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
It took seven years for Cary to follow-up on ‘Blue Rain’, but in 2021 he returned with ‘Hourglass’. As with the previous album this is primarily a solo affair, with Cary providing the vast majority of the instruments but he does have a couple of bassists on different songs with the biggest difference being the assistance of drummer Grant Ball on many. Here we have an album which is out of time, and sounds as if it should have been released no later than 1972, and even that could be a push. This album is steeped in psychedelia, as well as bringing in some classic Mellotron and Moog sounds and comes across as Roy Harper crossed with Tyrannosaurus Rex (yes, the earlier variant).
It is dreamy, full of space, without a care as Cary sings his love songs in an era when the world was full of peace and love. It is an incredibly relaxing album, full of space within the arrangements, which can be surprisingly complex even when coming across as being simple. The more this is played the more one notices the nuances here and there from different instruments which add to the overall feeling without ever intruding into the sound. The ballads have a simplicity which feels so at odds with the rushing and hectic world we now live in, and the album moves us in both emotion and time.
It is an album which benefits from being played on headphones when one really has the time to devote to it and relax into Cary’s world from a time past. 7/10 Kev Rowland
Eternal Return is a quintet which brings together various duos/trios that have previously recorded and toured together. Within this ensemble we have Dogon, the duo of Venezuelan Miguel Noya (synthesisers) and American Paul Godwin (vocals, piano) who first met at Berklee some 40 years ago. Alongside them is bassist Australian Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree, no-man, O.R.k.) and his frequent collaborator, Estonian guitarist Robert Jürjendal (Toyah Wilcox, Fripp’s Crafty Guitar School). To complete the line-up, we have Venezuelan drummer Miguel Toro, while they have a guest trumpeter in Damascus-born Milad Khawam and the album was recorded in Berlin.
In other words, this is a truly international band bringing together a great many influences and styles. The best way to describe this is probably progressive ambient, with links to the likes of David Sylvain (especially, one can really imagine him performing on some of these) and This Mortal Coil. It is an album which goes through many styles, with guitar and/or synth/piano often the lead instrument, yet at its heart is a strong percussive element (much more than “just” drums) while Edwin’s smooth meandering and slid basslines have an incredibly important part to play in holding it all together. It is something which can be both relaxing and luxurious and experimental and edgy, so much so that even when everything is calm and making sense there is still an edge which provides a tension. It is atmospheric, but the high use of cymbals combined with the differing backgrounds from those involved make this something which needs to have close attention paid to it or important elements will be passed by.
This definitely benefits from being played on headphones and not just in the background as it will just disappear. Fans of no-man, King Crimson, and some of the more ambient prog noodlings of Marillion may well find this intriguing. 7/10 Kev Rowland
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