Whenever I get a new album through to review from the great guys at Progradar and Bad Elephant Music I tend to download it onto my phone and put the headphones on to listen whilst I walk my dog in the morning. It’s a time, as the world around us comes to life, for reflection and to empty troubles and worries from the previous days and prepare for whatever is going to be thrown at us. And it’s a time when I can drift off to wherever the music I’m listening takes me, thinking about the images and feelings that are inspired and where I draft, in my head, these reviews I write.
This morning’s walk with Mungo was an enriching experience as the debut solo release, ‘Suite for Piano and Electronics’ by Matt Baber created an ambience that complemented our early morning enjoyment of the countryside around our home in North Oxfordshire. Baber, with reference to his influences such as Steve Reich and Keith Emerson, is a pianist and keyboard player of some sublime skill; the music he creates has a simple beauty and flow that is evocative and moving. It is not easy to categorise this music, as Baber himself says in Bad Elephant Music’s press release, but it’s all the better for that, this is music that gives the listener the scope with which to enjoy it how they wish.
When I was a kid I used to be inflicted, by my dad on Sunday morning’s, with easy listening piano ‘lift’ muzak from the likes of Richard Clayderman and that gave me a distrust of anything piano based. However, in recent years, I have found a new love for this instrument through the work of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Tony Turrell who have both released fabulous albums of piano playing. Baber’s album fits neatly into that new love I have.
As I walked across the fields in the early morning with my dog, two contrasting pieces of music came to my mind. Firstly, the work of the likes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, pieces of work very much inspired by the environment around them with Baber’s suite having the feel, if not necessarily the style, of something quintessentially English in its backbone. The second point of reference for me, and which is the highest compliment I can pay Baber, is that, once I finished this album, the piece of music I needed to listen too was the theme from the film, Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s hauntingly beautiful piece. The lifts and drops in style and tempo on this album create that same beautifully evocative wonder as Sakamoto’s masterpiece, it truly is that good.
Matt Baber has created here an album that is, as Bad Elephant’sDavid Elliott says, ‘…intelligent and melodic stuff, easy to fall in love with.’ I certainly did, I’m sure people who take the time to listen to this will do too. Put it on your headphones, take yourself and your dog, if you have one, for a long, long walk in the fields and countryside and immerse yourself in the beauty around you and in your ears.
Pop music often gets a bad press; often because it is thought of as being bland, uninspiring and repetitive, and often with good cause. However, pop music can be anything but those criticisms with brilliant melodies, lush production and funny and quirky lyrics. Right from the moment Brian Wilson created ‘Pet Sounds’ in 1967, through Bowie’s many different reincarnations in the 70’s and 80’s and via the melodic cleverness of The Smiths, The Teardrop Explodes and World Party, pop music can offer moments of greatness and genius.
Fitting into that roster of clever pop influenced music is the latest release from Leo Koperdraat and Frank Urbaniak, better known as Fractal Mirror, ‘Close to Vapour’. The album has ten tracks that soar and grow with an ebb and flow, a gentle build to heights of dreaminess, and which take the listener deep into the stories being told. With production by Brett Kull of Echolyn, the band has created an album of outstandingly tuneful and clever songs that deserves the high plaudits that will surely come its way.
If I was to make a small criticism it would only be that the lead vocals will take a bit of getting used to. Leo has a slightly nasally style that, whilst not being a huge problem, does surprise and even disconcert, but only until you get used to his sound. Once the initial impressions have receded the idiosyncratic nature of the delivery adds to the depth and multi-faceted sculpture of the album.
Being released on Bad Elephant Records in the first quarter of 2018 this album is one of the highlights of the year so far. Also featuring guest appearances from original member Ed Van Haagen, Tom Doncourt and producer Brett Kull, this album will entrance and beguile the listener with its superior pop melodies. I urge you to search this album out for all the rewards it will give you.
Just recently I have picked up on the Channel Four series of Philip K.Dick stories, Electric Dreams, in which dystopian nightmares are played out in mainly normal humdrum situations with a fear of foreboding dread building to a crescendo. Likewise, the third studio album from instrumental band The Fierce and The Dead, titled ‘The Euphoric’, is one that builds and builds, working around a juxtaposition of beautifully crafted melodies driven by crashing, hard driven and downtuned guitar riffs. A major compliment I can pay the album is that should channel four make another series of Electric Dreams this is the band and album that should soundtrack it.
Over the last eight years since their debut release, the ‘Part 1 EP’, The Fierce and The Dead have developed their craft, adding layering and texture to their already formidable playing and production skills. Using their influences whilst retaining their individuality is an enviable skill; one which is often not pulled off but, in the case of this album, most certainly is. You can hear throughout the album the influences of the musicians the band have worked with or obviously admire; from the hardcore metal of bands such as Slayer to the melodic tune creation of a Steven Wilson, The Fierce and The Dead have made an album of deep complexity whilst retaining a simplicity within the riff structure that drives the album on and doesn’t allow it to become samey or repetitive.
The two lead singles from the album are both standouts with the already successful, with accompanying video by acclaimed director Mark Duffy, Truck being followed by, on the 30th March, 1991. Both tracks show off the sound which you can expect from the album with their heavy psychedelia and cross over between guitars and synths being indicative of the direction the band have taken. The band are happy to confound, confuse and surprise in composition and performance which makes this album a fulfilling and satisfying listen.
The album, which is released on the 18th May by Bad Elephant Records, featuring amazing cover art work by Mark Buckingham, will be available in both CD and Vinyl formats. There will also be available limited edition bundles featuring a print of the cover artwork and an exclusive bonus CD of live and demo tracks.
‘Balinesegender wayang’, three words that don’t spring to mind, even to the most ardent musicologist let alone this enthusiastic amateur reviewer, but that is the instrument of choice of Nick Gray,the main driver of this project, along with Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld,Mediaeval Baebes) and Rob Shipster (MatchMusic), latterly joined by Roxanne Aisthorpe as a guest vocalist and now a full member.
A Balinese gender wayang (mainly because I wanted to know what one looked like.)
In the current climate of “Is it Prog-gate?” I am loathe to categorise this album in any shape or form mainly because it does defy pigeonholing and I do not want to get involved in a pointless debate.
To the music; Nick lectures in South East Asian music and this is a central pillar of the album with a very western twist. Percussion and rhythm sit front and centre in the whole album, as you would expect. Equally there is nothing traditional in the structure and form of the album, despite there being 7 tracks, it flows from beginning to end in complete connectivity.
Always with Youopens with beeps and tones going into an insistent rhythmic drive (from the said gender wayang) that gives an electronic dance music feel but not a 4/4 120BPM time signature. Roxanne gives a Rock In Opposition vocal performance, counterpointing the music beautifully. If it ran to 4 minutes then Radio One and the like would be all over this like a Bee is to nectar, but it runs to 10 minutes plus without repetition or tedium. This track sits very well in the current cadre of intelligent music coming from leftfield with no genre to call their own or willing to claim them. Her voice reminds me much of Mishkin Fitzgerald of Birdeatsbaby in tone and quality.
Free Of Stars takes me immediately back to my student daze (sorry, ‘days’) in the early 80s in Manchester. This is not because it sounds like the music of the time but because I spent much time in places like “The Band on The Wall” watching some of the dub reggae and toasting sessions with the sound systems of the time. The heavy off beat bass line that is distorted in Dub style drifts through the track completely filling the sound,giving the sub woofer a great work out and it wipes out a few cobwebs in the process.
Dropping straight into Coming Down Again, a discordant violin and warped keyboard with Nick (I think) on vocals along with a sitar solo and, again, the east Asian percussion give this a unique feel and a sense of otherworldliness. Which I’m sure is the intention given the title.
Skipping a few tracks on, as I prefer to give a flavour rather than a blow by blow view letting interested parties find something to discover in this delightful album, we come to Circle of Light, which is very much the closest to western song structure and something that I can give potential purchasers a comparator to act as a frame of reference. If you own a copy of ‘Live Herald’ by Steve Hillage then add what he is up to these days with System 7 and then you will be close. I can see a remix of this working fantastically in the likes of Creamfields or, for the older ones among us, Tribal Gathering. It is trancy, danceable and contagious in a good way.
The album closes out with Dub of Starswhich, as the advert says, does exactly what it says on the tin. Wide open spacey and full of huge bass and Dub “echoiness”, this is 2.00am crank the volume up bassiness to annoy the neighbours and have a groove to music. I defy anyone not to move to the rhythm of this song as they listen to it.
Now this is not music for the unadventurous, if you are a pastoral classical western music fan with a love of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, and instrumental close mentality, then maybe avoid it but you will miss out on something rather special. Fans of Gong, both the Daevid Allen and Pierre Moerlen versions, Firefly Burning, Steve Hillage, World music, Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush you will get something from this album. Bad Elephant Music is more and more becoming a beacon for quality, whether you like the output or not; there is no argument about that in my eyes. This album has that quality and its rich layered multi-instrumental structure dares to explore places that few are looking. However it remains accessible and not even vaguely in the ‘difficult to listen to’ box.
There follows a transcript smuggled out from under the noses of our Chicken overlords, we have been unable to verify the authenticity of the document, or indeed what happened to the brave rebel who made this recording but we can only hope he is safe, Mubla praise him.
‘Is this on…..can you hear me? Can you hear me? As you all know they rose up suddenly, whilst we were all distracted by Brexit, Trump and Armageddon, we were too busy worrying about ourselves to notice the chickens….then, they there were, they hadn’t just crossed the road, they’d built a nice big tunnel, snuck into the army bases around the world, and as we were reeling from the aftermath of the big red spark, there they were, our new overlords.
Luckily there were few with foresight, those who knew about the upcoming uprising, and the wisest of them all, some called him a seer, some a mad man, some called the twiceborn moth, all we know is he is called the Wizard Ramsay, and with his coterie around him, and a set of tantalising clues and lessons, spread throughout the world, our journey has led us here.
Who are we? You ask, well we are the resistance, following the orders of the one known only as the Great Elephant, and now…well now I am the only one left, I can’t get the image of Brother Godfrey, sitting in his tree getting pecked slowly to death by a thousand chickens as he pledged allegiance to the ducks, or Brother Stevens, the hero of the battle of Rushden, he riffed and looped, fierce to the death.
Now I remain, and I have found what I was looking for, the mystical artefact, the legendary disc of words, we cannot fight them by force alone, we need something new, something to confound and disturb them.
(silence. The voice goes dead…all we can hear is hissing and the sound of claws scraping on rock…)
‘….they’ve gone, that was close, that was a bantam attack, as everyone knows they are the SAS of the chicken army, where was I?
Oh yes, following the instructions on the sheet hidden by one of the Elephant sympathisers, (a gentleman only known as Wizard Wilfred) I have found the Black Box…. (what’s in the Black Box? It’s definitely not chocolates) I have it, the CD in my hand, despite the Chicken overlords banning CD players due to them not being able to operate them with claws, luckily the mysterious man of the resistance known only as Wallet Emptier, managed to provide me with one, wrapped up in the tattered remnants of a wizards sleeve.
(sounds of cellophane being ripped, the unmistakable sound of a CD being inserted into the device, and the words of the beloved Wizard Ramsay, a Gandalf for these modern dark times echo round the chamber? Cavern? Sewer?)
Almost as if he predicted it, the first utterance from the disc of Ramsay is a Living Will, full of intensity and power, as if he knew this day would come.
Scattered throughout the sacred artefact are four lessons that will help ensure the survival of our species, all starting with the phrase ‘Ecoute et Repete’ the motto of the resistance, each one being a salutary lesson before the public service broadcasting begins.
Urging the survivors to Open a Hole, someone to survive in? somewhere to take shelter? I am reminded of the sage Moorcock as he told his tales with and without his Hawkwind compatriots, the joy of hearing music after so many months of solitary wandering makes me all giddy and euphoric, the beat hypnotic, the lyrics hitting me, and the sonic effect making up for hearing nothing but the sound of clucking and the cracking of whips as the Chickens made us build statues in their honour.
Almost like he forgot the tape was running we get some behind the scenes action from the Ramsay world, as he is interrupted by Wizard Wilfred, clearly the junior partner, and also, judging by the mishap heard here, still has a long way to go before he is as adept as Wizard Ramsay.
Almost as a warning to our hubris and our downfall, Ego Power gives us strong words for uncertain times, whilst channelling the spirit of whimsy, Stanshall and the cult of Python, Tramps In Their Purest Form is a joy to behold, Ramsay’s use of our language is bewitching and beguiling, and takes me back to the night he and the Brother Godfrey got me heroically drunk on Big Big Train beer at a concert in Rotherham, oh how I wish those days were here again.
I raise an imaginary tankard to fallen comrades, as I listen and take heed to the message, we are members of the Black Box Society, and the final victory will be ours. Hidden in plain sight, Hawaii Fried Chicken, ostensibly an alternative version of the Chicken national anthem, are words designed to inspire and enlighten us. When we hear one particular cluck, that is when the revolution will begin, and we shall be victorious, with the Wizard Ramsay leading us to salvation.
If I Rule the World is his vision of our post Hen utopia, a land where we can be free, where we can live like we should, where we can sit in trees naked outside peoples houses if we want to and no-one can stop us (not even that pesky restraining order).
Urban Crusoe, with it’s baffling co-ordinates and Egyptian references, maybe this is Ramsay telling me where I should go next, where I can find the final answer and help the resistance rise, and batter these chicken.
I will follow them…these words of wisdom, and see where they will take me…….’
Transcribers note: this tape was found wrapped in an old t-shirt, under a rock behind a dumpster near a KFC with the CD intact. It is unknown as to what happened to the brave member of the resistance who followed the clues laid down the Elephant to discover this. He did the work so we didn’t have to. Having played it I can safely say that now our chicken overlords have been defeated, this is the work of either a genius or madman or both. Channelling the spirit of Stanshall, Monty Python and old school English surrealism and word play, Wizard Ramsay has created a unique form of Magick, and one that keeps hitting the spot.
Brother ape happily portray their scintillating seventh studio album ‘Karma’ as being “the result of their current point of evolution”. It’s an astute comment which casts a revealing light on the ways in which the band have been developing across the four years since the release of the pulsating ‘Force Majeure’ in 2014.
‘Karma’ is, in many ways, a work of and in progress and clearly reflects the exciting and eager music of a working band who have spent the last few years playing festivals, clubs and gigs across their native Sweden. As a prelude to the creation of the new album they released three digital EP’s in 2015 (‘Worlds Waiting….’), early 2016 (‘Mandrill Anthem and Other Stories’) and again in late 2016 (‘First Class’). The best tracks from these releases became the ‘seeds’ which form the bedrock of ‘Karma’ alongside the composition of new songs and material.
The approach certainly pays clear dividends in giving us an album which is beautifully rich in the diversity of musical styles and moods it presents. The energy and vitality which naturally accrues from playing live on stage is effortlessly transferred to the ways the songs are written and performed. As you listen to the album you can both hear and feel the progression and the increasing refinement in the spirit and vibrancy of their playing.
There is an admirable openness to the influences they have heard and how these have become incorporated and creatively infused into the writing process. Much like dipping your toe into a flowing river again and again, each song is a carefully crafted and thoughtfully nuanced snap shot of a time, a place, a mood, a feeling. The album becomes a fascinating collection of musical ‘postcards’ assembled by a band who are intent on probing the boundaries of musical imagination.
This ever inquisitive openness creates a willingness to play, to experiment, to literally explore wherever the mood takes them. The band openly confess they are deeply committed to the idea of “always making music that trigger us at the moment independently of what musical orientation it has.” And in this respect, ‘Karma’ is an arresting showcase of the glorious spirit of innovation which is not afraid to traverse or find inspiration in impressively wide varieties of musical genres and techniques. Combined with the commanding sense of presence and energy acquired from live performing as well as the novel expressiveness they bring to the each song, the album really is a remarkable testament to their current point of evolution.
The album opens and closes with two blistering, signature Brother Ape tracks that are fiery statements of intent. Oblivion (Track 1) is a wonderful fusion of rock, jazz and mesmerising time signatures full of attitude and youthful defiance. The title track Karma(Track 8) begins with the same provocative and challenging power before giving way to tranquil orchestral interludes which in turn lead to a throbbing Amazonian passage of drumming overlayed with a triumphant vocal refrain.
But the mood instantly changes with the sublime If I Could (Track 2), the purity of the crystal clear vocal work, carrying a slight echo, riding an assured symphonic tide of cinematically light orchestral arrangements. The mood is picked up again in Don’t Stand At My Grave And Cry (Track 5), championed again by the most delightful vocal resonance but this time supported by an almost trance-style sampling with almost Beatles-esque echoes.
You Are (Track 7) is another change of pace and musical space; lilting, gentle, delicate guitar work and soothing vocals creating a serene, undulating musical landscape. Hina Saruwa (Track 4) and Let The Right One In (Track 6) switch again to more complex textures, emphatic rhythms, deliciously involved and intertwined elements from drums, keyboards, bass and vocals.
‘Karma’ is a refreshing and at times frenetic blur of passion and drama, a whirling musical dervish of ingenious and inventive styles, influences, moods and moments. Yet throughout it all the band remain faithful to the ‘sound’ they have pioneered since their debut album ‘On The Other Side’, released in 2005, and have been evolving across the course of seven truly impressive and striking albums.
Their website offers the tantalising promise that not all the material they created for ‘Karma’ found its way into the album. I sincerely and most earnestly hope that a new EP or even album may be in the offing in the not too distant future.
Alan Strawbridge – guitars, vocals, Dino Christodoulou – tenor and soprano saxophones, vocals, Duncan Gammon – keyboards, vocals, Holly Mcintosh – bass guitar, vocals and Jasper Williams – drums, vocals.
I decided to take a break from reviewing after a bit of a rough time life wise. I needed the break and wanted to just visit albums for the sheer joy of listening rather than through the critical ear of a reviewer. This meant that I approached this album with a tinge of trepidation. This trepidation was washed away by the end of the first track because it was obvious that the band have passion and a great joyous approach to making music.
I have only been aware of the band since listening to “Protein for Everyone” on the recommendation of a fellow DJ and I admit I was impressed by the feel of the band and their unique take on making music. It has taken them three years to bring out this new album but it has very much been worth the wait. They describe themselves as “a place where Canterbury prog, 60s psych and melodic pop gently collide.” I can understand and hear that as an influence in their writing but I hear Krautrock Grobschnitt, Amon Duul and The Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band (especially Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes solo stuff too) colliding with Knifeworld and Cardiacs. This is all bundled into some very sophisticated writing and recording and yet they are still incredibly accessible.
There are 11 tracks on this album with some seriously insanely eccentric off the wall songs but everything is filled with the common theme of things in the modern world that well and truly annoyed the faecal matter out of most of us. Call it a concept album if you must but it is more of a thematic exercise in reflecting the antithesis of Ian Dury’s“Reasons to be cheerful pt 1”.
Spielen mit Katzen, which opens the album, begins with a very Van Der Graaf Generator sax vs percussion race running all the way to the end of the stave. It even has a funk bass line drawn directly from 70s disco dropped in at an unexpected point. I can only assume that cat videos on social media annoy them as much as they do me. It immediately brightens the moment to this listener.
The album flows directly into Chinese Brainworm (Taeria Solium), it’s not every day you get a song about a parasitic worm that infest pigs but apparently this is the day we do. The use of brass is excellent, it counterpoints the vocals beautifully and adds a unique quality to the sound with a very soft tone and it’s not even vaguely harsh, as the use of sax can often be when ill used.
Rattle on through the album with songs that reflect on cold calling, PPI pests and scamming and you may find yourself singing “We’ve got PPI” as an ear worm randomly as you wander around the house listening to this album.
A real stand out track among an album of great observational songs is A New Atmosphere, by far and away the longest track and musically superior because the themes get better exploration and use. Their Bristol roots show here and it’s obviously a place they feel close to as they wander round the city and give a running commentary of what a bus trip around the city must feel like. The keyboards play a huge part and the vintage sounds that are used bring out the band’s obvious love of the psychedelic music of the 60s. It is a lament to the lost of the city and the pain they feel for the urban decay with large references to world war one.
On the whole this album has something for any lover of music that coaches you out of your comfort zone. It has a wry sense of humour running through it with a cynical view of the world we live in today. It is a bonkers album at times and deadly serious at other times with genuinely intelligent music that never becomes pretentious. Like Birdeatsbaby and other bands of a similar vintage, they represent some new music coming out right now that is breaking traditional definitions of genre and styles and all the more to them I say.
When first hearing about Valdez, a new band based in Philadephia, featuring Simon Godfrey (ex-Tinyfish and Shineback) and Echolyn bassist, Tom Hyatt, I made some initially lazy assumptions about it’s probable sound. I was wrong. Please check in your assumptions at the door because this is an album a long way away from Echolyn or Tinyfish. Simon Godfrey moved to America in 2014 when he married an American, and his personal journey has further stretched his musical horizons in an already wide ranging career encompassing Prog rock, acoustic songs and the electronically drenched unique rock of Shineback. When he met Tom Hyatt in Philadelphia they immediately hit it off and started jamming, then deciding to form Valdez (the name taken from a former band of keyboardist Joe Cardillo from the 1970’s.) Teaming up with the excellent electric keyboardist from Cool Blue, Cardillo, and drummer Scott Miller, Godfrey and Hyatt have produced with Valdez an eclectic and warm album, lovingly steeped in the sounds and textures of classic instruments.
The range of different styles is interesting but one thread that goes through them all is the sense of a solid, well written song. These are not sonic soundscapes of epic proportions, rather vignettes in engaging songs of sometimes wry observations of life around them. This is perhaps most acutely demonstrated in Thirteen, a song which opens with a subtle reference to the opening lines of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in which in early April the clocks ‘struck thirteen’. The song gives us pithy observations about how our societies have come to be in their current political messes, and this is all served up in waves of ‘bubblegum pop’ as Godfrey has described it. There’s a real 70’s vibe to this catchy song with excellent electric piano, reminiscent of Billy Joel.
Godfrey has explained the thinking behind the band as having a real focus on the song, whether ‘it’s a short song, a long song or a mad, complex one. As long as it’s good we’ll grab it with both hands and spin it until we’re dizzy’, which very much comes over, especially in Thirteen. Similarly, opening song Black Eyed Susanschimes in with all the swagger and attitude of a Joe Jackson song, which is a GOOD thing!
The diversity and skill of Valdez is exemplified by the melancholic and evocative take on dementia in Sally Won’t Remember. This emotional but not mawkish song successfully conveys the debilitating slowness and sheer psychological effort associated with caring for someone with dementia. Like Godfrey this listener has experienced the sad decline of a parent with dementia, and this song echoes those feelings, but even in their dementia strangely our parents indirectly teach us about life and caring.
The stand out track on the album is the title track This, which apparently refers to ‘the world of wonder right in front of us which we forget, simply because we see it every day’. Opening intriguingly with the sound of a wurlitzer and a chiming piano, it then rises like a sun as acoustic guitar and percussion join in to then be filled out with bass and keyboards… and then it settles back in to the song with Godfrey’s distinctive and emotive voice leading us to a swelling killer chorus. This lovely song rolls along memorably and then takes a breath before a pulsing bass introduces us to a resonant final section with great multi-layered harmony vocals as it rises to a crescendo. In some ways this listener would have liked to hear a few more songs of this nature, but only because it was so bloody good!
No Stone Unturned is a more bluesy number, Godfrey sounds like George Michael vocally at times (which is no bad thing), but the real star of this number is the excellent keyboard work of Cardillo. Godfrey has shared that the whole band really thinks that the majority of the best music came out of the instruments made famous in the 60’s and 70’s. Consequently they have used a range of classic keyboards, such as the Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, upright pianos, classic acoustic and electric guitars, recorded through old amps, and this is particularly evident on the warm, lush, atmospheric sounds of No Stone Unturned and Little Keys. Not every song works for this reviewer (take a bow Spite House) but this is an engaging album that will draw you in.
On ‘This’, there is a real sense of looking back affectionately but not slavishly to the past, as evoked by Mark Buckingham’s striking artwork of a 1950’s style woman swinging on a balloon. This is an album of fairly stripped back but well played and constructed songs. Godfrey has also shared that this album, produced by Hyatt’s legendary band mate in Echolyn, Brett Kull, was recorded without sequencing and as miked up to make it as live as possible. Such loving attention to vintage recording techniques combined with classic equipment clearly influenced the whole atmosphere of the album, and it particularly pays off in the strong final duo of segued songs, Colorado and Smile for the Camera. Colorado, written by Cardillo, has an enchanting rolling and melodic intro and evokes the free open space of that state, with some beautiful bass by Hyatt. An ambient, feedbacking interlude connects us to the beguiling Smile for the Camera, which floats in with a delicately picked acoustic guitar, with echoes of classic Supertramp’s heyday. This extended song takes a jazzier turn with peculiar sounds and a twisting synth solo… it seems that Godfrey and Hyatt couldn’t quite contain all their ‘Proggier’ impulses for a whole album! However, this is a brief diversion before this piece takes another turn into the beautiful blissed out harmony vocals reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, possibly with the help of Kull who added vocals and guitar alongside his production duties. Nevertheless, ultimately this is a Valdez song because the song then concludes eerily and possibly a little darkly with the last line ‘Smile for the Camera’ .
Valdez have created an interesting album, which crosses various genres and combines the myriad talents of the band in an engaging mix of sounds and songs. It’s not particularly ground-breaking or innovative, and was never intended to be so – but if you’re looking for some well written and well performed songs in classic style with warmth, with and spirit ‘This’ could be it!
Many years ago, there was TV show that featured a catchphrase, ‘and now for something completely different’, and it got so overused that it became a cliché. However, after having been playing this debut album by Italian quartet Syncage for a week or so and wondering the best way to introduce it in review, that aforementioned phrase seems the only appropriate way to open with.
Considering there’s only 4 of them (aided on more of the symphonic sounds by a string quartet), they run the whole gamut of sounds and styles (including the art rock of School, with its catchy riffs and angular lyrics). The only thing I can say they even vaguely remind me of is from the first time I saw Ritual in concert, and it’s not because of the sound of the band (as Syncage sound nothing like Ritual), but more the impact they made, as I had never heard anything like it before in my life, and believe me, I mean that as a compliment.
Having been together for the past ten years since they were teenagers, you can tell that the band have grown up together, as only musicians who have clicked and know each other as well as these 4 do can make this sort of intricate and exciting music.
From the wonderful sounds on Still Unaware, with some haunting violin pieces courtesy of Matteo Graziani (who also provides the retro Hammond sounds), they mix and match genres so adeptly, switching from free form jazz and into a bit of acoustic guitar and back again with aplomb, none of this is showing off, it’s just what the music demands.
I have to also mention the amazing vocals of Matteo Nicolin as well, as he has such a diverse range from a soaring falsetto to more subtle vocals. He treats his voice as another instrument to put into the mix and it’s this attitude that makes the vocal sound on this album unique and distinctive.
There is an excellent juxtaposition of light and dark on this album, evident on tracks like Skyline Shift,which has some amazing guitar work from Nicolin, whilst Matteo’s brother Riccardo is a superb drummer/percussionist. He helps to build the sound in tandem with Daniele Tarabini, who provides some superbly fluid bass lines, and helps flesh the sound out with his flute work.
Stones Can’t Handle Gravity is a fantastic piece that showcases the acoustic side of the band with flute and violin adding so much to the sound.
Every track on this album is superbly produced and put together, you can tell that they’ve really put their hearts and souls into this album. There are two epics on here. Edelweiss, clocking in at over 14 minutes, starts with some wonderful spoken word lyrics, creating the idea of a story rather than just a song, whilst the violin builds and builds with some amazing guitar work that heads into heavier territory. As long songs go, it’s more than just a song, it’s a musical journey that is well worth going on and I can imagine that live it’s pretty bloody epic.
The other epic that closes the album, Unlike There (at just over 9 minutes long), is a microcosm of everything that makes Syncage great, from some truly astonishing string sounds that flow through the track, to the combination of the drum and bass sounds as it flows and grows. Add in some brilliant guitar and keyboard work throughout and then those vocals, wow! had I mentioned how great a vocalist Matteo Nicolin is?
This is an incredibly intelligent, superbly performed and brilliantly realised debut album, from an assured, confident and fantastic new sound.
All credit to Syncage for pulling this amazing album together, and all credit to those Bad Elephants for having the vision to release something as groundbreaking as this.
(All band photography by Filippo Tommaso Catelan.)