Progradar Recommends

As most of you will know, I’ve taken a back seat for the last six months when it has come to reviewing albums. Now, while I may occasionally step back into the ring and write a full review, going forward I will be recommending a few albums with , hopefully, a few well chosen and pithy words of description.

I am starting with a round dozen of albums new to me over the previous six months or so and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have…

Avandra – Descender

Released on April 26th, Descender, the sophomore album from Puerto Rican prog-metallers Avandra, is an incredibly mature and complex record full of thunderous riffs, intelligent vocals and catchy hooks. In a genre well known for formality, this act with the most humble of beginnings have unleashed something truly different and special and with an impact similar to prog metal legends Dream Theater’s own career defining second album Images and Words.


Avandra – Even/You
This Winter Machine – A Tower of Clocks

A Tower Of Clocks is the long awaited second album from multi award-winning UK progressive rock band This Winter Machine. Almost 2 years in the making, this new release has the band tackling universal themes such as time, loss and identity within a loose conceptual framework.

With a feel of early Genesis and Fish era Marillion, the band haven’t strayed too far from the accepted progressive rock path but this album has been created flawlessly and with obvious affection and the musicianship on show is second to none. The impressive songwriting weaves captivating tales that draw the listener into the story and keep them there as willing companions on a spectacular musical journey.

I liked it that much that I bought the vinyl…

Released 24th June 2019

This Winter Machine – Justified
Our Destiny – Awakening

Our Destiny is the brainchild of Vikram Shankar (keyboardist of American progressive bands Redemption and Lux Terminus), whose piano playing on Awakening is paired with the angelic vocals of his partner Lauren Nolan. Awakening showcases the duo’s unique synthesis of genres and stylistic approaches, with emotive progressive rock married to pop, singer-songwriter, alternative and electronic flavors.

Vikram is a multi-talented musician of considerable skill and he shows his lighter side on this most graceful of recordings. A collection of ethereal, wistful songs that lend themselves to Lauren’s spectacular vocals perfectly. In a world full of chaos and anger, this wonderful record delivers some calm, elegance and decorum. An injection of peace into your soul, truly breathtaking.

Released 21st June 2019

none other – s/t

None Other is a prog rock power trio from Volos, Greece who have released three albums since 2012. The brainchild of Spyros Charmanis, this eponymous third album is a sometimes brutal voyage that leaves no mountain unmoved and no stone unturned in its compelling forty minute running time.

Thunderous guitar and monstrous bass combine with the mighty drums and authoritarian vocals to deliver an addictive aural assault. Not for the faint of heart but a truly forceful piece of music that is definitely worth your time and attention.

Released 6th May 2019

Neal Morse – Jesus Christ The Exorcist

“Jesus Christ – The Exorcist” is a monumental project in Neal Morse’s already impressive discography. A Progressive Rock Opera 10 years in the making, it was written and produced by Morse and includes performances by Neal and an all-star cast of vocalists and musicians. Featuring about two hours of music that encompass all the spectrums and genres Neal Morse is known for, the album will, of course, tell the Story of Stories. 

Now I know Neal’s religious leanings do put a lot of people off but if you can get past that and just listen to the incredible music then you will be privy to an incredible musical journey full of wonderful pomposity, amazing songs and just incredible musicianship. Whatever you say about the man, he is one incredible musician and storyteller and this Rock Opera is a remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride.

Released 14th June 2019

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

Yes, I know, it’s not exactly progressive rock but then that’s not all I listen to anyway. Western Stars is a wonderful album and one that everyone should have in their collection, it is that good! Forget the fact that it’s a Bruce Springsteen record, that really is irrelevant here, what it is is a truly memorable collection of beautiful songs that show a calm and reflective side to The Boss.

Take the title track, you will not hear a more captivating four and a half minutes of music this year, believe me. Chasing Wild Horses, Moonlight Motel, Stones and more, thirteen tracks of perfect Americana and country music that some are calling Springsteen’s best release in years. Now I can’t comment on that but I can tell you that it is currently my album of the year and it will take something incredible to move it from that spot, a truly special release.

Released 14th June 2019

Magic Pie – Fragments Of The 5th Element

Fragments of the 5th Element is Magic Pie’s long awaited 5th album, made up from 5 tracks  showcasing the band’s very diverse influences. On this record, they have tried to steer clear of the sterile perfection which modern prog bands have a tendency to get caught up in – and have gone for a slightly more unpolished sound, a bit rough in the edges. A little more ‘bite’.

From the incredibly infectious and upbeat opening salvo of The Man Who Had It All to the mighty bombast of the epic twenty three minute album closer The Hedonist Magic Pie have delivered joyous symphonic prog perfection. Epic, energetic melodic and sometimes heavy  prog rock with splendid vocal harmonies and great musicianship, this album has it all!

Released 30th August 2019

Magic Pie – The Man Who Had It All
Norrie Mcculloch – Compass

Norrie McCulloch is a singer-songwriter and award-winning visual artist originally from Ayrshire he currently lives and works out of of Stirling, Scotland. McCulloch’s songs are a tangle up of folk, indie and country influences that manage to stay true to his Scottish roots, equating to a style that offers a welcome touch of originality.

Compass is this talented musician’s fourth full length album and builds on his unique blend of Caledonian Americana with exquisite songwriting, plaintive, heartfelt vocals and pared back instruments to deliver his most fulfilling and accomplished release yet. There’s a simple, stark beauty to these tracks, a feeling of a heart laid bare, a truly emotive collection of tunes that leave you emotionally spent.

Released 31st May 2019

Norrie Mcculloch – Road Sign
Marco Ragni – Oceans Of Thought

“Oceans of Thought” was originally called “The Merchant of Eternal Youth” but during the time of the recordings Marcohad some personal problems and was a little depressed. So the songs, the cover but above all the lyrics, have undergone a change because the music comes from what he has inside his mind and soul. 

“So this album talks about the difficulties that life sometimes brings us, but also talks about how to try to overcome them. It’s a record that I care a lot about because it talks a lot about me.”

I’ve always been a big fan of this outrageously talented musician who delivers some intelligent and thought provoking progressive rock with an undertone of eastern promise. Care is lavished on every aspect of the recording and Marco enlists the help of some highly talented individuals to deliver his most intense and complete album yet, a thoroughly engrossing achievement that rewards your complete attention.

Check out Open My Arms with Norwegian guitar maestro Bjørn Riis, a contender for song of the year.

Released 21st June 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously

Living Dangerously is the band’s second release, coming six years after the first and is described as a “Sonic cocktail on the rocks blending equal parts classic, progressive jazz and blues and cheekily spiking with whatever they found lurking at the back of the cupboard…”

There’s bits of King Crimson, bits of Van Der Graff Generator and a whole lot of intelligent, sharp-suited songwriting that has gone into this album and its stays just on right side of being too clever for itself. Broken Parachute craft some impressive tunes on this release and its another album that requires a lot of you time and attention to completely reward but, trust me, it is worth the effort. The blues soaked guitar and jazz infused keyboards are utter works of art and are worth the entry prize alone.

Released 31st May 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously
Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Prologue

How do you follow the monumental three disc wonder that was Gandalf’s Fist’s 2016 epic The Clockwork Fable? With a two disc prologue, that’s how!

The Clockwork Prologue is the first release for Gandalf’s Fist as a six-piece and returns the listener once more to the dark and steamy city of Cogtopolis, a city beneath the surface, the once safe shelter for post-apocalyptic mankind, now a microcosmos following its own crude laws, rules and religions.

I called The Clockwork Fable, “A mesmerising musical masterpiece epic in scope and utterly breathtaking in its delivery” and this companion piece takes what the first release gave us and adds to it with the bands’ singular flair for drama, theatre and the spectacular. The stellar cast of voice actors, including Mark Benton and Bill Fellows, return to give a familiar feel to proceedings but its the musical talents of the band and the ever impressive vocals of Keri Farish that are the real draw.

The Clockwork Prologue isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel, it is meant to add to the wonderment of the original album and Gandalf’s Fist have delivered that in spades.

Released 1st July 2019

Gandalf’s Fist – The Lamplighter (Overture)
Djam Karet – A Sky Full Of Stars For A Roof

A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is Djam Karet’s 19th album. The group was formed back in 1984, and this is a celebration of the band’s 35 years together.

Combining analog and modular synthesizers with numerous acoustic instruments from around the world, Djam Karet is exploring new territory on this psychedelic journey of discovery. Harmonium, dilruba, mbira, udu and other exotic instruments, help bring a warm vibe to this highly melodic and visionary work. Swirling electronic soundscapes expand to reveal new acoustic environments of exotic goodness.

With an almost spiritual feel to the intricate music, this collection of tunes has a raw feel, almost primeval, literally music that has come from the Earth. This band always produce thought provoking pieces that take the listener out of any comfort zone and take them on an intensely melodic musical crusade and A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is surely the pinnacle of what Djam Karet have been producing together over all of their 35 years as a band.

Released 15th April 2019

Djam Karet – Beyond The Frontier

So, there you have it. The first in a relatively regular feature on my recommendations. See you soon for the next Progradar Recommends!!

Prog ‘Supergroup’ Shits n’ Giggles release Christmas Charity EP ‘Wake Up’

It’s that time of the year where Christmas Songs come flying at you from left, right and centre. Prog Rock collective Shits n’ Giggles have announced the release of their charity Christmas E.P. ‘Wake Up’ which will be online for purchase this evening.

Here’s the press release:

“With Christmas fast approaching, a bunch of us have teamed up to concoct a festive song entitled ‘Wake Up’ which was released as part of an EP on December 1st. Wake Up features Colin Tench (Corvus Stone), Gareth Cole (Mike Kershaw, Tom Slatter), Ben Bell (Patchwork Cacophony, Gandalf’s Fist), Stefan Hepe (Gandalf’s Fist), Peter Falconer, Pat Sanders and Manu Michael (Drifting Sun). The song was mixed and mastered by Jon Huxtable at Smallfish Studios, Scotland. Also included in the EP are 7 songs previously recorded by the musicians who contributed to the making of ‘Wake Up’.

All the profits from the sales will go to TIERHILFE SAUERLAND E. V. Barbara Hellekes, CEO of the animal welfare organisation said “We’re over the moon about this! Winter is coming, and it’s really hard to get the poor souls through the winter, especially in Hungary and Greece, where we support and help privately organised shelters in keeping the streets free of stray dogs, trying to find them a forever home”

We, Shits ‘n Giggles, take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken up their valuable time to bring their contribution to this EP to help make this release possible, and we hope that the charity organization we have chosen will benefit greatly from the generosity of the people who donate to their cause, cheers everyone and Merry Christmas to all!”

The EP is available to purchase from:

Purchase the ‘Wake Up’ Charity EP here

 

 

Review – Patchwork Cacophony – Five of Cups – by Progradar

cover

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about a loss of ‘value’ to music, in the sense that people seem to think that they should be able to listen to it for free, either via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music or by illegally downloading it from the plethora of music sharing websites that haunt the internet.

What hasn’t helped is the fact that now virtually anybody can make an album in their bedroom with a laptop and, unfortunately, virtually all these so called ‘records’ are of very poor quality. To be fair, I’d be a bit hacked off if I’d spent £10 on a piece of music that sounded like caterwauling cats singing over somebody’s guitar lessons but the majority of music is still made over a lengthy period of time by artists who put their heart and soul (plus a not unreasonable sum of money) into creating these musical gems.

To have that devalued by the marketplace as it is now must be heartbreaking, especially when you are a multi-instrumentalist who actually plays virtually all the instruments on a new release, as well as writing all the songs and producing and engineering their works of art.

cowboy

A message came into Progradar from Ben Bell, the multi-instrumentalist behind Patchwork Cacophony, asking if I’d take a listen to his latest release ‘Five of Cups’. I duly did and was intrigued to find out more…

Ben first came to prominence as the keyboard player, co-composer and producer on Fusion 2 Orchestra‘s acclaimed 2013 album ‘Casting Shadows’. When I started waxing lyrical about his new release on social media, it also came to light that he is the new keyboard player for my favourite cult prog-rock outfit Gandalf’s Fist and this was pointed out to me by my friend (and Fist’s drummer) Stefan Hepe.

He released his debut solo work, ‘Patchwork Cacophony’, independently (and with little fanfare) in 2014 and it immediately garnered glowing reviews for its distinctive take on classic symphonic prog. The trademark multi-layered vocals, effortless mixing of styles and intricate instrumental passages earned him wide-spread praise as a ‘huge talent’.

The follow up album, which I’m reviewing here, ‘Five of Cups’ sees a further development of Patchwork Cacophony‘s sonic identity and Ben also welcomes guest guitarists in Marcus Taylor and veteran live session musician Tim Hall.

banner

The album opens with the four part Fairytale (Parts 1-4) and part 1 is the wonderfully atmospheric instrumental Are You Sitting Comfortably? and then we segue into the breezy and upbeat keyboard heavy progness of Once Upon A Time. We get to hear Ben’s unique vocals for the first time and they fit the classically progressive music perfectly. The musical interplay is excellent and you really wonder how one guy does it on his own! There’s a real polish to the keyboard playing that makes it hugely infectious and I was hooked the first time I heard it. Ben’s skill on all the instruments is very impressive, the rhythm section of the dynamic drums and the funky bass especially. I think I may stumbled upon something special here…We take the instrumental route again with The Wonder Of It All, a wonderfully quirky track that has its own ideas and agenda. Cheerfully buoyant and optimistic, the instruments seem to bounce of each other with reckless abandon and without a care in the world. It is a really refreshing song that puts a spring in your step and Ben’s fingers fly fluently around the keyboards with enough energy and gusto to put even Rick Wakeman to shame! The last part is called Life Is Not A Fairytale and opens with Ben’s rather sombre piano, all the spark and joy of the previous track replaced with a more serious and morose overtone. It is a beautiful tune though and one that almost brings a lump to your throat when the delicate and fragile vocals begin. There’s an almost melancholy edge to Ben’s voice which is emphasised by the graceful notes that emanate from the elegant piano playing. There’s a serious, if thoughtful, message coming from this song and one that we should take notice of, I am left in a deeply reflective frame of mind as this four-part gem comes to a sober and solemn close.

Choices brings back that busy feeling with the energy and dynamism of the opening keyboards and drums that give it an early Yes feel. Quite frantic and yet structured and deliberate, the track opens up with Ben’s precise vocal delivery and takes on a persona not unlike a hyperactive Billy Joel. There is definitely a feeling that Ben has lifted his ambitions on this release and this stylish track is evidence of that. Just check out the infectious Hammond organ that races through the centre of the track, it’s brilliant. Counting Chickens opens with a piano/keyboard combo that brings to mind Changes from Yes, with its catchy and repetitive tempo. It goes on to become a really inventive song with Ben’s signature keyboard virtuosity stamped large all over it. There’s a calmness that falls over the track, a laid back feel before that piano led mantra begins again, addictive and really enjoyable. A great instrumental that I keep returning to again and again.

concept

Like Pink Floyd’s lesser known (but better looking) brother, Maybe strides confidently into the arena on a wave of elegant drums and edgy, funky guitars. This is where Ben takes a step back and lets one of his stellar guests take over and Marcus Taylor really does the business with some superb guitar playing. Ben’s vocal goes up a notch, full of angst and barely concealed anger and it is a great vocal performance. There’s a nice instrumental section that builds up to a rather tasty guitar solo, full of power and emotion, Marcus really reaches the heights on this one. Overall it is a song brimming with energy and disquiet and one that really shows the direction Ben is heading in with its focus and sophistication. A shortish epic at just over nine minutes, Every Day is an immersive and contemplative listen and one that gets the headphones treatment from me, to better enjoy its subtleties. A low down vocal and jazzy instrumentals give it a polished feel, in fact, it is probably the most jazz oriented track on the album with some interesting time signatures and a hesitant pace. Take your foot of the pedal and step of the incessant treadmill of life and let this calm and collected piece of music just wash over you as if you don’t have a care in the world.The middle part of the song is almost like a sci-fi soundtrack, bringing to mind epics such as 2001:A Space Odyssey and the like with its mysterious and cryptic keyboards leading the way before we are treated to synth heaven and Ben gets to show off a little, a really inventive and satisfying track that stays long in the memory.

Chasing Rainbows is a hectic, agitated and frenzied song that really smacks of Ben Folds Five on acid to my ears most of the time. Ben’s vocal has a harder, almost distraught edge and the music is full of nervous energy as it goes from animated note to animated note. A real uptempo and tumultuous jazz-infused track that you seem to feed off and become fevered yourself. There’s a sudden and sharp change of focus and feel half way through where an elegant piano brings order and calm to the chaos and enables you to get your breath back, not for long though as an insistent piano note precedes the return of the tumult, turmoil and barely concealed anger, what a great ‘in your face piece’ of music.

patchwork

A haunting piano refrain opens the nostalgic and wistful instrumental of From A Spark. Dignified and ornate as if from a bygone era of cultured gentility, the piano leaves tasteful notes on your mind as it weaves its graceful and cultured path through your psyche and leaves its mark on your very soul. Bewitching and captivating, it brings the whole world to a stop for nearly seven minutes to listen and take in its restrained grandeur.

The final song on the album is the masterful splendour of Brand New Day, over twelve minutes of progressive rock that really knows its chops. The opening is all pomp and circumstance with the energetic rhythm section aiding and abetting the compelling keyboards and Tim Hall‘s potent guitar. It opens up into a classic track full of nods to the great progressive tracks of the past. Ben’s vocal is full of intent and gives the song the grounding that lets the instruments take over the show with no need for restraint. There are time changes galore and Ben plays a bewildering number of different instruments throughout this intricately complicated and lengthy work, just sit back and enjoy what is laid before you. You hear little deft homages to the likes of Camel, Yes, Genesis and even IQ as Ben opens up and runs through his full repertoire of talents. Moments of quiet contemplation mix with elaborate instrumental interplays and yet the undoubted talent of this musician never overshadows the music itself. Tim’s guitar is always there waiting to explode into the burning solos that appear towards the end of this mightily impressive song and I am just left feeling very humble and inadequate at the incredible skill and aptitude to be found in Ben Bell.

There is intelligence and a wry humour than runs throughout this remarkable album. Ben Bell has an immense talent and really knows how to put it to good use. Intelligently crafted songs that make you want to listen to them show him to be a great songwriter and what he delivers proves what a notable musician he is as well. In the world of progressive rock a new star is set to rise.

Released 7th November 2016

Buy Five Of Cups’ direct from the artist.

Listen to ‘Five Of Cups’ at bandcamp

Check out Brinkmanship from the first Patchwork Cacophony release: