Review – Monarch Trail – Four Sides – by David Edwards

Monarch Trail are a Canadian symphonic progressive rock project led by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ken Baird, consisting of Dino Verginella on bass and Chris Lamont on drums, with guest appearances on guitar by Kelly Kereliuk and Steve Cochrane. Four Sides is their impressive fourth release and, in my opinion, manages to not only match the quality of their previous album Wither Down, but brings it up several notches more.

Deliberately recalling the classic days of the double vinyl album, with each side having its own distinct character, and the space to fully develop musical themes (such as ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ perhaps?) – this is classic, keyboard-led progressive rock but with a distinctive signature sound and modern-edge that the band have cultivated since 2014. It is musically the antithesis of the modern quick-fix, 3-minute soundbite culture of the modern music streaming sites, where songs are never given a chance to blossom over a full album side. So, while the 73 minutes of music can fit on a single CD – Ken challenges you to consider the album as ‘four sides’ of music, to be enjoy individually, or as a cohesive and complete body of work.

The opening ‘side’ of the album, and the longest track at over 23 minutes, is called The Oldest of Trees. This is the most personal song on the album, as Ken harks back to his younger days and an old four-chord song he could just about strum on guitar on the stairs of the basement music room. A place often full of musical friends, with the spotlight on one in particular who sadly passed away of a few years ago. Lyrically and musical it is full of reminiscences of those musical memories of rock music from 70s and 80s for those growing up in Canada at the time, including the likes of Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd amongst others.

After a dynamic keyboard-led fanfare, Ken’s vocals drip melancholy as he looks back to those halcyon days. As I’ve said before in earlier reviews, Ken’s distinctive, higher register vocals have a yearning frailty and vulnerability that reminds me at times of BJH’s John Lees, Chris Squire and Druid’s Dane Stevens. Once you attune to them, their ‘everyman’ character complements the personal nature of the music very well. Yet, it is his keyboard virtuosity that drives the album’s rich soundscapes. Supported by Dino’s expressive bass guitar and Chris’s dynamic drumming, the song soon moves up another level, with some rich organ chords and soaring synthesisers over the strong rhythmic foundation. Changing tempos and light and shade keep the shifting themes fresh and invigorating and some contrasting electric guitar over a repeating keyboard pattern fits in seamlessly. Lyrically we are also taken around various locations around the town of Dundas and wider Ontario. There is a nice kick in tempo from around 14 minutes and the introduction of organ chords and rumbling bass around the symphonic prog noodlings provide a diversity of sound before we return to bitter-sweet memories of youth:

Benches and the streets and parks will hold your name in high regard. Eyes of birds and storied words, help us where we stand. But of all these things to hold, there are some that seem much closer. Especially the oldest trees will never quite be gone.”

This was a song Ken needed to develop and resurrect from its humble beginnings and its cathartic conclusion is thoughtful and full of emotional.

Eris is even a bolder musical statement by Ken, and he really uses the concept of a double album structure to allow time for this epic instrumental to develop. Over the opening few minutes, a cold, desolate, almost wind-swept, ambient soundscape is allowed to gradually gain in intensity, with hints of mid-section of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ and then a subtle, deeper rhythmic pattern coming through. Named after the cold, icy dwarf planet of the outer solar system, the feeling of isolation is palpable, and it is only after 6 minutes that we get a swelling of rich, majestic, organ-led keyboards followed by dancing motifs and then Vangelis-like synthesiser sounds, undulating serenely and mysteriously. Ken imagines the atmosphere of Eris rising up from its surface as the dwarf planet warms on its elliptical orbit towards the Sun, creating a ‘new dawn.’

Yet this is but an extended prelude to a wonderful, improvised whirlwind of Keith Emerson-like organ pyrotechnics merging with playful, grandiose Rick Wakeman-style keyboards. There are hints of jazz influences amongst the complexity that could easily identify to the Greek Goddess of strife and discord who lends the dwarf planet its name. Chris’s galloping drums increasingly drive the music at this point and Dino’s deep, throbbing bass runs add intensity, with sections of resonating piano leading to a stately, yet flowing conclusion with soaring synthesisers taking flight before a satisfying, sustained finale. It was a track that Ken says developed quickly from his improvisations around the various themes, and it certainly rewards the patience of the discerning listener as the track slowly develops over its 19+ minute duration.

By contrast Twenty K hits the listener instantly, with urgent stabs of piano, along with a dynamic rhythm drive the music powerfully before Ken’s vocals announce “I can see life and water winking, to the side. Straight ahead lies a route to take me away.” We are being taken on a 20 km run through the dazzling countryside, and a chance to savour nature and life, but at the same time reminisce about past relationships and contemplate our place in the Universe. Ken’s voice is as confident and assured as anywhere on the album, and its depth and emotion mirror the rising pace and tempo of the song, with Dino and Chris building up the intensity over Ken’s melodic and expressive keyboard patterns. Kelly adds some lovely, contrasting guitar soloing as he picks up the main theme, before twinkling piano add a touch of serenity prior to a marching and swaying tempo that takes us through to rising synthesisers and then some more impressive guitar lines.

Midway, the vocals become more contemplative and deeply yearning. Ken says at the 10 km point there is a bench for the runner to rest and admire the view on the hilltop, which has the Carl Sagan quote ‘Life is but a glimpse into an astounding Universe’ and this marks the start of the runner’s return back home, through the flowering trilliums of the forest expanse. It also marks the start of a simply gorgeous extended section of undulating keyboard wizardry over busy bass and drums that will more than satisfy classic prog rock devotees, with melancholy now replaced with hopeful optimism and a sense of life-affirming wonder. A beautiful coda and thematic resolution see the runner back home safely at the end of the song, with the exaltation of “The time has come, to let it all go”. A memorable track, and for me amongst the very best in all the Monarch Trail musical canon.

‘Side four’ of the album, as it were, is made up of two shorter tracks more modest in their ambition, but still full of charm and stunning musicianship. Moon to Follow was developed and built on by Ken from a demo that Dino sent in, which keeps much of the rhythm, chord and counterpoint ideas, but mixed with the enjoyable sections of retro prog and even elements of jazz and Celtic folk. It starts with the gentle, swaying rhythm of the drums, accompanied with some delicate piano, with Ken’s fragile and breathy vocals imagining a scene of the young Brennan sisters, Enya and Moya (of Clannad fame), looking around the music area of their parents’ pub in Ireland and wondering what stories the walls might have in them from past musicians to inspire them.

There is a rather nice call and response-like vocal refrain of ‘Moon to Follow’ that creates a dreamy ambience. After a vibrant touch of electric guitar from Steve Cochrane, the middle section has a recognisable feel of Keith Emerson-style piano improvisation – supported by engaging bass and flowing drums and percussion. The keyboards build up after this and Ken’s lyrics playfully reference ‘Herne’ from Clannad’s Robin of Sherwood era, together with pipes and whistles, conjure up a Celtic folk atmosphere which takes the song to its conclusion. A track, just under 10 minutes in duration, that the band clearly enjoyed putting together.

Afterthought is a pleasing short instrumental that bookends the album very effectively. Dancing piano notes have both a melancholic and yet optimistic feel to them. Lush keyboard chords build the sound but never dominate the sense of remembrance that is there in much of the album. The spirit of Rick Wakeman’s solo work pervades the track, but Ken says he was also thinking of Jethro Tull’s plaintive Elegy. He even includes a small musical reference to The Oldest of Trees to round things off nicely.

With Four Sides, Monarch Trail have produced their best and most ambitious album to date, with the ‘double album’ concept allowing space for the musical themes and deeply personal lyrics to fully develop and never feel rushed. The symphonic progressive rock instrumentation is stunning and whilst undoubtedly it is the keyboards that will rightly dominate the musical panorama, the poignant and gossamer-like vocals also have their place amongst all the proggy instrumental exuberance. Old-school prog for sure, but lovingly crafted for the modern era by Ken and his talented compatriots. An album that rewards your listening patience and demands repeated plays – it is certainly well worth exploring further on Bandcamp – especially if you are less familiar with Monarch Trail musical vision.

Released: December 17th, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Four Sides | Monarch Trail (bandcamp.com)

Review – The Bardic Depths – What We Really Like In Stories – by JohnWenlock-Smith

The Bardic Depths formed when Canary Islands resident Dave Bandanna sought out musical contributions and assistance from fellow Big Big Train ‘passengers’ on a project that he was working on. The response being so positive that Dave decided to turn the project into a band to make an album, which became The Bardic Depths first album ‘The Bardic Depths’.

‘What We Really Like In Stories’, the collective’s third offering, arrives in March and offers eight more tracks of their rather unique, intelligent and different take on progressive music. The eight songs are mainly just under the six minute mark, although there are two longer tracks in ‘Vendetta’ and ‘Whispers In Space’.

This album is based on authors and their writing. The lyrics are all written by the band and Dr Brad Birzer, an American history professor at Hillsdale college, Michigan in the United States Of America. Once again, the album has a core group of musicians alongside Dave Bandanna. We find Peter Jones on vocals, whistles, clarinet, trumpet and alto saxophone, Gareth Cole on electric and acoustic guitars and guitar orchestrations and Tim Gehrt on drums and percussion. Dave himself provides lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, keyboards and programming.

The album opens with a delightful, if brief, overture, Genius which itself leads into the first song proper, What We Like In Stories, which brilliantly recounts a conversation between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in which both authors expressed their dissatisfaction at the lack of books that contained what they would like to read. So they decided to write some for themselves, they tossed a coin and the outcome decided that Lewis would write the ‘space’ stories whilst Tolkien would write time travel stories, the term science fiction having not been coined at this stage. From this decision came CS Lewis’ ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’, ‘Perelandra’ and ‘That Hideous Strength’, all of which saw Lewis’ talents recognised in both the UK and North America, indeed, one could say that CS Lewis and Ray Bradbury made science fiction respectable. Meanwhile JRR Tolkien’s efforts were unsuccessful in the short term, it was two decades before ‘Lord Of The Rings’ appeared and a further twenty for ‘The Silmarillion’ to appear. The next track is a haunting, mid-tempo piece, You’ve Written Poetry My Boy, which has a direct line to the works of Ray Bradbury and, in this song, we learn that Aldous Huxley thought that the words Bradbury writes about ‘so many brave new worlds‘ are like poetry. This has a good saxophone solo from Peter Jones and great guitar orchestrations and flourishes from Gareth Cole. Vendetta concerns the works of comic book writer Alan Moore and takes the theme of one of his books ‘V for Vendetta’, set in a near future time, in a dystopian society where one has to make a stand against the way society is being led by those in charge. However, in this song our hero is finding that to be a challenge and hides away, refusing to face what is going on around him. We are told that silence is a fragile thing and that hiding away and not being involved is not the answer to the predicament or the issue. Musically, this a very good track with lots of interesting parts including fine guitar, keyboards and excellent drums, all with a very strong rhythm.

Old Delights is a homage to writers, a celebration of their talents and how their words can cause us not only to think but also to view things, people and situations in a different light, a very considered viewpoint. It is another fairly brief track but gets its point over very stylishly and it also serves as a clever platform for the next song, The Feast Is Over, which is based the work of Robert E Howard. Howard is regarded as one of the first writers to write in the Fantasy genre and wrote ‘Conan The Barbarian’, which saw him regarded as the father of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre of pulp fiction. This track features a very memorable refrain repeated on the closing parts, it is also one of the longer songs, meaning it has space to evolve organically. It opens with a gentle acoustic strumming and is is about Sword and Sorcery writings, the second part of the track becomes more expansive in sound with orchestrations playing. In this section there is a lengthy and beautifully expressive guitar solo that ends with some fiery slide guitar, it is a really strong and satisfying track on every level. Stillpoint is based around the writings of science fiction writer Walter M Miller Jr, who’s work went largely unpublished during his lifetime, another relatively short, but highly enjoyable, track. Whispers In  Space concludes the album in strong form, this one references the writings of Robert Rankin, an acclaimed writer whose style included, fantasy, comedy, conspiracy theories and steampunk elements. The lyrics are very clever, referencing in many oblique ways the sad death of Big Big Train’s own David Longdon, as in the line “The captain of the skies flies again…” Again, the music on this track is exquisite with lots happening. A graceful, expressive solo is played with great sensitivity and feel in a very special section of the track. Although the meaning of the song is possibly lost on me really, being a bit obscure and elusive, to my ears at least, the music is exciting and engaging on every level, making it a fitting conclusion to a very interesting and rewarding collection of songs.

With ‘What We Really Like In Stories’, The Bardic Depths take a subtly different route from what has gone before, the album having no central theme as such but, rather being a collection of songs inspired by literature. I enjoyed this album immensely and further, extended listens have allowed it to firmly secure a place in my heart and mind, I heartily recommend it.

Released 7th March, 2024.

Order download from bandcamp here:

What We Really Like In Stories (24bit/96k) | The Bardic Depths (bandcamp.com)

Order CD from Gravity Dream here:

The Bardic Depths – What We Really Like In Stories CD – Gravity Dream Music

Single Review – A Knife Ballet – Scattered Red, Blue & Black

A Knife Ballet is Composer & Producer Jonathan Stolber whose music is a blend of introspective cinematic electronic art-rock, inspired by Radiohead’s emotive brilliance & the atmospheric textures of Mogwai. Alongside the new breed of intelligent & distinctive bands such as peers Black Country New Road & Black Midi, Stolber kicks against music’s current corporate tsunami. This music is a soundtrack for the grand reset or, at the least, Netflix’s latest cancelled Scandinavian noir thriller.

Culled from his forthcoming LP ‘For The Blood Of England’, the inaugural teaser track Scattered Red, Blue & Black is a poignant, cinematic send-off imbued with the early spirit of Mogwai. It’s accompanying track, A Phantom Limb underscores an eerie atmospheric score reminiscent of 80’s horror. 

The track drops across all streaming services 26/01/2024 & will receive one bespoke vinyl pressing to be auction on Ebay to raise donations for Alzheimer’s Society. The track hails Stolber’s first release under new moniker A Knife Ballet having previously received critical acclaim for his Holy Road EP ‘An Unshakable Demon’ during the pandemic.

A Phantom Limb could be the soundtrack to a psychological horror movie and brings to mind echoes of John Carpenter soundtracks of old with its brooding synths and piercing arpeggios. A definitive 80’s feel but with a sharp, contemporary update, it certainly hits the mark. Scattered Red, Blue & Black is a gloriously over the top cinematic epic that just builds and builds to an enigmatic crescendo. The interlocking guitars generate a pensive feel before some eerie strings create a feeling of almost unbearable tension. The superb sinuous cello of Maddie Cutter combines with Ben Weedon’s wistful, weeping strings to imbue an almost sinister undertone to the piece. JJ Saddington’s crashing guitars echo in your eardrums and the dark, sombre piano of Chris Forham completes the intensely heightened acoustic overload.

Jon Stolber has returned with something quite magnificent and apocalyptically profound. This is theatrically demanding music that is not for the faint hearted but it is oh so brilliantly executed and something that is addictive in its attraction and augurs well for the new album to come.

Spotify: A Knife Ballet | Spotify

Alzheimer’s Society Ebay Vinyl Auction Link (live as of 26/01/24):

A Knife Ballet Vinyl – Scattered Red, Blue & Black Ltd Dub Plate Clear 10″ | eBay

Bandcamp:

Scattered Red, Blue & White | A KNIFE BALLET (bandcamp.com)

Review – Geometry of Chaos – Imaginary Friends

Geometry of Chaos is a progressive metal project by Fabio La Manna, who not only plays guitar, but also bass guitar and keyboards player. Fabio also writes all the lyrics and music. The band merges his solo work with what remains of Alchemy Room, in which Davide Cardella played drums for a while. Davide keeps collaborates constantly with Fabio and the project also sees Charles Soulz on keyboards. The vocalists, Marcelo Vieira, Ethan Cronin and Elena Lippe, are all guests and add their considerable talents to ‘Imaginary Friends’.

‘Imaginary Friends’ consists of five tracks for more than 42 minutes of music, that continues what “Soldiers of the New World Order” had started and remains on the same challenging path: the difficulty of succeeding with our own strength and the need for support during the moments of discouragement.

While I am more a fan of the more traditional side of progressive rock, I do like to dabble in some quality progressive metal every now and then so, when I received an email from Fabio, I was intrigued to find out more about this project.

And, boy, do we get some seriously good prog metal with ‘Imaginary Friends’, from the thunderous opening riff of Tulpa you know you are going to be in for one hell of a intense and powerful listening experience. Fabio’s guitar delivers a sound hewn from pure granite and Davide Cardella’s drums nearly take your breath away. There’s a base of quality hard rock (and I mean HARD!) underpinning the music and then layers and layers of vivid and fervent heaviness are added over the top. The result is a sound that is almost unique but one that has some pure class to it, rather than just smacking you in the face at every opportunity! Ethan Cronin supplies the lead vocals on this track and he does a stellar job of conveying an almost sinister atmosphere and giving a deliciously dark feel. There are growling vocals that I actually like and have a place on the record and a brilliant guitar solo, what’s not to like? After that monstrous hit to the solar plexus, things continue with title track Imaginary Friends. I love the initial riff that could have come from any of the great metal bands of the 70’s and 80’s, almost Deep Purple or Black Sabbath-like in its delivery. Marcelo Vieira’s vocal, ably backed by those dynamic growls of Ethan and Elena Lippe’s backing vocals, is spot on too. This is not music for the faint hearted, this is music that wants to take over your soul and you will face a fight to stop that happening. It’s violent, intensive and acutely vivid and is all the better for it! Do you need to sit down and get your breath back? well, don’t worry, there is a piano led musical interlude to follow. Distant Voices is the polar opposite of what has gone before and Charles Soulz’s playing is a joy to behold as the piano beautifully carries on, overlaying a hushed voice-over and then Fabio’s passionate guitar just adds the pièce de résistance, simply stunning.

Now, you may expect that we will return to the heavy hitting of the first two tracks but, no, with Lies Of Vampire this intelligent musician takes us down another route that majors on the narrative and storytelling, much like some of the best progressive rock. You find yourself lost in the blues-infused music and the spellbinding vocals, it is all very clever and almost hypnotic in the way that it draws you in. There’s a spine tingling extended instrumental section where Fabio’s guitar and Davide’s drums build up to a fiery, sinuous crescendo that makes the hair on the back of your neck stick up, the guitar riff is almost primeval at heart and Charles’ keyboards hover ominously in the back ground before breaking out in a vivid flourish (Derek Sherinian may be looking at copyright here!). The tension breaks a little as the vocals come back in but there’s still a frenetic feel to the music. I’ll tell you what I wasn’t expecting, saxophone! but here it comes, Patricio Bottcher gloriously imbuing everything with a jazz fusion feel but it’s over way too quickly, lingering in the memory, before we run to the end of the track. Creatura, the final song on this ever impressive album takes us back to the manic, in-your-face prog-metal of the first two tracks and it is wonderfully overblown and fervently impassioned. Frenetic guitar, wild keyboards and devilish drums all combine to give a theatrical thrill ride of an intro before Fabio hits the brake pedal and brings things down a notch, intensifying the atmosphere before letting loose once again, it’s like a progressive metal version of Phantom of the Opera and it’s bloody brilliant and one hell of a superb sign off!

I already felt that 2024 had started off brilliantly with lots of excellent new music and you can now add Geometry of Chaos’ superb concept EP to that list. ‘Imaginary Friends’ is a spellbinding, inventive and incredibly powerful release that should make people stand up and listen, progressive metal doesn’t get much better, or cleverer, than this. Highly recommended!

Released 21st November, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Imaginary Friends | Geometry Of Chaos (bandcamp.com)

Review – Emerald City Council – Motion Carries

Emerald City Council is an American progressive rock band, formed in 2021 out of a recording project produced by saxophonist/keyboardist Brent Bristow. The band features vocalist Jake Livgren (Proto-Kaw, newphew of Kansas’ Kerry Livgren) and drummer Noah Hungate (Team Illuminati, son of Toto’s David Hungate), along with Jeremy Nichols (Erin Coburn) on bass, and up and coming guitarist Seth Hankerson. Brandon Goff, Associate Professor of Music Industry at Francis Marion University, has also contributed significant guitar work as special collaborator to the band.

‘Motion Carries’ was written and produced by Brent Bristow and boasts a wide variety of styles and influences. The album has a unique blend of saxophone and guitar-driven material that fans of both classic and modern progressive rock will love. The album includes several guest appearances.

Bristow says of the album, “Producing this album has pushed me on many levels as a musician and songwriter. Everyone who worked on it put their heart and soul into bringing this material to life, which forced me to be better, and I could not be more grateful. While the songs can all stand on their own, I think we are providing a true album experience for those that want to lose themselves in music for an hour.”

I really love it when I get sent an email introducing me to a new band that I’ve never heard of and asking if I’d like to find out more. Music isn’t just there for enjoyment, it is a voyage of discovery and asks questions of the listener. When Brent Bristow contacted me and I checked out the two videos he had sent me, I knew I needed to know more about this intriguing band and immediately Jeffrey Combs narration and the dynamic, fast paced feel to opening track Realize I – Escape From the Ancient drew me in to this impressive and immersive musical journey. There’s a proper feel of truly American progressive rock to ‘Motion Carries’, which is not surprising knowing the musician’s pedigree, I can hear Spock’s Beard, Pattern Seeking Animals and Kansas throughout the album’s sixty minute running time. Realize II – Brutal Camouflage introduces us to Jake Livgren’s energetic and lyrical vocal delivery and to a really fluid delivery of the eloquent music which is dotted with intense saxophone at every turn and did I ever tell you, I love the saxophone?! Noisy Talking carries on the impressive storytelling with it’s edgy, high energy feel and Jake’s almost rap style vocals. The guitar playing on this album is next level good, Seth Hankerson providing the driving forward motion, ably assisted by Douglas Case, and Paul Bielatowicz delivering some incendiary soloing.

Mortal Game takes a more measured approach and heads down a more AOR/ classic rock route. Jake’s emotive vocal is superb and works perfectly in harmony with Heather Bristow and the sax is just spine tingling. It is a beautiful, soulful piece of music that will really touch you. Ice Thinning brings the exciting rhythm section of Noah Hungate and Jeremy Nichols into focus and really could have come from a modern Kansas album. The song is both powerful and graceful at the same time and packs a real stirring punch, especially on the notable chorus.

Now we get to the pièce de résistance, the gloriously pompous and wonderfully overblown prog epic Platforms of Illusion. This piece of music is just brilliant and has everything that a song of this nature should contain, all combined with a palpable sense of fun and enjoyment, isn’t that what music should feel like? Just sit back, relax and let this twenty minutes of pure musical inspiration wash over you. The time changes and segues keep you guessing at all times and the skill on show is just incredible. I’m a big fan of both Kansas and Spock’s Beard and, on this song especially, Emerald City Council give us a perfect amalgam of all that those two bands are great at. I’ve already said that Jake Livgren has a great voice and he really gets to shine here and as for Brent Bristow, this multi-talented musician is proving to be a force to be reckoned with.

Rather cleverly, after the mind blowing previous track, the band give us a lovely little musical amuse bouche in the shape of the light stepping, enjoyable instrumental Diversion 1 before we get back to the main event with the punchy, rocking No Thanks To You, a song that leans more towards the Toto edge of AOR and hard rock. The driving piano and rhythm section combine with the edgy riff to give a more classic rock focused feel, one that is only endorsed by the superb vocals and Mike Thompson’s epic solo. Realize III – The Comfort Of Suffering closes the album with another superb slice of hard rock infused prog. Soaring guitar and vocals and elegant bass and drums all combine to deliver another highly addictive song that will linger in your mind for quite a long while, especially the superlative melody.

Emerald City Council have entered the progressive rock scene with a massive bang. ‘Motion Carries’ is a superb album, utterly immersive and uplifting with incredible musicianship, soaring melodies and a real sense of fun. This is music that touches the mind and lifts the soul and I haven’t stopped smiling yet. Trust me, you need this album in your life!

Released 19th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Motion Carries | Emerald City Council (bandcamp.com)

You can also order a copy signed by Brent Bristow at the band’s website here:

Online Store (emeraldcitycouncil.com)


Review – Magnum – Here Comes The Rain – by John Wenlock-Smith

There are few great bands on our planet that you can infallibly identify within the first few bars of one of their songs. Their unique melodic skill, their tasteful instrumentation, the right balance of depth and catchiness, and then of course that charismatic voice: Magnum are Magnum! 

I spent a lot of 2022 rediscovering Magnum after losing touch with their musical output after ‘Goodnight LA’. This was quite expensive, yet also really enjoyable, especially when I found some of their SPV output was very worthwhile. I was even more excited when they announced a show near me at KK’s Steel Mills in Wolverhampton in December 2022. I attended the concert on a very cold December evening, finding the venue to be a bit challenging, especially Its solid concrete floor, which transmitted cold through your shoes to the feet. It was so uncomfortable that I spent the last part of the show sitting outside in the bar area where they had a few old chairs.

Furthermore the show itself was underwhelming and the band actually seemed to be going through the motions, on auto pilot as it were. For a show that was supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of Magnum I felt decidedly let down and disappointed. So, when this new album, ‘Here Comes The Rain’, was released I was pretty undecided about whether or not to actually get it for my collection. As it happens, I did order it but recent developments in the Magnum camp have meant that I am still waiting to actually receive my copy (the one with a film of the show that so disappointed me). Thankfully, due to my amazon account, I am able to access an online copy of the album and it is this that I am using to review the album.

The album was released on Friday  12th January 2024, although, sadly, Tony Clarkin, Magnum’s sole writer and guitarist since there formation, had passed away a few days beforehand. He was suffering from an previously announced spinal condition that made playing very difficult, so much so that they had cancelled previously announced tour dates. When I received this information, I was extremely saddened by it as I knew that this same condition may have been part of why that show had been so sub par. I also knew that this could prove to be the end of this fine group. So, with this in mind here are my thoughts on the album.

I am pleased to report that, if this release proves to be the final Magnum album, then ‘Here Comes The Rain’ is definitely one of the better offerings from the band. I had felt that ‘The Monster Roars’ was a little too safe by Magnum’s standard, whereas this album has both great dynamics and strong material alongside excellent performances from all parties.

With Magnum you pretty know what you will get, a mid tempo song usually around the 5 minute mark with strong keyboards and a strong rhythm section, some solid guitar work and great vocals from fellow co-founder Bob Catley, whose voice is so integral to the Magnum sound. This album does not disappoint on any of those fronts, in fact it serves as a reminder, as if one were needed, of just what a strong group Magnum are.

The album opens with Run Into The Shadows, which is a great statement of intent with punchy guitar and cowbells or cymbals even! It storms along at a fiery pace and maybe just lacks a killer guitar solo. Tony tends to not play too many of those somehow but still this one really rocks impressively and reinforces their pomp-rock roots most eloquently. Title track, Here Comes The Rain features a sinewy guitar line and chugging bass and drums. The song has an airy, lighter feel to it, you can imagine fan’s lighters aloft swaying to the music (it would be mobile phone lights nowadays though, of course). This is another strong song from the boys and the great keyboard sound towards the end really works well. Some Kind Of Treachery begins with a ripple of piano before the bass kicks in, mirroring Bob’s emotive vocal. The drums then arrive and the song’s chorus begins. The dynamics of this song are excellent, as is the bass work of Dennis Ward adding much depth and subtlety to this great track. The keyboards of Rick Benton also sprinkle inspired magic over the track. After the Silence is a slightly faster paced song, lifting the tempo intelligently, it also has a strong backbeat to it and works really well. Blue Tango has more than a touch of the ‘Goodnight LA’ era, namely Rockin’ Chair ,as it lies in a similar territory. It is definitely the hardest rocking track so far and makes you want to get up and punch the air, it’s that good! It’s a real Magnum classic with a great organ break and a Clarkin solo as well, where he cuts loose in the closing bars, it’s wonderful.

The Day He Lied is about a relationship it seems and is suitably emotional, it also has a great guitar line running throughout that adds real depth and emotion. The Seventh Darkness is another superb track with brass embellishments which add a different texture to the song, as does a brilliant saxophone that duels with Tony’s guitar fills. It’s a subtly different sound for Magnum but it’s Dynamics certainly make a fine impression. This is a very strong track that is every bit the equal of Blue Tango. Broken City is is a moody, brooding track with lots of keyboards and a heartfelt, emotive vocal. It’s sublime and suppressed emotions really hit home. I Wanna Live opens with a subdued piano line before the song builds in tempo and power. Bob’s vocal is really on song on this rather fine track, one that reminds me a bit of those classic Magnum power ballads that we have all come to love. The last track, Borderline, is a fitting finale to what is possibly a sublime final statement from the band. It is the albums longest song and opens with an Arabic sounding intro before things take on a typical rock swagger. There is another a strong vocal from Bob and the song also has two short guitar breaks from Tony along with a strong keyboard solo from Rick Benton. I really like how this song  plays out with an elegant piano melody that is almost bringing the curtain down on Magnum’s long and distinguished career. It may not have been intentional but it’s a graceful manner in which to end the album.

Unfortunately it is now all over and you are left thankful for a wonderful last shout from the band who will, probably, not be able to continue now that Tony is gone. I am so glad they were able to finish on a real high all these years after ‘Kingdom Of Madness’ in 1978. I really enjoyed this, their twenty-third album and eagerly await for my copy to arrive soon.

Released 12th January, 2024.

Order the album here:

Magnum – Here Comes The Rain (lnk.to)

Review – EBB – The Management of Consequences

The EP, ‘The Management of Consequences’ is, in some ways, a companion piece to the album ‘Mad & Killing Time,’ in that, it deals with and resolves many of the issues raised in that album. If ‘Mad & Killing Time ‘was a comment on the human condition, ‘The Management of Consequences’ is a more personal examination of the same. Having only three tracks, although the first track is split into 3movements, it is a more compact expression.

The EP is dedicated to SagitariusA*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy which is referenced to throughout the work. The gist being: that the human condition and indeed, any condition, all find terminal irrelevance on a cosmic scale.

So says the press release for EBB’s latest EP…

When I got an email asking if I’d be interested in reviewing the new EP from the mad but refreshingly brilliant and different EBB, the answer was always going to be a resounding yes! I had nearly missed the previous product of their irreverent genius, ‘Mad & Killing Time’ and didn’t want that to come back and haunt me again. This collective create music that is subtly different from even the most left-field stuff that you will hear, cleverly constructed but with a flippant, iconoclastic, devil-may-care attitude that clearly resonates with their fans and they are gaining more admirers every time they take to the stage at the many festivals they play.

This new EP, dedicated to the cosmos and supermassive black holes, is another brilliant creation and please, if you can, buy the CD with its superb booklet and narrative, I’ll not leave any more spoilers but, trust me, its worth the money and that’s without the music!

What you get here is three tracks that make up just over eighteen minutes of scintillating, dynamic music that definitely has a smile on its face and wears its hat at a jaunty angle. The musicianship is second to none, seventies prog influenced keys, Hammond organ and the like combine with funky psychedelic guitars and a rhythm section born to groove with the best of them, Bootsy Collins eat your heart out, these girls (and guy) have it all!

The three part, in your face, intricate brilliance of Silent Saviour demands your attention like a punch to the solar plexus with it’s almost theatrical drama and musical complexity. And don’t get me started on the vocals, that’s what drew me to this band in the first place, I just love them. Just in case you thought there may be some normality we get what sounds like a sea shanty/folk outro at the end of the track, utterly brilliant! Cost & Consequence takes a more Canterbury scene approach to things but beefed up to the max. If 70’s progressive rock had joined forces with some of the more excessive rock of the time (and maybe some illegal substances) then I’m sure this is what it would have sounded like. It is attention grabbing music but EBB have the necessary chops to back it all up, which they prove time and time again in a live setting. The EP closes way too early with the incendiary Nieu, an in your face, frantic four minutes of pure musical genius. The guitar and keys hit you with an addictive, demented riff and the drums and bass feel hewn from granite, add in the darkly delicious vocals and you have something utterly, and wickedly, addictive. Damn, this is all over way too quick so you just have to go back and press play again!

The incredibly entertaining EBB have returned with another brilliant piece of musical flair, ingenuity and imagination and are cementing their place at the top of an incredibly diverse musical scene that exists today. ‘The Management of Consequences’ is another indicator of what this highly original band are capable of and I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next, it’s as near to a must buy as you can get!

Released January 4th, 2024.

Order the CD from bandcamp here:

The Management of Consequences | Ebb (bandcamp.com)

Watch the band live at the Summer’s End festival in Chepstow, October 2023:

Review – Regna – Cinema – by John Wenlock-Smith

I can’t recall exactly where I came across Regna, a progressive rock outfit from Barcelona in Spain. However, I do recall that whatever I saw piqued my interest enough to warrant some further investigation with a view to reviewing the album, ‘Cinema’, and hopefully being of assistance in heightening the band’s profile amongst prog fans looking for some good quality material to listen to.

This album was released on the 22nd of December 2023 so narrowly managed to avoid eligibility for my end of year listing. It’s possibly not the best time to release your debut album when the world is on the cusp of Christmas celebrations, no worries though as we here at Progradar are always open to hearing new music like this rather interesting release.

The album has just six tracks, including one epic of some twenty minutes plus duration. The album followed an earlier release of the ‘Meridian’ E.P. that emerged in the summer of 2015 and introduced the world to their somewhat unique style and sound through is four tracks. The E.P. ad a theme of alienation and abandonment, this theme was carried through the four separate movements of the EP.

This new album declares itself to be a musical arch of two hemispheres and, whilst not exactly a concept album, there are recurring themes and common threads, such as fear and loneliness and the need for an emotional shelter. So this is not exactly easy listening as such, rather it is a voyage of discovery for the listener. The album is beautifully presented in a lush and solid digipak sleeve with a thick and well defined booklet containing all the lyrics and the credits for the album, the inner sleeve shows a row of empty cinema seats, hence the album’s title of ‘Cinema’.

The album begins with Opening Credits, an instrumental track performed mainly on Hammond organ, although there are some arpeggio guitar lines and chords played. This leads into Return to… , the first vocal track and one that is sung in English, even if the phrasing is a little different in places. It certainly sets out the band’s stall sound wise, i.e. heavy organ imbued with great melodic guitar lines in parts and latterly synth pieces. This is a very organic sounding album that could have come from earliest days of prog, it sounds that convincing. In fact, I would offer to suggest that Uriah Heep were an influence, aong with Italian prog bands of the time. Spyglass opens with more arpeggio guitar before acoustic chords are played. This song has great dynamics, especially when the organ re-emerges like an old friend, a single guitar notes adding to the tension of the song and to the dynamics. I really like this track as it is very clever and builds well in intensity. With good synth lines dotted over the strong beat, this one is a winner to these ears.

Tangent is next, and is nothing to do with Andy Tillison and his group of the same name, apart from both like complicated time signatures and rhythms, as are on offer here. Strong bass work powers this track along, it’s always good to hear solid bass as very often it can get overlooked next to the guitar and keyboards. Here the bass is keenly felt, inventive and central to all that is going on as it really does provide an anchorage from with the other musicians can truly fly. This track has some excellent rippling piano lines in its latter stages and also a guitar line that echoes the vocals, it really adds to the great dynamics of the track, making it another standout for me. After the short, immersive interlude of Dramatis Personae, the longest track Accolade follows and opens with a very Greenslade vibe and sound to it, although it majors on guitar. The song flows through its sections in a carefree manner, the organ is really gripping and exciting to hear as it storms away in conjunction with some bass parts. This track certainly impresses, especially in the long instrumental section in the middle of the track, an undoubtedly fine musical segment that really showcases all the bands skills and talents, along with their influences before it comes to a close on sustained chords.

‘Cinema’ is a most interesting album of exquisite sounds and textures and a great representation and platform for Regna and the talents of singer Marc Illa, guitarists Alejandro Domínguez and Xavier Martínez, keyboard player Miquel González, bassist Arturo García and drummer Eric Lavado.

Be aware that you will need to listen intently to really appreciate the music but the effort is most definitely worth the investment. Fans of 70’s prog from America, Germany and Italy will find familiarisation threads to follow in the music, highly recommended.

Released 22nd December, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Cinema | Regna (bandcamp.com)

Review – Geof Whitely Project – Curse of the darkness

“The Geof Whitely Project was formed in 2011, it consists of Geof Whitely and special guest Musicians, the aim of the project is to put out original material in all types of musical formats from Prog Rock-Rock-Pop-Electronic-Instrumental. All albums will contain a mix of such musical songs, theres surely one that will appeal to everyone.”

Prolific: producing a great number or amount of something..’

The Geof Whitely Project, or Arny Wheatley, (he is the one man project after all!) have a new album out and I have been lucky enough to hear this album before it’s release on 5th January, 2024. Arny is a one man musical creating machine and prolific is a word that describes him to a tee, having released thirty studio albums since he started.

The formula of a Geof Whitely Project, and the ethos, is if it ain’t broken then don’t fix it. He never strays too far from what has been a successful format for him, although there does tend to be a little something extra or slightly different with each release. That is definitely true of his latest album ‘Curse of the darkness’, although the striking cover is something that has become a definite norm. The sound has always been majorly keyboard oriented with swathes of lush sound coming from the synthesiser but I feel that the guitar has taken more of the centre stage on this album and it is played with a lot of skill and dexterity.

Arny has one of those voices that never changes and it shouldn’t as his delivery is precise and very melodic and, basically, I like it a lot. There’s a laid back feel to much of the music, engendered by his mellifluous vocals and those ever so stylish and lush keys, especially when the piano comes in to give some added class and kudos. An elegant rhythm section of bass and drums drives everything on with a breezy precision to give a really immersive atmosphere to the music.

The album is one of those that is best consumed as a whole, you need to sit back with time on your hands to relax and enjoy the album as a total experience rather than picking out tracks here and there which now seems to be the accepted way to listen to music. That makes me shudder, I’ve listened to music for over fifty years and I have always enjoyed it when I can concentrate and be fully involved in an album as a musical journey and an accompaniment to life, or even a getaway sometimes!

‘Curse of the darkness’ is full of superb tracks and it is hard to pick out highlights, opener The Reckoning, smouldering title track Curse of the darkness (with some superb guitar work) and the upbeat Under burning skies (more echoing guitar) all showcase Arny’s prodigious talents but then so do the elegant Supernatural casualty and the album closer Slight of hand with it’s ever so cool 80’s feel. To be fair, there are no duff tracks on the album but you need to have a listen and make your mind up for yourself.

So, the Geof Whitely Project and ‘Curse of the darkness’, is it just more of the same? I think, with this album, Arny has stretched himself even more and it shows. There’s real musical nous on show and his songwriting is as good as ever, if not better and the guitar playing in parts is just stellar. This man can be as prolific as he likes when it keeps on being as good as this!

Released 5th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

“CURSE OF THE DARKNESS” (album) | Geof Whitely Project (bandcamp.com)

Review – Looped Squares – s/t – by John Wenlock-Smith

Was there something in the water last year? There seemed to be a resurgence of progressive fusion arriving at various points of the year, from the utterly exceptional ‘Quadrivium’ album from Nick Fletcher and the extremely promising debut of Tribe3 to the excellent Z Machine and their ‘Merging Worlds’ opus. There was definitely someone going on and when this first album from Looped Squares emerged online then the die was cast as this is a bold, fresh and satisfying first album that mixes progressive elements with jazzy fusion in an utterly immersive manner.

Looped Squares hail from Germany and came to be when four individuals who were working at Thomann (A large German music store) bonded over their shared love of prog and fusion elements and began working together on what would become this very versatile collection of songs. It is all fully instrumental in nature with each musician offering a solid platform where they could all shine in their own right. The music is extremely tight and proficient with a great sense of melody and spacing. A lot of the tracks have lots of keyboards, synths and organ and, to a lesser extent, piano holding it all together and their name comes from a computer shortcut when programming keyboards!

The album reminds me very much of 1990’s GRP Records output from the like of Dave GrusinLarry Carlton and the like, which is not a bad thing by any means, it gives a reference point for the sound of the album really. The band comprise of four members; Dave Mola who plays the guitars, Jan Essantam, who provides keyboards throughout and the rhythm section of Adrian Sardi on bass and Frank Tinge on the drums. Together these four make a formidable sound, very hard hitting but also fully able to handle the intricacies the music requires with grace and style.

The album consists of eight tracks, each running around the five to six minute mark so nothing overstay it’s welcome by any means. There is a fair amount of unison playing with the guitar and keyboards copying each others lines, this is especially so on Aquafied Spheres, which also has a strong bass presence to it, along with some very fluid guitar soloing. Cactus Recovery is a standout for me as it has a great running bass line that echoes and drives the track along most pleasingly, this one sizzles with rhythmic delight. In addition the track features some really atmospheric organ parts along with a fiery guitar break. Add in some fine fretless bass lines and it really makes a strong impression to these ears. It is very satisfying to hear a new group really making a mark and when the heavy riffing guitar section begins you are captivated by the dynamics the group have and use to really commanding effect making it definitely the albums standout track for me. Elfendertigste is another strong track with great piano and synth sound to it, more fretless bass and a thunderous drum beat, again most impressive indeed. Title song Looped Squares is a funky, brisk sliver of virtuosity played extremely proficiently with a great groove and soaring synths amongst the overall sound. The track gains in intensity half way in before a surging guitar line take the track to it conclusion.

New Life is a lot calmer although it still has that stunning fretless bass. Delicate piano lines tinkle before an emotionally laden guitar line plays over everything. It is all rather beautifully delivered and you find it hard to believe this is their debut such is both the strength of the material and also the confidence of the delivery, it’s remarkable really and all very excellent sounding. Rockdown is played in a similar vein with more fine bass and some fiery guitar amidst the strong keyboard performances. Tall Order brings the album to a more restrained close, full of growling bass, great piano and more fiery guitar lines, all carried by the sturdiness of the rhythm section who deliver in real style throughout the whole album. The great funky bass and electric piano make this track another strong showcase for this excellent band who really play with intelligence and a hell of a lot of skill.

That’s it, a wonderful, if short, album that, sadly, is only available as a download at the moment but fusion fans will find much to salivate over here. You must have a listen for yourself and see if you agree with me about this extremely good release that is hopefully just the start of many more great things to come for Looped Squares.

Released 8th December, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Looped Squares | Looped Squares (bandcamp.com)