So, I’ve done my ‘Best of 2015’ list but there were so many that nearly made the list and should still be on your ‘Wallet Emptying’ selection that I couldn’t let 2015 close out without giving them a mention………..
Mandala – Midnight Twilight
Psychedelic, dark and groovy.
Mew – +/-
Uplifting and slightly mental.
Progoctopus (now Oktopus) – Transcendence E.P.
Cracking Progressive rock with an unusual edge.
The Enid – The Bridge
Symphonic, classical, brilliant.
Franck Carducci – Torn Apart
Progressive, bluesy, funky and with a whole lot of soul and some scorching guitar solos, love it!
Djam Karet – Swamp of Dreams
What they do is make brilliant, spaced-out, psychedelic music that could only come from Djam Karet and ‘Swamp of Dreams’ is a perfect example of their skill and flair.
Corvus Stone – Unscrewed
Mad bad and brilliantly dangerous, whether you’ll come out the other side with all your mental faculties is another matter entirely.
Unified Past – Shifting the Equlibrium
It’s Power-Prog, will it appeal to everyone? I doubt it but, those that do appreciate this band’s excellent music have really dropped lucky this time, well done chaps!
3rDegree – Ones & Zeros Volume 1
2015 continues to deliver some very high quality releases and 3RDegree have muscled their way well up that list.
Kinetic Element – Travelog
It feels like a labour of love and the skill, energy, blood, sweat and tears that have been invested in this production can be felt by all who hear it.
Geof Whitely Project – Supernatural Casualty
I found ‘Supernatural Casualty’ to be a box of delights. At sixteen tracks it is perhaps two or three songs too long but that doesn’t detract from what is a thoroughly satisfying piece of music.
Methexis – Suiciety
Aided by some superb musicians and a vocalist who has the skill and inherent ability to deliver everything needed, what we actually have here is an outstanding musical release.
WHAT’S UP PROG-NATION?!?! It’s your boy, Terry DeLien, sometimes guest-host of PROG-WATCH and I am out to strain the shows relationship with Progradar even further by expecting Martin to publish my half-baked reviews!!!!
Marquette (Markus Roth and Achim Wierschem) have just blown my mind! An unwritten axiom of prog rock is that instrumentals are either the exception or the rule. When a prog group does a lot of quality instrumentals then their vocal pieces are almost always lower quality. (Anglagard, Tangerine Dream, lyrical Focus… etc.) A lot of times an otherwise vocal band will start off instrumental for the first track and then do nothing but vocal tracks afterwards (I am looking at you Ciccada and Druckfarben, et. Al.)
So ‘Human Reparation’ came as a bit of a surprise. It looks like it’s going to follow a fairly standard prog formula when it begins, starting off with the rocking instrumental, Mystery Train, and then moving into a strong vocal track, Awakenin a New World, with good lyrics and vocals by Roth. It then takes a turn for the unique by giving us THREE MORE exceptional instrumental tracks before Markus sings again. Track 3 is Adam und Eva, a slow, solo, piano piece,followed by The Mirror, a mostly up tempo suite that clocks in over 9 minutes and is one of my favorite bits on the album. Next we get a piece that, down to its name, says “Hi, we are from Germany and we like Tangerine Dream!!!” Syncope of Obscure Nature is a title that could have fallen off of almost ANY of Dreams “Pink Year’s” albums, indeed, most of their 70’s albums. The music on ‘Syncope’ tends to represent bits of TD style from the 80’s on into the 2000’s distilled into a cohesive 4 minute piece.
Hold up, It’s time to rock’n’roll again with another vocal piece called Mass Hysteria. Don’t misunderstand, though! Marquette expertly set the stage between the slow, mellow and the hard rocking pieces to keep the mood throughout the album, and they PROG HARD with the tempo and time signature changes. Cancer, another well-put-together instrumental suite, follows before we head into the slightly more ‘vocal heavy’ last half.
My Green Garden is not a bad track, there are none on the album, but it is my least favorite. It’s the one I would probably not play outside the context of the album. Sandwiched between Cancer and the amazing The Last Kiss, however, it fits perfectly. One last instrumental La Grande Vallee where Achim rocks out on the guitar to mellow keyboard support, and then it’s on to (BRING ON THE EPIC!!!) the epic of the album.
Here is the part where I would like to talk about the “five listens” rule. It is a belief of mine that music of any artistic merit cannot be judged on the strength of one hearing. I think you need at least five listens to a piece or album to judge and I have seen many opinions, including my own, revised over the course of five listens. (Sometimes, for the worse… I favorably reviewed one band’s 2015 prog effort after listening twice only to have it fail in my own personal playlist.)
That said, I think sometimes epics and concept albums require more than that. As I listen to Lost At Sea, the 18-minute penultimate track from ‘Human Reparation’, I can hear that it has everything a great prog concept piece needs in the music and the lyrics, but I am not at the point yet where it is making the same kind of connections in the brain as All of the Above or Echoes… Of course, neither did those, at first. I feel like, in this case, it will get there! Finally, we mellow out with a shorter vocal piece called Grandmother’s Music Box…The spell complete, Marquette fades out the magical trance and returns us to the real world.
This is my favorite prog album of this year, so far! Beautifully written, performed, produced and with no way to pigeonhole their sound. You can hear hints of influences (Porcupine Tree for example on Awaken in a New World) but the music is overwhelmingly original. Marquette have made an original, modern prog album, and that is so important because there are just too many bands with debut albums that are a total pastiche (RPWL, The Watch and I.Q. et. Al, not that they haven’t moved on to wonderful things). ‘Human Reparation’ also features a lot of good energy and can keep your attention for the full 78 minutes, which is also rare.
‘Human Reparation’ has been out since July of 2015 and currently holds the top spot on my list of 2015 new releases. (Sorry, ‘Skyline’… I love you, too but there it is!)
Nice job Markus and Achim… can’t wait to see what you do with Marquette #2!!!!!
CD is available as an import from the usual suspects!
Terry DeLien is the sometimes co-host of Prog-Watch on Progzilla.com. Terry has been an aficionado of Progressive rock since he bought his first Prog Album, RUSH-“Exit Stage Left” in 1981. From Pennsylvania, USA, Terry has been a dj, karaoke show host and taxi driver. Currently he manages a restaurant.
A scary picture to get things started, it’s that time of year again when everyone puts out their ‘Best of 2015’ album list and I’m no different to every other music journalist, budding or otherwise.
Lists like these are very subjective, after all, one man’s poison is another man’s wine but they’re fun to do and give a real retrospective of some of the great music that has been released over the past 12 months or so.
First off, the usual disclaimer, I won’t include any Bad Elephant Music releases as some people might say I’d be slightly biased. However, once again, this tiny independent label has given us some mighty impressive music from the likes of The Room, Tom Slatter, Simon Godfrey, The Fierce and the Dead and Twice Bitten, among others, all of which can be sampled at the link below:
I tried to get it down to a top 15, never mind a top ten, but that proved too difficult so, here it is, Progradar’s top 20 albums of 2015. Don’t see the position as being too indicative as, really, albums 20-6 could be in any given order on any given day, the quality is that close. The top 5, however, are my definitive top 5 albums for 2015.
Enough pre-amble, here we go……
20 – Transport Aerian – Dark Blue
A deeply dark, disturbing and highly original work of art from this talented, serious musician. Well worth a listen but, be afraid, very afraid!
19 – Steve Rothery – The Ghosts of Pripyat
Marillion’s guitarist is venturing further afield with his solo work and it’s simple, faraway beauty is quite inspiring. Put your feet up, get your headphones on, lay back and relax.
18 – Barock Project – Skyline
An unexpected highlight of the year, hopefully the fourth album by this extremely talented and still relatively young band will see them break into the mainstream of the progressive rock market. I for one think that, with music as deeply enjoyable and illuminating as this, that they definitely deserve it!
A new release full of sophistication and depth and powerful, thoughtful songs that resonate deeply with you. An album about duality, darkness and light and imbued with intricate compositions, complex arrangements and virtuosic performances, you will want this delight in your collection, trust me…..
16 – Mystery – Delusion Rain
2015 saw Canadian prog-rockers Mystery return with a new album and a new lead singer and it was as if they’d never been away. Jean Pageau has a voice that fits perfectly with the melodic progressive rock that the band deliver with aplomb. The epic track The Willow Tree is a superb, intricate and emotional hit of passion and takes the album from merely good to very good indeed.
15 – Hibernal – After the Winter
Mark Healy’s cinematic and evocative soundscapes waft over a post-apocalyptic spoken word storyline to deliver an immensely visceral listening experience.
14 – Built for the Future – Chasing Light
‘Chasing Light’ is one of those rare albums that grabs you immediately AND keeps on getting better with every listen. Built for the Future’s debut release is a thing of rare wonder that resonates with me on a personal level, their commitment to delivering music that connects deeply with the listener has produced a record that shines brightly.
13 – Sylvium – Waiting for the Noise
Superb progressive rock with tones of Porcupine Tree and Riverside. A musical experience that emphasizes emotions rather than the eternal quest for a perfect pop song.
12 – The Wynntown Marshalls – The End of the Golden Age
Scottish tinged Americana with powerful and haunting songwriting and outstanding musicianship.
11 – Echolyn – I Heard You Listening
Storytelling by music, getting to the heart of the matter and opening up small town America. A band I have heard little of in the past, this new album will definitely change that, a melting pot of sweet melodies and delicious harmonies.
10 – Tiger Moth Tales – Storytellers Part One
An album that is even better than the delights of ‘Cocoon’. My inner child is brought to the fore by the magic, charm and allure of ‘Story Tellers Part 1′, it takes me away to an inner nirvana where nothing can touch me or spoil my mood.
9 – Comedy of Errors – Spirit
Do you believe music has soul? I do and, when it is as deeply involving and emotionally uplifting (and draining to be honest!) as this, it becomes life affirming in many ways. All the songs were written by Jim Johnston but I’m sure even he would agree that they are given life by the whole of Comedy of Errors.
8 – Glass Hammer – The Breaking of the World
It could have been this studio album or the equally impressive ‘Glass Hammer – Live’, recorded at this year’s RosFest but, first, let’s get the Yes comparison out of the way, these guys do traditional progressive rock so well they have transcended that to stand in their own circle of praise. A highly impressive effort once again.
7 – Karnataka – Secrets of Angels
The first album written specifically for vocalist Hayley Griffith’s voice, a symphonic prog- rock masterpiece with towering anthems and delicate ballads concluding with the epic twenty-minute plus title track.
6 – The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether
A return to traditional progressive rock, incredibly addictive, flippant and irreverent and, well, just darn good fun!
5 – Big Big Train – Wassail (yes, I know it’s only an E.P. but I like it!!)
You can put your heroes on a pedestal to be knocked off when they don’t reach your lofty expectations but, with ‘Wassail’, Big Big Train have just enhanced their reputation as purveyors of unique and sublime progressive rock which is founded on the elemental history of this blessed isle. A history that is fundamental to the everlasting allure of this captivating group of musicians.
4 – Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah II
‘Arcade Messiah II’ takes all that was good with the first album and enhances by taking the raw, coruscating energy of the first release and developing it into a superb sound that, while holding nothing back, is full of nuances and intelligence. A ‘Wall of Sound’ that makes Phil Spector’s look like a diminutive picket fence and it is quite possibly the best thing this highly talented musician has ever produced.
3 – Maddison’s Thread – Maddison’s Thread
Folk is rooted at the core of Maddison’s Way but this album is all about the music and the way Lee can diversify with aplomb is very impressive. A contender for album of the year for me and one that will stay with me for a very long time.
2- Subsignal – The Beacons of Somewhere Sometime
See, this is why these bloody lists are only subjective. I had mine all worked out and then I listened to the fourth album from German band Subsignal and it was blown out of the water. Arisen from the ashes of the great Sieges Even, the first three albums by the band failed to really hit the heights for me. Well, all is most definitely forgiven as ‘The Beacons of Somewhere Sometime’ has just hit me right on the correct spot and elevated them to a higher level. It has a real emotional depth to it and is one that is highly, highly recommended, nearly making it to the top spot…..
1 – Riverside – Love, fear and the Time Machine
So, after a tough fight it is Polish band Riverside that take the crown this year. I have always been a fan of this band without actually loving their work. All that changed with this years beautiful release. There is a depth and maturity to this release that resonates deep to the core. The fragile, breaking vocals and signature sound have taken the band to the forefront of the progressive rock genre and, in this album, they have left behind a musical legacy of which anyone can be proud.
As the sound of the sonorous ticking of a clock fills the room, I am transported once more to a murky Sunday night in London. Downstairs in The Underworld, the lights go down, Hasse Fröberg and Musical Companion take to the stage, and those of us who are fortunate enough to be gathered there are treated to an experience of such exquisite virtuosity, passionate commitment and joyful dedication to musical expression that I doubt (and most sincerely hope) that it will ever be forgotten.
The ticking of the clock belongs to Seconds, the opening track of Fröberg’s third studio album ‘HMFC’ and signals a beguiling, measured beginning to what quickly turns out to be a frenetic, dramatic and occasionally theatrical romp through a variety of diverse styles, tempos, sounds and even genres. No less than on stage, the album is a shining testament to music which bristles with life, with energy, with a creative vitality which is utterly infectious and happily uplifting.
After a brief flirtation with a simple, airy yet enticing melodic keyboard intro, the music suddenly explodes into life as it abruptly segues into Can’t Stop the Clock (Track 2) which not only serves as a microcosm of the sheer diversity and variety which is to follow but also sets the theme which unfolds throughout the album and is reflected in or hinted at by the track titles. Time. Life time, a life lived in and through time. Though it is not a concept album per se, the theme which acts as a common thread throughout is our perceptions of time and our experiences of time.
The clock may tick a steady measured beat but the music uses this as a point of departure. Across 7.24 minutes, Can’t Stop the Clock sports numerous changes to tempo, shifting and unexpected chord progressions, grand changes in keys accompanied by stylistic flourishes and symphonic arrangements. These are magnified and explored further with no less than 3 gloriously epic tracks lasting in excess of 10 minutes each: Pages (Track 4, 15.22), In the Warmth of the Evening (Track 6, 10.42) and the magnificent Someone Else’s Fault (Track 8, 10.13) which push the boundaries of experimentation further, stutter stepping from various incarnations of melodic and symphonic rock, to jazz, to blues, to a harder rock, to almost heavy pop – effortlessly playing, literally, with time and shifting between time signatures.
Yet, despite what can almost feel like a breathless and relentless pace, the album never overwhelms. There are delicate moments of gentle subtlety and simple beauty which clearly speak of personal reflection, of pausing for thought, of the hindsight which comes with the passing of time and maybe even a hint or two of personal biography. Genius (Track 5), in particular, is profoundly moving, tributed to the life and memory of Freddie Mercury and laden with poignant sadness, fondness and appreciation. If you enjoy Queen, check out the wonderfully clever patchwork of lyrics; thoughtful, intelligent and full of care.
The band are uncompromising in what they bring to the music. Formed in 2008 with Fröberg on a break from his duties with The Flower Kings, they are impeccably tight, blending some of the highest technical precision I have ever heard with delightful touches and expressive flourishes that are at times jaw-dropping. They are a superbly tight unit who work so very well together.
Kjell Haraldsson on keyboards is an ever creative presence who provides the perfect backdrop and foil for the exceptional and inspirational lead guitar work of Anton Lindsjö. Both are indebted to the often spell-binding lines provided by Thomas Thomsson on bass who brings a delicious complexity and depth which is a delight to discern among the many musical layers. The foundations are supplied by the outstanding work of Ola Strandberg on drums, immaculate in being so aware of the mood and tone of what the others are doing and bringing just the right combination of touch and power to proceedings.
(Photo by Calle Lind)
Fröberg’s majestic guitar work binds them all together, enables the others to be so expansive whilst firmly remaining the shining light which permeates every moment of the album. His distinctive vocals are the icing on the cake, a perfect fit for the diverse array of lyrical sentiments which are in turn matched by the character and sound of the band.
Yet, even at the end, when the band have blown themselves out, when the force and energy of the music are expended, the ticking of the clock emerges again from the background and is the last thing we hear in the final track, Minutes. The implication seems to be it has been there all along. We cannot escape it; we cannot change it. We can play with and within it, but we can never step outside of it nor hope to escape it. It will always be there as the constant horizon against which life is lived.
‘HFMC’ is, to my mind at least, a stunning exemple of musical excellence and showcases how it is possible to have serious levels of fun creating progressive music which pulsates with ideas, flows with passion and demonstrates astounding levels of musicianship. Possibly one of the top releases of 2015, it quickly becomes one those albums with which you positively look forward to becoming immersed again and again. Highly recommended.
“…there’s nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else….” Brad Melzer.
The juggernaut that is mainstream music is a big, ugly bloated behemoth that just tramples all and sundry underfoot. It is a money making machine, long gone are the reasons why people created and performed music in the first place and I am saddened by this loss.
The fact that electronics are much more simple to use and cost relative pennies means that music can be worked on, mixed, mastered and changed beyond all recognition from the first notes that were written. Yes you can achieve near perfection but, surely, you are losing the heart and soul of what the artist intended?
Thankfully, every now and then, something awe-inspiring happens which restores my faith about all that is good in the music industry and, to a lesser extent, humanity in general.
Some artists can strip the music back to the bare essentials, to the core of their creativity to take part of their own soul and create something that is full of joy, sadness and, above all, wonderment.
Lets take a step back a bit to earlier this year when I first heard Lee Maddison’s gorgeous ‘Maddison’s Thread’ album. A release full of folk tales of wonderment, sadness and joy performed beautifully by the self-effacing musician. Like you do, I struck a conversation up with Lee on social media and ended up reviewing the album for this very website, which you can read here:
Now things may get convoluted here but the brilliant artist Amanda White did the rather superb album cover for this record:
And, by a stroke of luck, I already knew Amanda’s husband Howy White through his association with the Brendan Eyre and Tony Patterson ‘Northlands’ project for which he photgraphed the cover art (still with me so far?).
Both Howy and Amanda are long time supporters of Lee Maddison and have arranged a couple of small and exceedingly intimate gigs for Lee in the cellar of their Hartlepool home, imaginatively re-christened The Rabbit Hole. I was lucky enough to be invited to one of these hallowed gatherings this last weekend. Now, does it all make sense?
Howy is decidedly passionate about these little soirees and had decorated the cellar but would not let any of us go down until gig time so the 15-20 guests had a great time chatting while Lee and his fellow musicians were setting up.
Joining him on this night were acclaimed fiddle player, the ‘ever ready with a smile’ Stewart Hardy and the laconic and laid back Nigel Spaven on 5-string acoustic bass. What we were about to experience would be nothing short of life-affirming and magical……
When the word was given we all filed down the, decidedly uneven, stairs into the wonderful olde-worlde cellar which was an incredibly intimate and quite surreal setting.
A mixed selection of chairs, benches and stools had been set up for the audience and we were literally only feet away from the performers. It doesn’t get any more intimate than this.
The atmosphere was one of hushed expectation and excitement and then Lee relaxed everyone with a little quip before starting out on the first half of the set. He has a quite outstanding vocal and one that is instantly recognisable. The first song was the upbeat and whimsical One Day and got everyone in the mood, toe-tapping and clapping along. This was followed by Misty Morning Blues, an enchanting and heartfelt journey into Americana and the first of the new tracks that Lee was showcasing, a more stripped back and natural folk song entitled Charlatans and Blaggers. This was a rip-roaring sing along that really got the audience inspired and nodding along appreciatively and this mood was carried over to the first request of the night, the opening track from Lee’s first album, The Viking’s Daughter, a lilting delight of a song where the vocals really are the key and the deft skill of Stewart’s fiddle playing comes to the fore.
The absolutely mesmerising performance continued with The Country Song, another great sing-along track that just flies along and in this setting it lent a real buzz tot he proceedings, the catching, heartfelt Come The Springtime where the emotional performance brought a lump to your throat and two stunningly delivered cover songs, Tree By The River (Iron and Wine cover) and Lady Eleanor (Lindisfarne cover) where the three musicians led a merry dance through your soul. Sandwiched between these two was one of the highlights of the evening for me, the velvety loveliness of the jazz inspired Night Circus (my request actually) and it just left an utterly relaxed feel to my whole being, the hairs on the back of my neck rising from the unique experience of these matchless musicians in such an iconic venue.
The small crowd walked back up the stairs for the interval talking in hushed tones of reverence after the sublime experience we had just been party to.
Set 2 began with a great, upbeat cover of Paul Simon’sSlip Sliding Away and then Lee, Stewart and Nigel then proceeded to treat us to the sparse beauty of an utterly spellbinding version of Where Eagles Fly. Haunting and quite hypnotic, it just left me numb with admiration. This was followed by another new track Tumbleweed, a more deliberate and contemplative track that shows where Lee will be going with his new album. The enthralled audience were showing silent appreciation at the skill and artistry of the players and every track was greeted with very appreciative applause. The solemn and melancholy A Crooked Mile Home left a slight feeling of sadness in my soul but its sheer beauty just left me slack jawed.
The complete contrast of the tongue-in-cheek light and airy Making The Morning Last had us all bouncing around with its breezy and carefree delivery and Stewart’s impish fiddle playing was a joy to listen to. A delicate and poignant cover of Galway To Graceland (Richard Thompson) was followed by the biting satire of Parasiteful, a song delivered with edgy aplomb and a biting vocal and then Wonderful Day, a slight more serious track and one which really captivated the entranced audience on this night, pared back but with lustre and finesse with the ever impressive Nigel Spaven and Stewart Hardy really coming to the fore. I know it’s a cliche to say all good things must come to an end but I really could have stayed in that cellar all night listening to these peerless performers go about their work, unfortunately The Way You Shine was the last offering they had to give us. A song that never made the cut of the first Maddison’s Thread album but one that fits this special setting perfectly.
Life gets so convoluted and complicated at times that we forget that, at its simple best, it is a joy to behold. That night in Howy and Amanda’s cellar, that shall forever be known as The Rabbit Hole into perpetuity, was quite an uplifting and moving musical experience and one that shall stay with me for all my life. Music does not have to be complicated to be life-affirming and amazing and that night just emphasised this fact immensely.
All pictures are courtesy of the amazing Howy White.
“We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.” – Milan Kundera
When you have accomplished a lot of things in your life, it is sometimes worth stepping back and taking a retrospective view of what you have achieved. Not to say that what you did in the past was better but, perhaps, to say, “That was where I started, this is where I am now….”
Yes, always looking back can actually be self-defeating but only if you do not progress and use those memories to become bigger and better than what you were originally.
For musicians especially, I think it is great to re-visit some of your earlier music and remember what it was that influenced you originally and how you took those influences to improve on your sound and songwriting.
I am not advocating dragging out the old hits to produce a cash cow for retirement and the new release from Djam Karet is a perfect example. ‘Swamp of Dreams’ is a collection of older tunes that were originally only available as individual tracks on different compilation CDs and fund raiser albums, released between 1990 and 2006.
With this album, their 18th full-length release, Djam Karet are making this long-lost music available again to a much wider audience. The six tracks are sequenced chronologically with each song taking you further back in time. Re-mastered with greater clarity and increased dynamic range, it retains all that is good about the music of Djam Karet, a band who have been making music since 1984.
The first track on this release, Voodoo Chases The Muse is a funky, psychedelic fun-fest that is a musical acid trip for the mind. The driving rhythm section warps your psyche while the excellent, sharp-edged guitar work really strikes a chord. The weird 70’s edge is kept together by some distinctly freaky keyboards and you are left feeling like you are caught in someone’s feverish imagined version of what 70’s music is all about. Stoner Rock? No….. Totally Stoned Rock would be more like it….
The next step back in time is The Shattering Sky, now the band openly state that they make their music with no regard to potential radio play or commercial success and this track is a true testament to that ideal. It starts quite interesting, like a sci-fi soundtrack before some fuzzy guitar blurs the edges. Urgent and edgy, as if it is just about to flee, it gets right into the little nooks and crannys of the deepest parts of your mind. A musical mind control drug maybe as it looms ominously in your consciousness. The second part of the track sees some incredibly flexible bass playing, backed energetic drums which all adds to the psychological drama.
Using our musical TARDIS, we edge back through the years with the equally creepy Pentimento, a track with an utterly otherworldy feel to it. If you told me that this was a song that was intended for use on the soundtrack for 2001 : A Space Odussey, I wouldn’t be surprised. It sits in the back of your mind, influencing your thoughts with tribal-like percussion and convoluted guitars. You never quite feel comfortable with the music, it is like something darkly dangerous, like a fix you know you shouldn’t take but need nonetheless. Let’s just say it is very ‘out there’, the undulating beat and heavy, portentous rhythm are quite hypnotic and trance-like in their execution.
Heading further back through the eons we arrive at New Light On The Dark Age, which begins with a slight note of alien dissonance. Another mysterious journey to the deepest recesses of your inner soul. This is a slow burning, deliberate voyage with sequencer driven rhythms and leaves you holding your breath, your heart hammering in your chest as you wonder what awaits around the next corner. With an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Krautrock and Stoner Rock, it opens up into a much more composed mind-set, as if the destination is more paradise than hell-hole.
With the musical treadmill still in reverse Inventions of the Monsters begins with a feel of being lost in a prehistoric jungle, surrounded by fabulous, incredible creatures that you only thought existed in your mind. It is a hesitant, ominous atmosphere, as if you are the alien and your surroundings are foreign to you. You feel at a disadvantage, uncertain as the brooding music washes over you. As you step cautiously through the menacing synthesised sounds, a huge sense of foreboding descends upon you. I let out a nervous laugh when the sound of cat emerges from the speakers and it doesn’t sound like a happy feline either. This song is spine chillingly spooky in deliciously eerie manner, don’t turn the lights out whatever you do, I did warn you…..
Our travails in the H.G Wells time machine reach their end with the title track Swamp of Dreams and it feels like a nostalgic track, mysterious, supernatural and uncanny. I’m sure this so-called ‘Time Machine’ has dropped us bang in the middle of an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’, are we now Number 6 ? Unique and quite single minded, it really does have a feel of something totally experimental before it opens up into a funky 80’s style instrumental with jangling guitars, spaced-out synths and one of the best basslines you’ll hear in many a year. It has a more sparse, natural feel to it than the previous tracks, perhaps due to it being the earliest track on the album and yet it is still distinctly Djam Karet with the wailing guitar solo and analog synthesisers and is a fine way to close this retrospective.
I have been a fan of Djam Karet for a while now, their deeply felt commitment and uncompromising vision do not make for music that will appeal to everyone and, to be honest, they don’t care. Their critical acclaim and long time cult following prefer this ‘in your face’ attitude and I’d include myself in that. What they do is make brilliant, spaced-out, psychedelic music that could only come from Djam Karet and ‘Swamp of Dreams’ is a perfect example of their skill and flair. Take the inflexible and obstinate route and you may find that you’ll love it too!
2015 has been a retrospective year for Opeth. Their 25th anniversary tour was celebrated by adding a full performance of the 2005 album ‘Ghost Reveries’ in addition to their regular ‘Pale Communion’ set and the year closes out with a deluxe remixed reissue of their classic albums ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Damnation’.
Two albums that were recorded during the same sessions and intended for release together, but their record label at the time (Music For Nations) split them up and issued them 6 months apart. This reissue fixes that mistake and the new mixes from Steven Wilson (‘Damnation’) and Bruce Soord (‘Deliverance’) offer up a fresh perspective on this material, which was so important to the evolution of the band and what they’ve been able to accomplish in the ensuing years.
The creation of this double album was far from a painless process however…
Opeth was coming off their breakthrough release ‘Blackwater Park’, an album that finally opened the doors to the US market so expectations were very high. Mikael Akerfeldt remarks in the liner notes: “I remember that even though I was determined to write the heaviest record to date, I kept coming up with these beautiful snippets of acoustic music. It was disturbing. My muse wasn’t cooperating. Where’s the fucking metal?”
Mikael’s best friend Jonas Renkse (Katatonia) suggested that the answer was to record two albums; one heavy, one softer. Mikael latched onto the idea immediately but their record label took some convincing. The only way the label would agree to a double album was if the record only counted as a single release against their contract and if they recorded it in the same amount of time and on the same budget as a single release.
Despite only having three completed songs ready and a month to record the entire project, Mikael dove into writing and recording on the fly, often staying up all night writing and then recording the next day. To add to the stress of the situation, the first studio they booked was not well maintained and frequent equipment breakdowns quickly put them behind schedule.
They soldiered on, changed studios and completed recording of the basic tracks, but Mikael was utterly exhausted and called on his friend Steven Wilson (who had co-produced ‘Blackwater Park’) to assist them with finishing the project. Wilson would help to put the finishing touches on the ‘Deliverance’ half and then him and Mikael worked together to craft ‘Damnation’.
Steven contributed keyboards and backing vocals for both albums in addition to writing the lyrics for the song Death Whispered A Lullaby.
“Deliverance was always meant to be a dark and heavy record. I can’t remember why I wanted it to be, to be honest. At the time of writing the songs, I wasn’t listening to any music like that. I only played soft singer/songwriter stuff or progressive rock.
I can’t remember listening to any extreme forms of metal at all. In retrospect, I think I might have been afraid of losing touch with the form of music that had shaped the band in the first place.” – Mikael Akerfeldt
Based on the finished result, any fears Mikael may have had about losing touch with their heavy side were utterly unfounded. ‘Deliverance’ is one of their heaviest and most intense records; probably made even more so by the stressful circumstances that birthed it. It’s the perfect mirror image to ‘Damnation’; the stylistic breadth of Opeth’s ‘from a whisper to a scream’ approach on full display.
‘Deliverance’ is a fairly uncompromising listen for the most part, but it also contains many moments of beauty and progressive rock sophistication. A Fair Judgment is my personal favorite track from these sessions, a multi-layered epic that begins with Steven Wilson’s plaintive solo piano intro and then ebbs and flows in dramatic intensity for the remaining 9 minutes. Mikael sticks to his clean voice throughout (at this stage getting more assured with each album) and the song also features some fine guitar solos and a nice doomy outro.
The title track deserves special mention as well as it’s arguably the best prog-metal arrangement in their discography. If I could only pick one song to demonstrate their breadth of sound it would be this one. Military-precision death metal and delicate acoustic passages flow effortlessly into one another creating dramatic tension and release throughout the 13 ½ minute composition. The wonderfully hypnotic repeated rhythmic figure during the ending segment is thrilling, I can think of few bands that could pull it off. It may be a cliché but this song is definitely a jaw-dropper.
Bruce Soord’s meaty remix of the album really brings out the dynamics of the original recording and is quite different in character to the original mix. The most noticeable difference is in the drums and the low end. Bruce removed the triggered “clicks” on the kick drums that were omnipresent during that era and that suddenly allows the bottom end to breathe, the kicks now push massive amounts of air. The original mix had very little low-end definition, now it will rattle the rafters.
He has also used a wider stereo spread and more three-dimensional positioning of the vocal tracks and lead and acoustic guitar parts, giving the entire album increased depth and presence. While it’s still a fairly compressed sounding recording this version is a dramatic overall improvement and sounds fantastic in the 24bit/96khz stereo mix on the DVD. It can be cranked loudly with no discernable distortion.
“Damnation” is a happier memory, even if it really shouldn’t be, as its writing and recording was almost equally difficult. I guess it was a more interesting album to make, since the music/direction/everything else about Opeth was moving and progressing in actual real time. In the same pace as the music was created. Quite odd, when you think about it now.” – Mikael Akerfeldt
It’s going to sound like hyperbole but I honestly believe ‘Damnation’ is one of the most unique and beautiful albums of the past decade. Opening track Windowpane was my first exposure to Opeth and it just sounded utterly timeless and classic from that very first listen. It’s not often that I hear a single song that starts an obsession, but that’s exactly what happened in this case.
‘Damnation’ is 44 minutes of melodic progressive rock perfection, one that acknowledges Mikael’s many musical influences while still sounding unmistakably like Opeth. The band responds brilliantly to the new challenges introduced by these arrangements and each member puts in a career-best performance. Special mention goes to Martin Mendez (bass) and Martin Lopez (drums) for their deft rhythm section work, I can think of few metal bands that could so convincingly alternate from the delicate swing of a track like To Rid The Disease to the full-on metallic assault of Master’s Apprentices.
Steven Wilson provides an array of classic prog keyboard sounds to the recording and would inspire Mikael to expand Opeth’s lineup to feature a full-time keyboardist from this point forward.
Steven Wilson’s remix stays true to the character of his original mix from 2002 while bringing out even more depth and detail to the intricate arrangements. It’s not quite as dramatic of an improvement as ‘Deliverance’, but ‘Damnation’ was a good sounding album to begin with; now it sounds phenomenal. It’s an essential upgrade.
Being able to experience both of these albums together, as they were intended, really helps illustrate what an important stylistic step they were for the band. ‘Damnation’ allowed Mikael to fully explore his progressive rock side without being restricted by stylistic concerns and that freedom carried onto his writing on subsequent albums. ‘Deliverance’ would simultaneously close one chapter of their career (the 4-piece lineup) while pointing toward the expanded creative direction they would follow on ‘Ghost Reveries’, ‘Watershed’ and beyond.
For a deeper understanding of this material and the circumstances surrounding the recording sessions I highly recommend picking up the DVD set ‘Lamentations’.It features a documentary film made during the recording of the albums with interviews of the band and Steven Wilson. The concert recording features 2 sets, the first set including the entire ‘Damnation’ album and the second set featuring tracks from ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Blackwater’ Park. The concert was filmed at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003.
We welcome another new face the massed ranks of Progradar guest reviewers, please say hello to Kevin Thompson and his review of Thieves’ Kitchen.
We used to have a saying when I was in the RAF, never volunteer for anything. So here I am, having volunteered to review ‘The Clockwork Universe’ by Thieves’ Kitchen.
Thieves’ Kitchen are a band based in Swindon and Stockholm,who have been making progressive music since 1999. Their creative core is vocalist Amy Darby, guitarist Phil Mercy and keyboard player Thomas Johnson. They welcome a new bassist to the team, Johan Brand of Swedish progressive rock legends Änglagård, for this latest album.
Joining them on this release are friends and previous collaborators: flautist Anna Holmgren (of Änglagård) and drummer Paul Mallyon (formerly of SanguineHum) . The album was written and recorded in England and Sweden, and mixed and mastered by Rob Aubrey at Aubitt Studios (IQ, Asia, Big Big Train).
This is their Sixth release, having recorded five critically acclaimed albums previously, of which I must confess, have not heard any.
The band’s sound has elements of Canterbury, Folk, Fusion, Symphonic, Jazz, and Rock, producing music which, whilst adventurous, retains a familiarity. Melodic and intricate, blending both English and Swedish flavours.
The band say this is an album exploring the human experience of a complex world and these are songs about people whose experience brings them into contact with a universe of science and learning, whether as a child (Prodigy), a neglected spouse (The Scientist’s Wife), young lovers (Library Song) or as a bystander confronted with the inexorable progress of industrialisation (Railway Time). There are also two instrumental arrangements (Astrolabe and Orrery) .
Before we drill down to the ‘Nitty Gritty’ of individual tracks, can I just state this is my first ever full review of an album, for any publication and for me it is a trial by fire as, on first listen, it was not to my taste and, despite further consideration, not all the tracks float my boat. So I will try to be as objective and unbiased as possible in this review, remember this is only my opinion.
Track 1 – Library Song: Opens with some mournful guitar and slow Jazz style keyboards that increase in pace, ushering in the vocals of Amy Darby. The backing arrangement increases in complexity and I profess to enjoying some of the guitar work, and there is plenty of Steely Dan type keyboards leading to a climatic finale, but overall this it does not leave a mark on my register. I would have liked to have heard a little more excitement in the vocals as they seem too laid back and drag the track down and not the best introduction to an album.
Track 2 – Railway Time: Relaxed Keyboard intro,quickly increasing to a funky 70’s style Rock tempo, reminiscent in my mind of Rod Argent. Amy’s vocals seem better suited to this track. There is a short pleasant flute interlude which then weaves into the mix, along with the subject matter pushing this toward Big Big Train territory, which also seem to reflect in the lyrics. I also prefer the keyboard arrangements on this, to those on Library Song which, along with a flautist flourish, bring the second track to a close. I have grown to like this track more with each listen.
Track 3 – Astrolabe: The first of two instrumentals on the album and one of my favourite tracks. This has a beautiful piano which is joined by some rather nice complementary guitar. Poignant and delightful, the length giving it the feel of an interlude, which I would have liked to have lasted a little longer.
Track 4 – Prodigy: A rocky, Hammond organ style start to this which eases off to a flowing melody, once again introducing the flute which adds a touch of ‘Englishness’ to the song along with Folk and Canterbury scene elements. Amy’s vocal range is expanded a little more on this, making an entrance a third of the way through the track, but again not to my taste. The lyrics and keyboards seem quite reflective of earlier Genesis in places with this track coming to quite an abrupt end. There are parts of this that appeal, but not the sum of the whole.
Track 5 – The Scientist’s Wife: A more memorable, looping keyboard lead-in, dancing with Hammond and guitar to a good rhythm. Again some of the guitar solo flourishes sound rather good. This is the longest track and changes tempo after the first few minutes with some nice, Steve Hackett/ Anthony Phillips gentle style guitar slowing it down, to be accompanied by Amy’s floating vocals which seem more in keeping with the majority of the music on this track.
The vocal harmonising adds a more pleasant contrast and once more the flute solos play a part, lifting the track. This is one that appears to have a memorable chorus that sticks in my head a little, unfortunately the vocals on the chorus seem to echo what I don’t like in Amy’s voice, though I find it difficult to pinpoint.
Two thirds of the way through and the track rocks out a little more, the guitar and drums being let off the leash for an instrumental passage with the short interspersed vocal from Amy. It all quietens down to varied types of keyboards blended together and then the vocals return. The flute enters with some nice string arrangements and keys, to ease us into a gentle finish. Again, parts of this I like, but not the whole.
Track 6 – Orrery: Simple piano notes and what sounds like the ticking of an old clock are joined by the flute and guitar for the start of the second instrumental, and final, track of the album. (The title of this is the name given to working Solar System models). String arrangements are introduced giving it an airy feel as if watching birds in flight and is an excellent way to close, I only wish it was longer.
In summary there are tracks on ‘The Clockwork Universe’ that I would happily listen to again and some I would not. Competent musicianship flows throughout and the professionalism of the the band cannot be faulted. Amy has a relaxed, gentle vocal style along the lines of Joni Mitchell, but it doesn’t excite me and, in places, niggles. But then, I am not one to listen to Joni on a regular basis either. For me the two shorter, instrumentals with their, wistful arrangements are the best tracks and I would have been happy to hear more along these lines.
After releasing the excellent ‘One Among the Many’ (2010) and the superlative ‘The World is a Game’ (2012), expectations are rightly high for ‘Delusion Rain’, the fifth studio album from Canadian band Mystery. In the intervening years, ex-Yes front man Benoît David, lead vocalist since 1999, made the difficult decision to step down and take a break from music after touring with the band in 2013 (captured on the wonderful live recording ‘Tales from the Netherlands’). His replacement for this new release, Jean Pageau, first joined the band on tour in 2014 before heading to the studio to work on the new album.
Pageau is an absolutely inspired replacement and instantly brings a voice which is more authoritative, pronounced and assured whilst capable of the same sweeping range and delicate nuanced subtleties. Indeed, it is precisely the sensitive responsiveness of his voice which makes him a perfect fit for the unmistakable Mystery ‘sound’, bringing extra depth and expressiveness whilst also pushing the boundaries further to create the most expansive vocal orchestrations and layered harmonies which swiftly become a trademark feature of this new release.
Pageau’s distinctive infusion seems to bring a new lease of life to band leader Michel St-Père who, supported on guitars by Sylvain Moineau, finds much greater freedom to mirror his vocalist’s assertiveness in providing a strong bedrock of power chords mixed with acoustic cadences whilst at the same time innovating through soaring and melancholic riffs which are as magical and as forceful as they are fleeting.
Yet ‘Delusion Rain’ also brings much more clarity and depth to the musicianship than is apparent in previous releases, due primarily to St-Père’s excellent production. Benoit Dupuis on keyboards is allowed to provide a rich and enhancing atmosphere within which both vocals and guitars are nested, the sound sumptuous, enveloping without ever becoming suffocating. François Fournier on bass is superb and for the very first time we can really hear a dynamism and a bite which supplies an extra and most welcome dimension to the recording. Jean-Sébastien Goyette on drums is a strong and driving heartbeat which pulses throughout each track, keeping things fresh with changing tempos and some lovely teasing cymbal work whilst always ensuring a disciplined and at times dramatic mastery that keeps the band true to the themes and the lyrics.
The album also sees contributions from Antoine Michaud (Monochrome Seasons), touring guitarist with the band, and Sylvain Descoteaux (Huis) on piano. Add into the mix Pageau’s ephemeral flute playing on A Song for You (Track 6) and some occasional keyboards as well and you get the sense that ‘Delusion Rain’ marks quite a significant point in the history and development of the band where they finally have the pieces in place to be able to push on and really do full justice to the adventurous musical project that is Mystery.
As such this album excels in two respects. On the one the hand, it consolidates, tightens and defines the signature sound of the band, and does so with style and panache. The first three tracks, Delusion Rain, If You See Her and The Last Glass of Wine are beautifully refined statements of musical intent and it is easy to see these quickly becoming audience favourites on any set-list. The music is rich, lush, sweeping in scope and embracing in the way it engages the listener. There are anthemic choruses and soulful refrains combined with lyrical intensity.
On the other hand, the final three tracks show us the true promise of what Mystery can become. The band have always been at their very best when the focus is on extended song-writing, telling stories through their music and producing the kind of epic ballads which are a wonderful showcase for both their exceptional talents as well as their innovative creativity.
‘One Among the Living’ gave us the fabulous Through Different Eyes, weighing in at a spectacular 20+ minutes and pushing the boundaries of scintillating and adventurous musical creativity. ‘The World is a Game’ gave us Another Day, 19 minutes of complex and hugely enjoyable instrumental invention and inspiration.
‘Delusion Rain’ suddenly comes alive with The Willow Tree (Track 4), 20 minutes of utterly spectacular writing which transports you through changing musical landscapes and shifting emotional horizons to reach creative heights that are wonderful and exhausting. Wall Street King extends this incredible vision, increasing the intensity, adding layers of forcefulness but at around the 4.30 mark releasing it all in staggering waves of glorious guitar work. A Song For You brings the album to a pulsating close, the instrumental work fabulously delivering a rousing and climactic finale which leaves you wanting more and yearning with anticipation for what the next release will hopefully bring.
This album has certainly been well worth the wait. In particular, what Mystery have achieved here is something highly significant: they have simultaneously consolidated and confirmed their excellence in musical skill, virtuosity and lyrical brilliance whilst at the same time pushing much further than in any other previous release the scope and ambition of the band’s musical vision and reach.
‘Delusion Rain’ gives us a tantalising taste of genuinely cutting edge progressive music from a band who are willing to create, innovate and really push the boundaries of what they want to do and where they want to take us as a result. In the process, they may have created a rod for their own backs by setting the bar even higher for the next instalment on this wonderful journey.
“From Classical tales of Jason and Odysseus to cinema blockbusters via Norse sagas, Hesse and Tolkien, the ‘Hero’s Quest’ is a staple of mythology and literature. A voyage of self-discovery A Rite of Passage.”
So says the bandcamp page of Gordon Midgely’s solo project. He and NathanTillet form Napiers Bone’s whose two albums ‘The Wistman Tales’ and ‘Tregeagles Choice’ are also freely available on bandcamp. The pros and cons of an artist giving their music away is not what we are here to discuss but I must say it is a brave strategy for two aspiring talents.
To the Album then; a truly ambitious project in its intent to capture in one album the essentials of the classical rite of passage story in music. Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ spans 15 hours yet this album condenses the mythological concept of the heroes quest in under 45 minutes. I tried listening to this album piece meal in the car and also as a single chunk, giving it the attention any music reviewer should give to an album.
It plays like a film sound track and its very hard to disconnect the individual sections of music. In the main, it is instrumental with vocals, as and when required, for accompaniment. Weaknesses, in the main, are not in the actual composition but in the delivery and production.
The drums sit high in Like Circe’s Feast and Out of the Wilderness and fill the rest of the soundscape out, making it difficult to really listen to the actually excellent guitar and retro keyboard work on show (yes, Mellotron). I am assuming this is a technological issue rather than anything else.
The music, without actually sounding anything like it, makes me think of Bo Hanssen’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ album in the textures and feelings it emotes.
There are bits I really enjoy, like Ronin, which I can only assume to be a nod to Japanese free fighters who are only loyal to any cause they choose. In this case, the companion to our hero. The track exudes the potential for violence constantly restrained but sometimes out of control. We follow the journey of our hero, his dalliances with love, and the inevitable Nemesis as it comes to the final battle and resolution (no spoilers).
The music comes from all sorts of influences, I hear 60s psychedelia ‘Berlin School Electronica Prog’ from all eras and some cracking rock music.
The final track The End of the Beginning is by far the best piece of the album and showcases the real potential waiting to burst free from this guy’s mind. My only criticism really, apart from what I said earlier, is that there is not enough here. I would have liked to have heard all the sections explored in the same way as Ronin and the End Of the Beginning.
As a freebie you cannot turn this down. Gordon, I think you missed a trick by not doing a pay what you want tag on the album. I reckon you should download this, light a couple of candles, put the head phones on, with a glass of whatever your fancy and let the music wash over you! A 45 minute cleansing of the soul. While you are at it, look for the Napier’s Bones material!!!