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TRACKLISTING:

1. Where Are They Now? (20:38)
2. The Mind’s Eye (8:15)
3. Perdu Dans Paris (10:47)
4. Paroxetine 20mg (7:15)
5. A Sale of Two Souls (7:51)
6. GPS Culture (7:00)
7. The Music That Died Alone (7:51)
8. In Darkest Dreams (including “After Phaedra”) (21:25)**

** on DVD disc only

LINEUP:
Andy Tillison – lead vocals, keyboards
Jonathan Barrett – bass
Luke Machin – guitar, vocals
Tony Latham – drums
Theo Travis – saxophones, flute

Just like Phideaux, The Tangent are one of those bands that do not need to be introduced to prog fans – unless they are the kind that adamantly refuses to listen to anything produced later than 1989. In spite of their frequent line-up changes, the fiercely independent outfit, based in an artistically fertile area like the north of England, has always been much more than just a vehicle for the undisputed talent of Andy Tillison – keyboardist, singer and songwriter with a a passion for the making of progressive rock with a keen edge of social and political awareness. Straddling the line between vintage and modernity, The Tangent have established a reputation for thought-provoking music with a healthy dose of dry British wit, and the kind of technical brilliance that is put at the service of the music rather than the other way around.

As the title indicates, Going Off on Two is the logical follow-up to the band’s first live album and DVD, released in 2007 and titled Going Off on One – though the line-up has undergone yet another overhaul (and, at the time of writing, has further changed, with drummer Nick Rickwood replacing Tony Latham). However, while the 2007 set was based on actual concerts, for Going Off on Two The Tangent have chosen a bold, unusual format that may well set a trend within the prog scene. Making full use of a live-in-the studio situation, the band are playing, to all intents and purposes, before a worldwide audience: the numerous fans from over 40 countries that have helped the DVD happen through their financial support. Recorded over a period of five days in December 2010 in a converted abattoir in the town of Stockport (on the outskirts of Manchester), it was inspired by popular Seventies TV programmes such as the legendary “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, whose performances often resulted in much sought-after recordings. The “gig” brings together the best of two worlds, the immediacy of a live performance and the relative comfort of the studio surroundings.

The polar opposite of the shallow, image-driven acts that command the attention of modern audiences, the band members are five refreshingly ordinary men of various ages that look as if they are genuinely having fun, in spite of the high level of complexity of their music – they are even shown dancing outside the studio in the end credits of the DVD. Dressed in comfortable, everyday clothes, obviously at ease with each other, they certainly do not deserve the vicious jibes flung at them by some alleged music journalist with a shockingly unprofessional attitude. Thankfully, progressive rock is not the sole prerogative of young, good-looking hipsters, and prog artists have every right to look like “accountants and sheep farmers” instead of posing as something they are not.

The 90-minute DVD, filmed by experienced documentary director Paul Brow, comes strikingly packaged with stunning cover artwork by renowned artist Ed Unitsky (a longtime collaborator of the band). While it contains few extras, they will definitely be of interest to fans of the band, or even to those who are getting acquainted with them. The images are crisp and clean, and the excellent photo gallery depicts the band members in various, often humorous situations, emphasizing their endearingly down-to-earth attitude. Though mostly focused on technical matters, the interviews are liberally laced with humour, and can be enjoyed even by those who (like myself) are not practising musicians. I especially liked the part in which Tillison explains his use of computers to generate all sorts of keyboard sounds, pointing out that Seventies icons like Emerson and Wakeman were ground-breaking because they made use of cutting-edge technology. So much for the current obsession with anything analog!

The 8 tracks chosen for this landmark performance span all of The Tangent’s almost 10-year career, bearing witness to the band’s remarkable skill in quality control. Indeed, The Tangent bridge the gap between classic prog of the symphonic persuasion and the elegant jazz-rock of the Canterbury scene, with a sound that is at the same time sleek and intricate, melodic and edgy, with plenty of wit thrown into soften the blow of the often barbed social commentary. While Andy Tillison’s voice may be a bit of an acquired taste, and it is definitely not you would call conventionally “beautiful”, its wry, understated tone blends surprising well with the music. And then, in spite of the obvious collective talent involved, The Tangent are not interested in bludgeoning the listener over the head with their technical prowess, even if their obvious dedication to their craft is highlighted in the brief interviews included in the Extras. While the current members of the band may not be as well-known as some of its former members (which, especially in the early days of the band’s activity, led critics to label them as a “supergroup”), they are certainly no less talented. In particular, Tony “Funkytoe” Latham’s drumming is nothing short of stunning, and Jonathan Barrett’s fretless bass delivers the kind of fat, slinky lines that prog fans have come to treasure.

The setlist offers a nicely balanced selection of material, bookended by two 20-minute epics dating from different stages of The Tangent’s career – “Where Are They Now?”, from 2009’s Down and Out in Paris and London,  and “In Darkest Dreams” from their 2003 debut, The Music That Died Alone. Two particularly tasty tidbits for the band’s fans appear in the shape of “The Mind’s Eye”, from the forthcoming album COMM (to be released in the fall of 2011), and Andy Tillison’s homage to German Seventies electro-prog masters Tangerine Dream, “After Phaedra” (which is only featured on the DVD). The former is a tense, edgy number driven by Tillison’s powerfully expressive keyboard work and fresh-faced new guitarist Luke Machin’s sharp yet fluid guitar; while the latter is accompanied by striking psychedelic visuals reminiscent of the Seventies, yet also amazingly modern.The occasional use of split, parallel frames (which in “Where Are They Now?” show idyllic views of England’s “green and pleasant land”) adds further interest to the “concert” footage. However the highlight of the DVD , in visual terms lies in the stunning images of Paris by night that are seamlessly integrated into the band’s performance of “Perdu Dans Paris” – which in the second half of the song, in order to complement the lyrical matter, turn into heart-wrenching shots of homeless people, in stark contrast with the beauty and allure of the Ville Lumière.

The stripped-down setting – so unglamorous to trendy so-called journalists, but perfectly in character with the reality of things for most prog artists (as illustrated in my reviews of gigs at Baltimore’s Orion Studios) – sets off the band’s unassuming, yet dedicated attitude, the undeniable intricacy of the music tempered by humour and level-headedness. The members of The Tangent may not look like rockstars (as none of us thankfully do), but they obviously love every minute of what they do, and the very format of the DVD celebrates the nowadays indispensable synergy between artists and their followers. The Tangent represent a voice of strong integrity in today’s music world, proving to the sceptics that progressive rock in the 21st century is not merely a vehicle for dazzling instrumental performances and lyrical escapism, but can foster social awareness and create a genuine bond between providers and users of art.

Links:
http://www.thetangent.org

http://www.paulbrow.co.uk

www.edunitsky.com

 

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Snowtorch – Part One (19:39)
a) Star of Light
b) Retrograde
c) Fox on the Rocks
d) Celestine
2. Helix (5:54)
3. Snowtorch – Part Two (16:11)
a) Blowtorch Snowjob
b) Fox Rock 2
c) Coronal Mass Ejection
4. ” … ” (2:34)

LINEUP:
Phideaux Xavier – acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Ariel Farber – vocals, violin
Valerie Gracious – vocals
‘Bloody’ Rich Hutchins – drums
Mathew Kennedy – bass guitar
Gabriel Moffat – electric guitar
Linda Ruttan Moldawsky – vocals, metal percussion
Molly Ruttan – vocals
Mark Sherkus – keyboards, piano
Johnny Unicorn – keyboards, saxophone, vocals

With:
Stephanie Fife – cello
Chris Bleth – flute, soprano saxophone

With 7 albums released since 2003 (not counting Ghost Story, originally released in 1997 and reissued in 2004, and mostly consisting of material dating from a previous project called Satyricon) Phideaux need  no introduction to prog fans. Based on a group of childhood friends who grew up together in the New York area, but are now scattered all over the US territory, they are a proudly independent outfit, a group of gifted musicians coming from diverse backgrounds led by the remarkable talent of Phideaux Xavier, whose highly individual approach to the production of progressive rock has turned them into firm favourites of a wide-ranging, yet rather volatile scene.

Throughout the years the band have perfected a format that, while not exactly uncommon in the prog world, has been given a new twist by Phideaux Xavier’s fertile mind and keen awareness of social matters. All of the band’s albums since 2006’s The Great Leap have been based on elaborate concepts that, eschewing the  often formulaic fantasy topics that are still quite popular with prog bands and their fans, present reflections on the state of  the modern world – albeit coached in metaphorical terms. In some ways, Phideaux has become a 21st-century equivalent of Roger Waters, down to the configuration of the band – which, with its ten members, plus various collaborators, is a veritable mini-orchestra. Everything, so to speak, is done in the family, with guitarist Gabriel Moffat in the role of the producer, and backing vocalists (and twin sisters) Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan Moldavsky responsible for the elegantly minimalistic artwork.

Released in the spring of 2011, a couple of months before Phideaux’s appearance at the 2011 edition of ROSfest, Snowtorch is a compact, 45-minute offering that  manages to pack more content in its streamlined running time than most of the sprawling behemoths favoured by some artists. Featuring the same line-up as its predecessor, 2009’s  Number Seven, it is, in Phideaux’s own words, “a musing on life, language and solar flares”, conceived as single suite in various movements, though split in two separate halves connected by a stand-alone song also based on the composition’s main theme.This strategy of building the album’s musical content around a recurring theme is what makes Snowtorch a symphonic offering in the truest sense of the word. With a perfect balance between vocal and instrumental parts, and the added bonus of thought-provoking lyrics, the album stakes its claim as the rightful heir of the great classics of the Seventies – though bringing a definitely modern twist to those old prog warhorses, the epic and the concept album.

In fact, listening to Snowtorch may evoke strong comparisons with classical music, on account of both the structure and the nature of the compositions, which combine the powerful surge of exhilarating crescendos with intimate, low-key moments. However, Phideaux’s sound is quite far removed from the somewhat cheesy grandiosity of bands such as The Enid. With two keyboardists (plus Phideaux himself on piano) providing a lush, yet tightly-woven background tapestry, bolstered by Ariel Farber’s violin and guest artist Stephanie Fife’s cello, Chris Bleth’s flute adding a pastoral touch to some of the quieter sections, the music possesses a dramatic fullness that complements the harmonious beauty of the vocal parts.

The first half of the “Snowtorch” suite opens with the subdued melody of “Star of Light”, introduced by piano, organ and Phideaux’s husky, expressive voice; then it soon gains intensity, the intricate, orchestral keyboards and relentless drumming driving the vocals along towards a climax. The main theme is introduced, and brought to fruition in a splendid, organ-driven section peppered by guitar excursions, the two instruments sparring in a peaks-and-valleys pattern. “Retrograde” revolves around a lovely, emotional duet between Phideaux and the band’s other lead vocalist, Valerie Gracious, whose soaring soprano shows more than a hint of steel without any trace of saccharine – an enthralling song almost out of a classic Broadway musical. The entertaining ditty “Fox on the Rocks” (with lyrics penned by keyboardist Johnny Unicorn), sung by Phideaux in a near-falsetto register, prepares the listener for  instrumental “Celestine”, a veritable keyboard tour-de-force,  pastoral and stormy in turns, where solemn mellotron washes underpin the sparring of piano, synth and organ, with violin, metal percussion and sax joining the fray.

As previously hinted, “Helix” bridges the gap between the two parts of the titular suite – a majestic, powerful piece sustained by Valerie Gracious’ commanding performance, with all the instruments working together to produce a solid wall of sound  – which reminded me of the dramatic sweep of some episodes of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. “Snowtorch Part Two” – shorter and somewhat edgier than Part One – opens in almost upbeat fashion with the funnily (and punnily)-titled instrumental “Blowtorch Snowjob”, then culminates in the explosive, ELP-influenced keyboard-and-drum orgy of “Fox Rock 2” (with an unbridled organ solo that would sit quite comfortably on Tarkus). Things finally mellow out with the sedate, Pinkfloydian atmosphere of “Coronal Mass Ejection”, an ominous, somber piece which reprises the album’s main theme, briefly climaxes with guitar slashes and intense vocals, then ends with sparse piano. The short “ghost track” included at the end as a sort of instrumental summary wraps things up with a cheery feel that seems to release the tension built up throughout the album.

Effortlessly marrying superb musicianship and genuine passion, Snowtorch brims with gorgeous melodies, the kind that stick in your mind for quite a while. While often pervaded by a sense of impending doom, it can also be oddly jaunty; for all its lush, multilayered arrangements, it is never gratuitously pretentious. With all-round flawless performances, excellent songwriting and beautiful singing, it has quickly established itself as one of the strongest releases of the year so far. Though influenced by the great tradition of the golden age of prog, unlike the myriad of “retro” acts Phideaux manage to sound like no one else on the current scene. An album such as Snowtorch is living proof of how they are almost single-handedly dragging symphonic prog right into the 21st century.

Links:
http://www.bloodfish.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Suite: Yehsu Beelzebobs (8:07)
2. Nauxluv (2:35)
3. The Ballad of Bobby (2:17)
4. Own Best Friend Today (4:08)
5. Bobby’s Lament (1:35)
6. Tatisef/Hatihafren (3:59)
7. A Party of Friends (6:49)
8. R Time (3:22)
9. War on Friends (10:43)
10. Forever After (6:29)

LINEUP:
Derek Campbell – vocals, guitar, voice of  Advertisement, voice of Friends
Micah Carbonneau – drums, percussion, bass, upright bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals, voice of Bobby
Luke Laplant – baritone saxophone, E.W.I. , keyboards

With:
Alex Wolston – trumpet (3, 9)
Natalie Cooper – vocals, voice of Mary (4, 7)
Megan Garrity – voice of Bedsy (7)

“Zappa is dead, long live Zappa!”… This could be a perfect caption for Believe in Your Own Best Friend, Electric Sorcery’s third album. The über-eclectic outfit, hailing from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, first came to my attention when I reviewed their second release (simply titled Electric Sorcery II) couple of years ago. A dynamic power trio with a twist, whose individual members have played in a number of local bands since the early Nineties, Electric Sorcery are one of the most potentially exciting bands I have happened to come across in my years as a reviewer. With that genuinely omnivorous attitude that is the trademark of the best progressive rock acts, for their third CD release they have taken the plunge and adopted the loved/loathed ‘rock opera’ format, which over the years has produced a number of masterpieces, but also quite a few turkeys.

Quite busy as a live band on their home turf, Electric Sorcery often play covers alongside their original material, with Frank Zappa as ne of the mainstays of their repertoire. While Zappa’s influence on many bands of the RIO/Avant persuasion is quite evident, no one had yet had the audacity to attempt a recreation of his more irreverent, censorship-prone material, rather than the sophisticated jazz-rock of albums such as Hot Rats or Apostrophe.  However, Electric Sorcery have done it, and concocted a whole album revolving around as outrageous a story as they come, which seems to be a perfect fit for the general socio-political climate of the early 21st century – though  viewed through a grotesque filter rather than in the gloomy, dystopian terms of the likes of Queensryche’s Operation:Mindcrime.

On the band’s website, the album is introduced by a hilarious ‘warning’ note (as in a send-up of those “parental advisory” stickers) that quotes Zappa’s own words, as well as mentioning the evils of cable TV. Based on an idea by drummer Micah Carbonneau and developed in writing by guitarist/vocalist Derek Campbell, the background story (the titular ‘best friend’ being a nickname for an electronic sex aid) throws in such taboo subjects as murder and cannibalism, together with the relatively tamer issues of sex with underage partners, drug use, and the inevitable political shenanigans, wrapping things up with a global-scale war. Undoubtedly an outlandish, over-the-top tale, it is also oddly intriguing, in spite of its overtly seedy nature (which is likely to put off the more strait-laced listeners).

Though the music might be expected to take a back seat to the story, it nevertheless manages to break through even the most manic singing episodes, as immediately displayed in album opener “Suite: Yehsu Beelzebobs”, a number of astounding complexity, peppered with sound and vocal effects, and introducing the album’s leitmotiv. Campbell’s deep baritone voice often sounds like a dead ringer for Zappa’s, and the head-spinning tempo changes and sultry sax solo at the end are sure to catch the attention of sophisticated listeners. The following track, “Nauxluv”, introduces one of the distinctive elements of Electric Sorcery’s musical melting pot, a jaunty reggae rhythm punctuated by Luke Laplant’s sax.  After “The Ballad of Bobby”, a brief, subdued instrumental interlude featuring the slow, mournful surge of guest Alex Wolston’s trumpet, the upbeat mood of the first two tracks is reprised  in “Own Best Friend Today”, one of the main narrative pieces with plenty of vocal interplay, and great sax and drum work to push the musical component to the fore.

The second instrumental interlude, the country/folk-tinged “Bobby’s Lament”, acts as a gateway of sorts to the second half of the album, decidedly more experimental in tone than the first. Narrative pieces like the theatrical, drum-powered “Tatisef/Hatihafren” and the chaotic “Party of Friends”, laden with distorted vocals and electronic effects, are balanced by the mainly instrumental direction of the last three tracks, in which the band veer towards decidedly psychedelic territory. While “R Time” features very expressive vocals by Campbell (who is an excellent singer, as I first noticed when reviewing the band’s previous album), “War on Friends” (at over 10 minutes, the longest number on an album clocking in at a very restrained 48 minutes) and “Forever After” have the sparse, loose feel of a jam session, relying heavily on spacey guitar and keyboards, burbling sound effects and dramatic cymbal crashes that create an ominous, cinematic soundscape. While the unstructured nature of these tracks might put off those listeners who like more disciplined compositions – as well as those whose main interest lies in the story line – they provide a fitting conclusion for such an unabashedly wacky, anarchic effort.

Though Frank Zappa is very openly referenced on the album, both musically and lyrically, it would be unfair to call Believe in Your Own Best Friend derivative. It should rather be seen as a heartfelt homage to one of the few genuinely revolutionary musicians in the history of rock, and also as a brave proposition for a band who is still an unknown quantity in most prog circles. Even if I am not completely sure that such an idiosyncratic album may be the most effective way to put them on the extensive prog map, it is an entertaining, lovingly crafted disc by a trio of open-minded musicians who obviously do not care about fads or labels, and will keep on doing the music they want for as long as they enjoy it. The album can be downloaded from the Bandcamp link below.

Links:
http://lyndonunderground.com/electricsorcery.htm

http://electricsorcery.bandcamp.com/album/believe-in-own-best-friend

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Sirens Dance (3:52)
2. Aging Backwards (5:20)
3. Flanders Fields (5:05)
4. Sleepless Night (5:59)
5. Horny (2:57)
6. Little Bird (4:09)
7. Duck on a Walk (3:25)
8. The Greatest Kick of the Day (3:23)
9. Never Lose your Mind (2:43)
10. Love Song (5:27)
11. Purple Frog (5:05)

LINEUP:
Jonathan Callens – drums, backing vocals (9)
Jouni Isoherranen – bass, backing vocals  (5, 9)
Gabor Humble Vörös – guitar, vocals
Pol Mareen – saxophone
Pedro Guridi – clarinets, backing vocals (5)
Pieter Claus – marimba, vibraphone, percussions

With:
Lisa Jordens – backing vocals (3, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Hanneke Osterlijnck – backing vocals (3, 6)
Joriska Vanhaelewyn – backing vocals  (2)
Juan Carlos Torres Iturra – Spanish vocals (6)
Leika Mochan – backing vocals (9)
Attila Czigany – harmonica (6)
Joris Buysse – flute  (6)
Fre Vandaele – whistle (3, 4)
Wouter Vandenabeele – violin (4)
Megan Quill – vocals (10, 11)
Franciska Roose – vocals (10, 11)

Many will almost automatically associate Belgium with the more left-field fringes of progressive rock, as the country has contributed essentially to the development of the subgenre with outfits such as Univers Zéro, Present, and Aranis. Though those bands seem to enjoy a rather daunting reputation in the more traditionalist prog circles, even a superficial listen to Humble Grumble’s debut album, Flanders Fields, will come as a positive surprise to those who tend to dismiss anything even remotely ‘avant-garde’ as noisy or depressing.

Humble Grumble was first formed in 1996 in the Belgian region of Ghent by Hungarian guitarist/vocalist Gabor Humble Vörös and other former members of a folk/jazz ensemble called Dearest Companion. Though that first incarnation disbanded after some time, the band was reformed in more recent times as a multicultural outfit, with members hailing from Finland and Chile as well as Belgium. The result was  Flanders Fields, released in the first half of 2011 by Italian label AltrOck Productions.

While placing Humble Grumble under the capacious RIO/Avant umbrella may be the easiest solution when it comes to the very popular activity of classifying a band or artist, it also paints a rather limited picture of this decidedly intriguing outfit. A sextet conspicuously lacking in keyboards, but employing instead saxophone, clarinet, vibraphone and marimba, Humble Grumble also avail themselves of the collaboration of a host of guest artists, which lends their music a well-rounded, almost orchestral quality.

On the other hand, Flanders Fields is very much a song-based effort, with 10 out of 11 tracks featuring vocals, none of them running above 6 minutes. The whole album clocks in at a very restrained 43 minutes, which allows the listener to fully appreciate the music without getting overwhelmed by it (as is far too often the case with modern releases). The short running time, however, may somewhat deceptive, since each of the tracks is densely packed with tempo changes, intriguing vocal interplay and rhythmic solutions of frequently astounding complexity – all flavoured with unashamed eclecticism. This makes for a surprisingly listener-friendly mixture, though obviously not in a commercial sense.

The most surprising thing about the album, though, is its strongly upbeat nature, and that in spite of the distincly subdued nature of the title-track, whose lyrics juxtapose somber remembrances of WWI with equally pessimistic musings on the state of modern-day Belgium. With this one notable exception, Flanders Fields brims with nonsensical, somewhat anarchic humour that inevitably brings to mind the likes of Frank Zappa and Gong. The latter band is probably the most evident term of comparison for Humble Grumble – down to its multi-national configuration. Mainman Gabor Humble’s engaging vocal approach is quite reminiscent of Daevid Allen’s (as well as Robert Wyatt and Caravan’s Pye Hastings), with the frequent intervention of female backing vocalists bringing to mind more than a fleeting echo of those notorious “space whispers” (especially in the self-explanatory “Horny”, a short, lively Gong-meets-Zappa number). Drums and percussion play a large, not merely propulsive role, while Humble’s guitar is nicely complemented by the warm, expressive tones of the reeds, so that keyboards are never really missed. In spite of the ‘avant’ tag, there is a lot of melody and very little dissonance in Humble Grumble’s sound, as well as plenty of diverse ‘world music’ influences.

Rather uncharacteristically Flanders Fields opens with its only instrumental track, “Sirens Dance”, in which Eastern touches and slow, almost sultry jazzy tones spice up a dynamic, cheerful fabric. “Aging Backwards” introduces Gabor Humble’s melodic yet keenly ironical vocals, as well as displaying his remarkably versatile guitar playing; while the title-track, as previously hinted, brings a note of sober melancholy, the beautiful female harmony vocals and the clear, tinkling sound of the marimba adding a lyrical, romantic tinge. “Sleepless Night”, with its Gentle Giant-inspired vocal harmonies, keeps up the understated mood of the title-track, enhanced by the wistful voice of the violin – a mood that recurs in the mellow, almost delicate “Never Lose Your Mind”, where the lush vocal harmonies evoke Queen as well as Gentle Giant. On the other hand, the more upbeat numbers such as  the folk-meets-Avant “Little Bird”, with vocals both in English and Spanish,  and the funny, lively “Duck on a Walk” conjure echoes of Canterbury; while the Gong and Zappa references emerge most clearly in the last couple of songs, “Love Song” and “Purple Frog”, though tempered by gentler passages led by reeds or female vocals.

Warmly recommended to devotees of Gong and the Canterbury scene in general – as well as any act that uses humour as an essential ingredient of its music –  Flanders Fields can nonetheless appeal to all but the most staunchly conservative prog fans. In particular, those who are not crazy about lengthy epics will be impressed by the way in which Humble Grumble manage to introduce a high level of complexity within the restrictions of the song format. A very enjoyable release from another excellent addition to the already outstanding AltrOck Production roster.

Links:
http://www.humblegrumble.be/

http://www.myspace.com/humblegrumble

http://production.altrock.it/

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SETLIST:
1. Irreducible Complexity
2. Manifest Density
3. Nacho Sunset
4. Kuru
5. Disillusioned Avatar > Dub > Ephebus Amoebus
6. Skein
7. Synecdoche
8. Okanogan Lobe
[Break]
9. Bagua > Kan Hai De Re Zi > Third View
10. Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds
11. Fountain of Euthanasia
12. Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari
13. Blues for a Bruised Planet
14. Waylaid
15. Middlebräu [encore]

Last year at NEARfest I had my first taste of Moraine’s music, even if in the months prior to the event I had often been tempted to check out their debut album, Manifest Density, after reading some flattering comments around the Internet. Unfortunately, my commitments as a reviewer did not allow me a lot of room for ‘recreational listening’, so to speak, so the day of Moraine’s performance found me still completely unfamiliar with their considerable talent. Those who have read my review of the festival will know that I considered Moraine to be probably the most authentically progressive band of the whole weekend, and one of my personal highlights together with Forgas Band Phenomena (an outfit whose music has some similarities with Moraine’s, though more noticeably influenced by the Canterbury sound). Even though they had been placed in the awkward slot of Sunday openers, and faced with an audience many members of which swooned at The Enid’s somewhat cheesy antics and thought that The Pineapple Thief were not ‘prog enough’ for the hallowed halls of the Zoellner Arts Center, they managed to gain quite a few fans – including my husband and myself. Indeed, we were so impressed by their performance that we went to meet the band after their set. In the following months, that first contact blossomed into a treasured friendship.

Even if somebody might think that my judgment as regards Moraine’s performance on the night of Saturday, April 30 (the third date of a 4-date Northeast tour) might be clouded by my personal feelings, I am quite capable of being objective, and would not spare any criticism if I believed it was in any way warranted. However, I am happy to say that Saturday’s gig at the Orion was an unqualified success. Having had almost a whole year to become familiar with Moraine’s output,  this time I was able to appreciate every nuance of the show, as well as the subtle but noticeable modifications in their sound brought about by the line-up change that followed the release of Manifest Density. In spite of the hurdles faced by almost every independent outfit these days – lack of touring opportunities, real-life commitments and such – on the Orion stage Moraine came across as a well-oiled machine, the chemistry between the five members nothing short of amazing.

Those who have watched the seminal documentary Romantic Warriors will remember the Orion Studios, a former warehouse located in a decidedly unglamorous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baltimore, yet possessed of a unique, club-like character. With a couple of couches, a few folding chairs and a table generally laid out with snacks and drinks, countless posters and flyers decorating the walls, a couple of weird figures hanging from the ceiling, it reminds me of the basements (or ‘cellars’) in the centre of Rome which, in the Eighties, functioned as both rehearsal spaces for bands and meeting points for their friends and supporters. In spite of the diminutive size of the main stage area, the place is like a maze, offering valuable recording and rehearsing spaces to local musicians. This quirky yet intimate backdrop was ideal for a band like Moraine, even more so than the immaculate NEARfest stage. As regards attendance, I judged about 50 people to be present – more than the band are used to attracting in their home town of Seattle,  and a satisfactory turnout for a single-bill evening – even though last year I had seen twice as many people line up outside the venue in order to see a tribute band. This, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of the ‘prog community’ in the US Northeast, as I pointed out in the two essays I wrote after NEARfest 2011’s cancellation.

Though often tagged as ‘avant-garde’ (much to their amusement), like all truly progressive bands Moraine defy description. Their variegated backgrounds converge very effectively both on stage and on record, instead of resulting in a patchy mess: while their compositions – often penned by individual members rather than shared efforts – showcase their different approaches. With the dry, slightly self-deprecating humour that characterizes their interaction with the public, the band describe themselves as ‘omnivorous’. On the other hand, at least from what was seen at the Orion, they have not abandoned their rock roots – though of course there is not even a whiff of the time-honoured, though somewhat corny antics of the typical rock musician in Moraine’s stage presence. Even if towards the end of the set we were treated to a short drum solo, it was blessedly devoid of the cheesiness often inherent to such spots.

Coming on stage at about 8.30 p.m., the band delivered an extremely tight performance, richly eclectic and riveting in its intensity, interspersed by Dennis Rea’s brief but humorous introductions. A short break allowed both the band and audience to recharge their batteries, and from comments overheard during that time it was clear that the audience was won over by Moraine’s blend of chops and sheer enthusiasm. This was progressive rock with a capital P, fresh and innovative even when occasionally hinting at some ‘golden oldies’. Unlike far too many modern prog bands, Moraine manage not to sound like anyone else: the closest term of comparison would be King Crimson circa Red, though more in terms of attitude than actual sound, especially as regards the coexistence of melody and angularity, and the presence of both violin and reeds coupled with the conspicuous absence of prog’s ‘sacred cow’, the keyboards. The departure of cellist and band founder Ruth Davidson (a fan of Univers Zéro, as evidenced by her composition “Save the Yuppie Breeding Grounds”) has also altered the ‘chamber’ nature of the band in favour of a more dynamic approach, powered by Jim DeJoie’s assertive sax (which on Saturday night was a bit low in the mix).

To those who had read reviews of the band’s NEARfest performance described as ‘noise-drenched’ (something that, coupled with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, is guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the more conservative set of prog fans), the melodic quotient of Saturday night’s show is likely to have come as a surprise. The medley featuring Alicia DeJoie’s gorgeous “Disillusioned Avatar” and Kevin Millard’s “Ephebus Amoebus” aptly displayed the band’s more sensitive side; while the overtly jarring chaos of “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (wittily introduced as a ‘romantic ballad’, and probably the one track actually deserving of the ‘avant-garde’ tag) was followed by the melancholy beauty of “Blues for a Bruised Planet”. Millard’s distinctive-looking, customized Chapman stick (dubbed ‘baliset’ by the bassist, a long-time fan of Frank Herbert’s iconic Dune) meshed seamlessly with Stephen Cavit’s complex yet remarkably unflashy drum patterns, and Alicia DeJoie’s shiny purple violin caught the eye as well as the ear. Jim DeJoie (Alicia’s husband) expertly wielded his impressive saxophone, coming across as the most ‘physical’ member of the band. In fact, if I had to level one criticism at Moraine’s performance, it would concern their somewhat static presence, at least partially due to the size of the stage. Not that anyone was expecting Dennis Rea to start throwing guitar-hero-style shapes, though his solos revealed a definitely sharper rock bent than evidenced either on Manifest Density or in his other recent projects. Besides the jazz, rock and avant-garde influences, fans of world music were also catered for by the enchanting “Asian Suite”, featuring themes from three of the five tracks included on View from Chicheng Precipice, Rea’s first solo venture.

The show also provided Moraine with the opportunity to present some of the new material they had been working on in the past year or so – namely three intense, hard-hitting yet multifaceted numbers titled “Skein”, “Synecdoche” and “Fountain of Euthanasia”, which showed a band growing by leaps and bounds both in cohesion and on the compositional level. Like the material on Manifest Density, those new tracks are rather short for prog standards, yet brimming with energy and a kind of creative impulse divorced from sterile displays of technical skill. On the other hand, unlike the debut’s compositions, which in many ways represented each member’s temperament, the new numbers sound more clearly shaped by collective input.  As impressive as Moraine’s debut was, their future – judging by what was heard on Saturday night – looks even brighter.

The wonderful musical experience was wrapped up by a night out in downtown Baltimore, complete with a walk through the city’s rather seedy red-light district and a late-night dinner (or perhaps early breakfast, since it was 2 a.m. when we sat down) at an ‘Italian’ restaurant – the kind that serves filling but rather unauthentic dishes such as spaghetti with meatballs. We also managed to get the last of the T-shirts and mugs designed expressly for the tour by David Gaines, a friend of the band and talented musician himself, based like us in the DC metro area. All in all, it was an evening that packed the friendly, laid-back vibe of a get-together at someone’s house with a select group of friends, as well as that community spirit that I have often mentioned in my reviews. Hopefully Moraine will be able to return to the Northeast soon after the release of their second album, which will mainly feature music recorded live at NEARfest.

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.orionsound.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Loopy (5.59)
2. A Serious Man (3.49)
3. Mom’s Song (2.05)
4. Bar Stomp (3.04)
5. Outdoor Revolution (3.08)
6. Western Sky (2.12)
7. Burning Match (5.11)
8. Claire’s Indigo (2.11)
9. Snufkin (2.48)
10. Old Silhouette (4.12)
11. Winds of Grace (8.39)

LINEUP:
Dani Rabin – guitar
Danny Markovitch – saxophone
Steve Rodby – bass
Paul Wertico – drums, percussion (1, 8)

With:
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Matt Davidson – vocals (3, 6)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 6)
Makaya McCraven – drums (4)
Daniel White – lyrics, vocals (11)

Marbin’s eponymous debut came to my attention towards the end of 2009, soon after its release. Even if the duo formed by two young, talented Israeli-born musicians who had recently moved to Chicago was an unknown quantity to me and most other reviewers, the album’s endearingly naïve artwork and intriguing musical offer were enough to warrant closer scrutiny. With a name cleverly fashioned out of the surnames of the two artists (Danny MARkovitch and Dani RaBIN), Marbin made their debut on the US music scene with an album full of intriguing melodies crafted with ony two instruments – Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s saxophone – characterised by an ethereal, almost brittle quality, reminiscent of the delicacy of Far Eastern art, complex yet at the same time not too taxing for the listener.

The year 2010 marked a veritable quantum leap for Marbin (very active on the live front in the Chicago area), when they came under the radar of MoonJune Records’ mainman Leonardo Pavkovic, a man with a keen eye for new acts of outstanding quality. Promptly snapped up by the New York-based label, Marbin – who in the meantime had become a real band, with the addition of  Pat Metheny alumni Steve Rodby (bass) and Paul Wertico (drums) – released their second album at the beginning of 2011.

Breaking the Cycle is indeed an impressive effort, which sees the band build upon the foundation laid by their debut, while fine-tuning their sound and adding layers of complexity, though without making things unnecessarily convoluted. Indeed, rather interestingly, a fellow reviewer used the term ‘easy listening’ in connection to the album –  a definition that may conjure images of that openly commercial subgenre known as smooth jazz. However, while Breaking the Cycle does have plenty of smoothness and melody, I would certainly never call it background music. The presence of a full-blown rhythm section has given a boost to the ambient-tinged, chamber-like atmosphere of the debut, and some of the tracks display a more than satisfying level of energy and dynamics, all the while keeping true to the deeper nature of their sound.

Clocking in at slightly over 40 minutes, Breaking the Cycle immediately appears as a supremely sophisticated effort, starting from the striking cover artwork whose mix of the industrial (the bridge on the front cover) and the natural (the elephant on the back cover) seems to reflect the nature of the music itself. While the majority of the tracks lean towards the slower, more atmospheric side of things, delivered in a rather short, somewhat compact format, the album is bookended by two numbers that differ quite sharply from the rest, as well as from each other. Opener “Loopy” is the closest Marbin get to a ‘conventional’ jazz-fusion sound, almost 6 minutes of sax and guitar emoting over an exhilarating jungle beat laid down by Wertico’s drums and percussion that gives a first taste of the seamless interplay between the instruments. On the other hand, the medieval-tinged, acoustic folk ballad “Winds of Grace”, masterfully interpreted by guest singer Daniel White (who also wrote the lyrics), though apparently out of place in the context of the album,  is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia and loss suggested by several other tracks.

Indeed, the three numbers that form the central section of the album might almost be considered as parts of a single suite, since they are characterized by a wistful, romantic (though anything but cheesy) mood. An extended sax solo is the real showstopper in “Outdoor Revolution”, while wordless vocalizing enhances the country-tinged acoustic guitar in “Western Sky”. “Burning Match” seems to reflect its title almost perfectly, its smouldering atmosphere touched with a hint of sadness, the yearning tone of the sax suggesting the end of a love affair. A strong visual element is evoked throughout the album: “Old Silhouette” creates a faintly mysterious picture, yet full of subtle warmth intensified by the slow, deep movement of the percussion; while the sweet, soothing chanting in “Mom’s Song”, combined with the gentleness of the guitar, brought to my mind images of a beach at sunset. In sharp contrast, “Bar Stomp” delivers exactly what the title promises – a bluesy, electrified romp with Rabin’s guitar taking centre stage, bolstered by an imposing percussive apparatus involving the presence of three drummers (Wertico plus guests Makaya McCraven and Jamey Haddad), and spiced up with a hint of cinematic tension.

The final remarks I made in my review of Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan may also apply to Breaking the Cycle. Oozing sheer class, with outstanding performances all round, yet plenty of warmth and accessibility (unlike a lot of hyper-technical albums), this is a release that has the potential to appeal to anyone who loves good music and does not care about sticking a label on anything they hear. Judging from the positive reactions to this album, Marbin are definitely going to be another asset for the ever-reliable MoonJune Records.

Links:
http://www.marbinmusic.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Un Dono (2:13)
2. Wizard Intro (3:03)
3. Madre Africa (7:54)
4. Questa Penombra E’ Lenta (6:57)
5. Chimera (4:23)
6. The Game (10:38)
a. Wizard of your Sky
b. Mickey’s
c. Jump
d. Wizard of your Life
7. Cluster Bombs (6:43)
8. This Open Show (3:16)
9. C’Era Una Volta (2:59)

LINEUP:
Paolo Siani – drums, vocals, keyboards, bass, guitars

With:
Ricky Belloni – electric guitar (6)
Carlo Cantini – violin (6)
Guido Guglielminetti – bass (2, 4, 6)
Mauro Pagani / flute (3)
Alessandro Siani – electronics (1, 5)
Franco Testa – bass (5)
Roberto Tiranti – vocals (3, 6, 7)
Giorgio Usai – Hammond organ (6)
Joe Vescovi – Hammond organ (3)
Marco Zoccheddu – electric guitar (2, 3, 4, 7), piano (5, 7)
Gianni Alberti – sax (5)
Ottavia Bruno – vocals (5)
Giacomo Caiolo – acoustic guitar (4)
Nadia Enghèben – soprano (3)
Alberto “Artley” Buttarelli – vocals, flute (8)
Diego Gordi – piano (8)
Fabio Gordi – piano (8)
Daniele Pagani – piano (8)
Giuliano Papa – cello (8)
Vittorio Pedrali – vocal recitation (1)

In spite of his tenure as the drummer of Italian Seventies band Nuova Idea, Paolo Siani is certainly not a household name in the world of progressive rock – unless you count those dedicated fans of the scene who collect even the most obscure albums. Additionally, he shares the same name with an Italian-American artist of vastly different temperament, which can be misleading to those who are looking for more information. Although an excellent outfit, Nuova Idea did not achieve the fame of their fellow Genoese New Trolls (whom keyboardist Giorgio Usai and guitarist Ricky Belloni joined after the band’s demise) or Delirium, and disbanded after their third album, the highly-regarded Clowns, released in 1973. Subsequently Siani joined avant-garde outfit Opus Avantra for their second album, then beat band Equipe 84. Though he dropped off the musical radar for almost three decades, he worked as a producer and kept writing and recording his own music. It was the renewed interest in prog and the Italian Seventies scene that prompted Siani to resume his career as a musician – as well as a commendable humanitarian purpose, that is, raising funds on behalf of Genoa’s renowned Gaslini paediatric hospital.

Though Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams, released by Genoa-based label Black Widow, is to all intents and purposes a solo project by Siani, it also sees a reunion of sorts of his mother band, as well as an impressive roster of guest musicians, including three of his former Nuova Idea bandmates: the above-mentioned Giorgio Usai and Ricky Belloni, plus guitarist Marco Zoccheddu, who had left the band to join Osage Tribe after Nuova Idea’s debut. Unlike many albums of this kind, however, it is remarkably tight from a compositional point of view. Moreover, despite Italian prog’s reputation for being somewhat overwrought,  the album avoids that particular trap, keeping melody and clarity at the forefront while not neglecting the occasional flight of instrumental fancy.

Clocking in at under 50 minutes, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is a decidedly song-oriented effort that manages to achieve a good balance between vocal and instrumental parts. The album opens with “Un Dono”, where an expressive male voice recites a brief, uplifting text by Mahatma Gandhi on a backdrop of sparse electronic keyboards. The following instrumental, “Wizard Intro”, blends symphonic suggestions à la Yes with hard rock touches, all infused with an unmistakable Italian flavour. “Chimera”, also instrumental, hints instead at a jazzy inspiration, with a loose structure made up of different solo spots (bass, sax and piano) over a train-like background rhythm provided by drums and keyboards. Siani’s voice can be heard on one track, “Questa Penombra E’ Lenta” (which is also the closest the album gets to a conventional ballad in the unique Italian style), assisted by the clear, melodic voice of Ottavia Bruno, and complemented by lovely acoustic guitar and an airy synth solo.

Three tracks feature the powerful yet clear voice of Roberto Tiranti, lead singer of power/progressive metal band Labyrinth (with a brief stint in New Trolls in the late Nineties). His gritty performance on “Cluster Bombs” – a hard-hitting, anti-war song powered by Hammond and military-style drumming that owes more than a little to Deep Purple or Uriah Heep – increases the song’s emotional impact. Tiranti shows his more melodic side on the 10-minute, 4-part epic “The Game”, a richly textured composition where all the instruments get their chance to shine without overwhelming each other, with Hammond flurries and wistful violin strains. Tiranti then reverts to a more authoritative, hard-rocking persona in the haunting “Madre Africa”, where the Deep Purple influences represented by Joe Vescovi (formerly of The Trip, a band that briefly included Ritchie Blackmore among his members) and his Hammond organ are tempered by Mauro Pagani’s flute, whose sound brings to mind Delirium or Osanna. The album is wrapped up by two short, low-key pieces, the melancholy, cello-driven “This Open Show” and the instrumental “C’Era Una Volta”, a Baroque-inspired number performed by Siani alone.

As can be expected, Castles, Wings, Stories and Dreams is not particularly innovative, nor does it pretend to be such. Like other fellow reviewers, I also have some reservations on the choice of mixing Italian and English lyrics. The supposed ‘international appeal’ of English vocals, in my opinion, dilutes that unique quality of Italian prog that is so often connected with the use of such a great vehicle for music as the Italian language. However, in spite of these drawbacks, the album is a solid effort, a fine slice of vintage Italian prog with a thoroughly 21st-century sound quality, and excellent performances all round from Siani and his guest musicians. The album should also appeal to fans of classic hard rock with progressive overtones. At the time of writing, Paolo Siani is planning a live show in October in his hometown of Genoa, which hopefully will not remain a one-off.

Links:
http://www.blackwidow.it

http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=77100

 

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