Record Reviews Blog

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

Dream Theater – The Astonishing

DreamTheater - The AstonishingDream Theater are a band who strongly divide opinions. For some they’re the epitome of progressive metal, with levels of instrumental virtuosity that render them without peers. For others, they’re all emotionless technical showboating, too many notes and not enough soul. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but there’s no denying they’re one of the genre-defining bands of their generation.

They’ve been coasting a little in recent years, releasing albums that have their moments but don’t quite reach the heights of the 1990s work that made their reputation. Their last great record was 2002′s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, and their thirteenth studio effort, like that one, is also a double album.

The Astonishing is a sprawling ambitious concept album with a science-fantasy storyline that includes The Map and a vast cast of character with names like Emperor Nafarys and Faythe. The concept and music owe as much to musical theatre as to progressive rock. Unfortunately what could have been their 2112 turns out a lot more like their version of Kiss’ “The Elder”. Except The Elder didn’t go on for two and a quarter hours.

It starts strongly with the instrumental Dystopian Overture, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve spread themselves far too thin, and there just isn’t enough worthwhile music here to fill a double album. There is very little that stands out strongly, and there’s too much mediocre filler, often with melodies Graham Kendrick would have rejected as too banal.

The problem with this record isn’t too much unrestrained instrumental virtuosity. If anything, the opposite is true; a few tasteless irruptions of widdly-woo might have livened up some of the dull bits. The biggest problem with this album, aside from the sheer amount of filler, is that there’s far too much of James LaBrie, and he’s never been one of the world’s most expressive singers. Not only that, the sheer portentousness of the whole thing gets wearing after a while, eventually leaving you with the feeling that only metal bands with enough of a sense of humour to include undead unicorms should be making science-fantasy concept albums.

It does have its moments, such as “A New Beginning” towards the end of disk one with its inventive spiralling solo from John Petrucci. The album does leave the impression that there might be a worthwhile 50-minute album in there struggling to get out. But the listener has to wade through a lot of forgettable dross to find enough diamonds in the rough.

Dream Theater remain a hugely important band in the history of progressive rock, but sadly this record adds little to their legacy. Anyone new to the band would do better to give this album a miss and instead go for one of the classic earlier ones instead.

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Myrkur – M

Myrkur MAt the end of the 1970s, three village idiots from the north-east of England began meddling with forces they didn’t understand, and unleashed an entity into the world which they could not control.

Black Metal, it came to be called. It took root in Scandinavia,where it developed a reputation for arsonous things which might have made some Methodist Church property stewards wish it had caught on in parts of the south-west of England.

Over more than thirty years, Black Metal has evolved out of all recognition, giving us the gloriously ridiculous Dimmu Borgir and the fiendishly innovative Ihsahn. Myrkur’s “M” doesn’t sound much like either of those bands, but like them it still sounds like something well beyond the limited imaginations of that notorious original trio.

Myrkur is a solo project from Danish singer and multi-insrumentalist Amalie Bruun. Opening number “Skøgen Skulle Dø” begins with a ghostly vocal leading into dark medieval soundscapes that come over like Blackmore’s Night’s evil twin, blood-curdling screaming, and ending with the sound of a church choir backed by walls of distorted guitar. That combination of beauty and menace sets the tone for the album.

It’s difficult to believe all the lead vocals are the work of the same singer; Myrkur can do deeply scary black metal screaming, but there’s as much layered ethereal folk-inflected vocals, and the contrast is remarkably effective. Sometimes the guitars give way to classical piano accompaniments, their fragile beauty contrasting and complimenting the heavier numbers. Like a lot of contemporary metal there are no solos, but with lyrics sung entirely in Danish Myrkur’s remarkable voice frequently comes over as a lead instrument. She’s an accomplished pianist as well, ending the album with the melancholy instrumental piano piece “Norn”.

With elements of folk and classical music as well as metal, this is a remarkable piece of work, quite unlike much of what gets released under the banner of Black Metal. If it’s ultimately descended from the music of Venom, then it’s the missing link between them and something like Enya.

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Mantra Vega – The Illusion’s Reckoning

Mantra Vega The Illusions ReckoningMantra Vega is a collaboration between former Mostly Autumn vocalist Heather Findlay and Sound of Contract keys man Dave Kerzner, with a supporting cast made up largely from members Heather’s own band, including Roger Waters’ guitarist Dave Kilminster, one-time Seahorse Stuart Fletcher, and two members shared with the current incarnation of Mostly Autumn, drummer Alex Cromarty and guitarist Chris Johnson.

Although Heather Findlay has guested on a number of projects over the last few years, most notably Rob Cottingham’s Captain Blue, this is the first record promoted as one of her own projects since 2012′s acoustic “Songs from the Old Kitchen“, and her first new material since “The Phoenix Suite” a year before that. A single taken from the album, “Island” appeared in the middle of last year and did a lot to whet the appetite for the eagerly-awaited album, two years in the making,

As that earlier single had suggested, this is a record with a strong 70s vibe. There are nods to Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac and the rootsier side of Led Zeppelin, as well as the folky feel of Heather Findlay’s work with Odin Dragonfly and early Mostly Autumn. In places it evokes a similar mood to “Songs from the Old Kitchen”, but the album as a whole feels closer to a logical progression from her work back in Mostly Autumn days than the more experimental direction of The Phoenix Suite. With the possible exception of the keyboard-led spoken word opener “Every Corner” and the epic title track, it’s perhaps more classic rock than progressive, but it’s an extremely varied record with feet in a lot of camps.

Heather herself is on superb form, and this record might just contain some of her best vocal performances to date, displaying all the warmth and emotional depth on which her reputation rests. Her lyrics are steeped in eastern spirituality, referencing Indian Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath, with the songs portraying a spiritual journey from darkness into light. Songs such as “Islands”, the ballad “Lake Sunday”, and the epic title track all feature gorgeous soaring melodies. The Zeppelinesque “Mountain Spring” is intense and passionate, while the dreamy acoustic “I’ve Seen Your Star” recalls the delicate beauty of Odin Dragonfly. “Veil of Ghosts” also features guest lead vocals from Angela Gordon, Nightwish’s Troy Donockley and Irene Jansen, younger sister of Floor.

Arrangements alternate between rich and layered, and pared-back simplicity. There’s more emphasis on guitars than on keys, and it’s only right at the very end that Dave Kerzner cuts loose with spiralling a synth wig-out; instrumental breaks more often take the form of swirling atmospherics than solos. Guitar virtuoso Dave Kilminster only actually appears on a few songs, though he makes his mark when he does, most notably his fluid melodic break on “Island”. Chris Johnson, though better known as a rhythm guitarist, ends up playing a fair bit of lead, with an understated but effective style, his lead flourishes on “Learning to be Light” are particularly impressive. Ayreon’s Arjen Lucassen also makes an appearance with some shredding guitar work on the title track.

The capable rhythm section shouldn’t forgotten; notable moments are Stu Fletcher’s hypnotic circular bass riff that forms the foundation of “Mountain Spring”, and Alex Cromarty going full John Bonham at the end of “Veil of Ghosts”. Last but definitely not least, a couple the acoustic numbers feature the evocative bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute played by Remko de Landmeter.

It’s been a long wait, but this album proves worth that wait. Dave Kerzner proves as excellent a co-writer and creative foil to Heather Findlay as she is at giving voice to his compositions. The result is a record that’s as good as anything either of them have done. For Heather in particular it embraces her musical legacy without being constrained by it.

The album is released on Monday 25th January, and is available from The Merch Desk.

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Resurrection Kings

Resurrection KingsResurrection Kings are a band put together by Frontiers Records around one-time Dio guitarist Craig Goldie and vocalist Chas West, who had worked with Foreigner amongst others. They’re rounded out with the addition of fellow Dio alumnus Vinnie Appice on drums and former Dokken and Quiet Riot bassist Sean McNabb.

The self-titled album is described as Whitesnake’s “1987″ mixed with Dio’s “Dream Evil” with a touch of classic Zeppelin and Rainbow. The reality is that the record cobbled together from a collection of demos by Goldie and West, and filled out with material written by one of Frontiers Records’ in-house songwriters falls well short of those illustrious touchstones.

Much of it is as formulaic as song titles like “Livin’ Out Loud”, “Fallin’ For You”, “Never Say Goodbye” or “Had Enough” would suggest. It’s all immaculately played and produced, has riffs and choruses in all the right places along with plenty of solos that sound like a whinnying horse being strangled. There’s nothing here you’d describe as unlistenable. But there is very little that really stands out, and in the end it all sounds much like what you’d expect from a supergroup made up of bit players from the stories of other far bigger stars. This is the sort of band you can imagine playing a mid-afternoon slot at a festival while you’re waiting for the acts you’d really come to see to appear.

Which is a shame, because Chas West has a great old-school hard rock voice of the sort you don’t hear enough of nowadays, and sounds as though he’d excel given stronger material. The occasional song, most notably “Who Do You Run To”, hints at the potential for something greater, with its brooding verse, the best hook on the album, and an imaginatively melodic instrumental break. But most of the time this is workmanlike record that fails to rise beyond generic 1980s hard rock by numbers; solid musicianship rather wasted on decidedly second-rate material.

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Jodie Marie – Trouble in Mind

Jodie Marie Trouble in MindAs any fan of the bands regularly covered on this site ought to know, there is a vast amount of excellent music that doesn’t have the benefit of major label publicity campaigns, and is the wrong genres to be covered by the fashionable media. Which means that many great records fly completely under the radar of everyone who doesn’t follow their particular scene.

Welsh singer-songwriter Jodie Marie is a typical example. I’ve already written about the bizarre way her début album appeared on the radar, but the album itself deserves a review, since it really is an excellent piece of work.

Trouble in Mind an immensely varied record, going from stripped-down intimate acoustic songs through guitar and organ led blues-rock to big band numbers featuring horn sections and gospel choirs. The sequencing is interesting, shifting between different moods across different parts of the album, beginning with several rootsy blues numbers, the middle of the album dominated by ballads, finishing with 70s-style rock numbers. It’s an unusual way of arranging an album, but the musical journey it takes you on actually works extremely well.

As a singer, Jodie Marie is a real talent, alternatively soulful and gutsy depending on the song. The album emphasises that; neither the horn arrangements nor Jimmy Brewer’s tastefully restrained lead guitar overwhelm the vocals.

With an LP-length running time of under forty minutes there’s no room for any filler, but there are plenty of highlights. There’s the funky lead single “Only One I’m Thinking Of”. The solo piano ballad “Reason to Believe” is a thing of beauty, and shows she is an accomplished pianist as well as a singer. Another standout is “For Your Love”, a slow-burning blues number featuring some excellent guitar from Daniel John Montagu Smith. The ballad “Everyone Makes Mistakes” and the rockier album closer “Later Than You Think”, both driven by Jodie’s electric piano, recall something of the feel of David Coverdale’s mid-70s album “Northwinds”, though of course the vocal style is quite different.

Trouble in Mind is precixely the sort of record which really deserves a far wider audience. It’s highly recommended for anyone who is more interested in great music by great musicians than contemporary fads and fashions.

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Aghast Afterglow – Imaging

Aghast Afterglow ImagingThe genre of symphonic goth-metal featuring classically-trained female vocalists is getting increasingly crowded these days. The latest addition to the scene is Italy’s Aghast Afterglow, who started as a duo comprising multi-instrumentalist Denny Di Motta and vocalist Lisa Lee, but have now expanded to become a full band.

The opening few numbers set the tone; first the musical box chimes leading into the brief power-metal instrumental “Fearless”, then the swirling kaleidoscopic “You’re Killing Me From Inside” and the full-on Goth of “Angels Can’t Love”. Like others without access to major label budgets for recording they manage without the massed choirs, orchestras and kitchen sinks, instead relying on layers of keys and a bigger role for the lead guitar. Lisa Lee’s lower-register vocals are reminiscent of Winter in Eden’s Vicky Johnson, and Denny Di Motta neo-classical guitar flourishes sound like a version of Yngwie Malmsteen with a sense of taste and restraint.

This is an album where the emphasis is on straightforward songwriting rather than overblown arrangements, and they stick to four or five minute songs rather than attempting any longer epics. “When Will Winter Come Back” is one standout that sounds like a potential single, the chorus of “There Is No Time” gets stuck in the head after a few plays. The soaring ballad “Stream of Awareness” is another highlight. There is the odd moment that doesn’t quite work, most notably the irruption of a few bars of Bach’s double violin concerto as the instrumental break of “Muto Inconscio” in a manner parodied by Spinal Tap way back in 1982. But most of the time it’s solid piece of work.

The album ends with a wonderful piece of silliness, a rocked-up cover of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”, which is yet another example of how well 70s disco standards work when re-inagined as guitar-shredding metal numbers.

While Aghast Afterglow do wear their influences on their sleeves, most notably Nightwish, there is a lot to like about this record, and they sound more than capable of giving some higher profile acts a good run for their money.

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2015 Album of the Year

Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time MachineIt was extremely hard to choose just one single record as album of the year. Even after I had begun publishing the first few instalments of this rundown I hadn’t been able to make the final decision of which record out of at least three was the best of them all. Karnataka and Amorphis in particular have both made astonishingly good records this year.

But in the end, there can only be one, and it’s from Poland’s finest band.

Riverside – Love. Fear and The Time Machine

Riverside get compared to Porcupine Tree a lot. That’s both a fair comparison and an unfair one. They are the ideal band for anyone still missing Porcupine Tree, it’s true. But they are far more than a derivative copy. Imagine, if you can, a Porcupine Tree with Jon Lord on keyboards, Alex Lifeson on guitar, and a rhythm section with a sense of groove that few bands under the progressive rock banner can match.

Love, Fear and The Time Machine might just be their best album to date. They’ve taken a step back from the dense hard rock sound of the preceding “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves”, taking a pared-back less-is-more approach that gives everything more space to breathe. There are a host of 80s rock references; a guitar figure evoking early Marillion here, a post-punk bass riff or a bridge recalling The Stone Roses there. But it’s all anchored in Mariusz Duda’s distinctive understated approach to melody, Piotr Grudzińsk economical guitar work and and Michał Łapaj’s evocative keyboard playing. One highlight is the shortest and most minimalist song on the record, “Afloat”, which sees Mariusz melancholy vocal accompanied by a simple guitar figure and some atmospheric organ chords. But the whole album is superb, with restrained instrumental virtuosity and masterful use of dynamics.

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2015 Records of the Year – Not only but also…

My self-imposed rules for album of the year restricts the list to full-length albums of new material. That means it excludes live albums, unplugged records with new versions of existing songs, or EPs. So to keep you all waiting a bit longer for my Album of the Year, some mentions of records that my rules disqualify, but are too good to be ignored altogether.

Panic Room – Essence

Panic Room EssenceThe Kickstarter-funded unplugged album reworks favourites from the band’s first three albums into radically different forms, resulting in a beautiful record than emphasises Anne-Marie Helder’s remarkable vocal talent. Though it crosses the streams with the acoustic side-project Luna Rossa to some extent it’s still got more of a Panic Room vibe. It’s not entirely acoustic, since new guitarist Dave Foster cuts loose on electric a few times. There are a couple of new songs too, the classic Anne-Marie Helder ballad “Rain & Tears & Burgundy”, and “Denial”, the first time Panic Room have ever recorded a blues number.

Mostly Autumn – Box of Tears

Mostly Autumn Box of TearsA live recording of last year’s “Dressed in Voices”, an album regarded by many as their career defining masterpiece. Unlike their other recent live albums this one’s a single disk of the Dressed in Voices set rather than the whole show (Do we really need yet another live version of “Evergreen” or “Heroes”? I don’t think so). But like those other live albums it does capture the power and intensity of the Mostly Autumn’s live performances, the big sound of the seven-piece band at full tilt.

The Fierce and The Dead – Magnet

TFATD - MagnetMatt Stevens’ four-piece instrumental noise merchants could be described as a sort of punk version of King Crimson. Their latest EP sees a move away from the garage-rock feel of their last record. “Spooky Action”. Magnet is darker and denser, with more of a focus on the post-rock and electronica side of their music. Like all of their records, it has feet in many camps, defies simple categorisation, and makes a rewarding listen for anyone who wants to get out of their musical comfort zones.

Mantra Vega – Island

A taster from the forthcoming album “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, three songs with a strong 70s classic rock vibe with echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin. The lead song in particular is lovely, with Heather Findlay playing to her strengths as a vocalist, and features a short but very effective guitar break from Dave Kilminster.

Zero She Flies – The River

Zero She Flies - The RiverThe band formerly know as Mermaid Kiss return with a new singer in the shape of Maria Milewska and a new name. The four-track suite “The River” was originally slated to be part of a full-length album, but has mow been spun off as a separate EP on its own. It’s largely acoustic, piano and acoustic guitar based songs with woodwind and strings for colour, plus some touches of electronica, and Maria Milewska proves to be excellent singer. Highlights are the woodwinds meet trip-hop instrumental “The Undertow” and the gorgeously atmospheric closing number “Rivergirl”, but the whole EP is excellent.

Big Big Train – Wassail

Big Big Train WassailThis intermediate release filling the gap before their next full-length album eschews ambitious multi-part epics in favour of more straightforward songwriting. But most of the things we’ve come to expect from Big Big Train are present; big soaring melodies and rich layered arrangements that evoke the spirit of 70s pastoral progressive rock with lyrics steeped in English landscapes and history. The largely instrumental keyboard-heavy “Mudlarks” ticks a lot of classic prog-rock boxes, but with the woodwinds, violins and 12-string guitars there’s also an element of 70s electric folk-rock. It’s all delightfully retro in its use of vintage guitars and keyboard sounds, but that’s always been a major part of their appeal.

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2015 Albums of the Year – Part Four

Into the top five, with only the Album of the Year to go. Two or three of these albums could easily been the album of the year themselves. Again, they’re not in any order, consider them all equal 2nd.

Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud

Amorphis Under the Red CloudWhat is it about Scandinavia and metal? A disproportionate number of the most imaginative and innovative metal of recent years has come from Sweden, Norway and especially Finland. Amorphis hail from the last of those nations, and have delivered a quite remarkable record which cannot be pigeonholed in any of metal’s narrow subgenres. There are moments of death metal, folk metal and gothic rock, and the occasional nod to 70s classic rock. It can be piledrivingly heavy at times, but always hugely melodic, with melodies that owe as much to the twin guitars as the vocals. Like the best metal bands they demonstrates superb use of dynamics. Many songs combine clear vocals with death growls, often using one style on the verse and the other on the chorus. As a contemporary metal album this record is absolutely state of the art.

Karnataka – Secrets of Angels

Karnataka - Secrets of AngelsKarnataka’s fifth studio album is a very different beast from 2007′s “The Gathering Light”, as much so as that album was from “Delicate Flame of Desire”. But the three were the products of three very different bands. The newest incarnation of Karnataka with Hayley Griffiths on vocals and Cagri Tozluoglu on keys have come up with a huge-sounding record with more than a hint of European symphonic metal about it, with recurring lyrical themes of adultery and betrayal. The early part of the album is filled with hook-laden potential singles. Then it closes with the twenty-minute title track which combines evocative celtic soundscapes with massive symphonic rock crescendos and features a guest appearance from Troy Donockley. With this record Karnataka managed to take on the likes of Nightwish and beat them at their own game, which is no mean achievement.

Chantel McGregor – Lose Control

Chantel McGregor - Lose ControlIt been four years since the Yorkshire guitarist and singer-songwriter released her début album, but the follow-up not only proved to be well worth the wait, but is a very different sort of record. With a “Southern Gothic” theme it’s heavier, darker and far more song-focussed, with elements of grunge and progressive rock. There’s more emphasis on memorable riffs than on extended guitar wig-outs; she takes a less-is-more approach to soloing. Hard rockers alternate with delicate acoustic numbers, and the album closes with the ambitious kaleidoscopic epic “Walk on Land”.

Bruce Soord

Bruce Soord Solo AlbumThe self-titled solo album by the Pineapple Thief mainman is a thing of beauty, with echoes of Guy Garvey, recent Anathema and Steven Wilson at his less bombastic. It’s an album of soaring atmospheric soundscapes, often semi-acoustic but always hugely melodic, with arrangements varying from acoustic minimalism to richly layered. It takes one unexpected sharp left turn early on with the disco-funk of “The Odds”, but the gorgeously dreamy “Born in Delusion” and “Familiar Patterns” are far more representative of the album. Quite different in mood to The Pineapple Thief, but a very enjoyable record.

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2015 Albums of the Year – Part Three

We’re into the top ten now, with the top five to go. It says a lot about how good this year has been that many of these would have been in the top five in other years.

Gazpacho – Molok

Gazpacho - MolokThe Norwegian six-piece pick up where they left off with last year’s “Demon”. The vibe resembles late period Talk Talk crossed with Storm Corrosion, sinister atmospheric soundscapes making prominent use of violin and the occasional irruptions of central European folk motifs. But be careful when you play it. The sound resembling modem noises at the very end of “Molok Rising” is a code which may destroy the universe.

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home

John Mitchell - Lonely RobotLonely Robot is the project from John Mitchell of It Bites, Arena and Frost* fame, with a all-star supporting cast including Nick Beggs, Go West’s Peter Cox, Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, Heather Findlay and Kim Seviour. The end result is a varied but hugely impressive album. It goes from dense guitar-heavy industrial prog-metal to gorgeous ballads to uptempo 80s-style pop-rock, with imaginative arrangements that frequently veer off in unexpected directions.

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Nightwish Endless FormsThe latest release by the Finnish masters of symphonic metal marks the studio début of lead singer Floor Jansen, and is also the first to feature celtic folk multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley as a full member of the band. It’s rather heavier than their previous “Imaginaerum“, thought the straight-up metal numbers end up less interesting than the soaring ballads and folk-rock workouts. It might have done without the spoken word parts from the odious Richard Dawkins, though at least he’s talking about evolutionary biology here.

Peter Knight’s Gigspanner – Layers of Ages

Gigspanner - Layers of AgesGigspanner are an acoustic trio led by former Steeleye Span fiddle player Peter Knight, and Layers of Ages sees imaginative arrangements of traditional folk numbers. Though not an instrumental record, Knight’s evocative and lyrical violin playing is the heart of the sound, full of melody and emotion. Much like contemporary jazz, some modern folk has a lot of appeal for fans of progressive rock wanting to venture out of their comfort zone, and this record is a very good place to start.

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase

Hand Cannot EraseSteven Wilson’s third release following the dissolution of Porcupine Tree is an ambitious concept album about isolation that’s drawn comparisons with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Marillion’s “Brave”. He reins in the wind-driven jazz-rock elements in favour of more guitar-centred sound that’s closer to the spirit of Porcupine Tree than earlier solo releases, going from stripped-back minimalism that evokes XTC to dense layered prog-metal workouts. It’s perhaps not quite as consistently strong as “The Raven That Refused to Sing”, but nevertheless contains many powerful moments.

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