“A Growing Talent on the Horizon!” – ‘Fata Morgana’ by Opus Symbiosis

Opus Symbiosis are a modern/experimental progressive rock band from Ostrobothnia, Finland. The band formed in 2003 with current members including Christine Sten (vocals), Victor Sågfors (guitar, keyboards), Daniel Hjerppe (drums) and Janet Kackur (bass) but the band often feature guest musicians on their studio releases. The band have released four albums since their formation, each one attempting a different sound from the last as they experiment with fusing an alternative/indie rock style with a very modern prog rock sound that can be compared to the likes of Pure Reason Revolution. Their latest 2020 release, ‘Fata Morgana’, is possibly their most ambitious offering, taking a larger than usual step away from their back catalogue as they infuse a dominant electronic sound on this concept album – it’s prog but not as you know it!

The band has come a long way since their first self-titled release in 2009. They themselves claim their debut to be a random jumble of compositions built up since their formation in 2003; an important first offering, nevertheless, that demonstrates their early experimental fusion of alternative/indie rock with prog rock. I could easily compare the guitar work, which is the dominant force here, with Mansun, a band that likewise fused an alternative style of rock with prog rock, particularly on their album ‘Six’. Their sound from here begins to develop into something darker; ‘Mute’ (2011) features a bleaker album cover depicting what looks like a post-apocalyptic world. The sound on this album reflects this, with keyboard and synth now featuring in their music, including (what I think is) a very distant but eerie mellotron in the background of a couple of the songs on the album – the prog aspect featuring here…but not too obviously! This post-apocalyptic theme has become central to their catalogue of music, a theme that features on their next two releases: ‘Nature’s Choir’ (2012) and ‘Monsters’ (2013). This next fact will impress a lot of people; if you remember rightly, I mentioned that the band often feature guest musicians. Well these two albums feature the one and only Pat Mastelotto on a few tracks, well known for being the current King Crimson drummer – this is an undoubtedly impressive achievement for the band to have such a renowned musician play their music. Unsurprisingly he also features on the band’s latest album, ‘Fata Morgana’, which again carries on with the theme of a post-apocalyptic world. In their own words, ‘Monsters’ focuses on “a planet covered in ice” but on ‘Fata Morgana’, the ice has melted and the planet is now covered in water (as is pictured on the album cover).

Despite the planet being covered in water, the music isn’t weighed down by a heavy sense of melancholy and darkness but instead it is lively, playful and light-hearted. What differentiates their latest album with everything else they have previously done is the reliance on electronic sounds that puts the previously dominant guitars to the back of the stage. The electronic sounds throughout the album are reminiscent of Genesis’ ‘Duke’ album, rarely differentiating from this sound which neatly ties every song together without having anomalies that would awkwardly stand out and belittle the conceptual nature of the album. In relation to this, there is an arguably strong 80’s influence that mingles with the modern progressive sound on this album. The drums hint at this notion; the opening track ‘Red Light in the Sky Traffic’ begins with a drum fill that gives the listener an opportunity to hear the 80’s drum effects that the drums have been treated with – listen out for the fills as well! The opening track is also a great gauge of how lively and energised this album is, going from a full, rapid introduction into a sparse vocal section showcasing Sten’s flawless vocals, it almost borders ambient. This is then quickly followed by an almost funk-like bridging section led by the keyboards which quickly transitions into what I would call a chorus – this is then all repeated again…all this in just 3.40s! Such relentless pace is another consistent feature of the album, whether it be through fast musical phrases that jump out unexpectedly, experimental sounds that keeps the listener guessing or song structures that attempt to fit in as many musical ideas as possible within a short time frame – it is a lot to digest in just one listen. Oh and by the way, the acrobatic bass part in this opening song is provided by non other than Tony Levin – yes that’s right, there are two King Crimson stars featuring on this album. Moreover, Pat Mastelotto provides drums on the track ‘Sand’ which details the people’s struggle to save Africa from being submerged underwater. As a track, it is a little slower in terms of pace but features a rapidly descending motif on synth strings that occurs throughout the song and a funk-style section near the end that showcases a brass section – there is still a lot to take in. ‘Lucifer’ is the closest example of the bands previous sound in earlier albums, as the guitar features more prominently; this is no surprise considering how aggressive it is compared to the rest of the album, the music echoing the feelings of an isolated survivor alone in a nuclear submarine. The final two tracks on the album, ‘Captain Tree’ and ‘Vega’, are the most beautiful on the album, slower and more reflective; again it is sometimes appropriate to use the word ambient at points during these songs. I particularly admire the synth solo that precedes Sten’s final cry out of emotion at the end of ‘Vega’ – a gorgeous close to an ambitious album!

I have barely scratched the surface with ‘Fata Morgana’ as every clever detail would take an indefinite amount of time to note down; a lot of blood, sweat and tears have been poured into this which makes the seven year gap between this release and their previous release understandable. I recommend you listen to this all the way through more than once as it is impossible to absorb everything in just one listen. The level of musicianship and creativity is immeasurable at this point – whatever they release next, you can be assured it will blow your mind as it has blown mine!

Written by Dominic Sanderson.

You can find Opus Symbiosis on Facebook and Instagram. Their new album is available to stream on Spotify!

Neo-Prog: What’s with the ‘neo’ anyway?

Picture this: we are heading towards the end of the 70s, in which the golden age of the progressive rock movement is in a state of turmoil. King Crimson are currently inactive, the members of Yes are in disagreement over musical direction and are soon to lose Anderson and Wakeman, whilst Genesis, already without enigmatic frontman Peter Gabriel, have lost guitarist Steve Hackett and are about to leave their progressive sound in the past. If this wasn’t distressing enough for a prog fan, the changing social climate has become the perfect breeding ground for a new genre of music spearheaded by the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, a genre that cuts out the waffle and gets straight to the point of everything that is wrong in Britain – the punk and new wave movements are the final nail in the coffin for the much loved progressive rock movement. Brutal and heartbreaking isn’t it? For prog fans at the end of the 70’s, it was believed that prog had done its time and had been laid to rest indefinitely. However, an unexpected resurrection was to take place in the 80s, a decade dominated by new wave bands showcasing a catchier, danceable style of music, undoubtedly an unpopular time for prog rock. But this wasn’t to stop the likes of Pendragon, IQ and most notably Marillion, who are all synonymous with what was termed as ‘Neo-Progressive Rock’. But what is it and how does it differ from the original progressive rock movement I hear you ask?

It is not so easy to explain. Progressive rock in itself is loose in terms of a definition, a bone of contention that has probably fuelled many arguments among prog fans in the pub, and something you are likely all familiar with. Therefore, it is also tricky to try and give a definitive explanation of what neo-prog is as there is no concrete answer. The easiest way of looking at it is through the word ‘neo’, a prefix indicating that something is new, recent and fresh. In this context, neo-prog simply means the new wave of prog rock, but nothing is ever that simple – prog fans should know that by now! Surely it has some unique features that make it a distinctive movement, otherwise we would be calling all prog rock between 1980-2020 neo-prog. Well there are some key features that bind these neo-prog bands together and distinguishes this movement from the original prog greats in the 70s; in true 80s fashion, there is a greater emphasis on synthesisers which are purposefully used more often than the hammond organ or the mighty mellotron (not to say that these are still not used to great effect). These soundscapes are coupled together with clean, melodic guitar solos that aim for emotion rather than virtuosic complexity, emotion that is also echoed in the lyrical content. Arguably, it is seen as more accessible over classic prog, which is a fair judgement considering the fame Marillion, in-particular, received on the radio and in the charts. However, the neo-prog movement never aimed to greatly distance itself from the roots of classic, symphonic prog; for the die-hard prog fans, the music still delivered what it promised on the tin and it is no surprise that today these neo-prog bands have developed a strong and loyal fanbase.

The problem lies with where to begin. Genesis play a huge role in shaping this movement, being a strong influence (perhaps too strong in some cases) on many of the leading neo-prog bands. It is possible to even make a definition for the movement out of Genesis entirely. It is no coincidence then, that the first neo-prog albums are arguably said to have been conceived by Genesis in the late 70s; albums such as ‘A Trick of the Tail’ and ‘Wind and Wuthering’ could be deemed as a template for what future neo-prog bands would accomplish (or dare I say copy?) later on in the 80s. It seems controversial to call these albums neo-progressive, however, considering Genesis were a central part of this initial movement and they were crafted in the late 70s when symphonic prog still had some breath left in it – in an effort to keep everyone happy, it is best to probably see these albums as blueprints rather than actual neo-prog offerings. Instead, I present to you a slightly less controversial answer to this question – but will no doubt cause controversy! In 1982, Twelfth Night released what some may call the first neo-prog album: ‘Fact and Fiction’. Strangely enough, unlike most other neo-prog bands, Twelfth Night produced a very original sound that straddled the border between prog rock and the punk/new wave material. Genesis is nowhere to be seen on ‘Fact and Fiction’ which is why it is praised for its originality; vocalist Geoff Mann sounded more like Peter Hammill rather than Peter Gabriel. Nevertheless, the inclusion of punk/new wave elements left other fans labelling it as ‘punk-prog’ (a bit oxymoronic) and so it seems problematic to call this the first neo-prog album when it isn’t ‘fully’ progressive. 

There is only one other candidate in the running for first neo-prog album and it came from the most successful band of them all: Marillion’s ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ released in 1983, only 4 months after ‘Fact or Fiction’. The Genesis influence was much stronger here – perhaps abundantly so! Lead singer Fish was labelled a Gabriel copycat due to his similar enigmatic performance style, use of costumes and his fearless lashings of face paint – not to mention the uncanny vocal resemblance! The 17 minute B-side track ‘Grendel’ was considered to be the bands version of ‘Suppers Ready’, albeit not as polished as the Genesis masterpiece. Nevertheless, it was Marillion that were to reap the most success from the neo-prog movement, releasing four albums throughout this period before lead singer Fish made his departure and the band developed a new sound with current singer Steve Hogarth. The pinnacle of their career with Fish came with 1985’s ’Misplaced Childhood’; a concept album revolving around the childhood of Fish. Compared to their debut album, ‘Misplaced Childhood’ was musically more accessible, so much so that singles ‘Kayleigh’ and ‘Lavender’ received much radio play and appearances on Top of the Pops – yes you heard right! But it was the friction between Fish and the rest of the band during the making of their fourth album, ’Clutching at Straws’, that caused Fish to split from the band to focus on a solo career. However, as we all know, that wasn’t the end for Marillion.

Other neo-prog bands would challenge Marillion for the limelight during this time. Pendragon and IQ were often the support acts for headliners Marillion at the much loved Marquee Club in London – a hang out, or secret base if you like, for many neo-proggers. Pendragon were not as prominent in the 80s as they were in the 90s when they released a string of popular albums including ‘The Masquerade Overture’ in 1996, which was considered their most acclaimed work. The mastermind behind Pendragon’s work is vocalist and guitarist Nick Barrett, best known for his extended guitar solos, packed full of emotion and soul – it has become part of the Pendragon sound. Their latest 2020 release, ‘Love Over Fear’, is no exception to this and has been highly rated among fans to the point where many are calling it their finest work. IQ were probably the second biggest neo-prog band after Marillion, beginning their career with ‘Tales From the Lush Attic’ in 1983. Along with their 1985 release ‘The Wake’, these albums were widely praised, propelling them to fame in the prog world. They may have been classed as neo-prog but they are an example of a neo-prog band that relied on the mellotron, taking advantage of the full scope of its many sounds successfully as well as applying the fresh synthesiser sounds on offer in the 80s. Like Pendragon, IQ continued to release albums throughout the 90s and 00s, notably ‘Ever’ in 1993 and then a string of masterpieces beginning with ‘The Seventh House’ in 2000 right through to their latest 2019 release ‘Resistance’.

And there you have it – neo-prog in a nutshell! Characterised by the synth-focused sounds produced out of prog bands in the 80s, many prog bands have formed in more recent times that have been labelled as sounding ‘neo-progressive’. Arena began their career in the 90s, being most famous for their album ‘The Visitor’ in 1998 and are classed as neo-prog. A more recent example of neo-prog comes from Frost•, who released their first album ‘Milliontown’ in 2006 – roughly 20 years after the initial neo-prog movement. Nevertheless, ‘Milliontown’ has become an essential neo-prog album, praised for its original use of electronic sounds in a progressive context but also for the spine-tingling guitar solos provided by Arena guitarist John Mitchell – ‘Black Light Machine’ is a perfect example of this, you can thank me later! While it was unexpected, the neo-prog movement is a vital part of prog rock history but often overshadowed by the golden era of prog in the 70s. Hopefully, if you were not already aware of the gems that came out of this movement, you will now indulge in some glorious neo-proggy goodness!

Written by Dominic Sanderson.

“No Blank Drawn Here!” – ‘Anthology Of A Cave’ by About Blank

About Blank are an Italian heavy prog band which originally formed as a hard/alternative rock band in 2015. The members comprise of Marco Venturelli (vocals), Alessandro Ambrosio (guitars), Francesco Mazziotti (guitars), Enrico Scorzoni (bass) and Raul Zannoni (drums). Their latest release, ‘Anthology Of A Cave’ (2019), in their own words represents an experimentation with ‘a new sound, new subjects and a new genre’ as they successfully retain a heavy rock sound but within a progressive context. This new album ticks all the boxes: a psychological concept album featuring a range of soundscapes and textures that neatly balance the unrelenting heavier moments that make it a heavy prog delight.

The concept places the human being at the centre using ‘the cave’ as a metaphor. The protagonist embarks upon journeys in a world created by fairy tales including giants (‘Giants’), robots (‘Ro-Both’) and more; in each journey, he encounters the negative traits that make up a human being. These encounters force the protagonist to search inside himself, inside ‘The Cave’, where he finds a new world full of new questions and contradictions. The prospect of another journey to answer these questions is hinted at by the end. The album also features an extra song that is not part of the concept; ‘One More’ fits more with the hard/alternative side to their earlier musical sound as it features other artists that have injected their own musical styles into it. It is a complete contrast to the rest of the album, which is musically darker and conceptually complex – nevertheless it acts as a light relief, a real headbanger that shakes off the weighty subject matter previously explored. 

It may be a dark trip that uncovers some of our worst behaviours as human beings – but it is certainly worth it for the sound that goes with it! The band’s music can be likened to many famous names in the modern prog world, creating their own exciting modern sounds that refuse to hang onto the prog greats of the past. The most impressive focal point of the album is the reliance on the acoustic guitar; the band really explores the full scope of its sounds and uses. When I hear ‘Giants’, which opens the album, I instantly think of The Pineapple Thief, doubling a crushing guitar riff with an acoustic guitar to create a most interesting and powerful contrast. However in the same breath, ‘Giants’ also features a twin acoustic guitar section that creates a gentler soundscape. In ‘Orpheo’, the highlight of the album, a strummed acoustic guitar highlights the rich chord changes superbly by the fact that the opening is stripped to just acoustic guitar and vocals. The fast acoustic guitar licks at the end of each phrase adds a crisp edge to this gorgeous opening. The band contrasts this beautiful opening with moments of euphoria, such as the section beginning with a heartfelt guitar solo that builds into an ascending twin guitar climax (which reappears at the end of the piece). The return to an acoustic atmosphere reminds me of much of the acoustic work on Opeth’s ‘Damnation’ album – again, harmonically interesting and quite acrobatic in places. 

There are then the many heavier moments on the album that balance the lighter textures; ‘The Cave’ and ‘The Unnecessary’ take the listener on a journey in which light and dense textures are conflicted. When it is light, we hear the gorgeous three part vocal harmony that is prevalent on the album, often underscored by the acoustic guitar – these vocals are allowed to shine through. As a general observation, Venturelli’s voice has the same warm tone that Blackfield singer Aviv Geffen has – a compliment for sure. When the textures are dense, the guitars are distorted and the riffs are unrelenting; the drums, in particular the powerful bass drum, are impactful and up-front. The guitars consistently compliment each other in every sense, whether that be in the lighter acoustic sections or the heavier riff-based sections, making easy work of complex rhythms and changes in time signature. ‘Ro-Both’ is heavy the whole way through, but is occasionally underscored by sounds of industry and robotic synths to match with the protagonists meeting with a robot. The track preceding this, ‘Before It Was Done’ and the track ‘Birds’ are both entirely synth-based one minute pieces that add more interesting colours to the album. ‘Before It Was Done’ sounds very robotised, almost as if it’s trying to emulate a robot powering up for the first time; while still being very atmospheric, it has a harsher sound in contrast with ‘Birds’ which is much smoother and flowing, creating a gentler atmosphere in preparation for the awesomeness of ‘Orpheo’ that comes after. The band ends their concept with an uplifting acoustic guitar piece called ‘A Place For Time’ which is the song that marks the protagonist’s time of rest before he embarks on a new journey. The major tonality of the piece perhaps represents the protagonist’s new found wisdom and sense of strength that will guide him through many more future travels. A beautiful fingerpicked guitar part over the sound of a ticking clock calmly ends this whirlwind of a journey – the calm before the storm of a new journey!

About Blank have crafted some diverse sounds to match their thought-provoking concept. It is a concept that we live through on a day to day basis; life is one big journey of self-discovery in which we encounter those negative human behaviours. If this album teaches anything, it is to be aware of our own negative traits but to never give in to them. The band have taught this lesson in style; the conflicting textures and soundscapes, ranging from the gritty, the reflective and the ambient, keep up the momentum of the album throughout. I look forward to hearing how they develop even further with the new progressive sound they have opted for.

Written by Dominic Sanderson.

You can find About Blank on Facebook and Instagram. ‘Anthology Of A Cave’ is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Amazon Music and Deezer.

“Keeping Crimson Alive in 2020” – ‘Scarlet Hands’ by Shallow Green

Shallow Green are an American prog band from New Jersey which formed in 2018 when drummer John Bonacorso began to fulfil his desire to form a prog band by teaming up with guitarist and vocalist Jack Mangan. After holding auditions, Steve Riccobono was then picked to play the role of bass player in the band to complete the trio. A couple of the months down the line, spurred on by an impulse to find something new, saxophonist Owen Larocca became the fourth member of the band which completes their current lineup. The band describes their sound as ‘true to classic rock n roll’ but with a blend of progressive influences – these influences include Rush, Genesis and King Crimson. No where is this most accurate than on their debut single, ‘Scarlet Hands’, that blends rock, funk and jazz to create a progressive offering that can be classed as prog/jazz fusion.

The rhythm section introduces the song, a solid beginning comprising of a fat bass sound and a syncopated drum groove. The guitar parts are then layered in, first with a sustained three note part that outlines the chords which nicely contrasts a funky strummed part – some added wah wah to this strummed part gives it a neat edge. The vocals and sax then join in, as the sax doubles the vocal melody for the most part. So far the band are in-keeping with their ‘classic rock n roll’ sound as the first section of the piece is a 12-bar blues; they keep it tight and clean, refusing to complicate or deviate from its ‘true’ sound. However, the songs abrupt change of tone is where the fun begins, a change signalled by a well disciplined fast ascending figure in unison which then descends into chaos – Bonacorso’s awesome drum fill that precedes this is another hint that the song is about to let loose. Larocca’s sax really stands out at the beginning of this instrumental section, as he makes it scream and wail, intensified by a delay effect that creates the ‘wall of sound’ that the band describes of their music. With chromaticism featuring highly and Larocca and Mangan each taking turns to solo, the rhythm section does an excellent job of holding down the music and maintaining the tonality amid this mayhem. A short, tasteful guitar solo from Mangan brings the song back to its 12-bar blues structure, a much more energised version compared to its cleaner sound at the beginning – the guitars are crunchier, the drum groove is more driven and the vocals are angrier. carrying the momentum of the previous chaos. When the sax melody is played for the final time, Riccobono’s wah wah effect on the bass, which this time doubles the sax melody, showcases the melody at its best for the final time. The band finish their piece with the same flurry of notes that took them into the instrumental section, making for a crisp end to a song that fuses rock, funk, jazz and prog.

‘Scarlet Hands’ is a solid first release that will make you yearn to hear more of what they have got to offer. On YouTube, they have videos that showcase some of their other original material yet to be professionally recorded – but hopefully will be. A particular video of interest is one shot with ‘Bloom NJ’, a collective featuring artists from New Jersey, in which the band perform ‘Scarlet Hands’ and another original called ‘The Soldier’ live. They aim to grow their following and to release new music within the next year – I hope they can fulfil this aim and treat us to more of their distinctive sound.

Written by Dominic Sanderson.

You can find Shallow Green on Instagram and Facebook. ‘Scarlet Hands’ is available on Spotify, Youtube and Apple Music.

‘…The Journey Continues’ with Mal Hijo’s “So The Story Goes”

Two months after the release of their first single, Mal Hijo have graced their fans with the release of their second single; another contributing piece to their conceptual puzzle, ‘Superstar Crematorium’, which they began to shape in 2018 and have since recorded and mixed independently in bedrooms and flats! As a reminder, Mal Hijo are a 5 piece prog band formed in Liverpool in 2017, having met through their music course at university. The lineup consists of Mike Blue (main vocals, rhythm guitar), Billy Price (lead guitar), Jacob Hackett (drums, backing vocals), Tyler Swindley (bass) and the recent addition of Tristan Apperley (synth/keys). Having been established as a heavy prog band, Mal Hijo’s new single, titled ‘So The Story Goes’, is an even more ambitious offering; a six minute through-composed piece of music, meaning that nothing repeats but instead each new idea develops from the previous one, taking the listener on a musical journey.

As previously outlined, the concept revolves around the central character of Fenix who exists in two different musical points in time; in act 1 he exists in the late 70’s/early 80’s whereas in act 2 he exists in the modern day. Their first single, ‘Mal Hijo’, features in act 2 of the album, detailing Fenix’s sense of alienation existing in modern times and rejection of his musical style. ‘So The Story Goes’ takes us to the very beginning of the story before Fenix’s stardom in 1979; like many dreamers hoping to make it in the music industry, Fenix laments his youth and the way he was belittled by everybody around him for having unrealistic goals for the future. Despite everyones lack of faith, Fenix strives to turn his dreams into a reality and prove everyone wrong. Having released two singles so chronologically far apart certainly keeps listeners guessing as to how the story progresses from ‘So The Story Goes’ to ‘Mal Hijo’.

As this is a concept album, and in the true style of a concept album, the piece begins with the last chord of the first song on the album. However this chord has been reversed so that it crescendos into ‘So The Story Goes’ – a neat and cool way to tie these songs together. Once this crescendo has ended, the song truly begins; a journey full of light and shade, it inhibits influences of the classic hard rock greats such as Queen, as well as retaining the influence of Pink Floyd previously heard on ‘Mal Hijo’. And Pink Floyd is exactly what comes to mind initially; the piece begins as a ballad, Price playing a Gilmour-esque solo accompanied by Swindley’s gentle piano chords, some careful cymbal work from Hackett while Apperley’s hammond lingers in the background. Hackett and Price drop out to allow Blue’s vocals to take centre stage; Hackett also sings in this section, providing a harmony to Blue’s vocal line and Price even chips in with a tasteful falsetto line on the word ‘goodbye’. The vocal lines are a striking feature of this song throughout, whether it be unpredictable falsetto lines that succeed in taking the listener by surprise or Hackett’s higher vocal harmonies that, as I’ve previously mentioned, mingle very well with Blue’s voice. At around the 2.40s mark, we hear the song take a change of direction as the whole band now plays at its fullest, even featuring a cheeky violin part courtesy of the multi-talented Apperley. Price, again, displays his virtuosic guitar playing with another of his Petrucci-esque solos, shredding to his hearts content during this euphoric and uplifting section. Another change of direction as the song returns to a more sombre atmosphere, Swindley’s bass taking point, outlining a descending chord progression and underscored by Apperley’s subtle synth parts and a lilting 12-string acoustic guitar. This brief section quickly explodes into a violent and menacing chromatically descending section which constantly develops, especially through Apperley’s organ parts that evolve as this menacing section ruthlessly tears its way through the rest of the song. Price’s guitar parts are also ever changing – for me, the best bit is when he begins to play a repeating, crunching melodic riff under the chord progression. With the name of the track being shouted in the background and Hackett letting rip on the drum kit, his faultless and stylistic playing adding to the drama, the song makes its big climax before the dynamic is brought down once more for a final reflective section that sees the return of Swindley’s piano from the beginning. What sounds like a police siren finally brings this part of Fenix’s journey to a close.

Another great offering for listeners to immerse themselves in while eagerly awaiting the release of the full album that will outline how Fenix’s journey will continue from this epic beginning. It certainly requires more than one listen as there are many hidden nuances that reveal themselves as you become more familiar with the track – it just goes to show how talented and thoughtful these musicians are. My anticipation has now been heightened having heard this awesome track – I cannot wait!

Written by Dominic Sanderson

Listen to “So The Story Goes” on Spotify and Apple Music

Let us know what you think!

“An Epic Debut in the World of Prog” – ‘Empty Circles and Grains of Sand’ by Dominic Sanderson

“Empty Circles and Grains of Sand” is a single release from an upcoming debut EP from British progressive rock artist Dominic Sanderson. Recorded and mixed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanderson contributes an impressive level of musicianship similar to that of Steven Wilson in this track which includes him performing every instrument, writing and arranging the entire piece. 

This nearly 13 minute epic starts off slow and sweet with gentle synth layers and drones. An atmosphere of dreariness is established, giving a sense of mystery. Just before the two minute mark, a confident and bold electric guitar pierces into the song in a style similar to that of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour or even Steve Rothery of Marillion. Shortly after, a bass synthesizer and a riser leads us into the next part of the song, where the action begins.

Drums, electric bass, and rhythm guitar enter the song which builds tension and excitement that segues right into lead synth and guitar lines that are bursting with originality and musical flavour. Sandersons guitar playing lacks no skill in providing the lead melodic element that never fails to capture attention. A rhythmically synchronized passage carries the listener into yet another contrasting and captivating section.

Acoustic guitar, vocals and mellotron-like synths greatly define this section three in a fashion reminiscent of Steven Wilson and King Crimson. Added vocal harmonies add yet another layer of depth into the music, even musically referencing the likes of Gentle Giant on the line “make your choice, make it now”. The repetitive acoustic guitar motif and dramatic lyrics provide a strong foundation that builds momentum to yet another change to the songs form. Drums and bass blast back into the action along with another verse of lyrics sung by interesting and thoughtful melodies. All instruments soon drop out except synthesizer, harking back to the song’s introduction, indicating more variation in form, dynamics, and harmony. Polyphonic vocal melodies singing songs title distinctly along with the full gamut of instruments previously heard, and as a result, a dense texture of instruments and melodies is carefully created. A syncopated bass line marks the start of yet another section change.

Progressively layers are added in a canon style, then climaxing dynamically with an explosive organ line another with harmonized guitar and bass motifs harkening the steller and air-tight musicianship of that similar to King Crimson; more impressively, every part is written and played by Sanderson alone! After a series of complex synchronized melodic and rhythmic lines, the song’s intensity recedes into soft and contemplative mellotron and keyboard melodies. The piercing electric guitar, as heard earlier in the beginning of the track, boldly returns along with the title lyric harmonies, thus ending the song in a satisfying and full circle nature. The song concludes with the haunting repetition of the line “empty circles and grains of sand”, leaving the listener in shock at the utter brilliance of a carefully written and arranged epic composed by one sole individual. 

All in all, Sanderson provides a well crafted progressive rock epic that goes through leaps and bounds, leaving any admirer of prog well satisfied and hopefully a long time fan. For his first ever solo release, Dom excellently asserts his musical excellence and versatility, beginning his recorded music career with such strong momentum to which I can’t wait to see what he produces next. 

Written by Nik MacDonald

You can listen to Dominic’s music on Bandcamp and Soundcloud at:

https://dominicsanderson.bandcamp.com/releases

“Symphonically Creating Excellent Music! ” – ‘Return of the Foggy Logger’ by The Fat Turtles

The Fat Turtles is an American symphonic prog rock band from Iowa. The leader of this project is Luke Johnston, a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays the acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass and vocal parts on their songs as well as being the writer of all the music and the lyrics – a real labour of passion. Any electric guitar parts are played by Noah Carrell, whilst drum parts are played by Seth Strahan. The project formed as a metal band, however it has gradually strayed away from this and entered prog territory with releases such as ‘Six of Hearts’ (2019) and most recently ‘Return of the Foggy Logger’ (2020), demonstrating a symphonic prog sound reminiscent of early Genesis.

As the sole writer of the band, Johnston encapsulates the 70’s prog scene with flying colours – almost literally! The album covers are full of bright colours, playful and abstract, a testament to the masterful and highly detailed artwork of Stephen “Gus” Walsh – the next Roger Dean perhaps. Moreover, the lyrical content of their most recent EP ranges from philosophical explorations, such as the concept of time in ‘Hourglass’, to more story like tales in which 70s prog fantasy is given a modern day twist, such as the story of the foggy logger’s pursuits to save the environment in the title track. And of course – the music itself in ‘Return of the Foggy Logger’ is a very convincing nod to 70s prog. The EP begins with the title track, a very exuberant, carnivalesque offering. The first noticeable thing is the awesome bass sound that introduces the song before frantically playing ascending and descending arpeggios, a disorientating imitation of a fairground perhaps. The voices and claps that can be heard in the background of the vocal sections help to emphasise the theatrical circus-like nature of this section of the piece. A change of mood takes place at the half-way point in which the music becomes more tranquil, the guitar lightly underscoring the bass which takes on a melodic role. One great thing about this band is the important role of the bass, often playing parts that would usually be given to a guitarist. In ‘Through the Hills of Highland’ from their previous EP ‘Six of Hearts’, for example, the bass plays the main riff in the verse sections instead of the guitar – a refreshing change. The next song, ‘Hourglass’, lowers the previous songs energetic dynamic, beginning with a lilting 12 string guitar part – you can really hear the influence of early Genesis here. The addition of a three part vocal harmony adds to the relaxing atmosphere of the piece. From gentle beginnings, the song gradually increases in intensity; the piano emphasises the first beat of every bar while the synths serve to add purposeful dissonance to muddy the tonality of the piece, creating a darker and conflicting soundscape. The final track, ‘The Knight in Red Armour’, rejuvenates the energy of the EP, showcasing a descending chord progression on the mellotron which has been likened to King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. The reliance on the toms in the drum part succeeds in building the tension of the piece, foreboding a crescendo later on. The quieter section changes in chord progression, featuring mainly the guitar and mellotron with some tasteful Squire-esque melodic lines high up on the bass. This then erupts back into the main chord progression which feels more powerful and direct now. The ending is sublime; the sustained vocal notes along with the bass part that drives the song towards its conclusion makes for a euphoric end to the EP.

Since the band’s move away from metal, they have really anchored their symphonic sound firmly. With such clarity already established in their musical direction, it is no surprise that they have already begun working on a new album that they expect to release at the end of the year: I await their next release in excited anticipation. I hear they are looking for a keyboard player so don’t hesitate to contact them – if only I played the keys!

“Forging their Sound in the World of Prog” – Jolly Cobra’s ‘Chromium Hawk’

Jolly Cobra are a Norwegian band from Oslo formed in 2009 by Tom Daniel Reiersen (guitar, bass), Filip Watn (guitar), Fred Are Wolter (drums) and Steffen Johansen (vocals). The only changes in their current lineup are Tom Uglebakken (guitar) who replaced Watn in 2012, and the addition of Bjørn Viggo Andersen (bass) – both members of a Norwegian prog band called Gargamel. The original lineup began with the intention of creating stoner rock, with influences including the likes of Kyuss and Colour Haze. With new band members and their proggier influences being Rush and King Crimson, it is no surprise that their most recent release of their second album ‘Chromium Hawk’ in 2017 sees the beginning of a subtle shift from stoner rock to 70s influenced progressive rock. With this musical transition, Jolly Cobra have not abandoned their love and influence of stoner rock on their latest album, but but rather beginning to dip their feet into the world of prog – and it’s definitely working for them on this album!

Their debut release of ‘Tres Cobras’ in 2015 is everything a fan of hard blues based rock would want. A collection of energized headbangers suitable for a mosh pit in which the songs are heavily riff based; the distorted guitar sounds remind me of Black Sabbath’s sound – very fuzzy and growly which elevate these awesome riffs. ‘Let The Curtains Fall’ and ‘Kill The Headlights’ are great examples of this; driving, catchy and angry. Nevertheless, even their debut album began suggesting a possible shift in musical focus. ‘Albert Ross’ is more of an experimental piece that fits in more with the psychedelic/acid rock side to stoner rock. It features a very melodic guitar part over what I can only describe as a backdrop of chaos in a freeze frame. The distorted guitar that comes in delicate swells, coupled together with the menacing drone underneath completely juxtaposes the guitar part; it is light and playful with a major tonality. Such a fusion of moods really sparks the imagination which is why it fits in so well with the psychedelic side of stoner rock. Nevertheless, at the same time it lights the torch for the beginning of Jolly Cobra’s shift to the more progressive side of rock which is beginning to make appearances on their latest album.

Their 2017 release of ‘Chromium Hawk’ still carries the spirit of stoner rock but with shoots of prog beginning to sprout. Songs such as ‘Ain’t Got Nothing’ and ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ best represent the spirit of stoner rock that still lives in their music. Uglebakken kicks off ‘Ain’t Got Nothing’ straight away with a catchy guitar riff that swiftly leads into the verse. On this song especially, Johansen’s powerful voice is reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne – which is a compliment! Many of the songs on this album, including this one, feature instrumental sections in which extended solos are played over previously used chord progressions. Uglebakken always keeps these solos tasteful so that they compliment the blues based soul of hard rock. I suppose this fits in more with the psychedelic side to prog rock and is perhaps the road that this band is heading down. The influence of space rock on this album highlights this point; throughout, the songs are peppered with spacey synth sounds, reverse delay effects and guitar effects. The start of ‘Greyhound Express’ features a lot of reverse delay on the guitar as well as a metallic synth sound that slides down an octave to kick the song off. ‘Chromium Hawk Part 1’ begins similarly with a synth based introduction that sounds very alien. The artwork for the album corresponds with the heavy space rock influence as the cover depicts a spaceship (which I’m assuming is the Chromium Hawk) being chased by a gigantic octopus on a green planet in space – crazy stuff! Despite this not being a full on progressive album, the song ‘Desert Storm’ shows the most promise. At almost 7 minutes, the song has a clearer sense of exploration compared to the other songs on the album; the middle section is a lengthier contrast to the main riff that occupies most of the song. The ending of the song brings back material from the middle section which has a very early Pink Floyd sound. There is a particular chord at the end that destabilises the tonality of the piece which is very obvious to hear before returning to the tonic chord – very fooling but also very cool! The most interesting piece for me is ‘Chromium Hawk Part 2’ which closes the album. It is the total opposite to its counterpart; a fully electronic piece that would easily fit on a Tangerine Dream album. It is a gorgeous piece of music, robotic in sound but increasing in beauty as layer after layer of sound is added to create a soundscape full of rich harmony. Not only a total contrast to its counterpart but also to the rest of the album – this is one of the moments where the album screams prog.

By the sounds of it, Jolly Cobra are aiming to create a more prog influenced sound on their next work which they have begun crafting. ‘Chromium Hawk’ is a solid album from a band still trying to figure out where they want their music to go. The beginnings of experimentation with synths, structures and musical ideas are engaging and promising to hear. They are definitely going in the right direction and hopefully their next album will go further in terms of experimentation as they can definitely make an effort to push the boundaries. I look forward to hearing the development of their progressive sound on their next offering.

You can find Jolly Cobra on social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, as well as through their record label Kung Fu Ninja Records

Written by Dominic Sanderson

“A taste of what’s to come” – Mal Hijo and their debut single

Mal Hijo are a 5 piece prog band formed in Liverpool in 2017, having met through their music course at university. The lineup consists of Mike Blue (vocals, rhythm guitar), Billy Price (lead guitar), Jacob Hackett (drums), Tyler Swindley (bass) and the recent addition of Tristan Apperley (synth/keys). They began crafting their debut album ‘Superstar Crematorium’ in 2018 and are now preparing to release their first single, ‘Mal Hijo’, which marks their first official release of original music. What is most remarkable about not only this single but the entire album, is the fact that it has been wholly recorded in the flats and bedrooms of the band members due to a lack of funds to go into the studio. It takes real passion and drive to take on such a gruelling task of playing, recording and mixing the album independently. However, their efforts have certainly paid off on ‘Mal Hijo’ which leans towards the heavier side of prog.

Mal Hijo have bravely set the bar high for their debut album, deciding to jump straight into the world of prog with a concept album split into 2 acts (this is what we like to hear!). The concept revolves around the central character of Fenix who exists in two different musical points in time; in act 1 he exists in the late 70’s/early 80’s whereas in act 2 he exists in the modern day. Without giving too much more away about the concept, ‘Mal Hijo’ – which features on act 2 – tells of how he is noticed for not fitting in with modern times and therefore being rejected for his musical style. Having listened to the new single, I will be very interested to see how this part of the jigsaw fits in with the rest of the concept.

It is no surprise then that, musically, ‘Mal Hijo’ adds to the heaviness of this concept by communicating Fenix’s supposed feelings of isolation, rejection and the inner turmoil of his own musicianship. The song takes no prisoners; it is constantly driving, fast paced and there is an abundance of musical ideas in just 5 minutes – so be prepared! The first half of the song has a clear 70s heavy rock feel reminding me of bands such as Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin. There is the main guitar riff, which itself is a rapid, note heavy beast that kicks off the song straight away before introducing the verse. Often this riff is treated to a twin guitar harmony which is always a guaranteed way to elevate the original sound of the riff – plus it sounds awesome! The chorus is infectious and you will end up singing it for the rest of the day so beware! I love how well Hackett’s backing vocals mingle with Blue’s main vocal line in the chorus; they have a similar vocal style that blends very well. The second half of the song is where it becomes more proggy as we dive into an instrumental section (which features a very cheeky excerpt from Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’). I particularly admire Hackett’s drumming in the transition that begins the instrumental section; it is extremely tight yet stylistic, successfully guiding the rest of the band towards the next musical idea. The 3 minute mark then provides the listener with some brief respite from the chaos that encapsulates the rest of the song, as a strumming acoustic guitar underscores some gentle vocal harmonies. This doesn’t last however; a euphoric ascending figure lifts the song back to the verse chord progression in which Price demonstrates his talent for the guitar with a raging solo, similar in style to the likes of John Petrucci (sweep picking and all). One final chorus and an incredibly high pitched ascending vocal figure ends this rollercoaster ride of a song.

For a song that has been played, recorded and mixed in flats and bedroom spaces, the sound quality on this is excellent, a real testament to the production expertise of Apperley. This is an energised track that shows a lot of promise for what the rest of the record will eventually sound like – and if it sounds like this then these clever musicians are onto a winner. I am very excited to hear the concept in its entirety and hearing this amazing track again in its context. 

Available to stream on all major streaming platforms from the 21st April.

Written by Prog Rock Review writer Dominic Sanderson

“A Band Very Much Ahead of Their Time” – Fightin’ Bob

Fightin’ Bob is a new up and coming prog rock band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What exact type of prog you may ask? All sorts is the answer, although a lot of their sounds are very blues, funk driven. Formed only in 2018, their current lineup is as follows: Jack Mackowski (drums, percussion), Saul Dinauer (bass), Jack Koshkin (keys, guitar), Rafael Gandre and Kathleen Westrup (vocals). The original lineup featured a different bassist, Kemet Gobel, who played on the debut album. What is particularly admirable about these remarkable musicians is their youth in such a stereotypically complex and demanding genre; they have entered the pond of progressive rock yet at the time of their formation they were between the ages of 14-16! But what an entrance they have made with their stunning self titled debut album: ‘Fightin’ Bob’. As well as the main blues and funk drive of the album, there are many moments where Fightin’ Bob inject various other musical influences such as psychedelia, folk and even some very welcoming classical moments.

The band has already made an excellent job at creating a name for themselves in only 2 years. They have had statewide success as finalists of Wisconsin’s 2018/19 Rockonsin competition. Moreover, they have had international success through the inclusion of ‘Nick the Rat’, from their debut album, on the free CD of issue 99 of the much loved and widely read ‘Prog Magazine’ – a real honour and a huge accomplishment for such a young and recently formed band. It is no surprise that they have already had these successes; their ability to perform, compose and arrange is exceptional. Koshkin’s role as both keys and guitar player, as well as Rafael and Saul’s multi-instrumental capabilities, are examples of this, and is certainly a challenge to flip from one instrumental medium to the other in live situations. Furthermore, the inclusion of both a male and female singer is refreshing but unfortunately not as common as it should be in the prog world – it’s one of the main reasons I like bands such as Mostly Autumn and Anathema. Their true love of prog is evident when watching their flawless live covers of prog greats such as Yes’ ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ but they are also very open-minded in regard to genre, doing covers of songs such as ‘U.S. Blues’ by Grateful Dead but with a prog spin. It is this open-mindedness that makes their debut album so musically varied and contrasting.  

Their debut displays the band’s ability to play multiple genres within a prog context. ‘Breadsticks’ eases the listener in with some chilled out jazz chords on the organ, quite similar to Snarky Puppy’s sound to a certain extent, at least for the first half of the song. The second section brings in some psychedelic influences, focusing on only two chords that the band jam on. The rhythm section successfully grounds the spacey, open sounds that Koshkin creates using much reverb and a glass slide on the guitar. The 60s Hammond sound further contributes to this psychedelic feel. This dreaminess is then suddenly interrupted by the charged ‘Nick the Rat’, best demonstrating their funk capabilities, kicking off straight away with an infectious bluesy guitar riff. It certainly sets the playful mood of the piece, as the bass neatly underscores Koshkin’s big bluesy chords with some fast bass licks in the verse (or what sounds like a verse). The punk-style chromatic idea before the piano section sounds super effective with the vocals singing in contrary motion and greatly contrasts the ascending middle section of the piece that again transitions into a new genre. Koshkin’s piano entrance almost sounds like something a 19th century romantic pianist could have composed – such a sharp change in mood is very prog! This waltz-like middle section then brings the listener back into the world of funk as Koshkin treats himself to an extended guitar solo (and quite rightly so). Fightin’ Bob made a good choice using this for the ‘Prog Magazine’ submission as it is arguably the strongest song on the album – it unites all the elements of their sound. ‘Sahara Burst’ is the longest track on the album, clocking in at a wonderful 10 minutes. Gandre’s spoken intro (more like an announcement) over Mackowski’s progressive version of a drum roll is very circus-like which is interesting considering how acrobatic the next section is. I must say my favourite part of this song is the awesome bass solo later on; any band that allows the bassist a solo gets my respect as again it’s not as common as it really should be. After the solo sections, the music becomes more symphonic, reminiscent of bands such as Yes and Genesis. Their cover of Scottish folk song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ breaks up the album nicely; it is Westrup who is centre stage on this song, her vocal technique suiting the folk style very convincingly. The mandolin is a nice addition that adds to the authenticity of the piece, whilst Gandre’s cello gives the piece a calming effect – an effective way to contrast the rest of the album. The final piece, ‘Molten Moonlight’ reminds me entirely of Pink Floyd and I imagine would fit nicely on ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. The extended guitar solo is epic, very soulful similar to that of Dave Gilmour or Steve Rothery; I much prefer this to the guitar shredders! The whole piece sounds like a euphoric climax and therefore is a great way to end the album.

As a debut album, this hits the jackpot. It unites a multitude of genres within their own progressive rock style. For their age, the complexity of the album is almost unbelievable, especially considering the many opportunities for improvisation that each musician is allowed – I am all for extended solos. If anyone wants to hear more of their material, there is a 30 minute piece on their Soundcloud called ‘Space Drums’ in which Mackowski puts most other drummers to shame as he showcases his talent for the drums. However, with the announcement on their social media of new material coming soon, it shouldn’t be too long to wait; I look forward to hearing what these clever musicians have to offer in the near future. Fightin’ Bob is truly a band ahead of their time.

Check out the band on all major social media platforms!

Here is a link to their debut album: https://fightinbob.bandcamp.com/releases

Let us know what your favorite track is!

Article written by Dominic Sanderson