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Posts Tagged ‘Ut Gret’

Art-ProgDay2015
Our highly-awaited yearly appointment with ProgDay came at the end of a very trying 12 months, which had drained a lot of strength and enthusiasm out of me. Though when we came back from last year’s edition things in my life had looked promising, they took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 2015, resulting in depression, burnout, and estrangement from people. As my followers will have noticed, this sorry state of affairs resulted in an unprecedented dearth of posts (only three between January and August), which reflected my gradual loss of interest in music. Though I forced myself to keep up to date by listening to new releases on Progstreaming and Bandcamp, most of the time it felt like going through the motions, and most of those albums left very little impression.

After dealing with so much negativity, I was understandably worried about not enjoying the event as much as I wanted to, even if I had been looking forward to it much more than the previous year. However, I should not have worried about feeling uncomfortable around people, as I felt definitely more inclined to be sociable than I had in 2014, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of good friends I had not seen for a while.

During the weeks leading up to ProgDay, I had been dreaming of walking in the dew-drenched grass, enjoying the cool breeze of the morning hours – instead of gasping in the heat and wilting in the humidity as in the past four years. My wishes were to be almost miraculously fulfilled, as, weather-wise, things could not have been more perfect. Sandwiched between two spells of hot, humid weather, Labor Day weekend brought pleasantly cool temperatures that made being outdoors a real delight. The threat of thunderstorms (especially on Saturday) made us hold our breath for a while, but for some mysterious coincidence Storybook Farm managed to avoid the turbulence that affected most of the area. We only saw rain on Sunday evening, and even then it did not last long. After a couple of years of near-neglect, the farm had finally new owners who seemed to be taking much better care of the place (I particularly loved the chicken coop, and the soft, carpet-like grass). The lush greenery was polished to a bright sheen by this year’s abundant rainfall, which also kept the ever-bothersome dust to a minimum.

Though attendance was somewhat down from last year, and a few familiar faces were missing, the festival still felt like a family reunion. Band announcements had come a bit later than usual, but that had not put any dent in the enthusiasm of ProgDay’s core of staunch supporters. For many of us, the festival is the high point of the year, a near-magical time spent almost on a different plane, away from the turmoil of everyday life, with a group of like-minded people that we have come to see as family of sorts. This feeling was never put so much to the test as in the past 12 months, with the untimely deaths of the wife of Phil Stauffer Todd (one of the festival’s most loyal supporters) the day after the end of last year’s fest, and of 23-year-old Sarah Jean Tatum, who with her twin sister and parents had stood behind the merch table since ProgDay’s beginning, in February 2015. Unfortunately, more sorrow was to come our way during this edition – but more about that later.

Opening act Eccentric Orbit found most of the attendees basking in the morning breeze and reconnecting with old friends. The Boston-based instrumental quartet, led by the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Madeleine Noland (whose MIDI wind controller attracted a lot of attention) offers an intriguing modern take on symphonic prog, inspired by classic science-fiction movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. In spite of having sustained a grievous loss in 2010, with the untimely passing of drummer and founding member Mark Cella (replaced by Tamandua’s Rick Landwehr), they resurfaced in 2014 with their positively-received second album, Creation of the Humanoids. While their swirling, deeply cinematic keyboard soundscapes might translate better in an indoor setting (perhaps with the aid of visuals), and the band as a whole need to work a bit on their stage presence (often a sore point with prog bands), the majestic, heavy yet melodic music was undeniably top-notch, with Tom Benson’s violin adding even more interest to the overall texture. Their confidence grew steadily throughout their set, whose second half was particularly impressive, featuring a cracking version of Genesis’ “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers… In This Quiet Earth”. Indeed, an excellent opening to ProgDay 2015 by yet another fine representative of the thriving US progressive rock scene .

Louisville’s own Ut Gret (my biggest discovery of the past few years) took to the stage next, highly anticipated by most of the audience after the splash made by their stunning 2014 album, Ancestor’s Tale. I was elated when they were announced earlier this year, knowing their reputation as a very entertaining live act. Though the belly dancer that appears in some of their YouTube videos was not part of the ProgDay expedition, their ace in the hole was the presence of singer/violinist Cheyenne Mize – a beautiful, charismatic young lady in a flowing, caftan-like gown, provided of an absolutely mesmerizing voice. Ut Gret’s definition of their music as “pan-idiomatic” is no idle boast, as they seamlessly combine multiple influences in an organic – and highly individual – whole, supported by a varied instrumentation centered around Jackie Royce’s tireless bassoon. Their set – by far the longest of the festival – included most of Ancestor’s Tale, as well as material from their previous albums (such as the gorgeous “Souvenir City”), and a tribute to King Crimson (one of leader Joee Conroy’s main sources of inspiration, together with The Muffins and the whole Canterbury scene) – all performed flawlessly, but with oodles of warmth. They closed their set with an exhilarating version of “Walk the Plank”, and the standing ovation they got at the end was fully deserved. Without any doubt, Ut Gret were one of the very best bands to grace the Storybook Farm stage in the six years we have been attending the festival, and I hope to have the opportunity to see them again soon.

When the weather is as hot as it was for the past 4 editions of the festival, the 3 p.m. slot is generally the worst, as people’s enjoyment of music is impaired by the unrelenting assault of the heat and humidity. This year’s mild weather made things easier for all the bands on the lineup; however, as far as I am concerned, Portland’s The Mercury Tree were the only disappointment (in relative terms, seen the overall high level of quality) of this year’s edition. I was familiar with the youthful trio’s music, as I had reviewed their debut album, Pterodactyls, for DPRP, and listened to their more recent output on Bandcamp. They have talent, energy and plenty of good ideas, but – for some reason – on the ProgDay stage they felt compelled to sacrifice to the current trend for over-the-top vocal antics, and infused their songs with totally out-of-the-blue, bloodcurdling shrieks that were unlikely to endear them to the more conservative members of the audience. Other attendees also noticed their over-reliance on loops and other effects. On the other hand, the band members clearly enjoy being on stage, and already handle their instruments remarkably well. Their youth will allow them plenty of time to develop their musical approach though I would definitely prefer them as an instrumental band.

Though I am reasonably well-informed about the current prog scene, Saturday’s headliners were an unknown quantity to me. Chilean outfit Tryo, however, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in its home country, spanning almost 30 years. The energetic three-piece from Valparaíso were perfect as a closing act because the high adrenalin quotient of their sound – a powerful, eclectic blend of rock, jazz and metal with recognizable touches of Chilean folk music, and a natural flow that made even epic-length tracks such as “Fuenteovejuna” easy to follow – kept people on their toes at the end of a long day of music. With their impressive stage presence and seamless interplay, guitarist Ismael Cortez, bassist Francisco Cortez and drummer Felix Carbone regaled the crowd with a sizzling performance. Though their command of English was sketchy at best, they had no trouble communicating their infectious enthusiasm to the audience. Their first US appearance, made possible by the support of the Chilean Ministry of Culture, was definitely an unqualified success, and made US prog fans aware of the wealth of interesting progressive music coming from Chile and the rest of the South American continent.

At the end of the set, we headed back to the hotel, and had an excellent dinner at a lovely Korean restaurant – then sat through the first hour of Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder’s outstanding documentary about the Canterbury scene. After a good night’s sleep (better than I expected anyway, having been plagued by sleep problems for the past few months), we were ready for another day of music.

Sunday’s opening act was probably the only truly unfamiliar one for most attendees – though two out of its three members were old acquaintances of US prog fans. Veteran French Chapman stickist Pascal Gutman’s latest project avails itself of the contribution of two talented Mexican musicians – drummer Kiko King (formerly of Cast) and multi-instrumentalist Ramsés Luna (formerly of Cabezas de Cera). In contrast with the brash energy of the previous day’s closing band, Pascal Gutman Trio’s music was understated yet riveting, and exquisitely beautiful – suffused with the warmth of world music influences, the stately elegance of jazz and the muted atmospheres of ambient. Kiko King, who had played at ProgDay with Cast in 2003, acted as a spokesman, conveying the band’s delight at having been invited to perform. The crowd responded in kind, expressing their appreciation in no uncertain terms – proving that the discovery hitherto unknown music is a big part of what prog festivals should be about. As a Chapman stick fan, I will be definitely looking forward to their forthcoming album.

Alongside Ut Gret, Avant-Folk ensemble Jack O’The Clock was my most anticipated band on the lineup. When I discovered them in 2013 through their second album, All My Friends, I hoped I would get a chance to see them on stage. My expectations were not disappointed, as the black-clad Oakland quintet (featuring two very talented ladies in bassoonist/flutist/vocalist Kate McLoughlin and violinist Emily Packard) delivered a career-defining performance, mostly based on unreleased material. Their interpretation of the prog lexicon is highly individual, and – like leader Damon Waitkus’ androgynous voice – may be somewhat of an acquired taste. With their unusual instrumentation (which included a gently lilting dulcimer, but no keyboards) and subtly multilayered, gorgeously melancholy compositions that blend Americana, chamber music, avant-garde and many other elements in a unique tapestry, this 21-century version of traditional storytellers was mesmerizing to watch. Even if they do not sound remotely like “classic” prog, bands such as Jack O’The Clock represent the future of progressive rock. It remains to be seen whether the notoriously nostalgia-bound fandom will get behind them.

Next were Marbin, the Chicago-based quartet known as one of the busiest bands in the US (with over one thousand shows played since its inception), and the brainchild of ultra-talented Israeli musicians Dani Rabin (guitar) and Danny Markovitch (sax). They took to the stage almost unannounced, at a time when I was struggling to stay awake. Being familiar with most of their music, I was expecting a highly technical, high-energy performance, and was not disappointed, as the band’s stagecraft is honed to perfection, and the cliché “well-oiled machine” seems to be tailor-made for them. On the other hand, there were no surprises, as their music has always failed to fully connect with me, and this time was no exception. Based on Rabin’s fiery guitar solos and Markovitch’s gutsy sax forays, the band’s sound is hard-driving yet accessible, with some intense bluesy moments highlighted their versatility. However, the most entertaining aspect of Marbin’s set were the main duo’s storytelling skills. Their rather wild tale of how their forthcoming album came to be titled Aggressive Hippies was hilarious, and created a bond with the audience that belied the slightly daunting quality of their chops-heavy music.

Belgian quartet Quantum Fantay was the only band in the lineup that I had already seen, at our first NEARfest in 2009. Though their participation to ProgDay 2011 had been sabotaged by Hurricane Irene, the band were obviously keen to make up for lost time, and many in the audience seemed to have a soft spot for their brand of pulsating, ethnic-tinged space rock. Undoubtedly excellent musicians and seasoned performers, brimming with enthusiasm and an effortlessly easygoing stage manner, the band delivered the goods and encouraged people to get up and dance – in itself no mean feat after a full day of music. As to myself, by the time they stepped on stage I was feeling even sleepier, and found myself almost dozing off in my lawn chair. Just like Ozric Tentacles (to whom they have often been compared), Quantum Fantay play the kind of music that holds my interest in small doses, and after a while their pulsating rhythms and whooshing keyboards started to sound a bit samey. In spite of these drawbacks, however, theirs was a very entertaining performance, and a good send-off to ProgDay’s 21st edition.

The following day, after having taken our leave from our friends, in the hope of meeting them again in 2016, we headed north feeling tired but in many ways regenerated after such a wonderful weekend. This was particularly true of myself, who felt the festival had been the start of a new, hopefully more positive chapter for me in my life.

While in the six ProgDay editions we have attended the band selection committee has always delivered in terms of quality, I believe this year was particularly bountiful, with top-notch performances and a wide range of musical styles to please the most demanding fans. As it has often been the case in the past few years, ProgDay 2015 showcased a wealth of female talent, with five outstanding ladies gracing the Storybook stage over the weekend: Madeleine Noland (Eccentric Orbit), Jackie Royce and Cheyenne Mize (Ut Gret), Kate McLoughlin and Emily Packard (Jack O’The Clock). The two bassoonists, who once again proved the enduring charm of the combination of rock and chamber/classical instruments, deserve a special mention – hence the title of this review. The performances of Jackie Royce, with her engaging manner and talent for comedy, and the elfin Kate McLoughlin were among the highlights of the whole weekend. So much for all the tiresome Internet discussions about women and progressive rock being mutually exclusive…

At the end of my review, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the organizers for all their hard work and dedication, and state once again that they can always count on our support. For the sake of the US progressive rock scene, it is essential that ProgDay continues, even if it will never draw the crowds that NEARfest used to. Besides the consistently great musical offer, the sense of community is a heartwarming reminder of the truly important things in life.

This year’s edition was a bittersweet one, in the light of the heartbreaking news we received on Saturday afternoon. During the Ut Gret set, we learned that our dear friend Djalma Carvalho (a regular reader and supporter of this blog) had passed away in the days before the festival. We had first met him at Progday 2011, and hoped to see him again some time this year, as he was due to come to the US again after a two-year hiatus. Though we will never see him again sitting in his customary place, right in front of the stage, his gentle nature and deep, abiding love of music will live forever in our hearts. Therefore, I wish to dedicate this review to him and to his best friend, Michael Inman, hoping he will find comfort in my words.

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While searching for a suitable title for my customary “year in review” essay, I thought of something that would convey the general mood of my 2014 while emphasizing the role that music had in helping me out of a bout of potentially severe depression. This is how I came out with this title (shared by a song from Rainbow’s iconic Rising album) and the image that goes with it. The first six months of the year were spent in a sort of daze, in which I tried to keep up with listening and reviewing new music, but was increasingly consumed by a job assignment that ultimately got me burned out. Over the summer months I gradually withdrew from social life, and lost most of my interest in music – to the point that, when ProgDay was approaching, I almost decided to bail out and stay home. The low number of posts on my blog bears witness to this sorry state of affairs – which was thankfully brought to an end by a very enjoyable ProgDay experience. Music, as usual, did help me out of a black hole, and so did the friendships I have made over the years thanks to this lifelong passion of mine.

After such an introduction, it will not come as a surprise that many of this year’s highly regarded albums escaped my attention, and even those I did manage to hear did not impress as much as they would have in a different situation. This 2014 overview may therefore contain some glaring omissions, for which I apologize. Keeping track of the staggering number of new releases in the progressive realm is difficult under normal circumstances, and even harder when real life gets in the way.

Although my full-length reviews have become a much rarer item, since February 2014 I have been regularly providing recommendations for an excellent new feature (the brainchild of DPRP longtime collaborator and editor Andy Read) by the name of Something for the Weekend?. Dedicated exclusively to progressive music available for free streaming on invaluable resources such as Progstreaming or Bandcamp, this weekly feature has allowed me to promote the work of many outstanding artists – as well as exploring a lot of exciting new music that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Going back to ProgArchives, the thriving website where I started my career as a reviewer back in 2005 (and also met my husband), after a four-year absence has also been very beneficial in terms of discovering new music and cultivating fulfilling relationships.

The past year saw my personal tastes shift even further away from traditional prog, and wholeheartedly embrace the new incarnations of the genre. While this does not mean I have stopped enjoying classic prog, I recognize that, in the second decade of the 21st century, the genre needs to look forward rather than backward if it is to survive. Speaking of which, having resolutely moved underground is probably the best thing to happen to progressive rock in the past few years. In spite of the many difficulties they face, many progressive artists now produce music to please themselves first and foremost. Without having to obey the constraints of the “market”, artistic creativity can be given free rein, so that we can expect the next few years to be generous with high-quality releases.

My personal “best of 2014” spans different subgenres of prog, with a pronounced emphasis on the eclectic and experimental side of things. Though often labeled as RIO/Avant, my album of the year – Ut Gret’s marvelous Ancestor’s Tale – is the best Canterbury album to be released in a long while (though the band hail from Louisville, Kentucky), and introduced the prog audience to the stunning vocal talents of songstress Cheyenne Mize. Incidentally, another two of my favourite 2014 albums came from bands that have occasionally been associated with the Canterbury sound – though. Like Ut Gret, neither hails from that part of the world. Moraine’s  Groundswell, is their most mature work to date, showcasing the Seattle quintet’s unique brand of ethnic-tinged, contemporary jazz-rock. On the other hand Italian quartet Accordo dei Contrari’s comeback album, AdC , saw them explore heavier territories, though retaining the exquisite sense of melody that distinguishes Giovanni Parmeggiani’s compositional style.

As a whole, 2014 was an uncommonly good year for eclectic releases that avoided the “old wine in new bottles” syndrome. Knifeworld’s sophomore release, The Unraveling, spearheaded this highly individual approach to the creation of progressive rock. Also appearing on Gong’s latest effort, I See You, Knifeworld mainman Kavus Torabi seems poised to replace Steven Wilson as the busiest man in prog, though with a much more genuinely innovative attitude. Torabi’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Emmett Elvin’s Bloody Marvels was true to its title, delivering a series of deeply cinematic, atmospheric pieces mostly performed on acoustic instruments, released on independent British label Bad Elephant Music – which in 2014 distinguished itself as one of the foremost purveyors of interesting progressive fare. Together with Elvin’s album, guitarist Matt Stevens’ Lucid and Trojan Horse’s “pronk” assault World Upside Down proved that the British isles have got more to offer than endless variations on the neo-prog gospel. As for Sound Mirror, the highly touted second album by “new Canterburians” Syd Arthur (their first for the revamped Harvest label), I only managed to get hold of it when I had already started writing this piece: my initial impression is positive, though the album is definitely in a more mainstream vein.

One of the biggest surprises of the year, mentioned as a favourite by many prog fans, came from Norwegian outfit Seven Impale: their furiously sax-driven, full-length debut, City of the Sun, combines echoes of King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator with an endearingly zany sense of humour. Fellow Norwegians Major Parkinson’s “cabaret rock” opus Twilight Cinema also drew a lot of rave reviews, as did Swedes Pingvinorkestern’s heady melting pot Push. Spain’s ebullient Cheeto’s Magazine offered more Zappaesque, genre-bending goodness with their debut, Boiling Fowls, while French outfit PoiL’s Brossaklitt went beyond Magma and their offspring, with lyrics in an invented language set to an explosive mixture of punk, jazz and RIO/Avant. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Russian quartet Uphill Work’s third album, Missing Opportunities, struck a fine balance between the traditional song form and eccentric avant-garde.

The sprawling US scene achieved its fair share of cliché-busting releases, such as Atomic Ape’s frenetic debut, Swarm (introducing a revamped lineup of Orange Tulip Conspiracy), or Jack O’The Clock’s mysterious Night Loops, a rather different album from last year’s folksy All My Friends. Bent Knee’s Shiny-Eyed Babies reinterprets art rock in thoroughly modern fashion -occasionally reminiscent of their fellow Bostonians Schooltree, though in a darker, more experimental vein. The Pacific Northwest scene produced the melancholy folk-prog of The Autumn Electric’s Flowers for Ambrosia (featuring Phideaux’s keyboardist Johnny Unicorn) as well as the furious “pronk” of Alex’s Hand’s The Roaches and Badwater Fire Company’s eponymous debut, the elegant eclecticism of The Mercury Tree’s Countenance, and the experimental jazz-rock of Fang Chia’s Where Would You That We Gather?. From New York City came the dirty funk of Tauk’s Collisions and the Zappa-inflected jazz-rock of Trout Cake’s EP Ultrasounds (recommended to fans of Frogg Café). Somewhat more appealing to prog traditionalists, Resistor’s To the Stars blends a lot of diverse influences (think Kansas, Iron Maiden and Jethro Tull jamming together with a very 21st-century attitude) for one of the year’s most intriguing “crossover” offerings, while Dream the Electric Sleep’s powerful second album Heretics treads in grunge/alternative territory. Minneapolis quartet  Galactic Cowboy Orchestra also released a new album, Zombie Mouth, and at the end of August wowed the ProgDay crowd with their sparkling brand of “jazzgrass art-rock”.

Instrumental progressive rock in its many forms continues to be a source of interest and delight. After 2013’s psychedelic opus, The Trip, Djam Karet celebrated their 30th anniversary with the über-laid-back Regenerator 3017, while their label Firepool Records brought to the prog audience’s attention the riveting self-titled debut by Spoke of Shadows, the latest project by Warr guitar wizard Mark Cook (of Herd of Instinct fame) in collaboration with renowned session drummer Bill Bachman. One of the year’s undisputed highlights, however, came once again from the cold climes of Sweden, with Necromonkey’s mesmerizing second album, A Glimpse of Possible Endings – complemented later in the year by a career-defining appearance at ProgDay.

Alongside Moraine’s pristine album, the ever-reliable Moonjune Records provided at least another entry to my personal “best of 2014” list: Belgian songstress Susan Clynes’s delightful debut, Life Is… – a must-listen for fans of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but also for lovers of contemporary jazz. Keeping up his efforts at promoting the Indonesian progressive jazz-rock scene, Leonardo Pavkovic also brought us the latest opuses from established guitar heroes Tohpati (Tribal Dance) and Dewa Budjana (Surya Namaskar), as well as rising star Tesla Manaf’s self-titled debut, and simakDialog’s Live at Orion (capturing a gig that I was lucky to attend). Another live album, The Third Set, came from Chicago whizz kids Marbin, one of the busiest bands on the planet; while the European scene gave us drummer Xavi Reija’s thunderous Resolution and the majestic modern jazz-rock tour de force of Machine Mass Trio’s Inti.

Milan-based label AltrOck Productions kept its unflagging tradition of delivering high-class material to sophisticated prog listeners looking for distinctive musical experiences: besides the already-mentioned Ut Gret, Accordo dei Contrari and PoiL, the re-release of Geranium by Russian folksy RIO/Avant outfit Vezhlivyi Otkaz, the jazz-rock-meets-space-rock craziness of Wrupk Urei’s Kõik Saab Korda, the almost impenetrable, yet fascinating Avant of Factor Burzaco’s 3, enhanced by Carolina Restuccia’s vertiginous vocals.

Indeed, 2014 was a great year for bands fronted by female vocalists. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was undoubtedly MoeTar’s scintillating Entropy of the Century, a quintessential modern art rock effort showcasing Moorea Dickason’s jaw-dropping vocal skills. Kate Bush fans certainly found a lot to love in Russian duo iamthemorning’s delicate, haunting Belighted. In a similar vein, the debut of Swedish band Nomads of Hope (including two former members of late Seventies band Kultivator), Breaking the Circles for a While, marries folk and medieval music with haunting trip-hop suggestions, while Finnish outfit Aalto’s Ikaro introduces elements of Tuvan throat singing and North Indian raga. Many accolades were also received by Homínido‘s debut Estirpe Litica, another highly eclectic effort featuring some former members of Chilean band La Desoorden.

Plenty of interesting new releases came both from newcomers and seasoned protagonists of the thriving Italian scene: among the many worth mentioning, Fabio Zuffanti’s somberly ambitious La quarta vittima, Alex Carpani Band’s modern symphonic 4 Destinies, FEM’s lush concept Sulla bolla di sapone, Nodo Gordiano’s intricate Nous, Agora’s lovely slice of acoustic jazz-rock Ichinen, Greenwall’s melodic yet whimsical Zappa Zippa Zuppa Zeppa, the space-tinged classic RPI of LogosL’enigma della vita, Tacita Intesa’s dramatic, self-titled debut. On the other hand, Lagartija’s Amore di vinile and Marco Machera’s Dime Novels explored the successful union of prog and singer-songwriter music, while Periplo’s debut, Diario di un malessere passeggero, offered an intriguing slice of stylish chamber rock. Sadly, the Italian prog scene suffered an irreparable loss in February, when legendary Banco vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo was killed in a car crash.

Even if I have grown away from classic symphonic prog, a few 2014 releases brought a breath of fresh air in a subgenre that can often sound stale. Kant Freud Kafka’s No Tengas Miedo brought to mind The Enid’s unique brand of majestic, classical-inspired prog, while Deluge Grander’s powerfully choral Heliotians – printed in only 205 hand-numbered, hand-painted LP copies –distilled the very essence of the modern DIY ethos. Those disappointed with Yes’ recent lackluster recording efforts found a lot of enjoyment in Heliopolis’ bright, feel-good debut, City of the Sun. Australia’s The Merlin Bird’s offered lovely female vocals and pastoral textures in their second album, Chapter and Verse, while Eccentric Orbit went for an all-out, ELP-style keyboard assault in Creation of the Humanoids.

2014 also brought some interesting solo projects, with the brilliant heavy fusion of Dean Watson’s Fantasizer!, the eclectic jazz-rock concept of Superfluous Motor’s Shipwrecked, the hauntingly intimist album by  Bodies Floating Ashore (aka Matt Lebofsky of miRthkon/MoeTar/Secret Chiefs 3 fame), and Simon McKechnie’s brainy, Crimsonian tour de force, Newton’s Alchemy.

Unfortunately, some of this year’s notable releases still remain unheard to this day: for instance, Univers Zéro’s Phosphorescent Dreams (released by an obscure Japanese label, and therefore very hard to find), Gong’s I See You, Secret Chiefs 3’s Ishraqiyun: Perichoresis, KaukasusI, and all of Cuneiform Records’ 2014 output. Other high-profile albums have been discussed in detail by most prog websites, but will not be mentioned here for a number of reasons. I have also refrained from mentioning albums I did not particularly enjoy, because I find negativity ultimately pointless, and also because quite a few fellow music writers have already published comprehensive “year in review” pieces covering many of the albums that have not found a place here.

No “year in review” piece would be complete without a mention of live performances. Even if my personal concert-going activity was very limited in comparison to previous years, 2014 was quite generous in terms of festivals and shows, with the continuing success of ROSfest, the return of Baja Prog (unfortunately suspended for 2015), the second editions of SeaProg and the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend (both confirmed for 2015), ProgDay’s 20th edition, and the Orion Studios‘ marvelous 20th anniversary celebration – as well as the welcome addition of A Day of Prog Art Rock Showcase, organized by the New England Art Rock Society(NewEARS) in the Boston metropolitan area, and Chicago’s two-day Progtoberfest.

My commitment to Something for the Weekend? provided the incentive to explore and actively look for new music to recommend to the feature’s steadily increasing number of readers (50,000 were reached a couple of weeks before the end of the year). What I jokingly call my “collection” of interesting new music bookmarks is also steadily growing. Bandcamp, in particular, is like an underground treasure trove that more and more artists are using to give exposure to their music, embracing a model that rules out any kind of financial gain, but thrives on positive feedback and direct communication with fans. Actively seeking out challenging new music, and making a point of listening to at least one album a day (preferably early in the morning, before I start getting ready to go to work) has become a pleasant routine that has helped me to keep in touch with the scene.

Since many of the albums mentioned in this essay are available for streaming, I hope this lengthy feature will encourage at least some of my readers to click on the hyperlinks and listen to those artists, and perhaps invest a few dollars (or any other currency) to buy a CD or two. As much as I enjoy the classics, I firmly believe that the future of progressive music lies with these people, whose dedication to music often means struggling with less than favourable circumstances, including the lack of support on the part of their intended audience. This essay is dedicated to them, with my most heartfelt thanks for the gift of music and its positive effect on my life.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Ancestors’ Tale (5:24)
2. The Departure (0:58)
3. Hopperknockity Tune (4:01)
4. Selves Unmade (5:56)
5. The Raw, the Cooked and the Overeasy (5:27)
6. An Elephant in Berlin (8:29)
7. Dinosaur on the Floor (3:51)
8. The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires (9:17)
9. Zodiac (7:17)
10. Walk the Plank (7:37)

LINEUP:
Jackie Royce – bassoon, contra-bassoon, flute
Steve Roberts – piano, electric piano, organ, mellotron, marimba, vibraphone, samplers
Gary Pahler – drums, percussion
Steve Good – clarinet, bass clarinet
Joee Conroy – fretless bass, Chapman stick, electric guitar, acoustic 12-string guitar, electronics

With:
Cheyenne Mize – vocals, violin (1, 3, 4, 5, 7)
Sydney Simpson – double bass (6, 9, 10)
Gregory Acker – saxes, flutes, percussion, didgeridoo (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

In my years as a reviewer, it has rarely happened for an album to make such an impression that – barely halfway through my first listening – I felt inclined to claim that it was one of the best I had heard in a long time. Listening to the apparently endless series of releases filed under the ever-growing “progressive” umbrella tends to make one a bit jaded, so that even albums received enthusiastically rarely make it to the status of regular presences in a reviewer’s CD player. However, my very first exposure to Ut Gret’s latest effort, Ancestor’s Tale – their first release for AltrOck Productions – was one of those moments in which the sheer beauty of the sounds coming out of the speakers caught me by surprise, and elicited superlatives that I normally use very sparingly.

Founded in 1981 by multi-instrumentalist Joee Conroy, a native of Louisville (Kentucky) while living in California, Ut Gret went through different incarnations before Conroy moved back to Louisville and teamed up with former collaborator Steve Roberts (founder of Avant-Prog outfit French TV), where the band’s debut album, Time of the Grets, was released in 1990. The band is currently a five-piece, augmented by a number of guest artists, and all of its members have an impressive amount of experience in a wide-ranging array of musical genres.

With a distinctive handle combining the medieval name for the C (or Do) note with the name of a fictitious tribe of barbarian invaders, Ut Gret label their output as “pan-idiomatic music” – a definition borne out by the eclectic, often markedly experimental nature of their musical pursuits in the course of the past three decades, and which at the same time niftily dispenses with the often pesky “progressive” tag. Their variegated history is also reflected by their recordings, with a 3-CD archival box set of mostly experimental material (including a live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C”) titled Recent Fossils released in 2006, followed by Radical Symmetry in 2011.

While there is progressiveness aplenty on display on Ancestor’s Tale, the music is also surprisingly accessible: multilayered and eclectic, yet consistently melodic, it might well be tagged as “Canterbury by way of Louisville, KY.” The influence of the seminal movement is openly acknowledged in the mind-blowingly intricate but appealingly fluid “Hopperknockity Tune”, a tribute to Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (though Conroy’s glissando guitar also nods to Gong’s Daevid Allen), but is quite evident on most of the album, not least in the quirky yet literate song titles. On the other hand, the band’s origins notwithstanding, there is very little, if anything, suggesting traditional American genres such as blues, country, or Kentucky’s own bluegrass; while the weird, improvisational duet between Gregory Acker’s sax and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler’s drums in “The Departure” provides almost the only instance of the “difficult” music generally identified with the Avant-Prog tag.

While featuring all the traditional rock staples (not to mention a mellotron), the rich instrumentation emphasizes the woodwinds, according a starring role to Steve Good’s clarinets and Jackie Royce’s bassoon and contra-bassoon (the undisputed protagonists of the dramatic, expressive “An Elephant in Berlin”, a piece strongly suggestive of late 19th century classical/chamber music). Both sets of instruments also come into their own in the three final tracks, which together form almost one half of the album’s 58-minute running time. Low-key moments and flares of intensity alternate in the 9-minute “The Grotesque Pageant of Dying Empires”, whose middle section also showcases some gorgeously atmospheric six-string action from Conroy. The mellotron-drenched “Zodiac” pays homage to Robert Fripp and early King Crimson, with hints of Maurice Ravel in the subtly tense build-up. while album closer “Walk the Plank” begins with a swaying, nostalgic waltz-like pace, then suddenly veers into Univers Zéro territory with a somber, riveting tone in which guitar, flute, vibraphone and eerie, bird-like effects interweave on a solemn mellotron backdrop.

Besides the effortless complexity of the instrumental parts, much of Ancestor’s Tale’s unique charm resides in Cheyenne Mize’s star turn on the four tracks with vocals. The Louisville-based, indie folk singer-songwriter’s sublime pipes will cause jaws to drop right from the opening of the title-track – her voice gliding smoothly and caressing the ear like warm honey, crystal-clear but with a haunting note of sensuality, and not a hint of the stilted theatrics so frequent in so many female prog singers. Never domineering, though not submissive, Mize’s voice blends with the instrumentation and sets the mood: whimsical yet somewhat pensive in the multifaceted “Selves Unmade”; sober and wistful in the stately “The Raw, The Cooked and The Overeasy”, where Royce’s puffing bassoon offers her a perfect foil; more upbeat in the title-track, though with a hint of torch-song flavour in the song’s second half; and, again, sedate and melancholy in the heavy, oddly cinematic “Dinosaur on the Floor”, which also features a spectacular contra-bassoon solo.

While my reviews always convey my own personal enjoyment of an album, I rarely wax lyrical as other writers are wont to do. Ancestor’s Tale, however, is one of the very few albums released in recent years that deserve to be called perfect. From the quirky, Oriental-inspired cover artwork (titled “Moby of the Orient”) and lavishly illustrated, detail-rich booklet to the astonishingly accomplished performances of all the musicians involved, the album is a joy from start to finish, and one of the most rewarding listening experiences I have had for quite a while. Moreover, it is one of those rare albums that, in spite of its complexity and sky-high technical quotient, can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in great music – regardless of labels.

Links:
http://www.utgret.net/
https://www.facebook.com/UtGret
http://utgret1.bandcamp.com/

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