Thursday, 5 September 2019

August's Music

August, the height of summer in the UK, was a mixed kind of month for me. Much of it was taken up with settling into a new house and into retirement, but there was time for some music as well, so here goes a very brief summary...

Elsewhere I've written about three albums that came my way: "The Sky Has Fallen" by Apolis; "A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows" by Nova Cascade (a little early: not released until September 9th); and "Star Chamber" by Hollow Hand. I picked up the latter of the three at the Greenbelt Festival, where I had my only experience of live music during the month. All three were different in their own ways: shorter, poppy Prog; more ambient Progressive music; and some interesting, almost psychedelic, rock.

On the Psychedelic front I also picked up Rosalie Cunningham's new self-titled album, which picks up on the psych vibe of the Purson album which she fronted in 2016, and is an excellent addition to the collection. Alongside that was the new CD from iamthemorning, The Bell, which carried on their evocative canon with another fine example of keyboard virtuosity and breath-taking vocals.

I've just taken delivery of a cornucopia of delights from Bad Elephant Music, and am expecting some new jazz from Edition Records, which will, no doubt feature in next month's instalment. See you then, I hope!

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Hollow Hand - Star Chamber

One of the joys of this time of year is that it is Festival season, and over the past six or seven years the Greenbelt Festival has featured in our calendar. Greenbelt is a creative gathering, which for the last 6 years has met at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, and although faith-based in its foundation it is not overtly so, and certainly not cloyingly so.  The programme is always varied, with speakers, actors, activists and musicians filling a variety of venues over the four days.

Whilst it is a time to catch up with old friends, and listen to nationally- and internationally-renowned acts, Greenbelt also offers opportunities to expand one's horizons - to try something new. This I did on the opening evening when I joined a select crowd for a 40-minute set by Brighton-based band Hollow Hand. I was drawn to them by the 'blurb' in the programme, which said that they "cite Syd Barrett and The Grateful Dead as influences, and conjure up a rural idyll accompanied by beautiful stories and sunny guitars. Lovers of Big Star and Super Furry Animals will find themselves resonating with their blissed-out, summery, ever-so-slightly-psychedelic sound." I was intrigued.

The set delivered what it promised: the cited influences were evident, and they even performed a cover of one of Syd Barrett's songs alongside their own material (can't remember which one, sadly...). For a three-piece band - guitars, bass & drums - the sound was solid and full, and there was plenty of musical dexterity on display. I was impressed enough to pick up a copy of their CD, Star Chamber, after the gig  and had a nice chat with their guitarist/ songwriter/ singer, Max Kinghorn-Mills.

Star Chamber is the second album by the band - though both seem to be more or less the work of Max on his own. The credits on Star Chamber include Atlas Shrugs on drums, and Pan Andrs on various keyboards and additional guitars. Their first album, 'Ancestral Lands', from 2015, is available as a digital download on Bandcamp, and alongside Star Chamber it offers a wonderful nostalgic feel bringing to my mind the music of The Kinks, The Grateful Dead and particularly the dreamy acoustic sound of early '70s Pink Floyd (Summer '68/ Granchester ... kind of thing)

Star Chamber opens with a track called Ancestral Lands, a reflective solo acoustic song, in contrast to One Good Turn which opens with the sound of children playing and is more of a full band song, electric, joyful and jangly with good strong vocal harmonies. Blackberry Wine  is up-beat, with a strong Kinks or Steve Harley feel to it. A World Outside ticks along nicely with some good chord progressions and a familiarity about it for a 'new' song, (Stealer's Wheel?...) and for me just a hint of Paul McCartney in the vocals at times. Milestone is kind of Syd Barrett meets The Killers, strong and metronomic throughout with an understated guitar solo towards the end (a bit more to the fore in the live setting). Side one (the album is also available on vinyl) ends with It's You, late-Beatles-like in its vibe and a mellow end to the first half of the album.

Two of Us opens side 2, and has a kind of Allman Brothers feel to start with before becoming more Kinks-y and Floyd-y and flowing into an eastern vibe. End of Everything, perhaps understandably, has a darker feel to it, played in a lower register and with brooding drums and eerie harmonies. Made Up My Mind is thoughtful, and almost reggae-like at the start and carries on with a laid-back vibe throughout. Avalon is in 3/4 and has a cheeky, playful air to it, acoustic in feel and a very pleasant song. Land of the Free is the album closer, the longest song in the collection, and another in triple time. It is an excellent, thoughtful song with many aspects to its structure that interplay wonderfully well together, and the length of the song gives time for these aspects to work their own particular spell. The long slow fade brings the album to a close and one is left uplifted yet chilled by the experience.

This is certainly a band that I will keep an eye on in the future, as a third album is on the horizon, and I encourage you to check them out if you haven't already.

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, does 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!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

April's Music

And so the year rolls on, and another month has passed. And what has been tickling my musical taste buds this last month?
The Far Meadow were this month's Bad Elephant offering, and their second album for the label, Foreign Land, was and is some outstanding progressive rock, an accomplished piece of work and just another example of the depth that the label has on its roster.

Robin Armstrong has also produced another stunning offering in his Cosmograf guise. Mind Over Depth is his seventh album, and although not as immediately gripping as some of his earlier work - notably The Man Left In Space - this one has grown and grown on me with repeated listens, despite its harder edge: clearly being a 'live' member of Big Big Train hasn't stunted Robin's creative side.

A couple of acts associated these days with BEM are Mike Kershaw & Whitewater, and they have released a collaborative EP - Good Intentions - on a Pay What You Want basis on Bandcamp as a charity effort to help raise money for a boy's football team that Mike helps to coach. This combination has a history of working together: last year they put out another EP as Evenflow - Old Town. This time the tracks are as themselves: one as Mike Kershaw & Whitewater, one as Whitewater featuring Mike Kershaw, and the last as Whitewater; as with Evenflow nothing is over 5 minutes long, and it's brilliant stuff for a good cause.

John Mitchell has his plectrum in many bands and projects, one of which is his solo Lonely Robot venture, and the final part of this trilogy has just been released - Under Stars. It draws the journey to a fitting climax and conclusion, and there are some wonderful echoes of the earlier parts included here.

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso have been one of the leading lights of Rock Progressivo Italiano for almost 50 years, and after a 22 year hiatus they have recently released their 15th studio album, Transiberiana. This was my introduction to the band - I've never really explored their back catalogue - but it was a delight and shows that, despite losing frontman Francesco di Giacomo in 2014, they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Towards the end of the month, and following my birthday, I invested in a couple of other albums, one a new release, the other an 'oldie'. The new one was the latest from jazz/ fusion/ big band collective Snarky Puppy - Immigrance. This is as slick as ever, and seems to make greater use of guitars than I've been aware of previously, but there are some great licks, riffs and chops here. The 'oldie' was plugging a gap I had in my collection, and followed the recent sad death of Mark Hollis: Talk Talk's Laughing Stock. Moody, evocative, contemplative and poignant, this collection continues the trajectory that the band had begun on Spirit of Eden - a grower, but I'm loving it.

One other album came my way during April, but it won't be released until May 17th, so I'll hang fire until next month's Tour - but it is Grand!

Live music arrived at the end of the month in my old stamping ground of Crookes, Sheffield, with a cracking set from the John Hackett Band, including material from John & the band's catalogue as well as some tunes from John & Nick Fletcher's excellent Beyond the Stars from last year. Wonderful to hear it performed live, and so well. There was also a version of King Crimson's 'I Talk to the Wind'. Support came in the form of an acoustic set from Howard Sinclair, who performed stuff from his 'Glorious Company of Fools' as well as some new material from a forthcoming album as yet incomplete. A great night out, and a pleasing crowd too, including some youngsters. Hope for the future!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

March's Music

If, as I noted in last month's post, February was a surprisingly full month musically, March took a particularly different turn.

In terms of new recorded music, there were only three new albums for me this month, and one of those was an old one that I'd only recently discovered, courtesy of my good friend Emma Roebuck on Progzilla Radio. That new old one was a wonderful collaboration between John McLaughlin & Chick Corea and others from 2009 as The Five Peace Band, a live recording of pieces they'd performed, all of them tapping into the jazz fusion groove; all bar one over 12½ minutes long and four of the 8 tracks clocking over 20 minutes! Music to transport you to a better place.

The 'new' new stuff was first of all the latest album from The Room - Caught by the Machine, a fine collection of songs at the gentler end of the progressive spectrum, with excellent musicianship, a breadth of light and shade in the music, and echoes of 1980s sounds of The Police or Simple Minds for me in places. It's an album that repays multiple listens.

And then there was Alter Ego, the latest release on Bad Elephant label from Joost Maglev. I'd come across Maglev, a talented multi-instrumentalist, in 2016 through the release of Overwrite the Sin, so I was somewhat familiar with his work, but this album took me a little by surprise. Its overall shape is cyclical - reflected in the arrangement of the track list on the back of the CD, revolving around the central track, Judith ~episode ii~, which takes up the story of the central track on Overwrite..., Judith; the second and penultimate tracks are named Angel and Demon, and have a repeated lyrical insertion: 'Feeling Illusions Necessary Afterwards Longingly Losing You' - an acrostic for Finally; and the opening and closing tracks, ~Lucid and Dreams~, have the same lyrics but in reverse order of lines. Musically the album sounded familiar, even though it was new to me, and Angel sounds as if it was recorded by Todd Rundgren's Utopia. An absolutely stunning collection of songs that had me quite emotional on first listen.

So not much new music, although what there was was more than enough, but March was not a quiet month. My work situation has changed in that I'm now retired (though technically on long term sick  leave until August), and consequently I have more time for live music. This began with a visit to Wath-upon-Dearne (a musical hut of the universe!) for the Classic Rock Society's annual (and, presumably, final) Awards night, where we were entertained by the awards, presented this year by ELO, The Move & Black Sabbath legend, Bev Bevan, but also by an acoustic-ish set by a couple of members of Multi Story, which included a couple of Jon Anderson/ Yes covers, and by a rendition of The Visitor by Arena, who put on an excellent show. A week later I was in Sheffield for a totally different  musical experience, attending a classical concert at the City Hall by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of works by Sibelius, Mozart, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, for which it was wonderful to see the place full to the roof, and where we were royally entertained.

The following weekend found me in Leicester for Lifesigns and the Blackheart Orchestra at The Musician. Lifesigns are always value for money, though this was the first time I'd seen them with Dave Bainbridge on guitar, and they played material mostly from their latest album, Cardington. Blackheart Orchestra were new to me, and seemed a little small for an orchestra (2 people), but as both were multi-instrumentalists they made up for it with a great full sound and a very entertaining set. And the next weekend we were in London - along with about a million others on the Brexit march - but we were there for Lazuli, at the Borderline in Soho, playing their own particular brand of progressive 'music that crosses boundaries' and demonstrating the true spirit of European harmony that their particular sound embodies. I don't get to London for gigs that often, and it was great to see so many people that I know there in an atmosphere of hope and love and appreciation. If only it could always be like that...

So, that was my musical March...

Saturday, 2 March 2019

February's Music

Although it's the shortest month, I've just totted up that I've managed to listen to 18 new albums in February, which is actually 2 more than in January! Some of you may be thinking: 'How does he find the time!'; others may say: '18? What a slacker!' As usual, it's a bit of a mixed bag, but here goes...

Although my genre of preference is Progressive rock, I do have a penchant for jazz as well, and courtesy of Graham Harfleet on Progzilla Radio I discovered Joe Henderson, and picked up a 3-album compilation released last year of his work from the 1990s: Lush Life - The music of Billy Strayhorn; So Near, So Far, most of which is re-workings of Miles Davis; and Big Band, which does what it says! This is great jazz, and includes contributions from Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride and Chick Corea among others. Alongside this I've recently taken delivery of Chris Potter's new album Circuits, released on my go-to jazz label, Edition, and this has some delightful tunes, at times reminiscent for me of Wayne Shorter. Highly recommended, if this music is your 'bag'!

Elsewhere on CD, these albums have dropped through the letter-box during the past month: The Windmill - Tribus: the Norwegian band's 3rd album, and another excellent piece of Scandinavian Prog; The Emerald Dawn - Nocturne: another 3rd album, a darker collection produced to the band's usual high standard; Duke 72 - Mid Shires Herald: the latest from the wonderfully eclectic Bad Elephant Music stable, where you never really know what you're going to get musically, but so far I've never been disappointed - stretched, yes, but not disappointed; I Am The Manic Whale - New Forms of Life: a live compilation of material from their first two albums, capturing their sound wonderfully and reminding me of a great live set last year at DanFest; Red Bazar - Things As They Appear: the band's second album with Peter Jones on vocals & keyboards, and just as good, if not slightly edging their Songs From The Bookcase, and another live gig caught at The Musician in Leicester; and Grand Tour - Clocks That Tick (But Never Talk): the follow-up to 2015's Heavy On The Beach.

I've been asked to do a couple of longer reviews of albums this month, which you can find elsewhere on this blog, if you wish, for Residuos Mentales - Introspection and for O.A.K. - Giordano Bruno.

Other stuff purchased in the last month was: Parallel or 90 Degrees - Unbranded: one of the band's back catalogue recently made available by Andy Tillison on Bandcamp and a wonderful collection of songs; Telegraph - Mir: an album from last year but so reminiscent of Camel in their heyday and early 70s Floyd; 3RDegree - Ones & Zeroes volume 0: the excellent follow-up to Ones & Zeroes volume 1 - I'd never got round to listening to this and now wonder why, as it's brilliant!; and the wonderfully bonkers Cheeto's Magazine - Amazingous: some crazy music but some very well-crafted music too. Allof these are available on Bandcamp if you want to explore further.

And then there were a couple of albums I got early copies of: Tim Bowness - Flowers At The Scene: some thoughtful songs sung as only Tim can, and supported by a cast of Prog luminaries such as Peter Hammill & David Longdon among others; and The Mute Gods - Atheists & Believers: the band's 3rd album and one where Nick Beggs' voice, both lyrically & vocally, is becoming stronger and more distinct. These two will probably have to live with me for a bit longer just to sink in, but they are worth it.

So, just a summary really of last month, but I hope it's been informative...

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

O.A.K - Giordano Bruno

What is it that draws you to an album, particularly one by a band you're not previously aware of? Maybe it's the personnel in the band? Maybe it's the album artwork? Maybe it's the story - the concept, to use a naughty word in some circles - that draws you in? Maybe it's the band's name that attracts you?

'Giordano Bruno' is the seventh album by Italian Progressive band Oscillazioni Alchemico Kreative, or O.A.K for short (not to be confused with the Norwegian band Oak, who's 2018 album 'False Memory Archive' was one of my albums of the year last year.)

The principal songwriter is Jerry Cutillo, who also provides vocals, flute, keyboards & guitars, and on this collection he is ably assisted by Francesco De Renzi on keyboards, Guglielmo Mariotti on bass & 12-string, and Shanti Colucci on drums, and further enhanced by a guest appearance from David Jackson on saxophone, and other contributions from Richard Sinclair, Sonja Kristina, Maart Allcock, Jenny Sorrenti & Derek Wilson, so there's some strong links to the heyday of British Progressive music with Van der Graaf Generator, Caravan, Curved Air and others.

The album artwork comes from the entrancing, alluring and prolific hands of Ed Unitsky, whose portfolio includes such modern day Prog luminaries as Unitopia, U.P.F., and The Tangent, among many others.

The story concerns a 16th Century Dominican Friar from Campania, who had the reputation for being a free thinker, a creative philosopher, and a controversial scientist. Such traits led him, after much travel and some influential company, to be tried by the Roman Inquisition as a heretic, and the album tells his story as he reflects on his life on his way to be burned at the stake in the Campo de Fiori in Rome. It takes us on his first journey to Rome, and his shock at discovering the moral hypocrisy of many of the priests there, practising the very acts that they publicly condemned; on his trips to the court of King Henry III of France, to London where he encountered Shakespeare, and to Wittenberg in Germany where he held a brief teaching post. A final teaching post in Venice at the behest of Giovanni Mocenigo led to his arrest and condemnation.

Musically the album draws strongly on old-school Prog of the 1970s. Mellotron and flute feature heavily from the beginning, and there are some very strong echoes of Jethro Tull in a number of places. That said, this is not a purely derivative work: there are other more contemporary elements as well as some classical edges too. David Jackson's sax is quite strongly used, and in Sandali Rossi, near the end of the album, it's almost as if some Tull-ish flute and Van der Graaf sax are sparring with each other. Keyboards, flute & sax tend to dominate, and where there are guitars they tend to be used to add structure to the music rather than to take the lead. Tempo-wise the music flows quite easily between reflective and up-beat - the instrumental track Le Cena delle Beffe has almost a dance music edge to it; being Prog there has to be at least one odd time signature, which I detected in Wittenberger Fuchstanz (though I'm not sure that it is...), and in good Prog tradition there's even some tubular bells towards the end of the final track! Cutillo also draws from the classical canon, including a version of Saint Saens' 'Danse Macabre', albeit a 'progged' version, similar to Tull's treatment of Bach's Bouree.

Lyrically I have to confess to struggling a little, as most (though not all) of the words are in Italian - not a language I am familiar with. There are some passages in English, and even in German in Wittenberger Fuchstanz, and the guest vocals of Sonja Kristina and Richard Sinclair (who seems to me to be more 'Hatfield' than 'Caravan' here) add variety and depth to the tunes that Cutillo's voice couldn't do alone - not that there's anything wrong with his voice!

The story of Giordano Bruno is one of a man who took the traditions that had been handed down to him and examined them, challenged them, and enhanced them - at some considerable cost to himself. In a way, O.A.K. do that with the music here, drawing on, enhancing and challenging the traditions of classical and Progressive rock music. This is an interesting, challenging and stimulating collection, and I would warmly commend it to your ears for further consideration.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Residuos Mentales - Introspection

The kind of music that I tend to listen to - Progressive Rock - has a reputation for certain traits, and one of these is the Concept Album: the idea that there can be an overarching story across a whole album, linking the songs and reaching a satisfying conclusion by the end of side 2 (or more often side 4), back in the halcyon days of gatefold vinyl. This is done with musical themes but mainly through the lyrical arc of the songs.

But how do you tell that story on an instrumental album? Can you? Well, Residuos Mentales is a studio project from Athens, Greece consisting of Stratos Morianos (keyboards, also member of Verbal Delirium) and Alexandros Mantas (guitars, flute) which was formed back in 2012, and on Introspection, their debut release from 2018, they aim and claim to do that over 38 minutes of linked songs.

 The 'story' opens with Pandora's Box, with some ambient sounds on keyboards and almost city sounds, before the piano gently fades in. This is thoughtful and ponderous stuff, that slowly builds and develops almost a heartbeat as inner voices are unleashed. Alienated builds the mood further with thunder and piano arpeggios which are then joined by brooding cello with a strong classical feel. Immersed begins with the sound of a needle on vinyl, as if a record is being played: “With the right music, you either forget everything or you remember everything” and here it seems memories come flooding back, illustrated through the interplay of piano, guitar, bass & violin culminating in a swell of melancholy. The Thorn in Me brings us some vocalised keys accompanying some reflective guitar, flute, strings and some quiet electric guitar. This is, for me, one of the more accomplished parts of this album - a stunning piece of instrumental music which builds very nicely, and we finally get some drums about 3 minutes in!

My Stories has almost a Tangerine Dream feel to it, using strong electronic loops, and introduces some spoken word via a soundtrack to the film "The Words". (A Prospect of) A Blooming Life is an interplay between piano & classical guitar, joined later by cello, and has that sense of a hope and expectancy for the future that can often be lost. Home has some humming vocals behind the guitars early on, and has a distinct Camel feel for me in places. It All Becomes Clear has a drone to it that is quite Floyd-ian (Is there anybody out there?), and what appears to be radio static and 'bleeps' behind some reflective guitar. Drums give some urgency to the song as it ends, enhancing the rhythm of the guitar melody.

Narrative has a Spanish air to it, with the guitars bringing almost an air of jollity to the album for the first time, albeit reflective jollity! The strings give a sense of movement to the piece, and what sounds like Theremin near the end took me back to Ripples by Genesis. On The Borderline is quite upbeat - the jollity returns! - and again the sense of movement is evident, almost as if we're on a train. There's some laughter in places (manic?), too, and this is a very cinematic section. We close with A Promise Unkept/ Mental Residuals which is a wonderful jazzy piece (in 5/8, I think), with guitars, keys & flute all taking the lead at times. Towards the end it almost begins to break down structurally, until we are left in the end with a simple bass note on the piano.

This is an album that grows with listening and reveals more depth the more you immerse yourself in it. Listening at home today was a different experience to hearing it the first time yesterday in the car, and one can always find more in this music as one listens. Not the most upbeat music, but then it is entitled 'Introspection': though it does have its moments, especially towards the end. There are clear influences for me from classical music, from 'classic' Progressive rock, and some jazz notes too - all of which, for me, are a delight. Perhaps for me the stand-out tracks are the two longest ones - The Thorn in Me and A Promise Unkept - but as a whole an excellent debut.

Did it tell a story, though? Well, the band said that the theme is this: "Memories and feelings mingle. A futile attempt to get to the bottom of it. But does it make sense? Will you get anywhere or back to square one? But there is no need to think about it because you’ll do it anyway, after all the rain has this knack of retrieving memories and every time the needle lands on a spinning vinyl, the music either makes you remember or forget everything, you never know beforehand. But it is everything that is coming back, your stories…an introspection." I'm not sure whether I would have gleaned that just from the music, but you know what? They took me on a journey, and a very pleasant one at that, and that's good enough for me!

Saturday, 2 February 2019

January's Reading

As well as the album's I've written about elsewhere, I've also managed to finish three books this month.

I've been a fan of Peter Robinson's DCI Banks novels  (and his other work too) for a number of years, and I've recently finished the 23rd of the Banks series, When The Music's Over. Banks has recently received his promotion to Detective Superintendent, but he doesn't let that get too much in the way of investigating crime, though in this instance it's an old crime allegedly perpetrated by a TV celebrity. Running alongside is his colleague Annie Cabbot's chasing after an Asian grooming gang. (Where does he get his ideas from...?) The stories run very well in parallel, and eventually reach suitable conclusions, and the characterisations are as strong as ever. Always an entertaining read.

Rachel Abbot made her name over recent years as a self-published author on Amazon, and her 6 novels to date (that I have read - there are a couple of more recent ones that have still to reach the top of my pile...) have as their focus the Mancunian DCI Tom Douglas. The Sixth Window also deals with grooming and sexual exploitation, and works very well on a psychological rather than a police procedural level. It doesn't disappoint.

Most recently read was the third in a collection by the renowned novelist, Iain Banks. I read The Crow Road a few years ago, and was quite impressed, and when I found this collection of three of his other novels I thought I would give them a go. The Wasp Factory was his debut, and is quite weird, but engaging, touching on some interesting psychological issues. The Bridge is a strange story: essentially a dream by a man rendered unconscious by a motor accident, as he struggles to regain consciousness, it again touches on psychological themes. I didn't find this one as accessible as the first, but stuck with it, before taking a break. I returned to the anthology towards the end of last month for the third story, Espedair Street, which chronicles the disintegrating life of a one-time rock star, coming to terms with loneliness, loss and what might have been had he not had his 'big break' some 12 years ago. I must say that of the three stories I found this one the most engaging, and the most 'un-put-down-able'.

I am continuing to trudge through Vikram Seth's monumental 1,500 page tome 'A Suitable Boy', which is taking some doing, but which I hope to finish this month, but I may look elsewhere for some light relief as well...

January's Music

We're already a month into 2019, so I thought I'd share something of what I've been listening to since the turn of the year. This broadly falls into 3 general areas: Christmas pressies; catch-up; and (can I come up with another 'c'?... no!) this year's music.

Christmas 2018 brought an interesting array of stuff, all of which was older material.
Camel's Rain Dances was a noticeable gap in my collection, and I love in particular the influence of Richard Sinclair on this album - I'm never sure at some points whether this is Camel or Caravan. As with much of the band's output, it grows with every listen.
I'd come across Pat Metheny many years ago on OGWT (possibly 1986), and on the strength of that had purchased his collaboration with Ornette Coleman, Song X, which I must say took some work (and still does). I persisted, however, and purchased a few more of his albums, adding Imaginary Day this time, which is more along the lines of what had drawn me to Metheny in the first place. An excellent collection of great fusion music.
I've been an admirer of Joni Mitchell for many years, but noticed a few gaps in my collection, mostly her more recent releases, and 'Santa' brought me a copy of her 2001 album Travelogue, which contains some quite sublime re-workings of some of her classic songs - at times better than the original versions! The package is further enhanced, as are most of her albums, with some of her stunning artwork too.
The final Christmas haul was a copy of an album that I'd owned digitally for a number of years, but now have a physical copy of: Montpellier by the Harrogate band Wally. Harrogate is my home town, and the music is a kind of prog/ blues/ country melange. Their first couple of albums came out in the 70s, but we had to wait until 2010 for number 3, and the wait was worth it, though perhaps not quite with the edge that their earlier releases had, which endeared them so much to the likes of Bob Harris & Rick Wakeman.

Christmas money was spent on a bit of catch-up. The two albums missing from my Joe Bonamassa collection - 2014's Different Shades of Blue, and last year's Redemption - both lived up to expectation with Joe's usual brand of hard-hitting blues. The one gap left in Joni Mitchell's catalogue was her last release, 2007's Shine, and that did not disappoint at all - an outstanding addition (end?) to her recorded output. Finally there was Vangelis's Albedo 0.39, an album I'd not heard since just after its release 43 years ago, and a fantastic example of early electronic music at its best.

Other Catch Up was stuff that was released towards the end of 2018 that I hadn't got around to checking out yet, but now have. And perhaps if I'd been a little more patient in drawing up my year-end lists, some of these may well have featured.
All Traps on Earth are a band with strong links to Scandinavian prog giants Anglagard, and this is evident in their debut album A Drop of Light, which captures the darkness and forboding of Anglagard in a captivating way in its five tracks, four of which are over 10 minutes in length.
Simon Godfrey seems to be a very busy man these days, since his relocation to the USA, and his latest digital-only release from Bad Elephant Music, the fourth of his Black Bag Archive collections of out-takes etc from his many bands, shows something of his variety, vitality and virtuosity. Material from his time with Tinyfish, as well as solo stuff, and out-takes from Valdez & Shineback give us an insight into his creative and at times crackpot mind. I must confess that I'm one of those deluded people who buy anything that BEM put out, but so far I've not been disappointed (see below), and it opens my mind, ears (and wallet) to some wonderfully diverse, eclectic and weird stuff.
Topos is the third offering from Methexis, a project of Nikitas Kissonas (formerly of Greek band Verbal Delirium), and is another wonderful instrumental work of two 20 minute pieces with a variety of light, shade and tempo.
Phaeton are a 4-piece instrumental prog metal collective from British Columbia, and I stumbled upon their eponymous debut by chance. Not my usual fare, this is a strangely attractive album, reminiscent at times of Riverside.
Another Swedish band that crossed my radar were the wonderfully-titled Sarcophagus Now, another eponymous debut instrumental album, but this time more grounded in the Scandinavian progressive school with some jazzy overtones.
Closer to home are Liverpool's The Swan Chorus, who have produced an album (another eponymous one) that really should be huge if there was any justice in the world. Fronted by John Wilkinson, who otherwise is the vocalist with Genesis tribute band Mama, there is a definite Genesis influence to the songs, but Genesis as I would have liked to have remembered them, rather than as they ended up.
Dean Watson produces a catchy and professional brand of instrumental progressive fusion that has so far delighted my ears. Track of Days, his fifth offering, is no exception: a 3 minute opener leads in to a 6-part, 51 minute magnum opus that entertains and enthrals in equal measure.

So, a lot of catching up: but what of this year's releases? Well, so far I've only got 3 to mention...
My first 2019 album was Guy Hatton's I Am Concentric. Guy is a multi-instrumentalist with historic connections to Andy Tillison (collaborating on the 1987 Gold Frankincense & Disk Drive album 'Where Do We Draw The Line'). Guy consistently produces some fine electric jazz fusion with a proggy edge, and this album continues that tradition, and in this he is ably assisted by Phil Meadows on saxophones and the aforementioned Mr Tillison on keyboards. A great collection of 5 epic-length tracks that are well worth checking out, which you can do here.
Steve Hackett released his latest album, At The Edge of Light, toward the middle of the month. At times quite hard rocking, at others quite mellow, and drawing on a number of influences including some strong world music ones, this album shows why, some 40 years after he parted company with Genesis, he is still a driving force in contemporary Progressive Rock music, and still has the licks as one of the genre's leading guitarists.
The first release from the Bad Elephant stable for this year is Lost Crowns' Every Night Something Happens. As I mentioned above the output of this label is 'diverse, eclectic & weird', and that could certainly describe this album, which has some strong links to Knifeworld and others on the more eccentric side of progressive music. This is certainly an album that takes time to develop, but persistence pays off.

So, that was January. February is already shaping up well, but more on that later...