Hedwig Mollestad’s Ekhidna: Heat, Light and Heart

Since 2010, Norwegian guitarist Hedwig Mollestad has been turning heads worldwide with her incandescent fusion of heavy rock and avant-garde jazz. The six albums by her eponymous trio (currently with Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Joe Bjørnstad on drums) recall Motörhead as readily as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin — crushing, distorted power chords tangled up with jagged shards of melody, furiously lurching ahead without regard for purist sensibilities of any stripe. Based on work commissioned by Norway’s Arts Council for the 2019 Vossajazz Festival, Mollestad’s latest album Ekhidna breaks fresh, fertile ground, triumphantly meeting the challenges inherent in writing for a bigger band and a broader sonic palette. It’s a bracing blend of tumbling rhythms, killer riffs and brain-bending improv that goes down remarkably smooth, but leaves a fiery aftertaste; this is masterful stuff.

Serious jazz-rock heads will immediately think of Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew when they see this album’s lineup: Mollestad, Susana Santos Silva on trumpet, Marte Eberson and Erlend Slettevoll on electric pianos and synthesizers, Ole Mofjell on percussion and Torstein Lofthus on drums. To her credit, Mollestad’s new music doesn’t avoid expectations raised by that association, sometimes confronting classic fusion strategies head-on, sometimes blithely subverting them — and these players are impressively capable of tackling the challenges Mollestad mounts. Silva’s impressionistic tone and sense of line readily evokes Miles while forging her own path; Eberson and Slettevoll’s chunky chording and grumbling bass lines simultaneously thicken the midrange and sharpen the harmonic contours; Mofjell and Loftus’ churning beds of polyrhythms relentlessly propel the tunes forward while constantly shifting the ground under their collaborators’ feet.

“No Friends But the Mountains” kicks off the proceedings already simmering: Silva floats over clean Mollestad chords that morph into feedback, backed by sparse keys and atmospheric percussion. “A Stone’s Throw” ramps up the energy; the initial hard rock foundation gives way to a unison guitar/trumpet/synth head that struts atop cooking drums and percussion before slamming into an elegant melody that evokes, of all things, Pink Floyd. Then Eberson solos over Mollestad’s splintery, circular lick and the percussionists’ rhythmic curveballs — and when Slettevoll joins the fun with clustered chording, look out! The agitated rhythmic foundations of “Antilone” never quite settle, with change the only constant through slamming ensemble passages, Silva’s spiraling whorls of painterly color, Mollestad’s grinding breakdowns, and a taut, immense ensemble build to the final thematic restatement.

“Slightly Lighter” clears the air with a tentative trio, Mollestad gracefully leading Eberson and Slettevoll through the changes. Then “Ekhidna” serves up more polyrhythmic metal balanced with a melancholy long-note theme, Silva unleashing her inner Miles, Eberson wailing on synth over Loftus’ lightning reactions, the whole thing ending with a satisfying crunch!

But Mollestad and her crew save the best for last: the gorgeous “One Leaf Left.” A muted duet between Mollestad and Eberson evoke Soft Machine’s cyclical, interlocking counterpoint over Slettevoll’s sparse, insinuating bass; then Mollestad and Silva unspool a seemingly endless chain of melody. Silva stretches out long notes like taffy; synth clouds from Slettevoll lead into a final, raging Mollestad tour de force over a grungy ensemble stomp. Juggling downbeats, building outrageous howls of dissonance, confessing the blues like one possessed, she rides the storm that mounts beneath her, ending both the piece and the album with a fiery, climactic cry.

Named for the she-dragon of Greek mythology (also called “the mother of all monsters”), Ekhidna is monstrous in the best sense — a musical rollercoaster ride suffused with heat, light and heart, recombining the raw materials of classic fusion and extending the genre’s reach into realms of vast new potential. This is a real breakthrough for Hedwig Mollestad, and her best effort to date; it shouldn’t be missed! So check it out below.

— Rick Krueger

The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part Two

In Part One of this interview, we dug deep with Tim Bowness about his latest album, Late Night Laments, released by Inside Out on August 28.  Our concluding segment has more about the new album, but also catches up on Tim’s other recent projects, as well as an update on Progarchy’s favorite online music shop, Burning Shed.  As with Part One, a transcription follows the jump.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part Two”

The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part One

Tim Bowness is no stranger to Progarchy: he’s graced us with multiple interviews over the years, including a three part epic in early 2019.  Back then, we talked about his stylish, enticing album Flowers At The Scene, which made my list of favorites for the year.

Tim’s latest effort, Late Night Laments, is released on CD and LP (available on both regular and transparent blue vinyl) by InsideOut Music on August 28.  As on Flowers At The Scene, Bowness’ songs delve into the psyches of protagonists at the end of their rope, framing their desperation with lush, atmospheric textures — but this time around, subtle variations in soundscapes and storytelling both sharpen the focus and broaden the impact of the music.   Paradoxically, it’s a subdued, concentrated listening experience that packs an intense emotional punch.

I was grateful to speak with Tim via online video this time around; as before, he was glad to talk about his multiple musical endeavors and generous with his time.  In Part One of the interview, we focus on Late Night Laments; a transcription follows after the jump.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part One”

New and Noteworthy on Bandcamp!

Nearly six months into the worldwide coronavirus epidemic, Bandcamp continues to be a lifeline for musicians.  Since March, fans have purchased more than $75 million worth of music and merchandise there  — including more than $20 million from four Bandcamp Fridays, when the website has waived its fees for artists and labels.  Last week, the announcement was made that Bandcamp Fridays will continue for the rest of 2020.

So (as your pocketbook permits), what’s worth your hard-earned cash on August 7, September 4, October 2, November 6, or December 4?  From my Bandcamp collection and wishlist, a few suggestions:

iatmw things unseenI Am the Manic Whale, Things Unseen:  I’m blown away by the energy, humor and sheer delight these young British proggers bring to their story-songs; this third album could be their best yet, with crystal clear production by Rob Aubrey.  There’s wickedly cheery satire in “Billionaire” and “Celebrity”, an atmospheric trip to Narnia in “The Deplorable Word” and unbounded joy at the gift of children in “Smile” and “Halcyon Days”.  Not to mention IAtMW’s very own train song, “Valenta Scream”, challenging Big Big Train with (in my opinion) the best lyrical simile of 2020: “Making it look so very easy/Eating up the distance like a cheese sandwich.”  Really.

 

mcstine minnemannMcStine and Minnemann: left-field, shreddy art-pop to get your adrenalin flowing. Randy McStine (guitars, vocals, other stuff) and Marco Minnemann (drums, vocals, other stuff) prove steady hands on the steering wheel for wild rides like “Your Offenses” and “Activate”, as well as the stark ballad “The Closer”.  Sure, the songs are short; they’re also stuffed to the gills with ethereal melodies and harmonies, woozily evocative lyrics, ear-grabbing riffs, impossible  drum fills, freaky collages of sound and radical mood shifts.  Don’t expect to focus on anything else while you’re listening to this — just hold on tight and have fun.

 

sancious eyes wide openDavid Sancious, Eyes Wide Open:  a charter member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Sancious led the critically acclaimed trio Tone before tackling wingman duties for Peter Gabriel and Sting.  The focus of Eyes Wide Open (finished before lockdowns and protests swallowed news feeds whole) on today’s cultural unrest proves eerily prescient; the vocal tracks “Urban Psalm #3” and “If” and the instrumental “War in Heaven” are ambitious statements on universal human dignity that can lay claim to the moody, magnificent heights of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  Sancious sings on half the tracks and plays burning guitar and keys throughout, fusing jazz, rock and gospel into winning combinations, atop unbelievably funky drumming by Vinnie Colaiuta, Will Calhoun (Living Colour) and Michael Bland (Prince).  

 

spiraling transmitterSpiraling, Transmitter:  Back in the early 2000s, Tom Brislin (now tearing up the keys in Kansas) led this obscure, wonderful power-pop band in between side gigs with Meat Loaf, Yes and Camel.   On this re-release from 2002, Brislin’s sardonic, appealing vocal delivery perfectly matches the bone-dry wit of “The Girl on Top (Of the Piano)”, “The L Word III” and “(Get Your Own) Holy Grail”.  And the music is built to match: irresistible hooks, propulsive rhythms and riffs that take unexpected detours, every sonic crevice crammed full of nifty synth riffs, effects and solos.  This is unbelievably catchy, unbelievably sharp stuff.   (Check out Brislin’s new, punky public service announcement too!)

 

tmt still aliveTiger Moth Tales, Still Alive/A Visit to Rockfield:  This isn’t the Tiger Moth Tales album Peter Jones planned to release this year — but it’s definitely one that fits the moment.  His gift for melody and innate hopefulness gives these six new tracks (well, five plus a reprise) an effervescence and a glow that can warm the coldest heart.  There’s a beautiful, broad range of expression here, from the optimistic fortitude of the title track and the epic sweep of “The Mighty Fallen” to the rhythm box-laden goofiness of “Whistle Along.”   The bonus DVD features Jones and TMT in session at the legendary Rockfield Studios.  Enjoy this love letter to the world from deepest Nottinghamshire.

 

soft machine baked potatoMoonJune Records: Soft Machine’s Live at the Baked Potato is the latest release from global impresario Leonardo Pavkovic.  On this beauty, the Softs’ explorations are every bit as daring and delectable as when I heard them live in 2018.  Plus, there are plenty of other face-melting instrumental jazz/rock/avant/ethno albums coming soon from Stick Men, touch guitarist Markus Reuter, guitarist Mark Wingfield and a host of other international talents!  Watch for more news at the MoonJune Bandcamp page, or do what I did; subscribe and get everything MoonJune releases for a year!

 

— Rick Krueger

Kansas, The Absence of Presence

For all that Kansas can’t (and shouldn’t) shrug off the legacy of their golden days, especially the double whammy of Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, they’ve built up quite a track record beyond the hits over the decades.  The live set that followed the big albums, Two for the Show, is still thrilling; the 1980s version of the band fronted by Steve Walsh and guitarist Steve Morse changed up the sound without diluting the essence on Power and In the Spirit of Things; the original line-up reunited for a triumphant set of new Kerry Livgren compositions on 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere.  And 2016’s The Prelude Implicit proved a first-class return to sustained action.  The new recruits, guitarist/songwriter Zak Rivzi and singer/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, jelled nicely with Kansas’ long-term bedrock (stalwart violinist David Ragsdale, bassist/vocalist Billy Greer) as well as the band’s remaining founders (piratical guitarist Rich Williams and progressive rock’s most criminally underrated drummer, the brilliant Phil Ehart).

The good news is that Kansas’ latest, The Absence of Presence, is another great leap forward; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and the whole album is a joy to hear.  Each player has upped his game multiple notches — Ragsdale, Rivzi and Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Greer and Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day.  New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it.

kansas band shot

But it’s how all these ingredients blend that makes The Absence of Presence compulsively listenable; the writing is more collaborative this time around (Rivzi and Brislin on music, Brislin, Pratt and Ehart on lyrics), and the band navigates the twists and turns of the tunes with pin-sharp focus.  The multi-sectioned title track, the instrumental “Propulsion 1” and the unexpected up-tempo groove of “The Song the River Sang” (with Brislin on lead vocal) revel in Kansas’ proggier side. “Throwing Mountains” “Jets Overhead” and “Circus of Illusion” prove solid rockers, laced with unpredictable musical curveballs that set up the compelling, aspirational lyrics.  And the obligatory power ballads “Memories Down the Line” and “Never” are earworms you may not want to shake, with words and melodies that bring home the heartfelt sentiments without bogging down in sticky sweetness.

In short, The Absence of Presence shows Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, still going strong and making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough.  Recommended without hesitation; this one has already hit my shortlist for this year’s favorites.  Listen for yourself below.

— Rick Krueger

Further Thoughts on Nick d’Virgilio’s “Invisible” (or, Progging in the Pre-Nirvana Mainstream)

My copy of Nick d’Virgilo’s Invisible was still in the mail when I read Bryan’s first impressions of it.  Following its arrival and repeated listens, here are my two cents.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this release, and was pleasantly surprised as a result; it gets better every time I hear it.  As Bryan says, Invisible doesn’t sound much like Big Big Train (though it puts d’Virgilio’s jazz-rock flavored compositions for BBT in context), or even middle-period Spock’s Beard.  And it only dabbles in the hyper, clattery alt-pop NDV tackled with Randy McStine and Jonas Reingold on The Fringe.  Mostly, this is an album of classy, soulful rock and pop with R&B undercurrents, reminiscent of nothing so much as the pre-Nirvana mainstream. The progginess is in the extended structures, the virtuoso playing and the overall concept; “The Alan Parsons Project with a lot more horsepower” might be a good thumbnail description.

(Invisible is a pretty cool example of creative entrepreneurship in today’s music industry, too.  By leveraging his gig at Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Studios, d’Virgilio managed to play ten different drum kits in exchange for promotional considerations — i.e. the drool-worthy “Drum Gear” booklet included with each copy —  and draw on a bevy of guest stars from studio master classes, with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen as the wildest card in his deck.)

The down to earth storyline, a solid redemption narrative with some nifty twists, definitely helps make Invisible appealing and relatable.  But I would argue that the musical means d’Virgilio uses to build out his concept seal the deal.  Beyond his emotive singing and consistently brilliant drum work, Nick’s polished efforts on electric piano, loops, bass, bass synth and guitars provide a sturdy chassis for each track; his fellow Sweetwater pros, guest stars and prog buddies lovingly customize the power trains and bodies; and the strings and brass of the Orchestra at Abbey Road furnish plush aural upholstery (along with a recurring musical theme based on the chorus of “Where’s the Passion”).

As a result, every single track of this album grabs on tight from the beginning — not just revealing more depth and emotional resonance with every repeat, but also relentlessly propelling the overall narrative forward.  The desolation of the title track and the downbeat cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”; the defiance of “Turn Your Life Around” and “Overcome”; the devastation of “Waiting for No One” and “Not My Time to Say Goodbye”; the cathartic deliverance of the finale “I Know the Way” — this is outright sonic cinema, pictures vividly created in your head by state of the art, high quality music.

So, yeah, I’m sold on Invisible; it’s already in contention for my end-of-the-year favorites list.  And I think you might dig it too.  So order it from NDV’s website or Burning Shed; heck, listen on Spotify if you can’t wait for it to arrive.  Whatever.  You really shouldn’t miss this one.

— Rick Krueger

Rick Wakeman, The Red Planet

Upon being told his Prog fans were hoping he’d shoved the Prog Fader up to 11, [Rick] Wakeman replied, “That could be a problem… as it’s already at 14!!!”

The man ain’t kidding.  The Red Planet, Wakeman’s 18th or 122nd solo album (depending on how you count) features eight all-instrumental portraits of Martian landscapes, awash in growling Hammond organ licks and nimble Moog synthesizer solos.  So far, so good, if typical — but what makes Wakeman’s latest effort a genuine delight is both the welcome variety of his new compositions and the stellar contributions of his supporting players.

The opening “Ascreaeus Mons” subtly shocks long-time listeners right away,  kicking off with a sprightly pipe organ/harpsichord riff (usually the pipes don’t come out until a Wakeman album’s climax), then shifting to a genially chugging melody (doubled by choir on the repeat) for the B section.  Through all these pieces, there’s an attractive new compositional freedom at work — texturally, dynamically, rhythmically.  The chilled-out groove of “Tharsis Tholus” is lashed with sudden, lightning-fast jazz-fusion riffs; “Arsia Mons” features big, sweeping synth washes underpinned by acoustic guitar strumming; “Olympus Mons” actually swings at one point; the heavy Deep Purple-style Hammond riff of “The North Plain” is prefaced by thundering piano octaves over an exotic soundscape.  Unexpected tone colors (the Rhodes electric piano underpinning “Pavonis Mons”) and structures (the massive bolero build of “Valles Marinens”) add to the fun; when Wakeman fires up his usual scales and arpeggios on the Moog, the solos take on a fresh aspect, because he’s playing over something completely different.  Stir in the lyricism of his recent solo piano albums, referenced in the more reflective “South Pole,” and you’ve got a well-rounded self-portrait of the complete musician, fully on display.

But Wakeman also deserves credit for recruiting possibly his finest supporting cast ever.  Guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Lee Pomeroy (who worked live with Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) and drummer Ash Soan are perfect for The Red Planet — constantly driving the compositions forward, laying down thick, powerful rhythm beds, playing both around and with what they’re given.  And each of them get their chance to shine as virtuosos — check out Soan’s thundering toms on “Ascraeus Mons” and flashy hi-hat work on “Olympus Mons”, Pomeroy’s whacked-out tags on “Pavonis Mons” and mind-blowingly limber solo on “Valles Marinens”, and Coloquhoun’s stinging breaks and spring-loaded grooves throughout.  Adding their parts on their own, with no instructions from Wakeman, his collaborators amply repay his trust by giving the album an extra spark that helps it soar.

Last year in an interview with Rolling Stone, Wakeman said that arthritis developing in his hands would probably put an end to his touring days relatively soon (though a solo piano tour of Britain is currently planned for later this year).  He didn’t rule out further recordings, though — and if The Red Planet is any indication, he’s got a lot more good music in him.  Certainly Wakeman’s new album is in the vein of his Six Wives of Henry VIII/Journey to the Center of the Earth/King Arthur glory days — but by digging deeper, writing smarter and grooving harder, Wakeman and his friends have given his classic style a ripe new maturity, polish and kick for the present.  This one is well worth your time, attention and cash.

Special CD and LP editions of  The Red Planet are available now through MusicGlue; the standard editions will be released worldwide on August 28th and are available for preorder through Burning ShedCheck out a series of 10 videos on “Recording the Red Planet” at Rick Wakeman’s website.

— Rick Krueger

“An Accidental Musician”: Judy Dyble, 1949-2020

Judy Dyble, whose crystalline vocals were key contributions to the early days of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention and progressive pioneers King Crimson, has died at the age of 71, following a late-life musical renaissance as a solo artist.

Dyble, who titled her 2016 memoir An Accidental Musician, grew up in North London. Drawn to the ferment of the Smoke’s music scene, she fell in with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, fellow singer Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson, who eventually became Fairport Convention.  Their kick-off single “If I Had a Ribbon Bow”, a oddball update of a 1940s big band shuffle, was a prime example of the early Fairport’s wildly eclectic style:

The band’s first self-titled album from 1968 featured a vivid mix of originals and covers (of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others), but Dyble was shuffled out of the band soon after, briefly joining an embryonic version of King Crimson (then trading as Giles, Giles and Fripp):

Following a final stint with cult duo Trader Horne, Dyble drifted away from singing, marrying music critic/record shop owner Simon Stable, then moving to the country and raising a family.  Invited to the occasional Fairport Convention reunion at the Cropredy Festival, she began singing in public again after her husband’s death.  A trilogy of electronica-based collaborations with Australasia’s Marc Swordfish eased Dyble back into songwriting — which led to 2009’s marvelous Talking with Strangers, co-produced by Tim Bowness of No-Man and Alistair Murphy (aka the Curator) and featuring contributions from Nicol, Fripp, and a starry host of other guests on the acoustic-prog epic “Harpsong.”

Further solo albums and guest appearances followed, including a vocal on Big Big Train’s “The Ivy Gate” from the Grimspound album.   Her latest effort Between a Breath and a Breath, a collaboration with David Longdon featuring contributions from the rest of BBT, has just been announced as a late September release.  While fighting her final illness, Dyble penned these reflections on the new album, showing both her unquenchable spirit and her wickedly impish sense of humor:  

The lyrics for these songs virtually wrote themselves, with minor tweaks, as music grew around them. All were written before I was diagnosed and before the dreadful virus stamped its footprint on our world.

“Quite a few of my lyrics have a touch of sadness about them but always with an optimism for the future and a desire to know what happens next. France, Whisper and Obedience tell stories suggested in conversations and Between A Breath And A Breath is sheer magic. Astrologers was a simple ‘Hmmpph! Stop it!, while Heartwashing and Tidying Away were just poems which wrote themselves.

David Longdon has written a tribute to Dyble which appears on the front page of Big Big Train’s website.  Two songs from the Dyble/Longdon sessions not included on Between a Breath and a Breath will be released as Bandcamp downloads later this year, with proceeds benefiting Dyble’s favorite charity, The Barley Greyhound Sanctuary.  A selection of Dyble’s albums (including a freshly released live recording from 2016, Weavings of a Silver Magic) are most easily available from Burning Shed and Amazon UK.

Oddly enough, I’d been celebrating the upcoming release of Between a Breath and a Breath last night, listening to Talking with Strangers again and re-reading An Accidental Musician.  So Dyble’s final words in her memoir have an uncanny resonance today:

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s poetry and starlight and mellow autumn colour in the woods and a dog at my side, I’ll face the music and slightly dance.  To be continued.  I expect …

For all those who sorrow at Judy Dyble’s passing, I wish them comfort as they remember her life with gratitude, as well as continued delight in the beautiful music she made.

 

— Rick Krueger

 

The Progarchy Interview: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell

Whether contributing to Clive Nolan’s Arena and Jem Godfrey’s Frost*, driving the bus in collaborations like Kino and the latter day It Bites, or helming his own Lonely Robot project, John Mitchell has brought the progressive rock world tons of cool music in the last decade-plus.  His irresistible melodic hooks, exciting riffage, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, passionate singing and meticulous craftsmanship are instantly recognizable and (at least for me) guaranteed to raise a smile.

Mitchell’s latest album, Lonely Robot’s Feelings Are Good, pivots from the high-concept themes of the Astronaut Trilogy (2015’s Please Come Home, 2017’s The Big Dream and 2019’s Under Stars), refocusing his sharp observational eye on the rich, sometimes heart-stopping drama of daily life — while resculpting the music to match, aided and abetted by ace drummer Craig Blundell.  Released by Inside Out on July 17th on CD, LP and download, Feelings Are Good  is a thrilling, wildly eclectic, moving, just plain fun listen.

Getting the chance to interview John Mitchell was just as much fun — he’s warm, humorous and gregarious, serious about his art and at ease with himself.  And as you’ll see in the video below, he was definitely having a better hair day than me!  An edited transcript of our talk follows the jump.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell”

Coming from Inside Out Music …

Hardly breaking stride, Inside Out Music ramps up their summer schedule with a fistful of new releases (some of which had to be rescheduled due to manufacturing delays).  Unless otherwise noted, links go to CD versions of these upcoming albums available at Burning Shed; LP and download editions will also be available.

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July

August

September

 

— Rick Krueger