Review – Valdez – This – by Leo Trimming

When first hearing about Valdez, a new band based in Philadephia, featuring Simon Godfrey (ex-Tinyfish and Shineback) and Echolyn bassist, Tom Hyatt, I made some initially lazy assumptions about it’s probable sound. I was wrong. Please check in your assumptions at the door because this is an album a long way away from Echolyn or Tinyfish. Simon Godfrey moved to America in 2014 when he married an American, and his personal journey has further stretched his musical horizons in an already wide ranging career encompassing Prog rock, acoustic songs and the electronically drenched unique rock of Shineback. When he met Tom Hyatt in Philadelphia they immediately hit it off and started jamming, then deciding to form Valdez (the name taken from a former band of keyboardist Joe Cardillo from the 1970’s.) Teaming up with the excellent electric keyboardist from Cool Blue, Cardillo, and drummer Scott Miller, Godfrey and Hyatt have produced with Valdez an eclectic and warm album, lovingly steeped in the sounds and textures of classic instruments.

The range of different styles is interesting but one thread that goes through them all is the sense of a solid, well written song. These are not sonic soundscapes of epic proportions, rather vignettes in engaging songs of sometimes wry observations of life around them. This is perhaps most acutely demonstrated in Thirteen, a song which opens with a subtle reference to the opening lines of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in which in early April the clocks ‘struck thirteen’. The song gives us pithy observations about how our societies have come to be in their current political messes, and this is all served up in waves of ‘bubblegum pop’ as Godfrey has described it. There’s a real 70’s vibe to this catchy song with excellent electric piano, reminiscent of Billy Joel.

Godfrey has explained the thinking behind the band as having a real focus on the song, whether  ‘it’s a short song, a long song or a mad, complex one. As long as it’s good we’ll grab it with both hands and spin it until we’re dizzy’, which very much comes over, especially in Thirteen. Similarly, opening song Black Eyed Susans chimes in with all the swagger and attitude of a Joe Jackson song, which is a GOOD thing!

The diversity and skill of Valdez is exemplified by the melancholic and evocative take on dementia in Sally Won’t Remember. This emotional but not mawkish song successfully conveys the debilitating slowness and sheer psychological effort associated with caring for someone with dementia. Like Godfrey this listener has experienced the sad decline of a parent with dementia, and this song echoes those feelings, but even in their dementia strangely our parents indirectly teach us about life and caring.

The stand out track on the album is the title track This, which apparently refers to ‘the world of wonder right in front of us which we forget, simply because we see it every day’. Opening intriguingly with the sound of a wurlitzer and a chiming piano, it then rises like a sun as acoustic guitar and percussion join in to then be filled out with bass and keyboards… and then it settles back in to the song with Godfrey’s distinctive and emotive voice leading us to a swelling killer chorus. This lovely song rolls along memorably and then takes a breath before a pulsing bass introduces us to a resonant final section with great multi-layered harmony vocals as it rises to a crescendo. In some ways this listener would have liked to hear a few more songs of this nature, but only because it was so bloody good!

No Stone Unturned is a more bluesy number, Godfrey sounds like George Michael vocally at times (which is no bad thing), but the real star of this number is the excellent keyboard work of Cardillo. Godfrey has shared that the whole band really thinks that the majority of the best music came out of the instruments made famous in the 60’s and 70’s. Consequently they have used a range of classic keyboards, such as the Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, upright pianos, classic acoustic and electric guitars, recorded through old amps, and this is particularly evident on the warm, lush, atmospheric sounds of No Stone Unturned and Little Keys. Not every song works for this reviewer (take a bow Spite House) but this is an engaging album that will draw you in.

On ‘This’, there is a real sense of looking back affectionately but not slavishly to the past, as evoked by Mark Buckingham’s striking artwork of a 1950’s style woman swinging on a balloon. This is an album of fairly stripped back but well played and constructed songs. Godfrey has also shared that this album, produced by Hyatt’s legendary band mate in Echolyn, Brett Kull, was recorded without sequencing and as miked up to make it as live as possible. Such loving attention to vintage recording techniques combined with classic equipment clearly  influenced the whole atmosphere of the album, and it particularly pays off in the strong final duo of segued songs, Colorado and Smile for the CameraColorado, written by Cardillo, has an enchanting rolling and melodic intro and evokes the free open space of that state, with some beautiful bass by Hyatt. An ambient, feedbacking interlude connects us to the beguiling Smile for the Camera, which floats in with a delicately picked acoustic guitar, with echoes of classic Supertramp’s heyday. This extended song takes a jazzier turn with peculiar sounds and a twisting synth solo… it seems that Godfrey and Hyatt couldn’t quite contain all their ‘Proggier’ impulses for a whole album! However, this is a brief diversion before this piece takes another turn into the beautiful blissed out harmony vocals reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, possibly with the help of Kull who added vocals and guitar alongside his production duties. Nevertheless, ultimately this is a Valdez song because the song then concludes eerily and possibly a little darkly with the last line ‘Smile for the Camera’ .

Valdez have created an interesting album, which crosses various genres and combines the myriad talents of the band in an engaging mix of sounds and songs. It’s not particularly ground-breaking or innovative, and was never intended to be so – but if you’re looking for some well written and well performed songs in classic style  with warmth, with and spirit ‘This’ could be it!

Released 19th May 2017

Order ‘This’ in the UK, Europe & ROW (excluding USA) from Bandcamp here

Order ‘This’ in the USA from bandcamp here

 

Review – Bjørn Riis – Forever Comes To An End – by Leo Trimming

An Airbag is a device designed to save your life or reduce injury in the event of a collision.

Can music save your life? Who knows?

But life does does bring us in to collisions with all sorts of unexpected events and we try to find ways to survive or at least lessen the impacts. From the sound and themes of Bjørn Riis’ second solo album, ‘Forever Comes to an End’ , it does seem evident that perhaps life has been impacting upon him deeply, reflected in an emotional release. Emotion is not a word usually associated with the sweeping, glacial Floydian soundscapes so beloved of Airbag, but Bjørn Riis has successfully created a more personalised album, infused with fragile feelings and delicate melodies alongside his trademark architectural sonic structures.

Bjørn Riis is the main songwriter and lead guitarist of the Norwegian Progressive rock band, Airbag, and that background is very apparent in the style of this album, although title track Forever Comes to an End does open the album in furious and heavy fashion, exploding into action immediately with Henrik Fossum of Airbag pounding out insistent driving drums. The theme of broken relationships and loss, with musings on the tension between Love and Hate are starkly focused upon in this crunching number

‘Fear, Do you Fear, Do you feel the hate…. But I’m scared to let you go out of my life…’

Bjørn Riis contrasts the darker hard riffing passages, reminiscent of Sabbath’s Toni Iommi, with occasional lighter, less intense shafts of musical sunlight, framing impassioned pleas to stay. Vocally Riis delivers this song, and the whole album, with a sense of  beautiful melancholy and yearning. This is powerful stuff in more ways than one. The brief bleak interlude soundscape of Absence atmospherically takes us to the emotive shores of The Waves, seguing with Ocean sounds as Riis intones mournfully :

‘I’ve been down for too long, I almost drowned,

There was darkness all around and it pulled me down to the deep’

In The Waves there is a fragility and emotional intensity in Riis’ voice, akin to Tim Bowness of No-Man, which gives this album a sense of honest emotion and humanity, born from personal experiences, and moves parts of this album away from the now predictable trademark Floyd style so successfully produced by Airbag on their albums. The Waves wistfully fades as the tide of the song recedes with echoes of the cinematic soundscapes of Thomas Newman film scores.

Instrumental Getaway slowly builds and builds, with layers of guitars across a sweeping canvas on synths, until a break of echoing keys and percussion is glided over by an icy guitar line. The driving rock theme returns with added wah-wah guitar, outstanding drums and riffs that more than hint at Porcupine Tree, that all add up to quite a thrilling ride. Calm shimmers with delicate beauty with a simple piano motif and acoustic guitars over lain with flute sounding keys, and then the whole piece eventually drifts away in to the distance, virtually acting as a beautiful introduction into Winter, the centrepiece of the whole album.

A gentle opening adorned with lilting acoustic guitar, over lain with subtle, tasteful  electric guitar dashes in the vein of Marillion’s Steve Rothery, express the contradictory emotional forces of resentment and forgiving, hate and love…

“Now she’s gone, but I still want her here, She stole my heart and she turned it into stone…”

This remarkable piece develops with increasing intensity as Riis builds with beautiful musical textures and Sichelle Mcmeo Aksum adds a female delicacy to the vocals, alongside Riis. The inevitable Gilmour like soaring lead guitar parts are used sparingly but effectively. Riis’ guitar is the main ‘voice’ in Winter as he uses it intuitively to emotionally express probably what words sometimes cannot say about broken relationships. A lovely bass line with uncanny echoes of Porcupine Tree’s classic ‘Dark Matter’ underpins the gradual elegiac disintegration of this great song.

A simple but touching piano melody by Simen Valldal Johannessen introduces Riis’ finely judged emotional vocal in the  final heart-breaking song Where Are You Now. Flute like keyboards float over a gradually building theme before Riis emotively illustrates this emotional song with a glistening, gliding guitar solo. The song and album finishes as Riis’ fragile vocals lead to the simple stark beauty of the opening piano motif. Heart break seldom sounds so beautiful.

There will be inevitable comparisons by some to later Pink Floyd, and fans of that band will find much to admire and touch them in this album. Sonically the production is perfect – this drips with feeling and atmosphere. Some of the songs would also not sound out of place on an Airbag album, which is inevitable considering Riis’ main role in that band. However, there is much more to ‘Forever Comes to an End’ than a Floyd pastiche or just an Airbag album by another name. Riis has really put his heart on the line on this release and such emotion exudes from the imaginative music and heartfelt lyrics on this intensely personal album.

Will this album save your life?

Very probably not, but like an Airbag ‘Forever Comes to an End’ may very well stop you getting a headache (!!) and  will certainly help you deal with the collisions and impacts of what life throws at us.

(Photos of Bjørn by Anita Stostad)

Released 19th May 2017

Order ‘Forever Comes To An End direct from the artist (Europe)

Order ‘Forever Comes To AN End from Burning Shed (UK)

Review – Lonely Robot – The Big Dream – by Leo Trimming

‘To go to sleep and never wake up… to be simply not there forever and ever…

… That’s such a curious thought… that’s such a curious thought’

These spoken musings of an unidentified philosopher about sleep and death permeate the instrumental cinematic opening sequence Prologue (Deep Sleep) of Lonely Robot’s second album ‘The Big Dream’, and atmospherically sets the scene for an album which considers our mortality. Lonely Robot is a solo project from John Mitchell, renowned as guitarist, producer and vocalist with bands such as Frost*, Arena, It Bites and Kino. ‘The Big Dream’ is more reminiscent of Kino than It Bites, but such is the excellent quality and imagination of the ‘Lonely Robot’ project Mitchell has arguably now created material which surpasses the achievements of his time with either of those bands. Following on from Lonely Robot’s impressive 2015 debut ‘Please Come Home’, which featured a range of guest artists, in ‘The Big Dream’ John Mitchell takes on all the vocal, guitar and keyboard duties to great effect, alongside his Frost* band mate Craig Blundell on drums.

‘The Big Dream’ once again showcases Mitchell’s strong song writing and distinctive fine guitar style, but also shows his excellent keyboard work throughout this musically dynamic album. Whilst this is an album of ‘Big Ideas’ it is largely expressed in a series of accessible and polished rock songs, alongside some more progressive cinematic passages. For John Mitchell the song is key and whilst he undoubtedly has the musical chops he is not about indulgent technique, preferring songs punctuated with memorable hooks and riding along on waves of melodic progressive rock, such as the ‘earworm’ song Sigma and it’s heroic sounding refrain.

Similarly to ‘Please Come Home’, once again the album has a science fiction context – not a concept album as such, but with recurring themes and featuring the central character of ‘The Astronaut’. However, whilst the previous album was largely associated with Space it appears in ‘The Big Dream’ The Astronaut wakes from a cryogenic sleep in a strange woodland. There are peculiar hints of a space age Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with the gentle pastoral prog pop of Floral Green, featuring some delightful vocal dexterity from Mitchell, presumably supported by Kim Seviour (ex-Touchstone) on backing vocals. A short expressive guitar solo over sensitive keyboards skilfully  illustrates this delicate number… sometimes less really is more.

In contrast Everglow blasts in like some sort of sci-fi movie spectacular with powerful, driving guitars intertwining with sparkling, pulsing keyboards, whilst Craig Blundell provides a remarkable drumming masterclass to drive this impressive highlight of the album along… oh, and Mitchell throws in yet another short but golden guitar solo before we rejoin the thunderous refrain and heavy curtain of sound that introduced the song. If that’s not enough we then segue into the lighter, dreamy and appropriately shimmering False Lights, in which Blundell initially shows a much more subtle side on percussion, before it builds in intensity and then recedes in echoes. Symbolic, is rather insistent, perhaps lacking some of the subtlety and in my view somewhat interrupting the flow of the cinematic sweep of the latter half of the album, but it’s still a trademark Mitchell finely honed rock song… which is no bad thing!

In 2016 John Mitchell released under his own name an E.P. called ‘The Nostalgia Factory’, featuring four cover songs (which is well worth seeking out). ‘The Nostalgia Factory’ included a fine version of the Phil Collins song Take Me Home and it sounds as if The Divine Art of Being has distinct echoes of that great anthem… which is a good thing! John Mitchell certainly knows how to pen a song with great melody and choruses that resound around your brain like The Divine Art of Being, a song which also highlights the great quality of his voice, perfectly suited to his pitch and intonation.

The Big Dream feels like the finale of the album and projects us into spacey, epic Floydian territory, reminiscent of A Godless Sea on ‘Please Come Home’. The Big Dream is widescreen in nature with a wall of grandiose, cosmic keyboards echoing the intro of ‘Awakenings’ over which a wonderful high pitched guitar swoops eerily. This is spectacular stuff which feels like a film soundtrack. As this evocative track closes the philosopher returns with his spoken musings on death and sleep and then in a direct link back to ‘Please Come Home’ we hear the strangely heartbreaking lines:

‘Please Come Home Lonely Robot, Your Heart is Beautiful, Programmed to Receive, We Miss You now Lonely Robot, Ever so Beautiful’

After the drama of The Big Dream there is a sense of release and optimism as the coda song Hello World Goodbye is like musical sunlight breaking through the clouds. A piano plays a simple melody before Mitchell’s almost whispered soft vocals resonate with optimism, beautifully backed by Kim Seviour, and Mitchell pours a lovely soaring, rippling but subtle guitar solo over the conclusion. Epilogue (Sea Beams), with it’s title hinting at the tragic replicant Roy Batty from ‘Bladerunner’ (the ultimate Lonely Robot?) is a delicate ending, feeling like the end credits for a movie. The elegiac whistle like sounds underline the nautical but cosmic connection and underlines the emotion at the core of this remarkable album. John Mitchell has released a remarkable album which subtly conveys meaning and depth with accessible and finely written songs.

The juxtaposition of machine and emotion in the ‘Lonely Robot’ project is peculiarly touching, and one wonders if many of us lead similarly robotic, regimented lives, not knowing how to escape or truly express our inner feelings…

‘…That’s such a curious thought…’

Released 28th April 2017

Order ‘The Big Dream’ from InsideOut Music

 

 

Review – Kaprekar’s Constant – Fate Outsmarts Desire – by Leo Trimming

6174 – there you go, 6174 apparently is virtually always the Answer using Kaprekar’s Constant, which may lead some to ask what is the Question? … and what does it have to do with a new Kent based Progressive Rock band, featuring David Jackson, once of veteran ‘Prog’ greats Van Der Graaf Generator? Who knows?

‘Fate Outsmarts Desire’ is their interesting and rather impressive debut album, written and largely played by multi-instrumentalists Al Nicholson and Nick Jefferson, who formed this project in 2015. Why they have the rather peculiar band name is rather a mystery but research shows that ‘Kaprekar’s Constant’ is a number theorem devised in 1946 by an Indian mathematician in which the answer is virtually always the number 6174 in no more than 7 steps… all rather mystifying but you can google it as well if you’re really interested!

Strange as it may seem, the choice of the band name indicates that this is a group with an interest in enigmatic curiosities and history, which imbues the atmosphere of this album.

The stark and memorable opening lines of this album:

“Your band of scrotes and their dredging boats robbed the shingle from under our feet…”

make an immediate statement that this is a work steeped in atmospheric historical narrative. Hors D’Oeuvre effectively acts as a promising overture for the album, referencing elements of the longer pieces to come, and David Jackson evokes slight hints of A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers by VDGG with his distinctive droning sax sounds.

Perhaps the strongest and most memorable composition on the album is the elegiac Hallsands, (but I may be biased as I live very close to that beautiful but tragic location!) A fine song based on the true story of the negligent environmental disaster visited upon a South Devon village by rapacious developers who stripped a shingle bank protecting the village to provide material to build the docks at Devonport in Plymouth. This led to the eventual collapse of the whole of Hallsands village in to the sea in 1917 – perhaps a lesson for modern times and it’s exploitation of the environment. The music is suitably nautical and evocative of a simple seaside community falling victim to thoughtless dredgers. Paul Gunn provides some thankfully brief narration interludes, but the main impact is conveyed by the folk tinged fine vocals of Bill Jefferson, conveying more than a little anger and bitterness. Acoustic guitars with whistles and flutes conjure up the simple seaside community, ultimately destroyed by

arrogant lies… the beach went to Devonport, the houses went to the sea”.

Epic in length and evocative in nature, Hallsands holds the attention and touches the emotions with skillfully composed music which very successfully conveys the images atmospherically. Contrasting simple acoustic passages, reminiscent of Jethro Tull in some ways, with more discordant storm driven percussive sections, Hallsands is one of the main highlights of this album, successfully describing a captivating and instructive story in our recent history.

Real US police radio conversations introduce and underpin the remarkable Four-Faced Liar. Inspired by much more recent events, the story of the capture of the Boston Marathon bombers is conveyed in a fine lilting melodic rock song, sung perfectly by Bill Jefferson, backed colourfully with some well judged keyboards and string sounds. The events are described from the perspective of the Clock of the Boston Custom House, called the Four Faced Liar locally as none of the clock faces tell the same time. Maybe that is a metaphor for the different perspectives on how one story can be reported, or may just be an interesting local detail for a band that evidently likes idiosyncratic stories from reality. The relative brevity but excellence of this song is a reminder for progressive rock bands that sometimes ‘less is more’.

Pearl of the Lake features Dorie Jackson (daughter of David Jackson) on some lovely vocals in a much shorter and simpler song, relying purely upon the strength of the melody and the lyrics to express itself.

Dorie Jackson takes lead vocals for the epic concluding piece, Houdini – King of Cards, based on the renowned escapologist. A possibly over extended first lyrical section sets the scene before giving way to an instrumental passage, combining keyboards and saxes possibly conveying the peculiar atmospheres of séances. Houdini was very skeptical of tricksters in his life time, but wondered if he could effectively ‘cheat death’ by communicating with his wife Bess after his death. They agreed on a very personal message between them that he would try to communicate from beyond the grave. Bess started the tradition of spiritualism sessions to see if her husband, the man who could escape from any jail, managed to escape death. For 10 years after his death Bess organized these sessions without receiving a sign from her husband, and then ceased them convinced that even he could not cheat death. The closing melodic section is sung beautifully by Dorie Jackson over a slowly building backing, with her father adding some effective woodwind. The apparently real archive spoken parts from that era are interlaced with this song, and add an eerie and authentic element to the narrative.

In contrast album opener Bluebird demonstrates for me just how NOT to use spoken parts!

Based on the story of Sir Malcolm Campbell and other high speed motoring pioneers Bluebird is introduced and constantly punctuated by short explanatory spoken parts by Paul Gunn, which are clearly delivered in a tone intended to sound contemporary to the story… but have the unfortunate effect of sounding like the rather pompous Harry Enfield comedic character ‘Mr Cholmondley-Warner’. The music is melodic progressive rock imaginatively expressing the events, including the dramatic journey of the car ‘Babs’ along Pendine Sands in Pembrokeshire. A restrained but expressive guitar carries the middle section, alongside Jackson’s saxes and flutes. This is an ambitious song of nearly 18 minutes full of some finely played music, but one has to wonder whether there was enough narrative to justify such an epic treatment. Just when you think it’s over Gunn’s voice pops up to let us know the story was moving to the next stage. This is a clumsy device which for me distracted from the music – it felt like I was looking at a lovely painting in a gallery and then suddenly a tour guide stands in front of it telling me what I am seeing, but now cannot see because the guide is in front explaining it to me! The whole song feels episodic and rather a history lecture, which is a pity as there is some good music on this piece. Perhaps this new band needed to rely less upon the ‘Basil Exposition’ type interludes and really trust much more in the imaginative power of their music.

However, it would be grossly unfair to focus on this flaw, (which explains why the first song on the album appears at the end of the review), rather than commend Kaprekar’s Constant on what is undoubtedly a very promising and good debut album.

They are clearly talented musicians and singers with a mission to entertain and inform with fascinating stories and melodic rock songs. Their historical narrative songs are clearly in the same territory as the eminent band Big Big Train, but let’s not forget that a band such as Big Big Train took quite some years to mature and develop in to their current excellence. If Kaprekar’s Constant continue to develop their evident melodic sensibilities and further hone their songwriting craft they have the potential to offer much more to Progressive Rock. To think that this is a debut album is remarkable…

… now what was the question again?

Whatever, 6174 is the answer.

Released 10th March 2017 via Uranium Club

Buy ‘Fate Outsmarts Desire’ from Uranium Cub on bandcamp

Progradar Best Of 2016 – Leo Trimming’s Top 10

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

Simply stunning. Robin Armstrong has imagined a rich narrative of alien incursion (or paranoid breakdown?!) with sonic brilliance. The imaginative story is unnerving, whilst the music is captivating on a human level but cinematic in scope – ranging from crunching Purple riffs, through atmospheric acoustic passages to sweeping Floydian soundscapes. Robin Armstrong’s multi-instrumental ability would be nothing without the excellent song writing and fascinating concept of this outstanding album. Undoubtedly, Album of the Year for me, from one of the best Progressive Rock artists of this generation.

(I’ve put Cosmograf as my Album of the year… the rest are in no particular order… they’re all great albums.)

Red Bazar – Tales From The Bookcase

This was my TPA’s review’s conclusion early in the year for this surprise package, and I’ve had no reason to change it since…

‘This is an excellent collaboration: Red Bazar have helped Peter Jones express more of his serious, darker side and also allowed him to display more vocal dexterity. In return Red Bazar have gained a talented and very fine rock vocalist who has added great lyrical skill and vocal feeling  to their own fine emotional musical palette…

This may be a bit of a dark horse, but Red Bazar may just have released one of the Prog albums of the year.’

Matthew Parmenter – All Our Yesterdays

A favourite on two levels – it’s a great album of subtle artistry and fine music, and on another level the artist & his music  touched me personally. My Progradar review concluded:

Matthew Parmenter has stepped aside from the magnificent, gothic group dynamic of Discipline to create a solo work of art suffused with dramatic shades and emotional lyricism, conveying tragedy and hope. This is an album that is likely to captivate and beguile with subtlety and delicate emotion. It certainly gave me unexpected comfort – Inside.’

Nine Stones Close – Leaves

A darkly trippy and psychedelic album. Part dream, part nightmare – this is an album for which repeated listens gradually unpeal the layers, like all the best progressive releases. My Progradar review observed:

Nine Stones Close create rich musical landscapes suffused with a sense of the dramatic and psychedelic… They do not stick to their old formula and want to progress. My advice is stick with these guys because you are never quite sure in which direction their songs or this albums may turn, but it sure is an imaginative and fascinating ride!’

Big Big Train – Folklore

A much anticipated release does not disappoint as the album describes modern folklore, ancient legend, elegies for lost love and epic stories of heroism and loss … plus bees (!) in a rich tapestry of folk tinged progressive rock. Lyrically intelligent and insightful, conveyed with integrity and emotion, and played with consummate skill and passion. Impossible to ignore – we all sort of knew it would be great. Of course it’s great!

Marillion – F.E.A.R

This is a remarkable release from the Prog veterans that rightly propelled them back to wider prominence with an album full of anger and insight in to the state of the world, with the dominance and influence of the ‘super rich’. Of course, none of those political thoughts or feelings would count for anything in an album without outstanding music – Marillion have conveyed their message with powerful rock passages and also subtle melody. Three epic songs with ambitious scope are clearly modern and truly ‘Progressive’ without lazily resting on ‘Prog’ tropes.  A late contender for album of the year, but who would guess that well over 30 years in to their career that Marillion would pull off an album that truly has something to say about today’s world with such impact and sensitivity, and really mean something.  Beautiful at times, dramatic at other times… thought provoking throughout.

The Gift – Why The Sea Is Salt

Let’s get straight to the point – ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ is a truly exceptional album, and deserves to propel The Gift in to the higher echelons of current British Progressive Rock Music. Simple as that – it really is that outstanding. Very few albums indeed have the potential to attain the status of a potential ‘classic’ album, which will live long in the memory like ‘Why the Sea is Salt’. This is a work which greatly appeals to the heart and mind in equal measures, and similarly beguiles and stimulates in its beauty and drama. The Gift have skilfully and  beautifully draw upon a variety of influences, inspirations and ideas and artfully crafted them into an imaginative and enjoyable musical experience that touches the heart and stimulates the mind. Just brilliant.

What more could one want from an album?!

Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware

This is an outstanding album musically and lyrically, with this young band fusing elements of heavy rock, psychedelia, rap, politics and progressive rock tropes in an intoxicating mix.

Paradigm Shift create finely played music based on well known influences with a largely retro feel. It is refreshing to see a new, younger band on the progressive rock scene willing to inject a political but not overwhelming edge to their songs on this very promising debut album, addressing such issues with vigour and passion.

What remains to be seen is whether Paradigm Shift can sustain this very impressive early showing, and how they develop and absorb other influences in the modern progressive music scene. However, with this album I think many progressive rock fans will definitely be ‘Becoming Aware’ of this promising young band.

TILT – Hinterland

TILT have delivered a superb album by a cast of very accomplished musicians. Brilliant vocals, burning guitar solos, a thunderous rhythm section and songwriting of the highest quality combine to deliver one kick ass release that I keep returning to again and again. A fine combination of excellent rock music with all that’s best about progressive rock, these guys show how it really should be done. It is a clever mix of styles with some subdued, complicated sections weaving between the more straightforward rock themes and gives TILT their own definite sense of identity. This is a talented group of musicians who are at the top of their game and it shows.

Yorkston,Thorne and Khan – Everything Sacred

Finally, and completely out of ‘left field’ for me after seeing them at a festival.

What do you get when you combine a talented Scottish folk singer-songwriter, (James Yorkston) with a reknowned double bass jazz player (Jon Thorne) and finally an award winning Sarangi player and classical singer from New Delhi ( Suhail Yusuf Khan)?

You get an album of beguiling beauty, heart breaking emotion and diverse sounds, blending styles and cultures in a fascinating mix. Listen to songs like ‘Broken Wave’ and ‘Everything Sacred’ and try not to dab the corner of your eye. At other times you are drawn in to hypnotic Indian rhythms with hints of folk, and always played with such delicacy and skill.

Is it ‘Prog’? Of course it bloody isn’t!

But what is more ‘Progressive’ than skilfully and intuitively blending musical and cultural influences to create something so new and so beautiful? Go on… challenge yourself – it’s a great album.

 

Leo Trimming Interviews Adrian Jones of Nine Stones Close for Progradar

NSC_band_lores

Leo:  Hi Adrian – it’s been a few months since the release of ‘Leaves’ on Bad Elephant Music.

What has been the reaction so far in terms of critical reaction and interest from fans?

Adrian: It’s been interesting. Critically we have received mostly positive reviews across the board, there seems to be an appreciation of what we are doing musically, as in not standing still. It would have been easy to have followed up ‘One Eye On The Sunrise’ with a similar sounding and style of album, but that’s not very interesting, is it?

I don’t write to formula, or sit down to write something in a specific style, I just write what comes naturally to me at the time and ‘Leaves’ is a statement of where my mind was when the songs were written. I know for sure we have lost some fans with this album, and a few have openly said in public and to myself that they really don’t like the change of singer, but that was out of my hands. Obviously those line-up changes have driven some of that – Aio (Adrian O’Shaughnessy) is a very different singer to Marc (Atkinson) and he brings something new to the sound. His range is fantastic, as you can hear on the album. On the flip side I also had messages from people saying that they really love the new singer and album. Overall, I think we lost some fans but maybe gained a few new ones along the way. For me writing and recording is about progression, development of yourself as a writer and artist, exploring new territories. I do think ‘Leaves’ is a natural progression of Nine Stones Close.

Leo:  What is the origin of the band name?

Adrian: It’s named after an ancient stone circle in Derbyshire, England near where I grew up. I visited the place earlier this year with my brother and my son, a kind of pilgrimage. It took us bloody hours to locate it. Google maps is no help at all ! We found it in the middle of a farmers’ field on Harthill moor. It’s a beautiful spot, very peaceful.

Leo:  Can you describe the creative song writing process for you and the band?

For instance, do the music or the lyrics come first?

Adrian: I generally start just noodling around on whatever guitar I happen to pick up and then see what flows musically. I never really learned to play anyone else’s songs, only the odd riff, phrase etc, so I start just messing around rather than playing anything specific. Usually an idea flows fairly quickly. I never had any guitar or music lessons so I don’t really follow any musical rules, which probably helps me be more creative. Sometimes it can be a guitar effect that triggers and idea, or a drum loop or beat. I also bought a GR55 guitar synth unit a couple of years ago for the ‘Jet Black Sea’ project and that helps me create ideas in new ways too. Once I have the idea I can run with it and usually write the whole thing on the fly very quickly, afterwards properly shaping it can take some time. I like to layer guitars with harmonic chords and lines, sometimes quite a lot of them, much to the annoyance of our producer (laughs). The track ‘Spoils’ had about 95 tracks, I think, when we came to mix it. I pretty much always write the lyrics at the end – it’s the hardest part for me. I tend to make notes, write down the odd line that comes into my head and then start to expand on the idea. The music inspires the lyric in a way as well.

Recently I have been working more with Christiaan (Bruin) during the writing sessions and it’s been great to be able to bounce ideas back and forth interactively with someone, but more often than not I write alone.

Leo:  You can certainly hear the multi-layering on ‘Spoils’ – it sounds so intricate, intriguing and wonderful – a real ‘grower’.

What do you prefer? Writing or recording?

Adrian: Writing. Definitely. Recording is fun too, but the initial creation of the song, is where the excitement really is for me –  that creation of something from nothing. I do think I am lucky in that I seem to be able to write every time I pick up a guitar. The ideas just seem to flow. There is a joke in the band that if they are late arriving for a session in the studio I will have written at least one more song before they arrive (laughs). Actually, thinking back, the song ‘Complicated’ happened exactly like that.

I also write the additional guitar parts on the fly and I am terrible at writing things down, so I often have no idea what I played afterwards. I am trying to get better at writing that stuff down as it does become a problem when you have to relearn something to play it again live or in rehearsal. Over 2 hours of material was written for ‘Leaves’, and at one point a double album was discussed. However,  what we put out was my vision of a cohesive album. A couple of songs were even dropped very late on after I decided that they didn’t fit, and I really don’t like long albums anyway. 40 odd minutes is still a good length for an album in my opinion, so we overstretched that yet again, probably because we had 4 years making it. My hard drive is full of unused ideas and almost finished recordings which may never see the light of day due to lack of time.

adrian-2

Leo:  Is there an overarching theme to the album, and why is it called ‘Leaves’?

It seems clear you like to maintain some ambiguity in your lyrical ideas but a few clues as to the background of the songs may be interesting!

Adrian: It’s not a concept album, but there is definitely a theme.  It encompasses many things about modern life – what we are doing to the world we live in and to ourselves … and Lies of all kinds.

When I started writing the lyrics I was in quite a dark place, personally, for a number of reasons. I think we live in very dark times right now, but many people are totally oblivious, blinded by the mainstream bought and sold media, and so buried in iPhones, Netflix and other materialistic stuff that the world could be ending and they wouldn’t really notice. It’s a kind of enforced escapism, I guess.

In the end I decided to call the album ‘Leaves’ after the lyric I wrote for the title track. It’s a very ambiguous word and covers many of the themes that the album deals with.

You are right, I do like ambiguity, and I purposefully write lyrics in that way, I like the listener to be able to derive their own meaning from the songs. I remember in a review of the previous album someone mentioned that the song ‘The Distance’ was about the complete breakdown of a relationship … well, it is and isn’t, but you can certainly read it that way.

Leo:   I’ve been listening to this fascinating album again repeatedly recently and cannot help feeling how ‘dark’ much of it feels in tone, lyrical content and atmosphere.

Are the songs largely based on personal reflections of your personal experiences or feelings, or are they more detached manifestations of your imagination?

Adrian: A bit of both, I think. It’s definitely dark. As I mentioned, I was in a pretty dark place when writing much of this album. I am really happy with the overall atmosphere that we created musically. I think it has a very definite “feel”. Some of the lyrics were easier to write than others. ‘Complicated’, for instance, was very easy to write lyrically, it just flowed. It’s theme is the Lie we present to the outside world, and reflect back onto ourselves. If all of our thoughts were visible and openly accessible to everyone else, would we be able to cope with that?

Other songs, like ‘Spoils’, went through several lyric re-writes to try to avoid being too obvious, to create a mood without saying “This song is about blah blah blah”. See, I am not going to tell you what it is about even now (laughs).

Tone wise, the album is definitely heavier, more heavy guitar driven, than previous albums. That just happens to be how it turned out. There were some songs that we didn’t use which were too close to the feel we had on the ‘One Eye On The Sunrise’ album, and didn’t really fit where I wanted to go with ‘Leaves’.

Leo:  You really don’t want to give too much away about the lyrics, do you?!

Probably just as well – the listener can interpret and feel it in their own personal way – much more intriguing and engaging.

On this new album you ambiguously described epic song ‘Goldfish’ as:  about a new world sociopath and others might think it is about …. something else …’.

Any further clues as to what that actually may mean?!!

Adrian: No!!  One reviewer described it as being about “media brainwashing”, one said it was about the “short attention span of the internet generation”, another said it was about something completely different. Looks like my ambiguous lyric is working!

It was actually written from the perspective of a “new world sociopath” (whatever that is, I just made it up), but it does also have a deeper meaning.

BEM023 cover

Leo: Antonio Seijas has done some wonderful artwork for Marillion and Gazpacho. How did you connect with him and why did you choose Antonio for the album artwork?

How does he come up with his artistic ideas in relation to your music – do you give him visual ideas upon which to work?

Adrian: I love working with Antonio, he did an amazing job for ‘One Eye On The Sunrise’ and the ‘Jet Black Sea’ project album. Antonio creates the art work based on the music and the lyrics and puts that into the concept. What he came up with for ‘Leaves’ is a perfect fit for the music and words –  it’s stunning. I connected with him initially via Frans Keylard, a good friend, when I was looking for artwork for ‘One Eye On The Sunrise’, obviously I was already aware of his artwork for other bands. I think he has a really unique style and he’s a lovely person too.

Leo:  That’s interesting, because it was through Frans Keylard that I first heard your music. He played your album ‘Traces’ on his old podcast ‘Rogues Gallery’ on the Dividing Line Broadcasting Network about 6 years ago, and I was immediately VERY interested in Nine Stones Close. ‘Traces’ is another wonderful album. I miss those podcasts from Frans, and he ALWAYS played at least one Marillion song on every show!

To bring things up to date, there have been some significant personnel changes in Nine Stones Close for this album. I expect fans will be particularly interested to know why former vocalist Marc Atkinson (of Riversea) is no longer involved, and why Brendan Eyre (also Riversea) is no longer on keyboards?

Adrian: Marc decided to leave the band after ‘One Eye On the Sunrise’ for his own personal reasons, there was nothing I could say to change his mind. Everything else is about commitments, timing, etc etc. Everything got a little twisted after ‘One Eye….’ I wanted to push on, get another album out within a year or so and I also started to line up potential live dates. That really didn’t fit with everyone else’s perspective and possible commitment, and it led to a fracture in the whole Nine Stones Close journey. I guess I can be blamed for being over ambitious and I also made a few mistakes there. Everyone else involved has other bands or projects as well, and families, jobs, etc etc, so it is difficult to align commitments to getting an album made, never mind a tour. I sincerely hope to create some new music with Brendan Eyre in the near future, time allowing, as I think we have a great mutual musical understanding. He has been working on some great stuff too with Tony Patterson, and there is another Riversea album in the pipeline. Everyone who worked on ‘Leaves’ will be involved in the next album.

Leo: Thanks for your openness. It really can’t be easy trying to pull these things together whilst everyone involved has other projects and ‘real lives’ in which to make a living and survive. I agree with you about Brendan Eyre’s work with Tony Patterson – their album ‘Northlands’ is genuinely outstanding. I am also greatly looking forward to the new Riversea album.

It’s good news that you’re working with the same line up that played on ‘Leaves’ for the new album as I’m fascinated where the Nine Stones Close journey will go next with such a talented band.

How did you find new band members and why did you choose them in particular?

Adrian: As I mentioned, it was a difficult time after ‘One Eye On The Sunrise’ came out. I was on a bit of a high  – I thought we had created a really great album and we had a chance to really take it to the next level, but it simply didn’t work out. Almost immediately after the release Marc left the band and I spent a long time looking for another singer, and that massively delayed the new album. We tried a couple of people, but it didn’t work. I wanted someone with a different voice, who could bring something unique and new to the band, to me there was no point playing safe and finding someone with a similar style to Marc. Aio came on board after being recommended to me and flying in for a session. We connected straight away and his voice brings a new edge to the sound and I think really fits the new songs perfectly. We recorded the vocal for ‘Complicated’ in the very first working session together. Christiaan I met through Pieter (van Hoorn), we had a rehearsal session in Arnhem and hit it off instantly. He is great to have around and is always full of enthusiasm and great ideas for music. Peter Groen came on board later when we were nearer the final recording stages of the album – he is also great to have around in the band.

Studio

Leo: The excellent new album ‘Leaves’ seems to be a very clear change in tone / direction after ‘One Eye…’.

Was that related to the personnel changes and the different sounds / styles they bring to the band, or was that a clear change from your perspective as band leader?

Adrian: Great to hear you are enjoying the album. I never stand still musically. The three previous albums are all very different from each other too. Aio is an element of that new sound but the material was written before he came on board so the change in sound was already progressing. I am always moving forward, musically, and can guarantee the next album will be different again. Of course, the new singer brings a change to the band’s sound, as does any change of singer. It’s so up front and obvious, of course. Christiaan and Peter both bring their own sounds and approach to the music, and that too changes the overall sound of the band.

Leo:    Are there any plans / aspirations for playing as a live band, either on tour or at Prog festival events like ‘Summers End’?

Adrian: We would love to, hopefully someone will invite us to play!

The problem is the logistics of where everyone lives, available time, family commitments, work commitments and finances. So far it’s just not worked out for a combination of all those reasons. Hopefully in the future it will work out. We are currently working on a possibility for 2017, I hope that we can make it happen this time.

Leo: I really hope Nine Stone Close can make it to the live stage at some point.

Many artists ‘self release’ these days. How did your working relationship with David Elliott of Bad Elephant Music develop, leading to the release this  album?

Adrian: I started out with self-release myself with the ‘Lie Big’ album then ‘St Lo’ and ‘Traces’. We are still best friends with the local post office staff in Leiden! I had known David informally for a while though The Dividing Line Network. I also met with Matt Stevens a few times for a beer and he was always telling me how Bad Elephant were doing a great job for his band, The Fierce and The Dead. The real introduction though was via my mate Brendan Eyre who linked me up with David and Martin (Hutchinson) for a discussion about finding a home for the release of ‘Leaves’. Fortunately, after hearing the album, they were still interested (laughs). It’s been great to work with such an open, realistic, and enthusiastic label, long may it continue.

Leo:   They are certainly an eclectic and supportive label who seem to genuinely have the interests of the artists and the music at the heart of what they are doing.

Whom is your favourite / most influential guitarist/ musician, and what are the main artists that you feel have influenced you as a musician and song writer?

Adrian: It’s almost impossible to choose just one. I listen to a LOT of music. I think Jimmy Page has to be up there. Not just as a guitarist, but as a producer, writer, performer, guitar orchestrator, he was a complete package. Those Zeppelin albums still stand up today. Obviously, as a guitarist, I have been influenced by many other great players : David Gilmour, Steve Rothery, Andy Latimer from the progressive world, but equally Jerry Cantrell was a huge influence. Then there are Kim Thayil, Ty Tabor, Alex Lifeson, Tony Iommi, Trevor Rabin, Zappa, Adrian Belew; way too many to mention. In terms of artists, Talk Talk were a phenomenal band in terms of their progression and output, Pink Floyd, obviously, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, King’s X, Kate Bush, …. I could go on for ages.

adrian-3

Leo: On ‘Leaves’ you skillfully used violinist, Annelise Rijk, and cello player, Ruben van Kruistrum on the great song ‘Lie’.

Are there any other particular artists with whom you would like to collaborate in future, possibly on your next album?

Adrian: Yes, they did a fantastic job on ‘Lie’. Christiaan also has to take the credit for the string arrangement on that part of the song. Katy Bell provided beautiful cello on the last album too, and Matt Stevens provided some crazy guitar work.

I think there are always other artists I would like to work and collaborate with. I am always open to offers to play on other artists’ material too. I love to do that – it’s a nice challenge which is very different to writing and performing on my own material. I recently provided some slide and lead guitar for the track “Kindest Eyes” on Tony Patterson’s latest album. That was a pleasure to do and it turned out great, I think. Hopefully there will be more  collaborations in the future. Anyone interested should feel free to contact me!

Leo:   Progressive or ‘Prog’ music fans can be remarkably conservative at times, which does sound contradictory to the concept of progression.

How would you describe Nine Stones Close as a band, and what is your view on how some fans may find it difficult dealing with changes in your band’s style and personnel over time?

Adrian: I have phrase I came up with recently, “progression has collateral damage, prog doesn’t”.

I do agree with you that some ‘Prog’ fans can be very conservative these days. For me ‘Prog’ is very different to ‘Progressive’ in meaning these days. ‘Prog’ is more of a style thing now, you know: “sounds like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson or Pink Floyd, must have widdly widdly bits, long songs and huge amounts of time changes”.

If you look at bands that have truly progressed, they have changed, lost fans, gained fans, always moved forward regardless of any fashion or commercial success. It’s fine for fans of our previous albums not to like what we are doing now. It’s perfectly natural. You see that music divides opinion like that. Some people for instance, refuse to listen to any post Peter Gabriel Genesis album, whereas I think they made their best albums after he left. Some people feel the same way with Marillion, for example. Music does polarise opinion. Personally, I want to move forward and not create the same thing over and over again just because some people might like it. There is no money to be made from doing this – it’s purely an artistic outlet, so what is there to lose? I might as well do whatever I want to do. I have no pressure to be an AC/DC type band, effectively churning out the same sounding album year after year. Where is the fun in that? If I am not enjoying making music and run out of ideas and things to say, then I will stop. Nine Stones Close music comes from my heart and soul, I pour everything into it, I hope that some of that comes across to the listener.

Leo:  A really interesting response – I particularly like the phrase “progression has collateral damage, prog doesn’t”I may nick that!

More seriously, it is very clear that you have poured your heart and soul in to the Nine Stones Close albums. They are not formulaic or repetitive, and certainly have engaged this listener.

I know you’ve only recently released ‘Leaves’ but are there any embryonic ideas to the direction of the next Nine Stones Close album, and possible timescales?

Adrian: Yes, actually, there is. I had some discussions with our producer about what I want to go for on the next album. It will be different again, especially in terms of overall sound and feel, I want to take it somewhere new again. It will be a challenge to do that, but hopefully what I have in my mind we can somehow get out onto a CD. Working with Paul van Zeeland (producer) is great, because he has such a deep understanding of sound and how to translate that into a recording and mix. I recently started writing and working on arrangement ideas with Christiaan and we have some great ideas on the go already. The plan is try to record the album somewhere in 2017, but that is all dependant the usual work, family, time commitments. It will definitely not take 4 years this time, if it does then it will never see the light of day! I can’t go through that again.

adrian-4

Leo: One last silly question.

We’ve recently had the Olympics and Paralympics. If there was an Olympics for Music which 3 albums would you give Gold, Silver and Bronze medals and why?

Adrian: Oh, that’s a very difficult question for a throwaway last question (laughs). Music is always a very personal thing for the listener as well as the musician trying to convey something. I grew up in a house where there was always new music available. My father used to work as a sales rep for various record labels over the years and there were promo copies of albums and singles coming through the door pretty much on a daily basis as I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. I used to  play almost everything that came into the house and quickly learned about different styles and genres and also what spoke to me. I have a huge music collection at home, so choosing a top 3 would be impossible. If I had to choose 3 off the top of my head, like now, hmm.

Here are 3 that grew my love of music and made me the writer I am today …

Bronze

Led Zeppelin – ‘The Soundtrack From The Film The Song Remains The Same’

This is the reason I picked up a guitar. I went to see a re-showing of the movie shortly before my 16th birthday with some school friends. Despite my love of music I had never really thought about actually playing an instrument myself, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity back in those days, we were not well off as a family. I remember just being totally blown away watching Zeppelin perform, and immediately after I got home I asked my parents for a guitar for my birthday. They scraped together some money from somewhere and managed to get me a starter classical guitar, not exactly the Les Paul I had in mind, but it was still amazing to have a guitar and it set me on my own musical journey. The version of No Quarter on this is fabulous, Jimmy’s solo is sublime. I know everyone thinks it is not a great representation of how amazing they were live, but I love it.

Silver

Alice In Chains – ‘Dirt’

I still remember the day I bought this album. It’s left such a lasting impression on me. I was with a friend shopping for stuff in Bristol and went into one of my favourite record shops. It had just been released, and having heard the earlier stuff I was interested to see where they were going. To say it blew me away is an understatement. I remember getting home and cracking open some beers and putting it on the hifi.  About 8 hours later we were still listening on repeat and still drinking beer. The first listen was such a shock, we ended up sat in silence the whole album just taking it in. Jerry Cantrell is a massive influence for me, the way he plays, what he plays, how he writes, hugely underrated in my opinion. Layne had one of the best voices rock has ever known and his combination harmonies with Jerry were just sublime. If you listen to the album I made with my previous band Lie Big – “Severed”, you will hear how big an influence this band had on me. If you only try one track from ‘Dirt’ then listen to ‘Rain When I Die’. What an incredible and inventive song. Frankly there are no weak moments on the whole album, it’s a true classic and it still gets played regularly today.

Gold

Talk Talk‘Spirit Of Eden’

I was always a Talk Talk fan from day one. I remember having the promo of their first single from my dad and thinking the singer was fantastic and that there was more to them than the single. In this case no one really know how much more. I can’t think off-hand of another band who progressed as far as they did over just 5 albums. The Colour Of Spring was an incredible album, but nothing prepared me for this one. I remember first hearing it and just not getting it, I was thinking “Where are the songs? What are they doing?”.

Over time it grew and grew with repeated plays until I became totally obsessed with it for a while. The production is amazing and they absolutely captured the mood of those sessions. This is easily in my top albums of all time and certainly in my most played. 28 years later and this is still regularly on the hifi. If you haven’t heard it then you definitely need to.

Leo:  I don’t know Alice in Chains or ‘Dirt’ so I’ll have to track that one down as you recommend it so highly. I remember seeing that Led Zeppelin film at the cinema and loving it – just one of THE great bands. Love your choice of ‘Spirit of Eden’ and had similar reactions to you when it came out – it’s ageless. Fascinating and varied choices – a real insight into your development and influences.

Thank you Adrian for taking the time to do this interview with Progradar – it’s been really interesting for me and I am grateful for your openness and the thought you have given your answers.

I hope your current excellent album ‘Leaves’ continues to receive the attention it deserves, and I wish you all the best for the next project.

‘Leaves’ was released on 13th may 2016 and can be bought from the Bad Elephant Music bandcamp site:

Nine Stones Close – Leaves

Leo2

(Leo Trimming)

Review – The Gift – Why The Sea Is Salt – by Leo Trimming

cover

Let’s get straight to the point – ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ is a truly exceptional album, and deserves to propel The Gift in to the higher echelons of current British Progressive Rock Music. Simple as that – it really is that outstanding. Very few albums indeed have the potential to attain the status of a potential ‘classic’ album, which will live long in the memory like ‘Why the Sea is Salt’. This is a work which greatly appeals to the heart and mind in equal measures, and similarly beguiles and stimulates in its beauty and drama.

This album is a considerable step up in ambition and achievement by a band that has evolved very significantly over the last year. Commencing as a studio project by Mike Morton and Leroy James in 2006, The Gift released promising debut anti-war album ‘Awake and Dreaming’, then went to sleep for a few years due to other life commitments. Morton then teamed up with talented song writer David Lloyd to re-form The Gift and record the excellent album ‘Land of Shadows’ in 2014 as one eclectic label Bad Elephant’s first ever releases (The third to be precise). This hard working band has been playing live over the last couple of years to develop their sound, skills and audience at venues across the UK and even a first trip to Europe in 2014 to play in the Netherlands. Stalwart Stefan Dickers has been their rock on bass for that period. They successfully appeared at last year’s Summer’s End Festival in Wales, and it was clear then they were on an upward trajectory.

The Gift have wanted to take a different and more ambitious musical approach requiring some changes in personnel, with no disrespect to their able predecessors. They recruited new drummer Neil Hayman from BEM label mates progressive hard rockers, Konchordat. He definitely adds more experience, creativity and power to the band. Leroy James also ‘came home’, rejoining the band late in the writng process of this album and just before recording started, adding his deft guitar skills and a more rock oriented approach to David Lloyd’s subtle flowing guitar work. The last but possibly most significant piece in bringing The ‘New’  Gift Jigsaw puzzle together was the recruitment on keyboards of an Italian bona fide Classical Music star, Gabriele Baldocci, who performs piano recitals around the world, alongside teaching at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich. Morton heard that Baldocci loved Genesis, Queen, Yes, Beatles, Crimson, Camel and Tull, and wanted to use his classical skills in a progressive rock band. The Gift were delighted to recruit him, and on the evidence of this album it is clear that his undoubted incredible keyboard skills, eminent classical background and love of great rock music adds something really special to the mix. He is a real gift to The Gift!

the-gift-new-line-up-2-low-res

‘Why the Sea is Salt’ is a rich presentation of musical styles and sounds, social commentary,  mythological references, and touching expressions of personal feelings of loss and mourning. This is an album with very strong and distinctive individual songs. However, ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ has even more impact if consumed as a whole with lyrical and musical themes threading through the tapestry of the album, producing a remarkably consistent and resonant piece of work. The focus is upon man’s sad disconnection from life’s real meaning, with the poetic sense that in human existence our collective tears ‘salt’ the sea. This description may make it sound like a ‘weighty’ piece of work, but crucially The Gift never forget that the Song is Key, and it is filled with memorable melodies and harmonies which make it accessible, entertaining and interesting for a wider audience. In fact, this album is notable for the balance between lyrics and music. They compliment each other, but crucially the lyrics allow enough space for the music alone at times to breathe and convey the spirit of the song.

ondine

The song which may inevitably attract the most attention from some is The Tallest Tree, featuring contributions from Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett of Genesis fame, alongside the more recent emerging talent of Peter Jones from Tiger Moth Tales. Anthony Phillips provides characteristically beautiful and shimmering 12 string guitar with Peter Jones playing a touching Irish whistle to add suitable pathos to the intro. This is a heartfelt song of loss about the passing of vocalist Mike Morton’s father with deeply felt and succinct lyrics, based on a poem Mike Morton wrote for and recited at his father’s funeral. Towards the end Steve Hackett perfectly reflects the elegiac feeling with a tasteful and distinctive guitar solo, and then perhaps appropriately the song fades away wistfully into the distance. I do not mind sharing with you that the first hearing this song reduced me to tears as it touched on my own parallel loss of parents with Morton. Memories of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away were reflected in similar images of Morton taking his father’s own hands towards the end:

‘I Take Your Hands… Now as Fragile as a sigh,

As through this Veil of Tears, We say our last Goodbye

 Now the Tallest Tree is Falling, Our Faces Feel the Rain,

As Darkness Turns to Morning, Love is What Remains’

It is unusual for this reviewer to share such a personal memory in a review, but it is done to show how The Gift’s lyrics and music can truly touch the listener. Such is the simple beauty of the music and honest expression of deep emotions, which will touch many listener’s hearts, that it seems clear this song could become regarded as a classic.

To go back to the album’s beginning, ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ commences aptly with the suitably nautical and mythical At Sea, premiered to great acclaim at the recent ‘Power of Three’ gig in London. Mainly written by David Lloyd, this acts like an overture for the album as Gabriele Baldocci shows his classical piano excellence with a softly undulating piano solo with hints of Ravel as we start our musical voyage, leading onto Lloyd’s gently floating guitar. Like a sudden storm rising, the tempo and power suddenly builds with Hayman pounding away and Baldocci running a sinuous synth line above the backing in a scintillating instrumental section. The guitars and keyboards intertwine to great effect, and then Dickers’ melodic bass line leads us into a short but expressive guitar solo, before we settle back into a piano section… and after six minutes a ‘Becalmed’ singer Mike Morton finally enters the fray. Quite an opening to an album.  This is Morton as Greek chorus with sonorous  but vulnerable vocals, setting the scene including some mythic images (… but have no worries, this album is no corny ‘sword and sorcery’ epic!) The finely judged concluding guitar solo completes the ‘overture’ and takes us on into the main body of the album.

cd

The Gift next take us into a horror story with Sweeper of Dreams, a baroque intro leading into a powerful song full of characterisation reminiscent of Alex Harvey.  This is a dramatic ‘story’ song with lyric writer Morton singing menacingly in character as ‘The Sweeper’. One can only imagine what Morton will do to portray this scary character in concert. Baldocci and Morton wrote the majority of the musical themes, Gabriele showing that he can really rock alongside his classical skills, as the song alternates between hard rock and scary ‘evil clown’ carousel sounding interludes. Writer Neil Gaiman was pleased to permit The Gift to use the theme and name of one of his short stories for this song. Fittingly, the images evoked by the memorable music and lines such as ‘Dispose of the Debris, Lying around in your Brain’ may well enter the dream worlds of many listeners.

The Gift take us in a very different direction with the touching and delightful Tuesday’s Child , based on a lyrical idea from Baldocci, shaped and developed by Mike Morton, telling a personal story of an older sad man woefully looking back to the beautiful but forsaken joy and innocence of childhood. The Road of Ashes instrumental opening draws us in beguilingly with keyboards creating a lovely soundscape for an emotionally delicate, floating guitar line. Acoustic guitar then takes us into a beautiful sung lyric in the First Flower section. This is subtle, intelligent and heart felt lyric writing, characteristic of Mike Morton, and for which he should become much more well-known. He makes the connection between emotions and the sea in touching but catchy choruses :

‘Someone’s been waiting for me, somewhere not quite light enough to see

Is this the one I used to be? Cast adrift amongst the Shadows and Salt Waters, That Flow from Me’

Alongside such insightful and emotive lyrics this song of redemption and self-realisation is also expressed perfectly with finely crafted music  as the bass and drums deftly back Lloyd’s flowing and sensitive concluding guitar solo – demonstrating the skill of The Gift in marrying words and music together with skill and insight in conveying the ‘feel’ and message of a song.

logo

The main inspiration for the album title ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ comes originally from a Norse legend in which a man finds a mill that grinds out anything he wants. However, he gets too greedy, and when he asks it to grind out salt for his food, the power behind it grinds endlessly, swamping him and everyone. The mill then falls into the sea, where it still churns, thus making the sea salty. This mythological source is re-interpreted by The Gift on this album as modern man’s  greed for ‘stuff’ which consumes and hurts us.  Nowhere is this better expressed than on the epic song cycle of All These Things, a piece largely written mainly by Lloyd and Morton. Apparently this song cycle was originally called Black Friday but that title was felt to be too specific as the piece had a wider perspective. Lloyd’s love of Jethro Tull and early Strawbs is demonstrated by the opening acoustic guitar and vocal harmony section in The Vow, portraying marriage as a transaction, a swapping of rings, underlining society’s pre-occupation with possessing things, including each other. Church organs resound as a slight dig at organized religion before we flow into the Harvest of Hollow. The use of understated flamenco guitar shows that The Gift are not afraid to stretch their boundaries. Indeed, it appears that this is a band who wanted to avoid simply repeating previous patterns as they used previously unexplored sounds and styles.

The Gift are not afraid to make political points of social commentary, with Morton particularly animated by his distaste for the current politics of the UK as a ‘crop of bitter weeds’. The Gift direct their focus on the futile emptiness of materialistic consumerism, leading to endless acquisition but never enough to satisfy:

‘So which of us is satisfied? Tell me, are you satisfied?

The Roulette spins in empty eyes, Our Hungerbeasts prowling and growling inside

It’s an unhealthy appetite, Take another bite… Having is Nothing, Hunting is All’

This song cycle takes an ever darker turn as we enter Feeding Time in which The Gift have never sounded so brutal and menacing with an angry and coruscating guitar duo between David Lloyd and Leroy James – the instruments cinematically telling the story as powerfully as any words. In contrast, the next lilting section The Jackdaw, Magpie and Me commences with bird sounds and a gentle acoustic guitar motif as Morton intones with such clarity about the selfishness and emptiness of collecting things trinkets like magpies.  Dickers and Hayman’s subtle bass and drums underline the piece with skill, showing that they are not all about power. The animal imagery is carried on into the gentle re-birth or turning point of the Swan and Butterfly section, with perhaps even a subtle or subconscious reference to previous album’s highlight The Willows.  The lyrics encourage the notion that if we reconnect with Nature, both its external aspects and our inner selves, we have no need to complete ourselves through ‘things’.  The gentle pastoral feel of this section with piano and flute sounds accentuate this as a more meditative section in which the song’s protagonist realises he is as free as creatures of both water and air if he chooses to free himself of the distractions of the media and possessions and reconnect with the earth he walks upon.

As this reviewer is rather melancholic at times I did have some initial reservations about the finale to this song section as Heartfire concludes this piece on a more celebratory almost hymnal note, an echo to the ecclesiastical hints in the opening part, The Vow. However, with repeated listenings it became clear that The Gift were right to conclude this remarkable song cycle with a more upbeat conclusion after the gentle pastoralism of the previous section. Morton urges us to ‘come to your senses’ , encouraging us to let the world outside fill our senses because there is enough joy and thrill in those experiences to keep us fulfilled all our lives. Cleverly, all five senses are lyrically engaged with the sight of ‘silver cloak of winter’, the touch of ‘summer heat’, the ‘taste of joyful tears’, the ‘scent of gardens’ and hearing ‘whispers in the dark’. These positive feelings are evoked by sun filled backing which skips along with a joyful synth line, and harmonic backing vocals, concluding ‘Take Heart’.

the-gift-new-line-up-1-low-res

The coda to this album is the haunting Ondine’s Song. Baldocci’s eerie synth soundscape backs Morton’s mournful vocals, bringing us full circle to the sea based and mythically imbued lyrics of the opening At Sea. Ondine is a legendary elemental being associated with water, whom has inspired an opera by Debussy, a ballet by Henze and even The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson… and now a song by The Gift! The story involves her marrying a human to gain immortality, but if the human is unfaithful they are fated to die. On a more fundamental level in this song Ondine stands for the essential nature of Water as Life itself, and a plea not to pollute the world – without water there is no life, leading to the elegaic fading refrain:

‘Every Mortal Breath, By Her Grace Alone…. By her Grace Alone…’

In the legend the man’s infidelity breaks Ondine’s heart, and in this song Ondine’s heart is broken by Man’s treatment of the world. Her sorrow and man’s sorrowful salt tears run into the oceans. Once again the music sensitively expresses the flowing almost wraith like feeling of this piece.

cd-2

The Gift have really stepped up a few levels with this remarkable album. They have not stretched the boundaries of music – very few artists truly do that. What they have undoubtedly done is skilfully and  beautifully draw upon a variety of influences, inspirations and ideas and artfully crafted them into an imaginative and enjoyable musical experience that touches the heart and stimulates the mind. What more could one want from an album?! Do yourselves a favour and just go and buy it!

Released 28th October 2016

Buy ‘Why The Sea Is Salt’ from Bad Elephant Music

 

 

 

 

Review – Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware – by Leo Trimming

cover

‘When did Absurdity and Nonsense take control?

The Moment that they all Lost Sight of Common Goals…’

For some strange reason those words from A Revolutionary Cure,  the opening epic song from ‘Becoming Aware’, resonate quite significantly at present. Formed in 2007 by Ben Revens (vocals and keyboards)  and Reuben Krendel (guitars), as a result of a college project which ultimately resulted in ‘A Revolutionary Cure’, Paradigm Shift have gradually developed with the addition of drummer, Bryson Demath and very recently Leon Itzler on bass for the recording of this album. It is refreshing to see a new, younger band on the progressive rock scene, also willing to inject a political but not overwhelming edge to their songs on this very promising debut album from London based band.

In such tumultuous times it is perhaps appropriate for Paradigm Shift to release such an album based on the ideas of freedom and control. However, the generally optimistic theme of ‘Becoming Aware’ is that attempts to control people, whether through politics, religion, media, dictatorships or medication are ultimately futile and people will find a way to be free. I sincerely hope this young band’s optimism is well-placed in the recent context of the pervading influence of the media and the manipulative powers of politicians to distort and misrepresent to gain popular support. Lest we forget, Hitler was elected into power.

Band shot

A Revolutionary Cure commences with an intro of sampled speeches about slavery and freedom before an awesomely heavy guitar riff provides a dramatic opening in to the song proper before the rest of the band joins the melee. What strikes you early on with this band are the strength of the piano led keyboards, which adds more texture and colour to their heavy progressive style. Ben Revens has stated that Rush and Dream Theater are influences, which you can hear with this powerhouse number but this is no carbon copy as there are other elements in this particularly powerful rock concoction, with dashes of jazz, metal and electronica. Reuben Krendel’s guitars certainly take centre stage half way through this number with an impressive array of styles and sounds emanating from his guitar with Revens’ keyboards swirling around them.

When one considers that this number started out as a project for a college course one has to be impressed at the musical skills, imagination and influences injected into this epic opener – no half hearted subtle opening for this band. Straight in – BLAM! Unashamedly retro in style, but oh so many styles and so well played. One could choose to possibly think as a younger band perhaps they could have been a little more ‘contemporary’ (whatever the hell that means?) or one can choose to just get on board and hang on during this enjoyable rock journey. Let’s face it these days we need a little distraction from the mess the older generation may have inflicted upon this nation.

However, before we relax too much in to the music recent events are seemingly brought into very sharp relief as the album seamlessly segues into An Easy Lie, amidst more sampled speech. Revens turns up his synthesiser ‘swirly’ button to eleven (I believe that is the technical term!) before Bryson Demath and Leon Itzler lock in to a great drum and bass groove. Krendel’s guitar rhythmically plays powerfully and then a staccato vocal (with a hint of rap style) from Revens tries to keep pace with the juggernaut backing. One cannot help feel a resonance with current times with prescient lines like:

“We fell in Love too quickly with a Tempting Word

Slotted in our own Beliefs around what we Thought we heard

And jumped to clutch at Flags like fish biting at a Hook….”

banner 2

Needless to say this album was written some time before the recent political mess that has plagued the UK but depending on one’s viewpoint it is hard not to invest such lyrics with more meaning and feeling. Revens has stated:

“It is uncanny just how relevant it’s become actually. I’d love to say we foresaw the UK’s unravelling, but I think it was more a case of writing the right lyrics at the right time!”

This is an outstanding song musically and lyrically, fusing elements of heavy rock, psychedelia, rap, politics and progressive rock tropes in an intoxicating mix – much like the lying demagogue at the centre of the song and seemingly holding sway in recent political debate. It remains to be seen what happens in the near future nationally, but the figure at the centre of the song falls from grace.

‘And Chained by Sweet mystifying words half understood

We let you get us Victory, just as you said you would

But nothing changed at the end of our Crusade

Tell me, just what happened to the Promises you made?’

(For some strange reason I can’t help think it could be useful for that last line to be emblazoned on the side of a Big Bus?)

After the drama and impact of the first two tracks Paradigm Shift calm things down somewhat with an eerie synth soaked instrumental The Void. This segues into The Shift which starts with piano playing reminiscent of Keith Emerson before the band crashes in powerfully as the track rolls along, with Demath particularly impressive on drums. Revens is a real driving force behind much of the music, and it is his preference and skills with pianos rather than organs that sets him apart from many progressive rock bands who sometimes overly rely upon the overwhelming generic wash of mellotron sounds. The Shift merges seamlessly into Masquerade and we are back in epic progressive rock territory.

Band live

Revens has shared the song writing process of the band:

‘Our writing process for the album was very collaborative. Reuben or I would bring ideas for sections or the skeleton of a song, and then we would work together to flesh things out. Once we were happy we’d bring it to the full band and play with certain passages to add things in or strip things out etc. I think it was through this process that we really found our sound as a band.’

This approach appears very evident on this multi-layered track which shows the band all contributing to this varied piece. It is also clear that this is a band that has not rushed out with their first inexperienced efforts as they have developed and honed their songs over a few years before attempting to gain a release, eventually wisely choosing Bad Elephant Music to back them.

Sampled dialogue in Masquerade about ‘Democracy’  from Charlie Chaplin’s 1930’s classic film ‘The Great Dictator’  underlines the theme of the album and presages an exciting instrumental section with a scintillating synth – guitar soloing battle with Itzler and Demath on bass and drums keeping the song anchored powerfully. This is the best vocal performance of Revens on the whole album as on some other songs he perhaps shows a little inexperience vocally. That will come with more performance and recordings but for a first album it is certainly a competent showing.

The album takes an optimistic view that lies and fear will be overcome in time:

‘Your Fears only Blemish the View,

A New Perception of Truth is ours for the taking

We’re coming Awake and Becoming Aware’

It is to be hoped that recent events may act as a catalyst for more engagement with the political process and citizenship amongst the electorate, especially amongst the young, whatever the future holds. ‘Becoming Aware’ is vital for a healthy democracy… but back to the music!

Like the rest of the album, Masquerade segues smoothly into final track Reunification. There are distinctive songs that stand alone in this album, but they are presented as one flowing musical and lyrical narrative. A melodic opening vocal section, (with perhaps a rather too densely packed lyric?), ends with words that seem so apt for our times;

‘Pulled apart by the desire of fools, All so Misguided

Now our History’s divided in two’

Inspiring sampled dialogue about ‘democracy’ and ‘common interest’ resonate in the background as the band play out a stirring rock manifesto of keyboard and guitar duos and leads, before gently drifting away in an acoustic guitar and piano coda.

logo

Becoming Aware was mixed by Rob Aubrey, who has an impressive pedigree in modern progressive rock having worked with IQ, Big Big Train and Cosmograf, amongst many others. He brings his experienced ear to bear on this young band and ensures a perfectly balanced sound in tune with the style of those great artists. Acle Kahney of the more prog metal band TesseracT mastered the album, which helps give it a harder edge. The choice of those two professionals may indicate where this band lie in their aspirations – modern progressive rock with a heavier edge.

I googled the phrase ‘Paradigm Shift’ and discovered a couple of things:

Firstly, there are at least two other bands with that name – a fusion band from Mumbai and soul Jazz trio from America – so beware when searching for this band on google!

Secondly, I discovered the definition from Thomas Kuhn in 1962 that a Paradigm Shift is ‘a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions’.

There is some irony that this is not really a phrase that could be applied to the music of Paradigm Shift, who create finely played music based on well known influences but with a largely retro feel. They are not changing the face of progressive rock, but in all fairness there have been so few bands in history to whom such a description could be applied! Their interesting political edge is not particularly revolutionary or earth shattering in their insights, but it is definitely refreshing to hear such a band addressing such issues with vigour and passion.

Timing is everything and the lyrics for this album would not have had the same resonance a few months ago, and may not in a few years time… but right now they seem so appropriate and resonant. Listening to this album won’t solve the current political mess this country faces right now, but for some it may it help to listen and hear reflected what one may feel and think at times. What remains to be seen is whether Paradigm Shift can sustain this very impressive early showing, and how they develop and absorb other influences in the modern progressive music scene. However, with this album I think many progressive rock fans will definitely be ‘Becoming Aware’ of this promising young band.

Released 10th June 2016 via Bad Elephant Music.

Order ‘Becoming Aware’ from bandcamp

 

 

Progradar – 2016 – Best of the First Six Months

David

(Yours truly and Prog Guru™ himself)

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the first official Progradar Reviewers and Friends ‘Best Of…’ feature.

I asked those who wished to contribute to cogitate over what great music they had heard, released 1st January to 30th June, in the first half of 2016 and come up with a list of their definitive five favourites.

Not an easy task, let me tell you but, here are the selections of nine (including me) erstwhile wordsmiths and friends, including a few words as to why these particular releases made the cut.

Emma

Emma Roebuck (Progradar reviewer)

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

This is Robin Armstrong on some amazing form.  I loved ‘Capacitor’ and I thought ‘Man Left in Space’ was a hard one to beat. I was clearly wrong and happy about it too. Robin is at his best when looking at the human condition when viewed through a less than regular lens. The mythology of Sisyphus and alien abduction combine to make such a lens.  I will treasure seeing his one and only live performance so far at Celebr8.3 fondly. The album is dark and melancholy which is the way I like my music to be honest.

This film might change your life and Relativity being high points in an album that is a mountain range of achievement.

Aftermath

Preacher – Aftermath

Their second album, and independently released like the Cosmograf album (and another 2 in my, selection if I remember rightly.) Preacher craft both songs and albums exceedingly well. ‘Signals’, the previous album, shows signs (poor, but unintentional, pun) of a band with tons to offer. They draw their roots from 70s Floyd and the melodic side of the genre.  It could be said that this is the album that Floyd should have released instead of ‘The Endless River’, I could easily agree but this is not that Floyd this is a band that use melody, harmony and song in a way that could go beyond the genre.

Stand out Tracks

War/ War reprise and Vinyl show how we look to emotions and actions and make things or deeds of them as people.

Cover

Drifting Sun – Safe Asylum

I was too young to be really aware of the genuine impact of the classic period of Prog rock. I caught the periphery in my early teens but felt no ownership of Yes, Genesis, VDGG, Floyd, Gentle Giant, etc only a serious attraction to the music as a 14 year old in 1975. In the early 80s, having ridden the horror that was punk, I remember seeing Marillion, IQ and Pallas in small pubs and clubs in 82 and it was a pure emotional and intellectual epiphany. It felt like I was hit in the heart and the brain with a piece of 2 by 4. I found home and ownership of music.  I liked ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’ immensely and when I heard this album I felt all those emotions again. I was in the Sheffield Limit club again hearing something of very high quality and I connected immediately to this music. It is Neo Prog of a very high standard.  They sound like themselves with echoes of the last 40 years resounding through the music.

Standout Tracks Intruder and DesolationRetribution.

Jump Over The Top Cover

Jump – Over The Top

I have been a fan of Jump for the best part of 21 years. It is the Classic rock society that I owe big style, not just for these but many others, in times of musical desolation.  I found my first sample of these by old school recognition and recommendation by word of mouth. Fast forward to many Jump gigs later, the new album ‘Over the Top’ comes out and it was ‘yes, get in!’. Some of the current live set had been used to fine tune some of the songs over the last 18 months or so and it shows. John Dexter Jones is a storyteller par excellence and the band are an excellent vehicle for those stories. The words are heartfelt and the music comes from the same place. If they lived in medieval times they would be the bards of old. The use of the past to illustrate the way of the world we live in now is the stock in trade here.

Stand out tracks, I want to say all of them but if I was to choose The Beach and the Wreck of the St Marie are those choices.

Cover-500K

Kiama – Sign of IV

Just when you think you have Rob Reed figured out, Sanctuary, Magenta and so on, he does something out of the blue and blows the socks of you. Take good old rock sensibilities from the 60s and 70s, put them in the hands of some very talented individuals and they become a band which sounds like they have been a unit for years. I recently saw them support Frost* and wow, just wow.

This is a hybrid, musically drawn from the past in a very real sense, and is a homage to how they used to work but it does not feel like a tribute band in anyway.  It results in a multifaceted album of light and shade with some fantastic songs and heartfelt lyrics. It is some of Luke Machin’s best work outside of Maschine & Rubidium.  Rob Reed has a blast playing with sound and tone to create things like ‘Muzzled’, which is a tribute to the Floyd Album ‘Animals’, using the tones from the period to reflect the music and the time it came out. Dylans voice is amazing, we need more Kiama …

Stand Out Tracks  Muzzled and Slip away.

Leo2

Leo Trimming – (Progradar and TPA reviewer)

Tales From The Bookcase Cover

Red Bazar – Tales From The Bookcase

This was my TPA’s review’s conclusion early in the year for this surprise package, and I’ve had no reason to change it since…

This is an excellent collaboration: Red Bazar have helped Peter Jones express more of his serious, darker side and also allowed him to display more vocal dexterity. In return Red Bazar have gained a talented and very fine rock vocalist who has added great lyrical skill and vocal feeling  to their own fine emotional musical palette…

This may be a bit of a dark horse, but Red Bazar may just have released one of the Prog albums of the year.

All Our Yesterdays cover

Matthew Parmenter – All Our Yesterdays

A favourite on two levels – it’s a great album of subtle artistry and fine music, and on another level the artist & his music  touched me personally. My Progradar review concluded:

Matthew Parmenter has stepped aside from the magnificent, gothic group dynamic of Discipline to create a solo work of art suffused with dramatic shades and emotional lyricism, conveying tragedy and hope. This is an album that is likely to captivate and beguile with subtlety and delicate emotion. It certainly gave me unexpected comfort – Inside.’

BEM023 cover

Nine Stones Close – Leaves

A darkly trippy and psychedelic album. Part dream, part nightmare – this is an album for which repeated listens gradually unpeal the layers, like all the best progressive releases. My Progradar review observed:

Nine Stones Close create rich musical landscapes suffused with a sense of the dramatic and psychedelic… They do not stick to their old formula and want to progress. My advice is stick with these guys because you are never quite sure in which direction their songs or this albums may turn, but it sure is an imaginative and fascinating ride!’

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

A much anticipated release does not disappoint as the album describes modern folklore, ancient legend, elegies for lost love and epic stories of heroism and loss … plus bees (!) in a rich tapestry of folk tinged progressive rock. Lyrically intelligent and insightful, conveyed with integrity and emotion, and played with consummate skill and passion. Impossible to ignore – we all sort of knew it would be great. Of course it’s great!

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

Simply stunning. Robin Armstrong has imagined a rich narrative of alien incursion (or paranoid breakdown?!) with sonic brilliance. The imaginative story is unnerving, whilst the music is captivating on a human level but cinematic in scope – ranging from crunching Purple riffs, through atmospheric acoustic passages to sweeping Floydian soundscapes. Undoubtedly, major contender for Album of the Year already from one of the best Progressive Rock artists of this generation.

Gary

Gary Morley – (Progradar reviewer)

HAWKWIND The Machine Stops

Hawkwind – The Machine Stops

Everything that Hawkwind evoke distilled into one disc. Great musicianship, tunes and tons of atmosphere make this the top of the pops for me. It’s been a long time since a Hawkwind album had such a buzz about it. Biggest regret – that I missed the live shows. Biggest hope – a proper live blu-ray & CD set is coming.

Aftermath

Preacher – Aftermath

Prog at it’s best for me needs a driver. Preacher use guitars. Proper guitars like your dad waffles on about when he talks about Pink Floyd, Steve Hillage, Jimmy Page and that time he watched Rory Gallagher play for 3 hours at the Hexagon Theatre and your mum was drinking pints and ended up paralytic, singing along to “Wayward Child” sat on his boss’s shoulders…

cover

I Am The Manic Whale – Everything Beautiful In Time

Local boy’s debut embraces everything that is good about music. It has great tunes, off the wall lyrics and subjects that place it head and shoulders above most of what passes for modern music from the under 30’s. I’m looking forward to their next offering, be it a live gig in Reading or more music.

cover-1

Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Fable

‘The Clockwork Fable’ is a Steam punk opera, like a space opera or a soap opera but without the bad romance and dodgy backdrops.

I loved the variety of musical genres used to tell a totally bonkers tale of clockwork suns and steam powered boys looking for missing cogs in a giant machine all played out in a cavernous underground city. There are rock tracks, some great drumming, some “epic” prog , some plaintive melodies and a host of guest vocalists and musicians, all of which add to the mix without overegging the lily.

The first time you listen you get sucked into the world presented here. It’s a Post apocalyptic, dark dystopian world but there are flashes of humour and the absurdity does not detract from the sheer brilliance of the effort here.

Cover

Steven Wilson – 4 1/2

“left over’s” from ‘Hand .Cannot .Erase’ these track might have been, but as a snapshot of Mr Chuckletrousers ( © Angus Prune I Think) and his Zeus like stature in the modern Prog pantheon  this is sublime in its perfection. Hints of Zappa referencing impossible “stun guitar”, epic soundscape that demonstrate his skill as an arranger and bleak yet beautiful lyrics are all wrapped in a package that sticks 2 fingers up at the download and go generation. This is a quality production in every detail, lovingly constructed and presented for your pleasure.

Shawn Dudley

Shawn Dudley – (Progradar reviewer)

Press_cover

Messenger – Threnodies

It took several spins for this album to truly work its magic on me, but once hooked it just won’t let me go.  A beautifully organic record, informed and powered by vintage sounds but not a slave to them.  The tastefully arranged guitar work on this album is a particular highlight.  Favorite tracks:  Balearic Blue, Celestial Spheres. 

Press_cover

Haken – Affinity

Haken leaves the 1970s sounds of ‘The Mountain’ behind, makes a brief stop in the 1980s for the song 1985 and then ventures forward into the future on Affinity.  An endlessly inventive collection of intricately designed and passionately performed pieces it’s one of the most thrillingly forward-looking albums of 2016.  It’s time to drop the “Prog Metal” genre tag, these guys have transcended it.  Favorite tracks:  The Architect, Red Giant

purson-desires-magic-theatre-cover

Purson – Desire’s Magic Theatre

Purson’s follow-up to ‘The Circle And The Blue Door’ is essentially a solo album from Rosalie Cunningham who wrote, arranged, produced and performed the majority of D.M.T. herself.   A conceptual psychedelic journey influenced by her Father’s record collection and her own experimentation with mind-expanding substances.  Another case of an artist using the canvas of vintage instrumentation and production techniques to create very personal and unique modern music.   Favorite tracks:  The Sky Parade, The Bitter Suite.

Cover

Big Big Train Folklore

Another beautiful collection of immaculately arranged and produced “pastoral prog” from this master collective of musicians.  I recommend going for the extended track-list available on the LP and High-Res download editions, I believe an even stronger collection than the shorter CD version.  Favorite tracks:  Salisbury Giant, London Plane

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out OF Eden

A wonderfully quirky concoction of pop sensibility, progressive experimentation and the harmonic sophistication of jazz all mixed together into a thoroughly accessible brew.  And it’s fun!  Favorite tracks:  I Am Lost, I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait.

Roger

Roger Trenwith – (TPA reviewer and Astounded by Sound blog)

cover low

Bent Knee – Say So

An unparalleled triumph of invention, melody, and strangeitude, it will take some beating for album of the year.

cover

David Bowie – Blackstar

Hardly seems right relegating this poignant artistic statement and full stop on a career of a true visionary to No.2, but from a purely musical point of view, them’s the breaks.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out OF Eden

A chronicle of loss leavened by hope, Knifeworld get better with each release. Criminally underrated.

cover

Body English – Stories of Earth

Is there a sub-genre called “prog-pop”? If not, this is it. A truly joyous record shining a light in this dark Year of Stupid.

KCr

King Crimson – Live In Toronto – Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto, Canada, 20th November 2015

Whatever I put here means leaving out at least half a dozen albums equally as good, so this came out on top after a complicated mathematical randomisation process involving dice, incantations, dead frogs, toads, and copious amounts of single malt. The mighty Crim remake, remodel like no-one else. The version of Epitaph will make you shiver, unless you have no soul. Superb!

Kev

Kevin Thompson (LHS) – (Progradar reviewer)

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

Does this really need a reason?, best of the Band’s excellent output so far and an album that will always be on my desert island disc list. As near to perfect as it gets…

Press_cover

Long Distance Calling – Trips

There are so many bands in this area of music it’s hard to stand out, but, on this release, Long Distance Calling have…..

cover-1

Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Fable

A tremendous 3 disc concept package of such quality. Never been better value for money and shames the bigger bands!!

cover

Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

A delicately beautiful album from this Russian duo added further poignancy with the heartfelt vocals from Mariusz Duda on the title track.

Cover Album low res

Downriver Dead Men Go – Tides

Another band who came recommended and I’d not heard before buying. Slow, dark and emotional, this Dutch band surpassed my expectations.

David

David Elliott – (Prog Guru™, TEP, Bad Elephant)

Cover

Lazuli – Nos Âmes Saoules

There is nothing else quite like them, and they keep on going from strength to strength….

cover low

Bent Knee – Say So

My first exposure to this amazing American band…genuine innovators, and hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck exciting!!

Cover

The Dowling Poole – One, Hyde Park

Unashamedly unoriginal, but huge fun, and immaculately crafted. Big smiley music.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden

Banging tunes, a great groove, and more bassoon!!

Press_Cover_01

Frost* – Falling Satellites

A great return to the arena from the masters of modern progressive. Progressive rock with pop sensibilities – what’s not to like?

John Simms

John Simms – (Progradar reviewer, Rev Sky Pilot blog)

Cover

Big Big train – Folklore

Consistently turning out excellent pastoral English progressive music, BBT have hit the motherlode again with this suite of songs celebrating the British folkloric tradition. From the sublime beauty of ‘Transit’ to the quirky tale of ‘Winkie’ the Pigeon, this is music of the highest calibre.

IoK cover

Anderson/Stolt – Invention of Knowledge

This, for me, is simply the best music anyone connected with Yes has produced since ‘Awaken’. It draws on the bestaspects of Yes and Flower Kings and produces something sublime and beautiful. It was a very close call between my Top 2.

cover

Southern Empire – Southern Empire

One of the up sides to Unitopia folding a few years ago is that we now have both UPF and Southern Empire to carry on the legacy. This is a fine collection of melodic progressive rock music, exhibiting high levels of virtuosity and songmanship.

Print

Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden

Another band with a unique style and approach to music making. This is a wonderful follow-up to ‘The Unravelling’ and Kavus and his band of minstrels continue to delight.

BEM021 album cover

Mothertongue – Unsongs

The best music is that which stands out from the crowd, and Mothertongue certainly do that. Ecclectic, bizarre, unexpected and bonkers, this is a wonderful collection of (un)songs.

Hutch

And finally my thoughts, this selection of five albums was incredibly difficult to pick but I’m pretty certain that, at this moment in time, it is my definitive top five!!!

BEM021 album cover

Mothertongue – Unsongs

With its incisive, intelligent lyrics and first-class musicianship, Unsongs is unlike anything you will have heard in recent years. The music will lead you on a roller-coaster journey of acid jazz inventiveness that’s a big heap of noisy and light and also includes a lot of brass because everyone likes brass, right? A musical breath of fresh air that you will return to again and again, it’s just brilliant!

Cover

Big Big Train – Folklore

The acknowledged masters of pastoral progressive rock and intelligent and incisive storytelling return with a fresh collection of tales gleaned from our heritage and history. With their penchant for heartfelt lyrics and beautiful music it is an involving and mesmerising journey that everyone should take at least once in their life.

Cover 2

Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence

Thought provoking, questioning and inventive, ‘The Unreasonable Silence’ has all that I ask for in my music. A well constructed and intelligent concept brought to reality by a gifted musician with incomparable support from some incredible guests. It makes you really think about what you have heard and, above all, is a peerless, outstanding and incomparable listening experience that you will not forget any time soon.

cover

Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

‘Lighthouse’ is an amazing musical journey from the first note to the last. It is bewitching and beguiling and removes you from your everyday life to a place of wonder. Darkly captivating, it is not all sweetness and light but is a musical legacy that iamthemorning can build on and the ‘Lighthouse’ can light the way. These two exceptional artists have now moved into the major leagues and it is well deserved, album of the year? why not!

Tilt Album

Tilt – Hinterland

A superb album by a cast of very accomplished musicians. Brilliant vocals, burning guitar solos, a thunderous rhythm section and songwriting of the highest quality combine to deliver one kick ass release that I keep returning to again and again. By the way, three of these guys are better known as Fish’s backing band but, oh my god, have they risen well above that soubriquet now….

So, there you have it, a small selection of our own, very subjective, opinions on what has been the best music of a highly impressive first six months of 2016. You may agree, you may not but, one thing that everything agrees on is that the music just keeps getting better, and long may it continue!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – Matt Stevens – Archive – by Leo Trimming

cover

A few years ago an unlikely hero entered the rock music scene. Like some sort of Rock ‘El Mariachi’ Matt Stevens rode into town armed only with a guitar, a few effects pedals and most importantly a prodigious talent and imagination. ‘Have guitar, will travel’ was his trademark, travelling right across the country willing to play any club, pub and venue, supporting any and everyone. Unbounded by any labels and by any notions of conforming to musical norms Matt Stevens’ music crossed many boundaries, but did not seem to fit any – just the way he liked it.

Roaming the musical hinterlands he was free to take his own path. Occassionally, venue’s saloon doors would swing open and in would step the silhouette of a musical man mountain maestro with a guitar slung around his neck, here to take on all challengers with fast fingers, exciting music and engaging charm. Venue after venue and crowd after crowd succumbed to his talent, won over by his talent, enthusiasm and his unquenchable thirst just to perform.

Matt cartoon

Well now, Matt ‘Mariachi’ Stevens is stepping back from his solo guitar days, having formed his own posse called ‘The Fierce and the Dead’ within which to express his impressive musical skills and imagination. ‘The Fierce and the Dead’ have been burning their own distinctive and unconventional path through modern music, turning up at contrasting music festivals such as ‘Summers End’ and ‘Arc Tangent’ and uncompromisingly blasting and riffing their way through the crowds, a few scattering to the bar but burning in to the hearts of many other unsuspecting punters.

TFATD Chaos ENgineers

(Photo copyright the Chaos Engineers)

To mark his current ‘retirement’ from solo performing Matt Stevens is releasing ‘Archive’ on Bad Elephant Music. (Of course, it’s on Bad Elephant Music – a remarkably diverse label which specialises in an increasingly diverse range of unusual, quirky, uncompromising and high quality recordings.)

This set is NOT a retrospective drawn from Matt Stevens’ already released albums, ‘Echo’, ‘Ghost’ and ‘Relic’… that would have been too easy for this artist, who wanted to share a document of his live solo recordings. It is comprised of a live guitar and loop set recorded in a church for the Farncombe Music Club in 2014. (What a different experience in church that must have been!) Alongside those pieces Matt has included two ambient pieces (Intermission 1 & Intermission 2) and two ‘lost songs’. The marvellously named ‘Pecadillo’ was produced for a compilation released on the Believers Roast label of Kavius Torabi (Knifeworld) in 2012.  ‘Blue Filter’ is an out-take from the recordings of Matt’s 2010 album, ‘Ghost’.

What can someone unfamiliar expect from this album?

Well, one can expect to hear a bewildering array of sounds and textures somehow conjured up from just a guitar and some looper technology.

What may be harder to imagine is the kaleidoscope of sounds and feels that splash sonically out of his guitar, cascades of riffs and melodies interweaving and echoing in a captivating tapestry of noise. This reviewer is not usually taken with purely instrumental albums – it’s just usually not my cup of tea (or glass of tequila). However, Matt Stevens is not your usual purely instrumental artist and I am glad I imbibed in this intriguing offering.

Matt finger

Opening track ‘Rusty’ (where does he get these names from?) immediately hits you with a torrent of riffs and echoes with intricate playing and sounds it does not seem possible to extract from just a guitar. As a manifesto for the album it certainly lets you know this is no ordinary musical ride. In contrast, later track ‘ A Boy’ is a much gentler acoustic glide which beguiles and shows that there is a range of musical colours described here. Amongst other highlights ‘Big Sky’ takes you right out there on the ‘Looper Plains’ as coruscating clouds of echoing lines scud across the musical firmament, before being gently brought down to earth and then once again in a psychedelic coda launched in to a reverb filled sky – at least that’s what I imagined… and all done by one guy and his guitar live!

Matt guitar 2

Reviews are peculiar things – one never knows quite in what direction it will go. Before I even started on this review, knowing a little about Matt and his music, I decided to use the ‘El Mariachi’ theme as it conveyed his singular and somewhat heroic musical path, and captured the idea of ‘a loner with his guitar’. What I had not expected to find was a song on the album that perfectly captures that imagery – the aforementioned ‘Blue Filter’ is pure spaghetti western, even with effects sounding uncannily like a horse trotting.

It is a perfect way to effectively finish the album as our Mariachi guitar maestro decides to hang up his solo guitar for the time being and strides off to continue exploring other musical horizons (and upsetting a few along the way!) with his posse. Maybe one day he will return to a venue or saloon near you with his guitar slung around his neck but for now listen to this and imagine his legendary live solo days.

Released 22nd July 2016 by Bad Elephant Music.

Pre-order ‘Archive’ from Bad Elephant Music on bandcamp

Pre-order ‘Archive’ from Burning Shed