Samuel Hällkvist – Variety Of Live (2015)

SamuelHallkvist_Variety3 out of 5 Stars!

This is the only album I own thus far from this (mostly) instrumental band (or solo artist project with numerous musicians included). Here, a mixture of styles can be found, but mainly (in my opinion) are “Canterbury Scene Prog-Rock” influences such as Caravan, Gong, Hatfield And The North, National Health, but all wrapped up in a majestic, dreamy and hypnotic Ozric Tentacles-like atmospheric/jazzy blanket.

A perfect example of this merging of styles and influences can be located on the track “Chord, Horror Cacui.” The track begins with a slow and swirling trip down the Canterbury road, building up to a wailing and spacey jazz-rock frenzy. “Kiopotec” is another adventurous trek into jazz-land where the ultra-punchy rhythm section slams its way into almost otherworldly territory.

“Heru Ra-Ha Road” delivers even more instrumental strangeness, while a female singer adds her vocal gymnastics over various parts of the track, which immediately brings to mind some of the spaciest albums I own from acts such as Gong, Steve Hillage, or Khan. And when, during the track “Music For The Maraca Triplet,” vibes and light trumpet appear during the intro, along with more unusual percussion instruments, I get the sense of venturing into the realm of Avant-Prog.

Although many of the tracks are rather interesting and engaging, they are, unfortunately, hardly memorable. There are no “hooks,” per se, no catchy melody lines even when it comes to the sparse vocal bits, just a lot of free-form music to create specific moods. This is why I rated this collection with only an “average/pleasant” 3 Stars overall.

I’m not familiar with the band’s previous three releases, so I can’t declare whether they offer the same sort of adventurous material, but this latest one is definitely that. So for those fans of the “Canterbury Scene,” or perhaps the spacier Prog-Rock scene who like a ton of jazz tossed into their instrumental music, this might be a band/artist you’ll want to investigate to see if it’s to your liking.

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Hatfield and the North – An Overview

HaitfieldNorthAlbums In My Collection

– Hatfield And The North
– The Rotters’ Club

An Overview

Hatfield And The North were a rather fun band that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously, yet, sadly, the band didn’t last very long either.

Part of Prog-Rock’s “Canterbury Scene”—and created by former members of bands such as Egg, Caravan, and Gong, basically making them a “supergroup” of the genre—the band possessed all the elements and the talent to make for some exciting music—whimsical lyrics and vocals, highly complicated arrangements where each musician was given the chance to shine, the liberal use of sax and woodwinds, and even scores of odd time signatures/rhythm shifts. Jazz influences on many of the tracks also lent heavily to their overall sound, which sometimes reminds me of Zappa/Mothers Of Invention, Gentle Giant, National Health, Camel, Caravan, and a host of other truly creative acts of the era.

Of course, again because of the musicians involved—their experience both prior to Hatfield And The North’s formation or shortly after its quick demise—the comparisons to National Health, Camel, Caravan shouldn’t come as any great shock. The genre, as a whole, seemed to be quite incestuous, with many of its musicians joining together into various packs for brief periods of time, then disbanding, only to have those members create new bands with members from other recently disbanded packs, and so on and so on as the years advanced. This made for some interesting combinations of musicians along the way, and some terrific and unforgettable music, but many of the albums produced by one outfit sounded quite similar to those produced by other outfits due to this intermingling of musicians. The one thing Hatfield And The North had going for it is that the two mere albums the band produced before disbanding were truly memorable and exceptional. In other words, this particular combination of musicians didn’t stick together long enough to get boring or complacent and, for these two releases, were at the height of a creative peak.

Regardless of the band’s influences or each members’ individual histories, Hatfield And The North somehow created its own style/sound, its own identity, and often seemed ahead of its time. It amazes me that they aren’t better known and lauded more broadly within the Prog-Rock community, although perhaps their limited output has something to do with that.

Although I find the second album, The Rotter’s Club, a near masterpiece, both albums are nevertheless quite exceptional examples of the “Canterbury Scene” genre.  Even though both releases contain a slew of short tracks, most of them interconnect, running into each other and sandwiching a few lengthier pieces, giving each album the feeling of having only one long song gracing each album side. Not many other bands could pull this off successfully, but Hatfield And The North seems to have done it with ease.

And even though I find most of the band’s individual tracks fascinating, thus making it impossible to list my favorites, I must make special mention of the multi-part track “Mumps,” the undeniable “must hear” epic that takes up nearly the entire “B” side of The Rotter’s Club. If anyone wants a succinct lesson of what the entire “Canterbury Scene” of Progressive Rock was truly all about regarding its general sound, they need not hunt any further for a better example than this twenty-and-a-half minute track—it’s the entire genre presented in a nutshell of utter perfection. Every fan of Prog-Rock should own a copy of this track from this (occasionally) horribly overlooked band.

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Hillward – Flies in Amber Stones (2015)

Hillward_Flies3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although the debut album by this three-piece Canadian band is typically labeled as Progressive Metal on various music-review websites, that’s actually only one small aspect of Hillward’s overall sound. Indeed, I would classify this band as mainly a Melodic Hard Rock band, with both some Metal and Progressive influences.

Take “Flies in Amber Stones,” the opening title track, for example. The main riff, pounding and catchy, sounds almost “old school rock ‘n’ roll” (I say this as a positive) and would probably not seem out of place on an album by a band such as Gotthard, Babylon A.D., or Black Star Riders, whereas the verses, bridges, and choruses are lighter, a mixture of both Hard Rock and AOR at times. The instrumentation, however, is where the Progressive touches occasionally pop in, with some interesting keyboard washes, some chunky and funky guitar bits, little semi-hidden atmospheric tones or riffs that don’t always reveal themselves until a second or third listening.

This holds true for many of the tracks on offer here…one moment a song might sound Hard Rock, the next AOR, then back and forth in equal doses, with everything underscored by some Prog-Rock touches, some Metal guitar tones, and even some funky rhythms periodically, which all add different dimensions to the track’s overall soundscape. “The Missing Link,” as another example, might seem equally at home on either a Hard Rock or AOR album, or even some of the more melodic releases by a Prog band such as Porcupine Tree.

“When It All Comes True” is one of my favorite tracks, and one where more of the band’s Progressive tendencies come to light. Yet again, these tendencies reveal themselves only in subtle ways, be it the choices of particular keyboard textures, where rhythms suddenly shift, where guitar tones become heavier for dramatic effect. In other words, don’t expect any lengthy Dream Theater-like excursions into territories outside the song’s natural structure, but do expect some seemingly perfect instrumentation that always enhances a song’s overall melody line or general mood.

There’s nothing at all innovative on offer here, nothing to set the Prog-Metal world on fire, but there is quite a bit to enjoy, especially if you’re seeking some pleasant, straightforward, undemanding music. The vocals are always melodic and the songs are typically entertaining, with the arrangements and instrumentation coming across as highly professional. I can certainly imagine myself listening to this album again and again.

One final note: don’t be fooled…Hillward may be considered a new band, but its members actually have years and years of experience in another band (Southern Cross). Hillward, seemingly, is only a side project for them. Also note, that since I’m unfamiliar at this time with the other band, I can’t compare the two.

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