“We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.” – Milan Kundera
When you have accomplished a lot of things in your life, it is sometimes worth stepping back and taking a retrospective view of what you have achieved. Not to say that what you did in the past was better but, perhaps, to say, “That was where I started, this is where I am now….”
Yes, always looking back can actually be self-defeating but only if you do not progress and use those memories to become bigger and better than what you were originally.
For musicians especially, I think it is great to re-visit some of your earlier music and remember what it was that influenced you originally and how you took those influences to improve on your sound and songwriting.
I am not advocating dragging out the old hits to produce a cash cow for retirement and the new release from Djam Karet is a perfect example. ‘Swamp of Dreams’ is a collection of older tunes that were originally only available as individual tracks on different compilation CDs and fund raiser albums, released between 1990 and 2006.
With this album, their 18th full-length release, Djam Karet are making this long-lost music available again to a much wider audience. The six tracks are sequenced chronologically with each song taking you further back in time. Re-mastered with greater clarity and increased dynamic range, it retains all that is good about the music of Djam Karet, a band who have been making music since 1984.
The first track on this release, Voodoo Chases The Muse is a funky, psychedelic fun-fest that is a musical acid trip for the mind. The driving rhythm section warps your psyche while the excellent, sharp-edged guitar work really strikes a chord. The weird 70’s edge is kept together by some distinctly freaky keyboards and you are left feeling like you are caught in someone’s feverish imagined version of what 70’s music is all about. Stoner Rock? No….. Totally Stoned Rock would be more like it….
The next step back in time is The Shattering Sky, now the band openly state that they make their music with no regard to potential radio play or commercial success and this track is a true testament to that ideal. It starts quite interesting, like a sci-fi soundtrack before some fuzzy guitar blurs the edges. Urgent and edgy, as if it is just about to flee, it gets right into the little nooks and crannys of the deepest parts of your mind. A musical mind control drug maybe as it looms ominously in your consciousness. The second part of the track sees some incredibly flexible bass playing, backed energetic drums which all adds to the psychological drama.
Using our musical TARDIS, we edge back through the years with the equally creepy Pentimento, a track with an utterly otherworldy feel to it. If you told me that this was a song that was intended for use on the soundtrack for 2001 : A Space Odussey, I wouldn’t be surprised. It sits in the back of your mind, influencing your thoughts with tribal-like percussion and convoluted guitars. You never quite feel comfortable with the music, it is like something darkly dangerous, like a fix you know you shouldn’t take but need nonetheless. Let’s just say it is very ‘out there’, the undulating beat and heavy, portentous rhythm are quite hypnotic and trance-like in their execution.
Heading further back through the eons we arrive at New Light On The Dark Age, which begins with a slight note of alien dissonance. Another mysterious journey to the deepest recesses of your inner soul. This is a slow burning, deliberate voyage with sequencer driven rhythms and leaves you holding your breath, your heart hammering in your chest as you wonder what awaits around the next corner. With an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Krautrock and Stoner Rock, it opens up into a much more composed mind-set, as if the destination is more paradise than hell-hole.
With the musical treadmill still in reverse Inventions of the Monsters begins with a feel of being lost in a prehistoric jungle, surrounded by fabulous, incredible creatures that you only thought existed in your mind. It is a hesitant, ominous atmosphere, as if you are the alien and your surroundings are foreign to you. You feel at a disadvantage, uncertain as the brooding music washes over you. As you step cautiously through the menacing synthesised sounds, a huge sense of foreboding descends upon you. I let out a nervous laugh when the sound of cat emerges from the speakers and it doesn’t sound like a happy feline either. This song is spine chillingly spooky in deliciously eerie manner, don’t turn the lights out whatever you do, I did warn you…..
Our travails in the H.G Wells time machine reach their end with the title track Swamp of Dreams and it feels like a nostalgic track, mysterious, supernatural and uncanny. I’m sure this so-called ‘Time Machine’ has dropped us bang in the middle of an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’, are we now Number 6 ? Unique and quite single minded, it really does have a feel of something totally experimental before it opens up into a funky 80’s style instrumental with jangling guitars, spaced-out synths and one of the best basslines you’ll hear in many a year. It has a more sparse, natural feel to it than the previous tracks, perhaps due to it being the earliest track on the album and yet it is still distinctly Djam Karet with the wailing guitar solo and analog synthesisers and is a fine way to close this retrospective.
I have been a fan of Djam Karet for a while now, their deeply felt commitment and uncompromising vision do not make for music that will appeal to everyone and, to be honest, they don’t care. Their critical acclaim and long time cult following prefer this ‘in your face’ attitude and I’d include myself in that. What they do is make brilliant, spaced-out, psychedelic music that could only come from Djam Karet and ‘Swamp of Dreams’ is a perfect example of their skill and flair. Take the inflexible and obstinate route and you may find that you’ll love it too!
2015 has been a retrospective year for Opeth. Their 25th anniversary tour was celebrated by adding a full performance of the 2005 album ‘Ghost Reveries’ in addition to their regular ‘Pale Communion’ set and the year closes out with a deluxe remixed reissue of their classic albums ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Damnation’.
Two albums that were recorded during the same sessions and intended for release together, but their record label at the time (Music For Nations) split them up and issued them 6 months apart. This reissue fixes that mistake and the new mixes from Steven Wilson (‘Damnation’) and Bruce Soord (‘Deliverance’) offer up a fresh perspective on this material, which was so important to the evolution of the band and what they’ve been able to accomplish in the ensuing years.
The creation of this double album was far from a painless process however…
Opeth was coming off their breakthrough release ‘Blackwater Park’, an album that finally opened the doors to the US market so expectations were very high. Mikael Akerfeldt remarks in the liner notes: “I remember that even though I was determined to write the heaviest record to date, I kept coming up with these beautiful snippets of acoustic music. It was disturbing. My muse wasn’t cooperating. Where’s the fucking metal?”
Mikael’s best friend Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) suggested that the answer was to record two albums; one heavy, one softer. Mikael latched onto the idea immediately but their record label took some convincing. The only way the label would agree to a double album was if the record only counted as a single release against their contract and if they recorded it in the same amount of time and on the same budget as a single release.
Despite only having three completed songs ready and a month to record the entire project, Mikael dove into writing and recording on the fly, often staying up all night writing and then recording the next day. To add to the stress of the situation, the first studio they booked was not well maintained and frequent equipment breakdowns quickly put them behind schedule.
They soldiered on, changed studios and completed recording of the basic tracks, but Mikael was utterly exhausted and called on his friend Steven Wilson (who had co-produced ‘Blackwater Park’) to assist them with finishing the project. Wilson would help to put the finishing touches on the ‘Deliverance’ half and then him and Mikael worked together to craft ‘Damnation’.
Steven contributed keyboards and backing vocals for both albums in addition to writing the lyrics for the song Death Whispered A Lullaby.
“Deliverance was always meant to be a dark and heavy record. I can’t remember why I wanted it to be, to be honest. At the time of writing the songs, I wasn’t listening to any music like that. I only played soft singer/songwriter stuff or progressive rock.
I can’t remember listening to any extreme forms of metal at all. In retrospect, I think I might have been afraid of losing touch with the form of music that had shaped the band in the first place.” – Mikael Akerfeldt
Based on the finished result, any fears Mikael may have had about losing touch with their heavy side were utterly unfounded. ‘Deliverance’ is one of their heaviest and most intense records; probably made even more so by the stressful circumstances that birthed it. It’s the perfect mirror image to ‘Damnation’; the stylistic breadth of Opeth’s ‘from a whisper to a scream’ approach on full display.
‘Deliverance’ is a fairly uncompromising listen for the most part, but it also contains many moments of beauty and progressive rock sophistication. A Fair Judgment is my personal favorite track from these sessions, a multi-layered epic that begins with Steven Wilson’s plaintive solo piano intro and then ebbs and flows in dramatic intensity for the remaining 9 minutes. Mikael sticks to his clean voice throughout (at this stage getting more assured with each album) and the song also features some fine guitar solos and a nice doomy outro.
The title track deserves special mention as well as it’s arguably the best prog-metal arrangement in their discography. If I could only pick one song to demonstrate their breadth of sound it would be this one. Military-precision death metal and delicate acoustic passages flow effortlessly into one another creating dramatic tension and release throughout the 13 ½ minute composition. The wonderfully hypnotic repeated rhythmic figure during the ending segment is thrilling, I can think of few bands that could pull it off. It may be a cliché but this song is definitely a jaw-dropper.
Bruce Soord’s meaty remix of the album really brings out the dynamics of the original recording and is quite different in character to the original mix. The most noticeable difference is in the drums and the low end. Bruce removed the triggered “clicks” on the kick drums that were omnipresent during that era and that suddenly allows the bottom end to breathe, the kicks now push massive amounts of air. The original mix had very little low-end definition, now it will rattle the rafters.
He has also used a wider stereo spread and more three-dimensional positioning of the vocal tracks and lead and acoustic guitar parts, giving the entire album increased depth and presence. While it’s still a fairly compressed sounding recording this version is a dramatic overall improvement and sounds fantastic in the 24bit/96khz stereo mix on the DVD. It can be cranked loudly with no discernable distortion.
“Damnation” is a happier memory, even if it really shouldn’t be, as its writing and recording was almost equally difficult. I guess it was a more interesting album to make, since the music/direction/everything else about Opeth was moving and progressing in actual real time. In the same pace as the music was created. Quite odd, when you think about it now.” – Mikael Akerfeldt
It’s going to sound like hyperbole but I honestly believe ‘Damnation’ is one of the most unique and beautiful albums of the past decade. Opening track Windowpane was my first exposure to Opeth and it just sounded utterly timeless and classic from that very first listen. It’s not often that I hear a single song that starts an obsession, but that’s exactly what happened in this case.
‘Damnation’ is 44 minutes of melodic progressive rock perfection, one that acknowledges Mikael’s many musical influences while still sounding unmistakably like Opeth. The band responds brilliantly to the new challenges introduced by these arrangements and each member puts in a career-best performance. Special mention goes to Martin Mendez (bass) and Martin Lopez (drums) for their deft rhythm section work, I can think of few metal bands that could so convincingly alternate from the delicate swing of a track like To Rid The Disease to the full-on metallic assault of Master’s Apprentices.
Steven Wilson provides an array of classic prog keyboard sounds to the recording and would inspire Mikael to expand Opeth’s lineup to feature a full-time keyboardist from this point forward.
Steven Wilson’s remix stays true to the character of his original mix from 2002 while bringing out even more depth and detail to the intricate arrangements. It’s not quite as dramatic of an improvement as ‘Deliverance’, but ‘Damnation’ was a good sounding album to begin with; now it sounds phenomenal. It’s an essential upgrade.
Being able to experience both of these albums together, as they were intended, really helps illustrate what an important stylistic step they were for the band. ‘Damnation’ allowed Mikael to fully explore his progressive rock side without being restricted by stylistic concerns and that freedom carried onto his writing on subsequent albums. ‘Deliverance’ would simultaneously close one chapter of their career (the 4-piece lineup) while pointing toward the expanded creative direction they would follow on ‘Ghost Reveries’, ‘Watershed’ and beyond.
For a deeper understanding of this material and the circumstances surrounding the recording sessions I highly recommend picking up the DVD set ‘Lamentations’.It features a documentary film made during the recording of the albums with interviews of the band and Steven Wilson. The concert recording features 2 sets, the first set including the entire ‘Damnation’ album and the second set featuring tracks from ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Blackwater’ Park. The concert was filmed at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003.
We welcome another new face the massed ranks of Progradar guest reviewers, please say hello to Kevin Thompson and his review of Thieves’ Kitchen.
We used to have a saying when I was in the RAF, never volunteer for anything. So here I am, having volunteered to review ‘The Clockwork Universe’ by Thieves’ Kitchen.
Thieves’ Kitchen are a band based in Swindon and Stockholm,who have been making progressive music since 1999. Their creative core is vocalist Amy Darby, guitarist Phil Mercy and keyboard player Thomas Johnson. They welcome a new bassist to the team, Johan Brand of Swedish progressive rock legends Änglagård, for this latest album.
Joining them on this release are friends and previous collaborators: flautist Anna Holmgren (of Änglagård) and drummer Paul Mallyon (formerly of SanguineHum) . The album was written and recorded in England and Sweden, and mixed and mastered by Rob Aubrey at Aubitt Studios (IQ, Asia, Big Big Train).
This is their Sixth release, having recorded five critically acclaimed albums previously, of which I must confess, have not heard any.
The band’s sound has elements of Canterbury, Folk, Fusion, Symphonic, Jazz, and Rock, producing music which, whilst adventurous, retains a familiarity. Melodic and intricate, blending both English and Swedish flavours.
The band say this is an album exploring the human experience of a complex world and these are songs about people whose experience brings them into contact with a universe of science and learning, whether as a child (Prodigy), a neglected spouse (The Scientist’s Wife), young lovers (Library Song) or as a bystander confronted with the inexorable progress of industrialisation (Railway Time). There are also two instrumental arrangements (Astrolabe and Orrery) .
Before we drill down to the ‘Nitty Gritty’ of individual tracks, can I just state this is my first ever full review of an album, for any publication and for me it is a trial by fire as, on first listen, it was not to my taste and, despite further consideration, not all the tracks float my boat. So I will try to be as objective and unbiased as possible in this review, remember this is only my opinion.
Track 1 – Library Song: Opens with some mournful guitar and slow Jazz style keyboards that increase in pace, ushering in the vocals of Amy Darby. The backing arrangement increases in complexity and I profess to enjoying some of the guitar work, and there is plenty of Steely Dan type keyboards leading to a climatic finale, but overall this it does not leave a mark on my register. I would have liked to have heard a little more excitement in the vocals as they seem too laid back and drag the track down and not the best introduction to an album.
Track 2 – Railway Time: Relaxed Keyboard intro,quickly increasing to a funky 70’s style Rock tempo, reminiscent in my mind of Rod Argent. Amy’s vocals seem better suited to this track. There is a short pleasant flute interlude which then weaves into the mix, along with the subject matter pushing this toward Big Big Train territory, which also seem to reflect in the lyrics. I also prefer the keyboard arrangements on this, to those on Library Song which, along with a flautist flourish, bring the second track to a close. I have grown to like this track more with each listen.
Track 3 – Astrolabe: The first of two instrumentals on the album and one of my favourite tracks. This has a beautiful piano which is joined by some rather nice complementary guitar. Poignant and delightful, the length giving it the feel of an interlude, which I would have liked to have lasted a little longer.
Track 4 – Prodigy: A rocky, Hammond organ style start to this which eases off to a flowing melody, once again introducing the flute which adds a touch of ‘Englishness’ to the song along with Folk and Canterbury scene elements. Amy’s vocal range is expanded a little more on this, making an entrance a third of the way through the track, but again not to my taste. The lyrics and keyboards seem quite reflective of earlier Genesis in places with this track coming to quite an abrupt end. There are parts of this that appeal, but not the sum of the whole.
Track 5 – The Scientist’s Wife: A more memorable, looping keyboard lead-in, dancing with Hammond and guitar to a good rhythm. Again some of the guitar solo flourishes sound rather good. This is the longest track and changes tempo after the first few minutes with some nice, Steve Hackett/ Anthony Phillips gentle style guitar slowing it down, to be accompanied by Amy’s floating vocals which seem more in keeping with the majority of the music on this track.
The vocal harmonising adds a more pleasant contrast and once more the flute solos play a part, lifting the track. This is one that appears to have a memorable chorus that sticks in my head a little, unfortunately the vocals on the chorus seem to echo what I don’t like in Amy’s voice, though I find it difficult to pinpoint.
Two thirds of the way through and the track rocks out a little more, the guitar and drums being let off the leash for an instrumental passage with the short interspersed vocal from Amy. It all quietens down to varied types of keyboards blended together and then the vocals return. The flute enters with some nice string arrangements and keys, to ease us into a gentle finish. Again, parts of this I like, but not the whole.
Track 6 – Orrery: Simple piano notes and what sounds like the ticking of an old clock are joined by the flute and guitar for the start of the second instrumental, and final, track of the album. (The title of this is the name given to working Solar System models). String arrangements are introduced giving it an airy feel as if watching birds in flight and is an excellent way to close, I only wish it was longer.
In summary there are tracks on ‘The Clockwork Universe’ that I would happily listen to again and some I would not. Competent musicianship flows throughout and the professionalism of the the band cannot be faulted. Amy has a relaxed, gentle vocal style along the lines of Joni Mitchell, but it doesn’t excite me and, in places, niggles. But then, I am not one to listen to Joni on a regular basis either. For me the two shorter, instrumentals with their, wistful arrangements are the best tracks and I would have been happy to hear more along these lines.
After releasing the excellent ‘One Among the Many’ (2010) and the superlative ‘The World is a Game’ (2012), expectations are rightly high for ‘Delusion Rain’, the fifth studio album from Canadian band Mystery. In the intervening years, ex-Yes front man Benoît David, lead vocalist since 1999, made the difficult decision to step down and take a break from music after touring with the band in 2013 (captured on the wonderful live recording ‘Tales from the Netherlands’). His replacement for this new release, Jean Pageau, first joined the band on tour in 2014 before heading to the studio to work on the new album.
Pageau is an absolutely inspired replacement and instantly brings a voice which is more authoritative, pronounced and assured whilst capable of the same sweeping range and delicate nuanced subtleties. Indeed, it is precisely the sensitive responsiveness of his voice which makes him a perfect fit for the unmistakable Mystery ‘sound’, bringing extra depth and expressiveness whilst also pushing the boundaries further to create the most expansive vocal orchestrations and layered harmonies which swiftly become a trademark feature of this new release.
Pageau’s distinctive infusion seems to bring a new lease of life to band leader Michel St-Père who, supported on guitars by Sylvain Moineau, finds much greater freedom to mirror his vocalist’s assertiveness in providing a strong bedrock of power chords mixed with acoustic cadences whilst at the same time innovating through soaring and melancholic riffs which are as magical and as forceful as they are fleeting.
Yet ‘Delusion Rain’ also brings much more clarity and depth to the musicianship than is apparent in previous releases, due primarily to St-Père’s excellent production. Benoit Dupuis on keyboards is allowed to provide a rich and enhancing atmosphere within which both vocals and guitars are nested, the sound sumptuous, enveloping without ever becoming suffocating. François Fournier on bass is superb and for the very first time we can really hear a dynamism and a bite which supplies an extra and most welcome dimension to the recording. Jean-Sébastien Goyette on drums is a strong and driving heartbeat which pulses throughout each track, keeping things fresh with changing tempos and some lovely teasing cymbal work whilst always ensuring a disciplined and at times dramatic mastery that keeps the band true to the themes and the lyrics.
The album also sees contributions from Antoine Michaud (Monochrome Seasons), touring guitarist with the band, and Sylvain Descoteaux (Huis) on piano. Add into the mix Pageau’s ephemeral flute playing on A Song for You (Track 6) and some occasional keyboards as well and you get the sense that ‘Delusion Rain’ marks quite a significant point in the history and development of the band where they finally have the pieces in place to be able to push on and really do full justice to the adventurous musical project that is Mystery.
As such this album excels in two respects. On the one the hand, it consolidates, tightens and defines the signature sound of the band, and does so with style and panache. The first three tracks, Delusion Rain, If You See Her and The Last Glass of Wine are beautifully refined statements of musical intent and it is easy to see these quickly becoming audience favourites on any set-list. The music is rich, lush, sweeping in scope and embracing in the way it engages the listener. There are anthemic choruses and soulful refrains combined with lyrical intensity.
On the other hand, the final three tracks show us the true promise of what Mystery can become. The band have always been at their very best when the focus is on extended song-writing, telling stories through their music and producing the kind of epic ballads which are a wonderful showcase for both their exceptional talents as well as their innovative creativity.
‘One Among the Living’ gave us the fabulous Through Different Eyes, weighing in at a spectacular 20+ minutes and pushing the boundaries of scintillating and adventurous musical creativity. ‘The World is a Game’ gave us Another Day, 19 minutes of complex and hugely enjoyable instrumental invention and inspiration.
‘Delusion Rain’ suddenly comes alive with The Willow Tree (Track 4), 20 minutes of utterly spectacular writing which transports you through changing musical landscapes and shifting emotional horizons to reach creative heights that are wonderful and exhausting. Wall Street King extends this incredible vision, increasing the intensity, adding layers of forcefulness but at around the 4.30 mark releasing it all in staggering waves of glorious guitar work. A Song For You brings the album to a pulsating close, the instrumental work fabulously delivering a rousing and climactic finale which leaves you wanting more and yearning with anticipation for what the next release will hopefully bring.
This album has certainly been well worth the wait. In particular, what Mystery have achieved here is something highly significant: they have simultaneously consolidated and confirmed their excellence in musical skill, virtuosity and lyrical brilliance whilst at the same time pushing much further than in any other previous release the scope and ambition of the band’s musical vision and reach.
‘Delusion Rain’ gives us a tantalising taste of genuinely cutting edge progressive music from a band who are willing to create, innovate and really push the boundaries of what they want to do and where they want to take us as a result. In the process, they may have created a rod for their own backs by setting the bar even higher for the next instalment on this wonderful journey.
“From Classical tales of Jason and Odysseus to cinema blockbusters via Norse sagas, Hesse and Tolkien, the ‘Hero’s Quest’ is a staple of mythology and literature. A voyage of self-discovery A Rite of Passage.”
So says the bandcamp page of Gordon Midgely’s solo project. He and NathanTillet form Napiers Bone’s whose two albums ‘The Wistman Tales’ and ‘Tregeagles Choice’ are also freely available on bandcamp. The pros and cons of an artist giving their music away is not what we are here to discuss but I must say it is a brave strategy for two aspiring talents.
To the Album then; a truly ambitious project in its intent to capture in one album the essentials of the classical rite of passage story in music. Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ spans 15 hours yet this album condenses the mythological concept of the heroes quest in under 45 minutes. I tried listening to this album piece meal in the car and also as a single chunk, giving it the attention any music reviewer should give to an album.
It plays like a film sound track and its very hard to disconnect the individual sections of music. In the main, it is instrumental with vocals, as and when required, for accompaniment. Weaknesses, in the main, are not in the actual composition but in the delivery and production.
The drums sit high in Like Circe’s Feast and Out of the Wilderness and fill the rest of the soundscape out, making it difficult to really listen to the actually excellent guitar and retro keyboard work on show (yes, Mellotron). I am assuming this is a technological issue rather than anything else.
The music, without actually sounding anything like it, makes me think of Bo Hanssen’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ album in the textures and feelings it emotes.
There are bits I really enjoy, like Ronin, which I can only assume to be a nod to Japanese free fighters who are only loyal to any cause they choose. In this case, the companion to our hero. The track exudes the potential for violence constantly restrained but sometimes out of control. We follow the journey of our hero, his dalliances with love, and the inevitable Nemesis as it comes to the final battle and resolution (no spoilers).
The music comes from all sorts of influences, I hear 60s psychedelia ‘Berlin School Electronica Prog’ from all eras and some cracking rock music.
The final track The End of the Beginning is by far the best piece of the album and showcases the real potential waiting to burst free from this guy’s mind. My only criticism really, apart from what I said earlier, is that there is not enough here. I would have liked to have heard all the sections explored in the same way as Ronin and the End Of the Beginning.
As a freebie you cannot turn this down. Gordon, I think you missed a trick by not doing a pay what you want tag on the album. I reckon you should download this, light a couple of candles, put the head phones on, with a glass of whatever your fancy and let the music wash over you! A 45 minute cleansing of the soul. While you are at it, look for the Napier’s Bones material!!!
If they gave out awards for most ambitious debut albums of the year then Earthside would be the clear winner for 2015. ‘A Dream In Static’, the audacious debut of this Connecticut prog metal quartet was recorded over a two and a half year period, on three different continents.
To ensure they attained the production sound they wanted they travelled to Sweden and worked with renowned engineers Jens Bogren (Opeth, Katatonia) and David Castillo (Opeth, Bloodbath). Another frequent Opeth collaborator, artist Travis Smith was brought in to design the artwork. The passion evident in the overall project carries over into the music.
‘A Dream In Static’ is evenly split between instrumental cuts and songs that feature the guest vocalists. The risk of featuring multiple vocalists on any project is sometimes the identity can get lost from track to track, but Earthside (mostly) avoids this pitfall with a unified compositional focus that perfectly ties the pieces together into a whole.
The opening instrumental piece The Closest I’ve Come begins the album by introducing us to the character of the core group before the other layers are applied. Their sound is striking; very modern, muscular, melodic and intricately arranged. A lovely looped guitar melody cascades over a synth backing and a driving beat before the rest of band enters. Unlike many prog metal bands the focus here is not on pyrotechnics, it’s creating a mood, an experience. The arrangement continues to build with each section, dynamics always carefully applied; quiet and then soaring, delicate and then aggressive, tension and release. After a lovely guitar solo the song quiets down into a soundscape, synth sounds and real percussion swirling together in the aether before crushing Meshuggah-style guitar chords lead back into the arrangement. It’s dramatic music to be sure, but they’re natural dramatics, not the oft-contrived variety.
The group describes their music as “Cinematic Rock” and nowhere is this more evident than on Entering The Light. The song features guest soloist Max ZT on hammer dulcimer and he creates a lovely wash of sound that intermingles perfectly with the full orchestra. The contribution to this piece by the band is mostly confined to the mid-section bridge. It definitely has a soundtrack quality to it, if I close my eyes while listening I picture low flying helicopter shots of a frozen tundra or some such…exactly the type of reaction I’m sure the band was hoping for.
The most impressive composition on the album is the mid-album centerpiece Skyline. This intricate instrumental has a breathtaking arrangement, the complex layering of piano, synth, 8-string rhythm guitar and soaring melodic lead guitar in the opening sections create a massive enveloping sound. This is contrasted beautifully by a stark bridge featuring just piano and drums, before slowly building into the epic conclusion.
Of the vocal tracks on the album my favorite is the driving title track A Dream InStatic featuring Daniel Tompkins from Tesseract. The dramatic balance of melodic and aggressive from the instrumental compositions carry over to the vocal arrangements and the impressive vocal range of Tompkins is used to great effect. There is a Katatonia vibe to this song that also appears in other places on the album.
The lead single from the album is actually the only track that doesn’t really work for me. Mob Mentality is more akin to the symphonic metal style and I have to be honest and admit that isn’t really my cup o’ tea usually. The arrangement of the orchestra and the band is very nicely done and has a huge cohesive sound. Guest vocalist Lajon Witherspoon’s (Sevendust) R&B-flavored vocals also provide an interesting contrast as usually these types of arrangements go for the operatic approach. But as a whole the song just doesn’t quite gel in my opinion and it also goes on far too long with too many repetitions of the chorus. The band is actually underused here, this song is practically screaming out for an instrumental mid-section but it never materializes. While a nice attempt, this is the one track that feels out of place with the rest of the album.
The rest of the album fares better with the aggressive instrumental TheUngrounding and the album closing epic Contemplation Of The Beautiful featuring Eric Zirlinger (Face The King) being my other favorites.
Color me impressed. Despite my love of progressive rock and my love of good heavy metal I can’t say I’m usually that much of a Prog Metal fan. There are a few exceptions, but mostly the combination just doesn’t quite work for me. I’m very glad to have found another exception.
Earthside has crafted an impressive work with ‘A Dream In Static’, one that could prove difficult to surpass with their sophomore effort. But I’m laying odds they can top it.
There is a place in music for everything. There is a place for quiet and contemplative and a place for upbeat and energetic. Heartwarming and heartbreaking can be found in every listener’s record collection. I mean, even the blasted wasteland of thrash and death metal will float quite a few people’s boats somewhere.
Yes, as individuals we can shut ourselves off from what we dislike to concentrate on the music that resonates and innovates our souls but, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone, somewhere who really appreciates that which we do not. Yes, even chart music, the anodyne, tasteless blurb that blasts out from shopping centres all across the world, even that has its place, much as it pains me to say it.
As a music reviewer I try to cover a hell of a lot of bases and keep my musical tastes varied and relatively indiscriminate. I like the beauty and soul that emanates from a lot of progressive music but, then again, I also like the hard hitting and innovative too. And, sometimes, I just like to listen to something that blows my bloody socks off and tries to remove what little hair I have left.
One artist whose music resonates with me for its power and deep down raw energy is John Bassett. English multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and producer John hails from Hastings in Sussex. He first came to my notice as the driving force behind the Progressive Rock band Kingbathmat who are well known for their style of prog that combines cutting vocal melodies with sledgehammer riffs and psychedelia.
As well as the eight albums he has released with the band, John also released a brilliant, acoustic based, solo album ‘Unearth’ last year but, it is John’s other solo instrumental project, Arcade Messiah, that is the centre of attention for this review.
The first, self-titled, Arcade Messiah album was released last year to wide acclamation. I penned these words about it, “Dark, bleak and full of despair it may be but, when it is this good, that pales into insignificance as one of the UK’s premier progressive musicians re-invents himself with assured aplomb once again.”
It was also bloody monstrous, a huge tapestry of immense musical brilliance and John is just about to release the follow up to the album, imaginatively titled ‘Arcade Messiah II’.
John was surprised by the success of the first album and that spurred him on to record the follow up, hopefully bigger, better and more refined but without losing the edginess of the first release.
Produced and recorded by him in his studio in Hastings, it has quite a lot to live up to…..
John has gone to the unusual lengths of releasing the download for 99p but, it is the CD version that I review here. This includes a near nineteen minute cover of The Four Horsemen by Aphrodite’s Child. There is absolutely no way I was missing out on that!
First things first, the artwork, absolutely stunning and carrying on the style first encountered on the debut Arcade Messiah release.
The main album is eight tracks of near-perfect instrumental hard rock with an infinite depth to it. Opener Moon Signal is a perfect marker for what is to follow with its restrained opening, the resonant guitar sound of John Bassett instantly recognisable. When the thunderous riffs and almighty drums kick in, it is enough to knock you back a step or to, immensely powerful and not for the faint-hearted. You feel yourself surfing on a huge wave of sonic dominance and you know you will fall off the wave eventually so enjoy the ride while you can. There is no let up to the ferocity of the precisely engineered music and it is highly addictive, please approach with caution. Red Widow carries on in a similar vein, this time with a menacing background aura to it. Compelling and commanding, it has a real heavy metal riff running throughout it, a sound that is granite hard as it hits you from all sides. Believe me when I say it is like a beautiful aural assault and one that you cannot back down from. It is like staring into an endless, limitless abyss and still jumping in with no safety line, obsessively habit-forming.
Taking the mysterious route, Black Dice Maze opens up with an enigmatic guitar note, lighter, lithe and agile. It is almost hypnotic in the way that its featherlight tendrils touch your synapses, leaving you in a calm and collected mood. The complete antithesis to what has gone before it would seem but, wait, all is not as you would presume it to be and another monstrous riff kicks in and drags you along in its wake. The mercilessly incessant drums and quick fire licks hook you in and steal your soul as this roller coaster ride of instrumental inventiveness carries you away on an influx of musical torque only to leave you exhausted on some metaphorical shore. Will there be time to catch your breath? It would appear so as the gentle undulating calmness of the guitar introduces Gallows Way, an altogether much more serene proposition. A tranquil and harmonious contrast to the intense maelstrom that has preceded it. At three minutes, a relatively short but perfectly placed respite and one that allows you to collect your thoughts before moving on to more of the dangerously addictive towering musical force that is Arcade Messiah.
Fourth Quarter strides confidently into the room on the back of a coruscating guitar and stylish drum beat. Almost like a mind control drug, you find yourself focusing on that astringent guitar note as it overwhelms your very being. A guitar-led break impacts with even more of the bleak, barren grace that radiates from this track. Reminiscent of a post-nuclear landscape that has been scorched and left with a naked and raw beauty, this song really impacts on your soul. Just over one minute of refined, statuesque refinement, Via Occulta packs a lot of intent and meaning into a very short timescale, I just wish it was longer.
By the time you reach the sixth track, you are comfortably ensconced in the metaphorical musical seat that John Bassett has provided for you. Read The Sky is another intensely acute listening experience that washes over you as if you were a gravel shoreline being assaulted by rolling Atlantic breakers. Meticulously created riffs from another planet hit you from every angle leaving you a laughing, maniacal wreck, the experience is vivid as your synapses reverberate with the brilliantly vivid soundscapes created by this innovative musician. Almost like a meditative come-down, the introduction to Start Missing Everybody is an esoteric opposite to the general atmosphere with a guitar note that feels like Ennio Morricone could have invented it. Hold your horses though, the thunderous musical train is on the track and coming your way with no brakes, the final run out of the song pulverising your senses before it comes to an abrupt close.
So, onto the CD bonus track and the cover of The Four Horsemen by Aphrodite’sChild. Perhaps with more of a feel of KingBathmat to it, it is quite an impressive musical odyssey. Mesmerising guitars and dynamic drums and bass combine to deliver one of the best tracks of the year. You really do get lost in the striking grandeur of the music, a wide-ranging vista of imposing melodic inspiration and sagacity and one that takes over your world for the nineteen minutes of its duration.
‘Arcade Messiah II’ takes all that was good with the first album and enhances by taking the raw, coruscating energy of the first release and developing it into a superb sound that, while holding nothing back, is full of nuances and intelligence. A ‘Wall of Sound’ that makes Phil Spector’s look like a diminutive picket fence and it is quite possibly the best thing this highly talented musician has ever produced.
Heraclitus is famously alleged to have said that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes, everything is in the process of change, nothing remains the same and nothing lasts. This is true of the universe as much as it is true of human life. And for 75 gloriously intense minutes Thomas Thielen gives us a masterful, insightful and quite profound philosophical musical poem to both the exasperations as well as the joys of what it means to be alive.
‘Fragmentropy’ is about moments, episodes, dipping your toe again and again into the coursing, vibrant, inevitably chaotic river of life. It is a force we barely understand, are carried along in its swirls, eddies and currents to a destination we know not where. Along the way we discover joy and sorrow, we find and are found, we love, are loved, are parted from love and have it ripped from us.
We fight, we struggle, we laugh, we delight; in our search for meaning we mistake the profound for the mundane and the mundane for the profound. It is not easy being human; it is a struggle. At nearly 3 years in the making, ‘Fragmentropy’ eloquently captures it all and captures it quite brilliantly.
That we are dealing with the same river is beyond doubt. This is an album which naturally flows (sic) from T’s hugely powerful 2012 musical commentary ‘Psychoanorexia’ where the spotlight is firmly fixed on the mediocrity of modern life. The ability to appreciate and savour the depths and the heights of what life has to offer us is sacrificed on the altar of celebrating the shallow, the bland, the ordinary and the common place.
‘Fragmentropy’ is much more adventurous, more daring, more challenging. By the time we dip our toes in the waters again, T has taken several steps further and invites us to understand that there are bigger questions with which we need to grapple. In the process of answering these questions, this album is at its revealing best. It is full of wondrous mystery and restless curiosity; in many respects the music represents the simple open-minded attitude of the inquisitive child facing the universe and asking ‘why?’ again and again, wanting to know but never satisfied with the responses received.
At the same time T lays down a strong scientific thread (again following on from ‘Psychoanorexia’). His poem is in three parts; Anisotropic Dances(Chapter One), The Politics of Entropy (Chapter Two) and The Art of Double Binding (Chapter Three). Each chapter is a toe dipped in the water, musical soundings which struggle to reveal the patterns which shape our lives. The album is a question, or rather, an on-going set of questions which invite you into a conversation with the ideas and the feelings being evoked and painted on the musical canvas before you.
As such what quickly becomes clear is this could only be the work of a single artist and never a band; there is a unified vision directing the musical currents and eddies, a mind which brings with it determination, a quiet but assured confidence which shines through again and again in music which is laden with an abundance of attitude, with spirit which briefly enjoys the settled symphonic and melodic present but which quickly dissipates into a discordant wrestling with the troubled moments life brings.
Caught up in it all are the most wonderful and sublime textures: musical textures, intellectual textures, emotional textures all fused and seamlessly intermingling into a beautiful tapestry of sound. In this respect ‘Fragmentropy’ is a stunning pinnacle of intelligent creative musical achievement. Thielen has always been an innovator, both enjoying as well as experimenting with music and sound. He understands, like few others, that they are not the same and yet their partnership is vital. From ‘Naive’ (2002) through ‘Voices’ (2006), ‘Anti-Matter Poetry’ (2010) and ‘Psychoanorexia’ (2013) he has been consistently building unique musical spaces.
These albums aren’t simply about the sounds the instruments make, even though he single-handedly plays everything you hear. It is about combining musical creativity with instrumental technique; it is about how to blend sounds, how to arrange music, how to record it, mix it, produce it and ultimately how to use these as part of the musical experience itself.
Everything you hear is mixed, engineered, recorded and produced by T. These ‘tools’ are no less instruments than those he plays. What ‘Fragmentropy’ finally shows us is what happens when the musical project finally comes together, slots into place and delivers an album which is stunning in its vision, exemplary in its delivery and phenomenal in capturing the momentary fragmented songs of human living.
And what amazing songs they are too. The attention to detail is mesmerising; spend some time with the lyrics alone to see the passionate intensity and sculpted finesse of poetic vignettes, nuanced allusions and literary breadcrumbs housing piercing observations and sentiments. Then listen carefully to the way these are integrated into each track.
It is not just a voice which carries and delivers the full range of human emotion, clear echoes and strains of Bowie (and maybe Hogarth) in soulful enunciation one minute, driving and biting the next; it is also the way the voice itself is used as a texture and blended into the movement of each track.
For example, check out time points circa 9.50 of Brand New Mornings (Track 2), 4.57 in Entanglement (Track 4) and 5.30 in Eigenstates (Track 5). These are (momentous) states of transition from dissonant passages that are full of storm and fury to tranquil calm and soothing peacefulness. The contrasts are disarming and the effect much like the rays of the sun emerging from behind the clouds.
And yet each transition itself is a fragment in a series of fragments which highlights the themes of the album generally. The keyboard work, particularly the piano, is a presence which infuses everything, sometimes in the centre ground of melodic symphonies, sometimes a lone voice against a curtain of silence, sometimes a faint echo peeking through layered guitar work.
The drumming is quite brilliant in the range of tones and techniques which are employed, dominant and almost overpowering one minute, subtle, coy almost submissive the next. The bass is lovely; undulating, driving, menacing but never intrusive or demanding of attention. It is the current which moves the river along, the pigment at the heart of the textures.
Guitars are bewildering in the way they weave the plot and tell the story; so much intensity cascading away into magical riffs, in turn falling into the background, drawing breath and building again. There is so much going on here it is impossible to take it all in or properly appreciate at times the sheer genius at work in its orchestration.
Special mention must also go to Katia Tangian’s incredible photography which is startling, challenging and poignant. Take time to compare the cover from ‘Psychoanorexia’ and the transition to the cover of ‘Fragmentropy’. Life mirrors art; the covers are perfect foils for the themes contained within. They are themselves another stimulating layer to add to the textures of musical experience.
Don’t be surprised if you do not understand what you encounter when you first hear this album. Don’t be surprised if you are still scratching your head after the second, third and maybe even the fourth listen either. It is not ‘easy listening’, nor, given what has gone into its composition, should you expect it to be. Good things come to those who persevere and this hidden gem is no exception. It demands attention, asks for your time, expects your effort and invites your curiosity.
I fervently urge anyone who listens not to give up on it. Wrestle with it, engage with it, join the conversation and undertake the voyage which is being offered to you. Each time you play it you certainly will not step into the same river twice. It will open itself up to you again and again and again. And when it does, my goodness: take a deep, deep breath and cry out in delight because it really is an absolute treat.
“Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear, and superstition….” – Bernard Beckett.
“It’s not so much the journey that’s important; as is the way that we treat those we encounter and those around us, along the way.” – Jeremy Aldana.
To me, the beauty of music is the way it can tell a story, heartwarming or heartbreaking, it doesn’t matter. The best albums take you on a musical and spiritual journey, one that will, hopefully, leave you in a better place than when you started.
The journey isn’t always easy, there will be highs and lows, moments of sheer ecstasy and moments of utter despair. It is becoming a rare ability to write and perform songs that can move you emotionally and make a difference to your life and I spend most of my days searching for that scarce and rarefied commodity.
Recently I was the lucky recipient of the latest album from the esteemed Scottish progressive band Comedy of Errors and it promised to be one of those rare beasts, a work of music that would be challenging yet profound and, ultimately, life affirming.
‘Spirit’ is the band’s most musically ambitious album so far, representing a major step forward in the band’s development, dealing with themes of grief, loss and ultimately, hope. The cornerstone of the album is a 45 minute unbroken piece taking the form of an emotional journey at once personal and universal, despairing and uplifting.
After a long absence from the scene, Comedy of Errors re-formed in 2010 and have been busy increasing their profile since then through gigging at venues in the UK and Europe and appearing on the bill at several UK prog festivals. They are excited and delighted to add the United States to the growing list following an invitation from the organizers to play at Rosfest 2016.
They have also released 3 albums during that time, their first album effectively being ‘Disobey’ (2011) followed by ‘Fanfare and Fantasy’ (2013) and their most recent album ‘Spirit’ released in October 2015.
Based near Glasgow, Scotland, Comedy of Errors are Joe Cairney (Vocals), John Fitzgerald (Bass), Bruce Levick (Drums), Jim Johnston (Keyboards), Sam McCulloch (Guitar) and Mark Spalding (Guitar).
Joe, Jim and Mark were in a former incarnation of the band some years ago where they gigged extensively and released various demos during that period. When they disbanded Jim kept on working on revising songs and writing new music before getting the band back together in 2010.
The main track, Spirit, has been divided into multiple tracks but, as the CD booklet says:
“…..these divisions and titles are arbitrary; the ‘song’ is in fact one long single unbroken piece of music best listened to in its entirety from beginning to end.”
For the sake of the review I am going to follow the band’s ‘arbitrary’ subdivisions….
You’re God and You let me down, My grief lies all within….
The opening to My Grief Lies All Within is almost revelatory, the keyboards waking you from a stupor before the rest of the band arrive with a cacophony of guitar heavy staccato notes. There then follows a more pensive section, thought provoking, before Joe’s immediately recognisable vocal takes up the tale. The track takes on a choral feel with the harmonies and organ like keyboards, the bass and drums delivering an even handed tempo. Emotive and stirring, Joe Cairney’s voice is the centrepiece around which everything is grounded. There seems a sadness deep at the core of this powerful song, a poignancy that pervades the melancholy guitar solo that runs out the track.
Playing with our hopes we bow to you, in helpless, hapless, hopeless despair….
There is a seamless segue into Infinite Wisdom which is a fast paced, almost frenetic two minutes of sceptical hell or no notion. An anger consumes the vocal and gives a slightly menacing feel to the whole track.
Spirit shines, Undiminished, Like a flower, Gentle, unbreakable….
This quite unique musical experience continues with Spirit Shines/Spirit, a slow burning build up leaving tendrils of warmth enveloping your very soul. There follows an uplifting, feel-good piece of music with a repeated vocal motif that just really ‘gets’ you emotionally and I feel the tears welling up, tears of joy and happiness, as if a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders. Joe’s vocal delivers empathy and succour in equal measure, his compassion and the delicate piano note lift you up and leave your very being re-born.
Uncertainty is the overwhelming mood that is imparted at the beginning of Can This Be Happening/Timeless, anxiety and concern leech from the song. The music is measured one minute and hectic and unsure the next. A maelstrom attacks your aural senses leaving you misdirected and momentary lost, all the moods and emotions imparted by the excellence of the musicians and conducted by Joe’s commanding, theatrical delivery.
We gather together in darkness, While endlessly waiting for answers…
The questions continue with In Darkness Let Me Dwell, we seek the answer to the eternal question of a greater being. A dominating bass line runs throughout this compelling track. Joe’s vocal is both questing and demanding. A profound, complex and intricate song and one that leaves more questions than answers….
Destroyer of Angels, On the wind of your breath, you deal out disaster, Destruction and death.
A reverie of angelic voices opens I Call And Cry To Thee, leaving you somewhat in rapture, a timely pause to allow your soul and senses to catch up with you. A solemnity surrounds everything, a contemplative yet austere tone that is carelessly tossed aside by the compelling, hard-edged riff that overtakes everything, like a musical tsunami. Joe Cairney’s challenging vocal then takes over, still demanding of the heavenly entity, leaving a melancholia surrounding proceedings.
Set your spirit free….
A calm reflectiveness descends as Set Your Spirit Free/Goodbye My Love Until We Meet Again begins. An ethereal, wistful instrumental that plucks at the heart strings with a feeling of letting go, a finality of slightly sorrowful bereavement.
Spirit shines, like a flower, Gentle, unbreakable.
A very moving introduction, fateful and momentous holds your attention as Ascension/Et Resurrexit/Auferstehen – Arise In Love Sublime, Arise – Spirit builds into something utterly sublime, The organ note from the keyboards transfixes you with its celestial grace and then Joe repeats the refrain from Spirit Shines, inspirational and incredibly moving. A spiritual and refined experience that fills your heart with love and compassion.
Rise again, oh rise again in everlasting love…..
Another perfect transition and Into The Light continues the uplifting atmosphere. The transition from despair, grief and loss to hope and joy is nearly complete. The vocals lead us with the realisation that we shouldn’t question the greater powers, where there is death, there will always be love and happiness, our is not to reason why. The joyous music is an outpouring of both grief and delight and lifts up your soul to greater heights.
The Time and distance disappear, beyond the rooftops twilight urban glow..
The final segment of this epic journey is Above The Hills and is as full of hope and longing as the earlier tracks were of anguish and despondency. Joe’s mercurial voice leads the whole band in a jubilant celebration of life and of death. A nostalgic note creeps into his voice, a hint of sadness but with a thoughtful edge. The culmination of an eventful journey though life, love, despair and happiness, that these superb musicians can impart this whole gamut of emotions through their music is testament to their songwriting skill and musicianship.
Part 2 ‘Epilogue
This Is How It Has To Be is a brilliant instrumental where the skills of the musicians come to the fore. The drums and bass provide the backbone on which the rest of the instruments can rely. A demonstrative guitar guides you through the rest of the track, ably abetted by the delightful keyboards. A reflective musical trip that really gets you thinking, the change into a Mike Oldfield style second half is clever and gives the song a second lease of life. A livelier, shanty style that really gets your foot tapping, quite ingenious.
The closing track on this particular copy is the Spirit (single) and it is a worthy addition to the album bringing back all sorts of emotions as you hear Joe singing that fantastic refrain once more, a quite sublime song with a superb guitar solo.
Do you believe music has soul? I do and, when it is as deeply involving and emotionally uplifting (and draining to be honest!) as this, it becomes life affirming in many ways. All the songs were written by Jim Johnston but I’m sure even he would agree that they are given life by the whole of Comedy of Errors. A contender for album of the year and one that should be gracing everybody’s music collection, just brilliant.
‘Time’, it’s a strange thing. Undetectable without relying on specialist intervention – slow motion or time lapse cameras show us its effect, mirrors reflect the effect it has on us. Time is both measure and measured, we slice it up and record its passing, yet time is the single most important concept we have. Without it, there is no ‘now’ and no ‘future’ or ‘past’.
If someone in the future invents a time machine and travels back, we would know it, wouldn’t we? They’d stop wars, point humanity on the right path to prevent destruction of the planet, encourage us to support the exploration of outer space, reveal the evil of reality TV etc.
If there is such a machine and such people were taking requests, then I think Spock’s Beard need to borrow that time machine to go back and meet their earlier selves.
The one thing they need to communicate, without putting the future of the universe at risk with causality and paradox, is they should seriously think about changing their name. No matter how good they are as musicians, no matter how epic their epic tracks are, the name conjures up all the wrong associations. Geek chic it ain’t…
Twenty years of Spock’s Beard. To me, they are part of the “new wave” of Prog, post Genesis, and post Twelfth Night et al. They write long, epic tracks and started as they meant to go on with complex multi-part tracks that are polished and assembled on this chronological trip.
The first piece by them I’d heard, from a cover mount free CD was At the End ofThe Day and it wormed its way into my consciousness. I went on a voyage of discovery, picking up second hand copies of their albums, then deluxe first editions as they were released. I didn’t realise but SB and it’s off shoots, side projects and affiliates take up a large chunk of my modern Prog pile. The tentacles spread out, from Transatlantic to Roine Stolt’s Flower Kings to NealMorse’s solo work to some bunch of internet sprout wranglers; the Beard has links to it all.
Yet they are not mentioned in the same pages that eulogise Mr Wilson, fawn at the uttering’s of lesser talents with better haircuts. But they deserve their place in such company.
They write record and perform long, complex pieces; they can rock out with the best, with an instantly identifiable sound. It is a broad pallet of sound – vocal harmonies, kicking brass section, attacking keyboards, and guitars too, underpinned by some severe drumming talent.
In many ways, Spock’s Beard are the quintessential American Prog band. Musically adept, lyrically optimistic, almost slavish attention to detail. There is a lot going on in these tracks, almost too much at times: This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is evident in the tracks that start this CD.
The younger version of SB, fronted by a scarily long haired version of Neal Morse, seemed to want to be taken seriously, very seriously. Every track is a constructed of multiple parts, instrumental breaks and moments of sublime beauty. The Guitar and keyboard coda of the track in question still makes me stop and hold my breath.
The cynical amongst us may deride SB as Genesis wannabe’s as there are striking similarities between the evolution of both bands.
Both bands produced complex, multi part tracks across their first albums.
Both bands “lost” their original vocalists and replaced them with the incumbent drummer stepping up to the front.
Both vocalists departed leaving, as their swansong, complex double concept albums in their wake.
Both bands then changed to a more direct, full on direction and reaped the benefit of commercial success.
But here our stories diverge, as SB then floundered with a mid career fallow patch ( to me, “Feel Euphoria” was a band in a holding pattern) .They then rediscovered their Prog Mojo with “ Octane” , the opening 7 part concept sees them at their best ,describing a car accident from the POV of the driver. The sheer beauty of his life unfurling is a testament to the collective ability of the ensemble in that it skates close to cloying sentimentality. But the combination of words and music convey the love of life and of hope in the face of adversity which reflects the lyrical obsessions of Mr Morse and the spiritual quest that pulled him away from the band.
One part of this epic, my favourite post Morse SB piece, is here in burnished re-mastered glory.
She Is Everything is one of Prog’s great love songs. A song that makes you want to share the joy of this experience, the lyrical content is crafted around a tune that comes straight out of the classic pop tunes book. It’s a love song that in a few short verses leaves you fully understanding the depth of feeling conveyed, but without getting caught up in sentimentality.
I mentioned earlier Neal Morse’s swansong, “Snow”, my favourite SB album.
It’s that most “Prog” thing, a concept album detailing the life of Snow, an albino loner with a psychic ability. He grows up in the Midwest, move to New York, undergoes an epiphany , uses his powers for good, falls in love with the wrong girl, ends up fulfilling his prophetic vision of his future ( see, time again! ) then gets saved by his friends.
Mixing Christian myth, Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and taking the good from every concept album ever written, bits of ‘Tommy’, ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Wall’ & Bowie and Roeg’s ‘The Man who fell to Earth’ all are thrown into the pot. There are bits that Yes would be proud of, Marillion would recognise and ELP would tap their feet to. In short, it is the quintessential Prog Rock concept album.
But if that all sounds clichéd, it succeeds on the strength of the music. It ebbs and flows beautifully, from a gentle acoustic representation of Snow’s innocent childhood to the depravity of the cess pit of New York to the pain of unrequited love through the depths of despondency and out on the wings of hope and love.
The tune selected for here, The Wind At My Back is the centre of the piece, appearing twice at the climax of both discs. Its harmonies and themes run all through the album and serves as a fitting memorial to Mr Morse’s tenure as vocalist.
If this Collection has done nothing else, it’s made me dig out my SB CD’s, and go looking to fill the gaps in my collection.
X, represented by The Jaws of Heaven seems a return to the more Prog rock version of SB than the previous albums, with this track highlighting the keyboard strengths of the band. There’s a whole raft of sounds – Mellotron, piano, strings, brass all flowing together and complimenting Nick D’Virgilio’s fine vocals.
Over the two discs of this compilation we have witnesses the young Prog overachievers throw everything into the mix, then slow down, give us vocal harmonies, fine melodies and songs, become increasingly adventurous with their lyrical subjects which culminated in an epic modern fable. Then the singer quits and their drummer takes over.
The band move onto new terrain, ploughing a rockier landscaper, but still sowing the seeds of Prog, they start to really find their musical point in the cosmos with a trio of albums…
And then they lose another front man! NDV jumps tracks and we all know which train he’s hitched his wagon to!
It’s starting to read like a Prog Spinal Tap here, without the gardening joke, but nothing is going to slow the progress of the Beard. If you’ve lost a front man, not a problem: steal (or borrow, though do you have to give him back?) one from another band.
Enter Ted Leonard from US Prog metal band, Enchant. Now I had a couple of Enchant CD’s once. They didn’t survive the great CD purge. They were nice, inoffensive formulaic Prog Metal. Too twiddly for me to be honest, the downfall of Dream Theater in my humble opinion. I go for the Miles Davis approach. Play one note instead of ten as long as it’s the right note.
Jump to 2013 and the release of “Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep”. And it sounds like the old SB, back to their proggy best. The track chosen here, Waiting for Me features the SB “sound”, vocal harmonies and glorious melody, a superb production as we have come to expect. This track shows how far the band has travelled but they’ve still retained their core spirit. They use keyboards to complement the guitar as did Deep Purple before the departure of Mr Blackmore. Drums are high in the mix, but unlike Metallica , SB have a world class percussionist who drives the songs forward rather than running alongside trying to grab the steering wheel.
The penultimate track is the first track on their most recent album. Criticisms have been levelled at the band for moving away from their sound, but, on the evidence of this track, the 2015 SB is rolling on nicely, with some great guitar and keyboard touches. The Deep Purple comparison is very evident with the Hammond being prominent, but to me, this is a good move as that classic sound of guitar, Hammond, bass and drums drives the song onward.
And so, gentle reader, we reach the track that most Beard heads will be forking out for. A track that promises all 3 front men together (well appearing on the same song). And we start with gentle piano and strings, then a very Early Yes like rhythm and sound.
It’s Very Yes like. The Proper Yes. Roger Dean Artwork Yes.
There’s a nice instrumental section, with all working together to create a melange of melody. Guitars are edgy and the metal influences are there, but the big Prog chords and drums keep them firmly in their place.
The music swells and slows, we are anticipating vocals as the rhythm changes and we get acoustic guitar a drum then a voice.
More voices, it’s no longer a song of parts as the song moves through a very folksy part with at least 2 different voices singing parts, then we switch moods again and a third, much more rock voice appears.
I’m enjoying the interplay of instruments and voices on this first listen, I’m not too focused on the lyrics as they flow with the tune and I’m more interested in the structure first, lyrics second.
This is possibly a result of continued exposure to bands singing in languages I’m not conversant in ( i.e. everything except English) but as I get older and the reading of lyrics stops being feasible due to CD sized fonts and ole eyes, I find it easier to concentrate on the whole thing.
Well, it’s a Spock’s Beard epic track. Lots of glorious vocal harmony. Glasses full of guitar and keyboards. There are fine performances from all 3 singers.
As you would expect, their voices complement each other, the sound is one that SB have perfected. It’s a compliment to them that time flies by as you listen. The track allows them to do what they do best.
Listening again (the third time) this track reminded me of another band. It opens as if it’s from those dextrous players on a cosmic adventure, Utopia, circa 1973 when Todd Rundgren was in full cosmic flow, expanding his (and our) consciousnesses.
The more I listen, the more the track strikes me as a statement of where American Prog is today. Think of a line drawn from Utopia, through Kansas, up across the Boston Guitar Mountains to the Glass Hammer lakes, there you will find a dam built by these eager beavers of Prog. All that music is held back and they tap it off into these epics.
There’s even a drum solo hidden in there and leads us on to an extended instrumental piece that ties all the different SB threads together. Guitars weave as the tempo increases, the keyboards are fighting for their place in the sun, the interplay between them and the drums is pure SB and all the more welcome for that. I can see this going down a storm live, with the big solo closing piece giving the lighting designer a chance to stun the watchers as the closing lyric wafts over the rapturous audience.
If you’ve never dabbled in the world of Spock’s Beard, then this compilation is a fine way to start. Chronological and logical, it gives a true flavour of the band. Personally, I’ would have included live tracks as that’s when the interplay between them as musicians really comes into play.
Also, I’d have chosen different tracks. I would have included Devil’s Got MyThroat from “Snow” which is as noisy and rocking as the title suggests. I’d feature more from “Day for Night” and “V”, but then they were the first SB CD’s I owed.
At the price this is floating around for, it’s a great summary of a great American Prog band.
They will never be out there on the edge, pushing the envelope of Prog, but if you want songs, actual tunes you can hum or even sing along to, then dip you toes in the Beard’s world. It’s a rather fine place to spend an evening or two with a glass of good wine.