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Posts Tagged ‘Paolo Ske Botta’

TRACKLISTING:
1. A Child & A Well (4:46)
2. The Fall (5:27)
3. Man & Angel (5:30)
4. Little Town (5:31)
5. Run Free You Idiot (4:13)
6. Empty Promises (4:41)
7. The Postman (6:21)
8. A Fantasy (8:42)

LINEUP:
Julia Feldman – vocals
Udi Horev – guitar
Dvir Katz – flute
Yuri Tulchinsky – keyboards
Avi Cohen-Hillel – bass guitar
Michael Gorodinsky – drums

With:
Udi Koomran – electronics (8)

In spite of their name (Latin for “fake music”, referring to the use of notes lying outside the “true music” system as established by Guido D’Arezzo), there is nothing fake or contrived about Musica Ficta, an Israeli six-piece formed in 2003 by guitarist and composer Udi Horev. Their debut album, A Child & A Well (English translation of the Hebrew Yeled Vebeer) was originally recorded in 2005, but only released on the international market in 2012, on the Fading Records subdivision of  AltrOck Productions – thanks to renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran’s close relationship with the cutting-edge Italian label. Koomran, who mastered the album, also guests on one track; while Paolo “Ske” Botta is responsible for the stylish graphics.

Musica Ficta are a supergroup of sorts, featuring the considerable talents of Russian-born jazz singer Julia Feldman and flutist/composer Dvir Katz, known on the jazz scene as the leader of Chameleon Trio. The other band members (original keyboardist Yuri Tulchinsky was replaced by Omer Rizi just after the recording of the album) are also obviously very talented, and well-versed in a wide range of musical modes besides rock. This should not come as news to anyone familiar with the small but thriving Israeli progressive music scene, which last year produced one of the classiest “retro-prog” albums of 2011, Sanhedrin’s Ever After, and can boast of a strikingly original prog metal band such as Orphaned Land.

True to the multiethnic nature of their home country, Musica Ficta infuse their sound with influences that go beyond classic prog. The use of Hebrew for the lyrics (though all of the song titles are in English) adds an exotic touch to the music, whose heady blend of lyricism ad heaviness contains suggestions of medieval and Renaissance music, and tantalizing hints of Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music (particularly evident in the title-track). With those characteristics, further enhanced by the presence of a strong female vocalist, Musica Ficta may draw comparisons to Ciccada, a band whose debut album (bearing the uncannily similar title of A Child in the Mirror) was the first Fading Records release.

In keeping with a praiseworthy trend for shorter, more compact albums, A Child & A Well clocks in at a healthy 45 minutes, with relatively short tracks (the longest, the instrumental “A Fantasy”, is under 9 minutes) that nevertheless offer all the complexity and lush instrumentation that a self-respecting prog fan might desire. Most of the compositions feature Julia Feldman’s confident, highly trained voice, as capable of hitting the high notes as of reaching for deeper, more subdued tones. For some odd reason, however, her voice failed to resonate with me – especially in the album’s attempt at a power ballad of sorts, the slightly sappy “Little Town”, which is rescued by its Genesis-meets-PFM finale. Personal gripes aside, Feldman’s performance will not fail to impress fans of commanding female vocalists such as Annie Haslam or Christina Booth. The title-track (which can be also enjoyed as a video, with the band dressed in 18th-century costume) is probably Feldman’s finest hour on this album, the lilting, dance-like pace of the singing offset by the harder-edged instrumental sections, driven by organ and guitar.

The central role of the flute in A Child & A Well has elicited inevitable comparisons with Jethro Tull, compounded by the often aggressive stance of the electric guitar – and, indeed, Udi Horev’s approach owes a lot to Martin Barre’s hard-driving style. “Man & Angel” rests on the balance between gentler, vocal-based passages and heavier instrumental ones that characterizes much of the output of Ian Anderson’s band; the same dynamics of folk-ballad-meets-hard-rock can be found in the intense “The Postman”. Indeed, However, there are also nods to lesser-known outfits like Delirium (in my view, one of the best early Italian prog bands), whose influence emerges in the jazzy, bass-driven instrumental “Run Free You Idiot”  – an intriguing concoction of Avant suggestions, razor-sharp guitar riffs and lilting harpsichord that is definitely one of the highlights of the whole album. My personal pick, however, would be the 8-minute-plus “A Fantasy” – a stately, supremely atmospheric guitar showcase, acoustic at first, then electric, complemented by the eerily surging drone of Koomran’s haunting electronic soundscapes.

A Child & A Well is a superbly performed album that,while not perfect (I personally found the second half more satisfactory than the first), has the potential to appeal to most progressive rock fans, even those more inclined towards cutting-edge stuff rather than anything with a “retro” flavour. Unfortunately, Musica Ficta seem to have dropped off the radar in the past few years, with its members engaged in other projects. It is to be hoped that they will surface again in the near future, because their debut surely shows a lot of promise.

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

http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=125&id2=178

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TRACKLISTING:
CD 1 – Studio:
The Pocket Orchestra Tape 1983:
1. Imam Bialdi (6:24)
2. R. V. (7:04)
3. Regiments (14:59)
4. Letters (13:53)
The Knēbnagäujie Tape 1978-1979:
5. Blueing (7:10)
6. White Organ Meats (7:03)
7. Grandma Coming Down The Hall With A Hatchet (5:32)
8. Bagon (16:52)

CD 2 – Live:
1. Annex (5:56)
2. Bagon/Wandering Aimlessly (14:48)
3. Blirt (4:05)
4. Blueing (12:01)
5. Letters (19:12)
6. Parade (5:23)
7. Regiments (Parts 1, 2 and 3) (11:32)
8. Corn Fed (5:37)
9. Sound Check Bonus (0:43)

LINEUP:
Craig Bork – keyboards
Joe Halaijan (aka Joe Who)- clarinets, saxes, incidental vocals
Bill Johnston – cello
Tim Lyons – bass
Tim Parr – guitars
Bob Stearman – drums

With:
Craig Fry – flute (CD 1, 7)
Warren Ashford – tablas (CD 1, 7)
Jack Chandler – saxes (CD 2,  5-6)

If a contest was held for the unluckiest band on the progressive rock scene, Pocket Orchestra would have quite a few chances of winning first prize. In fact, only three members are left of the original six-piece lineup that recorded two demos between 1979 and 1984. What looked like a promising career for one the trailblazers of the RIO/Avant movement in the United States was cut short first by saxophonist Joe Halajian’s family problems (which led to the band going into hiatus), then by guitarist and main composer Tim Parr’s untimely demise in 1988. Thanks to the unstinting effort of Scott Brazieal, leader of Cartoon and a personal friend of the band, the material they had recorded in those short but intense five years finally saw the light in 2005, with the release of the CD Knēbnagäujie (the original name of the band). In the meantime, bassist Tim Lyons had passed away in 1998,  while drummer Bob Stearman (who had had a stroke in 2004) followed suit in 2010.

In spite of those unfortunate circumstances, Pocket Orchestra’s reputation remained very high in RIO/Avant circles, lending them a near-legendary aura in a context that often thrives on cult status. In 2011, Marcello Marinone and Francesco Zago of Italian label AltrOck Productions , assisted by such luminaries as Cuneiform Records’ Steve Feigenbaum and renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran, brought to light some of Pocket Orchestra’s unreleased recordings – including almost 80 minutes of live material – which eventually became the double CD set Phoenix, released in the second half of the year.

The album’s title, reinforced by Paolo “Ske” Botta’s striking cover artwork,  refers to the band’s hometown in Arizona, as well as to the almost miraculous reemergence of recordings that had seemed fated to remain buried in oblivion. Since Knēbnagäujie was sold out, the release of Phoenix was greeted enthusiastically by dedicated RIO/Avant followers, especially those interested in the US scene. While such archival operations rarely claim to present material in truly organic and cohesive form, Koomran’s state-of-the-art mastering has given new life to those 30-year-old live tapes, as well as to the contents of the original Knēbnagäujie  CD. Brazieal’s detailed liner notes, complemented by vintage photos of the band on stage and other memorabilia, complete this lovingly assembled tribute to the “Phoenix reborn”.

As can be expected from their checkered history, while undeniably gifted and dedicated to their craft, Pocket Orchestra had not yet fully developed their potential when circumstances forced them to call it a day. Their compositions suffer from occasional bouts of patchiness, added to some of those features that generally make the whole RIO/Avant subgenre so daunting (often unnecessarily so) to newcomers. Indeed, both the eight tracks on the studio CD and the nine on the live CD are nothing but ambitious and unpredictable, packed with twists and turns of every description.

While the founding fathers of the RIO movement such as Henry Cow and Univers Zero are inevitably referenced, the main influence that can be detected on Phoenix is that of Samla Mannas Manna,  another band belonging to the original RIO contingent – something that earned Pocket Orchestra the tag of “Samla of the desert”. However, Pocket Orchestra’s music is completely instrumental, and also decidedly less melodic, though imbued by a similar brand of playful light-heartedness, embodied by the use of circus music in “Grandma Coming Down the Hall With a Hatchet” .  Sudden blasts of saxophone and clarinet and wailing, piercing guitar excursions seem to be the rule, with Bob Stearman engaging in a mind-boggling range of intricate rhythmic patterns to propel the sound forward.

The word “anarchic” is probably the best description of Pocket Orchestra’s approach. The average composition can suddenly shift from a laid-back, almost meditative pace to unrelieved chaos – as exemplified by “R.V”, whose first half is deceptively mellow, then erupts into an intense, free-form maelstrom of sound. The sedate, piano-driven passages in the 14-minute, Canterbury-influenced “Letters” are bound to bring to mind the easy elegance of Hatfield and the North or National Health, offset by Parr’s aggressive guitar solo at the end. On the other hand, album closer “Bagon” marries the lovely, melodic Canterbury feel with more typical RIO features such as blaring sax and strident guitar.  As a whole, the first four tracks –dating back from 1983, immediately before Pocket Orchestra went on hiatus – come across as more accomplished, showing a band well on its way to reining in the in-your-face dissonance and chaos that instead emerge in the studio CD’s second half.

The second CD offers an invaluable testimony of the band’s brisk live activity in the years 1980-1984, and includes a number of previously unreleased tracks, as well as noteworthy versions of “Letters” and “Regiments”. Udi Koomran’s experience in the studio managed to bring out the best in recordings whose original quality was less than ideal, presenting a band that was definitely at home on stage. While some of the longer tracks may still reveal a bit of self-indulgence, the shorter ones, such as “Parade” or “Corn Fed”,  show how Pocket Orchestra were gradually but clearly finding their own unique voice and direction, and at the same time tightening up on the compositional aspect.

Though somewhat clichéd, the definition of “rollercoaster ride” seems to be a perfect fit for an album like Phoenix, which probably should come with a warning sticker. While its blend of dignified chamber rock, wild, wacky all-out experimentation and the occasional foray into sophisticated, Canterbury-style jazz-rock will not fail to appeal to fans of everything RIO/Avant, even a cursory listen to opener “Imam Bialdi” will send the average “mainstream” prog fan running for the exits. While bands like Miriodor or Yugen might have a broader crossover appeal and win over staunch devotees of symphonic prog, Pocket Orchestra, as captured on this double set, were definitely raw and uncompromising. All in all, though not exactly a comfortable listen, Phoenix is a moving tribute to a band that might have grown into a force to be reckoned with, had not fate got in the way.

Links:
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=ita_&id=171&id2=172

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/pocket-orchestra-p876979/biography

 
 

 

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