Record Reviews Blog

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

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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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 haloblind.com

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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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