Review – This Winter Machine – Kites – by Leo Trimming

Kites can be blown about in many unpredictable directions but somehow they remain tethered to the ground, and that appears to be a perfect symbol of the journey of the third This Winter Machine album ‘Kites‘, which is due out on 25th October. Let’s face it, the world has taken a rather unexpected battering in the last couple of years, but, on another level, This Winter Machine have also faced considerable upheaval in that period, leaving the main man Al Winter to have to recruit a whole new band around him. Such disruption would have spelled the end of many bands but on the evidence of this album it appears that Al has used it as an opportunity for the band to be re-born.

Kites’ is still recognisably in the same vein of the This Winter Machine sound developed on ‘The Man Who Never Was‘ (2016) and ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ (2019), but there is a different feel to this album, with echoes of the 1980’s threading through an album suffused with nostalgia, regret and some defiance.

Al Winter has described the theme of the album as:

“how we fight against life and the directions it blows us in… It’s about how we fight against being blown in the wind, but we don’t realise until we look back that these were some of the best days of our lives… we were buffeted by the wind but we always had the rope anchoring us to the ground… …and some day we’ll all be kites for the last time.

So, it would appear that, buffeted by circumstances, Al was the rope that tethered This Winter Machine so it was not lost to the Four Winds. However, the question is has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

There is definitely a whole new feel around the double guitar attack (with a decidedly more fluid style) and the keyboard sound is significantly changed. The departure of keyboardist Mark Numan from the original version of This Winter Machine was potentially the most significant issue for the band as he was a central member of the band in terms of writing the music. Two songs on this new album, This Heart’s Alive and Broken, still feature music written by the talented Numan. Indeed, Mark Numan’s original keyboards can still be heard on the yearning, heart-breaking and beautiful Broken. Al Winter has partly solved the keyboard issue for this release by recruiting the talented Pat Ganger-Sanders of the band Drifting Sun to guest on keyboards for the majority of the album, along with Reuben Jones on the final two tracks of the album.

Apparently, the search for a long-term keyboardist continues but Ganger-Sanders definitely provides some high-quality input, particularly on his self-penned opening piano intro Le Jour D’ Avant, and, in contrast, some great, towering organ work on the following dramatic two part piece The Storm. This blockbuster opens with sinister apocalyptic warning announcements, some rumbling drums from by Alan Wilson and a sinister bass line from Dave Close that sounds like its slouching towards Bethlehem. Killer guitar riffs blast in and Ganger-Sanders adds Gothic pillars of organ to the structure of this epic sounding song. Meanwhile, Al Winter sounds like he’s bellowing defiantly into the teeth of a howling gale, such is the passion he is putting into the vocals. However, we seem to hit calmer waters with a sudden change in tempo and atmosphere with a gorgeous fluid guest guitar solo from Mark Abrahams of the legendary band Wishbone Ash, around which Ganger-Sanders weaves eerie, shimmering synth lines.

This lovely section fades away to the sound of water and acoustic guitar for part two of The Storm. In this calm eye of the Storm wistful, heartfelt words from Winter are framed in a delightful acoustic pastoral setting, with some lovely subtle bass work from Close. The full power of the Storm soon returns with an infectious wall of sound from the band as guitars and keyboards combine magnificently with the rhythm section, before a flowing guitar solo by Dom Bennison takes us towards an echoing guitar and synth coda which almost feels like light reflected in water.

That liquid sense is maintained in the short but smooth (almost jazzy in places) bass led instrumental Limited, written by bassist Dave Close. This feels like a linking piece as does the later much more dramatic Bennison written short piece Whirlpool in which Ganger- Sanders in particular shines in the musical maelstrom alongside Bennison’s lead guitar. Enjoyable as they were, there was a sense for me that these two shorter instrumental pieces sound like they could have been parts of more ambitious extended pieces. Maybe in future as this formation of This Winter Machine becomes more established, they may develop such pieces further… or maybe they just like them the way they are – what do I know?!! (😊)

This Heart’s Alive has been kicking around as a song for some time (the band spoke about this song as due to appear on ‘A Tower of Clocks‘ to this reviewer in an interview in 2018) but I can hear why it was held back for this album as the style very much fits the melodic and melancholic feel of much of this latest release. It commences rather pastorally with acoustic guitar and subtle synths and then flows along lushly with gorgeous harmony vocals for the refrain (and even a short beautifully sung acapella interjection later on). An understated and tasteful guitar piece from Bennison adds emotion and class – he really is quite a find for Al Winter and the band, complimenting Winter’s lovely vocal melodies with Andy Latimer and Steve Rothery type guitar flights. Some may feel the song out stays it’s welcome a little with its repeated refrain, whilst others will delight in its mantra like progress.

This Winter Machine tread rather new ground on the gorgeous love song Sometimes, which features the inimitable vocal talent of Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales and the legendary band Camel. This lovely song is testament to the fine song writing talent of Al Winter and also shows a generosity of spirit and insight into what other artists could bring to his work that he invited Peter to sing one of the best songs of the album. There is a distinctly Folk feel to the song with an acoustic guitar strumming as Jones imparts a great vocal melody and then is joined for a rich vocal harmony refrain. The band come in with finely judged contributions as the song builds towards a beguiling violin solo from Frenchman Eric Bouillette, who usually plays electric guitar with The Room and Nova Cascade. It’s an infectiously lovely sounding ballad.

Pleasure and Purpose, alongside The Storm and Sometimes, is one of the standout tracks from the album, and may be one of the best ‘songs’ that This Winter Machine have ever recorded as it skilfully and intuitively combines a touching set of emotional lyrics with memorable melodies and skilful instrumentation. It is also a great showcase for Winter’s classy vocals, smoothly ranging from fragility to real passion. This is a song which has really burrowed into my soul and has been on constant repeat for some days now.

Al Winter has shared the background to the song as follows:

“…it’s about how a lack of clear communication brings an end to relationships. Things that can be sorted easily grow until they become unmanageable. It often means there’s no going back”

It is remarkable that often the best songs are also the saddest, and this is a piece imbued with a great sense of regret with powerful lyrics touching on deep emotions:

I just needed Forgiveness, A Little Restraint, I needed the time so I could just explain

All the Pleasure and Purpose tumbling down, Now there’s nothing but anger, covered in shame

And I finally had to accept the blame, All the Colours and Virtue just left on the ground

At the zenith of Winter’s vocals This Winter Machine take the song onto more musical heights as first Simon D’Vali plays a stratospheric guitar solo which Dom Bennison then joins in a flowing dual guitar harmony. Bennison then takes on the second half of the solo in an equally rippling fluid guitar display before the piece suitably fades wistfully – it’s a wonderful song.

‘Kites’ concludes with the upbeat title song, commencing with an impassioned yell from Al Winter – yeah, it has been quite a year or two, Al! Whilst much of the album has explored more melancholic and introspective areas Kites feels more defiant and triumphant:

So all of the people for all of the time, You can’t go thinking it’s the end of the line,

There’s gotta be something that we can do anytime

This would make a great live song to stir the crowd, with the quality rhythm section of Wilson and Close driving this rock song on. In the latter half Bennison throws in another great guitar solo before a curious vocal sample haunts the melody. Al Winter has given two explanations for this mysterious haunting voice in the background as either ‘a disembodied voice recorded in a Haworth graveyard at midnight on the longest day…’ Alternatively and more prosaically he explained ‘it’s an early advert for an Edison Phonograph… it sounded quite romantic and nostalgic’. I think I prefer to believe the first explanation!

Well, what’s the answer to the original question: has this new incarnation of the band managed to make a successful transition with their new album?

As this album is called ‘Kites’ it may be worth recalling that Benjamin Franklin once rather eccentrically in the 1750’s reportedly flew a Kite in an electric storm to try to collect electricity through the line into a metal key in a Leyden jar (don’t try this at home, kids!) It could be said that similarly, Al Winter sent this new version of This Winter Machine aloft with ‘Kites’, and that the album has similarly been charged with a surge of electricity and new life. Exposed to the elements alone Al Winter formed a talented new band and has clearly drawn great energy and inspiration from this new This Winter Machine. After a torrid couple of years generally and for the band it is utterly remarkable just what a high-quality album This Winter Machine have created. ‘Kites‘ will rightly sail high to be regarded as one of the best melodic progressive rock albums of 2021, and the future looks very bright for the band… as long as someone holds on to the rope!

TRACK LISTING:

  1. Le Jour D’Avant                       (1.40)
  2. The Storm (Part One)             (5.37)
  3. The Storm (Part Two)             (4.37)
  4. Limited                                      (2.00)
  5. Pleasure and Purpose            (6.35)
  6. This Heart’s Alive                    (6.31)
  7. Whirlpool                                 (2.17)
  8. Broken                                      (4.58)
  9. Sometimes                               (4.05)
  10. Kites                                          (7.19)

Released 25th October, 2021

Order direct from the band here:

Kites – CD Album PRE ORDER – This Winter Machine

Review – The Room – Caught By The Machine

“The expansive soundscape driven into their third offering blows the gates wide open with a wealth of captivating melodic prog rock tracks, delivered with a quintessentially British level of class and sincerity despite the very serious and thought-provoking undertones etched into the music.”

You’ve got to love a bit of PR blurb (well I do, because I used to write it!) and this gem, delivered with the latest release from UK based sextet The Room, certainly does capture the imagination.

On the subject of the album’s title, The Room comment that the concept of being ‘Caught By The Machine’ directly relates to the feeling one experiences when the state, a job, a relationship or even a drug begins to control their every living moment. It is a reflection on many aspects of the modern world, for better or worse.

Formed in 2010 by Andy Rowe along with Martin Wilson and Steve Anderson from neo-prog rock band Grey Lady Down, The Room never fail to deliver an outstanding performance – both in the studio and in a live environment.

I am going nowhere near the age old “Is it Prog?” debate with this review, I am judging everything on its own merits, after all it doesn’t matter what genre you may or may not think it sits in. There’s a simple question that needs to be asked, is it any good?

Well Martin Wilson’s vocals are on top form throughout, he has a commanding and powerful vocal style that really demands attention, the fact that is is very melodic just adds to the exciting mix. The addition of Eric Bouillette’s guitar, along with band stalwart Steve Anderson, adds a harder rock edge and some very impressive solos and the rhythm section of Chris York and Andy Rowe is as impressive and dependable as ever. April 2018 saw the departure of keyboardist Steve Checkley and the arrival of new keys maestro Mark Dixon who has fitted in seamlessly.

‘Caught By The Machine’ is a very tightly created collection of ten songs that have been crafted meticulously to the last detail (the Production by prog legend John Mitchell is particularly notable), excellent songwriting giving us gems like opener Bodies on the Road, The Golden Ones and Vanished. Tracks that flow perfectly from beginning to end with catchy chorus and exemplary musicianship.

The Room have created their own distinctive sound from debut release ‘Open Fire’ through to the sophomore album ‘Beyond the Gates of Bedlam’ and that continues on the latest release but here it has matured and become something very classy indeed. Driving guitars, swirling keyboards, a dynamic rhythm section and Wilson’s urgent vocals creating highs of the likes of Run, Drowning In Sound and my particular favourite: It’s Not My Home.

The reggae guitar infused Broken seems a little out of place to me but, other wise, there are no low points in this memorable album. I got to the end of the darkly delicious final track Bloodstream and just pressed play again.

‘Caught By The Machine’ shows a band who are evolving into a major player. Inventive, impressive and superbly crafted, the simple answer is yes, it is very good indeed…

Released 22nd February 2019

Purchase from The Room’s website here: https://theroom.band/

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