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jazz music reviews (new releases)

TROY ROBERTS Tales & Tones

Album · 2017 · Post Bop
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Saxophonist Troy Roberts lives up to his reputation as one of the leading young saxophonists on the scene today. A regular member of The Jeff “Tain” Watts Quartet, The Jeff “Tain” Watts Blue 5, and the newest member of Joey DeFrancesco’s new quartet, The People. Roberts’ seventh record as a leader, Tales & Tones (Inner Circle Music) is smokin'.

Nine songs adorn this new offering, and the ensemble sports a who’s, who of today’s jazz greats including Silvano Monasterios on piano, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums together with longtime friend on bass, Robert Hurst. The instinctive dynamism from this ensemble is profound as Troy Roberts puts his pen to the paper and challenges his fellow musicians with creative, and well-conceived ideas. In their hands these musicians put forth depth and clarity of steadfast moods and tonal colors. The tempo of each song is varied, from swingin hardness to soft playful introspection. Offering the listener deliberate, yet vivid rhythmic journey’s through Roberts visionary ideas. Tales & Tones focuses on the chronicle aspect of Roberts’ playing while it also highlights his ability with reed instruments.

The soundscape traverses, an almost patchwork of the most beautiful quilt you have ever seen. Stitched together with plaintive reflective pieces such as “Rivera Mountain” where Watts shows his mastery to create time, space and texture while Hurst creates the connection of sound and movement with his supportive, warm sound. Roberts reacts to the nuances and push and pull created by Watts and Hurst. Pianist Monasterios, presents a laid back buoyant touch that deepens the beauty of Roberts soprano solo. The ensemble is supportive of the overall group sound, each understanding the partnership of the journey. I was especially taken with Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train,” the ensemble kicks off with an almost train sound calling the listener aboard, with creative embellishments to the melody; the group truly makes this their own unique take. Filled with swinging tempo changes, it’s a narrative to how well-worn standards such as this can still be given a freshened life while still showing respect. “Cotu Chi, Chi, Chi,” a Roberts original displays mature finesse, giving the ensemble an opportunity to open up the throttle and exhibit the restrained gravitas of seasoned players that makes jazz a prime listen. In the hands of this ensemble the high paced, high flying tune is bold and Roberts sound is big, brazen and focused. With no hesitation, he expresses and builds his solo with glowing dynamism.

A group of players each in their own careers, known to be robust players – now coming together, offer a deeper grasp of sound. They interlock so tightly, yet so respectfully you, instantly recognize the comradery and care of the journey together, which creates a depth and breadth of the experience. Well done, highly recommended listen.

STEVE HECKMAN Legacy: A Coltrane Tribute

Live album · 2016 · Hard Bop
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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You certainly can’t accuse Steve Heckman for aiming low when he decided to call his new CD a ‘Coltrane Tribute’, that is quite a big claim to stake, and fortunately for the listener, Heckman mostly comes through on his promise of a tribute to a jazz legend. On “Legacy: A Coltrane Tribute”, Heckman covers various parts of Coltrane’s multi-faceted career, including his harmonically complex hard bop, the modal jams, some spiritual melodies and one from Coltrane’s famous ballad album too. All through this CD Heckman displays a beautiful tone that owes much to Coltrane, but is not a mere imitation. Steve is also well supported by a trio that features pianist Grant Levin, a particularly lively player who deserves wider recognition.

This CD is a live concert, and maybe the recording process was a little intimidating because the band sounds a little shy and tentative on the opening high energy numbers. On the third track, the ballad “Its Easy to Remember”, Heckman and his band find their footing and Steve hits wonderful heights with a soulful solo on which he finally starts cutting loose. Throughout the rest of the album, it seems Heckman’s strength is the meditative numbers, such as “Dear Lord” and “Reverend King”, where his playing takes on a more unfettered nature. On the more up-tempo numbers, pianist Grant Levin’s frenetic solos help push the energy level. Grant’s scatter shot, and sometimes humorous piano playing can recall off-the-wall chance takers like Jaki Byard, or a more tonal version of Matthew Shipp.


Album · 2016 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.18 | 2 ratings
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BRAIN TENTACLES is a newer breed of hardcore bands that strives to create the ultimate fusion effect by tackling the disparate styles of metal and jazz and making them swirl around and dance together like a ballerina in a Russian palace. This Chicago based trio is comprised of three music veterans with Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Blloodlest, etc) contributing horns, vocals and keys, Dave Witte (Discordance Axis, Municipal Waste, etc) on drums and Aaron Dallson (Keelhaul) on bass, vocals and synth. It’s been over 25 years since John Zorn and his project Painkiller first unleashed the creative possibilities of mixing avant-garde jazz with metal elements and although a few bands like Mr Bungle, Zu and Diablo Swing Orchestra tackled the jazz meets metal thing in their own unique ways, it has not exactly been a highly tackled type of fushion and even rarer that BRAIN TENTACLES reverts back to the original Zorn formula by leaving out any trace of metal guitar whatsoever.

Despite the bass being the only stringed instrument on board here, it somewhat adequately covers the metal stomping grounds as it pummels along with the intense percussive workouts and creates a relentless rhythmic drive while Lamont channels his inner Zorn to deliver the sax lines that provide the melodic structure of the compositions. He’s also quite the accomplished soloist however he doesn’t delve into the freakazoid zone like Zorn tends to with pig squeals and unearthly torturous timbres. The music on this one tends to stay within the accessibility zone with mostly short and to-the-point tracks but delivers a few progressive treats such as the lengthy “Cosmic Warriors Girth Curse” which sounds like the disparate sounds of doom metal meeting surf rock (think Dick Dale & His Del-Tones in the horn department) and one of the few tracks to contain vocals which happen to sounds frantic enough to come from the extreme metal underground world of grind or metalcore. It’s actually one of the best tracks as it even ventures into psychedelic Krautrock meanderings while the drums churn along in their own world.

Tracks like “Hand Of God” start out sounding like a high school marching band really wanting to be a doom metal band instead and since the album was produced by Sanford Parker of Minsk and Yob fame, it’s no wonder that some doom metal aspects made it into the mix. “The Spoiler” is probably the most intense and closest to metal with screaming vocals, crushing bass and drums except for a sax instead of a guitar! The grooves are fast and frenetic. “The Sadist” is another metal monster with black metal raspy vocals and the usual bass and sax shtick however the drums are on fire on this one and perhaps the best percussion on the entire album. “Fata Morgana” takes on a post-metal type of flavor with sultry speakeasy sax ostinato that takes on a Swans type of vocal style. “Palantine” is the longest track clocking in at over 12 and 1/2 minutes and begins as a monotonous jazzy groove that extends to over 4 minutes and then turns into a lame telephone conversation that goes nowhere and seems like it will never end. I absolutely HATE these types of things tacked on to the end of the album. It’s another attempt to add some humor but fails to do so and seriously cheapens the serious effect of the rest of the album. This whole track should have been chucked. A total waste of time.

While i wouldn’t call the sound of BRAIN TENTACLES revolutionary or anything since the idea has been around for well over two decades, they do manage to create a much more melodic take of Zorn’s vision and de-emphasize the chaotic aspects to a certain degree and tame them into more digestible forms. The hypnotic repetitive parts add a solid foundation to the rhythm while the conservative solos are dished out only occasionally for contrast’s sake. Several aspects water this interesting album down for me a bit. First are the childish conversational bits such as on “Gassed” and “Palantine” which sound like some teenage funk rock bands from the 80s. Secondly is the band isn’t always adventurous enough to keep the ideas interesting. While the Zorn influences are aplenty, there is never any larger than life moments that transcend the listener into another dimension like excellent avant-garde and experimental music should. While the overall songs are themselves well composed, BRAIN TENTACLES just doesn’t go beyond an established comfort zone. A little more hot sauce on the plate please. Having said that, this is a decent debut album that shows great potential and has a great variation of styles on display. I do however think they would sound better with at least some guitar supplementation on board or even some other instrumental contribution as the music seems a little sparse at times.


Live album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Starting from late 60s solo saxophone recordings aren't rare thing, Chicagoan Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and soprano genius Steve Lacy introduced world to that kind of highly creative and usually very free-form kind of jazz. Solo trumpeter albums are much more obscure though.

American trumpeter Peter Evans (better known to wide auditory as Mostly Other People Do The Killing band member) has already released some, but his newest "Lifeblood" is his first solo trumpet album in five years. It contains recordings from different shows recorded in 2015-16 and lasts almost two hour long. To make things even more twisted,"Lifeblood" is released in digital form only - usual download files and ... USB memory stick (or being more correct - USB credit card memory stick). Since the size of content doesn't exceed the space of casual double CD-set, it's obvious that physical recording's form has been chosen not only because of technical needs.

So - what do we have inside? Solo reeds albums are always hit or miss, at their best such music radiate artist's creativity and technical perfection but sometimes we just evidence never-ending demonstration of musician's ego drilling your ears and twitching your nerves. Than 109 minutes long "Lifeblood" can sound as really risky business.

Fortunately it isn't. Evans plays solo trumpet concerts regularly for years so what one can hear on this album isn't just exotic demonstration of technical abilities on request. "Lifeblood" contains two longer pieces ("suites") - twenty-seven minutes long opener of the same title and three-parts forty-minutes long closer "The Prophets". All music is highly improvised but contains never ending mosaic of tunes and rhythms snippets changind each other very dynamically so such a long free-form album doesn't sound boring at all.

Evans plays trumpet with rare virtuosity using his own techniques besides of more traditional, he uses breathing and his mouse as source for percussion added and generally minimalist music is surprisingly dense and dynamic. Quite unusually for music of such kind all concert sound is warm,even intimate at moments. Peter successfully finds the right balance between passionate playing and relaxed atmosphere, music isn't explosive nor meditative.

Surprisingly, almost two hours of solo trumpet music of free form don't require special concentration from listener. It is not elevator music for sure, but it works pretty well sounding at home when I was doing some home works or reading news in internet. I listened to the album three or four times during last some weeks - it says a lot!

USB stick isn't most popular form of physical jazz album maybe, than go for more usual download and don't miss this probably best reeds player solo album of last decade or so.

UTOPIANISTI Brutopianisti

Album · 2017 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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UTOPIANISTI is quite the unique act and one with which i have become quite the fan in relatively short time based solely on 2016’s stellar performances on “The Third Frontier” which found a new lease on the whole jazz-rock fusion meets brutal avant-prog thing. This project is led by the multi-instrumentalist Markus Pajakkala who specializes in saxophones, flutes, clarinets, keys and percussion. While on previous albums which consisted of whole ensembles of musicians churning out quirky rhythms and Rock In Opposition melodies, the newest release BRUTOPIANISTI seems to be more of a solo project by Pajakkala with only a handful of extras on board helping out in expanding the vocal range along with a few synth parts. Instrumentally speaking this is basically the Markus Pajakkla show as he plays drums, bass clarinet, soprano sax, xylophone and various flutes.

If you are expecting another slice of that ridiculously, superbly orchestrated avant-prog dancing in the jazz-fusion arenas of prog heaven then look elsewhere because this album goes in a completely different direction and displays a modern day trend of a quickening that is increasingly blurring the lines between metal, jazz, prog rock and ethnic world music. This music slaps you on the face from the very first frenetic drumbeats of “Gróyul Ghóul Ghò“ which combine a frenetic grindcore metal groove with Tuvan style throat singing as well as death metal growls! Despite the extreme metal feel to the whole thing, there are no signs of either guitar or bass guitar in the mix as the bass clarinet and other wind instruments pick up the rhythmic aspects of the music while screams, growls and other strange vocal utterings decorate the soundscape. This short little release barely clocks in over the half hour mark but packs a punch in its ruthless intensity and power punk attack.

While all this craziness unfolds, it sounds like the sax, flutes and bass clarinet borrow a lot from world influences ranging from Klezmer to traditional Chinese music as well as the aforementioned throat singing performed like a pro by Sampo Salonen. While the drums sound totally programed, it actually adds another layer of strangeness to the overall sound as it makes me think of such electronic wizards as Amon Tobin or other IDM (intelligent dance music) artists like Squarepusher (showing off his indietronica talents from his other project Poutatorvi). Between the metal intensity of the vocals, the electronic relentlessness along side with brutal avant-prog time signatures laced with swinging jazzy melodies and ethnic undertones with psychedelic twists and turns, we’re left with a very demanding listen indeed but not one that is too alienating even upon first listen. There is a firm sense of balance on BRUTOPIANISTI as not to overwhelm the listener with too much at any given moment.

BRUTOPIANISTI is certainly a curve ball thrown at us in the discography of UTOPIANISTI, not only in terms of how quickly it was released after the previous album as prog oriented artists of this magnitude often take many years to polish new albums into perfection, but also in how utterly different it is from their previous offerings. I would imagine that for those who don’t take a liking to this one because it strays too far too fast from the previous efforts will probably be assured that this will not likely be the style that Pajakkala intends to continue ad infinitum but rather a playful little side project that needed to be released. Be assured for as different as this album is, it is chock full of brilliant ideas mixing and melding their way into pure brilliance. Tracks such as “Hóllò” deliver a percussive beat that sounds like a warehouse of fireworks that caught on fire with lysergic ambience mellowing it out and “Zhími Bàgi Dá” with death metal growls and bass clarinet quickly morphing into an elves’ LSD party on Neptune sounds as otherworldly as the fictional language titles. This is truly bizarre stuff that will either reel you in instantly like an unfortunate bass on Lake Michigan or repel you like a mosquito from freshly deeted body in the malaria zone. Either way you won’t think that you’ve heard this before even from UTOPIANISTI itself but regardless it will leave some sort of impression. For me, i’m digging this one a lot!

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Album · 1973 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko is most probably country's best known jazz musician for some decades and prestigious ECM label in-house artist. Better known (especially outside of his homeland) from his ECM-sound recordings, in his early ears Stanko played quite different music. Started his career still at late 60s, Tomasz played with in Polish legend Komeda band, starting his career as leader in early 70s.

"Purple Sun" is Stanko quintet third album recorded live in empty hall of Music School in Munich,Germany. All-Polish quartet is completed with German bassist Hans Hartmann here. Album contains four originals (twolong and two shorter pieces). Confusingly enough, "Purple Sun" is often classified in music media (partially Polish) as early example of Polish avant-garde jazz which it isn't.

In reality bass-drums-trumpet-sax quartet with violinist Zbigniew Seifert on board plays high energy fusion strongly influenced by Davis' "Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew". Representing contrast difference from popular Stanko ECM albums of contemporary (chamber) jazz, "Purple Sun" with its raw energy and quite free structure possibly sounds as avant-garde piece for traditional Stanko listeners but everyone familiar with early Miles fusion will confirm their musical similarity.

Stanko's fusion is more European comparing with Miles - there are less American jazz roots (no groove) but lot of German krautrock influence in a form of straight power flow and rock-psychedelia. And yeh - the level of musicians virtuosity is far not as in Davis fusion bands.

Still music sounds really fresh and inspired and common "rockish" aesthetics could be attractive for fans of jazz-rock. In all cases, this album (reissued in Poland on CD at least twice so quite accessible) is not for numerous fans of ECM-period Stanko. Lovers of early Miles fusion will probably find here a nice example of similar music recorded by one of the best Polish jazz musician ever.

STEVE SMITH Steve Smith, George Brooks & Prasanna : Raga Bop Trio

Album · 2010 · World Fusion
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Ragabop Trio is Steve Smith on drums, Prasanna on guitar and George Brooks on saxophone, three experts in the fine art of Indian jazz-rock fusion. This first effort, also called 'Ragabop Trio', reveals a lot of talent as well as a few possible problems. The big plus is Prasanna’s considerable skills on the electric guitar. I’m not sure how he produces intricate South Indian Carnatic micro-tonal note bends on an electric guitar, but he does and his ornaments are deadly accurate and authentic, but most importantly, they sound great.

Not everything is all Indian jazz-rock on here, on a few tunes they also turn to African fusion to provide some rhythmic foundation. The variety of styles they perform can be interesting, but sometimes it seems like this CD lacks focus or some kind of anchor point. Overall though, I think the biggest problem here is the lack of a bass player. I can see that by excluding the bass they have created a more Indian style ensemble with Smith acting as a tabla player on the trap set with the other two providing the raga like solos, which is fine on some of the more Indian styled cuts, but on the more rockin or funky numbers the lack of bass really sticks out and makes the music sound empty.

Some of the best cuts include: ‘Tug of War’, a fast paced fusion workout with lots of great guitar leads, ‘Garuda’, a beautiful mellow African melody and ‘Katayini’, a cool groove number with excellent alternating raga melodies. That last one could show up on some exotica collections someday. The least successful cut is ‘The Geometry of Rap’, in which Steve Smith presents Indian rhythm counting syllables (konnakol) as a sort of rap. It comes across as something that is clever the first time you do it, but not something to put on your CD. Besides, as a rap song, its not very good. I think I have heard someone else trying to use konnakol as rap, probably one of those things that will make the rounds for a while and then disappear for good, sort of like parachute pants.

I think fans of Indian fusion will find a lot of things to enjoy here. A couple songs are excellent and Prasanna’s guitar playing is a revelation, but I think a little more musical unity and at least an occasional bass player could do this band some good.

RETURN TO FOREVER Light as a Feather

Album · 1973 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.49 | 22 ratings
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This is apparently the first true Return to Forever album as the previous album, entitled Return to Forever, was released as a Chick Corea solo album, but it featured the same musicians, so that's how the name stuck, I guess. Light as a Feather continues the Brazilian jazz/Bossa Nova influence, with Flora Purim providing vocals and husband Airto Moreira on percussion. Chick Corea uses strictly electric piano and Stanley Clarke provides only stand up bass here. This is an incredible album, it doesn't have the break-neck Mahavishnu Orchestra-fast playing of Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy or the progginess of Romantic Warrior, it has a more relaxed vibe, but what a wonderful mood Chick Corea and Co. creates here, with lots of lengthy instrumental fusion passages, and of course a Brazilian feel that is ever present. Every time I hear Flora Purim sing, I expect her to either sing in her native Portuguese (she doesn't, she sings in English, since this was aimed for the American audience, naturally) or break into "The Girl From Impanema". Never happens. I wasn't sure if I would like this album, but instead it really knocked my socks off. Usually vocals in fusion albums are a big turn-off for me, but of course Flora Purim being Brazilian works amazingly well here, giving that Bossa Nova influence. If you like Brazilian jazz as well as fusion this album is a totally required!

AL DI MEOLA Land of the Midnight Sun

Album · 1976 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.87 | 21 ratings
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Having been blown away by Return to Forever's Romantic Warrior (an album that literally took me years to warm up to, though, but once I did...) and Lenny White's Venusian Summer, I went and tried Al Di Meola's debut album, Land of the Midnight Sun. Like Lenny White's Venusian Summer, he doesn't hire a steady band, just whatever musicians want to appear, but Mingo Lewis of Santana (of the Caravanserai/Welcome/Borboletta-era), Jaco Pastorius, Steve Gadd, Stanley Clarke, even Chick Corea, and others appear. The first two cuts sound a whole lot like Romantic Warrior-era RTF meets Santana, which is no surprise given the members involved. He does a unaccompanied Bach piece on acoustic guitar, and do an atmospheric spacy prog number "Love them from 'Pictures of the Sea'". Surprisingly Stanley Clarke provides vocals here in that spacy prog manner, which does this piece justice. "Morning Fire" is a multi-movement suite, but it's basically one long jam with tons of fretless bass playing from Jaco Pastorius. In fact this was a big reason he ended up a member of Weather Report and became a valuable asset to the band. The last piece is largely Chick Corea on piano and Al Di Meola on guitar, and a rather relaxed piece.

This is truly a great album of Latin-influenced fusion, that I can highly recommend to those who enjoy Return to Forever (naturally) and fusion-era Santana.


Album · 2006 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.86 | 2 ratings
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In the world of experimental and avant-garde metal, one can hardly know what to expect and more often than not, a band digs deep into the recesses of experimentation only to conjure up some type of music that is dense and complex and requires some serious investment of time and energy in order to find a footing in the newly created sonic universe that they have constructed. And then there’s bands like Sweden’s DIABLO SWING ORCHESTRA that not only catches your attention from the very first seconds of first contact but manages to suck you in and enjoy the music from the get go and when all has been played and you have a chance to reflect upon the crazy combo effect of the music at hand, you will ask yourself “It’s such a logical combination of things, why hasn’t someone thought of this before?” DSO is one of those blender bands that takes everything including the kitchen sink approach, alloys all kinds of disparate musical styles and throws them into a salad bowl and then tosses all the components around until they form a whole new form of musical expression.

While this music is primarily based on a healthy supply of metal guitar riffing married with the jump blues and swing revival scene that was all the rage in the 1990s and graced with the female classical soprano diva vocals of AnnLouice Lögdlun belting out operatic enunciations like there’s no tomorrow, the music also incorporates all sorts of other styles including Flamenco guitar, Middle Eastern, spaghetti western, surf rock as well as good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll. THE BUTCHER’S BALLROOM is the full-length debut album but technically isn’t the band’s debut release since a four track EP titled “Borderline Hymns” came out in 2003, a full three years before this album. However, BALLROOM contains all four tracks from that debut EP thus rendering it completely irrelevant and a mere footnote in history. They haven’t even been re-recorded or anything so in effect this one could very well be considered the debut.

THE BUTCHER’S BALLROOM is divided up into two Acts which are supposed to represent some sort of story line but i honestly have no friggin’ clue as to what these two divided themes are all about. They probably have some reference to the band’s tongue-in-cheek approach to creating a completely faux mythology regarding their timeline which purportedly begins with their ancestral history that goes all the way back to 16th century Sweden. The current band is supposed to be the ancestors of past band members who created diabolical music that was strictly forbidden by the Lutheran church. The tale becomes more elaborate as the members of this secret musical organization had to go into hiding for centuries up until the right time would allow the inheritor’s of this secular music to expose their musical world to the public. Well, wait no longer, DOS is here to stay!

While all these styles sound like a possible road to disaster and very likely could have been if DOS weren’t so skilled in how they pull all these disparate styles off. Daniel Håkansson is the sole songwriter on this one and clearly has the knack of knowing just how much of the different ingredients to add to this musical salad and just like a fine cuisine knows when too much lettuce and too many tomatoes can throw off the balance of the whole. It’s fairly uncanny in how accessible the music is upon first listen but has ways of letting you dig deeper into the song constructs once the initial WOW factor has waned. In addition to the aforementioned styles that dominate THE BUTCHER’S BALLROOM, the listener will also be floored with all sorts of other instruments that aren’t supposed to work here but somehow do. A didgeridoo can be heard accompanying surf rock and jazzy opera singing. Flamenco dances side by side with electronica and cellos happily accompany heavy distorted metal riffs.

The trick to enjoy DIABLO SWING ORCHESTRA’s conglomerating mass of styles is to not become too enthralled in any one particular genre style. While often fitting into the vague descriptive category of avant-garde metal, this is definitely no headbanger’s paradise as metal is not the dominate force on this one but more of an accompanying sound effect to wrap itself around the dominating gypsy swing, classical and jazzy undertones that swing from one musical thread to another. This is simply wild and crazy stuff and the only band that comes to mind with their ability to mix and meld so many styles and still create a very melodic and musical experience is the Japanese band Sigh. THE BUTCHER’S BALLROOM truly was like no other album or band that came before. DOS truly found a total unique identity from their inception and nothing else has even come close to copying it and with a lineup that includes not only guitars, bass, drums and keys but ample extras such as lute, flute, cello, double bass, violin as well as a few ethnic touches here and there, you know you’re in for a wild ride unlike another other. Love it!

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