Record Reviews Blog

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

2014 Album of the Year

Most regular readers of this blog will probably have guessed by now that this would be the album of the year. In a year with so many great records one has to try to be objective and put personal favouritism aside. But in the end, there can only be one album of the year, and this record does deserve it.  What exactly is it about York that spawns so many great bands?

Mostly Autumn Dressed in Voices

Dressed in VoicesThe last few Mostly Autumn albums have had their moments, and have been enjoyable works, but all of them fell frustratingly short of the records the band seemed capable of making. With “Dressed in Voices” the band have finally created the career-defining masterpiece they’ve always had in them. Lyrically it’s a dark concept album about life, death and the consequences of violence, and musically it’s a distillation of the best elements of their past three or four albums, with the band’s three songwriters all on the same page.

There’s a similar heavy progressive vibe to 2005′s “Storms Over Still Waters”, with the occasional nod to the celtic-folk of their early days. It’s got that big, rich, and many-layered sound that needs a seven-piece band to reproduce live. There are emotive performances from Olivia Sparnenn, who’s grown tremendously as a vocalist over the past few years, plenty of classic Bryan Josh lead guitar, Iain Jennings’ all-enveloping keys providing the perfect instrumental foil, and some appearances of Anne-Marie Helder’s flute. This is the best record they’ve made for many years, and may even be the best of their career.

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2014 Albums of the Year, Part Four

And so we approach the end of the albums-of-the-year list. There are numbers 2 to 5, which means there is just the Album of the Year itself to go.

Again they’re listed alphabetically, because it’s too hard to rank them. In truth, any of these records would be worthy albums of the year, as would several others just outside the top five. It really has been that sort of the year.

Crippled Black PhoenixWhite Light Generator

Crippled Black Phoenix  - White Light Generator

A remarkable combination of progressive and alternative rock that sometimes sounds like Swans collaborating with Pink Floyd, with diversions via the pastoral folk-prog of The Decemberists and the high-octane space-rock of prime-time Hawkwind. Loud and dirty guitar riffs alternate with atmospheric soundscapes and spoken word pieces, such that you never quite know what’s coming next. It all makes for an intense and exhilarating listen, thought its depth and scope mean it’s a record that takes many listens to fully appreciate. It’s precisely the sort of record that proves post-70s progressive rock has evolved far beyond the template of 80s neo-prog.

OpethPale Communion

Opeth Pale CommunionMikhael Akerfeld and his men will disappoint anyone still hoping 2011′s “Heritage” might have been a one-off, for Pale Communion is not a return to their death-metal roots. Instead it develops its predecessor’s contemporary take on classic and more obscure 70s sounds, and if anything it’s “Meddle” to Heritage’s “Atom Heart Mother”. There are no cookie monsters, but the record does retain all of Opeth’s mastery of dynamics, and its dark intensity shows there can be other forms of heaviness than bludgeoning riffs. The dense and atmospheric record has a similar mood to Gazpacho’s “Demon”; while the execution is quite different both have a mood that suggests shadowy things in Scandinavian forests.

Panic RoomIncarnate

IncarnateWith a new guitarist in Adam O’Sullivan Panic Room’s fourth album feels like the start of a new chapter for the band, and shows that sometimes a change of lead guitarist can be as big a change as a new lead singer. It’s a step away from the rich wall of sound that characterised their last couple of albums in favour of a lighter, more pared-back feel, with a stronger emphasis on Anne-Marie Helder’s songwriting. O’Sullivan has quite a different style as a guitarist, with jazz and blues flourishes, though he demonstrates that he can still rock out when it’s needed. But it’s still unmistakably Panic Room, with that combination of rock, pop, jazz, folk and prog focussed on strong songwriting and Anne-Marie’s award-winning vocals.

The Pineapple ThiefMagnolia

Pineapple Thief - MagnoliaThe Pineapple Thief are one of those bands generally considered part of the progressive rock scene, but take a modern, streamlined approach to their music. Magnolia sees them combine many of the best elements of their previous three records to result in their most accessible album to date. There are touches of dance/electronica rhythms and of hard rock riffing, but the emphasis is on big soaring melodies. They’re another band who are worthy of mainstream crossover success.

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2014 Albums of the Year – Part Three

Part three of the end-of-year album countdown, and we’re into the top ten. These are from 10 to 6, again sorted alphabetically because I can’t sort these into any sort of order. They’re all equally good.

Cloud AtlasBeyond the Vale

Cloud Atlas - Beyond The Vale newYet another York-based band (Is there something in the water?), Cloud Atlas is the band put together by Heidi Widdop following the dissolution of Stolen Earth. Their impressive début album is big widescreen rock with an epic scope, with Heidi’s distinctive bluesy vocals setting them apart from many of their obvious peers. But this album’s sound is as much about Martin Ledger’s soaring melodic lead guitar, with strong echoes of Marillion’s Steve Rothery.

Gazpacho Demon

Gazpacho - DemonNorway’s Gazpacho have come up with one of the darkest and most sinister-sounding records of 2014. It’s what Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden might have sounded like if Mark Hollis had spent a lot of time listening to Black Sabbath. Sinister violin-led pastoral soundscapes with are intercut with bursts of hard rock, motifs recur across the album, and there’s even an irruption of accordion-led central European folk at one point. An ambitious album which is by no means an easy listen, but one where you can keep finding new layers after many listens.

Knifeworld The Unravelling

The UnravellingA major step forward for Kavus Torabi’s eight-piece band, and reflects their current live sound far more than any of their previous recordings. 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 anyone else. Fans of the late, great Frank Zappa should find a lot to like about this record, as should anyone who thinks there should be more bassoons in rock.

Luna RossaSecrets and Lies

Luna Rossa Secrets & LiesLuna Rossa started out as a side-project from Panic Room emphasising the acoustic side of Anne-Marie Helder’s and Jon Edwards’ music, but seems to have taken on a life of it’s own. Their second album is a logical progression from the first; perhaps not quite as eclectic, but with a slightly clearer musical identity. Luna Rossa still defy easy genre pigeonholing, though the album does show occasional hints of artists as varied as Goldfrapp and Renaissance. There’s some very raw heart-on-sleeve emotion, with the music revolving around and complementing Anne-Marie’s always remarkable vocals.

Steve RotheryThe Ghosts of Pripyat

Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of PripyatThis Kickstarter-funded project is Steve Rothery’s first proper solo album in more than three decades as lead guitarist of Marillion. It’s an instrumental album with a band including Panic Room’s Yatim Halimi and Mr So and So’s Dave Foster, Rothery’s lyrical and emotional playing both soars and rocks, the numbers building in intensity from slow-burning beginnings. The whole thing shows just why Rothery is one of the best guitarists of his generation, one of the few players good enough to pull this sort of thing off without descending into self-indulgence.

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Luna Rossa – Secrets & Lies

Luna Rossa Secrets & Lies Luna Rossa started out as a Panic Room side project, showcasing the acoustic side of Anne-Marie Helder’s and Jon Edwards’ music, but in the manner of such things has taken on a life of it’s own, leading to a follow-up album and a tour to promote it.

As with their début, “Sleeping Pills and Lullabies”, the emphasis is on Anne-Marie’s vocals and acoustic guitar, and Jon’s piano, supported with guests in the form of Sarah Dean on Celtic harp, Andy Coughlan on double bass and Tim Hamill on guitar. A string quartet also puts in an appearance, albeit rather more briefly than on the first album.

The album kicks off with “Aurora”, largely instrumental bar some wordless vocals towards the end, with Jon’s piano taking the lead. Then”Secrets and Lies” is a classic Anne-Marie Helder ballad in the vein of her 2004 EP “The Contact”. The bluesy “Disappointment” sees Jon switch to Fender Rhodes, and also features some excellent understated guitar from Tim Hamill, and even has a bass solo towards the end.

The shimmering “Flower In My Hair” quotes a very familiar traditional children’s song, but the following number has to be the strangest song on the album. “Happy Little Song” is the obvious successor to Panic Room’s “I Am A Cat”, sounding for all the world like the theme song from a surreal 1970s childrens’ TV show. This is a song that demands a surreal video.

“Tiny Demons” is the first of two covers on the album, and sees the return of Jon’s Fender Rhodes, giving a vibe reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, and also sees an all-too-brief appearance of Anne-Marie’s flute towards the end. Straight after than comes an undoubted highlight, “Fly Away”, driven by Sarah Dean’s celtic harp. The rich layered sound with the interplay of harp, guitar and piano makes it the closest thing on the album to anything by Panic Room.

The second cover, “I’ve been wrong before”, isn’t quite as effective as the first. But if you cover Warren Zevon and it comes over as one of the weaker songs on the album, what does this say about the quality of your own writing? The album ends with the most emotionally powerful numbers on the record; “No Chords Left” is an achingly sad song, just Anne-Marie’s vocal and Jon’s melancholy piano.

It’s an album that feels like a logical progression from its predecessor; perhaps not quite as eclectic, but with a clearer musical identity. Again it defies easy genre pigeonholing, though it does show occasional hints of artists as varied as Goldfrapp and Renaissance. Luna Rossa increasingly feels not so much “Panic Room unplugged” as a separate parallel band in its own right. Yes, with Anne-Marie and Jon as the writers the music is coming from the same place, and there is a bit of musical overlap, but the presentation is quite different. Luna Rossa is stripped-down, with some very raw heart-on-sleeve emotion, with the music revolving around and complementing Anne-Marie’s always remarkable vocals.

Following on from Panic Room’s “Incarnate” at the beginning of the year, Anne-Marie and Jon have now delivered two excellent and very different albums in 2014.

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2014 Albums of the Year – Part Two

Part two of the end-of-year album rundown, here’s the other half of the alphabetically-sorted albums ranked between 11 and 25, going from H to Z.

Halo BlindOccupying Forces

Halo Blind Occupying Forces smHalo Blind is the project that used to be called Parade, led by York-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Johnson, currently part of Mostly Autumn. The long-awaited follow-up to 2009′s The Fabric is a little less eclectically-varied than it’s predecessor, but hangs together far more strongly as a coherent album. The blend of indie-rock guitars and progressive rock textures combined with strong songwriting ought to have a wide crossover appeal.

IQThe Road of Bones

IQ: The Road of BonesThe neo-prog veterans have never been prolific, but never disappoint. This double album sees them not afraid to experiment, with an abrasive industrial-metal edge alongside the more traditional neo-prog sounds. There is still plenty of what ought to be expected from any IQ album; lengthy kaleidoscopic songs, dark and melodramatic vocals and climactic guitar and keyboard solos.

Morpheus RisingEximus Humanus

Eximus HumanusThe York twin-guitar rockers raise their game significantly with their second album. It’s an old-school hard rock album recalling the early days of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, with a focus on songwriting and melody. Si Wright comes into his own as a lead singer with material written to take full advantage of his vocal range.

Robert PlantLullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar

Robert Plant Lullaby and the Ceaseless RoarThe veteran former Led Zeppelin frontman returns with his strongest record for many years. It’s a mix of English rock and folk with African and Middle Eastern sounds, and even the occasional blast of hard rock guitar, but there’s a fire to it that’s been missing from his last few records. It’s still 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.

Polar BearIn Each and Every One

Polar Bear In Each and Every OneIt’s jazz, Jim, but not as we know it. Twin saxophones meet electronic soundscapes, with shades of Miles Davis meets Pink Floyd. One moment it’s melodic and atmospheric, the next it’s squawking cacophony. It can be a challenging listen at times; this is a record than imports elements of rock into jazz, but takes things in an altogether different direction from jazz-fusion.

Matt StevensLucid

Matt Stevens - LucidHaving taken his acoustic looping guitar thing as far as could go, Matt has made something far more eclectic, combining his loves of post-punk, progressive rock and extreme metal. While there are some delicate acoustic numbers, much of the album is electric, with a full band and and interesting array of guest performers. Proof that you can make an all-instrumental guitar album without it becoming a vehicle for endless soloing.

When Empires Fall

When Empires FallThe new project from former Breathing Space and Stolen Earth bassist Paul Teasdale is a very interesting blend of progressive rock atmospherics and Britpop-style songwriting. There are strong guest vocal performances by Aleksandra Koziol and Joanne Wallis, but Paul handles the majority of the lead vocals himself, and the soaring melodies prove him to be a fine vocalist as well as a songwriter.

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2014 Albums of the Year – Part One

Every music blog must have an end-of-year list. 2014 has been such a great year that I could not whittle the list down to fewer than 25 albums without excluding something that deserved to be honoured.

One obvious caveat; this is the best-of list from the albums I’ve actually heard, taken from those I’ve either shelled out money for or heard as review promos. There are naturally going to me many great records excludes from this list simply because I’ve not had the chance to hear them.

The top ten records will be covered in later posts, but we’ll start with No 25 up to 11. Except it’s next to impossible to rank them all in order, so I’ll list them alphabetically instead. The first batch are A to E.

AlestormSunset on the Golden Age

Alestorm - Sunset on the Golden Age“Scottish Pirate Metal” doesn’t seem like an idea strong enough to last for four albums without the concept wearing thin, but Alestorm seem far from reaching the point of diminishing returns. Like their previous albums, it’s filled with tales of nautical adventure and booze set to music with a strong folk-metal flavour, though “Wooden Leg” is close to punk. It’s all entertaining stuff that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, which is precisely what metal should be.

AnathemaDistant Satellites

Anathema - Distant SatellitesAside from the occasional dance/electronica touches Anathema continue in a similar vein to last year’s “Weather Systems”. Their emotional widescreen music combines a big sound with a minimalist approach to songwriting, using the power of repetition to create something that’s often more than the sum or it’s parts. The great mystery is why mainstream crossover recognition continues to elude them and they’re still relatively unknown outside of the prog scene.

AsiaGravitas

Asia GravitasNot many people would have expected a 1980s supergroup made up from 70s prog musicians to still be making albums in 2014. They’re now down to a trio of original members plus young guitarist Sam Coulson, not even born when the band first started. This is really John Wetton’s album; he’s on superb form vocally, with big soaring melodies throughout. It’s a far better album than Yes’ lacklustre effort.

BehemothThe Satanist

Behemoth - The SatanistThe Polish black metal band recorded this album just after mainman Nergal was given the all-clear in his battle against cancer. The resulting record is a heavy, intense and deeply spiritual work, which makes Satanism sound like an actual religion. A vastly better album than anything Venom could have imagined, let alone made.

Bigelf Into The Maelstrom

BigElf Into the MaelstromAn album where the title is a perfect description of how the music sounds. Bigelf combine 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. This record captures the intensity of their live experience in a way their previous albums never quite managed.

Curved AirNorth Star

Curved Air - North StarCurved Air reformed a few years back and have been playing the festival circuit for a while, but North Star is their first studio recording since the 1970s. With their quirky but fluid jazz-rock they’ve picked up exactly where they left off decades before, and Sonja Kristina is still on superb form vocally. The only thing that lets it down are some unnecessary covers, though they do demonstrate that they’re better songwriters than Snow Patrol.

ElbowThe Takeoff and Landing of Everything

Elbow - The Takeoff and Landing of EverythingElbow are one of those mainstream rock bands that owe a huge debt to 70s progressive rock, which is obvious if you listen beyond their hits. Peter Gabriel is clearly an influence on Guy Garvey’s vocals and composition, and Elbow sound like the band Genesis might have become if Hackett had left but Gabriel had stayed. Even though it might have benefited from a solo or two in the right places, it’s still a rich and ambitious record with a great amount of emotional depth.

Empty Yard ExperimentKallisti

Empty Yard Experiment - KallistiEYE are a multinational prog-metal band based in Dubai, with members from the Middle East, India and Eastern Europe, and this impressive work with shades of Anathema, Opeth, Porcupine Tree and Godspeed You Black Emperor is quite remarkable for a début with its mature composition and strong use of dynamics.

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Trojan Horse – World Turned Upside Down

Trojan Horse World Turned Upside DownTrojan Horse are one of those bands who defy easy categorisation. One week they’re playing progressive rock festivals sharing bills with the likes of Mostly Autumn and The Enid, the next week they’re supporting post-punk legends The Fall.

To quote their own bio, the Salford-based quartet aim to drag 70s progressive rock kicking and screaming through all the subsequent decades, and their second full-length album “World Turned Upside Down” sees them do precisely that.

Instrumental opener “Jurapsyche Park” jump-cuts between manic surf guitar and the intricacies of Discipline-era King Crimson to end in a frenetic climax of duelling Hammond organ and abrasive guitar that recalls the live jam at end of Deep Purple’s “Space Trucking”. It manages to pack an awful lot into just over four and a half minutes.

From then on the album explodes in all directions at once. “Sesame” comes over as a strange mash-up between Yes and The Talking Heads. There are brief numbers called “Interlude”, “Centrelude” and “Outerlude”. The equally short “See Me At The Crow Bridge” is one minute twelve seconds of delicate beauty.

The title track starts with a Peter Hammill-style vocal and ends with squalling violin. The largely instrumental Behemoth with it’s warm rippling guitars even recalls mid-70s Rush at one point. Towards the end of the album, the lengthy “Hypocrite’s Hymn” with an extended instrumental workout goes from prog-jazz to avant-noise, and the semi-acoustic folk-prog of “Death And The Mad Queen” would not have sounded out of place on a Decemberists record. The album ends with the hilarious punky “Fire! Fire!” complete with fire engine noises.

Trojan horse put prog-rock, post-punk and free jazz into a blender, and what comes out is as just as bonkers as their live performances. They can be as visceral and pummeling as their stage act when they want to, but on record there’s a lot of variety and musical sophistication too. Unlike lesser bands who attempt derivative pastiches of the sounds of 70s progressive rock or 80s post-punk, Trojan Horse capture the spirit of the things, which is what makes their music sound fresh and exciting.

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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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