Built For The Future — 2084:Heretic
Now this new release from San Antonio's Built For The Future is terrific. It came a surprise to me how much I like this. Not having heard anything by them before 2084:Heretic is a headrush of riffs and Mellotron. Their acknowledged influences on the album are worn lightly as they have made them their own. They looked for inspiration from Rush for heaviness, Tears For Fears on the vocals melodies, and soundscapes from Pink Floyd. As well as moments from The Mute Gods, Steven Wilson, RPWL, Failure, even a nod to Foo Fighters.
Built For The Future's (or as the band style themselves B4tF) new album is their third. It follows on from 2015's Chasing Light and 2021's Brave New World. 2084:Heretic is, like the previous two, a science fiction themed concept album. This one is based on George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece 1984, and they don't ignore the parallels between Orwell's skewering of Stalinism and contemporary politics and its use of post-truth rhetoric.
B4tF originally a duo, have expanded to a quintet for live performances, and it is the live line up that has recorded this new studio album. The original duo, long term friends, Kenny Bissett (lead vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Patric Farrell (guitar, bass, keyboards, programming, backing vocals) who also write the material and produce it. They are joined by David Peña (guitars), Lalo (drums) and Pete Fithian (keyboards).
2084:Heretic is, as you probably guessed from the influences mentioned above, very much in that song-focussed cross-over prog. Welding the joys of riffing guitars, interleaved with spurts of Mellotron goodness, heavy and brilliant Fender jazz bass lines, all supported by precise but unshowy drumming. The attentive production and mix have your ears luxuriating to every twist and turn.
The lyric's do a magnificent job of distilling the essence of Orwell's 1984 leaving your thoughts spinning and making unexpected connections. Effortlessly sung with subtle harmonies and singalong melodies. None of the songs' story-telling content overwhelms the music. This is smart, aggressive prog rock with a classic rock feel, indirect solos that seep through to enhance and not distract from the forward momentum.
Trying to single out highlights is near impossible as the songwriting quality is first-rate throughout. It makes for a song-cycle that never outstays its welcome, held together with samples from various film and television adaptations. And to quote one of their lyrics, this is music that is 'fighting the insipid'.
Long Live Big Brother! Long Live Big Brother! Long Live B4tF!
Mariusz Duda — AFR AI D
Mariusz Duda continues his electronic journey on the Kscope label with AFR AI D. This time the album is being released on CD and vinyl, while the three albums of the Lockdown Trilogy were initially only available digitally and were only subsequently released on physical media. While these lockdown albums may have been a kind of occupational therapy during the pandemic, the versatile musician now seems to be taking this project seriously. As the title suggests, the content deals with the topic of artificial intelligence, its commercialization and its use in everyday life. Are ChatGPT and its colleagues a danger to all of us or perhaps a valuable support and enrichment? Like the social discourse, which sometimes swings in one direction and sometimes in the other, Duda is clearly not one hundred percent sure which position he should take. Perhaps he does not want to decide between black and white, good or evil, but simply wants to shed light on all conceivable facets of a highly exciting topic.
The single Embracing The Unknown, released a good two months in advance, interestingly the longest song with a playing time of almost eight minutes and also the album's finale, already gave a good overview of the diversity to be expected. The moods fluctuate back and forth like the rhythms, the song is the balancing act between the two poles, between departure and decline, hope and dejection, the musical version of the uncertainty of what may really come and develop. In the end, there seems to be a rather gloomy finale. That's how the opening of the album sounds: Taming Nightmares (the title says it all) starts AFR AI D with downright menacing sounds. It sounds machine-like, stoic, monotonous, then finally a singing guitar swings over it like a first ray of hope in the morning. Good Morning Fearmongering follows promptly as the second track, but it begins anything but cheerfully: instead, it starts with forward-driven keyboard sounds that build up, again over stoic, machine-like percussion and accompanied by difficult or even unintelligible spoken vocals that do not push to the fore, but are used onomatopoeically as an additional instrument.
Fake Me Deep, Murf has more varied drums and once again the keyboard, which alternate as the dominant elements; from around 3:20, the use of the guitar is a nice splash of color. Until then, some of the music is reminiscent of the soundtracks to science fiction films such as Interstellar or Tron. Bot's Party, however, is much more upbeat, perhaps this is what it must sound like when machines are dancing or at least having a good time. In I Love To Chat With You things get a little more emotional, it's practically the ballad of the album, if there is such a thing in electronic music at all – these are actually quite sweet sounds, it doesn't get more romantic than that. In Why So Serious, Cassandra? the less sentimental machines take over again. In contrast, Mid Journey To Freedom is a little more upbeat, driving and powerful, but in keeping with the title neither aggressive nor threatening – freedom sends its regards. The finale contradicts this again or at least calls a good ending into question.
Mariusz Duda is a musical chameleon. Over the past twenty years, the main songwriter, singer and bass player has completed an exciting musical journey with his original band Riverside. From the dark progressive rock with heavier sounds of the debut Out Of Myself (2004) to the fascinatingly melancholic albums of the middle phase and the most recent work ID.Entity (2023), which does not deny the band's DNA but also offers pleasing melodies and vocal lines that are reminiscent of pop bands such as A-ha (without being embarrassing). With his side project Lunatic Soul, launched in 2008 with the album of the same name, Duda also creates atmospherically dense music, albeit more electronic than rock-influenced, with beautiful melodies and sprawling keyboard carpets. The exception to this is the latest CD Through Shaded Woods (2020), which offers down-to-earth, Eastern European influenced folk instead of futuristic sounds, relying more on acoustic guitar and varied percussion than on keyboard instruments.
However, Duda has by no means renounced electronic music for this reason; on the contrary, he has incorporated it into a third project: under his own name, inspired by his experiences in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, he released the album Lockdown Spaces (2020), on which he limits himself entirely to electronic instruments, samples and his sparingly used voice. Claustrophobic Universe (2021) and Interior Drawings (2021) completed the Lockdown trilogy, which was initially only available digitally and was only subsequently released on physical recordings. Since then, the mini-album Let's Meet Outside (2022) and the 27-minute track Intervallum (2022), which is available on Bandcamp and is inspired by Vangelis' soundtrack to Blade Runner, have been added in the same style.
Mariusz Duda recorded all the instruments (keyboards, synthesizer, programming, vocals) on AFR AI D himself, with Mateusz Owczarek, who otherwise dedicates himself to a wide range of styles from prog to world music in the Polish duo Lion Shepherd, being responsible for the guitar solos and providing one or two successful counterpoints amidst the electronic sounds. All in all, AFR AI D is a good album and another step forward for Mariusz Duda after the Lockdown trilogy. Not to be misunderstood: It's good and worth listening to, but especially for prog lovers it doesn't come close to the Riverside albums. Nevertheless, we can look forward to Duda's next projects – variety is certainly guaranteed.
Earthside — Let The Truth Speak
Earthside is a New England-based "creative collective" that plays an absorbing style of modern progressive music mixed with world music, that they call "cinematic rock".
It has been seven years since their debut work, A Dream In Static, won plaudits for their creativity and ambition. This is the same band, featuring Jamie van Dyck (guitars, keyboards), Frank Sacramone (keyboards), Ryan Griffin (bass) and Ben Shanbrom on drums. However, their second album aims to showcase a different side.
While A Dream In Static was cinematic and progressive and technical, Let The Truth Speak is atmospheric, melodic and very varied in its use of often-conflicting genres. It is more of a journey in itself, than a soundtrack to one.
The band's USP is that it does not have a lead vocalist. Instead, it brings in a series of guest vocalists for specific songs. In a way that approach is similar to the various Ayreon projects but here the singers do not assume parts within the story, they simply deliver the vocals for a specific tracks(s).
Another difference to the Ayreon format, is that the singers here are from largely unknown bands. Only Daniel Tompkins and Tesseract will ring any bells for most readers. That, I like and admire.
The album is bookended by two instrumental tracks, with a third marking the halfway point. So that's seven vocals tracks and three instrumental.
I usually steer clear of track-by-track reviews, but here the tracks have such a rich musical diversity, that such an approach is the only way to convey what listeners will encounter.
But What If We're Wrong is a strong opening statement and an appropriate prelude as to what is to follow. The staring role here lies with guests Sandbox Percussion who add a lovely blend of various gongs, chimes, bells and other doingy things. They add a lovely world-music texture to the Earthside palette of cinematic symphonics and devilish riff-mongery.
It is only a prelude though. The first-song-proper is also my favourite. It sees the first of the previously-unknown-to-me singers, Keturah (Johnson). She is a female vocalist with The Heavy Medicine Band. But here she sounds just like Ian Kenny from Karnivool. The whole composition (the guitar sound, the drum rhythms, the vocal patterns, the mid-song ambience) is an audio-testimony to the style perfected by Australia's finest band. I love this. I must check out more of the Heavy Medicine Band too.
As the title suggests, Tyranny is not a terribly happy song. It drifts between piano-led pop and modern djenty metal. The next singer-we-have-never-heard-of is Pritam Adhikary. His voice had a semi-rap-lilt and a semi-whisper that perfectly suits the moody mood of the song. As the tyranny builds, he is more than able to bring the increased power required. Impressive. I love the gentle, plucked guitar section that follows and evolves. Then we go all riff-based staccato metal in a Caligula's Horse fashion. It's heavy, but in a very light sorta way. Tighter editing would have benefited this track. Cinematic shouldn't always mean lengthy. Not sure if it needs the birdsong!
AJ Channer has a not-dissimilar vocal trait. Pattern Of Rebirth again has a djenty-poppy bent. The guitars certainly do. It's shorter and more to-the-point. The synths lend a cinematic backdrop. Not my thing. The semi-rap, semi-spoken bit at the end certainly is not. It might be yours.
From four minutes we jump to eleven minutes. Watching The Earth Sink begins very cinematically. Ambient, gentle guitar strings give the visuals of autumnal pastures, babbling brooks and clear, star-filled night skies. Drums and jangly electric guitars then add another layer and another gear, before the song puts on its full metal jacket. It's an enjoyable enough piece of instrumental post-rock, leading back down to the customary minimalistic ending; before rising once more to an explosive ending. Nicely done. Very long. This style has become rather formulaic and repetitive for me. It might not have for you.
We're now half-an-hour into the album. It's time for a musical curveball. Put on your dancing shoes, as The Lesser Evil is all about soul. Larry Braggs has a voice that once graced The Temptations. Had enough prog-rock? Then welcome to the world of prog-soul. In an ambient beginning Braggs' voice is a gentle soulful lit. Then comes a raw guitar riff and Sam Gendel's tenor saxophone and Briggs is allowed to showcase his full, glorious, soulful best. It's very proggy. It's very soulful. It's very good. And the 11-minutes are fully warranted.
I tend to treat Denial's Aria and Vespers as one piece of music, as they offer similar moods. The first sees the return of Keturah in a duet with VikKe. The other guests are two harpists named Duo Scorpio, adding a very folksy, pastoral vibe. I've been listening to a French modern-pop artist called This reminds in part of her. It's a nice slice of ambient, folsky, pop-prog. Vespers has an even gentler pace; all angelic vocalisations and meditative synths. Not my thing. Thankfully short. Although this is certainly a varied album, both pieces seem out of place.
Even more so when you encounter the penultimate track.
Daniel Tompkins of Tesseract guested on the first Earthside album, and he is welcomed back for the title track of their second. He puts in another great performance, utilising his entire range to keep up with the ever-changing musical backdrop. I'm reminded of Australia's Arcane more than once here. Prog-metal guitars, djenty rhythms, bright orchestration, multi-faceted vocalisations and twinkling ambient passages add more layers. It's an enticing listen, but just lacks that big hook or memorable riff to mobilise the hairs on the back of my neck. Another over-long ending doesn't help. I'll say it again: 'cinematic' shouldn't always mean 'lengthy'.
The instrumental bookend for this album is completed with another nine-plus minutes of post-rock, djenty, dynamic exploration. Baard Kolstad of Leprous is let loose for the closing section. Again this isn't really my thing. It might be yours.
So hopefully that's given you a taste of what this album has to offer. It is certainly an ambitious and multi-textured offering, summed-up beautifully by the colours and energy of the wonderful cover image.
Whether it works for you, and how much you enjoy it will depend on how open you are to the wide variety of genres and styles that it seeks to bring together. The performances throughout are top class. It's not about quality. It'll be down to personal taste. I love We Who Lament, whilst Tyranny and The Lesser Evil are also great songs. Other bits, I'm less keen on, especially those that veer towards the instrumental post-rock stylings.
One thing is without doubt, Let The Truth Speak is a sophisticated and fascinating album. Genuinely progressive. I strongly recommend that you give this a listen and come up with your own conclusions.
Hats Off Gentlemen It's Adequate — The Light Of Ancient Mistakes
Ever since my mother handed me "Search The Sky", a satirical SF novel written by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, I have always been fascinated by fantasy and science fiction. I don't recall the exact amount of books I picked up during those early teenage years, but I do remember I read everything I could lay my hands on by Pohl, Stanislaw Lem, E.F. Russell, Eric Brown, Felix Thijssen and Jules Verne, to name a few old-time favourites.
Next to a mutual prog appreciation Hats Off, comprising Malcolm Galloway (vocals, lead guitar, percussion, all sorts) and Mark Gatland (bass guitar, percussion, other all sorts) accompanied by Kathryn Thomas on flute, share a similar SF-fascination and for their seventh album The Light Of Ancient Mistakes have taken inspiration from renowned writers such as Iain M. Banks and Philip K. Dick, as well as lesser known authors like for instance Adrian Tchaikovsky.
The outcome of our shared likeness is however different. Because where these books for me acts as a temporary escape from reality, Hats Off's musical matrix contemplates and thoughtfully addresses earths near-apocalyptic dystopian reality. A loose thought generated by the album's striking cover art which for me brings the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves, to mind.
Musically speaking, Hats Off never stand still. They immediately pick up the pace with Sold The Peace where a combination of electronics vibes and new wave / pop, driven by funky bass and a beautiful orchestrated bridge that awakens thoughts of Twelfth Night. Angry vocals by Galloway deliver a delightful juvenile protesting image of the 80s.
Shifting gear and atmosphere, The Light Of Ancient Mistake does everything just right for the late 90s Porcupine Tree enthusiast. Slowly progressing melodies shining with shimmering synths converge into bluesy, emotional guitar work. Galloway's voice adds melancholic darkness akin Marillion's Steve Hogarth.
Avrana Kern Is Made Of Ants manoeuvres through a hypnotic upbeat rave and bouncy rhythms that perfectly reflects ant-farm hectic, while the subsequent The Anxiety Machine Part I presents an otherworldly spacious soundscapes twinkling with an event horizon of psychedelic tension. The unsettling EM style within The Anxiety Machine Part II is also evidently sci-fi-inspired, as is the case for The Anxiety Machine Part III which resonates with uplifting images of Pixar's Wall-E. The marvellous Sixteen Hugless Years exhibits similar melancholic gloominess with a sense of progressive Starfish 64 pop and Pink Floyd-ian synth waves.
In The Requisitioner And The Wonder, Hats Off return to PT/Eloy realms with tangible mystery that slowly grows towards cinematic grandeur. Excellence of guitar melodies are at the centre of attention. This fine moment is followed by Glamour Boys, which passes with flying colours from elegant transitions and mid-paced alt-prog designs.
After a deep dive into an enigmatic fusion of funky new wave, free spirited jazz and classical piano with Gothi And Gethli and a touchdown onto territories of delightful punk in Imtiredandeverythinghurts, Hatt Off's exciting journey suddenly becomes roller-coaster-y (not a word, but I guess you'll get the picture) adventurous with the eclectic masterpiece Walking To Aldebaran, inspired by Tchaikovsky's novella that goes by the same name.
As ultimate proof for Hats Off's hard-to-pinpoint direction, this stunning composition, brings a sublime boundless arrangement in twists and turns that makes you fall seamlessly from one surprise into the next. In short, it starts off fiercely dynamic with bombast and psychedelic paranoia somewhat reminiscent of Hawkwind. Then, vibrant energy propels past jazzy experimental movements, metal riffs and bright flute melodies. It takes a dreamy rest in a Pink Floyd atmosphere. Theatrical, ominous prog-rock towers into a captivating blues coda. If the novella is only half as good as this phenomenal track then I seriously need to lay my hands on a copy.
Two more sci-fi-inspired compositions follow in form of Philip K. Dick's The Man Who Japed and Goodbye Cassini, the latter floating by ever so gently with magical atmosphere and delightful flute. Until finally Burn The World's realistically disturbing message from our, hopefully alternate, future concludes the album on an artistic high with melancholic sadness. A peerless guitar solo chills right down to the bone on so many levels.
As a personal first contact to Hats Off's eclectic world of modern-styled progressive rock, The Light Of Ancient Mistakes has proven to be a first-rate engaging and broadly entertaining introduction. Exceptionally well performed and beautifully balanced, with atmospheric variation between instrumental and vocal sections. I overall highly recommend it for modern progressive rock fans in search for the surprisingly adventurous! Chapeau guys and girl!
Land Of Chocolate — Your Finest Hour
Reviewing Land of Chocolate's release Your Finest Hour has generated two sorts of déjà-vu with me. Well, déjà-entendu is probably a more appropriate expression. First, once more I am writing about a band which I have never come across before (I think, with seven out of ten reviews I do, that is the case). Second, once more I have selected a band the music of which has given me a hard time to form my opinion on (that, fortunately, does not happen that often).
Land Of Chocolate saw the light of day in 2000, when Philadelphia-based drummer and backing vocalist Jonn Buzby, and guitarist Brian O'Neill formed a new band after the demise of their preceding ephemeral outfit Finneus Gauge. Jonn Buzby shifted to keyboards and lead vocals, they recruited John Jens (bass), and John Germugo (drums) and released their debut album Unicorn On The Cob in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Jonn Buzby decided to relocate to North Carolina, where he re-founded Land Of Chocolate, consisting, besides himself, of John Covach (guitars), Gerald Wilson (bass), and Wesley Hare (drums). The band released a second full-length album Regaining The Feel in 2004. However, more relocations and changes of personal life plans meant that songs written shortly after that second album did not find their way onto a release until 19 years later. Jonn Busby focussed on his efforts with his other North Carolina-based project Damn Fine Coffee in the meantime. The line-up on Your Finest Hour is a combination of the two previous iterations and includes, besides the members of Land Of Chocolate II, Brian O'Neil from the initial outfit.
The main characteristics I realised about Land Of Chocolate's music are the variety, rhythmic complexity, density, and restraint with respect to catchy melodies and harmonies.
With a certain overall fusion/jazz tendency, none of the 12 songs sounds alike. There is a healthy mix of harder, more dissonant sounding songs with softer and mellow ones, the latter mainly concerning the three shorter instrumental tracks. But versatility and variety can also be found within each song. The listener is required to constantly adapt to different sounds, rhythms, and moods, so there is no chance of getting used to them and definitely no signs of wear and tear. Consequently, with a few exceptions, don't expect many earworm melodies and classical song structures. In this respect, I felt reminded of bands such as Gentle Giant, German band Soulsplitter (for comparison purposes only - their musical career started some 15 years later), and (Dixie) Dregs. Jonn Busby's previous/alternative outfits Finneus Gauge, and Damn Fine Coffee sound comparable (with him acting as a kind of musical common denominator), plus some hints at Echolyn, of which Jonn's brother Chis was the keyboard player. Overall, the music is not easy to pigeonhole – not a bad sign at all, of course.
The rhythm section, especially the drums, play a distinctive role in Land Of Chocolate's music. The complexity of rhythms and their frequent changes ensure that this definitely is no "foot-tapping" music. A straightforward 4/4-time signature is an exception, breaks are frequently used, and, although I consider myself having a certain sense of rhythm, I was often unable to follow the rhythm throughout the entire song.
Land Of Chocolate's music seemed to me like being very dense and compact, "efficient" to the extent that I had the impression of every note being at the right place with none of them being unnecessary. Hence, everything appears to be tightly arranged and written, with little or no room for improvisations, which, I believe, are not intended anyway. To me, the focus is on technical aspects which address themselves to the listener's intellect, rather than on melodies. It is no l'art-pour-l'art, though, it simply is the band's musical style. This becomes apparent with respect to the vocals as well.
That restrained emphasis on melody and harmony with respect to the vocals and the way the guitar is riffing occasionally make the music sound rough, especially during the louder parts. Accordingly, I found the three short instrumental tracks to be the most melodious ones on the entire release. These songs are interspersed on the album at the right moments and provide even more variety for the release as a whole. Overall, I think it will not be the (hard to remember) melodies which will stick in the listeners' ears, but rather the impression of complex, demanding, and ambitious song writing staying in their minds.
As I wrote in the intro, I had some difficulties to make friends with Land Of Chocolate's music. Right from the start, I was confronted with two parallel strands of thought. My intellect was telling me: great musicianship, varied, dense, well crafted, efficient, complex. My emotions wondered: where are the melodies? What about accessibility, and catchiness? Where are the goosebumps? This contrast was a recurring theme in the process of reviewing this band's music and caused me to differentiate between my objective and subjective impressions.
Viewed objectively, Land of Chocolate have delivered a varied, dense, atmospheric album, with many twists and turns, well played and arranged, full of unexpected moments. Emotionally, it did not really appeal to me, and that is due to me preferring either more melodic, accessible, catchy, and subtle music, such as played by many Italian RPI bands and their Scandinavian peers, or the keyboard-driven, long-tracked symphonic prog. Land Of Chocolate fall into neither of these two categories. Can they be blamed for not meeting a reviewer's subjective expectations? No, I'd rather say: you listeners with an affinity for prog as described above, this release will ensure that you will have, even when may not be your finest hour, at least a pleasant hour of prog rock listening. Let's hope that after the open chapter of unreleased songs now having been closed, Land Of Chocolate keep on releasing new songs as a band in a quicker frequency.
Ophelia Sullivan — Disposable Identity
Sometimes all I want from music is comfort and a certain familiarity, even with music that is new to me, not identikit copies but some warming prog comfort food. But every so often I want a challenge, something that pushes the boundaries of a self-imposed comfort zone.
Those boundaries are challenged by the Leipzig based Ophelia Sullivan's take on prog rock. A take that encompasses elements of prog-metal, electronics, programmed beats and strings (from solo ones to a quartet and onto string orchestra). They (they/them are Ophelia's preferred pronouns) mash up genres with aplomb taking what suits the music from art-rock, trip-hop, avant-pop, electronica, synth prog and layered post rock. See that debris over there, that's what's left of the pigeonhole.
All of this is put into service fleshing out Ophelia Sullivan's skilful songwriting. Songs whose themes cover mental health, otherness, vulnerability and queerness. All of this makes they debut, Disposable Identity, a consistently inventive, often intense and challenging listen that is ultimately rewarding.
On playing the opening track Hourglass I soon realised I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Using a synth based rhythm to which is added a string quartet, intense metal guitar riffs and a great guitar solo and for a short period threatens to turn into a contemporary take on Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. There is a dub sensibility to the way instruments float in and out of the mix and the recording has a great space to it. This allows the ear to acclimatise to the dramatic soundscapes they offer. Some artists would make an entire album out of the overflowing plethora of ideas on just this remarkable track.
Ophelia Sullivan's vocals are strong but used on a breathy manner that reminds me at times of Bjork but without the eccentricities. As Disposable Identity continues there are more and more inventive details, emotional singing, and a few thunderous grooves. They use over twenty guest musicians to make this vision come to life. They all deserve plaudits too. Ophelia S plays guitar, violin, keyboards and does the programming, as well as the vocals.
Of course, with an album as deliciously tuneful in its experimentation there are passages that I find jarring, but they are soon gone and are washed away by swirling synth lines, sweeping Mellotron, skittering beats and warm organic strings. There is a returning wow! factor on all of these tracks if you give them time. Disposable Identity is an album that benefits from both repeated plays and volume. Play loud.
Given that Ophelia Sullivan's Disposable Identity is such a singular release comparisons to guide the curious are few, but there are a couple I can point to might help. One is the American oddball proggers Ontologics and any of their three releases reviewed on DPRP.net such as Heading To The Outer Realm. The other is Anthony Arjen Lucassen (of Aryeon) and his outlier release as Ambeon Fate Of A Dreamer, which is my favourite release from Arjen Lucassen. The vocals on it by the then 14-year-old Astrid van der Veen are echoed by Ophelia Sullivan.
Meet this adventurous release halfway if your prog boundaries are feeling a little claustrophobic. Check it out you will be surprised especially if you give it time.