Review – Spock’s Beard – Noise Floor – by Jez Denton

Progressive Rock music is a funny thing. Often pretentious, up its own arse, quite frankly snobby and elitist. Almost like you have to be super clever to get it, the musical equivalent of Jeremy Paxman asking a contestant from an old Polytechnic a question about thermo-nuclear physics on University Challenge, with an obvious sneer because they don’t go to an Oxbridge college. In short, their seriousness can make them seem ridiculous and open to much mirth.

However, every now and then you come across a band that who have a sense of humour, who are self-aware and who can create great music whilst not taking things too seriously. One for whom progressive music doesn’t have to be dour and only for a niche, but can be entertaining, fun and welcoming whilst retaining all its virtuoso playing and performing.

With a name like Spock’s Beard no one could accuse this Californian band of being dour or elitist. Their music has always been both clever and accessible; something that they’ve continued to achieve on their new album, being released on the 25th May, ‘Noise Floor’. The album is full of what singer/guitarist, Ted Leonard, describes as ‘crazy prog,’ whilst also working on making the songs ‘more immediate.’

And for sure, they’ve achieved it with this collection of smashing tunes featuring beautifully played instruments; both trusted old friends plus new orchestral additions of strings and horns. Spock’s Beard have been developing their sound and style for over twenty years now and find themselves at a point where they can take time to develop and create their music which results in this album being released at a point when all members were in agreement that it was the best work they could put out there.

With all members of the band writing and recording demo’s independently before bringing them together to be worked on collectively in production, there is a great sense of exceptional quality being produced over quantity for the quantities sake. The album itself, and accompanying E.P, displays its influences with pride; the hints of 1970’s prog such as Yes, Genesis and Supertramp, influences that have led to songs of majestic beauty such as the wonderful Bulletproof that appears on the ‘Cutting Room Floor’ E.P.

It is fair to say that the album isn’t without flaws; the jazz instrumental of Box of Spiders jars slightly, but it doesn’t diminish from what is an accomplished and melodic journey through the slightly crazy world of Spock’s Beard. Die-hard fans will find more than enough typical output to allow them to enjoy the musical development that this album represents. And those for whom this will be their first exposure to the band will find plenty to enjoy and will also spark interest in finding out more of the bands back catalogue.

Released 25th May 2018

Order ‘Noise Floor’ from InsideOut here

 

Review – The Aaron Clift Experiment – If All Goes Wrong – by Progradar

“Intricate and subtle yet with raw passion at its heart, The Aaron Clift Experiment is one of the most exciting and interesting bands currently writing and playing music today.”

Now, I said those words about The Aaron Clift Experiment’s debut album from 2012, ‘Lonely Hills’ and the band went from strength to strength with their impressive follow up, 2015’s ‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ that increased the quota of high energy hard rock based progressive music.

2018 sees these Austin, Texas natives deliver their third album, ‘If All Goes Wrong’ and, after the increasing promise of the first two albums, it was one I was very much looking forward to hearing for the first time…

Formed in 2012 as the solo project of Aaron Clift, the band has since blossomed into a powerful live group.  The group’s multi-faceted sound is an innovative blend of classic rock, modern rock, and classical all anchored by the band’s dedication to high-quality songwriting and musicianship.

Its last two albums, 2012’s ‘Lonely Hills’ and 2015’s ‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ were critically-acclaimed progressive rock achievements, landing on several year-end best album lists.  In 2017, the band had a star-making performance at RosFest, one of the largest progressive rock festivals in the world.

The core members are Aaron Clift – Vocals/Keyboards, Devin North – Bass and Tim Smith – Drums and Percussion and the new album sees contributions from some of the top guitarists in Austin, Van Wilks (a Texas blues and rock icon), Arielle (a student of Brian May of Queen and collaborator of legendary guitarist, Eric Johnson), and Dave North (of Austin psych rockers, The Cuckoos).

What I’ve always found with, and loved about, The Aaron Clift Experiment is the rock element to their music, varying from hard rock to a very fluent blues guitar style, it gives them a quite unique sound and added to Aaron’s husky and raw vocal delivery, you wouldn’t mistake them for anyone else.

The first two songs on this new release, Faith and Last Crash are full of that harder edged riffing guitar and dynamic drums that combine to give a high energy delivery. Where the former is upbeat, the latter has a darker hue to it, Faith taking cues from many almost balls-out rockers. You immediately get into the band’s mindset and groove with this really invigorating, raw feeling song. Last Crash subtly builds up the tension with some excellent synth and bass guitar work before a driving riff and high octane drums give it that impending feel of apprehension. Aaron delivers an immediate vocal, impassioned and edgy and the squirreling guitar breaks really add some zeal and animation to the organised chaos.

The band take on a more pastoral and progressive style for  Absent Lovers, a delightfully wistful opening blossoms into a compelling tour-de-force that ebbs and flows irresistibly throughout. The organic synth sound adds a real 70’s aura that blends perfectly with vocal harmonies and potent guitars to take you on an enthralling musical journey. Remember Ben Folds ? The truly addictive vibes of Better Off Before certainly remind me of that piano heavy, almost pop-prog sound. It’s a real feelgood sounding song with a a not particularly upbeat subject. A Brian May-esque guitar sound and the energetic rhythm section give it real polish and gloss and make it one of my favourite songs on the album.

Funky guitars, swirling keyboards and high-tempo drums all combine to give us the jazz-fusion intro to another grin inducing track. Castle In The Sky takes what I would call the signature Aaron Clift Experiment sound and adds even more zest and vivacity to deliver a high energy song full of catchy hooks and intricate melodies and one that showcases the musician’s skills perfectly. Have you ever wondered what would happen if Aaron Clift met King Crimson and they jammed together? Well, wonder no more for Savage In A Fancy suit will give you the definitive answer to that (never asked) question. An almost disorganised, chaotic frenzy of riffs and caustic Hammond Organ notes entwined with staccato drumming and a discordant bassline. It shouldn’t work really but it does and what a thoroughly enjoyably manic track it is.

Returning to the elegant and nostalgic pastoral tones, Dream Within a Dream is The Aaron Clift Experiment at their progressive best. Melancholic undertones give a pensive and sombre atmosphere to this impressive song. The music has an anticipatory feel and Aaron’s vocal almost pleads into the microphone. An intelligent and immersive eight minutes of music that hits the highs but also has an underlying seriousness that makes you take in every nuance and subtlety, oh and the guitar solo that closes out the song is pure genius! Fiery, edgy and with an almost pop-punk feel to it, Wild Hunters is an aggressive, lively and spirited track that fills a hell of a lot into its sub three minute running time. It’s almost like it rocks up, slaps you in the face, kicks you in the knee and then disappears into the distance laughing manically.

The final track on the album is a wonderful piece of music that just oozes class, warmth and emotion. Title track If All Goes Wrong really gets under your skin with its mournful vocal and elegant string-like synths. There’s a beauty to be found in its sorrowful and forlorn quality, the guitar solo just bleeds a melancholy passion that proves there is allurement even in sadness, it is a fantastic finish to the album.

‘If All Goes Wrong’ sees this impressive ‘Prog Ensemble’ rise to even higher heights. I’ve been a fan of The Aaron Clift Experiment since I heard their first album nearly six years ago and, like a fine wine, they just mature and get better and better as time goes on. They’ve enriched and diversified their already impressive songwriting and musical skills to make them one of the most impressive progressive acts currently on the scene.

Released 4th May 2018

If All Goes Wrong Pre-order Campaign

 

Review – Plenty – It Could Be Home – By James R. Turner

I think Mabel Greer’s Toyshop probably have the record for the longest space between being formed and releasing their debut album, however Plenty are running them a close second, originally being formed back in 1986, and with this, their old material rediscovered, reworked and released here for the first time, it’s an album that’s only been 32 years in the making. Hell, I work with people younger than that (which makes me feel old). Anyhow why should a band who didn’t record anything in the 80’s and reappear here matter?

It matters because Plenty were Tim Bowness pre No-Man band. Made of Tim, Brian Hulse (keys/synths/guitars, drum programming) and David K Jones (bass/bass pedals) who got back together to record and finally put down their music for posterity. All this complete with the Carl Glover cover (he truly is the Hipgnosis of modern music).

So, what we get here is the songs of their youth revisited and reworked with the wisdom of years and experience weighing on them.

Now Tim has one of the finest voices in contemporary music, that is a given, and he can add poignancy and emotion to so many things, hell he could even turn my shopping list into an emotional rollercoaster. As he (as we all have) gets older his voice, like a fine wine, is maturing and it’s fascinating to hear the words of his youth on tracks like As Tears Go By or Foolish Waking, and the title track, filtered through the years of experience.

Sitting firmly on the more atmospheric song writing side of the 80’s that threw up bands like The Blue Nile, How We Live and Miracle Mile, Plenty are almost the proving ground for ideas and sounds that would come to fruition in No-Man (and, indeed, Tim’s later solo career).

That doesn’t mean that this album is a historical curio, to be filed away under listen once out of completists interest, oh no, ‘It Could Be Home’ is a gem of a record with a plethora of special guests that help enhance the already strong tracks on here. When you get Michael Bearpark adding his guitar work to Foolish Waking and Every Stranger’s Voice and Pete Chilvers on those and Never Needing, you know you’re listening to an album that oozes class and quality from every musical moment.

In fact, as these 10 tracks breathe and grow, you are drawn into their world as Bowness’ vocals take you on their journey. However this isn’t all about Tim, this is a true group album and it’s wonderful to hear him part of the group where he cut his teeth.

It’s an interesting hybrid of 1980’s musical ideas with 2018’s production techniques and that makes it harder to categorize. Is it a reissue? Is it a new album? Or is it a curious amalgam of the two? Either way, there’s lots here for any fan of ambient song writing and, of course, fans of Tim’s voice to love.

It’s quite ironic to think that had this been released in the late 1980’s it probably would have got lost in the whole Madchester phase that was sweeping the nation and become a cult classic to maybe a dozen students in a bedsit somewhere, with the vinyl commanding huge prices on eBay.

Here, on release it’s now likely to hit a far wider audience, who will appreciate the delicacy and beauty in these songs, as well as the song writing skills here.

This is one of those albums that slowly insinuates itself into your soul until you find yourself humming sections of it to yourself as you’re filling up the kettle and is one of those albums that Tim perfected with No-Man, where the space in between the music is just as important.

As an exercise in minimalist pop/rock it works to perfection and reveals itself to be far more than just a nostalgia ride, this is living breathing music for the heart, mind and soul, and as such is a fantastic piece of music.

The best things in life come to those who wait, and this was well worth waiting for, maybe best not leave it so long next time chaps.

Released 27th April 2018

Order ‘It Could Be Home’ from Burning Shed here

Review – Colin Edwin & Robert Jürjendal – Another World – By James R. Turner

I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now in one form or another, this getting new albums to listen to, review and share my thoughts with whoever’s reading. To think when I first started back in 1994, I’d been handed a package in a brown envelope in a local hostelry, disappeared home to listen to them in the comfort of my own home, write out (by that I mean hand write out) my opinions, drop them back in a different brown envelope in the same pub (where, being 17, naturally I was drinking orange juice) and await for the postman to deliver the magazine with my words in. Hopefully then (& now) people have thought I’ll give that one a punt.

I was thinking of the old way of doing things when I was sat on my bus into work the other day, I had this album on a download, straight from emailed link to laptop to mobile, headphones plugged in and immersed in the music whilst I was commuting. I could even make notes on my mobile, ready to transcribe into something meaningful to send, again hoping that if one person reads what I’ve read and is influenced to try this record out then, my work here is done.

I was thinking about timelessness and being of the now, whilst listening to this record, it’s not the longest by any stretch of the imagination clocking in at just over 30 minutes long, not even enough to fill half a C90 tape. It might be short (certainly by today’s terms – where we’ve been conditioned to expect the entire CD to be full) but it isn’t any longer than it needs to be, a definite case of less being more, and that ethos runs through the whole record.

This collaboration between former Porcupine Tree (& current Henry Fool amongst many others) bassist Colin Edwin and Estonian guitarist Robert Jürjendal is one of those records that just grabs you slowly, the way the two musicians work together is a wonderful sound to behold, and with trumpet from Ian Dixon and electronics from Isak Nygaard, this contemporary ambient electronic musical journey is an exploration of musical space, straddling the shifting borders that prog/jazz/ambient music rub along against.

From the muted trumpet and electronic background that introduces the opener Blue Mint, this is a true musical journey, where the space created by Nygaard gives both Edwin and Jurjendal the room to weave intricate and exciting musical sounds, space and distance evoked, all topped off by Dixon’s sublime trumpet sound.

Reminiscent of musical explorations by artists like Keith Tippet or Billy Cobham but with plenty of that fluid sound that Edwin is known for (and which was always the secret musical weapon in Porcupine Tree’s armoury), with Jürjendal he has found a sublime guitarist who is just as keen to push the musical boundaries and see where it takes them.

With the longest song here, Hybrid Horizons, clocking in at just over 6 minutes there is no note wasted, no over blown unnecessary moments, everything is here for a reason. With tracks like Sancho Panza, that showcase Jürjendal’s guitar and the title track, the beautifully pulsing Another World, this is a well-made album.

Everything has been thought about and structured, and the collaborative work is so good that its hard to tell where Edwin ends and Jürjendal begins, the meeting of two like-minded musicians who have, wisely, kept external collaborators to a minimum helps create the coherent whole. This means that you get absorbed in the musical journey this album takes you on, so much so that it’s very easy to nearly miss your bus stop.

This has that electronic undertone and contemporary compositional technique of working from different studios in different countries and then pulling it all together through the power of the internet, yet it is a timeless collection of fantastic ambient and modern jazz infused sounds that will still sound both current and timeless in ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

When I first started I would never even have thought of listening to anything remotely jazzy, and yet now I can think of nothing more natural than letting the warmth of this album wash over me, and I have no doubt it’s one I will continue to return to. Timeless and contemporary, it is simply a fantastic record.

Released 9th March 2018

Order ‘Another World’from Burning Shed here

Review – Richard Wileman – Veil – by James R. Turner

Many years ago, I had a column in a well-known North of England organization for the promotion of classic and progressive rock. I was a contrary individual, and part of my ‘work’ was to listen to classic prog and rock albums with a fresh pair of ears, without the baggage of the genre.

I quickly concluded that what passed for Prog in the mid to late 1990’s and early part of the 21st century wasn’t progressive in it’s truest sense, and instead of actually progressing, was in fact standing still.

Then I was introduced to the work of Karda Estra, the name for a loose collective of musicians working around the compositional and musical skills of multi-instrumentalist Richard Wileman, and as anyone who is familiar with the band will know, that Richard has been a restless composer, always happy to try new things, weave together new sounds and arrangements in search of his muse.

Over the last decade or so albums like ‘New Worlds’, ‘Weird Tales’ and ‘Eve’ have subtly insinuated themselves into my musical consciousness and become go to albums for different moods, and ones I have never tired of listening to.

Now ‘Veil’ see’s Richard stepping out from behind the Karda Estra name, and crafting an album that has echoes of the sensibilities and styles from Karda Estra, with some dark folk songs, and ethereal music, coming across as like a soundtrack to some long-lost Tigon or Amicus horror mo vie from the 1970’s.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on that that, as the mix on the album veers from the dark gothic atmospheric chamber music that he’s perfected beautifully on The Sea Witch for instance with it’s haunting chords and strings or the opener Ghost, which see’s Richard musically anyway, stripped back with some wonderful acoustic guitar and vocals.

Mephisto Portrait is another one of these songs, with some wonderful pastoral echoes, but something more going on underneath, with some fantastic guitar and Floydian bass, this in fact sits in the similar sort of territory that Matt Berry has carved out a career in. The nod to the 1970’s horror films continues with a version of Paul Giovanni’s The Tinker of Rye, from the Wicker Man soundtrack, and which fits neatly with it’s subtle (ish) innuendo, and tongue in cheek nod to trad folk smut.

Reworked versions of Karda Estra material sit alongside Richards newer songs, and blend perfectly, Cassiopeia weaving it’s magic, whilst the wonderfully evocative Three Occultations (which has been played by Stuart Maconie on his Freakzone show) reminds me of elements of bands like Comus, Spyrogyra or even Trees, whilst Richard’s elegant compositional skills and the way he’s honed his craft working as Karda Estra really make this album work.

Subtle musical accompaniment from Amy Fry, whose duo vocals with Richard are an absolute joy, whilst her clarinet joins with the trumpet of Lauraine Phelan and the bass clarinet and alto sax of Jo Court, which gives depth and a sense of different styles to the album, Richard, as mentioned elsewhere, plays everything else, and with his vocals forefront, and his name on the sleeve makes this a much more song focused album than Karda Estra works.

This is not a re-branding exercise as such, more a case of Richard extending his musical chops above and beyond the Karda Estra name, and with this is mind this is a perfect progression of his musical journey, part singer-songwriter album, part soundtrack for a lost British classic, and overall a thoroughly enjoyable and eminently listenable album.

Released 16th February 2016

Order ‘Veil’ from bandcamp

Review – TRYO – Antología Eléctrica – by Jez Denton

I know very little about the country of Chile other than to say, geographically, that it is a country of huge contrasts, bordered as it is by mountains to one side, the sea to the other and stretching from rain forest in the north, through the most arid desert to the southernmost tip where South America is closest to Antarctica with all the inhospitability associated with it. It seems to me, even in these days of a shrinking world, a mystery, a secluded and cut off outpost on the edge of the world. An enigma of a country.

Musically, I know even less about Chile so it was with great anticipation that I picked up ‘Antologia Electrica’ by the Chilean Progressive Jazz Rock Fusion band, Tyro. This album is an anthology of the bands 30 year career covering their formation in 1987 up to the present day, and which links into an anniversary tour which the band will be undertaking. It would be, for me, a voyage into the unknown, and a journey to be undertaken over the development of a sound over three decades.

Firstly, right from the opening track, you understand that the band is made up of a number of very talented and impressive musicians. Space is given to all players to showcase their instruments and their playing abilities. But for me, this is where I struggled with the album. A great friend of mine once said, when I was trying to convince him of the merits of jazz music, that ‘it’s all well and good, yes they are great musicians and all, but why can’t they play the same song at the same time?’ And to me, listening to the tracks on this album, this makes great sense. The bass in particular, whilst expertly played, tends to overpower the melodies and doesn’t compliment at all. That’s not to say it is without merit, it’s just to this reviewer’s ears it becomes too discordant.

However, I have always found when listening to music in languages I do not understand that the voice becomes more of an instrument, an aid to the melody. This is one of the high spots of this anthology as the songs with vocals on do work wonderfully well as less emphasis seems to be given to a variety of solos. The lyrics themselves, when translated into English, are evocative and emotive with a Zen like acknowledgement of our world, community and ecological surroundings and really add to the heights that the music tries to reach.

Overall, if you like your music to be challenging you’ll enjoy this anthology. And if you do so enjoy this I can imagine a deeper journey into their back catalogue to invest in the albums from their career showcased here will only reward you, especially if you are a lover of a bass guitar being played trickily and predominant in the mix. For me, I enjoyed listening too and finding out about this band, but for me it just didn’t quite hit the spot, perhaps like the country of Chile, it remains an enigma to me; although it did remind me to dig out some Jazz and Latin American music, perhaps more to my tastes.

Released 5th March 2018

Reviews – Esoteric Reissue Round Up – Hawkwind, Atomic Rooster & Curved Air – By James R Turner

There have been plenty of reissue of classic rock and progressive albums hitting the desk here at the Bristol branch of Progradar recently, so, without further ado (and in the sense of catching up after having moved house and had no wi-fi for over a month) let me draw your attention to a few that those nice people at Esoteric have been kind enough to send for our perusal and enjoyment.

Hawkwind – The Emergency Broadcast Years: 1994-1997

First up they continue their collection of clamshell boxes collecting classic remastered Hawkwind Albums, The Emergency Broadcast Years 1994-1997 (ATOMCD51044), the latest in a fantastic budget series gives you the opportunity to grab 4 albums released in the mid 90’s where the line up had coalesced around the ever present Dave Brock, Alan Davey and Richard Chadwick, and the first two in the box 1994’s ‘The Business Trip Live’ and ‘Alien 4’ showcase the best this tightly honed trio could achieve.

Does the world need another Hawkwind live album? was the question back in 1994, and the answer, undoubtedly was yes, the fact that the line up has been so fluid over the bands history has meant that each new line up, and musician who has stepped aboard the good ship Hawkwind has brought something new to the party, and so the three piece line up that brought us the brilliant ‘It is the Business of the Future to be Dangerous’, get to show us how tight they were on stage as they blitzed their way through a set full of classics like Quark, Strangeness and Charm, Void of Golden Light and Wastelands mingled with newer material like This Future, LSD and Berlin Axis and show how they could reinterpret classics with style and aplomb.

1995’s studio album ‘Alien 4’ with it’s overarching theme of alien lifeforms seemed to chime with popular culture at the time (this was the era of the original X-Files after all) and sees the band, augmented by guitarist Jeremy Richards, pull together one of their finest latter day concept albums, mixing a wonderful re-working of Death Trap with new future classics like Beam Me Up and the 7 minute plus Alien (I am). It shows the band giving it all and finding new ground, even as they released this, their 20th studio album.

‘Love in Space’, another live album from 1996, this time a mighty double, sees Ron Tree joining the band as vocalist and taking some of the heavy lifting from Dave Brock and Alan Davey. The band run through a set that cherry picks the majority from the ‘Alien 4’ album with some classics like Silver Machine and a blinding version of Assassins/Space is their Palestine. Hawkwind have always been a fantastic live band who put out some cracking studio albums and the joys of these live albums, despite them only being a couple of years apart is that the interpretations of some of the same songs are so different and that is what makes it worthwhile.

Finally, from 1997 is ‘Distant Horizons’ which sees Jeremy Richards on board as a full-time member, his guitar fleshing out the distinctive sound, whilst Alan Davey left, with Ron Tree picking up the bass. Again, this is classic modern Hawkwind with some great tracks on here like the opening title track and Clouded Vision leading into the epic Reptoid Vision.

5 great discs in a clamshell box at budget price shining a light into a lesser known quarter of the Hawkwind universe, this collection is great for anyone who’s after the music and interested in discovering albums they haven’t heard before.

Hawkwind: The Emergency Broadcast Years 1994 – 1997, 5CD Remastered Clamshell BoxsetHawkwind

Atomic Rooster – Sleeping For Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974

In another box and from another time comes ‘Sleeping for Years by Atomic Rooster, the studio recordings 1970-1974 (ECLEC42612)’, across these four discs are the complete output of British blues rockers Atomic Rooster. My only slight niggle is that they’ve shoehorned 5 albums across 4 discs, meaning you have to change discs to hear 1971’s ‘In Hearing Of…’ in it’s entirety. But that’s a mere quibble.

As you probably know judging from the releases they have lined up, Esoteric are the Classic Rock reissue label du jour, and with the care that’s gone into this package, great remastered sound, fantastic sleeve notes from Malcolm Dome (& contributions from the members of the band) this is a fantastic collection that pulls together the whole gamut of Atomic Rooster’s output.

You may know the band for their hit singles Tomorrow Night and Devils Answer, two stone cold classic hits from the early 70’s, but there’s far more going on here that that.

Like so many bands from this era the line up was always in a state of flux, the one constant being the powerful and driving Hammond Organ and piano playing (& latterly vocals) from founder and former Crazy World of Arthur Brown member Vincent Crane.

Whilst Atomic Rooster was his vision, the list of musicians that ran through the ranks looks like a whose who of 70’s rock, with the self-titled debut album from 1970 featuring the talents of Carl Palmer on drums and Nick Graham on bass, vocals and flute, with songs like Friday 13th, Decline and Fall and Before Tomorrow, it’s a superb slice of 1970, the performances exemplary and the distinctive mix of blues, rock and Crane’s Hammond work, make this a very satisfying album indeed, and as is obligatory the album is rounded up with versions from the American album that differ slightly in that John Cann was involved in reworking, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the originals.

Moving forward, and with Crane needing to assemble a new line up due to Carl leaving for ELP, and Graham being edged out in favour John Cann as a guitarist and replacement drummer Paul Hammond, the band’s sound evolved on ‘Death Walks Behind You’ (again 1970), if nothing else you have to admire the creativity and determination of bands who could release two albums of this quality in the same year, with two different line ups, that wouldn’t happen in this day and age. With the single Tomorrow Night nestling alongside the powerful title track and tracks like Sleeping for Years, it was clear the Rooster wasn’t missing its founder members, as this groove and style propelled the band to number 6 in the charts, with the non-album track Devils Answer here as a bonus on the 2nd disc.

For 1971’s ‘In Hearing of…’ the trio became a quartet as Vincent wanted Pete French in on vocals (& an interesting alternative is a version of Devils Answer with Pete on vocals), this freed up Cann on guitarand the resulting album is a superb piece of heavy rock,

With Vincent’s song writing dominating the band, he takes the lead vocal on the intensely personal Black Snake, a song about his mental struggles that would ultimately lead him to take his own life in the late 80’s.

Other tracks like the superb Decision/Indecision and Head in the Sky showcase how Atomic Rooster took the power trio sound and moved it on, Vincent Crane deserves to be recognised as one of the keyboard players of the 1970’s prog/rock movement, and like the work Jon Lord was doing with Deep Purple, he has a distinctive sound, so you know that you are listening to Atomic Rooster.

It would have been nice for this set to have included some live tracks to get a feel for how they translated to the stage, but you can’t have everything.

By 1972 the line-up had fractured again, and ‘Made in England’ featured the vocal talent of Chris Farlowe, fresh out of Colosseum who had split up earlier that year, with his bluesier vocal sound seeing the band moving in a more bluesy direction. This encapsulated the musical experimentation that runs throughout this set, with new guitarist Steve Bolton and Ric Parnell on drums completing this line up. Again, there is plenty of darker edges with songs like all in Satan’s Name for instance, but when you have a vocalist like Chris Farlowe on board, the band step up, and this has some superb musical moments, although other parts of the album sound like a new line up finding its feet.

By the last Atomic Rooster album of the 70’s, 1973’s ‘Nice ‘n’ Greasy’, Bolton has moved on, replaced by Johnny Mandala, and their musical feet had been well and truly found, with a re-working of the debut albums track Friday 13th, retitled as Save Me (with a vocal tour de force Farlowe is renowned for) and Farlowes’ personal favourite Can’t find a Reason, which again showcases not only Farlowe’s powerful voice, but also Crane’s superb keyboard work. This, when you look at the mighty informative booklet, is one of those wonderful records that are let down by a godawful sleeve (a cigarette stubbed out in a fried egg, lovely) despite an odd single, included here at the end by Vincent with a group of session musicians, ‘Nice ‘n’ Greasy’ was the bands last gasp in the 1970’s.

This is a fantastic collection that showcases the evolution in sound throughout the early part of the 1970’s and the ethos that bands like Atomic Rooster had, in that anything musically was possible, and so they did what felt right.

Sleeping For Years – The Studio Recordings 1970-1974: 4CD Clamshell Box SetAtomic Rooster

Curved Air – Air Conditioning (1970) and Air Cut (1973)

Towards the end of last year, it was announced that Esoteric had picked up the rights to part of the vast Warner Music back catalogue, and the first fruits of this (with plenty of really exciting re-issues including Barclay James Harvest, Be-Bop Deluxe and Chris Squire coming soon) are the remasters of the Curved Air back catalogue from the early 1970’s. Starting with the first and last albums released by the band in it’s first run we get the album where it all started 1970’s ‘Air Conditioning’, and 1973’s ‘Air Cut’.

Formed out of the ashes of the band Sisyphus formed by Darryl Way and Francis Monkman (who later went on to form Darryl Way’s Wolves and Sky respectively) the band was completed by Rob Martin on bass and Florian Pilkington-Miksa on drums, with the pre-eminent female prog vocalist of the 1970’s, the sublime and incredibly influential Sonja Kristina upfront.

The melting pot of Way’s violin, Monkman’s guitar and keyboard sounds, Sonja’s voice and the bands compositional and musical chops made them a massive live draw, and a record signing to Warner Brothers, championed by John Peel and the novelty of the debut album released on picture disc (the first in the UK) which is all well and good but the biggest question is how good is it?

As a record that is rightly described as ‘influential’ and ‘ground-breaking’ presented here in a double disc set, with a collection of alternative takes, single’s A&B sides and contemporary BBC live performances, this is the definitive edition of one of the definitive albums of 1970.

From the opener It Happened Today the band set out their stall, with the duelling violin of Way and keyboard pf Monkman providing a driving sound for the sensual and quite frankly amazing vocals of Kristina to weave her magic over the album. With strong compositional skills across the band and intelligent lyrics, this album also had the benefit of being honed on the road, so by the time it was recorded, it is a practically perfect debut album.

With Way’s mix of classical and rock comes the albums defining instrumental Vivaldi, which is still as stirring and powerful now as it was then, and in musical twist they revisited it at the end with Vivaldi with Cannons where Monkman and Way give the track and tweak and kick.

Tracks like Hide and Seek and Blind Man showcase Sonja’s amazing vocals skills, and it’s no wonder with the band this honed and tracks these refined and powerful, that ‘Air Conditioning’ was such an influential and successful album.

By 1973, the only remaining founder member was Sonja Kristina and she was joined by Mike Wedgewood on bass, the only remnants of the band that had made the third album ‘Phantasmagoria’. Unphased at having to put together a new band, they recruited the young Eddie Jobson whose electric violin playing, and keyboard skills could replace both Monkman and Way in the band, getting Kirby Gregory in on guitar and vocals and Jim Russell on drums. The result was 1973’s ‘Air Cut’, the bands fourth album, and the difference between the two is obvious. Hung together by the vocals of Kristina, this is undoubtedly Curved Air, but a very different beast with a different guitarist in the band and the skills of Jobson, the band push the boundaries and add a lot more of a rocking element.

Losing Way’s improvisational skills and Monkmans precision could have damaged the band, and whilst it didn’t, it’s very clear the compositional style is very different, from the rock tinged opening The Purple Speed Queen followed by the pared down Elfin Boy, where the star of the show is Sonja’s vocals.

This is 1973, so there’s an obligatory prog epic, Metamorphosis which makes the most use of Eddie Jobson’s keyboard and piano skills, this is more him than Sonja and listening to how adept he is, and how he weaves mood changes and soundscapes out of his instruments, it’s astonishing to believe he was only 17.

This is a truly democratic album, with all members contributing to the song writing, it certainly sounds fresh and vibrant, and showed how the band had been rebuilt. The energy that 19yr old Gregory and 17yr old Jobson brought adds so much to the album, from the epic Metamorphosis to Mike Wedgewood’s bluesy World and the violin driven Armin, where Jobson puts his musical stamp all over it.

The closing Easy encapsulates the power of this line up, and the beauty and grace in Sonja’s voice, and is a satisfyingly wonderful conclusion to this album, one which seemed to pass fans by at the time yet has so much to offer the listener.

A great set of reissues from Esoteric, and I am looking forward to the next batch of Curved Air remasters.

Air Conditioning: 2CD Remastered & Expanded EditionCurved Air

Air Cut: Newly Remastered Official EditionCurved Air

 

 

 

Review – Riversea – The Tide – by Progradar

“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.”
― Alphonse de Lamartine

What a wonderful quote and it fits perfectly how I feel after listening to the long awaited second album from Riversea, the on/off musical project of my good friends Marc Atkinson and Brendan Eyre.

The music and lyrics that they have written come from their very heart and soul and when it is conceived like like, it has the ability to almost come alive and infuse the listener with all the joy and love that went into creating it. It’s not just music it is alive, vibrant and soulful.

The core band of Marc, Brendan, Dave Clements (bass) and Alex Cromarty (drums) are joined by a veritable who’s who of the progressive rock world adding guitar, flute and backing vocals. Where ‘Out of an Ancient World’ was a spiritual offering, ‘The Tide’ focuses on the realities of living in the world of today with meaningful lyrics adding a touch of social commentary to the music:

“If God can’t save us from his followers, how do we save us from ourselves. If all they see is blasphemy, what will they make of  you and me.”

The opening of The Tide sees Peter Aves powerful guitar give a dramatic edge before the subtle layers of Brendan’s keyboard work adds a real sophistication. This is an album full of exquisite nuances and he distinctive soulful vocals of Marc leave a cultured trail wherever they lead, is there a more emotive singer around at the moment? I think not! These songs are created with layers of beauty and polish and seem to flow organically. There’s a funky edge to Shine that is punctuated by the uplifting chorus and the superb guitar work of Lee Abraham who delivers a vibrant solo.

Marc and Brendan have spent a long time creating this musical work of art, fitting it in around their daily lives and other projects and it is the level of care and attention to detail that stands out across the meticulously crafted songs on this album. I can imagine the painstaking process that went into each note, there is nothing here that doesn’t belong and it makes for a quite wonderful release.

The passionate Blasphemy is another highlight among many with Paul Cusick’s sensuous guitar work adding layers of intensity to what is a really powerful song, the music intense and impassioned and Marc’s voice a commanding presence. Brendan Eyre weaves an absorbing web with his refined keyboard playing throughout this amazing sonic tapestry and the rhythm section of Dave Clements’ bass and the drums of Alex Cromarty provide a suitably assured back drop.

Every track is exceptional, it’s rare to get an album without at least one throwaway song but the songs intertwine perfectly with each other, the wistful and nostalgic Your Last Day sees a wonderful low key and slow burning guitar solo from Robin Armstrong and the silken six string of Simon Godfrey joins the guys on the touching strains of Strange Land, a song that has strong roots music foundations.

The gentle feel of Fall Out Warning is added to by the flute of Tony Patterson to give a contemplative, melancholy atmosphere but there is beauty, charm and artistry to every single song. The sombre overtone of the excellent Uprising is added to by the reflective keyboards and Tony’s ethereal-like flute. Marc’s vocals are almost pleading,

“Their voices will be heard, their chanting becomes one. But a nation stands divided with a bullet from a gun.”

It is a haunting piece of music and one which makes you look inside at your own heart and is followed by the contrast of the gloriously uplifting The Tide Reprise to close the album on a more thoughtful and hopeful note.

There’s been some good music released this year already and also some utterly outstanding albums and ‘The Tide’ definitely falls into the latter category. Marc and Brendan have lovingly crafted twelve pieces of music that come together to create a release of beauty and refinement and one that will stay in your heart for a very long time. It’s not just music, this is something that is actually life-affirming and I can’t give it higher praise than that.

Released 20th April 2018

Order The Tide from the band’s website

 

 

Review – Shadowlight – Stars Above The City – by Progradar

A little known fact is that UK based alternative rock band Shadowlight are the main reason you are now reading this review on a website called Progradar. I liked their 2012 release ‘Twilight Canvas’ that much that I really (and I mean REALLY) pushed it on social media as well as creating some Youtube videos for the tracks. All this really whetted my appetite to take my amateur music journalism a step further. This new album has been a long time coming and I was eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Suffice to say I have not been disappointed in any way, shape or form. James Hodkinson (guitar, vocals), Mark Wilson (keyboards, vocals) and Ed Williamson-Brown (bass) have delivered in spades and I must now have listened to ‘Stars Above The City’ over twenty times and it hasn’t lost any of its wonderful lustre.

This album is chock full of edgy, sharp-suited alternative rock with a thoughtful intelligence. Clever riffs with more than a touch of heaviness and some soaring guitar solos are joined by the traditional swirling Hammond keyboard sound to deliver insightful, intelligent and enjoyable music with a tip of the hat to such luminaries as Riverside and Porcupine Tree.

There’s a lovely nostalgic nod to ‘Twilight Canvas’ in the opening intro Adrenaline Bomb before the album gets going properly with the thumping riffs of Gravity. This new album is still full of what made the last one (and the ‘Winter’ EP) so good, especially the expertly harmonised vocals, but there’s a much heavier feel and a maturity to the band’s sound with its added complexity, dynamic, sharp-edge riffing and cool as you like solo.

The trio of Summerfade, Dusseldorf and Stars Above The City take the signature Shadowlight sound and mould and evolve it into something that is still connected but now has a sophisticated and perceptive intelligence and I could listen to that sound all day long. Captivating choruses and addictive melodies are key to this new direction but there’s also a grittiness and edginess to James Hodkinson’s guitar sound that gives it something else, the guitar led intro to the title track is a great example of this.

Things just keep getting better with November and Fractured, two songs that really showcase the superb keyboard skills of Mark Wilson, his ability to switch from the heights of swirling Hammond organs to the subtleties of a beautiful piano note is delightful. You find yourself being enveloped by the music, it’s soothing and involving qualities are prime to you feeling part of the album rather than a spectator.

The final song on the album, Unending, sees the band deliver their most progressive piece of music yet, coming in at just under twelves minutes of complex and intricate music with meaningful vocals and a pensive thoughtful feel. A contemplative and introspective work that holds your attention throughout and one where each of the musicians comes to the fore to deliver an outstanding song that, to me, is Shadowlight’s best yet and a worthy ending to this stellar album.

I know you could say I’m a bit prejudiced but this new album from Shadowlight is everything I hoped it would be and so much more as well. They say if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it but, what the band have done with ‘Stars Above The City’ is take what made ‘Twilight Canvas’ such a great debut album and enhance it in subtle ways to deliver a real progression of their music and something which can hold its head high in this crowded world of new music that we live in today.

Rating – 93/100

Released 7th April 2018

Download from all the usual suspects:

 

 

 

Single Review – Sleeperman – Keeley Really – by Progradar

Like a never ending musical production line staffed with working class heroes from the 50’s and 60’s, those folks at Chippy Records have released the fourth Sleeperman single of 2018 and, once again, it is a humour filled triumph of social commentary and the lives that normal people lead.

“Aged eight she was going to join the ballet, at 16 she went to Spain and shared a chalet, at 24 she’s got three kids from men she didn’t marry.”

The witty and pithy lyrics in Keeley Really seem to come from a well that never seems to run dry and the jovial, traditional music delivery adds a real down to earth feel to everything that these talented guys touch. John Hilton’s vocal delivery is almost spoken as well as sung and it adds a narrative feel to the song. Neil Scott’s jangly guitar sound echoes with hues of 50’s rock n’ roll with its Duane Eddy twang and Steve Skinner and Phil Sharp are the perfectly chilled rhythm section that glue everything together.

“She reads them stories every night, she brings her kids up right. Her shoulders tattooed with their names; Diesel, Magaluf and James.”

These guys just seem to get how I feel about music spot on every time, a real soundtrack for my generation.

As ever, with their faux 45rpm style, there’s a B-side and The Places That We Knew Before Are Not Those Places Anymore shows a more melancholy side to the band and the songwriting.

“Remember swimming naked in the ship canal because we’d seen it in a film…”

It’s a sepia tinged wistful look back at younger days when anything seemed possible and any ambition was attainable. As the saying goes, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be but the bitter sweet lyrics and music are delivered just about perfectly.

Sleeperman have done it again, this is becoming a series that is as addictive as anything that Sky, Amazon or Netflix can deliver and, if you haven’t already, come join us on this incredible ride.

Released 4th April 2018

Check the band’s Facebook page for how to get your hands on the single in CD and digital form here