Alan Reed – First in a Field of One (2012)

AlanReed_FirstFieldOne4 out of 5 Stars!

After leaving his long-time band Pallas in 2010, lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alan Reed (also formerly of Abel Ganz and Strangers on a Train) released his first solo album shortly thereafter, a collection of melodic and accessible tracks in the Symphonic Prog/Neo-Prog variety.

Aiding Reed on this release is an all-star cast of gifted musicians, including guitarists Jeff Green (Jeff Green Project) and Kelle Wallner (RPWL), keyboardist Mike Stobbie (Pallas), percussionist Scott Higham (Pendragon), and the always wonderful Christina Booth (Magenta) on background vocals, so that fact alone says a ton regarding not only the high quality level of this release, but also the style of material included here.

Pallas fans (and lovers of similar groups such as IQ and early Marillion) will certainly enjoy First in a Field of One as much as I do. Tunes such as “Kingdom of the Blind,” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Real Me,” “Teardrops in the Rain,” “Begin Again,” and the highly dramatic, Pallas-like track “Darkness Has Spoken” are simply awash in delightful and often-dreamy melodies, not to mention dazzling musicianship (as one might expect, considering the panoply of talent). The wide range of instrumentation on display, with a seemingly flawless balance of both electric and acoustic guitars, plus an endless array of keyboard sounds to provide lush and symphonic textures, adds even more to the diversity of the eight tracks. And of course, Reed’s recognizable voice shines throughout, his delivery spot-on and loaded with emotion.

Although perhaps unfair to state, yet in many ways, this solo debut by Reed, a former singer of a successful Neo-Prog band, reminds me of the solo debut by Fish, another former singer from a successful Neo-Prog group. Coincidence, no doubt. But still, I couldn’t help notice how the well-produced material on offer here, being similar to Reed’s former group yet not a direct copy, as well as the atmosphere and generally passionate performances, provided me with the same feelings as I had when listening to Fish’s solo debut, which shared those same traits. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, listening to Reed’s debut (and Fish’s) left me hungering for more.

So thankfully, as the album title implies, First in a Field of One wasn’t simply a one-off project, as Reed subsequently delivered a second solo collection (Honey On The Razor’s Edge) featuring most of the same guest-star musicians, plus the legendary Steve Hackett, and is also supposedly working on material for yet a third release. Therefore, it seems as if First in a Field of One was indeed the first in a field of numerous albums to follow, and happily so.

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Mad Crayon – Diamanti (1999)

MadCrayon_Diamanti4 out of 5 Stars!

Italian band Mad Crayon released two albums in the ’90s, then another album ten years later, with Diamanti being the band’s sophomore effort. Unfamiliar with the 1994 debut album Ultimo Miraggio, however, or 2009’s final album Preda, I’m unsure how either compares to Diamanti, but if they are anywhere near the high quality of this splendid release, then Mad Crayon certainly has unquestionable talent.

Since the band at the time of this recording included two keyboardists and two guitarists (or three if you count the bassist, who is also credited with electric guitar), the balance seems near to perfect, with neither instrument dominating the proceedings. And as far as the music itself, the compositions range from upbeat and melodic Neo-Prog tunes with Symphonic touches, such as the ultra-catchy opening track, “La Ballatta Dell’uomo Nudo,” to pastoral, dreamier songs such as the closer, “Alchimia Di Un Leggenda,” where the band includes what sounds like flute and Mellotron, as well as spoken female vocals.

But most of the other tracks fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, with several of them having complex arrangements that trade off between light and heavy moments. “Deserti,” for example, includes a melody line in the initial verse and choruses that often brings to mind the Genesis track “Ripples,” only with acoustic guitar replacing the piano backdrop. Then a sax solo leads into the song’s mid-section, where electric guitars and Hammond take center stage, these heavier passages reminding me of groups such as The Flower Kings or Spock’s Beard, before the band returns to the mellower reprise of the verses and the song ends with beautiful violin accompaniment.

Other tunes such as the aforementioned opener, as well as the instrumental tracks “Glorioso Destino” and “Diamanti,” seem to have brief references toward the styles of Frank Zappa and Marillion, PFM or Credo, Doracor or Malibran, while the singer (on songs such as “L’allegra Brigata,” “Pioggia Di Fiori,” and “Principe Delle Marce”) periodically sounds like an Italian version of Phil Collins. Indeed, several of the compositions or various song arrangements on Diamanti have a distinct Genesis “post-Peter Gabriel” feel, so fans of the Trick of the Tail/Wind & Wuthering era of Genesis will certainly find much to savor.

Thankfully, I see that the band is still in existence, so hopefully Mad Crayon will be releasing new material in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to eventually hunt down the two albums I’m missing in the group’s catalogue. And to any Prog-Rock fans who, like myself, have a fondness for the generally exciting music that tends to come out of Italy on a regular basis, you may want to consider adding Diamanti to your collection.

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The Twenty Committee – A Lifeblood Psalm (2013)

TwentyCommittee_LifebloodPsalm4 out of 5 Stars!

From New Jersey, The Twenty Committee’s debut (and thus far, only) album is a collection of highly melodic and well-produced tracks of diverse modern Prog-Rock.

Some songs (or sections of tunes) such as the track “How Wonderful,” are delightfully smooth and laid-back, yet quite jazzy at times, especially when the grand or electric pianos take the center stage and allow singer Geoffrey Langley’s mellow voice to dominate. Indeed, during these segments—which somehow remind me of Bruce Hornsby’s most beautiful piano-rich material—it would also hardly seem out of place to have Gerry Rafferty “Baker Street-like” sax making an appearance.

On the lengthier, more complex tracks, however, such as “Her Voice” and the five-part “The Knowledge Enterprise,” Neo-Prog and Symphonic Prog styles really burst to the fore, not dissimilar to groups such as Unitopia, Transatlantic, or United Progressive Fraternity.

So, as I mentioned, this collection of songs is wonderfully diverse and a seemingly perfect mixture of light and heavy moments, of both jazzy and poppy dreaminess liberally interspersed with a treasure trove of Prog-Rock madness. Impressive! After experiencing A Lifeblood Psalm, I certainly hope this won’t be the last we see of this talented group.

 

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Salem Hill – The Robbery of Murder (1998)

SalemHill_RobberyMurder4 out of 5 Stars!

This Prog-Rock group from Nashville, Tennessee (of all places) has released a slew of enjoyable albums since the early ’90s, and The Robbery of Murder (a concept album from 1998 about a troubled man seeking justice for his father’s death by a drunk driver, and the band’s fourth collection overall) is the one that first caught my attention and formally introduced me to the group.

To me, on mellifluous yet emotionally impactful tunes such as “Father and Son,” “When,” “Dream,” “Revenge,” “Someday,” and “Evil One,” Salem Hill plays within the same realm as Symphonic Prog acts such as Kansas, Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, The Flower Kings, and offshoots of those various bands. The dozen tracks contain charming atmospheres and complex melodies, all with lush and sophisticated accompaniment, and a nice balance of both bouncy and upbeat rhythms versus moody, stark, and highly dramatic moments.

Also note, on this particular album, the Kansas comparisons are in even greater abundance, thanks to the violin contributions by guest star David Ragsdale, who appears on numerous tracks.

Overall, Salem Hill is yet another talented band that truly deserves greater acclaim within the Prog-Rock community, and this ambitious concept album proves why.

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The Emerald Dawn – Visions (2017)

EmeraldDawn_Visions4 out of 5 Stars!

A few years ago, just after I joined Facebook on a quest to unearth obscure Progressive Rock bands, both old and new, I stumbled upon information regarding The Emerald Dawn, a band originally out of Scotland. After reading up on the group and hearing several sound samples, I eventually snatched up the band’s debut album entitled Searching for the Lost Key—how appropriate a name, considering my own personal “quest for obscure bands.”

Anyway, after several hearings, I felt the debut album quite promising. To me, the quartet had an intriguing style, its music heavily symphonic and often graceful and dreamy, seeming almost a cross between bands such as Pink Floyd, Eloy, Millenium, Abel Ganz, The Moody Blues, and Airbag, with almost a laid-back and experimental ’70s Krautrock ambience. Not only that, but the occasional flute and sax insertions added a touch of Jazz, and the mixture of both male and female vocals set the band even further apart from the majority of its contemporaries. Therefore, I decided I had better keep an eye on The Emerald Dawn, and shortly afterward, I chanced upon and befriended Ally Carter, the band’s guitarist and sax player and keyboardist and vocalist (and he’s probably its kitchen-sink specialist as well), whom I reasoned would post regular updates as to the group’s future plans.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long for news to arrive regarding the band’s latest endeavor, a second album christened Visions. And to my pleasure, I was offered an opportunity to review the album for my blog, and, in turn, my Facebook page. (Thanks to Ally for that.)

So what has this assemblage of multi-instrumentalists created this second time around? Well, like its predecessor, Visions also contains four lengthy tracks of lush Symphonic Prog with arrangements that feature both airy and bombastic keyboards, hypnotic rhythms and soundscapes, and emotive guitar solos, along with touches of sax, flute, and violin added to the mix for diversity. Also like the debut album, the performances seem somehow free-floating in respect to dynamics, as if the songs were recorded live in the studio, with the musicians jamming around a central theme and eagerly feeding off each other’s energy and vibe, going with the constant ebb and flow of a less-structured environment, adding no massive overdubs to the bare-bones basics, which contributes to that more experimental Krautrock ambience I mentioned earlier.

And of even greater importance (at least to me), it’s also abundantly clear when hearing both albums back to back, with Visions sounding like a direct sequel to Searching for the Lost Key, that the band has indeed fashioned its own distinctive style. Certainly, the Prog-Rock acts I named above (or certainly others) may have been potentially influential in The Emerald Dawn’s base sound/style, yet if so, then the group managed to extract only the best elements of those aforementioned acts without relying on any lingering mimicry. Along with Ally Carter, keyboardist, flutist, and vocalist Tree Stewart, bassist and violinist/cellist Jayjay Quick, and percussionist Tom Jackson have amassed their individual skills to construct a sound for themselves with an instantly identifiable stamp, not an easy accomplishment in this over-saturated musical marketplace.

Therefore, for fans of Prog-Rock who are seeking music of a tender elegance yet also of an overall less-challenging nature (material with no jarring leaps from one unrelated musical passage to the next, no unnerving chord patterns, no stampeding rhythms to rattle the nerves, no key-shifting flip-flops, and no overly twiddly solos that never stop twiddling before they’ve explored every imaginable octave), then Visions (as well as the band’s debut album) could be the perfect addition to your own musical collection. Indeed, as I once again hear the gentle, spacey middle section of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” knowing an absorbing and melodic guitar showcase is about to commence in the best tradition of, for instance, the solo work by Steve Hackett or Steve Rothery, I allow my mind to simply float on the mellow sonic environment of keyboard washes beneath jazzy flute improvisations while my residual stress from the outside world washes away…sigh…

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Aether – Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows (2002)

Aether_InnerVoyages3.5 out of 5 Stars!

I stumbled across the two albums from Brazilian band Aether about a decade ago, long after the group had already ceased to exist, and although I cannot claim to have added either of the two albums to my “most played/favorite” list, I can acknowledge that both releases generally contain likeable Progressive Rock of the Symphonic and Neo-Prog variety.

On Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows, the band’s second and final album (and, in my opinion, the most enjoyable of the two), the group delivers some occasionally light and periodically majestic material, nothing to set the world on fire, but certainly pleasant enough for repeated listenings. When it comes to the overall mood, performances, and orchestrations on lengthy tracks such as “Forgiveness,” “The Gate,” “Scenes of Wondering Beyond,” and “Prayer for a New Meeting,” I would liken Aether as a delicate cross between acts such as Airbag, Galleon, Abel Ganz, and (Poland’s) Millennium, mixed with touches of Pink Floyd, Nektar, and (most definitely) Camel being other chief influences. Typically, the music here is melodic and laid-back Prog-Rock, often with a spacey and dreamy atmosphere, and with a fair share of dramatic moments.

Additionally, since on this particular album, the band also includes its own nineteen-plus-minute rendition of Mussorgsky’s multi-part “A Night on Bald Mountain” suite—also recorded by Fireballet on its 1975 Prog-Rock album christened after this very composition—then Fireballet would have to be another potential influence. Yet to me, Aether’s arrangement lacks some of the overall “combustion” I was used to hearing on Fireballet’s older version, offering instead a less-urgent and—frankly—less-spicy rendition of the tune. Certainly, the arrangement appearing here is still highly ambitious, wonderfully symphonic and even more classically oriented, but with a gentler approach. Definitely not bad at all, yet—and it’s certainly a matter of taste—I still prefer Fireballet’s more bombastic, more rocking, more Uriah Heep-ish execution. So no offense to any Aether fans or its talented band members, but the groups obviously differed in their approach to covering such a magnificent piece of music, and both ended up with commendable interpretations, but with divergent areas of emphasis, instrumentation, and (in the end) resplendence.

Therefore, Inner Voyages Between Our Shadows is a fairly savory album, with some intriguing material that should certainly appeal to the majority of fans seeking music similar to the aforesaid groups. And although it might not be on my regular “playing rotation,” it’s an album I revisit periodically, especially when I’m in the mood for lush yet easygoing Prog-Rock.

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After The Fall – Knowledge (2005)

AfterFall_Knowledge4 out of 5 Stars!

After The Fall was a talented quartet from Connecticut that released five studio albums between 1988 and 2006, with Knowledge being the band’s final offering.

The album includes one short track—the gentle ballad “Between Images, Flesh and Shadows”—as well as two medium-length tunes—the atmospheric and acoustic-guitar-based “The Call,” plus the rambunctious and curiously named tongue-twister “Precariously Poised on the Precipice of Pandemonium,” performed partly in a 6/8 time signature and including some Gentle Giant-ish vocal harmonies.

And then, for the delight of Prog-Rock fans everywhere, the album also features three gigantic epics, each just above or below the twenty-minute mark and crammed with numerous time signatures and intricate solos, along with a smorgasbord of keyboard sounds, guitar tones, and varied moods.

For instance, on the ambitious album opener “Came the Healer,” the band displays a seemingly endless conglomeration of influences, some from more popular Prog-Rock bands such as Saga, Yes, Spock’s Beard, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, while at other points within the intricate composition I’m occasionally reminded of lesser-known acts such as Salem Hill, Glass Hammer, Cairo, Galahad, and Abel Ganz, to name but a few.

The same can be said for “Motherland,” another industrious affair similar to the depth and breadth of the aforementioned epic when it comes to the influences on display as well as the elaborate orchestration. Here, also, the keyboardist adds some all-too-sparse Mellotron accompaniment to back up his wild “Emerson-esque” synth and Hammond leads, adding even more dimensions to the band’s occasionally bombastic sound.

The final tune, however, is my favorite. “Ode to Man,” contains one of the album’s most beautiful vocal melodies and chord patterns in its opening acoustic-driven section, then the rest of the band sweeps in with syncopated rhythms and accents accompanying complex instrumentation that brings to mind the group Kansas with more hints of Gentle Giant. I’m also reminded of Starcastle, thanks to the highly melodic bass riffs. Throughout the remainder of the epic, additional moods abound, with numerous passages being reminiscent of countless other acts, depending mostly on the endless array of synth and keyboard sounds or guitar tones. And finally, the song closes with a reprise of the dreamy opening passage, the perfect ending to my favorite tune.

In short, After The Fall was an enterprising lot, the musicians seemingly determined to toy with diverse instrumentation and scoring, often shooting for the moon and, for the most part, hitting their intended bull’s-eyes. I’m unsure what became of this talented group, what caused the band to break apart or what became of its various members, but it’s a shame the group didn’t continue for many more years in order to release more entertaining albums such as this.

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Subsignal – The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime (2015)

Subsignal_Beacons4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I’ve always had a special fondness for Subsignal—a German group formed out of the ashes of Sieges Even—that has released a string of four classy and enchanting albums in the Progressive Rock/Metal genre.

The Beacons Of Somewhere Sometime, the band’s fourth and most recent release, is quite similar in substance to the previous three albums, containing Neo Prog-style Progressive Rock. The music is often melancholy and dreamy, yet deceptively intricate, with tricky time-signature changes, and containing luscious melodies, stacked vocal harmonies, and rich orchestration, including the occasional flute, sax, violin, etc. The band also mixes in heavier passages, chunkier guitar blasts and rhythms, that could certainly be classified as borderline Metal, but its not overblown in scope and used mainly to great dramatic effect. Aside from the brief instrumental opener, each of the lengthier vocal tunes, from “Tempest” to “Everything Is Lost” to “And the Rain Will Wash It All Away” to the wonderfully grand and moody four-part title track, incorporates enough levels of excitement as to keep most lovers of Progressive Rock fully engaged and enthralled.

For fans of groups such as Knight Area, Dreamscape, Karmakanic, Doracor, modern-day It Bites, and a host of other acts that seamlessly incorporate ethereal sections into its compositions, that happily sprinkle both acoustic and electric guitar into its arrangements, Subsignal might be a band you’d appreciate.

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Sinister Street – The Eve of Innocence (1992)

SinisterStreet_EveInnocence4 out of 5 Stars!

In many respects, Sinister Street, a group formed in the Netherlands, reminded me of bands such as Saga or Alias Eye, especially when it came to the tone, range, and vibrato of the lead vocalist (who occasionally comes across as a Michael Sadler clone), who offered plenty of Pop-like melody lines over Prog-Rock instrumentation, mostly in the Neo-Prog vein.

And despite the band’s rather ominous moniker, the music is generally not “sinister” at all. For instance, on The Eve of Innocence, the band’s debut release, the rhythms, melody lines, and chord patterns are often upbeat in nature, as displayed on tracks such as “One in a Million,” “Caught in Flight,” and “Exception to the Rule.” Although this doesn’t mean that drama is completely absent from the band’s overall repertoire. Indeed, other tunes such as “A Prayer for the Dying,” “The Covenant,” and “Pulse of Life,” are each highly moody and atmospheric, thanks to their diverse instrumentation. And several additional compositions—”Summit (Boundaries, Part 1)” and “A Provisional Anthem (Boundaries, Part 2)”—swing from mood to mood, tempo to tempo, in each of their eight-plus-minute lengths, with complex arrangements and loads of guitar and synth solos in the best Neo-Prog tradition of bands such as IQ, Pallas, Also Eden, Citizen Cain, or early Marillion, as well as the aforementioned Saga and Alias Eye.

Therefore, it’s too bad this talented yet obscure band released only two full-length albums—The Eve of Innocence and, after numerous changes in personnel, a second collection called Trust a full decade later—as I would have happily welcomed additional material.

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SinisterStreet_EveInnocence

Landmarq – Entertaining Angels (2012)

Landmarq_EntAngels4.5 out of 5 Stars!

When singer Damian Wilson (Rick Wakeman/Star One/Headspace/Threshold) left Landmarq after the band released the exceptional album The Vision Pit back in 1995, I prayed the group would be able to fill his shoes with another fine vocalist and continue onward.

Thankfully, my wish was granted, and in spades. Not only did Landmarq continue, but recruited a female vocalist to replace Wilson, one of exceptional talent named Tracy Hitchings (Quasar/Strangers on a Train).

After releasing an album in 1998 with Hitchings, the band took a lengthy break and finally returned in 2012 with Entertaining Angels.

The album’s title says it all, since not only is this collection of tracks more than entertaining, but with Hitchings’s angelic voice once again featured, the album ended up being a near masterpiece. Songs such as the opening title track, as well as “Mountains of Anglia,” “Turbulence (Paradigm Shift),” the two-part “Glowing,” the sixteen-minute epic “Calm Before the Storm,” and the stunningly beautiful “Prayer (Coming Home)” will likely appeal to fans of female-fronted Prog-Rock acts such as Magenta, Lana Lane, Introitus, Scarlet Hollow, IOEarth, and Janison Edge.

The luscious melodies and often-grand instrumentation, along with the soul-stirring vocals appearing throughout Entertaining Angels, are simply superb!

Final note: If seeking out this album, be certain to grab the “Special Edition” version, which includes four extra songs, equaling more than twenty-eight minutes of additional music.

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