“What Lies Beneath” is an album by keyboard player and singer-songwriter Mike Kershaw, who has released several albums over the past few years both under his own name and under the moniker of “Relocate to Heathrow”. While it’s promoted as a progressive rock record the focus here is on songwriting rather than complex instrumentation. It boasts an impressive supporting cast with, amongst others, past and present members of Galahad, Also Eden and Fractal Mirror.
Unfortunately the album gets off to a very poor start; nine-minute opener “Gunning for the Gods” combines cheap and nasty 80s synth sounds with a borderline unlistenable vocal performance and comes over as The Folkie from Viz fronting a second-rate neo-prog tribute act. The next couple of songs aren’t quite as god-awful, but neither are they particularly memorable.
It’s only once you get into the second half of the record that things improve. Much of the time Kershaw does sing within his limitations, and while his vocals never rise beyond workmanlike he manages to avoid ruining the songs. The highlights are “Two Eyes” with some delightful melodic guitar work, the Floydian “Another Disguise”, and the atmospheric ballad “Wounds”, the last of which features Tom Slatter on vocals. In the end, the closing track “The City of My Dreams” epitomises both the album’s strengths and weaknesses; a very flat vocal drags down what could have bought the album to a soaring epic conclusion.
This is a curate’s egg of record; Kershaw clearly has plenty of worthwhile ideas as a composer and arranger, and Gareth Cole’s guitar work is impressive throughout. But the way the one track with a guest vocalist stands out leaves you with the impression that Kershaw might have been better off working with a proper lead singer able to bring the material to life rather than singing most of the lead vocals himself.
Haken are one of the best of the current generation of progressive rock bands. They combine the required level of instrumental virtuosity with a degree of songcraft and compositional skills unmatched by most of their peers. The band came of age with their third album “The Mountain” when they transcended influences from Zappa to Gentle Giant to created a clear musical identity of their own. After the rather more experimental EP “Restoration”, they’re back with their fourth full-length album, “Affinity”, and it might just be the best thing they’ve done.
The album begins with clanking electronic effects building towards a barrage of percussion. Though it’s the album’s title track it’s more of an extended intro to the first song proper, the towering “Initiate” which combines pummelling progressive-metal riffery with delicate shimmering vocal sections. That sets the theme for this record; razor-sharp riffs combine with anthemic soaring vocal lines and gorgeous harmonies with the dynamics to make the disparate elements work together.
“1985″ more a more conventional prog-metal with its spiralling riff and parping keyboard solo, and “Lapse” even takes on something close to a dance feel at the beginning. The fifteen-minute The Architect, the longest track on the record, forms the centrepiece of the album, a multi-section prog-metal workout with staccato riffs, an atmospheric jazzy instrumental section and a huge anthemic climax. In contrast other songs display a less-is-more simplicity. The elegiac Red Giant is a stately thing of beauty, and the nine minutes of the dreamy slow-burning closer Bound By Gravity ends the album on another high point, based around simple repeating patterns that build in intensity into a vast sonic cathedral.
It’s perhaps not quite as eclectically varied as “The Mountain”, but as a consistent and coherent record it’s perhaps an even stronger work. There is slightly less emphasis on complex song structures and relatively few solos. It’s really the vocal harmonies that stand out on this record, with all the band contributing to the backing vocals.
The result is something that’s clearly identifiable as progressive rock, but reinvented for the twenty-first century rather than a reverential pastiche of the music from a generation ago. It’s the sort of thing that should appeal as much to those bought up on Muse or Elbow as to old-school fans of Pink Floyd or King Crimson. This is state of the art modern progressive rock at its best.
There is no other band quite like Knifeworld. Led by Cardiacs and Gong alumnus Kavus Torabi, the eight-piece band with their unique brand of horn-driven psychedelia with added bassoon has made a big impact on the festival circuit over the last couple of years.
“Bottled Out of Eden” is their third full-length album, following 2014′s excellent “The Unravelling”. As we have come to expect by now, it’s full of typical Knifeworld song titles like “I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait” and “Lowered Into Necromancy”, and combines dark and enigmatic lyrics with swirling kaleidoscopic instrumentation.
The album beings with chants and drones heralding “High/Aflame”, a rocker that might be familiar to those who have seen the band live in the past year. From then on it’s a blend of psychedelic rock workouts and slower and often sinister atmospheric numbers. Highlights include the dark and brooding “Foul Temple” with it’s haunting near-orchestral instrumental section, and “I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait” with its great interplay between Kavus Torabi’s growling guitar riff and the horn parts swirling around it. “A Dream About A Dream” is as dreamy as the title suggests, again with some evocative work by the horn section. Even the half-minute bridge between two songs, “Vision of the Bent Path” makes an impression, an instrumental featuring just the horn section playing in multi-part harmony.
Earlier albums emphasised Kavus Torabi’s psychedelic guitar and layered male/female vocal harmonies. While those elements are still present, this time they bring the horn section centre-stage and make them the focus of the record. The resulting arrangements recall Frank Zappa’s early 70s big band albums “The Grand Wazoo” and “Waka Jawaka”, with horn-driven instrumental passages taking the place of traditional solos. While it’s a logical progression from what has come before, by strengthening the most distinctive elements of their sound, Knifeworld take things to the next level with this record. And there is nobody else remotely like them.
Wytch Hazel are a band with an unashamedly retro sound. Their connection with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal goes beyond having a name that includes the word “Wytch”; vocalist and guitarist Colin Hendra has also done a stint with a recent incarnation of NWOBHM stalwarts Angelwitch.
Their sound reaches deep into to 70s with the folk-rock vibes of Jethro Tull and the twin-guitar harmonies of Wishbone Ash, as well as a foot in the camp of the more melodic end of NWOBHM. The feel is reminiscent in places of Praying Mantis and Demon, though in complete contrast to the latter’s dark lyrical themes we have medieval tales of kings, battles and heroism with a bit of Christian spirituality for good measure.
While it draws musical motifs from sources as varied as sacred church music and medieval French song structures as well as Iron Maiden style galloping triplets, it keeps entirely to classic rock instrumentation. So there are no cod-medieval affections like crumhorns, but there are plenty of vintage valve amps. The production by Purson’s Ed Turner certainly gives the guitars an authentic 70s feel, and the emphasises is always on songwriting with the soloing always tastefully restrained.
The opening hard rocker “Freedom Battle” sets the theme musically and lyrically, with it’s rollicking twin guitar riff and spiralling solo, and songs like “Mighty King” and “More That Conquerors” follow a similar vein. There’s a change of pace with the stately “Psalm” with it’s semi-acoustic verse and evocative solo it could easily be a lost track from Wishbone Ash’s “Argus”. The album ends in anthemic NWOBHM territory with “Wytch Hazel” and “We Will Be Strong”.
There are quite a few bands mining the rich seam of early 70s rock at the moment, such that some sources, like early Black Sabbath, are now getting pretty much much mined-out now. But by evoking the spirit of Wishbone Ash and Jethro Tull. Wytch Hazel have found a rich but previously untapped vein. They’re no derivative comfort-zone pastiche; they have succeeded in making a record that’s far more than the sum of its influences.
Kiama are a supergroup side-project comprising Magenta’s Rob Reed on bass and keys, Maschine’s Luke Machin on guitar, Shadow of the Sun’s Dylan Thompson on vocals, and Andy Edwards on drums. While some of the pre-release publicity encourages expectations of something in the spirit of the classic hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Rainbow, the finished album is something rather different.
“Sign of IV” starts strongly with the hard-edged rocker “Cold Black Heart” and the ballad “Tears” that builds in intensity towards a guitar-shredding climax. There’s something of the early days of The Reasoning about both songs. The following “Muzzled” is a lengthy ballad with a jazz-flavoured solo that sounds closer to Magenta at their most stripped-back.
After that strong start, the lengthy “Slime” isn’t quite as impressive; despite some strong moments the whole piece comes together as disjointed and half-formed. After that comes the album’s low point, “I Will Make It Up To You”, another ballad, let down by a weak chorus. “To The Edge” starts out as hard rocker before losing its way again in a disjointed mid-section. The last three tracks combine epic balladry that has a definite touch of late Marillion with some extended jazz-prog instrumental workouts.
The record does have some undoubted strengths. Dylan Thompson, underused as a vocalist in The Reasoning and Shadow of the Sun proves he’s got what it takes to be a band’s sole lead singer, and delivers some great soaring melodies. Luke Machin’s again demonstrates his skills as a guitarist showing spectacular virtuosity in places and tasteful restraint in others.
But ultimately it’s a bit of a curate’s egg of an album for which you often find yourself loving parts of songs rather than complete tracks. While it definitely has its moments, it falls frustratingly short of what perhaps could have been, given the amount of musical talent behind it. A somewhat flat production doesn’t help; it’s missing some of the colour and warmth found on Magenta’s albums, or the energy and dynamics of Maschine’s debut. It’s possible that a shorter, more focussed album that tightened up the arrangements and dropped one or two of the weakest numbers entirely might have resulted in something that rose to greater heights.
Former Touchstone frontwoman Kim “Elkie” Seviour kicks off her solo career with the single “Fantasise to Realise”. It’s a dramatic record that combines a big pulsing dance rhythm and rock guitars with a soaring vocal performance that suggests the best may be yet to come for Kim as a singer. It’s the sort of things that deserves to be a dancefloor hit if you can find enough clubs that aren’t frightened of guitars.
If that sounds a long way removed from Touchstone’s progressive rock, it’s actually a logical progression from the more pop-orientated elements of of Kim’s last album with the band. “Oceans of Time” cast around in a lot of different directions, and “Fantasise to Realise” represents something of one of those directions. It is certainly an intriguing taster for Kim’s forthcoming album.
“The Nostalgia Factory” by John Mitchell is the first release by White Star Records. Aside from a couple of backing vocals by former Touchstone singer Kim Seviour. John Mitchell plays and sings everything on this record himself. The only thing he didn’t do this time is write the songs. Though he’s a songwriter so prolific other musicians can’t keep up with him, this four-song EP is a record of covers.
The record takes its title from the first song, a very early Porcupine Tree number from the days before they were a full band and releasing on cassette. This take is all 80-style shimmering guitars, with a vocal that sounds more Steve Wilson than Steve Wilson.
Next up is Justin Hayward’s ballad “It Won’t Be Easy”, the theme song of the short-lived 1987 TV series “Star Cops” (Anyone remember that one?), and up-tempo pop-rock of Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” which he played live with Lonely Robot at their showcase gigs at the end of last year.
The final song, ELP’s “C’est La Vie” is the standout of the record. It was originally intended for a Prog Magazine cover disk that never saw the light of day. It’s a thing of beauty; a simple piano figure puts the emphasis on Mitchell’s vocal, and he takes the song and simply owns it. Much like Panic Room’s version of “Bitches Crystal” intended for that same ill-fated cover disk, it shows how good ELP’s songwriting can be when you strip away their bombast.
With material from the mid-70s to the early 90s, the record has a very strong mid-80s feel about it, although there’s none of the worst excesses of 80s pop-rock production to be heard. What comes over strongly across the whole record is John Mitchell’s skill at interpretation. If you’re not intimately familiar with the originals it’s not immediately obvious that this record is made up of covers. He takes each song and makes it his both vocally and instrumentally, which is always a sign of a great creative musician.
Along with the likes of Knifeworld, Purson and fellow Finns Jess and the Ancient Ones, Finland’s Hexvessel bring the weird and wonderful world of late 60s psychedelia into the 21st century. Song titles like “Transparent Eyeball” and “Cosmic Dreams” make it clear where they’ve coming from, even if calling a song “Mushroom Spirit Doors” does sound as though they’re taking the piss.
The illicit substance inspired song titles would mean little if the music wasn’t up to snuff, but Hexvessel more than deliver on that front. “When We Are Death” goes from space-rock to psychedelic folk, with swirling organ, fuzzy stoner-rock grooves, gothic atmospherics, and the occasional Motorik beats and garage-rock riff.
Some bands mining this musical seam have ended up with albums sounding rather one-paced, but Hexvessel avoid this trap by keeping it varied. After the hypnotic grooves of “Transparent Eyeball” and “Earth Over Us” with its evocative Doors-sryle electric piano, the pace changes completely with the melancholy ballad “Cosmic Dreams”, a strong highlight of the album. The sinister psychic drama of “Mirror Boy” is another gem, and isn’t the only song that recalls the gothic atmospheres of the short-lived 1990s goth-proggers Ordinary Psycho, if anyone remembers them.
Other standouts include the “Drugged Up On The Universe” with a combination of fuzz-toned guitar and Hammond organ that comes over as a cross between Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep, and the doom-laden slow blues of “Teeth of the Mountain”. Perhaps the only song that doesn’t quite work is the aforementioned “Mushroom Spirit Doors” where awkward time changes mean it fails to achieve lift-off. But that’s the one weak song on an otherwise strong record.
British-born singer Mat McNerney impresses a lot; there’s a touch of Jim Morrison, Nick Cave and Ordinary Psycho’s Tony Gulvin in his style. On the instrumental side it’s Kimmo Helén’s keyboard textures that stand out, adding an extra dimension to every song.
Hexvessel have done a great job at invoking sixties psychedelia with a touch of nineties goth, with influences all over the place fused into a coherent whole.
Suede were always one of the more interesting bands from the Britpop era. Their dark lyrical themes and sometimes florid music meant they little in common with the likes of Oasis or Blur.
They had an unusual career trajectory; guitarist Bernard Butler, whose playing defined their early sound, left the band after the recording of their second album “Dog Man Star”. Though they replaced him and carried on, much of the magic was lost. After three more disappointing albums, they split, making them one of the few bands for whom their second album was the best. A decade later they were to reform, older and wiser, and appeared to pick up not from where they left off, but from where they perhaps should have gone after “Dog Man Star”.
“Night thoughts” is their second album since they reformed, following on for 2013′s “Bloodsports”. It’s a concept album with a storyline of the drowning man’s life flashing past his eyes, which is admittedly a bit old hat; Spock’s Beard and Mostly Autumn are just two bands to have covered similar themes. But in theme and mood Night Thoughts is closest to Marillion’s 1994 classic “Brave”.
The guitar drones heralding opener “When You Are Young” so closely recalls Brave’s “The Bridge” it’s hard to imagine it’s not a deliberate quote, and the same song’s cinematic string section strengthens the prog flavour. What follows is a mix of anthemic guitar-pop numbers with big choruses interspersed with darker and more atmospheric numbers that sometimes evoke the bleakness of the middle parts of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.
The pairing of “Pale Snow” and “I Don’t Know How To Reach You” are early highlights, the spiralling guitar on the latter sees Richard Oakes channelling the late Mick Ronson. But every song has something to recommend about it, and like the best concept albums it’s more than the sum of its parts. The mid-70s Bowie vibe that’s been present throughout their career is still prominent, but there are also moments that would not have sounded out of place on a mid-90s Marillion album.
For a band who so often wore the influence of David Bowie on their sleeves, it was ironic that Bowie’s death rather overshadowed this album’s release. While it doesn’t quite reach the florid grandeur of “Dog Man Star”, this record is still streets ahead of the weaker albums that followed it. It’s a rich and dense record that gets stronger on repeated listens, and while it’s not really a progressive rock album as such, it does share some of the same strengths.
Along with the likes of Chantel McGregor and Jodie Marie, Rebecca Downes is a female blues-rock artist revitalising a traditional form for the 21st century, in her case turning down offers from X-Factor producers because she’d rather make real music of her own than someone else’s formulaic product.
Her second album “Believe” shows she means business, and demonstrates a vocal talent that would indeed have been wasted on sausage-factory pop. With a tight six-piece band including co-writer Steve Birkett on rhythm and slide guitars and Rik Sandford on lead guitar, she plays the blues through a prism of classic rock with nods to soul and funk. Rebecca has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers.
What impresses is not only the strength of the material but the variety; this is not one of those albums where nearly every song is a variation on the same basic template. Highlights include the impassioned funk-rock of “Night Train”, the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears” and the seductive smoky jazz of “Could Not Say No”. Just occasionally the quality dips, with the middle-of-the-road “Come With Me Baby” and one or two rather ordinary boogie numbers on the second half of the record, but the album ends in rousing form with the hard rock workout of the title track.
In some respects this is an old-fashioned record with little or no concession towards the contemporary commercial mainstream. But a record this good deserves to be heard well beyond niche audiences of ageing classic rock and blues fans. The performance and production manages to combine a rich and sophisticated sound with a crackling energy, which leaves the impression the music is built to be performed live.
The album is released on March 4th, with a pre-released launch party at the 100 Club in London on February 23rd.