In Concert: Three Ways, Progressing

Thank You Scientist with Bent Knee and Entransient at The Pyramid Scheme, Grand Rapids Michigan, June 13, 2019.

“There’s only one way to rock!” — Sammy Hagar

Well, that’s one school of thought.  But after this downtown club triple-header, it struck me that (at least in theory) there can be as many paths to playing progressive music as the number of artists that give it a shot.  On Thursday night, three fine young bands unwittingly tested my hypothesis, approaching their music in three very different, equally valid ways.

Grand Rapids’ own Entransient, fresh from a showcase gig at Florida’s RosFest, kicked things off.  The quintet’s 3-song, 30-minute set of “melodic neo/post-prog rock” refined readily admitted influences (Anathema, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Pineapple Thief) into their own unique blend, with a rich sound and atmosphere.  While guitarist Doug Murray and drummer Jeremy Hyde were standout players, the group as a whole (fronted by Scott Martin on subtly tasty keys and fierce vocals) was thrillingly tight and professional.  Prog metal bands are a dime a dozen these days, but Entransient has a distinctive, readily appealing touch. As they blaze a fresh trail in a genre that easily collapses into cliche, they’re well worth a listen.

By contrast, Bent Knee dove into their local debut determined to sound like nobody but themselves.  With Courtney Swain’s sweeping synth sounds and bracing, uninhibited singing to the fore, the Boston sextet blew through a clutch of mostly new material, including the recent single “Catch Light”.  Their sound is artful, cinematic and immersive — a unpredictable, unstoppable rollercoaster ride of dynamic, rhythmic and textural contrasts and transitions, underpinning allusive, cryptic lyrics.  You’re pulled in, put through the wringer — then ejected, safe and smiling!  It was a joyful, cathartic set, and the biggest crowd of the night readily caught the vibe; Swain made a lovely announcement about how she doesn’t like to compare audiences, but she loved this one.  Their closer “Lovemenot” launched guitarist Ben Levin and bassist Jessica Kion into full pogo mode, with Levin gleefully diving offstage to cap the evening.  An impressive, enjoyable experience — and a real revelation to me; I’d go see Bent Knee again in a heartbeat! (Photos below by Robert Henry)

 

To wind things up, Thank You Scientist pumped up the energy another level; the heady mix of Snarky Puppy-ish jazz/funk chops and Mars Volta-like whiplash transitions could have come from no other band.  Focusing on the brand new album Terraformer for their 90-minute set, the virtuoso New Jersey septet reeled off complicated riffs, head-spinning solos and breakneck unison lines with awesome precision, with Salvatore Marrano’s idiosyncratic falsetto vocals soaring over the adrenalized counterpoint.  To be honest, I found TYS’ non-stop barrage relentless to the point of exhaustion at times; good thing founder/guitarist Tom Monda whipped out his Chinese shamisen to change the pace on an instrumental rhythm section feature.  Great horn work from Sam Greenfield on sax and Joe Gullace on trumpet then set up a towering version of Terraformer’s title track, with violinist Ben Karas and Monda tearing it up as Marrano’s surreal narrative brought the delighted audience into the home stretch.

So yeah — there’s more than one way to rock — and to progress — and each of these committed, talented bands proved it!  Enjoy them when they hit your town.

 

— Rick Krueger

Setlists:

  • Entransient
    • Sirens
    • Weaker Hearts
    • The Weight of Things
  • Bent Knee
    • Way Too Long
    • Hold Me In
    • Land Animal
    • Catch Light
    • Garbage Shark
    • Golden Hour
    • It Happens
    • Leak Water
    • Lovemenot
  • Thank You Scientist
    • Wrinkle
    • FXMLDR
    • Swarm
    • Blood on the Radio
    • Son of a Serpent
    • [Shamisen/Rhythm Section Feature]
    • Poop Magician
    • Chromology
    • Anchor
    • Mr. Invisible
    • Terraformer
    • Encore: My Famed Disappearing Act

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other

If you haven’t heard Rhiannon Giddens yet … well, just listen:

Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.

Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise.  Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes  —  and that powerful, powerful voice.

For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who  filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz.  Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.

Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here.  Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up.  This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.

And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words.  On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief.  Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.

I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity.  As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,

From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.  There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here.  In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:

— Rick Krueger

Album Review: IZZ — Don’t Panic @izzmusic

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It’s hard to resist the proggy captatio benevolentiae of the first two tracks on IZZ’s new album, Don’t Panic. Their unmistakable first impression is that the groovy bass guitar sounds exactly like Chris Squire playing for Yes in the 1970s. It’s so good, you’re guaranteed to smile. Trust me!

The multi-vocalist singing is terrific too, and also quite reminiscent of Yes. And, I don’t know whether to attribute it to Anmarie or Laura (or both), but there is a vocal timbre that reminds me of Neko Case singing with The New Pornographers. It’s really fantastic.

“Don’t Panic,” as the first track and as the title track, places front and center the famous phrase from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Very, very cool, and also gracing the prog proceedings with the right dose of whimsy.

Track two, “42,” invokes the number that is famously the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (as we also learned from Douglas Adams). Well, the band didn’t give us a 42-minute song, but they pushed it past 18 minutes; so, how can you not help liking this album, only two tracks in?

Wait, it gets even better. While “Six String Theory” gives us yet more Yes nostalgia, by way of a Steve Howe-worthy (early Yes) acoustic solo guitar piece, suddenly things take an interesting turn with track four, “Moment of Inertia.” There are some nice bits in that track that immediately make you think of King Crimson, but eventually the track becomes what I think is IZZ being very strongly original.

Even better, the album ends with with “Age of Stars,” which also vocally invokes the pleasurable “Don’t Panic” life hack catchphrase yet again, as the album rides out to a perfect conclusion.

Thus, while the album’s first three tracks make things completely irresistible for lovers of early Yes, the best part is when IZZ close out the album with two tracks that present their inimitable selves in all their musical fullness.

It’s a total prog thrill ride, and immensely satisfying. You get the best of both worlds: prog nostalgia about yesterdays (see what I did there?), and yet also a remarkably clever and original musical creation for the present day. Well done, IZZ, and thank you for a first class musical experience.

Track Listing:

1. Don’t Panic
2. 42
3. Six String Theory
4. Moment of Inertia
5. Age of Stars

IZZ:

Paul Bremner: Electric & Acoustic Guitars
Anmarie Byrnes: Vocals
Brian Coralian: Electronic & Acoustic Drums and Percussion
Greg DiMiceli: Acoustic Drums and Percussion
John Galgano: Bass Guitar, Electric & Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
Tom Galgano: Keyboards, Vocals
Laura Meade: Vocals

Album Review: IHLO — Union

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Out today is this stunning new release from UK prog metal band IHLO — Union.

Take a long look at that fantastic album cover. With high quality artwork like that, clearly the band values both attention to detail, as well as the art of the album as a coherent artistic whole.

The album has a notably excellent sound to it. Phil Monro did an amazing job on guitars, production, and mix. Andy Robison contributes the top-notch vocals and also the distinctive sound design. Clark McMenemy lays a solid foundation with crisp drum production.

The first five tracks draw you into a unique sonic universe. Surprisingly, the album takes a sharp turn upwards to undeniable prog excellence in its final two tracks, which are the very best on the album. The first five take time to grow on you, but the last two tracks are knockouts from the get-go.

“Parhelion” (7:26) is arguably the standout track, and if you need convincing that this album is worth your time and effort, this is your go-to track. Then again, the closing ambient prog epic of “Coalescence” (15:14) is a fine summation of this band’s widest capabilities. If you are the patient sort, you can enter through that long and winding prog path.

The promise displayed on this album is evident. If the track listing corresponds to the historical order of recording, then the last two tracks hint strongly that the best from IHLO is still to come. We look forward to future releases, while enjoying this delight that we already have at hand.

Canada: Northern Bastion of Heavy Metal

As AMG writes in their review of Riot City’s new disc, “The 80s were the Golden Age of metal. A Pax Romana if you will, and Riot City aim to bring that glorious era back.”

Proof of those glory days, and of their continued existence among the heavy metal Rebel Alliance, is contained in every track of Riot City’s astonishing creation, Burn the Night. So, you better nab it, pronto.

But what AMG fails to note in their otherwise excellent review is that Riot City is from Canada. Location? The mighty West: Calgary, Alberta. And as the band proudly states up-front on Bandcamp: “Screaming Heavy Metal from Canada, recommended for fans of Judas Priest, steel, spikes and leather!

The only flaw I can detect as a critical reviewer lies not in the music, but only in the missing Oxford comma. Oh well, I guess it got burned up in the night.

Indeed, Canada remains a northern bastion of heavy metal. There is no need for me to point out the origin and locale of Rush, is there? In any case, the ongoing ferment yields its riotous rewards, and abundant proof is around for those willing to look for it.

Enjoy Riot City, yes, but be sure not to miss Smoulder’s album, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, also out this year. It’s an epic combo of doom metal and power metal. Highly recommended, as AMG also affirms. The album art alone should draw you in, never to return for days.

Smoulder began in Calgary back in 2013, and is now based in Toronto. Their sword-and-sorcery narratives are perfectly paired with their chosen musical style. Mark my words, these two bands are headed for my 2019 Top Ten list.

Of course, Canada has no monopoly on the classic heavy metal sound. Also out this year are the truly superb releases from Black Sites (Exile)* and Spirit Adrift (Divided by Darkness)* and Battle Beast (No More Hollywood Endings) and Soen (Lotus).

But that’s why I am content to simply identify Canada as the northern bastion of a classic metal Night’s Watch. Everyone else has their own indispensable international contributions to make. Keep it up, y’all.

Nonetheless I am happy to report that Canada is more than pulling its weight, thanks to the two great bands I have named above. And if you want a third band, how about Unleash the Archers? If you haven’t got Apex yet, add it to your shopping list. Can’t wait to see what they release next.

In the meantime, I have just given you a solid half-dozen of recommendations. So, keep on rockin’ in the free world. Scandinavia is indisputably a northern bastion. But Canada also has your northern flank secure.

*Note for prog lovers: Don’t miss the exceptional musicality on the tracks “Feral Child” and “Cold City” by Black Sites on Exile, and on “Angel and Abyss” by Spirit Adrift on Divided by Darkness. The entire albums are excellent, but these just may be the right introductory tracks for pulling you all the way in.

Pan Rocks Steel Drum Orchestra + @MikePortnoy Cover Rush’s “Spirit of Radio”

This is a fun one. Mike Portnoy’s latest collab finds him drumming with the Pan Rocks Steel Drum Orchestra on an instrumental cover of Rush’s classic “Spirit of Radio.” It pretty much sounds like Rush on a Caribbean vacation, and it is super fun. Check it out!