CULANN – Album Review: “The Great Ecumene”

Culann album

Culann is a band from Irvine, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. Comprised of PJ Kelly (Vocals, Guitar), his brother Sean Kelly (Drums), Greg Irish (Guitar), Ross McCluskie (Keyboards) and Calum Davis (Bass), they blend folk, Celtic-rock, alt-rock, prog rock and even a bit of reggae to create their uniquely colorful and dynamic sound. Largely ignoring the norms of conventional song writing, they employ complex melodies, time changes and a perfect fusion of traditional Scottish music with a contemporary lyrical approach, resulting in a deeply satisfying and distinct sound. Since forming in 2008, they’ve performed the length and breadth of their homeland, gathering adoring fans along the way.

They released their self-titled debut album Culann in 2012, and after dropping a few singles now and then, they returned this past April (2019) with their second album The Great Ecumene, which I’m reviewing today. Curious as to what ‘Ecumene’ means, I checked Wikipedia and learned that it’s an ancient Greek term now used by geographers to mean inhabited land. It generally refers to lands where people have made their permanent home. Accordingly, many of the album tracks touch on various aspects of Scottish life and its history, and its strong connection to the sea.

The album opens with “Evonium“, a jubilant, monumental song with symphonic rock overtones that call to mind the great 70s bands Yes and Boston, with a bit of a nod to Dream Theater. The song was first released as a single more than two years ago, in May 2017. Once again, I was compelled to Google ‘Evonium’, and found the following:

Evonium is a purported lost city in Scotland that was first described by Hector Boece in his 16th-century Scotorum Historiae. According to Boece, it hosted the coronation of forty kings and was located in the Lochaber area.” Writer A.J. Morton has suggested that if Evonium actually existed, it could have been located at the band’s home of Irvine, Ayrshire. Culann assembles a rich mix of roiling guitars, exuberant piano and organ, and lots of percussion to create a powerful song befitting of the epic saga of Evonium. Lead vocalist PJ Kelly passionately sings of how the historic legacy of Evonium has shaped the lives of all who are born there:

Blood of this town, the place where I was born
A strength that’s driven in across the sea
Cut from the coast, we wake with price each morn
For all that’s past, it’s richest history
We owe our lives to our western home
Where kings and rulers stole their destiny
Shaped their lives and carved them into stone
With all that’s seen and all were yet to be, all were yet to be 

Now I understand
It’s all because I’m from Evonium
Now it’s in my hands
The greatness past fuels greatness not yet done that’s still to come

The beautiful video shows scenes of the band performing the song in historic Dundonald Castle, interspersed with scenes filmed in the Scottish countryside and Duncarron Medieval Village, a replica of an early Medieval fortified village. The album version of the track includes a somber but beautiful synth instrumental beginning at 4:15 that continues through to the end.

Next up is “Event Without Experience“, a rousing, melodically complex extravaganza of Celtic prog-rock brilliance. The intricate guitar work is fantastic, and nicely complemented by some fine keyboards, humming bass, and aggressive thumping drumbeats. I really like how PJ’s Scottish brogue shines through in his fervent vocals. Culann deliver more Celtic folk-rock grooves with the philosophical drinking song “Brewing of Ale“, and once again, the guitars, keyboards and rhythm section are perfection. The just-released video was directed & edited by Stuart Breadner, and filmed on location in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Galloway Forest Park.

Century Box” is a stomper of a tune that took a couple of listens to grab me, but once it did, I couldn’t get enough of that wonderful melody. The lively guitars are killer and I love how they perfectly meld with the piano keys, something this band does so beautifully in many of their songs. The terrific organ riff and guitar solo in the bridge are real treats.

The title track “The Great Ecumene” is a near-epic six-minute-long ode to Scotland. This is true progressive rock, with a meandering (in a good way) melody, highlighted by a smooth organ riff and accompanied by delicate piano, measured drums and a wondrous mix of guitar textures that pull you deeply into the song. PJ croons about the complexities and contradictions of his homeland: “My country is bitter. My country is cold. My country is beautiful. My country is bold. My people are bitter. My people are cold. My soul it is sacred. My spirit is sold./ Join the great ecumene, see what you find. A road never ending, stretching through time.” Everything ramps up to a crescendo in the chorus, with impassioned vocal harmonies and a cascade of crashing cymbals for a dramatic finish.

Culann keep the energy flowing on “All Reverie” with rolling guitars, galloping drumbeats and passionate vocals. “Sunken Ships” appropriately opens with underwater sounds, then launches into a glorious mix of jangly guitars, sparkling piano keys, pummeling drumbeats and a deep, humming bassline. “Aegis” is perhaps the most high-energy track on the album (and also the shortest, though still running 3:51 minutes). Frantic riffs, pounding drums and exuberant piano keys make for a real banger of a track. PJ earnestly sings the lyrics to someone who’s been his aegis, or shield, helping him to overcome some of his self doubts and fears: “Closely, look at where I have come from. You made me, you taught me to be strong and lead the way. I can’t face the outside on my own. I can’t understand them. I can’t bear the inside, my unknown. Please don’t make me stand there alone.”

The guys really show us what they’re capable of on “Man Alive“, one of the standouts on an album filled with standouts. Running over seven minutes, this song has it all: melodic change-ups that hold our attention, complex and intricate guitar work, enchanting keyboards, a marvelous funky bassline, and some of the most impeccable drumming I’ve heard in a while, not to mention PJ’s always-great vocals. As I’ve mentioned on previous tracks, the interplay between the guitars and keyboards here is so freaking good. Finally, despite it’s length, “Man Alive” seems much shorter, always a sign of a great song (unlike some songs that seem to go on forever, with me wishing they’d come to a quicker end).

The lyrics speak to the resilience of the Scottish people: “Come gather ’round, meet the gladdest man alive. You see him everyday. Come gather’ round, meet the saddest man alive. He’ll never tell you so. A blackened sense of pride. No man alive could meet the broken soul of mine.”

The song immediately segues into the closing track “Queen Street“, a poignant ballad about life on the streets of Glasgow. The song has a more stripped-back sound than their other tracks, with mainly acoustic guitar, delicate piano and gentle percussion providing a somber backdrop for PJ’s heartrending vocals. With a strong sense of despair and pain, PJ laments: “I never needed a human being more. Sat down in the street, with a cup down by my feet. Oh but nobody seen me and the traffic arrow moving ’em on. And if I needed something, and I could reach out to you and I’d ask. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it. And if I needed someone, but I’ve turned my back on everyone that I had. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate all the nuance and complexity of the songs on The Great Ecumene, but once I totally immersed myself in the music, it really came alive for me. It’s a beautiful album, and Culann’s songwriting, lyrics and musicianship are all quite impressive. These guys are masters of their respective instruments, and operate as an incredibly tight unit to create music that’s flawless, exciting and a joy to hear.

Connect with Culann: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase: Bandcamp / Big Cartel

New Song of the Week: MONZA EXPRESS – “In the City”

Monza Express In The City

Monza Express are a five-piece guitar band from Aberdeen, Scotland who formed in 2017 from the ashes of several other bands. As they humorously state in their bio, they’re “all the wrong side of 30 [and] no strangers to live music, having played in various bands in Aberdeen over the years.” Drawing on influences from a variety of sources depending on which member you speak to, the band includes Fraser Bateman (lead vocals & rhythm guitar), “Mr Glass” Shaun Reid (lead guitar), Greg “Mercury” Burgess (bass), Kris Fraser (keyboards, backing vocals) and David “Deco” Smith (drums). (I love that ‘Fraser’ is the first name of one member and last name of another.)

Following up on their 2018 double-single release “Sunshine/Big Dumb Rock” – both terrific songs that I urge my readers to check out using one of the links below – Monza Express just dropped a delightful new single “In the City“, which I’ve selected as my New Song of the Week. The song has a rather serendipitous little back story. The recording session was a runner-up prize in a Facebook competition put out by Aberdeenshire-based Floortom Studios, inviting acts to submit their rough song demos for possible selection by studio producer Steve Curtis. The band submitted a live GoPro rehearsal recording of “In the City”, and were delighted to learn they’d been awarded one of the coveted spots. The song was recorded, mixed and produced by Curtis, and mastered at Metropolis Studios in London.

The sweet song addresses themes of escapism from the standard 9 to 5. Fraser explains:  “I called it ‘In the City’ as both The Jam and The Who have songs [with that title] and I love those bands and what they stood for.” Bateman adds: “The composition came from a bass line Greg had been playing and we went from there. I like the almost early 60s style of the arrangement, especially when Shaun is just playing the main melody. It gives the song a little familiarity.”

The lighthearted song has a bouncy, guitar-driven melody that’s just too damn infectious! It’s the perfect feel-good song for summer, and it’s made me a big fan of Monza Express.

When you’re living in the city
And the bar looks so so pretty
Running shelter from the weather
Beer, pool and ripped up leather
I can take you miles away
Circle JFK for the day
Come and climb the Empire State
We’ll have ourselves some cake
We’ll have ourselves some cake

When you’re living in the city
And the barmaid oh so pretty
Running shelter from the thunder
Fill your glass with endless wonder
I can take you miles away
Eurostar to Paris today
Come and sail the Seine with me
We’ll have a cup of tea
We’ll have a cup of tea…and whiskey

The equally delightful and endearing animated video is a good indication that the guys don’t take themselves too seriously. Says Bateman: “I went on the website Fiverr and commissioned an animator in Pakistan to make us a video. I sent the song, the lyric sheet and photos of the band and left him to it. What resulted was an almost literal translation of the lyrics that we couldn’t not use. We think it’ll get laughs and multiple views.” I love it!

Connect with Monza Express:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase on Apple Music

MADE OF EYES – Single Review: “Room to Breathe”

As I’ve noted in some of my recent posts, a great many artists and bands that I’ve previously featured on this blog are releasing new music in 2019, and another is the Scottish alternative rock band Made of Eyes. I last wrote about them way back in November 2016, when I was blown away by their gorgeous emotionally-charged single “Wishing Well” (you can read that review here). They subsequently released their EP Bonds in 2017, which included “Wishing Well” and three other excellent tracks. Following that release, the Glasgow-based act went through a period of transition due to the departure of two of the band’s four members, resulting in a what front man JR refers to as a ‘mental hiatus’. In 2018, they acquired a new bassist, so the current lineup now consists of JR Campbell on guitar & lead vocals, Jason Stewart on lead guitar & vocals, and Liam Browne on bass.

Made of Eyes has just released their first single “Room to Breathe” as a newly-configured band. With their new single, the band states they “aim to mark a new direction, delivering a pop element, experimenting with dreamy chords, electronic sounds and memorable melodies.” Listening to “Room to Breathe”, I say they succeed quite nicely. The song is somewhat more pop-oriented than their previous harder-hitting songs, though it still features their signature dynamic guitar work and strong percussion. Opening with an airy synth, the song quickly expands into a beautiful soundscape of chiming guitars and lush, shimmery synths, backed by a pulsating bass line and galloping percussion. The layered guitar work is really impressive, threading its way among the sweeping synths and powerful drumbeats.  JR’s resonant vocals are filled with raw emotion as he sings to a loved one about trying to recapture the spark that initially drew them together, in the hope of saving their troubled relationship:

It’s been a weight on my shoulders for days
It’s been the choices we failed to make
We’re like a book with a missing page
Unless we find it, we can’t be saved

And I believe in you
And I believe in us, I believe in trust
And it’s you and I tonight
And these moments will pass by
And just remember the promises
That you made to me
We needed room to breathe

It’s a great song, and an excellent harbinger of more great music to come from Made of Eyes. Nice work guys!

Connect with Made of Eyes:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase on iTunes

EP Review: NEON HURRICANE – “Liquor Sweet”

I have a particular fondness for hard-working do-it-yourself indie artists and bands who write their own songs and play all their own organic music. Neon Hurricane is such a band. The relatively new, four-man collective from Glasgow, Scotland make music that stays true to the roots of classic rock and roll, employing three-part guitar harmonies to give their sound a definable retro vibe. The band members are Jason Minto on vocals, Graeme Craig on guitars, Connor Browning on bass, and James Maxwell on drums.

neon-hurricane2

The guys just recorded their debut three-track EP Liquor Sweet, and I’m delighted to review it. The first track “Sweet Lady” is a mellow rock tune, with lively buzzing guitars that remind me somewhat of early Boston. The song is anchored by just the right amounts of Connor’s bass and James’ sharp percussion, and Graeme’s guitar riffs are first-rate. Jason’s earnest, soulful vocals are perfectly suited for the song.

Everything ramps up a notch in “Raining Mondays,” with a faster, heavier beat and more aggressive guitars and drums. Jason’s vocals are also louder and more emotionally raw. The song lyrics speak of a guy who feels down on his luck until he meets a woman who shows him some interest. He fervently sings “And then I saw your face, then I heard you say, you take a chance on, you take a chance on, you take a chance on me, I take a ride with you.

The guys save the best for last, with the amazing tour de force “Follow the Rock n Roll.” They fully unleash their sonic weaponry, compressing so much creative energy and incredible musicianship into one song, that the result is nothing short of phenomenal. The track begins with the sound of wind, then a harmonica wails as Connor’s heavy, throbbing bass line takes over, augmented by James’ pounding drums. In short order, Graeme’s distorted and snarling guitar enters the scene, intensifying the song’s impact. Jason’s powerful vocals are more raw and bluesy than ever, and when backed by the guys’ harmonizing vocals and combined with the aforementioned music, we’re left with one of the most exciting rock and roll songs I’ve heard in a while. At 4:40 the guys blow the lid off with a vitriolic flourish of frantic bass, guitar and drums, and Graeme provides some high-pitched wails to match his screaming guitar solo. This track alone is more than enough proof that these guys are highly skilled musicians.

I love this band, and can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. Show them support by following on Facebook and Twitter. Liquor Sweet will soon be available for purchase on iTunes & Amazon.

Artist Spotlight – Vida

I turn my spotlight back to Europe for a look at Scottish alternative indie rock band Vida, who have an exceptional debut double-sided single “Fade Away/Switch It Off.” Hailing from Clackmannanshire County (love that name), Vida – which means ‘beloved friend’ in Scottish – consists of Jamie Pollock (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Nathan Evans (lead guitar, backing vocals), Ross McShane (bass guitar, backing vocals), Greg Ballantyne (keyboards) and Jamie Piggott (drums).  The guys are all quite young, but already accomplished musicians.

“Fade Away” is a somewhat melancholy but beautiful song about coming to terms with a relationship gone bad. “And how does it feel when you know that you’ve lied? Watching the wheels that go round and round when you say to me ‘It’s never easy as it seems’. And all those childhood dreams, they fade away.” The song has a stellar arrangement, with gentle percussion and gorgeous swirling guitars. I also like that Pollock’s Scottish brogue is evident in his beguiling vocals. The really pleasant video for the song shows the band at various spots in the lovely Scottish countryside.

The equally good B-side “Switch It Off” has a heavier rock sound, with some really excellent multi-textured guitar riffs. It has a bit of an Oasis meets The Cure vibe, and I love it! The song appears to end at about 4 minutes, but then the percussion and killer guitar pick back up as the band continues to jam in fine style.

Here’s a video of a great live performance at Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh.

Show Vida some support by subscribing to their YouTube channel, and following on Twitter and Facebook. You can purchase their songs on itunes.