AQ&F (or Arnaud Quevedo and Friends, to give the full name of the group) are a French collective who “fuse jazzy troposphere, improvisation, funky grooves, powerful rock-metal riffs along with progressive elements”, all of which is a way of saying this album has several strands and approaches that are merged to make something that is really quite interesting and even captivating at times. It is an album of realised ideas and concepts, all delivered in an appealing manner. The album has eight tracks, four of which are new and the other four are revisitations of earlier concepts and ideas that have been successfully reworked for this album.
There are four phases to the album which, in total, is an interpretation of life phases, from Awakening, Journey and Inner Demons through to Hindsight‘s, these are punctuated by the reworked sections that are receiving a ‘Second Life‘. This is a different approach but I actually think this works here, it makes for some great music.
Everything begins with 2nd Life Part 1 – Awakening which opens with keyboard notes and what sounds like brass sounds with a low sounding bass, possibly fretless, sliding around the music. This turns into a more standard groove with drums and vocals, sung by Eloïse Baleynaud, in a breathy type voice. It’s actually rather a good vocal with great nuances, in addition the bass of Noé Russeil also impresses. There is also a guitar interjection by Arnaud that adds great dynamics. With the saxophone of Julien Gomila and sturdy drums from Anthony Raynal, the whole band gel together really well to create a great composite sound. The element of distinct heavy add something extra to proceedings. All in all, it’s a very respectable opening track and one that bodes well for the rest of the album. This continues with the first reworked piece, Any 2.0, which begins with a delicately strummed acoustic guitar and an adventurous bass line before the stylish vocal comes in. This is quite an atmospheric track and it gains in intensity as a edgy violin introduces funky urgent jazz with free rein saxophone flurries being added, along with flute from LucilleMille. There is also good guitar syncopation going on before Arnaud plays a fiery solo. The song has some fine bass towards the end which helps you understand that this is a very musically rewarding track. Yuki shifts dramatically through softer, more urgent tones, the lyrics are shown but the ones in the song are very different for some reason, no explanation is given but still this doesn’t detract from proceedings especially. There is a further excellent guitar solo from Arnaud that takes the track into an urgent sprint or so it seems. Either way, it is a great track and one the really grips the listener .
2nd Life Part 2 – Journey from the off has powerful rock riffs front and centre and has a more rock focused approach, although it also has quieter moments of plucked arpeggio guitar lines and bass that underpin the sound. There are also some great saxophone lines, I really like this track, there’s a lot happening during its twelve minute plus running time. There’s a wonderful palette of sonic colours here and great vocals, you can really hear the various styles used here very well. An urgent synth solo from Marin Michelat and great bass and guitar sections take the track to the chorus before a brief guitar solo draws the song to its end. No Soy Breton is next and this track is a bit of a mystery to me as I have no idea what it is on about at all. It begins innocently enough with a soft flute before the vocal begins, once again these don’t match those in the booklet but, still, interesting enough, it’s just confusing to me, there are good bass parts in this song though.
2nd Life Part 3 – Inner Demons has good bass at the start, it’s an interesting track, asking questions of what’s happening amid some great guitar lines and unison playing between the vocals and the guitar that really impresses. It’s all very fluid and jazzy improvisation led. The final track of the album, 2nd Life Part 4 – Hindsight’s, opens with a deep double bass from Eva Tribolles, this gives way to electric bass as Eloise’s vocals begin, she sings of being the best version of you and to live without letting the comments of others stopping you from achieving that goal. The track has more heavy riffs, all offset by the flute which floats over the top of it all. There’s a great synth solo too, the song is good and works well giving a great ensemble sound.
This album may be a difficult one for many prog fans, especially if they are not jazz music lovers, but listen with open ears there is a lot of very enjoyable, thoughtful music offered here. Okay, lyrically it might be a bit odd but, if you accept that and listen, I think you will enjoy and appreciate it’s undeniable charms.
Music is the perfect accompaniment to life, when you listen to great music you don’t need to be doing anything else. There are all sorts of different music genres and we don’t like them all but, to me anyway, there’s no such thing as bad music, it’s just music that’s not for me.
Music that definitely is for me is, ‘Another World’, the new album from the brilliant Southern Empire, one of Australia’s greatest exports, music or otherwise! I’ve long been a fan of their bombastic and highly entertaining style of rock tinged progressive music and count the band’s second release, ‘Civilisation’, as one of my favourite all time albums. Well, now this band of antipodean troubadours are back with a new album and, perhaps controversially, a new lead singer!
“The dragon, unaware that Danny is still atop her massive frame, carries him afar to other realms and adventures. He is at peace, knowing that the others are safe and well, indulging in the countless distractions that this other world has to offer.
Then, a new paladin appears, our patriotic protagonist, Shaun of the Hollow Grove. Although familiar with the wind-swept terrain, he’s certain he’s never sojourned this far before… but he sets his sights on the embankment ahead and begins his sesquipedalian odyssey.”
Original lead vocalist and guitarist Danny Lopresto left under good terms (and still provides backing vocals on the album) but his are big shoes that new man Shaun Holton has had to fill. I spoke to Shaun about this and the new album;
“It was a long process! It began around May last year during a pretty challenging time for my family and I but, yeah, I have been a friend of Cam Blokland’s for a number of years and we have wanted to work together for a while (from early Projected Twin days in 2008).
So when Danny left, Cam put me forward quickly! I recorded Face the Dawn first, Sean and Cam loved it, but the other guys wanted to hear me do a bit more, so I sang Goliath’s Moon and Forrest Fire as well. Then it was White Shadows! (this was the song that made me really hope they went with me, I thought that we really had something with that!) Once the band had all heard White Shadows that was kinda it for them too.
So then it was a bit of work tracking the rest which we would have finished around January this year. Danny has heard a bunch and has let me know he thinks it’s really good and fully supported my entry into the band. I thought that was incredibly professional and spoke to his character greatly! It was challenging to replace vocals built for him specifically. Sometimes I had to go my own route. I’m happy with where we got it!”
I’m not going into the challenging time that Shaun references as it’s personal to him but let’s just say it shows what strength and character he has and why he fits the band perfectly.
Band leader Sean Timms said that;
“Shaun not only has an incredible voice, he’s also a gifted musician and song writer. He has a passion for life and is an incredibly upbeat person with amazing amounts of energy. When he commits to a project… it’s 100% all the way. He’s helping a great deal with the promotion of the new album, adding copious amounts of social media posting and always ready and available for interviews.”
Right, now for the music, ‘Another World’ is all that’s good about progressive rock, taking influences from all over the musical hemisphere, electro, techno, rock, funk and a huge dose of prog rock to deliver a hugely entertaining and theatrical romp. The songwriting and musicianship are absolutely superb and the production levels are off the scale, not surprising with Sean Timms at the helm.
What makes the new album stand out from the steampunk influenced (well, to me at least) ‘Civilisation’ is the harder edge epitomised by Cam Blokland’s superb, fluent and, at times, extremely heavy guitar. Add in to this the addition of not one, but two sax players (Adam Page on tenor and Marek Arnold on soprano), SteveUnruh (violin and flute) and Amanda Timms (flute) and we are treated to a veritable cornucopia of musical delights. The rhythm section of Brody Green (drums, percussion) and Jez Martin (bass) are the definition of stylish solidity and provide a firm (but always funky) foundation on which the music can soar, and soar it bloody well does!
Opening track and first single Reaching Out, inspired by the very prevalent multi-verse stories being told in a lot of films and TV series lately, takes the ‘What if’ scenario and runs with it at breakneck speed. Staccato riffs, swirling keys and a thunderous rhythm section marry up with a superb chorus to deliver a frenetic four minutes of musical fun and games. It’s all about understanding how the choices we make can have a profound affect on our lives… good, bad and indifferent. After that hell for leather introduction to Shaun’s vocal talents (the chorus harmonies are brilliant!), things take a more epic scope with Face The Dawn which was inspired by a documentary that Sean saw about climbing El Capitan in Yosemite (I’ve seen it and I also share his fear of heights!). It’s a twelve minute plus epic about facing ones fears and is an epic that only Southern Empire could do, funky, edgy and melodic in turn, the Leprous style repetitive guitar riff is slick and polished and yet the glorious piano and violin section is as emotive as they come. The song twists and turns, sometimes at a ferocious pace and, at others, laid back and leisurely and Shaun’s vocals are perfectly balanced throughout. It’s a veritable monster of a song and one that leaves you breathless and with a smile on your face.
Written by Cam and with his soulful voice on lead vocal, Hold On To Me is about staying strong for someone else to help them through their pain and is full of passion and soul. Cam lays down a beautiful acoustic guitar and is backed with aplomb by Shaun’s vocals and guitar and Sean’s wistful piano note. It is powerful but a lot more stripped back than the usual SouthernEmpire fare in most places yet, when it does blossom into something potent and compelling, it does so with sheer elegance and sophistication. Without out a doubt, it is one of the best pieces of music that the band have produced. On When You Return Sean married the subject matter about possible life on other planets with a sort of love song to the creator of the universe. The track features a great narration from the wonderful Lisa Wetton (who also lays down some percussion on the track), the jury is out as far as Sean is concerned regarding life on other planets, but he remains open minded about it as much as he can. I really like the lively, energetic feel of this track, the funky guitar, bass and drums remind me of Extreme and Living Colour in places and the uptempo beat is just a joy to listen to. Monstrous riffing aplenty, Moving Through Tomorrow is, without doubt, the heaviest track on the album, I’m sure Cam’s riff is hewn out of granite and Shaun gives his most dynamic and potent vocal performance yet. It’s a song about defiance, about getting through the obstacles of life, daily challenges, being humble but not broken and surviving. At one point you hear Shaun sing, ‘An angry call to arms…’, and there is a controlled anger in the song, a bravado and boldness that gives it a rebellious edge. There’s some fabulous harmonies and soulful keyboards but, at its core, there’s definitive call to live our lives how we want to and attributing as much meaning to them as we can.
“The birth of an electric sun, The Earth-bed dry, the colours run Left confused, so dazed and lost, With no one left to count the cost…”
As already said, there’s no prog epic quite like a Southern Empire penned epic and in the eighteen minute plus White Shadows, we are treated to one of the best. A legacy to the band from Danny, who had the main inspiration for the track, it’s a bit of a post apocalyptic piece about survival through horrendous conditions and circumstances. Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, it’s about loss and working through that loss to come out the other side… not unscathed, but hopefully wiser, more compassionate and resilient. You go through a whole gamut of emotions in its extended running time, emotions brought about by the impressive mixing of musical styles. There’s a magnificent, cinematic, instrumental opening section that spans horizons and takes you on a widescreen musical adventure, like an Oscar winning movie soundtrack with a classical influence, Sean’s piano playing is particularly impressive. The track then moves into a heavy techno, electronic section before Shaun’s stentorian vocal enters the fray. Brilliantly melodic and aided and abetted by some glorious sax, it’s very jazzy feeling, if jazz got all bolshy and aggressive and, once again, the song has a really catchy chorus.
“White Shadows were all that remained, A pulse and a heart beat were lost in the flame, White shadows were all that I saw, A ghost from the past here no more, here no more…”
There’s some quite violent but addictive riffing and the sax gets to weave its sinuous spell around your mind before the mysterious, enigmatic second part of the song begins. There’s a building of anticipation, all created by the inspired music, Shaun’s vocals and the quite sublime saxophone.
“Like a flash of lightning he fell, Shine on brightly, say farewell, “I will return” he said with rage, “And then I’ll truly come of age”…”
A wistful, ethereal flute then hypnotises as part three begins, laid back and undemanding with another sumptuous vocal combination from Cam and Shaun, Cam’s low voice a perfect accompaniment to Shaun’s more powerful delivery. It’s a hugely impressive part of the song and one of the best parts of the album, full of passion, intensity and fervour.
“This illusion disappears in the light of inspiration… inspiration…”
Jazz fusion then takes over with a brilliant keyboard, bass and drum led section that could have come straight out of the mind of Pat Metheny before we come towards the end of the song and a repeat of the impressive chorus section before Cam’s thundering guitar ends things in primeval style.
“White Shadows have faded away, The pulse and the heart beat are beating again, White shadows dissolve into dust, Descend into darkness, their dreams turn to rust…”
After that pulsating, heart pounding experience, the album closes with Butterfly, another of Cam’s songs, and a bit of a quiet closer and palette cleanser. It’s about letting the ones you love live freely without constraint from ourselves and it soars with a delightful, uplifting energy. Cam’s vocals are dreamy and contemplative and the music has a playful feel to it, especially the dancing flute, it’s a thoughtful and reflective end to an hour of musical wonder and joy.
A Southern Empire record is always just more than an album release, it’s a hugely significant occasion and one that I await with bated breath. Their music has been a soundtrack of my more recent years and is very, very important to me on a musical and emotional level. ‘Another World’ is an absolute masterpiece of musical theatre and, possibly, the band’s Magnum Opus, one of the best albums you will hear this or any other year, and the perfect accompaniment to my life.
‘The Light Of Ancient Mistakes’ is the new album from Hats off Gentlemen It’sAdequate and, again, we are offered an intriguing collection of songs, some of which are based on books and authors that Malcolm Galloway has read and been enthralled and inspired by. These books include works by Adrian Tchaikovsky and also the likes of David Cornwell, who wrote as John le Carré, and Conservative MP Chris Bryant. Other tracks are inspired by the works of Sci-Fi authors Iain M Banks and Philip K Dick. So, whilst not a concept album, many of the tracks are thematically linked to literature. This makes the album unusual and also challenging to listen to at times. However, the music is of their usual extremely high standard and there is a lot going on musically which grabs your attention.
The album has several instrumental tracks that combine to make a musical statement. This is pretty different to their last two albums, ‘The Confidence Trick’ and ‘Nostalgia For Infinity’, although the Science Fiction angle is covered by the choice of authors whose works inspired the music. There is some excellent music on this album, including the up-tempo opener Sold The Peace and the sad and aching hurt of Sixteen Hugless Years, which is based on the experiences of childhood neglect. This in itself is a sobering and desperately sad song, it is song where the hurt is palpable and deeply heartfelt. The track really makes an impression as you hear the hurt in the lyrics, all portrayed by Malcolm in a passionately delivered vocal. Also impressive is the song Glamour Boys which is about a group of mostly homosexual or bisexual Conservative MPs who were threatened by the reveal of their sexuality by Chamberlain’s government of the day. These men stood against appeasement and were prepared to suffer for their feelings and their different lifestyles, remember that homosexuality was actually a crime in that time. Many of these MPs paid a high price as a result.
Amongst all this heartache and pain you have interspersed some shorter instrumental pieces that act as a musical sorbet in cleansing the palate before the next song, for example the brief and deeply personal i’mtiredandeverythinghurts, Malcolm’s reflection on coping and living with an invisible disability (chronic pain due to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) and how he feels when folk ask innocently, and with well meaning, ask how he is doing. It is a surprisingly upbeat track, very brief but it makes a good point about how we ask and often fail to understand or comprehend each other at times.
The next big track is Walking To Aldebaran, which is inspired by the AdrianTchaikovsky novella in which miscommunication between an astronaut and a malfunctioning, but well intended, machine leads to a monstrous transformation. Parts of this inspiration comes from the novella and other parts come from rhythmic patterns inherent in Peter Maxwell Davies‘ ‘Eight Song For A Mad King’. This is a very diverse track, often jarring and abrupt, with a lot of sequenced keyboards and Chapman Stick. It is highly developed and has great sounds contained within its nearly nine minute duration. It is, ultimately, another rather sad and forlorn piece though. Goodbye Cassini is a flute led tribute to the space probe that explored Saturn and its icy moons. When its fuel supply was exhausted on September 15th 2017 it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, still returning data to its end. A rather profound tribute to what was a ground-breaking and important scientific research mission that last nearly twenty years and covered nearly five billion miles. The Man Who Japed is inspired by Philip K Dick (who wrote ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’) and the album’s title track was inspired by Iain M Bank’s‘Look To Windward’.
The album is an interesting concept and also a very rewarding one ,especially if you delve into what thoughts lie behind the songs and then take the time to let the music work its own magic on you. Within this release you will find many excellent musical passages, some thought provoking words and some deep and important themes and questions. For me, this is another fine, well thought, considered and expertly delivered musical statement from Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate.
‘The Navigator’, the upcoming latest album from Nova Cascade, is really rather interesting and impressive as it is, at its heart, a sincere, heartfelt tribute and celebration of the life and impact of violinist, guitarist and all round excellent musician, colleague, friend and inspirational muse Eric Bouillette, who sadly died of cancer last year after a long protracted battle. This album is based on the collective’s feelings and memories of Eric, he features throughout the album, as his magnificent violin work is on many tracks.
The album sales will raise funds in his honour and for Pancreatic Cancer UK, it is very much as one would expect, a collection of ambient progressive music with orchestrations and some vocals, flutes and guitars, all arranged and collated by DaveHilborne, who adds keyboards and sequencers to create the atmosphere. Whilst the album is a personal tribute, it is not maudlin and is rather a series of generally positive pieces, the fact being that Eric did not wish for his friends to be sad but to celebrate his existence and his skills with their music and to make the music positive where possible.
Haunting, sympathetic and beautiful at times, this is largely instrumental music although there are vocalisations to some tracks. Charlie Bramald of Ghost Of TheMachine provides the flute parts on several tracks and where there are vocals, they are performed by Dave Hilborne. He actually manages to sound not unlike FeargalSharkey, which is actually oddly effective and the style suits the track.
The music is really rather superb, Submergedis a long epic guitar solo from EricBouillette, performed over an expansive keyboard sequence and given room to stretch out and soar. This is very expressive and impressively performed, the backing support adds to the dramatic dynamism of the guitar performance, it is only a short piece but thrilling nonetheless. Other memorable and notable tracks include opener Sleeping Dogs and Safe Haven, which is hinged on some stirring piano chords and motif, sounding not unlike the early 1990’s Windham Hill label albums in places and, yes, that is a good thing, I used to love those album.
A Walk Along The Canal is a moving expressive violin part from Nina Chikvildze. Its mood is one of dignity and expression and creates a warm tone in tandem with the sensitive backing and a great guitar line from Colin, possibly my favourite track of the album, such is its simple beauty. The Navigator is a centrepiece of the album and also the longest, opening with a sixteen piece choir from Chile and Charlie’s ethereal flute tones. This is an excellent track that builds and has another epic guitar solo section, the track moves through its various parts seamlessly and is both highly effective and very memorable with standout performances from all concerned. A delicate acoustic guitar part adds dynamics and allows space for the dreamy keyboards to shimmer and shine clearly and evocatively. This is a simply stunningly well realised track, all the more impressive when you know it was all recorded remotely as the band have never met!
The Night Crossing also impresses, especially Colin’s guitar, as does The Fever Dream that continues in a similar vein. Again, this is keyboard dominated with great supporting bass from Dave Fick, who adds solidarity when required and is more subdued at other times. Any Minute Now is another excellent track with more vibrato vocals from Dave, expressing how we are taken before our time, as was the case with Eric, it is a very moving song. The Noble Lion is a shortish track but one that has lots of movement within it. Ambient type sounds prevailing alongside prominent bass notes, before a memorable piano motif appears, as do the drums, and the track builds in intensity. This carries across into the next track Submerged which takes us back to where this review began.
Return To Haven features more fluid violin from Nina and acoustic guitar sounding synth trickery from Dave. Colin’s suitably fluid electric guitar provides great counterpoint to the violin and synth and this makes for another standout track. Somewhere Between Here &Now begins to draw the album to a close with a spoken introduction from Olivia Steele. Final track, Au Revoir, performed entirely by Eric, is a touching and tender moment, deeply personal and very profound too and serves as a fitting conclusion and celebration of a life taken too soon of a person who will be deeply missed but who leaves us a legacy of emotionally enriched musical excellence.
This is an album to listen to quietly with contemplation and affirms the importance of love and the companionship of friends and that we should treasure those whilst we can. Very impressive and highly recommended.
“So, to sum up, if you like to challenge yourself and you are prepared to move out of your comfort zone when it comes to your listening pleasure, you really ought to let If Not If into your life. It may not be for you but, if we didn’t challenge ourselves and expand our horizons, we’d still be lighting fires with sticks and living in the stone age!”
That was my conclusion of the two EP releases from Graeme Ginsberg, released under the artist name of If Not If, in late 2021. It was music that really made you think and was all the better for it. Fast forward to June, 2023 and Graeme released the follow up, ‘Structure’ and I was lucky enough to be asked if I would like to review it.
Structure is a collection of 12 instrumental tracks — progressive rock, with classic rock and jazz-rock fusion in the mix. There are nods to artists such as Pink Floyd, Phish, Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, but essentially this is a refreshing collection of original pieces that are as inventive and uncompromising as they are familiar.
Graeme thought that this album would be more accessible than the previous two EP’s and I have to agree with him, only to a point though. What I loved about the first two releases, that dissonance and originality, is still there, sometimes front and centre and sometimes bubbling under the surface but the creativity has been ramped up a notch.
Illusion Part – II: Start is all bluesy, hard edged and very reminiscent of Robert Fripp but played over a 70’s rock riff that Jimmy Page would have been proud of, it’s a superb track that has its origins way back in 2001. This segues immediately into Illusion – Part II: Daydream which has a more laid back feel, almost like a psychedelic Beach Boys meeting Andy Summers in a very weird dream! The flowing, spaced out solo is genius and there’s a definite feel of Rush/Genesis in there too. Illusion – Part III: Second Wind ramps up the psychedelia considerably with echoing, intermittent guitars firing shots across a Sci-Fi backdrop, it’s all incredibly cool and stylish without trying to be, if that makes any sense. The Illusion Suite concludes with Illusion – Part IV: The Looking Glass, a piece of music that could be the ever so classy soundtrack to a really hip art school movie. It has a calming effect, the elegant bass pedal and polished guitar are just so smooth and edifying, the synths an ode to the best of 70’s pastoral prog and there’s another fine guitar solo that has you nodding in appreciation. This is intellectual music that just leaves you totally relaxed and enjoying every note, perfectly composed and beautifully delivered.
Curious Architecture could see Steven Wilson pricking up his ears with its early Porcupine Tree connotations and its serious, knowing edge. There’s a slow, brooding energy to the track, a pulsating, industrial rhythm that draws you in, it’s all deliciously dark and a delight to listen to, especially when the wonderfully fluid guitar kicks in. With the ‘Hard Boiled’ trilogy, Graeme was collaborating with a superb, well-known jazz-rock fusion bassist, but he had a tragedy in the family and couldn’t complete the very complex parts. Graeme was thinking of delaying release of the album but took the position to leave it as is, first because he thinks “Part II” is great and full-sounding as it is with the guitars and keyboard, and then also he thinks “Part I” and “Part III” stand up well as an intense guitar-drum duet, with strong melodic content without the bass. Hard Boiled – Part I: Fusion In A Bar is all smoky, bar room, jazz to begin with before everything goes left field with some rather cutting prog fusion breaking loose, it’s all very intense and in your face and I love it. Hard Boiled – Part II: Progression is an intense, mysterious listen with a funky guitar riff that has your feet itching to dance, add in the discordant keyboards and guitar solo that could only have come out of a feverish mind and you have the epitome of experimental jazz/prog fusion. I have to say it again, it’s not for everyone but, if you get it, you will absolutely love it. The intensity of the ‘Hard Boiled’ trilogy is broken up by Time On My Hands, an intricate solo guitar piece very reminiscent of Pat Metheny and one that has the feel of clever improvisation to it. Hard BoiledPart III: Conclusion is as intense as the other two parts, the guitar almost talking to you while the drums pound out a complex rhythm, it’s all quite intoxicating in its own way.
Vegas Nights is a perky, funky jazz/fusion piece that builds layers of earthy creativity into a spontaneous feeling piece of music that feels really alive and crackling with energy. That Reminds Me has fast paced, percussive opening that leads into a vibrant bass line and staccato guitar note to deliver something that wouldn’t be amiss at a recent King Crimson gig when the band just decide to improvise and have fun. The album closes with the wonderfully nostalgic feeling Weightless (Somewhere On The Road To Recovery), a short, contemplative piece of wistful synth and piano that leaves you in a thoughtful, uplifting mood.
We spend too much time rushing around in modern life, it doesn’t give us time to stop and appreciate our lives and surroundings. What ‘Structure’ shows us is that, if you just sit down and give yourself time to listen to evocative, thoughtful and sometimes challenging music, you will appreciate and enjoy it much, much more. Graeme Ginsberg, with his If Not If project, creates music that challenges us in many ways, challenges our conceptions of music even and, to me, that is a rare and wonderful thing because, when you come out of the other side, you realise your life may be just a little bit better for the experience.
I spend a fair amount of my free time trawling the internet, now that I am retired, streaming music and checking favourite websites, mainly prog related ones, taking a note of the general chatter and recommendations folks make there. All of which helps keep me informed of what’s happening in the world of prog, I hardly ever post my own recommendations though, quite why, I’m not really sure, but, as my listening tastes vary daily from 70’s classic rock to as yet unreleased music, I would find recommending music hard and possibly biased.
Whilst trawling recently I came across Wakefield based prog act Materialeyes and decided to check them out via bandcamp. I listened to their earlier album, ‘Three of aKind’, which piqued my interest enough to contact Martyn Hawes and ask about the upcoming album release, ‘Inside Out’. Martin kindly sent me the album with a view to me reviewing it for Progradar and its my pleasure to be able to do this. I am always impressed by the quality of the releases you can find on bandcamp, I also like that funds go mostly to the artists directly, especially on bandcamp Fridays, which is even better for all concerned.
Well I’m glad to report that this a most interesting and rewarding release, whilst it may only has five tracks, it is an album of quality material starting with the solid opening track This World, that is about how we are hurting the world with our actions. The song begins with a chunky guitar chord and is followed by some glorious swathes of keyboards and a flute solo from Dave Westmoreland. It oozes pastoral progressive rock in the vein of Barclay James Harvest, that is a very worthy band to be compared to and Materialeyes do not disappoint either. There is a lot of layers to this track, Woody Wolstenholme would be proud hearing this strong song with it’s excellent style and good dynamics. Second track, Eric UponTweed, is a tale of a lad called Eric who finds himself removed from his family for attacking his drunken father, after seeing how he mistreat his mother. She arranges safe exit for Eric to his aunt’s in Berwick-upon-Tweed. This has distinct traces of Genesis’ style of storytelling, especially those with a social conscience to them. The story ends with Eric’s first sexual encounter in Berwick-upon-Tweed and latterly some words of praise from his dying father with whom there is a degree of reconciliation at the end. The tale is musically very rich with a great guitar line playing throughout and a great vocal from Martyn.
Longship is a maudlin and atmospheric track about Vikings returning to their homeland, the haunting sound being made by Will using his Ebow to create the haunting melodies. This melancholic piece has another great vocal from Dave, it is short but very moving and memorable indeed, a great track. Horsemen is inspired by the 1921 silent film The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse and starts with an acoustic guitar before prominent bass and keyboards join in. This is another longer track with room for expansive soundscapes, flute and synths, there are also western films referenced throughout. The track has echoes of the softer moments of Wishbone Ash’s Argus initially but soon becomes more strident, I really like this track and the panoramic soundscape it uses, it is a very well written, conceived and delivered piece of progressive music. The added length gives space for the music to unfold in the piece, additionally, the use of good dynamics really make a good impression, as does the fine bass playing from Martyn Howe, especially in the middle section. It makes this all the more rewarding to listen to, as does the fine guitar work from Dave Westmoreland and you can definitely hear the ‘Argus’ influence here.
Clay Man is the last and longest track of the album and was inspired by a heavy Wensleydale cheese eating session! The song is interesting, it’s subject matter a bit weird and dark in tone. It is mostly instrumental but with a few words, more music than words in fact and has more prominent bass alongside acoustic guitar and keyboards. It also has handclaps and what sounds like foot stomping and other syncopation, the song is one that builds in its intensity, which makes for interesting listening. A slower section with ethereal voices follows before the vocal of WillLawery, who also provides excellent guitar on the whole album. The words seem to be about a man who has seen much pain and horror in the world and is traumatised by it all, hence the sad nature of the track.
Well that’s it, you are left wanting more of this fine music and I’d recommend checking out their back catalogue as it has some great music available there. Hopefully they have a bright future, if they continue to make music of such an excellent calibre. ‘Inside Out’ is a most rewarding release and more than worthy of investigation if you can. I think you will like it a lot, there is much to enjoy, especially if you like more pastoral prog like BJH.
Retreat from Moscow return in 2023 with their second album ‘Dreams, Myths and Machines’, the album follows on from the January 2021 release of their superb debut album ‘The World As We Knew It’, a record that was 40 years in the making.
‘Dreams, Myths and Machines‘ was forged over the past three years by original band members John Harris (guitar, vocals, keyboards and flute), Andrew Raymond (keyboards), Tony Lewis (bass) and Greg Haver (drums and percussion) with special guests Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf, Andy Tillison of The Tangent, Pete Kirby of Skylines and American vocalist Jillian Slade.
The album draws on themes of Welsh and Greek mythology, dystopian futures, social anxiety and colonial whitewashing and had a complex gestation during 2021 and 2022, with Haver recording behind the closed borders of New Zealand. With co-producer Clint Murphy (Enter Shikari, Thunder, Two Year Break) at the helm, the album was created in a variety of recording environments, including the legendary Rockfield studios in Wales. The band and team have taken their time and embraced varying themes, while pushing the boundaries of their extended compositions, adding to their musical lexicon.
“Retreat From Moscow’s first album ‘The World As We Knew It’ was the band looking back to our early days at the turn of the 1980’s, retracing our youth and memories through the songs. ‘Dreams, Myths and Machines’ is the band embracing our present and the lives we’ve led”, says New Zealand based drummer Greg Haver. “The new album is an exciting blend of stories past and present framed within the RFM prog rock soundscape” explains the band’s vocalist and guitarist, John Harris.
There’s a definite feel of 80’s Marillion about this release along with hints of the classy, educated pop/rock of It Bites, a superb coalition of sounds that delivers the band’s own inimitable sound, if you’ve heard the band’s debut release then you will recognise this immediately. In John Harris they have a very distinctive vocalist, his voice is all soul and gravelly, whisky soaked vowels at times and I, for one, really like it.
When writing long songs, you really have to be skilled to make sure there are no lulls or pointless sections just to extend the length of the track and Retreat From Moscow are real masters of this. From the upbeat, lush tones of opener Saving California with its driving guitar and rhythm section and the swirling keyboards and high energy feel of Flowerbride, there’s an instant connection with this release. It harks back to the time when music was heard in analogue and you waited for the Top 40 on the radio (or Top Of The Pops if you were lucky enough to won a TV!) to hear the best music and, if you were old enough (or not, if the case may be!), you would actually venture out and hear music live! This album is the sound of nostalgia to me, maybe I’m showing my age but I love it.
As most of you know, I’m an avid runner so a song with the title of Running Man is going to appeal, even before I’ve heard it! This short and punchy song is dynamic and melodic in equal measure with superb keyboards and elegant guitar and the bass and rums of rhythm section Tony Lewis and Greg Haver are rock solid. Things get more intricate with the sombre I Can Hear You Calling, an emotive track where Jillian Slade shines as the foil to John’s ever impressive voice. It’s a song full of sentiment and barely held back sorrow but there’s beauty in even the darkest of subjects and this piece of music delivers like watching the rain fall while sat in front of a warming fire. Windchill sees the appearance of Robin Armstrong whose wonderfully fluid and intensely passionate guitar adds layers of warmth and sentiment to a gorgeously wistful and poignant song. As I get further into this superb release I am ever more impressed by the skill on show and the eloquent songwriting and it is completely evident on this exquisite track.
Time is really flying and yet we’re only half way into this immersive album, the laid back intro to Time Traveller almost leaving you in a musical vacuum as the soundscape touches your synapses before John’s edgy guitar kicks in along with harmonised vocals. It’s all very 80’s and done incredibly well. I’ve mentioned nostalgia before and the wistful feeling that this thoughtful music engenders really does take me back to a time where everything felt much simpler to deal with. It’s easy to just lose yourself in the music, especially the very Floyd-esque section half way through the song. The Machine Stops is, perhaps, my favourite track on the album (although I do keep changing my mind as they are all so good!), it’s soulful and inventive and features one of the most innovative keyboard players alive today in Andy Tillison and he delivers one of his trademark solos here, as well as organ embellishments. The song itself builds gradually, layer by layer, inviting you in to the creative process and enveloping you in its warm musical embrace. This insightful musical journey ebbs and flows and is never less than engaging, especially when it reaches a crescendo and goes firing off on all its metaphorical (keyboard infused) cylinders. When progressive music is as good as this, it really doesn’t get any better and I could listen to tracks like this all day.
Oh yes, we are going right back to the heyday of 80’s neo-prog with the highly enjoyable Assassin’s Cloak, a track that would have graced any album from the prog luminaries of that age but, more importantly, one that’s bang up to date in production qualities and delivery. To me, it’s one of the highlights of what is already a highly impressive release. With superb vocals, potent musicianship and energetic enthusiasm to spare, it really is a magnificent romp. The album closes with the electronic edge of DNA, a thoughtful, penetrating and astute homage to the discovery of the chains of human existence. With its measured, metronomic rhythm laid down perfectly by Tony and Greg, Andrew’s delightful keys and John’s stylish guitar and vocals, this is progressive rock at its most penetrating, add in the voice over from Drew Berry and we really have something very special here.
What was that saying about difficult second albums? Well, with ‘Dreams, Myths and Machines’, Retreat From Moscow have totally debunked that myth. Intelligent, insightful and thoughtful and sprinkled with progressive rock stardust, it is a wonderfully immersive listen. There you go, in this case, nostalgia definitely IS what it used to be!
Following a life training as a Plastic Surgeon and practicing as a Burn Surgeon and Director of the Adult Burn Centre of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. retirement has finally allowed John Greenwood to pursue some musical dreams.
Just prior to retiring, he met Mark Trueack who had been pointed his way by JimmyKeegan (not that one), a very long-time friend of John’s and the guitarist in Trueack’s fledgling UPF Acoustic. Following a hand-injury, and unable to play, Keegan suggested that John might be interested. After a few rehearsals with UPF Acoustic, Trueack introduced John to Sean Timms, suggesting a rekindling of Unitopia and a studio album based on ailments suffered by the band’s members. At this stage, Sean helped John establish his own home studio.
John began to record a series of solo tracks (some with themes he composed as a teenager, and some completely new). The songs quickly divided into two camps; those about man’s inhumanity to man, governmental choosing of economy over citizens and even the health of the planet (DARK). The others focussed on sadness due to various forms of loss (physical, experiential, personal – BLUE). He added into that group his cover of what he considers the ultimate song of loss, Tony Banks’ Afterglow.
His ‘Dark Blue’ album features several family members (Wife, Helen, provided the inspiration and lyrics for A Proper Song; Daughter, Emma, sings on Rosco and The Ocean as well as playing the introductory ‘cello on the latter; Son, Sam, plays the Grand piano piece in The Ocean, whilst Sam’s wife Sarah plays violins on Too Late!, Too Late! Reprise and The Ocean whilst her sister Nicola plays flute on the same tracks). John’s brother-in-law, Andrew Fanning, helped with lyrics for Too Late! and The Ocean, whilst the daughter of a work colleague of John’s, Kirstin Damkat, spoke the child’s soliloquy.
A school friend of John’s (Andrew Rowland) provided all the artwork. Sean Timms added additional keyboards and some great sound effects, and a number of drummers were involved (international artist CraigBlundell and local drummers, Ben Todd and Mike Giuffreda). Sean drafted in NickSinclair to replace John’s bass on Rosco and Julian Ferraretto to play gypsy violin on Packin’ my Suitcase. Other than that, it’s all John on vocals, all guitars, most of the bass guitars, keyboards and orchestration.
So there is a really extensive introduction to John Greenwood’s solo album and, do you know what?, ‘Dark Blue’ has to be one of the most truly progressive albums I’ve heard this year. At times it is like musical theatre, bombastic, orchestral overtures and idiosyncratic, over the top, vocals and, at others, it is just utterly sublime, wistful and beautiful music with ethereal vocals (check out John’s daughter, Emma, on the epic The Ocean) but it never fails to captivate and engross you in it’s lengthy sixty-nine minute running time.
You’ve read about the supporting cast that helped to make this wonderful release, I mean Craig Blundell for god’s sake!, but this is John’s creation, 100% and his sureness of touch and songwriting genius can be felt in every word and note. If you’re a fan of Unitopia and UPF then you can feel the slight influences on the album and that is a good thing, the expansive music and thought provoking subject matter are cleverly integrated into this amazing creation.
The epic A Little Piece of Rosco Vidal is progressive rock at its finest, a build up of musical intensity, intricate melodies, fine vocals and music that is both cerebral and emotive, superb! The trio of Too Late!, Too Late! Reprise and The Ocean stray boldly into the territory of musical theatre where the elegant vocals of both John and Emma could grace any West End stage but it’s blended perfectly with fine progressive sensibilities to almost create its own identity and check out the wondrous violin and flute, just beautiful.
The passionate, powerful duo of Requiem and Heartless add some meat to the bones (John’s vocal on the latter is dynamic and vibrant) and the almost singer/songwriter vibe of Inside is powerfully moving. The whimsical, bluesy humour of Packin’ My Suitcase shows John’s humorous side with the gypsy violin of Julian Ferraretto the archetypal twinkle in the eye and there’s a simple splendour to The Kiss with Nick Magnus’ impressive orchestration.
John’s version of Afterglow, the moving track originally By Tony Banks, is just sublime and won’t leave a dry eye in the house and this sublime album closes with the fantastic A Proper Song, reminiscent of Wish You Were Here. Pared back acoustic guitar and elegant vocals along with Hammond Organ ( you’ve got to have a Hammond!) deliver a consummate listening experience and when the electric guitar solo kicks in, it’s just heaven!
It’s not often we hear a truly progressive release nowadays but, almost from out of nowhere, John Greenwood has entered the fray with one of the finest releases of 2023. The musicianship and songwriting are top notch and, like all the best albums, I find this on almost permanent rotation, it is, to put it simply, utterly superb!
Derek Sherinian is a fine creative and accomplished keyboard player who’s CV includes stints with Kiss, Alice Cooper and Billy Idol, to name but three. He was also a member of Dream Theater and has made eight solo albums, which are usually made in tandem with Simon Phillips, who has an even more impressive CV, with the likes of Judas Piest, Jeff Beck and, latterly, Toto. Simon also had his own group, Protocol, who have released five albums thus far in a similar fusion type style.
Derek and Simon both share a love of fusion, which mixes jazz and rock elements together in a shimmering stew of musical chops. Normally Derek uses a whole slew of well know guitarists, which is definitely interesting, especially as he tends to play a more supportive role rather than be keyboard heavy and laden. He is very much a team player, whose aim is for the music to be the star rather than his own chops. Simon is of a similar persuasion and he is content to be a solid rock from which others can soar!
Well that is certainly the case here, this album features four good musicians who have played together previously and enjoy each others company and playing. The band is Derek Sherinian (keyboards), Simon Phillips (drums), Ron “Bumblefoot”Thal (two necked guitar) and Ric Fierabracci (bass). These four can definitely play up a veritable storm, this album was recorded at The Grape in Ventura, California on August 29th, 2022 and this live album is the result of that rather unique show.
The album has eleven tracks, three taken from ‘The Vortex’, three from ‘The Phoenix’, one from ‘Inertia’ and one from ‘Mythology’ . Of the two additional tracks, Barnacus is a drum solo from Simon Phillips.
Most of these tracks replicate their studio incarnations without really adding very much or varying from what was originally created. Which kind of begs the question ‘Why?’, what is the point of all this? Ye, its all very listenable, technically accomplished and exciting but it is ultimately one that falls short by offering nothing very new or different to what is already known and already available. Also, I think they missed an opportunity to include the filming that took place that evening, as that would be a good addition and offer some added value to this album.
The music that is here is excellent extremely well recorded and delivered but, for the reasons stated, probably won’t get heavy rotation with me because, much as I like Derek’s music, on this occasion I wanted something more. What is different, I suppose, is that these four musicians are replicating parts played by others, like TheVortex, which ŵas recorded with Steve Stevens on guitar and Tony Franklin on bass. Here those parts are played to perfection by Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and RicFierabracci respectively. This makes it interesting to compare the versions also, live, it is very slightly longer in length, although what the additional sixteen seconds are is not easily ascertainable, I guess it could be at the start of the track with the crowd noise?
Empyrean Sky gives opportunities for Derek to really lay down some strong Hammond Organ tones, which he does remarkably well, and his interplay with Bumblefoot is exciting, if a tad brief. In fact several of these tracks would have benefitted from a more expansive time to allow further improvisation and room to explore the material more fully. Temple of Helios is another example of where extension would have greatly improved the track. This truncation is frustrating when a band as talented as the guys are are held back and unnecessarily restrained from really letting fly.
Whether there were time constraints or something else is not clear and I guess we’ll never know but, aside from that, this album deserves more than it delivers, it’s good, whereas it could have been so much more, it is a real missed opportunity by Inside Out.
Still, what is here is very good, I just wish it was either a double CD or had a DVD of the events with rehearsals and interviews and other extras added for completeness. So, again, my question is Why?
After a 5 year hiatus, the award-winning Beatrix Players are back with a brand new eight piece line up and an intriguing new concept album.
The band’s sophomore album ‘Living & Alive’ will be available digitally from 22nd Sep 2023 and, for fans of vinyl and cd, it can be pre-ordered now from Burning Shed with a limited edition of just 500 copies pressed on coloured vinyl.
Founding member, writer and vocalist, Amy Birks is joined on the album by her co-writers from the original Beatrix Players line-up, Helena Dove, and guitarist TomManning. Also joining this expanded group are doyen of progressive music, flautist John Hackett, guitarist Oliver Day (That Joe Payne, Yes Please), drummer AndrewBooker (Tim Bowness) and storied cellist Jane Fenton (LSO, LCO, RPO, Britten Ensemble etc). Pianist Matthew Lumb and bassist Kyle Welch complete the on-stage octet.
A trio incarnation of the band released the band’s debut album, ‘Magnified’ in March 2017 and they went on to appear as special guests on UK dates with artists such as Steve Harley, Carl Palmer and Big Big Train. In October 2017 they performed two songs at Prog Magazine’s star-studded annual awards event at London’s Globe Theatre and walked away with the best newcomer prize.
With that line-up on permanent hiatus Amy subsequently released two well received solo albums in 2020 and 2022 and picked up Best Female Vocalist award at the 2018 Prog Awards before recruiting a third iteration of Beatrix Players leading to the recording of this brand new album.
So that’s the story behind the creation of the album, let’s dig a bit deeper, shall we…
“Take time it’s your life, What a beautiful life it could be…”
Great music has the ability to stir emotions and create small oasis of calm and beautiful solitude and ever since I heard ‘Magnified’, I have been hooked on what Amy Birks (on her solo releases) and Beatrix Players can create. Beautiful, wistful and ethereal music that is passionate and emotive in equal measure and that is just intensified on this new release.
Birks says, “Living & Alive is an honest album, that explores how life isn’t just about living, but that it’s about having the courage to really be alive and own it. Simply put; you are your best you, and will only ever be second best if you’re trying to be something other than you…“
And Amy is right, there is a raw honesty to the music, a sparsity that is delicate and graceful to songs like Snowflakes, the charming track that opens the album much in the chamber-prog style of the debut album but this group of musicians, and AmyBirks in particular, have matured and have additional facets to their music and songwriting.
“There’s no such thing as an ordinary moment, There’s never nothing going on, There’s never such a day as clear as the day that’s too late, Too late and lacking of any conviction…”
Somebody Else’s Eyes is dominated by the haunting cello of Jane Fenton, painfully melancholy and alluring in its delivery. Oliver Day’s gorgeous playing adds a layer of sophistication to the music and Amy’s vocals are touching and plaintive. This is music that just bleeds emotion in every word and every note. There’s an insistent, almost off-kilter feel to This Is Your Life, implicit in the vocals that hit home with every word. A song with sharp edges among the charm and wonder.
“This is your life and there’s no one to blame, No matter how hard it gets…”
The music has a real bluesy feel to it, John Hackett’s flute flowing jauntily and Oliver’s pin sharp guitar really hitting home along with the superb cello, a rather pleasing track indeed.
Starts Again arrives with a jaunty atmosphere, created by the fantastic musicianship and Oliver’s laid back guitar. Another thoughtful track about how a relationship that’s going astray may work if only we could start again. The delightful chorus and relaxed mood give a feel of a sophisticated folk song with added layers of inventiveness, especially with that impish flute…
“And I doubted many a night, With your eyes poised to strike, And your tongue cut like a knife, It’s just no way to live life…”
Amy co-wrote A Beautiful Lie with John Hackett, a song about a relationship that’s run its course but we’re still living ‘A Beautiful Lie’. Gorgeously simple and shimmering with restrained intensity, there’s an uncomplicated honesty to the song and Jane’s pensive cello adds a touch of elegant sorrow to proceedings. A wonderful, if sad song that will really touch you.
“Dam your love and dam the water, Hold it back to keep control, Dam your love and dam the water, Until the day you overflow…”
Another somber track, Overflow carries on the pared back and less-is-more feel where the vocals add to the tension and pent up emotion. The music works in tandem with the vocals to add a wall of delicious sound, adding to the suspense and apprehension. Purgatory has a really serious tone, dealing with the mental abuse of a child but done in a very sympathetic manner. Amy is not afraid with dealing with contentious subjects and the beauty of the song even adds to the gravitas of the situation.
“Why can’ t you just smile, And wish me well, But you can’t hit a nail, Where it won’t go…”
Painful and yet hauntingly beautiful, there’s a solemn tale at the core of You Can’t Hit A Nail. A melancholy song that bleeds wistful sorrow from the flute and cello and where the vocal performance could have come straight from the stage of a West End musical. Sorrowful and even bitter, why do sad songs say so much? Fragile, poignant and yet, ultimately uplifting, Free has a feeling of emotional release in its heartfelt lyrics and superbly pared back music, just listen to the brilliant guitar playing and the inspiring close to this elegant song.
“There’s a clock ticking inside of me, And it won’t leave me alone, And it’s joined by a friend, my conscience, And it owns my body and soul, And it keeps on beating along to the sound of Me, I Am Me…”
This insightful, charismatic musical journey is brought to a close with the superb Me, I Am Me, bringing the story around full circle. An assertive vocal mirrors the lyrical content and the music has an almost classical feel to it. Powerful, affectional and heartwarming, this song is making a personal statement and one that is delivered with confidence. It is the perfect close to the album.
Beatrix Players return triumphant with the mesmerising ‘Living & Alive’, a collection of songs that are bewitching and compelling and leave you in no doubt of their stature in the music industry of today. The sublime voice of Amy Birks and outstanding musicianship on show have created one of the most outstanding releases of 2023 and one that should be on your list of must buy albums, it really is that good!