Review – The Bardic Depths – Promises of Hope – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Promises of Hope’ is the second album from The Bardic Depths, the unusual group formed through the Big Big Train “Passengers” Forum which brought together the talents of a disparate group of individuals, united by musical interests. Their first, self-titled album told the story of the friendship between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and their experiences in The Great War. This new album also features CS Lewis along with Greek poet Virgil and its theme is that of suicide and redemption.

What is different this time though is that folks who were contributors last time have joined Dave Bandana and now become official members of the band, these being Peter Jones, Tim Gehrt and Gareth Cole. Once again, they are aided by historian Bradley Birzer who provides the lyrics and various other guests appear on the album (like Sally Minnear of Celestial Fire).

The subject matter might seem quite heavy and dark but the music is anything but. The story is that a Queen tries to kill herself but heaven will not allow it and offers redemption instead…

Right from the opener, And She Appeared, there is a new sense of presence in the band, Robin Armstrong’s sympathetic production certainly helps, as do the stellar performances of the whole ensemble. Some great sound effects and expansive keyboard sweeps lead into a triumphant fanfare of synths and a penny whistle before a thrusting bass line kicks in and Peter’s fabulous vocal begins, Dave Bandana joining in with the vocals as the song surges forward. This is exceptionally good stuff indeed and Gareth Cole’s is glorious too. The excellence of the opening track means the album really flies out of the gate with a great refrain of promises of hope but never victory, a truly epic song to start with.

Regal Pride follows and is a more even-paced track, although some fabulous saxophone licks and riffs pump up the tempo as the song tells of the failing of the relationship that caused her to want to commit suicide. It is very languid and almost lazy sounding, again some great classical guitar playing throughout makes a seriously good impression. Consumed opens with more classical guitar and sounds of the sea washing ashore. There’s more penny whistle from Peter Jones, that sounds uncannily akin to Men of Harlech, along with lovely violin from Olga Kent. This track is a slow burner and its folky interludes really add significantly to proceedings, It is all really impressive and a step forward from the debut album, the introduction of a core nucleus certainly helping with stabilisation of the music and allowing for more improvisation to occur naturally.

This is an album that has been carefully assembled and crafted and it shows in the strength of tracks, The Burning Flame continuing the story with some distinctive guitar lines from Gareth, in which he gets to contact his inner ‘Gilmour’, adding an epic scope to the song. The track talks about the Queen’s attempt to end it all and utterly captivating playing makes this a real highlight of the album thus far, you can intimately sense the loss of hope in this song.

Colours and Shapes follows with more moody saxophone, as an instrumental this gives free rein to the jazzy playing of Peter Jones and it is a wonderful thing to hear. When Tim Gehrt’s solid drumming kicks in, it really soars, heading off into lots of different directions until Gareth’s mighty guitar takes flight. It’s really fine track, epic even, with the cool sax segueing in to Why Are You Here?, the song opening with various voices asking ‘Why Are You Here?’, which sounds reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, as it shares a similar tempo and sound. The track also has a suitably moody and epic guitar solo.

Returned has a different feel to all that has gone before, sounding like an outtake from The Power Station, with its funky stylings and use of vocoder. In this song our Queen is advised to return to love as it is her path to redemption and you can get the 80’s vibe in this track. It is another highpoint in what is rapidly becoming an ambitious and really interesting album. The Essence continues the 80’s sound with heavy drums and lots of synths burbling away. ‘The universe may feel…’ is the refrain on this track and lots more superb saxophone makes it another winner

Imagine concludes the album, opening with a majestic church organ, courtesy of Richard Krueger, that makes a grand statement of intent. This is the redemption that has been offered and received by our Queen, more marvellous keyboards in the middle section and great vocals from Dave and Peter keep the song bubbling along. The guitar part is very reminiscent of a certain Steve Hackett, Gareth showing that he certainly can play in that style. This is a fitting finale to an album that is really something incredibly special indeed.

‘Promises of Hope’ will invariably appear in various end of year listings, and rightfully so too, for it is exceptionally good and I heartily recommend it to all.

Released June 24th, 2022.

Order direct from Gravity Dream here:

The Bardic Depths – Gravity Dream Music

Review – Retreat From Moscow – The World As We Knew It

Retreat from Moscow originally hail from Cardiff, Wales, UK and gigged extensively from 1979- 1981. Fast forward 40 years and the band of core members, Andrew Raymond (keyboards and more), Greg Haver (drums and more), Tony Lewis (bass and more) and John Harris (vocals and more) reformed in 2019 to start recording old and new material for a new album, ‘The World As We Knew It‘.

The roots of their music is influenced by the progressive giants of the 70s but their sound nods more to the 80s new wave of progressive music with strong melody, big keyboards and choruses, and soaring vocals.

“It is somewhat ironic that after releasing our first single in 1980, Retreat From Moscow have waited forty years to produce an album only to have the proposed launch postponed by a worldwide pandemic.” says guitarist, John ‘Harpo’ Harris. “Yet from those early, heady days at school listening to bands like Genesis, Tull, King Crimson, Camel and Caravan, even though the journey has been a long one, it has been worth the wait.”

2022 has started with some very good album releases and Retreat From Moscow have joined that heady mix with what must be considered as one of the best recent debut albums. There are nods to the progressive greats and to the heights of Neo-Prog in the late 80’s and early 90’s but, throughout this impressive release, the band resolutely follow their own direction.

There’s power, poise, precision and subtlety throughout. ‘The World As We Knew It’ may be forty years in the making but it impresses at every turn. Opening track The One You Left Behind prowls along with a menacing atmosphere, the dynamic rhythm section and hard edged guitars driving the song along and John Harris’ dynamic vocal providing the focal point. Radiation is fleet of foot and a genuinely feel good hard rock romp with a proper feel of nostalgia, the guitar work from Harris is just sublime. The wick is turned down a bit on the delightful neo-prog infused Henrietta, invoking Fish era Marillion but with the band’s own signature sound front and centre. Andrew Raymond’s silky keyboards are all over this elegant song and just add to the good natured mood that this record engenders.

Raymond’s skill is central to the opening of the vibrantly upbeat I’m Alive that screams 70’s prog at you at full volume. I honestly feel that anyone who has great progressive rock in their blood will absolutely love this album, the songwriting and musicianship are just top notch! Constantinople brings an oasis of calm and sophistication to the album. The vocals are restrained and the music, especially the beautiful flute and passionate guitar, sophisticated. The longest track on the album, coming in at over eleven minutes, Home, tells you all you need to know about this accomplished band. Their songwriting is excellent and their skill even better, a sublime listening experience that envelops the listener and draws them in to their expertly crafted musical world. Not a note is wasted and every song is an utterly absorbing experience. That hard rock edge returns to Armed Combat, moving away from the more progressive arena to deliver a track that wouldn’t be out of place on any 80’s rock album. It may just be me but the bass, drums and keys just shout Level 42 and I just love it! anyone else?

A gently meandering piece of music, Moving Down is wistfully serene and a pure gem. One of the best songs on the album, the thoughtful vocals and reflective music are just wonderful and just check out that guitar solo, it’s just heavenly. Perception is another fast moving track with a definitive hard rock edge that this outstanding band do so very well. Guitar, drums, bass and keys all work in perfect harmony to give John’s vocal a perfect backdrop to work on. Have 70’s Genesis arrived in the building as the first notes of Mandragora echo in your speakers? You’d be excused for thinking so as this exceptional track ebbs and flows, yet another song where Retreat From Moscow give their own unique slant on what has gone before. All good things must unfortunately come to an end and the album comes to a close with the elegant composure of Don’t Look Back. A slow burning opening with more of that exquisite flute and impassioned vocals gives a restrained tone to the song, everything tranquil and peaceful. The tempo increases though and the song opens up into something impressively fluid and mercurial, Andrew Raymond’s keyboard solo adding another layer of class before the guitar joins in to add fervour and passion, it’s a glorious ending to the album.

Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream Label has accrued a pretty impressive roster in a short period of time and the outstanding Retreat From Moscow are another high calibre artist to join him. In ‘The World As We Knew It’ they have crafted an album that is creative, inventive and inspirational, it is a breathtaking debut that will grace many end of the year ‘best of’ lists and one that the band should be rightfully very proud of.

Released 21st January, 2022

Order from bandcamp here:

The World As We Knew It | Retreat From Moscow (bandcamp.com)

Review – Dec Burke – Life In Two Dimensions

Dec Burke is well known as the former guitarist/ vocalist with acclaimed UK progressive rockers Frost*. As well as his work with Dilemma, Audio Plastik and Darwin’s Radio, he has released numerous solo projects and is back with this brand new solo album.

‘Life In Two Dimensions’ is an album of our times, written against the backdrop of the UK lockdown throughout 2020.  It covers themes of loss, hope, excitement, and the modern world of endless advertising and materialism.

The album features contributions from acclaimed musicians; Scott Higham – Drums (Pendragon), Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Bass (Pain of Salvation), Robin Z. – Piano (Dilemma) Guilherme Aguilar – Bass and Cello, Reiner Siemens – Bass and Robin Armstrong – Mixing, Mastering, Backing Vocals, Keys, Bass (Cosmograf).

While Dec may be best known for being in Frost*, he has developed his own unique sound and it can be heard throughout all of his solo works. Powerful, guitar driven music with large slabs of modern era progressive rock combine with his effortless vocals to deliver huge soundscapes awash with soaring harmonies, elegant keyboards and a very stylish rhythm section.

This new album delivers more of the same, the emotive draw of opening title track Life In Two Dimensions gives an idea of the sumptuous musical experience that is to come. Emergency has a frenetic, in your face, energetic vibe that carries you along in its wake, Sister X has a heavier, more complex and progressive feel to it and This Time is a superbly melodic ballad with a compelling and stirring soul to it.

Dec’s vocals are the star here, his voice can carry emotion, energy and dynamism with equal aplomb and his dexterous guitar playing delivers some fine solos.

Sunlight is a little gem of a song with a pulsing beat and rapid guitar riff that immerses you some kind of mischievous thrill ride, Love Steel takes a monstrous riff and segues into something that could have come from the Hair Metal era of the 80’s, there’s a glint in the eye and a feeling of fun running throughout this track. There’s an elaborate seriousness to Energy with it’s primeval riff, demanding vocals and vibrant chorus that shows Dec’s songwriting skills of to perfection.

Talking of perfection, Fly With Broken Wings, is, in my opinion, one of the best tracks that Dec has ever written, infused with a brooding grandeur. There’s a building tension bubbling under that is released by another fine chorus, a fine track indeed. Sophistication and refinement are at the heart of another great track, Paper Fortress, a lush and polished seven minutes plus of musical splendour. The album closes with the no-nonsense rock of Trap Door, another edgy track full of verve and energy.

You always know what you are going to get with Dec Burke, an album full of polished, quality songs that have his musical aptitude and dexterity written all over them, ‘Life In Two Dimensions’ takes this to another level.

Released 24th September, 2021

Order from Gravity Dream here:

Dec Burke – Gravity Dream Music

Review – Cosmograf – Rattrapante – by Martin Hutchinson

I was talking to Robin Armstrong, the man behind Cosmograf, about how lockdown has really affected my writing. Barring a handful of reviews, my creative juices had dried up, I still loved listening to and appreciating the new music that was out there but I really found it hard to put my feelings into words.

Maybe it was happy coincidence, who knows, but the announcement of lockdown easing and a light at the end of the tunnel has seemed to get my mojo working again and it just happens to have occurred at the same time as Robin is about to release the latest instalment in the history of Cosmograf, happy days eh!?

Cosmograf was formed in 2008 when Robin produced his first home demo album, followed by the release of ‘End of Ecclesia‘ in 2009. The sound is rooted in 70’s classic rock with many contemporary influences from rock, progressive rock and metal. There is always a particular emphasis on concepts and atmospheric production leading to comparisons with artists such as Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson.

‘Rattrapante’ is Cosmograf’s eighth album and is a collection of 5 songs about our interaction with time; we measure it, but yet waste it more, it defines our existence and forms our memories. Some seek to beat it by being the first or the fastest and some can appear to outlive time itself through their achievements…

You may not know this but Robin is a rather fine expert in mechanical watches and goes on to say, “The idea for the album was inspired from from my work with mechanical watches. Rattrapante is a French word deriving from ‘rattraper’ meaning ‘to catch up or recapture. A Rattrapante chronograph can simultaneously time 2 events such a lap split time and a final race time, it was the perfect metaphor for our own interaction with time.

The press release speaks of comparisons with the likes of Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree but, in my opinion, Robin moved past those a very long time ago and, when I hear a new Cosmograf album, I think of it as being Cosmograf immediately. Like a lot of my favourite musicians and bands, as soon as you’ve heard the first few notes, you can recognise it is them. This is most definitely the case here as the slow burning intro to In 1985 builds into a powerful crescendo guided by Robin’s compellingly dominant guitar and Kyle’s intense drums. Robin’s vocals are as good as ever and give a feeling of melancholy nostalgia to this potent and commanding song. The magic here is the feeling that you are in 1985 and yet the music is very modern in its delivery and textures, drawing you deeper and deeper into the narrative, the sign of a brilliant storyteller and songwriter at the height of his powers. As the track comes to a close, like a live recording, I can’t help but smile and give a nod to a master.

Well, if you thought that was good, then you are in for another fantastic treat as title track Rattrapante hoves into view like rock leviathan, all primal and monolithic at its core. The edgy and agitated keyboards in the background give a chaotic nervousness to proceedings and Robin’s deliciously dark and impish guitar work adds a real sense of mischievousness to proceedings. This track flies along as if caught in a maelstrom and leaves you breathless. I’m only two tracks in and yet I am really loving this album already, it has an immediacy that grabs but is full of hidden depths like the wondrously fluid and hyperactive keyboards and guitar solo that corse through the centre of the track like liquid fire.

The brilliant Chrissy Mostyn of The Blackheart Orchestra joins Robin on the airy, ethereal joys of I Stick With You, a mythical tale of a man who is growing older, but seemingly has been cursed with immortality. He is somehow trapped in time and unable to connect to his loving partner that he will outlive. A wistfully moody track with its roots in shades of darkness and light but one that really strikes a chord deep in your soul.

Memories Lie is a classic Cosmograf track, intelligent songwriting, note perfect musicianship and an insightful storyline that makes you think while you enjoy the velvety smooth music. While there is no such thing as a bad album by the band, Robin seems to get better and better with age and his music is maturing like a fine red wine, in fact you could do worse to pour yourself a glass while listening to this exquisite song in a darkened room, oblivious to the world around you. Special note must be made of the stunningly bewitching guitar solo that actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!

Some cliches are actually 100% correct and, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. ‘Rattrapante’ closes with Time Will Flow, another absorbing journey into the complex and wonderfully creative psyche of Mr Armstrong. I think Pink Floyd, Steven Wilson et al would be very happy indeed to put their names to this song, nearly thirteen minutes of progressive tinged rock of sublime perfection. A track that ebbs and flows with a fantastic voice over from Tommy McNally whose dulcet tones, full of a gorgeous, lilting Scottish brogue, fit perfectly. Guitar, keyboards and drums create a synergy of sound that creates a world in between your ears and Robin’s halting vocal performance is perfect.

There is no such thing as the perfect album as musicians are forever craving to create something more impressive than before but, every now and then, we should just stop and step off this ever evolving world and just enjoy the moment and what we have in front of us. At this moment in time there is nothing I would rather listen to than this incredible new album from Cosmograf, will Robin’s latest pièce de résistance still be up there at the end of the year? Most probably but, here and now, it just does not get any better than this!

Released 26th March 2021 (CD, vinyl will be later).

Order direct from Gravity Dream Music here:

Rattrapante CD (Pre-Order) – Gravity Dream Music

Rattrapante Vinyl (Pre-Order) – Gravity Dream Music