Tag Archives: Album Review

Parade – The Fabric

TheFabricWhen Chris Johnson left Mostly Autumn at the beginning of 2008 he stated that he was to work on a solo album. In the coming months touring as Fish’s second guitarist took up a lot of his time, but when I asked him about his solo project when I met him in York at the end of the year he told me it was still on track, and had some interesting collaborators.

The Fabric is that album. The collaborators turned out to be Panic Room and Mostly Autumn vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder, Mostly Autumn, Panic Room and Fish’s drummer Gavin Griffiths, and two of Chris’ long-term associates, bassist Patrick Berry and guitarist Simon Snaize, The album also features guest appearances on a few tracks from Heather Findlay, Olivia Sparnenn and Bryan Josh.

This is certainly an album that took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there. Chris Johnson sings the majority of the lead vocals with Anne-Marie taking a largely supporting role singing harmonies and middle eights, which may disappoint some fans of Anne-Marie’s vocals, but this is basically Chris’ album.

High spots are many, the menacing-sounding “The Dogs” ending with a lacerating solo from Simon Snaize, “The Diamond” where Anne-Marie makes my heart melt with the line “For a while.. you were mine”, and the wonderfully atmospheric “High Life” again featuring some tremendous wordless vocals from Anne-Marie at the end. The album closes with the epic harmony-filled “Ending” perhaps the closest in sound to Chris’ work with Mostly Autumn, a connection made stronger with a great solo from Bryan Josh.

Like many self-released prog albums, this was released as a pre-order some time ago, but has a full retail release on Monday 25th January.  You can stream some of the music from the band’s website.

Update: To avoid confusion with a manufactured pop band of the same name, the band are now renamed “Halo Blind”. The new website is http://www.haloblind.com/.

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Breathing Space – Below the Radar

Over the past three years, York’s Breathing Space have developed from being a side-project of Mostly Autumn’s Iain Jennings and Olivia Sparnenn to become a significant band in their own right.  While some people may have feared the worst following guitarist Mark Rowen’s departure from the band just before the band went into the studio, the band have not only delivered a strong album, but have managed to top 2007′s excellent “Coming Up for Air”.

As with the last album, Iain Jennings’ production is crystal clear. Olivia Sparnenn gets better and better as a singer with some wonderful vocals throughout, and everyone else’s playing as the top of their game. For the album they’ve drafted in Mostly Autumn’s Liam Davidson to play guitars, and his more traditional rock-style playing fits perfectly. Without Mark Rowen and John Hart we may have lost the jazz-rock elements from their sound, but the album is still a lot more varied than it’s predecessor. Songs ranges from the guitar-based hard rockers and emotional piano-and-vocal ballads to big prog-tinged epics. There’s even a bit of the dance music elements which featured on the first album.

It’s difficult to single out the high points; there’s Olivia’s soaring vocals on “Clear” and “The Night Takes You Home”, There’s the atmospheric ballad “Dusk”. “Run From Yourself” combines a dance-pop rhythm with some fantastic Jon Lord-like Hammond organ playing from Iain Jennings. And the closing number “Questioning Eyes” is simply a masterpiece in the same league as Iain’s Mostly Autumn classics “Carpe Diem” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”; real lump-in-the-throat stuff, with some evocative cello playing from Charlotte Scott, some superb guitar from Liam, and an emotionally powerful vocal performance from Olivia Sparnenn.

This is shaping up as a very good candidate for album of the year. It’s certainly the best thing to come out of York for the past three or four years.

There are some brief sound clips on the band’s website,  and the album can be ordered here.

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IQ – Frequency

“Frequency” is the latest album by old-school prog veterans IQ. While they’ve never been very prolific, this being only their ninth album in a career that stretches back more than a quarter of century, everything they’ve released in recent years has been consistently good.

From the opening Mellotron chords of the title track onwards,  the sound is still quintessential IQ; pure 80s neo-prog, ten-minute songs in strange time signatures featuring swirling keyboards, lengthy solos, melodramatic vocals and often impenetrable lyrics. While their fusion of Gabriel-era Genesis with bits of Pink Floyd, Van der Graaf Generator and King Crimson has never been spectacularly original, over the course of 25 years and nine albums they’ve honed their big near-symphonic sound to perfection, and this album is at least as good as anything they’ve ever done.

One thing you can’t accuse them of is a lack of tunes; even though the lengthy songs often lack conventional hooks or choruses Peter Nicholls has a great gift for hauntingly memorable melodies. And this being prog, the instrumentalists are just as important as the singer – new keyboard player Mark Westworth proves himself more than capable of filling the shoes of the recently-departed Martin Orford, and guitarist Mike Holmes contributes some superbly fluid solos.

As with most prog albums, this is a complex work that takes many listens to fully appreciate. The title track and the poverfully intense “Ryker Skies” make the most immediate impact, but after repeated plays the lengthy “The Province” emerges as the album highlight.

“Frequency” doesn’t break any new ground, but I don’t think anybody really expects or wants them to at this stage in their career. And if they’re not very original, they do what they do so well that it doesn’t matter.

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The Reasoning – Dark Angel

Having pre-ordered several months back, the second album by Cardiff-based six-piece was eagerly awaited. I’ve heard several songs live over the past few months; indeed a couple of songs have been in their live set for more than a year, which just heightened the anticipation all the more.

It was well worth the wait.

As is to be expected from anyone who’s seen them live recently, they’ve moved in a more metallic direction, with their twin guitars much heavier and dirtier in many places, but retain their strongly memorable melodies and often complex three-part vocal harmonies that made their debut such a powerful listen. The title track in particular is an absolute prog-metal monster, opening the album with a bang. Up to the point where Rachel’s sublime voice comes in it reminds me strongly of parts of Dream Theater’s dark and intense ‘Awake’. ‘Sharp Sea’, ‘Call Me God?’ and the closing epic ‘A Musing Dream’ are equally powerful, with some intriguing lyrics – I wonder if ‘Call Me God?’ is about any megalomaniac in particular?

It’s not all distorted guitars; several songs show a mellower side, I particularly like Dylan Thompson’s ‘In the Future’, and the ballad ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’, one of the few songs where keyboard player Gareth Jones had a big hand in the writing. ‘Absolute Zero’ even has a jazzy element we haven’t heard before.

This is really an album where the composition and song arrangement is far more important than musos showing off their chops, which is exactly how it should be. But I have to say that new guitarist Owain Roberts excels himself with some superbly fluid soloing in places, the sort of restrained virtuosity that never descends into self-indulgence.

The Reasoning are certainly not the sort of band that does ‘difficult second albums’. If their debut, “Awakening” was one of the best albums of last year, “Dark Angel” has taken things a stage further. This is a band who I’m sure are heading to bigger and better things.

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Opeth – Watershed

Swedish death prog metallers Opeth have done it again! I wondered if their ninth album “Watershed” could possibly top 2005′s superb “Ghost Reveries”. But with this new one, they’ve taken their mix of Scandinavian cookie-monster death metal and 70s pastoral English prog to yet another level.

There’s a bit less of the old cookie monster on this one; Michael Åkerfeldt sings ‘clean’ on quite a few of the heavier parts as well as the many quieter sections. But the appeal to me has always been the complex symphonic instrumentation rather than the vocals, with Åkerfeldt’s voice as another instrument. These guys are superb musicians, but never once descend into self-indulgent widdling. Åkerfeldt comes over as a composer first, and a muso second. And that’s how it should be.

It’s got all the trademark Opeth sounds; dense swirling guitars, piledrivingly heavy sections giving way to gentler acoustic passages, and some beautiful twin guitar harmonies with Michael Åkerfeldt and new guitarist Fredrik Åkesson. Per Wiberg’s keys are more fully integrated into the band’s sound on this disk; check out the fantastic Hammond organ solo on “Burden” (And I bet that’s a genuine B3, not a synth with a Hammond patch!). And naturally there’s plenty of Mellotron.

While there are still many extremely heavy moments, the balance seems tilted slightly more in favour of quieter more atmospheric parts; you can hear a strong Camel influence in one or two places. Out-and-out metal fans might not rate it quite as highly as their early work, but prog fans who liked their decidedly non-metal “Damnation” will find much here to enjoy. For me, its the contrast between the lighter and heavier sides of their music that accounts for a lot of their appeal.

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Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows

On Tuesday morning the pre-ordered edition of Mostly Autumn’s seventh studio album “Glass Shadows”, which I’d ordered at the beginning of the year, arrived on my doormat.

As regular readers of this blog should have noticed by now, I’ve been a huge fan of this York-based act for the past four years. They’ve actually been going for more than a decade, completely under the radar of the mainstream media. Their sound is unashamedly 70s, mixing elements of prog-rock, folk-rock, and classic AOR to produce a rich sound that’s far more than the sum of it’s parts. You can hear influences of Pink Floyd, Fairport Covention, Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac, but they manage to transcend any simple pastiche. The band lineup has changed over the years, but the constant factor and creative heart are Bryan Josh on vocals and guitar, and Heather Findlay on lead vocals. Bryan is a fantastic lead guitarist in the mould of Dave Gilmour and Steve Rothery, and his technically limited but heartfelt vocals are balanced by Heather’s wonderful voice, a perfect mix of precision and emotion that somehow manages to sound both sensual and pure at the same time.

Heather Findlay at Gloucester
Heather Findlay at Gloucester Guildhall, 24 April

Like many bands outside the fashionable mainstream, they finance their albums through pre-orders from fans, and this is the third one of theirs I’ve ordered this way. I’m probably too much of a fan of this band to be able to write anything approaching an objective review of anything by this band. When I’ve seen them live eighteen times (so far), have met the band several times, and am on first name terms with some of them, I think I’m a little too close to be able to view their music dispassionately. But I’m going to try anyway.

This was an eagerly-anticipated release. The previous album, the good-but-flawed “Heart Full of Sky”, though the band’s biggest seller to date, rather divided the fanbase. While it included at least a couple of absolute classic songs, I felt there were too many places where half-formed ideas weren’t properly developed. It was as if the band had overreached themselves trying to produce a double album in a limited timescale, and the end result fell frustratingly short of the better album it could have been.

This time around, they haven’t made the same mistake. The sound, engineered and mastered by John Spence, is very different from the overambitious wall-of-sound of it’s predecessor. It’s a more stripped down, organic sound, a little closer to how the band sound live. Not quite perfect; I’d like to have heard the backing vocals of Olivia Sparnenn and Anne Marie Helder a little more prominent in the mix. With Iain Jennings and Liam Davidson only rejoining the band for the start of the tour, and Chris Johnson having left before the start of recording, it’s left to Bryan Josh to plays almost all the keyboards as well as all the guitars. While there are probably a few places where Iain Jennings could have added some of his magic touches, Bryan’s studio keyboard playing seems to have improved from the rather simplistic playing on much of HFoS. Like the last couple of albums there’s not much flute, now played by Anne Marie Helder rather than the recently departed Angie Gordon.

With a running time of just 55 minutes, they’ve concentrated on quality rather than quantity, and spent the necessary time honing the arrangements. There is nothing half-formed on this disk, and no filler either. Musically the band continues to move forward; they’ve refused to play safe by creating a pastiche of their past. Like many great bands of the past they’ve explored some new musical areas, but still kept enough elements of the past sound to keep the majority of existing fans happy.

It’s also a stronger than usual album lyrically, gone are some of the awkward and clunky lyrics that have marred previous releases. They’re not singing about Hobbits any more now; they’ve got too much from their real life experiences of the last couple of years. It’s a true life story of heartbreak, joy, tragedy and hope.

I don’t normally do song-by-song reviews, but I’ll make an exception here.

The album opens with a strongly riff-driven hard rocker. With the subdued opening it starts off sounding like Fleetwood Mac, then turns into Led Zeppelin when the guitars come in at full strength on the second verse. Turn the volume up all the way up to eleven for this one, and rock out!

Second Hand
A dreamy atmospheric piece with Bryan singing lead that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of their early albums. This is one of those songs that doesn’t make an immediate impact, but creeps up on you after a couple of plays and gets stuck in your head. There are a few lyrical and musical similarities to a slowed-down version of ‘Pocket Watch’, but this is several orders of magnitude better.

Flowers for Guns
This one has ‘potential single’ written all over it, an upbeat pop song you can actually dance to. Heather’s lyrics are actually about the traumatic events of the middle of last year. Although they haven’t done anything quite like this before, somehow it still sounds like a Mostly Autumn song. There’s a great flute solo from Anne-Marie Helder in the middle.

Unoriginal Sin
This song is essentially Heather’s response to Fish’s “13th Star”. The melody and vocal delivery remind me a lot of parts of Odin Dragonfly’s “Offerings”, only an awful lot angrier. The dark brooding arrangement featuring some heavy guitar at the end, and I have to wonder if Bryan channelling Fish’s guitarist rank Usher is deliberate.

Paper Angels
Dedicated to backing singer Livvy Sparnenn, who’s going through very difficult times at the moment. One of the most emotionally intense songs on the album, and knowing exactly what Heather’s lyrics are about, this one hit me hard. Musically this could easily be a Breathing Space song, the first part a sparse piano and vocal arrangement, before Bryan launches into one of his best solos on the album.

Tearing at the Faerytale
This was the standout of the new songs they played live when I saw the in Gloucester, a big soaring guitar-driven epic that almost rivals the traditional live encore ‘Heroes Never Die’ in scope. It’s dedicated to Livvy’s dad Howard, a truly great guy I’ve had the privilege of meeting several times.

Above the Blue
In complete contrast, this song is beautiful shimmering ballad. The sparse arrangement, just piano and a subtle string arrangement from Troy Donockley gives Heather’s voice the space to shine. I find it reminiscent of ‘Broken’ from “Heart Full of Sky”, only far better.

Glass Shadows
Clocking in at more than eleven minutes in length, the title track is the only song on the album for with the label ‘prog’ is really appropriate. From the hauntingly atmospheric intro through to the intense swirling instrumental section towards the end, it’s a impressive well-structured piece, the only place where the Floydian influences they’ve worn on their sleeve on past albums come to the fore.

Until the Story Ends
A semi-acoustic love song about not one but two couples (I won’t say who, but Richard Nagy’s illustration on the lyric booklet is a big giveaway). The lyrics are perhaps a little bit soppy, but by this stage I think they’ve earned the right to a bit of soppy.

A Different Sky
This is the only song on the entire album that just doesn’t work for me. It’s not that it’s a bad song in itself, but this summery sixties-style pop number just sounds out of place on the album. The previous song makes such a musically and emotionally satisfying album closer that this song somehow diminishes it. I’ve suggested on the band’s web forum that they leave this song off the June retail edition of the album, and release it on it’s own as a single instead.

Aside from that one quibble about the final track, this is a very good album indeed. It might not quite be the career-defining masterpiece some people close to the band had been hyping it up to be, but it comes very close. The limited edition, complete with “making of” DVD is available from the band’s website. The normal retail edition will be released in June.

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Panic Room – Visionary Position

Panic Room are one of three new bands formed from the ashes of the original incarnation of Welsh celtic/prog band Karnataka, made up from Jon Edwards (keys), Paul Davies (guitar), Gavin Griffiths (drums) and Anne-Marie Helder (vocals and flute) from that band, plus Swansea bass virtuoso Alun Vaughan on bass. Their debut album has been three years in the making, and has finally appeared.

With four members of the old lineup of Karnataka in the band, comparisons are going to be inevitable. But while there are plenty of echoes of the previous band, this is certainly no simple pastiche of Karnataka’s music. It’s an awful lot more varied, for a start.

High spots are many. The rocky opener “Elektra City” takes just a couple of listens to become a serious earworm. Then there’s the brooding atmospheric “Endgame”. “Apocalypstick” with guest musician Liz Prendergast’s eastern-sounding electric violin centre-stage reminds me more than a little of Hawkwind’s “Hasan-I-Sabah”. And the arrangement of the traditional folk ballad “I wonder what’s keeping my true love tonight”, again featuring Liz Prendergast’s violin, is absolutely gorgeous.

The playing and production on this album are perfect; it certainly sounds like they took their time getting it right. There’s plenty of sweeping keyboard soundscapes from Jon Edwards, Paul Davies’s distinctive guitar is used sparingly but effectively, and Gavin and Alun make an incredibly tight rhythm section. And Anne-Marie Helder proves she’s a great lead vocalist in her own right; having seen a couple of her acoustic solo sets live I’ve never really doubted that, but this is the first time I’ve heard singing lead backed by a full band. The often complex multi-layered songs makes me wonder how on earth they’re going to reproduce all this live.

This album is definitely worth the three year wait.

The limited edition of the album is only available from the band’s website, www.panicroom.org.uk (warning! Flash only!). If your browser can’t cope with Flash, the band tell me you can also get a copy by posting a cheque for £11.49 (inc. £1.50 p&p) made out to “Firefly Music Ltd” to; Firefly Music Ltd, 3 Talbot Street, Gowerton, Swansea, SA4 3DB

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Mermaid Kiss – Etarlis

There seem to almost as many British female-fronted progressive bands as there are symphonic metal bands on the continent. I first heard of this band from a discussion on the Mostly Autumn forum, where it was recommended strongly enough that I ordered the album. After a few spins, it turned out to be a very worthwhile purchase indeed.

“Etarlis” is actually Mermaid Kiss’s third album. According to the liner notes, the songs are inspired by a fantasy adventure written over the years by Jamie Field and Evelyn Downing. It’s an epic tale of heroism and war rather than a parochal tale about fights outside the chip shop.

The keyboard-led music is strongly atmospheric and pastoral, with sparing use of lead guitar, significant use of flute, supplemented in places by oboe and cor anglais. The haunting melodies come from two distinctively different lead vocalists; Kate Belcher’s pure tones contrasting with Evelyn Downing’s more expressive style.

The closest musical reference point is probably the original incarnation of Karnataka, indeed Jonathan Edwards, formerly of Karnataka and now The Panic Room makes a guest appearance with a keyboard solo on ‘A Sea Change’. Troy Donockley.adds some uilleann pipes on the same track.

If you’re into celtic/ambient progressive rock with female vocals, you won’t go wrong by getting hold of this album. It’s available from the band’s website, www.mermaidkiss.co.uk.

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Breathing Space – Coming Up For Air

Just after their excellent set at the Mostly Autumn Convention back in March, I remarked to bassist Paul Teasdale that in a couple of years time they might be giving Mostly Autumn a run for their money. A few minutes later the Mostlies launched into an absolute blinder of a set that seemed to emphasise for me the qualification ‘in a couple of years time’.

Just seven months later Breathing Space come up with an album that quite possibly tops the last Mostly Autumn release Heart Full of Sky.

Coming Up for Air isn’t really a prog album. There are no 12 minute songs about Hobbits on this one. It’s a quite commercial-sounding set with an 80s pop feel in places, evenly split between up-tempo pop/rock numbers and the sort of gorgeous sweeping ballads Iain Jennings used to write for Mostly Autumn. There’s no filler, and Iain has done a superb production job; the sound is crystal clear, and the tight arrangements don’t waste a note.

If the first album was really an Iain Jennings solo release, this one is very much a band effort, with writing credits shared between Iain Jennings, Olivia Sparnenn and Mark Rowan. Olivia’s vocals show how much she’s improved as a singer in the two years since the first album, and I’m seriously impressed by Mark Rowan’s guitar work. He’s not flashy, but every one of his solos fit the song perfectly. The album also features guest appearances from Liam Davidson, who contributes some soaring slide guitar on “Don’t Turn a Blind Eye”, and from John Hart, who contributes sax and flute.

Standouts are many; I love the beautiful “Rain Song”, a reworking of a song performed by Livvy and Chris Johnson when they supported Mostly Autumn two years ago. Another standout is “Searching for my Shadow”, another song of Livvy’s, with an instrumental section that has more than a hint of “Carpe Diem” about it.

This is yet another addition to the growing list of great 2007 albums. It’s available direct from the band’s website – www.breathingspaceband.info

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Apocalyptica – Worlds Collide

If you watched the Eurovision Song Contest, you might remember the bunch of hairy heavy metal cellists whose performance during the interval was by far the best music of the evening. You might also remember it being totally ruined by that moron Wogan prattling inanely over the top of them.

Despite the almost complete absence of guitars, they’re just released one of the most metal albums of the year. All those piledriving riffs are actually distorted cellos; it’s only when one of them plays a solo that they actually sound like a cellos. This is not a traditional string quartet.

With the exception of a cover of Bowie’s “Helden”, all the songs are originals. The album is a mix of instrumentals and songs featuring various guest vocalists, including Rammstein’s Til Linderman, and Lacuna Coil’s Christina Scabbia.If anything, I find I prefer the instrumentals; the title track and “Burn” being particular standouts.

Now, where did I put my air cello?

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