Review – Whitewater – Universal Medium – by Emma Roebuck

We move into the autumn and the new releases are starting to roll in for the new season after a fairly quiet summer.  The Naughty Pachyderm is no exception to this seasonal pattern. I expect a whole raft of new and exciting music from all corners in the coming weeks.

The first on my list for autumn is this new album from Whitewater‘Universal Medium’. Whitewater is the brainchild of singer and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Stephens and percussionist and programmer Paul Powell. I am going to be honest and say until this landed in my inbox I knew nothing of the guys and what they did but this their second album after the debut ‘Obscured By The Sun’ in March 2015. In many ways this is a good thing as I had zero expectations of the music or the sound they were aiming for when making their music.

My initial thoughts on first listening were that of a fine use of melody and sound to construct a soundscape from the keyboard which is very atmospheric, building layer by layer to the core of the pieces. This is very obvious in the first tack Light of Day evoking a sunrise drawing in an insistent bass line that drives into the vocals. Everything is understated on the track which brings a level of intensity inversely proportionate to the music. It has a tension to it which tells the story of the song, of the way we hide ourselves behind layers of emotions.

Seconds Fade Away is in two parts, again an atmospheric short keyboard driven piece accompanied by acoustic guitar. It is an apparently simple introduction but has a strength in its simplicity going straight into part two which is the meat of the song, an unhurried examination of the race of life as each second of our lives fades away. The irony of the unhurried approach offsetting the speed of life could be the hidden message to savour life as we wander though the days, weeks and years blindly. You cannot fault the skill and writing of the construction the music but personally I would like to have the guitar higher in the mix when the solo hits at the end.

Onto a very electronic music based Filtered Images which reminds me of the late 70s Tangerine Dream both in tone and quality but it also collides with mid period Porcupine Tree about halfway through. Call it a collision of 70s and 90s in a 21st century setting. At 9:33 minutes I would love to see it longer with greater exploration of the themes but it keeps the attention throughout the instrumental track with variations in atmosphere and tone.

Fallen has a guest vocal on it in the form of Mike Kershaw, a fellow Pachyderm artist. The addition of Mike introduces a sinister layer to the track’ the theme of failure and the impact of failure on the Fallen of the song. The guitar has a huge part to play in this track with a superb solo which is both restrained yet exuberant. It has great atmosphere and draws the listener into the music.

Moon Pulls Pt 1 to 4 is an epic piece that runs just short of 14 minutes long, again with Mike on guest vocals and is the strongest track on the album from my listening. It is a love song, one using gravity and the orbit of the moon and its affect as a metaphor for the emotional turmoil of that dread emotion. Musically it pulls together the guys as a whole and is as complete a way to show what they can do as a band as any other track. It has the layered keyboards and it is not an insipid traditional song to the woes of love but a sincere exploration of the feelings.

I rarely talk about all the tracks on an album I review but give a flavour of the album and try to leave the buyer a reason to find out about the rest. This release is no exception as all 9 tracks have much to offer any listener who cares to spend their money on this release.

I will say this, ‘Universal Medium’ is album that from play one is instantly familiar but also stands repeated plays as you plummet the depths of the construction of the music and the many layers the guys have put into the album. There is no thrash or pastoral sound to Whitewater, they are measured and careful which is reflected in the intensity of the music, yet it can be played on a superficial level in the background and still break through to the listener. For fans of classic Floyd, Electronica, Porcupine Tree there is much to gain from this album. I am off to find the rest of the back catalogue and check it out.

released 22nd September 2017

Order ‘Universal Medium’ from bandcamp here

 

 

 

Seconds fade Away” is in two parts again an atmospheric short keyboard driven piece accompanied by acoustic guitar it is an apparently simple introduction but has a strength in its simplicity going straight into part two which is the meat of the song which is an unhurried examination of the race of life as each second of our lives fades away. The irony of the unhurried approach offsetting the speed of life could be the hidden message to savour life as we wander though the days, weeks and years blindly.  You cannot fault the skill and writing of the construction the music but personally I would like to have the guitar higher in the mix when the solo hits at the end.

 

Review – My Tricksy Spirit – My Tricksy Spirit – by Emma Roebuck

‘Balinese gender wayang’, three words that don’t spring to mind, even to the most ardent musicologist let alone this enthusiastic amateur reviewer, but that is the instrument of choice of Nick Gray,the main driver of this project, along with Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld,  Mediaeval Baebes) and Rob Shipster (MatchMusic), latterly joined by Roxanne Aisthorpe as a guest vocalist and now a full member.

A Balinese gender wayang (mainly because I wanted to know what one looked like.)

In the current climate of “Is it Prog-gate?” I am loathe to categorise this album in any shape or form mainly because it does defy pigeonholing and I do not want to get involved in a pointless debate.

To the music; Nick lectures in South East Asian music and this is a central pillar of the album with a very western twist. Percussion and rhythm sit front and centre in the whole album, as you would expect. Equally there is nothing traditional in the structure and form of the album, despite there being 7 tracks, it flows from beginning to end in complete connectivity.

Always with You opens with beeps and tones going into an insistent rhythmic drive (from the said gender wayang) that gives an electronic dance music feel but not a 4/4 120BPM time signature. Roxanne gives a Rock In Opposition vocal performance, counterpointing the music beautifully. If it ran to 4 minutes then Radio One and the like would be all over this like a Bee is to nectar, but it runs to 10 minutes plus without repetition or tedium. This track sits very well in the current cadre of intelligent music coming from leftfield with no genre to call their own or willing to claim them. Her voice reminds me much of Mishkin Fitzgerald of Birdeatsbaby in tone and quality.

Free Of Stars takes me immediately back to my student daze (sorry, ‘days’) in the early 80s in Manchester. This is not because it sounds like the music of the time but because I spent much time in places like “The Band on The Wall” watching some of the dub reggae and toasting sessions with the sound systems of the time.  The heavy off beat bass line that is distorted in Dub style drifts through the track completely filling the sound,giving the sub woofer a great work out and it wipes out a few cobwebs in the process.

Dropping straight into Coming Down Again, a discordant violin and warped keyboard with Nick (I think) on vocals along with a sitar solo and, again, the east Asian percussion give this a unique feel and a sense of otherworldliness. Which I’m sure is the intention given the title.

Skipping a few tracks on, as I prefer to give a flavour rather than a blow by blow view letting interested parties find something to discover in this delightful album, we come to Circle of Light, which is very much the closest to western song structure and something that I can give potential purchasers a comparator to act as a frame of reference. If you own a copy of ‘Live Herald’ by Steve Hillage then add what he is up to these days with System 7 and then you will be close. I can see a remix of this working fantastically in the likes of Creamfields or, for the older ones among us, Tribal Gathering. It is trancy, danceable and contagious in a good way.

The album closes out with Dub of Stars which, as the advert says, does exactly what it says on the tin. Wide open spacey and full of huge bass and Dub “echoiness”, this is 2.00am crank the volume up bassiness to annoy the neighbours and have a groove to music. I defy anyone not to move to the rhythm of this song as they listen to it.

Now this is not music for the unadventurous, if you are a pastoral classical western music fan with a love of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, and instrumental close mentality, then maybe avoid it but you will miss out on something rather special. Fans of Gong, both the Daevid Allen and Pierre Moerlen versions, Firefly Burning, Steve Hillage, World music, Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush you will get something from this album. Bad Elephant Music is more and more becoming a beacon for quality, whether you like the output or not; there is no argument about that in my eyes. This album has that quality and its rich layered multi-instrumental structure dares to explore places that few are looking. However it remains accessible and not even vaguely in the ‘difficult to listen to’ box.

Released 1st September 2017

Buy ‘My Tricksy Spirit’ from Bad Elephant Music here

 

 

Review – Damanek – On Track – by Emma Roebuck

Damanek is DAn Mash, Guy MANing and MarEK Arnold (with Sean Timms coming to the party just a after the band name was decided, Guy tells me.)  A fairly stellar cast is joined by other heavenly bodies to guest on this, the debut album of this project.

Brody Thomas Green (‘Southern Empire’) – drums.
Tim Irrgang
 (‘UPF’) – percussion.
Antonio Vittozzi (‘Soul Secret’) – guitars.
Luke Machin
 (‘Maschine’/’Kiama’/’The Tangent’) – guitars.
Stephen Dundon
 (‘Molly Bloom’) – flute. 
Nick Magnus
 – keyboards.
Phideaux – vocals.
Ulf Reinhardt
 (‘Seven Steps to the Green Door’) – drums.

Their live debut at Summers End 2016 caused a stir and a buzz of excitement in the crowd and the Prog community as a whole. It is strong album from beginning to end and it is also, as you would expect from Guy, one with a message. If I am honest it has many messages all in the main told through the allegorical story telling of guys lyrics.

We have 8 tracks that have light and shade along with the complex use of instruments and layers to play parts in the sound. The production is outstanding and reminds of some of the classic albums of the 80’s (but without sounding like an 80’s Prog album.) Sean has done an excellent job in the mix and production of this truly global album.

The opener Nanabohzo and the Rainbow opens with a tribal rhythm and an insistent bass and drum riff throughout give an exotic feel to the track and a rather excellent ear worm quality. Marek has a big part to play with his Sax and, along with Sean on keyboards, is the flesh on the bones of the rhythm. Guy’s voice is on form all the way through the album, it slots so well in the sound as it shifts in form throughout the song.

Long Time, Shadow Falls, this has the most 80’s feel to me, drawing from the best of what Peter Gabriel in style and form did in the mid 80’s. I think it is the keyboard sound but the song is a commentary on poaching and the impact of man that is sung from the view of the victims, the Rhino, the Elephant and the Hippos. It is our gift to stop this but as a species we are doing a poor job.

Just pictures in a glossy magazine
Long time, a shadow falls and the Earth is lessened”

With the demise of the natural world we are lessened more than we realise.

The Cosmic Score is told on a much larger scale with the keyboards of Nick Magnus adding much to it. Imagine if you will the stars are notes on the score of the universe and the music of the universe is playing forever but how badly are we affecting that score on our little planet? It is massive in scope and symphonic in sound.

Believer – Redeemer could be a jazz-funk soul piece, in fact it is to these ears and a real pleasure to listen to as well. The music is a metaphor to the lyric, challenging the prog fan to step outside and listen to a world beyond the Prog bubble. The lyric does the same to the intolerant and unaccepting people of this world. I could honestly hear George Benson or Stanley Clarke doing a cover of this with little or no changes. Oh, by the way, this is a good thing!

Guy has a pixie like sense of humour and in The Big Parade it comes out in spades. The guys here write an anti-war song to a martial beat. The pomposity of marching music along with the beat of an Umpah band make the idiocy of war look like what it is – a playground for overgrown bullies. Reminiscent of Tom Waits “In the Neighbourhood”, with hints of ragtime and New Orleans jazz, here Marek gets to show off his skills to great effect.

The Finale on the album is Dark Sun, a 14 minute epic and  truly prog of ‘end of days’ proportions, it’s honestly scary and as ominous as its topic. The sun is getting darker and light gets dimmer as we kill the planet. Air gets thicker with pollution. The sight of our cities in the sunlight with unbreathable air and thick smog hanging like a veil over our lives. It utilises an excellent instrumental break and brilliant piece of guitar keyboard jamming with the brass synchronising beautifully.

I paint a picture of an album that is fundamentally depressing and dispiriting but it is actually very uplifting. The music is tight and full with the quality you would expect from the players but no one dominates in this and it feels like a complete piece of work. The malbum feels global with influences from across boundaries and geography. The messages may be a warning but each song offers hope rather than a sense of inevitable doom. It bears playing and playing again.

I sincerely hope that Damanek produce another album and take it out on the road. I won’t reference bands (as I usually do) but this is an album that has melody and song structure by the bucket load and is not frightened to go outside limiting parameters.

Released 15th May 2017

Buy ‘On Track’ from GEP

 

 

Review – Jet Black Sea – Absorption Lines – by Emma Roebuck

Jet Black Sea: when I got this through my inbox I admit as to being blind to who they were or what to expect, apart from a brief listen to the demos on the band’s Facebook page which was enough to pique my interest.

Adrian Jones’ name popped up and then the penny dropped and the fog cleared with a tinge of familiarity, Nine Stones Close. He is bit of a creative tornado and, like many musicians in the progressive field, prolific in guesting on many other albums. ‘Absorption Lines’ is the second with Michel Simons, the first being ‘The Path Of Least Existence’, released in November of 2013. I did some ferreting around after my first listen through of this one after a very oh my response. Normally the first time I play any album it is to purge out what I have listened to before and get a general feel of what I am listening to musically. I can then flood my mind with the music so all I have is what any musician has created. I never make a snap judgement, I just get a first impression. My first impression here was very much this is special and I immediately flipped back to the start.

Adrian Jones: talent, Michel Simons: cool dance moves”

To the music which is described as experimental, ambient and dark progressive by the guys themselves and that description ispretty much spot on for me. On paper this is an album of 7 pieces of music or songs with guests:

Pieter van Hoorn: drums on Wrong Turn, The Sixth Wheel & Cathedral
Brendan Eyre: keyboards on The Sixth Wheel & Cathedral
Paul van Zeeland: bass guitar on Cathedral
Adrian ‘Aio’ O’Shaughnessy: vocals on Cathedral
Tony Patterson: vocals on Hours Slip Into Days

I am going to say that this is actually one piece of consciousness flowing into the recording and divided up into digestible chunks. It is fluid and connected and thus really difficult to do any song by song break down. Musically the journey is rich, varied and textured with more influences than you can shake a stick at, from the ambient trance dance of The Wrong Turn flowing into the middle-eastern doom chording of The Sixth Wheel, Brendan providing the tonal variation drawing the ear to the Minarets and deserts of the Arab Peninsula and North Africa.

Suddenly we join the crew of Apollo 13 for Jumping to Conclusions and a short ambient Berlin School piece drifting in the vacuum of space with Absorption Lines, which flows into a classic Floydian jam session drifting of guitar, keyboards and vocals.

It continues pretty much in this vein through Cathedral until we have a “brass” song as such, with Adrian O’Shaughnessy on vocals and some very understated but powerful guitar work from Mr Jones. Without missing a beat we find ourselves in Hours Slip Into Days, Tony’s voice is silky soft and sits in the sweet spot at the centre of the melody, carrying you into the void beyond this world. We lapse to the end of 133 hours, the time the world held its breath while we waited for Apollo 13 to return home safely. This is a musical and thematic soundtrack to Houston and the Crew of Apollo 13 conversations. It is electronic music married with understated guitar that is built on pure atmospherics.

The album is a sonic experience and as a DJ I want people to hear this and hear what I hear. Playing a track won’t cut it for me as it misses the rest of the release. It is an album not a collection of songs, it flows and grows from one end to the other filling the listener and drawing them through and into it. I am a lover of the discipline of the album, maybe it is my love of classical and electronic long form music but this sits in the same place. Adrian and Michel are not frightened to go outside traditional structure and style and they understand their art and want to see how far it can go.

Fans of Cosmograf, Public Service Broadcasting, Autechre, Scanners, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp and Eno will find succour and pleasure in this album. It is individual in its style and is “Jet Black Sea “rather than a version of someone else. I would say this: when you buy this album switch the connections off to the world and spend 45 minutes just letting the music swallow you up, better still, take 90 minutes and go round twice.

Released 30th June 2017

Buy ‘Absorption Lines’ from FREIA Music UK (UK & Ireland)

Buy ‘Absorption Lines’ from FREIA (Europe):

Jet Black Sea – ABSORPTION LINES

Review – Gentle Knife – Clock Unwound – by Emma Roebuck

Gentle Knife is a Norwegian Ensemble of 11 members:

Astraea Antal – flutes, woodwinds and visuals
Pål Bjørseth – keyboards, vocals, trumpet
Odd Grønvold – basses
Thomas Hylland Eriksen – sax and woodwinds
Veronika Hørven Jensen – vocals
Håkon Kavli – vocals, guitars
Eivind Lorentzen – guitars and synths
Charlotte Valstad Nielsen – sax
Ove Christian Owe – guitars
Ole Martin Svendsen – drums, percussion
Brian M. Talgo – samples, words, vocals, visions and artwork

There is a saying that too many cooks spoil the broth and you would think that 11 chefs would create a truly chaotic spoiled broth. I am glad to say that this, the follow up to Gentle Knife’s eponymous debut in 2015, is one where the chaos is always under control and adds to the sum of the 11 parts and the very disciplined approach to the music that they make.

The relentless passage of time is the main theme of our 2nd album, Clock Unwound, which delves into lives overshadowed by longing and disappointment. Plans go askew, lovers betray and dreams fade. Yet, as a sense of resignation descends upon a dystopic inner landscape, moments of beauty remain. Songs are epic in format, and play across a broad spectrum of emotions.”

The promotional material tells us, and it is true to a point, but I hear more.  I have lived with this as an album for a few weeks and see many metaphors for the modern world here beyond the main theme of the album. It dances with a classic Progressive Rock feel with an end to end flow that, for this listener, is important for anyone planning on buying it does just that, listen to the completed album rather than piece meal track by track. The whole is far greater than the parts with themes carried over from track to track reflected and distorted by the huge range of instruments they have on call.

(Photo by Vidar Jensen)

Opening with Prelude Incipit, an overture to ease us into the album. A grand piano with ominous chords and a doom laden solitary Trumpet over the top hails the tragic end of times, plaintive and hollow. Dropping straight in to the title track via a lovely guitar life, Clock Unwound is straight from the Steven Wilson play book. Keyboards, guitars down-beat and a distorted vocal giving it a slightly steam punk feels then it veers off onto a remarkable musical journey swapping guitar and keyboard as they battle for supremacy. Veronika has a dissonant vocal line which then harmonises beautifully with the tale of regret and lost hope.  Failed love and life are thematically reflected both in the lyrics and musically. Fans of VDGG will find something here with the way the brass adds to the chaos of destruction and entropy. It is a 15 minute epic but your attention does not waiver and it passes by all too soon.

Fade Away will draw in the fans of Big Big Train, Moody Blues and BJH with its brass and Mellotron opening and is completely unhurried until a middle section of big Sax and Moogs show how carefully balanced the band is in the studio with an orchestral feel to the arrangements. Rapid and mixed time and key changes drop into 2 or three different styles in a 3 or four minute instrumental section. The poignant use of flute highlights the deep sense of looking for what is lost and will never  return. The way Veronika and Brian share and harmonise the lyrical conversation works very well to define the song.

This is a quick jump to Smother, a manic track that always feels close to chaos and a musical riot but then comes back from the edge, again it’s a perfect match for the lyrics, the idea of defeat and loss of all, close to achievement but missed despite all. The dream, highlighted by a jazz section of halcyon days, is all the more painful for the memory of its loss. The brass in this never intrudes but is always here in the right measure.

Plans Askew is the simplest track on the album by far and is almost a straight rock power ballad in form. The Acoustic guitar introduction in this is building on the continuing theme of chaotic loss but critiqued externally as a narrative rather than a first person perspective, it then becomes something else entirely.

Resignation, the joker in the pack and final track on the album, returns us to the primary theme of despair. We have a deceptively sparse track of the end of time for the person and the world as we know it. The song is narrated rather than sung and a weary soul speaks of giving up on all things in a universal expression of depression and loss. This track really picks out the way Ole Martin Svendsen (on drums) and Odd Grønvold (on bass) work to be the foundation that supports the every present mix of music so despite the potential chance of chaos, it never actually happens because they are solid as a rock throughout.

Overall the way this album works deserves praise for its maturity and skill in song writing but also the disciplined studio work. There is plenty for the classic Prog fan but it isn’t a mirror of the past, it actually feels like it belongs in 2017 not 1973. This is slick where it needs to be and raucous at other times. I review every song of an album but feel the variation on ‘Clock Unwound’ needed just such a treatment. That is like quite a few of the albums made in recent years and proves to me personally that good and intelligent music can be produced despite being ignored in the boardrooms of the big labels of the world.

Released 15th June 2017

Order ‘Clock Unwound’ via Caerllysi Music

(Featured image by Thomas Hysvær)

 

 

Review of ‘Black Science’ by Machines Dream – by Emma Roebuck

Not having the time pressures of a “proper music journalist” means that I have the opportunity to mull and digest an album I am given for review as I’m not on a specific dead line most times. Occasionally I am asked to get one done quickly but thankfully I am not on this album. I have played this one through a couple of times a night through headphones while reading since it was sent to me. You could call it a longevity test or the fact It makes great night time listening while immersed in a novel. Both are true in this case as the album will take repeated listening and doesn’t become tiresome in any way.

Most people who know me are aware I am fascinated by the human condition and people politics and this album ticks those boxes and then some. The band describe the album thus;

“Black Science is a musically powerful progressive rock album that thematically explores the dark side of humanity and technology.”

I would agree that it is thematic rather than a concept as the songs do connect and flow excellently and explore modern life and the challenges that are very prescient in the minds of many. Yet I would say it will not become dated in any way.

Opening with a short track Armistice Day, highly reminiscent of a Roger Waters’ vocal style, it’s a doom laden post apocalypse electronic minute and a half that drops straight into Weimar, with a truly ‘Prog’ keyboards, piano and guitar symphonic introduction followed by a very open vocal . It’s very odd as I read this as a narrative close to the series “Handmaidens Tale” currently unsettling the public on Channel 4. There are musical hints of a backward baroque Harpsichord in the vocal breaks then a huge rocking out of synths and general guitar indulgence. Time and key changes rip through this 10 minute mini-epic, a treatise on society’s misogyny and patriarchal dominance. One caveat with this is my reading of the song and I may be off the mark and seeing something that the band don’t.

Cannons Cry opens with a heavy riff and a martial theme that warns of the rise of fascism and the use of propaganda to drive towards an oncoming war of the destruction of common values and principles. These guys are fans of classic Waters/Gilmour Floyd and though this is obvious but not in any way that is derogatory, only complimentary, to the music.

Airfield on Sunwick is very very English despite these guys being Ontario based. Fans of Big Big Train will find solace in a track that is very spartan in structure with lots of space in the music. Guesting on vocals on this, Jakub Olejnik (of band Sound Of Maze) adds real authenticity. This is a song of tragic conscription and the loss of country by Polish refugees in the post 1939 invasion period. Referencing Wojtek, a bear adopted and given a rank of private in the forces in World War two. It has a beautiful tone and quality about it.

Black Science is a real homage to the 70s if ever I heard one. A warning of the darker side of the misuse of science, a very simple tune and the use of the saxophone solo at the end literally took straight back to 1973 as Josh Norling superbly channels the spirit of the use of the instrument so effectively, deliberately referencing our nostalgia for a supposedly better time.

Noise to Signal, the closer on the album, is a real standout track for me combining doom chords and huge sounds to scare the pants of you in a treatise on how social media has filled our lives with noise over substance. Not a second is wasted on this track and it’s as tight as you could possibly get in a studio recording.

The eight tracks on this, their third album, show huge maturity and discipline in writing and production. It is crafted excellently and thoughtfully and fans of music in general will find much to enjoy in this album. Fans of the progressive genre particularly should lap it up as it carries a sense of the past while being still relevant to the early 21st century. These Canadians have a touch and an ear for music that needs to be shared.

Machines Dream are:

Brian Holmes: Keyboards.
Craig West: Bass and vocals.
Jake Rendell: Acoustic and backing vocals.
Ken Coulter: Drums.
Rob Coleman: Lead guitar.

With contributions from saxophonist Josh Norling.

Released 12th June 2017

Buy ‘Black Science’ from Progressive Gears here