Review – I Am The Manic Whale – Things Unseen – by John Wenlock-Smith

I Am The Manic Whale deliver their third studio album with ‘Things Unseen’. The project is the brainchild of bassist and singer Michael Whiteman who hails from Woodley, Reading.

The band’s name actually being an anagram of his own name, Michael is joined in this endeavour by Ben Hartley on drums, David Addis on guitars and John Murphy on keyboards, all of whom have been on each previous Manic Whale album and this lends a continuity to the group’s overall cohesion and sound.

The album is a mixture of styles and sounds but, to these ears, there seems to be substantially more guitar this time around, the music is vibrant and lively, sprightly even, in parts covering various topics including urban myths, fantasy literature, ecology, celebrity and fame, a child’s smile, lego modelling, carefree days and finally the power ,brilliance and longevity of the Intercity 125 Train!

This music will take you on a journey that is very rewarding indeed, this group have skill and talent aplenty. Their music is positive and hopeful, along with being thought provoking and at times challenging. The musicianship is exemplary and fluid, this is an album that really grows on you, especially if you allow it time to percolate in your brain. I have found myself singing the chorus to The Deplorable Word to myself whilst boiling the kettle in recent days, so it definitely gets into your mind if you allow it to!

This time around both John and David have contributed songs for the album, Billionaire and Into The Blue respectively, with the remainder by Michael and, on the epic lengthy track Celebrity, his wife Esther.

Let’s investigate his fine album and see what treasures it contains shall we?

The album kicks off with John’s song Billionaire which opens with a gentle sounding piano melody and with Michael singing in a style that is very reminiscent of 10CC, no less. Around 1’17”, John switches up to what sounds like a sampled organ sound and the song shifts gear a bit with the introduction of drums and a graceful, fluid guitar line from David. The song is a good and interesting one to open proceedings with.

Next track, The Deplorable Word, has more than just a whiff of early 80’s Rush to it, especially in the guitar work from David Addis. The song is based on a chapter in the book The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (he of Narnia fame), the song speaking of the evil queen Jadis and how she once ruled the land of Chand, killing its inhabitants so that she would not be beaten in battle.

This song is highly attractive as it has a lot of pace to it with especially fine guitar and keyboards throughout, although we are not told what the word was, just its effects. It is very strong with a terrific chorus that is effective and memorable. It also has some great bass runs, shimmering keyboards and some funky guitar from David, all wrapped in some highly effective drum patterns from Ben. This one is definitely a highlight of the album, hugely impressive, and will be brilliant in a live situation.

The David Addis penned Into The Blue is an ecological protest song that concerns itself with how we are abusing the earth (or were until Covid 19 came along, during which we have seen some major changes and a balance returning?). The track opens in a style that is reminiscent of Scarborough Fair with its flutes and gentle acoustic elements. David fires off a staggering guitar riff before reverting to a more acoustic trend again. The song has an important message and has great interplay between David’s guitar and John’s keyboards all with strong support from Michael and Ben.       

The next song is the album’s lengthy epic Celebrity. Split into five sections beginning with Identity Crisis, this tells the tale of a wannabe who seeks fame and fortune despite his sheer lack of talent, sound familiar? Obviously this whole song is a critical swipe at the notion of fame for fame’s sake or being famous but not for any particular talent or ability. Yes, it’s taking a shot at reality TV and the “stars” that the genre throws up regularly. Think X-Factor, Love Island and The Only Way is Essex etc, car crash TV at its finest but TV that people actually watch regardless.

This is followed by Cultural Vampire (Who Am I) which deals with how one looks and the steps someone will take to be noticed. Part 3 is called Freak Show and is about getting onto those type of TV shows, the next part is called Heart and Soul and is where our hero (I use the term loosely) fails spectacularly to make any real impression and has his hopes dashed on the rocks of reality.

This leads him to part 5 in which he has an Epiphany where he realises that there are few shortcuts to success and that he has to go the hard way and actually become good and competent at something and be able to offer something that people actually want and value. The song has some very subtle piano lines and, at the sixteen minute mark, has a superb guitar solo from David, merging in to the melody that John is playing with a melodic synth line, before a further guitar line leads to song to a fine conclusion. This whole song is a very sharp and well observed critique of the fame game.

Smile is a sweet and simple song that is about a child’s smile and the effect and satisfaction that it brings. Simple but ultimately very profound, this is a song born out of the love of a parent for their child and is a very real and emotionally moving song. The next piece, Build It Up, is a joyous track that concerns itself with a certain Danish toy that is used to build things with and that allows free creative imagination to conjure up all kinds of edifices. Michael is obviously well versed in the world of Lego constructions and the subsequent destruction and rebuilding that such play entails. Well, if not him, his children certainly are and somehow this song really captures those emotions fully.

The penultimate song is the sweet and wistful number Halcyon Days, this song encapsulates so much of both days that have gone by and also of a long hot summer all seen through the eyes of a child. With terrific wordplay and imagery that evokes the setting richly, this song is another triumph for the band and leads us nicely into the last and most impressive song from I Am TheManic Whale

The final track, Valenta Scream, is all about with the technological wonder that was the original Intercity 125 Diesel train that powered through the English countryside for nearly 40 years and was an icon of the rails. These trains were highly recognisable and well known for the scream of the Valenta engines that powered it through the decades.

As a rail enthusiast Michael sings of this innovative train with great fondness and was very familiar with its history. The song is a real stormer and it is a fitting close to the album, ending the record on a high note making this new release simply magnificent.

‘Things Unseen’ is chock full of superb songs with impressive attention to detail and fabulous music, all beautifully played, recorded and performed. This is a release to treasure, absorb and appreciate, Michael and the team really delivering something incredibly special and I urge you to check out this fantastic album for yourself.   

Released 24th April 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://iamthemanicwhale.bandcamp.com/album/things-unseen

     

     

Review – PsychoYogi – Dangerous Devices

“The music is challenging, though accessible. Containing an abundance of unusual time signatures and rich chord structures for your musical imagination, with lyrics that question western social values.”

That’s how PsychoYogi describe their music and it is an astute description but, for the layman I choose to say that it is the most madcap, leftfield music I’ve heard in a long while. It is music that doesn’t belong in any category and that ploughs its own resolute furrow.

Imagine if Hatfield and the North arrived in a time machine, met up with Billy Bottle and the Multiple, The Cardiacs and Gong and decided to jam (I know, just humour me here please!) and then Henry Cow stole the time machine and gatecrashed the party.

That’s ‘Dangerous Devices’ in a nutshell. Sounds like utter mayhem and chaos doesn’t it? But, what you get is something that, by rights, I shouldn’t like but I do! It’s madcap, infused with lashings of gentle humour and fills you with not a little joy before exiting stage left after a mere thirty-seven minutes running time.

There’s a feel of mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun to this album and I think that comes from Chris Ramsing and his very precise elocution on the vocals that give it a not insubstantial air of bon viveur and slight aloofness. The music is an utter joy to listen to with Chris’s stylish guitar and the jazz infused bass of Izzy Stylish (yep, he is!) giving a classy touch to songs like the irrepressible title track Dangerous Devices, Masterplan and my personal favourite, Sooner Than Now.

That particular song also sees the wonderful brass of Toby Nowell (Trumpet, Soprano and Alto Sax) and John Macnaughton (Tenor and Alto Sax) given free rein to add a touch of mysticism to the album. Their undoubted skills are on show throughout this unique recording and really enforce the English eccentricity that is at its core.

Holding everything together is Justin Casey (Drums and Percussion) who adds the glue that holds everything together with his excellence behind the kit but these musicians are all masters of their particular dark arts.

So lend your ears to brilliant compositions like Master Plan, Common As Muck, Shadows and the peculiar charms of Words Unspoken and enjoy a journey through the unparalleled bewitchery that PsychoYogi create, you will not experience anything else quite like it.

Released 11th April 2020.

Order ‘Dangerous Devices’ from bandcamp here:

https://psychoyogi.bandcamp.com/album/dangerous-devices

Review – The Bardic Depths – The Bardic Depths by John Wenlock-Smith

The Bardic Depths is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer. The self titled debut album releases in March 2020 and features performances from Peter Jones – Saxophone/ Vocals (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales), Tim Gehrt – Drums ( Streets/ Steve Walsh), Gareth Cole – Guitar (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community.

To say that this is an unusual album is nothing odd, but such is the way of modern music making in that this one stands out for being very different, especially when you consider that this collective has never actually met in full or in person, as yet. In fact, up to a few weeks ago Dave and Brad had not even spoken by phone, skype or similar, this despite them having collaborated on two of Dave’s previous albums.

This group or project came to be because all involved are “Passengers”, the collective noun used by fans of the group Big Big Train for their Facebook group forum. When Lanzarote / Canary Island based musician Dave Bandanna put out a message looking for some musicians to help him with a new project, The Bardic Depths came into being, albeit it through the virtual world of file swapping and editing..

Dave, whose normally work entails entertaining holidaymakers by providing music in the evening at various holiday resort and hotels (he also feeds the islands large stock of feral cats) was inundated with great responses. These came from the likes of Gareth Cole, Peter Jones and Professor Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College, Michigan among others, with Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) acting as a producer. This album is certainly different because of all these factors.

The album itself is a celebration of the friendship between C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, both of whom were members of the Oxford University literary group The Inklings, where they would meet to talk about their writing projects and read to each other.

This album explores that friendship across its seven lengthy tracks.  The music wears its influences openly with a touch of Pink Floyd and snatches of latter-day Talk Talk’s prog sensibilities, to name just a couple. All are very lovingly collated together to create a highly impressive, moody and emotionally moving musical collage of ideas, influences and performances that, when taken together, merge to create a series of epic pieces reflecting on friendship through the storms of one’s life.

I know I say this about many of the albums I review, but I feel this really is a remarkable project and one that will be viewed very positively come the end of year listings. Well I certainly think that will be the case here, I know it will be for me. Once again this album will need some time for its treasures to become fully apparent for it is only with increasing familiarity that this will become clear. There is so much great music here for your ears to embrace and enjoy that this journey you take will be a most worthwhile and revealing one for you to both start and to appreciate.

Opener piece, The Trenches, refers to the first world war experiences that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien endured and it is very evocative. Greek literary characters are used to ask the questions about the decisions made, and what the impact of those choices had, on the average man in the trenches. Biting Coals, speaks of the writing group and how, as war survivors, they meet and discuss and talk things over. This song has a lot of atmosphere that is utilised to great effect creating both a safe and cosy environment for the conversation.     

Depths of Time is the first real epic, clocking in at 12:33 which gives this three-part piece lots of room for some very extensive instrumental sections. These include some fine, airy sax from Peter Jones amidst some fabulous rhythmic guitar playing from Gareth Cole. The music here is rather ethereal sounding in tone with lots of space surrounding it to give an open effect and a chilled and relaxed tone, all very impressive really. The next piece is Depths of Imagination which opens with spoken word from Brad Birzer and a strong pulsating bass line from Dave Bandanna along with some great keyboards from Paulo Limoli that offset Dave’s vocal delivery.

Depths of Soul follows, opening with some fiery lead guitar from Gareth and more spoken word from Brad. It’s all very evocative sounding and moves onwards fiercely, fuelled by the drums of Tim Gehrt drums and Dave’s fine bass playing once again. The End is another atmospheric piece that contains some great cello from Mike Warren, a fine piano melody from Paulo Limoli and some lovely flute from Dave. This song has a great melody which suits its gentle tone, the music has passion and depth and sounds exceptionally fine indeed. It is all very musical and tuneful with great melodies that really suit the tone of the songs.

The final song, Legacies, opens with bells and a powerful drumbeat. This piece is about what this friendship leaves in its wake and why it made a difference then and still does for us today. How these men lived, what they believed in and lived for still matters for us today and that is the legacy they left us.

What we live for is important, the final spoken words draw the circle to a close with the words and a truly epic guitar solo opened Gareth and finished by Robin. It is simply sensational and a stunning close to what has been an enjoyable album. One of the best of the year so far and one that you really need to hear for yourself.        

Released 20/3/2020

Order from bandcamp here:

https://thebardicdepths.bandcamp.com/releases

Progressive Music About Gambling

Gambling is such a widespread activity that you would think that there would be an endless chasm filled with songs that have it as a central theme. Well, to my surprise, it’s not so. It seems that gambling served more as an inspiration to country singers and bluesmen of yesteryear. In the post-1970s era, the influx of gambling-associated songs seems to have slowly dried up.

Which is weird, given that if you check google for annual gambling revenues, they seem to go up each year, for both land-based and digital establishments. If people, musicians included, are doing more and more gambling, why aren’t they exploiting this activity that is a roller coaster of emotion in their music, which is also all about feelings?

Maybe, it’s because online casinos like www.novibet.co.uk are slowly taking over the industry. And the ease of use they provide doesn’t seem as fascinating as gambling in a shed in Mississippi did to folk artists back in the day. Though, the experience is unmatched. They couldn’t choose from thousands of slot games, win progressive jackpots in free spin rounds, and play skill-based mini-games. Or get dealt a hand of blackjack from a dealer on the other side of the globe and win life-altering sums.

So, it wasn’t easy to take a deep dive and try to locate gambling music that’s in some way associated with the progressive rock genre, but I managed to squeeze out a few examples.

The Turn of a Friendly Card

Here’s part of an album instead of just a song. It’s the fifth one from The Alan Parsons Project, released in 1980. This second side of this two-sided LP tells the tale of a middle-aged man who visits a casino where he proceeds to bet it all and lose it all. It’s broken down into five sub-tracks and spawned the hits “Time” and “Games People Play”.

Death Is a Great Gambler

Okay, now here’s a full album from German band Coupla Prog. The band only existed for roughly seven years and they reached their peak in the early 1970s. After the death of member Rolf Peter, due to a drug overdose, they decided to commemorate the loss by writing and recording – “Death Is A Great Gambler but If I Win, Finally I Can Die”.

Diamond Jack

Youngsters might not know who Wishbone Ash is, but this British band had its run in the mid-1970s. In 1977 they released their eighth album – Front Page News, which was a departure from their previous releases, featuring mostly soft ballads. It peaked at No. 31 in the UK Albums Charts, and featured the song – “Diamond Jack”. The last one on side two.

Upper Sixth Loan Shark

Many still wonder why isn’t Jethro Tull in the rock & roll hall of fame? It’s known that progressive rock bands don’t have a great track record with it comes to joining the illustrious society, even though they’ve been eligible since 1993. However, Ian Anderson is good-enough to grace my list, as he makes it with this solo effort.

Review – Jack Hues – Primitif – by John Wenlock-Smith

Jack Hues is not a name that most will be familiar with really, that is unless you are conversant with the band Strictly Inc. that he was  part of along with Tony Banks of Genesis or with the new wave outfit Wang Chung with who had a big early 1980’s hit with Dance Hall Days. Since those days Jack has kept himself busy with The Quartet and also been working with the boys from Canterbury Prog outfit Syd Arthur. All of which bring us to this new album ‘Primitif’, which is actually Jack’s first ever solo release. It is a double album of some 16 songs of various lengths and styles, including a covers of Bacharach and David’s The Look of Love and Lana Del Ray’s Video Games.

The record covers several different styles and moods, its lyrics can be somewhat bleak and desolate at times but this is not a bad thing, rather it shows incredible honesty and bravery by showing us his raw feelings. There is also something of a philosophical slant to some of these tracks as Jack contemplates mortality, fate and free will and how these could affect our lives.

This is generally an acoustically led album, although several song are fully electric, there are some very interesting guitar lines and parts to several of the songs and the mood is generally hopeful. It took me quite a few listens to start to make sense of this album as it is one that you will have to persevere with to fully appreciate but that actually makes it a far richer experience in my opinion.

The disc opens with the aforementioned Bacharach and David cover and it is a jaunty romp through a classic song with good use of keyboard orchestrations and a strong bassline holding it all together as Jack’s strong vocal lines bring the song home with aplomb. This is a fabulous opener that leads into the more melancholy Whitstable Beach which reflects on the bleakness of the northern Kent shoreline, this despite the track having a driving beat to it. The song has an excellent refrain in the closing section, again this is another powerful song.

The third track, A Long Time, is an acoustic shuffle with the guitar punctuating the song with clipped tones. This piece is all about letting go and almost feels cathartic for Jack as he sings of the difficulties in closing a chapter in your life. The next song is called Cut and is a shorter but still highly percussively driven acoustic instrumental piece.

These two songs are followed by the lengthy and epic track Winter, which is the longest track on the first disc. Winter is a deceptively enthralling track with its very clever use of guitar tones building the emphasis of the song, the finality of things and how death stops growth completely. The mid section has some very interesting musical elements at play, a sudden bass and burst of guitar and discordant rhythms being employed that sound unsettling and the bleak call to let me think of nothing that closes this somewhat sombre piece.

Diamond Ring is next, another gentle acoustic song that speaks of a ring that has been lost but the memories it held still remain in the singers mind as he recalls the wearer and the events that it represented.

The brief interlude of Spring follows, an acoustic and atmospheric instrumental piece that gradually builds in waves of increasing intensity and synthesizer noises that finally lead us to the epic closer of disc 1, Margate Train, a song that is full of memories that are exposed as the track continues. This is a very emotional song that deals with a mind full of memories that have surfaced, uncalled yet ever present in the singer’s voice and mind and that have gone away seemingly forever. The main refrain and synthesised strings return to close the song out on a very bleak line as the guitar reverberates away to silence, a remarkable track by any standards.

Disc 2 continues the journey, opening with the upbeat You Are The One I Love, probably the most straight forward pop song on the whole album and a very effective and memorable song too. Astrology speaks about free will and precession and predestination, Jack sounding similar to latter day Ian Gillan at times on a song that is lyrically challenging.

Summer is another short instrumental track segues into the song Stand In A Place Of Love, another angst driven acoustic outpouring that talks about Nietzsche (the German philosopher) whose influence on thinking and writings on good and evil  were used by the Nazi party in the 1930’s and 40’s, especially that of a superior race of men.

An Ordinary Man is a storming mid paced rocker that really surges along with a propulsive guitar line running throughout and a propensity of urgent drums, really there’s a lot going on here musically that combines make this a really rather fine song indeed. The next track, You Will Kill The One You Love, features an accordion alongside more standard instrumentation and this gives it a unique organic sound that is very full and interesting. This leads into the penultimate track, Autumn, another brief electric piece with shimmering guitar chords played in an arpeggio style and a reprise of The Look Of Love lyrics alongside stacked vocals, all done to great effect.

The final track and the final station on our musical journey is Video Games, a reworking of a track by Lana Del Ray that Jack has taken and rather electrified making it more like a Miles Davis piece replete with some heavy guitar lines and a driving backbeat. He uses clipped vocals to add punch before expanding it into a more mainstream delivered song with acoustic guitar. It this quite well known song a distinctive spin from the more recognised original.

Video Games closes the album in style and proves that it was worth the wait and also worthy of your time and consideration. As I said its not an easy listen but stick with it and you will find the treasure that lies at its core. This is a sensational piece of work and I heartily recommend this masterpiece to you all, it may not be progressive as such but the craft that is on display here makes this album worth all the plaudits that it gets, so dive on in, the water is lovely.        

Released 20th March 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://jackhues.bandcamp.com/album/primitif

Review – Time Shift Accident – Chronosthesia

‘Chronosthesia’ is the debut album by instrumental quartet Time Shift Accident from Nuremberg, Germany.

What began as a loose jam band founded by a couple of friends in late 2013 has over time developed into a prog fusion powerhouse featuring some very experienced musicians.

The rhythm section has been a mainstay of the band since late 2014: Drummer Paul Ettl, a student at the Nürnberg University of Music, combines effortless groove, taste and mastery of odd meters, while Bassist Michael Schetter (Relocator, ex-Seven Steps to the Green Door) provides driving and melodic bass lines as well as a good chunk of the band’s compositions.

Guitar duties are handled by Dave Mola (Effloresce), who joined in early 2017 and whose melodic sensibility and funky fusion approach will surprise those who so far associate him mostly with the heavy side of prog metal.

On keyboards, Günter W. Schmuck is the most recent addition, having joined the band in early 2019. After studying jazz piano at the Munich Jazz School, he went on to record with the Fred Drumski Trio and the SHS Trio, as well as lead his own jazz quartet and salsa band (Orquesta Mistica). Günter has also played with various latin, fusion, funk and soul groups (Papa Caliente, Salsa Fever, Soul7even, Jamdeluxe), and is presently the musical director of the Flames of Gospel choir band.

I’m a sucker for a good instrumental album as a lot of you well know, make it a jazz/prog fusion instrumental and all bets are off, as long as it’s a good one.

I think instrumental albums suffer most from the ‘keyboard in the bedroom’ curse of music making on the internet. It seems like anyone can rattle off a few tunes and then upload them for everyone to listen to, whether they should or not is often a moot point because they can…

However, when it is done with the proficiency, care and attention of an album like ‘Chronosthesia’ then it truly doesn’t get any better. You have four obviously highly skilled musicians who cannot only play a tune to an absurdly high level but compose one too!

Time Shift Accident have produced an album of tracks that are complex but joyous to listen to, a wonderful cornucopia of music that does have jazz/prog fusion at its core in a symbiosis of Planet X and Liquid Tension Experiment-esque grooves but also has the flamboyance of pure rock and even the flair of Latin rhythms running through as the four musicians seem to be turning a jam session into something more technically proficient but oh so much fun.

Every track is superb but there are some absolute stand out moments like opener Cold Case with its funky, upbeat groove and a keyboard sound straight out of the 80’s, Ignalina Forest is just a seriously cool piece of music, jazzy as hell and something Herbie Hancock would be proud to have his name against, Wish is emotive, laid back and achingly cool and Pompei rocks like the bastard son of jazz/prog and heavy rock.

The stand out track (on an album of stellar tunes) for me though is the amazing The Hand of God, just over ten minutes of instrumental perfection, layers of perfectly crafted music that just takes your breath away. Every musician is at the height of their game, Dave’s guitar shines brightly, aided and abetted by the ever so elegant keyboard playing of Günter. Michael and Paul’s rhythm section lays down the grooves absolutely note perfectly creating a piece of music that just effortlessly flows along to its wonderful conclusion.

I will say it again, I am a big fan of instrumental music but it has to be really good to hold my attention. “Chronosthesia’ is such a beast, one of the best instrumental albums I have heard in a very long time, in fact and I hope it is just the start of things to come for Time Shift Accident because, if this album is anything to go by, they have an exceedingly bright future ahead of them.

Released 27th September 2019

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://generationprog.bandcamp.com/album/chronosthesia

Review – Long Earth – Once Around The Sun

Long Earth is a prog rock band from Scotland.

We came together by a series of fortunate but unexpected coincidences. A bunch of musicians, some of whom had played together decades earlier, who just wanted to create new music and have fun. By strange coincidence, Mike, Ken, Gordon, Renaldo and Hew all played at the same Glasgow Festival in the 80s…but in 3 different bands!

So says the PR info accompanying the second album from Scottish proggers Long Earth. I am a fan of their debut release as evinced by these words from my review of The Source,

“Taking what was great about classic 80’s Neo-Prog and adding some modern drama and pathos, Long Earth have given us a debut album that has been years in the making and all the better for it. Yes, it is not without some minor flaws but it certainly is an album that you will return to many a time and will be even more gratifying every time you do, bring on the next one guys!!”

And ‘bring it on’ they have indeed…

Martin Haggarty – Vocals

Where The Source was a great debut and a quality example of Neo-prog, ‘Once Around The Sun’ takes all that was good about that album and raises it not just one notch but a whole plethora of the bloody things!

The arrival of new vocalist Martin Haggarty in 2018 has added that extra level of je ne sais quoi, you know what I mean, something that you can’t quite put your finger on. Martin joins bassist Gordon Mackie, drummer Ken Weir (both of whom have a connection with Martin through legendary Scottish band Abel Ganz), guitarist Renaldo Kim and keyboardist Mike Baxter to give Long Earth the kind of stature already enjoyed by Scottish progressive’s royalty, Comedy of Errors, Grand Tour and the aforementioned Abel Ganz.

The final cog in the wheel is Hew Montgomery (who has history with all of the above luminaries) who has been a motivating factor in Long Earth, and co-producer of both ‘The Source’ and new album ‘Once Around the Sun‘.

‘Once Around the Sun’ comprises nine tracks of lushly composed and executed progressive rock where every note has a place. The whole album is joyously created and contains a part of every member. It speaks of the wonder of fresh spring days, a hazy and never ending summer, the first leaves that fall on a beautiful autumn day and the joy and warmth to be had sat in front of a log fire with those you love.

The songwriting is exemplary, take neo-prog classic opener We Own Tomorrow, a pin sharp example of the genre with Mike’s keys taking us right back to the 80’s with their wonderfully nostalgic sound. The balladesque wonder of My Suit Of Armour will bring a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye, wistful and melancholy in equal parts. Both tracks bring Martin’s superb voice front and centre, he has emotion and passion deep in his core and it shows with every word he sings and the guitar solo on the second track is just exquiste.

Gordon Mackie – bass

The urgently driven A Guy From Down The Road is suitably mysterious and enigmatic and lengthy, coming it at exactly twelve minutes. There’s a definite jazz-funk feel to the bassline and the whole song just grooves along nonchalantly, you may have guessed that I like this track! The band obviously hit it off and just seem to play off each other, there is a feeling of bonhomie that runs throughout the album and its a joy to feel and hear it in every note.

Mike Baxter – keys & Ken Weir – drums

What About Love seems a little out of context with the rest of the album with its more mainstream feel, like a cross between early Wet Wet Wet and Fish era Marillion. It is, however, full of childlike charm and a simplicity that is difficult to ignore and eventually you begin to appreciate its appeal. Mystery and conundrum surround The Man In The Mirror with its 1950’s film noir feel and gallic undertones. A modern day soundtrack to films like The Maltese Falcon, you can’t help but love its enigmatic aura.

Renaldo Kim – guitar

The album closes with four tracks named after the four seasons and every song fits each one perfectly. Spring has that feel of rebirth after a long winter, full of joie de vivre and a hope for the future. You’ve got to check out the guitar note on Summer, fans of early 80’s Simple Minds will definitely hear touches of The Big Sleep in there and it gives the song a feel of those long, lazy, hazy days of summer. You know what I mean, the ones when you were a child and had no cares in the world, this track definitely echoes those times and its sepia tinged invocation of memories is perfectly judged. The solemn, serious introduction to Autumn fits that time of the year perfectly as the long golden days of summer become just a memory yet those memories are full of love and you know we are going into a period of change which can be exciting. Kids love winter, they love the snow, the frosty mornings and the run up to Christmas and Winter is a perfectly written feel-good nod to the memories of the last twelve months. Good or bad, they make us what we are, let’s get together with those we love and salute what has passed and what we have to come.

With the provenance flowing through the band, Long Earth were never going to produce anything but a great follow up to ‘The Source’ but in ‘Once Around The World’ everything seems to have clicked and we see a band nearing their creative zenith. Take my advice, go and listen to what may well be one of 2020’s subliminal releases.

Released 18th March 2020

Order the album direct from the band here:

Review – Ms Amy Birks – All That I Am & All That I Was by John Wenlock-Smith

Amy Birks, or Ms Amy Birks to give her her full name, is a young lady with a very bright future ahead of her.  Well that certainly seems to be the case here with this debut solo release ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’.

Amy was previously a member of the all-female trio the Beatrix Players whose mix of genres embraced folk, singer songwriter acoustica, prog and quasi classical baroque chamber pop.  Quite a heady and adventurous mix and an interesting one too.  I saw these play to a capacity audience as a support act for Big Big Train in Basingstoke where the crowd listened very intently to their delicate yet powerful pieces. Well that was three years ago, but this album is very much of the now, and as the Beatrix Players are no more, that chapter is now closed, with this album being the beginning of a whole new and exciting chapter for Amy.

This new album has been a couple of years in the making and encompasses several themes and various historical songs also feature.  These come from Amy’s rich love of history along with literature as shown in the opening number Jamaica Inn, based on and inspired by the Daphne De Maurier novel of the same name.  This song has a flow to it that is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush but without the histrionic vocals that that song featured. Find the epic video here;

What I especially like about this is that it’s a very catchy song with a fine chorus and some strong, yet understated playing from all, with lovely guitar from Oliver Day and a memorable melody that runs throughout the song.

Unlike the Heart follows and this is another very delicate song with a strong supportive bass line from Nick Wollage and some fine cello from Caroline Lavelle.  In fact, the more you listen to this album the more you can hear within it the sparseness of the sound. This is especially true on the next song More, a very stark and raw song that talks of Amy’s divorce and the feelings around that difficult time.  Here the instrumentation is very powerful indeed, all adding to the air of despair that the lyrics evoke. Ultimately this is a song about one woman’s coming to terms with and surviving the trauma of divorce. This is another very powerful song.

Not Every Night is a statement of continuance about how things were, but not how they are now, or will ever be again. A gentle song that has depths of feeling to it.

With All That I Am is gain about divorce, in which Amy speaks of the unhappiness surrounding the situation and questions are asked about the third party involved in the relationship. That Amy can sing of these matters so openly is admirable, she has moved on from the hurt into pastures new. Again, there is hope however this piece is quite raw emotionally as Amy exorcises her own demons.

The next song Say Something is totally different, in that it deals with a time of abuse that Amy suffered at school and thereafter whilst modelling. A situation in which she was the recipient of unwarranted attention and improper touch. She sings of these times very eloquently, openly questioning why the individual behaved in that way. The music in this song is very emotional and almost sounds wistful, despite the horrendous acts that it portrays. It is a very brave song but one that needs to be heard and spoken about. Personally, I find it a highlight of the album.

We then move onto a brace of songs based on historical figures, initially Catherine Of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife.  He divorced her when she was unable to provide him with an heir and from whom he transferred his affections to Anne Boleyn.  

This song (Catherine) is a triumph as it deals with the life of Catherine, a woman of strength who still loved Henry after his affections shifted and she was cast aside.  This piece has a stately majesty and power to it, almost regal sounding and certainly delivered with respect and admiration even.

The Fault Of The Lady Anne is next. This is another moving piece, respectful and essentially sad dealing as it does with Queen Anne’s fall from grace. Her isolation from Henry and decent into an ill judged affair that resulted in her being taken to the Tower Of London and ultimately to her sad death at the executioners axe. This moving song is indeed very sad lyrically but is very well conceived, and if you’ll forgive the pun, well executed and delivered.

The Road to Gordes is about Amy’s experiences as a single woman travelling in Colombia (Spain) and how she would be noticed, but then often left unserved in restaurants and bars. This is an interesting song musically with some delicate guitar from Oliver Day, a lovely piano line from Amy and some fine interplay between the violin and the cello, as Amy finds her peace in the space of the situation and both accepts and enjoys the sensations it brings.

I Wish is a song that features the nimble fingers of Steve Hackett playing Spanish guitar to lyrics based on words from the Christina Georgina Rossetti’s poem I Wish I Were A Little Bird.  This one is a really wonderful track, with Steve really giving the song some power and making its tale of unrequited love come alive. It is another excellent song, there is a suitably elegant video that accompanies it that can be viewed here.

The final track is called Keeps You Guessing and features piano from Romain Thorel of Lazuli whose jazzy improvisations really give the song a swing and end this exceptional album on a very positive note.

This album will appeal to all who enjoy music by the likes of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and show that Amy is a lady of real talent and imagination who can cross genres at will and for whom the future looks very bright indeed. I will say that this album needs time to sink into your mind and to appreciate the very subtle instrumentation that is at play here, but it is a real delight to hear and appreciate.

Released 3/4/2020

Order the album from The Merch Desk here:

https://themerchdesk.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=88_296

Review – Glass Hammer – Dreaming City

What if the Devil never went to Georgia? What if he never made it and stopped off in Tennessee instead? Hold that thought and listen to Glass Hammer’s monster creation, Dreaming City, an unstoppable force that will blow your conceptions of this band wide apart…”

Yes, really, that was my first impression of the stunning new album from US progressive rock veterans Glass Hammer. They often say that first impressions last and, in the case of this musical gem, that is very true, it still sounds as fresh and vibrant after multiple listens as it did that first time, a sign of a truly good record.

I spoke to founding member and bassist Steve Babb about how the album broke new ground and was a bit of a risk,

“Yes we took risks. I was hoping that as we old-timers listen to it – it would make us feel young again. Like it was 1979 and you just discovered some really cool prog band had done a tribute album to your favourite sword and sorcery anti-hero like Elric or Conan. For inspiration I started searching for my old copies of Michael Moorcock books only to realize I had worn them out years ago and had to reorder used ones!”

Oddly enough…on the swords and sorcery thing, or what some call “grim dark” now – George R. R. Martin once signed the Glass Hammer guest book. Might have been around 2000 when he did that. I have no records of the guest book now but can remember him and a few other fantasy authors visiting.”

The artwork from the booklet is pure fantasy art, as is the cover and it really fits with what Steve and fellow founding member (and keyboardist) Fred Schendel wanted to engender with this release.

The music really hits you hard from the first track, in your face and powerful, you’ll hear a myriad of influences on the album, things never seen on a Glass Hammer album before…

I think Fred’s major influences for this one were Rush, Tull and Gentle Giant.”, Steve told me,

“Mine were Rush, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, the Space Rock genre in general…a modern band called Yuri Gargarin, Jacco Gardner and even my old band Wizards from the early 80s.”

Steve Babb Glass Hammer bassist

The album flows with no gaps between tracks and this only adds to the listening experience which opens with what can only be called a monster of a track. The Dreaming City literally comes from out of nowhere with a monster riff courtesy of Steve Babb and Aaron Raulston’s thunderous drums. The vocals give a spine tingling edge, it’s just a thrilling, dark and delicious ride from beginning to end, the extended keyboard section from Fred Schendel is just genius. No time to get your breath back as a frantic guitar segues us perfectly into Cold Star, more of the same? Yes please! I am absolutely loving the heavier guitar sound on this album which, in conjunction with Fred’s ridiculously good Hammond, transports you screaming maniacally back to the 70’s. This is one thrill ride you definitely don’t want to get off, there’s a moment of calm where beautifully harmonised vocals really stand out (Reese Boyd has a superb voice) but, overall it will just leave you cackling wildly.

The Rush influence is first heard on Terminus, a synth heavy 90’s version that is. Uber cool and full of style, Steve and Fred lead us up a path rarely trodden by Glass Hammer and, you know what, it just works. It’s up-tempo, edgy and funky in that polished 90’s fashion that I’m a big fan of. The Lurker Beneath is a dark and slightly disturbing instrumental with the pulsing feel of the keyboards giving it a resonant frequency that will get under every prog fans skin with its spaced out feel. There’s a seamless transition into the monolithic might of Pagarna, a track that could literally move mountains. It has a range so low it must exist in the substrata of the planet and Fred’s guitar playing and Reese Boyd’s lead work screams Led Zep right at your unprotected core, just superb!

Fred Schendel (L) & Steve Babb (R)

At The Threshold Of Dreams then heads off into uncharted waters with it’s Tangerine Dream-esque electronic/techno vibe. You feel like you are in the middle of a mind-bending 70’s artrock movie theme as the music explores the hidden paths of your mind, disconcerting but weirdly enjoyable. There’s a totally chilled and relaxed atmosphere surrounding This Lonely World, an oasis of calm reflection among the maelstrom that surrounds us where John Beagley’s cultured vocal adds gravitas alongside the organ and laid back, jazz-infused, guitar playing. Susie Bogdanowicz’s vocal prowess is then given free rein on October Ballad, a wistful and gentle song that touches the heart and soul, well it is a ballad after all!

The Tower is another Tangerine Dreamscape (see what I did there?) instrumental straight from the 70’s, a clever nod to the decade and to the science-fantasy genre that the album invokes and is based on. Next comes one of the most intriguing tracks on the whole album, the stentorian spoken word vocals and 70’s synth heavy keyboards give A Desperate Man a really atmospheric and eerie edge and it’s one that really works. It’s catchy and hypnotic and you find yourself pausing what you’re doing and just listening to the song and that is quite a skill to have, I love it. Remember Extreme’s ‘Get The Funk Out’?, well the intro to The Key really (and I mean REALLY) reminds me of that with its ever so funky bass line and drum beat and the way it strides ever so confidently into your path. You want some flute? You got it! Jazzy 80’s guitar? Yep! It is a wonderful cornucopia of musical styles and one that sets you up perfectly to what Steve Babb called an absolute beast of a finale!

Fred Schendel (Left,) Steve Babb (right) Glass Hammer co-founders

Watchmen On The Walls is one of those monumentally powerful prog epics that stands out on its own, just over eleven minutes of progressive rock brilliance. The thunderous guitar riffs and primeval drums combine with the towering drums and bass to give us a stand-out piece of music that speaks of tales of swords and sorcery with larger than life heroes and heroines battling unmentionable beasts and contemptible villains to complete incredible deeds. It is song writing that Neal Peart would have been proud off as this track truly has the spirit of Rush at its core and a fitting close to a superb album.

There has been some amazing music released this year already but ‘Dreaming City’ is a special and significant album that could turn out to be truly career defining for this much loved band. While the band have created something new using influences from the music that shaped them in the 70’s, there is no doubt that it is still uniquely a Glass Hammer album and that is always something to be cherished.

Released April 17th 2020

Order from the Glass Hammer store here:

https://glasshammer.com/official-store/

Review – Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea – by John Wenlock-Smith

Well this is certainly different for me. Yes, I’d heard of Pure Reason Revolution but somehow never actually listened to their modern day take on Progressive Rock. I know that they are well regarded in certain circles and they have quite a history. Several albums, a split and, more recently, a return to action, albeit in an altered form and with a slightly different line up, so this was new territory for me. I admit it did take me a while to get to a place of understanding with this album but, as always, continued listening finally gave way to understanding and then to acceptance and admiration even. 

Well this is my review of this their fourth album, ‘Eupnea’, their first since 2010.  It is pretty topical in content in that it speaks of the experiences of Jon Courtney and his wife surrounding the birth of their baby girl, Jessie. Born prematurely at 32 weeks and weighing just 3lbs, this album records her battle for survival, which thankfully she won.

It is Jon’s tribute to his wife and daughter Jessie and has this theme woven throughout the tracks, which really helps you understand the music properly once you are aware of its back story.

‘Eupnea’ consists of just Six tracks of varying length ranging from over four minutes to the epic title track that is nearly fourteen minutes in length. That said, there are no wasted moments on these tracks as everything is of relevance and worthy of their place. Let’s have a look at this in a bit more detail.

The music opens with New Obsession which includes the sounds of hospital apparatus monitoring heartbeat, pulse and breathing. This sets the scene for much of what is to follow; great vocal harmonies from Jon and Chloe Alper and some furious guitar work from Jon that really rocks out with a wonderful melodic solo at the 3.55-minute point. It really delivers a punch, along with that fabulous chorus of “It’s you, a child, a lover you’re dead calm and the choir is so soft tonight”. Very emotional, heartfelt and a simply fabulous opener.

This is followed by the first of the longer tracks, Silent Genesis, with its atmospheric keyboards and samples. A Pink Floyd type guitar line from Jon and an insistent bass line that works to anchor everything together. This track also features original PRR guitarist Greg Jong who was bought in to create this powerful emotional feeling.

Third track Maelstrom is so called because it marked the turning point in Jessie’s struggle for life when she began steadily breathing and her parents’ anxieties were lifted. This is a song of hope that the storm has started to pass over, deeply significant and with Jon and his wife being very grateful for this positive change, an end to the uncertainty. Again, this song has more wonderful harmonies from Jon and Chloe.

Ghosts and Typhoons follows and at over 8 minutes fits between the shorter and longer pieces like a bridge. It has blistering drum patterns to it and raucous guitar throughout, featuring lovely vocals from Chloe alongside some fine support from Jon resulting in more great harmonies. This is quite a powerfully propelled piece that shows PRR’s strengths and imagination at play.

Beyond Our Bodies is a celebratory song about the fragility of life and the body’s ability to overcome incredible difficulties and to come through the other side. This is another compelling song.

Which leads us to the title track and longest song, Eupnea, which is about normal unlaboured or quiet breathing, without volition. This is a song that brings everything together in a 13 odd minute piece of contrasts, in which heavy passages sit next to lighter more gentle ones in a juxtaposition of light and shade that accentuate the emotional roller coaster that this music takes you through.

This entire album is certainly a very moving journey, and one that I urge you to join, partly as at the time of writing this review the world is struggling to cope with the Covid 19 (Coronavirus). This album follows a different scenario with, thankfully, a positive outcome.

A simply marvellous album that will be on many ‘best of’ 2020 lists I’m sure.  A fine album indeed, very emotionally raw, it rocks hard too.

If, like me, you are unaware of the music of Pure Reason Revolution, then this album is a fine introduction and will hopefully whet your appetite to discover more from this fine outfit. Jon and Chloe have produced an album of depth and intelligence here that really deserves to be widely heard. Highly recommended indeed.

Released 3/4/2020

Order from InsideOut Music here:

http://www.insideoutshop.de/Item/Pure_Reason_Revolution_-_Eupnea_-Ltd-_CD_Digipak-/16622