An Affectionate Review
Joys and Perils of Live Performance
Here’s the first live release by (mostly) French nonet NINE SKIES, of a recording of their performance in 2019 at progressive rock festival, PROG EN BEAUCE. Held in a small-town venue in Pierres, France, this annual festival also featured MYSTERY, ALBION, and CLEPSYDRA, as well as NINE SKIES.
The album is being released as a digipak edition; at almost the same time the (now) nonet – with the addition of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Moroccan Achraf Elasraoui– will release their acoustic album “5:20”.
On THIS Release
Here are the musicians:
Eric Bouillette: Guitars, piano, keyboards, violin, vocals, arrangements
Alexandre Lamia: Guitars, piano, arrangements, recording, mix, mastering
Anne Claire Rallo: Keyboards, lyrics
Aliénor Favier: Vocals
David Darnaud: Guitars
Laurent Benhamou: Saxophones (but unable to attend this concert)
Bernard Hery: Bass, and
Fab Galia: Drums
THIS iteration of the band comes across as a mixture of heavy progressive, symphonic progressive, and neo-progressive rock music.
There are many changes in mood, texture, key, tempo, and instrumentation, with mainly female vocals, and very occasional harmonies added- an area I’d like to have expanded.
It’s sophisticated and complex and musicianship is excellent, on a par with any progressive rock outfit I can think of.
In my humble opinion, there are actually eight songs, an intro that consists of intriguing keyboard sounds and rhythms drawing in the attentive and appreciative audience, two spoken tracks in French by band leader ERIC BOUILETTE, and a fairly unnecessary quartet of acoustic guitar/electric guitar snippets that were a tad sloppy and appeared possibly unrehearsed.
So for me, the actual meat of this album consists of the eight tracks from the two studio albums released by NINE SKIES. I’ll focus on those, and you can decide about the rest for yourself.
Burn My Brain
This track opens with a heavy progressive feel with the full band, soon joined by the gutsy female vocals of Aliénor Favier; and for me one of the highlights throughout this performance, the excellent drumming of Fab Galia. Eric’s characteristic expressive, melodic lead guitar was also a standout.
Meditative piano from Alexandre Lamia leads to some melodic guitar/piano revery, which is soon joined by hushed vocals. Not for the last time I thought I heard some slight intonation problems with guitar sounding flat.
The passage builds and there are more expressive solos from the guitarists, leading to a heavy passage, and now I think I hear some flat tones from the bass guitar. There is an uptempo section with nimble synthesizer, and agile rhythm section that usually works well together. Sometimes bass guitar gets overly busy, and works higher registers to some detriment since with seven members things can get muddy fast.
No doubt about it though, Bernard Hery can play, and play with exquisite precision.
Season of Greed
Eric switches to piano on this one- a real strength in NINE SKIES is the astonishing virtuosity of several members who are multi-instrumentalists. It’s a moody open, and soon Alex comes out from behind the keyboard bearing an acoustic guitar, which features prominently.
He’s good, and there are some tasty licks here, and also perhaps some intonation problems sometimes. There’s lovely interplay with acoustic guitar and female vocals, some lush, laid-back keyboard sections, some agile bass lines, and whispered voice in this gentle track.
Here’s the only instrumental track on this performance, with percussive acoustic guitar rhythms, picked guitar chords, wistful lead guitar, with atmospheric keyboard backing from Anne-Claire.
Ominous, thumping bass drums usher in the full band in a vigorous, deliberate passage. There are agile bass lines and those melodic guitar solos. This transitions to wailing synthesizer sequences and rumbling bass guitar, with that precise, powerful drumming. Guitars come in heavy in a very busy section that almost become chaotic as vocals punctuate as well. It’s intense and almost overwhelming to keep track. This subsides with picked acoustic guitar, hushed vocals, and atmospheric keyboards, a lush passage.
The overly busy bass subsides to acoustic guitar, and there are times I almost breathe a sigh of relief when the gentler passages come, since I can hear more clearly what’s happening.
Soldiers of Shame
Moody acoustic piano enters, then an atmospheric string sound. this builds, with a piano passage, expressive guitar solos- it turns out David Darnaud can really shred as well as stay melodic and sensitive as the music requires.
There is a lovely passage featuring electric piano, and again I hear some guitar intonation problems.
Fields of Perdition
The band boldly opens in a busy section, and dramatic vocals enter. There are some sweet twin guitar lead lines (I’d like to hear more of these too). More spry lead guitar from David before the song ends.
A Way Back
This track is a fitting climax to the NINE SKIES segment of this concert. We hear that moody acoustic piano, hushed female vocals which soon strengthen, and some spoken voice. The full band enters with gusto with soaring lead guitar, which then subsides.
The band again builds intensity as the lead guitar continues to sing, only to give way to acoustic guitar and piano…and closes.
Throughout the performance, the audience is appreciative and respectful, and NINE SKIES gets a well deserved standing ovation for a reward.
I like NINE SKIES a lot, and am in awe of what this (now) octet will be able to produce, with excellent musicianship and sophisticated musical tastes.
Live performance- and recording- is challenging, as well as rewarding. So many moving parts, and one chance to get things right- or not. And much as I admire Aliénor’s vocals, I’d like to see more energy and expression in her presentation, and more harmonies would help break up the repetition that I began to sense.
For the most part, NINE SKIES did quite well.
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