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...