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...