League of Lights – the electronic rock/synth pop duo featuring couple Farrah and Richard West.
Farrah and Richard met on the outskirts of London, crossing paths for the first time in the mid 1990’s. Many years later they assembled a stellar cast of luminaries comprising Dutch guitarist Ruud Jolie (Within Temptation), American drummer Mark Zonder (Fates Warning) and fellow Brit Jerry Meehan (Robbie Williams) to guest on their debut album in 2011. Simply entitled ‘League of Lights‘, the album fused elements of pop, rock and metal into their own unique blend.
“We come from very different musical backgrounds,” says Richard, “and League of Lights is all about where we meet in the middle. It couldn’t exist without both of us”.
The following year the duo teamed up with Glynn Morgan (Threshold) to record the single “Forever”. The three also performed together on stage for a unique concert backed by a 40-voice choir.
Now in 2019 Farrah and Richard are back with a new album ‘In the in Between’ that showcases Farrah’s sublime and enchanting vocals across 14 new original songs with a sound that makes room for electronic rock, synth pop, piano, cinematic soundscapes and everything in between.
“It’s been a long journey to get here,” says Farrah. “From the day we recorded our first song together we’ve been working towards creating something that combines the heart of who we are. We’re really proud to have reached this point on our journey “.
“It took us a little while, but I’m so proud to share our new League of Lights music with you.”, Richard goes on to say, “It’s just me and Farrah doing everything this time – in the past we’ve collaborated with such talented musicians and good friends, but this time we wanted to make something that was 100% ourselves. So we hope you love it as much as we do!”
Most of you will know Richard from being a co-founder of the legendary prog-metal group Threshold but he also released an album with Dec Burke and Simon Andersson in 2015 under the name AudioPlastik and, to these ears, League of Lights is definitely more comparable with the latter.
To be honest this album is chock full of catchy hooks, brilliant vocals from Farrah and Richard’s distinctive keyboard sounds. I have had it on repeat ever since I was sent the promo and it is rapidly becoming a favourite which, knowing what music usually floats my boat, has come as a little bit of a surprise.
Songs like Due Diligence and Spectrometer could easily grace the mainstream dance charts with their infectious rhythms and driving beats and the icing on the cake is Farrah’s honeyed, mellifluous vocals that harks back to the great synth-pop anthems of the 90’s.
Opener Shockwave has a more direct and harder edge and you can hear the rockier side of Richard’s keyboard playing, surely a track that will become a live favourite with the soaring chorus and sing-along verse.
The whole album is just one incredibly addictive hit of excellent songwriting and serious musical talent that continues to deliver track after track. The ethereal beauty of Scarlet Thread, the 80’s electronic grooves of Down Down and the ambient EDM vibe of Strong Enough, the quality just never dips.
The best is kept until last which, for a record of this sheer quality, is quite a thing to say. Hammer is an intense, powerful song where Farrah’s voice captivates and enthralls and Kings and Queens is, for me, the highlight of a stand out album. It hypnotises and mesmerises throughout its intriguing three and a half minute running time. The measured delivery of the stylish vocals and the brilliant guitar motif give the song some real gravity and depth, one of the best I’ve heard this year and that’s saying something.
The passion continues with the symphonic/synth prog influxed Roll and List, another elegant and exquisite piece of music and the album closes with Promises and Dreams, another track that would have graced the 90’s with its sublime grace.
What League of Lights have done is written a wonderful homage to the synth-pop highs of the late 80’s and early 90’s and brought it bang up to date for a modern musical world. For me it is chock full of nostalgia and is a wonderful and involving listening experience. Another highlight in a year that is beginning to produce quite a few but don’t take my word for it, go out and buy it and see for yourself!
We live in contentious and dark times so maybe it’s not surprising that IQ’s latest album ‘Resistance’ has a real sense of titanic struggles, whether they are internal conflicts or global issues, as the band create a tidal wave of dense and dramatic music. If you thought 2014’s brilliant ‘The Road of Bones’ was dark then prepare yourself for the stygian shades that colour this epic double album. IQ have not held back in this release immersing themselves deeply in to gothic depths with intense and yet captivating music.
‘A Missile’ plunges us almost literally right in to the album as a descending drone and falling electronic pulse thrusts us in to a thunderous maelstrom of drums, bass and keyboards – it just sounds absolutely MASSIVE!Pete Nicholls sings powerfully, riding this ballistic Missile of a song with great skill and feeling – this feels like someone expelling their soul in to the void:
‘What I thought could save me was artificial, Raking across my nerves
and taking possession…
…There is no Faith can be sustained,
No Original Sin to blame, Now I know…’
Neil Durant spices up the keyboards with weird, distorted synths. Paul Cook is simply outstanding on drums as he drives this absolute panzer of a song onwards.
What Peter Nicholls sings about exactly is always open to interpretation, but he has a tremendous ability to evoke images and feelings through poetic words and obscure phrases – you don’t know exactly but you can certainly draw a sense of the emotions that inspired his lyrics. When you listen to IQ each time a whole new line or phrase can just jump out and hit a nerve in ways you had not noticed the last time you listened. Such a thought also brings me to a conclusion I have drawn about IQ albums.
For this review I had to put up some ‘Resistance’ (yeah, I know, corny) to the Progradar editor who was gently suggesting I should try to complete the review in a few days prior to the album launch gig on September 7th. A listener needs to ‘live’ with an IQ album for a little while, and then they usually reveal their hidden gems. Some of my most favourite IQ songs and albums have not always ‘clicked’ with me initially, but with a little time I ‘get’ it and I appreciate the quality and depth of the material.
That has been the case with ‘Resistance’ for me, and it was well worth immersing myself in the album. The interlinked songs ‘Rise’ and ‘Stay Down’ did not hit me immediately but now I feel awed by their skilful blending of light and dark, Rise commencing with loud foreboding chords like some sort of epic sci-fi landscape, as depicted on the striking and rather beautiful cover by Tony Lythgoe. ‘Rise’ segues in to ‘Stay Down’ which echoes the previous throbbing chords and melody of ‘Rise’ with a simple piano line under Nicholls’ sorrowful voice. Pizzicato keyboard notes and cello sounds carry the song on gently but the tension rises with guitar and the sound of ticking clocks. This remarkable song then almost literally falls off a cliff with a massive landslide of keyboards, bass, drums and guitars as Nicholls appears to rail against a breakdown:
If I don’t make success out of real life, Nothing doing
Fall Back, break out, inside, can’t see, can drown
Shut up while I stay down, The less I can handle
The more I can blame on my breakdown
This is dark and very powerful stuff both musically and lyrically, and one has to wonder what Pete Nicholls and Mike Holmes were feeling when they wrote this album. It feels like this release may have been a cathartic expulsion of emotions.
‘Shallow Bay’ is a more straightforward rock piece with an elegiac feel and gives Michael Holmes a perfect showcase for a fluid, emotive guitar solo over a titanic organ for the conclusion. The intensity decreases significantly for the beautiful ‘If Anything’, demonstrating that IQ know that darkness needs to be contrasted with light and hope. With an opening slightly reminiscent of a song by The Cars, Nicholls’ warm vocals lays out lovely images over delicately picked Spanish guitar:
‘Not anyone could take my Heart, And send it soaring so high,
Far above the setting Sun we’d fly’
Tim Esau’s deftly played gentle bass and Paul Cook’s subtle drums and percussion perfectly underpin this gentle piece, demonstrating that it’s not all about power. However, just when we’re settling down in to a soft blanket of a song an ominous drone echoing The Beatles‘A Day in the Life’ presages the clanging chords heard previously in ‘Rise’ and a Hammer Horror like organ from Neil Durant segues us in to the weird carnival sounds of the outstanding epic ‘For Another Lifetime’. This peculiar opening evokes the feel of a Ghost Story, especially as the opening sequence eerily slows down and the vocals become distorted and then a classic IQ passage of guitars, drums, bass and keyboards, reminiscent of ‘Sacred Song’ from 2004’s ‘Dark Matter’, builds the tension ominously. This tension breaks with the sound of thunder and a wave of sound breaks over us like a storm breaking – it’s just bloody exciting and stirring stuff! I love IQ moments like this when they really let loose with keyboards and guitars intertwining perfectly whilst ‘Cookie’ and Tim Esau drive the Leviathan on powerfully. Nicholls seems to be screaming in to a Hurricane;
‘And if there’s no Resistance, What am I Fighting For?
An unsung renegade evading radar, And if there’s no existence to worship
A lethal chemistry invades, as dark as war’
The darkness seems to recede as Durant’s piano breaks through the clouds like sunshine, introducing a more optimistic sounding guitar line from Holmes, which soars upwards and Nicholls sings emotionally ‘And this is where I will stay, Holding on, Holding on, Holding on…’
For Another Lifetime is destined to become another much loved IQ classic epic song. No other band does it quite like them. Indeed, this album is unmistakably ‘IQ’ – they have a successful formula and they use it with great skill on this album. Sure they turn up the ‘Darkness’ button way up (and the ‘Mellotron’ effect… possibly a little too much at times?)… but the fundamental sound and feel is IQ all the way. They really do not need to experiment when they sound this good.
The second part of this double album is populated with two epic pieces, ‘The Great Spirit Way’ and ‘Fallout’. This review will not go into great detail about these pieces – some things the listener needs to explore with a largely blank page. The Great Spirit Way is an intense piece which hardly lets up for it’s whole 20 minute plus duration, and features Neil Durant’s enormous organ sounds in abundance. Michael Holmes has shared that what was largely inspiring his music writing for this album was his feelings about the climate emergency, and the complacency towards this global threat. He suggested that groups like ‘Extinction Rebellion’ were the ‘Resistance’ against this issue, and perhaps Nicholls’ lyrics in this piece echo those concerns (but who knows when it comes to Peter’s words?!):
‘All the misfits in the world sure to change it
Though they’ve tried rearranging, Good for Bad,
Still the Mad King Reigns’
Fire and Security is a track that follows the familiar IQ template. It’s fine but not outstanding on the album… it’s difficult to stand out on a disc with two 20 minute epics! However, the other shorter song on disc 2 Perfect Space does succeed in making it’s mark. It is interesting to note in the credits that this is the one song on which it appears Neil Durant took the lead role in writing the music. His keyboard sounds are remarkable on this piece, ranging from a gentle ambient opening to an almost dirty sounding organ which bubbles and spits like lava in an incendiary guitar / organ duel in the middle which returns in the dramatic closing sequence.
The epic Fallout draws this saga to an end… it’s full of light and shade, soft and loud, drama and emotion – it’s a classic piece of IQ imagining, almost impossible to convey in words. The piano does make a welcome longer appearance in this piece – it does feel a little bit like powerful organs and keyboards somewhat dominate at times in this album so a gentle piano is a welcome lightening of mood. But that’s the point – IQ wanted to conjure up atmospheres imbued with gothic darkness with dense soundscapes so they chose instruments more suited to that feel.
1993… 1997… 2000… 2004… 2009… 2014… and now 2019. IQ albums since the 1990’s only appear about every 4 to 5 years. In the world of Progressive Rock music they are truly special events as this is one of the truly great bands of the last 35+ years… does this one match up to that fine heritage? Having ‘lived’ with it a little while I feel that it can honourably take it’s place in their fine canon of music. It’s not perfect – it’s difficult fully sustaining a double album (and perhaps the organ / mellotron sounds can be a little dominant?) , but there’s no weak tracks… and let’s face it even a weak IQ track is better than many band’s best tracks – this is IQ after all – the Crème de la Crème of modern progressive rock.
IQ have produced another fine album of imaginative progressive rock with exemplary musicianship and poetic lyricism – it’s just what they do, and they do it so well. It could be another 4 or 5 years until the next one so immerse yourself in this dense, dark epic world and join the Resistance!
Rarely are new groups as exciting, talented or unique as EXPLORING BIRDSONG, the piano-led guitarless trio from Liverpool who have announced their signing to German independent label Long Branch Records.
Having recently graduated from Liverpool’s Institute of Performing Arts, the young group have already caught the eyes Prog Magazine, Kerrang! Magazine, Kerrang! Radio and Classic Rock Magazine as well as achieved two Progressive Music Awards nominations in 2019. Having only released two singles at this point, EXPLORING BIRDSONG have been hand-picked to support Sleep Token, toured with proggers Godsticks, caught the attention of Florence and the Machine, and performed at HRH Prog. Unplaceable for the most part, the band bring to mind elements of Steven Wilson, Kate Bush, Rush, Sleep Token, and Agent Fresco.
The young trio are comprised of drummer Matt Harrison, bassist and keyboardist Jonny Knight (capable of playing both instruments simultaneously), and topped by keyboardist and vocalist Lynsey Ward‘s stunning, otherworldly vocals.
“We are so excited to be signing with Long Branch Records. We’re extremely proud to be working with a label that is home to some of our favourite bands, and feel our music couldn’t be in better hands.” says Exploring Birdsong drummer Matt Harrison.
Long Branch Records label manager Manuel Schönfeld adds: “Exploring Birdsong are undoubtedly one of the most interesting new bands in the British progressive music scene. We’re super excited about the signing and are looking forward to a successful partnership.”
Exploring Birdsong’s new single “The River” will be released on October 2nd, 2019 followed by their debut EP release in Autumn 2019.
Watch the band live:
03.10. UK, London – Underworld /w Sleep Token (sold out) 04.10. UK, Manchester – Manchester Academy 3 /w Sleep Token (sold out)
The Franck Carducci Band ave announced that their upcoming album “The Answer” will be released on November 28 2019 (for ThanksGiving) on Vinyl & CD It features some very special guests including Derek Sherinian (Alice Cooper, Dream-Theater, Billy Idol, Black Country Communion, …), Jimmy Pallagrosi(Zio, Karnataka, …) and Fabrice Dutour (Backroads, Dyslesia)
The mixing was done by Christian Morfin and Franck Carducci, and the mastering is now in progress at RealWorld Studios (England)
The artwork (see cover above) was designed by Élisa Mottet, based on a photograph by Émilie Trontin featuring model Charlotte Giraud-Grosso.
“Acclaimed for his work as a founding member of prog metal standouts Haken, as well as Nova Collective, Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, and as a Strandberg Guitars associate artist, Richard Henshall is now prepared to release his debut solo album, ‘The Cocoon’. Consisting of eight tracks that range from dense polyrhythmic passages to delicate minimalistic interludes and everything in between, ‘The Cocoon’ features Henshall’s trademark guitar and keyboard playing throughout, and marks his debut performance as a lead vocalist.”
I was intrigued when I heard that Richard Henshall was releasing a solo album, I’m a big fan of Prog-metal behemoths Haken and a major factor behind their success and sound is this talented musician.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this does sound, in parts, like a Haken release but that’s not a criticism, the song composition and musical variety on show will not only appeal to fans of the band but also bring in a wider audience. The rhythm section is composed of Conner Green (Haken) on bass and Matt Lynch (Cynic and Nova Collective) on drums who bring a unique, energising approach to the record.
Richard calls on a plethora of musical guests who add their own individuality including Jordan Rudess, Marco Sfogli and Haken vocalist Ross Jennings and this gives a very different feel to that of the last Haken offering.
The album opens with the introductory instrumental “Pupa” which transforms from calm and collected to frenetic and energetic before seamlessly integrating with “Cocoon”, a ten minute musical foray into dense polyrhythmic passages and short, frantic staccato bursts that throws the listener right out of kilter, the King Crimsonesque saxophone from jazz aficionado Adam Carillo is suitably mind bending and brilliant.
“Silken Chains” provides a calming influence and really showcases Henshall’s impressive vocal skills. Following the low key intro, an upbeat, almost pop infused vibe runs throughout the song with the pared back vocal and edgy rhythm and the guitar solo from guest David Maxim Micic is just a delight to listen to. “Limbo” is a short musical interlude with pared back vocals and hushed tones that gives an almost industrial feel.
To this reviewer “Lunar Room” channels Linkin Park and Eminem with its Nu-Metal/Rap vibe and notable vocals from Ben Levin and Jessica Kion and really gives this album its own sense of identity. The dense musical passages contrast perfectly with the deliberated vocals, it is intelligent and thought provoking and contains yet another impressive guest solo, this time from prog-metal legend Marco Sfogli. It is about this time that I realised how engrossed I had become in Richard’s creation, a testimony to his skill as a songwriter.
Perhaps the most Haken-like track on the album, “Twisted Shadows” sees Richard collaborating with his Haken band mate Ross Jennings who provides a powerful, polarising vocal performance. The song seems to skit through the verse, edgy and restless, Jennings providing just the right amount of unease and Henshall’s guitar a willing collaborator. The dominant chorus seems to erupt almost out of nowhere and Jordan Rudess turning up to add his signature keyboards makes the track a captivating and coruscating musical journey.
My favourite track on the whole album is the wonderful “Afterglow”, I just love the whole feel of this song, like a beacon of light in a world edging every closer to darkness. The humble guitar, uplifting keyboards and Chris Baum’s strings add a soulful tinge before everything breaks out with an outpouring of hope, like the sun rising above the horizon to signal the beginning of a brand new day.
The Cocoon is a truly impressive release and one that shows Richard Henshall at the height of his creative powers. He takes the influences from his time in Haken and Nova Collective and fuses them into something truly individual that can sit astride the progressive and metal genres with equal appeal and that is not an easy thing to do.
John Lodge, bass guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the iconic Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame 2018 inductees, The Moody Blues releases B Yond – The Very Best Of on 27th September through BMG Records. The album will be available initially as a CD or Digital Audio. A double vinyl gatefold (180g) will be released in November.
B Yond features 3 new recordings, 2 new remixes, and other tracks chosen by John as he revisits the very best of his career with the Moody Blues together with his solo work. For this album Lodge went back into the studio to totally recreate Street Café, (Evening) Time to Get Away and Legend of a Mind, with the wonderful musicians of the 10,000 Light Years Band. The tracks were co-produced by John and Alan Hewitt, and features John on his original Fender Precision Bass which he recorded all of the classic Moody Blues songs on. He is joined by Hewitt on keyboards, Duffy King on guitars, Billy Ashbaugh on drums and Jason Charboneau on Cello.
The result is a fresh modern feel whilst still retaining the original magic of these songs. Legend of a Mind was particularly important for John to include on this album as it is his tribute to his friend Ray Thomas. The original 24 track recordings of ‘Say You Love Me’ and ‘Summer Breeze, Summer Song’, were also remixed and remastered to create a 2019 feel to these songs that were so much part of John’s first solo ventures.
Lodge states: “With this album I want to share with you my ‘deep cuts’ – songs that I’ve wanted to revisit, and songs which have become an important part of my life. It is this which has taken meback into the studio, to share with you my music and record again with my Fender Precision Bass.I hope you too can join me on this journey… B Yond”
Full Tracklisting for B Yond – The Very Best Of: 1. I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band) (Live) 2. Summer Breeze, Summer Song (2019 Remix) 3. In My Mind 4. Street Café (2019) 5. (Evening) Time To Get Away (2019)6. Saved By The Music (Live) 7. Legend Of A Mind (2019) 8. Say You Love Me (2019 Remix) 9. Get Me Out Of Here 10. Gemini Dream (Live) 11. Isn’t Life Strange (Live) 12. Ride My See-Saw (Live)
Radio Silence, the second single from upcoming album ‘Strangers’ is a bitter/sweet and raw account of being cut out or ghosted and alludes to some gut wrenching references, such as a woman whose parachute is cut by her husband, a biblical scapegoat and the dark fate of the lifeboat keepers of Small’s Lighthouse.
R I S E (aka Jo Beth Young) is an English songwriter whose relentlessly authentic songs and mesmeric voice cut deep into the fabric of human frailty with a visionary sound swaying hypnotically between dream folk and progressive grit; at times dark but always beautiful.
Since the release of her debut album ‘An Abandoned Orchid House’ in 2018 (under the longer moniker of Talitha Rise) she has been gathering international acclaim and support from BBC 6, BBC Introducing Devon, and the legendary ECHOES Radio in the USA who made her the number 1 album of the year 2018.
Establishing her unique sound early on in Ireland cutting her teeth on the folk circuit, she returned to the UK and met her long-term collaborator Martyn Barker (Shriekback, Goldfrapp, Robert Plant) and caught the attention of Chris Difford (Squeeze) who sang on her debut EP Blue.
Rise’s haunting and mesmerising vocal is the mainstay and backbone of this incredibly moving track. The ethereal and waif-like voice has you completely enthralled in this bitter-sweet tale and the raw, pared back music is a perfect accompaniment.
There’s a painfully wistful overtone to the whole song, it’s beauty wrought from a tender agony and one that cuts deep to the bone. As the track comes to a close you are left almost bereft but with an urge to hear more, testimony to the wonderful art of the songwriter.
“Radio Silence A new kind of violence. Who took the leaves out of the trees? A consequence you cannot believe is radio silence. A special kind of violence. A consequence you can defend. Betrayal of your only friend.”
Raw, painful but beautifully mesmerising, Rise once again shows that she is a serious talent and one that the world is waking up to and taking notice of…
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…
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.
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
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 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
“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
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
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 HedonistMagic 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
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
“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
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
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
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
So, there you have it. The first in a relatively regular feature on my recommendations. See you soon for the next Progradar Recommends!!
Antenna, the diverse fourth album from The Gift signals a significant change in direction and style for this London based band, driven by a fresh and accessible impetus. In a recent interview Mike Morton of The Gift summarised their new album as focusing on the ‘Difficulty of being Human’, and added that it was about ‘communication missing the mark’ which he encapsulated in the metaphor ‘Broken Plugs and Sockets’.
This is an ambitious and brave project, leaving behind their
previous leanings towards more ornate ‘prog’ sounds so one has to ask did they
succeed in the communication hitting the mark and connecting?
What is very clear right from the start is that this is a band that has chosen not to stand still or remain in a comfort zone. We are Connected is a striking opening song, with slight echoes of INXS, riding on an insistent guitar riff and threaded throughout with a popping synth backing, indicative of the subject of electronic obsession with social media. Mike Morton sounds angry as he spits out:
A myriad of souls, We
have abandoned all controls,
Naked to the core,
exposing our emotion
We are connected – we
are one – we are connected
The songwriter, David Lloyd, explained in the same TPA interview :
‘It’s about the way in
which people have sold their soul to social media… the way people can be
damaged or manipulated without really realising it, just through participating
in it. It’s got a corrupting side to it.’
This opening is important as a cracking introduction to the album but also as a very clear marker that this is The Gift like you’ve never really heard them before, and they have moved a long way from the expansive and mythically influenced previous album ‘Why the Sea is Salt’. If that album’s lush oil painting like artwork by Mark Buckingham reflected their epic musical canvasses of ornate, multi-layered passages, then Antenna’s more angular, ‘Metropolis’ film graphic based artwork by Brian Mitchell is indicative of the new album’s more direct but carefully constructed contemporary songs. For instance, there is an impressively flowing but understated guitar solo by David Lloyd in We are Connected, but whereas previously it may have been more lengthy and elaborate, on Antenna it is brief but consequently stands out all the more on a song filled with memorable hooks and straightforward lyrics.
The Gift are blessed with a combination of four songwriters in Mike Morton, David Lloyd, Gabriele Baldocci and Leroy James, who all bring something different to the table. Long Time Dead is a song which has appeared occasionally in The Gift’s live set in recent times and this ‘road testing’ has probably helped hone it into an outstanding song. Song writer Leroy James evokes a Wild West atmosphere with a Spaghetti Western type harmonica intro and then we are transported by atmospheric distorted wah wah guitar sounds. Evocatively played ensemble playing conveys a swagger befitting the feel of the song. Gabriele Baldocci even struts into the musical saloon with a dash of bar room piano. Morton carries the ‘carpe diem’ no regrets message of the song perfectly:
So come now raise your
head – you’re a long time dead
Love the life you’ve
led – you’re a long time dead
In contrast the following song Snowfall exemplifies the differing aspects that characterise The Gift. Over a delicate piano backing which brings to mind images of softly falling snow Morton touchingly sings about a lost relationship. Lyrically and melodically this is simply heart-breaking, and it is imbued with pure emotion and truth. Similarly, the instrumental piece Hand in Hand, the title of which echoes a Snowfall lyric, is also a thing of lovely subtlety, featuring guitarist Lloyd alongside bassist Stef Dickers, showing his versatility on acoustic guitar.
Snowfall and Hand in Hand bookend the far more angular piece Far Stranger, with a staccato, robotic feel appropriate for its subject matter of synthetic humans, with references to ‘Rachel and Roy’ (of the film ‘Bladerunner’) and ‘Pinocchio’. This song does not fully connect for this reviewer – it feels like a song which The Gift would have expanded upon in previous albums to convey the full story, but to me here it sounds like rather a lot of ideas and narrative squeezed in to a shorter piece. This is disappointing as it’s a fascinating theme, possibly fitting an earlier abandoned idea for the album title about being ‘Almost Human but not quite’, and the song and theme may have benefited from a more ambitious, expansive setting. On Far Stranger it is almost as if The Gift were caught between two stools in their transition from their previous ‘proggier’ style into a more succinct approach.
As if to underline that thought the extended piece Changeling is altogether more successful in conveying a narrative as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a politician corrupted by power in three distinct phases, which could easily be separate songs in themselves. This treatment gives the music and narrative time to develop and breath… but this is no extravagant, lush 70’s style ‘prog’ extravaganza. The sparse synth and programmed percussion of opening section A Saviour’s Shoes echoes 80’s era Japan (surely a good thing) with a finely judged vocal from Morton introducing a politician starting out with sincere intentions. This fascinating opening descends in to much darker territory on the much more ‘rock’ oriented The Shadow Behind part with Neil Hayman in spectacular form on powerful and precise drumming alongside Dickers’ deft use of bass in the driving sections or more contemplative passages. Baldocci throws in a great twisting synth solo to convey the insidious effect ambition has upon the politician’s initial integrity. This outstanding piece then takes a definite ‘left turn’ in the closing Finest Hour section which is a pure glam rock stomp with Morton, acting out the fall of the politician in to total corruption, at his most dramatically camp on vocals and Lloyd and James on great form on guitars. The Gift premiered this section as a stand-alone song at the Fusion Festival in March and it went down a storm with the crowd, getting them to their feet. Curiously, it could be argued that this nearly ten minute piece demonstrates that The Gift remain very much in the mainstream ‘Prog’ world, but trust me, you won’t think that when you hear it. It’s an interesting melding of different musical styles not normally associated with classic rock tropes, skilfully moulded in to a song cycle conveying the changes of the main character.
Perhaps as a ‘palate cleanser’ after such an extended and thematically dark piece The Gift follow it up with the optimistic rock/pop of Back to Eden, which rolls along brightly. This is in stark contrast to When you are old, with words by poet W.B Yeats. This slow and sombre piece of reminiscence and regret has hints of ‘Low’ era Bowie – some may love it’s melancholic atmosphere, some may find it a rather depressing drone… but one has to wonder about it’s sequencing directly after the remarkably rocking Wild Roses.
The highlight of Antenna for this reviewer is definitely Wild Roses, which announces itself with ‘Art of Noise’ like synth effects and percussion before plunging straight in to pure Thin Lizzy territory. Leroy James and David Lloyd really rock out on the guitars and Dickers and Hayman thunder along brilliantly in the rhythm section, whilst Baldocci throws in occasional keyboard stabs and synth runs… but the real surprise is Mike Morton’s vocals – he really throws himself in to a powerful ‘Rock’ vocal, with more than a little resemblance to Phil Lynott! The Gift truly excel in a live setting and one can only imagine just how much they will rock the audiences when they pull that one out of the drawer.
Antenna concludes appropriately with Closer about relationships, which commences with bright jangling guitars over a cool bass line and Hayman in almost funky form on drums in the Where all Roads Divide section. However, for this reviewer curiously for an album which focuses so much on connection this is a song which does feel a little disconnected as that opening section quite suddenly jars in to the rocking instrumental Out of Reach section with synth and guitar soloing. It almost feels like The Gift felt compelled to pull out some ‘Prog Stops’ before the end of the album. As a section alone it sounds fine, but it did not flow naturally from the first part. Similarly, after a significant pause the emotional Closer finale does not flow on from the previous passage. Nevertheless, as a piece in itself Closer impressively builds and builds with delicately picked, almost bluegrass guitar, organ and then a lovely fluid piano. A lyrical soaring guitar solo elevates the piece to even greater heights as Morton proclaims:
If our journeys ever
synchronize, Let’s be thankful for whatever, Brings our Universe together
We can be Closer….
Closer…. We can be Closer
On this album Closer feels ironically a little disjointed but as a live piece it may mature, and the excellent closing section will certainly stir the soul.
Well, as asked earlier, did The Gift succeed in communicating and connecting?
For this reviewer the answer is a qualified ‘Yes’.
There are some truly outstanding pieces on this album, but for me some songs did not quite hit the mark or fully connect. In essence some of the ‘plugs’ did not seem to quite fit some of the ‘plugs’. In truth The Gift were never a ‘full-on’ ornate ‘Prog’ band, and each album had more accessible, less musically ambitious and unashamedly ‘catchy’ pieces alongside their epic forays. However, the clear main direction was down well-trodden progressive rock paths, and with classic songs like The Willows they really did it so well. In contrast Antenna feels like a band trying to break out of what may have started to feel like a pigeon-holing musical straightjacket. There may also be a sense of liberation for the wide range of song writing talent within the band, which has added a wholly different and fascinating range of musical colours to their spectrum. The great qualities that marked out The Gift previously are still there in the DNA of their material but maybe inevitably this album does have the feel of a ‘Transition’ album. Sometimes in a transition process older ways of doing things do not always sit comfortably together with new paths. However, that is not a bad thing – transition means growth and ‘progression’ in the true sense of the word. The Gift should be commended for having had the balls to significantly change their sound – as Morton said in a recent interview that change may ‘piss some people off and disappoint’ but ‘that’s just the way it is…’ It will be fascinating to see where they go from here.
The hope is that their previous fans remember the core of what made The Gift worth following before and remain on board, whilst the undoubted high quality of the different range of largely more accessible songs on this album also justifiably attracts other new fans who like … well just rock music, whatever the label.
Antenna sends out a strong signal from The Gift – they do not stand still so leave your preconceptions at the door, open your minds and explore their changing world.
The John Wetton Estate proudly announces work has commenced on a solo career box set featuring expanded editions of his iconic albums and a lavish hardback book.12th June 2019 would have been John’s 70th birthday.
Since John Wetton’s passing in January 2017, his family, friends and management have been working on finding a fitting tribute to such a remarkable man and iconic artist. The result of this labour of love is a box set entitled “An Extraordinary Life”, dedicatedentirely to John’s solo career. The project has the full support of John’s wife, Lisa, and his son, Dylan, who are wholly involved with compiling the contents.
The set will include definitive,
remastered editions of each of his six solo albums, with bonus tracks and
artwork selected by John towards the end of his lifetime, and in some cases
expanded to two discs:
Caught in the Crossfire
Rock of Faith
Raised in Captivity
An Extraordinary Life will also feature a lavish hardback “coffee table” book written by one of John’s friends, the journalist Nick Shilton. Nick has interviewed dozens of John’s collaborators, peers and associates, both in and out of the music business, as well as friends from his childhood and through all eras of his career, collecting a multitude of exclusive, poignant and wonderful stories along the way.
This box set – a “must have” for every
John Wetton fan – will also feature high resolution video tributes as well as
unique bonus material. The Official John
Wetton website will launch a dedicated webpage entitled “An Extraordinary Life”
which will become an ever-evolving digital gathering place for the inner circle
of John’s fans.
Extraordinary Life will
be completed during 2019 and initially be exclusively available via Burning
Shed ahead of a wider scale retail release. The Burning shed store is now at https://burningshed.com/store/john-wetton
Coinciding with John’s 70th
birthday today, Asia begins a 28 date USA tour as special guests of Yes on
their Royal Affair Tour, which will premiere tonight in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and John Lodge
from the Moody Blues will also be on the bill.
Asia’s new line-up comprises Carl Palmer, Geoff Downes Billy Sherwood,
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and a special guest appearance by Steve Howe. John Wetton’s great friend Roger Dean will
have an exhibition at each show, including iconic Asia artwork.
To celebrate John’s birthday, and as a teaser to the box set, we release a never before heard fly-on-the-wall of an early Asia rehearsal, recorded exactly 38 years ago today on June 12, 1981. Ricky Nelson has lovingly nurtured this Holy Grail recording, and has created a collage slide-show of rare photos through the decades to remind you of John’s genius. The question arises – what song did this morph into?
Further, Ricky has curated a special
video recording of John’s last ever tour singing Asia songs, with the Rock
Meets Classic arena tour in March 2015, where John delivers a supreme performance,
one of his finest ever versions of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”. This will be a special release today at
12noon UK time from John’s twitter page [see below].
Dylan Wetton says: “This is helping me come to terms with the loss of my Dad, and is opening
my eyes to his genius. It is truly a
labour of love”.
Lisa Wetton says: “When you open your box set for the first time, you will know that every person involved with its creation was touched deeply by John Wetton. You will be playing the music that revealed his personal life story, and you will be perpetuating a legacy that was meant to be a shining light for everyone. The physical light may have flickered out on January 31, 2017, but there is an extra radiant star aglow in the firmament today. It is my hope that when you listen, you will still feel the warmth from that light, and hear the Lion roar for generations to come”.