Desert Island Discs Part 1

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Desert Island Discs is a BBC radio show that asks celebrities about what music they would choose if they were castaway on a desert island. It’s an interesting question that requires a lot of thought and one that I’ve had plenty of time to think about myself. I’ve always wanted to write about this topic since starting my blog in April 2013 and therefore the idea seems quite fitting for a week in which RockAtlantic celebrates its second birthday!

Sticking with the format of the radio show, I shall give my favourite eight albums in no particular order, except for the album which I regard most highly, which shall feature at the end of part 2 next Monday.

Coheed & Cambria – Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV Volume 2: No World For Tomorrow

With a title as short and snappy as that, you know the album is going to be a lengthy piece of concept-heavy, progressive music. Sure enough, No World For Tomorrow (as it’s generally known) is a brilliant slab of neo-prog rock from the sci-fi indulgent four-piece, which takes the pop accessibility from their earlier records and marries it with the more complex compositions that began to expose themselves in Volume 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. The record has a good balance between immediate sing-along favourites (Feathers, The Running Free), heavier tracks (No World For Tomorrow, Gravemakers & Gunslingers) and progressive exertions (Mother Superior and The End Complete suite), so that the album maintains a freshness and doesn’t get bogged down beneath concepts and extended musical passages. Whilst not generally considered their best work, I feel it’s certainly their most complete effort and one that never fails to improve my mood.

Reuben – In Nothing We Trust

Perhaps it’s because they’re the biggest band to emerge from my home town, but Reuben are a band who have always seemed to be effortlessly pleasing to my ears. They combined elements of old school punk and hardcore into a hard rock sound that doesn’t speak of booze and sex, but rather relatable, real-world pressures and pleasures. In Nothing We Trust is their masterpiece, mixing the faster, heavier elements of their early sound into mature compositions that occasionally flirt with progressive ideas, all beneath an honest review of the world around them. Reuben were essentially a band of three mates having a great time and their records show that – it’s just a shame the music industry finally broke the band apart.

Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

Mercury Prize winners Alt-J seem an unlikely choice for a guy who generally prefers obscurity over commercial success. However, Alt-J have succeeded in making weird cool and their debut An Awesome Wave remains one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever heard. Filled with electronic chirps, diverse instrumentation, unusual vocals that float like those from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, this record is proof that modern music can still be complex and challenging, whilst winning over critics that normally prefer the musical equivalent of a plain Rich Tea biscuit. Biscuit analogies aside, Alt-J manage to be inventive without over-saturating their sound, making An Awesome Wave an enjoyable and thought-provoking listening experience.

Steven Wilson – Insurgenetes

Dark, atmospheric, experimental and at some points plain scary, Insurgentes is not an album to be listened to on a Sunday morning drive. This is the first solo outing from the once Porcupine Tree front man and he doesn’t waste time delving into his more unusual musical tastes, including drone-inspired music, such as that featured in one of his many sideprojects, Bass Communion. For many, Insurgentes was a step too far, but after years of listening, it has worked its way up to the very highest echelon in my mind. At first glance the more accessible Harmony Korine and Insurgentes seem to be the best of the bunch, but after closer inspection it’s the atmospheric expanses that permeate the rest of the record that come to the fore. Such a left-field attempt has to be admired from a man who could have so easily made an album of Harmony Korine‘s and with time I have come to really appreciate the depth and beauty of the music within.

I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who reads RockAtlantic and for keeping me motivated over the last two years! Join the RockAtlantic mailing list by clicking on follow and as always press like if you enjoyed this blog and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. Part 2 will be out next Monday.

– James

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The Return of Apocalyptica

The semi-classical, semi-metal Finnish band are set to return to the musical forefront with the release of their eighth studio album, Shadowmaker, in April. This album comes five years after the release of the hit-and-miss, 7th Symphony, making Shadowmaker feel more like a comeback record than a continuation of their career that peaked with the release of Worlds Collide in 2007.

Over the years the band have progressed from a group of four cellists covering Metallica, to a proper band setup that performs instrumental originals that weave classical sounds into metal compositions. With this eighth record Apocalyptica have once again evolved, opting to include vocalist Franky Perez into the band.

Of the three tracks so far released from the upcoming record, two of them feature vocal contributions from Perez. Cold Blood is a straight forward radio rock track, earmarked as a single from the second it was completed, whereas the title track Shadowmaker is a complex and twisting composition that requires multiple listens to unravel.

Traditionally Shadowmaker would have been left an instrumental track because of its engaging structure, but with Perez now in the band, vocals were added to the track. The question is whether this is a justified move from a band that has built its career and fanbase from an instrumental ethos. Certainly vocal tracks have become an important aspect of their sound; both I’m Not Jesus (featuring Corey Taylor) and Bitter Sweet (featuring Finnish duo Ville Valo and Lauri Ylonen), amongst others, helped increase popularity within a musical scene that often overlooks instrumental music.

Cold Blood, with its catchy chorus and hard-hitting riffs, would have always been one of Apocalyptica’s single-friendly vocal tracks, with or without Perez, so its appearance on the record is no surprise. Whilst it’s not quite up there with the aforementioned vocal efforts, Cold Blood is a solid track to market an album around and Perez does a great job fitting his voice to the rich textures of the three cellos.

However, Perez’s vocals are not special enough to warrant them overlaying Shadowmaker‘s intricate composition. The musical foundation has too much to offer to be sidelined behind a vocal line and therefore the track is weaker for his inclusion. Sometimes music doesn’t demand vocals and this is certainly the case here – I’d expect a band like Apocalyptica with such a strong instrumental heritage to understand this.

The final of three tracks released from Shadowmaker is an instrumental piece called Till Death Do Us Part, which starts with a mellow section that grows in ferocity as its eight minute length ticks by. The song focuses on the heavy side of the band’s influences and is dominated by a powerful melody line, complemented with plucked strings, deep bass rasps and a heavy drum attack.

Out of three tracks previewed so far, Till Death Do Us Part is by far the strongest, which might just be evidence enough to suggest the inclusion of Perez was a mistake. Choosing to stick with one vocalist is a big risk for a band that have established themselves as frontrunners of metal instrumental music. Let’s just hope Apocalyptica have got it right, because musically they seem faultless.

Thank you for reading. Join the RockAtlantic mailing list by clicking on follow and as always press like if you enjoyed this blog and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

– James

Introducing: North Atlantic Oscillation

No this is not a Geography lesson, or a lecture about climate variability, but an education in one of the most promising and talented British progressive bands to emerge this decade. North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) hail from Edinburgh and are led by vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Sam Healy, who is joined by drummer Ben Martin and bassist Chris Howard. The three-piece released their third album The Third Day in late 2014, which continued where its predecessor Fog Electric left off, filling the unnamed space between electronica, classic prog and pop.

Despite their innovative sound and perfect placement on the Kscope label (who host progressive contemporaries such as Steven Wilson, Anathema, Ian Anderson, The Pineapple Thief and Tesseract to name a few), NAO remain a relatively unknown and under-appreciated act. With this in mind I decided to write a brief guide to their wonderful and unique discography.

Grappling Hooks (2010)

Managing to mix haunting atmospheres and a poppy chorus, the album’s first track Marrow acts a blueprint for the rest of the record to follow. Whilst the music never gets too complex, it’s the combination and evolution of infectious pop melodies with bubbly electronics and an array of guitar sounds that provides Grappling Hooks‘ progressive nature. Similar to the way that Tool or Radiohead use vocals, Healy’s floating voice acts as another layer of instrumentation, rather than as a narrative tool, highlighting the musical structure beneath.

Their focus on instrumentation and their diverse musical influences is shown further within the two instrumental tracks on the record. Audioplastic mixes elements of jazz and funk around a hypnotising glockenspiel riff, all supported by Martin’s brilliant drumming, whilst Star Chamber shows off their heavier side with a distorted guitar riff that cycles around, before bass synths and atmospheric piano are added in for good measure.

Recommended: Hollywood Has Ended, Cell Count, Audioplastic, Ceiling Poem

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Fog Electric (2012)

The eerie yet serene image of a shipwreck on the cover of NAO’s second album perfectly describes the mood of the music within; a blend of darkness and beauty. There is a lot more in the way of rich musical textures and atmospheres on Fog Electric, which are a perfect support for Healy’s soaring voice, resulting in a much grander feel to the album. This has meant some of the poppier elements have been reduced, but there are still enough electronic beats, chirping keyboards and sing along melodies to keep NAO from joining the likes of Sigur Ros in pure soundscape music. That being said Fog Electric is definitely less immediate in giving up its secrets than Grappling Hooks, which makes every listen new and rewarding; a trait that only the best progressive artists can claim to achieve.

Recommended: Soft Coda, Empire Waste, Expert With Altimeter, The Receiver

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The Third Day (2014)

The Third Day takes another step towards soundscape music and away from the progressive electronica featured throughout their evolution. A Nice Little Place builds on a moody atmosphere, whilst instrumental Penrose displays merry and ethereal qualities. In fact every song leans towards beautiful instrumentation (just listen to the gorgeous Anathema-like outro to Pines of Eden), only using electronics and unusual sounds when they’re actually required. The Third Day is NAO’s most mature record yet and portrays a band who are dedicated to their craft of writing compositionally rich pieces with modern and unusual sounds.

Recommended: Great Plains II, Penrose, Wires, Dust

The Third Day

 

Thank you for reading. Join the RockAtlantic mailing list by clicking on follow and as always press like if you enjoyed this blog and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

– James

Image Source: kscopemusic.com

 

Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson’s musical circus is back with album number four, Hand. Cannot. Erase., which once again sees Wilson changing musical directions, opting for a more eclectic mix of styles, unified only by a central concept.

Eclectic really is the right word to use here. The title track is a straight-up pop track with a happy melody that nods its head throughout its length, reminding of Lightbulb Sun-era Porcupine Tree. Contrast this with the dark and menacing Ancestral that has plenty of progressive ambition and it’s clear to see just how wide Wilson has cast his musical net with this effort.

Hand Cannot EraseThere is, however, noticeably less lengthy progressive numbers to be found here, compared to its predecessor The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories). This in turn has allowed Wilson to experiment with shorter instrumental tracks, like those which connect together the individual movements of Porcupine Tree’s The Incident. In fact the instrumental songs featured here act in much the same way; allowing the story behind this concept album to progress and evolve away from Wilson’s distinctive vocals. Two of these tracks, First Regret and Ascendent Here On…, are the intro and outro pieces respectively and although they add a little to the musical narrative, they just don’t hold the listeners attention as much as they probably should.

However Regret #9 is a different story. This interconnecting instrumental track begins as the closing notes of Home Invasion sound and take the listener on a sonic journey through rich textures and aural pleasure. It begins with a spacey Moog Synthesizer solo, courtesy of Adam Holzman, which floods the mind with memories of that famous eight note synth loop on Pink Floyd’s On The Run. This then merges seamlessly into a Guthrie Govan guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, encapsulating the brilliance of Steven Wilson’s backing band, before returning to a sombre atmosphere consisting of sparse banjo and piano keys.

The smaller track lengths also apply to the non-instrumental songs too. In a similar vein to Hand Cannot Erase, Transience is a short pop-inspired track that focuses on melody and accessibility rather than technical musicianship. The pair are very much traditional Wilson tracks, which is a pertinent addition to the record, reminding us that this is a Wilson solo effort, rather than that of a supergroup, which is again echoed in the broad genre choices on display.

Despite this there are still a handful of lengthy progressive marathons to savour. The aforementioned Ancestral is a progressive behemoth and is the only track to feature the superb talents of Theo Travis on flute and saxophone; a stark contrast from his heavy featuring on the last, more jazz-influenced record. 3 Years Older is the other ten-minutes-plus track and is a rollercoaster of styles, managing to transform from a quiet dreamy vocal section to a hectic metal passage, with screaming organs and a ferocious drum attack, without sounding forced. The final lengthy track, Routine, is still progressive, but takes a much more grounded approach, as it showcases Wilson’s song writing ability, along with the superb talents of vocalist Ninet Tayeb (who also makes an appearance on Ancestral) instead of taking listeners down a meandering jam session. The track itself is very melancholic and subdued, but begins to stand out with repeat listens, serving the album’s concept rather than trying to make an ambitious musical impact.

In addition to the superb musicianship, there is also plenty of experimentation to be found throughout Hand. Cannot. Erase.. Both Happy Returns and Perfect Life make use of guest musicians, the former utilising a boy’s choir and an orchestral string arrangement to achieve a hair-raising crescendo, whilst the latter features a female spoken word monologue on top of a hypnotic drum beat. Home Invasion, meanwhile, covers similar lyrical ground that Porcupine Tree covered with Fear of a Blank Planet in 2007, whilst experimenting with percussive djent-inspired guitar stabs and jazzy passages within a 3-and-a-half minute instrumental intro.

Hand. Cannot. Erase. covers a lot of musical ground and is once again a step forward in Wilson’s solo career. Whilst the supergroup band concept definitely still exists, Wilson has taken a slight step away from it in order to pursue shorter and more personal tracks, as well as few instrumental detours, which in times gone by might have been released under his Porcupine Tree outlet. This being said there is still plenty of exciting experimentation and progressive meandering to please fans of Rush, Dream Theater and Pink Floyd alike, but it comes second to the grand concept of the album. Overall this record is another truly impressive and extremely indulgent progressive record, which once again confirms Wilson as the most exciting and ambitious progressive musician this side of the Millennium.

Overall: 8.5/10

Thank you for reading. Join the RockAtlantic mailing list by clicking on follow and as always press like if you enjoyed this blog and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

– James

Image Source: kscopemusic.com

The Answer Is “Very Few”

I was talking to a friend a couple of days ago when he brought up how Flyleaf aren’t quite as good with their new singer, Kristen May, as they were with their original vocalist Lacey Sturm. He then went on to ask the question “how many bands have been more successful after their original singer has been replaced?”

It’s a good question – how often do you hear of replacement singers bringing about a new era of a band, only for that band to disappear into anonymity? Some bands like Drowning Pool or Tesseract have become a revolving door of singers, with four in nineteen years and five in twelve years respectively. In Drowning Pool’s case these changes have caused a lack of consistency, as each vocalist has been very different, resulting in four quite distinct phases; their straight-forward metal formula not providing a distinct enough sound to tie their discography together. However, Tesseract have chosen very similar vocalists, especially in recent years, making the transition as seamless as possible.

Many of the well known classic rock acts have made vocalist changes, but not all of them have been successful from it. Perhaps the most notable example is AC/DC, who had the unfortunate task of replacing Bon Scott (who himself was not the original vocalist) after he died in 1980. Unwittingly Scott had scouted his own replacement, telling the band how he rated Brain Johnson, the singer of Geordie at the time. His death followed a period of international success with a popular run of albums including Powerage and Highway to Hell, making Brain Johnson’s job even harder. Fortunately for the band their next album Back in Black would become one of the biggest selling albums of all time, joining classics such as Dark Side of the Moon and Rumours.

Migrating into the world of classic metal acts, both Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden have made notable vocalist changes. Black Sabbath are an example of a revolving door band, who never quite recovered properly after firing Ozzy Osbourne. Five different vocalists followed his dismissal (of which four featured on releases) with varying levels of success, but even the much loved Ronnie James Dio couldn’t quite live up to infamous Osbourne-Sabbath partnership. However, Iron Maiden’s vocalist change proved much more successful. Their third front man Paul Di’Anno featured on the band’s first two albums, but was quickly replaced after drugs started to adversely affect his live performances. His replacement was a certain Bruce Dickinson, who made his mark immediately on The Number of the Beast and has since grown to be one of greatest metal vocalists of all time, cementing Iron Maiden’s place in metal history.

My final example is a more recent one. Slipknot wouldn’t be the band they are today if they hadn’t replaced their original vocalist Anders Colsefni. Colsefni featured on their demo album Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat., displaying a limited vocal repertoire, which ultimately led the band to source new vocalist Corey Taylor. Slipknot’s new front man brought with him an ability to perfectly execute both screamed and melodic vocals, providing foundation for their future commercial success, whilst retaining their characteristic heaviness.

Whilst there are a handful of positive examples (others include Dream Theater and, rather annoyingly, Genesis), for most bands a change in singer never really works out well. This is because the vocalist is such an integral part of a band’s musical identity and replacing them is analogous to changing musical direction – a sure-fire way to divide a fan base. The same can sometimes be said about distinctive guitar players or other notable instrumentalists, I mean imagine Guns ‘N’ Roses without Slash’s licks. Oh, wait…

Thank you for reading. Join the RockAtlantic mailing list by clicking on follow and as always press like if you enjoyed this blog and let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

– James