlessly genre-bending attitude, the three band members bring their respective musical backgrounds to the table and merge them in a multifaceted yet cohesive whole. Tony Bianco’s jazz-inflected drumming is capable of understated finesse as well as muscular, propulsive power, and lays down a reliably eclectic foundation for the interplay between Alex Maguire’s fuzzy, slightly hoarse-sounding organ, reminiscent of Mike Ratledge’s unique tone, and Michel Delville’s dazzling guitar exertions.

Including parts of a recorded speech in an album is not a new device in rock music, and may come across either as a powerful statement of intent or as a rather cheap gimmick Here, the speech in question – delivered by firebrand US Senator Bernie Sanders – is focused on “class warfare” and the gradual disappearance of the middle class. The vintage psychedelic feel of the swirling organ and guitar fits the mood of the song perfectly, and is briefly reprised later in the album, reinforcing the sense of cohesiveness of the whole work. In a similar vein, the mid-paced yet raw-sounding “Tears Before Bedtime” and  a blistering cover of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic “Purple Haze” showcase Delville’s fierce, distorted guitar while emphasizing the remarkable synergy between the three musicians. Propelled by Bianco’s flawlessly dynamic drumming patterns, the  funky “Jalal” features stunning guitar and piano in an alternation of atmospheric and fiery moments.

Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love’s two “epics” – 12-minute title-track, strategically placed in the middle of the album, and  9-minute closing track “Goodbye My Fellow Soldier”-  highlight the fundamental influence of Soft Machine on douBt’s sound. Indeed, the  wailing keyboards and sinuous drumming of the former – bolstered by sampled strings at the onset, then allowed free rein –   bring to mind the legendary Canterbury outfit on steroids, while the latter takes a solemn, even somber direction, as hinted by the title. The angular, riff-driven opening of “No More Quarrel With the Devil” leads into a scorching guitar-organ duel that blends King Crimson and Deep Purple, while “Rising Upon Clouds” offers a surging, appropriately chaotic sonic description of a gathering storm that evokes Pink Floyd’s “A Saucerful of Secrets”. On the other hand, the band’s jazz matrix emerges clearly in the discreet, piano-led “Mercury” and the nostalgic, ballad-like “The Invitation”, where Delville’s beautifully melodic guitar is underpinned by understated drums and keyboards.. Finally in “The Human Abstract”, the instruments seem almost to be playing at odds, yet everything holds together, with electronics adding a spacey touch.

Combining outstanding musicianship, a healthy dose of eclecticism and plenty of emotion (which is not always the case with this kind of music),  Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love is riveting from start to finish, and – though clocking in at a rather hefty 67 minutes – never feels as padded or overstretched as other albums with a comparable running time. Highly recommended to all lovers of instrumental music, both of the rock and the jazz persuasion, Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love will equally appeal to fans of Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix, and will definitely earn a mention in many a “best of 2012” list.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/doubt3

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Houndstooth Pt. 1 (4:04)
2. Houndstooth Pt. 2 (5:29)
3. Expo ’67 (5:04)
4. Flossing With Buddha (4:35)
5. Message From Uncle Stan: Grey Shirt (8:29)
6. Message From Uncle Stan: Green House (3:49)
7. Saffron Myst (4:02)
8. Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service (7:46)

LINEUP:
Graham Epp – electric guitars, MicroMoog, Farfisa Organ, Farf Muff, ARP String Ensemble, Korg MS2000, electric and acoustic pianos
Jesse Warkentin – electric guitars, MicroMoog, Farfisa Organ, Farf Muff, ARP String Ensemble, Korg MS2000, electric and acoustic pianos
Scott Ellenberger –  electric and acoustic bass, Briscoe organ, percussion
Andy Rudolph – drums, percussion, electronics

With:
Eric Lussier – harpsichord (8)

At the end of February 2012, Mahogany Frog played two dates in the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo – one of the largest cities in the world, and the birthplace of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a tragic accident in 1994. The sixth album of the Canadian quartet is dedicated to this legendary figure, who enjoys the status of national hero in his native country.

Based in Winnipeg (Manitoba), and named after an amphibian from south-east Asia, Mahogany Frog have been together since the late Nineties, and released six albums with different lineups – founders Jesse Warkentin and Graham Epp being the only constant members of the band. Senna, released in September 2012 by New York label Moonjune Records, comes four years after DO5, their first album for Moonjune. Besides their recording activity, Mahogany Frog are quite busy on the live front, gigging regularly in Canada and occasionally elsewhere: in 2010 they were invited to perform at the 16th edition of ProgDay, and wowed the crowd with their unique brand of wildly eclectic instrumental progressive rock.

Before Senna’s release, Mahogany Frog had undergone another lineup change, as drummer Jean-Paul Perron (who had been with the band since its inception) was replaced with Andy Rudolph, an electronic performance artist whose expertise with drum machines as well as a traditional kit adds a keen contemporary edge to the jazz-tinged, psychedelic wall of sound produced by the band. With all members possessing multi-instrumentalist skills, and  switching effortlessly from keyboards (both analog and digital) to guitars and all sorts of cutting-edge electronic gadgets, Mahogany Frog’s music is at the same time cheerfully chaotic and sharply energizing –  a collection of soundscapes that throw together a multitude of influences with wild abandon and unabashed eclecticism, but also with a method to its madness. Not surprisingly, the band have managed to land concert opportunities that most prog bands can only dream of – and that in spite of the often counterproductive “progressive rock” tag. While paying homage to Seventies trailblazers such as Soft Machine and early Pink Floyd, Mahogany Frog also embrace modern trends such as post-rock and even techno and trip-hop, seasoning the heady brew of their sound with the ambient-like flavour of field recordings of birds and whales.

The juxtaposition of organic warmth and state-of-the-art technology is revealed right from  the intro of  “Houndstooth Pt 1”, suggesting the sound of an engine being started (in keeping with the album’s title and cover artwork). The solemn drone of the organ evokes Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful of Secrets, and the mix of piercing slide guitar, rugged riffing and wacky electronic effects rivets the attention. “Houndstooth Pt 2” pushes distorted, almost Hendrixian guitar chords to the fore with a strong space-rock matrix, mingled with an atmospheric surge propelled by Andy Rudolph’s authoritative drumming. The compact, dense riffing and whistling synth in “Expo ‘67” are tempered by organ sweeps redolent of The Doors and a clear, sharp guitar solo; while bucolic birdsong introduces the lively, dance-like pace of “Flossing With Buddha”, in which layers of keyboards are bolstered by Andy Rudolph’s powerful drums.

The second half of the album opens with the sparse texture of “Message From Uncle Stan: Grey Shirt” (the longest track on the album), resting on strident, almost industrial sound effects, but soon evolving into an exhilarating guitar duel, backed by assertive organ and clearly inspired by Ennio Morricone’s iconic style. The shorter “Message From Uncle Stan: Green House” starts out slowly with a faintly ominous, spacey drone, then the organ signals a sudden, crescendo-like change of pace. Then, after the brief respite of the airy, electronic mood piece of “Saffron Myst”, chaos erupts with “Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service”, where buzzing feedback and metal-tinged riffing coexist with a field recording of whales, as well as an unexpected harpsichord finale with an elegant, almost classical lilt.

Clocking in at a very restrained 43 minutes, with only one of the 8 tracks exceeding the 8-minute mark, Senna makes the most of its highly concentrated musical content, striking a nearly perfect balance between inventiveness and sheer energy – a rare achievement even for an all-instrumental album. It also shows a band at the top of their game, whose expressive power seems to have been honed by their four-year break between albums. Indeed, Mahogany Frog deliver the kind of music that has the potential to appeal to a large cross-section of the non-mainstream audience – not just dyed-in-the-wool prog fans, but also those who actually believe in the original meaning of that pesky “progressive” word. A highly recommended album, Senna is definitely one of the most consistently strong releases of the year.

Links:
http://www.mahoganyfrog.com

http://www.myspace.com/mahoganyfrog

http://www.moonjune.com

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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. Prelude (1:35)
2. Ruhkukah (5:32)
3. Low Levels, High Stakes (9:03)
4. Hard Hat Area (6:03)
5. Tullio (5:59)
6. House of Mirrors (7:44)
7. Postlude (5:28)

LINEUP:
Allan Holdsworth –  guitar, SynthAxe
Steve Hunt  – keyboards
Gary Husband – drums
Skúli Sverrisson – bass guitar

TRACKLISTING:
1. Countdown (3:09)
2. Nuages (5:40)
3. How Deep Is the Ocean (5:29)
4. Isotope (5:41)
5. None Too Soon Pt. 1 / Interlude / None Too Soon Pt. 2 (7:42)
6. Norwegian Wood (5:55)
7. Very Early (7:40)
8. San Marcos (3:22)
9. Inner Urge (6:15)

LINEUP:
Gordon Beck – digital piano, keyboards
Kirk Covington – drums
Allan Holdsworth – guitar, SynthAxe
Gary Willis – bass guitar

Yorkshire-born guitarist Allan Holsworth needs no introduction for progressive rock lovers of every persuasion. Before Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci and their ilk’s dazzling, faster-than-the-speed-of-light skills on the six strings gained worldwide success, Holdsworth had already attained legendary status for his work both as a solo artist and with the likes of Gong, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty and UK. Though the albums released in his own name are in the minority if compared to the sheer number of his collaborations, over the years they have become almost objects of cult in the community of jazz-fusion fans

Though I was familiar with Holdsworth’s work with bands such as UK and Gong,  I had not yet got round to exploring his solo output. Holdsworth’s reputation as the quintessential “musicians’ musician” may cause his work to be somewhat daunting for those who, like myself, have never touched a musical instrument in their lives. However, even laypersons can derive a lot of enjoyment from listening to music of such outstanding level,  although the nature of our comments will necessarily be “impressionistic”, so to speak, and probably even more so than in other occasions – as we will be unable to touch on any of the technical details essential for any practicing six-stringer.

Hard Hat Area and None Too Soon belong to the stage of Holdsworth’s full maturity as a musician and composer, as well as a pioneer of the iconic SynthAxe. Released only three years apart (respectively in 1993 and 1996), they differ quite noticeably in terms of  style and lineup. Both albums were out of print for a number of years before Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records (who is a personal friend of Holdsworth’s as well as fan of his music) took it upon himself to have them remastered and reissued – complete with exhaustive liner notes retracing their history, courtesy of Guitar Player magazine associate editor Barry Cleveland (also a fine musician in his own right). The distinctive elements of both albums are lovingly brought to the fore, with excellent sound quality that allows the listeners to partake of the seamless instrumental interplay without feeling overwhelmed by thousands of notes played at the speed of light.

As Cleveland points out, Holdsworth’s eight solo album, Hard Hat Area, is a logical extension of the guitarist’s previous efforts. It also marks the first time that he recorded an album in the studio with his touring band  (comprising drummer Gary Husband, keyboardist Steve Hunt and Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson), instead of recording each track on his own and then adding the other instruments. Not surprisingly, the result are 41 minutes of music that are astonishingly proficient from a technical point of view, yet also warm and fluid, showcasing Holdsworth’s trademark style without detracting from the other players’ outstanding skills. Indeed, in spite of the sky-high level of proficiency involved, the listener never gets the impression that the musicians are showing off – unlike  much of the output of modern “guitar legends”. The music possesses that easy, natural flow that can be so hard to achieve, and the crystalline sound quality emphasizes the sleek, effortless nature of the interaction between the various instruments.

The album, conceived in near-symphonic fashion with a “Prelude” and a “Postlude”, is laid-back, at times even lyrical in mood. In the almost 10-minute “Low Levels, High Stakes”, Holdsworth’s guitar and SynthAxe take on a calm, meditative tone, reflected by Hunt’s lovely rippling piano and Husband’s muted yet stunning drum work. Elegant and full of melody, the textbook-perfect fusion of “Ruhkukah” proves once again that fast playing does not have to equal soulless shredding. The title-track, on the other hand, introduces some harsh, industrial elements through mechanical sound effects and a sharper, metallic guitar tone; The atmospheric quality of “Postlude”, enhanced by ethereal keyboard washes, allows Skúli Sverrisson’s splendidly understated bass to step into the limelight, while the SynthAxe engages in a sort of “duel” with the drums, emphasizing the almost uncanny chemistry between Holdsworth and Husband.

Even if released less than three years after Hard Hat Area, None Too Soon is quite a different beast – featuring a completely new band (including Holdsworth’s longtime friend and collaborator, the late pianist Gordon Beck) and a tracklist largely consisting of covers of jazz classics by revered composers such as Bill Evans, Irving Berlin and John Coltrane. While Hard Hat Area is a top-notch example of fusion, None Too Soon treads into traditional jazz territory, though the pervasive presence of the SynthAxe pushes it firmly into a contemporary context that might alienate hardcore purists. Gary Willis and Kirk Covington of US jazz-fusion outfit Tribal Tech provide an impeccable rhythm backdrop, often understated, occasionally stepping into the limelight. However, the real protagonist of the album – in some ways even more so than Holdsworth – is Gordon Beck’s fluid, scintillating piano, which complements Holdsworth’s playing with the effortless ease born of a long partnership.

Clocking in at around 51 minutes, the album features 9 tracks, two of which are Beck’s own compositions – the three-part title-track, with its almost lazy, relaxed mood, and the brisk, energetic “San Marcos”. The jazz novice will probably be unfamiliar with most of the tracks, except for The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” – here almost unrecognizable, with a dazzling, piano-led central section bookended by the well-known, Indian-tinged tune. An understated, atmospheric rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages”, with Beck’s magnificent piano complementing Holdsworth’s exertions, and Bill Evans’ elegant, romantic “Very Early”, which sees Willis’ bass emerge discreetly, are also among the undisputed highlights of a very solid album.

Needless to say, both albums are essential listening for any self-respecting fan of jazz-rock/fusion, as well as for guitarists who want to learn how to effectively combine speed and technical proficiency with melody and emotion. They also offer an invaluable introduction to Holdsworth’s solo output, as well as a genuinely enjoyable listening experience for those non-musicians who  love great music. Kudos to Leonardo Pavkovic for having rescued these excellent albums from oblivion.

Links:
http://www.therealallanholdsworth.com/

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Cuckoo (9:23)
2. Knowledge (6:09)
3. Let Go (4:54)
4. Khajurao (5:22)
5. Hero (10:13)
6. UFO-RA (6:44)
7. Falling Up (18:03)
8. Palitana Mood (3:05)

LINEUP:
Tony Bianco – drums, loops, percussion
Michel Delville – electric guitar, bouzouki, electronics
Jordi Grognard – tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute, bansuri, electronic tempura

Machine Mass Trio was originally born as a side project of douBt, the electric jazz trio formed by Belgian guitarist Michel Delville whose acclaimed debut album, Never Pet a Burning Dog, was released in 2009 by influential New York-based label Moonjune Records. For this project, Delville and renowned NYC drummer Tony Bianco recruited a rising star of the modern jazz scene, Belgian reedist/saxophonist Jordi Grognard, who is also well-versed in non-Western woodwind instruments. Machine Mass Trio’s debut, As Real As Thinking, recorded live in the studio in October 2010, was released in November 2011 with the support of the Belgian French Community.

Like most of Moonjune Records’ output, As Real As Thinking is definitely not an immediately accessible album – sophisticated and multilayered, yet permeated with a sense of sharp urgency that surfaces when you would least expect it. In a veritable melting pot of diverse influences, the album merges the raw power of free jazz and guitar-based progressive rock à la King Crimson with the heady mysticism of Eastern music filtered through the electronic experimentalism of Krautrock. The three band members alternating in the spotlight or blending their collective strengths together to produce music that is constantly challenging but always rewarding, contribute in equal measure to the success of the final product.

At the core of Machine Mass Trio’s sound lies Tony Bianco’s astonishing drumming, a concentrate of pure energy and flawless time-keeping. He lays down an unflagging beat for the whole 10 minutes of the jammy, deceptively sedate “Hero”, providing a steady rhythmic backdrop for Delville and Grognard’s exertions. On the other hand, in the spectacular 18 minutes of “Falling Up Nº 9” – a tour de force that marries intoxicating psychedelic suggestions with chaotic free-jazz improvisation – he unleashes the pyrotechnics, the drums starting out in a subdued fashion, then gradually gaining intensity, sparring with Delville’s guitar and eerie electronic effects in an exhilarating crescendo.

Delville’s guitar runs the gamut from the blistering riffage of “Let Go”, with its almost metallic edge coupled with Grognard’s unbridled, highly emotional sax, to the intriguingly laid-back textures and staggered rhythms of “Knowledge”. The distinctive sound of the bouzouki, with its haunting, sitar-like twang, replaces the guitar in the Eastern-inspired “Khajurao” (named after the Hindu temple complex famous for its erotic sculptures) and album closer “Palitana Mood” – sinuously intertwining with Grognard’s breathy flutes, discreet percussion and buzzing electronic effects; while “UFO-RA” revolves around Delville’s slightly dissonant synth guitar, emoting over the lively pace set by drums, piano and sax.

A classy blend of stunning technical prowess, energy and creativity, As Real As Thinking is never predictable, and will not disappoint fans of independent labels such as ECM and Cuneiform, which, like Moonjune, comfortably straddle the lines between jazz, avant-garde, world music and progressive rock. In spite of the collective talent gathered here, the album celebrates the joy of unfettered playing, in a spirit that is both collaborative and mindful of each musician’s background and inclination. Though the album may be a daunting prospect for those who prize flowing melodies and carefully structured compositions, it is highly recommended to adventurous listeners and anyone who supports genuinely progressive music-making.

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

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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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