Moon Halo’s debut album ‘Chroma’ comes from the creative minds of… Iain Jennings (Mostly Autumn)on keyboards, Marc Atkinson (Riversea) vocals and David Clements (Riversea) bass. With Alex Chromarty (ex-Mostly Autumn/Riversea) drums and Martin Ledger (Heather Findlay Band) on guitars. Guest Appearances from Anne-Marie Helder, Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, Janine Atkinson, Tammy Pawson and Micky Gibson.
One of the things I love about music is that when you think you’ve heard the best release of the year, another album comes along and knocks your conclusions right off the mantelpiece. Music should be ever evolving and changing that’s why, in my honest opinion, all great music is naturally progressive at heart.
I think what we want, and get, from music changes as we get older and change ourselves. I was a New Romantic in the 80’s and then became a Metalhead and Hard Rocker in the 90’s before blues and Prog Rock took my fancy into the new Millenium. I’ve listened to so much music over the years, some I have loved and some has disappointed me at a basic level.
Therefore, I can honestly say, it doesn’t matter what genre it is, good music will always be welcomed in my house.
Now I won’t hide the fact that Marc Atkinson is good friend of mine, he even sang at my 50th Birthday. I have followed him from his solo days through the wonderful Riversea and now bang up to date with Moon Halo and he has one of the greatest voices I have ever had the privilege of listening to.
Marc has got together with some like minded musical souls in Iain Jennings and David Clements and they have created a new musical project that is somewhat different to what they’ve all been involved in before.
‘Chroma’ is thirteen songs of perfectly crafted music with the honeyed tones of Marc’s vocals laid elegantly over the top. There is a focused energy and vibe to the album, an electrical charge that you feel flowing though you form the first track to the last.
The Web opens the record with a thoughtful and intensive feel, stylish and polished and you get the first taste of Martin Ledger‘s hefty prowess on the guitar, it soon becomes a signature throughout the album. Iain Jennings slick keyboard skills give Seize The Day a jazzy, funked up vibe that’s enhanced by the excellent backing vocals and edgy riffing. Croma is a wistful, sombre instrumental full of dignity and grace, I’m already finding that it doesn’t take long to get drawn into this rather tasty release and we’re only three songs in!
The heartfelt beauty of The Veil tugs at your heartstrings, Marc gives a vocal performance full of pain and sorrow and the guitar solo is just magnificent. There’s a an immediacy and bang up to date aura to the hard edged and rocky Parachute, a song that could grace the setlist of a Bryan Adams gig and one that puts a big grin on your face. Somebody Save Us is refined and stylish, full of lush layers of smmooth as you like music and overlaid by the, once-again, excellent vocals.
Moon Halo give us a brilliant rendition of modern R&B with the polished What’s Your Name, a song you find yourself quite happily dancing and singing along to as David Clements’ funky bass lines and Ledger’s pin sharp guitar drive it along. Stirring and soulful, Seventh Heaven is one of my favourite tracks on the album. There’s a tenderness to the vocals and an impassioned feel to the way the music is delivered. A moment of contemplation takes you as you listen to the plaintive backing vocals and dreamlike guitar, such a powerfully nostalgic song. 80’s dynamic keyboards open the brash, strident feeling Let Me Out, a track that adds bluster with it’s slap-bass rhythm and Kraftwerk-esque solo, hang on, who let Level 42 in the building?
The vibrant Awoken wouldn’t be amiss on one of Marc’s solo releases and then we are led into the final trio of songs by the epic feeling Across The Dark Divide, a refined, tasteful piece of music that has vitality and soul deep at its core. This feeling of individuality and substance flows into Rise Up, another modern soul and R&B track that wears its vivacity like the quintessential sharp suit.
All good things must come to an end and ‘Chroma’ is closed out by the superb Don’t Let It End Like This. At times tender and graceful, at others powerful and monumental, it is one of those songs that stands out as soon as you hear it. Mesmerising and anthemic, it certainly provides a perfect ending to the album and the guitar heavy play out is just inspired.
I love music for how it can surprise you, lift you up and seem to make the world a better place to be and it’s albums like ‘Chroma’ that continue to feed my passion. Moon Halo have painstakingly crafted and lovingly delivered a true musical work of art and one that immediately lifts your mood and salves your soul, you should buy this record as your world will be a better place for having it.
‘A journey that takes us to the ends of our lives,
A race never lost, never won.
More than a dream, less than a vision,
Adventure again just begun.’
These hopeful, inspiring lines are from The Dream Complete, the first new Unitopia song since these Australian Progressive Rock masters sadly dissolved as a band in 2012. What appeared to be a total schism with little hope of resolution a few years ago now appears to have healed enough for Mark Trueack and Sean Timms to work together again on this new song. It is included as the finale to this triple CD remastered re-release on I.Q.’sGiant Electric Pea Records of their 2005 debut album. Resplendent with beautiful and striking new artwork by Ed Unitsky and interesting booklet notes, this is a truly sumptuous package offering far more than merely a polished up version of the original album.
After the undoubted glories of two of the finest progressive rock albums since 2000 in the shapes of ‘The Garden’ (2008) and ‘Artificial’ (2010) it seems a fitting coda to their sadly all too short lifespan as a band that they should re-release their rarer, less well known but promising debut album with some excellent additional tracks and some interesting re-workings and remixes. The original album ‘More than a Dream’ appears to have been a rather curious mixture of styles, but there were very clear indications of the great potential that later flowered with this excellent band. Justify is the zenith of this album, an epic track bubbling with rock power, hook-filled melodies and memorable lines – it even includes a cello solo (courtesy of Jacqui Walkden) and the ethereal child soprano of Holly Trueack, daughter of vocalist and lyric writer, Mark Trueack. What more could you want from a song… apart from Pat Schirripa’s powerful and gentle guitars embellishing a piece featuring great keyboards from Sean Timms. This track truly pointed to Unitopia’s future greatness.
Another side of Unitopia is revealed in the beautiful title track More than a Dream, opening with a lovely piano motif from Timms and Trueack’s soulful, distinctive voice, delightfully backed by the Adelaide Art Orchestra. A captivating chorus in a richly laden song echoes Supertramp at their best. Common Goalis certainly an ear catching opening with striking drum stabs and an atmospheric keyboard drenched intro before the piece thunders along with an insistent driving rhythm and some fine vocals from Mark Trueack, introducing the optimistic and positive themes which have been the hallmark of his lyrics ever since. What may be more surprising to some are the horn effects that underpin much of the song to great effect. This songs segues into a percussive throb and the fine soprano sax intro from the now sadly deceased Mike Stewart in the catchy Fate. The chorus is a real ear worm, similar to the later Lives Go Round, so it is no surprise to read in the booklet notes that Sean Timms wrote music for adverts, as this song and much of Unitopia’s canon of songs are notable for their memorable hooks and lines. Accessible songs remained paramount to this band throughout it’s career, even at it’s most epic and progressive.
This is certainly a diverse album with the orchestral intro to the light Take Good Care, which sounds like it should have been in ‘The Lion King’ musical, contrasting with the gargantuan bass of Con Delo and guitar riffing of the more rocking Ride– although these do feel lesser songs of a new band looking for an identity.
Unitopia have always been capable of moments of contemplation and beauty as shown in Slow Down and the delicate ending of Still Here… and that’s probably where the first disc should have ended! Having reached a lovely atmospheric conclusion to the original album it is mystifying why they decided to follow it with the eponymous Unitopia track. This sounds like a big band number which Frank Sinatra would have delighted in – Trueack and the band can certainly swing along in great style, but there’s a time and a place for everything. The booklet notes that they left this off the original album as it’s feel didn’t fit the rest of the album – they were right then, and should have stuck to their first instincts now. In hindsight perhaps they should have found somewhere on the additional tracks for this rather cheesey relic of their early days. Similarly, There’s a Placeis a touching song commissioned for a charity album and featuring Sean Timms ex-wife, Neusa, on lead vocals. However, as an admirable but frankly virtual copy of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ it does not fit as an addition to this album and would have been better placed on the additional discs.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to focus too much on these two slight mis-steps tacked on to this album, as it is clear that ‘More than Dream’ was a fine debut clearly indicating the great promise of this band. In some ways it does feel like a band trying to find it’s way and it feels they were not fully formed. Perhaps it is significant that Matt Williams had not yet joined the band on guitars. Fine as the guitar contributions are to this debut album from a variety of guitarists there is not the singular style and drive that Matt undoubtedly added to the overall sound on their later albums.
The second disc in this release does feature Matt Williams as he ‘re-works’ four of the songs, particularly giving Common Goaland Fatemore of a harder, rock edge with some great guitar work. In contrast his version of Justifyis more ethereal . These ‘reworkings’ were part of an earlier plan for Matt to re-work the whole album in what feels like a curious attempt to present an alternative past as if he had been part of the original album. Similarly Sean Timms presents some of his own reworkings, including a more sedate version of Ridewithout the driving bass and guitar riff… which then strangely mutates in to some sort of Zappa-esque / King Crimson type ‘wig out’! However, Con Delo’s excellent bass is restored and given more prominence on the ‘Extended 321 edit’ of a CD single. Some of the other Sean Timms reworkings are much more dance inflected with varying success, ranging from the painful More than a Dream from 2006 to the much more engaging and superior 2017 remix of Lives Go Round, featuring an excellent keyboard solo. 2004’s dance mix of Still Here is a little dated but enjoyable. In truth these ‘re-workings’ are varied and will divide opinion – some will delight in the different perspectives offered, whereas some may wince at some of the ‘left turns’ the producers have taken with the material. These views may be influenced by whether one already has a relationship with the original album. Whatever one’s stance it is also probably true to say that aside from ‘ultra fans’ it is doubtful whether listeners will often turn to these alternative versions compared to the quality of most of the original songs on disc one.
The third set of this impressive set offers the most interesting offerings, which definitely make it worth it obtaining a copy of this excellent value release. Unitopia have previously contributed to rather obscure Progressive rock compilations, which have been rather expansive with a vast range of often obscure prog rock artists. Wisely, Unitopia have decided to make these two epic tracks available in this set. The Outsider originally from ‘The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft: A Synphonic Collection’ is a piece of gothic musical hammer horror, filled with eerie dialogue and atmospheric music, contrasting brooding lighter passages with impressive darker driving rock elements. Similarly the truly epic Day 6, Tale9from the Italian compendium ’Decameron: Ten Days in 110 Novellas – Part 2’ is a widescreen, cinematic piece described in sweeping progressive rock passages of outstanding keyboards and guitars. The previously unreleased but also atmospheric The Haunted Stormfollows to make a fine triptych of rarely or never heard songs exceeding 30 minutes with so much to delight in… and it’s curious in itself that they allowed such outstanding work to be unreleased or be relatively sidelined on such projects.
This Lifeis a promising 1996 Mark Trueack demo of a song that later appeared on ‘The Garden’, and follows a middle section of this disc which the sleeve notes honestly admit fall in to the category ‘what were we thinking of???’ The four ‘dance mixes’ would probably have been better left off the album (and perhaps would have allowed the two rather incongruous tracks added on to disc one to find a less jarring and sympathetic sequencing?) Unitopia fans will lap up this album, but If you are unfamiliar with the band it would be a good introduction as a gateway to their later truly classic albums (and you may ask yourselves why didn’t I know about this band?!).
The final song The Dream Complete brings us full circle with a fine new song featuring Trueack, Timms and Williams and thankfully indicates a healing of relationships and a positive reflection on the past. Since 2012 Trueack and Williams have formed United Progressive Fraternity, and Timms has formed Southern Empire. Both bands have produced quality debut albums… but for some fans there is still the nagging feeling that together as Unitopia they really found something special, hitting the heights musically and spiritually. The lyrics of this song and the sleeve notes do seem to hint that perhaps the Unitopia story may not be totally complete –maybe, maybe not – we can dream, can’t we?
“I really don’t think in the past. I sit down with many friends at dinner, and they like to talk about the good old days. I’m respectful of the good old days, but I find myself spending very little time reminiscing. I’m really looking forward.” – David Bren.
Through numerous conversations, discussions and mild arguments on social media this last month, I have come to see this as indicative of my view on the music industry and, particularly, the progressive genre.
I wrote a few words about this, agreed, in the heat of the moment and, despite them mellowing somewhat over the last week or two, this was the gist of it:
“My dear friends if we always keep looking over our shoulders at what has gone before then there will be no future for the music. Yes, enjoy the greats of the past but please invest some of your precious time and hard-earned money in some of the smaller artists who are producing the here and the now and, more than that even, the future……”
True, some of these modern artists would not even be writing and performing their music if it wasn’t for the influence of the leviathans of the past and we should respect them for that and for what they are producing now but, we really need to concentrate on the present for this genre (and many others, I would imagine, but I’m concentrating on my favourite!) to flourish and not disappear into the musical ether.
I hope, in some little way, that by concentrating on the independent artists and small labels that I can contribute to widening the general music fan’s consciousness when it comes to the new music that they produce and release.
To that extent I, once again, delve into the musical treasure trove to find some wonderment for your delectation and, this time, it is Syracuse, NY band Unified Past who get ‘Progradared’ (so to speak!).
I have been a long time fan of this excellent group of musicians ever since reviewing their last release ‘Spots’ for Lady Obscure Music Magazine and I was very excited when, earlier this year, guitarist Stephen Speelman first informed me that they had a new album coming out, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’, in the autumn.
Unified Past is a power progressive rock band from Syracuse, New York. ‘Shifting the Equilibrium’ is the band’s 7th release and their third for MelodicRevolution Records. The CD is a 6 panel digi pack containing a 12 page booklet of lyrics and photos, designed by international fantasy artist Ed Unitsky, who also designed “Spots” in 2013.
The band consists of Stephen Speelman (guitars, keys, vocals), Dave Mickelson (bass) and Victor Tassone (drums and percussion). For this new release they were joined by grammy award winning vocalist Phil Naro, showing that the band is continuing to grow and evolve and that they are a band that prog rock fans should really get to know.
Guitarist Stephen possesses a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, bass player Dave is currently a member of Joey Belladonna’s Chief Big Way and thunderous drummer Victor has appeared on several independent artist releases as well, including Corvus Stone and Andy John Bradford’s Oceans 5.
The album opens with Erasure Principle, a tentative percussion and keys based intro gives way to the thunderous guitar of Stephen Speelman and Victor Tassone’s powerful drumming. This is what you call ‘Power-Prog’ as the heavy riffage continues, surrounded by some rather nice technical elements. When Phil’s voice joins the throng, it gives it a very Rush-like feel, especially with the keyboards driving the song along. Some rather excellent instrumental interludes join together the vocal parts and it is immediately obvious that Naro’s distinctive vocals have added a further dimension to the band’s signature sound. Speelman goes into guitar shredding mode with an excellent solo in the middle of a more laid back interlude, giving a short break, before the flood gates are once again opened and the full force of Unified Past is thrust upon you. Upbeat, effervescent and assured, it opens the album with a purely positive vibe.
A really striking keyboard run, accompanied by another booming riff opens Smile (In the Face of Adversity), Phil repeats the title in a lazy repeated circle and the song seems to tread water before the blue touch paper is lit and off we go on a hectic riff-led journey once more. Excellent little squirreling guitar runs grab your attention and reel you in to join the effusive musical thrill ride. The dense production leading to a wall to wall block of intense sound, staccato, random keyboard parts and sinister guitar breaks give the whole song a moody aura and Phil’s vocal has a slight pleading note to it, appealing to your better side. The catchy chorus is underpinned by the chugging riff that drives the song along at a break-neck pace. The musical breaks haul everything back to a more sedate tempo as the atmosphere takes on an edgy feel. Naro’s intensive vocal delivery will not be to everyone’s taste but I feel that it works perfectly with the solid, forceful musical delivery. An intricate, restless guitar solo adds menace before the song breaks out with the dynamic keyboards and looms ominously above you. Quite a dark hued musical adventure that comes to an enigmatic close, I’ve paid the entrance fee and I am enjoying the ride….
Etched in Stone begins with a nicely subdued acoustic guitar followed by refined keyboards that add a note of distinction to the track. The vocals join in, quite heartfelt and earnest, adding a cultured note. The ‘Power-Prog’ takes a back seat initially but it isn’t long before Tassone’s drumming starts to resonate around the inside of your skull, purposeful and compelling. Speelman’s guitar adds its usual stylish flourishes and you really get to hear the majesty of Dave Mickelson’s fluent bass playing as it lays the foundations for the rest of this enjoyable musical jaunt. Another forceful and energetic riff adds the necessary chops to Phil Naro’s increasingly potent vocal delivery, add all this energizing melodic brilliance to the intricate progressive elements already in the melting pot and you get a wild smorgasbord of harmonious delights. There is no denying the technical artistry of these musicians but it is their ability to write a damn good song that always seems to come to the fore for me, adding the undoubted vocal drama of Phil Naro has really upped their game by quite a large leap.
A highly charged and volatile keyboard and guitar combination launches Peace Remains in This World, a really aggressive and magnetic opening and Phil’s dominant voice carries on the efficacious feel. Touches of Rush and Trevor Rabin era Yes abound to my ears. The lively, electrifying interplay between the keys and guitar that overly some more impressive bass work from Dave Mickelson is a definite highlight as this track takes definitively heavier progressive route. Intricacies and ‘noodly’ bits ramped up to eleven are at the core of the song, a darker and moodier track than those that have gone before. Once again, the superb bass playing anchors the whole sound as the song moves into what is almost a stylish jam session, I get the impression that this would be a killer track live, both for the band and the audience. A really dominant and dense musical experience that leaves its mark on your psyche as it comes to a strident conclusion.
Let’s go on a metaphysical journey, Deviation From a Theme (of Harmonic Origin) sounds very existential and begins with quite a thought provoking, if rather loud, introduction. It is a rather fine instrumental that gets your grey matter working as it careers from place to place with its own destination in mind. An exploration of the deeper parts of humankind’s inner being through music, the smooth segues from intricate and convoluted to smooth and calculated are pin sharp as these musicians deliver their ‘A’ game right on cue. Speelman’s guitar is animated in every sense and punches the song forcefully along with an intense depth of intuition. The polished rhythm section of Tassone and Mickelson seems inspired as they choreograph this great track at ground level. The Rush influences can be heard throughout, like a nod to the greats of the past but they are integrated into Unified Past’s own sound to create something dexterous, eye-opening and quite superb.
The final track on this discerning musical adventure is Today is the Day and sees the band deliver an uplifting close to the album. A euphoric opening dominated by Naro’s vocal leads you gently into the song as the classy music delivers a wonderful hopeful note. Musical sunshine runs across your mind as the track increases in expectancy and emotion. A song full of hope, longing and optimism and all that is inherent in the lyrics that Phil Naro espouses so fervently. This song is more about the spirit and meaning of the lyrics, the musicians seem happy to take a back seat and let the words do the talking, yet they never take their foot of the pedal. The demonstrative bass work and energising fervour of the drums give the verse that added lustre and Speelman’s admirable guitar could almost be singing itself as it comes to life in short virtuoso slots throughout the song. A contemplative, serious instrumental section adds a nice counterpoint to the lighter note of the early part of the track yet it soon sheds that steely eyed demeanor to flare brightly with expectation once more. All good things must come to an end, unfortunately and this auspicious song comes to a triumphant close.
Powerful, energising music that makes you sit up and listen, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’ is most definitely Unified Past’s most impressive release to date. A group of exemplary musicians whose songwriting has reached a new peak, add in the dynamism of Phil Naro’s voice and you have near-perfect ‘Power-Prog’. Will it appeal to veryone? I doubt it but, those that do appreciate this band’s excellent music have really dropped lucky this time, well done chaps!