Review – Airbag – A Day at the Beach

“No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Crikey, there’s a quote that’s stood the test of time and how true it is. I am sat here listening to the much anticipated new album from the Norwegian masters of artful, melancholic prog, Airbag and it really has hit a nerve in the times we are living in. The soaring solos and mournful vocals paint a sparse musical scene but stir the soul and touch the heart in ways nothing else can.

A Day at the Beach’, the band’s fifth album, was released on 19th June, a mere four years after its predecessor ‘Disconnected’. Lyrically, it is very much a story of us and them, told by a husband, father and brother leaving his family behind into an unknown future. It’s the contrast between the desperate individual struggling to survive and people in power observing at a safe distance. 

For the production of “A Day at the Beach”, Airbag has once again teamed up with long-time collaborator and engineer Vegard Sleipnes and it was mastered by Jacob Holm-Lupo. The album is produced by Asle Tostrup and Bjørn Riis and, as always, the cover is designed by vocalist Tostrup. The album, which is their first as a trio, also features talented guest musicians including Kristian Hultgren (Wobbler).

‘A Day at the Beach’ consists of six new songs recorded during autumn and winter of 2019-20 and inspired by the resurgence of 1980s electronica, new wave and movie scores. The album is an ethereal soundscape of cinematic vastness with a brooding, primeval backdrop.

Asle Tostrup’s vocals almost have a krautrock sensibility to them as he delivers each perfectly enunciated word. The music is full of tension and yet there is a wistful, almost nostalgic undercurrent that lies beneath. Central to the band’s sound is the incredible guitar work of Bjørn Riis, the vivid precision of his playing lends an otherworldly aura to every track and when he unleashes a solo it is a thing of iridescent wonder.

Every track is a mesmerising wonder of restrained grace, elegance and class with world weary feel deep at their core. Opener Machines And Men is ten minutes plus of Scandinavian theatrical brilliance with a driving, graphic urge that almost puts you in fight or flight mode and the complimentary A Day at the Beach (Part 1) puts you in a state of calm reflection with its laid back, almost intangible air washing over your senses.

The highlight for me is the utterly magical Into The Unknown, a mesmerising two-part melting pot of electronica inspired synthesisers, beats and percussion complimented by Asle’s halting vocals and a faint, background guitar that fades out before returning in all its guitar blazing glory. A jaw-droppingly brilliant piece of music that I listen to all the time, the guitar playing is just entrancing and spellbinding and will take you to another world (unfortunately only metaphorically!), take a bow Bjørn…

Sunsets is a much more in your face and urgent song with a rather funky bassline that is delivered with a compelling and weighty overtone. A powerful guitar riff, dominant drums and an authoritative vocal driving the track along with a much heavier vibe before swathes of stylish keyboards and punchy guitar wash over you. A Day at the Beach (Part 2) is an instrumental that gives a Scandinavian left field vibe to a Tangerine Dream soundscape, it draws you in and captivates you with its mesmerising repetitive tone.

The album finishes with the heart-rending, raw brilliance of Megalomaniac, near ten minutes of painfully exquisite music that leaves nothing out, like a soul laid bare for all to see. It builds slowly with Asle’s touching vocal and Bjørn’s haunting, plaintive guitar and the ever present edge of the percussion, digging deeper into your psyche and breaking down any barriers. A harsh, strident guitar riff then breaks clear before an utterly majestic guitar solo, full of pain but countered by pathos, dominates the song, leaving you spent and overcome with emotion.

Airbag have returned with a complex release, musically and emotionally. A serious album and one that is seriously impressive, combining ethereal soundscapes with their signature guitar driven progressive rock. They have created a mature, powerful sound that inspires on many levels, delivering one of the most sophisticated releases of the year.

Released June 19th 2020.

Order from bandcamp here:

https://airbagsound.bandcamp.com/album/a-day-at-the-beach

Review – Built For The Future – Brave New World

B4tF is a progressive/alternative rock band from San Antonio, Texas. The music represents strong elements of prog as well as melodic passages that hope to maintain accessibility.

Drawing on a range of long time influence and admiration of bands such as Rush, Yes, Genesis, Tears for Fears, Gabriel, The Fixx, Ultravox and of course The Beatles. The first objective in the music is to create an emotional connection through melody and the lyrics.

​The project began in 2014 when Patric Farrell found his many songs unfinished and at a stand still. The songs written and produced, but stuck. The missing element seemed to be a vocal that matched the level of the songwriting and production.

At the same time, Kenny Bissett was writing and experiencing the opposite, having a great ability to establish melody through his many years as a writer and vocalist. But not being able to hit his target as a producer. Although Patric and Kenny had been friends and musical comrades since the 80’s, they had never worked on a serious project together.

At a chance meeting in a coffee shop, Kenny and Patric comparing projects, Kenny just stated: “I just wish I could do something where I just showed up and sang.”

Realizing that a great vocal was the missing element to Patric’s music, and knowing that he admired Kenny’s vocal style, talent and work..the invite was issued to have Kenny sing on the stagnated music.

The result was the band’s outstanding debut album ‘Chasing Light’, released in 2015. The album had flavours of Yes(Rabin yrs), Rush(mid period), Tears for Fears and later Genesis, with some Beatles ‘peppered’ in as well and sold in over 12 countries around the world, with really kind and generous reaction from fans from so many different places.

‘Brave New World’ is the new album. This album is the next chapter in the metaphorical story that began with ‘Chasing Light’. The album was driven by a desire by Kenny and Patric to be a bit more progressive and a shade darker. Inspired by the emotion that the continuation of the personally driven lyrics would demonstrate, finding a ‘new life’ in a ‘new world’.

Much as I was impressed by the band’s debut release, ‘Brave New World’ is a big step forward. Infused with sc-fi themes, awash with synthesisers and punctuated with vivd guitar solos, this collection of tracks is as vibrant a release as you will hear this year.

Everything begins with the layered construction of the intro to title track Brave New World, a lengthy, immersive song rooted firmly in the world of progressive rock but the sort of prog rock you could imagine as the backdrop to an Aldous Huxley novel. It’s a mighty introduction to the album and a bold musical statement. Breathe takes a more easy going approach and delivers a fast paced track more akin to hard rock but no less impressive or enjoyable. Key to this is Kenny’s rather fine vocal with its unique delivery, adding that futuristic layer to an already modern sound.

This deeply engaging release continues with the elegantly relaxed vibe of The Sheltering Sky, a wistful and nostalgic song that has pathos and humility at its core and one that leaves a lasting impression. Zenith is an edgy and dramatic track that has a feeling of uneasiness around it before breaking out into a more melodic and uplifting song, Kenny’s vocal again at the heart of things.

More than just progressive rock, City of the Sun is a superbly crafted piece of music and one of the highlights of the album for me. The plaintive vocal and haunting music, highlighted by the expressive guitar of David Peña, speaks volumes about what this band are all about as musicians and songwriters. This release was dedicated to the memory of Neil Peart and no more can that Rush influence be heard than on Azimuth, and a fitting tribute to the legendary drummer it is. Dave was encouraged to run loose with his experimental approach to the guitar, and created the incredible otherworldly tone for the songs and it can really be heard here.

The final two tracks on the album, Distant Land and Line of Sight, are true epics in the sense of the word, both coming in at over twelve minutes long. The great thing about long tracks is that, when done right, it gives the artists chance to expand on a story and give it more life and B4tF do that here with mighty aplomb. These songs draw the listener in on an emotive musical journey, one where you feel welcomed and inclusive and Patric and Kenny are proving themselves to be master storytellers and skilled exponents of their art. Listening to David Peña’s articulate and masterly guitar, you feel that they have found the added layer of finesse that makes the band complete.

‘Brave New World’ has shown that the so-called ‘difficult sophomore album’ doesn’t happen to everyone. B4tF have created a masterful musical odyssey that builds on their debut release and brings everything full circle into a highly satisfactory conclusion and I recommend it very highly!

Released 24th August 2020

Order from bandcamp here:

https://builtforthefuture1.bandcamp.com/album/brave-new-world

Review – Pain Of Salvation – Panther

Pain of Salvation have been firmly at the forefront of the progressive
rock and metal scenes for nearly three decades now. Led by mercurial multi-instrumentalist Daniel Gildenlöw, the Swedish band have consistently demonstrated a sincere passion for moving their own extraordinary music forward, while always remaining lyrically enlightened and ferociously intelligent.

The leaders in thoughtful, pained and poignant progressive-metal music, the band have had a stellar career that has produced ten studio albums and included such highlights as ‘Scarsick’, ‘Remedy Lane’, ‘Road Salt One’, ‘Road Salt Two’ and their brilliant previous release ‘In the Passing Light Of Day’. From elaborate and pointedly metal early classics through obtuse wizardry and genre-blurring mischief, Pain of Salvation’s all-encompassing musical vision has delivered some of contemporary prog’s most brave, bold and startling moments.

The band returned this year having deftly weathered the departure of guitarist Ragnar Zolberg, discovering a newfound enthusiasm for what happens next in the process.

“We did In The Passing Light Of Day and that ended with the departure of Ragnar from the band,” Gildenlöw recalls. “In the past, 10 or 20 years ago, that would probably have made me doubt the future of the band and all of that. I went through that a lot in the past with members leaving or things not turning out in a good way! It’s always difficult and it’s always something that makes you sad, when your little band family is disrupted, but I never came to the point where I doubted where to go or what to do. The other band members were pushing us on to continue, so I just kept writing music.”

The result of that sustained surge of creativity is ‘PANTHER’, the eleventh Pain of Salvation album and a very obvious landmark release in a career full of them. ‘PANTHER’ is a concept piece that delves into the conflicts and contradictions between so-called normal people and those who are wired entirely differently.

This is an album full of creativity and power, a simmering melting pot of brooding desire and thunderous riffs that creates a body of work leviathan in scope and content.

The edgy, almost funky opening track Accelerator gives a restless, tense feel to the music before opening into a sparse soundscape dominated by Daniel’s vocal before the stark, blasted landscape of Unfuture hoves into view, hewn from granite and taking no prisoners, “Welcome to the new world…”, indeed…

Gildenlöw has always been the master of simple, severe beauty and that is delivered in spades on the sublime Restless Boy, a song thats rawness is there for all to see. “This is not a test..” Pain of Salvation have a knack of producing songs that drip with bare emotion and Wait drops perfectly into that category with a simple piano note and acoustic guitar laying the foundations for a wistful and nostalgic piece of music that lives long in the memory. As graceful a song will be hard to find on any progressive-metal album.

So, who fancies a bit of electro-ambient progressive rock? Sounds an odd combination doesn’t it but PoS make it work brilliantly on Keen to A Fault, a fast paced, stylish track that works amazingly well. Fur is a short interlude that speaks to me of Eastern European 50’s film noire and segues into the title track. Well, what can I say about PANTHER? It’s superb, a complete melding of rap, oriental sounds and electronica that sounds like nothing else the band have ever done. It’s more akin to Linkin Park than anything else and, well, it’s just brilliant!

The final two tracks are Pain Of Salvation at their very, very best. The slow burning, monolithic power of Species has a simmering build up to a crescendo of crushing guitars and heartfelt vocals and then Icon closes the album out with humility and style in a similar vein to the title track from ‘In The Passing Light Of Day’. At once intense and dynamic, then calm and thoughtful, this is a song that contains all that is best about the band and showcases Daniel Gildenlöw’s consistent ability to write masterpieces of music.

One of the highlights of the year and an album that could become a seminal progressive-metal release, Pain Of Salvation have created a piece of music that could well be their finest yet.

Released 28th August 2020

Order PANTHER here:

http://painofsalvation.com/store/

Review – Tim Bowness – Late Night Laments

There’s nothing else that sounds like a Tim Bowness album, they have such a unique palette of sound and a feeling that the music is washing over you with Tim’s soothing vocal deep at the core.

Tim is primarily known as the vocalist and co- writer with the band no-man, a long-running collaboration with Steven Wilson. Tim’s recent quartet of solo releases on InsideOutMusic/Sony have entered the official UK Top 5 Rock, Progressive, and Vinyl charts, as well as the official Scottish charts. Along with Steven Wilson, he is also the co-host of “The Album Years”, which has reached the Top 5 Music Podcast charts in over 25 countries (#1 in 10).

I’ve been a fan of Tim’s solo work since his first release with InsideOut/Sony – ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ about which I said… Tim Bowness is not a slave to his art, he has added soul to the creativity and invention and has delivered an album that engages the listener on all levels.”

Each release since has shown how Tim’s stock, as not only a songwriter but as an artist who paints pictures with music, has risen exponentially. He is a musician who sees what he does as art and each album is a carefully crafted masterpiece which, to this listener at least, deserves to be listened to on vinyl with no distractions and preferably in a darkened room with a glass of full bodied red wine to hand.

To me, progressive music, be it neo-prog, art rock or similar, has all the attributes of what constitutes art. The intricate and sometimes complex music that weaves convoluted soundscapes around our conscience that we are left to decipher and then revel in has often left me speechless and held in a thrall as my mind leisurely decrypts it for me to savour and appreciate.

To listen to the first few notes of a Tim Bowness solo album is to enter a world of beautiful creativity where every note has its place and every word is carefully selected and then curated into perfection by his warm and soulful vocal.

‘Late Night Laments’ is another collection of superbly created musical gems where, contrasting with the sensuous beauty of the music, the frequently dark lyrical themes include meditations on generational divides, ideologically motivated violence, social exclusion, and a much-loved children’s author’s descent into madness.

This is a complex and ever evolving musical journey that, once drawn into, you remain, hypnotised by the elegance and grace of songs such as Northern Rain, We Caught The Light and Never A Place.

Delivering complex, sophisticated music without leaving the listener somewhat bewildered is an art in itself. This emotionally rich album combines a plethora of musical styles to create an intense, poignant and impassioned entry into Tim Bowness’ increasingly impressive solo catalogue.

Released 28th August 2020

Order the album from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/store/timbowness

Review – Dyble/Longdon – Between a Breath And A Breath – by John Wenlock-Smith

Many of you will be saddened with the cessation of daily routine and life, especially in the area of live music. Big Big Train have certainly had a rough time of all this with their inaugural headlining show at Rosfest in Florida being cancelled due to the virus. During this time David Longdon has not been idle, instead he has been able to complete a rather significant and a very personally special project with Judy Dyble (whose pedigree includes being Fairport Convention’s original vocalist and also being latterly of Trader Horne, alongside an interesting solo career of late). When Big Big Train undertook a run of shows at King’s Place in 2015, Judy was introduced to multi instrumentalist David Longdon and they bonded over their shared love for words and history to the extent that Judy performed a duet with David on The Ivy Gate from the band’s ‘Grimspound’ album and they expressed the desire to work together further at some point. 

This new album is a further and, sadly, final chapter to that friendship as Judy passed away shortly after the completion of the album. So this release will be a celebration of that very special friendship and act as both a testament and a tribute to Judy. 

‘Between A Breath And A Breath’ is a very fine album indeed, there is a lot of very fine music compositions and sublime lyrics on offer on this release. The artwork by Sarah Louise Ewing is exquisite & sensitive and the photos are lovely and dignified, especially the lovely photo of Judy and her beloved greyhound Jessie. 

Of interest to many will be the appearance of most of BBT in some form or another and whilst the music is far more folky than rock, there is still enough punch to bring this into the progressive rock realm, especially on the longer tracks like the epic France and Whisper, both of which are intriguing compositions. 

Judy wrote interesting lyrics and she often said strong things within her songs, as evidenced by her scorn for Astrologers who dupe people with their false promises. This song is the first single from the album and it is a great opener with a fine guitar line from Dave Gregory, whose complex playing adds layers of depth to the song. Obedience follows which is a wonderfully expressive track that swoops and soars with David providing an impressive vocal performance, especially on the chorus. Possibly the most powerful track on the album and one on which the BBT influence can be heard the most.

Tidying Away The Pieces is another song that speaks of preparing for death but is still somehow a positive experience. It is a beautiful song, very emotional but not cloying, rather it is practical and decisive. This song made me smile and cry at the same time. Between a Breath and a Breath is the title track for the album and is a duet between David and Judy in which they swap lines to great effect. A subdued song that has a totally other worldly feel to it.

Then we are onto side two of this remarkable record and the lengthy epic track France at nearly eleven and a half minutes. The song is split in two sections linked by a mirror ball dance section and is about impressions captured on a trip to France and the history encountered whilst there, how war came and changed the home again. This is a sombre piece but the music it contains brings great pathos to the proceedings. It is very expressive and has great guitar solo performed by David Longdon, sweeping accordion from Rikard Sjoblom, in fact pretty much all of BBT bring this song to life beautifully and sensitively, a truly magnificent piece of music. 

Whisper is next and is another strong  piece, the playing on this track is graceful and full, very satisfying. It rewards the listener with repeated playing, unlocking different nuances as the song plays on. It is about being isolated and left out but still being able to listen. 

Final track Heartwashing is a bit different in that Judy doesn’t sing on it but she does speak the words. I gather that illness had consumed Judy by this stage and she couldn’t sing but she did speak with the final lines telling much of the tale when Judy says, “For what will be the next adventure, should there be such a thing…” Sadly it was not to be as she died on the 12th July in advance of the release of the album. 

It is an absolute pleasure to be able to recommend this music to you all, between them David and Judy have gifted us with a graceful poignant and touching record that is a fine testimonial to the unique gentle talent of Judy Dyble and one that is brought to life by the great skills of David Longdon, the members of Big Big Train and a few others. 

This is an album that you must listen to or you miss it at your peril. I cannot recommend this highly enough, I think it is one of my albums of the year. Indeed the beautiful music and the grace that the album offers make this worthy of a place in any albums of the year listing. Yes, it is that good, truly remarkable in fact!

Released 25th September 2020

Order from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/dyble-longdon_between-a-breath-and-a-breath_cd

Review – Fish on Friday – Black Rain by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Black Rain’ is the fifth full length album from Belgian/UK/US outfit Fish on Friday, although there was a compilation last year called ‘Initiation’ that included a non album track (Wings) but acted as a fine introduction to this little-known band.

I have been a follower of the band from hearing their first album – ‘Shoot the Moon’ – in 2010 which I Reviewed for DPRP and where I was highly impressed by their superior song writing abilities. Their second album ‘Airborne’ (2012) added Nick Beggs on bass and chapman stick which rounded the sound out more evenly.

Their third album ‘Godspeed’ was their first for the Esoteric label. This was released in 2014, their last full album was 2017’s ‘Quiet Life’ which, again, was another welcome set of songs. This release also introduced some longer songs that gave room for the group to stretch out more. It also introduced the world to the fabulous voice of Nick’s daughter Luka Beggs who sang on a track and who adds her vocals to four of the songs on the new release.

Once again, the artwork and sleeve are significantly tied into the themes of the album. As always these are impressive and impeccable, adding real value to the album.

The album is a real grower and will need several spins for it to click, which personally suits me as albums that you grow into tend to be those that have greater depth and resonance.

That is certainly true here, opener Life In Towns has some fabulous bass lines from Nick Beggs and some lovely guitar from Marty Townsend that add shade and colour to a song about the loneliness and impersonality that town life can often bring. The spoken part from Nick tells you much about how he feels about towns and how they smother him. The second track, and the albums longest at 8:13, is a song about living on the edge. On Murderous Island Highway Nick lays down some driving basslines to power the song along and there is also some quite ethereal sounding guitar lines which bring to mind the guitar work on David Gilmour, especially in the solo at the 4.00 minute mark. Marty is really stretching out here and Frank’s keyboards offer strong support to proceedings. The song is a slow burner which really grows the more (and louder) that you hear it, it is a strong, remarkable and imaginative piece of music.

Title track Black Rain is, again, about isolation and also frustration at how life has treated you. This sombre song is lifted by the trio of backing vocalists whose voices lift the song, especially in the chorus of “All you’re giving me is black rain…” . This song again is really impressive and well handled by all. Mad At The World opens with deep synths before switching to piano and taking on a quite strident tone. It deals with the disappointments one faces in life. The wonder here is how this band make such sad songs sound so impossibly joyous and so relevant and enticing and is in itself a real gift, such sad themes and yet such fabulous music. This really is top drawer stuff and, as a bonus, there is some very fluid sweet guitar from Marty to really ice the cake, as it were.

Letting Go of You features some lovely clarinet from Theo Travis, alongside some gentle acoustic guitar from Marty and a great vocal from Luka Beggs. It’s a song that tells us that we could call on every angel and is about letting go of someone that has gone and giving you hope to carry on. Angel of Mercy follows a similar theme, pleading that we are not made to wait too long for heavenly assistance, again another powerful song.

We’ve Come Undone is another stunner, opening with a distorted guitar chord and gentle piano before strong vocals give strident pace to the song. This track also has some powerful bass parts to it, the chorus is also very strong. The urgent pace continues throughout the song with some great dynamics that add a good punch to the music. Another stand out track from the band and with more excellent guitar adding to proceedings making it a fabulous song that ends on some stylish synth notes.

We Choose to be Happy is amore upbeat song both in its pace and in its lyrical content. The track is about choosing to be happy and not letting the past deter you, it’s a choice we can all make and it’s an uplifting, feel-good track. Trapped In Heaven is the penultimate track and this one is about being in love and how that love can trap you and imprison you so beware of such relationships. This song features one of Marty’s best solos in it too and features some great bass flourishes from Nick.

Final track Diamonds opens with keyboards and a sole vocal from Frank until Luka joins in on the chorus, her distinctive voice matching Franks in both pitch and intensity. The musicianship very impressive and the song ends with Luka asking ‘when you are getting me a kitten?’ Presumably it’s aimed at her father but brings this fabulous album to a fabulous finish.

This album really takes the band forward, crafting songs of value and emotional impact. It really satisfies and impresses and I heartily recommend this to all who like the more pop end of progressive rock, the music of the Alan Parson’s Project or simply good music as it offers all that and more.

Released 15th May 2020

Order from Cherry Red here:

Review – That Joe Payne – By Name, By Nature

“Flair is what makes the difference between artistry and mere competence. Cmdr. William Riker”
― Star Trek The Next Generation

Well, I never thought I’d start a review with a quote from Star Trek but these are strange times we are living in!

Ex- The Enid frontman Joe Payne reinvented himself and launched his solo career as That Joe Payne and has just released his first full album, ‘By Name, By Nature’, on 7th August.

I always like a bit of background to my reviews so here is what Joe’s website says about him:

“Born 1989, Payne is a classically trained vocalist with backgrounds in theatre, pop and rock music, remembered by audiences for his impressive 5 octave range and strong countertenor.

He is best known for his work within progressive rock as frontman of The Enid (2011-2016). During their time together, the band released 6 albums and 3 live videos. They received 3 Progressive Music Award nominations in 2013 and 2015, including Best Band, Best Album, and Best Event.

More recently, Payne has released collaborative work with Zio and John Holden, as well as producing solo material. 

His personal achievements include being voted Best Male Vocalist for two years running (2014 & 2015) in the Prog Magazine Readers’ Poll.

In 2019, Payne was invited to support Marillion at their fan-weekend at Port Zelande, NL.”

Now we’ve got that out of the way, here is what I think about the new album…

‘By Name, By Nature’ is fifty three minutes of pure artistry from a man who will be the first to admit that he certainly has a flair for the theatrical. It is a delight from the first note until the last and shows what an absolutely consummate performer Joe is, he is, honestly, a true entertainer.

After the dramatic instrumental opening of The Thing About Me Is the next two songs are pure driving pop music with a definitive diva edge to them. Title track By Name. By Nature and Nice Boy play to Joe’s talents and panache, imagine Andy Bell at the height of his fame with Erasure and, in my opinion anyway, you’ll be bang on the money. I am a particular fan of Nice Boy, you will not hear a more fun and jaunty track this year, I’m sure!

“He’s a Payne by name and a pain by nature…”

To be fair, I’ve met Joe and he does himself a great disservice with that line as he is a really nice guy, anyway, we then start to move into proper musical theatre territory with In My Head and What Is The World Coming To. The former song has a chorus that hails from Joe’s time in The Enid and is powerful and emotive and the latter is just pure theatre where Joe’s distinctive vocal is the focus.

Love (Not The Same) shows the soulful side of Mr Payne, a slow burning and sensual song followed by the soaring I Need A Change, which was previously released as Joe’s debut single and is still as powerful now.

The pared back, graceful feeling End Of The Tunnel is wistful and nostalgic and Music For A While takes the music of Henry Purcell and gives it an 80’s electronica backbeat. The album comes to a close with the stunning Moonlit Love where Joe’s skills as a songwriter meet his penchant for the theatrical, never has Beethoven’s music been put to a better use!

That Joe Payne has given us a highlight of the year, something entirely different to the majority of the rest of the music I have been listening to and all the fresher and inspiring for it. If you want to listen to an album that will take your mind off the world for a while and take you to a place of wonder and not a little wry humour then ‘By Name, By Nature’ might just be the one to take you there.

Released 7th August 2020

Order the album direct from the artists here:

https://www.thatjoepayne.com/shop

Artist picture by Martin Reijman.

Review – The Tangent – Auto Reconnaissance

Welcome to the post-Covid-19 world. My day job has got ridiculously busy and I have not been able to write any reviews so I’m going to alter my usual in-depth method and just give things to you straight.

The Tangent, the progressive rock group led by Andy Tillison, are set to release their 11th studio album ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ on August 21st, 2020.

The follow-up to 2018’s ‘Proxy’, sees them taking the band philosophy of celebrating the golden age of prog, whilst bringing it to the present and exploring new paths for the music to take in the future. On ‘Auto Reconnaissance’, they bend that philosophy to their will, taking in prog rock foot Stomping, sublime Jazz, humour, narrative, a modern R&B love song, funk/soul and a 28 minute long emotional epic about the band’s home country of England.

Andy comments: “I utterly refuse to accept that Progressive Rock Music is some kind of museum piece. It is actually a living and breathing movement that has a past, a present and above all, a future. It once had an album-chart-topping golden age, but the genre was never about that. It has subtly and virally kept itself alive for decades where many new musical genres have risen to glory and faded away.”

For this release, Andy is once again joined by long-time collaborator Luke Machin (who also helped produce the album), Jonas Reingold, Theo Travis, and Steve Roberts. Together they bring to life an album that has been influenced by the likes of ELP, The Isley Brothers, Steely Dan, Aphex Twin, National Health, Rose Royce, Squarepusher and Return To Forever amongst others.

Right, that’s the record label PR out of the way, what do I think of the album…

Simply put, Andy is at his acerbic and witty best when it comes to the lyrics, especially on the travelogue-esque track 2, Jinxed In Jersey where he regales us with his journey around New York and it is a brillaint, amusing and tongue in cheek clash of cultures between the largesse of the good ol’ U.S of A and your basic, down to earth Yorkshireman.

The wonderful, laid back jazz-infused soundtrack to Andy’s spoken word is superbly judged and takes you back to the 70’s. To be fair, the whole album has that sepia tinged edge of halcyon days gone by but given that ‘turd polishing’ skill that only Andy Tillison can do.

You want funky, you’ve got it, the five and a half minutes of opening track Life On Hold is as good as anything released recently with even a passing resemblance to the decade that gave us disco and corduroy flares! It’s a song that makes you smile and we all need some of that at the moment.

Dare I say that Under Your Spell has the feel of a 70’s love song? Almost as if Andy is channelling his inner Barry White (now there’s an image!). Whether you agree with me or not, what it is is a wonderful, classy and velvet smooth piece of music and there’s no arguing with that, just listen to the way Luke’s solo just oozes empathy.

There’s a sea change and a move to the 80’s with the edgy keyboard note of Tower Of Babel and it’s direct and in-your-face chorus. Think Huey Lewis And The News get down with Talking Heads and you won’t be far from the mark.

Lie Back And Think Of England could well be seen as Andy’s Magnum Opus and, in my humble opinion, it is the best piece of music he has ever written. Twenty-eight minute progressive rock epics are everywhere nowadays but this never fails to engage the listener and keep them under its captivating spell. The highs and lows and dynamic crescendos are utterly brilliant, taking you on an engrossing musical journey through all that is good about prog rock and one where every word and every note have their place.

Back to the 70’s and the funky, disco edge of soundtracks like Shaft and Starsky and Hutch, the bedrock on which The Midas Touch could have been built. There’s wah-wah pedal and tinkling of ivories galore in a song awash with the feel of lazy, hazy summers. The album closes with the bonus track Proxima, a twelve minute instrumental that could have come straight from a Tangerine Dream record.

The Tangent are a British progressive rock institution and every new album is eagerly awaited by the fans and, while every fan will have their own opinion, ‘Auto Reconnaissance’ is my favourite album from the band yet. Andy is on top form, his song writing is as sharp and clever as ever and he has gathered around him a group of musicians who seriously have no peers. A superb release and one which cements The Tangent’s already exalted reputation.

Released 21st August 2020

Order from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/the-tangent_auto-reconnaissance_cd

Review – Lonely Robot – Feelings Are Good – by John Wenlock-Smith

Lonely Robot is the name that John Mitchell (It BitesFrost*, Kino and Arena) uses for his solo projects, and this really is a solo album as it all performed, composed and produced by John himself with Percussive duties being handled by his Frost* colleague and drummer extraordinaire Craig Blundell. This is the fourth release to bear the Lonely Robot name, the previous three were his ‘Astronaut’ project (‘Please Come Home’, ‘The Big Dream’ and last year’s ‘Under Stars’). This time around the fare is far more Terra Firma focused and deals specifically with the events and memories that John says have made him who he is today. 

It’s been a few years since I last listened to John Mitchell’s music and I don’t know why that is really as he offers a decent brand of prog/pop crossover material that is really fine to listen to, so it’s me who has missed out really. This album will hopefully rebalance that scenario. 

‘Feelings Are Good’ is an emotionally revealing album that is not afraid to face some difficult times that John has been through and lessons he has learnt from these experiences. John refers to these moments as being the cornerstones, both good and bad, that he is back on planet Earth and has a personal lyrical axe to grind

The albums cover features closed eyes and a taped over mouth that represent how people are very guarded about their emotions. This album, however, is less guarded, far rawer and much more open about the emotions it addresses  You really must listen carefully to the songs to get the measure of what John is on about but, certainly, there are songs about broken relationships, night-time fears (spiders), small town life and grief and loss.

The album is generally Prog lite although it has touches of progressive metal in certain parts. It has excellent musical accompaniment and the sound is crisp and clear with good separation between instruments and, at all points, John’s guitar playing is very elegant and soars when the song calls for it. He has worked hard here to convey his emotions and backed it all up with powerful songs that will elicit a response from his listeners

Whether that response be anger, sadness, despair or hope is up to each person who hears this album and how this music makes them feel. No matter what your reaction may be, this is most certainly a well crafted and well written and recorded set of songs.

The songs them selves are very varied, all pretty much even tempo and most feature a guitar solo within them. John is very good at using his playing to accentuate the emotions within the songs. He also uses keyboards in a highly effective manner to further enhance these pieces and to add colours to the emotions and feelings that are so openly displayed.

His voice is strong and clear and he sings with real conviction and feeling, sometimes with force and anger, but always for the song and not just for effect. I commend John for being so open to all listeners. Doing so takes real courage and bravery, as some of these songs deal with painful moments for John, and yet he handles his emotions positively and without bitterness.

There are several key songs on this album, Crystalline (which uses the words of winter to reflect emotional coldness as a metaphor for emotional feelings), Life Is A Sine Wave, Keeping People As Pets and the brief Grief Is The Price Of Love, which tells us that there is no there is no rainbow without there first being some rain. This track is a remarkably simple but emotional song, played on acoustic guitar with a single heartfelt vocal from John. This is a stunning short piece but one that has real gravitas to it. Armour for My Heart, which is about protecting your heart and how one must do this at times, is also another emotionally bruising song.

In summary this album is a marked departure from the science fiction that occupied his last three albums and takes on a far more down to earth, closer to home theme and all that that entails. This is an excellent album that is well worthy of being heard I recommend it highly.

Released 17th July 2020

Order the CD from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/lonely-robot_feelings-are-good_cd?filter_name=Lonely%20ROBOT&filter_sub_category=true

Review – Steve Howe – Love Is – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Love Is’, is the latest solo album from Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Steve has been the guitarist in Yes since the ‘Close To The Edge’ album in 1972 and in that time his guitar mastery has entranced millions of fans with his unique style and skill on both electric and acoustic guitars, his harmony vocals also playing a supporting role to the vocals that made Yes so famous. His incisive guitar work was also heard on the original brace of albums by Asia, especially on the huge radio hit Heat of The Moment, among many others

Asia were the group he revisited on several occasions over the years but this new solo album is a little different in that it features current Yes vocalist Jon Davison on the vocal tracks which comprise five of the albums ten tracks. Jon also provides bass guitar on these same five tracks. In reality  the album is all fairly laid back with only a few songs raising the pace but, somehow, this doesn’t really matter for what we have here is a master craftsman at work, still striving to push himself forward and make new music that is worthy and has merit.

This is certainly the case here, especially on the vocal tracks as these have a real edge to them delivered by Jon Davison. These songs also have a feel of Yes to them, even without the rest of the band onboard. Certainly one can see It Ain’t Easy finding a place on a Yes album and it being a highpoint of that, just as it is here. Also worth a mention is the delicate steel guitar on the instrumental Pause For Thought, which shows Steve’s nimble finger work off to great effect, its complex playing proving quite strident, making it one of the better tracks. This playing is quite lyrical really making this a song without words and sounding very good too!

Imagination also has that same strident feel to it, being the better for it too. The song has some fine playing from Steve. While his playing here is song cantered and is not focused on showing off on fiery solo’s, the solo’s that he does deliver are brief and fleeting, aimed to fit in with the tone of the songs or the moods of the pieces. In all honesty, this plays to the strength of the songs as an overall album and it is probably best appreciated as such.

This is a good album by a great musician and, while there is nothing here that makes you go wow!, if you let the music do the talking and you are prepared to listen to it, you will find snatches of real skill and moments of beauty. Like those found in The Headlands where Steve finally lets rip  with some sublime guitar lines backed by some fine acoustic guitar. This song is possibly my favourite on the album, although I also like See Me Through and Fulcrum, both of which are really satisfying to hear. The title track Love Is A River is also a stand out moment that shouldn’t be missed.

I do feel that it would have been good to hear more of Steve really cutting loose and tearing up his fretboard but, hey, at seventy odd he probably isn’t interested in doing that any more. Instead we’ll just have to be happy to settle for the amazing craft he brings to these pieces.   

The final track, On The Balcony, has the most rock orientated feel to it, with its chugging riff and rhythm moving it along nicely. This has a good use of dynamics to it really but, overall, I feel that many fans will simply not bother to listen to this album wanting the next Yes album instead, and that is very is sad as this disc has many moods to it and a hell of a lot to commend it.

Personally, I am very glad to have heard this and wish Steve all the best for this album’s success. He has created an album that rewards the diligent listener and, on that basis, I can highly recommend it to you. If your knowledge of Steve Howe is limited to key Yes albums and the Asia material then you really should give this album a try. Steve has released a lot of albums over the years, from his first ‘Beginnings’ and ‘The Steve Howe Album’, both in the mid 1970’s, to the more recent ‘Nexus’ (with son Virgil) and the Steve Howe Trio albums and, in my honest opinion, ‘Love Is’ stands comparison with the best of those.     

Released 31st July, 2020

Pre-order the album from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/store/stevehowe