Record Reviews Blog

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

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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Duski

duski-cover-artDuski are a band from Cardiff playing music on the blurred boundary between contemporary jazz and the experimental fringe of progressive rock. Led by bassist Aiden Thorne, they’re a five piece featuring sax, guitar and electric piano who have been making an impression on the jazz scene in South Wales over the past couple of years.

Their self-titled début begins with and eerie discordant soundscapes before it morphs into “Spare Part” which gradually builds from a laid-back beginning through an extended solo from the band’s guitarist. The uptempo “Simple Song” is more rhythmic and melodic, with sax bought to the fore. Interlude sees the avant-garde noise make a brief return, leading into the mellow “Lakeside”, built up from a chordal bass figure, with haunting sax lead underlaid by guitar textures.

By the languid “Two Hours Long” with it’s serpentine sax solo, we’re into the late-night chill-out zone. Then “Another Simple Song” takes things in the opposite direction. It opens with a shimmering guitar figure before building into an jazz-rocker in a similar vein to its earlier namesake, with an incessant bass groove from Aiden Thorne himself, and an impressive jazz-fusion piano workout at one point. The brief “Outtro” ends the album as it begins, with avant-noise, playing out with the whole band on one single sustained abrasive chord.

If the band’s intention is to blend jazz with elements of progressive rock and ambient soundscapes, they have largely succeeded in their aim with this record. Much of the music is still recognisably jazz, especially when the saxophone is dominant. But there’s also much in the melodies and textures for a more adventurous rock fan to appreciate. It’s a very varied record, sometimes very mellow, sometimes times rocking out. Though there is still plenty of soloing, the emphasis is always on composition rather than numbers being vehicles for the solos. An impressive début.

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The Windmill – The Continuation

the-windmill-the-continuationNorwegian symphonic proggers The Wimdmill made quite an impression as the opening act of the final day of the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival. The six piece featuring flute and sax alongside twin guitars and vintage keyboard noises went down well enough to be invited back again in 2016, where they again went down a storm.

To date, the band have recorded two albums, the second of which, “The Continuation” became part of the festival merch desk haul following their 2014 appearance. It’s an album that’s received regular plays ever since.

The short instrumental title track sets the mood, a melodic number with the main theme alternating between flute and lead guitar. The lengthy “The Masque” is a song of two parts, a pastoral opening section then an extended instrumental workout in which every member bar the rhythm section takes multiple solos. After an opening in a similar vein to the title track, “Not Alone” builds into a big soaring ballad. The cod-reggae of “Giant Prize is perhaps the only dud, but at just over three minutes it’s mercifully short. Then we’re into the grand finale of “The Gamer”, a sometimes completely bonkers 24 minute epic which mercilessly takes the piss out of obsessive video game players who never go outside.

This is old-school retro-prog with little concession to contemporary sounds, going from flute-led pastoral passages to occasional irruptions of big band jazz. What they do have is a strong sense of melody, which if anything is most prominent in some of the flute and guitar lines rather than the vocals. This a band who are not shy about embracing the odd cliché; we’ve even got a minimoog solo consisting of minor-key arpeggios in 9/8 time at one point. But they’re also a band who do it well enough to be able to get away with it. There is something about them that rises above generic Euro-prog.

Both albums are listed on sale on the band’s website, though it doesn’t look as if it’s been updated recently, though their facebook page is still active. The band are currently working on a third album.

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Unearthed Elf – Into the Catacomb Abyss

unearthed-elf-into-the-catacomb-abyssYou are in a 20′ by 20′ room.

You see a metal band. They are singing about finding a vial of holy water in an ancient, cobweb-laden mausoleum.

What do you do?

Visigoth had one song called “The Dungeon Master”. Scottish power-metal heroes Gloryhammer released a concept album about an evil wizard and his army of undead unicorns. Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn made a solo album with a narrative that included an end-of-level monster. But with song titles like “Vial of Holy Water Found in an Ancient, Cobweb-Laden Mausoleum”, “Lighting the Mummy on Fire” and “Lair of the Beholder” has anyone released an album which sounds like an entire dungeon set to music?

Unearthed Elf is actually a solo project from Keith D of progressive doom metallers Arctic Sleep, largely written while he was incapacitated with a knee injury. As well as all the vocals and guitars, he plays all instruments, including the drums. As a concept album about the aforementioned Elf, the imagery in the lyrics and song titles would be little more than a gimmick if the music wasn’t up to scratch, but this is also a record with plenty to say musically.

It kicks off with the monstrous old-school metal riff of the title track, the densely layered, almost symphonic “Never See The Sun Again” and the atmospheric progressive-tinged “Eternal Night”, and those first three numbers set the tone for the record. What we have is a skilful mix of the textures of melodic death metal and old-school classic metal, with a dash of modern progressive rock adding sonic variety. The record eschews death-growls in favour of clean vocals throughout, with a couple of moments of Gregorian chant thrown in for good measure. There’s more than a hint of Mikael Akerfeldt about Keith D’s vocals, and the resulting sound has echoes of Opeth, Paradise Lost and Amorphis. It’s got a huge sound with multiple layers of guitars and vocals, and it manages to sound epic without being overblown.

Far more that just the soundtrack to a dungeon crawl, “Into the Catacomb Abyss” is an ambitious and impressive metal album. The album is released on October 31st, Halloween night.

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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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