The process of achieving success in the music industry relies, as it always has done, on getting people to listen to your music. In the past, this hinged around lugging equipment across the country in a Ford Transit or Bedford van, relying on a manager and a promoter to find a venue and ensure punters were there to listen. Fortunately, social media has removed much of the aggravation so that an endless round of gigging is no longer strictly necessary; unfortunately, there is a lot more music to choose from and even very talented artists may get overlooked.
The strategy adopted by Amber Foil, a progressive rock project from Lisbon, is not necessarily unique but the planning is very impressive. João Filipe is the creative mind behind Amber Foil and after producing the music (more of which later), he signed up to a masterclass in digital content, production and marketing hosted by The Dots, a professional network for creative people, held at Warner Music in London. He also used his London trip to seek out potential labels (Rough Trade and Kscope) as well as it being a huge networking opportunity, and recorded everything, each encounter and visit, which was turned into a vlog. I find this approach truly inventive, especially as when I was first prompted to look at a three minute YouTube video previewing the 21 minute, three-track EP An Invitation, I thought that the idea of the introductory videos and the vlog presented ‘a journey’ which fits in nicely with the journey by Pete, the protagonist of the piece.
I ordered a copy of the physical CD from the Amber Foil Bandcamp page and it really does not disappoint; the three-panel digipack is well designed and the simple artwork feels apt, with its rustic depiction of the turntable (reminiscent of the cover of Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood) incorporating another Amber Foil project, the music box wooden sculpture, and the CD itself has a tree’s growth rings. The whole package has a delightful, deceptive DIY feel and hidden away in the third panel is a diagram described as a ‘blueprint of a house’, encountered by Pete as his journey takes him into a forest. Filipe describes Pete as going around with a big cloud around his head which is the source of an intense noise; he enters the trees to relieve the sound but without a clear idea of where he’s going and comes across the house which seems to be part of the fabric of the forest.
Album review: Amber Foil - An Invitation (2017)
This storytelling, part Victorian cautionary tale, part brothers Grimm, translates into the music. The three tracks Machinery’s Haze, The Forest and Perception of an Unknown all flow into each other and should be regarded as subsections of An Invitation. The journey begins in the city, with Pete’s head in his cloud of noise. It could be anywhere but the announcement at the very beginning of Machinery’s Haze indicates that it’s London, with a tube train approaching Holloway Road. This reminds me of Alight, the excellent debut album by Italy’s Cellar Noise which spins stories around tube stations on London’s District and Circle lines. It too commences with the arrival of an Underground train but I also think there’s a degree of commonality with some of the melodic ideas. An Invitation then plunges into a haunting guitar-led melody which dissolves into wailing emergency service sirens, the last time there’s an indication of the mechanical world on the EP, before the melody reasserts itself. The next change is disturbing Mellotron sounds played backwards and when classic Hammond-like keyboard is introduced, you get the feel of progressive rock nicely balanced between complexity, atmosphere and feeling. The spoken word passage and the subsequent orchestral movement evoke a sinister fairy tale, dragging the listener ever deeper into this strange world, as angular guitar lines pick out an acid-folk melody and more Mellotron, which could have been played by Änglagård, indicates we’re now well and truly in amongst the trees. The segue into The Forest is heralded by sounds of the forest and bird calls which presages a short vocal harmony between Filipe and Célia Ramos. There’s a heightened urgency to the following instrumental section and the sonic palette is broadened with guest vibraphone from Vasco Vilhena. Filipe performs a solo vocal at the end of the track, which is not particularly strong but does carry the emotion of wonderment. This is the weakest moment of the entire EP but its brevity means that the quality of the rest of the material is not compromised.
Woodland sounds link The Forest with the third, shortest track Perceptions of an Unknown which is where Pete discovers the house in the forest. It’s less ambient atmosphere and more full-on prog and begins with an organ figure and flute-like keyboard and then shifts tempo with a rolling organ pattern and guitar which in turn gives way to contrapuntal synthesizer, organ and guitar and finally resolves with synth overlain with a cinematic guitar solo by producer Manuel Cordoso, formerly of premier Portuguese 70’s symphonic prog band Tantra. Cordoso has praised Filipe for his ideas, writing and energy and I think that praise is well deserved.
There is a DIY feel to the entire concept, with musical themes worked out in a home studio and the apparently simple CD packaging designed and created by Pedro Barão, but the finished product is very well assembled and executed. Filipe plays guitars and keyboards throughout, Cordoso produces, adds guitar and wrote some of the drum and keyboard parts, lending historical weight to the project but importantly, the contributions from the other musicians who feature (drummer Diogo Teixeira de Abreu from Lotus Fever, bassist João Pascoal from Griot, the analogue synthesiser effects of Guilherme da Luz who played in the reformed Tantra of the 2000s, piano/vibraphone provided by Vasco Vilhena and singer Célia Ramos) are all sympathetic to the compositions.
The music is indisputably progressive rock. It may have a modern take on the genre but it also has strong sonic links to the 70s, in much the same way as Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories does. I suspect that Wilson is something of a musical hero for Filipe, the way that his camera took in Raven and Hand.Cannot.Erase albums when he visited the Kscope offices and there are certain parallels with the ‘ghost stories’ of Raven. To my ears, An Invitation is pan-European in outlook. I detect Italian prog melodic structures and the haunting Mellotron of Änglagård. Above all, it’s a showcase for the imagination and talents of João Filipe, who has created music that flows naturally through a series of linked, mysterious scenarios but has also embarked upon what is a sort of organic concept covering music, a fantasy story and artwork - An Invitation is the introduction to a larger story that will continue on the next release.
I’m very pleased that I was invited to listen to An Invitation