Review – Abel Ganz – The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
― C.S. Lewis

I have made so many friends through music and not short lasting friendships either, friendships that I hold dear and will last the test of time and for all time. You all know how much I love music but it is the stories behind a lot of those friendships that have made the music much more meaningful and enduring.

I have to thank my good friend and colleague at Bad Elephant Music, David Elliott for introducing me to the fantastic legendary Scottish proggers Abel Ganz through their incredible 2014 self-titled release which was a kind of rebirth for this seminal band.

The conclusion to my review of that album went like this,

“This is music that will stand the test of time and could become a legacy for this superb band. Abel Ganz has delivered what is bound to become a highlight of this already impressive musical year, I implore you to go henceforth and purchase this musical marvel!”

And those words led me on a fantastic musical and life affirming journey to seeing the band live quite a few times including four trips to Glasgow to see them at their own mini ‘Prog B4 Christmas’ festival.

Through those trips and the wonder of social media, I have come to know the band on a very emotive and personal level and I am very proud to call them all friends. Perhaps that close friendship added fuel to the foreboding worry of how they would follow up that wondrous collection of songs that made up 2014’s well loved release? All I know is that, when band leader, drummer and all round good guy Denis Smith sent me the music files in March of this year, I was both excited and slightly apprehensive about what I was going to hear…

So, first to the Press Release:

“A concept album comprising of six thematically linked pieces exploring our relationship with memory and loss. The liminal space between a fading ‘what was’ and an anticipated ‘what is to come’.

The album recalls the hazy technicolour of long remembered summers and the sepia of a love forgotten. A place where we blur the boundaries of returning and renewal. The lyrics chart the course through recollection to premonition. These words are both deeply personal and universal, hope for what is next and a lament for what we have lost.”

Denis told me that the band had deliberately set out to NOT make the same album as before and after dozens of listens I can honestly say that they have delivered something totally different but equally as wonderful as before, to be honest, it is better, in my opinion!

There is something utterly bewitching about this collection of seven perfectly crafted songs. Actually, I’d go further than calling them songs, they are stories, stories that bare their soul, stories of love and loss that can be at times amazingly uplifting and, at others, totally heart-wrenching but they are always beautiful.

This enchanting and captivating musical journey opens with the title track, The Life of the Honey Bee and Other Moments of Clarity, which opens the album with nearly thirteen minutes of enthralling, beguiling brilliance and the album never looks back from there. The song writing is thought provoking and the musicianship second to none with Dave King’s elegant guitar playing providing the ethereal stepping stones for Mick Macfarlane’s soft, Caledonian brogue to draw you in to this mesmerising song and the genius Chromatic Harmonica of Alex Partlin has to be heard to be believed. The masters of Scottish progressive rock are back and it has taken just one song to ease my worries, this is going to be one wondrous experience, I just know it!

As if that wasn’t superb enough then the incredibly moving exquisite grace of One Small Soul (can you tell I like this song?!) takes the bar and lifts it even higher. There are simply not enough superlatives for this ridiculously good piece of music. I always said that Thank You from the previous release was my favourite Abel Ganz track and I still love it but this consummate song has just stolen my heart completely. From the sublime guitar through to the delightful piano, it just touches my soul. The vocals are heartfelt and earnest and Mick’s interplay with acclaimed solo artist Emily Smith is a highlight of the whole album, add in the dazzling guitar solo and you have just about the perfect song.

Dave King took over from long time Ganz guitarist Davie Mitchell and has immediately become one of the family and his self-penned instrumental Arran Shores superbly evokes the image of a wind swept and scenic Scottish shoreline. Just under three minutes of instrumental music that you can just lose yourself in and forget all your worries.

Get the tissues out, trust me, there will not be a dry eye in the house after listening to the celestial strings and evocative vocals of Summerlong. A song with a depth of personal meaning that soars high with a melancholy, wistful grace. On Denis’ recommendation, the first time I heard this track I wore headphones and just stopped dead and listened to every word and every note intricately and I would advise you all to do the same. A thoughtful, yet plaintive song that leaves its mark on your heart and in your mind.

After the contemplative and reflective nobility of the previous track, the first ninety seconds of Sepia and White (written by stylish bass player Stephen Donnelly) has more funk than a New York disco in the height of the 70’s. It is utterly brilliant and put a huge smile on my face before the song segues into a thirteen and a half minute epic with elements of progressive rock, elements of jazz and an added touch of Americana just to mix things up. The guitar motif that runs throughout is a great piece of ingenuity, vocalist extraordinaire Mick Macfarlane really is on top form and Jack Webb’s keys are as accomplished as ever. Sit down with a wee dram or a glass of your favourite red and just enjoy a group of musicians on a creative high as this exceptional song gets under your skin and almost becomes part of your actual being, it really doesn’t get much better than this my friends!

What a wonderful surprise as the first notes of The Light Shines Out fade and the vocals begin, this refined and nostalgic song sees Denis Smith on the microphone and his slightly catching voice is just perfect for the gossamer like feel that the music engenders. Like the sepia tinged early morning dew of a spring day, there is a feel of awakening and rebirth about the whole song and it really stirs your emotions and is a fitting end to the album and I love the way the fading guitar ends the track.

Well I say end, we are actually treated to a radio edit of One Small Soul as things come to a proper close which, let’s face it, is no bad thing…

How to sum up my feelings? I have a very close connection with Abel Ganz but that has not made any difference to how I have reviewed this album. Put simply, it is not just the best album I have heard this year, it is one of the best albums I have ever heard in my 52 years. More than just a collection of songs or even stories, it is part of the band member’s very souls and when they put all of that into making a record, you are going to get something very special indeed.

Released 6th July 2020

Order the album direct from the band’s website here:

www.abelganz.com

Review – Martyn Barker – Water & Stone

Martyn Barker is an English drummer, percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, best known as the drummer for Shriekback. He has also been a member of King Swamp and worked with many of the world’s best known and loved musicians. He currently has co-written and co-produced two records with songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Talitha Rise, as well as producing and drumming for acts worldwide.

Water & Stone‘ celebrates the miracle of water; its rhythm, its music, its journey, its myths, poetry & its beauty. The album contains wondrously spiritual folk-scapes created for television by Martyn in collaboration with Emily Burridge (cello), Nick Pynn (violin) and Astrid Williamson (vocals). 

I first got to know of Martyn through Jo Beth Young who recorded as Talitha Rise and he really is a consummate and extremely creative musician so, when he asked me if I’d be interested in a new collection of music he had written for television my answer was always going to be a resounding yes.

Despite the premise that the album was written specifically for TV, it can be taken as a singular recording in itself. There is a wonderful flow and spiritual feel to the music as it permeates your whole being one track after another.

To my ears this ethereal, wistful and contemplative release should be listened to in one sitting as each track tends to segue into the next and draws you in to its quite delightful web of beautiful music.

Oft plaintive and mournful and oft playful and nostalgic, it caused a welling of emotions in this weary listener and calmed my soul at a time when the world is a very strange place indeed.

Particular highlights for me are the wonderfully emotive The Selkie featuring Nick Pynn’s expressive violin playing, the sublime and divine Time and the Sea with Astrid Williamson’s dreamy vocals, the reflective splendour of the compelling Ocean of Prayers and the elegant charm of Calandra’s Dance where you first hear the rarefied brilliance of Emily Burridge’s cello.

Emily is an excellent foil for Martyn, collaborating on eight of the album’s thirteen tracks but it is the haunting grandeur of the music that stands out across the entirety of the recording.

You are unlikely to hear a release as graceful and spiritual as this at any point in 2020, it will move and delight you in equal measure.

Released 16/2/20

‘Water & Stone’ is available at Apple Music and from 7digital here:

https://uk.7digital.com/artist/martyn-barker/release/water-and-stone-10792882

Review – Kansas – The Absence of Presence – by John Wenlock-Smith

It’s now the third month of the Coronavirus shutdown. In efforts to conquer the virus and to stop its devastation of both our economy and, more so, of the peoples of the world, certain politicians, who should know better before talking, have suggested some strange solutions, bleach anyone, for instance!

There is some light at the end of this dark tunnel, however and, for me, this has been the fine music that has made each day a little better. So it was great news to hear that American legends Kansas had a new album nearing completion for release at the end of June 2020. That album is called ‘The Absence of Presence’ and it is certainly very welcome in these strange times.

Everyone should have a little Kansas in their collection (and their lives) as their impressive history and collection of fine progressive rock deserves a place in every home. Well, I am glad to report that the album does not disappoint, in fact it bristles with real vigour and presence. This is the second record the band have released in three years and is a worthy follow up to ‘The Prelude Implicit’, which was the first album with new vocalist Ronnie Platts (who has replaced Steve Walsh after the latter’s 41 year tenure with the band). We are also introduced to Tom Breslin (formerly of Yes and Camel) who joins on keyboards.

The album begins with title track The Absence of Presence which opens with a few of Tom Breslin’s piano notes before a violin sweep from David Ragsdale plays a main theme before returning to a gentle piano backed melody as Ronnie Platts’ vocal is introduced. The song appears to be speaking about one who has left but whose presence is still very much felt, maybe in memories but is still tangibly missed.

The song is somewhat of an epic song from Kansas with a running time of 8 Minutes and 22 seconds and that time is wisely used to show the not inconsiderable talents of the current band with some lush symphonic sounds and some hard edged guitars and drums and that graceful violin. This is an extraordinarily strong and dynamic opener, you certainly know it’s Kansas as there are none that sound like they do and that makes a new album a welcome event indeed.

Throwing Mountains follows which has an awesome video (you can watch it at the end of the review) that you really need to see as it captures the excitement of a live Kansas performance wonderfully.

The third single from the album is next, called Jets Overhead. This track opens with some graceful piano before a hard guitar riff and violin lines are introduced, all sounding very strong and appealing. The song has some fabulous drum patters from Phil Ehart and a soaring violin part at the 2:58 point that really adds to the power. It shows Kansas are not prepared to simply rehash old ideas but carry on striving to bring us more worthy music as they head towards their 50th anniversary.

The brief track Propulsion 1 swiftly follows, an instrumental song propelled by some sturdy drumming and some fine keyboards. This segues nicely into the rather excellent Memories Down The Line which is the second single from the album again with another powerfully emotive video.

I know Kerry Livgren is no longer involved with the band yet, somehow, his presence still remains in these emotionally formed songs that could so easily have flowed from his hands. That is one of the great strengths about Kansas, the emotional connection between the words and the music and in this song they certainly have caught that connection beautifully and it is one of the standouts on this sublime album.

Circus of Illusion is next, and this features a more muscular variant of the band firing on all cylinders with some strong surging basslines from Billy Greer anchoring the song to its rhythm section and letting it fly loose.

This is followed by Animals On The Roof, which has another fine Platts’ vocal and yet more strong propulsive drums sat among some fiery guitarwork from Richard Williams and Zak Rivki. This mid paced rocker plays to all of the strengths of the current band and is another excellent excursion for all with a great violin part at the 2:42 point before reverting back to the vocal again. There is top-class stuff on offer here, hopefully we will be able to see these guys in London next year and, if so, you can definitely count me in for that!  

The penultimate track is Never which again opens with Tom Breslin’s fantastic piano before a violin line from Ragsdale begins. This is a far more gentle and softer offering than what has gone before but that gives room for the vocals to soar across the song, meaning you can really feel the warmth in this lovely song.

The album closes with The Song The River Sang which gives the whole band a window to show us their wares brilliantly and, with a fine vocal from Ronnie Platts to support everyone’s efforts superbly, this track works as a fine conclusion to what is an album of classy songs, expert musicianship, strong melodies and fine performances. As Geoff Barton of Sounds said in 1977, “Pomp Rock Lives Run For The Hills…”, he was right then and he’s still right now, I urge you all to listen to this masterful album for yourselves.

There is a common theme to many of these songs of time passing and the change that brings to us all, maybe as we are all getting older Kansas are beginning to both realise and appreciate the value of the time that we have available to us. However, whatever the thinking behind these songs, they certainly never fail to impress. The band have delivered an album that is a wonderful representation of modern day Kansas and I, for one, am very glad of that. Having been a fan for over 40 years, I am glad to still have the band in existence.

Released 26th June 2020

Buy ‘The Absence of Presence’  from Burning Shed here:   

https://burningshed.com/kansas_the-absence-of-presence_cd?filter_name=Kansa&filter_sub_category=true

    

Review – Pattern Seeking Animals – Prehensile Tales – by John Wenlock-Smith

When the first Pattern Seeking Animals album was released last year, such was its beauty that it easily made my albums of the year list. Its mix of style and deep lyrics made it a very worthy album indeed and, when I spoke to John Boegehold he’d remarked that they had already started work on this sophomore release.

Well that was last year and now, just about a year later, comes ‘Prehensile Tales’, the continuation of the Pattern Seeking Animals story, or sub tale really as the folk involved are predominantly the core nucleus of legendary US group Spock’s Beard, with PSA treading a slightly different path musically. It is still prog but PSA exist as a vehicle for material that John has written, but that he feels in not quite within the remit of Spock’s Beard.

At time of writing this does not mean the end of The Beard, it just means a further outlet is available to John, which I am sure you will agree is a good thing for listeners as, when that material is as fine as this, then there is really no issue, let’s just be grateful for this music.

We find a range of subjects tackled in these songs from finding a second chance in your life, vampires, shipwrecks and facing mortality. Another difference this time around is the wider musical palette that is employed to add more colours and timbre to the tones, these include violin, flutes, piccolo, trumpet, flugelhorn and cello along with saxophone and pedal steel guitars. This makes for an interesting and richly rewarding listen, although, as always, you will have to listen carefully for the magic to unfold around you.

The production by fellow bearder Rich Mouser is crisp and clear with clear separation of instrumentation across all the tracks, likewise the cover art is also highly arresting and intriguing,

The album starts with the Dave Meros rumbling bass on Raining Hard In Heaven this is interspersed with snatches of guitar from Ted Leonard, all ably supported by the keyboard work of John Boegehold and Jimmy Keegan’s solid drumming. The bass work from Meros is sublime and carries the melody wonderfully before a synth solo takes the song forward into a more upbeat section and then reverting to a quitter more measured pace with classic organ sounds and that bass moving the song forwards once again as it heads towards its satisfying conclusion. A great opener by any standard

This is followed by Here In My Autumn which features a sublime violin from Rini in the latter sections, giving this song a Kansas feel, and I mean that in a good way as this additional colour really adds to the dynamics of the song greatly, as indeed does the excellent piccolo and flute which are also very noticeable. Again, the bass work is of the highest standard and his support and playing is subtle and effective. The guitar break by Leonard yields another elegant and emotional track that really hits the mark. Ted’s vocals on this track are also extraordinarily strong, he really can take these songs and stamp his own identity on them. A second guitar solo takes this song to an epic conclusion in tandem with John’s keyboards.

Another stunning song, and were only at the start really! The next piece is Elegant Vampires which features some terrific drum patters from Jimmy alongside more solid bass from Dave and atmospheric keyboards from John, who plays a recurring motif that runs throughout the song. Another fabulous vocal from Ted carries this short song about the inevitability of death using the metaphor of vampires as symbolism. Again, an interesting song which leads us to one of the more unusual tracks of this set,

Namely, Why Don’t We Run? which features, believe it or not, a mariachi band! The track opens with what sounds like Chinese or oriental brass before an acoustic guitar ushers in the mariachi type sound and it gallops along most effectively. The instrumentation on this song is tremendous, highly evocative, and realistic, an acoustic guitar carrying the melody forwards till at the 3.35 mark the horn returns with its wail and Ted’s guitar takes brief flight. This may all sound very weird yet somehow it works and it all sounds magnificent, possibly my favourite song thus far.

We are then led into the albums longest and most epic song at 17:20 called Lifeboat. It is comprised of 5 parts, the first the first of which is an instrumental section, called Nearer Now To Heaven. It then switches to Ted emotive vocal telling the tale of the people on the lifeboat as the ship is going down, leading to another excellent bass part from Dave who really anchors the track together so that you can feel the despair that the hero is facing in an ocean of uncertainty. A plaintive trumpet voluntary takes the song forwards into Ted’s guitar solo after which the protagonist is pondering his mortality whilst crying out for someone to save him. Finally we are led into the closing section which deals with what happens when you die, in this instance we are left with an open ending to that particular question as the song ends with storms and the noise of oars, a brilliant track by any standards.

The album’s final track Soon But Not Today then follows with a musical mystery tour taking in reggae, surf and the Beatles in the tale of a man who gets chance to reassess his life and hopefully make changes to how he leaves the world. Again this song is concerned with one’s mortality and in this song we see just how solidly this band work as one to deliver stunning song after stunning song.

I loved the debut album and, guess what? I love this one too! ‘Prehensile Tales’ is very accomplished and engaging and a great piece of work that will make you glad that you heard it, I really recommend this to you all, it is really really fine piece of music.

Released 15th May 2020

Order the album here:

https://patternseekinganimals.lnk.to/PrehensileTalesID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 24th April 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

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

     

     

Review – PsychoYogi – Dangerous Devices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 11th April 2020.

Order ‘Dangerous Devices’ from bandcamp here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 20/3/2020

Order from bandcamp here:

https://thebardicdepths.bandcamp.com/releases

Progressive Music About Gambling

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

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

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

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

The Turn of a Friendly Card

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

Death Is a Great Gambler

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

Diamond Jack

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

Upper Sixth Loan Shark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 20th March 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

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

Review – Time Shift Accident – Chronosthesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released 27th September 2019

Order the album from bandcamp here:

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