Record Reviews Blog

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

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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The Violet Hour – The Fire Sermon

The Violet Hour - The Fire SermonOriginally released way back in 1991, The Fire Sermon is the sole album by The Violet Hour.

Though they toured extensively in support of Marillion on their “Holiday in Eden” tour, a combination of internal divisions and the band being dropped by EMI saw them split. The album soon went out of print, and had been unavailable for many years. More recently it’s seen a reissue, and is now available once again from their former singer Doris Brendel’s website.

It was a chance conversation at the Cambridge Rock Festival a couple of days after Doris Brendel’s excellent live set when was told the The Violet Hour were a significant early influence of Mostly Autumn. That was more than enough to make the album worth checking out.

It’s an album of two halves. The first side is atmospheric and folk-tinged, with Doris Brendel’s emotive bluesy vocals they come over as a rootsier version of All About Eve. Doris Brendel’s flagolet, a woodwind instrument that sounds a lot like low whistle, is prominent on several songs and gives a strong Celtic flavour. The lengthy opener “Dream of Me” and the dark, brooding “Could Have Been” are particular standouts.

The second side of the original vinyl record shows a completely different side of the band, and sees them rock out. There’s the Supertramp-like “Falling”, the power-ballad “This House” featuring Sam Brown on backing vocals, and the hard rockers “Ill Wind Blowin’” with evocative use of flagelet on the intro, and “Better Be Good”, with blasts of Hammond organ, and Martyn Wilson cutting loose on lead guitar. The 2009 CD reissue includes three bonus tracks, all of which reflect the harder rocking side of the band’s music, with the funk-tinged “Cross That Line” a standout.

It’s an impressive record which leaves you wondering what might have been had they not been chewed up and spat out by the old-school record industry. Their style of celtic-tinged crossover progressive rock was out of time in the early 90s, though you can indeed hear how they influenced Mostly Autumn a few years later. Doris Brendel was and still is a fantastic vocalist for whom comparisons with the likes of Janis Joplin are entirely appropriate, and she’s still recording and touring as a solo artist, playing a similar eclectic mix of styles. Though The Violet Hour proved to be a short-lived band, something of their spirit lives on.

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Paradigm Shift – Becoming Aware

Paradigm Shift Becoming AwareBritish four-piece Paradigm Shift describe themselves as combining elements of metal, jazz and electronica in their music. Mixed by Rob Aubrey and mastered by Tesseract’s Acle Kahney, their début album “Becoming Aware” represents the culmination of nine years work developing and honing their sound from their beginnings as a duo back in 2007.

It opens in archetypal progressive rock fashion; a Floydian synthscape and cacophony of spoken word samples from films and news media before a growling riff takes over and we’re into the sprawling kaleidoscopic “A Revolutionary Cure”, an epic that twists and turns over fourteen minutes. This and the following “An Easy Life” marry spiralling guitar riffs and soaring vocal melodies with intricate jazz-rock instrumental sections. Two short instrumentals follow, the dreamily atmospheric “The Void”, and the jazz-rock of “The Shift”. After “Masquerade” with its dense swirling instrumental passages, the closing number “Reunifications” comes over as a distillation of all the best elements of the album, driven by Puru Kaushik’s propulsive but melodic basslines and Ben Revens’ ever-present piano textures.

Taken as a whole, it’s a very solid piece of work. Where there only a few brief moments that could really be described as electronica, the album comes over more as a blend of progressive metal and jazz fusion, though the metal side never dominates; there are no blast beats or cookie monster vocals. In the hands of a lesser band such a thing might easily descend into self-indulgent noodling, but Paradigm Shift are both skilful enough and possess enough taste to avoid making that mistake. There’s still plenty of soloing, but the solos never outstay their welcome, and much of the time the instrumental virtuosity is folded into the structure of the songs.

“Becoming Aware” is a hugely melodic record that represents a modern and forward-looking approach to progressive rock rather than a homage to decades past.

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Tilt – Hinterland

Tilt Hinterland Tilt is the project from Fish alumni Steve Vantsis and Dave Stewart plus guitarist Paul Humphreys and singer Paul Dourley, with contributions from Robin Boult and John Beck amongst others. They released an EP “Million Dollar Wound” way back in 2009, but “Hinterland” is their first full-length album. The earlier EP was a competent enough record, but never really set the world on fire. This one is a very different beast indeed.

It begins with the dreamy opening of “Assembly”, electronic atmospherics and an understated vocal slightly reminiscent of 80s Tears for Fears, except instead of breaking out into a big soaring chorus it leads into a dramatic instrumental section built around a spiralling guitar figure. “Hinterland”, in contrast, is a barrelling hard rocker with something of The Who in their prime about it.

“Against the Rain” and “Growing Colder” are emotive slow-burning ballads, while “No Superman” and the later “Bloodline” are very powerful groove-rockers build around Steve Vantsis’s propulsive bass riffs, the latter featuring a solo by John Mitchell. Another rocker, “Strontium Burning” has the sort of hook that gets buried in your head. The album ends with the book-end of “Disassembly”, the long dreamy opening echoing the opener before building into a big soaring ballad that brings the album to an impressive close.

Steve Vantsis has been the main co-writer on Fish’s recent albums, and there are places with a similar feel to those records, especially when it takes the riff and groove driven approach reminiscent of parts of “13th Star”. The songcraft and razor-sharp production is certainly in the same league. The layered arrangements with touches of electronica amidst the guitar riffs also recalls late-period Porcupine Tree.

But Paul Dourley is a very different sort of singer to Fish; his soulful vocals have the occasional hints of Peter Gabriel and Lou Gramm. If anything it’s his vocal performance that lifts this record from a good one to a great one.

This is a record that’s been a long time in the making, but it’s proved worth the wait. 2016 has been a very strong year for rock albums, and “Hinterland” is another one to add to them.

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