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There haven’t been as many reviews on this site lately, because I’ve been writing instead for Trebuchet Magazine, which has a much higher profile that this blog.

My most recent live reviews over there have been The Esoteric Antenna showcase at The Borderline featuring The Reasoning, Sanguine Hum, Panic Room and headliners Tin Spirits, and before that, Touchstone supported by Heather Findlay & Chris Johnson at The Duchess in York.

I’m also reviewing albums that Trebuchet have received for review from record labels; the last of mine is of “Oro: Opus Primum” by doom-sludge merchants Ufomammut.

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The Reasoning – And Another Thing

The news of the disappearance of guitarist Owain Roberts, and the huge and ongoing fan campaign to spread the word and help find him has rather overshadowed the fact that the band have a new record out. Indeed, the band sent out the signed pre-order copies just days before he disappeared.

Although the band released a live album “The Bottle of Gettysburg” in 2011, and the album of reworkings of existing songs “Acoustically Speaking” late in 2010, this four track EP is the first release of all-new material since “Adverse Camber” two years ago. It’s also the first studio recording by the slimmed-down five piece version of the band with Owain Roberts as sole guitarist and Rachel Cohen as sole lead vocalist.

The opener “One By One” sets the tone. Beginning with chiming guitar and a vocal melody with an echo of their earlier “Dark Angel”, it combines atmospheric verses with a rockier chorus and a brief instrumental break of interplaying guitar and keys. It’s all over in less than four minutes, but seems to pack an awful lot of music into so short a time. In contrast, “Pale Criminal” is an out-and-out ballad. With another beautiful vocal melody from Rachel Cohen it’s a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Karnataka’s “Delicate Flame of Desire”.

“Apophenia” and “20 Grams” round off the EP in similar vein, mid-tempo numbers combining delicate vocal melodies with restrained instrumental virtuosity from Owain Roberts and keyboardist Tony Turrell. Lyrics cover things like “the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data” and Duncan MacDougall’s rather strange theories of the weight of the human soul. Not your typical rock’n'roll fare at all.

The whole EP has a softer, more pared-back sound, with shorter songs reining in the prog-metal excesses of their recent past. There’s still plenty of depth in the arrangements, with a few nods to latter-day Marillion and Rush. But now Rachel Cohen’s vocals are given much more space to breathe, no longer in any danger of being swamped by the instrumentation. It’s a case of less being more. Even if none of the four songs quite reach the highest points of the first two albums, the result is nevertheless a more coherent and focussed effort than their last studio album, and it takes a very different musical direction from their early work.

The band are back in the studio now recording a full-length album slated for release in September, which will be the band’s first release under their new record deal Esoteric Antenna. In the meantime, this EP, their last self-released recording under the imprint of Comet Records, is available from the band’s website.

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The Reasoning – And Another Thing

The Reasoning’s long-awaited new EP, “And Another Thing” is now available for pre-order from the band’s website.

The four-track EP marks both the end and the beginning of an era, in that it’s the final release by the band as independent artists on Comet Records, and the first new studio recording of the 5-piece lineup of the band.

The official release date is 12th March 2012, but the band will dispatch pre-orders received before the end of February a week early.

Oh, and the first 500 orders received will be signed. So go and order it now!

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Panic Room and The Reasoning sign to Esoteric Recordings

Major and completely unexpected announcements from both Panic Room and The Reasoning. Both bands have signed record deals with Esoteric Recordings, and imprint of Cherry Red records.

Panic Room’s album, which they will be recording in January and February is slated for an early Summer release, while The Reasoning’s is due in November.

Both bands have put in a lot of hard word slogging round what is euphemistically known as “The toilet circuit”, steadily building a fanbase and honing their acts to the point where they’re capable of giving far higher profile bands a run for their money. They’ve probably got as far as they were going to get as independent artists, and signing with a label is what needed to happen if they were to get to the next level.

I’ve followed both bands from their very first gigs (The Uplands Tavern in Swansea, and The Town Hall in Lydney), and it’s exciting to see where they’re going to go next. While I don’t expect them to be headlining enormodomes just yet, being signed to a label will open a lot of doors, whether it be prestigious support slots or support for overseas tours.

While I’ve heard too many horror stories in the past of labels interfering in the creative process to the detriment of an artists long-term future, I’m confident this isn’t going to happen here. It’s not like either band is a bunch of fresh-faced innocents just out of The Brit School about to be chewed-up and spat out by the major label sausage machine. Given their artist roster (including prog veterans Hawkwind and Van der Graaf Generator), Esoteric Recordings don’t sound like that sort of label.

Does rather make a mockery of the ridiculous claim that Panic Room don’t want to “dirty their hands with commerce”, doesn’t it?

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Sankara – Enigma

Sankara is the band formed by vocalist and keyboard player Gareth Jones and drummer Vinden Wylde, both formerly of The Reasoning, and guitarist Jay McDonald, formerly of The Bluehorses, with bassist Rhayn Jooste completing the lineup. “Enigma” is their first release.

The four track EP gets off to a strong start with the opening title track. Building from a piano arpeggio to a big soaring chorus the end result is a song you just can’t get out of your head. This and the following hard rocker “Exalted Star” with it’s growling riff and multi-layered vocal harmonies recall bands like Styx before they descended into cheese. The ballad “Lay My Body Down” is perhaps the weakest of the four songs, never really coming to life despite some good guitar work from Jay towards the end, but the EP ends on a high note with the hard rock of “Full Flow”.

This highly melodic mix of hard rock and AOR ballads is quite a way from the prog-metal leanings of Gareth’s and Vinden’s previous band. But there are still definite echoes of some of Gareth Jones’ earlier songwriting contributions for them, and his accomplished vocals prove he’s more than capable of fronting his own band, not that it was really in any doubt. On this disk he sings all the harmonies as well as lead, which makes me wonder how they’ll reproduce the songs live; I guess it depends on how well the rest of the band can cope on backing vocals.

This is a promising start for the band. Even if the production isn’t slick and polished, the quality of the songs and playing shine through, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more good things from them in the coming months and years.

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High Voltage 2011

The High Voltage festival, held in Victoria Park in east London, is now in it’s second year. It’s focus is very much on classic rock, progressive rock and metal. Last years festival, headlined by ZZ Top and ELP was a fantastic weekend. This year’s bill has attracted some criticism for being weaker than last year, but still contained enough great bands to well worth attending.

For some of us at least, the weekend began on Friday with The Reasoning playing a packed Borderline in central London. The slimmed-down five piece incarnation of the band has gelled well now, even though the mix was little vocal-heavy with not quite enough guitar. Their set was an well-chosen selection of songs from their three albums with most of the classics accounted for, plus a couple of excellent sounding brand new numbers from their forthcoming new album, “The Omega Point”, and “No Friend of Mine”, which is apparently all about the pitfalls of social media. I just hope the lyrics are not about me! A great show, which turned out to be the first ever gig by a band I’ve known personally that completely sold out.

High Voltage itself opened on Saturday lunchtime with Von Hertzen Brothers on the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage. Not a band I knew much about. They started off playing melodic hard rock; good, but I wondered what they were doing on the prog stage. But as the set progressed they began playing some more complex material with intricate harmonies that more than justified their inclusion. Tight, energetic and melodic, a good start to the day.

Next up, the much-acclaimed Amplifier, from the more avant-garde end of the genre. The opening moments sounded like The Fall, all atonal noise, but after a few seconds, actual tunes started to appear. Their set was dense and riffy with a lot of atmosphere. By no means bad, but I’m not sure I’ve completely got my head round their music. This lot may take more listening before I really appreciate what they’re doing.

Canterbury scene veterans Caravan represented the opposite end of the spectrum of progressive rock. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from them, but they far exceeded whatever expectations I had. They played a great jazz-influenced set, keyboard-led with plenty of flute and violin, including the bouncy pop-rock of “Golf Girl”, and ending with the lengthy workout of “Nine Feet Underground” from their seminal album “The Land of the Grey and Pink”. Excellent stuff, and I can’t wait to see them again at the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Liverpool’s Anathema are very much the prog band of the moment. They started off life as a death-metal band, but there’s little or no trace of that now in their atmospheric indie-flavoured prog sound. This is a band who have toiled away for years before getting the recognition they deserved. Their triumphal set, drawn largely from the latest and best album “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, was simply stunning.

Neal Morse turned out to be the revelation of the day. I’ve admired his work with Spock’s Beard, but haven’t investigated his more recent solo work. With an eight-piece band including electric violin and electric cello(!), he played with an incredible level of energy and enthusiasm. The music was a lot like earlier Spock’s Beard, quirky but hugely melodic, with a clear nod to Gentle Giant. The very religious lyrics were a bit hard to take, even for me, but if you focus on the music, it’s amazing and heady stuff, and it was impossible not to be moved by the sheer exuberance of his performance.

I was wondering just how John Lees Barclay James Harvest could follow that. But I needn’t have worried. I’m a late convert to BJH, loving their huge soaring Mellotron-drenched sound. Even without the late Woolly Wolstenholme, and now playing as a four-piece, they’re a great live band. Their distinctive stately symphonic rock culminated in the magnificent epic “The Poet/After the Day”, surely their equivalent of Mostly Autumn’s “Mother Nature”. They closed, as they always do with “Hymn”, which turned into a singalong.

After than it was a quick sprint over to the main stage to catch the hellfire and brimstone of headliners Judas Priest. Amazingly, despite owning a great many of their albums, I’ve never seen this genre-defining band live. Despite their age, the Black Country metal veterans rocked, and even at 60 years old Rob Halford has still got it vocally with those piercing screams. Their greatest hits set drew from right across their 40-year back catalogue, from their very early years to the title track of the most recent opus “Nostradamus”, which Halford sung dressed in a cape and hood. This is a band who really understand the art of showmanship, with Halford whipping the Harley-Davison during “Hell Bent For Leather”. Camper than Millets, but great fun. And what a setlist! Early epics like “Victim of Changes” and “Beyond the Realms of Death”, 80s hit singles like “Breaking the Law”, the controversial “Turbo” and more recent songs like “Judas Rising” from “Angel of Retribution”.

Sunday started with some old-school neo-prog from 80s veterans Pallas, who played an energetic and enthusiastic set, a great warm-up for the day. While much of the set came from their more recent albums I’m not familiar with, they ended with a rousing rendition of “Arrive Alive”.

There is no-one else quite like The Enid, led by keyboard wizard Robert John Godfrey. Not everyone gets what they do, essentially classical music played on rock instrumentation. Supplemented this time by a small choir and a four-piece trumpet section, their set was over far too quickly, ending with the medley of “Land of Hope and Glory” and The Dambusters March, which RJG took pains to suggest was being performed at the request of the promoters. All stirring stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing them headline the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Curved Air are another band I was looking forward to seeing. Like Caravan, they’re a classic 70s band reformed in recent years, and like them, they’ve still got it decades later. Sonja Kristina was on excellent form vocally, still looking glamorous despite being a grandmother. Apart from their hit “Back Street Luv” and “Vivaldi”, both of which they played, I knew nothing of their back catalogue. They’re very much at the jazzy end of prog with electric violin central to their sound – this is certainly a band I want to see again.

Then it was fingers crossed for Mostly Autumn, for what was a very high profile gig for them. I know I’m a huge fan, and likely to be biased, but it was clear this was something out of the ordinary, even by the high standards of their shows this year. It was one of the performances of their lives. They completely owned the stage, with a mix of energy and emotional intensity that few bands can match. They deserve to pick up a lot of new fans on the strength of performances like that.

Spocks Beard were, for me at least, the sole disappointment of the festival. Maybe it was because I was watching them from further back, maybe it was because they had to follow Mostly Autumn’s stunning performance, maybe having Ted Leonard standing in for the unavailable Nick D’Virgilio on lead vocals sapped their energy. Despite playing a set drawing heavily from their earliest and best albums, they just failed to engage me at all. It all seemed flat – there was none of the jubilant enthusiasm of Neal Morse’s set the day before. I left before the end to catch Black Country Communion on the main stage, so missed Neal’s appearance at the end of the set – maybe that finally brought things to life.

Black Country Communion, on the other hand, absolutely rocked with the sort of performance that’s in danger of giving supergroups a good name. I’d seen Glenn Hughes fronting his own band last year, which was good, and proved his vocal chords are still in good working order. But when he’s sharing the stage with genuine rock stars rather than journeyman musos, BCC are in a completely different league. Joe Bonamassa is the axe hero of his generation, and is the perfect foil for Hughes’ still-superb voice. Jason Bonham is a chip off the old block on drums, and Derek Sherinian added huge depth to the sound on Hammond organ. They ended with an absolutely barnstorming cover of Deep Purple’s “Burn”.

I only caught the last few songs of Jethro Tull, so I can’t really give a thorough appraisal of their set. But I did see rousing renditions of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” with Joe Bonamassa guesting.

Finally, festival headliners Dream Theater. Even if their brand of intensely muso prog-metal isn’t your cup of tea, every band on the prog stage owes a debt to them. More than any other band, Dream Theater are responsible for putting progressive rock back on the map, and without them many other bands wouldn’t be there. This was a high-stakes gig for them, marking the debut of new drummer Mike Mangini, replacing the much-loved Mike Portnoy.

This is a band who have always been far more about the musicians than the singer. In theatre-sized venues where you can actually see the band members hands, they’re actually quite exciting to watch, fingers flying up and down fretboards. But in a large arena where you can only really see the band on the big screens at the sides of the stage, that effect gets lost. Vocalist James LaBrie was actually on quite good form for once – while he’s never going to be one of my favourite singers, this time his vocals weren’t nearly as bad as I feared they’d be.

While there’s no doubting the band’s amazing technical skills, there was little of the showmanship we’d seen with Judas Priest the night before. The music was great, with a dense complex tapestry of sound. But it clearly didn’t appeal to everyone, and I noticed people were leaving in significant numbers before the end. Still a good performance, but in a weekend that had seen several outstanding ones, by no means the highlight of the weekend.

And so ended the festival. A weekend of amazing music, and a great gathering of the rock tribes. Loved the way I kept bumping into friends all weekend, not just fellow fans but people like Kim Seviour from Touchstone and Ian Jones from Karntaka. Having spent most of the weekend in front of the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage, the sheer quality and variety of the music says it all about why I love progressive rock as a genre. Amplifier are nothing like Mostly Autumn who are nothing like Anathema who are nothing like Neal Morse. Need I go on? Got to an indie festival and all you’ll get a slew of bands drawing from the same limited musical palette, all playing the same predictable chord progressions.

I’m now counting down days until the Cambridge Rock Festival in less than two weeks’ time.

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The Prog Factor!

The latest issue of Classic Rock Presents Prog came out today, containing the results of 2010 readers poll, in which I remembered to vote this time!

It’s great so see so many of the bands I’ve travelled around the country to see feature a lot in the results. Both Mostly Autumn and The Reasoning did well, with MA’s “Go Well Diamond Heart” and The Reasoning’s “Adverse Camber at #3 and #5 in Best Album. The Reasoning also made #4 in Best Band, and Mostly Autumn’s “The Night In Leamington” at #5 in Best DVD, the latter very creditable when you consider the other four were Rush, Transatlantic, Porcupine Tree and Opeth, all bands of far higher profile

Not only that, Anne-Marie Helder, Kim Servior and Olivia Sparnenn took the top three positions in Best Female Vocalist. Not only lovely people, but three are great singers who have paid their dues slogging around what’s euphemistically knows as “the toilet circuit” for several years, and it’s certainly time to see them start to get the recognition they deserve. They’re all real singers who don’t need auto-tune and can very definitely cut it live, which is more than can be said for far too many of today’s chart-toppers. Forget X-Factor, it’s the Prog Factor that really counts.

And we shouldn’t underestimate the significance either. Classic Rock Presents Prog is not a subscription-only niche publication with a limited audience, it’s a widely-available newsstand publication with a readership of more than half that of the NME.

The other big prog news this week is the announcement of the several of the bands who will the playing the Classic Rock Presents Prog stage at High Voltage in July. Jethro Tull will be one of the headliners, with Mostly Autumn, Spock’s Beard, The Enid, Caravan and Pallas also on the bill. This is looking like a fantastic weekend already.

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A Year in Live Music

My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was a very emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.

Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig and this was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.

Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival

When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.

Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1

The prog-rock supergroup proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio is enough to give Guardian music journalists the vapours.

Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.

Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester

After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.

High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London

While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.

Cambridge Rock Festival

This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guests The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.

Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year

Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.

Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular.

Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2

Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this one pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.

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Top Ten Albums of 2010

It’s that time of the year again. 2010 doesn’t seem to have been quite as strong a year as 2009, when I did a top 15 – this year I struggled to name ten. On the other hand, my top four are absolutely superb. A couple of 2010 releases are missing (most notably the excellent Satellite by Panic Room) because I included the pre-release editions in my 2009 list, and it doesn’t seem right to list them twice.

10: Tarja – What Lies Beneath

The second solo album from the former Nightwish lead singer has a massive production including orchestras and kitchen sinks as well as metal guitars, but never quite comes alive. There are some good songs in the mix of big rock numbers and power-ballads, but Tarja’s soprano vocals, while technically superb throughout, lack emotion too much of the time.

9: Rhapsody of Fire – The Frozen Tears of Angels

More Dungeons and Dragons operatic pomp-metal from the Italian quintet, again featuring narration from Sir Christopher Lee and a corny plot featuring a Dark Lord called “Necron”. All good fun in a cheesy sort of way, even if it doesn’t really break any new ground for the band. Twenty-sided dice are not included.

8: New Dance Orchestra – Electronica

An unexpectedly good album from Geoff Downes (the instrumental half of The Buggles) with the superb Anne-Marie Helder on vocals. Billed as “dance-pop”, it’s more 80s pop than Ibiza-style dance anthems, a great collection of well-crafted songs. This one’s a pre-order, currently available direct from the band, but won’t have a retail release until the new year.

7: Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here

The former doom-metallers return after a lengthy absence and drop just about all traces of metal from their sound in favour of atmospheric soundscapes. It’s a musical journey that works far far better as one continuous listen than as a collection of individual songs.

6: The Reasoning – Adverse Camber

The Cardiff band’s third album continues in a similar prog-metal vein as 2008′s “Dark Angel”, albeit with Rachel Cohen handling the majority of the lead vocals. A solid piece of work with some great songs, even if it doesn’t (for me at least) quite reach the heights of their first two albums.

5: Pure Reason Revolution – Hammer and Anvil

PRR describe their third album as “Disco-prog”, meaning they’ve put electronic dance, prog and metal into a blender. At times atmospheric, at times sounding like The Prodigy at their most mental, it puts the progressive back into prog.

4: Therion – Sitra Ahra

Not quite as bonkers as their last album “Gothic Kabballah”, this one is the slightly more accessible side of Therion’s choral metal. It’s still filled with complex multi-part vocal arrangements using multiple classically-trained singers, which when combined with twin lead guitars makes for a very rich sound indeed.

3: Black Country Communion

The combination of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian is in danger of giving supergroups a good name with this album of classic 70s-style hard rock. Hughes, despite his age is on fine form vocally, Bonamassa shows he can do hard rock as well as blues, and Jason Bonham is in the same league as his famous father. Sherinian really only has a supporting role given that cast, but still delivers some great Hammond playing. The best album Led Zeppelin never recorded in the 70s? Maybe.

2: Karnataka – The Gathering Light

Five years in the making, the second incarnation of Karnataka finally deliver an album of old-school symphonic prog on a truly epic scale. Features heartfelt female vocals from the now-departed Lisa Fury and some fantastic guitar playing from Enrico Pinna, as well as guest appearances from Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes, and Hugh McDowell, formerly of ELO, on cello.

1: Mostly Autumn – Go Well Diamond Heart

OK, so you all know I’m a huge fan of this band. But this is the first time since I’ve been blogging that they’ve come up with my album of the year. It’s an immensely varied album containing atmospheric celtic moments, belting hard rockers, shimmering four-minute pop songs, and soaring ballads. They’ve managed to take the spirit of 70s classic rock and made it sound relevant for the 21st century with great songwriting, singing and musicianship. And they’ve done it straight after the departure of a much-loved lead singer too.

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The Reasoning, The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol, 12-Nov-2010

Rachel Cohen at The Fleece and Firkin in Bristol

“And then there were five”, said Rachel Cohen at the start of The Reasoning’s gig at The Fleece and Firkin in Bristol. The departure of guitarist, vocalist and founder member Dylan Thompson on the eve of the tour came as something as a shock. The band’s decision to rehearse and tour as a five-piece rather than postpone the tour was a brave one, which left quite a few people wondering quite how they’d reproduce much of their complex multi-layered material live.  So I set out to for Bristol, a new venue for me, not quite knowing what to expect from them.

As soon as they took the stage and launched into the prog-metal of “Dark Angel”, it was clear that they’d pulled it off. Far from having obvious holes in the sound, the slimmed-down incarnation of The Reasoning simply gives each of the musicians more space.  Less was indeed more. As they always have been, the band were both tight and had really high energy level.

Naturally they played a much rearranged setlist, dropping many of the songs that relied on Dylan’s lead vocals in favour of songs with Rachel singing lead. So we saw the return of songs like “Within Cold Glass” from their first album, and the first UK appearance of the Dream Theater-esque 14 from their most recent album “Adverse Camber”.  Keyboardist Tony Turrell, who’s previously only sung backing vocals, took the male lead vocal on “Awakening” and “A Musing Dream”, while Matt Cohen, who’d previously not been let near a microphone, added some backing vocals. Owain Roberts did a superb job as sole guitarist, nailing the solos he hadn’t previously played.  Tony Turrell’s keys weren’t always that prominent in the mix, but his solo spot, with sections of Fish’s “Plague of Ghosts” and bits of assorted Marillion tunes went down extremely well with a certain section of the crowd.

As one of the band said, when their backs are against the wall, they come out fighting. The slimmed-down Reasoning still rock, and it will be interesting to hear where go next, especially when they return to the studio.

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