Review – VLMV – Stranded Not Lost – by James R. Turner

Genres, funny things aren’t they? It seems that as human beings we are happiest when we can look at, listen to or read something and think yes, that definitely belongs in that category. Label it nicely and then go have a beer.

There seems to be something within us that isn’t satisfied until we’ve exhausted all the permutations and decided that x, y or indeed z fits into that little category, and woe betide it if it tries to escape the little box.

That is the only reason why I can think of a certain type of listener or internet commentator exists, you all know the one’s I mean, The ones who aren’t satisfied until they’ve proven beyond reasonable doubt that so and so is ‘prog’ and won’t listen to anything that doesn’t fit into their little boxes.

Well, gentlemen (and it is always gentlemen), let me tell you, life is so much more fulfilling when you step out of your little comfort bubble and not just listen to the music that falls between the boxes, but start living your life outside the boxes.

This is where haunting duo VLMV (pronounced ALMA) from London come in, their second album ‘Stranded Not Lost’ is released on Friday 16th February, formed by Peter Lambrou and joined by Ciaran Morahan, VLMV specialise in the sort of post rock ambient soundscapes and haunting ethereal melodies that fit outside the traditional musical box, occupying the same universe as artists like Explosions in the Sky or Bristol improv group Jilk.

This is music Jim, but not as we know it, whilst the psychedelic warriors of the late 60’s & 70’s pushed the barriers by going in search of space and beyond, this is the opposite, this is emotive, expansive and introspective music.

The sort of thing that No-Man used to do quite well, and which VLMV do with great skill, is the art of the slow build, the sonic build and soundscapes where the space between the noise is as important as the noise, with songs like the hauntingly beautiful All These Ghosts (which is the lead single from the album) it’s atmospheric stark soundscapes, mixed with the steel guitar picking and some emotive lyrics bring this ballad to life, and it’s this juxtaposition of music as big as the universe, and lyrics as close as your deepest thoughts that are part of what makes this album so effective.

With a sonic palette that brings real warmth to what initially seems to be icy and stark (the aural equivalent of a long country walk on a frozen landscape) the warmth, the depth and the humanity that is teased out through these songs grows and delights.

The opening instrumental mood setting He Has Already Divided Us, with it’s enigmatic title leads us brilliantly into the album, where songs like the title track, with it’s alt country guitar, big orchestration, and vocals reminiscent of an OK Computer Era Radiohead crossed with Josh Rouse, is one of the most affecting tracks on the album. It’s beautiful lyrics, haunting melodies and beautiful string work complement the guitar and synths perfectly. The barely restrained vocal performance and musical accompaniment suggest repressed emotion fighting to get out, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music I have heard so far this year.

Evocative is the word that keeps coming up again when listening to this album, it has the widescreen feel of a soundtrack for a British Indie movie that hasn’t been made yet, I can see the main characters falling apart in the pouring rain on an anonymous street in a big city to the heartstring pulling and piano and string laden And There Was Peace in Our Time, breaking down as the music builds up, the blend of strings and synths is pure class, the melody filling the speakers as it soars beautifully. This is strong stuff, and really gets into you, especially if you listen on your headphones on the commute to work.

It’s not often that music conjures up such vivid imagery for me, not even powerful instrumental stuff, but this hits the spot every time, its power is in its simplicity, and that runs through the album. These are all well crafted, well thought out and beautifully executed songs, with space to grow and room to breath.

Guest vocalist Tom Hodge joins in on the brilliant Little House, which again reflects on the personal with some more of that fantastic guitar and synth work. The beauty on this is giving space to the vocals, focusing on the everyday, the real concerns of individuals. Where the space within the music is as important as the music. There are no overblown histrionics here nothing so crass is required. This is music in its purest form, no notes wasted, no unnecessary pieces. Every song has what it needs and nothing more, and this economy of sound, and distillation down to the purest emotion is what makes this album so affecting, especially on tracks like the ambient Lunokhod.

Having gone from never hearing of VLMV before, I will now be visiting their bandcamp site to order my copies of their earlier work and I strongly recommend that on Friday when this album hits the streets, you hit their bandcamp site, have yourself a listen and get into some seriously great music.

Released 16th February 2018

Order ‘Stranded Not Lost’ from bandcamp in all formats

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Acqua Fragile by James R. Turner

Following the release of their new album, the first in over 40 years I spent some time chatting with the charming Bernardo Lanzetti, vocalist and song writer with Acqua Fragile, about his musical career, reforming the band and the brand new album ‘A New Chant’.

I started by asking Bernardo how did you go about reforming and what spurred the reunion?

In May 2013, I did celebrate my 40 years in music with a unique event called “VOX 40”. Welcomed by an exhibition of my artwork, the audience attended a concert where up to twenty seven musicians gathered to play tracks off the different bands I had done vocals for, over the years.

On that occasion, all five original members of Acqua Fragile happened to meet after a long while and Piero Canavera on drums plus Franz Dondi on bass, even got a chance to play a couple of tracks off “Acqua Fragile” and “Mass Media Stars” along with Tango Spleen, a smart modern classical ensemble.

The idea of working on a new album took form quite naturally even though Gino Campanini (guitar and vocals) and Maurizio Mori (keyboards) confessed they could not join in. Quite nice though, Alessandro Mori, Maurizio’s son – a talented young drummer previously with Glenn Hughes and Bobby Kimball – right after that show, suggested he could be guest on one of the brand new tracks.

The start off was not that easy. The band wanted to keep A F vocal harmonies but we were missing one voice and we had no key man! A few characters, hanging around the band, enthusiastically, were giving suggestions and advice resulting in slowing down the whole project.

A few keyboardists and guitarists showed up and quit but we had a bit more of luck with Alessandro Giallombardo on guitar, backing vocals and keys too. Even though he wouldn’t join the band, Piero, Franz and Bernardo could find energy enough to carry on the project. Ok! We had no dedicated hands on keyboards but we could have strings, piano and intriguing bandoneon from Tango Spleen! Some minor health issue would, temporarily, keep Piero away from his kit? Well, Alessandro Mori could drum along!

Alessandro Sgobbio, formerly with “Acqua Fragile Project” (an experiment carried on by Franz Dondi where young musicians would live perform A F music, around 2004 ) and now jazz pianist and composer for “Charm”, “Pericopes +1” e “Debra’s Dream”, popped up at Elfo Studio to do a flashy synth solo. Michelangelo Ferilli, also from “A F P ”, left some acoustic guitar arpeggios!

I had been quite busy in the last two years so I thought I could get some help with lyrics. As special guest, we were lucky to have US drummer Jonathan Mover (Joe Satriani, GTR) on the trickiest piece of the album succeeding in making a quite complicated composition sound simple. Though some additional actions were taken in centre Italy and Costa del Sol in Spain, main recordings took place at Elfo Studio in Tavernago (PC) Italy where sound man Alberto Callegari was sharp and patient enough to produce it.

I wondered what difference in recording and working together did you find after reforming?

From 72 up to 74, the band would gather at least four times a week. We had no recording facilities so we would memorize all we were playing, I mean dozens of changes in every session. We wouldn’t even take notes or write score on paper as most of us were just self-taught in music.

Actually, every now and then, somebody, may be an older chap, would show up with a reel to reel or, let’s say, some freak with a cassette recorder would promise to do magic but distortion was all we could get down on tape. We knew very little about recording studios but we were blessed getting Claudio Fabi to produce our albums with Gaetano Ria as sound engineer – I mean – top guys in recording studios in Milan.

After that, please, do know that Piero and Franz kept away for many years from the recording world so, when we got back together, everybody around us – I mean fans, fellow artists, guys who wanted to be producers etc. – they were all saying we should go back and start on the old way, rehearsing every day to “capture back the old flair”.

I would just keep scrolling my head – you know, after all in a band there’s got to be some form of democracy – ‘till I got the other guys on my side and started to work in a most proper way. Somehow, I would provide the music and the lyrics, recording a home demo good enough to start with. Drums and bass would then get together to work out modifying the existing patterns and lines of the chosen piece.

Electric guitars and most keybords came out from the work of Alex Giallombardo who we were lucky to have over three quarters of the album even though he wouldn’t join the band. Tango Spleen is a terrific small unit which I define smart & classic. I remember them recording “My Forte” at first take.

Lately, I’ve been moving around a lot so my lead vocals were recorded in different places around Italy and Andalusia. Vocal harmonies were recorded mostly at Elfo Studios or in Milan. In the final rush I played a few synth lines and played acoustic guitar that was missing.

So how do you see A New Chant fitting into your canon?

OK: We got the vocals with the three part harmony, we got friendly odd tempo signatures, we got acoustic guitars, we got synthesizers, we got original riffs, we got nice arpeggios and, yeah, we got good lead vocals too. On the lyrics side we are missing some social issues and science fiction stories.

On the other end, also thanks to Pete Sinfield and Nick Clabburn, we did get more poetry. The music still holds drama in it as well as humour, epics, rock, folk and classical flare.

How did the collaborations on the album come about?

The Orchestra 6 piece specialize in tango, I met them as guests when I did my vox 40 concert, they did a great job, I thought it would be good to have them guest, they did a terrific job, they got the 1st song as a 1st take, and it was the fist time they had drums in their cans. Jon Mover, track in 11/8 he doubled that into 22, then subdivided to 7/6/5/4 meaning each bar has a different beats per minute and from the previous and the following, this is prog definatley, Mariano the pioano player needed more information, he looked at the score and then they both did it. One to be guests, Mover, he’s American, he loves progressive music, he played for Marillion, after that he got involved in GTR, he booked a studio and invited them down to hear me play, he then got hired. I found out I’m his favourite singer, so I got in touch and we’re working on my new album. We had guests for lyrics, I found this website where Pete Sinfield has his lyrics/poems/haikus, there was a poem I liked so much that I put some music to it, but how do I contact him? I had the song but no permission to release it. I had been doing gigs with David Jackson, he was in my house, and when he was staying he talked about moving. I asked David when we next spoke if he had moved and he’d moved to a small town, turns out it’s the same village that Pete Sinfield lives, so David’s son is a famous engineer, and his daughter Dorie is a singer, and she sometimes helps Mr Sinfield, so we had a connection, Dorie got a CD from me and once they went to supermarket she put the CD on for Pete, he said I love it and that’s how it worked out. I got a mail confirming I could use the poem as lyrics. Also Nick Clabburn wrote the lyrics for me, I knew Nick from when Steve Hackett came to Italy, he came to visit me in Umbria, he took inspiration from the lake I lived at, and he got the lyrics I’m drowning.

Alesso Lombardo, we did a few gigs and asked he could join in, he was contributing and we were lucky. Where your Car Proudly, the only one we wrote in the 70’s, we had no recordings, the drummer remembered the lines to play, but I didn’t remember the words, only the title, and asked a friend to write the lyrics, the song is quite interesting, if you play it when driving you get carried away. Allessandro Scorpio on keys, was in a band Aqcua Fragile project, didn’t quite work out, and he became a jazz player. When I played Vox 40 all original members but the guitarist and keyboard player didn’t play, but the keyboard players son is a drummer who joined.

I wondered what inspired Bernando as a writer?

Conscious and subconscious pull up bubbles from education and personality. Lyrics are one topic. Music is another one. I keep written notes around with phrases and words with a sound and may be more than just one meaning. I store them for future use..

As for music, I used to write singing on top of my guitar playing but, in the last ten years or so, I developed other techniques the most interesting being the one that I think about a melody, memorize it and study in my head but may be I’m floating on a swimming pool or riding shotgun (better not driving when doing this) so I’m totally free of instrumentation and kind of draw diagrams in my head. Of course, later on, I try to get sounds off instruments, mainly starting with the ol’ guitar.

Talk me through the album A New Chant.

Well, we wanted an Italian song, we’re the only Italian prog band with no Italian song, the Tu per Lei song is about music, saying if you work hard for music, then it’s done. Taking the line from Jamie Muir, he once told Bill Bruford, ‘when you approach you don’t have to think about what music can do for you, you have to ask what can I do for music’ then the acoustic one, How come, I wanted Lombardo to be more involved, I pushed, so he said I’ll write something acoustic and you sing, then we had an argument, so he said I’ll take the music but you keep the lyrics, which were my words, so I ended up having to write a new melody to the lyrics. A new way of composing. All rise – when you write songs for an album you don’t think about the concert, then you have to rejig the order for the power, so I thought why don’t I write a song for the first encore, using the courtroom line, the drummer did a great job,

A New Chant, I can do many things with my vocals, but I can do something that resembles opera, but I never learnt to push without a microphone, they can push up to 50 metres, I never learnt to do that, so that’s what I wanted to, which is crossing prog with opera. Artwork from 1973, it’s guy carrying round chairs as an invitation to a concert, the bassist had it and kept it, and it seemed ideal to use.

Will you be playing live?

We are working on two options. We could call other musicians to fill the gaps or be surrounded by an orchestra.

How did you get the deal with Esoteric?

Ernesto De Pascale, journalist and producer got them in touch with me when they needed the original art work for the re-release of Acqua Fragile’s very first album.

Where next for Acqua Fragile?

Perhaps a live album or…..

What influenced you as a musician when you started out?

When I was a kid I wanted to become a mad scientist. Somehow I kept that attitude working with music. I am not such a good player, not fast fingers or feet, no strength in my hands or arms but I can do total vocals. I can do harmonies and my range spans over three octaves.

I always admired rock and blues, suspended chords, things hidden or not totally outspoken. Progressive rock gave me all the other topics I was missing.

How different is the music scene now compared to when you started out?

The people behind the music scene have taken over. They don’t need musicians or artist ‘cause they actually control all platforms that distributes music or what they push to become “music”.

Tell me about your time in PFM?

When I joined PFM I thought I was called in to complete the delivery potential of the band. Only one of the original member is still in the band, actually becoming its leader, but, along with the ones that left ,when being interviewed they all say they were forced to get a lead singer. I recall them knowing nothing about singing except, perhaps, the key man Flavio Premoli. They didn’t even know the words to their songs!

On stage, nobody wanted my vocals in their monitors and, when having only three lines, I would end up singing along with drums and fretless bass! We were recording in LA, the studio time expired so we moved to Scorpio sound and we flew economy on a students ticket, we arrived at midnight in Luton, got the bus to the centre of London, at 2am we were still on the bus. Franco said ‘this is the new day’ so instead of heading to the hotel so we took two cabs to the studio, we wanted to start recording. We knocked on the studio door at 3 in the morning and said ‘We’ve got the studio booked’ and the people running the studio said we’ve got no engineers in yet. Franco said, ’You got a microphone?’ OK Bernado, sing! And we started.  After a long flight and journey how can a guy sing after that?

After a career spanning many years what’s your favourite musical memories?

I have a lot, we started opening for bands like Soft Machine & Gentle Giant they were our heroes and we hoped we did our best and we even played before Alexis Korner, Tempest as well, We were exposed to terrific players. With PFM my first concert was in Tokyo, and we played the Royal Albert Hall and the Queen Mother wanted to meet us, so there’s a photo of us with the Queen Mother, so when I left they erased me, I then did my own and I erased them, so there’s three copies of this photo, one with all of us, one with them and not me, and then one with me on my own!

‘A New Chant’ was released 13th October 2017.

Read James’ review of the album here:

Review – Acqua Fragile – A New Chant – by James R. Turner

 

 

 

Review – Acqua Fragile – A New Chant – by James R. Turner

They may be a new name to you, they certainly were to me, but Italy’s Acqua Fragile were originally active between 1971 & 1975, and vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti joined PFM for their ‘Chocolate Kings’ and ‘Jet Lag’ albums, leaving in 1977.

The catalyst for this reunion record came when Bernardo celebrated his career with his Vox 40 concert, and the revived band consists of Bernardo Lanzetti (vocals, animoog, guitars) Pierro Canavera (drums/percussion/backing vocals) and Franz Dodi (electric bass), as well as guest musicians like Jonathon Mover (on opener My Forte) drummer Alexander Mori (son of original keyboard player Maurizio Mori) as well as members of the Acqua Fragile Project, a collaboration put together by Franz Dodi of younger musicians playing the original music of Acqua Fragile.

You wait a while for some bands to get on with the ‘difficult’ third album, but it’s taken these guys over 40 years!

Joking aside, the musicians have worked hard in Italy, and Bernardo is a well known name on the progressive scene, having worked with Mangala Vallis amongst others, and with new blood in the group like collaborator Alex Giallombardo, who provides guitars, vocals and keyboards this blends the best of traditional Acqua Fragile with new sounds and contemporary production values.

This blending of old and new is probably exemplified by the track Wear Your Car Proudly, which was a track the band used to perform in the 70’s, which had never been recorded. The music was intact, with some driving guitar and bass, and wonderfully squelchy mid 70’s synth sounds, (it’s also reminiscent of the neo-prog sound of the early 80’s) yet the lyrics had gone, no trace, so Bernardo’s friend came up with some new lyrics, and hey presto, a wonderfully eclectic song all about motor racing. It’s in the Italian blood, and the passion comes across in this song.

They have even recorded a track in Italian, Tu Per Lei (You for Her) with some wonderfully emotive vocals from Bernardo, and a great electric guitar solo, and it’s true that Italian is a beautiful and emotive language, I don’t know exactly what’s being sung about, but it sounds fantastic.

In fact that’s a good word to use to describe this album, fantastic, I always admire musicians who can write in their second language, and their English is probably better than mine (I am also probably a little jealous as I am no linguist, cunning or otherwise) and to flit between their native tongue and English, is wonderful.

The Drowning meanwhile utilises the lyric skills of Nick Clabburn, who paints a wonderful picture, for Bernardo to fill with his rich vocals.

Meanwhile Rain Drops is a poem, by the legendary Pete Sinfield, that Bernardo loved so much he wanted to adapt, he even explained how he got permission from the elusive Mr Sinfield to include this on the album (in the interview elsewhere on Progradar that I did with him) and the orchestral, almost Oldfieldesque accompaniment works perfectly in drawing the nuances out of the lyrics, and Sinfield’s imagery is both wonderful and very emotive, again showing Bernardo’s voice off to the full.

The core band here sound relaxed and enjoying each others company, whilst the self-explanatory All Rise is a fab rockier number, showing the band kicking up a storm, in a nod to the live arena, a self confessed first encore track, utilising the traditional courtroom phrase to great effect, and providing the energy and power that every good encore needs.

The mood slows a little, with the lovely acoustic How Come, where Bernardo’s vocals continue to shine, and his personal and moving lyrics work in this stripped back environment, providing a brief period of reflection prior to the closing power of the albums title track.

A New Chant see’s Bernardo projecting his voice in an operatic finale, the music and lyrics working together, a beautiful merging of sound, topping off what is, to these ears an excellent record.

It’s great to see that bands can reform after a long period of time, pull together in the studio and rediscover the old magic, this is Acqua Fragile reborn for the 21st century, and is worth a listen. I really enjoyed it.

Released 13th October 2017

Order ‘A New Chant’ from Cherry Red Records here:

A NEW CHANTAcqua Fragile

Review – Perfect Beings – Vier – by James R Turner

Now, I like listening to bands I have never heard of before, because I like discovering new music, new sounds, and if you review something from a band you have never heard of, I find you are coming to the music from a fresh perspective, not being clouded by opinions of previous records or previous sounds.

I’ve been listening to ‘Vier’ for the past few weeks on my commute to work, headphones on; the sights of Bristol (Clifton Suspension Bridge, Ashton Gate, The Floating Harbour) have all been sound tracked by this, the 3rd album by Perfect Beings.

Based in Los Angeles, the bands consists of Johannes Luley on guitar and bass, Ryan Hurtgen on vocal and piano, Jesse Nason on keyboards and Sean Reinart on drums the band have had a few personnel changes since their last album ‘II’ in 2015.

This latest album is epic in both its scope and it’s performance, being split into 4 symphonic musical parts.

Guedra (18:23) The Golden Arc (16:47) Vibrational (18:17) and Anunnaki (18:42) makes this album their ‘Topographic Oceans’ a rather expansive symphonic CD or, in old money, a double vinyl set (with each side being a song suite, just how the traditionalists like it!)

After losing their original bassist Luley stepped up to the mark contributing both bass and guitar to this album, which will make it interesting if they ever do tour it, as, whilst he is one of the most interesting guitarists working currently (comparable to a Luke Machin or a Matt Stevens), he’ll need to be an octopus to recreate the intricate guitar and bass sounds on here.

There is a lot for music fans to admire on this record from the lush multilayered harmonies that open the record with A New Pyramid, to the sort of instrumental prowess that runs throughout the record.

Luley’s sound has grown and matured, with elements from his two solo albums finding their way into the compositional melting pot here, which stretches and pushes the Perfect Beings’ sound out of bog standard prog territory and into something that bounces gleefully through time signatures, across genres, through the past 50 years of prog and even through the different movements of the record as themes from previous songs appear in the closing suite of Annuki.

The rest of the band seem just as energised as they diffuse the spirit of classical prog sounds through their own musical filter as the sounds of Guedra lead you into The Golden Arc, which is a more symphonic piece of work, with the piano, keyboards and guitar building up, this is not something that is in your face and immediate, these 4 differing musical facets of the band are like a musical game of pass the parcel.

Every time the music stops and you press play to resume the album, another layer is revealed until slowly you get the musical present that is ‘Vier’.

Hurtgen has a unique vocal sound, and use of multilayering and certain effects again remind in places of the style of Jon Anderson and early Yes, whilst some of the song titles have dropped straight out of the I-spy book of prog, things like A New Pyramid or The Blue Lake of Understanding are much better songs than their titles would suggest, whilst The Persimmon Tree on title alone brings to mind a local newspaper headline about house builders and a protected woodland, and yet it’s a rather good song on the album. In fact the shorter songs on here work just as well (if not better) than some of the longer ones, and in the way of song cycles I like the fact that snippets of riffs and musical themes echo across the album, creating a coherent whole. The closing Everything’s Falling Apart is a superbly crisp almost pop song, with some sublime lyrics and musical performances.

Hurtgen’s work on keyboards mixes perfectly with the sound of Luley’s guitar and Nason’s keyboards swathe the album with superb sonic textures and beautiful musical moments, more Rick Wright than Wakeman, his musical skills add to the sound and are a part of the bigger picture.

In fact that’s one thing that stands out about this album, when you have a band like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for instance, filled with egos bigger than their talents, you do end up with songs that are nothing more than a glorified solo to pacify and massage those egos. This is one of those albums that are the total opposite, there are some amazing musical sections but on this album the magic happens because the entire band are there pulling together, on the same page, and whilst these are mighty musical talents all the egos are left at the studio door.

There is a lot to like about this album, and there is also a lot of album here for you to like, and the band suggest you turn off and immerse yourself in this record, which is a great thing to do with headphones and a long commute.

A lot of other people have been raving about this record and already proclaiming it album of the year. Now that’s a bold statement to make in January, and yes, there is so much to like and admire about this record, from it’s immersive production to the astounding musical ability on display here, but calling it album of the year is as premature as calling January the best month of 2018. It’s a fascinating and interesting listen with plenty going on musically, and lots of themes that prog fans will love. However to me this is not an album to love, more one to admire. For it’s musical ambition, it’s scope and it’s depth.

Released 19th January 2018

Order ‘Vier’ direct from the band:

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Review – The Strawbs – The Ferryman’s Curse – by James R. Turner

If, like me in the early 90’s, all you knew about the Strawbs was the Hudson-Ford penned hit Part of the Union, upon discovering the album ‘Hero & Heroine’ in my parents record collector, it was hard to believe it was the same band, my love for the Strawbs grew as their albums were finally remastered and reissued (with some gems like ‘Deadlines’ being picked up at a Record Fair around 1994 on the original vinyl) and their transition from folk to rock (being placed in the prog bracket) a far more dramatic metamorphosis than that of Fairport Convention (who ironically went the other way, from psychedelic proto prog to the folk rock pioneers we know and love) with David Cousins unique vocals and lyrics, and Dave Lambert on electric guitar, and band members like Rick Wakeman, John Hawken, Blue Weaver, Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez passing through the ranks in the 1970’s, they were a who’s who of top quality players. Through their reunions throughout the 80’s, their acoustic Strawbs and return of the full Electric band, and resurgence with albums like ‘Deja Fou’‘The Broken Hearted Bride’, as well as classic live albums and archive releases, the bands legacy is assured. If you ever catch them live both the full electric, and acoustic trio are musicians at the top of their game, putting together some fantastic shows.

Now 8 years after their last studio album ‘Dancing to the Devils Beat’, the Strawbs return with what is probably their finest record since their golden period of the 1970’s. Produced by the legendary Chris Tsangarides (who sadly died in January) and with the core line up of David Cousins, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk (three of the five members who recorded the classic albums ‘Hero and Heroine’ and ‘Ghosts’) and long term drummer Tony Fernandez are joined by  ‘new boy’ multi-instrumentalist Dave Bainbridge (currently touring in Lifesigns with former Strawbs keyboard player John Young – it’s such a small world isn’t it?), and whose work with Iona nicely dovetails with the original folk rock orientated sound of the Strawbs, and he fits perfectly in here, contributing considerably to the sound (on both guitar and keyboards) and songwriting with a writing credit on 5 of the 10 tracks on here.

Opening with the hauntingly wonderful symphonic In the Beginning, which segues nicely into The Nails from the Hands of Christ, where David Cousins is a lyrically sharp as ever and a subtle nod to older songs like the Man Who Called Himself Jesus.

In fact the band references themselves even more on the epic title track, a sequel to the equally magnificent The Vision of the Lady of the Lake from 1970’s ‘Dragonfly’ album.

It is of course one of the finest songs the Strawbs have done for many a year, echoing the original and rounding off the story superbly.

However that doesn’t mean that the band are merely relying on old glories and lazily retreading the past, that is absolutely not the case, as the classic Strawbs sound is there, along with the unmistakable vocals of David Cousins, but this is a contemporary Strawbs album. Musically the band are as tight as they have ever been, and Dave Bainbridge sounds like he’s been in the band forever, his keyboard work opening up the beautiful When the Spirit Moves has to be heard to be believed, whilst Dave Lambert’s caustically brilliantly bluesy The Ten Commandments shows he’s lost none of his edge either.

In fact the guitar work throughout this album is stunning, from the beautiful solos on The Familiarity of Old Lovers (with it’s lyrical twist being a contemporary classic piece of Cousins wordsmithery) to the closing We Have The Power, this is a band on top form.

With superb instrumentals like The Reckoning that leads into The Ferryman’s Curse, there is so much to love about this record. From the vocal contrasts between Cousins, whose voice is nicely maturing, Cronk and Lambert, a Strawbs trademark if ever there was one, to the sharpness of Cousins lyrics, showing the wit, the bite and the observation of human nature is still there, right through to the fact that this is a band who, despite being around in one form or another for over 50 years, are not going down the easy route of playing the nostalgia circuit.

The material on this album will more than fit into a set that showcases the best of the Strawbs, and proves that they still have plenty to say, plenty to play and on this album show bands that are much younger than them, how it is done.

Released 3rd November 2017

Order from Cherry Red:

The Ferryman’s CurseThe Strawbs

Reviews – Rob Gould – More Huru For Your Guru and The Sad Robot Declared Peace With Himself – by James R Turner

Many moons ago one of the bands I used to se on semi-regular basis playing at a rundown old Leisure Centre in Rotherham that had long seen better days (like pretty much of all of Rotherham at the time tbh) were Fula, a Buxton based prog rock band, and one of the founder members and driving forces behind the band was multi-instrumentalist and song writer Rob Gould, who would conduct proceedings from his behind his rack of keyboards on stage, as well as joining Brazilian band Ashtar on keyboards.

Since Fula have been on an indefinite hiatus, Rob has continued to plough his own furrow, a one man Peak District Psych composer, putting out ambient electronic albums, inspired by the caves in which he works, as well as more rock and song based audio albums like his last full length album the critically acclaimed ‘The Broken Road’.

Now he’s got two albums out for our delight, and they both are as different from each other as is possible to get, reflecting the many sides to Robs musical personalities.

I will start with the first one of the collection, the wonderfully titled ‘More Huru for Your Guru’, with it’s startling psychedelic cover (great hat Rob). It collects together 10 tracks of cover versions that Rob recorded between 2014 and 2017 for the Fruits de Mer label, and shows where Rob’s influences lie.

From two fantastic interpretations of David Bowie songs, a brilliantly haunting version of We Are the Dead, which takes the tension and power of the original and makes it more sinister in Robs skilful reworking, and the fantastic Sense of Doubt from Bowies “Heroes” album, where Rob shows his musical chops off in fine style. Kudos also has to go to Rob for having the balls to cover A Saucerful of Secrets, in it’s entirety, I have no idea whether Rob is crazy or inspired to take this Floyd song (that to many is one of those Marmite tracks) and reconfigure it and make a bloody good job of it, but either way, the only time I have seen anyone attempt this was again at that Rotherham leisure centre where a Floyd ’67-’69 only covers band called Ummagumma gave it a go.

I was also pleasantly surprised to hear on this album the cover version of The Purple Gang’s Granny Takes a Trip, I thought I was one of the only people in the world who have love for The Purple Gang, and Robs version is a perfect homage to the original whilst making it work in his own style.

With guests of the likes of Hawkwind’s Mr Dibs (who provides vocals on Robs trippy version of the Beatles’ Tomorrow never Knows) Fula’s Nigel Moss on bass on Saucerful amongst others, Rob has assembled an excellent ensemble that help him filter others songs and turn them into his own.

A covers album is always a difficult thing to try and perfect and here Rob manages the balancing act of staying true to the songs, whilst putting plenty of himself in there to stamp his personality on them and not just make a straight forward ‘boy-band’ retread. Extra points go, as always to anyone who covers Pink Floyd and doesn’t pick Comfortably Numb. This is a fantastic album, full of fun, great songs and shows Rob really enjoying himself doing something slightly different to what we’ve known him do before.

‘The Sad Robot Declared Peace with Himself’, is one of Rob’s companion piece albums, and this time it forms a companion to ‘The Broken Road’, containing, as it does, variations on themes of songs recorded for the album, and indeed music recorded at the time and not included, this follows previous companion albums like ‘Black Holes and Empty Spaces’ and ‘An Ocean in a Drop’.

It is a fantastic companion to ‘The Broken Road’, opening with an extended version of Daybreak in the Graveyard of the Sentient Robots, one of the standout tracks from that album, here, in all its’ glory, Rob gives it room to breathe and grow, its soundscapes immersive and complex, pulling you in and washing over you in waves of ambient electronica.

This is Rob back in his electronica territory, a whole world removed from being a Guru, this is him pulling soundscapes together, allowing his ambient and electronic ethos to run through the record. From Starmaker? The Broken Road revisited, which refines and returns to themes on the original album, to the longest track on here The Last Hurrah, which ebbs and flows between almost krautrock minimalism and stunning piano composition, this is where Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre and Michael Oldfield meet, on some windswept moor in the North of England.

The vast open spaces are evoked gloriously here, Rob is at his compositional finest, and like all the best soundscapes the music here has room to build and grow, the waves filling the room, and the underlying shimmering synths and recurring piano motifs layering and building to a shimmering climax, where the understated beauty of the unaccompanied piano work has a neo-classical edge to it, with tinges of melancholy and beauty fades into a pulsating, pounding electronica musical climax, all Radiophonic synths and minimalist beats, there is a certain thrill to be had as the repetition builds and changes to a driving insistent climax.

The sleeve notes state that these were all pieces completed around the time of ‘The Broken Road’ (which for my money is Rob’s finest solo album) between 2008 and 2013. All apart from The Fireclown, which was originally recorded back in 1990 and re-arranged here and has that almost dance edge to it, darker edgier musical stabs combined with half spoken lyrics, brings to my mind anyway Pulp circa ‘Separations’, and is a brilliant way to end this collection.

Instead of seeing this as a companion album, see this more as the ‘bonus disc’, the bits that fit in-between the spaces, and the songs that didn’t quite get away.

As such it works perfectly, and these two vastly different but both suitably interesting albums, that really show Rob Gould’s multi-faceted talents, and remind us (if we needed reminding) of how consistent and interesting a musician he is. Highly recommended.

Both albums released in 2017.

Order ”The Sad Robot Declared Peace With Himself’ from Rob’s website and receive ‘More Huru For Your Guru’ free here

 

Review – Verity White – Breaking Out – by James R Turner

That Clive Nolan chappie, not only being an integral part of Pendragon, founder member of Arena as well as driving force behind lots of different musical projects over the years, he also knows his onions when it comes to find new talents. When he branched out into his musical theatre company he brought his knack for a tune and talent for bringing on new voices to the stage with him.

Verity is one such talent, you might have seen her performances in several of Clive’s Caamora project productions including ‘Alchemy’ (which is where I first saw and met Verity at a CRS awards night several years ago) and she is one hell of a vocalist. If you missed her on those performances then you will have seen her with Pendragon on their ‘Masquerade Overture’ 20th anniversary tour (as an aside that makes me feel old, I remember when ‘Masquerade Overture’ was brand spanking new) where she fitted in like she’d always been there.

Now, as the title of her debut solo album indicates, Verity is ‘Breaking Out’, and blimey she does it in style.

Following on from a few teaser singles last year, ‘Breaking Out‘ see’s Verity stepping from under the wings of her mentors and putting herself firmly in the spotlight.

As a performer and vocalist Verity is not backwards in coming forwards, and this album is chock full of full on rock songs that demonstrate her voice and range in style, and nothing here feels forced or fake, with her husband Alex on guitar and production duties this is a real family affair, and, as I’ve said before and will say again, couples that play together have a connection far deeper than ordinary bandmates, as they connect on both an emotional and musical level. This for me adds far more to the music as it brings something more out into, and this gives the album a lot of soul and power, and Alex is also one hell of a guitarist.

The 10 tracks on here are all fantastically written and produced, and are designed to showcase the power and versatility of Veritys vocals, from her full on rock power on tracks like the raucous I Don’t Care, about a lairy mad night out (I somehow get the feeling from this track that verity would a: Drink you under the table and b: end up dancing on said table at the end of the night) whilst the opening title track is a tour de force in putting her vocals centre stage, and sets the tempo for the rest of the album with it’s blues riffs, funky piano break and soulful vocals.

Zeros and Ones has some great synth work and a softer vocal approach from Verity, Demons In Your Head is an emotionally honestly charged song about struggles with mental health and again there’s softer vocals on the reflective and introspective See Through with more emotionally honest lyrics. These songs show that Verity has a lot of heart and soul and wears both on her sleeve.

More of those sublime synths drive Face It and it shimmers and has another of those amazing guitar hooks that are scattered over this album like rice at a wedding and with its sheen and funk could strut it’s way onto any radio play list. This is a fantastic driving album, stereo on loud, open road and an excellent soundtrack. Exhale mixes the ethereal with the rocky side as Verity puts her voice through it’s paces, it’s dynamic range and power makes this performance a tour de force and reaffirms that she is at the top of her game, & arguably one of the female vocalists of her generation.

Slow Fall is a great piano driven rocker with some great musical interplay and more of Verity’s wonderful vocals. The whole album covers the human experience perfectly and is full of radio friendly rock songs. The music on here is all sublimely produced and performed and there are some wonderful musical moments on here that get the toes tapping from start to finish.

Verity White is someone who has added so much as a vocalist and performer within any ensemble that she has performed with, and on this confident debut full of charm and power she juxtaposes real rock swagger with emotional vulnerability and proves that she is a star in her own right.

‘Breaking Out’ is an apt title, as this see’s Verity stamping her mark all over the music scene and showing that she is a name to watch.

This is an essential album and one hell of a debut. I can’t wait to catch Verity on tour in January.

BREAKING OUT TOUR

  • January 11th – The Castle Hotel, Manchester – tickets 
  • January 12th – Fiddler’s Elbow, Camden, London – tickets
  • January 14th – Gwdihw Cafe Bar, Cardiff – tickets
  • January 18th – Mr Wolfs, Bristol​ – tickets

Released 3rd November 2017

Order ‘Breaking Out’ from bandcamp here

 

 

Review – Arc of Triumph – s/t – by James R Turner

Facebook, it’s a funny little place isn’t it? A microcosm of the real world where everything is amplified and friendly joking can be taken too far where people misread the signals, and where braggadocio and one-upmanship seems to be the preferred method of conversation. Like so much other social media including Twitter, certain parts of it seem to be an endless stream of vitriol and anger, directed at others who are different, people you disagree with, people who aren’t ‘you’.

This is where Arc of Triumph come in, I was connected to the band (Simon Elvin and Rory Holl) through someone posting about reviewing the album on a friends timeline, and you guys know me, if there’s something new and exciting out there, and I can get to listen to new music and help a friend of a friend out, then hell I will do my best.

Which is how this duo’s debut album appeared in my inbox, and on my iPod (other media devices are available) and how it came to be one of my albums of 2017.

This record could probably not have been written and created at any other point in human history, where you have the alleged leader of the free world tweeting about the North Korean leader, less diplomacy and more like a little kid throwing stones.

You have the omnishambles that is the zombie Government of the UK trying to negotiate the worst possible deal on Britain’s exit from the European Union, frankly they couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery, and you have the threat of ISIS, global warming, the lack of any global leader to come to any consensus for anything, and a resurgent Russia and China.

These my friends are what we call, interesting times.

Arc of Triumph, an ironic metaphor rather than a glory seeking name, take this rich and unstable tapestry and weave it into a rich and intelligent album all about the end of empires and collapse of great civilisations. After all, no civilisation knows it’s at the end of its reign until after the event.

These 10 tracks run the whole gamut from devious politicians to collapsing empires, and it’s a testament to the bands strength of vision that the whole concept hangs together brilliantly, and the album flows with style and grace.

Starting with the dynamic and great Brick and Brick, they lay put their stall with some funky guitar work, fab old school synth sounds and mature intelligent lyrics.

This is the combination of album as story, history lesson and grand concept, after all those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat.

Pulling off a trick that has been utilised by artists like the Beautiful South, Elvin & Holl pull of the juxtaposition of darker lyrics with a more upbeat sound, creating angular, spiky post rock sounds that fans of bands like Franz Ferdinand would find much to love.

This isn’t their only musical skill though, and to imply so would be doing the band a disservice. Unlike some of the more preachy end of music where certain more earnest songwriters treat their audience like children, there is no grand sermon style songs on here, no patronisation and by treating the audience as the intelligent adults that they are, Arc of Triumph manage to get the message across using the music and the lyrics and no trickery.

Tracks like the brilliant My Town; evoking the images of fallen Egyptian Empires in their Pyramids and monuments to their ego, punches it’s evocation of arrogance and pride out with some driving guitar work and powerfully written music.

In contrast I’ll be Your Eyes pulls together everything that is wrong about the public being brainwashed by charismatic right wing leaders, who pull on some Daily Mail esque image of ‘wanting the country back’. It’s uncomfortable listening, as is probably the aim, due to the words of the lyrics repeated across the many platforms from twitter to Facebook to the front pages of newspapers, ‘pull up the drawbridge and pull down the blinds’. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, and there are no holds barred here, similar to last years ‘We’re all in this Together’ by IT, in the words of a former American statesman, it’s an inconvenient truth. But one we all need to hear.

Songs like Take it All With Us and Birthright deal with the ideals of greed and believing people can have anything they like, the sense of entitlement that pervades so much of society, and the constant drive for more that is ripping the planet apart underneath us.

With a broad musical palette to work from, these songs cross genres and become a fantastic musical melting pot of rock, folk, post rock, angular indie guitar mixing with lovely vocal harmonies, elements of folk rock and some genuinely prog keyboard sounds, which is beguiling, charming and utterly confident in it’s own sound and style.

The album, despite the dark message that runs throughout, particularly on the closing duo of This is What Will Happen, with it’s pop noir elements and dark Poe-esque imagery, evoking the Raven, and an almost Wishbone Ash ‘Argus’ era guitar sound, that features some sublime violin, the dark folk element of this brings the track to life and it’s repetitive beat and drive is almost tribal in nature. The closing Darker Shadows, at 7 minutes the longest track on the album, has some really magnificent mood music, powerful electronic sounds, pounding drums and some astonishing vocals.

This album is one that is definitely a grower; listening on my headphones you slowly absorb the atmosphere, the musical nuances, the intelligent vocals, and the passion. My goodness this album drips with passion and emotion. Considering this is a debut this walks all over new albums released in 2017 by bands who’ve been at it a lot longer and obviously aren’t as hungry or fired up as this dynamic duo. It is fresher, sharper, clearer of purpose and full of charm and depth.

Arc of Triumph have produced a triumphant musical arc, and one that I keep returning to again and again. Don’t let this gem slip under your radar. Your ears will never forgive you.

Released 16th October 2017

Buy ‘Arc of Triumph’ from bandcamp here

 

Review – Moonparticle – Hurricane Esmerelda – by James R Turner

Already well known as a talented guitarist, Niko Tsonev profile was raised by stepping up and becoming the touring guitarist and member of John Young’s Lifesigns project, and whilst his guitar was missing from their debut album he toured with them from 2013 – 2016 becoming an integral part of the bands sound, and appearing on their successfully crowd funded live CD/DVD package ‘Under the Bridge’, and guests on their second release ‘Cardington’.

Stepping away from the Lifesigns, Niko has thrown himself into his latest project Moonparticle, and as a guitarist and performer of his calibre he could pretty much pick and choose who he works with, this means the band is full of talent like Craig Blundell on drums, Theo Travis on flute, Adam Holtzman on keys and Grog Lisee adding the female touch with her superb vocals.

The pedigree in this band suggests that what you’re about to listen to is going to be something special, and the huge bandwidth of genres that they span means that musically you’re going to be in for a treat.

In lesser musicians hands this eclectic mix of genres and styles would fall apart, and be a bit over complicated and cluttered, luckily we are listening to masters of their game, and you can tell they have enjoyed working on this album, as the musical ideas crackle with the sort of electricity that comes from bands just clicking.

Niko is definitely one of the finest guitarist plying his trade currently, and it’s no surprise that on tracks like Hurricane Esmerelda or Helium 1 & Helium II his guitar is at the fore, and it’s amazing how he can move from rocking out to pulling some fine melodic sounds out of the guitar.

Again, anyone who saw Lifesigns would know how important he was to the live sound and the stage presence he had.

You then get tracks like the sublime Strength of a Thousand Year Rose, an absolute epic rock ballad for want of a better word, where Grog’s amazing vocals come to the fore, and the solos that Niko pulls off throughout are the most melodically restrained, you can tell he is holding back and the restrain and power shines through.

There are quirky song titles that draw you in, and I do wonder in calling one track Reverend Mum whether one of the band is a fan of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins books, throughout this track there is some lovely fluid guitar work, Blundells percussive work is on point as ever, and the way the guitar, percussion and subtle keyboard sounds work here are fantastic, ebbing flowing and building to a wonderfully euphoric finale.

This is also the second prog(ish) record to feature a track called Winter Mountain, and it’s about as far removed from the Mostly Autumn track as is possible to get, this one brimming with power and warmth.

Adam Holtzman and Theo Travis are sublime throughout, which is to be expected, and what is wonderful with this album is that whilst the guitar sound is at the fore, there is no hogging of the limelight, each artist gets room to breathe and the way they meld their sound is a joy to behold, all the while pulled together by the rock steady beat of Craig Blundell (who has been doing a sterling job with Lonely Robot recently) the haunting guitar and keys sound on the closer Leon’s Experiment, with some great crunchy riffs and powerful drumbeat, pulls this mightily accomplished album to a close.

Blending sublime instrumental work with some superb songs, and a cracking vocalist, Moonparticle have surpassed themselves and created what I reckon is the debut album of the year. A wonderful blend of genre hopping musical light and shade, heavy when it needs to be, chock full of tunes and serious musical talents at work, with vocals to die for. This is how to do a debut album and it shows to anyone who hasn’t realised yet, just how mighty a talent Niko Tsonev is.

Released 20th January 2018

Order ‘Hurricane Esmerelda’ from bandcamp on CD, digital and vinyl

 

Review – Looking Glass Lantern – Candlelight and Empire – by James R. Turner

A few years ago when I plied my trade for an alternative online prog magazine (not that they were alternative, just it was a different one that isn’t this one…. anyway…) I reviewed in fairly quick succession the debut and second album by Looking Glass Lantern‘A Tapestry of Tales’ & ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, both based upon Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Both albums were the creation of multi-instrumentalist and composer Professor Graham Dunnington, and when you get the press release through for this new album, one that’s been 3 years in the making, and see that one of the quotes come from your review, ‘A superb fusion of Victoriana and prog. Almost a new genre in fact, can I get away with calling it Steamprog?’  You do feel quite chuffed to have accidentally created another genre (prior to me christening Rushdenbeat, and coining the term Britprog back in the mid 90’s) and get quoted in the press release.

Anyway it’s not all about me, it’s all about the music, and Looking Glass Lantern present their third album, and for the first time it is an original story.

Written and performed again by Graham Dunnington, it is also the first time he has released his records on CD, and so you get the full story in the lyrics and the sleeve notes, and the subtly understated artwork, all of which brings the narrative to life.

The previous albums (being based on literary works) had an obvious narrative drive of which the focus was just as much, if not more so on the words than the music, allowing the lyrics to shape and drive the album, and as this is a style that suits Dunningtons compositional skills, this album follows suit.

I mentioned in my previous reviews that this particular style could be compared with the Alan Parsons Project, and on this particular record Dunnington is stepping away from those comparisons. Of course it’s concept driven, there’s huge elements of traditional prog and narrative driven songs in it, and as a consequence, yes it’s going to be linked to that sub genre of prog. It’s not a bad thing; I have always loved an album that tells a story as long as the stories good, and this is a belter.

Professor Dunnington is fascinated with all things Victorian, and this drills down to the minutiae of an average Victorian household in the 1890’s.

Split into two parts, Part One is a series of interconnected songs that introduce us to the world of the servants who look after the family, thus we are treated to the quartet of songs, which do exactly as they say on the tin, The Maid, The Girl Nobody Knows (which gives us more insight into the life of the maid), The Cook, and The Governess and the Children. Those familiar with period dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs, House of Eliot, Downton Abbey and their ilk, are probably already familiar with the life ‘below stairs’ and in a nice introductory paragraph at the start of the booklet, there is a clever link to the occupants of the house today, with their own live in help the ‘au pair’ who, in these modern days of cost cutting does the job of three people, being cook/Maid and Governess.

Like the Looking Glass Lantern’s previous albums, based on Sherlock Holmes novels, there is as much emphasis placed on the lyrics as the music, and the album is as much a vehicle for the narrative as the music, and whilst it may seem a tad wordy at times, the strength of the music carries it through, and the skill of Dunnington’s composition skills helps pull both the story and music together.

There are some sublime instrumental moments on this album, the guitar work on The Governess and the Children for instance, whilst the vibe throughout is of a mellower vein. If you’re looking for something on the heavy end you’re in the wrong place.

This mixes Victoriana, narrative driven prog and instrumental dexterity that weaves in elements of rock and folk.

Being a versatile multi-instrumentalist Dunnington pulls some superb keyboard work out on The Angel of the Home, the track introducing the Mother to the story, whilst the final track of part 1, The Husband, neatly collects all the characters into one place.

Part 2, is what’s known as ‘the long track’ and if part 1 was the prologue, part 2 is the story proper.

A traditional tale of a middle class Victorian dinner party, with the hosts, the Husbands business partner and his wife, and the local Vicar.

A cast that normally sounds like a typical Ray Cooney/Brian Rix farce, however this is far from farcical, as all the modern (for the day) topics are digested, along with the meal, with discourse about politics, the Empire, the monarchy and all other topics of the day.

This is rounded off by a closing reprise of the opener the Maid, who is closing the house down, just like she opened it up, and closes the album with a nice flourish.

This is very much traditional story telling prog at it’s finest, and whilst it might not be everyone’s cup of earl Gray served up in a nice china mug, it fits nicely into that niche created by artists like The Alan Parsons Project, Rick Wakeman (during his big concept phase) and other artists like Gandalf’s Fist, who can take the narrative concept and turn it into a coherent musical whole.

If you enjoyed the first two albums this is a worthy return from the Looking Glass Lantern, if you’ve never heard them before, then it’s a great place to start.