Music Blog

All the music-related posts gathered together in one place.

Despite not having his collar felt by Operation Yewtree, 70s Radio One DJ Mike Read seems determined to make a criminal record. You can split hairs over whether or not his awful cod-Jamaican accent is racist (I think it is), but the record itself is unspeakably horrible. It carefully combines the worst lyrical aspects of Pendragon’s “Green and Pleasant Land” with the musical grace of Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup You Face”. Ugh.

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Transatlantic – KaLIVEoscope

KaLIVEoscope Transatlantic, the Prog-with-a-capital-P supergroup made up from past and present members of Spocks Beard, Dream Theater, Marillion and The Flower Kings, don’t do things by halves. Not that it’s the fashion nowadays, but you won’t catch them releasing a live album as a single disk of edited highlights. Nothing less than a triple CD containing the full three and a half hour show will do.

Despite the unashamed self-indulgence of the music, it’s difficult to attend a Transatlantic gig and not get caught up in the enthusiasm and exuberance of the band’s performance. The band clearly enjoy every minute of their always lengthy sets. Recorded at a sold-out show in Tilburg in The Netherlands, this recording manages to capture some of that energy and excitement.

This is not a record for the faint of heart. Even frontman Neal Morse even makes references to testing the audience’s stamina and bladder capacity after the opening 27-minute song. Despite the lengthy tracks, with several songs of well over 20 minutes and two passing the 30 minute mark, there isn’t much in the way of jams with extended soloing. It’s uncompromising symphonic prog, all swirling cinematic soundscapes, soaring melodies and stately instrumental passages. “Into The Blue” and “Kaleidoscope”, the two epics from their most recent album are both present, though their even longer opus “The Whirlwind” has to be cut back to a 30 minute medley of highlights. Even in three hours it’s not quite possible to include everything.

But it’s not all bladder-busting epics, and some of the standouts are actually the shorter songs. The raw stripped-back ballad “Beyond the Sun” is a gem, and “Black As The Sky” sees them rock out with a great propulsive bass riff from Pete Trewavas. There’s also an acoustic instrumental improvisation from Roine Stolt and Neal Morse featuring a brief burst of Hendrix.

The encores include several covers; an excellent take on The Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin”, and playful runs through Focus’ classic hits “Sylvia” and “Hocus Pocus” complete with yodelling and a guest appearance from Thijs Van Leer, performed with more enthusiasm and energy that you often get from Focus nowadays.

As every live album ought to do, this album captures what it must have been like to have been there that night in Tilburg, and they’ve left in all the stage banter between the songs, which adds to the experience. The sound quality is excellent, and if the performance is occasionally a little rough around the edges, it more than makes up for it in intensity.

For all the fabled self-indulgence of their sprawling studio albums, this recording gives a taste of just why Transatlantic are held in such high regard as a live act.

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Crimson Sky call it a day

Crimson Sky at Reading South Street Arts CentreSad news that Crimson Sky have decided to call it a day, with brief announcements on Facebook and Twitter this afternoon. They will be making one final live appearance on Sunday 16th Nov at The Louisiana in Bristol, supporting Also Eden.

We are very sad to announce that, after the gig supporting Also Eden on 16th November, we have decided to disband Crimson Sky. Martin, Clive, Moray, Adrian and Jane all thank you for your support. It has been lots of fun, and we’ll all remain good friends.

At the moment the band have no plans to record any of the new material that featured in recent live sets.

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Today’s unsurprising discovery: finding new music through recommendations from trusted friends is a far more reliable method of filtering out the forgettable mediocrity than promos from record companies chosen on the basis of their overheated PR blurb.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 1 Comment

Threshold – For The Journey

Threshold - For the JourneyAfter a long gap between 2007′s “Dead Reckoning” and 2012′s “March of Progress”, Surrey-based prog-metallers Threshold are back with another new album, their second since the return of singer Damien Wilson for his third stint in the band.

You know what you’re getting with a Threshold album. Everything you’d expect to hear is here; razor-edged riffs, highly melodic twin guitar leads, huge anthemic choruses, and even the occasional widdly-woo synth solo. Damien Wilson remains a class act as a old-school rock vocalist, and as ever, production is slick and polished.

Highlights include “The Box”, a lengthy number building from a balladic introduction through an frenetic prog-metal wig-out to an majestic climax, and the symphonic-tinged “Siren Sky”, the one number penned by most recent recruit Pete Morton. But the whole album is characterised by strong songwriting and, by the standards of progressive metal at least, tight arrangements that don’t stray too far into self-indulgence. Only the bonus track “I Wish I Could” doesn’t quite convince; the reworking of drummer Johanne James’ song from Kyrbgrinder’s “Cold War Technology” lacks the fire and fury of the original.

It’s true that there is little on this record that’s not been heard before on previous albums. Threshold can be criticised for sticking too rigidly to the formula they established by the end of the 1990s, but that’s beside the point. They are still very good at what they do, and they do have a clearly identifiable sound and identity. Even if this record breaks no new ground, it’s an enjoyable listen and a worthwhile addition to their canon.

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The Pineapple Thief – Magnolia

Pineapple Thief - MagnoliaThe Pineapple Thief are one of those bands within the progressive rock scene who take a modern streamlined approach to their music, focusing on textures, atmospherics and strong melodies rather than complex instrumentation. Their last few albums have taken a zigzagging musical course, with the moments of dance/electronica on “Someone Here Is Missing” and the harder-edged guitar-driven sound of “All The Wars”.

“Magnolia” takes a slightly less experimental approach. Perhaps more consolidating than groundbreaking, it comes across as an amalgam of the best elements of their past few records. It’s very song-focussed, all shorter songs, mostly three or four minutes. The emphasis is on Bruce Soord’s vocals, with soaring minor-key melodies strongly recalling one of their best albums, 2008′s “Tightly Unwound”. Steve Kitch’s keys add tremendously to the atmospherics, including plenty of all-enveloping swirling Mellotron. Soord also impresses on guitar, going from Tom Morello-style abrasive blasts to evocative slide playing.

Highlights include the title track and the elegiac ballads “Seasons Past” and “From Me”, but this album is both consistent all the way through and contains plenty of variety; from epic balladry to full-on rock, from big walls of sound to stripped-down intimacy.

This is not only their best record since “Tightly Unwound”, but also one of the most accessible things they’ve done. Despite the tighter and more focussed approach to songwriting it’s still got all the depth of their earlier work. This is an essential album for fans of new-generation progressive rock, but fans of progressive-tinged mainstream rock acts like Muse or Elbow ought to find a lot to like about this album.

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Robert Plant – Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar

Robert Plant Lullaby and the Ceaseless RoarThe one time Led Zeppelin frontman returns with the strongest album he’s recorded in several years. More eclectic than than the Americana of his previous record, 2010′s “Band of Joy”, it’s a blend of English rock and folk with African and Middle Eastern sounds, and even the occasional blast of hard rock guitar. While this is familiar sonic territory for Plant, this album has more fire than his last couple of albums.

Backed by a talented six-piece band The Sensational Shape Shifters, Plant is on fine form vocally. There’s also a brief but spellbinding guest vocal from Julie Murphy on album standout “Embrace Another Fall”. It’s all a long way from the swaggering blues-rock of his early career, but like much of his recent output it’s music that suits an artist in his 60s rather than his 20s. There are still a few reminders of days past, such as the electric piano on another album highlight, “Up on the Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)” recalling “No Quarter”. While other veteran major-league acts like U2 and The Rolling Stones have been on auto-pilot for years, at 66 years of age Robert Plant has still got something to say.

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Anna Phoebe – Mostar

“Mostar” by Anna Phoebe, taken from her forthcoming album “Between The Shadow And The Soul”

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I’m waiting for the BBC to commision an all-star cover of Meshuggah’s “Bleed” being murdered by 1001 fashionable but mediocre guitarists.

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Haken – Restoration

Haken - RestorationHaken are in the vanguard of the latest generation of progressive rock bands. The six-piece came of age with their acclaimed third album, 2013′s “The Mountain”, on which they moved beyond the obvious influences on earlier records to develop a musical identity of their own.

A breakthrough album is always going to be difficult one to follow, and Haken have chosen not to make another full-length album but an EP. Although with a running time of 33 minutes it’s not far shorter in length than many a vinyl-era LP.

There are just three songs. Opener Darkest Light is dense and complex stuff, all spiky staccato metal riffs and off-kilter vocal harmonies. In complete contrast, Earthling is a thing of fragile beauty, mellow and atmospheric, a sweeping vocal melody atop shimmering interlocking guitar arpeggios, which breaks and changes gear at exactly the right moment. The record closes with Crystallised, a kaleidoscopic 19-minute epic with jazz-inflected instrumental workouts, a cappella vocal harmony sections, eventually building to a huge anthemic climax.

You can still hear some of their influences; the frenetic left-field jazz-rock of Zappa, the quirky harmonies of Gentle Giant, the technical riffery of Dream Theater, even a hint of the Canterbury Scene at one point. But ultimately there’s nothing derivative about this record, and they stand head and shoulders above most generic prog-metal bands; their undoubted instrumental prowess is always in service to the song rather than flashy showing-off. An important element of their distinctive sound is Ross Jennings’ vocals; neither the traditional rock or metal frontman, nor the whining style of much contemporary indie-rick. Add to that the fact that the whole band sing and you get the potential for interesting use of vocal harmonies.

“Restoration” is an impressive record. Haken have the instrumental virtuosity and musical scope of the best in progressive rock, but unlike some other bands they aren’t content to create reverential pastiches of 70s greats. Instead they create ambitious and complex music that actually sounds like something from the 21st Century.

This review also appears in Trebuchet Magazine.

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