Return To Void – “Return To Void”

return_to_void_album_cover_640Is it me or are there way more bands that are prog or at least consider themselves to be prog? It almost seems in vogue to be prog. Return to Void are a prog rock band from Finland but something is really off. While the arrangements and instrumentation does feel like old 70s prog, the band themselves sound more like an 80s metal band playing or covering prog.

Vocalist Markku Pihlaja is a big part of the reason for this. He has a VERY raspy voice which sounds to me like Andi Deris of Helloween. I could hear him singing in Helloween versus trying to choke out this prog tinged songs. Overall, the band wind up feeling more like Deep Purple than Yes. I love Deep Purple but again, it seems more like the band was trying to hard and just missing the mark.

For example, “Lightbearer” sounds like a lost Purple track with that groovy Glover bassline. While the keys are always vintage, like “Vail of Confusion,” the riffs and vocals have more in common with Maiden than anything else. The other issue is that while the songs are good, I wouldn’t say that any are great.

All in all, Return to Void are doing what I would call a fair estimation of prog but something is lost along the way. This doesn’t feel natural to them as a whole. Parts of the music have the spirit but I don’t feel like everyone in the band has the same passion about prog maybe. If you wondered what Helloween jamming with Maiden on some Purple would sound like, “Return to Void” is the answer to that quandary.

Rating: 4/10

Tracklist:
1. Throughout The Ages
2. Lightbearer
3. Vail Of Confusion
4. Consumer Heaven
5. Sight Of Immortal Sea
6. All The Darkness
7. Human Alien Hybrid
8. Fools King
9. Liar
10. Return To Void

Release Date: April 26th 2017
Label: Inverse Records
Website: www.returntovoid.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/returntovoid

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Mark Papagno – “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”

papagnoThe latest trend seems to be getting well known musicians to play on your album. I do understand it from both ends. Newer musicians see the opportunity to get big names to be associated with their work and the “hired guns” can make a living. American guitarist Mark Papagno has three well known musicians on his album “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”: Adam Holzman of the Steven Wilson band on keyboards and bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann of the Aristocrats.

This is really a double edged sword. It does get ones attention and want to here the music but it also sets the bar EXTREMELY high based on the talent level enlisted. While I do think that Holzman gets a chance to shine now and then and Minnemann gives everything he does 110%, the problem is the music itself isn’t as compelling as it needs to be. Bellar sits back a bit to let things happen while the artist behind the work, Papagno doesn’t take charge as much as I thought he would.

There are times that it’s about chord progressions and not riffs. This is an all instrumental album with some serious virtuosos, so yes I expect and even demand to be blown away. At times, there are some flourishes like on “Ritual” (my favorite track) and to a lesser extent on “Darkness Falls” but many times it’s just a basic chord progression that goes too long before anything compelling happens. The lead track “The Listener” is a good example of that.

On that track, it feels like something is missing, like even a vocal. It takes too long to develop into a part that grabs your attention. There are a few shorter pieces that Papagno wrote with Holzman, duets if you will, and each are pleasant interludes. But again, having to fill the shoes of Steven Wilson or Guthrie Govan is a huge risk and unfortunately one that doesn’t pay off for me.

To be clear, this is NOT a bad album at all. I’d go as far to say that it’s a pretty good album and like I said Minnemann gives it everything he has. But it’s not an album that has gotten beyond background music for me. If I had to cite reference points, I might go with the bands these guys are members of and even Rush to a degree. That’s fine but, my criteria for instrumental music means RIFFS and moments that grab you by the collar and shake you. Sadly, there are very few of those moments. Kudos to Mark Papagno for having the balls to stand toe to toe with these musicians regardless of the out come.

Rating: 7/10

Tracklist:

1. The Listener
2. Where Memory Sleeps
3. Darkness Falls
4. When the Rain Begins
5. Ritual
6. Because of Sleep and Because of the Cats
7. The Man Whom the Trees Loved

CDBaby: www.cdbaby.com/cd/markpapagno3
Website: markpapagnomusic.com

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White Willow – “Future Hopes”

cover_1483979941756554Sometimes changing a vocalist works and sometimes it doesn’t. While that isn’t the only reason for the almost six years between White Willow albums, the vocalist change certainly played a part in it. Sylvia Skjellestad was back in the fold for the band’s last album “Terminal Twilight” and I really liked that album a lot. Not the least of which was because of her voice.

Skjellestad reminds me a bit of Anneke van Giersbergen in both tone and range. Sadly, Skjellestad left the band for a second time. For the new album “Future Hopes,” the band recruited Venke Knutson, who apparently has had pop singles in Norway. The problem for me is right there. She does sound like a pop singer. Her style is thin and breathy, almost frail. I am not a fan of that style at all.

The album starts off with the title track and then “Silver and Gold.” Each are more on the mellow, folky side of the band’s sound. While these songs fit Knutson’s style, neither of them grab me. Things get vastly more interesting with the expansive “In Dim Days” which has plenty of instrumental passages in it and much more power. Knutson has to muster up more power in her voice and almost manages to pull it off. Sadly, it really points out her limitations. Still, it’s a great song.

Along the same lines is the 18 minute epic “A Scarred View” which is the other track I really like on “Future Hopes.” The album as a whole is more synth based and thus sounds more futuristic. The only issue with the music I have is that the drumming sounds almost mechanical at times. While this might fit the overall vibe that White Willow are going for, it sounds a bit stale and sterile to me.

I was really looking forward to this album because for one, it had been years since the last White Willow album. The band still have that King Crimson meets Tangerine Dream meets Renaissance thing going on but as I said to start out, sometimes a vocalist change works and sometimes it doesn’t. For me, this is just not a good match. I can only imagine the depth that Skjellestad’s voice would have added to these really good songs. We’ll never know. But hey, Roger Dean’s artwork is awesome!

Rating: 7/10

Tracklist:
1. Future Hopes
2. Silver And Gold
3. In Dim Days
4. Where There Was Sea There Is Abyss
5. A Scarred View
6. Animal Magnetism
7. Damnation Valley

Label: Laser’s Edge
Website: www.whitewillow.info

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Pat Mastelotto & Markus Reuter – “FACE”

facePat Mastelotto & Markus Reuter are some of prog’s finest musicians. Mastelotto has been a part of King Crimson for many years now. He has also been in Tuner, Stick Men and The Crimson ProjeKCt with Reuter. So it’s quite clear that these two gentlemen have a chemistry. For those who don’t know, Reuter is a master of the touch guitar, which he founded and has been playing for a long time now.

“FACE” is a 35 minute track/album that was written by Reuter and not only features Mastelotto on drums and percussion but many other friends such as Fabio Trentini of Moonbound (one of my favorite bands of late, Mastelotto and Reuter guested on the last album), Tim Motzer (who has worked with Reuter), The Rembrandts’ Danny Wilde and yes Steven Wilson. Also, the cover painting by Adam Jones of Tool.

The piece of music has taken NINE YEARS to make. To call it an involved piece would be selling it short. However, it’s not a piece of music that ever loses the listener. In fact, it is one of more inviting pieces while still being wildly creative and challenging. I’ve heard something else each time I’ve listened to it and just want to hear it again.

The title is because the music is based on the notes F, A, C and E. And like any successful long progressive epic, it needs to flow well and it does. Regardless if a transition is smooth or even abrupt, it WORKS. There are so many instruments that each had a special color to the piece PLUS wordless vocals as well which make the human voice just another instrument in the arsenal of these true artists.

“FACE” is a true prog journey but unlike some songs that rely on the abundance of notes, this one is about the right note being in the right place with the right rhythm and structure. Honestly, this is one of the most fascinating things I’ve heard in quite a while. “FACE” renews my hope in truly progressive music. This is easily going to be a part of my best releases of 2017.  Incredible. NOT TO BE MISSED!

Rating: 10/10

Tracklist:
1. FACE

Bandcamp: mastelottoreuter.bandcamp.com/album/face
Label: Tempus Fugit

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Moonloop – “Devocean”

moonloop“Devocean” is the long awaited follow up from Spanish prog metal masters Moonloop. It’s been five years since their debut album “Deeply from the Earth.” In the meantime, front man Eric Baulenas has been quite busy with other projects, one being his prog rock band Eric Baule (somewhat named for him). He is a talented guitarist and versatile vocalist.

But let’s not forget that Moonloop is a band and a very talented one at that. Juanjo Martin (rhythm guitars), Raul Payan (drums), and Vic A. Granell (bass) make up the rest of the band and this is one TIGHT band. Stylistically, Moonloop are rooted in the old school Opethian prog metal with a more modern Gojira slant as well. Baulenas’s death vocals are possibly more brutal sounding that Mikael at his peak. The lead track “Megalodon” is a good example of that. It’s a great kick in the teeth opener.

“Nightmare Gallery” has a killer yet off-kilter groove to it. This is where the Gojira comparison comes into play. Moonloop are great at grooves and riffs, regardless of time signature. “Zeal” is yet another example of how tight this band is. Not only does it seemlingly go “all over the place” musically, it allows Baulenas to really tap both extremes of his vocal abilities, guttural as hell and clean as can be.

“Expired Kings” has the pinch harmonics we’ve come to expect from Gojira but is a tad more complex than the French band tend to do. The songs on “Devocean” are all consistently good. If I have a complaint, it’s only that I don’t think any of them jump out at me as much as I’d like. There’s no obvious masterpiece. There’s nothing wrong with consistency though.

The album finishes really strong with the epic “Oceans,” which is as close to masterpiece as a song gets on here and the beautiful closer “Origin.” These are two of my favorite tracks on the album for sure. Moonloop are definitely a band that fans of classic progressive death metal should check out. Sure they don’t hide their influences but when you have great influences, you should be proud of that. “Devocean” is not only a clever title but a solid album all the way through.

Rating: 8/10

Tracklist:
1.MEGALODON
2.NIGHTMARE GALLERY
3.ZEAL
4.EXPIRED KINGS
5.MEDUSA
6.OCEANS
7.INTERGLACIAL
8.ORIGIN

Bandcamp: moonloop.bandcamp.com

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Draw the Sky – “Humanity”

Draw The SkyDraw the Sky are a talented French prog band who have serious jazz leanings. Instrumentation plays a big part of that with some fine sax playing through out. Their debut album “Humanity” kicks off with the track “Back” which reminds me a little of Anekdoten, with excellent mellotron and a guitar tone that is definitely a throw back to the 70s. It also has excellent dual playing between the guitar and sax.

They remind me a lot of Gong as well but not to the point of feeling like they are ripping them off at all. Certainly there’s a Magma influence as well. “Reaching the Sun” has a bit of a Canterbury vibe to it. “Liwo” is a dreamy number with a nice flow to it, while “Aquatic Dream” is like jazz on steroids.

Draw the Sky are MOSTLY an instrumental band (and great musicians at that), and I wish I could say they were a completely instrumental band. Unfortunately (for me), two tracks have vocals which don’t stack up as well as the music. “Aicha” is the first of the two and with an almost spoken word vocal, it’s a turn off. The music is also a tad corny as well. I can’t take this one at all. The vocals on the closing title track are flat…I mean flat and weak. It kills the track completely.

It’s a shame because I was prepared to give this album a VERY high score but once again a young band doesn’t stick to what they are good at and take it too far. Six of the 8 tracks are top notch and certain show that Draw the Sky could be a force in the prog world. I am concerned that they might just keep experimenting with bad vocals. That’s their choice I suppose.

Rating: 7.5/10

Tracklist:
1. Back
2. Reaching The Sun
3. Saturn
4. Liwo
5. Aquatic Dream
6. Aicha
7. Cordoba
8. Humanity

Website: www.drawthesky.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/drawtheskyband

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