Review – Nova Cascade – A Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows – by Leo Trimming

What exactly  is ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’?

According to Wikipedia (and who could doubt that source of information!) ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’  is a website created by John Koenig that defines neologisms (that’s new words and phrases to you and me) which are designed to define emotions for which we do not yet have a descriptive term. When you hear this new album by Nova Cascade you can sense why they might decide to use that phrase to name their album. Previously describing themselves as ‘Ambient Progressive Rock’, on their promising but minimalist debut album Above All Else, Nova Cascade have developed that blueprint further with more defined pieces. but there is still an overriding sense of  fragility and dreamlike visions which are hard to define.

Nova Cascade have now moved on from their peculiar origins in an online gaming chatroom out of which artists shared musical ideas, and now present a more fully formed and mature album. The sparse, organic feel which characterised ‘Above All Else’ now gives way to a more lush and layered approach but at heart they retain their more ambient and impressionistic style, with some echoes of later Talk Talk. The gorgeous cover artwork by Charlie Bramald places us in a warm, shimmering and comfortable candle-lit library, and the music conveys a sense we are sat in the glow of candle light as we hear these lush sounds which contain contrasting stories of light and darkness.

Dave Hilborne appears to lead this project with his distinctive light, breathy vocalisation and subtle synth laden soundscapes, such as the opening instrumental Unwavering. There is also a slightly harder edge on some songs, such as the bitter Rabbit Hole (with echoes of later Peter Gabriel) which features quite a percussive programmed edge and pointed lines about deceit:

‘This illusion you expertly weave,

Let’s take a trip to the far side,

Descend in a rabbit hole of deceit.’

However, even such perspectives are coated in fairly lush production with no sharp edges. Echo and Narcissus flows languidly in on a bed of keyboards and softly programmed percussion. Hilborne’s delicate vocals reflect the disappearing fragility of the legendary Echo as she wasted away until only her voice remained. Once again rather tortured lyrics are conveyed in swathes of restrained, rather gentle instrumentation, particularly the evocative violin of Eric Bouillette. Such agony rarely sounded so delicate:

And, oh, that stench in the air is your hate

Just leave me be with what’s left of my fractured soul

Nova Cascade seem to like touching on sinister or negative subjects in rather pastoral ways, such as the instrumental Apophis, which may refer to an Egyptian Pharaoh or  an ancient Egyptian ‘chaotic being’ until you read the sleeves and note one small line: ‘All Eyes to the Sky in 2029…’ a quick internet search reveals that Apophis is a sizeable ‘near Earth’ Asteroid that in 2004 was thought to have a distinct possibility of striking Earth catastrophically in 2029. Readers will be pleased to hear that after re-calculations this possibility has now been deemed Zero! Nevertheless, it gives Nova Cascade the excuse to compose a suitably spacey soundscape, enhanced by Charlie Bramald’s stellar flute, which is then transformed with some more ominous synth throbs before floating off in to space again.

In contrast the nostalgic Plasticine and Paint touchingly conjures up idyllic visions  and memories of childhood with Bramald’s subtle flute underlining the sense of pastoral reminiscence in a rather beautiful piece. In their previous album ‘Above All Else’ there was a sense of it being a rather ‘home made’ or even a ‘demo’ type album, which it’s organic and intuitive approach to capturing sound enhanced. Nova Cascade seem to have moved on from that rather lo-fi or sparse feel but have not lost that essence of fragility and dream like quality.

The centrepiece to the whole album is the decidedly more ambitious extended instrumental ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’ which features the Blue Man Group drummer David Anania (indeed the album sound overall would have benefited from more use of a live drummer than programmed percussion.) It is interesting that in the sleeve notes in relation to this song Dave Hilborne has quoted a few ‘neologisms’ for hard to describe feelings, presumably from the aforementioned Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, including:

‘Sonder’ – The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own

‘Kenopsia’ – The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet

Not only are those great new words I will try to use in the right context in future, but somehow the music in this imaginative and evocative piece of work conveys those intangible and almost impossible to define feelings. Hilborne paints the main canvas on keyboards alongside the ever present deft bassist Dave Fick, especially in the second half when Anania’s drums have more impact. Eric Bouillette chimes in with a subtle Steve Rothery like guitar solo in the closing stages in the most ‘progressive’ track on the album.

Nova Cascade quote the now sadly deceased Mark Hollis of Talk Talk in their sleeve notes;:

‘Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, y’know? And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it’.

Such a quote tells us where Nova Cascade are coming from, and conveys their philosophy in where they want to go. This album is certainly no ‘Spirit of Eden’ by Talk Talk (and to be fair what else is? – it’s an all time classic!) but you can tell that would have been an influence, especially in the vocals. Guitars, piano, bass and guitars weave together melodically. There are times when it is beguiling and beautiful – there are other times for this listener when I just want something a little more of substance to hold on to as you drift in an ocean of ethereal , vague subtlety.  Nevertheless, ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’  is certainly a very significant step up from ‘Above All Else’ . This album would appeal to lovers of delicate, ambient soundscapes and softly pastoral sounds and images, and I have a sense that the ethereal and talented Nova Cascade will show even more development of their distinctive sound and style in the future…

… now I just need to find a word that can convey that hard to define that feeling?

Released 9th September 2019

Order from bandcamp:

https://novacascade.bandcamp.com/album/a-dictionary-of-obscure-sorrows

Review – Afenginn – Klingra – by Progradar

Afenginn, which means “intoxication and strength” in old norse, is Danish composer and musician, Kim Rafael Nyberg, one of the leading neo-folk, post-classical voices in Scandinavia.

Having toured all over Europe, Australia and the US and performed at numerous festivals, concert halls and venues, Nyberg’s deeply ambitious, orchestrated compositions are based on his seemingly mercurial creative impulses with a strong DIY underpinning, with each of his previous bodies of work being a clear departure from the last. Obvious comparisons would be Hauschka, Goldmund, Jonny Greenwood and Dustin O’Halloran.

“Klingra (circle in Faroese) is one of my more delicate and introspective pieces that leans one degree further into the neo-classical realm. I’ve been working with the theme of circles/cycles to inspire both the way the music is composed and the story within the poetry”, says Nyberg.

Photo Credit: Søren Solkær

With a sound palette of two pianos, a string quartet (The Danish String Quartet), pedal steel guitar, synth bass and two drummers supporting the haunting vocals of Ólavur Jákupsson (Yann Tiersen), the music is incredibly intense, both emotionally and dynamically.

It speaks of stark landscapes, too big for the human mind to comprehend, almost pagan and primeval, of the land and with millennia of history coursing through every note and word. It is a powerful and cinematic soundscape on which Nyberg layers his palette of beautiful and ethereal pieces of music.

So exquisite is the music that it is almost painful to behold in its minimalistic glory, the norse melancholy drawing you into its intricate web of gradually building emotive tension. The highlights are many but Vitin (the lighthouse) leaves an emotional mark on you that lingers long after the mournful strings fade away to just be a lingering memory.

Any of these wondrous compositions could be used as a dark cinematic soundtrack, the fragility and contemplative feel leaves you thoughtful and almost overwhelmed by empathy, I have not heard anything quite like this in a very long while. Ólavur’s deeply moving vocals are the perfect foil for the wistful and winsome grace of the music and will move you to your very soul.

Music for long winter evenings in the company of someone you love, ‘Klingra’ will make time stand still as you listen to every nuance and subtlety, it is an incredibly involving experience that I believe everyone should enjoy at least once.

Released 11th October 2019

Order from the bandcamp site:

https://afenginn.bandcamp.com/

Review – Rise – Strangers – by Progradar

“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” ― Alphonse de Lamartine

I love that quote and it expresses perfectly how I feel about music, music has been my saviour in times of need and my champion in times of triumph. An ethereal miracle that salves the soul and inspires the heart and the latest album by the Sussex-based (UK) singer/songwriter RISE (previously Talitha Rise) is the pure definition of ‘the literature of the heart.’

RISE’s (aka Jo Beth Young) new musical journey weaves together intimate and cinematic stories marrying reverberations from the past with the struggles of the present day.

Exploring themes of love, loss, rebirth and transformation, RISE says: “David Gray once wrote a line that has stuck with me – “and when we meet again, we will be strangers”. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind this album. This album traverses the challenge of the personal ‘abyss’ and the emergence from the bleakness of loss and separation. This gives way to hope, wisdom and the taking of responsibility.

Each location adds another layer of meaning and context to the stories within each song. I wanted these songs to be a conversation with the land, the place, the history that I was in at the time but it is intertwined with some of my own intense personal experiences.”

Strangers‘ is a collection of 9 songs that explore human nature, relationships and the harsh realities of life but Jo Beth’s amazing vocals imbue everything with a dark and painful beauty and sepia tinged loneliness and despair.

These songs are more like stories, pieces of music that bring the characters to life and you are kept hanging on every note and every word, the inevitability and bittersweetness of change is apparent throughout.

Opening track Dark Cloud lays the foundations and sets the sombre atmosphere from the first stark note. There is a feel of a soul laid bare and a heart that has been broken time and time again and this runs throughout this phenomenal piece of music, through the classical tinged wonder of Temples and the harsh realities of title track Strangers, which speaks of a husband returning from war so changed that he is now unrecognisable. This is music that is utterly enigmatic, captivating and yet, in places, full of foreboding.

The simple, pared back allure of Cry Back Moon, the drama of Burnt Offerings and the mournful grace of the elegant Rabbit Eyes show a songwriter at one with her craft, weaving mesmerising stories that draw the listener in and when you have a voice as stunning as Jo Beth’s, it is an instrument in its own right and one which imbues every song with an aura of mystique.

The first track released from ‘Strangers’ was the wonderful Radio Silence and on the album it returns like an old friend, perhaps a little world weary and disheveled but a friend who you are happy to spend endless hours with trading nostalgic stories of a brighter past. Skysailing has that contemplative feel of a warm breeze on a hazy summers day, a thoughtful, slightly melancholy song that leaves traces in your memory long after it has finished.

The album closes with the utterly beguiling dark folk brilliance of The Old Sewing Woman’s Song, the story of a life lived unfulfilled and one which is told at Jo Beth’s enthralling best. Nine minutes of musical perfection that harks back to the old days of bards and storytellers as they regaled their audiences with tales of legend, often dark and forever fascinating.

Music truly is the literature of the heart when it comes to releases like ‘Strangers’, this album is truly a work of musical art created by one of the most avant-garde folk songwriters currently alive. Each track has layers of texture that are almost primeval in nature, each is a living and breathing entity that will take each listener on their own personal journey. I suggest you get your hands on a copy and see where this incredible record takes you.

Released 18/10/19.

Strangers Pre-order and Video on Indieogo https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/r-i-s-e-strangers/

Review – Lee Abraham – Comatose – by Kevin Thompson

So how does one of your favourite guitarists improve on his previous excellent releases?

How about making it a concept album?

What if it’s all one track?

Hmm, let’s see shall we……

The haunting beep of a life support machine with mourning guitar introduces us to ‘Numb-Pt 1’. Wait…I thought this was all one track you cry! It is, just divided into the sum of it’s parts. Heavier guitar portents doom, the sound of traffic, impatient car horns as keyboards lead us to the crash and burn, sirens wail in desperation as the ambulance flies to save. The bright lights and guitar screams of tearing metal, the acrid smell and fumes from burning fuel.

I’m in a bed, white walls, connected to machines, whispered voices round me. I feel the sharp jab of a needle as it sinks into my arm and a cold numbness creeps through me, as ‘Realisation’ dawns on me, I’ve been in an accident. Same old routine, stuck in traffic, patience frayed around the edges. The voice in my head warned me, heedlessly, to slow down as I found the open road and pushed my foot to the metal. Bright lights, wet road surface and the ‘Twisted Metal’ foretold with the lyrics see me undone.

A feeling of detachment from reality probably due to the medication allows me to watch my body rise up towards a glow above my bed as I ‘Ascend The Sky’. Am I dying, is this my final journey accompanied by a chorus of angelic voices and uplifting chords? I never imagined the trip to be an upward one. A bell tolls though it doesn’t seem a death knell, more a calling as I float in the air, calm and relaxed in ‘The Sun’. I remember the days spent with you, laid in a field watching light clouds trace paths across the sky whilst we basked in the warmth and I reveled in your soft kisses.

Will I ever know those feelings again? I never meant this to happen, what wouldn’t I give to kiss you one more time. Elation dies and once again I am left feeling ‘Numb-Pt2’. Cruelly the music rips the memory from me and the sky blackens with clouds of drums and rumbles of bass gathering in a menacing armada, as I am tossed and turned by swirling keyboards and pummeled by driving guitar.

There is a stillness and I am surrounded by white, hot light, cloying and burning my throat. Am I nearing the end, is there no retribution as I reach in my mind for a chance of escape above the wailing guitar solo, whilst in reality I lay ‘Comatose’ and helpless to my fate .I can hear the wheezing, asthmatic rasp of the bellows on the breathing apparatus, accompanied by the dull beep of the monitors connected to me whilst a piano counts the beats of my fluttering heart. Does this mean I will survive and ‘Awaken’ from my nightmare to find you sat at my bedside holding my hand. A stirring guitar solo reaches for the heavens, am I saved? I stand detached once more, at the end of the bed looking at myself hope rising with the words from the voice in my head.

A dramatic finale as the music explodes to an end, at which moment everything goes black and silent. No! What is happening, don’t leave me here. Has my body woken and in doing so discarded my corporeal self to the unknown?

Does our protagonist survive, is he given a second chance at life with the opportunity to mend his ways and live as a better man? That decision is left up to the individual listener to decide.

So, how does Lee Abraham, from one of my favourite bands, improve on his quality back catalogue?

Firstly, inviting Marc Atkinson, one of the best vocalists around to sing on the album, a stroke of genius. Vastly underrated and oozing all the emotion required for such a story, Marc’s silky larynx matches all the challenges of being the storyteller here, an astute choice by Mr Abraham to present his wonderful lyrics.

Yet more enlightened choices regarding the musicians on board, bringing back the force de majeure on drums that is Gerald Mulligan and the wizard of the keys on piano, Mr Rob Arnold. Lee takes up the bass duties, as well as blessing our eardrums with some beautiful guitar work, that lingers long in your head, after the album closes.

I’m of a mind to leave the ending ambiguous as I like the idea this story could continue so I don’t want to know what happens to our subject. What I do know is that I consider ‘Comatose’ to be an excellent album, that holds the top spot in my listening catalogue at the moment fighting off all contenders.

Whilst I resist making lists of favourites, if I did, ‘Comatose’ would be among this years best releases for me and in my humble opinion is Lee’s finest release to date.

Oh, listen to me blathering on, it’s finished, where’s that replay button…

Released 27th September 2019


Order from Progrock.co.uk:

http://www.progrock.co.uk/abraham-lee-comatose-c2x29679667

Cover image courtesy of Rob Arnold

Album Review – League of Lights – In The In Between

League of Lights – the electronic rock/synth pop duo featuring couple Farrah and Richard West.

Farrah and Richard met on the outskirts of London, crossing paths for the first time in the mid 1990’s. Many years later they assembled a stellar cast of luminaries comprising Dutch guitarist Ruud Jolie (Within Temptation), American drummer Mark Zonder (Fates Warning) and fellow Brit Jerry Meehan (Robbie Williams) to guest on their debut album in 2011. Simply entitled ‘League of Lights‘, the album fused elements of pop, rock and metal into their own unique blend.

“We come from very different musical backgrounds,” says Richard, “and League of Lights is all about where we meet in the middle. It couldn’t exist without both of us”.

The following year the duo teamed up with Glynn Morgan (Threshold) to record the single “Forever”. The three also performed together on stage for a unique concert backed by a 40-voice choir.

Now in 2019 Farrah and Richard are back with a new album ‘In the in Between’ that showcases Farrah’s sublime and enchanting vocals across 14 new original songs with a sound that makes room for electronic rock, synth pop, piano, cinematic soundscapes and everything in between.

“It’s been a long journey to get here,” says Farrah. “From the day we recorded our first song together we’ve been working towards creating something that combines the heart of who we are. We’re really proud to have reached this point on our journey “.

Photo courtesy of Dariusz Szermanowicz at Grupa13

“It took us a little while, but I’m so proud to share our new League of Lights music with you.”, Richard goes on to say, “It’s just me and Farrah doing everything this time – in the past we’ve collaborated with such talented musicians and good friends, but this time we wanted to make something that was 100% ourselves. So we hope you love it as much as we do!”

Most of you will know Richard from being a co-founder of the legendary prog-metal group Threshold but he also released an album with Dec Burke and Simon Andersson in 2015 under the name AudioPlastik and, to these ears, League of Lights is definitely more comparable with the latter.

To be honest this album is chock full of catchy hooks, brilliant vocals from Farrah and Richard’s distinctive keyboard sounds. I have had it on repeat ever since I was sent the promo and it is rapidly becoming a favourite which, knowing what music usually floats my boat, has come as a little bit of a surprise.

Songs like Due Diligence and Spectrometer could easily grace the mainstream dance charts with their infectious rhythms and driving beats and the icing on the cake is Farrah’s honeyed, mellifluous vocals that harks back to the great synth-pop anthems of the 90’s.

Opener Shockwave has a more direct and harder edge and you can hear the rockier side of Richard’s keyboard playing, surely a track that will become a live favourite with the soaring chorus and sing-along verse.

The whole album is just one incredibly addictive hit of excellent songwriting and serious musical talent that continues to deliver track after track. The ethereal beauty of Scarlet Thread, the 80’s electronic grooves of Down Down and the ambient EDM vibe of Strong Enough, the quality just never dips.

The best is kept until last which, for a record of this sheer quality, is quite a thing to say. Hammer is an intense, powerful song where Farrah’s voice captivates and enthralls and Kings and Queens is, for me, the highlight of a stand out album. It hypnotises and mesmerises throughout its intriguing three and a half minute running time. The measured delivery of the stylish vocals and the brilliant guitar motif give the song some real gravity and depth, one of the best I’ve heard this year and that’s saying something.

The passion continues with the symphonic/synth prog influxed Roll and List, another elegant and exquisite piece of music and the album closes with Promises and Dreams, another track that would have graced the 90’s with its sublime grace.

What League of Lights have done is written a wonderful homage to the synth-pop highs of the late 80’s and early 90’s and brought it bang up to date for a modern musical world. For me it is chock full of nostalgia and is a wonderful and involving listening experience. Another highlight in a year that is beginning to produce quite a few but don’t take my word for it, go out and buy it and see for yourself!

Released 27th September 2019

Order direct from League of lights:

https://leagueoflights.com/shop/

Review – IQ – Resistance – By Leo Trimming

We live in contentious and dark times so maybe it’s not surprising that IQ’s latest album ‘Resistance’ has a real sense of titanic struggles, whether they are internal conflicts or global issues, as the band create a tidal wave of dense and dramatic music. If you thought 2014’s brilliant ‘The Road of Bones’ was dark then prepare yourself for the stygian shades that colour this epic double album. IQ have not held back in this release immersing themselves deeply in to gothic depths with intense and yet captivating music.

‘A Missile’ plunges us almost literally right in to the album as a descending drone and falling electronic pulse thrusts us in to a thunderous maelstrom of drums, bass and keyboards – it just sounds absolutely MASSIVE! Pete Nicholls sings powerfully, riding this ballistic Missile of a song with great skill and feeling – this feels like someone expelling their soul in to the void:

‘What I thought could save me was artificial, Raking across my nerves and taking possession…

…There is no Faith can be sustained,

No Original Sin to blame, Now I know…’

Neil Durant spices up the keyboards with weird, distorted synths. Paul Cook is simply outstanding on drums as he drives this absolute panzer of a song onwards.

What Peter Nicholls sings about exactly is always open to interpretation, but he has a tremendous ability to evoke images and feelings through poetic words and obscure phrases – you don’t know exactly but you can certainly draw a sense of the emotions that inspired his lyrics. When you listen to IQ each time a whole new line or phrase can just jump out and hit a nerve in ways you had not noticed the last time you listened. Such a thought also brings me to a conclusion I have drawn about IQ albums.

For this review I had to put up some ‘Resistance’ (yeah, I know, corny) to the Progradar editor who was gently suggesting I should try to complete the review in a few days prior to the album launch gig on September 7th. A listener needs to ‘live’ with an IQ album for a little while, and then they usually reveal their hidden gems. Some of my most favourite IQ songs and albums have not always ‘clicked’ with me initially, but with a little time I ‘get’ it and I appreciate the quality and depth of the material.

That has been the case with ‘Resistance’ for me, and it was well worth immersing myself in the album. The interlinked songs ‘Rise’ and ‘Stay Down’ did not hit me immediately but now I feel awed by their skilful blending of light and dark, Rise commencing with loud foreboding chords like some sort of epic sci-fi landscape, as depicted on the striking and rather beautiful cover by Tony Lythgoe. ‘Rise’ segues in to ‘Stay Down’ which echoes the previous throbbing chords and melody of ‘Rise’ with a simple piano line under Nicholls’ sorrowful voice.  Pizzicato keyboard notes and cello sounds carry the song on gently but the tension rises with guitar and the sound of ticking clocks. This remarkable song then almost literally falls off a cliff with a massive landslide of keyboards, bass, drums and guitars as Nicholls appears to rail against a breakdown:

If I don’t make success out of real life,  Nothing doing

Fall Back, break out, inside, can’t see, can drown

Shut up while I stay down, The less I can handle

The more I can blame on my breakdown

This is dark and very powerful stuff both musically and lyrically, and one has to wonder what Pete Nicholls and Mike Holmes were feeling when they wrote this album. It feels like this release may have been a cathartic expulsion of emotions.

‘Shallow Bay’ is a more straightforward rock piece with an elegiac feel and gives Michael Holmes a perfect showcase for a fluid, emotive guitar solo over a titanic organ for the conclusion. The intensity decreases significantly for the beautiful ‘If Anything’, demonstrating that IQ know that darkness needs to be contrasted with light and hope. With an opening slightly reminiscent of a song by The Cars, Nicholls’ warm vocals lays out lovely images over delicately picked Spanish guitar:

‘Not anyone could take my Heart, And send it soaring so high,

Far above the setting Sun we’d fly’

Tim Esau’s deftly played gentle bass and Paul Cook’s subtle drums and percussion perfectly underpin this gentle piece, demonstrating that it’s not all about power. However, just when we’re settling down in to a soft blanket of a song an ominous drone echoing The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ presages the clanging chords heard previously in ‘Rise’ and a Hammer Horror like organ from Neil Durant segues us in to the weird carnival sounds of the  outstanding epic ‘For Another Lifetime’. This peculiar opening evokes the feel of a Ghost Story, especially as the opening sequence eerily slows down and the vocals become distorted and then a classic IQ passage of guitars, drums, bass and keyboards, reminiscent of ‘Sacred Song’ from 2004’s ‘Dark Matter’, builds the tension ominously. This tension breaks with the sound of thunder and a wave of sound breaks over us like a storm breaking – it’s just bloody exciting and stirring stuff! I love IQ moments like this when they really let loose with keyboards and guitars intertwining perfectly whilst ‘Cookie’ and Tim Esau drive the Leviathan on powerfully. Nicholls seems to be screaming in to a Hurricane;

‘And if there’s no Resistance, What am I Fighting For?

An unsung renegade evading radar, And if there’s no existence to worship and adore

A lethal chemistry invades, as dark as war’

The darkness seems to recede as Durant’s piano breaks through the clouds like sunshine, introducing a more optimistic sounding guitar line from Holmes, which soars upwards and Nicholls sings emotionally ‘And this is where I will stay, Holding on, Holding on, Holding on…’

For Another Lifetime is destined to become another much loved IQ classic epic song. No other band does it quite like them. Indeed, this album is unmistakably ‘IQ’ – they have a successful formula and they use it with great skill on this album. Sure they turn up the ‘Darkness’ button way up (and the ‘Mellotron’ effect… possibly a little too much at times?)… but the fundamental sound and feel is IQ all the way. They really do not need to experiment when they sound this good.

The second part of this double album is populated with two epic pieces, ‘The Great Spirit Way’ and ‘Fallout’.  This review will not go into great detail about these pieces – some things the listener needs to explore with a largely blank page. The Great Spirit Way is an intense piece which hardly lets up for it’s whole 20 minute plus duration, and features Neil Durant’s enormous organ sounds in abundance. Michael Holmes has shared that what was largely inspiring his music writing for this album was his feelings about the climate emergency, and the complacency towards this global threat. He suggested that groups like ‘Extinction Rebellion’ were the ‘Resistance’ against this issue, and perhaps Nicholls’ lyrics in this piece echo those concerns (but who knows when it comes to Peter’s words?!):

‘All the misfits in the world sure to change it

Though they’ve tried rearranging, Good for Bad,

Still the Mad King Reigns’

Fire and Security is a track that follows the familiar IQ template. It’s fine but not outstanding on the album… it’s difficult to stand out on a disc with two 20 minute epics! However, the other shorter song on disc 2 Perfect Space does succeed in making it’s mark. It is interesting to note in the credits that this is the one song on which it appears Neil Durant took the lead role in writing the music. His keyboard sounds are remarkable on this piece, ranging from a gentle ambient opening to an almost dirty sounding organ which bubbles and spits like lava in an incendiary guitar / organ duel in the middle which returns in the dramatic closing sequence.

The epic Fallout draws this saga to an end… it’s full of light and shade, soft and loud, drama and emotion – it’s a classic piece of IQ imagining, almost impossible to convey in words. The piano does make a welcome longer appearance in this piece – it does feel a little bit like powerful organs and keyboards somewhat dominate at times in this album so a gentle piano is a welcome lightening of mood. But that’s the point – IQ wanted to conjure up atmospheres imbued with gothic darkness with dense soundscapes so they chose instruments more suited to that feel.

1993… 1997… 2000… 2004… 2009… 2014… and now 2019. IQ albums since the 1990’s only appear about every 4 to 5 years. In the world of Progressive Rock music they are truly special events as this is one of the truly great bands of the last 35+ years… does this one match up to that fine heritage? Having ‘lived’ with it a little while I feel that it can honourably take it’s place in their fine canon of music. It’s not perfect – it’s difficult fully sustaining a double album (and perhaps the organ / mellotron sounds can be a little dominant?) , but there’s no weak tracks… and let’s face it even a weak IQ track is better than many band’s best tracks – this is IQ after all – the Crème de la Crème of modern progressive rock.

IQ have produced another fine album of imaginative progressive rock with exemplary musicianship and poetic lyricism – it’s just what they do, and they do it so well. It could be another 4 or 5 years until the next one so immerse yourself in this dense, dark epic world and join the Resistance!

Tracklist:

CD 1:

  1. A Missile
  2. Rise
  3. Stay Down
  4. Alampandria
  5. Shallow Bay
  6. If Anything
  7. For Another Lifetime

CD 2:

  1. The Great Spirit Way
  2. Fire and Security
  3. Perfect Space
  4. Fallout

MUSICIANS

Paul Cook  –  Drums & Percussion

Michael Holmes  –  Electric & Acoustic Guitars

Tim Esau – Bass & Bass Pedals

Peter Nicholls  –  Vocals & Backing Vocals

Neil Durrant  –  Keyboards

Released 27th September 2019

Order direct from the IQ online store:

https://www.iq-hq.co.uk/shop/

Review – Richard Henshall – The Cocoon

“Acclaimed for his work as a founding member of prog metal standouts Haken, as well as Nova Collective, Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, and as a Strandberg Guitars associate artist, Richard Henshall is now prepared to release his debut solo album, ‘The Cocoon’.  Consisting of eight tracks that range from dense polyrhythmic passages to delicate minimalistic interludes and everything in between, ‘The Cocoon’ features Henshall’s trademark guitar and keyboard playing throughout, and marks his debut performance as a lead vocalist.”

I was intrigued when I heard that Richard Henshall was releasing a solo album, I’m a big fan of Prog-metal behemoths Haken and a major factor behind their success and sound is this talented musician.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this does sound, in parts, like a Haken release but that’s not a criticism, the song composition and musical variety on show will not only appeal to fans of the band but also bring in a wider audience. The rhythm section is composed of Conner Green (Haken) on bass and Matt Lynch (Cynic and Nova Collective) on drums who bring a unique, energising approach to the record.

Richard calls on a plethora of musical guests who add their own individuality including Jordan Rudess, Marco Sfogli and Haken vocalist Ross Jennings and this gives a very different feel to that of the last Haken offering.

The album opens with the introductory instrumental “Pupa” which transforms from calm and collected to frenetic and energetic before seamlessly integrating with “Cocoon”, a ten minute musical foray into dense polyrhythmic passages and short, frantic staccato bursts that throws the listener right out of kilter, the King Crimsonesque saxophone from jazz aficionado Adam Carillo is suitably mind bending and brilliant.

“Silken Chains” provides a calming influence and really showcases Henshall’s impressive vocal skills. Following the low key intro, an upbeat, almost pop infused vibe runs throughout the song with the pared back vocal and edgy rhythm and the guitar solo from guest David Maxim Micic is just a delight to listen to. “Limbo” is a short musical interlude with pared back vocals and hushed tones that gives an almost industrial feel.

To this reviewer “Lunar Room” channels Linkin Park and Eminem with its Nu-Metal/Rap vibe and notable vocals from Ben Levin and Jessica Kion and really gives this album its own sense of identity. The dense musical passages contrast perfectly with the deliberated vocals, it is intelligent and thought provoking and contains yet another impressive guest solo, this time from prog-metal legend Marco Sfogli. It is about this time that I realised how engrossed I had become in Richard’s creation, a testimony to his skill as a songwriter.

Perhaps the most Haken-like track on the album, “Twisted Shadows” sees Richard collaborating with his Haken band mate Ross Jennings who provides a powerful, polarising vocal performance. The song seems to skit through the verse, edgy and restless, Jennings providing just the right amount of unease and Henshall’s guitar a willing collaborator. The dominant chorus seems to erupt almost out of nowhere and Jordan Rudess turning up to add his signature keyboards makes the track a captivating and coruscating musical journey.

My favourite track on the whole album is the wonderful “Afterglow”, I just love the whole feel of this song, like a beacon of light in a world edging every closer to darkness. The humble guitar, uplifting keyboards and Chris Baum’s strings add a soulful tinge before everything breaks out with an outpouring of hope, like the sun rising above the horizon to signal the beginning of a brand new day.

The Cocoon is a truly impressive release and one that shows Richard Henshall at the height of his creative powers. He takes the influences from his time in Haken and Nova Collective and fuses them into something truly individual that can sit astride the progressive and metal genres with equal appeal and that is not an easy thing to do.

Released 26th July 2019

The Cocoon is available from Burning Shed:

https://burningshed.com/store/richardhenshall

Single Review – Rise – Radio Silence – by Progradar

Rise – Radio Silence

Radio Silence, the second single from upcoming album ‘Strangers’ is a bitter/sweet and raw account of being cut out or ghosted and alludes to some gut wrenching references, such as a woman whose parachute is cut by her husband, a biblical scapegoat and the dark fate of the lifeboat keepers of Small’s Lighthouse.

R I S E (aka Jo Beth Young) is an English songwriter whose relentlessly authentic songs and mesmeric voice cut deep into the fabric of human frailty with a visionary sound swaying hypnotically between dream folk and progressive grit; at times dark but always beautiful.

Since the release of her debut album ‘An Abandoned Orchid House’ in 2018 (under the longer moniker of Talitha Rise) she has been gathering international acclaim and support from BBC 6, BBC Introducing Devon, and the legendary ECHOES Radio in the USA who made her the number 1 album of the year 2018.

Establishing her unique sound early on in Ireland cutting her teeth on the folk circuit, she returned to the UK and met her long-term collaborator Martyn Barker (Shriekback, Goldfrapp, Robert Plant) and caught the attention of Chris Difford (Squeeze) who sang on her debut EP Blue.

Rise’s haunting and mesmerising vocal is the mainstay and backbone of this incredibly moving track. The ethereal and waif-like voice has you completely enthralled in this bitter-sweet tale and the raw, pared back music is a perfect accompaniment.

There’s a painfully wistful overtone to the whole song, it’s beauty wrought from a tender agony and one that cuts deep to the bone. As the track comes to a close you are left almost bereft but with an urge to hear more, testimony to the wonderful art of the songwriter.

“Radio Silence
A new kind of violence.
Who took the leaves out of the trees?
A consequence you cannot believe is radio silence.
A special kind of violence.
A consequence you can defend.
Betrayal of your only friend.”

Raw, painful but beautifully mesmerising, Rise once again shows that she is a serious talent and one that the world is waking up to and taking notice of…

Released 22nd August 2019

Pre-order from iTunes here: https://music.apple.com/us/album/radio-silence-single/1474912486

Progradar Recommends

As most of you will know, I’ve taken a back seat for the last six months when it has come to reviewing albums. Now, while I may occasionally step back into the ring and write a full review, going forward I will be recommending a few albums with , hopefully, a few well chosen and pithy words of description.

I am starting with a round dozen of albums new to me over the previous six months or so and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have…

Avandra – Descender

Released on April 26th, Descender, the sophomore album from Puerto Rican prog-metallers Avandra, is an incredibly mature and complex record full of thunderous riffs, intelligent vocals and catchy hooks. In a genre well known for formality, this act with the most humble of beginnings have unleashed something truly different and special and with an impact similar to prog metal legends Dream Theater’s own career defining second album Images and Words.


Avandra – Even/You
This Winter Machine – A Tower of Clocks

A Tower Of Clocks is the long awaited second album from multi award-winning UK progressive rock band This Winter Machine. Almost 2 years in the making, this new release has the band tackling universal themes such as time, loss and identity within a loose conceptual framework.

With a feel of early Genesis and Fish era Marillion, the band haven’t strayed too far from the accepted progressive rock path but this album has been created flawlessly and with obvious affection and the musicianship on show is second to none. The impressive songwriting weaves captivating tales that draw the listener into the story and keep them there as willing companions on a spectacular musical journey.

I liked it that much that I bought the vinyl…

Released 24th June 2019

This Winter Machine – Justified
Our Destiny – Awakening

Our Destiny is the brainchild of Vikram Shankar (keyboardist of American progressive bands Redemption and Lux Terminus), whose piano playing on Awakening is paired with the angelic vocals of his partner Lauren Nolan. Awakening showcases the duo’s unique synthesis of genres and stylistic approaches, with emotive progressive rock married to pop, singer-songwriter, alternative and electronic flavors.

Vikram is a multi-talented musician of considerable skill and he shows his lighter side on this most graceful of recordings. A collection of ethereal, wistful songs that lend themselves to Lauren’s spectacular vocals perfectly. In a world full of chaos and anger, this wonderful record delivers some calm, elegance and decorum. An injection of peace into your soul, truly breathtaking.

Released 21st June 2019

none other – s/t

None Other is a prog rock power trio from Volos, Greece who have released three albums since 2012. The brainchild of Spyros Charmanis, this eponymous third album is a sometimes brutal voyage that leaves no mountain unmoved and no stone unturned in its compelling forty minute running time.

Thunderous guitar and monstrous bass combine with the mighty drums and authoritarian vocals to deliver an addictive aural assault. Not for the faint of heart but a truly forceful piece of music that is definitely worth your time and attention.

Released 6th May 2019

Neal Morse – Jesus Christ The Exorcist

“Jesus Christ – The Exorcist” is a monumental project in Neal Morse’s already impressive discography. A Progressive Rock Opera 10 years in the making, it was written and produced by Morse and includes performances by Neal and an all-star cast of vocalists and musicians. Featuring about two hours of music that encompass all the spectrums and genres Neal Morse is known for, the album will, of course, tell the Story of Stories. 

Now I know Neal’s religious leanings do put a lot of people off but if you can get past that and just listen to the incredible music then you will be privy to an incredible musical journey full of wonderful pomposity, amazing songs and just incredible musicianship. Whatever you say about the man, he is one incredible musician and storyteller and this Rock Opera is a remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride.

Released 14th June 2019

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

Yes, I know, it’s not exactly progressive rock but then that’s not all I listen to anyway. Western Stars is a wonderful album and one that everyone should have in their collection, it is that good! Forget the fact that it’s a Bruce Springsteen record, that really is irrelevant here, what it is is a truly memorable collection of beautiful songs that show a calm and reflective side to The Boss.

Take the title track, you will not hear a more captivating four and a half minutes of music this year, believe me. Chasing Wild Horses, Moonlight Motel, Stones and more, thirteen tracks of perfect Americana and country music that some are calling Springsteen’s best release in years. Now I can’t comment on that but I can tell you that it is currently my album of the year and it will take something incredible to move it from that spot, a truly special release.

Released 14th June 2019

Magic Pie – Fragments Of The 5th Element

Fragments of the 5th Element is Magic Pie’s long awaited 5th album, made up from 5 tracks  showcasing the band’s very diverse influences. On this record, they have tried to steer clear of the sterile perfection which modern prog bands have a tendency to get caught up in – and have gone for a slightly more unpolished sound, a bit rough in the edges. A little more ‘bite’.

From the incredibly infectious and upbeat opening salvo of The Man Who Had It All to the mighty bombast of the epic twenty three minute album closer The Hedonist Magic Pie have delivered joyous symphonic prog perfection. Epic, energetic melodic and sometimes heavy  prog rock with splendid vocal harmonies and great musicianship, this album has it all!

Released 30th August 2019

Magic Pie – The Man Who Had It All
Norrie Mcculloch – Compass

Norrie McCulloch is a singer-songwriter and award-winning visual artist originally from Ayrshire he currently lives and works out of of Stirling, Scotland. McCulloch’s songs are a tangle up of folk, indie and country influences that manage to stay true to his Scottish roots, equating to a style that offers a welcome touch of originality.

Compass is this talented musician’s fourth full length album and builds on his unique blend of Caledonian Americana with exquisite songwriting, plaintive, heartfelt vocals and pared back instruments to deliver his most fulfilling and accomplished release yet. There’s a simple, stark beauty to these tracks, a feeling of a heart laid bare, a truly emotive collection of tunes that leave you emotionally spent.

Released 31st May 2019

Norrie Mcculloch – Road Sign
Marco Ragni – Oceans Of Thought

“Oceans of Thought” was originally called “The Merchant of Eternal Youth” but during the time of the recordings Marcohad some personal problems and was a little depressed. So the songs, the cover but above all the lyrics, have undergone a change because the music comes from what he has inside his mind and soul. 

“So this album talks about the difficulties that life sometimes brings us, but also talks about how to try to overcome them. It’s a record that I care a lot about because it talks a lot about me.”

I’ve always been a big fan of this outrageously talented musician who delivers some intelligent and thought provoking progressive rock with an undertone of eastern promise. Care is lavished on every aspect of the recording and Marco enlists the help of some highly talented individuals to deliver his most intense and complete album yet, a thoroughly engrossing achievement that rewards your complete attention.

Check out Open My Arms with Norwegian guitar maestro Bjørn Riis, a contender for song of the year.

Released 21st June 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously

Living Dangerously is the band’s second release, coming six years after the first and is described as a “Sonic cocktail on the rocks blending equal parts classic, progressive jazz and blues and cheekily spiking with whatever they found lurking at the back of the cupboard…”

There’s bits of King Crimson, bits of Van Der Graff Generator and a whole lot of intelligent, sharp-suited songwriting that has gone into this album and its stays just on right side of being too clever for itself. Broken Parachute craft some impressive tunes on this release and its another album that requires a lot of you time and attention to completely reward but, trust me, it is worth the effort. The blues soaked guitar and jazz infused keyboards are utter works of art and are worth the entry prize alone.

Released 31st May 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously
Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Prologue

How do you follow the monumental three disc wonder that was Gandalf’s Fist’s 2016 epic The Clockwork Fable? With a two disc prologue, that’s how!

The Clockwork Prologue is the first release for Gandalf’s Fist as a six-piece and returns the listener once more to the dark and steamy city of Cogtopolis, a city beneath the surface, the once safe shelter for post-apocalyptic mankind, now a microcosmos following its own crude laws, rules and religions.

I called The Clockwork Fable, “A mesmerising musical masterpiece epic in scope and utterly breathtaking in its delivery” and this companion piece takes what the first release gave us and adds to it with the bands’ singular flair for drama, theatre and the spectacular. The stellar cast of voice actors, including Mark Benton and Bill Fellows, return to give a familiar feel to proceedings but its the musical talents of the band and the ever impressive vocals of Keri Farish that are the real draw.

The Clockwork Prologue isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel, it is meant to add to the wonderment of the original album and Gandalf’s Fist have delivered that in spades.

Released 1st July 2019

Gandalf’s Fist – The Lamplighter (Overture)
Djam Karet – A Sky Full Of Stars For A Roof

A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is Djam Karet’s 19th album. The group was formed back in 1984, and this is a celebration of the band’s 35 years together.

Combining analog and modular synthesizers with numerous acoustic instruments from around the world, Djam Karet is exploring new territory on this psychedelic journey of discovery. Harmonium, dilruba, mbira, udu and other exotic instruments, help bring a warm vibe to this highly melodic and visionary work. Swirling electronic soundscapes expand to reveal new acoustic environments of exotic goodness.

With an almost spiritual feel to the intricate music, this collection of tunes has a raw feel, almost primeval, literally music that has come from the Earth. This band always produce thought provoking pieces that take the listener out of any comfort zone and take them on an intensely melodic musical crusade and A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is surely the pinnacle of what Djam Karet have been producing together over all of their 35 years as a band.

Released 15th April 2019

Djam Karet – Beyond The Frontier

So, there you have it. The first in a relatively regular feature on my recommendations. See you soon for the next Progradar Recommends!!

EP Review – ‘Antique Lands: OER Live at ArcTangent’ by Only Echoes Remain

Antique Lands: OER Live at ArcTanGent is the first official release of new material since Only Echoes Remain’s 2017 debut The Exigent, and features several live versions of new songs that will eventually feature on the band’s sophomore studio album (due next year), as well as a powerful version of Exigent ‘fan-favourite’ Aurora.  

Guitarist Arran Oakes told me, “The significance for us is that, being the first official release since the album, it’s a big statement for us since we think we’ve evolved quite a lot musically/compositionally since writing the Exigent over 2016/17. If the Exigent was more post-rock with some prog tinges, our new material is a lot more progressive, with much more elements of post-metal and math-rock, while still retaining those signature OER moments of reflection and euphoria that does tend to come with post-rock. I don’t think we’d call ourselves a post-rock band any more though, definitely more contemporary prog with post-metal influences.”

Following on from the sweeping, monstrous soundscapes and riffs of The Exigent, the new material shows an increasing maturity from this intelligent, thought provoking band.

With as many crushing guitars and riffs as moments of blissful euphoria, the new material demonstrates that OER have picked up the baton from their debut album The Exigent and truly run with it, honing their sound to a tighter, more progressive and more explosive peak.

Their sound on this record is a welcome evolution from the more traditional post-rock of The Exigent, now being far more in-your-face and compositionally diverse – contemporary prog with more than a little post-metal thrown in for good measure, while still retaining those moments of calm melodic euphoria from their post-rock roots.

That’s not to take away from an utterly blistering live version of perennial favourite Aurora which literally raises the roof but the brooding genius of recent single Monolith certainly showcases their sophisticated development, along with the dark and delicious I Am Ozymandias and the pulsating, hard-edged post-rock of Eclipse, another song that fans are sure to take to their hearts.

It all augurs well for Only Echoes Remain’s forthcoming second album, due in 2020. It’s certainly a release I am really looking forward to!

Released 24th May 2019

Order the EP from: https://onlyechoesremain.bandcamp.com/album/antique-lands-oer-live-at-arctangent