Review – Six By Six – Beyond Shadowland – by John Wenlock-Smith

Occasionally, and very rarely, I get an album that fails to captivate me fully. Whether this is my fault or a failing on behalf of the artist is very much open to debate. In this instance, I was anticipating and expecting far greater than what is on offer here, which is actually not that bad. However when your debut is stunning, as was the first self-titled SiX By SiX album, it is very disappointing when the follow up, ‘Beyond Shadowland’, falls a long way short of what had gone before, and is, to be blunt, definitely sub-standard quality wise in comparison.

To be fair, you do get more crunchy prog-rock crossover songs with some soaring guitar lines exciting riffs and excellent drumming. Yet, despite all this, it seems a little too safe and too pedestrian for these ears. I realise that coming up with another quality album as quickly as SiX By SiX have done is not an easy task. However, this sophomore album comes barely a year on from their debut album and I can’t help but think that they missed out in applying some crucial quality controls on this album, making it a step backwards for the band and not a progression in my view.

It has great cover art but its contents are relatively unrewarding thus giving us material that suffers highly in comparison to their excellent debut, which really captured the imagination first time around. There are some good tracks but there is way too much that lacks enough magic focus. This really saddens me for, as a trio, these are all seasoned, intelligent and articulate musicians who know their craft. However, here they seem to have forgotten that songs need more than a strong riff, they need some commitment and some thrust and drive, not just power for powers sake! Bluff and bluster is really not good enough from these veterans, rather more, they need a strong melody and a touch of polish, which several of these tracks seem to be missing.

I do like the longer track One Step that has time to actually go somewhere interesting and the tracks Arms of a Word and Can’t Live This do have their charms. Sadly, it’s not the case elsewhere on the album, no doubt I will still actually buy the album and really make my own mind up. However, at this moment in time I don’t find it a very appealing album unfortunately, which is a shame as, on paper, it is all there. You have the vibrant guitar work of Ian Crichton, the powerful drums of Nigel Glockner and the undeniable talent and production skills of bassist and vocalist Robert Berry. Here though, it simply fails to really ignite or to captivate in any significant manner. 

I hope this is a blip and doesn’t mean the end of what could be a very rewarding project. I really hope they regroup, refocus and return with the album that they really should have delivered rather than this mishmash of half realised ideas and incomplete songs. I really hope so guys but you fell far short here, you didn’t even reach the Shadowland, yet alone get beyond it…

Full track listing:

1.     Wren 

2.     The Arms of a Word  

3.     Can’t Live Like This  

4.     Obiliex

5.     Only You Can Decide  

6.     Titans 

7.     Outside Looking In  

8.     Spectre

9.     Sympathise  

10.  One Step

11.  The Mission

Released 26th April, 2024.

Order the album here:

Six By Six – The Mission (lnk.to)

Review – Colosseum: Elegy – The Recordings 1968-1971, 6CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

I received this splendid box set from Esoteric recently, containing the five albums released by the original version of Colosseum released in the early 1970’s. They were albums of great significance in the then emerging and developing area of progressive music, mixing, jazz, fusion, blues and rock in a distinctive amalgam of styles but never being less than interesting listening.

I myself came to Colosseum a lot later in my life, despite their albums being in abundance at my then favourite record shop in Birmingham where I lived at the time. Although I was a big fan of the latter, mid-1970’s incarnation of the band, called Colosseum 11, featuring Gary Moore on Guitar and Don Airey on keyboards, alongside Jon Hiseman on drums and the ever dependable Neil Murray on bass. This version was far heavier sound wise than the original Colosseum ever were and whilst I enjoyed the strange new album immensely, somehow I never went back to the original albums, my mistake of course. Call it the folly of youth but I was definitely blinkered in my sonic appreciation. In my teens I was a heavy metal man and dismissed lots of music that I have since come to appreciate more fully as I have aged, ironic really!

Colosseum came to my ear fully in the late 1990’s when I was buying music online from a well known website that has since ceased to be. I can’t even recall what it was called but it was very popular in the day and had great deals and offers. I spent a fortune on there over the years and, in the process, I acquired all the Colosseum remasters on the Sanctuary label, all of which are, in the main, included in this ‘Elegy’ box set; ‘Those Who Are About To Die Salute You’, ‘Valentyne Suite’, ‘The Grass Is Greener’, ‘Daughter Of Time’ and ‘Colosseum Live’, along with an additional twelve bonus tracks, a highly informative booklet of sleeve notes, recollections and photographs of the time.

There are differences, however, between the remasters I already possessed and this set, in that there a few omissions and a few hitherto unreleased cuts which makes for an interesting and rewarding listen. One thing I found interesting was that the name Colosseum was chosen by Jon Hiseman whilst sitting on Palatine Hill in Rome, overlooking the actual Colosseum with Barbara Thompson, who he later married of course. They were visiting her relatives in Italy at the time when Jon announced he was going to start a band and call it Colosseum, the rest, as they say, is history.

Jon was already friends with Dave Greenslade and Dick Heckstall-Smith, both of whom he knew from his schooldays and both of whom he had played with over the years. They found guitarist James Litherland and bass guitarist Tony Reeves from auditions in London and they were off. They hooked up with the Bron Agency and Gerry Bron who got them a deal with Phillips for the first album, ‘Those Who Are About To Die Salute You’. Released in 1969, this debut was very influential in progressive music circles as here were a group who were really pushing the boundaries and embracing varied influences into a distinctive melting pot, making vibrant and exciting music for the then modern world, it still sounds highly impressive now, over 55 years later.

However the best was yet to come, Colosseum were signed to new Phillips‘ label Vertigo, targeting the demand for progressive music. So it was that the band’s second album ‘Valentyne’ appeared as the first Vertigo Records release as Vertigo 001 in 1970. This introduced both the label and the band to a whole new audience, especially as the album fitted perfectly with the aspirations of the label and the music was highly suited, being an elaborate, almost conceptual, album of linked pieces, especially in the three part Valentyne Suite which occupied side two of the record. The album still sounds outstanding and ground-breaking today, that it was a young group, most of whom were barely in there early 20’s, yet who were creating some incredibly complex and extremely well conceived and competently delivered music, is all the more remarkable.

In the USA and Canada the album appeared in different form in 1970 as ‘The Grass is Greener’ remixed and featuring a series of songs unreleased in the UK.

‘Daughter Of Time’, released in 1970, brought a change of line up, in that both James  Litherland and Tony Reeves left. These were replaced by Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson and Louis Cennamo but Cennamo found Colosseum too heavy for his tastes and left. However, Clempson had seen Mark Clarke playing in Liverpool and felt he might be a good fit for the ban, so it was that Clarke joined the band. It was also felt that a vocalist would help the group and Dave Greenslade suggested Chris Farlowe.

The final discs of the set are the previously issued and expanded version of ‘Colosseum Live’, complete with a second disc of other live tracks from Manchester University and Brighton, recorded in 1971. These do repeat several songs, namely Rope Ladder To The Moon, Skellington and Stormy Monday Blues, but it’s great to hear them here. Also here are live versions of The Valentyne Suite tracks, which are always great to hear again.

So there you have it, a potted history of the original incarnation of Colosseum, who admittedly did reform in 1991 and then reappeared frequently in the next century. However, they were never quite able to reclaim the impact of the original, who were quite simply a band for the time of the late 60’s and early 70’s, as this excellent set captures in their full dazzling and powerfully impressive manner. Excellent packaging and superlative sleeve notes add to a most welcome release. It is highly recommended indeed, especially if you like any of the latter spin offs like Greenslade or ColosseumII. This set represents an extremely influential and significant chapter in the history of progressive rock.

Released – 29th March, 2024.

Order here:

Colosseum: Elegy – The Recordings 1968-1971, 6CD Box Set (cherryred.co.uk)

Review – The Raging Project – Future Days – by John Wenlock-Smith

This is a very strange album for me, mixing as it does elements of almost rap, progressive metal and ambient textures. ‘Future Days’ is the brainchild of French musician Ivan Jacquin who, along with Lionel Fevre, was in an electro metal act which developed into Project Rage in 2007. Joined by Jeannick Valleur, they released an EP in 2009 but their attempts to become a fully fledged band faltered and, eventually, Ivan worked on a different project called Foreign Rock Opera. Now, joined by a dozen talented and prestigious artists, Ivan decided to revisit some old, lost tracks and revive them afresh.

The result is The Raging Project and this collection of themed/linked songs and soundscapes. It is not always an easy listen as the concept is a little vague and obscure at times, what is without question is the quality of the material that is very well constructed and contains some stellar performances from all the musicians involved.

The album features the wonderful Amanda Lehman (Steve Hackett Band) on guitar and vocals on a couple of track where she gets to really let fly. I was especially impressed with Even if I Bleed and the french version of the same song, M​ê​me si je saigne but also highly noteworthy is a dance track I Wanna Dance, which does actually work within the album bringing some light relief to the more seriously themed tracks. Ambient also impresses with some solid guitar links and an interesting wall of sound making a strong impression. In fact, the more I became attuned to this album, the more my appreciation for it grew. The vocals are especially pleasing on this track, soaring over some fine guitar lines, it is all really strong and impressive stuff.

For me, at least, the piece de la resistance here is the epic track On Earth which features Derek Sherinian on keyboards and theremin. It is nearly ten and a half minutes of wonderfully evocative sounds and features a stunning performance from Derek commencing with growling synthetic and spacey synthetic lines to create an emotive soundscape over which there is a spoken word narration, The theremin offers a suitably mysterious sound on this song about climate change that is most impressive sounding. It really is a great track with the keyboards adding significantly to the overall effectiveness of the song as it continues to express its regret for how we have treated the earth. I will admit to being a tad biased here as I do especially appreciate the keyboards of Derek Sherinian as a member of the various projects that he has been a part of. His presence here is a delight for me and it’s a well delivered cameo appearance from the current keyboard player of note. That said, the supporting musicians all play equally as solidly and their performances are equally as strong.

Procession is another strong track. Sung in French, it is a brooding and moody piece with superb drums from Henri-Pierre Prudent and an excellent guitar track and solo from Amanda Lehmann that evokes echoes of David Gilmour in its tone and style. It is all most impressive really, I do like this track, one of the albums strongest in my opinion, it  is wonderfully fluid in sound. Wraith continues in a more muscular and metal style and adds a distinctive crunch to proceedings. gain strong vocals mix well with the powerful guitars and synths to make something memorable and strong

Final track M​ê​me si je saigne features Amanda’s epic guitar work again where she is able cut loose and shred a little. Apparently, it was a challenge that she welcomed and rose to in style. This is a lengthy track, rather intense but excellent nonetheless, there is some excellent fluid guitar on this track and Mr Hackett would be proud of her playing here as she really gets stuck into the groove.

So there you have it, a decidedly different album of moods and styles that may not always work but in the main it does. There is more than enough strong music here to at least warrant a listen so why not listen and make your own mind up? As for me, I certainly enjoyed it and feel that I will return to it, I’m just not sure how often.

Released February 6th, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Future Days | THE RAGING PROJECT (bandcamp.com)

Review – Whom Gods Destroy – Insanium – by John Wenlock-Smith

Prog metal and I have an uneasy relationship really, I have never been a huge follower of listener of the form, preferring melody and subtlety over bombast and thrash. So, why does this album appeal to me? Well, the answer lies in the origins of the band, one that emerged from the discarded ashes of Sons Of Apollo that featured Mike Portnoy,  Billy Sheehan,  Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, Jeff Scott Soto and Derek Sherinian. Sons Of Apollo produced two studio albums and a live CD/DVD set but then fell apart when the pandemic derailed their touring activities. After that cleared, some of the members had chosen to resume earlier existing project, Portnoy with Transatlantic and the Neil Morse Band and Sheehan to his Winery Dogs project. All of this left Sherinian and Thal without anything on their immediate horizon so the two decided to start an new endeavour, with Dino Jelusick coming in on vocals and two new faces; Yas Nomura on bass and drummer Bruno Valverde .

The album promises to be a bit harder edged and more technically progressive in sound, which showcases the excellent musicianship of the players involved. For me, pretty much anything Derek Sherinian is involved with is at least worth hearing as he always plays interesting parts and Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal is also excellent to hear. The album, ‘Insanium’, is released on the 15th March by Inside Out/Sony Music and has 9 tracks, 10 if you get the 2CD version which has an instrumental version of the album and a bonus track (Requiem).

I’ve had this album for a while and I really like it. Yes, it is a heavy album but the playing is superb throughout and the vocals are clear and powerfully delivered by Dino. Let’s have a closer look shall we…

The album opens with In The Name Of War, an excellent introduction to what follows afterwards beginning with some very stylish piano runs before a powerful guitar line enters and the drums power through. The song is certainly powerful and asStatement of intent, this group means business and takes no prisoners here! It has very good keyboard textures and fine playing from all concerned, there is a fiery solo from Thal, but, for me it is the magical keyboards of Derek Sherinian that truly delight, the piece closes as it began with more stylish piano. Over Again is next and this has a very sludge like riff, it sounds quite brutal and the chorus is definitely a lesson in contrast to the main riff. Again, this has space for another fiery guitar solo from Ron Thal which is followed by some amazing Sherinian synth lines making this is a very strong track. The Decision’s longer running time gives space for the great dynamics that are at the heart of the song, a track is about persevering and deciding to carry on once again. It’s another excellent piece with lots of flashy keyboards that add to, but don’t dominate, the track. Also noteworthy is the solid bass playing of Yas Nomura and the powerhouse drumming of Bruno Valverde.

Crawl, again, has a fair degree of brutality to its sound, powerfully delivered by all parties. Strong riffing overlaid with keyboards and punchy bass make a good impression on this listener, as does another excellent guitar break from Thal that is again taken over by the dynamic keyboards of Derek Sherinian who really excels on this album. Find My Way Back is about returning home and finding that that is not a home anymore, things have changed and not especially for the better. The song opens with Hammond Organ and a gentle acoustic guitar part then, after the first verse, it switches to electric guitar and the vocals and overall sound have more than a touch of a Whitesnake power ballad to them. Another emotional guitar solo adds good colour to this actually rather sad tale which shows a different side to this band. Crucified is heavy right from the off with swirling keyboard lines and a solid rhythm section powering away. This song is really heavy and has strong echoes of Judas Priest in their ‘Sin After Sin’ era, except this track is heavier with more keyboards, a really strong and solid piece, all told.

Keeper Of The Gate treats us to another doom laden riff, this one has echoes of Dio’s ‘The last In Line’, it has that sort of touch to it somehow, not a bad thing in my opinion. Another excellent and fluid guitar solo enlivens this song greatly, as does the sympathetic keyboard support from Derek, another winner here

Hypernova 158 is pretty much a showcase for Derek Sherinian to do his stuff, backed by everyone else, as he delivers a very sinewy keyboard sound, admirably supported by some nice bass lines from Nomura and solid riffing from Thal, not to mention the drum dynamics that Valverde brings to the brief musical interlude, it’s a riveting performance. This is followed by the albums title, and final, track, Insanium. The song has three parts, Home For All, Abandoned and Reprise. Together these three parts complete the song along with a wild guitar solo before entering the Reprise section of the song, with more sludgy guitar riffs. It is an interesting conclusion to what is unquestionably a major new talent in the Progressive Metal field.

As to whether this is a one off project or a full time and focus project will depend on how it is received I guess but, for those who mourn the end of Sons Of Apollo, as I did, this do very nicely! I wish them success in their endeavours and eagerly await a second instalment and possible live activities before too long.

Released 15th March, 2024.

Order from Burning Shed here:

https://burningshed.com/whom-gods-destroy_insanium_cd

Book Review – Harvey Lee – Backstage Pass – by John Wenlock-Smith

Appearances can be deceptive I often find, people who, on first meeting, come across well and then turn out to be horrible, albums that look great but turn out to be difficult and unsatisfactory on further investigation, I guess such is the nature of life? So, when the offer of reviewing this book came about I was not really that bothered, however, as one of my favourite books of all time is ‘Diary Of A Rock And Roll Star’ by Ian Hunter, I was definitely interested to at least read the book. In my mind I had a big brash American cigar smoking ego mountain tells tales of his own greatness. I actually got it all wrong, so very wrong and let me explain why.

Harvey Lee is British and was born in Newcastle, he moved to Manchester as a youngster, not California, as I originally thought. He left school with few formal qualifications, what he did possess though was a work ethic and a willingness to learn, adapt to situations and to try to make the best of whatever scenario he found himself in. This short book hails itself as not only a memoir of some definitely off the wall and unreal adventures, but also some genuinely useful and helpful information for you to apply to your own individual situation.

Harvey has led a most interesting and colourful life, the overwhelming majority of which has seen a love of AC/DC and especially their ‘Back In Black’ album of 1980. This album had a monumental impact on young Harvey, an impact that still resonates today, some 44 years on. This excellent book tells that story of how a young uneducated lad from Manchester toured the USA with the likes of Herman’s Hermits and honed his marketing skills in that arena, he even ended up being their bass player for a few shows, as well as sound engineer and front of house man.

Throughout the book you will read of how Harvey overcame obstacles and found new ways to address difficult and challenging situations. Later on, Harvey was able to transfer those skills into the gaming world where his innovative approach to issues paid handsome results for the likes of Virgin and Microsoft and their Xbox console.

In amongst this you will read about Smalltown Heroes, a band from Sunderland who should have been massive and, despite several years of actively trying to break through, managed to fall through the gaps. You’ll also read of exploits in the gaming world and corporate screw ups, it’s a cautionary tale at times but all the more rewarding as it is all true. Harvey gives the outline but doesn’t reveal any truly sordid details, It may have happened but a gentleman never tells! Harvey has a quiet dignity and professional manner that seldom slips. Along the way you will hear about the time that Harvey played an important role in the AC/DC ‘Bonfire’ box set and how the band repaid that kindness.

The Book is generally positive and honest recollection of an most interesting period of one man’s unusual life story. Also each chapter of the book represents a song title so you can make your own compilation CD to go with the book, or play it on a suitable streaming service of your choice. I found this book to be delightful and so much so that I’ve tracked down a copy of the Smalltown Heroes CD to enjoy at my leisure, I recommend this to anyone who will find its mix of music, gaming and business acumen interesting.

Harvey comes across as a very genial, yet fiercely impressive, force of nature but one who has the best interests of all in place, he appears to be a great honest and humble man. Read about his exploits in bringing the Xbox to the World, adventures in Europe, travelling the USA as a part of Herman’s Hermits and far more, oh and the incident with trapped wind at a most inappropriate time!

I did expressly appreciate his hard earned and well considered business advice, and his life hints as well, there is much wisdom there. Well worth a read in my humble opinion.

Published 14th February, 2024.

Order here:

Harvey Lee’s Backstage Pass. 50% Rock and Roll | 50% Business | 100% True (harvey-lee.com)

Review – Matt Steady – Presence – by John Wenlock-Smith

This was actually released back in 2023 so this review is probably a little overdue now but, still, it is definitely worthy of a review in my opinion.

I came across Matt Steady’s music through an advert on Facebook in which he was offering an albums worth of his Celtic Prog guitar works, a sampler of his earlier albums that also included two tracks lifted from this release, ‘Presence’. This sampler was mine for the price of postage, however, what made this album appeal to me was the endorsements of Dave Brons (whose albums I have previously reviewed) and also of Dave Bainbridge, both of whom had very positive things to say about Matt’s music. Positive proof that people do value the opinions of those they respect, this made this free album offer more enticing and so I opted to listen for myself.

Matt is an interesting fellow, he is by day a foster carer, which he does in conjunction with his wife, with Matt being the main carer. This is, of itself, a very laudable calling, however ,despite having a house full of children, in between this activity he creates his own music, which ranges in style between Celtic and folk, along with blues and heavy rock. I received the sampler and thoroughly enjoyed it, I talked to Matt and offered to review it for Progradar. Matt said that it was a sampler and asked would I review his latest album, ‘Presence’, instead, which is when I found out that it was a recent, 2023, release.

That is the long way of telling you about this review, ‘Presence’ is a ten track, fully instrumental, album of mood music. That said, it is not mere background music, rather this is a more emotional type of music, music that connects with you and makes you feel something. That is the aim at the heart of the album,

The album begins with a stunning guitar instrumental called Deep Calls To Deep, which has an excellent melody line. The track opens with epic keyboard swathes and percussion before a sinewy guitar line is added that bleeds emotion. This line just ascends and soars in a very recognisable style of a certain Gilmour chap, making for an epic instrumental opening salvo and sets the listener up for some feelings in the music. It is all very well done and the playing is excellent, quite what emotion this track conveys is not entirely clear, I suspect it is love, a very deep love though. Constant is a slightly eastern mystical sounding track, emotively it shows perseverance or patience. Again, this track has some excellent guitar playing throughout, swift flurries of notes over a constantly shifting rhythm pattern, all very impressive sounding indeed. Espresso has an interesting opening part full of burbling synths followed by another strong and fluid guitar line with a lovely tone to it, very clear and pronounced. Again the emotion it seeks to convey is not fully clear, although it sounds fantastic anyway.

Next up is Reign which may be representative of power. This piece has a somewhat suppressed guitar tone, like it is being held back somehow. It is a great tone though, which is what it is all about, as any guitarist will tell you, it’s all about the tone you get and apply in your sound and, well, this track has oceans of tone! Perforate has a funky groove and guitar fills. Matt gets some great sounds on this track, I love the funky groove and the ending solo, delivered by Dave Brons, is excellent. Uprising has a strong thrust and some great keyboards, it has a very muscular feel to it which suggests the emotion is overcoming adversity and being resilient and strong in the face of oppression, again this track really makes an impact. Foundation implies strength in a relationship and life in general. Emotion oozes throughout the track which has Terl Bryant’s drums thundering away throughout, giving a very solid base from which Matt can fly free and he does that remarkably well and fluidly.

Jelly Babies is the next track and, again, the emotion is unclear but I suspect it is joy as the track is fairly joyful in nature. Reed is the penultimate track and this one suggests resilience and letting life flow over and around you without breaking your spirit. In fact, the whole album suggests a kind of spirituality that offers hope and comfort when needed. Matt plays a violin part in the early section before switching to a fiery electric guitar solo, it sounds very epic indeed, a very strong track overall. The final piece is Sunrise and it has another stirring guitar line. This track suggests gratitude for another day of living and also for all that are around us, it is a lovely and fitting conclusion for an amazing album of moods.

There is some real graceful and empathetic music on offer here, it is a collection of tracks that will lift your spirits and provide sustenance in times of need. This self-released album has some rather excellent performances and stirring music in its short, forty minute, duration.

I really like it, and you can get it for yourself direct from the artist at the link below, as well as ‘The Dragons Refrain’ sampler.

Release 2nd September, 2023.

Order direct from the artists here:

mattsteady.com

Order from bandcamp here:

Presence | Matt Steady (bandcamp.com)\

Review – Ellesmere – Stranger Skies – by John Wenlock-Smith

I have come to the realisation that certain genres of music have the most impact on me. Growing up it was initially the raw power of Deep Purple that did it for me then, later on, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ made a huge impression on my young mind. I started exploring music for myself, helped in part by the fine chaps at my local record shop of choice, Reddington’s Rare Records in Birmingham, behind Marks & Spencers. This treasure trove or Aladdin’s cave of wonders was a crucial part of that, as the music I heard there was life changing. 

I was also an avid reader of Sounds and Melody Maker, later progressing onto Guitar World when I started to play the guitar. When I was in my 20’s, Kerrang and Raw Power came into my sphere of influence and with them I discovered multitudes of new and exciting groups and artists.

Some of those artists helped shape my tastes today, I, like many others, went through a heavy metal phase and also a blues period and later I went through a Miles Davis phase. However, one resounding constant has been my love of the likes of Kansas, Styx, Starcastle, Magnum and Queen, alongside Yes and ELP. For me, symphonic prog hits all the right spots, as Progradar Editor Martin Hutchinson knows only too well. So, when he offered me this new album from Ellesmere, I was certainly only too happy to accept, despite the group being totally new to me.

This album is actually the fourth excursion for multi-instrumentalist Roberto Vitelli’s project, visually and musically strongly linked to his ‘Wyrd’ of 2021. Although for this incarnation, Roberto has added a vocalist John Wilkinson of Swan Chorus, whose distinctive vocals aid with Roberto’s vision in creating music that has echoes of Genesis’ ‘Trick Of The Tail’ and Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’.

In addition to John Wilkinson, featured are guests like Clive Nolan who provides keyboards and John Hackett, whose flute graces several tracks, and many others appear as well. The artwork is provided by Rodney Matthews whose artwork has graced many albums, including Magnum and Praying Mantis, to name but two. The artwork shows the setting visually by depicting a cold side (the first four tracks) and the other side being the warm side (the 2 lengthy tracks that complete the album).

The album seems to be centred on a series of imaginary or imagined adventures but what is the music like? let’s dive in and find out. The album begins with a mini epic called Northwards which is suitably spacious with lots of keyboards. It sounds vast and also a little foreboding, despite some rippling keyboards offering a bold soundscape. This evokes the warranted cold feelings wonderfully and all of this is in the first 2 minutes! The song concerns itself with an attempt to get to the North Pole overland by sledge, it is a very strong and moody track but handled marvellously by all. Tundra is next with a very sturdy bass part and thrashing drums. Again, the imagery used in this song evokes the cold and open spaces of the tundra most convincingly. I can hear elements of Yes in this track, notably in the vocals and also with the guitar work of Giacomo Ansolemi. Crystallised is an instrumental with acoustic guitar from Graham Taylor and also features David Jackson providing saxophone and other woodwind instruments. With a strong and prominent synth line, the track is excellent and very musically accomplished and shows splendid playing from all once more. Artica opens with a sturdy guitar riff and guitar lines. This song appears to be about climbing in the Arctic and the strength of character needed for such activities. The track has a strong essence of Asia to me, sounding like something from the ‘Alpha’ era of the band.

This track concludes the ‘cold’ side after which we progress on to the ‘warm’ side of the album with the first long piece Stranger Skies, a song about a pilot who undertakes a very strange flight indeed, one that takes him to a strange world full of strange creatures and leaves him with no way home. The track has a long instrumental section in the middle section that builds this atmospheric track well. The tense atmosphere of the lyrics is displayed convincingly in this track and I really like it, with John Wilkinson’s voice definitely capturing the Genesis sound of the Phil Collins era most impressively. The run out of the track especially sounds very pastoral and English prog like. Another World is the albums other long track and also the last track of this fine release. Opening with another strong guitar riff to lead in to the track, the song is about a searcher who finds another world that is very different to the one he knows. There is sumptuous, fluid guitar work on this track, all backed with sumptuous keyboard textures and sounds and some lovely flute from John Hackett as the journey concludes back at the North Pole, emphasising the circular nature of life.

‘Stranger Skies’ is a most compelling and very well conceived release, intelligently imagined and realised. Unsurprisingly I thoroughly enjoyed the album, it really stays with you and is most definitely worth checking out in my opinion.

Released 12th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Stranger Skies | Ellesmere (bandcamp.com)

Review – Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975 – by JohnWenlock-Smith

I reviewed a live Baker Gurvitz Army release last year and raved about just how good a unit the band were as evidenced on that great live set. So imagine the joy I felt when I heard that a box set of hitherto unreleased recordings and 2 DVD’s of the band live, including an expanded version of their live set for the German TV show Musikladen, a live Old Grey Whistle Test session and a BBC Radio In Concert show was to be released in January 2024.

Sheer musical heaven for me as a long time admirer of the band, a band that I first heard in 1974 or 75, I can’t remember which exactly, I have loved the band ever since. I immediately made contact to secure this for myself and today it arrived and is every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. Parts of this set I already have, including a Video CD (remember those ill fated release’s in the early to mid 1980s?). Well, this is a proper version of that recording. Also here is an updated and expanded version of their ‘Live at Kings Hall, Derby’ CD from the early 2000’s, again with two extra tracks. As always on these sets, there is a degree of repetition but having it all in one tidy little box with great sleeve notes is fabulous

Once again, you can appreciate the strength and sheer power of the band as a unit, a five piece with Ginger Baker on drums, ex-Seventh Wave man Peter Lemer on keyboards, Paul Purvitz on bass and ex-Sharks vocalist Steve Parsons (A.K A Mr Snips) whose vocals allow Adrian Gurvitz room to play some very tasty lead guitar throughout.

For me, it is the opportunity to actually see and experience the band in my own front room that is the treat here and it is great to finally to be able to do this some nearly fifty years on from their short tenure as a band. I was too young to actually go to see these for myself, even though they played at Birmingham Town Hall in 1976. I do wish I had taken that opportunity back in the day, I’m sure I would have been blown away by them live. Instead this live footage is definitely an acceptable alternative and one I can repeat whenever I want to.

Despite several tracks being duplicated across the five discs (3CD’s and 2 DVD’s), there is sufficient variation in the different versions to still be of interest, especially for a fan boy like me! As always, great care has been taken with the sound, remastered to a very high standard by Ben Wiseman at Broadlake Studios in Hertfordshire.

The band are all on very good form on all of the recordings and it is wonderful to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris again introducing the band. Visually their stage setup is pretty standard, drums at the rear with keyboards to the left, bass front left, guitarist stage right and vocalist to the centre and together the five people on stage recreate their albums to perfection and even allow for extended takes of certain songs, all of which adds to the excitement and the atmosphere that the band generate.

For those fortunate enough to have been at any of these shows they certainly were treated to a highly impressive set of music and, remastered it all sounds great with no drop outs at all. Which, for recordings as old as these are, is remarkable and definitely captures a band on the rise, Sadly, as we now know, the death of their manager in a light aeroplane crash over Scotland was a blow from which the group never recovered and so it all fell apart. Baker went back to playing polo again, whilst the Gurvitz brothers teamed up with Moody Blues’ drummer Graeme Edge for his two solo albums and a string of live shows. Steve Parsons released a solo single and got involved with some punk and new wave projects but nothing that made any huge impact, he later revived The Sharks band and continued to make music once more.

Fate has derailed many a promising career, and she certainly did that here, the rifts were never healed and the band split up never to return! With Baker’s death in 2019 that dream died with him. It was a terrible loss to the world of music, however, thanks to the diligence of Esoteric, once again the Baker Gurvitz Army can March forward for a whole new raft of listeners to discover their unique and often different style of heavy rock for themselves.

For those who know of this fine band this set is a treasure trove of delights, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.

Released 26th January, 2024.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Baker Gurvitz Army: Neon Lights – The Broadcasts 1975, 3CD/2DVD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale – by John Wenlock-Smith

On February 16th Steve Hackett will release his thirtieth solo album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’. This album is not a concept album as such, however, it does have thirteen tracks interlinked and inter-woven and which take an autobiographical angle into Steve’s life journey. In the official blurb that accompanies the release we are told that it’s a “lovely journey that starts dirty scratchy  and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine”. So does it? And what does it tell us exactly? Well, here’s my thoughts on it, mostly based on a conversation I had with Steve himself earlier in the year.

The first track on the album, People Of The Smoke, opens interestingly with sound effects, a snippet of Listen With Mother, a baby’s cry, which is treated with reverb and echo, along with steam train noises and whistles. The song then moves into a busy section with Big Ben tolling and a guitar line that builds before drums come into force and a brisk pace is taken. Steve adds little flurries of notes and fills, this is all to represent the suffocating dark and smoke filled city of London when emerging from the post war years of rationing and entering the 1960’s and the opportunities that were becoming more available as a result. I guess it was possibly a case of you had to be there to experience it for yourself, but you get a good impression from the excellent video for this track:

The next track is the first of no less than five instrumental pieces, each of which are very different in sound and approach. These Passing Clouds symbolises the changing face of the capital as it moves from sinister to optimistic and this brief vignette captures that excellently. Taking You Down is about a friend of Steve’s at Senior school, they bonded over a love of music and had a close friendship. However, this friend was often involved in some jape or wheeze or scam and often roped Steve into these as well. This all ended badly when Steve got more involved in music and they drifted apart. The friend was manipulative and not always pleasant to be around, they had good times but it all came to an end. Steve often wonders about this chap and what he is doing these days, proposing that he is probably running a small country in Africa or somewhere similar, that is run with corruption and despotic greed. The next track, Found And Lost, is about Steve’s first love. A girl from a good family, intelligent and articulate however, she wanted something more than Steve offered so the relationship didn’t last. She got involved with a bad crowd, got involved with drugs and ultimately ended up in prison from which she would write letters to Steve. He was heartbroken by all this and it took a while for his confidence to rebuild and, while there were other girls, there were none like her.

Enter The Ring and Get Me Out! both refer to his time on the Genesis wheel of fame, all of this is being alluded to through the excitement of a fairground and the thrills it offered. This continues in Get Me Out! in which Steve realises that he is in danger of being stuck in a situation that he actually wants to be free of. This track has a lengthy and somewhat furious guitar solo in the middle, expressing his frustrations perhaps. Ghost Moon and Living Love is about moving on from his Genesis days and going it alone. Circo Inferno continues this theme of being stuck on a wheel going around and around. This track has a heavier tone with more fiery guitar flourishes ,it also features Amanda Lehmann on vocals and Rob Townsend on tenor saxophone. The next track Breakout is an impressive rock guitar showcase, as is All At Sea, both of which really impress as they both have a lot going on within them.

Into The Nightwhale is another interesting sounding track, opening with swirling keyboards and synths creating a moody soundscape with Steve providing long sustained guitar notes before a heavy drumbeat emerges from the mist, as it were. More sustained guitar notes follow and gradually build up to a peak at which point everything falls away and a delicate orchestral sound is played whilst Steve sings a delicate vocal. The song is about building resilience and how finding love give you strength once more. The penultimate song, Wherever You Are, is a love song for his wife Jo, who has had a major impact on Steve’s life in the last ten years or so. This song is a shameless celebration of the love that they have found in each other. That said, this one definitely rocks with extremely passionate guitar playing and sounds. The album closes with White Dove, a wistful and delicate acoustic conclusion to the album. Again, this song is very romantic sounding with its classical tone and playing. It will be great to hear this one live, as Horizons is possibly in need of being retired?Just a thought…

So there you have it, a most intriguing and different album from Steve with some great songs and excellent guitar work. There is lots to appreciate and enjoy, I certainly did and can highly recommend, another highlight in the career of this legendary guitarist.

Released 16th February, 2024.

Order from Steve’s website and other outlest here:

Steve Hackett – Wherever You Are (lnk.to)

Review Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Empty – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is for the new, fifth, solo release from ex Pain Of Salvation man, Kristoffer Gildenlöw, and follows on from ‘Dust’ (2012), ‘Rain’ (2016) and the pandemic releases ‘Homebound‘ (2020) and ‘Let Me Be A Ghost’ (2021), a poignant exploration of depression. ‘Empty’ takes a different tack and, whilst not a concept album as such, it does, however, have common themes and threads throughout its sixty minute duration.

After departing from Pain Of Salvation, Kristoffer spent time working and touring with Neal Morse, moved to the Netherlands from Sweden and became a highly sought after session musician. He also spent time as a part of Kayak, appearing on two of the band’s albums and has done sessions for the likes of Lana Lane and others.

Kristoffer says of this album, “I don’t write concept albums in the traditional sense, with characters stories  and dialogue, ‘Empty’ is a sceptic and cynical look at humans and humanity, viewed from three different perspectives. The personal view as humans against humans, as humanity as a phenomenon on a global scale and as a species inhabiting this pale blue dot in space, looked at by the creator who has its doubts about his creation. It is quite a deep and possibly challenging theme that the album pursues.”

The album begins with Time To Turn The Page, which has echoes of both Dire Straits ( for the guitar sounds) and Pink Floyd. The song breaks out into a more expansive soundscape with drums and bass adding to the rhythm. There’s a fine solo with some fine wah-wah effects and it is all rather stirring before the song quietens down once more as it draws to a conclusion, an excellent opening track. End Of The Road features a great violin motif, the song pulses along in a rather downbeat manner and has a good chorus with great vocals. The sound is actually very organic and quite different to what you expect. Harbinger of Sorrow has a persistent piano melody rippling throughout and also has a very solid bass line punctuating the rhythm. As the track comes to a close it takes a harder tone with lots of suppressed power awaiting the chance to explode, which it does not actually do. He’s Not Me is next and, once again, we find the Straits/Floyd influences apparent. This song has lots of restrained emotions, you want it to explode, however, in taking the route less travelled and obvious, this graceful song is instilled with much dignity and strength. It has a great guitar break and slide guitar which, when coupled with the swarming broody keyboard textures, puts you firmly in Floydian territory!

Black And White is hinged on a solid bass line, with a medium tempo, and great guitar fills. A fine guitar solo enlivens proceedings significantly and shows that this album is definitely a slow burner that will creep up on you and overawe you with its beauty and restraint. Down We Go is one of the albums two longer pieces, again, the spacey sound will be very familiar to many, shades of Pink Floyd again, perfectly recreated and reimagined with a tone right out of the ‘Wish You Were Here’ era. This is an excellent track with lots going on and a great sound, it’s all really Impressive with another emotive guitar break towards the end. To me, the best track on the album so far, magnificent even. Turn It All Around is up next, the first in a run of tracks that are all shorter, but no less interesting musically. This one has some interesting orchestral embellishments, violin playing pizzicato sections for example, and some guitar fills sound great in amidst everything else. Means To An End has more piano and moody, yet expressive, vocals. There’s good bass here again that carries the song along well. It has a melancholic air to it but a great guitar break certainly helps move the track forward.

Beautiful Decay sees the piano takes centre stage along with the fretless bass and another earnest heartfelt vocal from Kristoffer is pleasing to the ear. It’s a brief but entertaining track, as is The Brittle Man which is hinged on counterpoint Bass and violin lines, playing in harmony until a piano enters the fray and carries a similar melody. Saturated is the albums penultimate track and the Roger Waters influence is clear, especially in the vocals. Indeed, in the overall soundscape, this great sounding track could be the best unreleased Pink Floyd song you’ve never heard. Yes, it is that good! The album’s final song is also the longest and the title track, Empty, which imagines the creator looking at the earth and wondering was it worth it? One for the theologians amongst us to ponder, no doubt. There’s a pulsating timbre, akin to a heartbeat, recurring throughout and more moody, expansive soundscapes. Again, it’s quite a melancholic track with an emotional vocal from Kristoffer as he voices the creators doubt so eloquently and with such depth of feeling. As he sings, you can hear his raw anguish, the latter part of the song then has a heavier, yet no less epic, guitar solo that plays out in a Comfortably Numb style, with similar tone and feeling. It’s most impressively done and is a blinder of a solo to conclude the album.

Overall this is a real grower of an album and one that needs your effort to get the most out of it. It is an investment that will pay big dividends to the listener though, as within its tracks lies much crafting and skill to creating memorable songs and soundscapes. I have very much enjoyed this excellent release and feel that many listeners will find much to appreciate herein.

Released 8th February, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Empty | Kristoffer Gildenlöw (bandcamp.com)