Stone Circus - s/t. 1969 USA-Canada

Here's another Mainstream label gem, and possibly my favorite album on the label. These Montreal based musicians (save one), decided to journey south of the border to New York to find their scene. Known as The Funky Farm, Mainstream decided to change their name for the release of the album. In typical record business style, Mainstream didn’t even inform the band of the name change! Featuring an outrageous psychedelic cover of a very colorful and oversized clown engulfed in flames emerging from an earthquake, it certainly would catch ones attention even for 1969, when such a sight was more common. I probably listened to the album 5 times in a row, as the music is the closest I’ve heard to that most magical of 60s psych bands – Strawberry Alarm Clock. Stone Circus possess the same songwriting qualities, and period instrumentation (fuzz guitar, old organs). It does miss that magic ingredient of naivete, that SAC was able to tap into so perfectly. Whether it’s the California sunshine, or the late date of 1969, it’s clear there's a little somethin' missing. Maybe a bit too much Velvet Underground? 'What Went Wrong', 'Adam's Lament', 'Mr. Grey', and 'Carnival of Love' are the more obvious tracks where the comparison holds to SAC. Side 2 does deviate from that particular harmony psych unfortunately. Stone Circus ends wonderfully with a fuzz psych jam in 'People I Once Knew'.

Personal collection
CD: 2007 Fallout (UK)

I just purchased an original LP of this one, but unfortunately it was over graded significantly and I had to send it back. It was just too expensive to rationalize keeping. As for the CD, we already know the Mainstream label is locked up tight by Sony, and they've shown zero intention of reissuing these important works. So this reissue is of suspect provenance as they say. And that would apply to just about every other LP and CD reissue as well. Tragedy that. There is one intriguing reissue out there from P-Vine of Japan. Now it is very possible they entered into an agreement with Sony Japan for this reissue. They are an entirely a legit concern, so that would have to be considered the definitive reissue at this point. Or at least on the surface it would seem that way.

Saluki - s/t. 1976 Norway

So.... I completely blew the call on this one. My initial review some 8 years ago tagged this as a failed funk attempt by Norwegians emulating a distinctly American style (which Norwegians are wont to do on occasion). And ya know, after hearing opener 'Come Down', few among you will disagree with said claims, though it's pretty good for the style if pressed. Then comes 'Autumn', and I could already see my story breaking apart. Some sort of Muffins confusion on whether to go Canterbury or Henry Cow-styled avant prog annoyance. I'm sure that was the internal band debate anyway... (sure). 'The Awakening' is a waste of time, I think we can all agree on this - including the band. 'Love to the Sun'. Yea, OK Mahavishnu John, where are we taking this? There apparently. With a funk angle. Hmmm. 'Uranus in Cancer' is a title already asking for trouble. It's kind of emotional proggy, a bit AORish, and pretty good actually. 'Fantasy Suns' is a waste of time, I think we can all agree on this - including the band (sound familiar?). At this point, I'm OK with my initial assessment. Then comes 'Hidden Path III'. Ah damn, this is really good. Deep jazz with a bit of funk in that Miles Davis sort of way. But more toward Kraut Fusion (1970s /early 80s) actually. And this leads us to the closer 'Take the Road Across the Bridge'. I swear I recognize this music! So time to Google for a reference per chance. I KNEW IT! It's a cover of a Junipher Greene track - in fact the opener to their landmark/brilliant 1971 'Friendship' suite. I mean, who covers Junipher Greene? In 1976? Oh yea, author Freddy Dahl was in both bands. I could not find another reference to this observation on the internet. A job well done, ashratom. And how about that naked genie-out-of-a-bottle cover? These guys had it going on, that's for sure. Problem is, I'm starting to look like the dude with the magic book. Uh-oh.

Personal collection
cd-r

I was looking to ditch the CD-R until this revisit. This one needs a legit reissue for certain. I should get the original vinyl in the meantime.

Arbatel - Sumerios. 2009 Mexico

Following the debut comes Sumerios, their unheralded follow-up. Released under the cover of darkness in Chile by the excellent Mylodon label, the album has thus far seemed to completely escape notice. And that’s a tragedy really. There’s even a bit of encouragement from no less a luminary than Gianni Leone (of Il Balletto di Bronzo fame) with his enthusiastic liner notes (translated to Spanish). Gone is the violin and in its place is the key addition of soprano female vocalist Rosario Maza Hernández, who adds a bit of exotic narration as well. The music is primarily keyboard based, and has now gone decidedly analog, with copious use of Hammond organ, Mini-Moog and good old fashioned acoustic piano. Electric guitar, bass and drums provide the usual backbone and the rhythm section reliably lays down odd time signatures to keep everyone guessing.

The album starts off with an Indian tribal/religious bit that unfortunately isn’t revisited. I suspect its purpose is to tie the theme to the ancient Sumerians, but I love the atmosphere it provides. Once the rock instrumentation kicks in, there is no doubt this is a 1970s influenced progressive rock album. Like Gamadion, the Italian progressive movement of the early 70s seems to be the main influence here (thus the Leone narrative I suspect).  In the early to mid-1980s, Mexico possessed a burgeoning progressive rock scene with such stalwarts as Iconoclasta, Delirium and Praxis all putting out very good albums. None seemed to cross the threshold to greatness. It seems to me that Arbatel has accomplished everything those bands had originally set out to do. And if you’re familiar with these acts, then the raw Mexican production qualities shouldn’t bother you on Sumerios. It adds to the charm. This is a deep, complex album that requires a few listens to penetrate. And it’s an album that needs more of an audience.

Personal collection
CD: 2009 Mylodon (Chile)

Arbatel - Gamadion. 2004 Mexico

On Gamadion, Arbatel are an instrumental rock quartet with electric guitar and digital keyboards (including some cool pipe organ sounds) providing most of the input, with guests on vocals and violin rounding out the sound. Sure, it's not a crystal clear sound, and a muddied production (especially the drums) mars this slightly - though it's also part of the charm really. Apparently the band at one point covered a few classic Italian progressive rock songs by Le Orme and Il Balletto di Bronzo, so clearly their influences are a bit more interesting and researched than just the usual suspects from England. There's an excitement to listening to music such as this, as you're really not sure what's going to happen next, yet it's all within a comfortable progressive rock context.

Personal collection
CD: 2004 private

Forgas Band Phenomena – Acte V. 2012 France

Patrick Forgas continues on with his 5th namesake Band Phenomena album. No surprises here if you're familiar with the great trajectory Forgas' career has taken since his early solo career from 1977 (has it been that long!?). What makes the Forgas Band Phenomena so great is the synergy of an instrumental 7 piece band. So in addition to the standard rock quartet of guitar, keyboards, bass and drums - you also have dedicated members providing violin, trumpet and sax/flute. The music is tight and energetic, while never forgetting that their main premise is to rock your britches off. How many progressive bands today forget this last component? Anyone familiar with the early to mid 1970s European jazz rock scene will find much to enjoy here. Forgas, in addition to writing and arranging all the compositions here, keeps everything moving forward with his fine drumming precision.

Personal collection
CD: 2012 Cuneiform (USA)

The CD cover is a nice homage to their debut Roue Libre album. Along with the CD, there is a full DVD of their NEARFest 2010 performance.

La Desooorden - Ciudad de Papel. 2007 Chile

La Desooorden are very much a modern progressive band, that utilize current production techniques as well as some dark, atonal metal guitar. So elements of Tool and Porcupine Tree can be discerned on a quick glance. That alone would not make an A-list group, but underneath this superficial view, we find a group exploring all aspects of exciting music. You find Latin percussion, jazzy bits, RIO inspired avant progressive, folk melodies, early 70s Italian progressive rock and a host of other exciting ideas. The list of instruments utilized would take forever to type out. La Desooorden are an intriguing, complex and deep group - a group that reveals something different with each listen.

Personal collection
CD: 2007 private

The CD is a private release with no catalog number. It's a beautiful package with a tri-foldout digipak and a nice insert.

Leger de Main - The Concept of Our Reality. 1995 USA

Leger de Main were a trio from Erie, Pennsylvania made up of the Rodler brothers (Brett on drums, and Chris on everything else), along with Melissa Blair on vocals. It's quite astounding then, with such a small lineup, what a racket these 3 were able to create. I first bought this CD toward the end of 1995, not too long after its release, and it quickly rose to one of my favorites of the year. I played it often - seemingly having a permanent place in my Mitsubishi Eclipse as I drove through various parts of Denver with this blasting away in the background (as an aside - still the best car stereo I ever had, including today). After fully immersing myself with the music over a 2 to 3 month period, I finally filed the CD. Where it stayed until tonight, when it finally was chosen for a random listen some 22 years later (if there was ever an argument for not trying to collect too much, this would be it...). On this note, I was just about to meet the future Mrs. Ashratom, and the days of cranking tunes everywhere I went were coming to an end - not that I knew it at the time... Sigh... In any case... back to Leger de Main.

So what made this album special, when many others made a similar attempt? It's the blend, the secret recipe that has patrons lining out the door, while someone else's similar restaurant remains empty. Leger de Main's primary ingredient is that of 1980-81 Rush, and Blair's shrill voice more often than not recall Geddy Lee's when in a similar mode. Though presumably hers are more grounded in estrogen... Now with that in mind, immerse the music of "Moving... Waves" right smack in the middle of 'Gates of Delirium'. And then have that played by Yezda Urfa. Yea, exactly. It won't take long to know if this is an album for you, because the opener 'To Live the Truth' is an overview of the entire album. It's the rhythm section that really makes it work, with Chris' woody bass and Brett's hyperactive drums propelling the proceedings along at a rapid rate. And then Chris will overlay all sorts of guitar and keyboards on top in an exciting fashion. Leger de Main are kinetic, jumpy, and on fire here! I would imagine some folks will struggle with Blair's voice, but I think she fits perfectly considering the manic nature of the recording.

The Concept of Our Reality is yet another great example of the fantastic music that we were lucky to hear in the 1990s, an album that received attention back then among the faithful, but has now been long forgotten. Will this era be recaptured just as the 70s were? I submit yes, but it will take much longer (probably past my lifetime), as the original audience was just a tiny fraction of the 70s heyday. For the 3 people who read my reviews, I highly encourage you to pick this CD up (or the 2 CD comp A Lasting Impression that includes both their albums).

Personal collection
CD: 1995 Progressive Music Management

Nova Express - Once in the Blue Moon. 1991 Germany

Following on from Space Khmer, Nova Express' second album is a bit more aggressive and, dare I say, punk-ish if you will. But it's still very psychedelic, especially in the ferocious guitar work and with some atmospheric distant/narrative vocals employed. The album gets considerably freakier and psychedelic as it goes. Without knowing they were from Germany, you could be forgiven to thinking they were influenced by the Bevis Frond neo-psych camp (which I think they were actually). About the only other band I've heard like Nova Express, from Germany at least, is the equally obscure Der Kampf Gegen den Schlaf.

Personal collection
CD: 1991 Heartache Transplant Records

The CD features one bonus track: 'I Wanna Know' (7:54). After many years of searching, I finally secured the LP. Not long after, I found the CD too, and I decided to part with the LP.

I really should scan my cover of this. There's not one decent scan out there.

Nova Express - Space Khmer. 1987 Germany

Nova Express are a band I first heard about from Freakbeat in the early 1990s. Their two albums were quite difficult to find back then (surprisingly not so difficult nowadays). Space Khmer reminds me a lot of early Amon Duul II - especially the shorter songs as found on Tanz der Lemming and Carnival in Babylon. This element becomes apparent in the psychedelic guitar work and the heavily accented male vocals. The organ they employ is actually an older vintage than what Amon Duul II used! No doubt they were also influenced by the post punk crowd of the early 80s, and it shows in some of the songwriting. Overall, a very good neo psych album that time has forgot.

Personal collection
LP: 1987 Syndicate

Not reissued on CD as I write this.

Barrett Elmore - Woodlands. 2012 Sweden

The first significant track here, 'The Creek', gives us a sleight of hand, as it purports that Barrett Elmore are coming from the neo-psych / shoegaze camp. But my fears were quickly removed by 'The Nixie', and the album manages to get weirder, more psychedelic and even progressive with each track. By the end of the album, on the 12 minute bonus track 'Psilocybe Semilanceata', Barrett Elmore are firing on all the right cylinders (or dropping all the right tabs). This is the kind of album one would expect to come out of the Subliminal Sounds stable with Gustav Ejstes writing the songs and Reine Fiske providing acid fuzz leads. File next to your three Smell of Incense albums.

Personal collection
CD: 2012 Trail (USA)

Rayuela - s/t. 1977 Argentina

Rayuela's sole album is a fine example of combining the laid back Latin/Mediterranean style of pastoral progressive rock with that of the edgier jazz fusion fad that had swept through the Southern Cone region during this era. Where there's separation, however, is the high quotient of melodic interplay, giving it that strong symphonic feel. 'Los Ultimos Grillos' is an absolute stunner, clearly operating within the Celeste/Errata Corrige school of Italian soft progressive rock. In one case, Rayuela extends their stylistic brush a bit too far, such as the awkward singer songwriter blues number, right from the Louisiana bayou, complete with harmonica. No matter, as that's the only shortcoming found here. The instrumental tracks are well executed, and the guitar/sax playing here is superb, along with the passionate vocals. It's like stumbling over some lost Italian reels from 1975. Excellent album.

Personal collection
LP: 1977 Orfeo
CD: 199? Rayuela

The LP comes in a fine gatefold cover and is a good pressing for the region. The CD is of suspect provenance, but sounds good all the same. It's never been reissued legit unfortunately.

Birth Control - Plastic People. 1975 Germany

Birth Control were one of those bands that managed to survive the various musical movements of the 1970s and 80s. In order to do that, a group must be flexible and change with the times - for better or worse. Birth Control were always an outlier when discussing the best music of the Krautrock era. In reality they were more of a UK/North American styled hard rock band, one that avoided the trappings of phasing, cosmic tripping, and long psychedelic jams. By 1973, Birth Control tried their hand at more commercial material, including dragging along a horn section, to mixed results. Then the obligatory live album brought out the band's inner Deep Purple. And now it's 1975, it's Germany, and you do what?

You go prog. Not Krautrock styled prog mind you, but the UK variant of such. Eloy went forth with Power and the Passion, and Jane coughed up Fire Water Earth and Air. And so Birth Control came out with Plastic People. When considering their pedigree, and the fact they weren't really ever the best at what they did, one would presume Plastic People would fall on its face, in an almost laughable Spinal Tap way. Wrong again. Birth Control pretty much blew away the competition (it was Eloy who ended up with egg on their face).

This is an album I'd owned for many years without much recollection, until about 6 years ago a focused listen while driving through South Dakota (there isn't really much else to do...) opened this up for me. Tonight's listen just reinforced that experience. It's a blend of their hard rock past, mixed in with solid songwriting and real progression in the compositions. The title track is 11 minutes, and seems half of that, which is a good sign. 'Tiny Flashlights' is brilliant, perhaps the best song in Birth Control's entire canon. There's some really great synthesizer work throughout the album in addition to the usual organ/guitar display. Even a track with a dumbo title like 'Rockin' Rollin' Roller' is much better than it seems at the beginning, and the song is memorable in a good way. I see some bellyaching around the band's use of commercial styled singing and "lounge" moves. To me, that's another half point positive, as I really appreciate the melodicism brought forth, and works well as a contrast to the otherwise mathematical complexity. It's not that dissimilar to how the American groups approached progressive rock in the mid 70s. BTW - there are only horns on one track for those who break out in hives at the mere sound of them.

It's been ages since I heard my copy of Backdoor Possibilities, but barring an enlightening listen (similar to the one I had here), then Plastic People would be my definitive choice as Birth Control's best album.

Personal collection
LP: 1975 CBS
CD: 1995 Columbia

Not only is Plastic People an excellent album, but the original gatefold cover is also fantastic, and I have it displayed on my "wall of faces and eyes".

For whatever reason, the Columbia CD switches the places of 'Rockin' Rollin' Roller' and 'Tiny Flashlights'. Odd.

Rag i Ryggen - s/t. 1975 Sweden

Råg i Ryggen's sole album is a great representation of that perfect meeting place between progressive and hard rock. The instrumentation is pure fat analog, with organ, mini-moog, woody bass, loud electric guitar, and powerful vocals. Early 70s Uriah Heep would seem to be the main influence here, along with a good dose of Deep Purple and even fellow countrymen Trettioariaga Kriget. And on the folk based instrumental 'Spångaforsens brus', Kebnekaise rises to the fore. The lyrics are a mix of Swedish and English, though surprisingly there's no downturn in quality when utilizing the latter, as would be normally the case. I think those that dig bands like Blakulla and Saga (post November band), will find plenty to enjoy here. Easy recommendation for genre fans.

Personal collection
CD: 2005 Transubstans

Typically great reissue from Transubstans with informative liner notes, photos, and good sound. There's also 3 bonus tracks, 2 from 1975, and the last from 1976 called 'Land Over the Rainbow', and it sounds very similar to the album proper. The sound quality on these are OK, given they appear to be an audience recording.

Ako Doma - Aliens are Good for Sale. 2003 Slovakia

Aliens Are Good for Sale finds Ako Doma playing in a modern fusion mode. Gone is the saxophone, and with that, the charming Slovakian dance hall sound of their debut. In its place is a late era King Crimson sound, replete with angular guitar - at times with a metal crunch - modern synthesizers, and plenty of difficult music to plow though. If you like guitar oriented fusion, then this will be well worth your time. It's an instrumental style of modern music done countless times since the 90's, and Ako Doma prove to be more than capable to pull it off. Despite their obvious musical acumen, I miss the simple local flavor of the debut. One fellow collector calls out the Racine, Wisconsin based Kopecky as a reference - which is an excellent observation!

Personal collection
CD: 2003 Lizard (Italy)

Ako Doma - s/t. 1999 Slovakia

Sometime in 1990, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I managed to slip into Bratislava (though Visa's were still mandatory, who was paying attention?). At the behest of my gracious hostess, she insisted I catch a "local" instrumental band at a municipal concert venue (juke joint?). It was what can be best described as a "dance hall" - brightly lit, smoke filled, and slightly (OK, mostly) dingy inside. The audience was made up of primarily overweight middle aged women, all wearing knee hemmed black skirts and calf high pantyhose. On stage was a heavily mustachioed gentleman wailing on the sax, while a drummer and stand-up bass player briskly kept the pace. The melodies all had a certain popular music base, some Western, mostly Central European - and all based in another lifetime. They were immensely popular with the women as they gyrated wildly on the dance floor. The men drank tall steins of beer and puffed away on pipes and cigarettes, anticipating (perhaps dreading) what was in store for them that night. For this (then) 25 year old, it was an eye-opener. I was witnessing real-time something that I personally saw disappear quickly from the landscape once freedom was attained. For an American in 1990, it was anachronistic to say the least. And I loved every minute of it.

When I first heard the sax player from Ako Doma squonking her notes out, I was immediately brought back to this event. Her playing and melody choices are primarily based in Slovakian pop folklore. Pop, as in 1950's smoky dance jazz-pop. The remainder of Ako Doma apparently spent their wasted youth snubbing their noses at the Authorities and smuggled in King Crimson's Red album, perhaps hoping that if they did get caught, at least the album title would keep them out of hot water. And to say anything further would be redundant: You now know the music of Ako Doma's debut.

It should be noted that the final track, the 22+ minute 'Hrdzavenie', is from a different era of the band (sans sax), and is more rooted in typical progressive rock themes.

Personal collection
CD: 1999 Mellow (Italy)

Alphataurus - AttosecondO. 2012 Italy

AttosecondO once again is adorned with a stunning painting. I don't usually collect LPs for modern releases, but I may need to make an exception here. Still, the mini-LP packaging is as fine as it gets for a CD issue.

For the music, AttosecondO finally closes the book on their unfinished second album, the previously titled Dietro L'Uragano. The Live in Bloom (CD version) concert demonstrated very competent versions of two of these tracks, and it seems the band was in top form. AttosecondO adds the final important track 'Claudette' (13:40), to complete the mystery of "what if these tracks were recorded properly"? For those who bought the Live in Bloom for the same reason as I did - that is to hear the second album performed properly - fear not. The versions found on AttosecondO have been radically reworked from the Live in Bloom concert, to arguably greater success. But that's only part of the story here, as Alphataurus have added two entirely new tracks to open the album 'Progressiva Menta' (8:29) and 'Gocce' (9:27), both of which sound like the best of the modern Italian progressive rock bands that are striving to recreate the past. Of course, it would make sense that Alphataurus would be experts at this  - since they actually were one of those original bands! However, as we all know by now, most of these reunions haven't been near the level we'd originally hoped. Alphataurus is the exception. They clearly have recaptured the spirit of their youth, and seem on the cusp of releasing another monster album like their 1973 debut. Even though the founding two members are in their 60s, let's hope they don't quit just yet and prove that the older guys can be as creative as the youngsters - of which now three of said youth are part of the Alphataurus machine.

Personal collection
CD: 2012 AMS/BTF

Alphataurus - Live in Bloom. 2012 Italy

I bought the CD mainly to hear the fully realized versions of 'Ripensando E…' (7:36) and 'Valigre di Terra' (12:02), both tracks from the unfinished second album. As it turns out the former composition is an instrumental and so it wasn't quite as different as I expected. But 'Valigre di Terra' was the highlight of that archival release, and to hear it with vocals, makes this well worth the price of admission by itself. That along with the beautiful cover art (the CD is in the mini-LP format), painted by the same gentleman who impressed everyone with the brilliant triple fold out of the original 1973 album.

The LP leaves off these two aforementioned tracks, and IMO detracts from the primary reason to own this. The renditions of the debut album are all excellent, but not dramatically different.

Personal collection
CD: 2012 AMS/BTF

Alphataurus - Dietro L'Uragano. 1974 Italy (archival)

Similar to many Italian bands of this era, Alphataurus seemed to flare out after one release. But Mellow Records turned up a complete album minus the vocal sections. Apparently the band was looking for another singer when they finally gave up. 1974 was the end of the line for most of the Italian scene, so ultimately this should come as no surprise. On Dietro L'Uragano, the music is more playful, slightly less complex, and far more dependent on keyboards than the debut effort. Parts of this remind me of the heavy but simple tracks found on The Trip's Caronte album, though overall Alphataurus is more engaging here. ELP circa Tarkus, is another obvious influence. Unfortunately it's apparent the music was written with a vocalist in mind, so there are some gaps to be found.

Personal collection
none

I sold the CD a few years ago to no regrets. The good news is that these tracks were re-recorded on their two 2012 albums, and are fantastic.

Omnia Opera - Red Shift. 1997 England

What separated Omnia Opera from the others of the scene (and it should be noted the band themselves state they weren't really part of the movement much at all) is they were one of the very few, if not the only one, to actually be heavier than the Ozrics. Omnia Opera were an aggressive bunch with thrashing guitars in the Hawkwind style, mixed with the ripping solos that Ed Wynne and crew are also noted for. While their debut received positive reviews, Red Shift was generally panned. In retrospect, their sophomore followup is no less worthy of recognition. Where some of the dissatisfaction came from, I’m sure, is the inclusion of techno elements, which many felt was the direction that killed the festival movement itself. Delerium Records seemed to almost insist every band on their roster at least incorporate some bits of electronica into their albums (Note: Omnia Opera has exonerated the label, stating they had nothing to do with Omnia Opera’s choice of utilizing techno). Now I personally see the rejection of Red Shift as more of an audience’s turning-the-back on the new electronica styles being force fed to them, verse an actual objective viewpoint of the album itself. I suggest everyone who has a fondness for this style to give it one more listen.

Personal collection
CD: 1997 Delerium

Stone Circus - s/t. 1969 USA-Canada

Here's another Mainstream label gem, and possibly my favorite album on the label. These Montreal based musicians (save one), decided t...