Review – Ghost Of The Machine – Scissorgames – by Leo Trimming

Scissor Games‘ is the debut album by Ghost of the Machine, formed when the majority of This Winter Machine split with singer, Al Winter, and joined up with Charlie Bramald, previously vocalist with covers project Harmony of Spheres. This Winter Machine had built a growing reputation with their first two excellent albums, ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and ‘A Tower of Clocks’ so it was rather a risk for most of the band to embark on a new project with a younger and largely unknown vocalist, even if he had once guested with them in their This Winter Machine days. Clearly the band name harks back to their former band, but as most of them originated in that band it’s hardly surprising they chose a name referencing this heritage.  

So, having cut that connection how have Ghost of the Machine shaped up on this debut?

Well, it’s a genuine pleasure to report that Ghost of the Machine have produced an outstanding debut album which clearly has influences from the band’s previous incarnation, but takes a rather different slant. ie This is not ‘Son of This Winter Machine’! The core of that band had already become a polished outfit capable of producing classy rock performances with a progressive edge. Ghost of the Machine seem adept with different sounds and styles on this album. However, they appear to be going down a largely much more ‘Prog’ direction, particularly with the remarkable bookend epic Scissors pieces… but we’ll come to that later. Charlie Bramald wrote the majority of the lyrics for this album and the rest of the band wrote the music and arrangements. He has shared that at least half the music was written before he joined them in January 2021, and most of the rest of it written by the summer of 2021. The band were very keen to ensure the album sounded right before it was put out, hence the time taken since then to get it recorded and eventually released.

Ghost of the Machine prove they can lay down a catchy and impressive rock song as Mark Hagan’s mountainous synth chords and Stuart Mcauley’s thunderous, but lithe bass line introduces the ear worm melodies and riffs of 80’s style rocker, Mountain. This rollocking, rolling song conversely carries a sad tale of unrequited love as the protagonist eventually realises he may as well have tried to love an implacable mountain:

Just another fool who thought that he could move a mountain…

…I was holding on to a heart of stone that never loved me

Now I’m letting go even though it’s killing me, It’s killing me

The tempo and atmosphere change significantly with the much more contemplative Just for Reference, focusing on the gaslighting of abuse victims. Such a sombre theme is introduced on a stark piano and keyboards from Mark Hagan, joined by a softly chiming guitar riff. These are a soft bed for Bramald’s initially melancholic vocals, which become increasingly impassioned as the song’s subject realises who they once were and sees clearly once again. It seems clear that this is an album in which the recurring theme is people finding hope and redemption in their darkest moments. In a similar vein thematically, and with a similar musical restraint, is the later song Dead to Me, with lyrics written by guitarist Graham Garbett. This is an atmospheric, melancholic song showcasing Hagan’s delicate piano playing and Bramald’s emotional singing in an apparent poetic stream of consciousness without verse or chorus. It’s clearly from the heart for Garbett, who has shared that ‘It’s about breaking free from something / someone in your past you no longer need, and the courage to take that risk no matter what the consequences’. An ethereal guitar line floats eerily above the haunting end.

The thread of redemption is also played out on the much more driven and energetic rock of January’s Child, which was one of the first songs written together by Ghost of the Machine when they formed in January 2021, hence the title. Bramald has shared it is about how: ‘January’s Child undergoes a journey of self-reflection to overcome the trauma of a difficult adolescence and grow into the person they really want to be.’ For me the jarring contrast between the upbeat feel of much of the music and the more sombre nature of the lyrics undermines the impact of this song. A more soulful piano led middle section is more engaging. However, the relentless, thumping finale and recapitulation of the opening synth riff feels rather incongruous and a little repetitive towards the end in all honesty. In an album of high-quality songs this is one piece which simply did not connect with this listener.

Mercury Rising picks things up considerably with an 8-minute slab of melodic progressive rock with a magnificent instrumental part one, which is apparently one of drummer Andy Milner’s favourite parts of the album. Apart from the style of music we know we must be back in the ‘Legendary Land of Prog’ as this is a piece based on a poem by Roman poet Ovid about a river nymph, Larunda. Let’s face it in this day and age, a band has got to have some real balls in 2022 to put out a song based on classical mythology!!

Bramald has explained: ‘Mercury was tasked with escorting Larunda to the Underworld after Jupiter tore out her tongue for spilling his secrets. On the way, Mercury becomes infatuated with Larunda and attempts to woo the nymph. She finds herself caught between hell and a half-life, unable to speak a word of protest either way’.

I hope you were keeping up there! To be fair, Ghost of the Machine do a fine job with their very own ‘Fountain of Salmacis’, although this no copy of that Genesis classic. Garbett’s and Owen’s echoing guitars over a keyboard wash introduce a suitably heroic and evocative landscape. The keyboards and guitars combine well, like some sort of epic film theme, as the tempo and volume increase until Milner’s drums and McAuley’s bass drive this leviathan of a song headlong. Then Mercury Rising pulls back almost cinematically with a more reflective vocal soliloquy and gently lilting piano with definite echoes of one of Marillion’s greatest songs, ‘Incubus’ (you may hear that band name again!😉) A delicate guitar line ascends and the tempo increases as a point of revelation is reached. The earlier musical theme returns in a rip-roaring finale and a sinuous synth line by Hagan snakes above the mayhem, with Milner in particularly powerful form on the drums. It’s full on classy melodic Prog and a highlight of the album.

Before we come to the conclusion let’s deal with two rather large elephants in the room for some:

Firstly, the ‘schism’ in the ranks of This Winter Machine, which led to the formation of Ghost of the Machine. I do not know the details behind that split, and I will not speculate. Indeed, frankly I am going to completely ignore that elephant – let’s just take this album on face value on its own merits.

Secondly, there is the issue of the style of much of this album, particularly the epic album bookending Scissors suite.  There is ‘Progressive’ as an approach to music, and there is ‘Prog’ as a distinct musical genre. The epic Scissors pieces, along with Mercury Rising, places this album and band squarely in the ‘Prog’ category, with a capital ‘P’. Some may see that as a definite advantage and recommendation, whilst others may be wary or a little ‘sniffy’ about this adherence to a genre originated in the early 70’s and developed in the 80’s. We could have a long debate about it, obsessively inspecting our navels… or perhaps we could just enjoy the music?!

To get straight to the point, the Scissors suite is the undoubted highlight of an excellent album. Indeed, this suite could well come to be regarded as among the best pieces of ‘Prog’ in 2022. There are many Prog bands out there attempting to mimic the musical heroes of their youth, often unsuccessfully and frankly lacking sufficient spirit, skill, energy or class. Sure, the Scissors suite has distinct echoes and influences from earlier Prog generations, (and Marillion may well be consulting their lawyers if they ever hear this… but then again, the same was said of them about echoes of early Genesis back in their 80’s heyday!)  HOWEVER, Ghost of the Machine really pull off such a thrilling Prog tour de force on Scissors that you simply don’t care whether you may have heard similar stuff before (you definitely have I can assure you!!). It doesn’t matter – it really is that good.

The opening salvo with the definitely 80’s Marillion-esque keyboard fanfare and towering drums, bass and guitar chords is a massive and enjoyable opening. Ghost of the Machine really know how to juxtapose power with subtlety, and they drop away to an interlude of Hagan and Bramald on piano and voice with McAuley’s subtle bass, which gives the lyrics and storyline room to breathe. Apparently, bassist McAuley wrote the guitar solo at the end of the first section way back in the 90’s and Graham Garbett skilfully realises that solo finally in 2022. Some things just take time.

Bramald’s outstanding lyrics and imagery on Scissors are poetic and flowing, telling the dramatic story of how an abused woman eventually snaps and kills her abusive partner with the nearest sharp object – scissors. This is dark and thought-provoking material.

Flash a fistful of silver, you’re the rock and I play the scissors

Cutting out the pages of my life for you to rearrange

All the threads exposed, tugging on the strings my nerves unfold

I’m a plaything, I’m a captive of the Puppet King

The music and lyrical imagery are perfectly intertwined, conveying the wretched emotions and unfolding drama from different perspectives, particularly on the remarkable ‘The Puppet King’ section, which brims with menace and vanity. Bramald has shared: ‘An abuser’s victims are not just their partners. They fool everyone around them. That’s where the idea of the Puppet King came from; it’s a title this character bestowed on himself out of sheer vanity, a belief that he’s somehow godlike and above everyone – pulling the strings, if you will. But “Puppet King” regimes are also false and hollow.’

There will be inevitable and justified comparisons between Charlie Bramald’s singing and wordplay with Fish of early Marillion, but there also distinct lyrical and vocals echoes of the harder edge of early Twelfth Night with the now sadly departed Geoff Mann – as a life long Twelfth Night fan let me tell you that’s quite a compliment. Bramald’s use of recurring and double edged images and symbols is clever and insightful. Bramald even gets to play a short flute passage in the instrumental passage of The Game, which clearly harks back to Gabriel era Genesis. Graham Garbett also plays a beautifully clean guitar melody over an acoustic guitar backing in this more contemplative interlude.

The drama and pace really pick up on the following short Fighting instrumental section with Hagan building a wall of keyboards as Scott Owens launches a stratospheric guitar solo over titanic drumming from Andy Milner – it really is a stirring passage. However, the real pay-off comes with the sudden segue into the sorrowful Shame section with Bramald’s excellent and soulful vocal alone with Hagan’s gentle piano, singing words which will go round and round your ears with their delivery and impact:

I’m fighting,

Against the strings,

I turn around and catch a glimpse

I see all the lives the Puppet King collects

I’m in a room filled with human marionettes

No-one dares to speak against a god,

I’m crying out but no-one will respond

The final Hope instrumental rises to a crescendo in a more positive way, until we are just left with Hagan’s plaintive piano.

Scissors (Reprise) concludes this epic story, starting off more contemplatively in the first section Cut, with gently undulating piano, subtle drumming and bass with tasteful guitar lines supporting a softer vocal from Bramald. Ghost of the Machine also seem to know when to pull back and convey stories and emotions more subtly. The Wake short instrumental passage features a beautifully played Mcauley bass line in a keyboard and piano setting. The final triumphant Winner section is carried on a wave of flowing melodic progressive rock, and apparently Milner’s expressive and joyous drumming inspired the ‘Cry for Victory’ verse. A scintillating guitar solo takes off over the furious but controlled drive of the band and they sweep onwards to the finale of a truly outstanding suite (yeah, I know I say ‘outstanding’ a lot – this time it’s justified!)

Mark Hagan’s excellent piano and keyboards are key to the Scissors pieces, as they are for the whole album. Alongside him the double guitar attack of Graham Garbett and Scott Owens excel, and throughout the album the interplay between keyboards and guitars is a joy. The Mcauley and Milner rhythm section are classy and precise in their intuitive approach to underpinning the songs. These skills are captured and conveyed sonically with some very fine production from Bob Cooper. The Scissors suite shows a band in perfect unison with words and music locked together, telling such a deeply meaningful story.

Scissor Games‘ is a remarkable debut album. It clearly owes so much to earlier eras of Prog Rock but when it is done with this sheer amount of brio and skill, allied with powerful, impactful lyrics, then it is entirely valid and worthy as a piece of music and art. Many Prog fans will absolutely fall in love the style and emotional content of ‘Scissor Games‘ which will very probably be rightfully be regarded as one of the best debut progressive rock albums of 2022.

That’s quite enough from me, just listen to the music – Cut!

TRACK LISTING:

1. Scissors
I. Starting Line
II. The Puppet King
III. The Game (Instr.)
IV. Fighting (Instr.)
V. Shame
VI. Hope
2. Mountain
3. Just For Reference
4. January’s Child
5. Mercury Rising (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2)
6. Dead To Me
7. Scissors (Reprise)
VII. Cut
VIII. Wake (Instr.)
IX. Winner

MUSICIANS:
Charlie Bramald  –  Lead Vocals & Flute
Graham Garbett  – Guitars & Backing Vocals
Mark Hagan  –  Piano, Keyboards & Mellotron
Stuart Mcauley  –  Bass, Pedals & Mellotron
Andy Milner  –  Drums
Scott Owens  –  Guitars

Released June 3rd, 2022.

Order from the band here:

Scissorgames: CD – Signed Pre-order – Ghost Of The Machine (ghostofthemachineofficial.com)

Or bandcamp here:

Scissorgames | Ghost Of The Machine (bandcamp.com)

Review – Nova Cascade – Back From The Brink – by John Wenlock-Smith

This batch of lockdowns has an unexpected, pleasant side effect in that it has enabled and stimulated creativity amongst musicians. This has resulted in some marvellous, and often unexpected, pleasurable listening opportunities. Where projects that were once pipe dreams have been given a dust down and often have then come to fruition and some fabulous music has emerged as a result.

Yes finally managed to deliver their long overdue and much promised album ‘The Quest’ to complimentary reviews, Big Big Train have been busy too, releasing ‘Common Ground’, Steve Hackett has released two albums in these times and now Nova Cascade have issued their third album, ‘Back From the Brink’. The album is another mixture of ambient and progressive ideas, although it is short with a running time of just over 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes are certainly imaginative and well realised by the band.

Nova Cascade’s last album, ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’, has paved the way for this epic new album, one that was partially inspired by events surrounding the band with Dave Hilbourne suffering from long covid, a battle which he won thankfully but at some cost to his well-being and mental health. Undeterred, Dave decided to channel these feelings into music, this may in part explain why this music is both dark at times and hopeful at other points.

This album has all been recorded remotely with Dave compiling it all into some order and there are some fabulous performances from each of the members, noteworthy of which being the guitar and violin work of Eric Bouilette of The Room and Nine Skies and the flute playing of  Charlie Bramald, which really lifts to album at key points.

This album is best appreciated on headphones, I find as it’s textures can unfold gradually revealing their crafted treasures at ease.

Several tracks really stand out, firstly The Minutes After which is a graceful instrumental with some delicate acoustic guitar runs and that fabulous flute adding to the mood and lightening it up, this track is fantastically evocative and has melody a-plenty. Another song that really lifts this album is the longest piece, Back From The Brink, which encapsulates all that is good about Nova Cascade.

It has enough space for instruments to rely shine, very strong keyboards interspersed with guitar fills and a strong, but not dominating, bass part and a hauntingly evocative flute floating over gentle piano and guitar lines. Yet, somehow, this all gels together, creating music of both beauty and warmth. It is all highly impressive sounding and it’s a joy to hear this excellent piece with its great dynamics.

Between these two epics lies a while slew of shorter, but never less than interesting pieces, most notably There Is Always A Way, which manages to blend the music with the words of Neil Armstrong’s, creating a great atmosphere. Eric’s violin also adds significant class to the piece before Dave’s synthesizers are ushered to centre stage. Even then, it is the ensemble playing that is presented so vividly, it’s all about the whole sound that is being offered here.

The final vocal track, Long Winter, follows and, here again, Dave sounds very Steve Hogarth like in his wispy delivery and reminds me of some long-forgotten eighties vocalist (Fergal Sharkey perhaps?), either way, it certainly works well. This song is highly personalised as it speaks about what Dave went through with long covid, yet, despite that, it is a quietly triumphant track, to these ears at least.

The whole album is predominantly instrumental, with just three vocal performances from Dave Hilbourne on Phantom, The Hill and Long Winter.

‘Back From The Brink’ is a really fine album indeed and it is a pleasure to listen to. I would recommend this to anyone, especially if you like ambient, instrumentally driven, progressive music, as this album offers that and far far more. I’m sure you will find it an agreeable listen, I certainly did enjoy this album but I do recommend headphones for best results. It’s an aural treat for tired ears, float away into a world of tranquility and class.

Released September 9th, 2021.

Order from bandcamp here:

Back From The Brink | NOVA CASCADE (bandcamp.com)

 

Review – Nova Cascade – A Dictionary Of Obscure Sorrows – by Leo Trimming

What exactly  is ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’?

According to Wikipedia (and who could doubt that source of information!) ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’  is a website created by John Koenig that defines neologisms (that’s new words and phrases to you and me) which are designed to define emotions for which we do not yet have a descriptive term. When you hear this new album by Nova Cascade you can sense why they might decide to use that phrase to name their album. Previously describing themselves as ‘Ambient Progressive Rock’, on their promising but minimalist debut album Above All Else, Nova Cascade have developed that blueprint further with more defined pieces. but there is still an overriding sense of  fragility and dreamlike visions which are hard to define.

Nova Cascade have now moved on from their peculiar origins in an online gaming chatroom out of which artists shared musical ideas, and now present a more fully formed and mature album. The sparse, organic feel which characterised ‘Above All Else’ now gives way to a more lush and layered approach but at heart they retain their more ambient and impressionistic style, with some echoes of later Talk Talk. The gorgeous cover artwork by Charlie Bramald places us in a warm, shimmering and comfortable candle-lit library, and the music conveys a sense we are sat in the glow of candle light as we hear these lush sounds which contain contrasting stories of light and darkness.

Dave Hilborne appears to lead this project with his distinctive light, breathy vocalisation and subtle synth laden soundscapes, such as the opening instrumental Unwavering. There is also a slightly harder edge on some songs, such as the bitter Rabbit Hole (with echoes of later Peter Gabriel) which features quite a percussive programmed edge and pointed lines about deceit:

‘This illusion you expertly weave,

Let’s take a trip to the far side,

Descend in a rabbit hole of deceit.’

However, even such perspectives are coated in fairly lush production with no sharp edges. Echo and Narcissus flows languidly in on a bed of keyboards and softly programmed percussion. Hilborne’s delicate vocals reflect the disappearing fragility of the legendary Echo as she wasted away until only her voice remained. Once again rather tortured lyrics are conveyed in swathes of restrained, rather gentle instrumentation, particularly the evocative violin of Eric Bouillette. Such agony rarely sounded so delicate:

And, oh, that stench in the air is your hate

Just leave me be with what’s left of my fractured soul

Nova Cascade seem to like touching on sinister or negative subjects in rather pastoral ways, such as the instrumental Apophis, which may refer to an Egyptian Pharaoh or  an ancient Egyptian ‘chaotic being’ until you read the sleeves and note one small line: ‘All Eyes to the Sky in 2029…’ a quick internet search reveals that Apophis is a sizeable ‘near Earth’ Asteroid that in 2004 was thought to have a distinct possibility of striking Earth catastrophically in 2029. Readers will be pleased to hear that after re-calculations this possibility has now been deemed Zero! Nevertheless, it gives Nova Cascade the excuse to compose a suitably spacey soundscape, enhanced by Charlie Bramald’s stellar flute, which is then transformed with some more ominous synth throbs before floating off in to space again.

In contrast the nostalgic Plasticine and Paint touchingly conjures up idyllic visions  and memories of childhood with Bramald’s subtle flute underlining the sense of pastoral reminiscence in a rather beautiful piece. In their previous album ‘Above All Else’ there was a sense of it being a rather ‘home made’ or even a ‘demo’ type album, which it’s organic and intuitive approach to capturing sound enhanced. Nova Cascade seem to have moved on from that rather lo-fi or sparse feel but have not lost that essence of fragility and dream like quality.

The centrepiece to the whole album is the decidedly more ambitious extended instrumental ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’ which features the Blue Man Group drummer David Anania (indeed the album sound overall would have benefited from more use of a live drummer than programmed percussion.) It is interesting that in the sleeve notes in relation to this song Dave Hilborne has quoted a few ‘neologisms’ for hard to describe feelings, presumably from the aforementioned Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, including:

‘Sonder’ – The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own

‘Kenopsia’ – The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet

Not only are those great new words I will try to use in the right context in future, but somehow the music in this imaginative and evocative piece of work conveys those intangible and almost impossible to define feelings. Hilborne paints the main canvas on keyboards alongside the ever present deft bassist Dave Fick, especially in the second half when Anania’s drums have more impact. Eric Bouillette chimes in with a subtle Steve Rothery like guitar solo in the closing stages in the most ‘progressive’ track on the album.

Nova Cascade quote the now sadly deceased Mark Hollis of Talk Talk in their sleeve notes;:

‘Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, y’know? And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it’.

Such a quote tells us where Nova Cascade are coming from, and conveys their philosophy in where they want to go. This album is certainly no ‘Spirit of Eden’ by Talk Talk (and to be fair what else is? – it’s an all time classic!) but you can tell that would have been an influence, especially in the vocals. Guitars, piano, bass and guitars weave together melodically. There are times when it is beguiling and beautiful – there are other times for this listener when I just want something a little more of substance to hold on to as you drift in an ocean of ethereal , vague subtlety.  Nevertheless, ‘A Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’  is certainly a very significant step up from ‘Above All Else’ . This album would appeal to lovers of delicate, ambient soundscapes and softly pastoral sounds and images, and I have a sense that the ethereal and talented Nova Cascade will show even more development of their distinctive sound and style in the future…

… now I just need to find a word that can convey that hard to define that feeling?

Released 9th September 2019

Order from bandcamp:

https://novacascade.bandcamp.com/album/a-dictionary-of-obscure-sorrows