Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Rock ’

Album of the Week 25-2018: Doom – Complicated Mind


One risk when you are listening to Doom is that you will only pay attention to the late Koh Morota’s crazy, but always serviceable work on the fretless bass. Especially when he is put front and center in the mix like he was on the ‘Killing Fields’ EP. However, Doom is a power trio in the truest sense of the word. The magic of this band happens within their intricate, but always spontaneous interaction, something highly uncommon amongst thrash metal bands, but also a defining factor of the middle section in just about every track on their masterpiece ‘Complicated Mind’.

Structurally, most of Doom’s songs follow a similar pattern. They are bookended by tightly composed thrash riffs, only to turn into a contrasting instrumental section in the middle. The riffing has a futuristic feel, but manages to steer clear of the clinical nature of Voivod’s riffs, a band Doom is often compared to outside of their native Japan. And those middle sections really turn Doom into something special, as they could be anything from bluesy hardrock (the title track) to an atmospheric break (‘Bright Light’) or what can almost be considered a loud and distorted take on freejazz (‘Fall, Rise And…’).

While all of this may sound abstract, it is actually surprising how listenable ‘Complicated Mind’ is. Morota, singer/guitarist Takashi Fujita and drummer Jyoichi Hirokawa are not trying to be clever, they just play what came to their minds and apparently, their minds are wired a little differently than those of most people. The strangest track here is probably ‘Can’t Break My… Without You’ – verses: start-stop riffing with a melodic bass line, middle section: clean guitar break – but Hirokawa’s steady, almost danceable rhythms keep the song grounded and easily digestible. Doom’s secret appears to be to feel the music rather than to overthink it.

As a result, ‘Complicated Mind’ does not feel like college material. Banging your head to the pounding rhythms and dissonant chords of the title track is easy, while ‘Painted Face’, ‘Bright Light’ and ‘Slave Of Heaven’ are simply excellent, inventive metal tracks. The way Fujita’s straightforward riff and Morota’s busy parts are woven into each other on the latter is nothing short of art, as is the open, almost alt-rocky solo section. ‘The Boys Dog’ features Fujita narrating a story about what appears to sincerely be his childhood dog over some great riffing, which works out much better than it may sound like it would.

Everyone who enjoyed Voivod and Coroner should definitely give Doom a spin, though the more adventurous fans of the likes of Rush may actually find something of their liking here as well. Sure, Fujita’s vocals are quite monotonous, but they are convincing and strategically placed within the songs. While Doom would become even more progressive or even avant-garde in later years, ‘Complicated Mind’ features the trio at their very best, combining the blunt force of their early work with the thinking man’s intricacy of some of the following albums. And while some moments may feel downright odd initially, those with a similarly complicated mind will get it soon enough.

Recommended tracks: ‘Complicated Mind’, ‘Slave Of Heaven’, ‘Fall, Rise And…’

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Album of the Week 24-2018: Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy


Two years ago, Alkaloid thoroughly impressed me with their highly creative debut album ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. Despite the band members’ association with high profile metal bands – Obscura most prominently – it transcended the supergroup burden by coming up with a highly progressive, almost avant-garde extreme metal that forsakes most of the exhausting hyperactivity of most contemporary technical death metal bands and aims for atmosphere and maximum impact instead. Fortunately, Alkaloid found time in its busy schedule to record a second album and it manages to amplify all the best aspects of ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’ beyond what yours truly had expected at this point.

In a way, ‘Liquid Anatomy’ is slightly less extreme than ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. There are still plenty of hyperspeed death metal passages to be heard and Florian Magnus Maier still throws his hateful growl around like there’s no tomorrow, but the focus seems to have slightly shifted towards the progressive side of the band rather than brutal force. Overall, Maier does more clean vocals here, which really enhances the immersive atmosphere of the material. Pink Floyd and Cynic appear to be the most prominent influences in that matter, but not as spacey as the former and much more organic and effective than the latter.

One would have to look no further than opening track ‘Kernel Panic’, which appears to mirror the first half of previous opener ‘Carbon Phrases’ stylistically with its gorgeously layered clean guitar lines and vocal harmonies punctured by blunt moments of aggression. Hannes Grossmann’s interestingly timed rhythms and and the guitar solos by both Christian Münzner and Danny Tunker are incredible. Anyone expecting pure death metal may be discouraged by the opener, but it is a brave opener that emphasizes the unique nature of the band. Those desiring a heavier approach will still be satisfied by ‘As Decreed By Laws Unwritten’ and parts of ‘Chaos Theory And Pratice’.

Personally, I strongly prefer the more experimental approach though. ‘Azagthoth’ profits from somewhat exotic rhythms, crazy lead guitar work and a perfect balance between pounding heaviness and sophisticated subtlety, while the acoustic-based title track is a beautiful extreme progmetal ballad, as unlikely as that sounds. The guitar arrangements of ‘In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches’ are downright brilliant, but most attention will probably go out to the 20 minute beast that is ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’. It is a highly dynamic track that takes the listener through all the extremes of Alkaloid’s sound, from the cleanest, calmest acoustic sections to some of the most thrashing death metal on the record.

My only minor complaint would be the production, which feels a little less dynamic than last time around and really does not benefit the amazing bass playing of Linus Klausenitzer. Sometimes you’d even have trouble hearing him if you pay close attention and that makes the record slightly less immersive sonically than its predecessor. The song material is a definite step up from what was already a high quality debut, however. As such, Alkaloid has not only outdone itself, but also proven that the band is so much more than just a new project with a prominent “ex-Obscura” label. Highly recommended for fans of progressive music of all sorts.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kernel Panic’, ‘Liquid Anatomy’, ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’

Album of the Week 12-2018: Bittencourt Project – Brainworms I


With Angra’s music being as varied as it is, what more could guitarist and chief songwriter Rafael Bittencourt want to express? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Debut album ‘Brainworms I’ of his own Bittencourt Project is full of music that, while not completely sounding out of place amongst Angra’s oeuvre, would not fit on the albums of his main band. There certainly is more room to experiment with genres outside of power metal and progressive metal. Each and every one of these deeply personal compositions is performed with a passion that is rare among contemporary rock and metal albums. Very impressive.

Bittencourt is the lead singer on this album and although he has taken on some of the lead vocals on recent Angra albums, his heartfelt voice has a completely different range than the higher pitched singers he usually works with. Obviously, that requires a somewhat different approach in songwriting. And though ‘Brainworms I’ is still progressive metal to an extent, the hard rock, folk and even South American pop music influences make this a unique piece of work. Bittencourt is an amazing songwriter, but it also sounds like he gave the musicians he works with some space to be spontaneous, accounting for a very lively album.

Sequencing-wise, ‘Brainworms I’ is set up very cleverly, as opening track ‘Dedicate My Soul’ could have been an Angra track if it had a different arrangement. Due to its propulsive riffs and amazing chorus, it sort of eases its listener into the more “different” stuff. ‘The Underworld’ is another relatively heavy track, but quite dark compared to Angra’s quite upbeat take on metal. The interaction between Bittencourt and violinist Amon Lima in those tracks is incredible. The cover of Madredeus’ ‘O Pastor’ is surprisingly heavy as well. Definitely one of the most exciting moments on the album.

However, the softer moments are what make this album so interesting. ‘Holding Back The Fire’ is a stripped-down, Brazilian take on AOR, ‘Faded’ is a gorgeous dark ballad with a hopeful climax, while the twelve string guitar on ‘Santa Teresa’ gives the song an almost Led Zeppelin-like folk edge. ‘Nightfly’ is one of the highlights of the album, moving back and forth between tranquil passages, funky rock riffs and parts with a strong Brazilian influence. If anyone does not want to choose between folky and heavy; the amazing ‘Torment Of Fate’ has a tango intro, quiet verses and thick prog riffs. And a spine-chilling chorus.

Those expecting a shred album from the guitarist in a fairly virtuoso band will probably be shocked, as the only thing that comes (somewhat) close to that is the spirited instrumental ‘Comendo Melancia’. Yours truly has always had tremendous respect for Bittencourt as a songwriter and whoever else does, will likely be impressed by this spontaneous, lively album full of amazing songs. In addition, Bittencourt’s passionate vocals really lift these songs to a magnificent level. This is an honest, personal work of art that has the potential to appeal to a much wider group of listeners than Angra’s progressive power metal audience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nightfly’, ‘Torment Of Fate’, ‘Dedicate My Soul’

Album of the Week 06-2018: Onmyo-za – Chimimoryo


Out of all Onmyo-za albums, ‘Chimimoryo’ is proabably the one with the broadest appeal. That does not mean it isn’t metal. Quite the contrary. The riff work on the album is still as rooted in traditional heavy metal as it always has been, but the polish of the production and the melodic sensibilities really opens the door for J-rock fans, while the dynamic and subtly adventurous nature of the record invites progressive rockers to have a listen. No matter what side of Onmyo-za you like best, it is represented on ‘Chimimoryo’, which – as a result – is one of the band’s best.

What really makes ‘Chimimoryo’ as near perfect as it gets is the fact that it has a very pleasant flow. It would not surprise me if multiple track orders were tested before release in order to find the one that is just right. This is not the type of album where you’d get tired of too many songs of the same tempo or style after each other, neither does it boggle your mind with illogical genre-hopping. The powerful voice of bassist and band leader Matatabi and the expressive (mezzo-)soprano of Kuroneko are very much in balance here as well.

As great as ‘Chimimoryo’ is all the way through, the more epic tracks really raise the album’s status. And that already starts when you put on the album, as ‘Shutendoji’ is a monumental midtempo hardrock track of late Zeppelin proportions, only with some brilliant guitar harmonies and a metallic rhythm section more reminiscent of Iron Maiden. Later on, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’ takes you through multiple climaxes during its eleven and a half minutes. Huge, doomy riffs, balladesque sections and one of the more awesome speed metal riffs in the band’s discography, it’s all there and each section is even better than the last.

These songs alone don’t make a good album though. The hypermelodic single ‘Kureha’ is reminiscent of ‘Yoka Ninpocho’ in how the clean and distorted guitars interact, the strong melodic metal stomper ‘Araragi’ feels like a sequel to ‘Shutendoji’ with its powerful lead guitar themes and broad chords and if it’s fast riffs you want, ‘Hiderigami’ and ‘Oni Hitokuchi’ will serve you all the energetic speed metal you need. Kuroneko’s composition ‘Tamashizume no Uta’ is the lone ballad on the album, but her amazing voice and the rather atypical marching rhythms and percussion really turn it into something unique.

Unless you are a wool-dyed old-schooler, ‘Chimimoryo’ would be the perfect album to get acquainted with Onmyo-za’s unique sound. Matatabi’s compositions evidence that the guitars of Maneki and Karukan do not have to play power chords the whole time in order to sound metallic and the vocals prove that there are more options than the overused beauty and the beast tactic for male-female vocal duos. Onmyo-za would later top ‘Chimimoryo’ with ‘Kishibojin’, but only barely. This is one of the very few albums that is of consistently high quality from start to finish and deserves to be heard because of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shutendoji’, ‘Dojoji Kuchinawa No Goku’, ‘Araragi’, ‘Oni Hitokuchi’

Album of the Week 03-2018: Kayak – Seventeen


Kayak is one of the few bands who can keep changing musicians and still sound like Kayak. ‘Seventeen’ is the ultimate proof. Only founding keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel remains from the last album, yet it is the most inspired set of songs Kayak has released in at least ten years, possibly even as much as three and a half decades. In a time when progressive rock fans have to count on affectionate retro bands, Scherpenzeel is one of the originators of the genre still laying down some amazing, symphonically tinged progrock compositions with a passion that is nothing less than admirable.

Despite being the sole composer of these songs, Scherpenzeel is not the only one who deserves credit for how good ‘Seventeen’ is. The eighties inspired guitar heroics of Marcel Singor – along his gorgeous tone – really make this material come to life and give it the rock edge that some of the band’s most popular songs lack. The difference on the vocal front is notable too; Kayak no longer has a male-female vocal duo. Instead, Bart Schwertmann has a passionate, almost theatrical vibe that fits Scherpenzeel’s compositions really well. Some may miss Edward Reekers’ warm delivery, but as far as prog rock singers go, this is excellent.

With ‘Seventeen’ being a progressive rock album, there are some long songs that move through several moods and atmospheres without sounding incoherent. ‘Walk Through Fire’ is one of those moments, which starts out almost intimate before entering a highly memorable section with fairly obvious Celtic influences and builds from a dark middle section to a bombastic finale. Another one of the epic suites, ‘La Peregrina’, has an almost classical elegance, while the shortest of the three, ‘Cracks’ feels like a more traditional progressive rock song with some amazing fretless bass work courtesy of Kristoffer Gildenlöw (ex-Pain Of Salvation).

If Kayak has proven anything through the years, however, it’s that their shorter, more concise song are no less interesting than the longer ones. And that doesn’t just concern the short instrumentals, like ‘Ripples On The Water’, which features some beautiful lead guitar work by Camel’s Andy Latimer. Opening track ‘Somebody’ has a Queen-like feel to it and some really strong melodies, while ‘Feathers And Tar’ has a great chorus an some of the most propulsive rhythms on the album. ‘All That I Want’ is a flawless pop song and the appropriately titled ‘To An End’ is a beautiful, heartfelt ballad like only Kayak can do them.

Though Kayak’s compositions are never less than good, I tend to prefer the material on which the guitars and the keyboards are in perfect balance. In addition, the fact that ‘Seventeen’ was conceived with the idea that a band should play it rather than being a studio project, the material just sounds a little more “alive” than usual. Everyone involved obviously plays their heart out and it is that simple fact that makes these compositions, which were already good to begin with, just a little bit better. Highly recommended for progressive rock fans, both traditional and contemporary.

Recommended tracks: ‘Feathers And Tar’, ‘Somebody’, ‘La Peregrina’

Album of the Week 50-2017: Adagio – Life


Adagio has always been a band I should love, but didn’t. Kevin Codfert’s orchestrations are amazing, Stéphan Forté is one of the few highly skilled guitarists that found a middle ground between virtuosity and melodicism and none of their past singers was worse than good. Yet, something was missing for me. Initially, this was the case with their new album ‘Life’ – their first in no less than eight years – as well. Forté’s djenty rhythm guitar that occasionally pops up was a bit of a turn-off for me. And yet, ‘Life’ has slowly grown to be one of my favorite albums of the year.

Part of the reason for my returning interest was the presence of singer Kelly Sundown Carpenter, whose huge, raw-edged range never ceases to amaze me. Still, this may just be his best performance yet. His voice is extremely spirited and he frequently reminds me of late Gotthard frontman Steve Lee in his best days. Even a great vocal performance would not be relevant if the songs aren’t any good though and luckily, the French band succeeded at writing a highly dynamic and pleasantly polished record, on which Forté’s violent riffs and Codfert’s orchestral grandeur are constantly in perfect balance.

One of the most notable differences with the band’s past is that the tempo of the songs on ‘Life’ is considerably lower. And while an album full of mid-tempo songs may sound discouraging to the power metal audience: don’t let it. The subdued tempo of the songs allows Carpenter’s vocals and the ethnic, often Middle-Eastern flavor of the orchestrations to flourish, resulting in bombastic masterpieces, such as the cinematic ‘Subrahmanya’, more traditionally progressive moments such as ‘The Grand Spirit Voyage’ and ‘The Ladder’ and the massive, epic grandiosity of the lengthy opener that carries the same title as the album.

Remarkably, Adagio chose to place the more accessible material on the latter half of the album. That was probably beneficial to the album, as it has a very pleasant flow. Songs like the dramatic ‘I’ll Possess You’ and ‘Secluded Within Myself’ and the almost uptempo, yet equally dark closer ‘Torn’ are no less good than the songs opening the album though. The only near-miss is the ballad ‘Trippin’ Away’. The first half of the song and the performances by both Forté and Carpenter are too good to completely dismiss it, but while I don’t doubt Forté’s sincerity, the lyrics of this love song are too mawkish and awkward to enjoy.

The rest of the album is really good at worst and downright incredible at best. On ‘Life’, Adagio shows that it is perfectly possible to have everyone playing on top of their game without actually getting in the way of the music and that in itself already makes the album a great success. For me, this is the first time Adagio really profits from all the qualities within the band. And that has resulted in quite a unique sound; I have never heard these elements combined in a way even remotely close to how ‘Life’ sounds. A must for fans of progressive or orchestral metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

Album of the Week 49-2017: Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight

Initially, Fates Warning’s twelfth studio album ‘Theories Of Flight’ failed to excite me the way its predecessor ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ did. I dismissed it as the prog metal giants trying to repeat the same formula. Then suddenly, it clicked. And I realized that ‘Theories Of Flight’ is one of Fates Warning’s best albums thus far. Yes, it roughly follows a similar formula as ‘Darkness…’ did, but Fates Warning succeeds at blending their traditional progressive metal roots with contemporary prog rock elements in the vein of Porcupine Tree and Tool and more catchy moments better than ever here.

The guitar work of sole remaining original member Jim Matheos are an important part of the aforementioned formula. It is incredibly varied. Within the same song, it often flows from traditional heavy metal riffs to typical prog chops and atmospheric clean strums in a very fluent and pleasant manner. It would be unreasonable to ignore the contributions of Bobby Jarzombek though. While his predecessor Mark Zonder was an incredible drummer in his own right, Jarzombek plays with a comparable level of technicality, just with a style that feels somewhat looser and more driving than Zonder’s. A very solid foundation for compositions that often feel fluid.

Progressive metal has a bit of a bad rap for lacking a focus on songwriting. Enter Fates Warning. Even in their early days, they combined hooks and recognizable melodies with all the odd meters and unpredictable compositions you could wish for. Virtuosity does take a back seat on most of their albums and ‘Theories Of Flight’ is no exception. Sure, there are some great leads to be found here – remarkably, the majority recorded by former guitarist Frank Aresti and live guitarist Mike Abdow – but Matheos mainly seems interested in using his guitar for dependable melodic work.

Fortunately, this approach works very well. At time incredibly so. ‘SOS’, for instance, is a highly dynamic track with lots of fantastic twists, but its incredible chorus – performed expertly by Ray Alder – is the highlight of the song. Opening track ‘From The Rooftops’ feels like a bit of a mini-suite and as such, it is the most traditionally progressive song on the album, while ‘White Flag’ is so metallic that it would not have sounded out of place on one of the band’s late eighties records. The 10 minute songs ‘The Light And Shade Of Things’ and ‘The Ghosts Of Home’ are not crammed full of ideas, but instead given room to slowly develop into multi-faceted, atmospheric masterpieces with multiple mood changes. Very impressive.

And as if the fact that ‘Theories Of Flight’ does not have a single weak moment wasn’t yet enough, Jens Bogren’s fantastic production makes the listening experience even more pleasant. Sonically, the album is as far away from the overly compressed standard for contemporary prog metal releases as it gets. ‘Theories Of Flight’ sounds organic and lively, even giving the extremely effective bass work of Joey Vera the space it deserves without becoming intrusive. This album is what happens if you put a group of incredible musicians who only care about having the music sound as good as it possibly can in one studio. Absolutely essential for fans of progressive music.

Recommended tracks: ‘SOS’, ‘White Flag’, ‘The Ghosts Of Home’

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