Record Reviews Blog

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

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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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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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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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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