Solstice – Prophecy (2013)

Solstice_Prophecy4 out of 5 Stars!

Solstice is a shamefully obscure band from the U.K. that released only five studio albums between 1984 and 2013, with Prophecy being the most recent. Although with only five studio releases in a twenty-nine-year period, with numerous lineup changes through the decades, plus the band taking lengthy breaks, the reason for Solstice’s continued obscurity is certainly understandable. After all, it’s not like the Prog-Rock community has been continually bombarded with announcements from the band regarding fresh material, news of upcoming album releases, world tours, etc., right?

Be that as it may, Solstice plays majestic, engaging, complex, and often-hypnotic Symphonic and Neo-Prog material with Prog-Folk influences, and with the band featuring female vocals, I’m sure many fans of artists such as Magenta, Flamborough Head, Curved Air, Mostly Autumn, Thieves’ Kitchen, and Introitus will find much to savor here.

On Prophecy, the band shows its gift for successfully offering up a delicate balance of acoustic-based passages along with electrified fare, typically with a dreamy atmosphere on which the serene vocal melodies float. This is never more evident than on both the opening tune “Eyes of Fire” and on the lengthier “West Wind.” Then, on “Keepers of the Truth” and “Blackwater,” the band adds a larger degree of fiddle to the overall instrumentation, and with the more upbeat tempos, often creates a sound similar to early Kansas, only melded with a group such as Magenta (thanks to the female vocalist, of course).

My favorite track, however, is the seventeen-and-a-half minute epic “Warriors,” which takes the listener through numerous moods and tempo shifts, with both acoustic and electric segments seemingly united in a perfect marriage, and lovely vocal segments loaded with rich background harmonies. Here also is where—due to the electric guitar and synth trading off enjoyable solos in the lengthy middle Neo-Prog section, and the vocals popping in with rhythmic accents—the band once again reminds me primarily of Magenta. Simply beautiful and captivating in its tunefulness and scope.

All in all, although Prophecy is not an essential item for Prog-Rock enthusiasts to add to their music collections, it’s nevertheless a splendid release that contains enough alluring moments to justify its replay value. And as mentioned earlier, fans of female-led Symphonic and Neo-Prog bands, especially those who prefer a somewhat lighter, more acoustic touch, will certainly delight in the material.

Also please note, along with the five tunes described in this short review, the album also contains three additional “bonus” tracks. “Find Yourself,” “Return of Spring,” and “Earthsong” were originally recorded back in 1984 for the band’s debut album Silent Dance, but were remixed by Steven Wilson from the original tapes for inclusion on Prophecy. Although none of these tunes adds any extra magic to the main bulk of the album, it’s still nice to compare the band’s past and present style, which, frankly, hasn’t changed all that much.

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Barclay James Harvest – Everyone Is Everybody Else (1974)

BarclayJamesHarvest_EveryoneElse3.5 out of 5 Stars!

Although Britain’s Barclay James Harvest was never my favorite Progressive Rock group due to the band’s overall laid-back and less-intricate nature, I did nevertheless enjoy many of its albums, and Everyone Is Everybody Else, the group’s fifth studio effort, ranks among my favorites.

The majority of tracks on this 1974 release—such as the catchy and beautiful “Child of the Universe,” the countrified and harmonious “Poor Boy Blues,” the Mellotron-lush “For No One,” the electric-piano-enhanced “Negative Earth,” and the more dramatic “The Great 1974 Mining Disaster”—are generally mellow and moody, never in-your-face with twiddly bits or unnecessary passages. Additionally, even on the more upbeat “Crazy City,” the overall song arrangements are often elegant yet sparse, with the instruments never trampling over the vocal melodies or creating too much of a jarring distraction. Each song has plenty of breathing space, lending a lighter atmosphere to the proceedings.

Moreover, for Prog-Rock fans unfamiliar with Barclay James Harvest, don’t expect much in the way of a style comparable to various groups such as Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, ELP, etc., but more of a folksier, semi-Prog style played by bands such as Strawbs or The Moody Blues with perhaps a bit of Procol Harum, Wally, Supertramp, and even America and Crosby, Stills, & Nash thrown in. No, purchasing any BJH album is not with the anticipation of basking in lightning-fast guitar, Hammond, or Moog solos, or innovative time signature shifts, or jaw-dropping multi-part Prog-Rock epics with bizarre lyrics, but only to provide your mind with dreamy and undemanding melodies to savor at the end of a long, exhausting day.

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Wally – Valley Gardens (1974)

Wally_ValleyGardens4 out of 5 Stars!

To me, this U.K. band’s debut album sounded like what may have happened had a group such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young merged with a band such as The Strawbs or a “lite” version of Kansas, mixing Progressive Folk and Symphonic Prog with a trace of Country Rock, thanks to the inclusion of pedal steel guitar, violin, and mandolin.

But on Valley Gardens, Wally’s sophomore release, not only does the band continue with the pleasing blend of styles on the four tracks included, but by adding even more musical influences to its overall soundscape, improves on the mixture.

During the lengthier title track, for instance, one vocal section strongly reminds me of Nektar’s Remember the Future, while several instrumental segments within the complex introduction and ending passages, especially the synth tones and accompaniment, bring to mind both Camel and Flash. The mellow, piano-driven “Nez Perce,” however, is more reminiscent of the band’s debut album, where the spot-perfect harmonies and the violin are once again at the forefront.

From there, “The Mood I’m In” is a laid-back and dreamy tune with the inclusion of a jazzy sax solo in its ending section, while the final track, the eighteen-minute “The Reason Why”—the obvious centerpiece of Valley Gardens—is where the band includes all of its strengths, from the flawless harmony vocals, instrumental passages that employ both acoustic and electric guitar, luscious keyboard orchestrations that make captivating use of the Mellotron, and the violin adding extra symphonic touches in various sections of the intricate song arrangement. Additionally, the steel guitar makes an appearance here, leading into a segment that has obvious Yes influences, including an all-too-brief Wakeman-style synth solo, then a hypnotic “Space Rock” segment that brings to mind early Pink Floyd, before the band returns to more CSN&Y-styled vocals with a flavor of Country Rock, more violin insertions, and a Strawbs-like atmosphere. In short, the track is a beaut—a splendid achievement.

So with “The Reason Why” being undoubtedly the grandest (and longest) composition Wally ever recorded, Valley Gardens was an improvement on the 1974 self-titled debut and an obvious step forward in the band’s development, hinting at even more exciting creativity to come, which makes the fact that Wally completely evaporated shortly after this release (not taking into account a reunion album that popped up thirty-five years later, in 2010) all the more disappointing.

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Ciccada – A Child in the Mirror (2010)

Ciccada_ChildMirror3.5 out of 5 Stars!

From Athens, Greece, comes Ciccada, a female-led band playing highly folksy music with a touch of Canterbury jazz and even chamber music tossed in.

On A Child in the Mirror, the first of only two albums by Ciccada, the arrangements on compositions such as the instrumentals “Elisabeth,” “Ciccada,” and “A Storyteller’s Dream,” along with vocal tunes like “A Garden of Delights,” “Isabella Sunset,” and the title track, are occasionally complex in the style of Symphonic Prog groups such as Renaissance and Camel and mixed with more than a smidgen of Progressive Folk music performed by groups like Gentle Giant, Strawbs, Jethro Tull, and Gryphon, thanks to a healthy dosage of acoustic guitar and “medieval” instrumentation such as flute, recorder, clarinet, French horn, violin, cello, and glockenspiel. And overall, the pretty voice of Evangelia Kozoni adds a generous amount of lilting elegance and sophisticated charm to the band’s folksy retro style.

The band isn’t about bombastic power or high energy, but of serene atmospheres and emotive melodies, with the musicians displaying their instrumental prowess without blowing up your stereo speakers in the process. Both this debut as well as 2015’s even better The Finest of Miracles are worthy of investigation for fans of lighter Progressive material that is also somewhat different from the norm.



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Red Jasper – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1993)

RedJasper_MidsummerDream4 out of 5 Stars!

Red Jasper is an interesting band from the U.K. that has much more in common with Progressive Folk-related acts such as Jethro Tull, Gryphon, and Strawbs rather than Symphonic Prog or Neo-Prog acts such as Genesis or Marillion, although there are occasions when those latter bands’ influences can be heard, especially when it comes to some of the keyboard sounds.

Generally, the music on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a nice blending of both acoustic and electric instruments. And with the inclusion of mandolins and whistles, much of Red Jasper’s material feels as if it would be right at home on an album such as Jethro Tull’s Songs From The Wood.

On tracks such as “Dreamscape (Part I & II),” “Treasure Hunt,” “Berkana,” and “Invitation to a Dance,” the melodies and backgrounds are often “medieval” in atmosphere, and the vocalist often delivers his lines like a wandering minstrel or troubadour dramatically addressing the “lords and ladies of the manor.”

Overall, the music contained on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is quality material played in a style Red Jasper continues to develop even into the present day.

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Jethro Tull – Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters 1973-1991 (1993)

JethroTull_Nightcap4.5 out of 5 Stars!

Unlike many other Prog-Rock groups, Jethro Tull always “over recorded,” producing way more demos than the band actually needed to fill an album. And thank goodness, since that meant Jethro Tull had plenty of material to include on various compilation albums through the years, including the excellent Living in the Past (1972) or the exceptional archival collection 20 Years of Jethro Tull (1988).

The other good news is that Ian Anderson and the boys were extremely nitpicky, and the rejected material often proved to be as good if not better than songs that actually made it onto official albums.

This is the case with 1993’s Nightcap, which includes one full CD of unreleased and rare tracks (outtakes from albums as far back as the War Child album), as well as a second CD that contains the legendary (and snarkily nicknamed) “Chateau D’Isaster Tapes,” with all songs being part of the “shelved” first attempt at recording a follow-up to Thick as a Brick, thus paving the way for what would eventually become the album A Passion Play.

Therefore, Nightcap is a “must have” for Jethro Tull fans who, like me, could never get enough from this sensational band throughout the decades.

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Renaissance – Ashes Are Burning (1973)

Renaissance _AshesBurning4 out of 5 Stars!

For several years in the ’70s, Annie Haslam and company released a series of top-quality albums, with Ashes Are Burning being among the best of them.

Although perhaps not quite as stunning as the U.K. band’s 1975 magnum opus Scheherazade and Other Stories, Ashes Are Burning still contains plenty of luscious, haunting, and mesmerizing Symphonic Prog material thanks to songs such as “Can You Understand,” “At The Harbour,” “Let It Grow,” and the sweeping eleven-minute title track, with harpsichord and the rare appearance of organ, some particularly melodic and punchy bass riffs and frantic drums, and also featuring guest star Andy Powell (Wishbone Ash) on electric guitar.

Annie’s magnificent and wide-ranging voice, whether delivering either a tricky and progressive melody line or one of a poppier nature, typically sends chills of excitement up my spine, while John Tout’s wonderfully tasteful and beautiful grand piano passages never fail to astound me.

Simply beautiful! Ashes Are Burning would be a great place to start for anyone who’s unfamiliar with this unique band yet is yearning to investigate.

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Advent – Cantus Firmus (2006)

Advent_CantusFirmus4 out of 5 Stars!

OMG! Gentle Giant lives…err, well, not exactly, but Advent comes darned close in recreating that unique sound and style, albeit an updated version.

Indeed, New Jersey’s Advent is probably one of the finest Gentle Giant imitators to have ever existed—just listen to the opening track “GK Contramundum” on the band’s Cantus Firmus album and you may think you’ve discovered a missing track off GG’s Octopus or Free Hand albums. The a cappella vocal arrangements are breathtakingly similar to GG’s, both in complexity and sound, and the guitars and keyboards throughout the rest of the album have GG tones as well, yet with modernized synths and grander production qualities adding extra flavor, such as on the complex instrumental “Awaiting the Call.”

Moreover, on the ethereal “Parenting Parents,” the lead singer even does a stunning impression of GG’s Kerry Minnear’s mellow voice, while some of those intricate background vocals again pop up, along with a few minstrel-esque instrumental bits GG was so fond of using, but again, all wrapped up in modern-day synth washes.

The remaining tracks on Cantus Firmus include mostly similar fare, but with the occasional mandolins, recorders, violins, etc. also making brief appearances. And “Ramblin’ Sailor,” the album’s pièce de résistance, is more than eighteen full minutes of complex, Giant-like madness and often breathtakingly beautiful.

A few years ago, just when I thought it was too bad that Advent seemed to have disappeared since releasing Cantus Firmus, the band’s second album, in 2006, Advent suddenly popped up again in 2015 with a brand new album called Silent Sentinel. For nearly a decade I’d desperately hoped for more material from Advent, so miracles do indeed happen!

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Strawbs – Ghosts (1975)

Strawbs_Ghosts4 out of 5 Stars!

In my opinion, this is one of the best albums the gifted Dave Cousins and company ever produced, followed closely by the previous year’s release, Hero and Heroine—both albums together form a commendable “one-two punch.”

On Ghosts, the title track is absolutely (and I can’t help myself from using the word) haunting. Yes, haunting…there, I said it, so sue me. Additionally, tunes such as “The Life Auction,” “Starshine/Angel Wine,” and “You and I (When We Were Young)” offer undeniable charm.

Unfortunately, this is also probably the last “great” Strawbs album of the ’70s, with the next one (Nomadness), although still generally enjoyable with some beautiful material, being nevertheless more pop-oriented and less consistent when it comes to songwriting quality and all the tracks “wedding” into a cohesive package. Odd, since Nomadness was released a mere seven months after Ghosts…one would think a band couldn’t change its “genre focus” that drastically in such a short spam of time.

Anyway, despite my brief aside, Ghosts is a true gem, and the Strawbs album I find myself playing most frequently.

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Riff Raff – Riff Raff (1973)

RiffRaff_13.5 out of 5 Stars!

From the U.K., Riff Raff produced two albums (or three, if you count the “archival” album released decades later) of Progressive Rock, mostly with either a folk or jazzy flavor on many of the tracks.

On this particular self-titled debut, in the lighter moments, the band occasionally reminded me of groups such as Strawbs or Mark-Almond when it came to both instrumentation and atmosphere, with beautiful acoustic guitar, flute, sax, and grand piano passages.

And during the heavier sections, the wah-wah guitars, sizzling saxes, keyboard leads, and jazzy tempos almost seem a merging of the bands such as Return To Forever, Baker Gurvitz Army, and Paice Ashton Lord.

Finally, of special note is the appearance here of stellar keyboardist Tommy Eyre, who would eventually go on to join Zzebra and, later, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

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