Best Instrumentals of 2018

Sometimes you just don’t want vocals. When I’m trying to work, for instance, I enjoy the soothing presence of music in the background but I really don’t need the additional distractions of singers or lyrics.

With that in mind, here, in no particular order, is my pick of ten great instrumental or mostly-instrumental albums I encountered last year. What have I missed? Let me know in the comments…

Adam Holzman – Truth Decay

Reflects his jazz background as well as his involvement with Steven Wilson’s band (several of whom feature amongst the guest musicians). Nine of its eleven tracks are instrumentals. Sophisticated and diverse, with some wonderful electric piano and Moog work from Adam.

Matt Baber – Suite For Piano and Electronics

Elegant, minimalist stuff from Sanguine Hum’s keyboard wizard. The title say it all, really.

Jo Quail – Exsolve

Cello, effects and loop pedal combine to thrilling effect in this intense and haunting album. For the full impact, listen in the dark with headphones 🙂

The Fierce And The Dead – The Euphoric

Dynamic, exciting, inventive and thoroughly modern guitar music. And the album artwork is fantastic. What’s not to like?

Jean-Michel Jarre – Equinoxe Infinity

The maestro is in good form at the moment. This pays tribute to his revered 1978 sophomore release but also has something new to contribute.

Kalman Filter – Exo-Oceans

Three long-form pieces from The Tangent’s Andy Tillison, drawing on influences as diverse as Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, Stravinsky and Miles Davis. The Fierce And The Dead’s Matt Stevens contributes guitar to the first track.

Mark Peters – Innerland

Beautifully sedate and atmospheric guitar-based music from a co-founder of the shoegaze band Engineers. The delightful artwork mimics the visual style of old British Ordnance Survey maps.

Matt Calvert – Typewritten

This has a lovely gentle acoustic vibe – rather different from Matt’s work with Three Trapped Tigers. Matt plays nine different instruments on it!

Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin

Thoroughly excellent piano-based solo debut from iamthemorning’s hugely talented co-founder and composer. Nine of its thirteen tracks are instrumentals.

Sonar – Vortex

Pulsating, hypnotic brilliance from the Swiss instrumentalists, featuring David Torn on electric guitar. One of the best albums, of any kind, to have been released in 2018.

Track Review: Death of an Astronomer – Digital Conversation

Digital Conversation

Sometimes, metal guys want to play jazz fusion, and that is something that Los Angeles based keyboardist, guitarist and composer Jairo Estrada does with his project Death is an Astronomer on the recently released single “Digital Conversation.” 

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/track=198860162/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/transparent=true/

Estrada offers up striking, highly progressive metallic fusion music that never bores or ventures too far off into aimless territory. Highly complex yet flowing, “Digital Conversation” sees weaving guitar and bass melodies twisting and turning around each other, the drums, following along every step of the way but keeping it all grounded. Arrangements just grab hold of you and take you on a mind altering journey. Nothing here is overly heavy, but there is just enough crunch in the guitar to keep this in the metal camp, yet when Estrada goes for some soaring, thought provoking chops, it’s classic jazz fusion/prog rock all the way. 

Jairo Estrada (Death of an Astronomer)

If you like adventurous, classy instrumental metal fusion, Death of an Astronomer’s debut single is a something you need to seek out immediately. But to make it easy, here is where you can get it.

Second Spring #2: “Part I” by The Fierce and the Dead

It’s hard to believe that I first encountered The Fierce and the Dead almost a full decade ago. They’ve been such a part of my musical life over the past eight years, that it’s actually hard to remember a time when I didn’t listen to them.

As I’ve had the privilege of arguing before, The Fierce and the Dead is, essentially, what might happen if Johnny Marr played with King Crimson.

But, labels.

Who needs them?  Just know that Matt Stevens and co. give theirs hearts, minds, and souls for the world of music.  And, we are all the better for it.

 

 

Past Second Springs:

  1. Kevin McCormick’s “Storm Front.”

 

Inspired by Craig Breaden’s brilliant 104-part Soundstream, I’ve decided to post music that reveals that rock and jazz (and some other forms of music) are not the end of western civilization, but the culmination of western civilization up to this point in time.  A second spring, if you will.

Review: Distant Horizon – Laniakea

Distant Horizon - Laniakea

Distant Horizon is a new band coming from Lapua, Finland who released their debut EP “Laniakea” in June 2017. This fully instrumental progressive metal project is led comprised of Joona Lehto on guitar, Jere Lehto on bass, Jesse Lehto on drums, and Matias Kalli on keyboards and guitar.

As is the case with most instrumental albums, “Laniakea” requires careful listening in order to be fully appreciated. It is definitely not the kind of stuff you can put on as a soundtrack for other activities — complex music, full of twists and turns, yet not unnecessarily complicated, or weird for weirdness’ sake. In fact, the music has a beautiful, natural flow, a clarity and melodic quality. Even though guitars make up a prominent part of the sound, they never get to the point of overwhelming the other instruments. As in most experimental music, however, the foundation of Distant Horizon’s sound lies in the rhythm section, especially in the jaw-dropping drumming patterns provided by Jesse Lehto.

Head-spinningly complex without being cold and sterile as other efforts in a similar vein, “Laniakea” can easily be (re)listed as one of the top releases of 2017. In fact, the sterling musicianship, coupled with an admirable sense of restraint, focuses on creating cohesive, highly listenable tracks rather than pointless displays of technical skill. However, it is also a release that will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. Strongly recommended to practising musicians and fans of intricate, challenging music, it may come across as daunting to those fans who prefer a higher measure of melody and accessibility, as well as a more conservative approach to progressive rock and jazz fusion.

The album is available from Bandcamp here.

Review: The Blue Prison – Alchemist

The Blue Prison - Alchemist

Alchemist is a new EP release from a Japanese guitarist and composer Keigo Yoshida (The Blue Prison), residing in Los Angeles, CA.

Right from the start, the title song kicks off the EP incredibly strong with its toe-tappingly catchy rhythms and roaring guitars, followed by an equally solid djenty “Zenith,” presented with immaculate detail with ricocheting metalcoresque drums. “Kingdom” is far more edgy, with guitar solos tripping over the song’s plodding rhythm. “Red Sun” introduces a symphonic pattern forming a backbone for Yoshida’s immaculate soloing. Short closing piece “River” is an atmospheric piece that brings Alchemist to a solid closure.

Curiosity begs the question: what does The Blue Prison sound like outside the comfort of his niche he’s carved? Perhaps necessity will force him outside his signature sound before stagnation takes hold in future releases, but for now,  Yoshida has done his best: no-nonsense, tightly produced melodic prog.

Alchemist is out today; order it from Bandcamp.

Interview: SPURGE

Spurge

Drawing parallels to the work of mighty Frank Zappa and David Bowie, as well as Isis, Cult of Luna, the Mars Volta and the Dear Hunter, the Atlanta-based band Spurge seems like a promising act. But delving deeper to their most recent release, an EP simply titled “Four More Songs” reveals plethora of different sounds and vibes.

The creator of the band, bassist Jen Hodges gives us an insight into the world of Spurge, their writing process, and more.

What made you go for the name Spurge?

When I first got players together in Nashville, this was just a solo project and I was releasing material as Jen Hodges.  My musicians were wanting like a “Jen Hodges and something or other” name.  I told them I was down and whatever they picked was good for me.  My drummer at the time had a very endearing lisp and excited called out “Sthpurge!”  We were all kind of unsure what he said at first. He said it again and told us it was a kind of weed.  We all dug the double entendre.  For a while we called ourselves Jen Hodges and Spurge.  We dropped the Jen Hodges this year because the band feels like a total group effort at this point.

How do you usually describe your music?

I like to call it progressive post rock.  Most of the time people have no idea what that means so I end up explaining that we play post rock type textures but add in guitar/bass/drum solos.  I’ve heard people call it neo-classical rock, experimental,  ambient, and fusion before.  I believe someone called us a jam band once as well.

What is your writing process like?

Whenever I’m noodling around on the bass or guitar by myself I’ll come up with a few riffs I dig.  I’ll usually collect 15 or so riffs over the course of six months and start stringing them together using theory to craft transitions.  I record a scratch take with me playing all the instruments and send it out to my band.  My band are all top tier at what they do, so I tell them whatever guitar/drum parts they write is cool with me.  They always come back with some pretty sick stuff.  We rehearse it, record it, then I’ll go back in and record my bass solos as the finishing touch.  It’s an odd approach but I like how loose and open it is.  The creative process is my favorite part of playing.

Who or what is your inspiration, if you have any?

There are a lot of players I admire.  Their music inspires me to contribute to humanity’s little collection of sound.  I’ve never been able to duplicate other people’s styles.  Mostly due to my bass being upside down and backwards.  However, I like being a part of the musician community and hearing other people’s music motivates me to keep writing.  Some of the musicians who influenced me at an early age are Flea, Buckethead, Jimmy Urine, Layne Staley, David Gilmore, John Paul Jones, Victor Wooten, and Thundercat.

Four More Songs

What is your favourite piece on the new EP “Four More Songs” and why?

Oof.  That’s tough.  I like the bass solo best in Amphibian.   I like the verse in Om the best.  I like the piano solo in Rain the best.  I like the guitar riffs in David Bowie the best.  I like Miles’ vocals in Amphibian the best.  I don’t think I can pick an overall piece I like best though.

What makes “Four More Songs” different?

Different than my other albums?  Or different in general?  Different than my other albums because I had an idea about what I wanted before I started writing.  I knew for sure I wanted to write a 7 minute song, a David Bowie tribute, a schizophrenic piece with a metal bridge, and I wanted to finish Rain.  I had been in the process of writing Rain for five years at that point.  It was a reject song from a previous band.   The record is different in general because it’s got my style in it.  All my music is different than most stuff out there.  I am proud about that.  I feel like I finally found my sound.

What should music lovers expect from “Four More Songs”?

Beauty, ugliness, groove.  A lot of texture.  Some experimentation in recording techniques.  We recorded Wayford’s vocals on Om by putting a box fan between him and the mic.  I broke a major rule and stacked 4 bass lines on top of one another in David Bowie.  My poor producer wasn’t too happy about it.  He’s the man though and heard my idea and made it work.   I think this is a record you can listen to all the way through and be sucked in enough not to skip any parts.  There is no filler.  And you never know what’s coming next.

What kind of emotions would you like your audience to feel when they listen to your music?

All of the emotions.  (I just made myself laugh.)  I’d like them to feel content, relaxed even.  I’d like them to forget about their phones and their responsibilities and allow themselves to be taken through the story.  Maybe hype during the more exciting parts.  Entertained.  I’d like them to feel entertained.  Whatever emotion produces that outcome is fine with me.  As long as they are indeed feeling something.  Then I’ve done my job.

Spurge band

Which do you like most, life in the studio or on tour?

I’ve never been on tour where we don’t sleep in the van or on the floor or in someone’s basement so I’d have to say studio life.   I’d love to experience tour where we get a hotel room each night.  That might change my mind a little bit.  Tours have been fun, yet exhausting.  Studios are sacred spaces.  The creative process is my favorite part of playing so the studio is hard to beat.  I know a lot of people can get stressed out in the studio, but I’ve always been comfortable not having control so I just let people be themselves on the tracks.  If I don’t like it, I’ll edit it later.  I think the music reflects the positive vibes in the studio.

Pick your three favourite albums that you would take on a desert island with you.

Wow that’s tough too.  Only 3?  John Prine Live, Dark Side of the Moon, and RHCP Mother’s Milk.  I just looked those choices over for about two minutes and I’m sticking with my answer.

“Four More Songs” is available from Bandcamp. Stay in contact with Spurge via Facebook and Twitter, and visit their website for more information and news.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=4034617188/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

Review: Jay Matharu – These Clouds are So Undisciplined!

Jay Matharu

The Uppsala, Sweden-based song-writer, performer, guitarist and composer, Jay Matharu, is set out to explore a wide variety of genres and unleash his full creativity on his debut album “These Clouds are So Undisciplined!,” clearly stating that he is not into music to make it big, but more importantly, for his passion for creating music.

One of the most striking features of his music is definitely Jay’s ability to cross different genres and platforms, incorporating elements of music from different styles: from metal to jazz fusion and even some subtle hints of hard rock and djent in the form of really memorable arrangements.

On this material, Matharu is showing an incredible amount of versatility, as a composer, performer and musician, casting a beautifully diverse collection of songs. Fans of good instrumental guitar-oriented rock with jazz fusion and metal excursions are certainly in for a treat.

Get the album from Bandcamp here.

These Clouds Are So Undisciplined

Things Inside: Discovering Will Sergeant

If you are of a certain age, you will probably be most familiar with Will Sergeant as guitarist and founder member of Liverpool legends Echo & The Bunnymen. Their classic album Ocean Rain became a particular favourite of mine during my student days in the mid 80s and I still consider it one of the best releases of that period.

But Will has not limited his musical horizons to the Bunnymen; he has worked on other projects over the past couple of years and discovering them has been one of 2013’s unexpected pleasures for me.

Back in January, Will and fellow Bunnyman Les Pattinson formed a new band called Poltergeist and announced a PledgeMusic campaign to fund production of their debut album. That album, entitled Your Mind Is A Box (Let Us Fill It With Wonder), appeared as a download for pledgers in March and had a worldwide release in June.  According to Will,

We create a form of rock music with its toes paddling in the progressive ocean foam of the sixties and seventies and its head in the bone dry air of the present day.

Your Mind Is A Box is a splendid slice of instrumental prog/post-rock that deserves a place in my Best Of 2013 list, being denied that right solely due only to the incredible strength and depth of this year’s album releases. Fans of The Fierce & The Dead and their ilk should definitely give this a listen.

In September, Will launched another PledgeMusic campaign, this time for a new album from occasional project Glide. This resulted in the release of Assemblage One & Two at the start of November. Glide is a quite different beast to Poltergeist, drawing inspiration from the 1970s electronica of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Will describes the project thus:

It is an unashamed self indulgent venture. I see nothing wrong with being self indulgent. In my view all art of any worth is built on self indulgence. From the first stroke of a brush, word of literature, note of an instrument or strike of the chisel against the cold stone or wood. The only person that a true artist should be aiming to please should be himself. If you start worrying about what the people may say about the work it is immediately compromised and is a dead duck. So I walk alone once more through electronic landscape for only one reason: I like it there.

Well I like it too, Will: as a devoted fan of early to mid-period TD, I like it very much indeed! The two tracks from Assemblage – clocking in at truly proggy lengths of 19:34 and 22:28, respectively – are hypnotic and utterly absorbing, evoking the spirit of this genre’s German pioneers superbly.

Last week I was privileged to attend a play-through of Assemblage One & Two by Will, in the planetarium at Liverpool’s World Museum. The computer-projected visuals of planets, stars and galaxies were the perfect mind-expanding accompaniment to the music. Will had a small merch desk at the event, so I took a punt on a CD of his from 2012, called Things Inside – and I am so glad I did!

Things Inside – available as a CD or as a download – is another instrumental album, but one quite different in tone from the work produced by the Poltergeist and Glide projects. For one thing, it is almost entirely acoustic. Instruments used include acoustic guitars, ukulele, melodica, vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, celeste, auto harp, Schoenhut toy piano, acoustic bass, flute, french horn and wind chimes! I’ve only listened to it a couple of times, but I’m already loving it.

It’s wonderful when an artist known for one particular style of music reveals a hidden side, a more broad-ranging creativity than you were expecting. Here’s hoping there is more to come from ‘Sergeant Fuzz’ in 2014!