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Tony Arnold “Ophidian Lullabies”

22 Jan, 2010 Michael Diamond

tonyarnold2If ever there was an album that “defies categorization”, Tony Arnold’s “Ophidian Lullabies” is one. It is a virtual patchwork of diverse styles, genres, and influences, blended in unexpected ways. The CD’s first piece, appropriately titled “Precursor”, opens with an ambient synthesizer arpeggio, eventually adding a background of strings and the sound of running water. It’s an instrumental dreamscape leaning towards the minimalist style of Philip Glass. The second track switches gears dramatically into a prog rocker with symphonic overtones. By prog (short for progressive) I’m referring to a style first popularized in the 70’s by groups like Emerson, Lake, & Plamer, Genesis, King Crimson, etc. The song rocks hard till about half way through when it downshifts into a more sparse instrumental section featuring guitar and bells, and echoes the melodic theme of the first section, adding instruments as it evolves.

On a tune called “Robert Emmet” the music provides another stylistic departure with an instrumental that has somewhat of an Irish or Celtic feel. The next track, “That Still Small Voice” offers an interesting juxtaposition in that it’s got an upbeat pop-inflected melody in contrast to the somewhat darker lyrics. Perhaps a term like “pop noir” would be appropriate. Tony who has a deep voice and a vocal style, which is sometimes half sung and half spoken seems influenced by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, or maybe Frank Zappa. This song is followed by “Daddy’s Ballad” which offers another mix of musical ingredients. Heavy fuzz-drenched guitars lay the foundation for a spoken word vocal with a country feel, while a new wave-like synth melody line dances over the top of it.

From there, the next tune reflects back to the kind of ambient soundscape heard on the opening piece. Track eight, “Agendas” has a distant melancholy feel that reminded me somewhat of the style of Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, and features a lush orchestral background. Moving along, the ninth song kicks off with a rolling drum groove followed by spoken word vocals with some very trippy electronic effects. This piece in particular gave me the reference to Zappa. 

 “Progression” which makes a grand cinematic entrance for the first minute or so morphs into a country-tinged pop tune, eventually building back to an orchestral climax. The longest track on the CD at almost eleven minutes, “The Cottonmouth Crawl” is perhaps the most musically adventurous. It features a foreboding synth intro blending with an Eastern-sounding instrument giving way to a driving drum rhythm and heavy multi-tracked guitars that harken back to the afore-mentioned prog rock. This instrumental leaves psychedelic trails as it winds its way through a variety of thematic permutations.

As will be obvious by now, if one is looking for an album to put on that sets a mood and doesn’t stray, this is not it. On the contrary, it is truly a genre-blending exercise in musical diversity.

Reviewed By Michael Diamond

Carlos de Nicaragua y Familia “Militante”

24 Dec, 2009 Michael Diamond

cdnicaragua_MilitanteTalk about “cross-cultural”: a musician from Nicaragua living in France and singing a fusion of Jamaican reggae and Latin salsa in English and Spanish. Born as Carlos Wiltshire, the name he goes by comes not only from his country of origin, but in honor of the great Indian chief Nicarao Cai, considered to be the founder of Nicaragua. Interestingly, the Atlantic coast of the country, where Carlos is originally from, is a mecca for reggae music. However, as mentioned, his sound transcends the traditional boundaries of the genre and incorporates elements of salsa and Latin music with rock. This is no surprise as he names Santana as one of his biggest influences, along with Jimi Hendrix, and of course, Bob Marley. These just happen to be three of my biggest influences as well, so this album piqued my interest, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

 

The title of the album, “Militante” is rallying cry for the power of music and the freedom it brings. According to Carlos, “Militante” is a feeling in his heart and soul that he pours out to his audience: “it expresses the pain and problems of the world, but in the most joyous form possible”. It is inspired by the struggle for justice, solidarity, peace, and love in the world, a theme that is prevalent in reggae and Rastafarian culture. He sees music as a common denominator: “music will make dance the dictator, the rich, the poor, the Pope included. It is the language we need to understand each other.”

 

Music is indeed a universal medium. Although I don’t speak Spanish well enough to understand all the lyrics on “Militante”, the groove communicates in ways that need no translation. Carlos’ voice, which is rich and resonant, conveys a soulful quality you can feel, and as Bob Marley said, “who feels it, knows it.”  But let us not forget, as reflected by the name of the group, that this is indeed a family affair. Fifteen musicians make up the “Familia”, including bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, guitar, flute, vocals, and a full horn section, which provides the spice so necessary for salsa and world flavors. Although they may not be a family genetically, they are a family nonetheless, with many of them having toured together extensively throughout Europe over the years.

 

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this music, with its’ melting pot of rich cultural influences.  One impressive aspect was Carlos’ use of a particular reggae style where the vocals are spoken in a way that is somewhat similar to rap, yet more melodic. There is such power and conviction in his voice that one cannot help be moved by it even if the language is unfamiliar. Carlos metaphorically compares his music to a volcano: “first it sleeps, then wakes up, and finally explodes.”  It’s hard to sit still while listening to the grooves on “Militante” and I can only imagine how much harder it would be while hearing at a live performance. It is gratifying to know that in a time where much music that is currently popular has so little depth or substance, that people like Carlos De Nicaragua y Famila are out there shining their musical light to illuminate powerful messages of world peace, unity, and justice for all.

Reviewed By Michael Diamond

Cliff Hines “Like Mystics of Old”

07 Oct, 2009 Michael Diamond

cliff-hines_like-mystics-of-oldIf you heard the music of Cliff HInes without seeing his picture or knowing anything about him, you might envision a graying music veteran who had seen his share of late nights in smoky jazz clubs over the years. Yet at the tender age of 20, he is not even old enough to get into those clubs in some states.  There is, however, a maturity in his guitar playing and composing skills beyond his years.  At the same time, Cliff also displays an edge of inventiveness and sonic experimentation that is youthful and fresh.

 

Drawing inspiration from the world-class jazz mecca of New Orleans, Cliff Hines began his musical journey early in life and explored violin, piano, and drums, before making guitar his major focus at the age of 12. In high school he studied jazz at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and immersed himself in bebop, big band, and modern. Now, not many years later he is an adjunct guitar teacher at that school, and continues his jazz studies at the University Of New Orleans.

 

While his musical talents encompass many sub-genres, including being the leader of an avant-rock band called Zosimus, the music he plays with his quintet on “Like Mystics of Old” is contemporary jazz that would appeal to fans of an artist like Pat Metheney, who not surprisingly, Cliff sites as one of his influences.  Joining him on this musical oddesey is an extremely talented group of fellow travelers including Sasha Masakowski on vocals, drummer Paul Thibodeaux, bassist Martin Masakowski, and Khris Royal on sax and EWI, which stands for electronic wind instrument and is like a flute or horn synthesizer.

 

The album opens with some softly strummed guitar and Sasha’s free-form wordless vocals – a style she reprises often on the recording, and which brings to mind the great Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim. While some of the songs have lyrics, Sasha leans towards the aforementioned airy vocalizations, and her role in the group is sometimes more supportive than out front, although she definitely does provide a strong musical presence at many points on the album.  Not long after the intro, the rest of the band kicks in with a funky groove and they are off and running.

 

 

The second tune, “Pastels”, is one of my favorites and begins with the band showing a bit of their more experimental side, utilizing some cool electronic effects in a jazzy context. While Cliff is well schooled in traditional styles, he is also quite adept at using digital effects processors and throws some interesting guitar textures into the mix, as does Khris Royal who creates trippy synthesizer-like sounds on his instrument in addition to laying down some tasty and innovative solos. I also really enjoyed the next song, “Nova”, with its’ Brazilian influences, which make themselves felt a bit throughout the album.  Jazz-rock fusion elements are also present on songs like “Tippy Toes” and “Dance Of The Cleyrans,” that reminded me somewhat of classic Chick Corea and Return To Forever from the ‘70’s.  A song called “The Pacifier” kicks off with a drum lead-in by Paul Thibodeaux, whose outstanding playing continued to impress me on every song. Paul is soon joined by Martin Masakowski who shines on a smoking bass solo later in the tune.

 

The group as a whole is remarkably tight and I was often entranced by the melodic interweaving of Cliff and Khris’s playing and Sasha’s vocals, with the percolating rhythm section of Martin and Paul propelling everything along. This is not cocktail jazz meant to set a mood in the background. The Cliff Hines Quintet creates music that is engaging and draws the listener in to hear what will happen next. The fact that they are all so young makes it even more amazing. As a jazz lover, this album was a treat to listen to, full of stellar playing and unexpected little twists and surprises, all of which lead me to give this CD an enthusiastic recommendation.

 

 Reviewed By Michael Diamond

Cliff Hines Quintet “Mystics of Old”

01 Oct, 2009 Michael Diamond

cliff-hines-quintet_mystics-of-oldIf you heard the music of Cliff HInes without seeing his picture or knowing anything about him, you might envision a graying music veteran who had seen his share of late nights in smoky jazz clubs over the years. Yet at the tender age of 20, he is not even old enough to get into those clubs in some states.  There is, however, a maturity in his guitar playing and composing skills beyond his years.  At the same time, Cliff also displays an edge of inventiveness and sonic experimentation that is youthful and fresh.

 

Drawing inspiration from the world-class jazz mecca of New Orleans, Cliff Hines began his musical journey early in life and explored violin, piano, and drums, before making guitar his major focus at the age of 12. In high school he studied jazz at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and immersed himself in bebop, big band, and modern. Now, not many years later he is an adjunct guitar teacher at that school, and continues his jazz studies at the University Of New Orleans.

 

While his musical talents encompass many sub-genres, including being the leader of an avant-rock band called Zosimus, the music he plays with his quintet on “Like Mystics of Old” is contemporary jazz that would appeal to fans of an artist like Pat Metheney, who not surprisingly, Cliff sites as one of his influences.  Joining him on this musical oddesey is an extremely talented group of fellow travelers including Sasha Masakowski on vocals, drummer Paul Thibodeaux, bassist Martin Masakowski, and Khris Royal on sax and EWI, which stands for electronic wind instrument and is like a flute or horn synthesizer.

 

The album opens with some softly strummed guitar and Sasha’s free-form wordless vocals – a style she reprises often on the recording, and which brings to mind the great Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim. While some of the songs have lyrics, Sasha leans towards the aforementioned airy vocalizations, and her role in the group is sometimes more supportive than out front, although she definitely does provide a strong musical presence at many points on the album.  Not long after the intro, the rest of the band kicks in with a funky groove and they are off and running.

 

 

The second tune, “Pastels”, is one of my favorites and begins with the band showing a bit of their more experimental side, utilizing some cool electronic effects in a jazzy context. While Cliff is well schooled in traditional styles, he is also quite adept at using digital effects processors and throws some interesting guitar textures into the mix, as does Khris Royal who creates trippy synthesizer-like sounds on his instrument in addition to laying down some tasty and innovative solos. I also really enjoyed the next song, “Nova”, with its’ Brazilian influences, which make themselves felt a bit throughout the album.  Jazz-rock fusion elements are also present on songs like “Tippy Toes” and “Dance Of The Cleyrans,” that reminded me somewhat of classic Chick Corea and Return To Forever from the ‘70’s.  A song called “The Pacifier” kicks off with a drum lead-in by Paul Thibodeaux, whose outstanding playing continued to impress me on every song. Paul is soon joined by Martin Masakowski who shines on a smoking bass solo later in the tune.

 

The group as a whole is remarkably tight and I was often entranced by the melodic interweaving of Cliff and Khris’s playing and Sasha’s vocals, with the percolating rhythm section of Martin and Paul propelling everything along. This is not cocktail jazz meant to set a mood in the background. The Cliff Hines Quintet creates music that is engaging and draws the listener in to hear what will happen next. The fact that they are all so young makes it even more amazing. As a jazz lover, this album was a treat to listen to, full of stellar playing and unexpected little twists and surprises, all of which lead me to give this CD an enthusiastic recommendation.

 

Reviewed By Michael Diamond

Double Down “Polarity”

16 Aug, 2009 Michael Diamond

double-down_polarity1Arena rock lives! From Denver, Colorado comes the mile high rock and roll of Double Down.  Having once lived in that fine city, I remember the music scene there as being one of the best I’ve experienced anywhere, and this kick ass band certainly upholds the tradition.  “Polarity” is the second release from the group, which includes Jeff Browning and Darren Banach on guitars, bass, and vocals, with Paul Jarrett on drums, although the band has undergone some personnel changes since this recording.  While their first CD, “Still Motion”, had a bit more of a Southern rock flavor, this new one detours from the country and takes it straight downtown with a well-produced album they describe as “more refined and complex.” If by “refined” they mean: rock your socks off, then it’s an accurate description.

 

Double Down comes charging out of the gate with guitars blazing on the opening tune, “Icarus,” About half way through they dish out the first of many surprises as the songs slip into a quieter middle section of synthesizer, bass, and vocal, eventually leading into a tasty lead guitar solo that reminded me a bit of Slash from Guns and Roses, a band they cite as one of their influences. Even at this early point in the CD, it is evident that Double Down is very tight, with the two guitars working together like a well-oiled machine. Another example of this six-string synergy is on “The Life I Breathe,” with one guitar laying down thick slabs of molten metal while the other interweaves chiming arpeggiated notes on the chorus.

 

The song called “Black Tie” was also a highlight for me and kicks off with a cool Stones-style riff, jangly guitars, and mid tempo beat before dropping the hammer and heading into heavier territory about half way through. There is even an unexpected little interlude that called to mind The Police. This song shows off the band’s command of dynamics and their ability to take a song into different sections throughout the course of it, rather than just plodding along on one track like so many groups do. The album is full of these kinds of changes and is one of the standout features of Double Down.

 

The acoustic guitars come out on track 4, “Wrecking Ball,” which has a bit more of an alt. rock feel to it – that is until about two thirds of the way through when they kick it up a notch and feature a smoking twin guitar lead. This song reflects another band that they mention as a major influence: The Gin Blossoms, one of my favorites of the 90’s. Their inspiration is felt on a number of songs on “Polarity” and is an interesting contrast to some of their heavier rock influences. I was also reminded a bit of Tom Petty on songs like this one and “Long Vacation.”  The album yielded a final surprise for me on the last track, “Fallen”, with a dreamy guitar hook, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that opens and closes the song.

 

Double Down has an abundance of all the elements necessary to take them to the next level: musicianship, vocals, songwriting, dynamics, and raw power with a touch of sensitivity. Check out their music to experience a real Rocky Mountain high.

 

Reviewed By Michael Diamond