A GARDENING CLUB PROJECT – THE BLUE DOOR – MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS

In many ways it is hard to realise that up until the 2017 reissue of ‘The Gardening Club’, originally from 1983, Martin had only been recording a few albums over the years for his own interest, concentrating instead on his day job of illustrating. That reissue and consequent interest has lit a fire under this septuagenarian which puts many musicians half his age to shame. Since then we have had two more albums by The Gardening Club, multiple EPs by A Gardening Club Project, and now here is their first album. The line-up is Drew Birston (fretless, acoustic and Moog bass), Wayne Kozak (soprano saxophone), Kevin Laliberte (drum programming, keyboards, and gut string guitar), Sari Alesh (violin) and Martin (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, bass). Mention must also be made of the extensive wonderful illustrations Martin has provided for the 24-page full colour booklet which also contains the lyrics.

When I first read a review of the original ‘The Gardening Club’ I was incredibly intrigued, and soon got my own copy and consequently wrote a review saying just how much I enjoyed it. It was only after that had appeared that Martin tracked me down and we became friends, so I loved his music before I knew him. I need to put that out there, as many will be aware that Martin has since provided the wonderful designs which adorn my books ‘The Progressive Underground’, and I don’t want you to think I am biased. I have always believed in being honest in my reviews, as there is too little time in this world to spend on bad music, so I say what I think (although of course my opinion may change over time), and I know that Martin and I would have a private debate if I ripped this to pieces, but if that is what I felt then that is what I would say (I did once have a keyboard player tell me we were still friends after I had slated his latest release as he understood where I was coming from). However, this is not a debate I need to have with my fellow ex-pat, as to my ears this is the most complete album he has released to date.

When starting with Martin’s work I always think back to two very different artists, namely Roy Harper and Camel, as he manages to bring them together in an incredibly compelling manner. He also likes to keep pushing the boundaries, and by using different musicians to those in The Gardening Club he has done just that. For the most part this is Martin, Drew, and Kevin, but somehow, they manage to create the feeling of a much bigger band, and while everyone involved in this release recorded in different studios, there is a togetherness which defies belief. They bring middle eastern themes in when the time is right, slip into symphonic prog at others, back into singer songwriter, and that there are no real drums are not noticed just because there is so little percussion on the album at all. The a capella layered introduction to “The Turning of the Glass” is simply delightful, while the phased electric guitars in the background add to the acoustic picking in the foreground.

Throughout this album there are surprises, as the band move in different directions, staying true to their core yet also understanding there is a need to keep shifting so the listener never knows what is going to happen next, just that they are in the presence of beauty. The first time I listened to this I played it back-to-back three times, and each time I gained more from it. Since then, it has been a regular, as there is something magical about this, with a complex simplicity, or simple complexity, which means the listener is transported to a time and place where nothing else matters apart from the music.If you have never discovered the incredible music of Martin Springett, then now is the time to do so, if not sooner.  

10/10 Kev Rowland

TRANSATLANTIC THE ABSOLUTE UNIVERSE – FOREVERMORE – INSIDE OUT

In September 2019 the four-piece of Neal Morse (vocals, piano, Hammond organ, Minimoog, Mellotron, acoustic guitar, charango), Roine Stolt (vocals, electric & acoustic 6- & 12-string guitars, ukulele, keyboards, percussion), Pete Trewavas (vocals, bass) and Mike Portnoy (vocals, drums & percussion) met up to discuss what would be their fifth album. After a couple of weeks of working on material and mapping out songs each musician returned to their own studio to work on the recording. It was during this period that the album kept growing, and discussions were had as to whether this should be a double or single CD. Pete and Neal favoured the shorter version while Roine and Mike preferred the longer, so in the end they decided to do both. But it is important to understand that one is not a shorter/longer version of the other in that there are alternate recordings, new recordings, and even different singers on the single album.

While they are different albums, they are also the same, which makes it hard to write different reviews for each one, but life is never easy is it? When Transatlantic first came together more than 20 years ago I was blown away, as this was the first prog supergroup of the new generation and ‘SMPT:e’ is still a delight to listen to. Here we had musicians from Spock’s Beard, Marillion, The Flower Kings and Dream Theater combining in a way which brought in influences from all these bands, taking the music in a vast symphonic manner which was both massively over the top yet also contained simple to understand melodies.

Given all those involved are also in other active units, Transatlantic have never been the most prolific of bands, and it has been six years since ‘Kaleidoscope’, which in itself was five years from ‘The Whirlwind’ while that was in itself eight years on from ‘Bridge Across Forever’ (although Morse had removed himself from popular music during that period as he concentrated on his Christianity). Morse feels this album has more in common with ‘Whirlwind’ than any other, while Trewavas states simply that it is the best thing they have ever done, and he may just be right. Transatlantic have a reputation of pushing boundaries and limits, sometimes extending where they might be better of trimming, which I am sure is due much to the influence of Stolt as this is something he has also been guilty of The Flower Kings. Yet in recent years they have definitely cut back, and the same is true here with this band, as while the album is 90 minutes long, there are 18 songs and only 3 of them are eight minutes or longer. This means we get shifts in approach far more often, and while at times it feels more like one continuous piece of music than a series of songs, there is no doubt that they are shifting melodies and lyrical ideas.

Since this band came into inception, I have often wondered what Trewavas thinks when he goes back to the day job, as I would take any Transatlantic album over any Marillion album released during the same timeframe as here we have a band that really is taking symphonic prog in new directions, lifting the listener. The 90 minutes of this release just fly by and listening to this version it is hard to imagine how it could work in a more abbreviated form. Transatlantic are back, and it is a masterpiece.

10/10 Kev Rowland

TONY ROMERO’S VORTEX – NOISE MACHINE – MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS

Tony Romero is probably best known as being a long-time DJ on the best internet radio station around, House of Prog (in full disclosure I’d better mention that I also review for the site). He has long had an interest in all forms of progressive rock music, has interviewed literally hundreds of stars within the scene, and when it came time for him to record his debut album, he was able to bring some of those into assist. One of those is Steve Bonino, whose input into the album is considerable, providing vocals, bass, keyboards, guitar as well as working with Tony on mixing, arranging, and producing the album. Tony provides keyboards throughout, although he is also assisted in that regard by Robert Schindler while there are also three guests who are on one track each, namely singers Liz Tapia and Sophia Baird and guitarist Peter Matuchniak.

Tony is the only person who appears on every track, as one would expect, and this is very much his album, working to combine his interests in different types of music. This means that although he has involved musicians I very much admire, they have been working with his guidance, so this is very much a Romero release as opposed to Bonino etc. Tony has an approach to keyboard playing which I understand, but to be honest am not a huge fan of, which means I am coming to this review being able to appreciate what is taking place while not actually enjoying it. This is because Tony is coming into prog from an area of electronica, so the keyboards being used have sounds and styles from the Eighties, and while there is some guitar, there isn’t enough for me. The keyboards can be quite staccato as opposed to sweeping, which can be at odds to the vocals.

There are also quite a few instrumentals on the album, and Robert Schindler’s keyboard solo on “House Arrest” sounds like a shredding guitarist, but it is played against sounds which to my ears don’t work as well as they might. However, I am also fully aware that this is because I am not a fan of this style of music as opposed to anything wrong with the music itself. The music has been well performed and recorded, but it is just that I am not the target audience. I truly hope that Tony manages to get this to the right listeners, as it is definitely more electronica than progressive, and it is always interesting to find people releasing music that is somewhat unexpected.  

7/10 Kev Rowland

SPIRITS BURNING & MICHAEL MOORCOCK – HOLLOW LANDS – PURPLE PYRAMID

I don’t recollect when or how I started reading Michael Moorcock, but it was probably through one of his collections of short stories which in turn led me to Elric of Melniboné, Jerry Cornelius etc. I was always in awe of his storytelling talent, and that he could somehow bring characters so vividly to life, no matter what genre he was working in. Of course, over the years he has also become well-known for his work with bands such as Hawkwind, and here we find him combining both aspects in a musical take on his famous trilogy ‘Dancers at the end of Time’, of which this is the second (I have not heard the first, although I have read the books).

Keyboard player Don Falcone has been the man behind the ever-changing space rock project that is Spirits Burning since its inception more than 20 years ago. He and Michael, along with Albert Bouchard (ex-Blue Öyster Cult) are the core for this release, and they have brought in numerous guests including BÖC members Eric Bloom, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Joe Bouchard, Hawkwind associates Harvey Bainbridge, Steve Bemand, Bridget Wishart, Adrian Shaw and Dead Fred, as well as Nektar’s Ron Howden, The Strawbs’ Chas Cronk, and others.

So, there are great musicians involved, along with one of the world’s finest authors, combining to provide an audio representation of one of that author’s most well-known works, so I was looking forward to this. Which meant that I was soon bitterly disappointed. The vocals are poor, often too wordy as they try and reflect a complex story, the melodies are clumsy at best, and when it does all come together such as on “A Haze of Crimson Light” all it does is shine a light on just how poor some of the other material really is.

If it weren’t for the calibre and history of those involved then I am sure this would have been a self-release, but it has been picked up by a label as many of those involved have sold millions of albums (and in one case, books) over the years. The chances are that if I had seen this for sale in a shop and read what it was about then I would have purchased it, given my love of Moorcock, and I would have been intrigued to hear how they had managed to capture elements in a musical fashion. However, having played it once I would have done what I am doing now, which is putting it to one side and never playing it ever again.
4/10 Kev Rowland

STICK MEN FEATURING GARY HUSBAND – OWARI – MOONJUNE RECORDS

In 2019, Leonardo Pavkovic started planning a short tour of Asia which would see Stick Men performing in China for the first time, as well as returning to Japan, and this time they would have a special guest in Gary Husband who would be providing keyboards. However, in November they were told that the Hong Kong gig was off due to the unrest in the city, and then in early February 2020 they were told the Chinese dates were off due to the growing pandemic. It was agreed that the Japan dates would go ahead, so on February 26th the group arrived in Nagoya, having set off from different starting points and countries. This gave them some time to rehearse, agree the setlist, and undertake some sightseeing before the first gig of the tour on the 28th, only to be told that this would be the only night as Japan was also closing down.

So, with little rehearsal time, and a tour reduced to just one night the guys did what they do best, settle in for a gig of mastery and entertainment. Husband sounds as if he has always been there, not imposing himself into the band but somehow filling spaces and gaps which benefit from his intervention. Stick Men have played many hundreds of gigs, while Levin and Mastelotto can add many more together, so the three of them inherently know where to go when it is time for improvisation, and when it keep it tight, and the combination of their skills and musical mastery make them a band like no other. Drums, stick and touch guitar, combine with the additional layering of keyboards to create something very special indeed.

With no audience noise, this sounds as if was a studio recording which has been finessed to perfection, and not like a live performance at all, but if one had been there that night, one would have heard masterful takes on their own material, such an inspired “Prog Noir”, where Husband adds an additional layer which takes it in new directions, as well as some Crimson classics given their own unique twist. If musically this were not enough, Moonjune have released the CD in a hardback picture book containing photos of the event. It makes for a very special release indeed, and one to which I will often be returning.  
10/10 Kev Rowland

THE GARDENING CLUB – THE OWL (LONG FORM) – MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS

It has been an incredible last four years for Martin Springett, who could never have thought the 2017 reissuing of his (it must be said) obscure 1983 album. ‘The Gardening Club’, would herald such a reawakening of his musical beast. His revived partnership and collaboration with Norm MacPherson has seen them release new albums, with this long-form version of “The Owl’ being made available on the same day as the limited-edition extended ‘The Time Trilogy’ EP (which is by A Gardening Club project, with very different sounds and personnel). “The Owl” was originally released as the B-side of “Strange Kingdom” last year, where it was a mere four minutes long, but it has now been extended and morphed into a suite which is more than 17 minutes in length and is worth every second.

I have long been thinking of Martin’s music as a combination between Camel and Roy Harper, and while that is still the case, here that is a base for a much richer palette. Norm is a key member of the partnership, providing some wonderful orchestral arrangements, dobro and slide guitar with Martin bass, acoustic guitar and vocals, James McPherson on drums with Peter Dowse and Drew Birston both providing bass on different sections. It is the combination of all the elements, especially against the delicate orchestration, which really makes this stand out. This belongs firmly in the Seventies, with Mike Oldfield, The Strawbs and Gryphon being the obvious references, and is delicate and light, dreamy and passionate, calling to the listener and bringing them in closer to be wrapped in a warm embrace. The sections are distinct, with wonderful slide on one, fretless bass on another, an oboe here, long instrumental sections or others dominated by Martin’s sweet tones. This is a timeless piece of music, and while it is being played nothing else exists or matters, it is all about the sound. The first time I played this was when I was washing the pet room floor, a task which is as monotonous as it sounds, and from the first gentle picked acoustic guitars I was transported. I had made the decision to play it on headphones and I am so glad I did as that is the only way to get the true benefit. Strings were introduced before the first minute was over, and I soon realised this was quite different to previous music I had heard by the band, and all for the better.

Martin has been invigorated by the awakening of his musical muse, and his output has been prolific (while also keeping up the day job of being an in-demand illustrator, he of course provides all the artwork for his releases). Part of me wonders what would have happened in his musical career if it had taken off back in 1983, but there again there is no use playing that game, and instead we can revel in wonderful progressive rock music of real depth, breadth and quality which is being delivered today. Long may it continue. This is essential listening for all lovers of quality music which is in no rush to get to the end, yet never wastes a note.

Kev Rowland