Review – Sills & Smith – Echoes In Time – by Progradar

“Douglas Adams got it wrong, ’42’ is not the meaning of life (the universe and everything), no, the meaning of life is music…” – Martin Hutchinson

You’ve read my reviews before, most of the time I search for an inspirational quote about music. How music affects me on a personal level or how music can just make your life worth living and this world we live in a much better place to be.

Well, this time, I came up with the quote all on my own. I honestly feel that my life would be so much poorer without the impact that the music I listen to has on it. Don’t get me wrong, I really cannot connect with chart music but there are those out there that take their daily fill of it and it makes their world better.

I just feel that music that is written from the heart and because of the artists love of music (and not necessarily for commercial gain) has even more power to affect your life and sooth your soul. It transports you temporarily to a world of your own imagination, where you can go to recharge your batteries and let the tiredness of the daily grind wash away.

Well it happened again, this time it was an email from Frank Smith, of Canadian artists Sills & Smith, asking me if I would like to have a listen to their music with a view to reviewing their last release ‘Echoes In Time’, which came out at the end of 2015.

I duly did and you may have gathered, by the simple fact that I am writing this review now, that I really liked it enough to want to explore more.

Sills & Smith, led by Ottawa singer-songwriters Jeremy Sills and Frank Smith, has independently released five studio albums of music that boldly blend and bend elements of folk, alternative rock, progressive rock, with hints of blues and jazz. The new album ‘Echoes In Time’ features 13 powerful, melodic original songs; the boldest Sills & Smith musical adventure to date.

‘Echoes in Time’ features a stellar cast of players, with the core group: Frank Smith (words/music, vocals); Jeremy Sills (music, vocals, acoustic guitars, piano, trumpet); Phillip Victor Bova (recording engineer/producer, electric and acoustic bass) and T. Bruce Wittet (drums/percussion). Brilliant supporting musicians include: Kevin Breit – electric guitars and mandolin, Blair Michael Hogan – electric guitars, Roddy Ellias – electric guitar, Jim McDowell – organs, Don Wallace – electric guitars, Tara Holloway – vocals and Linsey Wellman – saxophone.

Grace Smith designed the beautiful, four panel digipak CD edition of the album. 

The opening track We Are Receiving is a delicate and winsome beauty. The tender guitar and plaintive trumpet give the song a beautiful fragility, a gossamer thin veil that is pierced by the low down vocal of the verse. The harmonised chorus is a study in refinement and the use of the polished mandolin is genius. It’s almost like an upmarket folk song and really leaves me feeling relaxed and in a state of wonderful reflection, utterly delightful. Altogether more serious and contemplative, Slicing Up The Clouds is sombre and melancholy in feel with mournful vocals and an almost funereal rhythm from the drums and the bass. There’s a darkly delicious undertone to the track, one that drags you into the dreamscape unable to resist. There is an overriding opaqueness to this song, a tenebrous feeling of walking down an unlit path, not knowing what is to come. The guitars have a real abrasiveness to them, insinuating themselves into your psyche and, as the song comes to its menacing close, I can’t help but feel slightly chilled and scared. The Chalice/The Blade is a really laid back song with some tranquil and serene vocals that are matched by the carefree and breezy guitar that runs throughout this enchanting track. This is music that is happy to just tread water, no particular place to go and no rush to get there, Calming and relaxing, you are invited to unwind and let yourself go. Sunny days and warm nights are what come to mind, a nostalgic look to the past when life seemed so easy. The guitar playing is brilliant, almost free-form and jazzy, leaving little notes of sophistication hanging in the air and the repeated chorus accentuates the aura of serene sophistication.

The first thing that grabs you on One Step Behind is the incredibly emotive saxophone, the playing is just superb. There is a barely kept feeling that all is well to the outside world but, underneath, all could come crashing down. The wistful guitar and melancholy vocal have an ageless feel to them, a story long in the telling perhaps, and they keep your attention rapt on this pensive and thoughtful track. As it comes to a close I am left with the loudness of silence. That slightly disconsolate musing is carried over to They Don’t Come Knocking, another incredibly deep track that begs your understanding. The slow pace and deliberate vocal just add incredible amounts of meaning and the achingly elegant guitar speaks of decades of questioning and inquisition. There is no happiness here, just an eternal grace and fortitude. The Cimmerian shade is lifted slightly by the upbeat tempo of Reverberations with its 50’s sounding twanging guitars. The lyrics have a real feeling of Americana to them and I really find myself getting drawn into the stark joy that emanates from this song. There’s almost a feel of a more serious R.E.M (if that is even possible!) to this track, a grown up humour that underpins everything, keeping it in check.

Hillbilly blues with a hint of jazz? Well, that’s about the best way I can describe the oddball delights of I Was Really Something, a song that has a real tongue in cheek irreverent humour running smack down the middle of it. The organ playing really gives it an almost vaudevillian tempo and vibe, it’s like Twin Peaks meets The Rocky Horror Show with a Gothic twist and I really like it, the vocals are great and the guitar just seems to have a mind of its own. The humour seems to take a back seat but that 50’s aura doesn’t leave. Echoes takes the impudence and wit of the B52s and covers it in lashing of black humour, especially that really catchy organ sound. The vocals are serious and monotone, giving gravitas but I can’t help smiling. The ability of Sills & Smith to effortlessly switch between sounds and genres is mightily impressive. Now onto the superb, dark hues of the bluesy The News. Again that slightly unreal ‘Twin Peaks’ feel persists, as if things aren’t quite what you think they are, the edgy, humourless vocal giving nothing away. What really stands out on this track is the outlandishly guitar playing, like blues on steroids and it gives the song a sort of modern western/mariachi soundtrack to it, added to the haunting organ note, it really is something. This is a track that I like to play with the lights right down low and at full volume, it is quite disconcerting but wondrously so and would grace any Tarantino film as it takes you into a world of modern fantasy. Listen right to the end and you will even hear the guitar go all Carlos Santana on you, utterly mesmerising.

Time to go all R&B on us now, After The Smoke Clears is a really nice track with some great guitar playing and a captivating vocal. Clever, insightful lyrics delivered with heartfelt feeling give it some real class and the music has a real 80’s George Benson undertone with the wah-wah pedal working overtime. A lament to things lost but delivered with panache and flair. A folk song at heart, Is The Mirror Reflecting You ? has a really solemn vocal and pared back instrumentals that give it an austere dignity. Time seems to stand still as this refined track carries on its serene journey. The humble vocals and subtle music have an intangible depth to them and this song leaves your heart open and raw with feeling. The Sacred Valley has a noble grace to it, the pure and uncomplicated music and restrained vocal give an overall pastoral tone to the song. There is something to be said for uncomplicated music that wears its heart on its sleeve, what you see is what you get and this elegant track is exactly that. The simple sentiment that is at the heart of everything is one we can all relate to and this lovely piece of music will put everyone in touch with their innermost self. This intense and fascinating musical journey is brought to a close by Pick Me Up With A Song, a country/folk track that has hints of Dylan to it in the vocal and guitar. Simple, dignified and with a message that we can all take to heart, this song just seemed to have a calming effect on me and left me composed, relaxed and in a place I was exceedingly happy to be.

Wherever you look, you will always find music that captivates and intrigues. We now live in a world where superb music is the norm rather than the exception but some music will always stand out from the crowd, even if it is a rather impressive crowd. The musical capabilities of Sills & Smith are such that ‘Echoes In Time’ isn’t just a really good album, it is a great one and one that I must heartily recommend to any lover of great music and excellent songwriting.

Released 10th November 2016

Buy ‘Echoes In Time’ from bandcamp





Review – Les Penning – Belerion – by Kevin Thompson


As a boy, for most of us, the way into music at school was by learning the recorder, wooden for the posh lads and plastic for the rest of us, although I did eventually get a wooden one. A class full of fumbling fingers covering various holes on the instrument (keep it clean please), to produce a range of notes that the music teacher desperately tried to knit together into some semblance of a tune. It has to be said that no one I know mastered the recorder whilst at school and took it up professionally. On leaving the establishment, mine was confined to a box along with my slide rule, action man and trigonometry books to eventually find their way to a table at the local jumble sale.

As a teenager listening to the music of Mike Oldfield was a real eye opener and seemed mind blowing that someone could play so many instruments. There were of course guests of renowned proficiency sometimes invited to appear, one of these being Les Penning on recorder for the album ‘Ommadawn’ and hit singles In Dulce Jubilo and Portsmouth. And yet, in my glib tender youth, it was easy to overlook the contributions of those around him and focus purely on Mr Oldfield’s creativity.

And so it has been until recently when multi-instrumentalist and all round nice guy Rob Reed recorded his self penned homage to the music style of Mike Oldfield, ‘Sanctuary’, and follow up ‘Sanctuary II’, with Les guesting on the latter. Now older, and I like to think a little wiser, I am more inclined to investigate music I like in depth and appreciate all the musicians involved. To this end I now find I have the pleasure of reviewing Les’ album ‘Belerion’, who’s gestation during the Oldfield years has only now come to fruition, thanks to the wonderful Mr Reed and contributions of former ELO2 singer/guitarist, Phil Bates.

Here’s the homework bit: Belerion is an ancient name given to Cornwall that has been translated as meaning “Shining Land” as well as “Seat of Storms”, both quite apt descriptions of the area. The photo on the cover, if I’m not mistaken (I’m sure someone will be quick to correct me if I am), is of  Boscawen-un Stone Circle, just west of Penzance and before my head explodes with new found knowledge let us proceed to the album. Ladies and Gentlemen pray take your partners and places for the merry dance that is Belerion.


Opening with a gentler version than Mike Oldfield’s, of the traditional tune Portsmouth, we are  transported to the glorious English coastal fields on a summers day, overlooking Portsdown Hill to the Solent beyond with birds swooping and soaring to a backdrop of blue waters topped with the froth of white horsetail waves. You’ll find nothing so brash as heavy bass or thundering drums with screaming guitar riffs in this musical world. Instead we are enchanted with the delights of the Bodhran, Crumhorn and Loriman pipe among the instruments used.

St Clement’s Isle is a small rocky islet once the home to an ancient hermit and lies just offshore of the harbour wall to Mousehole (pronounced “Mowzel”) one of Cornwall’s most picturesque hamlets.  It is also the title of the first original tune penned by Les on the album. It’s impossible to separate the tunes from the background stories as they weave such wonderful pictures in your head and whilst they hark back to an earlier, more innocent age they have a timeless air.

All of the tunes on the album are very pleasing, including foot tapper Nobody’s Jig, taken from a dancing manual first published by John Playford in 1651 and containing the music and instructions for English Country Dances.

The gentle refrains of Easter 84 will have you happily strolling along a country lane, with the warmth of the sun on your neck, marveling at mother Natures’ beauty. A fitting contribution in memory of a friend.

It’s impossible not to think of Oldfield’s earlier work and Rob Reed‘s music (hardly surprising as he contributes to this album) but this is to no detriment as Belerion neatly stitches them all together like golden thread weaved into a musical coat of many colours.

Look lively Gents, to your partners for Selinger’s Round, a twisting little folk dance. Spin the Ladies round and watch as their skirts twirl to the music. Also known as The Begining of the World, it’s another foot tapping number.

And yet more brisk fare as we are whisked along to a breezy rendition of the old familiar 17th Century marching song British Grenadiers. A great little interpretation with a rousing climax.

Slow it down to catch your breath as Les leads us through the historical landscape of the renaissance tune Tower Hill, written originally by baroque composer Giles Farnaby.

Dance across The Baskerville Down  with Les to the Baskerville Arms, a hotel where he wrote this little ditty and has sometimes performed.


The album oozes happiness and joy, even The Stones Feel Warm in Belerion, you can lay back on the sun kissed grass watching the clouds float slowly by, whilst listening to this peaceful number dedicated to Les’ friends.

But it’s not all about sunshine and balmy summers’ days, there is warmth to be found for all seasons in our hearts. Gather round the Christmas tree, see the flames rise on the fire as the logs spit and spark. Move the coffee table from the centre of the room, roll up the rug and manoeuvre your loved ones round the space to a jaunty celebration of the traditional Sussex Carol. Quite apt for the time of year.

After your exertions, recline with a fine mulled beverage as you take in the sparkling Bach Minuet, I’ll let you figure out who originally wrote this and who it was for, about time you did some of the homework.

A brief self-penned number from our venerable Pied Piper in Quirk, which squeezes in some strange musical patterns given the short running time, before we reach the ‘epic’ of the album.

Running in at 7:09 minutes, the penultimate Lyme (For Louise) is by far the longest track and is another original piece written by Les. He calls it dream music and if the mention of a military style, marching drum backing makes you think otherwise, trust me it is very soothing and relaxing.

The ribbon round this delightfully wrapped package comes courtesy of  His Rest another dusted off tune of Mr Farnaby’s, to see us out and give Les the chance to put his feet up. He can rest easy in the knowledge he breathes a modern air over the traditional songs which fit smoothly in with his own. You don’t have to be a Folk fan to like this album it is lovely music and can be enjoyed by all without having to don your straw hat and bells, revel in the most excellent musicianship. Maybe I should have practised more at school….

Released 1st December 2016

The 14 track CD is accompanied by a DVD that features an interview with Les where he discusses his career and the period in the mid 1970’s when those famous tracks were made. There are also promo videos for two of the pieces.

Buy ‘Belerion’ here



Tim Bowness To Release New album, Lost In The Ghost Light, In February


Tim Bowness will release his fourth solo album, ‘Lost In The Ghost Light’, through InsideOut on February 17.

A concept album revolving around the onstage and backstage reflections of a fictional classic rock musician in the twilight of his career. Ranging from the hypnotic opener Worlds Of Yesterday to the wistful climax of Distant Summers, via the thrilling rage of Kill The Pain That’s Killing You and the orchestral expanse of You’ll Be The Silence, the album features some stunning solos and harmonically rich compositions that represent Bowness’s most musically ambitious work to date.

Bowness utilises a core band comprising Stephen Bennett (Henry Fool), Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree), Bruce Soord (The Pineapple Thief), Hux Nettermalm (Paatos) and Andrew Booker (Sanguine Hum), and is also joined by guests including Kit Watkins (Happy The Man/Camel), Steve Bingham (No-Man) and the legendary Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull). Andrew Keeling (Robert Fripp/Hilliard Ensemble/Evelyn Glennie) arranges for string quartet and flute on three of the album’s songs.

When I spoke to Tim about the new album a month or so ago,  he said,

“The new album’s just been finished. We’re looking at a mid-February release. In some ways, it is quite a departure. There are lots of flutes on it and due to the nature of ‘the concept’, it’s definitely the most traditionally Progressive album I’ve made. That said, it still sounds a lot like me.”

The album is now available to pre-order from Burning Shed, including an exclusive hand numbered gold vinyl LP + CD limited to 400 copies. All orders will receive a signed artwork postcard.

Review – Patchwork Cacophony – Five of Cups – by Progradar


There’s been a lot of discussion recently about a loss of ‘value’ to music, in the sense that people seem to think that they should be able to listen to it for free, either via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music or by illegally downloading it from the plethora of music sharing websites that haunt the internet.

What hasn’t helped is the fact that now virtually anybody can make an album in their bedroom with a laptop and, unfortunately, virtually all these so called ‘records’ are of very poor quality. To be fair, I’d be a bit hacked off if I’d spent £10 on a piece of music that sounded like caterwauling cats singing over somebody’s guitar lessons but the majority of music is still made over a lengthy period of time by artists who put their heart and soul (plus a not unreasonable sum of money) into creating these musical gems.

To have that devalued by the marketplace as it is now must be heartbreaking, especially when you are a multi-instrumentalist who actually plays virtually all the instruments on a new release, as well as writing all the songs and producing and engineering their works of art.


A message came into Progradar from Ben Bell, the multi-instrumentalist behind Patchwork Cacophony, asking if I’d take a listen to his latest release ‘Five of Cups’. I duly did and was intrigued to find out more…

Ben first came to prominence as the keyboard player, co-composer and producer on Fusion 2 Orchestra‘s acclaimed 2013 album ‘Casting Shadows’. When I started waxing lyrical about his new release on social media, it also came to light that he is the new keyboard player for my favourite cult prog-rock outfit Gandalf’s Fist and this was pointed out to me by my friend (and Fist’s drummer) Stefan Hepe.

He released his debut solo work, ‘Patchwork Cacophony’, independently (and with little fanfare) in 2014 and it immediately garnered glowing reviews for its distinctive take on classic symphonic prog. The trademark multi-layered vocals, effortless mixing of styles and intricate instrumental passages earned him wide-spread praise as a ‘huge talent’.

The follow up album, which I’m reviewing here, ‘Five of Cups’ sees a further development of Patchwork Cacophony‘s sonic identity and Ben also welcomes guest guitarists in Marcus Taylor and veteran live session musician Tim Hall.


The album opens with the four part Fairytale (Parts 1-4) and part 1 is the wonderfully atmospheric instrumental Are You Sitting Comfortably? and then we segue into the breezy and upbeat keyboard heavy progness of Once Upon A Time. We get to hear Ben’s unique vocals for the first time and they fit the classically progressive music perfectly. The musical interplay is excellent and you really wonder how one guy does it on his own! There’s a real polish to the keyboard playing that makes it hugely infectious and I was hooked the first time I heard it. Ben’s skill on all the instruments is very impressive, the rhythm section of the dynamic drums and the funky bass especially. I think I may stumbled upon something special here…We take the instrumental route again with The Wonder Of It All, a wonderfully quirky track that has its own ideas and agenda. Cheerfully buoyant and optimistic, the instruments seem to bounce of each other with reckless abandon and without a care in the world. It is a really refreshing song that puts a spring in your step and Ben’s fingers fly fluently around the keyboards with enough energy and gusto to put even Rick Wakeman to shame! The last part is called Life Is Not A Fairytale and opens with Ben’s rather sombre piano, all the spark and joy of the previous track replaced with a more serious and morose overtone. It is a beautiful tune though and one that almost brings a lump to your throat when the delicate and fragile vocals begin. There’s an almost melancholy edge to Ben’s voice which is emphasised by the graceful notes that emanate from the elegant piano playing. There’s a serious, if thoughtful, message coming from this song and one that we should take notice of, I am left in a deeply reflective frame of mind as this four-part gem comes to a sober and solemn close.

Choices brings back that busy feeling with the energy and dynamism of the opening keyboards and drums that give it an early Yes feel. Quite frantic and yet structured and deliberate, the track opens up with Ben’s precise vocal delivery and takes on a persona not unlike a hyperactive Billy Joel. There is definitely a feeling that Ben has lifted his ambitions on this release and this stylish track is evidence of that. Just check out the infectious Hammond organ that races through the centre of the track, it’s brilliant. Counting Chickens opens with a piano/keyboard combo that brings to mind Changes from Yes, with its catchy and repetitive tempo. It goes on to become a really inventive song with Ben’s signature keyboard virtuosity stamped large all over it. There’s a calmness that falls over the track, a laid back feel before that piano led mantra begins again, addictive and really enjoyable. A great instrumental that I keep returning to again and again.


Like Pink Floyd’s lesser known (but better looking) brother, Maybe strides confidently into the arena on a wave of elegant drums and edgy, funky guitars. This is where Ben takes a step back and lets one of his stellar guests take over and Marcus Taylor really does the business with some superb guitar playing. Ben’s vocal goes up a notch, full of angst and barely concealed anger and it is a great vocal performance. There’s a nice instrumental section that builds up to a rather tasty guitar solo, full of power and emotion, Marcus really reaches the heights on this one. Overall it is a song brimming with energy and disquiet and one that really shows the direction Ben is heading in with its focus and sophistication. A shortish epic at just over nine minutes, Every Day is an immersive and contemplative listen and one that gets the headphones treatment from me, to better enjoy its subtleties. A low down vocal and jazzy instrumentals give it a polished feel, in fact, it is probably the most jazz oriented track on the album with some interesting time signatures and a hesitant pace. Take your foot of the pedal and step of the incessant treadmill of life and let this calm and collected piece of music just wash over you as if you don’t have a care in the world.The middle part of the song is almost like a sci-fi soundtrack, bringing to mind epics such as 2001:A Space Odyssey and the like with its mysterious and cryptic keyboards leading the way before we are treated to synth heaven and Ben gets to show off a little, a really inventive and satisfying track that stays long in the memory.

Chasing Rainbows is a hectic, agitated and frenzied song that really smacks of Ben Folds Five on acid to my ears most of the time. Ben’s vocal has a harder, almost distraught edge and the music is full of nervous energy as it goes from animated note to animated note. A real uptempo and tumultuous jazz-infused track that you seem to feed off and become fevered yourself. There’s a sudden and sharp change of focus and feel half way through where an elegant piano brings order and calm to the chaos and enables you to get your breath back, not for long though as an insistent piano note precedes the return of the tumult, turmoil and barely concealed anger, what a great ‘in your face piece’ of music.


A haunting piano refrain opens the nostalgic and wistful instrumental of From A Spark. Dignified and ornate as if from a bygone era of cultured gentility, the piano leaves tasteful notes on your mind as it weaves its graceful and cultured path through your psyche and leaves its mark on your very soul. Bewitching and captivating, it brings the whole world to a stop for nearly seven minutes to listen and take in its restrained grandeur.

The final song on the album is the masterful splendour of Brand New Day, over twelve minutes of progressive rock that really knows its chops. The opening is all pomp and circumstance with the energetic rhythm section aiding and abetting the compelling keyboards and Tim Hall‘s potent guitar. It opens up into a classic track full of nods to the great progressive tracks of the past. Ben’s vocal is full of intent and gives the song the grounding that lets the instruments take over the show with no need for restraint. There are time changes galore and Ben plays a bewildering number of different instruments throughout this intricately complicated and lengthy work, just sit back and enjoy what is laid before you. You hear little deft homages to the likes of Camel, Yes, Genesis and even IQ as Ben opens up and runs through his full repertoire of talents. Moments of quiet contemplation mix with elaborate instrumental interplays and yet the undoubted talent of this musician never overshadows the music itself. Tim’s guitar is always there waiting to explode into the burning solos that appear towards the end of this mightily impressive song and I am just left feeling very humble and inadequate at the incredible skill and aptitude to be found in Ben Bell.

There is intelligence and a wry humour than runs throughout this remarkable album. Ben Bell has an immense talent and really knows how to put it to good use. Intelligently crafted songs that make you want to listen to them show him to be a great songwriter and what he delivers proves what a notable musician he is as well. In the world of progressive rock a new star is set to rise.

Released 7th November 2016

Buy Five Of Cups’ direct from the artist.

Listen to ‘Five Of Cups’ at bandcamp

Check out Brinkmanship from the first Patchwork Cacophony release: