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Kostas Sampanis – Autumne (2021) Review

Athenian composer and guitarist Kostas Sampanis released his debut EP “Autumne” on 19 February. The instrumental EP opens with an ambient classical guitar piece, continues with 3 of his guitar compositions, and ends with a minute-long piano outro.

You can hear some obvious influences in his sound. As soon as “A Heartbeat Away” entered, I was reminded of Opeth’s classic “Windowpane.” The subsequent solo had a mixture of Porcupine Tree and Opeth. (Reading this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mikael Akerfeldt plays a similar solo on “Arriving Somewhere but not Here.”) Some licks in “Until We Meet Again” make it clear that Kostas has had at least some education in jazz. They also sound a lot like Guthrie Govan’s style, with chromatic passing notes and quick slides.

From start to finish, the EP manifests a certain nostalgia in the listener. Pay close attention to the track names, and you’ll see how closely related they are with the feelings that the tracks convey. Though, the overarching theme seems to be departure, and the longing for those who departed.

Line-Up

Music, compositions, guitars by Kostas Sampanis

Drums by George Pouliasis (Playgrounded)

Bass by Ilias Karkavelias

Piano by Stelios Fragkous.

String instruments for the song “A Heartbeat Away” programed by Dimitris Radis (we.own.the.sky)

Arrangement by Kostas Sampanis – Dimitris Radis

Production by Kostas Sampanis & Mikko Chris Vlachos

Mastering by Giannis Christodoulatos (Sweetspot Productions)

Artwork by Bewild Brother

Track List

1. Remembering You (2:20)

The first track of the EP is a classical guitar composition that acts as an easing intro. What can I say, a lot of classical guitar parts submerged in genres like prog or metal end up sounding like flamenco clichés. It’s definitely hard to fit a classical guitar into an ambient setting by itself. The ambient feel in “Remembering You” comes from the intense reverb. When there is no actual note playing, you can hear the harmonics of the last note sustained through the silence. You can also hear Kostas’s breath, giving the song a very cozy feeling. Although the overall feel is very mellow, tension-release is very strong with this track. Sampanis uses several dissonant chords to create a tense ending to a build up, and then resolves it all to the first chord of the next loop. You can almost feel the tension exiting your body as he slowly strums the strings.

2. A Heartbeat Away (3:25)

As mentioned before, “A Heartbeat Away” starts off with an intro that resembles Opeth’s opening riffs. Both the bass and the guitar is in 12/8 with 3-2-3-2-2 subdivisions. The drums stop the riff abruptly with a ride drag, and if you listen closely, you can hear the grand piano filling the sonic space between the bass and the guitars.

The drum groove that enters is in 3/4, but the 12/8 riff still continues behind it, creating a beautiful syncopation. The kick drum is layered to match with the 12/8 riff, but doesn’t take away from the actual groove at all. At certain times, you can hear the piano playing in unison with the lead guitar. Unfortunately, I found the solo generic at times, but these brief licks were backed by a solid line of instruments.

The part that I can call the “chorus” features a shuffle beat. What, a shuffle beat? The part starts out in an energetic major chord, but leads into a brief minor modal interchange before returning to its dreamy, hopeful feeling. It is clear from the 2nd track that Sampanis knows his way around music theory, as he uses unique chord progressions to spice up his music. The unison trick appears again, but this time with drums too. The strings that enter at this point carry the song to its climax. And I would say, that is the most satisfying moment in the 3.5 minutes of “A Heartbeat Away”

3. Birth (3:42)

The calm and graceful third track lives up to its name. The 3/4 acoustic guitar rhythm forms a clear foundation to build a whole song around and the juxtaposition between the lower bass notes and the higher counterparts create a continuous and accessible flow. With the entrance of the other instruments, the signature sound of Sampanis bursts out of the poetic and lamented notes of his guitar. He is telling a story and the songs just seem like a way to get us to listen.

Although the piano of Stelios Fragkous doesn’t show much in the foreground in this track, you can still feel the remarkable contributions through the embellishments and the fitting chords sprinkled throughout. The drums of George Pouliasis are soft, fitting for the whole atmosphere of the track, and carry this feeling even throughout the fills (props to the mixing too!). Near the middle, the song changes directions with a harder (compared with what came before) section where Sampanis can showcase his chops on his instrument with quick runs on the fretboard.

Concept-wise, the opening calm section might represent the period prior to birth. This concept can be reinforced with sound effects. Then, the listener is thrown into the hustle that we call life. Musically, it reminded me of Heidegger’s philosophical concept of “thrownness” with the tom fill that literally feels like falling into the song. It would be very cool if Sampanis can lean on more influences from different subjects to express his thoughts in an instrumental fashion. From the overall theme of the track, it is not surprising that this last section fills your heart with excitement to enter this real life.

4. Until We Meet Again (5:00)

The longest track of the EP, “Until We Meet Again” is a combination of hope and separation. 3/4 (or 6/8, however you want to hear it) seems to be Sampanis’s comfort zone but it’s nice to see that he’s experimenting with different organizations. This time, the track starts from a high point that slowly dissolves into a calmer section. This interlude, characterized by the eery guitar pedal effects, sounds heavily influenced by something straight out of a Steven Wilson or Opeth record.

At one moment, you feel like you are listening to Mikael Akerfeldt’s hair-curling notes whisper in the air while a moment later, with the entrance of Sampanis’s main guitar tone, it becomes a bizarre yet pleasing and unique fusion of sounds. Apart from the guitars, all the instruments have a distinct voice in this track, maybe because it is longer. We are totally OK with the length (who are we kidding, we are always waiting for the next half-hour prog epic) if it means that the song will feature more experimentations and a more varied sound in terms of instrumentation.

Harmonic minor along with jazzy chords mark this song as a separate entity from what came before. I think it is safe to say that this is the most “progressive” track in the EP. Even though every guitar-oriented instrumental prog album gets the criticism of sounding like Plini, we can see and hear how Sampanis tries to distinguish himself from the crowd by his influences and execution. He can of course further distinguish himself with the topics that he chooses to examine, more novel techniques (like sound effects and esoteric instruments) and creative structures. Of course the proggier, the better 🙂

5. Farewell (1:08)

The positioning of this track as the last thing we hear from the EP awfully reminds me of the Beatles’ “Her Majesty” at the end of their iconic Abbey Road album. The last track can tell a listener a lot about the artists behind it so we are pretty certain that this was a deliberate choice on Sampanis and Fragkous’s part. The stripped-down piano sound is the only instrument we hear, much like the EP opening with only Sampanis and his acoustic guitar. It feels sincere to hear an instrument on its own, without any support or sound illusions to meddle with the message, where each slow and thoughtful note carries a different meaning. One of the central themes of the album, the idea of “departure” is best reflected in the title of this track. It’s as if the EP bids us farewell by telling us the story of “farewell”. Landing on the root creates a sense of acceptance while the jazzy chords compound the complexity of the emotions.

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