Review – Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale – by John Wenlock-Smith

On February 16th Steve Hackett will release his thirtieth solo album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’. This album is not a concept album as such, however, it does have thirteen tracks interlinked and inter-woven and which take an autobiographical angle into Steve’s life journey. In the official blurb that accompanies the release we are told that it’s a “lovely journey that starts dirty scratchy  and smoky and becomes heavenly and divine”. So does it? And what does it tell us exactly? Well, here’s my thoughts on it, mostly based on a conversation I had with Steve himself earlier in the year.

The first track on the album, People Of The Smoke, opens interestingly with sound effects, a snippet of Listen With Mother, a baby’s cry, which is treated with reverb and echo, along with steam train noises and whistles. The song then moves into a busy section with Big Ben tolling and a guitar line that builds before drums come into force and a brisk pace is taken. Steve adds little flurries of notes and fills, this is all to represent the suffocating dark and smoke filled city of London when emerging from the post war years of rationing and entering the 1960’s and the opportunities that were becoming more available as a result. I guess it was possibly a case of you had to be there to experience it for yourself, but you get a good impression from the excellent video for this track:

The next track is the first of no less than five instrumental pieces, each of which are very different in sound and approach. These Passing Clouds symbolises the changing face of the capital as it moves from sinister to optimistic and this brief vignette captures that excellently. Taking You Down is about a friend of Steve’s at Senior school, they bonded over a love of music and had a close friendship. However, this friend was often involved in some jape or wheeze or scam and often roped Steve into these as well. This all ended badly when Steve got more involved in music and they drifted apart. The friend was manipulative and not always pleasant to be around, they had good times but it all came to an end. Steve often wonders about this chap and what he is doing these days, proposing that he is probably running a small country in Africa or somewhere similar, that is run with corruption and despotic greed. The next track, Found And Lost, is about Steve’s first love. A girl from a good family, intelligent and articulate however, she wanted something more than Steve offered so the relationship didn’t last. She got involved with a bad crowd, got involved with drugs and ultimately ended up in prison from which she would write letters to Steve. He was heartbroken by all this and it took a while for his confidence to rebuild and, while there were other girls, there were none like her.

Enter The Ring and Get Me Out! both refer to his time on the Genesis wheel of fame, all of this is being alluded to through the excitement of a fairground and the thrills it offered. This continues in Get Me Out! in which Steve realises that he is in danger of being stuck in a situation that he actually wants to be free of. This track has a lengthy and somewhat furious guitar solo in the middle, expressing his frustrations perhaps. Ghost Moon and Living Love is about moving on from his Genesis days and going it alone. Circo Inferno continues this theme of being stuck on a wheel going around and around. This track has a heavier tone with more fiery guitar flourishes ,it also features Amanda Lehmann on vocals and Rob Townsend on tenor saxophone. The next track Breakout is an impressive rock guitar showcase, as is All At Sea, both of which really impress as they both have a lot going on within them.

Into The Nightwhale is another interesting sounding track, opening with swirling keyboards and synths creating a moody soundscape with Steve providing long sustained guitar notes before a heavy drumbeat emerges from the mist, as it were. More sustained guitar notes follow and gradually build up to a peak at which point everything falls away and a delicate orchestral sound is played whilst Steve sings a delicate vocal. The song is about building resilience and how finding love give you strength once more. The penultimate song, Wherever You Are, is a love song for his wife Jo, who has had a major impact on Steve’s life in the last ten years or so. This song is a shameless celebration of the love that they have found in each other. That said, this one definitely rocks with extremely passionate guitar playing and sounds. The album closes with White Dove, a wistful and delicate acoustic conclusion to the album. Again, this song is very romantic sounding with its classical tone and playing. It will be great to hear this one live, as Horizons is possibly in need of being retired?Just a thought…

So there you have it, a most intriguing and different album from Steve with some great songs and excellent guitar work. There is lots to appreciate and enjoy, I certainly did and can highly recommend, another highlight in the career of this legendary guitarist.

Released 16th February, 2024.

Order from Steve’s website and other outlest here:

Steve Hackett – Wherever You Are (lnk.to)

Review Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Empty – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is for the new, fifth, solo release from ex Pain Of Salvation man, Kristoffer Gildenlöw, and follows on from ‘Dust’ (2012), ‘Rain’ (2016) and the pandemic releases ‘Homebound‘ (2020) and ‘Let Me Be A Ghost’ (2021), a poignant exploration of depression. ‘Empty’ takes a different tack and, whilst not a concept album as such, it does, however, have common themes and threads throughout its sixty minute duration.

After departing from Pain Of Salvation, Kristoffer spent time working and touring with Neal Morse, moved to the Netherlands from Sweden and became a highly sought after session musician. He also spent time as a part of Kayak, appearing on two of the band’s albums and has done sessions for the likes of Lana Lane and others.

Kristoffer says of this album, “I don’t write concept albums in the traditional sense, with characters stories  and dialogue, ‘Empty’ is a sceptic and cynical look at humans and humanity, viewed from three different perspectives. The personal view as humans against humans, as humanity as a phenomenon on a global scale and as a species inhabiting this pale blue dot in space, looked at by the creator who has its doubts about his creation. It is quite a deep and possibly challenging theme that the album pursues.”

The album begins with Time To Turn The Page, which has echoes of both Dire Straits ( for the guitar sounds) and Pink Floyd. The song breaks out into a more expansive soundscape with drums and bass adding to the rhythm. There’s a fine solo with some fine wah-wah effects and it is all rather stirring before the song quietens down once more as it draws to a conclusion, an excellent opening track. End Of The Road features a great violin motif, the song pulses along in a rather downbeat manner and has a good chorus with great vocals. The sound is actually very organic and quite different to what you expect. Harbinger of Sorrow has a persistent piano melody rippling throughout and also has a very solid bass line punctuating the rhythm. As the track comes to a close it takes a harder tone with lots of suppressed power awaiting the chance to explode, which it does not actually do. He’s Not Me is next and, once again, we find the Straits/Floyd influences apparent. This song has lots of restrained emotions, you want it to explode, however, in taking the route less travelled and obvious, this graceful song is instilled with much dignity and strength. It has a great guitar break and slide guitar which, when coupled with the swarming broody keyboard textures, puts you firmly in Floydian territory!

Black And White is hinged on a solid bass line, with a medium tempo, and great guitar fills. A fine guitar solo enlivens proceedings significantly and shows that this album is definitely a slow burner that will creep up on you and overawe you with its beauty and restraint. Down We Go is one of the albums two longer pieces, again, the spacey sound will be very familiar to many, shades of Pink Floyd again, perfectly recreated and reimagined with a tone right out of the ‘Wish You Were Here’ era. This is an excellent track with lots going on and a great sound, it’s all really Impressive with another emotive guitar break towards the end. To me, the best track on the album so far, magnificent even. Turn It All Around is up next, the first in a run of tracks that are all shorter, but no less interesting musically. This one has some interesting orchestral embellishments, violin playing pizzicato sections for example, and some guitar fills sound great in amidst everything else. Means To An End has more piano and moody, yet expressive, vocals. There’s good bass here again that carries the song along well. It has a melancholic air to it but a great guitar break certainly helps move the track forward.

Beautiful Decay sees the piano takes centre stage along with the fretless bass and another earnest heartfelt vocal from Kristoffer is pleasing to the ear. It’s a brief but entertaining track, as is The Brittle Man which is hinged on counterpoint Bass and violin lines, playing in harmony until a piano enters the fray and carries a similar melody. Saturated is the albums penultimate track and the Roger Waters influence is clear, especially in the vocals. Indeed, in the overall soundscape, this great sounding track could be the best unreleased Pink Floyd song you’ve never heard. Yes, it is that good! The album’s final song is also the longest and the title track, Empty, which imagines the creator looking at the earth and wondering was it worth it? One for the theologians amongst us to ponder, no doubt. There’s a pulsating timbre, akin to a heartbeat, recurring throughout and more moody, expansive soundscapes. Again, it’s quite a melancholic track with an emotional vocal from Kristoffer as he voices the creators doubt so eloquently and with such depth of feeling. As he sings, you can hear his raw anguish, the latter part of the song then has a heavier, yet no less epic, guitar solo that plays out in a Comfortably Numb style, with similar tone and feeling. It’s most impressively done and is a blinder of a solo to conclude the album.

Overall this is a real grower of an album and one that needs your effort to get the most out of it. It is an investment that will pay big dividends to the listener though, as within its tracks lies much crafting and skill to creating memorable songs and soundscapes. I have very much enjoyed this excellent release and feel that many listeners will find much to appreciate herein.

Released 8th February, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Empty | Kristoffer Gildenlöw (bandcamp.com)

Review – Monarch Trail – Four Sides – by David Edwards

Monarch Trail are a Canadian symphonic progressive rock project led by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ken Baird, consisting of Dino Verginella on bass and Chris Lamont on drums, with guest appearances on guitar by Kelly Kereliuk and Steve Cochrane. Four Sides is their impressive fourth release and, in my opinion, manages to not only match the quality of their previous album Wither Down, but brings it up several notches more.

Deliberately recalling the classic days of the double vinyl album, with each side having its own distinct character, and the space to fully develop musical themes (such as ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ perhaps?) – this is classic, keyboard-led progressive rock but with a distinctive signature sound and modern-edge that the band have cultivated since 2014. It is musically the antithesis of the modern quick-fix, 3-minute soundbite culture of the modern music streaming sites, where songs are never given a chance to blossom over a full album side. So, while the 73 minutes of music can fit on a single CD – Ken challenges you to consider the album as ‘four sides’ of music, to be enjoy individually, or as a cohesive and complete body of work.

The opening ‘side’ of the album, and the longest track at over 23 minutes, is called The Oldest of Trees. This is the most personal song on the album, as Ken harks back to his younger days and an old four-chord song he could just about strum on guitar on the stairs of the basement music room. A place often full of musical friends, with the spotlight on one in particular who sadly passed away of a few years ago. Lyrically and musical it is full of reminiscences of those musical memories of rock music from 70s and 80s for those growing up in Canada at the time, including the likes of Rush and Iron Maiden, as well as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd amongst others.

After a dynamic keyboard-led fanfare, Ken’s vocals drip melancholy as he looks back to those halcyon days. As I’ve said before in earlier reviews, Ken’s distinctive, higher register vocals have a yearning frailty and vulnerability that reminds me at times of BJH’s John Lees, Chris Squire and Druid’s Dane Stevens. Once you attune to them, their ‘everyman’ character complements the personal nature of the music very well. Yet, it is his keyboard virtuosity that drives the album’s rich soundscapes. Supported by Dino’s expressive bass guitar and Chris’s dynamic drumming, the song soon moves up another level, with some rich organ chords and soaring synthesisers over the strong rhythmic foundation. Changing tempos and light and shade keep the shifting themes fresh and invigorating and some contrasting electric guitar over a repeating keyboard pattern fits in seamlessly. Lyrically we are also taken around various locations around the town of Dundas and wider Ontario. There is a nice kick in tempo from around 14 minutes and the introduction of organ chords and rumbling bass around the symphonic prog noodlings provide a diversity of sound before we return to bitter-sweet memories of youth:

Benches and the streets and parks will hold your name in high regard. Eyes of birds and storied words, help us where we stand. But of all these things to hold, there are some that seem much closer. Especially the oldest trees will never quite be gone.”

This was a song Ken needed to develop and resurrect from its humble beginnings and its cathartic conclusion is thoughtful and full of emotional.

Eris is even a bolder musical statement by Ken, and he really uses the concept of a double album structure to allow time for this epic instrumental to develop. Over the opening few minutes, a cold, desolate, almost wind-swept, ambient soundscape is allowed to gradually gain in intensity, with hints of mid-section of Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ and then a subtle, deeper rhythmic pattern coming through. Named after the cold, icy dwarf planet of the outer solar system, the feeling of isolation is palpable, and it is only after 6 minutes that we get a swelling of rich, majestic, organ-led keyboards followed by dancing motifs and then Vangelis-like synthesiser sounds, undulating serenely and mysteriously. Ken imagines the atmosphere of Eris rising up from its surface as the dwarf planet warms on its elliptical orbit towards the Sun, creating a ‘new dawn.’

Yet this is but an extended prelude to a wonderful, improvised whirlwind of Keith Emerson-like organ pyrotechnics merging with playful, grandiose Rick Wakeman-style keyboards. There are hints of jazz influences amongst the complexity that could easily identify to the Greek Goddess of strife and discord who lends the dwarf planet its name. Chris’s galloping drums increasingly drive the music at this point and Dino’s deep, throbbing bass runs add intensity, with sections of resonating piano leading to a stately, yet flowing conclusion with soaring synthesisers taking flight before a satisfying, sustained finale. It was a track that Ken says developed quickly from his improvisations around the various themes, and it certainly rewards the patience of the discerning listener as the track slowly develops over its 19+ minute duration.

By contrast Twenty K hits the listener instantly, with urgent stabs of piano, along with a dynamic rhythm drive the music powerfully before Ken’s vocals announce “I can see life and water winking, to the side. Straight ahead lies a route to take me away.” We are being taken on a 20 km run through the dazzling countryside, and a chance to savour nature and life, but at the same time reminisce about past relationships and contemplate our place in the Universe. Ken’s voice is as confident and assured as anywhere on the album, and its depth and emotion mirror the rising pace and tempo of the song, with Dino and Chris building up the intensity over Ken’s melodic and expressive keyboard patterns. Kelly adds some lovely, contrasting guitar soloing as he picks up the main theme, before twinkling piano add a touch of serenity prior to a marching and swaying tempo that takes us through to rising synthesisers and then some more impressive guitar lines.

Midway, the vocals become more contemplative and deeply yearning. Ken says at the 10 km point there is a bench for the runner to rest and admire the view on the hilltop, which has the Carl Sagan quote ‘Life is but a glimpse into an astounding Universe’ and this marks the start of the runner’s return back home, through the flowering trilliums of the forest expanse. It also marks the start of a simply gorgeous extended section of undulating keyboard wizardry over busy bass and drums that will more than satisfy classic prog rock devotees, with melancholy now replaced with hopeful optimism and a sense of life-affirming wonder. A beautiful coda and thematic resolution see the runner back home safely at the end of the song, with the exaltation of “The time has come, to let it all go”. A memorable track, and for me amongst the very best in all the Monarch Trail musical canon.

‘Side four’ of the album, as it were, is made up of two shorter tracks more modest in their ambition, but still full of charm and stunning musicianship. Moon to Follow was developed and built on by Ken from a demo that Dino sent in, which keeps much of the rhythm, chord and counterpoint ideas, but mixed with the enjoyable sections of retro prog and even elements of jazz and Celtic folk. It starts with the gentle, swaying rhythm of the drums, accompanied with some delicate piano, with Ken’s fragile and breathy vocals imagining a scene of the young Brennan sisters, Enya and Moya (of Clannad fame), looking around the music area of their parents’ pub in Ireland and wondering what stories the walls might have in them from past musicians to inspire them.

There is a rather nice call and response-like vocal refrain of ‘Moon to Follow’ that creates a dreamy ambience. After a vibrant touch of electric guitar from Steve Cochrane, the middle section has a recognisable feel of Keith Emerson-style piano improvisation – supported by engaging bass and flowing drums and percussion. The keyboards build up after this and Ken’s lyrics playfully reference ‘Herne’ from Clannad’s Robin of Sherwood era, together with pipes and whistles, conjure up a Celtic folk atmosphere which takes the song to its conclusion. A track, just under 10 minutes in duration, that the band clearly enjoyed putting together.

Afterthought is a pleasing short instrumental that bookends the album very effectively. Dancing piano notes have both a melancholic and yet optimistic feel to them. Lush keyboard chords build the sound but never dominate the sense of remembrance that is there in much of the album. The spirit of Rick Wakeman’s solo work pervades the track, but Ken says he was also thinking of Jethro Tull’s plaintive Elegy. He even includes a small musical reference to The Oldest of Trees to round things off nicely.

With Four Sides, Monarch Trail have produced their best and most ambitious album to date, with the ‘double album’ concept allowing space for the musical themes and deeply personal lyrics to fully develop and never feel rushed. The symphonic progressive rock instrumentation is stunning and whilst undoubtedly it is the keyboards that will rightly dominate the musical panorama, the poignant and gossamer-like vocals also have their place amongst all the proggy instrumental exuberance. Old-school prog for sure, but lovingly crafted for the modern era by Ken and his talented compatriots. An album that rewards your listening patience and demands repeated plays – it is certainly well worth exploring further on Bandcamp – especially if you are less familiar with Monarch Trail musical vision.

Released: December 17th, 2023.

Order from bandcamp here:

Four Sides | Monarch Trail (bandcamp.com)

Review – The Bardic Depths – What We Really Like In Stories – by JohnWenlock-Smith

The Bardic Depths formed when Canary Islands resident Dave Bandanna sought out musical contributions and assistance from fellow Big Big Train ‘passengers’ on a project that he was working on. The response being so positive that Dave decided to turn the project into a band to make an album, which became The Bardic Depths first album ‘The Bardic Depths’.

‘What We Really Like In Stories’, the collective’s third offering, arrives in March and offers eight more tracks of their rather unique, intelligent and different take on progressive music. The eight songs are mainly just under the six minute mark, although there are two longer tracks in ‘Vendetta’ and ‘Whispers In Space’.

This album is based on authors and their writing. The lyrics are all written by the band and Dr Brad Birzer, an American history professor at Hillsdale college, Michigan in the United States Of America. Once again, the album has a core group of musicians alongside Dave Bandanna. We find Peter Jones on vocals, whistles, clarinet, trumpet and alto saxophone, Gareth Cole on electric and acoustic guitars and guitar orchestrations and Tim Gehrt on drums and percussion. Dave himself provides lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, keyboards and programming.

The album opens with a delightful, if brief, overture, Genius which itself leads into the first song proper, What We Like In Stories, which brilliantly recounts a conversation between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in which both authors expressed their dissatisfaction at the lack of books that contained what they would like to read. So they decided to write some for themselves, they tossed a coin and the outcome decided that Lewis would write the ‘space’ stories whilst Tolkien would write time travel stories, the term science fiction having not been coined at this stage. From this decision came CS Lewis’ ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’, ‘Perelandra’ and ‘That Hideous Strength’, all of which saw Lewis’ talents recognised in both the UK and North America, indeed, one could say that CS Lewis and Ray Bradbury made science fiction respectable. Meanwhile JRR Tolkien’s efforts were unsuccessful in the short term, it was two decades before ‘Lord Of The Rings’ appeared and a further twenty for ‘The Silmarillion’ to appear. The next track is a haunting, mid-tempo piece, You’ve Written Poetry My Boy, which has a direct line to the works of Ray Bradbury and, in this song, we learn that Aldous Huxley thought that the words Bradbury writes about ‘so many brave new worlds‘ are like poetry. This has a good saxophone solo from Peter Jones and great guitar orchestrations and flourishes from Gareth Cole. Vendetta concerns the works of comic book writer Alan Moore and takes the theme of one of his books ‘V for Vendetta’, set in a near future time, in a dystopian society where one has to make a stand against the way society is being led by those in charge. However, in this song our hero is finding that to be a challenge and hides away, refusing to face what is going on around him. We are told that silence is a fragile thing and that hiding away and not being involved is not the answer to the predicament or the issue. Musically, this a very good track with lots of interesting parts including fine guitar, keyboards and excellent drums, all with a very strong rhythm.

Old Delights is a homage to writers, a celebration of their talents and how their words can cause us not only to think but also to view things, people and situations in a different light, a very considered viewpoint. It is another fairly brief track but gets its point over very stylishly and it also serves as a clever platform for the next song, The Feast Is Over, which is based the work of Robert E Howard. Howard is regarded as one of the first writers to write in the Fantasy genre and wrote ‘Conan The Barbarian’, which saw him regarded as the father of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre of pulp fiction. This track features a very memorable refrain repeated on the closing parts, it is also one of the longer songs, meaning it has space to evolve organically. It opens with a gentle acoustic strumming and is is about Sword and Sorcery writings, the second part of the track becomes more expansive in sound with orchestrations playing. In this section there is a lengthy and beautifully expressive guitar solo that ends with some fiery slide guitar, it is a really strong and satisfying track on every level. Stillpoint is based around the writings of science fiction writer Walter M Miller Jr, who’s work went largely unpublished during his lifetime, another relatively short, but highly enjoyable, track. Whispers In  Space concludes the album in strong form, this one references the writings of Robert Rankin, an acclaimed writer whose style included, fantasy, comedy, conspiracy theories and steampunk elements. The lyrics are very clever, referencing in many oblique ways the sad death of Big Big Train’s own David Longdon, as in the line “The captain of the skies flies again…” Again, the music on this track is exquisite with lots happening. A graceful, expressive solo is played with great sensitivity and feel in a very special section of the track. Although the meaning of the song is possibly lost on me really, being a bit obscure and elusive, to my ears at least, the music is exciting and engaging on every level, making it a fitting conclusion to a very interesting and rewarding collection of songs.

With ‘What We Really Like In Stories’, The Bardic Depths take a subtly different route from what has gone before, the album having no central theme as such but, rather being a collection of songs inspired by literature. I enjoyed this album immensely and further, extended listens have allowed it to firmly secure a place in my heart and mind, I heartily recommend it.

Released 7th March, 2024.

Order download from bandcamp here:

What We Really Like In Stories (24bit/96k) | The Bardic Depths (bandcamp.com)

Order CD from Gravity Dream here:

The Bardic Depths – What We Really Like In Stories CD – Gravity Dream Music

Review – Emerald City Council – Motion Carries

Emerald City Council is an American progressive rock band, formed in 2021 out of a recording project produced by saxophonist/keyboardist Brent Bristow. The band features vocalist Jake Livgren (Proto-Kaw, newphew of Kansas’ Kerry Livgren) and drummer Noah Hungate (Team Illuminati, son of Toto’s David Hungate), along with Jeremy Nichols (Erin Coburn) on bass, and up and coming guitarist Seth Hankerson. Brandon Goff, Associate Professor of Music Industry at Francis Marion University, has also contributed significant guitar work as special collaborator to the band.

‘Motion Carries’ was written and produced by Brent Bristow and boasts a wide variety of styles and influences. The album has a unique blend of saxophone and guitar-driven material that fans of both classic and modern progressive rock will love. The album includes several guest appearances.

Bristow says of the album, “Producing this album has pushed me on many levels as a musician and songwriter. Everyone who worked on it put their heart and soul into bringing this material to life, which forced me to be better, and I could not be more grateful. While the songs can all stand on their own, I think we are providing a true album experience for those that want to lose themselves in music for an hour.”

I really love it when I get sent an email introducing me to a new band that I’ve never heard of and asking if I’d like to find out more. Music isn’t just there for enjoyment, it is a voyage of discovery and asks questions of the listener. When Brent Bristow contacted me and I checked out the two videos he had sent me, I knew I needed to know more about this intriguing band and immediately Jeffrey Combs narration and the dynamic, fast paced feel to opening track Realize I – Escape From the Ancient drew me in to this impressive and immersive musical journey. There’s a proper feel of truly American progressive rock to ‘Motion Carries’, which is not surprising knowing the musician’s pedigree, I can hear Spock’s Beard, Pattern Seeking Animals and Kansas throughout the album’s sixty minute running time. Realize II – Brutal Camouflage introduces us to Jake Livgren’s energetic and lyrical vocal delivery and to a really fluid delivery of the eloquent music which is dotted with intense saxophone at every turn and did I ever tell you, I love the saxophone?! Noisy Talking carries on the impressive storytelling with it’s edgy, high energy feel and Jake’s almost rap style vocals. The guitar playing on this album is next level good, Seth Hankerson providing the driving forward motion, ably assisted by Douglas Case, and Paul Bielatowicz delivering some incendiary soloing.

Mortal Game takes a more measured approach and heads down a more AOR/ classic rock route. Jake’s emotive vocal is superb and works perfectly in harmony with Heather Bristow and the sax is just spine tingling. It is a beautiful, soulful piece of music that will really touch you. Ice Thinning brings the exciting rhythm section of Noah Hungate and Jeremy Nichols into focus and really could have come from a modern Kansas album. The song is both powerful and graceful at the same time and packs a real stirring punch, especially on the notable chorus.

Now we get to the pièce de résistance, the gloriously pompous and wonderfully overblown prog epic Platforms of Illusion. This piece of music is just brilliant and has everything that a song of this nature should contain, all combined with a palpable sense of fun and enjoyment, isn’t that what music should feel like? Just sit back, relax and let this twenty minutes of pure musical inspiration wash over you. The time changes and segues keep you guessing at all times and the skill on show is just incredible. I’m a big fan of both Kansas and Spock’s Beard and, on this song especially, Emerald City Council give us a perfect amalgam of all that those two bands are great at. I’ve already said that Jake Livgren has a great voice and he really gets to shine here and as for Brent Bristow, this multi-talented musician is proving to be a force to be reckoned with.

Rather cleverly, after the mind blowing previous track, the band give us a lovely little musical amuse bouche in the shape of the light stepping, enjoyable instrumental Diversion 1 before we get back to the main event with the punchy, rocking No Thanks To You, a song that leans more towards the Toto edge of AOR and hard rock. The driving piano and rhythm section combine with the edgy riff to give a more classic rock focused feel, one that is only endorsed by the superb vocals and Mike Thompson’s epic solo. Realize III – The Comfort Of Suffering closes the album with another superb slice of hard rock infused prog. Soaring guitar and vocals and elegant bass and drums all combine to deliver another highly addictive song that will linger in your mind for quite a long while, especially the superlative melody.

Emerald City Council have entered the progressive rock scene with a massive bang. ‘Motion Carries’ is a superb album, utterly immersive and uplifting with incredible musicianship, soaring melodies and a real sense of fun. This is music that touches the mind and lifts the soul and I haven’t stopped smiling yet. Trust me, you need this album in your life!

Released 19th January, 2024.

Order from bandcamp here:

Motion Carries | Emerald City Council (bandcamp.com)

You can also order a copy signed by Brent Bristow at the band’s website here:

Online Store (emeraldcitycouncil.com)


Review – Magnum – Here Comes The Rain – by John Wenlock-Smith

There are few great bands on our planet that you can infallibly identify within the first few bars of one of their songs. Their unique melodic skill, their tasteful instrumentation, the right balance of depth and catchiness, and then of course that charismatic voice: Magnum are Magnum! 

I spent a lot of 2022 rediscovering Magnum after losing touch with their musical output after ‘Goodnight LA’. This was quite expensive, yet also really enjoyable, especially when I found some of their SPV output was very worthwhile. I was even more excited when they announced a show near me at KK’s Steel Mills in Wolverhampton in December 2022. I attended the concert on a very cold December evening, finding the venue to be a bit challenging, especially Its solid concrete floor, which transmitted cold through your shoes to the feet. It was so uncomfortable that I spent the last part of the show sitting outside in the bar area where they had a few old chairs.

Furthermore the show itself was underwhelming and the band actually seemed to be going through the motions, on auto pilot as it were. For a show that was supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of Magnum I felt decidedly let down and disappointed. So, when this new album, ‘Here Comes The Rain’, was released I was pretty undecided about whether or not to actually get it for my collection. As it happens, I did order it but recent developments in the Magnum camp have meant that I am still waiting to actually receive my copy (the one with a film of the show that so disappointed me). Thankfully, due to my amazon account, I am able to access an online copy of the album and it is this that I am using to review the album.

The album was released on Friday  12th January 2024, although, sadly, Tony Clarkin, Magnum’s sole writer and guitarist since there formation, had passed away a few days beforehand. He was suffering from an previously announced spinal condition that made playing very difficult, so much so that they had cancelled previously announced tour dates. When I received this information, I was extremely saddened by it as I knew that this same condition may have been part of why that show had been so sub par. I also knew that this could prove to be the end of this fine group. So, with this in mind here are my thoughts on the album.

I am pleased to report that, if this release proves to be the final Magnum album, then ‘Here Comes The Rain’ is definitely one of the better offerings from the band. I had felt that ‘The Monster Roars’ was a little too safe by Magnum’s standard, whereas this album has both great dynamics and strong material alongside excellent performances from all parties.

With Magnum you pretty know what you will get, a mid tempo song usually around the 5 minute mark with strong keyboards and a strong rhythm section, some solid guitar work and great vocals from fellow co-founder Bob Catley, whose voice is so integral to the Magnum sound. This album does not disappoint on any of those fronts, in fact it serves as a reminder, as if one were needed, of just what a strong group Magnum are.

The album opens with Run Into The Shadows, which is a great statement of intent with punchy guitar and cowbells or cymbals even! It storms along at a fiery pace and maybe just lacks a killer guitar solo. Tony tends to not play too many of those somehow but still this one really rocks impressively and reinforces their pomp-rock roots most eloquently. Title track, Here Comes The Rain features a sinewy guitar line and chugging bass and drums. The song has an airy, lighter feel to it, you can imagine fan’s lighters aloft swaying to the music (it would be mobile phone lights nowadays though, of course). This is another strong song from the boys and the great keyboard sound towards the end really works well. Some Kind Of Treachery begins with a ripple of piano before the bass kicks in, mirroring Bob’s emotive vocal. The drums then arrive and the song’s chorus begins. The dynamics of this song are excellent, as is the bass work of Dennis Ward adding much depth and subtlety to this great track. The keyboards of Rick Benton also sprinkle inspired magic over the track. After the Silence is a slightly faster paced song, lifting the tempo intelligently, it also has a strong backbeat to it and works really well. Blue Tango has more than a touch of the ‘Goodnight LA’ era, namely Rockin’ Chair ,as it lies in a similar territory. It is definitely the hardest rocking track so far and makes you want to get up and punch the air, it’s that good! It’s a real Magnum classic with a great organ break and a Clarkin solo as well, where he cuts loose in the closing bars, it’s wonderful.

The Day He Lied is about a relationship it seems and is suitably emotional, it also has a great guitar line running throughout that adds real depth and emotion. The Seventh Darkness is another superb track with brass embellishments which add a different texture to the song, as does a brilliant saxophone that duels with Tony’s guitar fills. It’s a subtly different sound for Magnum but it’s Dynamics certainly make a fine impression. This is a very strong track that is every bit the equal of Blue Tango. Broken City is is a moody, brooding track with lots of keyboards and a heartfelt, emotive vocal. It’s sublime and suppressed emotions really hit home. I Wanna Live opens with a subdued piano line before the song builds in tempo and power. Bob’s vocal is really on song on this rather fine track, one that reminds me a bit of those classic Magnum power ballads that we have all come to love. The last track, Borderline, is a fitting finale to what is possibly a sublime final statement from the band. It is the albums longest song and opens with an Arabic sounding intro before things take on a typical rock swagger. There is another a strong vocal from Bob and the song also has two short guitar breaks from Tony along with a strong keyboard solo from Rick Benton. I really like how this song  plays out with an elegant piano melody that is almost bringing the curtain down on Magnum’s long and distinguished career. It may not have been intentional but it’s a graceful manner in which to end the album.

Unfortunately it is now all over and you are left thankful for a wonderful last shout from the band who will, probably, not be able to continue now that Tony is gone. I am so glad they were able to finish on a real high all these years after ‘Kingdom Of Madness’ in 1978. I really enjoyed this, their twenty-third album and eagerly await for my copy to arrive soon.

Released 12th January, 2024.

Order the album here:

Magnum – Here Comes The Rain (lnk.to)

John Wenlock-Smith Interviews Steve Hackett Ahead of Release of ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’

In this Interview Steve Hackett gives John a pretty in depth walk through of his forthcoming album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’.

JWS: Hi Steve, good to talk to you again, let’s Talk about the forthcoming album ‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’, out next month. I believe it’s a concept album of sorts?

SH: Well it’s more a themed album, autobiographical in nature, but with some fantasy elements included. It has been incredibly well received by those who, like yourself, have been allowed to hear it in advance. It’s actually my 30th solo album release that began with ‘Voyage Of The Acolyte’ back in 1975, all those years ago.

The album is not actually a concept album as such, rather it is a collection of tracks with a central theme of my life growing up in post-war London in the 1950s and 1960s and going through the momentous changes of those years, living in Pimlico and experiencing the magic of a musical revolution.

The album begins with radio sounds of the 50’s moves onto a soundbite of listen with mother and a baby crying. That first song, People Of The Smoke, has a wonderfully evocative video which encapsulates that era very well. It’s by Paul Gosling and captures the black and white, smoky, foggy and murky London of those times, its an interesting video.

The album also has a number of instrumental tracks, each with different styles and flavours, all of which allowed me to stretch out a little in my playing.

JWS: What is the track Taking You Down about?

SH: That one is about a friend I had at school, he was rather a character and was always up to something, running a wheeze or wheeler-dealing or similar. We had lots of escapades and got up to fair amount of mischief I suppose. We both shared a love of music but, ultimately, our paths diverged and we went our separate ways in life. I often wonder what he is doing these days, probably running drugs from some African country or South America or something! He’s probably still up to no good though.

Found And Lost is about first love, my first love actually. She was lovely, came from  a good family and was very intelligent. After a while she decided I wasn’t what she wanted and dumped me, I was heartbroken and it took me a while to get over her. Later I found out that she’d gone off the rails and got involved with drugs to the extent the she ruined her life and was incarcerated, I used to get letters sent from her in prison. It’s a terrible tragedy really, although it did serve as a warning to me and the love of music saved me from many pitfalls, like excessive drinking and drug use, for which I am very thankful. Music both provided a goal and direction, doing so certainly saved me from such excesses.

Enter The Ring is about the circus ride of fame I experienced with Genesis. We were all over the place and frantically busy, with little time to draw breath, it was a wild ride for sure. During that time I had the ideas that were to lead to my first solo album, ‘Voyage Of The Acolyte’, which came out in 1975.

JWS: You were still with Genesis at that point though?

SH: Yes, Peter had just left after we toured ‘The Lamb’ album and before Phil took over the vocals. We recorded ‘Trick  Of The Tai’l and then ‘The Wind And The Wuthering’ and ‘Seconds Out’. After which I’d had enough, I was feeling increasingly marginalised and so decided to do my own thing.

As mentioned, Enter The Ring is about my life as part of Genesis and the circus ride it became, whilst Get Me Out is about the frustrations I felt towards the end. The trio of Mike, Tony and Phil were a very tight unit and that resulted in me feeling that my contributions were dismissed lightly, which left me feeling marginalised, resulting in me keeping my material for my own future use. Whilst I loved being a part of it all, in the end I was glad to be out of it and able to concentrate on my own efforts completely. Also, the success of ‘Voyage’ caused a rift that was never fully addressed or resolved and, while we are all still amicable, somehow it was never quite the same again.

Ghost Moon And Living Love is combination of heavy and softer tones in the same song, I get to let it out a little and play some fiery guitar lines. I know some folks don’t like love songs and just want rock but it’s part of who I am. Love is important to me, celebrating and expressing my feelings and not just in my playing. Jo (my wife) says this album combines both of these aspects, from the rage and the fury through to the flames of love, which I think is a good summation of the album.

Ghost Moon And Living Love is the albums longest track and a centrepiece of the album, this is followed by the Circo inferno, again more circus imagery to express a crazy period of my life. The track Into The Nightwhale is about facing your Demons and overcoming them, resilience and the like. When we started the album the term Nightwhale was not as widely used as it is now but, overall, it reflects a big part of my Life Journey.

Wherever You Are is unashamedly romantic and, again, it has heavy sections and much fiery guitar lines. The album booklet explains the songs far better but I don’t have a copy myself as yet, but I will be signing them in Birmingham and London when we tour.

JWS: Steve, I’d like to thank you for this immersive look into the songs on the album and wish you all the best.

‘The Circus And The Nightwhale’ will be released on 16th February, 2024.

Order the album here:

Steve Hackett – Wherever You Are (lnk.to)

sleepmakeswaves announce new single ‘Super Realm Park’ from forthcoming new album

Super Realm Park is the new single from the new sleepmakeswaves album ‘It’s Here, But I Have No Names For It’ due out Friday 12th April.

From the band:

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the new single from sleepmakeswaves.

The main riff and synth on this track was inspired by F-Zero, the old school Nintendo 64 game. We developed and refined the concept into the first half of the track to bring in some late 90s influences.

We hit a few walls with how to close the track, until one afternoon in 2020 at an apartment in Erskineville, we suddenly realised it needed a slow, crushing, hypnotic wall of noise. We can’t wait to play it live.”

Listen to Super Realm Park now:

It’s Here, But I Have No Names For It | sleepmakeswaves (bandcamp.com)

sleepmakeswaves | Instagram, Facebook | Linktree

The new album ‘It’s Here, But I Have No Names For It’ was produced by the band themselves, at Golden Retriever Studios in Sydney, Australia. Written during the pandemic, it was originally recorded during 2022 just before the band embarked on a 3 month tour for their previous EP trilogy ‘these are not your dreams.’ Further recording was completed in 2023, including string arrangements by Simeon Bartholomew (SEIMS). The record was then mixed by Andrei Eremin (Closure in Moscow, Tash Sultana, G Flip, Luca Brasi) in Philadelphia USA and mastered by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering in Boston USA.

The first single ‘Super Realm Park’, prefiguring the record as a whole, is a majestic return to the classic hallmarks of the band’s melodic post-rock sound, whilst introducing new production and arrangement elements. Fans of the band’s heavy bombastic aggression will resonate with tracks such as ‘All Hail Skull’ and ‘Ritual Control.’ They also shine with invigorated melodic and emotive performances and arrangements on tracks like ‘Black Paradise’ and ‘Terror Future.’ Retaining their signature approach to heavy dynamics and crescendos the band are still at their unmatched peak when they turn their hand to cataclysmic emotional epics such as the title track and the album closer ‘This Close Forever.’

Pre-order the album now – https://sleepmakeswaves.bandcamp.com/album/its-here-but-i-have-no-names-for-it

The band recently announced that they will tour Australia, Europe and the USA in support of their new album ‘It’s Here, But I Have No Names For It.’

They will kick off their world tour in Australia in April, playing shows in Melbourne, Sydney & Brisbane with support from Taiwanese math rock legends ELEPHANT GYM and fellow Australian post-rock veterans MENISCUS.

sleepmakeswaves will then return to Europe in May to headline Belgium’s Dunk Festival, and North America to co-headline PostFest in Indianapolis in July. Further shows will be added.

sleepmakeswaves Australian tour 2024

w/Elephant Gym (Taiwan) & Meniscus

Fri 26 April – Max Watts, Melbourne VIC

Sat 27 April – Manning Bar, Sydney NSW

Sun 28 April – The Triffid, Brisbane QLD

+ more to be announced

Presented by Bird’s Robe & Cult Artists

Tickets on sale from sleepmakeswaves.com & venue websites

sleepmakeswaves UK/EU tour 2024

Sat 11 May – Dunk Festival, Zottegem BELGIUM

+ more to be announced

sleepmakeswaves USA tour 2024

25-27 July – PostFest, Indianapolis INDIANA

+ more to be announced

‘It’s Here, But I Have No Names For It’ is out Friday 12 April through Bird’s Robe/MGM and Dunk Records

Check out more at www.sleepmakeswaves.com

MIDAS FALL SHARE NEW VIDEO FOR ‘MONSTERS’ 

NEW ALBUM ‘COLD WAVES DIVIDE US’ RELEASED 8TH MARCH (MONOTREME RECORDS) 

Monsters is the second single from Cold Waves Divide Us, the fifth studio album from Scottish alt/post/progressive-rock trio Midas Fall.

On Monsters, the band show a more contemplative side, with an ethereal intro giving way to gorgeously syncopated guitar and drums.

Says Elizabeth Heaton, “The monsters I sing about in this song are the intrusive, anxiety ridden thoughts that decide to rear their ugly heads from time to time, especially when you least expect it, just to remind you that you never truly have full control. There is a feeling of defeat and submission in this song, juxtaposed with the idea that the act of writing the words and music itself can be the resolution

The single is accompanied by a video from producer David Gregory of Cineoteric Films, featuring the band members. Describing the approach he took to the video, David recounts, “Liz explained to us that the song Monsters came to her during a tough time. Composing it happened quickly and organically as it very much helped get her through it. We wanted to explore the idea that art and specifically music is ever-present. As if we’re conduits to the vibrations around us and we’re pulling the lyrics, music and inspirations directly from our surroundings. Sometimes music reveals itself when we truly need it”.

Watch the video for ‘Monsters’:

Cold Waves Divide Us will be released on 8th March, digitally, as well as on CD and a limited pressing of 500 LPs on 180g vinyl (150 black, 350 clear with orange and black splatter). The first 50 physical pre-orders from the Monotreme Records web shop will also receive a limited edition printed A5 booklet with images of handwritten lyrics drafts and drawings from Elizabeth Heaton. Pre-order here:

Monotreme Records – Midas Fall ‘Cold Waves Divide Us’ album – pre-order (limitedrun.com)

Tracklisting

1. In the Morning We’ll Be Someone Else  

2. I Am Wrong  

3. Salt  

4. In This Avalanche  

5. Point of Diminishing Return  

6. Monsters  

7. Atrophy  

8. Cold Waves Divide Us  

9. Little Wooden Boxes  

10. Mute

Midas Fall tour dates confirmed so far:

16.04.24  Munich DE – Sunny Red Club

17.04.24  Dresden DE – Polimagie Festival

18.04.24  Karlsruhe DE – Kohi

19.04.24  Neunkirchen DE – Stummsche Reithalle

20.04.24  Osnabrück DE – Pop Salon Festival

26.05.24 London UK – Portals Festival, EartH

Credits:

Elizabeth Heaton – vocals, guitars, strings, synths, piano, drums

Rowan Burn – guitars, synths, piano, drums

Michael Hamilton – bass, synths, drums

Music by Elizabeth Heaton and Rowan Burn

Lyrics by Elizabeth Heaton

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Elizabeth Heaton  

Artwork by Steven Pellatt – EvercloudDesign

Big Big Train launch video for ‘Miramare’; second track taken from ‘The Likes Of Us’

The award-winning progressive rock band Big Big Train will release their 15th studio album ‘The Likes Of Us’ on 1st March 2024 (InsideOutMusic). The album is the internationally-based group’s first full collection of songs since the unexpected passing of long-serving lead vocalist David Longdon in late 2021. Besides marking the debut of new frontman Alberto Bravin, a former member of the Italian band Premiata Forneria Marconi, it also heralds the beginning of a new relationship with InsideOutMusic, the group having self-released their music for almost two decades. 

Today the band are pleased to reveal a second track taken from the forthcoming album. ‘Miramare’ is an edited version of a song that features in a longer format on ‘The Likes Of Us’. You can watch the video for ‘Miramare’, created by Miles Skarin of Crystal Spotlight, here:

Gregory Spawton comments of the track: “BBT is known for its story songs, and I was keen to find a story which is set in Italy. Alberto lives in Trieste and mentioned the story of Maximilian and Carlotta, which was both a romantic (but doomed) love story and also a tale of the end of empires. 

Miramare was their castle home, a castle of dreams, set on the shore just outside Trieste. It turned out to be a grand folly and a place of madness and nightmares. Alberto had written a lovely piece of music and melody to set the words to and so it was simply a process of reading some books on the history and finding the way to tell the story.”

Alberto Bravin adds: “Having grown up in Trieste, and recently returned here after living for some years in London and Milan, the Miramare castle has been a backdrop for most of my life. 

Putting the story of Maximilian and Carlotta into music with Greg has been hugely satisfying for me. It was very fulfilling to co-write this song together and create what will hopefully be regarded as a Big Big Train future classic. With all its twists and turns as the story progresses, Miramare should be great to play live as well.”

Watch the recently released clip for ‘Oblivion’ here: https://youtu.be/TZjAreGfqlU

‘The Likes Of Us’ will be released on several different formats, including for the first time as Dolby Atmos mixed by The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord, while the stereo mixes were undertaken by the band’s regular engineer Rob Aubrey together with Alberto Bravin. The Dolby Atmos mix will come as part of the Limited CD & Blu-ray Mediabook edition that also contains the album as 5.1 Surround Sound & 24-bit high-resolution stereo. The album will also be available as a Gatefold 180g 2LP (available in black, sky blue, olive green and orange formats), Standard CD Jewelcase and Digital Album. The stunning artwork was created by the band’s longstanding collaborator Sarah Louise Ewing, with layouts by Steve Vantsis.

Pre-order now here:

Big Big Train – Miramare (Single Edit) (lnk.to)

The album’s full track listing is as follows:

1.     Light Left In The Day 06:10

2.     Oblivion 05:27

3.     Beneath The Masts 17:26

4.     Skates On 04:28

5.     Miramare 10:17

6.     Love Is The Light 06:11

7.     Bookmarks 06:23

8.     Last Eleven 07:55

Big Big Train will perform for the first ever time in the USA in March 2024, including an appearance on Cruise To The Edge. The full list of shows can be found below:

1st March – Sweetwater Performance Theatre, Fort Wayne, Indiana

2nd March – Rivoli Theater at the Williams Center, Rutherford, New Jersey

3rd March – Rivoli Theater at the Williams Center, Rutherford, New Jersey

5th March – Regent Theatre, Arlington (Boston), Massachusetts

8th-13th March – Cruise To The Edge, Miami, Florida

The band have also confirmed two summer 2024 festival appearances at the final Night of the Prog Festival in Germany on 21st July, and Cropredy Festival in the UK on 9th August.

Look out for more dates to be announced soon.

ALBERTO BRAVIN – Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards

NICK D’VIRGILIO – Drums, percussion, vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, vocals

DAVE FOSTER – Guitars 

OSKAR HOLLDORFF – Keyboards, vocals

CLARE LINDLEY – Violin, vocals 

RIKARD SJÖBLOM – Guitars, keyboards, vocals

GREGORY SPAWTON – Bass guitar, bass pedals, 12-string acoustic guitar, Mellotron

Featured image by Massimo Goina.