I was chatting to keyboard player Kai Esbensen recently and mentioned I had never heard their 2001 debut, and he said he would send me a copy. I demurred, saying a download would be fine, but he was keen for me to have a physical version and as soon as it arrived I could see why. The rear cover shows the periodic table, but some are missing, and by running a finger over it one can feel that it is not that they have not been printed, but rather they have been cut out. Turn the digipak back to the front and there are the missing elements making up the album title, and again when running a finger over the name one can feel they have been added, while the band’s name is also embossed. I was impressed and I hadn’t even opened it yet, let alone listened to it! A huge amount of work has gone into the booklet, with each page containing the lyrics but very different in style to the rest and if this amount of work had gone into the presentation what on earth would the music be like?
The line-up in 2001 was exactly the same as it is today, namely Jonathan Smith (vocals, xylophone, guitar, flute), Blake Albinson (guitars), Kai Esbensen (keyboards), Jay Burritt (bass) and James Swensen-Flagg (drums), and even though this was the debut they were already demonstrating the ridiculous amount of talent they have, while also showing that progheads have a sense of humour (honest!). The throwaway “She’s No Vegetarian” is a blast of fun at less then 3 minutes long (and is not the shortest song on the album), taking us into the late Sixties yet is very much the only song of that type on the album as though they refuse to settle within any one area for too long. Musically they were already demonstrating their love of experimentation and pushing boundaries in a way associated in the US with the likes of Zappa while in the UK we would look to Cardiacs, whose classic ‘Sing To God’ came out only five years before this.
However, Bubblemath are a band who have resolutely stuck to their own musical path and have continued to do so to this day, even though this has impacted on their output, and we have only had three albums in total in more than 20 years. But when music is as fine as this then who are we to complain? One never knows what is going to come next, but with songs generally quite short (there are 12 songs on the album which is only 45:23 in length and only one is longer than six minutes), one knows there is not too long to wait, and that intricacy will be involved. The music is complex, complicated and incredibly intricate, yet at the same time it is an album which can be enjoyed the very first time of playing with hidden depths being uncovered the more one listens to it. The arrangements are unreal, with musicians going off at tangents only for it to all make sense later, the result being both experimental and adventurous. Undoubtedly this will frighten off those who want their prog to be delivered in a carefully manicured Genesis/Floyd manner, but those who want their music to be running straight past any perceived boundaries would do well to give this a listen. 10/10 Kev Rowland
I first came across Dave Bandana years ago when he was in Salander, followed him to his journeys with Birzer Bandana before he formed The Bardic Depths and released the debut album back in 2020. His colleague Brad Birzer was still involved, but he had brought in a group of stellar musicians and taken a huge step up in every way. Now The Bardic Depths are back with the second album, and this feels far more like a group affair as opposed to a project. History professor Birzer has again worked with Dave on lyrics to much of the material, and the core musicians have been brought back from last time, namely Peter Jones (Camel/Tiger Moth Tales/ Red Bazar), Gareth Cole (Paul Menel/ Fractal Mirror) and Tim Gehrt (The Streets/ Steve Walsh). There are a cast of thousands in terms of guests (especially for backing vocals), but it is the core quartet who share the vast majority of the workload, with others being brought in to add additional nuances and layers as opposed to taking on key roles.
There are times when the music is quite Floydian, with “The Burning Flame” sounding as if it could have come from ‘Wish You Were Here’ with delicate keyboards and a wonderfully restrained guitar solo, while at others they are more into the crossover genre as opposed to symphonic. Whereas the debut album was also viewed in some ways as the third Birzer Bandana release, there is no doubt that what we have here now is a band very much performing on their own terms and with their own identity. Like most people in the prog scene, I am a massive fan of Peter Jones and what he has already achieved within the genre, but this is a band where he has little input into the actual songwriting and is onboard for his skills as a musician and singer, which means some of the pressure is off and there is no doubt he relishes the opportunity, with a saxophone lead on the instrumental “Colours and Shapes” (one of only two songs where he gets a songwriting credit) which is simply beautiful, dynamic and full of power.
Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) has again been involved as a co-producer (as well as dropping in musically here and there), and he has worked with Dave to create an environment where the guys have been able to express themselves and allow the band to truly grow as a unit. This is by far the best album I have heard from Mr. Bandana over the years, and I am truly looking forward to see what comes of this band in the future. 8/10 Kev Rowland
There is no doubt in my mind that one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated progressive rock bands around is America’s 3RDegree. Over the years they have been incredibly consistent, and while I have not heard the debut album (so consequently have not reviewed it), I have given all the other five maximum marks, so it is safe to say I am a fan. There is something about their commercial progressive sound with wonderful harmonies which really gets to me and many others. The first album of theirs I heard was 2012’s ‘The Long Division’, and I was blown away by a sound which reminded me so much of City Boy – that review got the band to check them out as they had never previously heard them, and it also made sense to them! I also need to thank fellow beer aficionado and bassist/keyboard player Robert James Pashman for instilling in me a love of trappiest ales.
So what is this compilation, and why does it say it covers the years 1990-2020 when it starts with a recording from 2011? That song, “The World In Which We Lived”, originally appeared on their debut album back in 1993 when they were a trio with some guests and Robert provided the vocals, and was then re-recorded in 2010 with George. It is the commencement of a journey in chronological order, with virtually every song remixed, taken from all their releases over the years. The set also contains three hidden tracks, which cannot be streamed but are part of the download, and these three replace three other songs on the CD if the physical version is purchased. It is safe to say that one of these is the finest bringing together of two songs which share the same title I have ever heard and will be guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone who knows them.
With their two most recent albums being their most successful, and both of them being concept albums with the second being a continuation of the first, it does mean there is a certain lack of continuity within this compilation, but there is no doubt it is a wonderful collection of songs and a great way of finding out about one of America’s finest commercial crossover prorgressive bands who have an innate sense of melody to combine hooks with intricacy in easy to enjoy songs which are always fun and full of life. 9/10 Kev Rowland
Babal are back with another album which refuses to conform to what anyone thinks progressive rock should be like, with a worldview which puts them in opposition to the majority and they are just fine with that. Although they have a guest who provides additional bass on a couple of tracks, Babal are a close-knit trio who have been following their own musical path and destiny for some years now, staying away from anything which could be deemed to be trendy and instead walking a path less followed. In Jon Sharpe they have a drummer who is never content to sit at the back and just keep time, but rather he needs to be heard and injects himself into the music to be a key part of the arrangements. Rob Williams is a multi-instrumentalist who appears to be at home with whatever he touches, and then there is Karen?… Karen is the ultimate performer living her roles, which are very much part of her, destined to be the center of attention.
With both Rob and Karen suffering cancer in recent years, there was a very high risk that Babal would have to fold, and as it is they have unable to play gigs for quite some time, but there is nothing which will stop the guys channeling the music which is in their blood, and here they have come up with one of their most uncompromising albums yet. Think Talking Heads mixed with Beefheart, experimental Zappa and some punk ethics (as opposed to musical) such as Crass and one may just get close. There are elements of free jazz alongside prog, an edginess which refuses definition and a solid desire never to be pleasant and restful but rather be angular and sharp. This is music which will divide opinions among progheads as there will be plenty who will feel there is too much angst and general weirdness going on while there will also be others who feel this is cutting edge which takes us back 50 years to a time when anything was possible and being progressive meant being different as opposed to rehashing what had come before.
I have become used to Babal by now and knew I would not necessarily enjoy this the first time I played this, even before I put it on, and possibly not even the second, but by the third, there was a smile on my face as Karen, Rob and Jon have yet again delivered something out of the norm and very special indeed.
When I was young, I was fascinated by myths and legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt and I was given a book, ‘The Story of Greece’, which had belonged to my mum when she was a child herself. With lots of colour plates I was fascinated by the stories of Achilles, Hyacinthus, Apollo, Arachne and many others, including of course Pandora. Many people will have heard the term Pandora’s Box even if they do not know the myth from which it was taken. Although the story has been retold many times in many ways, the base is always the same in that Pandora opened a container as she wondered what was inside, releasing many evils into the world and although she attempted to close it quickly only one thing was left behind, often referred to as hope.
Steve is a multi-instrumentalist, and although Eric Johnson has assisted with a guitar solo on one song, he does everything else himself apart from the female vocals, where Shimmer Johnson provides the lead on “My Name Is Pandora” and C.C. White provides additional vocals throughout. Steve is no stranger to concept albums, with the two excellent ‘Stargazer’ albums behind him, but it is very different indeed to work on an original story as opposed to a well-known myth, how to make it relevant for the modern day? Quite easily in his hands it appears, as he mixes it with the story of Eve and Christianity, bringing it right up to date when someone at a garage sale come across a jewelled box they cannot open and asks for advice, only to regret it when they get inside.
The lyrics are thoughtful and at times quite deep, making us think, but in contrast the music is light and full of hooks, so they combine together in a manner which is both fascinating and intriguing, making us curious to investigate further, much like the protagonists in the story. The idea of bringing in a singer to take on the role of Pandora herself makes total sense as here she has a voice and is able to explain who she is, and in Shimmer Johnson, Steve has found the perfect vocalization of his ideas. I can see them working together more in the future.
As well as the songs, there is a spoken word piece called “Origin Story”, where we hear the story of Pandora according to the original legends, explaining to those who did not grow up reading Greek myths (which is most people in fairness), all accompanied by an underlying keyboard piece. I also ought to make mention of the drums, as although they are programmed it shows that when someone really knows what they are doing then they can become a valid instrument. It really feels like there is a human driving the sound as opposed to a computer.
The end result is an album which is deep, wanting to make us think and also investigate the story further, while also being thoroughly enjoyable on a musical level. Complex, and complicated, it is a delight the first time it is played and that feeling only deepens the more one gets inside.
Recorded in 2009, this album is available in multiple different formats, including swirled vinyl and a CD/DVD set etc. As one may be able to work out from the album title, this is a live run through of one of his most controversial albums, at least when it was first released back in 1973. His previous album, ‘Something/Anything/’ had charted well in multiple countries, and spawned some hit singles, but this saw him undertaking far more inventive paths, something which was exacerbated by his experimentation at the time with psychedelic drugs. Many Todd fans now look back on this very favourably indeed, while I have always felt there is some very strong material contained within but others which are not as good, so a rather inconsistent release.
Needless to say, this means that this album contains the same flaws and strengths as the original, but he has surrounded himself with a strong band and there is no doubt that the crowd in Akron, Ohio, had a great time. Mind you, whether they would say the same about this release would be another matter altogether. Todd has released a great many live albums over the years, both under his own name and Utopia, and I have a few different boxed sets so it can be said I am quite a fan, but what has been done with these recordings is quite unforgiveable. The production is great, as is the performance, but whoever messed with this needs to be sacked. I know that in these days of people using Spotify (I don’t) and shuffling albums (I don’t do that either), there are few of us who like to play an album from beginning to end, but surely when it comes to live albums everyone does? Whoever mutilated this album obviously does not, as what has happened is that each track fades out and then back in again, even though this is taken from a single night performance of a complete album. But worse than that, sometimes as it fades back in, we get a few seconds of the previous song again. Did no-one listen to this? Did Todd sign it off?
The end result is an album which in many ways should be a masterpiece, but instead it is an annoyance, and incredibly frustrating. To me this is a great opportunity ruined – I guess it would be okay if I played it on shuffle, but I can’t bring myself to do so. A real shame. 6/10 Kev Rowland
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