Last year I was fortunate enough to hear John’s second album, ‘Rise and Fall’, and it is safe to say I was blown away by what I was hearing. Here was a multi-instrumentalist who had brought together a group of singers and additional musicians to deliver an album that was simply epic. John and I got to talking afterwards, and that of course led to me wondering what was the debut like? Well, I can honestly say that it is another absolute delight. As well as providing all the material and producing the album, John also provides guitars, bass, keyboards, and programming, but he has also brought in a host of star names to assist including the likes of Emily Dolan Davies, Gary O’Toole, Billy Sherwood, Oliver Wakeman, Peter Jones etc. Then to cap it all he some wonderful singers in Joe Payne (The Enid), Jean Pageau (Mystery) and Julie Gater. Although the album is fairly split between male and female vocals, Julie had a huge part to play as she sang the vast majority of songs as they were being developed (John admits he is unable to sing) and provided guide vocals to the others so they knew what John required.
This is one of those albums where it is difficult to describe what is the most important aspect of the overall. All performances are wonderful, with complex arrangements, the vocal melodies are sublime, while the lyrics are often thought-provoking. Take for example “One Race” which is all about Jesse Owens, not only that race itself at the 1936 Olympics but his return to the States. It actually got me thinking about the man who was famous for setting four world records on the same day and defeating the myth of Aryan supremacy in front of Hitler, so much so that I undertook some research and discovered that not only did Hitler actually shake his hand, but that in many ways he was disowned by his home country on his return due to the colour of his skin. It reminded me of the story of Muhammed Ali returning from the Rome Olympics and then throwing his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a restaurant.
One of my favourites is “Dreamcatching”, which is mostly instrumental, featuring some wonderful flute, saxophone, and fretless bass, along with some spoken words about where dreamcatchers hail from and the significance of the different elements. Interestingly, Peter Jones added the flute and saxophone as he was undertaking some backing vocals, and then presented them to John to use if he wished, yet they are an integral part of the overall sound. There is no real theme to the album, and each song is quite different to the rest, yet it is always the strength of the arrangements combined with complexity and simplicity which makes this such a compelling piece of work. That it is a debut from an “unknown” is just incredible, as it is polished and refined in a way that convinces the listener they are playing an album by someone who has been at the very top of their game for a great many years. This is polished progressive rock that is commercial, yet also refined and combing both elements of the Seventies and today to combine in one album that is simply essential for anyone who enjoys this style of music. Check out John’s informative website for more details on his albums, all the musicians involved, and then buy them. Simply superb from beginning to the very end.
One of the issues of being known as a reviewer, plus also taking some years out of the scene to concentrate on collating some books, is that material can build up. In the end I decided to keep up to date with the most recent material and delve into the older material when I had time. Due to multiple reasons neither of these approaches have worked, and I now find myself in a position where I still have albums to review which were sent to me years ago as well as being somewhat behind on the more recent albums (although I have committed to reviewing every single album ever sent to me). One way of slowly dealing with this is that when I am sent an album by a band, and I have yet to review the old one, then I do both at once. That is what has happened here, as I am pretty sure keyboard player/singer Mike Visaggio sent this to me nearly 7 years ago but given I have recently received the new live release, I dug this out of the vaults and put it into the pile, which led me to discover this is a real delight and I definitely should have played it sooner!
This was the debut album from the quartet, released in 2009, and as well as Mike features Todd Russell (guitars), Tony D’Amato (bass) and Michael Murray (drums, backing vocals). There have been quite a few changes in the band over the years since then, and only Mike and Michael are still involved. I have no idea why there was a six-year gap between this and the second album, ‘Travelog’, but during that period a decision was made for Mike to drop lead vocals and concentrate on keyboards, which to my mind is a shame as vocally he is very strong indeed. This album is built around the keyboards, and I found myself having internal debates as to whether this section or that sounded more like Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, as his use of Mellotron is reminiscent of both. There are times when the music does sounds as if could have come from the Seventies, that is mostly due to the keyboard sounds being deployed, and for the most part this is a very modern sounding album indeed. The keyboards and use of piano are indeed evocative of Procol Harum, yet there are also plenty of others when it is more like 3 or a fresher Flower Kings.
Melodic and incredibly accessible, this is progressive music which has much in common with classical in the way some of the keyboard string arrangements are set, and one can imagine songs such as “Peace of Mind, Peace of Heart” having a major live presence, building from an emotional keyboard-led vocal into something far funkier and more dynamic. Overall, this is an incredibly polished and enjoyable progressive rock album which just gets better the more it is played.
Any review of Manna/Mirage is going to look back to The Muffins, the Canterbury influenced quartet founded by Dave Newhouse (keyboards, reeds), Billy Swan (bass) and Michael Zentner (guitar, violin) all the way back in 1973. Named after The Muffins’ debut album, Manna/Mirage released their debut in 2015 with Dave being joined by Billy and Paul Sears from the line-up which released 2012’s ‘Mother Tongue’. However, for the 2018 ‘Rest of the World’ it was now just Dave with additional musicians, many of whom have continued through to this their third album.
Dave provides keyboards, woodwinds, and saxophones on this release, and apart from the final song everything on the album is instrumental. Dave is renowned for providing Canterbury-influenced progressive rock for well over 40 years and he is showing no sign at all of changing now. He can also be found working in The Moon Men with Jerry King, who is one of the returning musicians, providing bass and other instruments. Musically this sounds like a mix of Henry Cow, Caravan, Soft Machine, Zappa and even Can, heading deep into the avant-garde to create something where there may be repeated melody, or there may not. It may contain delicate keyboards, or it may not. The woodwind may be taking the lead, or guess what? It may not. The result is a musical journey where one is never quite sure where the end is going to be, but it is always way more interesting to follow a road less travelled than the highway everyone else uses. It may take longer, but in the end, it is always more fulfilling, and life is all about the journey. This is an album which should only be played when the listener really has the time to fully immerse themselves, to focus intently on the music, preferably by playing it on headphones.
It is hard to pick a favourite, as each song is as intriguing as the next, but I am glad that “Fly Away” is at the end of the album as it is so very different indeed to what has gone before, with swirling piano and delicate vocals. In many ways it is out of place with what has gone before, which also makes it a perfect ending, as it is this lack of conformity throughout the album which makes it such a delight. This conforms most strongly with numbers which could be viewed as commercial, and therefore is a massive contrast to everything else, so therefore fits the overall rationale of the album, if that makes sense. This is something which all lovers of Canterbury-style Prog need to discover at once, if not sooner.
Maryen has something of a wanderlust, so although some people will always associate her with albums released in Australia, while others will think of her times with Fish and others in the UK progressive scene in the UK, it may surprise those who have not been following her travels to hear that she days she lives in Guernsey, moving there from Australia a few years ago. She was looking into the folk history of the island and heard about a lane where bodies had been thrown over the cliffs, screams could be heard at night, and there was even an exorcism performed! This intrigued her further, so she decided to find out where it was, only to discover it was a lane she regularly walked, which made her feel a little uncomfortable, and the song followed soon afterwards.
Most of this was recorded at home, with additional instrumentation added remotely, before Chris Kimsey produced, mixed, and mastered it front home. I have always enjoyed Maryen’s voice, ever since I first came across her music nearly 30 years ago, and here the combination of that with repeated piano chords and staccato bass runs creates a very other worldly and weird presence. She has really managed to capture the feeling of spookiness, and one can imagine this fitting in well with a remake of “Casper” or movie of similar ilk. Even the scraper percussion adds an additional element, so it all combines together to create something which is fresh, folky, yet also with a rather strange edge which can only make one think of ghosts even before paying attention to the lyrics. Let us hope it is not too long until Maryen graces us with a full album, but until then this single is highly recommended.
This is the second album from Marquette, the brainchild of keyboard player, Markus Roth who is probably best known for Horizontal Ascension (melodic prog rock) and Force of Progress (instrumental prog, metal, jazz fusion). His approach to this album is to reduce the number of notes being played in the instrumental sections to give it a more mainstream sound, and while the debut was a two-man project with associated guests he says that it has now become more of a group. Although not a concept album as such, it was inspired by the life of Christopher McCandless who travelled through the US with minimal equipment and no money in a quest to become one with nature, and apparently starved to death in Alaska aged just 24.
I know this has been receiving good reviews in some areas, but I cannot help thinking that the best thing about this release is the artwork, which is quite powerful. There are long instrumental sections, which are preferable to the vocals as Maurizio Menendez sometimes sings in a style that is almost talking, and this just does not work for me at all. But musically this contains sections which are almost muzak, often repetitive, and frequently feel forced and laboured. If Roth really has made a conscious effort to make this more palatable to a wider audience, then he really should not have bothered. There are undoubtedly some great musicians playing on this, but for me it really does feel like an opportunity wasted as there is a lack of coherency, and one soon starts to wonder when it going to end. There are a couple of long tracks on here, one at more than 14 minutes and one at 19, but just making them long does not mean they will be any good. It is a shame as there are some really interesting passages and interplay at times, especially when the guitar and keyboards set up some duels and runs, but it is just not enough to make the album sufficiently enjoyable as it lacks cohesion throughout. Kev Rowland 6/10
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