Review – Age of Distraction – A Game Of Whispers

Age of Distraction is a thrilling new collaboration which spans across the contemporary UK progressive rock circuit. In 2023, founder member and lead writer John Cook (ex-This Winter Machine, ex-This Other Eden) recruited rising-star Charlie Bramald (Ghost of the Machine, Shadows On Mercury) on vocals, gravity-defying bassist Mark Gatland (Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate, IT), and multi-instrumentalist plus producer-extraordinaire Dom Bennison (Last Motion Picture, ex-This Winter Machine) to occupy the drum stool and handle production duties.

Together, the band has created a debut album which explores the boundaries of melodic, accessible progressive rock and metal, evoking an atmosphere all of its own in the process.

This blend of contemporary progressive rock and melodic metal opens with the pensive instrumental The Uninvited which features the emotion laden piano and keys of Ruby Jones (The Exotic Ices Project) and a post apocalyptic sounding vocal overlay. It’s a powerful intro that ebbs and flows dynamically before segueing into Break My Bones that gives up a thunderous intro before Charlie’s eloquent vocal takes over. A prime example of the progressive metal/ contemporary rock sound that is all the rage now, it flows melodically but there is always a persistent edge to the song. Featuring a guitar solo from John Cook that is both emotive and stirring in equal amounts, it certainly stands out. Dom’s machine gun drums open the edgy Compromised, a track that seems to stride purposefully across your acoustic synapses like a musical invasion. I really like the feel of this song and Charlie’s stirring vocal adds real menace. More of a hard rock track that leans into the metal genre a touch, there’s real power and soul to this stylish piece of music and, once again, a rather impressive guitar solo adds the finishing touch. Protect Me begins with a slow burning, low down feel, suspenseful in tone and delivery. The vocal is delivered in a measured and earnest manner, adding to the heartfelt aura that this impressive song engenders. There is a primeval power at the core of the music as the echoing guitars leave their impression on you and just check out that ever so soulful solo! The Plea is a short, musical amuse bouche full of wistful guitars that bleed melancholy and leave a lump in your throat, it’s very clever songwriting and just adds to the story that the band are creating.

The dark, brooding wonder of Take Me Down once again features the elegant piano and keys of Ruby Jones and also the distinctive, dignified vocals of Philip Stuckey (Stuckfish) and is one of the best songs of this genre you are likely to hear this year. There’s an age old wonder to the feel of the song, a nostalgic desire evident in Richard’s voice, it is music that is epic in scope and delivered in a widescreen fashion and I’m really impressed with this track. Title track A Game Of Whispers goes hard and heavy again with a monolithic feel to the drums and guitar and Mark’s bass has an age old feel to its delivery. Charlie delivers another menacing vocal and we end up with a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a Judas Priest album. There’s a melodic power at the core of everything that this talented quartet deliver and vibrant, densely layered feel to the sound and it is no more evident than on this highly impressive piece of music. This amazing musical journey continues with the vivid and animated hard rock infused instrumental The Point Of No Return, staccato and imposing guitars combining with the immense drums to create a phenomenal wall of sound that consumes all that encounter it.

The oasis of calm that is Oceans slows the pulse and reduces the blood pleasure after the enjoyable sonic assault that preceded it. A plaintive, pensive feeling song that leaves your breath catching as you let its emotions wash over you. The stylish, wishful acoustic guitar a match for Charlie’s heartfelt vocals on what is one of the albums more contemplative moments. Another short pause on the journey, The Left Unsaid is two minutes of thought provoking music that leaves its mark on your mind as it passes through. For me, the highlight on this ever impressive piece of work is the breathtaking Sneak Attack. It’s classic progressive metal at heart but with a real contemporary edge to the delivery. Intellectual and impassioned at the same time, there’s real drama to the music and an almost theatrical delivery to Charlie’s vocal. There’s been a resurgence of keyboards in contemporary, melodic prog rock and the writing on this album just leaves room for plenty of atmosphere and plenty of keys! A stand out track on an album of imposing songs, the highlight is most definitely John’s stunning guitar solo towards the end that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The album finishes with the uplifting My Peace, a beautiful, soaring piece of music that brought a lump to my throat (and tears to my eyes but we will ignore that bit!) and just leaves a feeling of hope and expectation in your heart.

2024 has already been a bumper year for superb releases and Age of Distraction have just added another fine album to the mix. ‘A Game Of Whispers’ is a collection of mighty fine songs that define the contemporary progressive rock and melodic metal genre and is a dramatic and profound listen from beginning to end. My recommendation is you just go out and buy it!

Released 31st May, 2024.

Pre-order from the band’s website here:

Home – Age Of Distraction

Or bandcamp here:

Music | Age Of Distraction (bandcamp.com)

Review – The Tangent For One – To Follow Polaris

When is a solo album not a solo album? There’s a conundrum for you. Well, there’s a story behind this latest release from The Tangent universe, ‘To Follow Polaris’ by The Tangent For One. The ‘One’ in the artist name is, as I’m sure you can guess, Andy Tillison and let’s discover why this new collection of impressive progressive rock is not Andy’s latest solo creation…

‘To Follow Polaris’ is a new ‘full on’ Progressive Rock album by The Tangent, set to be released on the 10th May 2024 (InsideOutMusic). That’s not necessarily a surprise, that’s what the band are known for. But at the same time, it’s something else too. As Andy jokes, playing on the Jaws strapline, he says “well this time it’s actually no personnel”.

In a year when members of The Tangent could be seen onstage all over the world and on recordings by many greats of the prog world, it became clear that there was not going to be time to get together for anything more than one gig in April 2023.

So the band agreed that the band’s leader/main writer Andy Tillison would keep the material coming and would make an album by The Tangent entirely alone. It would still be The Tangent. Just for one.

“Besides Which” Andy says, “I’ve always wanted to do this, use what I have learned from Luke, Jonas, Steve, Theo and many other alumni and take it to final production. Now was the time!”

What transpired over the following year is in one sense an ‘absolutist’ solo album and is entirely the work of one person in all aspects including artwork, layout, design, lyrics, composition, performance, recording, production, mixing, mastering and authoring. But in another sense it’s totally Tangent. “I could not have begun to make this record without having had the experiences of working with the band. So although the different instruments are not attempted to be played in the actual style of the normal lineup, they are inspired by the kind of things these guys do”

So there you go, it’s an album by The Tangent, but not all of them and yet it does sound like it’s by all of them, still following? Let’s have a listen and see for ourselves, shall we?

For anyone who is a fan of Andy and The Tangent you will know immediately that this is an album by The Tangent, he has created a very distinctive sound over the years and one that I can’t get enough of. Created from Andy’s love of artists such as Yes, Van Der Graaf Generator, Porcupine Tree, Groove Armada, Earth Wind & Fire, Roger Waters and his bands, Return To Forever, Deep Purple, Gentle Giant, Steely Dan and any band featuring the keyboard player Dave Stewart, but neither a homage to those artists or a pastiche of their sounds. Andy’s instantly recognisable music is unique to him and The Tangent and is based mostly around his stellar keyboard playing.

The North Sky opens the album with style and panache and is indicative of The Tangent with the elegant keyboard flourishes, dynamic guitar playing and ever funky bass that has a wonderful jazz vibe to it (and is the first time you will hear Andy playing bass on any of his recordings). This song is a hopefully joyous celebration of life under the sky, there is a fluency to this vibrant piece of music, an urgency and joie de vivre that is as addictive as it is palatable, Andy’s stick driven (electronic) drums providing the drive and electronic wind controller the high notes and polish. The wistful, dreamlike section in the middle of the piece is an oasis of calm that gives you a moment to catch your breath and adds to what is a simply stunning start to the album, there could even be a musical nod to Close Encounters in there but that could just be me! Andy’s singular vocal is as acerbic as ever, love it or hate it (and I love it), to me it is much part of what makes The Tangent tick as anything else and his laconic storytelling adds a classic patina to everything the band do. Andy likens it to “sort of channelling the feeling you get contemplating the wonders of the seemingly infinite universe while riding a Harley Davidson”, exactly… A Like In The Darkness takes a more measured approach with a hushed vocal adding to the moody, thoughtful atmosphere. Imagine a smoke filled, whisky soaked venue with the lights down low and an attentive audience hanging on every word and every note, rapt in attention to the musician in front of them who is holding everyone’s attention with his charismatic persona. A beautifully observed slice of jazz/prog fusion, idiosyncratic in delivery and design, it’s a brilliant piece of music with its roots most definitely in the 1970’s and that era of creative, sometimes mind boggling, music that crossed so many genres that it became obfuscated but was always highly entertaining. For Andy it is a personal look into the world of being an obscure artist in the 2000’s, a world where legalised piracy starves musicians and the rationale for that has actually somehow succeeded in replacing payment with “likes” on social media as a sign of “success”. 

“A song about “Constant Bad News – something I have heard nearly everyone I know speak about regardless of their age or background.” That’s Andy’s short precis of The Fine Line, a song that, despite its subject matter, has a real cool and elegant feel to it. Imagine Gentle Giant turning up to a 70’s disco party dressed as Earth, Wind & Fire and you’re some way to getting the vibe of this gloriously funky piece of music. An acerbic social commentator he may be (or that could just be the Yorkshireman in him!) but Andy is just a lover of music and a lover of creating music at heart and that can be sensed through every word and note of this track and please just check out his fantastic, laid back bass playing! Andy says it owes a lot to ‘Aja’ period Steely Dan and is also a nod to Petula Clarke’s Downtown and, let’s be honest, it doesn’t get more prog than that! While Andy and The Tangent may be known for their brilliantly creative prog epics, it’s songs like this that define the true nature of the man and his music for me and I love it. Talking of lengthy prog epics, no true album by The Tangent could be classed as complete without twenty plus minutes of prog largesse and pomp and circumstance, all with a bit of true Yorkshire caustic diatribe thrown in for good measure and that’s what you get with The Anachronism. The song posits that all forms of government are manifestly unfit for purpose, unless the purpose actually is to create division, argument, suffering, war, poverty, racism. It centres on elections in so called democratic nations in which the amount of “say” a person actually has in this democracy is so vanishingly small that in two major Western Nations only four manifestos will even be actually considered in 2024. The longer song is a format that Andy likes to work in and he has loved this format since hearing Close To The Edge by Yes and you can tell, all of the longer tracks by The Tangent can be considered classic songs by the band and this is no exception. A track driven by purpose and calculation and a piece of music with a lot to say and which is delivered eloquently and in a direct manner. The music is as stylish as ever and travels across many genres seamlessly, almost a who’s who of 70’s prog styles and embellishments but all delivered in Andy’s witty and self-effacing style.

The Single (Taken From A Re-Opened Time Capsule) is a re-recorded version of a track Andy wrote more than 25 years ago for his band Po90. As it never reached that many ears he thought he would update it. “It comes from an album called ‘The Time Capsule’ which I did say that one day I might revisit… because that was implied by the title.” Andy continues, “It is a song that in many ways was the place The Tangent actually began.  in and among all the dark Po90 stuff, here was this little ditty that was almost a blueprint for songs like “GPS Culture” , “Spark In the Aether” and even “The North Sky”. Now Spark In The Aether is my favourite all time shorter track from the band so it means that The Single had a lot to live up to and, while it may not replace Spark in my affections, it is definitely up there. Lyrically it’s very focussed (As Fine Line) on News Media/Music Business and the contemporaneous attitudes towards Progressive Rock Music itself. It’s a marvellous piece of The Tangent history updated for a new audience and you can see the evolution of the band and Andy’s songwriting in its six minute running time.

The album closes out with a Radio Edit of The North Sky which intensifies and concentrates the inspirational feel of the original and, if you get the limited edition CD Mediabook or 2LP Vinyl, the bonus track Tea At Bettys, seventeen polished minutes of delightfully 70’s feeling easy jazz music, interjected with some frenetic and intentionally chaotic interludes, dedicated to the iconic Harrogate Tearooms that I have been lucky enough to frequent on several occasions.

‘To Follow Polaris’ is intended to be thought of as a regular Tangent album – but not as the future of the band. It’s everyone’s intention to make the FOURTEENTH album as The Tangent. For Five. However, taken in isolation, what you have is a wonderfully inventive and amazingly performed collection of songs that stay true to the core of Andy and the band’s beliefs. Witty and acerbic throughout but with some moments of pure musical bliss, it is yet another highlight in this storied musician’s stellar career.

Released 10th May, 2024.

Order the album here:

Direct from the band: The Tangent : Official Website – Home

or here: To Follow Polaris (lnk.to)

Review – Cosmograf – Live At The 1865 (Official Bootleg)

A small and enthusiastic audience of Cosmograf fans assembled one Sunday night in May ‘23 at The 1865, Southampton, UK to witness Robin Armstrong and his live band play a 2 hour show covering songs from the breadth of his music over the last 9 or so albums. There was no original intention for the gig to be recorded, but a decent soundboard stereo mix was made available after the show, that had captured something very interesting. Much of the set played that night, provided too much temptation not to share some of that experience with a much wider audience.

What it lacks in polished presentation, it more than makes up for in the performance and vibe of a live band in its raw, grass roots environment. Robin reviewed, edited, and mixed the audio within the limitations of the recording and gave it his blessing. For these reasons it’s an Official Bootleg!, and stands as an interesting waypoint in the history of Cosmograf.

“I had no intention at all of making any sort of live album for our recent shows, but listening back to the soundboard mix for this one, I was kind of surprised how good it sounded.” explains Robin Armstrong. ”Normally I’d be obsessed in fixing the mistakes and mixing it properly but there was just no way to do that with just a basic stereo track, so I thought it would be fun to release it in all its old school rawness..”

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a huge fan of Robin and his Cosmograf project so when he asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing this live release, it was an absolute no brainer! Robin’s deep, retrospective and very thoughtful songs, backed by his dynamic, powerful and intricate guitar playing is one of the best things you can hear in the progressive rock universe, add in a live, intimate setting with that rawness you get from the best live gigs and we could be on to something really rather special indeed.

Well, let’s cut to the chase, this ‘Official Bootleg’ goes straight in as one of the best live releases I have heard in recent years. Backed by some seriously impressive musicians, this is a collection of nine tracks that really showcase what is great about live music, progressive rock or not. It does help that the tracklist is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of my favourite Cosmograf tracks from British Made through to The Ghost Gets Made with perennial highlights including White Car, Arcade Machine and the track that got me into Cosmograf in the first place, The Man Left In Space.

This live album is just high point after high point with Robin’s superb songs animated in a live setting, check out the guitar solo on The Motorway for instance, one of many high class, stellar musical moments. Music can be for the mind or soul or, in this instance, for both, these songs have a life of their own, they are written from the heart and performed in much the same way, each musician heavily invested in what they are delivering to what sounds like a very enthusiastic audience. Kyle Fenton’s drums are hewn from granite, he is a powerhouse behind the kit and Alistair Martin delivers a quality foundation with his bass that the intense and intricate guitar of Lee Abraham then graces with pure class. Robin is the conductor in chief here, his passionate vocal, glorious keys and impeccable guitar completing this quartet of exemplary musicians.

It’s hard to pick favourites from a collection of songs that I love anyway, especially when they are all performed with an immediacy and soul that really resonates but, if you push me, British Made opens the album perfectly, the aforementioned Man Left In Space is beautifully haunting and wistful in its delivery, White Car is one of my favourite ever Cosmograf pieces and is performed impeccably here (just listen to that raw and incredibly potent guitar solo, utterly amazing) and the album closes with a powerfully emotive and definitive version of The Ghost Gets Made. The fact that all of these tracks are delivered in their raw, unpolished state is what makes this album such a gem.

A new Cosmograf studio album is on the way but, ever one to give back to his audience, Robin has sated the craving for new music by releasing what I am sure will become a seminal live album in the progressive rock scene. Close your eyes and you could almost be there, basking in the glorious music and that is what makes ‘Live At The 1865’ an essential purchase.

Released 12th April, 2024.

Order the CD from Gravity Dream here:

Cosmograf – Live At The 1865 (The Official Bootleg) CD – Gravity Dream Music

Order the download from bandcamp here:

Live At The 1865 (The Official Bootleg) | Cosmograf (bandcamp.com)

Review – Vicinity – VIII

Out of Trondheim, in the cold shores of Norway, Vicinity have been crafting their mix of progressive metal, melodies and sophisticated rhythm patterns since 2006. Now reaching their third studio album, the five-piece has reached the perfect mix in their sound. ‘VIII’ is a mature progressive metal album, with a fresh approach to composition.

Putting new influences to work in their already highly rich melting pot of references, ‘VIII’ is a collection of progressive metal songs where the Norwegians drifted to a heavier, more concise sound than in the previous releases. The final result can please traditional prog fans of bands such as Threshold, as well as followers of newer acts such as Haken. Mixing duties in “VIII” were handled by Øyvind Voldmo Larsen (Seventh Wonder, Circus Maximus, Withem) and mastering was done at Fascination Street Studios by Tony Lindgren (Ihsahn, James LaBrie, Leprous, Opeth).

Vicinity was founded in 2006 by Kim-Marius H. Olsen, Frode Lillevold and Kristian Nergård. Vocalist Alexander K. Lykke soon joined the blend making the first complete lineup. With the EP ‘Diffusion of Innovation’, the band’s first official release, Vicinity found its true style, writing longer, more technical progressive compositions. In 2012 the band recorded their debut full-length album, ‘Awakening’, making this the debut recording of the new bass player Pierre Schmidt-Melbye, who joined the band following Nergård’s departure in 2009. Reidulf Wormdal joined the recording as a session keyboard player. The album was mixed by André Alvinzi and mastered by Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios, and was released by Indie Distribution and Pug-Nose Records in the fall 2013.

In 2015 Vicinity went to work with their new album ‘Recurrence’ which was released by Mighty Music in 2017. The drums were recorded at Skarp Studio, known for producing the drums for bands like Triosphere and Keep of Kalessin. Christer-André Cederberg, known for mixing ‘Nine’ and ‘Havoc’ for Circus Maximus and several releases by Anathema was enlisted to mix the album. Jens Bogren once again handled mastering duties. Following the release, Vicinity played concerts in Trondheim and Oslo, and was booked to play festivals like Prøvesprengning and Totsås Rock.

Preparations for the upcoming album started in 2020 at Skansen Lydstudio, but further progress was impaired partly by Covid and the fact that, after 15 years in the band, Lykke decided in 2022 to pursue other interests and in agreement with the band decided to part ways. Vicinity tried out vocalist Erling Malm (Articulus, Endolith) at a live show in Trondheim, and decided then and there that he would be the vocalist going forward, and he immediately started working on vocals for “VIII”, adding more diversity to the singing department of the band.

A rather impressive introduction from the PR company for the third full length Vicinity release and, having reviewed both ‘Awakening’ and ‘Recurrrence’, I feel I’m in a perfect place to critique this latest offering. In fact I’m really looking forward to it and, while disappointed that Alexander has chosen to step aside, I’m excited to hear what Erling brings to the mix!

I have to admit that, after quite a few listens, ‘VIII’ is becoming something of a standard in my listening rotation. While there is nothing radically different in it’s delivery of superb progressive metal, it is done so bloody damn good that I can’t help but get lost in the dynamic, hard edged music and its flawless delivery. Power, poise passion and soul emanate from this impressive release in spades, just check out DKE to hear musicians at the top of their game and having immense fun on an instrumental track that has hints of prime era Dream Theater in the bass, drums and guitar. In fact I almost thought I was hearing Glass Prison from DT’s ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ at first, it’s that good.

I have spent a lot of time listening to traditional 70’s style prog and also a lot of jazz fusion music over the last couple of months and, though I love that sort of music, listening to this brilliantly produced release has been like a breath of fresh air to me aurally. Hard hitting but cleanly delivered music and, thanks to Erling, powerful and expressive vocals combine to create a sonic delight of epic proportions on tracks such as lengthy opener, the majestic Promised Paradise and the musical thrill ride that is Purpose, a song that is like a beacon of hope in the darkness but this electrifying album never lets up in its intensity, the pomp and power of The Singularity is another breathtaking highlight with its stirring delivery and intelligent songwriting. The beautiful, wistful wonder of Shape of Life gives an oasis of calm to the thrill seeking brilliance of the rest of the album and is as polished as any of the other tracks.

Perhaps the highlight of the album, but that’s like saying which of your kids you like the best, is the closing epic Face the Rain which leads you through a whole gamut of emotions and ebbs and flows perfectly. There’s heart and soul in every note of this rousing and riveting track and a primeval power striving to break out, drums hewn out of granite are the foundation but all the musicians are at the top of their game and Erling delivers his best vocal performance on the album, a song that just keeps on giving.

With the dynamic brilliance of ‘VIII’, Vicinity return triumphant with a prog-metal album for the ages. Impeccably performed and delivered, this is one release that should definitely be on your prog radar….

Released 8th March, 2024.

Order the album here:

Søgeresultater for “Vicinity” – TargetShop

Or from bandcamp here:

VIII | Vicinity (bandcamp.com)

Review – David Jackson and René van Commenée – Keep Your Lane

‘Keep Your Lane’ is an intriguing collaboration between David Jackson and René van Commenée. The two artists have known each other for many years, often collaborating on gigs. That friendship and their live performances led to the release of a live CD – Batteries Included in 2003. Jackson also worked with René’s project ‘Mr Averell’. This new recording is the duo’s first studio album that began during the covid lockdown. In the course of reviewing some previously laid down musical pieces David Jackson began re-working arrangements and orchestration – developing new ideas.

When he shared some tracks with René the project brought together two formidable virtuosos. Commenée began adding new production ideas and new parts from his astonishing collection of instruments. That collaboration blends their individual talents into a soundscape of overlaying styles and tempos capturing jazz vibes rock and folk.

Together the duo has created a suite of complex arrangements and multi-tracking with Jackson’s trademark sax and flute interspersed with van Commenée’s percussion. It is a wonderfully diverse collection of tunes that definitely fall into the eclectic and esoteric end of progressive rock and jazz fusion. Take opener Eternal Caravans with it’s pulsating percussion and edgy spiralling brass that gives a North African feel to the music, it is at once gripping but also asks questions of the listener as it builds into a crescendo. Garden Shed continues to pique your interest with its clever, upbeat, jerky delivery, like a brass band jamming with a local jazz collective, it sounds like it shouldn’t work but it really does. I am a big fan of Bird’s Lament with it’s marching band ethos reworked into something dynamic, fluid and thoroughly entertaining and the moody, atmospheric majesty of single release Gateway.

Waving At Strangers continues this diverse musical journey with a sophisticated and refined air, Jackson’s charismatic and compelling sax a laser sharp focus. The intelligent and influential songwriting continues with the intense and cinematic Gridlockdown, a track that could be the soundtrack to a grittier version of Hawaii-5-O and the wonderful medieval pageantry of Hills of The North, another highly satisfying piece of music full of pomp and circumstance. To me, Get A Grip! is a marvellous homage to the crime noir movies of the 50’s, or at least it should be. A true modern classic of dark, edgy jazz fusion with a pronounced air of superiority and a very clever piece of music indeed! Koozokudooro is as quirky a track as its title would suggest, just under two minutes of intrigue and chicanery that puts a smile on my face.

A lively and esoteric jolt of wild escapism mixing time signatures, keys, distorted sounds and voice, Pinball Potter dances suggestively across your synapses and JackLanzCom Haiku sees Jackson’s skittish flute play counterpoint to the moody sax and van Commenée’s strident percussion to deliver a mildly violent musical slap in the face. The new instrumental recreation and orchestration of Pioneers over c, the Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG) classic track from the 1970’s album ‘H to He Who Am The Only One‘. Now titled Pioneers over c, 2023’ is a homage to that elusive track that has only ever been played live once. It features the virtuoso Colin Edwin on bass (Porcupine Tree). Coming in at over ten minutes long, it is a wonderfully evocative piece of music that invokes the heyday of experimental progressive rock in the 1970’s, just lose yourself in the moment and enjoy the awe-inspiring musical tapestry that is laid out in front of you. The album closes with Felona, an impish, wistful piece of music drawn from the ideas that Jackson, with Peter Hammill prepared for VdGG’s Italian friends Le Orme for their 1973 English version of Felona e Sorona, Jackson’s sessions were timed-out, but they were not forgotten and have been reworked especially for this album.

If you’re a fan of intricate music full of expression and inventiveness that showcases the best of jazz fusion and epic progressive rock then go no further, your search is over. A more eclectic album you will be lucky to find this year and I really enjoyed it.

Released 2nd February, 2024.

Links to order CD and download here:

Keep your Lane | David Jackson (jaxontonewall.com)

Review – Last Ark Out – Lift

“Vancouver/EU based collective Last Ark Out presents their sophomore album ‘Lift’, featuring a host of high-profile North American guests including Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy, Quincy Jones, Kurt Elling), Sarah Thawer (Jacob Collier, A. R. Rahman, Jon Batiste) and Sasha Berliner (Christian McBride, Tyshawn Sorey). With intricate songwriting and virtuosity across a breadth of instruments sharing the spotlight, searing electric guitars, rich progressive harmony, and lyrical saxophone melodies create an expansive sound-world grounded by hypnotic riffs and ferocious drum grooves.”

That’s quite an introduction to an album and one that gives it a lot to live up to. However, I was intrigued by this release as soon as I heard the first couple of tracks and decided I needed to investigate further…

Recently revived after a considerable hiatus, Last Ark Out (LAO) was first brought together through their musical studies at Vancouver Community College and Capilano University. Following their 2017 debut ‘Wake‘, the band’s members have gone on to take part in residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts and receive nominations for the prestigious Western Canadian Music Awards. 

Amidst a challenging landscape of COVID-19 restrictions, LAO made use of the Digital Now grant from Canada Council to overcome the obstacles in the way of their creativity. Composing and recording a series of pieces in their signature style of groove-based instrumental jazz/rock, their challenge was to leave enough room for their long-distance collaborators to showcase their own identities while involving themselves in an atypical format of musical conversation.

LAO are Arthur Pascau Smith (Guitar, Composition), Jeff Gammon (Bass) , Justin Gorrie (Alto Saxophone, Guitar, EMEO ), James Huumo (Keyboards) and Colin Parker (Drums).    

Opening with the laid back grooves of Brackish, which features the uber cool synth vibes of Sasha Berliner, ‘Lift’ is the prefect exercise in musical expression and freedom. Intricate synth lines weave mysteriously around this intelligent collective’s universe, this is music for the cognoscenti but it’s not arrogant or autocratic and invites the listener in on the journey. You can hear the Snarky Puppy influence of Larnell Lewis in the upbeat and funky sound of Dyab, a true modern jazz classic if I’ve ever heard one. His syncopated drums add to Justin Gorrie’s delicious sax playing to give us a gloriously flippant and upbeat piece of music that just makes you want to smile. The late nite jazz lounge dynamics of David Osei-Afrifa’s keyboards are smoothness personified and add gloss to Late to the Game, a track that just seems to glide across your psyche. Wonderfully pompous but never smug, this is music that hints at the big easy and a way of life that is coolness personified.

Hailey Niswanger is the driving force behind the lush, sweeping vibes of Libra, a soundscape full of her musical dexterity on many instruments. Fans of Detective Harry Bosch will know what I mean when I say I could just imagine him listening to this on his high end vintage stereo system. It oozes mastery, charm and magnificence. The intricate groove of Scorpio sees Sarah Thawer behind the drum kit, adding her dynamic edge to a piece of music that moves purposefully and precisely across your mind. A more serious edge is behind this sophisticated tune and adds subtlety throughout the track. Thoughtful and wistful in tone and featuring the ever expressive Allison Au’s serene and composed alto sax playing and some elevated guitar playing from Arthur Pascau Smith, Song Needs Title delivers calmness and composure in five minutes of sublime music. This scintillating release comes to a close with It’s That Dream Again, a slightly urgent tone behind another wistfully beguiling track and one that finishes the album on a definite high.

‘Lift’ is a lesson in creative and perceptive songwriting and music that is carefully and precisely delivered. No note is out of place and, yet, there is still a glorious freedom and intimacy to every track. Last Ark Out have given us an album of audacious brilliance and one that just makes you smile.

Released 23rd February, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Lift | Last Ark Out (bandcamp.com)

Review Catalyst*R – Pace of Change – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is for the recently released second album from Catlyst*R entitled ‘Pace of Change’. On this release we see a continued progression in their sound and ethos, with a good mixture of song lengths (three epic and four shorter tracks) which, all taken together, form an impressive sophomore release. The album is not afraid to experiment with sounds and textures ranging from gentle acoustic segments through to some hard hitting Porcupine Tree like sounds.

The album opens in style with the lengthy title track, Pace Of Change. This song offers a strong mix of almost ethereal sounds along with some very solid crunchy sections. It opens with a repeated piano note and motif, some chugging bass runs and excellent sound effects before a brutally punishing riff is unveiled. There’s strong vocals from Damien Child and great support from Gary Jeavon, who plays guitar and bass amongst other things admirably throughout, with Greg Pringle keeping everything held together with his excellent and subtle drumming and percussion. This piece is really musically strong and very powerfully delivered. Even so, it is not without its elements of light and shade, delicacy and domineering power in parts. It really is very impressive stuff and serves both as an excellent opener and a clear statement of intent to bring something new and fresh to the progressive genre. I feel they succeed here in some style, I detect elements of Marillion, Porcupine Tree and, vocally, Saga’s Michael Sadler in the mix here. As the opener is somewhat Blistering in places, unsurprisingly, they elected for a far gentler second song in Dust Within The Seams. The track is bolstered by a very busy bass part that underpins everything, along with more Saga-ish vocals and an excellent fluid guitar solo from Gary that certainly impresses. Again, the trio are making a great sound and, indeed, a fine album here, certainly something a little less expected or ordinary is on offer here. I really like this song it has agility and excellent dynamics and is a delight to hear.

Ghosts On The Radio is another strong and interesting track with a good guitar line and strong synths floating over the vocals in a most impressive manner. Homesick is the second longer track and this one has excellent keyboards along with a strong vocal and very melodic touches. It is a really good track, very good musically with especially impressive sturdy bass lines. I really like this song a lot, it’s the best so far in my opinion, especially the stunning guitar solo at the close! Unbroken is another very powerful track with a harder edge to the sound and has an excellent crunchy guitar tone in parts. This shorter piece is full of strong dynamics and melody, tempered with some powerful riffing and exciting solo parts, again, it is really impressive stuff.

Pendle Hill 1612 is the albums real epic track and tells the tale of the Lancastrian witch trials at Pendle Hill in 1612. This is a moody and slowly brooding song with strong instrumental work adding to the atmosphere. Excellent use of sound effects and timbres convey a air of malevolent darkness and add greatly to this most atmospheric track. The track doesn’t waste a second as it builds powerful to an emotional guitar solo, overall, a most well delivered and boldly imagined track and very satisfying indeed. We’ll Say Goodbye In The Rain concludes the album and, in this song, you can clearly hear the influences that years of musical theatre have impacted on Damien, not just vocally but in the sense of dynamics unveiled in this most emotionally laden song that would not be out of place in the West End Stage.

This is an album that really deserves a wider audience and fans of This Winter Machine and Ghost Of The Machine especially will find much familiar ground here as they explore a similar musical terrain. Either way, this is a very strong modern progressive rock album and certainly bodes well for more future activities in whatever form that may take. Definitely a contender for my album of the year list vote December 2024.

Released 1st March, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Pace Of Change | Catalyst*R (bandcamp.com)

Review – Jo Beth Young – Broken Spells

“Music does more than soothe the soul, it brings balance to the mind, body and spirit.”

I believe that music is created for more than just financial gain and fame and glory, the true musicians can’t help but write songs that come from their heart and soul. Some of them just write for themselves, a happy coincidence that people will cherish what they have conceived.

I am a long time lover of music that moves me, tests me and takes me to a different place and a long time admirer of Jo Beth Young, one of those people who creates music as art, music that makes you think and music that permeates your very soul.

Jo Beth has anew album out, ‘Broken Spells’, and it would be very remiss of me if I didn’t tell you why you should just go out and buy it, it really is that good.

But, first, the story behind the music…

“Welcome to a world of electro-folk, dreamy, progressive and sometimes gut punching tracks from Neo-folk singer/songwriter and musician Jo Beth Young. ‘Broken Spells’ does not shy away from diving straight into difficult and deeper themes such as overcoming narcissistic abuse (Wolf Song) the lies that lead a soldier into war (Lazuli) spiritual warfare (Adversity) a collective book-of-revelations-style warning (Burning) themes of guilt and wrongdoing for an upcoming film soundtrack (Standstill) and ultimate truths being revealed in (Ockham’s Razor) to name a few.”

Over the four years she spent making it, Jo Beth went from “confirmed life-long” pagan and non dualist to a born again Christian, a radical journey she says can be heard in the songs as they unfold.  

Jo Beth says: “I think I was questioning absolutely everything in life when I started this album. What was happening in the media, the government, the World and to us as beings. I  was also looking into what was happening inside of me. This meant asking myself deep questions such as whether for all my beliefs I was a good person? Had I been corrupted in any way? Did I need to purify my intentions in life? Looking at the World I started asking, does evil really exist? And if it does, does that mean the opposite must also exist and be true?” 

“I started to see that there was something bigger than personal and physical conflict going on, that there was indeed a bigger spiritual war at play. I came to realise that spells are everywhere. When we believe anything we’re told or is spoken over our life, that is a spell in itself. I was exploring how I could break these? How we could find truth and clarity? I think that’s really the living impetus behind the songs; Seeking truth and breaking strongholds and illusions.

Unlike anything Jo Beth has attempted before, this record has her hand in it from conception to mixing and features stunning performances from regular contributors Peter Yates on Guitars (Fields Of The Nephillim) Ben Roberts on Cello (Silver Moth/Prosthetic Head) Jules Bangs on Bass (Herija) as well as a guest appearances from her Nightsong colleague John Reed (Steel Guitar) and band member Jay Newton (Abrasive Trees) on Piano.  

Along with her diverse and accomplished vocals (which are very much forefront) Jo Beth plays a multitude of instruments on the record, from acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, keys and synths, bowed guitars, home made percussion and field recordings including a recording of her washing machine in ‘Kinder Sea’. This time she experiments with loops and beats with the help of another long term collaborator; Alpujarra based Producer and Musician Matt Blackie (Spain). 

So you can see that Jo Beth puts everything of herself into the music and you can tell, incredibly intricate storytelling, haunting music and Jo’s breathy, delicate vocals, reminiscent of the legendary Kate Bush, all combine to deliver something quite unique and completely irresistible. The trio of tracks that open the album, Wolf Song, Standstill and Ockham’s Razor are as powerfully compelling as anything you will hear this year and take you through a whole gamut of emotions and musical styles. The traditional folk and world music roots of Jo’s music are still there but she ventures out into electronica and gives a classy nod to progressive rock, especially on Ockham’s Razor.

An album that makes the most of what you don’t hear and leaves space for the music to breathe, it is a true thing of beauty and, like all the best albums, it doesn’t give up all of its secrets at once but there is joy to be had in returning to this amazing creation and picking up additional motes of charm and delight. The edgy, thoughtful wonder of Burning, the wistful, lighter than air delight of Brigid, it’s a collection of wondrous, ethereal pieces of music that glimmer with the creative skill of a musician at the top of her game. A personal favourite of mine is the beautiful melancholia of Lazuli where Ben Roberts cello joins Jo’s achingly heartfelt vocal in delivering a song that literally stirs your very soul.

I love the contemplative nostalgia of Mechanical Ballerina, the darker edge to Adversity and the slow burning brilliance of Kinder Sea with it’s old world folk meets modern progressive rock feel. Sadly, all too soon, this gorgeous collection of songs comes to a close with the brief but lush statement of Night Voyage, another superbly written track.

After four years Jo Beth Young has returned with an immaculately created and conceived album of pure wonder and musical genius. A piece of music of, and for, the ages and possibly the best album that Kate Bush never released.

Released 1st March, 2024.

Order the album here:

Broken Spells – JO BETH YOUNG

Review – Whom Gods Destroy – Insanium – by John Wenlock-Smith

Prog metal and I have an uneasy relationship really, I have never been a huge follower of listener of the form, preferring melody and subtlety over bombast and thrash. So, why does this album appeal to me? Well, the answer lies in the origins of the band, one that emerged from the discarded ashes of Sons Of Apollo that featured Mike Portnoy,  Billy Sheehan,  Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, Jeff Scott Soto and Derek Sherinian. Sons Of Apollo produced two studio albums and a live CD/DVD set but then fell apart when the pandemic derailed their touring activities. After that cleared, some of the members had chosen to resume earlier existing project, Portnoy with Transatlantic and the Neil Morse Band and Sheehan to his Winery Dogs project. All of this left Sherinian and Thal without anything on their immediate horizon so the two decided to start an new endeavour, with Dino Jelusick coming in on vocals and two new faces; Yas Nomura on bass and drummer Bruno Valverde .

The album promises to be a bit harder edged and more technically progressive in sound, which showcases the excellent musicianship of the players involved. For me, pretty much anything Derek Sherinian is involved with is at least worth hearing as he always plays interesting parts and Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal is also excellent to hear. The album, ‘Insanium’, is released on the 15th March by Inside Out/Sony Music and has 9 tracks, 10 if you get the 2CD version which has an instrumental version of the album and a bonus track (Requiem).

I’ve had this album for a while and I really like it. Yes, it is a heavy album but the playing is superb throughout and the vocals are clear and powerfully delivered by Dino. Let’s have a closer look shall we…

The album opens with In The Name Of War, an excellent introduction to what follows afterwards beginning with some very stylish piano runs before a powerful guitar line enters and the drums power through. The song is certainly powerful and asStatement of intent, this group means business and takes no prisoners here! It has very good keyboard textures and fine playing from all concerned, there is a fiery solo from Thal, but, for me it is the magical keyboards of Derek Sherinian that truly delight, the piece closes as it began with more stylish piano. Over Again is next and this has a very sludge like riff, it sounds quite brutal and the chorus is definitely a lesson in contrast to the main riff. Again, this has space for another fiery guitar solo from Ron Thal which is followed by some amazing Sherinian synth lines making this is a very strong track. The Decision’s longer running time gives space for the great dynamics that are at the heart of the song, a track is about persevering and deciding to carry on once again. It’s another excellent piece with lots of flashy keyboards that add to, but don’t dominate, the track. Also noteworthy is the solid bass playing of Yas Nomura and the powerhouse drumming of Bruno Valverde.

Crawl, again, has a fair degree of brutality to its sound, powerfully delivered by all parties. Strong riffing overlaid with keyboards and punchy bass make a good impression on this listener, as does another excellent guitar break from Thal that is again taken over by the dynamic keyboards of Derek Sherinian who really excels on this album. Find My Way Back is about returning home and finding that that is not a home anymore, things have changed and not especially for the better. The song opens with Hammond Organ and a gentle acoustic guitar part then, after the first verse, it switches to electric guitar and the vocals and overall sound have more than a touch of a Whitesnake power ballad to them. Another emotional guitar solo adds good colour to this actually rather sad tale which shows a different side to this band. Crucified is heavy right from the off with swirling keyboard lines and a solid rhythm section powering away. This song is really heavy and has strong echoes of Judas Priest in their ‘Sin After Sin’ era, except this track is heavier with more keyboards, a really strong and solid piece, all told.

Keeper Of The Gate treats us to another doom laden riff, this one has echoes of Dio’s ‘The last In Line’, it has that sort of touch to it somehow, not a bad thing in my opinion. Another excellent and fluid guitar solo enlivens this song greatly, as does the sympathetic keyboard support from Derek, another winner here

Hypernova 158 is pretty much a showcase for Derek Sherinian to do his stuff, backed by everyone else, as he delivers a very sinewy keyboard sound, admirably supported by some nice bass lines from Nomura and solid riffing from Thal, not to mention the drum dynamics that Valverde brings to the brief musical interlude, it’s a riveting performance. This is followed by the albums title, and final, track, Insanium. The song has three parts, Home For All, Abandoned and Reprise. Together these three parts complete the song along with a wild guitar solo before entering the Reprise section of the song, with more sludgy guitar riffs. It is an interesting conclusion to what is unquestionably a major new talent in the Progressive Metal field.

As to whether this is a one off project or a full time and focus project will depend on how it is received I guess but, for those who mourn the end of Sons Of Apollo, as I did, this do very nicely! I wish them success in their endeavours and eagerly await a second instalment and possible live activities before too long.

Released 15th March, 2024.

Order from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/whom-gods-destroy_insanium_cd

Book Review – Harvey Lee – Backstage Pass – by John Wenlock-Smith

Appearances can be deceptive I often find, people who, on first meeting, come across well and then turn out to be horrible, albums that look great but turn out to be difficult and unsatisfactory on further investigation, I guess such is the nature of life? So, when the offer of reviewing this book came about I was not really that bothered, however, as one of my favourite books of all time is ‘Diary Of A Rock And Roll Star’ by Ian Hunter, I was definitely interested to at least read the book. In my mind I had a big brash American cigar smoking ego mountain tells tales of his own greatness. I actually got it all wrong, so very wrong and let me explain why.

Harvey Lee is British and was born in Newcastle, he moved to Manchester as a youngster, not California, as I originally thought. He left school with few formal qualifications, what he did possess though was a work ethic and a willingness to learn, adapt to situations and to try to make the best of whatever scenario he found himself in. This short book hails itself as not only a memoir of some definitely off the wall and unreal adventures, but also some genuinely useful and helpful information for you to apply to your own individual situation.

Harvey has led a most interesting and colourful life, the overwhelming majority of which has seen a love of AC/DC and especially their ‘Back In Black’ album of 1980. This album had a monumental impact on young Harvey, an impact that still resonates today, some 44 years on. This excellent book tells that story of how a young uneducated lad from Manchester toured the USA with the likes of Herman’s Hermits and honed his marketing skills in that arena, he even ended up being their bass player for a few shows, as well as sound engineer and front of house man.

Throughout the book you will read of how Harvey overcame obstacles and found new ways to address difficult and challenging situations. Later on, Harvey was able to transfer those skills into the gaming world where his innovative approach to issues paid handsome results for the likes of Virgin and Microsoft and their Xbox console.

In amongst this you will read about Smalltown Heroes, a band from Sunderland who should have been massive and, despite several years of actively trying to break through, managed to fall through the gaps. You’ll also read of exploits in the gaming world and corporate screw ups, it’s a cautionary tale at times but all the more rewarding as it is all true. Harvey gives the outline but doesn’t reveal any truly sordid details, It may have happened but a gentleman never tells! Harvey has a quiet dignity and professional manner that seldom slips. Along the way you will hear about the time that Harvey played an important role in the AC/DC ‘Bonfire’ box set and how the band repaid that kindness.

The Book is generally positive and honest recollection of an most interesting period of one man’s unusual life story. Also each chapter of the book represents a song title so you can make your own compilation CD to go with the book, or play it on a suitable streaming service of your choice. I found this book to be delightful and so much so that I’ve tracked down a copy of the Smalltown Heroes CD to enjoy at my leisure, I recommend this to anyone who will find its mix of music, gaming and business acumen interesting.

Harvey comes across as a very genial, yet fiercely impressive, force of nature but one who has the best interests of all in place, he appears to be a great honest and humble man. Read about his exploits in bringing the Xbox to the World, adventures in Europe, travelling the USA as a part of Herman’s Hermits and far more, oh and the incident with trapped wind at a most inappropriate time!

I did expressly appreciate his hard earned and well considered business advice, and his life hints as well, there is much wisdom there. Well worth a read in my humble opinion.

Published 14th February, 2024.

Order here:

Harvey Lee’s Backstage Pass. 50% Rock and Roll | 50% Business | 100% True (harvey-lee.com)