Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: In Extremis by Days Between Stations; The New Progmantics by Sarastro Blake; Northumbria by Aethellis

I’ve received review copies of three albums by new bands: In Extremis by Days Between Stations (with guests including Billy Sherwood, Pete Banks and Rick Wakeman), The New Progmantics by Sarastro Blake (with guests including Billy Sherwood, Richard Sinclair and Rick Wakeman), and Northumbria by Aethellis. It's tough being a new band. With so much music so readily available, the competition is intense and it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. You might make the greatest music in the world ever, but if no-one ever hears it... That's even more true in a genre like progressive rock where the classic bands of yesteryear still dominate fan attention.

So, how can you boost your profile? One way is to establish a link with better known acts through a guest appearance (something the Internet has made easier to do). Being able to say that Rick Wakeman, say, plays on your album gets you noticed. It's a mark of approval from a big name. Music journalists have something to write about you, the audience takes notice and sales go up. And, hopefully, at least some of the new listeners attracted by the guest star will stay for the music you've produced. Not to mention that you get to make music with your heroes, and learn from an experienced pro.

Two albums out this year following this approach are In Extremis, the second release from US band Days Between Stations, and The New Progmantics, the debut from Sarastro Blake, a recording name for Paolo Pigni who has worked before in Mogador. And let me be honest: the guest star approach worked on me. Both are good albums, but I probably wouldn't have noticed either if they hadn't had that hook, guest starring...

But what do you with your guest star? (I know one label that loves to put the names of guest musicians in the album promo, but is less bothered if their actual contribution to a track is minimal.) How do you let them shine, while still complementing your music? It's easier to start with Sarastro Blake here. The guest list is impressive:  Billy Sherwood and Rick Wakeman from Yes, David Paton from Camel and the Alan Parsons Project, Greenslade's Dave Lawson, Richard Sinclair (ex-Caravan/Hatfield and the North), Nick Magnus (ex-Steve Hackett/The Enid), and current Hackett collaborator Amanda Lehmann.

Sarastro Blake offers a pastoral, Romantic (thus the name) version of prog with this set of enjoyable songs, harking back to earlier Genesis or Anthony Phillips. Pigni has situated his work in a particular style, but not so as to obscure his compositional voice. The core band is strong, but there is room for each guest star to make their distinctive stamp. It's like a box of cupcakes: you get a nice cake-y bit from the band, but an array of different icing from the guests.

Days Between Stations is a more complicated affair. This Californian band consists of Oscar Fuentes Bills and Iranian-born Sepand Samzadeh. As only a duo, the band have recruited greater involvement from their famous colleagues. Billy Sherwood is here as almost a third member: he plays drums throughout, co-produces, mixes, co-writes lyrics and sings. Tony Levin is the album's bassist. Others appear in a typical guest role: Wakeman and XTC's Colin Moulding are on one piece each, with Pete Banks on two.

In Extremis was given an unexpected legacy just as the album was being finished with the passing of Peter Banks. This is one of the last albums Banks worked on, and the last new recording to feature Banks on more than a single track. Remembering Pete was not a role planned for this album, but the band have modestly accepted the assignment. "Waltz in E Min" is dedicated to Banks, while the liner notes talk about Pete and include a contribution from his long-time friend George Mizer. Pete was a wonderful musician who often struggled to find the right outlet. It is welcome that Sherwood opened so many doors for him in recent years, and that Days Between Stations were able to enjoy their collaboration with him.

Both The New Progmantics and In Extremis have running themes, but In Extremis is more explicitly a concept album, about a man’s life flashing before his eyes just before he dies. It is also more diverse stylistically, ranging from orchestrally-supported instrumentals to pop. Days Between Stations are a young band reacting to a prog heritage. At their best, I think they conjure up atmospheres more akin to earlier Floyd or Pure Reason Revolution, but their attempts at traditional prog songs along the lines of Yes or Genesis, like "Eggshell Man", are less successful. That song, for example, lacks energy. It proceeds from one section to another too politely, without verve. The lyrics lack the poetry of the music. Promo for the album has used “Eggshell Man”, highlighting contributions from Wakeman and Banks as well as Sherwood and Levin. But the big-name guests contribute little to the track: Banks and Levin are barely noticeable, Wakeman's part predictable, while Sherwood's drumming actively detracts. We have an album that trades on big name guests, but which often thrives away from their performances.

"The Man Who Died Two Times" is the more successful vocal track, a tighter pop construction and a spirited vocal from Moulding make it punchy. The band are better too in pieces like "No Cause for Alarm" and "In Utero", eschewing the basic rock instrumentation, more like music for a never-made film. "In Utero" offers snatches of different styles, as it paints a scene. The nearest comparison that comes to my mind is Vangelis' "Blade Runner" score. The expansive title track also provides Samzadeh and Fuentes space to shine, and Banks’ contributions here are more interesting.

Sherwood's hard-working nature makes him feel almost ubiquitous in projects like these. His jack-of-all-trades approach means he can come in and fill whatever role a band needs, but I feel he does better in some roles than others. His production of In Extremis is strong and something from which both The New Progmantics and Northumbria would have benefited. But Sherwood has a distinctive thump-y style as a drummer. This works bringing an urgent, martial tone to "No Cause for Alarm", but sits at odds with the atmosphere elsewhere on the album, becoming too familiar on an album that is otherwise quite eclectic in instrumentation.

Northumbria by Aethellis (released 2011) has no guest stars, no famous names to bring it to your attention, but it is just as worthy of that attention. The band consists of Ellsworth Hall (keyboards, vocals), Mark Van Natta (guitar, vocals, Erik Marks (bass, vocals), Mike Harrington (drums, vocals) and Joe Dwyer (sax). While the name and cover art give the impression that this will be another pastoral affair, the album is actually much more eclectic, in the way prog should be! If I had to describe the album overall, it’s what Rick Wakeman should have been doing in the 1980s, but wasn’t. There’s old school Rick Wakeman-like, proggy keyboards, but that’s mixing with a 1980s Genesis sound (“The Penal Colony” steers rather close to “Turn It On Again”) and also more modern elements (“The Awakening” reminds me of Ken Ramm’s Euphoria). There’s strong playing, catchy songwriting, and stylistic variation squeezed together. Samples, as for the other two albums, are available online.

Both In Extremis and The New Progmantics are in the current Where Are They Now? poll on the best Yes-related releases of the first half of 2013: you can vote here.