Review – Monarch Trail – Four Sides – by David Edwards

Monarch Trail are a Canadian symphonic progressive rock project led by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ken Baird, consisting of Dino Verginella on bass and Chris Lamont on drums, with guest appearances on guitar by Kelly Kereliuk and Steve Cochrane. Four Sides is their impressive fourth release and, in my opinion, manages to not only match the quality of their previous album Wither Down, but brings it up several notches more.

Deliberately recalling the classic days of the double vinyl album, with each side having its own distinct character, and the space to fully develop musical themes (such as ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ perhaps?) – this is classic, keyboard-led progressive rock but with a distinctive signature sound and modern-edge that the band have cultivated since 2014. It is musically the antithesis of the modern quick-fix, 3-minute soundbite culture of the modern music streaming sites, where songs are never given a chance to blossom over a full album side. So, while the 73 minutes of music can fit on a single CD – Ken challenges you to consider the album as ‘four sides’ of music, to be enjoy individually, or as a cohesive and complete body of work.

The opening ‘side’ of the album, and the longest track at over 23 minutes, is called The Oldest of Trees. This is the most personal song on the album, as Ken harks back to his younger days and an old four-chord song he could just about strum on guitar on the stairs of the basement music room. A place often full of musical friends, with the spotlight on one in particular who sadly passed away of a few years ago. Lyrically and musical it is full of reminiscences of those musical memories of rock music from 70s and 80s for those growing up in Canada at the time, including the likes of Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd amongst others.

After a dynamic keyboard-led fanfare, Ken’s vocals drip melancholy as he looks back to those halcyon days. As I’ve said before in earlier reviews, Ken’s distinctive, higher register vocals have a yearning frailty and vulnerability that reminds me at times of BJH’s John Lees, Chris Squire and Druid’s Dane Stevens. Once you attune to them, their ‘everyman’ character complements the personal nature of the music very well. Yet, it is his keyboard virtuosity that drives the album’s rich soundscapes. Supported by Dino’s expressive bass guitar and Chris’s dynamic drumming, the song soon moves up another level, with some rich organ chords and soaring synthesisers over the strong rhythmic foundation. Changing tempos and light and shade keep the shifting themes fresh and invigorating and some contrasting electric guitar over a repeating keyboard pattern fits in seamlessly. Lyrically we are also taken around various locations around the town of Dundas and wider Ontario. There is a nice kick in tempo from around 14 minutes and the introduction of organ chords and rumbling bass around the symphonic prog noodlings provide a diversity of sound before we return to bitter-sweet memories of youth:

Benches and the streets and parks will hold your name in high regard. Eyes of birds and storied words, help us where we stand. But of all these things to hold, there are some that seem much closer. Especially the oldest trees will never quite be gone.”

This was a song Ken needed to develop and resurrect from its humble beginnings and its cathartic conclusion is thoughtful and full of emotional.

Eris is even a bolder musical statement by Ken, and he really uses the concept of a double album structure to allow time for this epic instrumental to develop. Over the opening few minutes, a cold, desolate, almost wind-swept, ambient soundscape is allowed to gradually gain in intensity, with hints of mid-section of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ and then a subtle, deeper rhythmic pattern coming through. Named after the cold, icy dwarf planet of the outer solar system, the feeling of isolation is palpable, and it is only after 6 minutes that we get a swelling of rich, majestic, organ-led keyboards followed by dancing motifs and then Vangelis-like synthesiser sounds, undulating serenely and mysteriously. Ken imagines the atmosphere of Eris rising up from its surface as the dwarf planet warms on its elliptical orbit towards the Sun, creating a ‘new dawn.’

Yet this is but an extended prelude to a wonderful, improvised whirlwind of Keith Emerson-like organ pyrotechnics merging with playful, grandiose Rick Wakeman-style keyboards. There are hints of jazz influences amongst the complexity that could easily identify to the Greek Goddess of strife and discord who lends the dwarf planet its name. Chris’s galloping drums increasingly drive the music at this point and Dino’s deep, throbbing bass runs add intensity, with sections of resonating piano leading to a stately, yet flowing conclusion with soaring synthesisers taking flight before a satisfying, sustained finale. It was a track that Ken says developed quickly from his improvisations around the various themes, and it certainly rewards the patience of the discerning listener as the track slowly develops over its 19+ minute duration.

By contrast Twenty K hits the listener instantly, with urgent stabs of piano, along with a dynamic rhythm drive the music powerfully before Ken’s vocals announce “I can see life and water winking, to the side. Straight ahead lies a route to take me away.” We are being taken on a 20 km run through the dazzling countryside, and a chance to savour nature and life, but at the same time reminisce about past relationships and contemplate our place in the Universe. Ken’s voice is as confident and assured as anywhere on the album, and its depth and emotion mirror the rising pace and tempo of the song, with Dino and Chris building up the intensity over Ken’s melodic and expressive keyboard patterns. Kelly adds some lovely, contrasting guitar soloing as he picks up the main theme, before twinkling piano add a touch of serenity prior to a marching and swaying tempo that takes us through to rising synthesisers and then some more impressive guitar lines.

Midway, the vocals become more contemplative and deeply yearning. Ken says at the 10 km point there is a bench for the runner to rest and admire the view on the hilltop, which has the Carl Sagan quote ‘Life is but a glimpse into an astounding Universe’ and this marks the start of the runner’s return back home, through the flowering trilliums of the forest expanse. It also marks the start of a simply gorgeous extended section of undulating keyboard wizardry over busy bass and drums that will more than satisfy classic prog rock devotees, with melancholy now replaced with hopeful optimism and a sense of life-affirming wonder. A beautiful coda and thematic resolution see the runner back home safely at the end of the song, with the exaltation of “The time has come, to let it all go”. A memorable track, and for me amongst the very best in all the Monarch Trail musical canon.

‘Side four’ of the album, as it were, is made up of two shorter tracks more modest in their ambition, but still full of charm and stunning musicianship. Moon to Follow was developed and built on by Ken from a demo that Dino sent in, which keeps much of the rhythm, chord and counterpoint ideas, but mixed with the enjoyable sections of retro prog and even elements of jazz and Celtic folk. It starts with the gentle, swaying rhythm of the drums, accompanied with some delicate piano, with Ken’s fragile and breathy vocals imagining a scene of the young Brennan sisters, Enya and Moya (of Clannad fame), looking around the music area of their parents’ pub in Ireland and wondering what stories the walls might have in them from past musicians to inspire them.

There is a rather nice call and response-like vocal refrain of ‘Moon to Follow’ that creates a dreamy ambience. After a vibrant touch of electric guitar from Steve Cochrane, the middle section has a recognisable feel of Keith Emerson-style piano improvisation – supported by engaging bass and flowing drums and percussion. The keyboards build up after this and Ken’s lyrics playfully reference ‘Herne’ from Clannad’s Robin of Sherwood era, together with pipes and whistles, conjure up a Celtic folk atmosphere which takes the song to its conclusion. A track, just under 10 minutes in duration, that the band clearly enjoyed putting together.

Afterthought is a pleasing short instrumental that bookends the album very effectively. Dancing piano notes have both a melancholic and yet optimistic feel to them. Lush keyboard chords build the sound but never dominate the sense of remembrance that is there in much of the album. The spirit of Rick Wakeman’s solo work pervades the track, but Ken says he was also thinking of Jethro Tull’s plaintive Elegy. He even includes a small musical reference to The Oldest of Trees to round things off nicely.

With Four Sides, Monarch Trail have produced their best and most ambitious album to date, with the ‘double album’ concept allowing space for the musical themes and deeply personal lyrics to fully develop and never feel rushed. The symphonic progressive rock instrumentation is stunning and whilst undoubtedly it is the keyboards that will rightly dominate the musical panorama, the poignant and gossamer-like vocals also have their place amongst all the proggy instrumental exuberance. Old-school prog for sure, but lovingly crafted for the modern era by Ken and his talented compatriots. An album that rewards your listening patience and demands repeated plays – it is certainly well worth exploring further on Bandcamp – especially if you are less familiar with Monarch Trail musical vision.

Released: December 17th, 2023.

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Four Sides | Monarch Trail (

Review – Residuos Mentales – A Temporary State of Bliss – by David Edwards

An instrumental prog tour-de-force from the Greek duo

Residuos Mentales is a studio-based instrumental progressive rock project from Athens, Greece, formed by Stratos Morianos (on keyboards) and Alexandros Mantas (on guitars and flute) in 2012. A Temporary State of Bliss is their second release (their debut album was ‘Introspection‘ back in 2018) and were it not for Epic Prog Rock Radio DJ Bob Prigmore giving it generous airplay towards the end of 2023 on his show, it might well have flown under my radar (as so many worthy releases on Bandcamp can do).

I am so pleased that I discovered this glorious musical endeavour, because not only has it turned out to be one of my top albums of 2023, but over the last few months it has significantly grown further in stature and regard with repeated plays. As a result, I felt that a full review was needed at the start of this year to spread the word within the prog rock community of this sparkling jewel.

This is modern instrumental progressive rock of the highest order. Influenced by the classic era bands such as ‘Camel’, ‘Yes’, ‘Genesis’, ‘Pink Floyd’, ‘Gentle Giant’ and ‘King Crimson’ – but it has a fresh, vibrant and contemporary sound which takes in heavier and prog-metal influences to create truly cinematic and panoramic soundscapes, along with Greek influences from their homeland.

There is no doubt that a lyrical content to progressive rock does provide a compositional structure which the instrumentation may not be able to do on its own. As a result, many instrumental releases can be long, drawn-out affairs which lack variety and depth once the key themes are rendered. Keeping the music complex and ever changing can avoid this, but then there is a danger of the music becoming merely technical and virtuoso grandstanding, lacking continuity and emotion. Residuous Mentales have successfully avoided both these pitfalls with A Temporary State of Bliss, producing an album full of epic themes, unexpected twists and turns, and, quality musicianship, without sacrificing the emotional heft that the music can deliver.

By 2016 Alexandros and Stratos (who is also a member of the acclaimed Greek prog band ‘Verbal Delirium’) had composed enough material for 3 full albums, but it was the more recent output that comprised their Introspection debut album. The material on A Temporary State of Bliss, pre-dates that, but has gone through significant changes in the studio, led by producers Vangelis Spanakakis and Dimitris Radis, and then revised and adjusted over the extended lockdowns of the Covid pandemic. In fact, Dimitris has contributed guitars and bass to the final album, whilst Yiannis Iliakis (from the Greek prog rock band ‘Ciccada’) has supplied the dynamic drums and percussion that embolden the whole album. Other guest musicians add their sparkle here and there, to create a very cohesive and exciting release.  

A Temporary State of Bliss starts wonderfully with the first, and longest, of the two epics on the album, called The Stuff of Dreams. Sub-divided into seven sections, each with a distinctive musical character, this 17-minute tour-de-force is never allowed to drift along aimlessly, as many such extended instrumental tracks can do at times. It begins atmospherically enough with the soothing sound of repeating, futuristic, ‘Vangelis’-like synth patterns, supported by resonating bass synths, as a simple, melodic guitar-led pattern slowly develops. The music then builds majestically with a rich flurry of keyboards from Stratos, before the tempo quickens with strummed acoustic guitar, accompanied by soaring and exuberant, multi-layered keyboards and dynamic drumming from Yiannis. 

The subsequent interplay between guitar and keyboards is a joy to behold, with soaring and sweeping electric guitar soloing and keyboards flights of fancy, but with shifts in tempo throughout. Stabs of piano, rich bass and percussive excursions maintain the variety, producing a sound at times bright and uplifting, and then dreamy and blissful – all held together with intriguing musical transitions and a myriad of twists and turns. While the influence of classic 70s prog is undoubtedly there, especially early ‘Camel’ (I also picked up hints of classic ‘Mike Oldfield’ midway amongst other musical echoes), it is all directed through a more contemporary lens, keeping the music fresh, vibrant and delightfully unpredictable.

The track takes on a much darker character later on, as some dense guitar riffing and eerie solo notes, combine with a creeping bass guitar, nervy, discordant piano and ticking percussive sounds conjuring up unsettling ‘Red’-era King Crimson atmospherics. The nightmarish trip to Hades and back is cemented by haunting vocals from Maria Tseva intertwining with dynamic synths. The manic intensity and pace build and shifts back and forth, following Dimitris’s Rush-like guitar soloing, but there is still time for Alexandros to deliver a soothing, closing Floydian guitar solo to bring us out of the darkness. The pace doesn’t drop though, and the track gallops towards a satisfying fade out with spritely drums, a repeating guitar pattern and lush piano and keyboards. Simply marvellous!

The Missing Part provides a welcome lull in the musical ensemble intensity but is equally impressive, despite it being the shortest track on the album at under 6 minutes). Stately piano from Stratos and a melodic, fluid and yearning electric guitar create real magic over the background wash of keyboards. The spirit of Andy Latimer resonates, before a beautiful, haunting trumpet solo from Vaggelis Katsarelis (written by Stratos), brings a late-night jazz feel to proceedings, as modal piano chords anchor the music firmly. However, just when you think the track has peaked, Alexandros delivers a simply stunning, melancholic and deeply personal guitar solo to melt your heart, before the pace quickens and trumpet and piano sign off this little musical gem. The song title remained the same throughout the relatively quick compositional period and refers, according to Alexandros, to the missing parts of our lives.

A Series of Self-Correcting Errors might be shorter than the opening epic by 5 minutes, but it is another stunningly diverse, ambitious and exhilarating instrumental that never rests on its thematic laurels for too long. Originally titled ‘Void, Prog and There Again’, Stratos, along with Alexandros, shaped the musical journey over nine months and the composition was driven by the need to make each specific part as interesting to listen to as possible. Their thinking was: “If this song would come on the radio, would you reach for the knob and change the station? If the answer was yes, we would scrap it and come up with something else!”

Gentle, slightly off-kilter, acoustic guitar playing is joined by a layering of electric guitar and piano, with string-like synthesisers building up tension, but nothing quite prepares you with the sudden explosion of raucous, swirling and devilish electric guitar over a bustling bass and drum rhythm (echoes of ‘Rush’ and specifically ‘La Villa Strangiato’ for sure). The music takes a smoother course temporarily, but the dynamic beat still maintains the frantic intensity, with more complex guitar and keyboard interplay, before the prog-metal power returns and the twinkling, descending piano and keyboards take us down the proverbial rabbit hole to places unknown.

The music becomes more serene and pastoral in nature for a time, flowing beautifully – propelled by dreamy synthesiser sounds and an effortlessly smooth guitar solo from Alexandros over luscious Mellotron-like chords. Things seem reconciled and at peace, but then a subtle but more menacing tones begins to pervade the soundscape and we are propelled back into full-on, dynamic and wild section full of driving drums, ethereal flute sounds (from Leonidas Sarantopoulos), powerful guitar shredding complexity from George Karayiannis, and a wickedly catchy, funky Hammond organ that ‘Keith Emerson’ would have been proud of.    

After some musical stops and starts the final section is heralded by a wonderfully dark and dirty bass rhythm from Dimitris that provides the impetus for the driving beat and the subsequent urgency and cinematic sweep the track delivers, with Dimitris also behind the expansion guitar solo that closes this stunning epic.

The album closes impressively with Impending Catastrophe and takes us on a voyage from calmer waters to impending doom in only 9 minutes. It begins with tranquil, twinkling nursery-like keyboards, over lush background chords and serene flute notes, and the sense of innocent serenity is emphasised by soft acoustic guitar patterns. However, the introduction of ‘Spock’s Beard’-style keyboards, resonating guitar patterns and some punchy brass instrument programming provides a drive and sway to the music – with a darker tone set by more prog-metal guitar riffs. Suddenly, we are in a full-blown ‘proggy’ extravaganza of melodic guitar soloing and delicious flurries of keyboards to savour fully. It would have been an easy option to have prolonged this charming section further, but the track’s tempo eases, and a rich church organ sound permeates the music prior to the introduction of dreamy chiming bell notes.

There is a mid-way majestic rise in intensity followed by a galloping sense of threat, and even an interim moment of tranquillity produced by the expressive flute, melodic piano and evocative keyboard chords cannot hold back the impending catastrophe to come. Orchestral-like sounds shape the symphonic prog splendour typified by Stratos’s rich ‘Six Wives’ ‘Rick Wakeman’-like keyboards accompanying the rising drum tempo, before the final diminution and eulogy of the final church organ notes. The dramatic atmosphere seems to hang in the air as album finally closes.

Over 4 tracks, and a total running time of 44 minutes, the album is perfect for listening to in one sitting, and never feels like it overstays its welcome at any time. If intelligent and modern instrumental progressive rock appeals to you, A Temporary State of Bliss will not disappoint. Classic era prog and symphonic rock themes mingle with more contemporary influences, including touches of prog metal, jazz, Greek folk and even a hint of funk, with the music constantly weaving and displaying stylistic shifts, but without losing its dynamism, emotional content and unique identity. Highly recommended! 

Released October 27th, 2023.

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Music | Residuos Mentales (