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Vasil Hadžimanov Band – Lines in Sand (Album Review)

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Being a reviewer here at Sonic Perspectives is sort of a dream come true for a music fan. Though much of the music I, personally, review would fall under the prog rock categorization, we pride ourselves on touching on many genres, and are always seeking quality of music over anything else. As such, we authors here at the publication are sometimes given artists who come from way out of left field, utterly surprise us, and bring us new sounds and new thoughts on what is capable in composition and performance. And that is the case with this review, the album “Lines in Sand”, soon to be released by Vasil Hadžimanov Band, led by the pianist and keyboardist of the same name, on MoonJune Records.

In a recent review, I talked about just how many genres there are within progressive music. Well, it’s worth noting how fans love to categorize, when honestly some music really flies in the face of categorization. In many press releases for progressive rock or prog-metal bands, often we are told the album “defies genre” just because a random funk passage was thrown into track 7, or some such nonsense, when the rest of the album overall is quite homogeneous with itself. That is why listening to “Lines in Sand” is a pleasure. It really is quite hard to classify. Surely, the skeptical reader will listen to thirty seconds of a track at random and say, “Well, that’s ridiculous, because that track is clearly jazz influenced!” Or prog. Or trance. Or has elements of trip-hop. Or is traditional in the vein of music from the band’s Balkan region of the world. And if the skeptic skipped around the album enough, they would be correct on pretty much all of that.

Vasil Hadžimanov Band (VHB from here on out, not to be confused with Von Hertzen Brothers) is expertly led by the eponymous Vasil Hadžimanov, who is known and respected in the Serbian jazz movement. Again, a sub-genre of music of which many western readers of Sonic Perspectives might not even be aware. This reviewer’s first introduction to that scene was picking up an album by fellow Serbians, Eyot, from a few years ago, which is much more traditional in structure with more classical influences. So, the differences between Eyot and VHB just show how much of a great variety there is in this scene from halfway across the world from where I sit right now. Hadžimanov has long practiced his craft, and is quite worldly, having graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music back in the mid-’90s. Shortly thereafter, Hadžimanov formed VHB in Serbia, and the band has been together ever since. “Lines in Sand” marks the band’s second release on MoonJune Records, however, they’ve been releasing albums since 2001.

What strikes the listener most upon first pressing play is the traditional feel of the first song, the title track “Lines in Sand.” We are greeted by the fade in of quietly building percussion of various sorts, octaves on a Fender Rhodes doubling the rhythm of the percussion which develops into sprinkled chords, and a breathy and soulful vocal performance presumably from the band’s percussionist, Bojan Ivkovic. It’s a jam full of soul and passion, which builds and builds, but never grows beyond its own ambitions. It’s eventually comprised of funky guitar leads, fretless bass, smatterings of chimes, and the full ensemble is clearly enjoying themselves by the time the lead guitar takes over with pinched harmonics and a solo full of Stratocaster goodness courtesy of Branko Trijic. From what we see in the band’s album trailer, most of the recording was done live in the same room, and it shows. The energy and excitement present within the band is quickly palpable as we listen to the album opener, which is nice to see in a band that’s been together as long as this one.

“Lines In Sand” Album Artwork

The second song, “Mr. MoonJune,” is a nod to the main man at MoonJune Records, Leonardo Pavkovic, and is immediately more upbeat than the opener, and features much more lead playing from Hadžimanov, first on synth, then on straight-up piano which takes the lead for the first time on the album here. This song, and the subsequent track, “San Snova,” work with “Lines in Sand” to all sort of open the album together. They establish the variety of styles likely to be found in the album, before the band sets out to break all of their own rules, in a joyous way. After the preamble of tracks 1 – 3, the listener is treated to where the album really began to open up for this reviewer, with my own personal favorite, the song “Lost.” From here on out, for the next eight or nine songs or so, the album moves continuously. It’s not a work like a prog-rock epic where the entire thing is meant to be taken as one song or one album, but more so it works like a suite. It is achieved by a simple cross dissolve between the end of one song and the beginning of the next, but it is seamless, and gives the album a wonderful continuity.

“Lost,” however, begins as a quirky little piece, but gives us one of our few lead vocal performances on the album, this time handled confidently in a very high register by Marta  Hadžimanov, and develops into a piece which is unsettling, haunting, and beautiful all at the same time, with a main melody likely to burrow into the listener’s ear for some time after the initial listen. Eventually, Marta‘s vocals leave us, and the piano takes over, continuing the mysterious vibe, while drums and percussion work together to continue the groove as the fretless bass plays staccato arpeggios to maintain the chord progressions. “Lost” might serve as a summary of what is the best description of the entire album, “groove.” Whether it’s funk stylings, jazzy, progressive, traditional, or electronic, the album “Lines in Sand” is a great example of what I find myself gravitating towards more and more lately: musicians with great chops, showing restraint to serve the song with building groove and intensity rather than giving in to flash and wankery. Gradually, the song fully opens up, and Marta‘s voice rejoins us to finally end the song on a breathy utterance of the lyric “lost” to end the song.

As mentioned earlier, that song fades as the next begins, and we are in a segue track, “Kazi,” before we are launched fully into the song the band showcases in their album trailer and EPK, “Kazi Gradiska,” and all bets are off. The song is pretty close to controlled chaos, and we are also treated to another strong characteristic in the band and this album, strong improvisation. While simply “jamming” can be laborious for the listener and the band, improvisation is a unique art form unto itself. Within the predetermined structure of the song, these strong musicians just go for it, and it’s breathtaking throughout much of the album. As good as VHB is recorded in a studio, if the listener stops and imagines what the band could be like up close in a full band live setting, the thought is rather exhilarating.

The suite of the album rolls on for several more tracks, and we are treated to the funky “Maklik” with a great old R&B soul vibe, and high chord strumming with delay on the guitar, with just groove groove groove all around. Next, we seamlessly transition into the dark and brooding ballad “For Clara,” where the melody is doubled between distant melancholy guitar and percussion bells, and we are struck by the deep and commanding vocals of guest singer Dean Bowman, a collaboration with a fruition I would love to hear about from Hadžimanov sometime. The song crescendos with a wild sax solo from Rastko Obradovic, which takes us into a climactic melody doubled between the sax and the keys to great effect. As much as “Lost” was my personal favorite on this album, “For Clara” gives that song a chase every time I hear it, and might be the strongest statement made on the entire album. If the listener isn’t hooked on VHB by the time this one ends, they might as well hit stop and go listen to the radio instead. Another transitional piece, “Waiting For…,” takes us further into the album, and the listener is flabbergasted by the most traditional-sounding piece of music we’ll hear on the album, even more than the album opener, this time the aptly-titled “Freedom from the Past.” I won’t describe the instrumentation in too much detail, as it’s a great surprise for the listener, but it’s definitely another highlight of this fantastic full album listening experience. “Freedom from the Past,” however, has the first cold ending we have heard since the ending of track 3, and it ends what I consider to be the full “Lines in Sand” suite of this album, and I can’t help but feel a slight bit of heartbreak over that portion being over, but thankfully, there are two more tracks to tide me over until the disc stops playing.

“Ratnici Podzemlja” is a fun little jam, and definitely not “radio hit” quality when compared to the rest of the album (if such a thing would ever be possible with this style of music) but it has the absolute coolest vocal improv on the entire album, completely drenched in effects and is (spoiler alert) going to surprise and likely confuse the hell out of the listener at first, before they crack open a huge smile. As fun as that was, sadly, it’s probably the most “filler” type song in an album full of great show-stealing pieces, but again, it hits that sweet spot of groove. And that takes us to the final piece of the album, “Rege Hadzi,” a very minor key piece which begins with solo piano and mournful tremolo guitar and a bit of a Caribbean reggae beat between the percussion and the bass, which doubles the left hand of Hadžimanov on the piano. It’s a strange piece, and I mean that in the most flattering way. Halfway through, the whole band drops out, and Hadžimanov hits us with a slapback delay solo piano arpeggio chord progression that signals the finality of what we’re hearing. It’s the last call for the album. In a unique album full of completely memorable songs, it’s a rather apropos way to take us out. As good as “Rege Hadzi” is, though, it’s a song that leaves us satisfied, but thinking back on the mental road trip we just took, and wanting to experience it all over again immediately. This is a “just push play again” kind of album.

What strikes the listener the most about the entire album “Lines in Sand” is the band’s complete sense of comfort with each other. They are well-rehearsed, and know each other well, and can improvise perfectly within a five-piece band. But just as much as that, for Vasil  Hadžimanov to have his name on the band, you realize it really is a complete band experience (akin to the changes made by Neal Morse when establishing The Neal Morse Band) and we are shown how Hadžimanov has great skill as a composer as well as a band leader, and knows how to use all of the players at his disposal to great effect. It is not simply a band assembled to showcase a flashy frontman, though you know any of these players has the chops to possibly be out in front.

“Lines in Sand” is sort of all over the place, but that’s a very good thing. Too much music is too predictable nowadays, even in genres where they zig when more popular music zags. To be completely honest, I was not sure what to expect when first listening to VHB. Even after watching the album trailer video, it all looked promising, but again, still not sure what to expect. As much as it would be easy to suggest listening to “Lost” or “For Clara” to see if you would like that album, expecting to like it from a song or two isn’t really in the full spirit of what Vasil Hadžimanov Band is trying to accomplish. The best way to recommend seeing if this album is your kind of thing, is to visit the band’s Bandcamp site, and give the album a full play-through just one time. Read a book, scroll through Facebook, lie in bed with this playing on your Bluetooth speakers… whatever is your preferred listening method, just give the album a complete spin. You’ll likely be surprised several times throughout, and it’s not an album you’ll forget anytime soon, one way or another.

Released By: Moonjune Records
Release Date: January 18th, 2018
Genre: Ethno Jazz / Fusion / Jazz Rock / Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Vasil Hadzimanov / Keyboards
  • Branko Trijic / Guitar
  • Miroslav Tovirac / Bass Guitar
  • Bojan Ivkovic / Percussion, Vocals
  • Pedja Milutinovic / Drums

With Special Guests: 

  • Rastko Obradovic  / Sax (2, 8)
  • Marta Hadzimanov / Lead Vocal (4) 
  • Dean Bowman / Lead Vocal (8) 

“Lines In Sand” Track-Listing:

  1. Lines In Sand
  2. Mr. MoonJune
  3. San Snova
  4. Lost
  5. Kazi
  6. Kazi Gradiska
  7. Maklik
  8. For Clara
  9. Waiting For…
  10. Freedom From The Past
  11. Ratnici Podzemlja
  12. Rege Hadzi
8.8 Great

Vasil Hadžimanov is not a name heard terribly often, at least in the western world, but it should be. There is admittedly sort of a glass ceiling to how popular a band can be with this sort of unpredictable and wild music, but Vasil Hadžimanov Band should be bumping that glass ceiling hard. The songs are all great, and the seamless suite is what really makes the album, but this reviewer couldn't help but want just one sweet melody for one ballad somewhere, to step away from the more jazzy elements at times, and just let Hadžimanov display his playing and melody for one brief shining moment. The band is all tight, though, and the interplay and doubling of melodies and harmonies is fantastic. It's definitely a collaborative full band effort, through and through. As far as originality, it's one of the most all-over-the-place things I've heard in a while, and it will likely have respectable rotation in my personal collection over the next few years

  • Songwriting 8.6
  • Musicianship 8.5
  • Originality 9.5
  • Production 8.5
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