Wednesday, August 9, 2023



By Boulevard Denim (reprinted with permission from the Boulevard Denim Den blog)

The latest Aethellis release differs from the previous three as the spotlight is on guitarist/vocalist Mark Van Natta, both compositionally and vocally. Keyboardist Ellsworth Hall only sings on two tracks, "Anandia" and "Another Car." It's not clear who is singing on "Pathdancer" as it sounds like neither Ellsworth or Mark.

The album personnel this go-round consists of just Ellsworth Hall (keyboards, vocals, guitar, drum controller), Mark Van Natta (guitar, vocals, bass, keyboard) and Erik Marks (bass). Absent is drummer Mike Harrington who contributed top-drawer playing on the previous two albums with such tracks as "Sounds Good" and "Janice." However, it has come to light that while those previous releases were touted in reviews as having "full band" performances (and thereby satisfying the reviewers' bias that they were more desirable), Ellsworth actually contributed a major portion of the drum tracks, as well as some guitar and keyboard bass. But no surprise there as he handled all that and vocals on the first album; this is well known.

But Mark Van Natta is a strong influence on The Affinity Oeuvre, contributing Pop, Funk and Jazz tracks to the mix.

The album kicks off with a 12-minute Prog tune, "Anandia" (about a child refugee of war) with piano intro, Mellotron sounds, catchy melodies and odd time signature riffs. And a bit of dissonance in the instrumental section. This track is Ellsworth's sole prog contribution with some soaring vocal harmonies. Of Aethellis epics, only "A Home In Your Thoughts/Second Home In Your Thoughts" (from the previous release) clocks in longer at 15 minutes.

Mark's influence is evident with "Affinifunk," a Funk tune with a nice groove and fabulous blistering guitar solo.

"Pathdancer" is Ellsworth's sole Jazz contribution to the album complete with scat singing towards the end. Tasteful playing with lots of modulations. Like many of Tony Banks' compositions, Ellsworth never stays in one key for very long.

Then we move into Pop territory with Mark's tunes "Do Like I Do" (complete with a brass ensemble finale) and "Dreams On Pause," a lament to the confinements of the COVID period. Another Mark Van Natta pop tune with a Greg Hawkes-style synth solo, "Let Me Be Me" rounds out the pop selections. Mark also played bass on these tracks as well as a bit of keyboard. And, of course, performed the vocals. An all-arounder as well!

"Another Car" (music by Ellsworth with lyrics by Ed Hopf) is an amusing homage/satire of New Wave songs from the early 80s. But a bit more dissonant in places than actual songs from the period. Progressive New Wave?

Another excursion into Jazz, the Hank Levy-inspired "Chicago News" penned by Mark Van Natta, is a tour de force of odd time signatures and big band arrangements.

We return to Funk with bassist Erik Marks' "The Stennis Compromise" (a Watergate reference?). A solid bass groove and jazz chords are the highlight of this short ditty.

The album is rounded out with Mark's reggae-influenced "Why Do You Keep Fighting" (a call for peace) and the bizarre jazz-fusion track "RIP" which is rather dissonant, with fast and furious guitar work. The guitar's quartal harmonies add to the jazz flavor although Jazz-Fusion has been called prog rock's cousin. "RIP" is a co-written track with Ellsworth from their Affinity Band days (hence the album title).

So, if you're looking for a full-on prog album, you might be disappointed in The Affinity Oeuvre.. While it contains some prog elements, it spans other genres such as New Wave, Jazz-Fusion, Funk and Pop. "RIP" for example is far from mainstream, if not strictly prog. But if you're willing to be open to Aethellis' take on other genres you might enjoy it. Prog is an eclectic melting pot of different styles after all. The album has some of Mark Van Natta's best guitar solos.

The album is on the Revolution Records label.

Note: This review originally posted on Boulevard Denim's new blog, Boulevard Denim's Den.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Affinity Oeuvre release in 2023

 Aethellis' next (4th) release is due soon from release in 2023 on the Melodic Revolution Records label.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Ellsworth Hall received the gift of a Mellotron in 2018 from his wife Cheryl and is using it on the new album (and at gigs).

Ellsworth and guitarist/vocalist Mark Van Natta have composed and recorded the tracks for most of the new album with another track co-authored by Ellsworth and bassist Erik Marks. 

The album title is The Affinity Oeuvre as it features new versions of several tunes originally written by Ellsworth and Mark during their Affinity/Affinity Music Library era. Plus there will be all new material.

The album release is scheduled for 2023 on the Melodic Revolution Records label.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Aethellis' next album (with Mellotron!)

Aethellis' recording for the next (4th) release is underway if a bit delayed due to COVID-19.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Ellsworth Hall received the gift of a Mellotron last year from his wife Cheryl and is using it on the new album (and at gigs).

Ellsworth and guitarist/vocalist Mark Van Natta have composed and recorded the basic tracks for most of the new material with a few tracks yet to be done. Once the basic tracks are all completed they will be forwarded to bassist/vocalist Erik Marks for his contributions. Erik is expected to compose his own solo composition for the new album.

The album title is tentatively The Affinity Oeuvre as it features new versions of several tunes originally written by Ellsworth and Mark during their Affinity/Affinity Music Library era. Plus there will be all new material.

The album release is scheduled for 2021 on the Melodic Revolution Records label.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Phil Collins' Not Dead Yet and on being able to read music

I have been a fan and admirer of Phil Collins for around four decades and certainly consider him to be one of the finest musicians in Rock music as a songwriter, arranger, producer, drummer and singer.
I really have enjoyed his witty and clever writing in his new book Not Dead Yet ("pram perambulation" among other gems). Mr. Collins' writing comes off more as more erudite than his public persona would let on. His approach is breezy yet creates a colorful imagery in my mind's eye of the people, places and events that he describes. He is an amazingly good writer.

However, in reading one passage from his new book Not Dead Yet, I feel compelled to respond.

He states in an early chapter that he never learned to read music. I'm absolutely fine with that, many great musicians never learned to read music. Phil says he has a great ear and I don't doubt it in the least. I loved ear training when I took lessons and was quite good at it and while I can read, I find the ear training invaluable and enjoy learning pop, rock and even jazz tunes with it.

However, I disagree wholeheartedly that somehow learning to read music limits one's musical vocabulary or creativity. Mr. Collins states that some trained musicians he's known that read tend to be stiff and mechanical in their playing. So what? I don't think you can generalize about trained musicians sounding "regimented, taught, and clinical" (although I'm sure there are some). As for other creative greats in Rock, musical training and learning to read certainly didn't hurt the likes of Stewart Copeland, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Eddie Jobson, Geoff Downes, Tony Kaye, Carl Palmer, etc.  They had quite a musical vocabulary and I don't think sound "regimented, taught, and clinical." But I can certainly see reading music to be less of an concern in the Rock and Pop world and it't certainly not a prerequisite. But it might have helped Mr. Collins with the arrangements for his Big Band concerts as he said he had to invent his own phonetic way of doing the charts. To his credit he did continue to think about learning to read particularly imagining himself in later years playing in an orchestra pit!

I don't think learning to read music limits your musical vocabulary, but rather can increase it since you'd be able to play certain music in its entirety that would otherwise quite difficult to pick up by ear (Rachmaninoff for example). Tony Banks (also of Genesis!) could read music and in fact learned to play Rachmaninoff, particularly the C# Minor Prelude. Mr. Banks adapted Rachmaninoff's crossed hand techniques into his own playing creating unique (for Rock) passages like the intro to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and even No Reply At All and Fading Lights (in the synth solo section). Reading certainly didn't limit his creative use of what he read and adapted.

I suppose I do take umbrage at the old chestnut in the Rock world that musical training hurts your creativity. That you can break the rules when you don't know them. Mr. Collins states he probably wouldn't have written the "unconventional" In The Air Tonight had he been able to read. "Unconventional?" Not compositionally, it uses pretty much only three of the most common chords in Rock and Pop, the minor vi, V and IV. Arrangment and recording-wise it is certainly fresh sounding (at the time) but compositionally, no. That's not to take away from it being a great, moody song.

Interestingly Sting (Gordon Sumner) said in an interview with The Guardian, "In pop music, there's no such thing as composition. We collate from pre-existing tropes and then the originality comes in the interpretation."

I would argue KNOWING the rules helps you realize what you need to do to break them rather than the other way around. Otherwise you THINK you are breaking rules but really without the knowledge of what has gone before you really don't know. I would have to say as far as people in Mr. Collins' circles who could read music, Tony Banks' chord progressions and solos are much more unconventional than what you heard in Pop and Rock. His music would often constantly modulate so the frame of reference you had for what you thought was the tonic was tossed out the window!

Anyway, this quibble aside, a truly engaging book and I felt I got to know the man better and appreciation for his musical and personal motivations. Kudos, Mr. Collins!

- B. Denim

Sunday, May 21, 2017

New Aethellis EP coming late Spring 2017

UPDATE - Aethellis' new EP will now contain 4 (four) songs instead of the originally reported 3 songs. They are (not in any particular order):

"Believe In Somebody"
"A Home In Your Thoughts"
"Second Home In Your Thoughts"

The EP will be digital only and will be available from Melodic Revolution Records on its website late Spring 2017.

The band lineup for the EP is

Mark Van Natta - guitar / vocals
Ellsworth Hall - keyboards / vocals
Erik Marks - bass
Mike Harrington - drums
Joe Dwyer - sax

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Aethellis' keyboardist/vocalist/guitarist/composer Ellsworth Hall writes:

I'm pleased and honored to be an interviewee in Gary Hill's new book, Poetry of the Air: A Collection of Love Letters to Music from Musicians.

Gary (of the Music Street Journal) interviewed many influential musicians such as Jon Anderson,
Allan Atkins, Larry Fast, Steve Hackett, Tony Levin, Jordan Rudess, Billy Sherwood, Rick Wakeman and many more. The goal was to uncover the inspirations that motivated the artists to pursue music.

It's available now at and will soon be available at Amazon.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Use of Recording Technology in Progressive Rock

Keyboardist/vocalist Ellsworth Hall has some comments regarding the use of recording technology in Progressive Rock.

Les Paul pioneered a new recording technique (thanks to Brooks Keys for the link):
Overdubbing in 1947

Classical pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould were known for having performances released on record that were stitched together from the best takes.

George Martin pushed the envelope with the Beatles in what could be accomplished in a recording studio.

Eddie Offord in recording Yes' Close to the Edge stated in an interview that they recorded it in little pieces and then spliced it all together. Only later did they have to learn how to play it live. He was a master of tape manipulation.

Look at the technology involved in recording 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Amazing!

Frank Zappa embraced digital sequencing with his Synclavier and said he could get it do things he couldn't get his band musicians to do. UK keyboardist Eddie Jobson also used a Synclavier for his Theme Of Secrets CD.

Peter Gabriel on his 3rd album: “...worked out the rhythmic sequences on a small electronic drum kit, then I built up the songs on top of them. For the lyrics, too, I exploited the repetitive rhythms of the drum machine." He found inspiration having bought his first drum machine in the late 70s.

Geoff Downes brought the Fairlight CMI into Yes utilizing sampling technology in 1980. He'd further this use in Asia ("Cutting It Fine" for example).

Steve Hackett used a Linn drum machine for all the "drumming" on his Cured album.

Ian Anderson used sequencing and digital instruments including a Fairlight CMI on the Jethro Tull album, Under Wraps.

Yes' 90125 has sampling technology all over it under the capable producing of Trevor Horn.

Genesis of course used drum machines from Duke through Calling All Stations.

Rick Wakeman's keyboard parts were recorded into a sequencer on the Yes album Union (and reportedly, infamously changed around by producer Jonathan Elias) while Bill Bruford played his electronic drums (as he had on Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe).

Carl Palmer triggered drum sounds (via Dynacord) for ELP's Black Moon CD.

Trevor Rabin engineered and recorded Yes' album Talk using a hard disk recording system (Mark of the Unicorn) and allegedly sampled Chris Squire's bass and played the sound when Chris was unavailable. (Hey if I was under the deadline pressure Trevor was, I would have as done it as well to finesse a part to get the track finished).

There are many more examples of musicians using the latest technology in progressive rock (and pop for that matter); and hard disk recording with all the MIDI sequencing integration and cut-and-paste audio editing is commonplace now.

So why are some folks seemingly upset when these technologies are used (or in their view, abused)? As purists, would some folks would rail against prog rockers for using a Mellotron instead of hiring string musicians and a choir? If the budget would allow, sure but many times it did not.  You use what tools you have at your disposal to make the most of the music you're recording.

The reason I bring this up is that I use hard disk recording and sequencing in my soundtrack work and also when I recorded the most recent Aethellis album, Northumbria. The first Aethellis album was in essence a solo project with a band name for which I recorded everything myself. It was a reaction to the frustrations of my previous band Logos Affinity where we had recorded material at a local studio for our second album but couldn't get it together to finish anything. I started assembling the bits and pieces we had recorded in my studio but didn't like the onus of putting it together when there was a lack of overall commitment.

The first Aethellis album got good reviews but some folks wanted to hear a "real band" for the follow up. So I assembled some of my old band mates from the Affinity/Logos Affinity days for gigging the album live and invited them to participated in the follow up album, Northumbria.

However I am a control freak in the spirit of Trevor Rabin (just kidding, I love his work) and took the reins of recording and engineering the new album. The reviews have been very positive and the contributions of my band mates has helped the music reach new heights. Guitarist Mark Van Natta and I have been writing together since the late 70s and have had a music library company in the 80s and 90s when we wrote quite a lot of material together in many genres. A few things we really liked made it onto Northumbria ("The Awakening" and "The Penal Colony"). Bassist Erik Marks and I collaborated on "Sounds Good" which came out of some jams in his studio back in the late 90s.

It has also been a delight to have Mark playing his distinctive, emotive guitar parts for the new album which adds a different dimension from my sort of funky, chunky guitar style. Erik is a bassist par excellence. And having Erik's brother Chris Marks (who was in Logos Affinity) play on the album, a classically trained, pyrotechnical whiz on the six-string, was a joy. In fact several of the band members are classically trained including myself. Not to hold this up as some kind of badge of honor necessarily, but rather to point out that we can actually play our instruments and we do. We don't have to fake our way using technology as a crutch. And neither did the aforementioned prog rock musicians. Technology was simply a tool.

I played all my parts into my computer's sequencer and in some cases (like the Hammond organ solo in "Northumbria") improvised the whole part in one take. Then just went back and cleaned up a few bum notes here and there. But I try not to quantize (correct timing) too much to keep a "live" feel. And if my timing is way off, believe me it's easier just to play the part over than diddle with quantize settings. As a result, I still feel the piano solo in "Exchequer Prague" is a bit off; but that adds to its jazzy character. The same with recording my vocals (and Mark's); punching in is sometimes more of a hassle. If we mess up too much, just re-record it.

Now, enter drummer Mike Harrington. Mark and Mike have played together off and on since the early 70s. So you know we're a band of old guys! Mark invited Mike to play with Aethellis in 2004 and he's been with us ever since with the exception of gigs here and there when he had family commitments.

We recorded Mike playing drums in Mark's home studio to a DAT deck that Mark had bought way back in 1992 when we were recording our second Affinity Music Library CD. Mike has the funny tendency (which we never noticed live) of humming along with the music as he plays! Sort of like Keith Jarrett. So we tried to get him to control it and he did a great job drumming. We finally ended up using some of the audio and for other parts I took audio of his playing and using what is amusingly called "drum replacement therapy" converted the audio to MIDI data (which is possible with the Sonar digital recording software) and had that MIDI data trigger drum samples recorded at recording studio in New York.

I used those drum sounds on much of the album in order to create a consistent sound across all the tracks since we had some varying musical styles (but keeping the prog ethos on each). I also played some distinctive analog drum machine sounds myself on a few tracks; but that was because those sounds were part and parcel of the genre (electronic/New Wave) we were applying our prog sensibilities to ("The Awakening" and "Exchequer Prague"). I also played the synth bass parts on those tracks for the same reason. Prog rock originally borrowed from all kinds of genres and why not do the same today?

The point again is, we played our parts. We're capable of playing our parts. I used the technology to try and enhance the sound of what was played; if I used samples I felt they sounded better than what we could get on our own. Or they fit the track better than the origninal audio. People may disagree with the choices, but that was the motivation. Not to be lazy and let technology be a crutch, but rather use it to enhance our sound.

I don't have the funds to access a huge recording studio; I have my own modest set up in my house which I've used for years to create soundtracks for various producers and projects. I used what I had to make the Northumbria album and I was very happy with the results. If someone feels it is sterile, so be it. To me, it feels like band.

The album was pieced together, of course. So was Close to the Edge; in a different way perhaps, but still it was assembled using the technology at the time. But instruments were played. Some timing was corrected to make the parts fit together better. Some timing was left alone. Nothing was programmed in step mode or anything like that.

So like Yes, we had to learn all this stuff after it had been put together so we could play it live. But we can and we do!!!