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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Strawbs - The Ferryman's Curse


It’s been nearly 53 years since the Strawbs formed in their hometown in London. From their bluegrass/folk roots and into their golden-era of the Progressive Rock movement, they’ve released some of the best albums including Bursting at the Seams, From The Witchwood, Grave New World, Hero & Heroine, Ghosts, and Dragonfly. What they would do is creating magic in their music during that time period with storytelling songs that would make you close your eyes and imagine a movie inside your head.

This year, Strawbs have released a new album in eight long years after the release of their 2009 album, Dancing to the Devil’s Beat. The Ferryman’s Curse which is released on the Esoteric Antenna label, is new material that they’ve unleashed. And for me, it is a very interesting release. Since discovering their music while I was at Houston Community College 12 years ago on the Prog Archives website, their music always intrigued me.

Produced by Chris Tsangarides (Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, and Yngwie Malmsteen) while the line-up contains Dave Cousins, lead guitarist Dave Lambert, bassist Chas Cronk and drummer Tony Fernandez who recorded and toured in the ‘70s. And in the line-up is keyboardist and guitar virtuoso Dave Bainbridge of Iona who blend Celtic Folk, Rock, and Ambient Music, brings in the perfect combination for Strawbs.

The name of the albums as I’ve mentioned is called, The Ferryman’s Curse, is also the title-track as a continuing sequel to the song, The Vision of the Lady of the Lake from Strawbs second album, Dragonfly which was originally released on the A&M label in 1970 and produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Gentle Giant, T. Rex, and Sparks). And the five highlights on here show that Strawbs bringing more ideas to the table.

The Nails from the Hands of Christ is one of the most haunting compositions dealing with young people’s relationship with the Church. Chas’ mysterious bass riff and the guitar improvisations sets up the subject matter of showing that this isn’t a place you do not want to go near of the scenario and what’s happening behind closed doors inside the church.

The song mentions albums, vinyl, Bruce Springsteen, mobile phones, their description on who the lord our savior is, google, drugs, and mobile phones to name a few. And of course a symphonic rising section done by the Organ from Bainbridge himself. You can hear the Mellotron choir/strings setting up the innocence walking towards a deadly trap for what is about to happen.

This is a risky subject, but it is a challenging composition for Cousins to describe both the skeletons and the white elephant in the closet underneath the church. But it is an eye-opener for what is going on. And you can imagine the victims are finally standing up and speaking out to get ready to blow the whistle and letting them know what has happened to them.

The Reckoning is a short instrumental. The Strawbs do this as if making the listener know that some creature is about to creep up behind them at any second. You have that situation to fill in the void with the Piano, Acoustic Guitar, and the Mellotron whilst the band take a small bit of a film score as if they were doing one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western from the ‘60s.

The Familiarity of Old Lovers is their nod to both the Greg Lake and Post-Greg Lake-era of King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard. Cousins describes about the loved ones who were with the one they cherished and married, have decided to move on to start a new chapter in their lives. It is a bitter-sweet composition that begins with this flamenco-sque sound on the acoustic guitar.

You can imagine yourself walking into a café as the Mellotron gives this wonderful scenery of what was, and what is now by letting go both of the past and the present. Understanding that time has passed, and things are changing, but remembering the good times they had spent together for many years. And keeping the good memories inside your pocket.

We Have the Power is medieval prog folk. You have this Moog fanfare and Mellotron choir introduction whilst coming up with a rising rhythmic sound of setting up the momentum of coming home from a long and difficult journey as success has been achieved from power, strength, and in the palm of your hands. It is also a time to celebrate of the accomplishments they’ve achieved.

The title-track again as I’ve mentioned, is the sequel to The Vision of the Lady of the Lake. It takes place several years after the events of the 1970 epic. The Boatman is now married, but the vision of her from the original track, he tries to forget that and move on with his life. It is mysterious and intense, but also knowing that death is coming for him with a heavy price.

The Organ and Mellotron set up the scenario between the characters while Cousins is telling you the story and he’s letting the listeners know that it’s not going to end well for the Boatman. You can imagine this as a movie inside your head of what is about to happen next.

The Ferryman’s Curse is perhaps a good album. Not great, but a good album. It is the same thing I felt with Procol Harum’s new album Novum. It didn’t grab me a few times, but on Strawbs’ new album, it is quite clear that Dave himself isn’t in full circle yet, but I can imagine he and the band have some more tricks up their sleeves for a few more years to come.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Trallskogen - Trollskogen


What would happen if the music combined Swedish Folk, Pop, and Jazz music? Well, believe me those combinations could work and it does from the mind of Trallskogen. It’s one of Annika’s projects they they’ve released their debut album this year. And if you love those three genres, you're in for a real treat.

The origins of Trallskogen started back while Annika was visiting the “Scenska Visarkivet” in Stockholm. She discovered old recordings of the singers who moved back from village to village and sang festivities and told stories. Discovering this fascinating idea, Annika came up with an idea. She would not only combined the trail songs, but mix folklore along with pop and jazz.

Annika Jonsson lives and works in Saarbrucken, Germany. She grew up with German-Swedish parents in Boppard, Germany and she completed her studies in Mathematics in Kaiserslauten before studying Jazz in Saarbrucken from 2011 to 2016 at the Saar Academy of Music with Anne Czichowsky. Her final project during that time frame, she went to Sweden to search for her musical roots. And one of the projects would be Trallskogen. And their debut album, Trollskogen is released on Annika’s new label, Nikasound.

Listening to this album, will make you go back and pull out some of the Swedish bands/artists that were part of the Silence label in the golden era of the 1970s in its early years. But Trallskogen’s music is like looking through an old storybook and revisiting those tales that you were told as a child and revisiting its fantasy side. The band considers Steffen Lang on Guitar, Martin Jager on Piano, Felix Hubert on Double Bass, and Kevin Nasshan on Drums.

The eerie opening musique-concrete on Intro (Have tar, Havet ger), starts with Martin’s plucking piano strings, Felix’s foghorn sounds on double bass, Steffen’s guitar, and Kevin brushing the drums. You can hear the reverb effect on the double bass along with the delay/effect on the guitar and intensive pulse from the piano and drums that gives the listener to know that the story has just begun and the book is finally opened.

Annika comes into the forest as if she’s walking through the trees as she sings while her bandmates follow her into this new location that she brings us towards into. The music is part Ummagumma and part Thelonious Monk near the end section between Lang and Nasshan. The title-track is walking through the opened door that’s already opened for us to enjoy the party.

Its textures makes the track opening a flower that is ready to burst. Annika sings a melodic structure as if she’s singing through a scale by going upwards including a scat-singing section. Martin follows her on the piano and it’s a wonderful in the piece before Kevin’s drum solo takes front and center channeling Elvin Jones from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Bergtrall is Trallskogen honoring the legacy of Vince Guaraldi. The first minute gives Martin a chance to honor the jazz musician as if they band were doing a score for another Peanuts special to see what the gang and Snoopy will come up with next. But then, it moves forward into some cliffhanger scenario as Felix does some walking tightrope lines on the double bass.

And then, out of the blue, Martin and Kevin create that moment to build up the climax more and more to raise the bars even higher. Then, it suddenly goes into a train that goes into a mid-fast tempo to create the speed for the piano, drums, and bass going into a full-scale atmosphere. Annika comes in the last minute for her vocalizations as if the forest has approaches by a ghost to give a chilling end.

With its bright, fast, and chilling momentum, it goes back into the Guaraldi section to close the composition for a few seconds. The piano on Alvdans goes into a swirl for the sun to rise. Annika’s vocals and Steffen’s stop-and-go intro on the guitar chords as the mid-fast sections are catchy while the percussion's come up with a clicking sound through the kit on the drumsticks. The composition itself feels like it was something straight out of Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but with a jazz setting.

Now Bitar, is a track I got a kick out of. Featuring the psychedelic wah-wah guitar and a soulful piano and Annika’s scatting that is almost through a Leslie speaker done in an homage to Robert Wyatt, Trallskogen show their nod to the Canterbury scene for its swirling turn for Martin paying a nod to the late great Phil Miller (Delivery, Hatfield and the North, Matching Mole, and National Health).

Before I close this review, let me just say this. Trallskogen’s debut album was not easy album to review. It’s for me a great debut I’ve listened to over about three times now. Annika has come a long way not just both in mathematics and music, but with the projects including her Pop-Jazz project of Caleido Club last year. But for me, Trallskogen would be something that will peak my interest for the years to come to see what Annika would come up with next.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Opposite Day - I Calculate Great


Back in July of 2015, after I was coming home for my afternoon walk, there was an album that arrived in the mail. It was a trio from Austin, TX named Opposite Day and the name of their album was Space Taste Race Part 2 released on their label, Future Banana Replacement. This was a sequel to their 2013 EP Space Taste Race Part 1. For me, it was a crazy off-the-wall releases of their sixth full-length album that nearly blew me away.

Not just because it’s great, but the way they combined Art Rock, Math Rock, Pop, and odd-time signatures, with a twist to the master of the Grand Wazoo and Cardiacs maestro, Tim Smith. Since they launched 16 years ago in their hometown in Austin, Opposite Day described their music as “Educational Art-Rock for Animals” which describes their music very well. Not only that, but it is also, Jigsaw-puzzle complex music.

Bassist Greg Yancey, Lead Vocalist and Guitarist Sam Arnold, and drummer Pat Kennedy, released their new album this year entitled, I Calculate Great was recorded from 2015 to 2017 at Greg’s House. And it was Pat’s last album before departing last year as Eoghan McCloskey became the new drummer for Opposite Day. The artwork for the album is done by Tim Doyle which details of two pandas in spacesuits arriving back home from Earth after a long day in outer space.

With a cat watching in confusion on why they’ve come back for a long, long time and why they’ve waited for a long time to come back home. It is a very good detail and shown in their faces what will happen next for them. I Calculate Great is a very interesting mix. The trio bring more carte blanche and free rein while pushing the envelope further and further. But Sam Arnold brings in more of the ammunition to see what will happen next.

Radar Face opens to a full-scale assault between Sam and Greg’s bass. There’s these twists and turns from calm scenarios into punk-rock momentum with a helicopter approaching throughout the midsection as if Frank Zappa have come down and made a nice hot cooked meal that is very, very spicy for the Cardiacs to sink into.

Panda Formula begins with a psychedelic intro then turned into metal riffs. It’s part thrash, part math rock, and unexpected hoedowns in a different yet difficult time signature to swing your partner to the right with an Art Rock meets Texas Metallic rock style! Both Rules Are Rude and Ribbons & Lasers brings more of the wackiness to Opposite Day’s table.

Sam brings in more of the inspirations between Max Webster, Half Past Four, and Mr. Bungle into a giant blender to give Opposite Day a lot of insanity and crazy ideas to play around. But then, on Making Tornadoes it climbs upwards and downwards for the guitar to go left and right in stereophonic format. Sam does his Mike Patton-sque arrangement to nod his head and pay homage while the Tornadochestra go into an Uncle Meat arrangement.

The only track that never clicked with me is their take of David Bowie’s classic, Life On Mars? At first I wanted to hate this. Because I was thinking to myself listening to this, “Why are you doing this? It sounds too Circusy! You should it honor and stay true to the classic.” But then after a few listens, it’s not that bad, it’s not my cup of coffee. I know what Sam was trying to do, but again, it just didn’t click with me.

The closing track of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero is Opposite Day riding off into the sunset thanks to its militant bass and drums as the music rides off into the west. Sam does this incredible job on his guitar to make the sun go down playing the melody near the end to close the album off. Opposite Day have always peaked my interest since 2015. And they’ve always kept on my radar and it will be interesting to hear more and more of their music and see what will happen next.