There are some artists who are prolific enough that I sometimes struggle to keep up. I’m not talking about Buckethead levels of releases, where quantity far outweighs quality (the gems in his vast discography lost in a sea of mediocrity), but when you attempt to listen to as much music as I routinely do, releasing any more than one album in a year leaves me behind. Ángel Ontalva bookended 2021 with two rather marvellous albums, Songs to Say Goodbye, and the second Seaorm album, Forgotten Shrines. In addition to tidying up some old live recordings for release, 2021 also saw the release of Angel on a Tower – and what a beautiful album it is. The saying is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but this isn’t a book and the album is as enchanting as its cover art. Ángel is as talented a painter as he is musician. I love that when you open the CD booklet, every track has its own illustration. But, put the illustrations aside, because the music… well, the music. This may well be the best album Ángel Ontalva has put out under his own name. This was my initial reaction, and I was wary of sounding hyperbolic, so I put off this review for quite some time. But each time I come back to it, I come to the same conclusion. This is Angel’s best (so far).
Right from the beginning, and the first Paradise Flying Snake, we are immersed in the delightfully exuberant and eclectic mix of prog, jazz, classical and avantgarde situated somewhere between the classic sounds of Canterbury and RIO, yet inhabiting a thoroughly modern outlook. If National Health and Henry Cow convened to perform as a chamber orchestra, conducted by Frank Zappa, they might sound like this. But probably not, and I mention those names simply to give an idea of Ontalva’s sound to those who might better know those more well known names. The names you need to know here, though, (apart from the magnificence of Ángel Ontalva’s own guitar playing) are Pablo Hernández Ramos and John Falcone who solo in spectacular fashion on alto sax and bassoon respectively. The drumming of Avelino Saavedra is just as breath-taking, making the complicated polyrhythms sound simple. Saavedro is all over the kit like a spider on acid. Add in Víctor Rodríguez on keyboards, and Amanda Pazos Cosse on bass, and you have a recipe for a striking opening number.
The Paradise Flying Snake is indigenous to South East Asia, and as a title it’s quite appropriate for this piece, which is reminiscent to me of MoonJunistas Dwiki Dharmawan, Tohpati, simakDialog, and Dewa Budjana, when they are overtly blending the sounds of their own country and culture into their music. If not an Indonesian influence (and I admit to be lacking in sufficient knowledge to make that claim), then certainly there is South East Asian influence of some description. There’s quite an October Equus flavour to this piece, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this track had its beginnings in a number for that band. Alternatively, I have that impression simply because so much of Ángel Ontalva’s band for this release have association with October Equus, too. Either way, this is a fabulous and rousing introduction to the album.
Seafoam, on the other hand, is far more serene – floating and bubbling gently along the Canterbury (rather than Indonesian) coast, rising in intensity only for a wave of shivery guitar. Its relatively short length provides a perfect transition from the opening number into the title track. Whether fairly or otherwise, there’s always some pressure on a title track, with an expectation from many listeners that it will be an album highlight. There are no concerns here, as it is just that, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many fans of this album cite it as one of their favourite tracks. There’s a contemplative and sober majesty to Angel on a Tower, with that atmosphere only heightened by the flute of Yolanda Alba and bassoon of John Falcone. Victor Rodríguez really shines on the keyboards, and Ângel Ontalva’s guitar solo is something special. While it might have quite solemn beginnings, the piece soon opens up to prove it can match the vibrancy of the inner artwork that represents it in the CD booklet.
It’s back to a more fluid and watery sound with Lena Pillars, and if Paradise Flying Snake was reminiscent of October Equus, then this track is more reminiscent of Ontalva’s work with Vespero, or perhaps more particularly, Seaorm. The river Lena has its source in the Baikal mountains, not too far from Lake Baikal – the physical and spiritual geography and history of which was so beautifully described in music by Seaorm in their debut album Olkhon from 2020. The Lena Pillars are further downstream, but this piece retains the same Eastern vibe that places it in the same general area, and it would not have sounded out of place on Olkhon. There’s a sense of floating gently along in the presence of something mysterious and magical – and it is easy to imagine that being the impressive natural rock formations along the bank of the Lena. I love the upright bass of Wadim Dicke on this number! Footsteps ups the ante considerably, and is the first track (for me) that doesn’t seem to quite match its illustration. The paining to me looks a very quiet and serene setting, and this bouncy, upbeat number doesn’t fit that description at all! But it works in the same way Seafoam did earlier, providing a short and neat transition between the tracks either side. The sequencing of the album is as impressive as the music itself, and has clearly been considered well.
Doppelgänger is an urgent piece of RIO that’s just fabulous. Pablo Hernández Ramos is back on the alto sax, and I’m just loving this. Definitely another favourite piece on the album, and absolutely deserving its central place. The star of this piece, for me though, is possibly Avelino Saavedra. I love his drumming on this number. But, as I’ve pointed out, this track is merely the midpoint of the album. And if I continue in this manner, this review will be approaching a novella. However if Ángel Ontalva’s illustrations paint a thousand words, and their accompanying musical numbers magnify those by a thousand more, it’s easy to understand why I’ve become so carried away in attempting to describe Ángel on a Tower. There are still plenty of highlights to come, like the only piece composed by the group rather than Ontalva alone, Deep Low; the extensive and ethereal Roads to Sunrise Cities; Ontalva’s arrangement of a traditional Turkish tune, Sarisin, and the second serving of a Paradise Flying Snake.
To cut this review short, quite simply this is a stunning album from an artist already known for quality releases. If you’ve dipped your toes in the waters of October Equus or Ángel Ontalva’s solo albums before, you’ll know how good the music is – but I suspect you’ll still be surprised by just how good this album is. And if you haven’t, well you’re in for quite a treat!
01. Paradise Flying Snake I (3:02)
02. Seafoam (1:56)
03. Angel on a Tower (4:29)
04. Lena Pillars (4:49)
05. Footsteps (2:55)
06. Doppelgänger (4:21)
07. Maybe (3:01)
08. Deep Low (4:37)
09. Roads to Sunrise Cities (6:33)
10. Sarisin (3:00)
11. Land of Opportunities (2:42)
12. Paradise Flying Snake II (3:44)
Total Time – 45:09
Ángel Ontalva – Guitar, Mix Master, Artwork, Design, Production
Yolanda Alba – Flute (tracks 2,3,7,9 & 11)
John Falcone – Bassoon (tracks 1,2,3,5,6,7,9,10,11 & 12), contrabassoon (track 8)
Pablo Hernández Ramos – Alto Sax (tracks 1 & 6), Soprano Sax (track 12)
Wadim Dicke – Upright Bass (track 4)
Víctor Rodríguez – Keyboards
Amanda Pazos Cosse – Bass (except track 4)
Avelino Saavedra – Drums
Record Label: octoberXart Records
Country of Origin: Spain
Date of Release: 16th August 2021