For anyone unfamiliar with Karfagen, they are the main musical outlet for multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Antony Kalugin, and Land of Green and Gold is the thirteenth album from the band. To say that Kalugin is prolific would be an understatement, as he seems to release new albums several times a year, either with Karfagen, or Sunchild, or as a solo artist. His output might slow down a little in the coming months, as he is now effectively a refugee in his homeland of Ukraine. In the circumstances, it seems almost irrelevant to be reviewing his latest record, but on the other hand, this is his life’s work, and it deserves to be heard widely.
Kalugin’s music is always very positive and optimistic in outlook, and right now we all need hope and positivity, so this album is a real pleasure to listen to and lose oneself in. It conjures a landscape in sound which is sunny and full of the wonders of the natural world. The album is split into three main chapters, and subdivided within those chapters, each track flowing naturally from the last, but each with a distinct flavour. The trademark Karfagen elements are all in place, from the symphonic sweep, the jaunty playful melodies, virtuoso playing from the musicians, the acoustic interludes, and the jazzy improvisation. I’ve not always found every past release to quite hang together or flow as they might, but 2019’s Birds of Passage was a much more satisfying listen, and I find Land of Green and Gold even better. The changes in pace and mood are so natural and easy on the ear, the melodies uplifting, and the musicianship outstanding.
The first chapter is Land of Green, comprising the first six tracks. Kingfisher & Dragonflies is a short intro, beginning delicately with acoustic guitar, then joined by keys to set the pastoral scene. Land of Green (part 1) follows and is a lengthy symphonic piece, building gradually until the main theme appears played by Alexandr Pavlov on electric guitar, then improvised around by Kalugin on keyboards. Stabbing chords interject, then a new realm opens up with synth laying foundations for some delightful sax improvisation from Yan Vedaman. Ivan Goritski mimics the sound of distant thunder on the drums, and the mood shifts again. There are recurring themes tying the piece together, and some superb jazzy bass lines from Konstantin Ionenko, and matching guitar flourishes, often in a very Andy Latimer style. We slide very naturally into Land of Green (part 2), which is more subdued, with a lounge jazz feel, double bass to the fore, some accordion courtesy of Sergii Kovalov, and gorgeous bluesy guitar work from Pavlov. It’s all very restrained and tasteful, just perfect. Solis Festum is a very short interlude mainly comprising keys, acoustic guitar and accordion, as a prelude to Land of Green (part 3), which is altogether different. It has a jazz funk feel, with keyboard brass punctuation and some wonderfully fluid guitar improv, trading with saxophone. The Land of Green suite concludes with a very Hackett-esque acoustic guitar piece which is simply beautiful. Overall, the suite is a lush vision of a gloriously green landscape rich with natural wonder, unspoilt and free. One can’t help but wonder whether future compositions will be able to conjure quite the same sense of innocence again…
The second chapter, Land of Gold, opens with Garden of Hope (part 1), a gentle awakening with pastoral sounds of birds and bees, synth and sax breathing life into the piece, like the dawning of a new day in our idealised world. This is one of the only songs with true vocals, Kalugin sounding a little like Roine Stolt in his delivery. Land of Gold itself is a long piece of sumptuous symphonic Prog, regal and luxurious in feel, a crowning glory of creation, a celebration of life. Deft guitar, layered keyboards, and choral effects all add to the pomp of the track. If this sounds overbearing, it’s not. It is all achieved in a naturally evolving way, with some nice flute from Elena Kushchii, and vocoder vocal effects over a Canterbury style backing. Max Velychko is featured on guitar on this track, and is highly effective in the many different styles as the piece evolves. The suite is concluded with Garden of Hope (part 2), an almost ambient piece gently easing us to rest with gorgeous fretless bass and saxophone, a nice bookend to the chapter.
Finally, the much shorter Land of Jazz, which does exactly what it says on the tin. A written refrain played in unison on bass and sax gives way to some marvellous improvisation before returning to the theme. It’s quite reminiscent of the jazzier Tangent excursions, and is all too short, but makes a lovely coda for a great album. Gone is a lot of the indulgence of some past works, as here we have economy, whilst still allowing the music to breathe. No section outstays its welcome, and one is left wanting more. And more is on offer, oddly enough, as Kalugin has just released a companion album of tracks which didn’t make the cut, and I have to say that the extra material is almost as good as the main album.
So, whatever your ideas of symphonic Prog, I would suggest giving this album a chance, because I believe it is certainly the best Karfagen have yet recorded, and my goodness, Antony Kalugin and the band members deserve some recognition and respect for what they have achieved here. Obviously we all hope and pray that they are safe as their Land of Green is ravaged, and this music serves to remind us how it was, and how it may yet be again.
01. Kingfisher & Dragonflies (part 3) (2:11)
02. Land of Green (part 1) (11:01)
03. Land of Green (part 2) (3:30)
04. Solis Festum (1:40)
05. Land of Green (part 3) (4:58)
06. Pastoral (1:35)
07. Garden of Hope (part 1) (7:49)
08. Land of Gold (13:20)
09. Garden of Hope (part 2) (4:32)
10. Land of Jazz (6:37)
11. Land of Jazz (outro) (0:45)
Total Time – 57:58
Antony Kalugin – Keyboards, Vocals, Vocoder, Percussion
Yan Vedaman – Tenor & Soprano Saxophones
Alexandr Pavlov – Electric, Nylon & Acoustic Guitars (tracks 1-7, 9)
Max Velychko – Acoustic & Electric Guitars (tracks 8 & 10)
Konstantin Ionenko – Bass Guitar, Double Bass
Ivan Goritski – Drums
Sergii Kovalov – Accordion (track 3 & 4)
Elena Kushchii – Flute (track 8)
Record Label: Caerllysi Music
Country of Origin: Ukraine
Date of Release: 7th January 2022