FAINT SIGNAL – FORMULA – INDEPENDENT

Faint Signal originally came together when a post on Craigslist asked if prog rock was dead in Cincinnati. As a result, Henri Eisenbaum (guitars, keyboards, vocals, percussion) and Randy Campbell (vocals, basses, pedals, keyboards) started working together and in 2014 they released their self-titled debut. I do not know why it took so long for the second album to come out, but in 2018 ‘Formula’  was finally released. This involved nine musicians and five recording studios, and like many these days was supported by a crowdfunding campaign. As a way of paying forward, the band set aside a portion of all proceeds from this release to purchase for instruments for school children and the school music programs. I have never known any music program get the funding they need, as arts seem to be the first things cut in budget rounds, so this is something which definitely strikes a chord with me.

This is polished prog which has a great deal in common with the Nineties American neo-prog scene. When they want to turn up the guitars they do so with gusto, and they immediately reminded me of the lost-lost (and much-missed) Ilúvatar, with some Saga, plenty of Pink Floyd, plus The Flower Kings and post-Neal Spock’s Beard. The songs are well structured, with good vocals, and there is a quirkiness throughout the album, starting with the album artwork itself where we see band member’s heads in jars. I would have preferred more “real” drums on the album, but this is a long-standing gripe of mine and actually the sequenced drums here are not nearly as bad as they could be, I’d just rather have a human at the back as the music to me always seems far more honest and direct. Most songs are relatively concise, there is no room here for the guys to go on extended solos but instead, they concentrate on the job at hand, which makes the album very immediate indeed.

I did see a review that likened these guys to Gandalf’s Fist, and although I do not necessarily agree with it, I can understand where it is coming from as there is a similar approach in some areas. The use of additional musicians just for certain songs really does add to the interest, and the result is something which is incredibly polished and enjoyable from the very first hearing, and that only grows the more time it is played. Great songs, superb vocals, I can only imagine there was a dearth of progressive bands in the area when Henri and Randy first came together given how that transpired, and hope they have inspired many more in their area to get out there as this is a really enjoyable album. Refined, relaxing, I can listen to this all day. This album may have been out for two years, but with no reviews yet on Prog Archives it has been missed by many, and that certainly needs correcting. For all fans of well-structured commercial progressive rock, this is a delight. 
 8/10 Kev Rowland

FERNANDO PERDOMO – THE CRIMSON GUITAR – INDEPENDENT

It isn’t a new idea to undertake a work that is dedicated to covers of already known and loved songs, but it is somewhat unusual for one person to take the music of just one band and translate it into the classical form. Again, this isn’t exactly without precedent, and while everyone is fully aware of the many full-blown orchestral attempts over the years (some of which have been incredibly successful, such as David Palmer’s work on the likes of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, others not so much), there have actually been a few other attempts with far less bombast, and I am still a huge fan of the two albums by Yngve Guddal & Roger T. Matte where they translated Genesis for two grand pianos. But, racking my brain and my personal library I cannot think of another quite like this.

Here Fernando Perdomo combines his love of classical guitar and King Crimson to create something which is a worthy tribute, and successful on all counts. One thing I particularly like is that this recording does contain a few slight fluffs, which allows me to think that each recording is solid without any drop-ins or overdubs. Indeed, with the resonance of the strings, it would be hard for that to take place. Ten songs, with a total length of just 25 minutes, this is a delight for any fan – as to whether it works for those who don’t know any of the pieces I am unable to judge, as this is like meeting old friends who are familiar, but somehow quite different as well.

Fernando Perdomo says of the release: “’ The Crimson Guitar’ is my passionate love letter to the amazing King Crimson music that fascinated me when I was first learning classical guitar in my early teens… I created these arrangements with the utmost respect for the music and legacy of the band. My hope is to bring light to the delicate beauty of the songs”. I think he has achieved that with some ease, as these are a delight, making them somehow more original and also inviting the listener to go back to the original albums and compare the two. Sheer class from beginning to end and essential for any fan of King Crimson.
8/10 Kev Rowland

LES PENNING WITH ROBERT REED – RETURN TO PENRHOS -TIGER MOTH RECORDS

To fully understand this album, one first needs to provide a small history lesson. Les Penning a famed folk musician who first started working with Mike Oldfield with ‘Ommadawn’. He also introduced Oldfield to medieval music when they were working together at Penhros Court, hence the title. For this album he is working again with Robert Reed, continuing a collaboration which has been taking place over the last few years (I love their version of the “Doctor Who” theme). Here we see the pair returning both to medieval music and the stylings of Oldfield, where Penning plays a large variety of woodwind instruments (reneaissance treble and soprano recorders, alto crumhorn, garklein, owl ocarina, tenor gemshorn, low F and D whistles) plus the bowed psaltery, while Reed plays everything else. I must admit, I had to trawl google to understand what some of those instruments were, as there are a few there I had not previously come across! There is virtually no percussion on the album, with Reed providing a bodhran here and there, but it used sparingly. 

Although the album is bookended with originals from Penning, this album is based heavily on music from Playford’s Dancing Master, a dancing manual containing music which was first published by John Playford in 1651, while other songs are marked “Medieval”, “Old English 16th Century” etc. Penning is of course known for his research in this area, and one of the numbers included is “Argiers”. Again, this is originally from Playford’s Dancing Master, but this arrangement is by Oldfield, and appeared on ‘Ommadawn’. With this all being taken into consideration it is not a surprise as to what this album sounds like, namely medieval music being performed by Oldfield in the mid to late Seventies. Reed has even captured that distinctive electric guitar sound, and together the two musicians have created something which is entrancing, beautiful, beguiling, and almost hypnotic (in “The Fall of A Leaf” there is even a tubular bell). There is no rush, no desire to get from one place to another, the joy is in the journey, as the musicians become magicians and cast a spell.

This is music to be savoured, for the listener to sit down and enjoy without distractions as the world goes by. It takes us back in time, promising sunny days and smiling, happy faces with no fear of catching a virus by stepping outside. It is summer in fields, the light reflecting on a babbling brook, it is a joy and sumptuous delight which keeps on giving. Simply put, if you have ever enjoyed classic Mike Oldfield and the style of music he was producing some 40+ years ago, then this is absolutely essential.
10/10 Kev Rowland

LIFE IN DIGITAL – SIGNS TO THE FAR SIDE – WHITE KNIGHT RECORDS

Life In Digital were formed in 2016 by John Beagley and Robin Schell, and this is their second album together. Doing some research, it appears that Robin Schell was in the running to become singer for Yes at one point in the late Eighties, and if that is true it wouldn’t have surprised me as she is very similar in some way to Jon Anderson: I actually thought it was probably Jon Davison singing until I looked at the press release. I don’t know who played what on the album, but the result is something which is very synth-driven, and when the band say the album is inspired by 80’s Yes together with Buggles, I couldn’t have put it much better myself, although probably more to the latter than the former. The vocals are great, and the songs interesting, but there really is too much in the way of synthesisers, and the lack of proper drums is a real issue here. I would like to see these guys morph away from being just a duo and become more of a full band with less reliance on studio overdubbing and layering, using more real instruments.

I have seen some absolutely rave reviews for this album online, but for me this is interesting and enjoyable without ever stepping up to the next level. I enjoyed it, and I am sure any fans of the two aforementioned bands will get something from it, but there is not enough depth and solidity within this for me to say anything more positive about it. There are some string guitar lines and solos here and there, but not enough to be consistently powerful and driving. I haven’t heard the debut so don’t know if there has been any change between the two, but it will be interesting to see what the next one is like and if they have moved on, as then it could be very good indeed.
6/10 Kev Rowland

LOBATE SCARP – SPIRALS AND PORTALS EP – INDEPENDENT

This is the first time I have come across Lobate Scarp, who released their debut (and to date only) album back in 2012, followed it up with a single in 2016, and are now back with as EP. The band is based around singer and keyboard player Adam Sears, while other stalwarts have been Andy Catt (bass, vocals) and drummer Mike Gerbrandt: it is also interesting to see the involvement of none other than Rich Mouser, the famed Spock’s Beard producer. There are three new songs on this 25-minute-long EP, plus a slightly shortened radio edit of the opening song “Nothing Wrong.” Aside from the core band, they also bring in many more musicians when the time is right, although not as many as on their debut when (including the members of the choir) they boast more than 50 people were involved.

This is a pleasant melodic rock with progressive tendencies here and there, but there are some interesting sections and approaches which made me think more of neo-prog, especially on the rambunctious chorus for “Nothing Wrong”. I was enjoying what I was hearing, without anything massively resonating if I am being honest. Then I came to the third song “Beautiful Light”, which is different from the others both in style and content. It soars, it is commercial, it contains more diversity and spread than the others, and I sat up, paid real interest, and wished there were more like this. Hopefully, this EP, after such a gap, shows that the band is more active again as I really want to hear a full album from these guys.
7/10 Kev Rowland

OUTSIDE IN – KARMATRAIN – AAA RECORDS

Outside In are a rare beast indeed, as not only are they a progressive rock band, but they are a progressive rock band from New Zealand! Our wonderful country has a geographical mass a little larger than the UK, but less than five million people live here, and while a third of that population can be found around Auckland, realistically there is an incredibly small market for both live work and recorded material. But there are some who cannot help themselves and just have to perform, whatever cost and hard work that entails. The band came together with a while back, releasing an EP as long ago as 2015, but there have been the usual issues with any new group and it is only fairly recently that the line-up stabilized around Mikey Brown (vocals and harmonies, lyrics, synthesizers, keyboards, guitar), Jonnie Barnard (guitars), Adam Tobeck (drums), Elliott Seung Il Park (bass) and Joe Park (guitar). Here is a band that are determined to do things their way, so even before they had an album deal they recorded a series of three videos that tell a story and should be watched in the correct order (to see what I mean take a trip over to https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWIwBrxGaiovJ9_nG7-BaLSq96fJbfebg). They have since signed a deal with TeMatera Smith at AAA Records, and the result is ‘Karmatrain’.

The obvious musical influences are Porcupine Tree and Radiohead, although some have also been pointing towards the likes of A Perfect Circle or Karnivool. In many ways, the album revolves around the vocals, and Mikey Brown is one of the most exciting new male singers I have come across for a while, with the music swirling around so it all comes together. Just listen to the outro of “Mushrooms” to hear what I mean, where the vocals mingle, rise and swell. But the reason the vocals are allowed to shine is due to the music, which is always the perfect accompaniment, so guitars can be staccato in one place to provide some emphasis or they can be more in the background. There is not much space in the production, but somehow there is still a great deal of clarity and no muddiness in the sound, it is just that to get the correct effect it needs to be all-encompassing. When going through a collection of potential songs for the album, Mikey realized a few were lyrically influenced by a novel he had read while on holiday in Nice about ten years ago, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’. The themes being fairly universal he decided to incorporate more of the book’s influence into the writing process until eventually, it was obvious that this was becoming a concept album. The album has ended up with each of the 12 songs representing one of the 12 chapters from the book. Each song has a story that relates to that chapter but also has a parallel story from his own experiences. It just gradually became a more conceptual thing that provided a framework to pin ideas against.

I’ve sat and listened to the album back to back four times today, and each time not only do I get more from it but I am amazed that the music is so polished and finessed from a band that very few have come across before this. I had not, and I work in the same city! It was also self-produced by guitarist Jonnie Barnard (then mixed and mastered by Dave Rhodes), yet this sounds as if it could have come from a top studio. There are strong dynamics, shifts in tempo, and powerful performances from all the players. Listen to what is going on behind the lines and there are some simply stunning bass lines from Park while Tobeck is never settled and is constantly shifting the percussive approach. This means that some bars may be hi-hat/snare, others may just be cymbals, and he is putting in fills everywhere. Then on top of a complex foundation, the two guitarists mix and mingle.

This is crossover progressive rock for the 21st century, influenced by more recent acts than many within the scene, creating a sound that is looking both to the recent past and also for the future. Outside In, the prog band from the end of the world you have never heard of. Outside In. Karmatrain. Investigate them on YouTube, then get the album.
9/10 Kev Rowland

https://outsideinnz.wixsite.com/mysite 
https://outsideinnz.bandcamp.com/

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