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Posts Tagged ‘Thinking Plague’

Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

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First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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With the final curtain fallen on NEARfest in June 2012, a void has been left in the once-thriving US progressive rock festival scene. In the past couple of years, the increasing fragmentation of  the target audience – as well as other factors such as the lingering economic downturn – have provided a brusque reality check to anyone daring enough to invest time and money in this often unrewarding task  While the cottage-industry organization of ProgDay is still going strong (probably because of its unpretentious structure), and ROSfest keeps attracting a steady number of devotees to its Gettysburg premises, other more ambitious efforts have ended in failure before they even started. The enthusiasm about Baja Prog’s return after a four-year hiatus was tempered by a lineup that penalizes US bands, and is in many ways a duplicate of the last NEARfest  – not to mention that the festival takes place in a part of the continent that is not exactly convenient for many US dwellers.

However, almost unexpectedly, a new event has stepped in at that particular time of the year, though in no way aiming to fill  NEARfest’s daunting shoes by offering a range of reasonably high-profile bands, including some “bucket list”ones. In fact,  the organizers of Seaprog Music Festival seem to have taken the ProgDay template even further, concentrating almost exclusively on US acts and spotlighting local talent. The event is scheduled for June 28-30,  2013, at Columbia City Theater, a nearly 100-year-old venue in the iconic Pacific Northwest metropolis of Seattle – home to such diverse acts as Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Queensryche and the grunge bands of the early Nineties. Starting on the evening of Friday, June 28, with a free show, the festival proper will be spread over the whole of Saturday and Sunday, showcasing a total of 11 bands.

Seaprog comes with the uncompromising tagline of “not your parents’prog” and a well-articulated manifesto that invites people to be open-minded in their approach to the world of non-mainstream music. In spite of the many attempts to separate “prog” from the original meaning of the word “progressive”, and turn it into nothing more than a codified genre complete with plenty of sarcasm-inducing mannerisms, there are still those who want “progressive” to be much more than a byword for self-indulgence and worship of the past.

The members of the organizing committee are dedicated musicians with years of experience under their belt: guitarist Dennis Rea (of Moraine and Iron Kim Style fame), drummer John Reagan (formerly of Harlequin Mass, now with Dissonati) and stick player Jon Davis (currently a member of Zhongyu with Rea and Moraine’s Alicia and Jim DeJoie). All three of them share similar views on what constitutes “prog”, which may not necessarily resonate with those who espouse the “prog as a genre” theory, but will instead find support in genuinely adventurous listeners. The event is a strictly non-profit venture, and the organizers’s main aim in undertaking this effort, as stated at the bottom of every page of Seaprog’s excellently crafted website, is to offer a world-class music event in a city that is better known for heavy rock and trendy alternative/indie bands.

As can be expected after reading the festival’s manifesto, Seaprog is heavily geared towards the cutting-edge side of the progressive rock spectrum, with seminal RIO/Avant band Thinking Plague  in the coveted spot of Sunday headliner for their first-even Seattle show. The Colorado-based outfit’s latest recording effort, Decline and Fall, was one of the defining albums of 2012, and their triumphant appearance at last year’s RIO Festival helped to consolidate their reputation as purveyors of difficult but highly rewarding music. Thinking Plague’s Dave Willey and Elaine Di Falco will also appear on stage with Hughscore Revisited, a quartet that will perform compositions by legendary Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, who passed away in 2009. Not surprisingly, Moraine, Zhongyu and Dissonati will also be on board. The other names on the lineup are less familiar to the majority of prog fans: local outfits Alex’s Hand, Monkey Bat Operation ID and Trimtab (originally formed in Minneapolis, but now based in Seattle), and  Italian multi-instrumentalist Jolanda. At the time of writing, the Saturday headliner remains to be announced. Links to all of the artists’ webpages are available on the event’s site. A Kickstarter campaign will also be launched to finance recording of the shows.

After so much fretting about the future of the US festival scene following the demise of NEARfest and the cancellation of OhioProg and FarFest, it is heartwarming to see people take things into their own hands in order to promote homegrown talent, even though on a much smaller scale than NEARfest, ROSfest or Baja Prog. As I have often written on these pages, this is probably the most viable model, which allows the organizers not to be bound by the necessity of filling a larger venue, therefore having to budget for inevitably more expensive “international” bands. Hoping for a healthy turnout that will allow the festival to continue at least in 2014, I applaud the organizers for their bravery and dedication to the cause of progressive music.

Links:
http://www.seaprog.org/

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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. Snake Eating Its Tail (1:44)
2. Norrgarden Nyvla (3:03)
3. Hands of the Juggler  (4:44)
4. Rethinking Plague (3:49)
5. Presage (10:21)
6. Land Arf   (6:19)
7. Brachilogia (3:08)
8. Distillando   (4:11)
9. Crossroads (4:37)
10. Luoghi Che Aspettano (6:44)

LINEUP:
Emilio Galante – flute, piccolo
Valerio Cipollone – bass clarinet, clarinet
Andrea Pecolo – violin
Bianca Fervidi – cello

With:
Massimo Giuntoli – piano (6)

As my readers will have noticed, this blog generally deals with music that, in one way or the other, belongs to the rock universe. However, the album that will be reviewed in the following paragraphs (as the ensemble’s own name aptly points out), while conceived as an homage to a movement in whose name the word is prominently featured, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as rock.

AltrOck Chamber Quartet is the brainchild of gifted flutist and composer Emilio Galante, known for his work with avant-jazz ensemble Sonata Islands (hence the album’s title), who is here assisted by Valerio Cipollone (also a member of Yugen, one of the finest modern outfits in the RIO/Avant vein), Bianca Fervidi and Andrea Pecolo. The album’s witty cover artwork (a brilliant concept by AltrOck resident graphic artist Paolo Ske Botta), showing a violin adorned by Brazilian-themed images, plays on the possible misunderstanding of the word RIO  by those unaware of the acronym’s meaning. Composer Giovanni Venosta, who was responsible for the transcription of three of the original compositions featured on the album, revisits his first experiences with the Rock in Opposition movement in the album’s foreword (offered also in an English-language version, with an eye for AltrOck’s growing international following).

Recorded in February 2012 and released a few months later,  Sonata Islands Goes RIO might be  called (at least in part) a rather highbrow take on a very popular rock product such as the tribute album. Indeed, half of the 10 tracks on the album reinterpret well-known RIO/Avant compositions, while the remaining five are the work of modern Italian composers (including Galante himself) who have been influenced by the subgenre’s distinctive modes of expression. In true chamber tradition, the music is performed by a very limited number of instruments – flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin and cello – ruling out the presence of percussion, guitars or keyboards (with the exception of Massimo Giuntoli’s “Land Arf”, on which the composer himself guests on piano). While at first the result is very intriguing, even fascinating, those who are not chamber music devotees may find things a bit heavy going after a while – even if the album, at around 48 minutes, is by no means excessively long.

For the chamber-music novice, the most approachable tracks are definitely those in the first half of the album, especially the three Fred Frith compositions, “Snake Eating Its Tail” (transcribed by renowned clarinetist Mauro Pedron), “Norrgarden Nyvla” and “Hands of the Juggler” (both transcribed by Giovanni Venosta). In the second, Galante’s flute adopts a particularly assertive, almost harsh tone, while the first makes the most of the lively dialogue-like interplay of the reeds, and the third skillfully shifts from stately melody to dissonance. Galante’s revisitation of Thinking Plague’s “Love” – aptly titled “Rethinking Plague” –  conveys the  elaborate angularity of the Denver band’s sound, while adapting it to a somewhat different musical format. However, Venosta’s string-driven transcription of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Presage”, while undoubtedly faithful to the spirit of the original, cannot fully convey its hauntingly martial allure, and the absence of  Daniel Denis’ imperious drumming diminishes the impact of the final product .

On the other hand, the more recent compositions seem to  be much more suited to the minimalistic chamber format – starting with Francesco Zago’s jagged, intricate “Brachilogia7”, led by Galante’s sharp-toned piccolo. Massimo Giuntoli’s brisk, almost upbeat piano lends a sense of fullness and rhythm to “Land Arf”, whose melancholy middle section showcases Andrea Pecolo’s violin to great effect. Galante’s own composition “Distillando” (originally commissioned by the History Museum of the north-eastern Italian city of Trento) is sparse and almost ethereal in spite of the piercing tone of the piccolo, while the lilting tango of Tiziano Popoli’s “Crossroads” reintroduces a measure of melody in its engaging duet between violin and reeds. “Luoghi Che Aspettano”, penned by Stefano Zorzanello, closes the album with its ambitious but surprisingly effective combination of eerie dissonance and more upbeat, almost melodic flow.

From the above description, it should be quite clear that Sonata Islands Goes RIO is not for everyone. Chamber music in itself can be an acquired taste even for classical music fans, and the daunting nature of anything bearing a RIO label has been discussed all too often in this blog. However, the sheer excellence of the individual performances and the often riveting quality of the music should be enough to attract open-minded listeners who are looking for something more challenging than traditional progressive rock. Needless to say, the album will delight fans of RIO/Avant Prog and contemporary chamber music.

Links:
http://www.altrock.it

http://www.allmusic.com/album/sonata-islands-goe-rio-mw0002397513

http://www.sonataislands.com/

 

 

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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Total time: 98 minutes

In the summer of 2010, the release of Romantic Warriors – A Progressive Music Saga took the music scene by surprise, putting a semi-official seal on the much-touted renaissance of progressive rock in the early 21st century. Retracing the origins of the genre while detailing its development in more recent times, the documentary’s no-frills style and unabashed sincerity captured the attention of viewers beyond the usual circles of prog stalwarts. However, Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder did not rest long on their laurels, and, a mere few months after the film’s release, they were already busy working on a follow-up – this time dedicated to the Rock in Opposition movement, a subset of progressive rock with unique characteristics and a devoted following.

In spite of the common misconception that attaches a political meaning to the “opposition” part of the name, the RIO movement was one of the first attempts by a group of bands to break free of the shackles imposed by major record labels and distribution companies and take matters into their own hands. In a way, the five bands that initiated the short-lived, though hugely influential movement (Henry Cow, Univers Zéro, Etron Fou Leloublan, Stormy Six and Samla Mammas Manna, hailing from five different European countries) were forerunners of the current endeavours of non-mainstream bands and artists.

For two solid years, Adele and José worked unceasingly at the second installment of a planned series of documentary films on the progressive rock scene, travelling from their home in the Washington DC metro area to Europe and other parts of the US to meet the protagonists of the original RIO movement and those who have followed in their footsteps. Romantic Warriors II relies on interviews and concert footage (both archival and recent) for the bulk of the narration, though with the addition of elements that had not been fully exploited the first time around. Roland Millman’s judiciously used voice-over lends narrative cohesion to a storyline that might have otherwise come across as somewhat rambling. While in the first Romantic Warriors both authors remained constantly behind the camera, this time the viewer can catch glimpses of José in a few scenes – either behind the wheel, or interacting with the artists. Most of the interviews were conducted on location, though the filmmakers also made use of modern technology by using Skype to conduct video interviews with some of the movement’s main actors.

Romantic Warriors II retraces the history of Rock in Opposition, from its inception in 1978 – when the original progressive rock movement was already on the wane – to its demise and long-lasting legacy. The original protagonists of the scene and their heirs take turns in the spotlight, offering not just a historical perspective, but also a lesson on how the artists can take control by implementing various forms of collaboration. As was also the case with the first Romantic Warriors, the film is as much about the social and historical aspect of the movement and its ramifications as about the music itself – making it more approachable for outsiders. A very interesting mention of the cross-fertilization between the post-RIO bands and the post-punk scene in the early Eighties drives another nail in the coffin of the commonly held myth of the irreconcilable enmity between punk and progressive rock.

For all the undeniable similarities to the first film, both in concept and format, Romantic Warriors II represents a quantum leap in terms of quality. The slightly gritty, warts-and-all approach of the original has been replaced by a more polished brand of realism that, while retaining its objectivity, also leaves room for artistry. The location shots, while often stunning, avoid the pitfalls of a tourist-brochure effect – whether it is a starkly beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains – a very apt visual complement to Thinking Plague’s music – or bustling views of London or Paris (including a breathtaking shot of the Tour Eiffel at night). Those “travelogue” scenes lend a coherent “road-movie” feel to the whole, and also emphasize the quintessentially cosmopolitan nature of the RIO movement. The use of concert-related ephemera (posters, tickets and newspaper clippings) and vintage photos brings the story to life and anchors it to reality. On the other hand, the striking fantasy sequence in which a cloaked and masked figure moves through the medieval alleys of Prague’s Old Town as a visual embodiment of Univers Zéro’s iconic “Jack the Ripper” adds a touch of weirdness and drama to the basically matter-of-fact fabric of the narration.

Not surprisingly, the film features a very broad cast of characters, ranging from the main actors of the original RIO movement to those who have been carrying the torch up to the present day – fans included. Those who are familiar with the first Romantic Warriors will recognize some familiar faces, such as Steve Feigenbaum of Cuneiform Records and Paul Sears of The Muffins. Of the many musicians that appear in the film, Henry Cow’s drummer Chris Cutler (who will be present at the Washington DC premiere of the film, on September 28, 2012) is the one who gets the longest time in the spotlight, his testimony providing almost a running commentary to the development of the story – augmented by each of the other contributions until all the pieces of the mosaic fall into place. Thinking Plague’s Mike Johnson’s musings about the sorry state of Planet Earth (with the endless vistas of the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop) add new layers of meaning to the “opposition” part of the movement’s name, anchoring its present developments to some of the most urgent concerns of contemporary society. The last word, however, is left for Magma’s charismatic Christian Vander – an artist who, while never part of the RIO movement, almost embodies the definition of “groundbreaking”. His final quote, reminding the viewer that “something is always possible, even in the worst circumstances”, conveys a strongly inspirational message to anyone who believes in what they do.

Festival and concerts play as large a role as in the original Romantic Warriors. The historic joint performance of Belgian outfits Univers Zéro, Présent and Aranis at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition festival sets the scene, right before the opening credits; the once-in-a-lifetime event, named “Once Upon a Time in Belgium”, also gets ample coverage towards the end of the documentary. The film includes footage from the equally historic performances of Magma and Univers Zéro at the 2010 edition of the Sonic Circuits Festival, as well as scenes from 2011’s CuneiFest at the Orion Studios. The “new guard” of the Avant-Progressive scene is represented by an international cast of bands from both Europe and America.

While the first Romantic Warriors may have been chiefly conceived for the benefit of the prog audience, the second episode of Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s progressive rock saga holds a much wider appeal. The music’s very combination of the arty, the quirky and the academically austere will attract people who appreciate forms of non-mainstream music that do not necessarily fall under the “progressive rock” umbrella – including modern classical. The amount of care and attention that have gone into the making of this documentary is also reflected in the DVD’s stylish, scrapbook-like cover photo. Regardless of the intrinsically niche nature of the music, Romantic Warriors II is an outstanding piece of filmmaking in its own right, with the potential to kindle the interest of any lover of the tenth Muse.

Links:
http://www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Malthusian Dances (6:39)
2. I Cannot Fly (8:34)
3. Sleeper Cell Anthem (6:10)
4. A Virtuous Man (11:45)
5. The Gyre (4:42)
6. Climbing the Mountain (8:38)

LINEUP:
Elaine Di Falco – voice
Mark Harris – saxes, clarinets
Mike Johnson – guitars
Kimara Sajn – drums, keyboards
Dave Willey – bass

With:
Kaveh Rastegar –  bass (1)
Robin Chestnut – drums (5)
Dexter Ford – bass (5)

Described by founder Mike Johnson as an “enterprise” rather than a band in the conventional sense, Thinking Plague seem to fit the definition of “cult act” to a T. The many different incarnations of the US answer to seminal European outfits such as Henry Cow and Univers Zéro – based in the rugged mountain state of Colorado, where it was formed by Johnson and guitarist/drummer Bob Drake in 1982 – read like a veritable “who’s who” of the US avant-progressive scene. Thinking Plague’s whole existence has also been characterized by a constant struggle against circumstances, which has inevitably impacted the frequency of their releases. Indeed, with a total of 7 studio albums released in almost 30 years of history, they definitely count among the least prolific bands on the scene, together with Cuneiform label mates Miriodor.

The average progressive rock fan, steeped in the grand symphonic tradition of the early Seventies, usually has a very controversial relationship with the more forward-thinking fringes of the movement – and very few bands are as likely to send prog fans running for the exits as Thinking Plague. Unabashedly intellectual, as their very name (associating the act of thinking with a curse of sorts) suggests, with extremely well-written, thought-provoking lyrics, Thinking Plague take the proverbial complexity of the Avant subgenre up a notch.  Decline and Fall, their highly-awaited seventh album, released almost 9 years after A History of Madness, is certainly no exception. The album also showcases the band’s new lineup (though drummer Robin Chestnut, who was introduced on the occasion of Thinking Plague’s headlining appearance at Cuneifest in November 2011, only appears on one track), spotlighting the contributions of new singer Elaine DiFalco (recently seen on two outstanding albums, Dave Willey and Friends’ Immeasurable Currents and 3 Mice’s Send Me a Postcard) and drummer/keyboardist Kimara Sajn, a gifted multi-instrumentalist well-known on the Seattle experimental music scene.

Clocking in at under 47 minutes, and entirely written by Mike Johnson, Decline and Fall features 6 tracks connected by a fil rouge made all too clear by the title and artwork  – an apocalyptic reflection on the dismal state of Planet Earth, which, according to Johnson’s musings, has long gone past the point of no return. Through vivid verbal imagery flawlessly supported by the head-spinningly intricate music, humankind is depicted as rushing headlong (and heedlessly) towards destruction, its disappearance the only thing that will be able to save the Earth. While the term “concept album” is generally associated with overambitious productions that often collapse beneath the weight of their own pretensions, Decline and Fall is tight and tense, the synergy between lyrics and music embodied by Elaine DiFalco’s stunning vocal performance. Reviews often mention the role of vocals as just another instrument, but the observation is rarely as fitting as in this particular case. DiFalco’s extremely versatile voice ranges from soothing the ear with subdued gentleness to tackling parts of rollercoaster-like intensity, bolstered by the use of multi-tracking to almost vertiginous effect.

Though the word “multilayered” frequently crops up in prog reviews, it sounds like an understatement if applied to Decline and Fall. True, the listener might occasionally feel that the music is too clever or intricate for its own good, in a sort of “art for art’s sake” manner, and keeping track of the twists and turns in the compositions is anything but an easy task. Decline and Fall demands a lot from its listeners, and it is definitely not the kind of music you would want to keep in the background while doing the housework. On the other hand, contrarily to the trend shown by most “mainstream” prog, displays of individual brilliance have little or no place in Thinking Plague’s world. Each instrument, like a thread in a tight, complex weave, gets its chance to shine, but as part of a whole rather than in isolation. Consequently, solo spots are few and far between, though the excellent sound quality brings each contribution to the fore.

Similarly, Decline and Fall is best approached as a whole, even if each track has its own distinct personality. Unpredictable by definition, the music can be almost unbearably dense, while at times turning rarefied, almost ethereal. Brisk opener “Malthusian Dances” thrives on Sajn’s commanding percussion work, while Mark Harris’ assertive clarinet spars with Johnson’s guitar. “I Cannot Fly”, a barbed attack on the easy consolation offered by religion, is suitably sparse and dissonant, though fleshed out by Dave Willey’s muscular bass lines – which are also spotlighted in “Sleeper Cell Anthem”, together with Sajn’s solemn, martial drumming. The mesmerizing ebb and flow of the  album’s centerpiece, the almost 12-minute “A Virtuous Man”, is so fragmented as to be nearly impossible to describe, and yet oddly cohesive;  DiFalco’s voice seamlessly blends with the impossibly complex lines of the music, surging and fading along with it. The shorter, mostly instrumental “The Gyre” introduces closing track “Climbing the Mountain”, an oddly serene, keyboard-driven number enriched by atmospheric mellotron and understated piano whose unexpectedly abrupt ending seems to suggest humankind’s inevitable demise.

No matter how clichéd it may sound, the warning of “not for the faint-hearted” is quite fitting for an album such as Decline and Fall. Those looking for catchy melodies, conventionally “beautiful” singing and lush orchestrations are bound to be put off by Thinking Plague’s off-kilter, yet highly reasoned approach to composition, and the undeniably depressing subject matter is unlikely to appeal to fans of the more escapist side of prog. This is not the by-numbers doom-and-gloom typical of many progressive metal bands, but a genuinely dystopian vision of the future of humankind conveyed in strikingly beautiful imagery – a true soundtrack of the Apocalypse. While Decline and Fall is clearly not an easy proposition, it will yield rich rewards for those brave enough to approach it.

Links:
http://www.generalrubric.com/thinkingplague/main.html

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Too Much Light (Ionesco’s Theme) (3:48)
2. The Old Woods  (5:46)
3. If Two See A Unicorn  (1:58)
4. What A Night  (4:02)
5. The Conservatives  (1:50)
6. Winter  (3:22)
7. I Could Eat You Up  (3:37)
8. Wordswords  (5:40)
9. Autumn  (3:19)
10. Mitch  (2:57)
11. A Garland Of Miniatures  (2:40)
12. Nightfall  (4:31)

LINEUP:
Dave Willey – accordion, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion, guitar, mailing tubes, piano, bells, zither, whistling, electric guitar, folk guitar, organ, guitarrón, harmonium; vocals (10)
Mike Johnson – guitar, electric guitar (4, 5, 7, 8, 12)
Deborah Perry – vocals (all tracks but 9, 10)
Elaine di Falco – vocals (1, 6, 9), piano (8, 9)
Hugh Hopper – bass, loops (2, 4, 12)
Farrell Lowe – guitar (2)
Wally Scharold – vocals (5)
James Hoskins – cello (6)
Emily Bowman – viola (6)
Mark Harris – clarinet (6)
Bruce Orr – bassoon (6)
Dave Kerman – drums (7)
Hamster Theatre – vocals for loops (12)

Known as a member of avant-rock outfits Hamster Theatre and Thinking Plague (and, more recently, 3 Mice), Colorado-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Dave Willey is someone whose whole career as a musician hinges on an eclectic and broad-minded outlook, informed by the sophistication of Europe’s variegated traditions as much as by the rugged nature of the American West. Even his preferred instrument, the accordion, is an icon of  Old-World folk music (with which Willey became acquainted during his frequent visits to Europe), whose headily nostalgic flavour blends seamlessly with the austerely challenging compositions of Thinking Plague, or underpins the quirky, engaging nature of Hamster Theatre’s sound.

Released on AltrOck Productions almost 20 years after Willey’s recording debut, 1993’s  Songs from the Hamster Theatre, Willey’s second solo album, Immeasurable Currents, is a true labour of love, which, in the words of the artist himself, took him “a million years” to complete.  In a moving, heartfelt homage to his father, the late Dale Willey, the album is based on the poems written by Willey Sr. and collected in The Tin Box and Other Poems (2001). The album also marks the last recording appearance of legendary bassist Hugh Hopper before his untimely passing in 2009.  Besides Hopper, the friends assisting him in this venture include his Hamster Theatre/Thinking  Plague cohorts Mike Johnson and Mark Harris, drummer Dave Kerman, miRthkon guitarist Wally Scharold, and an extraordinary pair of vocalists – current and former Thinking Plague singers Elaine diFalco and Deborah Perry. Mostly recorded at Willey’s Colorado home, the album was then mixed and mastered by renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran in Tel Aviv – a truly international, continent-spanning effort.

The first time I heard Immeasurable Currents, a comparison immediately sprang to my mind with another emotionally charged album, released almost 40 years ago –  Robert Wyatt’s milestone Rock Bottom. The presence of the late Hopper with his signature fuzz bass adds to the sheer poignancy of the album, though – unlike some fellow reviewers – I would not apply the word “sad” to the music. Upbeat moments are scattered throughout the album, and crop up almost unexpectedly, creating a charming contrast of light and shade with the more sober, even somber passages. While Immeasurable Currents is bound to make the listener pause and think rather than get up and dance, its musical and lyrical content is a far cry from the contrived doom and gloom of a lot of progressive metal, or the navel-gazing typical of “alt. prog”.

Following an increasingly (and thankfully) popular trend for shorter albums, Immeasurable Currents runs at a mere 43 minutes, consisting of 12 vignettes (mostly penned by Willey, with some noteworthy contributions from his guests) that, in spite of their short duration and deceptively simple appearance, span a wide range of moods and musical textures. The minimalistic yet exquisite instrumental accompaniment highlights the beauty and power of the words without overwhelming them with layers upon layers of sound; while the magnificent vocal performances bring the lyrics’ vivid imagery to life – never concealing its occasionally disturbing nature, but also throwing its ultimately life-affirming quality and keen observation of nature’s phenomena into sharp relief.

Opener “Too Much Light” spotlights the breathtaking beauty of Perry and diFalco’s intertwining voices – the former higher-pitched, almost child-like, the latter deep and smooth, complementing each other perfectly, in stark contrast with the cloyingly sweet stereotype of the female prog vocalist. The nostalgia-infused sound of the accordion lends a smoky, Old-World feel to the piece, and to the following “The Old Woods”,  somewhat similar in mood.  In a dance-like movement, the songs often temper their initial briskness by noticeably slowing down in the second half – such being the case of the troubling “I Could Eat You Up”, which hints at incest while expanding on the well-known fairy tale of Haensel and Gretel; Dave Kerman’s supercharged drumming, coupled with Willey’s frantic accordion, add to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. The subtle but incisive political criticism of “The Conservatives” is set to surprisingly upbeat music, featuring one of the album’s rare guitar solos; while the solemn, chamber-like “Winter” and the understated piano- and accordion-led ballad “Autumn” render the poignancy of the two “darker” seasons of the year in flawless sonic terms.

With its striking, often harsh images intensified by Perry’s stunningly expressive vocals, “Wordswords”  is one of the highlights of the album,  a skewed Astor Piazzolla tango that gradually builds up to a haunting ending, spiced by a hint of dissonance that anchors it to Thinking Plague’s work. “Mitch” showcases Willey’s idiosyncratic but effective voice in a piece that commands comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits; while “What a Night” oozes a mix of intensity and tenderness, its superbly atmospheric coda a perfect foil to the words. The album is then wrapped up by the arresting “Nightfall”, where Perry’s vocal performance reproduces the peculiar arrangement of the written word, almost suspended in a rarefied backdrop of guitar and bass loops.

An album of subtle, multilayered beauty, Immeasurable Currents seems to embody the very definition of “progressive but not prog” (if by “prog” we mean the myriad acts that are firmly and hopelessly stuck in the Seventies).  Its deeply personal nature, coupled with musical textures ranging from mesmerizingly sparse to engagingly upbeat, will appeal to fans of such diverse artists as David Sylvian or Kate Bush, as well as the RIO/Avant brigade. Indeed, the open-minded, forward-thinking music lover will find much to appreciate in this elegant yet humble tribute to a beloved father’s artistic and human vision, set to music that constantly surprises and delights, and full of intriguing reflections on nature and the human condition.

Links:
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/dave-willey-p367258
http://production.altrock.it/prod2.asp?lang=eng_&id=167&id2=168

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