Simulacrum – Genesis – Album Review

Artist: Simulacrum

Album Title: Genesis

Label: Frontiers Music

Date of Release: 12 February 2021

Riding high on the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and inspiration, I am delighted to bring you this review for a new discovery. The band are called Simulacrum, meaning ‘an image or representation of someone or something’, and they are a progressive metal band hailing from Finland. I say that they are a new discovery, but there’s something niggling in the back of my mind to suggest that I may have come across them before. But whilst it remains an irritating niggle, I’ll treat this as a new discovery.

For those in the same boat as I, some background might be helpful. Simulacrum are a septet, with some unusual instruments getting exposure within their music, as the following roll call will attest. Simulacrum are comprised of Christian “Chrism” Pulkkinen (keyboards & orchestrations), Nicholas “Solomon” Pulkkinen (guitars, Bowed Harp and Bark Horn), Niklas Broman (vocals), Erik Kraemer (vocals), Tatu Turunen (drums and percussion), Petri Mäkilä (guitars), and Olli Hakala – bass, chapman stick & electric upright)

It may come as no surprise to learn that the music of Simulacrum, at least at the outset, is just as busy and overwhelming as the size of the band. This is intense music that never stops for a second, is full of different styles, and is multi-layered to the point where it’s almost impossible to decide exactly what to focus on. At least, that’s the initial feeling I got when listening to ‘Genesis’, and I’d like to think I’m a hardened listener of progressive music.

Over time, as familiarity seeps in, so does a greater understanding of exactly what’s going on with the Simulacrum sound. At it’s heart, there’s a strong thread of progressive power metal, meaning that we get some upbeat tempos, melody, and musicianship. But it isn’t as simple as leaving it there with Simulacrum though, because they also inject elements of thrash metal, djent, and modern metal into their music. And have I mentioned musicianship? Because these guys can seriously play, with plenty of flashy solos and embellishments all over the place, from just about every corner of the band. Some may well disagree with me but, for the most part, the showmanship doesn’t overshadow the compositions or come across as frivolous fluff. I’ve always enjoyed the more ostentatious side of progressive music, so long as it doesn’t veer into overly self-indulgent territory. And by-and-large, despite getting dangerously close at times, Simulacrum just about avoid this pitfall in my opinion.

Delving into the music itself, and the opening track, ‘Traumatized’ is a great way for the Finns to introduce their third full-length album. The modern aspect of their sound looms large from the outset, as a bass bomb signals the introduction of a brisk riff, laced with lashings of modern-sounding synths, before the riffs beef up further alongside some semi-gruff bruising vocals. And then, just as I’m beginning to feel incredibly confused, in storms the prog-power melody, accented by a higher-pitched vocal delivery, which then segues into a soaring, melodic chorus that’s hook laden and catchy. The ‘Amaranthe’ synth sounds continue as the band indulge in key, guitar, and bass solos, the latter being the most impressive in my opinion. We’re then pulled back willingly to the bold chorus. It’s a great song once you get to grips with it, with echoes of Symphony X, Lost In Thought, Pagan’s Mind, as well as any number of more modern djent-influenced prog acts.

In contrast, the keys at the beginning of ‘Nothing Remains’ are more 70s and 80s flavoured, whilst the brisk pace and intense delivery of the song has a lot more in common with power metal, despite a hint of thrash within the riffs if I’m not mistaken. Again, there are plenty of melodies to uncover, as the musicians do their level best to throw as much at us as possible. Solos from everywhere, embellishments and flourishes that dazzle – it’s like listening to the musical equivalent of a five-year-old at Christmas. On the one hand, it’s exhausting, but on the other, it has a definite charm.

The melodic, djent-infused intro to ‘Arrhythmic Distortions’ is a big highlight for me, especially as the song continues in an equally impressive vein, with some impossibly high vocals, a bright and breezy feel, complexity, and lots of catchy melodies that get stronger with every passing listen.

If I had anything to criticise at this point, it’d be the production, which I think just adds a little to the sense of busyness and intensity that is a hallmark of the Simulacrum approach. I’m not a tech-minded person, so it might be down to a number of things, but I do feel tired after I’ve listened to the album that’s for sure. That’s not to say that it’s a bad production though, because the music is powerful enough and clear enough to do the music justice.

Back to the compositions again, and the undeniable flagship of ‘Genesis’, has to be the epic four-part title track that clocks in at over 30 minutes. Although divided, it is clearly intended to be a single piece, as each part seamlessly segues into the next. As technical and intelligent as the previous tracks undoubtedly are, it is here that Simulacrum indulge in their theatrical, dramatic and full-on progressive side. Interesting time signatures, instrumental passages, and experimentation with other styles of music all plat their part. Take Part 1, ‘The Celestial Architect’ as an example. It offers a delicious guitar solo atop more whimsical percussion and synths, but in the lead-up, I hear death/black metal aggression, particularly in the drumming, albeit short-lived.

There’s a playfulness that’s hard to ignore and even more difficult to not fall for throughout this ambitious body of work. In many ways, the sense of exploration and quirkiness in places calls to mind early Dream Theater and more latterly, early Haken, circa ‘Aquarius’. ‘Evolution of Man’, the second part, is all-out instrumental dexterity that is handled nicely to largely avoid the ‘self-indulgent’ tag, principally because the music remains interesting and engaging, especially towards the end thanks to the more relaxed piano and bass-led section which continues into ‘The Human Equation’ to be replaced by a solo, dramatic piano throughout, as well as theatrical-sounding layered vocals. ‘End Of Entropy’ is the title of the final part, and as a composition, it feels like it’s a culmination of everything that’s gone before. Progressive, powerful, technical, interesting; it has it all including brief acoustic moments and occasional spoken-words. I would have loved another killer, final melody, or a reprise of an earlier chorus, but this is a minor comment that doesn’t ultimately detract from the strength of the overall composition.

All things being equal, I have nothing but respect for what Simulacrum have created here with ‘Genesis’. I may have a couple of minor criticisms, but that’s all they are and in spite of them, I return to listen to ‘Genesis’ frequently and gladly. When I am faced with progressive metal of this calibre, it reminds me just why I love the genre, and why I’d consider it my favourite form of metal music. Nicely done, chaps.

The Score of Much Metal: 89%

Further reviews from 2021:

Forhist – Forhist

Evergrey – Escape Of The Phoenix

Empyrium – Über den Sternen

Moonspell – Hermitage

Infernalizer – The Ugly Truth

Temperance – Melodies Of Green And Blue EP

Malice Divine – Malice Divine

Revulsion – Revulsion

Demon King – The Final Tyranny EP

Dragony – Viribus Unitis

Soen – Imperial

Angelus Apatrida – Angelus Apatrida

Oceana – The Pattern

Therion – Leviathan

Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound

Asphyx – Necroceros

W.E.T. – Retransmission

Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus

TDW – The Days The Clock Stopped

Need – Norchestrion: A Song For The End

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2020 reviews

2019 reviews
2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Karmakanic – Dot – Album Review

Karmakanic_Dot_Cover_2016

Artist: Karmakanic

Album Title: Dot

Label: InsideOut Music

Date Of Release: 22 July 2016

Karmakanic have been around for a good few years now, formed in 2002 by Jonas Reingold, the bassist for the arguably more familiar band The Flower Kings. Also involved with Kaipa and The Tangent, Karmakanic was conceived to be the vehicle by which Reingold, also an accomplished keyboardist, could stretch his own personal musical wings. I am familiar with some of the material that makes up the four disc Karmakanic discography to date but I’d have never really referred to myself as a fan of the band. There are some excellent moments that boast the name Karmakanic, especially on my personal favourite, the band’s debut, ‘Entering The Spectra’. However, for some reason, I never warmed to them to the same level as other bands within the progressive rock genre and have subsequently lost touch a little with them and their more recent output.

Nevertheless, I somehow felt compelled to give ‘Dot’, the Swede’s fifth studio release, a listen when I heard that it was imminent. When Karmakanic circa 2016 can boast such an impressively strong cast of musicians, my first thought was that I must have dropped a bit of a clanger by losing touch with them over the years. And do you know what? I think I have. Thanks to ‘Dot’, I do now refer to myself as a fan.

On ‘Dot’ Reingold handles the bass duties as well as the guitars and some of the keys and vocals. However, Reingold is joined by a veritable smorgasbord of talent for this release including vocalists Göran Edman (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen, Eclipse), Nils Erikson, Kristine Lenk and further members of the Reingold family, Alex and Norah. In addition, the record features keyboardist Lalle Larsson (Agents Of Mercy, Jon Anderson, Lalle Larsson’s Weaveworld), drummer Morgan Ågren (Frank Zappa, Tony Iommi, Kaipa), guitarists Krister Jonsson and Andy Bartosh , Hammond Organist Andy Tillison (The Tangent) and saxophonist and flautist Ray Aichinger.

Equally as interesting as the line-up is the concept that weaves its way between the six tracks and which binds the album together. ‘Dot’ was apparently inspired by a text written by Carl Sagan, an American writer and astronomer. He wrote, quite beautifully, commenting on a photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Some might argue that this is a somewhat clichéd concept, one that has been explored many times before by musicians. However, as the last notes fade on the closing track to ‘Dot’ entitled ‘God The Universe and Everything Else No One Really Cares About Part II’, I find myself reading this text and I’m moved tremendously, to the point of tears. Some bands I expect to have this effect on me. But Karmakanic? Nope, I wasn’t expecting to be typing through blurred eyes.

Karmakanic photo

The reason, aside from my own occasionally fragile psyche, is the irresistible and forceful combination of powerful lyrics and beautifully constructed music.

As you’d expect, these professional musicians all bring something to the table to enjoy throughout the album but crucially, also do it in a way to ensure that the listener returns for repeated listens. There’s no clutter, no mess, nothing is here on ‘Dot’ that shouldn’t be. Of course, this being prog rock, there are plenty of extended instrumental passages and musicianship that demonstrates the prowess of the individuals. However, it all serves a purpose and allows the listener to be taken on a rich, multi-layered and multi-faceted journey, full of interesting twists and turns, drama and bold textures.

At the heart of ‘Dot’, sits the two part epic concept piece entitled ‘God The Universe and Everything Else No One Really Cares About Part I’ and ‘Part II’. Touching 30 minutes in total, they come together to book-end the album brilliantly. The last notes that I referred to earlier also usher in ‘Part I’, the larger of the two sections that on its own weighs in at over 24 minutes in length. The melody is magnificent and truly beautiful, more than strong enough to open and close the compositions, not to mention touch me emotionally.

In between, it is almost impossible to describe everything that goes on. Undeniably taking their lead from the major 70s prog protagonists as well as more recent exponents of the genre, Karmakanic deliver memorable vocals, elegant sweeping vistas and more modern-sounding segments that verge on metal territory thanks to heavy, menacing guitar tones. These elements are then expertly juxtaposed by soothing flute melodies, layers of both subtle and bombastic synths, solo flourishes and almost enough tempo changes and intriguing dynamics to fill the universe, including a show-stopping crescendo at the end of ‘Part I’. ‘Part II’ then builds on those sublime melodies in the manner of a reprise of sorts that builds before slowing things down to a quiet and poignant close, thereby offers a fitting and moving finale to the concept piece and the album as a whole.

Standalone epic ‘Higher Ground’ is almost as ambitious in its scope but again, thanks to stellar musicianship and smooth transitions from idea to idea, it works wonderfully well, creating a ten-minute tour-de-force of prog rock. It’s a bit of a theme with songs on this record but the closing moments in particular are exquisitely memorable.

At this point, Karmakanic take a step back from the full-on symphonic and epic prog trappings and instead deliver an up-tempo and highly catchy song in the form of ‘Steer By The Stars’. Co-written by The Tangent’s Andy Tillison, it is, in my opinion, exactly what the album needed to break things up a little and offer a dose of hook-laden light relief.

‘Travelling Minds’ is ushered in on some brilliant bass work and gorgeous lead guitar strains. Personally, I love the laid back vibe and its depth of emotion not to mention the huge synth-led orchestration that gives everything such a lovely glow. As with the entire record, the production sparkles and the whole thing has a really nice, warm and organic feel to it, like the embrace of an old friend.

There’s not much more to say about ‘Dot’ really; if you’re a fan of progressive rock that takes its cue from the best within the genre both old and new, you’re going to love this. If you like technical and challenging music that remains digestible and rewarding, you’re going to love this. If you like sophisticated melodies, you’re going to love this. If you simply like excellently crafted and carefully executed music, you’re going to love this. Trust me, you’re just going to love ‘Dot’, full stop.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.0

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:

Novena – Secondary Genesis
Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
Eric Gillette – The Great Unknown
Tilt – Hinterland
Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight
Wolverine – Machina Viva
Be’lakor – Vessels
Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Big Big Train – Folklore
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Big Big Train – Wassail – EP Review

bbt wassail cover

Artist: Big Big Train

Album Title: Wassail EP

Label: English Electric Recordings

Year Of Release: 2015

Those that follow me on social media will know my thoughts about Big Big Train. They were a band I discovered relatively recently following some persistent badgering on twitter and Facebook, around the time of the release of ‘English Electric Part 1’ back in 2012. I wrote a review of it on this very blog if you’re interested. If anything, the band then bettered it with ‘English Electric Part 2’ released just a year later. I suspect that witchcraft may have been involved there somewhere.

The result has been something of a love affair for me. Normally more accustomed to the heavier climes of metal, there is something really rather magical about the quintessentially English pastoral prog rock leanings of Big Big Train that, to a certain extent, cannot be put into words. Or at least, I struggle to do so. The compositions are not heavy and they contain elements within them that would normally leave me cold. The inclusion of brass instruments for example. Generally, I’m not a fan, but Big Big Train pull it off, and pull it off to really great effect.

Over the years, it is not only my love affair that has grown because the band has also expanded significantly. Formed back in 1990 by Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, Big Big Train now boast a full eight members. Joining the original duo now are vocalist David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), guitarist Dave Gregory (XTC), keyboardist Danny Manners, violinist Rachel Hall (Stackridge) and most recently of all, Beardfish guitarist/keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom. Add to this a five-piece brass ensemble for some rare upcoming live appearances, the line-up makes for impressive reading.

Based on the content of this EP, it’s fair to say that the line-up delivers exactly as you’d expect them to as the four tracks are a delight. It would be a little disingenuous to refer to ‘Wassail’ as a stop-gap release, but with a highly anticipated full-length album, ‘Folklore’, due out in early 2016, it’s hard not to refer to it as such.

Nevertheless, Big Big Train have delivered real value for money here. The disc is housed in a lovely digipack case complete with a lyric booklet. And then, of the four tracks on offer here, three are brand new, two are exclusive to this release and the fourth is a live studio recording of the superb ‘Master James Of St George’, previously released on 2009’s breakthrough album, ‘The Underfall Yard’.

First up is the title track and, to these ears, it is the standout track on the EP. One of the reasons for this is that it has a slightly different feel to it than more recent compositions. Right off the bat, it wastes no time in making a big impression, thanks to a grittier and stronger guitar tone than is usually the norm with Big Big Train. The guitars duet with a flute with really charming results, creating the kind of music that begs you press the repeat button frequently. As the song develops, the overt rock and folk elements become more evident, the latter particularly at around the three-minute mark when things quieten and a lone violin quietly takes centre stage. It denotes a change in melodic direction for the entire mid-section of the track where things get appreciably moodier, before the relatively simple but hugely effective chorus returns for a rousing, almost anthemic finale. I cannot tell you how good this track is – you’ll have to listen to it to discover this for yourselves.

‘Lost Rivers Of London’ follows and is immediately more recognisable as the Big Big Train of the ‘English Electric’ recordings. The pastoral progressive rock stylings return with vengeance. The melody contained within the chorus and indeed the melodies throughout this track are an absolute delight; for a progressive rock track with lots going on, it is testament to the quality of the songwriting that the song has such an immediately engaging feel to it. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but ‘Lost Rivers Of London’ almost instantly sounds like an old friend; there’s a warmth and inclusivity about it that I cannot help but adore. The fleeting medieval-inspired melodies are a wonderful touch and atop it all, David Longdon puts in a great performance. As always, he sings with real passion but I’d suggest he has rarely sounded better than he does here.

Completing the trio of new songs is ‘Mudlarks’. Ostensibly an instrumental with just a smattering of background vocals for effect, this track sees the musicians really cutting loose, with an ‘anything goes’ feel to it. That’s not to say that the result is messy or lacking in direction or cohesion, it just has more of a playful, mischievous edge to it whilst maintaining that pastoral feel overall. At it’s heart is a wonderfully bright and breezy central melody around which there’s a demonstrable freedom to experiment musically. Keyboard solos are prevalent throughout the track, experimenting with all kinds of different sounds both old and new. The bass plays an important part, as do the guitars which come more to the fore as the track develops. It flies by and before I know it, I’m listening again.

If the quality of music on ‘Wassail’ is anything to go by, ‘Folklore’ could be a very special album indeed and, whilst I don’t like to make wild predictions or jump to conclusions, we might just be looking at Big Big Train’s best yet. At the very least, I expect the octet to further cement their place within the upper echelons of the progressive rock world, and rightly so. I’m so glad I have Big Big Train in my life. Consider me one very excited and impatient chap.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.0

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Album Of The Year 2013 – Number 4

Day 17 in my ‘Album of the Year 2013’ countdown and we’re really into the business end of this series of posts. As always, thanks for reading and, if you’re new to me, my blog or just this countdown, links to the rest of my choices can be found at the bottom of this post – please check them out and maybe you might discover something new and exciting in the process.

And now for the main attraction, my choice at Number 4:

bbt ee2BIG BIG TRAIN
‘English Electric Part 2’
Giant Electric Pea

Big Big Train hold the distinction of being the only band to feature in successive end of year lists, after ‘English Electric Part 1’ found itself in my ‘Top 20 of 2012’. ‘English Electric Part 2’ is also by far the softest album in this countdown and may surprise a few of you. However, don’t be put off because this is a fantastic progressive rock album. No, more than that, it is sensational.

band_red_carriage_sm

This album picks up where its predecessor left off in so far as the music is best described as quintessentially English pastoral progressive rock that takes the listener on a journey from beginning to end. And, if anything, “English Electric Part 2” ups the bar even further. For my money, the compositions are slightly more melodic and accessible than those on “Part 1” although the complexity remains as does the passion and dedication from each and every member of the band.

You may hear nods towards the likes of early Genesis in some of the compositions, but genuinely, Big Big Train have their own unique and special identity. The music can be described as bitter sweet almost – it has a richness, warmth and honesty about it which is utterly beguiling. And yet, at the same time, the compositions are tinged with a wistful sadness as they lament certain aspects of English life that no longer exist or have changed almost out of recognition over the years.

From the opening 15-minute epic ‘East Coast Racer’ to the heart-achingly beautiful and poignant closer ‘Curator of Butterflies’, there is almost nothing that I would change about the album. Those that know me will smile when I say that the music is so good that the inclusion of brass instrumentation does not ruin the listening experience for me.

Put as simply as possible, for me, ‘English Electric Part 2’ currently represents the absolute pinnacle of classic English progressive rock.

The 2013 ‘Album of the Year’ countdown so far:

Day 1 – Number 20
Day 2 – Number 19
Day 3 – Number 18
Day 4 – Number 17
Day 5 – Number 16
Day 6 – Number 15
Day 7 – Number 14
Day 8 – Number 13
Day 9 – Number 12
Day 10 – Number 11
Day 11 – Number 10
Day 12 – Number 9
Day 13 – Number 8
Day 14 – Number 7
Day 15 – Number 6
Day 16 – Number 5

And, if you missed last year’s countdown, you can read my Top 20 of 2012 here.

Maschine – An Interview with the UK Prog Rockers

Courtesy of prog-sphere.com
Courtesy of prog-sphere.com

Maschine is the chosen moniker for the latest UK-based band to catch the attention of the progressive rock community. I didn’t hesitate when I was offered the opportunity to chat with band mastermind and founder Luke Machin.

It is not the greatest of starts to the interview if I’m being entirely honest. I’m playing Maschine’s debut album “Rubidium” so loudly that I don’t hear the phone ringing in the adjacent room. I like to refer to it as research, although on this occasion, the research almost proved to be my downfall. Fortunately for me though, Luke Machin is not one to give up immediately and so he rings again. This time I answer. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I get down to business by asking the founding member, chief songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist why he chose a career in prog rock.

“Basically”, Luke offers in a quiet voice with a discernible northern twang, “I have been into progressive music for many years. My parents brought me up on bands like It Bites, Genesis, Yes and King Crimson, all those older progressive rock bands. That older prog style has always been in my life whilst I was growing up. I came down to the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and that’s how I met up with all the other guys. It took a lot of time to form the band that we have now and there were a few incarnations prior to Maschine.”

“I knew that I wanted a five-piece band where I could be the lead vocalist and lead guitarist”, Luke continues enthusiastically. “But when I write, I’m not just influenced by prog rock. Prog is a subgenre of many other genres and is influenced by many other types of music. I’m therefore influenced by what I hear and what I love to listen to. And from one day to the next, that could be jazz, rock, metal, Latin, all sorts. That’s why this album is so varied as I’m sure you’ve heard. We’re still trying to find our own sound which is quite interesting and is keeping it fresh for us. This particular album is made up of some tracks that have been with me for four or five years. Obviously I was in to other different genre back then when they were first written. So for that reason alone, the result is much more widespread and varied I think.”

Courtesy of Bravewords.com
Courtesy of Bravewords.com

“Rubidium” is indeed a very varied beast. Encompassing everything from pop to metal, jazz to Latin, it is a progressive rock album in the truest sense of the word. It is also an ambitious debut album, made all the more exciting by the fact that Maschine are clearly overflowing with ideas and are not afraid to experiment. Of course it helps if each member of the band is proficient with their chosen instrument. However, as Luke quickly explains, instrumental talent was not the only factor when recruiting band mates.

“I chose the other guys mainly because of their attitudes towards music and their professionalism”, he explains earnestly, referring to bassist Daniel Mash, keyboardist and vocalist Georgia Lewis, drummer James Stewart and guitarist Elliott Fuller. “I mean, their musicianship goes without saying and they’re all great musicians. I have been in bands previously and we’ve all had the drive but when it came down to crunch time and doing all the nitty-gritty stuff like promoting and arranging gigs, all they want to do is play. You can’t play if you haven’t done the leg work before. All the guys in Maschine know this and that’s one of the most important things. We all share the passion, drive and enthusiasm.”

When it comes to the song writing, Luke is firmly in charge. He wrote all the music for “Rubidium” but, as he is keen to point out, he’s not blinkered when it comes to taking ideas and inspiration from the others within Maschine.

“I compose all the stuff”, Luke states relatively matter-of-factly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. “However I am massively inspired by the music that the other members are influenced by. For example, Dan the bass player, he likes funky soul grooves and he’s kind of a Motown bass player. He influences me by telling me to check things out and I incorporate some of this into the music. To fuse all this together is really cool because there might be a really neat groove going on via the bass with metal guitars alongside and some jazz phrases as well. But I want to keep it true to the Maschine sound. That’s one of the hardest things to do though, to be influenced by things but keep the finished music in line with the band’s sound and identity.”

“Songs start off in limitless ways to be honest”, Luke continues without any prompt from yours truly. “I get influenced by literally anything. Late at night I may be drifting off to sleep and I’ll hear a riff or a melody and I’ll jump up and record it as quickly as I can. I have had it before where I have heard the whole song in my head, but have woken up in the morning and forgotten everything. So I have to get things down immediately whenever possible. There are two main ways that I write. One way is that I get together a whole collection of riffs from different projects and eventually put them all together. An example of this is with “The Fallen” and you can hear that it changes direction quite a lot. The other way I write is to create a song from start to finish. The example for that is the song “Rubidium”.

Courtesy of progrockmag.com
Courtesy of progrockmag.com

“I always had it in my head of how I wanted the album to sound like”, Luke offers by way of a conclusion to this particular topic area. “And I’m really happy with the way that it has turned out. You hear people say that they could always make something better but I wouldn’t. If I tried to improve it, I think that it could lose the essence of what it is supposed to be. As an artist, an album is the documentation of a point in your life. We’ve now got that on record, so it would be a bit weird to change it.”

With every other prog album these days exploring some kind of epic lyrical concept, it is refreshing in a way to hear that, as far as Maschine are concerned, the lyrics do not try to overshadow the musical content. Luke explains.

“For me, the music always comes first if I’m honest. Lyrics are important though and I genuinely try to make them important. On this album, the lyrics are about some things that have happened to me in the past, whether that be relating to health issues or relationships with friends an leaving my friends up north to go to Brighton. But I take ideas from other people’s lives. One example is with the song “Invincible”. It is about a guy who went to the Falklands War. He was on the ship HMS Invincible but his best friend was on HMS Sheffield and he got shot down by a torpedo. I read the memoirs online and I found it very moving and emotional. When you write the music, you then get to think about the story that you want to talk about with it.”

Lyrics aside, as you might very well expect, the guitar arguably plays the most important role in the progressive rock of Maschine. In fact, some of the things that Luke does with just six strings will have your jaw hitting the floor. I try not to let my jealousy as a failed guitarist get the better of me as I enquire about Luke’s apparent love for the coolest of all the instruments.

“I am mostly self-taught”, Luke responds with a shy chuckle as I gradually turn greener and greener with envy. “I have been told that I have played the guitar since I was about three years old. There was always a guitar around the house and I would watch old VHS tapes of bands like It Bites and pick things up off them. I had a few grade lessons and passed my Grade 8 when I was 14 or something. Then obviously the music college has taught me some aspects of technical playing but it hasn’t been full-on solid teaching or anything. If you love what you’re doing and it is working, you start to enjoy it more and can begin to play around with different ideas. But I have always loved playing the guitar and I’d rather play the guitar than go out and do other things. I never get bored of it because there is infinite knowledge that you can learn from it.”

It would be a futile exercise to try to identify all the individual influences that crop up within “Rubidium”. That said, one influence is more evident than the rest, both in the rhythm guitar work and vocally. I’m relieved when Luke agrees without flinching or taking offence, not that this was my aim of course.

“Pain of Salvation have definitely been a massive influence on me, particularly in the latter stages of my musical journey. I strive for my own sound but although I have played the guitar most of my life, I have only been singing for a few years. The melodic phrasing of Francis Dunnery is an influence but I’ve been inspired for this album by Daniel Gildenlow’s aggressive vocals and even his lighter stuff. But I could never aspire to be as good as him because for me, he is one of the greatest guys out there vocally.”

After an in-depth discussion about the pros and cons of Pain Of Salvation and their particular music journey, we agree that an ever-changing and evolving sound is almost certainly the very definition of ‘progressive’. With this in mind, will Maschine be unrecognisable come album number two?

“I think”, Luke pauses thoughtfully, “that we will try different things from album to album. But with regard to the next album, it is nearly all written already. It is definitely starting to hone in on what our Maschine sound really is. “Rubiduim” is very diverse and there are several elements within the sound that we want to retain and strengthen. On the second album, we hope that many ideas from the debut will start to fit into place a lot more.”
Maschine must be doing something right because they have managed to get signed to Inside Out Music, the label that I personally consider to be the best when it comes to progressive rock and metal music. Luke agrees before explaining how Maschine and Inside Out joined forces.

“Inside Out is one of those labels that is really doing it for progressive rock at the moment. To be amongst the likes of The Flower Kings, Pain Of Salvation and those guys, you wonder how it all happened. It came about though because I was in The Tangent with Andy Tillison. Thomas (Waber) from Inside Out asked Andy a few years ago to go out and find a young English progressive rock band. I introduced Andy to my band at the time, called Concrete Lake. Andy put us in touch with Thomas and he really liked what he heard. He suggested that we’d need to lose that Pain Of Salvation connection and change the name. We did, changing it to Maschine. We used the German spelling and it’s also a play on mine and Dan’s name as well. We’ve been I contact with Thomas ever since, sending him demos and such. He’s a great guy and the whole team have been really supportive.”

Courtesy of progrockmag.com
Courtesy of progrockmag.com

In conclusion to a very interesting and enjoyable conversation, I enquire about live touring plans for Maschine in the coming months, suggesting cheekily that perhaps Maschine and Haken could organise a show in my home town of Ipswich. To his credit and my delight, Luke didn’t decline. Mind you, I think my offer of a guaranteed crowd of three men and a dog made all the difference!

“We’re going to do a few shows later in the year”, Luke replied with a laugh. “We’d like to go out on tour with some young bands and some of the older prog bands as well. But any good gigs that we can create or be a part of would be great. There are definitely going to be some live shows to put in your diary soon though.”
So there you have it. If you have yet to hear the teasers for “Rubidium, head to the band’s official website, www.maschineuk.com. If you like what you hear, the good news is that the album will be out on Inside Out Music on 29th July, so not much longer to wait.

My Top 20 of 2012 – Number 8

Unlucky for some, it is day 13 of my countdown of my 20 best rock and metal albums of 2012. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for links to all 12 previous posts.

BBT1Big Big Train
‘English Electric (Part 1)’
English Electric Recordings

Now, when I say that this has been a massive surprise, I really mean it. In previous years, I had maybe heard a couple of Big Big Train tracks but they’d never really registered anything other than a passing ‘that’s ok’. However, I follow some very wise people on Twitter (you know who you are) and a buzz quickly developed. I was advised to check it out in the strongest of terms but for ages, I resisted, thinking it was just light and fluffy nonsense. One day though, I was really struggling to decide what to listen to and I finally took the plunge. My first spin was a little underwhelming I must admit but there was enough in the music to force me into a second listen. Fast forward to today and all I can say is ‘wow’.

‘English Electric (Part 1)’ is prog rock heaven. It has been likened to Hackett-era Genesis, and to a certain extent, I have to agree, although there are moments that are also reminiscent of Genesis’ later output, albeit fleeting. This record is quintessentially English with a lyrical concept to match. I mean, where else could you hope to hear a track about the flora and fauna to be found in the hedgerows of the countryside?

BBT2

But, whoever it reminds you of (and there are a lot of reference points throughout), the bottom line is that English Electric is a pastoral and often epic progressive rock masterpiece and I have been hooked on it for months. And that’s even in spite of the wretched brass, which for once doesn’t ruin the whole thing! In a short blog like this, it is hard to do a record like this justice, but trust me – I recommend this most highly.

If you’ve missed any of my previous posts, they can be found here:

Day 12 (power metal)
Day 11 (progressive metal)
Day 10 (progressive rock)
Day 9 (modern extreme metal)
Day 8 (UK thrash metal/NWOBHM)
Day 7 (Norwegian progressive black metal)
Day 6 (Prog Rock/Metal)
Day 5 (Melodic Hard Rock)
Day 4 (Symphonic Folk black metal)
Day 3 (Modern Death/Thrash Metal)
Day 2 (Melodic Prog Metal)
Day 1 (Dark/Doom Metal)

My Top 20 of 2012 – Number 11

Despite it now being 2013, we have reached the halfway stage in my top 20 rock & metal albums of 2012. How exciting!

If you’ve missed any of my previous posts in this countdown, links can be found at the bottom of this post.

Dockers Guild 1Docker’s Guild
‘The Mystic Technocracy (Season 1: The Age Of Ignorance)’
Lion Music

There is no explaining some things; they just happen. Like this, an unknown act finding it’s way into my top 20 at position 11. The work of one man, Douglas R. Docker, ‘The Mystic Technocracy’ is an ambitious prog rock opera that features a wealth of guests from the world of rock/metal including Goran Edman (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen), Amanda Somerville, Guthrie Govan (Asia) and Tony Mills (TNT).

Dockers Guild 2

With a keyboard-heavy core, this album draws influences from the likes of Yes, early Genesis and, more currently, Arjen Lucassen, blending them with inspiration from West End musicals, 70s pop and AOR, pulling it all together into a 15 track delight. The concept is classic prog, exploring the effect of blind faith within three of the main human religions against the science-fiction-inspired backdrop of a silicon-based life form which created religion as a way of controlling, manipulating and ultimately destroying humanity.

It may sound bonkers and a little over-the-top and I certainly had my doubts before giving it a proper listen. And then, it all began to make sense and now, every time I listen, I smile, I chuckle and I sing. Very badly.

If you’ve missed any of my previous posts, they can be found here:

Day 9 (modern extreme metal)
Day 8 (UK thrash metal/NWOBHM)
Day 7 (Norwegian progressive black metal)
Day 6 (Prog Rock/Metal)
Day 5 (Melodic Hard Rock)
Day 4 (Symphonic Folk black metal)
Day 3 (Modern Death/Thrash Metal)
Day 2 (Melodic Prog Metal)
Day 1 (Dark/Doom Metal)

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