Record Reviews Blog

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

AOR Review Roundup

The contemporary AOR scene is a strange beast. While much of the progressive rock world at least makes an attempt to be something more than 70s revivalists and incorporate contemporary influences into their sounds, many, AOR acts seem content to repeat the same moves from the commercial hard rock of a generation ago, and make records that sound as though they could have been released in 1985. Still, it gives the impression of being a thriving scene complete with its own festival circuit.

These three new releases from Frontiers Records give a taste of what the current scene has to offer.

Vega - Stereo MessiahStereo Messiah“, the third album by British rockers Vega is a solid piece of work. With a shimmering production from John Mitchell of It Bites, it’s full of big choruses, spiralling guitar breaks and the occasional very 1980s keyboard sound. Frontman Nick Workman provides some classic high register AOR vocals, and Marcus Thurston’s guitar shredding always complements the songs, with a touch of Neal Schon in some of his solos. It does suffer a little from a lack of variety, with many songs sharing very similar tempos and structures; it’s not until the closing power-ballad “Tears Never Dry” that we get any real change of pace. But with tight playing and some strong songwriting, fans of the likes of Def Leppard or Journey should still find a lot to like about this record.

Dalton - Pit StopPit Stop” by Dalton is far less impressive. Dalton were an 80s hairspray band from Sweden who made a couple of albums and were then “killed off by grunge”. A generation later they’re trying to make a comeback. Unfortunately this album gives a clue as to why they might have failed the first time around. The opening song “Ready or Not” gets of the album off to bad start with some ugly sexist lyrics that should have stayed in the 80s, and the sound of a bunch of blokes who must be in their 50s singing adolescent-themed lyrics about girls and parties is not a pleasant one. Musically it’s very formulaic, and it’s all been done many times before by far better bands. Hair metal is a genre that hasn’t aged well, especially for a band who were also-rans in the first place.

Allen Lande The Great DivideThe Great Divide” by Allen/Lande can best be described as epic melodramatic cheese. But it’s high-quality cheese made with the very finest ingredients. Russell Allen and Jorn Lande are a pair of class acts as vocalists, with Jorn Lande in particular the nearest thing nowadays to the late Ronnie Dio. The songwriting and production is the work of Timo Tolkki, formerly of Finnish power-metallers Stratovarius, who also plays all the guitars, bass and keys.

The result is a record that’s completely over the top, whether it’s big riffs and choruses or epic power ballads. There are echoes of Dio and early Yngwie Malmsteem, though guitar histrionics are toned down to throw the spotlight on the vocals, and the whole thing has a huge, bombastic sound. With lyrics like “Lady Winter/Do you ever long for spring/When the birds begin to sing” you do wonder whether they’re trying to be profound or are just taking the piss, and there are a couple of moments that sound just a little too close to specific Dio songs for comfort. But while you know it’s all corny hokum, if you don’t try to take it too seriously it’s still a very entertaining listen.

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Empty Yard Experiment – Kallisti

Empty Yard Experiment - Kallisti Unlike many other genres of music, progressive metal is a global phenomenon. Its reach now extends well beyond the traditional strongholds in north America and northern Europe. Dubai-based Empty Yard Experiment are the sort of band that exemplify this, a multinational band with members from Serbia, Iran and India.

“Kallisti” is the band’s first full-length album, following their self-titled EP from 2011. They cite the likes of Tool, King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, Anathema and Mogwai as influences, and have come up with an impressive and varied record. Dark and dense guitar riffs and swirling Mellotron contrast with delicate piano arpeggios, and there’s always a strong sense of dynamics balancing light with shade. Highly melodic songwriting sits alongside lengthy instrumental compositions, and there are moments where the strength of the arrangements make it difficult to believe this is a début.

Unusually for a prog-metal record, especially one with such a strong emphasis on instrumental material, it’s marked by the complete absence of any conventional solos, but there’s so much going on that the songs don’t need them. Unlike so many lesser bands who give progressive metal a bad name with self-indulgent widdly-woo, there is absolutely no technical showboating for its own sake on display here.

There is certainly something of Judgement-era Anathema in the highly melodic “Entropy” and of Porcupine Tree in chiming guitar of “Lost In A Void That I Know Far Too Well”. There’s also more than just a hint of more recent Opeth across the whole record, notably evident in the twists and turns of the lengthy closing number “The Call” especially in that massive piledriving riffing at the end. The atmospheric “The Blue Eyes Of A Dog”, one of several instrumentals, even recalls the symphonic post-rock of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

But Empty Yard Experiment are no derivative pastiche of other, better bands. With a sound that stretches from the sparse classical piano of “Sunyata” to the claustrophobic heaviness of “Entropy”, Empty Yard Experiment are a band with a strong music identity of their own, and “Kallisti” works well as a coherent album where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s a hugely ambitious and mature record that represents much of what is great about progressive metal while avoiding that genre’s obvious clichés.

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When Empires Fall

When Empires FallWhen Empires Fall is the latest addition to the incestuous York-based progressive rock scene. It’s the new project from former Stolen Earth and Breathing Space bassist Paul Teasdale. A sample track, “Call To The Night Watch” with vocalist Aleksandra Koziol appeared something like a year ago, but since then we’ve had a long wait for the album.

When Empires Fall consists of guitarists Stew King and Dave Hunt, and Paul Teasdale on everything else. Paul handles the majority of the lead vocals himself, with Aleksandra Koziol and Joanne Wallis appearing as guest vocalists, each singing lead vocals on one song. There is also an appearance from Paul Teasdale’s one time Breathing Space bandmate, guitarist Mark Rowen.

The two opening tracks set the tone. “Intro” with it’s birdsong, doomladen keys and Floydian guitar flourishes leads into the bass groove-driven rocker “Hurt”. The album is an interesting and very varied mix of indie-rock and progressive rock, uptempo rockers with trebly guitars sit alongside atmospheric keyboard-led ballads. There are certainly a few songs that would not have sounded out of place on a Stolen Earth album had the original lineup of that band stayed together. But other material, especially on the first half of the album have a strong Britpop flavour. A strong sense of melody that owes a debt to The Beatles is the glue holding it all together, and the album as a whole has something of the feel of mid-period Porcupine Tree.

Highlights include the Hammond-drenched ballad “Barricade”, the angry psychedelic rocker “14 Bullets” and “Under No Illusion” with a superb extended solo from Mark Rowan. “Call To The Night Watch” is the nearest thing on the album to a prog epic, with it’s pastoral opening and a spine-tingling vocal from Aleksandra Koziol. A few of the songs carry a strong political charge,

Never any more than a backing singer in Breathing Space or Stolen Earth, the soaring melodies prove Paul Teasdale more than up to the task of singing lead. His bass playing is as dependably solid as expected, but he also impresses on keys, especially the Hammond organ on “Barricade” and the electric piano on “Sinking Deeper”.

Much like another recent record from the York scene, Halo Blind’s “Occupying Forces” this is a record that has feet in more than camp. It has the depth, atmospherics and musicianship to appeal to progressive rock fans, but the straightforward and direct songwriting should also make this record accessible to more mainstream indie-rock audiences.

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enkElination – Tears of Lust

enkElination - Tears of LustJust when it seemed that Valkyrie-fronted metal has reached saturation point, along comes Anglo-Finnish outfit enkElination to suggest that there’s life in the genre yet.

enkElination take their name from the Finnish word for “Angel”, and began in London back at the end of 2011 as a collaboration between opera-trained singer Elina Siirala and guitarist Shadow Venger. With a support for Van Canto and a slot at the prestigious Bloodstock metal festival in August under their belts, 2014 sees the release of their début album.

Although their music contains more than enough pomp enkElination steer away from the wall of sound approach taken by some of the more symphonic European bands, using even keys relatively sparingly. Instead the emphasis is on the guitars and Elina Siirala’s remarkable soprano voice. It’s all crunching riffs and big soaring choruses, and the songs are short and punchy, nothing longer than five minutes. Comparisons with Within Temptation and early Nightwish are inevitable, and there occasional moments that sound like Tarja fronting an early incarnation of The Reasoning.

Highlights include the dramatic title track that opens the album, the over the top melodrama of “Chimeras”, “Changeling” with echoes of Polish goth-metallers Closterkeller, and the closing ballad “Last Time Together”. But there’s no real filler on this album; the songwriting is both consistently strong throughout and displays plenty of variety. But it’s Finnish-born Elina Siirala who emerges as the real star. Displaying similarities to fellow-Finn Tarja Turunen, the power and range of her voice completely dominates the whole record. In an age where there are now plenty of metal bands fronted by opera-trained sopranos, she still manages to stand out in what has become a crowded field.

Even if enkElination aren’t really doing anything spectacularly new, the combination of some very strong songwriting, immaculate production and stunning vocals makes “Tears of Lust” a highly enjoyable album.

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Opeth – Pale Communion

Opeth Pale CommunionOpeth’s eleventh studio album, “Pale Communion” has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Their last album, 2011′s “Heritage” ended up strongly dividing opinion. For every fan who applauded their exploration of new sonic territories there seemed to be another who bemoaned their move away from the metal roots.

If there is still anyone hoping for a return to the growly death metal of Deliverance, they are probably going to disappointed. For Pale Communion is a development and refinement of the direction expressed on Heritage. Only it is a far stronger album.

Like Heritage, it’s a swirling maelstrom of classic 70s sounds given a modern sensibility, Åkerfeldt’s evocative lead guitar style shares space with Mellotron and Hammond organ; there are bits of hard rock, jazz, pastoral folk-prog and what sounds like horror-movie soundtrack, sometimes in the same song. There is even one brief moment that evokes a darker and more sinister version of The Eagles.

But ultimately it still sounds quintessentially Opeth; Åkerfeldt’s very distinctive approach to melody and harmony shines through even though the instrumentation has a different emphasis compared to their metal past; more keys and layered vocals and less emphasis on guitar. There is a heaviness there, but it’s not so much the heaviness of walls of guitars as it is a kind of dark intensity. And it’s balanced by moments of delicate beauty; Åkerfeldt is still an absolute master of dynamics.

Pale Communion is best described as combination of the best elements of Heritage and their previous non-metal Damnation with a bit of Storm Corrosion thrown in for good measure. There is certainly something of the same feel as Steve Wilson’s recent solo work; since Steve Wilson’s and Mikael Åkerfeldt’s careers have been joined at the hip for well over a decade this shouldn’t really be any surprise. If Heritage was something of an experimental album, then Pale Communion is the results of those experiments. In some ways it is to Heritage what Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” was to the earlier “Atom Heart Mother”.

This is not only one of the best albums of 2014, but is every bit as good as anything Opeth have released in their career.

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Steve Rothery – Live in Rome

Steve Rothery Band Live in RomeSteve Rothery’s distinctive guitar work has always been Marillion’s secret weapon right from the very early days of the band. With a less-is-more approach that doesn’t believe in wasting notes and an evocative tone it’s his playing that’s been the cornerstone of their sound for more than thirty years.

Rothery’s previous side-project was the collaboration with vocalist Hannah Stobart, The Wishing Tree, resulting in two semi-acoustic albums with an ethereal All About Eve vibe about them. The Steve Rothery Band is something altogether different. With fellow-guitarist Dave Foster (Mr So and So) and a rhythm section of bassist Yatim Halimi (Panic Room) and drummer Leon Parr it’s a guitar-led rock instrumental project. The whole thing began life with Rothery’s appearance at a guitar festival in Poland, documented in the earlier “Live in Plovdiv”, which in turn led to a successful Kickstarter project for an album “The Ghosts of Pripyat”, due in September.

“Live in Rome” records the band’s second live appearance, and presents an intriguing snapshot of the work in progress on the album. Instrumental guitar music can bring back memories of those 1980s shred-metal albums released on Mike Varney’s shrapnel records, but this record has little in common with those. Rothery’s playing has always been about melody and textures rather than technical showing off, and the first half of this record is Steve Rothery doing exactly what he does best, backed by an excellent supporting cast.

Many of the instrumental pieces follow a similar form; a slow-burning opening that gradually builds in intensity over ten minutes or more. They’re neither overly rigid compositions nor loose unstructured jams, but manage to hit the sweet spot between the two, and despite being tight there’s a raw intensity to the playing from the whole band. It feels like the gig must have been something very special to have been present at. This is far, far more than just an hour’s worth of guitar solos.

The second disk sees the band joined by vocalists Manuela Milanese and Alessandro Carmassi plus keyboard player Riccardo Romano for a run through some highlights from the Marillion back catalogue, featuring the likes of “Easter”, “Sugar Mice” and even the very early B-side “Cinderella Search”. They’re close to the originals instrumentally, completely with Rothery’s magnificent solos, but with some interestingly different takes on the vocals.

As a taster for the forthcoming studio album and as a recording in its own right this is an excellent record, and it will be very interesting to hear how these live takes of the songs compare with the finished results in the studio.

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Neal Morse – Songs for November

Songs for NovemberSince leaving Spock’s Beard to “pursue a more spiritual path”, Neal Morse has released a string of albums combining over-the-top progressive rock with Evangelical Christian lyrics so heavy-handed than even many Christians find them hard to stomach.

This record is neither of those things.

This is quite explicitly a singer-songwriter record, with straightforward songs rather than multi-part prog epics, every song clocking in at around four minutes of so. A few of the big soaring melodies wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-period Spock’s Beard record, and “Spock’s Beard Lite”, wouldn’t be a bad description for much of the album. Lyrically the “God stuff” isn’t entirely absent, but it’s not in-your-face either; the songs are more about life in all its richness.

Neal plays the guitars, keys and bass, with a variety of guest musicians contributing percussion, brass, strings and backing vocals. Even though the songs themselves are simple, quite a few are still embellished with some rich arrangements. There’s a big brassy riff on opener “Whatever Days”, gospel-style harmonies on “Heaven Smiles” and some very evocative solo violin from Chris Carmichael on “My Time of Dying”. More than one track has a summary west coast feel, ironic given the album title.

The one fall from grace is the overly saccharine “Daddy’s Daughter” which falls deep into pass-the-sick-bag territory. That one track aside, this is an enjoyable album that does what it says on the tin. As a singer-songwriter album by a progressive rock frontman it bears comparison with Alan Reed’s excellent “First in a Field of One”. Certainly there are plenty of tunes that get stuck in your head after a few listens.

Spock’s Beard fans ought to find a lot of like about this record, especially those who find the overt religiosity of his other solo work a bit too much.

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Knifeworld – The Unravelling

The UnravellingKnifeworld are the brainchild of Kavus Torabi, who also plays guitar with Guapo and punk-prog legends The Cardiacs. The band have made something of a name for themselves on the live circuit. An eight-piece band with a brass section and a bassoon, they play what is best described as completely bonkers psychedelic rock. They have wowed festival audiences and headlined the successful “Stabbing a Dead Horse” tour with Trojan Horse and The Fierce And The Dead.

Their second full-length album is their first record to feature the current eight-piece version of the band, and it successfully captures their big live sound of eight instruments and five voices. It’s a record that takes psychedelia, jazz, hard rock and all kinds of other things, and puts them in a blender to produce something that sounds quite unlike anything other band in the current scene. Jagged angular guitar and woodwind riffs alternate with rich vocal harmonies and sometimes sinister atmospherics. There are hints of the late Frank Zappa’s off-the wall approach to melody and arrangements, and occasional flashes of various 70s King Crimsons. Torabi’s occasionally goofy lead vocal contrasts with the layered harmonies of Melanie Woods, Chloe Herrington and Nicki Maher.

It’s an ambitious and very varied record. “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes”, which has to be the song title of the year features electronic soundscapes interrupted with a brief but frenetic squalling burst of free jazz. Then there’s the stripped-back spookiness of “This Empty Room Once Was Alive” with its atonal guitars and piano. The minute-and-a-half long “The Orphanage” has a punk feel. There are strongly Zappaesque jazz-rock instrumental passages in “Send Him Seaworthy” and “Destroy the World We Love”. But if anything characterises the power of Knifeworld in full flow it’s the big wall-of-sound workouts “Don’t Land On Me” and the closing epic “I’m Hiding Behind My Eyes”.

“The Unravelling” is a major step forward for Knifeworld, and reflects their current live sound far more than any of their previous recordings. Fans of Zappa should find a lot to like about this record, as should anyone who thinks there should be more bassoons in rock. But this is a record for anyone looking for something determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms. Which Knifeworld certainly do.

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Cloud Atlas – Beyond the Vale

Cloud Atlas - Beyond The ValeHome to Mostly Autumn, Halo Blind and Heather Findlay’s various projects, York has been a centre of progressive and contemporary classic rock for quite a few years now, and Cloud Atlas are the latest in a string of excellent bands to emerge from the city.

Cloud Atlas is the band formed by former Stolen Earth, Breathing Space and Mostly Autumn vocalist Heidi Widdop. The band features Martin Ledger on guitar, one-time musical partner with Heidi in the duo The Secrets, a rhythm section of Neil Scott and Mostly Autumn alumni Stu Carver, and Dave Randall on keys. As is becoming increasingly common nowadays, the band crowdfunded the album with a pre-order campaign.

The album begins with two and half minutes of eastern-sounding atmospherics, with electronic drones, wordless wailing vocals and controlled guitar feedback. Then Martin Ledger’s guitar riff hits you right between the eyes and “Searchlight” explodes into a powerful rocker with a great bluesy soulful vocal. It ends with Martin Ledger cutting loose with a glorious extended solo. The effect is Janis Joplin fronting The Cult circa “Sonic Temple” with Steve Rothery on lead guitar. And that’s just the opening song.

The acoustic guitar and breathy vocals at the beginning of “Siren Song” recall the fragile beauty of Goldfrapp’s last album before building into another atmospheric rocker flavoured with Martin Ledger’s e-bowed guitar. The over-ambitious “Let The Blood Flow” is the one song on the record that doesn’t quite work; the hard-rocking opening part is great but it loses it’s way with its awkward middle section, and the whole thing comes out sounding disjointed.

But we’re back on track with with two following numbers, the length, brooding “Falling” and the piano-led “The Grieving”. Instrumental passages in both recall recent Marillion, especially the minor-key piano chords leading into Martin Ledger’s overdriven solo at the beginning of the latter.

The final part of the album includes two real highlights, the big epic “Stars” with its memorable hook, and atmospheric ballad “Journey’s End” with some beautiful cello playing from Sarah Pickwell, after which the acoustic “I’ll Take Care of You” forms a coda for the album.

Heidi’s distinctive vocals set them apart from many of their obvious peers, but this album’s sound is as much about Martin Ledger’s soaring melodic lead guitar. There are still a few echoes of Heidi’s previous band Stolen Earth, and anyone still missing that band should find a lot to like about Cloud Atlas.

It’s big widescreen rock with an epic scope, with just one song under seven minutes and some stretching to nine or ten. It may be that some songs might have benefited from slightly tighter arrangements, but the music still feels as though it’s likely to come across very powerfully live. It amounts to an impressive début from the latest addition to their home city’s already strong roster of bands.

The band will be launching the album at Fibbers in York on June 28th, and the album can be ordered from http://www.cloudatlas.org.uk/webstore.htm

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Mostly Autumn – Dressed in Voices

Dressed in Voices“Dressed in Voices” is Mostly Autumn’s eleventh studio album, their third with Olivia Sparnenn on lead vocals, and the first concept album in their lengthy career. As Bryan Josh said at the end of last year, it was originally intended as a Josh & Co album, but a dark and intense concept came in from somewhere unknown and took on a life of its own.

That dark concept starts with a random spree killing of the sort which has sadly been all over the headlines and social media while I write this. But rather that delving into Steven Wilson territory by trying to divine the motivations of the killer, the album takes the point of view of a victim, whose only crime was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are shades of Marillion’s “The Invisible Man” with the unnamed narrator as a disembodied spirit, and the middle section covering his growing up and coming of age is more a little reminiscent of Spock’s Beard’s “A Flash Before The Eyes”. The whole album is full of lyrical references to older songs, reinforced on at least one occasion with a short musical quotation.

Musically it’s a move away from the symphonic metal flavour that characterised parts of “The Ghost Moon Orchestra” in favour of what’s best described as a heavy, somewhat neo-prog approach. There are certainly echoes of parts of “Glass Shadows” and “Go Well Diamond Heart”, with some of the expected reference points of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, and there’s some of the vibe of early 90s Marillion. But just when you’re not expecting it, the Celtic folk of Mostly Autumn past with flutes and whistles makes an appearance in the second half of the album, and there’s even a moment of Country & Western with the pedal steel guitar on “The House on the Hill”.

This is one of those albums where the whole thing, from the dramatic opener “Saturday Night” to the semi-acoustic coda “Box of Tears” flows as a single work that amounts to far more than the sum of the parts. Indeed, as with many of the best albums of this type, there are songs that don’t really work as stand-alone numbers but fit perfectly as part of a larger whole.

Now firmly established as lead vocalist after four years with the band, Olivia Sparnenn delivers another fine performance, if a little more restrained than on parts of the last album. But this time it’s Bryan Josh’s Stratocaster that’s the dominant sound through much of the record. It’s a very guitar-driven album, and you’re never that far away from one of his big soaring overdriven solos. Iain Jennings’ keys again provide the perfect instrumental foil, whether it’s swirling Hammond or delicate piano work, and new drummer Alex Cromarty impresses a lot, it’s his percussion that stands out in the instrumental break on “Skin on Skin”. The whole thing has a big wall of sound production that’s going to need the bands’ two guitars and two keyboard players to reproduce live.

The last few Mostly Autumn albums have all contained obvious highlights, but there have also been weaker numbers that let the records down. But there are no pocket watches or buggers than go up to eleven on this album; while it goes from full-on rock to passages of delicate beauty and back again there is no filler on this record at all. Many bands have burned out or lost their way by the time they get to this stage of their career, but Mostly Autumn have delivered what has to be one of the best albums of their 15 year career.

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