Progradar’s Review of 2021

I’ve had a little time to digest what was a rather wonderful year of music in 2021. Here is my review of the year with my favourite albums, in no particular order barring my number one!

Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe – Forevermore

A true return to form for the prog supergroup with melodies, tunes and overtures galore. Transatlantic gave us their best album since ‘Bridge Across Forever’.

Lifesigns – Altitude

I really think that Lifesigns have taken a massive step forward with this album, good as ‘Cardington’ was, this release is so very much better in my opinion.

Echoes & Signals – Mercurial

‘Mercurial’ trades some of Echoes & Signals’ signature post-rock sensibilities for a darker journey into the kind of prog-metal embraced by the likes of Tool and this new direction is one that I feel suits them perfectly. 

Cosmograf – Rattrapante

At the time, I said, “At this moment in time there is nothing I would rather listen to than this incredible new album from Cosmograf, will Robin’s latest pièce de résistance still be up there at the end of the year? Most probably but, here and now, it just does not get any better than this!” And here it is!

League of Lights – Dreamers Don’t Come Down

Not only a nod to the past but also a completely relevant piece of music in these present times, ‘Dreamers Don’t Come Down’ is a perfectly crafted collection of pop and electronica infused songs that really hit home.

Ana Patan – Spice, Gold and Tales Untold

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.

The Vicious Head Society – Extinction Level Event

‘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’

Catalyst*R – self-titled

When everything that is happening around you is making your life jaded, just press play on this bewitching collection of songs, light the spark and let the music start to take your cares away…

Michael Woodman – Psithurism

A hugely impressive and admirably different collection of songs that shows Woodman’s impish creativity at its best. A musical breath of fresh air that will leave a smile on your face and wonderment in your soul.

Vestamaran – Bungalow Rex

Get your hands on this album and, when the sun shines, get the barbecue lit, an ice cold beer in your hand, put the stereo on, turn it up to 11 and just enjoy this incredible album for, as the press release says, “Life is not just bungalow all day long, it also includes a lot of rex in the evenings.”

Tillison, Reingold, Tiranti – Allium – Una Storia

Simple but perfectly formed and harking back to the days when music just put a smile on your face, this is one album that deserves success just because of how it makes you feel and I love it for that.

Big Big Train – Common Ground

Vibrant and upbeat, thoughtful, wistful and even melancholy at times, it is a collection of amazing songs that will touch you on a basic level and move you on many others. ‘Common Ground’ is the album that will make you fall in love with the band all over again and I can’t give it any higher praise than that!

smalltape – The Hungry Heart

I’m a massive fan of music that makes me think, music that doesn’t give up its deepest delights easily and ‘The Hungry Heart’ has that in spades. HungerBurning House, Dissolution, the list goes on, cuts of pure musical brilliance that showcase this young German musician as a seriously precocious talent and one to follow closely.

Giancarlo Erra – Departure Tapes

If music could tell a story of a life lived, lost and, deep at its core, loved then ‘Departure Tapes’ is it. I am along term fan of this intelligent musician’s brilliant work and this new release is another entry into his very impressive discography.

Great North Star – self-titled

Step out of this confusing and hectic world that we live in, if only for the thirty nine minutes running time, and allow your mind and your soul to recharge. A wonderful and insightful masterpiece that will stay with you for a very long time.

Three Colours Dark – Love’s Lost Property

‘Love’s Lost Property’ is an exquisite creation, nine tracks of wondrously charming music with Rachel’s honeyed vocals lifting this release well above what you may have heard already this year. I suggest you get your hands on it as soon as you can, it is definitely worth seeking out.

The Holy Road – An Unshakeable Demon

Never be afraid to challenge yourself and listen to something different, I found the eclectic and evocative wonder of ‘An Unshakable Demon’ really hit home with me.

CYAN – For King And Country

A masterpiece of intricate melodies, mellifluous vocals and intelligent songwriting, ‘For King And Country’ delights on every level and makes you smile. You can’t really ask for much more than that, can you?

Glass Hammer – Skallagrim – Into The Breach

Epic in scope, majestic in scale and blurring the lines between progressive rock and progressive metal, Glass Hammer have given us their best album of recent years and possibly their best release ever and it should be another monster success for this evergreen band.

Findlay Napier – It Is What It Is

‘It Is What It Is’ sees this fine musician and songwriter on a higher plane and is a must buy for anyone who appreciates and treasures original music with heart and soul.

And the top gong for album of the year goes to….

HFMC – We Are The Truth

This superlative gem of release is worthy of all the praise that is being heaped upon it and finishes 2021 on an utter high for this reviewer, the finest of a wonderful crop of albums released this year!

So, there you have it, my selection of some of the great albums that graced 2021 and I am sure that 2022 is going to be just as good!

Review – HFMC – We Are The Truth

There’s just something you have to love about Scandinavian progressive rock, there’s a warmth and organic joy about the music that stems from those lands and the latest from Sweden’s excellent HFMC (Hasse Fröberg & Musical Companion) is no exception.

The band’s fifth studio album is an absolute gem and follows up 2019’s fan favourite ‘Parallel Life’, Hasse says of the new release:

“We Are The Truth is our most adventurous album to date. The music is positive, warm, organic, soulful and thoughtful. The lyrics are a cry for compassion, respect and love. We Are The Truth is both musically and lyrically very much about the world today”.

In a world that has become a place of darkness, fear and jealousy, ‘We Are The Truth’ shines like a beacon of light with its uplifting songs, wonderful music and Hasse’s distinctive vocals imbuing everything with a sepia tinged feeling of good will.

Music is something that can fill your soul with comfort, delight and elation and, from the first note of To Those Who Rule The World, there’s a heady feeling of good natured fun. This album is chock full of memorable chorus’s, chunky riff’s and amazing melodies that will last long in the memory. Bluesy, funky and full of Scandinavian soul, HFMC have that feel of seasoned professionals who just love what they do and want to share that affection with the rest of the world.

Other Eyes and Rise Up have an almost anthemic feel to them with a soaring chorus that just begs to be sung along to and a jaunty rhythm that just puts a smile on your face. There’s the longer, more intricate and utterly magnificent Constant Search For Bravery, the dreamy, childlike delight of Yoko, the sublime brilliance of title track We Are The Truth and the emotion and warmth of Every Second Counts, the hits of pure joy and elation just keep coming.

As in a lot of cases, the best is kept till last. Coming in at just under eleven minutes, A Spiritual Change showcases all that’s best about HFMC. Musically complex yet at the same time eminently accessible and listenable there’s an incredibly catchy motif running throughout and Hasse’s vocals are, once again, superb. Just let this song wash over you and enjoy the sense of joy, fun, bonhomie, warmth and charm that takes you to a higher plane, simply wonderful!

This superlative gem of release is worthy of all the praise that is being heaped upon it and finishes 2021 on an utter high for this reviewer, the finest of a wonderful crop of albums released this year? You’ll have to wait and see but it is most definitely right up there with the very, very best.

Released November 26th, 2021

Order the album from bandcamp here:

We Are The Truth | Hasse Fröberg & Musical Companion (bandcamp.com)

Review – Azure – Of Brine And Angel’s Beaks – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Of Brine And Angels Beaks’ is the second album from UK proggers Azure, who hail from Brighton and the South East of England. The album was Released in June 2021 after a period of lockdown and is the follow up to their debut ‘Wish For Spring’ that followed a few EP’s and singles like Redtail, a twenty minute progressive love song, and the shorter single Mistress that garnered wide acclaim for the band.

This album continues to mix hard edged progressive metal with fantasy elements (especially in the lyrics) and, over the course of its twelve songs and its sixty-three minute running time, many tales are told and worked upon. The music also includes lots of synthesizers, a modern clean production and lots of staggering guitar work from Galen Stapley, who can shred with the best of them, as eviced on his highly fluid and furious solo on the track Self-Crucifixion. The vocals of Christopher Sampson are very different and tend to verge wonderfully on the side of operatic, think Freddie Mercury on helium and you’d be in the right area. Thankfully they are highly listenable, no death metal growling here!

A Night Of Superlunary Gazing opens the album with one minute of almost psychedelic, fantastical music before Ameotoko 1 – The Curse drives in with some delicate arpeggio guitar lines and soft vocals, after about four minutes the song gains some traction and some pace, there are some strident keyboards runs in this section too. This is followed by the upbeat and excellent sounding The Jester Who Cheated Death and the fantastical Lustre – Siphon of Umbra, the former opening with what sounds like a marimba but isn’t. The song has great lyrics and lots happening musically, including some great guitar from Galen, along with some great dual harmonies. The song is a sorter one by Azure standards but certainly packs a punch. Lustre is a mellow, but hard edged, classic and one of the best songs on the album with great vocal harmonies and crunching, soaring guitars, it grabs your attention and holds on, a powerful piece of music.

Outrun God is next and, again, this starts gently but soon gains momentum. The song also has a highly impressive refrain that will stay with you long after it has finished, highly impressive Stuff. Mercy follows with very some very heavy guitar and epic synth work, along with driving beat that really gets under your skin in a positive way. 

Of Brine and Angels Beaks opens with strong keyboard textures and a low bass from Bella Lee and some kick from Sam Calder on the drums. The song is slower paced but very dramatic, with some excellent vocals from Chris in among the strident riffing from Galen. The middle section really rocks with lots of effects being used to process the sound effectively. Again, a very strong chorus and, indeed, song which strong metallic elements to the fore. The song is quite dark in nature, especially in the lyrics. It talks a lot about death and the passing of time, the bass is prominent here and sounds impressive too.

A Sailor Will Learn is next and starts softly, although the vocals are certainly impassioned, after which we enter a heavy section with Galen’s furious guitar riffs adding great dynamics to this song. There is yet another memorable chorus and some more dual guitars tracked that give the melody a lift, after the chorus there’s a furious section with some frantic guitar parts and great solo before thunderous drums lead to more riffing guitars. The keyboards take over before leading back into vocals, although taken at pace. This is one of the strongest and most imaginative tracks on the album, simply fabulous and with a great solo towards the end. The subject matter is dark again but what a song! Fabulously inventive and invigorating.

Cup Of Poison is another lengthy and epic piece, opening with some graceful guitar lines as the song builds its momentum. The track is epic in nature and tone, with lovely graceful, fluid guitar lines. It’s all highly impressive, musically diverse and bravely bold. Not afraid to be different, not for show but because the songs merit it. This song also contains elements of Celtic music touches which add to its magic and dynamics. In fact, the whole album is full of dynamic touches, you’re listening and then it all changes abruptly but in a positive direction. The Jellyfish is a shorter track with excellent keyboard programming and a definite 80’s touch to it. Lyrically, the song is simply weird, talking about living on a self-made raft and longing for a different life.

The album closes with Ameotoko II – Cloudburst, which is ferocious and hard hitting and, once again, has disturbingly dark lyrics about killing and death but fabulous music. There’s lots going on here and it’s never a dull moment, before you know it you’ve reached the end and are left wondering what the hell you’ve just listened to? Before you know it, you’ll be playing the album again, just to try and grasp it all a new. Such an impressive album that will stay with you long after it’s finished.

I’ve added a link to the lyrics as I feel following them will aid in understanding and appreciating this fine album, I know it certainly helped me get the gist of it all.

Released 11th June, 2021

Order the album here:

Of Brine And Angel’s Beaks | Azure (bandcamp.com)

Find the lyrics here:

Azure (prog rock) – Of Brine And Angel’s Beaks Lyrics and Tracklist | Genius

Review – Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology – 4CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nostalgia is a thing of the past, or so one witty person once said. Although, reading progressive music websites could we have you thinking that prog fans are Living In The Past, as Jethro Tull once sang on their unorthodox album of the same name, released in 1972. A certain sector of prog fans tends to view with suspicion any album released after 1976 and, heaven forbid, anything from the eighties or beyond!

This is unfair and is not completely true, much as I love those classic albums from prog’s so called ‘golden era’, I am also open to newer music, as I am to reissues of classic, long lost, or under-appreciated albums, of which I have reviewed several on this very site.

Many of these lost gems come from the good people at Esoteric/Cherry Red, although some have come from the Rock Candy label whose remit is usually hard rock or AOR type offerings from US Bands who got lost in the mix of all that has happened in the last four decades.

This review features one of those lost gems, namely the Phenomena album from 1985. Phenomena was a project created and  by Tom Galley, the Cannock, Staffordshire younger brother of Mel Galley (the guitarist in the Midlands based band Trapeze). Mel was also heavily involved in the music behind this “concept” album, being able to call up, and recruit, his old band mate Glenn Hughes, who had been with Trapeze for their first three albums before jumping ship and taking over from Roger Glover in Deep Purple. In addition, both Cozy Powell and Neil Murray (who were both members of Mel’s then band Whitesnake) were recruited to the project, as was original Magnum keyboard player Richard Bailey and John Thomas of Budgie.

On paper, the project had the stamp of pedigree with some very well known and established musicians to carry the project forward. The album had interesting packaging with a deluxe booklet with the lyrics and the artwork of Ian Lowe’s interpretation of the songs (along with the lyrics and album credits). All this occurred on the then Bronze label home of Uriah Heep and another local hero Robin George, who also had Magnum connections. However, Bronze were in trouble financially, their golden days of Uriah Heep selling millions of albums were long past and they were struggling to make ends meet, As such, despite the huge promotional push for Phenomena, it sadly failed to make the sales expected, Robin George’s then album, ‘Dangerous Music’, suffering a similar fate.

Listening to the album again now ,nearly 40 years on, is fascinating and, yes, the music certainly stands up well and is rightly due for re-evaluation, This set comprises all three Phenomena albums, along with the ‘Anthology’ album that includes three tracks from the original album, three from the second album, ‘Dream Runner’, and four from the third, and final, Phenomena album, ‘Innervision’. In addition, there are three non-album tracks and two 12″ single mixes of Did It All For Love and Still The Night. Also, there is a booklet for each album that gives the lowdown, who plays what and the full lyrics to each album, all well presented in a sturdy clamshell box.

The music itself is prominently British heavy rock of the mid 1980’s so think Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy or Gary Moore and you’re in the right territory. What really lifts the album into something special though are the tremendous vocals of Glenn Hughes who is absolutely fabulous throughout and sings his lungs out on tracks like Still the Night and Phoenix Rising. Also very noteworthy is the demonic violin playing of Ric Sanders (latterly of Fairport Convention) on the track Dance With The Devil. It is utterly mesmerising and backed up with some muscular musical accompaniment. The last track on the album is a little different in that it is performed by a boys’ choir who wordlessly intone Latin, which gives a certain gothic nature to the track.

On listening to the album, I think I can spot where they went wrong in that the concept was not clear enough for listeners to fully grasp and so this was a factor in not really reaching the heights they had wanted to achieve. Also, there were a myriad of confusing releases from the album which, over time, diluted the album’s appeal and could be viewed as hype that was not fully realised. This was a pity as the original album had good material and performances throughout and really deserved far better than it received.

The next Phenomena album was released, again to much fanfare, in 1987, some two years after the original album. This time around they took a more Sci-Fi based storyline and plot, although, again, the concept got lost in the mix a little. This time they had, in addition to Glenn Hughes, John Wetton of Asia, Ray Gillen of Black Sabbath and members of Japanese band Bow Wow, whose guitarist and drummer came on board, as did Max Bacon of Bronz, another group whose success was limited by the collapse of the Bronze label.

The music was, again, very mid eighty’s hard rock, although John Wetton’s vocal on Did It All for Love gave the album a big boost in certain markets like Europe and South America, where it was a big hit, making the album even more successful than the first. It still stands as a fine piece of hard rock from that era, stand out tracks being Did It All For Love, Hearts On Fire, Jukebox  and No Retreat, No Surrender, on which Ray Gillen turns in a memorable performance. Again, the artwork is very suited to the album and the booklet details the saga of getting the album out. It was quite a struggle and the fact they managed it speaks volumes to the faith they had in the project, which was thankfully repaid upon release.

The third album in this set is the ‘Innervision’ album from 1993, this time the concept was far less ethereal or supernatural and was more like a gangster story. The music is more up to date, in that it sounded like a British Bon Jovi with big riffs and choruses and with a great, little known, vocalist, Keith Murrell (who had sung with Cliff Richard and Airrace, amongst others). The big star on this album was Brian May, who Scott Gorham knew and asked to play on two songs, What About Love? and A Whole Lot Of Love. The lineup may have been slimmed down but, even so, the music has fire and guts and still sounds good today, some 28 years on. I never bought this instalment as it was always expensive, so it’s good to have it in this set now. Again, the booklet tells the story behind the album and the difficulties they had in getting it released, 7 years after the second and 10 years after the first album.

Banzai sounds like a Foreigner song with some crunchy guitar riffs amidst the keyboards, the big song is What About Love, featuring the aforementioned Brian May on guitar, and this sounds truly epic with masses of backing vocals. They were trying to get Freddie Mercury to sing but, sadly, it never happened, imagine how that would have sounded! Yet again, the concept gets lost in the mix somehow but, the songs and music are exceptionally fine indeed and Keith Murrell is a fine singer who brings fire and passion to these songs, making this third instalment a real treat and an undiscovered classic album.

Having said all this, I do feel that these albums are worthy of far more appreciation than they received at the time and the additional tracks and excellent booklets provide information that makes this set very worthy of investigation. Of its time and era for certain but both marvellous and bold, in the face of many difficulties and with definite progressive moments and wonderful performances by all. In addition, the set features three previously unreleased tracks, Assassins Of The Night and Running With The Pack with Glenn Hughes and Stealing Heaven with Keith Murrell, and 12″ mixes of Did It All For Love and Still the Night.

Order the box set from Cherry Red here:

Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology, 4CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Drifting Sun – Forsaken Innocence

Drifting Sun are a UK-based Progressive Rock studio project. Their music has been described as dramatic, theatrical, and atmospheric, in the true style of Progressive Rock giants such as Dream Theater, Queensryche, Genesis and Jethro Tull, to name but a few of the bands that influenced their sound.

Or so says the PR material, well, with the addition of renowned greek solo artist and lead vocalist of Verbal Delirium, Jargon, I personally think you can add rock royalty Queen to that list!

I’ve long been a fan of this unique musical project, their amazing musicianship has touched areas of symphonic prog, progressive metal, hard rock and many others but this new album is truly the pinnacle of their work so far. It is pompous, ebullient and in your face at times but with a nod and a wink, and not a little humour, at times. Powerful vocals, soaring guitar lines and a monstrous rhythm section all contribute to a magical melting pot of musical brilliance.

There are no weak tracks on the album, opener King of the Country flies along at a breakneck pace with Pat Sander’s excellent keyboards leading the way. It’s when Jargon’s fine, distinctive vocals begin that I begin to feel we are being treated to something special here. In association with Pat’s keys, he gives me an impression of that great Queen track, Don’t Stop Me Now, but done with Drifting Sun’s own inimitable style and it gets me smiling immediately!.

Insidious is a more introspective track with a melancholy vibe engendered by the brooding vocals and dynamic keyboards, a dramatic and powerful piece of music. That melancholy feeling carries over into the melodramatic, theatrical inventiveness of Dementium, a pair of songs that take symphonic prog and elevate it to another level. New Dawn is a heartfelt, emotive track with a sincere vocal and Pat’s elegant piano giving an almost forlorn feel to the song, the emotion and passion are bared for all to hear, especially on the superb guitar solo.

Now things get really interesting with the two part title track. At over twenty five minutes in total, Forsaken Innocence Parts I & II is epic in every way and is some of the best music I have heard this year. A group of musicians at the height of their game and playing in perfect harmony, when that happens then music simply becomes a joy to listen to, every note resonating with you on a personal level. I suggest just sitting back and letting these impressive pieces of music just wash over you and marvel at the brilliance on show.

Time to Go is the final track on the album (not including the bonus track*) and brings things to a close with a clarity and calmness that just leaves you in a better place.

(*Bonus track Hand on Heart is a brief, but compelling, footnote to the album, authoritative vocals and energetic music delivering a short, sharp and effectual hit of Drifting Sun’s addictive music.)

‘Forsaken Innocence’ sees Drifting Sun step out of the shadows and cement their place at the top table of progressive acts in the UK. It’s an engaging, captivating and sensational listen every time you press play and is deservedly up there fighting for the honours of album of the year.

Released 27th October, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Forsaken Innocence | Drifting Sun (bandcamp.com)

Review – Fractal Mirror – Beyond Borders – by John Wenlock-Smith

This album is the fifth, and latest one, from the internet based & curated band, Fractal Mirror, which is comprised of  a couple of Dutch and US members, amongst others including British local Boy Gareth Cole on guitars. Brett Kull of Echolyn acts as both a backing vocalist and as a creative muse or foil to the members to the band, perhaps to stimulate and enhance their creativity?

The album also marks a return to the longer tracks in which their progressive leanings can be unleashed fully, an element perhaps missing from their last two albums. Well, this release rectifies that issue conclusively as this allows for two of the album’s six songs to come in at well over the ten-minute mark and it really works on this record. Ashes is over seventeen minutes long and Borders runs out at just under thirteen, both songs benefitting from this extended running time as they have chance to expand well, allowing various themes and sections to emerge that are embellished and reworked during the running of the track.

There are also some exceptionally fine musical segments to these songs, especially in the guitar lines of Gareth Cole and in the mellotron of Leo Koperdraat, which really adds to the mood of the piece. I find the track to be very evocative and with its fabulous guitar lines from Gareth Cole, to be something a bit special sounding really. Even the shorter songs do not lose the progressive elements entirely. This is especially the case on Shadow Man which twists wonderfully with a very serpentine guitar line that threads through the final sections of the track.

The album opens with the brief Instrumental, Beyond, as is often the way in prog albums. It starts with swathes of keyboard sounds and textures, also there are some graceful acoustic guitar lines at play and then, latterly, some smooth electric guitar. It is all very pleasant and sets the album up perfectly for what is to come.

Ashes, the first of the two epics, is one to really get yourself immersed in as, over its duration, you will be taken on a voyage of sorts. Lots of ominous sounds and effects and a strident tone emerge and, again, it is very pleasing to the ear. All the while the sound is underpinned by the sounds of the rhythm section and also the electric guitar of Gareth Cole The vocals commence and work well, they are certainly strong enough on this song which also has some nifty bass runs from Ed, Leo’s Mellotron showing itself to be in fine fettle here too. This song talks of ‘ashes all around me’, and I suppose the song is about a relationship and about making it right. Relationships can be hard going at times and, as I’m sure we all know and agree, the key is commitment and communication, both of which will give a stable footing to build upon.

The lyrics go on to speak of another day wishing you weren’t here, another day of living in fear so I guess there might be an element of abuse within this relationship. Very sad words really and, overall the song has a melancholy feel and its subject matter is dark but, the music is very strong, the final solo from Gareth being suitably epic in both tone and nature, in all, a really good track.

Kingdom Of the Lost is another shorter piece but one with great vocal harmonies. This piece sounds very much like a song of loss and, as such, it has traces of  slight melancholia at certain points. In contrast, it also has subtle slide guitar lines woven through its grooves, which work to create fine effect and impact.

Borders concludes the album in a lengthy workout, during which there are several great instrumental passages that unfold gracefully, as does the song itself. This track calls for holding the border one last time but what this really means is not clear. Even so, this sentiment is clearly expressed at various points in the track and with some power presence and influence.

When you add all this together what emerges is another fine album from this band for whom bigger things, audiences and shows must surely beckon and, with the power of Bad Elephant Music behind them, their future certainly looks very promising indeed. So hop on over to their bandcamp page to find this fabulous modern prog album and see what you think.

Released October 15th, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Beyond Borders | Fractal Mirror (bandcamp.com)

Review – Nova Cascade – Back From The Brink – by John Wenlock-Smith

This batch of lockdowns has an unexpected, pleasant side effect in that it has enabled and stimulated creativity amongst musicians. This has resulted in some marvellous, and often unexpected, pleasurable listening opportunities. Where projects that were once pipe dreams have been given a dust down and often have then come to fruition and some fabulous music has emerged as a result.

Yes finally managed to deliver their long overdue and much promised album ‘The Quest’ to complimentary reviews, Big Big Train have been busy too, releasing ‘Common Ground’, Steve Hackett has released two albums in these times and now Nova Cascade have issued their third album, ‘Back From the Brink’. The album is another mixture of ambient and progressive ideas, although it is short with a running time of just over 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes are certainly imaginative and well realised by the band.

Nova Cascade’s last album, ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’, has paved the way for this epic new album, one that was partially inspired by events surrounding the band with Dave Hilbourne suffering from long covid, a battle which he won thankfully but at some cost to his well-being and mental health. Undeterred, Dave decided to channel these feelings into music, this may in part explain why this music is both dark at times and hopeful at other points.

This album has all been recorded remotely with Dave compiling it all into some order and there are some fabulous performances from each of the members, noteworthy of which being the guitar and violin work of Eric Bouilette of The Room and Nine Skies and the flute playing of  Charlie Bramald, which really lifts to album at key points.

This album is best appreciated on headphones, I find as it’s textures can unfold gradually revealing their crafted treasures at ease.

Several tracks really stand out, firstly The Minutes After which is a graceful instrumental with some delicate acoustic guitar runs and that fabulous flute adding to the mood and lightening it up, this track is fantastically evocative and has melody a-plenty. Another song that really lifts this album is the longest piece, Back From The Brink, which encapsulates all that is good about Nova Cascade.

It has enough space for instruments to rely shine, very strong keyboards interspersed with guitar fills and a strong, but not dominating, bass part and a hauntingly evocative flute floating over gentle piano and guitar lines. Yet, somehow, this all gels together, creating music of both beauty and warmth. It is all highly impressive sounding and it’s a joy to hear this excellent piece with its great dynamics.

Between these two epics lies a while slew of shorter, but never less than interesting pieces, most notably There Is Always A Way, which manages to blend the music with the words of Neil Armstrong’s, creating a great atmosphere. Eric’s violin also adds significant class to the piece before Dave’s synthesizers are ushered to centre stage. Even then, it is the ensemble playing that is presented so vividly, it’s all about the whole sound that is being offered here.

The final vocal track, Long Winter, follows and, here again, Dave sounds very Steve Hogarth like in his wispy delivery and reminds me of some long-forgotten eighties vocalist (Fergal Sharkey perhaps?), either way, it certainly works well. This song is highly personalised as it speaks about what Dave went through with long covid, yet, despite that, it is a quietly triumphant track, to these ears at least.

The whole album is predominantly instrumental, with just three vocal performances from Dave Hilbourne on Phantom, The Hill and Long Winter.

‘Back From The Brink’ is a really fine album indeed and it is a pleasure to listen to. I would recommend this to anyone, especially if you like ambient, instrumentally driven, progressive music, as this album offers that and far far more. I’m sure you will find it an agreeable listen, I certainly did enjoy this album but I do recommend headphones for best results. It’s an aural treat for tired ears, float away into a world of tranquility and class.

Released September 9th, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Back From The Brink | NOVA CASCADE (bandcamp.com)

 

Marillion – ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ Tour – Live At Hull City Hall – Sunday, November 14th, 2021

“Live is Life…”

Life came full circle at Hull City Hall on Sunday evening, 14th November 2021. I first saw Marillion at this venue on the 9th July, 1990 and, thirty-one years later, here I was, about to watch one of my favourite bands on the first gig of their ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ tour.

It’s been a long time since Marillion last played live to their loyal fans, as Steve Hogarth said at the start of the gig, over 700 days! and you could sense the excitement in the venue beforehand. For the only time in living memory, the queue for the merch stand was way longer than the queue for the bar!

Antimatter

The support act was a duo called Antimatter and their short set was an excellent appetiser for what was to follow. Powerful vocals with electric and acoustic guitars made for a great listen and the audience were very appreciative.

The atmosphere in Hull City Hall had been building to a crescendo as the band came onto the stage full of vigour and enthusiasm and an honest joy at playing in front of a live audience again.

I saw the band last at the Royal Albert Hall nearly two years ago, in November 2019 and they just seemed to be so up for this gig, Steve Hogarth was laughing and smiling had a great rapport with his band mates, Pete Trewavas was bounding around the stage with obvious energy, Ian Mosley was a powerhouse behind the drum kit, Steve Rothery patrolled his corner of the stage in his usual stately manner and Mark Kelly was dominant, raised at the back of the stage behind his impressive bank of keyboards.

Steve Hogarth explained that the setlist would be a sort of greatest hits that the band had collaborated on and the concert opened with a blistering version of Sounds That Can’t Be Made and followed it up with the iconic King, Hogarth central on the stage with his guitar raised in tribute. There was a fizzing intensity and power to the band’s performance this evening and, while the venues acoustics may have not been up tot he standard of some of the modern arenas, it certainly did not effect the enjoyment of the enthusiastic crowd.

A rather emotive version of Beautiful had a lump in my throat and a scintillating rendition of one of my favourites, You’re Gone, had the whole hall in thrall. It’s been so long since we have been able to enjoy live music that everybody in the room was obviously enjoying themselves immensely, standing up and cheering and whistling at the end of every track.

The party was in full swing and Mr Hogarth was evidently enjoying himself as the band ran through really strong renditions of The Party, Bridge, Living With The Big Lie and Runaway, every song raising the roof even higher. Steve Rothery’s guitar playing just blows me away every time and the power and precision of Ian Mosley’s drumming has to be seen in a live setting, the man is just a machine!

Steve Hogarth is a most engaging frontman and has a very special rapport with the audience, his utter joy at being out at the front of the stage was obvious to all, no more so than when introducing Be Hard On Yourself, the first single form the forthcoming new album ‘An Hour Before It’s Dark’ and, according to Steve, ‘It’s going to be a belter…”.

Well, Be Hard On Yourself was an absolute belter in itself and Steve was in fine vocal form, delivering a finely tuned and stirring vocal, ably backed by Pete Trewavas, the band building in confidence as every song was performed. Fine performances of Berlin and The Release led into my favourite song of the evening, an utterly spellbinding arrangement of perennial favourite, the haunting and electrifying Neverland that closed out the set.

Of course there was going to be an encore, the crowd demanded it with their hands, voices and feet (all in a good natured fashion, of course!) and the band returned to rapturous applause to deliver a rather fantastic version of every part of The Leavers, a phenomenally compelling and powerful piece of music that always makes it mark. We weren’t happy with just that song though and, as the band left the stage again, the noise levels rose to a crescendo before we were treated to a rocking, fun, sing-along version of Garden Party that brought the house down and finished things on an ultimate high!

Nearly two years of frustration and pent up energy were released in considerable style at Hull City Hall tonight and it will be a gig that will live long in my memory, oh what a night…!

Setlist:

  1. Sounds That Can’t Be Made
  2. King
  3. Beautiful
  4. You’re Gone
  5. The Party
  6. Bridge
  7. Living With The Big Lie
  8. Runaway
  9. Be Hard On Yourself
  10. Berlin
  11. The Release
  12. Neverland

Encore:

  1. The Leavers: I. Wake Up in Music
  2. The Leavers: II. The Remainers
  3. The Leavers: III. Vapour Trails in the Sky
  4. The Leavers: IV. The Jumble of Days
  5. The Leavers: V. One Tonight

Encore 2:

  1. Garden Party

Review – This Winter Machine – Kites – by Leo Trimming

Kites can be blown about in many unpredictable directions but somehow they remain tethered to the ground, and that appears to be a perfect symbol of the journey of the third This Winter Machine album ‘Kites‘, which is due out on 25th October. Let’s face it, the world has taken a rather unexpected battering in the last couple of years, but, on another level, This Winter Machine have also faced considerable upheaval in that period, leaving the main man Al Winter to have to recruit a whole new band around him. Such disruption would have spelled the end of many bands but on the evidence of this album it appears that Al has used it as an opportunity for the band to be re-born.

Kites’ is still recognisably in the same vein of the This Winter Machine sound developed on ‘The Man Who Never Was‘ (2016) and ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ (2019), but there is a different feel to this album, with echoes of the 1980’s threading through an album suffused with nostalgia, regret and some defiance.

Al Winter has described the theme of the album as:

“how we fight against life and the directions it blows us in… It’s about how we fight against being blown in the wind, but we don’t realise until we look back that these were some of the best days of our lives… we were buffeted by the wind but we always had the rope anchoring us to the ground… …and some day we’ll all be kites for the last time.

So, it would appear that, buffeted by circumstances, Al was the rope that tethered This Winter Machine so it was not lost to the Four Winds. However, the question is has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

There is definitely a whole new feel around the double guitar attack (with a decidedly more fluid style) and the keyboard sound is significantly changed. The departure of keyboardist Mark Numan from the original version of This Winter Machine was potentially the most significant issue for the band as he was a central member of the band in terms of writing the music. Two songs on this new album, This Heart’s Alive and Broken, still feature music written by the talented Numan. Indeed, Mark Numan’s original keyboards can still be heard on the yearning, heart-breaking and beautiful Broken. Al Winter has partly solved the keyboard issue for this release by recruiting the talented Pat Ganger-Sanders of the band Drifting Sun to guest on keyboards for the majority of the album, along with Reuben Jones on the final two tracks of the album.

Apparently, the search for a long-term keyboardist continues but Ganger-Sanders definitely provides some high-quality input, particularly on his self-penned opening piano intro Le Jour D’ Avant, and, in contrast, some great, towering organ work on the following dramatic two part piece The Storm. This blockbuster opens with sinister apocalyptic warning announcements, some rumbling drums from by Alan Wilson and a sinister bass line from Dave Close that sounds like its slouching towards Bethlehem. Killer guitar riffs blast in and Ganger-Sanders adds Gothic pillars of organ to the structure of this epic sounding song. Meanwhile, Al Winter sounds like he’s bellowing defiantly into the teeth of a howling gale, such is the passion he is putting into the vocals. However, we seem to hit calmer waters with a sudden change in tempo and atmosphere with a gorgeous fluid guest guitar solo from Mark Abrahams of the legendary band Wishbone Ash, around which Ganger-Sanders weaves eerie, shimmering synth lines.

This lovely section fades away to the sound of water and acoustic guitar for part two of The Storm. In this calm eye of the Storm wistful, heartfelt words from Winter are framed in a delightful acoustic pastoral setting, with some lovely subtle bass work from Close. The full power of the Storm soon returns with an infectious wall of sound from the band as guitars and keyboards combine magnificently with the rhythm section, before a flowing guitar solo by Dom Bennison takes us towards an echoing guitar and synth coda which almost feels like light reflected in water.

That liquid sense is maintained in the short but smooth (almost jazzy in places) bass led instrumental Limited, written by bassist Dave Close. This feels like a linking piece as does the later much more dramatic Bennison written short piece Whirlpool in which Ganger- Sanders in particular shines in the musical maelstrom alongside Bennison’s lead guitar. Enjoyable as they were, there was a sense for me that these two shorter instrumental pieces sound like they could have been parts of more ambitious extended pieces. Maybe in future as this formation of This Winter Machine becomes more established, they may develop such pieces further… or maybe they just like them the way they are – what do I know?!! (😊)

This Heart’s Alive has been kicking around as a song for some time (the band spoke about this song as due to appear on ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ to this reviewer in an interview in 2018) but I can hear why it was held back for this album as the style very much fits the melodic and melancholic feel of much of this latest release. It commences rather pastorally with acoustic guitar and subtle synths and then flows along lushly with gorgeous harmony vocals for the refrain (and even a short beautifully sung acapella interjection later on). An understated and tasteful guitar piece from Bennison adds emotion and class – he really is quite a find for Al Winter and the band, complimenting Winter’s lovely vocal melodies with Andy Latimer and Steve Rothery type guitar flights. Some may feel the song out stays it’s welcome a little with its repeated refrain, whilst others will delight in its mantra like progress.

This Winter Machine tread rather new ground on the gorgeous love song Sometimes, which features the inimitable vocal talent of Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales and the legendary band Camel. This lovely song is testament to the fine song writing talent of Al Winter and also shows a generosity of spirit and insight into what other artists could bring to his work that he invited Peter to sing one of the best songs of the album. There is a distinctly Folk feel to the song with an acoustic guitar strumming as Jones imparts a great vocal melody and then is joined for a rich vocal harmony refrain. The band come in with finely judged contributions as the song builds towards a beguiling violin solo from Frenchman Eric Bouillette, who usually plays electric guitar with The Room and Nova Cascade. It’s an infectiously lovely sounding ballad.

Pleasure and Purpose, alongside The Storm and Sometimes, is one of the standout tracks from the album, and may be one of the best ‘songs’ that This Winter Machine have ever recorded as it skilfully and intuitively combines a touching set of emotional lyrics with memorable melodies and skilful instrumentation. It is also a great showcase for Winter’s classy vocals, smoothly ranging from fragility to real passion. This is a song which has really burrowed into my soul and has been on constant repeat for some days now.

Al Winter has shared the background to the song as follows:

“…it’s about how a lack of clear communication brings an end to relationships. Things that can be sorted easily grow until they become unmanageable. It often means there’s no going back”

It is remarkable that often the best songs are also the saddest, and this is a piece imbued with a great sense of regret with powerful lyrics touching on deep emotions:

I just needed Forgiveness, A Little Restraint, I needed the time so I could just explain

All the Pleasure and Purpose tumbling down, Now there’s nothing but anger, covered in shame

And I finally had to accept the blame, All the Colours and Virtue just left on the ground

At the zenith of Winter’s vocals This Winter Machine take the song onto more musical heights as first Simon D’Vali plays a stratospheric guitar solo which Dom Bennison then joins in a flowing dual guitar harmony. Bennison then takes on the second half of the solo in an equally rippling fluid guitar display before the piece suitably fades wistfully – it’s a wonderful song.

‘Kites’ concludes with the upbeat title song, commencing with an impassioned yell from Al Winter – yeah, it has been quite a year or two, Al! Whilst much of the album has explored more melancholic and introspective areas Kites feels more defiant and triumphant:

So all of the people for all of the time, You can’t go thinking it’s the end of the line,

There’s gotta be something that we can do anytime

This would make a great live song to stir the crowd, with the quality rhythm section of Wilson and Close driving this rock song on. In the latter half Bennison throws in another great guitar solo before a curious vocal sample haunts the melody. Al Winter has given two explanations for this mysterious haunting voice in the background as either ‘a disembodied voice recorded in a Haworth graveyard at midnight on the longest day…’ Alternatively and more prosaically he explained ‘it’s an early advert for an Edison Phonograph… it sounded quite romantic and nostalgic’. I think I prefer to believe the first explanation!

Well, what’s the answer to the original question: has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

As this album is called ‘Kites’ it may be worth recalling that Benjamin Franklin once rather eccentrically in the 1750’s reportedly flew a Kite in an electric storm to try to collect electricity through the line into a metal key in a Leyden jar (don’t try this at home, kids!) It could be said that similarly, Al Winter sent this new version of This Winter Machine aloft with ‘Kites’, and that the album has similarly been charged with a surge of electricity and new life. Exposed to the elements alone Al Winter formed a talented new band and has clearly drawn great energy and inspiration from this new This Winter Machine. After a torrid couple of years generally and for the band it is utterly remarkable just what a high-quality album This Winter Machine have created. ‘Kites‘ will rightly sail high to be regarded as one of the best melodic progressive rock albums of 2021, and the future looks very bright for the band… as long as someone holds on to the rope!

TRACK LISTING:

  1. Le Jour D’Avant                       (1.40)
  2. The Storm (Part One)             (5.37)
  3. The Storm (Part Two)             (4.37)
  4. Limited                                      (2.00)
  5. Pleasure and Purpose            (6.35)
  6. This Heart’s Alive                    (6.31)
  7. Whirlpool                                 (2.17)
  8. Broken                                      (4.58)
  9. Sometimes                               (4.05)
  10. Kites                                          (7.19)

Released 25th October, 2021

Order direct from the band here:

Kites – CD Album PRE ORDER – This Winter Machine

Review – Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

This extensive 8 CD sets collates the recordings made in the period 1974 to 1977 along with the 1984 album ‘The 13th Dream’ and tracks drawn from previously unreleased live concerts from 1974 and 1975. In fact, this set boasts 102 bonus track along with the albums ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ and this reveals the Mercury era to be a wonderful creative period for the band. Whilst hampered on many fronts, they still managed to overcome the obstacles and make some decent music once again.

The music is of its time certainly, but still shows that Randy California’s passion had not been eradicated. The story behind this period is excellently documented in the booklet that accompanies this set and, as always with these Spirit sets, the attention to detail to both preserve and celebrate the music is very laudable. With the death of California in 1996 in Hawaii, there is much that cannot be told now but these sets certainly help tell the story eloquently and with respect, admiration and dignity.

Spirit really deserve wider acclaim and affection than they received from music lovers, theirs was a niche sector and they continued to create worthy music throughout the years, as this set attests beautifully. Once again, Mick Skidmore has crafted a labour of love from myriad sources and compiled another fantastic selection of Spirit’s musical legacy.

This set has much to offer lovers of quality music and, when you factor in all the tracks, this represents the most comprehensive overview of the era in which Spirit worked for the Mercury label and pushed the boundaries in the way they knew best to create intelligent music for the discerning listener to enjoy and appreciate.

Disc 1 has the first three sides of the ‘Spirit of 76’ album, disc 2 has the fourth side of said album along with live bonus tracks from that time period. Disc 3 has the ‘Son of Spirit’ and the ‘Further Along’ albums plus a further four session outtakes and a live version of the track Farther Along from 1976, disc 4 has the ‘Future Games’ album from 1977 and eleven Further session tracks from 1976 and 1977. Disc 5 has the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ album along with six live cuts from Detroit in 1986 and disc 6, ‘Spirit of Salvation’, features unreleased studio material from 1974 and 1975. Disc 7 is a live set from Austin Texas in 1975, including a lengthy version of All The Same and, finally, disc 8 features an early version of the ‘Future Games’ album and a live set from the Array Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 which wraps the set up wonderfully.

There are many hours of inspiration and passion covered in this set and it is highly recommended as this brand really do deserve wider appreciation for their craft and diligence over the years.

For me the highlights are plentiful and include the fabulous Like A Rolling Stone on disc 1. Randy and the band show imaginative twists on well known songs and it’s always a delight to hear how they have they take a song and use it as a framework on which to deliver their own interpretation. This is seen elsewhere in the set with stunning re-imaginations of America The Beautiful, All Along The Watchtower, Hey Joe and Mr Tambourine Man all receiving such a treatment, delicately and sensitively covered with care and skill and a real joy to hear. these great. The highlights continue disc after disc, each capturing a band truly progressing musically. Some of which works well, others less so, but it’s always interesting and intriguingly done. Some of this set rocks hard and powerfully, it’s always good to hear Randy in full flight as he had a lightness of touch and was a very skilled player who could shred easily and with style. This is shown on the track Veruska where he really gets to cut loose a little, it’s simply wonderful to hear. Then we are treated to and echoplexed version of Hey Joe which shows that not only Hendrix could cover this song in a classy manner, Randy’s vocal adding emotion to a great version of the song.

These tracks are taken from side four of the ‘Spirit 76’ album and show what an underrated album that truly was, one that passed a lot of folk by. This sets offers an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate it again. With the benefit of the passing years, this album now shows a depth that it may have lacked previously. The album ends with The Star Spangled Banner, a version you’d least expect but, even so, it is an interesting take on a well known song. There’s a lot going on in the background and, musically, it’s mainly understated really. The bonus tracks include an alternative version of America The Beautiful that is a fabulous find and there are also some great live versions of several classic Spirit tracks live in Cleveland that show what a dynamic live outfit they could be.

It’s all a richly rewarding listen as the band ooze class and talent. Randy is in fine voice throughout these songs with some delicate masterful playing giving an excellent performance and revealing that he was widely overlooked in the public eye. More’s the pity as he deserved far more acclaim and recognition of his talents than he received during his lifetime.

The third disc comprises of two Spirit albums ‘Son of Spirit’ (1976) and ‘Farther Along’ (1977), both of which are fairly gentle sounding but with virtually a reunion of the original Spirit band, although John Locke had left again after the infamous Neil Young incident in Santa Monica in 1976 in which California had pushed a drunken Young out of his way as he was “singing badly out of key”.

The album has some good tracks, especially Family, but is all fairly mellow and lacks much guitar and some fire to lift the material to the fore. Circle is great, as is The Other Song, which benefits from having a strong groove to it and that allows for some improvisation to happen almost naturally. It all sounds impressive, as does the cover of Yesterday in which Randy’s guitar accompaniment is really tasteful and sounds glorious as a result. In fact, the beauty of this album really shows the more you hear it, it really is a fine collection of material.

The ‘Farther Along’ album follows afterwards and this is another good set of songs with the title track in particular being a bit of an unsung classic in reality. Another fantastic track is the rocker Mega Star that manages to embrace keyboard elements that are highly reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer, yes, really! It is a very impressive sounding track. The album also includes an orchestrated version of Nature’s Way that impresses. So, whilst not the strongest of albums, they certainly have moments of greatness and are worth reinvestigation.

‘Future Games’ is an interesting, but flawed, concept album that alludes to escaping the reality of everyday life and uses lots of sound snippets of shows like Star Trek and Batman etc. but it isn’t always an easy listening experience and generally falls short as a brave but flawed idea that is possibly best left in the midst of time. Far better is the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84)’ album which had a reunion of the full original Spirit line up, recorded on a soundstage in Hollywood and including both Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne tracks, which really sound great.

The other discs comprise of more outtakes, a live set from Austin Texas in 1975 and a demo version of the ‘Future Games’ album, along with some further live tracks from the Agora in Cleveland Ohio from 1975, which are certainly of interest to fans. Well I like them and I’m glad they are here, for me, any live Spirit is welcome as it’s live where the band used to shine most brightly.

In summary, this set is definitely extensive and is a well presented look into an era that is usually either dismissed or ignored but, in reality, it has gems throughout that are a worth investigating fully. The legacy of Spirit is comprehensively overhauled with great enthusiasm and love for a seminal band, long may this continue.

Released 8th October, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records