Hello Progarchists, how are we all?
You may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet recently, due to a house move from hell and all the real life stuff that gets in between the music and the reviewing, so apologies to anyone who has sent me albums to review and the delay I’ve had in reviewing them, as John Lennon once said ‘Life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans’, he also said ‘James, don’t use a friend of a friend as a decorator’ but I ignored him on that one, to my cost. He knew what he was on about old Johnny L.
One of the most consistent record labels releasing new music that spans the gamut of the contemporary prog genre is of course our friends over at Bad Elephant Music, who have artists like We Are Kin, The Fierce and the Dead, Simon Godfrey and Tom Slatter on their books, not to mention many other great bands, and that is exactly what I’ll be doing today, in the first part of a series of articles focusing my attention on a round up of their releases for the first half of this year, and hopefully causing you to spend some more money to keep David Elliott in curries….
N.y.X The News
This release escaped into the world, kicking and screaming back in February (yes I know it’s August, have you ever had one of those years??) and I use that term advisedly, as I haven’t heard anything like this album in a very long time. In fact part of the delay in reviewing it was because it’s taken me a while to marshal my thoughts about it to be confident enough to put them out there.
Italian art/prog/who knows what outfit N.y.X (Walter F Nyx on vocals, bass guitar, electronica, Danilo A Pannico on drums, percussion, piano organ, marimba, electronica and Klod on guitar and vocals) have put together a 46 minute audio experience, blending elements of the more out there sounds of King Crimson (with Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn adding their distinctive sounds into the disparate mix) early Tangerine Dream and psych Floyd N.y.X is truly uncategorizable.
From the opening tumult that is Restless Slumber (At the break of dawn) you can rest assured this isn’t an easy listening album, there is disjointed electronica, jarring sound effects and it takes a few listens to get into the album.
That, to my mind is always the strength of a record, if it’s one you have to persevere with, and play a few times to get into then the work is worthwhile, prog is supposed to be the first music in space, and lets face it, if musicians aren’t pushing musical boundaries and challenging themselves and their audience, then you might as well go to watch Coldplay behind the screen of your iPhone in a big old metal barn along with a million other people in their identical SUVs.
This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and whilst this album is full of hardcore psychedelic moments, mixing the best of early Kraut Rock with the more esoteric end of English prog, like Crimson or Henry Cow, you then have the wonderful Discord (Domestic Policies) blindsiding you with it’s direct acoustic driven number, with some sublime guitar solo, almost the calm before the percussive The Paper (Titles & Subtitles) which keeps the whole News theme going throughout the album, and with it’s haunting guitar work, and the way the track builds and builds it sounds like a soundtrack to a dark film that no-one dare make yet.
The whole ethos of the album is encapsulated in the closing track, 13 minutes of The Daily Dark Delirium, if nothing else the titles on this album are cracking, with some fantastic vocals and the musical meld that N.y.X do so well, it’s a cracker of a journey with elements of techno, metal guitar (courtesy of Trey Gunn) and many other genres that shouldn’t work on the same record, never mind the same song, and the fact it does with its bewildering dark beauty is a testament to the band.
This album is not for the faint hearted, and probably has the potential to be the most polarising album I’ve ever reviewed, in fact to be honest I have been listening to it since January and still can’t decide whether I like it, or whether it’s one to be admired for it’s skill.
It’s a musically complex album, with lots going on and it’s always great to hear a band that aren’t concerned with sounding like anyone else and making the music they want to hear, it’s not a record that can be pigeonholed, mainly because it’s not a pigeon and because it transcends anything as banal as genre.
Fair play to N.y.X for their confidence in their ability, and in Bad Elephant for taking a punt on this real one off record.
The Rube Goldberg Machine – Fragile Times
Nothing sums up the world we currently live in, for better or for worse than the album title on the debut album from London based prog trio Elliot Coombs (guitar, keyboards, lead vocals) Dan Bowles (guitars, keyboards, backing vocals) & Jordan Brown (bass, keyboards, backing vocals) and the album cover, whilst sparse is very striking and if, as I often do, you buy an album based purely on the sleeve, then you would pick this up, take it home and pop it in your CD player.
Your money wouldn’t have been wasted at all, as BEM have found another amazingly talented band to add to their roster as TRGM as no one ever calls them specialise in that melodic brand of prog that bands like The Pineapple Thief have perfected.
They are no copyists however, as the band have a warm sound that is all their own, despite channelling the spirit of Steven Wilson on the title track, with it’s warnings of bad times to come, and it’s wonderfully sparse guitar solo and atmospheric sounds.
In fact the less is more ethos is spread across the whole album, with the wonderful Little Funerals drawing the listener in with its warmth.
The music is superb, and is full of little quirks, In Symmetry being a case in point, whilst the lyrics and the music match up perfectly, being more questioning and reflective about the state of the world, rather than bringing you down.
Elliot’s voice is superb, and its his vocal warmth that draws you into the album, whilst the musical skills at work from the trio should not be underestimated, throwing elements of folk rock (your contemporary folk sound of bands like The Levellers or the Oysterband) into play on the delicate Man of Glass, the slide between styles and themes is part of this albums strengths, as it seems more like a well constructed concept than a mere collection of songs.
Meanwhile The Captains Blackjack is wonderful character piece with a great catchy chorus, and reminds me very much of Badly Drawn Boy.
With it’s great music, its superb lyrics and production, Fragile Times is one of those wonderful contemporary prog records that appears from nowhere, and with it’s hooks pulls you in, until you find yourself humming parts of the title track so you have to dig it out and put it on.
Like N.y.X its one that rewards repeat listening, unlike N.y.X it’s not going to alienate 50% of the readership, indeed this album is probably the best musical commentary on 2016 that we’ve got so far, and if we are living in Fragile Times, we might as well relax and enjoy the music.
Mothertongue – Unsongs
It’s been a year of contrasts for BEM, from Jack Arthurs to N.y.X David Elliot hasn’t let the grass grow under the labels feet, and for sheer joie de vivre you don’t get much better than Mothertongue.
Mixing the joy of Ska, the anthemic quality of folk rock and some odd prog bits, Mothertongue throw everything (including the kitchen sink) into the musical mix to create a sound that puts a big daft grin on your face, and some toe tapping music.
Manchester based 6 piece band Phil Dixon (guitar, backing vocals) Will Holden (bass, backing vocals, saxophone) Andy Malbon (trumpet, cornet, backing vocals) John Simm (drums, percussion, programming, synths, backing vocals) Louis Smith (vocals, guitar, synths, ukulele) and Mark Wall (guitar, mandolin, violin, synths, backing vocals) combine their sheer musical skill and powerful energy into one noisy fantastic euphoric sound.
The great lyrics to The Devil Can Steer sets the album off at one hell of a pace, and the Ska sound runs through this track like the word Scarborough does through rock, whilst the brilliant titled A Poem that the Sky Wrote with its jagged guitar and vocals sounds like a Polyphonic Spree track recorded by Young Americans era Bowie, in fact the impact of the brass section on this album of prog/pop does for the genre what pioneering folk rockers the Home Service did to that genre with their sound.
Coming from t’North Brass runs through my blood like Sam Smiths best bitter runs from my glass, and so when the brass section kicks in on the album it’s a joy to hear.
The way this six piece manage to make a sound that makes you think there’s at least a dozen of them is wonderful, and the way they flip between prog, pure pop, psych and brass, like the wonderful Perfect Zero is nothing short of genius.
Whilst Nautilus manages to mix disco, samba and funk into one catchy tune before an amazing rock interlude kicks in and the chorus blasts out.
Whilst the ensemble vocals and brass on Shango with its percussive power is superb.
The musical dexterity and power that this band bring to their music is astonishing, and the way they mix and hop from rock, to prog to Ska and back has to be heard to be believed, and if you want a joyous album to put a smile on your face, and revel in the music then this is a fantastic summer record.
Perfect to put a smile on your face as you walk in the English rain!
We Are Kin <and_I_know>
I’ve been waiting for this album, since We Are Kins debut Pandora was released, al album that appeared as if by magic in my in box one day, and was so powerful that I had to buy the physical CD. For me it was one of the albums of last year, a finely realised debut concept about the Pandora project, and this, their second album is also set in that world, and (spoiler alert features the return of wonderful voice of Alex Dunedin as Isaac…. but I will say no more!) having coalesced around the four piece quartet of Dan Zambas (guitars/keyboards/vocals) Gary Boast (drums/production) Lee Braddock (bass) and new vocalist Emma Brewin-Caddy this is a confident and bold album.
Having received the download a while before it’s release (but after I pre-ordered the album, with the limited edition live album!) I decided that I would listen to both Pandora and then flow straight into <and_I_know> and boy does it work.
It’s the aural equivalent of binge watching boxed sets as the story just picks up where it’s left off, but with much stronger musical statements on here, and far more diverse sounds, the opener …that one day… starts with some fantastic guitar work and a brilliantly powerful percussive sound, then the bands new ace kicks in, when you have a vocalist as powerful and with such a range as Emma, then you use her as much as possible, and the way hers and Dans vocals fit together are superb, a wonderful contrast.
Throughout the album there are recurring motifs, and the eagle eyed among you will spot the way the album has been titled, and the name of the tracks that form the start, the middle, and the end of the album give what I suspect is the albums full title, and a phrase that is repeated several times on the album, one which has significance to Isaacs story.
The band have got a wider musical palette to play with on this album, and with them performing live shows and the reception Pandora got, I sense they are growing as a band with the concept.
Take the wonderfully late night jazz club vibe of No Evil, with some wonderful piano work, or Emma’s free form vocal improvisation over the starker elements of radio, where the band pare things down to a sparser darker less is more approach. Meanwhile one of the musical motifs from Pandora is revisited with some wonderful flute playing by Ramsey Janini accompanied by more of Dans fantastic piano on the haunting …we’ll have to say… Meanwhile reaper, with it’s fantastic guitar work, and more of Emma’s sublime vocals, has a very Floydian air about it, particularly Dans guitar solo, however that is the only real musical touch point to any other band. As We Are Kin sound like no-one else out there, from the distinctive vocals of Dan and Emma, to the musically rich tapestry that the band weave, and the tight narrative that allows the band to dictate there sound and not vice versa.
exhale, with more of Dans piano playing and Emmas vocals, echoes the way the album has been constructed, there are very few elements of bombast and the way the music has been composed is as much about the space between the performances, as the performances themselves, with a powerful finish.
…goodbye starts with the repetition of a lyrical phrase that has repeated across the album, and it’s a 12 minute epic that ties the whole album together, with some amazing musical performances from the band, fantastic guitar work and an amazing ensemble work to bring this part of the story to a close, and like all the best dramatic works or films in the cinema where you need to stay to the end, play close attention to the end of the album.
This is an assured and intelligent follow up to what is one of the strongest debut albums I have ever heard, and it moves the story on in new and musically interesting ways, and is a strong contender already for an album of the year.
I also need to mention the artwork for the album by Leon Arts and We Are Kin, which again flow from the debut albums work and is a superbly realised concept with shades of Hipgnosis about it.
If you were one of the lucky 500 who pre-ordered the album you also got a cracking limited edition live show from Manchester, where the Pandora material is brought to life in fine form.
I am hoping that they are going to do more shows, where they can tell the story so far to what will definitely be appreciative audiences.
I cannot state enough what a great album this is, and if you liked Pandora then this album will delight you as it takes the story to the next level.
The band have made massive leaps forward across both these albums, so I cannot wait to see where they take their sound next.
All albums are available from www.badelephant.co.uk