Monday, February 1, 2021

The 2010s: Favorite Zeuhl Releases

 

1. SETNA - Guérison (2013)  Imagine the most hypnotic Zeuhl grooves that Magma has ever given us, blend it with the accumulated best Canterbury instrumentation that any of Dave Stewart's bands ever gave us, arrange it all with the most positive, uplifting chord progressions and gorgeous male and female vocal melodies imaginable, then use the best technological advantages that 2013 gives us and you get a glimpse into what Setna's second album, Guérison, has to offer. It is beautiful, sublime, hypnotic, and so spiritually uplifting! Each of the five songs is sub-divided, but, in effect, the album has a straight-through flow not unlike many Magma albums. Every song and, in fact, each sub-song has idiosyncrasies worthy of high praise and long discussions (as well as repeated listens), but "Cycle II (c)," "Tryptique I (c)," "Tryptique II (a)," and "Tryptique III (b)" and "(c)" stand out particularly strong for me--should you want to listen to a few pieces in order to get a feel for the album, these might be just the ones cuz they display quite a broad spectrum of the sounds, feels and styles offered here. The "Guérison" suite feels separate, a bit more atmospheric, more displaying of rhythms and percussion, and, until the interesting Part "(c)," a slight step down from the previous two suites (four songs, eleven sub-songs). Still, this is one of the best releases I've heard from 2013, one of the best Zeuhl or Canterbury albums I've ever heard, and an album that will likely grow in my esteem as it occupies my turntable for the upcoming months.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Yannick Duchene / vocals, mixing & mastering
- Florent Gac / organ
- Benoît Bugeïa / Fender Rhodes, piano
- Christophe Blondel / bass
- Nicolas Candé / drums, 12-string guitar, keyboards
With:
- Samuel Philippot / guitar
- Nicolas Wurtz / guitar
- Tony Quedeville / lapsteel guitar
- Nicolas Goulay / keyboards
- Benoit Widemann / Minimoog
- Julien Molko / bass clarinet
- David Fourdrinoy / vibes

1. "Cycle II" (9:52)
2. "Triptyque" (26:16) :
- a) Part I (8'27)
- b) Part II (9'45)
- c) Part III (8'04)
3. "Guérison" (14:58)

Total time 56:55

5 Stars; an unquestioned masterpiece of progressive rock music.




2. CAMEMBERT Negative Toe (2017)  Strasbourg's eccentric and eclectic Zeuhl/avant garde/RIO "ensemble" (more like a small orchestra!) have produced a sequel to their 2011 "soundtrack" to an imaginary alien space invasion. The band has matured as both individual instrumentalists and as a cohesive collective. The sound engineering is amazing--one of the best I've ever heard--and the story and even the masterfully crafted music continues to employ an extraordinarily high degree of humour. I find myself laughing and crying within the same songs as we follow the latest installment of the alien Schnörgls' conspiratorial encounters with Earthlings.

Line-up / Musicians:
Adrien Arnaud: Trumpet, percussions
Lela Frite: Voice, invocations
Guillaume Gravelin aka Harpus: Harp
Pierre Wawrzyniak aka W-Cheese: Bass, accoustic guitar
Juliette Blum: Trombone, percussions
Fabrice Toussaint aka Fab aka Slipman: Drums, percussions, arrangements
Valentin Metz: Guitars, bass
Clarissa Imperatore: Vibraphone, xylophone, percussions

1. "Orteil négatif--Once Upon A Time In The Galax-cheese" (3:13) opening with a joyful, confident announcement of the band's incredible precision, new maturity, and sci-fi story to come, percussives and staccato syncopation introduce the story before the music fades into a low, ominous foundation for the eerie "radio" communications that follow (the Schnörgls have been encountered!). Masterful intro! They've got my attention! (4.5/5)
2. "Fécondée par un extra-terrestre" (15:10) opens with 45 seconds of Zeuhl-like insistence before everything turns to a gentle Latin rhythm-based harp-based section. Cool! A minute later, it switches as other band members join in, then turns more jazzy as the horns join in during the third minute. Another shift at 3:30 presents an adorable and pretty "wuah" sound that sounds like a cute alien fart or baby burp (the birth of "El Pulpo"). When the band reunites in full force at the end of the fourth minute, it seems like the outburst is totally jovial, even celebratory. At the end of the sixth minute another shift employs long, deep bass notes, steady drums, electric guitar soloing (which is rare) and all kinds of horns and percussives interspersed. A minute later, things quite down while very delicate play from keys, xylophone, harp, and oboe (and later flutes) very slowly, very gradually build in force and volume. this is gorgeous! By the time 9:45 rolls around and the horns unite in sectional bursts we think it's culminating--but, no! Another lull while cymbals, touch-guitar chords and winds present yet another variation on the theme. This is amazing! The compositional and performance skills on display here are utterly inconceivable! Like an orchestral composition! At 12:30 there is another radical tempo and stylistic shift while woodwinds seem to be "tuning" in the background, the bass and rest of the rhythm section (which is HUGE!) gel into a very Zeuhl-like sound and style. Horns carry the melody forward while harp and vibes fast-weave beneath, just above the rhythm section. Amazing! (30/30)
3. "Gros Bouquin" (11:11) Opens with some full band chord hits before quickly settling into a funky-jazzy rhythmic sound for vibes and flutes to present a fast-paced melody. At 1:15 everything quiets down while flutes and other high winds present an airy space. Then we burst back into the bass-led Caribbean funk so that horns can have their solo time. Trumpet takes the lead for the next minute while bass and harp provide the steady foundation. Drums and multiple hand percussion play along though very much in a simplistic supporting role. The song is supposed to represent a musical rendering of the process of extracting the sexual energy from rabbits in order to empower the Schnörgls' secret weapon, the Negative Toe. (17/20)
4. "The Lament Of Pr. Frankenschn'rgl" (9:11) a slow, methodically-paced song with lots of space and lots of staccato notes produced in small, steadily paced packages from a wide variety of instruments including some from Oriental traditions. This one also has nicely arranged choral arrangements (sung in English!) professing the Schnörgl military scientist's doubts, regrets, and worries. Such a simple and pleasant song, this in great contrast to the frenzy of multiplicities that was song #2. A great display of control and restraint--both in composition and especially in performance. Mathematically I'm sure this song would be quite interesting to study. The final 90 seconds begin to exude some of the insistence of the Zeuhl world in both vocals and drums and bowed bass--and finishing off with a little crazed cacophony--which is a perfect lead-in to the next song. (18/20)
5. "Skwitch" (14:47) opens with multiple instruments contributing to a low end dominated, ominous opening. At the two-minute mark things quiet down--as if the protagonists are trying to hide or be unnoticed--while retaining the creepy tension from the opening. At 4:10 we again switch tempo while the same delicate instrumental weave re- establishes itself--this time with hand percussion, harp and vibes providing the filler. At the end of the sixth minute the music drops out leaving some very sparsely populated guitar, harp, bass, and creepy trumpet hits while a creepy monster-like human voice vocalizes noises not unlike those of the trumpet. Well into the eighth minute, the horn solo becomes far more "normal"--jazz-like--but then it is suddenly submitted to some very odd under-water- like muting effects (elephantine) while the rest of the band, formerly quiet and reserved, begin to rise up and "swallow" the trumpet within their methodic tapestry. At 9:57 everything stops. Silence. Then very syncopatedly- spaced staccato hits from a variety of instruments gives the sound and melody a stark, almost "disappearing" feel. Horns and harp allow for some feeling of return to occur. Boisterous bass-end bursts seem to be on the verge of disrupting all flow of the base-line tapestry--until they all merge at the beginning of the thirteenth minute. The final two minutes seem to be telling the story of the monster's demise and death. Overall, this is a great mid-tempo song with frequent time changes and polyrhythmic weaving of the multiplicity of instruments. Something about the mood, melodies, and intricacies of this song make it my favorite--despite the fact that it's supposed to tell the story of the future destruction of one of my favorite places on Earth, la cathédrale de Strasbourg, by a cybernetic laboratory elephant. (28/30)
6. "El Pulpo" (3:19) oboe, guitar play out a sad melody over harp and bowed double bass before vibes and horns come in to present their antiphon of support. Then at 1:25, all music fades away. Empty space is then gradually invaded by low foghorn-like horn bursts while seaside sounds and human whistling and other pseudo animal sounds are disbursed throughout the soundscape. I guess it's supposed to be the cries of El Pulpo as he and his mother escape to South America by sea-going vessel. (4.5/5)
92.72 on the Fishscales = A-/Five stars; definitely a masterpiece of modern progressive rock--though this album feels as if it belongs more on the Avant Garde/RIO spectrum than the Zeuhl they were associated with in their previous album. Great to have Pierre and company back! And mega-kudos to the engineering/production team! AMAZING sound reproduction!




3. MAGMA - Félicité Thösz (2012) Beginning like an ANDREW LLOYD-WEBER musical doesn't hurt this piece by Zeuhlmeisters, MAGMA. As 'dark' or heavy at it tries to be, the whole thing comes across more as a Dickensian Christmas play written by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and/or BURT BACHARACH. Awesome bass play, as usual, very melodic piano and perfect drumming from founder CHRISTIAN VANDER help carry this operetta, but it is the wonderful, delicately woven vocal performances that the listener has a chance to really tune into. The lack of hard driving, mega-pulsing music and power vocals is, as a matter of fact, quite unexpected. Yes, the album is brief (by modern standards), but 37 minutes is right in line with a typical vinyl album (unless you are Todd Rundgren). Though the album is really meant to be played straight through--and I love all of the songs here--I must admit to really enjoying putting "Teha" (5:15) (10/10) on repeat ad infinitum. As a matter of fact, the first five songs all flow together seamlessly, flawlessly, beautifully. The most Broadway of all, however, is "Ohst" (4:53) (10/10) with the bouncy piano and the voice of the Maestro, himself; CHRISTIAN VANDER is brilliant, astounding! I mean, how old is this guy? Playing off of HERVÉ AKNIN, it is quite a song. Even the end is very Broadway-like--like the ending to a song from Fiddler on the Roof or something.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Stella Vander / vocals, tambourine
- Isabelle Feuillebois / vocals, bells
- Hervé Aknin / vocals, backing vocals (11)
- James Mac Gaw / guitar
- Bruno Ruder / piano
- Philippe Bussonnet / bass
- Christian Vander/ drums, vocals, piano, keyboards, glockenspiel (11)
- Benoît Alziary / vibraphone
With:
- Sandrine Destefanis / backing vocals (11)
- Sylvie Fisichella / backing vocals (11)
- Marcus Linon / backing vocals (11)

I have to admit that hearing an upbeat, positive sounding album from such masters of melodrama is quite an unexpected experience, but it is an entirely enjoyable one.

Another masterpiece? I can't see this little beauty as anything less. 5 stars.




4. GA'AN -- Black Equus (2011) The second Zeuhl release from this lineup of young Chicago-based musicians (from whom nothing has been heard since) comes two years after their extraordinary debut. (I wonder if they were in fact outtakes from the sessions that produced the previous album--the sound is so similar.) The drums are so perfect and the bass and keys stay tightly in the fold. Lindsay's wonderful voice is, as it was on the other album, mixed a little too far back for my tastes. Still, the ethereal, "instrumental" effect this gives the vocals is probably part of the charm of the Ga'an sound.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Lindsay Powell / voices, electric piano, synthesizer
- Seth Sher / drums
- Tyson Torstensen / synthesizers, bass, synth bass, electric piano

1. "Arms They Speak" (9:54) is quite a bit more rich in terms of keyboard/synth layers than the songs of the previous album but the sound engineering and the way the vocal is mixed in is quite the same. Great drumming, cool bass and layers of keys make this one a keeper despite the melodies and chord progressions not quite being up to those of the previous album. The scaled down vocals and instrumental mix in the quieter seventh and eighth minutes are sublime--great finish! Great drumming! Papa Vander would be proud! (19/20)

2. "Servant Eye" (8:35) opens with an ANEKDOTEN-like thick/heaviness. Lindsay's entry with repeating vowel/syllables is fairly quick, but then there is a stop and restart at the one minute mark--a technique the band used to great effect on the previous album. Enter Mellotron choir. The keys are, unfortunately, a little too distorted and Lindsay's vocals a little too militaristic. Another directional shift in the third minute leads to a brief passage of Lindsay's lead vocals before the drums explode into a race around the sun. Awesome in the truest sense of the word. 'tron is replaced by saw-syth--to nice effect. New pace at the six minute mark--more insistent, resolute. This then morphs into another fast race with great synth and bass work over the frenzy of flailing drumsticks--to song's end! That went by so quickly! (On my disc there is an additional minute of silence after the music has ended.) Not as good as the previous song but still at a very high level. (13.5/15)

3. "Call Of The Black Equus" (18:44) opens with syncopated pulse of a synth bass note with floating, panning synth saw within which Lindsay interjects a single LISA GERRARD-like  phrase, at first intermittantly and then nearly constantly. Drums and bell-keys arrive at the 3:05 mark prompting Lindsay to begin singing some actual lyrics--as if telling a story. Still, she is in the background, virtually yelling her words into the mix. For the second verse of her song she is accompanied by several tracks of her voice in harmonizing roles. Interesting. If the voices weren't so mirroring of the keyboard lines it might get more interesting--but, then, isn't that what the Magma choirs do: match the melodies set down by the keys and guitar? 
     The seventh minute brings something new--a kind of choral chorus--before a dirty Canterbury-like keyboard begins playing a progression of ever-ascending chords. Lindsay continues trying to tell her tale--on multiple tracks--as the drum plays beneath it all--kind of in a PHIL COLLINS way with many, many interesting fills and flourishes. Poorly mixed Greek chorus in the ninth minute before a break leads into a softer, more spacious "White Rabbit" like passage--which then gains power and momentum with the entrance of a very strong, very chunky bass and bass line. A Tony Banksian organ passage precedes another foray at support for Lindsay's plaintive vocals. Wild bass sounds in the twelfth minute precede a slow down, drop out section from which emerges an old synth, slow ascending bass line, and dirge-like LISA GERRARD-like vocal performance. LARRY FAST-like bass synth continues in the lead while drums and synth washes try to keep up (Lindsay takes a singing break). At 15:40 Lindsay's epithets are punctuated by synth and drums until 16:22 when the band kicks back into the previous fast-paced groove--this time with synth performing a melody line of descending steps. This continues until the final 45 seconds when the music blows up into whole band waves of power and awe. I don't know how to explain it. (I lack the musical terminology/language skills.) This is just an amazing song considering it came from three musicians. It may not be on the level of intensity or power of a Magma masterpiece, but it certainly has all of the elements to be one. (I imagine this song being performed with the expanded Magma lineup! Wow, wouldn't that be amazing?!) (36/40)

Total Time 37:13

I've always thought this album quite a bit weaker than the band's 2009 debut but upon current investigation, I appreciate the creative and instrumental prowess that went into this--all three of the songs. 

91.33 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music and one of the shining beacons of modern Zeuhl as created and composed by three youths from Chicago!!! 




5. VAK Budo (2018) This second release from this French Zeuhl band is very well constructed and produced. The compositions are complex and dynamic with rarely a dull moment or overly-prolonged passage and the musicians are equally up to the task of delivering this complex music in a powerful and jazzy fashion. The freshness or innovation does not go much beyond what bands Magma, Eskaton, and Ga'an have already done, but the second song, the 23-minute epic "Hquark" synthesizes sounds and stylistic elements from other related subgenres in the way that SETNA did with their 2014 masterpiece "Guérison."

Line-up/Musicians:
 - Aurélie Sainte-Croix - vocals
 - Vladimir Mejstelman - drums Joël
 - Crouzet - bass, guitars
 - Alexandre Michaan - keyboards, synthesizers
With
 - Michaël Havard - saxophones (1)
 - Hyder Aga - guitars (3)
 - Nora Froger - flutes (3)

1. "Budo" (27:28) opening with busy bass, steady drums and background keys before a jazzy chordal fabric is announced by keys and horns. Multiple keys and, later, voice and R&B guitar chord play are introduced to fill out the sound in a second section. Aurélie and Alexandre play off each other harmonically to create melody lines out of voice and synth until 3:30 when there is a slowdown bridge for a syncopation display from the rhythm section. Then we briefly recapitulate the vocal-synth melody before a stripped down section allows the bass to be on display. Keys and playful drums provide background as Aurélie enters and scats and soars á la Stella Vander. A "power chord" bridge of piggy-backed bass, guitar and keys follows before another recapitulation of the vocal-synth theme. Then around 7:15 there is another breakdown in which bass and keys offer their solos. Aurelie supports as bass and drums fall away and only provide simple, syncopated support until the tenth minute when prominent drums play beneath and within the keys. Bass is sliding up and down the fretboard, back and forth.
     At 10:30 guitar announces its turn with a couple of loud chord strokes and a deep, wailing wah-ed sound. Nice solo, nice drum play. Another thematic shift at 12:00 before keys take a Brian Auger/Eumir Deodato-like solo over a blues-rock like foundation from the rhythm section. At the end of the fourteenth minute the synth and bass get pretty creative as the drums maintain an often straightforward rock tempo--shifting into an odd time signature just as multiple saxophone (two) tracks enter with their mutually exclusive soloing. This section ends up being the most prolonged of the song as the saxes keep jamming for over three minutes--even over a thematic shift in the seventeenth minute just before the slowdown and spacious shift that leads back into a pretty Fender Rhodes arpeggio-based section over which multiple tracks--voice, synth, and guitar--present and carry forward the melody.
     At 19:30 we again shift as the Fender alone carries the music into a more cinematic section in which cymbal play is the keyboard's main companion. Eventually, by the 24th minute, drums, gentle bass, and space-guitar notes are added over the Magma-esque keyboard foundation. The weave that is slowly built is quite cool--definitely moving toward a climax. Voices, saxes, and everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into the mix before the crescendo is maxed out mid-26th minute. A long, slow deconstruction and fade is then slowly executed to reach the quiet, complete end. It's hard to find fault with this awesome pure-Zeuhl epic. Perhaps the frenzies and crescendo's do not reach the fanatical heights achieved by the Vander-Magma masters. (46.75/50)

2. "Hquark" (23:03) drum sticks, bass tom, and triangle create a rhythmic MAGMA-esque weave to open this one. Single note "horn," piano, and wordless vocals soon join in and eventually supplant the rhythmic weave sounding very much like something off of the two GA'AN albums. At 1:50 drums kick in as synths and full volume voice and electric guitar carry the song into its full form (at 2:05). Aurélie's vocals play a dominant role in the establishment of this, even as electric guitar takes a stab at soloing and the full band bursts into a section of loud power drive.
     Soft and heavy dynamic shifts seem to be the key to this one not getting stale, and this is never so well demonstrated as the first downshift that occurs at the five minute mark. Aurélie scatting wordlessly (and without consonants)--even via multiple tracks--while Fender Rhodes and very cool bass play proceed until the keyboard-guitar(and, later, -synth) weave double their speed at the end of the seventh minute. Drums and vocals increase intensity commensurately until everything slows down to a walk at the 8:20 mark. Keyboard, synth, and scratchy electric guitar solos start and duel in a crazy frenzied dance until the 10:00 mark. There follows another ominous slowdown section--even coming to a full stop at 10:32 before a pretty, gentle, SETNA-like Fender Rhodes solo initiates a new slow section over which Aurélie sings a complex melody line of "hey dah yah"s and more. The music slowly but insidiously picks up pace and intensity with drums paving the way while Aurélie's work remains fairly constant. Cool!
     At 13:45 there is yet another stoppage and slow entry of a solo Fender keyboard--this one not as melodic or autonomous as the previous one. While Aurélie and drums and bass rejoin fairly quickly, the rebuild is quite slow and protracted. Aurélie's repeating pattern reminds me of Amanda Parsons' work with National Health.
     In the eighteenth minute an entirely new groove is established with bass and drums sounding, in fact, a lot more like the aforementioned NATIONAL HEALTH than Zeuhl founders Magma. Even the keyboard solo is more Dave Stewart--though the backing guitar and bass work is definitely Zeuhlish. Fender Rhodes gives way to synth while complex rhythm section and a more in-the-background Aurélie provide the foundational support. This is easily the most sophisticated section of the song. By the end of the twenty-second minute we are fully and firmly back into the land of Kobaïa--and this is how the song flows to its end.
     The middle section of sparsity with keys, bass, drums, and lone female voice treading softly for several minutes is, I have to admit, my favorite part. I love Aurélie's more loose and melodic "lead" vocals as well as the the Fender Rhodes theme here. I think Aurélie unique talents are much better put to use--"set free"--here than on "Budo."
     Overall, this is another great song--creatively and skillfully melding several styles and influences from within and the fringes of Zeuhl World into something engaging, interesting, and definitely begging for repeated listens. I like this one better than the opener--probably because of its expansive inclusion of other styles as well as the greater range, freedom, and prominence in the lead capacity given to the vocalizations of Ms. Sainte-Croix in the first two of the three middle sections. (47/50)

3. "Au fond des creuses" (8:19) opens slowly with a slow bouncing Zeuhlish Fender Rhodes chord sequence accompanied by simple drums and bass while Aurélie sings her vocalise. The tempo and intensity pick up in the middle of the third minute. Again, I am quite reminded of Chicago's GA'AN's two 2011 releases. At the five minute mark a cool guitar and Fender Rhodes weave sets up support for the entry of solo flute. This is very cool! But, alas! It ends all too quickly; at 6:30 we are back to a slow, plodding section--though this one is heavier due to the guitar's "power chords." The song then softens as it deconstructs toward the very delicate Aurélie Sainte-Croix-led end. (17.5/20)

Total Time 58:50

92.29 on the Fishscales = A/Five stars; a masterpiece of progressive rock music. It is so difficult for me to find fault with Zeuhl music because it's usually so well-constructed and takes such instrumental prowess to render. Plus, there often seems to be present an underlying emotional and even spiritual component to this music. I think of the recent UNIT WALL, PioL, CORIMA, and even this year's PinioL and ALL TRAPS ON EARTH albums as other examples of this fact. Perhaps this subgenre is the pinnacle--or synthesis--of all that is best about progressive rock music. The wordless vocals of Aurélie Sainte-Croix are awesome and so very welcome--they're as good as another lead instrument--and yet I feel that they have not yet been fully liberated--that they are not yet realizing their fullest potential. Perhaps in future releases!?




6. DAI KAHT II 

What if SANTANA or THE ALLMAN BROTHERS played Zeuhl?!

Line-up / Musicians:
- Osmo Saarinen / Drums, Percussion, Vocals
- Roope Pelkonen / Keyboards, Effects
- Ville Sirviö / Lead Guitar, Voice, Effects
- Atte Kemppainen / Lead Vocals, Bass, Percussion, Guitar, Keyboards, Drums, Effects
With:
- Tommi Ruotsalainen / Rhythm Guitar, Voice
- Nina Suokko, Ella Kärnä, Samuli Aihos, Henna Naukkarinen, Mari Pääkkönen / Choir

1. "Hanshin" (4:17) a true Zeuhl intro--complete with vocal narration! But then we shift into drive and pick up an ALLMAN BROTHERS feel for the next wild minute. That bass is moving a million miles an hour--and in a Disco cadence! Choir enters over the next ALLMAN BROTHERS section giving it a kind of STYX feel. Heavily effected synth-guitar solos in the fourth minute before we return to the AB motif to finish. (8.75/10)

2. "Dai Korönenn" (7:57) again, what if THE ALLMAN BROTHERS played MAGMA Zeuhl? The band plays very tightly. In the fifth minute, it moves into more of MOTORPSYCHO territory before subtly flowing into KOENJI HYAKKEI. I love the Klaus Blasquiz imitation in the seventh minute! Then it just gets crazy. (13.25/15)

3. "Helvet Sttroï II" (4:31) moving more into true Zeuhl territory, (even using a language very close to Kobaïan), the choir chants here are a little off but still have a very interesting echoed-staccato effect. (Intentional?) At the end of the third minute we move into a more spacious section that kind of lulls you into a safe place before wild, slashing synthesizer notes enter. (9/10)

4. "Willargh" (8:23) opening with a very pretty, slow, and pensive weave, the music gradually builds until at 1:40 we reach the transition point at which we move into a march-like cadence with male group chanting. This is followed by some rather sedate electric guitar riffing before we move back into the march-and-chant section again. After this the rhythm section moves almost into a Rasta beat while the fuzz guitar solos. A little interlude for a bass solo, and then we fly into the full-speed race to the end--with a slight delay and downshift before more ALLMAN BROTHERS influence begins to exert itself. Wow! (18/20)

5. "Zöbehr-Daï" (11:44) MOTORPSYCHO! At the 3:20 mark the guitars go into a kind of "Schindleria Præmaturus" riff while the rhythm section keeps up a jazzy foundation. A party-like cacophony enters during the sixth minute just to spice things up for a bit, but then we settle back into the Fish-like pattern until some voice samples throw everything off again. At 7:15 we shift into some Viking-like macho chanting before the music takes off at a sprint--as if running away from the Vikings. But, no! They're in pursuit, despite the laser shots from the soloing synth in the ninth minute and the loud power chord play from 8:45 to 9:15. A kind of JC Superstar lull precedes the blows of the start of the final battle at 10:00. (If that was a battle) it is quick and decisive as a heavenly choir of angelic voices seems to show the result before the brief high octane celebratory finish. (17.75/20)

6. "Wehr Mahrü" (5:37) captures amazingly well that menacing, frantic feel that underlies everything MAGMA seems to do. The slow build in the fourth minute is amazing! Hammond Organ solo before returning to the out of control pace and feel to finish. It's got me into a frenzy! Wow! What a ride! (10/10)

7. "Möa Orgata" (12:48) the CAMEL/SANTANA school of Zeuhl with the ZA! vocal choir! Awesome! Even throw in a little DICK DALE and ALLMAN BROTHERS sound/feel in the second half! (22.25/25)

8. "Hertz Kömatt" (5:56) crazy and frenzied in a Zappa-Captain Beefheart kind of way--especially the vocals. Wild and theatric. Not unlike the Eastern European-influenced work of HUMBLE GRUMBLE or FARMERS MARKET. (9/10)

Total Time 61:13

90.0 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of upbeat and frenetic guitar-dominant Zeuhl. Great vocal performances and use of choir and chants.




7. CAMEMBERT - Schnörgl Attahk (2010) Wow! AltrOck Productions just can't miss! Yugen, Ciccada, SKE, Kurai, and now Camembert! Music is alive and well, people! And with great production all around! Refreshing, mesmerizing and, in the case of Schnörgl Attahk, humorous and upbeat. Horns, harps and tuned percussion all jamming with and off of one another! This is one group I want to see live! Haven't been back to Strasbourg since 1979 but, who knows? Maybe in the next couple of years?!

Line-up / Musicians:
- Vincent Sexauer / electric guitar
- Bertrand Eber / trumpet, didgeridoo (4), cowbell (7,8), voices (3,6-8), whistle (3)
- Fabrice Toussaint / tenor trombone, xybraphone, congas, tam-tam, triangle, percussion
- Guillaume Gravelin / harp
- Pierre Wawrzyniak / bass, acoustic guitar (4), voices (6,8)
- Philémon Walter / drums
With:
- Francesco Zago / electric guitar (3)
- Julien Travelletti / bass trombone (3,5,7,8), tuba (7)

1. "Infinicheese" (1:35) (5/5)
2. "Clacos Zero" (0:35) (5/5)
3. "Untung Untungan" (11:13) (20/20)
4. "Clacos 1: Notre Mêre à Tous" (1:58) (5/5)
5. "El Ruotuav Ed Sram" (8:16) (20/20)
6. "Clacos 2: Die Experimente Von Dr F Frankenschnörgl" (0:48) (5/5)
7. "Le Meurtrier Volant" (9:01) (18/20)
- La Danse du Chameau (17:51) 
Unfortunately, the 5-part suite which ends the album, entitled "La danse du Chameau" doesn't succeed in conveying or evoking this same response. (Plodding like the camel for which it is named, the perfect harmony of "The Vulture of Mars" and  "Le meurtrier volant" seems long past.) (32/40):
8. "Batifolade" (5:29)
9. "Soif!" (1:17)
10. "La Tempête De Sable" (4:51)
11. "Rêveries Lubriques Sous Une Dune" (1:09)
12. "The Final Run" (5:01)

Total time 51:13

The transitional songs ("Clacos Zéro," Clacos 1" et "Clacos 2") are excellent (and often quite funny!) but the big monsters [e.g. "Untung Untungen" (11:14), "El ruotuav edsraM" (8:17), et "Le meurtrier volant"] are incroyable! I listen to "Untung" and "ruotuav" (Vulture from Mars) over and over and find my body and spirit reacting quite the same way I did upon first hearing MAGMA's MDK a few years ago: avec une danse joyeuse, sauvage et frénétique! It is wonderful! The pause at the halfway mark in "Untung" is so startling and such a letdown, yet it's so exciting when the music returns and builds and builds, jelling and spiraling its way in perfect collaboration up and then down to a stop--it's just like a rollercoaster ride! And one can just feel the morose, Poe-like tension of "Le meurtrier."

In the vein of its inspirateur, GONG, the band puts forth some jazzy jams, but, also like GONG, IMHO, the jamming seems a bit pointless--or ecstatic and masturbatory--depending on one's psycho-neuro-chemical state. For some reason, the band seems to have mostly abandoned the wonderful collective weaves of the amazing first 30 minutes of the album. Too bad. That was quite a ride!


91.30 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music. Sheer freshness, enjoyability, and perfect sound production of its compositions.




8. PiNioL Bran Coucou (2018) It's all the rave, combining two bands--this time two well-respected avant garde trios from France. The result of all the hype and anticipation is highly entertaining, mind-bogglingly complex, if sometimes a little drawn out and formulaic. I hear a lot of SONAR-like Math Rock in this music, despite the amazingly fun and surprisingly fitting made-up language (a Zeuhl version of Japanese?) vocals. The first half is highly engaging and then it gets a little old.

Line-up/Musicians:
Antoine Arnera (PoiL) - Keyboard, vocals
Boris Cassone (PoiL) - Bass, vocals
Guilhem Meier (PoiL) - Drums, vocals
Anthony Béard (Ni) - Guitar, vocals
François Mignot (Ni) - Guitar, vocals
Benoit Lecomte (Ni) - Bass, vocals
Jean Joly - Drums

1. "Pilon Bran Coucou" (14:02) controlled chaos. It's even melodic and highly engaging! And what musicianship! (27.75/30)

2. "Pogne" (7:15) odd time signature with some catchy melodies and wild fake-Japanese-Zeuhl vocals. It's awesome! (14.25/15)

3. "Mimolle" (4:29) avant even math rock in its rhythm section, the tremolo picked guitar in the opening section speaks "Post Rock" a la MONO, but then things go totally Avant Math Rock in the second minute. As it builds and wails into a frenzy, the music just sucks you in (instead of repelling). (10/10)

4. "Sh' Shin" (14:37) is this song just a Hamiltonian set up for an American swear word? (MF/WTF) (Who knows if the pseudo-Japanese is also of a similar extraction and meaning?) (25.5/30)

5. "François 1er" (9:11) the bonny king is an historical favorite of mine, so my first listen to this comes with expectations: (It better be good!) Slow, sliding tremolo guitars pan across our listening horizon before synth, basses, and drums enter and establish a slow methodical rhythm track. At 2:30 a guitar steps forward as a "lead" instrument--but it's all SONAR-like Math Rock weave. (Though I hear SEVEN IMPALE and KARNIVOOL in this song as well.) Maybe I've been spoiled by the opening song, but this one feels too sedate or as if it never gets off the ground--they just keep testing the engine and special features/apps. (17/20)

6. "Kerberos" (6:05) the band has gotten too tight and too formulaic--the subtleties and idiosyncracies (other than a few belly laughs and xylophone sounds) are all but absent from this one. (8/10)

7. "Orbite" (12:05) slow and very sparse for the first four and a half minutes, it's not until the nonsense pseudo- Japanaese vocals enter that something really interesting begins to happen--and even then it's minimal progress. At 6:20 we finally get some power, some force, some energy and emotion as bass and guitars bash out some heavy chords and metallic arpeggi. I'm reminded of something from King Crimson's Red/Starless period, but this is a little too drawn out. Still, it is better in the second half. (21.25/25)

88.39 on the Fishscales = B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of progressive rock music. Adventurous as it begins, it becomes a bit too formulaic and predictable.




9. CORIMA Amaterasu (2016) Wonderful modern Zeuhl with very strong presence of classical, jazz, and folk themes and instrumentation.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Andrea Calderón / violin, vocals
- Paco Casanova / keys, synths, organ, vocals
- Patrick Shiroishi / saxophones, guitar, glockenspiel, vocals
- Ryan Kamiyamazaki / bass
- Sergio Sanchez Ravelo / drums

1. "Tsukutomi I" (6:44) starts out quite pretty then gets downright kelzmer! Yet, this is good, modern Zeuhl! (9/10)
2. "Tsukutomi II" (10:36) opens with some gentle foundation music supporting a nice soprano sax solo. (19/20)
3. "Tsukutomi III" (2:31) the finale of the three-part suite almost sounds like an overture from a late-1960s Broadway rock opera--heavy on the Hammond. (4/5)

4. "Amaterasu I" (3:45) Zeuhl classical piano?!! (9/10)
5. "Amaterasu II" (3:31) slowed down and spacious but just as ominous with violin, saxophone and female voices mirroring each other. (9/10)
6. "Amaterasu III" (4:53) again presents the Klezmer sound masked in JANNICK TOP/UNIVERSAL TOTEM ORCHESTRA- like female and male vocals. (8.5/10)
7. "Amaterasu IV" (2:34) sounds like it could have come straight off of a 1970s JEAN-LUC PONTY album! Great drumming. (8/10)
8. "Amaterasu V" (6:12) very standard Zeuhl in the Magma tradition (8/10)
9. "Amaterasu VI" (8:02) which is then continued in the album and suite's final song. (12/15)

86.5 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; an excellent example of 21st Century Zeuhl and of progressive rock music in general. It's so difficult for me to not like the intense spiritual feelings evoked by true Zeuhl music like this. This is the best Zeuhl album of 2016 that I have heard.




10. UNIVERSAL TOTEM ORCHESTRA Mathematical Mother (2016) A welcome arrival! (It's been a while, UTO!) 2017 finds the Spanish Zeuhl masters in fine form, with some very mature, very Zeuhl-styled musical offerings (the first two) and some odd, unsettling, and, ultimately, floundering meanderings in three of the other four.

1. "Terra Cava" (14:06) I'm especially attached to the piano and voice section in the middle (what an amazing vocalist is Ana Torres Fraile!); it is sublime! The opening section is highly polished, tightly performed, with some excellent guitar soloing. The third section is bass-centric while Indian konokol or 'voice percussion' performs intermittently throughout. (28.5/30)

2. "Codice Y16" (5:21) sounds so much like a Magma opus! Piano, guitars, and voices all performing at breakneck speed with amazingly tight timing. Here we find UTO totally in the pocket, in their element, at their all-time best! Simply INCREDIBLE vocal and keyboard performances throughout, start to finish! One of the best prog songs of the year! (10/10)

3. "Elogio Del Dubbio" (7:54) perhaps a little less Zeuhl-ish while flowing more like a KOTEBEL song--at least until the Arabic vocalizations from guest singer Samia Charbel beginning at the 4:10 mark. Morphing into another stripped down, tabla-based church-like operatic vocal performance by the nearly perfect voice of Ms. Torres Fraile, the song feels suddenly so European and liturgical. Ends with an interesting though tangential instrumental section. (19/20)

4. "Architettura Dell'acqua" (11:27) begins with Ana supported only by softly picked electric guitar in an almost-pop performance. This is more akin to the wonderful Neofolk-classical offerings of countrymate Riccardo Prencipe in his CORDE OBLIQUE project releases. In the sixth minute we jump into a full band rock and then prog styled song. An uncharacteristic song from UTO and not my favorite. Still, it is better than 99% of the crap you hear out there. The introduction to the final section (before the guitar solo) is the best part of the song. I much prefer Ana's voice in the full operatic demand. (17/20)

5. "Citta' Infinite" (6:19) opens with a Latin jazzy feel with piano-based combo prepping us for Ana's entry. Vocalise with some scatting is how Ana comes in--and continues to perform for about a minute. Were words lacking, or was this composed with the intention of exploring traditional jazz realms? The synth used in the second minute and shift to more rock sounds & stylings (and use of words by Ana's sublime voice) signal that the jazz foray was only temporary. The fourth minute introduces another new style and approach: quiet, low-key singing, unusual non-ethnic musical style--and then we're off to some familiar bass riffing (from The Magus) with some play from vibes, guitar and synths over the top. Solo piano cuts in at 5:30 to end and fade out. Strange song. (8.5/10)

6. "Mare Verticale" (7:38) surprisingly simple song structures over the first two sections. It's as if the band is having trouble deciding who they want to be and so are playing it extra-conservatively. It's not until 3:25 when we finally get to hear Ana back at her most excellent voce. The music feels old, dated, mired in out-dated rock modalities and stylings. Too much of a mish-mash of mush which seems to have no direction or aim. Scatting @ 6:00 and then back to bland hard rock over which Ana tries to soar. This does NOT work. This song is, to my ears, grating; to my mind, utterly disappointing. (11/15)

In summary, the first two songs are so much stronger than the more stylistically chameleonic tapestries that make up the the final three songs; Zeuhl with Ana's powerful operatic approach are their strengths. While The Magus showed flaws in over-indulgences and sound quality issues (in the mixes), this album shows flaws in clarity of intent and purpose. More songs and music like the first two, please.

89.52 = B+/4.5 stars; a very good offering of Zeuhlish progressive rock music. 




VAK Aedividea (2015)

A sophomore effort from a new generation of Kobaïans from France.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Aurélie Saintecroix / vocals
- Thomas Bourgenot / guitar
- Alexandre Michaan / keyboards, synthesizers
- Juliette Drigny / flute
- Franck Varnava / bass (1,3,5)
- Joël Crouzet / bass (2,4,6)
- Vladimir Mejstelman / drums 

1. "IJKL" (7:03) more guitar-centric than typical Zeuhl. Until the final 30 seconds, this is not as interesting or sophisticated and refreshing to make it worth coming back to. (11.5/15)

2. "Aedividea" (14:02) opens with a spacey ALAN PARSONS PROJECT-like texture before electric piano, drums, guitar, bass and flute enter and define their rolls within a repetitive weave a bit before Aurélie's voice joins. A dynamics and tempo shift at the four-minute mark usher in a faster, guitar- and bass-driven section. Keys, voice, drums, and flute provide excellent reinforcement and embellishment to main theme--eventually taking over from guitar and voice in the seventh minute. This is good! The flute player tries to give it her Zeuhlish best, but, to my ears, it's just not wild and loud enough to deserve the leadership position. At 8:20 there is a stop and restart into an entirely new theme--one in which the drums get a chance to really show off. At 9:45 the vocals seem to be positioning themselves to take over the lead, but synths, guitars, and, especially, the drums are not quite willing to give her the chance. Another new motif begins in the 12th minute before melting away for a gentle guitar, Fender Rhodes, and cymbal to set up a new theme with arpeggiated guitar and bass setting the mood. Aurélie is still there, being used more to reflect the flute--to the end. Interesting! (26/30)

3. "Alzh" (11:08) opens with a kind of 1970s RTF jazz-fusion sound and feel. At the one-minute mark things shift and guitar chord play takes front and center over Fender Rhodes fast arpeggi. Eventually, flute takes the lead as things get seriously Zeuhlish (with "choral" vocals spicing things up). Even so, this is still not at the level of Magma sophistication or virtuosity. A slow down (almost "breakdown") in the fifth minute leads to a slow, plodding section that constantly feels as if it's trying to get going (despite the showy drum play) but never does. Quick key-arpeggio at 6:25 once again kickstarts this into the fast lane but, then, things feel like they're getting stuck again--until everything drops out at 7:45, leaving us floating in some kind of state of suspended animation for the next three and a half minutes as strings-like synths create a kind of background of Interstellar tension. I love this--though it doesn't feel very Zeuhl (and yet, in a space opera, shouldn't there be occasional passages just like this?) The most refreshing and innovative song on the album, IMHO. (17.5/20)

4. "Zeom" (9:49) opens with a heavy weave that has more in common with KING CRIMSON than Magma. Wordless vocals enter in the second minute adding a Zeuhlish quality, but then they fade out and we are left with a much more technical/metal sound palette. In the fourth minute flute is added and then the intensity of the music backs off a much more Carolina Prieta-KOTEBEL-like operatic voice joins in. Flute holds the foundation with a chord progression of quick-arpeggi as the rest of the band punctuates with syncopated though-coordinated chords until 6:37. At 7:45 the music takes on a familiarity to the driving music of JANNICK TOP's 2008 masterpiece of urgency, Infernal Machina.  Good stuff! (17.5/20)

5. "Ellien" (6:23) interesting polyrhythmic play between the keyboard's arpeggi and the rest of the band's weave. Drums and electric guitar also seem to go their own separate ways at times. Aurélie's voice just seems so wasted here: just another single-note provider like a flute or synth. Nice keys, guitars, and drumming on display in their soli during the fifth and sixth minutes. Bass becomes the only thing really holding this to a Zeuhl script. (8.25/10)

6. "Periscopy" (10:15) This song takes us fully into the realm of UNIVERSAL TOTEM ORCHESTRA as Aurélie (and her operatic voice) is finally given some freedom and room to live large within the music. Still, there is a little too much simplicity and mechanisticality in the Zeuhl formats used here. At the same time, there is, however, a feeling about this song as if the band have finally made Zeuhl their go-to music; the leads and turn-taking and commitment to background support on this song feel just as strong as those given by C Vander and his hired guns. The best and most fulfilling, complete-sounding song on the album. (18.25/20)

Total Time: 58:40

86.09 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; all in all, this is a fine addition to the Zeuhl lexicon, though this band still feels as though they are getting their feet wet in terms of rising to the mastery and sophistication of the Zeuhl masters. I'm hopeful that the final song, "Periscopy," is an indication of that step forward. 




RHÙN's Fanfare du chaos (2013) This album has provided me with the nearest thing to classic MAGMA that I've ever experienced. There are also quite a few moments in which I am reminded of PRESENT and the other French and Belgian RIO artists. Heck, there are also a few moments that I swear I'm hearing the jazzy orchestral sounds of BURT BACHARACH and Hollywood movie soundtracks!

Line-up / Musicians:
- Captain Flapattak / drums, vocals
- Fabien De Kerbalek / guitar, vocals
- Thybo / guitar
- Damoon / bass, vocals (1-3)
- Sir Alron / bass, vocals (4-6)
- Brhüno / tenor & soprano saxophones, bassoon, vocals (1-3)
- Sam / alto & baritone saxophones, alto clarinet, flute, vocals (4-6)
- Marhïon Mouette / vocals, percussion (1-3)
- Emilie Massue / vocals, percussion (4-6)
With:
The Ensemble Pantagrulair:
- Séverine / flute, piccolo (1-3)
- Rémi / oboe (1-3)
- Catherine / clarinet (1-3)
- Pierre / horn (1-3)

1. 'Toz' (9:24) opens with the power and sound just like MAGMA (except for the piccolo).
The crazed saxophone and electric guitar soli and the movie soundtrack interlude at 3:45-
4:15 are a little beyond anything I've heard from Magma, but otherwise this is an awesome
song right out of Neb'hr Gudahtt's iPod playlist! (18/20)

2.  'Intermud' (2:59) is an interlude instrumental purely from the realm of classical chamber
music. Here brass and woodwinds exchange and intermingle minor and dissonant chord
structures. It is quite interesting and not as distant or depressing as the usual modern
chromatic chamber stuff. (4/5)

3. 'Dunb' (8:54) opens with a bang as multi-level and multi-layered vocals chant over the
throb of a full band of bass, military drumming, horns and woodwinds. The delicate flute-led
interlude at the 1:40 mark provide quite a contrast to the power and insistence of the
opening 100 seconds. Kind of like yang and yin, masculine and feminine. A return to power
and drive is introduced by electric guitar before a male baritone voice takes off running--
everybody else trying to keep up, fuzzy, chunky bass and soprano chorale the most
persistent. The 4:45 mark is where I'm hearing the distinct orchestral sounds of Burt
Bacharach--followed by a kind of Michel Legrand/Debussey theme. The warrior chorus
takes up their march again at 6:10 but find themselves intermittently distracted or slowed by
the soprano sirens, woodwinds, and piccolos. Interesting song! (16/20)

4. 'Bumlo' (5:32) sets into motion with a rolling bass line supported by a much more jazz-
oriented ensemble, sounding like until at the 1:30 mark the music falls away and a more
chaotic, cacophonic free-form jazz--complete with Ornette Coleman-like sax solo--takes
over. By the fourth minute the song has evolved into a more structured Zeuhl song, but this
finds itself intruded upon by an interloper from the California surfin' music of the Fifties and
Sixties! Dude can sing like Bill Haley or Buddy Holly! (8/10)

5. 'Mlues' (6:15) opens with a sustained chord straight from some Miles Davis song from
the Sixties. The evolution from there is definitely shaped by 1970s jazz fusion. I'm especially
reminded of the music of the film music for the Balck 'sexplotation' films of the 70s as well as
some of Freddy Hubbard's experimental stuff (until the male vocals enter).  The high speed
frenzy after the 5:30 mark to end is more reminiscent of some of the early hard rockers--those who later earned the title of Heavy Metal artists. (7/10)

6. 'Ih' (8:15) opens with a psych-jazz sound, a very cool, very sophisticated sound and feel
as if from a very intense scene of a 1970s murder crime film. At 2:30, as the female vocalist
and new bass, guitar, and woodwind riffs take over, the soundtrack feel continues--as if the
stealthy chase of the protagonist intensifies, gets closer to the criminal danger. The tension
only thickens with dynamic shifts from 4:45 to 5:15. Then a chaotic loud period ensues--as if
confrontation is at hand--followed by another bizarre chase scene (capture,
unconsciousness, drugged, delusional awakening, and death??) Awesome song. Awesome
mood setter. (13.5/15)

Total Time: 41:29

Definitely an awesome album of top notch Zeuhl. Papa Vander must be proud! Solid four
star effort--highly recommended for the adventurous prog lover and a real prize for the
Zeuhl lover. 

83.125 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; a very good Zeuhl album showing potential for future greatness.




UNIT WAIL Retort (2013) 

The sophomore album from these young and ambitious Zeuhl-meisters. The dark CRIMSONian tone is still here, but the band has cleaned up the schizophrenic soundscapes and matured quite a bit in the compositional department, employing more multiple themes per song than before. Though interesting and creative sonic explorations continue for the bass and keyboards players, not so much for Franck's lead guitar. Still attracted to shorter song formats, the band has included their first longer song ever in the finale, "Aqua Permanens."

Line-up / Musicians:
- Franck W Fromy / guitars
- Philippe Haxaire / drums
- Adrian Luna / bass
- Emmanuel Pothier / synths
- Vincent Sicot Vantalon / keyboards 

1. "Kakodeamon" (3:40) great opener! What a pace! Let's me know how these guys have grown: far more cohesive King Crimson-influenced Zeuhl. A top three song. (9/10)

2. "Peregrinatio" (4:11) kind of a continuation and variation on the opener with more synth and lead guitar inputs and more prominent "lead" bass. Mellotron is much more prominent--and ubiquitous--on these songs than on Pangaea Proxima. (8.5/10)

3. "Tertium Comparationis" (3:33) It's like that bass is talking to us! Electronica synth and Fripptonian guitars. After 90 seconds there is an unexpected quieting while TOBY DRIVER-like effected lead guitar plays some notes in the background. Then Mellotrons drench the scape as we return to the opening weave. Interesting. Perhaps this is where Toby got some of his impetus for turning back to 1980s techno-soundscapes. (8.5/10)

4. "Concupiscentia Effrenata" (3:28) sounds like a mix between OZRIC TENTACLES and some of jazz-rock fusion's more adventurous keyboard explorers (Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Edgar Winter, Moogy Klingman). Very jazzy. A top three song for me. (8.75/10)

5. "PumaPunku" (5:35) very CRIMSON-like. (9/10)

6. "Numinosity" (4:03) surprisingly sedate and straightforward (for a King Crimson-inspired song).  (8.25/10)

7. "Agathodeamon" (4:07) love the 1970s-like harpsichord hits! Very cinematic with it's long start-n-stop first half and brief passages into fifth gear--like a car chase scene. (8.5/10)

8. "Coincidentia Oppositorum" (3:47) (8/10)

9. "Fixatio" (4:20) I still get a kick out this band's use of the "harpsichord" sound--especially when the music turns so dark and CRIMSON-like as it does here. Then there's the Jaco Pastorius tribute in the middle. (8.25/10)

10. "Aqua Permanens" (6:46) more harpsichord! More cerebral, methodic and NIL-like in its Zeuhlishness. I like the Jaco display in the middle of this one much more than on the previous song.  (13/15)

Total Time 43:07

I don't know why, but bass and drummer Adrain Luna and Philippe Haxaire, respectively, are much more tame in this collection of songs than on the band's debut. As a matter of fact, the entire album's collection of music seems more sedate and controlled (and Mellotron-dominated) than the display of wild on-the-edge  reckless abandon that Pangaea Proxima put forth. It's as if the band recorded the songs of Retort after the one night of wild amphetamine abuse explored on Pangaea Proxima.

I really have trouble rating this next to its predecessor as they are two completely different animals, wild and tamed--and yet only one year apart!

85.48 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; another very nice contribution to the 21st Century Zeuhl renaissance and a nice show of growth and maturity from this energetic, creative band. Highly recommended for lovers of Zeuhl and 2nd incarnation King Crimson (1972-5). 
 



UNIT WAIL -- Pangaea Proxima (2013)

Debut release from these heavy Zeuhlish artists from France. Thought the Zeuhl categorization may be warranted, I hear a lot of KING CRIMSON sound and stylings as well as TOE-like Post Rock. 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Franck William Fromy / guitar
- Philippe Haxaire / drums
- Adrian Luna / bass
- Vincent Sicot Vantalon / keyboards
- Emmanuel Pothier / synthesizers

1. "Mesozoïc Cities" (3:22) more like Red-era King Crimson! They've got that polyrhythmic thing going on (though I'm not sure it always works). (8.5/10)

2. "Ombos" (3:39) paced a little more humanely to allow for proper brain processing, this one has some melody! (8.5/10)

3. "Télété" (2:41) drum and bass on display! Interesting use of harpsichord sound and 'tron! (4.25/5)

4. "Sargasso Sea" (4:03) atmospheric effects joined by TOE-like drums, ominous electric guitar strokes and Mellotron. (8.75/10)

5. "Outerspace" (4:57) almost European techno-dance music! Very creative synths, guitars, and bass. Great drumming--except it almost doesn't fit the mood of the rest of the musicians. (8.25/10)

6. "Humanoïd Fish From Encelade" (2:23) a very bizarre spliced-feeling purveyed by unusual sounds created by bass, guitars, and keys all played over the usual frenzied drumming. (4/5)

7. "Home of Nowhere" (4:31) slow and menacing, like a damaging walk through Tokyo by Godzilla. Awful bass solo in the fourth minute! Now this one could've used the drummer's usual wild drumming! (8/10)

8. "Magnétostriction" (2:38) angular guitar soloing over relatively slow and stable music. (4/5)

9. "Holocene Extinction" (3:35) The innovative bass sound on this catchy song is almost MICK KARN-like. (8.75/10)

10. "Shambhala" (5:15) the interplay of the Outer Limits-like lead synth sound and the wild MICK KARN-like bass sound and play definitely incurs smiles (and is impressively creative!). (8.5/10)

11. "Three Eyes" (2:23) more angular guitar soloing over a rather wide range of styles and paces (including prominent piano presence) makes for quite a multiple personality disorder. (4.25/5)

12. "Subdeath" (4:43) it does sound funereal--as if one were marching alongside Charon on one's entry into Hades. Nice use of demonic male voice in narration. (8.25/10)

Total Time 44:10

Very impressive musicianship throughout--especially from the drummer and bass player though the keyboard maestroes and guitarist are very creative. The problem comes from the gradual disconnect that I hear and feel between the music being cast by everybody except the drummer (which is very creative and spacey) and the homogeneity of the drummer's very aggressive sound and style.  

85.0 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; an impressive debut and highly recommended listen for any prog lover--especially if you're into 1. the Red-era King Crimson style and sound palette, 2. into frenetic drum-centric music, or 3. very creative sound-making.




XING SA -- Création de l'Univers (2011)  Though I loved this album from its initial release, I think it was due to its easy access--the songs are all simply constructed and the pace is overall quite slow and spacious--but as time ran on, repeated listens have found that I am bored by an untenable sameness and lack of dynamic breadth. The concept and cycle of titular construction are very cool, but the complexity of composition and musicianship demand too little of the listener--or at least, far less than the typical Zeuhl album demands of its usual listener. The only thing about "Création" has that is on the same level as its Zeuhl peers is excellent production, the rest just doesn't compare.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Nicolas Goulay / Keyboards
- Christophe Blondel / Bass
- Nicolas Candé / Drums
with guests:
- Yannick Duchene Sauvage / Voice
- Fabien Lenoir / Chau gongs
- Gilles Wolff / Tenor sax


1. Feu 1 (5:22)
2. Feu 2 (4:25)
3. Feu 3 (3:20)
4. Terre 1 (4:03)
5. Terre 2 (7:43)
6. Terre 3 (4:20)
7. Metal 1 (6:49)
8. Metal 2 (5:13)
9. Eau 1 (7:57)
10. Eau 2 (4:34)
11. Bois 1 (1:22)
12. Bois 2 (5:15)
13. Bois 3 (3:23)

Total Time 63:46



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The 2000s: Favorite Prog Folk Releases

 My favorite albums released during the decade of 2000 through 2009:



1. IONA Open Sky (2000) (Celtic Electric Folk/Prog Folk) is one of my favorite albums of the 21st Century and definitely my favorite album from Y2K. It is one of those collections of songs that I enjoy playing start to finish, though I do have my favorites ("Woven Chord," "Wave After Wave," "Castlerigg," and "Hinba"). Others have eluded to the fiery guitar soli, the driving drumming, the amazing interplay and interweaving of traditional Celtic instruments, the peaceful, sometimes-ambient lulls, and Joanne Hogg's voice. I am here to reiterate and reaffirm all of it. Plus, the song structures are so interesting and delightful. Take "Castlerigg" (a veritable prog masterpiece, IMHO): It begins sounding like a traditional Irish song bordering on New Age with flutes and heavenly background keys. The music puts you into an ancient wood, as if you are walking with a group on a hunting or reconnaissance party. Then at 1:20 an ominous drum, tambourine and bass thrum begins as a bagpipe seems to "walk into the song" as if another party?the traveling minstrel or bar?has just walked out from behind a rock escarpment, or from out of a cave, marching right into the majestic mellotron forest glen (sounding a lot like a Kate Bush song from The Dreaming). Then the minstrel stops, all ears turn to the soft 'responsorial' music of an acoustic guitar picker and his violin side-kick laying down the setting for Joanne to begin to whisper some unearthly and ever-so-powerful words of "light" and "memory" and "waves" until the intensity builds with Joanne's wordless keening at the 6:05 mark until an Enya-like pause at the 6:50 mark clears the glen for response of the flutes and bagpipes with a full accompaniment of a driving drums, bass and synths chords, building, building as the drums and cymbols crash and clang to a climax and finale. Masterful song construction, beautifully orchestrating the listeners' mood sways.

1. "Woven Cord" (9:29) is a powerful instrumental; great start to finish. (10/10)

2. "Wave After Wave" (6:17) puts on display a great complement of instruments helping to build around Joanne's powerful voice and catchy melody. (10/10)

3. "Open Sky" (5:42) is a soft, simpler song--mostly acoustic--with an odd Indian-sounding instrument (or two) but wonderful vocals and vocal harmonies. (7/10)

4. "Castlerigg" (9:28) (as above) is an absolutely amazing song that takes you on an amazing journey, start to finish. Incredible beauty and power. (10/10)

5. "A Million Stars" (3:22) is beautiful atmospheric song with solo violin accompanied by background synth wash. The melody is quite haunting--very Vaughan Williams-like. (10/10)

6. "Light Reflected" (5:13) is a song that begins by showcasing Joanne's extraordinarily sensitive, subtle voice talents. Nice fretless bass, background piano arpeggio melody. Nearing the three-and-a-half minute mark the song threatens to break into full power, more so at the 4:00, then finally does with an awesome electric guitar solo before falling back to the ambient sounds from the beginning. (8/10)

7. "Hinba" (4:59) another song with an odd Celtic/not-Celtic/World music feel to it. The violin sounds more like that of Shankar from Peter Gabriel's "Passion Sources." A rather straightforward 'rock' chorus is this song-full-of-subtleties's only 'flaw.' Great instrumentation in last two minutes. (9/10)

8, 9, 10. "Songs of Ascent (Parts 1, 2, & 3)" (7:59 + 9:07 + 4:55) What I used to think of as "The weakest part of the album because of their soft, 'going nowhere' feel," I have grown to really enjoy. The music takes me to beautiful places in (and out of) Nature. Nice sounds, very ambient. Not a lot of development or power; very little catchy melody making. This is more like movie soundtrack music (very pleasant, often beautiful, soundtrack music). Second half of "Part 2" is the best. "Part 3" is very folkie and has some nice Joanne vocal weaves and rocking climax. (Check out the electric guitar and Celtic flute duet/duel!) (8/10)

11. "Friendship's Door" (7:15) is most interesting for it's reiteration several of the album's previous themes (often in the background, as if listening to review tapes). The song itself is otherwise good if not very memorable. (7/10)

Aside from the album's weaknesses, it makes up for it in its unusual and distinctive sound. Truly something worth checking out for every proghead. After years of finding myself continually drawn back to this album--and the fact that Songs 8, 9, and 10, "Songs of Ascent" (Parts 1, 2, &3) have grown on me, I can declare that this has become one of those albums I will always carry with me.




2. ULVER Shadows of the Sun (2007) (Ambient/Electronic World Music) I'm going out on a limb here by posting Shadows of the Sun as a Prog Folk album but the sound, song structures, and instrument choices are, to my ears, so similar to those of DEAD CAN DANCE, ATARAXIA, PETER GABRIEL and other artists who have earned Gothic, Traditional and World folk music status that I could not deny it. Plus, it is an album who's message to humanity is so earthy and so important that I believe it needs wider exposure. 
     This happened to be my first Ulver album and it remains one of the best collections of songs, start to finish, from this, the 21st Century, that I have heard. And though this is a dark and pessimistic concept album, it does an amazing job of conveying the despair and hopelessness of our role as perpetrators and victims of planet Earth's demise. The use of piano, tympanic drums, Oslo Session String Quartet, deep breathy vocals, synthesizers and even trumpet and theremin all help to impart the heavy, tragic mood ever-so exquisitely, even beautifully, if that is possible. I am ever awed by the wonderfully unexpected and subtle turns and twists within each and every song--including the "extra" 2 minutes of recorded silence at the end of the album's last song (after the world and/or life on the planet has been extinguished). Though an inattentive listen may leave the listener thinking the album is just one song and one mood, the attentive head-phoned listener is privy to a very artful and intimate experience.
     The first song, "EOS," sucks you into the album experience like light into a blackhole, the other songs entertain as you fall in ("All The Love," "Let the Children Go"), as light begins to fade, and the last song, "Whatever Happened?" spits you out on the other side, into a fresh, new universe. A lot to ponder; a lot of responsibility in the album's message. A fantastic album. Definitely a classic of our time, for the ages; a masterpiece. One of my two favorite albums from 2007.
     Including this album among a list of "Favorite Prog Folk Albums" may seem to some to be a bit of a stretch as most people consider this a Post Rock/Math Rock album, but, to my ears, the simple song structures using a small sample of instruments mixed with Garm's Earthy voice and heavily Earth-centric message here all lend to its being a collection of music founded in folk traditions. Not unlike DEAD CAN DANCE and ATARAXIA. 




3. FAUN Renaissance (2005) (Electrified Pagan World Folk) on this their third major album release, FAUN puts on display their continued experimentation with electronic support to the moods of their medieval and Gothic-tinged story telling. This seems to be the directional flow that Germany's prog folk masters have chosen since their more acoustic start on 2002's Zaubersprüche. What is especially impressive with this group's evolution is the serious way in which the band has researched and reinterpreted folk songs and stories from a wide variety of cultures. In fact, on Renaissance you will find lyrics being sung in Portugese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Spanish, and Yoruba--as well as in variations/dialects of their own native German. Amazing!

1. "Satyros" (3:34) The album opens with a very festive yet sacred sounds of multiple female voices harmonizing in Renaissance/mediæval fashion over some hard driving hand percussion and fast moving "ancient" instrumentation. (10/10)

2. "Da Que Deus" (3:54) opens with similarly layered harmonies of multiple female voices but moving at a bit slower a pace than the album opener. Nice recorder and harp solos are given space between the vocal sections. (10/10)

3. "Tagelied" (5:01) opens with strummed lute and deep heart-beat thrum drum establishing a deep penetrating effect before the male lead vocal enters with female background vocal support coming from far back in the mix. There is an ominous, almost scary feeling conveyed through the music and singing of this song. Beautiful wooden flute solos are interspersed between the vocal sections. A brilliantly constructed song. (10/10)

4. "Rhiannon" (3:31) is an instrumental reel that opens with some treated/synthesized and acoustic hand percussives weaving together with bagpipe, bazooka, and other instruments all moving together at breakneck speed. (9/10)

5. "Sirena" (5:11) opens with some sequenced rhythms playing quietly, well behind the harmonized vocal "ooooo-aahhs." The Arabian-tinged droning medieval troubadour music that develops would probably be better were I to have an understanding of the lyrics. (8/10)

6. "Königen" (6:25) opens with some Arabian-sounding female voice panning around in the far background as arpeggiated harp plays in the foreground. Set to a slow tempo of computer-sequenced electronic drums and hi-hat, a single female voice enters to carry the lyric over a beautiful, rather simple melody line. Very little embellishments to the vocals or recorder solis. Pure and simple, the story must be quite powerful in order to have been given this very simple arrangement. Again, I wish I knew the language so I could better appreciate the story of the Kings. Lovely song! (9/10)

7. "Iyansa" (4:51) is another droning simple piece with mostly solo female voice singing the lyric. Hypnotic. (9/10)

8. "Rosmarin" (6:45) returns to the more woven textures of the earlier songs, including the vocals, which start out with just Oliver singing but soon add the female harmonies (interestingly, in a lower register!) Hurdy gurdy, bouzouki, bagpipes, and hand bells and shells weave nicely to form a solid support for the vocals and in-between soli, until at the four minute mark everybody stops and a series of synthetic sounds take over in a quiet interlude before percussive and single-note instruments are slowly added back into the mix. At 5:40 an electric guitar power chord surprises and is repeated every few seconds to the end of the song as a single voice whispers repeatedly "es come der tar" or something like that. Wow! What a surprise! Awesome song! (10/10)

9. "Das Tor" (8:13) opens with another deeply ominous electronic background industrial drone as a crazed female voice hums a simple nursery rhyme melody in the middle ground. Lisa takes up a simple melody alone for the first verse and then is joined by another female voice and some other instrumentation (violin, flutes, hand drums, electronic drums, harp). The song builds and builds, slowly but ever so powerfully, resolutely. Even the vocals begin to climb the ladder of octaves as the foundational rhythms and weaves plod along insistently, unrelentingly, beautifully. By the sixth minute the song is devolving into the opening mix, with those eery hums and now laughing children's voices carrying forward the disturbing feeling of this song. Incredible song. Incredible. (10/10)

FAUN here show their continued and increasing experiments with inputs from computer and electronic-generated support as contributed by electronic expert, Neil Mitra. For the most part it works--especially as a complement or takeover for the rhythm section. Oliver, Fiona and Rüdiger's contributions on ancient traditional instruments are virtuosic yet restrained and never overbearing--which puts a nice focus on the vocals of which the gorgeous voice of Lisa Pawelke seems to have taken greater prominence. I have to say that, so far, every FAUN album seems to be better than the previous one. (Too bad Totem did not continue this trend.) This album may be better than 2011's Eden but it has not yet won my heart to the extent that Eden has. It may be the warm intimacy the listener experiences from Eden's due to its engineering and production. Plus Eden's packaging is so full and engaging.



4. CORDE OBLIQUE The Stones of Naples

This is the third of RICCARDO PRENCIPE's neo-medieval folk fashioned music presentations. This album sees a definite step forward in the compositions' leanings toward folk and medieval music and away from straightforward neoclassical music. For me, this pays off with The Stones of Naples feeling like the most accessible and most enjoyable Corde Oblique album yet. Plus, The Stones of Naples enjoys the benefit of vocal contributions of no less than six woman, each of outstanding voice, including: Caterina Pontrandolfo (familiar to us from the previous album, Volontrà d'arte) on songs 1, 6 and 10; Floriana Cangiano on songs 2 and 9; Claudia Sorvillo on songs 4 and 11, Monica Pinto, Geraldine Le Cocq and Alessandra Santovito on songs 7, 5, and 3, respectively.

     Because of this last fact, I will add that more than either of Riccardo's previous two Corde Oblique albums, this one is much more song/ballad oriented. You have to travel eight songs into the album before you get to an instrumental, and, again, unlike the previous albums, this one has much more of a medieval folk feel to it. This album contains songs of such consistently high standards that are all so enjoyable that I prefer to not single out any songs that I like more than any others (though, between you and me, I find myself swooning with absolute bliss during this string of five songs: "Flower Bud," "Flying," "Like an Ancient Black and White Movie," "La città dagli occhi neri," and "Nostalgica avanguardia"). Let's just say from the album's opening notes and song to its last you are in for a real treat.

1. "La quinta ricerca" (3:13) opens the album with Riccardo's lute serving notice that this is going to be music that feels like it comes from five hundred years ago. When sublime singer Caterina Pontrandolfo joins in with the accompaniment some other medieval instrumental accompanying her the ancient resolve is affirmed. An orchestral finale is unexpected but wonderful. (10/10)

2. "Venti di sale" (5:29) is opened with solo grand piano for the first minute--laying down some gorgeous introductory work--before vocalist Floriana Cangiano and a full force folk ensemble rush into the void with some quite dynamically diverse music--both acoustic guitars, violin, and hand percussion, and modern (fretless bass and drums). Lacking a memorable melodic hook to make this total ear candy. (9/10) 

3. "Flower Bud" (5:46) a stunningly gorgeous song with just the music but then you add the incredibly sensitive vocal of Alessandra Santovito (in English!) and you get bliss, utter bliss. The start of that string of five songs of Olympian perfection. (10/10)  

4. "Flying" (5:44) is a gorgeous remake of an ANATHEMA song (from 2003's A Natural Disaster), with the crystalline pipes of Claudia Sorvillo delivering the vocal--though she is later beautifully doubled (by another vocalist?). The rock drumming and piccolo-like arpeggio notes from the classical guitar in the final minute and a half are sublime! (10/10)

5. "Like An Ancient Black & White Movie" (2:10) opens with delicate piano, strings and Riccardo's classical guitar setting up a dreamy mood for yet another stunning vocal (the third one in a row in English!) this time by the ethereal KATE BUSH-like voice of Geraldine Le Cocq. (10/10) 

6. "La Città Dagli Occhi Neri" (5:44). Caterina Pontrandolfo, voice of the opener, returns to sing this one in Italian, accompanied by Riccardo's lute and bass. Though it feels like she is singing in a relaxed, even lazy fashion, her slight rasp and gently trilling vibrato are sheer perfection here. Drums and rock instruments join in for the final 1:10 as Caterina sings some non-lexical vocables with the violin. (10/10) 

7. "Nostalgica Avanguardia" (5:14) a gentle, almost religious-feeling song as sung by Monica Pinto in Italian. The music becomes almost Gypsy fast while Monica continues to sing with what feels like respect and reverence. (9/10)

8. "The Quality Of Silence" (1:48) is a nice little instrumental duet between Riccardo and pianist Luigi Rubino. (8/10)

9. "Barrio Gotico" (7:16) sees the return of Floriana Cangiano to the vocal mic as Riccardo and a simple Spanish folk ensemble supports. Riccardo on guitar, hand percussionist Michele Maione also on board. Well performed but a little long-winded and monotonous--though the final two minutes sounds like primo soundtrack music to a classic Italian Spaghetti Western. (8/10)

10. "Dal Castello Di Avella" (3:58) Caterina Pontrandolfo retirns to the vocal helm for the third and final time with a song brimming with feelings of love and nostalgia. This woman could sing anyone into peace, calm, and, dare I say it, love. The spiritual intentions behind her singing remind me of American spiritual singer, SHAINA NOLL. An eminently simple song--just Caterina and Riccardo--but one that comes across as utter perfection! (10/10)

11. "La Gente Che Resta" (3:24) opens with solo clarinet before a fully-scored folk troupe gather behind him in support of another Claudia Sorvillo vocal effort. The clarinet interplay behind and with the vocal is quite magical but the song lacks any memorable melodies. (8/10)

12. "Piscina Mirabilis" (2:56) is a nice little solo classical guitar piece from Riccardo to close out the album. Nice. (9/10) 

92.50 on the Fishscales = a five star masterpiece of progressive rock (folk) music.




5. MEDIÆVAL BÆBES Mirabilis (2005) The Mediaeval Baebes are an all female Renaissance/folk vocal group whose members fluctuate from album to album, and song to song. I include Mirabilis in the realm of progressive folk because the vocal arrangements and song choices are so sophisticated and so well engineered with lots of interesting modern recording effects and techniques, and because the supporting cast of 'medieval' folk instrumentalists are of such high caliber. Some of the instruments accompanying the vocalists include: glockenspiel, harmonium, concertina, hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer, zither, cittern (lute), baglama (saz), oud, violin, viola, cello, double bass, finger cymbals, tabla, psaltry, sitar, chanter, trumpet, saxophone, autoharp, mellotron, piano, and multiple size recorders. Mirabilis is a mesmerizing, fascinating listen with diverse, virtuosic performances from start to finish.

1. "Star of the Sea" (3:32) let's you know what you're in for from the beginning. Recorders, lutes, had percussives and a full choral vocal presentation. (9/10)

2. "Trovommi Amor" (4:39). A song that fails to really get up and go anywhere despite the slow build of harmonized voices and instruments. (8/10)

3. "Temptasyon" (3:20) begins as a delicate solo with solo acoustic guitar accompaniment before the full choir takes over and seduces us into blissful supplication. (9/10).

4. "San'c fuy belha ne Prezada" (1:36) is a spectacular solo voice performance with (9/10).

5. "All for Love of One" (3:39). Simple but gorgeous. (10/10)

6. "The Lament" (3:27). Lackluster vocals brings down some extraordinary instrumental performances. (7/10)

7. "Musa venit Carmine" (3:27). Amazing arrangement of myriad vocal layers all performed over an ensemble of hand percussives. (10/10)

8. "Kilmeny" (3:59). Another unexpected and beautiful arrangement of layers of vocals and wonderful Renaissance instrumentation. (9/10)

9. "Lhiannan Shee" (2:56). One of the group's signature eerie yet mesmerizing vocal arrangements. The vocals waft and wave like the sea and its waves. (9/10)

10. "Umlahi" (2:15). Beautiful, church-like vocal arrangement, almost a cappella (finger cymbols). (10/10)

11. "Cittern Segue" (0:52). A brief solo instrumental that feeds into:

12. "Return of the Birds" (3:45). a very upbeat dance-like medieval song sung in ensemble form in a foreign language. (Latin?) (8/10)

13. "Tam Lin" (4:24). An incredibly stripped down and eerie version of this traditional Celtic folk song. The few and seldom modern effects and incidentals add immeasurably to the eeriness of this song. (10/10)

14. "Scarborough Fayre" (3:24). Yes, the same one we're all familiar with (thanks to Simon and Garfunkle) only arranged in a truer-to-traditional medieval folk 'dance' tune. (8/10)

15. "Come My Sweet" (3:21). An upbeat ensemble piece that builds as it goes along. (10/10)

16. "Märk Hure Vår Skugga" (3:43) is a traditional Scandinavian folk song performed in a very delicate, bare-bones style. (10/10)

17. "This World Fareth as a Fantasye" (4:08) is a beautiful sing-a-long dance to Nature song with wonderfully uplifting instrumental performances and sultry, siren-like vocal performances. (10/10)

18. "Away" (2:20) ends the album with a very classical Palestrina-like sound. (8/10)

Without a question one of the finest, purest examples of prog folk that exists. 




6. ESPERS II

The Pennsylvania-based Prog Folk band led by Greg Weeks and singer Meg Baird release their second album. With II the trio is "officially" expanded to a sextet.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Greg Weeks / performer, vocals, producer
- Meg Baird / performer, vocals
- Brooke Sietinsons / performer
- Helena Espvall / performer
- Otto Hauser / performer
- Chris Smith / performer
With:
- Laura Baird / flute
- Gary Olsen / performer
- Jesse Sparhawk / performer
- Lord Whimsey / performer
- Paul Sommerstein / performer
- Willie Lane / performer 

Instrumentation:
6- & 12-string acoustic guitars, Fender Jazz Bass, cello, recorder, flute, sleigh bells, gongs, bells, '78 Les Paul Custom, Space Echo, Echoplex, Crumar Toccata, Crumar Performer, Univox Mini-Korg, dulcimer, Arp Odyssey, Omnichord, Doric transistorised organ, singing bowels, drum kit, doumbek, dholak, bongos, Crybaby, Blue Box, Big Muff (Russian), and Fuzzrite.

1. "Dead Queen" (8:13) eerie space notes drop like water droplets before a "Stairway to Heaven"-like guitar enters at the end of the first minute. Multiple voices singing in amazing harmony weave enter at 1:35. The verses are very slow and methodic like one of MEDIÆVAL BÆBES' slower, more delicate songs. Violin and fuzzy electric guitar duet in the instrumental section, left and right channels, respectively, before recorder-like stringed instrument instrument joins in the left (and continues playing harmonics beneath the next vocal verse and successive instrumental section). A whole mess of odd instruments (see "Instrumentation" list) join in to create quite an unusual sonic landscape through to the ending fadeout. (13.5/15)

2. "Widow's Weed" (6:51) raw electric guitar dominating the acoustic instruments at work in the wings, this is dark music rises and falls over three minutes before "settling" down to a slower, more spacious soundscape in which Meg sings in a dreamy-downer voice. (13/15) 

3. "Cruel Storm (5:17) a bluesy base with acoustic instruments, electric bass and electric guitar, precedes the entrance of the amazing voice of Meg Baird. This sounds like a song from 1970-71--from the likes of GAY WOODS or Maddy Prior from The Woods Band, BARBARA GASKIN (Spirogyra), or even Judy Dyble, Jacqui McShee, or Sandy Denny. A simple song but astonishingly beautiful. (9.5/10)

4. "Children Of Stone" (8:54) opens with a more traditional folk rock instrument palette, including drums and bass, before male-and female chorus of voices enter in a gorgeous wave of woven harmonies. Flute and picked guitars create a bit of "I Talk to the Wind" sound/feel in the third minute and carry it forward beneath the next verse of vocal weave. AT 3:05, after the end of the second verse, an eerie old synth screams single notes portamento-style until 4:10 when the next vocal verse begins. In the sixth minute a couple voices take the lead while a very low synth portamento note counterposes, singing in a foreign language. Other instruments--including beautiful solo vocalise threads--join in and build a fairly thick soundscape--though all and every instrument and voice somehow remain distinct and distinguished. Very cool, beautiful, and memorable song. (18.5/20) 

5. "Mansfield And Cyclops" (5:57) another gorgeous song that sounds like it came from 1971 with another incredible vocal from Meg. The difference between this and "Cruel Storm" is that the instruments' contributions are significantly more enriching and noteworthy: drums, multiple guitars, and other stringed instruments. This feels like it could come from a TIRILL MOHN album. (10/10) 
6. "Dead King" (8:02) guitars, hand percussives, strings, and flute open this one before Meg enters and sings an English-style folk ballad. There is an odd "organ" and "synthesizer" as well as some background vocal help. This one drags a bit and is more interesting from the instrumental perspective than the vocal or lyrical presentation--especially as it moves into the middle when creepy, eerie, even scary sound embellishments take over. (13/15)

7. "Moon Occults The Sun" (6:47) opens simply, weaving several traditional folk instruments together, before cello and drums enter and move the music into a more forward direction. Around the one-minute mark a male vocal enters in the lead department (with some far background support from Meg). The active drums and cello make for some interesting bridges between the verses until the three-minute mark when another strange fuzz-embellishment to an electric guitar teams up with a different sustain-prone guitar to give us a very interesting, beautiful weave. This goes on for a full two minutes (of prog bliss) while the band jams beneath. Cool! Things calm back down for the final minute and the final vocal verses. (13.75/15) 

Total time 50:01

91.25 on the Fishscales = A-/five stars; a veritable modern masterpiece of refreshing Prog Folk; definitely an essential addition to any prog lover's music collection. 




7. VOX VULGARIS The Shape of Medieval Music to Come (2003) (Neo-Medieval Folk) Woodwind artist Rasmus Fleischer is a serious student of baroque and medieval music and it shows in this outstanding instrumental album, but be prepared for the most authentic recently-composed period music you may ever hear. As was true of the traditions of the times, the melodies and structures are very repetitive and rigid but that is part of the album's charm: you think you're hearing modern performances of long lost music--performed, of course, on period instruments.

 1. "Stella Splendens" (7:51) (9/10); 2. "Rokatanc" (3:54) (9/10); 5. "Cantiga 166" (5:13) (10/10); "La Suite Meurtriere" (4:27) (9/10);




8. ANTHONY PHILLIPS Field Day (2005) (Solo Instrumental Acoustic Guitar) is a collection of 36 songs on 2 CDs that Ant felt he had to get out of his brain--some old, some newly conceived--all played on guitars from Ant's personal collection. the most interesting thing about this collection of brief very catchy instrumental songs is that Ant hadn't played guitar for years! He's made quite a career of composing and playing keyboard-based soundtrack music for television and film. Still, one of the premier recorded masters of the 12-string guitar it is a treasurable experience to have 36 new pieces of his performed on his diverse collection of 12-string and six-string guitars and other instruments of the lute family. As always, titles and unpredictable melodic and tempo shifts are ever-present in these works. Recording and flow is wonderful, with the synth-backed first and last songs providing perfect bookends for the otherwise all-acoustic guitar performed album. One of the best representations of the genius that is Anthony Phillips. Highly recommended. Try these samples:  "Nocturne" (3:47); "High Fives" (1:53); "Steps Retraced" (4:11); "Credo" (1:55); "Bel Ami" (2:03), and: "River of Life" (3:24) (a cover version).




9. IONA The Circling Hour (2006) (Celtic Prog Folk) Any Iona album is worth owning and listening to regularly--even the most recent, more-overtly and heavily Christian, Another RealmThe Circling Hour is no exception. Coming right on the heels of guitarist DAVE BAINBRIDGE's IONA-collaborated "solo" effort, Veil of Gossamer, and six years since the last studio album--the supreme achievement that is Open Sky--2006 finds the band still in great form.

Song favorites: "Sky Maps" (6:43) (10/10), "Empyream Dawn" (7:50) (9/10) and the three-part "Wind, Water and Fire" suite (10/10).

While this album doesn't have quite the staying power of Open Sky (to their credit:  not many albums do), it is still an amazing display of prog folk mastery. Iona is a band that has few equals in 21st Century prog world.

90.90 on the Fish scales = A-/five stars; a masterpiece of Prog Folk and a minor masterpiece of progressive rock music in general.




10. SEVEN REIZH Strinkadenn Ys (2001) (Prog Folk) Not quite the polished masterpiece that the few reviewers on PA have raved about, this one reminds me, qualitatively, of CIRRUS BAY's Stepping into Elsewhere in that there are some brilliant ideas, brilliant melodies, but not quite developed as far as could be taken. To be sure there are many absolutely breathtaking passages, but they often come over the top of rather banal, straightforward passages of rock chord progressions or steady backbeats (I hear a lot of GENESIS' ABACAB throughout this album's longer, rockier songs) over which the soli are then performed. The vocals and keys and folkier, 'non-rock' instruments are superb. The IONA, SALLY & MIKE OLDFIELD, XII ALFONSO and ALAN STIVELL--and even ENYA and CLANNAD--comparisons are quite understandable. I'd add not only GENESIS (big time!) but DUNWICH and even SURVIVOR. I consider all of the album's songs to be of at least 4 star quality (though the "ABACAB" similarities of "Mall eo monet de YS" are a bit too striking for my tolerance), with no less than seven songs earning 5 stars, but the album has too many spots of what I'll call 'simplicity' for me to give it an overall 5 star "masterpiece" rating. The stretch of diverse masterpieces that flow from "Hybr'Ys" (9:15) (10/10) (Link to live version here), through the sublime instrumental "Kan KêrYs" (6:14) (8/10) the amazing eery Arab-sounding "Liñvadenn" (5:16) (9/10) (concert version here), the VON HERTZEN BROTHERS-like "Tad ha Mamm" (8:44) (8/10) and the gorgeous, gorgeous "Enora ha Maël" (4:40) (10/10) are what make prog so special! Perfect captivation of the gambit of emotions of the human experience. A beautiful album that I highly recommend--especially for those who love melody and subtlety.




11. MIDLAKE The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) (Eclectic Folk)

A brilliant album of quite intricate and subtly constructed songs. A songwriting style that seems common to many Midlake songs is used to great success here: that is the process of slowly adding an assortment of instruments to flit and playfully dance around the lead vocal. Quite remarkable and endearing.

1. Fan favorite "Roscoe" (4:49) is not one of my personal favorites. (8/10)

2. "Bandits" (4:04) is a multi-dimensional, multi-part song that really displays a lust for story telling through the music as well as through the lyric. Quite an intricate display of composition and performance. One of the album's best. (9/10)

3. "Head Home" (5:45) contains some of my favorite vocal arrangements that I've heard in a long time--with quite daring and unexpected changes in direction and melody. (9/10)

4. "Van Occupanther" (3:15) is augmented by some stunningly delightful flute and woodwind play thorough out the song--brilliantly offsetting the flat-toned lead vocal. It's as if the vocal is the foundation and everybody else is dancing playfully around him. Amazing! My favorite song on the album. (10/10)

5. "Young Bride" (4:56) is a brilliant song in the vein of RODDY FRAME/AZTEC CAMERA and ARCADE FIRE. Another favorite. (10/10)

6. "Branches" (5:03) slows things down and gets a little bogged down in the syrup of the lyric & lead vocal. Nice piano work and song shifts. (8/10)

7. "In This Camp" (5:44) sees Tim Smith singing in that FLEET FOXES style upper register. Again nice piano support and subtle incidentals before the song crashes into the eminently cathy chorus melody. (9/10)

8. "We Gathered in Spring" (3:33) sees the band singing in some of the tightest, most even harmonies--CROSBY, STILLS & NASH and AMERICA-like. Beautiful. (9/10)

9. "It Covers the Hillsides" (3:14) is upbeat and bouncy in a MAMAS & THE PAPAS/JOHN SEBASTIAN way. (8/10)

10. "Chasing After Deer" (2:42) is another delicately embellished song--subtle instrumental touches gathering around the solid, beautifully sung lead vocal. (8/10)

11. "You Never Arrived" (1:39) (8/10)

An imaginative display of thoughtful, playful, yet beautifully executed song craftsmanship.




12. FAUN Licht (2003) (Pagan Folk) is Germany's Prog Folk masters' second major release and quite a step forward from Zaubersprüche in that the band loosens up a bit and diverges and varies its path from straightforward Renaissance Faire music. The album shows the band putting their instrumental chops on full display from the get-go:  the first two songs are instrumentals with 2. "Andro" (3:45) using a metronomic stroke from its to really amp things up. This is a kick ass grooving, jam song. (10/10)

3. "Unda" uses some great lute, hand drums and hurry gurdy to support the recorder, voices, and bagpipes which alternate for the front and center melody holder. (9/10)

4. "Von den Elben" opens with harp and berimbao playing support for the lilting voice of first one and later, with the help of the lute and hand drums, a second female voice. Wonderful performance by the lead voice (Elisabeth?). (9/10)

5. "Ne Aludj El" has a bit of a Gypsy/Moorish sound to it despite using pretty much the same instruments as above. Upbeat and festive tune. (8/10)

6. "Deva" is just a -supported wordless vocal dirge.

7. "Punagra" (4:41) opens with some group chanting of the title before some wonderful upper register penny whistle work takes over the show. Later a balalaika solo takes center stage. Awesome percussion support on this one. Interesting key change with a little over a minute left--which, along with the chalumeaux (reeded recorder that is the predecessor to the clarinet) gives the music a bit of a Middle eastern flavor. (9/10)

 8. "Wind & Geige" (5:05) is a fairly simple, repetitive foundation for "geige" (violin) and whistle solos to be showcased between fairly brief lyric sections sung by the two women in harmony. (8/10)

9. "Isis" (5:40) opens with a male voice reciting some spell or invocation before the same balalaika chord progression from the last song fades in to support the singing of a quite extraordinarily beautiful male voice (which kind of reminds me of Mariuz Duda's gentle upper register). Giege and harp slowly join in support of this singer. If my German were better, this lovely song might not seem so long and soporific. (9/10)

10. "Cernunnos" (5:02) is the odd duck on this album for its long narration from a male voice (Christian von Aster). Again, not knowing enough German, the significance is lost on me. Plus the musical support consists of only drums. Probably a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.

11. "Egil Saga" (5:10) opens with some kind of synthesized percussives in support of a single female voice. I swear these sounds goes straight back to 1980s New Wave--of which the German scene was quite advanced. (Think Bauhaus, Schilling, Nena, and Yello.) A little weird--especially for a folk song! (7/10)

12. "Fort" (3:54) is a beautiful folk song in the "Scarborough Faire" tradition with some awesome Celtic harp playing and nice three part vocal harmonies throughout. A nice high note to end the album. (9/10)

I have reconsidered my rating of this album due to it's rather narrow instrumental variation and its two rather weak songs ("Cernunnos" and "Egil saga"). Yes, wind & violin player Fiona Rüggeberg is wonderful, as are percussionist Rüduger Maul and strings player Oliver Sa Tyr. And, while this is a step forward for the band, there are great things to come!      




13. CORDE OBLIQUE Volontà d'arte (2007) (Neo-Mediæval Folk/Neo-classical)is Riccardo Prencipe's second release of neo-medieval folk music under the title Corde Oblique. As on the debut Respici, Riccardo surrounds himself with collaborators who are up to his vision and standards. I love the consistently high quality of composition and performance on this album. I am, however, biased toward the less-classical- and more medieval folk-orientation of two of Riccardo's future albums, 2009's exquisite The Stones of Naples and 2011's wonderful Hail of Bitter Almonds.

Album standouts include:  the very Spanish-, almost GIPSY KINGS-sounding 1. "Cantastorie" (4:15) with the crystalline voice of Caterina Pontrandolfo (9/10); the medieval sounding 2. "Amphitheatrum Puteolanum" (4:29) despite Ms. Pontrandolfo's voice being treated with reverb (9/10); 3. "Casa Hirta" (9/10); the special piano-guitar duet on 4. "Before Utrecht" (5:44) (9/10); 5. "Atheistic Woman" (4:53) with its quirky, almost LEONARD COHEN vocal (9/10); the ANTHONY PHILLIPS-like solo guitar 9. "Pannegio" (2:42) (9/10); 10. "Cuma" (5:28) with singer Claudia Florio and her gorgeous operatic voice (8/10); the pretty piano suite "La Pioggia sui Tasti" (3:03) (8/10), and; the beautiful, more classically arranged "Piazza Armerina" (5:16) with guitar and clarinet (9/10). 




14. AMAROK Quentadharken (2004) (Folk-Jazz Fusion) is a well-crafted folk-jazz album by Spanish musicians. The recording sounds a bit as if it were recorded live in a small club--especially the thin-tinny drums. This is, however, the album's weak point: It doesn't really feel like a studio album. Still, the performances are wonderful; the group definitely has a polished, well-rehearsed sound to it--a sound that is at times 1960/70s jazz (think early FERMATA and SANTANA), at others Middle Ages troubadour music (even Gypsy or Arabic), sometimes even Celtic. Sometimes Amarok's music is sax driven, others piano, others guitar, others saxophone, often organ, and still others driven by synthesizer or its sultry female vocalist. Variety and diversity are never lacking here! The music crosses and blends so many time periods, so many cultural lines, as to be often breathtaking, and always unusual and unexpected. All of the music could survive without the presence of the vocals and be just fine.

Album highlights: the work of the bass and woodwind players; the guitar and keyboard work; the interesting symphonic and deeply layered song constructs. 

Favorite songs: the 'medieval jazz'y "Encantamiento" (2:56) (9/10); the KING CRIMSON-plays-French-MIKE OLDFIELD-like epic, "Tierra Boreal" (9:02) (9/10); the gorgeous vocal on the GENESIS 'medieval Arabic,' "La Espiral" (7:54) (9/10); the moving little LEGRAND/LAGOYA/ RAMPAL-like "Alumbrado" (1:38) (10/10); the acoustic-based, jazzified, GENESIS Selling England by the Pound-like "Los Origenes" (5:04) (8/10); the STEVE HILLAGE-meets-STEELY DAN-like "Los Hechos" (3:08) (9/10); the KOTEBEL-like "La Batalla" (4:18) (8/10); the delicate ALAN STIVELL-meets- SPIROGYRA-like "Final" (4:42) (8/10); the wonderful woodwind-dominated folk song, "Coda" (4:06) (10/10), and; the funked-up YUGEN-like, "Laberintos de Piedra" (5:22) (8/10).




15. FAUNS LeafFall (2007) (Prog Folk) German Prog Folk family band Fauns (not to be mistaken with the German Pagan Folk band "Faun" -- with no "s") issued this very Tolkein-inspired international debut in 2007 to some critical acclaim and then their 2011 followup masterwork Awaiting the Sun before fading from sight. Whether the band still exists or the Berlin-based Hartmann family have and some illnesses or falling outs I do not know; their music is very difficult to hear much less acquire but well worth the effort. They have quite a little back catalogue of albums that never found international release, but if you can get your ears on LeafFall or Awaiting the Sun you can thank me later.

1. Chant (0:22)
2. On Misty Shores (8:36)
3. The Sprig Within Her Hair (3:43)
4. Dead Winter Sleep (7:28)
5. Tauriel (4:15)
6. As Her Autumn Song Called (4:27)
7. Lasselanta (0:30)
8. Cuiviénen (11:00)





16. FAUN Zaubersprüche (2002) (RenFest Music) is Faun's first release from a major music label. The album has a sound throughout--especially the first three songs--that makes it sound as if it were harnessed straight from the stages of Renaissance Fairs. The band has a very warm and engaging sound--which is captured very nicely through some very nice engineering. The individual performances are not quite as tight and polished as they could be but, again, the sound is great (better, IMO than on quiet Licht or the washed out & over-produced Von den Elben). The mood captured on Zubersprüche is quite relaxing though mesmerizing. I can imagine sitting on my wooden bench beneath a cool August night sky being lulled into a pleasantly hypnotic state by these songs. The vocals have a ways to go before they reach the heights of Renaissance, with Oliver and their harmonies, in particular, as yet unpolished.Zaubesprüche is Faun's first release from a major music label. The album has a sound throughout--especially the first three songs--that makes it sound as if it were harnessed straight from the stages of Renaissance Fairs. The band has a very warm and engaging sound--which is captured very nicely through some very nice engineering. The individual performances are not quite as tight and polished as they could be but, again, the sound is great (better, IMO than on quiet Licht or the washed out & over-produced Von den Elben). The mood captured on Zubersprüche is quite relaxing though mesmerizing. I can imagine sitting on my wooden bench beneath a cool August night sky being lulled into a pleasantly hypnotic state by these songs. The vocals have a ways to go before they reach the heights of Renaissance, with Oliver and their harmonies, in particular, as yet unpolished. Also, this is the era before electronic textures were added--before Niel Mitra joined the band.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Oliver "Sa Tyr" Pade / vocals, bouzouki, nyckelharp, Celtic harp, jaw harp
- Fiona Rüggeberg / vocals, recorders, whistles, bagpipes, sallow flute
- Elisabeth Pawelke / vocals, hurdy-gurdy
With:
- Robert Geldner / bagpipes (3)
- Kenzo Gasain / percussion (3)
- Birgit Muggenthaler / hurdy gurdy (6)

1. Bean Sidhes (0:42)
2. "Rani" (3:20) great fast jam building and maintaining great tension from start to finish. (9/10)

3. "Nechein Man" (6:55) The Fiona show! Fiona and her recorder trade leads with minimal support until full sound enters at 0:45 and Elisabeth (and "distant" track of Fiona, Elisabeth & Oliver) harmonize with Fiona. Robert Geldner's bagpipe solos in the third and fourth minutes. Jaw harp at 5:00. (12.75/15)

4. "Das Schloss Am Meer" (4:56) folk guitar with Oliver and Fiona trading lead vocals. Could be FOTHERINGAY or FAIRPORT CONVENTION. Nyckelharp is the featured instrument on this one. Amazing what can be done with a drone-like foundation. Great tension. (8.75/10)

5. "Par Veneris" (2:47) ancient troubadour music! Elisabeth's turn in the lead. Brilliantly captured, rendered. (8.75/10)

6. "Tempus Transit" (4:15) another song that sounds as if it could come from the early Prog Folk movement in the late 1960s. Vocals are not recorded very well. (8/10)

7. "Das Wassermanns Welb" (3:31) Oliver and Elisabeth's gorgeous vocal duet. Beautiful soundscape created by picked guitar and Fiona's recorder. (9/10)

8. "Keridwen & Gwion" (3:08) Alan Stivell-like instrumental. (9/10)

9. "König Von Thule" (3:23) wonderful pastoral folk music with three voices working in gorgeous harmony. (8.75/10)

10. "Mehrnoush" (4:20) nickelharp solos for the first minute and a half. It then becomes a slow, plodding, dreary dirge-like tune--despite Oliver's wonderful performance on the nickelharp. (8/10)

11. "Vom Truge" (2:50) electrified acoustic guitar over which Oliver sings solo. (8/10)

12. "Troum und Speigelglas" (7:37) the jewel of the album; what amazing vocal arrangements and performances; great creation and maintenance of tension. Portends of the wonderful things to come for this band. (14/15)

Total time: 47:42

86.67 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; a wonderful debut of antiquated Prog Folk--one that is highly recommended to all lovers of the sub-genre.




17. VIIMA Ajatuksia Maailman Laidalta (2006)

Is a brilliant prog folk album from Finnish rockers. Fronted buy a female singer, Päivi Kylmänen, all the lyrics are sung in Finnish. 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Päivi Kylmänen / vocals
- Kimmo Lähteenmäki / keyboards, drums
- Jarmo Kataja / bass
- Mikko Uusi-Oukari / guitars, flute
Guest musicians:
- Jankke Kuismin / bass (2, 3 & 5) 
- Kimmo Alho / Alto saxophone (5)

The opener, 1. "Leihonan Syksy" (6:27) aside from the female vocals, this one sounds like a dead ringer for a Finnish "Living in the Past"--until the instrumental stuff starts at the halfway point. Great mid-section with drums and Mellotron and then guitar and flute soloing. (8.75/10)

The title song (6:38) is at times a bit bland, at times a bit too folksy, but still a solid song. (9/10)

3. "Ilmalaiva Italia" (5:59) is a mellow tune with some simple but great musical support to some awesome vocal harmonies. It does thicken and become a kind of Blue Öyster Cult/Yes aggressive blues-rock in the middle, but then it settles back into the pretty mellow theme for the final 90 seconds. (8.75/10)

4. "Meri" (7:57) is great throwback to CURVED AIR's "Marie Antoinette" with great electric guitar substituting for David Cross' violin. (13.5/15)

5. "Luuttomat" (5:56) starts as a gorgeous acoustic guitar vocal & flute folk song before switching gears to electric guitar and saxophone after the opening 90 seconds. The soft, folky vocal section alternates with the NIL-like bluesy ominous music of the instrumental section twice before finishing on the soft side. (8.5/10)

The finale, 6. "Johdatus" (9:31) again shows a lot of similarities to CURVED AIR, musically, but especially in the lead vocalist's sounds and stylings. The piano-based, classically-tinged second section and the electric guitar play in the eighth minute are both highlights for me. (17.5/20) 

Total Time: 42:30

88.0 on the Fish scales = B+/4.5 stars; a near-masterpiece of Prog Folk.




18. TIRILL A Dance with the Shadows (2003) (Introspective Folk) is a collection of mostly soft and somber single-instrument based folk songs sung by the delicate voice of former WHITE WILLOW violinist, Tirill Mohn. "Vendela" (6:37) stands out as the only faster-paced, full-band supported song. The album's finale, "When You Sleep," is another standout due to the contributions of the ensemble of accordion, violin, and percussion that give it its Italian café feel.
     Tirill is obviously a very contemplative poet/lyricist as her season-based lyrics are quite evocative of the thoughts she has during certain times of the year. My recommendation of this album pales next to her 2013 release due mostly to the feeling that this is really a pop folk album more than a Prog Folk effort.
    A variation of this album was released from a different label in 2011 under the title, "Tales from Tranquil August Gardens." While it has a few more songs added to it, the packaging of the original is part of what makes it worth owning. Try the following song samples from YouTube:  "Dressed in Beauty" (5:21) (9/10), "June's Flowers" (3:25) (8/10), and; "Winter Roses" (4:43) (8/10).





19. FAUN Totem (2007) (Pagan FolkI find Totem quite disappointing considering the meteoric rise Faun had achieved from 2002's Zaubersprüche to 2005's Renaissance. After the first two over-electrified songs smack you in the face, the album calms down into simpler song structures that place more emphasis on the vocals--which is similar to their approach on their previous album, Renaissance. But this time there is a lack of power and conviction. There are even several occasions in which I hear obvious instances where the vocal harmonies and musicians' timing are off kilter. Again, disappointing. The lack of emotion conveyed is, to my mind, indicative of intra-band discord.

German "Pagan Folk" band FAUN is one of my favorite 21st Century bands with one of my favorite sounds of all. After rising so fast with their previous three albums, culminating in the sheer perfection that is 2005's Renaissance (one of the finest Prog Folk albums of all-time), the band here find themselves struggling to maintain a cohesive, coherent direction.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Oliver "Sa Tyr" Pade / vocals, bouzouki, nyckelharp, Celtic harp, acoustic & electric guitars, zither, didgeridoo
- Fiona Rüggeberg / vocals, recorder, whistle, bagpipes, sallow flute, fujara
- Elisabeth Pawelke / vocals, hurdy-gurdy
- Niel Mitra / synths, sequencer, sampler, computer, drum programming, sounds, Fx
- Rüdiger Maul / percussion (tar, riq, davul, panriqello, darabukka, timbau)
With:
- Johannes Schleiermacher / cello (2,4,6,9,11) 
- Jennifer Evans Van Der Harten / Celtic harp (6)
- Hamid Khezri / dutar (8)

1. "Rad" (3:57) nice mood music opens this before heavily treated vocals of Oliver and Fiona enter singing a near-spell chant. Variations of voice effects and tandems (sometime using Elisabeth) continue as music drones along. It's actually quite effective if you were gathered around a fire at midnight trying to imbue certain spells into the ether. Nice play on the sallow flute by Fiona. (8.75/10)

2. "2 Falken" (4:59) odd electronic percussion effects (or programs) at the base of this one while Elisabeth sings in a voice that is far too effected by reverb etc. A very strange (for Faun), almost shoegaze song. (8.25/10)

3. "Sieben" (4:11) as if trying to sound primal/native/deep indigenous. Layers of Oliver's voice doing several things (drones, singing of lyrics, and vocalise) are alternated by dual voices of Fiona and Elisabeth. Interesting weave: hypnotic, but the sound is a little too processed (electronically). (8.5/10)

4. "November" (4:49) with guitar and cello, this one plays out as a far more common, standard, albeit modernized folk song--almost sounding like British Post Rock band MIDAS FALL. Pretty, soothing, but, in the end, fails to develop enough to maintain interest--and no extra. (8.5/10)

5. "Tinta" (4:52) here we find Faun in its more familiar element: the interpretation of an ancient song and tradition with Elisabeth leading in her breath-taking Renaissance voice and style. Percussion instruments build in the second half as do the layers of female voices. Brilliant rendition but there is still something that falls short of potential. (8.75/10)

6. "Unicorne" (4:21) Elisabeth Pawelke singing in French, an old love song. What a talent! Thank goodness the band was willing to work with her deepening attraction to these ancient forms and traditions. Beautiful and heart-wrenching. (8.75/10)

7. "Karuna" (3:21) a folk instrumental which lacks the band's usual unity and enthusiasm. (8.5/10)

8. "Gaia" (6:18) drawing from the East/Middle Eastern musical traditions, the band try on yet another ethnicity with grace and respect. However, the band comes up short in this rendition, offering instead what feels like a floundering mish-mash of multiple styles--ending up sounding like a JONATHAN GOLDMAN trance song. Stands strong and alone for just that: as a trance song. (8.5/10)

9. "Zeit Nach Dem Sturm" (5:57) soothing vocal weave over weird percussion choices. Too repetitive and drawn out. (7.75/10)

10. "Der Stille Grund" (3:07) an a cappella duet between Fiona and Elisabeth. The jewel of perfection of the album. Now this is what Faun is all about, to my mind. (9.25/10)

Total time: 45:52

I find Totem quite disappointing considering the meteoric rise Faun had achieved from 2002's Zaubersprüche to 2005's Renaissance. After the first two over-electrified songs smack you in the face, the album calms down into simpler song structures that place more emphasis on the vocals--which is similar to their approach on their previous album, Renaissance. But this time there is a lack of power and conviction. There are even several occasions in which I hear obvious instances where the vocal harmonies and musicians' timing are off kilter. Again, disappointing. The lack of emotion conveyed is, to my mind, indicative of intra-band discord. This is Lisa Pawelke's last album with the band--after she had finally achieved prominence and more front time with her vocal talents. She will be missed for an album or two, but, thankfully, the band reloads and comes out better than ever with Buch der Ballladen (2009), Eden (2011), and Luna (2014). The album ends with two songs that are most interesting for the way in which they illustrate the contrast of styles the band has explored: the Goth metal-ish "Zeit nach dem Sturm" and the a cappella female vocal duet between Lisa and Fiona, "Der stille Grund"--perhaps a farewell gesture to Lisa, who left the band to pursue more concentrated studies in classical training. While Totem is a decent, listenable album, it's just not as powerful or engaging as its predecessor.
     I now see another issue with these song choices in that they are often attempts to render ancient songs from a variety of cultural and ethnic traditions (a good thing) sometimes modernized with electronic treatments (interesting but sometimes overdone) and sometimes conveyed very conservatively ("Tinta" and "Unicorne") which, in their original forms and styles, can be very trying for the listener if one is not privy to the language being spoken/sung. While I deeply appreciate and enjoy the band's dedication to resurrecting and interpreting these amazing old songs and traditions, they may have spread themselves too thin with this collection. The typically complex layers of instrumental weaves the band had been doing on Zaubersprüche and Licht are gone; it's as if Fiona was off doing something else instead of displaying her extraordinary talents on an astonishing and ever-expanding palette of instruments and more intrigue and attention to Neil Mitra and his electronifications given.

85.5 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; a good album of modern-renderings of ancient songs that falls short by being too undecided as to commitment to electronic effects and for lacking the enthusiastic instrumental embellishments established so impressively on their previous three albums. On Totem, Faun seems to be struggling to find its (new) identity. Unfortunately, Lisa Pawelke is gone after this album, and the band finds themselves really struggling (to find that identity) until it all finally comes together in the Prog Folk perfection that is 2011's Eden's Luna.

     This is Lisa Pawelke's last album with the band--after she had finally achieved prominence and more front time with her vocal talents. She left the band after Totem to pursue more concentrated studies in classical training. She will be missed for an album or two, but, thankfully, the band reloads and comes out better than ever with Buch der Ballladen (2009), Eden (2011), and Luna (2014). 
     The album ends with two songs that are most interesting for the way in which they illustrate the contrast of styles the band has explored: the Goth metal-ish "Zeit nach dem Sturm" and the a cappella female vocal duet between Lisa and Fiona, "Der stille Grund"--perhaps a farewell gesture to Lisa. While Totem is a decent, listenable album, it's just not as powerful or engaging as its predecessor.




THE DECEMBERISTS The Crane Wife

I have the great advantage of listening to this album 15 years after it's initial release--with 15 years of getting to know "Prog Folk" and folk rock behind me. (To put this into perspective, one of the first Prog Folk albums I tried from ProgArchives recommendations was this same band's "new"[at the time] and highly acclaimed release, Hazards of Love). There's a lot of familiarity to this music. I found myself hearing Bob Dylan, The Cure, REM (and the singing voice of Michael Stipes), even some Talking Heads, Smiths and Roddy Frame (Axtec Camera). 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Colin Meloy / acoustic & electric guitars, bouzouki, percussion, vocals
- Chris Funk / electric & pedal steel guitars, banjo, bouzouki, dulcimer, hurdygurdy, percussion, backing vocals
- Jenny Conlee / piano, Hammond & pump organs, Wurlitzer, glockenspiel, accordion, Moog Bass, percussion, backing vocals
- Nate Query / upright & electric basses, cello, percussion, backing vocals
- John Moen / drums, percussion, backing vocals
With:
- Christopher Walla / keyboards, backing vocals, mixing & co-producer
- Eyvind Kang / violin, viola
- Steve Drizos / hand drums
- Laura Veirs / duet (girl) vocals (3)
- Ezra Holbrook / backing vocals

1. "The Crane Wife 3" (4:18) very nice folk-rock in the vein of JACK O' THE CLOCK and even FLEET FOXES or The MOULETTES. (8.5/10)

2. "The Island" (12:26) one of the top three "songs" on the album. (22.5/25):
- a) Come And See (6:14) organ and electric bass and guitars make this extended opening proggy, a little PINK FLOYDian. At the two-minute mark we stop and set up a new, simple, one-instrument foundation over which Colin enters to sing. At the end of the third minute drums join in, then bass and then, finally, at 3:30 the full band. (9/10)
- b) The Landlord's Daughter (2:47) Hammond and fast-picking acoustic guitar accompany Colin to open this part until one minute in the whole band burst forward for the chorus. There's a kind of "Can You Hear Me?" feel to this one before it turns ELP-ish. (9/10)
- c) You'll Not Feel the Drowning (5:33) moderately fast picked acoustic guitar arpeggi play on before Colin joins in. Organ and piano add some in the chorus (organ staying thereafter). (4.5/5)

3. "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" (4:18) sounds just like a Michael Stipes/REM song--despite the shared lead vocal duties with Laura Veirs. Laid back, melodic, and very simple. (8.5/10) 

4. "O Valencia!" (3:47) Bob Dylan meets Roddy Frame. (8.25/10)

5. "The Perfect Crime #2" (5:33) a pop-bluesier sound palette (with a bass sounding like TONY LEVIN) reminding me of ROSY VELA. While I love this song, it's not really proggy. More PopJazz. It's bouncy, light, and danceable. (9/10)

6. "When The War Came" (5:06) a great, truly proggy song. Also a strong vocal performance to match the music and lyric. My favorite on the album. (9/10)

7. "Shankill Butchers" (4:39) a gentle folk song that starts out as a solo Colin Meloy performance of guitar and vocal. Various and sundry instruments begin to show their simple contributions after the first verse and chorus. It has a very old-time southern porch folk feel to it. (8/10)

8. "Summersong" (3:31) strummed guitars and accordion with full rock combo supporting Colin's vocal. Nice melodies and construction. Another top three for me. (9/10)

9. "The Crane Wife 1 & 2 (11:19) After two and a half minutes the song finally kicks into full gear but the pace and styling changes little until the sixth minute. The choral vocalise in the fifth minute is a nice touch. At 5:35 there is slow down and shift to a base of acoustic guitar arpeggi (often one, long-held chord). Chorus with lap pedal steel guitar is nice. Organ joins in for third verse of this second motif though the overal mood remains reserved and sensitive. A very nice, moving song. (17.25/20)

10. "Sons & Daughters" (5:13) a great finishing song as it builds from a few droning noises into a fully textured song with anthemic lyrics sung over the top. I love the chorale vocal approach in the final two minutes to "here all the bombs fade away" lyric. (8.75/10)

Total Time: 73:48

People commenting of this band's acumen on their instruments must not have heard the amazing skills and intricacies of The MOULETTES! Colin & Co's music, style, and skills are more akin to those of Damon Waitkus (Jack O' The Clock) to me. 

87.0 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; a very solid contribution to the Prog Folk lexicon and a nice addition to an adventurous prog lover's music collection. 




STEVE UNRUH The Great Divide (2009) (Acoustic Prog Folk) is an acoustic, old English and bluegrass-influenced version of Prog Folk not unlike The Strawbs, Gryphon or the more acoustically-oriented solo albums of Ian Anderson, Cat Stevens, or Peter Shelley with a little pinch each of Peter Hammill and Frank Zappa thrown in there for good measure. Entertaining, mostly unpredictable, and, thankfully, mostly instrumental. (I cringe to think of hearing this music delivered by electric instruments. Devin Townsend!)




WOVENHAND Mosaic (2006) (Introspective Folk) "Swedish Purse" (3:31); "Dirty Blue" (4:46); "Whistling Girl" (4:41); "Winter Shaker" (3:44); "Deerskin Doll" (5:37) (8/10), and "Truly Golden" (3:34) (9/10).




RITUAL The Hemulic Voluntary Band

An interesting album in which the Moomin folk tales of Finnish author Tove Jansson are rendered using a variety of old, traditional folk instruments mixed with modern electricity.

Line-up / Musicians:
- Patrik Lundström / lead & backing vocals, electric & acoustic guitars
- Jon Gamble / grand piano, Rhodes, clavinet, harmonium, backing vocals
- Fredrik Lindqvist / bass, Irish bouzouki, dulcimer, whistles, recorders, backing vocals
- Johan Nordgren / drums, percussion, nyckelharpa, backing vocals
With:
- Lovisa Hallstedt / violin (6)

1. "The Hemulic Voluntary Band" (4:53) opens like a mix of GENTLE GIANT and YES until the JETHRO TULL-like singing verses begin. Quite an unusual use of percussion instruments. Fine imitations creating an unusual and rather unique sound palette delivering a song that doesn't quite stick. (8.5/10)
2. "In the Wild" (5:55) driving, cohesive band construct, with great vocal and melodies. I am rather appreciative of the slowed down piano section in the middle--kind of Freddie Mercury-like. (8.75/10)
3. "Late in November" (4:59) feels like a medieval love song--or something from the band MOON SAFARI. Nice weave; nice vocals. I'd love to hear more of those multi-voiced vocal harmonies. (8.75/10)
4. "The Groke" (6:06) delightfully ominous--with accordion! But then it sadly disappears. A decent song again employing an unusual palette of percussion. (8.5/10)
5. "Waiting by the Bridge" (4:36) multiple instruments bouncing all around the soundscape over which multiple voices sing the lead. I like the different stuff in the final third. (8.25/10)
6. "A Dangerous Journey" (26:35) some truly wonderful musical palettes and motifs diminished, unfortunately, by the rather silly rat-based libretto. Sometimes it sounds a bit like THE DECEMBERISTS. Wish there were more efforts to layer vocal harmonies as in the 19th minute. This could be a 5 star epic were the lyrics more relevant and the musical shifts more varied stylistically and in tempo. Love the shift to a happy/major key in the 24th minute. (43.75/50) :
- Cat & Glasses 
- The Swamp 
- A Curious Crowd 
- Volcano 
- Snowstorm 
- Onion Soup 
- Monster! 
- Balloon 
- A Party Outdoors

Total Time 53:04

86.5 on the Fish scales = solid four star album; excellent addition to any prog rock music collection.




MOTIS L'homme-loup (2006) The French folk and prog traditions are often quite distinctive from those of other nations and the work of Manu Tissot is no exception. Acoustic instrumentation is his the foundation and strength of his music but there are electronic enhancements and electric instruments to make important and sometimes key contributions to each song. Of the MOTIS songs I've been able to hear, the ones from L'homme-loup feel the most universally accessible and appropriate for the Prog Folk monicker, while the ones from 2004's Les prince des hauteurs contain more a bit more diversity of styles and tempos and much more variety in electronic enhancements, and those from 2011's Ripaille exhibit a little more prog rock stylings (e.g. riffs from GENESIS, GENTLE GIANT, YES, et al.) though in simplified, abbreviated forms.

Try listening to: "Prince des hauteurs" (from Le prince des hauteurs) et "L'homme-loup" (13:07); and "Ripaille" (3:44) and "Pleine lune" (6:00) from Ripaille to see your reaction.




JUDY DYBLE Talking with Strangers

Prog Folk legend Judy Dyble getting together with many of her collaborators from the past. (She was part of the British prog scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. She left music to retreat to a farm life in 1973.) She sings about the past, the times she passed on her self-imposed agrarian exile. 

Line-up / Musicians:
- Judy Dyble / vocals, autoharp
With:
- Alistair Murphy / acoustic (2,3,5,6), electric & 12-string (5) guitars, organ (2,3,5,6), keyboards (2,3,5), piano (4-6), Dynatron (4), electric piano, synth, e-bow, arrangements, co-producer
- Tim Bowness / co-lead (6) & backing (1-5,7) vocals, electric guitar (7), arrangements, co-producer
- Jacqui McShee / backing vocals (2,5,7)
- Julianne Regan / backing vocals (3,7)
- Celia Humphris / backing vocals (3,7)
- Simon Nicol / acoustic guitar (1,7)
- John Gillies / acoustic guitar (5)
- Paul Robinson / electric guitar (7)
- Harry Fletcher / electric guitar (7)
- Robert Fripp / guitar & Fx (7)
- Ian McDonald / lead alto saxophone (7), flutes (3,5,7), ukulele (7)
- Laurie A'Court / tenor & alto saxophones (6,7)
- Sanchia Pattinson / oboe (7)
- Rachel Hall / violin (7)
- Mark Fletcher / bass (3,5-7)
- Pat Mastelotto / drums & percussion (3,5-7)

1. "Neverknowing" (1:42) Two guitars (Alistair Murphy and Simon Nicol [from Fairport Convention]) backing Judy. A surprisingly strong song and vocal. Tim Bowness' contribution is nice. (4.5/5) 

2. "Jazzbirds" (3:05) with autoharp, guitars, full rock ensemble, and electric effects on Judy's voice, this is a more 1970s-sounding Prog Folk song. Nice but nothing very special. (8.5/10) 

3. "C'est La Vie" (4:15) a perfect arrangement of instruments to surround Judy's voice with. Nice backing vocal appearance from former founding TREES vocalist, Celia Humphris and long time folk contributor Julianne Regan. My favorite song on the album. (9/10)

4. "Talking With Strangers" (3:25) A pleasant if innocuous song that, unfortunately, continuous to accentuate the frailty in Judy's aged voice. (8/10)

5. "Dreamtime" (4:19) again, a nice musical weave to support Judy's vocal, but her voice her again seems to reveal its aged fragilities. (8.5/10)  

6. "Grey October Day" (6:04) lounge jazzy soundscape with piano, bass, and gently brushed drums support Judy and Tim Bowness in this traditional duet. Organ, electric guitar, and horns add some texture and tension in the second verse and behind Tim's up-close-and-personal performance. A long saxophone solo in the middle draws the song out (unnecessarily). (Laurie A'Court's contribution is much better, more appropriate in the final section.) (8.5/10)

7. "Harpsong" (19:19) a very personal song full of vignettes and various perspectives on her cumulative life story. This song is a special historical marker in that many of her esteemed and luminous musical collaborators from the 1960s came out to contribute to this. It is now even more heart-wrenching that she has died--like this song represents one glorious reunion and the ensuing party--just as may be happening in Heaven as we speak.
     After the delicate and maudlin folk-rock beginning section (which houses Judy's singing of her autobiographical lyrics) we are sucked into a kind of old KING CRIMSON section before settling into a Steve REICHian percussionary bridge to return to the more saccharine vocal-supporting motif. Emotional and historic. (35/40)

Total time 42:09 

Judy's voice is more fragile and unstable than it was, yet her nostalgic lyrics poignant and meaningful. Her performances are welcome and courageous. The album is most for the nostalgic feel. I have to admit a fair amount of excitement at the prospect of hearing the contributions of long-time folk diva Jacqui MacShee (John Renbourn, PENTANGLE) on a couple songs, but her presence is barely discernible. 

86.32 on the Fishscales = B/four stars; a very nice contribution to the Prog Folk catalog--one that is filled with nostalgia and historical significance. A nice addition to the prog lover's music collection.