Largely recorded at her Venice Beach home, Fiona Apple's fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is a complex, unique work, its strange, sparse, clattery music worked around her ultra-personal lyrics. Sonically, we're looking at eccentric harmony vocals, rattling, homemade percussion, (actual) barking dogs... Not an easy listen, but quite certainly a rewarding one. Three credited Mellotron tracks, Apple's background flutes on Rack Of His and something (harp glissandos?) on Drumset, plus David Garza's even more background flutes on Ladies, all obviously sampled.
The Apples in Stereo are part of the Athens, GA-based Elephant 6 Collective, alongside the much-fêted Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. Assuming this means anything to you at all, it won't come as much of a surprise to learn that The Apples are, in a general kind of way, a psychedelic band, although they stop well short of the flowered shirt pastiche brigade, although that kind of thing has its place, of course... They're led by vocalist/guitarist/writer Robert Schneider, who seems to keep a fairly tight rein on the band's direction and is the only fully consistent member.
Their fourth album, 2000's Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (named in honour of a 1638 book by English clergyman John Wilkins), is a departure for the band, being less Spector wall of sound and more live and raw, the end result sounding like a cross between '65 garage and '67 psych. Er, '66? Some of the material could possibly have done with a little more in the production department, but that's how Schneider wanted it, so that's how it is. Best tracks? Maybe 20 Cases Suggestive Of..., What Happened Then and The Afternoon, but there's nothing here that's going to irritate your average psych fan too badly. Despite two credited 'Mellotron' players, Schneider and Chris McDuffie, it's only audible on one track, with sampled flutes on What Happened Then, which probably means it's hidden away in the mix in another couple of places.
After 2002's Mellotron-free Velocity of Sound, it was five years before The Apples put anything else out, the eventual result being 2007's New Magnetic Wonder. The album's unusual in having twenty-four tracks in fifty-odd minutes, although ten of them are brief musical vignettes, mostly occurring every three tracks or so. The album's stuffed full of excellent little psych numbers including opener Can You Feel It?, Energy, Sunday Song and 7 Stars, but, once again, no duffers. Schneider and Craig Morris are credited with Mellotron this time round and, in complete contrast to Discovery..., proceed to splatter their samples all over the album, the chief giveaway being the brief Mellotron 1/2 pieces, which feature MkII rhythms to which the band almost certainly wouldn't have had access. M-Tron, M-Tron... Strings on most tracks, the part on Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4 being the album's 'Mellotron' highlight, with those rhythm 'tapes' on Mellotron 1/Mellotron 2, along with oboe and vibes on the former and MkII electric guitar and vibes again on the latter.
...And then came 2010's Travellers in Space & Time. Er, what's happened, chaps? The album seems to be heavily influenced by '70s pop, meaning we get huge slabs of sub-ELO caterwauling, some horrible pseudo-disco and too much of the kind of insipid stuff (think: Liverpool Express) that filled the charts in the middle of the decade, now often referred to as 'guilty pleasures', for some strange reason. All polish with no content. Sorry, to be so negative about this album, but I'd been looking forward to playing it and it's let me down completely. It's not all awful, but tracks like Hey Elevator and Nobody But You are typical, doing a grand impression of some second-division chart act circa 1976, which seems more pointless than pointless. Schneider, Bill Doss and John Ferguson on 'Mellotron', with strings and choir on Dream About The Future, flute melodies on Dance Floor and Next Year At About the Same Time, flute chords on No Vacation, It's All Right and Nobody But You and strings and flutes on Wings Away, making for a surprisingly 'Mellotron'-heavy release, whatever its content.
Aquarium were an early '80s Russian outfit led by the legendary Boris Grebenshikov (well, I've heard of him), one of his country's top performers, who reunited in 2003 to record Pesni Ribaka (or similar; transliterations vary: it translates as Fisherman's Songs). In many ways, it's a '60s-influenced psych-pop effort and a good one at that, although the Caribbean Pablo sticks out and not in a good way, while the jazz/blues of Utkina Zavod simply doesn't fit, which is probably missing the point. I'm sure an understanding of Grebenshikov's lyrics would enhance the album's appeal, but that may have to wait for another life. Seahorse opens with a polyphonic flute part, with more of the same later in the song, while closer Yellow Moon has a part that slips in and out of the mix. No, it isn't a Mellotron, but is it even Mellotron samples? Generic flute sounds are easily mistaken for a Mellotron, so who knows? Anyway, they work well enough, but it has to be in doubt whether this album should even be here.
2011's Arkhangelsk (again, transliterations vary) is, bizarrely, a prime example of Celtia (aside from the white reggae of Ogon Vavilona), albeit a Russian-language variety, both uilleann and Northumbrian pipes in evidence, alongside fiddles, banjos, harps and, er, a didgeridoo. No, I have no idea why a noted Russian singer should make an album that sounds like the west coast of Ireland, but there you go. Mikey Rowe (Oasis, Amorphous Androgynous, many others) guests on keys on Tainiy Yzbek, including, allegedly, Mellotron. However, although Mellotronic (note: probably not actually Mellotron) flutes turn up on Marsh Svyaschennyh Korov and Ogon Vavilona, there's nothing to be heard on the credited track. Odd. So; have Aquarium ever actually used a real Mellotron? Who knows? Ask Mikey Rowe.
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.
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.
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?
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...
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.
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.
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 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 much 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, all those years ago. 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 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 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 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:
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 (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 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.
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 (and, it now appears, only) 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 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.
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.
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.
Army of Briars were a one-off project, Tim and Julie Cole setting Keith Jafrate's poetry to music, described by the participants as, "...so challenging to write and record that we were never able to follow it up". It's the kind of album that, just when you think you've got it nailed (soprano-voiced acid folk), it throws a complete curveball at you (the brass quintet on several tracks, notably The Deep Park), or the laptop electronica that turns up here and there. Personal favourites? The haunted Mist On The Barrows, Who But I Ate The Fruit Of Your Lips and the gorgeous Where The Blue Goes Dark And Birdless. Obvious samplotron strings on Four Riddles and Where The Blue Goes Dark And Birdless and flutes on A Lesson, from Martin Archer.
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, 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.
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 pseudo-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 in the late '90s. 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 Mellotron 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.
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'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.
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 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.]