TODD RUNDGREN – A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR…LIVE – CLEOPATRA RECORDS

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

KINETIC ELEMENT – POWERED BY LIGHT – INDEPENDENT

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.

Kev rowland 8/10

MANNA/MIRAGE – FACE – NEW HOUSE MUSIC

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.

Kev Rowland 8/10

MARYEN CAIRNS – THE HAUNTED LANE – INDEPENDENT

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.

Kev Rowland 8/10

KINETIC ELEMENT – LIVE IN NEW YORK – MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS

After three studio albums, a decision was made to record a gig at the famous venue My Father’s Place in October 2019. Somewhat unsurprisingly the line-up is the same as that on the ‘The Face of Life’ album earlier that year, namely Mike Visaggio (piano, organ synth, harmony vocals), Saint John Coleman (vocals), Peter Matuchniak (guitar), Mark Tupko (bass) and Michael Murray (drums, harmony vocals). Now, I enjoyed the previous album, and I was looking forward to this, and in some ways, I was certainly not disappointed, while others very much so. Musically this is a complex outfit, with a rhythm section that provides multiple patterns and elements so that the two lead instruments can go off and play, although both drums and bass also push their way into the limelight when the time is right. Peter Matuchniak is one of my favourite guitarists, seemingly able to play in whatever style is required, which makes him such as in-demand session man as well as releasing his own material and in being multiple  bands. Here he is allowed to really push his melodic soloing, and is relishing having a melodic foil to pitch against as Mike is keyboard player who is not afraid to take centre stage. The use of different keyboard sounds and styles also makes this for an interesting battle. So far, so good.The issue I have is with the vocals. I have no idea if Saint John Coleman was having an off night, or if there was an equipment issue so he could not hear himself, but to me the vocals are sharp throughout the whole performance. This means that when it is just the band (and there are plenty of lengthy instrumental sections) I have one opinion of the album, and when he is singing, I have another which is quite different. This is a real shame, as musically this is a great release, yet I cannot look past that. However, like every review I ever write, this is just my opinion and others may not share that view, but I would suggest this is one to listen to before purchase. If you like the vocals, you will find this to be an amazing release and one you should seek out.
Kev Rowland 6/10