The Cosmic Dead - The Exalted King. 2012 Scotland

The Cosmic Dead are a Scottish quartet who've been around a couple of years, and whose raison d'etre is improvised space rock. The Cosmic Dead are yet another one of these new bands who seem to be content to issue their albums via download, along with the archaic cassette format (which, to be fair, does allow for 90 and 120 minute albums). They have 6 albums to date but only two are on the more durable and desirable formats like the LP and CD. 

The Exalted King is a sprawling 2 LP set of droning keys, echoed guitars, and pounding rhythms. Hawkwind and the more cosmic moments of Amon Duul II are the obvious comparisons. This is music to turn the lights off, sit back / lay down, and take in the aural kaleidoscope provided. Wake up, turn the vinyl over, and repeat. By the end of Side 4 you're ready for a blissful sleep.

Another fantastic package from the excellent Greek label Cosmic Eye!

Personal collection
LP: 2013 Cosmic Eye (Greece)

Ben Bell - Patchwork Cacophony. 2014 England

In general, I'm not a fan of solo albums, but when Ben Bell asked me to give a listen to his debut work Patchwork Cacophony, something told me this might be a bit different. And sure enough, I was right (at least this time...). I knew Ben from the Fusion Orchestra reformation album (technically with an appended 2 to the moniker). He seemed like such a genuinely pleasant fellow, and his positive demeanor and overall disposition were perhaps a bit closer to my own. And it was obvious, to me at least, that he had an enormous influence over Fusion Orchestra's return success (artistically speaking of course).

Basically Ben Bell plays about 40 instruments here, and that's one reason why it works so effectively. This includes the critical ingredients such as keyboards, guitars, and drums/percussion. So instead of the usual limited palette, Bell creates a myriad of sounds via both older analog, and newer digital, instruments. In this way, Bell could be considered a modern Mike Oldfield, marrying his Hergest Ridge and Amarok eras in seamless fashion. Though perhaps Bell's work is more in line with traditional symphonic progressive, than what the mercurial Oldfield would release. The only track with vocals, 'Dawn Light', has a distinct Supertramp feel - at their most progressive. Hammond organ, acoustic piano, and sampled mellotron drive the tones, and he does an admirable job with the rhythms - and especially the additional percussion. And an occasional fuzz guitar intrusion never hurt anyone (especially me!). Of course, one can always benefit from the "creative friction" and synergy of a group effort, though admittedly the stress levels are so much calmer when it's only you that you're left  arguing with...

I had to laugh when Bell stated "As a gesture to my teenage version of myself who loved reading these lists while listening to albums, trying to spot each part like a a treasure hunt checklist:". And then he listed the instrumentation in detail. Yea, well, I also liked doing that when I was 13 too. And guess what? I still like doing that as I close in on 51...

In conclusion, a highly recommended album for symphonic progressive rock fans.

Personal collection
CD: 2014 Patchwork Studios

Fusion Orchestra 2 - Casting Shadows. 2013 England

Well, well, look who's back? I would not have thought of Fusion Orchestra that's for sure. Original guitarist Colin Dawson reformed the band, with 4 new players involved including the all important ingredient of a female vocalist - this time performed by the lovely Elsie Lovelock. Despite the new membership, the band sounds very much like an updated Skeleton in Armour, which is all one could - perhaps should, given the moniker - hope for. Lovelock's vocals retain that husky soulful jazzy tone that Jill Saward brought forth in the early 70s. And it's nice to see Dawson continue to carry a psychedelic sound in his energetic guitar playing. On the keyboard front, Ben Bell, it appears, has decidedly gone with modern gear - much of it representing the sounds of the past, so he has successfully accomplished what he set out to do. The compositions could have easily been composed in 1974 for a followup album, and I'm not sure I could pay a higher compliment than that. 'Cider Sue' is my favorite of the three main 10+ minute tracks presented. Certainly the material has a modern edge to it, and it would be unrealistic to expect different, but it seems a natural progression for the band, and does not come across as forced or contrived. Had this been a new band from 2013, that no one had heard of prior, I think it would be well received by fans of modern progressive rock. It's a tragedy this one escaped notice. Don't miss this one.

Personal collection
CD: 2013 Patchwork Studios

Architrave Indipendente - Azetium A Otto Piste. 2009 Italy

Architrave Indipendente's sole album is the closest I've heard yet of a band sounding like the original 1973 Italian progressive rock movement. There are many groups today that emulate the sound, especially from a compositional standpoint, but they still sound like they're a modern troupe (vintage equipment not withstanding). For example, groups such as La Maschera di Cera, Il Tempio delle Clessidre, and La Torre dell'Alchimista all are clearly retro focused, but still are very much of our own era (and that's also a good thing). Architrave Indipendente are hardcore, right down to the recording techniques and LP only release (though a year later some handmade CD-R's were made to meet digital demand). It's as if they immersed themselves directly into the Italian culture of 1972. That's not an easy thing to accomplish. Great album that is closer to the romantic sounds of Celeste, Errata Corrige, and second album Quella Vecchia Locanda rather than the harder edged bands like Il Balletto di Bronzo, Biglietto per L'Inferno, or Museo Rosenbach.

Personal collection
LP: 2009 Retroguardie
CD-R: 2009 Retroguardie

To date, this is an LP only release. However, there is a CD-R version out there that Greg Walker / Syn-Phonic carries (and maybe a few others). The band did this to meet demand, but it's clear their heart isn't into CD issues. Best to get the beautiful gatefold LP.

Deus Ex Machina - s/t. 1993 Italy

I feel sometimes that this, their second offering, is the forgotten work in Deus Ex Machina's canon. But much of their live repertoire is taken from this work, proving that in some ways, the album features their strongest material from a compositional standpoint. The execution isn't as crisp, and the sound quality isn't dynamic (a bit of a flat digital sound - typical of early 1990s albums). Singer Piras demonstrates here what a force he was to become. A very good album that has aged well and I feel an improvement on their chaotic and unfocused debut.

Personal collection
CD: 1993 Kaliphonia

Porcelain Moon - ...As it Were. Here and There. 2009 Finland

Debut album from very promising new band from Finland. Porcelain Moon are midway between the classic post-Jefferson Airplane European female vocal lead progressive rock groups of the early 1970s (Sandrose, Julian's Treatment, Circus 2000, Goliath, etc...) and the modern airy symphonic folk groups like Magenta, Iona, Mostly Autumn, etc... What I like most from Porcelain Moon is the analog instrumentation and psychedelic predilection (organ, Moog, fuzz, and wah-wah guitars) - and it's clear to me early Pink Floyd is an influence too. Personally I'd like to see the band focus entirely on this latter aspect, as there has never really been a specific retro movement on what was once a thriving scene throughout Europe as noted by my Post psychedelic, proto progressive with female vocals list. The final two tracks are the winners, with the mysterious 'Markens Grode' and especially the stunning 'Vinden'. This band has enormous potential, but nothing new has emerged from them since (as I update this entry in Aug, 2016).

Personal collection
CD: 2011 Musea (France)

The original private press, under the band name Porcelain was extremely difficult to find. Fortunately Musea picked them up and is easily one of the best new albums on the imprint. During this process, a name change occurred resulting in Porcelain Moon. A good idea I think, especially if one considers Google searches.

Il Ballo delle Castagne - Kalachakra. 2011 Italy

I'm always on the lookout for modern bands who incorporate psychedelic influences into their progressive rock, and it was clear by the few reviews I saw, plus my sampling of their first album on MySpace a few months ago, that Ballo delle Castagne are one such band. One only has to look at their label name to pick out a distinct Krautrock predilection. To date, I've only heard their new release "Kalachakra", which is distributed by the respected Black Widow label of Italy.

Given the sitar, echoed acid guitar and overall trippy effects, perhaps it's surprising that Ballo delle Castagne also possess an early 80s maudlin New Wave sound, especially evident in the vocal styling presented. In some ways, I'm hearing that most misunderstood debut album by the Italian group Runaway Totem - "Trimegisto". Ballo delle Castagne's second album, for me at least, improves significantly as it progresses on - losing some of the 80's song narrative, while bringing forth their 1970s Krautrock influences. The moody and atmospheric "La Foresta dei Suicidi" is probably the best track. I do have some problems with the production here, a bit hollow and thin sounding. Music like this needs a full woody sound to be effective. I feel that Ballo delle Castagne are on the cusp of something great, and I hope they persevere further, while adding stronger instrumental heft to their compositions. Still, I'm recommending Kalacakra wholeheartedly.

Highlights: 2. Tutte le Anime Saranno Pesate (4:43); 5. La Terra Trema (6:55); 6. La Foresta dei Suicidi (6:00); 7. Omega (5:55); 8. Ballo delle Castagne (3:54)

Personal collection
CD: 2011 Hau Ruck SPQR

Amoeba Split - Dance of the Goodbyes. 2010 Spain

Amoeba Split are one of two current Spanish bands (that I'm aware of anyway) playing in the Canterbury styled jazz rock space. The other is the more known Planeta Imaginario. Of the two, I'd say Amoeba Split are the more purest when referring to the classic bands of Soft Machine and National Health. The instrumentation is right out of the 70's: Hammond organ,piano, Mellotron, Mini-Moog, flute, sax, guitar, bass and drums. The major differentiator here is the female vocals, which are admittedly a bit shrill. Her slightly accented delivery is a bit odd, but I have a feeling that will add to the charm on repeated listens. She's really not that far from some of the early 70's shrieks of Sandrose and Joy Unlimited. But it is unusual in this setting, where we're used to the soft affected tones of The Northettes. 'Dedicated to Us, But We Weren't Listening' and 'Turbulent Matrix'. Amoeba Split score well on both of the style's major attributes - melody and complexity. A no-brainer pickup for fans of the 1970's UK Canterbury scene.

Personal collection
CD: 2010 Creative Commons

The CD is housed in a fine mini-LP sleeve.

Neom - Arkana Temporis. 2009 France

Neom's debut is a slow burner, built on intense thematic melodic lines while adding guitar, Rhodes electric piano, wordless voice, and of course the all important driving woody bass and percussion. The guitar is a unique dimension for the Zeuhl style, and only on the debut by Eider Stellaire will you hear so much of the instrument in this context. The fact that they can write beautiful melodies within the confines of the martial style of Zeuhl is a testament to Neom's talent.

Personal collection
CD: 2009 Soleil Zeuhl

Nebelnest - Nova Express. 2002 France

When Nebelnest first burst onto the scene in 1999, they were a revelation. A mix of aggressive space rock and cosmic 60's Pink Floyd-like sounds, and for me represents one of the best albums of the 1990s. With Nova Express, the band tightened the ship, and were pretty much all aggressive... all the time. Gone were the hazy psychedelic dreams, and its place dark nightmares became predominant. With this shift towards constant intensity, Nebelnest always seems like they're in the middle of the song. So I do miss the build-ups and ultimate release. Very good album, but not to the level of their debut.

Personal collection
CD: 2000 Cuneiform (USA)

TNVVNÜM - Ouroboros. 2009 Estonia

Excellent new, primarily instrumental, band from Estonia whose full name is Tõele Näkku Vaadates Võib Näha Ükskõik Mida - just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? The name translates more or less to Facing The Truth You Can See Anything.

The opening of TNVVNÜM's second album Ouroboros sits somewhere between the post rock of Tortoise and Ummagumma era Pink Floyd. The song structures meander similar to the former, but the Gilmour leads and fuzzy sounding ancient organ point to a late 1960's sound. By track 4, the album is already in full blown psychedelic rock mode, which endears itself to this listener anyway. The eerie narration/vocals of 8) give off more than a whiff of first album Trettioåriga Kriget. The album peaks on the sublime 'Bad Chemicals', an appropriate name given the disorienting psychedelic nature of the song. This song could have easily been part of the Pärson Sound repertoire of 1968.

Highlights (using the provided English translations as I'm too lazy to type in the Estonia names): 3. Seagull (3:30); 4. State of the Dream (6:36); 6. Ambrosia (4:10); 8. Solar Eclipse (6:09); 9. Bad Chemicals (5:31); 10. Earthbound (5:30)

Personal collection
CD: 2009 private

The CD comes in a nice hard bound mini-LP sleeve.

Electric Orange - Netto. 2011 Germany

In 1993, Electric Orange almost single-handedly restored the cosmic Krautrock genre back to greatness (with the exception of some truly obscure outfits like Attempt to Restore, Nova Express, and Der Kampf Gegen den Schlaf). They took a detour shortly thereafter into the realms of electronica, realized the error of their ways, and returned back to form in 2001 with Abgelaufen!. Since that time, Electric Orange have gone from amateur to professional status, added more band members, and have released a number of quality albums with consistency.

Electric Orange have definitely retraced the steps of their ancestors, and are one of the only "true" Krautrock bands in existence today. I mean that by the atmosphere and angst of the music, verse the actual geographical location. A must own album..

Personal collection
CD: 2011 Sulatron (Austria)

Mysteries of the Revolution - s/t. 2007 England

Their website says "MYSTERIES OF THE REVOLUTION features BB Davis of the legendary Red Orchidstra and virtuoso French virtuoso keyboardist Dan Biro. Influences range from Miles, Hancock, Zawinul, George Duke, Roland Kirk, Corea, Coltrane, Mahavishnu, Lifetime to Hendrix, Zappa, Led Zep, Doors, Steely Dan to neo-classicism and psychedelica all dished up in a sweaty, heady brew of heavily jazzified, passionate, funked up, blissed-out, head-on grooves with a whole dash a' finesse n' panache - yeah, really."

Yea, really. And no kidding. Damn. Here's a band that not only is current, but is already completely obscure. C'mon, this isn't fair! I think part of the problem here is it appears the band is being marketed to a jazz audience. And while that's not entirely wrong to do, I think the progressive rock buying public would perhaps be more interested in Mysteries of the Revolution.

Mysteries of the Revolution combine instrumental retro Hammond and flute driven rock with a modern jazz approach. On this latter point, despite the analog instrumentation, one can hear the crystal clear production and modern percussion ever so slightly calling out St. Germain for example. But by no means is this a techno jazz album. Just listen to The Crunch and you'll swear it's from a 1971 English proto-prog album. And they use a regular drum-kit. About the only group I can think of in this space is the Norwegian band Elephant9, but Mysteries of the Revolution are more varied and not quite as much in "Hammond overdrive" as Elephant9 are. Let's hope this isn't all we're going to hear from these guys, as they've shown tremendous potential here.

Highlights: 2. The Crunch (10:16); 3. Storius Sensorius (5:58); 7. Secret Fire (5:34)

Personal collection
CD: 2007 Blue Serene Focus

Wolf People - Steeple. 2010 England

Unlike Canadian label mates Black Mountain, there aren't any traces of modern indie or stoner sounds to be found on Wolf People. For me, they are one of the best retro psychedelic influenced progressive rock bands I've heard. The late 60's acid guitar tone is to die for. You can file Wolf People next to that other most excellent UK retro band - Diagonal.

Steeple peaks on the ultra freak-out 'Cromlech', which recalls UFO era Guru Guru of all albums, and is a complete monster in this setting. The flute on 'Tiny Circle' is a really nice touch, and I'd love to hear the instrument utilized further into their sound.

Personal collection
CD: 2010 Jagjaguwar (USA)

Arcane - Future Wreck. 2000 England

Oh my, what do we have here? Well, we have Rubycon but it flows like a techno album. Introspective flute mellotron and piano is offset by intense sequencing bordering on beats, but it is still pure EM. I haven’t heard anything this devastating since the discovery of Redshift. After the 21 minute+ opening title track, they shift gears to a more modern era of Tangerine Dream. Perhaps to the best of their 1980's albums: Logos. There is something very special about that album that is hard to put in words. It’s a rare combo of melodies and moods. But Arcane is clearly operating in that rarefied territory on track 2 'The Plastic Eaters. By track 3 they are marching through the 80's and hit Hyperborea for The Visible Empty Man. The first part of the track is what that TD album should have been like – with more haunting atmospherics and it doesn't dawdle. Oh dear, the second part of this song heads into bouncy Le Parc land. How did we get from Rubycon to Le Parc? Who’s bad idea was that? Well, this part isn't a highlight of the album for sure. Fortunately they close back in the Logos area. Or maybe Tangram, with a nice introspective sequence. The finale 'Planet of the Blind' gets back to some mellotron/sequence business with a bit of White Eagle thumping and a rare synth solo done in guitar hero fashion. Well, it’s a romp through the Tangerine Dream history book, but what the hell – I like the mix, different from any others I’ve heard.

Personal collection
CD: 2000 Neu Harmony

Dschinn Fizz - There is a Playne Difference. 1981 Germany

For the most part this is a fluffy AOR / progressive rock hybrid. The highlight here is some fine guitar work, both in the melody and solo sections. A heavier, almost proto-metal component gives off more than a whiff to classic late 70's era Scorpions. Because I'm a sucker for the commercial sounds of this time frame, I'll probably rate this higher than I should, as I find this both fun and nostalgic. If what I'm saying resonates, then you should check it out for a listen or two yourself.

Personal collection

Phlox - Rebimine + Voltimine. 2007 Estonia

Phlox are an Estonian band that play in the VERY heavy fusion category (no metal though). Hard driving, fast, complicated and downright exhilarating. A 6 piece group with guitar, sax, Moog, and electric piano being the primary solo components. The opening track alone ‘Rahn’ is likely to leave you with jaw dropped and completely out of breath. We hear flute on this track, and it’s unfortunate that it’s the only use on the album, because the contrast with the heavy guitars and blazing rhythms is awe inspiring. That’s not to say the rest of the album isn’t as impressive, because there’s so much here to like. The only fault I can find is their tendency to take the sax and electric piano jams TOO far and lose us in the weeds (especially on the last 2 live improvisations, which should have just been left off altogether). Fortunately that’s a few and far between occurrence. Somewhere between Naikaku, Panzerballet and National Health is where you’ll find the sound of Phlox. HOT!!!

Personal collection
CD: 2007 MKDK

Gosta Berlings Saga - Tid Är Ljud. 2006 Sweden

Gösta Berlings Saga could be considered the perfect modern Swedish progressive rock band. They look inward towards their own country for melodic inspiration, rather than the UK/US style of groups like The Flower Kings. Second album Kebnekaise is about where they land on the Swedish scale, but Gösta Berlings Saga are far more symphonic than that may imply. They use plenty of vintage instrumentation (as expected, primarily in the keyboard department with mellotron, Rhodes and various Moogs), yet the production and overall sound has a modern sensibility. Gösta Berlings Saga are one of the few groups of our era that do not belong to a current sub-genre, such as post rock, prog metal, neo, avant, retro / proto, jazz/fusion etc... They are, in fact, a straight ahead progressive rock group. They have respect for the 1970s, but aren't stuck in it. This might all seem like we're smack dab in the middle of our interest area, and thus might be a little boring or uninspired. And yet it's not at all that way, proving that the old recipes are generally better than the new concoctions. A pretty new room in an old house.

It's near impossible to pick highlights. All of the tracks are remarkably consistent, though by no means samey sounding. I will also allow that there's no drop dead killer tracks either. 'Helgamarktz' & 'Syrenernas Sång' lay the foundation of what Tid Är Ljud is about and if you like these two, it's highly likely you'll love the rest. 'Aniarasviten' has a stunning melody as its centerpiece, to an overall excellent moody composition. 'Ljud Från Stan' is more of a psychedelic jam rock piece, with fine guitar and Rhodes soloing. Gösta Berlings Saga shines in this setting and are able to maintain the intensity necessary. 'Tog du Med dig Naturen?' & 'Knölsvanen' seem to blow by, without having much impact. They're both fine tracks, and perhaps it's their placement that keeps them from standing out, even on multiple successive listens. 'Svarta Hål och Elljusspår' adds flute to great effect, providing the right soft focus lead instrument Gösta Berlings Saga definitely needs to get to the next level. All in all, a highly recommended album.

Personal collection
CD: 2006 Transubstans

Gösta Berlings Saga - Detta har Hänt. 2009 Sweden

Two albums in now, and I can honestly say Gösta Berlings Saga has never written a song that has blown me away. Nor have they played anything I didn't like at all. Strange. A new guitarist is in, but mostly the music has stayed the same from the debut. I'd say the "Swedish-ness" has been removed and that's a step backwards for me. And perhaps the post rock tag could be applied in various places (yawn). There's a certain driving monotony to it all. But again, we're in familiar progressive rock territory for most of the album. Gösta Berlings Saga is a true A-list group for me, but I think they can do better honestly. It seems they're on the cusp of releasing one of the best albums of the last 10 years.

'Sorterargatan 3' has a nice repetitive groove to build upon, the kind that made some of those classic 70s albums so good (think Magma). Or a modern band like DFA. 'Bergslagen' is closest to the debut with mellotron and a hint of Swedish deep-in-the-forests type melodies and atmospheres. Best track on the album. 'Västerbron "05:30"' features some aggressive guitar soloing that I found refreshing. There also seems to be more of an Anekdoten influence (first 2 albums) than prior.

Personal collection
CD: 2009 Transubstans

Gösta Berlings Saga - Glue Works. 2011 Sweden

As mentioned on the Detta har Hänt review, Gösta Berlings Saga seemed to be moving away from their Swedish folk roots and more towards modern post rock. And now they've jumped off the cliff and thrown their lot in with this latter movement. A wall of sound approach, with mid 70's King Crimson and late 90's Anekdoten references everywhere. I'm sure the intensity of playing this music can be quite inspiring, if not emotionally exhausting - but as a listener it can stray towards the mundane after a few minutes of the same pattern.

All of which sounds like I'm low on this album. I'm not. But it's a full Gnosis point, and a half RYM star down from their second album. And as much as I hate to say it, Gösta Berlings Saga are no longer an auto-buy for me. If they keep going down this route, I'll probably put it in the "if I can find it cheap" category. And that's a shame given the immense promise the debut demonstrated.

Personal collection
CD: 2011 Cuneiform (USA)

The Cosmic Dead - The Exalted King. 2012 Scotland

The Cosmic Dead are a Scottish quartet who've been around a couple of years, and whose  raison d'etre  is improvised space rock.  ...