Jennifer Clark - Ascan
Jennifer Clark is a woman of many talents. Composing, arranging, performing, producing, engineering, mixing and mastering, it is no surprise that her talents are in demand, most notably in prog circles as a member of Alan Reed's band The Daughters of Expediency, for whom she plays bass. There is no mention amongst her considerable array of talents of any vocal attributes, which may be why her first solo EP is all instrumental, although I wouldn't be surprised if she actually was a world class singer too!
The EP features the artist herself on bass, guitar and keyboards accompanied by Darren Callow on guitar and Andrew Samson on drums. The five compositions display a nice variety of styles, opening with the two more rockier numbers ReEntry and Ascan. Although neither is all-out, in-your-face, unrestrained bombast, they are very tastefully performed.
Eva is more wistful and expansive, conjuring up images of long and lonely travels over barren landscapes, while Ascendant revisits the main theme from Ascan in a quite delightful manner, even if the straightforward four-to-the-floor drum beat is a bit too prominent. Heliosphere rounds things off in a gentle and reflective acoustic manner with a piano enhancing the guitar, and in the end section, the bass.
This is a tantalising debut release that offers a lot of promise for the future.
Fractal Mirror - Close To Vapour
This is the fourth release from Dutch-based Fractal Mirror and their first for the Bad Elephant Music label and actually the first I’ve had the pleasure to listen too. I have to say it’s a good one, especially for prog fans who enjoy Genesis' Wind And Wuthering and similar pastoral or folk-influenced progressive music.
The opening track, Mind The Gap offers a bright and breezy manner and is actually quite strident at times, with its subtly-suppressed acoustic guitars set against a shimmering arpeggio. It gets off to great effect and has a sort of Beatles feel to it. I love the great refrain of: "I dreamt I was invincible, I’d fade from every eye, or hide in small dimensions, you all would pass me by and never know I was here." Great lyrics from a band who describe themselves primarily as songwriters, and it shows with their clever wordplay and the strong melodies that make such an impression. This is a great opener that makes one hopeful for all that is to follow.
In contrast, Book is very laid back with an almost west coast singer songwriter vibe to it and more clever lyrics and good harmonies. I love the line: “She’s like a book that can’t be read, with all the stories in her head”. It is a very clever song of how this girl is many things to many people: like a book that can be read in different ways. There is a very fine melody to this song, alongside a subtle use of Mellotron to further establish the song's tone.
Beyond the Pale follows with another upbeat, shuffle-type rhythm and keyboard flourishes. This album really grows on you and takes on significance the more you hear it, which is for me the way that music should be. This song also has a very tidy guitar break around the three minute mark. It is very concise but beautifully executed, giving the song both momentum and lift.
Another very accomplished song is White Sands with chirpy keyboards to open and more Mellotron; It is a rather more subdued song, but with a touch of melancholy to it alongside a very memorable hook and riff. It has more than a touch of Marillion about it.
Silver is another brief but lively song that continues to captivate and delight with another fine burst of guitar. Then it's onto the title and longest track. Opening with keyboards this evolves into a very melodic vein, with more clever and intelligent words and a very strong refrain. It gives space for the band to stretch out and the song works well in this longer format.
Whilst this album is one of wistfulness and lost longings, and of unfulfilled expectations, it is not miserable or dirge-like in any manner. In fact there is a rich vein of optimism sewn throughout the songs.
This is very fine album and I must applaud these guys for their continued persistence and their efforts in making this quietly intelligent pop/progressive musical feast. It is an album that will repay diligent listeners and its multi-levelled songs have a rich vein of talent woven into them.
Glad Tree - Ostinablu
Glad Tree is a prog-folk trio, and Ostinatoblu is the band's second release. Unusually this work does not feature any percussion, and relies on the clever interplay of Mario Bruno on french horn and keyboards, Lanfranco Costanza’s flute, harmonica and voice, and Marcello Capra’s electric and acoustic guitars for its rhythmic impetus.
Glad Tree makes a fine, mellifluous sound, as the first track amply demonstrates. Opening in a classical vein with french horn and flute duet, and when the guitar enters, it brings to mind Gordon Giltrap. A fine start.
Unfortunately, Glad Tree then move into a genre that I have little interest in. That is the blues. Some of the folk blues that follows has its moments and some does not. The ones that work are those that add a little extra to the blues template, using arrangements that produce interesting sonorities, such as Canone, which has a plaintive french horn melody, and the jazzy edge to Sarnano Blues.
On Hardog there is a lovely systems-music-plays-the-blues vibe. Also there is a version of JS Bach’s Bourrée (as made famous in prog circles by Jethro Tull) which is alright, but if you have the Tull version this may be a little inessential.
The rest of Ostinatoblu is more blues and less prog, and so for me is far less interesting. There are covers versions of Mystery Train, which sticks fairly close to Elvis Presley’s version but with extra harmonica, and of John Mayall's Waiting For The Right Time. Both of which are acceptable on a first listen but don’t stand-up to repeat listens. And the track Dog Blues tested my patience on a first listen. No, it’s not you Glad Tree, it’s probably me.
It is a shame that I could not get on board with the talented musicianship on display here, and with any other genre it would have suited me better. Ultimately Ostinatoblu is all a bit "play it in the background at a dinner party". It will not offend anyone, and at some points it teeters on the edge of bland. If this sounds like it might be for you, then search for a review on a blues website for a different perspective.
Homunculus Res - Della stresa sostanza dei sogni
There is something fresh and timeless about Homunculus Res’ latest release. It is the Sicilian band's third album and like its predecessors, it exhibits a sweet-smelling bouquet of influences that are sure to delight many prog fans. On this occasion, these include the use of many of the traits associated with Canterbury bands, but also an ability to create songs that have hooks and melodies that are sometimes reminiscent of the sunshine-era of pop.
The driving force behind the band's unique tapestry of sounds, that incorporate so many stylistic characteristics associated with the Canterbury sub-genre of bands, is Dario D'Alessandro. In Della stresa sostanza dei sogni he provides guitar (right channel), voice and keyboards, as well as bass on one piece. The core of the band also includes Davide Di Giovanni (piano - organ - synth), Daniele Di Giovanni (drums – percussion), Mauro Turdo (guitar left channel) and Daniele Crisci on bass. The album also features numerous guest musicians including the excellent contribution of Dave Newhouse on saxophones, clarinets and flute.
The album is a joyous experience being full of interesting and unusual chords. Tuneful interludes abound, whilst melody is never lost or forgotten for the sake of complexity. Throughout the album, harmony and discordance have a symbiotic relationship. It is interesting to note that neither harmony nor dissonance are ever far away from the other. Both are often used to great effect within a matter of moments.
D’Allessandro has perfected the no small feat and art of creating self-contained pop songs and tuneful instrumentals, that include avant sections, interwoven with Canterbury-inspired rhythms and motifs, often underpinned by evocative keyboard flurries, and delivered by brutally complex ensemble passages. This unnatural mix works in tandem, to stimulate the senses, stir the body and swaddle the heart. The disparate elements that are so evident in many of the compositions, coexist successfully. Surprisingly, within the concept of the album, this unlikely stylistic blend, manages to sound very natural.
The album is musically fresh and full of progressive ideas. The overall style and sound of the album incorporates a cornucopia of Canterbury sounds. Aficionados of that genre will no doubt be able to discern moments when bands and artists such as Egg, Caravan, Steve Hillage, National Health and Hatfield and the North spring to mind.
The tunes have an outwardly accessible air, and in this respect the catchy, song based mix of styles used by Caravan in their initial albums provides a ready point of comparison. Conversely, the tunes have a complex interior, and in this area, the clasping, challenging instrumental breaks associated with National Health and Hatfield and The North, perhaps provide a better point of reference.
However, Della stresa sostanza dei sogni does not stomp uncreatively all over well-trodden ground, and is not a tiresome rehash of a timeless sound. It is, on the contrary, a development of that overall Canterbury feel, sound and mix of styles, and in this context, it has its own distinctive voice and part to play.
It is heartening to know that there are a number of contemporary prog bands including Mobius Strip, Alco Frisbass, Lapis Lazuli and Schnauser, that channel aspects of the Canterbury sound as a part of their approach, but at the same time have also developed their own uniquely identifiable and thoroughly idiosyncratic style. Homunculus Res have reached new heights in Della stresa sostanza dei sogni and it is arguably their most satisfying album yet.
The vocals are in Italian and the album's lyrical content is by turns humorous, whimsical and occasionally serious. The concept of the album is an exploration of dreams in their many guises, and includes wry observations on their potential consequences.
The dream state nightmare of losing a tooth and becoming toothless forms the subject matter of Denti Cadenti. Conversely, the notion of what it would be like to possess powers associated with God in a dream, undergoes consideration in Il Nome di Dio. The idea of how dreams might affect everyday life receives deliberation in Mentre dormi.
I have no idea whether Pet Sounds is one of D’Allessandro’s favourite albums, nor indeed, if he is familiar with the subtle song writing, vocal harmonies, wholesome melodies and uniquely full ensemble sound contained in that album. However, to my ears, three tunes contained in Della stresa sostanza dei sogni, have much in common with Pet Sounds and display a similar fresh approach to song writing, melody and production.
In some parts (but not the whole) of Bianco Supremo, Mentre dormi and Preludio e Distrazioni delicate instrumentation and the spacious use of melody are utilised. These tunes also exhibit the type of lush ensemble arrangement that Brian Wilson was so adept at creating. The rich orchestration and graceful arrangement of Bianco Supremo is sublime. Many segments within these tunes are so endearing, that they are able to cast a memorable spell. Their charm-like quality enables time to pause for a while.
In an album that contains numerous high points, this trio of tunes provides some of the most appealing and genuinely beautiful moments. The subtle balance between harmony and melody is able to create soothing, lolling ripples of sound which enable reflective passages to develop, before being cast aside.
In the case of Mentre dormi, the frenzied, ear-twitching distortion of a Canterbury-styled guitar creates a period of sonic mayhem, which usurps the delicate, yet grandiose calm. The relaxing and satisfying sensory wash that this piece achieves, before this change of pace occurs, is quite masterful. All three tunes possess a mesmerising and captivating allure, and their impact upon the senses is every bit as compelling as Brian Wilson’s masterpiece.
Tunes like Non-sogno più, possess a real feel-good future and emit a carefree, sunshine-pop vibe. However, as is the case throughout this album, the structure of each tune can unexpectedly change. Non-sogno più is no exception to this principle, and contains some off-beat passages and a magnificent organ break. Although this is quite in keeping with the overall style of the album, it is nonetheless an incongruous and somewhat unanticipated development in an otherwise sweetly-spun, ear-friendly tune.
One of the highlights of the album, and probably the tune which best illustrates the band's ability to successfully meld a range of disparate elements within a single tune, is Se mental elements. It incorporates the expressive vocals of Alessandra Oria Bollino into its palette of sounds. The vocal sections have a happy air that is quite at odds with the lyrical content of the piece. The opening arrangement and subsequent vocal chorus uses hooks and phrasings normally associated with pop tunes.
However, even the most accessible vocal parts of Se mental elements have an edge, and the effect is arguably similar to what a song in a more avant version of the Eurovision song contest might sound like. The vocal sections are dissected by chaotic, yet disciplined interludes, where the band displays an ability to lay down dextrous rhythms with exacting expertise, to create exciting instrumental sections that are full of virtuoso embellishments. It is difficult to understand how all these elements can be contained within the same song, let alone melded in a successful manner, but somehow they do, and the result is quite magical.
Della stresa sostanza dei sogni is a hugely enjoyable album. It has many positive qualities and many impressive individual moments to savour. The band has also perfected the difficult art of concluding pieces in a manner that satisfies and whets the appetite for the next track to follow. The spitting sax-squawking of Faccio una pazzia, the quirky off-piste whistling of Denti Cadenti, the abrupt closure of Il Nome di Dio and the fragile beauty of the acoustic guitar coda in Preludio e Distrazion, all ensure that these compositions have an unusually distinctive and very satisfying conclusion that leaves a listener wanting more.
Denti Cadenti is my favourite piece of the album. It superficially combines some stylistic traits of Gentle Giant with Caravan. Its rhythmic qualities create a colourful backdrop, for misguided attempts to tap-dance teeth and later, as the piece concludes, to grimace and whistle along in toothless ecstasy.
Some listeners might be disappointed that Homunculus Res’ use of a song format is potentially restrictive and does not allow the music to stretch out for lengthy periods. In the instrumental sections, there are numerous hints that the band could have taken the music into more expansive and extended territories if they had wished. For some, the fact that the band chose to create progressive pop songs, rather than an epic progressive suite, might be a cause of some consternation or frustration.
However, the sum of the album is bigger than its self-contained parts, to create a set of interlocking tunes based loosely around the concept of dreams. The music flows freely, and the manner in which each individual track unfolds, compliments the previous piece, to give the album an overall sense of unity and identity. The songs are satisfying when heard on an individual basis, for each tune has a distinctive story to tell. However, the full breadth and depth of this piece of Homunculus Res’ art is arguably, best appreciated when heard in full.
Della stresa sostanza dei sogni is an impressive album in every respect. I have no hesitation in awarding it 9.5 and unreservedly recommending it.
Malady - Toinen toista
Malady is a Finnish band. Toinen toista is their second album and their first release for the Swart label. The quintet’s music is highly melodic and time will speedily float by for any listeners who are enchanted by prog music that offers a retro, seventies sound.
The band is able to create a comfortably enjoyable album that will have many reaching for the repeat button. Malady offer a fluffed up sonic cloud of multi-faceted aural delights, where much of the music is characterised by dazzling organ and keyboard parts and tantalising guitar embellishments. The release also features impressive bass work, and some occasional flute fluttering.
There is more than enough variety in Toinen toista to please a wide range of prog fans. The music displays a number of influences, including bewitching nods to Scandinavian folk melodies. Numerous sections have a retro feel and draw upon many traits associated with classic prog. There are even occasions when the atmosphere created, is suggestive of some of the stylistic traits associated with Pink Floyd.
The album comprises of five pieces. The title track and Etsijän elinehto are particularly satisfying. However, Nurja puoli is probably the undoubted highlight of the album. It is a lengthy affair, clocking in at over 22 minutes. The long running time gives many opportunities for the band to stretch out. It is an impressive composition and includes a number of highly satisfying sections.
The release opens strongly. A smouldering cauldron of spacious atmospheric effects, crunchy rifling, heartfelt guitar parts, earnest vocals and some outstanding keyboard embellishments dominate the impressive title track.
Etsijän elinehto has a spacious vocal feel that gives the music room to develop and breathe. Its later stages display a grandiose arrangement that is also vaguely reminiscent of some of the stylistic nuances associated with Pink Floyd.
However, the overriding influence heard throughout Toinen toista is deeply rooted in both Scandinavian folk and prog. In particular, the opening and concluding pieces of the album contains elements of an identifiable sound that is based upon the band's Scandinavian heritage. It is a style and sound that also underlies aspects of some of the work of contemporary Scandinavian prog bands such as Agusa, Hooffoot, Tusmørke and Jordsjø.
Amidst this mix of Scandinavian prog and 70s-influenced landscapes are some passages that have a sweet, whimsical feel associated with bands such as Caravan. This is in evidence in the sweet, sugar-pop tones of Tiedon kehtolaulu and in some delightful sections of Nurja puoli.
The sound quality of the download that I received was disappointingly inconsistent. It was particularly mushy during the latter stages, and arguably the most crucial period of Nurja puoli. This might have been an intentional effect, as the overall production and sonic quality of the album is for the most part satisfactory.
However, as Nurja puoli was reaching its evocative climax, before its inevitable fade to nothingness, there was a condensed feel to the sound, and the instruments lacked precision and definition. This was frustrating and it definitely affected my overall enjoyment of the piece.
Toinen Toista is a satisfying album and is an enjoyable experience. The album is at its best on the occasions when the instrumentalists express themselves. It has many captivating instrumental segments. For example, Laulu Sisaruksille is a wonderful short interlude tune that has an endearing and magical quality. It successfully sets the mood for the playful, quirky melodies of Tiedon kehtolaulu, which follow.
The vocals are expressive and give a distinctive human and emotive dimension to the release. They are able to convey a spectrum of moods. The vocals excel in the reflective moments of the album and this gentle frailty is no more attractively emphasised, than during the delicate passages of the excellent Nurja puoli.
Although Toinen toista is an attractive release that has the influence of the 70s seeping unashamedly from the speaker with every moment that passes, I felt that, with the exception of some exciting and unexpectedly adventurous sections in Nurja puoli, it was all somewhat predictable.
Malady’s latest album is superficially excellent in every respect. However, underneath its attractive, 70s-styled cotton loons and grandpa vest veneer, it appears to have few hidden facets to discover, or unique characteristics to keep things fresh over time.
In this respect, Toinen toista has not entirely lived up to my initial high impressions and long-term expectations. Nevertheless, I will return to it, on many occasions, as its positive attributes far outweigh the slight reservations I have about the album's sonic qualities, and what it offers beyond a style that has its roots strongly-based upon a prog sound of the early to mid-70s