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: