Oktober are comprised of Gary Bennett (basses, guitars, keyboards), David Speight (drums, percussion) and Molnár Kinga (vocals). Their origins hark back to 2007 when drummer Speight was playing with Peter Banks’ improvisation group Harmony in Diversity, who were invited to play at a Hungarian prog festival; also on the bill were Netherlands band Flamborough Head and Yesterdays, a Hungarian band based in Cluj Napoca, in the Transylvanian region of Romania and featuring Kinga on vocals. Speight was acquainted with Gary Bennett through symphonic prog band Yak but when the pair were involved in a collaborative effort on a record for Southend-on-Sea based hi-fi company Rega, Speight suggested Kinga as a vocalist for the project because she would be able to handle the complex arrangements associated with the prog take on the tracks they’d selected. Bennett continued to work on original material with Kinga when she was back in Transylvania, sharing mp3 files over the internet. By 2011 the songs were ready for the addition of the drum tracks. The vocals were recorded in the UK in 2013 and the entire album was completed, mixed and mastered in December 2014; Sandcastles (2015) is the end result and it’s an album of well-crafted, beautiful melodic music carefully presented with some poignant (uncredited) photography from Bennett and his partner Fiona and one photo, ice skating, taken by Bennett’s father in 1986.
This isn’t really prog, but it certainly has sonic links with prog. At just under 32 minutes and containing six songs it could have come from the early progressivo italiano stable where a band’s recorded output was often notoriously brief. I’m struggling to pigeonhole the music, but I shouldn’t really try because it’s best to let the music speak for itself; labels are only marketing tools, after all. Lyrically, the content is reflective and descriptive, taking in supernatural phenomenon and myriad aspects of the natural world. Throughout, Kinga’s voice is clear and strong and is reminiscent of Annie Haslam from Renaissance or, perhaps closer still, Amy Darby from Thieves’ Kitchen. Another comparison with Renaissance would be shared natural imagery as Betty Thatcher’s words included word pictures of icy pools and curling leaves; I’d go as far as suggesting that Bennett’s lyrics stray into classic Yes territory with his use of ‘green language’.
There’s a general progression over the CD of increasing complexity, where the later tracks are more layered than on the earlier tracks. Opening song Other People’s Parties is almost exclusively Bennett on acoustic guitar and Kinga singing though it’s here that we first get a glimpse of one of Bennett’s influences with a short burst of electric guitar that calls to mind the clean, compressed and EQ’d sound used by Mike Oldfield. This song is a joint Bennett – Kinga composition, the remainder of the album was written entirely by Bennett.
The shortest track on the CD, Don’t Stop is more up tempo and introduces a short riff on one of the multi-tracked guitars during the first two verses before another splash of Oldfield-like lead. The contemplative Dust and Rain is analogous to Genesis’ Blood on the Rooftops with some clever wordplay over classical guitar, something that Steve Hackett would cover over his solo career. Lost and Found gets a traditional Irish folk song treatment, Bennett having played in a ceilidh band, and Oktober are joined by guest musicians Mick Greaves on fiddle and Fez Powell on bodhran - Greaves’ violin was produced by premier London violin maker Richard Duke and dates from around 1780. In this song Kinga delivers some neat call and response vocals and her harmonies remind me of Canterbury-scene backing vocalists The Northettes.
The opening section of Sleepers Awake is a fantastic riff reminiscent of Songs from the Wood era Jethro Tull and features a bouzouki, custom-made from an old 12 string guitar. The scan of the last two lines of verse two is a clever piece of lyricism, like Steve Hackett’s Tigermoth from Spectral Mornings. There’s more evidence of keyboards on this, the longest track, and there’s a nice ambient percussion section before a repeat of the bouzouki phrase and a reprise of the third verse from preceding track Lost and Found. In very prog fashion, there’s a neat segue into final track Sandcastles; taken together these two tracks could almost be a 13 minute long mini suite because musically they’re approaching prog territory. Sandcastles features more Oldfield-like lead guitar but it’s the structure of the song that makes it stand out; after a fairly conventional verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus there’s syncopated section with the kick drum on every beat overlain with a concise guitar solo that fades (too) rapidly to seashore noises. This ends with a haunting verse that doesn’t appear in the lyrics, rather like a hidden song: Sing me to sleep underneath weeping willows / Wild fragrant roses are still in full bloom / I need to be gone by the first chill of autumn / My old friend the west wind is calling me home. These last two tracks are without a doubt my favourites and when Kinga sings the ‘rolling white horses’ line in the first chorus of Sandcastles it gives me involuntary goose bumps.
Bennett himself suggested that it would be disingenuous to call the album prog, but as both he and Speight are lifelong progressive rock fanatics, specifically citing Yes and Genesis, it’s hardly surprising that these influences shine through and it’s evident from their respective techniques on guitars and drums that they really know their art. It was their belief that there was sufficient prog element in the songs to appeal to fans of the genre and I find it difficult to disagree. The songs may range from singer-songwriter introspection to electric folk but they defy being catalogued. Not having a target audience could be detrimental but, if Oktober get the break they deserve, Sandcastles, with its general theme of the ephemeral nature of things, has the power to speak to a wide range of people. I know I like it and I know there’s an audience out there.
Copies of the album can be ordered by contacting the band at www.facebook.com/oktobertheband
Album review: Oktober - Sandcastles (2015)