Lesser-Known Gem: Czesław Niemen – Niemen vol. 2 & Niemen vol. 1 (Marionetki)

Artist: Czesław Niemen | Album:Niemen vol. 2 & Niemen vol. 1 | Genre: Avant-prog, Jazz-rock | Year: 1972

From: Stare Wasiliszki, Poland (now Staryya Vasilishki, Belarus) | Label: Polskie Nagrania

For fans of: Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd c. 1969-1970, Area, King Crimson’s ‘70s stuff, Miles Davis

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Halloween is on a Monday this year, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to get spooky with a Lesser Known Gem. I compiled a short list of about ten albums from which to choose. Some, like Jacula’s In Cauda Semper Stat Venenum, were written to be as occultic and creepy as possible. Others, like Message’s From Books and Dreams, were considered more for their album art. In the end, I decided on a pair of Czesław Niemen albums, Niemen vol. 2 and Niemen vol. 1.

Czesław Niemen (pronounced roughly Chess-woff Nyem-en) is an artist I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. Sort of like Guruh Gipsy were a big deal in Indonesia while remaining obscure elsewhere, Niemen is a major figure in the history of 20th Century Polish music. The National Bank of Poland has released three commemorative coins with his likeness, multiple streets around Poland bear his name, and his childhood home in modern-day Belarus has been converted into a museum.

After starting out playing straightforward rock and soul in the 1960s, his 1970 album Enigmatic saw him radically shift his style to the emergent genre of progressive rock. From 1971-1973, his backing band was the Silesian Blues Band, who eventually shortened their name to SBB and became another highly-influential prog act in their own right. (They are also a band I’ve considered for a future Deep Dive, though that’s far from imminent.)

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Album Review: Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture

Band: Ashenspire | Album:Hostile Architecture | Genre: Avant-garde metal | Year: 2022

From: Glasgow, UK | Label: Aural Music

For fans of: Ulcerate, Tomarum, Arcturus, Deathspell Omega

Bandcamp

Certain albums click with me immediately. Some of them I wind up absolutely loving, like Moura’s self-titled or Papangu’s Holoceno. Others fall from my graces fairly quickly, like Hand. Cannot. Erase. or Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction. Yet other releases, meanwhile, take a while to sink in. Even if I didn’t totally love it on the first listen, I keep feeling drawn back to it; and on subsequent spins, my enjoyment only grows deeper.

The second full-length album from Scotland’s Ashenspire is one of those albums that really grew. On the first listen, I liked it. It’s an incredibly dense record, so I knew I was going to need to revisit it. By the third time I made my way through this opus, it had become a serious contender for my album of the year. The blend of black metal and avant-garde influences is incredible, and the raw anger of this record truly shines through.

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Deep Dive: Magma

Hamtaï! Welcome back to Deep Dive, my series where I explore the extended studio discographies of the giants of progressive rock and metal. I’ve got a weird one for you today: Magma, the founders of zeuhl. 

For those who don’t feel like reading massive entries in their entirety, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end of this piece. 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 contextual element is often overlooked in many ranked-lists.

Magma has always been a weird band. I’ll delve into what exactly zeuhl is below, but even beyond the structural strangeness of their music, the band’s composition has varied wildly over the years. At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists 12 current members and 22 former members; and Rate Your Music names 11 current members with a staggering 89 former members. Much of this can be attributed to their frequent shifts in sound, ranging from their very wind instrument-heavy first albums, to mid-career funk experiments, to later albums which prominently featured vibraphone. Multiple vocalists have always been a signature element of their sound as well.

Magma has been incredibly consistent across their career, in terms of the quality of their work. Even their worst album isn’t all that bad. I’ll also give a quick shout-out to their live performances. I saw Magma on their 2016 US tour, and that was one of the absolute best live shows I’ve ever seen, only seriously challenged by my experiences seeing Rush and Moonsorrow. This column only covers studio output in any depth, but the live albums Hhaï and Retrospektïẁ (I-III) are some of their best work. I’m a big enough fan that I personally own the 12-disc live box set Köhnzert Zünd.

Before we get going, though, I’m sure those of you unfamiliar with Magma are asking…

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Album Review: Bobby Shock – Street Angels

Artist: Bobby Shock | Album: Street Angels | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2021

From: New Jersey, USA | Label: Independent

For fans of: Chris Squire, Patrick Moraz, The Alan Parsons Project

Bandcamp

Bobby Shock is a New Jersey-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, whose last album—The Unforeseen—was a pleasant surprise for me last year. It was lush, diverse, and bass-forward. The compositions were unquestionably smart and progressive, but the music was still accessible.

Shock’s latest release continues with that general trend. The obvious focal point of this album is its 20-minute title track, but the other four songs are no less enjoyable.

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Album Review: Æthĕrĭa Conscĭentĭa – Corrupted Pillars of Vanity

Band: Æthĕrĭa Conscĭentĭa | Album: Corrupted Pillars of Vanity | Genre: Black metal, Progressive metal | Year: 2021

From: Nantes, France | Label: Independent

For fans of: Ihsahn, Enslaved, Panopticon, Van der Graaf Generator

Bandcamp

Progressive rock and progressive metal are notorious for high-minded concept albums which feature dense, intricate worldbuilding full of invented names and esoteric jargon. Ranging from the complex, Kobaïan mythos of Magma to Dream Theater’s multiple over-the-top multithreaded stories, you often don’t need to range too far afield to find a record which sounds like it started off life as an idea for a sci-fi novel.

Æthĕrĭa Conscĭentĭa is a French quartet which uses saxophone-infused progressive black metal to tell their tales of astral mysticism. Their 2018 debut, Tales from Hydhradh, is a powerful record which marries jazz, prog, and metal elements beautifully. Their 2021 follow-up, Corrupted Pillars of Vanity, takes that strong base and improves on it.

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Album Review: Xander Naylor – Continuum

Artist: Xander Naylor | Album: Continuum | Genre: Progressive rock, Jazz-fusion, Post-rock | Year: 2020

From: New York, USA | Label: Chant Records

For fans of: Return to Forever, early Frank Zappa, Magma, The Mars Volta

Bandcamp

There is no shortage of instrumental EPs and albums put out by guitarists. Many of these releases tend to be self-indulgent and focused on technical soloing. Because of that trend, it’s always a refreshing change of pace when I run across someone like Xander Naylor, who functions more as a composer who just so happens to play guitar, rather than a guitarist composing pieces for his instrument.

Continuum is Naylor’s debut full-length record, and it reminds me of Steve Hackett’s solo material. Not so much in sound, but more so in that while there’s plenty of skillful instrumentalism, it isn’t to the neglect of structure or vision.

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