Record Reviews Blog

Album, EP and DVD reviews, with an emphasis on the UK progressive rock scene.

Voodoo Vegas – Freak Show Candy Floss

voodoo-vegas-freak-show-candy-flossVoodoo Vegas play old school twin guitar hard rock, and their second full-length album “Freak Show Candy Floss” makes a powerful statement of intent. The title reflects life on the road, driving hours to play high energy rock’n'roll in places like Merthyr Tydfil and Basingstoke, and how that dedication to live music must seem incomprehensible to those with 9-5 lifestyles.

From the opening chords of “Backstabber”, this is the sound of a band who mean business. Laurence Case has a classic hard rock voice, Ash Moulton and Jonno Smyth make a hard rocking rhythm section, and guitarists Meryl Hamilton and Jon Dawson serve up monstrous riffs and shredding solos. Which would all count for little unless the songs were there, but Voodoo Vegas have the songwriting chops to match.

It’s one of those albums where it’s hard to single out highlights. “Killing Joke” with its references to dancing with The Devil in the pale moonlight along with freaks and candyfloss is almost the title track. Then there’s there’s the blues-rock stomp of “Lady Divine” with Lawrence Case throwing in a harmonica solo. Some of the strongest songs appear on what would in the days of vinyl have been the second side of the record. “Black Heart Woman”, “I Hear You Scream” and the album closer “Walk Away” are driving hard rockers with barrelling riffs. There are a couple of changes of pace, with the swampy blues of “Poison” and the acoustic “Sleeping in the Rain”, but there’s no filler here, every song on the album is a belter.

This is an album of no-nonsense no-frills rock and roll that does what it says on the tin. When working within a fairly traditional form, you have to be very good at what you do to avoid sounding like a derivative pastiche of other, better bands that came before. Voodoo Vegas pass that test with ease. To put it simply, they rock.

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An Endless Sporadic – Magic Machine

endless-sporadic-metal-machine An Endless Sporadic is an instrumental project from composer and multi-instrumetalist Zach Kamins, On the album “Magic Machine”, he’s joined by guests including Dream Theater keyboard player Jordan Rudess and The Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt, with instrumentation going beyond standard rock and orchestral instruments to include such things as hand hammered lasagne trays.

The opener “Agile Descent” sets the tone. It starts with moody film-score atmospherics including violin and brass, then switches to jazz-fusion electric piano, before exploding into guitar-driven prog-metal. It goes on like that, a splendidly bonkers record, blending modern jazz, metal and symphonic rock with occasional hints of spaghetti western soundtracks and even Bavarian oompah music. Like the late, great Frank Zappa at his most inventive Kamins mixes disparate genres with gleeful abandon. You can sense the musicians enjoying themselves whilst making this record,

The music constantly twists and turns in unexpected directions, a reflective woodwind section or jazz piano run will lead into a spiralling metal riff, then to something else entirely. Often the first few bars give little indication of what’s to follow, a full orchestra on the intro can lead into a jagged prog-metal power-trio number, until it takes off on yet another tangent later on. But despite the undoubted virtuosity of the musicians involved, the complex, swirling kaleidoscopic arrangements emphasise composition over soloing.

One standout is “The Assembly” towards the end of the album, with it’s main theme first played on brass, including tuba for bass, then after some swelling strings the main theme returns, but this time played on metal guitars.

Titles like “Agile Descent”, “Galactic Tactic” and “Impulse II” imply a science-fiction theme, and “Sky Run”, “The Departure” and “Through the Fog” imply a picaresque journey, the whole thing could be the soundtrack for an imaginary space opera adventure, and the ever-changing music certainly takes you on an exhilarating journey through many musical moods and styles.

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The Violet Hour – The Fire Sermon

The Violet Hour - The Fire SermonOriginally released way back in 1991, The Fire Sermon is the sole album by The Violet Hour.

Though they toured extensively in support of Marillion on their “Holiday in Eden” tour, a combination of internal divisions and the band being dropped by EMI saw them split. The album soon went out of print, and had been unavailable for many years. More recently it’s seen a reissue, and is now available once again from their former singer Doris Brendel’s website.

It was a chance conversation at the Cambridge Rock Festival a couple of days after Doris Brendel’s excellent live set when was told the The Violet Hour were a significant early influence of Mostly Autumn. That was more than enough to make the album worth checking out.

It’s an album of two halves. The first side is atmospheric and folk-tinged, with Doris Brendel’s emotive bluesy vocals they come over as a rootsier version of All About Eve. Doris Brendel’s flagolet, a woodwind instrument that sounds a lot like low whistle, is prominent on several songs and gives a strong Celtic flavour. The lengthy opener “Dream of Me” and the dark, brooding “Could Have Been” are particular standouts.

The second side of the original vinyl record shows a completely different side of the band, and sees them rock out. There’s the Supertramp-like “Falling”, the power-ballad “This House” featuring Sam Brown on backing vocals, and the hard rockers “Ill Wind Blowin’” with evocative use of flagelet on the intro, and “Better Be Good”, with blasts of Hammond organ, and Martyn Wilson cutting loose on lead guitar. The 2009 CD reissue includes three bonus tracks, all of which reflect the harder rocking side of the band’s music, with the funk-tinged “Cross That Line” a standout.

It’s an impressive record which leaves you wondering what might have been had they not been chewed up and spat out by the old-school record industry. Their style of celtic-tinged crossover progressive rock was out of time in the early 90s, though you can indeed hear how they influenced Mostly Autumn a few years later. Doris Brendel was and still is a fantastic vocalist for whom comparisons with the likes of Janis Joplin are entirely appropriate, and she’s still recording and touring as a solo artist, playing a similar eclectic mix of styles. Though The Violet Hour proved to be a short-lived band, something of their spirit lives on.

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Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware

Paradigm Shift Becoming AwareBritish four-piece Paradigm Shift describe themselves as combining elements of metal, jazz and electronica in their music. Mixed by Rob Aubrey and mastered by Tesseract’s Acle Kahney, their d├ębut album “Becoming Aware” represents the culmination of nine years work developing and honing their sound from their beginnings as a duo back in 2007.

It opens in archetypal progressive rock fashion; a Floydian synthscape and cacophony of spoken word samples from films and news media before a growling riff takes over and we’re into the sprawling kaleidoscopic “A Revolutionary Cure”, an epic that twists and turns over fourteen minutes. This and the following “An Easy Life” marry spiralling guitar riffs and soaring vocal melodies with intricate jazz-rock instrumental sections. Two short instrumentals follow, the dreamily atmospheric “The Void”, and the jazz-rock of “The Shift”. After “Masquerade” with its dense swirling instrumental passages, the closing number “Reunifications” comes over as a distillation of all the best elements of the album, driven by Puru Kaushik’s propulsive but melodic basslines and Ben Revens’ ever-present piano textures.

Taken as a whole, it’s a very solid piece of work. Where there only a few brief moments that could really be described as electronica, the album comes over more as a blend of progressive metal and jazz fusion, though the metal side never dominates; there are no blast beats or cookie monster vocals. In the hands of a lesser band such a thing might easily descend into self-indulgent noodling, but Paradigm Shift are both skilful enough and possess enough taste to avoid making that mistake. There’s still plenty of soloing, but the solos never outstay their welcome, and much of the time the instrumental virtuosity is folded into the structure of the songs.

“Becoming Aware” is a hugely melodic record that represents a modern and forward-looking approach to progressive rock rather than a homage to decades past.

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Tilt – Hinterland

Tilt Hinterland Tilt is the project from Fish alumni Steve Vantsis and Dave Stewart plus guitarist Paul Humphreys and singer Paul Dourley, with contributions from Robin Boult and John Beck amongst others. They released an EP “Million Dollar Wound” way back in 2009, but “Hinterland” is their first full-length album. The earlier EP was a competent enough record, but never really set the world on fire. This one is a very different beast indeed.

It begins with the dreamy opening of “Assembly”, electronic atmospherics and an understated vocal slightly reminiscent of 80s Tears for Fears, except instead of breaking out into a big soaring chorus it leads into a dramatic instrumental section built around a spiralling guitar figure. “Hinterland”, in contrast, is a barrelling hard rocker with something of The Who in their prime about it.

“Against the Rain” and “Growing Colder” are emotive slow-burning ballads, while “No Superman” and the later “Bloodline” are very powerful groove-rockers build around Steve Vantsis’s propulsive bass riffs, the latter featuring a solo by John Mitchell. Another rocker, “Strontium Burning” has the sort of hook that gets buried in your head. The album ends with the book-end of “Disassembly”, the long dreamy opening echoing the opener before building into a big soaring ballad that brings the album to an impressive close.

Steve Vantsis has been the main co-writer on Fish’s recent albums, and there are places with a similar feel to those records, especially when it takes the riff and groove driven approach reminiscent of parts of “13th Star”. The songcraft and razor-sharp production is certainly in the same league. The layered arrangements with touches of electronica amidst the guitar riffs also recalls late-period Porcupine Tree.

But Paul Dourley is a very different sort of singer to Fish; his soulful vocals have the occasional hints of Peter Gabriel and Lou Gramm. If anything it’s his vocal performance that lifts this record from a good one to a great one.

This is a record that’s been a long time in the making, but it’s proved worth the wait. 2016 has been a very strong year for rock albums, and “Hinterland” is another one to add to them.

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Mike Kershaw – What Lies Beneath

Mike Kershaw What Lies Beneath “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.

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Haken – Affinity

Haken Affinity 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.

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Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden

Knifeworld - Bottled Out Of EdenThere 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.

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Wytch Hazel – Prelude

Wytch Hazel - Prelude 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.

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Kiama – Sign of IV

Kiama - Sign oi IVKiama 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.

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