Culak — Dreamforge
Culak is a one-man band from Texas. Having started the project in 2013, Christian Culak has released 16 full-length albums, with the latest release being Dreamforge.
My initial thought was that the production sounds very crisp. From the symphonic and orchestral introduction, until the ending, everything has a clear and present sound. The Veiled Architect follows from the intro, with slow and heavy chugs on the guitars and harsh vocals to draw you in. It sounds almost a cross between djent and doom.
However, by the halfway point, Throne Of Solitude, I found myself losing interest. The pace has hardly changed, and there is only so many times you can hear "chug, chugagah chug chug" before it becomes repetitive. This isn't an issue that only Culak faces in this style of djent, as I find it in every band I have heard in this genre.
Portal however begins to showcase a bit more experimentation in the riffs, and is almost quite catchy. Almost. It sadly fails to hit the mark due to the off-beat guitar work and repetition. And then drops further in my liking with the tempo changes being too drastic, or the switch from technical bridges to minimalistic verses.
There is stacatto, open string "riffs" aplenty through the album. But little stands-out unfortunately, and it is a shame. Many solos are clearly skilful, and the dedication to write 16 albums in 10 years is impressive. The atmospheric use of orchestral moments adds a lot too. The harsh vocals are very fitting and well executed. The clean vocals on the other hand do stand out for the wrong reasons, and many songs feel both too long and short at the same time due to the repetition and derivative work throughout. Many of the passages also feel slightly off-beat or don't quite come together in the right way. I can see what Christian is trying to do, with the "prog/djent start/stop" areas but for me it doesn't hit the mark.
If you enjoy Fear Factory or Meshuggah and always wanted to see them twinned with Nevermore or similar, then this could be one for your collection.
Nine Skies — The Lightmaker
Nine Skies' The Lightmaker is the Nice-based prog-rockers follow-up to the very well regarded 5.20. Their new album sees them return to a structured concept album format. The Lightmaker is the story of Rudy, who is now living his 1001st and final life. The songs reflect different characters' views of Rudy, as well as from Rudy's point of view. The album becomes an examination of the human condition.
In order to reflect all the different characters involved, Nine Skies have involved seven guest vocalists, with one song sung by each singer. This often means that an album in this fashion, can seem a bit disjointed, but it is not the case here.
As the songwriting has a unifying identity throughout, it retains what my colleague Thomas Otten liked about 5.20, the focus on "subtlety, depth, small details, meticulous arrangements, catchy harmonies". I can only agree with that, though this collection moves away from the acoustic-based music of its predecessor, into neo-prog with a judicious use of heavier elements.
My problems with The Lightmaker are firstly, the sheer volume of lyrics written by keyboard player Anne-Claire Rallo. The lyrics themselves do explore the character facets well. It's just that they almost completely fill each track. Secondly, that the band didn't either cut the lyrics down a bit or increase the amount of music to allow the songs to breathe a bit more. One song, The Dreamer (feat. Martin Wilson from The Room) has half its running time taken up by the lyric, then a good guitar solo, a spoken word section and then the lyric is repeated — all of it, from start to finish. There are only a few tweaks to the music, and so the repletion gets boring on further plays.
Other tracks, although just as wordy, work somewhat better. The Chaotic has dual vocals. Arnaud Quevedo almost raps the packed lyric, but is joined by Italian singer Laura Piazzai who enlivens the second half. In amongst this Adam Holzman (Steven Wilson) adds some trademark synth soloing.
The best track has a rough, bluesy edge that Kristoffer Gildenlöw's voice and bass enrich the mainly acoustic The Lost. This does have a sense of space; one that gets filled with riffing electric guitars halfway through.
The songs are melody-filled neo-prog with loads of great touches, but I don't understand the liking they have for longish spoken-word passages on some of the songs, especially the last two tracks. On The Haunted, Nine Skies go for it, switching things around and Charlie Bramald's vocals are up there with Gildenlöw's. This is a surprise, as Bramlad is best known as a flute player for Nova Cascade. But this is all undone, for me, by an over-long spoken word coda. Something similar happens with The Architect, here with synth burbles, another trademark solo, this one from John Mitchell's guitar, and on the drum stool is Marco Minnemann. Though this track has a better coda and is generally heavier.
It is a shame I didn't get on with Nine Skies' The Lightmaker, as I did enjoy 5.20. But The Lightmaker does have some things going for it, especially the Caspar David Friedrich referencing cover, the excellent booklet and the quality of the singers recruited for the project. However, it feels more generic, than the more individual 5.20.
I respect and applaud Nine Skies' artistic choices. They are theirs to make and are perfectly valid. Unfortunately, they don't quite suit my listening temperament. So do check out this release for yourself. It may be exactly what your ears need.
Rainburn — Vignettes
Vignette. Definition: a brief, evocative description, account or episode.
Not too many prog bands have emerged from the Indian subcontinent. Some of you may have come across Rainburn. I've followed them for almost a decade since their debut EP, Canvass Of Silence became one of my top releases of 2014. It took another four years before their debut album, Insignify hit the internet, and established this Bangalore trio as a band that has something interesting and rather unique to contribute to the world of progressive music.
While song-writer-in-chief Vats Iyengar (vocals, bass, guitar) remains the focus of Rainburn, this is again very much a collective effort. The guitar work of Saakallya Biswas is, once more, a major feature of the sound, as are the eclectic rhythms of Neilroy Miranda (drums). Both add backing vocals to deepen the sonic textures. Derek Serbin brings tenor, alto and baritone saxophones to the song Party People.
Lyrically, with Insignify being somewhat self-focused (it was about an artist's quest for life's purpose), Vats has returned to more-earthly matters here. Vignettes is a collection of observations on urban life over the course of a hypothetical day. Several of the themes evolve around a Covid-imposed, internet-only city-life (dating apps, cancel culture and fake positivity) but there is also an everyday, off-line collection of observations covering the corporate rat race, sexual assault and police corruption. The lyric sheet provides plenty of food for thought, which is something I like.
And it is this mini-concept that dictates the format of the music. Vignettes is just that; a collection of brief, evocative musical episodes. The song-structures are consistent, and they all have a melodic focus. However, each is very different, taking its style, energy and dynamic from the subject.
Identity is probably my favourite song. It's relatively simple, but with a melodic sense that reminds me of the wonderful song, Refuge from their debut EP. Listen Through The Noise is a slice of Americana with its lovely off-beat groove, a bit of a bluesy bent and some effective harmonies.
We then change direction, with Outrage-Seeking Generation Z Brain offering the alt-rock and swagger of the Foo Fighters. After its quiet opening, Love Probably has great contrasts thanks to some effective, heavy riffing. As with several songs, I do feel that some of the ideas could have been further developed.
That's not the case with Siesta, a brief gentle instrumental. It provides a midway pause, but little else. A bit of a filler.
That's not the case with Bad Cop/Bad Cop which must be among the heaviest songs in Rainburn's repertoire to date. A rival in that sense is False Positive. The most complex track here and only one that could be categorized as prog-metal. It reminds me of the more experimental prog-metal bands of the late 80s/early 90s such as Damn The Machine.
Then Rainburn turn the tables again and bring out the funk. Party People is prog to dance to! There are some nice jazz-fusion sparkles here and there across the album. I'd like to hear more of those next time. The weirdly-named closer, Woofs, Purrs and Moos continues to hold onto a pop sensibility.
Overall, Vignettes is definitely an album for those enjoy eclectic-prog bands with a tendency to bounce in and out of numerous genres of music; often within the same song. Only one of the tracks here sneaks past the five-minute mark. It may hold too many frustrations for those who seek more complexity or long-form, multipart compositions.
Vignettes will surely strengthen Rainburn's reputation as a progressive-rock band that has something interesting and relevant to say; both musically and lyrically.
Sfaratthons — Odi Et Amo
Selecting a release from DPRP'S list of new albums to review can sometimes be a difficult process. Given the fact that DPRP adopts a broad interpretation of what falls under the banner of "progressive" music, not everything on the list meets my taste or area of reference. The only category for which I usually raise my hand without hesitation is Rock Progressivo Italiano (RPI). It is a genre which enables me to minimise the risk of struggling with the review, and not coming to terms with the music. So I was happy to discover the description of Sfaratthons' album, Odi et Amo, as RPI, and I gladly chose it even though this band was totally unknown to me.
Sfaratthons hail from Borello in the Italian Abruzzi and have were founded in the late 70s/early 80s. The band's name is an Anglicised version of the Italian dialect word Sfarattone, meaning wastrel. The band's website outlines their ups and downs during the first years of their existence. It leaves me in the dark though, as to what happened between that time and the release of their first album, La Bestia Umana in 2015. This was followed by Appunti Di Viaggio in 2019.
On this, their third album, the line-up comprises Giovanni di Nunzio (vocals, guitar), Cecilio Luciano (drums), Luca di Nunzio (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Mario di Nunzio (bass), and Giovanni Casciato (guitar). Cecilio Luciano and Giovanni di Nunzio belong to the founding members, a third one of which, Luca Luciano, is now responsible for the artwork.
As on the two previous albums, Geoff Warren acts as guest musician on the flute. However, for a guest musician, his role is really distinctive. Sabatino Matteucci contributes the sax on the track Sappo. Composing and recording of the album took place between 2020 and 2022.
According to the information provided by the band, the lyrics draw their influences from the verses of Roman poet Catull and deal with antagonisms: joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, hate and love, reasons and feelings. Understanding very little of the Italian vocals, which in the song Maddalena all take place in a dialect, I concentrated on finding out how these contrasts are reflected in the music. I came to the conclusion that the music is less high-contrast than suggested by the lyrics. That doesn't mean though, that it lacks variety and subtleness, but those are not offered on a silver plate and need careful listening (preferably with headphones on).
Overall, the music on Odi et Amo bears many of the common RPI features: symphonic elements, lush vintage-sounding keyboards, melancholy, and changes of tempo and mood. Hence, there are reminiscences to the classical early Italian prog bands such as Errata Corrige, Le Orme, New Trolls, Quella Vecchia Locanda, Alphataurus, Museo Rosenbach, and Osanna.
It is the use of the flute as the lead instrument which provides for the main difference compared to other RPI releases. The playing style of Geoff Warren reminds me of Camel, Focus, and even more of Jethro Tull (especially in the opener Odi et Amo and in Zarina, the only track written by Geoff Warren himself). In addition, the Canterbury school of Caravan is shining through. Consequently, guitar and keyboards as soloing instruments are being somewhat pushed into the background (but nonetheless are present and audible).
To my ears, the vocals come across less lyrical, dramatic, emotional, and "singer/songwriter-styled" than in other RPI releases. To me, they do not play the role that I would have anticipated, especially in view of the importance that Sfaratthons attaches to its lyrics.
A good example of my impression is the track Maddalena. According to the band, "the hard, heartbreaking, mystical and sinful life of a village woman" is the theme of this song. Not understanding the lyrics, I had difficulties feeling this story reflected in the music and the vocals. I don't want this to be understood as a judgement, it is just that I noticed it that way.
The first five long tracks come across to me as a unit, with the two remaining shorter ones having the character of bonus tracks, also because they sound a bit different compared to the rest. The penultimate one is rather AOR/pop-like, whilst the closing track resembles electronic avant-garde. However, this is not to minimise the importance of Ti Dono Una Canzone, written amid Corona (and recorded remotely) as a tribute to all the health workers; the true heroes of the pandemic.
Zarina, my favourite along with Saffo, is a great song divided itself in five different sequences, full of breaks, changes, and strong melodies.
As mentioned before, this album was an obvious choice for me, and it took me just a few bars of the opener to decide that I would like to review it. However, being a big fan of RPI means that my expectations of releases in this musical style are above average. After all, RPI-bands such as LogoS, Julius Project, Banco, Barock Project, and Il Tempio Delle Clessidre have offered me some of the most beautiful prog albums I have ever listened to.
In view of this, I was a little disappointed the first time I listened to Odi et Amo. It didn't feel as lyrical, sophisticated, emotional, and catchy as I had expected from a typical RPI release. However, it is not always the first impression that counts. Repeated listening slowly made me change my mind and made me acknowledge that Sfaratthons' music may have a bit too many Camel-esque, Jethro Tull-ish and Canterbury elements to pass as a pure RPI album.
Sfaratthons have delivered a symphonic, accessible, and well-crafted release, not very complicated and thus easy to get to know. The extensive use of the flute as the lead instrument is a distinctive factor of their music. Prog rock lovers with an RPI-affinity (let's put it that way), and those who want to test the waters in this respect, can hardly go wrong with this album, but should take the time to discover its subtlety. From now on, this band is on my radar with respect to forthcoming releases.