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Ara  (US)

You Are Here  (2002,  62.20)  ***

Ara (an individual, not a band) moved to San Francisco from Boston in the late '90s, making the rather overlong You Are Here a few years later, a singer-songwriter album incorporating influences from country, folk and even psychedelia. Jessica Will is credited with Mellotron, but the wishy-washy flutes on Diamonds And Coal and Back Home and very obvious string samples on Cosmic Certainty tell another story.

Årabrot  (Norway)

Solar Anus  (2011,  38.33)  **½

Although generally described as 'noise rock', or similar, going by Årabrot's sixth album, 2001's superbly-titled Solar Anus, the casual observer (me, basically) would be as likely to label them 'extreme metal' as anything, although they list influences such as The Melvins and Swans. Given that the band are named in honour of a rubbish dump (!), the raw vocals, ultra-distorted guitars and slow, grinding rhythms are pretty much a given, I think. Vidar Evensen is credited with Mellotron, but I suspect the cellos on Auto Da Fe and male choirs (?) on The Wheel Is Turning Full Circle, well, aren't. The advent of large Mellotron sample sets (first M-Tron, now MemoTron and similar) means that more and more less common sounds are coming in to play, to the point where they can almost be a guarantee of sample use. That isn't the case here, but I'm sticking this into samples until/if someone tells me otherwise.

Arabs in Aspic  (Norway)

Strange Frame of Mind  (2011,  44.04)  ***½

Although in existence since the late '90s, 2010's Strange Frame of Mind is Arabs in Aspic's first album. Its placement on Italy's famed Black Widow label should tell you pretty much what they sound like: heavy pseudo-proto-prog, influences including Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep (particularly in the organ department), King Crimson (thus the name) and Black Sabbath, to no-one's surprise. While not exactly original, it's actually a fun, very listenable album, highlights including Fall Til Marken, with its epic opening riff, TV, which gets bonus points for featuring the most amusing (English-language) lyrics and their ridiculous take on Focus's iconic Hocus Pocus, wrong chords an' all. I presume it's organist Stig Jorgenson who sticks the clearly sampled 'Mellotron' strings all over brief instrumental opener Aspic Temple and nearly everything else, helping to make this, if nothing new, a very listenable album. Incidentally, the band have apparently renamed themselves Arabs in Aspic II after the departure of one member. Good job this practice isn't more common; what number might, say, Fairport Convention or, more fittingly, Black Sabbath themselves be up to by now?

Josh Aran  (US)

Between Us There Arose Happiness  (2003,  55.03)  **

Between Us There Arose Happiness is an exceedingly limp singer-songwriter effort; have any of these songs found their way onto any of the 'usual suspect' US TV shows? And if not, why not? Aran's credited with Chamberlin, but if that's what the screechy, distorted strings that open High Like Atmosphere are meant to be...

Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem  (US)

Gambling Eden  (2003,  49.27)  ***

Gambling Eden is possibly best described as old-time Americana, its chief instrumental input being acoustic guitar and fiddle, although opener Stewball and the jazzy Turtle Dove buck the trend. Highlights? Maybe The Farmer Is The Man and closer Farewell To Saint Dolores. Dirk Powell's credited Mellotron, however, is entirely inaudible.

Arcane  (UK)

Gather Darkness  (1999,  68.44)  ***½

The CD booklet in Arcane's debut, 1999's Gather Darkness, gives a lengthy history of the band, claiming that they were a German synth trio who released two albums in the mid-'70s, before their career was cruelly truncated by Max Van Richter's never fully solved death in 1977. Great story; unfortunately, it's British synthesist Paul Lawler's little in-joke, Arcane being his own solo project. Gather Darkness succeeds in managing not to sound entirely like Tangerine Dream, or at least, like a more melodic version of them, opener Dystopian Fictions featuring that old-fashioned idea, a tune, as against the usual 'improvise over a sequencer riff' approach. Plenty of samplotron, of course, with strings, flutes and choirs all over the place, not to mention what sounds like Mellotron brass on a couple of tracks.

Arcane  (Australia)

Known/Learned  (2015,  122.08)  **½

2015's sprawling, double-disc Known/Learned is Brisbane's Arcane's third album, showcasing their slightly uneasy cross between progressive metal, indie and goth, if you can imagine such a thing. Does it work? Had this been a forty-minute, single disc (you know, 'vinyl length'), the band might've been able to concentrate on their strengths, rather than simply recording everything they'd written in the six years since their previous release. One of their problems is that everything seems to be drop-tuned to B, ending up sounding all very samey, while Jim Grey's rather wispy vocals have the same effect. They start finding their own sound on their more laid-back material, such as the brief Womb (In Memoriam), Holding Atropos or disc two's Known, while amongst the heavier material, Keeping Stone: Sound On Fire, for some reason, works better than most and the flamenco section in Learned caught my ear, but a potential three-star release loses half a star for sheer tedium. Matthew Martin is credited with Mellotron, but much of it's well in the background. However, you can finally hear the strings properly on the lengthy Learned and Keeping Stone: Water Awake (and the flutes on Promise (Part 1)); well enough to hear (surprise, surprise) that they're samples. I know there are a handful of Mellotrons in Australia, but I'm quite sure we're not hearing any of them here.

Arch Enemy  (Sweden)

Burning Bridges  (1999,  35.42)  **½
Wages of Sin  (2001,  44.29)  ***
Anthems of Rebellion  (2003,  43.21)  ***
War Eternal  (2014,  47.30)  ***

Arch Enemy are yer classic 'heavier than thou' bunch, their entirely humourless thrashy power/death metal (I love sub-sub-sub-genres. Don't you?) treading the fine line between listenable and, er, less listenable. I'm sure they're terribly popular on mainland Europe and in South America, amongst other 'territories', but their clichéd approach demands that the listener switches off (or, preferably, murders in cold blood) any remote sense of irony they may once have owned.

I believe 1999's Burning Bridges is the band's third album, its chief plus point being its relative brevity, while all the usual suspects are invoked: Metallica, Slayer, Queensrÿche, probably Manowar. The sonic onslaught is partially leavened by quieter sections, although Johan Liiva's sore-throat vocals don't help in its appreciation to the non-fan. But then, they're not making albums for us them, are they? The only tracks that stand out in any way are Angelclaw, which tries (but fails) to channel Rush and the closing title track, with Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars, Opeth) guesting on grand piano and 'Mellotron', with a polyphonic cello part, alongside the sampled solo female voice. Incidentally, is Silverwing named in honour of the no-budget NWoBHM glam merchants of the same name? I think we should be told.

The band followed up with 2001's Wages of Sin, notable for being their first release to feature German vocalist Angela Gossow, who must have a titanium larynx, as she accurately reproduces her predecessor's bowel-clenching, throat-shredding excesses. There's slightly more stylistic variation on the album, though only within the genre; no Goan trance or ska-punk here, folks. Wiberg on samplotron again, with strings on Heart Of Darkness and flutes and strings on the unimaginative but perfectly pleasant Snowbound. Reissues include a second disc of outtakes and covers, including ultra-metallic run-throughs of Judas Priest's Starbreaker (from when they were good), Iron Maiden's Aces High (never good, even if I once thought they were) and, in a patriotic gesture, Europe's Scream Of Anger (also from when they were good).

2003's Anthems of Rebellion is largely more of the same, although Dead Eyes See No Future breaks it all down to ominous drums, pseudo-Mellotron cellos and female voice in the middle eight, while Instinct opens with a synth part that reminds me of Sweet's Fox On The Run. Er, slightly. For that matter, Leader Of The Rats is the best actual 'song' I've yet heard by the band, so maybe they are progressing/improving. Wiberg on keys once more, with samplotron strings on We Will Rise, the aforementioned cellos on Dead Eyes See No Future and rather inauthentic-sounding strings on closer Saints And Sinners.

Over a decade later and Arch Enemy, er, haven't changed. Not so's you'd notice, anyway. 2014's War Eternal (all a bit RPG, isn't it?) does all the usual stuff; after gothic intro Tempore Nihil Sanat (Prelude In F Minor), the band lurch into their default position, better tracks including tasteful little harmony guitar piece Graveyard Of Dreams, while On And On and Avalanche manage a balanced mix of 'taste' and 'all-out metal'. Wiberg's still playing sampled Mellotron for them, although I'd love to know where. What might just be extremely faint background choirs here and there? Hard to say and, let's face it, pretty much irrelevant anyway.

Are you interested in hearing Arch Enemy? Are you a seventeen year-old Serbian or Brazilian? That's probably slightly unfair, although their appeal does seem to be heavily restricted to those who take Heavy Fucking Metal far too seriously. Guys, we all like a headbang every now and again (er, don't we?), but this is all a bit silly. Not as silly as Manowar, though. Nothing's as silly as Manowar. Even Venom, who are fucking silly. I should know, having pissed myself laughing through their first ever UK date, nearly thirty years ago (gulp). All of which has little to do with Arch Enemy. They do what they do with Teutonic efficiency, despite being Scandinavians, so if you like your metal black and your speaker cones inverted, you've probably come to the right place.

Archangel  (Italy)

The Akallabeth  (2009,  66.29)  **½

Archangel are the creation of Gabriele Manzini, ex-The Watch and Ubi Maior, whose debut album, The Akallabeth, is a prog-metal concept effort based on Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Are you running away screaming yet? If not, why not? It's a pompous, overblown, deeply unoriginal monstrosity of an album, guaranteed to sell to Ayreon and Lana Lane fans, or anyone who doesn't start crying when the phrase 'rock opera' enters the conversation. I suppose it's possible this could've been reasonable, but only if its considerable excesses were heavily trimmed and Manzini could compose a few decent melodies. Although the album features several guest vocalists, the vocals are, frankly, terrible, whoever's singing; not actually tuneless, but certainly toneless, in a portentous, declamatory kind of way that sets the teeth on edge.

Manzini plays alleged Mellotron, amongst other keys and 'stun guitar', proving his Blue Öyster Cult fandom, which puts him into Planet Mellotron's good books on that front, at least. However, it's kept low in the mix, for the very good reason that, along with much of the other 'vintage' gear onboard, some of it's almost certainly sampled, so at least he's had the good sense not to push it too high. So; overblown prog-metal rock opera. Help! Some of you will go for this, though and good luck to you. I find it almost unlistenable, but maybe that's just my '70s-attuned ears having trouble with modern sounds/concepts/production techniques. Or maybe it's shit. I dunno. I can't see myself playing this again for, well, quite some time, which may well be a euphemism for 'never'.

Jeff Archer  (US)

Plank Road  (2007,  36.56)  **½

Jeff Archer is one of a growing number of 'home industry' musicians, recording and releasing his own material via the 'Net, completely bypassing the traditional music industry. 2007's Plank Road is his eighth album in around a decade, specifically recorded as an Americana project, at which it's partially successful. A couple of its seven tracks work fairly well, although, frankly, opener Acetone sounds like a rewrite of Bowie's Space Oddity, especially when the 'Mellotron' kicks in. Two major downsides: although Archer's voice is perfectly acceptable for the genre, the production leaves something to be desired, the end result sounding more like a demo than a finished product. Also, almost every track 'features' an overlong, fairly awful guitar solo, the reverse one on nine-minute closer Lake Nepessing proving that they're no more interesting backwards than forwards. Although Jeff credits himself with Mellotron, it's pretty obviously not real, with strings on Acetone (spot the unfortunate major/minor clash at a couple of points), brass on Wow/Flutter, pretty ropey flutes on Sunshiny Day and vibes and cellos on Lake Nepessing. There are plus and minus points to the home-industry recording; Archer's album highlights both, but if he can learn to rein in his soloing propensity and improve his production skills, he could start making some interesting music. Incidentally, he's recorded other fakeotron tracks, but I'm not sure if they're actually available yet.

Areknamés  (Italy)

Areknamés  (2003,  54.28)  ****
Love Hate Round Trip  (2006,  78.09)  ****
In Case of Loss...  (2010,  57.52)  ***½

Areknamés are led by vocalist/organist Michele Epifani, their raison d'être being to play a form of psychedelic progressive that went out of fashion around 1972, their influences including VdGG, Gracious!, Affinity, Second Hand and a host of others. To those ends, 2003's Areknamés succeeds admirably, not one of its six tracks letting the side down. Best track? Maybe closer Grain Of Sand Lost In The Sea, but picking out highlights in such a cohesive album is slightly futile. Epifani's 'Mellotron' is quite clearly not, with strings on A Day Among Four Walls, strings and flutes on Down, a major string part towards the end of Boredom and more strings and flutes on Grain Of Sand Lost In The Sea. The immediate major difference in the band's sound on 2006's lengthy Love Hate Round Trip (originally mooted to be a double LP) is the addition of a guitarist, Stefano Colombi, although he mostly does his best not to overwhelm the sound. If the album has a fault, it's (wait for it) that it's overlong, although with every track worthy of inclusion, short of making it into two shorter releases, I'm not sure what else the band could do. Plenty of samplotron, notably the flute (and possibly oboe) parts that open Snails, the strings on Yet I Must Be Something (plus a very Caravan-esque organ solo) and choir and brass on the exceptionally VdGG-ish Ignis Fatuus.

2010's In Case of Loss... indicates another sea-change, with a darker, more psychedelic sound than before, with even more Van der Graaf thrown in than before. Unfortunately, it's not quite as appealing to this listener, which isn't to say there's anything wrong with it, just that a little of the prog seems to have seeped out during the intervening years. Saying that, twenty-minute, eight-part closer The Very Last Number has to be the proggiest thing they've yet recorded, possibly highlighting the dichotomy within the band, or maybe just proving that they refuse to be pigeonholed. Once more, plenty of samplotron, mostly strings and flutes this time round. Areknamés are one of the best new bands to come out of Italy (already a hotbed of progressive activity) in the last decade, going by their first three albums, although anyone looking for 'pure' symphonic prog (whatever that is) might be disappointed by some of their work. However, if you're prepared to follow them slightly off-piste, I'm sure these albums will continue to reveal hidden depths for some time to come.

Arena  (UK)  see:

Arena

Argos  (Germany)

Cruel Symmetry  (2012,  54.39)  ***½

Argos (including drummer Ulf "Yacobs" Jacobs) are a really rather good progressive outfit - no, they're not saying anything terribly new, but what they say, they say well. Their somewhat jazzy sound is an amalgam of various '70s bands, not least Camel, Caravan and the softer end of King Crimson, amongst others. No obvious highlights, just an all-round excellent listen. Thomas Klarmann plays extremely good Mellotron samples, to the point where I was fooled for a while, with strings, choirs and flutes on almost every track.

India Arie  (US)

Acoustic Soul  (2001,  61.25)  **½

India.Arie (born India Arie Simpson, not sure why the dot) is frequently referred to as 'neo soul', whatever that means; her debut, Acoustic Soul, sounds like a more acceptable, acoustic version of the dreaded R&B to my ears. Her lyrical concerns are immeasurably higher than those of her contemporaries, however, tackling image (Video), race (Brown Skin) and strength, courage and wisdom in, er, Strength, Courage And Wisdom. The problem with the album isn't its worthiness, but the tedium instilled by the style Ms. Arie has used to gain popularity, which, after a few tracks, feels like being licked to death by some slobbery old bloodhound; gentle, but relentless. Plenty of vintage keys here, from Mark Batson, largely Hammond and Rhodes, but can I hear the credited Mellotron? Can I hell. There's a couple of points at which a cello or a distant flute just might be tape-generated, but it's impossible to tell, so into samples it goes. Acoustic Soul starts as if it's going to be quite palatable to non-mainstream ears, but quickly degenerates into (admittedly fairly acoustic) R&B by numbers by about halfway through, until you end up preferring to chew the carpet than hear any more. Unless the mainstream's your thing, avoid.

Ariel Kill Him  (Sweden)

In the Pyramid  (2003,  50.51)  *

Ariel Kill Him appears to be a synonym for Sweden's David Lehnberg, who, going by 2003's In the Pyramid, appears to favour a particularly grisly form of post-rock-influenced pop, taking the worst from both genres and mashing them together in a filthy stew of fake-'transcendent' crescendos and horrid falsetto vocals. Is that unequivocal enough for you? Although Ralf Kujahalkola gets a 'Mellotron' credit, the vaguely Mellotronic strings that crop up on several tracks (most obviously on the tellingly-titled I Am Hollow) are very clearly not, particularly obvious when pitchbend is employed. I think it's fair to say that, when it comes to this album, I refuse to sit on the fence. Quite, quite dreadful.

Ark  (UK)

Wild Untamed Imaginings  (2010,  54.31)  ****

Birmingham-based Ark (or ARK, or A.R.K., or aRK...) grew out of another local outfit, Damascus, becoming a popular draw on the late '80s British club scene, during a particularly low ebb for British progressive rock (the two events are not connected). But were Ark actually prog? They certainly had proggish elements, not least vocalist Anthony/Tony/Ant Short's flute playing and Steve Harris' guitar synth work (I paraphrase: "I've spent years learning to play guitar; why would I bother to learn keyboards?") and were generally lumped in with the handful of other late-period neo-proggers (notably Jadis), not that anyone used the term at the time. In many ways they were more of a hard rock band than anything, Pete Wheatley's guitar work being at the 'rocking' end of the spectrum, but with far more subtlety than that suggests, while their song structures were more 'simplistic end of prog' than 'fiddly end of hard rock'. In other words, Ark fell between several stools, although they made a good go of it anyway. If anyone's thinking, "What's Thompson on? Has he lost his mind? Neo-prog?", my pals and I were both fans and friends of the band over a several-year period, my old band even supporting them a couple of times (thanks again, chaps). Nepotistic? Moi?

During the original band's lifetime, they released precisely one full-length album (1993's Spiritual Physics), although they're remembered more for their initial longish-player, 1988's excellent mini-album The Dreams of Mr. Jones, containing some of the best material in their set at the time. They split in '94; by sheer chance, we attended their penultimate gig, having not seen them in some time and were informed of their imminent demise, ensuring that we got to said sad hometown farewell the following night. Wind the clock sixteen years on... I haven't mentioned that their original bassist was John Jowitt, generally regarded as one of the best four- (or five-) stringers to emerge from the '80s UK scene and better known for his lengthy tenure with IQ, not to mention stints in Jadis, Arena, Frost and others. I don't know the full story, but after finally deciding to leave IQ, I believe Jowitt approached his old Ark buddies (despite having left them several years before their decline) and suggested a reformation. The band never could hold down a regular drummer, so getting all four of the 'regular' lineup back together was a feat in itself, I'd imagine.

The first fruit of the reformation (no, not the Reformation) is an album of re-recordings of old material, 2010's Wild Untamed Imaginings. Now, I normally hate such projects, the atmosphere of the original recordings almost invariably becoming lost in translation, but in Ark's case, none of the originals were exactly well-produced, due to budgetary constraints, while Harris' synth work was always mostly digital anyway, although he's still using an analogue Oberheim in his rack. In other words, since it's so much easier to get a decent production cheaply these days (go on, deny it), this is the first time we actually get to hear their material sounding, well, professional. Anyway, we get new versions of three tracks each from Dreams... (top tracks: old set opener Gaia, old set closer and 'band anthem' Nowhere's Ark), their particularly badly-produced New Scientist (ho ho) EP (top tracks: the title track and Boudicca's Chariot) and a couple of cassette mini-albums (top track and album highlight: the folky Flagday), leaving two I don't recognise, although I suspect they date from the band's early days. I'd imagine that all concerned have a little more money these days, too, allowing for a good production job, finally doing the material some justice. There are a couple of inexplicable omissions, notably Dreams...' cataclysmic Powder For The Gun (performed live at the handful of album launch gigs), but I suspect they're keeping enough good stuff back for a second volume. Let's hope.

"So what's all this got to do with sampled Mellotrons?", I hear you cry. Possibly. When I saw Steve after their 2010 Birmingham gig, he not only boasted of still using an Oberheim, but got all enthusiastic about his Mellotron samples, which I'd noted during one track. And indeed, there they are on the album, with strings and choir all over the excellent Flagday, although all other choir parts sound like generic samples to my ears. Frankly, one track of sampled Mellotron isn't going to make you rush out to buy this album, but the chance to hear some excellent material (all assuming you're not demanding eighteen-minute symphonic epics), well-recorded at last, might be. Ark were always at their best on stage, but Wild Untamed Imaginings finally gives us a hint of their live energy on CD. Welcome back, gentlemen.

The Ark  (Sweden)

In Lust We Trust  (2002,  44.09)  ***½

The Ark are a Swedish kind-of glam rock outfit, albeit more in a '70s way than an '80s, thankfully. 2002's In Lust We Trust repeats the formula of their debut, highlights including the controversial Father Of A Son, the chugging Calleth You, Cometh I and Bowie-isms on Tired Of Being An Object? Calleth You, Cometh I features some rather grungy samplotron strings, apparently from Peter Kvint, but nothing you can't live without.

Armia  (Poland)

Droga  (1999,  62.30)  ***½

As Droga's downtuned metal riffery kicked in, my heart sank; oh God, not another crummy prog-metal effort... Wrong. Armia have been releasing albums since the late '80s, this being something like their seventh and they could teach the prog-metal establishment a thing or three about dynamics, interesting songwriting, avoiding clichés... the list goes on. One of the album's strongest features is Krzysztof "Banan" Banasik's French horn playing, present on over half the tracks (listen to the overdubbed harmony part on W Krainie Smoków), not to mention guitarist Dariusz "Popcorn" Popowicz' offbeat approach to riff and song construction (Parowóz Numer Osiem's a good example). Banasik allegedly plays Mellotron, but even if this weren't here, you'd still be fairly unsurprised to hear that it's sampled. Anyway, we get an octave flute part on Wspaniała Nowina plus regular flutes on Adwent and Kfinto, with a little on closer Jezus Chrystus Jest Panem, although none of it's anywhere near as effective as that French horn. So; if you're after something decidedly metallic, yet simultaneously off the beaten track, as long as you're not bothered by the Polish-language vocals, Armia in general and Droga in particular are worth the effort.

Katie Armiger  (US)

Fall Into Me  (2013,  48.39)  ***

Texan Katie Armiger's fourth album, Fall Into Me, straddles the country-rock/AOR divide with aplomb, surprising me by being far better than expected. Highlights? Hit single Better In A Black Dress and Okay Alone. Tim Lauer's handful of volume-pedalled 'Mellotron' flute notes on Man I Thought You Were fail to ring true, however.

Aroah  (Spain)

El Día Después  (2007,  27.38)  **½

Irene "Aroah" Tremblay's El Día Después is an indie-ish, Spanish-language singer-songwriter album, infused with a mournful, Iberian air; think: a mariachi band plays as the festival packs away. Best track? Probably Cifras, with its almost-but-not-quite familiar trumpet melody. 'Mellotronwise', Raúl Fernández plays a solo flute part on El Día Después, the sample giveaway coming with the held note at the end of the track.

AroarA  (Canada)

In the Pines  (2013,  32.33)  **½

AroarA, as they prefer to spell it, are a Montreal-based avant-indie duo, which is about as much fun as it sounds. Ariel Engle's voice starts to resemble nails drawn down a blackboard after a couple of tracks, while the music consists of scratchy indie guitars, wonky keyboards, sampled rhythms and found sound. I'm sure there are people out there who love this stuff. Jared Samuel's 'Mellotron' credit on #12 is for the track's MkII 'moving strings', i.e. samples.

Arsnova  (Japan)

Fear & Anxiety  (1992,  31.38)  ***½
Transi  (1994,  41.55)  ***½
The Goddess of Darkness  (1996,  40.42)  ****
The Book of the Dead  (1998,  44.22)  ***½
Android Domina  (2001,  51.09)  ***½
Biogenesis Project  (2003,  44.57)  ***½

[Arsnova also contribute to Keyboards Triangle's Keyboard Trio Tribute & Zarathustra's Revenge]

Apparently, Arsnova (or Ars Nova) originally formed as long ago as 1983, splitting and reforming before beginning their career as we know it. At various points in their near twenty-year history, Arsnova have been that rarest (uniquest?) of things, an instrumental all-female progressive band, not to mention one from Japan; their longevity is rather more impressive than the exceedingly ill-advised S&M video they shot a while back, though... Male managers, eh? Keith Emerson fan Keiko Kumagai is their sole consistent member, so it's not surprising that their sound is heavily keyboard-based; mostly digital synths, although she owns a Prophet 600, brought over to Europe on their two visits. If I may level one major criticism at the band, it's the lack of musical variety across their career, despite bringing in guest musicians in places to liven things up.

They kicked off with 1992's Fear & Anxiety, a solid, ELP-ish effort, making up for what it lacks in originality (Prominence contains some cheeky quotes, not least from Focus' Sylvia) with heaps of energy and some flashy playing. Despite the rather grotty string and (especially) choir sounds on the album, for some reason, Keiko opted to use early Mellotron samples on one track, with strings and flutes on House Of Ben, very clearly not from a real machine. Two years on and '94's Transi is, essentially, more of the same, the title track being probably the best thing here. Keiko goes for the 'Tron samples properly this time, with strings, flutes and choirs on the title track, clearly sampled, plus strings on Dance Macabre, Sahara 2301 and Nova.

1996's The Goddess of Darkness seems to be a concept album (in an instrumental kind of way) based around exactly what it says on the box: the Bad Girls of mythology, including Kali (Hindu), Isis (Egyptian) and the Gorgon (Greek). Despite being written in basically the same style as before, this is Arsnova's most accomplished effort yet, their influences (influence?) coalescing in a more cohesive way. Mellotron samples here and there, with strings on Kali and Fury plus flutes (and over-extended choirs) on Morgan, with possible strings and choirs elsewhere. Every two years, on the nail... '98's The Book of the Dead, apparently released in their home country as Reu Nu Pert em Hru, with a possibly slightly different tracklisting, is good, if not quite up to the standards of its predecessor. It has a distinctly Ancient Egyptian vibe, as you've probably guessed from the track titles and sleeve art, although the keyboards are, maybe surprisingly, given the album's historical bent, more digital-sounding than before; only two samplotron tracks this time round, with a flute part on the brief Interlude 4: Nephthys and a major string part on Ani's Heart And Maat's Feather.

It's difficult to know what to say about 2001's Android Domina without repeating myself. By and large, it carries on in the band's by-now familiar pattern, although what the hell is with the orgiastic (female) panting and the S&M sound effects that open the album? It's difficult to work out how many of the album's string parts are actually Mellotron samples, although a brief part in Succubus has to be a definite, while All Hallow's Eve and Bizarro Ballo In Maschera are probables. 2003's Biogenesis Project adds wailing guitar and a science fiction concept to the mix, but is otherwise just another Arsnova album. Yes, even when listened to with a gap of months between plays, ennui begins to set in. Keiko adds really obvious samplotron strings to closer Trust To The Future, although all other string parts are generic.

If you go for 'that Japanese prog sound', all bombastic Emersonian synth work and techno-flash, you'll almost certainly like Arsnova; there's little to really dislike here for the discerning prog fan, although more than one album on the trot can be slightly hard work. There may well be more Arsnova samplotron albums; I shall report back soon.

Art Abscons  (Germany)

Der Verborgene Gott  [vinyl version]  (2010,  48.48)  **½

Art Abscons are a surprisingly anonymous German neofolk duo, whose second (?) album, 2010's Der Verborgene Gott, is infuriatingly available in completely different vinyl and CD-R editions. Is it any good? Matter of opinion; two or three tracks at a time are very listenable, but nearly fifty minutes in one large, gloomy, indigestible lump is a bit much, at least for this listener. Best track? Possibly Liliensonne, although In Ruinen Geboren has its moments. Someone plays sampled Mellotron flutes and choirs on In Ruinen Geboren; they may well be elsewhere on the album, too, but it's hard to tell with the various synthesized strings to be heard on most tracks. Should harmoniums, rather dreary choral vocals and deep, intoned German sound like your bag, you may well go for this, but a twenty-minute excerpt would suit me a lot better.

Joseph Arthur  (US)

Big City Secrets  (1997,  55.47)  ***

Joseph Arthur's debut album, 1997's Big City Secrets, is a reasonable enough record in a modern singer-songwriter vein, although it starts with some weak (and therefore probably considered 'commercial') material. The songs seem to improve as the album progresses, with Daddy's On Prozac proving to be a highlight, although, overall, the album's overlong, with too many of those 'crescendo' songs for its own good. 'Mellotronically' speaking, Nick Plytas plays a great strings part on Birthday Card, while Simon Edwards adds cellos to Haunted Eyes, with a string part later in the song, heard unaccompanied and in-yer-face at the end. Sadly, a re-listen tells me it's probably sampled.

Arti & Mestieri  (Italy)

First Live in Japan  (2007,  75.32)  ****

A revitalised Arti & Mestieri appeared around 2000 and began gigging again, including their first visit to Japan in 2005. The 'can't argue with that'-titled First Live in Japan is a document of their Tokyo date on June 12th; the playing from the seven-piece ensemble is faultless, their fusion/prog crossover working well in a live context, without sounding cluttered, largely due to band members knowing when to shut up. The bulk of the album is divided into two 'suites', beginning with side one of Tilt played straight, following with an edited version of Giro di Valzer per Domani and winding up with a handful of more recent tracks. It's pretty obvious in this context how much jazzier their second album was than their debut, although the last Tilt track here, In Cammino, is almost straight jazz, leaving only a handful of tracks that fall more to the progressive side of the spectrum.

Now, I have to say that despite being assured that Beppe Crovella's credited Mellotron is real, there's no sign of it on either the CD sleeve or the pics from the trip on the band's own site. In fact, there's no sign of the Rhodes either, never mind the acoustic piano (which clearly isn't), although a B3 sits proudly at the front of his rig. The choirs at the beginning of Strips sound particularly authentic, key-click and all, so they're damn' good samples, but I'm quite certain that no Mellotrons were hurt during this recording. The rest of his 'Mellotron' use is split between the strings and choirs, switching deftly between the two on Glory, although he only uses it on a handful of tracks, sadly.

Peter Ashby  (UK)

Hagiography  (2009,  63.49)  ***½

Peter Ashby makes electronic music that refuses to slot neatly into any of the usual categories, mixing Berlin School, various dance influences and found sound into an intriguing whole, at its best on, say, opener Arrival and the jazzy Mistaken, although the interminable Collide's removal would have actually improved the album. Sampled MkII 'moving strings' on Divergance [sic.]

Ashtray Navigations  (UK)

The "O" Mouth Direct Input Raygun  (2009,  12.25)  **½

Ashtray Navigations, active since 1994, began as Phil Todd's solo project, before morphing into a band. In common with many similar 'cottage industry' projects, the band have notched up a vast back catalogue, Discogs.com listing over 100 releases in a near-twenty-year period, including albums, cassettes, collaborations, singles... I have absolutely no idea whether or not 2009's 7" EP The "O" Mouth Direct Input Raygun is in any way typical, all four tracks consisting of distant psychedelic warblings over a bed of harsh, digital noise. Admittedly different noise on each track. Different psychedelic warblings, too. Can I relate to this? Nope. Todd is credited with Mellotron, but not only is what's being used clearly not real, but is barely audible anyway, a faint string part on Tomb Is Over The Arcane Mower being the totality of its use. Just because I have no idea where this lot are coming from doesn't make it 'bad', however, merely incomprehensible to this listener, but I can't imagine I'll be playing it again any time soon.

Asia Featuring John Payne  (UK)

Recollections: A Tribute to British Prog  (2014,  52.29)  **

Asia Featuring John Payne? What had become the regular Asia lineup sundered in 2006, when Geoff Downes joined an original lineup reformation, stranding John Payne, frontman since 1991, in musical no-man's land. After some legal manoeuvring, Payne won the right to tour and record under the amended name, for which we should probably ensure that someone dies, preferably horribly. As you may well know, I thought the original band were fairly shite, but this lot's first studio outing, 2014's Recollections: A Tribute to British Prog, is pure pain. 'British prog'? I couldn't even place three of its ten tracks, partly due to my lack of deep knowledge of the Camel and Moody Blues catalogues. However, I'm quite happy not to know that opener Sirius is by The Alan Parsons Project (as is the better-known second track), a band comparable to Asia in their ability to be labelled 'prog' while actually being nothing of the sort.

So, is anything here even listenable? This version of Asia seem to be at their best when tackling the more accessible end of the genre (big surprise), so Yes' 90125 highlight It Can Happen works well enough, ditto UK's Nothing To Lose, but the rest of the album runs the gamut from bad to awful. Alan Parsons? Difficult to do much with that stuff, as it effectively defines UK AOR. Lesser-known Camel and Moodies tracks? Faceless interpretations. BJH, Tull and ELP? Tiresome, particularly the sequencer-driven Locomotive Breath, leaving 'utter dog' position to a truly execrable version of (The) Court Of The Crimson King, complete with wildly inappropriately pounding drums, shitty synth sounds and screechy lead guitar. Vile. Were Saint Fripp an ex-member of the human species, he'd be turning in his grave. Since he (thankfully) isn't, we can only hope he hasn't heard this abomination, as it could easily hasten his demise.

Mellotron? Our old friend Erik Norlander (a member of the band at the time) supposedly plays one on Court Of The Crimson King, presumably working on the basis that playing the song without one simply doesn't work, but the evenly-attacked string chords and overall smoothness makes me feel that we're really not hearing a genuine machine here, despite Norlander's past use. Anyway, this is absolute tosh, despite grovellingly hyper-positive reviews from online journalists who really should know better. Avoid.

Aside Beside  (France)

Tadj Mahall Gates  (2002,  55.25)  ****

Tadj Mahall Gates was French proggers Aside Beside's sole album, it appears and rather fine it is too. Sounding distinctly French, despite the English lyrics, it has some of the jazziness of an earlier generation of French bands such as Atoll or Shylock, mixed with a pan-European symphonic feel. There's practically no neo-ness to their sound and a welcome propensity for experimentation, such as Romaric Hubert's operatic vocal in the brief Tu Qui Omnia Scis, lacking in so many of their contemporaries.

The instrumentation on the album is largely 'retro' (real or otherwise), although I can hear the occasional modern synth patch, mainly brass and strings. The Hammond, however, is real and beautifully recorded. The whole feel of the album harks back to the '70s in many ways, actually, so while the band could be chided for refusing to take modern influences on board, they certainly won't be by me. More of this, I say! 'Retro' be damned - one Aside Beside are worth fifty dodgy fifth-rate neo outfits, peddling their sub-Marillion drivel... Er, sorry, got slightly carried away there. The 'Mellotron' is played by both keyboard players, Frédéric Woff and Vincent Chevallier, with some tracks, notably Nightmare and Ghost Of Love being smothered in the thing (mainly strings and choir, with a smattering of flutes), although a re-listen tells me it's sampled, which is hardly surprising. If you like your prog symphonic, tuneful and a little bit different, BUY.

Joy Askew  (UK)

Tender City  (1996,  59.02)  **½

Joy Askew's a British girl with a long and varied career behind her, who moved to the States in the early '80s. After singing backing for Peter Gabriel on his Us tour, she ended up getting him and several of his band to play on her fourth album proper, Tender City. Although Askew's own voice sounds nothing like her, the backing vocals are very reminiscent of Kate Bush circa The Hounds of Love or The Sensual World; sadly, the music is far less inventive, being largely laid-back, slightly new-age/'world'-influenced stuff, which is OK for two or three songs, but begins to grate after a while, at least for this listener. 'Mellotron' on one track only, with strings from Gabriel collaborator and onetime Mellotron owner Larry Fast (a.k.a. Synergy) on the title track, strangely alongside real ones. However, given that Fast has most likely not used a real machine since the late '70s, it's sampled.

Ai Aso  (Japan)

Lavender Edition  (2004,  40.05)  ***
She's So Heavy  [EP, as Ai Aso/Wata (Boris)]  (2007,  12.01)  ***½

Ai Aso (or is it Aso Ai?) is a Japanese psych artist, who has produced several albums and EPs over the last few years, including at least one collaboration. 2004's Lavender Edition is a quietly beautiful album, almost completely devoid of percussive interruption, consisting largely of Aso's vocals and clean electric guitar lines, other obvious instrumentation including bass (Most Children Do), ticking clock (I.S.W.Y. (Lavender Edition)) and an unearthly Mellotron string line on ...Wer Bit Du Denn?, played by You Ishihara. Yes, it enhances the track, yes, it's a pity it wasn't used slightly more and yes, it's sampled. Aso and Wata came together in 2007 to record a split 7", oddly titled She's So Heavy, while having nothing to do with the Beatles song. Aso's contribution is her version of King Crimson's Islands, getting to the core of the piece, while Wata (or Wata (Boris), going by the sleeve) covers Masashi Kitamura's Angel, presumably in her own style. Aso plays samplotron strings on her track, opting to write her own part, rather than copying the original exactly, although Souichiro Nakamura's string part on the flip is barely discernable.

Astra  (US)

Demo  (2007,  47.28)  ****½
The Weirding  (2009,  78.45)  ****½

Astra first came to the world's attention a couple of years ago (or at least those of us who care), when they posted some demos on their MySpace page. Forming from the remnants of Silver Sunshine, their Mellotron-heavy psych/prog/hard rock is an absolute delight in this age of ever-more-tightly defined sub-sub-sub-genres, although the kind of purists who have to label everything will probably call them 'prog/doom' or somesuch nonsense. Obvious pointers are Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Crimson, although a general early-'70s vibe pervades their work like the stink of old joss sticks and patchouli.

A kind man going by the name 'Gandalf' sent me a CD-R of those first few tracks MySpace tracks; what we're looking at here are six lengthy, prog/psych tracks, loaded with 'Mellotron', sounding like a vague cross between Crimson and Floyd's kid brother let loose in a studio. With a Mellotron, or at least, samples. That's the ten-minute Silent Sleep, anyway. The Rising Of The Black Sun is a lot darker, segueing into The Weirding..., a far heavier, jamming proposition, like Black Sabbath on (even more) drugs, or Crimso's Cirkus' bastard son. Since Gandalf sent me the CD, the band have added three tracks to their page, with the 'Tron-free Cosmic Wind, the acoustic Winter Witch and another mighty prog piece, The Dawning Of Ophiuchus. 'Mellotron' all round from Conor Riley, with flutes and strings on Silent Sleep, The Weirding... The Dawning of Ophiuchus, with just strings on The Rising of the Black Sun and standalone flutes on Winter Witch. Listen, these tracks are MAGNIFICENT; mad, epic progressive hard rock that could actually do something for the band, if they can hitch a ride with Black Mountain's audience, say.

2009 brings their debut album, The Weirding and guess what? It's every bit as good as you'd expect. Several tracks are reiterated from their demos, with a couple lost and a couple gained, pretty much as you'd expect. The title track still sounds like Crimso's Cirkus, and there are a few other fairly obvious reference points, too, but overall, it's a killer. It is overlong, as I complain so often regarding 'full-length' CDs, but this isn't an album to which you'll necessarily listen too closely; it's more about the mood it creates, and as such, nearly eighty minutes isn't that excessive. 'How do they get such a long album out of eight tracks?', I hear you cry. Two over fifteen minutes, that's how, most of the rest being in the 'long rather than short' category. Some definitely are better than others, the title track probably taking 'best track' prize, but there's nothing here, despite the free-form sections, that had me reaching for the 'next' button.

Conor Riley and Richard Vaughn both play 'Mellotron', although I have it on good authority that they used the Memotron-in-a-fake-Mellotron-case you can see on their site. There's quite unfeasibly large slabs of it chucked all over everything, though, notably, never gratuitously. Good trick if you can do it... Strings and choirs all over the place, as you'd expect, with heavy brass and flute parts on the title track, exacerbating the Cirkus comparison, while the strings in The River Under are heavily redolent of Genesis. OK, so originality probably isn't the band's strongest suit, but with this much fakeotron, who's complaining? Just go out and buy this album, or failing that, stay in and buy it. Astra deserve to be huge, but won't be, because in the unlikely event of the fashionistas ever hearing them, they'd be hounded out of town for terminal uncoolness. Except that, of course, they're probably the coolest new band around for those in the know.

Asturias  (Japan)

In Search of the Soul Trees  (2008,  50.27)  ***½

Asturias (named for a region in the far north of Spain) are effectively Yoh Ohyama's solo project, recording three albums from the late '80s to the early '90s before picking up again in 2003. 2008's In Search of the Soul Trees is his third album since 'reforming', a far more symphonic prog proposition than his original rather neo-works, moving through several different feels across its length, as you'd expect. Picking out individual highlights is difficult, as the album really should be listened to as a whole, but busy opener Spirits, the violin-led Woods and the reflective Paradise are possibly the tracks where his approach works best. Akira Hanamoto supposedly plays Mellotron, with strings on Spirits and Reincarnation, although it's most likely sampled. Overall, a decent and surprisingly non-synthetic modern Japanese progressive release, in a vaguely Mike Oldfield-ish direction.

Ataris  (US)

So Long, Astoria  (2003,  57.21)  **½

The title of the Ataris' fourth album, So Long, Astoria, resonates fairly well with me at the moment, as the Powers That Be move in to demolish the grand old Astoria Theatre on London's Charing Cross Road, the city's last good-sized central venue. The band seem to play a rather derivative kind of pop/punk, although the album has the odd interesting moment, chiefly the rare ones where they use non-standard chords. The record seems to go on forever, although it's actually under an hour; when will bands learn that if you play a high-octane style, making long albums just doesn't work? If you edited out its best bits (do I mean the worst bits?), its star rating would probably rise a little, but the sheer drudgery of trawling through such a long album grinds the listener down eventually, at least if they're me. Next to no credited Mellotron from Kris Roe, with the occasional 'Strawberry Fields'-style flute part, most likely sampled, in The Hero Dies In This One, one of those songs with the slightly more interesting chords. Incidentally, their follow-up, 2007's Welcome the Night, is supposed to have some Mellotronic input from Bob Hoag. Guess what: it hasn't.

Can Atilla  (Turkey)

Ave  (1999,  77.43)  ****

Can Atilla's unique on this site: he's the only Turkish musician featured, probably because it seems pretty unlikely that any Mellotrons made it to Turkey, although several got to Greece and at least one to Bulgaria. According to his website, 1999's Ave is his eleventh album, released to celebrate Tangerine Dream's thirtieth anniversary, which it does by slavishly copying their mid-'70s to early-'80s styles across seven tracks, including a so-called 'bonus' one, although I heavily doubt whether there's a version of the album available without it. This really is a Tangs-alike album: 26-minute opener Time Border Passengers even sounds like it should be on Phaedra or Stratosfear, doesn't it? And that's before you've even heard it... When you do, it sounds like it should be even more, with classic 'Berlin School' sequencers, electronic percussion, the full works. The next three tracks are similar, if (slightly) shorter, while Bach's Air is exactly what it sounds like and the 'bonus' track, the interestingly-spelled Abarcus, is a full-on sequencer piece.

Plenty of presumably sampled Mellotron, as the album was recorded at Atilla's own studio, with choirs and flutes all over Time Border Passengers and strings on Breathing Under Pressure, although the flutes on Japetus Dreams sound synthesized. Surprisingly, although that's about half the album's length, that's it on the fakeotron front, the other tracks relying on pseudo- (or real?) analogue synths. Overall, a good fake Tangs album, for those who just can't get enough of the style. There are several other acts sticking to that '70s Berlin template, but Ave does it as well as the best of them. Recommended, as long as you're into EM.

Nicole Atkins  (US)

Neptune City  (2007,  39.58)  **½

Nicole Atkins' Neptune City is one of those faux-'60s records that sound impressive, although upon further investigation are found to contain very little real content. Bold and brassy, the album grabs your attention immediately, but despite high points like the string melody in Together We're Both Alone (surely the album's best track?), it ultimately disappoints, trying to be something it just isn't. Swamped in strings, vibes and other easy listening instrumental staples, Atkins' strident contralto lays waste to the whole album, although, of course, if that's what you actually want... Two Mellotron players are credited, Martin Gjerstad and Daniel "Shaolun" Chen, exclusively, it seems on Mellotron vibes, with parts on several tracks, some more obviously Mellotronic (notably Cool Enough) than others, most likely sampled.

Atomic  (Germany)

Wonderland Boulevard  (2005,  32.37)  **½

Aargh! German pop/punk! OK, Die Toten Hosen (the dead trousers, as it happens) have been around forever, but does the world really need a slightly accented version of Green Day? Then again, local scenes are notorious for throwing up their own versions of popular bands, even in this age of universal communication and, when push comes to shove, why shouldn't a bunch of young German guys play the kind of stuff they like? They are a bit of a clone, though... 2005's Wonderland Boulevard sounds an awful lot like Green Day's American Idiot, released the previous year, in its mix of the aforementioned pop/punk and slightly more thoughtful material. I rest my case, m'lud. Track three, The Shelter, is even an uncharacteristic string-laden ballad, not a million miles away from Boulevard Of Broken Dreams... I think you get the idea.

Someone plays some nicely upfront Mellotron flute samples on Sweetest Symphony, although all other orchestral instrumental parts sound real. To be honest, this is all rather uninspired and second-hand; probably good enough for a provincial market (sorry, Germany), but not good enough to cut it in the world's premier 'markets' (he said, slipping into music-biz speech for a second). Thoroughly average, with a pathetically sexist sleeve design to boot.

Atomic Bitchwax  (US)

T4B  (2009,  40.24)  ***½

There seems to be some confusion over The Atomic Bitchwax' fourth album, known variously as T4B, TAB4 or The Atomic Bitchwax 4, possibly with two different running orders. It's actually a pretty decent hard rock album from the old school; y'know, proper riffs'n'shit, of the kind that seem to have gone entirely out of fashion, replaced by, er... What do modern metal bands use instead of the classic 'riff' structure? I don't like it, but I can't even work out what it is. Anyway, the terribly-named The Atomic Bitchwax don't do it, which is a blessing and not even in disguise. Bassist Chris Kosnik doubles on credited Mellotron, with strings all over opener Revival and closer Wreck You, most likely sampled.

Attack Wave Pestrepeller  (UK)

Nug Yar  (1998,  46.19)  ***

Attack Wave Pestrepeller (seemingly named in honour of a brand of ultrasonic pest-control device) were linked with Sundial, releasing their second album on Gary Ramon's label. Sitting firmly in the avant-garde realms, its two side-long tracks consist chiefly of drones and industrial effects, while David James' Mellotron (Ramon's?) is entirely inaudible.

Kevin Atwood  (Canada)

One Man Standing  (2008,  22.02)  **½

Going by this EP, Kevin Atwood is a major Mike Oldfield fan, its six shortish tracks all fitting into that 'slightly cheesy, lightweight instrumental prog' bracket, with plenty of soaring guitar leads and samplotron strings and flutes on most tracks.

Rich Aucoin  (Canada)

Ephemeral  (2014,  29.50)  *

I've seen Nova Scotian Rich Aucoin described as 'indie rock', a catch-all phrase if I ever heard one. While he seems to be a decent chap (much fund-raising for cancer charities and the like), it's my sad duty to report that his second album, 2014's Ephemeral, is one of the biggest crocks of shit it's been my misfortune to play for some time. It seems to've been mixed to give the impression you're listening to a stadium gig, all clattering drum samples (Want To Believe) and needless abrasiveness (Yelling In Sleep), while I Am Sorry's infuriating cutup vocal samples are, well, enraging, actually. Mellotron? Aucoin's credited, but the vague string patches used here and there are deeply un-Mellotronic. Is it simply that I have absolutely no idea where Aucoin's coming from? No doubt, but I found this album so teeth-grittingly awful that I'm left with no choice other than to give it a shockingly low rating. Astoundingly bad.

Audrey Horne  (Norway)

Le Fol  (2007,  52.18)  ***
Audrey Horne  (2009,  50.01)  ***½

Audrey Horne (named for a Twin Peaks character) have links with black metal cult Enslaved, but, going by their second album, 2007's Le Fol, they seem to have more in common with Seattle's '90s grunge explosion and the poppier end of the current metal scene. While by no means a bad album, it's too generic, at least to these ears, to stand out particularly; at least we're spared more ridiculous grunting and blastbeats, I suppose. Herbrand Larsen (Gravdal) guests on keys, including alleged Mellotron, with strings all over opener Last Chance For A Serenade, flutes and strings on Monster, flutes on Afterglow and choir on In The End, although I'm fairly sure it's all sampled.

Their eponymous third release is noticeably better than its predecessor, largely due to its extra reliance on old-school riffing, as against the modern hard rock disease of bashing out a few generic chords and pretending it's a riff (see: the likes of Velvet Revolver and Audioslave, not to mention recent Rush albums, ignominiously). That isn't to say this is a classic, but the fact that you can actually hear identifiable, (vaguely) unique chord sequences has to be a bonus. Best tracks? Charon, Sail Away and Firehose, probably; anything with a decent riff, basically. The solo 'Mellotron' flute part on These Vultures that opens the album is the sample giveaway, with a low note that holds for at least twice as long as is actually possible, as does the extraordinarily lengthy string chord on closer Godspeed. More flutes on Down Like Suicide, with strings on a few other tracks, though some of them could be generic samples rather than Mellotron ones.

Audrye Sessions  (US)

Audrye Sessions  (2009,  48.37)  *½

Audrye Sessions are an Oakland-based indieslop crew, who apparently fondly imagine that their eponymous debut sounds like a cross between The Beatles and Muse. Well, possibly the worst excesses of the latter, but The Beatles? Are you 'avin a larf? Audrye Sessions actually sounds more like Coldplay duking it out with Travis, in exactly the way that you might imagine those two bands would fight: wetly, with tears before bedtime. Frankly, this is completely horrible; I blame U2. The band's awfulness may possibly be encapsulated by their re-recording of opener Turn Me Off in Simlish, an artificial language used in the Sims range of computer games, thus making a triviality even more trivial. Great. Amazingly, there is actually a 'best track', Nothing Pure Can Stay, which, after two minutes of the usual drivel, suddenly kicks into a genuinely good riff. Sadly, it's over all too soon. Andrew Scheps is credited with Mellotron, but the only even possible use is the strings on closer Dust And Bones (the album's second least-offensive track), although they sound more like real ones to my ears. Listen, this is a terrible, terrible album. Please don't buy it.

Jon Auer  (US)

Songs From the Year of Our Demise  (2006,  54.54)  ***

Jon Auer is one of the chief architects of The Posies, so it's no great surprise that his first solo album, Songs From the Year of Our Demise, tends towards the powerpop end of things. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, the album's sequencing puts several weaker songs near the beginning of the album, although it starts to improve around the fifth or sixth tracks. Best track? Maybe My Sweet Unknown, although most of its mid-album neighbours are reasonably good. David Einmo is credited with Mellotron, sounding quite startlingly like samples to my ears, with strings and cellos (under some cheesy organ) on The Likes Of You, very squeaky (i.e. above top-note) strings on Angelita, with what sounds like flutes and real strings on You Used To Drive Me Around and a brief string part at the end of Song Noir.

Dan Auerbach  (US)

Keep it Hid  (2009,  50.04)  ***

Dan Auerbach is the non-drumming half of The Black Keys, so it's no surprise that some of 2009's Keep it Hid sounds a lot like the parent outfit's r'n'b/soul/garage rock mash-up, raucous yet tuneful, although the acoustic tracks are less expected, not least opener Trouble Weighs A Ton and closer Goin' Home. Best tracks? Possibly Whispered Words (Pretty Lies), with an excellent speed-up to the end and Street Walkin', although nothing here really disappoints. Auerbach plays pretty much everything on the album, including the keyboard string part (Chamby samples?) on When The Night Comes.

Auf der Maur  (Canada)

Auf der Maur  (2004,  51.59)  ***

Bassist Melissa Auf der Maur is best known for her years in Courtney Love's Hole (so to speak), although she's also worked with The Smashing Pumpkins and Rufus Wainwright, amongst others. She kicked off her solo career with 2004's Auf der Maur, slotting fairly and squarely into the 'alternative metal' bracket, taking influences from the modern metal, punk and indie genres, not least her various ex-bands. The end result is an album that's likely to appeal to fans of The Pumpkins et al. and less likely to grab those for whom rock peaked in the '70s, although it features occasional nods towards the 'classic' era. Melissa plays Chamberlin solo female voice on the powerpop of Would If I Could (think: that bizarre solo male voice, but, er, higher), most likely sampled.

Aun  (Québec)

Fiat Lux  (2015,  38.39)  ***

Montreal duo Aun describe themselves as 'cosmic industrial'; I haven't heard their earlier work, but it seems that 2015's Fiat Lux (something like their eleventh full album in eight years) marks a retreat from a doomier, metal-influenced sound into more ambient territory. Which sounds like...? Industrial sounds (not Nine Inch Nails 'industrial', more actually sounding like machines) over pulsing rhythms, snatches of wordless voices, drifting synth textures... I think you get the idea. Frédéric D. Oberland is credited with 'bass Mellotron' on Crystal Towers, whatever that may mean. The groaning, vaguely cello-esque sound underpinning the track? Anyway, an absolute dead cert that we're not hearing a real Mellotron here; I'm not even sure it counts as 'samples'.

Autumus  (US)

Uncertain Words  (2008,  75.24)  ***

Autumus is Ivan Udintsev's solo project, 2008's highly limited-edition CD-R Uncertain Words seemingly being his debut release. Aside from Jane Harrington's vocals on two tracks, it's entirely instrumental (OK, therefore it's not entirely instrumental, pedant), written and recorded on a variety of (presumably real) analogue machines, namely a MiniMoog, a Moog modular, an ARP 2600 with sequencer, a Yamaha CS-80, a Roland SH-101, a Roland CR-78 drum machine and a relative rarity, a Polivoks. The material shifts between more and less dancey electronica, better tracks including the gentle Total Peace, the lush Love On Earth and the robotic Times. Udintsev adds supposed Mellotron strings to three tracks, with block chords on Love On Earth and basic lines on World Trade Center and Open Your Mind, most likely sampled.

The Avalanches  (Australia)

Wildflower  (2016,  59.47)  ***

Melbournites The Avalanches have possibly broken records (pun intended) by taking sixteen years between albums, despite being extant for the entire interim. 2016's Wildflower is something rarely encountered since the '90s, a full-blown plunderphonics record, compiled from hundreds, if not thousands of samples, some of them no more than minuscule snippets of sound. Sample clearance? Obviously a nightmare, handled for them by a professional. Very wise. The end result is exceptionally clever, although I won't pretend to understand where the band (a six-piece on their debut, a duo now) are coming from. Think: kind-of hip-hop over samples from psychedelic, easy listening and mainstream pop records from the last several decades, occasionally infuriating, sometimes borderline intriguing. Mellotron is credited to the band, but if the strings on Stepkids are supposed to be it, let alone the vaguely Mellotronic flutes on a couple of tracks, then I rather suspect not.

Avila Boys  (Mexico)

Cuatro  (1998,  39.38)  **

Mexico's Avila brothers, Armando, Emilio and Enrique, worked together as Los Avila Boys for a while; their second album, 1998's Cuatro, presumably being typical of their output. I believe their style is known as 'grupero pop'; a form of contemporary Latin pop, with little content outside the realms of light entertainment, the only obvious exception here being the brief jazzy interlude in Y Por Siempre. All well and good, if that's what you want, but this is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside their home market. Like they care. Armando (Cristian Castro, RBD) supposedly plays Mellotron, but as with his other credits, it seems to be near enough inaudible, with only what sounds like a vaguely Mellotronic string line on La Grandeza Que Te Di to show for it, so into samples it goes. Does this guy actually own a Mellotron, despite his various Mexican-artist credits? I'm beginning to seriously doubt it.

Avion  (US)

Avion  (2004,  49.55)  **½

Nothing to do with the 'seminal' (i.e. forgotten) Aussie '80s AORsters of the same name, America's Avion are (or, more likely, were) at the rockier end of the indie spectrum crossed with powerpop, at least going by 2004's Avion. This is a record I really want to like, featuring pop/rock semi-gems such as the rocking Bulletproof Glow, Trinidad And A DC-10 and closer Le Pont Neuf, but material like Seven Days Without You and Beautiful consistently defeat me by their cheesy upbeatness. Stuart Brawley is credited with Mellotron, but the flutes on Love Is Here Again are somewhat unconvincing, with even more bogus strings later in the track, so non. I don't know if you can listen to this online anywhere (largely because I haven't been arsed to check), but powerpop fans will almost certainly, rather like the legendary curate's egg, decide that 'parts of it are excellent'.

Awkward Stage  (Canada)

Heaven is for Easy Girls  (2006,  41.00)  **
Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights  (2008,  43.43)  ***

Awkward Stage's debut, Heaven is for Easy Girls, demonstrates everything that's bad about the millennial indie scene: twee composition and delivery, rhythmically weak, just... fucking irritating. No, there are no best tracks. Shane Nelken's credited with Mellotron on closer West Van Girl, but there's nothing that even sounds like one. Their follow-up, 2008's Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, is a considerable improvement, several tracks, not least the slightly Big Countryish Anime Eyes, the rocking Hey Modern Schoolgirl and acoustic ballad Dandelion escaping such indie pigeonholing, while the sleeve-image-describing waltz-time Miniskirt Of Christmas Lights is just odd. Nelken and Tygh Runyan play samplotron, with flutes on Skeletal Blonde and True Love On Three With Feeling; did I hear those flutes in the background elsewhere? Probably not.

Ian Axel  (US)

This is the New Year  (2011,  40.05)  **½

Despite being, in many ways, a typical modern American singer-songwriter (you know, he's had tracks used on various mainstream TV shows), Ian Axel's debut, 2011's This is the New Year, is far less offensive than I'd expected. Saying that, it's also far less interesting than it could've been, but material like jaunty, Ben Folds-esque opener Leave Me Alone and the nutty Waltz lift this at least slightly above the average, although only time will tell whether or not Axel sinks further into commercial depravity. Dan Romer (Lelia Broussard, April Smith) plays credited Mellotron and Chamberlin, with (Mellotron?) flutes all over Leave Me Alone and Girl I Got A Thing, (Chamberlin?) strings and flutes on Afterglow and strings on Hangman, with real strings on several other tracks. Samples throughout, sadly.

Ayreon  (Netherlands)

The Final Experiment  (1995,  71.10)  ***
Actual Fantasy  (1996,  54.29)  **½
Into the Electric Castle  (1998,  104.31)  **½
The Universal Migrator Part One: The Dream Sequencer  (2000,  70.07)  **½
The Universal Migrator Part Two: Flight of the Migrator  (2000,  65.40)  **½
Ayreonauts Only  (2000,  62.17)  **
The Human Equation  (2004,  101.19)  **½
01011001  (2008,  102.07)  **½
The Theory of Everything  (2013,  89.55)  **

Ex-Bodine/Vengeance guitarist Arjen Anthony Lucassen left the latter outfit in the early '90s to concentrate on what has turned out to be his remarkably successful solo career, largely in the form of Ayreon. The band appears to be one huge, overblown concept, taking in war, environmentalism, technology and a dozen other subjects, spread across a seemingly unending supply of very long albums, all in a rather cheesy symphonic metal rock opera style that you'll either like or... you won't.

The band's career kicked off with 1995's The Final Experiment, originally released under Lucassen's own name as Ayreon: The Final Experiment, a science fiction/time travel concept effort involving many different vocalists (including Golden Earring's Barry Hay) and a good few instrumentalists, not least ex-Finch keys man Cleem Determeijer. The music is every bit as pompous as you'd expect, with little real invention, sounding like exactly what it is: progressive rock written by a mainstream rock guitarist. Saying that, it largely lacks any ELP-esque show-offiness, thankfully and can easily be ignored, unless some drivel I could mention. 'Mostly harmless', as the much-missed Douglas Adams once said. Now; Lucassen's brother wrote to me some years ago, alleging Mellotron use on all the Ayreon albums, but admitting they were sampled upon interrogation. Determeijer plays them here, with little obvious use (the choirs, flutes and most of the strings sound generic to me), with definite sampled strings on the last part of Act III, Magic Ride and the album's final track, Ayreon's Fate.

The following year's Actual Fantasy (huh?) is essentially more of the same, only the surprise of the new has worn off already, leaving a rather empty shell of bombast and thoroughly ordinary chord sequences. What was that business about empty vessels making the most noise? I'm sure if you're into Mr. Lucassen's thang you'll love this to pieces, but it bored me rigid. Oh, and Pink Floyd should sue over the bassline and 'guitar through Leslie' effect on Computer Eyes. More 'Tron samples this time round, with watery strings on Abbey Of Synn, with more of the same plus choirs spread across the album, though nothing that stands out in any way. 1998's Into the Electric Castle is Lucassen's most overblown effort yet, a two-disc concept effort concentrating (I think) on the nature of aggression, amongst many other topics, featuring the usual cast of thousands, including Fish, Arena's Clive Nolan, Kayak's Ton Scherpenzeel and none other than Focus' Thijs Van Leer, who provides the Tullalike flute on a few tracks. This really is profoundly silly; science fiction for the kind of 'fan' who thinks it began with Star Trek and ended with Battlestar Galactica, full of the most useless SF/fantasy clichés imaginable, all set to highly unchallenging progressive metal crossed with an off-Broadway show. Just say no. Not all that much samplotron, from Lucassen and Dutch rock dude Robby Valentine, with the usual suspects in the usual places.

2000 brought a double concept piece, The Universal Migrator, released as two separate discs, for once. Yup, it's another sprawling, not-that-coherent SF concept, complete with spoken-word interludes and all the usual suspects on the influence front. Oh joy. Part One: The Dream Sequencer is exactly what you'd expect by now, the bog-standard prog-metal slightly relieved by early(-ish) Floyd touches on closer The Dream Sequencer Reprise, but, by and large, this is unlikely to convert anyone not already a devotee to Lucassen's cause. Plenty of samplotron, with particularly obvious string samples on Temple Of The Cat (one of the album's better efforts), although the choirs and flutes are less so. Part Two: Flight of the Migrator features several (semi-)famous guests, as Lucassen's star rose, including Nolan again, Erik Norlander (Rocket Scientists), Lana Lane, Bruce Dickinson and, er, Symphony X's Michael Romeo. Citing 'better tracks' is probably a mistake, as the listener is no doubt meant to consume the concept in one sitting, but The Taurus Pulsar, the first part of To The Quasar, isn't too bad, although it's a bit of a blip on an otherwise dull album. More samplotron on Part One then Part Two, but it isn't a major component of either.

2000's Ayreonauts Only lives up to its name, being a 'fans only' disc of alternate versions and the like. Its version of Through The Wormhole is one of its less pointless tracks, but this really is only for the faithful. It took Lucassen four years to follow the Universal Migrator pairing with The Human Equation, which seems to be the third part of the concept, as far as I can work out. Once again, good moments (Day Eighteen: Realization and Day Twenty: Confrontation, the James Bond theme over a wash of string synth on Day Three: Pain) are spoilt by the overall 'cod-rock opera' feel of the album and the largely clichéd prog-metal moves displayed throughout. Low levels of samplotron on both of these, assuming you're actually that bothered. Now, 2008's 01011001 (another double) actually starts really well, much of ten-minute opener Age Of Shadows being dynamic, reasonably interesting and almost original in places, particularly its industrial noise opening. Several other tracks feature interesting bits (many of them folky), too, although Web Of Lies' tale of Internet dating is an excruciating attempt to be 'contemporary', not least due to being about a decade out of date (it was bad enough when Rush tackled the subject in 1996). To be honest, the only thing stopping this getting three stars is its obscene length and its guff-to-listenable-stuff ratio, making it (sort of) one of the best Ayreon releases yet. Once again, reasonable, yet not excessive levels of samplotron, but you'd never mistake it for the real thing, frankly.

After a five-year hiatus, during which Lucassen involved himself in other projects, 2013's two-disc The Theory of Everything is, indeed, almost certainly everything for which his legions of fans have been waiting. The rest of us might not be quite so keen, but then, we don't have to buy it, do we? It's another multi-vocalled rock opera, this time concerning an 'idiot' chid who turns out to be a savant, the plot throwing a mish-mash of current theories in physics into the mix. Lyrically, elements of this look like a vague attempt to rewrite Tommy, although the two storylines are far from analogous, while musically, it's the same old same old, basically operatic prog metal with occasional and largely inappropriate Celtic overtones. Not that much samplotron compared to previous releases, with sparingly-used strings on Love And Envy, The Gift, Potential, Side Effects, Quid Pro Quo and Fortune? and choirs on The Theory Of Everything Part 2 and Frequency Modulation. Is this ridiculous? Overblown? Severely lacking in taste? Of course it is, but Ayreon fans will love it.

Do you bother with Ayreon? Depends on your tolerance for semi-operatic prog-metal, I suppose. Mine's low, in case you hadn't guessed. All of the above have their moments, but they're all, without exception, far too long, spreading a handful of just-about-OK ideas rather more thinly than they warrant. Your choice, really.

Azure Ray  (US)

Hold on Love  (2003,  42.05)  ***

Azure Ray are/were the duo of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, who have a strong Bright Eyes connection, with members of both bands playing on each others' records. There are both similarities and differences between the two bands; Azure Ray actually manage to be more melancholy than Bright Eyes, which is a feat in itself, although you wouldn't mistake their music for Conor Oberst's crew. Hold on Love is their third (and last?) album, the duo splitting up a year after its release, although a recent reformation may not be a one-off. Its chief fault is that its relentlessly downbeat approach starts to drag after a while, although several individual tracks sound great in isolation. Now, regular readers will be thinking at this point, "Er, doesn't he LIKE downbeat stuff?" Well, yes and no: miserabilists can be fine, but you can have too much of a good thing and as in so many other areas, it's not just what is done but how. That's probably a bit unfair; this isn't a bad album, just a slightly one-dimensional one; please don't bother telling me a one-dimensional object is impossible. I know. It's a figure of speech. Someone allegedly plays Mellotron here, quite possibly Bright Eyes' Andy LeMaster, but given the quantity of real strings on offer here (small ensemble, by the sound of it), it's pretty hard to tell precisely where. The strings on We Are Mice seem to be the strongest contender, but if so, they're sampled.