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OXYGENE8 - Loop1
Oxygene8 2012

What you see is what you get but, quite (im)possibly, not what you hear when you're in the loop - with a Stick.

Linda Cushma, as intrepid Chapman Stick explorer, knows no bounds when she hits experimental tick, which she's been doing with this band for a decade now. But while their previous efforts, as first signaled by 2003's "Poetica", featured a well-gelled array of floating pieces, "Loop1" is exactly that: a single 56-minute cut - yet, of course, not a single loop. But that was a launching pad for every element of the whole picture, each started with a percussive idea from the lady or her partner-in-crime Tim Alexander. His PRIMUS past gives weight to the heavy funk right from the off as Joe Myers and Claudio Cordero's guitars rev up the jive to let in Fatimah Halim's folky wail and hang it in the momentous, if tempestuous, limbo before processed sonics stitch the rave to a more tranquil drift. There, Linda's voice dissipates the seeds of wisdom over hypnotic gloss that should allure the clever part of dancefloor flock... who will run amok once the Stick ripples the surface in the Mingus-menacing company of John Humphrey's accentuated bass, and the MAHAVISHNU-minded fusion rules the game before wild, catchy rocking comes to the front - only to dissolve in the new-agey rarefied air again. What results is a counterpoint of elegy and drive. Or a masterpiece.

****4/5
JEFFERSON STARSHIP -
Tales From The Mothership -
UFO Festival, Roswell, July 3, 2009
Gonzo 2012

On the verge of Independence Day and Woodstock's 40th anniversary, the veteran bunch go all spaced-out and cover all bases.

Donning the Martians robes for the UFO parade seemed like a logical step for a band who'd beamed cosmic music all over America for more than four decades, first in the 'PLANE clothes and then from the board of this interstellar vehicle. Yet the Paul Kantner-helmed crew took the idea a parsec further and invited their audience to an adventurous trip which this 4 CD set documents. It borders on overload with separate discs for rehearsals and a soundcheck aimed at completists but the taut test version of "All Fly Away", originating on the band's debut, "Dragon Fly", beats the concert one, and David Frieberg's lysergic run through "Space Oddity" may challenge their jazzy reading of "Dark Star" for expansiveness. And if the latter's appearance in the repertoire is justified by the presence of GRATEFUL DEAD's Tom Constanten, whose piano elegantly carries Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", it's an addition of unexpected covers that makes it all so interesting.

The show may climax with the inescapable triplet of "Somebody To Love", "White Rabbit" and "Volunteers", yet it starts with BONZOS' "Urban Spaceman" and Norman Greenbaum's "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago" and gains seriousness along the way. There, "Hyperdrive", another early classic, hangs its heavy soul under the guidance of STARSHIP's old bassist Pete Sears who makes a welcome return together with their erstwhile singer Darby Gould. She brings down celestial glory of FLOYD's "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" and does a fantastic Sandy Denny impression in "Genesis Hall", while her successor Cathy Richardson serves up a tremulous "I Can't Forgive You", that Phil Lesh's acolyte Barry Sless adorns with pedal steel, before Jack Traylor joins in the ringing folk ride with "Earth Mother". The most impressive piece on offer is "Wooden Ships" that Kantner reclaims from CS&N, with harmonies-filled oldies "Crown Of Creation" and "Lawman" falling not far behind. On the other side of the spectrum lies flat "Chimes Of Freedom" from the group's latest album, "Jefferson's Tree Of Liberty".

Much more effectively in the Roswell context work a coupling of "Have You Seen The Saucers" and "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?" which brought the Mothership's captain the respect of Sci-Fi community back in 1970, whereas traditional "Follow The Drinking Gourd" helps to keep the balance between astronomy and dirt-digging. From this standpoint, "Tales" - very human, rather than alien(ating) - make a riveting spin.

****
TOHPATI BERTIGA -
Riot
MoonJune 2012

The best Indonesian axeman joins the premier world (music) league and wins hands down.

For any artist, a time comes to shine, and Tohpati Ario Hutomo's hour is now. An integral part of SIMAK DIALOG's latest opus, "Demi Masa", and a centerpiece of his own ETHNOMISSON's "Save The Planet", his guitar gained justified comparisons with the likes Allan Holdsworth but every progressive or fusion ambition hides a secret desire to simply rock out. Which Tohpati does here, on his new band BERTIGA's debut. Now it's a trio, and there's no place to hide, so a newly acquired lightness of spirit is illustrated in the funky "Absurd" and twangy "Rock Camp" that echoes QUEEN and LED ZEP in its heart. Emotions get heavy with "I Feel Great" whose blistering jive scatters choppy riffs all over the place bopping to the spank of Indro Hardjodikoro's bass and Adityo Wibowo's sensitive drums, especially in the taut, Fripp-meets-Hendrix flow of "Pay Attention".

In the rush of "Upload", there's nowhere to run, too, from the splashy metal that shoots in all directions and demonstrates all facets of Tohpati's weapon's tone, yet the shredding results in an epically whole patchwork; this way the ever-shifting, hypnotically lazy tune of "Lost In Space" comes alive. Yet snippets of dialogue betray the jammy provenance of some of these 10 cuts, including the revolting title one with a highly melodic core, but, perhaps, not the elegant and richly textured, if mirage-like, "Middle East" where classical motifs float to the rippling surface, and not the purely progressive, techno-minded structure of "Disco Robot". Very enjoyable and never boring, the album closes with "Bertiga" in which all these strains find their reflection and which adds light entertainment to the intelligent pitch. So here's hoping and a betting that BERTIGA the band are here to stay for the riot to go on.

*****
JOE MATERA -
Creature Of Habit
W.A.R.Productions 2012

From the outback to the forefront, Australian guitarist makes a long overdue fully fledged solo statement.

Riding the "musicians' musician" warhorse and ready for the colleagues' critique, axeman and journalist Matera gained many an accolade down in Oz but kept his profile low in the Northern hemisphere. This, the veteran's first long-player under his own name, can turn the tables even on those who didn't hear Joe play with DOUBLE VISION or painting the canvas of "Les Miserables". You can't help thinking that reggae-tinged "Brave New World" could have made a better song than instrumental track but, adding a vocal performance of "Fallen Angel" (where demo tops the album cut) to the collection of wordless pieces, "Creature Of Habit" emphasizes melodies rather than the fingers' prowess that's on display in the minute of "Built For Speed".

It is obvious from the moment "Slide" sends its slithering top-line over rock solid groove with acoustic undercurrent towards pop sensibility. In such context, the appearances of guests like TERRIBLE THINGS' Fred Mascherino on the upbeat, if elegiac, "Endless Summer" or SMOKIE's Mick McConnell on the catchy, streamline "Outland" feels quite right, and it speaks volume of the main man's generosity in sharing the spotlight - or his love for twin-barrel attack. But it's when the riffs make room for piano and unamplified strings of "The Seeker" the real lyrical face of Matera emerges. A pity there's no more tunes in this mold but, habit kicked, it can make a start of a star.

***
AFFINITY -
The Baskervilles Reunion 2011
Angel Air 2012

A long forgotten band expand their ranks to make a one-off comeback. With classics abound, the balance hangs on a thread.

It's a sign of AFFINITY's only album's long-term repercussions that any band associated with this collective draws some well-pointed attention. But they grew from THE BASKERVILLES, and it's this combo that got together in 2011 for the first time since 1965, to mark the 50th anniversary of their original base, the University of Sussex. Perhaps, the group's old fans got more than they could hope for, as the ensemble that graced the stage encompassed several line-ups, one essentially being AFFINITY, yet their 21-track set reflected the vintage repertoire documented on Angel Air's previous release. The songs are impeccable - Bob Dylan, The Fabs, Eddie Cochrane - and the delivery's good on all fronts but it stresses the point of the original group lacking a musical face of their own and the gap in the musicians' abilities.

There's a sense of fun being had and punches being pulled, mostly by jazz rock bass giant Mo Foster who took Ray Russell, his friend of the same caliber, for a ride in place of a departed guitarist, and drummer Grant Serpell whose CV includes stint in SAILOR. Getting down to the others, they blunt the edge on "Satisfaction" while providing a nice roll to the likes of "Maybe Baby" but interlock the fullest on the tight but loose "Fever" where Linda Hoyle, having crossed the Atlantic for the occasion, steps forward. In different league to Glyn James and John Carter, possessors of sweet, though not great voices that perfectly fit "Sound Of Silence" yet not "I Saw Her Standing There", she, with Gary Husband on keyboards, totally kills the audience with the passionate slow-burning closer "You Don't Know What Love Is"'. The public surely loved it, and it would be silly not to preserve such significant reunion for posterity, so as a historic document this CD is as good as it gets.

***
SH.TG.N - Sh.Tg.N
MoonJune 2012

Lethal bullet-biting in madful action. As for the second vowel in the name, choose your own.

For all its brilliance, MoonJune is widely known as a deadly serious label so, perhaps, it's time to add something stinking to its adventurous roster. Cue the advent of this Belgian sextet whose dozen of missives on offer bristle with brutal beauty and holy hollering hysteria: it's heavy hardcore with jazzy sensitivity and fuzzy stylistic scope. Titles such as "Esta Mierda No Es Democratia" hint on anarchic fun which is served in spades here, and you won't complain when the spade smashes your face as it does, with a guitar squall, in the sludgy salvo of "Dead Baby" that also houses wild prog keyboards. Those Antoine Guenet's ivories open the gates for elegant "Deejays Should Have Low Self-Esteem" where Fulco Otervanger's v(o)ice cuts through the riffs to get unleashed in "Shitgun", going higher and higher, and yet higher in "Erase Her Dad". Deadly serious, indeed, especially when epic "Black Beetle" crawls and sprawls with an impressive instrumental prowess.

Heroics aside, expletives that fly around reveal the band's bent on medieval mud, gothic and rough, and the singer kicks out the germs like "In the world of fools, I am the Keiser" in "Camera Obscura" over Wim Segers' clinking vibes before all the experimental hell breaks loose. But if the spite of "J33 (I Don't Wanna See)" lets a lyrical respite in its spiky jitter, Yannick De Pauw shoots his best rock 'n' roll guitar into "A Glimpse Into Eternity", and "Shotgun", equally sharp, comes on magnificently cocked. No misfiring, then, yet move into SH.TG.N's range at your own risk and get blasted.

****3/4
JEREMY SPENCER -
Bend In The Road
Propelz 2012

A legend of British blues goes further on down to serve up his quiet masterpiece.

Forever in the shadow of Peter Green who he shared spotlight with in FLEETWOOD MAC, it was Jeremy Spencer's "My Heart Beat Like A Hammer" that gave their debut such a promising start and pitched a slide in the band's very core. Yet having predicted his fate in "I Believe My Time Ain't Long", this Elmore James aficionado slid into drugs and a cult and, after three very uneven records of the '70s, retreated from public eye to be back in 2006. Making a full-blown return now, the veteran originally released his fifth solo album, "Bend In The Road", for International Record Store Day as a 2LP set but then slimmed it down to a rotund CD that shows the master hasn't lost a bit of his youthfulness.

His years might seep through the timeless yearning of organ-oiled "Secret Sorrow" but Spencer, ably supported here by young bluesmen and bouncing off producer Brett Lucas' six-string armory and vocals, is in his element on this collection of newer cuts and classics such as Otis Rush's punchy, mesmeric "Homework" and Homesick James' "Homesick". They all feature that mythical slide, but Jeremy also plays a fine piano that breaks the album in the middle from classy to exceptional. Reflecting this dynamic, "Earthquake" claps its way into the rockabilly realm, "Whispering Fields", a countrified instrumental from back in the MAC days, wraps around the ears like an Indian summer web, while Elmore's "Cry For Me Baby" throws a muscular twang over skittering joanna. On the lyrical side dwell the spiritual ballad "Come To Me", rendered cinematic by a violin, and anxious elegy of "Desired Heaven" where a gentle hum runs under the guitars orchestra.

But the genuine magic settles in after an ivories-lighted, deep "Merciful Sea", once "Refugees" - a reinforced take on the piece from Spencer's 1978's pre-wilderness "Flee" - marries widescreen anger to a pacifying sway in an alchemic manner which can move mountains and souls. And then there's peaceful title song to elegantly sign it all off - and leave Jeremy's fans wanting more. The road goes on, so may Spencer's time be long.

*****
ANDY FRASER -
On Assignment
McTrax 2012

Firmly back in the wide world, the FREE groover turns 60-year-young and gets all earthy - with a purpose.

In 2005, when Andy Fraser came out of illness-related retirement and delivered "Naked... And Finally Free", there was a palpable sense of vulnerability. Seven years on, the veteran's erstwhile swagger creeps back into his music: it still has the same Caribbean vibe that Andy favors so much but, what with his return to live action, there's a rock edge as well. It fittingly cuts the depth of "This Is The Big One" that tackles environmental issues while casting a slide over the fret and a sly glance to Fraser's signature bass tune, and it's that famous bass propelling the skank of opener "Ghetto Bus" where the author's urge to be free is stated once again - in rough, if velvet, voice amidst sun-kissed guitar jangle.

Here's a good dose of sharp riffs, even though the one in the puncturing "I Found God" feels well-hidden. On a mellower roll, "Beautiful" is an ocean-wide soul ballad with a pulsating blues vein and "Totally Yours" comes on all silky, whereas "Thank You" lulls Balearic bliss in its glossy heart. Yet sometimes, the groove gets generic: "Time To Face The Music" slaps it fine but lacks the jaunty rootsiness of "Reggae Boy" which begs for a dub alchemy as does, in swinging and handclapping way, "Witness". This highly spirited dozen of songs bears witness to the fire still burning bright in Andy Fraser, and when he finally frees it that'll be truly big.

****
CHRISTIE -
No Stone Unturned
Angel Air 2012

Scrapping the bottom of a pot at the rainbow's end uncovers a treasure trove of unreleased nuggets. The "Yellow River" fans should apply with no reservations.

Jeff Christie's aficionados must have spent some time on his site pouring over the "Solo Sessions" section. After all, his classic band's output is rather limited while consistent, so there surely was more in the veteran's cache. Christie allowed a generous peek into it on the "Floored Masters - Past Imperfect" but now undertook an almost thorough work to turn up no less than 40 songs. "Almost" means the archives haven't been emptied to the scrap which is good because these two discs have a lasting value bordering on overload.

The pieces' quality differs sonic and tune-wise, some being demos, of which 1973's rhythm-and-bluesy "Witness For The Prosecution" is the crunchiest, acoustic "Programmed To Receive" from 1981 the most intense, and "Politician Man" the most serious in its country rock jive, and some getting too close to the inspiration source: slide guitar-driven "Steamroller" to Elvis' rockabilly boogie, a romance "I Said She Said" to "Besame Mucho". Yet "Mailman" brilliantly updates "Please Mr. Postman" and THE ROLLING STONES-quoting "Cannery Row" from later in the '70s goes beyond the pastiche with its row of catchy tunes canned into one song. It's equally impossible not to go with the extremely raw, if compelling, harmonica-hued "Solitude", the infectious glam of "Abilene", or easy, piano-supported flow of "Fantasy World".

Elsewhere, "Wild Grows The Heather" swells up in the mood to orchestral proportions, and the highly charged "It Can't Happen To Me" has a nice rhythmic undertow to its Wild West imagery but gets carried away with a "My Sweet Lord" brush. Still, the best are the tracks where Christie's Spanish guitar sweeps over electric drive like it does in the arresting buleria-shaped "Melancholy Man" which houses a nice riff to boot, or even takes over as in the wistful, trumpet-wielding flamenco "Heaven Knows" and breezy ballad "All The King's Horses". Completely different is taut "Life On Earth" showing how well Jeff Christie could have fitted the '80s if he only wanted to chase the charts again. Apparently, he didn't: a cruel act in his fans' eyes that, with "No Stone Unturned", will go all dewy.

****
LIGRO -
Dictionary 2
MoonJune 2012

With a method to the madness, Jakarta-tinted rock trio take on the world but still have a lot to conquer.

In his constant excavations in, of all places, Indonesia, MoonJune's head honcho Leonardo Pavkovic has reached a rich vein of complex music doesn't break from gamelan but feels at home at the rock bottom. And if it screams fusion, this three-piece - whose name, if read backwards, means "crazy people" - is a prime, if surprising, example of such equidistant limbo. Surprising because, instrumentally murderous, they graft sharp blues on the traditional platform and kick it into jazz with heavy riffage of "Paradox" where Agam Hamzah's guitar plays a wild beast to Gusti Hendy's relatively calm drums. And that's a calm before the storm.

It opens the gates to strange creatures such as "Miles Away" which sparsely blows a trumpet to Davis and "Stravinsky", an arrangement of the great Russian's piano composition "Les Cinq Doigts" - announced with Adi Darmawan's bass stretch and taken by the full ensemble to the funky, cosmic terra incognita. Nothing short of fantastic but problematic as there's a feeling once in a while that, for the sake of adventure, the band adopt a rehearsal stance. While bluesy solos ride a carousel, as in "Future", it's solid gold. Yet when they leave this melodic streak, the logic goes AWOL and void sets in the heart of improvisations like "Transparansi" or "Don Juan": these seem to have lost a top-line and for the considerable part of their run rage into nowhere, until that classical piano enters the frame to usher in the percussive vacuum of "Bliker 3" that gets grandiose as it thickens and reveals its elaborate texture. With a shape and a focus, LIGRO's vocabulary is universal.

****
JOY SHANNON and THE BEAUTY MARKS -
Out Of My Dreams And Into My Arms
Joy Shannon 2011

Completing her lucky dozen, a Renaissance lady delivers a tapestry of stunning beauty.

Ain't no rest for miss Shannon who operates as both a solo artiste and a focus of attention with British electronica purveyors THE OFFERING and Californian country rockers THE BEAUTY MARKS, so why she's missing a big-time spotlight could be one of the biggest enigma of our turbulent times. Perhaps, the answer lies in Joy's own creative turbulence: she doesn't play an airy fairy card in the way of fellow harp-picker Joanna Newsom - she is an ace wild card, of which her twelfth album, the fourth in this company, is a proof. There's a solid groundedness in the live take on "Flesh And Blood": not every girl can get away with a Johnny Cash cover but Shannon shines a new, flickering light onto it, while "The Horse Latitudes", an opener of her own making, sets a scene for a haunting journey with Joy's honeyed voice(s) a beacon amidst guitar waves and ivory mist that unfurls into a slow glint of the "Always In All Ways" romance. Such sepia-tinted flow is transcendental, especially when harmonies are conjured, and each new spin takes the listener farther on.

On and on, "About Time" hangs its drops in a clamoring, cello-weaving void, yet for all the record's folksy wistfulness "Home" comes on as an upbeat caress, even though you suspect domestic bliss might be an illusion, one of many in a whole array of mesmerizing songs, all revealing an emotional depth which is hard to fathom. Thus, "For You" rides the accordion and harmonium into cold Gothic gloom and "Worth Fighting For" grows from a mid-paced trot towards death-challenging immortality into something much larger than life that pulls you in and keeps prisoner only to release to the elegant dance of "Always A Burning Fire". The inner flame, that's what makes this album so special; a pity, people tend to be turning away from the brightest ones.

*****
THE FALLACY -
Love Division
Attic 2012

The Chilean Gothic to send chills down one's spine and prompt a bout of footstomping: a volcanic combination with sometimes indecipherable rumble.

Among the many ensembles brewing up an unholy mix of heavy riffs and folk motifs, this one stand out not only thanks to their provenance - Chile, of all places, isn't well represented on the rock map - but on other fronts, too. To start with, their singer, Angeline Bernini, a possessor of a voice to match her name, plays no mean lead guitar, most notably in "Force Of Nature"; then, there's a good dose of dance grooves under the three-piece's lead veneer to spice and spike the tunes that are aplenty here. The opening title cut may sound a bit cold when Marco Cusato's rough vocals and keyboards enter the picture as an ice to his counterpart's fire, but the electronic tincture and easy beats of "Mistaken Love" blow the cobwebs away and, for all its catchy drift, reveal the band's weak spot: the lyrics - English is clearly still foreign to them. Not that it matters in such beautiful songs as breezy "No Dreams At Home" and ethereal "Holy Or Ghost" where the acoustic strings and piano betray the players' classical background, while "Die With Me" takes in enough of PET SHOP BOYS immediacy to climb up the pop charts. There's much to enjoy on this dozen of composition and there's a band to be followed.

***4/5
THE MICHAEL DES BARRES BAND -
Carnaby Street
Gonzo 2012

The rocking nobleman revisits the place of the best threads in town to stitch a new gown for wearin' 'n' tearin'.

There are several sorts of aristocrats on the scene: there are new knights like Paul McCartney and faux peers such as Lord Sutch, and then there's Michael Des Barres, a genuine marquis. With glam outfit SILVERHEAD in the early '70s and more intelligent DETECTIVE later in the decade, and the front position with POWER STATION when they played Live Aid, one might not see the wild man behind Des Barres' debonair facade, yet on stage, Michael has always been a fount of untamed energy. Those who heard him belt out "Good Rockiní Tonight" have surely missed the singer since he changed the mike stand for acting career. But finally the "MacGyver" assassin is back with a vengeance - still rockin' good.

The vim is still there, so when this ten-tracker fizzles out with the booty-shaking "My Baby Saved My Ass" one feels like having drunk from that fount, and if there's a sign of the lord's 64 years Des Barres blurs the time with the slow-burning opener "You're My Pain Killer": the shimmering soulful blues with a pulled punch in the groove that grows its weight on the organ slide and finds resolution later on in the streamlined "From Cloud 9 To Heartache". Tripping down the memory lane, to "Granny Takes A Trip" and beyond, in the Mod mode yet with sharp modern edge, Michael delivers catchy "Hot And Sticky" and "Forgive Me" that Steve Marriott would have been proud of, and then comes, his voice richer in tone than ever before, with the title piece. "I was 19 in 1967, on the streets of London, I was in Heaven... Everything you've heard is everything I see", goes "Carnaby Street": here's swinging London, its myth clad in a kaftan embroidered with guitar-and-bass rocking patterns and infectious "ooh-ooh's", before the boogie of "Route 69" spins the globe forward and gospel-infused ballad "Please Stay" picks up where the evergreen "Stay With Me Baby" left off.

Class oozing out of every sonic pore, it's a high-spirited record. The marquis may have lost his locks but not his grit. Great to have his Lordship back on-stage.

*****
MAKE - Trephine
Devouter 2012

North Carolina's doomsters brew hot sludge to occasionally stick in their own viscous ground but ultimately lift off.

There's nothing new in heavy escapism of a mangled mind when it comes to both metal and prog, so anyone's success in treading such path lies in their execution, and this trio cuts its just right. If opener "Ancient Tongues" places the listener on familiar, SABBATH-paved territory where Scott Endres' guitar riffs reign supremely lava-slow, the album's further reaches host EARTH-like artfulness, although with vocals of a susurrous kind and a bit of polished, clear singing in the tight but loose, final epic "Into The Falling Gray" that unfurls the voice from growl into a faux chorale. The classic undercurrent reveals itself also in "...And Time Came Undone" which hangs on a plaintive violin before the pummeling returns to make the rest sound more like a demo collection of good ideas. So the core of it all presents an exercise in deconstruction as melodic subtleties are buried deep under the repetitive charge of "Returning To The Ruins Of My Birthplace", that turns tribal in "Surrounded By Silent Lies", while "Rotting Palace" and "Valhalla" flow as spaced-out as it gets, with cosmic effects for the color overload to please the HAWKWIND fans as well as metalheads. "Trephine" is a trove of potential yet it still has to be realized in full.

***
STEVE HILLAGE BAND
Live In Amsterdam 2006
Gonzo 2012

See the DVD

Fish rising again, after 27 years in the deep - in the sight of Gong Family Unconvention.

Keeping his profile much lower than fellow axemen Steves H, Howe and Hackett, Steve Hillage has been experimenting much wilder since 1979, when the guitarist took his band to the stage for the last time. Or so the veteran thought until the GONG reunion in 2006 that provided Hillage with auspicious chance to perform a string of pieces from his solo albums with his regular adventurous approach. While there's no "Hurdy Gurdy Man" this time, the inevitable backtracking is covered with "The Salmon Song" and "It's All Too Much" yet neither takes its traditional place as opener and closing jam: now both come tight and bouncy on Mike Howlett's bass. Here, the concert is sequenced conceptually, from rare, and finely rough, rendition of "Hello Dawn" that rocks harder as it progresses, to the brilliant, previously unplayed "These Uncharted Lands" whose title might as well describe the whole show.

An echoey exploration of sorts, "Aftaglid" connects its chords to Steve's latterday electronic shtick without really basing its effects on computer's brain - Hillage's partner Miquette Giraudy takes control of this part with her synthesizer's squeals before heavy guitar riff breaks the space flight and spices it with mind-boggling cosmic vibe. Unlike it, "Solar Musick Suite" sounds less ominously with Steve's earthly vocals, even though he refers to Mayan prophecies for 2012, while his fingerwork is never short of muscularly fantastic. That the master hasn't lost his touch is obvious when the 2006 recordings are followed by the 1979 ones, including the expansive dance buzz of "Unzipping The Zype", committed to tape in Amsterdam right before he resorted to the studio, plus, in the spirit of things, by GONG's early, jazzy run of "Solar Musick" from 1974. With the veteran's aural maturity and a promise to come up with more goodies, there's a future to look forward to. An immense comeback.

****1/3
TOMMY ROE -
Devil's Soul Pile
Airbelle 2012

Still dizzy: the '60s hero is back and swinging, light-country style.

A nostalgia circuit regular he might be, but for all his bubblegum credentials Tommy Roe has always been a writer as well as a singer, a complete package not too common in the decade when he was riding high in the charts. With discography put on hold for 35 years, the veteran's return was unlikely yet Roe surprised them all in the John Barleycorn way, this album ranking among his best, and not because of the rocking, catchy title track.

The most captivating songs here are the ones informed by Tommy's three score and ten under the sun, that's why for all the sparkling glitter of opener "Memphis Me" or the acoustic drive behind the life-affirming "Without Her", the twang of "Water Underneath My Burning Bridge" punches much harder, its organ undercurrent and piano ripples notwithstanding, while slide guitar brings a dewy-eyed swell to "What If's And Should Have's". The old aficionados will find an immense pleasure in the bluesy "That's When She Ran Out of Time" and the accordion tears filling "Remember" that show the artist's voice didn't age a bit since his golden days. It was worth the wait, now it's time for Roe to rock the cynics properly.

***2/3
RANDOM TOUCH -
Flock
Roadnoise 2012

Birds are leaving, the Chicagoans 35-year history ends here - as if accidental improvisations can end!

Not many details are provided to clarify why this album is called "final" but there's been much enigma behind RANDOM TOUCH anyway, one of those being the striking gap between their 1975 beginnings and 1999's debut album. Perhaps, it was too difficult to pin down the group's fluctuating sound on any kind of medium yet here the trio pulled the trick perfectly, both in studio cuts such as "The Rolling Razz-Ma-Tazz" which impinges polyrhythmic patterns and dance groove on the minimalist palette and the expansive live sprawl of "9-19-09". It's a rare case of angular magnetism: guitar gurgle sucks the listener into opener "Arena" before Christopher Brown's percussion sets jive in the heart of loops-and-electronica chaos - dynamic to its gills, as are the abstract, interstellar orchestral surge of "A Roundness. In That Direction" with Scott Hamill's planet-shattering bass or the jazz piano-skittering "Dance Of The Elementals" that casts shade of modern classical and grows its scope on the way. On the other hand, the similarly fashioned "The Whoopee Cushion Meadow" feels softer, indeed, while not devoid of a surprise factor in the twangy echo and processed sound departments, whereas "Aurora Borealis" is elusive in its oscillators' shimmer turning into a very palpable tempered clang 'n' skronk of "Transformational Serendipity". The latter's title seems to be a fitting descriptor of the band's music. Is it really over now?

****
ERIK NORLANDER -
The Galactic Collective - Live In Gettysburg
Gonzo 2012

See the DVD

An ivory operator takes his squad to the battlefield and serves justice for all.

No matter how adventurous Erik Norlander's studio endeavors are, it's on-stage where he brings all these edifices to life. Prone to beaming his music in sci-fi domain, there's no much sense of history in the maestro's compositions but at the Rites of Spring Festival in Gettysburg, PA, the material he fashioned on "The Galactic Collective" gained unprecedented gravitas. Having shaped an ensemble of players from both South and North, here Norlander follows that album's template yet throws in a few songs which somehow break the mold while enriching the mood. Thus, the solemn chorale of "Neurosaur", sounding especially predatory in such setting with its piano part deliciously loose, passes its atomic power to Lana Lane's performance on the jazzed-up "Into The Sunset" and her own "Secrets Of Astrology". The latter sees Erik combine pop approach with his usual cosmic flight, and Freddy DeMarco's guitar in the rage of shred.

The band's role is very prominent throughout as Nick LePar's sensual drumming spices up "Dreamcurrants" and "Trantor Station" and adds battle march to the mix, and Mark Matthews' bass propels such spacious pieces as "Sky Full Of Stars" and reserved, if adrenalin-filled, rushes as "Sunset Prelude". The ensemble work peaks on "The Dark Waters" that puts every figure of the bombastic puzzle into its ever-shifting place; on the end of spectrum lays the piano-led "After The Revolution" which takes on chamber qualities and the vocal harmonies of "Hymn". The result is high-spirited - and perfectly in the spirit of things. Best experienced in visual form, sans vision its rewarding on the imagination level. Mission accomplished.

****
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR -
Alt
Esoteric Antenna 2012

A look into the band's inner mechanism that provides no instrumental clues to their ongoing enigma.

It's a bit uncomfortable when Peter Hammill talks about representing his band's alternative sound world because VDGG have always been an alternative to everything art rock had to offer. On the second thought, though, it might be an indication of normality: if there's anything one could not expect to find on this group's record it would be blues which come in the form of the Hammond-grinding, heavy "Tuesday, The Riff" and "Splendid" as well as the short piece "Extractus". So much for the bits recorded at soundchecks and in the studio in 2006-2012 in the same way that kindred spirits CRIMSO packed their improvs into "THRaKaTTaK" but with no recognizable references - a striking contrast to the solidity of 2011's "A Grounding In Numbers".

There's a sense of imminent calamity in Hugh Banton's organ that builds "Colossus" until an accordion sound sheds a light into this bell-tolling chaos. The subtle vitality of the "Earlybird" tweet and Guy Evans' delicate drums notwithstanding, mathematics is still at play here as betrayed by such titles as "Dronus" or "Batty Loop" where logic works in favor of musique concrete to peak with the leader's gentle piano of "Repeat After Me". It invites the rest of the gang to join in the elusive, if alluring, melodic line that the broad electric strokes in hazy "Here's One I Made Earlier" is totally devoid of. Yet they masterfully stitch this quilt to VDGG's patented gloom as does jazzy, heady "Mackerel Ate Them" - a shadow of lemmings are surely there. On such base, "Alt" isn't so much as alternative here... hoping the band won't follow it with "Shift" and "Ctrl" because these quality have always been present in the VAN DER GRAAF's perpetual engine.

***
DORIS BRENDEL & LEE DUNHAM -
Not Utopia
Sky-Rocket 2012

Feistiness rules the game: a duel-level anti-dystopian derring-do on a dancefloor and beyond.

She's serious, miss Brendel, you can't deny that, but for all her black velvet intent, there's always a playful swirl under the surface. It seeped through on her previous record, "The Last Adventure", and comes into full bloom here, Doz's conspiracy with guitarist Dunham who recently crawled out from the shadow of PRIMARY SLAVE to burst in colors. Such glam makeover serve the two well, his edgy riffs underpinning her "Alice in Wonderland crossed with hardcore punk" persona on infectious electric groovers "Too Bad To Be Good" and "Going Out" and grinding the beats of soul-spiller "No Lonely Girl".

Lee's metallic veneer nicely complements Brendel's husky, sultry vocals giving her voice weight, but the subject matter of songs like the acoustic, guitar-and-piano, ballad "Ebay" is loaded in emotional terms, a perfect reflection of "Victorian heart, post-modern mind" juxtaposition. Indeed, strings bring a sense of claustrophobia to "Beyond Words" and gothic grace to "Kind To Be Cruel", yet darkness doesn't dwell on "No Utopia", both the hip-hop-hyped buzzer of a track and the album as a whole. So whereas the dramatic "Passionate Weekend", a piece of orchestral scope, has a murky heart, Doris' gentle recorder shines brightly in there and the luminous breeze of "Thank You", while a hidden track "She Just Won't Eat" lets in the lighthearted air to blow the seriousness away. Who needs Utopia if the reality's so good?

****3/4
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