MAGIC PIE – FRAGMENTS OF THE 5TH ELEMENT – KARISMA RECORDS

When I hear Norwegian band Magic Pie’s debut back in 2005 I was just blown away and moaned it had kept many other albums away from my CD player as I couldn’t bring myself to take it off! They haven’t been the most prolific since then, but they are now back with their fifth album, with the same line-up as the last album, 2015’s ‘King For A Day’. With only drummer Jan Johannessen not contributing vocals in the six-man line-up, and both Eirikur Hauksson and Eirik Hanssen not playing instruments, one might think this is a very vocal-heavy band. That is true in many respects, but this is a symphonic progressive rock band with complex arrangements who are never afraid to crank it up and blast through, just with wonderful harmonies over the top!

Inspired by classic Seventies bands, this is a rich feast for progheads as opposed to a simple single course. It twists, it turns, it moves and grooves is easy to get inside yet at the same time there is a great deal going on. Just the opening power chord followed by complex keyboard runs of “The Man Who Had It All” had me invested in the album from the very start, smiling, waiting to see what was going to come next. That it slowed down, sped up, moved between piano and keyboards before the vocals started, just made me smile that much more. From there on it was heading down and stay focused as I just didn’t want to miss anything that was going on. Gentle Giant is just one of the influences on display, yet often in a more commercial and rock-based manner. 

“The Hedonist” is the final track on offer, a simple ditty of some 22 minutes in length which allows the band to really stretch their wings and show what they can achieve in an epic. Restraint is the order of the day, as the band takes time to really get going, but when they do, they show they have been paying attention to the likes of Spock’s Beard and keep the interest going throughout. Somehow I missed the last two Magic Pie albums, I won’t be making that mistake again. Superb.

9/10 Kev Rowland

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GENTLEMAN BASTARDS – IN THE MIDDLE EIGHT – THE HIGHLANDER COMPANY RECORDS

Bassist/songwriter/producer Bob Madsen (41Point9 etc.) was wondering what would happen if you attempted to mix Disturbed with Level 42 style bass with vocals, so brought together some friends to attempt to make that a reality. Here he has been joined by guitarists Chad Quist (41POINT9, Heart by Heart, etc.) and Billy Connolly (Pushing the Sun, Alchemy of Sound), along with singer Randy Scoles (Ronnie Montrose Band, Rogue), and drummer Gregg Bissonette (David Lee Roth Band, Ringo Starr’s Allstars). The result is three songs that are highly polished and sound as if they have been produced by a band who have been together for years instead of just a small amount of time. There are huge swathes of the title cut where it is just Scoles and some keyboards, so when the rest of the band crunch in it makes quite an impact.

What immediately strikes the listener from the first note to the very last is just how much fun this is, and when the “Life In The Middle Eight” just stops as it does, I found I was actually disappointed! But at least that allows us to move into the much heavier “Victims and Villains” where one can really hear Madsen’s dream being brought to life, with Scoles doing his best to show off his Hagar-style vocals (no wonder he has been playing with Ronnie, would love to hear him do “Space Station No. 5”. The only thing wrong with this EP is that it is way too short! Bring on the album guys, we need to hear more, much more.

8/10 Kev Rowland

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JELENA JOVOVIĆ – HEARTBEAT – INDEPENDENT

Jelena is a jazz singer from Serbia, who since 2002 has been a full-time lecturer at the music school ‘’ Kornelije Stankovic’’ in Belgrade. She has studied in Austria and was a lecturer at music colleges in Cape Town where she lived for four years, so she has quite a worldview in many ways. If I had been playing this without knowing where the musician originated from, I would have guessed that she was American with Eastern European roots as her approach is very Western in style, and when singing she has no accent whatsoever. On the album, there are six originals, plus four others where she provided the lyrics, and she also was responsible for all the arrangements. Given she doesn’t play an instrument on ‘Heartbeat’ that is somewhat surprising given that it is normally the lead instrumentalist (in this case it would be Vasil Hadzimanov (Piano, Rhodes)) who is responsible for that element. The rest of the band comprises bassist Milan Nikolic, drummer Vladimir Kostadinovic, tenor-saxophonist Rastko Obradovic and, on three numbers, trumpeter Strahinja Banovic. Also featured are vibraphonist Milos Branisavljevic and guitarist Branko Trijic.

Here is a singer who is incredible confidence in her abilities, and is able to handle multiple styles. On “Paladin”, it is just her and vibrant bright piano, and her sultry style is a perfect contrast to the accompaniment, while at others she is the one who is bright and flowing. We are treated to some swing, some bop, even some scat, and it is hard to realize that this is a debut album, as it is full of confidence and punch. There is even some throat singing near the end of “The Countless Stars” which sounds absolutely perfect in the context, but I am sure it is the first time I have ever come across it in jazz! This certainly doesn’t sound as if it was recorded in Serbia, as this feels like a warm New York jazz album, and it is just the photos and few folky elements which make one think it may not be from there after all.

A great voice, interesting and different arrangements, this is a jazz album to be discovered, savored and enjoyed.

8/10 Kev Rowland

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LITTLE SPARROW – WISHING TREE – INDEPENDENT

When it comes to music I have been fortunate to hear this year, then I will think of 2019 as the year of the ladies. Thanks to the wonderful Elfin Bow I have been introduced to some amazing singers from the UK scene I would never have found on my own from the other side of the world, and to the list, I now must add the name of Katie Ware, otherwise known as Little Sparrow. Amazingly this debut album is from 2014, which yet again shows how dire the music industry is when something as powerful and glorious isn’t well known. This is all about Katie, her voice and songs, mixing and changing the arrangements so while she may have a full band behind her, at others, it may just be acoustic guitar, violin and or cello, whatever is needed to make it work. Many of the songs don’t feature percussion, and it is all about that wonderful beautiful voice front and center.

This is a singer-songwriter as opposed to folk, acoustic music which is inspired by the likes of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Even the heavy use of pedal steel on “Struck Gold” doesn’t pull it into the country as the gently plucked guitar keeps it rooted, while the wonderful harmony and backing vocals throw all the focus onto the main. Some songs are upbeat, driving forward with a demand to grab your attention, pushing forward whereas others are far more languid, expecting you to come and discover on your own. There is a brightness and freshness within this which reminds me of a young Judy Dyble, as Katie has incredible control and a superb high range.

That this album and the name of Little Sparrow isn’t more widely known is nothing short of criminal as it is an absolute delight from beginning to end. If you enjoy this style of music then this is essential. I note it is also available on Bandcamp so why not search it out and give it a listen, this is an artist you need to support. Awesome.  

9/10 Kev Rowland

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LOONYPARK – PERPETUAL – LYNX MUSIC

Loonypark has long been one of my favorite Polish progressive rock bands, and one with an incredibly stable line-up. This 2016 release was their fourth album, and apart from the replacement of drummer Jakub Grzeslo after 2008’s debut, ‘Egoist’, it was the same as it was since the beginning namely singer Sabina Godula-Zając, Piotr Grodecki (guitar, double bass, banjo), Krzysztof Lepiarczyk (keyboards, programming, composer & arranger), Piotr Lipka (bass) and Grzegorz Fieber (drums). What we have here is extremely strong neo-prog, but the band refuses to sit still so while opener “Something To Forget” is bombastic with great guitar lines, hooks and simple but effective keyboards leads, the follow-up “Face In The Mirror” is far more laid-back. This even features violin from guest Sylwia ‘Maya’ Majka until Piotr decides to ensure everyone is still awake as he crunches through.

Arrangements aren’t overly complex, and although this is progressive, at the heart is a rock band which is being controlled by the keyboard player who is happy to rely on the piano as he is on other keyboards. Sabina has a warm rock voice that works well within the music as she sings in clear unaccented English. The result is a very approachable release, that contains some very strong moments indeed, although they do seem to be treading water at times when they slow it down. The band is definitely most in their element when they up the tempo, introduce more rock elements into their music, and there are times when they come across as a modern Simple Minds with guitar making inroads here and there as opposed to all the time. The use of banjo is surprisingly effective, as long as the intent is for the listener to smile when they hear it. Another solid album.

7/10 Kev Rowland

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