Devin Townsend Provides Video Update About Upcoming Albums

Devin Townsend released a video on his YouTube channel today updating us all on his upcoming albums – Puzzle, Snuggles, and Lightwork. Sadly due to supply issues for plastic, the release date is being pushed back to December 3, 2021. Townsend continues to work on the new Lightwork album as well, with the finished record due to the label right before the new release date for the two other projects. More from the man himself:

https://youtu.be/L9t17ldEb44

Album Review – @Echo_Us – The Windsong Spires

a3501667282_10Echo Us, The Windsong Spires, June 22, 2021
Tracks: We Seek the Descending Levers, (8:06), If You Can Imagine… (5:29), The Night Sky (3:19), When the Windsong Spires, (5:49), Squals (3:53), (Fly You Home) (4:41), And When They Dance At Dusk, (4:16), I’ll Wave You In (4:54), (And Acquiesce) (5:41), If We Can Breathe Again… (3:39), Under the Smallest Sky (11:40)

Electronic. Atmospheric. Ethereal. These are just a few of the words I could use to describe Portland, Oregon, music project Echo Us. The band was founded by composer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan J. Matthews 20 years ago. He is joined on the record by drummer Andrew Greene and vocalist Charlotte Engler. Matthews provides vocals, guitars, hammered dulcimer, glockenspiel, percussion, and synthesizers.

Just based upon the variety of instruments Matthews plays, you might guess that his music has a rather eclectic mix, and you’d be right. Their sound ranges from atmospheric to classical and folk, all within a subtle rock context. I even picked up what sounded a bit like a Pacific Northwestern Native American influence in the opening moments of the album. Piano plays a prominent role on the record, along with clean electric guitar. 

The vocals contribute to the ethereal tone of much of the music, but the drums keep the music grounded here on earth without allowing the album to get too heady. In that way there’s a nice balance between the various sounds. The mix of male and female vocals also contributes to the balance of the sound on the record. Matthews’ voice reminds me of Tim Bowness, and Engler’s voice reminds me a bit of Kate Bush or Amanda Lehman

The Making of the Windsong Spires – Youtube

The music helps tell a story. “The Night Sky” is primarily piano with synth sounds swirling around it and ghostly vocals at times throughout the brief track. The listener is left picturing a calm, cool night sky away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Greene’s drums and percussion on the record might sound relatively straightforward at first notice, but when you dig in you notice there’s a lot going on. One moment it might be a simple drum part, but the next might have a military-style snare drumming, such as on a portion of “When the Windsong Spires.” This conjures up new images in the mind, adding to the musical tapestry Echo Us create. 

I’m not positive that this is intentional, but I get the feeling that the names of the tracks are meant to be read together as you might read an imagist poem. Since the names of the songs include punctuation, I suspect I’m right.

We Seek the Descending Levers, If You Can Imagine… The Night Sky
When the Windsong Spires, Squals (Fly You Home)
And When They Dance At Dusk, I’ll Wave You In (And Acquiesce)
If We Can Breathe Again… Under the Smallest Sky

This is a pretty cool way to add texture to a record. You have the poetry of the lyrics, but to use the very names of the songs to create another poem is unique. 

One might classify The Windsong Spires as ambient music, but there’s a lot more going on than just ambient sounds. The drums and guitars bring in elements of rock, although I don’t know if I can call this outright rock ‘n roll. At the end of the day genres can be rather meaningless categories to which we assign music. What really matters is whether or not the music is good, and Echo Us is very good. Their music has had a calming effect on me, which has been much appreciated and needed lately. When everything else seems to be crashing and burning, it’s nice to settle back into something that slows you down and makes you think. 

https://echous.net
https://echous.bandcamp.com
https://www.facebook.com/echous.net/
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Kevin Keller’s Shimmering Beauty

Shimmer Cover

Longtime followers of me on Progarchy know that I am a huge fan of musician/composer Kevin Keller (See my earlier posts here and here.) Keller’s extraordinary The Front Porch Of Heaven was one of my favorite albums of 2020. I call it extraordinary, because he recorded it in the aftermath of having open heart surgery, and it is an aural odyssey of his experience.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Keller is set to release a new album, Shimmer on September 17, 2021. It continues his winning streak and illustrates Keller’s remarkable ability to write and record consistently excellent “ambient chamber music”. The interesting twist to Shimmer is that it is Keller’s response to the RPM Challenge, where musicians try to record an entire album from start to finish in the 28 days of February. As he wrote the songs, Keller solicited feedback from his fans on social media, and incorporated their suggestions into the compositions. The result is a surprisingly cohesive and organic-feeling collection of tracks.

The first song, Orchards, kicks things off with a bouncy piano riff that is reminiscent of Minimalist masters such as Steve Reich or John Adams. It’s an energetic track that allows a beautiful melody to develop on top of the rhythmic foundation. One of Keller’s strengths is his tasteful deployment of analog synthesizers, and Shimmer as a whole is a perfect example of that strength. While the piano is the lead instrument on most tracks, the synths provide a bed of ambience that support and enhance the songs, not overwhelm them.

Inverness, the second song, is one of my favorites. It begins with a slow, stately theme that is almost Enoesque in its simplicity and builds, note-by-note, into a fine melody that picks up steam until it fills the soundstage completely. There are subtle bass tones that are almost below the threshold of hearing (at least my threshold!), and they add much power to the song. After the music reaches an emotional crescendo, it gradually tapers off into the ether.

The third track is also the title track, and the best phrase to describe is, well, shimmeringly beautiful. It is a 10-minute small masterpiece of restraint. Keller uses every second to carefully develop the composition before the listener’s ears. Over a simple piano ostinato, some wordless female vocals float angelically, as more musical motifs enter, courtesy of woodwind-like synths. Eventually, some more propulsive elements take over, as the piano playing responds energetically. At the 7:15 mark, the party winds down, and the final couple of minutes are devoted to a graceful, spacier recapitulation of the main theme. I could listen to Shimmer all day on repeat and never tire of it.

“Side Two” opens with Bridges, a fine example of Keller’s ability to craft a gorgeous melody. Bridges is 21st century romanticism at its best: it conveys a wistful longing without a hint of saccharine sentimentality. And just as the listener is getting lost in its beauty, it’s gone.

Ithaca is a very ambient, spacey track with synth strings playing extended notes under a delicate theme played on virtual piano. There is a sense of hushed anticipation to this track; you have to listen closely to even hear the theme. 

Riverbend, at 8:50, is the second longest song. It brings to my mind classic Tangerine Dream (think Risky Business soundtrack) with its insistent, burbling synths. It eventually develops into quite a majestic piece of music.

Shimmer closes with Delta, which is the most “traditional” sounding song on the album. A virtual piano plays the main theme, which is picked up by various analog synths. The production builds until the final minute, when a lone synth plays a variation on the theme into the fadeout.

Shimmer is another triumph for Kevin Keller, who is one of the most talented musician/composers working today. It is even more remarkable, considering he wrote and recorded the entire album by himself in a mere 28 days. The production is outstanding, and Keller’s masterful use of analog synthesizers lends a warmth and intimacy to his music that many other electronic artists simply can’t achieve. 

Shimmer will be released on both CD and vinyl. You can preorder it here. If you appreciate intelligent, well-crafted music that straddles the boundary between melodic ambient and classical music, then there is no other artist who creates more satisfying work than Kevin Keller.

You can preview the album here: https://soundcloud.com/kevin_keller/sets/rpm-2021-new-album

 

Bantamweight – The Prog Metal Find of the Summer

Bantamweight_Sounds+HapticsBantamweight, Sounds + Haptics, June 19, 2021
Tracks: Contact (4:17), Apparition (1:15), Hellion (5:12), Phoenix (2:04), The Weight (5:39), Interim (4:22), Terminus (1:15), Fall Away (4:55)

Prepare to be blown away by the best half hour of progressive metal you’ll hear this year. Los Angeles-based duo Bantamweight released their sophomore record, Sounds + Haptics, back in June, and it absolutely slays. My apologies to the band for not reviewing it sooner – it’s been a busy summer with my vacation time from my regular job spent doing another job. 

I went back and checked out Bantamweight’s first release, 2019’s EP Fear, and it’s far more atmospheric. It’s still quite good, but it doesn’t have the progressive metal complexity, heaviness, and drive that Sounds + Haptics has. Nevertheless that first release has a lot of interesting synth elements and thick bass tones, which the duo have retained in the big step forward they’ve taken with their second release. With Sounds + Haptics, the band have firmly placed themselves in the halls of contemporary progressive metal. I hear elements of Haken, Pain of Salvation, Leprous, Caligula’s Horse, and the Devin Townsend “wall of sound” effect. With that said, Bantamweight make their own sound in a way that only a metal band made up of a drummer and bassist could. 

Yes, that’s right – only drums, bass, and the synths/keyboards both members play. Max Kelly plays drums and keyboards (at the same time!) and Keith Shacklett slays on bass, vocals, and keyboards. Watch one of their music videos or live videos (see below) and be amazed. When playing live, Kelly plays the drums with his right hand and feet while he plays complex keyboard riffs with his left hand. That’s absolutely insane, and he does it all with more skill than most drummers or keyboardists have. Shacklett has a huge gritty bass tone that more than makes up for the lack of electric guitar. His playing style can be compared to someone like Connor Green (Haken), but the role his bass plays in the music is more comparable to Mariusz Duda from Riverside. His voice is perfect for this kind of metal. It has the grit needed in distorted moments, but the mid-range cleans keep their music from becoming overly aggressive. 

“Hellion” – YouTube

On this short record, each of the longer, heavier songs is spaced out by shorter instrumental tracks that highlight their more atmospheric edge (except for “The Weight” and “Interim,” which are back to back). These tracks tie all of the songs together, helping it all to sound like one longer epic track. Those synth sounds, which also appear on their longer songs, give their music a fuller sound reminiscent of Riverside or Devin Townsend. But again, they sound like themselves. The syncopated drumming, complex bass riffing, and Shacklett’s distinct voice bring Bantamweight to impressive heights. 

“The Weight” is probably my favorite track on the record. I can’t help but headbang to that heavy drumming. With that wonderful mixture of synths, drums, bass, and vocals, I don’t miss the lack of lead guitars. I love the way the song goes from heavy to calm in parallel passages.

“Hellion” and “Fall Away” are two more standout tracks, with musical complexity and catchy choruses abounding. In a nice handwritten note Max Kelly sent me along with the CD the band sent me, he noted that “Fall Away” has over 400 layers in the mix. That’s a Devin Townsend-level of dedication, and also where DT gets his “wall of sound” effect. And much like Hevy Devy, these guys can also play all of that live through the use of multiple synthesizers and sample pads. Most impressive. 

“The Weight” – Youtube

I honestly can’t recommend Bantamweight highly enough. Sounds + Haptics is fantastic. It pulls far above its weight. The band name is fitting since there’s only two members of the band, yet they create a sound that larger bands have taken years to perfect. This is the prog metal album of the summer for me. Even though the band’s influences are clear, their sound ends up being totally unique because of the core drum and bass sounds. These guys could hold their own in a music festival featuring the top names in progressive metal. Record labels take note – Bantamweight could (and should) be the next best thing in prog metal. I can’t wait to hear what’s next. 


As a side note, the album is name your own price for a digital download on Bandcamp, so you’ve got no excuse to not check them out: https://bantamweightofficial.bandcamp.com/album/sounds-haptics. They also have CDs for sale on Bandcamp.

https://bantamweight.band

Sounds + Haptics Live – Full Album – Youtube

 

Album Review – The Weever Sands’ “Stylobat’s Travels”

Weever Sands Stylobat's Travels album coverThe Weever Sands – Stylobat’s Travels, 2020
Tracks: 1. Intro/The Breakout Session (3:29), 2. And Aphrodite Took The Veil (7:03), 3. Stylobat’s Travels (25:27), 4. Acropolis (The Big Wave) (6:12) 

Cologne, Germany’s The Weever Sands combine the album format and experimental playfulness of the early 1970s with what could be considered post-rock or ambient rock. To be honest, I didn’t quite get it at first, but then the other day I was listening to Gentle Giant and it hit me. The synth and organ sounds that predominate in Gentle Giant’s music are very similar to what I hear on Stylobat’s Travels, The Weever Sands’ sophomore album. Add in some flute and strong bass and you have the makings of a classically inspired progressive album. But this is stripped back. The music isn’t as heavily layered as you might get on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull record, and that’s by design. The band are also heavily influenced by Mike Oldfield’s idea of a “powerful miniature,” where the songs aren’t as heavily developed yet still stretch out into varying sounds. 

The album opens with some spoken word that sets the stage for a concept that is told primarily through music, the wonderful cover artwork and other artwork included with the CD, and promo notes telling me what the story is about. The band describe the concept as a story about a bat (Stylobat) in Ancient Greece who goes on a quest to find his sweetheart. Most of the album is instrumental, so you’ll have to use your imagination, with some help from the artwork, to see Stylobat searching for his beloved. 

The first two tracks most closely resemble what we would call progressive rock, but the 25 minute “epic” is most certainly post-rock, with all of the elements that might make up a layered prog song spread out and played individually. A splash on the high hat here, a symphonic tone there, a synthesized beep. Four minutes in and I’m beginning to wonder what’s going on. The first five minutes of that track are subtitled “Flatlined,” so the musical scene is apparently meant to be at a hospital bedside. Things pick up after that with the next section, “Stereobat,” but I would still label it experimental. There’s melody, but the combination of different synth sounds keeps it sounding unique, although it still references the gentlest of giants.

The third section, “Ah! These Ionic Beams!” nicely builds to a combination of keyboard combined with a rock riff that’s a lot more traditional. An electrical guitar finally comes in, elevating the music by leaps and bounds. Not that there was anything wrong with the music before, but the guitar solo is quite nice and certainly welcome. This section of the song is the best music on the album. 

This is the point where I notice that the song has built gradually to this moment. The song began with disparate sounds, but they have gradually been brought together and build upon each other. The fourth section, “Introducing Fire Ghosts,” returns to some of the disparateness of “Flatlined,” but it never becomes that sparse again. It soon returns to the musical complexity of the previous section. The final section, “Underwater,” winds down with a synth sound that fills the musical space, perhaps suggesting being covered by water. The final song, “Acropolis (The Big Wave),” continues that nautical theme, but it builds and morphs into more of a rock song with heavier drums and heavier keyboards with a vintage 70s sound. 

Stylobat’s Travels isn’t your typical instrumental prog album. Usually instrumental albums feature a lot of musical noodling, but this record seems to focus more on telling a story through music. Personally I would’ve preferred a bit more guitar and fewer moments of sparseness in the long track. Some more spoken word sections beyond the opening track would’ve helped move the story along as well. The opening spoken word passage reminded me a bit of a radio drama, and I think a few more instances of that on the record could have helped tell the story more clearly and coherently.

The Weever Sands are quite unlike most of what you’re going to find in progressive rock these days. They don’t seem to be copying any particular sound, even though I made that Gentle Giant connection earlier. Rather they start with a more ambient base and build that up until it’s no longer ambient… if that makes sense at all. It isn’t quite rock, even though it does have rock moments (which I wish were more numerous). It’s a fun little journey that has a few bumps in the road, but it’s worth checking out if you’re looking something inspired by classic progressive rock that isn’t symphonic prog. 

https://www.the-weever-sands.com
Buy the CD from: https://shop.trommelfell-records.de/the-weever-sands/
Full album playlist on YouTube: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRqGY_YLULtQlBHPovPjj8sGvM-4AX0y2

The Ones We Missed – France’s Esthesis

The hardest part about reviewing music is finding the time to dedicate to writing, listening, and looking for new music. We all do this for free in our free time. We’ve got day jobs, and that leads to some overlooked music. Like the debut album from French band, Esthesis, aptly titled “The Awakening.” Moody, brooding, atmospheric, Floydian – this is good stuff. So good that it earned the reader’s choice for best unsigned band in Prog magazine’s reader’s poll last year. 

Check out Esthesis’ press review for more info: Continue reading “The Ones We Missed – France’s Esthesis”

The Unmatched Brilliance of Devin Townsend

In the documentary for his album Empath, Devin Townsend commented that many people have trouble understanding much of his musical output because his albums vary drastically in style. His work with Strapping Young Lad was as extreme as metal can get. On other albums he shows prog, classical, country, and even pop influences. He explained that he doesn’t play only one type of music because he would get bored. He doesn’t listen to only one kind of music for the same reason. 

I share Townsend’s sentiment. Why on earth would you want to listen to only one kind of music? Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really seen myself as a real metalhead, even though I really enjoy metal. You go to a metal concert, and many of the people in attendance only listen to metal. That’s fine – people can listen to what they like. I happen to get bored by listening to one kind of music, which is probably why I like progressive rock so much since it includes a broad array of sounds. But even within contemporary prog you’ll get those fans who will only listen to Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Marillion, etc., or those folks who still only listen to Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, etc. and haven’t bothered to dig into the music being made today.

DevinTownsend_DevolutionTo those people who aren’t familiar with Devin Townsend (which includes Steven Wilson, by his own admission), you’re missing out on perhaps the most creative genius working in the music industry today. In the Empath documentary he talked about working with Mike Keneally, who has worked with many brilliant people, including Frank Zappa. Townsend says he would never dream of comparing himself with someone like Zappa, but I would. Townsend is every bit as creative, albeit in different ways. That documentary, which I believe is only available on the super deluxe version of Empath that Devin released last year, helps shed some light on Devin’s creative process. It also shows him in a very open and honest way. His new acoustic live album, Devolution Series #1 – Acoustically Inclined, Live in Leeds, was his attempt to strip away all the fluff from his stage shows and connect with audiences in a very open way. 

Continue reading “The Unmatched Brilliance of Devin Townsend”

Shining Pyramid’s Atmospheric Triumph

Shining Pyramid, Tree, December 29, 2020
Tracks: Transmitter C (9:18), Triskel (4:11), Campfire (3:03), Rain (4:58), Like Katriona (10:20), Weird Science (6:15), Joy? (5:32)

London’s Shining Pyramid released their third album back at the very end of December 2020. This follows 2015’s self-titled debut, loosely based on the 1895 Arthur Machen of the same name, and 2018’s Children of Stones. Their latest album, Tree, was my introduction to the band, as they generously sent me a CD to review. I was hooked from the opening electronic notes, which reminded me a little bit of Oak, who I seem to mention a lot around here. The duo is comprised of Nick Adams on guitars and Peter Jeal on keyboards. A page on their website offers a breakdown of the guitars and keyboards used on the album. I’m not a musician, but I found it interesting that Adams used such a wide array of guitars and basses on the record. They all sound wonderful.

Swirling synths set the stage on Tree, but the spacey guitar quickly steps into the spotlight, taking on a Floydian tone with a bit of the late Piotr Grudziński (Riverside) thrown in for good measure. It would be a mistake to describe this album as only ambient, or only atmospheric, electronic, or space rock. It contains elements of those things, but the guitar keeps the album rooted in rock territory, even if the album is on the sedate side of the rock spectrum. 

Shining Pyramid

Perhaps what I like most about Tree is the variety it contains, even though it’s only 44 minutes long. The opening track, “Transmitter C,” centers around a very spacey guitar with electronic synth sounds swirling around it. “Campfire” places an undistorted guitar seemingly just behind the bass in the mix, giving it a bit of a distant feel before the keyboards build and take the main spot in the mix. It isn’t particularly atmospheric. The next track, “Rain,” offers an ambient sound centered on a simple repeated piano refrain. That refrain, along with the bass, serves as a framework to support the varying synth sounds that keep the track interesting as it proceeds. Each track on the record sounds unique. They share common elements, but the band approach them in different ways. 

My favorite tracks are “Transmitter C” and “Like Katriona.” They’re both the longest songs on the album, allowing the music to build and grow. They also both feature a spacey Floydian guitar tone and appropriately proggy keyboards. These tracks sound the most musically focused and cohesive as well. A fun fact from their website: the ring of sound waves printed on the physical CD was taken from Adams’ guitar on “Like Katriona.” That’s a pretty cool little thing to throw into the physical product. 

I couldn’t help but feel a calming sense of peace when I listened to Tree with undivided attention. The music is calm and almost hypnotic at points. Frankly it was just what I needed. It gives you space to reflect, but it does so with interesting musical textures that make you want to return to it. For those into the atmospheric and ambient sides of prog, give Shining Pyramid a listen. They won’t disappoint. 

http://shiningpyramid.org
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