Friday 7 January 2022

Karfagen - Land of Green and Gold (2022)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jan 2022
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Prog Archives | YouTube

Ukrainian prog rockers Karfagen have been around for quite a while and they issue plenty of new music. I reviewed the delightful Birds of Paradise almost two years ago to the day and yet missed a later album that year, Principles and Theory of Spektra. What's telling to me is that the ratings I see at Prog Archives tend to increase with each album, this one currently peak among them. That a band is always getting better is never a bad thing, though "band" is a misnomer here, Karfagen being primarily a solo project for multi-instrumentalist Antony Kalugin, with a few friends.

The hour of music on offer here runs just shy of an hour and is broken up into three suites, Land of Green and Land of Gold, with Land of Jazz the bonus at the end. Each of those suites is broken up too, because this is prog rock and that's how this works, right? It certainly wears all the clothes it needs to get checked off as prog. I only know Karfagen from the one album I've reviewed thus far, but Land of Green looks further back than that, beginning with Kingfisher & Dragonflies (Part 3), presumably a return to a piece whose first two parts were on a pair of earlier albums, 2007's The Space Between Us and Solitary Sandpiper Journey in 2010.

It came alive for me on Land of Green (part 2), through some gorgeous guitarwork from Alexandr Pavlov. Much of what this band does is interplay between guitar and keyboards. It's always what I could describe as "pleasant", an adjective that some might see as positive and some not so much. I could go with "pastoral", "accessible", "delightful" and others, but the point is that it's music it's hard not to like. The question is whether you're going to love it or drift away, because it's rarely a challenge for the prog rock connoisseur.

In fact, during the entirety of Land of Green, the only challenging material would be a brief piece called Solis Festum that travels quite the ground in under two minutes. Land of Green (Part 1) has the substance at eleven minutes, but it's just more of that keyboard and guitar interplay, the two instruments swapping licks in the hope of conjuring up something magic. I'd suggest that they are unable to do so, but I didn't get bored once and I've listened to those eleven minutes a few times. Every one of them is instrumental and mostly played in neoprog rather than true seventies classic fashion, but they're good minutes. They just don't come fully alive yet.

Perhaps it's telling that Land of Green (Part 2) is jazzy from the outset. It's looser, more soulful. It soars later but it teases earlier. Solis Festum after it, is impossible to ignore, a more experimental piece that ends up in fascinating accordion territory. And, somehow, that sets us up for a poppier, perkier piece in Land of Green (Part 3). However "pleasant" this gets, it never turns into what we might call easy listening. It's active stuff to listen to and explore, rather than background music to listen around.

The second suite, Land of Gold, feels rockier, almost Dire Straits at points in Garden of Hope (Part 1), though that doesn't hold when the vocals show up. They seem surprising here, because we're a half hour into the album and it's been entirely instrumental thus far, but they're not out of place, just as the manipulated vocals on Land of Gold seem perfectly natural when they shouldn't. Those vocals, of course, like everything else here, are smooth and light, albeit not too polished. Kalugin is certainly an instrumentalist before he's a singer.

While Garden of Hope (Part 1) is part of Land of Gold, Garden of Hope (Part 2) apparently kicks off Land of Jazz, which seems odd. I don't really see any coherency to the suites. To me, these are just individual tracks that do individual things, to whatever effect. And it's the jazzier numbers that I'd call out as my favourites: Land of Green (Part 2), Solis Festum and Land of Jazz, with its prominent sax and bass. But hey, that's just me. That's not the default sound here and I like the other stuff too. Those were just my standouts this time out. Your mileage may vary.

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