Caligonaut – Magnified as Giants
Chalk this up as one of 2021’s unexpected surprises coming out of nowhere. While Ole Michael Bjørndal may already be known to a few through his work with Oak and Airbag/Bjorn Riis, this solo debut will put his Caligonaut project on the map, even as its meaning is translated to “traveler of the mist”. That these four Bjørndal pieces bear a similar resemblance to fellow Norwegian band Wobbler should come as no surprise – several of that band’s members support his vocal and guitar work throughout the album. Wobbler bassist Kristian Hultgren plays a foundational role, but with a wide array of keys deftly provided by Lars Fredrik Frøislie and even Wobbler vocalist Andreas W. S. Prestmo offering backing vocals throughout, Bjørndal’s project runs the risk of sounding like a Wobbler spin-off. Indeed, even the track listing may tread a little too closely to Wobbler’s recent “Dwellers of the Deep”: two epic pieces bookending the album, and a pastoral shorter song as the third track. Still, despite the obvious overlap (or perhaps because of it), there’s no denying that “Magnified as Giants” has much to offer for fans of this style of retro-inspired progressive rock and fortunate are those who have stumbled upon it.
Each piece is ambitious in its own regard. Opener “Emperor” pulls out all of the stops, beginning with grand piano sequences before the band launches in. Dynamics are fully at play here, its bombastic sections alternating with more nuanced vocal delivery and even lovely violin accompaniment from Åsa Ree [Meer, Wobbler]. Having attended Robert Fripp’s Guitar Circle courses, Bjørndal composed several pieces using Fripp’s new standard tuning, of which “Hushed” is a likely example with its acoustic guitar threaded throughout, amidst Iver Kleive’s sprawling church organ appearance. The proceeding gets even more acoustic with the relatively brief title track, a beautiful ballad which turns out to be one of the highlights of the album thanks to its lyrical songwriting and fine guitar work. “Lighter Than Air” soars the highest, however, its opening five minutes luxuriating in spacious verses, an emotive guitar solo and ultimately intoxicating layers of keyboards which really should go on for several minutes longer. That this epic then goes in a multitude of additional directions comes as no surprise – and many of them are thrilling indeed – but Bjørndal might be at his best when he reins in the avalanche of ideas and hones his craft a little more. The song’s final two minutes carry an inspiration from the closing of Floyd’s “Echoes” and in many ways we feel we’ve been on as epic a journey as that classic offered.
When we reach the end of our travels, Caligonaut has deftly guided us through the mist to rewarding but familiar terrain. This gem of a recording will serve both as a proud accomplishment for Bjørndal (and friends), and also as a bonus for Wobbler fans until that band’s next album. It will be interesting to see where he chooses to journey next.
“Magnified As Giants” Tracklist:
- Magnified as Giants
- Lighter than Air
Our Verdict: 8.4/10 (Great)
- Songwriting: 8
- Musicianship: 8.5
- Originality: 7.5
- Production: 9.5
Texel – Metropolitan
Focus-inspired instrumental bands may not be at the top of many prog fans’ watch lists, but Texel give plenty of reasons to take note. Fronted by Danish keyboard player Steffen Staugaard and UK guitarist Neil Gowland, their second album “Metropolitan” is loaded with memorable arrangements and melodies, along with several notable guests. Flute is, of course, a primary instrument for a band emulating the classic Focus sound, but the entire band has chops and inspiration at their beck and call. While Texel can deftly handle driving numbers like “Syncopia”, which spotlights guest Marco Minnemann on drums, it’s in the ballads where this band really shines. “Sweynssons Slumber” and “Metamorphoses” are simply gorgeous, intertwining flute and lead guitar lines via keyboard progressions that will stick in your head long after, whereas the title track goes even further by bringing in Niels van der Steenhoven on guitar.
Diversity abounds with numbers such as “Flute in Rhapsody” and “Polka Magyar Akta Músicâ”, offering fresh direction while staying consistent to the Texel sound. However, it’s the one vocal track on the album, “Voluspa”, which captures the listener’s heart. Impeccably delivered by the exquisite Peter Jones, Texel truly come into their own on this piece even as it is an outlier from their usual instrumental modus operandi. With its driving chorus, one can’t help but wish Jones were a full-time member of the band. This song alone is worth the price of admission and may end up being one of the year’s best.
Mostly-instrumental albums such as this can easily wind up blending in with the woodwork as “background music”. Even if “Metropolitan” becomes the soundtrack for your work, eating or other-activities, don’t be surprised if the hooks in these songs stay with you long afterwards. You may find yourself looking forward to returning to their charms quite often in the coming months. Recommended!
- Ludo Mentis
- Sweynssons Slumber
- Polka Magyar Akta Músicâ
- Flute in Rhapsody
- Steffen Staugaard / Keyboards
- Neil Gowland / Guitars
- Max Saidi / Drums
- Phil Wood / Bass
- Thorstein Quebec Hemmet / flutes
Our Verdict: 8/10 (Great)
- Songwriting: 7.5
- Musicianship: 8.5
- Originality: 7
- Production: 9
Tom Doncourt and Mattias Olsson – Cathedral
An exquisitely artistic way to commemorate the creativity of Tom Doncourt (of the US band Cathedral), this posthumous release will intrigue and perhaps astound its listeners. Mattias Olsson (Anglagard) explains in the liner notes how the album came about, culled from ideas and recordings the two had been putting together in the year or two before Doncourt’s passing: “…we wanted to record as much as possible live with little or no editing…and the music to be unsafe, on the edge of falling apart all the time…” Given that credo, it’s impressive how coherent many of these pieces came out, some of them finished afterwards with the help of guests such as Hampus Nordgren-Hemlin. At times delicate and nuanced – at others, breathtakingly enigmatic – the material demands its listener’s attention and engagement. With the template of Progressive Rock agreed upon as the overall sonic approach, this keyboard-drenched workshop evokes many shades of the 70s Crimson-colored classic bands.
Shorter pieces such as “Tower Mews”, “Today” and “The Last Bridge Organ” serenade with gentle, even ambient, textures, whereas the longer tracks “#1” and “Poppies In A Field” challenge the listener to go deeper down the rabbit hole – the latter being one of the only vocals moments on the album. For “Chamber”, a song Tom had sent a sketch of only two weeks before his passing, Mattias and Hampus re-recorded Tom’s ideas note-for-note with startling results, incorporating everything from waltzing acoustic guitar fingerpicking to spacey Mellotron to harp to angular percussive riffs.
“Cathedral” succeeds as both a wildly experimental romp and as a fitting tribute to this notable musician. As Mattias concludes: “You will probably listen to this album as a bunch of progressive rock songs but I hear it more as a sonic polaroid of the friendship we shared and the love and respect we had for each other…these were very special moments and if you listen closely I think you can hear it.”
- Poppy Seeds Intro
- Poppy Seeds
- Tower Mews
- Poppies in a Field
- The Last Bridge Organ
- Tom Doncourt / Mellotron 400, Chamberlin M1, Moog 15 modular, Hammond Organ, Grand Piano, Yamaha CS-30, Ondéa, Bird Organ, Wurlitzer Electric piano, Clavioline, Hammond Solovox
- Mattias Olsson / Drums, Tuned , untuned and detuned percussion, Electric guitars, Baritone guitars, Wurlitzer electric piano, turntables, Speak & Read, Vako Orchestron, Optigan, Gizmotron, Chamberlin Rhythmmate,
Our Verdict: 8/10 (Great)
- Songwriting: 7
- Musicianship: 8
- Originality: 9
- Production: 8