Review – Fractal Mirror – Close to Vapour – by Jez Denton

Pop music often gets a bad press; often because it is thought of as being bland, uninspiring and repetitive, and often with good cause. However, pop music can be anything but those criticisms with brilliant melodies, lush production and funny and quirky lyrics. Right from the moment Brian Wilson created ‘Pet Sounds’ in 1967, through Bowie’s many different reincarnations in the 70’s and 80’s and via the melodic cleverness of The Smiths, The Teardrop Explodes and World Party, pop music can offer moments of greatness and genius.

Fitting into that roster of clever pop influenced music is the latest release from Leo Koperdraat and Frank Urbaniak, better known as Fractal Mirror, ‘Close to Vapour’. The album has ten tracks that soar and grow with an ebb and flow, a gentle build to heights of dreaminess, and which take the listener deep into the stories being told. With production by Brett Kull of Echolyn, the band has created an album of outstandingly tuneful and clever songs that deserves the high plaudits that will surely come its way.

If I was to make a small criticism it would only be that the lead vocals will take a bit of getting used to. Leo has a slightly nasally style that, whilst not being a huge problem, does surprise and even disconcert, but only until you get used to his sound. Once the initial impressions have receded the idiosyncratic nature of the delivery adds to the depth and  multi-faceted sculpture of the album.

Being released on Bad Elephant Records in the first quarter of 2018 this album is one of the highlights of the year so far. Also featuring guest appearances from original member Ed Van Haagen, Tom Doncourt and producer Brett Kull, this album will entrance and beguile the listener with its superior pop melodies. I urge you to search this album out for all the rewards it will give you.

Released 23rd February 2018

Order ‘Close to Vapour’ from bandcamp here

 

 

Review – Fractal Mirror – Slow Burn 1 – by James R. Turner

Fractal Mirror - Slow Burn 1 Cover

James R. Turner’s first review for Progradar!

It’s a strange half life you have as a reviewer, you’re at one step the conduit between the bands and the audience, hoping that what you write influences others to investigate some of the exciting new music out there, on the other hand you end up meeting musicians, talking to the bands and becoming friends with them either online or, even better in real life, and that friendship you build up, you have to be careful not to let it influence your writing or your relationship with the band, a balancing act that shouldn’t compromise your principles or your opinions.

Of course you get sent albums to review, and having a day job, or indeed the house move from hell (never move, or if you do move, never use the decorator we had), it sometimes takes longer to get round to writing the reviews than intended, that’s the trouble with life, it always gets in the way.

Making friends in the progressive genre is an easy thing to do, as it’s such a small scene, and for the most part a friendly and welcoming environment that you can go to gigs on your own and end up in a big group at the end, which is how coincidentally I met Leo Koperdraat, back at Eppyfest 2014.

That’s how Fractal Mirror, Leo, Ed Van Haagen and Frank Urbaniak, met, via a Facebook group, and from such an everyday occurrence, something magical was born.

‘Slow Burn 1’ is their third album following on from 2014’s astonishing ‘Garden of Ghosts’, which was one of my albums of the year, and see’s them consolidate their sound, an evolution rather than a revolution, after all if something ain’t broke, then don’t break it for the sake of it.

That is no criticism by the way, the band are in no way playing it safe, instead they are bolder with their sounds, and broader in their vision without compromising anything of their heart and soul that helped make ‘Garden of Ghosts’ such a great album.

Band & Brian

Working again with Brett Kull, who produces and co-writes a few tracks on here, this is an exceptionally assured album, the Fractal Mirror sound is unique, a step away from what other artists are doing at the moment.

This means that you can tell who is playing the minute the album starts, and there are not that many artists who are instantly recognisable.

What’s also striking is the fact that each song title is just one word, which adds to the effect.

There is no sound and fury and bombast here, the sound is deceptively relaxed, and the album is as its title suggests a slow burner, one of those gems that works it’s way into your head subtly and each time you play it, you pick up more and more from each track, the beauty of the music being so subtle and almost chilled out, is that the lyrics then work their way into your consciousness.

Fractal Mirror have a clever way with lyrics, similar to how The Beautiful South used to work, by having beautiful music, with quite stark lyrics, the lyrics to Embers for instance are quite dark and haunting, belied by an amazing tune, in fact whilst there is light on this album, there is also a lot of dark, and understandably so, the times that we are currently living through are turbulent and unstable, and all the best art reflects the times we live in.

Tracks like Mist and v838 have an element of optimism about them, however the darkness of the lyrics on Enemies, Embers and Fading has it’s polar opposite in the final track, which I will come back to.

band live

The music that Fractal Mirror make is superb, the synth and guitar work on Enemies for instance is striking and powerful, whilst the vocals of Leo are superb throughout, and the way the band work together in creating this music considering how spread apart they are is a testament to their vision and their friendship. Whilst some of the vocal harmonies are stunning and on Embers are very Beatlesque, particularly with the guitar work reminiscent of George Harrison.

Back to the closing track, never finish a set on a downer an old poetry tutor told me when structuring a reading, and I think this might be something Fractal Mirror have also learnt.

I don’t think I am overstating the importance of the message in Universal when I say it is all about the message of togetherness and how we could all be so much better together, the ambiguity of the closing suggests, like so many things that it could go one way or the other. With it’s musical refrain, and it’s almost pop sensibility it has some great hooks, wonderful keyboard sounds and great guitar work (with guest bass from Leopold Blue-Sky), I don’t like to overuse clichés, but I would say it is anthemic and one of those songs that can come to represent a time and a place, particularly with the haunting coda at the end.

However there is no ambiguity here, ‘Slow Burn 1′ is another fine piece of art from Fractal Mirror, musically and lyrically superb, and packaged beautifully with the work of Brian Watson, another friend of the bands who met in the Facebook melting pot. It’s so good to see bands taking as much care over their artwork as their music. I am from the era where how records look are s important as they sound, hands up how many of you out there have bought a record based purely on the sleeve? I know I have.

People criticise social media for keeping people apart, here we can see it has brought together like-minded creative individuals, all of who have something to add to the prog genre that we love.

Progressive, adjective, happening or developing gradually or in stages, favouring change or innovation, engaging or constituting forward motion.

I think looking at the true definitions of the word progressive, we can apply all those to ‘Slow Burn 1’ as it is an evolution of the Fractal Mirror sound, there is definite innovation in their work, and it’s another mighty step forward for them from ‘Garden of Ghosts’.

Released 23rd April 2016

Buy ‘Slow Burn 1’ direct from the band

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James R. Turner

The best thing to come out of 1977 (the 2nd best being ‘Out of the Blue’ by ELO) I have been writing about prog since I joined the Classic Rock Society back in 1994, and have written for several online magazines, the BBC website as well as contributing two articles about Cult television to two anthologies.

I like cult TV specifically Doctor Who, and see where prog and Doctor Who meet in the music of the BBC Radiophonic workshop.

I live in Bristol with my other half, have a large collection of rubber ducks and more CDs/Books/DVDs than I have space to store them.

Review – Mike Kershaw – What Lies Beneath – by Gary Morley

Cover

Mike Kershaw is a “Passenger”, or fan of Big Big Train, and we’ve met (in cyberspace) and our lives have been connected through their Facebook page.

I was invited to review this, Mike’s latest solo recording, by Martin Hutchinson, another Passenger whose life is a little more connected to mine in that we have had conversations: Exchanges of ideas and the like, in between him sending me albums to review and me handing in my homework.

So I transferred the files onto CD, placed it in the player and after sharpening my reviewer’s pencil, pressed play.

The following are the notes written as I listen, a running commentary if you will.

The first impression is that the drum sound is warm, jazzy and gentler than other recent Prog albums. There are none of the extraneous fills and beat s that detracted from Dream Theater’s recent excursion into Lloyd Webber land here.

I will research later, but the instrumentation on this is warm, organic and very “English”.

Mike’s voice is not a musical weapon of mass destruction, not chilling roars or over enunciated shouting here. The nearest comparable voice I can think of is Marianne Faithfull. His voice falters and cracks as hers does on “Broken English”, both frail and resilient at the same time. It adds to the charm of the piece as the voice makes the words even more personal and the deliver almost intimate, a rough take charm that grows as the album progresses.

Scott Smith Photography

(Picture by Scott Smith Photography)

The album hints at the great journey we are all on, unfolding and layered with detail that adds to the repeated listening pleasure. Track 2 starts off with a drum track that brought Dire Straits to mind, that simple shuffle beat underpinning the mix. Keyboards float above it, Mike’s voice is higher, almost childlike here. It’s always tricky to write about lyrics without the aid of a “cheat sheet” album cover present, so I tend to leave that to the end user (and the writing on CD inserts is not “People of a certain age friendly at all! That’s why we collect vinyl – to read the notes!)

There are chiming guitars; beautiful bass playing that had me thinking of the Cure at their most pastoral on track 3. The melodic force is strong in this one, the song growing, tide like before the chorus crashes on the shore, then fades and ebbs with lovely electric piano . We have a military drum beat and a ghostly choral backing that fades to voice and rhythm section.

Mr Kershaw, you are a very talented man. Songs that unfurl gently and reveal secrets, your folk singer delivery brings another point of reference here, The spirit of Roy Harper seeps through the 4th track, with it’s guitar textures and space between the component parts allowing the voice centre stage.

“Another disguise” is full of lovely slide guitar and swooping keyboards, this track is very Pink Floyd in it’s sound, warm guitar and icy keyboards over a solid drum part , again no pyrotechnics from  the players, the ebb and flow is complimentary to the lyric.

Or does it bring back memories of  The Enid circa 1981 that ? That period when RJG discovered vocals? There are hints of that too, along with a smatter of Dylan, Track 5 being a bouncy charmer, full of gruff guitar charm and a timeless vocal performance.

Mike

(Picture by Scott Smith Photography)

Track 6 starts with a gentle keyboard piece then we hear of the protagonist, who seems beaten by life, a frustrated individual trapped in some private hell. Kershaw’s words of rallying around a flag, joining a cause, whether wrong or right spookily poignant after recent events in Yorkshire that shocked one and all, here we have the plight of the loner , the isolated man captured in a 3 minute song.

I’ve played the CD 4 times now, each time it releases another little Easter Egg …

This time, Mike’s Voice on track 1 reminds me of Tim Blake (Hawkwind and solo artist) performing “Lighthouse” – half spoken, half intoned lyrics set to a jaunty, almost funky soundscape with keyboards coming at you from all directions. Lyrically it’s not a million miles from the anti war rhetoric of Hawkwind / Tim Blake /The Enid from the 80’s ( we were all going to die in a mushroom cloud caused by Reagan and Russia goes to war over Europe with tactical Nukes proliferating on both sides. Scary times, but produced some great music – “Who’s Gonna Win The War” & “ And Then there were none” being the two that this shares a common bond with.

This is the “Proggiest” track here, with some great synth lines at the conclusion sliding over your ears into your brain.

The more I listen, the less convinced that it’s Prog. Not in a derogatory way, but this album is full of songs, some great musicians playing to complement each other, most tracks are around the 5 minute mark, there are no dragons, anthropomorphic creatures, aliens or starships. No warriors on the edge or any vast inhuman machines keeping people in ignorance and servitude.

There are some glorious tunes, great instrumental pieces and a sense of warmth, almost organic well being generated through the listening experience.

It’s just good music, no matter which box you think it should be put in.

Mike has produced a fine album, a personal statement of where he sits in the musical pantheon and the world is a better place for his efforts.

Released 27th May 2016 by Bad Elephant Music.

Buy ‘What Lies Beneath’ from bandcamp