Sunday, 27 May 2018

Spock's Beard - Noise Floor

I came to Spock's Beard quite late in the piece. The first album of theirs that I heard was 'X', and I have to say that I was quite bowled over by it, and from then on I started to dip into their back catalogue, and through that discovered the talents of Neal Morse. With Neal at the helm, they were a different band, and I was saddened to hear that he had left the band following his 'conversion' to evangelical Christianity - he didn't want to foist his new-found beliefs on the band, which I suppose is quite gracious. Perhaps some of Neal's intensity had gone from the sound, but the music was still good.

Of course I was getting into the band just as another major change was afoot, as shortly after 'X' was released Nick d'Virgilio left the band. With Ted Leonard taking on the vocal duties and Jimmy Keegan occupying the drummer's chair, the sound of the band changed again, and, if I'm honest, they seemed to be lacking something for me. After two albums with this line-up, Keegan left the band, but last year it was announced that d'Virgilio would be coming aboard again as drummer & backing vocalist for their 13th album, 'Noise Floor', which has just been released.

This strikes me as a very positive album, and for me the best they've produced in the last eight years. The opener, 'To Breathe Another Day', rocks with a firm ease, but midway through shifts into 7/8 time and produces some unconventional drumming as a result, but all to the good. Leonard's voice has a strong rock quality to it and helps to drive the song along well. 'What Becomes of Me' starts with a gently ticking clock, and begins in a more thoughtful vein, before kicking off into a steady rhythm with good interplay between guitars & keys. This is unmistakably Spock's Beard, with good vocal harmonies and numerous time signature changes. 'Somebody's Home' moves between acoustic guitars and what sounds like a oboe effect on the keys & electric full band building for the chorus. The bass comes through strong, and even sounds like a double bass at times: again, a good, solid song. 'Have We All Gone Crazy Yet' starts with good interplay between guitars, bass and keys, before moving into the main section of the song which is mostly in 5/4 but with numerous changes into 3/4 & 4/4 - maybe they have gone crazy! A catchy tune, though perhaps not a dance song, and at 8:07 it's the longest song in the collection - perhaps a little too long, for me, as it does drag a little towards the end.

'So This Is Life' sounds, not unpleasantly, like Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles from the off, and this just increases as the double bass comes in: just like the Beatles, but with better drumming! In contrast to the lightness of this song, 'One So Wise' is markedly darker, with first keys and then guitars taking a lead, and later sparring with each other. The Prog purist will warm to the Melotrons, and this tune displays for me a strong Kansas feel to it. 'Box of Spiders' is an instrumental, and from the off is an interesting and enthralling amalgam of all kinds of patterns and rhythms working in counterpoint with each other, from keys, guitars, bass and drums. Maybe a hint of arachnophobia...? 'Beginnings' is the album closer (?) and from the start has a feel of a classic Spock's Beard song, harking back to the Neal Morse days (what I know of it, which is limited): I can certainly hear Neal singing this, and it certainly has his intensity to it.

A bonus Disc has a small collection of songs from the 'Cutting Room Floor', all quite short (under 5 minutes). 'Days We'll Remember' is a pleasant-enough acoustic-y waltz-time song, which may, in days gone by, have been a possible single - may've got some airplay on BBC Radio 2. 'Bulletproof' has a good melody and the slightest hint of Genesis for me at one point. 'Vault' is probably the strongest of the four, and begins with some good duelling guitars and builds into a solid rocker, even in challenging time signatures. 'Armageddon Nervous' (seriously...) is another instrumental and is temporally all over the place, but pleasant enough. Perhaps rightly not first choice material.

This is an album of good, AOR-tinged pop-y Progressive Rock, as are most of Spock's Beard's output. I was going to say that this is, to my mind, the best the band have done since Nick d'Virgilio left, but technically he's back, and that may be the reason why I enjoy this album as much as I do. Yes there are flaws, but very few bands are producing perfect albums and this is certainly worth an hour or so of your time.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Burntfield - Hereafter

One of the benefits of the modern age is the number of avenues that there are for discovering the plethora of new music being released these days. I discovered Burntfield through Peter O'Niell's show 'Check It Out' broadcast on, and enjoyed what I heard so much I had to buy the album.

Burntfield are a band with their roots in Finland, but who now based in Amsterdam. They describe themselves as "an alternative progressive rock band, whose music is spiced with elements of AOR and hard rock", and as I listen to the album it's clear that this is the case. They are: Juho Myllylä (vocals/guitar/blockflutes), Valtteri Seppänen (guitar/vocals), Maarten Vos (bass) and Steven Favier (drums/percussion), and their sound is augmented by Arttu Vauhkonen on keyboards & programming; Aurora Visa on kantele, and string quintet ANSos - violinists Eeva Vesmäki, Taija Kangaskokko & Matti Fredriksson; viola-ist Heikki Vilpponen; cellist Tatu Ahola & double bassist Ilkka Leppälä.

Although they formed in 2012, Hereafter is the band's debut album, released on Progressive Gears records on 7 May 2018. Describing their music, the band says that "strong melodies and powerful harmonies are linked to create unique musical atmospheres", but is this the case?

The album opener is 'Now', a quiet, thoughtful instrumental piece, starting with piano and building as layers of strings build with harmonies developing. Simple, moody and leading well into 'Sub-Zero',  which contrasts well with the opener, coming in with a bang, before settling into a solid AOR feel with an equally solid melody enhanced by harmonies. My initial feeling about the song would be that it would be a good single. Fuzzy guitars backing provides a good framework for  a short but effective solo, and vocal harmonies  build towards the end, and the drums give the song substance.

'My Grief'  starts with guitar & piano arpeggios, and the whole song has a strong hint of Anathema about it, increasingly as the vocal harmonies come in, not that this is particularly a bad thing, but for me the similarities are quite pronounced. 'Feeling of Love' is a slower more thoughtful song, with low-pitched piano & guitars opening into the strings. This is quite a beautiful ballad, with particularly 'breathy' vocals at times, and a delightful acoustic guitar solo towards the end.

'Q&A', one of the longer songs in the collection, starts with some interesting chord progressions on guitar. Another slow, thoughtful song with hints of Moon Safari in its harmonies though not quite as intense as the Swedes. Half way through there's a good guitar solo, and then the pace picks up and the song develops a more bluesy feel before falling back to a more ponderous, meditative tempo before a segue into 'In The Air', another slow song of strings, piano and vocals, with more than a passing salute to Anathema again. 'The Failure' opens with a hint of Unquiet Slumber for the Sleepers, and overall has a darker sound to it than hitherto. Some moody harmonies and crunching guitars, along with brooding strings enhance the dark mood of the song, and there are times when the drums appear stronger than they have so far.

'What Remains' is perhaps the proggiest song in the collection, and begins with a guitar motif that put me in mind of Joan Armatrading which vies with the bass before the vocals come in. There are some subtle changes on time signature within the song from 6/8 to 7/8 and back again, and some wonderful contrasts in mood and intensity, alongside some excellent musical dexterity from the whole ensemble. This is probably the stand-out track for me of the album, which closes with the title track, 'Hereafter'. Acoustic guitars & flutes lead in to piano with voice and what sounds like 12-string before again building to end with a spoken word section.

I have to say that I enjoyed this album, and each successive listen brought new light to it and from it. This is a fine collection of well-crafted and equally well-played songs: my only comment may be that perhaps these songs could benefit from a female voice in the mix along with the others, but then perhaps that may increase the similarity to Anathema...

Why not check them out for yourself - go to their website for more details.