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Old 01-13-2021, 03:24 PM   #71 (permalink)
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When I were a lad (oh god here he goes again! Just ignore him; he’ll soon go away) there wasn’t much in the way of recommendations for albums or even artists. No YouTube, no streaming, no, in fact, internet at all. So we had rock magazines, radio and the odd TV programme like Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test via which to consume and be exposed to new music. Often, I would head into the city centre with a few quid clutched in my young fist and just go through the second-hand bins in various record shops, and more often than not my attention would be arrested by an interesting sleeve. I would then check to see who the band were, and if I might be interested in them. I would have to say Santana’s Abraxas came into my collection this way, and I’ve already told the story of how I would look in the window of the closed record shop after work and admire the cover of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, to say nothing of being scared of the lurid cover of the devilish debut from Iron Maiden!

Which all goes to prove that then - not so much, I guess now, though still for me in most ways - we chose our albums based on what we thought of the cover. Or, to be more accurate, if we found an album with an intriguing or interesting cover, we might be tempted to buy it just on that basis, sometimes to our loss and sometimes to our gain.

So here I will be resurrecting the section I used to run in my main journal, many years ago, which I called then, and will call now

In this feature I will look at a prog rock album cover and waffle on about it. And here’s the first one.


Number One: In Search of the Lost Chord by The Moody Blues, 1968

Now this is a cover that grabs your attention! According to the artist who created it, Phil Travers, it’s supposed to convey the idea of meditation. Now, far be it from me to criticise, but this is not at all what it says to me, and I was quite surprised when I read the explanation. For me, this represents the journey from birth to death (though shown in reverse), and while this may not be - is not, according to the artist - the intention behind the work, it’s fair to say that every artist will agree that other interpretations can be put on their work, so here’s how I see it.

You have a skull on the left side and an embryo on the right, with a man sitting between them, while from his head seem to rise higher thoughts. All right, this certainly can be explained as being a representation of meditation, to be fair. It could be - and possibly is - meditation on the state of human existence. The skull (and the embryo) appear to be sunk in the ground, buried even. This is acceptable for the skull: we all die, and if we’re not cremated or shot out into space, we’re buried and our bones end up in the earth. But the embryo? Well I guess it could be viewed also as a sort of seed, new life waiting in the soil to come forth, grow and claw its way to the surface, perhaps even an allegory for the baby pushing its way out of the womb and into life.

Or maybe it’s all bollocks, but this is what I think anyway.

The words above each - “In search of” being above the skull and “the lost chord” above the embryo - could be falling downward, into the earth, into the soil (into death?) or rising up above the poor mud of our mortal coil. Given that the thoughts in the man’s head are rising (to a higher plane?) is it likely the words, the concept, are also rising? Or can it be something even, ahem, deeper?

Searching usually implies digging - if not literally then figuratively: dig that invoice out for me would you? Dig into his personal history, and so on - so the natural expected direction evoked is down, dig down, unearth, excavate. If that’s the case, then both sets of words can be seen to be falling, sinking down, to be uncovered by, what? Truth? Revelation? A higher state of consciousness?

Another point: the words “the lost chord” seem to be centring towards, or emanating from, the embryo, and if you change one letter in chord you get cord. Umbilical cord? Are we talking here about finding the cord to sever it, in order to free the baby and allow it to begin to live? The skull, with the words “in search of”, grinning as all skulls appear to, could be seen as representing that the search is futile, pointless, and will end in death, or that death will overtake the seeker, he or she never having made his or her discovery. It’s facing the embryo, so could be seen to be gloating, though the embryo is not looking at it, being unable to, possibly not even having eyes yet but certainly in the foetal position and so unable to look up. Is it then a symbol of avoidance, technically afraid to face the skull, face the truth it bears, face death? Or is it refusal, a defiance in the face of the crumbling remains of a human being, that what it seeks can be found, that it will find it, and that death is a long way off for this newborn child?

The man sits between both the skull and the embryo, caught in the shadow thrown by both, trapped in the earth, below ground. Is he the representation of what the embryo will be, waiting to be born, to ascend to a more spiritual existence? His thoughts lead from deep darkness to brilliant, exploding light high above the soil (grave?) and in fact seem to expand into some sort of bright sunburst, spreading its light over the entire scene. So while all below is dark and gloomy, above the two figures blue sky and white clouds stretch under the warming influence of the sun, while hands (four, for some reason) reach out and seem to rise towards the heavens.

So: meditation? Certainly. I wouldn’t presume to debate the artist. But as in all things in art, interpretation can vary with each person who views it, and while this may not be what Travers intended when he sat down to create this illustration, perhaps there are things in his work that even he is unaware of.

Or maybe I’m just a knob, overanalysing as usual.
Either way, it’s interesting and certainly makes for a fascinating album cover.
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Old 01-13-2021, 08:33 PM   #72 (permalink)
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Let’s go right back to where it all began

Album title: Wounded Land
Artist: Threshold
Nationality: English
Year: 1993
Chronology: 1
The Trollheart Factor: 10

Track Listing: Consume to Live/Days of Dearth/Sanity’s End/Paradox/Surface to Air/Mother Earth/Siege of Baghdad/Keep it With Mine

Comments: For a debut album this is pretty stunning. Kicking off with “Consume to Live” it’s a powerful statement that chastises us for our misuse of the planet, evidence that this band was not going to just write about popular topics but would take the almost aggressive political commentary route. Not every one of their songs is political of course, but you can definitely see from this debut that they were going to have a lot to say. Of course, there’s not that much point in having something to say if nobody listens, so Threshold from the off surrounded the message in their lyrics with catchy, memorable melodies, hooks and singalong choruses. It’s progressive metal certainly, with the guitar of Karl Groom and Nick Midson taking control.

“Days of Dearth” continues the - it must be said - grim, morose tone of the album, slowing everything down with a real grind and slow march, while “Sanity’s End”, one of the two epics on the album, clocking in at just over ten minutes, takes the dangers of drug addiction - particualrly Ecstasy - as its theme, warning that there is always a price to be paid. Richard West begins to come into his own here for the first time as he breaks out his battery of keyboards. Nice introspective piece in the middle where Groom and Midson take over, then West is back to let it rip Geoff Downes-style all over the track. Man is taken to task again in “Paradox”, where there’s almost a sense of AOR about the melody, again quite keyboard-driven, very uptempo. Really nice slow guitar solo that leads into a faster run, very effective.

“Surface to Air” is another ten-minuter, opening on a soft gentle melody which gives Damian Wilson a chance to show the more restrained side of his singing, and West holds court on piano. Groom soon punches in though and takes the song in an entirely new direction, though West has his revenge (!) later when his lazy, whistling arpeggios lead Groom into what must be said to be a very Pink Floyd “Comfortably Numb” solo, but given that this was a band starting out, and given that the album is next to perfect we can forgive this one slight misstep. The final part of the song runs on a beautiful hook that just ramps everything up and ends the track wonderfully.

A marching grinder returning to ecological concerns, “Mother Earth” punches along really nicely, some great vocal histrionics from Wilson, then big doomy drums and a doleful wailing guitar usher in “Siege of Baghdad”, with the expected Middle Eastern riffs, kicking into a rhythm somewhat reminiscent of the opener. Groom pretty much runs the show here, with Midson adding some fine acoustic guitar, then we end on a simple acoustic ballad in “Keep it With Mine”, a perhaps low-key end to a very powerful debut album, but somehow appropriate, like a long slow breath released after a heavy workout.

Track(s) I liked: Everything

Track(s) I didn't like: Nothing; “Siege of Baghdad” would be the one I liked least maybe

One standout: “Surface to Air”

One rotten apple: n/a

Overall impression: As a debut album this is a real revelation. It's a pity Threshold aren't better known, but they fly the flag well for intelligent, thoughtful and melodic progressive metal.

Rating: 9.6/10
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Old 01-14-2021, 10:32 AM   #73 (permalink)
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Let’s check out another of
Trollheart's
Albums I listened to early in my prog rock life will always hold a special resonance for me; these were, after all, the albums and artists that led me on to others who became favourites, and at the time I had no reviewer ambitions, so I just listened to them for pleasure, not criticism (though I might have reviewed them mentally, and I think I did: I just had no outlet at the time to put such thoughts out there) and many times too, as at the time I had little if any access to the internet, there were no streaming services or download sites, and I could only listen to what I could afford to buy, and that wasn’t a lot at the time. So in one way perhaps I got stuck in a rut, listening to the same albums and artists over and over again, but in another way it gave me a real appreciation of, and made me very familiar with these albums, to the extent that I can easily review them now without even having to listen to them.

But I will listen to them, because why not?


Album title: Fact and Fiction
Artist: Twelfth Night
Nationality: English
Year: 1982
Chronology: 1 (*)
The Trollheart Factor: 3

Track Listing: We Are Sane ((i) Te Dium (ii) We Are Sane (iii) Dictator’s Excuse-me)/Human Being/This City/World Without End/Fact and Fiction/The Poet Sniffs a Flower/Creep Show/Love Song

Comments: More than likely having been recommended the album by Kerrang! (my Bible growing up, and one of the only ways I heard about new music) this was one of a clutch of purchases I made after falling under the spell of Marillion, and while it’s quite different to the Fish-led albums of the early and mid-eighties, and was nowhere near as successful, for a debut it’s pretty damn stunning. It’s perhaps interesting that the album opens on a boy soprano-style vocal from Geoff Mann, the kind of thing you would hear from a choirboy, and he went on to pursue a career in the church. Anyway, his voice soon dips into deeper, darker areas and the song gets going. Being nearly ten and a half minutes long it changes as it goes along, and is in fact split into three sections. It’s almost a play set to music, really quite impressive, and focuses on the idea of enforced conformity and the loss of identity and individuality.

Another sort of boy soprano introduction to “Human Being”. I really love the lush keyboard and then the tinkling piano; Mann’s voice gets really angry and acerbic here, also sounds like there’s cello but I don’t think Twelfth Night used one did they? Great guitar solo from Andy Revell, while “This City” is pretty much driven on Clive Mitten’s evocative keys, with attendant sounds of children playing. One thing Twelfth Night used a lot was sound effects - you saw many of them in “We Are Sane” and here they are again, adding to the atmosphere of the song. They work really well, and it’s not like they need them, as Geoff Mann’s voice, once he gets going, really commands your attention.

“World Without End” is a short but gorgeous, almost sepulchral instrumental and leads into the title track, which bounces along with great enthusiasm and some seriously fun keyboard arpeggios, and into another instrumental, “The Poet Sniffs a Flower”, which opens on a lovely classical guitar with soft keys behind it, then picks up speed rather unexpectedly, ending as an entirely different animal. And that takes us to the penultimate track, but certainly the one around which the album is based, to my mind anyway, and if not that, certainly the longest, coming in a mere few seconds short of twelve minutes.

“Creepshow” brings back memories of carnivals, Victorian sanitariums and even prisons and experimental laboratories, and again given its length as you’d expect it changes quite a lot as it progresses, opening on a soft acoustic guitar line and soft keys, but soon changes in tone and timbre as Mann, as the guide through the horror show, gives an almost Oscar-winning performance in spoken terror. The ideas espoused in the song are chilling, and Mann’s almost casually cruel diction makes it feel real, even acceptable, recalling ideas of the Nazi experimental hospitals just before World War II.

There are some really weird sound effects that lend power to the denouement of the song, making it sound like something out of an episode of Dr. Who or Black Mirror, and Revell does some of his finest work here, including an emotional outro solo that recalls the very best of that fine young man from Pink Floyd. Finally, and almost unexpectedly, the album ends on a little coda, a chance to catch breath and squeeze open eyes long held shut, to confirm the horror is over, the calm after the storm, the rainbow after the downpour, the slowing of the madly thumping heart. All is well.

Or.
Is it?

Track(s) I liked: Everything

Track(s) I didn't like: Nothing

One standout: “Creepshow”

One rotten apple: n/a

Overall impression: Probably - though I don’t know because I haven’t heard many of their other albums - a case of a band crafting the perfect debut album, and having to struggle to equal such an opus. Were this their only album, however, it would still be, I believe, sufficient to elevate them to the rarefied heights of prog’s elite. Stunning.

Rating: 10/10

Future Plan: Must try to hear their other material. And RIP Geoff Mann.

(*) There were three cassette tapes prior, so technically it's their fourth release, but given it's the first actual (at the time) vinyl album, I'd categorise it as their proper debut.

FYI If you want a fuller more detailed review, here’s my look at the album posted in July of 2011.
Fact and Fiction
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Old 01-15-2021, 08:04 AM   #74 (permalink)
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Almost a trademark of 80/90s neoprog was the vocalist taking all the limelight and....verbosity.
"Fact & Fiction" being a concept lp, certainly is crammed with lyric, but its not silly lyric.

Neoprog is rather a verboten genre for me but I DO have maybe 30 lps in the collection (IQ-Wake,Lush Attic, first Pendragon & Pallas....)
And I have all four Twelfth Night lps.
(Curiously enough one of the lps is all-instrumental.)

12th Night sparks a memory for me: my best used store find of all time (next to Plastic Cloud). It must have been early 90s. I forget the name of the record store - it didn't last long. This was downtown Hamilton ,Ontario opposite the pawnbrokers. In this store I got - for something like $8 each - 12th Night, Cathedral -Stained Glass Stories (on orig Delta) and Czar-same. Im still kicking myself: there was actually two (orig UK press) copies of the Czar!
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Old 01-15-2021, 03:25 PM   #75 (permalink)
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Originally Posted in Racing the Clouds Home, December 31 2016

To my mind, Italy is the only country outside of the UK to have essentially an entire subgenre named after and linked to them, and be, of course, exclusive to them. You can't play Italian progressive rock if you're not Italian, unlike the Canterbury Scene, where you could be in the scene even if you weren't from Canterbury. In fact, few if any of the bands in that scene were. But for all its influence over the genre, I've only heard very little of this music and that kind of in passing, with bands like Prognesi and to an extent Fabio Zuffanti, mostly through his work with Hostsonaten. So here's where I change this, as I go on a deep exploration of the world and music that is known as
Rock Progressivo Italiano

I honestly don't know where to start. This isn't going to be a history of RPI – that will probably unfold as part of my History of Prog journal anyway – but a chance to take a look and listen to some of the better, and perhaps less good, famous and less well-regarded bands, artistes and albums within the genre. I read that at the time when prog was in its most nascent form in the UK, bands like Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant found an audience for their music among Italian fans almost before they found fame at home, so if England could be, and is, seen as the wellspring and font of all things prog, then surely Italy must be regarded as one of the mighty river's greatest tributaries.

One of the first Italian prog bands to spring up appear to have been these guys, who went on to become, in fairness, more known for their work on film soundtracks, notably with horror/schlock maestro Dario Argento, but did put out some standard prog albums. This one, in typical prog style, is a concept, although if it's sung in Italian, as I assume it is, you're out of luck as I have no Italian beyond “Ay Giovanni! Where's-a my pizza?” (Note: any slights made on the Italian language are in jest only, and should not, I repeat NOT be communicated to or repeated within a hundred miles of any practicing members of the Cosa Nostra.)

Hey, maybe it'll be an instrumental album. Avanti!

Il Fantastico Viaggio del Bagarozzo Mark – Goblin – 1978 (Cinevox)

No, there are vocals. Well, from what I read by quickly scanning other reviews of this album by people far better versed in RPI than myself, this is something of a maverick within the genre, as it would seem the usual RPI albums tend not to have any singing. Interesting. I also note that the translation of the title comes out as “the fantastic journey of (I could have translated that much myself, of course) the beetle Mark”. So is there some psychedelic weirdness mixed into the lyrics? We'll never know, as, as I say, I can't speak Italian, so that will have to remain a mystery, as we concentrate – as it seems we will be mostly or even exclusively doing all through this section – on the music.

It's not an epic by any standards, certainly not by those of progressive rock, having a mere eight tracks and clocking in at a very low thirty-five minutes in total, with no track overstaying its welcome, the longest being just under six minutes long. “Mark il bagarozzo” (Mark the beetle I assume) gets things going with a spacey synthy keyboard sound and some nice guitar; the vocals are strong but as I can't tell what's being sung I can say little more about them, and here at least I can see why some people seem to consider them more a distraction, as they sort of take from the music, which, once it gets going, is very impressive. You can see why these guys went on to have such a career in film music. Superb organ from Claudio Simonetti mostly drives this, though Massimo Morante, who also takes the vocals, makes his guitar heard too. It might be me, it might be him, or it might be the fact that this is a seventies album, but at times (mostly during the vocal parts it has to be said) the production, or at least the sound, comes across as quite muddy.

There's a fine guitar solo from Morante to take us into “La cascate di viridiana” (The green waterfall?) with a whistling keyboard accompanying a very thick bass, almost sounds fretless (?) ably wielded by Fabio Pignatelli, while soft, almost tribal drum patterns are laid down by Agostino Marangolo and we even hear some low sax, care of Antonio Marangolo (could be his brother I guess; he's a guest musician anyway so obviously not part of Goblin). I don't know if I guessed right about the title, but everything about the music (and there seem to be no vocals to this track) does suggest the idea of a waterfall, from the flowing piano to the haunting sax. I have to be honest: this is that longest track I spoke of, and I can really see the band stretching themselves and coming into their own now, and can agree that the vocal is a distraction, as these guys are really great musicians. This has film soundtrack written all over it. Lovely.

“Terra di Goblin” (anyone?) has a real Tony Banks sound to the keys, almost ethereal, but I have to say unfortunately, we're back to the vocal tracks, and it really is a disappointment, as this seems to be the kind of music that would survive so much better – thrive indeed – without the addition of singing, and it's not often I admit that. It's not just that I can't interpret the vocals; they almost seem to be tacked on, as if this is something the band feel they should be doing, but kind of don't really want to. I wonder how well this album sold? Once the vocals drop back in the second minute the band can really let loose, and the song is so much better for the absence of singing. A great militaristic drumbeat attended by fluting synth to take us out and into “Un ragazzo d'argento” (A silver something) where the music picks up pace and becomes almost boppy, whereas up to now it's been generally stately and grand; this is almost like electronic. Sadly the vocals are back, though this time they don't seem to be as bad. Perhaps it's the more slightly poppy tone of the song that complements them better. This is the first time I've heard the vocals and not wished they were not there.

Looks like “La danza” might be another instrumental, and a very good one too, in which Simonetti gets to really flex his ... oh. There are vocals. God damn it. They don't quite ruin it, but I was getting a certain vibe from the piece which now I kind of don't any more. The pace has increased too, with Morante's guitar taking a more active role. There's almost a toy piano feel to “Opera magnifica”, and there's no escaping the vocals as they're there from the start, but the almost commercial pop feel of the song again allows them to exist in harmony with, rather than despite, it, and it all works quite well. The murmuring vocal on “Notte” (night) reminds me of the opening to “I Know What I Like”, and the piano keeping the melody behind it is great. “... e suono rock” does however seem to be an instrumental, and a pretty rockin' one, good way to end the album.

Track listing

1. Mark il bagarozza
2. La cascate di viridiana
3. Tierra di Goblin
4. Un rqagazzo d'argento
5. La danza[/COLOR]
]6. Opera magnifica
7. Notte
8. ... E suono rock

Overall, I'd say I'm highly impressed with this album. I see why purists have mentioned that the vocals don't really work, though on occasions I would say they do. Mostly though this band plays to its strengths when they concentrate on just making music, and when they do that, they really shine. I'd be interested in checking out more of their work, but for now I'm going to move on to another artiste, as there are masses of them to choose from in this very specific subgenre of progressive rock.

And my journey has just begun.
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Old 01-15-2021, 03:42 PM   #76 (permalink)
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Keeping in the seventies for now, and in fact, going further back, to 1973. Despite having their debut album released in 1972, Banco del Mutuo Soccoroso (Bank of mutual help? Don't ask me) were already on their third album by the following year, having released two in 1972 to widespread acclaim, at least in Italy. BdMS (whom we'll just refer to as Banco in future, due to the unfortunate connotations linked to that acronym, or one very close to it! It's also how they were known in later years, as they dropped the other three words) are seen as one of the “big three” of Rock Progressivo Italiano, along with Le Orme and Premiata Forneria Marconi, or PFM, and up to 1997 had recorded a total of fourteen albums. Although they still gig today, Nudo was their last official release.

Io Sato Nato Libero – Banco del Mutuo Soccorso – 1973 (Ricordi)

Again, another short album, in fact only five minutes longer than the Goblin effort we looked at last, and with fewer tracks: five in all, though in fairness the first one is fifteen minutes long. The title apparently translates to I Was Born Free, which sounds like a cue for Matt Monro and Elsa the lion! No? Damn you youngsters! Anyway, what's the album like? Let's see. Sounds like an oboe maybe starting off “Canto nomade per un prigioniero politico” (Nomadic chant for a political prisoner”) and then the vocals come in. I immediately find Francesco di Giacomo perhaps a better singer, perhaps just easier on the ear than Morante from Goblin; somehow the music just seems to sit better with his voice. unsurprisingly at fifteen minutes long it goes through several changes over the length of its run. Piano gives way to keyboards and organ, both ably played by the Nocenzi brothers, Vittorio and Gianni. There's not too much room for Marcello Todaro's guitar just yet, but no doubt he'll make himself known soon enough.

Slowing down now to an almost ghostly moan in the fifth minute before a big burst of piano takes the song forward, the sole accompaniment to di Giacomo's vocal, which at this point puts me somewhat in mind of Eric Woolfson, in style if not actual sound. Another dark, eerie sort of instrumental part, quite menacing in its way, as we hit the seventh minute and pass the halfway point, and now we have a sort of jazzy breakout on piano then organ, with the rhythm section keeping it all together. I really still don't hear too much of the guitar, but I guess it's in there. No solos yet. Oh, here comes the guitar in something of a star turn at the tenth minute, sounds either acoustic or Classical, never been able to distinguish one from the other. And now a drum solo of sorts, with the organ humming in the background. A really nice strummed guitar as we move into minute eleven, the only instrument playing now for the next minute or so, other than the bass, then the percussion storms back in and the keyboards leak slowly back to take the tune to its conclusion with a powerful jazzy outro.

As I often point out, it's quite brave to open your album on such an epic, though at this time, at least in their native Italy, Banco were pretty much established so I guess it wasn't quite as much of a risk as it could have been, and anyway, this is prog rock: the fans expect long tracks. Which is not what they get with the next one, “Nom mi rompete” (Don't bother me) which runs for a mere five minutes, and gives Todaro a chance to shine on the acoustic guitar, as it appears initially anyway to be a ballad. Gets boppy and happy there in the second minute, so maybe not. Good vocal from di Giacomo, and the guitar sounds almost flamenco? Definitely keeping the keys out of this one so far. Wonder if Todaro wrote it? No, seems he didn't have a hand in writing any of the five tracks. Still, it's a good vehicle for him to express his talents, which are impressive. Quite a hippy/psych vibe off this. Oh, there's some keyboard there near the end. Very nice.

A slightly longer track, “La città sottile” (the subtle town) takes us back to the piano, with a sort of neoclassical touch, and a very Alan Parsons Project vocal. Marcello Todaro, having been given his head on the previous track, is not shy about joining in quickly, and then one of the Nocenzis fires up the organ and away we go. I can hear echoes of early Supertramp here too. Some fairly what I suppose would be termed early experimental stuff here; quite surprising what these two guys could do with keyboards. The other relatively long track, just shy of ten minutes, is “Dopo...niente è più lo stesso” (Then ... nothing is still the same”) and it rocks considerably more than the previous ones have, much more uptempo and with a kind of urgent vocal, the piano creating its own sense of tension, and then I guess they somehow pitch bend it or maybe it's done in production but the piano goes all dark and warped for a moment, before flutes come in but even these sound a little frenetic and chaotic. The vocal is at times almost like a prayer, as if di Giacomo is chanting, carrying out some form of worship. Then everything explodes in a big keyboard instrumental in the fourth minute, the tempo kicking right back up even as the vocals return. Todaro gets a chance to rip off a proper electric guitar solo (he may have done this already but this is the first time I've been able to hear it, to point to it and say there it is) as everything slows down to a dark crawl again in the sixth minute with what sounds like cellos? Bouncy piano then takes the melody, aided by trumpeting keyboards and more guitar, with something of a jam developing in the eighth minute before it all slows down to a simple organ and piano line as the piece comes to a close.

And that leaves but one track, and it's a short one. They even failed to bother to name it, calling it “Traccia II” or “track two” (although here it's track five, two of the B-side of the album I guess). It's the only one not written by Vittorio Nocenzi, but in fact by his brother Gianni, and it has a very classical, fanfare-like feel. Unsurprisingly it's written for keys, and an instrumental, and it ends the album very well.

Track listing

1. Canto nomade per un prigioniero politico
2. Nom mi rompete
3. La città sottile
4. Dopo...niente è più lo stesso
5. Traccia II

Again, I'm very impressed. Vocals definitely work better here in general than they did with the Goblin album, but the music is I think as good as if not better than those guys. Having two keyboard players certainly makes a difference, and if that doesn't mark you out as a prog band, you have something of a problem. Vocalist Francesco di Giacomo sadly passed away in 2014, but the remaining members of Banco continue to gig, though no new material has as yet been recorded.
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Old 01-15-2021, 03:48 PM   #77 (permalink)
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It's kind of odd. I wanted – want – to move away from the seventies and was checking out a band called Moongarden, then I find they're not really considered RPI, although they are Italian. So what is it about Rock Progressivo Italiano that makes it what it is? I assumed – apparently wrongly – that to be an RPI band you simply had to play prog rock and come from Italy, but that does not now appear to be the case. Well, returning to my other go-to source, progarchives.com, I read that RPI is not so much a genre or even a country-based phenomena (although you can't be an RPI band without being Italian; however just simply being an Italian prog band does not make you RPI. Huh?) but a way of thinking, playing, composing and paying your musical dues back to your seventies forebears. One writer compares the emergence of RPI to the Renaissance, when fifteenth-century Italy led the way in a resurgence in culture, art, literature and thinking as the Dark Ages receded.

So then I thought, well to be RPI you must be a band playing in, or at least formed in, the heyday of Italian prog, ie the seventies. But no: this band were only formed in 2008, and yet are supposedly accepted as being Rock Progressivo Italiano as much as PFM or Banco. I'm going to be reading up more on this idea, but for now I have from Progarchives a list of bands who most assuredly are considered RPI, and from this list I have plucked

La Crudeltà di Aprile – Unreal City – 2013 (MRL)

Although he is not in the band, my good buddy Fabio Zuffanti, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article, he who helms Hostsonaten among others, is credited with being the artistic director of this new band, whatever that may mean. It seems to be the baby of Emanuele Tarasconi though, as he sings and plays the keys (and there are a lot of them), while Francseca Zanetta is something of a rarity, not only in being a lady in prog but also the guitarist, and the hilariously-named Francesco Orefice looks after bass duties. Although they only formed in the twenty-first century it seems Unreal City are afforded the tag of RPI due to their adherence to the old values of bands like PFM and Banco, and indeed are credited here (whether officially or not I don't know) with the extra tag of “modern PFI”. Hmm. This is their debut album, and it seems to have been quite well received. Good boppy start to “dell'innocenza perduta”, some fine organ and piano, vocals then come in around the second minute as the tune settles down into a nice relaxed piano run, and the singing itself is very pleasant. Not a clue what he's singing about of course, but nice to listen to. Picking up speed now in the fifth minute, crazy piano and organ run and some thundering drums from Federico Bedostri. Sounds like a fiddle there at the end. Could be; these guys seem to use a whole lot of instruments, including, I see, a Renaissance lute! Well, I see there's a guest appearance by Fabio Biale on the violin, so I guess that's him.

It's a fine guitar that gets “Atlantis (Conferendis Pecuniis)” underway, sort of a dark feeling to it, then it picks up nicely about halfway through, before falling into a sort of medieval folk thing. I guess that could be the Renaissance lute they were talking about. And the reliable old church organ heralds our descent into Hell, or “Catabasi (descenscio ad infernos)” with pealing bells and then a dark synth. In places this reminds me very much of Arena. Suddenly then that violin/fiddle is back, jumping the pace and bringing some light into the netherworld. “Dove La Luce È Più Intensa” has a powerful instrumental opening, which goes on for a minute and a half of the seven it runs for, while “Ecate (Walpurgusnacht)” opens on a beautiful classical piano line with attendant synth with some funky percussion and organ, and a sort of mix of reggae and blues, if you can imagine such a thing.

The epic though is the closer, “Horror vacui”, which runs for almost eighteen minutes and is split into four different sections. Opening on “Le radici del mare”, it's a soft, gradual introduction to the piece as it slowly coalesces on soft piano and bassy piano before warbling synth joins in as the rhythm section makes itself heard, and I'm going to assume the first part is an instrumental intro, as otherwise I have no breakdown of the suite and therefore no idea where one section ends and another begins. The vocals then bring in a more jaunty, upbeat tempo as “L'assassino” (yeah, who can translate that?) begins, but unless it's very obvious, I have no idea where this will move into part three. Nice keyboard solo in the tenth minute, could be part three, but no way to know for sure. Some lovely smooth fretless bass too. Powerful, almost jazzy at times, instrumental ending.

Track listing

1. Dell'innocenzo perduta
2. Atlantai (Conferendis pecuniis)
3. Catabasi (descenscio ad infernos)
4. Dove La Luce È Più Intensa
5. Ecate (Walpurgisnacht)
6. Horror vacui
(i) La radici del mare
(ii) L'assassino
(iii) Nel sonno della ragione
(iv) Il baratro della follia

And another great Italian prog album, proving I guess that you didn't have to be recording in the seventies to be an RPI band. Unreal City certainly have an advantage though, as they are under the wing of Zuffanti, who has been playing and composing and producing music since the mid-nineties and certainly knows his way around the scene. A real case, I think, of “stick with me, boys, and I'll make stars out of you.” They've made a very good start with this debut.
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Old 01-15-2021, 07:49 PM   #78 (permalink)
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Originally Posted in The Playlist of Life, April 22 2014


Ulisse: l’alfiere nero --- Progenesi

I’ve plenty of time for instrumental albums, even if they are a little harder to review than ones with vocals. But there is an inherent problem here.

This is a concept album. Now I know the likes of Rick Wakeman, even Vangelis have created instrumental concept albums, but I have always found it hard to follow a story when there are no words. This, apparently, is based on the journeys of ancient Roman hero Ulysses. better known perhaps by his Greek name, Odysseus, from which comes the title of Greek playwright and poet Homer’s “The Odyssey”. I love Greek myth - all myth really - and I feel like I’m going to be unintentionally cheated on this album, because first of all I won’t be able to follow any concepts just by the music and secondly, even if it were a vocal album it would be in Italian most likely, so there’s no way I could follow it.

But such it is, and if we try to leave aside the concept (hah!) of the concept album, and just concentrate on the music Progenesi play, then perhaps we can approach this album from a different angle and appreciate it on its own merits, rather than compare it to something like Hostsonaten’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which does use vocals, and English ones too. With a name like Progenesi you’re probably expecting a lot of the style of Genesis in their music, and you would not be disappointed. Or you would, if instead of expecting you were dreading. But I have a feeling the word in Italian means something like firstborn or something like that, so the similarities to Collins, Gabriel, Banks and Rutherford may not be actually inferred from the name of the band. But it doesn’t stop them sounding at times like an Italian Genesis. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your view on the progressive rock giants.

Again we’ve only got six tracks, and “La gioia della pace” starts us off with a riproaring ride on the keyboards, very Marillion on “Market Square Heroes” I find, boppy and uptempo with some nice guitar. It’s no surprise that the album is so keyboard-driven when you learn that the man behind the keys, Guilio Stromendo, is also the composer of this whole thing. Great work on the Hammond joins the busy synths as Omar Ceriotti drives the beat along behind the drumkit. It all slows down near the end to give way to soft piano and the first taste of sweet violin, provided by guest musician Eloisa Manera, and with the sounds of tinkling piano and some pizzicato strings we’re off to “La strategia” (I think even I can translate that one) where honky-tonk piano gives way to brassy synth in a sort of dramatic, upfront sort of melody with some staccato drumming from Ceriotti.

It slows down about halfway with a marching drumbeat and sparkly keys in quite a Yes vein, and rather interestingly at the end they rip off the ending from the full-length version of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, but Manera does it so tastefully it doesn’t seem like it’s being copied. A beautiful slow piano and cello from Issei Watanabe, another guest, takes “Il blue della notte”, which is either blue night or blue north. My Italian is crap, basically nonexistent. A nice jazzy keyboard rhythm then unfolds, with for pretty much the first time really that I can hear the guitar of Patrik Matrone making itself heard, and very good it is too. Stromendo though soon reasserts his somewhat iron grip over the composition and it’s Hammonds, pianos and synths all the way. We then get a boogie blues tune in the third minute, with another eight still to go.

Again Matrone comes in and adds his flourishes to the music, and they’re welcome. I love keys but this album is perhaps a little too concentrated on one instrument, and no matter how well it’s played that eventually gets a little jaded, which is why it’s nice when the violin or cello break through, or as here, the odd guitar solo or passage. The longest track on the album, there’s no denying the quality here, and to think this is a debut effort is pretty stunning: these guys sound like they’ve been at this for years. Always the measure of a good epic or even long track, it’s heading towards the end and it sure doesn’t seem like it’s been eleven minutes.

Technically that is the longest track, but the next two almost go together and if you add them then their combined length is five minutes over the previous one. “Il rosso della notte” (which I think may mean “the north wind”? Don’t know where that came from, but somewhere in my mind it’s saying the word rosso is wind in Italian?) is split into two parts, with part one being a fast, almost frenetic ride along Hammond and keyboard rails, slabs of church organ thrown in there too and a thumping drumbeat accompanying it all. Great to hear Matrone cut loose with a real rocker of a solo too, but Stromendo isn’t prepared to let him have the limelight for long and is soon back in front. To be fair to him he’s a wonderful keyboard player; I just wish he wasn’t so almost dictatorial about the band, or at least this is how he seems. Maybe they’re happy playing the little bits he gives them. Hmm, yeah. You ever know a musician, especially a guitarist, who was content to stay in the shadows?

I am hoping we get some more of that beautiful cello and that exquisite violin though before the album ends, and as we head into part two and it all slows down with an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere I think perhaps we may meet up with them again here. It’s dark piano to set us off though and then climbing, dramatic synth backing it before Matrone gets to reel off a lovely acoustic guitar piece and yes, there they are, the sumptuous violin of Eloisa Manera and the stately cello of Issei Watanabe. Just beautiful. An extended keyboard solo by Stromendo leads into a nice duet with Matrone and Manera’s violin is there adding its colour too. Then the bass of Daio Giubileo finally gets a moment to shine before the man behind the keyboard is off again, kicking up the tempo and pulling everyone along with him in yet another superb solo, and everything slows right down and fades away, with the first (and probably only) spoken words (in Italian of course) as the song draws to a close.

A powerful finish then as “Un grand eroe” (I assume “a great hero”) bounces along on exuberant keys and some unfettered guitar from Matrone, sort of a reprise of the basic melody of the opener, with the violin and cello also making their voices heard. This is also a long song, just over ten minutes, and goes through some changes, slowing down after the third, then picking up on rippling piano and Hammond in the fifth, some of the piano semi-jazzy. And again we’re six minutes into the ten before I even know it. I think I could listen to these guys all day. In for the big finish then and really this album could hardly be any better, unless it had more guitar or strings in it. But what’s this? Even the drummer gets to rack off a solo right at the end. Maybe this guy Stromendo is not such a tyrant after all!

Whether he is or not, Guilio Stromendo has here put together one hell of a band and a debut that sets the benchmark for RPI for the future. I predict great things for Progenesi. Superb, absolutely superb.

TRACK LISTING

1. La gioia della pace
2. la strategia
3. Il blue della notte
4. Il rosso della notte, part 1
5. Il rosso della notte, part 2
6. Un grand eroe

In a way, I’m kind of sorry I discovered that this is a concept album, because when I just listened to it before researching anything about it I could really enjoy it for what it was. I still can, of course, but now I’m left trying to tie the great music into the story of the Greek hero, and while it’s not impossible it is a little difficult and leaves me perhaps not concentrating so much on the music and more on the plot of the album. But even if you ignore that - and you probably should, unless you’re a musician and can see where Stromendo is coming from here - you will find it hard to deny that this album is pure musical gold all the way through.

Really. It’s rare to find an album, much less a debut, much much less an instrumental one, that has literally no bad tracks. There’s nearly always one that mars what could otherwise be a perfect record. But here, everything is a gem. There’s not one track I can find fault with and I am quite in awe not only of the proficency of these guys --- I know some of them came from other bands, so it’s not like they’re a bunch of sixteen-year-old kids coming together for the first time, but it’s still mighty impressive --- but of the composing skills of Giuilo Stromendo. I may not know what his vision is, or what passages are meant to represent what, but with his bandmates here he has created an album to rival the best in current prog, and even give the old masters a run for their money.
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Old 01-16-2021, 10:55 AM   #79 (permalink)
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Magic beetles? Strange unearthly cities? World without end? Pah! Let's shake things up here with some progressive metal!


Album title: True North
Artist: Borknagar
Nationality: Norwegian
Sub-genre: Progressive Metal/Tech Metal

This is a band I did not expect to get into. Borknagar began in 1999 as a Black Metal band. Now, I've found out through my explorations of the genre of heavy metal over the last maybe five years that this is not a bad thing: there are some excellent Black Metal bands out there. But it's not exactly a genre that tends to chime very well with progheads, though some may very well enjoy it. Your average fan of prog, if he or she is into metal at all, is more likely to be going down the symphonic/gothic and obviously progressive lane, avoiding the dark and creepy road that twists and turns through spectral forests and past crumbling, abandoned houses and leads to the morbid churches of Black Metal.

But.

I loved this album.

It took a little time – I think it was the third track that really punched me in the gut – but once I was in, man was I in. So much so that I got all their albums, even though many of their earlier ones are going to be pure Black metal. There's a sense of Pagan/Viking metal in their music too, and the progressive angle is definitely there. With a total of, to date, eleven albums, if you end up liking this there has to be at least another, what, five that you'll probably dig? But even if not, this album on its own is certainly worth listening to.

The appropriately-named “Thunderous” gets things going, with a rumble of thunder before the guitars go right for your throat, the drums pounding their way in and the vocals blast out, kind of all at once, like someone jumping out from an alley at night and taking you by surprise. You can very much hear the Black Metal origins of the band in this song, but it's very easy too to hear why they qualify as progressive metal, if not progressive rock. Vocalist Lars Nedland, who also handles keys, is joined by “darker/unclean” vocals from bassist Simen “Vortex” Hestnæs, and the contrast really works. Like some bands such as Epica and Within Temptation, Borknagar use the unclean vocals sparingly, so that they're both more effective when they come in, and don't ruin the songs for you if you're not into that sort of thing. Nedland reminds me very much of Frank Bornemann from Eloy, the guitar playing of Jostein Thomassen is backed by guitar from founder Øystein G. Brun and the licks really drive the song along.

It's a great introduction to the band, and things only get better with “Up North”, which, far from being a paean to Newcastle, is a bouncing, rollicking ride that is in fact the track that decided me on this album, the second not the third. Once I heard this I knew I was going to love the album. It just takes you and doesn't let go. The hook in it is irrepressible, and it literally bounces. It's the guitars and the percussion that do it of course, but the keys get their shot in too. It's a shorter song, with less of the unclean vocals, other than a roar at one point, and the energy in it just has to be heard to be believed. Even if all the rest was crap – it isn't, though I don't think they get to this level again – I'd consider this album having been worth listening to.

Very powerful singing from Nedland, almost operatic at times, things slow down around the fourth minute before building up again to the big finish, with some great work on the organ stabbing away there, not quite in the background, but the guitars never really let up. It's the turn of piano then to lead in “The Fire That Burns”, though that does not last long. This time it's Hestnæs who takes in the lead vocal before Nedland takes over, the guitars growling and hammering as the best in Black Metal can and do. Some really great vocal harmonies too (not sure who do those – Nedland is credited with “clean and backing vocals”, but can he back his own? Well I guess if they're multi-tracked, yes) and some quite introspective guitar as the song slows down in the midpoint.

“Lights” has a sort of Viking metal feel to it, quite dramatic with also a shot of AOR in there. Hestnæs really lets himself go here – not a clue what he's singing but it's powerful and effective, the more so when balanced against the pretty low-key vocal from Nedland. Without the unclean vocals this could almost have commercial airplay potential, like a heavier REM maybe. Another great hook in the chorus, with a lovely little introspective guitar passage to open “Wild Father's Heart”, both guitarists working together wonderfully to craft what could very well be a ballad. Some kind of synthesised orchestral strings provides a beautiful backdrop to the song, and hopefully there will be no unclean vocals as I just don't see how they would fit in here. Again, I could hear this on the radio, though the DJ might have some trouble with the band name - “that's Bork – Bjork? Borknig – I can't say that on the air! What? Oh. Nagar. Bork-Nagger. Bark Nagger? Sod it: some band from Norway.”

Very familiar guitar riff there in the bridge, but I can't place it right now. Oh right, I have it now: Bach's “Toccata and Fugue”, or at least SKY's treatment of it, which they just called “Toccata”. That was driving me mad. Either whistling or recorded wolf sounds near the end, and yeah, it's definitely a ballad, and yeah, thankfully they decided to leave out the unclean vocals. “Mount Rapture” marches along grandly, the unclean vocal coming back in as the tempo picks up a little then midway it starts to romp along nicely, some pretty sweet guitar solos taking it, then “Into the White” has an almost power metal feel to it, a lot of powerful organ (yes, yes, tee hee hoddle ha, how mature) driving it along though there's a guitar motif there that absolutely brings Twelfth Night to mind. Also a vocal that is very Porcupine Tree near the end.

“Tidal” is by far the longest track, clocking in at just over nine and a half minutes, sort of an atmospheric opening on guitar, touch of Iron Maiden here, nearly a minute and a half before the vocal comes in, then it rocks along like a good thing, though I will say to be fair that for a song of this length it does struggle somewhat to retain my attention. The album ends really strongly though on “Voices”, with a very Viking-like chant which slowly builds and builds to a thumping anthem , something you could imagine the Norsemen roaring as they cross the North Sea in search of plunder and glory. Put yer backs into it, lads!

Track Listing

Thunderous
Up North
The Fire That Burns
Lights
Wild Father's Heart
Mount Rapture
Into the White
Tidal
Voices


I know a little of Black Metal, but not enough that I could say I've never seen a Black Metal band metamorphose so completely into something so different, and yet retaining the core of what they must have been so successfully. These guys, you can tell they were once growling and screaming about sacrifices to Stan, sorry Satan, but have now progressed to much more melodic and intricate compositions, and have fully embraced the progressive metal ethos, while tipping their hat respectfully to their past.

A Truer North you could search for and never find.
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Old 01-16-2021, 11:04 AM   #80 (permalink)
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Album title: Critical Mass
Artist: Threshold
Nationality: English
Year: 2002
Chronology: 6

Track Listing: Phenomenon/Choices/Falling Away/Fragmentation/Echoes of Life/Round and Round/Avalon/Critical Mass (i) Fission (ii) Fusion (iii) Lucky

Comments: Back to the Mac, as it were - this album comes squarely in the middle of Threshold’s discography, and is one of the six on which the late Andrew “Mac” MacDermott takes the vocals. It kicks off very powerfully with “Phenomenon”, a hard rock puncher with a sweet hook in the chorus. It’s also another album on which, if only for one line, they use a vocoder or at least some sort of phased vocal. Like the previous album it runs on the guitar work of Karl Groom and Nickl Midson, with a nice slow section in the middle, which, in typical Threshold fashion, forms a bridge to bring the whole thing up a whole gear and into a great soaring chorus leading to a screeching guitar solo.

“Choices” keeps up the pressure, again pretty guitar driven, and while Mac is a different singer to Damian Wilson, he’s not that different that you’re jarred if you listen to one of his albums after one of Wilson’s. It’s not, in other words, a Fish/Steve Hogarth or even John Wetton/John Payne kind of feeling. To some degree, I at least can often forget which vocalist is on which album, and have to check. That’s not a criticism of either man, just shows that Threshold obviously see keeping a sense of some sort of consistency in their vocalists important. One of my favourite tracks on the album, “Falling Away” could possibly be considered a ballad, though it has a lot of balls to it, some very powerful guitar, and gives us the first chance we have to hear Mac tone it down, which he does so well, soft and soulful before he lets it loose for the middle eighth and chorus.

Those hooks are there again; it’s impossible not to sing this long after the last note has faded away, and a rather lovely and evocative solo from Groom does that no harm at all. “Fragmentation” sounds to me like something that might have been left off the sessions for the Clone album; a great song but it sounds like it would have fit in well with the 1998 offering. This is where Richard West begins to make his mark on the music with some fine arpeggios. It’s still pretty much built around the guitar riffs though. More slightly phased vocals and a fist-punching semi-chorus that must go down well live. Lovely little piano intro to “Echoes of Life”, which does a good job of fooling you into thinking it’s a ballad. It’s not, as Groom, West and Midson will quickly show you, the track picking up speed and intensity as it goes, and launching triumphantly into one of those memorable choruses they’re so good at.

Some particularly good drumming on this; I know I usually don’t give drummers credit - not because I don’t like them or rate them but because it’s hard for me to tell a good drummer from a bad one - but here I really see the influence of the percussion driving the melody along. Echoes (sorry) too of Yes in the stop/start guitar, then the drums roll grandly and introduce a truly beautiful piano and guitar duet which just makes the song, Groom (or Midson) really making their guitar sound like a violin at times. “Round and Round” explores the idea of reincarnation, with a mixture of soft introspective guitar parts and harder riffs, but I have to admit it’s my least favourite track on the album. I wouldn’t call it bad, as no track here is, but it comes across as the weakest on this opus.

The penultimate track is another of my favourites, this time a proper ballad, and “Avalon” has the kind of stirring, emotional vocal that perhaps only Damian Wilson could do justice to as well as Mac does. It’s a West vehicle, carried on his soft piano lines and almost orchestral synths; the hard guitar power chords here seem almost needless really, but they do give the song teeth it would otherwise lack. Still, I’d have preferred a more restrained contribution from Groom. He does throw in a very emotional solo though, so there is that. And that takes us to the closer, and it’s also the epic. And the title track.

Split into three parts, “Critical Mass” opens on “Fission”, with an almost “Run to You” riff running through it before Groom really lets loose and the song flies off at metal speed, West’s fingers flying over the keys in a flurry of activity as the two pair up. There’s another perfectly melodious chorus, again some very impressive drumming, then part two, “Fusion”, involves basically a lengthy instrumental, which allows Karl Groom to channel his inner Gilmour and the final part is a jaunty little acoustic-accompanied piece to bring the whole thing to a somewhat low-key close. I could have wished for a better ending, but that’s a small niggle, and not worth dwelling upon.



Track(s) I liked: everything other than “Round and Round”

Track(s) I didn't like: “Round and Round”

One standout: “Avalon”

One rotten apple: n/a

Overall impression: Another almost perfect Threshold album. Not my favourite, but up there among them. A real example of a prog metal band really flexing themselves creatively and coming up with the goods almost effortlessly.

Rating: 9.7/10
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