Roie Avin, ESSENTIAL PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS (Book Review)

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Avin’s latest, ESSENTIAL MODERN PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUMS.

Yes, I want to break into song.  I just recently rewatched THE SOUND OF MUSIC with my two oldest daughters.  I’d forgotten what a great joy the whole movie is, and how satisfying it is that the family outwitted the Nazis.  As their followers, the alt-nuts grow in audacity in America, I hope the descendants of Captain Von Trapp continue to thwart their efforts.

What does any of this have to do with Roie Avin’s latest book, Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums: Images and Words Behind Prog’s Most Celebrated Albums, 1990-2016 (phew—what a title!!!) you ask?  Ok, a legitimate question.

However, I can answer it simply, if not somewhat goofily.

Books and prog?  Well, these are a few of my favorite things!  Imagine how great it is when there are books written about prog albums and prog albums written about books!  Heaven.  Pure, heaven.  Almost as good as dancing across the Alps with the family Von Trapp!

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Interview: RING OF GYGES

Ring of Gyges

Iceland has been very active when it comes to the Progressive Rock genre in the recent years. It could be said that Ring of Gyges is one of the bands that represent this wave of the Icelandic Prog very well. Formed in 2013, the quintet released an EP titled “Ramblings of Madmen” in 2015 and a single “Witchcraft” in 2016, before launching their debut full-length release “Beyond the Night Sky” in November last year.

Vocalist and guitarist Helgi Jónsson told us about the band’s beginnings, new album, the Icelandic Prog scene, and more.

Let’s start from your early music beginnings. How did your musical career begin? When did you start playing? Which groups have been your favorites as a young man? Please tell us something more about your early life.

I come from a musical family, my dad plays bass and my parents raised me with their old vinyl records; Queen, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, that kind of stuff. I started learning classical guitar when I was a kid, probably around 9 or 10 years old, though I wasn’t really interested in that kind of music. I grew up in the countryside and the music school I went to wasn’t very good so the only proper tutoring I was getting at the time was from my dad, who taught me my first chords on the guitar (the power chords were particularly interesting to me!). When I was 13 I scraped together some money out of birthday cards and bought my very first electric guitar and amplifier, both shitty no-name brands, but I was ecstatic. I quickly formed a band with two of my schoolmates. We were mostly playing covers but I wrote one original song as well. Later on, my parents gave me an American Fender Stratocaster as a confirmation present, which remains to this day my favorite guitar and a good portion of our album was recorded with it. In high school I started to really get into prog, Rush, Dream Theater and Focus were some early favorites, but Blackwater Park by Opeth is probably the album that really sealed the deal for me on this whole prog metal thing.

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Review: Ring of Gyges – Beyond the Night Sky

Ring of Gyges

With the amount of records being released in the present era, ranging from the bedroom to high-class studio productions, it is quite a challenge to satisfy my hunger for music lately. Most of this has to do with the fact that the music being released today lacks sincerity. Maybe I am stuck badly to the old-school understanding of rock music, but even though I try so hard, it happens quite a lot that I cannot understand and enjoy the modern music. The sound of 1970s is my comfort zone.

Ring of Gyges from Reykyavik, Iceland could be described as a true progressive rock/metal band with touches of metal here and there, offering well-thought melodies, interesting vocal arrangements, and passages that connect the dots that are quite enjoyable. Helgi Jónsson and Guðjón Sveinsson, who are the key persons for this band, both handle vocals and guitars on the the band’s debut album, and they absolutely shine here. Although their voices tell the story, both do a great work with their guitars — backing up the vocal melodies most of times.

Beyond the Night Sky

The album opens with a short atmospheric piece “Ascend,” which shows that Beyond the Night Sky has a lot to offer. With often changes, Ring of Gyges distance themselves from delivering just a pure, lifeless showcase of technical proficiency, something that these guys definitely have, but rather present the work that is alive, dynamic and above all, interesting.

References to various stylistically different artists can be heard in Ring of Gyges’ music. Their explorations within Anathema’s or Porcupine Tree’s melancholia speak of that, but the band is not afraid to delve deeper and expand their horizons. As Beyond the Night Sky flows by, a listener is taken to a sound-trip that gets more metal-esque. Each of the songs on the album has its own personality, and labelling this record under a single genre would do this band a lot of injustice.

To summarise, Beyond the Night the Sky is a record largely based on the progressive rock genre channelling many different elements. This is a true epic, both in length and amount of quality material, which requires quite a few listens to get into it. How far Ring of Gyges are ready to go? Time will tell. But for now they are on the right path.

Get a copy of Beyond the Night Sky from this location.

Life shouldn’t be about the Drama

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Yes: Topographic Drama – Live Across America

Now does the world really need another Yes album? The past few years have seen the current incarnation of the band tour, bringing to life full album shows, and the albums that have been played in their entirety have been Fragile, Close to the Edge, The Yes Album, Going for the One and on their latest jaunt Drama and excerpts from Tales from Topographic Oceans, and with the shows have come several double disc sets Likie it is Bristol Colston hall & Like it is at the Meza Arts Centre.

I have to admit some bias here, as I saw this incarnation of Yes (The Howe, White, Downes, Davison, Sherwood) at Colston Hall on their UK leg, where they played Drama in it’s entirety on stage and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So, before I get into the nitty gritty and I certainly don’t want to stir up a hornets nest but…..I will broker no arguments as to whether or not this is Yes, it says Yes on the tin, it has Steve Howe and Alan White who have been mainstays longer than they haven’t, Geoff Downes credentials are beyond reproach, and Billy Sherwood and Yes have had intertwining careers for over 20 years, and he was handpicked by Chris Squire to stand in (and sadly replace) him in Yes, with Jon Davison fitting in perfectly, this to me is Yes in spirit, and even though there’s no original members left, does that matter? No, no it doesn’t. I am sure some people miss Jon Anderson, but as he’s concurrently touring with Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman, then brilliant news. Two bands playing Yes music, fantastic for the fans and it means different songs get an airing.

The music is spiritually uplifting and moving, (and Yes have a special place in my heart being the first prog band I really got into) and so I don’t really think that we should sully the music and the memories by getting into petty discussions as to whether a band is a band or not. This is Yes, and that’s my final word on that subject.

Now this album is a game of two halves for me, containing as it does my favourite Yes album, and one of my least favourite of the 70’s Yes albums.

Drama, is the definitive Yes album for me, it is so sharp, so crisp, everything is so right about this record, that hearing it live is a dream come true for a Yes fan.

From the opening Machine Messiah, the brilliant Man in a White Car, the pounding Does it Really Happen with the thundering bass of Billy Sherwood more than deftly stepping into the great mans shows, and with Into the Lens and the stunning Tempur Fugit, this line up Yes (3/5ths of the band that made Drama BTW) have picked up where it left off and given it the rebirth and reinvigoration it needs. Geoff Downes is all over those keyboard sounds, whilst Steve Howe plays like a man half his age, Alan White is still the mainstay on the drums. Drama is like a neglected jewel in the attic, and this line up have polished it and brought it back to where it should be, at the heart of the bands set.

Topographic Oceans meanwhile, left me under whelmed when I first heard it, and sadly nothing has changed, the band do their best, and there is nothing at all wrong with the bands performance and again Billy Sherwood comes in for huge praise as to how he steps into the band, his bass rumbling and thundering, you get distracted and listen and think it’s the great man himself. (Having seen him live Billy really does own the stage, and seems genuinely overwhelmed by the positive reaction his performance gets).

I enjoyed it enough to listen to once, but then, that’s why there are skip buttons on the CD player.

The additional tracks from other albums including a rousing Heart of the Sunrise, a brilliant Roundabout and then, the old warhorse itself Starship Trooper, dusted off and brought out for its umpteenth live release.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the song, I think this version is as good as any of the other live ones, I just think maybe they could throw something into the mix from albums like The Ladder, Fly From Here or Subway Walls from Heaven and Earth to truly reflect the bands history. I especially think anything from Fly From Here would be perfect due to its close relationship with the Drama material.

In other words, to answer my original question, does the world need another Yes live album? As it’s got Drama on, performed in it’s entirety, or course it does, you’d be mad not to want to listen to Drama live.

 

Review: PuzzleWood – Gates of Loki

Gates of Loki

The “Gates of Loki” album and its music is a desolate, introverted place of darkness that summons broodingly melancholic images of angst and tension, and it’s all been dreamt up by Russia’s PuzzleWood.

The music on this debut album, I have to say, doesn’t immediately reward you as a listener. However, the lush melodies that are imbedded deep within the ten songs found on this recording grow, swell and expand the more you explore them, and soon the shadowy lyrical themes of alienation that exist between the individual and society as a whole draw you in to the all encompassing world that PuzzleWood have fashioned.

The album kicks off cleverly with “Intro (Gates of Loki)”. Its light but sinister musicality builds over time and you find that your attention never wanders, however laid back the music feels to you; the song sweeps over your senses, taking them hostage, and its (almost) hypnotic, trance-like melody keeps you chained to the song like a prisoner, but a prisoner who doesn’t want to escape. “Remember My Name” has an almost Riverside-like feel to it. “Tyrant Who Fall in Love” is again trance-like in the extreme, but the way the song is nurtured and allowed to grow is an amazing thing to hear, and it is for me the album’s standout composition.

“To the Void” feels intricate, incorporating varied instrumentation by the three members, as well as a bouzouki performed by guest Dmitry Ignatov. There is a number of ethnic instruments that can be heard throughout “Gates of Loki,” what gives this record its specific flavour. Basem Al-Ashkar’s arabic oud on the closing “Road Will Lead” is beautifully dissonant, making for a perfect ending.

It’s not an easy album to like initially, but given the right amount of time that this weird style of Prog needs to work its magic on you, “Gates of Loki” soon becomes an impressive, thoughtful release that has all the tools needed for it to become a minor classic amongst those who frequent the shaded borderlands of the Progressive Rock World.

Stream / buy “Gates of Loki” from Bandcamp.

Review: Barry Weinberg – Samsarana

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Fresh from the warm South Florida, comes a prog rock veteran Barry Weinberg, with his debut album “Samsarana” dropping January 25th.

The fifteen-piece musical beast of a debut appears very much ready to stand next to plethora of amazing albums that the genre gave birth to over the years.

After short and atmospheric intro titled “Conception,” forward comes “Creation” leading off with a very Floydian feel and with a full sized chorus following all verses, it seems there may be an easy ride ahead for more cautious listeners. “Welcome to my World” is a laid-back stripped down acoustic piece with Weinberg’s voice over leading to “This Vicious Circle,” which sees Weinberg’s circling melody wash over the pebbles and steal away the shoreline behind, whereas “Come Out and Play” is a groovy and funny little piece.

“Beyond the Astral Sky” kicks in through a silent verse, attacking with a slightly alternative-flavoured chorus, and some sharp instrumentation, before the leviathan-sized hook belonging to “Taking it All” take things to a further level, with occasional hard rock sprinkle. We hear the same good work kept up through “Endless Sea” and “A Passage of Time,” the latter ringing the Genesis influence.

After another instrumental interlude “Perception,” “You Cannot Burn the Fire” comes as, arguably, the heaviest piece, incorporating heavy metal riffing and evil-flavoured singing. “Come My Way” brings in the folk element, while the following “The Way” comes with a steady pace, making for one of the highlights.

“Samsarana” is an absolutely accomplished piece of playing, writing and performance that should see the genre pushed out of its confines.

“Samsarana” is out on January 25th; pre-order it from Barry Weinberg’s official website.

Review: The Mercy Stone – Ghettoblaster

Ghettoblaster

There is music that I can’t relate to. Sometimes it’s because the song is plainly stupid, trite, or obnoxious that I just wish it would be sent into the sun. It’s like your friend who posts way too much personal stuff on Facebook, you just want to scream “Stop”. Then, there is an even more perverse music, a music that speaks like a man half-way through a Xanax withdrawal, a music that both baffles the mind and produces a near awkward laughter in the listener. This is the music of lunatics, music that I would say (in the most professional of instances of course) has gone “completely bananas”.

And here we are with just an album, The Mercy Stone’s debut experimentation Ghettoblaster. An album I am sure my closest friends are sick of hearing and hearing about in the last coupe of weeks, yet it took me some time to write about it because — life.

If you are someone who actually was alive to see the prog spectacle of the ‘70s you may remember the slightly nerdy King Crimson or even the lord dorkdom of the cape wearing Yes. While there are many genuinely cringe worthy moments from those bands nothing — and until I can be proven wrong I genuinely mean NOTHING compares to the awkward vibe you get from Ghettoblaster.

The Mercy Stone is a new project; it’s been around for a few years and was assembled by composer and guitarist Scott Grady — who has a master’s degree in music composition — and who assembled a 12-piece group to “to put his composition chops to work within a project that would have the substance and sophistication fitting for a contemporary-classical concert stage as well as the accessibility that would be palatable to rock audiences.” Going simply-said for an extraordinary amalgam of Classical Music, Jazz and Rock, the group presents a large body of work with their full-length debut Ghettoblaster. Large as in bringing together Stravinsky, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Radiohead, Bach, Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd, to name but a few.

The music on Ghettoblaster is very well composed and performed. Grady tends to pull together a strong cast of performers for his musical circus act. These fine tunes tend to be something to marvel at. It is this dichotomy that provides more of the head scratching moments. The album progresses in a peculiar, but fairly typical fashion during the majority of its run time. You might find the music endearing and charming as it blends rock, jazz, and classical qualities.

The ‘70s were a glorious period in music because people were getting paid way too much money to do all sorts of crazy projects, and even though some of the end results were complete disasters there was a sincerity to them. There was no sense of irony or pretentiousness in the attitudes of the musicians, they just wanted to make weird and complicated music. With Ghettoblaster, this ensemble does exactly that. The Mercy Stone are driven by the love of music, and it pays back — maybe not filling their pockets, but rather something on a higher, more spiritual level. Highly recommended.

Follow The Mercy Stone on Facebook.