Review – Kayak – Out Of This World – by John Wenlock-Smith

Growing up , as I did in the fair city of Birmingham, I spent much of my teenage years trawling the city’s many record shops including my favourite, the now long gone, Reddington’s Rare Records, which was a virtual treasure trove of vinyl spread across different shops. The one that appealed to me was the one that sold rock music and I would happily spend hours of a Saturday morning looking through the racks in search of something new and interesting to listen to. Many of those albums are probably like gold dust now and most likely worth a fortune too. One band that I came across frequently was Kayak, who’s then album ‘Royal Bed Bouncer’ from 1975 frequently caught my eye but never enough to actually buy a copy for myself. This was probably a major mistake that I made as getting it on CD now will cost a fair amount.

That was many years ago and now Kayak are just preparing to release their 19th album, ‘Out of This World’ a 15 Track, seventy plus minute, musical voyage into their world of progressive pomp rock that will appeal to many special folks who like pomp rock along the lines of Trillion, Le Roux, Starcastle or even Kansas. This is the area in which Kayak really operate, as this album can clearly testify.

The album has a mixture of shorter songs alongside three longer pieces and also includes one track that is epic in length. The music puts me in mind of Toto at times, such is their sound. The delicate undertones, great vocalist, strong keyboards and guitar solos, put me in mind of Toto’s ‘Hydra’ and ‘Turn Back’ albums especially.

Let us have a listen and see what we can say about this album.

The album opens in style with the first of the longer tracks, Out Of This World, which is a good and strong opener, in that it sets you up for all that is to follow. It starts with some lovely piano ruins and a good guitar riff, all very fluidly played and symphonic sounding with a chugging bass line driving the song along. This is fine symphonic rock with great melodies and performance from all concerned. The vocalist is clear and in good voice, in fact the whole band are on excellent form on this track, especially the guitarist who really rips it up on this song, making a good impression. His playing is melodic and his guitar lines soar in tandem with the keyboards and synthesizers.     

The song is very catchy with some fabulous sections and great guitar too, this is followed by Waiting, which is a shorter song but one that is enlivened by a very fluid guitar line and an almost funky or chunky guitar riff. The track is about desire and waiting for someone to decide. It is very memorable indeed with a fine chorus, stirring stuff indeed. We then move onto the second long track, Under A Scar, which opens with delicate piano lines and some lush keyboard orchestrations. It is all very symphonic sounding before the song moves into a strong instrumental section with keyboards and guitar firing on all cylinders, all very impressive.

Kaja is another shorter song but one that has great guitar on its opening moments. This one is an instrumental and acts as a showcase for the guitar artistry of Marcel Signor who rises to the task fabulously. Next we have the shorter track Mystery which has some fabulous piano playing amongst the symphonic keyboard textures and muscular guitar playing with a strong rhythm section who support and drive the song forwards.

Critical Mass is another longer track which opens mysteriously, like the music from a film like Halloween or similar, before vocals are introduced and more keyboard orchestrations. This is all highly effective indeed, I am really enjoying my initial introduction to Kayak as it is very impressive stuff musically, it is spot on and bodes well for a successful album. This is a very well-crafted record with fabulous songs and performances and the sound is very pleasing to the ear. This is so good that I can see this being on peoples best of lists later this year, there has already been a lot of fabulous music released this year, must be all that time on folks’ hands or something?

As The Crow Flies is next and this has a looping recurring synth line that runs through it. The song is short and possibly one of the weaker songs on the album but it is all over fairly quickly and is followed by The Way She Said Goodbye which is a song about a love that is over and the feelings that remain in the wake of her leaving. This song is handled with much dignity and, whilst sad, is never maudlin and there is some fabulous fretless bass playing on the track.

The energetic Traitors Gate, once again, recalls the power of Toto with its neat interplay of synthesizers and guitar and its muscular power. This track also has a great guitar solo where Marcel gets a few bars to let rip once more making it possibly one of my favourite tracks on the album. Distance To Your Heart follows and sounds like rime ELO of all people but with Kayak’s own take on it and that fabulous vocalist shining once again. It’s not a stand out track and leads into Red Rag To A Bull which is a fine, rockier, track with some excellent synth at the start and some moody orchestrations that build the song. There’s slight Spanish flamenco type sounds and touches with some subtle Spanish guitar flourishes in the mix and a great solo from Marcel once again. This one is a subtle grower of a track that opens out into a majestic song, all impressive indeed.

One By One is a far softer and melancholic type of song, quite maudlin and emotionally moving with its fabulous chorus. There is also a quite dramatic key change that lifts the song from into something much brighter and better. This track is subtle and moving and all the better for it. The drum beat moves it into a bit of an epic singalong type number that would not be out of place an Abba album somehow, magnificent!

The epic of the album, A Writer’s Tale, starts with keyboards and an almost Kashmir type pace to it. The song gives room for some excellent guitar and keyboard playing and lots of space for the music to stretch and grow in intensity and emotional resonance. The piece is a real epic in scope, style, and sound and is utterly fantastic. Next track Cary has more than a whiff of a fisherman’s song or a sailors sea shanty about it . There’s certainly a merry and jolly touch to it making the track almost a singalong number. Unusual and no less impressive, it even manages a guitar solo in its brief tenure, a surprisingly good song.

Album closer Ship Of Theseus has more of that touch of epic Pomp Rock that we have come to enjoy. This song is about a ship that travelled to Theseus in ancient days and recounts its tale of adventure and its exploits. This mini epic ends things in fine symphonic style.

What an album this is, ‘Out Of This World’ really is brim-full of strong songs and fabulous performances and I feel that it has much to offer the listener. I intend to go back into Kayak’s history and listen to some more of their music and discover it for myself because, on the basis of this album, there appears to be much to enjoy and I would highly commend this fabulous album to all.

Released 7th May, 2021

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Out Of This World (lnk.to)

Review – Ciccada – Harvest – by John Wenlock-Smith

Greece is not massively known for its contribution to the world of progressive music. Apart from Vangelis, Aphrodite’s Child and, more recently, Verbal Delirium, most people think of either Zorba the Greek, bouzouki music, Demis Roussos or Nana Mouskouri as Greece’s contribution to modern music. Well, be that is it may, this group are from Greece and this, their third album, has been picked up for distribution with Bad Elephant Music here in the UK and I have to say, I think that BEM have picked a winner here as this is a fabulous album. If one can imagine a cross between Gryphon and Gentle Giant, all with a touch of Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span style folk thrown in, you would not be far off the mark.

This is an album steeped in the Folk tradition but one that also embraces electric instrumentation and progressive flourishes in order to create something that is different and new. All the better it is for those decisions too, the album begins with a very folky song entitled Eniania (which is predominantly used as a girl’s name in Albania) opening with a delicate acoustic guitar motif and some haunting flute flourishes that lead us gently into the vocals that repeat “Eniania” before the rest of the band join in all with a fluid saxophone line being played. This is all exceedingly pleasant and effective, certainly the use of unorthodox instruments makes for a distinctive and impressive sound to the music. This is a lovely song which picks up it’s pace at the 3:20 mark with a more urgent and more muscular pace to the proceedings. The interplay between the sax and the other instruments, including the flute, is very impressive and the guitar plays some wonderful lines in accompaniment. The track then returns to the original melody that opened the song for its closing section, the flute taking up the melody used for the vocals to bring the piece to a climax. This may be gentle, but it is certainly highly effective.

Next is Open Wings which is another gentle, guitar led, piece with more, bass and drums along with excellent folky vocals that sound fabulous, all very breathy but when combined with the guitar and keyboards, they sound most agreeable indeed. The third, and longer track, is The Old Man And The Butterfly, which is another jaunty excursion for this group. The piece opens with acoustic guitar, flute, keyboards and bass before an electric guitar line is introduced which builds in momentum and energy, coming to a peak before returning to more of the mellifluous flute and keyboard. There is a lot happening within this track, a very Pink Floyd type guitar and some excellent musical counterpoints between keyboards guitar that are spectacular sounding. I especially like how the song switches between softer and harder passages and how the guitar player uses different tones in his playing to excellent effect.

No Man’s Land opens strongly with Hammond Organ with a solo guitar line floated over it, all very Floydian sounding indeed. There follows a ‘marching beat’ type sound over which flutes are overlaid with more great bass underpinning the whole sound. The song then steps back to a softer passage with vocals and woodwind, the interaction between the voices is mesmerising and sounds great, as does the guitar that underpins proceedings so fluidly.

The shorter Who’s To Decide opens with a properly funky bass line with flutes playing over the top along with a funky wah-wah guitar part. Along with the breathy, impish vocals, this takes the song far beyond folk and into a far more progressive sound. It’s great to hear the sax and flutes playing away happily whilst the keyboards and synths add their own unique textures. The final section of this piece is brisk and captivating enough for you to realise that this group can all surely play very well and that their compositions are strong and musically interesting. There is much that will appeal to progressive rock fans here and it marks this group as one to watch out for in the coming years. I think this is a fabulous track that really shows the essence of the band off to great effect.

This leads us to the last song on the album, Queen of Wishes, which is also the longest track on the album, coming in at over twelve minutes. This gives the track room to stretch out a little and it is all the better for it too. Proceedings open with oboes and sax to create a very woody sound passage before acoustic guitar and vocals join in. This all sounds very ethereal and spacious in sound, added to by superb keyboards, before some crunchy guitar chords are played over the rest of the music. It is all very atmospheric and appealing with synths and chunky guitar being added whilst an organ plays underneath it all. Once again I have not got a clue what the song is about but it is one to enjoy the sound of and to admire the interplay that is within its structures, really capturing the listeners attention throughout. Its softer and heavier parts are well balanced and realised, there is a lot going on here and it all sounds effective and interesting. We return to the woodwind elements before some more rocky guitar parts and some quick-fire drumming briefly take centre stage. Then a somewhat manic organ solo is played and that fabulous woodwind riff is repeated, a riff that, if I am honest is very appealing indeed. This leads to the final moments of the song where ensemble voices sing beautifully and effectively.

This closes the album is exceptionally fine style and you are left with thinking what the hell have I just listened to? One is left with a sense of satisfaction that a group you have never heard of have made such a remarkable, intriguing album and one that you know you will want to listen to again and again. This album is spectacular and will really grow on you if you make the space for its fabulous songs.

Released 23rd April, 2021

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Harvest | Ciccada (bandcamp.com)

Review – Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet – The Recordings 1969-1975, 6CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

The Rare Bird story is both a cautionary tale and one full of missed opportunities and naivety, for this was a group who showed great talent and promise and yet let it all slip away somehow.

Rare Bird were the first act signed to the fledgling Charisma label that had been set up by Tony Stratton-Smith, who had become fed up with Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records (who his then charges The Nice were signed to). Because of his dissatisfaction he set up his own label to whom he signed Rare Bird, amongst others like Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Monty Python and Vivian Stanshall.

Rare Bird Released their eponymous debut album in 1969 and this yielded an unexpected hit single in the track Sympathy, which reached the top 30 in 1970 and was a hit in Holland, France, and Italy. This is possibly where the problems began as the group completely failed to capitalize on that success and proceeded to continue to trek around the UK circuit when, in fact, they should have been touring the continent.

The single also made inroads into the US Charts with the album being released through an ABC offshoot called Probe although, yet again, we find the band failing, or certainly being failed by their Record Company and Management who had not lined up any shows for them. They did manage to appear at the Agora Ballrooms in Chicago on a bill with Rare Earth, It’s a Beautiful Day and The Grateful Dead. This was a very well received gig, by all accounts but, sadly, further gigs did not materialize and they returned home disillusioned by their sole stateside excursion.

Their second album, ‘As Your Mind Flies By’, was a good album they were busy doing a lots of European TV performances and this reduced their time to work on the album and, as a result, it was rushed and not really as good as it could have been. It does, however, have a monster track in the form of Flight which lasts for 19 minutes (the whole of one side of the album), comprises of 4 Sections and allows lots of room for the keyboard players to really indulge and show their talents and what they could achieve as a band given the opportunity. Sadly the album did not really sell well enough and Charisma lost interest in the group and dropped them from the label. This was obviously a major blow for the band, with the upshot being that Graham Field (Keyboards) and Mark Ashton (Drums) both decided that enough was enough and quit the band.

This left Steve Gould in charge of the group and they changed their direction somewhat reeling back the progressive aspects significantly as most of that influence had come from Graham Fields really and his departure meant and allowed a new direction to emerge.

Graham Field got an offer from CBS and formed his own group Fields with Andrew McCullough and Alan Barry which met with limited success. A second album was recorded but was left unreleased in the CBS Vaults until 2015 when it got a release through Esoteric. Fields then split and Graham semi-retired and wrote TV music for many years.

Mark Ashton also had his own solo career under the name of Headstone and recorded two albums for Trident, with whom he was involved. Trident’s other act was Queen, and we all know what happened with them! Mark is now a painter who lives in the south of France and exhibits his works around the world.

This left Steve Gould and David Kaffinetti (keyboards) to soldier on, which they did successfully (after a fashion), signing to Polydor who released their next three albums, starting with ‘Epic Forest’ in 1972. This album was a lot softer in sound and style, with hints of the US west coast sound, although the title track is an epic song in itself and, in addition, the album was released with a 3 track, 33 RPM, single with the last track You’re Lost clocking in at ten minutes plus. The album is not prog per-se but is an interesting slice of early 1970’s rock with great bass playing from Paul Karas and some bite in the sound. By then Steve Gould had switched to 2nd guitar with lead guitar coming from Ced Curtis, who certainly tears it up on the album. Other songs were more subdued and reflective but with strong instrumentation, making them sound good.

Title track Epic Forest starts like Crosby, Still and Nash with harmonic vocals and acoustic guitars before getting louder and rockier with some strong rhythm guitar work and keyboard textures standing out as the pace picks up. There is a lengthy organ solo that is very pleasing and harks back to their earlier albums, although this has guitar interplay as well. There is a further instrumental section full ff guitars and this sounds terrific, really melodic and appealing. The song then moves into a piano part that is stately, subtle and atmospheric, before returning to the main part once again. This is really an effective and well-developed song by any standard and it certainly is a highlight of the album, as is You’re Lost which has a similar feel and tone to it, although this one has a fabulous ending sequence full of minor chord progressions along with some excellent guitar playing from Ced and Steve. This is fluid soloing and most agreeable to these ears. There then follows an extended keyboard section with guitars for the next six minutes, remarkably interesting and inventive, a bit of a minor prog rock classic really. It is highly possible that most folks will not have heard this excellent song and dexterous musical chops before now so I urge you to rectify that for yourself. This is simply magnificent music that deserves a far wider audience than it initially received.

The magic continued on their next album ‘Somebody’s Watching’, which gave the world a fine song in the form of the title track which opens with lush keyboards and a chunky guitar part, this time around they add a soulful sound to proceedings allowing Steve Gould to really show his voice to fine effect. The track combo of Dollars and A Few Dollars More is a real highlight of this excellent album, this time with John Wetton on bass. Opening with gentle piano, it literally gains pace with a surging guitar line from A Few Dollars More (the classic spaghetti western by Sergio Leone with music by Ennio Morricone) that the band re-interpret here again to fine effect, it really is an imaginative piece performed and realized very well.

The last album in the set is their final studio album ‘Born Again’, which is a bit of a misnomer as the band were on their last legs and about to throw in the towel due to their last set of demo’s with a full album’s worth of maerial, all with John Wetton on vocals, being dismissed. However the group soldiered on to record this one last album in 1974. This record took a far softer, American West Coast, sound even further and is a minor classic in its style and fabulous voice/keyboards interplay. The strongest tracks are Last Tango In Beulah, Redman and Live For Each Other. It really is a far more laid back album than the previous one but is still a fine closing chapter in the story.

The extra live disc is of interest as it was recorded at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane whilst supporting Barclay James Harvest and Rare Bird’s 8 song recording sees the light of day for the first time here and shows the group delivering a fine set of performances, especially on the versions of Last Tango and Dollars, both of which are the longer tracks on offer.

Rare Bird were, sadly, a very overlooked group and, as such, it is fabulous to have all their output gathered here with pristine sound, gatefold sleeves, worthy bonus tracks and a great, informative, booklet.

This is one fabulous package and I heartily recommend it to any who appreciates class music and great songs and performances.

From the booklet it seems that both Mark Ashton and Steve Gould still feel badly about how Tony Stratton-Smith and Charisma treated them, which is sad as Rare Bird certainly had the talent to make it big but sadly never quite got the breaks they needed to do so.

Released 30th April 2021

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Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet – The Recordings 1969-1975, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Clive Mitten – Suite Cryptique: Recomposing Twelfth Night 1978 – 1983 – by John Wenlock Smith

This 2CD set is a revisitation and reimagining of music originally performed by the band Twelfth Night in their early 1980’s incarnation before Geoff Mann left the group. The albums reimagined are ‘Live at the Target’, ‘Live (and Let Live)’ and ‘Fact and Fiction’ along with reworkings of tracks The Collector and Creepshow.

This album is progressive but not necessarily in a manner that you would expect, let me elucidate…

This is a bold, brave (and possibly foolish) concept that could trash your love for those early albums as they sound significantly different and altered here. Some might see this as a vanity project or even conceited, however, I see this a very bold musical statement that has much depth and character, plus a lot of imagination at play, to make something totally new and absorbing, standing as a testament to those fabulous years and times.

This is not easy listening, as in ‘popped up’ orchestral classics, instead this is rather more studiously applied music that uses minimalism and classical flourishes to bring out the themes that were somewhat hidden in the early albums.

Clive has single-handily pulled all this together during lockdown and has had musical advice from Geoff Mann’s wife Jane and from former band colleagues Brian Devoil, Andy Revell and Mark Spencer. With the arrangements textures and sounds, this sounds very minimalist so, if you like Steve Reich or any modern minimalist composers, this may find favour with you.

This really has been a labour of love for Clive, keeping him busy and occupied during some very lonely and hard times.

Although I am not a long time follower of Twelfth night, I find this album deeply satisfying as it has some very gracious and fine music to it, along with fabulous performances. The sound is very expansive and yet, somehow, very open with equal room given to each instrument. This is somewhat surprising seeing as Clive has used very expansive (and expensive) libraries of orchestral samples, originally recorded by a plethora of top London orchestral players, making this both highly impressive and also aurally confusing, as you’d swear there actually was a real live orchestra playing these parts.

The album will take several listens before you get the concept fully. This is a journey of discovery that you must be willing to undertake for yourself. As with any journey, the joy is not only in the destination but also in the completion the journey itself, and this is a most enjoyable one, in my opinion. The use of strings and oboes (and all manner of other artificial wind and string instruments) is both beguiling and confusing as you forget that this is all artificially created, lovingly crafted for sure but all bogus, artificial and man-made. The album has passages of great beauty, especially on the opening track Part One: Live at the Target which has an extremely dramatic violin section and some great percussion interludes, along with a vibrant violin and French horn passage that really grabs your attention.

Reimagining and recomposing means taking the music apart and remaking it again differently, yet keeping the same sentiments as the original. A difficult task to be sure, not only challenging but also very worthy as these pieces show clearly. This project has been in Clive’s mind for 40 years but it was only during the first lockdown that he was finally able to address the question of what if? and realise his ambitions. Personally, this album makes me want to go and explore those original albums and discover their magic for myself. Thankfully, a lot of this is available on bandcamp or from Twelfth Night directly so I can discover it for myself.

This project has not only inspired Clive to look at the early days of Twelfth Night but also to compose suites that include works by his favourite prog artists, like Yes, Supertramp, Genesis and Rush, amongst others, and he already has plans for at least two more albums of equally innovative re-compositions of classics, all of which are in the planning and creation stages. I, for one, am very much look forward to hearing those when they emerge.

For now, though, this remarkable album shows the fabulous imagination and talent that Clive Mitten has and which he lent to all this fabulous music that he was a major part of all those years ago. He has shown great skill and bravery in refashioning this music in such a unique and vibrant manner. This really is an amazing album of music, look out for the Mission Impossible theme that he weaves into Part Two: Live (and Let Live), which was apparently a favourite of Geoff Mann, Clive lovingly working this in to honour his departed colleague.  

Each part of this album addresses a different period of the band in a unique manner, listen with your ears open and find the beauty that is within these pieces. The use of melody and harmony, syncopation and dramatic dynamics all stand up clearly in these musical pieces, it is all fabulous stuff, challenging, absorbing and, above all, rewarding and dignified. Part Three: The Collector is simply magnificent, taking a live favourite and making it completely new is inspiring and fine testament to a great song.

The abstract album cover is actually a sketch by Geoff Mann, originally created for the ‘Fact and Fiction’ album but never actually used. Clive Mitten you, sir, are a genius and I applaud your commitment and efforts in making this fabulous music. Respect is well due.

Released 2nd April, 2021

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Review – Liquid Tension Experiment – LTE3 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is the long awaited (and long time in coming!) third album from Dream Theater spin-off fusionists Liquid Tension Experiment. A band formed out of the prog metal legends and who recorded 2 albums with the nucleus of Mike Portnoy (drums) Jordan Rudess (keyboards) and John  Petrucci (guitar), aided by Tony Levin (bass and chapman stick). Although, to be honest, Jordan only actually joined Dream Theater after the second LTE album and then, as we all know, Mike left in 2010 and further LTE activity looked decidedly unlikely. Well that was the case but two things happened that led to the resumption of activities, these were the worldwide covid virus and the cessation of all touring activities and the other was Mike drumming for John’s latest solo album, ‘Terminal Velocity’. This led to a window of opportunity opening to reconvene LTE once again and cut some new music together. Same crew, same members, just 21 years later…

How wonderful to hear from these folks once again, welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, as ELP once sang.

There is one major change though, the album receives its release through Sony/InsideOut rather than Magna Carta, the label that hosted the first two Liquid Tension Experiment albums in 1998 and 1999 respectively. And, of course, Mike left Dream Theater in 2010, moving onto pastures new. The desire for all to reconvene and record together never really went away, these four musicians have exceedingly high regard for each other’s abilities and enjoy the freedom to make a different type of music together.

Well, that is the backstory to the album let us have a listen to what you can expect from this third instalment of LTE.

The album has a run time of just over 61 minutes, although there is another 50 odd minutes of music on the deluxe  CD version. I have not heard that yet, so I can comment, except to propose that this will probably be in a similar vein to the main album, just with longer tracks allowing even more musical virtuosity.

The album opens in rip roaring fashion with Hypersonic coming off the grid like a supercharged Bugatti Veyron firing on all cylinders. The band certainly show that they mean business with bass, drums and guitar spearheading a three pronged sonic attack. The track fair thunders along with barely room for breath, aside from a few keyboard interjections from Jordan, who layers his synths across the maelstrom the other three are creating. It really is an highly impressive opener indeed although you could say it’s a bit of a marmite piece, if you like it, you’ll want to stick around for the rest of the disc however, if it is not to your taste then that’s fine, go and listen to something else and leave the rest of us here in musical ecstasy. That said, after three minutes 15 seconds of this ultra-fast beat, they take a breath and slow things down intensity wise and allow John some room to play a solo passage along with some subtle bass from Tony and support from Mike, Jordan’s stabbing keyboards also providing some great dynamics to the piece. Jordan plays some flowery synth lines in the closing minutes before John and Tony play a dual passage line together preceding the resumption of the frenetic opening first passage. This piece is simply awesome and a great song to start with.

The second song is called Beating The Odds and opens with some furious riffing from John before Jordan lays down some fabulous synth lines. There is a very strong groove to this track which opens out with some very fluid guitar before a punishing riff is played over which Jordan solo’s wildly using his keyboards to stage his own aural assault on the senses. Everything is flawlessly backed by the inventive and impressive rhythm section yet, even in all the mayhem, there is still an extraordinarily strong melodic element here at play. This is all impressive stuff musically.

Liquid Evolution follows, which is basically a duet between bass and keyboards. This piece lays off the bombast and urgency of the earlier tracks to create a different, and more chilled, vibe to it. After the energy of the first two pieces you welcome the change of pace and the chance to both catch your breath and also to pick your jaw up from the floor where the opening salvo of the first two tracks have probably put it! It makes it far subtler in both pace and tone but still packs an impressive groove.

Then it is back to the overkill and surging power with fourth track The Passage of Time, with its sinewy riff snaking outwards. This one gives Mike some space to show off his impeccable timing and chops whilst Jordan adds some excellent piano parts. It really rocks out for sure, although its brutality is tempered by melodic sensibilities making it an impressive calling card, only made better by John’s atypical solo. That guitar riff is so brutal and powerful though that it almost melts your face off, were it not for Jordan’s interjections to anchor the track in melody. Again, the more I listen to this, the more I hear the interplay of the instruments and the overall melody that the track offers.

Track 5 sees the return of Chris and Kevin in Chris and Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey, a duet between Tony and Mike, giving a chance for Tony’s bass to take centre stage on par with the pounding drums of Mr. Portnoy once again. This is a shorter track but is still worthy of the space afforded to it, it is a joy to hear the fine bass playing of Tony Levin so lucidly.      

Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue is next, but probably not in a format that you are familiar with. Basically, it gets the full LTE kitchen sink experience and gives ‘over the top’ a new meaning. The track is shamelessly overblown and all the better for it too! there are some fantastic sections to this performance making it probably my favourite on the whole album. The song is long too at 13:16 however, there is not an ounce of excess fat on this piece, it is all killer no filler (as it were).It really belongs to Jordan whose keyboards glide effortlessly through the song, retaining its melody amidst all the grandiloquence of the track, utterly fabulous stuff.

Shades of Hope is totally different and far more chilled, opening with piano and a floating guitar line, played very fluidly here. This piece bleeds emotion for its complete duration, an exceptionally fine track indeed.

Key To The Imagination closes out the album, it has a recurrent heavy guitar riff running throughout against which Jordan is playing some great synth fills and orchestral voicings along with John’s sweet guitar lines. Tony holds down the bottom end in his usual eloquent manner whilst Mike’s drum hold this mix together. It really is really very good indeed and gives equal room for each player to shine in their respective field and brings things to a great end with its almost middle eastern sounding tone, it really impresses.           

Well, that 61 minutes went by fast and I was sure impressed by all that I heard. I urge you to give it space in your listening as here we have four maestros all playing at the very top of their game, taking chances and making some utterly fabulous music.

Miss this one at your peril!

Released 16th April, 2021.

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LTE3 (burningshed.com)



Review – John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is the second solo album from Dream Theater’s stalwart original member, and guitarist, John Petrucci. It arrived after a brief time delay of merely fifteen years or so after his first solo album, ‘Suspended Animation’, released way back in 2005.

Mind you, a lot has happened in John’s world since then, firstly a major change occurred when his buddy and drum legend Mike Portnoy left Dream Theater (the band he had formed with John in their Berklee College of Music days in the 1980’s).

This was a major upheaval and change, although it was one that all parties survived and consequently flourished. Mike got involved in Neal Morse’s musical career (after Neal himself left Spock’s Beard). He also joined Flying Colors, successfully created several albums and concert videos with the outfit. Latterly Mike formed a new band, Sons of Apollo, with whom he has recorded two studio albums and one live set.

Well, it has been nearly two decades since that initial split but this album sees John, and Mike reuniting, with Mike providing the thunderous drumming that accompanies this album. Mike reached out to John during lockdown and they convened at Dream Theater HQ to track and record this all-instrumental shred fest with John on guitars , Mike on drums and Dave La Rue of Flying Colors and G3 providing the bass support for the album.

So, what is it like you may reasonably ask? Firstly, it is all instrumental, playing out as a guitarist’s dream and the album is, as Jordan Rudess told me, all heavily focused on the tonal qualities of John’s guitar,

All the songs are succinct and brief apart from two tracks that are over 7 minutes in length and each piece of music balances John’s searing guitar work with some fine melody. Some of the tracks are rather heavy but melody is not forgotten, John can certainly play, and is not shy on that score either, the playing is showy when required but it the song that matters most here.

John is playing as well as I have ever heard him play, he bends, taps and plays flurries of notes at will on these pieces, all ably supported by the superior rhythm section of Mike and Dave who are revelling in this music that they are a part of. I think there is a good mix to the styles being used and a good use of dynamics, light and shade that really makes the guitar tones stand out clearly, as most of the tones used are clean with sporadic use of effects.

Happy Song, for instance, opens with a very joyous bounce to it, with John doubling guitar parts making this song very Satriani-esque at times but it echoes Joe’s use of styles well. This track is a total winner to these ears and is aptly named as it is a very happy piece of music indeed. It is possibly my favorite track on the album as it is so upbeat and excellently executed, John showing just how fluid he is as a player.

Gemini opens strongly as well with a flurry of notes dancing across the fretboard and great rhythm support in a harder edged piece that has some fine guitar with delay used to great effect. The song branches out with an acoustic Flamenco part in which Johns show some real skill before the electric guitar once again takes centre stage to deliver a blistering guitar solo. There are some strong techniques used that sound utterly fabulous.

The bluesy sounding Out of the Blue is superb, John getting the chance to lay back and play with some real feeling and tap into the blues to prove just how versatile he is in that arena too.  The first of the longer tracks is The Way Things Fall, which is, again, a rollicking little number that fair pulses along on a good bass line with John laying down a very melodic guitar line. Snake In My Boot has a great riff to it, all accompanied by some utterly mesmerising guitar playing.

The final track, Temple of Ciradia, has even more fine fiery playing at hand with some very Ritchie Blackmore like tones being used to great effect. The playing is fast and flawless towards the end of the piece and ends on an excellent drum beat from Mike.

This collaboration has been a winner all round, whether it leads to any further activities has yet to be seen but, it is a first step in restoring a relationship that was fractured if not fully broken. The fact that they used Lockdown and this virus to make it happen is remarkable. Much respect must be given to all parties for making it happen and for making such a great album of fine guitar led musical mayhem.

Released 28th August 2020

Order from Amazon here:

Terminal Velocity by John Petrucci: Amazon.co.uk: Music

Review – The Vicious Head Society – Extinction Level Event – by Martin Hutchinson

You’ve got to love a good ‘balls out’ Prog-Metal album, one that comes flying at you like a monumental behemoth and knocks you into tomorrow.

Irish guitar vistuoso Graham Keane’s project, The Vicious Head Society, did just that with 2017’s debut release ‘Abject Tomorrow’ and, after much soul searching and a difficult gestation, he returns with ‘Extinction Level Event’, an absolute leviathan of a release, full of music of maturity and a primeval brilliance.

This collection of nine epic tracks takes me back to the anticipation of new albums by Dream Theater and Haken in their early days and shows just how far Graham has come in four years.

Nathan Maxx returns on vocals. Graham adds that “his voice was the perfect fit for this more modern sound. He was able to deliver versatile and very emotive vocals for every song.” Likewise Klemen Markelj is back on drums along with Pat Byrne of Hedfuzy on bass. Nahuel Ramos is also back to offer some keyboard solos and there are guest appearances from Australian virtuoso Chris Brooks and violinist Shelley Weiss. In addition, Graham wanted to have a dedicated growler for this album and after hearing Andy Ennis’ work with Overoth, he reached out and asked him to jump on board.

Graham discusses his new album, “In very basic terms, Extinction Level Event is an album about the end of the world. This is a concept that has been explored in various other forms of media but on this album, I wanted to explore personal stories about how people might react to knowing their demise is imminent.”

“It tells the stories of 7 different people facing the end, how they process the event, what meaning or impact their lives have had. It asks what they cherish, what grudges or ill will they hold on to. Will they face the end with dignity? Essentially, the album asks the same question of us, the listener. Grief and loss are never far away… are we willing to carry bitterness, anger and resentment to our death or are we willing to let go? Conversely, are there people in our lives that are deserving of forgiveness?”

‘Extinction Level Event’ is most definitely a prog-metal album for modern times, taking all that was great about the genre in the early nineties and noughties and bringing it bang up to date with scalpel sharp guitar and potent vocals. The energetic and compelling rhythm section drives the album along, giving it an almost widescreen and visceral feel and scope.

It’s well known that I’m not generally a fan of growling, ‘cookie monster’, vocals but they work on this album and I actually like them, look, I’ve never said that before! When I mentioned this to Graham he told me that, “I only use them as part of a story telling device and, writing a song about a serial killer requires it!”

Each track is a perfectly crafted piece of music where every note and every word has its place but Graham never fails to let loose with some utterly amazing guitar work and Nahuel’s keyboards give everything a coat of pure class.

The album contains two superbly immersive instrumentals that give a bit of tangential musical exploration to the album but, generally, it is as in your face as you could ever want from a prog-metal release. Of the other tracks, it is difficult to pick favourites as they are all superb but, if you pressed me, I’d have to go with title track, and opener, Extinction Level Event, the sublime On a Silver Thread and Hymn of Creation, an utterly perfect way to close out the record.

The best music is always a journey that envelops the listener, gathers them up and takes them on a hell for leather adventure of the mind and soul and this album is no different. Graham’s songwriting abilities are top notch and he has gathered a stellar set of musicians around him to make his vision a reality, they are surely a creative force to be reckoned with.

‘Extinction Level Event’ is shaping up to possibly be the best prog metal album of the last few years at least, I honestly don’t think I’ve had a prog metal album hit me so hard since Haken’s ‘The Mountain’. It is a rare occurrence to get an album nowadays with not one track on it that I don’t love but Graham and the rest of The Vicious Head Society have absolutely nailed it with this release.

Released 28th May, 2021

Order direct from the artist here:

Home | The Vicious Head Society (bigcartel.com)

Review – The Emerald Dawn – To Touch The Sky – by John Wenlock-Smith

To Touch the Sky’ is the fourth and latest CD from The Emerald Dawn following on the heels of their earlier albums, ‘Nocturne’ (2019), ‘Visions’ (2017) and Searching for the Lost Key (2014). I have not heard these previous albums, which is something I really should rectify!

The Emerald Dawn are a four-piece group who play symphonic progressive music, their sound is full and lush, with enough space in the music to allow each member enough room to shine.

‘To Touch the Sky’ has just three tracks, all lengthy and complex. Their own words state that this album is, “A celebration of the voyage towards one’s goal, including the hardships and dangers faced en-route. Beginning with the night, the music depicts the process of walking up and coming to life, a moment of awareness or the experience of being awestruck, then provides the motivation for each traveller to pursue their quest. In the closing 22-minute epic, The Ascent, the metaphor of climbing a mountain can be interpreted as a psychological, spiritual, or physical attainment, just as the listener chooses”. All of which sounds very lofty and idealistic but, is it any good you may ask?

Well, the answer is not immediately clear and will require a degree of listener involvement, your time and possibly some headphones to get the best from this music. Oh, and possibly a glass of your favourite tipple might not go amiss either!

Our journey begins with The Awakening which opens with some strident piano notes and a prominent bass from David Greenaway matching the piano along with swathes of keyboards from Tree Stewart. There are then vocals from Tree, who also echoes the refrain herself. We then move into a very spacious section where keyboards have lots of room and space to evoke their magic before a meaty guitar riff from Ally Carter joins in and the drums of Tom Jackson complete the mix. This section has some rather vibrant and lively guitar and synth lines, sumptuous all around. This all sounds really fabulous and all the time the bass is making its own patterns in the sound while Ally solos away wildly. The song returns to the opening piano motif while Ally lays a guitar line over the top of it all, bringing the piece to an emphatic conclusion. This is a really strong, symphonic and epic piece of music.

The second Track is And I Stood Transfixed and it opens with a solid drumbeat before a gently strummed acoustic guitar segues into the mix. Ally Carter lays down some very Pink Floyd-like guitar lines before switching to sax to play a flurry of notes that are all very evocative and otherworldly sounding. The drums pick up the pace of the song before keyboards enter, laying out a dreamy soundscape with some great bass underpinning it all. Ethereal vocals are added to the mix along with delicate piano notes. This section relates to the Eureka moment in the process of making the journey as thoughts coalesce into tangible activity so that the journey can be started.

The journey from the mind to the heart may only be 18 inches but it is a process we all go through when we are on the cusp of change. This section leads into some ominous guitar chords and tones as the piece takes a heavier stance with more random sounding saxophone notes being played. Calm is then restored as we are rewarded by a synthesizer solo from Tree Stewart whilst the rhythm section continue their own journey. This is all very spacious sounding and everyone is really working together to move this song along. A lovely bass line is played throughout by David Greenaway before Ally’s guitar once again takes flight, playing another Floydian type break, while Greenaway plays on before this epic song is ended with delicate keyboards and then total silence.

The last, and longest track, is The Ascent in which we start to ascend the mountain that lies before us. Whether this is a literal or figurative mountain is up to the listener to determine for themselves. The song opens with keyboard generated soundscapes in which one can imagine the mountain with the sun shining and clouds at the top. A piano and flute are then heard and flute and it all sounds very open before we get a searing guitar solo from Ally, very Andy Latimer sounding in both style and tone, before the keyboards return once again and Tree’s vocal begins.

The lyrics in the booklet will guide us as the ascent of the mountain begins, they tell us of the dangers you may face on the way. This song really gets to grips with the concept and the music makes it own journey through peaks and troughs of expectations and disappointments on the way. Another guitar break from Ally represents an eagle soaring effortlessly on the thermals as we continue to climb, the wind and the clouds move in and we get engulfed in a blizzard as we take a steady, onwards step.

We are lost in a whiteout, snow everywhere, and we cannot find the right direction to go forward, the music continuing hesitantly as we continue searching for the right path, the one that will take us higher. We sense the need to keep going, to risk death, and we proceed, once again, to the last ascent.

Ally’s guitar takes us onwards and upwards as the winds die down. The clouds part and we can see it; the summit! We’ve made it, we have achieved our goal. There is a palpable sense of relief in this section although we still have the downward journey to take us back to where we started from. Although we are invigorated again with a sense of completion as we have overcome the mountain and succeeded in the challenge it posed to us. We then enter a quieter passage as we make our descent. This song makes sense with the lyrics at hand and is a remarkable audio journey that The Emerald Dawn offer you to take with them.

This album will require your concentration but the rewards are many and exceedingly plentiful. There is much fine music here with some great passages and really fine ensemble performances from. ‘To Touch the Sky’ is a real pleasure to listen to and you can really absorb this music for yourself, I highly recommend that you support their efforts.

Released 20th March, 2021

Order from bandcamp here:

To Touch the Sky | The Emerald Dawn (bandcamp.com)

Review – Ana Patan – Spice, Gold and Tales Untold – by Martin Hutchinson

“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” ― Frank Zappa

I know I’m not the only person who spends a large proportion of their time awake listening to music, music while I run or while I work or just for relaxation. It is true, music decorates our lives and makes the mundane acceptable and often accompanies us on the highest highs and lowest lows that life can give you.

The first time I listened to Ana Patan’s superb album ‘Spice, Gold and Tales Untold’ I felt that immediate connection that only wonderful music can give you. This is one of those releases that can take away the worries of a testing day and put you in a much calmer state of mind and we have all needed that over the last year!

Ana Patan

In her own words,

“I’m an independent German musician, of Romanian descent, living in Sweden for the moment. I’ve been travelling and making music in most corners of the planet, having had the chance to meet, and jam with, some really amazing musicians (where most of my experience comes from). At some point in 2009 my career nearly ended from a bad case of tendonitis, which woke me up to the necessity of making this album, if ever able to play music again. This motivated me to get well, and put all my finances, creativity, time and energy into making this record.

The drums have been put down by Zoltan Csörsz, most of the bass tracks by Jonas Hellborg, and Devin Townsend loved the stuff and also wanted to contribute! Strangely enough, he was in a bass-playing phase back then, so he showed up in the studio and did his part quite amazingly! I happened to play the guitar because I couldn’t find anyone who wouldn’t overplay – I had to do my best, whatever that might be for now… same with the vocals!”

Ana describes the album as organic, honest and uncompromising, recorded all analog on 2 inch tape in a simple formula (bass-drums-guitar, plus vocals). I have to say I was really intrigued.

The album is a superb mix of musical styles with basic, soulful music embellished by hints of the orient and a touch of Eastern European promise on many of the impressive songs. The bare yet intricate music is complemented superbly by Ana’s earnest vocals, sometimes fragile and at other times loud and proud. To my ears there is a touch of early Alanis Morissette to her voice but with a velvet smooth timbre.

The pared back musical arrangements on tracks like sultry opener Undeciphered and the soulful Trivialize Love have a real jazz lounge feel to them, a real feel of less is more and Ana’s beautifully flowing guitar adds even more class.

One of the stand out tracks for me is the wonderfully bluesy General Conspiracy, a song that just oozes cool sophistication. The guitar playing just makes you want to sway in time with the music and the solo is just superb.

Ana’s take on elegant world music infuses The Human with an almost southern African feel, a really enlightening piece of music that pairs really well with the smooth-jazz attributes of Pure and Plain, an ultimately uplifting track that makes your soul sing.

This incredibly eclectic mixture of musical tastes and experiences continues with Soarele Meu. Written in Ana’s native Romanian it has a really playful vibe and runs along with an impish glee and one where she seems at her most carefree. 21st Century Citizen is a proper blues-rock track and perhaps the most straightforward song on the album with seductive vocals and a staccato, edgy guitar tone and is a song that brooks no argument.

The darkly delicious tones of Ana’s voice and the refined notes emanating from her guitar give Hot Hot a truly graceful and chic quality that just leaves you utterly calm and relaxed before the folky How Could We Live Before breaks the spell with its upbeat tempo and foot-tapping drumbeat and things are brought to a close with Colors on Hormones, another uncomplicated jazz inspired piece of music that showcases this young women’s incredible array of talents.

‘Spice, Gold and Tales Untold’ is collection of culturally diverse songs that transcends the current trend to try and pigeon hole musicians. Wearing her many influences proudly on her sleeve Ana Patan has just allowed the music and her excellent vocals to tell her many intriguing and involving stories and this has allowed them to breathe and come to life quite spectacularly. An album that has surprised me in its simple brilliance and one that, if you let it, will enrich your life in a myriad of ways.

Released 10th February, 2021

Order the album from bandcamp here:

Spice, Gold and Tales Untold | Ana Patan (bandcamp.com)



Review – Nad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi – by John Wenlock-Smith

When  I was growing up there was no internet, we used to have to use encyclopaedias and other forms of reference books to find out about things. Nowadays, of course, it is all there waiting to be delved into and discovered for yourself.

It is a whole different ball game now, although there was a time in the late 1980’s /early 1990’s that you could ring up the reference people at Birmingham City Library and they would find things out for you. This was especially useful, and was well before Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded what we now know as Google, this company that they founded as students at Stanford university is now one of the world’s premier search engines. Folk now often say ‘google it’ to find information.

I did that whilst listening to this album as it is largely music set to poems that were written by William Butler (W.B) Yeats (Born in 1885 Died January 1939). Yeats is widely acclaimed as one of Ireland’s most famous poets, dramatists, and prose writers, in fact, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Spiritus Mundi’ sets those poems to gentle and orchestral sounding pieces with vocals from Nad Sylvan and guitars from Andrew Laitres, a US based composer and musician, who Nad had worked with previously on his last album, ‘The Regal Bastard’ – The final part of his Vampyrate trilogy.

Nad is joined by some famous guests on this album, namely Tony Levin and Jonas Reingold on bass and Marko DeMaio (The Flower Kings) on drums with Steve Hackett also featuring. The bulk of the lyrics are taken verbatim from Yeats’s poems, apart from the first bonus track, You Have Got To Find A Way, that has Sylvan’s own lyrics. This approach has left the music room to breath and allows the beauty of the words to shine through clearly with the music clearly supporting and enhancing the impact of the words. That intention has paid off excellently giving the album dignity and weight.

The tracks are mainly short and as they focus predominantly on the words the album will take several listens before it really begins to make sense. Having said that, the longer tracks, The Second Coming and Sailing To Byzantium, work the best for me as there are musical interludes within in them that work well. The instrumentation is supportive and sympathetic, you will not find long ego fuelled solos here, you fill find empathy and delicacy throughout. The whole album lasts about 52 minutes including the two bonus tracks.

I think this album is a great, intensive listening experience and will appeal to any who like Yeats’ poems or who are fans of Nad Sylvan’s earlier solo albums as he is certainly in fine voice on these songs. This project is certainly different and a brave, bold move by Nad, as an album this is certainly different and somehow the lyricism of Yeats’ poetry works well in this format and will hopefully bring it to a whole new audience of people. They may find much within the words of these pieces that speaks clearly to their hearts and minds and hopefully leads them discover more of Yeats’ works for themselves.    

The sound of the album is sparse and the space between the words and the music is wide and open allowing subtle nuances to be realised and appreciated with repeated listening. There is a fabulous slide guitar part contained on the last track on the album, The Fisherman, (performed by Neil Whitford) that really drives the piece along.

It is not an album that is immediately easy to access but I sincerely recommend that you persevere as it is truly worth it when you finally do click with it and its treasures and beauties are finally revealed to you. ‘Spiritus Mundi’ is a journey of discovery into a different world, but it is a journey that you need to decide to undertake. 

Released 9th April 2021

Order the album here:

Spiritus Mundi (lnk.to)