So, here we go with the first of Progradar’s ‘guest’ or ‘collaborative’ reviews and the first to step up to the plate is Emma Roebuck with a review of Caligula’s Horse and ‘Bloom’……….
The third album from Caligula’s Horse ‘Bloom’, and my first exposure to their brand of Rock/metal/prog, finds me smiling. It passes a few tests for me, one played it through several times in the car and I didn’t feel the need to change the album and my passengers, who are not prog fans, were nodding along to riff laden music. The second test is playing it in the solitude of unwinding after a working week.
I won’t do a track by track break-down just say Sam Vallen, Jim Grey and the rest of the guys are a fine addition to Aussie prog-rock. It has something for most fans of the harder side of prog music, loads of hard, powerful guitar riffing with layered musical texture underneath. I am drawn instinctively to the better, mid-period, Dream Theater and Opeth stuff as you would expect but, also, Anathema too, not as copyists but as fellow travellers.
There is also plenty for the casual listener too, the songs draw you in and are accessible from the first listen, with plenty of variety from the softer Undergrowth creeping up on you to the aural ‘smack in the teeth’ half way through the Title track Bloom. These guys can write songs with nuance and skill and are not formulaic by any stretch of the imagination.
The Stand out track for me is Dragonfly. Coming in at just short of 10 minutes, it has everything good that this album has to offer in one song. Trying to imagine this performed live, I see a great set closer in this one.
Jim Grey has a voice that has remarkable range and works in the quieter moments and higher registers too, but maintains a power when they rock out and they can rock out, Rust being a fine example of an outright technical track that Threshold would be proud to produce.
To finish, it’s a worthy piece of music that shows how good some of the technically minded progressive musicians can write at the harder edge of this thing we called ‘prog’.
I’ve never been a big fan of live albums, preferring the purity of the original studio release. To me, that is probably how the band intended the music to be heard in the first place, rather than in a live setting.
There are, actually, plenty of studio bands who have never performed live and this has been of no detriment to them progressing and evolving. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and there are some outstanding live releases out there.
A few that come to mind ( and not restricted to progressive artists) are Thin Lizzy – ‘Live and Dangerous’ from 1978, Neil Young and Crazy Horse – ‘Arc-Weld’ from 1991, Yes – ‘Yessongs’ from 1973, Peter Frampton – ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ from 1976 and Genesis – ‘Three Sides Live’ from 1982.
These albums perhaps show the artists at the height of their powers and include some of the most blistering and emotional versions of their greatest songs. However, overall, I’ve always been more of a fan of the studio albums.
So, when one of my favourite artists, Glass Hammer, approached me about reviewing their new, ‘live’, release, it was with no little trepidation that I awaited the arrival of the package at Progradar Towers…….
Glass Hammer are elder statesmen of the progressive rock scene now, having been around since 1992 and releasing many celebrated albums, including their latest long player ‘The Breaking of the World’ this last year.
Hailed as one of their best records yet, it cemented them at the forefront of the classic progressive rock scene and many saw their appearance at RosFest as being one of the highlights of that well established progressive rock festival.
Featuring the current line up of founder members Steve Babb (bass) and Fred Schendel (keyboards) along with vocalists Carl Groves and Susie Bogdanovic, Kamran Alan Shikoh (guitar) and Aaron Raulston (drums and percussion),that august publication, Prog Magazine went so far as to say:
“…the boldest set of the weekend. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have always succeeded in creating an ensemble that fully complements their sense of musical grandeur.”
The band decided to release the whole set from RosFest as a Double CD/Single DVD deluxe package and I was lucky enough to receive this. Would it change my perception of live albums or would I still see it as something less than a studio release?
The performance opens with the catchy Nothing, Everything which is the closing track from ‘The Breaking of the World’ and I feel it is a great track to open a live set with as it bounces along with great joie de vivre. Initial thoughts are that these guys are a tight live unit and the recording quality of the release is top notch and you can hear each note from the individual instruments. You are drawn in immediately to the signature Glass Hammer sound with its melodic intricacies and subtle deviations. The vocals are also on top form and some apparent issues with the vocals being too low in the mix at the actual show appear to have been addressed in a satisfactory manner. Carl and Susie are front and centre and work perfectly well bouncing off each other. So a grand opening for the show as far as I’m concerned, let’s see if it holds up…..
Now, if I do have one minor gripe about live recordings then it is definitely the links between the tracks and Carl Groves’ somewhat corny efforts here do grate slightly, not enough to detract from any enjoyment but enough to make me cringe a tad. After Carl has got his intro out of the way, the band move smoothly into a track from ‘Shadowlands’, their seventh, 2004 studio release. So Close, So Far is, in my opinion, one of their classic releases and the current line up more than do it justice with the excellent guitar work of Shikoh and the jazzy drumming of Raulston providing the perfect back drop for Schendel’s superior keyboard work. Harking back to a time when the band had more than a little Tolkien influence going on, the lyrics are so wondrous in places they just make me smile. How Susie keeps a straight face singing the words, “Time spent fighting Dragons, is wasted now, I know…..”, I’ll never know but they give me a childlike glee and the whole song has this brilliant winsome feel in a live setting, it literally bounces along full of the energy of some unseen youth. Timeless in execution, it is near perfect and watching the band performing it on the DVD you just get the feeling that they are really enjoying it. Steve Babb’s ever present, dynamic bass drives the song along and he seems like he is almost overflowing with vigor such is his animation on the stage. Almost hidden behind a huge bank of keyboards, Fred Schendel seems to be giving the performance of his life as you watch a band at the height of their performing powers.
The first CD and first half of the performance closes out with the first two tracks from the latest album. Mythopoeia sees the band nodding their collective heads to the 70’s greats Yes. Too many people compare them unfavourably to that band but they are definitely equals on the strength of this performance. Groves vocal is heartfelt and literally alive and his counterplay with Susie Bogdanowicz gives the track a dramatic edge. Shikoh is giving a lively performance, his guitar full of vitality and the rhythm section are note perfect as the song flies along seemingly with a sentience and enthusiasm all of its own. Take a moment to watch and listen in the quieter moments where the vocalists pump increasing amounts of emotion into their performance, leaving you rapt in attention. Third Floor is a more tentative track, one that plays more on the vocal performance and uses the instruments to provide the balance and the backing to Carl’s edgy verse and Susie’s sentimental chorus. The whole band demand your attention on the stage, they are not merely musicians, they are performers in some engrossing drama that is unfolding before you. Fred’s harpsichord like instrumental section lightens things slightly, aided by some more impressive guitar work from Kamran Alan Shikoh. A free form instrumental section holds court through the centre of the song, technically excellent but still with a soul, the musicians give their all before the voice becomes the focal point once more. I think you can tell I’m really beginning to enjoy this can’t you? My smile breaks out again as a really intricate and yet easily accessible instrumental run takes the song to a profound close, I almost find myself applauding with the crowd.
So to CD 2 or the second part of the performance and another dip into the past and The Knight of the North from 2005’s ‘The Inconsolable Secret’. Carl does himself no favours here as the opening part of the track is an introduction of each member of the band but sung rather than spoken. Call it corny, call it cheesy, I just don’t like it. Thankfully it’s over with pretty quick and we can get onto what is quite a dark and serious track that loses some of the light-hearted feel of the previous songs. The music has a much more contemplative feel and is almost verging on a heavier progressive note. The performance is, once again, near faultless. You seem to lose yourself in the music as it winds its way around your psyche, leaving indelible marks wherever it touches. The keyboards have a definitive 70’s timbre to them and Schendel bounds around behind them like some mad professor at times. Babb is as energized as ever as his bass drives things along. Aaron Raulston sits behind his drum kit like an immovable force as he anchors the whole shebang in place. The twin voices of Groves and Bogdanowicz are in storyteller mode as they take you though the complexities in a precise and contemplative manner. Guiding it all, like a conductor, is Shikoh’s meticulous guitar playing, leading the complicated instrumental runs and firing off precise licks when required. Lost in a labyrinth from which you do not require rescue, this intelligent and fastidious song almost leaves you transfixed with the band’s superb musicianship.
2010’s ‘If’ saw the band turn to a more ‘symphonic-progressive rock’ sound and If the Stars was one of my favourite tracks from the album, the 2015 rendition certainly does the original justice, if not improving on it a little in a live setting. The gentle keyboards and soaring guitar open the track and your mind with their sincerity and honesty. A beautiful live version of the song flowers with the opening vocal lines. The emotive feel of the music hits you deep in your soul, it is when it is delivered like this that you see the lasting appeal of live music like this. You couldn’t feel the grace and beauty of Carl and Susie’s vocals from a studio recording, it literally does awaken in a live setting. The power and empathy of the music is almost tangible and you can see what it means to the band when they are performing it in front of an audience. Sat here watching it is really awe-inspiring and you can begin to see why music can be considered imperative and essential in people’s lives, healing the soul and delivering joy and inspiration. Damn, I’ve got something in my eye again……
Too soon the ninety minutes has come to a close and the first strains of the closing track can be heard. Time Marches On is from the band’s second ever studio album ‘Perelandra’, a concept album inspired by C.S.Lewis, released in 1995. Dynamic and vivacious, the introduction builds the song up in a quite unequivocable manner. Precise and deliberate, the guitar dominates the track with a mesmerising sway. Superb musicians are allowed to show their proficiency on this quite memorable song. There is an 80’s feel in parts to the track, especially the stylish keyboards and funky bass playing, this is Glass Hammer turning it up to 11 with no studio constraints and the ability to just enjoy themselves to the full. Just look at the band’s faces, you can see they are having a hell of a time and this is evident in the joy and delight that comes across in the performance. You just wouldn’t get this freedom in a studio release, this is the heart and soul of the band and the music given vent and freedom of expression, enjoy it while you can!
Putting it simply (don’t laugh) ‘Double Live’ has broken the mould for me. Never a big fan of live albums, this release is a joyous rendition of all that’s good about Glass Hammer. The intricacies, the intrigue and sheer emotion of the band’s music let loose in a live setting and it is damn near flawless. A purchase that I must recommend highly, in my opinion, you won’t regret it!
“I really don’t think in the past. I sit down with many friends at dinner, and they like to talk about the good old days. I’m respectful of the good old days, but I find myself spending very little time reminiscing. I’m really looking forward.” – David Bren.
Through numerous conversations, discussions and mild arguments on social media this last month, I have come to see this as indicative of my view on the music industry and, particularly, the progressive genre.
I wrote a few words about this, agreed, in the heat of the moment and, despite them mellowing somewhat over the last week or two, this was the gist of it:
“My dear friends if we always keep looking over our shoulders at what has gone before then there will be no future for the music. Yes, enjoy the greats of the past but please invest some of your precious time and hard-earned money in some of the smaller artists who are producing the here and the now and, more than that even, the future……”
True, some of these modern artists would not even be writing and performing their music if it wasn’t for the influence of the leviathans of the past and we should respect them for that and for what they are producing now but, we really need to concentrate on the present for this genre (and many others, I would imagine, but I’m concentrating on my favourite!) to flourish and not disappear into the musical ether.
I hope, in some little way, that by concentrating on the independent artists and small labels that I can contribute to widening the general music fan’s consciousness when it comes to the new music that they produce and release.
To that extent I, once again, delve into the musical treasure trove to find some wonderment for your delectation and, this time, it is Syracuse, NY band Unified Past who get ‘Progradared’ (so to speak!).
I have been a long time fan of this excellent group of musicians ever since reviewing their last release ‘Spots’ for Lady Obscure Music Magazine and I was very excited when, earlier this year, guitarist Stephen Speelman first informed me that they had a new album coming out, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’, in the autumn.
Unified Past is a power progressive rock band from Syracuse, New York. ‘Shifting the Equilibrium’ is the band’s 7th release and their third for MelodicRevolution Records. The CD is a 6 panel digi pack containing a 12 page booklet of lyrics and photos, designed by international fantasy artist Ed Unitsky, who also designed “Spots” in 2013.
The band consists of Stephen Speelman (guitars, keys, vocals), Dave Mickelson (bass) and Victor Tassone (drums and percussion). For this new release they were joined by grammy award winning vocalist Phil Naro, showing that the band is continuing to grow and evolve and that they are a band that prog rock fans should really get to know.
Guitarist Stephen possesses a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, bass player Dave is currently a member of Joey Belladonna’s Chief Big Way and thunderous drummer Victor has appeared on several independent artist releases as well, including Corvus Stone and Andy John Bradford’s Oceans 5.
The album opens with Erasure Principle, a tentative percussion and keys based intro gives way to the thunderous guitar of Stephen Speelman and Victor Tassone’s powerful drumming. This is what you call ‘Power-Prog’ as the heavy riffage continues, surrounded by some rather nice technical elements. When Phil’s voice joins the throng, it gives it a very Rush-like feel, especially with the keyboards driving the song along. Some rather excellent instrumental interludes join together the vocal parts and it is immediately obvious that Naro’s distinctive vocals have added a further dimension to the band’s signature sound. Speelman goes into guitar shredding mode with an excellent solo in the middle of a more laid back interlude, giving a short break, before the flood gates are once again opened and the full force of Unified Past is thrust upon you. Upbeat, effervescent and assured, it opens the album with a purely positive vibe.
A really striking keyboard run, accompanied by another booming riff opens Smile (In the Face of Adversity), Phil repeats the title in a lazy repeated circle and the song seems to tread water before the blue touch paper is lit and off we go on a hectic riff-led journey once more. Excellent little squirreling guitar runs grab your attention and reel you in to join the effusive musical thrill ride. The dense production leading to a wall to wall block of intense sound, staccato, random keyboard parts and sinister guitar breaks give the whole song a moody aura and Phil’s vocal has a slight pleading note to it, appealing to your better side. The catchy chorus is underpinned by the chugging riff that drives the song along at a break-neck pace. The musical breaks haul everything back to a more sedate tempo as the atmosphere takes on an edgy feel. Naro’s intensive vocal delivery will not be to everyone’s taste but I feel that it works perfectly with the solid, forceful musical delivery. An intricate, restless guitar solo adds menace before the song breaks out with the dynamic keyboards and looms ominously above you. Quite a dark hued musical adventure that comes to an enigmatic close, I’ve paid the entrance fee and I am enjoying the ride….
Etched in Stone begins with a nicely subdued acoustic guitar followed by refined keyboards that add a note of distinction to the track. The vocals join in, quite heartfelt and earnest, adding a cultured note. The ‘Power-Prog’ takes a back seat initially but it isn’t long before Tassone’s drumming starts to resonate around the inside of your skull, purposeful and compelling. Speelman’s guitar adds its usual stylish flourishes and you really get to hear the majesty of Dave Mickelson’s fluent bass playing as it lays the foundations for the rest of this enjoyable musical jaunt. Another forceful and energetic riff adds the necessary chops to Phil Naro’s increasingly potent vocal delivery, add all this energizing melodic brilliance to the intricate progressive elements already in the melting pot and you get a wild smorgasbord of harmonious delights. There is no denying the technical artistry of these musicians but it is their ability to write a damn good song that always seems to come to the fore for me, adding the undoubted vocal drama of Phil Naro has really upped their game by quite a large leap.
A highly charged and volatile keyboard and guitar combination launches Peace Remains in This World, a really aggressive and magnetic opening and Phil’s dominant voice carries on the efficacious feel. Touches of Rush and Trevor Rabin era Yes abound to my ears. The lively, electrifying interplay between the keys and guitar that overly some more impressive bass work from Dave Mickelson is a definite highlight as this track takes definitively heavier progressive route. Intricacies and ‘noodly’ bits ramped up to eleven are at the core of the song, a darker and moodier track than those that have gone before. Once again, the superb bass playing anchors the whole sound as the song moves into what is almost a stylish jam session, I get the impression that this would be a killer track live, both for the band and the audience. A really dominant and dense musical experience that leaves its mark on your psyche as it comes to a strident conclusion.
Let’s go on a metaphysical journey, Deviation From a Theme (of Harmonic Origin) sounds very existential and begins with quite a thought provoking, if rather loud, introduction. It is a rather fine instrumental that gets your grey matter working as it careers from place to place with its own destination in mind. An exploration of the deeper parts of humankind’s inner being through music, the smooth segues from intricate and convoluted to smooth and calculated are pin sharp as these musicians deliver their ‘A’ game right on cue. Speelman’s guitar is animated in every sense and punches the song forcefully along with an intense depth of intuition. The polished rhythm section of Tassone and Mickelson seems inspired as they choreograph this great track at ground level. The Rush influences can be heard throughout, like a nod to the greats of the past but they are integrated into Unified Past’s own sound to create something dexterous, eye-opening and quite superb.
The final track on this discerning musical adventure is Today is the Day and sees the band deliver an uplifting close to the album. A euphoric opening dominated by Naro’s vocal leads you gently into the song as the classy music delivers a wonderful hopeful note. Musical sunshine runs across your mind as the track increases in expectancy and emotion. A song full of hope, longing and optimism and all that is inherent in the lyrics that Phil Naro espouses so fervently. This song is more about the spirit and meaning of the lyrics, the musicians seem happy to take a back seat and let the words do the talking, yet they never take their foot of the pedal. The demonstrative bass work and energising fervour of the drums give the verse that added lustre and Speelman’s admirable guitar could almost be singing itself as it comes to life in short virtuoso slots throughout the song. A contemplative, serious instrumental section adds a nice counterpoint to the lighter note of the early part of the track yet it soon sheds that steely eyed demeanor to flare brightly with expectation once more. All good things must come to an end, unfortunately and this auspicious song comes to a triumphant close.
Powerful, energising music that makes you sit up and listen, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’ is most definitely Unified Past’s most impressive release to date. A group of exemplary musicians whose songwriting has reached a new peak, add in the dynamism of Phil Naro’s voice and you have near-perfect ‘Power-Prog’. Will it appeal to veryone? I doubt it but, those that do appreciate this band’s excellent music have really dropped lucky this time, well done chaps!