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Posts Tagged ‘The Knells’

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In the autumn of 1994, Michigan native and long-time Baltimore resident Mike Potter started on a venture that has brought many moments of joy to progressive rock fans all over the US. With a name inspired by Potter’s lifelong passion for astronomy, the Orion Sound Studios – located in the middle of an industrial park in a rather unprepossessing part of Baltimore – has provided not only an invaluable resource for up-and-coming musicians in search of rehearsal and recording space, but a veritable magnet for lovers of non-mainstream music in that densely populated area.

In the past twenty years, the Orion’s legendary Trapezoid Room has been a haven for bands, both domestic and international, and a home away from home for the small but thriving “prog community” of the Eastern Seaboard. The venue’s cult status was cemented by its central role in Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga, which made the Orion’s name familiar to people living in other parts of the world. Even if Potter jokingly refers to the start of his venture as “the worst decision in my life”, his dedication to the Studios is complete, and his skills as a sound engineer have contributed to the success of many progressive rock events.

Therefore, it was only natural for such a milestone date to be celebrated in the most appropriate fashion – with a one-day festival that encapsulated all the aspects that have made the Orion Live Music Showcases such an unqualified success: some of the best progressive music the US scene has to offer, a great social vibe, and – last but not least – plenty of excellent food and drink. Even the notoriously unreliable East Coast weather had decided to cooperate, blessing the event with a perfect fall day, crisp but sunny. The riot of gorgeous foliage that accompanied our drive from our Northern Virginia home was a fitting prelude to the wonderful afternoon and evening that awaited us at the Orion.

As the Trapezoid Room – filled with white folding chairs to seat the 80 or so people who had booked tickets (and I am happy to report that the event was sold out!) – was to be used solely for performances and soundchecks, the rooms across the parking lot had been appointed for the breaks, and were soon filled with a huge selection of food (in many cases homemade) and drink brought by the attendees. The nice weather also encouraged people to linger outside, enjoying a welcome breath of fresh autumn air after the intensity of each performance. For the occasion, the stage area had been remodeled, the high ceiling now fully on display to create an impression of spaciousness that was previously missing, enhancing the effect of the multi-coloured lights.

Though the performances had been scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., there was a substantial delay that, while allowing for more socialization, pushed the whole schedule nearly an hour forward. Each band had been allotted about one hour and a half for their set – longer than most festivals usually allow for anyone except the headliners. At first, the audience did not mind the delay, but at the end of a long musical marathon fatigue started to set in. However, with many people coming from other parts of the country, having the event start earlier would have posed other problems.

The organizers had put together a lineup featuring some of the finest US-based bands currently active, with no whiff of nostalgia in sight – unlike the bigger festivals, which have to cater to the average US prog fan’s obsession with the Seventies. Even though most of the bands selected have already been around for a number of years (in the case of headliners Discipline, for even longer than the Orion Studios themselves!), they have not been resting on their laurels, and kept their music fresh and relevant.

The lone exceptions were openers The Knells – a recently-formed, NYC-based ensemble led by guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee, who had wowed the Orion crowd last year in a breakthrough performance immediately following the release of their eponymous debut album. Having reviewed said album earlier this year, I was looking forward to seeing the band in action, and my expectations were not disappointed. Introduced by a solo spot by McKenna Lee – two acoustic guitar pieces and an oddly riveting, effect-laden 15-minute homage to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?”, The Knells played a jaw-dropping set that did full justice to the complexity of the compositions, masterfully executed by the eight-piece lineup. With its hypnotic post-rock cadences blended with heady psychedelia, angular Avant stylings and the hauntingly beautiful, yet somewhat eerie neo-Gregorian chanting of the three female vocalists, The Knells’ music is clearly not a proposition for everyone, and those in the audience who are more inclined towards the melodic end of the prog spectrum found it hard to relate to it. Personally, I loved every minute of the band’s performance, and hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

New Yorkers Frogg Café – longtime favourites of the US prog community, with a number of high-profile appearances under their belt – have all but recently emerged from the long hiatus that followed the 2010 release of Bateless Edge. Their first live performance in years, at the first edition of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend, in October 2013, had been rather impressive because of the talent involved, but still somewhat touched by the “rust” of inactivity. At the Orion, however, it was a completely different ballgame: though minus guitarist Frank Camiola (who is, once again, on sabbatical, pursuing more left-field musical interests), the band delivered a stunner of a performance, marching on stage from the back of the room to the strains of Franz Zappa’s “Inca Roads”. As the loss of Camiola’s electric edge required a stronger focus on the jazzier side of the band’s material to make up for the, Bill Ayasse took upon himself to replace the guitar with his electric violin and mandolin (putting his expertise as a bluegrass player to good use). The dynamic duo of brothers Nick and John Lieto provided comic relief as well as a buoyant big-band feel with their boisterous horns – and Nick proved no slouch in the vocal department. Andrew Sussman on bass and James Guarnieri on drums anchored the performance with a skillful mix of solidity and virtuosity. Besides some older favourites (which included the poignant “Terra Sancta” from Bateless Edge), Frogg Café treated the audience to some material from their long-awaited new album, plus a hilarious rendition of Zappa’s iconic “I’m the Slime”.

After a longer break for dinner, it was time to head inside once again for Alec K. Redfearn and The Eyesores. My introduction to the band dated back from 2011, when they had opened the Rock Day at the first and only edition of Cuneifest, and they easily won my personal award for best act of the day. The Providence outfit, led by charismatic, long-haired 21st-century minstrel Alec K. Redfearn – a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the weird and the macabre (not surprising for someone hailing from HP Lovecraft’s home town) – are purveyors of music whose RIO/Avant tag feels too restrictive for its genuinely eclectic nature. With a very idiosyncratic configuration – centred around Redfearn’s accordion (not the most typical of prog instruments), and featuring French horn, contrabass and percussion as well as a more traditional guitar (wielded by the very pretty and talented Gillian Chadwick) – The Eyesores’ music is strongly influenced by European folk, but also infused by an experimental vibe evident in the array of effects used by Redfearn to create an intensely haunting, drone-like atmosphere. Though their set was (at slightly over one hour) the shortest of the day, it offered such a concentration of intriguing compositions and pristine performances – further enhanced by Alec’s witty anecdotes – that even some of the more musically conservative members of the audience were won over by this truly unique outfit.

By the time headliners Discipline hit the stage, it was about 11:30 pm, and many attendees were already beginning to feel the strain of the late hour. Though the Detroit band were by far the most mainstream act on the lineup, and therefore the biggest draw for many attendees, the dark, intense nature of their music has also won them many admirers among the fans of the more left-field fringes of prog. Unfortunately, the late hour did the band no favours, and they ended up losing part of their audience midway through their set because of sheer exhaustion. We were among those who left early, though having seen the band onstage less than one month ago at the NJ Proghouse lessened our disappointment. Discipline played most of the same setlist (sadly devoid of the magnificent epic “Rogue”, from 2011’s To Shatter All Accord), though with the bonus encore of the über-creepy “The Nursery Year”, which at the Proghouse had been performed by Echolyn’s Ray Weston. From the first hour of the set, I got the impression of a heavier, more powerful (as well as distinctly louder) sound, complemented by Matthew Parmenter’s dramatic (albeit never overwrought) vocals. The band was tighter than ever, and new guitarist Chris Herin fit seamlessly with the original members, his sharp yet melodic guitar lines adding a keen edge to the band’s own brand of dark symphonic prog. As I had already noticed at the Proghouse, he is also a rather attractive man, obviously as comfortable on stage as his bandmates. Hopefully Discipline will be back on the East Coast some time next year, and possibly release a new album soon.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, and my only regret is that the original idea of a two-day event did not come to fruition. It felt great to be back at the Orion after such a long absence, and spend time with the many friends we had missed during the past year or so. As always, my most heartfelt thanks go to Mike Potter and the rest of the organizing committee for having allowed us to experience such a great day of music and friendship. The celebration of the Orion Studios’ 20th Anniversary offered everything that makes the independent, non-mainstream music scene so exciting. It was also a brilliant example of the “small is beautiful” ethos that has replaced the more ambitious (and much less financially viable) festivals. Indeed, it was heartening to see a full house for bands that, for once, were not throwbacks of the Seventies in any way, and that – each in its own way – represent the best of the modern progressive rock scene.

Links:
http://www.orionsound.com
http://theknells.com
http://www.froggcafe.com
http://www.aleckredfearn.com/
http://www.strungoutrecords.com

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An Embarrassment of Riches – A 2013 Retrospective

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As the title of this post suggests, 2013 was another bumper year for progressive music – perhaps without as many peaks of excellence as the two previous years, but still offering a wide range of high-quality releases to the discerning listener. On the other hand, it was also a year in which the need for some form of quality control emerged quite sharply. The sheer number of releases that might be gathered under the “prog” umbrella made listening to everything a practically impossible feat – unless one wanted to risk some serious burnout. As modern technology has afforded the tools to release their own music to almost anyone, it has also fostered a sense of entitlement in some artists as regards positive feedback, even when their product is clearly not up to scratch. 2013 also evidenced the growing divide within the elusive “prog community”, with the lingering worship of anything Seventies-related in often sharp contrast with the genuine progressive spirit of many artists who delve deep into musical modes of expression of a different nature from those that inspired the golden age of the genre.

While, on a global level, 2013 was fraught with as many difficulties as 2012, personally speaking (with the exception of the last two or three months) the year as a whole was definitely more favourable – which should have encouraged me to write much more than I actually did. Unfortunately, a severe form of burnout forced me into semi-retirement in the first few months of the year, occasionally leading me to believe that I would never write a review ever again. Because of that, I reviewed only a small percentage of the albums released during the past 12 months; however, thanks to invaluable resources such as Progstreaming, Progify and Bandcamp, I was able to listen to a great deal of new music, and form an opinion on many of the year’s highlights.

I apologize beforehand to my readers if there will be some glaring omissions in this essay. As usual, my personal choices will probably diverge from the “mainstream” of the prog audience, though I am sure they will resonate with others. This year I have chosen to use a slightly different format than in the previous two years, giving more or less the same relevance to all the albums mentioned in the following paragraphs. Those who enjoy reading “top 10/50/100” lists will be better served by other websites or magazines: my intent here is to provide an overview of what I found to be worthy of note in the past 12 months, rather than rank my choices in order of preference.

Interestingly, two of my top 2013 albums (both released at the end of January) came from the UK – a country that, in spite of its glorious past, nowadays rarely produces music that sets my world on fire. Although the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Guapo’s History of the Visitation and the lyricism and subtle complexity of Thieves’ Kitchen’s One for Sorrow, Two for Joy may sound wildly different, they both represent a side of the British progressive rock scene where the production of challenging music is still viewed as viable, and image-related concerns are a very low priority.

Indeed, in 2013 the UK was prodigal with interesting releases for every prog taste. Among the more left-field offerings coming from the other side of the pond, I will mention Sanguine Hum’s multilayered sophomore effort, The Weight of the World – one of those rare albums that are impossible to label; Godsticks’ intricate, hard-hitting The Envisage Conundrum; the unique “classical crossover” of Karda Estra’s Mondo Profondo; The Fierce and the Dead’s fast and furious Spooky Action (think King Crimson meets punk rock); Tim Bowness’ Henry Fool with Men Singing, their second album after a 12-year hiatus; and Brighton-based outfit Baron (who share members with Diagonal and Autumn Chorus) with their haunting Columns. A mention is also amply deserved by volcanic multi-instrumentalist Colin Robinson’s projects Jumble Hole Clough and Churn Milk Joan – whose numerous albums are all available on Bandcamp. The prize for the most authentically progressive UK release of the year, however, should probably be awarded to Chrome Black Gold by “experimental chamber rock orchestra” Chrome Hoof, who are part of the Cuneiform Records roster and share members with their label mates Guapo.

The US scene inaugurated the year with the late January release of Herd of Instinct’s second album, Conjure, a completely instrumental effort that saw the basic trio augmented by Djam Karet’s Gayle Ellett on keyboards fleshing out the band’s haunting, cinematic sound. Ellett’s main gig (who will be celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2014) also made their studio comeback with The Trip, featuring a single 47-minute track combining ambient, electronics-laden atmospheres (as per self-explanatory title) with a full-tilt psychedelic rock jam. Later in the year, Little Atlas’ solid Automatic Day and Sonus Umbra’s brooding Winter Soulstice brought back two bands that had long been out of the limelight. From the US also came a few gems that, unfortunately, have almost flown under the radar of the prog fandom, such as The Knells’ eponymous debut with its heady blend of post-rock, classical music and polyphony; Jack O’The Clock’s intriguing American folk/RIO crossover All My Friends; Birds and Buildings’ über-eclectic Multipurpose Trap; The Red Masque’s intensely Gothic Mythalogue; and the ambitious modern prog epic of And The Traveler’s The Road, The Reason.

The fall season brought some more left-field fireworks from the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions and Cuneiform Records. miRthkon’s Snack(s) and ZeviousPassing Through the Wall, both outstanding examples of high-energy modern progressive rock by two veritable forces of nature in a live setting, were preceded by Miriodor’s long-awaited eighth studio album, Cobra Fakir, premiered at ProgDay in an utterly flawless set. More RIO/Avant goodness came from Europe with Humble Grumble’s delightfully weird Guzzle It Up, Rhùn’s Zeuhl workout Ïh, October Equus’s darkly beautiful Permafrost, and Spaltklang’s unpredictable In Between. From Sweden came Necromonkey’s self-titled debut, an idiosyncratic but fascinating effort born of the collaboration between drummer extraordinaire Mattias Olsson and Gösta Berlings Saga keyboardist David Lundberg.

Among the myriad of prog-metal releases of the year, another UK band, Haken, stood head and shoulders above the competition: their third album The Mountain transcended the limitations of the subgenre, and drew positive feedback even from people who would ordinarily shun anything bearing a prog-metal tag. Much of the same considerations might apply to Kayo Dot’s highly anticipated Hubardo, though the latter album is definitely much less accessible and unlikely to appeal to more traditional-minded listeners. Fans of old-fashioned rock operas found a lot to appreciate in Circle of Illusion’s debut, Jeremias: Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms, a monumentally ambitious, yet surprisingly listenable album in the tradition of Ayreon’s sprawling epics, rated by many much more highly than the latter’s rather lacklustre The Theory of Everything.

Some of the year’s most intriguing releases came from countries that are rarely featured on the prog map. One of my personal top 10 albums, Not That City by Belarus’ Five-Storey Ensemble (one of two bands born from the split of Rational Diet) is a sublime slice of chamber-prog that shares more with classical music than with rock. Five-Storey Ensemble’s Vitaly Appow also appears on the deeply erudite, eclectic pastiche of fellow Belarusians (and AltrOck Productions label mates) The Worm OuroborosOf Things That Never Were. The exhilarating jazz-rock-meets-Eastern-European-folk brew provided by Norwegian quintet Farmers’ Market’s fifth studio album, Slav to the Rhythm, was another of the year’s highlights, guaranteed to please fans of eclectic progressive music. From an even more exotic locale, Uzbekistan’s own Fromuz regaled their many fans with the dramatic Sodom and Gomorrah, a recording dating back from 2008 and featuring the band’s original lineup.

In the jazz-rock realm, releases ran the gamut from modern, high-adrenalin efforts such as The AristocratsCulture Clash, Volto!’s Incitare by (featuring Tool’s drummer Danny Carey), and keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni’s debut Keystone (produced by Derek Sherinian) to the multifaceted approach of French outfit La Théorie des Cordes’ ambitious, all-instrumental double CD Singes Eléctriques, the sprawling, ambient-tinged improv of Shrunken Head Shop’s Live in Germany, and the hauntingly emotional beauty of Blue Cranes’ Swim. Trance Lucid’s elegantly eclectic Palace of Ether and the intricate acoustic webs of Might Could’s Relics from the Wasteland can also be warmly recommended to fans of guitar-driven, jazz-inflected instrumental music.

Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records, however, proved throughout the year as the most reliable single provider of high-quality music effortlessly straddling the rock and the jazz universe, with the triumphant comeback of Soft Machine Legacy and their superb Burden of Proof, The Wrong Object’s stunning slice of modern Canterbury, After the Exhibition, and Marbin’s sophisticated (if occasionally a a bit too “easy”) Last Chapter of Dreaming. Pavkovic’s frequent forays into the booming Indonesian scene brought masterpieces such as simakDialog’s fascinating, East-meets-West The 6th Story, and I Know You Well Miss Clara’s stylish Chapter One – as well as Dewa Budjana’s ebullient six-string exertions in Joged Kahyangan. Dialeto’s contemporary take on the power trio, The Last Tribe, and Dusan Jevtovic’s high-octane Am I Walking Wrong? also featured some noteworthy examples of modern guitar playing with plenty of energy and emotion.

Song-based yet challenging progressive rock was well represented in 2013 by the likes of Half Past Four’s second album, the amazingly accomplished Good Things, propelled by lead vocalist Kyree Vibrant’s career-defining performance; fellow Canadians The Rebel Wheel’s spiky, digital-only concept album Whore’s Breakfast;  Simon McKechnie’s sophisticated, literate debut Clocks and Dark Clouds; and newcomers Fractal Mirror with their moody, New Wave-influenced Strange Attractors. New Jersey’s 3RDegree also released a remastered, digital-only version of their second album, Human Interest Story (originally released in 1996). Iranian band Mavara’s first international release, Season of Salvation, also deserves a mention on account of the band’s struggles to carve out a new life in the US, away from the many troubles of their home country.

Even more so than in the past few years, many of 2013’s gems hailed from my home country of Italy, bearing witness to the endless stream of creativity of a scene that no economic downturn can dampen. One of the most impressive debut albums of the past few years came from a young Rome-based band by the name of Ingranaggi della Valle, whose barnstorming In Hoc Signo told the story of the Crusades through plenty of exciting modern jazz-rock chops, without a hint of the cheesiness usually associated with such ventures. Another stunning debut, the wonderfully quirky Limiti all’eguaglianza della parte con il tutto by Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res, delighted fans of the Canterbury scene; while Not A Good Sign’s eponymous debut blended the angular, King Crimson-inspired melancholia of Änglagård and Anekdoten with that uniquely Italian melodic flair. After their successful NEARfest appearance in 2012, Il Tempio delle Clessidre made their comeback with  AlieNatura, an outstanding example of modern symphonic prog recorded with new vocalist Francesco Ciapica; while fellow Genoese quintet La Coscienza di Zeno made many a Top 10 list with their supremely accomplished sophomore effort, Sensitività. Another highly-rated Genoese outfit, La Maschera di Cera, paid homage to one of the landmark albums of vintage RPI – Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona – by releasing a sequel, titled Le Porte del Domani (The Gates of Tomorrow in its English version). Aldo Tagliapietra’s L’angelo rinchiuso saw the legendary former Le Orme bassist and frontman revert to a more classic prog vein, while iconic one-shot band Museo Rosenbach followed the example of other historic RPI bands and got back together to release Barbarica. Even PFM treated their many fans to a new double album, though scarce on truly new material: as the title implies, PFM in Classic: Da Mozart a Celebration contains versions of iconic classical pieces performed by the band with a full orchestra, as well as five of their best-known songs. Among the newcomers, Camelias Garden’s elegant You Have a Chance presents a streamlined take on melodic symphonic prog, while Unreal City’s La crudeltà di Aprile blends Gothic suggestions with the classic RPI sound; on the other hand, Oxhuitza’s self-titled debut and Pandora’s Alibi Filosofico tap into the progressive metal vein without turning their backs to their Italian heritage. Il Rumore Bianco’s Area-influenced debut EP Mediocrazia brought another promising young band to the attention of prog fans.

However, some of the most impressive Italian releases of the year can be found on the avant-garde fringes of the prog spectrum. Besides Francesco Zago’s project Empty Days (featuring contributions by Thinking Plague’s Elaine DiFalco, as well as most of his Yugen bandmates), OTEME’s superb Il giardino disincantato – a unique blend of high-class singer-songwriter music and Avant-Prog complexity – and the sophisticated, atmospheric jazz-rock of Pensiero Nomade’s Imperfette Solitudini deserve to be included in the top albums of the year. To be filed under “difficult but ultimately rewarding” is Claudio Milano’s international project InSonar with the double CD L’enfant et le Ménure, while Nichelodeon’s ambitious Bath Salts (another double CD) will appeal to those who enjoy vocal experimentation in the tradition of Demetrio Stratos.

My readers will have noticed a distinct lack of high-profile releases in the previous paragraphs.n Not surprisingly for those who know me, some of the year’s top-rated albums (such as The Tangent’s Le Sacre du Travail, The Flower KingsDesolation Rose and Spock’s Beard’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) are missing from this list because I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to them. Others have instead been heard, but have not left a positive enough impression to be mentioned here, and I would rather focus on the positives than on what did not click with me. In any case, most of those albums have received their share of rave reviews on many other blogs, websites and print magazines. I will make, however, one exception for Steven Wilson’s much-praised The Raven Who Refused to Sing, as I had the privilege of seeing it performed in its entirety on the stage of the Howard Theatre in Washington DC at the end of April. Though the concert was excellent, and the stellar level of Wilson’s backing band undoubtedly did justice to the material, I am still not completely sold about the album being the undisputed masterpiece many have waxed lyrical about.

In addition to successful editions of both ROSfest and ProgDay (which will be celebrating its 20th  anniversary in 2014), 2013 saw the birth of two new US festivals: Seaprog (held in Seattle on the last weekend of June) and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (held in Dunellen, New Jersey, on October 12-13). As luckily both events enjoyed a good turnout, 2014 editions are already being planned. There were also quite a few memorable concerts held throughout the year, though we did not attend as many as we would have wished. In spite of the often painfully low turnout (unless some big name of the Seventies is involved), it is heartwarming to see that bands still make an effort to bring their music to the stage, where it truly belongs.

On a more somber note, the year 2013 brought its share of heartache to the progressive rock community. Alongside the passing of many influential artists (such as Peter Banks, Kevin Ayers and Allen Lanier), in December I found myself mourning the loss of John Orsi and Dave Kulju, two fine US musicians whose work I had the pleasure of reviewing in the past few years. Other members of the community were also affected by grievous personal losses. Once again, even in such difficult moments, music offers comfort to those who remain, and keeps the memory of the departed alive.

In my own little corner of the world, music has been essential in giving me a sense of belonging in a country where I will probably never feel completely at home. Even if my enjoyment of music does have its ups and downs, and sometimes it is inevitable to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of new stuff to check out, I cannot help looking forward to the new musical adventures that 2014 will bring.

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