Review – John Holden – Circles In Time – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Circles in Time’ is the third, and latest, album from John Holden who has, over a period of just 4 years, written and created three quite different albums that are all rooted in his love of progressive music by the likes of Yes, Genesis and many others. John lives about 5 miles from me, on the border between Staffordshire and Cheshire, although I actually came to know him through Facebook and his recognising our shared love of music in reviews I had written for DPRP at the time.

His first album, ‘Capture Light’, came out in 2018, followed by ‘Rise and Fall’ in early 2020. Like the rest of us, John has been in lockdown and has wisely used his time to accelerate the release of his next album which has emerged as the already mentioned ‘Circles in Time’.

This new album marks a big change in how John has approached the music, in that he has delivered a truly epic piece in the last track, KV62, which sits comfortably alongside five other songs of varying length yet all bearing the same hallmark of quality. John has called on many of the musicians who graced his earlier albums, especially using the keyboard  and arrangement skills of Vikram Shanker more prominently than he did on ‘Rise and Fall’. Once again the cover and booklet are full of information and excellent pictures that both draw the eye and also unfold the mysteries contained in the songs.

The album opens with Avalanche and a fast and muscular riff section from Eric Potapenko and strong vocals from Jean Pageau of Mystery fame. The song is about social media and how folks use it to slander and undermine others. Liner notes say this song is a response to all the negativity and blaming and shaming that exists in the social media, the sun will rise in the morning and the world will keep on turning. It is a strong opener and a good statement of intent that sets you up for all that is to follow. In this case this is the song High Line. The High Line is a real place in New York and is in actuality an elevated greenway or linear park that cuts through the city’s west side. It was constructed along the setting of an old freight line that went through very rough neighbourhoods, in fact, it was so bad it they christened it ‘Death Alley’. The song has a very jazzy vibe to it with some lovely saxophone from Peter Jones, who also provides the smooth vocals for the song. This is a wonderfully evocative piece that nods its hat to Blue Note Jazz and also to Steely Dan.

The next song, The Secret of Chapel Field, is very much a grower and is based on a story John discovered whilst looking at gravestones in his village church graveyard. The song reworks the known facts that Mary Malpas, a 15-year-old girl, was murdered by Thomas Bagguley at Chapel Field in Hunterston. He later killed himself, thus avoiding justice. This sombre song is graced by vocals from Marc Atkinson (Riversea) and Sally Minnear (Celestial Fire) and the mournful violin lines of Frank Van Essen (Iona). It is a fine track and its words will stay with you long after the song has concluded.

Next John whisks us off to Andalucía in Spain for the track Dreams of Cadiz where we encounter the spirit of flamenco, imbued by the fluid guitar from the nimble hands and fingers of Oliver Day alongside a graceful piano. This song is an instrumental piece that captures the fire and passion of the dance and is duly accompanied with dramatic flourishes, handclaps and foot stomping that all add to the atmosphere of this piece.

The penultimate track is Circles which is a very personal song for the protagonist Libby who is an ovarian cancer survivor who has known, and continues to have, serious health issues. Here in this song, she encourages us to live in the moment and not to grieve but instead to be grateful for all that we are and all we have now in the present. The song also encourages us with the power that love brings to any situation. It is beautifully realised with the gracious voice of Sally Minnear and some gentle and subtle arrangements.

This leads us into the atmospheric world of KV62 and ancient Egypt and the discoveries made by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon during their archaeological expeditions of the 1920’s where they uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. This song has narration by Jeremy Irons and vocals from Joe Payne and Peter Jones. The song reveals the agony of the protagonists as they searched fruitlessly for the tomb and pushed themselves financially to do so until they finally succeeded. The music is suitably Arabian sounding with some great guitar from Zaid Crowe.

The Wonderful Things segment has some fabulously wild synthesizer passages from Vikram accompanied by fine piano and percussion from John. This section sees the death of Lord Carnarvon from Tutankhamun’s curse. It was actually an infection from a mosquito bite that killed him, however the curse of Tutankhamen sold more newspapers so the truth of his demise was sacrificed at the altar of the media and the fable then famously spread.

Lord Carnarvon had sold exclusive rights to the tale to The Times (Pre Murdoch, when it was a worthy paper and not the rag it is nowadays). The song is lifted by extended instrumental parts interspersed between the vocals that tell of the press and media frenzy about the discovery and how Carter came up against Egyptian Bureaucracy. A largely disillusioned Carter returned to London where, amongst the parties and media storm, he died impoverished, penniless and alone. The song is epic in its scope, however it is ultimately a sad tale of loss and missed opportunities.,

John had Seen the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in the 1972 at the British Museum and has been to the valley of the Kings on several occasions, KV62 being the name designated to the site of the tomb in the Valley of The Kings.

The whole album is simply fabulous, somewhat mellow in parts but with an astounding lyricism and magnificent musicianship. John Holden has done it again and pulled another blinder of an album out of his metaphorical hat. It is one that really impresses and I highly recommend this album full of modern-day prog and brilliant songs, here’s to album 4 John!

Released March 26th 2021.

Order the album direct from the artist here:

John Holden Music | Listen and buy the new album “Circles in Time”

Review – Sanguine Hum A Trace Of Memory – by John Wenlock-Smith

Oxford’s finest sons make a very welcome return after quite a lengthy absence. After 2018’s ‘Now We Have Power’ this new album is a little different to what has gone before, allow me to explain, if I may.

Firstly, ‘A Trace Of Memory’ was recorded during the first lockdown period in the UK. As a reaction to, and a step towards preventing further outbreaks of, the Coronavirus, this meant recording remotely and in a segregated manner. In fact that the album got completed is a wonder in itself! As a result of that difficult period, the music they offer this time around is a little less frantic and a lot more ambient in nature. Don’t worry, it still has lots of familiar sounds and the fine voice and guitar of Joff Winks and the elegant keyboards of Matt Baber although, this time around, the sound is more expansive and wide screen and possibly more open and uncluttered.

The album opens with New Light, a shorter ambient track full of keyboards interspersed with  guitar lines and runs. This is a very musical piece with a great feel and mood to it that certainly impresses and the wonderful guitar tones throughout set you up for what is to come, namely The Yellow Ship, the album’s longest track at 13:07. This impressive song opens with keyboards, shimmering cymbals and lightly strummed guitars. Joff’s vocals are measured and pleasant, Matt’s keyboards are highly effective, as is Wink’s guitar as he plays a lot of circular patterns here, albeit highly effectively. Some might feel that this song has lots of atmosphere but may lack a certain sense of direction or that could just be my interpretation of it. It is, however, all wrapped in a very lush sound that gets a bit more aggressive towards the end as the guitar starts to sound a bit more metallic sounding offset against the keyboards. Towards the close there is a return to a calmer sound and more of that strummed guitar that is exceptionally fine and effective.

Pyramids features field recordings of birdsong and other noises as it opens, this is followed by some tasty plucked acoustic guitar and more ethereal keyboard sounds and textures. These textures are interspersed with more distorted guitar chords and there is a nice touch of electronica in there too if you listen out for it. Thin Air is another lively soundscape track with more superb guitar lines woven throughout its short running time of 3:16. It also contains some strong bass parts to flavour the sound and the atmospherics of the album.

Unstable Ground has some delightful keyboards and short guitar runs that together create an atmosphere of longing for something lost or unavailable. This could well be a veiled reference to the lockdown period. Lyrically this is a darker composition, but the vocals add much to the power of the piece. Still As The Sea is next which is another somewhat whimsical song with echoes of the Canterbury sound of the likes of Caravan and early Soft Machine, again subtly effective guitar is employed to give the song its pace and setting making this a shorter song a highly effective one.

We then arrive at the final track on the album, Automaton, the albums second longest at 8:06. It opens with keyboards and electronic blips and pulses before gaining a slow burning momentum when the guitars segue in, playing more ascending chord patterns before a jazzy piano sound takes over. This piece is an instrumental song throughout but there is enough variation and imagination used to make this very strong sounding, the guitar being powerful and commanding  of attention. This is a good finale to what has been a very interesting album that may not resonate with everyone on first listen but is definitely worth persevering with.

One must be grateful that Sanguine Hum are still around and continuing their own brand of whimsical Canterbury influenced progressive music. They certainly are not afraid to take chances and they should be acknowledged for doing so on this album. If you like bands like Caravan or early Soft Machine and the whole Canterbury sound or scene, then I am certain that you will find this to your liking.

Released November 20th 2020.

Order on CD or vinyl from Bad Elephant Music here:

▶︎ A Trace Of Memory | Sanguine Hum (bandcamp.com)

Review – Stewart Clark – Let’s Go There – by John Wenlock-Smith

I first came across Stewart Clark via a link on his Facebook page on which he stated that he had recorded ‘Lets’ Go There’ during lockdown following his earlier album ‘And Then There Was Me…’ I contacted Stewart and he kindly offered to send me both CD’s for a possible review on Progradar, I then also found that the song How Much Fear? was included on the latest Prog Magazine CD.

I also discovered that Stewart’s wife Heather had taken an online painting course with Roger Dean and, as such, she had designed and painted the cover art on the new release, which has distinct nod’s to Roger’s own work. She was also given consent to use Dean’s font for the sleeve ,which certainly creates an impression.

However , it is the music that matters, right?, Well, I am very glad to report that this album, although brief at just shy of 37 minutes, is an absolute gem. I know I have made lots of comments about lockdown being an outlet for creation of new music, well this one is another excellent example of that and the results are compelling, to say the least. I don’t know Stewart’s influences but there is a hint of Rush, especially with the use of bass pedals and some of the guitar tones are very reminiscent of Alex Lifeson. Stewart’s own playing is very accomplished and adds much colour to the proceedings.

The album opens with Almost 20/20, we hear radio excerpts about the virus before Stewart starts singing his thoughts about 2020 and how it has affected us all. There are great keyboards on this track and the vocals are mirrored by the oboe of Alison Brown and the delicate piano of Tom Potten before the track then takes a heavier turn and becomes more powerful as it moves forward. This is a strong opener with much happening during its shorter running time and it ends with some very Rush like guitar chords and keyboards.   

What really stands out on this release is the quality of the song writing, this is really strong, giving us such great tunes as A Tree Has Fallen, which is utterly gorgeous. Stewart’s songs have good light and shade to them and his voice is well suited to these tracks. Stewart also plays acoustic and electric guitar on most of these tracks with some appearances from the likes of Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepano Samzadeh (Days Between Stations), Dave Bandanna (Bardic Depths) and Charlie Mear (This Circus Life).

This album is a slow burner but its songs will stay in your head, given time. I have listened to this extensively in lots of different places, even in the bath via Amazon music, and I can say that it is one of the better albums that I have heard this year. The excellent guitar work of Sepano on How Much Fear? is one of many standouts.     

When I tell You I Care is another fabulous song with great use of whistle, oboe and violin to create a somewhat Gaelic sound. The final song, Almost Got Away With It, has a very Rush sounding progression to the opening, reminding me of Cygnus X-1 in its pacing and the bass pedals that propel the piece along.

Though for me, it is the tracks Let’s Go There (with Amanda Lehmann singing harmony vocals with Stewart) along with the Wistful A Tree Has Fallen are the absolute standout songs. However, it is all particularly good and makes for an enjoyable listen. I also like The Empty Page, in which Stewart documents his struggles in translating thoughts into words, a constant issue for any writer, I am sure.

This is a laid-back album but one that has many strengths, not least in the songs themselves, but also the sympathetic production by Stewart and John Hannon.

‘Let’s Go There’ is for sale on bandcamp for only £6.00 for a CD and, if you buy it, this will both support John at this strange period and enable him to make some more fabulous music. I heartily recommend this brief but most worthwhile album which, whilst not overtly progressive in nature, certainly has influences of prog on its excellent cover and sleeve art too making it a real under the radar winner.

Released January 6th 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Let’s Go There | Stewart Clark (bandcamp.com)

Review – Lifesigns – Altitude – by John Wenlock-Smith

Here it is then, after a long wait from 2018’s ‘Cardington’ comes this masterpiece, for there is no other word that can capture the magnificence of ‘Altitude’, Lifesigns’ third album, replete with another 8 pieces of sublime brilliance. Still entirely and fiercely independent, this recording has been realised by the faithful supporters of the band who have purchased this album en masse, before a note was even recorded.

That such a thing happens is well known with the crowd funding models set out and utilised by the likes of Marillion and many others. This album really is something incredibly special indeed, for Lifesigns have realised their potential with a recording that will elevate them and their standing in the progressive rock world to hitherto unknown heights and, hopefully, making them a far bigger draw than they have previously experienced.

‘Altitude’ is an album of top quality songs and fantastic musicianship from artists who, working together, have given us a bone fide classic to take us beyond the world of lockdown, into a whole new dimension and experience. Yes I know I am raving about this, however it is with good reason. Let’s  walk through the tracks and I’ll tell you just why these are such exceptionally fine songs.

We will start with the opener and title track of the album Altitude which this is the longest track at 15:17. All these minutes are used fully to craft and create a setting for the music to flex, progress and soar throughout the whole song. It contains some exceptionally fine soloing from both John Young on keyboards and Dave Bainbridge’s soulful guitar, both are exceptional on this song and, indeed, throughout the whole album. The song opens with airy keyboards, piano and bubbling sequencer type sounds before John’s vocals begin, “As far as the eye can see, clear as Daylight, spreads all in front of me now”, yearning for wide open spaces and for the open sky. This is followed by some fierce guitar chords that ripple across the soundscape giving rise to a faster paced section with a synth solo that takes the song rising up in the thermals before Dave lets rip with a fiery guitar break. As a statement of intent this opening salvo is highly effective and certainly captures the attention before we return, via John’s synth, to a slower pace and more cultured vocals accompanied by the glorious violin of Peter Knight. This then leads us back to the main vocals, combined with doubled synth and guitar lines, before Dave heads out on his own. Next we have some massed choir voices that are highly effective and lead to some great guitar lines from Dave, mention must also be made of Zoltán Csörsz whose powerful drums maintain a steady and distinct beat. Another brief solo follows from Dave that gives way to a final synth flourish from John and some cello from Juliet Woolf that bring this song to an atmospheric close. As an opener this is simply magnificent on every level and is very impressive stuff indeed.

Gregarious is a shorter, but equally as dynamic, song with a great backing and is very effective indeed. It contains a fine synth solo and some interesting syncopation between Zoltan and Jon Poole’s ever stylish bass. We are treated to another very fine solo from Dave who, it must be said, is really on form on this entire album. In my opinion, Lifesigns finally have a guitarist who can do their music justice and has brought something a little extra to the equation.

Third track Ivory Tower is a love song of sorts, very wistful and with some fabulous acoustic touches from Dave. It has a fabulous vocal from John as he sings of the perils of relationships, how he falls and wants to redeem himself and this is backed by some great little guitar fills from Dave. This is a fabulous song and a potential Lifesigns’ future classic. It is actually another old John Young song that has been reworked for this album and rightly so, as it is very fine.

Shoreline opens with lots of syncopated drums along with keyboard flourishes and makes it an impressive track before a word is sung. “Save me…” is the refrain as John is seeking salvation from emotions that are overwhelming him. This is another fabulous song with lots of moody sounds and effects that create a feeling of emptiness and sparseness.  Again, we have massed vocals in the background from Lynsey Ward whose voice is highly effective here, as are Dave’s soaring guitar lines combined with another fine synth solo from John and even more classy guitar breaks.

Fortitude is another Epic track that opens with keyboards, a steady drum backbeat from Zoltan, some decidedly strong bass lines from Jon and wonderfully fluid guitar from Dave, all floating over the velvety synths that John is laying down. This song has lots of space in it that allows each members contributions to be clearly heard and appreciated. Once again Lynsey’s backing vocals are essential to the whole sound of the song. I have to say the sound of this album is simply fabulous and is a real treat for the ears and there is so much more to listen to that is revealed the more you delve into it. We have a further sinuous synth solo and textures and more urgent bass from Jon before the sound opens out into a widescreen vista with some searing guitar lines offset against the excellent keys. A delightful guitar/ synth dynamic then plays out as the song fades, utterly magical!

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

A short and stylish keyboard and synth section called Arkhangelsk is then the precursor to another song that John has performed in an earlier incarnation (Quango) called Last One Home and in this track you can hear echoes of his former colleague John Wetton. Dave really makes his mark with a beautiful solo that just weeps with emotion and feeling. It is really impressive and will certainly be a favourite when performed live, hopefully soon! There are more impressive and impassioned vocals from John as he sings about the sea and the current therein.

The album finishes with a brief return to the title track Altitude in a reprise that re-emphasises just how good the opening track is.

Overall, I would say without any hesitation that this is an album you must hear and is really something very special indeed. It will be in my top 10 of the year and probably above the Transatlantic album that I loved. I am sure that ‘Altitude’ will be somewhere near the very top of my list even though it is only March and we have a long way to go yet.

Get it however you can but, preferably, purchase the album from the band themselves as you get a download of the album to enjoy right away. Simply fantastic, what more can I say, except get it for yourself right now!   

Released 8th March 2021 (CD), July 2021 (vinyl)

Order the album direct from the artist here:

Lifesigns – Lifesigns Merch (lifesignsmusic.co.uk)

Review – TDW – The Days The Clock Stopped

Tom De Wit may be one of those unique human beings who is a master of all trades and jack of none, being that he writes, produces and distributes all his own music as well as playing a plethora of instruments on each composition. Did I mention he performs the vocals on all these bombastic prog-metal creations too?

While I may delve more into the melodic side of progressive rock nowadays, especially those albums that have a more folk oriented hue, I do love myself a big old slab of powerful, majestic (and sometimes overblown) prog-metal and my old friend Tom certainly goes to 11 on all of those constituents parts!

Tom’s latest opus ‘The Days The Clock Stopped’ is an intensely personal concept album that details a dark trip through the human mind and body that he went through 11 years ago fighting a deadly bowel disease. This album details what it is like to be stuck inside your body and what that does to your psyche.

Next toTom writing the music and lyrics and helming the project, Tom was assisted by a host of guest musicians on this record ranging from big names and newcomers alike to bring his vision to life. Most notably, the inclusion of Aeon Zen/Annihilator’s Rich Gray as bass player, coproducer and mastering engineer cannot be understated. As well as the massive drum performance by Fabio Allesandrini (Annihilator) who raised the album’s intensity to the next level.

The album is a seriously intense musical experience and it goes a long way to conveying the pain, confusion and despair that Tom went through while fighting this horrible and invasive disease, never mind the fact that he almost died twice!

Thunderous drums and dynamic bass are at the core of everything and the ever forceful, potent guitar drives the story along, often at a breakneck pace, conveying the confusion and anxiety that he was going through at the time.

Crashscape, Clockstop – Insight X and Code of Conduct open the album with powerful assiduity before the monumental brilliance of Clockstop – Insight 2 threatens to blow you away with its heavy hitting majesty. One of the definitive highlights of the whole album is Tom’s exceptional vocal performance which is defined further by the ever so slightly less frantic (but no less impressive) Sleepless Angels, a lesson in how to write a sympathetic prog-metal track, if ever I heard one.

The bombast and grandiloquence returns in spades on the super-heavy roller coaster ride of The Pulse, one of the best prog-metal tracks you will hear in a long while. Thunderous guitars and drums imbued with a high level of pomposity combine with Rich’s elegant bass (with steel right at its core) and Tom’s sometimes thoughtful, sometimes violent vocal delivery to deliver possibly the finest track on the album.

Things take a more laid back approach on the classy Clockstop – Insight 3 with it’s intelligent orchestral tones before Rich’s bass gives an almost haunting opening to Death and Her Brother Greg before the track opens up into something much more direct and influential.

No Can Do is that thing that can make or break a prog-metal album, an exceedingly long epic and I won’t keep you in suspense, it is superb and the backbone to the story. Eighteen minutes of musical give and take, it has everything that makes such tracks great. A deliberate introduction gives way to suspense and a slow burning build up to the main course. Soaring vocals, interplay with a harmonised choir, intricate guitar playing, double pedal drums, a wonderfully calming piano-led middle section, this track has the lot and is another highlight of this ever more imposing album.

The album comes to a close with the heartfelt, conclusive musings of Clockstop – Insight 4 and its fine synth/guitar combination and then the beautiful closing track, Epilogue – A String of Repeats, an at times calming but ultimately uplifting end to what has been a deeply personal and intensive trip through one of the darkest times of Tom’s life but one that, ultimately had a positive outcome.

I know seventy-five minutes of bombastic, powerful and dynamic progressive-metal interjected with a few fleeting, thoughtful moments may not be everyone’s cup of tea but when it is done with skill and a hell of a lot of personal attachment, like it is here, you get a privileged insight right into the soul of a musician. Tom de Wit and his impressive cast of fellow musicians have given us a wonderful musical highlight in a world of chaos where the light at the end of the tunnel is only just starting to dawn.

Released December 4th 2020

Order from bandcamp here:

The Days The Clock Stopped | TDW (bandcamp.com)

Review – Arc of Life – S/T by John Wenlock-Smith

Lockdown in the UK, and indeed across the world, has brought significant change to all of us. It has also decimated musicians from being able to perform live and has cost them in funds they would have expected to earn from touring and the merchandise sold at shows around the globe. This has meant that many artists have had to adapt to new ways of maintaining contact and, in many cases, using the downtime to work on new or hitherto abandoned projects.

 The upside to this time is the growing number of releases that have emerged and are really something of worth, Steve Hackett’s ‘Mediterranean Skies’ album, Transatlantic ‘The Absolute Universe’ , Lifesigns’ ‘Altitude’ and now this new offshoot from the Yes stable, Arc of Life, featuring current Yes members, Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood, along with some talented friends.

Going under the banner of ‘Arc of Life’ this new album is of interest to most Yes fans and to lovers of the band’s current output. In the continued absence of the full group and any new music from them, this is a more than adequate consolation and has great potential, showing much promise for possibly another band in a similar vein to, and influenced by, Yes.

I say influenced by because this is not a ‘Yes by numbers’ trip, this is a new band making its own way. Admittedly it wears its influences clearly on its sleeve and shows similar characteristics at times, but it is most definitely not a new Yes album under a different name.

This album has ten tracks and each of them have something worthy of listening to, some bearing similarities to Billy’s earlier work with Chris Squire on ‘Conspiracy’ and with Tony Kaye on the ‘Live in Japan’ album, although the presence of Jon Davison does makes a huge difference. Also noteworthy are the other band members, Jimmy Haun, Jay Schellan and Dave Kerzner, who are all vastly experienced and talented musicians in their own right and have all floated around the edges of Yes circles.

The album is a mixture of some shorter radio friendly AOR type songs and three longer tracks that allow for some stretching out. The album opens strongly with Life Has A Way which has a strong chorus to it and lots of keyboard flourishes from Dave Kerzner. It has echoes of a Yes type of sound but it is also subtly different. One thing I will say is that it sounds awesome in the car played at a decent volume, it fair powers along with great bottom end and a very unlike Steve Howe guitar solo from Jimmy Haun. As to be expected, Jon Davison is in fine voice here too.

The next song is a bit more laid back. Talking with Siri is about communicating on an i-Phone, an interesting comment on how we communicate these days but, overall, it is a little bit throwaway in my opinion. You Make It Real is far better with a fine chugging rhythm to it. The song is about nervousness when meeting a potential significant other and about when we can resume meeting face to face again, the song ends on a sustained keyboard tone and is highly effective.

Just In Sight is the first of the longer songs at 6:15, this one has lots of keyboards and sound used throughout with some Chris Squire-like bass lines along with a recurring guitar line and tone to it. This track shows the talents that these guys possess clearly. Especially good is the interplay between Jay Schellan and Billy Sherwood which impresses as you listen and there is a good guitar section at the 3:30 mark that harks back to Steve Howe’s playing before returning to the main song at 4:42 mark. This is definitely one of the stronger songs on the album.

I Want to Know You Better reminds me, sound wise, of Love Will Find A Way from Yes’ ‘Big Generator’ album with its marriage of prog and AOR tones. This is rather a catchy little number, all told with a great keyboard motif in the middle, the chorus also being memorable all making this track ideal for a good radio cut.

Locked Down is the second longer track at 9:46 with compelling Lyrics and a superb bass section running alongside a great guitar solo from Jimmy. It has great vocals from Jon and Billy with fine harmonies too. In fact throughout the entire album the contrast between Jon and Billy is incredibly special and enticing. The song also has very strong and prominent bass lines from Billy, all adding up to what is a very good track indeed.

The penultimate song, Therefore We Are, is a real classic number and one which stamps class all over its 9:30 running time. The bass is again very prominent and, in this song, there are lots of processed and layered vocals in this song but don’t worry, it all sounds excellent and is not overly compressed. The musicianship on this song is epic with another brief guitar flurry from Jimmy and some call and response vocals between Jon and Billy. I think this might be the best track on the album, along with Just In Sight.

The closing number on the album is The End Game which opens with some really strong guitar chords and more of Billy’s cultured bass as Jon sings about the endgame. This is quite a muscular track to conclude the album with and it works well overall and finishes what has been an interesting and varied listen.

Certainly musically this one is a very strong album with lots of good songs, memorable and well recorded and produced. Only Time will tell if this is a one-off or just the first outing of a new band, we will have to wait and see I guess.

Released 12th February 2021.

Order the album here:

ARC OF LIFE – Arc Of Life – CD Jewelcase | Frontiers Music Official Shop

Review – Simon McKechnie – Retro – by John Wenlock-Smith

I must confess that until he was signed to Bad Elephant Music, I was not familiar with any of Simon McKechnie’s otherwise extensive back catalogue. This is perhaps a good thing, as one comes to his work without any preconceived ideas or expectations.

This new album ‘Retro’ is his debut for BEM and rather an interesting one it is, the album consisting of four main pieces, three long and the other one an abbreviated piece.

The longest track is The Origin of Species and is a piece inspired by the writings and recollections of one Charles Darwin made during the five years he spent in the southern hemisphere and how those journeys on The Beagle both affected and influenced his Theory of Evolution, encompassing such elements as survival of the fittest and natural selection.

If I were to sum this song up in a couple of words I would say it is expansive and intriguing, there are many facets and sections to the track that make it an impressive listening experience. The song uses the actual words written by Darwin and this gives weight to the lyrics as they espouse findings made by the great man himself. There are also some lively guitar passages in between The Beagle and Natural Selection segments of the song.

The Natural Selection and Struggle for Existence segments are accompanied by some often stark rhythmic elements which nicely offset the words being sung , the song then moving onwards into some keyboards before a strident guitar riff. These sections end with a part called The Struggle which is a drum solo but possibly not as you would expect, as it is in enclosed in keyboards and concludes with some excellent guitar that is wailing almost to the point of feedback. This ushers in what could be considered a more curious segment that is supported and accompanied by woodwind.

This is one album that you will appreciate the lyrics to hand to fully grasp what is going on and what is being sung.

The section called Contemplate features a recurring sound effect leading to the lyrics. These words speak of what Darwin has seen and his thoughts as a result. This leads into the final section of the piece, Laws of Nature, which seeks to draw his conclusions as he speaks of things created that are now being evolved and is backed by a great guitar motif and solo that bring the song to a close accompanied by a gentle piano. This track is certainly different, lyrically impressive and definitely worthy of consideration, a fine opener,

The shorter, title track, Retro opens with some distinctly odd keyboards and an early 1980’s drum program, the lyrics evoking days gone by. The song has a lively beat to its and vintage (i.e.. old!) keyboards and tones and a decidedly retro rock and roll type guitar section and solo, all of which work together to create an almost olde world sound to the piece. Simon has vocal phrasings that are reminiscent of one Freddy Mercury before that beat kicks in again with its strong guitar lines running through it before the song ends with massed voices singing the word Retro, again highly effective. It’s quite an excellent and catchy little number and I really like it.    

The third track is another longer Piece, The Enchantress of Number, which is a song about Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. Ada was a mathematician who considered that pure calculation could have other applications beyond mathematics. She had a difficult upbringing, living in Byron’s shadow, beset with illness. At the age of 17 she went to a ball and meets Charles Babbage who introduced her to his ‘Difference Engine’, a trial design for a calculating machine.

So enthralled was she that she threw herself into the task of translating a paper about ‘The Analytical Engine’. In her notes she wrote examples of its use and in doing so introduced the world’s first computer program. All in all she was a remarkable woman and this song tells her tale eloquently and with true style.

The last song is called The Return of The Beagle and is an instrumental piece in which Simon imagines Darwin’s journey back home, going through his notes whilst the wind is blowing through the sails as the boat travels across the sea, homeward bound. This piece works as an excellent closer to what has been an imaginative and illuminating musical journey in the company of Simon and his friends.

This really is a fine album, and the future looks bright for Simon if he can keep delivering intelligent, articulate, and multi-faceted music like this here on ‘Retro’. It is one that will take time to digest, enjoy and ultimately appreciate but, in any manner, it is a very well-presented record with much to recommend to listeners.

Released 19th March 2021

Order the album on bandcamp here:

Retro | Simon McKechnie (bandcamp.com)

Review – Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) by John Wenlock-Smith

This February sees a new album from the Neal Morse/Mike PortnoyTransatlantic realm of progressive activity entitled ‘The Absolute Universe’. This is a little different though in that this album exists in two main versions, this review covering ‘The Absolute Universe – Forevermore (Extended Version)’.

We are informed that each of the albums are different entirely. Rather than being just extended versions, these are different animals that share the same DNA. So it will be interesting to do what we used to do in English at school i.e., compare and contrast them.

This 2CD or 3 vinyl version has more tracks and an additional 30 minutes running time over the single CD/2 vinyl version titled ‘The Absolute Universe – The Breath of Life (Abrdiged Version), both are housed in Digipak sleeves with seriously impressive artwork and graphics. For Transatlantic money is apparently no object, seeing as they are a flagship group for InsideOut, one of their ‘jewels in the crown’ and a proven seller. This album will probably sell in copious amounts and I’m sure both versions will be highly sought by the faithful.

The album starts strongly with Overture, a thunderous 8-minute mini saga all on its own. Unsurprisingly it is everything that you would want and expect, it certainly impressive sounding and a good set up for all that follows. The album has several themes, Neal Morse states that some of it is autobiographical about his own ego in his early years and also comments about the state of America, along with thoughts about how the world is handling the current pandemic.

Heart Like A Whirlwind is a sprightly little number with a jaunty keyboard sound and some sweet guitar embellishments from Roine Stolt. Transatlantic really bring their choruses to life here and Neal Morse is also on great form, in fine voice and really belts this one out. This is a class song by any standard. Higher Than The Morning has Roine singing along with some great bass from Pete Trewavas and delivers another fine chorus along with some more great guitar from Stolt.

This release has a mixture of pieces, some longer, some shorter but all woven together in a symphonic Tour De Force, it is an album that needs time to appreciate all that it contains and is seeking to convey to you, the listener.

The tracks continue to impress with some seriously good playing throughout as things proceed. We come to the final track of Disc 1,The World We Used To Know, which is another lengthy workout track where the whole band can show off their fantastic ensemble playing, a sinewy snaking guitar line from Roine sitting perfectly alongside some powerfully evocative piano from Neal Morse. The song is looking back fondly to how things were and a yearning for those times to return once again, a sentiment that is probably common to us all at the moment!

Disc 2 opens with The Sun Comes Up Today, it offers stacked vocals before Neal offers some great Mellotron sounds for Roine Stolt to solo over. Exceptional, strong Hammond work from Neal is offset by elegant riffing from Roine, subtle running bass from Pete and energetic thunderous drums from Mike Portnoy who is spot on here. It has another strong chorus and is a fabulous shorter song. This leads into the brief prelude to Love Made A Way, that we will hear as the final track of the album, all propelled by acoustic guitar from Roine and some smooth keyboards from Neal. The interestingly titled Owl Howl then follows with a very meaty riff (that is not unreminiscent of Steve Morse’s work with Deep Purple), with Roine asking “Blackbird, Blackbird What Have You Done?”. Without lyrics, it’s hard to discern what the song is on about but it is certainly one of the harder hitting tracks on here with some interesting sounds and timbres deployed. All in all, a very interesting song with great growling bass and some odd keyboard moments. It actually makes for a song that is fairly odd overall but certainly entertaining, I must add!

Overall, the playing throughout the entire album is strong and impressive, I especially like the interplay between Neal and Roine and also enjoy the rhythm section who support all the fireworks that the others create so admirably. I’ll say one thing, this album is certainly musically challenging, like all the best albums tend to be.

Solitude is the next track, it is about being alone and appreciating the moments as the author is asking questions about how things are now. This song also includes a refrain of the Love Made A Way theme in it and very effectively used it is too. Belong opens with wailing and crying noises before Roine’s liquid guitar opens the music in tandem with Pete Trewevas’ elegant bass, strong organ sounds abound on this shortish track. Lonesome Rebel is next and is another acoustically led piece with Roine on vocals. This one is strong on imagery in the lyrics, politics are in a mess, Roine sings, as he assesses the state of the world.

Looking for The Light (Reprise) begins with an exciting organ solo, backed with some superb bass, powering the track along ferociously. This song is really an instrumental that gives rein for each member to play wildly and express their own talents. Having said that, there are vocals towards the latter part of the song but, mainly, this is soloing by all the band members. We lead into the penultimate track, The Greatest Story Never Ends, which carries on in a similar vein to Looking For The Light, although the vocals come in pretty much right from the off. There is more impressive organ on this one, sounding both full and epic and, again, some good guitar/keyboard interplay here too. It is all extremely exciting, one wonders how this album will translate to the live arena, it certainly has great promise for a lively and engrossing show.

The album closes with the full version of Love Made A Way, opening with gentle piano and guitar runs from Roine Stolt. This is a more ‘Christian’ Neal Morse composition as he sings about how God has changed his life for the better. I know that this might put some folks off, however, the whole song is full of optimism and gratitude. It also has more of that epic chorus and fine guitar runs from Roine whose instrument is wailing throughout the song, and indeed the whole album and he delivers a typically fine, histrionic guitar solo 2/3rds of the way through. This leads us to a very ELO sounding closing section with lots of climbing peaks and cymbals crashing, before everything ends on fading synthesisers and then silence…

This is an album that will make you smile and will definitely tide you over until lockdown has finished, giving you hope for the coming days, being Transatlantic to the max. You did not really expect anything else really, did you? You knew this was going to be wonderfully over the top excess surely? This is what we want and expect from the band and if that is what you get then it will not disappoint in any aspect!

If symphonic progressive rock is your thing, then this album, in whichever form you like, is most definitely for you. Get ready for a great listening experience, hopefully coming to a stage somewhere near soon too, very highly recommended indeed!

Released 5th February 2021

Order from Burning Shed (when back in stock!) here:

The Absolute Universe: Forevermore (Extended Version) (burningshed.com)

Review – Hibernal – Infiltrators

I don’t know what happened to give Brisbane native Mark Healy the furtive and imaginative mind that he has but, boy, does he put it into good use on his sci-fi post rock project Hibernal!

I have been a fan of Mark’s since I reviewed his first release, 2013’s ‘The Machine’ , and his incredibly detailed, cinematic worlds have been capturing listener’s imaginations ever since.

‘Infiltrators’ is Mark’s seventh (bloody hell Mark, seven!) foray into post-apocalyptic worlds where humanity is butting heads with technology and self-aware machines. His mix of fantastic voice actors and ominous, incredibly well thought out soundtracks draw the listener into his detailed worlds and in the protagonists that exist there and his music has you on the edge of your seat, almost like another character in every one of his masterpieces.

On this latest instalment from his ingenious and visionary mind we find supposed sisters Imogen and Maddie on the run from the Infiltrators, machines that took the form of humans to overthrow society.

The well written script and utterly believable voice actors (please take a bow Sandra Osborne and Angela Tran) transport you right into their life or death journey, as if you were actually there and the superb orchestration of the music adds the required mystery and feeling of anguish as the storyline twists and turns.

You literally can imagine the dilapidated amusement park that the girls tentatively make their way through, you can see it in your mind and you become invested in what happens to them, really caring if they get through the trials and tribulations ahead of them.

I will not divulge any more of the storyline here, Mark has once again delivered an utterly convincing world and woven into it a compelling story that holds you from beginning to end. I believe that he has more enticing stories on the horizon this year and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next. Do yourselves a favour and come and join me on this journey of artistry and ingenuity.

Released 6th January 2021

Listen to, and order, ‘Infiltrators’ from bandcamp here:

Infiltrators | Hibernal (bandcamp.com)

Review – Downes Braide Association – Halcyon Hymns by John Wenlock-Smith

If there is anything positive or good that has come out of this tough time of the deadly coronavirus pandemic then it is that many musicians have been able to utilise this difficult time and lack of touring activity to create and craft a whole slew of new albums.

Many of these surfaced in autumn, like ‘Halcyon Hymns’, the new album from Geoff Downes and Chris Braide and the next chapter in their fantastic collaboration that has thus far yielded three albums, including the fabulous ‘Skyscraper Souls’ along with the excellent recording of their live debut concert at Trading Boundaries in East Sussex in 2018. 

Geoff had been working on music for Chris to work into complete songs and he used the suspension of activities with his main band Yes (who were due to play full shows highlighting the Relayer album from 1975) to finalise these ideas.

Well, this album is really impressive stuff with a fantastic set of songs and opens with Love Among The Ruins, which pretty much sets the standard for all that follows. This is a very fine track indeed, the video brings things to life with its portrayal of days gone by and how we look back with much fondness. The song is very upbeat with a great chorus that stays in your mind, there is also a fabulous guitar solo that elevates this from excellent into truly spectacular.

This followed by the more sedate but ever building burn that is King Of The Sunset, with its evocative imagery of England, Avalon. I must commend these two for the surreal and complex soundscapes that they evoke so well. Also worthy of note are the fabulous vocals by Chris Braide who really shows his class on these performances. This track will appeal to modern day followers of Marillion as they might see a similarity to that fine group. There are lots of interesting tones and textures that run through this song, along with some superb and striking guitar lines. Also adding to the mesmerising brilliance of the track are the dulcet tones of David Longdon of Big Big Train.

Your Heart Will Find The Way is next and this one has a great bass line that propels the song along with a lot of funk! Indeed, the bass on the whole album is exceptionally fine indeed, right on the beat, upfront when needed and very fluent and supportive throughout. There are lots of fine keyboard flourishes from Geoff that add to this heady recipe that they have concocted.

Then it’s onto the first of the three longer songs that this album offers. The first is called Holding The Heavens and, again, there is a prominent bass line that really drives the song along. The great lyrics make this song exceptionally fine too with another great vocal from Chris and good backing vocals that create a great sound. This is a fine album vocally and one that sounds good on headphones too. The chorus is also both very compelling and strong. and the song also has a good acoustic guitar section before returning to the chorus. A distinguished spoken section adds emphasis to proceedings while there is also a recurring chunky guitar riff that really adds value to this song.

Beachcombers is the next song. Shorter and opening with a brief spoken section, this one has a drum patter that percolates and brings the song to life. There is great imagery too as Chris tells of nightingales singing in the night, this is all topped with another spectacular soaring guitar break.

Warm Summer Sun opens with sounds of summer including church bells chiming and bird song, it is all very English and pastoral even before some strong keyboard sounds are introduced. The velvet tones of Marc Almond of Soft Cell fame are a brilliant addition. This is another shorter song but is none the worse for it with a great chorus. This track really shows off Geoff’s excellent keyboard sounds, textures, and tones fabulously.

I think this album will also appeal to fans of Big Big Train, not least because David Longdon appears on this album but also because of its pastoral imagery that will resonate with those fans. Today is the second of the longer tracks and speaks of summer days gone by and very evocative imagery and fond memories are voiced. This song is pure escapism, the lyrics are interesting, speaking of friendship and shared experiences and the desire for the day to never end. The song then moves into another spoken section from Joe Catcheside before another fabulous guitar break appears. David Bainbridge is a phenomenal guitarist on this entire album, playing with a good feel and soaring solo lines that really add to this fantastic ensemble piece.

Hymn To Darkness is a shorter track with mandolin playing throughout. There is rather a darker tone to subject matter as the song talks of putting the darkness to sleep, it is a nice mellow song with some more great acoustic guitar lines woven throughout.

She’ll Be Riding Horses speaks of a love gone by and a memory of her riding horses somewhere where they do not have telephones, they lose touch but find each other in later years. This is another very upbeat song, happy even, although the lyrics seem to suggest that she has gone and yet great memories of her live on in his mind. Another brief but very satisfying song. This is followed by another shorter piece, Late Summer. This is another song of memories asking why cannot it not last?

The last, and longest, track is called Remembrance and this opens with a spoken section that again evokes memories of the long summer of 1976 and the remembrance of passion walking along the Dorset coastal path. The song mixes vocal and spoken passages to great effect as it talks of loving this dirty old ground, ice creams, love in open places, holiday romances and many other seaside attractions. This song unleashes a treasure trove of memories, a memento-mori if you will, of one who has gone as have the days as it ends with a sad goodbye.

This is a truly sensational album, one that really deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible as it is truly worthy of that acclaim. Downes Braide have really made and delivered a very well realised album with lots of references to the past. Along with lots of imagery about death (which is a theme that runs through much of the album), this makes the memories bittersweet at times yet it is still an album to make you smile in these days.

‘Halcyon Hymns’ will reach into your soul and touch your emotions. It is very moving, well-conceived and produced. I think it is the best album I’ve heard this year but, then again, it’s only January so there is lots of time for more great releases this year. However, for now, this is definitely a strong contender, I urge you to listen to this if you can as you will find much to enjoy on this excellent album.

CD/DVD Released 5th February 2021

2LP White Vinyl is out on 26th March.

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Downes Braide Association: Halcyon Hymns, CD/DVD Edition – Cherry Red Records