Monday 23 August 2021

Mythopoeic Mind - Hatchling (2021)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Aug 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Prog Archives

The debut album from Mythopoeic Mind was my introduction to prog rock from Norway, hardly an expected source for a thriving scene in that genre but apparently a thriving one that's endlessly inventive. I liked it, but it proved more of a gateway drug than an instant high because it was the reason why I paid so much attention when I noticed bands like Motorpsycho and Wobbler and, this January, Shamblemaths. This is a step up from that debut and it was released only a week before last year's Leprous, underlining once more just how much the genre has found fertile soil way up north.

It took me a while to get used to this one, because the opener, Fear Fiesta, came across like an odd mix of Yes and Neil Diamond. Sure, the former is mostly because of the vocals of Veronika Hørven Jensen and the latter is because of a refrain that can't help but remind of Copacobana but it's an odd combination to hit us with right out of the bat, especially because the band's leader is Steinar Børve, the saxophonist in Panzerpappa, and he kicks off the album focusing very much on his own instrument. It's a good track, but it never quite sat right with me.

Winter of '73 absolutely did and it's a journey of a song that's my favourite piece here. It's spacey space rock from the outset, full of strange electronic blips and blurps, but Trond Gjellum's drums find a gloriously rolling rhythm and Jensen's voice joins in wonderfully without ever providing one sung word. A couple of minutes in, it completes its groove, with a pair of lead instruments, as the guitar of Anders Krabberød and the bass of Ola Mile Bruland appear to veer off in very different directions that turn out to be utterly compatible. When Børve joins in a couple of minutes later, it ought to be too much for the ears to handle but it's somehow still easy to follow. Every time that I listen to it, it feels deeper and deeper, as if I'm gradually being sucked into it.

I should add that, like the debut, there aren't many songs here and they're lengthy without being epic. Even given its all-encompassing nature, Winter of '73 is actually the shortest song on offer at a breath under seven minutes, but only Hatchling outlasts the eight and a half of both Cottage of Lost Play and Fog Vision, clocking in at eleven and a half. These aren't side-long tracks broken into multiple sections; they're just ideas extrapolated out and given breathing room. They feel a little less grown this time out and a little more planned, but it wouldn't surprise me to see some sort of acknowledgement of improvisation in a few of the songs, especially late in Cottage of Lost Play.

I still haven't heard anything from Børve's main band, Panzerpappa—I missed their 2019 release, Summarisk Suite—but I believe that they play in a very different prog style, entirely instrumental and jazz focused but with a strong Canterbury influence. This was a move away from that for their saxophonist, Mythopoeic Mind usually desribed as symphonic prog, with frequent, if not constant, use of vocals. There is some Canterbury here though, in the experimental backdrop to Fog Vision and, to a lesser degree, Cottage of Lost Play.

Mostly, I find it hard to categorise this album because its songs are very different. Winter of '73 is an immersive journey into parts unknown. Fog Vision is an exercise in contrast, pitting a dissonant experimental electronic backdrop against the smooth sax, xylophone and vocals that are laid on top of it. Cottage of Lost Play feels like an old solo Jon Anderson track, because there's no Yes and no Vangelis to be found, but the Anderson feel runs much deeper than the vocal. And Hatchling is a folky title track to wrap up proceedings in a folky manner. It's clearly folk music from the outset, much of it almost but not quite English, and it occasionally turns into a full on folk dance. I have no problems imagining this performed on the Cropredy stage.

That variety makes it hard to think of this as a complete album, but the tracks are all worthy, even the opener that I struggle with. In fact, Fear Fiesta may be the song that stays with me longest, as it's a grabbing sort of song. However, I'd lean strongly towards Winter of '73 as the best track here and Hatchling as my favourite. It's an infectiously pastoral piece that beckons us in and refuses to let us leave. The silence when it finally ends is almost unbearable, as if we've been wrenched away from the world. The song feels like being captivated by the Fae.

I liked this a lot on a first listen, opening awkwardness aside—which I fully realise may be just me—and I liked it all the more with each repeat. The variety in the songs helps the album spring out in multiple directions and grow. I have a feeling I may be returning to it soon.

Tuesday 17 August 2021

Gunshee - Friends Through Here (2021)

Country: Romania
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Jul 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

I don't know who's in Gunshee, an instrumental progressive rock band from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, but photos online suggest that they're a trio and it doesn't sound to me like any of them is new to the business. While this is clearly an intricate prog album played by musicians who are easily comfortable enough with their musical ability to experiment a great deal with what they can do with their instruments, especially whoever the particularly adventurous bass player is, this isn't pure prog by any means.

Even if the guitar tone is pretty clean, this isn't more than a stone's throw from a desert rock album, with more than a little psychedelia thrown into the mix. That's especially obvious in the echo effects in The Great Crippler I but it's there from the outset on Inward and Sayid. If you can imagine a stoner rock band trying not to be a stoner rock band, Gunshee may be pretty close to what you're conjuring up. Conversely, if you added copious amounts of fuzz and decreased the complexity of the songs quite severely, this wouldn't be light years away from an ambitious stoner rock band.

That isn't what makes this album rather odd though. Everything here is interesting at the very least, but the album as a whole is quite the patchwork quilt. Sayid follows Inward pretty consistently, but it all starts to change from there. Peaceful Indifference is an acoustic guitar piece that doesn't merely function as an interlude. The two parts of The Great Crippler are prog at its most intricate with quite the jazz influence. Then there's a live track that doesn't sound like a live track, until the audience get to make themselves heard after its done. And it wraps with what sounds like a brief live experiment that doesn't claim to be live. I'm still puzzled as to how this is all supposed to flow.

That's not to say that the songs aren't worthy. They're all fascinating, though that final piece is easily the most dispensable even if it would only shave a minute off the running time.

The best is surely The Great Crippler, though I couldn't elevate one part over the other even if I tossed a coin. I rather like Sayid too and Thomas highlights a real versatility to the band, starting out almost with a gothic vibe and reminding me of the Sisters of Mercy's song Ribbons. It soon underlines that it remains a prog piece though, moving more towards King Crimson in the midsection. It's an odd song that's led by its bass rather than its guitar and very effectively too, even with a wild guitar solo soon into its second half. The bass is notably prominent throughout this album, but it's totally in charge on this one.

And I can't dismiss Peaceful Indifference either, even if it primarily serves as an interlude between an opening pair of desert rock jams and the jazzy prog of The Great Crippler. It has one foot in folk music and the other in the ocean. The guitar here almost sounds like a ukelele and what we initially take as an acoustic interlude gradually becomes the whole piece.

I keep coming back to The Great Crippler though. I've listened to both parts a bunch of times to track what each of the instruments is doing and what I took away from it is how quintessential a prog piece this is. Each of these unknown musicians is doing their own technically impressive thing throughout, but somehow they still gel perfectly as a band as they do it. Whether you focus on the guitar, the bass or even the drums, you'll hear a fascinating piece of music with a different emphasis. And, as that's a little more overt on the first part, you can twist my arm and make me say that's the best thing here, but the second part isn't far behind it at all.

This is one for the adventurous prog fan, which I fully realise ought to be every prog fan but isn't. I'll still puzzle over why what appears to be a debut album was presented in this fashion, and I've docked a point for that, but I'm still eager to here more.

Monday 16 August 2021

Blackberry Smoke - You Hear Georgia (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

My local classic rock station had a southern rock weekend recently and I'm pretty confident that they didn't play a single track by Blackberry Smoke, probably because they didn't form until the year 2000. However, I'm also pretty confident that had they included, say, the title track from this seventh studio album of theirs, without identifying it, most listeners would have just assumed that it was a deep cut from Lynyrd Skynyrd that they hadn't heard before.

Sometimes, the only way we can tell that this is contemporary music is the fact that it's well produced with a fat deep end. You Hear Georgia is an old school number, with an old school riff and a simple old school message, and it's done really well. However, the following song, Hey Delilah, is also all of those things and it's even more patient and deceptively loose. It was written by Charlie Starr, which must be as southern rock a name as I've heard in years for a southern rock lead vocalist and guitarist. Yet, it's so timeless that I could swear it was an old song that's been covered by everyone, with or without the honky tonk piano.

While everything here counts as southern rock in one of its many forms, not everything fits the bill we tend to think of, that Skynyrd/Allman Brothers/Molly Hatchet multi-guitar workout. Ain't the Same is, ironically given the title, not quite the same as the opening three songs. This one's more mainstream, as smooth as an Eagles song, just with a van Zant style lead vocal. With a different voice, it would feel even more like a country rock song. And that's exactly what Lonesome for a Livin' is, one of the voices on it belonging to Jamey Johnson, solo country music artist. It's odd to hear this song on an album by a band because it feels acutely like a solo country singer song with the capable session players hidden backstage behind a curtain.

The other song with a guest appearance is All Rise Again, featuring Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, but that one takes the opposite approach, hardening up rather than softening up and adding what's almost a garage rock aesthetic to it. That these two songs with guests sit right at the heart of the album, ending the first side and starting the second, without feeling too jarring underlines just how versatile this band is. Even so, if you heard these next to each other on a radio show, you might believe the two songs to be by two different bands.

If my favourite song here isn't Hey Delilah, and I think it might be, then it's Old Enough to Know, which is a stripped down song so old school that it feels way older than a Skynyrd song from 1977. This could have been a Willie Nelson song from 1957 and I'm half convinced I've heard versions by Hot Tuna, Kris Kristofferson and Rod Stewart over the decades. It's probably as far from rock as this album gets, as a sort of chill outlaw country number, but it's a gem of a song and I adore it.

Another favourite is the closer, Old Scarecrow, which returns the band to the old school southern rock vibe. It's another song that could easily have been included within that radio station's southern rock weekend without anyone noticing that it was brand new. "I ain't ever gonna change my ways," it runs, and we can believe it. But, when it sounds like this, even without extended chicken scratch guitar workouts, it doesn't have to. It's timeless music and this is an excellent new addition to a genre that never has to rise again because it never slumped.

Belle Morte - Crime of Passion (2021)

Country: Belarus
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

It seems that Belle Morte isn't only the name of a symphonic gothic metal band from Minsk, it's also the stage name of its lead singer, who writes the lyrics and music too. Now, she certainly isn't the only musician here, because My Little Demon is a duet with a male voice, but I can't find anything to detail who else is here.

Metal Archives only lists Belle herself, but she's not alone in the band photo. Looking at the Belle Morte website, I find pictures of two people, five people and six people, along with a note that she's collaborated with the Norwegian melodic death metal band Addendum, which is a one man project. So, I have no idea who's on this, but I'm guessing that it's the lady known as Belle Morte and a gentleman called Priest who is also Addendum.

[Note: Belle kindly let me know that this started as a two piece studio project but is now a six piece band. As suggested, she's the vocalist and songwriter and the rest of the band is as follows: Ilya Rogovoy and Ilya Petrashkevich on guitars, Sergey Butovsky on bass and backing vocals (that's him on My Little Demon), Rostislav Golubnichiy on drums and Maria Shumanskaya on keyboards. Butovsky is also the producer. Thanks, Belle!]

From that rich cello and flute in the introductory piece, we know that this is going to be dramatic. Yes, it has a very similar sweeping refrain to Adele's theme for Skyfall, but it rolls neatly into the opening song proper, Who are You, which is at once heavy and delicate, that neat balancing act that's up there with my primary reasons for listening to gothic metal. It's a good opener and If Only You Knew isn't a bad follow up, a little more modern and a little more industrial, but To Get Her is easily the standout here and Belle clearly knows that because there's an acoustic version of it included at the end of the album.

Circumstances have led to me listening to this over and over for a couple of weeks, as I get other work done that's prevented me knocking album reviews out, and, every single time I enjoy this album just a little more, but To Get Her always stands out from everything else. Mostly it's the vocal line, but it's a peach of a track from an instrumental standpoint too. It's notable to me that it's just as effective in a bonus acoustic form, something that rarely happens. The piano and violin stand out nicely in this take and a male counterpart behind Belle's voice works too.

I should add that other songs do get close, especially in the middle of the album. I love how the music escalates at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast and that whole song has a wonderful flow to it. My Broken Things is an elegant dance of a track. It felt strange sitting still in a chair, because it felt like I was being whirled around a dancefloor at a gothic ball, a memorable experience given a few shifts in tempo. Beauty Meant to Kill plays out like a mediaeval folk song. Also, the closer, My Legacy, may well be the catchiest number here, just to take us home right.

I liked this on a first listen, but it didn't really pop for me until a second time through. Over two more weeks, it's improved a little more without becoming an undying favourite. However, I can't underline enough how rare it is for me to be able to listen to an album, any album, this much without it tiring on me at some point. This works as an album to dive into and actively explore, but it also works in passive mode, as background. That's another reason it took me so long to write this one up, because it turned into an old friend and it's always hard to stay objective at that point. Let's just say it's one of the good ones, whoever's playing on it.