The sign of a healthy musical genre lies in the consistent quality of its album releases. Usually we would look to the top releases of each genre’s esteemed record labels but when independent albums match or exceed those of the official labels, something special must be happening. Indeed, progressive rock is blessed with inspired artists who embrace a DIY approach, bringing their music directly to their audience. But getting the word out can be challenging, so we hope these Sonic Briefs inspire you to check out the latest batch of independent marvels.
Dave Brons – “Return to Arda”
Residing somewhere between the Celtic prog of Iona and the guitar wizardry of Steve Vai, the music of Dave Brons goes far beyond what one would expect from an unsigned artist. His previous album “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” is a true masterpiece, weaving multiple styles into a thrilling conceptual album that takes the listener on a long unexpected journey. As the title suggests, Brons’ love of all-things-Tolkien guides his muse and while that source material has inspired the musical world for over 50 years (including Robert Plant and even Leonard Nimoy!), few have realized it so convincingly.
Followup “Return to Arda” is also co-written by Brons (guitars & keys), Daniel Day (bass, mandolin, guitar, keys) and John Biglands (drums & piano) and features an impeccable cast of guest musicians. Sally Minnear’s voice graces a number of the pieces, especially those which form the basis of the album’s three themes: Sea, Soil and Sky. Beginning with the shimmering “Song of the Sea”, Minnear’s voice encircles the listener as if she were an enchanting Selkie, enjoining the lyrical saxophone of Dave Fitzgerald and the crunching guitars of Brons to drive home this intoxicating melody. Later on, the “Song of the Earth” is another vocal highlight, punctuated by Day’s punchy bass lines, mandolin and whistles, joined again by Fitzgerald’s sax. Minnear’s final song is “Beauty and Starlight”, a triumphant piece which calls to mind early Mostly Autumn.
Though it would be lovely to feature Minnear even more extensively, Brons and friends employ plenty of creative ideas to fuel the remaining (mostly) instrumental pieces. Among the most thrilling are the Satriani-laced “Gathering In The Clouds” which is a brilliant guitar tour-de-force, “On Eagle’s Wings” which successfully employs the Lydian mode to great effect, and the moody “Beyond Where The Waves Break” where orchestral grandeur washes over 6-string virtuosity. With several pieces incorporating Uilleann Pipes, whistles, strings, horns and more orchestration, there’s no lack of colors and added flavors. The gorgeous “Into The Woods of Lothlorien” takes a piano idea from Brons and lets Dave Bainbridge have his way with it during a 3 minute improv. Goosebumps.
Brons is an artistic adventurer with a contagious love of life. That he ably crowdfunded this impressive album isn’t surprising given his likability and sheer talent. His enthusiasm shines through even in the accompanying booklet which features extensive liner notes, including a “Listener Guide” to attune each track. Mixed by Bainbridge and mastered by Nigel Palmer, Brons couldn’t have brought us a better sonic realization of Middle Earth. This album truly is something special, as is its predecessor, deserving a wider audience.
“Return to Arda” track-listing:
1. The Primordial Chord (1:04)
2. Song of the Sea (5:19)
3. When Snow Thaws (5:57)
4. Beyond Where the Waves Break (6:00)
5. Song of the Earth (5:00)
6. The Call of the Mountain (5:39)
7. Beren and Luthien (4:43)
8. Joy Beyond the Walls of This World (3:48)
9. Into the Woods of Lothlorien (2:49)
10. The Tears of Nienna (5:00)
11. On Eagle’s Wings (5:20)
12. Yavanna’s Song (1:39)
13. Beauty and Starlight (4:21)
14. Gathering in the Clouds (5:22)
15. Last Journey Across the Sea (2:38)
John Holden – Kintsugi
An independent artist making a name for himself thanks to a series of elegant and diverse albums, John Holden has a knack for enlisting top-shelf guest musicians to take his material to the next level. He also wields plenty of talent himself on guitars, bass, keyboards, orchestration and more. “Kintsugi”, his fourth album, is no exception. Lead off track “Achilles” once again taps Joe Payne to lend his smooth vocals to this epic tale which also features Vikram Shankar’s keyboards, searing synth solos and co-writing. It’s an impressive entrance to open the album, complete with acoustic guitar, piano, orchestration and even a female wordless wailing lament to set the stage.
The incomparable yet increasingly ubiquitous Peter Jones takes lead vocals on two songs, both highlights of the album. Title track “Kintsugi”, referring to the Japanese art of enabling flaws to transcend their fragmented identity, is used as a metaphor for love transforming that which is broken into becoming whole again. Jones’ voice is a perfect fit for the song’s enraptured chorus while Michel St. Pere’s sublime ending guitar solo is the crowning cherry on top. Later on, Jones again delivers with “Against the Tide”, a complete pivot from the rest of the album, having more similarity with 80s “Mike + The Mechanics” or “Toto”, but very welcome here. It’s also an appropriate followup to previous album’s song “High Line” in tone and theme, which hopefully will continue on future albums.
Sally Minnear is featured on three songs but unlike her appearances on Dave Brons’ album (detailed above), most of her featured melodies carry a sing-song style of writing. While they are pleasant in and of themselves, when contrasted with the other material herein, it leads to feeling a bit disjointed, as if the album lacks any coherent focus. Especially misplaced is “Ringing the Changes” being wedged between the expansive “Achilles” and the powerful “Kintsugi”. Still, when taken on their own, these songs are quite charming especially the tale of “Peggy’s Cove” which pokes fun at the questionable historical accuracy of a famed tourist spot’s namesake.
Other various pieces on the album – each one being well written and performed – also contribute to the overall feeling that this is a collection of disparate inspirations. The closing epic “Building Heaven” epitomizes this ongoing shifting of styles, even while featuring lovely lead guitar work from Dave Bainbridge and impressive orchestration. Ultimately, there’s much to like on “Kintsugi” but other than the name John Holden there doesn’t seem to be much effort towards building a consistent musical identity to tie them together. Prog listeners are the adventurous type so this probably won’t be an issue for many, as good music is good music and Holden has no shortage of ideas with which to entertain.
1. Achilles (10:48)
2. Ringing the Changes (3:43)
3. Kintsugi (7:04)
4. Flying Train (5:33)
5. Xenos (5:43)
6. Against the Tide (5:27)
7. Peggy’s Cove (4:21)
8. Building Heaven (11:34)
Evership – The Uncrowned King – Act 2
One indie prog band who we’d love to see receive more attention is Tennessee’s Evership. Sporting an uncanny ability to meld together the melodic and instrumental strengths of 70s-era titans Styx, Kansas, Elton John, Queen and many more, Evership confidently brings classic rock and prog into the 21st century.
Favoring allegorical storytelling, the five-piece band has just released the second half of double-album “The Uncrowned King,” a tale based on the 1910 novel by Harold Bell Wright. Our review of Act 1 (which you can read HERE) sets the stage, so to speak, and new listeners are encouraged to start there. Act 2 is accessible enough but with an extended concept album like this, why not start at the beginning? For those ready to continue the journey, this new Evership offers more of what we’ve come to expect from the band: strong melodies, memorable choruses, musical twists and turns and a consistently nostalgic celebration of this classic style of music.
Beau West, always rightly earning his place in the spotlight, continues to deliver on lead vocals. From the fiery “Coronation”, which includes a killer closing section, to the grand finale of “Uncrowned”, West is Evership’s most apparent strength though there’s plenty else going on under the hood, too. Mastermind Shane Atkinson keeps the ideas flowing, his keyboard and synth flourishes being ably complimented by two guitarists: John Rose and James Atkinson. Particularly strong tracks include “The Law of Ages” and “Nobody”, both of which are ballads at their core but can’t resist building up the musical tension about two-thirds through the song.
Guest vocalists make cameo appearances throughout the four “Voice” tracks and “The Voice of the New Day” is an album highlight, Michael Sadler’s pipes offering the perfect delivery for this rousing proclamation. Here, as on West’s songs, Atkinson is extremely skilled at writing layered intertwining vocal lines which ultimately become a signature sound for the band.
For newcomers, we still recommend starting with the debut self-titled Evership album. Once the spell has been cast, continue on with the whole catalog, culminating in their latest Uncrowned King tale. While a jump to the next level won’t be achieved until the band gets an outside producer with fresh ears, Evership’s foundation is intact and generously overflowing. Take a ride on their exciting, melodic progressive rock ship.
“The Uncrowned King – Act 2”
1. The Voice of the Night (3:30)
2. Missive Pursuits (8:30)
3. The Law of Ages (6:57)
4. Coronation (8:22)
5. The Voice of the New Day (5:04)
6. Nobody (7:31)
7. Fading Away (5:59)
8. Uncrowned (8:06)
9. Pilgrim’s Reprise (3:56)