Review – T- Fragmentropy – by Rob Fisher

Fragmentropy

Heraclitus is famously alleged to have said that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes, everything is in the process of change, nothing remains the same and nothing lasts. This is true of the universe as much as it is true of human life. And for 75 gloriously intense minutes Thomas Thielen gives us a masterful, insightful and quite profound philosophical musical poem to both the exasperations as well as the joys of what it means to be alive.

‘Fragmentropy’ is about moments, episodes, dipping your toe again and again into the coursing, vibrant, inevitably chaotic river of life. It is a force we barely understand, are carried along in its swirls, eddies and currents to a destination we know not where. Along the way we discover joy and sorrow, we find and are found, we love, are loved, are parted from love and have it ripped from us.

We fight, we struggle, we laugh, we delight; in our search for meaning we mistake the profound for the mundane and the mundane for the profound. It is not easy being human; it is a struggle. At nearly 3 years in the making, ‘Fragmentropy’ eloquently captures it all and captures it quite brilliantly.

That we are dealing with the same river is beyond doubt. This is an album which naturally flows (sic) from T’s hugely powerful 2012 musical commentary ‘Psychoanorexia’ where the spotlight is firmly fixed on the mediocrity of modern life. The ability to appreciate and savour the depths and the heights of what life has to offer us is sacrificed on the altar of celebrating the shallow, the bland, the ordinary and the common place.

‘Fragmentropy’ is much more adventurous, more daring, more challenging. By the time we dip our toes in the waters again, T has taken several steps further and invites us to understand that there are bigger questions with which we need to grapple. In the process of answering these questions, this album is at its revealing best. It is full of wondrous mystery and restless curiosity; in many respects the music represents the simple open-minded attitude of the inquisitive child facing the universe and asking ‘why?’ again and again, wanting to know but never satisfied with the responses received.

At the same time T lays down a strong scientific thread (again following on from ‘Psychoanorexia’). His poem is in three parts; Anisotropic Dances (Chapter One), The Politics of Entropy (Chapter Two) and The Art of Double Binding (Chapter Three). Each chapter is a toe dipped in the water, musical soundings which struggle to reveal the patterns which shape our lives. The album is a question, or rather, an on-going set of questions which invite you into a conversation with the ideas and the feelings being evoked and painted on the musical canvas before you.

As such what quickly becomes clear is this could only be the work of a single artist and never a band; there is a unified vision directing the musical currents and eddies, a mind which brings with it determination, a quiet but assured confidence which shines through again and again in music which is laden with an abundance of attitude, with spirit which briefly enjoys the settled symphonic and melodic present but which quickly dissipates into a discordant wrestling with the troubled moments life brings.

Caught up in it all are the most wonderful and sublime textures: musical textures, intellectual textures, emotional textures all fused and seamlessly intermingling into a beautiful tapestry of sound. In this respect ‘Fragmentropy’ is a stunning pinnacle of intelligent creative musical achievement. Thielen has always been an innovator, both enjoying as well as experimenting with music and sound. He understands, like few others, that they are not the same and yet their partnership is vital. From ‘Naive’ (2002) through ‘Voices’ (2006), ‘Anti-Matter Poetry’ (2010) and ‘Psychoanorexia’ (2013) he has been consistently building unique musical spaces.

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These albums aren’t simply about the sounds the instruments make, even though he single-handedly plays everything you hear. It is about combining musical creativity with instrumental technique; it is about how to blend sounds, how to arrange music, how to record it, mix it, produce it and ultimately how to use these as part of the musical experience itself.

Everything you hear is mixed, engineered, recorded and produced by T. These ‘tools’ are no less instruments than those he plays. What ‘Fragmentropy’ finally shows us is what happens when the musical project finally comes together, slots into place and delivers an album which is stunning in its vision, exemplary in its delivery and phenomenal in capturing the momentary fragmented songs of human living.

And what amazing songs they are too. The attention to detail is mesmerising; spend some time with the lyrics alone to see the passionate intensity and sculpted finesse of poetic vignettes, nuanced allusions and literary breadcrumbs housing piercing observations and sentiments. Then listen carefully to the way these are integrated into each track.

It is not just a voice which carries and delivers the full range of human emotion, clear echoes and strains of Bowie (and maybe Hogarth) in soulful enunciation one minute, driving and biting the next; it is also the way the voice itself is used as a texture and blended into the movement of each track.

For example, check out time points circa 9.50 of Brand New Mornings (Track 2), 4.57 in Entanglement (Track 4) and 5.30 in Eigenstates (Track 5). These are (momentous) states of transition from dissonant passages that are full of storm and fury to tranquil calm and soothing peacefulness. The contrasts are disarming and the effect much like the rays of the sun emerging from behind the clouds.

And yet each transition itself is a fragment in a series of fragments which highlights the themes of the album generally. The keyboard work, particularly the piano, is a presence which infuses everything, sometimes in the centre ground of melodic symphonies, sometimes a lone voice against a curtain of silence, sometimes a faint echo peeking through layered guitar work.

The drumming is quite brilliant in the range of tones and techniques which are employed, dominant and almost overpowering one minute, subtle, coy almost submissive the next. The bass is lovely; undulating, driving, menacing but never intrusive or demanding of attention. It is the current which moves the river along, the pigment at the heart of the textures.

Guitars are bewildering in the way they weave the plot and tell the story; so much intensity cascading away into magical riffs, in turn falling into the background, drawing breath and building again. There is so much going on here it is impossible to take it all in or properly appreciate at times the sheer genius at work in its orchestration.

Special mention must also go to Katia Tangian’s incredible photography which is startling, challenging and poignant. Take time to compare the cover from ‘Psychoanorexia’ and the transition to the cover of ‘Fragmentropy’. Life mirrors art; the covers are perfect foils for the themes contained within. They are themselves another stimulating layer to add to the textures of musical experience.

Don’t be surprised if you do not understand what you encounter when you first hear this album. Don’t be surprised if you are still scratching your head after the second, third and maybe even the fourth listen either. It is not ‘easy listening’, nor, given what has gone into its composition, should you expect it to be. Good things come to those who persevere and this hidden gem is no exception. It demands attention, asks for your time, expects your effort and invites your curiosity.

I fervently urge anyone who listens not to give up on it. Wrestle with it, engage with it, join the conversation and undertake the voyage which is being offered to you. Each time you play it you certainly will not step into the same river twice. It will open itself up to you again and again and again. And when it does, my goodness: take a deep, deep breath and cry out in delight because it really is an absolute treat.

Released 11th September 2015

Buy direct from Progressive Promotion Records

Review – Yuka and Chronoship – The 3rd Planetary Chronicles – by Rob Fisher

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‘The 3rd Planetary Chronicles’ is nothing short of a glorious and joyful revelation. Despite the band describing their music as “highly reminiscent of late Seventies Progressive rock” and “reputed for its philosophical depth, lyrical brilliance, and technical virtuosity”, it nevertheless does nothing to prepare you for the exhilarating voyage of musical exploration and discovery which listening to this remarkable album brings. It truly is a sublime ode to all that is best in innovative and creative progressive music.

The musicianship to which we are treated is both exemplary and staggering. Formed in 2009 by Yuka Funakoshi, the visionary impetus at the heart of Yuka and Chronoship as well as its keyboardist, vocalist and composer, the band consists of Shun Taguchi on bass, Takashi Miyazawa on guitars and Ikko Tanaka on drums.

Taguchi’s production is flawless, allowing the technical brilliance of each musician to shine through with a crystal clarity which only serves to underscore just how breath-takingly brilliant they are as a band. The seemingly effortless technical mastery of their respective instruments is further enhanced and enriched when they play together: the music they create is a wonderful testament to a band enjoying each other’s company and revelling in each other’s musical abilities. There is a clear sense of joy in creating music together and it is no coincidence that they claim to be happiest when playing live; but that sense of freedom, playfulness and creativity is no less present in this studio recording.

And what a recording it is. Following on from their debut album ‘Water Reincarnation’ (2011) and ‘Dino Rocket Oxygen’ (2013, complete with Roger Dean cover), this third album deeply impresses in just about every respect. Whether the title refers to this being the third record in a series – suggesting a strong conceptual connection across all their albums to date – or whether it refers to Earth as the third planet in the solar system and the album being the chronicles of its growth and development, is unclear. I suspect it is actually and intentionally both, in which case we are being offered something which has been carefully and cleverly conceived as a historical and conceptual, as well as a philosophical, whole.

Such an impression is bolstered by the CD booklet, designed by respected Japanese manga artist Hideji Oda, as well as the way in which the 12 tracks are arranged and presented. The album is in effect a survey of the significant stages, developments and evolution of earth itself as well as the human race inhabiting it. This sweeping vision covers not just the very formation of the planets but the emergence of earth, key steps in human history (Galileo, steam, The Industrial Revolution, the birth of radio) but also anticipates aspects of the future of humanity as well.

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As such the album is built around four recurring musical ‘anchors’: Birth of the Earth – Collision (Track 1), Birth of the Earth – Merger (Track 5), Birth of the Earth – Magma Ocean (Track 9) and Birth of the Earth – Embryonic Planet (Track 12). This in turn effectively creates 3 distinguishable ‘sections’ or ‘phases’ in the progression of the conceptual plot and the musical story being told.

And, my goodness me, what a musical feast it is. Tracks 1 – 4 are dripping with moody atmosphere, the sounds of cosmic winds offset by a haunting simple keyboard, in turn opening into a magnificent sound stage as a wall of melodic and harmonious orchestration brings in the guitar, bewitching, rising above and piercing the keyboards and bringing a distinctive voice of its own; this in turn prompts the bass and drums to enter, primal, tribal rhythms beating out the life and soul of the universe itself, in turn adorned by a vocal, almost operatic overlay, in turn echoed by playful synth and flute sounds. The world is new and the instruments blend and dissonate like the elements conspiring in the formation of the universe itself.

Yet even this is just a prelude, labour pains giving birth to something momentous, new, profound and wondrous. The discordant almost chaotic beginning to Galileo I (Track 3) speaks of confusion, of competing elements, of attempts to make sense of the world (and how nice that Galileo is honoured in such a way). Yet this gives way in Galileo II (Track 4) to beautiful rippling arpeggios, the discovery of science and the workings of the world, off beat guitar work matching fantastic and ever changing drum tempos. It is full of hope and optimism.

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(Pic courtesy of the Yuka and Chronoship blog)

Tracks 5 – 8 mark a shift in tone and tempo. From the light, airy playfulness of the early beginnings, we reach a more developed sound, crunching yet subdued guitars adding confidence to the subtleties and nuances of the keyboards, the bass adding more assured support and riffing quietly as part of a growing ensemble, the drums more intricate, yet more unsettled, the timings changing and changing again as ideas are explored and turned aside, new ideas given prominence only to be cast aside and the process repeats. This is the steam age, the age of technological revolution and fast paced innovation and the music brilliantly captures the breathlessness of human evolution and advancement.

This in turn sets the stage for the finale. Tracks 9 – 12 build and push on again, the music now grander, fuller, more encompassing not just in scale but also in depth of sound and diversity of ideas being offered. The guitar work comes to the fore, solos, riffs appearing from nowhere, taking the breath away but leaving as quickly as they arrive to seamlessly hand over to the keyboards who in turn allow the choral echoes to float and supplement the ever present bass which at one moment grumbles and asserts itself and then in another gently lifts and supports.

The concluding tracks are a stunning testimony to what this might sound like played live, the drums signing off E = M#C (Track 10) as they would the final song of a live set, bringing the show to a definitive conclusion. And yet this itself is a ‘false ending’, I Am Thee (Track 11) taking us back once more to the reflective atmosphere of the beginning whilst pointing the way to the future and introducing one final set of ideas and musical motifs.

Breathlessly brilliant, ‘The 3rd Planetary Chronicles’ is enticing, captivating and spell-binding. At 33 seconds short of an hour it is without doubt one of the stand out albums of 2015 and in the short time it has been available, it has displaced just about everything else I have been listening to. Thoroughly recommended.

Released 25th September 2015

Buy The 3rd Planetary Chronicles from Cherry Red Records

 

Review – Gekko Projekt – Reya of Titan – by Rob fisher

After his great review of Seven Steps to the Green Door, this time Rob Fisher passes his practiced ears over ‘Reya of Titan’ by Gekko Projekt.

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The art of good storytelling is notoriously difficult. Telling a story in, and through, music raises that bar even higher. And when the music is prog and the story is a work of science fiction it would appear the odds of success become almost impossible. Yet this is exactly what Reya of Titan’, the second release from Californian based band Gekko Projekt, attempts to do – and does so with no small degree of style and panache.

The key is to understand exactly what this project is and consequently what it is you are listening to. Is it a concept album? Is it a rock and/or space opera? Actually, it really doesn’t matter, it’s a story and one which has been carefully considered, lovingly crafted and then beautifully expressed through a mesmerising array of diverse musical styles, changing rhythms and exciting musicianship.

This is dramatic storytelling at its very best where language and music come together to create a thoroughly enjoyable performance. If you want to call it anything, dramatic musical theatre would be perfect and certainly something you would want to go and hear from start to finish.

Indeed, this is exactly how you need to approach the album. The tale of Reya Jones requires a certain degree of concentration and, just like picking up a book, skipping a chapter here and there won’t work. There is important world-building taking place in each track and dipping in to odd tracks means you will literally lose the plot.

A careful glance at the 13 track titles confirms this: there is a well planned logical progression to the performance which drives the plot from Reya’s initial leaving earth behind and going on to do asteroid mining, the accident which forces her into a spacesuit and consequent abandonment for 24 years on Titan, the arrival of help and the promise of rescue,which she eventually rejects, and, in light of which, she stays and becomes Titan’s Queen.

Some tracks are even crossed referenced inside each other (for example, the Snow White reference reappears in North of Titan). The lyrics have been constructed with care and attention to detail so as to take us on the journey with Reya and, in the process, they make it easy for us to be fellow companions on the voyage.

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However, the lyrics are only one element of the journey. The tremendously skilfull and, at times, deeply emotional music brings the story to life and envelops us in grand musical flourishes, changing tempo’s and alternating rhythms. The instruments playfully interweave with, and skilfully play off, each other, working in tandem with melodic and soulful vocals to paint vivid and provocative moments in Reya’s journey.

Each instrument gives off a bewildering range of tones and sounds, testament indeed to inventive and hugely talented musical accomplishment. Even more than this, each track itself is a unique musical style, giving you something different as it drives the story forward. It is a remarkable achievement and the band rightly deserve high praise for what they have achieved in creating this wonderful and insightful performance piece.

The absolutely beauty of ‘Reya of Titan’ is that, in the end, it gives you absolutely no choice but to get caught up in and carried away by the often scintillating musicianship on offer.

Peter Matuchniak (Mach One, Evolve IV) on guitars is a revelation throughout; 3 minutes into Snow White is the most delicious riff which will blow you away, unexpected as it is uplifting. Rick Meadows on bass (WZMG, Coot) is spellbinding; Frienda is an absolute joy, the jazzy lilting bass driving the music.

Vance Gloster (score for ‘The First Time’, WZMG, Coot) on keyboards lays down so many rich textures which permeate through each and every song. The synthesizer work soars above, and lends a clarion call, to the story whilst the Hammond growls away as the foundations which under-pin everything else.

Alan Smith on drums is the focal point of everything, orchestrating the movement and momentum of the story’s plot, astounding on Jovian Belt and 24 years of Solitude. And JoJo Razor (Jo Blackwood Martin –  known for her work on The After Hours Electric Prog Jam on Cruise to the Edge 2014 and 2015) brings dramatic force and emotional depth to the vocals; Grains of Sand is a delight, her voice conveying the sense of being lost, the promise of redemption, of hope, of despair. What a performance!

‘Reya of Titan’ is not without weaknesses. The mix, in places, is unfortunately uneven with the drums, at points, being too prominent and the keyboards, at times, being a little too overwhelming and domineering. What would also have helped is some kind of insert which could have outlined the plot in advance of listening to it and a lyrics sheet so the story could be shared as we listened. But these, ultimately, cannot and must not be allowed to detract from what is a superbly creative, musically inventive and thoroughly enjoyable 50 minutes of excellent dramatic storytelling.

Released 20th June 2015

Buy Reya of Titan from Melodic Revolution Records

 

 

Guest review – Seven Steps to The Green Door – Fetish – by Rob Fisher

Here is the second guest review, this time by Rob Fisher.

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I will make no secret of the fact that I am a long time admirer of the truly remarkable Seven Steps to the Green Door. From the double award winning debut album ‘The Puzzle’ (2006), to the tour de force of inspired musical excellence embodied in ‘Step in 2 My World (2008), to the beautifully crafted and lovingly composed journey that is               ‘The?Book‘ (2011: complete with painted nail in the CD release!), this seven-piece band from Germany always produce music which probes the boundaries of intelligence, passion and vision.

After a four year wait, they return with ‘Fetish’, a 78 minute musical tsunami which is simply breathtaking. The first listen, at times, can feel a little overwhelming. The music is alive, vibrant, full of energy, dynamism and joy. Full credit here must go to the superb arrangement and mixing by new guitarist Martin Schnella (guitar, bass, backing vocals) and excellent production values which allow the music to breathe in a revealing sound stage where each and every instrument is wonderfully transparent and quickly discloses the technical mastery and superb musicianship of the band.

Once you recover from the powerful initial impact, subsequent listens are a joyful revelation which repeatedly speak to something quite special being offered here in the perceptive and insightful writing of Marek Arnold (keyboards, sax) and Ulf Reinhardt (drums). There is a rich diversity of musical styles and creative segments that are thoughtfully sequenced and carefully fashioned to present an overall musical experience which is abundant in subtlety, nuance and finesse. Again and again you find yourself being engaged, being drawn in to so many different emotional journeys and captivated by the mesmerising ebb and flow of the   story which is unfolding in each track. As with previous albums, you are left in little doubt that this is a work of commitment, care and, ultimately, of love, it shines throughout the album and carries you along from start to finish.

What is, I think, noticeably different with ‘Fetish’ is the emerging (and quite rightful) confidence of the band to evolve their style where technical discipline flows hand in hand with joyful exuberance. The SSTTGD ‘sound’ from previous albums is alive, well and utterly unmistakable but this release gives it a new context in which to shine as a result of which, something new and much more profound emerges.

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From the very beginning, two things are immediately noticeable. First, this is an album built around exquisite vocal work. The voice as instrument becomes the focal point for everything else and off which everything else finds its place. Anne Trautmann is sublime in the range and quality of expression she brings to the material. She is joined by Lars Köhler who brings just the right tonal counterbalance and, in a guest appearance, the unmistakable Arno Menses from Subsignal. Together they give us a staggering range of performances which are a joy to hear. From the almost monkish purity of the opening 34 second track Possible Delayed (reprised at the very end of Ordinary Maniac), the fine interplay and layered harmonies of Still Searching (track 3) and the haunting melodies of Inferior (track 4) this album excels because the voices take centre stage, not as a dominant tool which drowns out the others but one which takes its place alongside them and by doing so enables them to become so much more.

Indeed, this leads to the second noticeable feature of the album: the quite brilliant orchestration of the band to build complex and interweaving crescendos that are full of presence, depth and inventiveness. With guest contributions from Steve Unruh (UPF), the foundations are set by controlled, unswerving and menacing guitar work, occasionally unleashed to soar, sweep and ascend to new heights. This is underpinned by driving, ambitious and atmospheric bass work (Daniel Mash of Machine, UPF and ex The Tangent guests). The drums beat out an assured and masterful array of rhythms, full of authority (with additional percussion from Justo Suarez). Keyboards join and swell the building soundscape, enriching the atmosphere and lifting the mood whilst the vocals combine to bring poignancy and emotional bite.

This is a band at the very top of its game, giving us music of the very highest calibre. It is a remarkable album which will surprise, astonish, captivate and delight; spending time with it only increases your awareness of undiscovered depths and hidden treasures. Enjoy it: and let us fervently hope we don’t have to wait another four years for the next instalment on this band’s remarkable journey.

Released 11th September 2015 via Progressive Promotion Records

Buy direct from the band’s website

About the author – Rob Fisher

robfisher

“Rob is a former academic and Head of Philosophy who is passionate about prog, scifi, wine and a curious array of US sports. He presently directs his own company which focuses on interdisciplinary events and publishing.”