Review – Fates Warning – Live Over Europe – by Jez Denton

The reason for listening to live albums, for me, is one of two. Either it is listening to an album to remind you of an amazing gig you’ve been at such as Queen’s ‘Live Magic’ or the Marillion bootleg series or it is to get a different level of enjoyment of a band you wish you’d seen at their pomp, ‘Slade on Stage’ and Thin Lizzy – ‘Live and Dangerous’ being great examples. But listening to a live album from a band you don’t really know? It’s kind of a weird experience.

Such a band, pretty much unknown to me (despite a 30 odd year career) is Fates Warning, who are releasing their ‘Live Over Europe’ double CD (3 LP) live album on the 29th June. I didn’t really know what to expect and I must admit, seeing that there are 23 tracks on this release, I viewed it with quite some trepidation. It’s quite an epic amount of music to get through, especially if it’s new to you. Would I get through it? Would it hold my attention? Would it make me care enough to want to like it?

Thankfully, it answered all my worries right from the opening track, the masterful From The Rooftops. This is a loud, dynamic, symphonic and brutal heavy metal assault on the senses, a barrage of melodic noise, crunching guitars and a piercing rock vocal from singer Ray Alder. This is music designed to be noise terrorism, a building crescendo of discordant melodies voiced by an angelic voice; OK, a Hell’s Angel but still, what a combination they make.

It is Alder’s voice that truly makes this album for me. Like many more famous rock frontmen with great ranges, Alder isn’t drowned by the melodic noise behind him, he soars and rises above it, taking the various crowds with him, reaching heights that you feel can’t be surpassed until Alder surpasses them himself. The crowds are part of this show, the adulation and commitment add to the whole package of this album which has been fabulously mixed (Jens Borgen) and mastered (Tony Lindgren). The songs chosen are brilliantly paced, have moments of both introspection and crescendo; from the first tracks I genuinely couldn’t wait to see where the next song would go. It certainly has made me want to look up the studio recordings of this band.

In my opening paragraph I mentioned that one of the reasons for listening to live albums was, in a sense, nostalgia for gig memories the listener may have experienced. This album, in a weird way, taps into that idea too. Listening to the album I drifted back to a time when I saw bands like Iron Maiden in smaller theatre settings, or when I saw bands like Nuclear Assault and Suicidal Tendencies in club venues. It took me back to a time when I used to work doors and stage duties at rock clubs in the North East of England as security. It reminded me, in those days before health and safety and the wearing of ear defenders, why my hearing is completely fucked! If you know Fates Warning this is a must buy release and, if you don’t I’d suggest investing in it as you won’t regret it all.

Released June 29th 2018

Order the album from Burning Shed here

Review – Tumbletown – Never Too Late – by Jez Denton

I like a rock opera. There, I said it. If I’m in the right mood there is nothing more uplifting than a hugely bombastic, sub-classical, up its own arse (in a good way), melodramatic musical. I find enjoyment in some of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s most over the top moments; I’d really love to see the revival of Chess (other than the fact it stars Alexandria Burke – but that’s another story.) And this love of musical theatre passes into some of the rock music I enjoy. From seeing Queen and Marillion strut their stuff in the 1980’s right up to recent live extravagant shows by the likes of Muse, bands who rock up to stadiums with music and shows that fill these open spaces will always flick my switch.

Sometimes bands will try to create albums that have the feel of something theatrical. Sometimes they get the balance right and don’t fall into the trap of just creating something a bit naff. And sometimes they don’t. Starting up the first track off the new album, ‘Never Too Late’, by Dutch prog rockers Tumbletown, I had a fear that I was going to be investing time in something on the wrong side of pretentious; it’s a pet hate of mine – opening album tracks called Prelude (or Intro or something equally unadventurous. Give it a proper name guys!) But my fears were soon allayed as we entered the following songs which, on the whole, are marvellously evocative, clever and brilliant tracks.

Ok, lyrically there are some clunky moments; but this I can forgive most bands writing words in a second language. Mind you, it is no worse than some of the worst lyrical excesses of ‘try too hard’ poetry that finds its way into a lot of English prog rock bands too (you all know who I mean here – no need to say much more.) It doesn’t get in the way of the overall enjoyment; cut some slack for lines like ‘looking into my notebook’ and ‘lost muses’ and no harm is done and, to be fair, the stories and tales do flow, the third track, Avalon, being a particular highlight for me.

On first listen to the album I found myself a bit disconcerted as I heard a famous voice in the mix; not literally, but there was a spirit of somebody which I couldn’t put my finger on. What the album did do on subsequent listens was that it opened up doors and avenues to explore, each time you can pick up a new intricacy here, a nuance there. It was one of these nuances that finally allowed the mystery to click as I got the touchstone I was looking for that, being for me, huge similarity to the great Ian Anderson (25 years or so ago, not now he’s lost his range.) That realisation is what made the album for me, this is a kind of Jethro Tull album for the 21st century and that really does fit. After all, Tull and Anderson were always at the forefront of progressive music as a theatrical experience; something Tumbletown’s ‘Never Too Late’ has taken, developed and updated for today’s music.

Released 24th May 2018

Order the album in the UK here

Order the album in Europe here:

TumbleTown – NEVER TOO LATE [CD]

 

Review – Obscured by Clouds – Thermospheric – by Jez Denton

After 70 odd years of popular music it is fair to say that most new music created is, in some way, derivative. All of those influences that inspire musicians to become musicians will find their way along the process into any new music created. Some artists are blatant in their ‘plagiarism’; for me, Noel Gallagher has become the premier Beatles/Slade tribute act without actually doing any of the songs. Others, however, take the music that influences them in a new direction, developing the sounds that inspired them.

One of these bands is Obscured by Clouds who are releasing a live album, ‘Thermospheric’, based on the works released in their debut album ‘Psychelectic’. As suggested by the band’s name, early Pink Floyd is the touchstone and spark for the creativity. The feelings and emotions that are fed into this album are very reminiscent of albums such as ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’. At points the album feels almost as a homage to this era of British psychedelia (there also seems to be a heavy Hawkwind/Edgar Broughton vibe too); on more than one occasion I, as a listener, was expecting to hear a blood curdling scream such as Floyd’s one in Careful with that Axe, Eugene.

The songs are also so much more than just a tribute to this hugely artful time in underground music; the greatest compliment I can pay the band is that this feels like music that Floyd would perhaps have continued to create had Syd Barrett been able to keep a hold of his sanity and musical creativity. Quite simply, this is powerful and exceptional psychedelic, tripped out, hazy and confounding music. It’s like going back to the 1960’s with some super strength LSD to fully open up the doors of perception into another universe.

I really am a huge fan of eccentric’s in music which this album really embraces (I also get overtones of one of British rock music’s great eccentrics, Julian Cope, throughout the mix, particularly in the vocal style), it is music designed to not only challenge but to also scare and disturb, music that takes you to different places, from the Indian sitar on the Barrettesque Zoe Zolofft to the industrially horrific guitar feedback on Cast Close The Gate.

It’s pays homage to its heroes by taking their influences and taking it in directions perhaps that could only have been dreamed of fifty years ago. This is music that is best listened to on your own, in the dark, with sound surrounding you…just make sure you’ve got someone around to give you reassurance when it ends…and then go back in again for another go. This is proper deep, meaningful, eccentric, dangerous and ultimately excellent rock music for grown up explorers of disturbing soundscapes that need a cautionary warning about the amazing head fuck capabilities of Obscured by Clouds.

Released 27th October 2017

Order the album from iTunes here

 

 

 

 

Review – The Sea Within – The Sea Within – by Jez Denton

The idea of a Supergroup is a funny thing. A gathering of very talented and creative musicians get together to pool their ideas to create something, they hope, that is absolutely amazing. Sometimes that happens, bands like Cream or The Travelling Wilburys spring to mid for a start; however, often what ends up being created is an album that is somewhat written almost by committee, something that inhibits the creative process because of the sheer amount of creativity that is thrown at the project. And unfortunately, for me, the new album from the collective known as The Sea Within, being released on the 22nd June 2018, falls into the latter category.

The roster of acts that the members of the band have worked with, including Steven Wilson, Yes, and Steve Hackett, obviously shows that these guys are hugely talented and, indeed, this is proven by the playing on the album and accompanying 4 track E.P. There are some fantastically gorgeous moments recorded, the sub E.L.O. / Supertramp vibe on the first half of the 14 minute epic Broken Cord is sublime. But here also is the problem; this song would be a perfect six to seven minute progressive pop tune, it’s a shame they felt the need to include a huge swathe of jazz improv. showing off onto it.

This is a fault repeated on a few of the songs, it’s like someone in the band came to the studio with something they were desperate to have included with the production team including it where they could instead of asking the pertinent questions, does it add to the tune, does it fit, is it needed?

In 1832, JMW Turner, at The Royal Exhibition, upstaged his great rival John Constable, by adding to his great painting Helvoetsluys, a small smudge of orange paint. Just that, something very small and insignificant on the face of it, but hugely significant in the bigger picture. Turner understood the principle of less is more, he had the ability to recognise when something was finished. He didn’t need to keep on adding, he just knew that what he had created was good, brilliantly, jaw-droppingly amazing.

A little bit of this level of self-awareness would have been something which would have improved The Sea Within immensely. They have created a very, very good, maybe even great album here; it’s just that I don’t think they realised they had, they couldn’t stop; if they were Turner they wouldn’t have stopped at a little orange splash, they’d potentially have taken a spray can to the canvas and covered the painting in orange.

Ironically, though, the four track E.P. proves that The Sea Within have got that awareness; maybe because of the format it is recorded on helped, but these four tracks, The Roaring Silence, Where Are You Going, Time and Denise are focused, unfussy and spell-blindingly good – a really enjoyable 28 minutes or so of driving, clever and immense progressive pop rock.

For me, if I was the producer, I would have taken all the superfluous showy off bits out of the album, lost a couple of weaker tracks and included the E.P. in the album itself. Perhaps it’s a project one of the erstwhile musicians, Steven Wilson perhaps, could get their teeth into – turning this reasonable and worthy album by very talented musicians into the potentially great one that is hidden in it. For the listener it is a worthwhile listen, but I’m convinced it could be, and should be, so much more with a helluva a lot less on it.

Released 22nd June 2018

Order The Sea Within here

Review – Gazpacho – Soyuz – by Jez Denton

I am by no means a huge fan of progressive rock, there are bits I like, some I don’t, some I find clever and some I find completely over the top and pretentious beyond words. However, I do like to try new stuff, or at least new to me, and when it comes from an act that I’ve heard lots about from friends and acquaintances I’ll certainly give it a good go.

So when I was sent through the new album, released this week, from Norwegian alt-rock experimentalists, Gazpacho, I started listening with great expectation, having heard the name mentioned a few times by people whose thoughts on music I respect.

What I love most about hearing new music is picking up on the references that shape that music, and this album, ‘Soyuz’, is rammed full of great influences that have shaped the sound, whilst not diluting the bands own distinctive voice. It is an album shaped by the experiences of this band growing up in a period of huge political uncertainty, the Cold War, in a country very close to the borders of that conflict.

The sphere of influence that the USSR held over the countries of Northern and Eastern Europe have led to the music on this album having a sinister and dark, perhaps even fearful sound, a sense of foreboding. Across this the band tell stories such as that, in the first single, Soyuz One, of the doomed space mission by the Russians where cosmonaut, Colonel Vladimir Komorav, died; the first in-flight fatality in the history of space flight. The way the stories are told are engaging; making parts of this album seem like a pretty cool history lesson.

Musically the band are very adept at creating clever melodies and tunes, that, in common with many of their contemporaries, wash over the listener, enveloping them in the senses they try to create. However, the band are also more than happy to throw in the odd curve ball, a contrasting surprise. The ending of Soyuz One, for instance, which is a beautiful piece of piano music, is something Vaughan Williams would, no doubt,  have been proud of.

The album has a number of these little vignettes through out, it’s as if the guys have visited Cecil Sharp House and had a go through some traditional English folk tunes with which to enhance the sound of the album. With a bit of folk fiddle or a pastoral piano piece thrown in the album has, in places, the feel of a Fairport Convention album with production by Brian Eno.

This is an album of superior tunes, interesting and engaging subject matter and a brooding Nordic sound that will both appeal to fans of progressive music whilst also be surprising enough to make the album stand out amongst contemporaries and attract new devotees. The band have created a fine work that works of many levels. A mighty fine effort that will reward the listener over multiple listens.

Released 18th May 2018

Order Soyuz here

Review – Year of the Kite – With Sparks Flying – by Jez Denton

It is this reviewer’s belief that the only worthwhile type of music is miserable music. Indeed I believe I can make a case for almost any song being miserable; ‘Happy Birthday’ for example, a song that heralds a descent into the void of encroaching years, bodies failing and falling apart before eventual and unavoidable death. It is, therefore, no surprise that the sub-genres I most enjoy, and the ones that make up my music collections are ones like Blues, Grunge and Goth Rock. I love to listen to maudlin murder folk ballads, songs about unrequited or lost love. You can’t beat a sad song, as, to paraphrase Bernie Taupin, they say so much. Who’d prefer to dance, when you can wallow in the misery of a Nick Drake lament?

The debut album, ‘With Sparks Flying’, by Year of the Kite, released last week on Diversion Records, is an album that starts with a grungy slowcore bluesy slice of total miserablist beauty. Reminiscent of the great Mark Lanagan, Wild Blood, Wild Light, sets a mood of dreamy nihilism, with a dirge like vocal growling over a down tempo backing that has a druggy sense of impending doom, a descent into madness and horror. A lo-fi scream of abject despair all wrapped up by a hypnotic accompaniment. Like Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’, it’s a song that hints at terrors seen or unseen, ones that can neither be unheard or forgotten.

The first half of the album continues in this vein, songs that give voice to a whole range of uncomfortable emotions. It takes the listener on a journey into places that challenge, that are frightening and which leave the listener raw and exposed to feelings that, whilst scary and disturbing, are also very rewarding. Which is a slight shame as the second half of the album doesn’t quite keep its foot on that emotional pedal, with later songs drifting off on a dreamy tangent. That’s not to say they are not good songs, far from it, as musically Year Of The Kite are a very talented bunch whom have spent the eighteen months recording this album, perfecting, as they have, their sound and production. It’s just that I really, really, really loved the first 5 or 6 tracks and wanted so much more despair and misery! Weird I know!

What can be said is that ‘With Sparks Flying’ is a really very good debut. There are moments of greatness that will fulfill the darkest recesses of any deep and miserable music soul. There are also moments of exceptional potential and plenty to say that this band will have a success with this album and any future work they produce. Not far off being a miserablist masterpiece.

Released 27th April 2018

Order ‘With Sparks Flying’ from Diversion Records here

Review – Tangerine Dream – Quantum Gate & Quantum Key – by Jez Denton

In 2015 German Electronica visionary and leader of the band Tangerine Dream, Edgar Froese, died, two years before the band celebrated its 50th anniversary. However, Froese had elected as his successor as leader of the band Thorsten Quaseschning who, along with Frose’s wife, Bianca Acquaye and other members Hoshiko Yamane and Ulrich Schnauss, have continued to work as the band. The result of this work is the album released as ‘Quantum Gate’ which was released in September 2017.

In line with Froese’s vision the album has now been re-released with the edition of the earlier ‘Quantum Key E.P.’ as a two volume edition. The release continues and develops Froese’s and the bands traditional and trademark sound, featuring sequence-driven electronica  to bring to the listener atmospheric moods that envelop and wash over them; taking them on a journey of aural exploration.

When I was very young, during the white heat of space exploration of the early 1970’s, through the films we saw of moon exploration, the space lab and unmanned journeys to Mars and further planets I was taken to the London Planetarium. I remember being awe inspired by the opening up of the mysteries of the universe as stars and constellations were lit up all soundscaped by futuristic music that seemed somewhat other-worldly. Listening to these two pieces of art, took me back to that time of wonder, evocative as it is of quantum physics and exploration.

The music has a kaleidoscopic quality to it, the sounds washing over you in waves, as visions of colours and shapes are suggested to the listener. It is clever music that, despite its lofty scientific ambitions. still does work on a level of just being able to listen as a piece of wonderfully crafted and melodic tunes. It is music that’s leads the listener into rooms of opened perception, whilst challenging preconceived ideas of realities. It is a fitting tribute to Edgar Froese’s vision for Tangerine Dream whilst ensuring the band can move on and forwards with its founders aims and desires at the forefront.

Released 20th April 2018

Order ‘Quantum Gate/Qauntum Key’ from Burning Shed here

Featured image by Jim Rakete.

Review – TRYO – Antología Eléctrica – by Jez Denton

I know very little about the country of Chile other than to say, geographically, that it is a country of huge contrasts, bordered as it is by mountains to one side, the sea to the other and stretching from rain forest in the north, through the most arid desert to the southernmost tip where South America is closest to Antarctica with all the inhospitability associated with it. It seems to me, even in these days of a shrinking world, a mystery, a secluded and cut off outpost on the edge of the world. An enigma of a country.

Musically, I know even less about Chile so it was with great anticipation that I picked up ‘Antologia Electrica’ by the Chilean Progressive Jazz Rock Fusion band, Tyro. This album is an anthology of the bands 30 year career covering their formation in 1987 up to the present day, and which links into an anniversary tour which the band will be undertaking. It would be, for me, a voyage into the unknown, and a journey to be undertaken over the development of a sound over three decades.

Firstly, right from the opening track, you understand that the band is made up of a number of very talented and impressive musicians. Space is given to all players to showcase their instruments and their playing abilities. But for me, this is where I struggled with the album. A great friend of mine once said, when I was trying to convince him of the merits of jazz music, that ‘it’s all well and good, yes they are great musicians and all, but why can’t they play the same song at the same time?’ And to me, listening to the tracks on this album, this makes great sense. The bass in particular, whilst expertly played, tends to overpower the melodies and doesn’t compliment at all. That’s not to say it is without merit, it’s just to this reviewer’s ears it becomes too discordant.

However, I have always found when listening to music in languages I do not understand that the voice becomes more of an instrument, an aid to the melody. This is one of the high spots of this anthology as the songs with vocals on do work wonderfully well as less emphasis seems to be given to a variety of solos. The lyrics themselves, when translated into English, are evocative and emotive with a Zen like acknowledgement of our world, community and ecological surroundings and really add to the heights that the music tries to reach.

Overall, if you like your music to be challenging you’ll enjoy this anthology. And if you do so enjoy this I can imagine a deeper journey into their back catalogue to invest in the albums from their career showcased here will only reward you, especially if you are a lover of a bass guitar being played trickily and predominant in the mix. For me, I enjoyed listening too and finding out about this band, but for me it just didn’t quite hit the spot, perhaps like the country of Chile, it remains an enigma to me; although it did remind me to dig out some Jazz and Latin American music, perhaps more to my tastes.

Released 5th March 2018

Review – Reformat – The Singularity – by Jez Denton

Many years ago, in the days before the Internet, I spent quite some time searching out a live album of German prog-rock pioneers Tangerine Dream performing in the awesome modern cathedral in Coventry. It is an immense album that you can feel filling the wondrous large spaces of Sir Basil Spence’s architectural masterpiece, with waves of sonic excellence washing over the listener.

I have been sent, by the excellent judges of talent at Bad Elephant Music, the debut album by English electronic rock bad Reformat called ‘The Singularity’. Head of BEM Sales and Marketing, Martin Hutchinson, sent it to me with the simple words that it is pretty awesome, with which I have to agree. From the moment I first clicked onto the opening track, Kosmos, I was brought right back to that Tangerine Dream album, and how this album would equally fill an amazing modern space such as Coventry Cathedral or perhaps the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern.

The band and album evolved from a collection of songs written by main man Luke Pajak which were brought together and produced by Luke’s friend Russ Russell (Napalm Death/The Haunted) with drums and electronics being supplied by Jay Russell. Originally created and shelved in the early 2010’s, a drunken night resulted in the songs being revisited and developed further with the end product being the culmination of many years hard work and experimentation in making a sonically challenging journey into the unknown and exciting.

Immersing yourself into this album becomes an almost quasi-religious act albeit one with a heavy dose of mind screw. The build can confuse, question and indeed disturb but in a way that offers endless opportunity to enjoy a combination of themed riffs, electronic melodies and openings of perception. As Pajak comments himself, ‘…go as deep as they’re willing to go. See you down the rabbit hole.’ Certainly, on listening to this album a grin like the Cheshire Cat’s will be seen on many a listeners face.

Released 20th April 2018.

Order ‘The Singularity’ from bandcamp here

 

 

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