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STRATOSPHEERIUS -
The Next World...
Fiddlefunk Music 2012

Have you ever been to electric violin land? A master of four-string wonder crystallizes his vision.

Over the five years that have passed since Joe Deninzon carved a personal niche in the rock domain with his band's debut, "Headspace", he made forays into jazz territory with a trio of his own on the instrumental covers collection which is "Exuberance", but it's in STRATOSPHEERIUS that the violinist holds the richest palette to take colors from. And this time he goes for a big picture, even though tango "The House Always Wins" and punky yelp of "Tech Support" might throw things to the humorous side to dissolve the wah-wah-adorned cerebral swipe of "The Missing Link" or the heavy "Gods" idiosyncrasy and, thus, blur the intent.

So while "Release" opens the lookout in quite pathetic manner, planting a folk dance onto proggy stem - a trick that works miracles in the vocal-free rave "Fleshbot" - when the full view comes into focus with the guitar-and-fiddle rage of "Climbing" a fabulous vibe goes down the listener's spine. Ignited by Aurelien Budynek's axe, "Road Rage", the most classically-burdened piece on offer and at the same time the sharpest, marries its riff-fest to Balkan swirl, whereas "One Foot In The Next World" thrives on its fusion sensibilities, but "The Prism" is where the Eastern-hued vibe turns triumphal and the purest release reveals itself. After that, another five years would make a cruel wait.

****2/3
HASSE FROBERG
& MUSICAL COMPANION -
Powerplay
Reingold 2012

The vociferous Flower King serves up his own project's sophomore offering. To which god, that is the question.

While his main band get ready to awake their collective sleeper, Hasse Froberg applies his impressive pipes to a different array of players and follows 2010's "Future Past" with this album which sounds as original as its title. That means we're on familiar terrain here - and in a tangle of paradox as progressive rock is meant to be moving forward, not remain static - and as a fix for the Swedish artful royalty's fans it's as quick as it gets. It's hard to go wrong with epics like opener "My River To Cross", where the singer's voice swims the harmony amidst all the classic elements of Froberg's chosen genre. The problem is, Hasse can't break away from standard moves, although he tries as hard.

In ironic way, the veteran fares equally well in the lull of "Waves" that shows all vocal colors in his armory and in the inspired Dio-esque charge of "Is It Ever Gonna Happen" given additional twists by Anton Lindsjo's supple six-string. Froberg is caught between the two strains and too often casts a glance back to the heroes of yore, so "The Final Hour" runs its refrain "close to the edge" quite seriously among the exquisite instrumental workout. Such transparent monumentality is balanced in the powerful chorus of "The World Keeps Turning", yet in the Manfred Mann-ish "Venice CA" the '80s shadows jar, but theatrical finale, "Godsong", redeems these guilty pleasures with a quasi-operatic solemnity and harmony guitar of a QUEEN mold. Had King Hasse built his edifice on a more stable foundation, he'd be a winner on all fronts. On to the third one?

***1/2
AUBURN -
Indian Summer
Scarlet 2012

An immaculate autumn record, released in spring, signals the return of a warmly missed English ensemble.

Having attracted a good dose of intention between 1999 and 2005, this British band stopped their rise when the leading lady Liz Lenten took a maternity leave. Never the one to limit her action to domestic chores, in the meantime she conducted the London Mozart Players Orchestra and managed Eliza Carthy, but now, with her boy sent to school, Lenten resumed her band's drive. This record is plain beautiful in its perfect reflection of the mood inherent to the album's title and the ensemble's name.

Once the gospel sway of "Shame On You" sets its exotic acoustics behind Liz's sultry voice, there's a fleeting feeling that, in the days of yore, "Indian Summer" would have been no stranger to the Island catalogue, what with the relaxed reggae of "Day Dreamin'" and the cello-adorned flow of "Free Spirit" which invokes the ghost of Nick Drake. Hurry and rush are banned from here. Still, the electrified "Too Far From Home" swings its violin in upbeat, almost Cajun manner, while the singer marries anthemic solemnity with erotic intimacy in "Stop The Clock" that updates perennial "Only You" in a hazy English way. Elsewhere, "All Comes Back To You" brings a bluesy, demimonde vaudeville to the oaken table in your garden. Such maturity is new to AUBURN and the emotional richness that goes with it makes their comeback most welcome.

****1/3
Jethro Tull's
IAN ANDERSON -
TAAB 2
EMI 2012

Shooting at various angles, one of the most glorious rock records takes it to the new millenium.

Life's a long song, was a maxim that Ian Anderson stretched over two vinyl sides back in 1972 on a JETHRO TULL opus the multi-layered, riddles-ridden lyrics of which were fictiously credited to a 12-year-old genius Gerald Bostock. Four decades on, everybody expecting a remastered version of that classic to follow up a renovated "Aqualung", this project set in motion another idea: to bend the axis and, instead of rumination on a person's existence, imagine what could have happened to Gerald after all those years. That makes "TAAB 2", as its author prefers to call his new album, not so much of a sequel to "Thick As A Brick" but its modern offshoot.

As is the way with this artist, there's a great attention to detail that speaks volumes. And it's not only the abbreviation of the record's title and the change of "The St. Cleve Chronicle" on the cover from a palpable printed copy to contemporary, more ephemeral web one, available online and (what a care for those who didn't lose their spectacles!) as .pdf files on bonus DVD. Most important here are omnipresent references to the veteran's time-tested oeuvre, be it the label "JETHRO TULL's Ian Anderson" - never before his solo works leaned on the band's name - or both direct and indirect quotes from the past. He doesn't dwell there, though, which, perhaps, explains the elephantine question of why that group stalled and left the scene, yet uses familiar themes as bridges between two eras and a means to fuse ancient sonics with the latterday's sounds just like diverse directions of Bostock's lifeline, "what-ifs, maybes and might-have-beens", converge in the end.

In the finale lies a straight, if humorous, link to the original album, but more often Anderson resorts to hints, a logical move in this milieu as opposed to exploration of obvious human drifts in "Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll, Too Young To Die" or "From A Dead Beat To An Old Greaser". The erstwhile epic sway makes room for shorter songs now that are bundled, in compliance with current attention deficit, to reflect different variants of the protagonist's possible paths - a banker, a gay hobo, a soldier, a chorister and an ordinary man. Such an approach allows "Old School Song" swirl around one of the pertinent old riffs, while "A Change Of Horses", built on the "Heavy Horses" structure with new melodies as bricks, replaces its rural Englishness with Eurocentric urbanicity. Still, those who don't like accordion and disdain new trends which transpired on "J-Tull Dot Com", TULL's last studio album laid down back in 1999, will find plenty of homely Hammond here (and Scott Hammond's drums, sometimes too loud in the mix), and it's for them there are so many aforementioned hints, instrumental and lyrical, flowing in from the off, although even connoisseurs might balk at spoken word interludes in "A Passion Play" vein - read by the author in beat fashion on the DVD.

The minstrel's voice isn't the same nowadays to carry out the attack, yet the tunes, and poetry, are on par with his '70s output, Anderson's new coterie delivering "Banker Bets, Banker Wins" with all the on-the-money might its subject demands before its motif is passed to "Wootton Bassett Town", whereas "Adrift And Dumbfounded" marries acoustic delicacy to electric bitterness in the best prog rock tradition and adds a tad of jazzy jive to spice up the broth. Stylistic variety serves the holistic result well: if "Shunt and Shuffle" rides the hard-boiled locomotive breath, sarcastic folk rears its head in pellucid, for all its murky content, "Give Till It Hurts". Arrangements poured into a single piece, the alternatives GBs (Gerald Bostocks and Great Britains, geddit?) roles are swapped for good in "Kismet in Suburbia", and the sense of consent with hardships necessity for catharsis sets in. Yet, once the overture returns to wave goodbye, another spiritual quest is hinted at... So while it doesn't measure up to the monument of 1972, in the day and age when serving up a new classic seems an impossible feat, Ian Anderson managed to exercise just that. Long may his flute conjure magic.

****4/5
EFFLORENCE -
Coma Ghosts
Generation Prog 2012

Deutsch prog-metallers flaunt their clean-cut debut but fail to wake up the dead.

"On the floor corpses lie in the blood", goes "Pavement Canvas". They can't be serious, can they? Yet they are: the Nuremberg's quintet's first full-lengther has not an iota of equally gory CANNIBAL CORPSE's patented humor, or darkness for that matter, which might enliven this highly-cliched record. No, it's good, there's no denying, but playing according to the rules runs against the grain in metal that needs a certain dose of hairiness in it, and here compressed drums under somehow familiar heavy riffs just don't deliver. Those are tasty, though, as Dave Mola and Tim Ivanic's guitars knit a tight net for twilight melodies and save the shallow anger "Spectre Pt. I: Zorya’s Dawn", the former's Mellotron coloring the picture where Nicki Weber's voice reigns - and tries in vain to exercise an awkward growl.

Things change considerably when a folk thread enters the frame like in "Swimming Through Deserts", a genuine gem bathed in acoustic waters, while, its subject aside, the opener "Crib" lulls a pop song on its iron pillow. But it's the 16-minute epic "Shuteye Wanderer" where all the band's talents are on display, their attack perfectly balanced for the most part with lyrical, flute-helped clarity in classic hard rock and prog vein. Natural instincts prevailing over trends... That's the way to go to follow the ghosts.

***
AL BARTON & SPIRIT OF SMOKIE -
Room With A View
Big Lake 2012

The late warbler's lost vault found and restored. The spirit lives on - on boulevard of broken dreams.

1995 is marked in black in the history of SMOKIE. The band's tour bus crashed in Germany, and singer Alan Barton who'd been fronting the English band for a decade - died of injuries. Recently, it became clear that his legacy's richer than everybody thought it was. Al's son Dean Barton was contacted by guitarist Andy Whelan who found Barton Sr.'s tapes in his possession: not in the best of states, those have been salvaged and completed by Andy, Dean and their band, SPIRIT OF SMOKIE, to be out now as an album that could have easily been the original Bradford unit's creation.

While "Small Town Boy", penned by Al, doesn't feature him, and more polished cuts such as "Storm Damage" careen to the maudlin side of MOR, the humorous "My Baby's Got", brimful of boogie swagger, is irresistible, as is the slightly dated romance of "Stay With Me Till Dawn". But one needs not go any further than the second track on offer, the rhythm-and-bluesy "Sacred Heart", to feel the familiar embrace of Barton's cracked voice, the harmonica and vocal harmonies harking back to The Fabs. It's there that the singer's "six-string dream", which he eulogizes in "Highways And Heartaches" with the slider, started to eventually have brought Alan into SMOKIE whose bassist Terry Uttley co-wrote the simple yet memorable "All Out Of Love". Barton's own mixes of two full-blown demos make it all rather poignant - inevitably - yet the sparkling optimism of "All Through The Night" comes as a letter from an old friend who's always there, with us. A precious gift.

****
DAVE BALL -
Don't Forget Your Alligator
Angel Air 2012

From under the radar, one of the best British guitarists returns to the high life.

A stained background with a lady and a gentlemen, plus a croc, sketched over it whispers patinated Englishness but there's also a subconscious sign for those in the know: the man in a top hat with a guitar in his hand reflects Dave Ball's pose on the cover of PROCOL HARUM's "Grand Hotel" from where his head had been chopped off and replaced by a successor, and he wore the same headgear in 1969, during his stint with BIG BERTHA whose picture - featuring his brother Denny and Cozy Powell, some years before the three reunited as blues merchants in BEDLAM - graces the booklet of this, the veteran's first ever solo album. Recorded while living in Australia, in Denny's studio and with his bass on, "Alligator" is brimful of absurdist nostalgia that brought Dave back to Blighty, so when "Old Aunties And Uncles" goes, "Make some tea, the kettle's nearly boiling", it's as sentimental as it gets, even though the '40s-styled musical references come scattered all over the place, starting from the title track, with a vaudevillian panache.

And then there's humor for many a line to bring a smile to the listener's face, albeit when Ball describes various aspects of his talent - a poet, an artist, an actor, a gardener - in "Gonnadothis Gonnadothat", he's not joking: he's had a hand in different crafts. Yet when a heartbeat pulls a fat guitar into the dramatically orchestrated "Code Blue" it's clear what's Dave's primary weapon that's been so sorely missed for long, the point he reinforces by a magical string harmony in "Who Really Cares" and "Stardust Maginty", dedicated to the author's mother who's seen in the aforementioned photo, and an elegant acoustic solo in "Priceless". Still, the main focus here is on the songwriting rather than playing, so the surreal lyrics of "The Madness Of George Pritchard" pack a vertiginous punch(line), while "Geriatric Slumbers" boldly updates the Carl Perkins-patented rockabilly, and if the veteran's not the best vocalist around the block, his rough voice is a perfect fit for the dirty blues of "Meltdown Shuffle". A charming, fascinating and totally endearing missive from the genuine master - Dave Ball scores his goal.

****1/3
MICHAEL STANLEY -
The Hang
ItsAboutMusic.com 2012

The Cleveland hero gets back on the rocky track, warts worn proudly on the sleeve. Bill Szymczyk mans the mix.

Lately, it's been easy to forget how hard Michael Stanley can rock. Striving to give his audience the maximum value for a CD price, the veteran stuffs his album brimful of songs, and there's always a risk of chaff chocking the wheat. But if the harvest was good enough for "Just Another Night", this collection of songs brings on more substantial joys signaled by the scintillating opener "From Somewhere Else" that, still, doesn't prepare the listener for grittier fare such as the slide-caressed cinematic rumble of "A Damn Fine Way To Go" or "Romeo & Juliet", twice as sharp here than DIRE STRAITS' original. In the same way, Michael makes Patty Griffin's "When It Don't Come Easy" his own.

But the gems from his own pen are scattered among the less diverse material, yet "Down In The Suck" is worth waiting for - bluesy, saucy, groovy, youthful to the core - while Stanley's delicate humor beams out from the skin-tight polish of "How Many Guitars Do You Need" with its country-tinged, instantly memorable chorus and acoustic guitar lace for a solo. And when the piano eases its way in and out of the heart-warming "Another New Years Eve" on the "Auld Lang Syne" line, it's impossible not to feel cozy and homey... before the title track shoots up some brass-oiled boogie into the drift to leave the scene in style. And that's how it should be.

****
WALLY -
Montpellier
Gonzo 2012

More than three decades on, the Harrogate moon rises again. It's like a heady moonshine has never been away.

When WALLY fizzled out in the late '70s, nobody paid much attention and lamented the demise of a band who brewed the impossible alchemic concoction of English prog and West Coast country rock. Remembered mostly for being produced by "Whispering" Bob Harris and Rick Wakeman, their two albums became cult items nevertheless, so the group's 2009 return was met with much acclaim, even though nobody hoped for another studio work. Yet here it is - some completely new compositions, some based on the halcyon days' demos, no line drawn between them - and nostalgia trip "Montpellier" ain't, even though "Sister Moon", which connects with the ensemble's cover sign, ripples with silvery celestial sadness.

Still, featuring five original WALLY members, WALLY sound surprisingly fresh, while deeply rooted in their own tradition. Thus, "Thrill Is Gone" rocks in a modern Americana way, homespun and calling to chug along, but once the birds' chirp gives way to majestic piano chords in "Sailor", a panoramic view unfurls before one's mind eye to float solemnly on Paul Middleton's and Frank Mizen's steel guitars and Nick Glennie-Smith's smooth organ before the blissful vocal harmonies strike in full force and riffs make the picture bright and clear. The same instrumental combination lights the heart-gripping velvet of "In The Night", a power ballad with the strongest pop hooks on offer - female backing, Roy Webber's warm voice and Will Jackson's transparent guitars reach for heaven on this one - and "She Said" might challenge Neil Young for troubled textural sensuality. Significantly, both songs are new, previously recorded for a Jackson Webber album so, after a long, slow, violin-oiled yet optimistic coda of "Giving" shimmering with magic, there's a longing for more music from the veterans.

****2/3
SANGUINE HUM -
Diving Bell
Esoteric Antenna 2012

The deeper the Oxford quartet go the richer the listener's discoveries. A debut to start following the band.

Launching their new label, the Esoteric crew welcome aboard a new band with an album that already snatched accolades in its independent incarnation but deserves a much wider acclaim. The promise isn't so clear on the opener "No More Than We Deserve" which demands its humble due in a slightly grating shoegazing way, yet the further one goes the less aloof Joff Winks' voice and guitar jangle sound. The instrumental department shows what the foursome awesome capabilities in two wordless pieces, the surfy "Coast Of Nebraska" and Zappa-esque bonus "The Eternal Abyss", and when it comes to actual songs, there's nothing rockier than "Circus For A Dying Race" that's as full-on as it gets, driven with Paul Mallyon's punky drums, and nothing gentler than folksy, if quite streamlined, "There's No Hum". Elsewhere, compositions such as the fairy-tale "Nothing Between Us" with its acoustic lining or "Dark Ages" with its jazzy hues channel the neo prog aesthetics - warm and otherworldly in a good way, alienation leading to Wonderland, as Matt Baber's keyboards fill the previously rarefied spaces. The result is a bit disorientating yet the unpredictability keeps the ear's focus firmly on the music which is undoubtedly a good start.

****
JUDGE SMITH -
Orfeas
Gonzo 2012

An ancient Greek hero as a Wembley-straddling guitar hero: a VAN DER GRAAF originator twists the myth with much verve and imagination.

Lurking in Peter Hammill's shadow, Judge Smith is no less adept with a word and a tune, a string of albums and stage productions under his belt, so his "songstories" gained a certain following which is bound to grow after this, the British veteran's third one. To see Orpheus in the modern spotlight is, perhaps, not that original an idea but to project a dilemma of an artist, who has to deliver his crowd-pleasing money-making hits while longing for creation of something, on the famous "to hell and back" anabasis - where a glance behind one's shoulder means losing the Muse - is interesting move, indeed. That's all theory, yet Smith shaped it in practice as a rock opera, a tag that Judge's quite unwilling to apply, even though one can see similarities between his protagonist being unwell and staying at the hotel instead of playing a big festival and Pink in "The Wall", but there's more experimentation in the George Orfeas near-death experience.

Great librettist as he is, Smith makes unnoticed the absence of rhymes on most of the songs as well as the melodies and recital unison, a result of speech transformation into music so gripping feel the story's peripeties and so strong is delivery - in a broad variety of genres - which involves Lene Lovich plus, in instrumental compartment, another VDGG alumnus David Jackson on brass and guitarist John Ellis, formerly with THE VIBRATORS and THE STRANGLERS. Of course, idiosyncrasy reigns o'er the proceedings, but it's of a tasty kind with Judge as an arresting rhapsode backed by a fantastic band who bend "Seven Yard Promenade" into a classic sax-oiled rhythm-and-blues piece in Act One and don a death metal group masks in dry metal of Act Two's "Carpet Of Bones", a thematic relative of "Carpet Crawlers", and "Tear Him Asunder" from Act Three. There's even a power ballad here, "Orphic Lullaby", whereas "Orfeas' Audition" rides an orchestra-drench twang. Less seriously, "Wolfman George" parodies a famous riff in swinging fashion of a Zappa canon, "In-Flight Movie" comes on in a disco inferno form, and "The Crab Nebula" glides on lounge electronica - all organic, even the Mediterranean fusion and rap of "Don't Deafen Me, Persephone" or theatricality of Smith and Lovich duets in "Orfeas and Eurydice".

An immersive tale that's never boring and bearing a happy end - not to everyone's taste yet daring in its scope and fun to listen to - "Orfeas" might be Judge's best work yet.

****
ALLAN THOMAS -
Deep Water
Black Bamboo 2011

A laid back groove that's hard to fathom. A Hawaiian master rides the crest of the wave with a Californian elite in tow. Crosby and Nash join in.

Not a name on everyone's lips, Allan Thomas' pedigree is immaculate, including stints with the Adderley brothers and Donald Fagen, so it's not so surprising that his roll call brings only the best under the veteran's banners. What is surprising is how deceptively simple his Pacific glide can be when, under the surface, it's quite complex and rich. With all eyes and ears on the dramatic, if smooth, "The Longest Ride" which features easily recognizable harmonies from the most celestial half of CSNY, the genuine bliss comes from the main man's relaxed yet arresting delivery on heartfelt songs such as the title track where acoustic surf comes underpinned with lower-toned electric charge. But one should go no further than "Everything Happens For A Reason", that in places sound like unburdened Mark Knopfler, to feel the fusion tingle rippling the Kauian cool.

It's there, in silky soul of "Soldier Of Misfortune" and the humorous jangle of "Homegrown", written back in the '70s and nicely colored with Jeff Richman's guitar orchestra on the former and Kirk Smart's six-string on the latter, while Ken Emerson's slide spices up Thomas' warm twang on the highly memorable instrumental "Boyish Man" which is pure Hawaii - sea and sunlight in every lick - just like the drive of "The Downturn" carries a Caribbean jive in its "oy yoi yoi's". Still, you can't take the Big Apple off any NYC-born artist, and the harmonica-spiked autobiography of "Monkey Business" is as urban-bluesy as it gets to make this album a winner on all fronts, even though one could do without a rap on "Other Than That". So take a breath and dive headlong.

****4/5
JACKSON WEBBER -
What It Is
Gonzo 2012

A logical and tuneful union of two stalwarts of British progressive folk scene - a perfect trip for a snug and bubbly journey down memory lane.

Roy Webber and Will Jackson have too much in common not to feel the mutual gravitation, even though the former quit music in the late '70s when his band WALLY folded and the latter has been playing in public all of his life, most notably in MAGNA CARTA. Once Webber, who decided to write again, booked into Jackson's studio a powerful chord was struck, its repercussions resounding to this day: having recorded the twelve tracks in 2006, three years later the pair ended up in the reformed WALLY whose new album, "Montpellier", includes two songs from "What It Is" cut anew.

Here, the sparse, ghostly "In The Night" with its exquisite six-string lace and the piano-driven "She Said" sound different, their acoustic texture more palpably delicate as Will's silky guitars wrap around Roy's mellifluous voice that grabs your attention right from the arresting chorus of mandolin-adorned opener "Falling Down" and lets go only when the bitter-sweet ring of "On Your Own Way" fades away. Yet for all the gentle flow there are rolling and rollicking pieces in a country vein that'll quicken the listeners pulse: although the reckless rumble of "Shame On You" comes too close to His Bobness' pastiche to set an irony barrier straight, "Another Time" rides the organ lick in the most rocking way THE BAND would have liked, and steel sliders of "Heartbreaker" might make Tom Petty green with envy. A shimmering celebration of simple joys of life peaks in "All These Times", so it's impossible not to relate to such a happy dozen - that's what it is in the end of the day.

***4/5
OLIVER DAWSON SAXON -
Motorbiker
Angel Air 2012

After a dozen years of treading the Earth, the heavyweight veterans pack a set of studio punches - with no punches pulled.

Since 1996, when a band called SON OF A BITCH delivered "Victim You", a congregation that four years later would rechristen themselves OLIVER DAWSON SAXON, released a string of live recordings, but those who waited for new music from the NWOBHM heroes had to deal with regular submissions from Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson's nemesis Biff Byford. Still, to have crossed the guitarist and bassist off meant to miss this missive which sounds on par with the old days' fare, although there's a certain modern edge nuanced, particularly, in the drums' compression, while the dozen songs here hide hooks even in their titles.

Perhaps, "Nursery Crimes" isn't that original a title but to actually spit children's rhymes onto riffs throws a playful aspect to the album as a whole and levels the sharp actuality of slightly high-falutin "Hell In Helsinki" and "Sinternet". More arresting feels a social commentary of infectious "World's Gone Crazy" or acoustically-shot and sax-aided (!) ballad "Just Another Suicide", a heartbreaking opposite to John Ward's aggressive raps on "Chemical Romance", but prefacing "No Way Out" with Chamberlain's speech reflects the use of Churchill's words by IRON MAIDEN too closely to see the originality off once again. At the same time, "Whipping Boy" and "Motorbiker" the song distill heavy metal to its purest anthemic zip, whereas a soaring instrumental piece "Screaming Eagles" sends the listener back to "The Eagle Has Landed". Right: power and the glory are still at play here.

***2/3
DELUSION SQUARED -
II
Delusion Squared 2012

A French trio deliver their dry take on religion, a serious statement for a sophomore platter.

Three-piece proggers usually demonstrate enviable instrumental skills, and this ensemble's first album deserved high marks on all levels. The second one traditionally comes harder, as there's an envelope to push, so DELUSION SQUARED took such barrier in their stride to tackle the faith matters here. As far as grand concepts go, lyrical eloquence isn't their forte, words bordering on simplistic which keeps music in the spotlight. An the music's good, although their arrangements stay firmly in art rock's comfort zone, with a touch of metal for additional sharpness of touch.

Nine tracks in four suits show a glossy surface, thanks to Emmanuel de Saint Meen's keyboards and bass, a canvas on which Lorraine Young paints with her voice and guitar, but when Steven Francis' drums lay down a dance groove, like in "Double Vision" or in the second, after an acoustic break, part of "Revelation" where riffs work up a rave, the band's pleasure-giving slant becomes sweetly apparent. When the tension's up, the drift's catchy, so rather long "Necrogenesis" doesn't outstay its welcome yet, save for the gentle, harmony-filled "Veridical Paradox" the balladry release feels quite as weak as the too clever approach to the piano-sprinkled "Recipe For Disaster" just because decorations kill the tune. But with folk sensibilities take over sophistication in the last couple of songs, especially in the closer "Unexpected Messiah", all elements fall into their right places to show that the musicians outgrew their chosen genre.

***1/2
YUMI HARA CAWKWELL
feat. Tatsuya Yoshida -
Statement Heels
Bonobo's Ark 2011

In the land of ostinato and eloquent minimalism, a master pianist claims back her past work and gives her light, if complex, web a delicate spin.

More known to the wide world for her work with prog veterans David Cross and Hugh Hopper, Ms Cawkwell has a classical background to her adventurous side, so her composer skills are in demand when it comes to a performance with an avant-garde slant. Over the years, Yumi's been writing pieces for both soloists like fellow travelers Kate Ryder or David Appleton and ensembles of various format, but now she decided to present a selection from her catalogue from the author's perspective, backed by Tatsuya Yoshida, who owns an equally impressive CV, on drums. The results are as bold and eclectic as those red shoes over black lace on the cover, and if there's a Kate Bush association in play, some idiosyncrasy serves "Statement Heels" quite well.

It's too obvious in songs such as "Walk In The Middle Of The Road", a reflection of Fukushima meltdown, where synthesizers create somewhat new agey atmosphere to contrast with rather earthy vocals, in the musique concrete improvisatory approach to "Archaeopteryx" and in the onslaught of "Cosmos Massive No. 901" that marries Rachmaninoff's discipline to Bud Powell's sensuality. But from the off-beat that drives the title track, in which two piano lines weave a DNA spiral, the music's elegance is magnetic, albeit quirky, and this piece rightfully made Yumi a finalist of The British Composer Awards in 2006. Still, if Terry Riley-like xylophone splashes of "Farouche" feel natural, the "Fortitude" hymn floats into this context on organ wave totally unexpected, Cawkwell's multi-tracked voice soaring in a celestial chorus. At the same time, "Sense Of Homogeneity" that was written for an actual choir has a plastic pop quality to it - light entertainment in comparison to the rest of the album. Indeed, there's a suspicion that more homogenous drift could render it all more palatable, but as a statement of intent Yumi's "Heels" dig deep.

***1/2
CITY OF BLUE -
Goodbye To Everyone
City Of Blue 2011

From Southern Connecticut to Southern California, the indie purveyors try to hide from the light but, thankfully, find their place under the sun.

This quintet get it all wrong to such extent that it's beginning to sound right. Perhaps, it's their youthful maximalism making the band hold on to the alternative tag, yet no matter how the guys suppress their pop hooks the tunes cut through edgy surface. "Because Of You" is an exemplary infectious song here, while the mostly instrumental "Under The Silent Skies" explores more twangy air and harmonies - mariachi prog would be the best definition of it. Surf guitar and rolling toms carry the spite of "Fire!" where the quiet-loud dynamics work up the tension. It vanishes in "No Place to Go", too long to keep focus, while the transparent "Call Your Name" restores the balance with its power ballad setting - devoid of bombast, if sensual - and welcomes a captive dance groove and a meaty organ and "Come Around" rides a majestic folk path.

When the drift gets too serious, the multivocal theatrics of "The Novemberist", the nervous chant of "Pretend to Be Proud" and the second part of "Chasing Backs" add humor to the grit, so the more one spins it the deeper the melodies go. There's a humble bigness about the group's business: with their eclecticism reined in, one day they may - and rather should - hit the big time.

***4/5
ANDY COLLINS -
Closure
Angel Air 2012

A solo debut of THE STORYS' bassist shuts the door and takes to the road with a little help from his friends.

It may sound criminal but there's a feeling it's good that Swansea's STORYS split for instead of one group we have a string of mature songwriters now mining the same seam in parallel if in asynchronized way to assure a constant supply of quality music. The first to strike was guitarist Rob Thompson, on "Dust", who appears as a guest, together with another ex-bandmate Alan Thomas, here, on Andy Collins' record. Titled as laconically, the austere artwork houses a lot of emotions that flow out in a passionate, if reserved, manner from the honeyed hymn of "Believe" where acoustic tide breaks over the four-string cliffs, while "Find Your Own Way Back" rolls this optimism down the electric road, its piano riffs set against the pseudo-Americana haze through which a steel guitar cuts, and there's an elegiac beauty to "All The Things You Dream Of".

These three pieces that open "Closure" serve as a template for the rest of the tracks that never get more impressive but expand the picture to a fully fledged vista full of harmonies and colors. An aural kaleidoscope becomes hauntingly hypnotic on "Over Again" to render a deceptively simple song irresistible, but the harmonica in "Something New" adds an old-timey smell to the folky motif which exchanges mellowness for the bubbly spark and a bright guitar solo in "Story Town" to cast a glance back to where Collins' strong voice comes from. So a page has been turned for the better now.

****
PRIMARY SLAVE -
Another Mark Is Drawn
One Eyed Toad 2012

Flying in the face of adversity, a band everybody bid farewell to, restore their ghostly glory.

For those who heard the debut album, "Data Plague" from this CRADLE OF FILTH-affiliated British unit, it's impossible not to feel sad when they see words "Primary slave" on a computer black screen. In 2006, the band's vocalist Mark Giltrow died in a motorcycle accident, aged 31, so the work on that record's follow-up had to be aborted - to be finished now. Hence the title. And it wasn't simple polishing: talk about the title's curse here, as a hard disk's failure almost resulted in the music's eternal loss. Yet here it is, a memory and a smash to boot.

Whatever roughness comes from the unfinished job - the singer was a guitarist and bassist, too, alongside Lee Dunham who, together with brother Neale, added some parts before the album's release - it suits the energy and overall hairy mood set by angry rapping on opener "Powdered" with its choppy riffs and electric buzz. Clever use of effects here and "Dead Ocean" adds slight prog veneer to what some may throw in with hardcore, yet "Cums A Round" offers a singalong tune. There's enough delicate texture and vocal harmonies in the acoustic flow of "Defiled" to welcome folk influences with no trace of pagan artificiality, while the 7-minute "C.R.E.A.M." pitches its tent closest to NWOBHM and, with its tempo changes, serves as a showcase for Graham Lyons' percussive skills. And "The Time It Takes To Die" is the less dramatic piece on offer, it's a reminder that, thanks to these ten songs, Mark Giltrow's legacy is very much alive.

***1/4
SI HAYDEN, BEN HAINES, ADAM HOLT -
H-Division
Silvery 2012

No bombast despite the H-Factor, a killer instrumental threesome exploring the most ethereal corners of rock idiom.

Never the one to slow down his pace - which doesn't make the man a shredder, - Hayden closely follows 2011's "Supercharger", which found the British axeman on his own, with this album set up for a trio format. Surely, the criterion for inviting bassist Adam Holt and drummer Ben Haines to the party wasn't their surnames' first letter, as there's a telepathic sympathy in the ten tracks that - save, perhaps, for the sharply focused rage of enchanting "Altitude" (shouldn't it be "Attitude"?) - can be only loosely described as "rock" only because a shadow of fusion hangs over the proceedings and peaks familiarly in "Light-Com".

Once the heavy riff of opener "Escape" gives way to notes that flutter rather than flurry over the brooding groove, a sunny vista is invoked into which "Vorcenellaraptorai" shoots a flamenco-tinctured twang. In "Azimodal Equinox", though, such a spank lies in a bass domain as the guitar steps behind the rhythm to color the gritty jive, but "Aperphelion" offers the listener a blissful electric flight across the acoustically rippling sky. Higher and higher, when it comes to "Zodiacal Apparition" the sensual soaring is somewhat undercut by the piece's motorik engine: kosmische musik it ain't, and here's the momentum gets lost, until "One Way" invites Hayden's harmonic riffola back. Powerful and imaginative work.

****
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