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.
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,followsand, 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.
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!
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 ‘FartherAlong’ (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.
One of Scotland’s finest singer- songwriters, Findlay Napier has been described as Michael Marra meets Elvis Costello, a Caledonian Loudon Wainwright III or a Scottish James Taylor. His songs are full of earthy humour, hopeless love and biting satire.
To top it all, Findlay is also a really nice guy, I spent a brilliant afternoon in his company in a bar in Glasgow in December 2017, talking all things music and running (we both like a pootle now and again!).
‘It Is What It Is‘, his fourth album, was recorded and mixed at Gran’s House studio with Angus Lyon and Chris Waite. It also features a plethora of incredible people from the folk scene, including co-writes by Boo Hewerdine (The Bible / Eddi Reader), and features BBC Radio 2 Award winning singer songwriter Megan Henwood, Juno Award and Polaris Music Prize Nominee Terra Lightfoot, alongside Louis Abbott (Admiral Fallow), Euan Burton (Beth Nielson Chapman/Kris Drever), Gustaf Ljunggren, Donna Maciocia and Gillian Frame.
Findlay says of the album, “I hadn’t intended to make an album. It was an accident. Producer and pianist Angus thought it might be fun for us to record for a day when the first lockdown ended. I thought two days would be more fun. By the end of those two days, we’d completed eight songs. In all, we drew from around 35 songs I had in notebooks and on my phone, with Angus editing them down to the 12 we have here”.
Findlay continues, “The album sounded great as it was, but we wondered what it would be like with a band. Louis Abbott (Admiral Fallow) had set up a drum studio in his attic, and Euan Burton (Beth Nielson Chapman / Kris Drever) was doing incredible things on electric and double bass from his spare room. Donna Maciocia and Megan Henwoodwere able to record backing vocals from home, while my wife Gillian Frame was in the studio with me and layered up strings in one afternoon. The phenomenal Canadian singer-songwriter Terra Lightfoot sent us the guitar we needed for the song “American Promise American Lies”, and Gustaf Ljunggren (who played on my VIP album) sent a slide guitar solo along with brass parts because he felt it needed brass. He was right.”
There’s a down to earth honesty about every song that Findlay produces, his music talks about everyday life with pathos and humour and an obvious love. ‘It Is What It Is’ has an intimacy at its core, this is a musician who believes in the ethos of less is more with a passion. Take the opening title track, a piano and Fin’s heavenly Caledonian burr are all that’s needed to convey a beautifully emotive piece of music. The music on this perfectly formed release transports you to a world of simplicity, a world of black and white where wonderfully nostalgic, sepia toned wistfulness is at the heart of everything.
The brass infused brilliance of Piece of my Heart with its delightful slide guitar is a highlight as is the exquisite pared back beauty of Under the Moon. Findlay Napier is a rarity these days, a proper, old school story teller, descended from the travelling bards of old. Take the inspired Americana of American Promise American Lies, a lesson in how to deliver a sublime piece of music with intelligence and dark humour.
Findlay’s talents seem to have no limits, the gorgeous, melancholy tinged Slip of the Tongue and the tongue in cheek whimsy of La La La Song just ooze warmth and affection. The art of songwriting is given short shrift in many areas of the musical press nowadays with a propensity for throw away music that easily pleases and it is a crying shame when you can hear the emotive and touching sombreness of White Collar Criminal, the delicate, reflective musings of Madison Avenue Worry Lines and the neo-noir feel of What’s The Bets, that could have been performed in a 1930’s speakeasy. Gates of Eden is just sublime in its gorgeous simplicity and Last to Leave closes the album with a loving farewell, a clink of whiskey filled glasses and a warm embrace.
A new album from Findlay Napier is always an event, brilliant songs with a great narrative and music that stirs the soul and invites the listener in. ‘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. Album of the year? I don’t see why not!
Dec Burke is well known as the former guitarist/ vocalist with acclaimed UK progressive rockers Frost*. As well as his work with Dilemma, Audio Plastik and Darwin’s Radio, he has released numerous solo projects and is back with this brand new solo album.
‘Life In Two Dimensions’ is an album of our times, written against the backdrop of the UK lockdown throughout 2020. It covers themes of loss, hope, excitement, and the modern world of endless advertising and materialism.
The album features contributions from acclaimed musicians; Scott Higham – Drums (Pendragon), Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Bass (Pain of Salvation), Robin Z. – Piano (Dilemma) Guilherme Aguilar – Bass and Cello, Reiner Siemens – Bass and Robin Armstrong – Mixing, Mastering, Backing Vocals, Keys, Bass (Cosmograf).
While Dec may be best known for being in Frost*, he has developed his own unique sound and it can be heard throughout all of his solo works. Powerful, guitar driven music with large slabs of modern era progressive rock combine with his effortless vocals to deliver huge soundscapes awash with soaring harmonies, elegant keyboards and a very stylish rhythm section.
This new album delivers more of the same, the emotive draw of opening title track Life In Two Dimensions gives an idea of the sumptuous musical experience that is to come. Emergency has a frenetic, in your face, energetic vibe that carries you along in its wake, Sister X has a heavier, more complex and progressive feel to it and This Time is a superbly melodic ballad with a compelling and stirring soul to it.
Dec’s vocals are the star here, his voice can carry emotion, energy and dynamism with equal aplomb and his dexterous guitar playing delivers some fine solos.
Sunlight is a little gem of a song with a pulsing beat and rapid guitar riff that immerses you some kind of mischievous thrill ride, Love Steel takes a monstrous riff and segues into something that could have come from the Hair Metal era of the 80’s, there’s a glint in the eye and a feeling of fun running throughout this track. There’s an elaborate seriousness to Energy with it’s primeval riff, demanding vocals and vibrant chorus that shows Dec’s songwriting skills of to perfection.
Talking of perfection, Fly With Broken Wings, is, in my opinion, one of the best tracks that Dec has ever written, infused with a brooding grandeur. There’s a building tension bubbling under that is released by another fine chorus, a fine track indeed. Sophistication and refinement are at the heart of another great track, Paper Fortress, a lush and polished seven minutes plus of musical splendour. The album closes with the no-nonsense rock of Trap Door, another edgy track full of verve and energy.
You always know what you are going to get with Dec Burke, an album full of polished, quality songs that have his musical aptitude and dexterity written all over them, ‘Life In Two Dimensions’ takes this to another level.
Vinegar Joe were a band who were considered to be distinctly second division. Wannabe headliners, always gave a good show but somehow were unable to quite get up the ladder enough to get top billing status. This may in part have been due to their record company, Island, having their own ideas and agenda for the band. They could see a bright future for one of the two singers in the group, a certain smooth voiced Batley born Robert Palmer, yes, he of the dancing girls in the Addicted toLove video of the late 1980’s!
For, in him, they could see big dollar signs if were they able to manouvre him into a solo contract. Better still, they could make the band that he was part of, his backing band. Well, that may have been the plan however, Robert did not want to ditch his fellow singer Elaine Bookbinder, or as you may know her, Elkie Brooks. He wanted to stay with the band and see it through, very noble but management and record company did their own thing and caused the band to break up after an American tour and insisted that they came back to the UK to record their final album, ‘Six StarGeneral’.
This new box set from those clever folks at Esoteric tells the whole sorry story from inception to implosion and gathers all three Vinegar Joe albums together, along with various single edits, to give a complete overview of a band who offered much and did their utmost to make it, but, as is often the way, interference and manipulation from management and other parties screwed them over. Although, as this set testifies, Vinegar Joe had talent and the potential to make it big but, somehow never really got the breaks they were due.
Vinegar Joe evolved out of an earlier outfit, called Dada, that was more of a jazz/blues type band that boasted ten members. This band recorded an album in 1969 that is certainly due a reissue. When Dada ended, they decided to strip the sound down to a more conventional rock band format and sound, becoming VinegarJoe. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1972 and introduces the world to the powerful vocals of Elk (Elkie Brooks) and the soulful voice of Robert Palmer .
Occasionally they sing together but they, generally, separately, Elk certainly has a big voice and she can wail with the best of them, very often in a high-pitched warble (as shown on Early MorningMonday, which sounds remarkable). In addition to the main band, the album also featured various guests like Keef Hartley and Conrad Isadore, amongst others. This does mean there is a degree of inconsistency in the music, but it doesn’t really matter when it sounds as good as this.
Their second album, ‘Rock N’ Roll Gypsies’, is equally as hard hitting and has a Hipgnosis designed sleeve, reproduced here in a gatefold cover. The music also had changed, more a blues stomper type sound, like that of Canned Heat or Creedence Clearwater Revival. The album also features more slide guitar and Hammond Organ sounds, you can tell it would make a good live sound but was never actually recorded for any live releases sadly. Certainly, the change of style worked well for the band and the album was a powerful rock and roll release.
The third Album, ‘Six Star General’ (1973), was more of the same but with a slightly different line up, still with Elk and Palmer on vocals. Sadly, this was to be their last outing as Palmer was offered a solo contract by Island and the chance to record in Nassau in the Bahamas. This album contains the fabulous Black Smoke Rising from The Calumet.
This set really captures the essence of the band and offers a chance to rediscover this lost band of the 1970’s again. Personally, I like the debut album most out of the three as it best shows what the band were all about. It also has some strong tracks and that amazing voice of Elk, which is simply stunning. Highly recommended indeed, this set has much to offer anyone who loves good music.
As it is nearly autumn again and the nights start to draw in, we will shortly be seeing a whole slew of new releases lined up for the Christmas rollout in order to woo and tempt the faithful and the unwary into parting with their hard earned readies. In to this scenario Esoteric have dusted off the ever popular 1975 album ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ from Barclay James Harvest, which has been remastered from a newly located mix of the album that had been lost for many years.
The album ushered in a golden era for the Barclays and was very successful, as were it follow ups ‘Gone to Earth’ and ‘Octoberon’ that were reissued a few years ago in expanded versions, again by Esoteric and they have done a lovely job of this fine album here on this reissue.
This version of ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ differs very little from the version issued by Universal in 2003, well to these ears at least. What is different here is that there is a second disc which offers a 5.1 surround sound mix along with promotional videos shot in 1975 covering the tracks Jonathon, Titles , Moongirl, One Night and Beyond The Grave, although, to be fair, these videos are all shot in the studio with minimal effects other than seeing the band playing them. They are very much of their time we’re talking pre Bohemian Rhapsody here, music videos were very much in their infancy!
The album also has a new essay from Keith and Monica Damone of the Barclay James Harvest website that tells the story behind this new version. Finally, there is a lush fold out poster of the album cover that one could frame if you so wanted and it’s simply gorgeous. The Album espoused the gentle and pastoral brand of progressive rock that BJH operated in and, whilst the album is known to most folks, it is in essence a good distillation of the classic BJH sound.
The album has, as a bonus track, a US version of Child of the Universe that was slated for a release but never was. I’ve always liked this album since the time that Titles was Radio One’s single of the week as its lyrics were made up of Beatles song titles but, in reality, they told the story of the breakdown in the relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Even though it got heavy promotion at the time of release, it still failed to catch the public’s imagination and so failed to chart, a great pity as it was clever and had a really classy sound. The public are like that though, pearls before swines et al.
In some respects it is a little hard to see who this set is aimed at as any BJH fans should already have this in one guise or another. I guess the 5.1 up-sound mix may appeal to some, although I don’t have a 5.1 system so I haven’t heard it and, as such, can’t comment on how it sounds and what it does for the music. I do like the poster though and it’s good to have the videos, dated as they may be. Esoteric always do these remasters very well, diligently and with care and sympathy, showing great respect for the album which, in this case, it heartily deserved and is worthy of such care and affection.
The album has some classic material on it. Songs like Titles, Jonathon, Beyond theGrave and Song For You are well known staples in the BJH canon and still form parts of their shows, even now, over 40 years on from when this album was released. It is often hard to appreciate the impact this album had when originally released, the album was recorded in San Francisco and produced by Elliot Maser (apart from Child Of The Universe which was recorded at Advision in London and produced by Rodger Bain). Therecord was followed by a UK and European Tour which led to greater success in Germany for the band.
The album stands up as a real classic of the 1970’s and was a chart hit in the UK and still sounds marvellous today, being one of the finer moments of Barclay JamesHarvest’s career. The version of Child of the Universe on this release is significantly different to the one that graced Everyone is Everyone Else album in 1974.
So, if you like this album and fancy a newly remastered version and DVD with surround sound mix, you could do a lot worse that getting this. A great album, now even better than before? You decide…
‘The Quest’ is the first new Yes music in seven years. During that time much has happened with the death of founder member and bassist extraordinaire Chris Squire. Chris wanted the band to continue without him and had readied a replacement in Billy Sherwood. Sherwood was already known to Yes fans as he had been involved with the ‘Open Your Eyes’ and ‘Live at the House of Blues’ albums from the early 2000’s.
After the somewhat disappointing ‘Heaven and Earth’ album from 2014, this album needed to be a significant improvement over that somewhat lacking release and I can say that, whilst it may not be the absolute triumph that was needed, it is at least a far better and more convincing album all round. When you consider that the album was created across various continents and times, all whilst in the midst of the Covid pandemic, I think you will agree that this is a very worthy effort by the band to move onwards once again.
The release comprises of the main album and a second disc with 3 bonus tracks, although with the main CD running at 47 minutes, quite why they needed a second disc is a bit of a mystery as the 3 bonus track could have all fit on the main disc, quite odd really. Another big difference here is that Steve Howe has produced the whole album. I have to say that he has done a good job too, giving plenty of space for each instrument and the vocals to be clearly separated and heard, giving a good clear sound throughout.
The album opens with a very strong start in The Ice Bridge, which bears a passing resemblance to Fanfare For The Common Man, especially in the keyboards of GeoffDownes. Yet, even so, this is a good strong opening track that sets out the stall for what is to follow. The song has a definite Yes groove to it, offering a first glimpse of Billy’s take on Chris Squires‘ legendary bass playing and he gets it bang to rights. Jon Davison is on top form, still sounding like Anderson-lite but adding his own touch in the vocals. The song also has a great ascending riff from Steve Howe that really works well, adding much pace and drive to proceedings. This song also allows for some good interaction between Steve’s guitar and the Geoff’s keyboards, all very ably backed by the rhythm section of Billy Sherwood and Alan White, it’s all very fine indeed but, can it continue? is the question here.
Dare to Know follows and opens with a sprightly guitar line from Steve Howe and some good bass that underpins the music most satisfyingly. The song is quite mellow and laid back really but, even so, still manages to impress and, once again, Jon Davison’s voice sounds fabulous and really suits the sound, which is very full and impressive.
I will say that I think this album is a grower and familiarity will reveal its treasures as you listen to it, so be prepared to invest some time with it to really get the most out of it. It’s not a bona fide classic but it certainly has enough moments of brilliance to make it worthy of hearing. Yes have been around for fifty two years now, so they have little to prove these days and really we should just be glad that they still are around and still making music in the twilight of their years.
Minus the Man has a certain something to it, especially in the chorus and the lovely and eloquent guitar line that weaves its way through the song so gracefully. The track is very pleasing and sets you up well for the epic Leave Well Alone that follows. This one has touches of Asia and also has some delicate acoustic and steel guitars from Steve Howe. The song is in three parts which all work well together and, as the longest track on the album, it really does impress. As it gives room for some stretching out, I imagine this would be a good live track for the band when they tour next year.
The Western Edge is the next track and this has a broad sound palette to it with more of Howe’s guitar lines adding great sound touches to proceedings. The pace of is brisk and rather urgent in places and it benefits from that energy, as well as the synths from Geoff that are littered throughout this song. It is the shortest on the main album and it does not overstay its welcome at all. Future Memories is a gentler song driven by Steve’s acoustic guitar and interlaced with his electric guitar lines as well. It is also graced by a very fine vocal from Jon, who I have to say really sings well on this album, he has grown into his role in the band and, whilst he is clearly influenced by Jon Anderson, his own unique voice has emerged, as is clearly shown on Music to My Ears, the penultimate track on the main album.
The final main album track is the Caribbean inspired A Living Island, inspired by Jon enduring lockdown in Barbados for five months, yes, some folks suffer for their art don’t they ? The song is graceful and moves from a Caribbean lilt to a more conventional ecological tour de force again, there are lots of Steve Howe’s delicate mandolin and guitar on this track.
This track closes the main album but I’ll do a short summary of disc two with the three extra songs. Sister Sleeping Soul is another Howe driven track with gentle guitar tones and a good vocal from Jon. Mystery Tour is a tribute, musically and vocally, to the Beatles and gives the chance to cram as many Beatle references into one song as they can, it’s still an interesting song though and has some merit to it i feel. It is also good to hear Steve playing such fluid guitar lines and tones and has a lovely guitar break from Steve along with great dynamics. This shorter track is very worthy of hearing as it has much happening throughout. Damaged World is another good track again with an environmental bent to the lyrics but the groove is strong and, musically, it is a good song. It is not as good or strong as the songs on the main album but, even so, it is always good to have Yes music in whatever form it may come.
This album set has caused lots of different views and opinions amongst fans both old and new but, in conclusion, I would say that, as an album, this is fine if you place it in its context and bear in mind how it was compiled. On that basis it is a worthy addition to the Yes canon and should be judged as such. There is much to enjoy here if you open your ears to this particular version of the band.
Steve Hackett may be able to draw his pension these days but, even so, he has lost none of his fire or passion for making music as this, his second album of this year, clearly shows. A man who knows his own identity and is secure with his history and pedigree.
This album is his latest electric rock album unlike his earlier classical guitar album, ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’, that was released in February of this year. On this release, Steve continues to mine the rich creative seam that surfaced on ‘At the Edge of Night’, ‘The Night Siren’ and ‘Wolflight’ and it fits well alongside each of those previous albums.
The album features all the members of his current touring band along with various guests, including Phil Ehart of Kansas who appears on the epic Shanghai To Samarkand. Big Big Train’sNick Di’Virgilio appears on two tracks as does Christine Townsend, whose graceful violin and viola appear throughout.
Steve says on the album’s rear sleeve, “This album is ajourney when no journeys were possible.”, meaning the worldwide covid pandemic that affected just about everyone. On this release Steve invites us to travel the world with him from the Urals to the Roof of Africa and on to the Himalayas. An epic album then for an epic voyage, let’s take a trip shall we as the album plays on.
Most rock fans will know the piece Eruption that was on Van Halen’s debut album or I’m A Believer from Giant, whose incendiary guitar intro made big waves in the early 1990’s. Well This album opens with The Obliterati which sees Steve using his tapping skills and arpeggio sweeps to craft a similarly striking prelude to the song Natalia, Steve said that with the orchestrations of Natalia he felt he had to stamp the guitar onto the track as a real presence and he certainly succeeds here. In fact I think if the wider rock community heard this blistering intro, they’d be amazed that a pensioner could play with so much fire, skill and technique.
It really makes you go wow, even when Roger King’s orchestrations are introduced, this still sounds truly fabulous and it is a spectacular and fine way to open the album before the more mellow tones of Natalia begin. A very moving song about a Russian everywoman who suffered at many hands over the years. This song has great orchestrations to it and you can hear the Russian classical influences.
Relaxation Music for Sharks (Featuring Feeding Frenzy) is another instrumental from Steve. It is a highly atmospheric piece with lots of great sounds and a very rocky and hard-hitting middle section where everyone is playing fast. Roger’s synth lines match Steve’s wah-wah guitar, the piece returning to a calmer state at the end, signifying that the feeding is over, well for now at least. Next follows a very African sounding song, Wingbeats, with Amanda Lemann. The McBroom sisters chant African vocals and the song has a very good chorus that sounds authentically African. The track based on Steve’s own trip to Africa a few years ago. The Devil’s Cathedral has a very gothic sounding organ, all ominous and portentous.It’s a song about unbridled ambition sung by Nad Sylvan, who is in fine voice throughout the album. The track gallops along at a fast pace, with lots of dynamism to assist its passage, all very impressive stuff.
Held In The Shadows is a far softer and more gentle song entirely, written by Steve as a love song to his wife Jo. This is a powerful and emotional piece of music, inspired by a lovely woman who has made his life better and completed him wonderfully. The album’s epic, Shanghai To Samarkand follows. Taking the route of the old silk road from China to the middle east through Turkmenistan as it’s inspiration, this track sees Steve working once again with Phil Ehart of Kansas (with whom he recorded the ‘Please Don’t Touch’ album) and this song is another excellent sonic journey with subtle but effective use of authentic instruments like the Dutar and Oriental Zither. This piece has the exotic world music influences clearly shown and, with its almost Kashmir-type riff played throughout, really impresses. Another excellent track of great music, I think l,ive it would be a powerhouse we may find out on his ‘Seconds Out’ tour this year.
Fox’s Tango is a more political piece as Steve compares the haves and the have nots and talks about the inequalities of life these days. It could also be his view of the Trump era, short but worthy of inclusion, as is Day Of The Dead, a very dark nod to Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, territory Steve has visited before with the ‘Darktown’ album. Scorched Earth is an ecological song as Steve tells us, “Tomorrow’s trees, tomorrow’s seas, Can you breathe tomorrow’s dream…” This song has lots of Steve’s fluid guitar playing. The album closes with the acoustically driven instrumental Esperanza (which is Spanish for hope), a brief ,delicate track that brings everything to a peaceful close and leaves you to ponder again the sonic journey that you have just undertaken.
As always, the music is fabulous as are the booklet and sleeve. This release is every bit as strong as his earlier albums and Steve has already been contemplating what is next for him once he has completed his tour of ‘Seconds Out’. I Guess time will tell but, for now, enjoy this fantastic new album from the man with the golden touch and fleet fingers.