Record Reviews Blog

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

Matt Stevens – Lucid

Matt Stevens - LucidGuitarist Matt Stevens is already well-known both with his live looping as a solo artist and as lead guitarist of the instrumental four-piece The Fierce And The Dead. His previous album, 2011′s “Relic” focussed on his looped acoustic guitar, while his band emphasised interlocking electric guitars. His new release “Lucid” has moments of both, but this record sees him move forward into more diverse sonic territories than either.

The album features a strong cast of supporting musicians, including King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto, Jem Godfrey of Frost* and violinist Chrissie Caulfield alongside a host of others. Matt’s influences range from post-punk through progressive rock to extreme metal, and you can hear all of those on this record.

Like everything he’s done before, this is an album of instrumental songs rather than of guitar chops. It’s not about widdly-woo lead, with the sole exception of the King Crimson-like “Ascent” where he cuts loose with a quite astonishingly fluid and off-the-wall solo. It’s as if Matt is saying he can shred with the best of them if he wants to, but finds instrumental composition more interesting than technical showboating.

The whole thing is immensely varied; there are delicately melodic acoustic pieces alongside denser electric numbers built around heavy distorted riffs. On “Coulrophobia” Jon Hart’s spooky vibraphone adds an extra dimension to the layered tapestry of acoustic guitars. All but one the songs are short, most hovering around the three minute mark. The one exception is “The Bridge”, a kaleidoscopic epic that covers most of the ground of the rest of the album in its eleven-minute length.

The whole thing is an ambitious and varied work that defies easy genre pigeonholing. Matt Stevens has been one of the more interesting, innovative and genre-busting artists in the contemporary progressive scene for a while now, and this album sees him raise his game to a new level.

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John Wesley – Disconnect

John Wesley - DisconnectJohn Wesley is probably best known as the touring guitarist for Porcupine Tree, and before that a sidesman for Fish. But he’s also had a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, and “Disconnect” is his latest album.

There’s little of Porcupine Tree’s Floydian atmospherics on offer here, this is more an album of guitar-shredding psychedelic hard rock. While it’s the noisy in-your-face guitars that immediately grab your attention, repeated listens reveal there’s some solid songwriting there too. Wesley keeps a foot in both the singer-songwriter and guitar hero camps, and the songs are far more than mere vehicles for guitar pyrotechnics. While he’s a better guitarist than he is a singer, the vocals are strong enough that it doesn’t suffer from the sort of weak vocals that let down many albums by guitarists-turned-singers. This record isn’t short of understated melody.

But ultimately this is still a guitarist’s album, and his playing is raw and visceral. There are occasional hints of Richard Thompsons’ style of electric folk-rock on one or two tracks, in other places there’ some of Neil Young style of dirty amplifier-destroying distortion. His fluid soloing avoids clichéd blues or prog styles. It’s not quite all played on Eleven; while it is a loud, noisy record there are also moments of delicacy and enough dynamics to avoid things becoming too one-dimensional.

Other contributing musicians are the rhythm section of Patrick Bettison on bass and Mark Prator on drums, and a couple of solos from guitarist Dean Tidy. They are no keys, although the multiple layers of guitars would need more than a basic power trio to reproduce live.

Highlights include “Any Old Saint” with its face-melting riff, anthemic chorus, lengthy solo and delicate outtro, the driving riff of “Once a Warrior”, and the blues-flavoured ballad “Mary Will” with some very Robin Trower like guitar tones. But there isn’t really any filler on this record. If you like your guitars loud and dirty as well expertly-played, then this record is strongly recommended.

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Halo Blind – Occupying Forces

Halo Blind Occupying Forces sm“Occupying Forces” is the second album from the progressive rock project led by singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Johnson. It follows on from “The Fabric”, released under the band name “Parade” before a heavily promoted girl band with the same name forced a name change. That girl band rapidly crashed and burned after their album flopped, but that’s another story. Still, “Halo Blind” is a far better name.

It’s also a rather different band from the lineup that recorded “The Fabric”, although four out of the five from Halo Blind’s last live appearances in 2011 are still on board, Gavin Griffiths on drums, Stu Fletcher on bass, Stuart Farell on lead guitar and of course Chris himself, with new recruit, multi-instrumentalist Andy Knights, completing the band.

It’s got a similar combination of indie-rock guitars and progressive rock atmospherics. But while “The Fabric” was by Chris’ own admission a collection of songs originally written with different projects in mind, in contrast “Occupying Forces” has a far more coherent feel as an album.

One highlight is the sequence of songs on the first half of the album “Mirage”, “Saturate”, “Torrential” and “Downpour”, shimmering summery pop numbers with a hint of darkness and melancholy that flow into one another to build into something more than the sum of the parts. The whole thing shows Chris Johnson’s ear for memorable but unconventional melodies, and some great use of atmospheric instrumental passages in place of conventional solos. The final song of that sequence in particular is a thing of breathtaking beauty.

After the short jazz instrumental “The End of the First Side” featuring Jonny Enright’s trombone, the second half gets more eclectic. “Brain Dog” combines dance thythms with some Tom Morello-style guitars. It continues with the stripped down balled “The Puppet” with just piano and Jennifer Chubb’s cello, the burbling electronica of “Analogue”, and ending with the soaring ballads “Coma” and “Control”.

The way this record combines elements of progressive rock and indie-rock ought to appeal a broad audience. There are echoes of Anathema, Pineapple Thief, mid-period Radiohead and late-period Marillion. It’s not too dense or twiddly to frighten off indie fans, but it’s still got enough depth for all but the most narrow-minded of prog fans.

It’s been a long wait for this album; “The Fabric” came out as long ago as 2009. But an album of this quality is well worth the wait.

You can buy the album from

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Bigelf – Into The Maelstrom

BigElf Into the MaelstromWith a their unique mix of psychedelia, stoner-rock and pomp-rock combined with a love of vintage 70s gear, and a charismatic frontman in the shape of Damon Fox, Bigelf seemed poised to conquer the world back in 2010. A spot on the Progressive Nation tour supporting Opeth and Dream Theater won them a lot of new fans, and their fourth album “Cheat the Gallows” won much critical fame. But then, just as they seemed poised for bigger and better things, they disappeared.

Now Bigelf are back after an extended hiatus with a new album and a new lineup.

Only frontman and keyboard player Damon Fox and bassist Duffy Snowhill remain from the previous incarnation of Bigelf, with new recruits Luis Maldonado on guitar and the legendary Mike Portnoy on drums completing the band.

If you combined the melodic ear of The Beatles, the hand of doom of early Black Sabbath, the theatricality of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the musical ambition of 70s King Crimson, and the lack of inhibitions of Queen, you might end up with something like this album. It’s got all the strengths of previous Bigelf albums, but with a new energy that pushes beyond anything they’ve done before. They’ve managed to capture the same sort of intensity as their live shows in a way previous records only hinted at. “Intro The Maelstrom” is a very appropriate title for the way this album sounds.

Like their earlier work, the production has an organic 70s feel, with Damon Fox’s Hammond organ and swirling Mellotron still dominating the sound. He’s also a great vocalist with a strongly theatrical approach, with Ozzy-style angst-ridden howls in some places and rich harmonies in others. Despite his reputation from Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy doesn’t spoil the songs by overplaying; his drumming here is more solid grooves than flashy fills. Likewise Luis Maldonado fuzz-toned lead guitar emphasises riffs as much as soloing, although the climactic solo on “High” is a thing to behold.

The album is a musical roller-coaster ride which feels like one continuous piece of music rather than a collection of individual songs, and the way many numbers take abrupt twists and turns underlines this. Despite this whole thing is filled with great tunes, with instrumental themes as well as vocal lines standing out some of the strongest melodies; the closing section of “Mr. Harry McQuhae” is a great example. With an album like this it’s difficult to pick out individual highlights, though the apocalyptic “Edge of Oblivion” towards the end of the album is one of many standouts.

It’s been a lot wait for this album, but the wait has been worth it. This has to be by far the best thing Bigelf have ever done.

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Original Album Series – MSG

MSG Orignal Albums When German axe hero Michael Schenker left UFO after their career-defining live album “Strangers in the Night” it wasn’t long before he put together his own band with vocalist Gary Bardens, and released their first album, entitled “The Michael Schenker Group”

Unlike UFO, the riff-centric album fell on the metal side of the metal/hard rock divide, a mix of punchy rockers and longer epics with the odd neo-classical instrumental thrown in for good measure. There was something of Ronnie Dio in Bardens’ vocal approach and mystical lyrics. Though not totally filler-free it was a solid start, with the opener “Armed and Ready” and the lengthy closer “Lost Horizons” particular standouts.

The first album had been completed with the aid of session musicians, but the second, called simply “MSG” featured the road band put together to tour it, including Cozy Powell on drums and Schenker’s former UFO bandmate Paul Raymond on keys. It was an ambitious slightly prog-tinged work, although Ron Nevison’s production drew controversy, especially with what he did to Powell’s drum sound, and Schenker himself made it clear he wasn’t happy with it. But songwise it was a stronger statement of intent, with “Attack of the Mad Axeman”, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and the epic “But I Want More” among the standouts.

The live double, “One Night At Budokan”, captured the band at the height of their powers. A bigger, rawer sound brought the songs from the two studio albums to life, with far more muscular takes of material from the second in particular. As with many rock live albums of the era, many songs turned into big guitar showcases, demonstrating that Schenker had lost none of that magic from UFO days.

Then things started to go wrong. For the third studio album former Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet was brought in to replace Gary Bardens, and despite his undoubted vocal prowess, the songwriting suffered. The album “Assault Attack” nevertheless had it’s moments, and was certainly the best-produced studio work to date. It was let down by some God-awful lyrics, but saved by Schenker’s always superb guitar work. Much of the time the guitar pyrotechnics overshadow the songs, but when it all comes together on numbers like “Samurai”, there are still moments of greatness.

Bonnet’s tenure was brief, and Bardens was back in the band before the album was even released. But by the time they recorded “Built to Destroy”, the magic of the early albums had dissipated. They took an AOR direction, but it was a dying fall rather than a new beginning, with a thin, weak production and poor songwriting. Schenker is still on masterful form, but this time, when too many of the songs seemed to be marking time until the solo, even his playing isn’t good enough to save the album.

Taken together, the five albums in reproductions of the original LP sleeves represents exceptional value for money, when the whole thing goes for the same price as a single new CD. It’s true you don’t get copious sleeve notes with it, but nowadays we have Wikipedia for that. If you have fond memories of one of more of the original albums in the 1980s, this is highly recommended.

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Oasis – Definitely Maybe

Definitely MaybeThe way Oasis typically get the blame for the every unimaginative lumpen guitar band that followed in their wake means their place in music history has tended to overshadow their actual music. Indeed, there’s a widespread view that 90s Britpop was one of the worst things that ever happened to British popular music. All of which makes it hard to judge the actual records, especially when you listen to them outside the context of the time and place of the original release.

So, twenty years after its original release, how well does their first album stand up?

There was something about them besides that rock’n'roll swagger that appealed so much to a certain kind of music journalist. Noel Gallagher did have an ear for a good pop tune, even if he sometimes tended to steal rather than write his own. The rhythm section is solid, and the album is more than a couple of hits and a load of filler. The album does have its notable strengths.

But Noel’s stream-of-consciousness gibberish lyrics just sound ridiculous; at least Jon Anderson of Yes sounded profound. Noel just sounds as if he’s never read a book in his life, and all he can do is string together clichés. The way he established a laddish anti-intellectualism as a representation of working-class authenticity cannot possibly be a good thing.

As for his brother Liam, I’ve never quite understood why the press at the time thought he was ever one of rock’s great frontmen. His voice starts getting irritating after a bit, and his attempts to replicate Johnny Rotten’s vocal tics sound ridiculous. Anyone who thought he was one of the greatest really needed to get out more.

But there are worse vocalists than Liam, and the weakest link of all is Noel’s extremely limited lead guitar playing. He does his best on “Live Forever” with a solo containing every single note he knows and making the most of his limited technique. But a song like “Slide Away” is the sort of thing that might have been transformed had Oasis had a half-decent lead guitarist. As it is, with Noel’s rudimentary instrumental skills it comes over as a sort of lobotomised Lyrnyrd Skynyrd. And that’s one of the best tracks on the the album.

This was an album that combined the mainstream and the alternative by taking the least interesting parts of both, resulting in something too bombastic to be indie, but lacking the musical sophistication of rock or the raw energy of punk. Oasis’ success demonstrated that large scale success in rock’n'roll is as much about being in the right place at the right time as it is about depth of talent. And the extent to which enough money thrown at PR can propel the most average of bands into superstardom.

While it was still enjoyable record at the time of release, even considered a game-changer by some, two decades on it has stood the test of time rather less than Kula Shaker’s first album.

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Gloryhammer – Tales from the Kingdom of Fife

Tales from the Kingdom of FifeA concept album describing how the bold hero Angus McFife saved the city of Dundee from the evil sorcerer Zargothrax and his horde of undead unicorns?

What’s not to like about that?

Power metal is a strange thing. There are a few bands in the genre who appear take themselves really seriously and come over as po-faced and pretentious; Sonata Arctica, I’m looking at you. And then there are bands like Gloryhammer who play it with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. The fact that they’ve dedicated the album to William McGonagall should tell you something. The only thing missing is a reference to Desperate Dan.

With song titles like “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee”, “Quest for the Hammer of Glory”, “Silent Tears of the Frozen Princess” and the grand finale of “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder”, Gloryhammer are on a mission to leave no cliché unturned and produce something that sounds like an epic soundtrack for that well-known game played with twenty-sided dice.

It helps of course that the music itself is excellently done, with some very solid songwriting and tight musicianship throughout. It’s full of thundering rockers with singalong choruses and big soaring power ballads. There are the requisite neo-classical guitar solos and sweeping cinematic keyboards, and the occasional choir. This is big cheesy grin music in the best sense of the word.

Give this a listen:

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Panic Room – Incarnate

IncarnatePanic Room had something of a troubled 2013. Several years hard work paid off with a growing reputation and audience for their powerful and sophisticated mix of rock, folk, jazz and metal. Then their year began with the departure of the lead guitarist, founder member Paul Davies. While Morpheus Rising’s Pete Harwood did a sterling job standing in on their already-booked tour, his commitments to his own band ruled out any longer-term involvement. So they initially announced that they’d be writing their fourth album as a four-piece. Then around the time the band were ready to enter the studio they announced the recruitment of Adam O’Sullivan, bringing the band back up to full strength.

In a rock band the lead guitarist can often be as important as the singer, so how would the new-look Panic Room sound?

Hard rocking opener “Velocity” with its spiralling guitar riff is close to the feel of their last album, but with the next few numbers a rather different sound emerges. It’s a step away from the rich wall of sound that characterised the last couple of Panic Room albums, with a lighter, more pared-back feel that has as much in common with Panic Room’s acoustic side-project Luna Rossa than it does with 2012′s “Skin”. In places there are echoes of the début “Visionary Position” and the singer-songwriter feel of Anne-Marie Helder’s 2006 solo record “The Contact”, and it’s notable that Anne-Marie has sole songwriting credit for half of the ten songs.

There are plenty of moments where the space in the mix gives individual members the chance to shine. There’s some inventive drumming from Gavin Griffiths, and some great understated Fender Rhodes from Jon Edwards across much of the album. Adam O’Sullivan’s guitar isn’t always prominent, though he does have his spotlight moments. Much of his playing has a strong jazz flavour, with some great bluesy rippling flourishes. A good example is on “Nothing New” where his guitar work duels with some equally jazzy piano runs from Jon Edwards. The one moment towards the end of the album where he cuts loose with a rock-style solo, it’s superb. Yet again Anne-Marie’s vocals are everything you’d expect from someone voted Best Female Singer by readers of Prog magazine, hitting the sweet spot between melody and expressiveness.

Much of the strongest material comes in the second half of the album. The atmospheric “Into Temptation” with its eastern-sounding vibe is reminiscent of parts of “Endgame” from the band’s début. The following three numbers “All The We Are”, “Searching”, and the soaring “Close The Door” all demonstrate Anne-Marie’s talents as a singer-songwriter.

The album closes with the dark and brooding “Dust”, an ambitiously progressive piece sounding like Massive Attack crossed with late-period Led Zeppelin, building on a repeated motif keeps going round and round in your head even after the album has finished playing.

At this stage in their career, Panic Room could easily have attempted a retread of the well-regarded “Skin”. But that would have been a mistake, and they should be applauded for not simply repeating a successful formula. It’s not quite perfect; the album might have benefited from one or two out-and-out rockers in the vein of Skin’s “Hiding the World” or Satellite’s “Dark Star” to add variety and raise the energy level. But it does feel like the beginning of a new chapter for the band. This is album by a band not afraid to try something slightly different, and there is much to like about it, especially after repeated listens. It’s still unmistakably Panic Room, but with their sophisticated sound it’s a record with a wider crossover potential too.

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Rainbow – Singles 1975-1986 Box Set

Rainbow Box Set The Rainbow Singles Box set is a reissue of all the singles released by Rainbow from the years 1975 to 1986 on nineteen CDs in reproductions of the sleeves of the original 7″ singles. Over that period the band went through many lineups and changes in style, with the mercurial guitarist Ritchie Blackmore the sole constant factor.

The first incarnation of Rainbow with the late Ronnie James Dio was a classy hard rock act. The Dungeons and Dragons imagery of songs like “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” launched a thousand Scandinavian power-metal bands, but musically they were way ahead their time, and you can hear their influence right across hard rock and metal three decades later. The way Ronnie Dio takes Deep Purple’s “Mistreated” and makes it his own shows what a class act he was as a vocalist.

At the end of the 70s Rainbow headed in a more commercial direction, now fronted by Graham Bonnet. They scored two big hits in the UK, the Russ Ballard-penned “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and dreadfully sexist “All Night Long” with that infamous toe-curlingly bad line “Don’t know about your brain but you look alright”. The B-side, though, is an absolute gem, the sublime neo-classical instrumental “Weiss Heim”.

The 80s material with Joe Lynn Turner on vocals hasn’t aged quite as well as the music from the Dio years. Although it has its moments, especially the final flourish of “Street of Dreams”, much of the American-style AOR now sounds very dated, with Blackmore seemingly intent on creating a poor man’s Foreigner. Possibly the nadir of the whole collection is “Difficult to Cure”, the cod-classical rock version of Beethoven’s ninth, which simply sounds embarrassing.

The boxed set includes all the singles released across different territories, so we get a lot of duplication where different countries got different B-sides for the same single. The same version of some songs appear two or even three times, and there no fewer than four versions of “Man on a Silver Mountain”. Rainbow only ever recorded three non-album B-sides, all of which were included on the still-available odds-and-sods compilation “Final Vinyl”, so there is little here for completists. As far as I can tell, the only tracks not available elsewhere are a couple of bootleg-quality live recordings from the Joe Lynn Turner era.

While it’s nice as a physical artefact, it does leave you wondering quite what the point is, especially given the very hefty price tag. As a Rainbow retrospective it’s missing too many of the obvious album highlights; no Stargazer, no Eyes of the World, no Gates of Babylon. You’re left with the conclusion that the whole thing is really targeting the “Birthday Present for Dad” market far more than that of the discerning music fan, and if you listen very carefully, you might hear the sound of a barrel being scraped. If you have fond memories of Rainbow from the 70s and 80s and only owned the records on vinyl, the relatively recent remasters of the original albums represent far better value for money.

In short, at £65 (Amazon UK’s pre-order price) for three-and-a-half hours of actual music is a complete rip-off. The whole thing stinks of a cynical record-company cash-in that the band most likely had no say in.

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Morpheus Rising – Eximius Humanus

Eximus Humanus“Eximius Humanus” is the second album by York-based metal/hard rock five-piece Morpheus Rising, funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The electronic openings and industrial riff of “Superhuman” throw the listener a bit of a curve ball at the very start, but it’s the big riff of the second number “Looking for Life” that sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s old-school twin-guitar metal at its core, with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest as the strongest influences, with a bit of goth atmospherics and progressive rock textures for good measure. The whole thing is anchored in solid songcraft. “Day One” with it’s AOR-flavoured vocal harmonies is a bit of a departure, and a real highlight is “Bending Light” with Pete Harwood’s e-bow solo, a sound you don’t hear much on metal albums.

The twin guitars of Pete Harwood and Damien Sweeting remain at the heart of the sound. Their contrasting styles work well together, Harwood’s melodic textured playing complements Sweeting’s flashier pyrotechnics. With new drummer Nigel Durham, once in Saxon, alongside Mostly Autumn bassist Andy Smith, the new-look rhythm section has a solid power and groove. At times it makes you wonder whether Mostly Autumn are making full use of Andy Smith’s talents.

But it’s vocalist Si Wright who has really raised his game on this record. The band’s début album consisted largely of material written before he joined the band. This time, with an entire set of songs written to take advantage of his greater range, he has found his voice far more impressively. In an age where rock vocals are expected to be growling, screaming, or flat and gravelly, Si Wright’s performance on this album represents old-school hard rock vocals at their finest. He’s got both a range and power, and a degree of emotional depth.

As a rule, metal bands don’t really do “difficult second albums”, and Eximius Humanus is further evidence of this rule. The album comes over as a stronger statement of intent than their début. Morpheus Rising have given a modern makeover to a sound rooted in great hard rock tradition.

You can pre-order the album now from the Morpheus Rising website.

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