Record Reviews Blog

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

Firewind – Immortals

Firewind - ImmortalsPower-metal can be a funny old sub-genre. With so many of the common tropes teetering on the edge of self-parody, some bands can easily end up on the wrong side of portentousness; Sonata Arctica, I’m looking at you. Others, most notably Scotland’s excellent Gloryhammer, avoid that fate by taking a deliberately tongue-in-cheek approach.

With their eighth album “Immortals”, their first for five years and first to feature mew frontman Henning Basse, Greece’s Firewind are neither of those things; their approach is simply to be extremely good at everything they do. Featuring song titles like “Ode To Leonidas”, Firewind sing about ancient Greece in the same way their Scandinavian comrades-in-arms sing about Vikings. They fight the beast for Zeus rather than for Odin.

All the expected features of power-metal are here; there are razor-sharp riffs, big singalong choruses, spectacular shredding solos based on classical scales, gallopingly fast tempos and the occasional epic cinematic intro complete with occasional scenery-chewing spoken word parts. All of which would mean little if the band didn’t have the songwriting chops to back them up, but Firewind have that in spades.

There is absolutely no filler on this record; There are face-melters like “We Defy” with its incredible spiralling guitar line, “Back on the Throne”, and the pyrotechnic instrumental title track. “Ode to Leonidas” and “Live And Die By The Sword” with its extended classical guitar intro aspire towards the epic. And “Lady of a Thousand Sorrows” is the obligatory power-ballad.

Henning Basse acquits himself well on lead vocals, with a classic old-school hard rock voice, but this album really belongs to mainman Gus G, his incendiary guitar playing lighting up every track. While there is a degree of showboating in his gravity-defying runs, this being a power-metal album after all, the pyrotechnics are never allowed to overwhelm the songs.

If you’re into power-metal, this album is strongly recommended.

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Ufosonic Generator – The Evil Smoke Possession

Ufosonic Generator

Italy’s Ufosonic Generator seek to combine the sounds of 70s classic hard rock with that of more recent doom metal, and end up succeeding very well at summoning something of the spirit of Black Sabbath from circa 1971. They’ve clearly listened to enough Sabbath to recognise that there’s more to it that just copying Tony Iommi’s signature downtuned guitar sound; drummer S. McManchester captures that jazz-inflected vibe that gives them that vital groove.

Not that this album is a mere retread of “Master of Reality”, there are plenty of other influences in there too, with the band citing Thin Lizzy, Uriah Heep and Cathedral amongst others, and guitarist DD Morris has his own raw and powerful sound. Lyrical themes cover space and ritual magic fuelled by booze and weed, and songs have enigmatic titles like “Meridian Daemon”, the title track “The Evil Smoke Possession” and “Mowing Devil”. The end result is a record that, while it doesn’t really do anything groundbreakingly radical, is still an enjoyable listen.

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2016 Album of the Year

marillion-fear

And my album of the year, as one of two people have already correctly guessed, is Marillion’s majestic F. E. A, R. Or to give its full title, “F*** Everyone And Run”. It’s an album that sums up the despair of 2016

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what The Guardian had to say

F. E. A. R. continues a late-career renaissance that began with 2004’s Marbles. It’s a totally uncompromising record; 68 minutes made up of just five lengthy songs with no obvious radio-friendly singles. Politically charged lyrics alternate between sadness and anger, and rich, layered instrumentation references common Marillion touchstones such as Pink Floyd and late-period Talk Talk, with the occasional hints of Van der Graaf Generator at their most grandiose and menacing. Keyboardist Mark Kelly is all over this record, going from electric piano runs to doom-laden organ, while Steve Rothery is also on top form with his evocative and lyrical guitar, exemplified by a wonderful solo on El Dorado. Things come to a climax with the The New Kings, which has singer Steve Hogarth railing at the state of the world and its corrupt, self-serving elites, all set to dark, intense music that’s as good as anything they have done. Quite possibly their best album in two decades.

Although in this case The Guardian’s reviewer was actually me.

The comments against the review make interesting reading. The vast majority are overwhelmingly positive, although you’ve got to laugh at the numpty who declared that five-star reviews “should be reserved for all time classic albums, not bands that slipped into musical irrelevance over 20 years ago” along with “And it’s not even a proper Guardian reviewer anyway” before compounding his idiocy by insisting that he didn’t need to listen to an album to know it can’t possibly be worth five stars. Sadly this is the sort of closed-minded prejudice bands like Marillion have fighting for decades.

Meanwhile I’m now getting blamed for their Royal Albert Hall gig selling out in minutes.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Not only but also

Under my own self-imposed rules, only full-length albums made up wholly or largely of new material quality for the album rundown. But amongst the live albums, EPs and records comprising largely of reworkings of older material can be found some gems that deserve better than being overlooked. It’s not in any way a definitive list, since there’s a whole slew of live albums released in the run-up to Christmas that I have yet to hear.

The Heather Findlay Band – I Am Snow

i-am-snowThe former Mostly Autumn lead singer’s second album of 2016 celebrates the semi-acoustic folk-rock side of her music, combining new songs with reworkings of older numbers, with arrangements emphasising flute and harp. There’s a beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”, and the two new songs, especially the seasonal title track, are gorgeous.

King Crimson – Live in Toronto

king-crimson-live-on-torontoA live snapshot of the latest incarnation of the legendary progressive rock band from their 2015 tour with a setlist combining brand new material alongside classics from the 60s, 70s and beyond. The seven-piece band including Tony Levin, saxophonist Mel Collins and no fewer than three drummers creatively re-imagine the older material while remaining faithful to the spirit, and the largely instrumental new numbers are impressive too. A great document from a tour that was memorable for all the right reasons.

Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

riverside-eye-of-the-soundscapePoland’s finest band released this ambient and largely electronic album to commemorate guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who died suddenly and unexpectedly early in the year. It’s a compilation of remixes and previously-released bonus material complemented by four completely new tracks, At times the shimmering electronic arpeggios and electronic pulsings are to Tangerine Dream what Riverside’s more guitar-based music was to Porcupine Tree, but as always they’ve far more than copyists.

Touchstone – Lights in the Sky

touchstone-lights-from-the-skyThis four track EP is first release by the new-look Touchstone with Aggie on vocals and Liam Holmes on keys. It’s a move away from the pared-back approach of “Oceans of Time”, with big guitars and soaring vocal lines, but the sound is still clearly identifiable as Touchstone, and they’re sounding like a coherent band in what is clearly a new beginning for the band.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part Three

Into the top five now, as we count down from five to two. It’s a reminder of just how how much great music has been released this year that’s not on the mainstream radar.

5: Crippled Black Phoenix – Bronze

crippled-black-phoenix-bronseAfter some rather turbulent times within the band, Crippled Black Phoenix bounce back very strongly with a powerful follow-up to 2014′s “White Light Generator”. Beginning with a track called “Dead Imperial Bastard”, Bronze is a dark, angry and very intense record that in places sounds like Swans jamming with Pink Floyd, filled with dense, boiling guitars and ominous electronic soundscapes. It’s the sort of record that leaves you exhausted by the time you reach the end.

4: The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

the-pineapple-thief-your-wildernessThe Pineapple Thief have always represented the streamlined modern face of progressive rock, and this album is a distillation of the best elements of their sound. There are moments of fragile beauty, times when they rock out, and the whole thing flows seamlessly. The band have always drawn comparisons with Radiohead. But while “A Moon Shaped Pool” is a good album, “Your Wilderness” is a better one. But you have to wonder how many mainstream critics who put Radiohead high in their end-of-year lists have even heard “Your Wilderness”.

3: Opeth – Sorceress

Opeth SorceressMikael Åkerfeldt and his band continue to draw deep from the well of 70s underground rock and reinvents the sounds for the 21st century with his legendary mastery of rock dynamics. The result is a record that invokes the spirit of that decade while sounding like something that could only have been made today. It goes from thunderous heaviness to the sort of sinister and cinematic atmospherics that recalls his Storm Corrosion collaboration with Steven Wilson. This is their best album since “Watershed” and despite the lack of death-metal growls, their heaviest since “Ghost Reveries”.

2: Iamthemorning – Lighthouse

iamthemorning-lighthouseThe third studio album from the Russian duo comprising singer Marjana Semkina and classical pianist Gleb Kolyadin is one of those records that’s near-impossible to classify. Sometimes accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, sometimes with a rock rhythm section including Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison and Colin Edwin, the result is a kaleidoscopic record of ever changing moods taking in rock, classical and even instrumental jazz. Comparisons between Marjana Semkina vocals and those of Kate Bush are entirely appropriate. This is a record that takes a few listens to fully appreciate since there’s so much to take in; you can keep hearing new things even after many listens.

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The Heather Findlay Band – I Am Snow

i-am-snowHeather Findlay albums are a bit like buses. You wait for ages, then two come along in quick succession. Following on from Mantra Vega’s “The Illusions Reckoning”, the excellent collaboration with Dave Kerzner early in the year comes “I Am Snow”, recorded with Heather’s current road band including former Cloud Atlas guitarist Martin Ledger, Touchstone drummer Henry Rogers and harpist Sarah Dean.

The album showcases the folkier side of her music, and combines new material with reworkings from her back catalogue, in a similar vein to 2012′s “Songs from the Old Kitchen”. It’s largely though not entirely acoustic, with Sarah Dean’s harp and Angela Gordon’s flute given prominence in the arrangements, though Martin Ledger does cut loose with some electric lead guitar in a couple of places.

It’s the new songs that will naturally attract the most interest. The title track, co-written with Martin Ledger and Henry Rogers, opens the album with the sound of Sarah Dean’s harp before Heather’s Kate Bush-like vocal comes in. It’s a beautiful slow-burning ballad with a beguiling melody, building from a delicate opening to a big wall of sound with ebowed guitar and flute. The other new composition, “Dark Eyes/The Dreamer’s Wake” has something of the feel of Odin Dragonfly’s “Magnolia Half-Moon” about it, especially with Angela Gordon’s lengthy flute solo towards the end. Flute and harp again feature heavily in the beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”.

The older songs come largely from the acoustic side of Heather’s contributions to the Mostly Autumn songbook, with numbers like the dreamy “Eyes of the Forest” and the flute-heavy “Winter is King”. Aside from a generous sprinkling of harp, the arrangements stay closer to the originals than the more radical reworkings by some of Heather’s earlier bands either on record or live. Sometimes extra layers add richness to songs that were quite minimalist in the first place; for example, harp and flute enhance the delicate piano ballad “Above the Blue”. One interesting choice from outside the Mostly Autumn canon is the first part of “Day Thirteen: Sign” from Ayreon’s prog-opera “The Human Equation”. The album closes with a Mostly Autumn standard and one of Heather’s signature songs, “Shrinking Violet”, which despite some soaring lead guitar from Martin Ledger, as a full electric number feels slightly out of place.

Taken as a whole, the atmospheric folky vibe is clearly a place where Heather is comfortable, the songs old and new play to her strengths as a singer, and despite the wintry themes the music emphasises the natural warmth of her voice. Even though much of the album is reworkings of previously recorded material, the two new songs are golden, and for many fans they will be worth the price on their own.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part Two

We’re into the top ten now, and this time I’ve managed to rank the albums in order rather that just list them alphabetically. So with no further ado…

10: Rebecca Downes – Believe

Bebecca Downes BelieveDeserved winner of Best Female Vocalist and Best Breakthrough Artist at the British Blues Awards, Rebecca Downes has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers. When combined with her talented backing band result is a hugely varied record, combining blues with hard rock, funk and soul.

9: Tilt – Hinterland

Tilt HinterlandThe band including Fish alumni Steve Vantis, Robin Boult and Dave Stewart deliver a hard-rocking album. The layered sound and powerful bass grooves recall Porcupine Tree and Steve Vantsis’ work with Fish.

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

8: Ihsahn – Arktis

ihsahn-arktisThe fiendishly inventive Norwegian black metallers reign in the avant-garde experimentalism of 2013′s Das Seelenbrechen in favour of an album of more straightforward metal songs. But “straightforward” is a relative thing for a band like Ihsahn; there’s a lot of varied creativity on display here, balancing face-melting guitars with occasional moments of atmospheric beauty,

7: Mantra Vega – The Illusion’s Reckoning

Mantra Vega The Illusions ReckoningThe collaboration between former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay and Sound of Contact’s Dave Kerzner results in a record with a strong 70s vibe.

There are nods to Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac and the rootsier side of Led Zeppelin, as well as the folky feel of Heather Findlay’s work with Odin Dragonfly and early Mostly Autumn. It’s an impressive work that’s as good as anything either of them have done.

6: Big Big Train – Folklore

Big Big Train - FolkloreBig Big Train continue to be better than anyone else at invoking the spirit of 1970s English pastoral progressive rock. Again the lyrics are steeped in English landscapes and socio-economic history.

The songs cover subjects from London’s lost rivers to World War 2 RAF pigeons, with music that sometimes evokes the mood of albums like Genesis’ “Trespass”, and at other times is closer to the electric folk-rock of bands like Steeleye Span.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Part One

It’s that time of year again, when music bloggers go through the year’s releases and highlight the best of the year. The usual caveats apply; these are the best records of 2016 I’ve actually had the chance to hear. I only have a finite CD budget, and even though I’m a part-time music writer, not every record company sends me free promos.

We’ll start with 25 to 11. Except that they’re not ranked in any order, because that would be next to impossible.

Update Because I missed out one record by mistake, this year’s list now goes up to 26. You will have to guess which one it was yourselves.

Continue reading

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Rebecca Downes: Be:Live

rebecca-downs-be-liveBlues-rock singer-songwriter Rebecca Downes has been making waves in 2016. She won both “Best Female Vocalist” and “Best Emerging Artist” at the British Blues Awards, and released the excellent album “Believe” early in the year. To bring a successful year to close comes a live album recorded during the tour promoting “Believe”.

If anything, this record is an even more powerful statement on intent than “Believe”. It captures the energy of her electrifying live shows, with a setlist drawing heavily from that album, along with highlights from her début “Back to the Start”, the EP “Real Life” and a couple of well-chosen covers.

It’s a fabulously tight performance from her band, playing high energy blues-rock with a touch of funk and soul. Guitarist Steve Birkett delivers some impressive blues licks, and there’s some great piano and organ flourishes from Rick Benton. But none of them steal the spotlight from Rebecca herself, who is on superb form vocally; at times soulful, at times belting out rockier material. The variety of material is a strength here, there are twelve bar blues stompers alongside hard rockers and soulful ballads. And it’s all recorded and mixed with clear but powerful sound; this is no bootleg-quality filler release.

Highlights are many; there’s the funky “Fever in the Night” and “Night Train”, an excellent cover of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”, the piano-driven rocker “Back to the Start”, the back to basics rock’n'roll of “Basement of My Heart” and the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears”. It ends with a cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that owes more than a little to Joe Cocker’s version. Even though Rebecca Downes only has a limited back catalogue it still has the feel of a greatest hits set. As an introduction to her music, this is as good a place as any to start.

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Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

riverside-eye-of-the-soundscape Riverside are not only one of the best bands to come out of Poland, but they’re in the vanguard of the modern progressive rock scene, picking up the torch from Porcupine Tree when Steven Wilson put his band on hold and took off in a different direction. The tragic and sudden death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński in February put the future of the band in doubt, but band leader Mariusz Duda has since stated their intention to continue as a trio.

Released as a tribute to Piotr Grudziński, “Eye of the Soundscape” is something of a departure from the song-focussed rock of Riverside’s recent albums, taking the form of 100 minutes of ambient electronica. It’s actually a compilation, combining material previously released as bonus tracks on earlier albums with a couple of remixes of older songs, and some completely new tracks that were works in progress at the time of Piotr’s untimely death.

It’s not completely instrumental, as there’s an occasional ghostly vocal. Nor is it completely electronic; though not as prominent as on earlier albums there’s still room for some of the late Piotr Grudzień distinctive fluid guitar on a few tracks.

The album begins with the icy minimalism of “Sleepwalkers”, the sort of thing that might have caused a lot of excitement had it been made by a fashionable DJ rather than by a bunch of Polish prog-rockers. “Shine”, another new track, has more of a Riverside feel even though loops take prominence over guitars.

The shimmering arpeggios of “Where The River Flows” and the electronic pulse of “Night Sessions part 1″ with its lead synth line and spooky background guitars recall mid-70s Tangerine Dream. “Night Sessions part 2″ even features some evocative mournful sax, and the album ends with eleven minutes of ghostly ambient soundscape of the title track.

It all amounts to very different record from “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves” and “Love. Fear and The Time Machine”, at times referencing Tangerine Dream in the same way as some of their earlier work recalled Porcupine Tree. But it’s always their own take on things, never a derivative pastiche, and there are plenty of reminders that there always was an electronica side to their music. It will be very interesting to see where they go next.

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