Hinterland (2005, 56.52) ****/TTTT½Serenade for 1652
Afterglow (2009, 34.41) ****½/TTTT½The Haywain
Imperial Winter White
Rites at Dawn (2011, 45.58) ****½/TTTTTLudic
This Past Presence
A Faerie's Play
In 2003, the year of Änglagård's brief reunion, appropriately enough, a new name appeared in Scandinavian progressive circles: Wobbler. Um, doesn't have quite the same gravitas as Anekdoten or White Willow, does it? Makes Landberk sound sensible, and hasn't even got the excuse that it's a place-name. Moniker aside, however, Wobbler were the latest entrant in the now 15 year-old wave of New Traditionalist Scandinavian Prog (hey, the NTSP! Catchy or what? Sounds like an online bank or something), insisting on 'authentic' equipment and full-on symphonic prog, with nary a trace of '80s neo-. Thank Christ. In retrospect, I should actually have reviewed their early demos two years ago, although I presumed they'd turn up on their debut album. Wrong. They have, however, been reworked for the band's second release (see below).
|photo: Sven Eriksen|
Two years on, Hinterland has to be the most-anticipated progressive release of 2005, with the band being invited to play NEARfest before its release, in the (relative) media feeding-frenzy surrounding their formation. And the end result is... not bad. Not bad? Is that the best you can come up with? Well, the same criticisms apply as to their demos, but, surprisingly, more so. You would've thought they'd have ironed out some of the more derivative bits of their style in the two years since then, but the album material is actually less original (spot the cheeky Crimson quote about six minutes into the title track, not to mention the Emersonalike Moog patch later on...), although there are plenty of worthwhile moments. Given that the album features only four tracks in nearly an hour, it comes as a surprise to learn that opener Serenade For 1652 is a mere 41 seconds long, leaving two medium-long pieces and the near-half hour title track. Can Wobbler sustain interest over a 27-minute piece, I hear you cry? Well, sort of. Like the rest of the album (particularly closer Clair Obscur), the track has several transcendental moments, which is more than I can say for most albums, but too much of it has a 'heard it all before' vibe about it, sadly, knocking a whole star from the album's potential rating. Don't get me wrong; this is a very good album, and if you hadn't heard Änglagård, possibly a great one, but when Rubato Industry strikes up like a Larks' Tongues outtake, you have to hope that Wobbler will find their own style by the time album no.2 comes around.
As for the album's Mellotronic input, Lars Fredrik Frøislie uses three different machines, for some reason, including one that I believe is ex-Bulgarians FSB, with, apparently, a whole host of tape frames, though it has to be said, the bulk of the obvious use is the old mainstays strings/choir/flutes, although the brief Serenade For 1652 seems to be largely cellos, and I heard some 'Tron vibes somewhere. The playing's excellent, as it is for all the keys, but the 'choppy' choir part on Clair Obscur is a dead ringer for Änglagård's Jordrok, which in turn is heavily influenced by SFF's Pictures, and as for the previously-mentioned pitchbent strings in Hinterland... Cheeky homage or blunt rip-off? Either way, it's impossible to deny that this is a major Mellotron release, docked a mere half 'T' for unoriginality.
Speaking of those demos... It's taken Wobbler four years to produce their second album and it's... the two demo tracks, re-recorded and sensibly retitled. I understand the band have suffered some form of collective writer's block, and at least this material gets an official release this way, despite being a full ten years old. Afterglow is far shorter than their debut, unsurprisingly, given that it consists of two longish tracks and three very short ones, so it certainly doesn't outstay its welcome, all five tracks hitting the spot in their different ways, from The Haywain's under-a-minute mediævalisms to the two lengthy pieces' twists and turns. Admittedly, said pieces still sound like Änglagård, but look on the bright side: they could sound like The Flower Kings' recent work. Lars splatters his Mellotrons all over the album with a superb scattergun approach, layers of strings, choirs and flutes throughout Imperial Winter White and In Taberna, plus cellos, vibes and church organ and doubtless other, harder-to-spot sounds hidden away in the mix. He sticks some strings under The Haywain's real woodwind and gets pretty much a 'Tron church organ solo on closer Armoury, making for a fine album, both musically and Mellotronically.
By 2011, I think it's fair to say that there's little new to say if you wish to write symphonic progressive rock; it's more about putting all the pieces in the right order, which Wobbler do with aplomb. Rites of Dawn is another step up, even if its first half recalls Yes in places, particularly La Bealtaine, although they sound more like themselves as the album progresses (ho ho), probably reaching a creative peak on A Faerie's Play. Lengthwise, the album falls between its two predecessors, eschewing Hinterland's overlong approach, while being more of a fully-formed release than Afterglow (which, to be fair, has an excuse for its brevity), no one track outstaying its welcome. Lars plays not only the expected stacks of Mellotron, but also his new (so to speak) Chamberlin M1, although I'm ashamed to say that I can't actually tell you where he plays what. Anyway, we get strings on pretty much every track, particularly the huge crescendo at the end of The River, flute (notably the neat solo towards the end of This Past Presence), choir and cello scattered throughout, plus (I believe) vibes on brief closer Lucid Dreams. All in all, chaps, something of a tour de force.
So; find those demos or buy Afterglow as soon as possible, then approach Hinterland with a little more caution. It's excellent, but disappointingly unoriginal, although it's probably fair to say there's little of any originality left to say in a near-40 year old genre (yup, 'fraid we're fast approaching its fortieth anniversary...). I look forward to their third effort, apparently in the works as of late 2009; if they can come up with anything even approaching Änglagård's second release, they'll have come on leaps and bounds. I feel a little churlish at not being more positive about their debut (although happy to praise its follow-up), but wild enthusiasm, untempered by reason, can only mislead. Good, but not great. Oh, and while we're on the subject of originality, the sleeve art is incredibly reminiscent of Il Trono dei Ricordi's self-titled album from '94. Hmmm.
Here's the band at NEARfest 2005, complete with two M400s.
Demos (2003, 28.12) ****½/TTTTImperial Winter White Dwarf
Leprechaun Behind the Door
There's a full write-up of Wobbler's conception and history to date above; suffice to say, they're the latest entrant in the 'Scandinavian Änglagård replacement' stakes, at which they do a passable job, despite lacking originality (sorry, guys). Their early demo tracks didn't find their way onto their debut album, 2005's Hinterland, and while their website says that they're 'going to be released, expanded', it seems more likely, going by their MySpace page, that they'll re-record the tracks, adding two more, for their second album proper.
As a result, it seems as if this page is the proper place for their two downloadable demos from 2003. They make a near-half hour mini-album in themselves, and the compositional quality is easily high enough for official release. One caveat, however: do you like Änglagård? If not, you're probably unlikely to find much to praise in Wobbler's demos. There's no getting around it; these two tracks sound like Hybris offcuts, pure and simple. There are dissimilarities: Änglagård never sang in English, or very much at all (not that Wobbler exactly overburden themselves with lyrics), and there's more (mono-, of course) synth work, although they're better than the not-quite-as-good-as-they-should've-been Sinkadus. Both tracks follow the now-tried and tested formula of 'play one bit, play another, play a third etc., occasionally harking back to an earlier bit for continuity', which seems to be the one thing that puts some prog fans off Änglagård, but works perfectly well for many of us. The material is a little unoriginal, but after a few plays, many of the themes begin to stick, unlike the bulk of Sinkadus' output. What's more, all the analogue keys are genuine, with an excellent 'hold the chord until the tapes grind to a halt' Mellotron bit in Leprechaun Behind The Door.
Anyway, these tracks are no longer available for download from the band's site, but are floating around the trading circuit, and shouldn't be too hard to find. I actually rate them higher than anything on Hinterland, I'm afraid, so here's hoping they get a proper release at some stage, re-recorded or otherwise. Worth your time.
See: Angst Skvadron | Opium Cartel | White Willow