Progradar Recommends

As most of you will know, I’ve taken a back seat for the last six months when it has come to reviewing albums. Now, while I may occasionally step back into the ring and write a full review, going forward I will be recommending a few albums with , hopefully, a few well chosen and pithy words of description.

I am starting with a round dozen of albums new to me over the previous six months or so and I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have…

Avandra – Descender

Released on April 26th, Descender, the sophomore album from Puerto Rican prog-metallers Avandra, is an incredibly mature and complex record full of thunderous riffs, intelligent vocals and catchy hooks. In a genre well known for formality, this act with the most humble of beginnings have unleashed something truly different and special and with an impact similar to prog metal legends Dream Theater’s own career defining second album Images and Words.

Avandra – Even/You
This Winter Machine – A Tower of Clocks

A Tower Of Clocks is the long awaited second album from multi award-winning UK progressive rock band This Winter Machine. Almost 2 years in the making, this new release has the band tackling universal themes such as time, loss and identity within a loose conceptual framework.

With a feel of early Genesis and Fish era Marillion, the band haven’t strayed too far from the accepted progressive rock path but this album has been created flawlessly and with obvious affection and the musicianship on show is second to none. The impressive songwriting weaves captivating tales that draw the listener into the story and keep them there as willing companions on a spectacular musical journey.

I liked it that much that I bought the vinyl…

Released 24th June 2019

This Winter Machine – Justified
Our Destiny – Awakening

Our Destiny is the brainchild of Vikram Shankar (keyboardist of American progressive bands Redemption and Lux Terminus), whose piano playing on Awakening is paired with the angelic vocals of his partner Lauren Nolan. Awakening showcases the duo’s unique synthesis of genres and stylistic approaches, with emotive progressive rock married to pop, singer-songwriter, alternative and electronic flavors.

Vikram is a multi-talented musician of considerable skill and he shows his lighter side on this most graceful of recordings. A collection of ethereal, wistful songs that lend themselves to Lauren’s spectacular vocals perfectly. In a world full of chaos and anger, this wonderful record delivers some calm, elegance and decorum. An injection of peace into your soul, truly breathtaking.

Released 21st June 2019

none other – s/t

None Other is a prog rock power trio from Volos, Greece who have released three albums since 2012. The brainchild of Spyros Charmanis, this eponymous third album is a sometimes brutal voyage that leaves no mountain unmoved and no stone unturned in its compelling forty minute running time.

Thunderous guitar and monstrous bass combine with the mighty drums and authoritarian vocals to deliver an addictive aural assault. Not for the faint of heart but a truly forceful piece of music that is definitely worth your time and attention.

Released 6th May 2019

Neal Morse – Jesus Christ The Exorcist

“Jesus Christ – The Exorcist” is a monumental project in Neal Morse’s already impressive discography. A Progressive Rock Opera 10 years in the making, it was written and produced by Morse and includes performances by Neal and an all-star cast of vocalists and musicians. Featuring about two hours of music that encompass all the spectrums and genres Neal Morse is known for, the album will, of course, tell the Story of Stories. 

Now I know Neal’s religious leanings do put a lot of people off but if you can get past that and just listen to the incredible music then you will be privy to an incredible musical journey full of wonderful pomposity, amazing songs and just incredible musicianship. Whatever you say about the man, he is one incredible musician and storyteller and this Rock Opera is a remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable roller coaster ride.

Released 14th June 2019

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

Yes, I know, it’s not exactly progressive rock but then that’s not all I listen to anyway. Western Stars is a wonderful album and one that everyone should have in their collection, it is that good! Forget the fact that it’s a Bruce Springsteen record, that really is irrelevant here, what it is is a truly memorable collection of beautiful songs that show a calm and reflective side to The Boss.

Take the title track, you will not hear a more captivating four and a half minutes of music this year, believe me. Chasing Wild Horses, Moonlight Motel, Stones and more, thirteen tracks of perfect Americana and country music that some are calling Springsteen’s best release in years. Now I can’t comment on that but I can tell you that it is currently my album of the year and it will take something incredible to move it from that spot, a truly special release.

Released 14th June 2019

Magic Pie – Fragments Of The 5th Element

Fragments of the 5th Element is Magic Pie’s long awaited 5th album, made up from 5 tracks  showcasing the band’s very diverse influences. On this record, they have tried to steer clear of the sterile perfection which modern prog bands have a tendency to get caught up in – and have gone for a slightly more unpolished sound, a bit rough in the edges. A little more ‘bite’.

From the incredibly infectious and upbeat opening salvo of The Man Who Had It All to the mighty bombast of the epic twenty three minute album closer The Hedonist Magic Pie have delivered joyous symphonic prog perfection. Epic, energetic melodic and sometimes heavy  prog rock with splendid vocal harmonies and great musicianship, this album has it all!

Released 30th August 2019

Magic Pie – The Man Who Had It All
Norrie Mcculloch – Compass

Norrie McCulloch is a singer-songwriter and award-winning visual artist originally from Ayrshire he currently lives and works out of of Stirling, Scotland. McCulloch’s songs are a tangle up of folk, indie and country influences that manage to stay true to his Scottish roots, equating to a style that offers a welcome touch of originality.

Compass is this talented musician’s fourth full length album and builds on his unique blend of Caledonian Americana with exquisite songwriting, plaintive, heartfelt vocals and pared back instruments to deliver his most fulfilling and accomplished release yet. There’s a simple, stark beauty to these tracks, a feeling of a heart laid bare, a truly emotive collection of tunes that leave you emotionally spent.

Released 31st May 2019

Norrie Mcculloch – Road Sign
Marco Ragni – Oceans Of Thought

“Oceans of Thought” was originally called “The Merchant of Eternal Youth” but during the time of the recordings Marcohad some personal problems and was a little depressed. So the songs, the cover but above all the lyrics, have undergone a change because the music comes from what he has inside his mind and soul. 

“So this album talks about the difficulties that life sometimes brings us, but also talks about how to try to overcome them. It’s a record that I care a lot about because it talks a lot about me.”

I’ve always been a big fan of this outrageously talented musician who delivers some intelligent and thought provoking progressive rock with an undertone of eastern promise. Care is lavished on every aspect of the recording and Marco enlists the help of some highly talented individuals to deliver his most intense and complete album yet, a thoroughly engrossing achievement that rewards your complete attention.

Check out Open My Arms with Norwegian guitar maestro Bjørn Riis, a contender for song of the year.

Released 21st June 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously

Living Dangerously is the band’s second release, coming six years after the first and is described as a “Sonic cocktail on the rocks blending equal parts classic, progressive jazz and blues and cheekily spiking with whatever they found lurking at the back of the cupboard…”

There’s bits of King Crimson, bits of Van Der Graff Generator and a whole lot of intelligent, sharp-suited songwriting that has gone into this album and its stays just on right side of being too clever for itself. Broken Parachute craft some impressive tunes on this release and its another album that requires a lot of you time and attention to completely reward but, trust me, it is worth the effort. The blues soaked guitar and jazz infused keyboards are utter works of art and are worth the entry prize alone.

Released 31st May 2019

Broken Parachute – Living Dangerously
Gandalf’s Fist – The Clockwork Prologue

How do you follow the monumental three disc wonder that was Gandalf’s Fist’s 2016 epic The Clockwork Fable? With a two disc prologue, that’s how!

The Clockwork Prologue is the first release for Gandalf’s Fist as a six-piece and returns the listener once more to the dark and steamy city of Cogtopolis, a city beneath the surface, the once safe shelter for post-apocalyptic mankind, now a microcosmos following its own crude laws, rules and religions.

I called The Clockwork Fable, “A mesmerising musical masterpiece epic in scope and utterly breathtaking in its delivery” and this companion piece takes what the first release gave us and adds to it with the bands’ singular flair for drama, theatre and the spectacular. The stellar cast of voice actors, including Mark Benton and Bill Fellows, return to give a familiar feel to proceedings but its the musical talents of the band and the ever impressive vocals of Keri Farish that are the real draw.

The Clockwork Prologue isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel, it is meant to add to the wonderment of the original album and Gandalf’s Fist have delivered that in spades.

Released 1st July 2019

Gandalf’s Fist – The Lamplighter (Overture)
Djam Karet – A Sky Full Of Stars For A Roof

A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is Djam Karet’s 19th album. The group was formed back in 1984, and this is a celebration of the band’s 35 years together.

Combining analog and modular synthesizers with numerous acoustic instruments from around the world, Djam Karet is exploring new territory on this psychedelic journey of discovery. Harmonium, dilruba, mbira, udu and other exotic instruments, help bring a warm vibe to this highly melodic and visionary work. Swirling electronic soundscapes expand to reveal new acoustic environments of exotic goodness.

With an almost spiritual feel to the intricate music, this collection of tunes has a raw feel, almost primeval, literally music that has come from the Earth. This band always produce thought provoking pieces that take the listener out of any comfort zone and take them on an intensely melodic musical crusade and A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof is surely the pinnacle of what Djam Karet have been producing together over all of their 35 years as a band.

Released 15th April 2019

Djam Karet – Beyond The Frontier

So, there you have it. The first in a relatively regular feature on my recommendations. See you soon for the next Progradar Recommends!!

Review – Norrie McCulloch – Bare Along The Branches – by Progradar

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

“There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in music.” – (paraphrased from a quote by P.G. Wodehouse)

I’ve spent a large proportion of the last 3 or 4 years waxing lyrical about my musical discoveries and sharing them with the world at large (whether they liked it or not) but I’m man enough to admit that even I discover music from recommendations from friends and acquaintances.

I discovered the wonderful Scottish progressive rock band Abel Ganz through my friend (and now colleague) at Bad Elephant Music, David Elliott and that has opened up a wealth of new musical treasures that have been brought to my attention by the wonderful guitar player Iain Sloan who, as well as playing with the Ganz boys, lends his not inconsiderable talents to a few other Scottish artists including The Wynntown Marshals and Findlay Napier to name but two, enabling me to dig out these musical treasures too.

Iain also plays with the talented Scottish folk musician Norrie McCulloch and it is through his recommendation that I sought Norrie out and am I glad that I did, discovering that he was just about to release his new album ‘Bare Along The Branches’. 

‘Bare Along The Branches’ is Scottish Singer/Songwriter Norrie McCulloch’s third full-length album in as many years and is the follow up to 2016’s acclaimed ‘These Mountain Blues’. Featuring a backing band of regular collaborators: Dave McGowan, Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea with Iain Thompson and Iain Sloan also entering the fold for this new recording.

The album captures McCulloch writing about the human spirit, folklore, growing and belonging. A chance meeting with a Russian photographer gave him the albums cover imagery, its title and a new artistic relationship.

The album opens with the atmospheric Shutter with it’s melancholy driving piano line and echoing drums. Norrie’s world weary vocals take up the tale and you are immediately engrossed in the song. The banging shutter is the soundtrack to someone’s downward spiral, akin to a bell tolling and adding a slightly mournful note to this downcast, wistful tune. Like a well travelled troubadour Norrie’s brilliant voice just draws you in to the tale and the excellent music keeps you enthralled. Little Boat has a nostalgic feel to it from the first note, the delightful guitar tone is complemented by some wonderful keyboards and McCulloch’s sentimental vocals (channeling his inner Van Morrison)  give a feel of longing and remembrance. It’s simple beauty is utterly captivating and uplifting, a look back at time when life was simpler and uncomplicated perhaps? When music is this good, why bother making it convoluted and arduous, the engaging Hammond organ being a case in point, I’m left with a knowing grin on my face as it comes to a satisfying close.

The opening to the wonderfully whimsical Lonely Boy is sublime and reminds me of why I love music so much, that keyboard note immediately grabs your attention and your heart. It develops into a brilliant song of reminiscence and sepia tinged memories. There is an emotive depth to this track, brought to the surface by Norrie’s heartfelt, earnest vocals, full of warmth and succor. The chorus is serene and tender, demanding that you sing along and reflect on your own past. Bluegrass, Americana, Country and Folk all combine to brilliant effect on Frozen River. A song of loss but one with an upbeat feel, epitomised by the whipcrack inticate notes eminating from the banjo and mandolin. It fairly speeds along and the skill of the musicians involved is something special, all held together by the vocals of Norrie McCulloch, a voice that is proving to be very special indeed.

A gentle acoustic guitar introduces Safe Keeping, a song full of emotion and sentiment, a story of life in a small town, the ties that keep us there and the battles to break them. A descriptive guitar sits in the background, played with a deft, sophisticated skill. There is a pared back sincerity to the song, a simplicity that has an infinite depth to it and the unadorned vocals sit perfectly alongside giving the whole song an uncomplicated grace. Country blues personified and with a great lap steel guitar running through the centre, Never Leave You Behind has the feel of a good time song played by good old boys and wouldn’t be out of place at The Grand Ole Opry. There a touch of Willie Nelson to the vocals and I’m just left tapping my foot and singing along to this feel good tune.

While researching for the album I got talking to Norrie about the next track This Time which, to me, is a favourite due to its simplicity and honesty. He had this to say,

“I’m surprised at how many folks are liking that song from the album, I was very close to leaving it off but nice that it seems to resonate with people.”

Well I’m exceedingly glad you did! Kept down to basics with the eerie, haunting pedal steel of the talented Iain Sloan, the beautiful and unforgettable piano of Dave McGowan and Norrie delivering a near-perfect vocal performance, this is a song that will live with me for a very long time. There’s a stark grandeur to this track, a primal honesty that has lasted the ages and it makes you stop and listen. The elegant music and sublime, rarefied vocals linger long in the memory after the final, exquisite note plays out. Turn To Dust is a wonderful, simple tribute to Norrie’s mother who passed away shortly before this song was recorded live and solo on acoustic guitar. It’s a remarkably personal piece of music and you almost feel as if you are intruding a little on his grief but you feel the deep, amazing love a son has for his mother in every note and I feel privileged that he felt he could share these feelings with us. I’ll not lie, there’s a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat as it comes to a close. A laid back country blues tune with a harmonica note full of pathos and not a little sorrow, Around The Bend brings to mind depression era America and a small town with dusty streets full of care-worn wooden buildings. The vocals mirror this feeling perfectly, people carrying a world full of issues on their shoulders but the music has a stark grace to it as if beauty can be found in any situation. The lap steel and banjo add even more poignancy to the song, giving hope that redemption may indeed be found ‘around the bend’.

(Photo credit David Morrison)

The last song on the album is the bare simplicity and atmospheric refinement of Beggars Woods, a piece of music as timeless as it is elegant. There’s an echoing wonder to the guitar playing and a captivating tone to Norrie’s vocals, the song needs nothing more as it weaves its plaintive way through your heart and soul, pulling you along in its wake.

“When this life’s got you bare along the branches…”

A song about opening yourself to life, to all the good and bad that you will encounter, cleanse your soul and become something more. The incredible guitar solo feels full of pain and remorse and yet there is also a small bud of hope and a promise of redemption. Remember, nothing is set in stone and you make your own path, whatever you may have to overcome.

Music has become a way of life for me and it is releases like this that define my life and give it meaning. Norrie McCulloch writes songs that are mini works of art, songs about life and death that we can all relate to on a personal level. ‘Bare Along The Branches’ will take you on an admittedly stark and yet ultimately uplifting musical journey that will leave you in a much better place than when you first started.

Released 24th February 2017

Buy ‘Bare Along The Branches’ from bandcamp