Ángel Ontalva seems to release albums every few weeks, and it might seem likely that such a prolific artist would have quality control issues, yet each collection of new music seems as compelling as the last. Apparently, he had a window of opportunity caused by a manufacturing delay of a month in pressing the third Seaorm album, so rather than binge on a few Christmas films, he decided to make an album. As you do.
Twelve Days of Winter is the result, and it’s exactly what it says on the tin; a series of pieces written and recorded over the course of twelve days, between 26th December 2023 and 6th January 2024, and released two days later. In the spirit of its creation, I’ve tried to review it as quickly as I could; seems only fair. Apart from the speed at which Ontalva has worked, what is remarkable is that every single part of the process has been his own work, right down to the accompanying art work. A truly ‘solo’ album in every conceivable sense. Listening to this collection, there is absolutely no sense of it being thrown together in haste. It sounds as well thought out as any of his work, and as exploratory as ever.
There is a theme running through the album, and that is the sounds of the Mellotron, not his usual instrument of choice. Admittedly, it’s a ‘virtual’ Mellotron, but it sounds totally authentic, and Ángel has clearly wanted to explore the range of sounds and textures it offers, and that experimentation has informed the compositions. The pieces are presented in chronological order, each track having been composed and recorded discreetly and finished before moving on to the next. This gives a unique flow to the album, which begins in a melodic and melancholic vein, and gets more experimental as we go on. There is a little bass guitar, and quite a lot of guitar, but everything else is Mellotron. Those progressive rock fans who have found his previous work at all ‘difficult’ might be encouraged by the heavy use of the archetypal prog instrument! Indeed, in places the mood and sound architecture reminds me of parts of In the Wake of Poseidon or Lizard era Crimson, but that is the only comparison I’ll give in to, and it’s only a nod. This album is pure Ángel Ontalva, simply given a different slant.
The Dragon is Asleep opens proceedings in a gentle fashion, with a charming Mellotron melody and simple guitar accompaniment. The mood is wistful and wintry, and this atmosphere continues on A Door is Closed, a Window is Open. As the piece develops, a fuller symphonic sound emerges as Ontalva explores the available sounds and tones. Both these tracks serve as a prelude for the more complex Fable of the Fox and the Sheep, where melodic composition is finely balanced with questing experimentation. The unusual chord sequences suggest a search which isn’t resolved, and possibly reflects the composer’s continual search for new expression. One senses that we are reaching the very heart of this album, and Between Two Worlds takes things a step further again. It begins in familiar territory, with a simple guitar motif underpinning moody Mellotron sounds, gradually becoming more dramatic and forbidding, then choirs take the soundscape to a higher level. This strange piece is constantly evolving and reshaping itself, developing a momentum with strummed guitar and soaring stabs of Mellotron.
A Decadent Ballroom is more guitar-centric, with keys taking a more backing role, but this is an interlude, and the Mellotron explorations continue on Looking Back for the Last Time. We are still in a melancholy mood, but Ontalva is finding new ways to combine his guitar runs with exploratory Mellotron musings, and the results are mesmerising. That Bloody House is stranger still, quite free-form in construction, and sounding like a demented horror film soundtrack. The sounds Ángel conjures are weird and avant garde, and even slightly disturbing. Abruptly we are flung into the end game, the final piece of this journey, titled Beyond the Fiery River. It is a more strident piece of work, the sounds more traditional. Jazzy bass lines underpin some guitar Frippery but only for the Mellotron to return and play us out with a chord sequence and some decidedly odd sound effects.
Twelve Days of Winter is a relatively short journey, less than half-an-hour in fact, but it takes us to places that many albums twice as long can’t conceive of. Ángel manages to take a few days of learning and experimenting with a new toy, and make a compelling album which demands repeated listening to discover its delicious charms. It is experimental without being too ‘difficult’, unusual yet comforting, intriguing and satisfying. It’s well worth half-an-hour of anyone’s time.
01. The Dragon Is Asleep (2:37)
02. A Door is Closed, A Window is Open (3:05)
03. Fable of the Fox and the Sheep (4:00)
04. Between Two Worlds (4:41)
05. A Decadent Ballroom (Echoes of a Faun) (2:56)
06. Looking Back for the Last Time (4:07)
07. That Bloody House (3:12)
08. Beyond the Fiery River (3:22)
Total Time – 28:00
Ángel Ontalva – Composition, Guitar, Keyboards, Bass, Cover Photography & Design, Production, Mixing, Mastering
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Spain
Date of Release: 8th January 2024