Review – Unified Past – Shifting the Equlibrium

Unified Past - Shifting the Equilibrium - cover-art by Ed Unitsky

“I really don’t think in the past. I sit down with many friends at dinner, and they like to talk about the good old days. I’m respectful of the good old days, but I find myself spending very little time reminiscing. I’m really looking forward.” – David Bren.

Through numerous conversations, discussions and mild arguments on social media this last month, I have come to see this as indicative of my view on the music industry and, particularly, the progressive genre.

I wrote a few words about this, agreed, in the heat of the moment and, despite them mellowing somewhat over the last week or two, this was the gist of it:

“My dear friends if we always keep looking over our shoulders at what has gone before then there will be no future for the music.
Yes, enjoy the greats of the past but please invest some of your precious time and hard-earned money in some of the smaller artists who are producing the here and the now and, more than that even, the future……”

True, some of these modern artists would not even be writing and performing their music if it wasn’t for the influence of the leviathans of the past and we should respect them for that and for what they are producing now but, we really need to concentrate on the present for this genre (and many others, I would imagine, but I’m concentrating on my favourite!) to flourish and not disappear into the musical ether.

I hope, in some little way, that by concentrating on the independent artists and small labels that I can contribute to widening the general music fan’s consciousness when it comes to the new music that they produce and release.

To that extent I, once again, delve into the musical treasure trove to find some wonderment for your delectation and, this time, it is Syracuse, NY band Unified Past who get ‘Progradared’ (so to speak!).

I have been a long time fan of this excellent group of musicians ever since reviewing their last release ‘Spots’ for Lady Obscure Music Magazine and I was very excited when, earlier this year, guitarist Stephen Speelman first informed me that they had a new album coming out, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’, in the autumn.

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Unified Past is a power progressive rock band from Syracuse, New York. ‘Shifting the Equilibrium’ is the band’s 7th release and their third for Melodic Revolution Records. The CD is a 6 panel digi pack containing a 12 page booklet of lyrics and photos, designed by international fantasy artist Ed Unitsky, who also designed “Spots” in 2013.

The band consists of Stephen Speelman (guitars, keys, vocals), Dave Mickelson (bass) and Victor Tassone (drums and percussion). For this new release they were joined by grammy award winning vocalist Phil Naro, showing that the band is continuing to grow and evolve and that they are a band that prog rock fans should really get to know.

Guitarist Stephen possesses a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, bass player Dave  is currently a member of Joey Belladonna’s Chief Big Way and thunderous drummer Victor  has appeared on several independent artist releases as well, including Corvus Stone and Andy John Bradford’s Oceans 5.

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The album opens with Erasure Principle, a tentative percussion and keys based intro gives way to the thunderous guitar of Stephen Speelman and Victor Tassone’s powerful drumming. This is what you call ‘Power-Prog’ as the heavy riffage continues, surrounded by some rather nice technical elements. When Phil’s voice joins the throng, it gives it a very Rush-like feel, especially with the keyboards driving the song along. Some rather excellent instrumental interludes join together the vocal parts and it is immediately obvious that Naro’s distinctive vocals have added a further dimension to the band’s signature sound. Speelman goes into guitar shredding mode with an excellent solo in the middle of a more laid back interlude, giving a short break, before the flood gates are once again opened and the full force of Unified Past is thrust upon you. Upbeat, effervescent and assured, it opens the album with a purely positive vibe.

A really striking keyboard run, accompanied by another booming riff opens Smile (In the Face of Adversity), Phil repeats the title in a lazy repeated circle and the song seems to tread water before the blue touch paper is lit and off we go on a hectic riff-led journey once more. Excellent little squirreling guitar runs grab your attention and reel you in to join the effusive musical thrill ride. The dense production leading to a wall to wall block of intense sound, staccato, random keyboard parts and sinister guitar breaks give the whole song a moody aura and Phil’s vocal has a slight pleading note to it, appealing to your better side. The catchy chorus is underpinned by the chugging riff that drives the song along at a break-neck pace. The musical breaks haul everything back to a more sedate tempo as the atmosphere takes on an edgy feel. Naro’s intensive vocal delivery will not be to everyone’s taste but I feel that it works perfectly with the solid, forceful musical delivery. An intricate, restless guitar solo adds menace before the song breaks out with the dynamic keyboards and looms ominously above you. Quite a dark hued musical adventure that comes to an enigmatic close, I’ve paid the entrance fee and I am enjoying the ride….

Etched in Stone begins with a nicely subdued acoustic guitar followed by refined keyboards that add a note of distinction to the track. The vocals join in, quite heartfelt and earnest, adding a cultured note. The ‘Power-Prog’ takes a back seat initially but it isn’t long before Tassone’s drumming starts to resonate around the inside of your skull, purposeful and compelling. Speelman’s guitar adds its usual stylish flourishes and you really get to hear the majesty of Dave Mickelson’s fluent bass playing as it lays the foundations for the rest of this enjoyable musical jaunt. Another forceful and energetic riff adds the necessary chops to Phil Naro’s increasingly potent vocal delivery, add all this energizing melodic brilliance to the intricate progressive elements already in the melting pot and you get a wild smorgasbord of harmonious delights. There is no denying the technical artistry of these musicians but it is their ability to write a damn good song that always seems to come to the fore for me, adding the undoubted vocal drama of Phil Naro has really upped their game by quite a large leap.

A highly charged and volatile keyboard and guitar combination launches Peace Remains in This World, a really aggressive and magnetic opening and Phil’s dominant voice carries on the efficacious feel. Touches of Rush and Trevor Rabin era Yes abound to my ears. The lively, electrifying interplay between the keys and guitar that overly some more impressive bass work from Dave Mickelson is a definite highlight as this track takes definitively heavier progressive route. Intricacies and ‘noodly’ bits ramped up to eleven are at the core of the song, a darker and moodier track than those that have gone before. Once again, the superb bass playing anchors the whole sound as the song moves into what is almost a stylish jam session, I get the impression that this would be a killer track live, both for the band and the audience. A really dominant and dense musical experience that leaves its mark on your psyche as it comes to a strident conclusion.

Let’s go on a metaphysical journey, Deviation From a Theme (of Harmonic Origin) sounds very existential and begins with quite a thought provoking, if rather loud, introduction. It is a rather fine instrumental that gets your grey matter working as it careers from place to place with its own destination in mind. An exploration of the deeper parts of humankind’s inner being through music, the smooth segues from intricate and convoluted to smooth and calculated are pin sharp as these musicians deliver their ‘A’ game right on cue. Speelman’s guitar is animated in every sense and punches the song forcefully along with an intense depth of intuition. The polished rhythm section of Tassone and Mickelson seems inspired as they choreograph this great track at ground level. The Rush influences can be heard throughout, like a nod to the greats of the past but they are integrated into Unified Past’s own sound to create something dexterous, eye-opening and quite superb.

The final track on this discerning musical adventure is Today is the Day and sees the band deliver an uplifting close to the album. A euphoric opening dominated by Naro’s vocal leads you gently into the song as the classy music delivers a wonderful hopeful note. Musical sunshine runs across your mind as the track increases in expectancy and emotion. A song full of hope, longing and optimism and all that is inherent in the lyrics that Phil Naro espouses so fervently. This song is more about the spirit and meaning of the lyrics, the musicians seem happy to take a back seat and let the words do the talking, yet they never take their foot of the pedal. The demonstrative bass work and energising fervour of the drums give the verse that added lustre and Speelman’s admirable guitar could almost be singing itself as it comes to life in short virtuoso slots throughout the song. A contemplative, serious instrumental section adds a nice counterpoint to the lighter note of the early part of the track yet it soon sheds that steely eyed demeanor to flare brightly with expectation once more. All good things must come to an end, unfortunately and this auspicious song comes to a triumphant close.

Powerful, energising music that makes you sit up and listen, ‘Shifting the Equlibrium’ is most definitely Unified Past’s most impressive release to date. A group of exemplary musicians whose songwriting has reached a new peak, add in the dynamism of Phil Naro’s voice and you have near-perfect ‘Power-Prog’. Will it appeal to veryone? I doubt it but, those that do appreciate this band’s excellent music have really dropped lucky this time, well done chaps!

Released 15th September 2015

Buy Shifting the Equlibrium from MRR

 

 

 

 

 

Wallet Emptier – 29/9/15

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Nad Sylvan – Courting the Widow

Better known recently as the voice behind Steve Hackett’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ live show, Nad has had a varied career as a solo musician and as part of the musical projects Unifaun and Agents Of Mercy. ‘Courting the Widow’ is his first solo effort since 2005 and was quite a revelation to me. It is full of traditional progressive rock pointers yet it is Nad’s voice that carries the album all the way through. A concept album about his stage persona, The Vampyre. Featuring a plethora of guest musicians including Steve Hackett, Nick BeggsRoine STolt and Nick D’Virgilio if you like well written, story driven music (and a touch of Genesis), you’ll love this.

Released 16th October 2015 (EU)

Stand Out Track – Long Slow Crash Landing

Pre-order Courting the Widow from inside out music

 

David Gilmour

David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock

Pink Floyd’s guitar maestro releases his first solo album since ‘On an Island’ and it is a good one. There’s been a lot of discussion about the prominence of the older, established artists recently and how they are perhaps taking the attention from the new and up and coming acts (I put my hand up to being one who is worried by it) but, surely, they can exist together. If these older, nostalgic acts weren’t around, what music would we have listened to in the first place? Nothing new or different but polished and comfortable, like your favourite shoes, I find myself returning to it quite frequently.

Released 18th September 2015

Stand out track – And Then…..

Buy direct from the artist’s website

 

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Hillward – Flies in Amber Stones

Canadian band Hillward started off as Southern Cross’ side project with three of its members, David Lizotte, Jean-François Boudreault and Antoine Guertin. The band became one of its own when Alexandre Lapierre joined as a second guitar player after the recording of the first album ‘Flies In Amber Stones’.

Progressive metal with alternative undertones, its powerful and dynamic sound is really quite addictive as it pulses and resounds with heavy riffs, potent drumming and aggressive vocals.

Released 25th September 2015

Stand out track – Flies in Amber Stones

Buy direct from the artist

 

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Perfect Beings – Perfect Beings II

The eagerly awaited follow up to 2014’s eponymous debut album is a cornucopia of progressive, classical, experimental, ambient, jazz and pop influences that create the band’s unique style. Emotive and full of energy it is the fruit of 2014’s live performances and the way that playing live tightened up the band’s sound and evolved them into a tighter unit.

Perhaps a tad incohesive and self-indulgent in places, it is still, nevertheless, a great Prog-Rock release.

Released 16th October 2015

Stand out track – The Love Inside

Pre-order Perfect Beings II direct from the band’s website

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFVPWk_X8mw

 

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Australia’s Caligula’s Horse release their third album of raw, honest, and yet skillful, progressive, alternative rock. Vibrant and dynamic, the band are like a force of nature and their music is not for the faint hearted whilst being energetic, grand and forthright.

This is their most vivid, vibrant and emotional work to date and should see them break through and become one of the leading lights of the genre, full of colour and life.

Released 16th October 2015 (EU)

Stand out track – Dragonfly

Buy Bloom from inside out music

Blast from the past…..

Kinetic Element – Powered by Light

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Following my review of the band’s ‘Travelog’ album last week, I have the pleasure of introducing their first release from 2009. ‘Powered by Light’ follows in the tradition of the progressive rock giants of the 1970s, heavy with symphonic keyboards and virtuoso guitar work, Kinetic Element takes the listener on a lightspeed journey of the heart, full of great evocative passages.

Released 2009

Stand out track – Reconciliation

Buy Powered by Light from MRR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – John Storey – Euphonium

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“Sometimes in the great soundtrack of our lives there are no words, there are only emotions; I believe this is why God gave us classical music.”

I’d like to say that I came up with that quote myself but I would be telling a lie, it is an anonymous saying that, I believe, sums up classical music perfectly. I don’t have endless shelves full of classical recordings (in fact, I only have a handful of releases) but the fact that this music can hold people in rapt attention, sometimes hundreds of years after its composition, is testament to its enduring popularity.

Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by brass instruments and brass bands, ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ one of the first pieces I can actually remember hearing and it still raises the hairs on the nape of my neck today. Brass Bands were central to Yorkshire mining communities (and still are to this day) and I grew up with Colliery bands thanks to my Great Uncle who lived in Sheffield.

Listening to the amazing last few albums by Big Big Train, I was struck by the brilliant brass playing on tracks such as ‘Victorian Brickwork’ and ‘East Coast racer’ and it led me to investigate further into who the brass players were.

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Dave Desmond led the Band of The Coldstream Guards who appeared on ‘The Underfall Yard’ and helped to make it such a memorable piece of music. One of the other musicians who played on the album, and the at the subsequent live gigs at Kings Place in London, was John Storey, celebrated euphonium player and well known in his own right.

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John, previously the principle euphonium player with the Band of the Coldstream Guards, is now the euphonium and trombone player with The Band of the Royal Logistic Corps. After becoming a member of his first band at the age of 8, he joined The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain at 16.

John studied music at the University of Huddersfield and joined the James Shepherd Versatile Brass. After graduating in 1997, John joined The Band of the Coldstream Guards as principle euphonium and was privileged to play at many state occasions such as Trooping the Colour and the Festival of Remebrance. John has featured as soloist with the band in the UK, overseas and on a number of the band’s recordings.

In addition to his career with the Army, he has been very much in demand in the brass band world for many years performing with , amongst others, the Beaumaris Band.

in 2012 John Storey released an album with the simple title of Euphonium and it is that record that I have the pleasure of reviewing here….

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Opening track O Waly Waly is John’s instrumental take on the Scottish folk song which harks back to the 1600’s, better known as ‘The Water is Wide’, it is the first track to feature the Seindorf Beaumaris Band. Gentle and uplifting, John’s euphonium is the definite centre of attention here taking the lead and guiding you through the story. With a real pastoral feel, it has touches of that famous soundtrack to a Hovis advert (ee, when I were a lad!) and has a wonderfully calming persona that just leaves you adrift in your own calm oasis. The beautiful playing just brings a lump to your throat as the backing musicians join in unison as it rises triumphantly before coming back down to the land where it belongs. The next track is The Flower Song from Carmen, the delicacy being added by the tender piano playing of Annette Parri. John’s playing is restrained and cultivated giving this well known and exquisite song a different perspective, as euphonium and piano combine to deliver a quite magical scene. Sat in a sunlit room with my head clear of everything but the music, it is quite a liberating and transfixing experience.

Joining John on Mozart’s Concerto for Euphonium and Woodwind Octet is The Inner-City Woodwind Ensemble, this jaunty classical masterpiece is played excellently by these musicians. A quite delicate piece of music is handled gracefully and with gravitas and you could just close your eyes and imagine you were transported to a stunning baroque music hall to hear it in the setting it deserves. An agile and refined aura surrounds the tune as it flows perfectly through and around your mind, at the same time enriching and inspiring your soul. The Beaumaris Band join John again on Variations on Rule Britannia, full of as much pomp and circumstance as any one person could ever need, it runs the rule over some different perspectives of the famous tune. Running in at over eight minutes I did wonder if it maybe a tad too long but you just seem to get lost in the complexity and delight of some utterly expressive musicianship. When the instantly recognisable notes ring out it is a metaphorical salute to our mother nation and the pride that comes with it. Utterly over the top in its ceremonial elegance but utterly fascinating and enjoyable too.

The next track is from the famous English composer of works for brass bands, JohnGolland, Peace features the ethereal Harp playing of Dylan Cenyw and is a sublimely emotive piece of music. Seemingly simple in its delivery, there is a subtle depth of artistry and passion running throughout. John plays his instrument with a gentle touch, matching the finesse of the harp and just leaving you struck dumb with admiration, as fine a piece of music as you will hear anywhere. The three movements of Rolf Wilhelm’s Concertino for Euphonium sees Annette’s piano return. Another wonderful melodic journey through your mind and soul, restful and relaxed, it leaves you with no cares in the world as they lightly skip through Allegro ma non troppo, a humble and unpretentious musical journey through a sun drenched, sepia tinged forest glade. Andante ma non troppo feels  more melancholy and dispirited, the ability of the musicians to convey feelings is perfectly realised here, John’s wistful playing matches the slightly trite piano perfectly and leads your emotions along the same path, contemplative and with a sense of longing. That plaintive feeling lifts with the jaunty opening notes of Moderato con animo, the dancing piano and animated euphonium feel like they are talking to each other in a spirited conversation, captivating and absorbing. John plays his heart out here, every note is like a precise synaptic shock in your brain and across the three parts of this spellbinding piece of music.

John really gets to stand tall and shout from the rooftops on title track Euphoria, a celebrated work by Rodney Newton. Using the Big Big Train analogy it really has sense of animation to it, like a steam train on an express journey, full of the essence of life as it charges on like an engine with its own soul. With no other instrument to provide accompaniment or hide behind, it is here where the absolute skill and expertise of John Storey comes to the fore and he doesn’t hide behind anyone’s bushel, this guy has an abundance of talent. Now to perhaps the most accomplished and, in my mind, the most interesting track on this release, Concertino for euphonium and string quartet sees The Cassian Ensemble add their distinguished playing to Steven Rockey’s work. Ten minutes of magnificent interplay between John’s euphonium and some meticulously refined strings left me feeling wholly inadequate in the skill set that I have amounted through my life. An elaborate orchestral journey that takes you by the hand and takes you right into the core of it. The music is that intense that you cannot try to do anything else while you listen to it, to get every nuance and subtle gradation you need to stop, sit down and immerse yourself entirely in it, only then does it all come together and make complete sense. As you come to the end of the journey and open your eyes, the world seems to make a lot more sense.

The final track, ‘Neath Dublin Skies has John and the Beaumaris Band take you on a musical trip that has all the elements of a night in Dublin. A haunting air opens the piece and it moves into a fast paced jig where John delivers an intricate, foot tapping Irish reel. That low key opening returns, sombre, tender and hushed, you find your breathing becomes slow and shallow as a poignant horn takes up the reverie, sentimental, touching and nostalgic, yearning for yesteryear. A sustained repeat of the lively, energetic jig increases in tempo, getting faster and faster before all comes to a close with a spirited flourish.

I came upon this album by way of a quite obtuse route, I listen to the odd classical release but it is not really my forte. I absolutely love the brass playing on the Big Big Train albums and that led me to want to hear John Storey’s release. Well, am I glad I did, it is a fine piece of music that I keep returning to every now and again, like an old friend whose company you instantly know you will always enjoy. Should you take a leap of faith and listen to something you wouldn’t normally consider? In one word, yes!

The best way to get Euphonium is to contact John direct on facebook here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – The Bob Lazar Story – Self-Loathing Joe

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Does humour have a place in music? I don’t mean wry, observational humour but slapstick silliness and side splitting fun. Sarcasm and self-deprecation abound around The Bob Lazar Story. I haven’t heard anything as ‘out-there’ as this musical project since I listened to Cheeto’s Magazine’s bonkers and brilliant ‘Boiling Foils’.

Let’s face, who doesn’t need a bit of light-hearted fun and japery in their everyday lives, it can make the doldrums palatable and keep you smiling from ear to ear. Yes, I love my serious, well intended and deeply meaningful music as much as the next man but I love a bit of playfulness and flippancy too.

To give you some idea about the wisecracking lunacy of this project, here is an excerpt from the website biography:

“The Bob Lazar Story is the musical brainchild of Matt Deacon. Matt was born and raised in Liverpool, UK. Matt happened across an acoustic guitar in 1982 and played the shit out of it until he became perfectly mediocre. A few years later he had to decide between two possible futures :

1. A life of potential musical obscurity.
2. Becoming a top, top football legend.

 Luckily for you, he opted for number 1.”

Matt moved to New Zealand in 1998 and taught guitar for a few years before getting a ‘real’ job. As technology advanced and became more affordable, the musician in Matt get sneaking out, culminating in his first, eponymous, release in 2004.

Matt changed his musical moniker to The Bob Lazar Story (that’s a question for another day)and the rest, as they say, is history. 2006 saw the first proper album entitled ‘(sic)’ followed by an E.P. ‘The Silence of Perez de Cuellar’.

A mad four year journey followed (which included a crazy year driving taxis back in Liverpool) and this culminated in Matt’s first collaborative effort with his erstwhile rhythmical genius, Chris Jago. 2014 saw the release of ‘Ghost Of Foodstool’, a fifteen minute epic that spawned popular hits such as ‘Threadkiller’ and ‘Funniest Cat Video Ever II’.

It was also the first release where Chris played on all tracks, leading to a more cohesive sound across all songs. Jump to mid 2015 and we see the recent release of Self-Loathing Joe, a twenty minute ride into the heart of The Bob Lazar Story.

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Harmonics is 16 seconds of setting the scene, a gentle meander through a field of acoustics which then blazes straight into the angst driven madness of Don Branch Venom, a vicious guitar riff playing off with some whimsical keyboards that dance around like some maniacal jester. Like a 21st century tongue in mouth homage to Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson it has technical prowess and follows no set route, abstract and perplexing. The increasing fervor of the staccato riffs and keyboard melodies gives the music an incessant nagging nature that never lets you settle as it comes to a short, sharp close.

A terse drumbeat opens No Wait, Yes Chips before it wanders off, in a slightly surreal seventies American sit-com fashion, well, one that may have been directed by David Lynch that is. It’s like the X-Files met Saturday Night Live and had a musical baby that grew up on a diet of sugary sweets and late night TV. Slightly psychotic but thoroughly enjoyable and definitely a few sandwiches short of a picnic, it runs off into the dark, maniacally shouting and grinning. The segue into Title track Self-Loathing Joe is seamless and this track adds a real jazzy edge to the lunacy that abounds all around you, the mellow keyboards and chilled guitar playing leave you slap bang in the middle of a wide open imagined space, a desert where the only sustenance is the uber-sharp music and highly charged crazed atmosphere.

Unhinged and unsettled are two words I could use to describe this album and that doesn’t change with Foodstool Exacts Revenge Upon Gilchrist the Traitor (the title is mad enough on its own!). Another schizophrenic, flippant trip into the depths of someone’s musical depravity on a superbly kitsch 70’s influenced keyboard and guitar melody and a rhythm section that is more chilled than the whole of L.A. The longest track on the album and by some margin, the most serious in nature (although that doesn’t say much when you’re talking about these guys) Ezekiel II begins with a mysterious and methodical beat, those familiar with the 80’s arcade game Spy Hunter will know exactly where I’m coming from. Like a sound track from a Tarantino film, it is edgy and dangerous yet stylishly so with a veneer of cool that only someone like Sinatra could exude. Again there is a strong 70’s vibe to the whole thing as it marches on relentless. A rather disturbing u-turn then follows, one which is actually quite creepy, as some rather pained voices shout out as if trapped in Dante’s musical inferno. Some crazed hushed whispering follows which is almost as creepy as a scene from 1970’s Dr. Who (the ‘hide behind the sofa’ kind) and the hairs are definitely raised. It is enjoyably unnerving though and then the music becomes the star of the show with a sustained organ like vibrato with a repeated note underlying until the guitar takes over in quite a sombre, mournful fashion. Quite possibly the most ‘normal’ and meaningful part of the whole record, it really does hit home and leave you in some sort of dark reverie, although hope and sanity are never too far away. Scinomrah is what they call the final 15 seconds and it closes out this most interesting E.P. in much the same way as the first track opened it.

Utterly captivating and totally bonkers, we should all have a listen to ‘Self-loathing Joe’ whenever we get above ourselves and our self-importance gets too big for its own boots. It will bring you back down to earth with an abrupt and exceedingly entertaining bump. Don’t take life too seriously, just enjoy it, I can tell that Matt, Chris and the rest of The Bob Lazar Story live life for today, their music proves it!

Released 23rd August 2015

Buy ‘Self-Loathing Joe’ direct from The Bob Lazar Story

 

 

 

 

Review – Karda Estra – The Seas And The Stars

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I wonder where you stand on soundtracks, you know, the incidental music written specifically for movies and TV shows? Can it really stand separate from the film or TV show it was intended to accompany? And what about music that is not intentionally written for film or TV, music with a cinematic scope that feels like it could be used as a soundtrack?

I love cinematic, atmospheric music but some soundtracks really are just dull and boring if taken away from their natural habitat. What seemed a good idea at the time may look extremely different in the light of day and in retrospect. However, there are some superb albums that invoke thoughts and images as if they were taken from the silver screen.

These albums really tend to be full of thoughtful and intelligent music, tracks that are good for the mind as well as the soul. A few that come to mind are ‘Ra’ by Tony Patterson, ‘Atlantean Symphony’ by Dreamfire, ‘Fragile’ by Acke Hallgren and ‘The Dream Of The Whale’ by Enrico Pinna, releases that take the listener to another place or time and envelop you int heir narrative.

Another band that have been slightly under my radar is Karda Estra, noted for their spacey, sci-fi soundtrack nature and ability to deliver expansive concepts and theories. The band (the brainchild of Richard Wileman) have released eleven full length albums up to press and 2015 sees them release an E.P. ‘The Seas And The Stars’.

The band’s own description of the new release:

‘The Seas And The Stars’ chronicles the collision between the Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way, the eventual end of everything, a celestial intervention and a return to where everything began – viewed from an impossible, empty shoreline.

Sounds very deep and meaningful doesn’t it? Well, let’s have a listen and find out.

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The first thing to note is that the E.P. has a running length of just twenty minutes, short and sweet? let’s see……

Tidal is a short opening track, a very enigmatic, mysterious and even creepy instrumental that succeeds in getting under your skin and  grating on your psyche in a deliciously dark manner, it certainly left my skin crawling in a not entirely unpleasant way.

The suspense and cinematic atmosphere continues with Andromeda Approaches! Once again there is a slightly uneasy feeling to the music, this time, however, the introduction of some otherworldly, ethereal feminine vocals adds a flimsy coating of humanity to the otherwise alien feeling that the music generates. This really could be a soundtrack straight from an Art House picture or a seventies deeply convoluted sci-fi film, it really does grab you and reel you in, leaving you powerless to refuse and mildly bemused afterwards.

The intro to Lighthouse sheds some of the enigma and abstruseness of the previous tracks yet is still very cinematic in nature, but not for long. As it continues it loses the modicum of playfulness that was present to become increasingly enigmatic, like some sort of Victorian tale playing out in front of you. I can’t get The Woman In Black out of my mind, the music would suit that Gothic horror tale down to tee. Sepia tinged characters flit across your mind, leaving an indelible image burned into your mind. The sinister feel lifts in places, as if a dark shroud has been removed from your thoughts yet darkness is maybe only hidden round the corner.

Onto another short track, The Big Freeze is as foreboding as they come. Claustrophobic to a distraction, it holds you in its shadowy grasp and seems to invade your very being with an alien artistry. Clashing sounds bounce across your mind, leaving a mark wherever they land. This track is really quite intimidating in a strangely likeable way and you lament its passing while simultaneously giving thanks.

A really intricate, deep, dark song full of apprehension and portent, The Sleepers of Gliese is full of a cold and calculating intelligence that feels not of this world. The ‘chamber music’ style of delivery that the band use gives them lots of scope to express their music in many different ways and the sinuous nature of the woodwind instruments give this song a definite out of this world aura. The exquisite, filmy female vocals add a gossamer thin veneer of benevolence to the track but there is no getting away from the brooding heart of the music. I wouldn’t listen to this in a darkened room, it leaves the hairs on the back of your neck standing up as the darkness in the shadows waits to unveil itself.

Twenty minutes flashes past in an instant as the final track Return To The Singularity opens with its feeling of portent and foreboding. Just over one minute of music that feels like it weighs more than the whole universe bearing down on you before coming to a truncated close.

Wow, do I need to feel the sun on my face after that. Twenty minutes of the most intense,darkly enticing music that you will ever have the pleasure to listen to. Not for the faint hearted but an allegorical musical journey that, if you enjoy cinematic, atmospheric releases with a cryptic and esoteric edge, will leave you feeling satiated.

Released 4th August 2015

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Kinetic Element – Travelog – Review

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Why do you listen to music? Think about it for a while, what are the main reasons you insert that CD and press play, or lower the needle onto the vinyl? (we’re going a bit more tactile than mp3 for this anology). There have to be a myriad reasons why different people will await a gentle introduction, a powerful, rip-roaring solo or the dulcet tones of their favourite vocalists.

Be it the angst, protest driven edginess of punk, the in-your-face violence of heavy metal or the gentle, ethereal grace of some progressive and folk tinged music, we all have our reasons. I find that fast driven, heavy rock and blues works brilliantly at the gym or if I’m in that nothing can stop me mood and the more relaxing music suits my more sombre moments.

Sometimes, though, I just like to listen to some music that has heart and soul and a lightness of being, a feel-good factor that brings light into your life and makes your day just go past a little bit easier, leaving a smile on your face and a glowing rightness in your soul. The music that tends to do that for me, more than any other, is what we may term ‘traditional progressive rock’.

Now the ‘P’ word is almost becoming persona-non-grata in certain musical circles and talking about it, or dropping an artist into that genre, can be detrimental to both your and their health, stupid as that may sound. The music that was inspired and influenced by the behemoths of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson et al is still going strong today and still matters to me in a big way.

I have been listening to an album recently that brings back waves of nostalgia about that style of music and which just washes over you with good feeling. Kinetic Element’s ‘Travelog’ album has been listened to regularly over the last couple of months and I felt it was about time I put my two-penneth in…..

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Kinetic Element is a neo/symphonic progressive rock band from Richmond, Virginia that harbors musical roots in classic artists like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Asia and Genesis and blends those influences with philosophical and spiritually powerful and uplifting lyrics.

Kinetic Element was formed to perform the music of Mike Visaggio’s solo CD, ‘Starship Universe’ which was released in 2006. The band is comprised of Mike (keyboards); Michael Murray (drums), Todd Russell (electric and acoustic guitar) and Mark Tupko (basses).

Unable to find a suitable vocalist in their hometown, Mike reached out to their musical friends Odin’s Court whose lead vocalist Dimetrius LaFavors agreed to perform the vocals for ‘Travelog’ while remaining with Odin’s Court. However Dimetrius could only appear on three tracks due to Odin’s Court’s changing schedule. Riding in to KE’s rescue came Michelle Schrotz of prog icons Brave, and stellar CProg artist Mike Florio, to record the remaining two tracks.

Fred Schendel and Steve Babb of prog legends Glass Hammer became involved in the mixing of the album. The resulting collaboration produced the terrific sound you hear on ‘Travelog’. They also did the mastering at their studio Sound Resources in Chattanooga.

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So, onto the music and the album opener War Song begins with an African drum style beat with Yes overtones and the delightful use of an atypical Keith Emerson type Hammond organ giving the song an immediate nostalgic note. The gradual intensifying instrumental introduction is quite complex  and intricate and grabs your attention as it flows along stylistically, the ululating guitar note that scurries across your psyche is focused and intense. Just sit back, relax and enjoy as the initial stages of this 20 minute plus progressive epic dance across your mind like a musically inspired storyline. The keyboards, bass and drums providing the foundation for the impressive guitar work before the next chapter begins. Here the expressive vocals take up the story, dynamic and yet passionate and eloquent. Taking the influences that they hold dear and blending them into a distinctive style of their own, Kinetic Element give you an engaging musical cornucopia that, whilst occasionally glancing back over its shoulder, marches majestically onward to the future. A multitude of sophisticated rhythms and melodies surround you as this baroque song continues to surprise and delight, the vocals blending perfectly and adding a final sheen of finesse.

They don’t do short songs these guys, title track Travelog is the briefest and comes in just shy of ten minutes, that could be a stumbling bock if there was anything to dislike but all is looking good so far. A brilliantly pared back and minimalist acoustic guitar opens the song, it needs no back up as it tantalises and enchants, dancing across your mind and soul with beauty and grace. As the track opens up and the vocals begin, it doesn’t lose any of that ethereal quality and continues to leave you feeling relaxed and serene as if you are tip-toeing through a Utopian world of wonder. The fragile, frangible keyboards add an almost alien note, as if you have stumbled onto a vista of fantastical delights. There is an increase in tempo as the track comes to a triumphant close and you are left feeling quite fulfilled, calm and well, just right.

Into The Lair has a nicely judged bass driven opening with powerful keys and enigmatic drumming, a more serious note than what has gone before, dominant and influential, gripping and thoughtful but it soon opens up into a delightfully impish song, led by the superb, stylish vocals of Michelle Schrotz. It should come as no surprise, considering who mixed the album, but the Glass Hammer influence is greatest on this polished track. The smooth guitar note and elaborate keyboard notes lead into an involved and inventive instrumental section, playful in mood and execution. A return to the dominant introduction follows, like a counter to the lightness of the main section, I love the guitar on this part, Todd’s playing is precise and yet has a free-flowing life of its own. Michelle’s sweet-sounding voice returns to close out the song and leave you nodding appreciatively one more time.

A rather delightful piano introduction is the opening to Her and it keeps you entranced as the ivories are quite impressively tinkled, ebbing and flowing and chock full of earnest emotion. Like jewelled trinkets of sound they dance across your aural receptors leaving you suitably transfixed. The layers are stylishly increased as the drums join in, suitably classy and a warbling guitar adds substance. The track begins to take on a jazzy edge to it, staccato and edgy, the vocals join, with a note of pleading and desire. I even get a real feel of Christopher Cross in the song, not quite easy listening or chart music but with a real easy going nature. Like I have said before, it is feel good music that has subtle touches of classic progressive music, the guitar that runs through the middle section, backing the earnest vocal could have come from any 70’s Yes album. A compact, piercing solo fires straight at you and the guitar continues to worm its way around your mind, aided and abetted by the swirling keyboards and smooth rhythm section, the bass playing is particularly impressive. The cultured jazz feel to the song is its key though and we are treated to another great combination of influences as it comes to a high-class close.

Vision Of A New Dawn is perhaps the most thoughtful and contemplative track on the album and begins with another blistering, heavily jazz influenced opening. Driving piano and drums take on the  first notes and then the bass joins in before some fuzzy, intricate guitar playing takes you off an an unknown journey into the more convoluted and mysterious side of the band. We turn first towards an instrumental section of free form progressive tinged jazz fusion, a thrill ride with many twists and turns, like a psychedelic explosion in your mind. A piquant piano note, nervous and tremulous at first, then leads you onto the next part, the vocals begin, heartfelt and poignant, as the wall of sound begins to build, guitars, drums and that elusive piano raising it higher and higher. Emotional and raw, the feeling is of renewal and rebirth, those that have once fallen will rise again. It is a gripping and musically intense story that is being written in front of you, this heart is open and it bleeds sentiment and fervor. A momentary pause, a slowing of time, the mountain has been surmounted, time for reflection perhaps. Take a seat and take stock of what is laid before you as the keyboards lead you on with a jaunty melody, uplifting yet with a note of reserve. There is almost a triumphal tone as we move into the next phase of this fascinating song, the keyboards leading the march before the captivating guitar takes lead duties again. A sombre moment, as if the light is fading and things are to become crucial and weighty, the piano leads the procession, solemn and sedate. The vocal joins, almost a lament, a pause, and then a gently strummed acoustic guitar begins, followed by forceful whistling and the final throws begin. An overture of voice, guitar, keys and piano takes this momentous track to a close, the silence that follows says more than words……

I am going to say it, this is an excellent ‘progressive rock’ album, no band should be scared of using that term and Kinetic Element wear it proudly in the middle of their collective chests and are rightly proud to do so. It’s obvious who their influences are and they take them and mould them into something that, whilst it is instantly recognisable, has a character and soul all of its own. It feels like a labour of love and the skill, energy, blood, sweat and tears that have been invested in this production can be felt by all who hear it.

Released 1st June 2015

Buy Travelog from MRR

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review – Amadeus Awad – Death Is Just A Feeling

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WARNING – LANGUAGE THAT MAY OFFEND (well, you have to put that don’t you….?)

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. That’s not fucking cool.” Don’t fucking think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why the fuck not? Fuck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.” – Dave Grohl

I was going to start this review by talking about guilty pleasures until I saw the above quote from everyone’s favourite hard rocker Dave Grohl and it did get me thinking and thinking enough to completely change the tac of this review….

Mr Grohl really has a point, maybe we stick too rigidly to our favourite genres and don’t look outside our safety cordon music wise? And, when we dare venture outside and find that there is something different that we really like, why should we feel guilty about it?

It is an old and oft spouted saying but it still rings entirely true, good music really is, just, good music, no matter what style it is and which artist performs it. We tend to make this differentiation a lot more when it comes to music than with anything else such as films, TV or the literary arts where we will dip in and out of many different genres without a care or a by your leave.

How many times have you seen somebody laughed at and dismissed out of hand for listening to a record that doesn’t fit into the cognoscenti or aficionado’s realm or current favourites list? It is just wrong and we should open our minds to other music that we may well actually really enjoy if we just lose the stigma.

Now, after getting off my soapbox (while admitting I can be as guilty as anyone else) let’s talk about what started this dissertation on opening up our closeted musical imagination……..

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Lebanese maestro Amadeus Awad is a progressive metal guitarist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and music producer with an already impressive back catalogue behind him. August 2015 saw him release his latest and most complete album yet, a 47 minute, 6 track concept album called ‘Death Is Just A Feeling’.

Amadeus is always stretching the boundaries with his music and lyrics, and it’s no different with his new album. According to Amadeus:

“This album is the result of my personal experience with death, both the tragic loss of loved ones (Father, Brother and a Best Friend) as well as my own attempt of committing suicide, which I contemplated more than once at a certain stage in my life.”

To this end he has drawn together a stellar list of musicians, as well as Amadeus himself (Acoustic, Electric & Bass Guitars, Keyboards and Orchestration) this all star lineup includes vocalists Anneke Van GiersbergenArjen LucassenElia Monsef, drummers Jimmy Keegan and Marco MinnemannNareg Nashanikian (cello), Rafi Nashanikian (clarinet) and the narration is splendidly realised by the impressive voice of Dan Harper.

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The album opener Opia has feeling of lightness and an ethereal quality, the first word spoken is ‘Light’ and it is a song that gives hope. The keyboards are uplifting and fill your inner being with a luminosity only matched by the fluid, burnished guitar work. I can see why Dan Harper was used for the part of the narrator, his voice has a calming authority to it and a mellifluous timbre that dances across your psyche. Anneke Van Giersbergen’s delightfully lilting, heavenly voice takes the song to a close with a rarefied grace that is achingly beautiful.

There is no break as we shift up a gear and power into Sleep Paralysis with a dynamic keyboard and pulsating guitar taking up the reins on the powerful introduction. A progressive metal melting pot of great ideas that bounce of the metaphorical walls to give a primordial soup of musical delights. It takes on a more subdued, yet insistent feel before Anneke’s voice chimes in, this time much more dominant and authoritative, yet no less stunning. The melodies are the focus here, the chorus is especially compelling, backed by the superb musicianship, a symbiosis of near-perfect melodic enchantment. The way the track starts to wind down, becoming more subdued, as it reaches the close is expert and inventive, as the acoustic guitar finishes its last note you are left in a place of comparative calm.

The dulcet tones of the narrator return on Monday Morning, this time with a definite edge, a dissonance to them, as if all is not as it should be. There are subliminal questions being asked here and the answers are not all to your liking. The electronic notes that follow seem to be pulling you forward, in anticipation of something coming that could be either good or evil, depending on how you react to it. Potent and influential, you find yourself holding your breath as it seems to come ominously closer. The pace is steady and regular, like the outcome is inevitable so there is no need to rush. There is a deliciously dark rhythm to this song that I find rather disturbing yet can’t help enjoying it….

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The dark journey into hopelessness seems to reach its zenith with Tomorrow Lies. A brooding, haunting tone is added to by the portentous drumming of Jimmy Keegan and it is with a seemingly heavy heart that you continue to listen to the rest of the bleakly appealing song. Elia Monsef’s definitively middle eastern intonation adds a serious gravitas to proceedings, he sings as if his heart is breaking with every word. There is a huge depth of humanity central to this track, a seriousness that leaves you in no illusion as to the outcome of this painful situation. The instrumentation is dazzlingly precise if somewhat subdued and is a testament to the songwriting skill of Amadeus, he can impose his musical brilliance yet take none of the pathos away. The soaring strings add a sheen of humility and respectfulness and the guitar solo leaves you open mouthed and grief-stricken as it winds around your mind. With a definite notion that a song should close just as well as it opens, the ending is once again quite superb as the beguiling strings and guitar bring it all to a close with a final feeling of hopefulness that belies the rest of the track.

Now onto the longest, and my favourite, track on the album. A sombre Cello opens Lonesome Clown adding a meditative and fretful note to the song. Portentous and mysterious with Anneke’s humming and a slightly off-kilter feel, it really does seem to take you out of any comfort zone you thought you were in and leave your senses reeling, open and raw. The vocal begins, earthy and direct, almost as if a spell is being cast. There is a sinister undertone to all that is happening here and you really feel as if you have been caught of guard and dumped in a musical version of Dante’s Inferno. An all knowing presence seems to be at your side edging you on as the song builds, becoming more and more oppressive and yet addictive at the same time. Wickedly controlling it shows the slightly malevolent genius that resides in the mind of Amadeus Awad and is perhaps more progressive and definitely more metal than the other songs on the album. There is an odd, siren like build up that seems to break over a wash of mellifluous keyboards before the sinuous, vividly disturbing guitar solo takes  you on a dark journey through your own soul. The outspoken and expressive vocal and acoustic section that follows seems to stand on its own adding another level of finesse before exploding outwards in a shower of inspiration. The song closes with Dan’s expressive voice-over, you take a breath and inwardly applaud, shaking your head in amazement, it is that good.

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The final track on the album begins with a delicately strummed acoustic guitar, strings and expressive drums. Temporary sees Arjen Lucassen take vocal duties and his eloquent voice is perfectly matched to the instrumentation. Melancholy yet inspirational at the same time, it reminds me of American prog rockers Spock’s Beard and is a really involving, catchy song that seems to want to comfort you with its warmth and integrity yet there is always a sad note in the background. A soulful clarinet takes centre stage before the rest of the instruments join, adding layers of intense musical flavour and Arjen’s voice is always present adding a focal point on which you can hold on to. Marco Minneman takes on the drum duties with aplomb adding a wistful mood to the already mournful ambience imbued. Things are building up to something here and when Amadeus lets rip with an incredible, soul searching guitar solo, you are left flabbergasted. Is that moisture in your eyes? it was in mine as it totally blew me away, utterly magnificent. The song, and album, finally come to a close with a final narrated section, this time by Arjen himself, and you are left to reflect on what has just transpired before you.

Short by modern standards at 47 minutes, you feel like you can listen to this gem for hours and never get bored. Deliciously dark, it is music that takes you to the depths of your inner being and back again, there has been nothing quite like it in this year of musical zeniths. Amadeus Awad and his group of distinguished musicians have delivered not only a superb piece of music but, what to me is, a part of themselves that will live on forever as fantastic art. A triumph in every sense of the word. A guilty pleasure? No, just an intense one!

Released 20th August 2015 via Melodic Revolution Records

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Review – 3RDegree – Ones and Zeros (Vol. 1)

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Being a music reviewer has its ups and downs and the amount of music that you get sent to review can be a bit of both. I get concerned that, because I have such a large amount of new music to listen to, I will miss out on a hidden gem. It may go under my radar or I may just not have the time to listen to it.

There are some albums though that, when you have heard them for the first time, you won’t forget. They can immediately grab your attention or, like some of the best music I’ve heard, they can pique your interest and make you want to investigate, these I call the ‘slow-burners’.

I had become aware of a small but very charismatic record label from the USA, 10T Records, due to reviewing two artists who are on the label, Heliopolis and Box of Shamans and this led to me dipping into the music of one of the other acts on the label, 3RDegree.

I was sent their 2012 release ‘The Long Division’ and was suitably impressed by their traditional progressive rock style with a nice twist to it. Informed that the new album ‘Ones and Zeros (Vol. 1.)’ would be along in the near future, I sat back to await its arrival.

A quick biography of a band never does any harm in setting the scene so, here we go with 3RDegree……

Founded at the tail-end of 1990, 3RDegree formed when Robert James Pashman (vocalist,bassist, and keyboardist) found drummer Robert Durham and, by the next summer, added guitarist Pat Kliesch to the fold. They released their first album (actually a cassette) ‘The World in Which We Live’  in summer 1993.

The writing and recording of the follow up continued until 1995 when the band recruited vocalist and keyboardist George Dobbs. The CD ‘Human Interest Story’ was released in April 1996, unfortunately, due to the unforeseen pressures of the music scene, the band disbanded in 1997.

The original power trio got back together in 2005  and got Dobbs back on the scene two. Reunion concerts were played which saw Eric Pseja (guitar and backing vocals) join the band. Aaron Noble replaced Durham on the drums and the band found themselves working on two albums at the same time.

The guys decided to go with the political/apolitical focused songs in light of the approaching American election year.  With its album cover and song list, the 2012 US election had a soundtrack, if anyone cared to listen to it, and its name was ‘The Long Division’.

2015 has seen the addition of Bryan Zeigler (lead guitar, backing vocals) to the band and the brand new album ‘Ones and Zeros (Vol. 1.)’ which is thematically linked around the issues of transhumanism, life extension, the singularity, and the ethics associated with the rapid progress of technology.

Time to get on with the review me thinks….

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Hello World is a quick sixteen second computer generated voice over to set the scene of a future, somewhat dystopian, world. The album really gets going with The Gravity which has a really jazzy, upbeat feel to the introduction, the harmonised vocals are rather nice and the chugging bass line in the background drives all along before it. There seems to be a bit of a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek feel to the song, an irreverent note that hangs over the tune. A spaced out, laid back section gives pause before we go on a full 70’s progressive journey with lilting keyboards, smooth bass and eclectic guitars all adding to the Michael Moorcock feel. You are wafted along on a cloud of futuristic nostalgia (if that makes sense) before that really tasty harmonised vocal returns and forges off into the distance, accompanied by the great melody. The track closes out with a slightly alien, futuristic atmosphere engendered by the off kilter beat and harsher vocals. Watch out, Big Brother is watching you…

A really heavy and dynamic riff kicks down your door and introduces you to This Is The Future, this soon calms down and that really positive and optimistic edge returns. There is a real American Prog undertone to the music, hints of Echolyn and The Aaron Clift Experiment abound and it matches the subject matter perfectly. The class act is the harmonised vocals which lift everything well above the norm. The A.I. style voice over at first jars for this listener, a contrast to the organic feel of the rest of the music but, listen to them and they are an essential part of the storyline. There is a stylish segue into the next track Life where an elegant acoustic guitar takes up the refrain backed by rain drop like keyboard notes. The vocal begins in an earnest and heartfelt fashion, adding a degree of pathos to the whole track. A subtle, ethereal song with a touch of real class, simple yet with more depth than we can really appreciate, almost touching on anthemic qualities with the repeated chorus and acapella ending, another voice over adding to the underlying narrative.

Another light and airy introduction brings The Best & Brightest into the fold. Nearly venturing into the knitted cardigan sensibilities of easy listening before a funky guitar cuts through the schmaltz and brings it back into the world of progression. The vocals are cultured and the rhythm section is neat and precise but it is when the song goes a bit left-field that it is at its best even throwing in some smoky jazz stuff for good measure. Circuit Court begins with a serious 80’s synth heavy introduction and I’m thinking big hair and shoulder pads with the super smooth vocals and feisty bass line that just puts a smile on my face. There is a real feel of the decade that taste forgot running throughout this song, it is like a time machine has taken Earth, Wind and Fire to the future to remind people of what they are missing. Intentionally satirical or not, it doffs its metaphorical cap to the past with the swirling keyboard runs and sharp, staccato riffs. The brief solo really does make me smile with a sepia tinged, nostalgic hue.

With an immediately more serious feel to it, Life at Any Cost has a much more progressive feel to it while still having a really heavy jazz smokiness to the underbelly. Meditative and contemplative with a knowing sensibility underlying everything, it is a real slice of sophisticated music, the chorus feels quite world wise and debonair. The instrumental sections are complex and multifaceted and give a deliberate and purposefully meticulous contrast to the more salacious tone of the rest of the song, leading up to a forcefully compelling guitar solo that hits all the right notes. The whole track then opens up and morphs into a progressive rock standard, grabbing your attention all the more. Whilst not re-inventing the wheel, 3RDegree put their own, not insubstantial, stamp on proceedings. What it Means to be Human has that cultured, multi-layered class of previous tracks on the album yet has a more emotional vibe running through it. The multitude of harmonies give a real feeling of Queen to the vocals then added to a progressive base to give something quite unique and unusual. Really inventive and intelligent songwriting full of humour and wit blends with the refined music to deliver something that really gels on all levels.

An edgy musical introduction overlays that by now well versed synthesised robotic voice-over to begin We Regret to Inform You. A dominant instrumental section then follows with thunderous drumming, potent guitar work and a stylish bass line being led by stylistic keyboards. It all has the feel of an impromptu (if impressive) but tightly played musical jam session. When the vocals begin they have a decidedly straight forward tone, gone is the lush harmonising of before, making you sit up and take notice. The more serious tone runs to the end of the song, bringing the album and the allegorical storyline closer to the end. The final song on the album More Life sheds the synthetic feel and has a much more human aura to it. The vocals have feeling and passion in fact the whole track has a feel of rebirth, love and compassion about it. The refrain of the fourth track runs throughout and invests the music with a cathartic effect. the upwelling and outpouring of emotion feels almost real as it washes over you. It is like a musical chrysalis opening up and new life erupting out.

This album is one that may not resonate highly with you on first listen but, like all the best releases, give it time and invest something of yourself in it and it will return that investment many times over. These guys know how to take progressive rock and get a little more out of it to deliver something familiar and yet, at the same time, intriguingly different. 2015 continues to deliver some very high quality releases and 3RDegree have muscled their way well up that list.

Released 18th August 2015

Buy Ones and Zeros (Vol. 1.) from 10T Records

 

 

 

 

Review – The Aaron Clift Experiment – Outer Light, Inner Darkness

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“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.” – Terence McKenna

Let me ask you a question, where does great music come from? Well, for me, it starts with an idea, to quote Sir Terry Pratchett“a small inspiration particle”, that can then flower and grow into something more tangible. These ideas may take input from other people and morph slightly to be something similar and, yet at the same time, different.

Add layers to these ideas, music, lyrics etc. and you can then end up with a complete song. One song on its own does not a musical cornucopia make but, when a collection of songs can join together into one cohesive record, then you finally have something that people will love and will stand the test of time.

The skill is repeating this process more than once and coming up with something different every time. There doesn’t have to be a large divergence but enough to differentiate the works and show the listener that you have moved on and are using new and exciting concepts. Evolution here is key or musicians can stagnate and lose any momentum or goodwill.

So, to tie up my opening thoughts, recently I was asked if I’d like to listen to the new album from The Aaron Clift Experiment. I reviewed their first album, ‘Lonely Hills’ and said,

“Notable on first listen but, like all the best releases, delivering more and more on further plays, ‘Lonely Hills’ blooms into an album that should be in every music lovers collection.”

Have they taken that initial promise and built on it with new ideas and inspirations to deliver something new and exciting yet defined by their signature sound? First a quick band history….

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Aaron Clift (vocals, Keyboards) began writing the songs that would appear on ‘Lonely Hills’ back in 2008. In 2009 he met the band’s drummer, Joe Resnick and they cut the demo with just piano, drums and vocals. Originally Aaron was going to release the music under his own name but, after hearing the demo he decided the songs needed a rock edge so he recruited Jim Ragland on guitar (Jim left in 2013 to be replaced by Eric Gutierrez) and Joe Green on bass. Now he had decided to work with a full band, he gave the project the moniker The Aaron Clift Experiment. Joe Green left in 2014 and  Devin North now sits on bass duties.

I have to admit that I was expecting something special from these guys after the considerable promise shown in ‘Lonely Hills’ so the new album ‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ would really have to shine.

Frontman Aaron Clift tells us about the concept behind the release,

“‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ is a concept album about duality: light vs. darkness, individual vs. group, hope vs. despair, etc. Songs in the first half of the album detail the conflict between these opposing forces, while the songs in second half of the album are a journey toward reconciling the extremes. The album culminates with ‘Bathed in Moonlight,’ a song about how humanity can learn to embrace its outer light and inner darkness and become one with both sides of its nature.”

Unlike the first album which was conceived and written solely by Aaron himself, ‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ was mainly a collaborative project which the band believe has resulted in some of their strongest material yet.

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Well blow me down, the first track on the album Kissed by the Sun hoves into view like a particularly well intentioned chariot of fire with guitar and violin blazing a stylish trail to cut through all before them and you immediately sit up and take notice. A subtle bass line and drum beat then anchor the song as a diverse guitar winds melodies around your mind. Aaron’s vocal begins, sinuous and notable, backed by the eloquent violin before breaking out on the dynamic chorus. Energetic and full of good will, this track vitalises you, running a musical current right through your nervous system. The powerful guitar riff, spirited piano and passionate violin really give it enormous substance, add in a really impassioned guitar solo and a funky break in the middle of the song with some great harmonies and a super smooth bass run and you have a rather impressive opening to the album. I’m getting a pastoral note with some american rock vibes going on here, as if Ben Folds Five reformed with members of Echolyn and spent a whole summer listening to the Big Big Train back catalogue and that feeling is only enforced by Locked, the second track has a much more laid back, stylistic edge to the opening. The vocals have a note of impassioned emotion to them. The whole rhythm section takes on a stylish jazz feel with the piano front and centre and it all feels like a journey though someones wavering emotional state. Highs and lows abound, the guitar solo has a real raw centre and scrapes your raw nerves to the bone. As the track closes out, it seems to take a thoughtful, pensive note as if looking back in a rueful manner. An intelligent, deep song that leaves a lasting impression on you.

A more discordant note opens Fragments of Sleep, counterbalanced by a repeated one note piano melody over which Aaron’s recognisable voice delivers the story. It is almost like you are having an interrupted night’s sleep with the rhythm and sound having a fuzzy, jarred edge to it, all sharp edges and yet its distinctive feel really resonates with me. Emotive words and a gently strummed guitar give it some pathos and the delicate violin adds poignancy as it it all comes to a profound close. Sinister and with a darker note to the introduction, Your Arms Hold Them to the Dark takes you on a journey through a world of perpetual twilight. The pace is determined and slow, the guitar riff crashes around you like a dissipating storm clashing with the drums, jolting and rasping against your senses. Deliciously malevolent and mischievous, there is a perverse pleasure to be had listening to this deep and intricate track. The staccato riffing and haunting keyboards add a melodramatic aura and Aaron’s menacing vocal adds the final layer of foreboding to this notable song.

That full-on feel of the first song returns with the rather energetic and uplifting introduction to Aoide Goddess of Song. With the distortion seemingly turned up to maximum and and insistent piano note hammering the point home, it is one hell of a pleasure ride around your mind. Things calm down for a moment as the vocals kick in with a layered keyboard note and balanced drum beat setting the tone for the verse but it isn’t long before that oriental sounding guitar note flies off again. This interplay continues throughout the song occasionally moving aside for the heartfelt, rousing chorus. There is an earthy core to the track, something primal and direct that drives it on and this erupts into the coruscating solo that fires straight through you leaving a blazing trail behind. You are left feeling fired up and invigorated, ready for anything. In a stark contrast to the previous track, The Last Oasis begins all sweetness and light, like a boat becalmed out on the ocean. The gentle, meandering piano is underscored by a subtle bass note and the introduction of the graceful violin adds an ethereal tactility to the song. The classical undertones to the music of  The Aaron Clift Experiment are at their most evident here, the strings add a subtlety and grace that only orchestral instruments could. As the guitar and drums blend into the sound, the whole song takes on another persona and dimension, not losing that refined semblance but adding a dynamic backbone to the artful fare put before you. It is almost a surprise when the vocals begin, I was expecting this to be an instrumental but Aaron’s profoundly compassionate voice adds a further degree of gravitas to what is already a very sophisticated piece of music. The fundamental integrity and graciousness at the heart of the band’s music is at its zenith on this beautiful song.

At just over twelve minutes long Moonscape is the longest track on the album and begins with a military style drum beat at the back of Aaron’s vocal and a repeated keyboard note. You get a feeling of stasis as the repeated intro carries on in a pleasant manner but the anticipation is always rising. The drum beat carries on, overlaid by the sound of a child. This part of the song has a sun-kissed, hazy feel to it, like an early morning walk through a lush countryside. It ambles and meanders with no seeming destination in mind, lulling you along on a wave of good feeling. The guitar saunters on a journey of its own, nothing dictating where it must go next and you end up feeling like your are free of any earthly worries, any shackles are broken and your heart and soul are liberated from worry and strife. This is a track to kick back and relax too, one to listen to through headphones and with a long drink at your side as the delicately strummed guitar leads into an extended keyboard section with a slightly supernatural quality to it, almost an outer body experience. The repeated singing of the album title resonates within and without with a trance like feel and, as the song comes to a close with a harder edge guitar riff and Aaron’s vocalising, the trance is broken, leaving you peaceful and serene. The segue into Bathed in Moonlight is seamless and, once again, the band deliver an utterly serene experience. Aaron’s divine vocal, backed only by a refined, sublime keyboard has a moving quality to it. It lifts your soul and leaves you rapturous as the celestial music washes over you, the guitar bleeds emotion and fervour, leaving you in a sustained state of euphoria. There is nothing complicated happening here but, sometimes, the simplicity of music can be its greatest asset and the effortless musicianship on this track is a delight in itself. As the song, and the album as a whole, comes to a close, I feel a sense of closure, of something coming round full circle to a most satisfactory conclusion.

Ideas have blossomed and become something rather special on this album. That early promise of the music on ‘Lonely Hills’ has been expanded upon and ‘Outer Light, Inner Darkness’ is a much more sophisticated and complete record as a result. Intricate and subtle yet with raw passion at its heart, it will cement The Aaron Clift Experiment as one of the most exciting and interesting bands currently writing and playing music today. I would advise you to go out and buy it as soon as it is released.

Releases 18th September 2015

Pre-order direct from the band at their website here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7vcMZNN_YE

 

 

A Soundtrack for the Current Generation – An interview with The Fierce And The Dead

“And all that remained were The Fierce And The Dead…..”

band shot live

(All pictures used are copyright The Chaos Engineers/Ashley Jones)

Who are The Fierce And The Dead ? Purveyors of ‘lovingly crafted noise’ and pioneers of what they call ‘Funny Music’, this cult band have just seen their latest, limited edition, E.P. ‘Magnet’ sell out before its release date on August 14th.

This instrumental quartet are as hot as it gets in the underground, small label and independent world at the moment and I wanted to find out more about them. Read on my friends to find out what makes them tick, a bit of their history and what music makes them sit up and take notice.

bandshot close up

Let’s introduce the band first, we have (from left to right above) Steve Cleaton (guitar), Kev Feazey (bass), Stuart Marshall (drums) and Matt Stevens (guitar).

And now the fun begins………

Progradar – What was the evolution of the band, how did The Fierce And The Dead come to be?

Kev Feazey – We’ve all known each other since school days and eventually all ended up in London. Matt was recording his second album (I think) at my old studio and he had a track that we thought would sound good with bass and drums and decided to record it as a live improvised piece, however when I came to mix it I realised that the guitar had a very definite path through the piece. Editing it would have been like missing out a chapter from a book. Matt and myself decided this was too long for his album and it was an opportunity to put it out as a side project. It became ‘Part 1’, and the reception was such that we decided to try an album. We spent an afternoon putting together some rough outlines then went into the studio for two days. That became ‘If It Carries On Like This…..’. Once we determined there was enough meat on the bone to actually turn this into a band we started rehearsing to be able to play live and immediately realised that we needed a second guitarist. There was no debate that it should be Steve, so he came on board and we finally became a ‘proper’ band.

Steve Cleaton – Matt was in the midst of the beginning of his solo career, amassing a good deal of material that he felt might also sound good as part of a band set up. The first recollection I ever had of the name ‘The Fierce and the Dead’ was in a conversation with Matt in the bar side of the Oakley Arms (now a pet shop) on a Saturday night, after about 7 pints, in about 2005. Matt was demo-ing stuff with Kevin and a couple of other mates. He said that he’d heard I’d moved to London, and asked if I would be interested in possibly joining in the band at some later point. I obliged and said I would be delighted to participate. That was the last I heard of it though, until one Friday evening about 6 years later. That Friday evening I was jamming in Bethnal Green and, in the room next door, were Matt, Kev and Stuart having a run through of some material that was later to become the majority of the album ‘If It Carries On Like this……’. About a year later I got a call from one of the other three (I think it was Kev) asking if I’d like to join in a live incarnation of FATD. I was delighted to be given a chance to join in. It has been immense fun so far!!

Progradar – One thing that I have always been curious about, where did the name come from?

KF – Matt had thought it up quite a while before the band, but where it actually originated I don’t know. Matt’s fevered imagination I should guess.

Matt Stevens – I’ve had it for ages. It’s actually part of a longer phrase but I’m not going to tell you what that is. (I think you already may have Matt……)

SC – I think you’d have to ask Matt or Kev that.

Progradar – What came first, the band or the solo career?

KF – Stuart, Steve, Matt and myself had all been playing in bands with each other in different configurations over the years so I guess you could say the band evolved in a way. But Matt had been building up his solo thing for quite a few years before TFATD started.

SC – Matt’s solo career came before this band. But in fairness, the other three have played together in various guises for years before all this. I had also been watching them play together since I was old enough to get away with going to the aforementioned pub and getting served.

MS – The solo career came first out of necessity ’cause everyone else was off doing stuff, I just built things up online myself and did about a 100 gigs with just me and a guitar and a loop pedal. It became quite popular, so there was a bit of an audience for the band when we started.

Progradar – What were your main influences when you first started and who, if anyone, influences you now?

KF – As we all grew up together we share a lot of influences which is great. As kids (and now for that matter) we listened to stuff like Tortoise, Melvins, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Black Flag, DJ Shadow, Mudhoney, Warp Records and loads of old school thrash metal so that was all relevant when we started. Nothing much has changed in terms of influences. We could fill a book with bands, new(ish) acts like Thundercat and Fuzz have definitely had an impact on us. 

SC – Personally, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that are all fairly musical in their own right. My Mum is a choral singer, my Dad played in bands in the 60s and my brother could pretty much do any style of music, I can’t actually remember not being surrounded by music. I used to play all my folks records as a very young boy. They’re stuff like Chicago Transit Authority , Crosby Stills, Nash and Young and all that. By my teens I was full on Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins all the way. Then I was a delicate young twenties Radioheadist, lately the other lads in the band have introduced me to stuff like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I’m also a big fan of the band Tool and Guapo. There’s always loads of stuff around, you just have to have the time and the inclination to go and find it!! If only I had more time! Bloody time. I blame time for most things. It probably doesn’t even exist anyway. Bloody time…

MS – Mahavishnu (Orchestra), Husker Du, Carcass, KLF, Radiohead, all sorts. At the moment I like Vessels and Annihilation Time very much.

Progradar – What are the main differences between your solo career and being in a band and, do you enjoy doing one over the other?

MS – They’re different, I guess, at the moment I prefer to collaborate. I’m taking some time off from my solo stuff ’cause I want to focus on the band for the next couple of years, I’m really enjoying it and I think we have a really good album in us.

SC – My solo career began and ended with pretending to be Han Solo in the playground at infants school. It was short-lived, I didn’t like the thought of being frozen in that carbonite stuff, or whatever it was from the film. I prefer playing in the band to being 5 and being Han Solo, though to be honest, the majority of the other aspects of being 5 are probably preferable to modern life.

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Progradar – Can you give us a quick introduction to the tracks on the album, where the ideas came from and what the titles mean etc.? and, where did the album title come from?

KF – Explain the titles? It’s no fun explaining everything. I prefer leaving them for people to make up their own definitions.
Magnet In Your Face: We never intended to write a sub 2 minute track, but it just made sense. We tried adding sections or new parts but it all felt forced. The riff Matt brought in was really strong so didn’t really need much more.
Palm Trees: This took quite a while to get right and went through several versions. We can’t help having quite a pop sensibility underneath it all and I think this track in particular shows that. Matt came in with the main riff and bass line and we all worked on it together to build it up without losing that melodic throughline and beat. We want people to dance to our music at the end of the day!
Flint: This is one of the first tracks we wrote as a band and we’re still playing it live. I always felt that we didn’t start playing it in the right way until a year or so after we had recorded it for the first album. It’s been a live favourite of ours and keeps making the cut even in short sets so I felt we needed to bring it ‘up to date’ and record a better representation of how we play the track now.
Part 6: The ‘Parts’ are our chance to experiment a bit more and a challenge to keep them all relevant to each other. They do all work if you listen through 1-6. This part is a call back to the electronic section of Part 1.
Rehearsal Recordings: One of the biggest struggles when recording is to get the energy of performances across and we’ve become really proud of the organised chaos that our live shows have become. We thought it would be fun to put these live tracks on the e.p. to give a taste of that.

MS – Magnet In Your Face is about people who follow others around.

Progradar – You say that this EP is ‘more joyous and intense’, is this a natural progression of the band’s sound and will we see more on the new album?

KF – Yes definitely. One thing we’ve identified from watching our favourite bands live is when there is a sense of joy in the room. We want the music to give people a feeling of energy, but with enough substance to withstand repeated listening.

MS  It’s all about the happiness and the connection between the band and the audience.

SC – I certainly hope that we see more of ‘joyous and intense’ on the next release. Of course, we’ll have to see what happens when we work on ideas at band practice. Sometimes the mood that we are in as a collective group dictates what we sound like, I think that’s true of any band.

Progradar – The CD has sold spectacularly well, did this surprise you or is it indicative of the large fan base you have, particularly large for a cult band?

KF – We’ve been very lucky. We have some amazing fans who seem to get what we are doing and are prepared to go with us (so far). But I can honestly say that we hadn’t realised how many people had gotten into us in the gap between Spooky Action and this E.P. It really has taken us by surprise in a very good way.

SC – It surprised me, I am very pleased. We have worked pretty hard to build up a fan base though, and a lot of that is attributable to Matt working hard on the solo side of things too.

MS  – In context it’s amazing, considering the sort of music we play.

Progradar – Does the relative success of a CD like this show that there is still a future for the medium in the music industry or will streaming a la Apple Music, Spotify etc. soon take over?

KF – The music industry has become a subsidiary of the tech industries. The ‘gatekeepers’ are the people creating the listening devices or programs. I’m reluctant to even guess what is going to happen, look what has changed in just the last five years! Mp3s seem to be on the way out as wi-fi becomes stronger and more prevalent. It’ll be interesting to see. I think people don’t realise that great music takes a lot of time and effort. Working two jobs and then trying to fit in one rehearsal a week does not make for a good creative mind set.

MS – It shows that the hardcore audience still like physical product but the mainstream probably ‘aint bothered.

Progradar – What is the story behind the ‘lyrics’ on ‘Palm Trees’?

KF  That would be telling….

SC – We felt the overwhelming urge to shout ‘Palm Trees!!’

MS – Don’t tell ’em Pike!!!

Progradar – (Said very ‘tongue in cheek’) Will this be the precursor to more lyrics appearing on The Fierce and the Dead releases in the future?

KF – My answer to the next question ties in with this….

SC – Our mantra is ‘anything is possible’.

MS – We’ll see….

Progradar – When you first started out did you make a definitive decision to be all instrumental?

KF – No, it was never discussed. We grew up listening to a lot of instrumental material so it’s never been a big deal whether something has a vocal or not. I genuinely never think of ourselves as an instrumental band, if it was appropriate then we’d definitely use vocals.

SC – I think that was the intention initially, but again, I wasn’t there from the very beginning, so I suppose you’d have to ask the other 3.

MS – No one calls Aphex Twin instrumental dance. Vocals are just another timbre.

Progradar – Does this make it easier or harder to write your material?

KF – I tend to write from the music up with most tracks I’ve been involved in so it’s never been a problem. Vocals are another instrument to be used or not. I understand that people sometimes need that voice to be able to anchor their selves and we try to make sure that we’re not being intentionally obtuse.

SC – I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier. I think it’s just different. Lyrics are often the focus of pieces of music, so without lyrics we have to create another way of giving the tunes direction. In the words of the great Maynard Kennan, ‘It’s the music that drives the emotion, the words just give it direction. If that wasn’t the case, people would be selling out spoken word tour all over the world, like they do with bands’. I must add though, I do absolutely love lyrics in most other instances!

MS – I think it forces you to make the music more interesting. 

Progradar – You as a band are a close knit unit, do you write as one or individually?

KF – We tend to write all together in the rehearsal room. One of us will bring in a riff, some chords or sometimes just a concept and we’ll all get stuck into it.

SC – It’s a bit of a mix, usually though, Matt will arrive at practice with an idea, Kev goes to work on arranging the idea, and then Stuart and I drop in around that raw form of an idea and we go from there. That’s not always the case, but invariably that’s the way we work.

MS – I’ll bring in a bit, by the time it’s finished it sounds completely different. I like it ’cause I never would have made these sounds on my own, it’s very collaborative.

Band shot wide

Progradar – Your music has a very distinctive sound, do you work towards this when mixing and producing and is it a drawn out process?

KF – Luckily we’re not virtuosos so we can’t make anything sound like anything other than us. We do a lot more preproduction now than we used to, we’ve come full circle and started sounding like what we originally intended. When you get out into the world as a band you become exposed to so many new ideas and we’ve become much more comfortable with filtering those sounds into something we can all get behind.

SC – : I think that, as is the case with any band really, we all have our own playing style and technique. But Kev does all of our production and engineering, and I think he knows so much about how other people make records, that he can take and leave what he wants from other peoples styles and combine those elements with his own practices to produce the end result.

MS – Mostly I’m just trying to re-create the guitar sounds Celtic Frost and Bob Mould had without anyone noticing. 

Progradar – How long was the recording process for ‘Magnet’ from start to finish?

KF – We actually had two goes at recording. The first recordings felt rushed and did not have some of the arrangements that are now in place. Even though it cost us time and money it was decided that we had to do the material justice and start again. So, almost a year if you include that, but, in reality, about six months.

SC – To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. We tend to practice stuff up a great deal before we get down to the actual recording. Most of if was banged out in a couple of takes, but I don’t know how long the mixing took.

MS – Kev did a great job on this EP, we spent more time on it.

Progradar – The band’s live performances are extremely high energy and explosive with a raw feel, you have been described as one of the best live bands around today, do you enjoy doing the live shows and do you prefer that to recording in the studio?

KF – We’re very proud of our live shows now, the material is of a standard that we don’t need to over play. The recording process is completely different. I always aim to get a similar energy but they are two separate entities to me. I think we all enjoy the live experience more than recording though. Recording is great fun and is where most of the material is truly born, but with live you get adrenaline and that’s always good fun.

SC – I think we all enjoy all of it! We are all deeply in love with music on every level. That may sound a bit ‘Woodstock’, peace and love man’, but it’s the truth.

MS – I love playing, that’s what it’s all about. 

Progradar – What’s next on the horizon for The Fierce and the Dead, I understand that next year will see a new album, any snippets on that?

KF – We’ve started writing but we are very committed to making something we all want to listen to first and foremost. Everything in our career to date has been about moving forward and we want to keep that artistic momentum.

SC – A moon landing. An album sometime next year is also in the pipeline. Some of said album has been written already.

MS – I have the rough direction and some of the music. I know where it’s going but I don’t know where the end is. 

Progradar – Name three albums everyone should have in their collection.

KF – Stevie Wonder – ‘Innervisions’, Dead Kennedys – ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’, Mahavishnu Orchestra – ‘Inner Mounting Flame’.

SC – ‘Lateralus’ by Tool, ‘In Rainbows’ by Radiohead, ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ by Queens of the Stone Age.

MS – Vessels – ‘Dilate’, Celtic Frost – ‘Into The Pandemonium’, Sugar – ‘Copper Blue’. 

Progradar – Matt, will you and Kev ever persuade Stuart and Steve to grow beards as good as yours?

KF – They can’t…..

SC – I am not into beards. I can do stubble, any longer than that and I start to get irritable with my own beard. It has been tried. I am not the only person to become irritated by my face, I hasten to add.

MS – I’m shaving mine off….

Progradar – Finally,  anything you wish to add?

KF – Let’s start a cult. Who’s in?

SC – Wouldn’t it be great if all of the people of the world could just get along for once, and realise that we live in a delicately balanced system where everything relies on everything else? Just a thought.

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So, there you have it, a thorough and extensive verbal workout with The Fierce And The Dead I hope you enjoyed the read and it has given an insight into one of the most exciting bands around at the moment.

You can order a digital copy and the ‘White’ CD version of ‘Magnet’ here:

The Fierce And The Dead – Magnet

Checkout the band’s website here:

www.fierceandthedead.com

dark band