Mantra Vega: Illusion Reckoning (Black Sand Records)
The debut full length from prog rock project Mantra Vega has been a long time in the making, mainly due to the members other projects, but finally it has arrived. The core of the band consists of former Mostly Autumn vocalist Heather Findlay and Sound Of Contact's Dave Kerzner who both supply the vocals, with Heather giving percussion whistles and acoustics while Kerzner creates the soundscapes with his keyboards. Unlike Findlay's previous band and indeed Kerzner's other band Mantra Vega is a more artistically conceptual project, the album is a cinematic performance piece with poetic, philosophical lyrics and musicianship that makes a feel rather than relies on individual songs. Findlay and Kerzner's vocals intertwine perfectly from the jazzy, Peter Gabriel-like Island and beyond they compliment each other excellently bringing to mind the Mostly Autumn in the hushed, emotive tones of the vocals. However they are not alone on this record the fluid guitar lines come from longtime Findlay collaborator Chris Johnson (Halo Blind/Mostly Autumn) and Dave Kilminster of Steven Wilson/Roger Waters' band, with these two men on the guitar parts you need a strong rhythm section and Stu Fletcher and Alex Cromarty (MA) provide the model anchor for the impeccable and creative music on offer.
With the lush arrangements on offer you get kind of lost in the music and happily that is the point as the vocals stir your senses and the instrumentation offers an enchanting miscellany of sounds. The album dips and escalates throughout leading you on a sonic journey, drawing from the acoustic folk of Fairport Convention (In A Dream) and the progressive rock explosion in it's 70's heyday Veil of Ghosts. As I've said everyone involved in this album has their own work outside of the band but so too do the guests; Troy Donockley supplies the whistles and flutes for Nightwish and is no stranger to Mostly Autumn folks, here he adds guitars and vocals along with him we have more MA alumni with Angela Gordon on vocals and recorders, Findlay's Ayreon co-conspirator Irene Jansen adding vocals and Ayreon's creator Arjen Lucassen adding some lead guitars. With a plethora of top flight musicians in tow Mantra Vega's debut is everything the preceding EP promised, it's clever, interesting and in parts beautiful, let's hope all concerned have a chance to create more music on record and indeed on stage. 8/10
Kiama: Sign Of IV (Tigermoth Productions)
Kiama are yet another progressive rock supergroup, the brainchild of Magenta's multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed he has recruited Luke Machin from the young proggers Maschine on guitar, Andy Edwards (IQ and Frost*) on drums and Dylan Thompson of Shadow Of The Sun (formerly of The Reasoning) behind the mic and on guitar. With such talent in the band you'd expect this album to sparkle and it does, this is emotive progressive rock that all the members are known for, Cold Black Heart opens things in rock style with an immediate impact showing the collective power of this foursome with Machin's sublime guitar work feeling more controlled than it does in his own band but it still has the power to cast a spell on songs such as I Will Make It Up To You which is Floydian with it's spacial keys and soaring guitar lines. Reed's keys, bass and guitars create a wide soundscape on the slower passages like Slime, while To The Edge has the funky rhythms of Gilmour's solo work replete with some soulful backing vocals and a percussive drive from Edwards.
One thing that immediately drew me to this album other than the impressive musicianship on offer was that Thompson was once again taking up the mic, he has great throaty voice that sets Kiama apart from many progressive bands who favour sweeter vocal lines and in a lot a cases (see above) female vocals, that's not to say Thompsons voice is rough in fact on the contrary on the dreamy, hopeful Beautiful World he croons with a heartfelt vocal line. Kiama's debut is firmly set in the neo-progressive genre that was started by bands such as Arena and IQ, this is not a criticism they do what they do it with a panache many progressive have spent a career striving for. Sign Of IV is a purely collaborative effort with each member adding their own skill to the songs meaning that the album as a whole bursts with style and technical mastery. 8/10
Beth Blade & The Beautiful Disasters: Sick Like This (Self Released)
Beth Blade and her band The Beautiful Disasters are possibly Cardiff's answer to Halestorm, think gutsy hard rock with the rock chick Beth leading her band of rockers in radio friendly hard rock that owes much to KISS, AC/DC, Alter Bridge, Black Stone Cherry and of course Halestorm. Sick Like This is the bands first EP and showcases the songs that many will know from their live show, the songs benefit from production as it means all aspects of them sparkle, from the heavyweight riffs, to Beth's husky vocals. At six songs long it gives you an incite into what to expect with Forbidden Hearts kicking things off on a song you can imagine Lzzy singing in an arena, the filthy title track is dirtier than a fondle on Chippy Lane with a sledgehammer riff and Beth taking charge of an unnamed lover. This is unsophisticated rock and roll that shoots from the hip melding late 80's with late naughties rock, albeit refreshingly from a female perspective on the cowbell fuelled If It Ain't Rough (It Ain't Right) and the BLS stomp of Kill You With Kisses. This is a great album that actually reminds me a lot of American cult act Hydrogyn, Beth and her Beautiful Disasters are far from a disaster, with a set of catchy, hook laden hard rock songs. 7/10