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CD Review: Squonk “Pneumatica”

There are musical acts that you follow because of their music. There are those acts that you follow because of the way they present themselves onstage. And then there are those acts who take the time to create a persona that ends up mixing the two ideas together to create a band or solo act that is pure entertainment. Bands like Trans Siberian Orchestra, Insane Clown Posse and Mushroomhead, even Katy Perry are just four examples of musical acts that give the listener more bang for their buck when it comes to seeing them live in concert. You can add Pittsburgh’s Squonk to that list! 

Squonk is five-person musical ensemble that combines several different elements into the complete concept of the band. Along with a musical style that borrows liberally from many different Prog Rock bands, there are artistic and technological sides to the band that come from the stage show that helps to add so much dimension to the band’s music. The results are something that brings to mind the experience of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. 

Twenty-five years ago, composer Jackie Dempsey teamed up with visual artist Steve O’Hearn. The two began the whole concept that would become Squonk Opera (the original name) in the middle of a junkyard. Pretty soon, an entire band would be formed. Along with keyboard player Jackie Dempsey and artist/musician Steve O’Hearn (who plays the electric bagpipes, flute and other instruments of more unusual nature), the rest of the band consists of: lead guitarist David Wallace, bassist Nathan Wilson and drummer Kevin Kornicki. Together, the entire ensemble combines to take Dempsey’s compositions and create Progressive Rock songs that will make any lover of the style very happy.  

The Progressive Rock feel in the music of Genesis would help to influence many bands that would come after them to help push the creative juices of those bands that were and still are looking to create something different form the everyday feel of current musical trends. One such band that is influenced by Genesis in a major way is Squonk. And while Genesis’ music was progressive, it was the stage show for the band during Gabriel’s stint with the band that truly helped to change the way concerts would feel. And Genesis is one of the biggest influences to Squonk’s musical outlook, helping to shape the music of Squonk as well as influencing the feel of the live shows of the band.

While the stage show is rather important to what Squonk does artistically, that stage show would be nothing without the music. But just like the stage productions that accompany the music, each show’s music is different. Each album of music contains its own sound, feel and message. The reason for the songs being so different is because each album is a reflection of a certain time period in the band’s existence, much like a time capsule. And each album comes with songs with a storyline all its own.  

But because it takes time to create not only the music as well as the album itself, but also the stage show to go along with that musical collection, Squonk goes years between release dates for new albums. In fact, band is currently on the road (which is where I first heard about them a few years ago) in support of their latest release, 2014’s Pneumatica.

Just like the previous albums from Squonk, each song that appears on Pneumatica is related to the others in a manner of concept. Each song continues a storyline that flows from one track to the next. At least, that would be the situation if the tracks on this particular album had lyrics. Without the lyrics, what brings the tracks together is a similar song title along with similar musical themes that run through the tracks. But that is what really separates Pneumatica from the band’s other albums. 

The Pneumatica release finds Squonk venturing into territory they had yet to touch. This album features songs that are strictly instrumental. In fact, with the previous albums from the band, the ensemble went by the moniker of Squonk Opera. But with this album being nothing but instrumental tracks, the band decided to drop the “Opera” from its name as there would be no need to indicate lyrical content of any kind. Hence, the use of the moniker SQUONK.  

Even though Pneumatica from Squonk contains no words and therefore cannot actually be considered a “rock opera” because of missing the “opera” part of the category, the release is still a concept album. As such, the band treated this album in much the same way they have the other releases in their discography: by creating an introductory track that acts like an overture.

The track in question that kicks off the Pneumatica release is called “Inhale”. “Inhale” begins with a strong drumbeat and keyboard combination. Eventually, the track builds to include the entire quartet. The track is rather unusual as one of the main components of the music is the inclusion of the bagpipes from Steve O’Hearn.

As soon as “Inhale” comes to a close, one of the more “progressive” of the album’s tracks begins. The song “Floating” contains a musical approach that combines a generous amount of Rock and Roll with basically the same amount of Jazz influence. The resulting combination is a track that alternates between a gentle yet driving feel to the music and much lighter and laidback approach to the music. As you listen to the track, there are passages within the song where the listener can almost feel themselves begin to lift off and float away.

On the track “Head of Steam,” a heavier feel to the music is revealed. The track takes on a stronger Rock and Roll feel as the track features a combination of Rock and Roll and a slightly laidback version of Heavy Metal. The energy from this two-minute track creates one of the heavier moments on the release. It also makes the listener wish that the track was actually longer than its two-minute playtime.

“Whrlwinding” is yet another track from Squonk that is worth checking out. With this track, Steve O’Hearn’s bagpipes make a return as the track ends up feeling like a Rock and Roll track with a very Celtic flavor or vibe to it. Part of the reason for that Celtic feel is because of the addition of the keys from Jackie Dempsey that give more emphasis to the bagpipes by actually doubling the feel of that instrument.

With the track “Breathe,” the Pneumatica album seems to hit a place where a transition is needed. That is what “Breathe” feels like: transitional music. The track begins with one of the most melodic approaches of the entire release because of the keyboards from Jackie Dempsey. The track starts off rather low-key but builds slightly throughout the four-minute playtime.  

One of the more unusual moments on the current release from Squonk comes on the track “Skitter and Blast”. While most of the music created by the band contains a Progressive Rock approach, that style of music takes on a slightly different vibe on “Skitter and Blast”. While still containing the Progressive feel, the music also seems to pick up a generous amount of Ska influence. The Progressive Rock/Ska combination on the track ends up creating one of the most unique tracks on the album.

Although a lot of the music from Squonk seems to be flavored by the influence of the music from Genesis, the band makes a rather shocking change on the track “A Cloud of Gray”. This track still contains the ever-present Progressive Rock genre of music, but now the music takes on the feel of something from the band Gentle Giant. In fact, “A Cloud of Gray” feels as if it the track would have fit right in on the British band’s Octopus album. The track finds both guitarist David Wallace and keyboard player Jackie Dempsey sharing the spotlight on this track. That might be the reason why the track feels as if it would have been a Gentle Giant track since both the guitar and the keyboards are focused on.

As Pneumatica from Squonk began with the track “Inhale,” the band brings back the music of that track for the final song on the 2014 release. But since this is now the end of the release instead of the beginning, “Inhale” has now become “Exhale”.The sandwiching of the release with the same melody really helps to make Pneumatica feel like an album with interconnected songs.

While it contains no lyrical content, Pneumatica from Squonk feels like a Rock Opera from the beginning all the way through to the end. If you like Progressive Rock or are a fan of Rock Operas, Pneumatica from Squonk is an album that won’t disappoint! And if you get the chance, go see the band in a live setting, as they are one of the best live acts out there today.

For a taste of the music side of Squonk, check out the song “Floating“. 

To purchase a copy of Pneumatica from Squonk, click on the album cover below:

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Reviews and Suggestions

CD Review: Stratospheerius “Guilty of Innocence”

When looking for musicians that have the talent to put on a good show, you don’t have to look any further than seven-string violinist Joe Deninzon. Having graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in Violin Performance and Jazz Violin from Indiana University and a Master’s in Jazz/Commercial violin from Manhattan School of Music, Deninzon splits his time between teaching violin and performing in his band called Stratospheerius. Just recently, Deninzon and the band created a new album of music. For this album, Stratospheerius consists of: Joe Deninzon – Electric Violin, Lead Vocals & Mandolin; Aurelien Budynek – Guitar & Backup Vocals; Jamie Bishop – Bass & Backup Vocals and Lucianna Padmore – Drums. Together, the band is currently celebrating the release of this album. The new release from Stratospheerius is entitled Guilty of Innocence.

Guilty of Innocence from Stratospheerius begins with the track “Behind the Curtain”. With this track, Deninzon and the band start the album off with a bang. The track features a strong, driving pace to the music that comes complete with a definite Progressive Rock feel. That Prog-Rock sound is helped along with the inclusion of Deninzon’s electric violin along with a few musical effects that add to the feel of the piece. With a sly acknowledgement to the movie The Wizard of Oz, the track’s lyrics deal with a slight of hand, making people pay less attention to what’s really going on around you. “Behind the Curtain” contains a sound and feel that keeps the feel of the band’s last release of The Next World…, an album that was released back in 2012.

The newest release from Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius continues with the track “Take Your Medicine”. The track starts off with a very strong bassline from bassist Jamie Bishop before the rest of the quartet joins in. Like the previous track, the band creates a track that features a very driving feel to the music. That driving feel seems to alternate between musical deliveries that is reminiscent of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention and a delivery that contains a slightly less progressive feel. Because of the Progressive nature of the music, “Take Your Medicine” may not be very commercial; however, this track would be extremely popular on Album-Oriented Rock radio formats.

Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius create one of the more “progressive” tracks on the title track of the album. Keeping with the pattern set forth by the first two tracks of the album, “Guilty of Innocence” hits the listener with yet another driving force to the music. Like the previous tracks on the release, the band plays with plenty of energy. But the one thing that stands out on this track is the Classical Music feel to the music as Deninzon layers his playing on the electric violin to create an effect as if a string quartet was brought in to add texture to the track. The addition of the Classical approach on the song is what truly sets the title track apart from the earlier songs.

Continuing the inclusion of a more Classical approach on the musical side of things, the track “Face” allows Deninzon to show off his ability on the violin. This track features more of Deninzon’s playing than the previous tracks on the album. The song begins with Deninzon’s violin and a strong beat plus his vocals. The sparse feel of the music allows for Deninzon’s violin to truly have a moment in the spotlight. When the rest of the band joins in on the music of the piece, the band creates a track in “Face” that has a definite Gentle Giant vibe to it.

And speaking of other people’s styles, the Guilty of Innocence album from Stratospheerius continues with the band’s version of a track from the band Muse. It is that group’s song of “Hysteria” that Joe Deninzon and band put their spin on. With the version by Muse, the band creates a song about animal attraction and the uncontrollable need for someone. Needless-to-say, the lyrics and music from Muse create a song that has a very dark feel to it. When Deninzon and the rest of Stratospheerius take their turn at the song, the ensemble seems to lighten up the feel of the song so that it’s not so dark. The energy level is still there with the Stratospheerius version as they create yet another track with a driving nature to the music, but the song contains a lighter feel this time around. If only a little bit.

The mood of the album changes direction on the next track. Like many in the music industry, Joe Deninzon shows he has a political side on the track “Affluenza”. With this track, Deninzon makes his opinion known on the subject as he sings about those who live their lives not caring what the consequences of their actions may be. While the lyrical content is rather political, the music of the track is rather commercial. The song begins with a Funk style of music that separates this track from every other song. The track’s music also includes some straight-out Rock and Roll. If not for the political edge to the song, “Affluenza” would be the most commercial track on the Guilty of Innocence album.

The most progressive sound of the band returns with the track “Game of Chicken”. The track once again features Deninzon on violin back by the rest of the band as they create a track that features one of the more challenging musical time signatures. With the track, Deninzon and the musicians in Stratospheerius show off their true musical abilities.

The Guilty of Innocence album from Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius comes to a close with what could be called the “showcase piece”. The track “Soul Food” features a playtime that exceeds the ten-minute mark. The twelve-plus minute opus features the band creating several different passages that change the direction of the music from one moment to the next. Included in the song are passages that include the use of a piano and the final section that even includes an entire chorus that adds an orchestral feel to the piece. The twelve-minute playtime seems to go by rather easily because of the variety in the different sections of the track. “Soul Food” ends up being the most unique track of the ten that make up the release.

Guilty of Innocence from Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius finds the band in fine form as they create a new album of music. While the album comes with plenty of Progressive Rock tracks, it’s the other songs containing other styles that help to make the release even more entertaining. If you happen to be a fan of Progressive Rock, the new album of Guilty of Innocence album from Joe Deninzon and the band Stratospheerius is one album you need to check out.

To hear just a little of the music of Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius, check out the song  “Guilty of Innocence”. 

For more information, check out the band’s PR Firm, Leighton Media.

To purchase a copy Guilty of Innocence from Joe Deninzon, click on the album cover below:

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Gentle Giant celebrates release of new 2015 version of “Octopus”

It was back in the late 60s and early 70s that bands and musicians started to push the limits to what was being called Rock And Roll. By adding many new sounds, styles and even different genres into the music, Progressive Rock (also known as “Prog Rock”) was born. Throughout its existence, some of the better known bands that have brought the music genre to life have been Peter Gabriel-era Genesis; Yes; Jethro Tull; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; even Pink Floyd fits into the mix. One band that sadly does not get as much recognition as the aforementioned bands is the British Prog Rock band Gentle Giant. Though many  of the albums that the band has put out that have become classic releases (at least among its fans), one seems to find its way into the hearts of Gentle Giant fans more than any other. That album is Octopus.

Released back in 1972, Octopus features the band creating eight well-crafted tracks that feature many different styles of music blended together to create the Progressive Rock sound that Gentle Giant is known for. While not as well-known as Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Aqualung from Jethro Tull, Octopus from Gentle Giant ranks up there as just as solid and has always had its faithful audience that loves the release. And with great tracks such as “The Boys in the Band,” “A Cry for Everyone” and “River,” it’s easy to see why the album has the following it has gained over the decades since its release.

Throughout its history, Octopus has been re-released several times since its initial release. Every time a new technological breakthrough has changed the way music is distributed, Octopus gets new life in the form of a yet another re-release. Such is the case in 2015 as Gentle Giant has recently put out a newly remastered and remixed version of the Octopus album.

Of course, the entire eight tracks from the original album are included in the new edition. So if you already are familiar with the album, you know what to expect from the release. What is new to the album is the sound quality.

Music producer Steven Wilson has spent many hours remixing classic rock albums over the years and that included several from Gentle Giant. It is with the help of Stephen Wilson that the Octopus album now contains 5.1 Surround DTS Master Audio. The album’s music is now more intense and clearer. While Octopus has always been an album to listen to with headphones, now more than ever, the listener needs put on a pair of headphones to experience all of the subtleties that were there before but had been covered over by the rest of the instrumentation. A 43-year old classic Prog Rock album feels brand new with this new musical mixing from Stephen Wilson.

To add value to an already worthy album, the 2015 rerelease of Gentle Giant’s Octopus comes complete with a live recording of the band in 1976 as they performed excerpts from the entire album. The band and the audience that was there that night have wonderful chemistry together as they seem to feed off of each other’s energy. What an interesting experience to hear the sound of a spinning coin get applause from the audience as the band begins the “Excerpts from Octopus” with music from “A Dog’s Life,” indicating that some in the audience knew exactly what was coming. Of course, music is not the only draw for experiencing the new 2015 version of Octopus from Gentle Giant. The liner notes included in the packaging effortlessly bring the listener back to the time of the original release. The story of the creation of the album, as well as what was going on with the band itself, is included in those liner notes. For those interested in rock music history, especially for Gentle Giant itself, the notes are a great addition to the album. And of course, there’s also the inclusion of the artwork (both British artwork from Roger Dean and the American artwork) from the album.

The band is currently selling the CD and Blu-ray versions of the new version of the album. The CD comes complete with everything that has already been described while the Blu-ray contains even more value that includes: Instrumental versions of the songs from the album, and the original mixes from the original release of the album to go along with Steven Wilson’s 5.1 Surround DTS Master Audio. For those who want the vinyl experience, a vinyl version of the Octopus album from Gentle Giant is forthcoming.

(Editor’s note: Aside from the band’s website, the only other place to purchase the Blu-ray version of the release is through Amazon.com. However, there has been a problem with Amazon.com with trying to get the Blu-ray version. Unfortunately, because of that, I will not be providing a link to that item. Click on the album cover below to purchase the 2015 CD version of the album. If you are truly interested in the Blu-ray edition, check out the band’s website for purchasing details.)

Octopus