Author Archives: John Deasey

Top 10 for 2013 – my quick list

What a year for music. What a year for Prog.

I had every intention of writing reams and reams about my top 30 albums and eulogising in great detail about their many nuances, but to be honest, I was eating into my listening time and I’ve still got at least a dozen albums from last year to listen to properly.

So this is my list in terms of the albums I have enjoyed and played the most during 2013 :

 

1. Haken – The Mountain

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A brilliantly conceived and executed album with riffs galore, melody in abundance, emotion pouring out of it with a message and cover art that sits close to my heart as those of you who know me will realise. To see this performed live recently at the Borderline, along with several Twitter friends who I met for the first time, puts this album into a special place.

 

2. Freedom to Glide – Rain

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A beautifully produced and immensely moving album. A distinct Floyd and Waters vibe but shot through with it’s own sound. In many ways this is a perfect album for me. The theme is clear, it is not ‘overdone’, it does not become hectoring, the sound is truly gorgeous and the level of detail bears repeated listens. Quite simply a stunning album.

 

3. Days Between Stations – In Extremis

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A smorgasbord of prog references put together with loving detail to produce one of the major highlights of my music year.  I can hear Big Big Train, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd and other great artists – but I also hear the wonderfully crafted musicianship of Eggshell Man and the title track which, albeit with subtle and not so subtle references to other groups, soar above any suggestions of plagarism. A wonderfully fulfilling and rewarding album ….

4. Lifesigns – Lifesigns

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 A genuine ‘feelgood’ piece of music – uplifting, joyous and engaging.  Refreshingly different yet reassuringly familiar. A summer album to play on a sunny day.  There is complexity and skilfully tricky arrangements but the overriding feel is one of melodic genius.

 

5. 65 Days of Static – Wild Light

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These guys are old favourites of mine, right back to their anthemic Fall of Math album.  This revisits some of that territory again but this time with soaring synths, staccato beats and pulsating slabs of electronica to lift this album into places it is sometimes quite difficult to get down from …. a dramatic cinematic masterpiece. Top class.

6. Steven Wilson – The Raven …..

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Everything that can be said about this album has already been said……. I’m still gutted I missed it live in Manchester otherwise I’m sure it would be higher in the list, but I hold grudges badly :-)

7. Sound of Contact – Dimensionaut

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A great album that is a joy to listen to. Nothing too heavy or in your face, great melodies, hooks to die for that linger and give you earworms for days …. a nice antidote to some of the tricker albums and one I constantly return to. Excellent stuff.

8. Big Big Train – English Electric Pt 2

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This would have been my album of the year but for the annoying fade outs and rather weak middle section that, over time, have become wearisome.  However, any album that contains East Coast Racer (an absolute masterpiece), Curator of Butterflies and The Permanent Way has to be in my top 10. The re-arrangement of tracks on Full Power hides some of the issues on Part 2 but I can’t consider this a 2013 release in it’s own right.

9. Omnium Gatherum – Beyond

Beyond

Melodic doom metal of the highest order. A breathtaking tsunami of sound that cascades out of the speakers and provides layer upon layer of drama. Yes there are growls, but there are also soaring melodies from both the vocals and the layered guitars. Epic in scale and epic in production. I am enjoying this genre more and more and if Insomniums’ ‘One for Sorrow’ had been released this year that would be a leading contender …..

10. Vienna Circle – Silhouette Moon

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This couldn’t be further from the above album if it tried. A gossamer light blend of melody, skilful playing and wonderfully constructed songs that entrance and enchant in equal measure. There is a shimmering feel to this album that is an absolute delight. This is super music that improves with every listen.

 

Special mentions must go to Airbag, Votum, Anta, The Fierce and the Dead, Subsignal, Maschine (who’s Rubidium album was really brought to life when they supported Haken at the Borderline), Subsignal and Jet Black Sea –  all their albums are on more or less constant rotation when the time allows.

There are also albums from Humanfly, TesseracT, Spocks Beard, Amplifier and Dream Theater that have been played but not yet ‘discovered’ and I dare say one of these could well have burst it’s way onto my list had it clicked at a particular time.  The delights of these plus many others have still to be explored and as with so many other things in life, time is the pressing issue.

What a year it has been and quite frankly, if no albums were released at all in 2014, we would have enough riches to survive a long time on the output of 2012 and 2013.

See you all soon and have a great break over the next week or so …..

A powerful and moving piece of work ……

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Freedom to Glide – “Rain

Review by John Deasey

 

If you look careful at the album artwork above, you can see the faces of soldiers in every rain drop.

 

So my brothers fell like rain

Every rain drop bears a name

The storm will rise, the sky will fall

A bitter lesson for us all.

 

“Rain’ is the culmination of 3 years work by Pete Riley and Andy Nixon, both members of a Pink Floyd tribute band who realised they had more than a shared interest in the music they were playing. 

As they explain on their website, musically they just clicked and before long they were exchanging ideas, laying down tracks and realising they were on to something outside of the tribute band. 

And my, how they were on to something. 

Taking a step back for a moment, I remember when Roger Waters released “Amused to Death” and being totally floored by the opening track ‘The Ballad of Bill Hubbard’. The beautiful, subtle guitar fills from Jeff Beck, the mournful backing to the spoken word of a British veteran soldier describing the horrors of war in a gentle, frail, breaking voice …… very moving indeed.

Other tracks such as ‘It’s a Miracle’ and the closing title track are similarly outstanding and have stood the test of time.

Admittedly some of Waters’ anti-war tirade gets a bit tiresome and a little bit theatrically obvious on that album, but there is a stunning tone and feel to the overall piece of work that stays long in the mind. 

It is no surprise, given the background of Freedom to Glide, that there is a distinct Floyd / Waters vibe to ‘Rain’, but it avoids any of the cheap shots or crassness of ‘Amused to Death’ and instead infuses the whole piece of work with an elegance and subtlety that is perfectly in keeping with the respectful air for the subject matter.

 

My copy of the album arrived at 10.50am on release day, 11/11/2013.

 

So apt. So appropriate.

 

The sweeping keyboards of the title track immediately set an atmosphere and within a few moments we are taken into a magnificently moving piece of work that absorbs, transfixes and takes us on a journey that I, for one, found hard to let go off.

Seldom have I played a new album on repeat so many times.  

We have clear, crisp production, with lyrics that can be heard clearly. 

We have background sounds of radios, soldiers speaking, swathes of gorgeous keyboards, Middle Eastern sounding woodwind, military drumbeats  low down in the mix and the beautiful Floydian textures of strummed guitar whilst a delicate lead guitar adds shimmering tones ….. 

We also have rockier tracks such as ‘Path of Reason’ which roll along with a strident beat but even these sections are done with class and quality – nothing is out of place and there are no sudden distortions or jarring distractions to annoy. 

Tracks such as ‘Riders on a Wave’ display superb, uncomplicated song writing that is a joy to listen to with a subtle depth that adds to the unfolding and building atmosphere.

This takes on a more dramatic and sinister turn as we head into ‘Price of Freedom’, which recounts a soldiers journey on a vessel from Liverpool to “…halfway round the world, a universe from home” and really sets the scene for the second half of the album.

From here, this is where the music becomes powerfully emotional and at times, incredibly moving without ever becoming maudlin or crassly over-sentimental. 

‘Angels and Stones’ is a case in point. A steady beat with gorgeous textures weaving in and out underpinned by a forbidding deep rumble whilst the vocal refrain mournfully tells us : 

Fly like an angel, fall like a stone

  

Whilst the subject matter of the album could have led to a bitter tirade of rhetoric and barely concealed anger, we are instead treated to a beautifully restrained, elegant and respectful tone as exemplified on ‘When the Whistle Blows’. 

This is a stunning track about the young men answering the call. Unaware the rain would fall. Not knowing the rivers would turn red.

Lyrically, musically and atmospherically this is a minor masterpiece. 

The spoken words of the soldier are reminiscent of ‘The Ballad of Bill Hubbard’ with a similar hauntingly sad feel.

It is actually difficult to put into words how moving the final part of ‘Rain’ is, whether or not you agree or disagree with the whole Remembrance issue, but to hear the veteran soldier on ‘Home Again’, speaking, whilst warm keyboards wrap his elegant words like a shroud, is something else.

As you sit in silence, taking in what you have just heard, the album closes on a fitting note with an uplifting and reassuring track that despite the horrors, wounds and damaged minds of war, we can emerge ‘Not a Broken Man’.

So there we have it – a majestic and beautifully judged piece of work from Pete Riley and Andy Nixon who should be proud of what they have achieved.  This is certainly one of the most enjoyable and moving albums I have had the pleasure to listen to for a long long time.

 

Highly recommended

 

http://www.freedomtoglide.com/home

http://freedomtoglide.bandcamp.com/

 

Cinematic, emotional, uplifting, coruscating, life-affirming …..

65 Days of Static – “Wild Light”

Review by John Deasey

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I was smitten by 65DOS when I first heard The Fall of Math many years ago. A joyous cacophony of jagged beats, storming riffs and crashing walls of layered sounds that were simply astonishing.

Anyone who has heard ‘Retreat Retreat’ from that album will know what I mean.

Even back then, I always thought there was a cinematic quality to their epically conceived mini-meisterwerks. The only nagging thought was how they would develop this sound over the next few years.

Well, hear we are, several years later with a beautifully constructed and totally cinematic collection of tracks that are, frankly, brilliant.

Art and media students must be salivating at the prospect of putting images to this music and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these tracks end up as backing music to television photo montages or as the backdrop to moody, gritty northern European detective series’.

I see city lights, rain, romantic liasons in doorways and dramatic edgy moments of violence.  But I also see mountain vistas, euphoric ascents, stormy skies and sunbursts ……

This album is like a huge slab of urban edgy artistry taking on the Icelandic beauty of Sigur Ros and slaying it with slabs of guitar-laden, techno-filled post-apocalyptic grandeur.

The opening track ‘Heat Death Infinity Splinter’ starts proceedings in stately style with a glorious swathe of keyboards swirling around a steady beat, with that typical electro-tinge so typical of 65DOS.  As the track builds there are clues to the band’s past – clicks, whirrs, that amazing metallic beat tone they get – and then, and then ……  the release !! The release that lets it all out and we finish before we know what has happened. Immense.

‘Prisms’ has already been doing the rounds with a stunning video clip and this track reminds me of a gritty, cellar-based version of something Craig Armstrong might have been involved with had he taken something during recording of his outstanding ‘The Space Between Us’. The track is driven along by an ace beat, that breaks up, distorts and brings it all back together again for a belting finale of pulsating electro-synth rock.

‘The Undertow’ , as it’s title suggests, is a gentler track and allows us some breathing space as a gentle piano motif soothes us, but before long we are lifted, arms raised, yet again by a stunning crescendo to a sea of feedback, crackling fires, echoes and …silence.

I’m a big fan of dramatic, instrumental music as it can fit so many scenarios – there are no lyrics to fix a story or suggest a mood, Instead, your mood is created by when and how you are listening and this can change with every play.

For example, ‘Blackspots’ has me one minute in mind of bowling along the motorway at 90mph, in the style of Kraftwerk, then the next minute it brings to mind a city back-alley with rain lashing down, blood seeping into the gutter from a slain body ….

This album builds and builds, as if somehow during recording, the inspiration just kept on coming.  ‘Sleepwalk City’ does the impossible and raises the bar higher yet again with a driving, urgent, city-beat with a vaguely New Order feel but awash with layers of huge keyboards and the undercurrent of crunchy techno-sounds.

‘Taipei’ begins with less techo-trickery and we have a lovely piano led introduction with jangly guitars that uplift and entrance with that typical surge of optimism until we have a huge swell of amazing sound that bursts out of the speakers and overwhelms all who may be in its aural path – although this is almost in standard post-rock territory with the build up and release, it is so well done and just so typically 65DOS it is breathtaking.

There is a real sense this album is soaring into a place where it will be difficult to come down from.

The penultimate track, ‘Unmake the Wild Light’ snakes into life with a sinuous bass pattern that sets a marvellous platform for the intricacies laid upon it – strings, guitars, synths, keyboards moving with a simple chord progression to lift, inspire and take us on some epic journey for which the destination is never known. As the track builds, the beat drives, and the wave of crashing sound becomes almost unbearable we are thankfully released from the tension and allowed to breathe again ….

…but only for a moment, as we head towards ‘Safe Passage’.

A fitting title for a closing track to an epic album. It is as though we have made it safely through the emotionally uplifting journey, not caved in to its majesty and not cowered at the questions it asks of us. It has become our friend and is one we can now trust.

‘Safe Passage’ finishes off a truly epic piece of work in a style worthy of  some of the best pieces of instrumental music I have heard for a long while.

Cinematic, emotional, uplifting, coruscating, life-affirming.

Essential

Raw, charming post-folk-rock from England …..

The Monroe Transfer and Her Name is Calla – “An Enclave

Review by John Deasey

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It’s always interesting when you are asked to review music from a band you really don’t know much about. No preconceptions, no axe to grind – a blank sheet of paper and a clean mind.  When Echoes and Dust (www.echoesanddust.com) sent this through for me to listen to, I was intrigued 

The Monroe Transfer (from London) and Her Name is Calla ( spread between Leicester, Leeds and York) already work closely together and have toured with each other and contributed to each other’s music, but no official collaboration has ever been done until now. 

A coming together of two ‘Post Rock’ outfits would generally suggest a huge, over the top, Mogwai-meets-GYBE-meets Explosions in the Sky down a dark pub and battle it out to see who can be the most post-rock ! 

Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the case and this EP turns out to be a bit of a charmer. 

A lot of this charm may stem from the way the EP was recorded over a four day spell which, by all accounts, includes camping out, roughing it and freezing their backsides off.

Sometime the words ‘home spun’ and ‘kitchen sink’ can be the kiss of death for music, when what was intended to be intimate and urgent can come across as annoying, irritating and up itself. Again, this isn’t the case here.

From the acapella opening of the first track (#5) to the closing ambient sounds of the last track (#7), we are treated to a lovely, mournful ocean of sonic tragedy.

There are five tracks, no titles, just numbers, and not even in sequence, but it doesn’t really matter as there is a flow to the whole thing which goes with the urgency of the recording I guess. No time for overdubs, re-recordings, second takes or any such luxury – often the first thing you hear is the best and they’ve done pretty well with this approach I’d say. 

The album opener is a mournful sea-shanty with a background drone so typical of this style and it sets the tone with an air of sad misfortune. This morphs beautifully into the second track as the same refrain continues with a lone cello which gently builds up with violins, guitars and more vocals until we have a swelling tide of folk-tinged post-rock beauty.

There are echoes of GYBE here, a touch of Radiohead there, but this is just a hint of the overall sound and nowhere does anything feel contrived or borrowed. Indeed, the fourth track has a rawness and edge to it that jolts you out any reverie that might have been setting in. This is an angry, percussive led piece with group chanting and a lead vocal almost shouting :

          “the path to righteousness is always out of reach….”

         “I screamed and I shouted … I demanded to be heard” 

Guitars start to scream in the background and we have a fantastic cacophony of demented anger, home-spun charm and a feeling that great fun must have been had recording this.

A gentle ambient closing track calms things down again and with a running time of 21 minutes, there is not a moment wasted.

A super little EP. A little different, a little rough round the edges but well worthy of your time.

For a pre-purchase listen try  www.hernameiscalla.bandcamp.com

Where are Blackfield heading … ?

I am fortunate enough to contribute the odd review and article to this wonderful website, and I also write some reviews for some guys in London by the name of Echoes and Dust  www.echoesanddust.com . It is well worth a visit to their site to find some amazing bands which tend to be of the dark, heavy and very powerful variety.

I recently reviewed the latest Blackfield album for Echoes and Dust and wanted to share this with fellow Progarchists.

Most of our Progarchy reviews are very positive, effusive and done from a ‘fan’ perspective.

For a change, this review is decidedly negative.  I have not listened to an album that annoyed me quite as much for a long long time ….. but I make no apologies if only to make it known how little this release has to do with the current Prog movement, particularly at this marvellous time with an abundance of quality music being released almost weekly.

 

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I’ve never really quite known what to make of Blackfield – the vehicle for Israeli artist Aviv Geffen – and where he (they ?) sit in the progressive scene despite now being on the marvellous KScope label.

 For sure, the connections with maestro Steven Wilson have added gravitas and undeniable ‘box office’ to what might otherwise be a relatively unknown artist in the current scene, where top quality releases are becoming the norm, not the exception.

Before commenting on this latest release, we need to take a quick look back at previous Blackfield offerings.

The first album, released in 2004, is a superb piece of work and has the distinctive mark of Mr Wilson who contributes several lead vocals and writing duties.   There are some very strong tracks and the album has a flow and energy with tracks like ‘Open Minds’, ‘Glow’ and ‘Pain’ that would sit comfortably in the quieter sections of any Porcupine Tree album. 

The second album from 2007 carried on in the same vein but never reached the heights of the debut album.  We get the same short, snappy tracks, crisp production and that distinctive influence of Wilson but the nuggets of brilliance become a little more diluted. One highlight of this album is the stunning ‘My Gift of Silence’ – a brilliant track and one of my all time favourites, but this quality is not maintained throughout.

For me, where it all starts to unravel for Blackfield is with the release of their third album in 2011 – ‘Welcome to My DNA’ – where tellingly, all songwriting duties bar one track are by Geffen himself.

Despite looking forward to this album enormously I was hugely disappointed to find a mix of trite lyrics, bland melodies and crass sentiments very poorly expressed. There is one track in particular that is virtually unplayable it is that bad – ‘Go To Hell’ – where the repeated ‘F…k you…’ lyrics are just an embarrassment. This album has rarely been re-visited except prior to this review when it just confirmed my original thoughts…..

So to this latest release – ‘Blackfield IV’. 

Is it a case of getting back to past glories or pushing forward from ‘Welcome to My DNA’ with a fresh sound and new direction ?

With the opening track –‘Pills’ – it is a promising start. A sweeping track with a touch of drama, this is a vast improvement and has lovely touches in the structure and recording.

‘Springtime’ starts to worry me though. The second track is bland beyond bland and is virtually unmemorable which sadly, becomes a theme throughout the whole album.

Vincent Cavanagh of Anathema adds a song with ‘X-ray’ which is pleasant enough, as though he recorded it in passing, but it does have a nice refrain with a tuneful Anathema-lite feel to it.

‘Sense of Insanity’ which follows is where the album starts to collapse though. For me this is a terrible track with woeful lyrics

Mother – have you seen the world today

The shooting all over town

I’m a sinner

I’m not the one you one you prayed for

 … and it just gets worse if you care to seek out the You Tube lyric video (if you are brave enough…)

If this is supposed to be a protest song, or a political swipe at the Israeli military, it sadly fails in my opinion.

We then have a truly bizarre couple of tracks with ‘Firefly’ sounding like it’s from a third rate musical. Brett Anderson of Suede contributes vocals but has no chance of rescuing it.  At least it’s not as bad as ‘The Only Fool is Me’ which continues this mini-musical theme which sounds like an outtake from a 6th form performance of the Phantom of the Opera.

Another couple of bland, plodding inconsequential pop songs follow with no redeeming features then we get to ‘Faking’ which raises the quality by several notches and in context with the rest of the album is a great track.

The one thing that overrides this album is it’s misplaced earnestness and seriousness – there is no hint of humour, edge, feeling, protest, energy -nothing.  Geffen seems to have a high profile in Israel with a famous family, and an energetic outspoken take on politics, but none of this comes through in the music. It is this blandness that so irritates me – there were enough talented, creative and respected people involved in making the album yet how such a bland offering can be released is beyond me.

I hope this album finds it’s market, but I fear that people buying it thinking it is part of this magnificent Prog movement will be hugely disappointed. 

 

 

Sanguine Hum – a sinewy treat of musical excellence

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Sanguine Hum – “The Weight of the World

by John Deasey

Back in 2002, a relatively unknown band called Lorien released an album called ‘Under the Waves’. Although a fairly low-key affair with a relatively bland Coldplay/Doves/Athlete type of vibe, there were some seriously beautiful tracks with a definite prog tilt. The album also included some of the best vocals I’ve heard from their Italian singer Fabio Ciarcelluti.

A natural countertenor, Ciarcelluti added a fantastic and unusual tone to produce some really moving and memorable songs, which still rank highly in my collection.

This same tone is brought to mind immediately on the opening track of Sanguine Hums second album, ‘Weight of the World’.  The Oxford quartet are led by Joff Winks who’s elegant and understated vocals blend perfectly with the bands clever, languorous and intelligent music.

This is my first exposure to Sanguine Hum, their first album ‘The Diving Bell’ having slipped under my radar, but even on first listen it is clear these guys have been playing together for a long time. It turns out Winks, keyboardist Matt Baber and bass player Brad Waissman have been together for ten years in various guises and it shows.

They create a lovely, fluid and subtle sound that is very complex but made all the more accessible by some lovely hooks and melodies that grab your attention, fleetingly, and draw you in to investigate further. This is not music to play in the background – it is complex, tricky but ultimately very rewarding with layer upon layer to unpeel and delve into.

So, to the music.

Five seconds into opening track ‘From the Ground Up’ and the silky, gossamer layers that are to frequent this album become apparent. A gorgeous vocal over what can only be described as a spider’s web of keyboard and guitar create an immediately gentle and captivating atmosphere.

There is a lot going on here, with clever bass lines weaving in and out whilst shifting rhythms subtlety propel the track forward. It is a great opening track and sets the scene wonderfully.

‘System for Solution’ follows with a super sinuous guitar lead snaking around the languorous vocals of Winks.  Languorous.  A word that could neatly surmise the whole thing really. Nothing really jars, no guitars scream out of the mix, no distortions are out of place. This is a good track which shifts around, never settling, but which has about as urgent a pace as there is on the album. It also has one of the few guitar solos and it’s an absolute belter with not a note wasted or over-played. Again, subtle and languorous.

Next up we have a wonderful instrumental track – ‘In Code’ – which really showcases the musical talent on display. Something about this track reminds me of Steven Wilson’s  later stuff, with it’s jazz tendencies, key changes and complex arrangement.

‘Cognescenti’ and ‘ Day of Release’ continue the general theme with the added interest of electronic elements being nudged into the mix. These are introduced skilfully here and there to add lovely sonic textures that in many cases, have you hitting the rewind button to check again.

The penultimate track, ‘Phosphor’ is beautiful and gentle and reminds me of classic Blue Nile. A neat, precise and condensed piece of beauty.

The finale, so to speak, is the title track which at 14.52 minutes long could be considered the albums swansong, a Magnum Opus, an over the top exultation of all that has gone before it. It couldn’t be further from the truth.  This is yet another musically excellent, structurally fascinating and interesting track that weaves and snakes it’s way around a chorus that works it’s way into your head after a few plays.

This album surprised me.  After a couple of plays in the car on the way to work, I wasn’t too thrilled about it.  Nothing jumped out, nothing shouted out, no hooks leapt into my head and stayed there, but I heard enough to make me want to investigate further. Sure enough, listening to it carefully, in a quieter environment allowed a peeling back of the layers to reveal a wonderful piece of music put together by talented young English guys.

I haven’t really got under the skin of the lyrics as they are well in the mix and not clear enough to discern with any real meaning, but the tone and delivery suggests a weary, but not maudlin, take on how the world is going but not in any hectoring way, more in the way of idly contemplating and reflecting.

This is Progressive music at it’s progressive best in my opinion.  There are traces of influences scattered throughout. I can hear Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, Mew and the aforementioned Lorien but it really is wrapped up in it’s own skin and provides a refreshing take on ‘Prog’ as we know it.

Wonderful stuff.

Beautiful folk post-rock from Scotland

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‘Quickbeam’ by Quickbeam

This lovely self-titled debut release from Scottish band Quickbeam is working it’s way into my affections very quickly. As soon as I saw the video for ‘Immersed’ I knew I had stumbled on something special

These guys are not new to music and have not suddenly appeared from nowhere having steadily plied their trade on the folk scene for the last three years or so. This is perhaps why there is such a finished air to their debut with a depth of emotion and feeling that lends a tangibly plaintive air across the 12 tracks.

The combination of Monika Gromeks lovely voice with piano, cello, guitar, trombone and harmonium is a thing of beauty which swells like the ocean and builds up into wonderful layers of sound – in particular the above mentioned track ‘Immersed’ which has a feel of Sigur Ros from their Harf-Heim DVD/album where they play acoustically at local venues across Iceland.

I also get the feel of that gorgeous album ‘Diamond Mine’ from King Creosote and Jon Hopkins – a big favourite of mine with it’s simple, elegant and understated tones.

Quickbeam stand up to any of these references and have produced a compelling, albeit gentle, album which is a great companion when you need to relax and contemplate and revel in the atmosphere and mood of acoustically soothing music.

Tracks such as ‘Fall’ are enchanting. Minimal lyrics coupled with a build up of a simple refrain adding strings, piano, cello and eventually trombone create a moving, elegant piece.

This is taken further with ‘Home’ where the gentle opening leads into an upbeat drum finale with the relaxed vocals washing beautifully over the top leading to pure folk-post-rock majesty.

Even the track titles are minimalist – ‘Remember’, ‘Matter’, ‘Grace’ – all reflecting a quiet confidence in what this band are trying to achieve and with this album they certainly deliver.

If I were to try and pin down their sound, I  would describe Quickbeam as a Scottish folk Sigur Ros, but there is enough individual quality and ideas here for them to stand proud and build a solid following on this showing.

A super recording and highly recommended.

Soaring, epic, elegant doom metal

Emerald Forest

 

Swallow the Sun

“Emerald Forest and the the Blackbird”

 

One of the most interesting aspects of being into music is suddenly finding yourself immersed in a genre you may never have gone anywhere near previously.

Most of us here are musical inquisitives I guess.

We like to be challenged and are constantly on the look-out for new music to seek out.

I liken this search to many of my trail runs out on my Pennine doorstop.

A labyrinthian web of dead ends, marvellous open valleys, mist-shrouded mountains, tracks twisting round tortuous cliff-edges, sheep-trods leading to vast open moorlands – this is how I visualise my own journey through the musical vista. The scenery constantly changes, a steady run on a gentle track can suddenly turn into a monstrous climb with leg-sapping rocks, roots and sheer cliff edges …..

This is how I’ve come to enjoy a genre I never thought I would.

Running along that relatively gentle path, listening to quality metal such as Riverside, Dream Theater, Haken and Headspace for example, led on to other bands such as Enochian Theory where, on their stunning album “Life … and all it Entails” a few death/doom metal growls are subtly introduced, cleverly and almost delicately.

These fit the music perfectly and made me go back to Opeth’s “Blackwater Park” to re-discover this fine album, growls and all.

Then I was put on to an English Band called Twilight’s Embrace who have released two stunning EP’s – “Reflections” and “Traces” – which are tight, immaculately played minor miracles with not a single note wasted.

As usual, a good few twitter conversations followed with my ‘metal guru’, Matt Spall (@ManofMuchMetal) and he suggested a Finnish band called Swallow the Sun.  Matt is obviously adept at spotting tastes and trends in other people and he suggested I listen to their “Emerald Forest and the Blackbird” album thinking I would enjoy it.

Some albums need a few listens to, some albums grab you by the throat, others you could quite happily never listen to again.

This one fell into a new category : the ‘wtf’ category.

I like my music with a cinematic scope, with an atmosphere and feel that could quite easily carry a whole movie. One of my favourite and totally unconnected artists, is Craig Armstrong. This Scottish composer has produced some stunning work that is widely used in commercials and film soundtracks. It can often be heard tinkling away in documentary backgrounds but stands proud as music for music’s sake. I highly recommend Armstrong’s “The Space Between Us”.  Sigur Ros are another band who straddle the music, art and film worlds with their ethereal soundscapes.

In a similar way, Swallow the Sun are the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings, to the mighty battles for Middle Earth, to heavy medieval swords, to monstrous fog-laden valleys and to dark forbidding Scandinavian skies.

Track titles such as “Cathedral Walls”, “Silent Towers” and “Labyrinth of London” suggest a grand scope to this music and that is certainly what you get.

Multi-layered guitars, powerful riffs, beautiful keyboards, pneumatic percussion, heavy growled vocals interspersed with clean vocals – it’s all there in a huge, and sometimes overwhelming, sound that is simply epic in it’s vision and execution.

The key to their style is, I believe, the melody and harmonies they employ with the instruments rather than the vocals.  Yes, the growling can be hard to take at first but give it time and a few listens then suddenly the vocal style simply becomes a part of the overall sound and it is soon hard to avoid the sublime melodies soaring all around the generally Gothic vibe.

Another essential aspect to the Swallow the Sun sound is the tempo. It is not frantic, there is a calmness (despite the hell being unleashed) and an elegance to their compositions that is common in many Scandinavian bands. Airbag, Gazpacho, Leaves and Lorien are all bands from this part of the world who allow time and space into their recordings unlike anywhere else in the world.

Matt has also recommended other bands to discover in this doom/death or whatever you want to call it scene that are similarly dramatic. Bands with names such as Omnium Gatherum, The Foreshadowing and In Mourning hint at further delights to delve into.

But for the time being, Swallow the Sun are my new favourites in this genre and I would recommend them to anyone looking for elegant, soaring, epic doom metal …………

My top albums from 2102 – a quick re-visit !

I thought it might be interesting to have a quick dip back into my thoughts at the end of 2012 and update with some comments and observations about the albums I chose as my top 12 to see how we are all getting along :

 

Big Big Train – English Electric 

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Yep – still up there on regular play and as stunning as the first listen.  East Coast Racer has moved up the league though and is currently one of my favourite BBT tracks of all time. This track is simply a masterpiece. Brilliant subject, amazing vocals, outstanding arrangement and superb production.  The Underfall Yard has yet to be beaten though :-)

Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisted II 

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Not played this as much as I thought after the first few listens – it’s there, in the background, but not on the playlist as much as I thought it would have been – still love it though.

Pineapple Thief – All the Wars

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A regular feature on my playlist. I just love the crisp sound, the overall feel and urgency of this melancholic record.

 

Nine Stones Close – One Eye on the Sunrise

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Still an absolute belter of an album and one which just gets better with each play.  A regular first-teamer this one. Shame no-one seems to know them ….

It Bites – Map of the Past

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A marvellous album but one that somehow doesn’t shout out for attention as much as some others for me.  But every time I play it I marvel at the catchiness, melody and arrangements …. should listen to this more !

The Rumour Cubes – The Narrow State 

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A quirky favourite of mine and a regular feature. Haunting cellos, violins and a beautiful Mono-esque feel to it. Brilliant.

Anathema – Weather Systems

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One of he few albums that needs to be played all the way through, in one sitting, to get the full deal.  A regular on my commute and one that relaxes, enchants and adds spirituality to my day.

Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion

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Not worked for me this one !  To be frank I find it annoying so it’s been relegated to the naughty corner at the moment.

Headspace – I am Anonymous

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This is turning out to be an absolute corker of an album. A brilliantly conceived slice of power metal and a favourite I turn to on a weekly basis. Powerful, engaging, interesting – it’s got the lot !

Twilights Embrace – Traces  (EP) 

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These lads from Nottingham have produced two cracking EP’s and they are high on my list as I seem to have expanded my metal taste to incorporate some melodic growls.  Tremendous stuff and being EP’s short enough to blast every week at least.  A further discovery in this genre has been Finnish band Swallow the Sun and their epic ‘Emerald Forest and the Blackbird’ – thanks for the recommendation from Matt Spall (@ManofMuchMetal)

Neal Morse – Momentum

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This was a late entrant and is mid-table in plays I reckon.  It’s good, it’s upbeat and fun but some of it I find a bit obvious (nothing wrong with that though !)

Echolyn – Echolyn

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I really like this album and it has grown to be firm favourite.  I enjoy it’s simply class and elegance with great musicianship, songs and atmosphere. Lovely.

That’s it folks !

 

Enochian Theory – live in Manchester

Every time I see the sign below, as we approach the Northern Quarter in Manchester, I get that quiver of anticipation that brings memories of friends, old and new, great ale in great pubs, and of course live music in small intimate venues.

Manchester - Northern Quarter

Manchester – Northern Quarter

Enochian Theory are a small group with a big sound and their current album ‘Life…and all it Entails’ is currently on my most-played list with a terrific overall tone with layers of melodic invention carefully placed over some seriously heavy sections with the requisite growls (albeit few and far between and deftly introduced…).

Having the opportunity to see these guys at first hand was too good to miss and as the support group, they would be on at a comfortable mid-week time, so business,life,  and all it entails could carry on. The headline group, The Enid, are not a band I am familiar with but suffice to say they were interesting, strange, maddeningly dramatic and worthy of further investigation. A highlight of this particular evening was meeting one of my Twitter friends, Nick Efford, with whom we seem to share a great deal of things in common. Nick is an Enid fan and knows them well so I would leave any further comments to him regarding their music and performance this evening as I couldn’t quite work it out ….

Back to the Theory !

The Ruby Lounge in Manchester is typical of the Northern Quarter subterranean venue with a gloomy street entrance leading down into a gloomy stairwell which leads into a gloomy bar area with a fairly gloomy stage section stuck over in one corner with barely enough room to swing the proverbial cat.

Intimate is the word – in fact so intimate I could reach over and take a shot of the set list on the speaker.

set list

set list

close to the stage

close to the stage

To my delight most of the set was from the wonderful ‘Life.. and all it Entails’ but I was unsure how they would transfer the ‘big’ sound of this album in such a small venue, particularly as they are just a threesome

Needless to say, the sound suffered somewhat and the guitar was a bit lost in a muddy mix, but they had a wonderful selection of backing tracks and loops from their intriguingly titled string section – The Lost Orchestra – which filled out the sound and gave the subtle texture that pervades the aforementioned album.

Ben Harris-Hayes on guitar, vocals and throat (!) is a humble and gracious performer, totally committed to his art and ever so slightly apologetic – an engaging character to watch as he switches pedals, adds sounds, sings and generally controls proceedings.

My eyes were drawn to Shaun Rayment on bass (you may recall I am a once God-like bass player in a band….) as I was interested to see if the sinuous bass lines on the album would be re-created live.  No need for disappointment here – Shaun was incredibly focused and drove the songs on with terrific tight bass lines and worked the hell out of his fretboard – brilliant stuff.

Not being a drummer I can’t comment on the technical skills of Sam Street on drums but I was knocked for six when his double bass drums kicked in – the ferocity of some of the drumming counteracts the delicacy of much of their music and this apparent discrepancy is, I think, what gives them a unique sound..

I’m not going through each song here but suffice to say I was impressed with their live performance of what are complex and involving songs.

A thoroughly enjoyable set made even better by a brief chat with Ben after their set.  I mentioned there was enthusiasm for him on Progarchy but he had not heard of ‘us’ but was delighted to know there are folk out there completely smitten with his work …….

Enochian Theory in full flow

Enochian Theory in full flow

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