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
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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

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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Review: Lunatic Soul, Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Review of Lunatic Soul, Walking on a Flashlight Beam (Kscope, 2014).

Birzer Rating: (6/10)

WOAFB-coverLet me begin by offering my Mariusz Dudas streetcred. I love Duda’s voice as well as his compositional skills. He possesses a profound sense of flow, allowing his music to move seamlessly from emotion to sentiment to feeling and back again. His voice is the kind that pulls one in, calling for full immersion. I’ve also always appreciated his lyricism, especially given that he’s not a native English speaker. He always seems to know the perfect lyric for the music and the perfect music for the lyric.

For a decade, I’ve been following his work. For a while, I thought I saw a continuity in all of his work: First Three Riverside Albums—Lunatic Soul—ADHD—Lunatic Soul.  Lunatic Soul, beautiful and gorgeous in its own way, seemed the perfect interlude to accompany the drama of Riverside. For better or worse, this scheme has broken down almost completely now, especially after Shrine (Riverside) and Impressions (Lunatic Soul).

For any of you who have heard Riverside or Lunatic Soul (and I assume it’s all of you), you know have very captivating the music is. Walking on a Flashlight Beam is a reviewer’s purgatory. It’s quite good and well worth owning—a must for any fan of Riverside and Lunatic Soul—but it doesn’t captivate in the way that the first two Lunatic Soul albums did or the first four Riverside albums. Duda’s lyrics are as good as always—despite the weird pedestrian title of the album—as is his sense of flow. But, the flaw in this album is that it attempts to make the Lunatic Soul sound fresh by adding in a bizarre mixture of sound effects, many of which sound like old, recycled Depeche Mode noises from the early 80s. It’s not as extreme as, say, U2’s Pop, but it is leaning in that direction. So, a conundrum—all the things that make a Duda album here are great, but the attempt to experiment and innovate sounds false and clunky. Admittedly, Walking on a Flashlight Beam is sounding much less clunky after several listens.

Just to experiment, however, I played the first Lunatic Soul album immediately after listening to the new one. The first made my soul soar. This one made it want to soar, but it merely hovered.