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TRACKLISTING:
1. Repeat It (4:33)
2. In A Sense (5:24)
3. A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story (5:07)
4. Chrysalis:
Part 1: In Between The Lines (2:53)
Part 2:  The Pundits (3:00)
Part 3: The Muse Returns (1:41)
Part 4: Free to Fall (3:15)
5. The Projectionist (4:40)
6. Tear Gas (4:46)
7. Higher Than Mountains (4:19)
8. Gravity (10:12)
9. Gravity (instrumental – bonus track) (10:02)

LINEUP:
Eric Sands – fretted and fretless bass, electric guitars
Jeff Hodges – vocals, piano, organ, synth, samples, percussion
Elise Testone – vocals
Quentin Ravenel – drums
Cameron Harder Handel – trumpet
Jenny Hugh – violin
Steve Carroll – lyrics, imagery

With:
Keith Bruce – electric guitar (1, 5)
Oliver Caminos – guitar (2, 3)
Alexandra Hodges – backing vocals (5)
Tim Hodson – acoustic guitar (2, 8 )
Vitaly Popeloff – guitar (1, 4/1, 4/2)
Dan Wright – guitar (4/4, 6)

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, where they were founded by multi-instrumentalists Eric Sands and Jeff Hodges, Man On Fire first appeared on the music scene in 1998 with the release of their eponymous debut album. It was followed by The Undefined Design (2003), which featured Kansas’ David Ragsdale on violin, and Habitat (2006), with Adrian Belew guesting on guitar (as well as  Ragsdale’s return). Chrysalis, their long-awaited fourth album, sees the band expanded to a six-piece, with lyrics provided once again by 10T Records president Steve Carroll.

Though I was familiar with the band’s name, my only contact with Man On Fire prior to Chrysalis occurred when I had the opportunity to listen to Undercover, a compilation of cover versions of famous progressive rock songs released by 10T Records in 2009. Man On Fire’s contribution to the album, Japan’s “Visions of China”, obviously attracted my attention, as the song is a great favourite of mine; however, in the intervening months I was so overwhelmed with music to review that I all but forgot about it. The comments I had heard about the band were all largely positive, but most of them pointed out that Man On Fire were not “really” prog – meaning they did not sound like Yes or Genesis, and had at least some “mainstream” potential, which made them somewhat suspect in the eyes of purists.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I received a promo copy of Chrysalis in the mail, I did expect a measure of accessibility from the band. What took me completely by surprise, however, was the sheer brilliance of the music that came out of my speakers once I put the CD into my player. Fresh and exhilarating, brimming with memorable melodies and stunning vocal performances, it took me back to that time – the early to mid-1980s – when I spent most of my days glued to the radio, soaking in all the newest releases. In spite of that period’s grim reputation of being a wasteland for progressive rock, the ‘80s were rife with incredible talent, both as regards quality pop and more experimental fare (not to mention the wealth of classic heavy metal albums). The essence of that musical bounty – so undeservedly reviled by the snobs of this world – came back in full force when I first heard Chrysalis. The album was that rare beast – a perfect marriage between the cream of the ‘80s’ musical crop and a genuinely progressive attitude, made of technical brilliance and unabashed eclecticism.

Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from the world of cooking, Chrysalis is definitely not “your mom’s prog” Though the very mention of  the ‘80s and prog in the same breath may conjure memories of extremely divisive albums such as Yes’ 90125 or the whole of Genesis’ output in that decade, Chrysalis possesses a warm, organic sound that avoids some of the excesses of that decade (such as the over-reliance on electronic drums), all the while keeping that inimitable blend of accessibility and subtle complexity. Unlike so many “real” prog releases, which seem to adopt a “more is more” approach often resulting in bloated, pretentious affairs, this is an album that makes listening a pleasure rather than a chore. Chrysalis is a lean, mean machine offering 58 minutes of perfectly balanced music – with the majority of the tracks between 4 and 5 minutes, a 4-part epic that, in spite of its very restrained running time (10 minutes), manages to hold the attention much better than its twice-as-long counterparts, and a stunner of a closing track that sums up the album and lays the groundwork for the future developments of the band’s career.

Right from the opening strains of “Repeat It” it becomes obvious that Chrysalis is not your average symphonic prog album with a Seventies fetish. Its funky swagger, with Eric Sands’s meaty bass lines enhanced by synth bursts, provides a perfect foil for Jeff Hodges’ occasionally gruff, immensely expressive vocals. Organ flurries and airy keyboards, accented by guitar (courtesy of From.uz mainman Vitaly Popeloff), add layers of texture to the catchy yet intriguing fabric of the song. The haunting folksy beauty of Jenny Hugh’s violin refrain joins the mix of pneumatic bass and weird electronics – so reminiscent of Japan’s best moments – to make “In a Sense” one of the highlights of the album, driven to an exhilarating pace by the soulful vocal interplay between Hodges and Elise Testone, and tempered by more atmospheric moments. The Japan influence is unmistakable on most of the album, though Hodges’ voice is definitely not as languid as David Sylvian’s, often coming across as more Motown than standard prog. The skewed ballad of “A (Post-Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story”, bolstered by the flawless work of the rhythm section and peppered with trumpet bursts underscoring the intensity of the vocals, reminded me of another exquisitely boundary-crossing outfit – New Jersey’s own 3RDegree, who share Man On Fire’s appreciation of eclectic acts such as Rush. The Canadian trio’s influence crops up in the most accessible track on the album, the upbeat “Higher Than Mountains”, whose mainstream appeal is subtly spiked by a slightly chaotic ending.

The title-track offers a nice twist on the old warhorse of the multi-part epic, with short sections strung together by a main theme, and made especially memorable by the wistful voice of Cameron Harder Handel’s trumpet. Eric Sands is again joined by Vitaly Popeloff on guitar, providing both clean, melodic lines with an almost Gilmourian touch and  harsh riffs, while the mood runs the gamut from hauntingly melancholy (as in Pt 3, “The Muse Returns”) to dynamic and muscular (as in Pt 4, “Free to Fall”), with distinct echoes of bands such as Tears for Fears or Talk Talk as well as Rush or Pink Floyd. With “The Projectionist” the band dive headlong into pure ‘80s territory with an irresistibly funky, slightly angular number propelled by Quentin Ravenel’s drums, spiced up by bits of dissonance and softened by lovely vocal harmonies and entrancing keyboard washes,  hinting at some of Duran Duran’s best output. “Tear Gas” goes even further, regaling the listener with a prime example of “progressive dance” that  evokes both Madonna and the “red/blue/yellow” period of King Crimson’s career – throwing in weird electronic effects, razor-sharp riffing, slinky bass lines, soulful trumpet and haunting female backing vocals. Then, when you thought things could not get more interesting, “Gravity (also included in an instrumental-only version) kicks in, wrapping up the album with 10 minutes of absolute bliss, and the splendid voice of Elise Testone (bringing back memories of Alison Moyet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Holly Johnson) as the icing on the cake. The song is so funky and exhilarating that it makes you want to dance, the synergy between the instruments nothing short of astonishing, while the trumpet solo at the end, followed by sparse, wistful piano and recorded voices, is alone worth the price of admission.

As many of the references I have used in the previous paragraphs make abundantly clear, those who believe that the 1980s were a dismal time for interesting music would do very well to steer clear of Chrysalis. While, from a compositional point of view, the album has enough complexity to sustain any comparisons with  more “traditional” prog releases,  the music featured on Chrysalis is quite unlikely to appeal to purists or staunch ‘70s worshippers. On the other hand, anyone into art rock/crossover (labels that are often used condescendingly to define something that cannot fully aspire to the hallowed “prog” tag), and, obviously, devotees of ‘80s music will not fail to appreciate the brilliance of Man On Fire’s latest effort. With striking artwork and photography and Steve Carroll’s literate, thought-provoking lyrics rounding off a thoroughly modern package, Chrysalis is another strong contender for my personal Top 10 of 2011. Hopefully the band will not keep us waiting for another six years before their next release.

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

http://10trecords.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement) (8:13)
2. Tip-Toe the Fault-Line (6:57)
3. Ashes To Ear (5:18)
4. Shades Of Hades (5:43)
5. Reductio Ad Absurdum (6:18)
6. On Again/Off Again (7:25)
7. Lotus (6:17)
8. Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols):
Pt. 1 – Pareidolized (The Ocean In The Shell) (10:00)
Pt. 2 – Parasol (1:43)
Pt. 3 – Wave The Banner (1:41)
Pt. 4 – Fish Afraid Of Drowning (2:14)
Pt. 5 – Moebius Knot (2:26)
Pt. 6 – Full Circle (1:55)
Pt. 7 – Let it Wash Away (The Lotus Effect) (5:49)

LINEUP:
Paul Adrian Villarreal – vocals, guitars
Marcel Coenen – guitars
Daniel Kohn – bass
Rene Kroon – keyboards
Roel Van Helden – drums

Dutch quintet Sun Caged was first formed in 1999 by guitarist Marcel Coenen and drummer Dennis Leeflang. Their self-titled debut album (mixed by Arjen Lucassen of Ayreon) was released in 2003, followed by Artemisia in 2007 (with new lead singer Paul Adrian Villareal on board), and then by The Lotus Effect in the early summer of 2011 (the first with new bassist Daniel Kohn). All of the band’s albums have been released on Finnish label Lion Music. Sun Caged have also toured in support of established bands such as Vanden Plas and Fates Warning.

As some of my regular readers may already know, I am not the biggest fan of “classic” progressive metal – that is, the subgenre that was made popular by Dream Theater with their 1992 album Images and Words, and since then attracted adoration and abuse in almost equal proportion. While I have always had a lot of time for classic heavy metal, I find its marriage with progressive rock (mostly of the symphonic persuasion) largely uninspiring, with very few exceptions. For this reason, I generally refrain from reviewing albums by bands that follow in the wake of the New York quintet – as it is not always easy to keep our personal tastes and inclinations from getting in the way of objectivity.

Though firmly placed in the classic prog metal tradition of soaring vocals, guitar fireworks and majestic keyboard sweeps, Sun Caged’s third studio album has got enough individuality to separate it from the mass of run-of-the-mill Dream Theater clones that are flooding the market with their CDs. While the album, running at about 72 minutes, and complete with rather esoteric titles (though tinged with a sort of skewed humour that is not too usual in the genre), is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, the band’s cohesion allows them to come across as a unit rather than a random collection of virtuosos. Moreover, this ambition does not result in an unchecked proliferation of sprawling pieces with more twists and turns than the average listener can effectively digest. In fact, the songs are all quite tight in compositional terms, making the most of the instrumental and vocal expertise of the members, yet keeping to a relatively straightforward structure.

The vast majority of the tracks feature vocals, making the most of Paul Adrian Villareal’s impressive range and clarity. While a high tenor like most singers in the genre, his powerful, yet melodic voice adapts to the music with remarkable adroitness, rarely if ever indulging in over-the-top antics, and – most importantly – never sounding strained, as unfortunately it is often the case with Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Though voices such as Villareal’s can be much of an acquired taste, his consistently solid performance on The Lotus Effect show that is very much in control of everything that is going on around him. His skill and confidence  are especially spotlighted in “On Again/Off Again”, his voice soaring above the relentless tapestry of riffs and keyboards, and the mellow “Reductio Ad Absurdum” , a ballad in the tradition of Dream Theater’s “Another Day” or “Space Dye Vest”.

The Lotus Effect has a rather distinctive structure, featuring 7 stand-alone tracks and the 7-part epic “Ashtamangala (The 8 Auspicious Symbols)”, most of the tracks striking a nice balance between melody and heaviness. Though driven by often harsh, aggressive guitar riffs, the music relies on the contribution of keyboards for texture and depth, and the piano tempers  the high level of energy with its gentle, fluid touch. While Marcel Coenen’s guitar is always at the forefront, its interplay with Rene Kroon’s sweeping, piercing synth gives distinction to tracks such as “Tip-Toe the Fault Line”, the intense but melodic “Pareidolized” and the ultra-heavy “Moebius Knot” (the only completely instrumental track on the album), which borders on extreme metal with its dense riffing and Roel Van Helden’s frantic drumming. Opener “Seamripper (& The Blanket Statement)” is also high on the heaviness quotient, with its energetic riffing reminiscent of classic thrash metal. Here and there, however, other influences crop up, such as in the funky slap bass line in the middle of “Shades of Hades”, and the Eastern echoes in the synth line and percussion pattern of “Lotus”; while “Parasol” has a relaxed, almost Latin feel. On the other hand, closing track “Let It Wash Away (The Lotus Effect)”, with its lush keyboard parts, exudes that sense of melodic grandiosity that is typical of a lot of classic prog.

While The Lotus Effect may not be exactly my cup of tea, it is undoubtedly a finely-crafted production that will not fail to appeal to the many followers of “traditional” progressive metal. A tad overlong for my tastes, but much better structured than many efforts of comparable length and scope, the album offers a nice mix of melody, heaviness and virtuosity – the latter hardly ever descending into mere showing off. Band founder Marcel Coenen is also to be commended for the versatility of his guitar playing, and his avoidance (for the most part) of the dreaded pitfalls of shredding. That said, as talented a band as Sun Caged undeniably are, The Lotus Effect is quite unlikely to convert any naysayers to the joys of prog metal

Links:
http://www.suncaged.com/home.html

http://www.myspace.com/suncaged

http://www.reverbnation.com/suncaged

http://www.lionmusic.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Cronovisione (7:36)
2. Gatto Lupesco (7:23)
3. Nei Cerchi del Legno (13:09):
– a. Pinocchio (0:00)
– b. V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (2:17)
– c. L’Eterna Spirale del Destino (5:22)
– d. Radici di una Coscienza (8:57)
4. Il Fattore Precipitante (7:00)
5. Il Basilisco (6:19)
6. Un Insolito Baratto Alchemico (7:11)
7. Acustica Felina (9:37)

 LINEUP:
Gabriele Guidi Colombi – bass
Andrea Orlando – drums, percussion
Alessio Calandriello – vocals
Davide Serpico – electric and acoustic guitars
Andrea Lotti – piano, keyboards, acoustic guitar
Stefano Agnini – piano, keyboards

With:
Luca Scherani –  accordion (5), flute arrangement (6)
Joanne Roan – flute (6)
Rossano Villa – string arrangement (3, 7)
Lidia Molinari – voice (1, 7)

Another outstanding addition to the thriving music scene of the Italian port city of Genoa, La Coscienza di Zeno was founded in  2007 by a group of experienced musicians – bassist Gabriele “Estunno” Guidi Colombi (also a founding member of Il Tempio delle Clessidre), drummer Andrea Orlando and vocalist Alessio Calandriello. Keyboardist and lyricist Stefano Agnini joined the band at the beginning of 2008, while guitarist Davide Serpico (who replaced original guitarist Matteo Malvezzi) and keyboardist Andrea Lotti joined between 2008 and 2009. Agnini left at the end of the recording sessions for La Coscienza di Zeno’s self-titled debut album, which had started in May 2010.

The band takes its distinctive name (meaning “Zeno’s Conscience” in English, and often shortened to CDZ for ease of reference) from one of the masterpieces of Italian literature, the ground-breaking psychological novel published in 1923 by writer and businessman Italo Svevo, and written in the form of an autobiography meant to help the titular Zeno’s attempts to quit smoking through psychoanalysis. Not surprisingly, La Coscienza di Zeno’s debut possesses a definite intellectual appeal – though without the level of pretentiousness that might be expected _ revolving around Stefano Agnini’s highly literate lyrics (loosely inspired by the novel) masterfully interpreted by lead singer Alessio Calandriello’s technically impeccable voice, passionate without being overwrought.

La Coscienza di Zeno is one of those rare albums that, while in keeping with the classic prog tradition of long tracks, rich instrumentation (with special prominence given to the keyboards) and intricate arrangements, achieves the considerable feat of never overstaying its welcome.  As other reviewers have pointed out, the album is not as easy to approach as other comparable efforts, and the first impression might be somewhat deceiving. To be perfectly honest, after my first listen I thought, here is another of the many Italian Genesis-worshipping bands – which, after successive listens, turned out to be a very unfair assessment. Indeed, while the Genesis influence is occasionally hard to miss, the album’s roots lie firmly and deeply in the great Italian prog tradition, with Banco del Mutuo Soccorso a particularly apt reference, mainly on account the presence of two keyboardists and the remarkable balance between vocal and instrumental parts.

Clocking in at slightly under one hour, La Coscienza di Zeno features seven tracks between 6 and 13 minutes. Though the main foundation of the album is symphonic, lush and multilayered, with plenty of seamless instrumental interplay, outstanding solo passages and rivetingly expressive singing, there is also enough variety to keep the interest of the more eclectic-minded listeners, with a wide range of influences cropping up almost unexpectedly, from waltz to folk by way of jazz and even hard rock. The almost wholly instrumental (except for the spoken-word vocals in the middle) opener “Cronovisione” is melodic and intricate at the same time, with echoes of Yes in the airy synth sweeps laced with faintly spiky guitar, and of Banco in the majestic yet dynamic feel imparted by the twin keyboards. “Gatto Lupesco”, hinges on Alessio Calandriello’s amazing vocal range and expressive power, complemented by a musical accompaniment that is melancholy and intense in turns, driven by keyboards and dramatic drumming. The obligatory epic, “Nei Cerchi del Legno” (partly inspired by the iconic tale of Pinocchio, one of the few instances of Italian literature that have had some international resonance) has a rather unusual format, being mostly instrumental, with vocals making an appearance only towards the end. The music, on the other hand, is a triumph of imposing symphonic passages rendered even more lush by the double keyboard setup and string arrangement, almost jazzy inserts offset by gently meditative episodes, and stunning synth-guitar interplay that brings to mind Genesis’ immortal “Firth of Fifth”.

Out of the remaining four tracks, “Il Fattore Precipitante” pursues the classic Italian prog route, with the lavish, airy Genesis-like suggestions sharpened by some heavy riffing and high-powered rhythm work courtesy of Gabriele Guidi Colombi and Andrea Orlando – though Calandriello steals the show here, his vocal tour de force complemented by a superb instrumental tapestry of keyboards, drums and guitar. “Il Basilisco”, on the other hand, signals a sharp change in mood and musical style – a folk-tinged number veined with melancholy and enhanced by the arresting, unmistakably Old-World accordion of guest artist Luca Scherani of Höstsonaten, also showcasing Davide Serpico’s lovely acoustic guitar work. The splendid, exquisitely tense instrumental “Un Insolito Baratto Alchemico” juxtaposes quieter, flute-led sections and stormy keyboard passages spiced by metal-hued riffing, enriched by solemn organ and lilting piano; while closer “Acustica Felina” (the second longest track on the album) reprises the lush symphonic mood of the beginning, rounded up by the deep choral tone of the inevitable Mellotron. Calandriello’s voice tackles the challenging lyrical matter with superb expertise, veering from gentleness to a deep, almost menacing tone; the song is then wrapped up by a magnificent, Hackettian guitar solo.

With refreshing honesty, La Coscienza di Zeno make no bones about paying homage to the progressive rock tradition of the Seventies, both Italian and British – even if the sound quality and production values of their debut album are thoroughly modern, and lend extra depth and dimension to the elegantly complex music. An obvious labour of love, every aspect of the album has been carefully considered in order to offer a complete experience to the discerning listener – with stylish, mostly black-and-white photography and detailed liner notes, including the lyrics (which make worthwhile reading for anyone familiar with the Italian language). Indeed, La Coscienza di Zeno is a must for all lovers of vintage Italian prog, adding the band to the growing list of excellent “traditional but modern” acts that already includes their fellow Genoese Il Tempio delle Clessidre and La Maschera di Cera, as well as the revamped Delirium. Highly recommended to symphonic prog fans and anyone who is not put off by foreign-language vocals, this is another classy package coming from the ever-dependable Italian prog scene.

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

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Passion (5:27)
2. Empathy (11:20)
3. Feeding Frenzy (5:47)
4. This Green And Pleasant Land (13:13)
5. It’s Just A Matter Of Not Getting Caught (4:41)
6. Skara Brae (7:31)
7. Your Black Heart (6:46)

 LINEUP:
Nick Barrett – vocals, guitars, keyboard, keyboard programming
Peter Gee  – bass
Clive Nolan – keyboards, backing vocals
Scott Higham – drums, backing vocals

One of the front runners of the Neo-Prog movement (together with Marillion, Pallas and IQ) who in the mid-Eighties brought the genre back into the limelight, Pendragon do not need any introduction to the community of progressive rock fans. Never the most prolific of bands, throughout their 33 years of activity on the music scene the Stroud-based quartet have established themselves as firm favourites with those who privilege the more melodic, song-based side of prog.

Even if I was obviously acquainted with the band’s reputation, I have to admit that, before Passion, I had never listened to any Pendragon album in its entirety. For a number of reasons, mainly related to my personal circumstances, while in the Eighties I had become quite familiar with Marillion, most of the other bands managed to flow almost completely under my radar. In the following years I only heard a handful of scattered tracks that left little or no impression – especially as my tastes evolved in a different direction from “mainstream” symphonic prog and its offshoot Neo.

Passion, Pendragon’s ninth studio album – released in April 2011, and recorded with the same line-up as 2008’s Pure –  like its predecessor may well prove quite divisive as regards the band’s fandom. A masterpiece for some, a borderline sellout for others, it is definitely a bold statement, and therefore bound to rub some people the wrong way. Whatever you may think about the band and the whole Neo-Prog movement, it is undeniable that, with their last couple of releases, Pendragon have taken a big step forward into the 21st century, even at the risk of alienating their more conservative fans. Though some might call it sacrificing to fads, it might also be seen as being willing to take risks – a more than healthy attitude for a progressive rock band.

Neo-Prog often gets a bad rap in some prog circles for being both derivative and not as complex as other subgenres, as well as frequently too  “accessible”. While all of those aspects may be considered true to a certain extent, it is also true that they have earned bands like Pendragon a loyal following among those people who shy away from anything too convoluted, or lacking in melody. Indeeed, in compositional terms, Passion is rather straightforward: the same, however, might be said about highly acclaimed “modern prog” icons Porcupine Tree (incidentally, a clear influence on this album). It is also very balanced in terms of running time (54 minutes), featuring 7 tracks, only two of which longer than 10 minutes, and therefore fulfilling the role of the obligatory “epics”.

The first shock for prog purists comes right at the beginning of the title-track, after the industrial-sounding drum loops and gentle guitar chords – in the shape of heavy riffing and near-growling vocals with a definite Opeth flavour. The song, rather linear in structure, relies on the atmospheric interplay between Nick Barrett’s guitar and Clive Nolan’s keyboards, occasionally slashed by razor-sharp riffs and increased drumming speed, and plenty of electronic effects. The following number,  Empathy (one of the two epics previously mentioned), makes very effective use of cutting-edge technology to create an ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere, with spacey effects, heavily treated guitar and dirge-like vocals (as well as heavy riffing) that reinforce the Porcupine Tree comparisons. This is offset by a clean, melodic guitar solo and solemn church-like organ section towards the end, though not without the further shock of a rap-style vocal interlude. True to its title, “Feeding Frenzy” pursues the same dark, menacing tone, slowly building up to a powerful climax of heavy guitar chords and crashing drums, and ending with some rather scary vocal samples.

Though strategically placed right in the middle of the album, the second epic (and longest track), “This Green and Pleasant Land”,  is, in my view, probably the weakest, most predictable track on Passion, though the heavier, faster second half and the yodeling voices at the end inject some spice in a song that might have used some editing. Moreover, I feel that the lyrics, though undeniably sincere, tend to simplify some rather complicated issues (such as multiculturalism), and possibly reinforce negative stereotypes.  The short “It’s a Matter of Not Getting Caught” has a brief, riff-driven section sandwiched between two slow, meditative ones; while “Skara Brae” (the name of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkney Islands) is one of the highlights of the album, and my personal favourite – with its raw, almost Sabbathian opening, and the successful combination of clean, melodic guitar and vocals and the intense heaviness of chugging riffs perfecting the example put forward by Porcupine Tree in their more recent efforts. The album is wrapped up by the lovely, piano-led ballad “My Black Heart”, soulfully interpreted by Barrett (whose voice is undisputedly an acquired taste, but also very attuned to the music), and reminiscent of the more intimist moments of The Tangent or Big Big Train.

Coming in a sumptuous package complete with striking artwork by German-based Killustrations design studio, a thorough booklet and a 120-minute making-of DVD titled A Handycam Progumentary, Passion may disappoint the more traditional-minded fans, but its bold approach may also win the band a few followers among the ranks of the more modern-oriented prog devotees. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, this is an interesting, well-crafted offering by a highly professional band who – unlike other veterans of the prog scene – refuse to be stuck in a musical time-warp.

Links:
http://www.pendragon.mu/

http://www.killustrations.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. 1969 (14:14)
2. Turn It Up (6:55)
3. The World Is Caving In (9:00)
4. Can’t Take It With You (5:44)
5. There’s Nothing Wrong With the World (7:23)
6. Bite the Grit (4:59)
7. When Fear Came to Town (9:55)

LINEUP:
Jonas Reingold – fretted and fretless bass, backing vocals
Marcus Liliequist – drums
Göran Edman – vocals
Lalle Larsson – keyboards, backing vocals
Nils Erikson – vocals, keyboards
Krister Jonsson – guitars

Even if I tend to be familiar with most of the names circulating around the progressive rock scene, there are quite a few bands or artists whose music will remain an unknown quantity at least until I receive one of their albums for reviewing purposes  Swedish band Karmakanic belong to the group of acts who, in spite of their impressive pedigree and reputation among prog fans, so far had managed to fly under my personal radar. While my ignorance of all things Karmakanic was all set to end at this year’s edition of NEARfest, after the festival’s unfortunate cancellation I welcomed the opportunity to review their latest album, and finally get acquainted with such a highly rated outfit.

Started at the very beginning of the 21st century, Karmakanic is one of the numerous projects in which bassist Jonas Reingold (of Flower Kings fame) is involved. In a Perfect World is their fourth studio release, highly awaited by those fans who lean towards the melodic, traditional end of the prog spectrum. Though I tend to privilege music that is somewhat more challenging, I am open-minded enough to recognize quality, and – while In a Perfect World may not impress the listener overmuch at first – its tightly organized structure and richly varied musical offer gradually unfold with each successive listen.

Karmakanic might be firmly rooted in the great classic progressive tradition, but their musical approach privileges the creation of engaging melodies, striking the right balance between accessibility and complexity, with rather down-to-earth lyrics and songs that, even when long, do not overstay their welcome. From such an album as In a Perfect World you can expect extremely accomplished musicianship, strong vocals,  with a broad spectrum of influences ranging from the golden years of progressive rock to classic rock and even some quality pop (namely The Beatles). Moreover, while some of the songs wear their influences on their sleeve, so to speak, the healthy dose of eclecticism (in some cases responsible for some rather daring combinations), lends the album a freshness often missing from a lot of ‘mainstream’ prog.

For a band created as a side project by one of the most celebrated bassists on the prog scene, Karmakanic’s sound is not as dominated by the ‘bottom end’ as one might expect. In their current configuration as a six-piece, the band present a remarkably balanced picture, with all the instruments contributing to the intricate yet smoothly flowing texture of each individual composition. Lead singer Göran Edman has a confident, often understated voice that is an excellent match for the material, and capable of displays of assertiveness when needed. The two keyboardists, Lalle Larsson and Nils Erikson, provide plenty of those lush textures so prized by fans of vintage prog, accented by the versatility of Krister Jonsson’s guitars, effortlessy shifting from melody to aggressive riffing; while Reingold’s bass, bolstered by Marcus Liliequist’s strong drumming, emerges through the fray without stealing the limelight or overpowering the other instruments.

Out of the album’s 7 tracks (running at a total of 58 minutes), opener “1969” is the closest Karmakanic get to recreating a classic symphonic prog vibe. A 14-minute epic brimming with instrumental brilliance and plenty of tempo and mood changes, occasional touches of atmospheric Pink Floyd inspiration, and a veritable feast of majestic, sweeping keyboards and rippling piano, its Yes influences are particularly evident in Reingold’s full, twangy bass sound and the soaring vocal harmonies. In sharp contrast, “Turn It Up” is a much more linear number, whose Yes references hark back to the much-maligned Rabin era, and whose catchy chorus, powered by keyboard flurries and heavy riffing, would have some serious airplay potential in a more discerning world. “The World Is Caving In” begins instead in a deceptively low-key, almost somber fashion before developing into a pomp-rock behemoth with more than a passing nod to the likes of Styx or Kansas, and Edman channelling Steve Walsh especially in the grandiose, passionate ending.

With “Can’t Take It With You”, undoubtedly the most distinctive track on the album, Karmakanic take a leaf out of their fellow Swedes Diablo Swing Orchestra’s book, juxtaposing an upbeat, Cuban-flavoured rhythm with crushingly heavy riffs and almost atonal vocal lines; while things go back to normal with the dynamic, yet melodic “There’s Nothing Wrong With the World”, influenced by Yes’ more recent output.  “Bite the Grit”, on the other hand,. marries catchy Beatles-inspired melodies with more heavy riffage and whistling synths. The album is then wrapped up by the slow-burning blues of “When Fear Comes to Town”, complete with smoky piano and a smouldering, Gilmour-tinged guitar solo, and featuring a soulful vocal performance by Edman.

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in symphonic prog with an eclectic attitude, In a Perfect World is not as unabashedly ‘retro’ as other recent releases, though it  may still disappoint those who are looking for cutting-edge music. It is nonetheless a finely crafted effort by a truly  excellent band, and thankfully devoid of that overweening ambitiousness that can be the downfall of many an album.

Links:
http://www.jonasreingold.com/

http://www.reingoldmusic.com/

http://www.insideoutmusic.com/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. G.B. Evidence (5:19)
2. Arabesque (12:32)
3. Dark Magus (9:00)
4. L’Ombra di un Sogno (6:55)
5. Più Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Impressione Vissuta, Part I (5:08)
6. Battery Park (6:37)

LINEUP:
Giovanni Parmeggiani – Hammond organ, acoustic and electric piano, Arp Odyssey, Minimoog
Cristian Franchi – drums
Daniele Piccinini – bass
Marco Marzo Maracas – guitar, oud

With:
Richard Sinclair – vocals (4)
Antonio “Cooper” Cupertino – percussion (4)

Hailing from the historic Italian city of Bologna, home to the oldest university in the world, Accordo dei Contrari (Italian for “Agreement of the Opposites”) started out their career in as a trio; then, after a number of line-up changes, recorded their debut album, Kinesis (released in 2007) as a quartet. The same line-up is featured on Kublai, their sophomore effort, released in the spring of 2011 – an album that is sure to put them on the map of even the most demanding lovers of progressive rock. Sadly, the band was one of the “innocent victims”, so to speak, of the unfortunate cancellation of the 2011 edition of NEARfest, which deprived American prog fans of the opportunity to witness a number of exciting modern bands.

While the album’s title may bring to mind the fabled character of the Mongolian emperor celebrated by the likes of Marco Polo and S.T. Coleridge, in this case the name Kublai is meant to  represent “the most distant point in an imaginary landscape. It represents ordered chaos, light and dark, the balance between written and improvised music.” A clear statement of intent that accurately sums up the musical content of Accordo dei Contrari’s second album. With its stylishly minimalistic cover artwork, Kublai is a supremely classy package that shows a band whose compositional and instrumental mastery is growing by leaps and bounds.

Running at a compact, perfectly balanced 45 minutes, the album sounds fresh and original even when the band’s main sources of inspiration are referenced. While Accordo dei Contrari do not choose to employ as extensive an array of instruments as other modern bands, they manage to create an impressive volume of sound with a rather restrained instrumentation, dispensing with the violin and saxophone featured on their debut, and therefore perfecting the “electric quartet” format. For an album that might be tagged as jazz-rock, Kublai seems to revolve a lot around Giovanni Parmeggiani’s stunning keyboard work. Indeed, the keyboards are definitely the driving force of the disc, with the distinctive rumble of the Hammond organ lending a touch of unbridled hard rock passion to the overall sound: there are moments on Kublai in which Parmeggiani sounds as if he was channeling Jon Lord.

Opener “G.B. Evidence”, a variation on a Thelonious Monk composition, immediately introduces the listener to the fascinating world of Accordo dei Contrari, with Cristian Franci’s crisp, inventive drumming, bolstered by Daniele Piccinini’s sleek, versatile bass lines, sparring with Marco Marzo’s simmering guitar and Parmeggiani’s subtly layered keyboards. In the second half, guitar and organ engage in a sort of dialogue that conjures images of Deep Purple jamming with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Clocking in at 12 minutes “Arabesque” presents Accordo dei Contrari’s own twist on the obligatory prog ‘epic’, making effective use of a steady electronic drone to create a faintly ominous atmosphere underlying the stately beauty of the Eastern-flavoured acoustic guitar arpeggios in the first part of the track. The overall loose, somewhat rarefied texture, the flow of the music broken by frequent pauses and surges in volume, occasionally gains intensity in bursts of energy that bring to mind the revolutionary sonic melting pot of Area circa Arbeit Macht Frei. Bookended by sonorous gong. “Dark Magus” (a nod to Miles Davis’ 1974 album of the same title) reinforces the impression of classic jazz rock coupled with the intensity of vintage hard rock. Parmeggiani attacks his Hammond with unadulterated abandon, while Franci’s stellar drumming propels the whole of the composition along, with Marco Marzo’s guitar in an invaluable supporting role.

Strategically placed at the opening of the album’s second half, “L’Ombra di un Sogno (Shadow of a Dream)” is the only track with vocals, provided by none other than the ‘voice of Canterbury’, Richard Sinclair, who also wrote the gentle, moving lyrics in memory of his dog. Centred around Sinclair’s subdued yet emotional interpretation, his velvety baritone bending the music to its will, the song – somewhat sparse at first, with a hauntingly insistent guitar line, then taking a jazzier turn towards the end – brings the the sound of iconic Canterbury bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health into the 21st century. On the other hand, “Piu’ Limpida e Chiara di Ogni Espressione Vissuta, Pt. 1”  steers towards a more symphonic direction, with organ and guitar alternating in the lead role, and an overall solemn, meditative feel even when the pace picks up. The album ends with the “Battery Park” (inspired by a windy, sunny February day by the Hudson River in New York City), a lovely, piano-led  piece based around a main theme developed in a stop-start movement, the various sections climaxing and then subsiding like the natural flow of a water course.

A perfect marriage of formal elegance and emotion, rich with diverse influences but always cohesive, Kublai clearly proves that Accordo dei Contrari are ready to take their rightful place alongside D.F.A. as purveyors of impeccably executed, yet warm and emotional jazz-rock in which keyboards play a prominent role. The band have amply fulfilled the promise shown by their debut, Kinesis, and the compositional and technical maturity shown on their sophomore effort bodes extremely well for their future career. A must for fans of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock in general, Kublai will delight anyone who loves great music – whatever the label attached to it.

Links:
http://www.accordodeicontrari.com/

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Walk On Alone (12:31)
2. Voices (6:24)
3. Weapon (6:52)
4. What I Have Done (5:56)
5. Mind Over Matter (2:38)
6. Prelude (1:48)
7. World in Front of Me (11:19)

LINEUP:
John Baker – lead and backing vocals, guitars, guitar synthesizer, mandolin
Kerry Chicoine – bass, backing vocals
Steve Mauk – keyboards, backing vocals
Jerry Beller – drums, percussion, backing vocals

A quartet of experienced musicians based in Los Angeles, Mars Hollow were brought to the attention of progressive rock fans by the release of their self-titled debut album, almost one year ago. The highly awaited disc did not disappoint, and the band were immediately invited to perform at the 2010 edition of ProgDay, where I had the pleasure to meet them and see them on stage. In spite of the dreaded word ‘hype’ rearing its ugly head, or of those who may point out that Mars Hollow’s music does not really bring anything new to the prog table, and that it is also too poppy for its own good, the band’s dedication to music-making is undeniable, as is their professional attitude.

These days it is certainly not usual for artists to release an album a year, and long waits are often in order for fans of any musical genre. This seems to be even truer in the world of prog, when it is not uncommon for acts to let at least three years pass between releases – mainly due to those practical issues that I have often mentioned in my writing. Mars Hollow, however, chose to buck the trend by going into the studio a mere two months after their successful ProgDay appearance – with a well-respected musician and producer like Billy Sherwood (of Yes, Conspiracy and Circa fame) at the helm, and a strong commitment to delivering the goods in an even more impressive manner than their debut. Needless to say, the band’s sophomore effort – heralded by another prestigious live appearance, this time at the 2011 edition of ROSfest – was even more highly awaited than their debut, though the anticipation was tinged with the kind of anxiety engendered by far too many examples of anything but lucky second times.

While Mars Hollow, with refreshing honesty, have never claimed to be purveyors of daringly cutting-edge music (as is the case with some acts that, in my opinion, are nowhere as consistently good), World in Front of Me rises way above any considerations of innovation, progression, or whatever you choose to call it. Even though their self-titled debut was a hugely enjoyable slice of catchy, melodic prog with modern production values and all-round excellent performances, World in Front of Me is, simply put, pure gold – an album possessed of an almost timeless quality, a flawlessly executed homage to the best that progressive rock has to offer that, in many ways, transcends the very definition of prog. Odd as it may sound, I would compare it with another recent release that has left a lasting impression on me – Black Country Communion’s debut. Now, while the latter are definitely more of a classic hard rock act than a progressive one, their first album is also one of those very rare efforts that manage to reach a very high standard of quality without reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Clocking in at a perfect 47 minutes, World in Front of Me is bookended by two 10-minute-plus tracks which – like “Dawn of Creation” on their debut album – eschew the tired, worn-out template of the ultra-convoluted (and ultimately patchy) ‘epic’ in favour of an orgy of enchanting melodies, splendid vocal parts, and scintillating instrumental interplay. With consummate sense of balance, the five tracks sandwiched between those two display a variety of moods, from the melancholy, mainly acoustic “Mind Over Matter” to the jagged, somewhat tense “Voices” – shorter, yet no less dense and involved. To use a cliché, Mars Hollow are like a well-oiled machine, their individual skills honed by years of experience and a genuine love of their craft, creating layer upon layer of lovely sounds that, while sustaining that uplifting quality so evident in their debut, are tinged with a hint of gentle sadness suggesting the wisdom that comes with maturity. And mature is probably one of the most effective descriptions for World in Front of Me: though lacking anything as infectious as “Midnight”, it is hard not to find yourself singing along the title-track or “Walk on Alone”, as well as listening raptly to the seamless ebb and flow of the instrumental passages.

As was the case with the band’s debut, World in Front of Me is strongly keyboard-based, with John Baker’s guitar used in a supporting (though indispensable) role rather than as the star of the show. However, Sherwood’s crystal-clear production has given the rhythm section a much more prominent role. Jerry Beller’s dynamic yet sophisticated drumming is not merely propulsive, but adds a lot of dimension to the music, sometimes following the melody laid out by the keyboards and guitar, sometimes playing in a sort of counterpoint; while Kerry Chicoine’s rumbling, pneumatic Rickenbacker bursts out of the densely woven fabric of the sound in a way rarely heard since Chris Squire introduced his ‘lead bass’ approach to the instrument. Indeed, Yes might be mentioned as probably the biggest influence on this album – though, rather than the toweringly unapproachable Yes of Close to the Edge fame, Mars Hollow bring to mind the band that, with their first three albums, gave the music world a textbook-perfect example of contamination between classic pop-rock and the fledgling progressive trend.

Steve Mauk handles his array of keyboards with impressive aplomb, supported by the relentless work of the rhythm section. While the gorgeously wistful, rippling piano piece that is “Prelude” puts him directly in the spotlight, his lush yet sedate contribution to the overall sound perfectly complements John Baker’s understated guitar work and commanding vocal performance. As I stated in my review of Mars Hollow’s debut, Baker’s voice – a soaring, admirably controlled tenor reminiscent of a smoother Geddy Lee, with touches of early Steve Walsh – may not be to everyone’s taste, but his handling of the somewhat downbeat, meditative lyrics (mostly focusing on the end of a relationship) is nothing short of masterful, and the harmony sections suggest the effortless grace of vintage Yes and, occasionally, even Gentle Giant.

As regards the individual tracks, opener “Walk On Alone” and the title-track are classic prog heaven, blending memorable melodies – catchy, though in a very subtle fashion, and dispensing with a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure – with instrumental passages of stunning elegance and understated complexity. While the former number is more airy and relaxed, the latter seems to slowly build up to a climax, with a sense of tension occasionally surfacing. “Voices” and “Weapon”, though shorter, are conceived along similar lines, successfully merging haunting vocal sections with intense instrumental passages; while “What I Have Done”, with its more streamlined approach and catchy harmony vocals, comes closest to the spirit of Mars Hollow’s debut, though without the bold airplay potential of songs like “Midnight” or “Eureka”.

Down to its stylish cover photo, depicting the stark beauty of the Death Valley desert, World in Front of Me is a supremely elegant album that succeeds in the task of combining accessibility with dazzling technical proficiency and a genuine feeling of warmth. Let us forget for a moment about ‘retro-prog’ or any such ultimately pointless labels. Mars Hollow’s intention was never to revolutionize the music world, but rather to produce an album that people will enjoy, cherish, and possibly relate to in terms of their own experience. A pleasure from start to finish, this is definitely a very serious contender for album of the year.

Links:
http://www.marshollow.com/

http://www.10trecords.com/

 

 

 

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