Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Nova Cascade - A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

In my review of Nova Cascade's debut album, Above All Else, I urged readers to buy a copy, to 'encourage the band to create and develop more ideas'. This, it seems has borne fruit, as the second album - 'A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows' - is about to be released.

Like the debut, this is a collection of ambient Progressive music, around 36 minutes in length (some might say an EP rather than an album, these days...), and a mixture of vocal and instrumental songs. There are 9 tracks in all, all of which bar one are between two and four minutes in length - the exception being over 10 minutes: what we call 'an epic!' Four of the musicians from the first album: Dave Hilborne (vocals, synths & programming); Dave Fick (bass); Charlie Bramald (flute); and David Anania (drums) are joined by Eric Bouillette (violin & guitar). Charlie is, I believe, also responsible for the cover art, which is quite stunning and draws you in to this collection of fine music.

Anyone familiar with the band's first album - and if you're not, do yourself a favour and listen to it! - will know the kind of music that they produce, but this follow-up is definitely a progression for them: a more accomplished work, with songs that have been developed more and a much fuller sound.

The album opens with 'Unwavering', an instrumental track which builds layers of keyboards over strong but not intrusive guitar, strong bass and decorative drums, which then grows into strident and striking chords before the final brief fade: a strong start. 'Antillas' is a more thoughtful piece with a more percussive, 'plucked' feel, feeding into a central section of Dave H's restrained vocals (with more than a hint for me of Chris Isaak about them) and a smoother, quieter backing, before a return to the opening texture. 'Rabbit Hole' is a little more upbeat, but still with the restrained vocals that are, for me, a trademark of the band. 'Echo & Narcissus', the pre-release 'single', opens with a drum machine that immediately puts me in mind of early solo Phil Collins or Duke-era Genesis, a thought reinforced by the keyboard sounds later. The violin gives some depth to the sound that has a wonderful ethereal feel to it. 'Apophis' opens with a simple motif played concurrently on piano and wind, and flows into an instrumental piece that has a much more ambient feel to it than has so far been present.

'Plasticine & Paint' is the track on this album that is most reminiscent of the work on the debut in its overall feel and structure, and is also wonderfully evocative of childhood and innocence. 'Joseph', the next instrumental track, is quite 'jolly', but not in a supercilious way, with the violin dancing playfully at times: quite understated at times, but positive as well. And then comes the 'epic'! The title track, 'A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows', twice the length of anything the band has done before, and drawing its inspiration from the urban dictionary of the same name by John Koenig, is for me the most accomplished song on the album. There's a wonderful contrast of tempos working together, with fast drums and slow keys & guitars overlapping. The song gives them time and space to develop ideas that I thought was lacking in the debut album - some tracks were just getting going when they finished. There are hints of Tangerine Dream in places for me, and even of Pink Floyd. In contrast to the epic, 'Thaw', the album closer, is the shortest song in the collection at just over 2 minutes, but it draws things to a close well - quiet, reflective, and atmospheric.

This album, if given the attention that it richly deserves, should increase Nova Cascade's reach into both the ambient & Progressive schools of music. There is definite and evident growth musically from their debut, and in such a short time too, and if that trajectory can be maintained we are certainly in line for more sublime music from the band. You can order a copy of the album here - I would strongly encourage you to do so!

Friday, 9 August 2019

Apolis - The Sun Has Fallen

When one mentions 'Progressive Rock', there are certain assumptions that many people make. One is that the genre is a particularly English phenomenon: most of the leading lights from the heyday of Prog were English, or at least British; another is that the songs will be at least 8 minutes long, and preferably 15 minutes-plus, and will be on some fantastic theme.

So when I was asked if I would listen to an album by a Greek band, my ears pricked up a little. I'm aware that Greek Prog has been around since at least the days of Aphrodite's Child, and that there are some excellent Greek bands out there at the moment - Verbal Delirium and Residuous Mentales are a couple that I have written about on this site - so my interest was piqued at the prospect of more. And then the album arrived. 15 tracks, a total playing time of around 50 minutes, and none of the songs were longer than 4:45.  Is this Prog, as we know it?, I found myself asking.

So I gave the album a listen.

The Sun Has Fallen is the work of Apolis, a three-piece band from Athens, who list their influences as including Socrates and Pink Floyd!: Tassos Loukos, vocals & guitar; Christos Kyrkilis, keyboards & piano; and Simos Melissourgos, bass & vocals. There are drums also on the album, but I'm not sure who plays them. The band have been together since 2008, but this is their first album, released in 2017. Well, I say first album: the band apparently were originally called 'The Sun Has Fallen' and released an album called 'Apolis' in 2008, but then changed their name and the name of the album accordingly! The cover art is simple yet effective, and reminded me of Utopia's album, 'Ra' a little.

The album opens with 'Intro', a simple instrumental lead into the songs with ringing arpeggio guitar into a crescendo of keys and swiftly segues into 'Solve Me'. This is a more driving, heavier song, with a powerful bluesy guitar riff that carries the song throughout, supported by a Hammond-esque keyboard, and a good rock-y guitar solo towards the end. My only gripe is that the vocal could be a little stronger. 'Misty Trips' is gentler, the vocals a little breathy, and the feel a little psychedelic, though the pace picks up as the song progresses as guitar and keys vie for dominance. 'The Yard of the Strangers' is the first, though not the last, song in 3/4, which gives it a different feel to the other songs so far. There is flute (or similar) throughout, and some simple but pleasant vocal harmonies in the chorus which gives a different feel to the tune. 'Just a Sweet Melody' has a slow funky vibe, with quiet, breathy vocals again that gives a laid-back feel enhanced by the guitar solo that comes in half-way through and again towards the end.

'Ariadnes's Thread' has a kind of Middle Eastern feel to it, and is slightly darker and more syncopated than hitherto, with a heavier, staccato edge with guitars and bass working well together. 'Evening Walk' is a gentle acoustic guitar song that grows with the addition of keys, drums and bass, and is the second song in 3/4 time. There is some oboe & xylophone sounds at times which gives an interesting colour to the song. 'Ridin' in The Night' is a longer instrumental track and for me one of the stand-out tracks on the album. A quieter tune, with funky, phased guitar & keys and some simple wordless vocalising. For me it had clear 70s blues-funk feel to it, almost Isaac Hayes-y at times, with some great screaming Hammond and driving bass towards the fade-out at the end. 'Inside War' opens with lyrical piano, and with the vocals comes some excellent fretless bass. And that's all that this song has - no guitars, no drums: just piano, fretless and voice, and that gives it an increased melancholia that is quite staggering at times.

'Face Your Idols' has fast arpeggio guitars in contrast to the last song, and almost military snare drums, then some more ponderous vocals. But the song changes its dynamic in places, and even its signature in the final section moving from 8/8 to 3/4. 'Bring Me Home' has some dominant bass and vocals that are almost rap-like in their attitude and style, though quite ponderous in their delivery at times (in a good way). Acoustic & electric guitars tootle alongside an almost Latin feel at times, and they then go into a radio fade to a quieter acoustic guitar to finish.. 'Waltz Of Fear' is, unsurprisingly, also in 3/4 time (!), and surprises with Oboe again and even accordion and upright bass, which give the song a distinctly "wooden", homely, almost Parisian feel to it. 'Apolis' is, I suppose, the band's theme song: a steady, ponderous tune with phased guitars & keys giving it a kind of Led Zeppelin's 'No Quarter' vibe musically combined with an almost Steven Wilson vocal edge. 'Outro' is just a solo plucked electric guitar and some quiet vocals that ends with 19 seconds of silence. And then, almost as a after-thought, or perhaps a coda, is 'Childhood', the final instrumental piece in this collection, a pleasant work of solo acoustic guitar that draws the album to a thoughtful and fitting conclusion.

So, is it Prog? And, in the end, dose it matter? It is, I believe, a collection of interesting, stimulating, entertaining music, that touches on rock, blues, funk and ethnic European music, drawing it all together in a magical musical melting pot. This is an album that has grown on me with every listen, and I invite you to join me in discovering its many delights. With Apolis, Greece continues to give us some excellent contemporary music at the Progressive end of the spectrum, and long may it do so!

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

July's Music

July was a quiet month musically, as I spent most of the month in the throes of down-sizing, packing and moving house. So my only purchases were second-hand and quite old.

A visit to one of my favourite record stores, Record Collector in Broomhill, Sheffield, got me a couple of excellent discs. One was an album I had on cassette after going to see this guy play back in the late 1980s: Courtney Pine's 'The Vision's Tale', his third album. An excellent collection of jazz from players at the forefront of the New British Jazz scene in the late 1980s, and a delight to re-visit.
Alongside this was a copy of Gryphon's third album 'Red Queen to Gryphon Three': a joyful collection of four good-length instrumental tracks all in a progressive/ early music style which has wonderful appeal. The band have recently reformed and released their first album since 1977, and I must check it out.

On a trip out with my wife to the High Peak Bookshop (as you do) I came across a small shelf with music on, and among the small number of albums on offer were a couple of things that had been on my 'list' for a while now. The first was Miles Davis's 'Milestones', the album just before the seminal 'Kind of Blue', which saw the return to John Coltrane to Davis's band, alongside Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley, and which gives us some wonderful modal jazz written by Davis as well as Ahmad Jamal & Thelonius Monk among others. The other was actually a box set of five 70s albums by Boz Scaggs, in the Original Album Classics series - definitely neither Prog nor jazz. Of the 5, Moments and Slow Dancer have a certain appeal, though Middle Man & Down Two Then Left seem a little dated, but Silk Degrees - the only material of his I was previously aware of, mainly through the 3 hit singles of his and We're all Alone which was a hit for Rita Coolidge - stands out as a wonderful collection of songs, well-written, well-performed and well-sung. A definite departure for me, but a worthwhile one.

Just a short piece this month, but there'll be more shortly, as I settle into my new home and load the decks for more music...

Friday, 5 July 2019

June's Music

June was another good month for music, from my perspective: some excellent new stuff and some interesting steps back to forgotten or neglected gems from the past. There's been Progressive music from many genres: progressive rock, fusion, jazz and some a little hard to pigeonhole - but all good stuff, which at the end of the day is really all that matters.

Let's start with the new stuff.

Gandalf's Fist have recently produced a sort of prequel to their monumental 3-disc story-in-song, 2016's 'The Clockwork Fable': a 2-disc offering entitled 'The Clockwork Prologue'. Part narrative, part song, this tells a bizarre story of Cogtopolis with memorable tunes and some ripe language at times, but hugely enjoyable nontheless.

Completing his trilogy of albums begun with 'Courting The Widow' & 'The Bride Says No', Nad Sylvan - one-time singer with Unifaun and Steve Hackett's go-to vocalist for the Genesis Revisited tours - brings us 'The Regal Bastard' which is full of the same thoughtful prog with Sylvan's Gabriel-esque vocals to the fore.

Also completing a trilogy are Freedom To Glide, whose 'Seed' brings to an end their exploration of the First World War begun with 2013's 'Rain' and continued with 2016's 'Fall'. Few albums have affected me as much as this one, and after the first listen I was in tears - absolutely stunning work and even at this stage in the year in line to be very high in my end of year list.

Firefly Burning have released their third album, 'Breathe Shallow'. It's very hard to describe their music, which I first encountered in the 'church slot' at Summer's End a couple of years ago: there are elements of folk, classical, country, world music... all sorts. Bea Hankey's voice draws you in around the melee of music and on the whole it's wonderfully enchanting stuff, though so far this album hasn't captivated me as much as their previous one, 'Skeleton Hill'. Maybe it needs more time...

Bad Elephant Music have given us two offerings this month. First came Introitus with 'Shadows', a band I was unfamiliar with. There are echoes for me here of Karnataka and Muse in places, and this is a good mix of vocal and instrumental tracks with a couple of meaty 'epics'. And towards the end of the month there was the fourth album from The Gift - 'Antenna'. This is still 'bedding in' with me, but so far it doesn't seem to have the immediacy of their earlier albums. Maybe it will grow...

Away from Progressive Rock there's been a couple of new jazz acquisitions from Edition Records, both from piano/ bass/ drums trios. Alexi Tuamarilo Trio have produced a couple of excellent earlier albums in the past, and their latest, 'Sphere', is another great collection, enhanced on three of the tracks by trumpeter Verneri Pohjola: moody, moving and magnificent! Alongside this is the latest from Elliot Galvin - 'Modern Times', which is just as good and maybe a little more melodic.

The new album from Bruce Springsteen, 'Western Stars', is a wonderful example of The Boss's knack of telling moving stories through simple melodies, and although it's more country than Jersey - more Mid West than East coast - there's no denying it's Bruce and the songs are instantly memorable and feel like they've been around for ages.

I took the plunge last month with Gong, and this month I've given their latest album, 'The Universe Also Collapses' a spin. Although a different band now, with Kavus Torabi taking the mic and guitar, there is still that Gong magic: the music is deep and complex yet at the same time approachable, and I am so much looking forward to seeing them supporting Steve Hillage later this year.

Among the older stuff was another Gong album, 'Shamal', very much at the jazzier, fusion end of their music. Very much in the fusion 'camp' is The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I recently treated myself to their first 5 albums, 2 of which - 'Apocalypse' & 'Visions of the Emerald Beyond' were new to me. All five albums are, of course, stunning.

Browsing around HMV (as I am wont to do) a couple of albums  commended themselves to me. One was Scott Walker's debut solo album, inventively titles 'Scott' which has some outstanding songs on it, just, in 1967, showing signs of going out on a musical limb a little. Another was a compilation collection of songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was only really familiar with their singles, so it was good to hear a little more of their repertoire which (to quote the CD sleeve) "fused the raw, organic honesty of country music with the fire and urgency of rock'n'roll to create a catalogue that even four decades [now 5 decades] later still sounds fresh and vibrant."

So, that's been most of my listening over the past month. No live gigs this month, apart from a visit by Christian singer/ songwriter Paul Field to the church in Ashby, which was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And then there were a couple of early listens to up-coming albums from Magic Pie - a belter, really - and Pattern-Seeking Animals, who draw heavily for personnel on Spock's Beard, which shows in the music: pleasant-enough, if you like Spock's Beard...

Here's to the second half of the year! July is already looking interesting and mixed in content... but there's a house move to fit in sometime.

Monday, 3 June 2019

May's Music

May was a busy month musically - anything to take my mind off the debacle that is the UK political scene at the moment! - though unlike the past 3 months there was no live music. However, there was some excellent new material, and also some delving into the archives, discovering material from the 1970s.

The New Material:
There was much anticipation, as the month turned, for the arrival of the latest album from Big Big Train, though I had been fortunate in securing a review copy during April (as I hinted in last month's piece). Grand Tour carries on the legacy of the band with a towering collection of songs firmly in the musical style of the last 10 years of the band, yet now casting their net further afield than the shores of England. There are echoes of their earlier work, both musically and lyrically, but also fresh ideas and themes, and it's good to see the compositional weight being shared wider through the band. Some have hinted that, although the music is great, it sounds similar to earlier albums: but that's like saying 'I like apples, but they're all a bit apple-y'. This is Big Big Train at their best in terms of composition, atmosphere and musicianship, and this will easily be a contender for a high place at the end of the year and maybe even further on.

Bad Elephant's offering this month was a quintessentially 'Proggy' album - Brighteye Brison's 'V'. Three songs: the shortest 12:32, the longest 36:54, and all three steeped in the sounds and textures of 'classic' progressive music, without being uncomfortably regressive and nostalgic.

United Progressive Fraternity grew, along with the excellent Southern Empire, from the ashes of Unitopia, and their second album, Planetary Overload - Part 1: Loss, picks up where their 2014 debut - Fall in Love with the World - left off. This is a no-holds-barred paean to the planet we call home, wearing its desire to stop the creeping disaster of Climate change firmly on its sleeve, and is a wonderful and moving collection of soaring and stirring songs.

A Storm is Coming is Norwegian guitarist Bjorn Riis's third full-length solo album, and carries with it much of the energy and inventiveness that he brings to his band Airbag. Another superb collection of songs, it maybe doesn't have quite as strong a Gilmour-esque feel to it of his earlier solo and band output, but it's still a stellar offering.

Joe Cairney, the voice of Comedy of Errors and Grand Tour, put out a charity single last month for the benefit of the Firefighters' Charity - his and his friends' take on the Mystery song 'The Sailor & the Mermaid'. An excellent rendition and an equally excellent cause.

Talking of 'the voice', there is none so distinctive in Progressive music as that of Jon Anderson. His latest album, 1000 Hands - Chapter One, is one that lifts my soul every time I listen to it: there's just something about it that makes me feel better about life - perhaps the evident joy in Jon's voice and the positive attitude at the heart of his music. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but, like a good claret, Jon seems to be improving with age!

The last of my 'new' albums this month is 'Don't Panic' by Izz. For a lover of the works of the late Douglas Adams like myself, this is a treat, as it draws on Adams's work in a wonderful way. A really good album, and worth the wait.

Delving Deep:
Earlier this year Esoteric Recordings released a box set of 9 albums by Nucleus & Ian Carr - Torrid Zone: The Vertigo Recordings 1970-1975. This is a great collection of jazz/ fusion, featuring people such as Karl Jenkins, Chris Spedding & Alan Holdsworth among many others, and Burning Shed do a very good deal on the set.

Gong were a band that I was aware of but hadn't really given much time to, despite Steve Hillage's involvement with them in the early 70s. Having heard some of their material on Progzilla Radio, I took the plunge and bought 4 of their albums: the Radio Gnome trilogy (Flying Teapot, Angels' Egg & You); and the Pierre Moerlen-led fusion album Gazeuze! (again featuring Alan Holdsworth) This is unique music: bizarre; confusing, yet strangely alluring; brilliantly played and hinting at what was to come in Hillage's solo career. The later Moerlen material has a wonderful edge to it - different from the earlier music, but just as attractive.

I also have Progzilla to thank (more particularly Graham Harfleet) for the last purchase this month. Peter Hammill - and his band Van der Graaf Generator - feature regularly in Graham's show, and although I have a few VdGG albums I was lacking some solo Hammill. Following recommendations in the chat room I splashed out on 4 of his works: Chameleon in the Shadow of Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage, In Camera, and Over. While there are, naturally, similarities with his VdGG work, there is an energy and power in the music that is strangely appealing. In the more acoustic numbers I can detect distinct echoes of Roy Harper. I've not had much chance to listen more than once, but these albums will, I'm sure, repay repeated rumination.

So, a full month, and a busy one. June is already shaping up nicely too: so see you next month!