Review – I Am The Manic Whale – Things Unseen – by John Wenlock-Smith

I Am The Manic Whale deliver their third studio album with ‘Things Unseen’. The project is the brainchild of bassist and singer Michael Whiteman who hails from Woodley, Reading.

The band’s name actually being an anagram of his own name, Michael is joined in this endeavour by Ben Hartley on drums, David Addis on guitars and John Murphy on keyboards, all of whom have been on each previous Manic Whale album and this lends a continuity to the group’s overall cohesion and sound.

The album is a mixture of styles and sounds but, to these ears, there seems to be substantially more guitar this time around, the music is vibrant and lively, sprightly even, in parts covering various topics including urban myths, fantasy literature, ecology, celebrity and fame, a child’s smile, lego modelling, carefree days and finally the power ,brilliance and longevity of the Intercity 125 Train!

This music will take you on a journey that is very rewarding indeed, this group have skill and talent aplenty. Their music is positive and hopeful, along with being thought provoking and at times challenging. The musicianship is exemplary and fluid, this is an album that really grows on you, especially if you allow it time to percolate in your brain. I have found myself singing the chorus to The Deplorable Word to myself whilst boiling the kettle in recent days, so it definitely gets into your mind if you allow it to!

This time around both John and David have contributed songs for the album, Billionaire and Into The Blue respectively, with the remainder by Michael and, on the epic lengthy track Celebrity, his wife Esther.

Let’s investigate his fine album and see what treasures it contains shall we?

The album kicks off with John’s song Billionaire which opens with a gentle sounding piano melody and with Michael singing in a style that is very reminiscent of 10CC, no less. Around 1’17”, John switches up to what sounds like a sampled organ sound and the song shifts gear a bit with the introduction of drums and a graceful, fluid guitar line from David. The song is a good and interesting one to open proceedings with.

Next track, The Deplorable Word, has more than just a whiff of early 80’s Rush to it, especially in the guitar work from David Addis. The song is based on a chapter in the book The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (he of Narnia fame), the song speaking of the evil queen Jadis and how she once ruled the land of Chand, killing its inhabitants so that she would not be beaten in battle.

This song is highly attractive as it has a lot of pace to it with especially fine guitar and keyboards throughout, although we are not told what the word was, just its effects. It is very strong with a terrific chorus that is effective and memorable. It also has some great bass runs, shimmering keyboards and some funky guitar from David, all wrapped in some highly effective drum patterns from Ben. This one is definitely a highlight of the album, hugely impressive, and will be brilliant in a live situation.

The David Addis penned Into The Blue is an ecological protest song that concerns itself with how we are abusing the earth (or were until Covid 19 came along, during which we have seen some major changes and a balance returning?). The track opens in a style that is reminiscent of Scarborough Fair with its flutes and gentle acoustic elements. David fires off a staggering guitar riff before reverting to a more acoustic trend again. The song has an important message and has great interplay between David’s guitar and John’s keyboards all with strong support from Michael and Ben.       

The next song is the album’s lengthy epic Celebrity. Split into five sections beginning with Identity Crisis, this tells the tale of a wannabe who seeks fame and fortune despite his sheer lack of talent, sound familiar? Obviously this whole song is a critical swipe at the notion of fame for fame’s sake or being famous but not for any particular talent or ability. Yes, it’s taking a shot at reality TV and the “stars” that the genre throws up regularly. Think X-Factor, Love Island and The Only Way is Essex etc, car crash TV at its finest but TV that people actually watch regardless.

This is followed by Cultural Vampire (Who Am I) which deals with how one looks and the steps someone will take to be noticed. Part 3 is called Freak Show and is about getting onto those type of TV shows, the next part is called Heart and Soul and is where our hero (I use the term loosely) fails spectacularly to make any real impression and has his hopes dashed on the rocks of reality.

This leads him to part 5 in which he has an Epiphany where he realises that there are few shortcuts to success and that he has to go the hard way and actually become good and competent at something and be able to offer something that people actually want and value. The song has some very subtle piano lines and, at the sixteen minute mark, has a superb guitar solo from David, merging in to the melody that John is playing with a melodic synth line, before a further guitar line leads to song to a fine conclusion. This whole song is a very sharp and well observed critique of the fame game.

Smile is a sweet and simple song that is about a child’s smile and the effect and satisfaction that it brings. Simple but ultimately very profound, this is a song born out of the love of a parent for their child and is a very real and emotionally moving song. The next piece, Build It Up, is a joyous track that concerns itself with a certain Danish toy that is used to build things with and that allows free creative imagination to conjure up all kinds of edifices. Michael is obviously well versed in the world of Lego constructions and the subsequent destruction and rebuilding that such play entails. Well, if not him, his children certainly are and somehow this song really captures those emotions fully.

The penultimate song is the sweet and wistful number Halcyon Days, this song encapsulates so much of both days that have gone by and also of a long hot summer all seen through the eyes of a child. With terrific wordplay and imagery that evokes the setting richly, this song is another triumph for the band and leads us nicely into the last and most impressive song from I Am TheManic Whale

The final track, Valenta Scream, is all about with the technological wonder that was the original Intercity 125 Diesel train that powered through the English countryside for nearly 40 years and was an icon of the rails. These trains were highly recognisable and well known for the scream of the Valenta engines that powered it through the decades.

As a rail enthusiast Michael sings of this innovative train with great fondness and was very familiar with its history. The song is a real stormer and it is a fitting close to the album, ending the record on a high note making this new release simply magnificent.

‘Things Unseen’ is chock full of superb songs with impressive attention to detail and fabulous music, all beautifully played, recorded and performed. This is a release to treasure, absorb and appreciate, Michael and the team really delivering something incredibly special and I urge you to check out this fantastic album for yourself.   

Released 24th April 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://iamthemanicwhale.bandcamp.com/album/things-unseen

     

     

Review – The Bardic Depths – The Bardic Depths by John Wenlock-Smith

The Bardic Depths is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer. The self titled debut album releases in March 2020 and features performances from Peter Jones – Saxophone/ Vocals (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales), Tim Gehrt – Drums ( Streets/ Steve Walsh), Gareth Cole – Guitar (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community.

To say that this is an unusual album is nothing odd, but such is the way of modern music making in that this one stands out for being very different, especially when you consider that this collective has never actually met in full or in person, as yet. In fact, up to a few weeks ago Dave and Brad had not even spoken by phone, skype or similar, this despite them having collaborated on two of Dave’s previous albums.

This group or project came to be because all involved are “Passengers”, the collective noun used by fans of the group Big Big Train for their Facebook group forum. When Lanzarote / Canary Island based musician Dave Bandanna put out a message looking for some musicians to help him with a new project, The Bardic Depths came into being, albeit it through the virtual world of file swapping and editing..

Dave, whose normally work entails entertaining holidaymakers by providing music in the evening at various holiday resort and hotels (he also feeds the islands large stock of feral cats) was inundated with great responses. These came from the likes of Gareth Cole, Peter Jones and Professor Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College, Michigan among others, with Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) acting as a producer. This album is certainly different because of all these factors.

The album itself is a celebration of the friendship between C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, both of whom were members of the Oxford University literary group The Inklings, where they would meet to talk about their writing projects and read to each other.

This album explores that friendship across its seven lengthy tracks.  The music wears its influences openly with a touch of Pink Floyd and snatches of latter-day Talk Talk’s prog sensibilities, to name just a couple. All are very lovingly collated together to create a highly impressive, moody and emotionally moving musical collage of ideas, influences and performances that, when taken together, merge to create a series of epic pieces reflecting on friendship through the storms of one’s life.

I know I say this about many of the albums I review, but I feel this really is a remarkable project and one that will be viewed very positively come the end of year listings. Well I certainly think that will be the case here, I know it will be for me. Once again this album will need some time for its treasures to become fully apparent for it is only with increasing familiarity that this will become clear. There is so much great music here for your ears to embrace and enjoy that this journey you take will be a most worthwhile and revealing one for you to both start and to appreciate.

Opener piece, The Trenches, refers to the first world war experiences that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien endured and it is very evocative. Greek literary characters are used to ask the questions about the decisions made, and what the impact of those choices had, on the average man in the trenches. Biting Coals, speaks of the writing group and how, as war survivors, they meet and discuss and talk things over. This song has a lot of atmosphere that is utilised to great effect creating both a safe and cosy environment for the conversation.     

Depths of Time is the first real epic, clocking in at 12:33 which gives this three-part piece lots of room for some very extensive instrumental sections. These include some fine, airy sax from Peter Jones amidst some fabulous rhythmic guitar playing from Gareth Cole. The music here is rather ethereal sounding in tone with lots of space surrounding it to give an open effect and a chilled and relaxed tone, all very impressive really. The next piece is Depths of Imagination which opens with spoken word from Brad Birzer and a strong pulsating bass line from Dave Bandanna along with some great keyboards from Paulo Limoli that offset Dave’s vocal delivery.

Depths of Soul follows, opening with some fiery lead guitar from Gareth and more spoken word from Brad. It’s all very evocative sounding and moves onwards fiercely, fuelled by the drums of Tim Gehrt drums and Dave’s fine bass playing once again. The End is another atmospheric piece that contains some great cello from Mike Warren, a fine piano melody from Paulo Limoli and some lovely flute from Dave. This song has a great melody which suits its gentle tone, the music has passion and depth and sounds exceptionally fine indeed. It is all very musical and tuneful with great melodies that really suit the tone of the songs.

The final song, Legacies, opens with bells and a powerful drumbeat. This piece is about what this friendship leaves in its wake and why it made a difference then and still does for us today. How these men lived, what they believed in and lived for still matters for us today and that is the legacy they left us.

What we live for is important, the final spoken words draw the circle to a close with the words and a truly epic guitar solo opened Gareth and finished by Robin. It is simply sensational and a stunning close to what has been an enjoyable album. One of the best of the year so far and one that you really need to hear for yourself.        

Released 20/3/2020

Order from bandcamp here:

https://thebardicdepths.bandcamp.com/releases

Review – Jack Hues – Primitif – by John Wenlock-Smith

Jack Hues is not a name that most will be familiar with really, that is unless you are conversant with the band Strictly Inc. that he was  part of along with Tony Banks of Genesis or with the new wave outfit Wang Chung with who had a big early 1980’s hit with Dance Hall Days. Since those days Jack has kept himself busy with The Quartet and also been working with the boys from Canterbury Prog outfit Syd Arthur. All of which bring us to this new album ‘Primitif’, which is actually Jack’s first ever solo release. It is a double album of some 16 songs of various lengths and styles, including a covers of Bacharach and David’s The Look of Love and Lana Del Ray’s Video Games.

The record covers several different styles and moods, its lyrics can be somewhat bleak and desolate at times but this is not a bad thing, rather it shows incredible honesty and bravery by showing us his raw feelings. There is also something of a philosophical slant to some of these tracks as Jack contemplates mortality, fate and free will and how these could affect our lives.

This is generally an acoustically led album, although several song are fully electric, there are some very interesting guitar lines and parts to several of the songs and the mood is generally hopeful. It took me quite a few listens to start to make sense of this album as it is one that you will have to persevere with to fully appreciate but that actually makes it a far richer experience in my opinion.

The disc opens with the aforementioned Bacharach and David cover and it is a jaunty romp through a classic song with good use of keyboard orchestrations and a strong bassline holding it all together as Jack’s strong vocal lines bring the song home with aplomb. This is a fabulous opener that leads into the more melancholy Whitstable Beach which reflects on the bleakness of the northern Kent shoreline, this despite the track having a driving beat to it. The song has an excellent refrain in the closing section, again this is another powerful song.

The third track, A Long Time, is an acoustic shuffle with the guitar punctuating the song with clipped tones. This piece is all about letting go and almost feels cathartic for Jack as he sings of the difficulties in closing a chapter in your life. The next song is called Cut and is a shorter but still highly percussively driven acoustic instrumental piece.

These two songs are followed by the lengthy and epic track Winter, which is the longest track on the first disc. Winter is a deceptively enthralling track with its very clever use of guitar tones building the emphasis of the song, the finality of things and how death stops growth completely. The mid section has some very interesting musical elements at play, a sudden bass and burst of guitar and discordant rhythms being employed that sound unsettling and the bleak call to let me think of nothing that closes this somewhat sombre piece.

Diamond Ring is next, another gentle acoustic song that speaks of a ring that has been lost but the memories it held still remain in the singers mind as he recalls the wearer and the events that it represented.

The brief interlude of Spring follows, an acoustic and atmospheric instrumental piece that gradually builds in waves of increasing intensity and synthesizer noises that finally lead us to the epic closer of disc 1, Margate Train, a song that is full of memories that are exposed as the track continues. This is a very emotional song that deals with a mind full of memories that have surfaced, uncalled yet ever present in the singer’s voice and mind and that have gone away seemingly forever. The main refrain and synthesised strings return to close the song out on a very bleak line as the guitar reverberates away to silence, a remarkable track by any standards.

Disc 2 continues the journey, opening with the upbeat You Are The One I Love, probably the most straight forward pop song on the whole album and a very effective and memorable song too. Astrology speaks about free will and precession and predestination, Jack sounding similar to latter day Ian Gillan at times on a song that is lyrically challenging.

Summer is another short instrumental track segues into the song Stand In A Place Of Love, another angst driven acoustic outpouring that talks about Nietzsche (the German philosopher) whose influence on thinking and writings on good and evil  were used by the Nazi party in the 1930’s and 40’s, especially that of a superior race of men.

An Ordinary Man is a storming mid paced rocker that really surges along with a propulsive guitar line running throughout and a propensity of urgent drums, really there’s a lot going on here musically that combines make this a really rather fine song indeed. The next track, You Will Kill The One You Love, features an accordion alongside more standard instrumentation and this gives it a unique organic sound that is very full and interesting. This leads into the penultimate track, Autumn, another brief electric piece with shimmering guitar chords played in an arpeggio style and a reprise of The Look Of Love lyrics alongside stacked vocals, all done to great effect.

The final track and the final station on our musical journey is Video Games, a reworking of a track by Lana Del Ray that Jack has taken and rather electrified making it more like a Miles Davis piece replete with some heavy guitar lines and a driving backbeat. He uses clipped vocals to add punch before expanding it into a more mainstream delivered song with acoustic guitar. It this quite well known song a distinctive spin from the more recognised original.

Video Games closes the album in style and proves that it was worth the wait and also worthy of your time and consideration. As I said its not an easy listen but stick with it and you will find the treasure that lies at its core. This is a sensational piece of work and I heartily recommend this masterpiece to you all, it may not be progressive as such but the craft that is on display here makes this album worth all the plaudits that it gets, so dive on in, the water is lovely.        

Released 20th March 2020

Order the album from bandcamp here:

https://jackhues.bandcamp.com/album/primitif

Review – Ms Amy Birks – All That I Am & All That I Was by John Wenlock-Smith

Amy Birks, or Ms Amy Birks to give her her full name, is a young lady with a very bright future ahead of her.  Well that certainly seems to be the case here with this debut solo release ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’.

Amy was previously a member of the all-female trio the Beatrix Players whose mix of genres embraced folk, singer songwriter acoustica, prog and quasi classical baroque chamber pop.  Quite a heady and adventurous mix and an interesting one too.  I saw these play to a capacity audience as a support act for Big Big Train in Basingstoke where the crowd listened very intently to their delicate yet powerful pieces. Well that was three years ago, but this album is very much of the now, and as the Beatrix Players are no more, that chapter is now closed, with this album being the beginning of a whole new and exciting chapter for Amy.

This new album has been a couple of years in the making and encompasses several themes and various historical songs also feature.  These come from Amy’s rich love of history along with literature as shown in the opening number Jamaica Inn, based on and inspired by the Daphne De Maurier novel of the same name.  This song has a flow to it that is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush but without the histrionic vocals that that song featured. Find the epic video here;

What I especially like about this is that it’s a very catchy song with a fine chorus and some strong, yet understated playing from all, with lovely guitar from Oliver Day and a memorable melody that runs throughout the song.

Unlike the Heart follows and this is another very delicate song with a strong supportive bass line from Nick Wollage and some fine cello from Caroline Lavelle.  In fact, the more you listen to this album the more you can hear within it the sparseness of the sound. This is especially true on the next song More, a very stark and raw song that talks of Amy’s divorce and the feelings around that difficult time.  Here the instrumentation is very powerful indeed, all adding to the air of despair that the lyrics evoke. Ultimately this is a song about one woman’s coming to terms with and surviving the trauma of divorce. This is another very powerful song.

Not Every Night is a statement of continuance about how things were, but not how they are now, or will ever be again. A gentle song that has depths of feeling to it.

With All That I Am is gain about divorce, in which Amy speaks of the unhappiness surrounding the situation and questions are asked about the third party involved in the relationship. That Amy can sing of these matters so openly is admirable, she has moved on from the hurt into pastures new. Again, there is hope however this piece is quite raw emotionally as Amy exorcises her own demons.

The next song Say Something is totally different, in that it deals with a time of abuse that Amy suffered at school and thereafter whilst modelling. A situation in which she was the recipient of unwarranted attention and improper touch. She sings of these times very eloquently, openly questioning why the individual behaved in that way. The music in this song is very emotional and almost sounds wistful, despite the horrendous acts that it portrays. It is a very brave song but one that needs to be heard and spoken about. Personally, I find it a highlight of the album.

We then move onto a brace of songs based on historical figures, initially Catherine Of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife.  He divorced her when she was unable to provide him with an heir and from whom he transferred his affections to Anne Boleyn.  

This song (Catherine) is a triumph as it deals with the life of Catherine, a woman of strength who still loved Henry after his affections shifted and she was cast aside.  This piece has a stately majesty and power to it, almost regal sounding and certainly delivered with respect and admiration even.

The Fault Of The Lady Anne is next. This is another moving piece, respectful and essentially sad dealing as it does with Queen Anne’s fall from grace. Her isolation from Henry and decent into an ill judged affair that resulted in her being taken to the Tower Of London and ultimately to her sad death at the executioners axe. This moving song is indeed very sad lyrically but is very well conceived, and if you’ll forgive the pun, well executed and delivered.

The Road to Gordes is about Amy’s experiences as a single woman travelling in Colombia (Spain) and how she would be noticed, but then often left unserved in restaurants and bars. This is an interesting song musically with some delicate guitar from Oliver Day, a lovely piano line from Amy and some fine interplay between the violin and the cello, as Amy finds her peace in the space of the situation and both accepts and enjoys the sensations it brings.

I Wish is a song that features the nimble fingers of Steve Hackett playing Spanish guitar to lyrics based on words from the Christina Georgina Rossetti’s poem I Wish I Were A Little Bird.  This one is a really wonderful track, with Steve really giving the song some power and making its tale of unrequited love come alive. It is another excellent song, there is a suitably elegant video that accompanies it that can be viewed here.

The final track is called Keeps You Guessing and features piano from Romain Thorel of Lazuli whose jazzy improvisations really give the song a swing and end this exceptional album on a very positive note.

This album will appeal to all who enjoy music by the likes of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and show that Amy is a lady of real talent and imagination who can cross genres at will and for whom the future looks very bright indeed. I will say that this album needs time to sink into your mind and to appreciate the very subtle instrumentation that is at play here, but it is a real delight to hear and appreciate.

Released 3/4/2020

Order the album from The Merch Desk here:

https://themerchdesk.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=88_296

Interview with Ms Amy Birks – by John Wenlock-Smith

On the release of Ms Amy Birks debut solo release Progradar’s John Wenlock-Smith asked the velvet-voiced songstress a few questions…

JWS – I’ve listened to the album quite a lot and I notice the album falls into several different parts, all apart from Jamaica Inn, the next few songs are divorce related, there is the song about the abuse you suffered and a couple of historical related tracks. We get the travelling song in Colombia and then ‘I Wish’ and the album closes with a song of hope.

AB – Yes, ‘Not Every Night‘ & ‘With All That I Am‘ both carry the pain and frustrations felt in divorce but both very different sounding – ‘Not Every Night‘ has a much more forgiving and delicate tone (I’m a big fan of the delicate right hand of Dubussy and Chopin so I took a bit of inspiration from them on this album) – And delicate perhaps because I wrote this song 2 years or so after my divorce.

With All That I Am‘ sounds much more raw and closer to the detail with lyrics like “Who is she? You owe me that at least”. I wanted the instrumentation in this track to echo the raw tone to the lyrics so both Caroline Lavelle’s cello and John Hackett’s flute both play their part in creating a splitting of directions and the classical sounding piano holding this piece together, with it’s more formal and rigid feel. 

The track ‘More’ is written about my difficulty with siblings and I’m sure it will be a pain in my life that will be hard to separate myself from completely. That’s why you hear dark and brooding instrumentation with clashes and a big crescendo that sounds almost confrontational and aggressive in nature.

‘Say Something’ is written about two key things that have happened in my life – first being at the age of 14 when I was attacked by a fellow student in my music class  – the boy well expelled and by coming forward to say something, 5 more girls from the same year said that he had done similar things to them. The second incident coming a few years later – I was a model and the photographer who was also managing the start of my music career took advantage of a 17 year old girl. I won’t go into detail but a lot was said during a 2 year period of my life that will stay with me forever.

JWS – This album is very different, several years after the events its kinder and more forgiving really 

AB – Yes, with time I have allowed myself reflection and the ability to try and understand moments in my life and bring out the melodies in a more uplifting way. You see, although the lyrics take you somewhere with pretty dark undertones, the melodic feel is meant to uplift and take you past these painful meanings so you get a better balanced feel. 

JWS – You obviously love history and are drawn to certain figures, the same with literature with Daphne du Maurier and Jamaica Inn.

AB – Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of the National Trust and English Heritage and have spent many a weekend visiting the great houses and gardens (I’m a keen gardener) throughout England. My parents also play their part, taking me to places such as the Bronte country and Howarth for holidays. The work of the Bronte’s will for sure feature on the next album but for this album I chose the work of Daphne De Murier, and the character of Mary Yellan; A strong but romantic character where I could position myself firmly within to create the video for ‘Jamaica Inn’. I’m a huge fan of South West England, again, holidaying there as a child so it was a perfect excuse to hire a few horses, carriage and to wake up at 5.30 in the morning to don the beach in a very Poldark-style dress, handmade by my seamstress mother, Sylvia. 

JWS – Where is the album’s rear cover picture taken? 

AB – At the back of St Andrew’s Church in Leysters – Herefordshire. My dear friend and photographer for the album artwork, Richard Shakespeare lives in nearby Leominster.

JWS – What would you say are your musical influences?

AB – Natalia Merchant, Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Carol King, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac, Dario Marianelli, Debussy, Chopin, JS Bach, The Beatles, Jeff Buckley, Jethro Tull… I could go on haha 

JWS – I know album 2 is ready and will be released next year, what can we expect from this? 

AB – Quite possibly a bit more guitar and drums, works of the Bronte sisters poetry but basically an extension to what you hear on ‘All That I Am & All That I Was’, with string orchestration because I love to write for cello and violin, a classical, progressive feel with ornate polyphony.

JWS – Where do you get your ideas from?

AB – Real life – I always think, write what you know, then your true feelings and character will come through without having to think, “how should this sound?”. You shouldn’t have to think if you write from your heart. I studied English Literature, Art, as well as Music so I draw inspiration from many things. I remember penning a song whilst stood in front of ‘The Kiss’ by Klimt, so that may turn up at some point. Books of course and music… I’m often listening to JS Bach & Erik Satie and feel inspired to jump on the piano to write. Places also inspire me. I’ve written in Colombia, France and Italy, where I’ve found local melodies and instrumentation push me to write and of course, sun, a glass of Chianti and a beautiful view seem to aid in putting pen to paper.

JWS – Who would you most like to work with?

AB – The violinist, Angele Dubeau, lead vocalist and writer for Pain of Salvation – Daniel Gildenlow, Composer – Dario Marianelli and Steven Wilson!

JWS – I really feel that this album is a very strong statement from you and I think it will be acclaimed by many but how do you feel about it? 

AB – Thank you and I’m grateful to know that and I feel a real sense of achievement. I’ve been through a lot, especially over the past 4 or 5 years and I’m glad that I have been brave enough to write about it and to discover that I can produce, engineer and mix, so I’ve picked up many skills, equipping for the next album. 

JWS – There was mention of a more guitar driven version, will that be available and, if so, how and when?

AB – Yes, plenty of material and ideas kicking around. It’s just trying to figure out which ideas to put forward first but I should imagine an acoustic version of these songs and possibly my version of the Beatrix Players’ ‘Magnified’ at some point in the next 18 or so months.

JWS – Have you any other plans for when lockdown ends?

AB – Yes, I’ll be heading to France for a dip in the river Vienne, a spot of painting in my French house as there’s lots of work still to do before I can use it as my writing studio, and a chance to catch up with my parents as they’re now full-time in France. I will also be scheduling many more gigs over the next 12 months, so watch this space.

JWS – Have you thought about what other historical figures could you write about?

AB – Well, there are still four more wives of Henry the 8th to write about and plenty of Bronte characters that really inspire me. I’m a big fan of Kate Mosse’s books, such as ‘The Burning Chambers & Sepulchre’ so who knows…

Thanks to Amy for talking to Progradar, look out for John’s review of the new album coming very soon and you can order the new album, released 3/4/2020, here:

https://themerchdesk.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=88_296


Review – Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea – by John Wenlock-Smith

Well this is certainly different for me. Yes, I’d heard of Pure Reason Revolution but somehow never actually listened to their modern day take on Progressive Rock. I know that they are well regarded in certain circles and they have quite a history. Several albums, a split and, more recently, a return to action, albeit in an altered form and with a slightly different line up, so this was new territory for me. I admit it did take me a while to get to a place of understanding with this album but, as always, continued listening finally gave way to understanding and then to acceptance and admiration even. 

Well this is my review of this their fourth album, ‘Eupnea’, their first since 2010.  It is pretty topical in content in that it speaks of the experiences of Jon Courtney and his wife surrounding the birth of their baby girl, Jessie. Born prematurely at 32 weeks and weighing just 3lbs, this album records her battle for survival, which thankfully she won.

It is Jon’s tribute to his wife and daughter Jessie and has this theme woven throughout the tracks, which really helps you understand the music properly once you are aware of its back story.

‘Eupnea’ consists of just Six tracks of varying length ranging from over four minutes to the epic title track that is nearly fourteen minutes in length. That said, there are no wasted moments on these tracks as everything is of relevance and worthy of their place. Let’s have a look at this in a bit more detail.

The music opens with New Obsession which includes the sounds of hospital apparatus monitoring heartbeat, pulse and breathing. This sets the scene for much of what is to follow; great vocal harmonies from Jon and Chloe Alper and some furious guitar work from Jon that really rocks out with a wonderful melodic solo at the 3.55-minute point. It really delivers a punch, along with that fabulous chorus of “It’s you, a child, a lover you’re dead calm and the choir is so soft tonight”. Very emotional, heartfelt and a simply fabulous opener.

This is followed by the first of the longer tracks, Silent Genesis, with its atmospheric keyboards and samples. A Pink Floyd type guitar line from Jon and an insistent bass line that works to anchor everything together. This track also features original PRR guitarist Greg Jong who was bought in to create this powerful emotional feeling.

Third track Maelstrom is so called because it marked the turning point in Jessie’s struggle for life when she began steadily breathing and her parents’ anxieties were lifted. This is a song of hope that the storm has started to pass over, deeply significant and with Jon and his wife being very grateful for this positive change, an end to the uncertainty. Again, this song has more wonderful harmonies from Jon and Chloe.

Ghosts and Typhoons follows and at over 8 minutes fits between the shorter and longer pieces like a bridge. It has blistering drum patterns to it and raucous guitar throughout, featuring lovely vocals from Chloe alongside some fine support from Jon resulting in more great harmonies. This is quite a powerfully propelled piece that shows PRR’s strengths and imagination at play.

Beyond Our Bodies is a celebratory song about the fragility of life and the body’s ability to overcome incredible difficulties and to come through the other side. This is another compelling song.

Which leads us to the title track and longest song, Eupnea, which is about normal unlaboured or quiet breathing, without volition. This is a song that brings everything together in a 13 odd minute piece of contrasts, in which heavy passages sit next to lighter more gentle ones in a juxtaposition of light and shade that accentuate the emotional roller coaster that this music takes you through.

This entire album is certainly a very moving journey, and one that I urge you to join, partly as at the time of writing this review the world is struggling to cope with the Covid 19 (Coronavirus). This album follows a different scenario with, thankfully, a positive outcome.

A simply marvellous album that will be on many ‘best of’ 2020 lists I’m sure.  A fine album indeed, very emotionally raw, it rocks hard too.

If, like me, you are unaware of the music of Pure Reason Revolution, then this album is a fine introduction and will hopefully whet your appetite to discover more from this fine outfit. Jon and Chloe have produced an album of depth and intelligence here that really deserves to be widely heard. Highly recommended indeed.

Released 3/4/2020

Order from InsideOut Music here:

http://www.insideoutshop.de/Item/Pure_Reason_Revolution_-_Eupnea_-Ltd-_CD_Digipak-/16622

Review – Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate – Nostalgia For Infinity – By John Wenlock-Smith

Hats Off Gentlemen are a London based group/duo of Malcolm Galloway and Mark Gatland who are gaining increasing recognition for their unique take on progressive rock. They have released several albums since 2015, this new album ‘Nostalgia for Infinity’ is the latest to carry their ongoing theme of the fragility of civilisation.

In addition, many of the songs on the album are inspired by the work of Science Fiction author Alastair Reynolds. This adds an unexpected twist to these songs as they develop on the themes that he has explored in his writing.

The album is one that requires active listening as you will need to immerse yourself into the music to really understand what you hear and also to appreciate the level of maturity and craft at play. This investment of time and effort will pay a handsome dividend for the diligent listener.  In my opinion, this album has moments of sublime grace and beauty being endowed with deep emotion.

The album starts with a longer piece Century Rain which has a running time of 9:17 and opens, as so many prog albums do, with keyboards. In this instance, there are some gentle synthesiser noodlings before the thunderous chords power in, it’s all very ethereal really and a good platform from which launches a sturdy vocal from Malcolm. This song is a good one, very atmospheric and with a fine use of Kathryn Thomas’ flute.

This track and the following, Twin Earth, take the story of Wendall Floyd, a musician living in Paris in an alternative 1950’s, who is hired to investigate the death of Susan White, a tenant who has an unusual record collection. Whilst doing this he meets Verity Auger who is from another Earth, 300 years in the future. Her world has been destroyed by weaponised technology called the Nanocause.   

The theme of this piece is our ability to dehumanise whilst also failing to learn from the mistakes of history. Again, both are cerebral pieces that will cause you to think but the information in the booklet allows you to make sense of proceedings. The second part of this piece, Twin Earth, features, at the 4:17 mark, a piano solo of real beauty and warmth that shows the power of humanity in all its finery, a magnificent few moments within an interesting concept. The keyboard work throughout the album puts me in mind of Tony Banks, as the approach here is to build the keyboard sounds in a similar orchestrated manner.     

The third track, Ark, is also significant, talking as it does about the original 1938 built aircraft carrier Ark Royal which played a vital part in the Second World War, including the famous search for the Bismarck, the flagship of the German Navy, which was sunk off the coast off France in 1941. The song has added poignancy as Malcolm’s grandfather was a Telegraphist Air Gunner for the Royal Air Force and served on Ark Royal for a time. The booklet includes memorabilia of that time and shows how basic and poorly supplied people were. This is an impressive and lengthy piece with some soaring guitar work from Malcolm throughout and acts as a fitting tribute to an important time in naval history.

The next track is called Nanobot and talks of a scientist who uses self replicating nanobots to counter a highly aggressive form of leukaemia which he is suffering from, however Darwinian aspects are at play, and the bots mutate into a mechanical cancer. This is another fine track, very imaginative and partly based on Malcolm’s own work as a medical specialist before he retired because of ill health.    

There is much emotional input to this music in that it not only feeds the brain but its melodies are a tonic for the modern soul, rather a rarity these days I find.

Next we have Chasing Neon, a retro futuristic instrumental track which is full of atmosphere and allows your mind to conjure up its own images as the beat pulsates. This is a great track, very ambient and electronic with great synth parts to it and a fabulous driving beat that propels it along at pace and with style.

Track six to ten use another Alastair Reynold series as their inspiration.  This time it’s the Revelation Space novels, in which the world has fractured into competing factions that are defined by their relationship with technology.  The booklet explains all this in greater detail, but it is an interesting synopsis and makes for several memorable tracks here including Glitter Band which is a very strong and memorable song. 

The album has a good mixture of tempos and differing degrees of intensity, but always remains on the listenable side, even in its harder moments. There are some excellent emotive musical passages here too that make this a very worthy listen and, even if Science Fiction isn’t your thing, there is enough fine music here to savour and enjoy.

I heartily recommend this album, the packaging is excellent throughout, elegant and enticing and the content does in no way disappoint either. This bodes very well for Hats Off Gentlemen to take a step further and benefit from their growing popularity. I think this album will really help cement their growing reputation and prove to be a resounding success.

Released 6th May 2020

Pre-order from bandcamp here:

https://hatsoffgentlemen.bandcamp.com/album/nostalgia-for-infinity

Review – Siljan – Collapsology – by John Wenlock-Smith

Well, there is an interesting development happening here, Progressive Rock has started to become more cerebral! In recent months we have been invited on a grand tour of the renaissance period by Big Big Train, we will shortly be appreciating the literary friendship between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis thanks to the Bardic Depths and now we can explore the relatively new scientific concept of ‘Collapsology’.  It addresses the prospect of the impending fall of the Industrial Age, resulting in famine and disease, together with the ever continuing over population and the diminishing of the Earth’s natural resources.

This whole scenario is elegantly presented to us through this, the second album from French proggers Siljan hailing from Marseille. I must confess that this group were unknown to me before hearing this album but, nonetheless, the music certainly is impressive. This educational trend within progressive music is certainly one that I wholly welcome.  It is a good thing to have important and possibly challenging topics in lyrics. We prog folks should value debate; we should be prepared to discuss, ponder and address weighty issues, if we wanted simple or sexist lyrics, we’d listen to Whitesnake’s schoolboy innuendo surely?

Another pleasing or appealing element to this band is that they are a four piece, one of whom is a cellist, which adds another layer of depth and colour to proceedings. The cello can be clearly heard adding its own dynamics to the music but never in an overbearing manner, rather this is subtly handled while certainly adding some punch to the album.

The album opens wit the track Wisdom which has a soundbite from scientists from MIT discussing the future of the planet. It’s a shorter track but one that shows the harder edge that the band offer, riffs are quite brutal, although often offset with quieter, more melodious sections before reverting to the harder edge sound again.

The next song is Antwork, again a pretty dramatic piece, mixing some heavy, almost harsh, riffs with quieter more restrained passages. This is a pattern that is repeated throughout the album but is always an effective counterpoint to proceedings with the cello adding dynamics to these sections. Guitarist/vocalist Guillaume Arnaud is certainly very strong in both his singing and guitar work, which is excellent throughout, as he fires off riff after riff and plays some sweetly structured solos in these songs.

This album has a good flow and at no time does the attention wander for me, the cello playing keeps me interested in what is unfolding musically as it is constantly changing and makes for a good listening experience.

The sound lies somewhere between prog and prog metal in that it has the intensity of metal but is somehow not quite that harsh. This makes for a highly listenable album and thankfully there are no growling vocals to contend with, rather being a very atmospheric and enjoyable album with some nice delicate parts.

I have really enjoyed this album and I feel it has lots to interest many Prog fans if they give it a chance. I certainly feel this is a significant album and one that will provoke a lot of thought and possibly discussion in the days to come, it makes you feel hope for the world when you listen to it. While it may not offer a solution to the problems the world faces, at least it makes you aware of them and from that platform you can then decide what actions, if any, we should take.

I also feel the cello is an inspired choice of instrument as used on this album because it adds depth, dynamics and colour to the music. For me at least, the cello really lifts this album into the upper realms by being different, bringing something very special to the entire album. This is an album that you will want to return to again and again and it shows this group to have a bright future awaiting them.

Released 27th June 2019

Order from bandcamp here:

https://siljan.bandcamp.com/album/collapsology

Review – John Holden – Rise and Fall – by John Wenlock-Smith

John Holden’s ‘Rise and Fall’ has been in my possession for a while now and I was very gratified to be given access to this remarkable album some three months prior to its official release. I was also very pleased that I had been thanked  in the album credits, that having been an ambition of mine for quite some time.

‘Rise and Fall’ is the second album from John Holden and features substantial input and assistance from several core musicians including Joe Payne, Oliver Day and Oliver Wakeman, Sally Minnear, Jean Pageau and Michel St Pere from Mystery, not forgetting the always remarkably impressive Peter Jones. If, like me, you enjoyed John’s debut release ‘Capture Light’ (still available from John via Bandcamp) then I’m sure you will love this one too.

The album consists of just seven pieces, they are, however, lengthy and well written. It is also expertly recorded and produced by John himself while the whole album was mastered by Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf fame.

The guest list of collaborators is impressive with each bringing their own skills to bear. Especially worthy of note are the keyboard skills and musical arrangements of Vikram Shankar, a musician who is not very widely known yet. The album is a great place to discover him for yourself, he certainly looks to be a musician with a bright future awaiting him.

As a side note, the packaging on this release is again impeccable, as are the extensive sleeve notes in the booklet which give a deeper insight into each of these tracks.

So, without further ado, let’s dive right on in then shall we…

The opening track, Leap of Faith, features Peter Jones on vocals, recorder and whistles, in fact Peter bookends the album with a further performance on the last track Ancestors and Satellites with both tracks sharing a recurrent musical passage, albeit it in a different key.  

Leap of Faith concerns itself with the antics of Eilmer, A Benedictine monk who lived at Malmesbury Abbey in the 11th century and one who was fascinated by the flight of the birds and bats that lived around the priory He had it in his mind to fly like they did so attempted (like Daedalus, the Father of Icarus of Greek mythology fame) to fly using wings he had made attached to his back and arms. You can read the story in the song lyrics but I can say that gravity prevailed! This piece is very moving and very atmospheric with Peter Jones really bringing the tale to life in his own inimitable way.

This is a fantastic opener that sets you up for all that follows, which, in this instance, is the superb Rise and Fall voiced by Jean Pageau of Mystery. This talented vocalist gives a very emotionally raw vocal delivery that makes you feel his anguish as he sings of the relationship that one has with both their addictions and the person they care about, who also suffers the brunt of this addiction. This is a very honest song and another classy piece of work.

The next track, The Golden Thread, I consider a truly beautiful song, one that has extra depths to it as it is a requiem written by John’s wife Elizabeth who is a cancer survivor. She wrote this to express her deep love for John and also so that, if she were not around, the song and her memory would live on as a musical legacy of her life and struggle. This piece of music is very gentle with an almost classical tone to it and is sung by the remarkable talents of John Payne and Lauren Nolan as a duet, not being written as such initially but Lauren’s voice worked so well with Joe’s that adaptations were made to make it work in this way. The sentiments that this song espouses and expresses are both very warm, loving and deeply profound indeed with Oliver Wakeman and Vikram Shankar playing on the song to magnificent effect.

The music reaches a crescendo before fading away to the harder edged Dark Arts on which Billy Sherwood provides a bass part in the style of the late great Chris Squire, playing the sort of bass runs the great man would have done whilst alive. The track also features a spoken excerpt of Francis Urquhart of House of Cards fame, setting the tone for a politically charged song about the abuse of power by those in charge. Once again Joe Payne vocalises with real passion and power to deliver a truly remarkable track along with more fine keyboards from Oliver Wakeman. I heard this song in an unmixed state six months ago and was suitably impressed then, and still am, by its magnificent, powerful delivery and content that is right on point.

The next track is Heretic which speaks of how ISIS destroyed lots of priceless artefacts in Palmyra in Iraq after killing the 82 year old custodian Khaled Al-Assad at the site and smashing 3000 year old plus pieces in a show of cultural terrorism. He was beheaded in front of his family and his body was then hung in the central square. Again, whilst a dark song, there is hope that the displaced peoples will one day return and, as John says, “Empires rise and fall, ideologies are replaced but still the healing power of love endures.” Sally Minnear’s vocals are excellent on this too as she sings in tandem with Joe Payne.

After the Storm is about a journey one woman takes and utilises the weather outside as a metaphor for storms in her life and the ultimate realisation that, eventually, the storms both outside and inside her will pass leaving a calmer and clearer path ahead. This is mostly an acoustic piece and that adds a good contrast for the album with some fine playing from Oliver Day.

The final song, Ancestors and Satellites, returns to the opening section of Leap of Faith as Eilmer saw Haley’s comet twice in his lifetime with John using this comet theme again to show how little we’ve learnt in the days gone past. This song has vocal contributions from Peter Jones, Joe Payne, Sally Minnear and Lauren Nolan but mainly its Peter who sings this so delicately and with real warmth and all set to suitably atmospheric keyboards from John, and Vikram Shankar.

The song talks about cave paintings over 40,000 years ago and also of the Apollo mission that landed on the moon in July 1969 and of the footprints they left there for ever. There follows an ensemble of synthesizers playing a multi tracked passage to great effect and the massed vocals singing the chorus once again before the comet melody returns once again to bring the song towards its impressive finale. Another thing of note is the fantastic and powerful drum work from Nick D’Virgilio. On this track and throughout most of the album Nick adds his magic and his drive to power these pieces along in a most delightful and satisfying manner.

The vocals are impassioned and strong and Michael St Pere’s epic guitar line is heard, along with a bank of synths, sounding very epic and majestic to bring this fantastic album to a fine conclusion.

To think that this is only the work of John, Elizabeth and a few select friends funded from the sales of his earlier album and without and label support is remarkable. It shows John Holden to be a man with both vision and a purpose. I for one applaud him hugely for his fine efforts on this most excellent album. This is going to be one of the albums of the year for those who take notice.

Released 22nd February 2020

Order from John Holden here: