Album Review: Magma – Zëss

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Band: Magma | Album: Zëss (Le jour du néant) | Genre: Zeuhl, Symphonic music | Year: 2019

From: Paris, France | Label: Seventh Records

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Magma are the founders of the zeuhl genre. Over the span of their 50-year career, they’ve been remarkably consistent in both their strange character and high quality of output. Strongly rooted in jazz and heavy on hypnotic jamming, their studio recordings were often taken to new heights in live settings, such as the version of “Köhntarkösz” on their album Live/Hhaï. Live performances have also seen epics be debuted and developed before reaching a studio album. Their 2009 album Ëmëhntëtt-Ré began life in the 1970s at live shows, and “Šlag Tanz” was debuted live several years before it was recorded.  “Theusz Hamtaahk” as yet remains unrecorded in the studio. Zëss similarly began as a live-only epic in the ‘70s.

“Zëss” struck me as an odd choice for Magma to record. The live recordings I’d heard came off as long-winded, meandering, and repetitious, and this was a critique I’d seen elsewhere online. I think the band may have been aware of this criticism, so they enlisted the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to add some texture and dynamism. Distinct to Zëss, band founder Christian Vander takes lead vocals over the span of the entire album. There are the usual female vocals in the background, but Vander remains at the forefront. He also does not play drums here, another first for the band. Continue reading “Album Review: Magma – Zëss”

Lesser-Known Gem: Guruh Gipsy – Guruh Gipsy

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Band: Guruh Gipsy | Album: Guruh Gipsy | Genre: Progressive rock, Gamelan music | Year: 1977

From: Jakarta, Indonesia | Label: Paramaqua

For fans of: Yes, Genesis, ELP

In Lesser-Known Gem entries, I’ve explored acts that combined progressive rock with Orthodox chants, flamenco music, and country and honky-tonk. The act I’m writing about today also blends progressive rock with the music of their homeland. That homeland, though, is Indonesia (specifically Java and Bali), which is quite far from progressive rock’s European homeland.

Guruh Gipsy were a one-off project. All the music was written by artist Guruh Sukarnoputra (a son of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno), and he worked with the band Gipsy to record the material. Unlike the previous acts I’ve written about, Guruh Gipsy’s sole album was a widely-acclaimed and highly-influential success upon its release in Indonesia. However, as of the time of publishing, I’ve had exactly zero Indonesian readers of my blog, according to WordPress’s stats. It’s probably a safe bet that this is a rather unknown album to most of my audience. Continue reading “Lesser-Known Gem: Guruh Gipsy – Guruh Gipsy”

Album Review: Perilymph – Deux

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Band: Perilymph | Album: Deux | Genre: Krautrock, Progressive rock | Year: 2019

From: Berlin, Germany | Label: Six Tonnes de Chair Records

For fans of: Brainticket, Vespero, early Föllakzoid

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Germany has been at the epicenter of cosmic, experimental rock music that incorporates electronic elements since the early 1970s. The genre is called krautrock, after all. (The term was initially—rightly, in my view—rejected by German artists; the English music press invented the term in order to write off the movement.) Perilymph both adheres to and bucks this genre’s Germanness: this act is a one-man project based in Berlin, though the man behind it, Fabien de Menou, is French.

Regardless of whence Perilymph hails, Deux, this act’s second release, is a wonderful blend of psychedelia, progressive rock, and spacey textures. Continue reading “Album Review: Perilymph – Deux”

Deep Dive: Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK - 11 Feb 1977

Welcome to entry number two in my Deep Dive series, where I look at the full studio discographies and histories of some of the major names in progressive rock and progressive metal. It’s here that I highlight output beyond an act’s “classic” releases.

For those who don’t feel like reading this massive entry, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and this is an element often missed in a ranked-list.

For this second entry, I’ve opted to cover Jethro Tull. Tull are best known for their pair of early ‘70s masterpieces, Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, as well as winning the inaugural Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Grammy over Metallica in 1989. But beyond those few common knowledge highlights, as well as the notable quirk of being the best-known rock act with a flautist, this band’s discography holds an impressive breadth of music, ranging from blues to folk to synthpop to world music.

I really love Jethro Tull. My love of Jethro Tull is so deep, in fact, that the first email address I ever made was a rather blatant reference to said fandom. (And that Yahoo address is still in use 14 years later, as well as a very similarly-named Hotmail account.) In high school, I made it my mission to collect a physical copy of every studio release from Jethro Tull. I still have all those CDs (including both the US and UK versions of Benefit), as well as several vinyl records, which I acquired both from my mom’s old record collection and from my own purchases. I also managed to see Jethro Tull in concert in 2011. Even then, Ian Anderson (plus Martin Barre and the other motley musicians) could still put on a hell of a show.

Despite my deep fondness for this group, I’ll do my best to be as objective as one can be when reviewing music. They did put out some crap albums, and I’ll be honest about other albums’ shortcomings. Continue reading “Deep Dive: Jethro Tull”

Album Review: Howling Sycamore – Seven Pathways to Annihilation

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Band: Howling Sycamore | Album: Seven Pathways to Annihilation | Genre: Progressive metal | Year: 2019

From: San Francisco, USA | Label: Prosthetic Records

For fans of: Watchtower, Cormorant, Coroner, Voivod

Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon | Apple Music

Howling Sycamore’s self-titled debut was one of the strongest metal releases of 2018. The music was an engaging mixture of thrash, black, and progressive metal, and Jason McMaster has some of the most striking and distinct voices in modern metal. I’d been anticipating the release of their follow-up ever since McMaster had first posted about it online, wondering what sort of direction they’d go in.

Seven Pathways to Annihilation is, in many ways, a series of contrasts to Howling Sycamore. Where the band’s debut was a lean, 37-minute assault, this record sprawls. Not just in its 50-minute runtime, but the individual songs feature more internal tempo and dynamic variation. Even the album cover is an inversion from the debut. The blue, multi-pronged bolt of lightning contrasts against the bare, orange sycamore tree of the first album. One place the two albums do not clash is in the quality of the music. Seven Pathways to Annihilation is a fitting successor to the band’s fantastic first album.

“Mastering Fire”, the opening track, feels more restrained than most of Howling Sycamore’s previous output. The drums are masterfully played, with the work on the toms providing just as much textural backing as the guitars. “Departure” continues in a similar vein. The moderate tempo is used to great effect, allowing McMaster’s vocals to pierce through the guitar. No one would ever describe his voice as delicate, but his bombastic delivery is still rich in subtlety and nuance.

“Initiation” is one of the highlights on this album. It’s the most intense song yet, and the dynamism only serves to increase the drama. The guitars’ sparseness makes the soaring lines they cut that much more impactful.

I don’t have many gripes about this album, but they arise in the second half. A curse of bands with distinct sounds is that their songs can have a tendency to run together. They might be good compositions, but they can be indistinct. “Second Sight” and “Tempest’s Chant” suffer from a mild form of this. They’re good songs, but they don’t do much to stand out.

The second half is still quite good, overall. “Raw Bones” ups the band’s intensity to new heights. The passion of each member of this trio is evident, whether it’s McMaster’s shrieks, the typhoon of drums from Hannes Grossmann, or Davide Tiso’s guitars which both pummel and slice as needed. “Sorcerer”, the 10-minute closer, is the strongest track on the album. It features the finest distillation of the band’s ability to construct a song which keeps building and building, reaching a soaring apex. (Otrebor of the band Botanist also makes an appearance on this song, providing hammered dulcimer for the epilog.)

I’m glad Howling Sycamore are back. The contrasts drawn with their first album are clear, yet not overbearing. Seven Pathways to Annihilation has a distinct mood and sound, but there was no radical overhaul of the band’s sound. I could see Howling Sycamore being an acquired taste, but I’d recommend fans of progressive thrash and progressive black metal give these guys a try.

Score: 83/100