Review – Southern Empire – Civilisation – by Progradar

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”

Sage words of bombast and pomposity and the sort of thing you’d hear at the Last Night of the Proms. To be honest, if we had an equivalent thing for progressive music (in my opinion, the closest thing to classical music nowadays), there would be some prime candidates to be included in any such event.

Having listened to ‘Civilisation’, the new, sophomore, release from Aussie proggers Southern Empire I seriously think they have put forward an excellent case for inclusion in this, admittedly, fictitious concert.

Formed from the break up of cult band Unitopia, their debut, self-titled release had a very positive reaction but they have come back with an album that is grander in every aspect.

Opening track Goliath’s Moon (written by guitarist Cam Blokland) is a thundering, hard-rock heavy piece of music that brings back memories of ‘Milliontown’ era Frost* to my ears. It’s taking all that is good from that style of music and injecting it with some much needed joie de vivre. It is an uplifting and mightily powerful song that flies into town at a million miles an hour, puts a huge smile on everyone’s face and then buggers off the same way it came with not another word, the guitar run out at the end is pure genius too!

Cries For The Lonely takes Dream Theater and Queen at the height of the pomp and circumstance and delivers nineteen minutes of pure unadulterated musical theatre. The lush vocal harmonies are note perfect and the music is as polished as you could ask for and yet there is a definite glint in its electronic eye. There’s an utter sense of enjoyment in the delivery of every note and every word and, once again, a superb guitar solo from Cam closes out the song.

Simply put, title track Civilisation is a proper progressive ‘epic’ in the true sense of the word. The song is a re-worked and extended version of a song that band supremo Sean Timms wrote with ex Unitopia colleague Mark Trueack for an abandoned album and it ebbs and flows like all great tracks do, there’s some superb saxophone from Mr Timms and Danny Lopresto’s voice is just so silky smooth. It’s twenty-nine minutes of dynamic progressive music like Transatlantic used to do before they decided that too much still wasn’t enough…

The final song Innocence and Fortune dials the intensity back a notch but most definitely not the quality. Written by Timms and Steve Unruh of Samurai of Prog fame, it has more of the brooding quality of IQ to it. Brody Green’s drums and the measured bass of Jez Martin take the lead here but it isn’t long before those lush vocal harmonies make a triumphant return along with that more upbeat tempo. Do we get another great solo from Cam? What do you think…?

‘Civilisation’ is one of the early contenders for album of the year for me, a tremendous release that hits all the right notes and finally sees joy and elation return to the creation of music. It’s as close to a must buy as anything else I’ve heard this year so far. Right, that’s it, I’m off for another listen…

Released 20th July 2018

Order the album from GEP here

Here’s Hold from Southern Empire’s debut album:

 

 

 

Review – Loebe & Napier – Filthy Jokes E.P. – by Progradar

Rebecca Loebe and Findlay Napier met on an EFDSS songwriting retreat in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. “Sometimes when you get thrown into a co-write sessions things just click.” Says Napier, “This was one of those times.” Over the last 18 months they have written together down the line from Loebe’s base in Austin, Texas and in Findlay’s Glasgow flat when Rebecca was touring the UK.

The ‘Filthy Jokes E.P.’ is based around a song the two wrote for Christmas 2017 – Joy To The World, I Guess – which combines the lilting Americana influenced tones of Loebe’s polished delivery along with the more traditional folk influences of Glasgow native Napier.

For any fan of these two songwriting behemoths, this E.P. is a must, Rebecca Loebe is known as a non-stop touring machine, averaging 200 performances per year for the last decade. Along the way, honing her voice to become a musical instrument in itself.

Scottish singer-songwriter Findlay Napier categorically commands musical VIP status and his gritty tales of Scottish life, based in and around Glasgow, have become legendary among the Folk circuit.

Joy To The World, I Guess and Bad Medicine see the duo add their own unique idiosyncrasies to two beautifully crafted songs, their songwriting prowess there for all to see and hear. There’s a languid and laconic ease to the music and the vocals match that feel perfectly. It’s a perfect amalgam of American polish along with superbly delivered Scottish grit.

Kilimanjaro sees Loebe take centre stage with a haunting, ethereal piece of music that really leaves a mark on your soul, Napier’s ghostly backing vocal and the simple guitar providing the perfect backing. Option to Buy sees Napier at his witty best with sharp lyrics and brilliant music being the core of his traditional folk style. This time Loebe adds the classy country influenced backing vocals to give just a little bit extra.

There’s a proper country music, bluegrass edge to title track Filthy Jokes, Loebe adding the required twang to her delicious vocal delivery which, along with that picking banjo in the background, leaves you feeling as if you’re in the deep south. The E.P. closes out with an excellent reprise of the opening track.

This collaboration is a glimpse into the combined songwriting minds of two of folk and country/Americana music’s most accomplished artists. A delightful appetiser to what they could achieve if they wrote long-term together. It’s a wonderful twenty minutes of sublime vocals and superb musicianship and one that should be in any music fans collection and, as an introduction to Napier and Loebe, is just about perfect.

Released 12th February 2018

Order the EP, pay what you want, from bandcamp here

 

Review – Finally George – Life Is A Killer – by Progradar

Finally George is the epitome of flawlessly arranged and recorded prog-rock pop music – endlessly deep tracks that ache with the pain of separation. With addictive walls of sound that repeatedly build up to monumental proportions.

Sophisticated melodies, held together by forceful arrangements, are melded with harmonious vocals, heavy-metal guitar riffs, opulent keyboards, cinematic strings and epic choruses.”

So says the PR blurb for this brainchild of George Hahn, a well-known sound artist in Hamburg’s studio scene. Here, he performs the roles of producer, session musician and commissioned composer.

I’ll tell you something, the PR blurb isn’t wrong in any way, shape or form, these ten tracks are superbly constructed and delivered to give an album of cultured musical gems.

Take the time to sit down and listen to each track and you will hear subtle influences of well known acts, I hear a little of RPWL here, a smidgeon of cosmograf (check out the superb Time Stands Still) and a touch of Marillion and IQ there all combining to give an uber-impressive listen, like the musical equivalent of the most comfortable duck down quilt you have ever experienced.

For the percussion parts, George found someone whose name carries serious weight in the music business: Todd Sucherman, the drummer of legendary US rock band Styx, who works as an online session drummer in his spare time. He adds considerable weight to these intensive tracks and their many layers of sophistication.

The album also features Erlend Krauser (ex member of Lake), John Engehausen and Ralf Bittermann who deliver the impressively cultured guitar sound. The gnarled sounds of the Hammond organ come courtesy of Detlef Bösche, whereas George secured the services of pianist Matthias Pogoda for the wonderfully evocative title track Life Is A Killer.

Some of the guitar parts are reminiscent of Gilmour at his height and they do give a Pink Floyd ambience to a few of the songs, not that there’s anything wrong with that. There is a genuine feel to every note and every word sung. No, there’s nothing groundbreaking here but, to re-use the word, there is a flawless quality to this album. There’s a place for everything and everything has a place.

Released 27th April 2018

Order the album from the artists online shop:

shop

 

 

Review – Sleeperman – The Grass Under My Feet E.P. – by Progradar

Yes pop pickers, it’s that time of the month again. Those cheeky chappies Sleeperman carry on releasing a new track every month and June sees The Grass Under My Feet arrive at Progradar Towers in it’s retro 45RPM single cover.

In a departure from the usual guitar sound from Neil Scott, this song features a really funky pulse guitar style groove that gives the track a more upbeat rhythm and plenty of impetus. As I’m listening to it for the third time, the sun is shining and it’s 22 degrees outside and the music just has that feel-good summertime feel to it.

The lyrics and John’s vocals are as pin sharp as ever and the cultured rhythm section of Sharp and Skinner drive everything along at a fair lick as that vibrato heavy guitar riff gets even more infectious.

“I want to breathe in some clean air and march along to my heart’s beat, give myself some surprises and feel the grass under my feet.”

The honest, pithy lyrics are as refreshing as ever and the band have given us a real breath of North-Eastern fresh air, roll on July!

As befits the 45RPM single idea we have another excellent ‘B’ side to back up the single. The guys return to whimsical humour and clever views of everyday life with The Grass is Always Greener,

You were born in the drizzle of a Wednesday in the North, you know a donkey is a donkey and you’ll never change its course…”

To me, Sleeperman seem to really resonate with my idea of what music should be all about and long may it continue!

Released 4th June 2018

The Grass Under My Feet is available on all good digital platforms and the CD is available direct from the band, contact via their Facebook page here:

Sleeperman – Facebook Page

Review – Stone Angel Syndrome – Discovery – by Progradar

“Discovery is a conceptual piece, a journey through time and space, but also a journey through our own lives. The music is progressive with moments of heaviness,ambient elements and gentle, emotional soundscapes fused with electronic drums.”

And so says the PR information for Stone Angel Syndrome’s debut release, one I’ve had the pleasure of seeing come to fruition for Kevin Burlison who, along with Dave Blackburn, is the driving force behind this interesting project. The album was written while Kevin was going through some difficult experiences in his life (I’ll say no more as that is not my story to tell) and you can tell he has put his heart and soul into it.

Kevin provides keyboards, synths, piano, harpsichord and hammered dulcimer, Dave all the electric and acoustic guitars. Martyn Leckenby is now the full time bassist and also helping on this release were Andy Plemper (sitar) and Chris Davison with vocals on the title track and who also provided mixing duties.

‘Discovery’ is a challenging release, intelligent music that takes some digesting and understanding. The ambient arrangements are reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre (just check out (and the planets dance) in the Dark Eternal World and you’ll see where I’m coming from), floating in a vacuum with the whole Universe in front of you, your mind an open book.

The band have thrown in a bit of a curveball on the first two tracks, A shadow over sunrise & Trans-lunar express, where the lush textures and atmosphere segue into something a lot harsher and darker, like a jam session involving Edgar Froese and an early iteration of King Crimson. The music jars and crashes creating a stark and demanding soundscape that really asks questions of the listener. To my ears it works incredibly well but, to be fair, it is not for the faint of heart and your heart rate does come back to normal when the wistful scenic music returns.

The only vocal track on the album is the title track, Discovery, which closes this intriguing and soul-searching musical journey out with something more akin to classical neo-progressive rock. It’s a calming and contemplative piece of music that lends an almost spiritual feel to the album and left me in an incredibly thoughtful and reflective frame of mind.

A collection of songs written from an intensively personal point of view that leaves a raw and honest feel to an album that requires more from the listener than you would normally expect. Ultimately it is an incredibly rewarding experience if you’re prepared to go beyond your usual boundaries and I highly recommend it.

Released 11th May 2018

Order the album from bandcamp here

Review – Mike O’Donovan – No Time Like The Present – by Progradar

FOUND – Somewhere in Limerick – The Spiritual Successor to Van Morrison!

Yep, after listening to the debut release from highly regarded Irish singer songwriter Mike O’Donovan, I really could see that as a headline in a mythical Irish entertainment rag.

‘No Time Like The Present’ was recorded in Limerick, where he was born and raised, and spans many of the styles that have influenced Mike down the years, including the aforementioned Mr Morrison. Just listen to the opening track Underground and you cannot help but hear the legendary Irish musician and that sound and influence is at the heart of this involving, warm and nostalgic collection of songs.

Mike’s voice also has that halting character that infused Johnny Cash’s vocals in his later years, no more so than on Ghosts and If There’s A Time. The stellar supporting cast of musicians add some real class and polish to the songs too with some wonderful guitar work, brass and harmonica giving a real roots music feel.

There really is something for everyone on this album, the Mariachi hued It Was On A Night Like This, the 50’s smooth jazz rhythms of The Dancer and the elegant Santana guitar that highlights Distant Conversation but, for me, it’s Mike’s soulful vocal that makes this record such a good listen.

A debut that has been a long, long time coming, ‘No Time Like The Present’ is a wonderful collection of songs that shows a songwriter hitting his peak and you can hear the joy and love in every note.

Released 1st December 2017

Download album from cdbaby here

Order CD from the Irish Baha’i bookshop here:

CD – No Time like the Present, by Mike O’ Donovan

 

 

Review – Raging Twilight – s/t – by Progradar

The 1970’s in the US was a real melting pot of influences that produced some incredible music and defined the sound for the decade.Take your Neil Young, Eagles, Stephen Stills, Willie Nelson and the like and the blend of country, blues, gospel, folk and rock that melded into the sound of Americana that is still loved to this day.

Transplant that sound into the thriving live music scene in Glasgow and you have the possibility of some seriously impressive music. The competitiveness that this creates gives a spin-off where only the very best rise up through the ranks in true ‘spirit of survival’ fashion. Raging Twilight have demanded attention due to finely honing their sound and the playing pedigree of the musicians involved. This has given them the due respect and respect that has been properly won.

Their self-titled album is full of impressive tracks that take their cues from that pivotal 70’s sound mainly due to the extensive travels through Canada and the southwest USA of founder member Jack Law, who formed the band with Dougie Harrison.

The influences come flooding in from the first notes, Don’t Want A Lover channeling Neil Young, the bluegrass simplicity of Old Glass Jar  and Hope Sails The River with it’s Celtic hues and hints of The Pogues. The whole album is a wonderful musical journey through music that has influenced a generation of listeners and is an enthralling ride.

I’ve recently got into the solo work of Stephen Stills and can hear subtle hints of that amazing musician throughout, intentional or not. Dust Bowl Rust Belt Blues, Chemical Jayne, The Still with their elegant guitar and haunting vocals, it’s a nostalgic look into the past that leaves you in a wistful frame of mind.

Then there’s Nothing’s There, a superb tune full of English eccentricity that reminds me of The Travelling Wilburys, a real grin inducing song!

If you’re a fan of superbly constructed songs that take their influence from those greats of the past but are given an up-to-date flavour then you have opened the right door. Come on in and enjoy the ride!

Released 16th April 2016.

RAGING TWILIGHT – Raging Twilight (aRTee Records)

 

Review – GEPH – Apophenia – by Progradar

“Apophenia is he experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, the term was coined by the German neurologist, Klaus Conrad.”

Now we’ve got the lesson out of the way, ‘Apophenia’ is also the second album from cutting edge Boston based instrumental progressive jazz metal trio GEPH. The group consisting of Josh Goldberg and John Tyler Kent on Chapman stick and Josh Merhar on drums released their debut self-titled album in March of 2016.

Let’s get one thing clear, I’m a big fan of the first release going so far as to say,

“…you end up with a really intense and powerful listening experience that makes you think and it is all the better for it. GEPH is a band worth watching as they really should be going places!”

So this new collection of tunes has a lot to live up to. I won’t ramp up the tension too much but, suffice to say, I was in no way disappointed…

The intense jazz/metal/prog fusion of opening track Macroaggressions gives a pointer to what is to come, the intricate stick work between Goldberg and Tyler Kent instantly mesmerises you and Merhar’s obvious skill on the drums adds an off-kilter counter balance. It’s a deliciously dark piece of music that leads on the path to temptation. Whole Body Headbangadds mystery and intrigue in a chilling fashion, there is definitely a sombre, even sinister, feel to the music on these first two tracks and I like the intrigue it conveys.

The haunting, simple grace of Little Guy is a wistful contrast tot he previous tracks, just lose yourself in the near three minutes of ambient music and let it wash over you, leaving a carefree atmosphere. It segues perfectly into the laid back grooves of Get Your Insignificance, to my ears a track that defines why I like this trio so much. The Chapman Sticks deliver a real cool and collected sound and the staccato style of the drums a perfect accompaniment as the tempo increases.

“We kept what we thought worked on the first album all the while trying out new sounds, directions and ideas. The results feel much more organic to me, and the whole album feels as though it really stays with you. This is the best collection of music I’ve been a part of yet.” – Josh Goldberg.

The stylish sounds keep on coming with the urgency of Mourningstar the next funktastic track for your ears to enjoy. There’s an edgy, almost free-form jazz beat to the music and the baroque style to the stick play enthralls from beginning to end. That earlier dark and labyrinthine vibe returns on the gloriously moody W.W.F.D, near nine minutes of mystic, arcane and almost dystopian sounds that really get under your skin and leave you with a very uneasy feeling indeed.

The album closes with the space jazz/metal grooves of Back From Space Earth and the guys really jam out on this elegantly psychedelic tune that has your toes tapping and your head nodding to the rhythm. It’s tripping music for the jazz/prog generation and has a nostalgic smile in every note.

To my ears GEPH have taken everything that was good about the first album and given a coat of polish and added sophistication to deliver a collection of songs that intrigue and impress on every level. They’ve lost that raw, brash edge and matured into a very fine group of musicians who certainly know which direction they are headed in.

Released 6th July 2018.

Check out the band’s website for news on pre-orders coming soon – here

 

 

Three Into One Does Go! – Reviews – Willie Campbell & The Open Day Rotation, Thunder And Rain and The Strange Blue Dreams – by Progradar

Willie Campbell & The Open Day Rotation – New Clouds In Motion

“There’s always a way around The Gospel…”, the chorus from the second track on Isle of Lewis based Scottish singer-songwriter Willie Campbell’s third album with his current creative guise, The Open Day Rotation‘New Clouds In Motion’ gives you a sense of what to expect from one of “…the country’s truly great pop songwriters…” (The Herald).

A superb collection of pop and gospel infused roots music, this new record sees Campbell’s experiences while immersing himself in the Nashville music row song-writing community seeping into his own creative writing style.

There are some beautifully constructed and delivered songs on this feel-good, spirit lifting release, opener Mary Rest Your Head, the aforementioned A Way Around The Gospel and I’ve Got A Kite all take influences from the gospel style and the moving Winter Lake In Spring will literally melt any frozen heart.

There are elements of Americana, country and traditional folk all given their special coating of Campbell’s intelligent pop music roots. Born To Be BlindGoing Through The MotionsWhat Are We Now – the uplifting, emotive tracks just keep on coming.

A mature, intelligent and, ultimately, satisfying album that delivers on all levels.

Released 8th December 2017

Buy the album direct from the artists here:

The Open Day Rotation Store

Thunder And Rain – Start Believing

It’s a good job that mandolinist Peter Weber convinced his former busking sidekick, singer/guitarist Erinn Peet-Lukes, to join him in Golden, Colorado otherwise the excellent Thunder And Rain would never have been formed.

The driving country rock sound benefits from the duo’s roots in traditional bluegrass and folk and the opening triple salvo of Cut The WireOnce I Was and title track Start Believing sets down a marker of the excellence to come.

It’s difficult to combine the more down to earth elements of acoustic instrumentation more familiar to roots music fans with modern rock and pop but Thunder And Rain have created a sound that seems to have attracted the approval that most new-to-the genre acts can only dream of.

The laid back vibes of Babe You’re Gonna Leave Me and Wyoming Is For Miles, the country blues lament of What Am I Gonna Do and the bluegrass brilliance of Tennessee Is Burning all add to this impressive band’s burgeoning reputation.

A perfectly created and delivered album of polished and yet emotive songs that deserves to see Thunder And Rain rise to be the cream of the crop.

Released 1st November 2017.

Buy the album direct from the band here

The Strange Blue Dreams – s/t

“Like Elvis Presley discovered skiffle and formed a band with Duane Eddy and The Beach Boys…”

Yep, it really is that strange but in a good way. The debut, self-titled, album from Glasgow’s The Strange Blue Dreams is full of nods to Nashville, Spaghetti Western theme tunes (think Ennio Morricone), Roy Orbison, Balkan guitars and even Duke Ellington’s big band sound.

To be fair, there is nothing quite like this and there never has been, forging the famous sounds of the 50’s and 60’s, double bass, mandolin, film noir and, yes, Elvis Presley into a unique sound full of immediacy and energy. Atmospheric arrangements that create an otherworldly rock n’ roll sound.

Highlights? There are many and there isn’t a duff track on the album. For me Reverberatin’ LoveElectricityJungle Drums and (That’s The Place) I’m Falling are just four of the songs that really typify the weird and wonderful world of The Strange Blue Dreams.

It’s not very often that you hear something completely different that really blows you away and these impressive musicians won’t appeal to everyone but if you like your R&B and twanging jazz music with a bit of David Lynch thrown in for good measure, trust me, you’ll love this!

Released 20th October 2017.

Buy the album from bandcamp here

 

Review – James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band – High Fences – by Progradar

I blame my mate Iain Sloan and, by association, Loudon Temple of Bloody Great PR for my new found love of Americana and Roots music. For those not in the know, Iain is the rather special guitar player from the Scottish Americana band The Wynntown Marshals, a band whose last two releases I have reviewed and enjoyed immensely.

Loudon’s Bloody Great PR company cover an incredibly diverse and deeply impressive selection of roots, folk and Americana artists, based over here in the UK and Ireland and over the pond in the States and I have had the pleasure of reviewing their work.

When I heard the first strains of the opening track, Passing San Ysidro, from Glasgow sextet James Edwyn & The Borrowed Band’s  second album ‘High Fences’ I was immediately hooked by their superb sound. The riff and hook filled tunes are full of resplendent melodies and finely honed arrangement. There’s a driving American rock feel to songs like the opening track and Get Back Up yet there’s an honest humility to tracks like Pushing Statues and Starlet with the ever elegant steel guitar that tugs on the emotions.

James Edwyn himself has a honey-toned vocal delivery that holds you in rapture and the skill and dexterity of the musicians imbues class and panache to every note and the counter punch of Emma Joyce’s dulcet feminine voice produces superb harmonies and adds powerful drama to Quoting Sagan and Burning Man.

The compelling Taking Liberties is a particular highlight but there is never a dull moment on this deeply influential record. An album for when the sun goes down on a great day and you need to finish it off in rare style.

Released 15th December 2017.

Order the album from Big Cartel here