Review – Damanek – In Flight – by Progradar

“Who hears music, feels his solitude Peopled at once.”
― Robert Browning, The complete poetical works of Browning

Damn, 2018 has been a stellar year for some great new releases and another one has found its way to Progradar Towers!

Damanek are a sort of Prog Rock supergroup formed by fellow Yorkshireman Guy Manning (vocals, keyboards, percussion, guitars, bass), Marek Arnold (saxes and seaboard), Dan Mash (bass) and Sean Timms (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals & additional programming). This talented quarted is joined by a plethora of stellar musicians including Antonio Vittozzi, Luke Machin and Tzan Nico on guitar and Brody Thomas Green on drums.

Described as ‘a genre-defying collection of sophisticated songs..’, ‘In Flight’ is the follow up to 2017’s well received ‘On Track’. Once again Sean Timms’ sleek production adds to the overall sense of quality and class.

There’s a shiver of anticipation running through me as the opening notes of Ragusa break out, there’s already a feeling of class and quality shining through. Guy has one of those voices that speaks to you through and beyond the music, a familiar cultured tone that puts you at ease immediately. The music itself is impressively stylish and smooth and just adds to the feeling of sophistication. The guest guitarists add even more sparkle and inspiration, this is going to be one enjoyable journey. Oooh, jazzy piano and percussion, the opening to Skyboat is joyful and upbeat and, as the track opens up with gusto, we are sent on a rollocking musical ride. Funky guitar and edgy percussion, along with an ever so cool hammond organ, add to the feel-good factor and the grin spreading across your face. This is music at its inspiring best and music that brings joy to your soul.

The Crawler opens with a deliciously dark melody and feel, a mature and sophisticated aura permeates the song with Guy’s distinguished vocal adding layers of class. The captivating chorus with its elegant sax sends shivers down your spine. Sean’s production can be felt most here, giving us a stand out piece of music on what is becoming an evidently impressive album. There’s a levity to Moon Catcher, a lightness of soul and featherlight touch to the music. The sparsity of the production and laid back approach to the vocals, along with the meandering sax, leaves a whimsical feel, a really classy piece of music.

Catchy, addictive and upbeat from the first note, The Crossing is a jazz-infused delight, the carefree tinkling of the ivories a particular highlight. Add in some more of the impressive sax and Guy’s vocals and you are onto a winner. The 3 part epic Big Eastern closes the album, taking the listener on an emotive journey from East to West: from the poorest rural lands of China to the West Coast of the USA. Grand in conception, and inspired in execution, it’s a journey that you become deeply involved in and one that takes you across the whole galaxy of progressive music, visiting every nuance on its way. At just shy of thirty minutes it is a true epic but never outstays its welcome, every note and every word is there for a reason and that reason is to give the listener the best and most joyous experience ever when it comes to music.

‘In Flight’ is an album I haven’t remotely got bored of, even after multiple listens. A compelling, engaging and stimulating listening experience that leaves you high on music and life. Every absorbing minute of music is a minute that will bring a smile to your face. This year there have been some fantastic releases, releases that are finally bringing the joy back to music and Damanek’s ‘In Flight’ should be considered up there with the best of them.

Released 5th October 2018

Buy In Flight from GEP here

Listen to ‘Ragusa’ from ‘In Flight’ here

 

Review – Southern Empire – Civilisation – by Progradar

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”

Sage words of bombast and pomposity and the sort of thing you’d hear at the Last Night of the Proms. To be honest, if we had an equivalent thing for progressive music (in my opinion, the closest thing to classical music nowadays), there would be some prime candidates to be included in any such event.

Having listened to ‘Civilisation’, the new, sophomore, release from Aussie proggers Southern Empire I seriously think they have put forward an excellent case for inclusion in this, admittedly, fictitious concert.

Formed from the break up of cult band Unitopia, their debut, self-titled release had a very positive reaction but they have come back with an album that is grander in every aspect.

Opening track Goliath’s Moon (written by guitarist Cam Blokland) is a thundering, hard-rock heavy piece of music that brings back memories of ‘Milliontown’ era Frost* to my ears. It’s taking all that is good from that style of music and injecting it with some much needed joie de vivre. It is an uplifting and mightily powerful song that flies into town at a million miles an hour, puts a huge smile on everyone’s face and then buggers off the same way it came with not another word, the guitar run out at the end is pure genius too!

Cries For The Lonely takes Dream Theater and Queen at the height of the pomp and circumstance and delivers nineteen minutes of pure unadulterated musical theatre. The lush vocal harmonies are note perfect and the music is as polished as you could ask for and yet there is a definite glint in its electronic eye. There’s an utter sense of enjoyment in the delivery of every note and every word and, once again, a superb guitar solo from Cam closes out the song.

Simply put, Civilisation is a proper progressive ‘epic’ in the true sense of the word. The song is a re-worked and extended version of a song that band supremo Sean Timms wrote with ex Unitopia colleague Mark Trueack for an abandoned album and it ebbs and flows like all great tracks do, there’s some superb saxophone from Mr Timms and Danny Lopresto’s voice is just so silky smooth. It’s twenty-nine minutes of dynamic progressive music like Transatlantic used to do before they decided that too much still wasn’t enough…

The final song Innocence and Fortune dials the intensity back a notch but most definitely not the quality. Written by Timms and Steve Unruh of Samurai of Prog fame, it has more of the brooding quality of IQ to it. Brody Green’s drums and the measured bass of Jez Martin take the lead here but it isn’t long before those lush vocal harmonies make a triumphant return along with that more upbeat tempo. Do we get another great solo from Cam? What do you think…?

‘Civilisation’ is one of the early contenders for album of the year for me, a tremendous release that hits all the right notes and finally sees joy and elation return to the creation of music. It’s as close to a must buy as anything else I’ve heard this year so far. Right, that’s it, I’m off for another listen…

Released 20th July 2018

Order the album from GEP here

Here’s Hold from Southern Empire’s debut album:

 

 

 

Review – Unitopia – More Than A Dream: The Dream Complete – by Leo Trimming

‘A journey that takes us to the ends of our lives,
A race never lost, never won.
More than a dream, less than a vision,
Adventure again just begun.’

These hopeful, inspiring lines are from The Dream Complete, the first new Unitopia song since these Australian Progressive Rock masters sadly dissolved as a band in 2012. What appeared to be a total schism with little hope of resolution a few years ago now appears to have healed enough for Mark Trueack and Sean Timms to work together again on this new song. It is included as the finale to this triple CD remastered re-release on I.Q.’s Giant Electric Pea Records of their 2005 debut album.  Resplendent with beautiful and striking new artwork by Ed Unitsky and interesting booklet notes, this is a truly sumptuous package offering far more than merely a polished up version of the original album.

After the undoubted glories of two of the finest progressive rock albums since 2000 in the shapes of ‘The Garden’ (2008) and ‘Artificial’ (2010) it seems a fitting coda to their sadly all too short lifespan as a band that they should re-release their rarer, less  well known but promising debut album with some excellent additional tracks and some interesting re-workings and remixes. The original album ‘More than a Dream’ appears to have been a rather curious mixture of styles, but there were very clear indications of the great potential that later flowered with this excellent band. Justify is the zenith of this album, an epic track bubbling with rock power, hook-filled melodies and memorable lines – it even includes a cello solo (courtesy of Jacqui Walkden) and the ethereal child soprano of Holly Trueack, daughter of vocalist and lyric writer, Mark Trueack. What more could you want from a song… apart from Pat Schirripa’s powerful and gentle guitars embellishing a piece featuring great keyboards from Sean Timms. This track truly pointed to Unitopia’s future greatness.

Another side of Unitopia is revealed in the beautiful title track More than a Dream, opening with a lovely piano motif from Timms and Trueack’s soulful, distinctive voice, delightfully backed by the Adelaide Art Orchestra. A captivating chorus in a richly laden song echoes Supertramp at their best.  Common Goal is certainly an ear catching opening with striking drum stabs and an atmospheric keyboard drenched intro before the piece thunders along with an insistent driving rhythm and some fine vocals from Mark Trueack, introducing the optimistic and positive themes which have been the hallmark of his lyrics ever since. What may be more surprising to some are the horn effects that underpin much of the song to great effect. This songs segues into a percussive throb and the fine soprano sax intro from the now sadly deceased Mike Stewart in the catchy Fate. The chorus is a real ear worm, similar to the later Lives Go Round, so it is no surprise to read in the booklet notes that Sean Timms wrote music for adverts, as this song and much of Unitopia’s canon of songs are notable for their memorable hooks and lines. Accessible songs remained paramount to this band throughout it’s career, even at it’s most epic and progressive.

This is certainly a diverse album with the orchestral intro to the light Take Good Care, which sounds like it should have been in ‘The Lion King’ musical, contrasting with the gargantuan bass of Con Delo and guitar riffing of the more rocking Ride – although these do feel lesser songs of a new band looking for an identity.

Unitopia have always been capable of moments of contemplation and beauty as shown in Slow Down and the delicate ending of Still Here… and that’s probably where the first disc should have ended! Having reached a lovely atmospheric conclusion to the original album it is mystifying why they decided to follow it with the eponymous Unitopia track. This sounds like a big band number which Frank Sinatra would have delighted in – Trueack and the band can certainly swing along in great style, but there’s a time and a place for everything. The booklet notes that they left this off the original album as it’s feel didn’t fit the rest of the album – they were right then, and should have stuck to their first instincts now. In hindsight perhaps they should have found somewhere on the additional tracks for this rather cheesey relic of their early days. Similarly, There’s a Place is a touching song commissioned for a charity album and featuring Sean Timms ex-wife, Neusa, on lead vocals. However, as an admirable but frankly virtual copy of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ it does not fit as an addition to this album and would have been better placed on the additional discs.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to focus too much on these two slight mis-steps tacked on to this album, as it is clear that ‘More than Dream’ was a fine debut clearly indicating the great promise of this band.  In some ways it does feel like a band trying to find it’s way and it feels they were not fully formed. Perhaps it is significant that Matt Williams had not yet joined the band on guitars. Fine as the guitar contributions are to this debut album from a variety of guitarists there is not the singular style and drive that Matt undoubtedly added to the overall sound on their later albums.

The second disc in this release does feature Matt Williams as he ‘re-works’ four of the songs, particularly giving Common Goal and Fate more of a harder, rock edge with some great guitar work. In contrast his version of Justify is more ethereal . These ‘reworkings’ were part of an earlier plan for Matt to re-work the whole album in what feels like a curious attempt to present an alternative past as if he had been part of the original album. Similarly Sean Timms presents some of his own reworkings, including a more sedate version of Ride without the driving bass and guitar riff… which then strangely mutates in to some sort of Zappa-esque / King Crimson type ‘wig out’! However, Con Delo’s excellent bass is restored and given more prominence on the ‘Extended 321 edit’ of a CD single. Some of the other Sean Timms reworkings are much more dance inflected with varying success, ranging from the painful More than a Dream from 2006 to the much more engaging  and superior 2017 remix of Lives Go Round, featuring an excellent keyboard solo. 2004’s dance mix of Still Here is a little dated but enjoyable. In truth these ‘re-workings’ are varied and will divide opinion – some will delight in the different perspectives offered, whereas some may wince at some of the ‘left turns’ the producers have taken with the material. These views may be influenced by  whether one already has a relationship with the original album. Whatever one’s stance it is also probably true to say that aside from ‘ultra fans’ it is doubtful whether listeners will often turn to these alternative versions compared to the quality of most of the original songs on disc one.

The third set of this impressive set offers the most interesting offerings, which definitely make it worth it obtaining a copy of this excellent value release. Unitopia have previously contributed to rather obscure Progressive rock compilations, which have been rather expansive with a vast range of often obscure prog rock artists. Wisely, Unitopia have decided to make these two epic tracks available in this set. The Outsider originally from ‘The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft: A Synphonic Collection’ is a piece of gothic musical hammer horror, filled with eerie dialogue and atmospheric music, contrasting brooding lighter passages with impressive darker driving rock elements. Similarly the truly epic  Day 6, Tale9 from the Italian compendium ’Decameron: Ten Days in 110 Novellas – Part 2’ is a widescreen, cinematic piece described in sweeping progressive rock passages of outstanding keyboards and guitars. The previously unreleased but also atmospheric The Haunted Storm follows to make a fine triptych of rarely or never heard songs exceeding 30 minutes with so much to delight in… and it’s curious in itself that they allowed such outstanding work to be unreleased or be relatively sidelined on such projects.

This Life is a promising 1996 Mark Trueack demo of a song that later appeared on ‘The Garden’, and follows a middle section of this disc which the sleeve notes honestly admit fall in to the category ‘what were we thinking of???’ The four ‘dance mixes’ would probably have been better left off the album (and perhaps would have allowed the two rather incongruous tracks added on to disc one to find a less jarring and sympathetic sequencing?) Unitopia fans will lap up this album, but If you are unfamiliar with the band it would be a good introduction as a gateway to their later truly classic albums (and you may ask yourselves why didn’t I know about this band?!).

The final song The Dream Complete brings us full circle with a fine new song featuring Trueack, Timms and Williams and thankfully indicates a healing of relationships and a positive reflection on the past. Since 2012 Trueack and Williams have formed United Progressive Fraternity, and Timms has formed Southern Empire. Both bands have produced quality debut albums… but for some fans there is still the nagging feeling that together as Unitopia they really found something special, hitting the heights musically and spiritually. The lyrics of this song and the sleeve notes do seem to hint that perhaps the Unitopia story may not be totally complete –maybe, maybe not  –  we can dream, can’t we?

Released 27th October 2017

Order ‘More Than A Dream: The Dream Complete’ from GEP here

Review – Damanek – On Track – by Emma Roebuck

Damanek is DAn Mash, Guy MANing and MarEK Arnold (with Sean Timms coming to the party just a after the band name was decided, Guy tells me.)  A fairly stellar cast is joined by other heavenly bodies to guest on this, the debut album of this project.

Brody Thomas Green (‘Southern Empire’) – drums.
Tim Irrgang
 (‘UPF’) – percussion.
Antonio Vittozzi (‘Soul Secret’) – guitars.
Luke Machin
 (‘Maschine’/’Kiama’/’The Tangent’) – guitars.
Stephen Dundon
 (‘Molly Bloom’) – flute. 
Nick Magnus
 – keyboards.
Phideaux – vocals.
Ulf Reinhardt
 (‘Seven Steps to the Green Door’) – drums.

Their live debut at Summers End 2016 caused a stir and a buzz of excitement in the crowd and the Prog community as a whole. It is strong album from beginning to end and it is also, as you would expect from Guy, one with a message. If I am honest it has many messages all in the main told through the allegorical story telling of guys lyrics.

We have 8 tracks that have light and shade along with the complex use of instruments and layers to play parts in the sound. The production is outstanding and reminds of some of the classic albums of the 80’s (but without sounding like an 80’s Prog album.) Sean has done an excellent job in the mix and production of this truly global album.

The opener Nanabohzo and the Rainbow opens with a tribal rhythm and an insistent bass and drum riff throughout give an exotic feel to the track and a rather excellent ear worm quality. Marek has a big part to play with his Sax and, along with Sean on keyboards, is the flesh on the bones of the rhythm. Guy’s voice is on form all the way through the album, it slots so well in the sound as it shifts in form throughout the song.

Long Time, Shadow Falls, this has the most 80’s feel to me, drawing from the best of what Peter Gabriel in style and form did in the mid 80’s. I think it is the keyboard sound but the song is a commentary on poaching and the impact of man that is sung from the view of the victims, the Rhino, the Elephant and the Hippos. It is our gift to stop this but as a species we are doing a poor job.

Just pictures in a glossy magazine
Long time, a shadow falls and the Earth is lessened”

With the demise of the natural world we are lessened more than we realise.

The Cosmic Score is told on a much larger scale with the keyboards of Nick Magnus adding much to it. Imagine if you will the stars are notes on the score of the universe and the music of the universe is playing forever but how badly are we affecting that score on our little planet? It is massive in scope and symphonic in sound.

Believer – Redeemer could be a jazz-funk soul piece, in fact it is to these ears and a real pleasure to listen to as well. The music is a metaphor to the lyric, challenging the prog fan to step outside and listen to a world beyond the Prog bubble. The lyric does the same to the intolerant and unaccepting people of this world. I could honestly hear George Benson or Stanley Clarke doing a cover of this with little or no changes. Oh, by the way, this is a good thing!

Guy has a pixie like sense of humour and in The Big Parade it comes out in spades. The guys here write an anti-war song to a martial beat. The pomposity of marching music along with the beat of an Umpah band make the idiocy of war look like what it is – a playground for overgrown bullies. Reminiscent of Tom Waits “In the Neighbourhood”, with hints of ragtime and New Orleans jazz, here Marek gets to show off his skills to great effect.

The Finale on the album is Dark Sun, a 14 minute epic and  truly prog of ‘end of days’ proportions, it’s honestly scary and as ominous as its topic. The sun is getting darker and light gets dimmer as we kill the planet. Air gets thicker with pollution. The sight of our cities in the sunlight with unbreathable air and thick smog hanging like a veil over our lives. It utilises an excellent instrumental break and brilliant piece of guitar keyboard jamming with the brass synchronising beautifully.

I paint a picture of an album that is fundamentally depressing and dispiriting but it is actually very uplifting. The music is tight and full with the quality you would expect from the players but no one dominates in this and it feels like a complete piece of work. The malbum feels global with influences from across boundaries and geography. The messages may be a warning but each song offers hope rather than a sense of inevitable doom. It bears playing and playing again.

I sincerely hope that Damanek produce another album and take it out on the road. I won’t reference bands (as I usually do) but this is an album that has melody and song structure by the bucket load and is not frightened to go outside limiting parameters.

Released 15th May 2017

Buy ‘On Track’ from GEP

 

 

Review – Karibow – From Here To The Impossible – by Rob Fisher

Through a clearing in the foliage a solitary figure is perched on top of a precarious pyramid of abandoned ageing tyres, silhouetted against a sweeping azure bay from which a coastline of derelict, crumbling buildings emerge in various states of skeletal incompleteness, adorned with vegetation as nature reclaims lost ground and framed against a shrouded horizon ill lit by a murky, misty sun.

Oliver Rüsing’s powerfully evocative cover, along with the gorgeous artwork which adorns the 20 page booklet accompanying the ninth Karibow release ‘From Here To The Impossible’, merits closer scrutiny and consideration before the CD even hits the platter. As a stark and almost brutal visual metaphor for what you are about to hear, the message it conveys is as compelling as it is poignant.

Despite the dreams we harbour and the careful plans we make, life rarely goes as we would wish. Everything changes; nothing remains the same. The energy and ambition of our youth crashes against and is washed up on the shorelines of the limitations we face. The burning desire to change the world, our passion, our dreams, our hopes are forged in the burning fires of experience and gradually extinguished by the realities of daily life, the fears which hold us back and the restrictions placed or forced upon us.

The consuming focus from ‘Holophinium’ (2016) carries over to the new album. Being human is a struggle. But Rüsing’s focus has evolved; the story is no longer about the vitality and the vulnerability of being alive but on the ways in which we plot the directions we can take, the plans we make and remake, crumble or are crushed, to be rebuilt again. Life is a glorious journey of vision and re-vision. We continually build and rebuild. Everything is in perpetual flux. And in the midst of it all, passion is regained and hope is reborn. We dare to dream once more: we aspire from here to the impossible.

What strikes you instantly as you listen to the music is the drumming. Imposing, incisive and deliciously complex, its slight elevation in the mix creates the driving, dynamic and fiercely creative momentum which underpins the album. The tone is set by the dramatic and powerful jungle-esque opening of Here (Track 1), a narrative heartbeat and a startling call to wake up, confront our fears and fight for what we want.

The energy and strength of both the music and the message carries over to My Time of Your Life (Track 2). The pensive defiance enshrined in the lyric “my generation has a right to fight”, both whispered and sung, is echoed in a glorious question-and-response passage of keyboard and piano. Time may well wash away what we once held close to our hearts, but there is “still a chance for us to change the world with love and passion” (Passion, Track 3).

Never Last (Track 4) brings us, literally, to the heart of the matter with a gloriously soulful and richly melodic change of pace. The opening sentiment is whispered in our ears: “My heart is not independent, but do you think I am less than the least of all”. A delightfully restless bass line gracefully carries us through to a scintillating sax riff which is a joy to lose yourself in, eventually bringing us to rest in a beautifully hypnotic and calming narration provided by Monique van der Kolk.

Throughout the album, the interplay of the various instruments with each other is captivating. The fluid interactions create lavish walls of sound comprised of elegant shifting textures and complex, innovative arrangements. Rüsing assembles a dazzling cast of superb musicians and perceptively weaves their distinctive contributions into the flow and direction of the story.

Daniel Lopresto’s vocals in System of a Dream (Track 9) provide a grittier edge that speaks of pain, weariness and raw emotion. Sean Timms unleashes an enthralling mosaic of keyboard solos which dance and sparkle with vitality and restrained discipline. Mark Trueack brings a change of texture again on The Impossible (Track 11), creating a wonderfully nuanced call-and-response passage with Rüsing himself, leading to a building crescendo and the glorious cry: “I understand what I know can set me free, set me free!”

‘From Here to the Impossible’ is an impressive, deeply ambitious album which captures the imagination and gracefully enfolds you within layers of melodic complexity and unexpected musical delights. It will not give itself up to easy or casual listening. You will need to spend time with it; you will need to listen, to absorb and even, in places, to wrestle with where the signposts, markers and arrangements are trying to take you. And by the end you will be ready to believe that we still have it within us to change the world. Our dreams and passions make a difference, despite and in spite of the limitations which surround us.

Released 15th July 2017

Buy ‘From Here To The Impossible’ from the band’s webshop